Morales picked up his new partner in a café across the street from the bus station in the warehouse district. It wasn’t a nice area of town, even during the day, although safe enough for a vampire. He wondered why this Kier guy picked it. Trying to impress him with how tough he was? Morales would have to set him straight. The last thing he needed was to have to put the smack down on some weight-lifting mortal boy with something to prove.
Morales parked his car and ran through the rain to the warmth of the dingy cafe. Kier stood up from where he had been nursing a cup of coffee at a table by the window.
The man looked as though he was old enough to get a retiree’s discount, although his voice was still strong. He stood about five feet ten, and his slight hunch indicated he may have been taller once. He had a full head of white-gray hair, and peered through his bifocals with gray eyes that had plenty of laugh lines. “Mr. Morales?”
“I don’t need the ‘mister’.”
“You may call me Kier.” Kier picked up a pair of bags which had been hidden under the table.
“You don’t live here?” Vampires weren’t sensitive to non-human smells, but he thought he detected something pungent and herbal from one of Kier’s bags.
“Eh, not anymore. Just came back to fulfill my obligation.”
“You want me to take you to your hotel?”
Kier fiddled with his bifocals. “I’m staying with a friend, but you said you wanted to get started right away, so we should just get started. I told her not to expect me until almost dawn.”
Morales grunted, trying to find something to get disgruntled about, and failing. “You ever done investigations?”
“Eh, some. Mister Holzhausen said you would tell me everything you have discovered so far.”
“You’re going to have to be openminded. Do you believe in faeries?”
“Eh, of course. Yes.”
Of course he believed in faeries. Great. Morales looked heavenward. The skies had been threatening rain all day, and now they rumbled ominously. He unlocked his car, then reached over the seat and unlocked the passenger side. Kier threw his bags into the back seat. They released a pungent waft of scent.
He started by telling him the lead up: Rosenkranz and her host are found dead in Rosenkranz’s apartment. Rosenkranz had been decapitated, but her host only had her throat cut.
“We took this to mean that the killer had been after Rosenkranz, but…okay, bear with me. This is where it gets crazy. Melbourne’s theory was that the killer is some kind of an athlete who plays this game where the object is to cut people’s heads off.”
“Jal-Dit?” Kier asked.
“Yeah.” Morales turned to look at him. “Did Holzhausen tell you?”
“I am aware of this game.”
“I thought that was a bunch of bullshit. I mean, who would play a game like that? That’s hardcore. What happens when you get your arm cut off?”
“They put it back on.”
Morales grunted. “You’d have years of physical therapy afterwards.”
“It can be traumatic. One must be courageous to play Jal-Dit.”
“Or stupid. What happens when you get your head cut off, they put your head back on?”
“Eh, yes of course.”
“That’s bullshit, man, no one can do that.”
Kier looked at him silently for a moment. “Is that so?”
Morales cracked the window. The herbal scent emanating from the backpack was starting to make his eyes water. “Melbourne’s theory is that Rosenkranz wasn’t the real target, that the real target had been Paisey. Melbourne got most of this information from another woman who claims to be from fairyland, who’s in hiding from this guy. I got her address from Councilman Stewart, so that’s where we’re going to go.”
“What’s her name?”
“Tali Willow.” Morales rolled the window all the way down.
“Eh, I can’t say I’ve heard of her,” Kier said. “What about the other fellow? The one that Melbourne believed was the killer? Have you got a name for him?”
“Leaves and Ashes!” Kier shouted. “Faco Cypress? Are you certain?”
“Yeah. That’s what Melbourne said. You know him?”
“He is the greatest Jal-Dit player who ever lived. Twigs on the tree, and he’s here? On earth?”
“Has he shot anyone?”
“You can’t match him in hand-to-hand combat. We can only hope he hasn’t learned about guns yet. If he’s new to this world…Twigs on the Tree, Faco Cypress, here? I don’t know if I’m elated or terrified.”
Morales began to feel uneasy. It was like laughing about about the monster that your little brother thought lived in his closet, only to have an adult corroborate the details. “So, I guess you know something about faeries?”
Kier gave an ironic chuckle. “There’s a reason Mister Holzhausen sent me instead of someone else.”
Morales pulled into the parking lot of a sprawling apartment complex, of the sort where boxy featureless stucco made every building resemble each other. He worried they’d waste half the night trying to find the right apartment, but he made a lucky guess, and managed to find a parking spot right outside what turned out to be the correct apartment.
As Kier shut the door, a waft of reeking herbal-scented air blew out through his window.
“You gonna leave that backpack in the car?”
“Eh, yes I am.”
Morales took a few minutes to crank the top down. Whatever was in that backpack, it was affecting him like cats affected Mei.
The door was answered by a human, this time a very sun tanned woman in a bikini top and denim shorts. She had a beer in one hand, and was lean and muscular, as though her body had made the best possible use of thirty five or maybe forty years. He caught himself remembering the way sun dried sweat tasted when mingled with blood. It had been too long since he had a host.
“Yes?” She spoke like molasses, so slow it was just below the Texas threshold, and it would have driven Morales crazy except that the way she looked him up and down was as smooth as molasses as well. Have to stop at the blood bank on the way home. Maybe they had some rejects to sell him.
“We’re here to see Tali,” he answered, trying to keep the hunger out of his voice. Blood lust was a bit like sexual desire, and one seemed to stir up the other. Yeah, he definitely needed to get a pint tonight. “The Guild sent us. I’m Morales, and this is Kier.”
“Is she expecting you?”
“No, but I think she’ll see us anyway.”
“No offense boys, but I’d better check.” The woman closed the door with one muscled brown arm and latched it. A few minutes later, she came back. “Guess you get the green light. Won’t you come in?”
“Thank you.” The two of them stepped in, and Kier walked over to where Tali was sitting on the couch. He murmured something to her and then they started speaking in a foreign language. Morales blinked at them. What language was that, and how did Kier know she would speak it?
The roommate touched his shoulder, and he turned.
“I’m Gina. Gonna get myself another beer. You want one?”
He nodded. He wouldn’t mind a beer, but what he really wanted was to put his mouth on that sun-kissed skin of hers. As he followed her into the kitchen, he fantasized several times about pulling loose the bow that held her bikini strings together.
She bent over to pull a couple bottles out of the vegetable drawer in the fridge and Morales could see a thong peering up from inside her shorts. She stood back up and handed him one along with a bottle opener.
“Time for a smoke. Join me outside? I think Tali wants to talk to grandpa in private.”
The patio, not more than five by ten feet, was made even smaller by the inclusion of a metal table, two chairs, and about three hundred potted plants in varying sizes. There was even, Morales noted with amusement, a marijuana plant nestled amongst geraniums and azaleas. A low wall separated them from the parking lot, and metal wind chimes hung down like noisy icicles from the edge of the balcony above.
“This your garden?” he asked, glancing around at the plants to keep from staring at the front of her bikini top. It was chilly out on the patio, and her nipples were responding accordingly.
Gina took a drag before answering, and then offered Morales a cigarette, which he accepted. He hadn’t smoked since he was a teenager, when he and his brother David used to steal from their uncle and share with the other kids in the neighborhood. The feel of the smoke in his lungs brought back a wave of nostalgia. Did David still smoke? Morales wished he knew. He turned away so that Gina wouldn’t see the pain he felt when he thought of his family.
Gina watched him with her head tilted back and her eyes half-lidded. “It’s my garden. Mine and Tali’s. I pick the pots and paint them, she keeps the plants alive in the winter. That gal’s got a knack for gardening. It’s almost like magic.”
“My mom had a balcony garden like this, except she had different plants. Oleander, bougainvillea, lantana. She especially loved bougainvillea. The whole patio looked pink and red from the road because of all the flowers.”
“You aren’t from here then. Where are you from?”
“It was while I was there.” He took another drag of his cigarette, as if daring her to ask more. Gina didn’t.
“I went there a couple times. Didn’t get to see much. I’m from California originally, so I can’t say that Miami has much to offer that I hadn’t already seen. Tourists and old folks and orange trees and beaches.”
“I miss the warmth sometimes. I crank my heater up, but it’s not the same.”
Gina took a sip of her beer and tapped the ash into a clay ashtray already full of lipstick stained butts. “I guess it’s not the same if you can’t be in the sun either.”
“What do you mean by that?” Had he forgotten and accidentally showed his fangs? He silently dared her to come out and say it.
“You’re from the Guild. That means vampires.”
“You believe in vampires?” Morales raised his eyebrows in surprise, being extra careful not to open his mouth wide enough to show his teeth.
“I heard the rumors about the Guild. Some people call them vampires. I thought maybe it was an expression, but then I saw your fangs. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna scream or run grab a crucifix.”
“No one believes in vampires.”
“You got a way about you that’s not quite human.”
Morales stubbed his cigarette out. It wasn’t doing anything for him. “Am I what you imagined?”
Gina shrugged and drawled again in that lazy voice. “I’ve been with vampires before.”
The rain began, suddenly and fiercely. Morales watched it for a second before remembering his car. He swore and leapt out of his chair over the four foot wall and into the parking lot. Three strides later he was cranking the cover shut as fast as the mechanism would allow, hoping not to break it in impatience. It was supposed to do it automatically, but wouldn’t you know it, that was the first thing to stop working after the warranty expired. Finally he got the top on and the window closed. Instead of walking around to the front of the house, he jumped over the wall again, being careful not to dislodge the painted terracotta pots dotting the top.
Gina must have been watching him, because she was waiting with a red and blue beach towel. “Very athletic. I guess that’s part of the vampire package?”
Through the vertical blinds, he saw Kier and Tali were rushing around in the living room. Tali put her hands over her face, and Kier touched her face while speaking quickly in a low voice. She nodded a few times, then looked relieved. She went back into her room.
“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” Gina asked.
He closed his face. Morales did mind.
She slowed her voice down even more, a thing Morales found scarcely possible, and unexpectedly sexy. “We’ll trade questions, Rick. You can ask me anything you like.”
It was her use of his first name that made him change his mind. That and the way her sun-browned skin contrasted with the blue of her bikini top. “What do you wanna know, Gina?”
She took a drag of her cigarette again and sat down in the chair. “You ever kill anyone?”
“It wouldn’t be fun to ask if it weren’t a personal question.” She leaned back and recrossed her legs. “I haven’t killed anyone, but I’ve wanted to a few times. Have you ever killed anyone?”
“No.” But if she mocked him about that, he might think about it.
“Well, that’s a good thing to know. I can tell you’re either telling the truth, or you’re gentlemanly enough to know to lie about that. It’s your turn for a question, Rick.”
“Is it your marijuana, or Tali’s?”
Gina laughed, and her neck vein pulsed. “Mine. I don’t think Tali knows what it’s for. One of these days I’ll have to get her to smoke a joint with me. That gal’s more uptight than a purebred cat.”
Tali came back in the other room and started pulling papers out of a desk. Kier followed her, carrying a suitcase. He came over to the arcadia door and slid it open.
“Morales, Tali is going to the bus station. She needs to get out of town for a little while until things calm down around here. Do you mind if we use your car? I’ll take good care of it.”
“Take mine,” Gina offered in her slow voice without taking her eyes from Morales. “The keys are on the counter. I think Rick and I might be talking for a spell, so don’t rush on our account.”
“Thank you very much.” Kier slid the door shut again. Tali was putting bags in the front hall.
Morales knew he should probably offer to help, but Gina distracted him.
“It’s my turn for a question now. Do you sleep in a coffin?”
“No. I sleep in a bed, sometimes with the television on, and sometimes I read a magazine to fall asleep.” Morales drank more of his beer. “How about you? Do you sleep alone?”
“How about tonight?”
“Now that is quite the pick up line, Rick Morales.” Gina didn’t seem offended in the least. “Sometimes I sleep alone, but I’m hoping to have company tonight. I like the way you’re looking at me.”
“I’d like to know what you taste like.”
Gina stubbed out her cigarette and stood up. “Come and find out.” She slid the door open and walked down the hallway. Morales followed her. God bless friendly women. He wouldn’t have to stop by the blood center after all.
Gina untied her bikini top as she walked towards the rumpled waterbed. She pushed a patchwork quilt on to the floor, and pivoted slowly, giving him a full view of her paler triangles of breast contrasting with the brown skin of her shoulders. She lowered herself languidly onto the bed, kicking off her sandals as she did so, and leaned back on her elbows, facing him with a very direct look. Morales crawled forward until his face was level with hers, then leaned in and gently nipped at the skin of her neck. He licked along her throat, tasting the salt of her skin. The vein throbbed under his mouth, and he gently sucked on it, not hard enough to leave a hickey, but close.
Gina unbuttoned his shirt and slid it off his shoulders. Morales traced his tongue down the pale tan line until he reached her breast. He kept his mouth there while he slid his pants off, and Gina shucked her shorts with an ease that belied their tight fit. Gina rolled over on top of him, kissed him deeply, and slipped her hand in his boxers. Back when he was human he wouldn’t have had sex with a woman he just met, but he wasn’t human anymore, and he needed this. Her kiss tasted almost as good as blood, and when she pricked her tongue against his fang, the coppery taste washed away his inhibitions.
Gina was very vocal in her appreciation of his athleticism. She didn’t even seem to mind when he bit her neck. He did it quickly, when she was distracted, so it wouldn’t cause her much pain. That was one of the first things Mei had taught him. Guild members respect their hosts. Also, you had to learn to count your swallows so you knew how much you took. A pint was safe. Two pints was still usually okay, but then you had to lay off for a while, let the human recover.
Morales had lost count of his swallows. He drank more than he should have. Shit. He pulled himself out and withdrew his fangs at the same time.
“You taste sweeter than candy.” That line usually worked well. Gina chuckled, and it was a healthy chuckle, not weakened. Good. “You’re not hurt?”
“Plenty of guys have done worse than that when they got excited.” She ran her hands appreciatively down his torso. “You were nice.”
“Guess I’m still just a nice guy deep down.” He said that with more bitterness than he wanted to reveal. He climbed off the bed abruptly and headed towards the bathroom for a shower.
Gina followed him with a catlike stride, still comfortably nude. She leaned against the door frame and watched him turn the water on, then stepped into the shower to join him. He was still searching among the bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and a thousand other products for the one which read shower soap.
“How come you don’t live in Miami anymore?”
“I came here to follow a woman.”
“A lover?” Gina soaped her hands and ran them down his backside, giving each cheek a little playful squeeze.
“No.” Mei was not his lover. She’d be everything else, but not his lover. That was an old hurt by now. He splashed water over his face, and reached back for the soap.
“You still got family there though?”
“Yes. They stayed in Miami.” All of them. Mama, and Tia Nina, and David and all the cousins.
“They wanted you to go, didn’t they? They scared of you?”
“That’s none of your business.”
She reached her hands up around his chest and spooned against him. “My brother’s gay. I’m the only one who still talks to him. Me, and my sister sometimes. My dad kicked him out and said we weren’t allowed to speak to him, but we love him as much as we love my dad, so we call him now and then.”
“I’m not gay.”
“Oh hon, I know that.” She moved her hands lower to prove the point. “I’m just tryin’ to say that if your family’s big enough, there’s gonna be someone who doesn’t mind so much what you are. You got a big family, don’t you?”
He nodded and handed the bottle of soap back, hoping she’d drop the subject. She did, but winked as he stepped out, as if asking him to think about it. “Take one of the blue towels under the sink. They’re cleaner.”
When Kier came back almost two hours later, Gina had changed into a t-shirt and jeans, and wore a scarf around her neck. She and Morales sat on the back porch while she smoked another cigarette, the last one of the evening, or so she said.
“Don’t tell me you’re leaving so soon,” Gina drawled around a mouthful of smoke.
“I’ve got work to do before dawn.”
“Call me if you’d like to see me again.” She gave him a slip of paper with her phone number on it.
“I might just do that.”
“You think about what we talked about.”
“I hope you prove me wrong.” Morales walked out the door with Kier, feeling well fed, relaxed, and almost absurdly grateful. Fresh blood from the vein of a beautiful woman was a thousand times better than half coagulated rejects from the blood bank. The rain had stopped while they were inside, but Morales’ car was still damp from the first thirty seconds of deluge. Kier gasped when he sat on the wet seat, but didn’t complain as they drove back towards the center of town.
“So tell me why Tali had to leave town so suddenly.”
“I thought it might be a good idea, and I talked her into it, what with that killer still on the loose and all.”
“That poor woman’s mixed up in something she doesn’t need to be mixed up in.”
“You’re protecting her,” Morales realized. “What’s going on? I thought you didn’t know her.”
Kier pushed up his glasses, face screwed up in consternation. “Eh, I feel obligated to protect her. She’s an Indel.”
“What does that mean?”
“You really don’t know, do you? I thought Mister Holzhausen was exaggerating. Well, I’ll be. You really think I’m a human.”
“You’re not a vampire.”
“No.” Kier turned to him and for a split second, he appeared not as an old white guy with silver hair but an exotic ageless one with pointed ears.
“Sweet Jesus!” Morales nearly lost control of the car, and had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting someone.
“Sorry to startle you there. I forget sometimes how it takes people when they find that out. You see, that’s why I was chosen to help you with this job. Mister Holzhausen did me a favor when I first moved here, and I told him I’d be willing to help him out anytime he needed a faerie mage.”
“A faerie mage,” he said flatly.
“So are you proposing you cast a magic spell to bring this Faco guy down?”
“Eh, no. No, I think we need to shoot him. Well, I should say I think you need to shoot him. I don’t know how to use guns. But you’re a vampire. Slaying someone should be simple for you.”
“Right,” Morales said, feeling uneasy.