The Vampire Club
by Josh Stoodley
Gloria Jones, a nineteen year old dame with dark brown skin, a broad, flat nose, light brown eyes and thick curly hair that spread across her pillow like so many ocean waves, woke with the kind of scream usually reserved for pretty blonds in B horror movies. Which wasn’t surprising, seeing as she had spent the last few minutes trapped in another nightmare, forced by her subconscious to relive her sister’s murder time and time again. No human can withstand that kind of self-inflicted torture for long, and Gloria’s horrified shriek had been long expected by the only other occupant in the room, a small pure white puppy with red tips on her ears and dark eyes. The pup, on hearing Gloria mutter and moan, climbed up onto Gloria’s bed from her own bed at the side and snuggled in beside her person, doing whatever she could to help the young dame through the misery currently plaguing her.
At first, Gloria simply stared at the stucco roof of her new bedroom, eyes wild and unseeing with terror, breathing as hard as if she had run the Boston Marathon twice over and backwards. Slowly, her breathing returned to normal. Beside her, the pup whined and scooted in closer, burying her cold wet nose in Gloria’s armpit.
As soon as Gloria felt the pup’s nose on her skin, she blinked. Blinking a few more times helped her get past the state of wild terror she had been in. She turned her head to the pup and said:
“Hi baby. I suppose you need food, huh?”
The pup snorted, her over-sized eyes staring at her person. She barked softly. Gloria sighed.
“It was just a dream, Akish. Jesus, you’re as bad as the original you know that?” With that proclamation, Gloria tore off her covers and swung her legs over to dangle over the side of the bed, careful not to disturb Akisha. She sat like that for a few minutes, contemplating just how upside down her life had turned in the last few months.
Two months ago, Gloria’s younger sister, Akisha Jones, had been murdered by a mutual acquaintance by the name of Herbert Moon. In fact, Herbert had been more than an acquaintance to Gloria: he had been the first boy to take an interest in Gloria rather than her beautiful and vivacious sister. Gloria had been jealous of her sister and so when Akisha had tried to warn her that Herbert was trouble, Gloria ignored her. A conclusion that occurred back to bite her in the ass big time when Herbert murdered Akisha and dumped her body on in the street in Blood Park, just a short ways north of the Jones’ former apartment, the Rayman Arms, in Demon’s Alcove.
All of that would have been bad enough, but Akisha had been a woman-at-arms to one of the most powerful vampires in the city, a bloodsucking goddess of lust and beauty currently masked as the dark-skinned Hindi Chandramathi Dhaliwal. Her fellow vampire, and indeed the vampire charged with policing all vampire activity in Fort City, currently wearing the mask of one Joey Bianco, had taken a personal interest in the case and caught Herbert. The Black Coats, the ruling vampire family of Fort City, the ones who tried Herbert and who counted as two of their members Joey Bianco and Chandramathi Dhaliwal, had sympathized with both victim and victimizer in this case and sought to save Herbert from himself. Only for Herbert’s own uncle and adoptive father, the mortal Chief of Police Jeffery Rollins to consign his only nephew to a bloody death by vampire bite.
Gloria wanted to scream again, this time in impotent fury. She knew the deal that Isaak ben Jacob, vampire Baron of Fort City, had laid out for Rollins. Confess to abusing Herbert and step down as Chief of Police and Herbert would walk away unharmed. The only thing that the vampires would do with the young murderer would have been court-ordered rehab.
But Rollins hadn’t taken the deal. Hadn’t even bothered to show up for his own nephew’s trial or sent a lawyer or anything. And as far as Gloria was concerned, that made the fat old pig responsible for both murders. First by screwing Herbert up so bad he was capable of murdering Akisha, and then letting his own nephew bite it to cover up his involvement. After the trial, Gloria had sworn bloody vengeance.
At first, the move was because Gloria had demanded the right to become a woman-at-arms, like her sister had been. Then, even as she and her mother debated moving into Sanctuary, Rollins had decided to punish her for speaking out against his nephew. Apparently it was okay for Rollins to abandon the boy to a bloody death, but not okay for Gloria to seek justice for her sister. He had sent wave after wave after of SWAT cops into the Jones’ apartment; breaking down doors and smashing furniture, all supposedly to find ‘drugs’ but in reality to punish the only people he could. Couldn’t hurt the Black Coats, no, so he picked on the defenceless Jones’ instead.
Which had led her here, to Sanctuary. The home base of the Black Coats. It was an odd building, being essentially six brownstone townhouses (three facing south, three north) glued together so that all they connected at the first floor and the top floors containing the bedrooms were all shared. There were also a couple of basements beneath Sanctuary that contained things like offices, freezers and a gym. Like most Fort City buildings Sanctuary didn’t have a garage; instead the Coats had bought the building next door and had converted it into a garage, with a couple of loft apartments above. Sanctuary was also on the other side of the city from Rayman Arms, east as opposed to the west. That didn’t bother Gloria any, though. Demon’s Alcove and the Rayman arms were fading memories, nothing more.
On the other hand, now that the thirst for vengeance had worn off, Gloria was starting to get cold feet. The vampires at once intrigued and repulsed her; they were predatory, alien. They looked human but were obviously not; their features too perfect, too symmetrical. Their movements reminded Gloria more of the wolves she had seen at the zoo than anything human. And then there was the blood. They drank gallons of it; all fresh from their human servants, their Flock. Gloria could smell it on their breath, at the breakfast table. She should be repulsed, horrified at any monster that fed on her fellow humans, just as her mother had been. But she wasn’t, quite. Instead, she was intrigued, fascinated by their inhuman beauty and grace. Their diet, too, was a source of fascination rather than horror. More than fascination; several of Gloria’s dreams the past few days had been intensely erotic ones about being bitten. Something else her mother wouldn’t approve of, she was sure.
Gloria sighed. The same thoughts had been bouncing around her head for the last month, ever since she had come to Sanctuary. Chasing themselves around like puppies chasing their tails and they never did any good. It was time to get up, anyway. The clock on the bedside table flashed six o-clock in crimson numbers, just after sunset in Fort City, when all the vampires came out to play.
Gloria eased herself off the bed and walked across the plush carpet down to the closet at the foot of her bed. Akisha leapt off the bed to follow. Opposite the bed were three bookshelves, which Gloria had stuffed with all the books she and Akisha used to read. Between the bed and the closet was a large trunk which was filled with the rest of Gloria’s things. The closet was filled with Gloria’s clothes and Gloria pulled off the hanger her favourite housecoat; worn and threadbare and comfy beyond measure.
Because Gloria was still only a temporary resident of Sanctuary, she could not decorate her room. The walls were an unfinished white, the ceiling likewise. At least the ceiling was stucco, which gave it some character, but it still didn’t feel like her room as of yet. And that was a source of some of the ill-feelings and generally indecision Gloria felt on waking up each night. Of course, if Gloria decided to become a permanent resident of Sanctuary, then she could do whatever she wanted to the room. But Gloria was still undecided about that, so the room remained boring and unfinished white.
Firmly deciding to decide whether or not to stay later, Gloria tightened her housecoat around her waist and headed out the door. If she was quick, she might be able to get to the bathroom first. It hadn’t happened yet, but you never knew.
Gloria’s hopes of getting to the bathroom first were dashed when she saw Jen Ryan and her girlfriend, Gears, walk out of the bedroom beside her. They were closer to the bathroom and Gloria had no desire to try and race them to it. Instead, she called out:
Jen turned, flashing a bright smile. “Gloria! Good evening! How’s it going? You settled in yet?” Jennifer Anne ‘Jen’ Ryan was a petite, curvy dame with hair the same colour as a pumpkin and freckles over her pale white face. Storm-grey eyes that seemed perpetually enraged contrasted sharply with the cheery expression on the rest of Jen’s features. Her arms and legs were as thick as fence posts, the results of long hours practising Parkour. She was wearing Gears’ Metallica t-shirt and nothing else. Gloria knew it was Gears’ shirt because Jen was a Goth to her undead-loving core and generally disdained metal. Besides, Gears wasn’t wearing anything but a black thong.
Gears, in many ways, was the polar opposite of her girlfriend. She was tall and slender, although no less muscled than Jen and with skin so dark it looked black. In addition, she had shaved her head completely, emphasizing her already strikingly full lips and broad flat nose. She had folded her arms up underneath her breasts and stared at Gloria with cool brown eyes. Gloria ducked her head away from that analysing gaze. She didn’t want the other dame to see the envy in her own eyes.
“Yeah, I am actually. Settling in, I mean,” Gloria answered with a fake smile. “It’s still kind of weird to be looking to vampires for protection from humans, though,” she continued, downplaying her anxieties. Judging from the raised eyebrows on the other two dames’ faces, they saw right through her. Gloria shifted nervously in her pyjamas as she wondered if they were going to call her on it.
“Yeah, they take some getting used to,” Gears agreed. “They’re all right, though.”
“I know that,” Gloria said, a little more harshly than she had intended. “It’s just–” she stopped, unable to finish her sentence. Instead, she just shifted awkwardly in her pyjamas again as she dodged the pitying gaze of the other two dames. Angry tears sprang to her eyes. Damn it, the last thing she wanted was to be pitied.
“We know,” Jen said soothingly. Gloria looked at her sharply. She wanted to tell Jen that she had no idea what Gloria was going through, that she couldn’t possibly understand or empathize. But then Gloria remembered that Jen had been raised in the Gutters, Fort City’s own private hellhole, and her rage faltered. If anyone could understand what had happened to Gloria, it was probably Jen Ryan. Jen must have sensed something of Gloria’s thoughts, because she continued with a gentle smile on her face:
“You’re not the first person to be chased in here by the cops, Gloria. And you’re not the first person to have an… adjustment period when they move in, either.”
“Two months is kind of long for an adjustment period don’t you think?” Gloria muttered bitterly.
“Nope!” Jen answered cheerfully. “It took me almost a year before I was totally comfortable here, and I wanted to be a vampire. You? You got dragged into this. So don’t worry if you’re having cold feet or whatever. It’ll pass.”
“Right,” Gloria said. All of a sudden, she was desperate to change the subject. So she said: “Um, I was going to use the shower but if you guys want to go first…?”
“Oh, no,” Jen said as she stepped aside to let Gloria past. “No, you go right ahead. Gears and I tend to take a while in the shower, anyway.”
“That’s cause little miss ginger here can’t keep her hands off me while we’re in there,” Gears deadpanned. “Our showers would go a lot faster if you weren’t fingering me the whole way through.”
“I do not!” Jen screeched. Her face had turned the same colour as a ripe tomato and she jabbed her finger accusingly at her girlfriend. “Gearhead Lee, you take that back!” Gears simply leered at the shorter dame.
Gloria chuckled and made her way through the arguing dames. “I’ll see you two at breakfast,” she said dryly as she entered the bathroom. Behind her, Jen was still remonstrating with her girlfriend, having now moved on to informing Gears that just because she was the most gorgeous dame on the planet, didn’t mean she could get away with trolling Jen like that. Gears just laughed. Gloria grinned to herself. Whatever else she could say about these Black Coats, they didn’t lack for a sense of humour.
Having showered and gotten dressed in the kind of plain, non-descript tee and jeans her mother had always picked out for her, Gloria made her way down the stairs to the main floor, Akisha following close behind her. The main floor was divided into six different living areas, which were further divided into a kitchen/dining room and a common room. In between the living areas was the central elevator shaft, and on the east and west sides of the building where the staircases. During the week, the northeast living area was reserved solely for the Black Coats; it was there they held their daily and weekly briefings, developed both short and long term strategies for dealing with humanity and generally went about the business of vampire government. However, on the weekends the Black Coats opened up the sixth living area to the rest of Sanctuary and would even cook breakfast for the other inhabitants. And sometimes lunch and supper, too, if there were any of the Coats available at the time. Having tasted both Bianco’s and Jess’ cooking, Gloria always made sure she got up in time for breakfast on weekends.
Gloria and Akisha reached the bottom of the stairs and immediately turned to the right, into the northeast common room. It was oddly deserted, for a Saturday. They walked almost to the end of the common room and then took a left into the kitchen.
The kitchen had a design that always struck Gloria as being particularly odd, although she supposed it made sense for a reasonably observant Jew. Directly in front of her was the kitchen sink. To the left of it were three cupboards and underneath them a drying rack for all the dishes. Further to the left was the fridge, the microwave, a space for the phone and then, just before the stairs leading down into the basement, was a broom cupboard. The right side was where everything got a little weird. To the immediate right of the sink was a counter space that had been divided in two. One side was for the preparation of meats and vegetables, the other for dairy products. Further to the right was the stove, which had been similarly divided. Past that was another counter space, this one too small to divide and then a gap leading to the dining room and finally two ovens, stacked on top of each other. The cupboards descending from the kitchen ceiling had likewise been divided according to kosher law. Again, Gloria supposed it made sense for an observant Jew, but the Black Coats were vampires, and she was pretty sure that blood wasn’t kosher.
As Gloria and Akisha edged past the pantry to their right to make the turn into the dining room, she saw to her surprise that the person cooking away on the stove was not Joey Bianco or Jessica bat Jacob, but rather Isaak ben Jacob, Jess’ father, Baron of Fort City and leader of the Black Coats. He was masquerading as a man of medium height, with a round, heavily muscled body. He wore his reddish grey hair short and had a neatly trimmed beard. Today, he wore a black apron over a light blue t-shirt and red shorts. Hearing Gloria and Akisha approach, he turned his head towards her, hitting Gloria with the full force of those impossibly blue eyes.
“Good morning, Ms. Jones. And how are you today?” he asked. Contrary to modern pop-culture depictions of vampires, Isaak’s skin was dark and leathery, with a long white scar cutting across his cheek from his ear.
“Good, sir. Thank you,” Gloria answered. She met his gaze evenly and was proud of herself for it. Those blue eyes were immensely disconcerting.
“Excellent! That’s always good to hear,” Isaak said, although his eyes betrayed concern and Gloria got the distinct impression that she hadn’t fooled the elder vampire any more than she had Jen and Gears upstairs. Damn it, what was wrong with her? Nobody but Akisha had ever been able to see past her defences so easily before. Was this some kind of vampire superpower? Frustrated, Gloria picked idly at the sleeve of the plain t-shirt she had picked out to wear that night. On the stove, a bubble from within the frying burst with a loud echoing pop. Isaak glanced over his shoulder and said:
“Breakfast is going to be a few minutes yet. Why don’t you wait in the dining room?”
“Thank you, sir. Um, can I ask what you’re making? It looks kind of like huevos rancheros,” Gloria said, sneaking a peak at the frying pan.
“Close! It’s shakshouka. Basically it’s poached eggs in tomato sauce,” Isaak explained in response to Gloria’s uncomprehending look. “Traditionally, the sauce contains onions and chilli peppers as well, and is spiced with cumin. Naturally, I have added a few twists of my own.”
“Naturally,” Gloria said with a grin. She took a deep breath of the pleasant smell coming from the frying pan and smiled more naturally. “Well, it smells great, sir.”
Isaak turned to face Gloria head on and bowed. “I’m delighted that it meets with your approval, my dear.”
Gloria bowed back, and then made her way into the dining room, Akisha at her heels. Sitting at the large oblong table was another Coat, their face obscured by the newspaper in their hands. Another newspaper sat on the table. Curious, Gloria bent over to look at it.
It has been a month since the judicial murder of one Herbert Moon, the nephew of our very own Chief of Police Jeffery Rollins, at the hands of the secretive vampire elite known only as the Black Coats. They claim that the sentence was Herbert’s just desserts for the murder of one of their traitorous and sycophantic hangers-on, a dame by the name of Aisha Jones. But, dear readers, does this compute? Can a sweet, innocent boy like Herbert Moon really murder a death fetishist freak like the late Ms. Jones? And even if these ludicrous claims are true, can we, as moral human beings really condemn one of our own for the death of a monster like Aisha? A quisling, selling us all out to the murderous fiends that lurk in our midst? Of course not, dear readers, and this objective and unbiased reporter shall deliver the truth to you, in an unbiased and objective fashion.
First, the facts. Herbert Moon grew up in mostly idyllic conditions, raised from birth by his loving parents and doting uncle and aunt. His uncle, Jeffery Rollins, was an up-and-coming police officer in the FCPD (the legal and mortal police department, you’ll notice, unlike those false pretenders in the Standard Tech Security Department), cited often for bravery and noble conduct. His mother, the late Emma Rollins, managed to land the rich and dashing Mason Moon, giving the hard working family what it had so desperately earned. Nine months later, Herbert was born. He spent his young life in the wonderful Blood Park, which had all the delights young children need. Sadly, he soon lost his mother and father in a terrible accident, but fortunately, his uncle and aunt took the young boy in. From there, his days were marked with easy successes, bright sunshine, and endless joy. At least, until it was cut tragically short by those monsters in Black Coats.
Aisha Jones, however, is a different story. To begin with, this reporter couldn’t even discover where she was born. Probably means that she was smuggled into the country or something; you know what these people are like. Further, she spent her days in the dark and dreary Demon’s Alcove, a place I heartily recommend my readers never visit for evil and terrible things live there. I know the Coats maintain that Demon’s Alcove isn’t one of their strongholds, a base from which they will take over humanity, but how else do you explain the crippling poverty and lack of Western liberal values? Hm? Obviously, the Coats are lying and just as obviously, they got their hooks into young Aisha early.
Aisha’s youth was entirely misspent; she bounced in and out of juvie with a regularity that would shock even the most generous soul. She was into drugs, booze, and prostitution from an early age. Partially, this was a result of her father, Willard Jones, dying an untimely death, but mostly it was because of the vampires. In fact, they probably arranged for Willard’s death, the easier to corrupt his only daughter. I know what you’re thinking: but Placeholder, how do we know that the vampires corrupted Aisha? Shouldn’t we reserve judgement until all the facts are in? No, we shouldn’t. We know that the vampires corrupted Aisha and lead her from the straight and narrow because that is what they do. That is all that they do. Just as we know that Aisha was a prostitute because she worked for that Dhaliwal character, and only prostitutes work for Dhaliwal. And no self-respecting woman would become a prostitute by choice, so we know that she was forcibly addicted to drugs so that the vampires could exploit her more easily.
As luck would have it, Aisha and Herbert would cross paths at school. Herbert attempted to befriend the wayward youngster, leading her away from the corruption and rot of vampire society. An altruistic impulse, and one that should be awarded, not punished. Unfortunately, Herbert’s good intentions were wasted on the wrong soul, as proven when she attacked him at the local hangout, Kaptain Burger.
True, that final act of violence would lead to Aisha’s death, but what else could we expect? Would any of us fail to defend ourselves against vampires and their servants? I think not. More importantly, the Coats acted without regard to the proper judicial procedure or consultation with the proper, constitutionally-erected courts. Herbert Moon was murdered by vigilante justice to protect one of the Coats’ own, and we can’t let that stand. Written by Charlotte Brown, Fort City Times Staff Writer.
Gloria stared at the newspaper for a minute, unable to speak. Then she let out a bloodcurdling howl of grief and rage and pain, all the while hitting the table with the rolled up newspaper. Akisha looked up at her person sharply.
“I take it you disagree with Ms. Brown’s assessment of the situation?” a voice said over the rustling of the other newspaper. It was a cold voice, harsh and nasal. Gloria looked up from her improvised baton to seeing Joey Bianco gazing back at her.
Bianco, in Gloria’s considered open, was the only one of the Black Coats who actually looked like a vampire. He was pale, for one thing, far too pale to ever be confused for a human being. In addition, he had a Roman nose, slicked back black hair with a sharp widow’s peak, a thin, almost lipless mouth and cheek bones sharp enough you could almost use them as glass cutters. It was the eyes, though, that marked him unmistakably as a vampire. They were the cold, dead eyes of a predator. Never judging, never accepting. Just watching. Waiting. Seeing everything but revealing nothing. With those eyes covered up, you could be excused for mistaking Joey for a Goth who had maybe gone overboard with the makeup, but as soon as you saw them you knew. Joey wasn’t human; might never have been human.
And then there was his frankly anachronistic taste in dress. Gloria had been at Sanctuary for a month now and had never seen Joey in anything approaching casual clothing. Not once. Today, for example, Joey was dressed up in a four button asymmetrical vest over a suit shirt, complete with tie. Gloria couldn’t see them from where she was standing, but she suspected she knew what Joey was wearing beneath the table as well: slacks with socks and loafers. All in his customary black, of course. It wasn’t quite Bela Lugosi’s iconic opera outfit, but the effect was the same: Joey was clearly someone out of time and place.
Strangely enough, Joey’s obviously vampire nature made him, out of all the Black Coats, the easiest for Gloria to deal with. As much as Gloria didn’t want to admit it, Joey conformed to her expectations of what a good vampire should be: arrogant, cold, sarcastic, anachronistic and a white male. That last part Gloria knew from firsthand experience to be an illusion; she had watched him shift into any one of a number of genders along the spectrum and into a bewildering variety of races. But it was easier to deal with the illusion that Joey was a white male than it was to accept that there were POC, social justice vampires, which was what the rest of the Black Coats were.
Right now, though, Gloria had more immediate problems on her mind. “The hell can they print this shit?” she demanded. “They didn’t even get Akisha’s name right!”
“And that’s the corrected article,” Joey answered. “The first version didn’t even get Herbert’s name right.”
Gloria stared at him in stunned silence for a few seconds before letting out another scream. This time, Isaak’s popped up from out of the kitchen and asked:
“Is everything all right?”
Bianco nodded before Gloria could speak. “Gloria here is just expressing her frustration over the ineptitude of our press,” he said.
“Ah,” Isaak said, as he nodded in understanding. “Well, that’s why we don’t let tablets at the table anymore.” With that, he went back to his kitchen.
“Had a few of them chucked around the room, have you?” Gloria muttered.
“Yep,” another voice, this one female, said before Joey could open his mouth. Gloria turned slightly to see Jessica bat Jacob walk through the kitchen and sit down. Jess didn’t much resemble her father; she was taller for one thing, and had straight, seal-brown hair instead of Isaak’s curly red hair. She also had pale white skin, the colour of carved ivory. Her eyes, though, were the same disconcertingly blue as her father’s were. Today, she wore a light blue t-shirt that showed off her heavily muscled arms and a pair of blue jeans. I stay in this house too long, I’m going to get muscle envy, Gloria thought. On the other hand, Jess’ looks were as much an illusion as Joey’s or Isaak’s. Jess was a dhampir; half-human, half-vampire. Like all vampires she was super-strong and super-fast, with a dependency on blood and the ability to shapeshift. On the other hand, Jess was immune to sunlight and Gloria had heard that a dhampire’s shapeshifting abilities were weaker than a regular vampire’s in some fashion. Not that Gloria had ever tested that particular theory.
“Usually at my head, too,” Joey said sourly as he folded the newspaper up and placed it back down on the table. Beside him was a cup of what Gloria assumed was blood; that was the only thing she had seen him drink so far.
“It’s not their fault your head is such an inviting target, Joey,” Jess said, in a falsely innocent tone. “I mean, it’s just so scrawny and pale. I’d chuck things at too. Wouldn’t you, Gloria?”
“I don’t think I’m going to answer that question,” Gloria muttered, causing Jess and Joey to chuckle. “Um. Do you want me to get you some blood?” she asked Jess, pointing to the cup that Joey was now raising to his lips. Jess shook her head.
“Oh no, honey. You just sit down,” Jess said with a gentle smile. Gloria wanted to scream at her that she didn’t need to be coddled, that she could help, but she didn’t think that’d do any good. Joey watched her over the rim of his cup, cold amusement in those dead eyes of his. Gloria scowled at him and stomped over to the far end of the table and sat down. Akisha followed her and curled up at her feet. She knew she was being childish but didn’t care. The newspaper article had ripped open all her wounds surrounding Akisha’s death, fuelling her already confused emotions about whether or not to stay. Glowering at the two Coats, Gloria couldn’t help but catch the look they shared.
“And I was beginning to think we’d never see that temper again,” Joey said as he took a sip of blood.
Gloria blinked. “Wait. What?” she asked.
“You’ve been closed up tighter than a mannequin’s corset since you got here, honey,” Jess said as she leaned down the table to get a better look at Gloria, her eyes filled with compassion. Gloria forced herself to look the other dame in the eye. “But we know you’ve been having nightmares. And you have this ugly look in your eyes, like you want to start a fight and don’t care with whom. We were starting to worry.”
Gloria looked at them, a stunned look on her face. “Were you spying on me?” she demanded.
Joey snorted. “The walls here aren’t that think, pup,” he answered. “All somebody had to do was pass by your door on the way to the bathroom to hear your screams. Daily screams.”
“Oh,” Gloria said quietly. She hadn’t thought that she was that loud, or that the nightmares were that frequent. Then she shook her head and asked:
“Did you put that paper there? Knowing I’d read it and get mad?”
“Knowing that you’d read it, yes,” Joey admitted. “But I wasn’t sure how you’d react.”
“Badly,” Gloria muttered and Joey laughed.
“Hardly,” he said with a snort. “Getting angry is the appropriate response to that stinking pile of rancid faeces.”
“I suppose,” Gloria said as she fought back a smile. “I just– I don’t know. I am grateful that you guys took us both in, but I don’t know. I’m not sure I’m cut for all this vampire stuff. And I know Mom already left. But I guess it’s too late for me, right? I got the tattoo and everything already.”
“Yeah, because removing a tattoo is so hard these days,” Joey said as he rolled his eyes. “Oh woe is us, how ever shall we use the readily available laser tattoo removal technology? Truly, a puzzle for all time.” Gloria giggled while Jess rolled her eyes even harder than Bianco had.
“So, it’s not permanent?” Gloria asked once her giggles had died down. “I mean, I can leave if that’s what I want?”
“It’s not like we’re the Hotel California, honey,” Jess said. “And it’s not like you’re the first person to join the Flock out of a need for a little payback and then get cold feet, either. If this really isn’t the right place for you– well, I’d be disappointed to see you leave. And so would Jen. But it’s your call, honey. Not ours.”
“I don’t think I’d be welcomed back into human society. Not anymore,” Gloria said as she stared at the paper.
“That,” Joey agreed, with a deeply sour look on his face, “is unfortunately true. Lousy bastards.”
After that, the conversation ended as the other Black Coats arrived for breakfast. The shakshouka was delicious as were the cheese and fruits that were served with it. Gears got into her traditional argument with Joey over which was better for you, fruit or meat, while Jen happily gobbled down everything in sight. Tchaikovsky cheerfully informed them all, in an incredibly cheesy Russian accent, that shakshouka had been invented by Russians stranded in Tunisia, which earned groans from everybody else and a piece of cheese flicked at him by Neema Bartlett. It continued like that for over an hour, with insults being lobbed about the place and everyone getting a good-natured jab in. Gloria mostly stayed silent, observing. It wasn’t the first time she had breakfasted with this crew, and every time she did it felt a little more routine, a little more comfortable, a little safer. Even the blood, which the vampires consumed by the pitcher, didn’t bother her much. Breakfast was brought for Akisha as well, and she munched happily on it underneath the table.
“I gotta make a run to the convenience store,” Tchaikovsky said as the Coats and Gloria finished breakfast. Mikhail Ivanovich Tchaikovsky was a vampire originally from Russia. From what Gloria had gathered, he had fled to the Fort to escape from the KGB back in the late seventies. Today, he was masquerading as a short human male with spiky black hair and pale skin. He had narrow slanted eyes with white irises that sat on either side of a long pointed nose. Today, he was wearing a battered white t-shirt with a large anarchist A in black on it that showed off his insanely-well defined arms and a pair of black jeans that Gloria knew from experience looked better on him than they had any right to. Tchaikovsky’s obviously Russian and Asian features had confused the heck out of Gloria at first, because she had assumed that all Russians were Slavic. Tchaikovsky had been quick to correct her, explaining that his mother’s family was Yakutian. As a human, this side of his family’s heritage had been suppressed and erased; as a vampire, he could embrace it more openly. “Does anybody need anything?
“What are you going there for?” Jess asked, as she peered down the table at him.
Tchaikovsky shrugged. “Shampoo, mostly,” he said. “But also some hair gel, a new toothbrush… little stuff, mostly. And to answer your next question, no, we don’t have any more of that stuff in the supply cupboards. I checked.”
“Good. Then could you grab some toothpaste while you’re there, too, please?” Jess asked as she poured herself another glass of blood. “We’re almost out.”
“Of both kinds? Or just the anti-bacterial stuff we need?” Tchaikovsky asked in response.
“Both,” Jess answered as she took a sip.
“And if you’re grabbing shampoo, make sure you pick up some coconut oil for us, will ya?” Nafisa Bartlett asked, indicating herself, her twin sister, Gears and Omar Taylor, the other black people at the table. Nafisa was a large dame, with arms as big around as Gloria was and legs bigger still. She had thick, full lips on a square face with golden-brown eyes and a broad flat nose. Today, she wore her hair naturally, in a big poofy Afro. She wore a black and gold tee that stretched tightly over a deliciously large bosom and gold leather pants that were equally as tight. She was the kind of dame that Gloria’s mother would have clucked her tongue at when they passed each other in the street and then lectured her daughters on how she was disgracing women, and especially African women, everywhere. Nafisa and her twin sister, Neema Bartlett, were a pair of lycanthropes, which at least explained their size.
“Sure. Gloria, you need anything special for your hair?” Tchaikovsky asked as he turned to face her, startling Gloria out of her reverie.
“Um, no,” Gloria said quickly. “No, I’m good. I–I just use shampoo, to be honest.”
“On hair as curly as yours?” Joey asked. He had retreated back behind his newspaper, but pulled it back down to get a better look at Gloria as she answered his question.
“Yeah. There a problem with that?” Gloria said as she crossed her arms defensively.
“Well is your hair my dear. But if you don’t want to go bald at an early age, I would suggest a different strategy,” a different, vividly female voice answered. Reluctantly, Gloria turned to face the speaker.
And gazed directly into the hypnotic, serpentine eyes of Chandramathi Dhaliwal. All of the Black Coats, save Bianco, were specimens of physical perfection. Even Omar Taylor, the token human of the group, was a prime specimen. But all of them, to a one, paled in comparison to the aching, agonizing beauty that was Chandramathi Dhaliwal.
Her skin was a flawless, even deep dark brown. She had the same hooked nose as did Joey Bianco but on her heart shaped face, it was softened, made less imperial and imposing somehow. Her lips were wide and full, given to easy smiles and gentle kisses. Her eyelashes were full and prone to flutter, which Gloria suspected was to keep everyone she met from being hypnotized by those maddeningly green eyes of hers, with their snakelike pupils. Silky black hair had been braided and then pulled into a bun at the back of her head. Over her perfectly defined and proportioned body she wore a long dark green sari and underneath it a lighter green blouse that bared her hard as mahogany midriff. Gloria had once asked Akish how she could ever fall for a vampire; staring at Chandramathi, she suspected the question was how could one not fall for a vampire.
“Um,” Gloria said, staring at the Hindi vampire. It wasn’t just the vampire’s beauty that unnerved Gloria; Gloria desperately wanted to hate Chandramathi for dragging Akisha into the world of vampires, but found that she couldn’t. That she simply could not hate someone so beautiful.
“What have I told you about breaking guests, C?” Joey asked Chandramathi as he took a sip of blood.
“Bit rich coming from you,” Jess shot back in defence of her friend. Chandramathi just kept staring at Gloria, forcing the young woman to shake herself out of her reverie.
“Mom always said that shampoo was good enough,” Gloria muttered, her arms still wrapped tightly around her as though they were some form of armour.
“Your mother was wrong,” Neema Bartlett said bluntly. She was smaller and generally quieter than her sister and dressed more conservatively in a loose gold t-shirt over a long-sleeved undershirt and black cargo pants. Her eyes had that same gold-flecked look to them and as they focused on Gloria the young dame couldn’t help but feel like a rat cornered by a terrier. “Too much shampoo,” Neema continued, “will damage anybody’s hair. But it’s especially bad for curly or kinky hair. And your hair, honey, is as kinky as all get out.”
“Oh,” was all Gloria could say.
“I think maybe you should pick up some honey as well, Tchaikovsky,” Omar Taylor said. He was a large, powerfully built man with dark brown skin, wide lips and a square jaw. Today, he wore a plain grey tee and grey shorts. “Let her experiment. Find out what works for her.”
“I’ll check in the supply cupboards, make sure there isn’t any still left,” Tchaikovsky agreed. “Anybody need anything else?”
“Um, tampons,” Gloria said quickly. She blushed as everybody looked at her. “We’re down to the last box of pretty much every size the cupboard. And I’m out of my personal stash.” She blushed harder at that last sentence.
“That’s the really important one, Uncle Misha,” Jen said earnestly as she leaned down the table to get a better look at Tchaikovsky. “If you forget everything else, fine, but don’t forget the tampons.” Beside her, Gears nodded vigorously.
Tchaikovsky nodded with mock gravity. “‘Course not, pup. You got a brand you prefer, Gloria? Or do you need something a little specialized.”
Gloria shook her head as the embarrassment faded. She knew she was being silly; vampires drank blood the way a man dying of thirst drink water, so why would they hesitate to discuss periods? Even at the breakfast table. Come to think of it, breakfast is probably the best time to discuss such a bloody topic, Gloria thought to herself, privately pleased with her own pun.
“So that’s it then?” Tchaikovsky said as he wrote everything they had added to his grocery list down on his smart phone. “All right, if you need anything else just text me.”
“So, what is everybody’s plan for today? Anything exciting? And no more Pinky and the Brain puns out of you,” Isaak said, as he shook his finger at Bianco. Bianco pulled down his paper, said “narf” and went back to reading. Isaak sighed in obvious defeat.
“Come on, Dad. We know exactly where Galahad will be. It’s a Saturday night and the Empress is playing,” Jess said, a teasing grin on her face. “Where else would he be but losing his shirt down at the Empire Club?”
“At least I get out of the house, princess. You, on the other hand, will be binge watching Netflix. Again,” Joey countered as he folded up his newspaper and took one final sip of blood.
“Guilty,” Jess admitted blithely. She, too, drained the last drop of blood out of her cup.
“I gotta meet with Angela after I’m done the grocery run,” Tchaikovsky said as he leaned back in his chair. “There’s something wrong our new OS and she wants to fix it ASAP.” A quick look of disgust crossed his face. Gloria presumed that it had more to do with working on the weekend than spending time with the dark-skinned beauty that was Angela Morgan.
“Would this ‘work date’ consist of, I don’t know, a candlelight dinner and some relaxing music? Maybe the two of you in matching tuxedos? Awkward conversation?” Neema teased as she leaned down the table.
“And what are your plans for the night, honey? Another orgy?” Tchaikovsky shot back. Gloria noted that he didn’t deny, in any way whatsoever, Neema’s teasing.
“Work hard, play hard motherfucker,” Nafisa answered for her sister. Then the two wifwolves high-fived.
“I also have a date,” Omar said mildly as he organized the remnants of his breakfast onto a single plate.
“Finally, he admits it,” Joey said as he did much the same thing. “I was beginning to wonder if we would have to kidnap the poor dame. A little black bag job, if you know what I mean.”
“You couldn’t kidnap a dame if they jumped you in a dark alley and demanded you do it,” Jess jabbed.
“And this conversation is why I didn’t admit to having a girlfriend earlier,” Omar said.
Gloria chuckled and then turned to Chandramathi. “What about you, ma’am?” Gloria asked timidly. “I suppose you have a hot date yourself,” she continued, almost accusingly. Gloria wanted to hate Chandramathi, desperately wanted to blame her for Akisha’s death and thought that if Chandramathi was banging away on some other girl so soon after Akisha’s death then that meant Chandramathi didn’t really care about Akisha. Naturally, Chandramathi didn’t cooperate with this plan.
“Nothing so glamorous my dear,” she said, as she smiled softly. For a microsecond Gloria desperately wanted to kiss those lips and had to forcibly remind herself that she had a girlfriend, Harper. “I’m afraid it’s just me and some friends heading out to a movie tonight,” Chandramathi continued. “And maybe we’ll drop by a bar or two afterwards. A nice, relaxing evening.”
“Ah,” Gloria said, feeling mightily ashamed of herself for trying to bait this vampire, who done nothing but good for her family, into revealing her personal habits. What business was it of Gloria’s if Chandramathi sought solace in the arms of another? None, that’s what. Gloria was reacting, projecting. Akisha’s death had ripped a hole in her and she wanted revenge. Rollins, the real killer, was too powerful, even for the Black Coats. So she lashed out at others around her and felt ashamed for it.
“Me and Gears are going to meet up with my friends and head on down to the Vampire Club,” Jen said. She had switched out of the Metallic tee and into a Bauhaus shirt and black jeans. Gloria perked up.
“Can I tag along? It’s just I’ve never been,” Gloria said, flushing red again as Jen and Gears looked straight at her.
“I love it when people you’re going to invite along for a thing just up and invite themselves anyway,” Gears said, not quite sarcastically. She had thrown on a black tank top with the Harley-Davidson logo on it and leather pants. “It just… simplifies things, don’t you think?”
“Very convenient,” Jen agreed, as she locked gazes with Gloria. “We were going to see if you wanted to come along anyway, Gloria. And I’m glad that you do. But first, we need to make a quick shopping trip. You need some different clothes if you’re going to hang out at the Club,” she continued, pointing at Gloria’s non-descript tee.
Gloria looked down. “Yeah, these aren’t exactly clubbing clothes,” she agreed. “But I don’t exactly have the money to buy a whole new wardrobe, either.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Jen said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “We’re not going to get you a whole new wardrobe; just some nice pieces for the Club. Besides, we’ll hit the Undead Clothing Emporium. They’ve always got fantastic deals on there.”
“Right,” Gloria muttered. She had a sneaking suspicion that Jen was going to insist that she pay for all the clothes, not Gloria. And then Gloria would have a real hard time getting out of Sanctuary, if that’s what she wanted to do.
But was it?
Jen waited patiently by the northeast exit out of Sanctuary while Gloria clipped the leash to Akisha. Gloria then adjusted the poop bags so that they hung off her belt properly and grabbed a thin light jacket off the rack. Once ready, the two dames headed out the door.
“So where exactly are we going?” Gloria asked as she shifted Akisha’s leash between her hands.
“The Undead Clothing Emporium,” Jen answered as she pointed northwest. She had thrown on a light black trench coat and a cloche hat. “It’s run by the Flock, and it sells all sorts of stuff. A lot of it is at least vaguely Gothic, though.”
“Yeah, I kind figured that from the name,” Gloria said as she started walking in the direction Jen had pointed, Akisha tight by her side. Jen caught up easily, despite being shorter than Gloria. “And I don’t mind Goth stuff, not really anyway. Besides, I’m curious to see how the Flock actually lives. Outside of Sanctuary, anyway.”
“That’s kind of why I wanted you to come to the Club tonight,” Jen admitted. “Ever since you moved in, you haven’t really left the house. Not even with Harper. Even the most introverted of introverts would get cabin fever after a while. And, as much as I love my family, we’re really only a slice of what life is like in vampiredom. If you’re going to stick with us, you should really see everything on offer.”
“Hm,” Gloria said as they walked along the narrow, twisting streets. The walkways were crowded, even this early in the evening as hundreds of thousands of people surged along the streets, like some grossly oversized worm. More than once Gloria, Jen and Akisha had to shove their way through the teeming masses. “I still don’t know, Jen. Sometimes I look at my tattoo and think ‘yes, this is it! This is who and what I want to be. Finally. And it’s my choice. No more having to live up to somebody else’s expectations. No more giving a damn what society thinks.’ And then sometimes I worry about what society thinks. Like, is this the right decision? Or was I being rash and impulsive?”
“Just because you were rash and impulsive doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right decision,” Jen said as she hopped onto metal fence and walked along it. “And just because you think something the whole way through doesn’t mean you made the right decision, either. The real question is, who do you want to be? Forget everybody else.”
“Even you guys?” Gloria half-joked. Akisha took that moment to let out a massive sneeze.
“Even us,” Jen said seriously as she jumped down from the metal fence to walk alongside Gloria and Akisha again. “Maybe especially us. Don’t join up just because you feel obligated or want revenge. Or because Akisha was a sheep and you feel like you should replace or something. But join because you want to. And we can still be friends.”
“Seriously?” Gloria asked, an amused half-grin on her face. Akisha went ahead to sniff a lamppost.
“Seriously,” Jen said, looking up at Gloria with as much gravity as she could muster. Her nose having turned pink in the cool October air didn’t help. “I like you, Gloria. Sure, you can be whiny and short-tempered, but you’re a good person underneath it all. Just because you move out or go on to different things doesn’t mean we can’t still hang.”
“Thanks, I think,” Gloria said, another half-grin on her face. But Jen’s sincerity had touched Gloria. Outside of her friends at the Captain Burger, nobody had vowed to be her friend no matter what. All her friendships before had been conditional. She had to believe x, join x group, wear x clothes or the right amount of makeup. But apparently, that wasn’t Jennifer Anne Ryan’s style.
Sighing deeply, Gloria took a look around. This was Zion, the oldest neighbourhood in Fort City, and the namesake of the state. It was also the heart of vampire territory in Fort City and if Gloria wanted to know what being a sheep was like, then she had better start observing.
At first glance, it wasn’t all that different from any other well-off neighbourhood in Fort City. The homes were mostly townhouses with the occasional apartment or condo complex thrown in there for variety. Here and there were shops of all different sizes and varieties, mostly squeezed in between the townhouses. Shoe shops, tailors, hatters, toy stores and even a farmer’s market had been squeezed into the area. No supermarkets or malls, though. No, everything here was fresh and handmade. All the buildings, regardless of size or purpose, were made from the world famous grimstone; a black rock that seemingly only occurred in Zion State and made for an excellent building material. Not all the buildings maintained the rock’s original colouring, however. Quite a few had painted; in colours ranging from the incredibly garish to more subdued tones. All of them, however, were Gothic in nature. Gargoyles and grotesques leered down at them from the heights, while windows and doorways alike sat comfortably in pointed arches. All in all, a typical Fort City neighbourhood.
It was the people where the differences really manifested. Gloria had never seen such a diverse array of humanity in her life, outside of documentaries anyway. East Asians, African-Americans, Hispanics, white people, Muslims in every possible variety of dress, and East Indians all mingled together openly and easily. Their personal styles, too, revealed a great diversity in thought and character. Just in front of her were two dames chatting amiably; one wore a full-length niqab, the other a jeans and t-shirt that looked suspiciously like they had been painted on. Further ahead was a food truck manned by a gent with a great spiky mohawk that had been dyed green, and was serving food to another gent in the classic fifties sac suit. And, of course, Goths. Armies and armies and armies of Goths. Many of whom called out to Jen as they passed, and she waved back. A few times they stopped to talk and Jen would chat with them, always taking care to introduce Gloria as her friend. A few, quite a few, had heard about Akisha and promised to do whatever they could to help. Several had already started, and talked about the blogs and rallies and petitions they had started to drum up support and counter the lies told by the mainstream media. Embarrassed by their efforts, Gloria stammered out a thanks and tried to convince them that it was okay and she didn’t need the support. None of them believed such a bald-faced lie, not even Gloria herself.
Eventually, they made their way to the Undead Clothing Emporium. It was the rounded corner of a Y-intersection where Hammer Road split into King Street and Republic Avenue. The building itself was a wide cylindrical tower made of black grimstone and with a deep-set door in a pointed arch. There were no gargoyles or grotesques, but Gloria strongly suspected the whole place had once been a bell tower for a larger church or synagogue.
“Do they own every floor?” Gloria asked as she tied up Akisha in the designated doggy spot. Akisha sat upright with a serious look on her face, doing her best impression of a guard dog. The tail wagging at a thousand miles a second rather ruined the effect, and both pit bull and Rottweiler lying next to her snorted in derision. Gloria giggled and stood back. Akisha, perhaps wisely, chose to ignore the commentary on her pose.
“Who? The Clothing Emporium? Yeah, they own the whole building actually. Been in the family for generations, used to be a watchtower of some kind. Then they made it a clothing store. On the first floor you got all the unisex items. You know, sunglasses, hats, stuff like that. Then second floor is all the guy’s stuff. Third floor is dames, and I think the fourth is a restaurant. I’ve never been in it though,” Jen added, almost as an afterthought.
“What, spoiled by all the good food your bosses cook?” Gloria teased. The two dames had reached the door and Jen pulled it open for Gloria.
“Well, yeah! What kind of stupid question is that?” Jen demanded as Gloria walked through the door. Gloria just laughed.
Some time later, Gloria emerged from a stall in the women’s changing room feeling very disgruntled. Jen sat on a chair just outside of the dressing room stall, flipping through a copy of Rue Morgue. The changing rooms were at the far curve of the emporium from the staircase, and had been built to fit in the curved wall. When Gloria emerged, Jen looked up from the magazine.
“How did it go?” she asked.
“Apparently, I’ve been wearing the wrong size bra since I was twelve,” Gloria answered with a scowl. She hadn’t much liked the way the young Goth dame had posed her like a doll while she had taken her measurements. Worse, Gloria didn’t like the obvious fact that she didn’t know her own body as well as she thought she did. But the tape measure didn’t lie; and Gloria was full two sizes bigger in the bust than she thought she was.
“Yeah, that happens,” Jen agreed. “American clothing stores are notorious for giving out bad measurements for bra sizes. Usually ’cause they don’t carry bigger sizes. Or if they do, they’re some ugly ass beige color. And then there’s Victoria’s Secret and their whole ‘add imaginary inches’ to your measurement thing.”
“Yeah, the lady mentioned that,” Gloria said. She was still a little sore from finding out she had been effectively lied to for the past six years about her own body, and expressed that fact by briefly imitating the clothing dame’s British accent: “Don’t use American sizes dearie! Only British sizes. Only the British know how to make bras, dearie!”
Jen chuckled and said: “You’re British accent needs work, Gloria. But are you satisfied? Like, does this work for you?”
Gloria looked down at the bras she had neatly folded over her arm. They were a diverse set, ranging from utilitarian style sports bras to some frilly, lacy numbers that would drive Harper wild. More importantly, Gloria thought she looked damn good in them, whatever anybody else might think. There was just one problem. Well, actually two. Firstly, her mother would never approve. In fact, several of the bras were of the kind that Gabriella Jones had specifically pointed out to her daughters as being the kinds that only roundheels and chippies wore. Granted, Akisha had managed to get away with wearing these kinds of rags, but Gloria was starting to understand that was because Akisha was too clever or too cowardly to confront their mother about her garments. Gloria couldn’t do that, though. If she was going to wear these bras, then she had to do so openly, with or without her mother’s approval. That was just her style. Unfortunately, her mother’s approval wasn’t the only problem.
“They’re kind of expensive,” she began slowly, only to be cut off by Jen.
“Don’t worry about it,” the other dame said firmly, and when Gloria tried to protest, Jen cut her off again. “Gloria, seriously. Do. Not. Worry. About. The. Expense. Firstly, this is the Undead Clothing Emporium. Their stuff is all fantastic and will last you a lifetime, so you probably won’t need to buy too many clothes after this anyway. Secondly, I already told you I’d cover it. I have a job, and an extremely well paying job at that. It’s not like this will seriously dent my bank account. And even if it did, you and Akisha are family. The least I can do is pick up the clothing tab once in a while.”
“Akisha’s dead,” Gloria pointed out.
Jen shrugged. “So? She was one of us, for however brief a time. Letting her sister go around with clothes that don’t fit or that she doesn’t like would be a poor way to honor her, no?”
“I suppose,” Gloria said, uncertain. She looked down at the bras in her hand and muttered: “I just don’t want to take advantage of you, that’s all.”
“You’re not,” Jen said firmly. “Seriously, you’re not. I don’t know exactly what you’re going through, but I’ve got a pretty good idea. And I know that if I can help, even in something as small and as petty and as shallow as picking up the clothing tab, I will. This isn’t about me, Gloria. This is about you. What the world did to you. And whatever I can do to help heal that wound.”
Gloria didn’t say anything but wrapped Jen up in a tight hug and began to sob. Jen hugged her back just as fiercely, though she didn’t cry. They stood there for what seemed like eons as Gloria wept all the pain and the misery of the last few months out on to Jen’s shoulder. Despite Gloria’s complete and utter breakdown, Jen didn’t seem to mind at all and just kept holding Gloria until the tears stopped. Gloria pulled away from Jen and dabbed at her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Gloria,” Jen said, a hint of exasperation in her voice. “You’re not a Canadian. You don’t have to apologize for every little thing.”
“Got your coat all wet,” Gloria said as she pointed at the large dark spot on Jen’s shoulder. Jen brushed it off.
“Coat’s waterproof,” she said dismissively. “Besides, you needed a good cry. The world’s kicked you in the teeth so hard I’m surprised your ancestors didn’t feel it. It’s about time you cried. Or screamed or raved or ranted or something. It’s not good to keep it all locked up in there, honey. It really isn’t.”
“I don’t think the Emporium would like it much if I started screaming in the middle of their store,” Gloria said, as she continued to dry her eyes.
“You’d be surprised,” somebody else spoke up before Jen could. Gloria looked up past Jen and saw, standing just outside the entrance to the changing rooms was another dame. This one was a tall, leggy, severe looking blonde in a black sweater vest over a white shirt and black tie with black dress pants and black brogues. Her blonde hair had been tied back away from the face in what looked to Gloria like a French braid but she couldn’t tell from this angle. Her eyes were the same colour as a pond frozen in midwinter, and her face looked like it had been carved out of a block of ice. She walked up to Jen with a march that any parade ground instructor would have envied. The blonde continued: “They have old-fashioned vapour rooms, can you believe that? Anyway the idea is that when one of us fragile types cracks, they simply stuff us in there for a few minutes to let us recover.”
Gloria couldn’t imagine this dame ever being fragile, but decided not to say so. Jen just rolled her eyes and said:
“Typical Sophia King. Always butting into conversations without so much as a ‘hi, how are you?'”
The blonde, who was apparently named Sophia King, laughed like a cool, dry winter wind and bent down to hug Jen and kiss on both cheeks. Jen reciprocated.
“Sophie, I want you to meet my friend, Gloria Jones,” Jen said after the two dames had completed their little ritual. “She’s, uh, a little new to the Flock.”
“Never would have guessed,” Sophia said dryly. She then stuck out her hand and said: “Sophia King. Currently a woman-at-arms for Jessica bat Jacob in the Central Planning Division. How do you do?”
“Fine, thank you,” Gloria said as she shook the offered hand. Sophia King amused her, because Gloria knew her type well: arrogant, aristocratic youths born into immense privilege who would never think to treat the lower-classes with anything less than total respect because that would be gauche. Most of them, admittedly, had been driven out of Demon’s Alcove and Blood Park by Rollins and his ilk, but there were a few around. Republicans In Name Only, her mother had called them, although Gloria would never dare call this dame that. She might not survive getting the words out, never mind the aftermath.
“I take it you are the Gloria Jones connected to that awful business last month?” King asked, still holding tightly onto Gloria’s hand.
“You mean that business where my sister was killed by a guy who I thought liked me? Yeah, I’m connected,” Gloria answered, more harshly than she intended.
King grasped Gloria by the shoulder and said: “I’m sorry. I knew Akisha. Not well, of course, but still. Her death was a great loss.”
Gloria looked the icy blonde in the eyes, expecting or maybe hoping to find some sort of condescension or pity. But there was nothing there. Just cold, pitiless eyes, reflecting a cold and pitiless world around them. Sophia King was not pretending to be distraught by Akisha’s death or that Akisha had been a personal friend or any other such thing. She was simply stating the truth as she saw it, nothing more. Gloria nodded in acceptance of the offered sympathy.
“Thank you,” she said.
Sophia nodded sharply. Jen, who had been watching the whole conversation, now spoke up:
“What are you doing here, Sophie? I thought you had a meeting with your parents.”
“I did. They offended me, so I left,” King answered, as she bounced on the balls of her feet. “Fucking Tea Party assholes. They should all be lined up against the wall and shot. Anyway, I’m here with Megumi and Nashwa to do a little shopping.”
Gloria, who had been expecting some distaste from King over the Tea Party, was surprised at the amount of vitriol in the blonde’s voice. Especially as it was directed at her own parents.
“Didn’t approve of your finger-banging Megumi in your apartment all day, every day?” Jen said slyly.
“We never even got that far,” King said, disgusted. “We had barely said hello before my idiot parents tried to shanghai me back into their little lunatic asylum. So kissed my mother real hard on the mouth and left.”
“While slugging either of your parents would probably cathartic as hell,” Jen said as she crossed her arms and looked askance at her friend, “it’s not exactly legal, either. They could cause a lot of trouble for you. Or for us in general.”
“They haven’t the balls,” King said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “As soon as they get a look at Mr. Taylor they’ll retreat in terror.”
“Maybe,” Jen said, sceptical look on her face. “Anyway, Gloria here is joining us at the Club later tonight. So we’re picking up a few pieces to go clubbing in.”
“Well, that was the original idea,” Gloria said, as she looked down at the bras hanging off her arm. Then she side-eyed Jen and said: “But it seems like we’re moving up on to ‘whole new wardrobe’ anyway.”
“Not to criticize your fashion choices my dear, but you do rather look like a grandmother who’s terrified of her own reflection,” King said, pointing at Gloria’s plain tee and pants. “I’d say a new wardrobe is definitely in order.”
Gloria looked down at her shirt. It was pretty plain. But her mother had drilled it into her head: all those trendy, alternative styles that she liked wouldn’t ever get her a job or a good school or respect. And so Gloria had always chosen plain clothing and resented Akisha for being able to wear whatever she liked. And in that moment, Gloria realized she was being silly. Akisha had found a great job, one that she loved, in a society that allowed her to dress however she wanted. A society that had already invited Gloria into its ranks. What did she care what some nameless human employer thought.
“All right,” she said with a laugh. “All right! You’ve convinced me. But Jen?”
“Once I get a job and start earning real money, I’m so paying you back.”
Jen’s answering grin was so wide it split her face in two. “Works for me!”
Gloria, Jen and Sophia had left the changing rooms and were now wandering down the clothing aisles. Specifically, they had wandered down the shirts and tops section, which occupied the western wall of the floor, down from the changing rooms. Jen had split from the other two dames, saying she wanted to look at something specific, and that left Gloria alone with Sophia. The blonde was searching through some gauzy tops that would have left little to the imagination had they been worn. She would take each of the tops off of their hangers, hold it against her chest, grimace and then put it back. Gloria wondered what was wrong with each of the tops, but she wasn’t paying all that much attention. Instead, she was pretending to look through the shelves of t-shirts beneath the hanging tops, while in reality she was lost in thought. Blutengel’s Reich mir die Hand blared over the loudspeakers.
“I don’t get it,” she finally said as she stared at a tee emblazoned with the Cruxshadow’s logo. Gloria had always been fond of the band, although she had long felt the need to suppress her interest in it. But that wasn’t where her mind was at the moment.
“Get what, darling?” King asked as she tried out another top.
“This,” Gloria said, waving her hand at the shelves. “All this. I mean, Sanctuary, the clothes… everything. I think that’s the part that bugs me the most. I just don’t get why vampires would go through this much trouble for a mortal. Any mortal.”
“Ah,” King said. She draped the top around her arm and asked: “How familiar are you with feudalism?”
“Just the basics,” Gloria said with a shrug as she wondered what feudalism had to do with anything. “The king rules on top, and he delegates power to his nobles. Then they delegate to lesser nobles and so on and so forth until you get to the peasants. Right?”
“Basically,” King agreed. “But that’s just the superficial stuff, really. The real meat of feudalism lies in its very explicit social contract: the peasants serve the lords and in return for their loyalty, the lords are obligated to take care of the peasants. Failure to do so can be… gruesome. Either in terms of revolution or king’s justice.”
Gloria looked over the shelves of t-shirts again and laughed. “You mean all this,” she said, once again waving at the shelves, “is because of some feudal obligation?”
Gloria shook her head in amusement. “But that doesn’t make any sense! I’m not even sure if I want to be a part of the Flock!”
“Doesn’t matter,” King said. “Akisha was a part of the Flock; ergo, the Coats have certain responsibilities towards both you and your mother.”
“Well, that does make more sense than the ‘pack mentality’ and ‘Jess thinks she’s everyone’s mother’ nonsense that that detective was throwing out there,” Gloria said, as she turned back towards the shelves. “But even if you combine the two, it still doesn’t make any sense! All this generosity only makes sense if they’re trying to recruit me. You know, seduce me to the dark side.”
“Of course we are,” King said. Gloria looked at her sharply. King simply shrugged. “Gloria, most of the Flock in Fort City are refugees of some sort. My parents set the dogs on me when they discovered I was gay. Jen grew up in the Gutters and has… a temper that she is constantly fighting to control. Most of the Coats themselves are refugees, found bleeding to death on the streets somewhere and rescued. We don’t like the mortals. And we have damn good reason not to. So yes, we want to bring you in from out of the cold. Keep you warm and safe and out of those sociopathic bastards hands. And that’s in addition to our social and moral obligations to you.”
“So all vampires are noble and all the mortals scum?” Gloria asked with a laugh.
“Obviously not,” King answered firmly. “Many baronies and even counties here in the States have become mired in corruption. Even in the Fort we have our fair share of the greedy and unscrupulous. If we didn’t, Bianco could retire to his private fortress and never have to interact with anyone ever again. But, and this is the important thing Gloria: we can choose to be better. Better than the world we left behind. Better than the world we now live in. And that, my dear, is what this is really all about. Being better. Adhering to values and actions that do, in fact, make the world better. Or, at the very least, making the life of one young dame just a little bit better.”
Gloria nodded in understanding. Everything King said did make sense. And if Gloria was being honest, the dark side felt very comforting at the moment. She was still hesitant, still doubtful that this was the right path for her to take, but maybe that didn’t matter? Maybe all she had to do was take the plunge? Gloria took a deep breath and reminded herself that the Coats had done nothing but good for her family. Mortals had killed Akisha. Mortals had driven her from the only home she had ever known. Mortals had driven her family into poverty. Mortals had killed her father. All of the tragedies in Gloria’s young life came back to mortals. Whereas the vampires had done nothing but try and mend her wounds. Gloria took another deep breath to steady her nerves and nodded sharply. All right then. She was in. Her decision made, Gloria grabbed the Cruxshadows tee and held it against her body as she tried to determine the fit. King smiled.
“Mind all made up?” King asked.
“Yeah,” Gloria answered. “And I’m still paying Jen back when I got a job. Maybe I should apply here?”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” King said. “Once you join the Flock, you’re guaranteed employment.”
Gloria looked up at her in shock. “Seriously?” she asked.
“Seriously,” King said with a grin. Gloria grinned back. Akisha was absolutely right. Vampires were awesome.
Two hours later, Gloria and Jen had returned from their shopping trip. In addition to meeting Sophia King, Gloria had also met Nashwa el-Mofty and Megumi Nguyen, two of Jen’s other friends and the final two members of the group that would be going to the Vampire Club that night. Nashwa and Megumi had both been delighted to meet Gloria and drag her through the Clothing Emporium, pointing out all the things that Gloria might like or want to try on. Nashwa cheerfully told Gloria that going clothes shopping for new sheep was kind of an unofficial tradition amongst the Flock and had scolded Jen for not dragging Gloria out there sooner. In the end, Gloria had ended up with about three new wardrobes, paid for by Jen and her friends. Gloria swore she would pay them all back, and all four told her not to worry about it. Gloria cheerfully told them she wasn’t worried; she was a part of the Flock now, and she’d easily be able to pull her own weight. All the way back to Sanctuary the five dames had argued playfully about the subject. Once there, King, Nashwa and Megumi split off to do whatever else it was they had to do during the night, while Jen and Gloria lugged Gloria’s new wardrobes up to Gloria’s room. There Jen had left, too, to go do her own prep work for the Club, leaving Gloria to admire her new outfits as she spread them out on the bed.
And what outfits they were! Corsets, pants and skirts all made of leather. Skirts with frills. Short, Victorian style jackets with lace. T-shirts with band names and logos. T-shirts with H.R. Giger’s artwork on them. Pants with Giger’s designs on them. Bits of jewellery with bats, skulls and snakes on them. And more. She couldn’t wait to show off her new clothes; she had already called Harper to set up a date for tomorrow. It was an eclectic mix; at first, Gloria had simply aped Akisha’s style, but as the shopping trip went on and the other dames encouraged Gloria to find what she wanted, Gloria had been drawn to the angrier, edgier, more raw sexuality of certain pieces. At this moment, there was as much frills and lace in Gloria’s wardrobe as there was leather and Giger, and Gloria decided she would try them all in different combinations until she found the style she liked best. She held up a tee that had Giger’s Birth Machine on it and giggled. Gloria’s favourite all-time film was Alien, and the design of the creature had a powerful impact on Gloria. An impact she had always kept hidden, but now, as Gloria devoured the disturbing imagery, Gloria felt free to explore her own interests. Her own desires.
“What do you think? Appropriate for the Club?” Gloria asked Akisha, who was reclining on Gloria’s bed. The dog snorted.
“Yeah, you’re right. Too plain. My first night at the Vampire Club has to be special, doesn’t it? Knock ’em dead,” Gloria said. Akisha barked happily at this, and Gloria grinned. Just then, there was a knock on the door.
“Come in,” Gloria said absent-mindedly, as she rooted through the pile of clothes. Somewhere in there was a black leather corset that did things to Gloria’s figure she had never imagined possible. The door opened without a sound and Gabriella Jones, Gloria’s mother, poked her head in.
“Gloria, honey? Can I come in?” she asked. Gabriella looked a great deal like her eldest daughter. They were about the same height, with similar facial features and the same curly black hair. The main difference was the crow’s feet around Gabriella’s eyes.
“Hi, Mom. Yeah, sure. Come right on in,” Gloria said, with barely a glance at the door as she continued to search for the corset. Her mother closed the door gently behind her as she walked in and stood over her daughter’s shoulder.
“Um, what’s all this?” Gabriella asked as her daughter continued to rifle through the pile.
“Jen took me shopping,” Gloria said. Just then, her fingers closed around the distinctive leather of the corset and she pulled it out of the pile with a gleeful grin on her face. “This is just the civilian stuff,” she explained. “Like, for when I go out to the Club in,” she checked the clock on her desk. It read 9:30 p.m. “four hours, apparently. They’ll have the professional stuff tailored for me when I, you know, decide which job I want.”
“Gloria, nobody is going to want to hire you if you parade around in this trash!” Gabriella snapped.
“Sure they are,” Gloria said, not really paying attention to what her mother said. Her thoughts were on the Club tonight and her date with Harper the next day. On the one hand, Gloria wanted to dress her absolute best for the Club tonight; on the other hand, she wanted to see just how wild she could drive Harper tomorrow. The corset she now had in her hands was perfect for both, and Gloria couldn’t decide which one she wanted more. “I just can’t decide where I want to go. I was talking with a couple of dames named Sophia King and Megumi Nguyen, right? Well, they work in the Central Planning Division of the Executive Department and that sounds really cool. But then Mr. Taylor wants me for the Legal Department and I have to say that sounds pretty cool too.” The job she really wanted, she knew, was in the Security Department, but some instinct told her not to say that out loud. Her mother and Joey Bianco never quite got along, after all.
“What on earth are you talking about?” Gabriella demanded.
Gloria turned to look her mother in the eye for the first time since she walked in the room. “The Black Coats,” she said. “I’m going to go work for them.” Then she turned back to the pile of clothes to see if there was something else she wanted to wear for the Club tonight. Just as she was about to reach back down into the pile, her mother grabbed her wrist.
“Gloria Jones, you are not working for these people!” Gabriella said, her voice steely with determination.
“I will work for whoever I choose, Mom,” Gloria responded coldly. “Now let go of my hand.”
“I will not lose two of my daughters to these monsters!” Gabriella countered.
“You won’t lose me,” Gloria said, more softly than before. “I’ll call every day and visit once a week. I promise!”
“They will kill you if you stay!” Gabriella said, with great urgency in her voice.
“What they hell do you think they were trying to do all last month?” Gloria demanded. “SWAT sure as hell wasn’t breaking down our door every night of the week because they were trying to sell girl guide cookies!”
“I’m sure that was just a misunderstanding,” Gabriella began, but Gloria cut her off.
“Mom, you are an idiot,” she said. “No, seriously. You are. Akisha was both fucking and working for Ms. Dhaliwal every night for at least a year and you didn’t even notice. Your own daughter and you had no idea what she was doing for a living or for fun. And worse, she was killed for it, killed for working for a vampire. That’s a fact; Herbert Moon confessed. Secondly, you are still making excuses for the people who drove us from our own home!”
Gabriella glared at Gloria, her lips trembling with rage. Finally she said: “Gloria Jones, you will not talk to your mother that way.”
“Who do you think got you that cushy job over at Techno-Giants, hm?” Gloria taunted. “Here’s a hint, ma: it wasn’t the humans.”
“Gloria–” her mother began, but Gloria cut her off.
“No, Mom. You listen to me, just as I should have listened to Akisha. The Black Coats are good people, and a damn sight better than the people we left behind. I’m staying. I can build a life here. A life I want, not one you or dad or even Akisha wanted. Just me.”
Gabriella glared at her daughter for a minute longer before turning to glare at the clothes piled on the bed. Akisha looked up at her and whined. After a minute or two of trying to burn a hole through the offending pile, Gabriella finally spoke up and said:
“I worry about you.”
“I know you do,” Gloria said softly. “And I know why, too. But I’m tired, Ma. I’m tired of trying to please people who can’t be pleased. I’m tired of hiding who I am just so I can be allowed to exist in a world that clearly doesn’t want me. I’m tired of arbitrary rules and double standards. I’m tired of working in a fast food joint while imagining a pay day that’s never coming. Here, I’ve got friends. Family. People who will go to war for me even if they’ve never met me before in their lives. The Flock is better, Mom. At least for me.”
Gabriella didn’t look up at her daughter. Instead she just kept staring at the pile of clothes on the bed. Finally, she nodded. Slowly, as if she were in great pain. “You’ll write?” she asked as she looked up at her daughter, tears in her eyes.
“Every day,” Gloria promised. “And I’ll visit you once a week. You’ll see more of me than ever!”
“I doubt that,” Gabriella said with a watery chuckle. Then she turned to face her daughter square on and gave her a great big hug, like a python squeezing its prey. “I knew that this had to happen sooner or later. That you would move out. I just wish the circumstances were different, that’s all.”
“You and me both,” Gloria said, although she suspected that her ideal circumstances were not the same as her mothers. “Good bye Mom. I’ll see you later.”
“Goodbye, Gloria.” With that, Gabriella Jones left her daughter’s bedroom for the last time, leaving Gloria all alone. Gloria was conflicted. On the one hand, she regretted the tone she had had to take with her mother. On the other hand, she felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. As if she had been a bird that had been tied down with a stone anchor. True, she was in many ways switching one master for another, but at least she got to choose this one.
Gloria turned to look at Akisha. The fairy hound looked her straight in the eye, and then barked happily once more. Gloria grinned.
“Right, back to clubbing,” she said as she dived once again into her new wardrobe.
Four hours later, Gloria, Jen and Gears all walked up to where the other three dames were waiting in front of the legendary Vampire Club. Gloria had spent most of that time getting ready. First, she had decided on an outfit. In the end, Gloria had decided not to go with the corset and ended up choosing a black bra underneath a black mesh crop-top with a plunging neckline and little ringlets on the bottom. Over top that, she wore a leather jacket. Around her legs she wore a long black skirt that swished perfectly whenever Gloria tried to practise her sashaying, much to the amusement of Jen and Gears. Around her neck she wore a black choker with a silver bat for a clasp. She had shaved her hair on both sides, so that only the hair on the very top of her head remained. Then she had applied black lipstick and white dots around her eyes. Finally, Gloria had put in white iris contacts. It was a look that was way the hell out of her comfort zone, and she wasn’t sure that she had gotten it right. But that was okay; she would have lots of time to experiment. And besides, even if she hadn’t gotten it quite right, she still looked damn good in her opinion.
Beside her, Jen and Gears were just as dolled up. Jen’s breasts spilled out of a dark red leather corset and below that she wore a red leather miniskirt and fishnet stockings. Most of the stockings were hidden by the dark red leather thigh-high boots, complete with buckles all down the front and flat soles. Around her neck was a black choker like Gloria’s, but with a stylized wolf head for the clasp instead of a bat. For makeup she wore black lipstick, black eyeshadow and black eyeliner, all of which served to emphasize her already pale skin.
Gears’ outfit was simpler, though no less sexy for that. She wore a black leather sports bra underneath a knee-length black leather dust with pointed tips. On her legs she wore skin-tight leather pants and short black combat boots. She wore no makeup.
Eventually, they reached the Vampire Club. Gloria stopped along the sidewalk and simply stared. The Club was housed within a massive Gothic cathedral, some forty floors high. Its spires towered over even the newer skyscrapers while gargoyles and grotesques leered down at the incoming crowds. Stain glass windows depicting bands, the Club’s logo and more dotted the face of the Cathedral. In front there was a set of double doors, and a massive crowd clamouring to get in.
“I don’t think we’re going to get in, Jen,” Gloria said, pointing at the crowd.
“Who said anything about the front door?” Jen asked. “C’mon. We still got to meet the other three.” With that, Jen lead them around to the side of the cathedral where the other three dames were waiting.
“Oh my god! I’m so glad you guys could make it!” Nashwa el-Mofty said as she ran forward to greet them, arms outstretched. She smashed into Jen, who responded with a python hug of her own. Nashwa was a short, brown-skinned dame with large eyes, a wide sensuous mouth and a short sharp nose set in a round face. A devout Muslim and a Goth, she had swapped out the black hijab from earlier today for one that was pink and decorated with tiny skulls. Below that, she wore a long black robe that came down to just above her ankle, revealing that she was wearing a black version of the thigh-high boots that Jen was. She had painted her lips a steel grey and had shaved her eyebrows and repainted them in black. She wore contact lenses that made her eyes look solid black.
“Yeah, took you guys long enough. What, did you decide to stop for a coffee or something?” Megumi asked. She was a little taller than Nashwa, with skin almost as pale as Jen’s. She wore a pinstripe suit over a black shirt with a bow-tie that looked oddly like bat-wings. She had shaved the sides of her head and left the top and other side long. She wore dark purple lipstick and eye shadow, with black eyeliner. Thick square cheaters covered her eyes.
“Nice to see you too, Megumi,” Jen said. “And it’s not our fault the streets in this town are insane.”
“Could have driven here,” Megumi pointed out. Beside her, Sophia King laughed.
“If they had driven here, we would still be waiting,” she countered. Sophia had kept her look from earlier this evening, but had painted her face to look like a skull. She had even gone as far as wearing contacts that made her eyes all black like Nashwa in order to give her face an even more skull-like appearance.
“First time here?” Nashwa asked as she caught Gloria looking up at the huge stone building.
“Yeah,” Gloria said, her tone a mix of awe and wonder. “Is the whole thing the Club?” she asked.
“Yep,” Jen answered. “All forty floors of it. First floor is the restaurants. Then there’s the clubs themselves; they took up about twenty floors. Above them is the hotel and the last floor is administration. Security stations on every floor, naturally.”
“Naturally,” Gloria said, then shook her head.
“You look good, Gloria,” Sophia said.
“Yeah, thanks. So did you two decide to split Jack’s look, or is that a coincidence?” Gloria asked with a grin on her face, pointing at both Sophia and Megumi.
“Something like that,” Sophia answered vaguely. “Shall we go in? I’m starved.” With that, all six dames entered the Vampire Club.
The six dames entered the left transept of the Vampire Club’s bottom floor, using Jen’s special badge to get past the burly Gothic bouncer stationed at that particular door. Once inside, they huddled off into a corner to get out of the way of people, both going out the door and up the stairs into the rest of the Club.
“What should we do first?” Jen asked as they huddled in the corner.
“I’m starving,” Sophia answered. “I forgot to eat dinner.”
“Yeah, I’m kinda getting the munchies myself,” Megumi agreed.
“That’s because you were too busy eating each other out to actually eat,” Nashwa said. Neither Sophia nor Megumi denied the charge, although Sophia arched the skin where her eyebrow used to be.
“If we want food, we should hit The Grim Fandango,” Gears said, pointing at the restaurant across the transept from them. “It does vegetarian, halal, all of that.”
“Sounds good to me,” Jen said. “Gloria?”
“I’m jake with getting some food,” Gloria said.
“Probably shouldn’t let these two lovebirds dance on an empty stomach,” Nashwa agreed.
“Then what are we still standing around here talking for?” Jen asked. “Let’s go!” With that, they cut across the lines of people marching out of the door and up the stairs. Then they skirted around the restaurant to get to the main entrance. Once there, they were told by the maître d’ that the wait would be fifteen minutes and would they be so kind as to wait outside. And so they did. Gloria watched the clubbers go past with all the intensity of a hawk. They were worth the effort. Tall, statuesque dames with nothing more on that some pasties, a thong and fuck-me boots strutted past, looking a little like how Gloria would imagine Aphrodite’s followers in the modern age. Alongside them strode gents chiselled out of any variety of stone, from marble to jet, and possibly even wearing less than the statuesque dames were. Underneath them darted pixieish dames and gents with wild hair and wilder makeup, dressed in forest green. Here and there, there were groups of Steampunk enthusiasts walking alongside people dressed in more traditional Victorian attire. Yet others had gone for more of a street samurai look, with their long black trench coats and mirrored contact lenses. Gloria hungrily devoured them all. Shortly, the maître d’ came out and told them their table was ready and would they follow him, please? The six dames dutifully followed him into the dimly lit restaurant. As he deftly manuevered them through the seemingly endless rows of booths Gloria looked around, drinking all the sights and sounds. The booths were made of wood painted black, while the seats inside them were leather that had been stained charcoal grey. On each of the booths were inscribed figures, some engaging in battle, others sex, and yet others drinking blood. The lamps hanging over the booths were held in the most unique hangers Gloria had ever seen: a quartet of women squatting down and apparently menstruating, if the rivulets of red running through the lampshades were anything to go by. Standing up from the corners furthest from the aisle of each booth were coat racks shaped like gargoyles. Bela Lugosi’s Dead could be heard over the soft din of conversation.
Finally, the maître d’ led them to a corner booth at the far end of the restaurant and informed them that their waiter would be with them shortly. The six settled in.
“Hey, they updated their menus,” Jen said, looking down at the black and gold embossed booklet.
“The cover, anyway. Doesn’t mean they changed any of the food,” Gears said from beside her.
“Long as they still have halal,” Nashwa said as she looked through the menu. “Hah! And oh look, they do. Even got some new vegetarian stuff for you, Gears.”
“I see that,” Gears said as she, too, perused the menu.
“It all looks so good,” Gloria said. “I can’t decide!”
“Me neither,” Jen agreed.
“I know exactly what I’m going to have,” Sophia declared.
“Megumi?” Nashwa teased. Megumi stuck her tongue out at her friend.
“Here’s the waiter,” Megumi said, putting down her menu. “Pick your drinks, guys.”
The waiter came and they ordered their drinks. The waiter left and Sophia leaned back in the booth. Megumi snuggled up close beside her. Sophia draped her arm around her girlfriend. “So, what’s new with everyone? We didn’t get a chance to talk earlier this evening.”
“Rocky Horror Picture Show is coming back!” Jen said.
“I know! Down at the old Left Elbow!” Nashwa said, a giant grin on her face.
“Seriously? I gotta remember to get tickets,” Gloria said. “That’s one of my favourite movies.”
“You and half the Flock,” Gears said. “You’re gonna want to grab the tickets as soon as you get home; they’ll be long gone otherwise.”
“I’ll remember that,” Gloria promised, and then pulled out her phone to write herself a reminder.
“Well, Megumi and I don’t have anything quite that exciting planned,” Sophia said, “but we are going on a little vacation later this year. Just the two of us.”
“Congratulations!” the other five dames shouted. “Where to?” Jen asked.
“Just down to New York; we can’t afford anything else,” Megumi said. “And it’s just a vacation, nothing more,” she added, waving her finger at Jen, who smiled back with all the innocence of a Botticelli angel.
“What about you Gears? Anything exciting in your future?” Nashwa asked.
“Got the last parts I need to rebuild Aunt Nancy,” Gears said, somewhat nonchalantly. The reactions of her friends were anything but.
“Wait, what? When?” they all demanded in unison.
“Last week,” Gears said as she stared at her menu. “Had to clear some of my workload first, so I won’t be able to get to her until Monday. But yeah, I’m pretty excited.”
“Wait, who’s Aunt Nancy? Some kind of robot?” Gloria asked.
“It’s a 1955 Porsche 550 RS Spyder,” Jen answered, her voice breathy with awe. “Named for the African trickster spider god, Anansi. Gears has been working on it for years. Oh, honey! I’m so excited for you!” she exclaimed as she wrapped her girlfriend in a python hug. Gears’ stoic facade cracked for the first time since Gloria had met her, and she grinned a wide goofy grin.
“That calls for a celebration,” Sophia said, as she clearly struggled to hide a grin of her own. She called out to a waiter and when she arrived gave her some whispered instructions. Once the waiter left, Sophia turned to Gloria and asked:
“So, Gloria honey. Have you made your decision? Staying with us or no?” the other dames turned their full attention on Gloria, who desperately tried not to squirm.
“I’m staying,” Gloria said. A cheer went up from the other dames. “Mom and I argued about it,” she continued, and instantly their expressions turned into ones of compassion.
“It happens,” Sophia said grimly. “Not every parent is accepting of their child’s decisions. Trust me, I know.”
“‘Not every parent’ kind of implies that some are,” Gloria pointed out. “Accepting of their kid’s decisions, I mean. Especially to join the Flock.”
“We’re not all orphans here,” Nashwa said. “A lot of people come into the Flock and maintain their mortal ties. Like me, for instance. I’ve got a big ass clan of perfectly mortal Muslim relatives, and I see them every day. Not always by choice, granted, but they’ve been accepting of me so far. And there’s Megumi, who–”
“–Can’t get rid of her parents,” the dame in question interrupted.
Sophia kissed her girlfriend on the head. “They’re not that bad,” she reminded her.
“Better than yours, anyway,” Megumi agreed.
“Now there’s an understatement,” Sophia said.
“Yeah, I mean Akisha sure didn’t have to give up any of her ties,” Gloria said. “Though she didn’t tell Mom who she was working for, either. I don’t know, I guess I just wish I could have my cake and eat it too.”
“I can’t really empathize,” Jen admitted. “By the time I got into the Flock, all my mortal family was dead.”
“You’ve done more than enough already,” Gloria assured her. “And you know what? I’m already happier here than I was in my old life. I’m still going to connect with my friends and I’m still going to Harper for as long as that relationship holds out. But I feel better than I have in a long time.”
“Now that’s positively white,” Jen said, just as the waiter arrived with their drinks. Then they ordered food and passed the meal in pleasant conversation.
After their dinner, the six dames headed up to the second floor, the first of floor of the ‘real club’ as Jen called it. Gloria was feeling pleasantly full after all they had eaten, including two servings of dessert to celebrate both her decision to commit to the Flock and Gears’ near completion of Aunt Nancy. She fully planned to sit in the back of the club and nurse a drink or two while she watched the other patrons flail about in time to the music. Judging by the conversation between the other five dames, they had much the same idea.
To get up to the second floor, they left the Grim Fandango’s main entrance and skirted back around it get back to the west staircase. From there, they travelled up the winding stairs with their cast iron railings and came out on the western semitransept of the second floor. From there Jen lead them into the north-west dance hall, which had a sign on that read: “Reserved for The Flock”. Their tattoos were checked by a barrel-chested bouncer with arms as thick as an elephant’s leg and heavy black eye shadow on her eyes. Once inside the club, Jen lead her friends to a booth in the southwest corner. Another waiter, this one wearing a smile and dark red eyeshadow and lipstick came to take their drink order.
“Virgin Caesar, please,” Jen said.
“Snakebite and black,” Sophia chimed in.
“Shirley Temple,” Nashwa added.
“White Russian,” Megumi said.
“Roy Rogers,” Gears said.
“And I think I’ll just have a cream soda, thanks,” Gloria said as she tried hard not to stare at the dame’s hard as a cinder block body or the floppy cock that hung between her legs. The waiter nodded and left to go get their drinks. Gloria stared at her perfect wriggling ass for a minute, and then turned to her friends.
“I thought drugs were illegal in vampiredom? All drugs, booze included,” she asked.
“No, not really,” Sophia answered. “There’s always been the medical exception, and if you’re an addict you’re in trouble. But getting a hit now and then doesn’t concern them.”
Jen nodded. “It’s more stuff like cigarettes or the really hard drugs that worry them,” she added.
“Ah,” Gloria said. She looked out onto the dance floor. Skinny Puppy’s Optimissed was blaring through the loudspeakers. The floor was covered by a writhing mass of human flesh, twisting and turning as one in time to the beat. Ringing the dance floor were booths like the one Gloria and her friends were in. Most of the ones Gloria could see had swung the privacy curtains shut. Gloria amused herself by imagining what sort of business was going on behind those curtains given the club’s apparent dress code for its employees. Just then, the music stopped and the lights changed to a dim red. Gloria looked up and around, startled.
“Damn, I forgot that was tonight,” Jen said into her drink.
“What? What’s going on?” Gloria asked.
“Baptism of Blood,” Gears answered for her girlfriend. “It’s an initiation ceremony for the vampire religion. New lambs only.”
“What? You gotta convert if you want to be a part of the Flock?” Gloria asked, confused.
“Hah! No, you don’t gotta convert,” Nashwa said. “I’m a Muslim, Gears is a Buddhist, Jen’s an atheist. Lot’s of different religions in the Flock. The only people here that actually worship vampires are Megumi and Sophia.”
“That’s what I thought,” Gloria said. Then she asked: “What was it like?”
“Conversion?” Sophia replied. At Gloria’s answering nod, she said: “Liberating.” Her smile would have done a great white proud.
“It really is,” Megumi agreed as she looked out across the dance floor. “It’s absolutely liberating. To worship something that’s real? That’s tangible and can actually help you? Whose rules aren’t totally arbitrary and made up by a bunch of humans pretending to speak for false gods? You have know idea how liberating that is.”
Gloria nodded. Then she picked herself up from the bench and walked out of the booth.
“Gloria?” Jen called out from the direction of the booth. Gloria turned back. “You don’t have to do this, you know,” the redhead told her.
Gloria smiled. “No, but I want to,” she answered. In response, the other dames all raised their glasses in salute. Gloria’s smile grew wider and she walked down to where the lines were already forming up. This was it, her last break from humanity. And she couldn’t feel better about it.
The lines to the baptismal pool moved slowly. Mostly, that was because they first had to raise the pool from its hiding place underneath the stage at the back of the dance hall. Then, after they had done that, a dame with a heavily tattooed face and dressed in blood red robes walked up to the front of the stage and gave a long speech about how blood was everything. Everything we did was about blood, she said. Everything. She waxed poetic about blood for at least ten minutes, emphasizing its virtues. Finally, she concluded that everybody in the lines would be reborn in blood. The idea excited Gloria. Then the twin lines started to move; due to the size of the pool, the attendants had to alternate from each line who would take a dip. Gloria was near the back of the left-hand line; she would have to wait.
Finally, it was her turn. Gloria mounted each step with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. She could still hear her mother, whispering in the back of her head. Telling her that this was wrong, that she was ruining her life. That she would not get a good husband, a good job if she did this. That society would forever brand her whore, slut, deviant. Ironically, it was these very words that fuelled Gloria’s excitement and determination to go through with this baptism. To hell with humanity, she thought. What has it ever done for me or mine? Precious little, that’s what. And then the attendant, naked from the waist up and covered in tattoos, was there. She carefully disrobed Gloria, taking care to fold Gloria’s clothes properly and place them away from the pool for when Gloria got out. Gloria stood at the edge of the pool, naked as a rhino. She stared down. The pool was, as advertised, filled completely with blood. The smell of it was intoxicating.
“Who are you?” an imperious voice beside her demanded. Gloria turned her head to face the red-robed dame who had given the speech. The dame looked down on Gloria as a wolf might a sheep, trying to gauge whether or not she was good to eat.
“Gloria,” she answered. Much to her surprise, she didn’t flinch or hesitate under that predatory gaze. Instead, her voice rang out strong and clear. “Gloria Jones.”
“And why have you decided to be reborn in blood, Gloria Jones?” the dame asked.
“Mortals,” Gloria answered, “killed my sister, Akisha Jones. She had been a sheep, part of the Flock and she was killed for it. Then they drove me and mother away from our home. The Flock is the only refuge I have left. And I don’t want any more to do with their damned society.”
The dame nodded and then gestured to the two female attendants beside her. They came up beside Gloria and helped lower her slowly into the pool. Gloria waded in and then with a deep breath, sank until her head went under.
Though her eyes were closed, Gloria could see something anyway. Mostly, what she saw was a giant black wolf with red eyes and glistening white teeth.
Do you know who now commands you, child? The wolf asked. Surprisingly, it was a she.
The Last Dog of Rome, whatever the hell that means, Gloria answered. Guess I will find out soon enough, eh?
The bitch laughed. It reminded Gloria eerily of Bianco’s laugh, but before she could dwell on it too much the bitch spoke again:
Yes, you will little pup. Before you do, however, there is somebody else who wants to speak to you. The wolf faded, leaving behind in her place Akisha, Gloria’s sister.
Akisha!! Gloria shouted as she swam towards her deceased sibling, arms outstretched.
Don’t, Akisha warned, her arm outstretched. I’m just in your head and all you’ll end up doing is hitting the pool. Trust me, not fun.
Oh, Gloria said. I’m sorry, she added.
Akisha shrugged. For what? She asked. You didn’t do anything.
I never should have trusted Herbert, Gloria answered. Never should have let him near us.
Akisha shrugged again. They would have found another assassin. Rollins is obsessed with us; he wants us all dead. Akisha cocked her head. Tell me you aren’t just doing this for me.
Gloria shrugged with embarrassment. A little bit, she admitted. I can’t get over what they did to you, Keesh. And I’ll never forgive myself for what I did. You were my best friend, my little sister. I love you and I miss you every single day. But I also, I don’t know. I feel better, more whole here. The pain, it hurts less when I’m here. When I’m with vampires doing vampire stuff. Does that make sense?
It does, Akisha said. It does. We should talk more, but you’re time’s almost up. I’ll see you later, Glor. Trust me, I will.
Bye, Keesh, Gloria said as tears ran down her cheeks, intermingling with the blood she was soaking in. Don’t wait up for me; I’ll get to where you are soon enough. With that, Akisha faded. Gloria began to sob. Bands of iron wrapped around her arms and pulled her up out of the pool. She sat on the edge, coughing and shaking, tears flowing down her cheeks like somebody had left the shower running.
“Are you all right, little lamb?” somebody asked. Gloria looked up to see the red-robed dame. Concern danced in her predator’s eyes the same way paper lanterns bob in the wind.
“No,” Gloria answered. “But I’m getting there. One step at a time, right?”
The dame smiled. “One step at a time indeed.” She snapped her fingers and another attendant came and helped Gloria off of the pool’s edge. The attendant walked her back behind the stage where Gloria was given a towel and some hot chocolate. She dried herself vigorously with the towel, then wrapped herself in it and sat in one of the chairs. She sipped on her hot chocolate and chatted with the other new converts.
What a way to spend the day.
Twenty minutes after Gloria had been retrieved from the pool of blood, she had finished drying off, put her clothes back on and was wandering back over to where her friends were sitting. They were deep in conversation about something that sounded suspiciously like Star Wars, when Gloria walked up to them. Jen was the first to notice Gloria’s approach.
“Feel any better?” Jen asked.
Gloria grinned. “Immensely,” she answered.
Jen shook her head, amused. “Guess it’s just another night at the Vampire Club,” she said as she raised her glass in a toast. The other dames followed suit, clinking the glasses together.
“And another one, for Gloria Jones,” Jen said as the dame in question settled back into the booth. “Who is as officially a part of the Flock as it’s possible to be. Welcome home, Gloria.”
Gloria blushed a furious red as the other dames smothered her with hugs and kisses.