Cat’s Cradle Penninsula is a quirky place. Half of it dangles over the Bracket river, trying its best to imitate all the bad parts of Venice, the other part humps the sea shore like it’s determined to beget a baby version of Greece. The whole district is shaped like a finger, pointing out at the sea and telling modern society where to go and shove it. Hipster central is real. God, I love it.
Most of the houses are Victorian, but a poor man’s version of it. Stucco and wooden veneers, complete with peeling paint and old granite blocks that have gone black from all the car fumes. Little cafés rub shoulders with artsy home deco shops, second hand clothing venues, and what few businesses have found their way into the heart of the bobo generation.
And amidst all that chaos sits the grandiose debacle that is The Lunar Café.
Wooden Greek pillars, a wooden pediment shaped like a mini roof, big three-part-windows, and playful metal fencing, because even in Cat’s Cradle, people would rob their neighbors blind at the first chance. The Building is pale blue, the wooden trimmings white, and the fence black, because of course it is black, it’s metal. If I didn’t know there’s a bunch of supes lurking behind the glass-and-wood swing doors, I would have pegged it for a swishy French café. And it’s only when I step inside that I realize the windows are fake. Mostly. More than half of them have fat blackout curtains, with giant lamps offering some semblance of normal daylight to keep both kinds of patrons happy and non-toasted.
A little bell jingles as I step inside the stuffy coolness that is regurgitated AC air. Aschure follows at my heels, fiddling around with her mobile phone as if we weren’t about to saunter into the belly of the beast, but her nonchalant behavior does a lot to keep me calm. Ish. The partrons are thick, but in a non-buzzing way. People reading, working, chatting, very civilized and low-key. And everything is absolutely hunky-dory until I bump into a young, twitchy guy and breathe on him by accident. One moment I’m looking at his back and the egg-yolk-yellow polo he’s wearing, perfectly underlining his tanned skin, the next moment I’ve got his hand right in my face, his claws in my upper arm, and we’re falling as his breath tickles my neck. All the training goes out the window in that short little moment.
Somewhere far away, Aschure yells a “whoa,” but as teeth jab my neck, her presence loses its meaning. I can’t even scream, I just gasp. The knowledge part of me knows this should hurt, but holy shit, this isn’t pain. This is agony, and it crawls through my whole body, lighting up with each drag the vampire takes from my neck. It’s enough to freeze me, stop my breath, paralyze my vocal cords, and no matter how much I grasp for a thought, for an idea of what is happening, nothing comes to mind. Just white hot pain.
My eyes roll back and I finally manage to suck in air, but I don’t get to the screaming part. One moment, the fanger is above me and chewing on my neck, the next moment I feel a very painful tug on my neck and the yellow shirt disappears into the back via air travel. My mind can’t process that, but I do recognize Aschure’s hand when she holds it out for me. I grab it, still gasping in that first breath of air in eons, and she pulls me up. How I stay up, I have no idea. Her other hand grabs my chin to tilt my head and look at the bite wound. She whistles, sounding vaguely impressed. “Nice hickey,” she says and lets go of my face. “Good news, you’ll live.”
I try to reply, but my head still doesn’t make words good, so I just blink stupidly and try not to keel over. Faces pass by as other patrons come closer and back off rather quickly, but I can’t concentrate, can’t make anything of them. My scrambled mind reminds me that I’m in the middle of very dangerous, very old, and most likely very snacky creatures, and that I should be worried, but my body can’t make sense of it. Too many contradicting impulses. I feel the blood dripping down into my collar, but fuck me if I know what to do about that. As I ponder my drippy predicament, I get the feeling that Aschure is talking, but it’s too fast for me to catch up. This must be what shock feels like. I only react when a bunched up wad of kitchen paper is shoved against my neck and I have to grab it and hold it there. On the other side of that helpful hand is a worried looking, curly haired blondie with especially pale skin and big blue eyes. His lips move, but I still don’t understand him, as if he’s talking through cotton. Something in my face must give away my utter blankness, because Aschure curses under her breath, grabs my non-bloody-wad-holding arm and drags me off toward the back area of the café. It’s the general direction the yellow shirt was thrown into, but he seems to have simpered off after neck-snacking on me. Clever guy.
Aschure shoves me onto a very cozy couch and makes me scoot into the corner, then sits down next to me. Not that sitting does anything good for me, because as soon as my head notices that we’re not in the fully upright mode anymore, my heart jolts and I break out in cold sweat. The tip of my nose goes numb and the world gets a little darker, but my blood pressure manages to pick up where it left off and comes back full throttle. And in its company, nausea.
A glass of water appears before me and I grab it. Aschure hits my fingers when I try to lift it and shoves a pink straw in. “Drink,” she says. I drink.
When the glass is half empty, I finally feel stable enough to look at the stranger again. Even though he seems to keep up with the conversation easier than me, he looks very shaken, almost as bad as I feel, which confuses me. I got bitten, didn’t I? And he didn’t do it. Or did he?
Somewhere through my pondering, Aschure turns to me. “You back yet?”
I nod, blinking. I actually am, how about that!
Aschure raises an eyebrow and the corner of her mouth twitches. “Stanley here has asked—very politely, I might add—that we don’t kill his charge.”
“Charge?” I rasp. Why does my throat hurt on the inside when I’ve been bitten on the outside? I take another sip of water to wash away the urge to cough and add, “you mean the neck-snacker?”
Stanley’s eyes go wide. Aschure cackles into her juice. Or her bourbon, I have no idea if she’s a drinker. Great, everyone’s having a good time except for me. My memory comes back bit by bit and with it, a blush. Charge. Of course. I got bitten by a baby vampire like the rookie I am, and this guy was supposed to make sure stuff like that didn’t happen. One of the few shit-jobs a vampire can get—be charged with herding others’ unruly kids and lose your head if anything goes wrong. The pain in my neck drives home how wrong stuff went for this specific kid-herder. I huff annoyed and eye Stanley. “Why shouldn’t I?” Not that I want to, I’ve only ever killed once and that was a ghul and before my joining the Hunters.
“He wanted to go out so badly and I made sure he ate before we came, I don’t know what happened,” Stanley blubbers, close to tears. “I’m so, so, deeply sorry. I’ll do whatever I can to make this right again.” His hands shake, no matter how hard he grabs his glass of water, matching his pale, panic-blotchy face. If vampires have the ability to faint, this one is about to.
I open my mouth to stop torturing him, but Aschure beats me to it. “You can tell us about the theology murders. And don’t give me the public speech about how nobody knows anything, I already got that from Loreley. Give me something new.”
“But I don’t know anything abou—” Stanley stops himself before he can ruin his way out of this. A single, pink drop of sweat rolls over his temple and his face stays white-red, but he’s thinking hard. Very hard. “I know of the deaths, but nothing about it,” he starts anew, licking his lips. “All I know is that they didn’t see you coming until yesterday. Had themselves a good fright when they realized there’d be hunters around, panic everywhere. Our lady interrogated every single elder in our kiss, and she even went to the rogues living in Central, but nothing came of it. A few of the elders got antsy so she had to punish them—”
Stanley’s voice falters and he goes solid, ashen white. “Please forget I said that,” he wheezes, eyes wild.
Aschure sips her drink and curls her lips amusedly. “Which is why you have a charge when you obviously haven’t got a clue what to do with him,” she says, shrugging. “It’s not that uncommon. You people are the most civilized monsters around, but some things still have to be driven home with a little more… oomph. I’ll take a wild guess and say she locked them into coffins?”
Going by Stanley’s sweat output, the room is at 110 degrees Fahrenheit. He is positively dripping when he shakes his head, sprinkling the table with the stuff. “I have nothing to say to that,” he says hurriedly.
“So Loreley did everything she could to find out who did it and came up empty-handed?” I throw in, drawing Stanley’s hysterical eyes to me.
His relief is palpable. “Yes, exactly!”
“But somebody had to have done it,” I prompt, raising an eyebrow and keeping the rest of my head as still as possible. God, my neck wound burns like a motherfucker. “So who else is there? Whom did Loreley forget?”
“Waay-eeell…” Squirming in his seat, Stanley kneads his glass and stares at the table as if the answer to the meaning of life is written on it in fine print. “I can’t say for sure, but I think she kinda left out the kiss in the Dark City district.”
Aschure goes quiet, but her eyes light up. It makes my heart throb with sudden anxiety. “Another group of vampires in the Dark City? And Loreley let them converge into a kiss?”
Unusual doesn’t begin to describe it. A vampire kiss may be a more formal union than a shifter pack, but they are just as territorial. Not because of mere instincts, but because of something much stronger: Money. If you control the local market, you control the flow of money. And if you don’t want to get caught, you have to do it quietly, strategically, underhandedly. Nothing can ruin a perfect plan quicker than being crossed by someone who wants the same thing, but for themselves. Oh, and then there’s the Contract, but who thinks about that in the heat of a business day?
“This is way above my pay grade,” says Stanley quietly, leaning forward to keep the eavesdroppers at bay, “but I heard whispers that they made some kind of deal to cut Loreley in and keep away from the better parts of the city. We almost never see them, with exception of their, eh, envoy. He comes once a month with a briefcase, disappears into Loreley’s office for half an hour, and then leaves without it. Nobody is sure where they actually nest and I think Loreley doesn’t even have contact details for them, plausible deniability and all that.”
Silence follows, filled only with Stanley’s nervous gasping. Somewhere in the back of a room, murmurs are followed by laughter and clinking glasses. I hear them as if through cotton.
Loreley breaks the uncomfortable silence, her voice dead and calm, cold enough to make me shudder. “Tell me where they most likely are, or your charge dies.”
And Stanley talks.