The vampire appeared much like Augustus Thyme had described in a story told seven years ago. A shade within the fog, Vampire Thyme stood there wrapped in a cloak of fog mixing with the smoldering darkness swirling up from his cowboy hat. Soot, her grandfather had described the powder tumbling away from the old duster hanging from the vampire’s shoulders.
Holding a handgun, Nine faced the vampire, her weapon aimed directly at his torso. Her arm remained steady surprising her considering she had never held a gun before. It felt comfortable in her easy grip. A bullet seemed inadiquate, though, and she slowly lowered the gun.
Vampire Thyme took a step backward swallowed by the fog.
A jolt shook Nine, and her body trembled. In a blink, the fog was gone. She gazed at the entrance to the old tomb on the side of the hill under the fading evening light filtering through the thick evergreens. In the place of the gun, her hand gripped the straps of her backpack.
She stood exactly where she had come seconds earlier. In the shade, the entrance to Thyme Tomb appeared dark and ominous, and its cold, damp breath lifted her hair. Chills. She shuddered.
The vampire hadn’t been here, of course. On a street somewhere, perhaps an old dirt road. She felt strongly about this even though she couldn’t place the location. It hadn’t even been a vision. A trigger, like a familiar scent or a melody, sometimes caused a distant memory to come crashing into the front interrupting thought. Like that. Now this strange memory faded deep into the background. A road or a field, she couldn’t see it clearly. Hell, the fog may have been conjured by her grandfather’s story.
Memories had a way of mixing details, and this one must have been a serious toxic mess. Where had the gun come from? She felt certain the weapon had been a 1911, whatever designation that was held no meaning now. The only guns she knew were her grandfather’s Civil War antiques locked away in a display cabinet, and she had never once touched them.
Lost in a haze, the only detail she could picture was the dark shape of the vampire dressed in the nineteenth-century cowboy outfit. She tried to forget it, but that image ingrained itself into her thoughts and refused to let go.
Nine tugged the rusted gate open banging against the mossy rock, and tossed her backpack inside the tomb. Holding her breath, she squeezed through the opening. She pulled her phone out and tapped the flashlight icon. Shining the light around, she checked the narrow hall. Satisfied no critters lurked within, she snatched her bag slinging it over her shoulder and walked down the narrow passageway.
An odor of rust and dry decay hung in the air.
The gate screeched and clanged against the rock.
“Who lives here?” asked Tigris.
Turning about, Nine shined the light towards the entrance splashing Tigris’s leather boots, up her bare legs to her black tee with a faded Club Necropolis Vampire Love logo. Tigris squinted, and Nine lowered the light.
“No one I hope.”
The dim light filtered in through the gate behind Tigris accentuated her curvy features as she slinked her way closer. Her iridescent eyes crackled fire within. A demoness approached.
Turning away, Nine studied a rock on the floor within the flashlight beam as she waited for the haunting image to melt away. Perhaps inviting an Itoril wasn’t such a good idea after all. Tigris always seemed like such a sweet lady, though. Nicer than Lamia, but so much more dangerous in appearance.
The chamber remained the same as before, the coffin sat in one corner and a small dried carcass in the other. Besides dog prints, her shoe marks ran into the wall where the secret door blocked the hidden stairs to the sepulcher.
“Why did you invite me to your dungeon?” said Tigris.
“Tiger,” said Nine. She pulled a box of latex gloves and held it out. “Or do you prefer Tigris?”
Tigris plucked a pair of gloves from the dispenser top and smiled. “My friends call me Tiger, and we’re freinds now, right?”
Nine smiled. “Tiger, I asked you here because I don’t have anyone else I can trust. I can trust you, can’t I?”
“Besides, few I now are skinny enough to squeeze inside that gate.”
Tigris sniffed the air and soured her face.
“That reminds me,” said Nine. On her last visit in the tomb, she had felt ill and lost consciousness. Digging through her bag, she found her candle and butane lighter.
She set the candle on the coffin. Raising the lighter, she flicked the wheel with her thumb. The flame erupted into a wriggling dance and fell to a steady burn. Lifting the candle, she held the wick to the flame.
A red glow, the wick refused to take the fire, and dark smoke curled into the air.
Nine marched into the passageway closer to the entrance and tried again.
The candle took the fire and burned brightly. Slowly, she walked deeper into tomb and watched the flame diminish. Inside the chamber the candle took its last breath.
“Bad Air,” said Nine. She held her phone up shining the flashlight onto the coffin. “That must be what did me in the last time I was here.”
“Now what?” asked Tigris.
“Can you detect anything inside the coffin?”
“Sorry, I left my x-ray glasses at home.”
Opening the coffin within bad air would be unwise, and removing the coffin would mean clearing all the big rocks away from the entrance so the gate could open. Either way, a great deal of work for what could prove nothing of interest.
Returning to the gate, Nine looked the rocks over. The one against the gate appeared easy enough to push aside, but next to it was a what could be the top of a boulder sticking up out of the muck. Even if a normal rock, it would mean considerable work digging it out.
As she gazed sullenly at the iron bars, Nine thought about the sudden flashback with the gun and the vampire, the memory that couldn’t possibly be hers. Not in how she had remembered it anyway.
Spinning around, Nine gazed at her companion leaning against the wall. “Tiger, do you believe in vampires?”
“Not Itoril I mean, but actual immortal vampires.”
“Is that what you believe is sleeping inside that coffin? A mythical creature?”
Nine felt stupid for asking. Grandfather Augustus had thought there was much more to Thyme, their namesake, than there was about any Itoril person. Consuming blood and memory to become its victim went beyond the nibbling of Itorils for thrills or rare delicacy. What proof had Augustus found? She needed to finish reading the guide.
“Are you certain you want to open this door?” said Tigris. She glanced into the darkness.
“The bad air is likely coming from within the ground.”
“No,” said Tigris, “I mean do you truly want to see inside this coffin?”
This gave Nine great pause. If the coffin turned out to be empty like the January Nine box, there would be nothing of value here. This opportunity had been presented not due to Augustus Thyme’s research, but by Itoril business associates with motives all their own. Yasmine’s henchman, Xavier, had made the claim that this was the tomb of original Thyme. And without providing evidence. There had been no chance to inquire after losing consiousness inside the tomb. What did Yasmine gain by sharing this tomb’s location? Trust.
Thyme Funeral had fallen behind on venom harvest quota for Yasmine’s company. A process dependent on Yasmine’s underlings sending Itoril corpses. A wicked cycle without control. Trying to catch up, Sebastian had murdered an Itoril for venom, but not for Yasmine’s sake. In order to release baby Sebastian from Vampire Thyme, Augustus had struck a bargain: an annual quota of venom in exchange for a Thyme’s life. Vials of venom delivered to Yasmine’s company were somehow being counted by the Thyme patriarch.
Considering Augustus had spent decades searching for this tomb and failed, there seemed only two reasons someone outside of the family would have located it. Either something profitable hid here, or the only individual old enough to recall the location had revealed it. If there had been anything worth plundering, the gate would open wide, the rocks cleared.
Vampire Thyme wanted Nine to open this door of opportunity, and that concerned her.
“Nine,” said Tigris, whispering. She sniffed the air. “I don’t think we’re alone.”