The alarm went off.
Asa Modeau sat up in bed, rubbing his chest and neck and massaging the small of his back. His hair hung greasily into his face and boxers were almost all the way off. He switched on the bedside lamp and turned off the alarm.
His apartment was long and skinny. One entire wall was taken up with his bed, a huge four-poster. There was a dresser next to it atone end and the bedside table next to it on the other. There was a table further down, with a microwave, hot plate and coffee maker on it and a tiny little fridge next to that. There was a sink beyond that with an old armchair shoved into the corner next to it. Most of the room, though, was taken up with stacks of stuff, souvenirs of an overlong existence. Books were piled high against the walls and musical instruments formed informal room dividers. Old clothes and ephemera – magazines, newspapers, a busted radio – formed small hills of memory and desire.
He on the black jeans and tee shirt he had worn the day before (and the day before that and the day before that and the day before that and the day before that he had washed them, but that was irrelevant). Then he proceeded to his socks – almost stiff from sweat, but not so awful that he couldn't wear them – and then to the black steel-toed work boots he had worn every day for years and years. Then came the ugly dark blazer with no buttons and busted elbows. The lining was hanging out at one side.
He poured himself a cup of coffee from the machine, but it was scalding hot and burned. He swallowed it quickly and cringed. He scratched his neck again.
With little interest, he perused an old volume of poetry – Les Fleurs du Mal, in French, from Paris – then stood up and drank another stiff dose of coffee. He slotted a paperback into the back pocket of his jeans without bothering to check the title, then deposited his keys, wallet and sunglasses in various other pockets. Then he left.
The streets were dark and largely deserted. He strode through them confidently, moonlight and streetlights illuminating the sidewalks. There were a few bums in doorways but they didn't stir as he passed. He walked in silence. His boots made only the slightest noise on the sidewalk. He could hear the rats in the darkness of the alleys.
He was a thin, almost emaciated man, with long dark hair and eyes that looked too large in his skull. His hands were long and virtuosic. Veins stood out in them like lace. All his muscles were thin and wiry. He looked weaker than he was. He paused for a moment on a corner, then carried on without waiting for the light to change.
The moon was almost full; just another week and its light would shine bright and pure on him. He failed to care. He walked on, almost due west. Here it was.
He worked, nights, as security guard for a meat processing plant. You could smell the abattoir for blocks. It had been there for ages, one of the few relics of this part of the town's rural past. This had been fields once. No more.
Asa passed the previous shift's guard. They nodded in recognition, but didn't speak. They never spoke. This was his major human contact, most days.
He let himself into the abattoir, smelling the reek of fresh meat and dried blood. He found his flashlight and walked down to the basement.
This was where the blood ran down from the killing floor, where it went after the animal it came from had been killed and squeezed dry. They were supposed to clean this stuff up, but they rarely did it. He counted on them not doing it. And they hadn't.
The blood was virtually dry in the tub that held it, congealed into jelly with a distressing sort of skin on the top. That didn't bother him. There were plenty of animals in the street, rats and cats and bats in the abattoir, pigeons in the parks, if this didn't help.
He took off his shirt and jacket – slowly, reluctantly, like a tired prostitute – and set them by the wall. He switched off his flashlight and laid it neatly on top of them. He didn't need light for this.
The congealed skin on the top of the tub parted easily. He drank swiftly, deeply, almost choking himself in his need to quench this unnatural thirst. It ran down his chest and his neck, dripping onto his chest. Nowhere near as filling as human blood, nor as rich as another vampire's, it still served its purpose if consumed in large enough quantities.
Eventually, when he had drunk his fill – quenched his thirst surreptitiously, by stealth in the night like a slut with a fetish – he stood back from the tub. It had taken him nearly an hour to consume enough to last for a day, but it would do. Semi-congealed blood dripped sluggishly down his chest, drying and making his skin itch. Carefully, he collected his clothing and switched on the flashlight. He made his way to the bathroom upstairs.
The fluorescent light sputtered and buzzed when he turned it on. Its light made him wince. Making sure to scrub himself carefully, he removed the blood from his skin, washing it carefully and running cold water on the small stains on his clothes. He slipped back into his shirt and jacket and brushed out his hair, rinsing out any trace of blood and drying it with paper towels.
Contrary to popular belief, he did have a reflection when he looked in a mirror. It completely failed to interest him.
He left the bathroom, made a quick round of the factory, then headed up to the tiny little office. He switched on a low-power desk lamp. He took out the paperback.
He hadn't read this one in a while – Nicholas Nickelby. He flipped the book open to the place where the spine was cracked. It was the part describing life at Dotheboys Hall. Vaguely, as he did every time he read the book, he compared his life to the pupils at the Yorkshire school and decided that they were infinitely worse off. He enjoyed reading this segment of the novel; he felt that it put him in his proper place and stopped him pitying himself too much. At least no one was trying to beat him for no reason. He also thought that Dickens' evocation of life in that particular era was as accurate as one could hope to find in popular fiction.
He did another round every hour or so. He felt – ashamed to admit it – pleasantly warm and well fed after drinking. His mouth tasted like raw steak. He disliked the feeling, but at the same time he didn't. He knew this didn't make sense, but he had tried far too often to work this kink out of his system and couldn't.
Eventually, the clock told him he could leave. He slipped on his sunglasses and put his book back into his pocket. The first few employees were beginning to arrive. They didn't even notice him.
The sun was bright, too bright for him. He walked quickly to get home. He kept his hands in his pockets, not wishing to suffer burns.
There were people in the streets now, some of whom looked at him strangely. He didn't care. He was ashamed of himself, of what he had done that night. He felt this way every morning. By nightfall, the feeling would be gone, replaced by hunger.
He was unsure, however, how long he would be able to subsist off the cow blood. It took more than he could really drink just to stop him from hurting himself and it tasted terrible, but his control was not very good when in contact with humans. He remembered with a strangled sob that when he drank from them, they were either transformed or killed. He hated himself for having killed, and hated even worse the idea that he may have cursed anyone else to this fate, but he… He couldn't die; he knew that much. But the alternative was every bit as terrible.
He let himself back up into his room and made a fresh pot of coffee.
"And that was another fifty minute music streak on KRAX, the best of alternative and metal music in the city. I'm Rob and I'm signing off now; gotta let Matt make a little money, heh? Yeah. See y'all tomorrow. Bye now."
She switched off the radio lazily.
The room in which she lay was windowless because it was in the basement of the building. She felt that it suited her needs better to be underground. The room was sumptuously decorated, however. The walls were hung with swags of velvet and the carpet on the floor was plush and thick.
She was a beautiful woman, was Mel Atreus, with long pale legs and a lithe figure. Right now she was dressed in a dark suit with heavy boots on her feet. She wore nothing under the suit jacket, allowing an inch or two of cleavage to show above the stance. She wore rings on three of her fingers and had a thick hoop in one ear. Her neck was largely covered by a beaded choker that stood out against her skin. She was a beautiful woman, or would have been but for the scars. And the eye patch. And the acute melancholy she suffered from day and night.
There was a ring at the office door. She stood up and walked out of her living room/bedroom and into the office.
The person at the door looked very young, not more than thirteen. It looked like a boy, but boys are pretty androgynous at that age and this child certainly was. He was thin, nigh on anorexic, with dark hair that was very straight and soft. He may have been wearing a touch of eye makeup; the light in the hall where he stood was very dim. He had very large eyes, makeup or no, and they were dark and liquid. He was dressed, rather incongruously, in a perfectly tailored gray suit and hat. The suit had thin chalk stripes on it and the hat was exactly the right shade to match the suit. He had a trench coat slung nonchalantly over one shoulder.
His entire face and figure seemed to imply depravity and materialism beyond the boy's apparently tender years. And the fact that he was alone certainly didn't help.
He was, however, by no means the most distressing customer Mel had ever serviced, and besides, he looked rich.
"Miss Atreus?" he said gravely, offering his hand to shake. She smiled and took it.
"That's me," she said.
"I wish to have a consultation." His eyes were cold. "Now, if you please. I'm a little pressed for time."
"Right this way, sir," she said, ushering him into her office.
The young man stepped inside and Mel let the door swing shut.
The boy looked around for a moment.
Mel had taken great care in the decoration of her office. It was comfortable and rather classic, with a broad, dark desk against one wall and chairs behind and before it. On either side were tall stacks of filing cabinets. There was a green-shaded desk lamp on the desk where it belongs, and sconces on the walls. The blotter was dark leather and the walls were papered in news- and Kraft-paper. Opposite the desk was a large, dark painting. It was nearly two hundred years old and, though she had had a few offers made on it, she would not part with it.
The painting showed a pale young woman with flowing dark hair against a burgundy backdrop. The woman was dressed in black with a broad white collar, in the style of the 1830s or thereabouts. She smiled a secretive, Mona Lisa smile, as if she and the painter had a long and intriguing history. She bore a remarkable resemblance to Mel, except for the eye patch. A tiny lamp clipped to the ornate gold fram illuminated the painting.
"That's a remarkable painting," said the boy, his words and voice distressingly mature. "A Roth, if I'm not mistaken?"
"You're not," she said, lowering herself into the chair behind the desk. It was large and soft and upholstered in smooth leather. "It was my Great-great-great-great Grandmother. She and Roth were lovers, or so I'm told."
"Have you ever considered selling it?" asked the boy, seating himself across from her, but swiveling in the chair to view the painting. "Roth's paintings are quite valuable nowadays."
"It's a family heirloom," she said. "I wouldn't dream of selling it. Now, Mister… ah, I'm afraid I didn't catch your name?"
The boy smiled, a disturbing sight at best. "I didn't tell it to you yet. But surely names are not necessary in your line of work?"
"I keep detailed records," she said. "Only for myself, I assure you."
"You may call me Mr. Ash, then, if you must. Alan Ash, shall we say?"
"As long as that's what it says on the checks," she said.
The boy laughed softly but soon stopped. "You're very witty, Miss Atreus."
She sat forward in her chair. "Why do you wish to employ my services, Mr. Ash?"
"You are a vampire hunter, are you not, Miss Atreus?"
"I can do werewolves, too, but vampires are my specialty."
"Well, that is exactly what I require of you. I have a vampire that needs hunting."
"Do you have a name or picture?" she said, trying to keep the boy on the point. He made her uncomfortable. She sensed that, in some obscure way, he dominated her. She didn't like being dominated.
"It goes by the name of Asa Modeau," said the boy. "And here is a photograph."
He passed a photo across the desk. It had been printed from a computer onto glossy paper, and was not of the highest quality. It was shot a little from above and was in black and white. It looked like a still from a security camera.
The man it showed appeared to be tall and slender. She couldn't see most of his body, but his hair was long and dark and his skin appeared to be very pale. His eyes were covered by large, aviator-style sunglasses with very dark lenses. His blazer also looked dark, but everything was dark, or at least bluish-gray.
"Is this the best image you have?" She stared at it pensively. The man looked familiar, but if he was a vampire, she may well have met him at some point, especially if he was from this city.
"I'm afraid it is," said the boy. "Now, I need you to find him and bring him to me. I don't want him hurt. I need him here as fast as I can possibly get him."
"My standard outside limit is two weeks," she said, "Though usually it's more like a few days, at most." She was already typing out the particulars that Mr. Ash had given her on the old typewriter she kept on the desk, to the side of the blotter. It was pretty standard, though the client's insistence that the vampire be unharmed was a little rare. On the other hand, most of the cases she dealt with were revenge deals – someone's child had been turned or killed and the family wanted the head of the one who did it on a pike. Those types of people tended to have only the barest idea of who the vampire might have been. Cases like that could drag on for ages. But Alan Ash had everything she needed. He was the ideal client.
"Now, about fees," she began, but the boy held up a perfect hand. A signet ring flashed on one finger.
"Money is no object," he said. "You shall be fully compensated to whatever degree you require."
"Thanks you very much, sir," said Mel, still banging out the particulars of the assignment on the typewriter. "Is there anything else you can tell me about the quarry?"
"He is quite ascetic," said Mr. Ash. "He only goes out when going to his job, at an abattoir on 240th and Kappa. He is a night watchman there, though I'm not sure about which shift."
"Mr. Ash, I'm lucky if I can get a name," she said, smiling sardonically. "You've given me a veritable treasure trove of information."
"It was the least I could do," said the boy.
When Mel finished typing up the particulars of the case, she put the paper and the photograph in a manila hanging-folder and slipped it in the appropriate filing cabinet. As she shut the drawer, Mr. Ash pulled a check out of a leather checkbook and put it on the desk.
"Here you are, Miss Atreus." He smiled in that distressing way of his. "I hope this is a satisfactory fee for the consultation."
She picked it up and looked at it. The amount was staggering. Money really wasn't an object for this kid.
"Thank you very much, Mr. Ash," she said, sliding it into a desk drawer. "I'll do my best to find Asa Modeau."
"That's why I'm paying you," he said, standing up. "Good day, Miss Atreus."
"Good day, Mr. Ash."
Mel Atreus went back to her room. She would have to go out tonight.