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"SINS OF THE PIANO MAN"
CHAPTER 01: ON THE CONCEPTION OF THRENODIES
Seeing myself this way,
I am a monster, I believe.
And seeing is believing.
"Whatever I Fear" by Toad the Wet Sprocket
February 12, 1987
The world craves, perhaps even demands, balance. Give and take. Plant and harvest. Yin and yang. This February night—one night in a month of an endless number yet to come—was my night of take, my warped yet highly satisfying night, during which I did not feast on society's refuse, but on its goodness. On the twelfth night of each month, I hunted as traditional vampires do, hunted as I desired; what I wanted was not the foulness of criminals. I wanted innocence, as much as I sometimes hated taking it.
Though I didn't really believe my own excuses, I told myself that this night of debauchery was really not that sinful at all, that this was so I could purge the evil I consumed all other days of the month. Drinking the blood of murderers and rapists and pedophiles must surely be my gift to society, so what could be so wrong with an occasional treat? Sometimes, when I felt especially cocky, I'd tell myself that this was what society owed me, that this was all part of nature's balance. Denial can be a powerful emotion, even in vampires.
This particular twelfth began in a bar in the southeastern suburbs of drizzly Seattle, Washington.
I always entered bars at ten o'clock at night. Over the years, I'd learned that this was the optimal time to begin hunting: it wasn't so early as to make my pickings slim, nor was it too late as to make my visit uncomfortable with the dozens of hazy and drunken thoughts that my ability to read minds forced me to hear. Ten o'clock was perfect; bars were filled with sober humans.
The red brick building I entered looked like many of the bars I'd seen in my sixty-six years as a vampire—nothing special, catering to a slightly blue-collar market. The right side of the building held the bar and the frazzled-looking bartender; it was where most of the humans huddled, either to purchase more alcohol or to try to find someone who would keep them company for the night. They were needy like that, and they were at their worst in bars. Bars were filled with lonely people who wanted to talk or touch or fuck, but rarely had the backbone to say as much until several drinks had entered their system.
Booths and small wooden tables filled up another third of the building, and there were flickering neon signs for Budweiser and Miller Lite above a scuffed-up pool table. Finally, cradled in the far corner, was the small dance floor. On Saturdays, a live band might set up on the meager stage, but it was a Thursday, and so those who wanted to dance had used the old-fashioned jukebox. Bruce Hornsby's "The Way It Is" played in tandem to the increasingly loud chatter of the bar's patrons.
I noticed all these things, but the smells were what I always noticed first. To the human eye and nose, this bar might seem fairly clean, but I could detect the acrid scents of vomit and urine that clung to the floor and walls beneath the masking scents of disinfectant sprays and soap. Of course, above all these horrible scents was the bitter odor of smoke. The owners could scrub all they wanted, but unless they torched the place, those scents were here to stay.
These things were only tolerable because of the delectable blood that pulsed and pushed through the skinny, serpentine veins of the oblivious humans around me.
Sweet, salty, tangy—the warmer, the better.
And then there were the heartbeats, which provided an odd, steady, thrumming accompaniment to the music. Some hearts beat faster than others; some skipped beats in sudden excitement or nervousness; some were slow and relaxed. I smiled. If they knew what was in their midst, none of them would be relaxed.
All of it—the blood, the heartbeats—made me thirsty, fanned the ever-present flame in my throat that was forever telling me to feed. Not even the scents of vomit and urine could change that, could change how utterly delicious every one of the humans smelled.
I swallowed back the venom that gathered in the back of my throat. It would not do to get carried away and take the easiest victims. The easy ones—usually the tipsy women who were immediately lured by my outer appearance and scent—weren't any fun. I liked a challenge, at least up to a point. They provided some entertainment in a monotonous existence.
Sauntering over to the bar, hamming up the confident swagger that intrigued my prey, I ordered a beer. I wouldn't drink it, of course, but I had to have something in my hands to put the humans at ease.
Beer in hand, I went to one of the empty tables near the dance floor and sat. There were enough people in the bar to make mind reading uncomfortable, but I'd learned over the years to ignore the majority of what I couldn't help overhearing, as one would with the voices of a crowd. Now, though, it was time to listen. I focused on one or two humans at a time, pulling their thoughts out of the mental dissonance.
Oh, she's got a wedding ring. Damn…maybe it doesn't matter?
This vodka's going straight to my head. Oh, well. I don't give a shit. Still can't believe I lost Ted the McLuhan account. My ass is fucking grass.
I can't believe my fake ID worked!
When I focused like this, images came with the thoughts—images of what was being looked at or misty imaginings. Adult humans usually reserved their imagination for the romantic and sexual exploits they desired; men also had a tendency to imagine themselves doing something heroic, which of course led to "getting the girl" and besting other male competition.
Humans were incredibly simple creatures, really. It was difficult to believe I'd been one once. At least, these were the things I told myself to make it easier to kill them.
And on and on they went, thoughts of love and sex and money and liquor. Humans might be surprised to know how often at least three of those things overlapped on any given night.
But then everything stopped. The whole world seemed to fall away when a petite, brown-haired woman walked into the bar to the glam rock of "You Give Love a Bad Name." Before I even realized what I was doing, I was walking to her—a little too swiftly for human comfort, but I couldn't seem to stop myself.
She was completely ordinary looking with her shoulder-length hair, plain shirt, brown skirt and boots, but there was still something about her that was intriguing, something that called to me. Her scent was sweet, like gardenias, with subtle undertones that I couldn't quite place but that had the fire in my throat raging. All the other thoughts and humans in the bar no longer mattered. She would be the one I would take.
"Hello," I said in my most charming voice when I reached her. "May I buy you a drink?" I leaned close and smiled, meeting her startled gaze head-on.
Her thoughts were flustered as she took in my face. Well aren't you confident! So handsome…green eyes…no, contact lenses…wonder what your real color is. Oh! He wants to buy me a drink. I shouldn't… Oh, God, I'm going to regret this, I know. I shouldn't… Just for tonight… She smiled up at me, but it didn't completely reach her eyes. "I'll have a Bud." Stay with me. I don't want to be alone. Not tonight.
I wouldn't dream of leaving her alone. She was mine now.
I looked around needlessly. "Are you here by yourself?" She nodded, and I flashed a grin that sent her heart racing, making her smell that much sweeter. "Care to sit with me?"
"That'd be great," she said. Something strange about this guy… Should be careful.
She would be less perceptive after a few drinks.
I bought her beer and led her to the table I had previously occupied. Her thoughts were erratic, jumping back and forth to different faces that she didn't readily assign names to, and to a rainy town called Forks; and then her thoughts would drift to me, to how handsome she thought I was and to how much she knew she would regret tonight even though she had every intention of living life to the fullest while she still could.
Was she dying?
Well, no matter. She had a front row seat to death now.
We sat, and I smiled at her again. Her heartbeat slowed. "I'm Edward," I said, and didn't extend my hand to her.
Old-fashioned name…must be a relative's. "Renée," she answered.
"What brings you to a bar alone this night? Not everyone comes on a Thursday." I smirked.
Renée sipped her beer, her mind still a swirling mess that was surprisingly difficult to follow. Her thought patterns were similar to a child's—jumpy and emotive, easily distracted. One smiling face came up more often than others—a young man with a fishing pole; he had a slightly mischievous glint in his brown eyes and a cigarette hanging from his mouth. Her mind paused on this image as she shrugged and replied, "I just needed to get away tonight." Hope you don't ask any more questions. Can't deal with the third degree… I want to dance…
Ah. Not dying. Feeling stuck after making poor decisions. I was guessing that the poor decision was the man. It often was for women.
I gave her a sympathetic look, or as much of one as I could muster, at least. I tried to leave my emotions behind when hunting. "Sounds like you could use a break. Would you like to dance?"
Her blue eyes lit up in her heart-shaped face as she scrambled up from her chair. It toppled slightly behind her. "Yes, come on!" Before I could stop her, Renée grabbed my hand. Her eyes widened, but she held tight to my fingers. "Oh!" she exclaimed, looking down at our joined hands. "You're so cold!"
"Bad circulation," I murmured as she pulled me toward the dance floor. She accepted my excuse. They always did. Why wouldn't they?
One song bled into another as Renée and I wordlessly rocked our bodies to a wide variety of music—not all of which I liked, but it kept her happy. She didn't want to drink. She wanted to dance. She wanted to feel. She wanted to be young. And the longer we danced, the more comfortable she became until she was flush against me, moving her hips closer and closer to mine; her mind came up with a dozen ways to explain away my granite-hard body. I let it.
My throat burned as I dropped my face close to her neck, delightfully torturing myself with the cocktail of her blood; it was so strong that it seemed to drown out all else in the bar. It was only us: this small woman, her troubled and erratic thoughts, and me. As she thought of the man with the fishing pole, of Forks, of sunnier places like California, I imagined all the ways I would kill her.
I could drain her in a steaming shower. Her scent would be held in the steam and surround us for several minutes even after she was dead. This was one of my favorite methods.
Sometimes I liked to toy with them, slide down their bodies until my head was between their legs. They always thought I was going to go down on them. Of course, how could they know I only wanted access to their femoral arteries?
Renée's scent was almost too much, though. There likely would not be many theatrics this night.
My hands went to her hips, pulling her closer, and her heart sped up.
Shouldn't do this…but you're so sexy…just for tonight… No one has to know… Just for tonight…
Right or wrong, tonight was all she had.
I leaned my face against her cheek. Having only had half a beer, she still found my cool skin surprising, but she oddly accepted it. I brushed my lips against her ear, and fingered the hem of her purple shirt. "Come back to my hotel room with me, Renée."
Her heart skipped a beat, and the young man in her thoughts—her husband, I had learned—disappeared completely, his image swirling away like the gray smoke from his cigarette. Can I trust him? Just for tonight… She nodded breathlessly.
Using feather-light pressure, I kissed the shell of her ear.
I led Renée out into the night, leaving behind the steadily growing crowd that hadn't interested me for much of the evening. Unsurprisingly, a light mist was falling from the Seattle sky; it heightened Renée's scent as soon as it made contact with her skin.
More venom to swallow.
"Nice car," Renée complimented when we stopped before my black Ferrari. He must be fucking loaded.
I was. Mind reading helped with gambling, and eternity seemed to help with interest and investments.
I grinned and opened the passenger door for her. "I hope you like to go fast," I warned as she ducked inside.
Her thoughts were becoming more hormone-ridden as the night went on. I'll go any way you like, she thought. She imagined me naked. My skin was darker, more alive in her mind; my body yielded to her touch. Humans lied to themselves like this all the time when it came to imagining me. I often wished I could be what they imagined—warm, pliable, alive.
I wound through streets at high speeds that had Renée giggling like a teenage girl; of course, she didn't look much older than a teenage girl, either. The tires squealed as I jerked the wheel into sharp turns that humans wouldn't be able to make as easily without the preternatural reflexes that I so often had to hide.
He's staying here? Renée wondered as I pulled up to the short line for valet parking at the hotel where I'd booked a room for the purpose of my dinner. My own macabre restaurant experience.
Keys handed off, I led Renée through the extravagantly designed hotel lobby and into the elevator. It was here that she began to really question what she was doing and—even more so—the man she was about to do it with.
Too little, too late.
"I don't think you ever said what brought you into the city," she hedged, her blue eyes suddenly filled with concern. "Business?" Oh God, we're going to his room. I'm really doing this, aren't I? This isn't right. What was I thinking?
Whether she thought it was immoral or not, a part of her was thinking about riding my cock. I had to hide my grimace.
"Pleasure," I corrected in my most seductive voice. From where my hand rested on her lower back, I slipped two fingers beneath the edge of her skirt and glided my skin against hers. I flicked the edge of her underwear. The elastic snapped against her skin quietly.
Her mind went blank for a second. "I, uh, I see," she said, her voice high-pitched. Her heart raced.
The elevator stopped on the top floor.
"You're staying in the penthouse?" Renée asked in surprise. Really, really loaded.
I nodded with a smile. "A lovely place for lovely company," I said as I unlocked the door to the apartment.
My reasons for booking the penthouse were slightly morbid, in all actuality. I wanted privacy, a place where loud, usually female screams would not be overheard, a place from where I could easily remove a body without being seen. On some level, I also liked my innocent victims to have a memorable last night, even if it was had with a monster from nightmares. They didn't deserve death, like the others I feasted on, but they would die.
This was my measly effort to not be a complete cad. It needed to be a nice place to die, because once they reached my hotel room, there was no going back. Even if I were to reconsider killing them—I never did—it would likely be too late, the bloodlust too strong. I was already struggling with Renée. She was even more appetizing now that I had her alone.
Everyone dies eventually, I thought to myself, consolingly, trying to displace the guilt that always stirred deep in my belly when hunting innocents. Why not now? Why not this night for this plain woman beside me? I was just part of nature's balancing act. Right?
The penthouse of the five-star hotel was designed with a contemporary mindset, and Renée immediately loved it. She took in the beautiful colors, particularly the golds and yellows. Ironically, considering she was with me, it was the warmth she was attracted to. Warmth made her think of Arizona.
Cozy yellow walls that reached up for fifteen feet were accented with dark brown leather couches, warm reds and greens and blues. Thick rugs were scattered along the wood flooring. There were no overhead lights, only soft glowing lamps that added a romantic luminosity to every corner. I hadn't paid much mind to the décor before now, as I saw it through Renée's eyes. I supposed it was nice.
I knew from experience that humans sometimes felt awkward when entering into a scenario such as this—not that they knew what scenario truly awaited them—and so I offered, "Would you like a drink? There's some wine."
Renée's thoughts took on a guilty edge that I didn't completely understand. She had been skirting around something big all night, compartmentalizing and shielding herself from what was really bothering her. I had met very few humans as successful at cutting off unwanted thought patterns as she was. "No, thank you," she said. "Mind if I look around?"
"Go ahead." I smiled. "I'll just be a moment."
As Renée roamed about the apartment, I went to the bathroom, put in new contact lenses, as my venom-coated eyes were wearing the others thin, and retrieved the bottle of heating oil I kept. Being of mostly early-century morals, I sometimes felt especially shameful when killing innocent women, and one of the ways I quelled this was by making them feel good before I drained them dry. The oil would heat their skin, making my coolness less noticeable—pleasurable, even—and a massage would arouse them. Endorphins, and typically alcohol, would render them utterly relaxed.
That was when I'd sink my teeth in.
I never had sex with them, though they all wanted it at some point or another; I rarely even kissed them, if I could help it. They were too fragile, to begin with, and I'd never been attracted to any of them. With my eyes, human flaws were glaringly obvious—unsightly freckles and scars and moles, acne pockmarks that probably even my victims couldn't see on themselves, were all on display. Hearing their thoughts usually made them rather unattractive as well.
The latter was a problem I had with both my species and theirs, frankly. I'd had sex twice since I was turned into a vampire in 1921, and neither time was even as pleasurable as what I could do for myself. It was too difficult to enjoy myself when all that filled my head were thoughts from the woman I was with—thoughts of what she wanted, what she felt. Thoughts were loud and uncensored in moments of passion; they were very difficult to ignore, nearly impossible to block. There was no room left for me to think of what I wanted or felt.
I was very lucky that hairy palms were only a myth.
I found Renée in the large master bedroom. No lights were on, but the room was still well lit, as a large window made up one wall. A full moon and city lights cast an ethereal, blue glow into the space, making the petite human standing in front of the glass appear almost alien.
I laughed inwardly. If anyone in the room was alien, it was not Renée.
Standing in the doorway, I listened to her drifting thoughts.
Shouldn't be doing this. I don't even know him. I need to be more responsible now… I don't know how, though. How could this have happened? I'm too young for this. How do I go to college now? I can't stay in Forks, but I guess I'll have to for a little while… Shit. I can't do this alone. I hope Mom'll help me. I'd love to give it up…but I just can't... A part of me wants it.
I thought she was about to reveal what was troubling her, but she suddenly sensed my presence, even though I was standing statue-still and not breathing.
Renée turned around and gave me a small smile. It still seemed forced.
I strode to her and looked down at her pale face. She had soft, girlish features and couldn't be older than nineteen or twenty. As I looked at her, my still heart gave a phantom clench—a twinge of guilt, but also something else. I had no feelings for the woman before me—she was my meal—but something about her, something I couldn't place, made me want to make everything better for her.
However, the simple fact was I was going to kill her. Guilt-ridden or not, I always killed, always struck like the ruthless viper I was.
I leaned forward and pressed a kiss to her forehead. I didn't feel comfortable doing anything else. Her thoughts warmed to my gentleness, and I found myself oddly unnerved for some reason.
I needed to make this quick.
Renée, seemingly oblivious to my nature, even though she was not the least bit inebriated, launched herself at me, her arms wrapping around my neck. She hugged herself tightly to my chest as I looked down at her brown hair in shock. Her movement had been completely spontaneous, without a single thought, and I'd not been able to lighten the blow her body must have felt when she crashed into me.
Her thoughts were not sexual now.
Just hold me. Hold me. Please.
So I did.
I smelled the salt of tears and pulled away slightly, feeling the twinge in my chest again. "Renée?"
She tried to bury herself against my shirt. "Sorry," she muttered, her voice rough like sandpaper.
I sighed into her hair. Who was I kidding? I couldn't be her fix-it man. I needed to end this.
Bending at the knee and resting my hands on her waist, I leaned into the side of her face. This close, with no other distracting scents in the room, I could smell her blood freely. And, oh, it burned sweetly. Gardenia and honeysuckle and somewhere, deep down underneath all of that, the faintest hint of freesia and perhaps lavender. It was these undertones of her blood that were so brilliantly enticing. I wanted to bathe in this blood.
The bloodlust blurred my vision. Venom flooded my mouth. I licked her skin, felt the thumping pulse of her heart with my tongue.
She closed her eyes with a sigh. I'm so sorry, she thought. I shouldn't do this to you, Charlie. And to the baby…a baby. I can't believe I'm going to be a mom. I shouldn't be doing this. The vivid image of an in-home pregnancy test entered her thoughts. Positive.
Gasping for freedom from the burn in my throat, I jerked away from her, roughly shoving her away at the same time. The monster roared furiously inside of me.
"What the hell! You're pregnant?" I yelled. A strange, blinding rage consumed me on behalf of the defenseless infant she was endangering. My body shook.
Renée's eyes widened. "What? How do you know that?" She flattened her hands over her stomach and looked down. "I'm not showing yet, am I? Oh my God." Too young. I'm too young for this.
I scoffed. "You're worried about that?" I shook my head. "What was that tonight? You drank."
"Only half a bottle of beer," she mumbled, looking away from me guiltily.
I got up in her face, ignoring the burn. I could smell the hormones of her pregnancy now. How had I been so stupid? It seemed so painfully obvious now. I'd been so caught up by her blood and whatever it was about her that interested me that I had somehow completely missed these other scents. "You nearly died tonight," I said through gritted teeth.
She paled as adrenaline flooded her system in a single violent flush. Her heart thudded, and my throat blazed until I was forced to lean away again. "What?" Her voice was the faintest of ghostly whispers.
"I nearly killed you," I replied honestly. "I was just about to take your life before you thought about the child."
Her widened. "You heard what I was thinking? You read minds?" Jesus, what's he heard me think tonight?
"Stop thinking of yourself for a second, Renée. Your child is very lucky I knew what you were thinking," I spat. I pointed toward the doorway. "Now get the fuck out. Go back to your husband. Be a fucking adult." I grabbed money from my wallet and shoved it into her hands. "Get a taxi and go back to Forks." I grabbed her arm harshly enough that I knew it would leave a bruise. "And don't tell anyone of tonight," I added. "Ever. I will know if you do." I probably wouldn't, but she didn't know that.
Tears of embarrassment, confusion and fear streamed down her face as she turned to leave. "I'm sorry. So sorry." I knew this was wrong. I knew. Never should've run away tonight…
"It's not me you should be apologizing to!"
Nodding and crying harder, she ran from the bedroom, through the sitting area, and out of the apartment, the heels of her boots clicking on the hardwood flooring. I heard her sobs and beating heart as she frantically entered the elevator. Her mind was filled with sudden gratefulness for the life she held within, but it was mainly because she knew it had saved her life this night. I'll keep you… I'll keep you… I'm so sorry, baby… I'll be better for you, I promise…
I took a deep breath and looked down at my shaking hands.
I'd nearly killed a child. A true innocent. Someone who'd never had a choice or a chance. It went against everything I believed in, even as a killer. I had my morals.
My breathing was ragged when I fell to my knees.
The burning thirst was still there. My body didn't care what I felt or thought. It still wanted the blood that Renée had so unwittingly been offering on a silver platter.
What the fuck was wrong with her?
Even worse, what was wrong with me? I was so arrogant. I didn't make these kinds of inexperienced mistakes anymore. Or so I'd thought.
Standing angrily, I clawed the contact lenses from my eyes and flicked them to the floor. I stood before a mirror and stared at the red eyes that met me. When I looked at my reflection, they were all I saw, because they had swallowed up everything, taken my soul, taken the man, taken everything I'd ever had. I had become these eyes. Tonight proved that. They were a monster's eyes—mocking, hungry and utterly evil. They represented death.
I had taken over three thousand lives in my time.
"This has to stop," I said aloud.
It was not the first time I had said this, but this was a new low, a new mistake, in a whole series of lows and mistakes, if I were to be honest with myself. This time felt different somehow, like a tipping point.
I'd fed on more than one innocent life in the last month, despite my rule of only doing so on the twelfth. In fact, I had all but stopped hunting the human miscreants. Their thoughts were too vile for me to want to associate with them all the time, and so I had taken to killing just as they would. I was no better. I killed innocents—those who appealed to me at their basest, chemical level—something they had absolutely no control over.
"Murderer," I accused.
It's what you were made to be, the monster countered. There's no use fighting it.
I snarled, looking and sounding even more inhuman as I did so.
I'd nearly killed a child. I gripped my hair in my hands and stared at myself in horror. Children's minds were the only minds I truly delighted being in; they were perceptive, guileless, bizarrely imaginative. Beautiful and wonderful. I'd nearly stolen a future from an unborn child.
Don't feel guilty about it. It's nature. This is what you were made to do.
Yes, made…and if I ever saw the bastard who'd turned me, I would tear him apart and burn him, one piece at a time, just to prolong his suffering. I had no illusions about whether killing him would soothe my anger—I knew it wouldn't—but it would stop him from ever doing to another what he had done to me.
He had made me a killer.
A smaller voice inside me, a tiny human voice that I'd not heard in decades, seemed to whisper, You can choose to be something else.
I did not delight in what I was. I never had. Though the blood slicked my throat and temporarily quenched the burning, I had rarely taken a life—even a criminal's life—without feeling guilty afterward. It was nearly impossible to take a life, to hear a human's last thoughts, and not feel guilty. I was fully aware that by killing them, I took away their chances to grow and change; I took them away from loved ones.
And now this.
I had to find a way to change myself. I was tired of living for the hunt. I was tired of being a slave to it. I wanted to change, but was it even possible for someone as unchanging as I?
Author's Notes (June 8, 2010): Special thanks to atxcullen, Clairebo, Eyes of Topaz and rachael1042 for helping me decide how to handle the points of view in this story and for their pre-reading goodness. Their reviews on my last story were so encouraging that they really propelled me on to this one quite nicely. Thanks, girlies. Also, a huge thanks to ProjectTeamBeta (betas ElleCC and gotellalice) for proofreading the first two chapters.
Author's Notes (January 24, 2011): Cleaning house / editing.