Time like an ever-rolling stream
Bears all its sons away
They fly forgotten as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
Letter from William, A Vampire
My name is William Cuyler Thorne. I have been a soldier, a scholar, a wastrel and a womanizer. But most importantly, I suppose, is the fact that among the many things I have been, I remain an unwavering killer of men. A predator.
Oh, I've taken my share of women as well, in temper, and in pity, in hunger or merely petulance. I have kissed the lips of some of the most beautiful courtesans on the planet before turning to baser needs. But, always the blue blood of my savage ancestry, which runs so cooly through my veins, calls out for heat and for life. For sustenance.
I am a blood drinker.
I have walked the earth for five hundred years, plus or minus a decade. Two hundred of those years bound by kinship to hunt with a degenerate savage of a sire, long beyond a righteous staking. Yet, I was human once, so long ago I feel the vibration of mortal pain like the desperate tug on a rope falling into a bottomless grave. The tug no longer gives me pause. Pulling them up won't save them, and jumping in dooms us, every one. I am immortal, blessed and cursed.
In the beginning of my undeath I fed as a soldier and since have watched men uncounted meet their doom. Not as a Captain or even a lowly cook. In my blood lust I am a night walker, armed with flesh tearing teeth like the Roman war dogs, and the sharp talons of the carrion crows who circle the battlefield. I kill the weakest and find life among the dying, feeding on the wreck of man's foolish predilection for conquest.
The English and French fed me for nearly two centuries with their petty bickering but then I set my sights on America and a bloody revolution of men wresting a country from other men. Being part Scots and part English in my parentage I should have preferred the 'Redcoats' as my rebellious neighbors called them. But I found the blood of the revolutionaries a wilder vintage, more vital and sustaining. No, I am not an avenger or a bringer of justice. Nor am I the sadistic killer I was created to be. I am merely the last spectral face dying soldiers see on the darkened battlefield before facing oblivion.
In the Winter of 1778 I arrived in Savannah, a fading flower of a city, carrying a welcome supply of gold and the implied support of my newly chosen British surname-Thorne. The Brits had captured the city earlier that year and I had no reason to dispute them. There was plenty of bloodshed to go around. I have remained in the vicinity of Savannah for a myriad of reasons including other murderous wars, but I see no necessity to broadcast my motives. Let's just say, the city and its darker hugger-muggery suited me. As winter suits me. Although summer in these southern climes arrives with a glorious pressing heat which breeds bloodlust even in the mortal heart. There is something to be said for the term 'Red-blooded Americans.' Human nature being what it is, I find a steady, gourmand source in their casual bloodshed. Passions rise amid the tempers and humans die. A being steeped in hate, I sense their fury like a shark tracks a drop of blood in the outgoing tide.
So, I've given up the wandering life of a war dog and reside in this city near the sea. The sharks and I are brothers. They fear nothing and cruise the darkness off shore like silent sentinels waiting for the scent of the abandoned and dying, the flashing shock of hopelessness that draws them in for the kill. I live a gentleman's life, attending to evening social events, smoking cigars and drinking port in private gambling dens or exclusive bordellos, and walking the dark streets to feed my destiny.
I own all I wish to own of my adopted city: what is currently known as my 'ancestral' home-not exactly the case since I am my own ancestor-is centered amid one city block on Houghton Square. The entire block belongs to me and, in addition, a row of businesses bordered by the river. I find enterprise a mostly pleasant diversion to occupy my mind, while the river-front assures private access to a dock near the port of Savannah.
Even monsters take vacations on occasion.
You might wish to know of my other pastimes and the small number of humans I trust. I am in no mood to speak of such things here. And I certainly do not divulge my true name or where I sleep when the sun is high and hot. My secrets are my own as is the bounty on my traitorous, dark heart. These few scrawled lines were written only to warn that other beings walk beside you betimes. Beings you cannot fathom or interpret. Be wary of taking in strangers unawares.
Letter From Jack, A Vampire
My name is Jack McShane and I've been asked what I remember of being human. Of the days before William and I met.
I remember the hunger. And the fighting.
I remember a kid whose empty gut gnawed at him night and day. I dreamed of food-bread and meat piled to the sky, fruit from endless orchards, cabbage and potatoes from fields that stretched for miles. I had visions of butter and eggs to say grace over, across a table from fat brothers and sisters, and a rosy- cheeked mother. I don't even remember their faces now. Hell, I barely remember my own. All I remember is hollow cheeks, listless eyes, and dull complexions. And my mother's thin wails for the ones of us who didn't survive.
I didn't spend my days shooting marbles or playing tag like young boys are meant to. My father, an immigrant dirt farmer, didn't seem to know any other way to raise his children other than treat them like the slaves he couldn't afford. Before his passage to America, he'd foraged and fought for food in a sooty, dank, urban hell of Belfast, darting up and down cobblestone alleys, dodging lines full of dingy laundry and heaps of garbage while trying to stay out of sight of bigger boys as hungry as him.
In this new land of promised plenty, my brothers and sisters and I, the ones of us who survived, were raised on a diet of cornmeal mush and merciless beatings. All the time being told how lucky I was. My daddy beat me for not getting the milking done fast enough, for stealing an apple that could've been sold, or for helping my sisters meet their measure of picked cotton. My mother was little more than a shell of a woman without the will or the strength to challenge my father's iron hand. When I got big enough to fight back, I did. By the time I was seventeen, I figured I'd better leave home before one of us killed the other, so I ran away to the grand city of Savannah where I worked the docks as a stevedore.
No sooner than I'd gotten a full belly and a dollar in my pocket, a war came along to damn me to a life of hunger and fighting again. A cruel blockade dried up the work and left poor laborers like me with no other choice than to join up with the Confederacy. By 1864, we were down to bug-infested hard tack and hot water that only had a passing acquaintance with coffee grounds.
After the demon Sherman torched Atlanta, his army headed east toward the sea on the Georgia Central railroad. They ordered three brigades of us in the Georgia Militia from Macon to cut off the Federals on their way to Augusta to seize its arsenal and foundry. That was when we ran smack dab into U.S. General Charles Walcott and his men, part of Sherman's right flank, not headed for Augusta, but for Savannah.
Confederate Brigadier General Pleasant J. Phillips, as poorly named a bastard as I ever came across, ordered us to charge-across an open field and up a hill-the Union troops entrenched behind a railroad embankment. Shaking as much from fury as fear, I looked around at what was left of the Georgia Militia-a handful of able-bodied men like me and hundreds of old men and boys. I wanted to turn my rifle on that idiot Phillips but when I heard the bugle call I started across the field with my comrades. I remember looking into the barrels of the Yankees' Spencer repeating rifles and thinking that I didn't survive hunger and merciless beatings just to wind up with a bullet in my brain.
Then, I saw a bright flash and felt a blow to my stomach that knocked me to the soggy earth.
The next thing I knew it was night, and I could feel that old familiar gnawing in my gut again. Only this time, it wasn't hunger but a sucking wound setting free my life's blood with every beat of my dying heart. This was it, then. All the fighting to stay alive had come down to my spilling out my life in a swampy field surrounded by the dregs of the slaughtered confederacy. Nearing my last breath I cursed heaven as I had in my youth, not caring if it damned me to hell as it surely would.
The very next moment I sensed something near me, something both hot and cold, alive and yet not. Something evil...with a craving. And then it was looming over me, its eyes glowing like a hellhound's, face and fangs dripping with blood.
It was William.
"You cannot save them now," he said, meaning the corpses of my comrades around me. "Do you want to live?" he asked.
"Do you swear to serve me as long as you exist on the earth?" he asked.
"Will I ever have to go hungry?" I asked.
He said, "In the name of all that is unholy, you will not."
"Then, yes, I will serve."
That is the last I remember of my mortal life. The rest, as they say, is history.
The innocent was naked, resting on an elevated table upholstered in black leather, her wrists bound, ankles tied. A black satin execution hood had been fastened under her chin covering her face but leaving her neck bare. Staked down like a sacrificial lamb fit to be eaten, she could not see me. Yet in the silence of the well- insulated room I could hear her breathe, see the slight flutter of the satin as she panted-bird-like. And, in the small space, I could inhale her fear.
My hostess, the proprietress of the house on River street, double-checked the girl's restraints, then pronounced with a low chuckle, "Dinner is served."
"Time for me to be the vampire," I answered, making the words sound flip like a joke, yet meaning every syllable.
The lamb on the table knew my voice. She arched her back with a restless sigh, pulling at the leather, offering, wanting.
The girl would have to wait. Waiting was part of the play and I would not disappoint her, no more than she would change her mind.
I turned to my hostess and held her gaze. In response, my Eleanor, she-who-must-be-obeyed, lowered her eyes like a fainthearted human virgin. A ruse. Human, she was. Yet, if she truly feared me, she would never show it. Her lack of common sense was one of the things which had drawn me to her from the beginning.
I'll be up shortly, when I'm finished with this one," I said, then used one finger to trace the boundary of Eleanor's dress, the tail end of the snake tatoo high on her breast over her heart, which I knew so well. Her heartbeat fought the weight of my finger, anticipating our game.
She pulled away, turned with a swish of expensive lace, then looked back over her bare shoulder, her mouth dressed in the smile of the devil's own gypsy mistress. "Take your time. We have all night." The subtle musky scent of promised sex followed as Eleanor left the room, closing the door and locking it behind her.
I shifted my mind's deliberation back to the delicacy at hand. My body's hunger had never left her. I could feel my own cool veins relaxing, warming, anticipating the feeding. Still, I resisted. Two slow steps brought me to the elevated table. "Hello, morsel," I said as I began to unbutton my shirt. No use bloodying the fabric, better to be flesh against flesh. Easier to clean up afterward-a courtesy to Eleanor's staff. I let the material slide off my shoulders and draped it across her bare thighs. She trembled at the contact.
"Hello," she answered in a faint whisper.
Lightly dragging my finger tips from her belly to her heart, I fondled her left breast. "Have you been waiting long?" I asked as I absently watched the nipple grow hard from the touch of my cool skin.
"Forever," she said in that whispery voice.
I eased my hand upward until my fingers encircled her neck. The fat carotid artery pulsed against my palm and I had to fight my own anticipation. I was exquisitely empty-needy.
And under her pale skin...blood. Warm and vital. The tiniest pinprick would bring it rushing into my mouth, filling me, intoxicating me, redeeming me. I bent my head to where her left hand was tied to a metal ring and took one of her searching fingers into my mouth.
She jumped, whimpering as I bit and sucked-a teasing taste.
"Please..." she pleaded.
She tasted like life-dizzying. My own skin prickled with lust and I shut my eyes against the barrenness inside me, clamoring for more. Take it all, it whispered in the relentless voice of my sire. And I could take it all, like a greedy child and still not be filled. But I would not-for my own reasons. I ran my tongue over the small wound to close it, ready to move on to greater satisfactions. "Please what?" I asked, playing with her.
Humans always wished to negotiate for their pleasure, and their pain. The predators of the world were beyond negotiation. They took what they wanted, when they wanted it, victims be damned. In my case, slow was a torture for us both to enjoy.
I stretched out next to her on the table lowering my face close to her satin covered cheek. We were breathing the same air, two creatures who craved what the other could give but who would never know each other. Just the voices, the sighs. The heartbeats...thump...thump....thump. And, the taste.
"Please what?" I taunted again, low and close to her ear.
Instead of answering, she twisted her head away from me, baring-no-offering her beautiful, pulsing neck. My jaw ached with the need to bite. But I licked instead, from collar bone to earlobe, making her jump in surprise. I could see the faint scars from other nights, other offerings. No need to lull this one with sweet distracting visions. She expected pain, wanted it, would bargain for it. She would risk even death for her perverse pleasure. But this was my game, and I would oblige in my own time.
And the time had come.
Finally, I would give us both what we wanted. I placed my cold right hand flat over her heart and pressed her down. She gasped in a breath then moaned as I bit hard, holding her fast with my teeth. In her world of pain she made a gurgling sound then bucked against the weight of my hand as sweet flowing blood flooded my mouth. Rich. Intoxicating. If she knew how delicate the line was between life and death, and how easy it would be for me to suckle until her empty heart stilled-obsolete-I could not say. If she knew death had come to visit, would she plead for me to stop? Or, beg me on?
As any gentleman would, I held myself back. While the thick living essence gushed into me, I concentrated not on the changes in my body, but on the lamb's.
Blood for pain-our corrupt bargain.
I scraped my fingernails across both her breasts raising welts and a long bleeding scratch just under one nipple. Her tears, leaking from under the satin hood mixed with tiny splatters of blood and ran into my mouth. It made me want to sink deeper and longer knowing she would never even ask me to stop.
Blood for pain and pleasure.
Nearing my own self-imposed limits, I shoved downward pushing my hand between her thighs, sinking damp, warming fingers into her sex.
Her muscle-clenching orgasm sent one last tantalizing shudder of blood as payment and I withdrew, licking the punctures to gather the final drops before leaving her. Replete, too weak to move or call for help, she remained still. Only the satin of the hood fluttered as she whispered, "When may I return?"
"When I call for you."
"I'll do whatever you want..."
"Yes, morsel, you will."
Have I mentioned that this river city, Savannah, is mine? My home, my sanctuary. The enduring connection between my existence and the empty darkness beyond. Savannah is rightly called the most haunted place in America. Blood has been shed here-some of it by me. To be fair, however, humans have no need for help in the bloodletting. They have proved war after war that they are up to the task. The spilled blood of the past lies thick and moist over the cobbled streets and savage gardens of Savannah like the heavy mist covering a grave. The effect can be...suffocating. The residents here are used to the unusual, however. There are times at equinox or All Saints when spirits openly walk the streets and unseen worlds open their invisible doors under the dark of the moon.
Or, perhaps it's all rubbish. Humans can be so fanciful at times. Possibly they share the most common of curses, a guilty conscience. Myself? I'm a realist. I see beyond the charm and the glamour, the human and the not-so-human. I pace the darkness through the city's stick-at-nothing history in perfect step with the invisible ones. Ghosts don't hinder me, for I am death wearing seven hundred dollar shoes.
But, tonight, now that I am fed, my interest is, excuse the pun, firmly set on sex. Up these stairs, my Eleanor awaits. She who has sworn to kill me, if she can. Without knocking, I turn the handle and open her private door. We have six hours until dawn. Let the games begin.
Candles are lit around the room, giving off the scent of magnolia. Yet, I can smell her. I do not need candlelight, I would recognize the distinctive rhythm of her heartbeat in the dark of a dungeon. Tossing my shirt over the Queen Ann chair placed strategically across from the bed, I hesitate before sitting down to shed my shoes.
Someone likes to watch. But not tonight.
The fluffy cloud of a bed has shed its usual satins and silks. On this night, for me, Egyptian cotton, bleached to a snowy paleness. Frankly, a splash of red blood spilled on pristine white still 'turns me on' as the moderns say. Especially when the blood is my own.
We all have our kinks-even the undead.
I flex the warm muscles of my back, offering the perfect target before standing to shed my pants. It's too soon, I know. But perhaps she'll surprise me tonight. It's downright difficult to surprise a being who has lived for five hundred years. I always like to give Eleanor a head start, however, just in case. After that, I depend on her enthusiasm.
Naked, I take my time stretching out on the boat-sized bed- my body humming with energy, lust. Sleeping is the last thing on my mind.
"Eleanor..." I whisper. "Come out, come out, wherever you are..."
In the silence I hear her breath catch, yet she doesn't move. In a feigned expression of boredom I slide my arms behind my head, again exposing my chest, my immortal black heart to her whim. The room grows quieter-my Eleanor holding her breath before rising like an exquisite, tattooed viper from the floor next to the bed. Her lovely body is bare except for the artwork and the long beaded strands of her black hair. A man could be mesmerized by the look of hot promise in her dark eyes and not notice that her hands were hidden. But I'm not a man, not for a very long time, and I notice. It doesn't stop me from beckoning her with my eyes and my will.
Slowly, in an act of submission she brings her hands forward and shows them palm out. They are hennaed and empty of weapons. Then her fingers are on me, teasing, tantalizing. Then her mouth. After all, she knows her business. Yet we both know the game. Her skill at seduction is legendary, but there is more than that for me, and for me only.
Balanced over me, she slides sinuously, the length of our bodies matched-the smoothness of chest to breasts, the heat of sex to sex. When her mouth reaches mine, her tongue darts, following mine, touching teeth, fangs, and I feel her surge of excitement. She tastes blood and wants more. She would be mine across the shadowy future if I called her. But she knows I will not. I have an ancient hate to starve and defy. Besides, there is death in the calling in even odds with the hope of immortality, and I will not take that chance-for her sake. Possibly for my sake as well. Being previously damned doesn't mean I don't have a conscience.
When she flicks her tongue against the sharp edge of my fang I taste her blood, her ultimate tease. And the flavor of her intent sizzles through my bloodlust like a firestorm of promise. If I'm not very careful, she'll succeed, with my blessing, in killing me. Either that, or forcing me to kill her.
I suck her tongue, pulling her essence into my already dizzy senses. She presses into me, harder, then shifts her lower body, taking me inside her. We are locked together in a silent, primal dance of sex and death. Both of us drawn to the edge.
"My beautiful, green-eyed, killer angel," she whispers as she pulls back staring boldly into my gaze. Most humans don't have the backbone to look death in the face. She calls me beautiful, and in her view I must be, yet I don't remember my own face-have not seen the otherworldly glow of my soulless gaze. My reflection was lost on the night of my making along with my humanity and hope.
"Or, are you the devil wearing a movie star's face come to steal what's left of my soul?" she teases with a wistful smile.
That's when I feel her concentration shift, her hands move. One slides through my hair dragging sharp fingernails along my scalp while the other leaves me little time to prepare. In reflex, my left hand tightens around her throat as I shove her upward. I could kill her by tightening my fingers, yet even as she straddles my hips, her tight warmth surrounding me, her arms are in the air above her head, holding an ornately carved ash stake. Meant for my heart.
With our gazes locked, I see nearly my match. Not because she's stronger or smarter than most humans, but because she's done what few others over the centuries have managed. She's found a weakness in my defenses. Eleanor has discovered my fascination with wanting to die. To trade one undead version of hell for another.
I watch her chest rise and fall as she searches for air through my grip on her throat. In the candlelight the snake tattoo seems to slither to life on her skin. Cleopatra clasped a snake to her breast...and it killed her. I pause, enjoying the killing lust almost as much as how it feels to be hot and hard inside her. For the first time in our game my excitement exceeds hers.
With a scream she plunges the stake downward.
To me, her movement unfurls in slow motion-in dream time. Those few seconds like minutes in my altered perception. That lovely ability allows me to enjoy every facet of the action, from the small smile preceding the scream to the way the muscles of her chest shift making the snake look as though it is striking as she moves.
The stake penetrates my skin and strikes my breastbone before I knock it from her grip. Both of us breathe as though we've run a race. The pain from the wound is minimal. The tremor that shakes me to the core has more to do with yearning and loathing. I loathe the weakness that causes me to yearn for death-the final sum of my rebellious equation. And this woman understands both.
Eleanor's gaze is brilliant with triumph as she takes her now empty hand and runs a finger through the blood welling from my chest. Still the seductress, she brings the finger to her mouth and sucks the evidence of my weakness. She knows what comes next, as do I.
Fury, sex, and something akin to submission on my part, since now I can't stop. I won't allow her to drink from my wound, only my lust. With a flip of my wrist she's on her back. Trapping her under the cage of my arms it's my turn to tease with a few long strokes inside her until she is crying out for more. As I feel her orgasm build, feeding my own, I lower my mouth to her neck catching her skin with my teeth. The scream this time is louder and mindless. Death or life, either seems to be pleasure at this point. She and the lamb have more in common than they realize.
As I hold my Eleanor down, filling her without feeding, hands ripping sheets to ease the spasms tearing through my very much alive body, I feel almost human. Not a particularly elevating thought since humans have so many...flaws. But human I was once, and for that brief time, I'd been happy.
I rolled down the window of the wrecker and let the cool wind whip my face, flooring the accelerator and wishing the rig was as fast as my '65 Corvette convertible 327. I cranked up the radio tuned to classic country. Merle Haggard was turning twenty- one in prison, doing life without parole. Life, what a concept.
I was towing in a car a client had left broken down on the side of the road a few miles outside of town. He'd already hightailed it back to hearth and home, having called a friend on his cell phone for a ride. I didn't blame him. You never know what kind of monsters you might meet up with stranded alone on a dark night outside a town as alive with supernatural shenanigans as Savannah.
I leaned back my head, wishing for even more wind in my hair. Like a lot of southern good ole' boys, you could say I have the need for speed. I reckon I'd be on the NASCAR circuit now if I could show my face in the light of day. Instead, I have to be content with amateur night racing on the dirt tracks of Southeast Georgia and the blacktop roads on the outskirts of Savannah by the light of the moon. I'm somewhat of a legend among the shrimpers and river rats who have lived in shacks dotting the edges of the piney woods for generations. They think I'm a spook and the Vette is a ghost car.
Who can blame 'em? Their daddies and grand-daddies have passed stories about me down through the years. Before there were cars, they'd see me dressed all in black with silver spurs on a huge, black horse. The horse's tack was studded with Mexican silver, and the way it flashed in the moonlight scared the very devil out of anyone unlucky enough to be traveling the roads at night. Nowadays they see me blaze by 'em on four of Goodyear's finest as they fish by lantern light along the Inter-coastal waterways. They don't bother to call the cops, though. The cops couldn't catch me in the years when I made a fortune running moonshine whiskey and they can't catch me now.
On cue, I heard a siren right behind me. Dammit! I wished I was in my 'Vette so I could leave them eating dust. Cussin' a blue streak, I pulled over onto the sandy shoulder and waited.
"Evenin', Jackie," came a honey-coated voice, and I relaxed and let it flow over me.
"If it isn't my very favorite patrol woman." Officer Consuela Jones of the Savannah P.D. came to stand beside me. She played a flashlight across my face as if she didn't know full well who I was. I squinted and hoped she didn't see the very un-human way my pupils turn to oblong slits in bright light.
I'd known Connie since she first came to Savannah. Met her one night when she came along to work the accident site right after I'd wrecked one of my other convertibles. I'd swerved to avoid hitting an alligator out on the road to Tybee, rolled a few times and been thrown from the car. She got there before the paramedics and was so convinced I was dead because of the unhealthy angle my neck was in, she didn't even check me for a pulse. Lucky Jack. It would have been hard to explain not having one when I came around. As it was, explaining how I snapped my neck back into place once I'd come to had been dicey. I'm usually not so careless but I had my back to her when I sat up and in the weirdness of the moment hadn't sensed any humans around. Unbeknownst to me, she saw me grab my head and straighten my neck like you'd fix a jammed finger during a pickup basketball game.
I realized she was there only when I heard her gasp. When she asked me how I did that, I told her I got the idea from that Lethal Weapon movie where Mel Gibson fixes his own separated shoulder. She wasn't convinced, and has had her eye on me ever since. She knows I'm different, but she can't quite put her finger on what the difference is. Since she works the night shift, she drops by the garage now and then to check up on me and sometimes just to hang out. I like to think we've become friends, although I still hold out hope for hotter and closer-if you know what I mean.
I'd ask her out, but I can tell she doesn't trust me. She knows something is up with me, something abnormal. I don't think she knows that something's up with her too, though. It's weird how I can't sense or smell her human-ness, like on the night I first met her. She doesn't smell exactly like a shape-shifter either. Maybe she's a half-breed of some kind. Whatever the mix, she probably doesn't even realize she isn't one hundred percent human. It's probably just as well. The other thing, though, is that she only works at night. There's got to be a reason for that too, but as I've said before, it's always best not to trade too many questions.
Tonight she looked particularly fine, wearing her long black hair in a braid down her back. And, as always, she looked damn good in that uniform, especially the fitted shirt. A standard service revolver rested in its usual place on her right hip and her badge winked a silvery blue in the flashing lights of the patrol car. A woman of authority. Be still my inhuman heart.
"Sweet talk will get you nowhere with the law." She gave me a lazy smile and a slow, sexy blink, showing thick lashes. "I'm going to have to write you a speeding ticket." She took a pen out of her breast pocket and leisurely moistened a forefinger to flip to a new sheet in her ticket book.
I gave her a wink. "Are you sure you don't want to frisk me?"
She leaned her head downward as she wrote, thinking I couldn't see her grin underneath the patent leather bill of her hat. "That won't be necessary."
"I wouldn't dream of violating your civil rights."
"I meant you."
"Careful, I might run you in for sexual harassment."
"I thought that was a civil matter."
She tore off the ticket and reached into the cab to tuck it into my shirt pocket, tickling my chest a little through the fabric with the finger she'd licked. "Oh, I'm sure I could find something to charge you with. Drive safely, Mr. McShane." With that she turned her back and treated me to the sight of her walking away. I laughed and pulled back onto the blacktop. She could put a charge in me anytime.
Human females are kind of troublesome, but feminine vampires are nonexistent from what I can gather, so hey, what's a boy to do? The human variety think I'm the ultimate commitment-phobe. It's ironic because if things were different, I wouldn't mind settling down. But with my little. . . affliction, long-term relationships are out. It's hard enough keeping my true nature secret from the outside world. I could never manage to hide the truth and nothing but the truth while living with a woman. Don't mind me honey, I sleep all day and prowl all night. Not to mention drinking blood and never getting old. So my relationships are always short and sweet. Intense (probably because I know they won't last), passionate even, but brief. Maybe that's why I haven't pushed things with Connie. I'm afraid if I started seeing her, I'd never want to stop. I guess I'll just have to stay a love-em-and-leave-em guy and stick with the kind of women who didn't expect till death do us part.
A one-woman man in an undead womanizer's body. Ain't love grand?
Ten minutes later when I pulled the wrecker into the garage and hopped out, Rennie was rummaging in the cabinet over the coffee pot.
"Jack, there's no more coffee."
"Look in that grocery bag by the sink."
My partner at Midnight Mechanics, Rennie, wears coke- bottle-thick glasses that are always so smeared with grease I wonder how he ever sees anything. He's short, buzz-cut and barrel- chested, and he can rebuild an engine in nothing flat. But right now he was in the middle of a game of poker with some of the regulars.
"The regulars," as Rennie calls them, are a collection of oddballs, not even close to 'regular' as far as I could tell, who for some reason enjoy hanging out at an all-night garage. I wonder about them sometimes--what they do for a living, where they go in the daytime, and, well--just what they are exactly. But nobody asks me any questions, such as why can I lift a car by its front end without a jack, so, I return the courtesy.
I guess that's why they feel comfortable hanging out at the shop, where there's always a pot of coffee on and a card game underway. I know for a fact that some of them aren't altogether human. I can smell a shape shifter at twenty paces. Like Rufus, who never comes around when the moon is full, and Jerry, whose ears look a little too pointy whenever he takes off his Braves cap to scratch his bristly head. What kind of shapeshifters exactly? Who knows and who cares? As long as they don't try to eat the customers, who am I to judge?
Even though I'm a loner, I don't mind a little company now and then, especially company who can tell me what's going on in the city after the lights in the windows of the mansions along the squares have gone out. After the gentry have tucked themselves into their antique four-posters and asked God to deliver them from evil. From the likes of me.
A vampire can't be too careful. Right now, a wormy- looking slip of a fellow named Otis was sitting down at the card table next to Huey. Huey detailed cars and acted as a general gofer around the garage. I wouldn't say he was simple minded exactly, but he wasn't blessed with an over-abundance of brain cells to rub together. While he might be at a loss when it came to ciphering up a bill, he was a cheerful, pleasant soul who greeted each customer with a smile and a greasy handshake, and they liked him.
Otis flinched a little as I sat beside him and motioned Rennie to deal me in. Otis never looks directly at me, but just a bit off to one side. I think he's a little afraid of me. In fact, there were three or four regulars who wouldn't come into the shop if I happened to be the only one there. I couldn't say as I blamed them.
Us guys who are not rightly human always seem to know a weirdo when we see one. Or smell one.
"I detailed both hearses from the funeral home today," Huey announced while studying his hand. "It was kind of weird."
"Why's that, Hugh-man?" I held up two fingers and Rennie slid me two cards.
"Because that's what they ride dead people in," Huey said. He never discarded any cards and asked for more. It was too hard a decision to make, I guess. Either that or he was just stubborn enough to want to make the best of what he had. "Dead people creep me out."
Rufus, who'd just taken a sip of coffee, nearly choked, spraying it all over his cards. The others were trying really hard not to look at me. The corner of Rennie's mouth twitched. "I reckon we're all going to die one day, Huey," he said. "I reckon we'll all take our last ride in one of those long, hatchback Cadillacs."
Speak for yourself, I thought.
"I just want to be buried in my car," Huey said, brightening. His face was so shiny with grease, I could almost see the reflection of this poker hand in it. It wasn't sporting.
"That reminds me," Otis said. "I just came out of a bar on the river, the one right next to that antiques warehouse." His hand shook slightly as he took a pouch of Red Man out of his pocket and stuffed a wad of shredded tobacco into his cheek. He wore greasy Dickeys and a work shirt with a patch that said, "Bud." No telling who the hell Bud was.
"Yeah?" That antiques warehouse belonged to William. I wondered what William's business had to do with Huey riding off to glory land in a Chevy Corsica.
"They'd just tugged a boat into the docks and the warehouse guys were runnin' around screamin' at each other. I thought I heard one of 'em, well, you know how when you overhear a conversation and just a word now and then jumps out at you?"
"What was the word, Otis?" I asked warily. He spat a stream of tobacco juice into a styrofoam cup through the space between his front teeth.
"Um, 'coffin,'" he said.
This got my attention. That would be William's boat. Running and screaming and talk of coffins. I folded my cards-only had a pair of eights anyway-and went to call the warehouse. What the hell could be going on?
Someone finally picked up on the sixth ring. "Jack. Praise Jesus, you're there."
Praise Jesus was not a sentiment I heard very much in the same sentence with my name. I recognized the voice of one of William's warehousemen, Al Richardson. What he told me next made my blood run even colder than usual. "I'll find him," I said, and hung up. I muttered to Rennie that I'd be back soon, jumped in my rag top Corvette parked in the last bay, and put it in gear. I had to find William fast because all hell had just broken loose. Literally.
I'm usually easier to find than William seeing as how his tastes in nightlife activities are a mite more peculiar than mine and he completely refuses the whole concept of a cell phone. It wasn't in his DNA to be available to anyone, especially yours truly, at any hour-no matter what the so-called emergency. That's why his man called me.
William could be anywhere. He could be at a black tie charity event, rubbing elbows with the high society folks, or he could be stalking a pretty art school coed who'd wake up the next morning on a stone bench in Colonial cemetery, pale and wan, with a couple hours' gap in her short-term memory.
Among his many enterprises, William has a sweet little import business involving antiques bought for a song from down- on-their-luck European aristocrats. William then sells these items to the new moneyed here in Savannah. Those social climbers who don't have any expensive old family heirlooms of their own, since most of them only acquired pots to piss in relatively recently.
But the antique business is merely a cover for the important cargo, that is, vampires. I have no idea why they leave their castles and chateaus in Europe to come over here, but there seems to be a pretty steady stream of old, rich vampires that William brings over by ship, always one at a time. Vamps don't always mix well with each other. And you don't want some pissing contest about who's older and richer to turn into a full-fledged vamp war at sea. The crew is nervous enough just dealing with one coffin at a time.
The imports have to be rich to afford what William charges them. These old-world vamps go first class all the way. It's like a Carnival cruise for carnivores. William provides all the conveniences, complete with hot and cold running blood. Hell, they might even play shuffleboard in the moonlight for all I know.
And the deal usually comes with an introduction to Savannah society after which they go off into the sunset for parts known only to them and William, who has contacts in the vampire communities all over the country. Did I mention these vamps were rich? And usually very cultured. Every once in a while he gets in a Eurotrash bloodsucker, but for the most part, they're real high class. And get this. They even bring their own dirt with them.
I don't know what's so special about that damn European dirt to settle their coffins on. Give me good old red Georgia clay any day of the week. But there's something about that old dirt that must have some kind of power. William won't tell me what it is. I have a sneaking feeling that William doesn't tell me a lot of things. Damn him.
Oh, yeah, too late. He's already damned.
He tries to treat me like his personal field hand. In the last couple of weeks, he's had me helping him prepare for this big party he's throwing for his latest imported vamp. Planning parties is women's work if you ask me, but at least he doesn't try to make me park cars at his shindigs anymore since I threatened to whup his ass. I may have sworn fealty to him nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, but I was through being his lackey. He just laughed at me when I called him out. I guess I'm lucky he was in a good mood that day. He's old, real old-although you'd never know it to look at him-and in the vampire world that means power. He could've squashed me like a bug and I knew it, but a man has to take a stand once in a while, you know? He treated me with more respect after that day, but I'm still at his beck and call, and it surely grates at my soul. If I had a soul.
All of Savannah society will be at this so-called retro charity ball since William puts on the dog like nobody else. We're building a new wing on the hospital and a state-of-the-art blood bank. That takes money. Better to suck their money than their blood, as William always says. There'll be the most sumptuous banquet these blue bloods ever saw. And the most expensive liquor will be flowing like water down the Savannah river. There's only one problem.
The guest of honor has vanished.
I took the last turn on two wheels and parked under a live oak behind the wrought iron gate of a respectable-looking ante bellum mansion. Looks can be deceiving. Even though his black jag wasn't here, I knew that he was. I can smell him out wherever he is, like a bloodhound. Unless he blocks me, that is. I don't know if he has that ability because he's the vamp who made me or what. Like I say, William doesn't fill me in on a lot. I just know it doesn't work that way for me with other vamps. I jumped out of the convertible and caught sight of motion on the back veranda. Two of the house girls swung languorously on a porch swing, the chains creaking like the shackles of the ghost slaves you can hear on nights like these out in the swamps.
"I just love the way you get out of that 'Vette, Jackie," cooed a baby-faced prostitute with fine, blond hair. "Why don't you take me for a ride sometime?"
"I'll take you for a ride all right, darlin', but not just now." I think her name was Sally, but I couldn't remember. I winked at her and the other one, who was thumbing through an issue of People Magazine and trying to look as demure as a high-priced whore can.
I walked in without knocking. I wasn't what you'd call a regular, but I must admit, I'd partaken of these ladies' wares from time to time. William came for blood and sex. I just came for sex, since I don't have much of a taste for the kind of suffering you inflict when you bite into live human flesh to drain it of its life- giving blood. Even if your victim is willing. But, I'm a mechanic, and I'm happy to negotiate services taken out in trade, especially if they're really good services. Not that I have to pay for sex, you understand. Last time I saw my reflection, a hundred and forty years ago now, I remember a shock of thick black hair and eyes the color of a blue gas flame. Black Irish they used to call looks like mine, a product of the Frenchies (probably smugglers and pirates) mixing with Irish blood. I'm not saying I'm good lookin', but I usually don't scare off many women-unless I decide to flash my fangs.
In fact, I have a rep as a womanizer and a heartbreaker. How can I help it? Running an all-night mechanic shop and a wrecker service means a never-ending supply of damsels in distress. Sometimes they can be really, really grateful. Not that I'd ever take unfair advantage. Being a vampire means always having to say goodbye.
William's romances were a mite more complicated. I didn't want to think about the things William did up those solid oak stairs. I had my suspicions he let 'em think he was one of those kinky goths who liked to pretend they were real vampires by playing blood games. Only, unbeknownst to them he was for real. Not my scene, but if that was the way William wanted to get his fang freak on, it was none of my business. I did ask him once why he never shipped in female vamps. He just gave me that ask-meno-questions, and-I'll-tell-you-no-lies look and changed the subject.
Maybe there weren't any female vampires-a mightily depressing thought.
As I entered the parlor, I found a few of the girls chatting up some flushed and panting businessmen, probably out-of-town conventioneers from some of the big hotels farther down Bay Street. Other patrons had the relaxed look of regulars right at home at the mahogany bar as they negotiated for services over drinks. The furnishings and fixtures conveyed the appropriate image-- money and privilege. A brothel dressed up in the expensive respectability of a gentleman's club.
A nicely-dressed young woman turned away from the tooled leather appointment book she was thumbing through and rose from the antique writing desk just past the foyer. "Jack, how nice to see you again. You don't get by here nearly enough these days. What kind of party are you interested in this evening?"
I shook her proffered hand. Her slender fingers felt as smooth and soft as a rosebud in my huge, calloused paw. Her perfume assaulted my keen vampire senses in a not entirely unpleasant way. It was a shame I was here on urgent business. "I'm not here to party tonight, darlin'. I have to see William. It's urgent."
Ashley rolled her eyes upwards as if she could see through the ceiling into the boudoirs in the floors above. "I'm afraid you might be interrupting him at an inopportune moment."
"Let me worry about that." I started up the stairs and met William on the first landing, a pristine white shirt in his hand, mopping blood from his chin, neck, and chest with a monogrammed, linen handkerchief. He'd picked up my vibe, so to speak, as I had followed his.
"What is it?"
"It's the ship. Your cargo has disappeared."
A flicker of annoyance rippled across his smooth features. "The antiques were stolen from the harbor?"
"No. Your latest euro- I mean, shipment, has vanished into thin air along with the entire crew. The Alabaster was floating loose up the river near Lazarus Point. Some of your boys found it and tugged it in. It's a ghost ship, William." I lowered my voice before continuing. "The coffin's empty. No bodies. You'd better come see this."
He brushed by me, but not before I saw the murderous look on his face. If a mortal was behind this, he'd soon be nothing more than a dry husk. But I didn't believe this was the work of a human.
I followed him to the car, matching his long strides as he buttoned his shirt. "A human, or even several, couldn't have done this could they? Taken out a whole crew and an old, powerful vamp?" I asked.
"No," William said as he vaulted into the passenger seat.
"It must have been the import vamp himself. But why would he eat the crew and skip the welcoming party?"
William stared straight ahead with a look like he could spit nails. "I have no idea."
William was plenty mad, but that was okay as long as he wasn't mad at me. He was at his best and sharpest when he was mad. "We've got a rogue vamp on our hands, don't we?" The words sent a chill up my spine as soon as I'd said them.
"Stop asking questions and drive."
© Raven Hart