Chapter Eight

She Walks in Beauty

Jody moved down Columbus Avenue with long, runway-model strides, feeling the windblown fog brush by her like the chill ghosts of rejected suitors. What she could never teach Tommy, what she could never really share with him, was what it felt like to move from being a victim - afraid of attack, the shadow around the corner, the footsteps behind - to being the hunter. It wasn't the stalking or the rush of taking down prey - Tommy would understand that. It was walking down a dark street, late at night, knowing that you were the most powerful creature there, that there was absolutely nothing, no one, that could fuck with you. Until she had been changed and had stalked the city as a vampire, she never realized that virtually every moment she had been there as a woman, she had been a little bit afraid. A man would never understand. That was the reason for the dress and the shoes - not to attract a minion, but to throw her sexuality out there on display, dare some underevolved male to make the mistake of seeing her as a victim. Truth be told, although it had come down to confrontation only once, and then she'd been wearing a baggy sweatshirt and jeans, Jody enjoyed kicking ass. She also enjoyed - every bit as much - just knowing that she could. It was her secret.

Without fear, the City was a great sensual carnival. There was no danger in anything she experienced, no anxiety. Red was red, yellow didn't mean caution, smoke didn't mean fire, and the mumbling of the four Chinese guys standing by their car just around the corner was just the click and twang of empty swinging dick talk. She could hear their hearts speed up when they saw her, could smell sweat and garlic and gun oil coming off them. She'd learned the smell of fear and imminent violence, too, of sexual arousal and surrender, although she'd have been hard-pressed to describe any of that. It was just there. Like color.

You know...

Try to describe blue.

Without mentioning blue.

See?

There weren't a lot of people out on the street at this time of night, but there were a few, spread up the length of Columbus: barhoppers, late diners just wrapping it up, college boys heading down to the strip clubs on Broadway, the exodus from Cobb's Comedy Club up the street, people giddy and so into the rhythm of laughing that they found one another and everything they saw hilarious - all of them vibrant, wearing auras of healthy pink life, trailing heat and perfume and cigarette smoke and gas held through long dinners. Witnesses.

The Chinese guys weren't harmless, by any means, but she didn't think they'd attack her, and she felt a twinge of regret. One of them, the one with the gun, yelled something at her in Cantonese - something sleazy and insulting, she could tell by the tone. She spun as she walked, smiled her biggest red carpet smile, and without breaking stride, said, "Hey, nano-dick, go fuck yourself!"

There was a lot of bluster and shuffle, the smart one, the one with fear coming off him, held his friend Nano-dick back, thus saving his life. She must be a cop, or just crazy. Something's wrong. They clustered around their tricked-out Honda and huffed out great breaths of testosterone and frustration. Jody grinned, and detoured up a side street, away from traffic.

"My night," she said to herself. "Mine."

Now off the main drag, she saw only a single old man shuffling ahead of her. His life aura looked like a burned-out bulb, a spot of dark gray around him. He walked stooped over, with a dogged determination, as if he knew that if he stopped, he would never start again. From what she could tell, he never would. He wore baggy, wide-wale corduroys that made the sound of rodents nesting when he walked. A wisp of breeze off the Bay brought Jody the acrid smell of failing organs, of stale tobacco, of despair, of a deep, rotting sickness, and she felt the elation leave her.

She slipped comfortably into the new slot the night had made for her, like tumblers of a lock slipping into place.

She made sure that she made enough noise so that he could hear her approaching, and when she was beside him, he paused, his feet still moving in tiny steps that turned him to the side, as if his motor was idling.

"Hi," she said.

He smiled. "My, you are a lovely girl. Would you walk with me?"

"Sure."

They walked a few steps together before he said, "I'm dying, you know."

"Yeah, I kind of figured," Jody said.

"I'm just walking. Thinking, and walking. Mostly walking."

"Nice night for it."

"A little cold, but I don't feel it. I got a whole pocketful of painkillers. You want one?"

"No, I'm good. Thanks."

"I ran out of things to think about."

"Just in time."

"I wondered if I'd get to kiss a pretty girl once before the end. I think that would be all I'd want."

"What's your name?"

"James. James O'Mally."

"James. My name is Jody. I'm pleased to meet you." She stopped and offered her hand to shake.

"The pleasure is all mine, I assure you," said James, bowing as best he could.

She took his face in her hands, and steadied him, then kissed him on the lips, softly and for a long time, and when she pulled away they were both smiling.

"That was lovely," James O'Mally said.

"Yes it was," Jody said.

"I suppose I'm finished now," James said. "Thank you."

"The pleasure was all mine," Jody said. "I assure you."

Then she put her arms around his slight frame, and held him, one hand cradling the back of his head like an infant, and he only trembled a little when she drank.

A little later, she bundled his clothes together under her arm, and hooked his old wing tips on two fingers. The dust that had been James O'Mally was spread in a powdery-gray pile on the sidewalk, like a negative shadow, a bleached spot. She brushed it flat with her palm, and wrote, Nice kiss, James, with her fingernail.

As she walked away, an hourglass trickle of James trailed out of his clothes behind her and was carried off on the chill bay breeze.

The guy working the door of the Glas Kat looked like a raven had exploded on his head, his hair plastered out in a chaos of black spikes. The music coming from inside sounded like robots fucking. And complaining about it. In rhythmic monotone. European robots.

Tommy was a little intimidated. 'Sploded raven-head guy had better fangs than he did, was paler, and had seventeen silver rings in his lips. (Tommy had counted.)

"Bet it's hard to whistle with those in, huh?" Tommy asked.

"Ten dollars," said 'Sploded.

Tommy gave him the money. He checked Tommy's ID and stamped his wrist with a red slash. Just then a group of Japanese girls dressed like tragic Victorian baby dolls breezed by behind Tommy, waving their wrist slashes like they'd just returned from a joyful suicide party instead of smoking cloves on the street. They, too, looked more like vampires than Tommy did.

He shrugged and entered the club. Everyone, it appeared, looked more like a vampire than he did. He'd bought some black jeans and a black leather jacket at the Levi's store while Jody was off finding something hideous for her mother for Christmas, but evidently he should have been looking for some black lipstick and something cobalt- or fuchsia-colored to weave into his hair. And in retrospect, the flannel shirt may have been a mistake. He looked like he'd shown up at the sacrificial mass of the damned ready to fix the dishwasher.

The music changed to an ethereal female chorus of Celtic nonsense. With a techno beat. And robots complaining. Grumpy robots.

He tried to listen around it, the way Jody had taught him. With all the black light, strobes, and black clothing, his newly heightened senses were overloading. He tried to focus on people's faces, their life auras, look through the haze of heat, hairspray, and patchouli for the girl he'd met at Walgreens.

Tommy had felt alone in a crowd before, even inferior to everyone in a crowd, but now he felt, well, different. It wasn't just the clothes and the makeup, it was the humanity. He wasn't part of it. Heightened senses or not, he felt like he had his nose pressed against the window, looking in. The problem was, it was the window of a donut shop.

"Hey!" Someone grabbed his arm and he wheeled around so quickly that the girl nearly tumbled over backwards, startled.

"Fuck! Dude."

"Hi," Tommy said. "Wow." Thinking, Ah, jelly donut. It was the girl from Walgreens. She was nearly a foot shorter than he, and a little skinny. Tonight she'd gone with the waifish look, wearing striped stockings with holes ripped in them and a shiny red PVC miniskirt. She'd traded in her Lord Byron shirt for a tank top, black, of course, with dripping red letters that read got blood? and fishnet gloves that went halfway up her biceps. Her makeup was sad-clown marionette: black tears drawn streaming down either side of her face. She crooked her finger to get him to bend down so she could shout into his ear over the music.

"My name's Abby Normal."

Tommy spoke into her ear; she smelled of hairspray and what was that? Raspberry? "My name is Flood," he said. "C. Thomas Flood." It was his pen name. The C didn't really stand for anything, he just liked the sound of it. "Call me Flood," he added. Tommy was a stupid name for a vampire, but Flood - ah, Flood - there was disaster and power there, and a hint of mystery, he thought.

Abby smiled like a cat in a tuna cannery. "Flood," she said. "Flood."

She was trying it on, it seemed to Tommy. He imagined that she'd have a black vinyl binder at school and she'd soon be writing Mrs. Flood surrounded by a heart with an arrow through it on the cover in her own blood. He'd never seen a girl so obviously attracted to him, and he realized that he had no experience in dealing with it. For a moment he flashed on the three vampire brides of Dracula who try to seduce Jonathan Harker in Stoker's classic novel. (He'd been studying all the vampire fiction he could get his hands on since meeting Jody, since it didn't appear that anyone had written a good how-to book on vampirism.) Could he really deal with three luscious vampire brides? Would he have to bring them a kid in a sack the way Dracula does in the book? How many kids a week would it take to keep them happy? And where did you get kid sacks? And although he hadn't discussed it with Jody, he was pretty sure she was not going to be happy sharing him with two other luscious vampire brides, even if he brought her sacks and sacks full of kids. They'd need a bigger apartment. One with a washer and dryer in the building, because there'd be a lot of bloodstained lingerie to be washed. Vampire logistics were a nightmare. You should get a castle and a staff when you got your fangs. How was he going to do all of this? "This sucks," Tommy finally said, overwhelmed by the enormity of his responsibilities.

Abby looked startled, then a little hurt. "Sorry," she said. "You want to get out of here?"

"Oh, no, I didn't mean - I mean, uh, yes. Let us go."

"Do you still need to get your heroin?"

"What? No, that matter is taken care of."

"You know, Byron and Shelley did opiates," Abby said. "Laudanum. It was like cough syrup."

Then, for no reason that he could think of, Tommy said, "Those scamps, they loved to get wrecked and read ghost stories from the German."

"That is so fucking cool," Abby said, grabbing his arm and hugging his biceps like it was her newest, bestest friend. She started pulling him toward the door.

"What about your friend?" Tommy said.

"Oh, someone made a comment about his cape being gray when we first got here, so he went home to redye all of his blacks."

"Of course," Tommy said, thinking, What the fuck?

Out on the sidewalk, Abby said, "I suppose we need to find somewhere private."

"We do?"

"So you can take me," Abby said, stretching her neck to the side, looking more like a stringless marionette than ever.

Tommy had no idea what to do. How did she know? Everyone in that club would have scored higher on the "are you a vampire?" test than he would. There needed to be a book, and this sort of thing needed to be in it. Should he deny it? Should he just get on with it? What was he going to tell Jody when she woke up next to the skinny marionette girl? He hadn't really understood women when he was a normal, human guy, when it seemed that all you had to do was pretend that you didn't want to have sex with them until they would have sex with you, but being a vampire added a whole new aspect to things. Was he supposed to conceal that he was a vampire and a dork! He used to read the articles in Cosmo to get some clue to the female psyche, and so he deferred to advice he'd read in an article entitled "Think He's Just Pretending to Like You So You'll Have Sex with Him? Try a Coffee Date."

"How 'bout I buy you a cup of coffee instead," he said. "We can talk."

"It's because I have small boobs, isn't it?" Abby said, going into a very practiced pout.

"Of course not." Tommy smiled in a way he thought would be charming, mature, and reassuring. "Coffee won't help that."

As Jody pushed the bundle of clothes into the storm sewer, a silver cigarette case slid out of the jacket pocket onto the pavement. She reached for it and felt a light shock - no, that wasn't it. It was a warmth that moved up her arm. She kicked the clothes into the opening and stood under the streetlight, turning the silver case in her hands. It had his name engraved on it. She couldn't keep it, like she had the folding money from his pockets, but she couldn't throw it away either. Something wouldn't let her.

She heard a buzz, like an angry insect, and looked up to see a neon «Open» sign flickering above a shop called Asher's Secondhand. That was it. That's where the cigarette case had to go. She owed it to James. After all, he'd given her everything, or at least everything he'd had left. She quick-stepped across the street and into the shop.

The owner was working the counter at the back by himself. A thin guy in his early thirties, with a look of pleasant confusion not unlike the one she'd first noticed on Tommy's face. Normally, this guy would be prime minion material, or at least based on her minion recruitment of the past he would, except apparently, he was dead. Or at least not alive like most people. He had no life aura around him. No healthy pink glow, no crusty brown or gray corona of illness. Nothing. The only time she'd ever seen this before was with Elijah, the old vampire.

The shopkeeper looked up and she smiled. He smiled back. She moved to the counter. While he tried not to stare at her cleavage, she looked more closely for some life aura. There was heat, or at least there appeared to be some heat coming off him.

"Hi," said the shopkeeper. "Can I help you?"

"I found this," she said, holding up the cigarette case. "I was in the neighborhood and something made me think that this belonged here." She set the case down on the counter. How could he have no life aura? What the hell was he?

"Touch me," she said. She held out her hand to him.

"Huh?" He seemed a little frightened at first, but he took her hand, then quickly let go.

He was warm. "Then you're not one of us?" But he wasn't one of them either.

"Us? What do you mean us?" He touched the cigarette case and she could tell that this was exactly why she had brought it here. It was supposed to be here. Whatever part of James O'Mally had been left in that cigarette case had led her here. And this thin, confused-looking guy was supposed to have it. He took what was left of people all the time. It's what he did. Jody felt some of the confidence she'd felt earlier draining away. Maybe the night wasn't hers after all.

Jody backed away a step. "No. You don't just take the weak and the sick, do you? You take anyone."

"Take? What do you mean, take?" He was furiously trying to push the cigarette case back to her across the counter.

He didn't know. He was like she was when she'd awakened that first night as a vampire and had no idea what she had become. "You don't even know, do you?"

"Know what?" He picked up the cigarette case again. "Wait a second, can you see this thing glowing?"

"No glow. It just felt like it belonged here." This poor guy, he didn't even know. "What's your name?" She asked.

"Charlie Asher. This is Asher's."

"Well Charlie, you seem like a nice guy, and I don't know exactly what you are, and it doesn't seem like you know. You don't, do you?"

He blushed. Jody could see his face flush with heat. "I've been going through some changes lately."

Jody nodded. He really would have been perfect as a minion - if he hadn't been some bizarre supernatural creature. She'd just gotten used to the idea of vampires being real, and it took some serious blood drinking to drive that reality home, and now there were other - other - things? Still, Jody felt bad for him, "Okay," she said. "I know what it's like, uh, to find yourself thrown into a situation where forces beyond your control are changing you into someone, something you don't have an owner's manual for. I understand what it is to not know. But someone, somewhere, does know. Someone can tell you what's going on." And hopefully they aren't just fucking with you, she wanted to add, but thought better of it.

"What are you talking about?" he asked.

"You make people die, don't you Charlie?" She didn't know why she said it, but as soon as she said it, she knew it was true. Like when all her other senses had been dialed to eleven, she could sense something new, like noise on the line, and it was telling her this.

"But how do you - ?"

"Because it's what I do," Jody said. "Not like you, but it's what I do. Find them, Charlie. Backtrack and find whoever was there when your world changed."

She shouldn't have said that, she knew it as she was saying it. She'd just handed him an item that had been owned by someone she'd taken not twenty minutes ago. But even as regret for passing out incriminating evidence hit her, she also realized that she had left Tommy out there to wave in the wind just like this guy. Even if it was only for a few hours, Tommy had no idea how to go about being a vampire - truth be told, he hadn't really been that good at being a human. He was just a doofy guy from Indiana and she'd abandoned him to the merciless city.

She turned and ran out of the shop.

"Cocoa?" Tommy said. "You look cold." He'd given her his jacket out on the street.

He's so gallant, Abby thought. He probably wants me to drink cocoa to get my blood sugar up before he sucks the life from my veins.

Abby had lived much of her life waiting for something extraordinary to happen. No matter where she had been, there was a world somewhere that was more interesting. She'd progressed from wanting to live in a fantastic, kawaii-cute plastic world of Hello Kitty, to being a Day-Glo, Manga lollipop space girl in platform sneakers, and then just a couple of years ago she had moved into the dark gothic world of pseudo vampires, suicidal poets, and romantic disappointment. It was a dark, seductive world where you got to sleep really late on the weekends. She'd been true to her dark nature, too, trying to maintain an aspect of exhausted mopeyness while channeling any enthusiasm she felt into a vehicle for imminent disappointment, and above all, suppressing the deep-seated perkiness that her friend Lily said she'd never shed when she'd refused to throw away her Hello Kitty backpack or let go of her Nintendog virtual beagle puppy.

"He has virtual parvo," Lily had said. "You have to put him down."

"He doesn't have parvo," Abby had insisted. "He's just tired."

"He's doomed, and you're cute, and hopelessly perky," Lily taunted.

"I am not. I'm complex and I'm dark."

"You're perky and your e-dog has i-parvo."

"As Azrael is my witness, I will never be perky again," said Abby, her wrist set tragically to her forehead. Lily stood with her as she threw her Nintendog cartridge under the tire of the 91 midnight express bus.

And now she had been chosen by a real creature of the night, and she would be true to her word: she had shed her perkiness. She sipped her hot chocolate, and studied the vampire Flood across the table. How clever, that he could appear as just a simple, clueless guy - but then, he could probably take many shapes.

"I could be a slave to your darkest desires," Abby said. "I can do things. Anything you want."

The vampire Flood commenced a coughing fit. When he had control again, he said, "Well, that's terrific, because we have a lot of laundry piled up and the apartment is a wreck."

He was testing her. Seeing if she was worthy before bringing her into his world. "Anything you desire, my lord. I can do laundry, clean, bring you small creatures to quench your thirst until I am worthy."

The vampire Flood snickered. "This is so cool," he said. "You'll do my laundry, just like that?"

Abby knew she had to tread carefully here, not fall for his trap. "Anything," she said.

"Have you ever gone apartment hunting?"

"Sure," she lied.

"Okay, you can start tomorrow first thing. You need to find us an apartment."

Abby was horrified. She hadn't really tried on the idea of leaving her old life so quickly. But all that would mean nothing when she became immortal, and ran with the children of the night. But her mom was going to be pissed. "I can't move in right away, my lord. I have affairs to put in order before I make the change."

The vampire Flood smiled, his fangs barely visible now.

"Oh, it's not for you. There's another." He paused and leaned across the table. "An elder," he whispered.

There was another? Was she to become the sacrifice to a whole coven of the undead? Well, whatever. Lily would be so jealous. "As you please, my lord," she said.

"You might want to chill with the 'my lord' stuff," Flood said.

"Sorry."

"It's okay. You know this all has to be completely secret, right?"

"Right. Secret."

"I mean, I'm okay with it, but the other, the elder, she has a terrible temper."

"She?"

"Yeah, you know, an Irish redhead."

"A Celtic countess, then? The one who was with you at Walgreens?"

"Exactly."

"Sweet!" Abby blurted out. She couldn't help it. She immediately tried to hide her latent perkiness by biting the edge of her cocoa cup.

"You've got chocolate, here." The vampire Flood gestured to her lip. "Kind of a marshmallow mustache."

"Sorry," Abby said, wiping her mouth furiously with the back of her fishnet glove, smearing her black lipstick across the side of her face.

"It's okay," said the vampire Flood. "It's cute."

"Fuck!" Abby said.

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