Seven stories underground, Della awakens with a deep breath. She can feel the changes more and more. Foremost among them is that she is now acutely aware of her own heartbeat, the “thump-ump, thump-ump” of systole and diastole, and the rhythmic flow of pressure throughout her bloodstream.
She is also ravenous – not quite hungry, she doesn’t feel so much as a tingle from her stomach, but she is positively desperate to feed.
Della sits up in bed, turns to set her feet on the carpeted floor. Faint echoes bounce off the walls and return to meet her ears, subtle sounds she has never heard before. Her sense of smell is keener, too – she wrinkles her nose at the myriad unfamiliar scents of her own body as she draws back the covers. She rises to her feet and walks to the small bathroom to set about her morning routine.
Evening routine, even, she thinks to herself as she brushes her teeth. Her face was a blurry smear in the mirror, like the glass was distorted wherever she tried to look at herself.
The simple pleasure of a hot shower is not yet lost on her, though she notices with brief alarm that her sunburn has vanished without a trace.
Della starts as a knock on the door interrupts her reverie.
“Come on in,” she says. A lock turns, and Jamie opens the door, dressed in brown and cream, her hair in a bun.
“Looks like I did all right,” she says, looking at Della with a nod of approval. “Hungry?”
“Yeah,” Della says, turning off the TV and getting to her feet.
They head down two floors to “the stables,” as Herman had called them last night. He explained that homeless people, big losers at the casinos, orphans who never got adopted, and other “off-the-grid” types who generally wouldn’t be missed tended to end up here: nine floors underground, below a nondescript warehouse at the North end of the Strip.
“Do you turn them into vampires,” Della had asked.
“No, stupid,” Herman replied matter-of-factly, “We turn them into food.”
It so happened that feeding a city’s worth of bloodkin on a nightly basis was a bit beyond the abilities of the local blood bank, who already had chronic shortages with the demand from mortal lives alone. And while a regular person might need eight weeks to fully recover from losing a pint – incidentally, the same amount a bloodkin would go through on a slow night – the stables were run on a somewhat tighter schedule. Because happy captives are compliant captives, the mortals were given almost all the comforts of modern civilization: a furnished room, reading material, basic cable, even a menu for their meals. Just the same, being held prisoner underground to regularly have one’s veins tapped for a group of bloodsucking monsters could hardly be called ethical treatment, no matter how posh the conditions; a prison is a prison, after all.
“How can you do all this,” Della asked at one point. “I mean, I see how it’s done, but who pays for it all?”
“Look, kid,” Herman replied, making no effort to disguise his thinning patience, “I don’t know if you noticed, but we run shit around here.” He let her ponder that for a moment before continuing. “Some of us have been kicking a long time. We know how people work, we know how society works, we know how to grease the gears and how to direct the machine to our own purposes. And in a city like this, a city that makes no bones about profiting on vice, we make sure to have anyone who’s anyone under our thumbs.”
“And you’ve never gotten caught,” Della asked incredulously. “You mean nobody in history has been able to bring this out into the light of day?”
Herman snorted with contempt. “You try telling the cops that you’re being extorted by a guy who doesn’t officially exist. A guy who you can’t catch on camera. A guy who – ”
“So the camera thing’s true?” Herman winced and shook his head with a sigh.
“You’ll figure it out, soon enough.”
All in all, being a vampire – bloodkin, whatever – was turning out to be much dirtier business than Della had suspected it to be.
“A pint for me, and a quart for the newbie,” Jamie said to their phlebotomist, interrupting Della’s train of thought.
“Coming right up,” he said, and disappeared through a swinging door.
“Why more for me,” Della asked as they sat down at a table.
“Gotta get you up to your fighting weight,” Jamie said with a wink. “You’re going through some changes. I know, you’re still reeling from puberty, and here comes this fuckin’ thing. S’why we don’t turn teenagers anymore.”
“Edward looked to be a teenager.”
“Edward was a fuckin’ hundred,” Jamie spat. “He’s a relic from a bygone era. We wait until well past drinking age to consider turning someone, these nights.”
“I don’t see what drinking age has to do with anything,” Della said.
“Think about it,” Jamie explained, leaning forward on her elbows and gesturing with one hand. “Teenagers, no offense, don’t know what they’re doing. You go to college, like you would’ve, you get invited to parties. All fun and games. You hit twenty-one, and suddenly you can buy the booze yourself. That’s when your true colors show: you don’t have the excuse of ‘forbidden fruit’ or even ‘limited access’ anymore, so you do what you like. Some people go on partying and basically chill out over time. Others become alcoholics. It’s hard to tell one from the other before they’re able to act on their own, though. And when you infect them, take away most of their emotions, remove the weaknesses that make them restrain themselves as mortals, who do you think is going to be more conscientious and responsible about it? Who do you think is going to be shitty and out-of-control?”
“Huh,” Della says, staring off in thought. “It seems obvious when you put it like that.”
“Well, we’ve had some time to work it out,” Jamie replies with a wry smile.
Presently, the phlebotomist returns with three goblets of what looks like unusually leggy red wine. He sets them down, one before Jamie and two before Della, then walks off to attend to the next in line.
“It’s still warm,” Della remarks as she lifts her goblet. The coppery smell is positively intoxicating.
“Drawn fresh,” Jamie says as she raises her own goblet. “It doesn’t taste nearly as good when it’s cold.” She tips her goblet and offers a toast: “To your new drinking habit.”
“Cheers.” They delicately clink! their goblets together, and begin to drink. The blood is viscous, savory, delicious – it’s all Della can do to keep from chugging it. She restrains herself, however, managing to settle for two long pulls and then forcing herself to come up for air. She licks her lips. “That – was a little better than I thought it ought to be.”
“No need to hold back,” Jamie says. “We all know you’re new. No one’s gonna judge you. Go ahead. Indulge.” She punctuates her final word with a darkly mischievous grin. Della looks around, shrugs, and complies. “Enjoy it. Savor it. Pretty soon, it’ll be the only thing you can.”
Della and Jamie talk over Della’s second goblet of blood, Della taking her cues from Jamie.
“It may seem overkill,” Jamie says between sips, “But all this luxury, such as it is, only exists to allow us to drink in peace.” Having slaked her thirst, Della takes in the room. It’s decorated like a five-star restaurant, soft light coming from sconces and sparkling chandeliers, gold and burgundy embroidered tapestries hanging upon the walls, silk cloth and candlelight at every table. “It’s not all strictly necessary, of course, but we need there to be no reason for any of us to go anywhere else.”
“How do you mean,” Della asks.
“If we were ever outed to the public, it would be a disaster. It would take a lot, mind you – and the Hunters don’t count – but a popular uprising is the one thing we couldn’t ride out.”
“Those Hunters again – Thomas mentioned them last night.”
“Ahh, dammit,” Jamie says. “Look – OK, they’re bad news, but don’t worry about ‘em now.”
“Too late for that,” Della says. Jamie looks over each shoulder.
“All right, fine.” She sighs and leans forward on her elbows again, setting her goblet aside. “We’re not exactly ‘in private’ now, but fine. Look, whatever you can guess from the fact that we call them ‘Hunters,’ you got it.”
Della thinks for a moment. “Good deal. And what can’t I guess just from the name?”
“The other kin they hunt.”
“Other kin?” Della’s eyes go wide.
“Moonkin. Bramblekin. Did you think we were the only thing that goes bump in the night?”
“But nobody told me – ”
“You only believe what you’re told? C’mon. Even teenagers are smarter than that,” Jamie says with a sneer. “Be a little more genre-savvy.”
“What, so you just want me to open the floodgates? Are their dragons and thunderbirds and unicorns, too?”
Jamie leans back, folds her arms, shrugs nonchalantly. “Two outta three ain’t bad.”
“Which two,” Della asks, narrowing her eyes.
“Couldn’t say, myself. See, you might even be right on all three counts. I couldn’t say. This is why we’ll talk more about the Hunters later. We got more basic shit to cover now. Dig?”
Della sighs. She looks sideways at Jamie – no, she’s not being tricked, her head is clear. Apparently, this really is more complicated. Fine.
“Fine,” Della says at last. “I dig. You were saying?”
“I was saying that we need to provide for our own. Infection is transmitted through blood and saliva. That means any person you bite, even if you just take a pint, is gonna get infected. Anyone who comes in contact with your blood is gonna get infected. Even a peck on the lips stands a chance of infecting someone. So if you drink from someone, unless you wanna raise the bloodkin population, you drink ‘em dry. Two pinpricks on the skin look awful suspicious on an autopsy, so you gotta hide the body. You can have lean nights and fat nights, to be sure, but soon the bodies pile up, and the disappearances get harder and harder to manage. You see where this is going?”
“Hence, the stables. Hence, the phlebotomists. Hence, the seclusion. OK, I get it.”
“You’re starting to,” Jamie says. “Keep listening, and you’ll catch on soon enough.”
They carry on, ordering another pint each as their goblets get low. Yes, infection can be transmitted casually, even by accident. No, oddly enough, it can’t be transmitted through sex, as long as there’s no blood or saliva exchange. Yes, Edward was interested in Della for her blood, but also in turning her. Yes, bloodkin can drink from other bloodkin. Yes, it’s considered dirty. No, it’s not forbidden – it’s the “intimate” kind of dirty. Yes, bloodkin can drink from animals, but it doesn’t taste as good and the lower animals – especially non-mammals – don’t always have the right balance of nutrients that bloodkin require. No, the human blood type doesn’t matter. Yes, bloodkin can still be diseased, but it takes a lot of doing, so it rarely ever happens. No, bloodkin don’t show up on cameras or in mirrors, but their failure to register varies from medium to medium. Yes, their faces can be remembered well enough to create a faithful likeness. No, bloodkin don’t have a special weakness to fire like they do to sunlight – everything living has a “weakness” to fire. No, bloodkin don’t have a weakness to any manner of “holy” artifact. Yes, bloodkin can be killed by perfectly mundane weapons. No, there are no special weaknesses to weaponry, it’s just that specialized weapons are only likely to be carried by Hunters, who as a lot tend to be highly skilled with whatever weapons they use – so when someone comes along and actually kills a bloodkin, the weapon often gets the credit rather than the person. Yes, Hunters tend to be as secretive as the bloodkin themselves. Yes, that works in everyone’s favor, generally speaking. No, bloodkin aren’t “immortal,” but yes, they live as long as they can keep themselves in a fresh supply of blood. No, nobody knows exactly how old Thomas Morgan is, except perhaps for the other Elders, and they aren’t talking. Yes, it’s probably a name he’s adopted in the past century or three. Yes, there are other Elders in other cities with other stables and other problems. No, it’s not something we need to concern ourselves about, because the Elders all abide by the same code and they crack down hard on deviant fuckwits like Edward Cochran who place their short-sighted greed ahead of the long-term survival of bloodkin society as a whole. Yes, the Elders all have the same base urges as all bloodkin, perhaps even moreso due to their great age, but their ability to restrain themselves and keep an eye to the horizon is what let them live long enough to become Elders in the first place, so yes, they probably know best.
“So,” Jamie says, swirling the remaining blood around in her second goblet, “You have your background now. It’s time for your first lesson.”
“First lesson? Sheesh, I would think that I’ve gotten several by now.”
“No, no.” Jamie pauses, looks to the ceiling, gathers her thoughts. “High school math. You had a first lesson, right?”
“Sure,” Della says.
“But to understand that first lesson, you needed a bunch of background, right? From gradeschool math, and such-like.”
“OK, yeah,” Della says with a nod, “I gotcha.”
“This is kind of the same thing. You could understand all the gradeschool math I could throw at you now, we could cover it in about the same time. But now it’s time for high school math. Dig?”
“I dig,” Della says with a nod and a sip.
“So, lesson number one: you are human.”
Della thinks this over. All the vampire lore she’s read decrees that no, vampires most definitely are not human. But then, those were all written by mortals who presumably had no access to bloodkin society. And so…
“As opposed to?”
“As opposed to undead,” Jamie answers. “Or inhuman. Or any other manner of – fuckin’ – state. I don’t know. You are human, through and through. Something more, yes, but human nonetheless.” Della chews on this thought – “human nonetheless” – and comes to a new appreciation for the latter word.
“So what does the infection do, then,” she asks, “If it doesn’t change me from a human to something else?”
“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” Jamie answers, “Not a parasitic one. It changes you profoundly, to be sure. But the infection works with you, it doesn’t work against you. Like Gabriel Byrne says in Stigmata, you trade one set of complications for another.”
“Then why do you call it an ‘infection’,” Della asks. “It seems you might want to call it something else.”
“Because,” Jamie answers, rolling her eyes up, “It aggressively invades your system and there’s no getting rid of it. It is an ‘endogenous retrovirus,’ I think the term is. It definitely infects you. We’ve found what does it. We can see it under a microscope. It’s not fuckin’ magic. It’s not a curse. It’s a thing that lives inside you, and it changes you, and it gives you tremendous power but also crippling weakness.”
“Like allergy to sunlight.”
“I think ‘allergy’ is putting it lightly,” Jamie says with a smile, “But you’ve got the idea.”
“But I don’t feel very much human anymore,” Della says after some thought. “The sight of blood used to frighten me as a kid, and even when I grew up, I still didn’t like to see it. But just now – I didn’t feel any of that at all. Come to think of it – I don’t feel much of anything. I don’t miss my parents, though I feel I ought to. I don’t miss my friends. I don’t feel the anxiety of ‘starting over’ that I did when we moved to Las Vegas from Oregon. I don’t even feel very excited about being a vampire anymore. And I only felt a little weird when I saw them talking about my ‘death’ on the news.”
“That’s normal,” Jamie says. That word again. Della definitely feels resentment at that, but tries not to show it on her face. “Your emotions will grow more and more diminished with time. It kinda feels like the color drains from the world.” She pauses for a beat. “Except for red. You’ll still feel anger. And fear, sometimes. And then there’s the satisfaction that only blood can give you – you’ll still be able to feel that. But it’s a much more restricted emotional palette than what you’ve gotten used to, pretty much just fight or flight. In a way, it’s good: we kinda have to be disconnected to do the things we do. You can’t go around sucking people’s blood without either feeling bad about it or turning into a sociopath. Guess which path infection sets you on?”
“Then why does anyone even want to bother with anything?”
“We still fear death,” Jamie says, shrugging one shoulder. “It might seem, sometimes, that there’s no hope and the only way out is to end it all. But you’d have a hard time killing yourself – we heal fast, and pretty much any wound you could inflict on yourself would close up before you could bleed out. We can starve, but go half a dozen nights without feeding, and you’ll be so desperate for blood that you’d jump someone in the middle of the street. Thankfully, we have a much easier option available,” she nods to the nearest phlebotomist, “But the fear of death definitely grows the closer you are to it.”
“So we fear death, but don’t get much out of life – what is there for us, besides blood?”
Jamie nods slowly, a bittersweet smile on her face. “Welcome to the human condition, simplified. There are a few things that can still trip your trigger. Some of us like power. Some of us like to learn. Some of us like to spend money. Some of us like to fight. But you’ll only get the sort of satisfaction you’d get from solving a puzzle, or a good riddle: a brief glow, and then nothing. It doesn’t last long, and it never holds a candle to feeding.” She breathes deeply. “You get used to it, though.”
“It doesn’t sound like something I’ll enjoy getting used to,” Della mutters, looking down.“Well,” Jamie says, “This was considered a curse for centuries. There’s a damned good reason for that.”