"You see? When you wash off all that dirt, you clean up rather well, don't you?"
Walter's eyes remained fixed on his reflection, lost somewhere a thousand miles away. Standing in the middle of his room at the Hotel Monteleone, he couldn't help but see the years laid out before him. He met Charlotte one hundred and twenty-four years ago. The last turn of the calendar marked the year of our Lord, nineteen hundred and seventy-nine. He wasn't Walter Krause any longer, but neither was he Jackson Phillips or any of the other pseudonyms which marked a long list of false identities and tall tales. Which one he used depended on the situation.
Lower level aristocrats loved anybody who paid them more deference than their title itself demanded. Higher ranking royals relished surrounding themselves in opulence. Richer immortals conversed with peers and humans didn't care so long as you pretended to be wealthy. He played each part so well, no one in recent history had questioned him, not at least in his presence. And by the time they might have, he was already long gone.
"Even then, they have no way of knowing for sure it was me," he said as he adjusted his bow tie one final time. He stepped back a few paces and assessed himself. The tuxedo had been hand-tailored, but wouldn't ever be used again. Even the moniker 'Jackson Phillips' would be retired once he finished his business here. He'd check out of the hotel tomorrow evening and be well on his way to Texas by the time the sun rose. This left him thirty-six hours to complete his work.
Walter turned and strolled away. Plucking his jacket from the arm of a chair, he threaded his arms through the sleeves and maintained a brisk walk to the door. His jobs always bore a time limit a habit developed after years spent honing his craft to its current level of precision. In and out. Only a few minutes of buffer; slipping past guards and, in recent days, security systems like a shadow. He chose his targets carefully and always made certain, if he was a suspect, he was one of many.
He'd chanced a lot in using his new story this time, though.
'You're entertaining that fantasy of yours again.' Walter held a steady expression while inwardly frowning. Approaching the elevators, he paused beside an elderly couple yammering on about their dinner plans. Walter sighed. He avoided eye contact while continuing to argue with himself.
'I'm years away from being ready. Decades, even. This sort of thing takes a lot of planning and I'm too busy with my work to do any research.'
'You could free up a few weeks, you know. Your clients aren't going to drop you just because you took a short vacation.'
'No, but they're not going to be pleased, either. This is starting to become a competitive market.'
'Blame it on the humans. Their indulgence is bleeding through to the vampires.'
The frown finally surfaced as the elevator door slid open. Pacing inside the cramped car, he ignored the glares shot to him by the elderly duo in favor of mulling over the current state of affairs. The stakes rose years ago, the demands becoming loftier with the pay-out improving only marginally. It was easier for the mighty to fall and harder to remain top dog. Such was the world of being an art dealer.
The elevator lurched. Silence reigned over the small group all the way to the lobby. As the doors opened, Walter wove around the humans, lithely side-stepping a host of others standing between him and the main entrance. Once outside, his eyes raised heavenward as a few drops hit his shoulder. A mist of rain had begun falling some time before sunset and now, the roads glistened with moisture, the lights of the city reflecting off the slick surface. The people gathered by the front doors held umbrellas and transitioned from car to hotel quickly, safeguarding their designer dresses and three-piece suits. Walter hailed a taxi and slid into the back seat.
"Start down Royal. I'll tell you when to turn."
The cab driver nodded and flipped the meter on while merging into traffic. Walter settled back in his seat, his eyes shifting across each building they passed with detached interest.
Meanwhile, his thoughts returned to the past.
Charlotte Dupuis had been looking for a thrall. Or auditioning for her next immortal child. A rent with option to purchase is what they would have called it in modern times.
Put bluntly, Walter Krause had become property.
Walter didn't know this the first time Charlotte called him 'Pet'. The air of condescension was enough for him to realize he'd become downright expendable. She kept him tied up during the day while she slept and freed him at night after drinking from him. At first he figured Charlotte viewed him as precious little more than a feeding trough. Then, her advances turned sexual.
The first time stood out vividly in his mind. Her hands explored his body as they never had before, a sensual groan emanating from her throat while she fed from him. Something about her bite took on a different tenor and by the time her hand wrapped around his shaft, his eyes had already rolled back in lust. She tore off his clothing. She kissed him harder than he'd ever been kissed. She straddled his lap and as he slipped inside her, Walter couldn't figure out what had happened. Quite frankly, he didn't care.
She left him lying naked on the floor after forcing two orgasms from him. Closer to dawn, she roused him from a sound sleep and demanded he join her in her bed. Walter woke several hours later, not recalling their final activities before he descended into slumber again. The presence of fang marks all over his body, though, told him all he needed to know.
Only once, he asked if she ever planned on letting him go. Her response served as all the answer he needed. She cackled with such sadistic mirth, the sound should have echoed across the farthest reaches of Chicago, forcing the populace to scan in terror for its source.
"What are you going to do with me, then?" he asked, what seemed like a lifetime later as she tied him to her bed. Stark naked again, Walter could feel the fresh puncture words still throbbing from parts of him he hadn't realized could be bitten. He watched Charlotte glide away, clad in nothing but a silk robe.
She shrugged. "I haven't figured that out yet." She sat in front of a vanity and began applying powder to her face. 'A little artificial color for that pale skin of yours, eh?' Walter thought, morbidly wondering if he'd become as pallid as she was. Charlotte tilted her face and nodded once, in silent approval of what she beheld. "What would you suggest?"
Walter issued a sardonic chuckle. "I'm sure you can't keep me alive. Not after this."
"Oh, pish posh." Charlotte laughed. She turned to look at him, her wicked, fanged grin mocking him. "I could make you forget all of this if I wished. I simply don't want to let you go."
Didn't want to let him go? 'How charming.' Walter watched as she stood from her chair and strolled toward a trunk on the opposite end of the room. "If you don't want to let me go, what are my options?"
"You don't have any options, Pet. This isn't a democracy."
"Well, you asked what I should suggest."
"True." The corner of her mouth curled upward. Their conversation paused while she opened her trunk and fished out a dress as fiery red as her hair. Walter watched Charlotte slip on her undergarments with half-hearted appreciation; she was an attractive woman, but considering how often she used sex to assert her control over him, the view had lost its luster after the first few sessions. Charlotte worked the dress over her thin figure and pushed her breasts into the décolletage in some effort to make them appear larger. Finally, she drifted closer to the bed.
"Well, I suppose we can play this game," she said, stopping in front of her mirror and spinning around to look herself over. "Just as long as you know the final decision is mine." Charlotte folded her arms across her chest. One hand lifted; one finger tapped at her chin. Walter couldn't be sure whether she was contemplating her appearance or deliberating on his options. "I could keep you as a pet until your mind goes. I usually kill my humans very quickly then, but it's always fun to keep them around at least a feeding or two afterward. You do whatever we ask you to, then."
Her eyes lifted, engaging Walter's with a sadistic glint. Walter winced, and Charlotte cackled, walking closer to him. The melody she hummed sounded disturbingly whimsical. It sent a shudder up his spine. "I could always turn you, too," she continued. "It's been a while since I've been a maker and I could always use a companion."
Walter's instincts cautioned not to ask the question. His lips produced the words nonetheless. "What do you mean... turning me?"
"Making you one of us, Pet."
Charlotte's fangs became pronounced. Walter's breath caught in his throat. He forced it out and struggled to maintain his composure, but the demon woman dressed in red caught on before he secured his poker face. "Does that thought frighten you?" she asked.
Walter shook his head, but not in a convincing manner. Charlotte's gaze turned crueler still, reminiscent of a cat pawing with a mouse; a predator taunting its prey. She sat beside him and Walter felt a long, cool finger stroke his cheek with languid motions. "It does have promise," she said. Her knuckle bent, a nail digging into his skin deep enough to draw blood to the surface. Her eyes fixed on the sight. "Traveling with a man makes things far less complicated. The mortals just suspect you're a couple." Her tongue flicked past her sharp teeth. "And you do have very pretty eyes."
"I..." Walter felt his throat turn dry. He swallowed hard. "I'd opt for having my memory erased. You can always find a better looking man. Somebody with more money than a poor textile worker."
Charlotte smirked. She leaned close and Walter felt her breath hit his throat. The hairs on the back of his neck stood erect; his heart raced as she kissed the crook of his shoulder. "I have plenty of money, Pet," she whispered. "I don't need any of yours." Her tongue traced a path all the way to his cheek, where it closed the cut she'd inflicted. Walter heard her groan. "I'm five hundred years old. I've seen things you've only read about in books. And as for better looking..." That evil laugh lilted past her lips again. "Oh, you're perfect. Lean and hungry, but strong. You would make an exceptional vampire."
Walter clenched his eyes shut and waited. What for, he didn't know, but he sensed Charlotte had become serious about this idea all of a sudden. His Adam's apple bobbed the next time he tried to swallow. "I don't... I'm not... I..."
A digit thrust into his mouth before he could respond, carrying with it a strange, coppery taste. Charlotte pulled away as his lids flew open and looked him in the eyes, withdrawing the finger. Her fangs retracted, restoring the facade of a pale-skinned beauty. "You're going to stay right here until I get back," she said. "If you're a good boy, then maybe I'll untie you when I return. But you have to be good." She smirked, standing and blowing a kiss at him.
Walter watched the door shut, and then sighed with relief. "I have to get the fuck out of here," he chanced whispering under his breath. Still, he made no effort to move, afraid Charlotte would return to retrieve something even after the flat fell silent. When nothing happened, and after no less than a half hour had elapsed, he began tugging at his restraints. The knots felt like they were tightening around his wrists, like nooses digging into his skin. He gritted his teeth and pulled harder. "It's either this or death," he said. "I'm not letting her turn me into anything."
The ropes raked against his skin. He drew a deep breath and yanked as hard as he could, but the way the cords cut into him inspired a yelp of pain. Relaxing, Walter opened his eyes and studied one wrist, examining the restraint as best as he could from his vantage point. Pulling at them seemed to be working against him. "Maybe they loosen again," he mused, nodding once before carefully patiently wriggling his hand.
The movements gained him only slivers of an inch at a time, but progress kept him going. At first, it seemed to be too little too slowly, but then, he managed the heel of one hand through the loops and flexed his fingers until they slid free. Walter laughed. Rolling to his side, he used his newly-released appendage to untie the other knot. The rope untangled, the other hand being loosed. After Walter sat up, he untied his ankles. A wave of sheer euphoria surged through him when he could finally spring to his feet, but he wasted no time celebrating. Heaven only knew how long that had taken and hell would be waiting if Charlotte walked in on him.
Walter dashed for the trunk and picked through it until he found a pair of pants. He slipped them on and began repeating a mantra as he raced to the door and out into the cold, March night. He just had to get to his room. Then to the train station. Then he'd get the hell out of Chicago and leave this whole maddening experience behind him.
Just to his room, then to freedom.
The wind stung his bare skin as he stumbled down the street; the snow lacerated his feet and made him wish for a pair of shoes. He ran as fast as his legs would carry him, ignoring the curious stares of everyone he passed, and got his bearings three blocks down, where Chicago became familiar again. Embracing himself, Walter rubbed his upper arms in an attempt to generate warmth.
Just to his room, then to freedom.
By some miracle, Walter managed his way to the house where he lodged as a tenant. Or had, before his entanglement with the devil woman, which might as well have been a lifetime ago. His landlord eyed him oddly as Walter opened the door and dashed immediately up the stairs. "Damn it, Walter, where the hell have you been?" he called after him.
"Can't talk right now."
"You owe me rent. Just because you disappear on me doesn't mean you stop paying for your room." The landlord droned on about selling Walter's possessions, but Walter had reached the second floor and ignored him in favor of disappearing inside his room. Moving as swiftly as possible, he produced a satchel bag and started throwing whatever he could manage into it. A few shirts and two pairs of pants joined all his art supplies. He removed the stolen apparel from his body and dressed in his own clothes. Throughout the duration of packing, he muttered platitudes about changing his life and traveling to New York City to study art. After slipping his last shoe on, he fetched his heavy, wool coat.
Just to the train station, then...
Somebody screamed. Walter stopped. He felt the blood rush to his feet the moment he realized the noise came from downstairs. Perspiration coated his skin and his pulse raced. 'Maybe I was just hearing things. Please God, let me have just been hearing things.'
Another scream and this time, he couldn't deny it. That had been downstairs. Walter heard words being shouted as he raced out of the room and to one of the other bedrooms on the second floor. His landlord yelled something about unholy demons and that shrill laugh he'd listened to for days? weeks? now chimed in as if confirming who'd managed to locate him. Walter stepped up the pace. Shutting the door to the room, he latched it closed and ran to the windows. They refused to budge open. Walter swore under his breath, repeating the mantra over and over again.
The train station.
The train station.
The window flew open and Walter tossed his satchel toward the street below. Glancing downward, he stole two seconds to gage the distance from the window to the ground. Walter frowned. If he aimed himself toward an adjacent snow mound, he stood the chance of being able to run away. Straight down, and he faced the risk of breaking his legs.
Footsteps ascended the stairs. The first floor had become deadly quiet.
Walter clenched his eyes shut and took a deep breath, then opened them and climbed onto the window sill. He focused his attention on the snow mound and kept repeating the words, on automatic now. "Train station, then freedom. Train station, then..."
He jumped while saying, "... freedom."
Walter sailed through the air. He kicked his legs on instinct, willing his body closer to the snow mound. In a split second, he determined he'd fall short of his target and from there, instinct took over again. Just as hit feet hit the ground, Walter rolled forward and landed on his back. His knees ached and his breath caught from the impact, but as he sat up, he realized he'd done it.
The only thing left to do was run.
He jumped to his feet and hobbled the first few paces before a surge of adrenaline propelled him forward. Running past his satchel, Walter scooped it up by the strap, throwing it over his head and gaining speed. He refused to look back. His eyes remained fixed straight ahead while his agnostic brain produced an impromptu prayer, his rational mind calculating the distance to the train station between words. Five blocks from the house, Walter wondered if he'd managed to outwit a vampire.
"I am five hundred years old."
If only Walter would have coaxed Charlotte to elaborate.
She might have surrendered the fact that older vampires moved impossibly fast. She might have even accentuated the point by allowing Walter to watch while she blurred from one point to another. He might have seen the futility of his actions before attempting to free himself from those restraints. At the very least, he wouldn't have been so surprised when he was lifted off his feet one block later.
Walter yelped the moment a fast-moving, foreign object collided with him, plucking him up without missing a beat. A very upset, red-haired vampiress slung him over her shoulder. He gripped onto her out of sheer realization that, at any moment, this ride could stop and throw him like a ranch hand from an angry steer. At the same time, he frowned when he noticed that they were not headed back to Charlotte's flat and nowhere near the train station, either. Walter turned his head to look forward. A graveyard lay before them. Walter opened his mouth to speak, but the cold air he inhaled inspired a coughing fit and slackened his hold on Charlotte.
Just as he suspected, Charlotte threw him onto his back a few yards into the cemetery.
He found himself staring up at the sky. Walter attempted to sit upright, but was forced back down onto his back. Charlotte pounced on top of him and narrowed her eyes as she straddled him. "You stupid little human," she said. Her fangs slid down to full length. "You do realize you've given me no choice, right?"
"What do you...?" Walter began, but his words were cut off by Charlotte. Swiftly, she plunged her fangs into his neck and this time, rather than bearing any sensual overtones, each draught she took hurt worse than the one which preceded it. Walter cried out in pain.
Charlotte cupped one hand over his mouth while the other clutched onto him. The disgusting, wet sound of Charlotte drawing from him filled the air surrounding them, the only noise Walter could make out besides hoof beats charging at him again. The world faded in and out of existence. Walter suspected the Grim Reaper might be the one driving those horses as Charlotte pulled away.
Walter coughed. Cold air filled his lungs again. His pulse beat erratically fast, then slow, then faster still the tempo losing coherence. He shuddered and closed his eyes, but something dripped into his mouth, giving his body one last surge of purpose in the midst of its death throes. Walter grew inexorably hungry. A few more droplets hit his lips and his tongue lapped at them, attempting to capture it all as though his life depended on it.
Hands moving beyond his own volition, they grabbed hold of an arm while his lips pursed against a wrist.
Blood filled his mouth with the first draw. He imbibed swallow after swallow, not knowing why. Not caring why. Not even aware of the steady stream of groans rising from Charlotte as he took from her, forming what sounded like a macabre symphony to anybody who would have heard it, if anybody was around to hear it at all. She moaned and Walter moaned, but with the crescendo came completion and Walter's mouth lifted from the wound. Fatigue became the ferryman. It drug Walter beneath the depths, beyond pain and into a void deeper than sleep.
Walter slumped onto the ground. The sensation of cold snow tickled at the nape of his neck.
Within seconds, everything went black.