TJ Moore Books

This suspenseful novella features a family trio, creatures of night, each searching for their purpose beyond the lust for blood: fashion, sculpture, and ancient mysteries. When a teenage girl named Jezebel investigates strange occurrences in her city, she discovers chilling revelations locked within the walls of their ominous house. She wants to be one of them. But some family secrets are exclusive . . . and dangerous.

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A sealed room in the Sharp house held centuries of secrets.

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© 2018 by Claire Doolittle

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The Sharp Family

By TJ Moore

 

“We are devils. That’s what we are. They say they want to join our family, but they don’t know what they’re asking. It’s a shame, really, how much they want to be us, walk in our skin and see through our eyes. Not all of them ask us with words, but with side-glances and lingering curiosity. No matter how hard we try to disguise ourselves and hide from them during the day, there are those who seek us out because they want to know our interior lives. If they knew the burden we carry, they’d recoil their desire for our destiny and find any other way to stand out. They pursue freedom from the rules of society and the limitations of our human bondage, a numb hope—a kind that fades soon after one is turned. I can’t fight the need anymore. I used to have control. I used to have free will. Now, all I can do is run and kill and drink and feed. It’s a foolish pursuit. This is not what they want, anyway; neither lust, nor secret stains upon their soul wiped clean. They seek our powers because they want to fly.”

— Ashton Sharp, Reluctant Vampire

Chapter 1

A sealed room in the Sharp house held centuries of secrets. The French doors were locked with a complex gear system designed by a Parisian watchmaker. Shipped from a private company, these doors were transported from their original location guarding an entrance to the underground catacombs in Paris and later modified by a watchmaker upon the request of a demanding, reclusive vampire named Scarlett Sharp in Portland, Oregon.

The lumber was cut from tropical mahogany and cured when the doors were first constructed. The doors were engraved with a large tree design with no leaves, a barren canopy over a sturdy trunk supported by roots that reflected the size of the branches. There was a beautiful symmetry to the design of the tree, as if it had been dissected into quadrants. In the center of the carved trunk was a small opening, perfectly measured for the installation of a locking mechanism. A carpenter had cut each door in half vertically and hollowed them out so the watchmaker could insert a small city of interlocking cogs, gears, and springs. Rudimentary adhesives like glue were never used to reassemble the doors. Instead, the vampire had ordered that steel rivets be punched in around the door’s perimeter, fastening the sophisticated puzzle of gears inside.

 Since the wood was warped by time, the woman asked for the doors to be cast in bronze for an airtight seal. Portland resident Scarlett, the matriarch of the family, carried the only key around her neck on a chain-link necklace at all times and placed her hands over it during the day while resting in her coffin. She had the door custom made for the family house as a vault containing her secret history.

Three years ago, she married her most recent husband, Damien Clarke, a novelist and sculptor. Once he agreed to join Scarlett in her lust for blood, they purchased a massive Victorian style house on the outskirts of southern Portland. It used to belong to an oilman during the rush for land in the early twentieth century. The original owner struck gold by starting a pipeline from the Dakotas to the coast. The prospector paid for the house to be built with red bricks; and the Sharps made it their own by adding rooms, each with a purpose, including a travel collectibles room, antique parlor, customized copper modern kitchen, rose greenhouse garden, home gym, sewing room, jewelry vault, library, blood storage cellar, and a workshop for Damien’s sculptures and writing.

Since his conversion, Damien’s compulsion to write had slowed; and although he had many ideas for future novels, his hands were focused on the imitation of life through stonework. He worked best in solitude, undisturbed. An open window near the clay mixer let in sounds of crickets chirping, the soft hiss of wind, and the frequent rustlings of night creatures hunting and gathering. A raccoon had once tried to climb through, but Damien saw the rascal and closed the window to block his entry. Stray birds sometimes flew through this window and landed on his statues. Just before morning, he closed the window and drew the curtains to block the coming dawn. Then he’d carefully tie the cords that held the curtains shut.

He carved from limestone, granite, or marble slabs. This required advanced tools and techniques. Before carving from the larger blocks, he worked with clay in small scale. Many of these miniatures never made it past the first stage. And so, his workshop was littered with a small colony of tiny clay people, each with a silent persona. He strived to capture the essence of each subject, their most unique qualities, preserving them within the subtle carvings of stonework.

The most daunting part of making the figures was the cold stare of a marble block, rife with possibilities of which person might be trapped inside, desperately holding their breath until his chisels and hammers cut them out. His work as a novelist required other methods; yet he appreciated the reward of creating a work of art that weighed several hundred pounds. Though he was now immortal, he imagined these stone impressions would outlast him as long as they were cared for and stored safely.

Damien poured a bucket of Agave nectar into a paint tray. The sweet, clear liquid worked as a natural sealant for the surface of his statues, protecting them from scratches and superficial cracks. Bone powders and certain tree saps, once set in a temperature-controlled room, also had shielding properties. Commercial sprays and crack sealers were sold at hardware stores for only a few dollars, but he preferred to use natural materials. He believed the harmful chemicals in some branded products would corrode the stone over time.

His very first statues had proportional errors with unnatural poses, and limbs of abnormal length. Even now, as a seasoned sculptor, the face was the most difficult portion to carve. Some sculptors started at the feet and worked their way up toward the head, but Damien started at the top of the block and finished the face and hair first. It was important for him to get the countenance right—the twinkle of the eyes, the angle of the jaw, the slant of the nose, and cleft of the chin—as to uncover a solidified spirit.

Scarlett had a habit of interrupting him during crucial moments, when he was just starting to make headway toward chiseling any one of the important facial features he desperately needed before moving on.

She’d open the door without knocking and say, “When are you going to make a statue of me, dear?”

“Scarlett, you know it’s a long process.”

She wore a black velvet gown and nothing underneath, gliding past boxes of carving tools. The aromatic smell of her perfume flowed around her as if part of the dress, a fragrance that contrasted the musty workshop cluttered with particles of floating sediment. She walked with grace, yet her stern tone immediately ruined Damien’s concentration.

“You know it’s very distracting when you barge in here like this.”

“Barge? Hmmm. I don’t remember smashing down the door and yelling for you to stop. I’ll try that next time.”

“Please, I’m nearing the end of this one, only have to carve out the toes.”

Scarlett raised an eyebrow and sauntered around the statue, then stood between it and her husband. “There are other women which you study and carve, are there not?”

“Yes.”

She turned and ran her fingers over the surface of the statue’s features. “And you have to spend many hours thinking about them . . . the sensuous curves of their bodies . . . the flow of their hair, the shape of their lips, and the plumpness of each breast.”

He held back his temper. “You shouldn’t be touching it like that. I haven’t applied the sealant.”

She snarled, “I bet you touch them like this all the time when I’m not here. You hold them close as if they were your lovers and whisper secrets about me.”

“Don’t be absurd.”

“If they weren’t bound by these marble bases, I’m sure you’d dance with them. Yes, wait until I’m locked in my coffin for the day and dance with your stone masterpieces.”

“You don’t seem in the mood for dancing.”

“Are you denying it?”

“I’d have to be a sorcerer to reanimate these rocks,” he said. “You know I love you, Scarlett.”

“Do you really?” She spun around and tore down a photograph hanging from the wall. “Is that why you have pictures of models hung everywhere?” Then she crumbled it and threw it across the workshop.

“We’ve been over this before.” His irritation jumped in his stomach, trying to get out. “I’m studying the human form.”

“Seems to me it’s only the ladies that interest you.” She picked up the nearest figurine from the workshop tables and thrust it into his face. “Where are the men?”

“I carve just as many male figures as I do women. You know that.”

Her impatient tone became demanding. “Is that so? Ancient models of Greek men, no doubt, nothing from our modern times—only athletes buried so far in the past that no one knows their names.” She rotated the small clay model, examined it, and returned it to the table. “And where are these sporty statues? Did you hide them away in the attic? Smash them to pieces? Or are they unfinished? What have you finished recently?”

“You can’t expect me to show you everything I work on.”

She once again stood in front of the statue. “Oh, I see. You want privacy, do you?” And she slipped one of her legs out from her gown and slid it between his inner thigh, pulling his waist toward hers, then interlocked her fingers with his free hand. He couldn’t escape her stubborn gaze. “You’ve forgotten something, Damien. We share this house.”

He could feel her cold breath upon his neck.

She held him closer, nestled against him, and slowly licked the side of his neck, whispering into his ear, “You care about my feelings, don’t you?”

“I didn’t know you had any feelings left,” he whispered back.

She suddenly dug her claw into his shoulder and released his other hand, stepping away from him. “How dare you.”

“Am I wrong? I mean, with all that Botox, I’m surprised you can smile anymore.”

“You’re testing my patience, Damien. I’m not one of your fiction creations.”

“Don’t be so melodramatic, Scar, if you want me to carve a statue of you . . . I’ll do it.”

“Then why make a mockery of me?”

Holding back a small laugh, he said, “You make it so easy.”

Scarlett stomped over to one of his toolboxes and removed a chisel. Then she took a different clay female model and cut off its head with the curved blade. “Is that all I am to you—a joke, a walking shadow falling apart in front of you?”

“You destroyed her! That was my next project!” Damien batted the tool from her hand and took the headless model. “It has been a while since you looked in a mirror.”

Scarlett rolled her eyes. “Again with the juvenile attempts at humor.”

“So you don’t think I’m funny?”

“I didn’t say that. You’re always the life of the party. And you’re twice the man I need most of the time. But I deserve respect.”

Damien hated when she tried to flatter him. “These aren’t just blocks of stone.”

She came close to him again, but he backed away. “What have your figurines ever done for you? Hmmm? They’re not real!”

“Neither are you, babe—nothing but a figment of my imagination. I could think you away if I wanted, and you’d be gone just like that . . . in a puff of smoke.”

“As if you have that much power.”

“It’s growing. Every day. I could walk you near any window in this house and open the drapes. Once that sunlight hit your skin, it would be over. And that scares you.”

“I’m not afraid of you, dear.” She brushed a bit of dust from her shoulder and curtsied. “And I’m not your enemy.”

“Don’t think about threatening me.” He did not return the bow. “You need me around.”

“Absolutely. I do.” She nodded this time, tenderness in her voice, “We need each other.”

“Look, I’ll get to your portrait statue. There’s no rush. I want to get it right.”

“I’m sure you will.”

“I want to be at the peak of inspiration when I begin.”

She twirled around and the velvet gown spun out, hovering around her ankles. “What can I do to help inspire you? Tell me, and I will make preparations.”

“I’ll need images—different angles and poses. Otherwise, you’ll be posing for weeks in this studio. And I can’t have you in my workshop that long.”

“Then hire a photographer.”

“All right. I will.”

“And make sure they’re a good one. Review their portraits. I want quality.” She pulled out a tube of purple lipstick and coated her lips. “Someone who’s photographed prominent historical figures or celebrities.”

“That’s not going to be cheap.”

“I don’t care.”

“Not everyone is as old as you, either.”

She slapped him hard for saying this, a streak of claws across his cheek. “Don’t be a smart ass!”

Damien stumbled back and covered his face. She had drawn blood. “I know you’re thinking of someone specific.”

“Yes, I am. Get me that Vanity Fair photographer, the one who does all the big name actors and singers . . . Annie Leibovitz.”

“As if I have her number just lying around.”

“Oh, come on. You have connections.”

“In publishing, yes.” He circled the statue and shoved Scarlett aside.

“I’m sure one of your publishers has her contact information.”

“Okay, fine. We have a plan now. Are you happy?”

“I’ll be happy when a statue of me sits next to our mini grand piano in the parlor. We can always use more conversational pieces for when we have guests over.”

“What, before you kill them and use them as a juice box?”

She appreciated his sarcasm. “Precisely.”

“I’m glad you want to have people over. This house is much too big for just the two of us.”

“I’d say it’s not big enough.”

Damien used a pencil to draw the outlines of toes onto the statue. “You always want more, Scar. It’s never enough. You’d turn me into a pumpkin if you could.”

She laughed. “Such an imagination. That’s what brought me to you, my love.”

 

Chapter 2

Scarlett Sharp acquired and spent money easily, but she did not take her wealth for granted. It brought her the lifestyle she always wanted, and she knew how to ensure that the money grew on its own, investing in start-up tech companies in Silicon Valley, all those digital widgets that cluttered countless touchscreen devices around the world. She’d always been focused on men with cutting-edge ideas—progressive thinkers, inventors from every discipline—and still had a deep appreciation for high-end antiques or rare gems from exotic countries with hidden mines.

And yet, these were not the items she kept locked away in her sealed room. The artifacts collected within that room could not be sold in an auction for a monetary value. Although mysterious to those barred from the room, the items were priceless to her, sacred fragments of her past, assets of great power and potential ruin.

She had the unique ability to pull people in with an unseen force and persuade them to do her bidding, often against their will. This skill required the art of seduction along with a mystical bag of tricks she’d never revealed to anyone, powers slowly gained through practice.

Her fashion interests were usually what others would consider avant-garde, too outrageous by the standards set by housewife soap operas. She had subscriptions to all the major fashion magazines including Vanity Fair, Glamour, Elle, and even GQ, since she was on a personal mission to make her current husband as dashing as possible. Damien’s style was not refined, but sloppy and unpolished. And Scarlett needed him to look the part. She wanted him to last a while . . . longer than the last gentleman.

Most of the fashions in the magazines did not interest her. They were too generic—yawn pieces, she called them—boring iterations of recent attempts to invent styles that were vapor trends, evaporating without much excitement. She used them only as images to spark ideas about fabrics used on models. Scarlett cut out pictures from those magazines and created a collage using wallpaper glue in the master bedroom while she hung upside down. She’d installed a ballerina bar just a few inches below the ceiling for her feet to grip onto. And she preferred this position when she was creating designs. Crimes of fashion were intolerable, so she made up her own laws and combined pieces of clothing that would astound even the likes of Anna Wintour, the fashionista icon who reigned as editor-in-chief of Vogue for decades.

Her colors were black, purple, gold, and red. She used red only as an accent color. And she never wore white. It was too angelic. (Besides, white was not ideal for drinking blood—too many stains—and she hated the smell of bleach.)

Scarlett mixed and matched photos and used her claw-like nails to cut them out, arranging them in overlaying patterns through the seasons, brushing another coat of glue over old outfit combinations until the bedroom wall had a thick coating of plaster. Silk was her favorite fabric. Luxurious, smooth, cool to the touch—it had all the qualities she wanted. And it made her feel sexy. She often drew her own designs and paid thousands of dollars to have these extravagant outfits made by prominent European tailors and seamstresses.

She had once been a plump little girl, and had always dreamed of being a model; yet she wasn’t interested in that much public attention. Looking her best was not about the opinions or arousal of others. She did all this for her own enjoyment, which she believed built inner confidence. The better she felt inside, the easier she justified the killings.

Scarlett’s alluring attributes went beyond body language and fashion. Her striking beauty caught the attention of both men and women. It was not cheap to keep her appearance this way. She went under the knife for several rounds of plastic surgery, including facial reconstruction, laser hair removal, regular Botox injections, and having four of her ribs surgically removed to fit into tailored corsets and tight suits.

Every time Scarlett designed a new outfit, she saw possibilities for her other interest: the art of disguise. The shelves in her closet were separated into categories, including shoes, dresses, shirts, hats, scarves, and other luxury accessories. She had naturally thin hair; so she wore realistic wigs in a variety of shapes and cuts . . . brunette and black wigs, but never amber or ginger. And she never cross-dressed as a man. She rotated through these disguises when she wanted to go out on her own to prey and feed. They were not to deceive others but herself. She found that the action of becoming someone else removed any inhibitions that still lingered.

When she wanted a man, her outstanding style came into play along with her dark purple lipstick and glowing yellow eyes. These were complementary colors, underutilized in the fashion world. She didn’t pick up men at bars or coffee shops. Scarlett researched many powerful men before she found one she wanted to turn. She’d go after men of business with small egos, a rare combination of traits. She needed them to be savvy with money, yet still susceptible to influence.

The process of becoming a vampire had been diluted by movies and television. It was a painful experience that was irreversible—an ugly, agonizing event that shook body and spirit. Many people never survived past the first night. Some even went through extreme genetic mutations and became unrecognizable. In these cases, they could not be allowed to roam the streets and fall into the guise of everyday life. They had to find places underground or in abandoned buildings where they wouldn’t be seen. These hiding places often interested law enforcement since the victims of their feeding would vanish in surrounding areas or neighborhoods.

With strange erratic behavior more animal than human, the true freaks became homeless outcasts of even the most deformed groups. They grew claws in their back, half a dozen rows of teeth, and extra pairs of ears within the folds of their neck. Abnormal mutations such as these were unusual; but for those who suffered from hideous bodily changes, the process of being turned led to exile within the vampire community. Scarlett had all of the erratic tendencies shared by the hideaway outcasts, but her transformation had been completely internal. She never grew wings or pointed ears. And the changes did not make her ugly. If anything, she became more beautiful.

Before she found Damien, Scarlett dated a handsome real estate agent in Los Angeles who did big business with Hollywood celebrities and sports stars. He could sell a home to just about anyone because he knew all the tricks—a hidden paint can in the cupboard, rented furniture, scented candles, and freshly baked cookies to make the house feel like a home. The man had been trustworthy, respectful, and, above all, humble. She wanted someone down to earth, but not six feet under. He treated Scarlett like a princess and showered her with generous gifts from around the world: Persian rugs, leather jackets from Florence, and jewelry from Japan.

And just when he was about to buy her a multimillion-dollar house in the Hollywood Hills, she found evidence that enraged her to the brink of murder. The man’s garage had a toolbox with the weapons of a vampire hunter; not just cloves of garlic or wooden stakes, but contraptions for slicing and dicing to guarantee the mythical creatures would never revive. He had nets, traps, knives, and even powerful flashlights that mimicked sunlight. He was not only a traditional hunter in the physical sense, but also a spiritual tracker. He believed in the ancient rituals that brought about the first vampires. And so did Scarlett. She knew all too well that no matter how heavily guarded the secrets of her kind were, there would always be those that wanted to exterminate them altogether. She had once believed that the world might be better without vampires, but those feelings had faded along with the other parts of her humanity.

For Scarlett, this type of betrayal was unforgivable. Hunters rarely worked alone, and she feared others might be after her if she stayed in Los Angeles. And so, she waited until a passionate moment in his third-story bedroom, when she had nothing on except the drapes wrapped around her waist. With a seductive game of cat and mouse, she led the rich hunter to the window and pushed him into a pile of rose bushes thirty feet below. The thorn-covered branches skewered him in six places, puncturing his lungs. She remembered standing in the window watching him wheeze for a few minutes, then take his last breath.

A harsh and suppressed screech escaped her throat, and then she spat into the roses. Before fleeing the premises, she used his blood to write on the patio pavement: hunters beware. If Scarlett had been blessed with wings, she would have flown from that hellish night.

She could have slashed his throat open or hung him upside down in a tree for the birds to take care of him, but she didn’t want to do anything that might cause suspicion. It was best to make it look like an accident. Other hunters might hear word of the murder and link it to her if she’d done it any other way. He was monster hunter, and they were the worst kind of predator.

She moved to Portland and got lost in a swarm of weirdoes. That city had a peculiar way of attracting people who were proudly different, unique to a fault. It was also a city with a low threat of hunters. At least, Scarlett had not heard of many cases; but she knew that for every city with vampires, hunters followed. They didn’t have a difficult time finding the creatures of night anyway. The mutants that left evidence of their kills all over the streets were easy to track. It didn’t matter how sophisticated the other vampires were. The sloppy ones could ruin it for all of them.

 

Chapter 3

Damien Clarke caught Scarlett’s attention when he was featured on a local TV news station for writing romance novels, some of which featured vampires. It was an interview about his latest book titled: Vixen on the Beach. She’d been flipping through the channels one day and saw this incredibly erotic man with the right amount of scruff, muscle tone, and a gorgeous tan. Damien was a stone-cold silver fox. His radiant smile, his square jawline, his strong hands, and the way his eyes smiled when he laughed—Scarlett wanted him. He had the charisma, the magnetism, the body . . . the only thing missing was his sense of fashion. He wore a pair of burgundy, corduroy pants, and a green argyle sweater pulled over a white collared shirt. She’d take care of that. Clothes were easily changed. And being immortal would remove his excuse for not having the time to dress well. She wondered why he hadn’t been an actor or rock star even, instead of a novelist. Sometimes it took a keen eye—the discernment of a woman—to see the potential he had for the nightlife.

She had leaned closer to the TV to see whether or not he wore a wedding ring. Not that it mattered much to her; there were ways around that, but she saw no ring.

Throughout the televised interview, Scarlett learned that Damien had a serious cult following of devoted readers. They awaited each literary release with great anticipation. His books had sold almost a million copies, although most readers did not know what he looked like. He wasn’t famous enough to be recognized on the streets. A picture of him had only appeared on the back of his early books, and even his author website only mentioned that he lived near the northwest coast of the United States. He didn’t tour for meet and greets, do book signings, or have any notable interactions with fans. This interview was one of the few times he’d ever appeared before the public media. It wasn’t a national news broadcast either, only a special interest segment on the local Portland networks. For a reclusive writer, he wasn’t shy, but rather articulate and confident. He made witty jokes with the reporter, and a few crewmembers chuckled off-screen. His talent for sculpture also came up, and they showed pictures of his recent figurines. He had gracefully avoided questions on politics and declined open invitations to discredit the talent of other authors in his genre. The reporter clearly had a bit of a crush on him as well, since she kept touching his knee between questions.

Scarlett immediately went online to research any information she could find about this silver fox. After she turned him—which he quite enjoyed—Damien could change his eyes to any hue on the light spectrum, including subtle colors like cerulean.

After three years together, Scarlett had many conversations with Damien about the possibility of expanding their family. Damien liked the idea of having twins since he’d heard the probability doubled for vampires. When he suggested this, Scarlett explained that she was sterile. Besides, his beliefs about odds for twins were stuck in the realm of fiction. There was no evidence for this assumption, and only a few vampires ever had a natural birth.

Scarlett wanted a son. She had to find a physically strong, young man—someone loyal. She and Damien had plans to start a business together, but they knew they couldn’t do it alone. A son would be one more mouth to feed; but it could also give them an advantage. They needed a huntsman.

They selected a man in his late twenties named Ashton Sloane, a personal trainer at a small gym near downtown. With his muscular physique, he could have been a model. Most of his self-esteem came from his looks, and Ashton cared deeply about the products he used on his body. He spent hours prepping meals for his on-the-go lifestyle: weight training in the morning, an afternoon run, and teaching kickboxing classes in the evenings. He had studied exercise science and nutrition. This knowledge gave him an upper hand over other athletes, because he understood the human body was a machine that needed fuel, movement, resistance, and plenty of rest. He tried to get at least eight hours of sleep each night, allowing his body to perform at peak potential during his training and coaching activities. In the past, he had also taught dance classes: hip-hop, jazz step, and traditional salsa to teenage dance groups who preferred him to the other coaches. His regimented diet and regular weight training gave him a toned core and strong arms, yet he was always trying to increase his leg strength by running and cycling. Ashton didn’t keep a regular girlfriend. Instead, he had spontaneous flings and didn’t mind being single in between. At this stage in his life, he wasn’t looking to settle down. In the meantime, he didn’t have to try very hard to get attention from women. They practically threw themselves at his feet.

The process of turning someone was very hard on the body, so the Sharps wanted someone who was a vision of health. Scarlett had lost patience for frail vessels. If they died in the process, their blood would be spoiled. Vampires, whether old or young, were not to drink the blood of the dead. It could make them violently ill.

He wasn’t the only candidate for a possible son. Scarlett had been watching several young men; the others were too selfish and vain. They used their bodies for brute force and self-obsession. In a way, Scarlett felt drawn to Ashton because she saw in him qualities that had disappeared from her long ago. He was good with kids, compassionate, and generous, a team player who wanted to see others succeed. Of course, he also had a competitive spirit; and she realized he had humility like Damien. She envisioned them bonding as father and son.

The Sharps caught him after one of his kickboxing classes outside in the parking lot and gave him a sedative before transporting him to their house.

Dizzy and disoriented, he awoke seated in one of the engraved, high-backed chairs at the Sharp’s dinging room table. It was covered with a pressed, lace tablecloth. No restraints bound his arms or legs to the chair. He was free to move around or even stand up if he so desired, but he felt spellbound in the large room, trapped only by the focused stare of a woman who appeared to have been plucked from a painting. She wore a satin dress that fit her perfectly around the waist with a deep v-line, leaving little to the imagination.

A large bowl of romaine lettuce salad lay before him topped with apricots, walnuts, and raspberry vinaigrette. Two black candles flickered near the center of the table under a crystal chandelier. All the light in the room came from only the small flames, casting zigzag shadows across the walls, which were covered in purple fabric wallpaper with ornate floral patterns.

Damien entered the dining room through the kitchen, holding a single bottle wrapped in a golden label. He brought it over to Scarlett and uncorked it. She held up a wine glass, and he filled it halfway. Then he circled the table and filled his glass before sitting at the opposite end, with Ashton in the middle.

Scarlett held the glass of crimson liquid up to the light, cupping the glass stem like a royal scepter. Rotating it in her hand, she watched the liquid coat the edges of the glass and drip down in small streaks. Then she brought it to her lips and sipped, closing her eyes to savor the sensation as it ran down her throat.

“Mmmm. Sumptuous. Isn’t it, darling?”

Damien also took a sip and winked at his wife. “This is from today. The tall blonde.”

“The one with that hideous purse? Yes, I remember.”

“Where am I?” Ashton asked. His bewilderment caused the question to come out in a cough.

Scarlett said, “Do you know why I hold the glass like this? If it were liquor such as wine or brandy, the warmth from my hand would evaporate the alcohol ever so slightly. But since it’s blood, the palm of my hand should warm it. Although there is no warmth in me.” She set down the glass and reached her arm out toward Ashton. “Please, feel my wrist.”

When Ashton felt the coldness of her hand, he withdrew his arm immediately as if he had touched a lifeless corpse.

“I’m not going to bite. Well, not yet.” She laughed and said to Damien, “Look at his reflexes.”

“Very nice.”

She had told Damien to keep his mouth shut; and for the most part, he did.

“It is such a treat to have you for dinner, young man,” she said. “We only wish you could have brought a girl with you. But we didn’t want you to be embarrassed.”

“Wait,” Ashton said anxiously. “You’re the woman from the parking lot . . . at the gym.”

“That’s right.”

“Weren’t you in my neighborhood recently? I’ve seen you before, I swear.”

“It’s no mystery. I’ve been watching you. I had to make sure you were worth the trouble.”

Damien took another sip and said, “Not that we want any trouble. We ask that you consider this opportunity with an open mind.”

Scarlett squinted her eyes, signaling Damien’s silence. “We are offering you a rare gift, Ashton.”

“Are you drinking blood?”

“Yes it is, as I said.” She held the glass out to him. “Would you like some?”

“No. I’d like to leave. I can call a cab or something.”

“Did you hear that, Damien? He wants to call a cab. How charming. You could easily run home. You seem to enjoy running.” She pursed her lips and spoke softly. “Why not stay a while and hear what we have to say? There’s no harm in that is there?”

“There is, actually.”

“Oh, and what can I do to help you relax? We do have malt scotch, if that interests you.”

The dim lighting masked some of Ashton’s fear. “No thank you.” Then he threw his fork in the salad bowl and pushed it away. “I’ve lost my appetite.”

She took offense to this. “Is it the walnuts? Are you allergic?”

“It’s not the salad.”

“I could make something else.”

What are you? Serial killers? Cannibals?”

“I’m sure you’ve heard of us in legend. Haven’t you met a vampire before?”

“It’s a first, honestly,” he said.

“Then you must be brimming with curiosity about us. What would you like to know?”

“You can’t be vampires. They’re not real.”

“I’m disappointed,” Scarlett said. “Our beliefs often blind us.” Then she said to Damien in a hushed tone, “He’s not the one.”

Damien shook his head and silently gestured to the young man.

A wave of detachment moved across her face as she said, “It can be difficult to accept things we can’t explain. I’ve been in your position before, many years ago.”

“Sorry, but you don’t look much like a vampire.” Then he pointed to Damien. “I mean he looks more convincing.”

“Why do you say that? Because he looks more like . . . Dracula?”

“Exactly.”

“Hmmm,” she said. “The count in that story is just a character based on someone in Bram Stoker’s life. He was not a real person. He’s an invention of the imagination. That book has confused a lot of people, because we don’t all live in castles.”

“I’d say you have a pretty sweet place here, though.”

“Damien and I have done well. And we plan to do better with you by our side.”

“I don’t understand. Why did you choose me?”

“We selected you for your healthy lifestyle and attractive build. And we think we can trust you. That must be earned.”

“And what about my personality?”

“That will change, too.”

“How?”

“You won’t feel as many complicated emotions as you do right now. You’ll feel different things. And your needs will be more . . . primal.”

“Is it safe?”

“No, not technically speaking. But when it works, there’s nothing like it.”

“Yeah . . . one problem. I’m a vegan.”

“Yes, well, I’m not asking you to eat flesh.”

“But how am I expected to drink blood?”

“You’ll get used to the taste. You’ll adapt to it soon enough along with the other changes.”

“So, you abducted me to ask this? You’ll have to let me go eventually. I’m a grown man. It’s not like you can adopt me.”

“You’ve already seen too much. Either I turn you tonight, or I kill you,” she said, stern as a fasting nun. “You’re not going home.”

“If I do this, what’s going to happen to me?”

“It does not affect everyone the same. Some men, once they are turned, enjoy increased physical sensations. They see colors they’ve never seen before; their taste becomes precise and heightened, and for only a select few, they experience vibrations of sound almost as a walking seismograph, picking up frequencies that once flew over their head without entering their ears. Every case is different. There are countless mysterious qualities that stem from unstable variance in genetic mutation. And so it is for the undead.”

“Then how are you able to breathe oxygen?”

“Am I not still flesh and blood? These are good questions. It’s a matter of need. As you live now, you have certain needs of the flesh—eat, sleep, sex—all actions of pursuit on an endless cycle. These needs are not all that different for us. Although we do not need food anymore, our appetites are more demanding than ever.” She spun an index finger around the rim of her glass. “Your motives will change. It may overwhelm you at first. The changes can be arresting.”

“Will I lose my memories?”

“No, they will remain. In fact, your memory will improve, and you will recall them much faster.”

“What about joy? Guilt?”

“I cannot describe how you might experience them. There is numbness . . . a melancholy that lingers in your bones. You will not lose your individuality. If anything, your new abilities will make you even more outstanding. Do not worry. As our son, we will show you the way, and help you find your own.”

“What if I say no . . . I don’t want it?”

“Give me your wrist,” she said, salivating, and bore her fangs.

Feeling the rhythm of his pulse, she squeezed up his forearm and felt the power in his biceps as his heart raced. She released his wrist and turned to Damien, who circled around the table and stood behind Ashton.

“He’ll do just fine,” he said, gripping his neck, holding him into the chair as he sank his teeth into Ashton’s neck.

In the vicious act, Ashton tried to yell, but the vampire’s fangs blocked his throat. A zinging pain tore into the back of his mouth. He grimaced in total fright.

It was the fatal embrace.

Damien drank deeply, bowing his body further into the young man’s neck, smothering him. As the life drained from Ashton . . . his pulse slowed . . . and he felt darkness paralyze him.

The vessel was empty. Limp. Dead.

Ashton’s body slumped over in his chair.

The faintest heartbeat remained, a beat with no drummer.

Then Damien released his bite.

And Scarlett appeared at his side carrying a small box. She used the key that hung between her breasts on a chain-link necklace to unlock the case, removing a small dagger. Emeralds and rubies embellished the handle of the knife. Then she pulled Ashton close, and under her breath, mumbled a few words from an ancient language that he could not understand, and cut a crosshatch pattern across her right wrist. A steady stream of blood trickled down her fingertips. She grabbed Ashton’s ear and yanked him to her wound, and said, “Drink.”

He squirmed and dug his feet into the carpet, trying to resist, but she pressed her nails into the cartilage of his ear.

“Drink, now!” She shoved her wrist to his mouth again.

His lips curved around the X of fresh cuts, and she held his head down.

Her voice became guttural. “Drink your everlasting fate!”

A wave of exhilaration flooded his mind, a mixture of danger and arousal.

“Become my son!”

Her blood filled his mouth and he gagged on it, then swallowed for the first time. An instant throbbing exuded from his throat, his veins, his heart—a rhythmic, undulating jolt of energy—as the death that had once consumed Scarlett began to ravage him. The blood of her devilish nature flowed thick with a vile taste. It was the cosmic transference of two souls, one holy and the other damned, an intersection of rebirth.

“Let yourself go. Drink deep and forget.”

Once Ashton began to drink, he could not stop. It fulfilled within him a hidden craving to be connected to another power that could overtake him, dominate him. He pressed his tongue against her arm, and sucked.

“Embrace the pain. Let it take you. Let it fill you.”

His eyelids fluttered, snapped open, and his eyes rolled back until only the whites gleamed under a furrowed brow. He shuddered, clinging to her like a leech.

“You thought you were strong before, but you knew nothing of strength.”

The two black candles made his shadow dance.

“Taste your freedom. The ties of human bondage are no more.”

Damien watched in morbid fascination, transfixed on the creation of his new son.

“Okay, Ashton. It’s begun.”

In sudden fear of having her powers drained, Scarlett tried to pull her wrist away.

“That’s enough. It’s taking hold.”

But he clutched her flowing wrist with his strong arms and continued to drink.

“Stop it!” She shrieked. “You’ve had enough!”

He twisted her wrist, wringing out more.

Scarlett’s pale face had gone sullen and gray. Her jaw snapped open and shut. Stomping her feet on the floor, she kicked against him, ramming one of her heels into his chest.

This did nothing.

He would not stop.

He needed to drink.

And drink. And drink.

Then she motioned for help. “Damien, please! Get him off me!”

Damien dropped the dagger’s case onto the table, walked behind Scarlett, stood between them and pushed the gym rat’s muscular neck away from his wife. “She told you to stop! Drop her hand now!”

A hideous growl came from the boy’s throat.

“You’re going to bleed her dry!”

Before he knew it, Damien was hurled across the room, smashing into the glassware hutch.

Ashton drank until Scarlett wailed and clawed at him, screaming curses in another language.

“Are you finished—you fiend—you devil?”

And when he had his fill, Ashton looked up, wiped his chin with the back of his hand, and said, “Yes . . . Mother.”

 

Chapter 4

Ashton’s extreme reaction to the conversion reaffirmed their confidence in his strength. When Scarlett had turned Damien, he stopped drinking when she told him. He had not clung to her in desperation. There had been no struggle; and after, they made love. It was a smooth exchange, a transfusion of souls. And since Damien did not drink so long or deeply as their new son, the changes were less dramatic. He had grown pitifully small wings, stunted fangs, and a wider neck. There were other developments, but they took much longer to manifest.

Ashton's transformation was much more rapid. His arms became long and spindly, translucent webbing grew under his armpits, and his ears curved to a point. He bought new pairs of shoes to make room for his extended toes. And his strength increased, especially in his core and lower legs. The iris of his eyes turned yellow, and his muscular form tightened into a lean physique. Swollen from growing fingers, his knuckles were more nimble with a stronger grip. And within only a few weeks, the webbing under his arms developed pleats, then a thin membrane covered in tiny hairs as fully sized wings formed behind his shoulder blades.

This was surprisingly painful.

His face changed, too. The lower jaw jutted out slightly, causing an under bite of sharpened teeth with two razor fangs. His nose had narrowed and curled up a bit, casting a pointed shadow across his profile, which sank deeper, making the cheekbones more prominent. Fading from its tan complexion, his face turned pale; and his natural scruff grew in darker.

Ashton had to wear larger shirts and jackets to conceal his wings, tucking the lower parts of them just below his waistline. Most of his sportswear was way too tight to hide the pleated folds of the flexible appendages. He concealed his ultra-pale face with make-up foundation and blush. And he bought special blue-colored contacts; afraid his yellow eyes would frighten people.

During his first days as a vampire, Ashton had accidently torn his clothing while trying to dress himself. So, he clipped his nails daily. He’d also smashed a bathroom mirror with his wings, which opened sometimes involuntarily. The extra hair on his chest and back bothered him. And no matter how often he shaved, the hair grew back thicker than before.

Damien built a customized coffin for him, but sleeping in it made him feel ridiculous. He was restless during the day and night, like a teenager on drugs, constantly scrounging around the house for snacks; but the Sharps did not keep them around. Even in their state-of-the art kitchen, they did not have a blender to make smoothies because they had no use for extra appliances. The kitchen was simply for show, a place to talk with company before having them for dinner.

He wanted to continue his routine at the gym, but it was impossible to work out on any machines without his wings getting in the way. A girl had seen him exercising his upper shoulders in a large sweatshirt to hide his wings; and when they opened, he fell off the bench, reveling part of them. She screamed and ran out in terror, threatening to call the cops. After this incident, he cancelled his kickboxing classes.

When he wanted to set up a home gym in the Sharp’s living room, Damien helped him install a treadmill, elliptical, and bench press. They bolted these machines to the ceiling so he could gain enough stamina to workout upside down.

Ashton also wanted to gain better control over his wings. He began by climbing the roof and jumping onto a mattress. And the first few times, it broke his fall. But eventually, as he fell from the house, the wings billowed, catching a pocket of air, lifting him suddenly over the treetops. The feeling was more exhilarating than any dream he’d ever had about flying as a mortal—the wind in his face, the weightlessness, the swaying motion of his body midair as he adjusted the pitch and yaw of his flight pattern by flexing his wings. He learned to use his feet like an airplane rudder, twisting them to turn. Shifting his neck, he could change the direction of his path. With a lean muscular build and angular shape, his new body was more aerodynamic.

There, up in the clouds’ domain, he felt free from the demands of his former life as a fitness fanatic and free from the fears of his new body. He flew over downtown and watched thousands of lights sparkle underneath, looking at all those people talking, laughing, and driving, totally oblivious that this remarkable beast flew above them. It took only a bit of practice for him to dodge between buildings. At the time, he considered his conversion a gift. The new superhuman skills were the closest he ever came to feeling like one of the heroes in the comic books he’d read as a child.

But this was a gift he could not share with anyone. And that made him lonely. He was neither man nor beast, but a crossbreed—elusive, undocumented by science. Neither of his new family members could fly. They had not been blessed in the same way. Damien was jealous of his son’s natural abilities, which far surpassed his own.

Scarlett encouraged their alliance. While Ashton lifted weights, hanging by his feet, she would bring him glasses of warm blood from the cellar.

It took him several weeks to become accustomed to drinking human blood. He’d attempted to stay on his vegan diet, but his new body could not digest grains or vegetables. Scarlett had told him it was safe to drink animal’s blood; however, the very thought of taking a life made Ashton sick to his stomach. Emotions such as remorse and grief had remained even after his transformation. It was dangerous to show these feelings around his new parents since they no longer had empathy.

He was convinced there must have been some way to maintain his healthy diet, but soon realized that just like any other creature of the night, he needed to hunt.

Real bats ate insects and the nectar from certain flowers, but Ashton needed fresh blood. He started with small animals. Rabbits, squirrels, and mice were reliable prey, although they were difficult to catch. When these became boring, he moved onto stray cats, possums, and raccoons. Many of these animals carried diseases, but they never took hold. While he drank, Ashton’s stomach became a hot furnace, burning the blood like fuel, casting out impurities.

Scarlett became impatient with his feeding on animals since he left their deflated bodies strewn about the house in practically every room. And the smell of rotting meat distracted Damien from his sculptures. Ashton’s hunting skills yielded several dozen kills a night. He killed not for pleasure, but to survive. And with each kill, he found his self-control slipping away. Soon, the Sharp house looked like a crowded taxidermy shop, littered with the disheveled remains of his prey. She made him clean up every loose paw and piece of fur, warning his taste for animals would soon fade.

“Haven’t you had enough of this vermin?” she asked. “It’s time to move onto bigger game.”

“What, do you want me to go hunting for deer?”

“Yes, moose, elk, deer, even grisly bears if you can find them. Why don’t you spend a week in Washington State. Make it a trip.”

“I’m sure I can find more rodents.”

“Listen to me, son. If I see you eat another stray cat, you’re going to be out on the streets. And then, you’ll be the prey.”

“I thought hunters didn’t come this far north.”

“That’s a lie,” she said. “There is no boundary keeping them from us. They roam around in small packs. And with today’s technology, they can track us from anywhere. Don’t think you’re safe just because you’re young. If anything, you’re in more danger.”

“But I’m fast.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“What about the forest?”

“Yes?”

“Will I be safe there?”

She placed her hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “It will test you. You’ll have to be alert at all times.”

“I can do that.”

“You’ll have an advantage, yes. But you can’t let it get to your head.”

“Did you ever make Damien go to the forest?”

“No. Your father is not strong enough. He’s not a hunter like you. Besides, he has other talents besides killing. And I’m getting tired of supplementing for him. That’s why I need you to grow up fast.” Her tone became impatient. “We need you to get past your phase with these dumb animals.”

“Then I should start packing. What should I bring with me?”

“Nothing.”

“What?”

“Do not bring your clothing or any weapons. Only your wings and claws.”

That night, Ashton stripped off his clothes, left them in his bedroom, and took flight from the roof of the Sharp house north toward Washington State. He flew over misty forests with waterfalls, pulling himself higher into the sky. A blast of wind almost caused him to lose control and drop into a free-fall, but instinct took over as he fought through it.

He landed in a shaded area just before morning then quickly gathered sticks and mud to make a small shack to block the sunlight. After digging a body-shaped trench into the ground under a large pine tree, he rolled into it, covering himself, just as the first rays of sunlight stretched from the horizon, blasting through the fog between the trees. There, he was safe until night came again.

During his nights in the woods, he caught a variety of animals including badgers, a female moose, and red-tailed foxes. The blood from different animals had distinct flavors based on their diet. Mushrooms and edible flowers grew everywhere, more kinds than he’d ever studied in health-remedy books. He wanted to try these plants, but knew they would only hurt him. Vampirism made a plant-based diet impossible.

His new skill of echolocation accelerated each hunt. Screeching, chirping, and clicking his tongue became intuitive sonar, targeting ground animals easily to pinpoint their position. He captured some deer and wild boar this way and sucked them dry. His stomach had not grown much, but he often felt completely engorged with blood like a bloated sponge.

A moment struck him when he became very aware of his nakedness. It was not shame or guilt he felt, only vulnerability. His role in the food chain disturbed him, lurking above helpless animals and swooping down from nowhere to slurp up their life like a parasite.

There was a night when he stumbled upon a den of wolves. For the first time, he wondered, since vampires were real, why not werewolves? There must have been other monsters in the world hiding from people that didn’t belong in the woods or in a city. Even the most outrageous folklores about Bigfoot, the abominable snowmen, and the infamous chupacabras seemed plausible now. If he could be a living legend, there must have been other legends that were true.

On the last day of his trip, Ashton found a bat cave near a thundering waterfall. He’d heard thousands of bats screeching from over a mile away. The music of chirps and calls from the bats made him somehow calm, as if he understood their language. An inner voice said: fly to them, live amongst them, find your true family.

These thoughts terrified him.

His wings folded neatly behind like an accordion. And his snout twitched.

Scarlett had been right. The more animals he killed, the less their blood satisfied him. It became foul smelling and left a bitter aftertaste. He looked upon the pile of antlers, snouts, and loose fur around his protective coffin of mud with disgust. Then he studied his mangled claws and blood-soaked chest. They were not the hands of a man, but of a monster.

He did not belong with bats any more than he belonged with humans. With his size, he’d have to eat hundreds of insects for each meal just to survive.

Ashton began to understand Scarlett’s warning.

It was the urge he’d been fighting—the impulse, the need, the demand—for human blood.

The night Ashton returned to the Sharp house, he put on clothes and searched the house, calling for his surrogate parents. And when no one replied, he wandered into the courtyard and saw white tarps pulled taught over the long greenhouse, lit from inside, emitting a haunted glow. A layer of mist shrouded the perimeter of the shaded garden. Shafts of moonlight scattered through the courtyard trees, and a flock of crows sang nearby, out of sight.

As he walked closer, he heard a faint chant. It was Scarlett mumbling to herself in the flickering candlelight. The entire greenhouse was dotted with candles balanced on upturned, empty clay pots. The dome of gleaming tarps rustled in the wind. It had once been constructed of glass panels, which were destroyed in a storm and replaced with tarp held together by strong twine. He approached the greenhouse cautiously as though it were a sacred place. At night, the yard seemed enchanted by floating leaves.

Then he opened the white sheets and entered.

Scarlett stood in the center of the garden next to a covered potting table, amidst the budding roses.

She turned, brushing her hands together. “You flew back in record time.”

“My wings are sore,” he winced.

“I did some gardening while you were gone. The soil was getting stale. I’d like to get these little spritzers fixed.”

The red and white roses swayed from a draft in the tarp. Droplets of dew sprinkled inside the petals glistened with each gust.

“I bet you’d make a fine florist,” he joked.

“Me?” She tilted her head, half-smiling. “Gardening is just a hobby. We have to put something in all those decorative vases around the house. What else, but roses?”

“I noticed the lights were on in the living room. Were you expecting someone?”

“Oh, never mind that. Tell me about your trip.”

“It was intense.”

“How so?”

“I’ve lost my taste for animals. Their blood is bitter to me now.”

“I’d say I’m proud of you, but it’s a bit premature.”

“How’s Damien?”

“He’s away for the night . . . probably off with another woman somewhere.”

“Maybe he just needs time to himself. We all need that.”

“It’s a weak excuse,” she said, removing a pair of gardening gloves. “Remember that if you decide to get married. Don’t disappear overnight without telling your spouse.”

“What, you miss him?”

“I didn’t say that. The night is his to explore.” Scarlett moved away from the table.

A long shape was hidden under the cloth, and it moved up and down ever so slightly. The surface of the cloth was clean, without even a layer of loose soil.

“And do you thirst for proper blood, now? Or will you starve yourself?”

“I’m willing to try it.”

“Good,” she said, and slowly removed the cloth from the greenhouse table.

A young woman in her late twenties around Ashton’s age lay face-up, hands at her side, breathing quietly. She wore a crème-colored blouse with a pastel skirt and white stockings pulled up just below her knees. Her eyes were closed, and her hair was brushed to perfection like a living doll.

Scarlett spoke quietly, almost to herself. “Look at her, Ashton. She is so peaceful.”

“Where did you find her?”

“She is a seamstress for a dress shop downtown. I’ve spoken with her many times. She’s quite the conversationalist. You might even say we became friends. She even does some gardening as a hobby. I just had to show her our greenhouse.” And when Scarlett looked up, her eyes shined dark amber. They were luminescent.

“Are you planning to turn her?” he asked. “I heard you chanting from the courtyard.”

“Oh, I see.” She found this amusing. “You want a sister already. A beautiful girl such as this would make a lovely addition to our family. That occurred to me. But it is not the right time. I caught this one just for you.”

“For me? Is she asleep?”

“Temporarily sedated. I invited her over to discuss fashion and gave her very strong chamomile tea. I offered to serve her cake, but told me she was watching her waistline. Oh well.”

“How long ago was that?”

“Less than two hours. I thought I’d let her sleep before you came back. She’ll start waking up any minute. Now that you’re past hunting lower creatures, you must acquire a taste for your former kind.”

“You want me to kill her?”

“That’s what we must do to sustain ourselves, is it not?” Scarlett took Ashton’s hand and brought it to the woman’s throat.

It was soft, and pulsed gently with each beat of her heart.

“Did you ever hold the creatures in the forest before you slaughtered them? No, you’re thirst did not allow it. You were impatient and felt like each animal were an endangered species—that you had to catch them before they disappeared into the fog.”

“Yes.”

“You felt that you must have them to yourself, to devour, to feed, to drain them.”

Ashton removed his hand from the woman’s neck. “I flew there naked like you asked. And it was strange and wonderful at the same time. I thought it would be a blur; but I remember every single creature, the moment I bit them, and when they took their last breath.”

“It is no different for human prey.”

A hidden rage began to brew inside him. “You’re wrong. It is different. I never wanted to kill those animals. They were only trying to survive just like me. They were helpless. And they never saw me coming. I’m tired of killing. Isn’t there a way to fight these urges?”

“It’s your nature now. You cannot fight it.” She reached for garden shears and cut a single rose, mid-bloom, from one of the bushes, snipping it at the base of the stem. “Why do you feel intimidated by the hunt?” Then she placed the rose on the woman’s chest between her breasts. “You are no longer one of them. Do not be afraid of them. They are mere mortals. And so, they must die.”

“I will not kill her.”

“Why not?”

“You said it yourself. She is your friend.”

“You feel too much. She was my friend only for the purpose of bringing her here. I will find another seamstress to hem my dresses.”

“Look at her,” he said, his hands trembling. “She is so young. This woman has so much life to live. She might have a family, a partner, a child . . . she cannot die.”

“Such merciful thoughts. Yes, perhaps. She and I talked only about fabric and designers. I never went to see where she lived.”

“Forget this madness, Scarlett. She is a decent woman. Why not prey on someone else . . . criminals, vagabonds, whores, anyone else. Someone wicked. Let her live.”

“You speak as though I plucked her from this very garden. If I didn’t know you, I’d think you were in love with her. That is not the case, here. You care only because she’s pretty. You’ve never heard her voice or seen her smile. She is a stranger . . . useless to us except as a fountain. She may have had a lovely life. And yet it must come to an end eventually. We can’t leave all of them for the Grim Reaper. His blade swings only so far, my son.”

“Stop calling me that.” Ashton bore his fangs and took a step from her. “I cannot be a part of this endless cycle of death. She is innocent.”

Scarlett remained calm. “You will call me mother, now and forever. Do not think the woman from whom you came will take you as you are. Do not turn your back on me, now. This is a simple hurdle to clear. I already fetched her for you. I’d put a straw in her if I could make it any easier.”

“How can you stand there and say these atrocious things? Listen to yourself. We don’t have to be allies of the reaper.”

“We bring death, do we not? We share his workload.”

“It is an ugly, hateful way to see people.”

“And how did you become so attuned with human emotions? Have you fallen for her so quickly without even knowing her name?”

He saw the girl’s fingers twitch. “You cannot ask me . . . she is still alive!”

“I command you. Lean down and send her into oblivion before she wakes. Would you rather drink from the dead and shrivel into a husk?”

Scarlett’s words echoed in his head as if she spoke them from the courtyard. He looked at the seamstress while the greenhouse seemed to melt away. The natural blush on the girl’s cheeks, the subtle beauty of her eyelashes, and the fragrance of the roses mesmerized him. “No. I won’t take her life!”

“That’s it, harness this fury. It’s the thirst. Flying for hundreds of miles must have exhausted you. I can see it. You’re famished.”

“I’ll make it through the night.”

“Not without a drink. You’ll be twice as thirsty when you rise.”

His throat burned. “I won’t.” The need clambered within him, caged, ready to leap toward the living doll. “This is your evil, not mine.”

Then, the girl’s wrists contracted and her neck turned, jostling her hair. She squinted into a light only she could see behind her eyelids as the sedative wore off.

Scarlett saw this and pushed Ashton toward her. “You must bite! Do it! Now!”

“I refuse!” He resisted her claws, but she had him by the neck. And suddenly, an unseen force raised him above the woman, mid-air, parallel to her. He knew it was Scarlett’s doing, and he could not fight it. The space between them narrowed until his chest hovered above the rose balanced between her breasts.

“Bite her!”

Ashton closed his eyes just as he touched noses with the woman. Then her eyes opened, a scream caught in her throat. He turned his face away into her hair.

“I will not kill her!”

Then Scarlett flung Ashton across the greenhouse into the potted roses, lunged toward the seamstress, and torn open her delicate neck. A steady stream of bright blood poured from the wound as the woman fainted.

“No! What have you done?”

Scarlett placed a large pot on the ground under the woman’s head to collect the flow. “Do you see now? Her beauty cannot save her. She bleeds just as they all do.”

Hot tears streamed down his cheek. “You are ruthless.”

“You must release your ties to these mortals. They are pathetic.”

“I never even knew her!”

“Does it matter? They are not on our level. You cannot lead them. And you can no longer identify with them.” She gestured to the large pot, brimming with blood. The bleeding had stopped. “You might think you are beyond the threat of starvation. Even immortals are not immune to malnourishment. And when your body aches past thirst, desperate, tossing and turning in your coffin as you know it will, you will crawl to this very spot and lap up her blood.”

“Have you no mercy left to turn her now?” He raised the garden shears to his own wrist, ready to let it revive the dead seamstress. “Let me do it.”

Scarlett covered the women’s mouth, crouching over her like a tiger. “You had your chance. No, you will not touch her now. She must rest. Can’t you see she is serene?”

He could hardly form the words. “What are you going to do with her body?”

“I will bury it in the garden, so that the soil will be ready for these roses when they are planted above her grave. Do not complain to me about your thirst. You chose it. And now you must confront it.”

 

Chapter 5

Jezebel Hex wanted desperately to be a vampire. Her father first became concerned about his daughter’s mental instability in her early teens when he caught her in the backyard trying to burn a King James Bible.

She had already torn out Genesis through Deuteronomy one page at a time. Engulfed by the small bonfire, the torn pages crinkled as the fire melted the ink and turned the paper to ash. Tiny fragments of the paper floated toward the sky like blackened, backwards snow. She was singing a song under her breath that her father didn’t recognize, something written by a rock band currently on tour, a gospel type chant that had been twisted into blasphemy. It wasn’t the kind of music he listened to on the radio—secular lyrics were a part of his past that he blotted out along with several arrests for spray paint vandalism.

He ran into the backyard, pushed her to the ground and wrestled the Bible from her. She flailed her arms across his face and scratched his neck. She cursed and spat at him, squirming on the ground and almost rolling into the flames. Then he pinned her down, twisted her arm around her back, and held her there until she lay quiet.

When her breathing became calm again, he leaned down over her and whispered through gritted teeth, “I did not raise a heathen.”

“It had to burn,” she said. Then she rolled herself over and pushed him off with her legs, and pounded her fists against his chest. “Why are you always pushing me down? It doesn’t matter what I do; somehow you find me and ruin it.”

“You can’t burn Bibles, Jezebel. There will be consequences.”

“Like this?” She knelt down and clutched fistfuls of the yard and threw it at him. “A face full of grass and dirt? Oh shit; a lightning bolt is going to zap me from the sky. I’m so scared.”

“Do not make a mockery of His holy book.”

“This really matters to you?”

“It’s the only thing that matters. And in your heart of hearts, you know that.”

“I’m not a copy of you, Dad. You can’t control what I do anymore.”

“You still live in my house, don’t you? You still eat my food and use my water? You still charge your phone with the electricity I pay for.” He took her by the shoulders and forced her head up. “Look at me.”

“No!”

“Why have you turned from God?”

“Who’s that?”

“Don’t do this,” he said. “You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

“I’ve never met this person.”

“We’ve been through all this before.”

“Now, is he the one that floats up in the sky and does magic tricks only when things get really bad?”

“Jezebel—”

“And the guy with all those angels to fly around him, a billion maids that sweep the cobwebs from his throne room? Didn’t he kick Lucifer out of the clouds just because he wanted a chance to be in charge? Oh, yes. That guy. You’re part of his club. I’m not. You boast about all the violence and war crimes that happen in his name, the writer of mortal code. I’m not sure how he fit all that knowledge into one book. A bit . . . pretentious if you ask me.”

Her father’s face became disfigured with hatred. “Enough! How did you start this fire?”

“I used a lighter. I’m not a child anymore.”

“Well, you’re certainly not the kid I raised. I wish I could take the words you just said right out of the air and throw them into the fire. You’re knocking on hell’s gates.”

_______________________

 

Most vampires were not concerned with the desecration of holy books. Many of them followed no religion whatsoever, and did not have strong feelings toward sacred symbols. It was, in fact, a myth that the sight of a crucifix could harm vampires. Church officials had invented this legend. They used it as a way to increase gift shop sales of an object whose power came from outside belief. It was not, as they said, a weapon of light.

When Jezebel was a little girl, she acquired a taste for burnt cookies and toast. Her mother was an alcoholic and would often fall asleep on their apartment futon while she baked cookies in the oven for sometimes almost an hour, setting off fire alarms on several occasions. Jezebel didn't eat cookies unless they were burnt. She'd press the firm crust between her fingers, and tap the cookie on the table before putting it in her mouth. She liked the extra crunch of the charred edges and found the smoky smell enticing. Gingerbread took longer to cook, but her mother still found ways to burn that, too. Jezebel once assembled a gothic style, blackened gingerbread house and decorated it with licorice gumdrops and chocolate taffy.

By the time she was eighteen, her face became a metal canvas with snakebite piercings on opposite sides of her lips, and studs through her nose and above her eyebrows. She never slept with her piercings in because she was paranoid about solar flares changing the earth's magnetic polarization.

She collected wisdom teeth from her friends and sewed them into a necklace for her black cat, Vincent. And she saved her money to buy silver coins online to melt them down and craft special jewelry. A hot plate in her room provided a way for her to melt the silver and mold it. About once a month, she’d search the nearby wooded areas for owl pellets. She liked to reassemble the crushed bones of small rodents and glue them together or pin them inside shadow boxes.

With her bittersweet attitude in high school, Jezebel preferred the label Goth hipster, staying home to read tragic poetry and watch stop-motion animation on VHS. She admired the works of Tim Burton, who created storybook atmospheres filled with darkness in films like Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands.

Listening to music on record players or Walkman headphones, some of her favorite bands were Joy Division, The Cure, and Nosferatu. She collected their merchandise even though it was mass-produced. Her bookshelf was stacked with paperback copies of authors such as Anne Rice, Bram Stoker, Clive Barker, and Edgar Allen Poe. And the romance novels written by genre author Damien Clarke were among the books as well.

She admired fictional vampires for their intensity, period clothing, and cultured decadence. Socially alienated from regular people, they were often viewed as monsters; though most were also stunningly attractive. Jezebel did not believe that vampires were amoral, as demonstrated in Poppy Z. Brite’s book Lost Souls. Instead, she imagined they had their own form of justice, different from mortals since they viewed their lives on a longer timeline. She had never met a vampire, nor had she seen one talk on TV—a real vampire, not an actor who portrayed one for a paycheck. They were elusive beasts. And she was determined to find a clan in her area. It was a leap of faith, but she was already seeing signs that they might be closer than she ever dreamed.

She knew a few basic spells, but didn’t mess with any other supernatural or occult objects such as Ouija boards, crystal balls, or tarot cards. The spells she had memorized were not practical magic since they originated in works of fantasy fiction. She never saw evidence for supernatural occurrences such as ghosts or spirits; but she once found an audio recording from her uncle talking to a strange woman, even though he'd always lived alone in a crammed studio apartment and never had company.

Jezebel worked the night shift at a convenient store west of downtown and was once held at gunpoint by a masked man. She had studied rudimentary Tai Chi and used pepper spray and a swift kick to the groin to disarm the gunman. Her agility had also allowed her to escape the grasp of her imposing father many times.

She broke up with her emo boyfriend, Keith, because she found out he was a poser. They used to go together on picnics at the cemetery around three in the morning, witching hour. Keith had brought a fog machine to make it more atmospheric. He’d play his harmonica and walk amongst the tombstones, tapping the back of his heel on each name, searching for hollow monuments filled with letters or valuables. But when she found his iPod and looked through the music selection, Jezebel realized he had a horrible taste in music—mostly hip-hop, crap radio pop, and gangster rap. He also was an abusive guy and often shoved her to the ground, but she was a fighter and broke one of his ribs with an uppercut in self-defense.

Her parents hoped that her gothic interests were only a phase, a temperament that would pass with the seasons. Mr. Hex went into his daughter’s room at night to remove small trinkets he believed were tokens of the devil, such as skull-shaped earrings and quartzite crystals wrapped in velvet. The sum of the items that he had taken over the years exceeded her monthly income. Before she caught him, he used to take these items to a priest where they were sprinkled in holy water to rid them of their charms. Jezebel found an entire box of missing trinkets hidden by her father in the trunk of his station wagon; but she never started a fight. She knew an argument of that kind would destroy any possibility of keeping the lock on her bedroom door. Jezebel made a habit to lock her door every night when she went to work. Most recently, a few posters went missing from her time at the Drop Dead Festival that year, which attracted people from over thirty countries.

Most adults wrote her off as a troublemaker or the girl with no future. They found her attitude off-putting, even repulsive. She did not understand why so many were offended by her austere posture and melancholy mood. Her interests did not bring harm to anyone. And she found the dramas of her peers were altogether unappealing. She was not filled with distain, only the burden of acute observation.

She saw beauties in the world around her that most overlooked: moonlight beams, rain puddles, and dusty books filled with undiscovered wonders. Only those awake at night could inspect the lattice patterns in dew-draped spider webs. The tiny, eight-legged creatures made people scream and jump onto chairs; but Jezebel thought they were beautiful. Her appreciation for the elaborate web arrangements eventually inspired her to acquire skills with needle and thread.

She crocheted frills, cuffs, and layered collars for homemade blouses using long spools of black thread. Some of the spools had a monotone gradient from white to dark gray; and she often used red or purple to accent the edge designs. She was not interested in tight fishnets or the chore of balancing on stilettos since these accessories were impractical for everyday wear. Her most intricate sewing project took eleven weeks to complete: one pair of Victorian lace gloves, which she wore only while sleeping. These preparations, though small, brought her closer to fulfilling her wish to become a child of night.

After finding several bolts of double-stitched satin fabric in her grandmother’s wardrobe, Jezebel made a lightweight cape complete with neck strings and flaring coattails, embroidered with her initials: JH.

For her lifestyle choices and eerie fashion sense, she was kicked out of the local Methodist church. The pastor’s wife constantly made jokes about her name, saying it would be fitting if she were thrown out a window and eaten by dogs, a similar fate of the legendary Bible character by the same name. The exclusive nature of the church disgusted Jezebel because they preached acceptance and grace, yet wanted nothing to do with anyone who was different. Instead of welcoming outcasts, they literally cast them out of the church premises; yelling obscenities and feeding into community hysteria about devil worshipers who dressed like her. It would have been nice to be accepted with open arms, but she realized it was not true tolerance; their beliefs made them want to change her into someone else. And she knew that would go against her entire identity. She had considered changing her name many times; but the years of ridicule proved the name had authority.

Though other girls read about boy bands, Jezebel studied historical lore of outliers paving the way for social movements that began only after their untimely death. She read stories of people who had fallen ill and were buried alive. Then they rose from the dirt overnight, but were sent back to the grave once anyone saw them and feared they were from a hellish group of bloodsuckers.

She collected a wide variety of vampire memorabilia including poems, bat skeletons, yellow contacts, and even glow-in-the-dark plastic fangs. She adopted behaviors and activities in her life that closely replicated the life of a vampire, such as sleeping in a wooden coffin bed frame she built herself and filing her teeth to a point.

And she was a self-claimed sufferer of Xeroderma pigmentosum (XP)—a rare genetic disorder of DNA in which the ability to repair damage caused by ultraviolet light is deficient. She went to painstaking efforts to stay out of the sun and keep her skin pale, using hoods, umbrellas, special sunblock, and tinted windows in her car.

 

Chapter 6

Ashton waited for Scarlett to go away for the night on her killing spree, fetching helpless casualties, before he approached Damien in the workshop.

Once he had closed the door and bolted it steadfast, he asked, “Where do we come from?”

Damien looked up from a sketch of a slender woman, wearing nothing but a thin veil draped across her legs. “We . . . who?”

“The vampires.”

He hesitated. “You are curious.”

“Aren’t you?”

“You’re right, I am. It is clandestine knowledge.”

“Does Scarlett know?”

“She does not tell me everything. We have secrets between us.”

“Then she must know.”

“And why do you say that?”

“Someone had to teach her how to convert vessels—to drain them of life and fill them again, to make them drink from another vampire.”

“That is no mystery. The infusion is well known and documented in European lore. There are many books written about such things. And I have researched some of them for my own writing.”

“Then where does that power come from?”

“You must remember, Ashton. I am still a young vampire. She turned me only three years ago. There are many who have lived undead for hundreds of years. And so, I am no authority on this matter—only a victim of its desires, as are you. I know many legends; but like you, I was skeptic.”

“Yeah, ’cause they’re true.”

“Indeed. You’ve already seen that the legends do not come close to expressing our unique predisposition. As for your questions, I cannot say.”

“Hasn’t she told you?”

“I may be her husband, yes. But I am not exempt from her secrecy. That room, to which she carries the key around her neck, must have some answers within it. I regret to say . . . even while alone in this impressive house, I have not found a way to enter it.”

“And would you . . . if you could?”

“Go inside? Yes, of course. But it would be the death of me. She killed me once already, and it isn’t something I’d like to repeat. I do, however, know about the caves.”

“What caves? Tell me.”

“There is a series of interconnected Brazilian caves in the Amazon jungle where the original vampires still live.”

“Are you sure that isn’t just a myth?”

“I used to attend a country club with a man whom I once suspected to be one of us. At the time, I had no evidence, only my intuition. Thinking back, he had all the classic signs. I’m sure of it now. The other men thought he was only telling stories. They also thought he was drunk. And so did I at first, but then I realized his speech was clear, and his words were those of memory, not fabrications. He was not drunk, but subdued by a truth hidden from us. They called him a liar, but he was far too honest for falsehoods. And when he spoke of the caves, his voice hushed low as if risking his own safety, as if he were being watched by spies.”

“Did he have any bat-like features?”

“Not really. He looked more like me than you, about my age, but it was hard to tell. I suppose if he was a vampire, age is irrelevant.”

“What did he tell you?”

 “He whispered about the underground antiquity of the vampires, a record of all their sins, all their victories, and those who make death a friend. One of the other men said he’d read all about it. But the pale man told him to forget what he’d read.”

“Because it wasn’t true?”

“No, because it was so true, it was dangerous. The first vampires were bats, not humans, but wild animals. Instinctual. Sensual. Perilous.”

“Living in the Brazilian caves?”

“That’s what he said. Though there must be a strange magic that caused them to thirst for human blood. That’s the part I don’t know . . . the secret history.”

“And Scarlett knows?”

“Son, look at me. You could fill a library with all the things that women knows, no doubt the journals of a predator, the open season of human prey. Hell, for all we know, that room is her unspeakable archive, filled from floor to ceiling with tomes of cloak-and-dagger spells. You don’t remember this, because you were on the brink of death; but when we turned you, she uttered a Latin ritual, something I cannot decipher. It may be a language that precedes Latin. Otherwise, I would have translated it by now.”

“What did she say?”

“I’ve heard her say it only once, for your conversion. Those words never cross her lips when she means to kill, only to breathe life into the undead. Even if I could remember the turn of the phrase, I would not say it. I would not let it cross my own lips. For it holds an ancient meaning, a sting of truth that is beyond my comprehension.”

“I understand,” Ashton said. “It could be deadly.”

“And so are your questions. Believe me, I have just as many . . . even more than you, since she is my wife. I try to keep them from driving me insane. We must not speak of these things any longer. Surely the walls listen and report to her.”

“Please, tell me one last thing. These caves, do you know exactly where they are?”

“No. I don’t. Though, I suspect there is a way to discover it without an expedition.”

“Would she ever tell me?”

“You? Do not ask. You must never let these questions surface in front of her. Don’t give her a reason to strike. If you do—I’ve seen it firsthand—she will snuff you out like any vessel.”

“But I’m part of her family, now.”

“It doesn’t matter. Without loyalty, you are a traitor. And if she suspects you of false motives, you will perish in ash.”

 

Chapter 7

Scarlett’s appetite for human blood grew out of control. Drinking thirteen pints before noon was just another Tuesday for her. No matter how much she enjoyed tracking potential victims, the endless nights of hunting unfortunate souls exhausted her. It took most of her waking hours to satiate this unquenchable thirst.

Sunbathing on the beach was a luxury she missed from her days as a human, a privilege she thought about often, envious of bikini-clad women. So, she decided to open a tanning salon.

Damien—always one for irony—had joked about calling it Tan-Sylvania, but this name would have been dangerous.

Scarlett designed the salon layout, interior decor, and color scheme while Damien drew up plans for blood collection. They opened a storefront in a vacant section of a busy outlet mall. Since they had to rest most of the day, the salon was open only in the evenings, just after dusk until eleven o’clock, nightly. The previous business had been a spa that closed because it required too many workers to operate the treatments. Scarlett had no need for a store staff; she had her family.

Ashton worked as eye candy at the front desk, scheduling appointments, making the women who walked in feel welcome. His physical changes, although more bat-like, were disguised with nice clothing and a bit of makeup.

The Sharp family used different spray tans to simulate what their natural skin tone would have looked like. They developed a special mixture of tanning lotion specifically for the customers, which included a numbing agent that worked as a local anesthetic; so they wouldn’t feel the hidden surprise in the tanning beds.

Scarlett was content not to spend her evenings hunting anymore. This free time allowed her to become even wealthier. There were a lot of rich people in town who hid behind shabby houses and used cars—middle-aged professionals who knew staying rich meant not being too flashy. Most of them worked at bike shops, sold trinkets, or walked around town wearing large signs advertising local bands. They did these things out of passion while they laundered money from foreign accounts or held art auctions in vacant warehouses with collapsible stages and folding chairs, there and gone in a single night.

She attended these exclusive events to find the rich pricks whom no one would ever suspect. Most of the attendants were longhaired hippies who tried to sell fraudulent timeshare packages, an act that was meant to distract from the real reason they came: to mingle with an elite crowd of deep-pocket socialites. This crowd didn’t throw poolside parties in Beverly Hills to brag about their weekend trips to the Island of Capri. Instead, they met in these secluded places to enjoy a certain amount of anonymity.

Scarlett saw through many of their masquerades, recognizing billboard lawyers hidden behind fake mustaches and padded sweatpants. A wide selection of fine art was displayed at the start of each auction with a fast-talking auctioneer guiding the sales. She was there to see who bought the marked-up paintings and antiques. Most of the artwork had been stolen or made by members of this nameless society, which they bid on to raise the price. As the art rose in value, it became apparent who had money and who was simply there to rub shoulders with prospective clients.

She used this knowledge to track down guys who had purchased these art pieces. She’d follow them home to steal the artwork and to sell it to a black-market dealer who didn’t know the declared value. He bought the pieces based on what she told him and never asked where she acquired them. This underground game kept her busy several nights a week. And with the money, she purchased many things for herself: rare jewelry, clothing, leather-bound books, and most important, marble blocks for Damien to carve, imported from Italian quarries.

Between the blood collection at the tanning salon and the endless nights of carving statues, Damien had a newfound virtuosity toward his art. With each sculpture, the facial features and body poses became more lifelike. As Scarlett had asked, he hired a fashion photographer to capture her likeness and began work on a full-bodied sculpture. As always, he started by carving into the block toward the eyes.

 

Chapter 8

Jezebel became suspicious about the salon when one of her friends came to class with tiny scabs on the back of her neck. The girl, extremely tan, almost orange, had been stabbed with something small in two places, and it was infected.

Other tanned classmates itched at similar scabs. They didn’t complain about the irritation because they were too busy blushing over complements about their complexion. These girls were too vain to realize that most of them looked like twice-baked Umpa-Lumpas. She had seen these kinds of marks before on fictional TV shows about vampires. She thought this might be her chance to meet a real one. And although she was entirely against fake tans, Jezebel decided to visit the salon that had everyone talking.

On the evening she drove to the salon, instead of dark skirts and lace collars, she wore a neon pink short skirt and tie-dye tank top. After parking, she ran inside to avoid the last rays of sunlight as dusk settled over the city. She didn’t want to stand out waiting in the lobby filled with gum-snapping prep girls who tanned once a week. If she would have worn her regular outfit, there was a chance that some of the girls would recognize her and make a scene. But the butterflies in her stomach folded their wings when she sat amidst the lobby chatter—mostly about the upcoming football game—and no one seemed to identify her.

When she paid at the counter, the man who took her twenty-dollar bill looked rather weird. His pointed ears and oddly shaped nose made her stare, and she didn’t let go of the money when he tried to take it. He wore contacts, and his clothes were much too baggy. She yanked on the bill, hoping he would lean closer so she could get a better look at him; but he pulled the money out of her hand, opened the cash register, and returned a handful of change plus a folded towel with a numbered room tag. He was undeniably attractive. Most of the girls ogled him while they waited in line; yet, she could tell he wore spray tan, which had been applied in uneven blotches. As she walked toward her assigned room, she took one more look at the guy, hoping to see a nametag. He wasn’t wearing one.

Jezebel never intended to lie in the tanning bed. It was against her self-proclaimed gothic nature. So she never got inside. The air-conditioned room had posters of surfers balanced on massive waves with inspirational quotes. She opened the tanning bed and placed her towel inside, stood next to it, turned it on, and closed the lid. Then she applied a pair of dark sunglasses and watched as two small needles poked through the top of the towel. They stood upright for about a full minute before retracting into the tanning bed. She flicked off the bulbs, removed the towel, and carefully felt along the glass where the needles had been. It felt smooth except for two small holes.

If she were a safety inspector, Jezebel would have instantly reported the salon’s owners and had the beds replaced or threatened to shut down the facility entirely. But these peculiar details at what appeared to be a modern business, gave her reason to believe there was something extraordinary happening here.

She lay down, flat on the floor, and peered underneath the machine. A clear tube stretched from the bottom, curled around a few times, and then disappeared into the wall. The inside of the tubes were coated with a red residue . . . droplets of blood.

She put on the clean, white robe hanging on the wall next to the door and left her room. She tiptoed down the hallway and saw the other room numbers listed sequentially. Smells of lavender and vanilla filled the air from scented candles on side tables next to discount flyers. Faint music from different radio stations played from the cracks under the doors.

Before sneaking any further, she swung her head around the corner to check the lobby. The muscular man was still at the cash register, trying to shoo away two women who had given him phone numbers. He seemed annoyed. She wanted to run over and talk to him, find out why he was working there instead of flexing for covers of fitness magazines. She thought he somehow seemed out of place, as if held captive behind the front desk.

She waited for a few girls to leave the tanning rooms, then scurried to the end of the hallway where a door read: Employees Only. Since there was no digital keypad near the knob, she assumed it was unlocked.

Heart thrumming, she opened the door slowly and shut it. It was not an office. There were no binders of business papers. The space was cluttered with similar tubes like she’d seen in the tanning room, and lines of red liquid flowed into clear containers labeled by blood type. Even the water heater in the corner had been gutted and repurposed as a pump regulator, buzzing in a low-pitched tone. A few wooden barrels were stacked near the exit sign, labeled by date. And a bright, copper aroma percolated the room. The complex array of overlapping tubes looked like a floating pile of thin eels.

Jezebel almost screamed, not in fear, but in delight.

 

Chapter 9

She waited in her car, listening to music on an old Walkman cassette player that still worked until the salon went dark for the night. She didn’t mind the wait. It was only a few hours. After all, she’d waited her entire life to find any sort of clue leading to real vampires. The fact that they were in her hometown made her even more excited—it would be easier relating to them since they walked the same streets and knew how it felt to avoid sunlight.

When the front sign flipped to closed, she drove out of the parking lot and pulled around the corner, stopping half a block from the back entrance.

A few minutes later, a black SUV pulled up and a man with silver hair entered the back room she’d explored. Rolling out two barrels, he placed them in the trunk of the vehicle. Then the muscular guy from the front desk came out the back door, locked it, and got into the passenger side just before they sped away.

She turned off her headlights and followed them; carefully keeping her distance a few blocks away, watching which streets they turned onto. The SUV had heavily tinted windows just like her car. Through countless turns, she tried not to lose them. And she had to run a few stoplights to keep up with their speed across twelve miles south on freeways, small highways, and finally a gravel road that meandered for a mile or so, leading to an imposing Victorian house backlit by moonlight. To her surprise, none of the windows were boarded up from the outside, but shaded by purple curtains on the other side of the glass. Dark clouds of soot billowed from the chimney, clouding the property with a smoky smell. Jagged trees bent toward the estate as if paralyzed by some enchantment.

She pulled off to the side of the gravel road behind a row of high bushes and turned off her car, listening for the men’s conversation. The night air was still, but she couldn’t hear them say anything. They worked in silence. The younger man opened the hatch to the cellar. She took a pair of small binoculars from the glove compartment and watched them roll the barrels down the cellar stairs. Then they sealed the hatch with a large plank of wood and a padlock.

She lowered her binoculars and tried to calm herself. It could have been much worse. If these were indeed vampires, she thought they must be rather sophisticated, even gentle, to satisfy their thirst this way. She was thankful this was not one of the nights the men had brought someone kicking and screaming from the vehicle and tossed them into the cellar, which she imagined had happened every night before the salon opened.

She wondered how many were in their clan. Five? Seven? Thirteen? A house of this magnitude could have been a haven for dozens of bloodsuckers.

Jezebel hoped they were tame, but had no way of being sure. The attractive one at the front desk hadn’t leapt over the counter to ravage her. That was a good sign. At least they weren’t the kind of maniacal creatures she’d seen on the news living in abandoned factories, scrounging through hospital dumpsters for bio-waste. Those were not people. They were things that lurked in darkness. They knew nothing of kindness, only need. Desperate, clawing always for more, their mutations happened without explanation. These inexplicable things would jump out of nowhere and take the spotlight for fifteen minutes of fame, then vanish without a trace as if they’d never lived.

In the reports, no one had ever claimed those lunatics were vampires, but she knew there was a chance. That kind of behavior had to be paranormal, especially when investigators found a severed wing much too large for any known animal. It had a talon on the end of the backside curve, sharp enough to slice flesh.

Those were the things people tried to cover up, but she didn’t forget them. They grew in her mind, an obsession that drove her here to a den of supernatural freaks. And she wouldn’t have had it any other way. Riddled with fear, somehow still, this place felt right to her, like it had always been calling her, silently beckoning for only her to find it. All those people who chose to forget about the unexplained creatures on the news would have turned back. For her, this house seemed to be marked on a personal roadmap called fate. Who else would dare?

There was plenty of gas in the tank of her Chevy Prism. Opening the trunk, she removed a makeshift crossbow fashioned from an old violin. She’d reinforced the wood paneling with aluminum rods and removed the strings, replacing them with strong cables; one of her many steam-punk weapon ideas, the only contraption she’d actually built so far. It also had a holder for steel stakes as arrows. In her eighteen years, she had never taken a life, mortal or otherwise. Not yet.

 

Chapter 10

Jezebel double-checked her pockets for the car keys. The creaking house loomed over her like a snoring giant. She crouched down and made her way through the tall grass, circling around to the back courtyard. As she walked, knees bent, she felt twigs snapping underfoot. Then she looked down and realized they were not twigs at all, but discarded bones—ribs, spines, femurs, and fleshless fingers. There were no skulls. She twisted her feet this way and that, trying not to crunch the unburied fossils, remnants of a ferocious predator.

She never tried the front door. It was too risky. Slithering vines had stretched over the gates of the courtyard, winding over benches and loose bricks, but kept low around the magnificent statues placed at square angles around the perimeter. They stood, frozen, resolute, ensnared in time itself, yet untouched by the creeping plants. She wandered through the greenhouse and became enthralled by the perfume of roses, how much their beauty contrasted the foreboding atmosphere outside.

One of the tallest trees hung over the roof of the house near a triangular window on the third story. She strapped her makeshift crossbow to her back and removed two of the steel spikes, using them as improvised pick-axes to climb the trunk of the tree. The branches were thick and stretched out toward the house. She jumped from branch to branch, then carefully balanced on the strongest off-shoot that led to the window. Since she couldn’t quite reach the window, she climbed onto the roof.

From this vantage point, the statues below resembled decorative chess pieces. She pressed the steel spikes into the opposite ends of her bow, hung her arms over the edge of the roof, and cut a hole in the glass pane of the window, rotating the steel spikes until a circular piece of glass fell to the ground. The hole wasn’t nearly big enough for her to crawl through, but she reached inside to unlock the window.

After gaining her point of entry, she scooted around and lowered her legs into the open window, holding herself up on the edge of the roof in a pull-up position. She didn’t want to get stuck this way. It was very uncomfortable and required abdominal strength. When she felt the windowsill under her feet, she let go of the roof and carefully slid the rest of the way through.

Once inside, she brushed herself off, realizing she’d entered the home library. A wooden ladder leaned against special bookcases that had been designed as part of the walls. She ran her hand along the worn leather spines of the volumes, feeling the bumps and cracks in the binding. Traces of paper glue and musk lingered, since the room had no ventilation system. Particles of dust fluttered in the air; and she coughed, then pulled her shirt over her nose as a filter.

She took a few books off the shelf, inspecting them in the dim room. Most of them were journals from war, accounts written in the battlefields of Germany, France, and Russia. She had to open half a dozen journals before finding one in English. The paper was thin, so she opened the pages delicately, trying not to rip them. A desk in the corner was engraved with depictions of men aiming guns and canons, holding back armed soldiers in a field of tents. The books lying open on the desk with page-markers ranged from the discovery of the Chinese Terra Cotta soldiers to Egyptian myths, listing hundreds of gods by name. She leafed through these books and found that the marked pages were mostly battle plans and tactics. An encyclopedia about armor had fallen from the desk and lay facedown on the carpet. It had color illustrations showing layers of protective gear that had been used in the battles of the Dark Ages.

Then on the last shelf near the door, she found a few dozen romance paperbacks—some of which she owned—by author Damien Clarke. She realized that the man she’d followed to this house was indeed a writer whose work she knew very well. He rarely ever had his picture appear on the back of the books, but she found it on a tattered copy of an early novel in his career. At the time of the picture, his hair had been charcoal black. His face was angular and younger. Bad press and scathing reviews had caused him to fall out of the limelight, except for the occasional TV interview on local stations.

He must have been researching these periods of history for an upcoming book. Not all of his books had been romantic; Jezebel preferred the novels from the last ten years about outcasts when he wrote about mythical monsters to reveal parts of humanity that were not in the least politically correct. His characters said and did whatever they wanted, and she admired these qualities. There were several of his books that she’d skipped, especially the early stories about modern affairs. Those characters were too flat for her taste. She’d always wondered what it might be like to live inside one of his books about vampires. This house could have easily been featured in one of his suspense stories. Now aware of his identity, this was her chance meet him.

She spent the next several hours exploring the third story of the house, sneaking in shadows, checking the clocks for five a.m. when the sun would rise and those in the house would retire to their coffins for the day.

Jezebel had visited vintage houses in the South that were more than a hundred years old: ranches, farmer homesteads, and the dwellings of plantation owners with a taste for fine china. But this was the first old-fashioned house in the area she’d been to where the wallpaper wasn’t peeling. It had been steamed, ironed, and reapplied over the years, dutifully maintained, preserving a snapshot into the past.

She guessed the bedrooms were on the second floor; so she removed her shoes to stay light-footed. The sooty floor felt slippery beneath her socks. It would have been odd for vampires to have a regular cleaning service. She suspected they wouldn’t allow any maids or butlers.

Thin slits of morning sunlight snuck through the curtains. She empathized with these creatures of night hidden away on the fridge of the city. The sunlight, no matter how thin, worked as a powerful laser that could cut them to the core, and ignite their hollow shells born of death’s cradle.

The sun made her take shelter as well, but it wasn’t deadly for her; and didn’t bring on the extreme anxiety they must have faced every time it rose in the horizon.

She didn’t care for the sun, but she had her ways to escape it. And so did they.

The residents of the house were approaching their routine of daily isolation. She waited a bit longer before exploring the house any further. Then she crawled down the second-floor hallway and looked through the columns of wood in the banister to the hall below. Candlelight illuminated the space beneath her as a floating head with silver hair glided across the floor: Damien. His footsteps were soft.

She slid against the wall, slowly standing up to watch the man exit the hallway on the other end, leaving the space below in darkness. Then, hearing a door shut elsewhere in the house, she slid her hands over the banister and crept down the stairs, trying to avoid putting too much weight on any of the creaking steps. Her movements became cat-like, gracefully placing her feet near the edges of the stairs on the way down. Once at the second level, the hall was clear. And she walked to the end of it and slowly opened the door with flickering light beneath it.

Then she saw Damien standing with his back to her, chiseling away at a large statue of a woman in a gown, posed like a Greek goddess.

Her shadow moved over the small, model figurines as she entered. The arrangement of objects in the workshop was a marvelous sight. It was compelling to see so many miniature clay people circling this otherworldly sculptor—his silent audience. He continued carving without noticing her. His arms worked the marble as if it were the very reason he had hands. This sculpture would be far more valuable than the rest because it was in the image of his wife. Every swoop of his chisel and thwack of his hammer exhumed her spirit from the stone.

Jezebel found his posture mesmerizing. He stood tall, shoulders angled squarely in front of the statue, legs bent at the knee, clenched jaw, gazing into the marble eyes. His ironclad focus was intense, yet peaceful.

She crept forward until her shadow reached the back wall, then she stopped.

Damien continued to work for a moment, humming to himself, chipping away at the marble.

He noticed her shadow and cocked his head ever so slightly.

“Hello?”

Then he waved at the shadow and it waved back. As if playing a game with a ghost, he whistled softly, twice. And the shadow grew larger.

“You can’t be real,” he mumbled to himself and blinked twice, trying to reset his mind. “I must need a break.”

“I’m real,” she said, and placed her hand on his neck. “This is where you bite them, isn’t it?”

Terrified, he turned around and held out the chisel as a weapon. Seeing it was only a teenage girl, he smiled, revealing small fangs. “You scared me.”

“I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“What the hell are you doing here?”

“In this house?”

“Yes, in our house . . . in my workshop? Who are you?”

“Please, listen to me.” The sound of her heart pounded in her ears, muffling her voice. “I’m a fan. I’ve read your books.” She sounded nervous, because she was.

“Oh, really?” For the briefest moment, he was flattered. His posture relaxed, but his hands started shaking a bit. “And . . . what do you want from me?”

 She revealed one of his novels she’d taken from the shelf in the library. “I was hoping you’d sign a copy for me,” she said, batting her eyelashes.

“You’ve read my novels?”

“Yes.”

“Which ones? The pulp-fiction romances?”

“Well, I prefer your books about vampires and werewolves.” Then she lifted the book cover toward him and stepped closer. “Like this one. Would you sign it for me, please?”

“This is not the place for a girl to be this late at night.”

“I’m not a girl. I’m eighteen. And it’s morning. You’ve been up so long that you probably lost track of time.”

“Wait,” He said, frantically. “Are you a hunter?”

“No, don’t be afraid of me,” she said, opening her arms. “I’m not going to hurt you. I admire you.”

“Have you been stalking me?” Then a cold hue snapped on behind his eyes. “You are a hunter.”

“I’m simply a fan. I want to become one of you.”

“You’re lying. Get away from me.”

“I’d like to know if you were a vampire when you wrote those books. They seemed very authentic.”

He hesitated, and said, “No, I wasn’t.”

“You must have met one, then. And you asked them to turn you.”

“I didn’t have a choice in the matter.” His eyes changed to an orange hue.

“No? I’m sorry to hear that.”

He was trembling. The real Damien, shoved into the depths of that hollow shell, wanted to be free. But he couldn’t surface. His eyes turned a sickly green.

Jezebel said, “Someone must have hurt you. But I don’t want to. You see . . . I’m a little different. It’s like I haven’t been born yet. And I want you to help me.”

In a droning tone, he asked, “This isn’t about an autograph?”

“No, I came here to join your clan.”

“That’s impossible.”

“You can do it. I know you can. It’s simple.” She walked closer still. “All you have to do is convert me. I’m willing to be transformed. I know what it takes. And I came prepared.”

“I’m not going to kill you.”

“Why not? You could use it in your next book. Just don’t use my real name. I don’t want the feds to know I’m immortal. They might try to take me down with a fleet of tanks.” Jezebel tucked her hair behind her shoulder, revealing her neck. “Just put your fangs right here.”

The urge to feed began to undulate inside of him. But he suppressed it. He shoved her across the room. “Get out of here! You don’t want to be around when she comes back.”

“She?”

“My wife. She’ll kill you.”

“Oh, good. I can just wait for her then.”

“No. You don’t understand. She’ll kill you for sport. And that will be the end of it. It’s too late now, anyway. She’d see you leave.”

“I’d never leave this place in the daylight. I have XP.”

“That psychological.” He tried to fight his thirst. “Stop tempting me. I beg you!”

“Don’t you want just a little taste of my blood?” she taunted and pulled the crossbow from the strap on her back, slicing open her palm with one of the steel spikes. “I bet you like young blood, don’t you? I’m not a virgin, but I have a good diet . . . plenty of protein . . . lots of iron.”

Then a deep thirst overtook Damien since he’d been carving all night and had nothing to drink. His eyes went black, then pulsated, outlining the girl’s slim figure.

She did look delicious.

He wanted to taste her.

What’s the harm? It’s just a taste.

These voices swirled inside him and became louder, distant drums growing until they pounded his temples.

You cannot save her.

Scarlett won’t let you keep her.

She’s not a pet. Just kill her.

It’s easier that way.

Otherwise, it’s your head on the chopping block.

You or her. Your choice. Don’t wait.

Do it. Now, now, now!

Bearing his fangs, Damien arched his back and lunged at her.

And she almost let him take her life. But she had seen his eyes change from logic to lunacy. It was no longer the gaze of a scholar, an artist, but a beast.

As he leapt toward her, she dodged behind the center statue, almost knocking over the clay figurines. In this state, he was reckless. She waited until he began circling near the workshop walls, then loaded the crossbow and shot a steel spike through his left hand. He screamed, tensed up, trying to pull the spike from his hand just as she fired another into his right leg. His two free limbs flailed while she reloaded. Eyes wild, he screeched inhuman sounds. Foam bubbled from his mouth around his fangs. She shot his other arm and leg, pinning him to the wall in a star pattern. Guttural shrieks echoed in the workshop. The miniature clay people would have covered their ears if only they could dull the ghastly sound. He squirmed, slamming his head against the wall, convulsing with rage.

Jezebel ran to the window and untied the curtains. She did not say a word as she opened them, letting morning sunlight stream through. The man was no longer able to hear anything. Damien was buried under too many layers. His shell was too tight, and had strengthened like a vice ever since Scarlett had brought him home. He’d been swallowed up by his lust for blood.

The sunbeams seared his skin, letting out a dreadful hissing as it boiled and cracked. Light glowed from his eyes, mouth, and ears. He thrashed against the wall, opening and closing his fingers around the spikes, yelling out for her to draw the curtains through the foam that sprayed from his mouth. The heat was unbearable, hotter than the underworld. His clothing caught fire, then he exploded into a puff of smoke and ash. And the steel spikes fell from the wall, clinking on the ground where he used to stand.

 

Chapter 11

Ashton lifted weights in the home gym, oblivious to the entry of a stranger until he heard the commotion below. Scarlett was away for the night, so he knew the shrieks had come from Damien. When he smelled something burning, he left his weights and hurried to the workshop.

He flung open the door, saw no signs of an intruder, and rushed over to the pile of ash, scooping up handfuls, letting it fall through his fingers.

“Damien . . . oh God . . . what happened?”

Turning to the curtains near the window, he saw the cords that always held them shut had been loosened.

“He’s gone,” Jezebel said from behind a statue. Then she peaked out, her face smeared with tears.

“Who are you? Look what you’ve done to him!” Then he held his hand to his mouth. “Wait, I’ve seen you before . . . today at the salon. You’re the girl who wouldn’t let go of that twenty-dollar bill.”

“That’s right.”

“How did you get in here?”

“I climbed the tree and cut a hole in one of the windows.”

“To kill him?”

“No, it was self-defense. He attacked me,” she said, defiantly. “He wouldn’t listen.”

Ashton became flustered. “You need to keep quiet. She might hear you. And she usually comes back around this time from her night errands.”

“Who?”

“Her name is Scarlett.” He looked around the workshop as if she were hiding near the clay mixer.

“Maybe you will listen, then.” Jezebel grabbed Ashton’s shirt. “Please. I want to be one of your kind. Turn me, I beg you. This is what I’m meant for . . . to find others who feel like me.”

He pushed her off. “You don’t want this. It’s a horror worse than a nightmare. I’ve been fighting it ever since my conversion.”

“Maybe I want to be inside a nightmare. If I can be free from all the idiots in my life. I need to get away from them. It’s all I’ve ever wanted. Turn me.”

“I will not let you bear it. Once it starts, it cannot be undone. There are sins you’ve never seen before. It’s no life for anyone. It’s no life at all. Only death. Do you understand that I would have to kill you first?”

“Yes,” she said, urgently. “I’m ready for that. There’s no one out there who cares about me. They’re all selfish.”

“That’s not true. There’s always someone. Don’t your parents love you?”

“They’re worthless. I swear I was adopted. My mom’s a drunk. My dad scares me. He makes me furious. And then I lash out because they drive me to it. They’re blind to my true identity. They’ve never seen it because they refuse to look. I believed I’d meet one of you. But I didn’t know fur sure. Not until now. None of them listened. I’ve thought about this moment my entire life.”

Ashton held his hand out to her. “Then let this be the last time you think of it. You do not want this. Trust me.”

“Is it true that you are immortal?” she asked.

He motioned to the pile of ash. “How strong are we if you could kill him so easily?”

“I did not kill him. The sunlight did. You should really board up all the windows. It’s ridiculous if you ask me.”

“I’ve thought the same thing. But they didn’t want me to change anything about this house.”

“So, you’re used to being ignored, too?”

“They don’t ignore me,” Ashton said. “They just want to control me. But I’m more than what they made me into. That’s why I’m leaving this place tonight.”

“Really? And going where?”

“The vampire you killed here told me about a series of caves in the Amazon jungle where millions of bats live. That’s where I’ll find them . . . the original vampires.”

“There must have been others living here with you.”

“Only my new parents. The man you killed and Scarlett. She is vile, practically demonic.”

Jezebel motioned to the pile of ash. “I heard him mention something about her. He said she’d kill me if she had the chance.”

“Yeah, well that’s not a chance she’s going to get. But I’m not leaving this place without opening her secret room.”

“Why? What’s in it?”

“I don’t know. That’s why it’s a secret.”

“Well, let’s check it out,” she said.

“It’s not that simple. She has it locked with a custom door.”

“Every lock can be opened.”

“I know,” he said. “And there’s only one way.”

“I thought some of you could turn into vapor and go through keyholes.”

“I’ve never tried that. Each of us gets different powers.”

“And you didn’t get that one?”

“Sorry, but no. Scarlett wears a chain-link necklace with the key on it. It’s a brass key that matches the door.”

“Then let’s go get the key and nail her coffin shut.” Jezebel held her crossbow in a confident stance. “I’ve read all about that. It’s one of the only ways to trap them.”

“We have plenty of nails in this house. There’s a whole bucket of them in the basement from when Damien rebuilt the banister. But we can’t just go into her bedroom and start hammering away. She’ll hear us. Hmmm.” He paced around the workshop for a moment. “There has to be a way to lull her, like the way beekeepers use smoke to calm the hive. We can’t use smoke because she’ll suffocate.”

“You don’t care if she dies, do you?”

He stopped pacing and said, “No, I want her to die. She’s a serial killer. I have no idea how many people she’s slaughtered by now.”

“Aren’t all of you killers?”

“Not me. I haven’t killed a human.”

“Never?”

“No. Only animals. And I hated it every time.”

Jezebel swung the crossbow over her shoulder. “Well, you’re obviously more of a bat than a man already. I noticed that when I first saw you.”

“That’s true,” he said. “And Damien was more of a half-breed since he didn’t kill very often. Not all of us drink blood. Some vampires consume screams and live off them. They call it steam.

“Scarlett doesn’t do that, right? Besides, isn’t that just an old wives’ tale?”

“I haven’t met any of that kind. But I know even for us, steam is very calming. Scarlett uses the sauna near the garage sometimes for hours. And she’s always very quiet when she comes out. She told me it’s the closest feeling to burning up without actually putting herself in danger.”

“And you want to use steam to calm her?”

“It’s worth a shot. Also, she keeps sedatives in the basement for her victims. I saw her use it on a women recently that she tried to make me kill.”

“How strong is she?”

“If she were an animal, Scarlett would be a tiger. She’s fast. Unpredictable.”

Jezebel shook her head. “I’m afraid a tranquilizer won’t be enough.”

“It will be if we give her enough to conk out a horse.”

“What if she wakes up?”

“The sedative won’t last very long. We’ll have to seal her coffin fast. Now, come with me. I’ll show you the kitchen.”

 

Chapter 12

Ashton found the syringes and bucket of nails from the basement while Jezebel boiled pots of water on the stove. He also brought up a set of bolt cutters hanging above spare tanks of gasoline.

Then they met in Scarlett’s master bedroom. She laid face-up, arms at her side, eyes open, dreaming of red. She wore an exquisitely sewn satin robe. The room was silent except for the ticking of a grandfather clock near the entrance to the bathroom. It disturbed Ashton to see Damien’s coffin empty beside Scarlett.

 Jezebel poured the boiling water into bowls around the coffin. The steam spun into tiny wisps, raising the humidity of the room. Ashton injected the sleeping drug into Scarlett’s left arm. They waited a minute or so, then her eyes rolled up and closed as her head turned away into the coffin’s lining. He brought the pair of bolt cutters to her necklace and clamped them shut, releasing the chain. The brass key was heavier than it looked.

Ashton placed the lid on her coffin.

Jezebel gave him the hammer.

They took turns nailing the lid on the box. Scarlett did not scream or pound on the lid. The sedative had worked. Ashton felt great satisfaction from sealing her inside. She couldn’t scold him or fight back anymore. And with her death, the evils she’d schemed up would die with her—rotten seeds of her deviant nature. They planned to bury her under the greenhouse with her other victims. Even there, these seeds would not grow. They would wither inside the boundaries of the coffin, and so would her legacy.

But first, they went to the door of her secret room. Jezebel lit a small gas lantern and gave it to Ashton. He led the way through the main floor halls to the locked room. The door had an ominous size: French doors that had been reinforced with an intricate locking mechanism. A large tree had been carved on the outside of the doors. 

He inserted the key, turned it, and heard the sequential clicking as the locks loosened. Then standing on either side, they pushed open the set of doors. He lifted the lantern to eye level, illuminating a set of stairs leading down.

When they reached the bottom, they saw that it wasn’t a room at all, but a grand chapel with rows of pews leading to a backlit altar.

And as they walked in the aisle between the pews, the lantern reflected across dozens of marble statues seated or kneeling, attending a silent Mass.

Ashton could almost hear the receding echo of ancient monks chanting under the arches in the ceiling, lingering from a distant service. Here, in the desolate subterranean chapel, voices had been entombed, a reverence that had not faded. This was a place of stagnant holiness, a sacred hideaway from the harsh cycle of endless days above ground.

They walked past several rows of pews, stunned by the expressive stone statues. Their faces were carved with elegance, a static range of emotions. Ashton could not imagine someone even as skilled as Damien carving this many sculptures in the time he’d been married to Scarlett. This kind of detailed stonework would have taken a lifetime to achieve. Her sanctuary had been populated by other means—a wicked brewing within these walls. Some of the statues had their eyes closed, hands folded in prayer. Others held invisible shotguns over their shoulders. A couple near the front of the chapel was modeled in proposal, the groom kneeling, presenting a stone ring.

Tables adorned with religious antiques stood next to the altar: multicolored crystals and relics excavated from ancient ruins. The crystals shimmered under the light of the lantern, refracting its beam onto the large carving in the center—an extraordinary statue of Medusa, snakes for hair striking away from her head in every direction, a crazed look of elation and agony under her brow.

Jezebel took a long votive lighter from the altar and ignited many of the candles around it. Lit from below, the Medusa statue appeared to be whispering, moving her eyes from side to side across the Mass; and the snakes seemed to writhe from her scalp.

Books about historic battles were stacked alphabetically near the base of the statue, more journals and tactical briefings. Huge maps of Russia and old Europe hung over the platform covered in mad writings. One of the maps of South America had been marked with red coordinates in Brazil. Ashton studied this map for a moment, and put the numbers to memory, recalling Damien’s tale of the caves in that area, rumored to house a hidden society of early vampires.

And surrounding Medusa’s feet, dozens of picture frames glowed in the candlelight. Each of them displayed men from different eras. Most of the photographs were captured on black-and-white film. They were Scarlett’s past lovers—doctors, lawyers, taxmen, high-earners from various professions—imprisoned as images of their former selves next to small tokens. These gifts were symbols of their devotion to her.

Then a voice came from the stairway. “You’ve decided to join my congregation after all?”

“Scarlett?” Ashton turned the lantern toward her.

She placed her hand over her chest where the key used to be. “You thought I wouldn’t notice, did you?” Then she cracked her neck and lowered her gaze. “Nice try with the nails. You forgot to seal the hinged door above the headrest of the coffin. I had Damien install it just in case a dresser fell on me and I couldn’t open the lid.” Pointing to Jezebel, she asked, “And who’s this?”

Ashton answered for her. “A visitor. She wanted to know about our powers.”

“And what powers do you have that she might be interested in learning? Are you finally ready to kill, Ashton? She is young, isn’t she? You didn’t have to bring her all the way down here to show off. I’d hoped you brought someone to marry. But that would have been rude, considering we’ve never been introduced.”

“We know who you are,” Jezebel said.

Scarlett scoffed at her naïveté. “Oh, please. You haven’t the slightest idea about me.”

Ashton said, “That’s why we came down here . . . to see what you’ve become.”

Jezebel pointed to the altar. “You’re a black widow, Scarlett. You took advantage of all these men for their money.”

“Yes, is that all?” She walked down the isle a few more rows and placed her hand on a stone statue, clicking her nails on its head. “I used to sit in Damien’s workshop and watch him carve these magnificent sculptures. He was self-taught. No one ever told him where to hold the chisel or how hard to strike his hammer. He learned through years of practice. And when I brought him here, he mounted the first statues in the courtyard where each of our guests could enjoy them. And as I watched him, I became impatient. He couldn’t keep up with how many statues I wanted to fill this place.”

“And what are they for?” Ashton asked.

“I’ve met hundreds of vampires over the years that tell me how oppressive the humans are toward them—how they write drivel and make countless films mocking their glorious lives. You’ve seen it firsthand . . . all this for profit when they haven’t even met us. They think they know everything we can do. But they’re dead wrong. That’s why I’m assembling this army to bring balance to their greed. They’ve capitalized on our powers long enough.”

“And you think an army is the way to peace? That’s insanity.”

“I’m not concerned with peace. I’m tired of hiding in the dark . . . constantly playing by the rules they made up for us. We’re prisoners to them. Can’t you see that? If we are going to fight them, we need soldiers who can withstand bullets and swords. Humans are smart. And they have weapons beyond their own good. It will be their demise. They outnumber us eighty million to one. And there’s no other way to strengthen our side. We need a defense.”

“Listen, Scar. Why not build your army with other vampires instead of these mindless statues? This girl wants to be changed.”

She laughed, seething hatred. “And you brought her here for this?”

“Yes,” he said. “She wants to be part of our family.”

“You want a sister? How adorable. And where is Damien? If she’s serious about joining us, I’d like to have him here as well.”

Jezebel spoke up. “I turned him to dust in his workshop. He wasn’t a man anymore. He was some kind of slave.”

“So you killed him?” Scarlett appeared at Jezebel’s side and circled around her in a flash. “You weren’t charmed by his voice, his artistic prowess, his flawless, silver hair?”

“He wouldn’t turn me. He wanted my blood for himself.”

Scarlett gestured toward Ashton as if he were one of her statues. “And you trust this young man because he said he’d help you?”

“I want to be like you . . . immortal. There’s nothing left for me out there.”

“You, sweet girl, want to be converted?”

“I want it more than anything. I can’t keep pretending to be human when I’m meant to be a vampire.”

“Then I will help you as long as you promise to never speak of the things you’ve seen in this house. Even after you live within its walls.”

Scarlett uttered something under her breath, closed her eyes, and spun her arms around, making shapes with her hands. She stepped away from the teenage girl and arched her back, pulling invisible things from the air.

Then the flames of each candle were snuffed out, leaving only the light from Ashton’s lantern. 

Jezebel’s feet lifted from ground. Suddenly off-balance, she swung her arms and kicked her feet, but her toes would not touch the floor. Weightlessness surrounded her as she rose into midair. Scarlett made a triangle shape with her fingers. Her eyes narrowed into menacing slits.

“Scarlett, don’t do this!” Ashton tried to move toward her, but felt trapped in clear sand.

Jezebel looked down and saw her feet dangle below. Then her right foot dropped, heavy like an anchor. She screamed, crouched on the ground, trying to lift it up. But it would not budge. Her foot felt cold and smooth. And she pulled down her socks to see it had solidified into stone. The slick coldness moved up her legs, to her waist, and chest. She fought this terror, rocking herself against the floor, reaching up to escape the mystic alteration. As it flooded her arms and shoulders, the incredible weight curved her spine to the side. Her eyes darted to Ashton one last time. When she tried to scream for him, the cry was trapped in her throat, which had hardened as well. Then her chin went firm, her nose set, and her eyes glazed over in a milky coating, matching the rest of the white-gray surface that had consumed her from the outside.

As the transformation ended, Scarlett snapped her fingers and the spell clicked into place.

“What have you done?”

“I granted her wish. She is immortal.”

“No, she’s dead!”

“I didn’t take her life. She’s in there, dormant. I’ll wake her with the others when it’s time.”

“All she wanted was to be one of us.”

“She was much too young. We can’t trust a stranger, especially since she figured out how to kill Damien. But we must not dwell on his second death. He was weak. Now, it’s you and me. We can continue building this army.”

“No,” Ashton’s face crumpled into anger. “I will not live in this house any longer to watch you drain life from the innocent. These are the ways of the devil, bringing only destruction.”

She walked around the new statue of the teenage girl. “This is our purpose . . . to defend our own kind. And we are devils, my son.”

“You might be. But I’m not bound by the same vices.” Then he threw the lantern against her robe. The glass shattered, and the flames engulfed the satin edges. “Because unlike you, I can fly.”

He flexed his wings, and stretched them to full length. They flapped like huge sails of a ship, lifting him into the rafters of the chapel. He circled above the pews before flying out the French doors, up to the main level.

Scarlett flung the burning garment from her body before it could touch her pale skin. Naked, she vanished from the underground structure and reappeared in the foyer of the house. But Ashton had already escaped through the front doors. And as she watched him fly into the morning light, she quickly closed the doors, charred by the sunlight. She tried to conjure her stone-shifting spell once more, but could not focus. He was too far away, safe from her reach.

Ashton had been conditioned to fear the sun; yet he flew into the open sky, untouched by its harmful rays. It took a while for his eyes to adjust. And when they did, he saw the marvelous shapes of the clouds ahead, their white billows guiding him onward like a floating atlas. With the coordinates to the caves in mind, his path was clear. And so, he began his migration south toward Brazil.

Soon, a thirst churned within him. More than before, he craved human blood. Hunger pains weakened him. And he vowed to resist it as long as he could, flexing his wings wider, looking below to the blur of trees.

If such caves existed as Damien had told him, he hoped to find the original vampires and harness their wisdom before Scarlett raised her army of stone.

He would build his own army, one more powerful than piles of rubble. And he would gain their trust without mind control. They were waiting for him . . . a leader to bring them out of darkness.

The bats would silence Scarlett’s threats with a chorus of shrieks.

Resilient, stubborn, they were already prepped for a fight, trained by nature.

And they would fly to her, surround her, and extinguish her powers by the millions.

 

 Fiction - Mystery, Suspense, Gothic Horror

© Copyright 2018 by TJ Moore

  Black and White - Ink Wash Illustration © 2018 by Claire Doolittle

Black and White - Ink Wash Illustration © 2018 by Claire Doolittle

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