Walter couldn't be completely sure, but he swore someone had buried him.
A reflexive cough preceded a groan, which preceded his eyes flying open as though an internal alarm had sounded, an siren call summoning him to the waking world. His gaze shot one way and the next while his chest rose up and down, muscle memory compensating for what felt like a gross lack of need on his part to breathe. Without determining what it was exactly, Walter knew something had changed.
The higher powers affirmed this point when a clod of dirt fell on his face.
Walter spat and turned his head, his hands clawing at the crumbling earth surrounding him as if on instinct. Each time his body shifted, more dirt displaced itself until he felt his fingers break through to the other side. The moment the feel of air caressed his skin, something inside him struggled harder, his entire life's mission being reduced down to one, dire need for the time being. Get above ground. For as safe and warm as it felt where he was, the need to emerge took higher precedence. Walter had no idea why.
Not that he was thinking of much at the moment. His senses were pinging wildly and his body seemed to be on a different page than his mind was. He wriggled his shoulders. He kicked his feet. The hand above ground clawed away fistfuls of dirt and within minutes, Walter felt the wind hit his face. Sitting up, he looked around, lungs filling in and out. His chest hollow. Silent. Not that he noticed this quite yet. Another sound captured his attention swifter than his brain could catch up.
It sounded like those hoofbeats. Like a drum.
Thump, thump. Thump, thump.
Walter's eyes widened, scanning the darkness. He came to his feet, stumbling at first, but then gaining his bearings back, his ears following the noise which held him captive. The world turned clearer; much sharper than he'd ever seen it. Clearer than the brightest evening with a thousand stars shining down from heaven. He smelled a hundred different scents in the air - some foul, some pleasant, and some which tickled at his memory, as though attempting to whisper something his ears couldn't hear just yet. They were too focused on the cadence of that maddening pulse.
'Where are you?'
Somehow, he knew it was a person, although his mind still lagged woefully behind his actions. Whoever that person was, Walter needed them. Not in the way one needs a stiff drink after a hard day of work. Or the way one needs sleep after that same, weary day. He needed them in the way one needed to eat, or drink, or breathe, or exist. Survival. This was all about survival. He tracked the sound; he checked the wind and found the human's scent. He felt his teeth ache and hardly noticed something sharp jabbing at his bottom lip before he finally located that person he needed more than anything he'd ever needed before.
They stood one hundred yards away, glancing around. Frightened. Huddled under dirty rags; cold, alone. A girl. A doe-eyed girl who couldn't have been older than sixteen years, although the old Walter might have guessed her at closer to fifteen. She resembled the waifs who would crawl their way under machines and through places no person should be forced to crawl. She made Walter so very hungry.
He closed the distance between them. To an onlooker, it might have seemed one could blink and Walter might have disappeared in one position, then reappeared beside the girl three seconds later. To Walter, it seemed so slow - too slow - and by the time he reached where she stood, he felt a thin strand of self-control snap under the burden of too much weight. Something about her neck - that soot-stained skin which revealed patches of peach-colored flesh where dirt and grime hadn't marred her. The drums were coming from there. He needed them to stop.
Wrapping his arms around her, Walter pushed her hard against his body. One hand tilted her head. He leaned close and those sharp daggers - which were really teeth - broke past tissue and muscle and into the sweetest thing he had ever tasted. Warm, viscous liquid flowed into his mouth, and for a while, Walter floated in nirvana.
The hoofbeats slowed their pace. The horses ceased their pursuit.
Whatever had been chasing him had caught him at long last.
He really should have eaten before arriving at the estate.
Walter sighed and indulged in a deep, steadying breath the moment two guards posted at the gates accepted his invitation and allowed him inside. He had walked a block to spare himself the effort of glamoring the cab driver, although a distinct part of him now wished he had stolen a sip of the husky, middle-aged man first. Just as soon as the doorman opened the front door, Walter regretted his decision and found himself taking a few seconds to recalibrate.
Wouldn't it figure, the fucking Marquis kept pets.
Certainly, Walter was used to the practice, especially around aristocrats and royals. Keeping pets became one of the bastions of vampirism long before Charlotte Dupuis stuck her fangs in his neck and wouldn't go down without a fight, even after its time had passed. The oldest vampires especially would continue keeping humans at their disposal, although these days it often seemed like most did so out of luxury, not out of need. In a time when humans could be plucked from crowds and drained before anybody noticed their absence, pets still fed some sadistic urge within immortal kind to assert their supremacy.
Walter never faulted the ones who did, even if the whole thing left a bad taste in his mouth. That being said, unless refusing made the difference between him pulling off a successful job or not, he would eschew the harems presented and opt to hunt in private. Lord Tobias fell into the trap so many other aristocrats did, though. Pets were a status symbol. A long line of humans waited by the vestibule and eyed Walter expectantly as he passed them by.
Maintaining a casual gait past the cattle on display proved to be difficult and keeping the secretive smirk affixed in place became a chore. Within a few seconds, though, Walter emerged inside the main hall and exhaled a sigh of relief. The air floated past his lips in a slow, calculated manner - some effort on his part not to let his poker face slip when he needed to appear his most suave and charming. With the quick flick of a mental switch, Walter became Jackson Phillips, Philanthropist, again.
He relaxed his posture, one hand slipping into a pants pocket while he drifted toward a human servant. Plucking a glass filled with blood from his tray, he nodded once to the man, then set about sipping from the crystal stemware much more nonchalantly than his hunger would have liked. The French-inspired decor bore a level of sophistication to it, like European royalty had fashioned the Marquis's estate before the Louisiana Purchase took place. 'Not quite that old, though,' Walter mused to himself, the corner of his mouth curling upward while he rose his glass to his lips. His focus shifted from furnishings to the items hanging from the wall.
The Marquis had good taste. The large-framed paintings which hung from the walls all hearkened back to the Renaissance; most reproductions, but one or two of them demanded a closer look. Raphael and da Vinci, Michelangelo and Botticelli, were all displayed proudly, with a Caravaggio he couldn't be sure was a fake. Tempted as he was to stroll closer and sate his own curiosity, Walter forced himself to move onward. The pearl of great price laid just around the corner.
Walter glanced around, scanning for Lord Tobias. The Marquis stood on the other side of the room, flanked by two men who looked to be fellow aristocrats. Walter smirked and strolled through the doorway, turning left and further into the estate. Several guests had wandered here as well, but no one seemed to notice Walter, not even the pretty blonde woman talking to a taller, dark-haired man. Walter's eyes scanned past each vase and pillar - each tapestry and wall-mounted piece of art. Finally, he spied the sculpture seated on a marble base.
He couldn't control it, the art lover in him sucked a sharp breath inward while his feet paced closer to the bust. It had been fashioned by Benvenuto Cellini, a lost work undoubtedly recovered by a Renaissance vampire who'd kept it under lock and key before selling it. In the human world, it was talked about like a myth, something nobody could know for sure even existed in the first place. In the realm of immortals, it had become one more trophy of conquest; preservation of that which no foolish human could properly appreciate.
Unfortunately, he doubted Lord Tobias could as well.
Walter lost himself for interminable moments, studying the features of a man immortalized in bronze. The intricacies it bore leaned credence to the tale of how the great Italian sculptor had fallen in love with another man. Walter chanced a touch and relaxed when stroking the cheek of the figure failed to signal any alarms. 'Handy to know,' he thought, tilting his head. 'At the same time, I can't discount the security system might be shut off right now.' He crouched to look the sculpture in the eyes. And failed to notice the footsteps closing in behind him.
"You have a good eye."
Walter shot up to a stand and spun around, indulging in a brief moment of panic before suppressing it. The charming smile surfaced on his face again, as much a conditioned response as it was a reaction to whom he spied standing in front of him. The beautiful blonde, clad in an evening gown which accentuated her cleavage in a flattering manner, smirked disarmingly at him. "I didn't mean to startle you," she said, in an amused, yet sultry, tone of voice.
Walter's grin broadened. "Not at all. I was simply lost in thought." He extended his hand while his mind spun, cycling through identities and looking for the proper one. Granted, he could simply say, 'Jackson Phillips' and be done with it, but something about those hazel eyes coaxed him toward a more permanent form of introduction. He settled on his typical nomme-de-plume. "Christopher Ryan."
Various financial institutions knew him by the name, as did his most trusted clients and several of his contacts. Nobody knew Walter Krause, and now the blonde vampiress could count herself another member of the fold. She placed her hand in his. "Delilah Aevum. A pleasure to meet you."
"The pleasure's all mine." Walter lifted Delilah's hand to his lips and placed a soft kiss on the back. Winking, he released his grip and pivoted to include the sculpture in their conversation. "Are you familiar with Cellini's work?" he asked. Walter raised an eyebrow.
"I've heard of him." Delilah's eyes shifted to the work of art, although he felt them linger on him for an additional half second first. She scanned the sculpture more deliberately. "This is bronze."
"Yes, and has a very interesting story behind it."
"Oh really?" Delilah glanced back in his direction. She smirked, as though she picked up on Walter's enthusiasm. "Well, do tell, darling."
Walter chuckled, then sobered, his gaze shifting to the piece. "This is, allegedly, a sculpture of a man named Pompeo. In Cellini's autobiography, he talks about Pompeo as a fellow goldsmith with whom he had fallen in love. He ended up killing Pompeo when he found him in bed with his estranged wife, but not before he begun working on this in secret." He regarded Delilah again. "There were some documents around the time which suggested its existence, even though he never talks about it in his autobiography. The mortal world thought it was a myth, but other vampire art collectors I've spoken to have confirmed its existence. I never knew where it was until a few weeks ago."
"Really?" Her eyes turned appraising, scanning Walter from head to toe and back again. "Are you an art collector?"
Walter felt a pang of arousal at the way her smirk transformed into that sultry grin again. He shifted closer. "I've been known to dabble." He smiled in a cunning fashion, unable to stop himself. "I buy and sell art, more often than not. There are only a few pieces I actually hold onto."
She hummed. "That might make you competition."
Delilah chuckled lightly. "I buy and sell rare items myself. Not limited to art, but it definitely includes it." Her gaze fixed on the lapels of his tuxedo jacket. Walter felt his throat turn dry. "My clients are usually vampires looking for something from their mortal years, although I do often furnish their homes or find special items for them purely because they want them."
Walter nodded. "And I take it Lord Tobias is a client."
She shrugged. "One of many. I travel a lot."
"That makes two of us." Walter furrowed his brow, his facial expression relaxing marginally into a form of curiosity. "So, you deal in goods and speciality items?"
"Amongst other things."
"Fascinating." Walter held back the impulse to spit it out, although it nearly required biting his tongue. 'You see, I have this dream I keep working toward. A sort of art dealing, yes, but art preservation and appreciation, too. Very focused on the brilliant and the rare.' He did permit himself to ask, "And you started this enterprise on your own?"
"I did." Her smile brightened. "I had the idea after being asked to find a few rare items for my first client."
"What a brilliant woman that makes you." He drifted closer again, the glass of blood in his hand all but forgotten now while he studied Delilah and fought the impulses raging through him. He wanted to say, 'Perhaps we might slip away and discuss what you do in a much more... private setting,' and could almost see her porcelain skin exposed before his hungry eyes.
But he had thirty-six hours and a date with the bronze sculpture on the marble pedestal.
He sighed. 'Business mixed with pleasure will have to wait for another night.' The corner of his mouth curled in an apologetic smile. "Do you have a business card, Miss Aevum? I'm often in the market for selling goods that I acquire."
"Certainly, Mr. Ryan."
"Please. Call me Chris."
Delilah nodded and lifted her purse, slipping a hand inside and pulling it out with a piece of card stock poised between her delicate fingers. Hazel converged with cerulean again. Walter tensed when he felt the folds of his fine linen pocket engulf her hand and lowered his eyes just to watch it slide out again. Walter nearly groaned, especially when their gaze converged once more. "And call me Delilah." She punctuated the instruction with a wink.
The blonde-haired beauty turned and walked away. Walter remained in place for longer than he should have, admiring the sweeping curves of her backside until she disappeared around the corner. His pocket felt heavier, weighed down by both her business card and his own sexual frustration.
Walter glanced at the bronze sculpture and sighed. "Cellini, all I can say is you had better fucking be worth it."