Falls Like Rain
5. Ahead of All Parting
Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were
Blink. Blink. Blink. Natalie glanced down at the window of her pager. 6:00. Blink. Blink. 6:01. Why was it always a single digit in the morning that saw her in some strange locale? When had she lost control of her everyday life? Maybe it was time to make a change.
The coroner thought about the body even now being carried to the morgue. She didn’t want to examine it; she didn’t want to *know*. All she wanted was to go home, take a hot bath and crawl into bed. Hopefully there wouldn’t be a vampire in her apartment this time. A quick glance at the sky told her she didn’t need to worry about that. The sun was rising, tinting the high clouds in cotton candy shades. All good little vampires would be tucked in for the day, safe and sound.
The breeze toyed with a few loose strands of wavy hair. Natalie absentmindedly tucked them behind an ear, but the hair was too thick to stay neatly in place. With a sigh, she removed the tortoise shell clip and shook the rest of the chestnut mass free. It felt good to let her hair down; the pressure from the clip had caused a headache, and now her temples and the back of her neck ached with a dull pain. She massaged her shoulders, trying to knead away the knots of tension. Although the breeze was cool, Natalie felt a flush come over her and a few strands of hair clung to her damp skin. She reached behind and stuffed the hair back into the large clip, pulling the heavy mass away from her neck. Her fingers fumbled, unusually thick and clumsy, but she finally managed to fasten the barrette in place.
As she looked down at her hands, they began to tremble; her knees felt like jelly. Sweat ran down her back and between her breasts; her thin blouse cloyed to damp flesh. She noted her symptoms with clinical detachment, as if diagnosing a patient: chills, flush, shakes, nausea. Either the murder scene had disturbed her more than she cared to admit, or the doctor was coming down with that 24-hour bug that had been plaguing the station for the past two weeks.
fangs bared, the vampire plunged into his victim’s throat from behind, mouth wide to catch the red life flowing freely there
Her stomach flipped and churned, and Natalie clapped a hand over her mouth to keep from losing her last meal. The distant trees swam in her vision, and she stumbled against her nearby car for support. Her hair tangled around the antenna and was caught fast. In pulling it free, Natalie jerked her head too quickly; the movement induced dizziness and brought on a serious bout of nausea. She lost the battle and heaved over, sick, the contents of her stomach voided onto the grass at her feet. The doctor turned away from the sight and smell of it, and sank to her knees a few feet away. The trembling had subsided for the moment, but her skin still felt cold and clammy to the touch. She needed to make it home before the next wave hit. These one-day viruses were quick, and mostly harmless, but they made up in intensity what they lacked in longevity.
Natalie shakily climbed to her feet and made her way around the front of the sedan. The short walk threatened nausea once more, but she savagely fought it down and willed her stomach to settle. She’d had plenty of practice over the years, though this particular battle was slowly won. Turning deliberately, keeping her head as still as possible, Natalie eased into the driver’s seat and shut the door. A quick flip of the key in the ignition brought the sedan to life. She dropped her forehead to the wheel, and wrapped her hands around it in a white-knuckled grip. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Natalie sat back and managed to clear her vision; tears rolled down her cheeks from the effort. When she was satisfied that she could drive and not cause harm to herself or others, she followed the road out of the park and headed home.
The slam of an apartment door further down the hall awakened her several hours later. Natalie cracked open one bloodshot eye, and focused on the brass watch sitting on the bedside table. A shaft of sunlight slanted across the room from a slit in the draperies and lit the antique carriage clock with a soft glow; the 18th century timepiece had been a gift from Nick.
the blood dripped from a pale hand, and clung to fangs long and feral
The doctor rubbed her eyes, trying to erase the vision, but it tenaciously hung onto her memory. Natalie focused on the clock once more. It was past four in the afternoon! She had made it home just barely in time, another round of nausea and diarrhea hitting her as she tried to put the key in the lock. If the bathroom had been even a foot further, Natalie would have had a childish accident. She was grateful to avoid that particular indignity. Doctors hated being ill, and Natalie was no exception to the rule. When she had felt there was no more to give to the virus, she’d made herself some fennel tea (an old European cure for settling upset stomachs, and much better tasting than those pink bismuth solutions), then fell into bed; she had only meant to catch a quick nap, and so was still mostly clothed.
the man lay prone at the vampire’s feet, throat ravaged, white robes mottled with gore
Natalie squeezed her eyes closed. She wished to void the visions as she had purged the contents of her stomach, yet they remained to poison her. She sat up, and although the room held mostly steady, she still took movement slowly. Her legs wobbled as she stood, knees threatening to buckle, but Natalie managed the short walk to the living room phone without undue injury. As she pressed the speed dial button for the office, she remembered the special day. The date had stuck in her memory, but not the meaning. When she heard the out-of-place, yet familiar singsong voice answer the phone, the significance returned.
“Forensics,” a soprano voice answered.
“Natalie! It’s so good to hear your voice, girl. How are you?”
“I’ve got that 24-hour bug,” Nat explained glumly. “I’m afraid I can’t make it in tonight.”
“You just rest and take it easy,” Grace advised warmly. “Fred and I can handle things here.”
“How are the two of you?” Nat asked after a moment.
“Wonderful, Natalie,” Grace responded happily. Then dropping her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, she said, “We were going to keep it secret a while longer, but I have to tell you before I burst: I’m pregnant!”
“Oh, Grace, that’s the best news I’ve had in weeks,” Nat exclaimed. “Congrats!”
“Thanks, Natalie. Fred and I are very happy.”
“I knew you would be.”
“You sound tired, honey,” Grace told her former boss in that stern motherly tone. Natalie could almost see the finger being shaken at her through the phone. “Go right back to bed and take care of yourself. Fred and I will handle the outstanding customer.”
cold blood congealed and clung to the tattered flesh of his throat, skin pallid and waxy with death
Natalie swallowed and closed her eyes briefly in sheer relief. Her heartbeat was loud in her ears. The pounding reverberated in her skull, blocking out all external sound. As her head cleared, she realized Grace was still speaking.
“… and shut case. We’ll be thorough, Dr. Lambert. Dr. Castle is very competent,” Grace assured Natalie in the professional voice she had honed over the years.
“Thank you, Grace,” Natalie said gratefully. “I know you will, and I know he is.”
“Now, shoo, honey. Liquids and bed rest are the key.”
“Yes, Mom,” Natalie agreed in her best long-suffering voice. “I’m going. And please, thank Fred for me.”
“Oh, of that you can be sure, Natalie.”
Strength fading, Natalie decided to take Grace’s motherly advice. She wobbled into the kitchen, coming to a rest against the counter beside the refrigerator. She reached in and pulled out the iced tea, flipped off the cap, and raised the bottle to her lips. Drinking straight from the container was one of the perks of living alone, though she would gladly trade the privilege for a pair of loving arms and smiling eyes greeting her each morning.
his arms held the man fast to his chest, and his eyes shone with a fey light
The plastic bottle fell from numb fingers, tea splattering her legs, the cabinet and the refrigerator. Sydney squeezed between Natalie’s feet and began lapping up the green tea. The cat pulled back, indignant, and gazed up at his owner with an accusing air; this was not milk. He vocalized his displeasure with a very loud meow. Natalie looked down at the gray bundle of fur, grateful for the distraction. “Sorry, Syd. I’ll have your dinner ready in a minute.” So she set about feeding Sydney. He sniffed at the dishes warily, with a cat’s finicky appetite, before attacking the contents with gusto. A purr of contentment escaped him.
Natalie cleaned up the stains the tea had made, put the half-empty container away, then headed back to bed for some much needed rest. That little domestic scene just about stole the remaining strength from her limbs. Climbing out of the rest of her work clothes, and slipping into an old tee-shirt, Natalie slid into bed and was quickly asleep. Rest was not a refuge. The dream began as the doctor slipped into REM sleep.
The scene was eerily familiar, yet surreal. All had a liquid cast, as if viewed through a windowpane wet with rain. A child’s watercolor vista of the world met her dream vision. Yet the eyes, the faces were distinct, crisp. Movement was herky-jerky, like the nickelodeons of years gone by. The robed figure fell to the ground, the hunter stood triumphantly over him. A growl escaped his throat; his lips curled in a snarl. Pointed canines glinted in the moonlight through a haze of blood. Eyes shone golden with a dangerous hunger. The beast was loosed to feed. Arms gathered the prey close with an easy strength, fangs tearing into the exposed throat with vicious intent. The suckling was loud, and grew louder by the moment. It pulsed in her ears. Hands raised to stop the wet sound, but it penetrated; the sound pursued her like the hounds of hell. She looked on in terror, heart pounding, sweat beading on lips and forehead. A bloodcurdling scream tore free from her throat and echoed through the clearing.
Natalie sat bolt upright in bed, chest heaving with fright. She frantically glanced around, though her eyes refused to track. Finally, the clearing resolved itself into her bedroom; the windows, bookshelves and door lost that watery dream quality, and emerged into reality. Still trembling with the aftereffects of the nightmare, Natalie lurched out of bed and made her way to the windows. She roughly pulled the heavy draperies aside, flooding the room with the late afternoon sun. The windows faced west, and so every corner of the room was cast in a warm, yellow light. Natalie soaked up the sun like desert sands drank down a brief rain. The pain in her chest eased, and her respiration returned to normal levels.
She ran her fingers through her hair as she watched the children playing below her windows. School would begin in less than a week, and the kids were trying to jam all the play time they could into the remaining days of freedom. The crime scene tried to edge its way back into her mind’s eye, but she savagely suppressed the memory. Turning abruptly away, Natalie grabbed a favorite book from a low shelf and climbed back into bed. Sleep claimed her before even a single chapter had been read.
A familiar scene greeted her inner vision as the dream state claimed her almost immediately. The dream was a comfortable one, and the doctor settled into it like an old slipper. She felt the sun on her face; the bright light kept the darkness at bay, finally succeeded in driving it away. Children played, pigtails of honey-gold swung merrily as they ran. A tall blond faced her, looked on the scene with a tenderness born of love evident in his blue eyes. A shadow loomed over him like a storm cloud, but a ray of sunlight pierced it, scattered it, prevented the darkness from engulfing them all.
Sadly, she realized that every occurrence of the dream weakened the light’s power, diminished its healing effects. Natalie had once trusted in that light; she’d had faith that the shadow would be overcome. Each day her beliefs were tested; her faith faded a little with each passing day. Now, they headed into the coldest season. Soon, all would be bathed in winter’s bleak light, the wan sun not nearly enough to warm a soul chilled by doubt.
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