Missy Chambers kicked at the red and orange leaves as she waited for the bus back to her dorm. Soon enough they’d be raked and burned, but right now they smelled of autumn and crunched under her sneakers. She loved Hyde Park in the fall.
I can’t believe this is my last fall in Pittsburgh. I really need to get that paper done for Dr. Boesgar if I want to graduate in April though.
Despite her syllabus calling, Missy didn’t pull a book from her backpack. The wind off the river blew through the trees, making leaves dance around her. There was no hurry to be anywhere at the moment.
A whine caught her attention. Off to her right stood a dog. A black mask circled its gold eyes and sharply pointed ears pricked up towards her. Looking like a beautiful mix of Husky and German Shepherd, it seemed to be smiling at her.
She held out a hand, and the dog bounded over to sniff, tail wagging furiously. It butted its head against her arm, so Missy took the chance and rubbed at the thick, soft neck. No collar could be felt under the shaggy cream and black fur.
“Hey pretty dog, you have a name?”
Missy startled at the man’s voice and blood rushed to her face. The tall man smiling down at her was seriously good looking in a comic book superhero kind of way. Square jaw, spiky blond hair, and good teeth.
And he has at least a decade on me.
He pushed a leather collar over the dog’s head. “Little brat slipped his collar. I’ve been looking for him.”
Missy would have sworn the dog rolled his eyes at this statement.
“Little brat?” She roughed Matty’s ears. She could look the dog in the eye from the low bench.
The man shrugged, an affectionate smile peeking out. “Some nicknames stick no matter what you look like at the moment.”
“Well, he just walked over a few seconds ago.”
The man nodded. “How long have you been sitting here?”
She paused, nervous fear and her mother’s warnings running through her.
Don’t talk to strangers, especially men you don’t know. Don’t tell them where you live or what your schedule is.
“A little bit. My bus is on the way.”
“You all by yourself then?”
She shrank onto the bench, suddenly much more nervous than before. Matty whined and licked at her hands.
The man smiled at her again. “Sorry, I’m not trying to be a creep, I swear. My name is Rick.” He held out a hand.
Missy hesitated. Rick wasn’t just tall, but heavy. Obvious muscle strained the sleeves of the gray hoodie he wore.
A flicker of movement caught her eye. Matty nodded to her.
Don’t be silly. Dogs can’t nod.
Against her mother’s better judgment, she took his hand. “Missy.”
He met her eyes and Missy’s heart beat a little faster. Who cared that he was older than her? Beautiful gray eyes like that defied age.
“Well, Missy, thanks for stopping my terrible dog.” He half turned to walk away, then spun back to her. “I know how this sounds, but do you want me to wait until your bus gets here?”
She was tempted, if only for the scenery, but the mother in her brain was having a complete meltdown. “Nah, it’ll just be a few more minutes. Thanks though.”
“Not a problem.” He smiled at her again. “This is out of line, but if you want a ride home, Matty and I will be walking the trail over there.”
“Thanks for the offer.” Missy almost wished she’d said yes, but this time she agreed with mom. Getting into a strange man’s car was just asking for trouble.
The sun sank lower as her bus ran later. Eventually, Missy stood and stretched, wondering if she should call the Port Authority and double check that her bus ran this late on the weekends.
Maybe I should take Rick up on that ride. If he drops me off at The O, I can get something to eat, and definitely catch a bus from there.
A cold shiver ran down her back, though she couldn’t say why. No brisk wind off the river had disturbed the leaves.
“Hello there.” The man who spoke wasn’t Rick. Wearing dark clothes that blended into the shadow of a huge oak, his pale face practically glowed. Despite being shorter than Rick, he gave off a distinct aura of danger.
Missy backed away, putting her hand in her pocket. The pink kitty key ring looked cute, but it was made of titanium and the pointed ears were sharp, making a formidable weapon.
Before she could pull her hand out, the man was in front of her. There was no time to move away or cry out. His hand lashed out and pain ran up her arm. His other fist slammed into her head, and she collapsed into the leaves, moaning.
The man’s pale face loomed over her. “So young, and so sweet.”
She rose off the ground with a pain in her neck. Something wet the front of her shirt, but it was fuzzy and happening somewhere else to a body she could barely feel.
As the world dimmed a long, low growl rumbled over her. Missy’s vision was once again filled with leaves. The growl became louder and louder, and paws brushed her cheeks.
“Better run, vampire.” The voice was familiar, but she couldn’t place it. The paws darted away from her.
She was rolled on to her back and beautiful gray eyes, full of pain, filled her world.
“No, Missy, no. C’mon, stay with me. I’m sorry. We were tracking another vampire. We thought it was the only one. I’m so sorry.”
As darkness fell over her, the cracking voice buzzed into nothingness.
Elizabeth Chambers walked through Hyde Park, the orange and brown leaves blowing across her boots. She’d had finally gotten custody of her daughter’s body, but she had to see the place where Missy died, one last time.
The compulsion to come to this sad place had washed over Elizabeth two and three times a day the week she’d been in Pittsburgh. Thankfully, she was leaving in a few hours, and would never set foot in this city again. This would be her last chance.
As she approached the bench, two men sat there amid the browning fallen leaves, red roses in hand. One was large and blond, the other short and dark.
The short man stood, placed his rose on the bench, and sighed. “C’mon, man, you did your best.”
The blond man shook his head. “My best wasn’t good enough.”
The short man stared off into the trees. “Look, you can do everything right, and some times…” he shrugged. “Some times life just sucks.”
She fidgeted, wanting them to leave, but the big man lowered his head. “She seemed like a nice kid. She didn’t deserve that death.”
Could it be?
The paramedics had described a man who had fought off Missy’s attacker and sat with her until they came. Large and blond with a dog…
Elizabeth pulled in a sharp breath. “Excuse me, did you know the girl who died here last week? She was my daughter.”
The dark man shook his head, but the large one shrank against the bench, horror and comprehension etched into every line on his face. “I’m sorry, ma’am, I didn’t know her. I offered her a ride home because her bus was late, but… I didn’t know her. She seemed…”
Elizabeth nodded. “You stayed with her until the paramedics came?”
He closed his eyes, face straining. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Thank you.” Her voice shook, and the tears came as they had all week. Loud and unstoppable. “Thank you for sitting with my little girl. I’m so glad she wasn’t alone.”
The big man stood. As he put his arms around her, Elizabeth let herself sink into him and sob. He held her and rubbed her back, murmuring under his breath.
Eventually, Elizabeth got herself under control and he stepped away. His awkward helpless as he stared at her nearly undid her again. But having someone to comfort was easier than dealing with her own pain.
She pulled out a tissue and dabbed at her eyes. “Thank you again, so much.”
The man shook his head. “I-I only wish I could have done more to help her.”
Elizabeth felt a smile grace her face. The first since she’d gotten the phone call from the police. “Young man, you did more than anybody else. Be proud of that.”
He lowered his head and took a deep breath. When he looked up again, shiny tear tracks ran down his face. He handed her the red rose in his hand. “Give this to Missy for me.”
“I will. Thank you.”
They stood there for a few uncomfortable moments before he flashed her an awkward smile. “Goodbye.”
He waved to his friend. “C’mon, Matty.” They walked over to the trail and disappeared into the trees.
Elizabeth sat on the park bench, rose in hand, and called to mind her daughter’s first steps.