Not many people outside of the Guild knew that the ironically named “Rat Cellar” was actually the most popular vampire hangout in Seabingen. It took up the entire third floor of one of Pepperwoods’ tallest buildings. The club was open only to vampires, and had very short hours. The club fees weren’t insignificant, but Morales kept up a membership because one of the things they offered, in addition to the comfort of not having to deal with humans, was a blood bar where desperate Guild members could always get a pint or two to fulfill their needs. Each glass cost more than a rare Napa valley vintage, but it was convenient, legal, and the company was better here than in the alley behind the blood bank, so Morales decided to dip into his ever dwindling savings account and order one.
He took the short glass and sat on one of the lounging couches, trying to look casual. The place was as bright as a doctor’s office, and instead of carpet they had very realistic looking fake grass.
“I never liked that stuff,” Mei said as she approached him. “I hate the taste of the anticoagulant they use.”
“We can’t all be as popular with the humans, my darling,” Morales stood up to greet her, extending both hands. He kissed her fingertips. Sometimes that gesture made her smile.
Mei Siang had been fourteen when she was made a vampire, but her old-fashioned hair cut and stylish expensive clothing went a long way towards making her look older. She had been beautiful even as a human, but her flawless pale skin and immortal’s poise made her absolutely enthralling now. Tonight she wore a black Armani suit with a hot pink and orange shell underneath. Her jade earrings and matching necklace were worth a king’s ransom. Morales had been with her when the museum auctioned them off. She claimed they once belonged to her mother, and although Morales was almost certain that was a lie, he felt that Mei deserved any piece of jewelry she wanted. He made the mistake of telling her that once. She laughed at what she called his “puppy love” and said he would get over his infatuation in time. That was ten years earlier, and he was still in love with her.
“I’m surprised they still let you in here, wearing those scruffy clothes. This place used to have a dress code.” She kissed him on the cheek, then sat on the floral print couch. Behind her, wide screen televisions played loop tapes of sunny days and blue skies.
“Whereas you look so beautiful, I suppose you’re expecting company. How much time do I have in your lovely presence before I have to eat at the kid’s table?” Morales drank his glass of blood quickly. He poured water into the blood goblet, swished it around to pick up any stray platelets, then drank the water. He was so blood thirsty that he considered ordering another, and wondered if his bank account could handle it.
“You can stay when they get here, if you can play nice. Just don’t talk about Sandpoint.” She said it lightly, but he heard the seriousness behind her tone.
“I’d like to forget about Sandpoint. I’d like everyone to forget.” He grinned, feeling giddy. Drinking blood after having done without for so long always felt like breaking a fast with a candy bar.
“They won’t. So you can stop with your other suggestion. They’re not going to reinstate you on a squad. Have you got a job yet?”
“Haven’t been looking. I’m busy with this.”
“You need to—”
“Thanks, Mom, but I am a big boy. Next thing you know, you’re going to be telling me to get a haircut.”
“Sorry, Rick. I’m worried about you. You need a job. You need more human contacts. I mean, look at you! When was the last time you had a drink?”
“I just finished one.”
“Two weeks.” He pretended to watch one of the big screens, which was showing a dandelion being blown apart by the wind under a clear blue sky.
“You’re pushing it, Rick. Even Keynes doesn’t go two weeks without a drink, and you know how old he is.” She grabbed his hand with her slim light one. “Please take better care of yourself.”
“I’m not going to frenzy, Mei. I’m in complete control.”
“I’ve heard that before,” she said, in a voice quiet and sad. “I’ve heard that from others.”
Morales didn’t want to get into it with her, and he was saved from having to do so by the arrival of the Guild Leader.
Holzhausen had a dark suit and an aura of power, like a politician or a CEO. All those cold-blooded mob leaders in the movies, the ones who killed men just to watch their expression change? They could have been modeled off Holzhausen.
Holzhausen nodded briefly at him, and then turned back to Councilman Branning. Councilman Branning wore a pantsuit and a pearl necklace, and her white hair had been set in curls. If she had bifocals and a clipboard she would have looked like a charity auction supervisor, or maybe a retiree ‘get out the vote’ volunteer. He heard a rumor that she and Holzhausen were a couple, but he hadn’t had the balls to ask them right out. Personally, he couldn’t see sleeping with a woman that old.
“Siang, how lovely to see you! It’s been a while since we’ve chatted. How have you been?” Councilman Branning didn’t so much as look in Morales’ direction.
They chatted about pleasantries and finances, and gossip that Morales couldn’t follow, of vampires in their own Guild and what was happening in Guilds in other cities. Morales ordered a second glass of blood and let his mind wander.
He’d been meaning to tell Mei about what he’d discovered regarding Jim Brown. True, it was Holzhausen he had to report to, but he didn’t want to present his theory until it was rock solid, and there were too many pieces missing.
Jim Brown was up to no good. Of that, he was certain. He owned too much property and had no source of income, as far as Morales could discern. He was pretty sure he was involved in something like a pyramid scheme. One of his properties had no fewer than six investors, each of them sunk into it for most of the cost of the property. Where was he hiding the extra money? Offshore accounts, no doubt. He hid behind the name Qualico LLC, along with the co-owner, Mike Brown. Morales was pretty sure this Mike guy was Jim’s brother, but he hadn’t yet seen him. Was that Mike that Jim had been talking on the phone with at Emilio’s? Could be.
Here’s how it played out in his mind. Man gets involved in investment fraud. He’s making lots of money, top of the world, just about to sell out and high tail it out of there, when his girlfriend finds out. So what does he do? He kills her, or more to the point, he hires someone to kill her. Could Mike have been big enough and strong enough to do it? Maybe if he were some kind of an athlete.
He wanted to run these theories by Mei, get her opinion, have her poke holes in it, tell him what he was overlooking, but she was too busy brownnosing with the Council.
“Wicked Witch of the East?” Councilman Branning laughed. “How on earth did you get that nickname?”
“A house fell on me,” Mei said.
“My my my.” Councilman Branning grinned. “Well you can’t leave it at that, my dear Siang. Please tell us the whole story.”
“That’s when I met Rick here. You don’t mind if I tell?” she asked Morales. He shrugged assent. He didn’t really like this story, but it was one of her favorites.
“I bought a little beach house in Miami, thinking it would be a good investment, and a nice place to go in the summer to get away from these horrible white nights.”
The others nodded in agreement. Seabingen wasn’t that far north, but it felt like Siberia sometimes when you were stuck in your house for hours and hours waiting for a late dusk.
“So, I was living in this house when one of those hurricanes came through. Which one was it? Lily? Andrew? Olaf? I can’t remember. They evacuated the area, but I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I stayed in the house. Sure enough, we got hit by the hurricane, and the whole damn house fell on top of me.”
Morales stuck his nose in his wineglass, inhaling the rich scent of blood. He wanted a third glass. Maybe Mei was right. He hadn’t been drinking enough.
“After two night’s work, I managed to get enough of the debris off of me to escape, but I wanted to root around more for some of my jewelry before the looters got it, so I went back into the rubble to sleep the day away.
“Along comes Rick here. He was there to inspect damage on the next-door-neighbor’s house, but something came up and he had to come back at sunset to finish his insurance investigations.”
That had been perhaps a dozen years ago, but since then, he’d fallen in love, become a vampire, lost his family, lost his human life, and moved three thousand miles away. He wasn’t sure how much of his memory of the event was real, and how much of it was created out of her story. It seemed more than a lifetime ago.
“Now, not that I don’t commend him, but the last thing I wanted to see when I came out at sunset was a good Samaritan who thought I was some kind of a hurricane orphan. He kept asking me where my parents were.”
Branning and Holzhausen had their lips pressed firmly together, as if they were trying not to laugh by pure effort. Morales was embarrassed, but Mei patting his leg under the table made up for a lot of humiliation.
“After a while he pestered me so much that I told him the truth, and then he started pestering me even more.”
“Seduced by her charm and beauty,” offered Morales, as he toasted her with the last of the blood.
“So he wouldn’t leave me alone, and I liked him too much to just drain him and be done with it, so I offered to sire him,” she said.
“Such a nice way of putting it. I pestered you into vampirism,” Morales said.
“Would you rather I had drained you?” Mei asked, with a fake glower. “There’s still time, Rick.”
“That wasn’t the story I thought you were going to tell,” Holzhausen said. “I heard of a different rumor, one of a golden phoenix and a fire.”
“Ah.” Mei’s smile faded.
Holzhauzen and Branning held still and watched her, patiently, like cats stalking a mousehole. Morales held his breath in hope. She had never told Morales that story, and he never had the courage to ask her. He was pretty sure she didn’t want to get into it now, but it was hard for any Guild member to refuse Holzhausen when he made a request.
Mei paused, considering, and when the four of them had stayed there long enough that the silence bothered Morales, Mei took a breath and started the tale. Her voice took on a different cadence, as though she had traveled back in time.
“When I was a girl, my parents sold me to a brothel.”
Morales raised his eyebrows at this, but Holzhausen and Branning, old enough to have seen it all, merely nodded.
“Was this in China?” Holzhausen asked.
“No, in California. My parents, my uncle, and my grandmother all immigrated together. They lost their money soon after they came over because of… no, that story’s too long. My grandmother died of a cough within a month, and my mother had to sell all her jewelry to bury her.
“Things got worse when my father became ill. My parents had no money for medicine, and had to feed my siblings too, so they sold me to a woman who called herself, it doesn’t translate well, but roughly she called herself ‘the Golden Phoenix of Chinatown’, although they didn’t call it Chinatown then. She was a vampire, and she wanted to turn a young girl, so that I’d stay that way forever. Men always wanted the young girls, and since the brothels were only open at night, it seemed like the perfect business venture for her.”
Mei shrank in on herself, the Armani suit suddenly seeming like another woman’s clothes. Her expression changed, subtly, as if she were putting on a face she had worn decades earlier. Morales had never seen his sire look so small and fragile. He wanted to hold her and comfort her and say she didn’t have to tell the story, but it was her story to tell, no matter what it cost her.
“I was a virgin when she bought me. My mother had hoped that at least one of her daughters might marry well, and that she could use the money she got from selling me to see my sisters wed, but that didn’t–well, that’s too long of a story.” She turned to Morales. “Now, you might be thinking that the House of the Golden Phoenix was a rich place where the girls all sat around eating grapes and lounging on silk, but none of us Chinese people had much money then… those who could afford more than a cheap whore just bought concubines. I shared a pallet with two other girls, and one of them died from some concoction the Golden Phoenix gave her to make her miscarry. There was never enough food, and we had no heat. The fleas were terrible, and the smell from the chamber pots clung to us worse than the smell of garlic.
“I can’t say it was any better for our neighbors. It was a bad time for Chinese people, and lives were cheap.”
Morales had rarely heard her refer to herself as Chinese. She liked to say that she lost her nationality when she became a vampire. The irrational desire to protect her sprung up again.
“She thought it was fabulous that I could take so much abuse and still heal, so the Golden Phoenix used to give me to the rougher customers. Some of them tried to kill me when they saw the fangs, but most of the time I kept my mouth shut and they didn’t know. Being a vampire saved me. Two of my sist—two of my co-workers were beaten to death by drunken muleteers one night, but I managed to survive, even though my injuries were worse. Of course, the Golden Bitch didn’t take into account that I would need more blood to recover from that. She never let me drink enough anyway. When I killed a client in a frenzy, she took it wrong and… well she punished me severely.”
That must be where the scars were from. Had silver done that? Sunlight?
“She was stronger than I was, but I knew if I paid some money in the right hands, I could get my revenge.”
Mei reached out to take a drink from her glass. He thought he saw a faint tremor in her fingers, but maybe he’d imagined it.
“Chinatown back then was nothing but a ramshackle wooden firetrap. One day the brothel caught fire. I wasn’t there. I had snuck out just before dawn to sleep in the basement of a shipping warehouse. The fire took out three or four blocks, but the building I was in was far enough away that the fire brigade put it out in time. Most of the humans managed to escape, but the Golden Phoenix burned to a crisp, and unlike the real phoenix, she never rose from her own ashes.” Mei leaned back with a satisfied smile. “They said it must have been from a careless cook stove.”
Holzhausen nodded solemnly. After a pause, he reached forward and raised his glass. “To careless cooks.”
“To careless cooks,” Branning agreed, with a smile.
Morales raised his glass along with them, but he had trouble smiling. He was picturing instead thousands of poor immigrants burning, children wailing, and the wretched dawn that followed, with homeless widows and orphans trying to scratch a living out of the ashes.
“To careless cooks,” he murmured, as he drank the last drops of blood from his glass. But he couldn’t meet Mei’s eye.
Burned to death. Sweet Jesus.