When Darkness Falls

Page 2

"Ah, my friends!" their guide said, spinning around them, his black cape twirling. "I have disappointed you throughout the night! Angus!" he called to the bartender. "Send these youths each a shot of your best-Johnnie Walker Black, if you will. Drink up, my friends, on me. I promise, a taste of Scotland's finest in your veins and what I am about to show you will curl your toes! The saints preserve me!" He laughed on the last.

"If the Scotch is on you, buddy, I'm in!" Jeff declared, raising the shot glass that had been brought to him. He downed the liquor in one swallow and chased it with his beer. Jade ignored the shot that had been set before her. She felt the tour guide staring at her. She smiled. "You've scared me just fine already," she assured him.

He inclined his head slightly and turned to the others. "I'll tell you a tale then, about the crypt we'll explore. It's the vault for the de Brus family. Ah, now I see the historian among you looking at me!" he declared, catching Jade's eyes. "Aye, 'tis true that de Brus on the one hand became Bruce, as in our famous good king, Robert the Bruce. But there was another family-one that stubbornly remained de Brus, and none other. Aye, and when first they came, there was, they say, an illegitimate cousin among them, and he was cursed with the illness more than most. Some say the family curse was syphilis; some say that he was a hemophiliac. Whatever, this cousin went mad and was killed by his own family. Now this was early in time, around the year 1080. He left behind a daughter, a rare beauty, but the family had her locked away in a tower. Still, as young men will do, suitors came to the tower, and some would find entry...."

"And then?" Sally demanded impatiently as his voice trailed.

"Then they tried to get into her pants!" Jeff said flatly. The group all laughed.

"Did they wear pants back then?" asked Tom Marlow, another young man in the group of teens. Of the boys, he was the quietest-it was the first time Jade had heard him talk that night. She had a feeling he wouldn't have said a word at all if it hadn't been for the Johnnie Walker Black.

"Shush!" Sam Spinder said. Apparently Tom Marlow didn't get to speak often. "Then?" Sam demanded of the guide, downing his own Scotch with a grimace and a swallow.

"Then they were never seen again," the guide said with a shrug. "But bones would be found out on moors and marshlands. And young women would disappear as well. It's said that the poor beauty de Brus would cry, and her anguish would be like a howling in the night, like that of a million demons, like banshees coming for the dead; oh, she would cry in such agony that her kinfolk would find some poor peasant girls and bring them to her ... and likewise, they would never be seen again, for 'tis said she liked to bathe in blood, the younger, the purer, the better."

"That's the Countess Bathory story!" complained Hugh Riley, another of the football players. He wasn't quite as big as the others-maybe not quite as solid on the field. He did seem to know his history. And he had listened and paid attention throughout the night. An interesting fellow.

"And Countess Bathory is a very real historical personage, cruel, remorseless, and without conscience." Jade said sharply. "She caused the deaths of hundreds-perhaps thousands-of young women. She did bathe in blood, and her appetites were cruel and voracious." She felt a strange warmth again suddenly, as if she were being watched from behind. She turned. He was there, yes, at a table in the corner of the tavern. He sat alone. He drank a beer so dark it looked red. Maybe it was wine, a very large glass of dark red wine. He raised the glass to her, as if he agreed.

She could almost hear his voice in her ear. It would be deep and cultured. Yes, evil does exist in this world; the cruelties of man to man need not be exaggerated!

He didn't speak. He inclined his head toward her and drank.

She turned away quickly.

"Great story! So this bitch like the blood of virgins, eh?" Sam asked.

"That will make you safe from any danger, Sally!" Jeff told the blonde.

"You all know what you can do with yourselves!" Sally said, drawing away from Jeff.

"Ah, come on now, Sal!" Jeff said. "We're teasing. I mean seriously-where do you get an adult virgin these days? Unless it's the teach over here-eh, teach?" he teased Jade.

She didn't have to answer. Their guide had swooped down on them again. "Our lady just liked young blood, my friends, the more tainted the better! Aye, she was a sensual one, she was!" He widened his eyes at them and winked. "Drink up, drink up, my friends! It's time to venture to the crypt!" The young couple and their sons departed, Mary tipping the guide well. "The boys have loved this," she told him.

He smiled. "Sweet dreams, and many thanks."

The older couple bowed out as well.

Jade thought about calling it a night herself, but she had the feeling that this particular tour wasn't offered often, that the hecklers had goaded the guide into a special excursion, and that it might be her one chance to see something really unusual .

The dark-eyed stranger, she saw, was staying with them as well.

They left the tavern, walking darkened streets, taking all kinds of twists and turns. Jade had wondered what cemetery they were going to-she thought she knew most of them in the city. But they came upon a derelict church that seemed to rise high upon a hill. It was surrounded by unkempt graves-broken stones, slanted stones, lichen-covered stones, and those that seemed bone white and glowing beneath the light of the moon.

Jade looked up as they walked through wrought-iron gates and into the churchyard. There was a full moon tonight-perfect for such a tour.

"And it's nearly midnight!" a girl named Julie said. She giggled and clung to Hugh. like Sally, she was wearing a top that clung to her ample breasts and displayed a cavern of cleavage. She seemed sweet enough to Jade--just young and a little vacant.

"The midnight hour!" their tour guide exclaimed, lifting his hands to the heavens. "The traditional time for all witchcraft, for demons to rise, for the bloodlust of the undead!" Sally giggled nervously. "It is pretty dark."

"There's a full moon! You can see like it's broad daylight!" Jeff assured her.

"Come, see the crypt," the guide invited.

They walked over uneven ground. Jade turned as they walked, to study the architecture of the old church. Built of stone, it was Celtic in design. The windows all seemed blackened, like countless vacant eyes staring out at the night. Staring back at the church, Jade suddenly tripped over a gravestone.

She felt herself steadied by a pair of strong hands. Startled, she turned to see the face of the tall, aloof stranger with the curious fire-and-darkness eyes.

"Are you all right?" His voice was deep, slightly accented.

Scottish? She wasn't sure. It seemed strange to hear him speak. He did have a deep and cultured voice, husky, compelling ... as sensual as his eyes. And yet, though he certainly sounded as arresting as he looked, he also sounded perfectly normal.

What had she been expecting? "Am I all right?" she repeated, and felt like a fool. She knew she blushed. "I ... of course. I'm just klutzy, I'm afraid," she said.

"This graveyard is not a good place to be at night," he told her. He was still staring at her, his amber eyes strange and disturbing. He didn't just look at her; he studied her. He smoothed back a lock of her hair. It seemed a very intimate gesture.

She should have drawn away.

She didn't.

"Why?" she asked him. She smiled. "Do you think that ghosts rise from their graves to take vengeance on the living?"

"I think there are many things on this earth that defy explanation, that is all," he said. "You're an American." Did he sound just a little bit disappointed? As if he had thought that he had known her, as if she might be someone else?

"Guilty. I am an American. But of Scottish descent." She shrugged. "MacGregor," she said.

"A Southerner?"

"Guilty again. Louisiana."

"New Orleans?"

"Yes. You're familiar with the city?"

"I am," he said, then pointed to the stone she had tripped over. "How curious."

"What?" She looked down. The stone lay in pieces next to an aboveground sarcophagus, similar to those in her hometown cemeteries. Though the smaller stone was broken, it belonged in the group that surrounded the aboveground tomb. And on the tomb, clearly legible in the moonlight, was etched the family name MacGregor.

Chills shot through her. It was uncanny. She felt the blood drain from her face. She had never been afraid of the dead before, of a cemetery, a church, a "haunted" place. She loved history far too much, and often, the poignancy of death. But now ...

Fear began to dance in hot little steps down the length of her spine.

"I should really go back," she murmured. "I thought the tour was fine so far. I'm really tired, I guess. Not paying attention to where I'm walking."

"No," the amber-eyed stranger said, taking her arm.

She looked up at him, frowning. "I said that I think I should just go-"

"It's too dangerous to leave now, alone."

"Too dangerous-" she began.

"Scotland has its share of thugs," he told her with a shrug. "This isn't the best neighborhood."

"You're from here?"

"I was. Once upon a time. Long, long ago."

"Come along now, come along!" the guide called to them.

They had reached the far side of the graveyard. Here tombs in stone and steel rose above the ground like haunted houses of the dead. In places stones were broken away. Wrought-iron gates stood half-open. Vines grew everywhere.

Turning around, Jade could no longer see the winding street they had traveled to come here, only the old church and the grave markers, glowing golden beneath the light of the full moon.

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