“You doin’ okay there, hon?”
I glanced up at the sound of the waitress’ voice. I’d been so lost in my own thoughts moments ago that I hadn’t even heard her approach.
I must be getting old.
I flashed her a long-practiced fake smile, the kind that I reserved for the multitudes of strangers that I encountered every day, the strangers who have no idea who I am or what secrets lie behind the façade of seemingly carefree youth. “Yeah. Just tired.”
She smiled back, warm and sunny. “I could bring you some coffee fresh out of the pot. Add a slice of pie to that and you’ll be fixed up right proper.”
I smiled back, this time for real. “That would be lovely. I’ve actually been eyeing that lemon meringue ever since I came in. Only,” I paused to glance at my watch. Nine forty-two. It was already dark and I hadn’t even decided which neighborhoods to canvas for my nightly search. I was close to the historic and more affluent sector of town, but just a few streets over near the overpass would be the seedier and more dangerous neighborhoods, the kind that I liked to walk around late at night. Most women would be hesitant to walk alone through strange neighborhoods where drugs and other illicit activities permeated every corner, but not me. Nothing and no one could touch me in those darkened streets because compared to anything else there, I was the most dangerous thing out stalking the night. “Could I get that to go, please? I’m running a little late.”
“Sure thing.” She popped her gum and then walked back behind the counter and busied herself with packing up my order. I stood up and glanced around the tiny dimly lit diner. A man sat by himself in a corner booth nursing a cup of coffee and a family of four sat on the opposite side, the kids loudly demanding milkshakes with their burgers. At the counter a young couple sat laughing at something on the girl’s phone, a tiny and in my opinion, useless little thing with a bright pink cover and rhinestone trim. I let my gaze linger on the couple and the family and then had to force my gaze away when the familiar ache in my heart flared up. I shook my head and placed a five dollar tip on the table and then picked up my bill. Maureen—my waitress—rang up my total and with another sunny smile wished me a pleasant evening.
The cool air felt good on my face as I exited the diner and headed towards my car, my bag of takeout and foam cup of coffee in each hand. I had parked up the street in the shadows more out of habit than anything else. I hadn’t really expected to need the cover of darkness—after all, I was in a fairly populated and well-lit area, so the likelihood that I would be spotted or attacked by another of my kind was slim. I scanned both sides of the street as I walked slowly and without apparent purpose to my car, eyes and ears straining for the slightest sound or hint of danger. Confident that nothing was amiss, I picked up my pace and even let the heels of my boots ring out on the pavement, enjoying the sound they made and of how authoritative they made me feel. I had to set my coffee down on the roof of the car to dig out my keys from my purse, and for just a moment my back was turned to the opposite street.
For some reason I couldn’t find my keys, which was odd given how small the purse was. Frustrated, I concentrated all my efforts on trying to locate them and completely let my guard down.
“Having a little trouble there?”
I stiffened, then cursed myself. Twice in one night. Yep, I was officially getting old. Not wanting to give whoever this was the wrong impression, I was about to say that I was fine when my gaze shot to the driver’s side window. The man behind me was young, probably no more than twenty years old. He was somewhat taller than me with a greasy shock of black hair that hung down to his eyes, and when he saw me looking at him in the window’s reflection, his eyes flashed with undisguised malice. My heart pounded as I took in the pale and barely-distinct crimson aura wreathing his body, a tell-tale sign that he was no more human than myself. Between one breath and the next my brain and body calculated the odds that things would work out in my favor and my reflexes kicked into overdrive.
In a blur of movement too fast for human eyes to see, I lunged for the cup of hot coffee still steaming on the roof of my car, but he was faster. Stars rocketed in my line of sight as his hand wrapped itself in my hair and my head was smashed into the door of my car. Coughing and gasping in pain, I fell to the ground just as the tip of his boot drove the remaining air from my lungs. Frantic and still cursing my own stupidity, I scrambled awkwardly into a half crawl and felt a bulge in my jeans pocket.
My attacker made a slow circle around me, looking for an exposed area to strike. I kept my head down and my movements as pained as possible to give him false hope that I was wounded and easy prey, all the while silently digging my keys out of my pocket and positioning them between my fingers.
“So you’re the one that has the rest of us on edge; you look pretty harmless to me.” He bent down to get a closer look and his dark eyes crinkled up in amusement as he jerked my head up, forcing me to look at him. He chuckled as I blinked stupidly up at him and then his finger traced the blood that was leaking sluggishly from my forehead. He licked the tip of his finger and moaned in pleasure as he tasted me, but then his eyes snapped open, wide with fear. In that single taste he had experienced the thousands of lives—of others like himself—that I had taken and fed upon, had tasted the burning rage and crushing loneliness that had propelled me through the last three and a half centuries. In that moment he knew that he had made a crucial mistake and that it would most likely be his last.
The tips of my keys protruded out from between each finger like claws as I lashed out with my right fist and slashed at his face. He fell back with a cry of pain and before he could recover himself, I dashed the contents of the foam cup at him, striking him in the eyes. He wailed in agony—but only for a split second—before I fastened on him with my hand clamped tightly around his mouth. He bucked and writhed, trying to throw me off, but it was useless. I was simply too strong and too fast for him, a seasoned predator.
I could practically taste his fear as his scent permeated the cool air around me, further stoking the steadily-growing hunger coiled deep inside of me. I bent closer to him, reveling in the power that I had over him, yet some small part of me rebelled against such an action. Perhaps it was cruel of me to torture him like this, perhaps it was entirely justified. I was about to find out for sure.
I bent closer and nuzzled the side of his face and then my tongue flicked out, tasting him. I gasped as the full gamut of what he had done during his short life hit me with explosive force: This man had been a monster long before he was turned, with no sympathy for his victims or their pleas for mercy. Girls and young women had been his special favorites and he had systematically abducted and murdered no less than fourteen of them. How ironic that a woman as seemingly young as myself would be his undoing.
“I’m going to enjoy this.” I breathed along his neck, causing gooseflesh to pop up. My left hand reached under the hem of my shirt and withdrew the knife that I always carried with me. I brought it up and placed it against the hollow of his throat and at the hint of cold steel, his eyes filled with hatred and loathing, but also fear.
“I want you to know that after I take your life and your essence that I will never think of you again. Your death will not trouble my conscience because this world will be a better place without you in it.” I slid the knife quickly and mercifully above the spot where the artery pulsed in time with his rapid heartbeat and averted my gaze as he struggled and strangled out his last moments. When I felt his movements begin to cease, I quickly ran my tongue across the blade, licking the blood from its steely surface. The man twitched sporadically and his chest heaved once, twice, and then his last breath slipped from him in a choked gasp. Almost instantly his essence—the animating principle that encompassed all that he ever was during his short, brutal existence—was expelled violently into the air. I saw it as a shimmering violet miasma wreathed in shades of red and black, the color of his aura. It twined sinuously around me, seeking out the last vestige of his life-force that I had just imbibed, straining to reunite with it. Sensing that this life-force was within me, the violet miasma plunged into me, through me, every cell exploding with new-found existence. I cried out in ecstasy as I felt his strength—his life—fill me to bursting, renewing my mind and body with everlasting youth and vitality. I sank down to my knees gasping and panting as violent and blood-tinged memories of his life flashed rapidly through my mind. Yes, the world was a better place now without him in it.
Shaking and quivering from the after-shocks of such a complete and total experience, I glanced down at his body as the last of the violet miasma left him. His skin and even his clothing had taken on a monochrome grayish hue and within moments his body began to rapidly decay before my very eyes. Flesh shriveled away and cleaved to the bones as his hair fell away in brittle drifts and the whole form became shrunken and dry. I gingerly nudged the bones of his left hand and his entire form crumbled away to a delicate dust that was quickly eddied about by the evening breeze. Within seconds his remains had completely vanished to nothing and no trace of what happened—save for the spilled coffee and forehead-sized dent in my door—remained.
I let out a shaky breath and then climbed to my feet. My purse lay on its side and next to it, my knife and car keys.
“Hey, are you okay?”
I jerked upright, my heart slamming in my chest. Being startled once tonight I could understand, but three times? Not only was I getting too old for this, but I was getting careless.
I glanced through the curtain of my now-disheveled hair to find the man who had been sitting by himself in the diner approaching me with concern all over his face. He was young—maybe twenty-six at most—and was not all that unpleasant to look at. He came forward with his coat out to drape me in it, which was sweet but unnecessary given that I already had mine on, but it was the thought that counted. I hurriedly dropped down to my knees to retrieve my purse, but more importantly my knife which was lying in plain sight.
“Here, let me….” He made a move to help me, but I already had my keys and purse clutched tightly against me.
“Really, that’s okay. I’m alright.” I was fumbling and I knew it, but it didn’t matter. If what my attacker had said was true, then there were many more like him out in this very city preying upon its inhabitants. His Font, or maker, would have undoubtedly felt his passing and would most likely be seeking the cause of his demise. The last thing I needed was for this young man—an innocent bystander—to inadvertently get mixed up in my life and all its complicated nuances. He didn’t take offense but simply and quietly backed off, giving me space as I continued to fumble with the lock.
“Excuse me.” I opened the door and flopped into the seat, my purse still clutched tightly to my chest. The man appeared to take it as a sign that I was still freaked out about being almost mugged and politely stepped away so that I could close the door and drive off. Once the door was closed my breath whooshed out, but I couldn’t relax as the man was still standing close by in case my attacker came back. A tentative rap on the side of my car caused me to jump, and with a sheepish grin he held up the bag of takeout that I’d left on the hood.
Sighing, I rolled down the window and he approached, bag in hand.
“I’m sorry, but I’m pretty sure that you might want this.” He handed me the bag and stepped back again.
I risked a quick glance in his direction—not enough that he could positively identify me in case the police were to become involved—but enough to let him know that my gratitude was genuine. “Thank you.” I took the bag and placed it on the seat next to me, a tiny piece of normalcy in an otherwise unnatural turn of events. “I’m fine, really. The guy took off after I threw hot coffee in his face, so I don’t think he’ll be coming around here anymore. At least not tonight.”
He nodded. “Smart thinking. I’ll be sure to tell Maureen that her coffee is good for more things than just perking you up or combating hangovers.” At my blank stare he cleared his throat awkwardly. “Uh, Maureen up at the diner?”
I smiled ruefully. My waitress from earlier tonight. Seems like giving her a five dollar tip was shortchanging her a bit.
“You sure you’re okay? I could call for an ambulance if you’re hurt. I mean, you were on the ground and there’s blood on your face.”
Shit, just how much had he seen? I had to get out of here, like now, before things got any worse. “There’s no need, really. And thank you again for….” I waved my hand at the takeout bag on the seat and he nodded in understanding.
I threw the car into drive and got the hell out of there as fast as I could, leaving the poor guy standing there staring after me as if I’d just lost my mind. Better my mind than my life…or yours for that matter. I turned the corner and headed away from him and everything else in my past that I hoped to one day leave behind.