I sipped the tall glass of blood, chafing at its pedestrian taste. It lacked balance between red and white cells and complied with the accursed legal requirement of platelet removal. Though the Hemo Bar had the good sense to serve it at normal body temperature, I longed for a fuller, more exotic flavor. Damn that ubiquitous “O positive.”
The recent blood laws had allowed us to come out of the shadows and live a somewhat normal life if we so chose. I preferred the traditional, nocturnal lifestyle. My energy levels, like most of my kind, rose after sunset while the brightness of the day drove me to sleepy seclusion in darkened sanctuaries. I checked my watch. A few hours of night remained before dawn would chase me home.
I turned my attention to the TV over the bar. More protests. A sizable percentage of the citizenry failed to see that the blood laws were for their benefit as much as ours—a public safety issue, really. Thankfully, we couldn’t be identified by sight, and the Hemo Bar remained a covert location, known only to its patrons.
The discovery of another victim, a young girl yesterday, had exacerbated the discord. Damn that Sebastian Vogue. I had no doubt he was the perpetrator. His selfish, egotistical actions fueled backlashes time and again. I breathed a heavy sigh, drained my glass, and headed back to my apartment for a good day’s sleep.
* * *
The doorbell woke me. Around the edges of the room-darkening drapes, slivers of daylight leaked through. Who had called at this ungodly hour? It couldn’t have been much past noon. I cursed under my breath, slipped on a robe, and cracked open the door.
“Let me in, Jake.”
“Martin, what the hell—”
He brushed by and stood like a statue in the middle of my unlit living room. “It’s Sebastian. He’s been at it again.”
As a founding member of the Revenant Party, Martin had become the public face of the movement, appearing on TV news shows and in other media. He transformed back in the sixties. The social movements of that era still drove him to pursue the party’s goals by means of peaceful protests. To others, Martin and I seemed to be about the same age, but my transformation more than a hundred and fifty years ago gave me a different perspective.
“Yeah, I saw the news. I knew it must have been him.”
“And you know who his victim was?” Martin shuddered.
“Senator Trask’s daughter.”
“Damn. Sebastian’s upping the ante.” The senator had become our most hated foe, opposing the party’s bid for basic civil liberties at every opportunity, especially its demand for voting rights. “Maybe having one of ours in his family will help him see the light.”
“No chance of that. He’s already issued a statement disowning her.”
“What a bastard.”
“Look, Jake, I need someone to mentor her.”
“Not me. I appreciate what the party’s doing, but I’m not political.”
“I’m not asking you to be. Just try to make sure she doesn’t fall under Sebastian’s influence.”
“Christ, Martin. I’m not your guy.”
“Come on, Jake. You saw the protests. It’s not good for any of us if Sebastian creates an army of like-minded zealots.”
Martin was right, of course, though I didn’t want to disturb my relatively peaceful low-key existence by getting involved. “The news said she’s young. How old is she?”
“Just turned sixteen, an impressionable age. Her name’s Susie.”
“Too damn young.”
“Well, that’s Sebastian. You know his tastes. What do you say, Jake? Speak to her.”
“I suppose I could talk to her.”
“Thanks. I’d be eternally grateful.” Nearly everything was eternal for us, but Martin didn’t grasp his own joke. “How long will it take you to get ready?”
“Yeah. She’s at my apartment. I can’t hold her if she wants to go. Here’s a key. I’ve got to meet Ian. Susie will be expecting you.”
All I wanted was to go back to bed. Reluctantly I dressed, slipped on my sunglasses, and ventured out into the harsh light of day.
* * *
I tapped gently on the door and waited a few seconds before inserting the key and stepping into Martin’s dark, silent apartment. I found Susie Trask sleeping in the bedroom. She awoke and raised her head.
“Hi, Susie. I’m Jake Wilkins. Martin sent me.”
“Yeah, I know.” She yawned and pulled a pillow over her head.
I backed out of the room, hoping she would fall back to sleep so I could doze on the sofa. However, a few minutes later she made her appearance in an oversized t-shirt. She was a looker—easy to see why she attracted Sebastian. Her elegantly tousled hair and languid fluidity only enhanced her teenaged cuteness. She flopped at one end of the sofa and stared at me with a “what now” expression.
“I know. He thinks I need your advice.”
“Well, I’ve been around.”
She rolled her eyes. “My evolution—”
“We call it transformation.”
“Okay. Transformation. It made a lot of stuff apparent. I’ll be around forever. No dying for me. Did you need advice when you transformed?”
“Well, things are more complicated, now.”
“Alright. Get on with it. I’m meeting Sebastian tonight.”
I frowned, but withheld my criticism for the moment. “You’re mostly correct about an eternal existence, yet you can be destroyed. For example, decapitation will end your existence, as will incineration, or getting blown to bits in an explosion. Most wounds will heal quickly, but you can’t regenerate an arm or leg if—”
“None of that shit is going to happen to me.”
“Look, Susie, Sebastian might not be the best influence. Stand him up, and come with me to the Hemo Bar tonight.”
“You putting the moves on me, Jake?”
“No. There’s …” Cindy’s image flashed into my mind, and I shoved it aside. “I want to show you an alternative to Sebastian’s lifestyle.”
“He’ll be angry.”
“Let him.” She seemed to reconsider me. My defiance of Sebastian apparently made an impression.
“Alright. Just this once.”
* * *
Susie wrinkled her nose. “Ugh, this tastes like shit.”
“But it’s free and legal. The blood laws—”
“I’m tired of hearing about those goddamn laws. Martin thinks they’re progressive. Sebastian says they’re restrictive.”
“There are different opinions on how to achieve our goals.”
“Sebastian says ‘by any means necessary.’”
“That’s not an original concept. Back in the nineteen sixties—”
“Ancient history, Jake. Exist in the present for a change.” Susie slumped back in her chair and scanned the room. Only a handful of others nursed their drinks in silence. “Not exactly hopping, is it?”
“We’re a small community. There are a couple of other blood bars. They’re pretty similar. It’ll pick up before dawn.”
“I can hardly wait.” Derision colored her words. “I’m going to meet Sebastian.”
“You stay. I’m going. Whatever Sebastian is up to has got to be more exciting than this.”
“I can’t stop you. One word of advice: don’t kill. Leave enough blood in your victims so they’ll recover. Creating more of our kind will only make things more difficult for all of us.”
“I don’t know, Jake. The more the better I’d say. We need a crowd to liven up this place.”
I sat for a while after she left, wrestling with my thoughts and wishing for a quiet life of anonymity. That had become more difficult since the Hutchins Case brought us to the attention of the public. The ensuing chaos of misinformation divided the populace into those who supported us and those who did not. I could no longer isolate myself from the bitter conflict.
* * *
The angry crowd encircled Ian, though primeval fear kept them at a distance. Across the gulf, they hurled vile slurs and curses with religious fervor. One man brandished a six-foot cross. Another, in a red baseball cap, wore a wreath of garlic. What a superstitious lot they were. The undermanned police force held back, seemingly wary of both Ian and the mob.
I watched from the second-floor terrace of the City Museum, admiring Ian’s courage to stand calmly with his placard, advocating voting rights—in broad daylight, no less. I didn’t see how his brave protest helped the cause. It gave the opposition a chance to vent its hatred. Martin’s strategy constantly baffled me.
Daylight had given me a raging headache. I should have stayed in bed. As I turned to leave, a figure in the crowd below caught my eye. Sebastian. What was he up to? I left the museum, slipped on my sunglasses, and made my way to the edge of the boisterous demonstration.
Sebastian cut a dapper figure with his debonair good looks and easy manner. No wonder women, or men for that matter, were attracted to him. How he could thrive in the daylight without sunglasses baffled me. I knew of no others who could manage that feat. He sensed my presence and approached.
“This is not your scene, Jake. You doing Martin’s bidding these days?” His velvet voice oozed charm.
“Martin takes care of his own business. I’m not his toady. I’m here to see one of these demonstrations for myself. The news doesn’t do them justice.”
“Justice … that’s one of Martin’s words.” Sebastian surveyed the throng. “Watch this.”
He wormed his way into the mass of humanity. A few moments later, his strong, clear voice rang out. “Go to Chicago. The dead can vote there.”
Almost instantly the chant rose up, “Go to Chicago,” then shortened to “Chicago, Chicago, Chicago.” Sebastian emerged from the scrum, laughing.
“It’s transformation, not death,” I retorted. “You know that.”
“Tell it to them.” He made a grand gesture toward the howling mob. “You stick around and help Ian. I’ve got better things to do.”
A police siren signaled the arrival of reinforcements. A half-dozen officers bullied their way to the center of the disturbance and began to disperse the unruly mass. I caught Ian’s eye and tilted my head in the general direction of the Hemo Bar. We took different routes, each understanding the wisdom of not being seen together.
* * *
“I admire your courage, Ian, putting yourself out there.” We sat together at a back booth in the dimness of the bar. “But why does Martin put you in such dangerous situations, especially in the daytime when your speed and strength are diminished?”
He gave a dismissive wave. “It’s for the cause.”
“I can’t see how it helps.”
“He thinks being visible in a non-threatening manner normalizes us.”
“Do you agree?”
Ian rubbed his forehead. “I don’t know.”
Ian ran a finger around the rim of his glass. “At least Martin has a plan. I can’t conceive of a better strategy, and I owe him. His funds pay my rent.”
I had to hand it to Martin in that regard. He had money, and through his contacts on Wall Street, he had established an endowment to cover rent for many. The brokers and bankers didn’t care who their clients were as long as a profit could be made. I had rejected his offer, preferring to prey on small-time crooks, drug dealers, and other criminals for whom cash was still the currency for their transactions. It made my nights more exciting.
Ian shook his head and frowned. “That damn Sebastian’s on the wrong track. You heard him start the chant.”
“Yeah. And now he’s turned Trask’s daughter. There’ll be hell to pay for that.”
“I hear Trask is moving to repeal the blood laws.”
“Goddamn him. Can’t he see that repeal will encourage more to join Sebastian’s camp?”
“Bigotry is short-sighted, Jake.”
Ian was right. Why did humanity wrestle with the same moral questions century after century? I left Ian with a handshake and sought a few hours of sleep before sunset.
* * *
Night filled the alley, but my acute vision had no trouble following the hulking man. Oney McBride carried in his coat pocket a tightly wrapped packet of cocaine. I knew his routine well. Two blocks away, behind an abandoned service station, his regular customer waited. Once the transaction concluded, it would be a routine matter to relieve him of his profit.
I had been trailing at a casual distance when a slight figure dashed from behind a dumpster and, with surprising strength, knocked him to the ground. I held back, not wishing to interfere in a petty squabble. Often, a conflict of that nature worked to my advantage.
Then my senses identified Susie. She knelt over the fallen man, her bite firmly attached to his neck. Oney struggled at first, but soon ceased to resist.
“Stop, Susie,” I shouted. She raised her head and wiped the blood from her lips. “That’s enough. Let him live.”
She shoved the inert man aside and stood. “Mind your own business, Jake.”
“Be smart. Keep him alive, and you can feed on him again. It’s kinda like renewable energy.”
She laughed. “Well, he does taste a hell of a lot better than that shit they serve at the blood bar.” She glanced down at Oney. “I’ll let him go this time. It’s Anastasia.”
“Anastasia. It’s my new name. Sebastian thought it fit me.”
It hadn’t taken him long to put his brand on her. “Let’s go to the bar and talk.”
She laughed again. “Go to hell, Jake. I’m with Sebastian.”
“For how long?”
Logic stood no chance against teen romance. Sebastian would eventually toss her aside for another young acolyte. “So, where’s your faithful lover tonight?”
“Right here.” Sebastian emerged from the shadows with an elegant grace. “Come, Anastasia,” he said in his serene, effortless manner. “Let Jake have his little victory. There’s some truth in what he says. We can find better recruits than this flotsam.” He gave a kick to Oney’s ribs and a groan escaped. “Ah, he’ll be awake soon. It’s time to be gone.”
I turned away without taking the cocaine, having no desire to generate my rent money by dealing drugs. It wouldn’t be hard to find another source for the cash I needed.
* * *
“Decapitation? Really?” Ian grimaced. “Are we going to sink that low? It’s murder. Anyway, Sebastian’s too elusive.”
In the somber silence of Martin’s apartment, we wrestled with our consciences. Minutes passed before Martin spoke. “In the short term, Sebastian’s been valuable. His extreme actions have led some politicians to appreciate the party’s incremental approach. I’ve been able to meet with a handful of sympathetic lawmakers. The tide is turning, albeit slowly. However, his continued bad behavior is going to undercut our cause in the long run.”
I weighed in. “So, how do we ambush him?”
Neither Martin nor Ian had a response. We adjourned without a plan.
* * *
A couple of weeks later, I returned to my apartment shortly before sunrise with a pocketful of cash, pilfered from a pimp who continued to conduct his unsavory business, unaware that he had been robbed. To my surprise, Susie waited outside my door. I hadn’t seen her since that night in the alley.
“Jake, can I talk to you?” A quiver in her tone betrayed anxiety.
“Okay.” I pushed open the door. “Come in, uh … Anastasia. Have a seat.”
She entered but remained standing. “I hate that name now. I’m Susie again.” She paused for a few seconds before continuing. “It’s … it’s hard for me to admit this. You were right about Sebastian.”
“Well, I’ve known him for a long time. What’s he done?”
“He has … he has a new conquest—a boy!”
“Youth has always been more important to him than gender. Who is it?”
“Sebastian says he’s the nephew of the police chief. He’s only fourteen.”
“Damn him. He’s got to be stopped. He’ll jeopardize our gains.” Susie dropped onto the sofa. I saw an opportunity, if I could trust her. I decided to take a chance. “Can you help us?”
“Help? What do you mean?”
“If we can lure him into an ambush …”
“And do what?”
“Uh … eliminate him.”
“You could call it that.”
“Absolutely not.” She shook her head. “No, I can’t.”
“Think about it. I don’t always agree with Martin and his methods, though I have to admit he’s on the verge of progress. Sebastian’s deeds, you might call them crimes, will only exacerbate fear and suspicion among the population.”
She sat in silence for several long minutes, her head bowed. Finally, she raised her gaze. “I can’t do it.”
I sighed. “Alright. It’s a lot to ask. Are you going to be okay? Where are you staying?”
“With someone,” she said softly.
“Who?” I pressed. “I just want to be sure you’re okay.”
“Oney,” she whispered. Her answer stunned me. “You were right about him, too. He’s letting me take his blood. He says he likes it.”
I had heard of such circumstances, but never had direct knowledge of one. It defied everything I knew about relationships. “Well, good luck.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
* * *
“Good job, Jake.” Martin shook my hand.
“It wasn’t my efforts that turned Susie from Sebastian. She finally saw him for who he is.”
“I appreciate you being there for her to talk to. I’m sure that helped.” Martin cleared his throat. “I have another request. Can you mentor Sebastian’s new victim?”
I paced about Martin’s apartment. “Damn, Martin, it’s endless. There’ll always be one more. Get Ian this time.”
“You’re good at it. Ian has other talents.”
“I don’t even know the kid’s name.”
“I don’t remember either, but it’s in the news. That’s the worst of it. Sebastian makes sure the media knows.”
“I need time to think about it. I’m weary. It’s a goddamn Möbius strip.”
But I didn’t think about it. I reverted to my solitary life, which suited my nature.
* * *
I arrived home on a rainy morning shortly before dawn and had just shed my raincoat when the doorbell chimed. Martin, I guessed, but when I opened the door, Susie stood there soaking wet. Despite a desire to turn her away and get some sleep, I stepped back and she entered. “What’s up?”
“Need to talk.”
“Let’s get you dried off.” I found a towel and a robe in my closet. “You can change in the bedroom.”
She reappeared a few minutes later wearing the robe and flopped down on the sofa, looking a bit unsteady.
“So, did you have another encounter with Sebastian?”
“How … how did you know?”
“I’ve seen it before. He’s not a faithful lover.”
“He wanted to get me in bed with him and that boy. He threatened to hurt Oney if I didn’t go along.”
“Uh … did you?”
“Had to. It was hellish. I hated it. I should have listened to you.” She ran a hand through her still-damp hair. “I’m ready to help.”
“Help? You mean …”
“Help get rid of him.”
“He’s a bastard.”
“Can’t argue with that. It’ll be dangerous and there’ll be no turning back.”
She held up a key. “I had a duplicate made to his apartment.” She handed it to me. “You can get him there.”
“Maybe. Let’s go see Martin.”
* * *
“Hum …” Martin murmured. “Don’t want to do it in his apartment. It will be hard to remove the evidence without being seen. It’s doable, if necessary, but we don’t want a corpse left behind for the police to discover and investigate. Perhaps an alley might be a better location if we had a car parked nearby and got his body into its trunk quickly.”
“Who’s going to do it?” I hoped he wouldn’t ask me.
Susie spoke up. “I’ll do it.” Her anger was palpable.
“Whoa, girl.” Martin shook his head. “He’s powerful and elusive.” He looked at me, and I shook my head. “Jake, you’re stronger and quicker than Ian. We’ll be there to help you.”
“Damn.” Why hadn’t I stayed home? I desired to see Sebastian eliminated but didn’t want to be the tool. “I’ll get back to you on that.”
“Got to have an answer now, Jake. Our window of opportunity will be tight. It won’t be you alone. Ian and I will be there, too. And Susie?” He shot her a glance and she nodded.
I took a deep breath and exhaled. “I guess I’ve drawn the short straw.”
* * *
The heavy, double-edged sword felt like a museum piece, though its raw power was undeniable. God knows where Martin got it. His resourcefulness often astounded me.
Shortly after midnight, Ian and I stood at one end of the alley while Susie waited near the midpoint. She had arranged for Sebastian to meet her. Upon his arrival, Martin, who watched in a drugstore across from the alley, planned to enter from the other end and draw Sebastian’s attention, leaving me free to … destroy. Not exactly a subtle strategy.
The hour was late. The appointed time came and went. I began to hope he wouldn’t take the bait, but then he appeared with the boy, entering the alley from the street.
As the pair moved toward Susie, Sebastian halted and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He took a step backward. Damn. He had sensed the trap.
Martin stepped into the alley behind him and yelled. Sebastian turned. I charged toward him. At the last second, he spun and knocked the weapon from my hands. His laughter reverberated through the alley.
Susie brushed by me, snatched up the sword, and took a wild swing. Sebastian leaned back, easily dodging the blow. Susie raised the weapon for another try. Their eyes locked. Her strength seemed to ebb, and she dropped the sword. Sebastian swept her up into his arms and strode way, shoving Martin aside as he passed. The boy followed.
* * *
The sword rested on Martin’s coffee table. It screamed failure in the silence of the apartment. I paced in the gloom while Ian and Martin sat and pondered our limited options.
Martin finally broke the spell. “Daytime is the answer. Susie told us he sleeps until noon most mornings. That’ll be our opportunity. He’s too strong at night.”
I snorted. “Well, that’s obvious, but we’re also less powerful in the light of day. And he’ll detect our presence before we can act.”
“It’s a one-man job,” Ian put in. “When we’re together, it’s easier for him to perceive us. One person, alone, while he’s asleep, might have a chance. Susie gave you the key to his apartment, right?”
“Yeah. I’ve got it. A one-man job, you say? I was practically alone last night. You guys were no help. I gave it my best shot. It’s your turn.”
Martin held up his hand. “It’s not a question of turns. Jake, you’re the most capable, physically.”
“Go to hell, Martin. I’m through with being the hit man. You guys weren’t any help.”
“Look, Jake. Sebastian will target you anyway. Another attempt won’t make your situation any worse.”
“Damn you.” Martin had a facility for seeing situations with clarity, though his planning skills were less inspiring. “You got me into this, and now it’s up to me to get myself out.”
“It’s not only you. It’s our cause … our mission.”
“I thought it was about voting rights. Now, we’re talking about destruction of one of our own.” Martin wisely held his tongue. He understood I had no other viable options. “Damn you,” I repeated. “I’ll do the goddamn deed. If I fail, who’ll make the next try? You? Or Ian? Or Susie?” None of my co-conspirators had an answer.
* * *
Sebastian’s apartment building had existed for more than a century. A dozen years ago, a wave of urban renovations transformed it into a desirable upscale location. I made my way through the lobby and past a pair of young couples chattering incessantly, far too absorbed in their own lives to notice me despite my awkward steps with the sword hidden beneath my long coat. I got on the elevator with a woman and her dog, who gave a low growl.
She tightened up on his leash. “Oh, I’m sorry. Fido usually likes everyone.”
“That’s okay,” I mumbled, marveling at her lack of imagination in naming her dog. She got off on the third floor, and I exited on the fourth.
I breathed a sigh of relief upon finding the hallway empty. The plush carpeting obliterated my careful footsteps. Outside Sebastian’s apartment I gathered my resolve but was surprised to find the door ajar. I pushed it open with an abundance of caution.
I had been prepared to act swiftly, but something was wrong. Sebastian wasn’t home. I would have felt his presence immediately. Even asleep, he would have been aware of me nearly as fast.
Then I picked up the faint odor of blood. Had he brought a victim to his home? Sebastian was not that careless. A sound caught my attention—a low sobbing. Was it the boy? No, I would have detected his proximity. I crept toward the bedroom and eased the door open. Sebastian’s headless body lay on the bed.
Oney McBride sat on the floor, a bloody ax by his side and tears streaming down his face. He stared blankly at me. “For her,” he whispered.
I couldn’t allow the authorities to question him—best for him simply to disappear. Kneeling by his side, I bit deeply into his neck and drained all the blood from his body, savoring its sweet, fresh taste.
While waiting for him to transform, I searched the apartment, found Sebastian’s cell phone, and called Martin. By the time he and Ian arrived, dressed as ambulance crewmen and carrying a stretcher, Oney had become one of us. Would his transformation sour his relationship with Susie? I hoped not, for her sake.
Martin saw the outcome as a step toward voting rights and other civil liberties. I had doubts about his interpretation and thought the affair was over until he turned to me.
“You’ll speak to the boy, won’t you, Jake?”