Your life is in danger. Leave this place immediately. Leave the city and never return.
I have to read the words four times for the message to compute, and even then, I’m still glued to my chair.
The message is written in bold type on a scrap of paper that I wrangled out of a fortune cookie. Odd, for two reasons. Firstly, fortune cookies are for the end of a meal, a Chinese equivalent of a mint or a chocolate, and I haven’t even glanced at a menu yet. Secondly, this is not a Chinese restaurant. It is the upmarket French Bistro that I go to every Friday night. Thanks to Cassandra, my regular waitress and closest thing to friend and real family, I have a quiet corner table that overlooks the city and the broad, winding river reserved for 8pm every Friday night.
I’m used to threats and I don’t feel immediately concerned, that is until I catch Cassandra’s eye. She is across the other side of the heavily ornate room, her feet sinking into the deep, red carpet, and her eyes are wide and filled with warning. She had placed the fortune cookie on my plate, the message came from her. She is gesturing to the kitchen, to where I know there is a secret back door that leads into a particularly pungent alley and to the darkest of the city’s meandering streets beyond that.
Still I remain glued to the rather comfortable leather chair, reluctant to contemplate that my future might be changing yet again. Cassandra is filling a customer’s wine glass to the brim of a particularly nice Shiraz that I had been hoping to partake in myself this evening. I’m not quite convinced I won’t yet have the chance.
She’s glaring at me now, over-spilling the glass, pointing her chin towards the swinging kitchen doors as a junior waiter comes teetering out of it balancing armfuls of plates like he’s in training for the circus.
I half rise. The leather chair begins to tip. I can feel it scraping at the back of my knees. I reach out a hand, but I’m still hesitating. The chair goes down but makes barely a noise against the thick pile of the expensive carpet. Only a few customers from the closest tables seem to notice and those that do quickly avert their gaze. It is that kind of restaurant.
With the suddenness of a slammed door on a still summer’s day I realise the threat Cassandra speaks of is real. I can feel the truth of it as accurately as animals’ presentiment to storms. The adrenaline begins to flood my spine. I have been persecuted my whole life, why would now be any different?
I glance casually around the restaurant, as if the threat was one of the seemingly benign customers currently dining languidly on foie gras and baked camembert. None maintain eye contact for more than a second or two, eager to return to their friends and their meals. And of course, there’s always my – shall we say – unusual appearance to put them off. Bald heads and sallow skin are not the typical customers of this restaurant.
I inhale deeply and close my eyes, listening. For what? A clue? For something my eyes can’t see? There is a clatter from the kitchen and I snap them back open. As the swinging door swings open I see the junior waiter is lying on the ground amidst a pile of broken crockery.
I make to help the fallen chap, using it as an excuse to move. I fly through the swinging door, feeling tension coiled in my back. Like a large bull’s-eye has been painted on it and I will be receiving a killing blow at any moment. But it won’t be my back that is the target.
I reach out a hand to the young waiter and haul him to his feet, even though he is much younger and much heavier than me. Age has taken much of my strength, but I am still capable of this small act.
The boy squats and begins to pile the broken crockery into a trash bag amidst the jeers and taunts of the kitchen staff. They fall silent when they see me there. I tend to have that effect on people, especially when the lighting is bright.
“You need to go now!” Cassandra is at my side, whispering urgently into my ear.
I hesitate a moment longer, just to breathe in her smell. There is vanilla from a freshly baked cake, lavender from a quintessential English garden, jasmine from the exotic east and always something else that I can’t ever put my finger on, something watery perhaps. It is a smell unique to her and informs me when she is nearby.
“I’ll find you,” she says.
“But it is always me that finds you,” I say.
I can sense her nodding, even though she is standing slightly behind me and I can’t quite see her. I also know there are tears in her eyes. She is like a daughter to me. I have known her since her infancy, when I plucked her from the river she had been abandoned to and raised her as my own.
“You have to go,” she says, her voice cracking. She rests her hand lightly on my shoulder and in that one small gesture all of her love is conveyed. And her fear. “They’ll kill you if they find you.”
I clench my jaw and fist my hands. This is not how I wanted things to go. But then I leave, finally, without a backward glance or any expressions of sentiment. It is too painful.
When I reach the end of the first alley, running in the light of the full moon, I can feel her back there, hovering at the kitchen door, sending out a prayer for me, the only father she has even known. Really, she needs to pray for herself. Whilst they might kill me, and death would almost be a relief, they will do far worse to her when they realise she has been protecting me.
I weave from alley to alley, jumping over chain link fences, my footsteps quiet and agile, listening for sounds out of the ordinary. Listening for them. It isn’t the first time I have been hunted. In fact, I have been on the run for most of my life, finding calms periods in between that sometimes lasted a year or more. It was almost worse during those peaceful times, because each time I convinced myself that they had given up, that I could lead a normal, albeit quiet, life, that I would be left alone. But every time, just as my guard was beginning to drop, I would be found and chased away again.
I can see lights farther up ahead, the ominous arcs of several flashlights, scanning the crumbling buildings. They are close, and I am about to turn around, when I hear Cassandra scream. It is bloodcurdling and terrifying and pure agony. I will not leave her to their mercy. Or lack of it. I must save her, even if it means my death.
I run towards the light, and it doesn’t take me long to reach her. I catapult over the wooden fence and suddenly I am standing in the middle of a large circle of heavily armed men. We are on the bank of the river and it is dark at this time of night.
Two of the men are holding Cassandra by an arm. Her blonde hair has become loose from her ponytail and is tumbling wildly down her back. Her usually pristine white waitressing blouse is torn and muddied. A corner of her bra is exposed. Rage is my only emotion.
Cassandra is screaming at me to run until one of the men clamps a hand over her mouth. But I could never leave her.
There are a lot of men, wearing necklaces of garlic and holding silver crucifixes high as if they think those small trinkets might actually work against a creature as ancient as me.
I take a step forward. The men bravely hold their ground. Cassandra’s eyes widen.
“You can’t hurt us,” one of them men declares perhaps more arrogantly than he feels. “We took your teeth.”
I roll my tongue around the edge of my fangless gums, again feeling their poignant loss. It is true that the humans took my teeth, years ago, and that I can no longer harm them with my most valuable weapon or turn Cassandra into the thing she most desires. But I still have my strength, and my nails, and my anger over a life of being hunted and condemned.
I look at Cassandra, and I see her love for me, I see all those times she spiked my wine with the good stuff trapped from sewer rats and stray cats and dogs. She kept me healthy and strong when I could not.
I take another step forward and then the battle ensues. But I can move fast, faster than any human, even though I am old, or perhaps because I am old, and I will save my Cassandra and we will leave this place and begin again in another. It is what we do.