New York August
Heat descended upon the short City night in thick oppressive waves. The stench of human sweat and rotting garbage was pervasive, nauseating. The collectors' union was on strike and the City's power grids were buckling under the strain of millions of whirring fan blades-under which bodies young and old took sick, withering under the relentless onslaught of humidity and motionless air-more perhaps than might have otherwise succumbed had a predator not been walking in their midst.
The heat drained all except one, who found the three digit temperature hike liberating-his warmed flesh was buoyed up to a comfortable 98.4 (give or take) while the veil of dank air coated his skin in a thin shimmering guise of humanity. Aside from the ivory cast and bluish lining of delicate veins twisting through muscle and bone surfacing under deceptively thin skin, the vampire strolled through Otis' Jams and Jive virtually unheeded.
Chipped black fingernails, still tinged under the rims by the dark remains of dried crimson, flipped through the Imports with the ruthless deliberation of a pack animal, winnowing out the right prey to snatch and slip into the separated lining of his worn metal stud and safety-pin festooned black leather jacket.
Velvet Underground, Undertones, Ants, Pistols, Pixies, Bowie, Bauhaus…been there, done all that, yeah, yeah,…Bela Lugosi's Dead…wait…
The hand stopped at Killing Joke and flipped the plastic covered LP over to check the yellow tag. 12.95-bleeding highway robbery. Import pricing. Trust Jolly Olde to sprout her first kick-arse-worthy music revolution the same decade he'd removed to the far end of the pond. Still, the extra quid wasn't going to set him back any-the record went in the jacket hideaway with a swift movement of wrist and arm no human eye could catch. The vampire snorted triumphantly and his black-lined eyes scanned the shop for other possibilities. Soundtracks…potential there, a chance for something other than the sodding Disco tripe they were blaring on the shop's Hi-Fi. He stalked over to the rack, heavy buckles on his boots rattling with each step-not terribly stealthy, but damn right imposing for the sorry sod who saw them coming up sharp for a chop between the eyes.
The black-tipped fingers went to work, flip, flip-Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, Godfather, Clockwork Orange, nicked it last year, Star Wars…8 copies in stock, all fresh off the vinyl press. He considered it. Not a bad film all told-lots of raunchy good fights, a 'walking carpet' that closely resembled a fuggitt demon on blow, pert little scammels from the sheer-gowned bun-toting princess, and those light swords were wicked cool. He pocketed a copy, shifting his arm; the leather safe was getting full. It'd been a good night for pinching swag this side of town. Despite the barred windows and looks of disgust from the natives, for all their posturing and offense at his particular shade of white, they'd given him distance. Still, every neighborhood had its limits and Spike didn't entertain the notion of kicking up a gang fight and buggering his loot. Oh lookie, here's another…Coffey, now there was a bit of all right…
"Hey, you! Asshole punk!"
Spike slid the slip of succulent blaxploitation into his jacket with a little rip. Fuck. He wriggled his shoulder to let it settle before turning a cold eye on his addresser.
"Yeah, you, motherfucker! What you got hiding under that jacket?"
Spike felt a thrilling jolt run along his spine as he raised his arms, harmlessly, and gave a shimmy of metal ornament. The lining held, barely. He'd fed already, but the firm dark muscled shoulders and forearms of the shop clerk looked worth a brief engagement, provided he removed his jacket first. "Don't know what you're on about, mate. Can't a bloke take a turn 'bout this side of town without all the to-do?"
The clerk turned down his full mouth in revulsion, but seemed reasonably assured for the moment that the 'punk asshole' in the torn blue jeans was no imminent threat to his turntable wares. "Yeah, well watch yourself. I'm keeping my eye on you."
Spike gave him a mildly annoyed scowl and went back to his LP prowl.
He was halfway through Carly Simon's Easy Listening collection when the lights flickered out. Spike, dear old boy, this is your lucky night. Go ahead, swipe that Barbra Streisand before anyone sees you.
Little legs and scampering feet trotted down a steel staircase outside. "Mr. James! Mr. James!" pealed a tiny voice. Spike stopped, Funny Girl in his grip, and watched the clerk get to his feet and catch the child up in his arms as he ran head-long into the darkened shop. "Light's gone out, Mr. James! It's all dark!"
Spike could smell the child's fear. It was an old fear for such a little thing, built up over time he'd guess, from long nights of worries, hinged tight under a stiff upper lip.
"It's all right, Robbie. Your momma, she'll be home soon. I gotta shut down in here in just a while and then I'll be up to keep you company until your momma gets home, alright?"
The kid burrowed into the big man's arms, his tiny heart fluttering at hummingbird speed. What heartless bitch would leave her baby all alone on a night like this? Spike wondered. In this neighborhood? Especially with the likes of himself about?
"Can you come up with me now?" the child pleaded. Even as he asked the lights flickered and came back on. Spike tossed the incriminating diva LP out of his hand like a red hot frisbee. Wouldn't be caught dead…
"Now we've talked about this," the clerk said, dropping to a whisper only a vampire could hear from across the room under the resurrected freaky beat of Gloria Gaynor. I will surviiiiiiive…!
"Your momma's got a mission, child. She's loves you with all her heart, but she's got to do what's right to keep you and everybody else in this city safe."
Spike's blood went cold, or at least colder than his current fraudulent heat-induced reading. His Aqua Net-stiff hair stuck up straighter. His breath hitched to mimic the thump his heart could not beat. It couldn't be…after all this time…
"Now go back on up and lock the door and I'll come to you just as soon as I can." The clerk's voice was still low. Warm. Concerned.
"You'll knock three times?" the child whispered and the man chuckled.
"Yep. Just let me get things swept up…and get rid of this ass…"
The crash of the Disco Super Sale 8-Track rack hitting the tile floor in a chipped domino disaster distracted the clerk just long enough to miss that asshole punk slipping out the open shop door in a streak of pale lightning.
Spike hid in the shadows under the metal stairs. He was still, as white and frozen as the Central Park Lake in February. The child did not see him as he trotted up the stairs reciting some counting game to himself, oblivious of the cool blue eyes that watched him from underfoot. The kid went to the tenement door on the far right, pulled back the security bars and went in, shutting it and the inner door behind him. Spike could hear several metal bolts slide back into their berths, good and tight. Below, a guttural stream of profanity could be heard issuing from Otis' as a pushbroom worked across the littered floor. Goddamn punk-ass motherfucker. Why you'd let that fuck in the store in the first place? Otis gonna skin yo' hide. So much for race relations in this borough. Still, there wouldn't be much time. Spike grabbed the rail overhead and swung himself up.
With vampiric speed he was at the barred green door. The paint was chipped and blackened around the worn knob with fingerprints decades old. He fit his knuckles through the bars and knocked three times. He heard a yip within and the lock series unclamped; the inner door opened to reveal the child, struck stupid by his unwelcome visitor.
Spike dropped to his haunches to match the child's height and gave him a genuine smile. "Hullo, little one. Is your momma at home?"
The child looked at him with a mixture of fascination and fright, held together by a quick glance of assurance that the barred outer door was still locked fast between them-although it was not the barrier his unusual visitor was concerned about. Behind the child's small brown head Spike could see the glowing halo of a cabinet telly, rabbit ears twisted about, blaring the Channel 5 Eleven O'Clock News. Not much on for tykes at this hour. "No she ain't…uh…she's in the shower. She'll be back…later."
Spike winked at him. "She's not home, duck, is she? Tell you what…Robbie, can you give her a message for me? I'm an old friend."
The kid stood on tip-toe to take a peek over Spike's shoulder to the stairs below, watching for Mr. James, no doubt. Spike knew he'd have to keep it nice and casual if he didn't want the imp to give a shout. "Yeah, I guess."
"First off," Spike said, a glimmer of an idea taking shape as he tucked a hand into his loaded jacket skins. "I've got something for you." Smokes, pocket knife, half-dozen records, Tic-Tacs, shiny red something on a string of gold might be worth fencing, dammit, where was it? Other side, less clutter, wad of bills from picked wallets, a pair of adjustable pliers, pack of AA batteries, bloody handkerchief, don't let that slip out, ah, Hersheys. A little bent and melty, but still good. Spike held it up and the whites of the kid's chestnut eyes went wide. "You want it? It's yours, lad. Now just reach out and take it."
The kid started to grab for it and stopped himself. A look of sidelong resentment crossed his round face, perhaps for someone who by all rights should have been home already to tuck him in. And would have been if she wasn't out… Steady on, mate. You still don't know for certain.
"My momma says I'm not a-sposed to take candy from strangers."
"Does she?" Should have seen that coming-blasted public television service messages.
Spike tossed the candybar over his shoulder and wiped the humidity out from under his eyes with thumb and middle finger. Liner-smudged fingertips-no wonder the kid didn't trust him. Perhaps he should just push off and come back another night, more appropriately dressed. Hang about…the kid was eyeing something on him. Something his soft curious eyes coveted with a certain edge of daring. Spike followed the gaze to his own neck where a nice thick ring of chain hung clasped by a Masterlock. "This?" he asked, fingering it. "Do you fancy it?"
The kid looked him in the eye, with a courage ten times his tender age. "Yeah. Gimmie the chain and I'll tell my momma whatever you want."
"Mmm, simple enough," Spike said and gave the lock a yank. His neck cords protested; the lock was fastened tight. The keys were long-gone to a Village bird he'd sucked down after a thirsty night of slamdancing. She'd been quite the kitten, that one. Pity he didn't think to ask for the key after she'd clamped it 'round his neck and before she'd sunk her cannabis-soaked tongue half-way down his throat where he'd bitten it off. He gave it another tug, hard. A vertebrae cracked in protest. "Bloody hell." He tried prying it up off over his head, but the damned chain wasn't long enough to clear his nose. "Nnngh…!"
"Can't get it off?" The kid asked, unimpressed.
"Give me a minute," Spike said, grittley, his hackles rising. This pup's gonna be a right bloody bastard when he grows up. But you'd best let him grow up or this whole ruse is off. He took firmer hold of the Masterlock. (Weren't these the locks in those adverts where they fired a rifle clean through it and it still held on?) Stupid bint, I'd of eaten her twice if I'd known she'd put me in this fix. He screwed up his neck and whipped his arm down for all he was worth. The chain gave a nasty 'pop' and came free. "Ow!" he yelped, clasping the back of his neck. No skin broken, but he'd have a bastard of a neckache for the next seven to ten hours. "Here," he said, handing it out with a careful stretch of his still-attached head.
The kid looked indifferent. "You broke it."
"Yeah, well, I had to get the sodding thing off somehow."
Spike rolled his eyes. "Fine," he said and slipped the links back together, set the open ends back between his molars and bit down. At least he could vent his frustration on something productive to his cause. He spit the repaired chain out. "Here, happy?"
He kid smiled and held out his hand, just inside the iron rails of the security door, on the wrong side of the threshold. Spike sighed. This was why he preferred to avoid prey with progeny. Bloody nuisances and hardly worth more than two swallows for your trouble. Speaking of, since when did a…well, we still don't know. Won't know, unless we make nice now.
He gave the bauble a swing and the chain flew right through the invisible barrier and into the child's palm. Now if my accessories can go right on in, why in bleeding hell can't I? He gave the doorway an eye-blink-quick test while the kid slid the chain around his small neck. He was muttering and waving the sting out of his denied fingertips when the kid beamed up at him, thrilled with his new trinket. "Hey man, thanks! This is real cool."
"You're not a Disco boy are you?"
"Disco's for pussies. I wanna rock." The half-pint did his best to sound tough-like and Spike took an immediate liking to him.
"Then you'll want to start with the Stones and work your way up. But don't look to Mr. James for much of a selection. Try Rainbow Records Times Square, second floor-Imports. I'm a London bloke myself; I go for the edgy stuff. Music should hurt," he said, standing and making to leave.
Spike stopped mid-turn. Good boy, good.
"Watcha wanna say to my momma?"
A smile crept across his face as he regarded the small fry. "Tell her Spike dropped by, and you know what else? Let's suppose I come on by tomorrow when she's about and you answer the door to me. What are you gonna say to the nice fellow who gave you that chain and lock?"
"I'm gonna say, 'Hi!'"
"Yeah…and what else are you gonna say, especially if your momma's really in the shower and can't let me in straight off?"
"I'm gonna say, 'Come on in, Spike!'"
The kid jumped back, startled as the vampire flashed forward in a blink to crouch and reach through the bars to tousle his thick curled head.
"That's about bloody right," he hissed and grinned coldly before standing, straightening the weighted jacket across his shoulders and slithering down the metal stairs into the night.
Spike kept a vigil on the building for some hours after, keeping out of the streetlights. Mr. James came by just like he said after closing the shop and the tinny voices of the newscasters echoed out of the small space. He cased the windows. One in the front off the living room, two in the back over the alleyway and one facing northwards, larger-possibly a bedroom. All barred. His keen eyes noted a spot of rust around the screwed base of the rails on the front window. That's where he'd make his way in.
A few hours before dawn a woman approached, coming up the street alone-tight knit top, bell bottomed jeans, long black coat cast over her wide shoulders like a flare of ebony fire-odd, considering the heat. She carried nothing visible in her hands or pockets, but within her thick mane of tight curls, nestled the end of something round, wooden.
There's my girl.
Spike killed his cigarette and backed into the alley as he watched her climb the stairs and enter the green door. Then he crouched down between the rubbish bins to wait.
He listened, eyes closed and breath still to every word whispered through the four open windows, left ajar to combat the heat. The whir of fans droned within, garbling some of the syllables. There was Mr. James to wake and thank for watching…little Robin, was it? Another name was spoken in reply-Nikki. Is that your name, sweet? Then the sounds of the man leaving and walking away home. The click of the television. A sleepy kiss for her son's head. A flush of the toilet and then off to bed. She shifted about her own room-the one in the back, opening a drawer, turning out the lights, then all went still. And remained so for another hour.
Spike unfolded himself limb by limb and emerged from the shadows. He took the stairs unhurriedly, one at a time, then stepped up onto the narrow hand rail and with an easy glide from its height, dove out to catch the window bars, hooking a foot into them. Now there was need for swiftness. Exposed to the street below, he worked briskly and silently with the narrow pliers to unbolt the leftmost mooring from the aging brick. Rusted and weak, the bolt came easily and slid into his hand. He tucked it away and shifted, reaching for the top rail with one hand. With the other, he gripped and pulled the weakened iron back from the brick frame. One reach in and the screen popped out and was on the ground. Access granted, he swung one leg in and slipped underneath, swiveled across the sill and dropped into the living room.
The child was asleep on the old sofa under a thin blanket, his socks and plimmies perched on the armrest, his small head sunk into a pillow. The rug was stained and held old smells, the cabinet which housed the television bore a large dried flower arrangement and several small photographs in silver frames. Spike crawled over and looked at them one by one. Most were of Robbie, from birth to primary school-many with her, smiling, playing with her baby. One was of her and a man, much older, white hair and face. Umbrella. Englishman by guess. None were of the child's father. Did he leave you all alone, Nikki? Not much of a man, was he?
Satisfied, Spike slipped out of his jangley boots and jacket, leaving them by the pried window. He crept low and silent past the sleeping child and into the hall where a large floor fan rattled and hummed in its metal cage.
He passed three doors: kitchen, toilet, closet until he came to hers- left slightly ajar at the far end. He slid through it and settled low by the wall, fingertips to the shag carpet. Another fan blew, set on the dresser, carrying air from the window across the sweep of the bed. She lay upon it on her back, still dressed atop the sheets with her long coat beside her, head to the side, one arm lax over the edge of the mattress, the other under her cheek. The sparse furniture was old and chipped, dated, girlish. Costume jewelry and long combs were set in a wicker basket upon the dresser along with a turned length of wood stabbed into the center of the jumbled nest.
His eyes lit on it and he slipped across the floor to have a closer look. He lifted it briefly, the end was whittled into a nice sharp point. He smiled in the darkness and turned, coiled and sprung up to perch upon the footboard. With knees bent and arms wrapped about them like a right-sided bat, his sharp white head cocked in wonder at the lady laid out before him.
He touched her with his eyes: long sleek legs; wide generous hips; flat muscled stomach and ample bosom that moved with her breath; long elegant neck dazzled with sweat; full lower lip lighter then the upper, curved and soft; sweet flat nose; dark lush lashes lying upon high cheeks; and to crown it all, the dense voluptuous mane-his lioness, his nemesis, his very own Cleopatra Jones. He reached out a hand to silence the fan with a click, closed his eyes and breathed her in: Leather, perfume, hair cream, sweat and woman-her musk ruthless and tender as the New York August-and through it all, a sliver of blood.
He opened his eyes and reached down to press his fingertips to the bedspread, shifting weight and stretching forward, one bare foot down, the opposite arm reaching out to touch the lapel of the coat and drag it close. Strong black leather, infused with her-his nose dragged under the collar to find a narrow strip of wet. The wound which had cut her below the ear had already healed in a thin pale line, but in the damp air, the cured skin of the coat had only served to preserve what had seeped from it. Watching her closed eyes, he took it all up on his tongue in one slow lick. He rolled her flavor around his mouth, learning it, etching it deep into his mind before indulging his urge to swallow. The sip of her life, the taste of her power ripped through him, setting his flesh alight. His cock swelled and his fangs descended, the transformation to demon eyes turning the room into a kaleidoscope of color. A radiance pulsed along bright veins coursing under the dark skin of her face and neck. The colors of lust, hunger and death filled his head and he hissed and backed away, dropping the folded leather at her side. He stood now, confident and proud, retreating slowly behind the door as his face regained its tenuous humanity. It was all just beginning and he had no desire to rush it this time.
"Sleep easy, baby," he said low, his breath a cool stir in the air. "You're not alone anymore."
He breathed her in once more before turning away to cross the hall to the living room, passing the couch and stooping to slide back into his boots and jacket while the kid slept on unaware. A glint of metal caught his eye and Spike paused, then approached. His mended chain and lock hung loose around the small neck. He bent and slipped a finger under it, lifting it off around the soft head. The kid sighed in his sleep but didn't wake.
"Sorry," the vampire whispered, sliding the gift back into his pocket before he twisted his way back out the open window. "I guess we can't be friends, after all."