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|When an evil vampire enlists Nikolai the tracker to hunt down a mysterious woman, this journey leads him all over the world to a strange potential ally in a dangerous, post-collapse future.||
Ten Years from Now, Winter’s Darkness: New York
In the cold and smoggy air of the New York winter, those who could afford heating used gas fires to warm their homes. Since the Collapse some five years ago, paper had become scare, with electronic data replacing newspapers and books. The downside of these was that when the weather turned cold, burning disks offered little comfort. Instead people had to rely on clothing and blankets, and now in the gutter outside one wealthy mansion a disk seller was wrapped in a thick quilt.
“Newsdisk, sir?” He asked, spotting a man walking towards him.
“I do not read newsdisks,” the man said smoothly, tossing him a coin. “Buy something to eat, and choose a different house to sit outside, for this will offer you no comfort come nightfall.”
As the man disappeared inside the gates, the newsdisk seller looked at the coin. He was in luck tonight, for he had been given a whole five-dollar coin. With this he could easily find shelter for the night in a cheap hotel.
“You stole my dinner, Nikolai,” a voice said disapprovingly as Nikolai entered the room.
“He would have offered you no satisfaction, Vladimir,” Nikolai said coolly.
“No. Poverty makes the blood taste strangely of alcohol, despite the presence of prohibition in our great country,” Vladimir chuckled, sitting before his heater in an opulent winged chair.
How dramatic, Nikolai thought, disgusted.
“Hungry?” Vladimir asked, thinking of the young girl he held in his cellars.
“Not in this house,” was the crisp reply.
“How are your parents?” Vladimir asked, gently running his finger along the rim of the wine glass he held in his hand.
“I do not represent them,” Nikolai replied.
“I did not think so. They seemed positively enraged when I informed them I had hired your services. They could not bear the thought of a D’Ragnor working under a vampire.”
“We look down on you,” Nikolai pointed out, knowing Vladimir would not notice the ‘we’. Vampires were notoriously self-important.
Vladimir did not notice, too busy following his own train of thought. “Now I command you.”
“No, now you annoy me. I would be pleased if you gave me commands, but you seemed to have paid me my advance for a short discussion. If you do not make your request in the next minute, then I shall leave. I will consider your payment due reparation for suffering your attempts to unsettle me.”
Nikolai was notoriously self-important, too.
Startled by Nikolai’s blunt manner, Vladimir was forced to realise how his insidious words had no effect on his companion. “Find this woman. I have asked all my contacts, but they lost trace of her in England after the Second World War.”
Vladimir skimmed a card across to Nikolai, whose lips twitched as he read the name. Vladimir had the name printed, on paper, which was worth at least a dollar. He was clearly trying to impress Nikolai, but this was failing, and only succeeded in making Nikolai positive that Vladimir had plans for his victim. “What do you want from her?” He asked bluntly. If he tried to use tact, Vladimir would use a practised lie, and Nikolai would never know the truth.
“At first, I just wanted to drink her. Now that I can’t find her, I am curious. I want to know how she stayed invisible to my powers for so long, and my appetite for her is increased. I want to be satisfied, Nikolai, and I will not be thwarted. My reputation depends upon my satiation.” Vladimir drank the last of the dregs from his wine glass and pushed it away. “Can you find her? I want her here within three months.”
“I want half of the rate now, and half of the rate when I have her.”
Nikolai stood, and walked out of the room. Angered to see his companion leave without having dismissed him, Vladimir frowned. He was determined to have the woman, but knew very little of her. Hopefully, Nikolai would find out more about her as he tracked her down, for Vladimir had very few doubts that Nikolai would fail in his quest. Nikolai was rumoured to be the finest tracker and fighter amongst those with otherworld magic flowing through their veins, and Vladimir trusted that the hatred between his vampires and Nikolai’s kind would be overpowered by the similarity they shared.
Reaching besides his chair, Vladimir tugged on the rope that would summon his butler. “Bring me the whore now,” he ordered. “I lust and hunger. I will be satisfied on both accounts.”
His butler faltered. “Sir, she is not there,” he said quietly. “I came not because you summoned me, but because I just found this is so.”
Vladimir scowled. “How could she have disappeared? That door is solid, made to withstand a blow from a sledgehammer…”
“It has been ripped from its hinges,” the butler explained.
“Nikolai.” Vladimir swore in some archaic Slavic tongue, and then pounded his fist into his hand. “I swear, if he does not satisfy me I will feed on his corpse like the ravens in a battlefield.”
Three Days Later: The British Library of Pre-Collapse Documents, England
The PCD Library was tended by a few mortals who understood the value of the documents and recorded them all on disks, locking away the paper to prevent looters from stealing this valuable commodity. However, with his contacts, Nikolai was able to access the original documents and in the high security archival wing he remained under close guard, quickly assessing the information he had found. He soon discovered why Vladimir’s coveted victim had managed to remain so elusive for so long, not because of a deliberate attempt to escape discovery, but because of more natural forces.
Her family had moved and migrated after the war, and Vladimir had only searched his otherworld contacts, too disdainful of the documents kept by mortals. Some of her family had moved to America, some had stayed in England, but Nikolai knew that searching for these family members would prove futile. If she was in America or England, Vladimir would have found her easily. Her family had clearly moved elsewhere, and considering the choices Nikolai made his decision and booked his flight to the one place he was sure he would find her.
The Next Week: A Blistering Australian Summer Day, a Suburban Kitchen
The spirit passed Nikolai a slim disk. “Here,” he said. “These are records of all her primary and secondary schooling. She finished her study somewhere in 1990, but I have no records relating to tertiary study. It is more than likely she attended university, with this academic record.”
“You’ve done well,” Nikolai said, accepting the disk and sliding it into his shirt.
“My kind have an uncanny ability to find access to children,” the spirit confessed proudly.
That was true. A spirit long feared by the Aborigines, this creature was a blood thirsty and ugly man, squat in appearance but no dwarf. With his oval shaped head and protruding fangs that stank of blood, he closely resembled some kind of primitive vampire. However, this spirit would not consume blood, only the flesh of children. Although it would certainly gain satiation from the tissue it ate, it gained greater satisfaction from the misery it created in its bloody feast. Feeding off the misery and terror a mother or father felt when they saw a bloodied baby’s blanket, it was a loathsome creature and one Nikolai was beginning to detest.
In the distance, a dog snarled, and Nikolai smiled when he saw the fleeting glimpse of terror in the spirit’s eyes. “You don’t like dogs,” he observed.
“No. The Aborigines discovered that they can sense us, so now every black house has at least two mongrels to protect their children. The whites also got dogs, but there are some families that don’t… The Asians don’t. I feed from them now.”
“The poor,” Nikolai prompted.
“Yes. No one cares what happens to the kids of some poor Vietnamese woman who can’t afford to pay for proper English lessons even though she’s been living her for twenty years. The cops here are good, but in most of Australia they just assume its vampires or something when we take a child, so we’ve escaped detection so far. The otherworld police here don’t even know we exist, and I assure you, ignorance is bliss.”
Ugh, he was trying to be witty. Nikolai couldn’t bear sitting so close to this creature, for in the stagnant air of the kitchen its stench flooded the room. “You can’t read minds, can’t you?” Nikolai asked suddenly.
“Yes. Feelings and memories, mostly – we feed off the miserable memories when we find them.”
“Read my mind,” Nikolai suggested. “I think you’ll be surprised to find what I’m going to give you in return for your services.”
The spirit hesitated, but then obeyed, sure that Nikolai would not betray a fellow otherworlder. He was wrong, for the memories Nikolai offered were ancient ones, remembered by the magic in his blood that made him what he was. The spirit could hear the bark of dogs holding prey at bay, followed by the pad of foot upon snow and the sound of hot panting in frigid air. Suddenly it felt a wave of pain as Nikolai began to remember his kind’s thrill of the hunt, the thrill of tearing another creature apart to feed upon its body. As it withdrew its perverted presence from Nikolai’s memories, it found tight jaws clamped about his throat, jaws which soon squeezed tightly, crushing his jugular into a bloody pulp.
Four Days Later: Her Home
Within the short space of fourteen days and having spent no more than fifty dollars to bribe his librarian friend in England, Nikolai was sure he had found the home where Vladimir’s woman waited. He had scouted the neighbourhood and knew that this home harboured one woman and four teenagers, and he knew that the house would be empty for at least three hours, giving him more than enough room to examine its interior.
It had once been a beautiful home, nestled in the outskirts of the city and close enough to the river to still be green and lush. Strangely enough, with the collapse of the economy and no money for the politicians to argue about, the water crisis was over and the river ran freely into the sea, with the rising waters of global warming saving at least one city from drought.
The paint peeled from the veranda and the lawn was left long, the twisted trees in the garden overgrown and the garage long left unused. Petrol had long been unavailable to all but the wealthiest, and now only the electric rail cars in the public transport system could be relied upon as transport. Easily picking the lock to the door, Nikolai paused to notice a stained glass window detail besides the heavy door frame. Turning away, he pushed open the door and slipped inside, taking care to shut the door behind him. He could always escape easily, if need be, but shutting the door would prevent neighbours from wondering if some common thug had broken into the house.
A sharp growl and a snap greeted him, and looking down Nikolai was amused to see a small black dog at his feet. A pretty little puppy, an Australian Silky Haired Terrier, she posed no threat to him with her overlarge ears and jaunty little walk, but now she bared her tiny teeth at him. “No. Sit,” he ordered, looking about himself.
She seemed a little put out as he refused to be frightened or intimidated by her but walked away slowly, sitting in a half eaten basket in the lounge room.
“Good girl.” He looked to his left, the formal lounge room of the house, now occupied by an old cat. She didn’t even raise her head to greet him, although she nonchalantly savaged his hand when he reached out to stroke her head gently. Withdrawing gracefully, although he was unused to such treatment, he walked through an archway into the formal dining room. Like the lounge he had just been in, this room was clearly once beautifully furnished but was now covered with a thin layer of dust, the beautiful dining setting now bare of tablecloth and all ornaments but for a candlestick. In one corner, an antique china cabinet was filled with someone’s collection of crockery and fine china, a beautiful but eclectic collection gathered with love before the Collapse.
He glanced over his shoulder into the lounge again, noticing the MP3 player stereo system and the cupboard that seemed designed to hold CDs. Opening it, he raised his eyebrows to see legitimate CDs. These had stopped being produced a short time after the Collapse, with the music industry failing to recognise the threat posed by pirates and act accordingly until it was too late. Now the only new music produced was by local acts, and the only new CD’s to be purchased were pirated compilations. The era of bubblegum pop had been short lived, with only the finest performers surviving thanks to their ability to draw in crowds to their concerts.
He closed the cupboard and walked into the kitchen, which led into the common lounge room. Knowing he had done a complete circle, he looked to the hall that was to the right of the front door. Deciding to explore the other rooms later, he sat on the couch, amused to notice how old the television was, and how the chairs faced each other. It was almost as though the people who lived here entertained themselves rather than depending on media, he mused, and then stood to resume his spying.
The telephone and computer organiser were together, on the bench in the open kitchen. He examined the organiser, noticing the dates several bill were due to be paid, and memorised others, before shutting the organiser down and leaving it exactly as he had found it. Now it was time to examine the bedrooms down the hall, followed by the upper floor.
On the lower floor there were two bedrooms, each possessing the customary computer. Since the Collapse, all computer software and hardware had become incredibly cheap, far cheaper than paper and other printing. The one occupied room on this floor was clearly home to a young girl, decorated with stars and pressed flowers, with a few printed banners depicting past movie and music stars. The other room was a spare room, home to a few mismatched items of furniture kept clean, but presently empty. Nikolai barely poked his head in the bathroom, but noticed it was slightly untidy, the mirror grubby. If only the one girl here used it, then she would be responsible for cleaning it. She had neglected this duty of late, he observed.
Along the walls of the hallway and up the stairs, he noticed a large collection of family photographs. These were still as expensive as paper, but clearly this family didn’t care and continued to spend it’s money on creating memories to decorate their home with. A few reoccurring figures had to be those who lived here, and two couples appeared frequently, often together. He could not hope to deduce who was who, however, and continued into the second floor.
Two girls and a boy shared three small rooms and one small bathroom, leaving only the master bedroom unexplored. This was the room he was waiting for, and he pushed open the door to find a darkened room, the curtains left closed. This suited his purpose, and he examined the furniture of this room, even lying down on the bed. It was certainly a woman’s room, and although the bed was made the quilt cover was slightly rumpled.
Why a quilt, in this hideous weather? He could never hope to fathom women.
He slipped his hand down the side of the bed, between this and a bedside table, pulling up a small personal laptop. Opening it, he quickly hacked into the files and made copies of all the personal documents he could, to examine at his own leisure.
Returning the computer, Nikolai found a book, a leather bound art book from before the collapse. It was filled with hopes and dreams, pretty but cryptic poetry and clippings from magazines featuring locations from lush waterfalls to arid deserts, and art from the renaissance and later periods. “She’s a romantic,” he said, smiling at the thought, but frowning at the code. “Interesting. She knows this to be true but dares not admit it…”
He carefully returned the book to where he found it, and wandered to the mirror on the dressing table. The table itself was untidy, covered with a jewellery box and a beautiful china doll, as well as a few ornaments probably collected before the collapse, when she was still just a girl. He saw no photographs, however was beginning to create an image of the woman who slept here in his mind. She could not be as old as he imagined, for within her there was still too much of the child she once was.
Without feeling at all as though he intruded on someone’s privacy, Nikolai opened the drawers to find underwear, both sensible and pretty underwear, nightclothes and socks. Glancing to the wardrobe, he quickly strode here and found a collection of no-nonsense pants and t-shirts, as well as a few long skirts and a couple of killer dresses. She still dressed like a young adult, he noticed, so perhaps he had his lines mixed up – perhaps someone had lied to him or led him astray unintentionally. The woman he was looking for had to be past forty. He shuddered suddenly, wondering if he was wrong and she simply dressed below her age, but remembered that he had not seen such a woman in the photographs. Perhaps she had some otherworld blood flowing within her, and so she looked much younger than she was.
The door to a very small ensuite was open just a crack, but just enough to let a small glimmer of light illuminate the otherwise darkened bedroom. Following his instincts, he pushed open this door and walked into the clean room, examining all that he saw with an expert eye. Some make up was scattered about the vanity, but no foundation or concealer could be seen, only lipsticks and eye shadows. He knew enough about women to find this intriguing, not recognising that this was someone who only used make up to change their appearance with their mood, not in an attempt to beautiful themself. The way that they were scattered suggested that someone had left in too much of a rush to tidy up properly, but not too quickly to neglect turning off all electricity and to close the house down.
There were a few cleaning products, hair shampoo and conditioner in the shower alcove and a light cleanser by the sink. Opening the drawers below the sink he found hairbrushes and hair ties, as well as a few ribbons and clips. Closing these drawers when he reached those that contained clean towels and face washers, his sharp eyes suddenly caught sight of a small crystal pot. Wondering if this woman was a drug user despite the laws prohibiting such substances, he lifted the lid to this pot and smiled when his suspicions were revealed to be true.
She was not a drug user; she was of the otherworld. A magical script, signed and written in the otherworld language by a local witch, accompanied a number of pills. Reading the details, Nikolai raised his eyebrows. They were a concoction of herbs he did not completely recognise, aimed to prevent headaches, and suppress. Suppress what he did not know, but a side effect of their use involved temporary blindness so how the cure could be worse than the illness he could not imagine. He wanted to take one, so that he could have another witch analyse them and tell him what the exact intent was for, but knew he could not risk this.
With a start, Nikolai realised that he would have to make his escape quickly. If this woman was from the otherworld, then he could not know what she was. She could not be a vampire, for she would not survive in the bitter Australian heat and sunlight. He would know if she were a werewolf, and would smell the presence of a zombie. If she was a witch, there would be far more herbs in the kitchen and a collection of strange bottled creatures.
As his feet pounded down the stairs, he stopped to see the puppy waiting for him. Just in case, he should kill the cat and the dog, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He could make it look like an accident for one, but not for both – this would arouse suspicion. Darting out the door and disappearing into the cover of trees and overgrown shrubbery, he made his escape without leaving any traces of his break-in.
Later That Day: Her Home
A young girl popped her head from the hallway into the lounge and glared at one of the three who lay reclining lazily on the couch and chairs. “Where’s my toothbrush, Poppy?” She demanded.
“In the upstairs bathroom,” her sister replied.
Poppy rolled her eyes. “Because I used it. You took mine.”
“There’s a clean toothbrush in the cupboard,” the boy intervened. “Use that, Tara.”
“Thank you, Harpo,” Tara said gratefully. She glared at Poppy. “Keep your hands off my stuff.”
“Same to you,” Poppy said coolly.
As Tara bounded up the stairs, Harpo turned to his sister, Coober. “When is Auntie Danse coming back?”
“She should be back by now,” Coober replied. “Ring her, and find out.”
“I’m back,” a voice called.
Danse walked through the door, tossing her keys onto Coober’s stomach. “Go get us some chocolate from the fridge, and put my keys away at the same time, okay?”
“Sure,” Coober said, springing up and ducking away.
“What happened?” Harpo asked.
Danse took the chance to steal the couch in Coober’s absence. “I got called in by the police again. Someone ripped apart some guy squatting in an empty flat, and they wanted to know if I could help.”
“Help what?” Harpo demanded, angrily. “Put him back together again?”
“There’s a werewolf in town, and they wanted to know if I knew who,” Danse explained patiently. “They picked up on that very quickly, Harpo, and Rick knew to ask me first. I don’t know him, but I’m going to find out who he is and what he’s doing here, although I am quite content with his choice of prey. He didn’t eat him, just tore him apart, and the corpse stinks of blood… Blood from all those missing children. It’s not a vampire, it’s something else. The police are examining it, but we think it’s another kind of demon, one not in their records.”
“Interesting,” Poppy remarked.
Danse sniffed the air delicately. “Why is Tara brushing her teeth now?”
“She ate something sweet, I think,” Poppy said. “I hope she’s not using my toothbrush.”
“You’re sisters. Get over it. Now, if Harpo or Coober were using your toothbrush, I’d tell you to beat them up.”
“Hey,” Harpo protested.
“No, fair’s fair. You’re cousins – you share different DNA and that would be gross.”
Danse smiled as Coober returned. “Hey, sweetie. How was school?”
“Average.” Coober pushed her aunt’s feet aside and sat on the little space she could clear.
Danse spotted the puppy lying in her couch. “Hey, baby,” she cooed. “Come sit with us.”
The puppy quickly trotted across and leaped into Danse’s lap, curling up in a little ball. “You’re quiet today,” Coober observed.
“She didn’t bark when I woke her up, and she always barks when someone wakes her up,” Poppy added.
“What’s wrong?” Danse asked. She gently buried her nose in the puppy’s fur, and then frowned. “She’s frightened,” she said. “Has anyone been here?”
“No,” Poppy promised. “I came back early,” she added.
“Strange.” Danse flipped the puppy on her back and began to rub her stomach affectionately. “I should have a nap. I start work at nine.”
“Have a nap,” Harpo ordered, standing up and taking the puppy. “I’ll play with Noodle-face.”
“Don’t call her that,” Danse scolded. “She’s a people. Call her Sarah, and don’t call her names.”
“Come on, Sarah, Noodle-face,” Harpo crooned.
Nine O’Clock: The Super-shake Bar
It wasn’t quite a dance club, but not quite a strip club, either, and so Nikolai was finding that he enjoyed himself quite a lot. Rather than watch the professional dancers like the other men who had come alone, Nikolai wove his way through the crowd, heading to the bar where he intended on buying himself a drink. Enjoying a glass of scotch, he turned his attention to the various poles where men and woman danced, some of the former discarding their clothes, the latter dressed completely and remaining so clad.
As he caught a glimpse of an attractive blonde and was about to approach her, he caught a scent of something familiar in the air. Despite the stench of sweat and the way smoke flooded the club, he could always know this scent, and he quickly left his place and followed it to the door.
At least here he would have some fresher air, as it swept in from the street. There were the bouncers at the door, a hard faced man and a slimmer looking woman who had only just arrived. She laughed at something and pushed the other bouncer slightly, before walking through the door. This was the source of that scent that had drawn him here, and it was the woman he was looking for – he recognised her dress from her wardrobe and her face from a photograph on the wall.
Danse had only just arrived at work when she could sense someone looking at her, and after her usual friendly banter with the doorman, Robert, she looked up to see who this was. Nikolai seemed to start, impressed with the way her black dress clung to her body and the way her dark eyes proudly met his. “What are you?” She asked lowly, walking up to him.
“A fan,” he replied huskily, turning on all his charm. “I heard you work here.”
She watched his eyes flicker to the dancers and smiled coldly. “I don’t dance, and I don’t strip – only the men do here, and only to their waist. I make sure of that. What are you?”
“What are you?” He countered.
They both wanted to speak so that no one would dare to overhear them, and so moved closer to one another, almost as though dancing. From behind the bar, the manager walked close to a waitress. “Who is that with Danse?” He asked, interested and amused. “I’ve never seen her so attracted to another man so quickly.”
“She’s a professional,” the waitress said smoothly. “I don’t know who he is, but I trust her. She knows what is going on around her, I’d stake my week’s pay on it. He’s sexy,” she added thoughtfully, smiling to herself.
Carefully taking in all of his scent, a mixture of sweat, memories and aftershave, Danse was slowly realising what Nikolai was, despite the ease in which he dismissed her demands for information. “You smell old,” she observed.
“You’re very rude,” he scolded, seeming in no way upset by her comments. “But, yes, I am much older than you… I believe I am seventy-six this Christmas. Not by any means as old as a vampire, but only a child amongst my kind. As are you.”
He moved his face closer to hers, delighting in the waves of perfume about her. “I thought they don’t make perfume anymore.”
“Some of the classics can still be found, by the bigger houses,” she replied, dodging his attempts to kiss her.
Danse looked into his eyes coolly and without emotion. He was like her, she knew that now, and wondered about how he had found her. “Were you looking for me?”
“No,” he lied, but so effectively it seemed like a true admission. “Not until I came here and could smell you.”
“You can smell me?” She asked awkwardly.
“Yes. It’s a biological trait… I can find my kind whenever I choose, as can you. You could tell I was here the moment you came here, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t know what it was, but yes,” she replied, noticing that his hands crept down to the side of her body.
Nikolai was surprised by her cold manner, for their kind were usually passionate and open in all their feelings. With someone as attractive as the two of them, they should barely be able to keep their hands from one another, but she hardly showed any sign of attraction to him. Now he knew what the suppressants did. “Why did you kill the spirit?” She asked.
“You know about that?” He raised an eyebrow, but he shouldn’t be surprised, since his kind always had powerful contacts.
“Answer my questions,” Danse ordered.
Nikolai smiled, seeing how the suppressants did little for her anger. “You like to be in control,” he teased, and then laughed when he saw her expression tighten. “He eats children, all his kind do, then they feed from the misery the mothers and fathers feel.”
“He wasn’t mortal?”
“He was, but he was an otherworlder, too,” Nikolai explained.
“The police know you’re here,” she informed him, drawing away from him. “They will interrogate you until they have found out why you’re here, and if you threaten any mortal they will track you down and kill you. That is the penalty all otherworlders pay for murder.”
“They will not find me,” he scoffed.
“They will, because I help them,” she snarled. “Stay away from me, and don’t hurt any mortal. You said it yourself, and I know you did not lie – I can find my kind whenever I choose, and you are the one I will search for the moment something goes wrong.”
He watched as she wove her way through the crowd, and then turned his attention towards him, where the attractive blonde he had spotted now stood. “Hello,” she said quietly, her voice barely audible over the pounding music.
Nikolai watched as her eyes fluttered down the length of his body and back to his face, confident in know that he would never disappoint. Since he had done exactly the same thing to this woman before and then later to Danse, he was content to now take his turn. “Hello,” he said, once he was sure she had finished her glance.
“May I help you? You seem somewhat… Tense.”
Nikolai smiled and moved in closer to her, as she wrapped her arms about him and they began to dance. Danse had been too avoidant, had slipped away when he had hoped that the animal inside her would cause her to give in to his seduction. Like vampires, Nikolai’s kind were not used to being left alone to satisfy himself, and if Nikolai could not bed with the one he had wanted, then this beautiful mortal would easily suffice. Later, he would track down Danse and kidnap her to take her to Vladimir, and perhaps on the way he would have the chance to learn more about her.
To be continued…
|The Game 2D4||The Ballad of Fair Rachael|
|The Game 1D3||The Unwanted Prisoner Pt 1|
|Sleeping in Beauty||The Game 2D1|