Oxford's bel s chimed seven times. Night didn't fol ow twilight as slowly as it would have a few months ago, but the transformation was stil lingering. The library staff had turned on the lamps only thirty minutes before, casting smal pools of gold in the gray light.
It was the twenty-first day of September. Al over the world, witches were sharing a meal on the eve of the autumn equinox to celebrate Mabon and greet the impending darkness of winter. But the witches of Oxford would have to do without me. I was slated to give the keynote address at an important conference next month.
My ideas were stil unformed, and I was getting anxious.
At the thought of what my fel ow witches might be eating somewhere in Oxford, my stomach rumbled. I'd been in the library since half past nine that morning, with only a short break for lunch.
Sean had taken the day off, and the person working at the cal desk was new. She'd given me some trouble when I requested one crumbling item and tried to convince me to use microfilm instead. The reading room's supervisor, Mr.
Johnson, overheard and came out of his office to intervene.
"My apologies, Dr. Bishop," he'd said hurriedly, pushing his heavy, dark-rimmed glasses over the bridge of his nose. "If you need to consult this manuscript for your research, we wil be happy to oblige." He disappeared to fetch the restricted item and delivered it with more apologies about the inconvenience and the new staff.
Gratified that my scholarly credentials had done the trick, I spent the afternoon happily reading.
I pul ed two coiled weights from the upper corners of the manuscript and closed it careful y, pleased at the amount of work I'd completed. After encountering the bewitched manuscript on Friday, I'd devoted the weekend to routine tasks rather than alchemy in order to restore a sense of normalcy. I fil ed out financial-reimbursement forms, paid bil s, wrote letters of recommendation, and even finished a book review. These chores were interspersed with more homely rituals like doing laundry, drinking copious amounts of tea, and trying recipes from the BBC's cooking programs.
After an early start this morning, I'd spent the day trying to focus on the work at hand, rather than dwel ing on my recol ections of Ashmole 782's strange il ustrations and mysterious palimpsest. I eyed the short list of todos jotted down over the course of the day. Of the four questions on my fol ow-up list, the third was easiest to resolve. The answer was in an arcane periodical, Notes and Queries, which was shelved on one of the bookcases that stretched up toward the room's high ceilings. I pushed back my chair and decided to tick one item off my list before leaving.
The upper shelves of the section of Duke Humfrey's known as the Selden End were reachable by means of a worn set of stairs to a gal ery that looked over the reading desks. I climbed the twisting treads to where the old buckram-covered books sat in neat chronological rows on wooden shelves. No one but me and an ancient literature don from Magdalen Col ege seemed to use them. I located the volume and swore softly under my breath. It was on the top shelf, just out of reach.
A low chuckle startled me. I turned my head to see who was sitting at the desk at the far end of the gal ery, but no one was there. I was hearing things again. Oxford was stil a ghost town, and anyone who belonged to the university had left over an hour earlier to down a glass of free sherry in their col ege's senior common room before dinner. Given the Wiccan holiday, even Gil ian had left in the late afternoon, after extending one final invitation and glancing at my pile of reading material with narrowed eyes.
I searched for the gal ery's stepstool, which was missing.
The Bodleian was notoriously short on such items, and it would easily take fifteen minutes to locate one in the library and haul it upstairs so that I could retrieve the volume. I hesitated. Even though I'd held a bewitched book, I'd resisted considerable temptations to work further magic on Friday. Besides, no one would see.
Despite my rationalizations, my skin prickled with anxiety. I didn't break my rules very often, and I kept mental accounts of the situations that had spurred me to turn to my magic for assistance. This was the fifth time this year, including putting the spel on the malfunctioning washing machine and touching Ashmole 782. Not too bad for the end of September, but not a personal best either.
I took a deep breath, held up my hand, and imagined the book in it.
Volume 19 of Notes and Queries slid backward four inches, tipped at an angle as if an invisible hand were pul ing it down, and fel into my open palm with a soft thwack. Once there, it flopped open to the page I needed.
It had taken al of three seconds. I let out another breath to exhale some of my guilt. Suddenly two icy patches bloomed between my shoulder blades.
I had been seen, and not by an ordinary human observer.
When one witch studies another, the touch of their eyes tingles. Witches aren't the only creatures sharing the world with humans, however. There are also daemons-creative, artistic creatures who walk a tightrope between madness and genius. "Rock stars and serial kil ers" was how my aunt described these strange, perplexing beings. And there are vampires, ancient and beautiful, who feed on blood and wil charm you utterly if they don't kil you first.
When a daemon takes a look, I feel the slight, unnerving pressure of a kiss.
But when a vampire stares, it feels cold, focused, and dangerous.
I mental y shuffled through the readers in Duke Humfrey's.
There had been one vampire, a cherubic monk who pored over medieval missals and prayer books like a lover. But vampires aren't often found in rare-book rooms.
Occasional y one succumbed to vanity and nostalgia and came in to reminisce, but it wasn't common.
Witches and daemons were far more typical in libraries.
Gil ian Chamberlain had been in today, studying her papyri with a magnifying glass. And there were definitely two daemons in the music reference room. They'd looked up, dazed, as I walked by on the way to Blackwel 's for tea. One told me to bring him back a latte, which was some indication of how immersed he was in whatever madness gripped him at the moment.
No, it was a vampire who watched me now.
I'd happened upon a few vampires, since I worked in a field that put me in touch with scientists, and there were vampires aplenty in laboratories around the world. Science rewards long study and patience. And thanks to their solitary work habits, scientists were unlikely to be recognized by anyone except their closest co-workers. It made a life that spanned centuries rather than decades much easier to negotiate.
These days vampires gravitated toward particle accelerators, projects to decode the genome, and molecular biology. Once they had flocked to alchemy, anatomy, and electricity. If it went bang, involved blood, or promised to unlock the secrets of the universe, there was sure to be a vampire around.
I clutched my il -gotten copy of Notes and Queries and turned to face the witness. He was in the shadows on the opposite side of the room in front of the paleography reference books, lounging against one of the graceful wooden pil ars that held up the gal ery. An open copy of Janet Roberts's Guide to Scripts Used in English Handwriting Up to 1500 was balanced in his hands.
I had never seen this vampire before-but I was fairly certain he didn't need pointers on how to decipher old penmanship.
Anyone who has read paperback bestsel ers or even watched television knows that vampires are breathtaking, but nothing prepares you to actual y see one. Their bone structures are so wel honed that they seem chiseled by an expert sculptor. Then they move, or speak, and your mind can't begin to absorb what you're seeing. Every movement is graceful; every word is musical. And their eyes are arresting, which is precisely how they catch their prey. One long look, a few quiet words, a touch: once you're caught in a vampire's snare you don't stand a chance.
Staring down at this vampire, I realized with a sinking feeling that my knowledge on the subject was, alas, largely theoretical. Little of it seemed useful now that I was facing one in the Bodleian Library.
The only vampire with whom I had more than a passing acquaintance worked at the nuclear particle accelerator in Switzerland. Jeremy was slight and gorgeous, with bright blond hair, blue eyes, and an infectious laugh. He'd slept with most of the women in the canton of Geneva and was now working his way through the city of Lausanne. What he did after he seduced them I had never wanted to inquire into too closely, and I'd turned down his persistent invitations to go out for a drink. I'd always figured that Jeremy was representative of the breed. But in comparison to the one who stood before me now, he seemed raw- boned, gawky, and very, very young.
This one was tal -wel over six feet even accounting for the problems of perspective associated with looking down on him from the gal ery. And he definitely was not slight.
Broad shoulders narrowed into slender hips, which flowed into lean, muscular legs. His hands were strikingly long and agile, a mark of physiological delicacy that made your eyes drift back to them to figure out how they could belong to such a large man.
As my eyes swept over him, his own were fixed on me.
From across the room, they seemed black as night, staring up under thick, equal y black eyebrows, one of them lifted in a curve that suggested a question mark. His face was indeed striking-al distinct planes and surfaces, with high- angled cheekbones meeting brows that shielded and shadowed his eyes. Above his chin was one of the few places where there was room for softness-his wide mouth, which, like his long hands, didn't seem to make sense.
But the most unnerving thing about him was not his physical perfection. It was his feral combination of strength, agility, and keen intel igence that was palpable across the room. In his black trousers and soft gray sweater, with a shock of black hair swept back from his forehead and cropped close to the nape of his neck, he looked like a panther that could strike at any moment but was in no rush to do so.
He smiled. It was a smal , polite smile that didn't reveal his teeth. I was intensely aware of them anyway, sitting in perfectly straight, sharp rows behind his pale lips.
The mere thought of teeth sent an instinctive rush of adrenaline through my body, setting my fingers tingling.
Suddenly al I could think was, Get out of this room NOW.
The staircase seemed farther away than the four steps it took to reach it. I raced down to the floor below, stumbled on the last step, and pitched straight into the vampire's waiting arms.
Of course he had beaten me to the bottom of the stairs.
His fingers were cool, and his arms felt steelier than flesh and bone. The scent of clove, cinnamon, and something that reminded me of incense fil ed the air. He set me on my feet, picked Notes and Queries off the floor, and handed it to me with a smal bow. "Dr. Bishop, I presume?"
Shaking from head to toe, I nodded.
The long, pale fingers of his right hand dipped into a pocket and pul ed out a blue-and-white business card. He extended it. "Matthew Clairmont."
I gripped the edge of the card, careful not to touch his fingers in the process. Oxford University's familiar logo, with the three crowns and open book, was perched next to Clairmont's name, fol owed by a string of initials indicating he had already been made a member of the Royal Society.
Not bad for someone who appeared to be in his mid- to late thirties, though I imagined that his actual age was at least ten times that.
As for his research specialty, it came as no surprise that the vampire was a professor of biochemistry and affiliated with Oxford Neuroscience at the John Radcliffe Hospital.
Blood and anatomy-two vampire favorites. The card bore three different laboratory numbers in addition to an office number and an e-mail address. I might not have seen him before, but he was certainly not unreachable.
"Professor Clairmont." I squeaked it out before the words caught in the back of my throat, and I quieted the urge to run screaming toward the exit.
"We've not met," he continued in an oddly accented voice. It was mostly Oxbridge but had a touch of softness that I couldn't place. His eyes, which never left my face, were not actual y dark at al , I discovered, but dominated by dilated pupils bordered with a gray-green sliver of iris. Their pul was insistent, and I found myself unable to look away.
The vampire's mouth was moving again. "I'm a great admirer of your work."
My eyes widened. It was not impossible that a professor of biochemistry would be interested in seventeenth-century alchemy, but it seemed highly unlikely. I picked at the col ar of my white shirt and scanned the room. We were the only two in it. There was no one at the old oak card file or at the nearby banks of computers. Whoever was at the col ection desk was too far away to come to my aid.
"I found your article on the color symbolism of alchemical transformation fascinating, and your work on Robert Boyle's approach to the problems of expansion and contraction was quite persuasive," Clairmont continued smoothly, as if he were used to being the only active participant in a conversation. "I've not yet finished your latest book on alchemical apprenticeship and education, but I'm enjoying it a great deal."
"Thank you," I whispered. His gaze shifted from my eyes to my throat.
I stopped picking at the buttons around my neck.
His unnatural eyes floated back to mine. "You have a marvelous way of evoking the past for your readers." I took that as a compliment, since a vampire would know if it was wrong. Clairmont paused for a moment. "Might I buy you dinner?"
My mouth dropped open. Dinner? I might not be able to escape from him in the library, but there was no reason to linger over a meal-especial y one he would not be sharing, given his dietary preferences.
"I have plans," I said abruptly, unable to formulate a reasonable explanation of what those plans might involve.
Matthew Clairmont must know I was a witch, and I was clearly not celebrating Mabon.