Any butcher can tell you that different meat taken from the same animal can vary wildly in price. The same carcass, once it has been separated into its appropriate cuts, will be prepared in any number of different ways, for people from any number of different social tiers.
Why? Because human palates are sensitive enough to distinguish between the unique toughness, fat content, and flavor of the well-used muscles in the shoulders and hips, versus the more marbled tissue of, say, the tenderloin. The palate of a ghoul is about a hundred times more sophisticated than that of a human, so when we eat a meal, we can detect a lot more than just how much the muscle worked. We’re not just eating some food; we’re savoring a story.
If I somehow found a way to transcribe the heart I was gnawing on at the moment, I would have my hands on a real tear jerker. The protagonist was a woman who had lived fast and hard, and died young. She was athletic, probably into running or bicycling. She’d gotten into drugs for a while, then gotten clean early in her twenties. She’d contracted a couple of STDs over the years, and I was pretty sure she’d been pregnant once or twice, albeit briefly. Oh, and while she was mostly healthy when it came to her food choices, she had a bit of a weakness for pork.
And she’d spent the last few years of her life as a blood donor to some neckbiters, which had, in due course, brought her to my table.
A story of a life. It was incomplete, of course. There was no way to know if she had preferred reading books or watching movies, and I couldn’t tell how many friends she’d had, or guessed her favorite color. Still, most humans would be shocked at how much I could tell from my meal.
I continued chewing, looking for more telltale flavors in the epic saga of one corpse, while simultaneously cleaning and prepping another dead body for her upcoming funeral.
“Hello? Is anyone here?”
The voice, female and unfamiliar, was too close for comfort. My hearing is much sharper than a human’s, and normally I would have known as soon as anyone entered the building, but with Percy on duty upstairs, I’d assumed it was safe for me to play some music while I worked.
I estimated my uninvited visitor was at the top of the stairs, meaning she’d just passed the closed door with the ’employees only’ sign on it. She was probably about forty-five seconds away from seeing something she couldn’t unsee. And that was assuming she used that slow, half-guilty approach most people have when they find themselves somewhere they’re not supposed to be.
I cursed my incompetent, borderline useless assistant, swallowed the rest of the heart in a single gulp, and threw myself into hiding all the dirty little secrets I currently had lying about my workspace.
It would have been faster and easier to step outside and block her approach, but if she had some reason to want to see the prep room, I wouldn’t be able to rush back in and clean the place up.
First up was the body I wasn’t supposed to have. The neckbiters had dropped two corpses off a few days ago, and since I hadn’t had any reason to rush, I’d been devouring the remains a little each day.
One was tucked away in a drawer and was unlikely to be uncovered by anyone not actively seeking him out.
The other was lying on a gurney, her chest cavity wide open, and most of her organs already consumed. She’d likely gotten involved in the vampire world on an entirely voluntary basis, but there was always a chance that somebody somewhere was looking for her. The last thing I needed was for an interloper to match one of my corpses with a photograph on a milk carton or something they’d seen on TV.
I grabbed the gurney and rushed it into my walk in cooler, careful not to let the entrails spill out.
That reminded me: I whipped my tongue out of my mouth and wiped a few bits of carcass off. Ghouls are not, by our nature, the tidiest of eaters. I raised my hands to my mouth and licked away the telltale stains from my fingers.
Thankfully, my tongue is probably one of the most effective cleaning tools in the world. If I could figure out how to manufacture a synthetic equivalent, I’d start a dishrag company and retire a wealthy man.
What else? I swept a couple of tumors that I had been saving for later into a coffee can and shoved that into the back of a cabinet. The cooler I’d been filling with viscera got closed and kicked out of sight, under my desk.
The footsteps, still hesitant, were almost at the bottom of the staircase. What had I forgotten? I scanned the room and I swore under my breath. I leaped over the gurney that held the body I’d been prepping, landed silently on the cement floor on all fours, then forced myself to stand up straight as I pulled on my pants, shirt, and jacket.
Working nude isn’t typical for me, but I’d spent an inordinate time around humans, recently, which meant an inordinate amount of time standing in that awkward, human stance, speaking like a human, moving like a human. It took its toll, and since I was finally in a place where I could be myself, I’d gone to the extreme in an attempt to, as people say, ‘decompress.’
“Excuse me?” she called out from just outside my door.
I shoved my feet into my sneakers and my tinted glasses up in front of my oversized eyes just as my intruder pushed her way into the room.
“Oh! Oh I’m so sorry!” She held a pile of files up to block her view of the naked body I had been working on.
An eyelash over five feet tall, probably less than a hundred pounds, she had the frazzled hair and mismatched clothes of someone who did far too much work for far too little money.
“What are… you’re not supposed to be down here!” I put an edge of reprimand in my voice as I shut off my blaring music and moved quickly for the door. “This area is for staff only.”
She hesitated for a moment, probably weighing the impropriety of remaining in the room against the importance of her quest. “Oh, yes! Yes, I can see that! And I’m so sorry… I’m looking for a Mr. Walter Keppler?”
I pulled the woman back into the hallway by her elbow, shutting the door firmly behind us.
“Well, you’ve found me, but in the future, I’d recommend calling first.”
“I am sorry about that, I just happened to be in the neighborhood. Um, is there somewhere we could talk?”
I sighed. “Funeral arrangements should be discussed with my assistant, Percy. Frankly, he should have caught you when you came in.”
The fact that Percy hadn’t been doing his job didn’t surprise me much, but it did worry me a little. His pastimes have a way of coming back to bite me in the ass.
“I didn’t see anyone up there. Maybe he was in the bathroom.”
“Anyhow, I didn’t come here about funeral arrangements,” the woman continued. “I really do need to speak to you, Mr. Keppler. It won’t take long.” She glanced at her watch. “I don’t have enough time for it to take long. I’m already late.”
I hesitated, taking a quick sniff as I did. Like most of my kind, I rely more on sounds and smells than on sight.
She smelled of office work and desperation. Plenty of sweat, mostly from long hours, but there were hints of anger sweat, too. And copier ink. There were traces of mold, mildew and asbestos on her, not enough that it represented the majority of her time, but she’d been in some buildings that should have been torn down or renovated years ago.
“What exactly is this regarding, ma’am?”
“Do you know a girl… a young woman, actually, by the name of Patricia Courning?”
I blinked at the woman. A young woman? Was she looking for somebody who’d gone missing? Usually people like that turned up in the city morgue, not a private mortuary. “I don’t think so. Why?”
“I was afraid of that. It seems that you’ve touched her life in some way, and, strange as it may sound, you might just be the only person she trusts.”
It’s rare that I speak without thinking, but this particular statement was simply too farfetched for me to control myself. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
The woman blinked at me.
I cleared my throat. “Sorry, what I mean to say is…” I searched for several seconds but couldn’t think of anything more appropriate. “Let me show you to my office,” I said at last.
The woman allowed me to guide her back up the stairs, juggling her files and an oversized purse.
“Oh, I forgot to introduce myself,” she blurted as we reached the top. “I’m Samantha Neil.” She pulled a business card out of her bag and shoved it at me.
I took the card and glanced at it before shoving it into my pocket. The woman was a social worker. What a social worker wanted from me I couldn’t even begin to guess. What I did know was that I wanted as little as possible to do with anyone remotely attached to the government.
“Uh-huh.” I continued down the hallway and around a corner. Due to the peculiarities of the building which I had converted into a mortuary, my office was not only a floor up from the prep room where I spent most of my time, but on the far end of the building as well.
“Anyway, as I said, I’m here about Patricia.”
“Still don’t know who that is.”
Samantha cleared her throat, hurrying to keep up with me. I’m not especially tall, but I’m a fast walker when I’m in a mood, and having someone burst into my prep room like that put me in a mood.
“Yes, that’s what I’m trying to–”
I held up a hand, stopping her for a moment. We reached the end of the hall and I ushered the woman into my office, a small, dark, cement walled room dominated by filing cabinets and a desk. There was barely enough space for the two of us to sit across from each other. That was fine with me. I didn’t deal with the customers, and I kind of preferred for the people I did meet with to feel a little uncomfortable.
I cleared my throat. “All right. So, some girl….”
Samantha flipped through her files as she spoke. “This is all a little difficult, normally I talk with family members, but Patricia doesn’t seem to have any. Or if she did, her mother managed to sever the ties thoroughly enough that I can’t find them. An interesting woman, her mother. Very abusive. Very controlling.”
A girl with a controlling, abusive mother. A knot formed in my intestines, a premonition that this conversation was about to take an unfortunate turn.
Samantha pulled out a file and opened it, showing me a picture of a teenaged girl with bright blonde hair and a black eye.
“So you do recognize her?”
I did. I’d met her several times, and each time she tried to kill me.
No, that wasn’t accurate. The first few times she’d tried to kill me, but during our final encounter she’d watched her mother try to kill me.
Then she’d watched me bite her mother’s head off. Literally.
“We’ve bumped into each other once or twice.”
“Right.” Samantha hesitated, then sighed. “Look, Mr. Keppler, at any given point in time I have between thirty and forty-five open cases. That’s thirty to forty-five children whose lives have basically gone to shit, if you’ll excuse my candor. I do the best I can, but most of the time I’m using band aids on gangrene.”
“Sorry to hear it.”
She waved off my sentiment. “I’m not asking for sympathy; I just need you to understand that I have to prioritize my time. I’ve got a lot of boys and girls under my supervision who have very real problems, so when I get a seventeen-year-old girl whose mother decided to skip town a few months before her daughter is technically an adult, I’m going to do my best for her, but I’m going to do it as fast as I can.”
Samantha cleared her throat. “Let me break this down: Patricia is going to reach the age of majority in a little more than seven months. When she does, she’s got a small house that’s mostly paid off, her mother’s old car, which probably won’t last too much longer, but is, at least, hers, free and clear, and a bank account that her mother appears to have left behind when she disappeared.”
“Oh.” I furrowed my brow. “I would’ve expected it to be a lot harder for her to inherit everything with her mother having disappeared instead of, say, turning up dead.”
“Usually it is. Thankfully, for all the woman’s failings, she was thorough when she set up her living will. Anyhow, the point is, Patricia is not what I would call a priority case. But I do have certain concerns. Ignoring her massively underwhelming education, the girl hasn’t got the foggiest idea how to live in the real world. She doesn’t know how to cook or clean or balance a checkbook. She’s never had a job or been encouraged to think about a career. She manages to be both amazingly paranoid, and exceptionally gullible.”
“As much as I hate to interrupt, what exactly does all of this have to do with me?”
“A few days ago, Patricia and I had a rather illuminating conversation, and, while there is a limit to how much I can share, the long and short of it is that she’s been used quite a bit in her life. It seems as though every relationship she’s been in has been based on someone getting something out of her. In fact, when pressed, the only person she could name who she didn’t think wanted to get something out of her was you.”
“That’s… interesting.” In point of fact, I had wanted something from her. I’d wanted her to leave me alone, which is basically what I want from everyone.
“That isn’t to say that she likes you, exactly. Apparently, you and her mother had some kind of conflict?”
Samantha stared at me in askance, and I stared back, stone-faced.
“Anyway,” she continued, “Patricia seems to feel that she owes it to her mother to hate you, but it’s a halfhearted hatred at best.”
“Oh, good, she half-hates me. And what, exactly, do you think I can do for this girl who only half-hates me?”
“Essentially, Mr. Keppler, she needs a friend.”
“May I recommend Facebook?”
Samantha forced a pained smile. “Hilarious.”
“Or maybe high school?”
“High school isn’t going well for her at the moment.” Samantha tapped the photo. “You may have noticed the black eye?”
“I was curious about that. As I recall, she was quite capable of handling herself. I wouldn’t have expected her to lose to a few grade school bullies.”
“Actually, that black eye is from when the police picked her up. And I wouldn’t say she lost that fight. The long and short of it is, she isn’t very good at handling conflict. She isn’t skilled at verbal confrontations, but she’s very good at fights. She’s been in high school all of two months and she’s on the verge of being expelled. She would have been expelled except for… complications. And, since I’m being frank anyway, between her social problems and her abysmal grades, I’m guessing that she’s going to drop out first chance she gets.”
“Oh.” I bit my lip, trying to wait the appropriate length of time before diverting the conversation back to its original track. “The point I was trying to make is that a mortuary owner twice her age may not be the best person to set this ‘Patricia’ up on a play date with.” Actually, I was only about ten years older than her, but ghouls tend to age poorly, and most people I met assumed I was in my mid to late thirties. “Aren’t you concerned that I might be a… a… oh, hell, I don’t know, some kind of child molester?”
She grimaced. “The child molesters I worry about aren’t interested in seventeen year olds.”
I raised an eyebrow. She flushed a bright pink. That was probably the kind of thing that a social worker could get in trouble for saying.
“I mean…” she backtracked, obviously flustered, “I told you, you’re the only person she could name who didn’t seem to want something out of her. Maybe it’s all a ploy; maybe you’re looking to take advantage of her by fooling her into thinking you don’t want anything from her. Maybe you’re a very skilled sociopath. It’s impossible to be certain, that’s something I learned early on in this job. I play the odds, and right now I’ve got you on one hand who might be looking to take advantage of her, everyone else she knows from her old life, who apparently did take advantage of her, and on a third hand, all of the new people in her life who she doesn’t get along with at all. Look, as I’ve said, Patricia’s case isn’t my highest priority. I’d like to see things go well for the girl, I really would, but I’ve only got so many hours in the week. Basically, I just wanted to let you know that there’s a girl out there who could use a hand, and you could be that hand. If you decide you’d be willing to help, you have my card, give me a call and I’ll try to set something up. If you don’t, then you don’t. I’ve done my part.”
“I see.” I patted the pocket I’d put her card in. “Well then, I’ll either call you, or I won’t.”
Samantha nodded and stood up, almost bumping into the door as she turned to leave. “It was good meeting you, Mr. Keppler, I’ll show myself out.”
“Right.” I remained seated as I listened to her exit the building and drive away. I had no intention of making that call. I owed the girl nothing, and the fact that she’d seen me in any sort of positive light after our encounters was both incredibly depressing, and strong evidence that she needed to be medicated.
What I did need to deal with was the apparent absence of my assistant.
I headed into the lobby and took a sniff. He’d been gone for at least fifteen minutes, but less than half an hour. I’d noticed his car out front as I’d walked the social worker to my office, so he was probably on the premises.
While I can’t hear everything that goes on in my building, if Percy wanted real privacy, the best place for it was out back, next to the loading bay. Due to the natural geography of the area, the loading dock opened to the building’s basement, which meant that it was in a deeply slanted area out back. An area hidden from view of the passing roadway and with lots of sound-muffling walls. Very convenient when I have to take deliveries of corpses that officially didn’t exist. It also put the thickest wall in the building between me and Percy.
The stairs next to my office led directly down to the loading bay. I hopped down them and headed for the back door.
Percy is kind of like a puppy; if you aren’t looking directly at him, chances are good he’s tearing up the furniture or shitting on the rug. Sadly, it isn’t enough to run into the room yelling whenever he’s done something bad: like a puppy, he’ll whine and hide his face and swear up and down that someone else did it. You have to catch him in the act and rub his face in it.
I pressed my ear up against the back door and listened.
“No, no, I’m not saying that. I’m saying I need a few more days.” There was a pause. “Come on, you know I’m good for it. I’ve always been good for it; you just need to give me a little more time.”
He owed someone money he didn’t have. Not surprising, but more importantly, not my problem. As long as he was shitting outdoors, I was happy.
“No, not my place. Meet me at the stiff-house. Tomorrow.”
My hackles rose, though I wasn’t sure if it was because he’d called my mortuary a ‘stiff-house’ or because he was bringing his problems right to my front door.
“Son of a bitch!”
Somehow Percy managed to hang up his phone and slip it into his pocket before the door slammed open, into the alleyway wall.
“Hey! Walter! Don’t tell me you’re done with that body already?”
He was smiling, but the tension in his jaw told me that he was frightened. He didn’t know exactly how much I’d heard, so he wasn’t sure what, if anything, he needed to confess to.
“No, I’m not done with the body, but I got interrupted by a potential customer who wandered downstairs.” I wasn’t about to let Percy know about a seventeen-year-old girl who needed a friend. I might not give a damn about the girl, but I wasn’t actively looking to destroy what was left of her life.
“Oh. Shit.” Percy took a step and a half away from me. “Sorry, boss. I just stepped out for a minute. I didn’t think anyone would be stopping by.”
“Do you have any idea what that woman almost walked in on? I pay you to deal with the customers, Percy! I pay you a lot more than you’re worth, so that I don’t have to worry about people interrupting me down there!”
He was also supposed to help me on body pickups and keeping the place clean, but he never carried his own weight with those. I turned a blind eye to those failings, as long as he acted as a buffer between me and people.
“Sorry, boss.” Percy began to relax. He figured that if I hadn’t brought up his conversation yet, I hadn’t actually heard it.
“And what exactly were you doing out here, anyway?”
Percy’s left eye twitched; he was about to lie. “I just wanted some fresh air.”
“And the air back here is fresher than the air out front?”
“It’s definitely cooler.”
That much was true. The loading dock got less than five hours of direct sunlight a day.
I briefly considered confronting my assistant with what I knew. He’d just weave together some bullshit story that I couldn’t quite disprove, though. Better to give him enough rope that I could strangle him with it later.
“Fine, whatever. Are you done breathing now?”
“Um, yeah, I’m good.”
Back at home, I made sure to lock the door behind me before I sank into a comfortable crouch and shuffled off to the bedroom to change out of my work clothes.
It had been a long day: one of the bodies needed more repair work than I’d expected, and my coffin supplier was giving me excuses about a shipment that should have come in two days earlier. All of that before I found out that I was going to have to come in on what was supposed to be my day off to see what mischief Percy was getting up to.
But those were all concerns that could wait until tomorrow. Today I had special plans. I glanced at the clock: six twenty-five. Plenty of time. More than enough time. Too much time, really.
I could have watched TV for an hour or so, or maybe read a book, but I was too excited. I headed into the kitchen, pulling a broken crock pot that I’d stolen from a neighbor’s trash can off the top shelf.
A few months back I had gone through what I liked to think of as a ‘long hard weekend,’ and the circumstances of it had significantly depleted my financial reserves. Pretty much all of the money that wasn’t dedicated to rent or utilities was gone. All of it except my rainy-day fund. Eighty-five dollars in ones and fives that I’d tucked away one bill at a time, then completely forgotten about when I needed it most. I would have been stoked if I’d remembered it back when hunters were chasing me, and a bimbo neckbiter was spending all of my money, but it had been even more exciting, a week later, when I remembered it.
The bills made for an impressive stack of cash, even if the total value of it was slightly less than the value of a new tire.
The most important thing about the money, however, was that it was cash. Part of the agreement that I’d made about tonight was that it had to be secret. It wasn’t enough, I’d been informed, that nobody knew, there should be no way for anybody to find out about it. Ever.
I straightened the wad of bills as best I could, secured it with a rubber band, made a quick phone call, and headed to the door.
There were several stops to make before my final destination. If history had taught me anything, it was the value of preparation.
I stopped at the hardware store first. A decent sized roll of plastic was available for twenty-three bucks. I considered buying a gallon of paint, just so the checkout girl would assume I was repainting my house, but that stuff is surprisingly expensive. Instead I bought the cheapest paintbrush I could find. Hopefully the girl would assume I had the paint at home.
Next stop was the butcher shop. He sold the bits and pieces he was supposed to throw away under the table for pocket cash. Neckbiters prefer blood straight from the vein, and human blood over animals, but they could only drop so many bodies before people started paying attention. The older vampires kept stables of willing donors, but the lesser bloodsuckers of any particular household had to supplement the volunteers if they didn’t want to go hungry.
I wasn’t sure how much the butcher actually knew about the supernatural community, but he was definitely human, so odds were good he couldn’t tell me from a neckbiter. And even if somebody did find out I was buying pig’s blood, I reasoned, I could claim that I liked to mix it in to some of my meals. Nobody really knew enough about ghoul eating habits to contradict me.
A quarter gallon of blood set me back five dollars. The price seemed a bit high to me, but it was a seller’s market, and I had no idea where else one would go to buy blood.
Stop number three was the dump. Or rather, right next to the dump. As a rule, people aren’t allowed to just dive in and grab whatever they want, but a business acquaintance of mine had given me the name and number of someone who worked there. That was who I’d called just before I left home. About fifteen yards past the gate to the landfill, I rolled up on a young man pretending to work on the car he’d pulled off the road. He’d positioned the queen size mattress in some tall grass, on the downslope of the hill that the road ran up. I wouldn’t have even seen it if I hadn’t been looking for it.
The thing about mattresses, if you ever have to get rid of one, is that you can’t do anything convenient with them. You can’t donate a mattress, or sell it, at least, not to any organization in Colorado. It’s a health issue, apparently. I don’t know if it’s an actual health concern, or just a perceived risk. Being a ghoul, I don’t have to worry about that kind of thing. The point, though, is that a lot of high quality, barely used mattresses end up getting tossed out because there simply isn’t anything else that can be done with them.
The boy glanced around for prying eyes before tossing the merchandise in the back of my truck, and walking around to my window.
I gave him twenty bucks in ones.
He raised an eyebrow.
“Secondhand mattresses stolen from dumps don’t get bought by people with rolls of twenties in their pockets,” I informed him.
He shrugged, shoved the money into his jeans and hopped into his car.
I made a u-turn and headed back into town.
My last stop was at a flower shop. More specifically, the dumpster behind a flower shop. I’ve never understood why anyone is willing to pay the exorbitant fees that those places charge for what amounts to weeds. Especially dead weeds. I do have a hookup for flowers. When you’re in the funeral business you end up on good terms with certain groups, but the guy I bought through was a notorious gossip and I didn’t want word getting out through him.
I filled a small garbage bag with half wilted flowers, jumped back in my truck, and pulled out.
All told, it had been less than an hour since I stepped out my front door, which left me with over two hours of waiting, but by this point I was almost jittering with excitement. I knew I should head back to my house for a bit, or maybe out to a nearby cemetery, just to calm down, but I couldn’t make myself do it.
So I headed to the motel.
The thirty-three bucks and change I had left turned out to be more than enough. I didn’t spot any security cameras, and the man behind the desk didn’t even look up from the porno mag as he took my money and handed me a key. It occurred to me as I walked to my room that I probably didn’t need to take all of the precautions I was taking; this was the kind of place a serial killer might take a victim if he didn’t want to clean up afterward.
In some motels, the furniture was bolted down to prevent theft, but the owners here had apparently decided that anybody desperate enough to steal their shit could have it. I didn’t want it, but I did want it out of the way, so I stacked everything against one of the walls.
Once I had the center of the room cleared out, I headed back out to the car for my supplies. I covered the floor and walls with plastic. My junkyard mattress went in the middle of the room. I filled the sink with hot water and put the container of blood in to warm up.
As for the flowers, I spent the next half hour pulling the petals off of the stems and covering the bed. I ate the stems. Not that I was hungry, but I am a bit of a nervous eater.
Admittedly, between the plastic on the floor and the lack of sheets on the bed, it wasn’t the most romantic setup in the world, but given what we’d done to the last hotel room we’d stayed in, I thought Sherry would appreciate the practicality of the arrangement.
All that was left was to wait for an hour and a half.
I sighed, mentally berating myself for coming so early. I didn’t even bring a book. I briefly considered watching some tv, but the last thing I’d seen on television that was remotely interesting was a necropsy video done on a rotting whale carcass, and somehow I doubted that this hotel had sprung for that particular viewing package.
I headed into the bathroom and lay down in the tub to try and get some sleep.
When it comes to places to nap, my personal preference is a nest. I like dried leaves, partially eaten carcasses, torn up cloth, twigs, the occasional insect scurrying over my face. Things like that. Barring that, I’ll take a hole in the ground, or an old sarcophagus. If push comes to shove, however, I can also get some decent sleep in a bathtub. Folding myself into a ball, cool hard plastic pressed against me, some dripping water and, best case scenario, something heavy laying over the top, it’s kind of like sleeping in a tomb, which I find soothing.
Of course, I was far too wound up to actually get any sleep.
After about an hour of laying in the tub, smelling the grimy remnants of the hundred or so people who’d used it before, I climbed out and headed to the bedroom to twiddle my thumbs. On the way, I stopped to empty the sink and refill it with hot water.
She’d come soon.
I sunk into a comfortable hunch in the bedroom and waited.
At half an hour late, I assumed she had some unexpected problems to deal with and would be heading my way as fast as she could manage.
At an hour and fifteen minutes, I supposed that she must’ve had an emergency and hadn’t been able to call to tell me.
At the two-hour mark, I realized that she must have completely forgotten me, and the smart thing was to get out of here with what was left of my dignity.
By the time I caught the smell of my lover approaching, three and a half hours after our agreed upon time, I was tempted not to answer her knock at all. I didn’t mind that she didn’t want to be seen with me in public: neckbiter politics being what they were, even the suspicion that she and I were on speaking terms would have been enough to turn her into a social pariah. I didn’t mind that she expected me to drop whatever I was doing and make arrangements to be with her on her schedule.
But she hadn’t even respected me enough to tell me she would be late.
On the other hand, this was the first woman who was willing to have sex with me without money changing hands.
I popped open the door on her first knock, trying to twist my face into a combination of disappointment and anticipation. I doubt I did a very good job of portraying either, but whatever the physical result, the effects were wasted.
Sherry and the woman she was making out with nearly fell into the room.
I had smelled the other woman coming, but I’d assumed she was heading to one of the neighboring rooms.
Sherry guided the other woman over to the bed and the two of the fell into it together, arms wrapped around each other.
“Oh, Gawd,” the woman gasped as Sherry lowered her mouth to nibble on her neck.
I stared at the two women for several, bewildered seconds.
Sherry raised her head long enough to roll her eyes at me. “Shit, Walter, shut the fucking door.”
I blinked at her, then obeyed.
“Is this yer boyfriend?” the girl gasped, looking me over, appraisal in her eyes. “He’s kinda cute.”
That was a lie, but it was a polite lie, which is a kindness I’m not especially used to.
“Uh, thanks,” I managed.
The woman spotted the discomfort on my face and looked away, her mood going from arousal to fear in a matter of seconds. “What the fuck? Why’s everything shrink wrapped?”
“We get a little messy sometimes,” I replied as I grabbed Sherry’s arm. “If you’ll excuse us for a second, my girlfriend and I just need to have a little talk.”
“Wait, but…” Sherry protested as I pulled her into the bathroom. “Dammit, Walter, she’s going to leave.”
“Good.” I slammed the door. “Who the hell is that?”
“What, you’ve never had a three-way before?”
“Of course I haven’t!” In the other room, I heard Sherry’s friend climb to her feet and move towards the door. I lowered my voice to be sure she couldn’t hear what came next. “You know how I make love: she couldn’t survive that.”
“Well, duh.” She rolled her eyes. “I was planning on draining her in a few minutes anyway. I figured, you know, mid-coital meal for me, and you could have what was left. You have no idea how hungry I am.”
The front door opened and slammed shut. Through it I could hear uneven steps moving quickly away.
“Aw, fuck. Now what am I supposed to eat? It isn’t easy to find someone who can disappear without anyone noticing, you know!”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Fucking neckbiters.”
“Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Look, I don’t know if it’s a vampire thing or a sociopath thing, but not everybody gets off on killing someone in the middle of sex.”
“Oh don’t get all puritanical on me! Like you’ve never killed anyone in your life.”
“Sure, I’ve killed people. When I had to. I don’t run around slitting throats just to get my rocks off.”
“No, that’s right, you like them to be dead before you get started.”
“Well, yeah.” I shrugged. “I’m a ghoul.”
“And I’m a vampire.”
She actually had a good point, there. It pissed me off when people got in my face about acting like the scavenger I was. Did I have any right to judge her for being a predator? I didn’t approve of indiscriminate killing, but I’d known from the get-go what she was. I sighed. “Touche.”
“I’m a hungry vampire, actually.”
“I’m just reiterating, since, you know, you let my meal get away.”
“Well, you’re in luck. I actually picked something up for you. Food without the inconvenience of murdering anybody.”
Sherry sighed. “Please tell me you’re not talking about that pig’s blood in the sink.”
“I thought you liked pig’s blood?”
Sherry cursed under her breath. “It’s practically the only thing I’ve had this month. I think that’s what’s making my stomach hurt.”
That took me by surprise. “I thought you were at Aldred’s place, surrounded by willing blood donors and whatnot.”
Aldred, the local province master of the vampire community, had agreed to take Sherry in after her sire was killed. My understanding was that his acceptance of her gave her status equal to that of neckbiters of his own making.
Sherry’s expression darkened. “It isn’t first come first serve, Walter. You don’t just walk up and sink your teeth into one of them. They can only give so much a day, and they all have their favorites. Every human in the place is at Aldred’s beck and call, of course, but after that it’s all about politics and power and relationships.”
I blinked. “Really?”
“Of course. A human in a vampire nest has a limited life span. Ten years, maybe fifteen, before the stress on his body is too much, and that’s assuming somebody doesn’t lose control and just fucking drain them. So you figure, a decade and a half to convince someone to turn you.”
“Right, but only the Masters can turn them.”
Sherry rolled her eyes. “Duh, but not everyone can get significant face time in with their Master. Especially when they’re the new donor. You have to strategize; you have to play the long game and position yourself for advancement. For the humans, it’s all about getting the most out of every drop of blood. Every time they let someone feed off of them, they’re placing a bet on the vampire they’re feeding.”
“And none of them are betting on you?”
She glowered at me. “A ghoul fed newborn whose sire is dead? No. Nobody is betting on me.”
While neckbiters gain strength every time they drink blood, their first two meals are the most important. The first meal, after they’ve been almost completely drained, consists of a fairly sizeable amount of their sire’s blood.
The older and more powerful the sire is, the more powerful the newly made vampire will be when they begin their new life.
After consuming a Master’s blood, the newly made vampire enters a state resembling death, which generally lasts a couple of days. When they wake up, they’re famished, delirious with hunger, and will consume the blood of the first thing that lets them. Barring that, they’ll drain the first thing that can’t fight them off.
This is the waking meal, and it affects them for the rest of their lives. A neckbiter whose waking meal is the blood of a master vampire becomes a master vampire, capable of making new neckbiters.
A waking meal from a lesser vampire, or a human, results in a null. Nulls are the eunuchs of bloodsucking world. They can accomplish great things, gain respect, even lead others, but a null will never be a part of vampire nobility. Only in the most extreme of circumstances are they allowed to act as the head of a nest or coven.
The majority of neckbiters, however, are domestics: the servant class. Their second feeding is typically the blood of an animal. Though they are as immortal as any of their peers, and at least as stuck up when it comes to dealing with anything that isn’t a vampire, there is a distinct limit to how high they can rise in the hierarchy.
To the best of my knowledge, there was no specific place built in for someone whose waking meal came from a ghoul, but given how those leeches treated me, I had a pretty good idea of where they wanted to put her.
“Sorry about that.”
Sherry shook her head and stomped into the bedroom.
Suddenly it occurred to me that I’d just acknowledged guilt, even though the only thing I’d actually done wrong had been to save her life, and that had been several months ago. Worse than that, she still hadn’t apologized for the things she’d clearly done wrong in the last several minutes.
I prepared myself for a fight and moved to follow her. When I entered the room, however, I found her slurping down the pig’s blood as she pulled off the last of her clothes.
She tossed the carton aside, wiping at her lips, spilled blood sliding slowly down her breast, and gave me a come-hither look. “So, are we going to fuck, or what?”
Sometimes you have to let go of the little things.