Light A Candle, Chase the Devil Away

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Chapter One

The Black Swan - an event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and is extremely difficult to predict.

A narrow panel in the door, eye-height, slid open. I held up the printed ticket I had purchased online. Unseen eyes studied it and, I assumed, studied me as well. Though I couldn’t discern the eyes through the dark narrow slit, I felt their intense scrutiny. A slow chill crept down my back and the slip of paper trembled in my hand. I pushed my eyeglasses up on my nose.

The panel closed. I waited.

A series of clicks, the sound of a heavy bolt sliding, and then the thick steel door opened inward. A broad-shouldered man with a shaven head grunted as he motioned me inside. He snatched the ticket, stamped a small black swan on the back of my left hand and jerked his thumb in the direction of a dim corridor. With the interior as dark as the moonless night outside, my eyes adjusted quickly, and I followed a path of tiny recessed blue lights along the floor.

The hallway opened into a room with burgundy walls. It thrummed with people talking, drinking, smoking and dancing. Smoke hovered overhead like a hazy gray ghost, trapped in the cramped realm between the patrons’ heads and low ceiling. Blasts of air-conditioning chilled the space and intermingled odors of perfume, alcohol and cigarettes.

I headed for the oval-shaped bar that dominated the center of the room. To my right, past the dance floor, the band played on an elevated stage, their name scrawled in black script across the base drum head, Night Train. Lorelei, the undisputed queen of vampire rockers buoyed my hopes. She was the reason I drove over an hour to the secret club. Her long, wild platinum hair matched her pearly complexion and she moved to the music with the stealthy grace of a panther in a black leather halter and skin-tight pants.

Unlike Lorelei, the crowd gyrating to the heavy metal music disappointed me. They wore goth-style clothing and most sported ink-black hair streaked with red, purple or blue. Pale faces and black outlined eyes expressed little interest in me as I walked past. Dressed in a black T-shirt and skinny-legged jeans, my naturally pale completion and thin build—or to use my father’s favorite adjective, puny—I blended in with the clientele.

My heart sank a bit more as I climbed onto a blue vinyl bar stool flecked with glitter. A female bartender in a lacy bodice poured a frothy red beverage from a stainless-steel shaker into two tall glasses. She garnished the drinks with cherries and sank black straws into each glass. Laminated tent cards lined the bar top and advertised specialty drinks with ridiculous names—Bloody Magpies, Draquiris, Fanghattans and Sanguintinis.

I ordered a bottled apple ale. Another barmaid, her eyelids caked with shimmery purple, set the bottle down with a smile as fake as her eyelashes.

“Something wrong?” she asked.

Shaking my head no, I pushed a ten dollar bill across the lacquered bar top. Inwardly, the masquerade sickened me. The Black Swan was purported to be a haven where real vampires gathered, or so their website claimed. Yet as I scanned the room surrounded by costumed wannabes, my expectations deflated. This place looked no different than the numerous other vampire clubs I’d visited.

I swiveled around on the stool as I drank my ale, impressed by the size of the club. It’s entrance, hidden below street level, belied the square footage inside. The space equaled about half of the huge building above, and as expected on a Saturday night, the industrial park outside appeared deserted, unless of course, you knew where to look.

Steps away from me, patrons danced while Night Train’s amplifiers rattled the pock-marked acoustic tiles above my head. Bursts of flames shot from the border of the stage in unison with ear-splitting shrieks of electric guitars. The song ended in a barrage of bashing cymbals, then a red velvet curtain dropped over the stage. The band took a break.

The members, four males and Lorelei, exited from a dark stairway to the left of the stage and converged around the bar. She settled on the stool next to mine. Her shocking, silvery-white hair stood out among the mass of mostly raven-haired men and women. It shone blue, red and green as the lights above the bar flickered through their colored repertoire. I tried not to stare at her breasts, perfect pale globes barely reined in by her low-cut top.

The bartender pulled a decanter from underneath the bar and poured a dark crimson liquid into a wine glass. Lorelei clasped the glass with two hands and drank without stopping to take a breath. She tilted the stem upward until the last drop drizzled into her mouth. A red, viscous coating tinted the inside of the glass.

As she swallowed, the movement in her slender, paper-white neck mesmerized me. Her gaze turned to me as she set the empty glass on the bar, her electric blue eyes as startling as the rest of her. Perhaps a trick of the strobe lights, her pupils swelled, covering her irises in a moist black. Thin, spidery veins of black bled into the whites of her eyes. I blinked. The brilliant blue irises and whites returned. She ran her forefinger around the inside of the glass and then stared at me as she sucked the red liquid clinging to her fingertip.

“Why are you here?” Her voice, barely a whisper and her warm breath tickled my ear even though she sat two feet away. A coppery scent wafted beneath my nostrils.

“I want to be transformed.”

Her laughter exploded inside my head like particles of glass cascading onto a sheet of tin. She flicked her hand and dismissed me. “You and everyone else.”

“No.” Urgency welled inside me. I had to convince her. “No. I’m not like them. I’m a true believer. I’m ready to join the Night Flock.”

“You are naive.” She swept back her pale mane of hair and stood. The male band members gathered around her forming a protective entourage of leather-clad muscle. They walked toward the short flight of stairs leading up to the stage.

I leapt to my feet, raced after her and pushed through a slice of space between two of the male musicians. As my fingers grasped her slim wrist, I was shocked by the chilly firmness of her flesh. Strong hands immediately gripped my shoulders and arms.

Lorelei whirled and faced me, eyes ablaze. Her snarl revealed pointed teeth.

“Please,” I said. “You have the power to transform me. I want it. I need it.”

She waved and the men released me. My bones felt as fragile as a sparrow’s in her grasp as she plucked my hand from her wrist. “This is our last set. Stick around.” Her full smile showed dazzling white teeth with elongated canines, but whether it held mirth or malevolence, I couldn’t quite tell.

An instant later, she stood with the four men on the stage, their ascent up the stairs a blur and her voice still echoing in my ears. As the band warmed up with random keyboard riffs and guitar chords, a mass of black-garbed bodies drifted from the bar and surrounding tables and gathered on the dance floor in front of the stage. Their anticipation jelled into a palpable presence.

I ordered another ale. Taking advantage of the crowd’s exodus, I moved to an abandoned table next to the stage. Though I didn’t much care for it, heavy metal music embodied the soul of these clubs. Loud, raucous, edgy—it created an audio backdrop of lust, rage, and violence, the same sentiment the patrons attempted to project, though not always achieved, with their sinister make-up and dress.

I sat on the edge of my chair watching Lorelei, my pulse racing from the memory of her touch. More impressive in person than in her online photos, her icy eyes, white face and hair gave off a ghostly aura beneath the bright stage lights. She swung the microphone stand one-handed and belted out lyrics in an impossible range from a deep, throaty growl that made my scalp crawl to stark, piercing screams that pained my ear drums.

Halfway through their set, a tap on my shoulder jolted me from the scene on stage. With the music booming, a young woman mouthed something and motioned to an empty chair at my table.

I nodded automatically. Was she asking to sit with me or just wanted to sit near the stage? She hadn’t looked at me the way girls usually did, with a mixture of annoyance and disgust, the same way they might look at ants crawling in their potato salad at a picnic.

Something about her demeanor distracted me. She wasn’t a beauty, but neat and clean. My mother’s words came to mind. She had shoulder-length, sandy brown hair and a tan complexion, both unusual in this setting. Her white tank top and faded blue jeans didn’t fit in either. Her eyes sparkled when she looked at me, though I couldn’t tell in the dark club if they were blue or green. The fleeting thought she might be interested in me passed as she turned her chair to face the stage. She sat with her back to me. No drink. No purse. Just sat with shoulders squared, back straight and watched the band.

Even as Lorelei fascinated me, a dull ache grew in my temples. The constant, driving drumbeat interspersed with raging electric guitar and keyboard solos wore on my nerves. Jets of freezing air from ceiling vents billowed cigarette smoke into my face. I removed my glasses and rubbed my eyes. My fingers, cold and wet from holding the sweating bottle of ale, soothed the irritation. Disappointment churned with the alcohol in my gut. A light-weight, two drinks were my limit. Besides Lorelei, this club offered nothing I hadn’t seen a hundred times before. I should go—to hell with the one hundred and seventy-five dollars I’d paid for admission.

As I stood to leave, the music stopped. The lights went out, submerging the band and the crowded room in a velvety blackness. A drumbeat began, a slow, steady thump-thump that mimicked a heartbeat. The rowdy patrons hushed, save for the barely audible sound of their collective breathing. The dense darkness ebbed and swelled, as if it too, breathed. I sank back into my chair, my heartbeat matching the deep bass beat of the drum. Something was about to happen, but what? Anticipation held me in a state of rapture. Lorelei had said to stick around.

A lone blue spotlight shone down on stage and bathed Lorelei in its spectral glow. Her body undulated like a snake, a boneless creature with pale arms extended and long, spidery fingers that probed the darkness above the crowd.

“Who shall it be tonight?” The microphone amplified her throaty whisper. It reverberated around the silent room.

Gasps and then shouts rose from the crowd. “Me!” “No, me!” The random shouts blended together until they rose into a cacophony of screams.

My heart beat faster as the drummer quickened his pace and the scene at the foot of stage turned riotous. The crowd surged forward, dark silhouettes of bodies jostled against each other, spike-haired heads bobbed, hands stretched upward grasping at air in frantic but futile attempts to touch Lorelei.

“Silence!”

Lorelei’s thundering command halted the pandemonium. “I see you all. See who you really are. Posers. Charlatans. Fakes. I will not allow mundane scum to drink my blood.”

I jolted upright in my chair. Drink her blood? The website hadn’t lied. Lorelei planned to transform someone. Right here, right now.

“There is only one among you tonight who is ready. One who is strong and worthy of my gift.”

The pounding in my chest vibrated upward into my throat. Me. She was talking about me. She told me to stay. My mind reeled. The gravity of how my life was about to change both stunned and thrilled me.

A deathly quiet blanketed the room broken only by the soft shuffle of feet as they backed away from the stage and Lorelei’s fierce glare. A spotlight flashed on and scanned the crowd. The white beam sliced through the blackness and swept back and forth across the room, faster and faster. Its strobing effect made me dizzy. I forced myself to look away. The drumbeat sped up, the sound harder, louder, faster—thump-thump, thump-thump. My heartbeat synced to it, thundering in my ears.

The roving spotlight stopped. I looked up. Light blinded me.

“You, are the only one here who is worthy.” Lorelei pointed to me. “Rise.”

I jumped to my feet, light-headed. I squinted through the harsh glare reflecting off my lenses. Lorelei had seen my need. She knew how much I wanted this, deserved this. My impulsive move of grabbing her arm had paid off in a way I could hardly fathom. I sucked in a gasp of smoky air. Fear and desire washed over me. My scalp and fingers tingled, alternating between icy, then fiery waves. Tonight, my life as a vampire would begin and even better, the misery of my human existence would end. My tears magnified the glare of the spotlight.

“What is your name?” Lorelei asked.

Rapid breaths had dried my throat, my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I croaked out, “Tim.”

Simultaneously, a vibrant female voice rang out, “Jane.” The woman sitting at my table stood and walked toward the stage.

No. No! It’s me. Lorelei pointed at me. Spoke to me. Words screamed in my head as I watched Lorelei beckon Jane toward the stage. Two of the male musicians reached down, grasped Jane’s outstretched arms and lifted her up onto the platform. Jane stood, tall and confident, next to Lorelei. Stood where I should be standing.

My shaking legs could no longer hold me. I collapsed in my chair. The drumbeat slowed, still steady but softer. An ethereal lilt of keyboard notes joined in. My entire body shook as waves of nausea swelled in my gut, then crashed in a sea of bile at the back of my throat. Get up. Jump on the stage. Take my place next to Lorelei. Fear of vomiting or passing out paralyzed me. Numb, I sat, my fingers gripping the seat of my chair as I swallowed back the bitter-tasting acid. Shock and anger dueled in my brain.

The two guitarists pushed an ornate, high-backed chair—throne-like—to center stage. Jane settled into it. She gazed out over the murmuring throng standing watch at the foot of the stage.

One of the guitarists brandished a long, thin sword. He swiveled it in the air letting the blue light play off the gleaming metal. Lorelei stood next to the throne and took Jane’s hand. They stretched their arms outward, hands clasped, fingers interlaced. In a lightning fast, silvery blur, the blade swiped across their arms. Dark lines immediately formed on their skin. Under the blue light, the liquid welling from the slashes appeared black.

Lorelei leaned forward and licked Jane’s arm. Her tongue caressed the skin, a delicate gesture like a cat lapping milk. Then, her mouth widened, glossy red lips enveloped the bleeding wound. My breath caught in my chest. Lorelei’s fervor intensified. She clutched the arm with both hands, her head moved up and down in frenzied blood-sucking, a lioness feasting on bloody meat. Jane’s eyes squeezed shut, her face twisted with pain or maybe ecstasy. Lorelei pushed the arm away. Tongue lingering on her bloody lips, she pressed her bleeding arm to Jane’s mouth.

Jane sucked the dark pool oozing from the wound. The eerie organ music swelled and faded as she drank. Lorelei’s body swayed in rhythm to the sensual melody. My breath came fast and shallow and I moved with her as did the pulsating mass of silhouettes in front of the stage. Voyeurs, all of us. Time hung suspended as the lurid scene on stage filled my senses, the faint wet sounds, the metallic scent. Sweat formed under my arms and ran down the center of my back, my shirt stuck to my damp skin. I squirmed in my chair embarrassed by the hardness growing inside the painfully snug crotch of my jeans.

Lorelei shook her head. Her tousled white mane fell across eyes that glittered with lavender light. “Enough!” She pushed Jane’s mouth away and withdrew her arm. The dark gash on Lorelei’s arm faded to smooth, alabaster skin.

The guitarist stepped from the shadows, this time twirling a strip of filmy white gauze instead of a sword. He knelt on one knee beside the chair and wrapped Jane’s wound.

Hypnotized by a spectacle I had only read about until tonight, my anger and nausea dissipated, replaced by awe, lust, and envy. My desire to be transformed renewed. It overwhelmed me.

Jane sat in the chair, eyes closed, and her expression peaceful yet triumphant—smug even—her arms rested on the plush red velvet cushions of the chair’s arms. The two guitarists picked up their instruments and the tickle of guitar strings filtered seamlessly into the haunting melody. Lorelei gripped a hand-held mic and sang unidentifiable words in a whisper-soft voice. A demonic lullaby that both soothed and unnerved me. The dark ballad ended in an elongated sigh which Lorelei issued as she slowly bowed from the waist, the ends of her hair grazed the stage floor. The drum beat continued slower, softer, then faded, until it too, stopped.

Jane opened her eyes and stood. The two women embraced as the heavy velvet curtain fell. I stood, craning my neck to peer beneath the curtain. The crowd dwindled. People ambled across the shiny floor, murmuring, whispering as they drifted toward the exit.

The overhead lights in the club flicked on. I turned, squinting in the harsh light as the last of the patrons wandered down the narrow corridor and out the doors. Behind me, bartenders washed glasses, straightened bottles on shelves and wiped down the bar top, their routine no different than closing time in any night club.

I hurried to the bar.

“Last call was an hour ago.”

“I don’t want a drink. When will she be back?”

“Who?”

“Lorelei—Night Train—when are they playing here again?”

“Next Saturday night’s their last gig here before they go on tour.”

I spun around and raced toward the stage. The bartender yelled, “Hey, you can’t go back there.”

The curtain obscured the stage. I veered left to the side entrance, took the flight of steps two at a time and burst through the doorway onto the stage.

Lorelei and Jane stood talking. I ran toward them. One of the men stepped into my path and blocked me with his bulk. His hands clamped my shoulders and shoved. I flew backwards, the back of my head slammed against a speaker and my glasses clattered on the wooden floor. The blurry legion of giants standing over me could have been four, or maybe eight.

“Stop.” Lorelei’s voice.

The hulks separated. She stood over me. “You again. What do you want?”

“T-To be transformed.” I rolled up onto my knees and felt on the floor for my glasses. Once I became a vampire, I wouldn’t need damned eyeglasses. I stood up, fumbling to fit the thick black frames onto my face. “You told me to stick around, remember? I thought you had chosen me, not her.” I nodded in Jane’s direction. “I’ve studied. I’m ready. Strong.”

The men broke into laughter. One gripped my jacket collar and yanked me toward the doorway.

With my feet unable to find solid ground in his steely grasp, I twisted my torso around and reached out to Lorelei. “Please! Please Lorelei, I’m begging you.”

“Seth, wait,” she said. He stopped dragging me and stood, his fingers a tight vice on my upper arm. Lorelei’s frigid eyes bore into mine. “I doubt you are ready. Or worthy.”

“But—”

“Shush.” She turned and opened a battered old trunk behind the speaker. “Complete these six tasks in the next seven days. If you succeed, return here and I shall give you what you desire.”

She handed me a piece of yellowed parchment paper, the numbers one through six hand-written in black ink down the left side.

“What tasks? The paper’s blank.”

“Press your finger on the first number and instructions will appear. The next will not appear until you have completed the one prior. The difficulty rises as you progress down the list.” Her cold hand encircled my throat, sharp fingernails pressed my skin. “If you fail to complete all six, do not dare return here. Ever.” She released my throat and slapped my face with the back of her hand.

Blood smeared my fingertips when I touched my stinging cheek. Lorelei licked the treacherous-looking ring on her right middle finger. Like an inverted spider, a ring of pointy prongs caged a round, ruby-red stone. She nodded to Seth.

Seth shoved me through the doorway to the platform at the top of the stairs. As I started down, his heavy boot struck me square in the ass. Tumbling down the steps, I landed face-down on the shiny floor. The thick velvet curtain muffled their laughter.

“Let me help you.”

I straightened my glasses and looked up. Jane crouched beside me, her teal-colored eyes burned with an inner light. Her sandy hair, now a golden mane that surrounded her radiant face. My hopes were confirmed. She was no longer plain. She had been transformed.

“I don’t need your help.”

She sighed and stood. Her footsteps echoed in the empty club as she strode across the dance floor, turned and then disappeared down the corridor toward the exit.

My butt, knees and arms ached as I climbed to my feet. I tucked the parchment inside my jacket and limped to the exit.

“Ya shouldn’a run backstage.” The huge, bald guy’s ham-sized fist impacted half of my face. Sucker punched, I barely had time to scoop up my fallen glasses before he heaved me out the door. My outstretched hands saved my face from kissing the concrete stairs outside. Locks clicked behind me. Salty tasting blood oozed from the split in my lower lip and tears blurred my throbbing left eye.

I grasped the railing and climbed up the steps to the parking lot behind the warehouse. Below me, a plain black awning hid the entrance to the Black Swan, only the faint blue light emanating from twin iron sconces gave any indication of what lay beyond the door.

Tonight wasn’t the first beating I’d endured, but it would be the last. From elementary school through college, I had drawn bullies like a chunk of bloody chum in the sea drew sharks. But now I knew why. My entire life had prepared me for this—my pending transformation. I smiled in spite of the pain. In fact, I couldn’t stop grinning as I staggered to my car in the deserted parking lot.

“In seven days, I’ll be a vampire.”

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