My sweet girl,
I hope by now I have impressed upon you the seriousness of my designs. This is no mere preoccupation or passing fancy. I am determined, having seen the bright way you shine, that you will be mine. I have others with a similar glow about them, but never in such a lovely creature. You are a prize specimen, of great talent and worth.
Do not question that you are made for greater things, Isabella. That is certain. Your destiny may not be unique, but it is great, and from you will spring a new world. That world is full of boundless possibilities, and you should be proud to be selected as one of its forebearers. There can be no greater honor in this life.
Reflect upon my words, beloved. Believe them. And when I come to you, do not resist me. No doubt you will be hearing from me soon.
When she saw the now-familiar PO Box address on the front of the envelope, Bella's blood ran cold. She almost didn't open it, thinking of the two letters that now sat on her desk and their odd words about destiny and power. These fond and disturbing words from an unknown admirer frightened her, and they filled her with a dull kind of dread. To think, she used to love getting mail.
This letter seemed to escalate the vague threats contained in the others. And when I come to you, do not resist me. She shivered, dropping the waxy parchment to the floor and crossing her arms across her chest. Living on her own had never bothered her before; in fact, she always used to relish the freedom. When her police chief father had warned her about the dangers of being a young woman and alone, she had chalked his fears up to outmoded and old-fashioned thinking, and a predisposition for seeing danger everywhere. Now, with this third delivery in a week, her small apartment, with its comfortable, if cheap furnishings, and brightly painted walls seemed more like a cage than a home. She glanced toward the front door, checking the deadbolt for the fifth time in an hour.
With that reflexive glance at the lock, her temper flared. "This is ridiculous," she muttered. She kicked at the letter as she turned and stomped to her desk to boot up her laptop, determined to get some answers. She called the police station first. She knew she didn't have nearly enough information for a restraining order, but hoped to at least get the ball rolling on a formal complaint. The officer on phone duty that night, however, told that without an identity, little could be done to stop whoever was harassing her. She was encouraged to call back or come in once she had a name to go with her creepy letters.
Next, she called the post office, thinking she could sweet talk someone on the other end into giving her a name or a description. Instead of a person on the other end of the line, however, she got an endless menu of options and recorded messages.
"If you are calling to check on the status of a delivery, please press or say one now."
"If you're an automated voice whose sole purpose is to waste my time, press one now," she muttered back.
"I'm sorry," answered the jerky, female voice. "I didn't understand that. If you are calling to check on the status of a delivery, please press or say one now."
She almost threw her phone across the room, but recognized that would do nothing to solve her problem.
After ten minutes and as many menus, she gave up on speaking to a live person, dropping her phone on the couch and scrubbing her hands over her face in frustration. She exhaled sharply, shifting in her desk chair a little so she could see the firmly secured deadbolt again. The discarded letter sat in front of the door, slightly crumpled and face down.
"I'm not afraid of you," she said to the letter, standing swiftly and striding toward the door. She stooped to pick it up and smoothed out the wrinkles in the parchment the best she could, sliding it into its envelope. Purse and keys in hand she faced the door with a look of stoic fearlessness. A simple flick of her wrist later, and the deadbolt was unlocked. She yanked the door back, steeling herself for the sight that had greeted her when she returned from class two hours before. There, almost completely covering the gaudy orange welcome mat her mother had insisted she buy for her new apartment, was a giant vase full of flowers. The scent of them almost knocked her back, and it was clear from the perfumed air in the hall that they had been sitting there for some time. Sticking out of the blooms on a plastic holder was a small, white envelope that simply said 'Beloved.'
"No, no, no, no," she chanted. The door clicked shut behind her, and she side-stepped the arrangement, not giving it a second glance as she made her way down the hall. At the front desk, she asked the security guard to have them removed, ensuring they would be gone by the time she returned.
There was a new spring in her step as she left the flowers behind. If she couldn't speak to someone on the phone, then she was determined to go to the post office in person.
She briefly considered calling one of her parents for advice, but quickly concluded that would cause more problems than it was worth. Charlie would rage and worry, and probably tell her that this was why he never wanted her living so close to Chicago. To Chief Swan, big cities were anathemas, and the people who chose to live there were suspect. Renee would likely swing the exact opposite direction, speculating on a courtly, old-fashioned secret admirer and demanding details with a girlish, gushing giggle. Neither reaction was helpful.
Besides her parents, there wasn't anyone Bella could call on for advice-not about something like this anyway. The people in her social group, fellow students and coworkers at the campus sandwich shop, weren't so much friends as people who coexisted in her space. It wasn't intentional, but she simply didn't go out of her way to invite people into her life, and as a result, she had very few, if any, real friends. Her mother called her shy, her crueler female classmates threw around words like "bitch" and "stuck-up." Something about her pushed people away. Bella always figured it was just that she was different—she simply didn't function on the same wavelength as everyone else.
Most of the time it suited her well. She liked the solitude of her apartment, and her random interactions with coworkers and classmates were enough to stave off any loneliness she might have felt. But it was times like these, when she was worried, or scared, or angry, that she wished she had someone she could rely on. The desire for a confidant irked her, not least because her independence streak was about a mile wide. Even as a child she had been self-reliant. She could clearly remember getting herself ready on her first day of kindergarten, braiding her hair, assembling her outfit, packing her lunch, and walking by herself to the bus stop.
The post office was predictably crowded for a Monday afternoon, and Bella found herself at the end of a long line of people, some with packages to mail, others there for stamps or other sundry chores. Her eyes wandered to the wall of PO Boxes along the far wall, labeled with small black numbers. Anonymous, cheap, and easy to obtain. That part of the puzzle confused her—why use any return address at all? Was she meant to take this step, to track him down? The thought that all this might be some kind of trap made her uneasy, but not knowing scared her more.
She tugged at the end of her sleeves and willed the line to move faster. The young man at the counter seemed to be moving purposefully slow, smiling and making small talk with the customers as they reached the front of the line. She scowled, only briefly noting that for a public servant, he was quite handsome.
The line inched forward for what seemed like hours, until finally, it was her turn. She crossed the narrow strip of linoleum that separated the line from the counter and dropped the letter in front of the young man. He picked up it, glancing at her quizzically.
"How can I help you, ma'am?" She resisted the urge to roll her eyes at the 'ma'am', even though the boy looked to be about her age.
"I need to know who owns the PO Box that keeps sending me letters. I got this one today. It's creepy, and it needs to stop."
"Well, ma'am," here she made a disgusted sort of sigh, "I can't really give you that information."
"Look, kid," she snapped, grabbing her letter back off the counter.
"Edward," he corrected calmly.
"Fine. Edward. I'm being harassed by some spooky, skeezy, unknown stranger. Are you really standing there telling me you can't tell me who it is that owns that box?"
His eyes narrowed, but his tone didn't change. "Not unless you're with law enforcement, or you have a court order or a subpoena. Do any of those things apply to your situation, ma'am?"
"No." She glared at him, but he crossed his arms and smiled blandly, apparently unfazed. "Look, I'm not making this up. See for yourself."
His eyebrows lifted slightly, and he frowned down at the envelope, turning it over in his hands. His fingers toyed with the ripped edges on the top of the envelope, and one folded corner peeked out.
She waved her hand. "Go ahead. Read it."
He pulled it out with a small flourish, snapping the letter open and laying it flat on the counter. His lips formed the words silently as he read, and Bella stared at her feet, not interested in witnessing his reaction to the strange words. She reassured herself by telling herself that he was a postal worker, and he probably saw weirder things than her letter every day.
She lifted her head and looked up at him. He was chewing on his bottom lip, head tilted slightly to the side. "Well?" she asked impatiently, after he didn't say anything else.
"Maybe you should call the police," he suggested. "They can do more for you than we can."
"I already called the police," she growled, her frustration with him mounting. "What, do you think I'm an idiot? My dad has been on the force my whole life. I called the police first thing."
"There's no need to shout, ma'am," he said quietly, a slight edge working its way into his voice. "I was merely suggesting—"
"Right. You were merely suggesting, I get it. The police told me that they can't do anything without a name. I tried calling your phone number but apparently you guys don't actually ever answer your phones, unless it's with some sort of prerecorded message, and now you're telling me that after I dragged my butt all the way down here, you can't help me. At all."
"Correct." The word was short and clipped. "I can't break the law because you have a secret admirer."
"Well, that's just great," she spat. She stuffed the envelope in her purse and stormed away from the counter, leaving Edward scowling after her.
"Have a nice day," he muttered. He watched her leave, hips swinging slightly, long brown hair flying out behind her. Sighing, he rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand and turned back to the line. It had been a long day, and the angry brunette wasn't the first to yell at him that day. Thankfully, there was a momentary lull in the hubbub of the main floor, and no one was waiting in front of his station.
He thought back to the letter the woman had brought and shivered. He knew that his answer had been legal and correct, but she was right—the whole situation was creepy. Curious, he turned to the computer next to him and brought up the PO Box system. He wasn't technically supposed to go poking around in the records, but he had access to them. He logged in and had just typed in the number on the box, 139, when the sound of someone clearing their throat interrupted him.
He jumped guiltily, and looked up to find a petite woman standing in front of the counter, staring at him intently. "Excuse me," she said quietly, "but could you help me, please?"
Her voice was high and musical, almost sing-song in quality. She was beautiful, but there was something slightly off-putting about the direct way she looked at him. It could have been the strange, golden hue of her eyes, or the fact that despite her youthful and energetic appearance, something about the way she tapped her foot seemed practiced and somewhat forced. Despite appearances, she didn't look impatient.
"Of course," he said, shaking himself from his stupor. "I'm sorry. How can I help you?"
"I was wondering if you carry the commemorative 'Year of the Tiger' stamps and notecard sets," she said sweetly. She smiled up at him, white teeth gleaming, and Edward felt a strange chill work its way through his body. His stomach felt like a lump of ice.
"Uh, I think so," he said, trying to cover up his discomfort with professionalism. "Let me check in the back. I've only got the 'forever' stamps and the everyday stuff up here."
She nodded absently and turned to survey the room. He felt more comfortable when she wasn't looking at him, although he couldn't quite fight the feeling that he should put distance between himself and the waiflike woman. He cast a longing glance at the computer screen, which had pulled up the information about the PO Box from earlier, but his need to get rid of the unsettling stamp buyer sent him back to fetch the item she was looking for. It took him several minutes to locate the commemorative sets, as they had come out several months earlier and demand had fallen off.
The real stamp freaks ordered their special editions online, although every once in a while a collector, lugging a thick binder full of plastic, hermetically sealed pages full of dusty stamps, came in looking for something specific. The postal workers could usually smell them coming a mile away, and it was a race to see who could be too busy to help when they came in.
"Here you are, ma'am," he said, sliding the booklet across the counter. She was looking away, but turned and flashed another bright smile at him.
"Thank you, Edward," she said quickly, dropping exact change on the counter. "Have a nice day."
"You, too," he answered, scooping up the cash and dropping it in the till. She scurried away, almost skipping in her haste to leave the building. He stared after her, trying to figure out what about her was so strange. She couldn't have been more than eighteen or nineteen years old, but something in her eyes suggested someone much older. He realized with a start that she had called him by his name. He hadn't mentioned his name to her, he was sure of it.
"Weird," he said to himself, before remembering his search for the PO Box. He turned back to the monitor, only to find that the screen was blank. "Damn it." He hit a few keys, but the system seemed to have completely shut down. He sighed and rebooted, fingers clicking against the keys as he worked his way back through the system. Only this time when he reached the screen for post office box 139—
He frowned at the screen, backed out, and went back in. The result was the same. He shrugged it off, telling himself that there was probably nothing there to begin with. Maybe the subscription had expired, or whoever sold the box had entered it wrong. It wasn't unheard of. He hadn't gotten a close look at the screen before, after all. Likely nothing had changed.
He exited the records system and logged out, intending to run to to break room for a cup of coffee before returning to his spot behind the counter. As he turned to go, he glanced out at the street beyond the glass doors. Ordinary people moved to and fro, some of them rushing into the post office before it closed, others just walking blindly by. The scene was strikingly normal, until something caught his eye. Amidst the chaos, still as a statue, was the tiny stamp collector. Her face was impassive, staring through the revolving glass doors toward him. Looking at him. He remembered how close she had been standing to the computer, and how carefully she looked away when he returned with her purchases. His intuition, which was usually incredibly helpful in situations like these, flickered. Her eyes widened minutely as she realized she'd been caught, and he knew if he didn't act quickly, she would be gone. He bolted for the employee exit that led out into the lobby, hoping he could catch the mysterious woman before she got too far. She was short, after all, and her legs weren't long enough to let her run more than a half a block before he got outside.
He pushed through the small crowd in the lobby, nearly running into one woman as he shouldered through the revolving door. He was breathless when he got out into the glaring April sunlight, taking short, shallow gasps as he stood with his hands on his hips, surveying the street.
The woman had vanished.
A/N: It's been a year since I've written anything, but I'm back! This story is my first foray into AU, and it's very different from my usual AH fluff and drama drama. Be prepared for a darker and more plotty fic. Big thanks go out to hmonster4 and BittenBee for beta tough love, and katinki01 and daisy3853 for prereading and comments. I'm anticipating a once a week update schedule. Thanks for reading!