New to the story? S’okay–go here.
Also, remember how I warned you there was some adult content in this? This chapter has some sexy-times. Just FYI if you’re the kind of person who gets shocked and embarrassed.
Joyce Albers made eye contact with Thomas as soon as she walked into the bar. He sidled around to remove the boxes from her favorite chair. The chair was of a strange design, almost shaped like an egg or a bucket seat, and a little too tall for the bar. It was ugly, and deeply uncomfortable, but it resembled a throne enough that it kept people from getting too close. Thomas had kept it for her when the management redecorated the rest of the bar, from the industrial chains-and-sheet metal décor to the mid-century-whatever this was. It had a brick wall soaring to the darkness of the ceiling, and large mirrors in apricot and lime green frames. Low sleek couches made circles around chrome coffee tables. If it weren’t for the flat-screen televisions, the décor could have been from 1962. She wished she had known it would come back into fashion. She could have kept her wardrobe in storage and brought it out again, instead of getting a new one every year. All those dated clothes she foolishly threw out, not knowing that mini skirts made of upholstery fabric would so quickly become haute couture again.
Thomas slid a martini in front of her. She let her fingers trail down his arm before placing the extravagant tip in his hand. He took her fingers and brought them to his lips. He held eye contact while he kissed her hands, asking a silent question. She smiled and tilted her head as if to say “maybe.”
She’d slept with him once. She’d slept with most of the men she drank from. Thomas had been boozing too much and hadn’t been able to perform. He’d been mortified. She’d been oh so understanding, and had promised she would never tell anyone, and she had kept this secret tucked away in her mind with all the other secrets. Secrets were better than sex, sometimes.
Albers heard Keith even before she saw him. He had a shuffling walk that cut through the too-loud music, and a wheezing constant sniffle like some poor tubercular urchin, though he was in his early thirties and whatever ague afflicted him could probably be cured as soon as his health benefits from his new job kicked in.
“Ms. Albers,” Keith said. He wheezed and sniffled, then extended his hand to shake. She didn’t take it. Keith wiped his hand on his pants. “I got the job.”
She smiled regally. “Of course you did.”
“I brought you this.” Keith lifted a sparkly paper bag and set it on the counter. He put his hands in his front pockets. He was wearing loafers and khakis with a hooded sweatshirt.
“Lovely,” she said, not looking at the bag. By its shape and the sound it made on the counter, it contained wine. Knowing Keith, it had been purchased from a local grocery chain, probably on the end cap with a yellow tag announcing a sale. “But that’s not the drink I prefer.”
“Well, you know, my girlfriend thinks it’s a little weird. I mean, she’s worried about what people would think of me if they knew I was giving blood to a—“
She cut him off with a finger to his lips before he could finish his sentence. His lips were overly soft, and slightly sticky, as though he’d been eating hard candy. “You keep quiet about that, or there will be trouble.”
He wouldn’t understand, couldn’t understand. Keith had been born in an unusually tolerant century, to stable parents of a class and race who thought of themselves as the epicenter of normalcy. Even his religion hadn’t been on the receiving end of hate since before his great-grandparent’s memory. He didn’t understand the delicate balancing act of keeping secret enough to stay safe, but letting enough people know who and what you were so that you could take blood when you needed it. It had been simpler before the Guild, before all the rules about not killing people for blood. Not easier, maybe, but simpler.
“And how is your girlfriend?” she asked. “I hear she’s been having some trouble with her neighbors.”
Keith stopped rocking. The cloth of his pockets bunched out as his hands balled into fists.
Albers smiled. “Maybe there’s something I can do to help her out. You know I’m always glad to help a friend.”
She let the rest of it hanging there, like how she knew so much about his girlfriend. Would he find out that they had spoken? That Albers had met Sarah at the laundromat often enough to become chatting acquaintances? That Albers knew more about Keith than his own mother? He might never know how much she knew. Frankly, that was part of the fun.
In the reflection of the mirror hanging on the bare brick wall next to her, she saw Thomas glare at Keith, palms down on the table. She thought about flirting with Keith, seducing him, making him pay for his new position at the university with an affair that he wouldn’t want his girlfriend to know about, but she was feeling generous, and she didn’t want to deal with Thomas’s anger. He would probably be a problem later, that Thomas, but she tolerated it for now because he was free with his veins, and unlike the other bartender, he understood that “vodka martini” wasn’t a real thing.
Keith slunk off with his beer to the other corner of the bar, and Albers busied herself with her tablet. Sending emails, sending texts, making arrangements to meet with people. She’d resisted this technology for a long time, but once she had this portable brain, she found it irreplaceable. She made notes about Keith and his girlfriend, adding it to the dossier she kept on her “clients” as she liked to think of them.
“Someone dropped this off for you,” Thomas said, sliding an envelope across the bar. Albers looked up from her tablet. She picked up the envelope. It was legal sized, and thick with folded paper. She was just about to open it when she glanced across the bar and saw another vampire.
Jolene Caneles had been turned when she was nineteen, sometime late in the previous century. That would make her chronologically…what, thirty? She still had a nineteen year old’s skin, dotted by acne and with eyes just a little larger than most adults. She had thick, black eyeliner, and heavy mascara. Her long, brown hair had been brushed straight and dyed jet black, except for the inch at the roots. Her ears were heavily pierced, and she wore a black halter top that attached at the neck in a wide band like a dog’s collar. A man said something to her, and she turned to flirt with him, turning her pale shoulders towards Albers. Her back was dotted with picked-at blemishes. People who wanted to stay young forever always forgot about teenage acne.
Jolene leaned down to talk to the man, her voice rising. Albers watched the young vampire in the reflection in the mirrors. Jolene had a Celtic knotwork tattoo peeking above the low waist of her jeans. Albers snorted in contempt. What was that tattoo going to look like sixty years from now? Already Celtic knotwork was out of fashion. Keeping up with the fashions was the first step in blending into society. Stulchik had taught her that.
Stulchik. Albers sighed. She missed him. Stulchik understood so many things, and the one thing he got wrong had killed him.
Stulchik and Grey were tight. Getting in with Stulchik was almost as good as getting in with the Guild Leader. You wanted to make a human into a vampire? You talked to Stulchik, he would make it happen. You wanted a squad of vampires to make your business rival disappear? Stulchik could make that happen too.
Then Holzhausen started to gather power. It started with little things. It always starts with little things. Holzhausen found someone a job, not an important person, it was just a new vampire, only a few years old, who had moved here. He needed a job, and Holzhausen knew someone who knew someone who got him a graveyard shift at a convenience store.
Albers noticed, but she didn’t see the significance. Grey and Stulchik had been of the old school, where vampire affairs were vampire affairs and human affairs were for humans to deal with, and Albers had followed his lead. But Holzhausen was one of a new breed, vampires who had somehow managed to overthrow centuries of prejudice and make alliances with humans.
Albers couldn’t believe it was happening, even as it unfolded before her. Holzhausen had a face made for radio, and a sullen demeanor. He just wasn’t that likeable. Then someone wanted to be elected Holly King, some kind of Pagan deacon, and Holzhausen said words in the right ears. Soon, he held some sway among the Pagans in this town. She’d thought nothing of it. The people who believed in witchcraft were, frankly, a little weird. They weren’t central yet. They didn’t have money, and as Stulchik had taught her, money was the real power. Stulchik had mocked Holzhausen in the council meetings. Why was he even messing with humans? Vampires had never stooped to involve themselves in human affairs.
They learned why. You control the humans, you control the blood. You control the blood source, you control the vampires. Vampires who needed hosts talked to Holzhausen. Vampires remembered who fed them. Vampires started moving to Holzhausen’s side.
By the time Holzhausen challenged Grey for the leadership, it was too late for Grey to consolidate. Grey lost the election, and then the inevitable duel that followed. Holzhausen and his supporters went on a bloody rampage, murdering over a dozen vampires in a single night. She lost her friend, and she might have lost herself too if she’d been more in the open. But after the dust settled, she vowed she’d never be on the losing side again.
Except that Holzhausen didn’t let her in. His grudge held on like a crab’s claw. He brought in his own people, and handed out siring warrants like candy at a parade, which further cemented his human ties. No scraps left over for those who had been friends with Grey, or anyone who was allied with Grey, and that included her. His amnesty had extended only far enough to let her live, and that had cost her thousands of dollars for bribes.
But those times were past. Successions were always bloody, so be it. She was willing to let bygones be bygones, but if Holzhausen wanted to be her enemy, she could play that game too. One day Holzhausen would be lying on the dueling ground, with his own skull opened, his own brain emptied on the glass. One day Holzhausen’s supporters would be cooped up in their houses, hiding under the scant protection that their domiciles provided, wondering if their name was on the list. One day Melbourne and Branning and Nguyen and Tseng and the rest of Holzhausen’s supporters would be the ones terrified, begging and offering anything or anyone to the one who had the power to grant them mercy.
Such a pleasant fantasy.
These things took time. She’d learned from Holzhausen, and she’d do him one better. He had used his human supporters, but not like she did. He had a few friends. He had a few allies. These people loved her.
By now more humans had filtered in. She glanced around the room, looking for suitable prey. She liked them young, young enough to not know why getting involved with her was a bad idea, but old enough that parents wouldn’t complain if their son had bite marks. She looked for someone edgy, maybe with piercings or the reek of tobacco smoke, someone who wouldn’t blink when she asked to tap a vein. She was a little hungry, which helped, as men responded positively to a woman’s hunger.
She saw a likely suspect, a man in his mid-twenties with a shaved head and a pointed, braided beard. She started to move from the chair, but he turned, revealing a mole on the back of his neck right next to his spine. Oh. She knew that mole. She’d been with him before. Yes. It was six or seven years earlier, and he’d been an undergraduate who talked about his political science class endlessly, even when she had her mouth on his skin.
Probably better to use a sterile needle and a plastic bag, if she were completely honest, but that’s one habit she couldn’t give up. She just loved the feel of a man’s flesh parting between her teeth too much to tap a vein instead of biting one, even though tapping was safer. They had those sulfa drugs these days. People hardly ever died of bites anymore.
Albers slipped the envelope into her handbag. Jolene approached across the noisy bar, detouring to avoid the red felt pool table and the bank of booths filled with art students, perpetual drunks, heartbroken lovers, and the other sorts of people who were still drinking at midnight on a Tuesday. Albers went back to her tablet, only glancing up when Jolene came to the edge of her chair and stopped.
Albers rotated the chair and raised an eyebrow.
“They say you’re looking for dirt on Kit Melbourne.” Jolene spoke very quietly, almost a whisper.
“That’s what they say.”
Jolene handed over a flash drive, glancing around the bar furtively, as if she were palming a baggie of heroin. Her hand flew up to the fabric at her throat, worrying a loose thread.
Albers plucked it from her hand and brought it up to eye level, as if inspecting a jewel for quality. “And what am I looking at?”
“Financial records,” Jolene said.
Albers waited for her to continue.
“It’s the bookkeeping for Café Ishmael, a coffee shop in the Old Town owned by James Melbourne.”
“I know the place.”
“James Melbourne is Kit’s brother.” Jolene’s voice rose, not quite to a volume that a human could pick up, but close.
“Something’s going on there.” This time her voice did rise above the din, and Thomas glanced over. Albers tried not to sigh. Jolene was still a child in so many ways.
“I’ll take a look at it.” She slipped the file into her inside pocket.
Jolene waited expectantly, like a dog waiting for a biscuit.
“I’ll take a look at it,” Albers said. “I’ll see if this information is of any use to me.”
Jolene didn’t budge. Very well. She’d give her a little something. “Why don’t you go talk to the University of Seabingen’s newest Russian Literature professor?” She pointed to Keith.
Jolene pouted. “I don’t like nerds.”
Albers resisted the urge to throttle the girl. Who had been dumb enough to think that this fatuous, spoiled child was worth turning into a vampire? “His blood tastes the same as anyone else’s.”
Jolene sighed and sidled down the bar towards Keith, who brightened and smiled at Albers before extending his hand to Jolene. Jolene, for her part, took his hand and simpered in a reasonable facsimile of feminine charm. Well, at least there was that. She may have been hopeless in most regards, but at least she could seduce a man.
Albers pulled the envelope out of her bag, and slid some the stack of papers out to look at them. She finished her martini, gathered her purse, and slipped out the door.
It had been many years since she’d last seen Tom. The office complex was a mid-century concrete bunker set back in a crumbling parking lot and surrounded by dense pines that blocked the moonlight. Tom’s office was down a dark hall, wedged between an insurance company and the seediest looking ObGyn she’d ever seen. His door had a glass window with his name etched into it, over the words Private Investigator. Inside the office was dark, but she saw a man’s loafer sticking out over the edge of the leather couch. She smiled, then pounded on the door loudly enough to rattle the glass. She was rewarded by the sight of him startling to wakefulness, limbs flailing. She smiled wickedly.
He scrambled off the couch. He tucked his shirt in, buttoned it up, and straightened his tie, then slipped his Colt revolver off the end table and into his holster. He shrugged into his jacket and finger-combed his hair. A click, and the green light from the lamp on his desk made both of them wince.
He unlocked the door left-handed, the right hand hovering near his revolver. When he saw her, he relaxed.
“Good evening, Ms. Albers,” he said. “Please come in.”
Now that her eyes were adjusted to the light she got a better look at him. The years since she saw him last hadn’t done him any favors. His eyes looked haggard, sunken, and the stubble covering his chin and neck had flecks of gray. His shirt was wrinkled, and his sweat smelled like anxiety.
“Hello, Tom. It’s been a while.”
“Sure has.” He coughed, clearing some sleep from his voice. “Can I get you a drink?”
“Absolutely,” she said. “I’ll have what you’re having.”
Tom shuffled towards the cabinet in the corner and pulled out a bottle of scotch and a pair of glasses. He opened the rusty door of a small refrigerator on the floor next to the cabinet and took out a handful of ice cubes.
His previous office had the same twentieth-century décor, the same leather office chair, the same scarred wooden desk, the same bakelite phone and amber pressed-glass ashtray. This office smelled of damp and poor ventilation, of cheap carpet and decaying linoleum. Everything about him was from the previous century; even his choice of beverage fit what a private investigator of seventy years earlier drank. She’d found it amusing when she’s first met him, but to see him still embedded in this role all these years later impressed her.
When he set the bottle on the table, she reached down and picked up his right hand. She ran her finger delicately over the softer groove where his wedding ring used to be. “You’ve had some trouble.”
“Yeah,” he said, in a rough voice. Clearing his throat, he handed her a glass of scotch. They lifted the rims of the glasses together. “Cheers.”
“Cheers,” she said. She sipped it, but was watching Tom. She could get blood from him if she played this right. She had bitten him before, and remembered the feel of her teeth puncturing the flesh near his collarbone, the sweetly salty taste of a man’s blood inside her mouth. Yes, maybe it was time to become reacquainted with Tom.
“You got my note?” Tom tried to sound cool, but she sensed his hunger. He sounded desperate. She needed a desperate man. This might work beautifully.
“Yes. I must say I’m intrigued,” she purred, with half lidded eyes.
“I hear you’re a dame who knows how to get things done.”
She shrugged modestly.
“I’m looking for someone. Two someones, actually, but I think they’re together.”
She raised her eyebrows. Surely he didn’t want her to try to find them. “I’m afraid you’ll have to elaborate.”
“Some kids were kidnapped. I want to find them and get the reward money.”
“A reasonable goal.” She waited.
“A woman named Kit Melbourne has been asking around about them. I want to find them before she does.”
“Are you certain she’s looking for these children?”
Tom gave her a look. “I pretended to have a lead. Talked to her. She’s looking for them.”
“Does she know who you are?”
“No. I gave her a fake name. Tried to suss out how far along she’d gotten, but she was close mouthed about it.”
“She has that tendency.”
“Then I asked around. Found out she’s in the Guild. I thought of you. You’re pretty high up, and like I said, you have a reputation for getting things done.”
“I’m flattered,” Albers purred. She sipped her drink. “What are you hoping I can do for you? Nothing so crude as threatening her, I presume. That has a way of backfiring.”
“If it comes to that, I can do it myself.”
Albers rattled the ice cubes in her glass and raised her eyebrows.
“I wanna know how much she knows. Details, if possible.”
“Hmm.” Albers tapped her fingers along the rim of the glass. Cut crystal, it looked like, upon closer inspection. Decent quality, even if the whiskey in it wasn’t quite up to snuff. She thought about what Jolene had told her. Jolene was a useless waste of oxygen most of the time, but even a blind squirrel found a nut now and again. “I think I can help you. I have contacts, I can ask around.”
“I’d be most appreciative,” Tom said, giving her a direct look. He loosened his collar and leaned back in his chair.
Albers smiled. It was so refreshing to be with someone who didn’t have to have everything spelled out. She placed the whiskey glass on the table, and slowly rose to her feet. She slunk over to him. Leaning forward, she inhaled the musk and whiskey smell of his hair, his ear, his neck. He barely moved as she slid herself onto his lap.
She put her lips on the skin of his neck, then parted her lips. She plunged her fangs into his neck. Tom gasped. His empty glass dropped to the floor and the ice cubes rattled out.
As she sucked, counting the swallows, feeling his warm blood fill her mouth, Tom stroked his hands up her thigh, sliding his fingers under her skirt. He made an appreciative noise in his throat, and she felt the vibration on her own lips.
Oh yes. She liked Tom.
Like the book, but short on cash? New chapter next week!