To my faithful and infinitely appreciated "From The Underground"-readers,
Don't worry, I'm not abandoning my big project, I've just been neglecting Tanira and my Bloodlines short stories for too long so I've taken a short break from writing on FtU, but fret not, by the time you'll read this, I'll be writing the next FtU chapter already.
If there's one thing all different myths, legends or stories about Vampires have in common, it's the role we play. They're all different, of course, at least, the details are, but in the end, they all see us as hunters. At least, the more sane members of the human race do. I don't count the retrasados who think we sparkle in the sun. Their conceptions about our motivations, sanity, degree of evil and all those things vary, but whether we are seen as feral monsters, cold, calculated parasites or cursed, pitiable creatures who prey on humans out of need, we are hunters. On this, all views agree.
Not all humans are content with this state of affairs however, and some, a tiny fraction of the species, have the desire to reverse these roles. Most of them are harmless, deluded and ignorant, draping their houses with garlic or etching superstitious symbols on the walls of their homes, thinking it will keep us at bay, but some… some know. Know we exist, and know that while powerful, we are not invulnerable. And they know how we can be destroyed.
These are the ones we know as Hunters. They are still the frail things all humans are, but they are armed. Some with stakes and torches, others with guns, and a terrible few with the power of their faith, not the crackpot psychic powers they see on TV or the make-believe tonterías written in their Bible or Torah or Qur'an, no, the real thing, that intangible, indefinable spiritual power that can blind us, make us howl in pain, or, so I'm told, can reduce us to ash in a single instant when exposed. A lot of it is probably exaggerated and cuento de hadas, but that this power is real and to be feared is certain.
While there are doubtless Hunters out there that operate alone, most of them are part of an organized group. Trained by secret societies, often at the order of special branches of the different churches of the world, they seek out Vampires in all parts of the world, observe their targets carefully, and strike. They know that in a straight fight, they're no match for a Vampire, not even the most alfeñique Toreador, so they bide their time and pounce when their target is at their most vulnerable. It's a technique we would be hypocritical to condemn.
Since my death, I'd been ambivalent to humans. On the one hand, I saw them with contempt for their weakness, their frailty, and most of all, their conceited ignorance. On the other hand, how I envied them. My transition from life to undeath had technically been a conscious choice, but it had been one I'd made without having even the faintest idea of what awaited me. The emptiness inside, being no longer a creature of the light, longing for a sun I yearned for and hated at the same time, never being able to enjoy those small but wonderful things which made a human life worth living, they all washed over me at times, making me feel so melancholic I could do nothing for an entire night but spend it staring at the ceiling. If I'd known it'd be like this, I would have allowed the rest of my blood to flow out of the two bullet holes in my belly on that horrible night, my revenge be damned.
There was no changing the past, however, and the reality was as it was. I looked down on humans, but at the same time, I wanted nothing more than to be like them again. I spent a long time of my undeath feeling only those two things, until the night I also learned to fear them. It was the night I became both hunter and prey to Chastity.
It wasn't the first time I came to Hollywood, I'd visited the place before, on my search for the Ankaran sarcophagus, when I raided a crypt looking for a dead woman called Ginger Swan, and then found myself crawling through the rotting flesh of a villa in the Hollywood Hills, filled with horrible two-legged abominations made from the warped and twisted bodies of human beings. That ordeal had ended with me broken and impaled by a Tzimisce monstrosity, whom I'd finally extinguished, though not without coming to within an inch of Final Death myself.
I'd gotten a little closer to the sarcophagus, however, and while the Prince's agents attempted to corroborate the lead I'd been given by the late Gorgeous Gary Golden, now a hideous Nosferatu, my own Master – my real Master – had given me the assignment to investigate a request for help by one of the local Toreador. I'd been given instructions to take a taxi to Hollywood and look for a club called Vesuvius.
I was never a fan of Hollywood. The place wasn't what many people thought. Sure, there was Hollywood Boulevard, and the Walk of Fame, and all those high-profile hotspots, but once you went off those streets, you found yourself in a poor, hopeless town inhabited by poor, hopeless people shuffling across littered streets, driving beat-up cars and seeking solace in liquor and drugs. It was a dangerous place for anyone, Vampires too. After all, it's risky feeding on those who have all kinds of substances rushing through their blood.
Vesuvius lay in a side street of Hollywood Boulevard. Not so close to the tourist attractions as to be financially unviable, but not so far that locals and tourists with cash to spend after daylight would be unable to find its doors. It was a rather fancy club, a bit out of place between the poorly maintained houses that made up the street. Its front wall was smooth, dark glass with two horizontal lines of red neon bisecting it. The thumping of music could be heard to the street, but not as loudly and obnoxiously as that of dance clubs. In bright red neon, above the door, was the logo, bold red letters saying VESUVIUS. My master had simply called it a club, but I was pretty certain it was a place where clothes, at least for females, weren't mandatory.
I pushed the door open and an oppressive warmth floated lazily into my face, an unpleasant contrast with the gentle chill outside. The vestibule was nothing but red, both the carpets and the wallpaper had a scarlet colour, probably to evoke the idea of passion and desire in humans, an effect which was all but lost on me.
"We have a dress code here, miss," a gruff voice grunted at me as I entered. It belonged to a muscled tree trunk of a man wearing black jeans and a black shirt, and for some inexplicable reason, sunglasses. His head was shaved, making the wire of his earpiece extra-apparent. Clipped to the breast pocket of his shirt was a badge saying SECURITY. Ah, a rent-a-cop.
It was early, and I was alone in the vestibule. An hour or two from now, the place would be chock full of people queuing to be let in. "I'm here to see the owner," I simply said.
The bouncer let out a humourless chuckle. "Yeah, everyone hopes they'll get to see the owner some day, but you'll have to settle for her employees." Giving me a dismissive glance, he added, "But you'll need to go home and change first. At least smart casual required."
Gah, stupid clubs and their stupid dress codes. "What's wrong with my clothes?" I asked, even though I knew the answer.
He gave a short, lopsided grin and then answered, taking plenty of effort to make sure I knew he was indulging me. "You can't come in here looking like a vagrant. No faded blue jeans, no worn leather jackets, no dirty combat boots, and no damn T-shirts."
"Look, I'm not a customer, alright?" This guy was gonna be difficult, and I decided to burn some of the blood in me to project an intimidating aura through the Presence discipline, even though my ability in it was rudimentary at best, having focused almost all my attention on the Celerity discipline. Feeling a subtle but noticeable air of awe emanate from me, I repeated, "I want you to let me in, right now."
"Was that supposed to be scary?" the bouncer mocked. "Cause it's not working, and you're not getting in dressed like that." Then the cabròn actually had the nerve to shoo me away with his hand. "Go on, out."
My Presence fell apart around me, the collapse feeling as if the surrounding air itself dropped away, and at my own failure and his mocking tone, my anger rose. Frustrated, I snapped, "Don't be an asshole, get out of the way."
The bouncer crossed his arms and said calmly, "For the last time, you're not coming in here dressed like that. Not even on cinco de mayo. And don't call me an asshole, you dumb spic."
Inside every Vampire, even the most composed one, lurks the Beast. It's part of what makes us what we are, a primal and brutal force that, if left unchecked, will turn even the most timid Vampire into a roaring, mindless, rampaging monster. The Beast waits most of the time, patiently biding its time until its vessel is weak, hungry or provoked, rising to the surface so quickly that it can be unstoppable, whipping its vessel into a raging frenzy that only subsides when the Beast is slaked with enough blood and violence. Some of us are more easily riled than others, depending on personality, mental fortitude, and most importantly, bloodline. The curse of Caine manifested itself in us Brujah as an increased vulnerability to the Beast, and even though I did not descend from the usurper Troile as most modern-day Brujah did – or at least, so I was told by my Master – Brujah blood was volatile, even in the most disciplined Kindred.
It was the claws of this Beast I felt, hooking into my soul as it began its climb inside of me, rising, hoping to be taste the crushingly warm air inside the club. I set my teeth, as I always did when I felt the rage coming on, closed my eyes and said, again, "I'm here to see the owner. She's expecting me. For your own safety, let me in."
This time, he seemed to be getting convinced, because I heard the bouncer's voice becoming slightly insecure. "Hey, take it easy, alright? This place has a dress code, it's the rules, I don't make them."
Visions flashed inside my head of my nails ripping into the bouncer's muscled neck, the blood flying from the gashes, my fangs sinking inside his throat, listening to his pleas as I drained his arteries and made him pay for his insolence and my humiliation in a mist of hot air, swirling red with innumerable droplets of blood. I felt my hands hooking into claws. There would be no stopping it soon, but maybe I didn't want to stop it. The Beast inside me whispered wordlessly, promising me ecstasy and release, an orgasmic rapture of oblivious and complete freedom. Summoning up all my willpower, I fought the temptation with all my strength and managed to growl through the exertion, "Apologize to me. Take back what you said."
"Whoa, hey, come on, this isn't worth – "
My willpower was on the verge of giving out. My mouth and throat had gone cork dry, begging for warm, sublime blood. My entire body was trembling with barely contained rage. "Save us both and apologize. Say you're sorry. Do it now or I'll kill you." Inside my mouth, I felt my fangs slowly extend. The man only had seconds to live.
My eyes still closed, I heard the bouncer's voice change, directed at someone else in surprised worry. "Hey, stop. Miss Velvet, you shouldn't go near her, this bitch is some kind of psycho or something." I stood shaking with fury, feeling my upper lip pulling back.
A soft, gentle voice said, "Oh, I doubt it. She's just a little lost and needs some help finding the way."
"Miss Velvet – "
Two fingertips gently came to rest on my cheek, and in a few seconds, I felt the rage draining from me as the Beast lay down and was softly coaxed back to sleep. I felt immensely tired but the all-consuming rage had abated, and the feeling was indescribably soothing. I'd heard of Vampires possessing the skill to calm the Beast, but this was the first time I'd felt it myself, the howling fury gently silenced. I managed to open my eyes and looked into those of possibly the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen, and probably would ever see. Her eyes were a cold, soothing blue, contrasting sharply but gorgeously with her fiery red hair, worn tied back with two scarlet locks loose and framing the side of her delicate, pale face. Her lips were bright red, narrow and sensuous, one corner of her mouth slightly curled. She was nothing short of breathtaking, and it wasn't just her face. Her body was just as perfect, clad in enticing lingerie which was revealing yet classy, a gossamer, skin-tight camisole hugging her firm breasts and flat belly, and a red lace cheeky emphasizing her curved hips and firm backside.
"Feeling better now?" she asked in her husky, sensuous voice, slightly tilting her head.
"Yes, I… what did you do to me?"
She gave a quiet, short laugh, then said in my ear, "The Gangrel are not the only ones who know the Song of Serenity."
I'd never heard of such a thing, but it had worked beautifully, quieting the boiling anger inside of me. "I'm… sorry about this," I managed to say. I had been this close to frenzying and breaking the Masquerade in Hell-knows-how-many ways.
"No apology necessary. There is great beauty in passion as well as serenity. You're the one the Archon sent?"
She smiled again. "Please, let's go somewhere a little more… private." Then she turned to her bouncer. "Greg is one of my most valued employees, and I apologize to you both for not informing him of your coming, so this… awkwardness could have been avoided."
"Yeah," I merely said. "It could have been." With the soothing effect still coursing through me, I was able to tell the bouncer, "Misunderstanding, I guess?"
Greg the bouncer stuck to a neutral, "Seems so."
"This way," the red-haired vamp said, leading me not into the club, but through a door in the side of the vestibule, marked PRIVATE. She punched in a four-digit code on the keypad by the door, and it unlocked with a beep and a clack. She held open the door and motioned for me to enter. "Please."
The private room looked like a luxury suite, with a jacuzzi made of black, veined marble, with a view on a black, flat-screen TV suspended on the wall, a priceless-looking mahogany desk, and a king size bed made up with red silk sheets, arranged perfectly, without a single crease. There was even a polished metal dancing pole next to the jacuzzi. A single poster was attached to the black marble wall above the jacuzzi, one of my red-haired hostess in an enticing position on the dance pole. Only two red letters were written on the poster: VV.
She motioned for me to sit down on the red leather sofa in the corner, sitting down on the bed herself and crossing her legs. "I don't think you'll get much of a rise from Vesuvius, being what you are. I'd like to thank you for coming, first and foremost."
"I'm here because my Master sent me here, it's him you should be thanking," I said to that. It's not like I'd had much of a choice in the matter.
"Mmmm-hmmmm, I will, without doubt. My name is Velvet... Velvet Velours, but I let my friends call me VV."
Of course she was expecting me to declare myself her friend and use her nickname, but not so fast. "Right. My name's Tanira, so what did you need help with?"
She smiled, trying to appear patient. "Tanira Del Rey, yes, so I've heard. No need to resort to business just yet. Isn't this pleasant? Just a short moment, just the two of us... away from Jyhad and politics and power struggles?"
"I suppose." I was never really one for small talk, it just wasn't one of the things I was good at, but the Toreador just loved faking they were still human. By making small talk, dressing seductively, and keeping as close to humans as they could, something all us other clans simply couldn't understand.
She gave that understanding smile again and came to the point. "The reason I asked for your aid is because I, and the rest of the Hollywood Kindred, have found ourselves under surveillance."
Vampires spied on each other, even the dullest Neonate knew that, so what she was telling me wasn't exactly earth-shattering. Kindred were always blackmailing, politicking, eavesdropping and scheming. Which was, incidentally, why I was glad I worked for my Sire and simply had to follow orders, even if I was blood bound. It was comforting somehow. Reassuring.
"Being spied on should be nothing new for a Vampire?"
Another patient half-smile. "Indeed, but we're used to being observed by our fellows and their associates. This is something else entirely."
I wished she'd get to the point. "Yes?"
She leaned in towards me and said quietly, in her husky voice, "I'm talking about another threat entirely. Humans have been stalking us. Hunters."
I'd heard of Hunters, even encountered one when I was looking for a Malkavian called Alistair Grout. The confrontation had lasted mere seconds, however, because the German bastard had made a quick escape. He'd made short work of the Malk though, knowing exactly what to do and how. The fact that the Primogen had been staked, and then left for the sunrise meant he knew that a wooden stake through the heart simply sent a vampire into paralysis, unlike most humans, who believed their movies and their books that said a stake killed Vampires outright. It had saved quite a few of us.
Competent or not, Hunters were bad news. They knew our vulnerabilities, and constantly endeavoured to obtain proof of our existence. That we live in an age of cell phone cameras meant we were constantly walking a very thin rope. I'd needed certainty before just believing this Toreador's hunch, however. "What makes you think they're Hunters and not just shovelhead ghouls?"
She looked away. "One of them worked in my club until recently."
Oh dear, that was more than simply embarrassing, letting a Hunter get so close to you. The poseurs' love of humans tended to make their judgment somewhat cloudy when it came to protecting themselves from Hunters and their sort, and the Hunters in question knew this, seeking out the more artistic and poetic among our kind. That the human had gotten so close was ad enough, but that Velvet hadn't destroyed him instead of just kicking him out was a serious error in judgment. "So, wait, you found out he was a Hunter and you only fired him?"
Her eyebrows frowned, barely perceptibly, as if she was in pain or ashamed. "Her. And I didn't know she was a Hunter when I terminated our agreement."
This was a bit confusing. "So why 'd you fire her then?"
"I found a weapon in her locker, and I work too hard to keep this club under the police's radar to allow my dancers to carry weapons."
"Right. So why are you sure she's a Hunter and not just some stripper who's afraid of being mugged?"
Her eyes narrowed. "A dancer." Right, strippers insisted to be called 'dancers'. It was like whores insisting they be called 'escorts', or even more laughably, 'companions'. Whatever, if they thought using another word changed the fact that they got naked for money, then let them have their delusions.
"Right. Dancer. So, what makes you think she's a Hunter?"
"She kept coming to the club, sometimes even disguised, just watching me."
I shrugged. "Could have been bad at taking the pink slip. It's not just us Vampires that can get psychotic over insignificant things."
"I I tried to tell myself that's what it was for a while. But then Ash, from the Asp Hole, a club on Hollywood Boulevard, told me he'd seen her observing him too. One of his ghouls managed to search her handbag and found a card with contact information for the Society of Leopold."
Yep, that confirmed it. The Society of Leopold, a successor of the old Inquisition. The most feared order of Hunters, and also the most efficient. We Kindred were the number one predator for our own species, but the Society had done in quite a few as well, and not just runts, but some high-profile targets too. They'd gone after my Master at one time, and though their attempt had failed, I'd been told he'd never been so tense as he had been until the Hunters were caught. Both were beheaded and dumped in a landfill, but they had succeeded in destroying two of my fellow agents even after we'd exposed them as Hunters. "Yeah, if it's those hijos de puta, then you've got a problem, that much is clear." I kept it to myself, but I was definitely not looking forward to this, but if my Master sent me to get the job done, then that's what I had to do. "Any idea where she is now?"
"None. She stopped spying on me a few days ago, but I'm not so foolish as to think it was because she gave up."
No. No, I didn't think so either. Hunters tended to back off when their prey smelled them, to return and strike later. I also knew it'd be too much to hope for that she'd been killed or incapacitated somehow. You simply never have that kind of luck. "Right. Tell me all you know about her."
She nodded. "She worked for me under the name of Chastity."
I couldn't repress a chortle. "That should have tipped you off that something was fishy. A stripper using the name Chastity."
"Dancer. And I simply reasoned it was because she wanted to attract men with the lure of the forbidden. She frequented Ash's club under the same name, so with any luck, she's still using it."
"Right. What's she look like?"
"Medium height, boyish build. Blue eyes. Blonde hair." With a disdainful frown, she added, "On top."
I jotted everything down in the old notebook I still had from when I was alive. It still had notes about old cases, and oddly enough, I'd never managed to throw it out, despite the fact that using it broke my heart, or maybe just because of it. "Any distinguishing features?"
"She has a broken heart tattoo on the small of her back, red with a black outline."
"Right, broken heart ass antlers."
"If you must call them that. A few piercings too. Left eyebrow, a row of them in her right ear, and... well, that's all for the visible ones."
I only noted the visible ones. "Anything else that can help me find her?"
"I'm... sorry, but no. Ash might be able to give you some more information though. It was his ghoul that went through her belongings."
"Asp Hole, on Hollywood Boulevard, right?"
"Right, I'll go have a look there." This wasn't going to be easy. L.A. was a big city, and if you wanted to disappear, you just did. Well, if you were a normal human, not a local celebrity like the Vampires that were now quaking in their shoes. "Until then, make sure you're guarded during the day, alright?"
I got up and slid my notebook in my jacket pocket. "I need to go now, I'll keep you posted."
"Would you like a drink before you go?"
I was rather hungry, as it happened. Usually I'd decline when people offered me drinks or other refreshments, because, well, being what we are, we don't eat or drink, at least, not normal food and drink. But when a Vampire offered another a drink, it was usually rather obvious what he meant. Most Vampires kept blood packs in their fridges in case of emergency, and offering one to a visitor was not unheard of. It was also rather rude to decline such a gift, since blood was life, and such a precious gift shouldn't really be refused. "That would be nice, yeah."
She gave another smile, rose, walked to her desk and pressed the intercom key. "Greg, send in Misty for me, if you will?"
"Right away, Miss Velvet."
Misty was probably a servant who'd bring the vitae, decanted in crystal glasses or whatever the way these Toreador consumed blood. Yet the woman in lingerie coming into the office didn't carry glasses or a decanter. "Hello, Misty, thank you for coming. My friend is rather thirsty, if you care to offer her some refreshment? You can waive the fee this once." She turned to me. "It's on the house."
Oh, a blood doll. How nice. Blood was best warm and straight from the artery, but very few Kindred had the luxury of keeping blood dolls, usually ghouls they had an immense degree of power over, since offering one's blood on a regular basis – especially to others – wasn't part of a standard master/ghoul relation. Sure, the master wouldn't shy away from the occasional drink from a ghoul, in emergencies or for convenience, but a ghoul kept strictly for feeding purposes, as a piece of livestock really, tended to become rebellious and treacherous after a while, so keeping a blood doll was risky business unless you had some powerful leverage over the ghoul in question, and it was probably like that with this one. It wasn't my business how or what though, and I didn't ask, merely brushed the hair away from her neck and let my fangs sink in.
I wasn't going to reach the Asp Hole that night. It was getting late, summer nights were short, and I definitely did not intend to be surprised by the sunrise and burn to ash in the street. That would just be humiliating.
"Where to?" the cabbie asked as I got in.
The drive was quiet, Danny was at the wheel, and I often had the luck of having him as driver: he didn't blab on with useless chatter, and we both simply listened to the radio usually, some oldie station playing easy listening music. We knew each other by first name, and we'd exchanged a few words in the beginning, but we both valued a quiet drive above chattering. The only talk he made tonight was briefly asking if he had to change the station, but it was fine with me. Oldies weren't particularly exciting but at least they weren't the junk you saw on TV these days.
I paid the cab driver and got out, only to chuckle to myself when I saw his cab getting rear-ended by another driver, a female, who got out and started apologizing in a panic. A lot of drama over a fender bender, heh. I was female myself, but damn, we weren't exactly the gender with the reputation of most capable drivers, and Danny, when he did open his mouth, complained about female drivers all the time. 'Should all just take a cab like you, miss Del Rey.'
The door to my apartment opened with the reassuring clack I was so used to when I swiped my key card through the slot. It had been a Haven loaned to me by the Prince, supposedly as a service to the Archon, but the more time I spent in it, the more I began to secretly hope I'd get the place for myself. It wasn't like my Master's safe house in Santa Monica, that crappy tiny apartment above the pawn shop I'd had to use in the beginning. True, it was a safe house and not a real Haven, so luxury wasn't necessary (most of the time, no one lived there anyway), but it had still been pretty discouraging coming 'home' to that place de mala muerte every morning. No, this place was far better, a true Haven, with all the necessary comforts, including a bathroom with bath and separate shower cabin, unlike the Santa Monica safe house, which only had a low shower basin with a curtain. Our bodies don't produce sweat and therefore exude no odour, but I still made a habit of showering daily, so I could start the night refreshed and properly awake after a day of torpor, and wash off the smell of car exhaust and cigarette smoke and all those other night polluters.
I still hadn't gotten myself a ghoul, even though it'd be nice to have someone keeping the place a bit cleaned up and standing guard during the day. I made a mental note to ask my Master for permission to get myself one. I was a servant of the Archon, surely I wasn't supposed to do my laundry and vacuum cleaning myself? It'd have to wait until tomorrow, though. Fatigue was already coming over me, and I needed to get myself to bed.