“You can get that cheap other places,” she called across the courtyard, and Beckett nearly dropped the bottle.
It wasn’t about the price, he’d explain later. It had been the store he was interested in, and the necromancer that owned it, and Beckett had bought the vodka as a sign of goodwill. Overpriced as hell but worth it in the long run.
He could have ignored her, could have thanked her for the advice and moved on, but the day was cold and he liked the way her black hair draped over her shoulders. So he changed his path to meet her at the fountain-side, where together they examined the bottle and lamented his purchase. “Next time, go to Antonio’s,” she told him, and when he feigned confusion, she stubbed out her cigarette and led him towards the street corner. “Straight on down, can’t miss it,” she said.
His eyes lingered. “Don’t want to miss it.”
So she smacked him on the shoulder and told him she had to get back to work. But as they parted, she pressed a stiff, paper card in his hand. There was a name on the card. There was also her number.
Her name was Jenna and she worked in a library but wouldn’t define herself as a librarian – that was just temporary. She smoked cigarettes out by the public fountain every morning at 10am and had seen him casing the store for the past two days. “Probably won’t do anything about it,” she added, “but I am intrigued.”
“It’s not that exciting, really,” he said, and so she shrugged and changed the topic.
She had a sister in Paris and a mother in the countryside. She was in Italy on a student visa that had technically run out two months ago – “but I won’t tell if you don’t.” She couldn’t care less about current events.
“Too messy?” he guessed, and she said that she’d never put much thought towards why.
Her nails were deep red and her hair was black and she stared at him like there wasn’t anything else in the room. The bar smelt of smoke and grease and he didn’t care. They swapped tales and sipped beer as the night grew old.
“Why don’t you come by my place?” she asked.
She didn’t know what to do with her life, either.
“Laugh at me all you want,” she declared, “I’m majoring in restoration lit and I don’t care.”
“No judgement here,” he said. He kicked off the sheet and stared at her in the dim light of the dawn. She had a snake tattoo that coiled its way over her ribs to rest just below her right breast. “Don’t tell,” he said, “But I was anthropology.”
She laughed. “No, you weren’t.”
He raised an eyebrow and grinned at her and ran his thumb along the snake. “Mean anything?”
“Yes,” she said, and wouldn’t explain, and then her lips were on his and there were better things to think of than tattoos.
Sometimes, they would spend the entire night in some dark, smoky bar listening to
jazz and she’d twist her fingers in his and they wouldn’t say a word the entire night – wouldn’t have to. They’d wander home as the light began to find its way back into the streets. He’d curse the pigeons and she’d send pebbles clattering down the cobblestones.
One afternoon, they went to the museum and he learned that she’d always been fascinated by Picasso but hated nearly everything else. He tried to show her what he saw in the brushstrokes – the emotions, the stories, the lives. Somehow, she got him to admit that his fascination was a family inheritance of sorts. The walls of his home had alternated between artistic masterpieces and handmade finger-paintings. It stuck with him, he said.
“Do you miss your family?” she asked. He laughed at the question. “Hell, no.”
“I’ve lived in a lot of places,” he told her one night. “A tattoo for every one of them.”
She studied them with her head propped up on one arm. “You’ve left a lot of places behind.”
He huffed and folded his arms behind his head. “Wouldn’t see so many if I stayed
in one place.”
She was always late unless it wasn’t important. He waited for her at the fountain and watched the empty storefront across the square.
“It’s gone bankrupt,” Jenna said as she appeared at his side. She was wearing a new coat with a matching red hat, and her cheeks were pink from exertion.
“Some occult scandal, I believe,” he said, and offered an arm.
She studied his face. “You believe?”
“Not answering that.”
The air was crisp on the walk to the restaurant. The reservation was at six and it was already ten to, but Jenna wasn’t in a hurry. “There was this pair of boots I almost bought, come see,” she said, and pulled him to the store window.
“We’re going to be late.”
“I’m always late.”
They lingered until he admitted that they were a fine pair of boots, indeed.
“Gorgeous,” she agreed, “But not my type.”
She woke him one night with her tossing and turning. The sheets had twisted about her and Beckett pulled them away as he clutched her hand. He didn’t know what to say, didn’t know what to do. He’d grown up learning to hide the vulnerabilities that singled him out.
Afterward, they lay on the mattress with her head on his shoulder and a bottle of wine between them. “I dreamt of love,” she whispered into the dark, and shivered against him.
She maintained that vegetables were just misunderstood, and kept at him until Beckett agreed to join her at the farmer’s market. They wandered the stalls and she picked out everything he liked the least, like spinach and broccoli and peppers. He’d just paid the last of the merchants when he felt the itch in his chest and saw the shimmer in the air.
Not now, he thought.
Jenna was staring at him. He faked a grin and tipped his forehead and led her to the street corner. “Just need to check something,” he said, “Back in a few.”
And he left her there, waiting with the canvas bag of vegetables at her feet and a quizzical expression on her face.
She caught up with him at the next corner and pressed the bag into his arms. “I’m not waiting around for you,” she said. “You want me here, or should I go home without you?”
The itching was stronger now, leading him down the alley. Beckett followed, studying the air carefully for any sign of the shimmer.
Jenna touched his arm. “Beckett?”
The pull was strongest here, and would not allow him to concentrate. His eyes slid over her face. “I need to-” he started.
They were in a dead end.
The necromancer was hidden from sight but Beckett could sense him. Later, she’d ask how an itch could be inside him and how it could tell him someone was there if they couldn’t be seen. He wouldn’t be able to explain. He never could find the words for it. For now, it was enough to know the necromancer was there and had led him into a trap. A trap in a dead-end alley. A trap with a ghoul.
He’d seen ghouls before, had seen the damage they could do. Had seen one tear a man limb from limb, a sight that haunted his nightmares still. Stringy hair and dripping fangs and cold, green eyes that fixated on Jenna –
Jenna, who took one last drag of her cigarette before dropping it to the pavement to crush beneath her toe. “Shit,” she said.
He loved the way the corner of her mouth dimpled when she winked at him, and it hurt so much to see it when she was limp in his arms. The red blood was still warm on her neck, the flaps of skin hanging limp from where the claws had raked her shoulder. He felt cold inside, felt hot with anger – at the necromancer, the ghoul – at himself.
“I’m fine,” she whispered, but her voice was strained and her eyes rolled back.
She’d been here on an expired visa and had told him early on that if they hadn’t met, she probably would have gone home. “My fault,” he said, “My fucking fault.” And he gripped her tight until the paramedics pulled him away.
She was cold and lifeless as they strapped her body to the stretcher. She needed help – magical help, which was rare to find anywhere, and he cursed the instinct that had driven him to burn any bridges that tied him to the necromancer community.
“I’m fine,” she said again as he stepped into the hospital room. She looked drained in her bland gown amid whitewashed walls and pale green curtains. He held up the flowers – poppies, specially chosen – and felt a pang at the way she brightened. Would she look at him that way if she knew?
Her sister was there, too, curled up in the chair at Jenna’s side. “So you’re Beckett,” she said without moving, and then, “You saved Jenna’s life.”
And he put up a mask and pretended to smile while all he could think was that it was his fault, his fault, his fault…
He left a note in the poppies. An apology, and a goodbye.
The flight from Italy was long and dreary. Beckett stared up at the no-smoking sign and remembered the way her lips pursed as she exhaled. Red lips, red poppies, red blood staining her sleeve and the red ink of her snake tattoo. He wondered what it had meant and realized that now, he would never know.
The seat-belt sign flicked off and he leaned back in his chair. He stared at the skin of his tattoo sleeve and wondered what the next one would be. A snake on his shoulder, perhaps. A constant reminder.
The tattoo hurt.
So did being alone.