Prelude: Margaret

Prelude: Margaret

His name was Ezra.

You’d just taken a job as the assistant manager of the Barnes & Noble near Faneuil Hall.  It had the authenticity of a McDonalds in Disney World, but at least it was in an old building and here and there some of the century-old architecture would poke through.  Plus, the proximity to Berkeley meant a certain level of young and weird passing through the doors.  

The staff talked about Ezra, and when you took over the evening shift the store manager mentioned him.

“Then there’s Ezra,” he said, “he’s a fixture.  Don’t bother him, he spends enough in the long run.”

Then there’s Ezra.  You almost choked when you bumped into him for the first time in the fiction section.  He was easily one of the most beautiful human beings you’d ever met. Middle-Eastern aryan, maybe Libyan or Iranian.  Dark hair, dark eyes, relatively pale skin. He had the softest smile. The saddest eyes. His voice was practically music, a flowing baritone that made every statement sound like a poem.

“Hello Margaret,” he said, “Lily downstairs pointed you out to me.  I’m Ezra.”

“Well…” you sputtered,”…of course you are…” and you thrust out your hand awkwardly.  He smiled shyly, not meeting your eyes, and shook your hand. His was cool and soft. He held up a book with a sort of boyish grin that made you flush.

“Marcel Schwob.  I’ve never read him.” You could only smile and shake your head in response.  

And that was it.  Your first moment with Ezra.  Everyone in the store remembered their first moments too.  Ezra was like that.

He came to the store at least five nights a week around sunset.  He’d get a double espresso from the coffee bar and carry it around with him for hours, spending more time smelling it than sipping it.  He would wander the shelves looking for authors he found interesting, and would seem overjoyed when he’d discover something unique. He’d sit in the reading nook tucked at the back of the fiction section, his demitasse cup of cold espresso on a saucer, reading whatever treasure he found.  The staff generally let him stay after closing and only kicked him out when it was finally time to lock the doors and turn out the lights. Every few weeks, Ezra would buy several hundred dollars of books, mainly trashy romance serials, and carry them out into the dark in huge brown paper bags.  “For a friend,” he would say with a smile that would, you were hesitant to admit, set butterflies loose in your stomach.

You found in Ezra a kindred spirit.  Calm, shy, nerdy, and staggeringly well-read.  He’d often say that he read fiction because he was bored with reality’s mysteries and wanted something more fantastical.  He was aware of works that you’d only heard rumored, and in some cases actually dispelled some quackery that you’d inadvertently come to believe with references to competing authors.  You easily spent four hours a week or more in conversation with him, in the reading nook at the back of the fiction section. You weren’t psychologically prepared to even be aware of being in love, but in retrospect you probably were.

He was also strangely familiar in a way you could never put your finger on.  At first you thought it was merely because he was “actor handsome”, but it niggled in your brain as the months stretched from fall into the cold Boston winter.  It was mid-January, on a brittle night where the wind wailed and whistled through the brownstones, that it came to you. You’d fallen asleep late, your mind tinged with guilt after allowing yourself a breathless fantasy about Ezra.  You jerked awake at three in the morning, completely lucid, and absolutely sure.

You threw on your robe and grabbed your index.  Family Relics, Box 37-D.  It was the yellowed white one behind the couch under the box full of notable editions of Third Eye Monthly.  You put the pot on to boil before wrestling 37-D out onto the table and flipping through its contents.  Manila folders, meticulously labeled, full of photos and documents. When you found it, you gasped and fell into your chair.  You’d gone cold.

The old photo was of your grandfather, an RAF pilot, downed in Libya in 1942, a huge grin on his face as he stood next to his rescuer – a shockingly handsome man with a soft smile and averted eyes.

Ezra.

You tried to convince yourself that it was the man’s father or grandfather, but you simply couldn’t.  It was identical, even down to the fine silver chain around his neck. It had to be him.

The next night, you waited in the reading nook in the back of the fiction section.  The scent of his coffee preceded him, and then his light touch on your shoulder and whisper of your name as he passed behind you and sat in the chair to your left, set his cup and saucer down, and settled the book on his lap.  His warm smile faded slightly when he saw the look on your face.

“Margaret, what’s wrong?”

“I…I realized where I’d seen your face before,” you said, wringing your hands, “it was in a photo.”  He looks at you with those eyes and smiles curiously. “It was…an old photo.”

He sighed deeply and his smile was knowing and a little sad.  “Are you sure?” he asked, but he saw that you were even before you nodded.

“You knew my grandfather…”

He snaps his fingers excitedly and grins warmly, eyes lost in memory.  “Libya! Stephen! Ohh…oh Margaret, I too have thought you familiar, but when you…”. He settles back into his seat and lays his hand over yours.  “…When you’re as old as I am…everyone looks a little familiar.”

“And…and how old is that?”

“I was born in 1891.”

“You’re remarkably spry for 130 years old,” you say, managing a smile.  “How is it…how are you…?”

He gives your hand a squeeze.  “I’m not going to tell you,” he says gently.  “There are…there are certain truths…and once you know them, it’s like slipping through the cracks of the world.  You become lost in an alien place full of rules you can’t fathom and dangers you can’t know. Your life ends and you have to forge a new one out of ashes and forgotten things.  For my love of you, I will not.”

You shove down your breathlessness at his use of the word “love” and try to form a response, but something in his tone had set you to shaking.  And instead, you clutched his hand in silence for a time before the world drew you back to finish closing the store.

In the subsequent weeks, you moved from infatuation to obsession fairly quickly, and Ezra seemed to welcome it amiably enough  You’d ask questions designed to get to the bottom of the mystery, and he’d ask questions about your life in Britain and how you came to be the manager of a chain bookstore.  The one time you got up the nerve to ask him out for drinks after the store closed, he demurred. “Soon,” he said, “as odd as it may sound, I relish our time here in our sacred space.”  He waved his hand around the reading nook at the back of the fiction section, then leaned in and brushed your fingers with his lips.

You did learn a few things from your probings.  You’re fairly certain he was a vampire of some sort, but the rules didn’t seem to work quite the same as you’d expect.  “If I am burned by sunlight, why not moonlight?” You learned he had what can only be described as a close familial relationship with a man in New York named John, but you could never quite put your finger on it.  You thought they were lovers at first, but that got dispelled. The romance books were for the woman from whom he rented his flat, for her “forbearance and discretion”. And you learned there were dangers. And there were rules.  And Ezra lived with a certain level of fear of both.

In defense of your rational self, you did, quite often, entertain the thought that, if vampires did indeed exist, and Ezra was, in fact, one of them, then you were consorting with a monster of myth and legend that gets eternal life from eating people.

If I am to be consumed, let it be by him, responded the part of you that told your rational self to piss straight off.

It is February 27th.  The staff is expecting you to close the office, get your tea from the coffee shop and go upstairs to the fiction section at sunset.  They smile at each other, some of them wondering how you managed to get Ezra’s attentions, but it’s good-natured. They cover for you with the boss.

Your first sign that something is wrong is the absence of a coffee on the table, and the absence of a book on his lap.  Ezra is sitting in the chair, strangely stiff, gripping the arms, and staring out the window. He’s frighteningly pale and shaking slightly.  The look of dread on his face freezes you to the bone.

“Ezra, love, what is it?  What’s happened?”  

It takes him a moment to acknowledge you, but he finally looks up, a shaky smile briefly touches his features.  “Hello Margaret,” he says, but then a shuddering sob bursts free of him. You rush over and kneel at his feet, holding his hands in yours.  He rests his head on your shoulder and sobs quietly into the base of your neck for a few moments. His skin is deathly cold and clammy. Even the breath on your neck (a thing you’ve dreamed about under very different circumstances) is as cool as an autumn breeze.

After a few moments, he takes a few deep breaths and sits back in the chair and meets your eyes.  He squeezes your hands and smiles sadly. “I regret,” he says, his voice still shaky, “not taking you up on that date.”

You smile, even though tears are welling up.  “We have plenty of time.”

He leans over suddenly and kisses you.  A brief, gentle, loving thing, with cold lips and breath scented of coffee and vanilla.  He sits back in his chair and motions for you to take yours.

“I’m afraid not,” he says quietly.  “I’m afraid I’ve inadvertently involved your fine establishment in some unfortunate business.  I’ve been discovered by some very unsavory people. I haven’t heard anyone come in the front doors for more than an hour.  I assume they’re already surrounding the building.”

You involuntarily glance out the second floor windows, but can’t see anything in the night.  “What do you mean unsavory? What do they want with you?”

“I don’t know.  My friend John ran afoul of them five years ago, and hasn’t been seen since.  I know he lives, but I fear they have taken him.”

“Will they take you?”

“I don’t know, but you and Lily and Michael are in danger by simply being here.  They won’t wait forever, and they despise witnesses. Please, you need to leave.”

His voice was so compelling and forceful that you’re on your feet before you realize it.  You pause to look back at him, but he’s staring out the window into the night again. You rush down the escalator and let Lily and Michael know they should go for the night – because it’s so slow.  They obviously sense the distress in your voice, and Michael tries to start his clean-up on the espresso machine, but you shoo them out.

You spend a few moments at the front door after they’ve gone.  You’re more pretending to make the choice to stay than actually making it.  Putting on a good show for the rational part of your brain that’s screaming at you to flee whatever it is that so terrifies a century-old creature of the night.  But eventually you put the key to the lock and secure the doors.

You make yourself a cup of tea to ease your nerves and carry it upstairs.  You sit down quietly next to Ezra and take his hand.

“Please, Margaret,” he whispers.

You squeeze his hand with your left and sip the tea with your right.  And look out into the night. “I’m not leaving you,” you say quietly, your inner resolve coalescing into certainty, ”not now, not ever.”

“I wish…”

“I know,” you reply soothingly.

You sit for a time, maybe twenty or thirty minutes in silence.  The heat from your hand is warming his, and you find the sheer raw intimacy of that so profound a tear comes to your eye.

You stiffen as you hear shuffling downstairs.  The door was opened silently. Muffled footsteps.  The rustle of cloth. A few moments later you become aware that you’re surrounded.  Out of the corner of your eye you see men in black tactical gear, like a swat team, with small automatic weapons trained in your direction, but not necessarily ready to fire.  You refuse to turn and acknowledge them.

A man walks out from the shelves and stands at the windows in front of you.  He’s young…no…approaching middle age but with a baby face…wearing the same gear as the rest, but he’s holding what looks like a black flare gun in his hand.  He seems exhausted and haggard, and while it looks like he tried to shave in the last few hours, he didn’t do a very good job of it. He looks over the two of you, his eyes resting on your hands clutched between the seats.

“You must be Mr. Jones,” Ezra says quietly.

“Hello Ezra,” the man says,”you’ve been very difficult to find.”

“I’ve been right here.”

“It’s a big world.”  The man pulls out a small, thin tablet from a pocket at his chest and glances at it, then at you.  “Miss Carlisle,” he says, tucking the tablet back into his pocket,”I’m an agent of the United States government.  Ezra here isn’t quite what he seems, and he’s extremely dangerous. I’d like you to leave now, please.”

Ezra lets go of your hand so you can stand, but you fold your hands in your lap.  You don’t trust yourself to speak, so you just shake your head. Mr. Jones grimaces and turns back to Ezra.  

“Is she yours?” he asks.

“I have no hold on her but many conversations over coffee, Mr. Jones.  Please treat her gently.”

Mr. Jones sighs deeply and taps the flare gun against his thigh irritably.  The two men stare at each other for a moment, and then the feeling of the room seems to change.  You don’t know how you can tell, maybe some bit of your adrenaline-stimulated hind- brain sensing things you wouldn’t otherwise.  A slight pinch to Jones’ eyes, a pressing of the lips, and Ezra…Ezra doesn’t move, but at the same time becomes a coiled spring – an apex predator poised to leap.

There is a fraction of a second where you’re sure you feel Ezra move – the first milliseconds of a lion’s deadly leap, but Jones acts supernaturally faster.  He raises the flare gun and pulls the trigger. There’s a hollow “poof” sound, and Ezra flops back into his chair, his head hanging down, hands limp. Lifeless.  There’s a two-inch hole smack in the middle of Ezra’s chest, you can see splinters of his sternum in the gore. Part of your brain is amazed the other men didn’t open fire.

You clutch Ezra’s cold, limp hand.  You bite your lip until it’s bloody – holding back the wail of rage and anguish that threatens to burst from you.  You shake and you weep and as you do, Ezra’s body seems to turn to dust, his hand crumbling in your grip, until all that’s left is a formless pile of clothes in a pile of grey ashes.

You’ve grown cold.  Shock. And you finally turn back to look at Mr. Jones, who has stood quietly aside while you grieve.  He seems a little sad and a lot frustrated.

“He was beautiful,” you croak quietly.

He considers you for a moment, then turns to glance out the window.

“I know,” he says.  Then you feel a sharp pain at the back of your neck, and everything goes dark.

1 Comment

  1. Patricia Gillian
    Feb 17, 2020

    Margaret looked at her watch and sighed quietly. It had only been two hours, and she was bored out of her skull. When she had said yes to come along to the party, she had expected something more… dignified, maybe? Definitely more intellectually challenging. This was just a bunch of people chattering on about stuff that meant absolutely nothing. One of the two main issues being discussed seemed to be a colleague, one who had not been invited, who had been caught cheating on his girlfriend. The other was an actor, in the process of getting his third divorce. She had never been one to enjoy gossip.

    What she wanted to do now, was to get up and leave, to go home and read.

    She had loved books since she was six. Something of a loner, even then, but when she had learned to read (on her own, not in school), and discovered all the wonders hiding between the covers of a book, she had lost her heart completely. It was pretty rare to see her anywhere without a book in her hands after that. And though she had several e-readers, they were not really the same thing. The stories were there, but she also loved the feel of paper under her fingers, the smell of dust if it was an old book, the smell of printer ink if it was a new one.

    Of course, an e-reader was practical. You could bring it with you in your purse or your pocket and pull it out when you were on the bus, or the train, or waiting for someone or something. If you happened to finish the book you were currently reading, you could just start on the next. With an e-reader, people were unable to see what you were reading, so you could read anything you wanted, without anyone knowing. She could be reading Marquis de Sade’s ‘Justine’, or Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’, or Homer’s ‘Illiad’, and no one would be able to tell the difference. Also, the books had stories that were _interesting_, unlike this party.

    They did not even discuss the movies the actor had played in. That might have been entertaining; he had played some interesting roles. But no, all they talked about was his love-life. Former lovers, current (rumoured) lovers, current wife, former two wives, and speculations about pretty much everything about his private life. Boring. Why would anyone care about his private life? It was his acting abilities that were interesting; how convincing he was in his various roles.

    This was a waste of time. She got up and headed for the hostess. Politely thanked her for the invitation, but she had to go, because, you know. Knowing smile. No lies told, just letting the woman make her own assumptions. Apart from the hostess, no one even seemed to notice that she was leaving. Not that she minded; these people were colleagues, but that was pretty much it. She was not able to even name half of them, even if she saw them regularly in the cantina or at work in general.

    She did not have a car. Oh, she knew how to drive, but she did not have a driver’s license, and she had no desire to get one either. Not here. She had tried once, but decided that it felt too odd to drive on the wrong side of the road. Under normal circumstances it went well, but she was worried that if something happened, she would react instinctively, and cause an accident because she was used to driving on the right, meaning left side of the road. Besides, she could get to and from work by bus easily, and to most of the places she usually went, so a car was not really something she missed.

    The bus stop was not far, and the bus arrived shortly after she got there. She got on, found a seat, and pulled out her e-reader, diving back into the story about Kaylin, where the young woman was trying to figure out how to pick up some fairly large words. For some reason, though, she could not quite manage to concentrate on the book. She kept wondering if leaving the party this early had been a mistake; the people there were her colleagues, after all, and she should probably try harder to get along with them, and to make a few friends.

    Her current job was in a bookstore at a shopping mall. It felt like an eternity since she had worked at the small library in London. They had asked her to stay, but she had to get away, as far away as she could. Brandon would have told her to stay there, where her friends were, and where she had a job she loved. Of course, she would have stayed if he had not managed to get himself killed.

    His death had not been his fault. A drunk driver had managed to careen her way over to the wrong side of the road and hit three cars before finally smashing into a tree. Two people killed, four more seriously injured. The driver had crawled out of her car pretty much unharmed. And while it made a decent argument for Subaru making safe cars, they did not make idiot-proof cars. It had cost Brandon his life, and it had ended her life as well.

    The trial had been fair enough, she supposed. The driver would be spending several years in jail; she would much rather have Brandon back.

    His life insurance was decent, but it went to his parents and two sisters. She and Brandon were still only engaged, not married yet, and they had both been young enough to think themselves immortal, so there was no will. Not that she really minded. His family had even offered to split it with her; she and Brandon had been together for eight years, after all. She told them no, she had no need it; while she was no financial genious, her mucking around with the stockmarket did bring her a fairly steady and reliable income.

    Brandon’s parents had tried to make her a part of their family. She spent one Christmas with them, but then decided that this was not what she wanted. What it was that she wanted, she could not quite say. Well, not what she wanted within reason, of course. She wanted Brandon back, but that was impossible. It was six years ago now, and she should have moved on.

    She had been unable to go back to her daily life where everything reminded her of him. In the end, she ended up packing her things, books and documents mostly, and moving across the Atlantic. Maybe it would have been different had her parents still been alive, or if she were not an only child.

    In a way, she had moved on. She had, after all, moved from London, UK, all the way to the US. She had moved several times here too, but had not, so far, found anywhere that felt right. Not for lack of trying; in the past six years, she had tried a lot of different things.

    The first thing she had done when she got to the US was to spend four months as a bartender; that had been boring, in an interesting way. Or interesting, in a boring sort of way. She learned a lot about people, and, had she been the drinking type, it might have cured her of that; she had found several new good reasons for not drinking.

    After that, she spent a year as an assistant in a morgue. She still had no idea how she landed that job; she really was not qualified. Not that she was allowed to do anything but paperwork and receiving bodies and stuff. Still. It had started as something of a joke on her part, but she found the job fascinating. Like her time as a bartender, she learned a lot about people, in a very different way. Far better during winter though; the bodies that were brought in did not stink as badly as the ones brought in during the summer.

    She also spent a year as a teacher. It too was a temporary position, filling in for an English teacher who got sick. It did not work out well; she was not too good with students, and she found out that there are, indeed, differences between American and British English. And between American and British schools. It was not that the job she had done was a _bad_ job, but she knew she was not really a good teacher either. So when the original teacher returned, she happily wandered her own way.

    Since then, she had had a few odd jobs; as a shop clerk, receptionist, cleaner, and now she was working in a bookstore. At least she got to work with books. To some extent she liked it. She was not able to talk about books as much as she would have liked, but at least she worked with books. That most people wanted the latest books that were on the topseller lists did not bother her that much, even if she wished people would care more for older books as well. It seemed to her that a lot of people bought those books because those were the books that were all the rage at the moment, not because they wanted those particular stories. Still.

    The bus arrived at her stop, and she got off. Tom was waiting in front of her door. She often did, for some reason.

    “Hi, Tom. No, I won’t let you into my place, and I won’t feed you. I already ate, and you can go home and eat.” Tom just looked at her. Margaret sighed. “Yes, I know, I have fed you from time to time, but that’s mostly leftovers and stuff I would have thrown out if you hadn’t eaten it. I don’t have anything for you now, so go back home to ms. Rogers.” Tom kept staring.

    She sighed again. At least Tom was not a dog; one of the places she had stayed had a landlord who had a dog, something that she had not been aware of when she moved in. She found out a few days later, when she met the landlord walking it, a big noisy something with lots of teeth. She had moved out the next day.

    For as long as she could remember, dogs had terrified her. Her mother had said it probably was because of something that had happened when she was just a baby, out with her nanny, Kate. Though nanny; Kate was just a young woman, late teens, who needed some extra cash, and looked after Margaret from time to time. A dog, one of the small, yappy ones, according to her mother, had attacked her pram, tipping it over. It had then grabbed hold of her and tried to shake her or drag her off or something.

    The owner had claimed that adorable little Blossom or Bunny or Princess or whatever that menace was called, had just wanted to play, and there had been absolutely no need at all for Nanny to kick the poor little thing quite that hard (and far). Nanny had then followed up by kicking the owner. Margaret did not remember her at all, but from what she had heard, she thought she would have liked Kate.

    She did have an alternate theory, though. That she disliked, ok, feared, dogs, not because of that incident, but because dogs were vicious animals, predators, really, just looking for a sign of weakness so they could attack. At least wolves were honest about what they were. People were just mostly unable to see dogs for what they were, she thought partly thanks to countless of books, movies, TV series and so on with nice and loyal dogs in them.

    Tom, being a cat, was not a problem. Her owner and Margaret’s landlady, ms. Rogers, a widow about a decade older than Margaret, had one day confided that she had named the cat Tom because she thought it was a male, and she was thinking of Macavity, “you know, that famous tomcat from Cats by that British guy, lord Weber or something? The lyrics are strange sometimes; I don’t always understand them, but I was thinking I’d name the cat Macavity, but then I realized it was too long. So I ended up with Tom. As in Tomcat. You know.” Ms. Rogers was not the sharpest tool in the shed. Margaret had refrained from mentioning that Cats was based on a collection of poems written for kids.

    “Imagine my surprise when Tom became pregnant. But by then, both she and I were used to the name, so I didn’t change it.” Well, yes, Tom had definitely become used to her name; she ignored it like any proper cat would do, regardless of gender. When Margaret explained that it was an easy mistake to make, especially with cats (and some other animals), she clearly had won ms. Rogers’ heart. And for some reason, Tom’s, it seemed.

    The cat gave her one last long look before stalking away, tail in the air, towards ms. Rogers’ apartment. She wondered about Tom, sometimes. Maybe it was cats in general, maybe it was just Tom. But the cat often seemed to understand what Margaret said to her, and in spite of what people said, she did not really think that Tom just knew how to read body language.

    Her apartment was crowded, packed mostly with boxes full of books, papers and documents. Though she had a lot of them on her e-reader, she did not have the heart to throw the books away. So they filled the living room, and part of her bedroom. Each box was carefully marked, and on her laptop she had a list of which books were in what box. Just in case she needed to find a specific book.

    She hung up her coat and made herself a pot of tea, before settlig down in her armchair. She took off her glasses and brought out her e-reader again.

    They were not real glasses. It was just regular glass, but they made her look more nerdy. She had started wearing them shortly after she met Brandon. He had thought it was funny in a nice kind of way, and helped her pick out a set that fit her.

    Brandon. No matter how far she fled, she could not seem leave him behind. Except that was not entirely true. Not anymore. Oh, she would never forget him, but thinking about him did no longer plunge her into a maelstrom of pain and longing. Not anymore. Tomorrow was Thursday. He had not been at the store today, so she hoped he would be there tomorrow.

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