Regan watched as Paul Wright, one of the only humans she had seen interacting with vampires, slip an arm around his “prize”, a sweet blonde who she only knew as Miss Harper. The arrogant snot had “won” a night of her company in a game of cards the night before, and here he was lording over the girl as though she were little more than a nice car, or sweet puppy. Regan could feel an anger in the core of her stomach at his smug grin, and his utter disrespect for his fellow human.
She was torn between lashing out with a fist, trying to talk him out of the whole affair with her gift of gab, or simply storming away from all of it. She had never been one for conflict; it was always easier to slink back to her desk and then exact her revenge by cutting back funding for someone’s project, or by filing a report with the CFO about an overage in another budget. Even when she had been born again she had opted to go along quietly rather than fight for freedom, or flee to safety.
“Look,” she started. “Have you really done a fair opportunity cost analysis in relation to how you’re spending this evening? After all, time, once spent, is lost forever, and given your mortal status can you really afford to be wasteful with a limited resource?” This had worked before. As long as she focused on financial matters her power of persuasion was unparalleled, it seemed. Even as she had tried to start up her own consulting firm, clients had, across the board, routinely expressed profound respect for her suggestions, and had accepted every suggestion and offer she had made. Where she used to spend weeks grooming someone for a tough decision, now the matter was handled in fifteen minutes over coffee.
She was also able to charge rates three times what she knew was common, and every client had practically fallen over themselves at the opportunity to pay them.
Paul grinned back as his hand slipped down from Harper’s waist to her rear. The girl did not react, but continued to stare submissively at the floor. “Let me stop you right there. I’ve been around your kind for a while now. I know you think that if you just start talking to me, I’ll be putty in your hands, but you don’t get to be the Earl’s favorite artist without learning how to both recognize vampire mojo and how to resist it. So why don’t you save yourself that breath you really don’t need, stop talking, and let me and my date enjoy our evening.”
Regan blinked, momentarily struck speechless. Paul began to guide Ms. Harper past her into towards the door.
“Well, I’m going to enjoy it. I’m fairly sure she will as well, but to be honest I’ll sleep well either way.” He opened the door and ushered Harper out, turning to give over his shoulder at Regan one final time.
Regan shook her head and frowned. Could things possibly go any awry in a single night?
“Right, red hair, curves, otherwise totally out of her element as a vampire. I think I can find her.” The voice was matched with a slender man coming in the same door that Paul had just left. He was taller than Regan by foot and a half, but probably weighed less, his wrinkled dress shirt hanging off a frame far too skinny for it. His hair was black, long, and stretched down to his shoulders, still damp from a recent shower. A ring of black whiskers framed his mouth as he talked into a cell phone while mirrored glasses hid his eyes. Dark eyebrows peaked over the tops of the frames as he talked. Regan watched him scan the hall and then lock his vision in her direction.
“Yep. Found her.” He turned off the phone and slipped it into the pocket of his jeans. Regan crinkled her nose in dislike. There was nothing likeable to him at all, and she knew his name before he spoke it. “Arterro Fulbert Dodger.” He stretched out a hand towards her. “I’m guessing you’re Regan.”
Regan did not accept the offered hand. “Is this where everyone comes to pick up their purchases now?”
Dodger pressed his lips together in thought annoyed, clearly, at Regan’s reaction to his introduction. “You don’t have to think of it as all that. You needed a favor. I needed a favor. We needed a favor.”
“Great,” Regan interrupted. “You can conjugate ‘to need.’ Can we get this humiliation over and done?”
“Woah,” Dodger put his hands up. “Humilation? Look, this is just dinner. You, me, some wine, some blood: just a little dinner.”
Regan narrowed her eyes. “Do you think I’d be going out with you if I didn’t need you to clear the cops off my tail?”
“How do you know?”
“Based on what?”
“You’ve judged me in what, three point eight seconds?” Dodger folded his arms defensively.
“Sounds like three and a half more seconds then I needed.” Regan too crossed her chest with her arms, squaring her shoulders towards him.
“Fine, we can play that.” Dodger put his hands in the air and turned towards the door. “But I’m getting in my car and I’m going to dinner. If you’re not there with me I can pass the idle time by hacking back into the PD data base and putting your name back on their watch list.” He turned enough to look over his shoulder at her, pulling down his glasses enough to reveal grey eyes that seemed to glow with an unnatural blue light. “Your call.”
They drove to the bar in silence. Regan refused to do anything but stare straight ahead in the passenger seat as the suburbs of the Earl’s mansion opened to clustered commercial centers and high end eateries. Finally he turned the car into a microbrewery and slid it into one of the few open parking spots.
“We’re here,” he announced with little fanfare.
Regan raised her hands in a small mock cheer, waving her fists like pompoms then moved to unlatch her seatbelt. Dodger slipped out of the car and was around to open the door for her before she had even noticed. He offered his hand to help her out, which she refused. Closing the door he stuck out his elbow for her to take, which she ignored. She was a two strides towards the doors of the establishment when he coughed. “This is supposed to be a date. If you want to back out of it, that’s fine, but it’s only fair for me to reciprocate.”
Regan balled her hands into fists and held them tight at her sides. She stood there as he approached and again offered her his arm to take. She bowed her head briefly, then looked up with faked smile and slid her hand into the crook of his arm. “I’m so glad you finally asked me out. I’ve just been on pins and needles since we shared a lab in chemistry. My friends are going to be so jealous.”
“I give it a five for effort, a three for the high school reference and a two for sincerity.” He led her towards the doors and into the front waiting area. The hostess greeted them with a smile. “Is Marcella working tonight?” His voice was low and smooth.
“She is but she’s pretty slammed,” the hostess admitted, glancing down at her chart of tables. “It’s going to be a wait for a table in her section.”
Dodger reached out to take her hand, Regan spotting a pair of hundred dollar bills folded neatly into his palm. “As long as you forget to mention we requested that table, my date and I are happy to wait in the bar until a table gets freed up.”
At first the hostess did not notice the graft, and when she did her cheeks flushed with surprising speed. “Of course,” she stammered as she started to make notes on the chart of tables and assignments.
They reached the bar without comment and Regan perched on a stool while Dodger ordered them two glasses of wine. He did not say anything until after it was delivered to the small space in front of them. With all the noise she would have to lean close to hear him, but their odds of being overheard were equally as a small.
“So,” Dodger opened. “Get chased by the cops often?”
Regan took a minute sip of her wine, mostly for show, but to test the vintage. It still had a strong flavor of vinegar compared to blood, but she was learning to palate it in a pinch, and was regaining some of her sense of the various styles. She still hated the circumstances of this affair but being pissed off was becoming tiring. Perhaps she had been too quick to judge him. He had done her a favor and it was only fair he be compensated for it. True, two hours of her time now ran in the ballpark of four hundred dollars plus expenses, but she could spare them for having the police off her trail, again.
“Once was enough,” she confessed, finally. “I can say I’ve done a high speed chase. I think I’m done with the rebel part of life.”
Dodger chuckled. “Oh, never be done with that part of life. It’s what keeps us young and immortal.”
Regan raised an eyebrow. “I thought the whole fang thing did that.”
“Sure,” Dodger explained, “it helps, but what’s the point if you just slither into a rut with all the other snakes so you can cook to death in the sun? If you’re not rebelling against something, you’re becoming the thing the rest of us want to rebel against.”
“So, it’s all a big game of finding something to fight?”
Dodger took another faux sip of wine. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all about the fight, it’s about the need to be fresh, new, real.” He leaned in a little more, Regan’s face clearly reflected back to her in his sunglasses. “The real danger is in becoming comfortable. Once you find a pattern you like, you just forget about everything else, and you find out that forty years have gone by and you’ve been doing the exact same thing night after night without fail and you’ve missed four presidents, eight fashion trends, and a couple of wars.”
“What if we happen to like a little predictability?”
“That works when you’ve still got the stock model canines, but we’re different. We don’t have the safeties any more.”
Dodger grinned and put a hand on her arm to pull her a little closer so he could drop his voice in the noise of the bar. To her own surprise she did not recoil at the touch.
“Mortals, humans, they get up, go to work, come home, feed the cat, watch some CSI and go to bed. Day after day, right? Only they can’t do it forever. Sooner or later they get lonely and get married. So they find a new routine. Work, Home, Cat, TV, then either sex or a late game. And that goes on for a few years until there’s a baby. Then they find a new routine. Feed the baby, take baby to daycare, go to work, home, baby, feed, TV, feed, crash, and then back to feed the baby again. Every few years life jumps up and says ‘hey, moron, here’s a change-up.’ They can never be in any routine too long before something new rolls along and forces them to reconsider.
“Now us, we don’t have that. We don’t change. We don’t just get up one morning and die of some cancer that started growing back in college when we smoked our one and only cigarette. We have nothing to stop us from rising each night, and doing the same damned thing we did the night before, over and over again, as the wheels of time roll on and we become little more the set dressings in someone else’s movie.”
He pulled back and smiled at her. “I simply want to be sure that I never stop being the star of this particular screen play.”
Regan mused on that a moment. “Which is why you blackmailed me into a date?”
Dodger shook his head. “Always with the hate. I can’t tell if it’s a red-head thing, or a Coins thing. Your maker was the same way.”
Regan’s eyes opened wide. “You knew her?”
“Kendra? Sure.” His grin was wide enough to almost be disconcerting. “She was good for a job or two when I was pinched for cash. Nice enough but really stuffy and she hated paying up front for anything.”
“So,” Regan prompted, “did you spend a lot of time with her?”
Dodger shook his head. “I see where you’re going and I wish, really, that I could help. I barely knew her at all. She had her things to see to, and if I wasn’t setting up a router, or clearing a virus she’d rather never know I exist. She was all business, all the time.” He frowned and looked away from Regan. “She got into her groove and just sat back and made money, night after night. Never once did I hear of her enjoying it.”
Silence filled the space between them despite the constant roar of those around them. It was the most she had been told about her maker, the most she had learned since joining the ranks of the undead. She wanted to know more but had no idea what questions to ask. She had asked the Earl why she was made, why she was reborn a vampire, but the answer had done far more harm than good. She was decidedly ill prepared to have Dodger lay into her and tell her what a fine little lap dog she would be.
Dodger was not looking at her. “Not that you’ve got much to worry about. Rumor has it that you’ve been living the highlife with little Stacy and pissing off every power that be in the process.”
“I wouldn’t call it ‘living the highlife’.” Regan looked down, embarrassed.
“Well, you were living something. I could never keep up with that schedule.”
The hostess appeared at their side. “Your table is ready.”
She lead them into the restaurant and to a cozy table for two near the floor to ceiling windows which put the brewing equipment on full display. A pair of menus was left for them but before Regan could open hers in an effort to feign interest in ordering something, their server came up to the side of the table.
She was young and vibrant with dark hair, highlighted in layers of platinum streaks. Her eyes were marked with thick bands of eye liner, more than Regan would generally approve seeing, and her lips seemed to sparkle with the light pink gloss adorning them. Her face was round, and while she was not as curvaceous as Regan, she shared a similar natural form.
“Hey guys, I’m Marcella and I’ll be taking care of you guys. Have you been to the Burned Rock Brewery before?”
Dodger smiled casually. “I have but this is my friend’s first time.” He looked over at Regan. “I’m telling you the bake mac and cheese puts this place on the map.”
“Let me bring a brew sampler over, then,” Marcella said and before Regan could decline she had started back towards the bar.
Dodger leaned in. “I’ll help you make them look tasted. It’s not that hard if you concentrate.”
Regan watched the waitress move around the tables, curious. “So,” she said without turning towards Dodger. “What’s the real story here?”
Dodger opened his menu. “We’re on a date.”
“You paid two hundred dollars to sit at her table. Why?”
“I need a why? She’s hot.”
“No one drops two hundred bucks just to look at a hot waitress.”
“Maybe I do.”
“You’re wearing fifteen dollar knock off Converses. There’s a why.”
Dodger put down his menu and scowled at her across the table. “They were twenty.”
Regan stared back. “If you want this ‘date’ to continue you’re going to tell me why.”
Dodger let out a sigh then glanced sideways to were Marcella was leaning over the bar to reach for something behind it. “She’s a perfect candidate to be a doll and I hate trying to bring one in alone.”
“A blood doll, someone you can feed from regularly. You’ve got one, that messenger girl.”
“How do you know about that?” Regan snapped back at him.
Dodger shook his head. “I know because my business is to know. Either way, you’re in no place to judge. Truth of it is that keeping a steady herd is pretty much what keeps us fresh. If you’re not looking for the next regular meal, then you’re either buying your blood or you’re about to take a walk in the sunshine.”
Regan leaned in as well. “Isn’t the whole point of a regular meal that you don’t have to be hunting for another one? You just have, well, a regular meal?”
“That works until the human decides it’s time to get out of that rut. Remember the changeups they have. Maybe tomorrow your messenger decides she wants to settle down and decides to start taking class seriously again, too seriously to come around for another blood donation.” He frowned and looked away briefly. “Plus there’s the fact that sooner or later you’re going to drain them dry.”
“I wouldn’t.” Regan knew her limits.
“What makes you so sure?” Dodger grinned again. “Let’s play the numbers. Say you’re ninety eight percent sure you can stop in time. Figure three feeds a week, means that after three months you’ve only got a fifty-fifty chance you’ve not given in to the beast and drained her dry. Say you make it six months and those odds drop to like one in five. Sooner or later, and probably before you’re ready you’re standing in your kitchen with a dead girl at your feet and a hunger that is not going away on its own.”
Regan looked over at the brewing kegs, trying to avoid Dodger’s intense gaze. She had figured that she would always have Shannon as a vessel for fresh blood, though it was naive to think that it would last forever. “So what’s your plan then?”
Dodger nodded once. “We’re asking her back to our place for a little party. Just you, me and her.”
“And she’s going to go for this?”
Dodger nodded. “I’m eighty seven percent sure. Over the last few weeks she’s been spending more and more time on a few dating sites. She’s changed her profile from straight to heteroflexible, and she’s been single for exactly nine months. Long enough to be over her ex, but not so long as to suggest she’s given up hope. She’s got no siblings, her family’s all over in Chicago, and this job is about the only steady thing in her life. We act like the perfect table, and she’s ours as soon as her shift is over.”
Dodger put his hands up defensively enough. “It’s called research. If this works I plan to keep her around for a good long while so I do what I need to be sure that she’s worth the time. Plus hacking a few profiles on eHarmony is way easier then erasing APB’s. It wasn’t nearly as much work as I can make it sound.”
Regan shook her head. “And you need me to make this work?”
Dodger nodded again. “It’s a lot easier to follow a hot redhead home than some creepy nerd who looks like Jesus on acid.”
“And how lucky that I needed a favor at the same time you needed a wingman.”
“I didn’t call the cops on you if that’s what you’re suggesting. Heck I was going see if Stacy could play my kid sister I was stuck babysitting while our folks were on a cruise. The three-some was plan B.”
Marcella was headed back towards their table, a tray of six shot glasses of beer held up at her shoulder in a practiced position.
The story continues into Chapter 21
It seems dear reader that our heroine is at a crossroads. What shall she do?