Anita’s gravestone was impressive, obviously expensive and expertly craved.
I idly wondered if James had asked one of his friends to do it or hired a stranger. Was that a skill one acquired after burying so many? Did they consider it a personal matter to craft a gravestone?
“Thank you for coming,” James said breaking the silence. “It means something.”
He didn’t elaborate. I didn’t expect him to. Anita had died saving my life. In most similar cases, my presence here should have been expected, but relations between the Living and the Undead were strained as usual. No one would have faulted me if I’d waited until morning to pay my respects, leave the night burial to her kind.
Not that many of her kind had shown up.
It was really only James who had come. His two bodyguards, positioned about 15 feet back, were here for him, not her. Their duty was to the head of the vast Stuart estate, not a shy researcher most of the world didn’t realize had existed.
If her missing person’s report hadn’t landed on my desk last week, I wouldn’t have known about her either. She’d been grabbed for her research on vampire biology. James had said she was making amazing progress, leaps and bounds ahead of anything he’d seen.
It’d all gone up in flames. I’d almost gone up with it, but she’d thrown me to safety.
Such courage and strength, even for one of her kind.
Yet it was only us in the cemetery tonight.
“You’ll have to come by every once in awhile,” I said, then gestured to the ornate cross craved predominately in the stone. “Clean things up. People might take offence to that.”
He raised a single eyebrow and gauged my sincerity.
I’d realized early on that a powerful figure like him didn’t bother masking his distrust or annoyance or most of his degrading emotions. He wanted others to know he saw himself as elite, but tried to pretend that wasn’t the case. A look to make one feel lesser, followed by one that implied equals. At least that was the impression he gave. The reputation he had earned. My chief had warned me about this before I went to see James.
When the elder Undead had described Anita during the investigation, however, he had slipped a bit. Their relationship dynamic was undefined, not quite anything yet clearly something. Not father/daughter. Not mentor/mentee. Not dating. Not close friends. Not even boss/employee. It fell somewhere in the middle with those, really. Perhaps they’d wanted to be more. Perhaps they’d both held back. It had been obvious from the moment I started asking questions that James had valued Anita. He’d funded her. He’d assisted her. He’d cared for her, deeply.
James had been surprisingly cooperative during the investigation, straight-forward and honest. Anything he’d told me had been verified. Anita had sought him out six years prior, promising breakthroughs to solve the vampire aging problem. He had seen a “spark” in her and agreed to provide whatever support she needed. Six years. He’d mentioned brief and professional phone calls. Infrequent updates that drove him nuts. Formal meetings over meals. Quirks that made him question her genius. He’d talked about her love of classical music and annoyance of museums, her handwriting going from neat to illegible depending on her excitement, her fashion style, her social anxiety, her unease to attend even small gatherings at his suggestion. He’d answered questions fully and calmly. And before I left his office, he’d lean back in his massive leather chair, look at me with the unmistakable air of helplessness and ask very softly, “please find her and bring her home.”
The vampire beside me finished his assessment.
“I’ll always look after her,” he said.
“Why the cross,” I asked.
He smirked, his skin creasing at the corners of his dark eyes. “She saved your life.”
“I don’t get–”
“She was a good person. Better than most I’ve met,” he said, the smirk disappeared. “Anita struggled with her religion. So utterly faithful, but told what she was was an affront to God. It tore at her everyday. I felt it appropriate that she rest in peace with the debate settled.”
James looked up at the star covered sky. I followed his gaze. “No lightning to prove me wrong.”
Vampires had an odd perspective. They refused to accept they could be freaks of nature, despite what they were. They denied magics and curses. Yet none of them seemed hesitant to make references to gods and superstitions. They’d live centuries and still remark of their lives being short.
James had said that about Anita within 10 minutes of meeting me.
“She’s so young,” he’d said. “So much living yet to do.”
I had asked him what that said about my longevity, was I just a babe trying to solve a crime in his eyes. Cold, in hindsight, but my opinion of vampires hadn’t been good at the time. I wanted him to acknowledge that I had the experience to find her, that he should trust me and my investigation.
Instead he’d openly assessed me again.
“You think I’m old as dust,” he’d responded. “Out of touch. Disconnected from the world. Vampires don’t feel life the same as you.”
“To be fair, there’s lots of reasons for that.” He wasn’t the first vampire I’d ever dealt with. I doubt he’d be the last.
“So different, so alike. Shadows of the light, shadows of the night,” he’d said with a shrug, sounding like he was quoting something.
Then he’d started talking about Anita, telling me all the ways she wasn’t a heartless, unnatural creature. He made her someone. Someone to search for.
I turned my attention back to the gravestone.
Anita was barely 200 and had devoted her life to delaying death for her kind, yet it wasn’t the aging process that had killed her. It wasn’t the slow decay of her body that had done her in. It wasn’t the natural shutting down of her unnatural body because of centuries lived. It was incompetent kidnappers, trying to be tough when I’d gone to arrest them, starting a fire as a diversion for escape. The idiots didn’t understand the chemicals in the room and the blaze had engulfed the space quickly. Anita threw me outside threw a window, but the flames got to her before she could save herself. She fell surrounded by her latest research.
James undoubtedly felt both losses. He was fading, though he tried to hide it. Every meeting I’d had with him was in his large office, with him seated comfortably at his desk. He only rose to greet me or dismiss me with a handshake. The deterioration lasted decades for his kind, the body finally giving in to nature. No amount of blood could restore it or repair the damage. Vampires treated it with the same amount of pride most humans did when faced with physical signs of their own mortality. He’d didn’t like to talk about it, to delve into the fact that Anita seemed like the one who’d find a cure for him. He downplayed his illness. The handshakes told the truth; they were weak for a vampire.
I had a feeling he arrived here a good 2o minutes before the burial so I wouldn’t see him struggle through the grass with his cane. He was a steadfast statue when I’d spotted him and he’d barely moved since. We’d been here awhile already and I could believe he’d wait me out, turn to dust before letting me see him trudge back. As it was, I could hear his faint laboured breathing in the quiet of the night.
It seemed cruel to do that to him. He’d openly wept when I told him that Anita didn’t survive. He hadn’t even asked about her work. He had looked at me, genuinely confused, when I told him it was all gone, as if he couldn’t understand why that was important. Like I said, he had cared for her deeply. Whatever she was to him, it wasn’t a tool to his survival. Certainly not at the end, at least.
I turned to give my farewell and take my leave.
“I am sorry for your loss,” I said offering my hand.
James turned to me, and it was painfully obvious that took effort. Standing still for so long in the middle of a chilly fall night had made his body become stiff. Still, he took a deep, shuttering breathe and straightened up before regarding me. His dark eyes became little black pools in his pale face, not unlike a great white shark’s before the kill.
I reminded myself of the laws for vampires, the codes, the ones that prohibited them from attacking innocents to replenish their blood supply. The hard swallow was involuntary. Despite his advanced age and undeniable weakness, James could still be an intimidating sight. Tall with broad shoulders, a solid build under a black long coat, and a cold face with seemingly soulless eyes staring down at me.
“It was everyone’s loss.” James shook my hand then before slowly turning back to Anita’s grave. His breathing worse, the grip on his cane tighter. “I hope you never darken my doorstep again, Detective Palmer.”
I gave a curt nod, trusting he’d see it out of the corner of his eye, and made my way to my car. Before I drove away, I took one last look toward where Anita was buried. And I think I finally understood. I could see James’ silhouette from the moonlight. He was just a shadow in the night, really.
Anita’s gravestone was impressive, obviously expensive and expertly craved.