Embraced by the Shadows

 

by Mayra Calvani

 

Prologue

Istanbul, twelve years ago

The Grand Bazaar was bustling with locals and tourists, as it had always been on warm summer nights for the past few centuries. The glitter of gold and copper and brass, lavishly displayed behind dozens of shop windows, could dazzle anybody's eyes. Heavy spices, Ottoman sweets of grape and nut pastes with the promise of aphrodisiac qualities, sacks filled with Arab coffees and the best teas from the northeastern little city of Rize, almond oils and musks, hennas, hundreds of hand-made silk carpets, their bright colors and details blinding. And the leather.endless rows of leather shops, filled with the soft yet pungent scent of animal skins. A very loud, wildly exotic belly-dancing melody came out of one of the shops, and an oddly pleasing smell, that of cigarette smoke mixed with incense and raki-the local alcoholic drink made from anise-hovered in the air.

The girl with long red curls stood in front of one of the many shops which swarmed this ancient place. She gazed intently at an oil painting of angels displayed in the window. Dramatic and disturbing, the painting depicted in painful detail an auburn-haired angel being cast out of Heaven.

From afar, the vampire watched.

Same profile, same hair. Uncanny, the resemblance. Just like...

For a bitter second the vampire closed his eyes and commanded himself to forget. Then everything was fine again, and his eyes opened and the ghost of a smile crossed his face.

Three centuries ago he would have drunk from her. No man, woman or child could be safe from him during those first dark days. His hunger insatiable, he would have been lost in the rapture of the draught. But that was three centuries ago. Nowadays he preferred men with cold murder in their past, and he liked to take them completely, loving the gush of warm blood in his mouth, until he ceased to hear the haunting, drum-like beat of the heart.

The girl seemed mesmerized by the painting of the fallen angel. The virulent clouds; the agonizing faces of the good angels surrounding the "fallen" one; the almost palpable sadness and rage, all stroke a deep cord within her.

The vampire could see through her artistic soul; unbeknown to herself, she had fallen in love with the beauty of the colors, the purity of the lines, and the tragic fatalism of it.

He read her thoughts.

She loved the painting. She wanted her mom to buy it for her, but she knew her mom wouldn't. It looked way too expensive.

And then something happened. She seemed to sense his presence, turned around, and stared right into his direction.

She frowned, uncertain. Something about him had caught her attention. His tall frame dressed in black, a flash of white teeth.

The vampire retreated into the shadows of the alley. He felt a twinge of guilt. He had not meant to frighten her.

The girl's mother and uncle, carrying bags of goods and souvenirs in their hands, stepped out of the shop. The girl pointed to the painting and pleaded with her mother to get it for her. Her mother took one look at it and shook her head. "That's morbid!" she said, then went on to argue that she had already bought her many gifts and her unreasonable requests would make them bankrupt. Nevertheless, she went inside the shop to ask for the price. A moment later she came back, looking incredulous and muttering in disbelief, "Ridiculous! A thousand dollars for that thing. Sorry, mi amor, but I can't afford it."

As they headed toward the exit of the bazaar, the girl glanced over her shoulder to the alley. But this time she didn't see him.

After the girl was out of sight, the vampire walked into one of the many ill-reputed, dark narrow streets near the bazaar and finished off a couple of shabby, despicable-looking mortals in two intense short draughts.

Then he walked back to the shop to purchase the painting.

 

 

Chapter 1

Alana woke with a start. She lifted herself on her elbows and glanced quickly about the room.

Darkness.

A bit panicky, she fumbled for the night lamp by her bed and switched it on. She could hear herself breathing. Her heart pounded hard inside her chest, and a sticky film of perspiration covered her skin. She felt confused, even mortified, and yet secretly excited, fascinated.

It had happened again.

The dream. Or was it a nightmare? But nightmares are supposed to frighten, and she had not been frightened. She had been. but no, it was too weird.

She rose from the bed. She walked over to the dressing table and, leaning on it, stared at herself in the mirror. Her dark almond-shaped eyes looked huge under the dim yellow light. Her long lashes cast eerie shadows on her cheeks and gave her a spooky appearance. Her hair tumbled in wild tousled waves to either side almost to her waist. Annoyed, she shoved one strand away from her face.

Morbid. That's what you are.

She walked over to the sliding glass door and opened the curtain. The clear Puerto Rican night sky spread out before her like an enormous luminescent tapestry. At seventeen stories high, she couldn't ask for a better view. Unlike many people she knew, she didn't mind the height at all. In fact, she loved it. A few months ago, when she had been looking for an apartment to rent, she had told the real estate agent that she wanted a really high place, that she wanted to live high up in the skies, that she wished to have the feeling of being able to fly off one night if she wanted to. Fly off? Why had she said such a silly thing?

Morbid and strange.

She opened the sliding glass door and stepped out into the balcony. There was no moon tonight, no breeze, only a bold and disturbing stillness. Closing her eyes, she massaged her temples with the tips of her fingers in soft, circular motions. She tried to go back to her dreams, submerge herself into the murky waters of her subconscious. She tried to force herself to remember the whole thing from beginning to end. But it was no use. As usual, everything came to her in little fragments.

The creature.

Or was it a man? The strength and safety of the powerful arms that could have crushed her in a second. And the face, a face she couldn't remember but which she knew-somehow she knew-to be wise and magnificent and ancient. The hypnotic way the fingers had touched her, caressing the line of her jaw ever so lightly, yet sending such powerful shivers into her body she had almost convulsed. The finger had traced little circles on her throat...no, it had been a long nail, she could recall that distinctly. A long nail like storybook witches have. Yet she had not been afraid nor repulsed by it. On the contrary, it had sent her into a delicious trance from which she had not wanted to escape. The cold lips had kissed the soft curve of her throat, the nape of her neck, leaving her defenseless, swooning.

And the teeth...yes, the evil teeth! Pointy, razor-sharp.

"Oh, my God," she whispered, opening her eyes and shaking her head. "I'm going crazy."

She had always been an unusual child, perpetually fascinated with the occult, ghosts, werewolves, witches. A consummate bookworm, she always had her nose in a book, the kind of book that wasn't suitable for an innocent girl of her age in a Catholic convent school-crime mysteries, the paranormal, the psychology of criminals, famous murders in history. She had a little game in junior high: she would pretend she was possessed by the devil and frighten some of the girls. She would stare at them with a demonic-looking expression on her face. It had been a way to fight boredom. Plus, she secretly loved the attention she got, whether it was positive or negative.

One day Alana drew on the blackboard a picture of a woman, a large knife in hand, stabbing a man. It was a very detailed picture-droplets of blood dripping from the wounds and the knife. Of course, the nuns were horrified. The news reached Mother Superior, who summoned Alana into her office. But Alana, with her sweet nature and good grades, told her that it had all been a joke, a bad joke to scare her classmates. The nuns were patient and forgiving for the most part, attributing Alana's attention-seeking antics to the recent loss of her mother.

Apart from this fierce curiosity for the supernatural, Alana had been a perfectly normal child-with all the good and bad that goes with it. That's why she couldn't understand this darker side she had. She felt it had always been part of her, though it had intensified after her mother's death.

And the dreams...

"All because of that ridiculous club," she muttered, turning back into her bedroom. Who had thought of opening that silly place, anyway? La Cueva del Vampiro-what a cliché. If she were the owner of the place, she would have been more original than that. Perhaps she would tell the owner. But she didn't even know the owner, had never met the person, didn't even know if it was a man or a woman. Wait a minute. She knew it was a businessman. The old man who gave her the job had said so.

"Congratulations, Señorita Piovanetti. The job is yours." A soft voice, nearly caressing.

She stared at him, surprised. "Really?"

"I don't see why not. A degree in philosophy from the University of Boston, magna cum laude, and from what I can tell from the interview: hardworking, responsible, and enthusiastic. These are important qualities in a manager. It's true that you don't have any working experience, but that's not very important."

"No?" This was crazy. She didn't know anything about business.

"Not at all. It's always better to hire somebody young, with fresh ideas...like you." He smiled vaguely. Had there been a strange shimmer in his eyes? A tall thin man in his late sixties, he'd been clad in an expensive-looking grey suit, with an oddly alluring smell emanating from him, redolent of pines and humid earth. He explained how he was not the owner of the club, no, not at all. The owner was an important businessman who traveled a lot. No, not Puerto Rican, not American, why was she so interested in his origin? He had smiled, condescending. He represented the owner's business interests here in San Juan. Whatever problems she might have she should contact him....

So, even though she was only a twenty-two-year-old Nietzsche freak fresh out of college, she had gotten the job as the restaurant manager of La Cueva del Vampiro, the new nightclub everybody in San Juan was talking about.

She would get an excellent salary, ridiculously so, and she needed the money to pay her share of the apartment. Later, after having acquired some working experience, she would look for another job, maybe go for her master's. Restaurant management wasn't really her type of thing, but the truth was, as soon as she had read the job opening in the newspaper, she had been instantly and magnetically drawn to it. The idea of dressing up as a vampire, of pretending to be a vampire quickly became an obsession.

It was a great opportunity, yet she had a bizarre feeling, as if the job had somehow been waiting for her. For her.

Her friends, who knew all about her eternal attraction to the supernatural, had been happy for her, congratulated her, joked about how at last she had fulfilled her dreams and become a vampire. A vampire! And she had laughed, they had celebrated, drinking champagne until two in the morning.

And then that night she had had the first dream. The creature or whatever it was. Taking her in its arms, doing terrible yet wonderful things to her, taking her away, far, far away, somewhere..

She glanced at the clock on the night table, a Mickey Mouse mechanical clock she had bought in Disney World when she was a little girl. It said 3:05 a.m.

It looked out of place, the Mickey Mouse clock. Smiling Mickey, with his thin arms and white-gloved hands pointing at the numbers. It looked too innocent, contrasting sharply with the sober, modern furnishings. She had walked into the shop with her mother, who pointed out to her that the Snow White clock was much nicer. But no, just to go against her mother, Alana had chosen the Mickey Mouse clock. Even after all these years, the memory still made her wince.

Taking a long deep breath, she went back to bed, trying to clear her mind, to shove away the thoughts about her dead mother. She knew from experience how damaging they could be.

And the creature.

She closed her eyes tightly, as if by doing so, she could push away the haunting memory of that long nail at her throat, of the gooseflesh the mere recollection of its proximity gave her.

Go away, damn you, go away, leave me alone, let me sleep!

She needed sleep.

Tomorrow was the opening night at La Cueva del Vampiro.

* * *

"What would you like?" Valeria Acosta said, her big brown eyes scanning the menu with childish relish.

"I'm not very hungry," Alana said. "I'll just have a salad and a glass of wine."

"You're not hungry? I'm starving! I'll have...I'll have the T-bone steak with French fries. I'll have wine, too."

They were sitting at their favorite corner table at El Metropol, a lively Cuban restaurant with low prices, friendly waiters, and generous portions. As usual at lunch time, the place was filled with voices and laughter and the clinking of forks and plates and glasses. Lots of noise, lots of cigarette smoke. Frantic waiters rushing trays from one end of the place to another.

After they had ordered and the waiter served them their wine, Valeria lifted her glass to Alana and said solemnly, "To my twin soul. May you have unlimited success in your first job. Or should I say, in your first immortal job?"

Alana smiled, raising her glass.

They had been inseparable friends since they first met in primary school, maybe because in many ways they shared the same thoughts, had the same fantasies, liked and disliked the same things. Twin souls. Ever since they were little, they had agreed on that. In their minds there existed no other explanation for such closeness. They would read the same books, play the same games. Always together, the redhead and the blonde. That's how Mother Superior referred to them, the redhead and the blonde. Who pulled Karen's braids? The redhead and the blonde. Who escaped from the dining hall to avoid lunch? The redhead and the blonde. Who sneaked into the library to read books about ghosts and witches? The redhead and the blonde.

Everybody who saw them was touched by their charm. How could they not be, with their respectively red and blonde locks, their creamy white complexions? In an island where most children were dark-haired and brown-skinned, Alana and Valeria possessed unusual traits.

But the teachers knew about them and would always separate them, so they wouldn't speak in class. It was strange, this closeness, this intimacy. Sometimes one would look at the other, and understanding would follow. Valeria always claimed their minds were telepathically linked. But Alana, a bit more skeptical, thought there was nothing magical about it. Only they were so close, knew each other so well, that often they sensed one another's thoughts.

Rebellious and stubborn, they both considered themselves utter pessimists. But as much as they resembled one another, in some aspects they differed completely. Valeria acted cooler, more pragmatic and unscrupulous, while Alana tended to be more impulsive, temperamental, moody. Sometimes they had awful fights, even fist fights when they were little, but they always came back together, kissing and hugging. Oddly, this difference in their personalities only served to bind them stronger together.

Going to college in Boston turned out to be a hard decision for Alana. That night they got totally drunk. They talked and cried and laughed. They would miss each other terribly, but Valeria seemed happy for her. They had a genuinely beautiful friendship, and no distance would ever keep them apart.

Untouchable, the two musketeers. The twin souls.

So while Alana had gotten a degree in Philosophy from the University of Boston, Valeria, whose family didn't have the financial means to send her abroad, had gotten hers in Architecture from the University of Puerto Rico. After graduation, Alana was glad to say goodbye to the cruel Boston winters and come back to her sticky hot island and to her best friend.

Then they did what they had always planned on doing together since junior high: looked for jobs, searched for a cozy apartment, and shared the rent.

They clinked glasses.

Alana took the red wine to her lips and took a sip, watching Valeria as she did the same.

"Delicious," Alana said. She began fiddling with the fork, her favorite pastime while waiting for her food at restaurants.

"So?"

"Don't look at me like that. I'm nervous enough as it is. I can't shake this weird feeling I have. I'm still wondering why I got the job."

Valeria rolled her eyes. "Here we go again. You'll be terrific! I couldn't think of a job that would suit you better. It's great. And anyway, like you said, it would just be temporary. I'd be having fun if I were you."

"But why did I get the job? I don't know anything about restaurant management. We're talking about a first-rate nightclub. You wouldn't believe the amount of money invested in this place. You would think they would have hired a professional."

"If you say that again, I'm going to kill you. You have a college degree from a prestigious school, you're beautiful, you don't need anything else."

"Thank you," Alana said with amused sarcasm.

"You're welcome," Valeria said in the same tone. "Anyway, you didn't know anything about restaurant management. You do now, don't you, after all Victor's training? How many weeks has it been now?"

In spite herself, Alana nodded. "Okay, okay." True. Victor had been there with her, training her, helping her, advising her. He was thirty-five, and all of his adult life he had worked in restaurants and nightclubs. During the last three weeks, they had worked together from morning till evening, going over the decoration, the lighting, the menus, the costumes. Talking with the waiters, telling them how they should apply their make-up, wear their costumes, showing them how they should speak and walk. Not only for the restaurant but also the nightclub. He had behaved with the care and patience of an older brother and she would always be grateful to him.

"You know, this isn't like you," Valeria said. "You're always sure of yourself. Too sure of yourself, if you ask me. But these past few weeks you seem different."

Alana had told Valeria she'd had trouble sleeping. She had told her she had been having dreams, strange dreams. But she had not told her what the dreams were about. They were used to telling each other everything. But these dreams...were somehow too personal. They were her secret. Of course, Valeria had questioned her about them, but Alana had averted her eyes and said she could never remember their content, which at least was partially true.

As if reading her thoughts, Valeria asked, "Does this have anything to do with the dreams?"

Alana's pulse quickened. "No, I don't think so. I told you, I don't remember the dreams. I'm just not getting enough sleep lately. That's all."

"That's strange for someone who usually has such vivid dreams." Just a hint of suspicion in her voice.

Alana shrugged and reached for her glass of wine.

"You were making noises last night," Valeria said.

Alana almost choked on the wine. "What?"

"I heard you making noises, moaning. Also talking, I think. I was too sleepy to get up and take a look, but I heard you."

"What do you mean, I was moaning?"

"Moaning. You know. Moaning." She dramatized it a bit too loudly, and the people sitting at the next table turned their heads to look at them.

Alana felt heat rising to her cheeks. She stirred uncomfortably in her seat.

"You should see your face. All red."

"You're making this up."

"Are you referring to your red face or the moaning?" Valeria teased. "Why should I make this up? It's the truth. I suppose you had one of those dreams last night, the ones you can't remember?"

"No, I didn't," Alana lied. "Stop with the patronizing tone. I hate when you do that." Her voice came out harsher than she intended.

"Gosh, you're so moody! My last intention is to get you upset. Today of all days. I brought you here to celebrate. But I can sense your transformation in the air. It's like poison gas. When you get in a bad mood I can smell it, I swear."

"You know what your problem is? You swear too much," Alana said. She took a deep breath. "I'm not upset, okay?"

"Maybe a little edgy?" Valeria suggested.

"Yeah." After a pause, she added, "Maybe it was the TV you heard last night. Now that I remember, I fell asleep without turning it off. That must have been it."

Valeria looked at her thoughtfully. "Yeah...That must have been it." She patted Alana's hand. "Try to relax, will you? Don't you remember when they first hired me at the firm? I couldn't eat or sleep for a week. Everything will go great tonight, you'll see. Do you want to make a bet?"

"No, I don't want to make any bet. I just want tonight to be over." But in fact she wasn't thinking about tonight. She was thinking about what Valeria had said about the moaning. And about how aroused she had awoken this morning, her throat parched, her pulse throbbing in her temples.

"Valeria," Alana's voice turned lower, more confidential. "Was I really. What's wrong?"

"Don't turn your head now, but there are two guys over there staring at us."

"Where?"

"Behind you, the last table. And they're not that bad-looking either."

Alana turned her head to glance at them. One of them smiled, lifting his wine glass to her. They were handsome in an office-executive kind of way.

Alana scowled, then she turned to Valeria. "I hate when they do that. Why don't they let us eat in peace?"

"I know. They're cute, though." Valeria looked at them and smiled. She was enjoying this. She always did.

"Stop it," Alana urged, suddenly panicked. "They're going to come over to our table, like last time. And you remember how that ended. They were a couple of arrogant jerks."

"Maybe these aren't arrogant jerks."

"I'm not in the mood."

"You know what your problem is? You're never in the mood," Valeria said.

"Oh, shut up."

Valeria pouted. She was clad in an elegant navy-blue suit, her face expertly made up, her thick blond hair falling sleek and straight down her shoulders. Perfectly even bangs covered her forehead and brows.

Wherever they went they always got attention from men.

The redhead and the blonde.

Are you sisters? No, twin souls....

And unlike Alana, Valeria loved the attention. With her angelic big brown eyes and mischievous smile, she was a natural flirt. During her four years at the university she'd had a long line of boyfriends. She would jump from one relationship to another with no regrets, in a very pragmatic, cold-blooded manner. Now Valeria was seeing someone at her firm, a married man she referred to as "The Pirate." Just as Alana had her ghosts and witches and demons, Valeria had her pirates.

On the other hand, Alana had never had much success with men. She'd had a few boyfriends, but there was always something missing in the relationships. She was easily bored, annoyed by them. In the end she always drove them off before the relationship could progress beyond a few kisses and caresses. She knew she was unrealistic and demanding, waiting for the perfect kind of man to sweep her off her feet. But she couldn't help feeling old-fashioned about it. She wanted to fall in love, and she wanted the first time to be perfect.

Over lunch the conversation turned to safer subjects. Alana talked about the restaurant, giving Valeria a preview of what to expect that night. It was going to be an event, and members of the press had been invited. The menu would offer dishes like Dracula's Steak and Virgin Sacrifice Potatoes.

Valeria laughed. "Virgin Sacrifice Potatoes?"

"Ridiculous, isn't it? My idea."

"I know." She gave Alana a knowing look.

Alana raised a brow. "And I suppose you're the expert of experts?"

"A lot more than you, that's for sure. I'll be happy to give you a few theoretical lessons."

"It's not theoretical lessons that I need." Alana popped a little carrot stick into her mouth. Then, to change the subject, she added, "How's your Pirate doing?"

"He's fine. We haven't been together for more than a week. It's so hard seeing him every day at the office, and not being able to touch him. We just look at each other, eat each other with our eyes. We'll be together tonight. He'll come with me to the opening." Valeria sighed.

"Don't look at me with those sad puppy eyes."

"I'm not doing anything."

"I'm not going to tell you anything anymore. You know what you're getting into."

Valeria shrugged, a wan smile playing on her lips. "I'm only trying to enjoy life, make the best of it. We're pain and pleasure machines." she began tauntingly, mimicking Alana and her fervent philosophical arguments.

"Don't give me Nietzsche. I know about Nietzsche. He was a madman." Then her expression turned softer, her voice gentler. "What's going to happen when his wife finds out? She will find out. They all eventually do. What's going to happen to the kids? To you? I don't want you to get hurt. And you will get hurt."

"I'm a survivor. Besides, I'm in control of the situation."

"Stop the cool act. This is not like your past conquests. This time you're more involved than you think you are. And I'm going to tell you something else. Those kids will get hurt most of all."

Valeria rolled her eyes, obviously mortified. She looked like a stubborn child being reprimanded by a parent. "Don't go into 'Cosmic Justice' again. It bores me to hell. Things like this have been happening since the beginning of time, and they will continue to happen." She paused to wipe her mouth with a napkin. "I'm not saying I'm proud of it. I feel guilty, too, for the kids."

"I know you do."

"But what do you want me to do? Maybe my guilt isn't strong enough. Maybe I don't have morals. I'm selfish, I know I'm selfish." She threw Alana a piercing look, then gulped down the rest of her wine.

"No, you're not. You're giving yourself completely to him. You wait for him. You see him only on those occasions when he sees fit. He's a lucky bastard, with a young and beautiful mistress falling head over heels for him, and a family who doesn't suspect a thing. Every man's fantasy. He doesn't make you any promises. He cannot offer you any plans for the future."

"I take what I want from him. And I'm not head over heels for him. Far from it. The least I want is complications in my life. I don't ask for any future with him. I don't want a future with him. I told you, I'm in complete control of the situation."

Alana nodded, weighing Valeria's words in her mind. She sighed, suddenly overcome by a keen urge to smoke.

"It's just so physical," Valeria said. "I just.I can't control myself. The passion is so strong, so totally commanding. You know what I mean."

In spite of herself, Alana had to laugh. It amazed her, the way Valeria was. At times so cool and down-to-earth, at other times such a slave of the senses, lecherous. Alana couldn't help feeling a twinge of jealousy.

All of a sudden the image of that long pointed nail flashed into her mind. Just the memory of it was enough to make her pulse race.

"I just get so restless sometimes," Valeria went on. "I feel like grabbing whatever life offers me. In a few years we'll be old ladies, no one will look at us. And we'll be sick, and we'll suffer. These are the best years of our lives, and I don't intend to throw them away. And you should understand that, better than anybody else." She held Alana's gaze for a moment.

"Yes...I do," Alana said, wincing at the allusion to her mother's death.

"That's why I hate to see you alone. You hate socializing. You look at men as if they were the plague. The only thing which seems to make you happy is your books and Vivaldi. You're turning into a hermit-and at your age! And don't tell me that to be alone is better than to be in bad company. You don't deserve to be alone. God, Alana, you're missing a hell of a lot." Valeria placed her knife and fork on the plate and shifted in her seat. The wine, the passion in her voice had flushed her cheeks. "But the problem is you don't want to do anything about it. That's why I'm so glad you took this job. It'll force you to socialize whether you like it or not."

Alana snorted, somewhat hurt by Valeria's words. But she had to accept Valeria was right. She wasn't going to admit it, though. Instead she remained stubbornly quiet, her hand fiddling with the fork, her eyes cast down.

Valeria sighed. "Now I truly did it, didn't I?"

"Are you finished with that steak?" Alana asked coolly, looking up at her. "Victor must be waiting for me at the restaurant. We still have a million things to do before the opening." She signalled to the waiter.

"Always good at changing the subject." Valeria threw her napkin onto the table and leaned back against the chair, folding her arms across her chest. "Sometimes I wonder. What are you waiting for? Who are you waiting for?"

 

 

Chapter 2

Walking into La Cueva del Vampiro was like stepping into a high-budget horror film. A lush, expensive-looking burgundy carpet covered the floors. Gruesome stalactites hung from the ceiling and, through the crevices, shafts of red light filtered down like bloody shimmering knives. Round slabs of stone, decorated with candle-lit skulls in the center, stood as tables. All around, spider webs twined around the gothic candelabra and skeletons rested propped up against the imitation stone walls. The waiters, with their frightful make-up and costumes-some as vampires, some as zombies, some as Frankenstein, some as werewolves-added to the total effect.

Alana, too, had taken extra care in transforming herself for tonight. She had brushed her hair until it glowed like a red satin veil down her back. She had spent nearly half an hour applying her makeup: silvery pale foundation and powder, black eye shadow and liner, wine-red lipstick. After putting on her costume she had spent some time studying her image in front of the mirror. She loved her burgundy medieval gown, which had a low neckline and was snug at the waist. The sleeves fell wide and loose down her arms, like the wings of a bat. The skirt, smooth and sleek, flowed down to her mid-calves and revealed the soft curve of her hips. Around her neck she wore an ornate brass choker with the face of a Cobra-mouth open exposing fangs-in the center. On her feet were burgundy velvet, high-healed pumps.

Now and then she caught an admiring glance from a man sipping his wine or eating his dinner. Thrilled, she tried not to lower her eyes or appear shy. She had forgotten all about the dreams, about the creature, about questioning why she had been hired for the job. There was nothing strange about this place. Why had she had such a silly notion? It was fun, to watch their fascinated faces when they saw her and spoke to her, to watch them grimacing and hear them laughing when they looked at the skeletons around them or read the menu.

The opening had begun at eight o'clock, and since then, the restaurant had swarmed with customers. It was almost ten o'clock now. Although her only responsibility was the restaurant, Victor, managing as always, had advised her that it might be better for publicity if she also hung around the nightclub tonight.

She couldn't keep herself from smiling. She had done a good job, and now she basked in the rewards of her hard work.

Bending forward over a table to recommend some of the specialties to a couple, Alana lifted her eyes and met Victor's gaze from across the dimly-lit room. He smiled, approvingly. She smiled back, letting him know with a nod of her head that everything was all right. What was he doing here? He was supposed to be at the nightclub. But yes, he had told her he would pass by a couple of times to check on things. He wore the classic Dracula costume. Black wig complete with widow's peak, white-powdered face, black lips, black dinner jacket and flowing black cape. Oddly, he seemed more attractive with the Dracula costume. Just as men stared at Alana, women stared at him. Amazing. Weren't people bored, fed up with these ancient, frightful creatures?

As Alana strode to the entrance to greet more customers, she saw Valeria and Miguel "the Pirate" waiting in line. Alana wondered why they were late.

"My God, Alana, you look incredible!" Valeria said. It was the first time she had seen Alana wearing the costume.

"Where have you been?" Alana asked. "You said you'd be here at eight."

"Don't get angry at Valeria. It was my fault," Miguel said. "We had to...stop somewhere first." Valeria and Miguel gave each other a knowing look. Not an obvious look, but one that made Alana guess what they had been up to. "You really do look fabulous, Alana," he added.

"Thank you." Alana tried to swallow her disgust. She refused to understand their behavior. Maybe she was being selfish, but it hurt her to think that Valeria had gone off somewhere to make love with him when she had promised she was going to come early in the first place. Couldn't she have waited until after the opening? "Follow me," she said. "I'll get you a table."

Valeria and Miguel followed her across the room.

"This place is fantastic," Valeria said. "Look at the skeletons. They look so authentic. Are they real?"

"I doubt it," Miguel said.

"You can examine them better from here," Alana said, showing them to a corner table situated beside two skeletons.

"I bet you have been saving this table just for us." Valeria sat down and looked appreciatively at the skeletons.

"Hardly," Alana said. "All the tables have been filled since eight o'clock. I guess it's your lucky night." She had, in fact, been saving this table for them.

Miguel examined the candle-lit skull on the table. "This looks real," he said, touching it.

"Everything in this place is real," Alana said in mock solemnity.

"No, no, I'm serious," Miguel said. "Are they for real?"

"Of course they are. Don't you see?" Valeria knocked on the skull with her knuckles, as if she were knocking on a door.

"I'll let you decide for yourselves." Alana handed them the menus. Their covers showed the words La Cueva del Vampiro in leaking red ink, like words unevenly written with fresh blood. Inside, the names of the food and the prices were written gothic style.

They studied the menu for a while.

Valeria laughed, delighted. "Deadly Mushrooms in Slimy Maggot Sauce? Phantasm Ice Cream? Immortal Salad? I can tell this all came from your head, Alana."

"Who else but me-Alana, the Vampire Countess?"

Valeria reached out and held Alana's hand, giving it a little squeeze. "You see, I told you it would be a great success. I'm thrilled for you. Are you happy now?"

"Don't I look happy?"

"You do. But with you I never know for sure."

"I'm good."

"Then live the moment to the fullest." Valeria gave her hand another squeeze, this time harder. Then she reached to touch the choker around Alana's neck. Her index finger stroke the cobra's head, the fangs. "Mmm. Love this. Where did you get it?"

Alana's hands went up to her neck. "This? Unusual, isn't it? I don't know. It came in the box with the rest of the costume."

"Victor chose the costumes?" Valeria asked

"The old man who gave me the job supplied them."

"It looks old," Miguel said. "I mean, it looks genuinely old."

Alana nodded. "It does, doesn't it? Well, maybe it is. All these skulls and candelabra and torchlights are supposed to be genuine. That's what Victor said."

"Such mystery." Miguel looked amused. "I think it's all for publicity."

Alana realized Victor was signaling her from across the room. "Listen, I have to go now. The werewolf will take your order. You'll come with me to the club later, right?"

"Don't worry," Valeria said. "This time we won't let you down."

"We wouldn't miss it for the world," Miguel added.

"Great. I'll see you later then."

When Alana joined Victor, he told her, "Congratulations, Alana. You've managed wonderfully. Just as I thought you would."

"Thank you. You know I could never have done it without your help."

"Let's just say I'm your typically nice vampire." He smiled, glancing at his watch. "It's ten-thirty. I'm taking off to the club, okay? Can you handle it from here?"

"Sure, go ahead."

"Are you tired?"

"A little. I guess I'm more excited than tired. But my feet hurt. These shoes are too high. Usually I don't wear shoes like this." She made a face, as though her feet were killing her.

"My hair is itching like hell under this damn wig. Anyway, I have to go. See you later. You won't believe the nightclub. It's filled with yummy humans reeking of blood." After giving her a theatrical Dracula grin, he walked off.

Alana chuckled. Then she sighed, looking around the room. The waiters joked with the customers, carried food trays from one place to another. They had done a good job. No problems with the orders, no spilled drinks, no dropped trays. Everybody had worked hard to make the first day a success. In spite of the air conditioning, they seemed to be perspiring under their heavy make-up.

Alana, too, was perspiring. She still had a long night ahead of her. But she had told Valeria the truth. She felt good. She made another tour around the tables, speaking here and there with the customers. All of them seemed to love the food and the costumes, but more than anything they appeared intrigued about the décor.

Are these skulls real? They are, of course they are.

Are these skeletons real? They are real, too, every single one of them....

Who is the owner of the restaurant? What's his name? To tell you the truth, I don't know. I only know one thing. He only comes out after sunset.

Soft laughter.

* * *

At midnight, Alana turned on the CLOSED sign. Although there were only two tables empty, the rest of the people were at the end of their dinners, having dessert or drinking coffee.

The restaurant was a hit. Several reporters from the city's most important newspapers were here, and they had been extremely pleased. Favorable articles would appear in the Sunday editions.

Alana went over to Valeria's table.

"You have been standing and walking around all night long, Alana. Aren't you tired?" Valeria looked concerned. "You'll rest now at the club, okay? We haven't been able to speak all night."

"So what? You live together, don't you? Tomorrow you can speak all you want," Miguel said, taking Valeria's hand between his and kissing her palm.

Valeria smiled, bit her lower lip. Biting her lower lip was a habit of hers. It made her look cute and sexy. And Valeria knew it. She knew her weapons just like any officer in the army knew his. It made Alana want to smack her.

Valeria was tipsy. Her brown eyes shimmered softly above the candle-lit skull. Her cheeks were glowing. When Valeria drank she turned into the perfect harmless drunk. Just a bit annoying. Not at all like Alana, who got nostalgic and gloomy, at times aggressive and even cruel.

"How many Black Russians have you had?" Alana asked.

"Let me see..." Valeria said playfully, counting her fingers. "Ten! No, no, don't be silly. I only had four."

"Actually, I'm dying for a Rum and Coke," Alana said, trying to flex her toes inside her shoes.

"God, I feel like a stuffed pig," Miguel said, rubbing his stomach. "It's already midnight. What do you think, Alana? Can we go to the club now?"

Most of the customers were asking for their bills.

"Why don't you go ahead? I'll meet you there in a little while. Just tell the guy at the door your names. I already told him about you. You won't have to wait."

Out on the street stood a long line of people waiting to get inside the nightclub. Most of them were nicely dressed, young professionals between the ages of twenty and thirty from good families, reeking of money.

* * *

On her way to the nightclub, admiring the décor, Alana pictured in her mind how the place must look to the new customers.

LA CUEVA DEL VAMPIRO. The red gothic letters flickered on and off in the dark dead-end street. Once inside one found a dark entrance hall with passionately disturbing music-Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor"-coming out of hidden speakers. Next were two ancient, heavy wooden doors with their respective signs, one leading to the restaurant and the other to the nightclub. To enter the nightclub one had to follow a dark narrow corridor until a final heavy wooden door led into the dancing hall.

The nightclub was more or less a replica of the restaurant. Imitation-stone walls, spider webs, skulls, skeletons, candelabra, monster waiters. The bar, designed in the shape of a long sarcophagus, truly added to the effect. In the center of the room was the dance floor, surrounded by stone-slab tables decorated with candle-lit skulls and monster heads with lit-up eyes.

The same dim red shafts of light came down from stalactites, baleful, portentous.

The waiters came from another world, from an underworld. They brought exotic drinks. And the music-right now U2's melody in which the lead singer promised to hold you, kiss you, thrill you and kill you-came out at full volume, deafening to the senses. Lots of cigarette smoke, sudden empty laughs, giggles.

Disguised kisses, strokes.

A faint smell of incense, dark and foreign, caressing to the nostrils.

And in the center, dancing bodies, turning, swirling, undulating, tight young bodies with the dusky scent of sweaty flesh.

All of it a surrealist painting out of Salvador Dali's imagination.

* * *

"No, no, I don't want to dance now. You go ahead," Alana said. It seemed to her hours had passed since she had joined Valeria and Miguel.

"Come on," Valeria insisted. "We can dance all together. The three of us."

"Valeria, mi amor," Miguel said. "She says she doesn't want to dance. Don't you see she's tired?"

"I'm thirsty. I'll order another Rum and Coke," Alana said.

"Party pooper!" Valeria said. "Then promise me the next dance then, okay?"

Alana rolled her eyes. "Later. God, you're such a whiner."

Alana herself was getting tipsy. She had had two Rum and Cokes on an empty stomach. But she wasn't hungry. Tonight she had been too nervous to eat anything. She drummed her fingers to the music, then turned to Miguel. "My God, Miguel, dance with her. Take her, do anything. Just make sure she doesn't collapse in the middle of the dance floor."

Miguel nodded, understanding. He rose from the table and took Valeria by the hand. He really looked like a pirate, with his beard and moustache and his mischievous brown eyes.

Valeria pouted. "Very funny," she grumbled as Miguel led her off by the hand.

Alana shook her head, smiling. She watched them disappear into the bustling dance floor. She looked down at her drink. A little liquid remained at the bottom of the glass where the ice had melted. She took one last sip.

Tracing the round edge of her glass with her fingertip, she stared across the room, thoughtful. They had fallen into one another's webs. Physically, mainly physically. But talking to them, Alana had noticed an emotional or spiritual attachment in their relationship as well. That much she could tell.

And she didn't like it. She didn't like it at all.

On the other hand, maybe she was only being old fashioned. Valeria often accused her of being a moralistic fool. So the Pirate was married. So what? What was the big deal? These things happened all the time, especially in a depraved Latin city like this. But Alana couldn't help feeling the way she did. It was wrong. It had to be.

Integrity. Morality. Loyalty. These virtues had totally disappeared. They didn't have a meaning anymore.

An intense feeling of loss overwhelmed her suddenly.

The alcohol was having its usual dark effect on her.

She knew if she kept drinking, she would get worst, and yet she wanted another drink, wanted to get perfectly drunk. What was wrong with her? She had had a successful night. Only minutes ago she had felt exhilarated. How horrible to have such drastic mood swings, to feel so despondent without knowing why.

She signaled the zombie waiter and ordered another Rum and Coke.

For a moment she stared at the dancing couples, at the flashing red lights above them. Her eyes scanned the room, moving slowly from one table to the other.

Then she saw the face.

An alluring face, solemn and brooding, with slanted dark brows and penetrating deep-set eyes and a generous sensual mouth. It was framed in a mass of wavy dark hair, and the skin had a strange luster, it glowed softly in the semidarkness of the room. Such an unusual face, severe and melancholic at the same time. And it was staring straight back at her.

Alana held the stranger's gaze for a second, realizing not only that he stared at her, but that he had been staring at her for some time. She averted her eyes, a natural reaction. For a second she looked down at the flickering flame on the table. Then, almost involuntarily, she looked back at him.

He was still staring at her.

Alana's heart skipped. She felt a little breathless. It was not the fact that a man was staring at her, for many men stared at her in public places. No, it was not that. It was the type of face and the way that he looked at her that stunned her-as if he knew all about her sadness, her loneliness, her deepest fears. And suddenly she had a haunted feeling, as if all the morbid immensity of her emotions, past and present, stood reflected on that face. She held his gaze, looking straight into his deep-set eyes, until she felt dizzy. Oddly, it felt as if they had been watching each other for hours, when in fact only seconds had passed.

"Enjoy your drink," the zombie waiter said.

Alana looked up, startled.

The waiter bent forward to serve her the drink, blocking the bewitching face.

"Thanks," she said, reaching for it. The cold glass felt soothing against her sweaty palms.

After the waiter walked off, Alana looked again towards the stranger. But he was no longer there. She looked around the room, keenly disappointed, but he had vanished.

"Great, now I'm hallucinating," she muttered, shaking her head. Her hands went through her hair, shoving it away from her face. Then she brought the cold glass to her lips and drank.

After a while Valeria and Miguel rejoined her at the table. Miguel lit a cigarette while Valeria signaled the waiter for another Black Russian.

"My throat is parched!" Valeria said. She turned to Miguel and kissed him full on the mouth, glancing sideways at Alana. Then she pushed Miguel away and laughed.

Alana didn't look away, but her thoughts were elsewhere. The stranger had reminded her of a trip she once took with her mother to the Middle East, of a painting of angels. She couldn't put her finger on why the face and the trip were connected, but.

"Hellooooo!" Valeria said, waving her hand in front of Alana's face. "Where are you? You look miles away."

Alana blinked, snapping back to the present. "Why don't you try and read my mind?" she taunted.

Valeria grinned, ignoring the mocking note in her friend's voice. "Okay. Look deep into my eyes. Concentrate."

Alana decided to go along with her. Her eyes locked themselves into Valeria's. She turned grave.

Miguel looked from one to the other, amused.

"We used to read each other's minds when we were little. Didn't she tell you?" Alana said.

"Quiet." Valeria said. There was a silence. "I don't know, Alana. You're not opening up to me. I see a heavy wall between us."

"You're joking, right?" Miguel took a long drag from his cigarette and let out a thick cloud of smoke.

The waiter came with the Black Russian and Valeria reached for it and took a long draught. She licked her lips, smiling. But she was clearly disappointed. "Well, it didn't always work, remember? What were you thinking about?"

"About a face," Alana said. "Can I have a cigarette, Miguel?"

"You smoke? I didn't know you smoked." Miguel passed her a cigarette and lit it for her.

Valeria cut in. "She doesn't."

"I don't," Alana said.

"Unless she's feeling." Valeria began.

"Unless I'm restless," Alana said.

Miguel nodded, looking from one to the other. "You know, I never noticed it before, but you two look alike."

"We could be twins, couldn't we?" Valeria said. "Fraternal twins, anyway."

"We are twins." Alana felt positively giddy. She could feel the blood gushing inside her veins, flaming with alcohol. Her limbs were starting to feel as if they weren't attached to her body, but she still had complete control over her mind.

How was she going to drive home? Well, she wasn't. She wasn't that stupid. She was going to ask Miguel and Valeria to drop her off at the apartment. "Listen, Miguel. I've been watching you tonight. I like the fact that you've only had three beers. That's great. You're a responsible guy. That's just wonderful." Her voice was gently taunting, like music. Was it the rum in her blood that made her say that, or did she mean it? She wasn't sure.

Miguel seemed flattered. "If I were home right now I wouldn't mind finishing up two six-packs in an hour. I love beer. But when I have to drive, that's different. I'm not planning on dying on the road."

If you were home right now you'd be with your wife and kids, you sick bastard, Alana thought.

"I told you how wonderful he is," Valeria said, stealing the cigarette from Alana's fingers and taking a puff. She nestled her head against the crook of Miguel's arm, took another puff from the cigarette and gave Alana an inquisitive look. "What face?"

"What?" Alana asked, though she knew very well what Valeria was referring to.

"You said you were thinking about a face. What face?"

Alana shrugged. "Oh, nothing. Just a face I saw across the room. A very...unusual face."

"What do you mean, a face? Was it a man or a woman?" Valeria asked.

Alana let out a quick short laugh. "Oh, a man. Most definitely a man."

"Then why do you say you saw a face instead of a man?"

"I don't know. It was very strange, as if there wasn't anything else in the room except for that face. I didn't even see what he was wearing, I didn't even see his chest or shoulders. It was just a face, a luminous face in the darkness, staring at me."

"That's spooky, Alana," Miguel said. "Maybe you saw one of the waiters."

Valeria straightened her bangs with her fingers. "Don't worry, Miguel. If you knew Alana a little better, you wouldn't be surprised. She loves living in a fantasy world. An interesting-looking man was looking at her, that's all. So tell me, Alana, was he handsome?"

"Try and read my mind again," Alana said coldly, annoyed by Valeria's matter-of-factness.

"Come on, Alana. Don't get mad." Valeria pouted. "I was going to ask you the next dance."

Alana smiled sweetly. "Go to hell."

Valeria glanced at Miguel and shrugged. "Please don't mind her. She's like this. She gets mad very easily when she's drunk. I guess it's all that hot Mediterranean blood in her veins."

"What about you, my love?" Miguel reached for a lock of Valeria's hair. "Where did you get that beautiful blond hair?"

"Most probably her ancestors were Nazis," Alana said.

"My God, now she's going to blame me for the Holocaust. Yeah, who knows, maybe I do have Nazi blood in me. How in the world would I know? How in the world would anybody know? I bet not even God knows." She downed the rest of her drink. Then she laughed.

Alana knew better than to expand on the subject of Valeria's birth. She could see through Valeria's laughter-the hidden darkness, the coldness.

There was a short silence.

Miguel frowned, obviously intrigued and ignorant of Valeria's childhood.

"How long are you two going to be here?" Alana quickly said, giving him no chance of asking any more questions. "I don't feel up to driving. I was going to ask you to drop me off at the apartment. Is that okay?"

"Sure, no problem," Miguel said. "What about your car? Isn't it dangerous to leave it out here all night?"

"I'll have to take the risk. Better to risk my car than my life, right?" Alana said.

"You want to go now? It's not even three o'clock yet," Valeria protested. "Let's dance."

"Why don't you save some of that energy for later, my love?" Miguel told Valeria, lifting her hand to his mouth and brushing it with his lips. He whispered something into her ear, making Valeria squirm and giggle.

"Stop it!" Valeria said. "Alana, you wouldn't believe how indecent this man really is." Then, abruptly, she stood still, entranced by the music. "Listen, Alana. It's our favorite song! Let's dance! Please, please, please, let's dance!"

Alana was tempted, but she shook her head. "I'm tired," she protested.

"So what?" Valeria said.

"She's tired, mi amor. Leave her alone," Miguel said.

"Don't be ridiculous. I don't care if she's tired!"

Alana laughed, but it was a mirthless laugh. "Oh Lord. No creature on earth can insist so much." But to placate Valeria, she added, "The next fast-paced song will be ours. And after we dance we'll get out of here and you'll drop me off at the apartment, okay? I want to sleep and." She stopped herself. She had been about to say dream. I want to sleep and dream.

"And, what?" Valeria said.

"And get rid of your stupid, unbearable company once and for all," Alana said.

The three of them danced the next song, and the next, and the next. And while Alana danced her eyes searched for the mysterious man. She desired so much to see the face that she willed herself to see it, to the point that her temples began to throb. But to no avail. She walked out of the club feeling weak and forsaken, drunkenly telling herself that if she could only see the face she would instantly feel better.

By the time she sat in the car the sudden realization hit her brain like a blow to her skull. It didn't make sense. It didn't make sense at all. But somehow she knew that the creature in her dreams and the man with the mysterious face were one and the same.

She leaned her head against the backseat of Miguel's car and shut her eyes.

Yes, yes, yes. I want to sleep and dream.

Chapter 3

By the time Alana finished having breakfast the next morning, she decided last night's conclusions were ridiculous, if not downright impossible. How could the strange creature of her dreams and the man with the mysterious face be one and the same? She had gotten drunk last night, and had let her imagination run wild. She had thought things she desired to be real. But even this she couldn't understand. Why would she desire the two to be the same?

She poured herself another cup of coffee and went out to the balcony, stretching herself out on the lounge chair. Thank God she had not mixed drinks last night; otherwise she would be sick now. As long as she didn't mix, her stomach didn't rebel. And thank God there was no sun to sting her eyes, which felt like frail, skinned grapes inside their sockets. The morning had been gentle, had welcomed her with grey skies and cool air and a light rain. Since their balcony was covered by the balcony above it, the rain didn't touch most of her body but only tickled her feet deliciously.

With a sudden giddiness, she thought about last night's dream.

Panther.

There had been no creature this time, no vampire, but a big black panther with shimmering yellow eyes and deadly curved fangs. She didn't remember anything else; her brain overflowed with the image.

While sipping her coffee, Alana heard Valeria going into the kitchen. This was a ritual on Saturday and Sunday mornings: get a cup of coffee, stretch out lazily on the balcony, and talk.

"I guess we won't be going to the beach today," Valeria said, appearing on the balcony, taking the cup to her lips and gazing at the rain. Like Alana, she also loved dark rainy days. She sat down next to Alana on the other lounge chair. "You feeling okay?"

"Uh-huh."

"That bad, huh? Me too. Was I terribly impossible last night?"

"Nah, just your regular irritating self."

Valeria smiled. "You fell asleep in the car. We had to half carry you upstairs and into bed. Do you remember?"

"Of course I remember. I was not that drunk. What time did Miguel leave?"

"I don't know. Close to four, I think."

"What does he tell his wife?" Alana asked.

"He told her he was going to a poker game. His friends cover for him."

"I think he's falling in love with you," Alana said with a grimace of disgust.

Valeria gave her a little guilty smile. "You think? No, I don't think so."

Alana winced. "Damn, my head hurts. Don't you have a headache?"

"Of course I do. We overdid it last night."

"Can you rub my shoulders a little? They feel as if they're on fire," Alana said, sitting up and turning her back to Valeria. She didn't wait for an answer. Valeria rarely said no, but even when she did, Alana always bribed her somehow.

Valeria put her coffee down and began to rub Alana's shoulders.

Alana closed her eyes. She could very well fall asleep, right here, sitting up. "That feels so good. Please, a little bit more," she begged.

"Okay, but then it's my turn."

"Sure, sure."

For a few more minutes Valeria massaged Alana's shoulders. Then Alana, feeling deliciously groggy, turned around to ease the tension in Valeria's shoulders.

"Come on," Valeria protested. "Can you do it a little firmer? You always trick me like this."

"My head, Valeria. Don't whine."

Inside in the living room, the intercom rang.

Alana and Valeria gave each other a look. Instinctively, Alana glanced at her watch. It was almost one o'clock, and it was unusual for the intercom to ring on Sundays.

"I'll go and check," Alana said, standing up.

"Saved by the bell, but you owe me a back rub." Valeria followed Alana into the living room.

Through the intercom a young male voice announced it was a flower delivery. Alana pressed the button and told him to come up.

"Flowers?" Alana said, bewildered. "Miguel, maybe?"

Valeria shook her head. "That's not his style. Why do you assume right away that they're for me? Why didn't you ask who they were for?"

Alana let out a snort. "I don't know. You're the only love goddess around here."

"Something tells me they're for you," Valeria said, trying to control a smile.

"Who the heck is going to send me flowers? My uncle?"

They were for Alana. A lovely arrangement of plump, red roses.

After tipping the delivery boy and closing the door, they rushed to the living room sofa to read the note:

Sorry I missed the opening. Lots of success in your new job. I'll see you in two weeks. Don't bother calling me. I'll be camping in the Arizona desert with friends. Love and kisses, Humberto.

"You see, I told you they were for you," Valeria said.

Alana smiled. "What a wonderful surprise. That's so nice of him. But how did he know about my new job, about the opening? I haven't spoken to him for two months.What? Why are you looking at me like that?"

Valeria burst out laughing.

Alana's eyes widened with surprise. "You! You spoke to him! You told him?"

"Okay, guilty of all charges." Valeria raised her hand as if in oath. "He called a week ago to check how we were doing, and I told him about your new job and about the opening night. He wanted to call later and speak to you, but I told him it would be nicer if he surprised you with flowers. He'll fly here in two weeks, anyway, and we'll have a nice big get-together."

"So he's still in the States? But he graduated two months ago. That's the last time I spoke to him."

"You know how he is. He said he plans to rest this fall semester, then start his master's at the end of January."

"So the flowers were your idea? That's sweet of you, thank you."

Valeria shrugged. "You're welcome."

"So he'll be coming in two weeks then," Alana said, smelling the roses. Then she raised a brow at Valeria. "Like old times again, huh?"

Humberto had been their closest friend since their days of primary school.

How many times had he pulled their hair when they were little? And how many times had Alana and Valeria fought each other over him? He was the first boy they had ever kissed and they played the switching game, in and out of love with him until at last the three had settled into being the greatest friends. The naughty things they had done together! Rebelling against teachers, torturing other kids, cheating during tests. Even when they went their separate ways after high school, they always kept in touch.

"Valeria, did you and him." She had asked Valeria this question a hundred times.

"Sleep together? How many times have I told you No?" Valeria replied, though there was a hint of mischief in her voice. "Why are you so suspicious?"

"I don't know. I don't know why I don't believe you. Everybody has secrets. Even though we're so close, we must have secrets. Maybe that's one of your little secrets."

"That's not true," Valeria protested. "I don't keep any secrets from you. I always tell you everything. Speaking to you is like speaking to myself."

Alana decided to let it pass. Sometimes silly conversations like this ended up in big illogical arguments. "All right, I believe you," she said, patting Valeria's hand.

But now Valeria seemed wounded. "So everybody must have secrets? This means that you, too, have secrets."

"It was just a general statement. I didn't mean it personally."

"Yeah sure," Valeria said, her tone wounded. "Do you keep secrets from me?"

"I always tell you everything, you know that," Alana lied. Though she was used to Valeria's vehemence, now and then it startled her. Even for twin souls, it was normal to have little secrets, wasn't it? And in the past she had caught Valeria in lies, little lies, just as she herself was lying now. "Well, we better get dressed now," Alana added, putting an end to the conversation. She stood up, cradling the roses in her arms. "We have to get the newspaper. I'd like to see what they wrote about the club. Then you have to drive me to the club to get my car."

"If it's still there," Valeria said.

"Let me put these roses in water." Alana walked over to the kitchen cabinet to look for a vase. Valeria followed her.

Alana rinsed the vase and half-filled it with water, then she placed the roses inside it. While arranging the stems, a thorn stung one of her index fingers. She winced.

"Damn!" Alana watched, mesmerized, as a ruby dot of blood formed on the tip of her finger. For an instant she felt transfixed by the sight of her own blood.

"Let me see." Valeria examined her friend's hand. "That's why I hate roses. Oh, poor Alana! Does it hurt much?"

"If you hate roses, why did you tell Humberto to send me some?"

"Actually, I love roses. It's the thorns I hate. It's just a little sting. Don't be such a coward."

Somewhat dazed, Alana brought the finger to her lips and sucked the ruby dot of blood. She threw Valeria a strange look. "Remember the pact?"

"How can I forget?" Valeria said.

It had been Alana's idea, after she'd seen it in a movie, and Valeria had been thrilled with the prospect. They had been fourteen at the time, and fascinated yet terrified by the ritual. With a needle they had gently punctured each other's thumbs, and their blood had joined, and they made the oath to always love and trust and help one another, and to never, never betray one another.

The heaviness of the memory hung in the air for a moment.

"My blood is too salty," Alana finally said, licking her lips. "I need to cut down on salt."

"You're nuts. I highly doubt you're prepared to give up all that taste."

Alana smiled. "You're probably right." She continued to arrange the roses.

This time she was more careful.

* * *

He watched her.

From the darkness of the balcony he heard her slow sweet breathing and smelled the richness and innocence of her blood.

He opened the sliding glass door and for a moment lingered there, admiring her beauty and listening to Bach's Brandenburg Concerto. She had fallen asleep with the stereo on, very low, on the same classical music station. She had started this habit years ago, believing it made her sleep better. She had recorded all of her favorite classical melodies in one CD, and very often she would put on this CD in place of the station. Mozart, Vivaldi, Sibelius, Brahms, Beethoven. She had an impeccable taste in music.

He watched the rise and fall of her chest. Her hair, thick and long and wavy, possessed an unusual hue, like expensive brandy. Her brows arched high above her eyes, and her nose was small and her lips pink and full, as if they had been slightly bruised from too much kissing. Her features made him think of cats, or foxes, or raccoons, the animals he found the cutest. Her nose and cheeks were dusted with freckles, like a slight sprinkle of cinnamon on vanilla pudding-the texture so soft, so pale against the black silk kimono she had fallen asleep wearing..

Alana, he called.

She opened her eyes and looked at him.

Alana. Come, my angel.

She rose from the bed and stood in front of him. Instinctively, she clasped her arms around his waist. Soon he was lost in her hair, relishing himself in its luscious human scent. He took a handful of her hair and brushed it with his lips, then curled a lock of it around his finger and pulled her face closer to him. She shuddered under his touch, and for a second he held his breath and closed his eyes. It was almost unbearable, this waiting. A waiting that was both physical and emotional, for just as much as he needed to possess her, he also needed to reveal himself to her, to talk to her without having to control her will or thoughts. But like a good hunter, he knew foreplay was everything, and he loved the thrill of anticipation, the little hunting games until the final climatic kill.

Rather abruptly, he pulled the kimono off of her shoulders so that they were exposed and her arms lay imprisoned under the garment. She tilted her head back and gave a soft moan, and he bent and kissed her on one shoulder. His lips slowly moved up and down her throat, then to the soft curve of her jaw, his tongue moving languorously in and out of his mouth. He groaned, feeling her heart thudding against him, a heart that was like the most magnificent treasure box, and that would soon be completely his. She pulled her arms out of the kimono and held him around the neck, burying her hands in his hair.

Lifting her off the floor, he looked at her, a feral smile on his face. Then he hissed, exposing his deadly teeth.

She threw her head back and pulled him down by the neck, arching her body against him. The artery pulsed and swelled under her pale skin like a flowing river. And with a ferocity that surprised him, he buried his mouth in her neck and drank like a starved animal, as if wanting to bruise and shake the inner corners of her very soul. Then, clasped together in this tight lover's embrace, he began to twirl and swirl in the darkness, to waltz around and around. As if from another dimension, he could distantly hear Vivaldi's "Summer," one of his favorites, playing on the stereo. His beloved little angel. How he had always admired her taste in music!

* * *

A few nights later, a little after three o'clock, Valeria awoke with a slight burning sensation in her stomach. She had had Mexican food for lunch, very hot and spicy, and always had trouble with her stomach whenever she ate it. Not that the midnight stomach pains taught her any lesson. I'll never eat that damn food again. But she had told herself this dozens of times before. She might as well face it: she was a slave to her body, and when her body wanted something, she gave in to it, be it men, food, drink, or clothes.

She groaned, sitting up on the bed and rubbing her stomach. The room was dark. She liked to sleep in complete darkness. She even drew the curtain at night to keep the moonlight away from her eyes.

Valeria stood up and started toward the door. She would go to the kitchen and get some Pepto Bismol, that would make her better.

But when she was about to open the door, something made her stop.

The distinct sound of a sliding glass door.

The long balcony extended along the length of the living room and their two bedrooms. She turned and crossed the room again, pushing the curtain to the side and opening the glass door. She craned her head and looked toward Alana's bedroom, thinking to herself that Alana was probably having trouble sleeping again.

But nothing could have prepared her for what she saw.

Alana stood against the rail of the balcony, her long hair fluttering in the breeze, her arms extended forward to the night as if in greeting, her whiteness contrasting eerily with the overflowing darkness. Her only attire was a short black kimono, but it was loosely tied and fell off one shoulder.

"Alana!" Valeria called out, rushing to her side.

Alana didn't turn her head. She kept staring vacantly at the sky in front of her.

Valeria couldn't help herself. She had never seen Alana-nor anybody else, for that matter-sleepwalking before, and even though part of her was screaming to shake and wake her up, the other part wanted to watch. Vaguely she remembered having read something about sleepwalkers, and how it was dangerous to wake them too abruptly.

She glanced down the rail, which stood chest-high, and a wave of panic swept down her spine. What if one night, while sleepwalking, Alana fell over the rail? They were seventeen stories high, for Christ's sake!

For a moment, Valeria couldn't help staring at Alana's unblinking face, at her naked shoulder. Her flesh looked oddly iridescent in the moonlight. Why did she look so pale?

Alana's arms fell to her sides, and the expression of peacefulness that had covered her face was replaced by one of misery.

"Alana," Valeria said, holding her friend's hand gently but firmly. "Let's go inside. Let's go to your room."

Alana blinked, her black eyes glazed and vacant. But she let herself be guided, and a moment later they were inside the room.

"There, very good. Lie down." Valeria switched on the night lamp. "Close your eyes and go back to sleep. Shhhhhh, everything will be all right." Alana did as she was told. Valeria was acting instinctively. She didn't know if this was the right thing to do in this situation, but what else could she do? She covered Alana's body with the sheets and sat next to her on the edge of the bed, a bit uncertain about what to do next. How long had this been going on? Alana had told her she had had trouble sleeping during the past few weeks. Had she been sleepwalking all this time, going out into the balcony, exposing herself to death? The thought was too disturbing to contemplate.

Valeria sighed. She brought a hand to her stomach. With all the excitement, her stomach ache was gone.

As her brown eyes darted to the sliding glass door, she suddenly felt the need to walk over and close it. She made sure it was well locked. Then she drew the curtain.

Turning around slowly, she looked about the room. Everything seemed in order. The stereo was on, but no sound came from it. The CD had stopped playing. She bent over and switched it off.

Then she lay down on the bed beside Alana, telling herself that tomorrow they would have a good talk. She lay on her side with her head resting on her bent arm, looking at her friend. The faint light of the night lamp was stinging her eyes, but she would leave it on tonight. She gazed at Alana until she could no longer keep her lids from closing. Then she turned over on the other side, closed her eyes and succumbed to sleep.

 

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Author Bio

Award-winning author Mayra Calvani has penned over ten books for children and adults in genres ranging from picture books to nonfiction to paranormal fantasy novels. She's had over 300 articles, short stories, interviews and reviews published in magazines such as The Writer, Writer's Journal and Bloomsbury Review, among others. A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, she now resides in Brussels, Belgium.

Author web site.

 

 


 

 

"Embraced by the Shadows" © 2011 Mayra Calvani. All rights reserved.
Re-printed by permission of the author.

 

This page last updated 10-28-17.

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