A Discovery of Witches / Chapter 2

Chapter 2


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Oxford's bel s chimed seven times. Night didn't fol ow twilight as slowly as it would have a few months ago, but the transformation was stil lingering. The library staff had turned on the lamps only thirty minutes before, casting smal pools of gold in the gray light.

It was the twenty-first day of September. Al over the world, witches were sharing a meal on the eve of the autumn equinox to celebrate Mabon and greet the impending darkness of winter. But the witches of Oxford would have to do without me. I was slated to give the keynote address at an important conference next month.

My ideas were stil unformed, and I was getting anxious.

At the thought of what my fel ow witches might be eating somewhere in Oxford, my stomach rumbled. I'd been in the library since half past nine that morning, with only a short break for lunch.

Sean had taken the day off, and the person working at the cal desk was new. She'd given me some trouble when I requested one crumbling item and tried to convince me to use microfilm instead. The reading room's supervisor, Mr.

Johnson, overheard and came out of his office to intervene.

"My apologies, Dr. Bishop," he'd said hurriedly, pushing his heavy, dark-rimmed glasses over the bridge of his nose. "If you need to consult this manuscript for your research, we wil be happy to oblige." He disappeared to fetch the restricted item and delivered it with more apologies about the inconvenience and the new staff.

Gratified that my scholarly credentials had done the trick, I spent the afternoon happily reading.

I pul ed two coiled weights from the upper corners of the manuscript and closed it careful y, pleased at the amount of work I'd completed. After encountering the bewitched manuscript on Friday, I'd devoted the weekend to routine tasks rather than alchemy in order to restore a sense of normalcy. I fil ed out financial-reimbursement forms, paid bil s, wrote letters of recommendation, and even finished a book review. These chores were interspersed with more homely rituals like doing laundry, drinking copious amounts of tea, and trying recipes from the BBC's cooking programs.

After an early start this morning, I'd spent the day trying to focus on the work at hand, rather than dwel ing on my recol ections of Ashmole 782's strange il ustrations and mysterious palimpsest. I eyed the short list of todos jotted down over the course of the day. Of the four questions on my fol ow-up list, the third was easiest to resolve. The answer was in an arcane periodical, Notes and Queries, which was shelved on one of the bookcases that stretched up toward the room's high ceilings. I pushed back my chair and decided to tick one item off my list before leaving.

The upper shelves of the section of Duke Humfrey's known as the Selden End were reachable by means of a worn set of stairs to a gal ery that looked over the reading desks. I climbed the twisting treads to where the old buckram-covered books sat in neat chronological rows on wooden shelves. No one but me and an ancient literature don from Magdalen Col ege seemed to use them. I located the volume and swore softly under my breath. It was on the top shelf, just out of reach.

A low chuckle startled me. I turned my head to see who was sitting at the desk at the far end of the gal ery, but no one was there. I was hearing things again. Oxford was stil a ghost town, and anyone who belonged to the university had left over an hour earlier to down a glass of free sherry in their col ege's senior common room before dinner. Given the Wiccan holiday, even Gil ian had left in the late afternoon, after extending one final invitation and glancing at my pile of reading material with narrowed eyes.

I searched for the gal ery's stepstool, which was missing.

The Bodleian was notoriously short on such items, and it would easily take fifteen minutes to locate one in the library and haul it upstairs so that I could retrieve the volume. I hesitated. Even though I'd held a bewitched book, I'd resisted considerable temptations to work further magic on Friday. Besides, no one would see.

Despite my rationalizations, my skin prickled with anxiety. I didn't break my rules very often, and I kept mental accounts of the situations that had spurred me to turn to my magic for assistance. This was the fifth time this year, including putting the spel on the malfunctioning washing machine and touching Ashmole 782. Not too bad for the end of September, but not a personal best either.

I took a deep breath, held up my hand, and imagined the book in it.

Volume 19 of Notes and Queries slid backward four inches, tipped at an angle as if an invisible hand were pul ing it down, and fel into my open palm with a soft thwack. Once there, it flopped open to the page I needed.

It had taken al of three seconds. I let out another breath to exhale some of my guilt. Suddenly two icy patches bloomed between my shoulder blades.

I had been seen, and not by an ordinary human observer.

When one witch studies another, the touch of their eyes tingles. Witches aren't the only creatures sharing the world with humans, however. There are also daemons-creative, artistic creatures who walk a tightrope between madness and genius. "Rock stars and serial kil ers" was how my aunt described these strange, perplexing beings. And there are vampires, ancient and beautiful, who feed on blood and wil charm you utterly if they don't kil you first.

When a daemon takes a look, I feel the slight, unnerving pressure of a kiss.

But when a vampire stares, it feels cold, focused, and dangerous.

I mental y shuffled through the readers in Duke Humfrey's.

There had been one vampire, a cherubic monk who pored over medieval missals and prayer books like a lover. But vampires aren't often found in rare-book rooms.

Occasional y one succumbed to vanity and nostalgia and came in to reminisce, but it wasn't common.

Witches and daemons were far more typical in libraries.

Gil ian Chamberlain had been in today, studying her papyri with a magnifying glass. And there were definitely two daemons in the music reference room. They'd looked up, dazed, as I walked by on the way to Blackwel 's for tea. One told me to bring him back a latte, which was some indication of how immersed he was in whatever madness gripped him at the moment.

No, it was a vampire who watched me now.

I'd happened upon a few vampires, since I worked in a field that put me in touch with scientists, and there were vampires aplenty in laboratories around the world. Science rewards long study and patience. And thanks to their solitary work habits, scientists were unlikely to be recognized by anyone except their closest co-workers. It made a life that spanned centuries rather than decades much easier to negotiate.

These days vampires gravitated toward particle accelerators, projects to decode the genome, and molecular biology. Once they had flocked to alchemy, anatomy, and electricity. If it went bang, involved blood, or promised to unlock the secrets of the universe, there was sure to be a vampire around.

I clutched my il -gotten copy of Notes and Queries and turned to face the witness. He was in the shadows on the opposite side of the room in front of the paleography reference books, lounging against one of the graceful wooden pil ars that held up the gal ery. An open copy of Janet Roberts's Guide to Scripts Used in English Handwriting Up to 1500 was balanced in his hands.

I had never seen this vampire before-but I was fairly certain he didn't need pointers on how to decipher old penmanship.

Anyone who has read paperback bestsel ers or even watched television knows that vampires are breathtaking, but nothing prepares you to actual y see one. Their bone structures are so wel honed that they seem chiseled by an expert sculptor. Then they move, or speak, and your mind can't begin to absorb what you're seeing. Every movement is graceful; every word is musical. And their eyes are arresting, which is precisely how they catch their prey. One long look, a few quiet words, a touch: once you're caught in a vampire's snare you don't stand a chance.

Staring down at this vampire, I realized with a sinking feeling that my knowledge on the subject was, alas, largely theoretical. Little of it seemed useful now that I was facing one in the Bodleian Library.

The only vampire with whom I had more than a passing acquaintance worked at the nuclear particle accelerator in Switzerland. Jeremy was slight and gorgeous, with bright blond hair, blue eyes, and an infectious laugh. He'd slept with most of the women in the canton of Geneva and was now working his way through the city of Lausanne. What he did after he seduced them I had never wanted to inquire into too closely, and I'd turned down his persistent invitations to go out for a drink. I'd always figured that Jeremy was representative of the breed. But in comparison to the one who stood before me now, he seemed raw- boned, gawky, and very, very young.

This one was tal -wel over six feet even accounting for the problems of perspective associated with looking down on him from the gal ery. And he definitely was not slight.

Broad shoulders narrowed into slender hips, which flowed into lean, muscular legs. His hands were strikingly long and agile, a mark of physiological delicacy that made your eyes drift back to them to figure out how they could belong to such a large man.

As my eyes swept over him, his own were fixed on me.

From across the room, they seemed black as night, staring up under thick, equal y black eyebrows, one of them lifted in a curve that suggested a question mark. His face was indeed striking-al distinct planes and surfaces, with high- angled cheekbones meeting brows that shielded and shadowed his eyes. Above his chin was one of the few places where there was room for softness-his wide mouth, which, like his long hands, didn't seem to make sense.

But the most unnerving thing about him was not his physical perfection. It was his feral combination of strength, agility, and keen intel igence that was palpable across the room. In his black trousers and soft gray sweater, with a shock of black hair swept back from his forehead and cropped close to the nape of his neck, he looked like a panther that could strike at any moment but was in no rush to do so.

He smiled. It was a smal , polite smile that didn't reveal his teeth. I was intensely aware of them anyway, sitting in perfectly straight, sharp rows behind his pale lips.

The mere thought of teeth sent an instinctive rush of adrenaline through my body, setting my fingers tingling.

Suddenly al I could think was, Get out of this room NOW.

The staircase seemed farther away than the four steps it took to reach it. I raced down to the floor below, stumbled on the last step, and pitched straight into the vampire's waiting arms.

Of course he had beaten me to the bottom of the stairs.

His fingers were cool, and his arms felt steelier than flesh and bone. The scent of clove, cinnamon, and something that reminded me of incense fil ed the air. He set me on my feet, picked Notes and Queries off the floor, and handed it to me with a smal bow. "Dr. Bishop, I presume?"

Shaking from head to toe, I nodded.

The long, pale fingers of his right hand dipped into a pocket and pul ed out a blue-and-white business card. He extended it. "Matthew Clairmont."

I gripped the edge of the card, careful not to touch his fingers in the process. Oxford University's familiar logo, with the three crowns and open book, was perched next to Clairmont's name, fol owed by a string of initials indicating he had already been made a member of the Royal Society.

Not bad for someone who appeared to be in his mid- to late thirties, though I imagined that his actual age was at least ten times that.

As for his research specialty, it came as no surprise that the vampire was a professor of biochemistry and affiliated with Oxford Neuroscience at the John Radcliffe Hospital.

Blood and anatomy-two vampire favorites. The card bore three different laboratory numbers in addition to an office number and an e-mail address. I might not have seen him before, but he was certainly not unreachable.

"Professor Clairmont." I squeaked it out before the words caught in the back of my throat, and I quieted the urge to run screaming toward the exit.

"We've not met," he continued in an oddly accented voice. It was mostly Oxbridge but had a touch of softness that I couldn't place. His eyes, which never left my face, were not actual y dark at al , I discovered, but dominated by dilated pupils bordered with a gray-green sliver of iris. Their pul was insistent, and I found myself unable to look away.

The vampire's mouth was moving again. "I'm a great admirer of your work."

My eyes widened. It was not impossible that a professor of biochemistry would be interested in seventeenth-century alchemy, but it seemed highly unlikely. I picked at the col ar of my white shirt and scanned the room. We were the only two in it. There was no one at the old oak card file or at the nearby banks of computers. Whoever was at the col ection desk was too far away to come to my aid.

"I found your article on the color symbolism of alchemical transformation fascinating, and your work on Robert Boyle's approach to the problems of expansion and contraction was quite persuasive," Clairmont continued smoothly, as if he were used to being the only active participant in a conversation. "I've not yet finished your latest book on alchemical apprenticeship and education, but I'm enjoying it a great deal."

"Thank you," I whispered. His gaze shifted from my eyes to my throat.

I stopped picking at the buttons around my neck.

His unnatural eyes floated back to mine. "You have a marvelous way of evoking the past for your readers." I took that as a compliment, since a vampire would know if it was wrong. Clairmont paused for a moment. "Might I buy you dinner?"

My mouth dropped open. Dinner? I might not be able to escape from him in the library, but there was no reason to linger over a meal-especial y one he would not be sharing, given his dietary preferences.

"I have plans," I said abruptly, unable to formulate a reasonable explanation of what those plans might involve.

Matthew Clairmont must know I was a witch, and I was clearly not celebrating Mabon.

"That's too bad," he murmured, a touch of a smile on his lips. "Another time, perhaps. You are in Oxford for the year, aren't you?"

Being around a vampire was always unnerving, and Clairmont's clove scent brought back the strange smel of Ashmole 782. Unable to think straight, I resorted to nodding. It was safer.

"I thought so," said Clairmont. "I'm sure our paths wil cross again. Oxford is such a smal town."

"Very smal ," I agreed, wishing I had taken leave in London instead.

"Until then, Dr. Bishop. It has been a pleasure." Clairmont extended his hand. With the exception of their brief excursion to my col ar, his eyes had not drifted once from mine. I didn't think he had blinked either. I steeled myself not to be the first to look away.

My hand went forward, hesitating for a moment before clasping his. There was a fleeting pressure before he withdrew. He stepped backward, smiled, then disappeared into the darkness of the oldest part of the library.

I stood stil until my chil ed hands could move freely again, then walked back to my desk and switched off my computer. Notes and Queries asked me accusingly why I had bothered to go and get it if I wasn't even going to look at it; my to-do list was equal y ful of reproach. I ripped it off the top of the pad, crumpled it up, and tossed it into the wicker basket under the desk.

"'Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,'" I muttered under my breath.

The reading room's night proctor glanced down at his watch when I returned my manuscripts. "Leaving early, Dr.

Bishop?"

I nodded, my lips closed tightly to keep myself from asking whether he knew there had been a vampire in the paleography reference section.

He picked up the stack of gray cardboard boxes that held the manuscripts. "Wil you need these tomorrow?"

"Yes," I whispered. "Tomorrow."

Having observed the last scholarly propriety of exiting the library, I was free. My feet clattered against the linoleum floors and echoed against the stone wal s as I sped through the reading room's lattice gate, past the books guarded with velvet ropes to keep them from curious fingers, down the worn wooden stairs, and into the enclosed quadrangle on the ground floor. I leaned against the iron railings surrounding the bronze statue of Wil iam Herbert and sucked the chil y air into my lungs, struggling to get the vestiges of clove and cinnamon out of my nostrils.

There were always things that went bump in the night in Oxford, I told myself sternly. So there was one more vampire in town.

No matter what I told myself in the quadrangle, my walk home was faster than usual. The gloom of New Col ege Lane was a spooky proposition at the best of times. I ran my card through the reader at New Col ege's back gate and felt some of the tension leave my body when the gate clicked shut behind me, as if every door and wal I put between me and the library somehow kept me safe. I skirted under the chapel windows and through the narrow passage into the quad that had views of Oxford's only surviving medieval garden, complete with the traditional mound that had once offered a green prospect for students to look upon and contemplate the mysteries of God and nature. Tonight the col ege's spires and archways seemed especial y Gothic, and I was eager to get inside.

When the door of my apartment closed behind me, I let out a sigh of relief. I was living at the top of one of the col ege's faculty staircases, in lodgings reserved for visiting former members. My rooms, which included a bedroom, a sitting room with a round table for dining, and a decent if smal kitchen, were decorated with old prints and warm wainscoting. Al the furniture looked as if it had been cul ed from previous incarnations of the senior common room and the master's house, with down-at-the-heels late-nineteenth- century design predominant.

In the kitchen I put two slices of bread in the toaster and poured myself a cold glass of water. Gulping it down, I opened the window to let cool air into the stuffy rooms.

Carrying my snack back into the sitting room, I kicked off my shoes and turned on the smal stereo. The pure tones of Mozart fil ed the air. When I sat on one of the maroon upholstered sofas, it was with the intention to rest for a few moments, then take a bath and go over my notes from the day.

At half past three in the morning, I woke with a pounding heart, a stiff neck, and the strong taste of cloves in my mouth.

I got a fresh glass of water and closed the kitchen window. It was chil y, and I shivered at the touch of the damp air.

After a glance at my watch and some quick calculations, I decided to cal home. It was only ten-thirty there, and Sarah and Em were as nocturnal as bats. Slipping around the rooms, I turned off al the lights except the one in my bedroom and picked up my mobile. I was out of my grimy clothes in a matter of minutes-how do you get so filthy in a library?-and into a pair of old yoga pants and a black sweater with a stretched-out neck. They were more comfortable than any pajamas.

The bed felt welcoming and firm underneath me, comforting me enough that I almost convinced myself a phone cal home was unnecessary. But the water had not been able to remove the vestiges of cloves from my tongue, and I dialed the number.

"We've been waiting for your cal ," were the first words I heard.

Witches.

I sighed. "Sarah, I'm fine."

"Al signs to the contrary." As usual, my mother's younger sister was not going to pul any punches. "Tabitha has been skittish al evening, Em got a very clear picture of you lost in the woods at night, and I haven't been able to eat anything since breakfast."

The real problem was that damn cat. Tabitha was Sarah's baby and picked up any tension within the family with uncanny precision. "I'm fine. I had an unexpected encounter in the library tonight, that's al ."

A click told me that Em had picked up the extension.

"Why aren't you celebrating Mabon?" she asked.

Emily Mather had been a fixture in my life for as long as I could remember. She and Rebecca Bishop had met as high-school students working in the summer at Plimoth Plantation, where they dug holes and pushed wheel- barrows for the archaeologists. They became best friends, then devoted pen pals when Emily went to Vassar and my mother to Harvard. Later the two reconnected in Cambridge when Em became a children's librarian. After my parents' death, Em's long weekends in Madison soon led to a new job in the local elementary school. She and Sarah became inseparable partners, even though Em had maintained her own apartment in town and the two of them had made a big deal of never being seen heading into a bedroom together while I was growing up. This didn't fool me, the neighbors, or anyone else living in town. Everybody treated them like the couple they were, regardless of where they slept. When I moved out of the Bishop house, Em moved in and had been there ever since. Like my mother and my aunt, Em came from a long line of witches.

"I was invited to the coven's party but worked instead."

"Did the witch from Bryn Mawr ask you to go?" Em was interested in the classicist, mostly (it had turned out over a fair amount of wine one summer night) because she'd once dated Gil ian's mother. "It was the sixties," was al Em would say.

"Yes." I sounded harassed. The two of them were convinced I was going to see the light and begin taking my magic seriously now that I was safely tenured. Nothing cast any doubt on this wishful prognostication, and they were always thril ed when I had any contact with a witch. "But I spent the evening with Elias Ashmole instead."

"Who's he?" Em asked Sarah.

"You know, that dead guy who col ected alchemy books,"

was Sarah's muffled reply.

"Stil here, you two," I cal ed into the phone.

"So who rattled your cage?" Sarah asked.

Given that both were witches, there was no point in trying to hide anything. "I met a vampire in the library. One I've never seen before, named Matthew Clairmont."

There was silence on Em's end as she flipped through her mental card file of notable creatures. Sarah was quiet for a moment, too, deciding whether or not to explode.

"I hope he's easier to get rid of than the daemons you have a habit of attracting," she said sharply.

"Daemons haven't bothered me since I stopped acting."

"No, there was that daemon who fol owed you into the Beinecke Library when you first started working at Yale, too," Em corrected me. "He was just wandering down the street and came looking for you."

"He was mental y unstable," I protested. Like using witchcraft on the washing machine, the fact that I'd somehow caught the attention of a single, curious daemon shouldn't count against me.

"You draw creatures like flowers draw bees, Diana. But daemons aren't half as dangerous as vampires. Stay away from him," Sarah said tightly.

"I have no reason to seek him out." My hands traveled to my neck again. "We have nothing in common."

"That's not the point," Sarah said, voice rising. "Witches, vampires, and daemons aren't supposed to mix. You know that. Humans are more likely to notice us when we do. No daemon or vampire is worth the risk." The only creatures in the world that Sarah took seriously were other witches.

Humans struck her as unfortunate little beings blind to the world around them. Daemons were perpetual teenagers who couldn't be trusted. Vampires were wel below cats and at least one step below mutts within her hierarchy of creatures.

"You've told me the rules before, Sarah."

"Not everyone obeys the rules, honey," Em observed.

"What did he want?"

"He said he was interested in my work. But he's a scientist, so that's hard to believe." My fingers fiddled with the duvet cover on the bed. "He invited me to dinner."

"To dinner?" Sarah was incredulous.

Em just laughed. "There's not much on a restaurant menu that would appeal to a vampire."

"I'm sure I won't see him again. He's running three labs from the look of his business card, and he holds two faculty positions."

"Typical," Sarah muttered. "That's what happens when you have too much time on your hands. And stop picking at that quilt-you'l put a hole in it." She'd switched on her witch's radar ful blast and was now seeing as wel as hearing me.

"It's not as if he's stealing money from old ladies and squandering other people's fortunes on the stock market," I countered. The fact that vampires were reputed to be fabulously wealthy was a sore spot with Sarah. "He's a biochemist and a physician of some sort, interested in the brain."

"I'm sure that's fascinating, Diana, but what did he want?"

Sarah matched my irritation with impatience-the one-two punch mastered by al Bishop women.

"Not dinner," Em said with certainty.

Sarah snorted. "He wanted something. Vampires and witches don't go on dates. Unless he was planning to dine on you, of course. They love nothing more than the taste of a witch's blood."

"Maybe he was just curious. Or maybe he does like your work." Em said it with such doubt that I had to laugh.

"We wouldn't be having this conversation at al if you'd just take some elementary precautions," Sarah said tartly.

"A protection spel , some use of your abilities as a seer, and-"

"I'm not using magic or witchcraft to figure out why a vampire asked me to dinner," I said firmly. "Not negotiable, Sarah."

"Then don't cal us looking for answers when you don't want to hear them," Sarah said, her notoriously short temper flaring. She hung up before I could think of a response.

"Sarah does worry about you, you know," Em said apologetical y. "And she doesn't understand why you won't use your gifts, not even to protect yourself."

Because the gifts had strings attached, as I'd explained before. I tried again.

"It's a slippery slope, Em. I protect myself from a vampire in the library today, and tomorrow I protect myself from a hard question at a lecture. Soon I'l be picking research topics based on knowing how they'l turn out and applying for grants that I'm sure to win. It's important to me that I've made my reputation on my own. If I start using magic, nothing would belong entirely to me. I don't want to be the next Bishop witch." I opened my mouth to tel Em about Ashmole 782, but something made me close it again.

"I know, I know, honey." Em's voice was soothing. "I do understand. But Sarah can't help worrying about your safety. You're al the family she has now."

My fingers slid through my hair and came to rest at my temples. Conversations like this always led back to my mother and father. I hesitated, reluctant to mention my one lingering concern.

"What is it?" Em asked, her sixth sense picking up on my discomfort.

"He knew my name. I've never seen him before, but he knew who I was."

Em considered the possibilities. "Your picture's on the inside of your latest book cover, isn't it?"

My breath, which I hadn't been aware I was holding, came out with a soft whoosh. "Yes. That must be it. I'm just being sil y. Can you give Sarah a kiss from me?"

"You bet. And, Diana? Be careful. English vampires may not be as wel behaved around witches as the American ones are."

I smiled, thinking of Matthew Clairmont's formal bow. "I wil . But don't worry. I probably won't see him again."

Em was quiet.

"Em?" I prompted.

"Time wil tel ."

Em wasn't as good at seeing the future as my mother was reputed to have been, but something was niggling at her. Convincing a witch to share a vague premonition was almost impossible. She wasn't going to tel me what worried her about Matthew Clairmont. Not yet.


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