"Sorry, hon, I haven't seen her in weeks." The bartender shrugged as she wiped a spill with a rag. "Not on Ladies' Night anyways."
"She isn't exactly picky. She wouldn't wait for Ladies' Night." I slid fifty dollars across the bar to her. "Here, just in case she does come in."
"Sure, hon." She smiled and reached for the money.
"Oh, a word of advice." I gently placed a hand over hers before she could snatch up the money."Your girls have also been kind enough to help me so there'll be a little bit of healthy competition." I took my hand back.
The bartender, a forty something with bad blonde highlights, frowned but took the money all the same. "Anything else? How about a drink for once instead of warming a seat?"
"Thanks, but I have more people to see."
With that cliched line from any action movie villain, I strode out of New York Dolls on Murray Street in Tribeca. It was, to me, your run of the mill of strip clubs although it was one of the higher end establishments. The carpet was black with strange red, white, and tan swirls which seem to stand out for the soul purpose of standing out and the bar was as standard as bars came though I caught the odd complaint of their more than standard prices.
I took an exploratory whiff of the air and found nothing out of the ordinary. I picked on scent of several aroused humans, most of them men, mixed with body odor and cheap cologne. There was also the disgusting scent of stale beer and marijuana that pervaded every pocket of air in the club. Sometimes a heightened sense of smell is more of a hindrance than an advantage.
There were about twelve small round table with a pair of black wood chairs. All were facing the stage on the far side of the bar and all were filled with ninety percent men. Some were occupied by the Dolls as they flirted with the men and danced for them. Those not occupied by a girl at their table had tier attention directed at the stage were four gorgeous women, two blondes and two brunettes, perform what I could best describe as a lesbian tease act to some generic pop beat. Truth be told, I'd seen better for much less.
I placed a hat on my head as I left the club and went outside.
It had begun to snow again and judging by the crowds on the streets, it was nothing serious. In fact, most of December had been uneventful as the weather was concerned, but it seemed January wished to make up for it. It had snowed at least one day out of the week, but never more than enough to dampen the streets and create pockets of ice when the temperature dropped significantly at night.
It also seemed that the humans of New York, with the final two weeks of the year dedicated to celebration, were still in a festive mood. In the past I had wanted to be in Time's Square when New York rang in the new year, but it just seemed like a bitter reminder of my solitude. Not to mention pointless in a way. There was always next year after all as well as the one after — and the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after that — countless opportunities awaited me in the years to come so there was little point in dwelling on it. I'm sure in eight years when the millennium changed, I'd be in for a monumental night to remember.
"Spare change?" I heard a rough voice ask. "Just fer a cup o' joe."
I turned, once the traffic light on the corner turned red and all the cars ceased moving and honking their horns, to see a homeless man sitting on the floor with his hand held out. As expected, his hair was a black and white tangled mess and matched his salt and pepper unshaven face. His clothes were very dirty and worn and judging by his shivering, they were not doing much in the way of keeping him warm. Needless to mention, he and his meager clothes did not smell too fresh even from where I stood.
I quickly and carefully picked my way through the cars, doing my best to ignore the stench of exhaust, and reached the other side just as the traffic light switched to green and the cars sped out like those at a race. I looked around to see if anyone was observing as I walked to the man and then stopped. Even if I was wearing a speedo and had clown make-up, no one would give me a second look as long as I didn't make scene.
"Spare change?" he asked with hand out to me. "Just fer something warm."
"Sure." I knelt on a knee and reached into a pocket. "Here."
"Thank you." He said gratefully as I deposited a hefty sixty-five cents in his palm. "Thank you so much."
"What is your name?" I asked gently.
"Hector." He said. "Hector Martins."
"I'd like to offer you a job, Hector." I reached into my coat. "Do you see that club across the street behind me?"
"Club?" He leaned to the side to see. "You mean Dolls?"
"Yes." I nodded. "You see I'm looking for someone, but I can't be everywhere."
"You want me to watch who goes in and out?" He asked.
"Yes, but only at night. You can do and go wherever you want during the day, but at night I want you to come here and do just that." I took out a hundred and held it up before I pressed it into hand. "Use this to buy yourself some warm clothes and something to eat." I took out another piece of paper, this one a hand drawn portrait of young women. "Just call the number on back if you see a woman like this with red hair. Don't talk to her or draw attention. If you do see her there'll be another hundred in it for you."
"Two hundred dollars?" He gasped.
"Yes. A hundred now and another if and when you see her." I smiled gently. "Do we have a deal?"
"You bet." He gave me disgusting, but eager, smile of yellow crooked teeth.
"Try to take care of that picture, it took a lot to draw." I looked into his eyes and said smoothly. "Tell no one and do not draw attention."
"Sure." He said lazily as my glamor took effect. "No one ever looks my way."
I stood and began walking down Murray Street, blending into the crowd. I was just a single drop of water among an entire ocean. Or more like a shark hunting a much larger and more elusive shark among the tuna and seals. Unfortunately, I had the feeling it was more like a Mako picking a fight with a Megalodon.
The next couple of hours was simply a dull repetition of I had done at Dolls. I'd enter one of many of Manhattan's strip clubs, pretend to drift from dancer to dancer as I discreetly asked them to keep an eye out for Her, repeat the same conversation with the night bartender, and finally ask a homeless person to watch the club and street for me.
Luckily, I had the presence of mind to draw a very accurate picture of HER and made several copies by hand. Vampires, as a very important rule, took very great care not to appear in photographs since 1826. A photograph, like the ones used by the courts of law, were proof we had been at specific place at a specific time. There just wasn't a way to explain how twenty, fifty, or even a hundred years could pass and an individual had not aged a day.
I was surprised by how skillful my drawing of HER came out after only skimming some books on drawing techniques. It was as if I saw the picture in front of me already and I merely traced of the lines that I saw in my mind's eye. I would have experiment later when I had time. Either it was my gift that unlocked the talent or it could just have been one of those things I never tried before or ignored, like my singing.
I spent the last two weeks of December moping around the apartment, alone except for an overprotective mother who hissed and growled whenever I came within a few feet of her, feeding only when hunger proved too much of a strain to ignore and I ordered 'take-out'. Maybe it was just my mind trying to find some activity to focus on to avoid going insane or it was my desire for some closure. I wasn't sure what or when I felt the compulsion, but it came nevertheless.
I had to find HER .
It just so happen she had left me with the perfect means of doing so. I knew that sooner or later, she would return to the city. I knew it might not be for sometime, but she had been living in the city since it was considered a town. There was a reason she had stayed so long and I severely doubted it would be me that prevented her from returning. She might set a nest somewhere else in the other boroughs, but Manhattan was where most of the night life was. Sooner or later, she'd have to come back to The Mighty Manhattan.
She had told me out kind tends to favor establishments like Dolls and such so it was fair too assume she would visit one. If she did, one of the homeless network, would see her and I could track her down from there. Even if she killed my sentries, she might as well have announced her arrival with a fanfare of trumpets on an elephant because I knew exactly who was watching each club and if he did not show I would she was in the general area.
The only way to silence them would be to kill them, but to kill every dancer, every bartender, and every homeless and then arrange it so their deaths appeared natural would be a daunting and difficult task for any vampire, even one as old her. Plus, it would just bring attention to herself.
As to why I did not simply glamor all of exotic dancers and homeless in Manhattan, it was simple. True it would be less expensive if I did just that, but a vampire's glamor had its limits. I believed humans tended to produce results better if they were motivated to do so and their minds were free to use some creativity if the situation demanded it. There was also the fact that under my glamor they would only call if SHE happened to cross their paths, but motivated by financial gain would have them on alert and seeking HER out.
I returned to the apartment, both content and vexed at having most of Lower Manhattan covered. I was certain that another week and I would have all of it. Of course that meant I still had Midtown, including the Upper East and West sides, all the way to Upper Manhattan which could very well take months. Possibly longer as summer approached and came longer days and shorter nights. I shrugged at the thought. It wasn't as if I had anything better to occupy my time and if there one thing I had more than money right now, it was time.
I took off my coat, the one Barnabé made for me, and tossed it onto the couch. I looked around for my self announced nestmate and saw no sign of her or her litter. Then I heard something clatter to floor. I whipped to see the cat in the door of a cupboard nudging a small pile of cans to the floor.
I sighed and walked around to the kitchen.
It seemed that, judging by the amount of dented cans and boxes of rice and pasta, mother dearest had been at it for quite some time. I surmised she had grown tired of waiting for me to return and had taken upon herself to find food. I looked down at the food, mostly cans of tuna and corn, and looked up at her.
"I'm curious." I asked. "If they didn't break the second time, what made you think they'd break the fifteenth?"
She hissed and knocked another can to the floor.
"Alright, I get it." I walked to her with my arms held up. "Just come down."
She hissed again, this time swatting with her claws at my hands as she backed into the cupboard.
Honestly, I wasn't surprised by her reaction even after nearly a month. Most animals don't like vampires, I guess we smell strange them. Dogs, and anything closely related to them, despise us on a whole, but cats are unpredictable. I've seen strays walk by me without so much as a glance in my direction. Some have even strode up to me and rubbed against my ankles. It seemed that reaction depended on the cat itself, and this one opted for tolerance as long as I fed her and her litter as well as kept my distance.
I picked up all of the cans and boxes and placed them on the counter. While I cleaned up her mess, she hopped down to the floor and looked up to me with what I swear was an impatient expression. I opened a can of tuna and set it down. I watched as she opened the cupboard door under the sink, quite intelligently slipping her claws into the crease, and began taking out her litter. She would picked them by the nape of their necks and depositing them in front of can, nudging each forward when it turned away.
I couldn't help notice, not for first time, how none of kittens resembled each other. One was as white as pure snow while another was covered in patches of orange and white. Two seemed to resemble tigers with their coat, black stripes against dark gray. Only one seemed to taker after the mother with a pure black coat and seemed to be the largest of litter.
When her brood were busy eating, she looked up at with that same look of vexed impatience.
"What now?" I demanded.
She looked to the cans to my left.
"Real tough until you need someone to open a can." I laid it in front of her. "Then its all sweet pleading eyes."
I watched as she wordlessly began to eat. I stood and turned, intending to get some work done, when I heard a slight high pitched squeak.
I saw as the smallest of litter, about half the size of its siblings, crying out as it tried to climb out from under the sink. I found its coat oddly curious. It reminded me of suit jacket left unbuttoned. Its coat had the same shade of black as the mother, but with white paws like gloves and shoes. The white traveled up and thinned into a single white line that ended between its eyes, leaving the rest of it head in a shiny black coat.
I watched curiously as it slowly made its way to where the rest of litter were occupied eating. The newcomer tried several times to make room for itself, but to no avail. It was simply too small to move its much larger and stronger siblings. Those same siblings continued unhindered until finally moving aside, but only after they had left the can spotlessly clean. The little one began searching for whatever they other had left, but they hadn't left thing. I was sure of that when it knocked over the can and not even a drop of the water the food was packed in was left.
I continued observing it as it caught sight of the mother and made its way to her. It rubbed against the mother, squeaking affectionately, and went to eat. Then, to my surprise, the mother hissed and struck the kitten. She did not break skin since she did not use her claws, but it was enough to knock the kitten aside. The mother resumed eating and when her child approached again, she struck again. After the second attempt, the kitten tried a slower approach and was met with warning growls.
I observed the kitten lick its chops as stared at the mother, eating as if the kitten did not exist even as it cried out to her.
"Some mother you are." I opened another can and placed it front of the kitten. "Here, now shut up."
I left once the kitten began eating, scaring away its siblings as they tried to take it for themselves, and walked to my second project.
Regina had mentioned her room and Doyle's were originally the master bedroom and suggested I could convert it into a private library, so I decided to do just that. I took whatever furniture, two beds and a few nightstands, they had left behind and store them in Adrian's room until I got around disposing them.
After finding a hardware store that was open after dark and explaining what I required, the rest was simple. First I knocked down the wall that separated Regina's room from Doyle's. I found that I had grown tired of white walls and painted them a dark deep crimson, but opted to paint the floor moldings a tanish beige to match the ceiling. I had also purchased lush emerald green carpeting which was relatively simple to lay down once I completed painting the room to my liking. Since I only worked for only an hour or two at a night, most of it took the entire month of December to complete.
While I worked, finding it an excellent way to occupy my mind, I had ordered large bookshelves. They were specialty handmade from a rare African wood called pink ivory. The owner said the lumber had to be shipped before he could build the shelves I wanted. They were the unique type that require specific measurements of the room and had to mounted to the wall before being assembled piece by piece and once completed appeared as if they were built into the wall instead of being mere mounted.
With only an hour or two to work it was taking longer than it should have, but it gave me ample time to select a desk that pleased me as well matched the color of the shelves and one of hollowed globes. I was not sure what I would stock it with, but I could address that problem when the rest of room was completed. Then there was the quandary of what I'd stock the bookshelves with. I toyed with the idea of moving my staggering collection of comic books and graphic novels, but I decided it was like storing grape juice in a high grade crystal decanter.
I had just finished mounting the entire far wall with the back panels of shelves, noting that I still had to attach the decorative molding and the shelves themselves, when I began feel tired. As if I could be mistaken, my watch began to beep rapidly which gave me my second warning that dawn was fast approaching.
I set aside the hammer next to a small tool box I purchased to install the bookcases and any other project I might undertake. I left the rest of bookcase pieces where they lay in the corner of the room and closed the door behind so no curious felines wandered in and were crushed if something fell, leaving me with mess I had no desire to clean.
As I crossed the small hallway to my room, I saw that the litter were curled against the mother as she laid on the couch. I also saw that the smallest one, the same who the mother did not think worthy to share her food, was being pushed aside by the rest of litter. I wondered how long it would survive on its own. I figured not too long unless something stepped in.
I closed the door to my room and undressed, tossing my clothes absentmindedly in the corner before I laid in my bed. In a way, I welcomed this part of the night. It was becoming more and more difficult to keep my mind from dwelling on less than pleasant things with each passing night.
At first, it was like I was dreaming, but not exactly that. I was still awake and completely aware of my surroundings, but I still saw things. It was like my mind would randomly throw images and emotions. Those images appeared and felt so familiar, like they were memories, but they couldn't be mine. Not only were they in third person, my perspective was that of a spectator, but it was always events of what could be someone's childhood. It wasn't mine since I recalled everything about that time in my life.
These memories, for the lack of a better word, weren't anything graphic or traumatizing. They were simple things. Like a father, his face and features always out of focus and fuzzy, presenting a three year old boy with bright red tricycle. Like the father, the boy's features were out of focus as well, but he made of squeal of pure delight and tried to mount it. The father would then help him and push him around the yard. I could feel the boy's delight and joy and the father's enjoyment as well a sense of pride.
Then my perspective would shift, like a camera angle in film, to a window in the house behind the boy and father. In the window stood another boy. He seemed significantly older, almost a whole decade older, and I could feel the burning anger boiling inside of him like pressure cooker about to explode. It wasn't directed at the boy on the tricycle. No, I could feel his love for the boy and I understood he was the older brother, but the anger was directed sqaurely at the father. Mixed in with that anger was the strangest sense of longing and despair, like he was always missing out on something crucial and fufilling while the rest of his little world rejoiced without him.
Was the older brother jealous? No, I couldn't feel his jealousy. He was glad his younger sibling was enjoying himself and did not begrudge him so. I couldn't understand why he was so upset and confused with the man, clearly the brothers' father. Then it hit me and I understood with such razor sharp clarity it was almost as if it had happened to me.
The father had never so much as bought him a piece of chocolate on his birthday, let alone a tricycle on a random whim.
I was no stranger to losing a night's sleep when I was alive, but that was when I racked my mind to how my father and I would make ends meet. These stranger's memories were something far different and disturbing. I had always made sure to keep some sleep aids hidden in dresser when I was human for those more troubling nights. At least now my body took my mind out of the equation and gave some peace, if only for a few hours.
I awoke to the sound of knocking.
I leaped to my feet and was ready for an attack, my hands curling to claws and hissing as my fangs ran out. I looked around to see no one in the pitch black room and that I was not under attack. I relaxed, but I picked up my cane in case I should I need it.
Was it possible I dreamed the noise? No. I recalled asking HER if it was possible to dream as vampire and she said it was impossible. A live human brain is always active, but a vampire's is not. Once dawn came, a vampire was dead both in body and mind. We could "daydream" and such, but that was the extent of it.
Then I heard the knocking again, but with unfamiliar voice. "Hello? Is anyone home?"
Someone was knocking on the front door.
I dressed quickly and considered whom it might be. I was doubtful it was HER . She would have first tried her key only to find I had changed the lock and added one to my room. Then SHE would have grown tired of waiting and forced her way in as she did not need an invitation, doing the same with the door to my room. If it was truly HER , I would have awoken to her in my bed, smirking. SHE had always had a taste for the dramatic and flair. I had found it endearing at first, but not anymore.
I answered the door and I saw I was correct. The young woman wearing a shirt and jeans had fair skin, light brown eyes, and short, slick dark brown hair. I looked behind her to see a door partially ajar and, combined with her bare feet and how old her shirt seemed to be, guessed she lived across the hall. She looked to be somewhere in her late thirties.
"Yes?" I asked.
"I'm sorry, but I heard a cat scratching and yowling earlier." She said. "Is it alright?"
"Are you sure it was a cat?"
"I'm a vet." She held out a hand. "Dr. Sarah Benz by the way."
"Yes." She nodded. "I couldn't help hearing when I left for work this morning." She looked down and smiled warmly. "Hello there, sweetie."
I looked to see the mother at my feet sniffing Sarah's pant leg, her litter carefully behind her. I guess curiosity was irresistible to this species.
"What's her name?" She went to pet her.
"I wouldn't." I warned. "She doesn't — "
I cocked my head as I heard the cat begin to purr and rub against the doctor's hand affectionately. I gave the cat a look and she paused to look back at me. It was like she was trying tell me it would have been rude not greet her.
"Doesn't what?" she looked to me.
"She normally hisses and growls when I get close." I motioned to the kittens watching with curiosity. "To her and them."
"I can't imagine why." She narrowed her eyes suspiciously at me and I had the feeling she was one of those people who was more concerned with the treatment of animals than humans. "Unless she doesn't know you."
"She doesn't." I admitted nonchalantly. "I came home to find her giving birth on my couch because I left a window open. That was last month and she wouldn't leave." I looked down at her and rolled my eyes. "Not for lack of hints."
"She wouldn't until she thought she could leave the kitten alone for a bit." She bent down to scratch behind the cat's ears. "What have you been feeding them?"
"The same thing she eats." I said. "Tuna."
"Yes." I shrugged. "I wasn't eating it and she seemed to like it enough."
"Do you plan on keeping her or any of the kittens?" She asked.
"Why do you ask?" The last thing I needed was to be arrested for animal abuse. It would really bug me if I had leave my apartment after all the work I put into my library. "I bought a litter box, but that wasn't exactly an invitation."
"No offense, but you have no idea what you're doing." She motioned to the kittens. "If you want, I could take her and her kittens to a shelter to find them a home."
"Be my guest." I shrugged. "She seems to have taken a liking to you."
She left to retrieve a large cat carrier from her home and effortlessly coaxed the cat and her kittens into it with warm towel to lay on. All went well until Sarah put the last kitten, the very same one the mother seem to dislike, along with the rest of them. The mother began to hiss and growl.
"What's wrong with her?" She bent to look. "She was fine a second ago."
"Its the small one." I explained. "She seems to go out of her way to ignore it. She even hits it when it tried to eat her food."
"The small one?" She looked again. "You mean that black and white one that half the size of the rest of them?"
"Yes." I pointed to the kitten question who was huddling against the carrier's door, away from the growls and hisses of its mother. "That one that trying to stay away from the rest."
"I thought so." She opened the carrier and picked it up. "She doesn't want this one. It's what people call the runt of the litter. She doesn't think it's the worth the effort to take care of."
"So she left it to take care of itself?" I asked. "Is there something wrong with it?"
"Not that I can see. She must see or smell something we can't." She looked at it critically. "Even healthy ones can sometimes die. Kittens are really delicate." She looked to me. "You sure you don't want one?"
I stared the one in her hands, small and weaker than the rest and abandoned. I'm not sure why I hesitated. It was a pointless endeavor. I would care for it and feed it, no doubt growing attached to the creature over time, then it would reach its limit and die while I continued. That was provided it survived the near future. There was also no telling how it would react to me once its witnessed me feeding from a human.
Then HER words echoed in my head, You may no longer live, but that does not mean you cannot have the life you wished for.
As much as I wanted to chalk that up to a lie, I had to admit it was a valid point. There were countless things I denied myself or passed up over the years. I had always wanted a pet and here was a blatant opportunity to acquire one. I didn't really count Susan, Ryuu's gift, as one. I had wanted a small furry companion that alleviated my self-imposed solitude. It was high time I broke the habit of continuing to deny myself pleasures and luxuries for no good reason.
I vowed then start living again, metaphorically at least.
There was so much to do and plenty of time to do it. I could take night courses at a community college or learn to paint as well as hone my drawing skills. I could see every play and musical both on and off Broadway then do the same at the Film Forum that just opened in Greenwich Village. I might even take up ballet or add a third instrument to my repertoire. What was stopping me from doing both?
Once Matthew paid me, it would open a universe of possibilities. I could find and fix up my dream car to drive across the country and the rest of the world. The United States alone had gracious plethora of places to visit. I could work my way down the east coast and see awe inspiring sights like the monuments and buildings in Washington DC and Philadelphia. There was Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and Universal Orlando Studios in Florida. Then my brain went into overdrive when I remembered what was in Florida.
I could go to Disney World and Sea World.
"Um, are you alright?" Sarah asked looking concerned. "You're not on any medication or something, are you?"
"I'll take him." I said finally.
"Are you sure?"
"Alright. I'll take them to work tomorrow and give them a check up." She held up my future companion and looked under. "Her too. If she's fine then you can have her."
"Alright." I asked. "Anything else?"
"I'm gonna need a name." She said. "For the paperwork"
"Dominick Valentino." I said. "You have my address I assume?"
"Yes. And her?" She held up the kitten. "I need her name."
"Hmm." I studied the creature for a moment. "Tux!"
"Tux?" She asked.
"Short for Tuxedo." I explained. "She looks like she's wearing a fancy suit, like a Tuxedo."
"Tux it is." She smiled at me. "Nice to meeting you by the way."
"Likewise." I gave her my genuine smile in weeks.
The next couple of weeks were uneventful. I continued setting up sentries at various clubs as well as meeting the others. Midtown seemed to have them almost every other store with only take out restaurants and liquor stores separating them. I did pop into the occasional pawn shop and purchase the odd item, like old jazz and swing records. I even completed a large portion of my library.
Sarah informed me that Tux was in fine shape all things considered. I had unknowing misfed her. Normally the mother was supposed to nurse her litter for several weeks, but she had ignored Tux for the rest. The cans of tuna were fine, but whatever nutrition she did not receive from solid food she was meant to receive from the mother. Sarah supplied her with a replacement formula in the time she stayed under her care and supplied me with much information on how to care for her. It mostly consisted of the avoidance of using certain packaged kibble food.
Deciding to kill two birds with one stone, I forgoed the list of approved kibble Sarah gave me and made trips to Lower Manhattan on the southwest part of the island every few nights. More accurately, to the South Street Seaport where Fulton Street met the East River. Not only did it have some of the oldest architecture in downtown Manhattan, including the largest concentration of early 19th-century commercial buildings in the entire city, but it was where the famous Fulton Fish Market had sat for the past one-hundred and seventy years.
Not only did Tux indulge on the freshest and most exotic fish New York had to offer, but it gave me an excuse to cook again. I had wanted to be a chef before I was turned and spent many years self educating myself in the art. It seemed pointless and wasteful to continue after everything except blood became inedible to me, but not the feeling it gave me. Also, if by some strange turn of events a human came into my home, it would be one less thing to question. After all, why would a refrigerator be empty in a lavish three bedroom apartment when it was clear the resident presumably had the means to pay rent and buy expensive tailored suits?
I oddly found it enjoyable to have Tux in my company. She was honestly simple. There was nothing she kept hidden from me and I doubt she even had the capacity for ulterior motives. If she wanted attention or to be played with, she made it clear. In addition to fresh well prepared fish for her to eat, I bought her several toys for her to bat around as well as a scratching post for her claws. I did buy her bed, but it went unused. She preferred to sleep in my bed, but I always made sure to leave her outside when I went to sleep for the day. The last thing I wanted was for her to get into the habit of using my bed as litter box just because the door prevented her from walking the five feet to the bathroom where it sat.
It was exactly as I pictured it to be when I was human. Never before did I have a companion who would never betray me or share my secrets to another soul or work so hard to please. As long as I fed her and showed her some attention, she was content and so was I. I did wonder how she would react to strangers, but it would be a while until I learned.
Saint Valentine's day to be exact.