The difference between throwing up and nearly throwing up is miles of anxious anticipation. The former is, okay, I barfed, it’s over, now I’ll start feeling better. But the latter is one sick, twisting wave after another of, oh shit I’m gonna barf, oh god I feel terrible, my stomach is doing somersaults please make it stop oh god oh god make it stop. When you can’t get it out of your system, you can’t feel better. Your insides feel like laundry that’s constantly being turned inside out and back again and it never fucking stops.
My hands shook as I opened a bottle of water and took a sip. I’d been nauseous for an hour, sitting on the floor because my rickety chair felt too high off the ground. Too exposed, as opposed to practically hiding underneath the table. Unsafe.
Everything felt unsafe.
Here’s the thing: vampires are not sexy. They are not mysterious, romantic creatures searching high schools for their immortal beloved. Vampires are monsters, and they want to suck your blood. And also torture you, maim you, break your mind and body and soul into tiny jagged pieces before they kill you. My introduction to the supernatural world was a set of vampire fangs bearing down on me. That’s not something you forget. I wanted to, but my nightmares wouldn’t let me.
Maybe I was wrong about the guy from the party. Maybe it wasn’t the same person in the picture. Maybe a combination of superior genetics and expensive cosmetic surgery made him look as if he hadn’t aged. Maybe a hundred other reasons that didn’t involve this guy being a vampire.
I mean, it’s not like it was rare to find people in Southern California who went to great lengths to look as youthful as they could for as long as possible. Plastic surgery, fillers, special diets and workout routines – all common, and not just for the show business types. Plus, some people really were winners of the genetic lottery. Take John Stamos, for instance. Dude barely aged. I saw him at an In’N’Out once a few years ago and he looked better than ever. And it was in the daytime, so I knew he definitely wasn’t a vampire. That part of vampire mythology was true, the sun would fry their murderous asses.
So. Now that I’d firmly established, to myself at least, that John Stamos was not a blood-sucking creature of the night, I felt slightly less nauseous. Really, there was no need for me to feel sick and scared. It’s not like the guy from the party was here in the archives with me.
I got up from the floor, looked at my laptop. Saw the maybe-vampire’s smiling face beaming out at me from some nineties rave. Sank back to the floor, trying not to hyperventilate.
God damn screen saver picked a hell of a time to glitch.
I’d known on an intellectual level that there were vampires out there. Identifying an actual vampire suspect was a whole different ballgame. What should I do? Who should I call? There was no 1-800-Vampirebusters.
I knew a hunter, but I couldn’t stand the idea of calling him. He’d walked away from the life, from the violence and darkness. The thought of asking him to return to that was anathema. Even if I just asked for advice or local contacts, he might feel compelled to come out to LA. He had a strong sense of duty and loyalty, and while those were wonderful qualities, my loyalty to him meant I wanted him to stay safe and happy.
So I was on my own.
Surely there were other hunters, but I had no idea how to find one. First things first, though: I had to locate this mystery man and see if he really was a vampire.
I’d get to that just as soon as I was through hiding under my desk.
Always order a drink before asking a bartender for information. Since I was looking for a vampire and brain-melting fear always made me thirsty, it was an easy rule to follow this time. I paid for my beer and declined the change, which gave the bartender a good tip. He thanked me with a smile and I took out my phone.
“Hey, I was at that record label party last night. Weren’t you working?” I already knew the answer, which is always the best place for a journalist to start when questioning someone.
He nodded. “I work most of the big events.”
“I was wondering if you might know who this is.” I held up my phone. “We only got a chance to talk for a few minutes but he said some really interesting stuff that I think would be great for a story I’m working on. I’d love to get some quotes from him on the record.”
The bartender looked at my phone. “On the record quotes? That’s what you want from the guy?” He raised his eyebrows and gave me a look that had me cursing my lame cover story.
“He seemed very knowledgeable.” God, I sucked at this.
The bartender chuckled. “Well, I guess he must have some real special knowledge. You’re the second person to ask about this guy today.”
Hmm. “Who was the other person?”
“This real intense looking dude. The sex on a stick type, but kind of scary, too.” He wagged those expressive eyebrows. “Didn’t give his name but he did pay me more than you.”
Okay, so maybe that tip wasn’t so great. I sighed and forked over a twenty. He eyed it disdainfully. I made a face. “Look, I’m a writer. Cut a broke girl some slack.”
He rolled his eyes and pocketed the twenty. “The guy you’re looking for has been coming in a lot lately. I know from some of the girls who wait tables that he lives in that motel three blocks north. At least, that’s what he told them.”
“Any of them go back to his room with him?”
He shrugged. “I ain’t their daddy. If they did, they had no complaints.”
“So nobody.” I stopped, not sure how to ask what I wanted to know. Would the bartender freak out if I asked if anyone had gone missing or passed out in the bathroom from blood loss? “You ever hear anything weird about him? Anything suspicious?”
“He’s just a guy who likes to dance and flirt. People like him.” Another shrug. “Except for you and Sex Stick.”
“Hey, I just want to talk to him for a story. But, you know, a girl can’t be too careful.”
“Nobody’s ever had any complaints about him, and we take care of that shit here.”
I took a sip of my beer then climbed down from the barstool. “Three blocks north, you said?”
“Yep.” He grinned. “I told the scary guy to look in Culver City.”
“But you’re telling me the right place?”
“You’re not scary, and neither is the dude you’re looking for.”
I got crowded out by a late rush of lunchtime customers, but I didn’t know what else to ask without sounding crazy anyway, so I left.
I headed north, in no hurry. If this guy was a vampire I’d be more likely to find him at night. Maybe that’s why I’d come here asking questions in the daytime, my subconscious trying to keep me alive. Or just being a coward. Either way, I felt safe in the sunshine.
So who was this scary, sexy, intense guy who was also looking for the same man? A vampire hunter? My friend Elvis certainly wasn’t the only one out there, so if there was a bloodsucking monster hitting up the LA bars and clubs for meals, it made sense that a hunter would, you know, be on the hunt. So maybe I didn’t have to worry. The hunter would find the vampire, and that would be the end of that.
Except for one thing.
The bartender said he wasn’t scary. In my experience, bartenders are generally good judges of character. With one look, they can tell if a person is going to be trouble. Waitresses, too. The maybe-vampire didn’t seem to be avoiding anyone who might be able to ring an alarm, throw him out of the bar, warn potential victims to stay away.
I’d meant to walk slowly but I get hyper when I’m nervous, so I found myself at the motel sooner than anticipated. Pink stucco and palm trees with Christmas lights still wrapped around their trunks gave the place a sort of low-rent charm. I stood at the edge of the parking lot, within sight of the office. I had his picture, and some cash left to bribe a clerk. I could get his room number. I could…
I could turn around and hustle back the way I came, scared to death of coming in contact with a vampire again.
I’m a writer, not a vampire hunter, I told myself. Didn’t mean I was a coward. Just meant I knew my limits. And taking on a monster all by myself, with no training and no weapons, that was a hard limit.
Fangs filled my nightmares. Pearl-white. Yellowed with age. Dripping with blood. Normal human canines elongating into inch-long weapons ending with a tip sharp as a needle. Fangs, and blood, and screaming.
I gave up on sleep around three in the morning. Not the first time for a night like this since I found out vampires were real and not looking to date teenagers. Turn them into a snack, sure, but not date. The nightmares were bad enough, but the endless loop of images that played in my head even while awake was wearing me down. I had never been bitten. So why did I feel this way? Why did this knowledge haunt me? It seemed absurd, considering I hadn’t experienced any serious violence. Witnessed some, yes, but I was never physically hurt. And since I was never physically hurt, there was no reason for me to be acting like a victim of violence who was now experiencing PTSD, right?
No, I didn’t have PTSD. PTSD was serious, I knew, because I’d had it as a kid, not that I ever talked about it with anyone. Having your perception of the whole world pulled out from under you was rough, yeah, but surely not bad enough to trigger another bout of PTSD.
There was nothing wrong with me. Nothing at all. Nothing wrong, nothing wrong, nothing…
The clatter of breaking porcelain forced my brain out of the loop it was caught in. I stood frozen in place for a long moment, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. A single light shone in the room. My kitchen. I was standing in my kitchen, a broken coffee mug at my feet. I didn’t remember dropping it. I scrubbed my face with my hands. In those brief seconds that my eyes were closed, bright white fangs filled the darkness.
I dropped to the floor to clean up the broken mug. Balanced the jagged shards carefully in one hand, but not carefully enough. A slight sting announced a fresh cut on my palm. Blood glowed on my skin and the white porcelain. My heart slammed against my rib cage and my breath ratcheted up to an uneven panting. I willed myself to focus on the immediate task.
I stood slowly, forcing one foot in front of the other. My hands trembled as I carried the broken mug to the trash can but I didn’t drop it again. I cleaned up the cut, relieved to find it wasn’t that bad. My body shook and my heart hammered and an indistinct screaming filled my head, but I did what I needed to do.
Why didn’t that feel like enough? Why did it still feel like weakness, like failure?
I didn’t recognize the woman who stared back at me in the bathroom mirror. She looked exhausted. Haunted. Scared of…of everything. That wasn’t me. That couldn’t be me. I wouldn’t let it be me, not after I’d fought so hard to make myself into who I am. I didn’t know how to get myself back, but I had to try.
Thirty minutes later, I left home freshly showered, dressed, and made up. No matter what time it was, you could always find someplace to go in L.A. I hit the road with the windows down and the stereo up. Red and amber car lights turned the freeway into a digital painting of an endless night full of life. A dry wind carried the faint hint of smoke from a distant fire. I drove aimlessly for a while, letting one song after another propel me along until I parked at a tiny after-hours place not far from the ocean.
I skipped the bar and went straight to the dance floor. A sinuous rhythm wrapped itself around my limbs and carried me out of my own head, and thank God for that. I’d had enough of being afraid, of hiding from the dark. At least here in the music I felt at home, at ease in my own skin for a little while. Gold and green light flashed like fireflies across the dance floor. Half exhausted bodies swayed to an endless beat. Awareness of time fell away and all my worries and fears ground down to nothing beneath my constantly moving feet.
I didn’t recognize him at first. He moved in the darkness between the flashes of light, there and then not in my peripheral vision. He’d changed his blond hair to ice blue but there was no mistaking that bone structure once I got a decent look at him. My limbs wanted to freeze but I fought the impulse and kept dancing as my spook meter edged into the yellow.
I lost him as the music dipped and stuttered into a new track. His dance partner was still in view, though, so I didn’t worry about her getting dragged off to be exsanguinated in a bathroom stall. I gave up all pretense of dancing and searched the crowd for the mystery man. Three different shades of blue hair, but no glacial locks to be seen. After several minutes of looking, I gave up and headed for the bar. I was about to order when a flash of blue appeared in the corner of my eye.
It was him, headed for the exit. I followed, too close to be considered discreet but a loopy kind of nervous recklessness ping-ponged through me and pushed me on. He paused at the door and handed a ticket to the coat check girl. I pretended to be next in line while I got a better look at him.
Dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt with a yellow smiley face designed to look like spray paint and oh shit, he had a reflection! Right there in the star-shaped decorative mirror next to the coat check.
Did real vampires have reflections? It seemed like that knowledge was somewhere in my head, but I couldn’t find it right then. And oh my Gawd, I actually opened my mouth to ask but thankfully snapped it shut when the girl brought a leather jacket to him. He slipped it on and headed for the door.
If I followed any further, I could be putting myself in serious danger. So I hesitated, my feet moving in a restless shuffle toward the exit while my curiosity and my instincts argued. He opened the door, weak morning sunlight spilling in a triangle across the floor. I froze, expecting him to turn back. Vampires could be awake during the day, but they couldn’t be out in sunlight. That tidbit hadn’t gotten lost in my spooked brain. I waited, holding my breath.
Out the door he went, into the sun. I followed slowly, confused, beginning to feel like an idiot for thinking this guy might have been a vampire. A light rain made the morning light glow. He turned his face upward, smiling into the rain. His pale skin gleamed faintly as if covered with a fine layer of glitter. No. Not covered. As if his flesh was made that way.
He sparkled. He fucking sparkled.
So, definitely not a vampire. Good to know. But then, what the hell was he?
Something was happening to his skin, his face. Some trick of the light and the rain and the early hour. His cheekbones, already prominent, sharpened to knife edges. Color rippled through his hair, shades of red and gold and auburn. Most remarkable were his ears, which curved up to elegant points.
Actually, most remarkable was that his appearance flickered back and forth, from what I’d seen inside the club to something strange and beautiful and definitely supernatural. Like a radio with its reception going in and out. A battery slowly running out of juice.
What was he? I had to know. In a scant handful of seconds, a decision was made somewhere deep inside me, fueled by curiosity and a lack of good sense.
“Hey,” I called out to him.
He looked up, startled, a deer in the headlights look in his eyes. Like the flip of a switch, his appearance returned to normal.
“Would you like to get some coffee?”
He turned on a dime, going from wary to a panty melting grin. “Sure.”
I walked toward him slowly, a part of my brain screaming at me to not be so reckless. “You can tell me about yourself.”
His grin faltered and wariness returned to his eyes. “What would you like to know?”
“How the EDM scene now compares to the rave scene in the Nineties, for starters.” I took my phone out of my tiny handbag and showed him the old photo of himself. “How old you are. What’s your secret for never aging?” I made a show of looking up at the sky, brighter with sunlight by the moment as the rain petered away to nothing. “Since you’re not a vampire.”
“I just want to talk.”
He bit his lip, eyes cutting all over the place. Finally he settled on a spot past my shoulder and pointed. “What in the world can that be?”
“Huh?” And like a fool, I looked while he took off running. I didn’t bother to give chase since I knew where he was staying. Plus, I was too busy feeling like an idiot.