I woke up on Nicholae’s chest, tranquil and completely rested. I looked at the clock on the wall in the dark room and saw that it was already past noon. I lay my head back into Nicholae’s motionless, sleeping arms and drank this all in.
His flesh was so much harder when he slept, left completely stiff as with rigamortis. He would stay in this exact position until the sun left the sky. Knowing this made him seem like a twisted version of Sleeping Beauty.
The question now was, what was I going to do for the next few hours before dusk? Arsinoe, who was at the foot of the bed, was just as indisposed as the rest of the vampires in this house at the moment, so I couldn’t play with her. I was a little hungry, though. I wondered if Laramie kept any food in this house, but then why would a vampire need food?
Curious, I put my clothes on and wandered through the upstairs hall, then down the stairs and across the empty living room into the very empty kitchen. There were no dishes, no wracks of spices or silverware on the counters. It just looked so naked, especially when my kitchen at home was so jumbled and cluttered. I looked up in the cupboards, but there was nothing edible in any of them.
Finally, I came to the fridge and opened the door. My hands flew over my mouth as it fell open.
The fridge was filled with plastic packages of thick, dark red blood! Filling every shelf and lining the door, nothing but blood.
Of course! That explained the eerie lapping sound I heard last night when Arsinoe had gone to the kitchen. This was how Laramie fed her!
My stomach turned and any desire for food evaporated. I closed the refrigerator door with aversion. Well, so much for food, but I didn’t want to just go back to the bedroom. I wanted to explore this large house. As long as I didn’t touch anything, I was sure Laramie wouldn’t be angry.
I left the kitchen and began my expedition around the bottom floor.
There was a library with hundreds of thousands of books, their spines labeled in all different languages, mostly Latin-based. I could have spent years in this room obsessing over these books. There were even scrolls filling the last column of the shelf, many of which were so old they seemed as if they would fall apart if I so much as breathed on them.
I went upstairs next, away from the hall of bedrooms and down another hall, a more naked hall, with only one door at the end. I went through it and into a small transitional room with another door adjacent to the first. There was a little window through which the afternoon sunlight was coming in.
I opened the door and stepped outside.
Thick and aromatic warm air washed over me as I stepped into a huge greenhouse. The glass-paneled walls were surrounded on all sides by the rocky cliff, which seemed to have been dug out for its insertion. There were rows and rows of all different flowers—roses, irises, lilies, chrysanthemums—and toward the end were aisles of trees.
It was just so beautiful, like a magical rain forest. I had never seen flowers with such bright colors. The roses were exceptionally red, and their smell was obnoxiously potent. The snowy pink of the large irises seemed to shine like the moon in the sunlight. And the leaves of the trees were a healthy dark green, polished and smooth.
I knew something was off about these plants, something more sophisticated. Clearly this greenhouse was one of Laramie’s experiments. But what could he be doing with plants? Perhaps he was trying to create remedies yet undiscovered, but then again, why would he care? Vampires weren’t affected by viruses or bacteria, so they wouldn’t need vaccines. Would he have enough interest in helping humans to pursue such an avenue?
Whatever the cause, it was lovely in here. I strolled around and sniffed each flower as I passed. And when I got to the end of the greenhouse, I plucked a peach off a low branch.
I looked at the large round peach that filled my hand. It, too, smelled exceptionally sweet. I found a spot in front of the roses to sit on the floor, a place where I could feel the sun on my face.
Once comfortable, I bit into the peach. Ah, it even tasted better than normal! Drops of juice spilled down my chin. I devoured it quickly. I got up to get another one, then decided to also grab some books from the library and read them out here. So that’s what I did all day, snacked on peaches and read whatever books I could find in English. I was lucky enough to find one of Laramie’s journals that was written mostly in English. His entries would jump from English to French to Latin and then back to English. Some of them were about his research, some were brilliantly witty observations, some were about Arsinoe. I was so captivated by it I forgot the time, until the shadow of the cliff took away my reading light. After the sun passed behind it, the world became very quickly dark.
I knew that everyone would be waking soon, so I went back inside to put all the books back.
When I entered the living room, Nicholae, Laramie and William were sitting on the couch, talking quietly, and Benny was having a high-old time wrestling with Arsinoe on the floor. Her barks were loud and piercing, and I had to plug my ears.
Arsinoe slipped out of Benny’s hold and ran to my side, demanding my attention. I scratched the top of her head and giggled at her joyous reaction.
“It’s very interesting,” Laramie said, breaking his conversation with William. “She really likes you a lot, Crimson. Perhaps it’s because she has never seen a human before.”
“Oh, so that explains why her barks are so loud,” I said. “She’s never had to restrain herself because she’s never been around humans. She doesn’t know what our limits are.”
He stood up with that same marked slowness as the others and came toward me.
“Since we are on the subject of your mortal perception, how did you like the peaches?” he asked.
Oh no, he must be upset that I ate them. I shouldn’t have done that. I—
“No, no,” he said, snickering. “That’s not it at all, my dear. You’re welcome to anything in my house, of course! I only wanted to know your opinion. I have not been able to hear a mortal’s opinion on that experiment and I am eager to.”
“Oh. Well…actually, I think they were the best peaches I’ve ever had,” I answered.
“Excellent,” he said with a triumphant smile. “You must also try the cherries sometime and tell me how they are.”
“Wait, experiment?” I said. “I knew it must be something like that. What kind of experiment? I didn’t just eat radioactive fruit or anything, did I?”
“No, not radioactive,” he answered. “This may come as a shock to you, but everything in that greenhouse has been mutated by vampire blood.”
I could feel my eyes widen in astonishment. Sure as hell didn’t see that one coming! There were a thousand new questions spinning around in my head, and I didn’t know where to start.
“Whoa, slow down a moment,” Laramie said. “Too many questions…” He put his index and middle finger to his temple, listening, and I tried to settle my thoughts.
“I used different techniques for different types of organisms,” he began to explain. “The flowers are full fledged vampires, for all intents and purposes. They are immortal. They will never wilt, never fade, never get any bigger or smaller than what you saw. But there are two magnificent discoveries I have made in my studies.
“The first is that, amazingly, they do not burn up in the sun as we do. In fact, they seem to thrive on it, just as living flowers do. It seems that they have replaced the constant need for blood, as in animal vampires, with the need for sunlight, an extreme case of photosynthesis, I suppose.
“And the second discovery, which will have a huge impact on the world, is that they replace carbon dioxide with oxygen much more rapidly than living flowers. It’s not a huge difference, but it could work wonders against global warming. Imagine if we had whole forests of these flowers. We could replenish the earth and keep it in perfect balance.”
“That’s incredible!” I said. “First a vampire dog and now vampire flowers!”
“When you have as much spare time as I do, curiosity takes the better of you.”
“What about the trees?” I asked. From what he’d said, I knew already that they, too, could not be “vampires” like the flowers. If they had fruit on them, then that means that they still live, that they still grow.
“That’s exactly right,” Laramie said. “The trees are indeed still living. But I have been feeding them with a solution that’s based on my very own blood. As a result, they are at their highest level of health. The powerful enzymes in vampire blood help to repel all species of viruses and bacteria, and even plant-eating bugs like aphids and gnats. That peach you ate, and all the other fruits in there, are the purest and healthiest organic material you will ever find. And after I do a few more studies, I plan to put them into circulation all over the world.”
“So, there is vampire blood in those fruits. That doesn’t hurt humans?” I asked.
“Not at all,” Laramie said. “Vampire blood doesn’t really affect humans, unless the human is close to death, but then you already know how that works. Our blood can’t transform its host unless the host is near its natural conclusion, so living organisms that ingest our blood remain relatively unaffected.”
Wow, there was so much I could learn here, so many things that Laramie could teach me. And solutions to all the world’s problems could be so easily solved right here in Laramie’s home. Who knows, maybe vampire blood could even harbor cures to fatal diseases, like cancer. So many possibilities.
“Well, I can see that Nicholae and William are getting bored,” Laramie said, passing glances at them. “Lolita is already expecting us.”
They headed for the door, and Nicholae took my hand so we could follow.
“Who is Lolita?” I asked. “Another vampire?”
“Yes. She is a very trusted friend,” Nicholae said. “But be cautious. She cannot find out about you being an Amarant. So, at all costs, keep that thought out of your mind.”
I nodded, though not understanding why I had to keep it a secret if this vampire was their friend. “But won’t she notice my eyes like Benny did?”
“No, I don’t think she will know the significance of your eyes,” he said. “She’s not a very old vampire.”
We went out the door and followed Laramie and the others around the house and down into a garage.
“Nicholae, just out of curiosity, what would she do to me if she found out? Would she kill me like the ancients?”
“No, it’s not your death that I fear from her.”
“Don’t concern with it,” he said. “Just follow my admonitions and everything will be fine.”
We came to a shiny and slick new black Lexus and he opened the back door for me. He slid in beside me, and Benny took the spare seat next to me. William got into the front passenger’s seat and Laramie sat behind the wheel. The engine purred to life and we glided smoothly out of the garage into the desert.
“Where does this Lolita live?” I asked.
“She has a brothel in Las Cruces,” Laramie said.
“Oh, now this should be interesting,” Benny said, grinning mischievously.
“A brothel?” I asked, curious and confused.
“All of her girls are vampires, too,” Nicholae said. “They make a business off of drugging their customers and feeding them to the good vampires like us, that is, vampires who only take the lives of wrongdoers.”
“That’s brilliant!” I said. I admired Lolita already and I hadn’t even met her yet. After what my father had put me through, I especially hated men who abused women. In my darkest moments, I wished he were dead. And here was this vampire, punishing that type of man for a living, and using their own lust against them. It seemed a twistedly tempting expression of justice to me.
“I thought you might react like that,” Nicholae said.
“What’s wrong with admiring her?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said, putting his arm around my shoulders. “I just don’t want you to put your guard down around her. Many of her girls have a history like yours.”
“Are you actually afraid she’ll steal me away from you?”
He didn’t answer, and his silence was answer enough. That’s why he didn’t want me letting slip about being an Amarant. If she knew, she really might steal me away, make me a member of her brothel.
“Before we meet our host,” Laramie said, zooming faster and faster out of the desert and finding an interstate, “we have to get the human something she can eat.” He and William laughed, and I heard Nicholae chuckle quietly, too.
“So what do mortals like to eat these days?” Laramie asked. “Pizza? Hotdogs? Come on, whacha in the mood for?” He was using a modern day American accent and it made me laugh.
“Well, since I know you’ll all get a kick out of it,” I said, “let’s go real American—hamburger, fries and a milk shake.”
Laramie laughed and got onto the interstate, driving south. “Splendid,” he said.
When we got into town a half hour later, Laramie found a Burger King and went through the drive thru.
“This is wonderful,” he said as the car ahead of us went forward. “I’ve never had the chance to go through a drive thru before. Marvelous!”
I couldn’t help but laugh. He seemed so delighted by something we humans actually found quite tedious.
“How can I help you?” the voice asked from the speaker.
“I’ll have a whopper with cheese, a large fry and a…” it was strange, but I could feel him in my head, searching for something; I felt oddly violated. “…A chocolate milk shake,” he finished.
Oh, so that’s what he was looking for. He wanted to know what flavor shake I wanted.
The speaker gave him the total and we drove forward.
“Sorry,” he said to me. “I didn’t mean to impose. It’s just a force of habit. But not many mortals are aware when I do that.”
Laramie exchanged a swipe of his credit card for a cup and a brown paper bag, then left the Burger King and got back on the road.
“Food for the human,” he said as he handed them over the back of his seat.
I grabbed them and took the whopper out of the wrapper. I was just about to take a bite when I noticed that every pair of eyes in the car was watching me, even Laramie through the rearview mirror.
“Guys, this isn’t going to work if you’re all watching me,” I said. “And Laramie, shouldn’t you be watching the road? It would be real nice if you got us into an accident. I can see the headlines now: ‘Four vampires and a girl killed in a car crash on the highway just because the driver was watching the silly human eat a burger.’”
They all laughed, making me blush and feel even more self-conscious. I sheepishly took a small bite of the whopper. Nicholae and Benny were purposefully looking away to indulge me, so I took bigger bites until finally I didn’t think about it at all.
I was finished by the time we got into the more rundown part of this town. The houses were old and cheaply built, with broken fences and dirty toys on unkept front lawns. Hoodlums with baggy pants and wife-beater shirts hung out around their big expensive trucks, making explicit hand gestures as we drove by.
Laramie parked the car in front of a large two-story house that looked like it might have been nice once but was now very worn out.
We stepped down and went up to the front doors. The door opened, and a beautiful woman with straight shimmering dark brown hair and dark almond eyes stood in the doorway, dressed only in a short cream-colored silk dress.
She stepped aside to admit us, staring at me as I entered, with the delicate corners of her lips curling upward in a slight wry smile. I smiled nervously back at her and quickly followed behind Nicholae, clinging to his arm.
We came into a large parlor room that looked much more elegant and luxurious than the exterior led on. There were mauve couches set upon fluffy cream carpet, and the walls were painted a soft pastel lavender. A harem of girls just as beautiful and sensuous as the first were all perched daintily on the couches, staring at us with their glistening catlike eyes.
“Hello, Laramie,” a woman said in a handsome voice as she got off the couch and glided toward Laramie with her arms out in welcome.
She was the most beautiful of them all. Her hair was so dark brown that it reflected a deep metallic green wherever it caught the light, and it was spun into thousands of tight curlicues that cascaded down just past her shoulder blades. Her skin was pale brown with the same olive tint as her hair, and the ethereal magic of her blood made it look like polished brass. She was dressed not in flattering soft colors as the others, but in black: a silk nightgown and a lace penoir.
Laramie welcomed her hug, her little body fitting perfectly in his manly arms. Then she proceeded to hug each of the others.
“I see you have brought a new friend,” she said as she came to Benny. “You’re a beautiful boy.” She ran her fingertips over his cheek and under his chin. “I would’ve had fun with you when I was mortal.”
“If you would like, we can have some fun right now,” he said huskily, taking her wrist and kissing the vein.
She giggled scandalously. Then her feline eyes found me.
“You must be Crimson,” she said, closing in on me.
It was then that I caught her scent, lighter than Nicholae’s and muskier. It made her more desirable, and that made me confused; I was actually attracted to her.
“I’m Lolita,” she said. “Laramie was right. You’re quite lovely. You would make a fine addition to my coven, wouldn’t she girls?”
The girls on their couches smiled and a few of them nodded once.
I could feel Nicholae stiffen.
Lolita laughed. “Only a joke, my friend,” she said to him. “Besides, there are some who would be quite jealous of her. The girl who stole the legendary Nicholae’s heart.” She laughed again. “Well, at least there are still three of you left to choose from. I can see they have already begun appraising the newest member.”
Benny was smiling at the girls lecherously, and they feigned coyness in return.
“I have kept you waiting long enough,” she said. “There are men in each of the rooms. Take your pick.”
Men in each of the rooms, men waiting to be dinner for my new friends. Shouldn’t this knowledge make me at least mildly horrified? Murders were about to take place under the very same roof that was above my head. But I knew the type of men these must be. And I didn’t pity them at all.
Laramie and William disappeared, but Benny went to join the girls on the couch, where they flocked to him.
Nicholae didn’t make a move in any direction.
“Don’t worry, Nicholae,” Lolita said, slipping her arm through mine and gently pulling me away. “Drink. We’ll keep her company.”
His face smoothened and he disappeared as well.
“Come, have a seat,” Lolita said, leading me back to the couch.
We sat down, and I amazed at the way Benny was flirting with three of the girls around him.
“Nicholae is so much fun to tease,” Lolita said, propping her dainty elbow on the back of the couch and resting her chin on her knuckles. “He’s afraid that I might try to take you away from him.”
“Why is that?” I asked timidly.
“He knows that I collect only the loveliest and most willful girls for my coven,” she said. “I can see into your heart, young one. You have been wronged by men, as many of my girls have, and you feel no remorse for the meals I have provided for our comrades. When I see a girl with your particular fire, I want her.
“But I wouldn’t do that,” she said sincerely. “Nicholae and the others are very good friends. They have helped me when I needed it most. I wouldn’t betray them like that.
“But my invitation will always be open for you. You could punish these men for the evil, vile things they’ve done, avenge the lives of all the innocent girls they’ve hurt. If you ever decide that you want something more meaningful from your life, you’re welcome here.”
I nodded, unable to stop staring at her. I’d never been so drawn to a woman like this before. It felt strange, but she seemed like someone to be wanted, someone demanding to be catered to.
“How long have you been doing this?” I asked. “The brothel, I mean.”
“Almost a century,” she replied.
“How have you managed to stay in business, to avoid suspicion? I would think that, if men kept disappearing here, other men would stay away.”
She shook her head. “We don’t kill every man who comes here. Not all of them are bad people. Many of them are just overworked businessmen who are bored with their wives, men who haven’t hurt anyone.”
“What do you do with those you don’t kill, then?” I asked.
She laughed. “We give them what they came for, of course.”
I blushed. “Oh.”
Two of the girls from the couch pulled Benny down the hall, and he winked at me as he followed them. I snickered. I understood Nicholae’s distrust of Benny, but it was hard not to like him. He was the class clown of vampires, a jester in a world of nobles.
But his absence meant I was truly alone with Lolita. Did she know how easy it would be for her to seduce me right now if she only tried?
I cleared my throat. “Lolita, if you don’t mind me asking, how did you get started doing this?” I asked.
She turned away, looking briefly at the girls on the other couches, then at the floor.
“That’s a long story,” she said finally. “Perhaps after the pink has left your cheeks and only your heart continues to beat, I’ll tell you. But that would mean you would have to come visit me. That is if Nicholae is willing to share.”
She raised her catlike gaze to the hallway. I followed her with my humanly slow reflexes and saw Nicholae suddenly sitting next to me. His skin was flushed and radiating heat from the fresh blood pumping through his veins.
“Didn’t I tell you she’d be fine?” Lolita said. “She’s very inquisitive.”
Nicholae smiled. “I know,” he said affectionately.
“I assume Laramie will want her to help him in his studies?” she said.
“Pity. Such potential wasted on science.” She sighed.
“What was that?” Laramie asked, ghosting into the room with William; they, too, were flushed. “Still disagree with my choices?”
“Always,” she said with a smile.
“Fair enough,” he shrugged.
We all sat with her for about an hour, and she and Laramie were dominating the conversation. She would frequently lay her hand on his shoulder as she talked, and she would giggle girlishly at his jokes. I had thought at first that she might have once had a thing for Nicholae, but it was obvious now that she was flirting with Laramie. I couldn’t help but wonder what the story was between them. And did Laramie feel the same way?
Benny sauntered out at the end of our visit, looking quite pleased with himself. Nicholae rolled his eyes at him. “Think you could be a bit more quiet next time?”
“And why would I do that?” Benny asked. “I was having a good time. Why should I let your supernatural hearing interfere with my fun?”
I hadn’t heard anything from the rooms down the hall, but I had only human senses. Nicholae, and assumedly everyone else, must have heard what I didn’t, and I was quite glad I didn’t. How awkward it must be to be vampire. To be unable to shut out the sounds and thoughts and ever feelings of others, to be forced to be a part of everyone’s intimate moments.
“It’s only awkward if you have shame,” Benny said to me with a wink. “I find it amusing.”
“Is there anything you don’t find amusing?” Nicholae asked.
Benny looked off in thought for a moment, then shook his head. “Nope.” He laughed.
Nicholae scoffed, but I could see a faint smile hiding on the corner of his mouth. He was warming up to Benny.
“We should be on our way now,” Nicholae said to me. “Have you had your fill of vampires for the night?”
I didn’t know what to say to that. Lolita was like a flame, and I felt like the moth, secretly wanting to stay around her, yet afraid of her at the same time.
“I don’t want your mom getting too worried about you, so we should really get you home,” he said to persuade me.
I had almost forgotten that I had a whole non-vampire world waiting for me back at home, and though my mom hadn’t called, I didn’t want to give her a reason to. “Okay, let’s go,” I said.
We rose to take our leave.
“Thank you for accommodating us, Lolita,” Nicholae said. “And for entertaining Crimson while I fed.”
“The pleasure was all mine,” Lolita said, her voice like caramel.
“Wait, if you guys are leaving, then I’m going with you,” Benny said.
All the girls sighed in an angelic chorus of sugary sweetness.
“I promise I’ll return soon,” he said, winking at them as he got up to join us.
“Nicholae, I think I might stay a bit longer,” Laramie said. “You don’t mind if I don’t go along?”
“No, of course not.”
William didn’t say anything, he just went out the door ahead of us.
“Goodbye, Crimson,” Laramie called as I went outside.
When the door closed, Nicholae picked me up, and I readied myself for the rushing wind again.
“Nicholae, wait just a moment,” Benny said, putting his hand on Nicholae’s shoulder. “We’re friends now, right?”
Nicholae shrugged. “I suppose,” he answered brusquely.
“Well, there is something I should tell you.”
Nicholae’s body tensed all over, his arms turning to granite beneath me, his jaw clenching in anger.
“What?” he asked behind gritted teeth.
“I wasn’t the only one following Crimson,” Benny said, looking the most earnest I’d ever seen him.
All was quiet for a moment. I had no idea what was about to happen next, and I didn’t like the uncertainty.
Then I remembered something important, something I should have acknowledged a long time ago. The same night that I met Benny for the first time at the mall, I was followed home by some Asian guy. And I remembered thinking how white his skin was! Oh my God, he had been a vampire! Why hadn’t I thought of this before? Especially since it had freaked me out so much. I should have remembered this!
Nicholae could see all of this in my mind. He held me closer.
“Who is he?” he demanded.
“I don’t know,” Benny said. “I have only seen him twice before you and I started talking. I didn’t see him for a while after that, but then he came around again a few nights ago, and he just watched the two of you. I knew this was something you should know about, and I wanted to tell you some place where he wouldn’t hear.”
“What are you going to do?” William asked.
Nicholae didn’t answer.
“I’m certain he’ll come around again,” Benny said. “And when he does, we can take him by surprise and apprehend him, find out who he is and what he wants.”
Nicholae looked at Benny for a moment.
“I think it’s a good plan,” William said. “I’ll help you. I’ll watch out for him. The farm will be fine without me for a while, as long as it takes.”
“Thank you,” Nicholae said. “And Benny…thanks for telling me, though I wish you’d done so sooner.”
Nicholae looked down at me. “Don’t worry. We’ll find him, whoever he is, and we’ll get rid of him. I won’t let anything happen to you, I promise.”
“I know,” I said. “I’m not afraid.”
“That’s good. Once we get back, you can’t think about it. If this other vampire knows that you know about him, it will ruin our chances. Do you think you can forget about him, put him totally out of your mind?”
“I think so,” I said.
“Alright, let’s get you home,” he said, and we and the other two vampires took off into the wind at top speed.