“Do you think you’ll be alright here for the night?” Paul asked sceptically. “I’m not happy about moving around town in the dark with that monster about. I won’t go to sleep, I’ll promise, but I’m not sure if that’s helpful though.”
“I think he’s fine for tonight”, Naomi said slowly, “If he’d wanted to harm us, I think, he would have done that by now, instead of rushing around buying band aid and chocolates all the while looking like a sorry puppy.”
“H-hm”, Paul murmured, deciding not to tell Naomi about Marcus’s hit list of the last fifteen years. As he understood that, there had been quite a bit of premeditation involved in Marcus’s actions. On the other hand, her reasoning made sense, and the vampire had not taken advantage of Paul’s already bleeding arm. “I’ll sit with you until you’re asleep, if that’s ok with you.”
“Mmmm”, she hummed, snuggling deeper into the covers. The after-effects of an adrenaline surge, Paul knew, were exhaustion. She was asleep within a minute.
Paul sat with her for a while longer, then decided that moving around would be better if he wanted to stay awake.
He found Marcus leaning against an open window in the library, which was by now ice-cold and – Paul sniffed – smelling of undiluted bleach. He coughed. “House-cleaning at this hour?”
Marcus turned towards him and gave him a weak smile. “Would you like your house to be smelling of fresh-loaf bakery when you’re on a diet?” He had changed out of his wet clothing and dried his hair.
Paul noticed that most of the broken cabinet had been cleared away too. He checked his bandages and asked. “Should I leave you alone?”
“No”, Marcus closed the window, seeing Paul shudder. “I could lay a fire, only I’m not sure about the state of this fire-place. It’s not been used much in the past years.”
“I think I’ll settle for some tea rather than have you set fire to a listed building,“ Paul said and left for the kitchen.
While he was waiting for the water to boil, there were rummaging sounds from the library, then a squeak and a curse. When Paul returned, Marcus was eying the pile of wood next to the fire-place warily from a distance. He seemed to have abandoned his idea of a fire in mid-project.
“What happened now?” Paul asked curiously.
“A frigging great spider just marched out of that basket, maybe there’s more.” Marcus sounded tense.
Paul bit down a laugh. “You’re afraid of spiders?”
“Always have been. Must be some kind of phobia. Mice, too, can’t stand the little beasts. But they’ve kept their distance since…my accident.”
“Ok, if you’re sure you’ve had the chimney swept regularly, I’ll light the fire and promise to guard you with my life against any spiders trying to attack you”, Paul smiled and set to work. “Can you sit down? You’re making me nervous hovering over me like that.”
“Sorry,“ Marcus sat as far from the wood basket as possible. “Did I hurt you badly…before?” He seemed concerned. “Don’t touch me when I’m… like that. You were lucky.”
“I’ve had worse.” Paul sipped his tea. Damn, he actually liked the guy, still: “Marcus, why am I still alive? I thought – no – I would have expected, hell, how do I put this?”
“Why haven’t I already had you, bloodthirsty monster that I am?” Marcus’s tone was resigned. “I can’t really go near Naomi if I’m even remotely thirsty, and usually I met you near her. Also, I’d like to think of you as a friend, not food. Tonight was close though,” he admitted shame-facedly.
“What was the matter with you this morning? Were you hungry?”
Marcus grimaced. “I lied about breakfast; I’d been pushing myself for too long.” Then he quickly changed the subject and looked at him urgently. “How was your evening before the vampires came out to play?”
“Too good to be true,“ Paul sighed. He told him about the concert. “How did you happen to be in the neighbourhood at the right moment?” Had he been jealously watching them? That would certainly make becoming involved with her so much easier. “And I still don’t know how they found us in the alley. Is my flat bugged too, and they heard you telling me about the place?”
Marcus shook his head. “No, I checked that last night. Your surveillance people are no good. Apparently the killers were following Naomi the whole evening. I tracked them from her house where I’d picked up their… tracks. Then I lost them for a moment, but picked them up again just in time. I’m sorry it took me so long to realise what he was, it just didn’t occur to me that another … I don’t know why, that was unforgivably stupid.” He shook his head. “I meant what I said about leaving. I’ll make sure he’s gone, then you won’t have to see me again.”
“Why?” Paul asked against his inclination.
“I’ve been deluding myself into thinking I could keep my distance to Naomi and just be there for her to protect her against all sorts of danger”, Marcus said quietly, “tonight showed differently. You can take care of her now.”
“She won’t like that,“ Paul said. When Marcus raised an eyebrow, he amended to “She won’t like you disappearing again.” The other eyebrow was raised too. “She was talking in her sleep”, Paul blurted out. “Even if she did choose me in the end, I would still be a policeman with a potentially dangerous job and”, he hated to admit this “I would bloody miss you too.” He dropped his eyes to his teacup, embarrassed at having admitted just how lonely he had been before this strange friend appeared, whom he had still trouble to regard as a monster. “You can laugh all you want to now,“ he muttered.
“I’m not laughing”, Marcus’s voice was serious. “I’ve never been easier with anyone. Besides, I don’t get much company usually.”
They were silent for a while, thinking things over.
“How do you keep all this up?” Paul pointed to his surroundings.
Marcus grinned. “Straight out of Dickens. My father was never officially declared dead, and he has ingeniously kept on a long chain of legal squabbles into the question of ownership of the estate. The way British law works; I’d say we’re safe for the next 150 years at least. As far as the cleaners and the caretaker are concerned, I’m a young relative staying here from time to time. And we see that they change regularly, so they don’t notice we don’t age. The country house is a different matter though; that’s been in the hands of the National Trust for quite some time now. They’ve done a beautiful job on it, too. You should go some time.” Marcus felt as if a load had been taken off him, now that he didn’t have to keep his secret anymore with Paul. What a change to be able to relax for once!
Paul decided to let the “country house” rest for the moment, suspecting it not to be a cottage if there was a Duke concerned. Then he frowned. “Wait, your father? He is still alive?” He felt a bit as if he was on information overload tonight.
“That’s a long story.” Marcus’ face darkened.
“Oh”, obviously one he wasn’t telling. He changed the subject. “Why were you in Oxford fifteen years ago?”
Marcus seemed surprised at the question. “I’ve been there most of the time, apart from twenty years in Cambridge until my acquaintances at Oriel had left or died. Where else would one find equal opportunities to work in one’s field of scholarship?”
Paul blinked. “You’ve been studying all this time?”
“It seemed I should do something worthwhile with the amount of time I have. That’s how I met Naomi by the way.” He smiled sadly at the memory.
As usual he had been working in a little used part of the Bodleian Library that afternoon in late November. He had raised his head from the book he was reading and looked straight into her violet eyes. She hadn’t even seen him, she had been absolutely absorbed in whatever she was working on, but for him it had been as if a warm and bright light had suddenly been flicked on in what he had come to consider the darkness of his existence. He had been so shocked by the wave of human feeling that rushed over him that he had left the room running.
He’d had no idea what to do about this, alone as he was and knowing that he couldn’t very well approach her as if he were a normal man. So he had shadowed her for a while, watching her with friends and fellow students, drawing his circles ever closer until he got up enough courage to try and talk to her one night. Before he could do that though, he found that it wasn’t only what was left of his human nature that wanted her close: he’d barely managed to pull back from killing her that night. That had definitely sobered him up, and from then on, he kept a careful distance.
“She said she met you at a concert.” Paul said curious now.
Marcus shook his head smiling. “That’s what she thinks. I saw her in the Bodleian one day, and that was it. I tried to stay away for a time, but at the concert she was alone, and I slipped.” The evening of the concert had been another close call, especially as she had been so taken with him that it hurt. He couldn’t deal with the kind of trust she put into a monster like him. That evening he had made the decision to protect her. Soon after, he’d heard the two boys talking about setting Naomi up, gloating at the prospect of her pleading and suffering. He had never before murdered someone with more satisfaction and less remorse. “I didn’t have as much time for scholarship afterwards, as you already know. Looking after her is a full-time job.”
“You’ve been watching her to protect her? What did you do to Clive Lynd?”
“He was sponging off her, and these drug people always pull in very undesirable characters. Besides, he was making her miserable with unnecessary guilt. I told him to stay away.”
“Hm-m”, Paul nodded. “I think he’s on to you, but don’t worry, no one will believe him.” He relayed the situation the young man found himself in.
“Are you saying I drove him mad? I just warned him off,“ Marcus was sceptic. “I might have lost control a bit, the way he was talking about her, but…”
“No”, Paul shook his head. “I think he’s more of a victim of his own demons rather than you specifically. Back to Naomi, she probably thinks she can look after herself quite well on her own.”
“Yes, I think she simply has no sense of danger. She’s frightened me out of my mind with that sometimes, tonight for example. What was she thinking attacking that man? She even tried taking on the... other one.” He looked horrified at the memory. “He could have crushed every bone in her body without breaking a sweat. She’s like a soap bubble to us.”
“Has she been doing martial arts long?” Paul asked quickly, trying to distract himself from the images Marcus had started painting.
“Yes, she started that in Oxford. I almost jumped out of my skin when I first saw her at it.” He had also been ready to tear her teacher to bits before he understood what she was doing and had since made it a habit not to watch her during that activity.
“I can well imagine that.” Paul smiled, then returned to their former subject. “What topic can keep you working for 70+ years?” he wondered.
“Oh, I’m a medievalist – like Naomi”, Marcus said animatedly, keen to change the subject too, “there’s a fascinating amount of topics to be researched. Only,“ he admitted, “I’ve not been able to keep up with all those new developments in cyber-science, the internet and mailing-lists and the like. When that started, I was not around, so I think I really missed that train … and so much scholarly discussion seems to be going on there nowadays.”
“I’m sure you could find someone to help you out there,“ Paul said shaking his head. “Give me some time, and I’ll get you online.”
“May I ask a question now?” Marcus said shyly.
Paul nodded, curious what he would be interested in.
“I know that you went to the US after your divorce.” He responded to Paul’s astonished reaction by simply stating “You were getting close to Naomi, I had to investigate you, you know. What I did not understand is why you came back.”
“Phew”, Paul said trying to wrap his head around someone having searched his flat and him not noticing it, “well, first I didn’t want to get into policing at all, not as my father’s son.”
Marcus looked puzzled, so Paul explained. “My father was head of MI6 for a long time. He’s known around police circles. But after everything fell apart here, I had to find a way of restarting my life.”
No one apart from his sister knew exactly how much of a restart that had been: Basically to defy their father, both Usher children had become involved in left-wing politics. However, while Tessa had become a respected human rights lawyer and activist, her brother had taken the more devious route: after studying PPE at St. Andrews he and his circle of friends had taken to sabotage and underground activism. Paul’s computer skills and creative turn of mind had certainly helped the group. When he found out though that his wife was having an affair with one of his friends while he was earning the revolutionary cell’s money at his bank job, Paul had turned his back on the whole thing. In a fit of jealous revenge he had also made sure the group’s activities were well and truly finished.
Afterwards he had had to admit to himself that that last bit had been rather satisfying, and he rethought his ideas about becoming involved in policing. It had also seemed a good time to get out of the UK.
“Anyway”, he continued, “I thought I could take advantage of my American passport – I was born there, you know – and see if the FBI needed an economist. They thought they did, but after a while I just could not accept the kind of streamlining they were trying to do after 9/11 any longer. If I’d wanted to join an army, I could have done that at home. I don’t like people telling me how to think.”
Marcus nodded smiling. “I can imagine that.”
Paul grinned back and went on. “Also, I had got too close to my boss’s wife, and I really needed to get out of there.” After his return he hadn’t had the time or inclination to look up his old acquaintances or to go looking for new friends, which was how he had ended up a loner.
He paused, not sure how to go on. Then he took a deep breath and asked “The…accident?”
Marcus sighed, and Paul stepped back at once “Sorry, you don’t have to tell me anything.”
“No, it’s just not a pretty story.” He had also not told it to a human before. He hadn’t talked as much as he had in the past week in decades. “Where should I start? My older brother had died in the Great War, and things were rather strained at our house. Then after my mother’s death, my father became very much of a Lady’s man openly, so I didn’t spend a lot of time at home.”
Paul was nodding encouragingly. He could understand not getting along with one’s father.
Marcus went on, looking at him without seeing him. His eyes were focused on a point in the past. “Apparently he acquired a taste for strange ladies that year. So one day, shortly after getting my doctorate, I got a note from our butler saying that my father had been ill for the last few days, screaming with pain in his room, but that his latest lady-friend wasn’t letting anyone in, not even a doctor. Could I please come home quickly?”
Paul listened, spellbound.
Marcus continued in a flat voice, apparently trying not to let his memories get too close to him. “I arrived to a scene of carnage. The servants had all been killed, and when I came in, he took me next. When he recognized me, he stopped drinking. That’s how it must have happened. I wish he hadn’t stopped. I don’t remember much of the next few weeks, apart from excruciating pain and then …thirst.
When I became fully conscious again, my father and his lover were there. She had taken care of all the evidence; everything was blamed on a robbery, which had left me dead. He was distraught at what he’d done, having effectively killed his only heir. Lavinia promised to take care of me, and they whisked me away to our house in France for some time. But I’m afraid I didn’t make it easier for them: watching their happiness while realizing that my life was over and that I’d become some kind of monster was too much to bear. I’ve not seen much of him since.” His voice was bitter, and it was clear that he did not want to remember much about the change and its aftermath.
“That feature must have been really inconvenient then if you’re trying to keep your existence a secret,“ Paul said.
Marcus looked at him quizzically. “What are you talking about now?”
“There was a TV feature about your father’s disappearance five years ago. The journalist who made it had a fatal car accident soon after it was aired.” Paul’s voice was full of implication.
Marcus looked at him blankly. “What is a TV feature?”
Oh, right. Paul remembered not seeing a TV in the flat. “It’s like a radio programme, with pictures, like cinema…?” He checked if Marcus understood that.
“With picture, you say? Ah, that would be complicated, I see”, he paused, then something dawned. “Are you suggesting that I… caused the accident?” He looked at Paul, surprised by the allegation.
“I was in Africa five years ago, and I wouldn’t have known about this programme anyway – which would have been bloody dangerous, now that you tell me.” Marcus shook his head. “No, that must have been him.”
Before Paul could ask any more about that, there was a new development.