Reap a Bloody Harvest by John Beechem

I prefer to hunt at night. When the air is clear, and I am still. Calm and patient, observing my prey with the focus of a hawk's eye. I drink in the scent of it all. Sin permeates the breeze like an ill humor blown in from the Strip. I can hear the tumble of the slots when a pair of doors slide open. A grizzled man, with the gray and girth of middle-age, steps outside and cups his hands to light a cigarette. I smell Marlboro Red and cheap cologne. There's a certain chemistry when the right one comes along. The thirst rises, and I open my mouth to run my tongue along my incisors despite myself.

I climb face first down the drain pipe, feeling the crumple of aluminum beneath my knuckles. I descend with the grace of a cat, landing with a light touch in the shadow of an alley. “Can I get one of those?” I ask in a woman's voice. He turns with a sound of surprise and peers into the darkness. My hand reaches out in a blur of motion and I pull him close, pinning him to a wall. I place my hand over his mouth, and sink my teeth into his jugular, feeling the hot rush of blood on my tongue. It hits me with a metallic jolt and I can feel its energy suffuse my essence, vibrating with the hum of being. I drink his life into mine until I am satiated, and leave him an empty husk, pale and hollow against a dumpster.

My thirst quenched, the world glows and vibrates beneath the surface and I sense a oneness and unity, a connection to all life, an endless resource ready to be consumed. I pull myself back up to the rooftops, and glide among them, leaping from one to the other. I'm rushing back to our meeting place, hoping not to be tardy. It is a trait I find tiresome in others; I do not wish to cultivate it in myself. So I leap and run across the narrow alleys in all haste. To those walking the streets below, I am only a passing shadow, a feeling of cold and unease kept out by tightening one's jacket and pulling collars in close.

Soon I have arrived, only in the nick of time. I pull open the hatch of the skylight and drop down, hitting the hardwood floor with a loud smack.

“How kind of you to join us, Elijah,” I hear Malachi call softly. His face is framed in the pale glow of candlelight, tallow sputtering beneath the flame.

“Greetings. Thank you for waiting,” I say with a bow. “The night called to me.”

“I would not keep you from our dark mistress,” he concedes, “but now we must get down to business.”

“How are your preparations?” I ask.

“Complete,” he tells me. “The trap is ready, and only waits to be sprung.”

“I am eager,” I tell him. Malichi's rings glitter like snow beneath the moon. His pale face is framed by dark hair pulled into a ponytail, widow's peak almost as sharp the beak of his nose. He wears a dark suit, collar pulled tight with his bolo tie wrapped around a turquoise charm. Inside a wineglass he cups in his right hand, I can smell blood. Malichi only drinks blood that has already been drained. Prude, I accuse him mentally. How can he hope to keep his fangs sharp if he never has a chance to use them?

“Good,” he says. “I'll tell my lieutenant.”

“There is no need,” I insist. “I can take care of this matter myself.”

“If only. This is no mere assassination, young man,” he reminds me with his Western twang, one flavored with notes from centuries past. “Donahue has more to offer us than just his life. Account records, pharmaceutical formulas, political contacts. That's why he must be dead when we steal them. My apprentice will accompany you. He has a certain skill set you lack. A kind of subtlety. Consider him my insurance policy. Jacobi, that's his name, will help you with the kill. The rest of those matters I mentioned will be taken care of by our computer experts. Donahue's cyber-security is terribly conventional, which makes it vulnerable to exploit. But he still must be eliminated for our plan to ripen.”

“A dead C.E.O. is going to be one hell of an exclamation point, don't you think?” I ponder aloud. “Especially once they find the bite marks.”

“Be that as it may, our opponents won't be cowed into submission so easily. We'll need to hurt them financially, put pressure on the right legislative committees, maybe even get the courts involved. But I hope it doesn't come to that. Soon, we'll make a treatment anyone can afford, and no one else will be held hostage by these thieves.” Malichi sighs. “It's too late for us, old friend. But perhaps those still turning deserve a choice. One we never had.”

“Cloak yourself in whatever morality you wish to invent. I only seek to destroy those who would profit from the weakest among us. I trust I'll have full access to your arsenal and resources?” I inquire to make certain.

“Like always,” he tells me. “Promise me you'll take good care of Jacobi.”

“Very well,” I assure him, “I will look after the youngling. Careful he is well armed.”

“The lad's ready, you'll see,” Malichi assures me with a wink.

                                                                                                      * * * * *

When I reach my chambers, I see they have been readied to my specifications. Good, I appraise the suite as I look around. I begin peeling off my night clothes, thin layers of black from head to toe. There is a bottle of champagne chilling on a granite kitchen counter-top next to a bottle of blood-orange juice. I jab a corkscrew into the champagne and drink a few gulps from the bottle before I make a mimosa. The blood orange juice makes for an unfunny joke and creates a golden red hue that's the closest my eyes have come to a sunrise in many a long year.

I check the clock on the stove. 4:25. Barely more than an hour before sunrise. There is a leg of lamb in the refrigerator, so I put in a frying pan with butter and garlic, letting it sizzle for a few minutes, leaving enough blood inside to still make it worth my while. I have another mimosa as it cooks, and another while I eat. I smoke a cigar for dessert. Then I am asleep in minutes, collapsing on a California King bed in a blackness that is complete and comforting.

My dreams are surreal and hyper-optic. I find myself floating above a crystalline castle, a blue and sleek structure with sharp edges and fine points. Beneath me, I see rows and rows of creatures walking, like a tribe of nomads crossing a desert. They are made up of all kinds of fantastic creatures: cyclopes, faeries, ogres, elves. I do not know how I am able to identify them with such certainty, but I am. I am floating so high that the earth curves beneath me. Then I fall, and the strange curiosities roaming along the surface of this strange realm rise up to meet me. But before I get too close, my eyes open and I am awake. The red digits of an alarm clock on the table beside my bed tell me it is night again.

I rise and stretch, feeling my muscles and joints creak and groan. My hands reach for a pen and notebook in my pack, and I begin to scribble the recollections of my dreams. Rarely am I am able to wring any meaning, but it has become my habit to record them. Occasionally, their significance becomes clear to me through the lens of time, but more often than not, they merely provide amusement as I look back through the pages and remember.

Once I am finished chronicling the fantastic menagerie I encountered as I slept, I go back into the kitchen to break my fast with the blood orange juice and some of the room's complimentary coffee. These habits provide structure and a small measure of comfort to my early evenings, but my body does not need them to function. Instead, they provide me a small distraction as I engage the world once more.

I open a laptop and review the dossier Malichi has assembled for James Douglas Donahue. His pharmaceutical firm, Legiant, specializes in treating chronic diseases. Since Donahue has taken control, they've become fiercely protective of their medicines and patents. Especially those involved in the treatment of hematochondria, known in the common folklore as vampirism. Most vampires of a certain vintage, myself included, disdain these kinds of medicines. Instead of fulfilling their cravings and assuming their place atop the predatory hierarchy, those who ingest these medicines are able to control their instincts and live among humans. In time, they are able to overcome their vampiric natures altogether and become mortals once again. Considering the persecution of our kind over these past centuries, especially since vampire hunting has become the purview of law enforcement, I understand this sentiment.

Donahue has taken this weakness and decided to profit from it, making his medicines prohibitively expensive to many. And those vampires who have not had centuries to develop their skills and grow under the protection of a master are often destroyed for their very nature if they are caught up in the web of this twisted system. It is for this reason that vampires like Malichi and I have taken it upon ourselves to exact revenge on those who would exploit our own, as hapless and weak as some of us are.

As I study Donahue and learn his long history of hostile take-overs and corporate espionage, I am interrupted by a knock on the door. I close the laptop, set it aside, and go to the door. Through the peephole, I can see a dark face, almost as black as charcoal, wearing sunglasses with a clean-shaven head. He wears formal clothes, in fanciful colors that match the mood of this city. He pulls down his glasses from the bridge of his nose and from the yellow in his eyes and the slight feline curve of his pupils, I see he is another vampire. Jacobi, I realize. Not what I'd expect from Malichi. His tastes have matured. That last apprentice was too much like his younger self.

“May I help you?” I ask, opening the door to him.

“Malichi sent me,” he explains, walking inside. He takes a look around the room. “You've read the briefing?”

“Begun to,” I tell him, closing the door. He has a West-African accent, and is more broad than tall with the thick chest and round arms of a weight-lifter.

He takes a wistful look at the lights out the window and glances back at me. “I'm to take you to the armory,” he tells me. “When you're ready.”

“Very well,” I respond. “I'm Elijah Thorne. I've known your Master Malichi for a very long time. How long have you been with him?”

“And I'm Jacobi Abioye,” he introduces himself. “I've known Malichi for about a year now. But he is not my master. No man is. I am the last prince of my tribe and ruler of my own heart. Malichi is sometimes my employer. He certainly pays for the use of my skills. Yet I am not beholden to the man. Remember that.”

I scoff and chuckle. A bold one, he is. I may have to put him in his place. “Very well,” I say. “Pardon my old-fashioned words and ways. I became Malichi's apprentice about two hundred years ago, escaping what has become Lithuania by sealing myself in the cargo of a ship's hold. He was the only one of my kind I could find when I awoke, and I begged him as best I could to help me find prey, learn to speak English, and find a legitimate occupation in this land I'd come to. He owned a cattle ranch near Atlanta and moved us West when the cannons fired on Fort Sumter. He's had a stake in Las Vegas ever since the mob moved in. The lucky bastard had bought real estate that would one day become part of the Sunset Strip. And after he'd sold his stake, he got it back with the power of his mind and the sting of my fangs. I've expanded my own interests since then. Sometimes, my interests still intersect with Malichi's. This is one of those times.”

Jacobi nods. “A rich target, yes. In more ways than one. When a man of my tribe gained too much wealth, and refused to share any of it, we would hang him with what we called a 'golden noose'. I fear Donahue has been weaving his own noose for some time.”

“Truly,” I agree, and nod at him. “But as much as he deserves his fate, I doubt he's neglected to purchase some protection for himself. Do you have any ideas about the extent of his security?”

“Extensive,” he tells me. “Security cameras, body guards, sentries and an alarm system. The best private security firm money can buy.”

“I don't doubt it,” I reply. “A guilty conscious can be quite expensive. He must have as many enemies as he has patents.”

“Quite,” Jacobi says. “And that's not all. I've heard rumors that Buchanan's joined him. You know the man?”

I sigh. “By reputation. Comes from a long line of vampire hunters. Puritans. No matter. He can be dealt with, if it comes to that. One doesn't survive as long as I have without keeping a few tricks up his sleeves.”

“Still,” Jacobi says, tugging for a moment at the tie around his collar, “he's best to be avoided. This is high stakes, and it'd be a great waste of resources if our mission were a failure.”

“Yes,” I chuckle. “Good to be reminded that one becomes an asset once their name is on a payroll. Very well. But if you wish us to succeed, bring me to the armory and let me have what I need. Such a delicate job as this will require weapons of great precision.”

“Follow me,” he instructs, turning on his heels to take through the door leading from my suite into the hallway. I step quickly to catch up with him, and leave the room just in time to see him enter an empty elevator. I follow, and the doors slide shut. Jacobi begins tapping floor numbers, and I see that he's putting in some kind of code. After a few moments, the car shudders and then pulls us up in a sudden hurry, pressing us down with the force of its lift.

Then we stop just as quickly and the doors slide back open. In front of us, there is a man sitting behind a counter with a clipboard in front of him. Behind him, rows of guns, knives, grenades, body armor and all manner of armament stand in orderly shelves. “Can I help you?” he asks, mildly bored.

“Hey, Shipp,” Jacobi pulls off his sunglasses, folds them up, and tucks them in a pocket inside his jacket. Then he reveals a slip of paper with a typed list and a signature at the bottom. “Requisitions request. For Elijah and I,” He slides the paper through an opening in the bullet-proof glass that separates us.

Shipp pulls his glasses down the bridge of his nose, peering through the bottom of his bi-focals. His mouth pulls back into a kind of sneering grin, face shaded green from the plastic visor he wears. “Whew...okay.” He presses a button and we hear a buzz as the lock of the door clicks open. “You'll have to get most of it yourselves. I'll get to work on the inventory papers, but you go find what you need.”

“Thank you most kindly,” I say as I walk past him. The rows of weaponry and armor stretch down a few aisles. Beneath the lights hanging from the ceiling, black guns have a bright metallic sheen. I run a finger against a model of pistol I am particularly fond of and pull it from its shelf.

“Don't forget to take a silencer too,” Jacobi reminds me. “This job demands a measure of stealth.”

“Very well,” I consent, and begin attaching one I find next to the gun.

“Here, make sure it fits,” Jacobi hands me a kevlar vest, thick and heavy. I place it over my head, and pull the straps tight.

“A bit snug,” I tell him, rapping my knuckles against the mesh.

“Good,” he replies. He's thrown his own onto a rolling cart he pushes, full of arms, ammunition and now our vests. It's quite a diabolical assortment.

Jacobi has gathered a bag he's able to strap to his back, one that contains a long-range rifle, disassembled for portability. He also has a pistol and a shotgun. I see he's grabbed a shotgun for me as well, along with some flash-bangs and fragmentation grenades. I'm not sure where he'll keep those, but at least he has a contingency in case our plan for stealth falls through.

I lean against the jamb and tap my knuckles idly against the door as Jacobi signs Shipp's his part of the record for our requisition sheet, a pile of papers accounting for every piece of equipment we've taken. “Good luck, Jacobi. 'Break a leg' or whatever the hell it is you're supposed to say in this kind of situation.”

“Thanks, Shipp,” Jacobi says, clicking his pen and placing it back in a cup on Shipp's desk. “See you when we get back.”

Once we're back out in the hallway, I ask Jacobi, “Where to next?”

“This way,” Jacobi tells me, bringing me with him further down the corridor. “There's a briefing room on this floor.”

“You've some tactical experience?” I ask as we walk along the tiled floor.

“Enough,” he nearly grunts his reply. “I've fought in a few civil wars. And yes, assassinations were commonly employed. I prefer a clean head-shot when the opportunity presents itself, but I'm always ready in case things get...messy.”

I nod, and follow him into the briefing room. A blue light's being projected on a wall, ready to display the laptop it's connected to.

“Good to see you both,” Malichi greets us and gestures for us to sit down in a pair of chairs facing the screen. “I hope you've gotten the chance to gain each others' acquaintance. You'll have to work closely if your mission's to be a success. Donahue's well protected. Also paranoid and a little zealous. Unpredictable. We're not quite sure what he'll have up his sleeve.”

“Certainly counter-vampirics,” Jacobi remarks, breathing on his glasses and wiping them with what looks like a silk handkerchief.

“He'd be a fool not to,” Malichi remarks. “Your armor may protect you somewhat. But you'll still need to be careful. At an event this public, they'll be on high alert. But we'll be able to use that to our advantage.”

“Going to have the tail wag the dog?” I ask smiling. Malichi is clever about these things. As much as he abhors being hands-on, he's always had a knack for strategy.

“We're going to create a diversion,” Malichi tells me. “Donahue will be at the center of a conference-wide get-together. Every major C.E.O. and two-bit player in the pharmaceutical industry will be hob-nobbing and, what's the word for it now? Networking. And he won't be the only one who fears being a target.”

“I'm going to create a diversion. Phony attack on one of Donahue's cronies. I'll take out one of his body-guards and draw whoever I can away from our target. That'll give you a chance,” Jacobi explains.

“An opportunity attack,” Malichi calls it. “It'll likely be our only chance, so don't mess it up.”

“When have I ever let you down, old man?” I ask. “Besides, I need a pay-day. And a chance to get my fangs wet.”

Jacobi looks over at me and smiles. “I may be able to bail you out. But let's hope it doesn't come to that. I like these kinds of jobs to be clean. Precise.”

“Don't we all?” Malichi asks. “Well, this would be a good time for you to get to your positions. Do either of you have any questions?”

I shake my head 'no'. Jacobi cracks his knuckles and stands up, placing his sunglasses back on. I follow him to a private elevator Malichi has waiting for us. We get in, and it plummets with a speed that is almost sickening. I feel its sudden halt, and for a moment weigh twice as much as I usually do. The doors slide open, and we walk into the lobby of Malichi's hotel.

Outside, there is a car waiting for us. It's a black sedan, inconspicuous. Tinted windows rolls down, and a voice from inside tells us to “Get in.”

I take the front seat, and nod to the driver, dressed like a professional chauffeur in a coat and hat that creates the impression of a ridiculous kind of dignity. As soon as we close the doors, he has pulled into traffic that leads us deeper into the strip.

Night-time in Las Vegas is like a perpetual neon twilight. One can barely see the stars above the artificial monuments and electronic signage. It could be kind of beautiful if it wasn't so gauche.

We pass dozens of midnight revelers, walking clumsily in a drunken stumble. I see them in clusters of bachelorette parties and casino employees making their way to late-night bus stops. I feel my prey instinct kick in, a pang of hunger and a dull ache in my fangs. It is good that Malichi has instructed us to bleed our target, to make a statement. My craving only makes my senses sharper, preparing me to execute my hunt with lethal expertise.

Eventually, we approach Olympia, one of the oldest casinos still surviving on the Strip. Its wide entrance is a sleek sliding glass door meant to keep out the desert's heat, but on either side tall Ionic columns stretch up four storeys. White marble remains stainless, somehow, but nothing can wipe away the stain of sins committed inside its walls. I am eager to add a splash of red. In a small courtyard surrounded by a long round-about, Zeus's bronze form rides a cloud and gazes at we mortals in stern judgment. His right hand grasps a lightning bolt ready to strike at a moment's notice.

“We're here,” the driver tells us. “Use your radios when you're ready for an extraction. We'll be monitoring the security team's frequency, so if things turn sour, you'll have to find your own way out. Malichi's interests demand plausible deniability.”

“Understood,” Jacobi tells him. We exit the car and close the doors behind us. It drives away, and we are left behind to do our work.

Jacobi's colorful suit would be unforgivably tacky in any other town, but here he fits in well with the rest of the rabble. I wear a dark suit, charcoal with black pinstripes. For a moment, I am worried my clothes will make me look even more pale and vampiric than I usually do, but then I remember many of these gamblers shun the desert sun too. I am a hawk among starlings, I remind myself, repeating an old adage that has followed me from my homeland.

I lead Jacobi inside the Olympia's doors, and inside the casino's grandeur fades a bit. Much of the front lobby is crowded by tourists, retirees playing quarter slots and the low-rent crowd in jean shorts and tee-shirts.

“We'll find Donahue and his crowd upstairs. That's where the high-rollers congregate. Here,” Jacobi hands me a roll of chips that I tuck inside of my jacket, “you'll need these.”

I follow him into an unoccupied elevator and he hits the button to go up. The elevator is glass, so as we rise higher and higher, we can see the level of excess and grandeur climb just as much. “Find a table and keep an eye out. I'll circulate. When I find Donahue, I'll radio a signal. Don't do anything foolish. We're not likely to get a second chance.”

“Just make sure you find him as quickly as you can,” I tell him. “My thirst is deep. The blood of a villain is a sweet prize.”

“Your patience will be rewarded,” Jacobi reminds me. “Be ready at a moment's notice.”

I nod at Jacobi and watch him walk away into the crowds playing table games, drinking cocktails and 'networking,' to put it in the modern parlance. I gaze into the clustered huddles of the elite, as they idly gamble away what would a year's salary for most people in just a few hands. These men and women have an uncomfortable commonality with creatures like me. As a wolf preys upon the weakest of the herd, so to do they enrich themselves from the blood of the weakest among them. Every disease, ailment, and chronic condition is like another pool to be drawn from, keeping their coffers full to create new medicines for every medical need, perceived and real. I once counted those who practiced usury to make their living the most blood-sucking of the humans but these profiteers of human suffering carry an even darker stain. Yet one can't help but hold a grudging admiration for their shamelessness, the level of glee produced by ever-climbing profit margins.

I see a black-jack table with an empty spot nearby and approach it. “Cut me in, dealer,” I instruct, and an older dark-skinned woman slides the cards across to me without missing a beat. She gathers my chips and slides them to her and continues dealing until it's time to flip her first card. I can tell she's a professional, a veteran dealer who can sniff a cheat from the slightest twitch. I am also given the courtesy of being dealt the ten of clubs.

The other players around the table are middle-aged and elderly men, some with younger women at their side, along with a matronly and wizened old woman. Whether she is a wife, mistress, or her own agent, I am unable to tell. From the looks on their faces and the piles of chips in front of them, I suspect she is the only one managing to beat the house.

“Hit me,” I tell the dealer when my turn comes around. She flips the eight of spades. Probably not close enough to win, but dangerously close to busting. But since I am playing with Malichi's money, I'm unconcerned.

“Stand,” one of the gentlemen says, with his cards at twenty. The woman busts, as does the man next to me.

“Hit,” I say again. It's the three of hearts. Twenty-one.

The dealer flips her card, and the ace of hearts falls on the jack of diamonds. “Dealer has twenty-one. House wins,” she tells us and rakes our chips into slotted grooves atop the table that let them fall somewhere hidden.

As she deals out the next hand, the hum of the casino is punctuated by a sudden burst of gunshots. I can't see a muzzle-flash, but the bangs sound quite near. There is a moment's shock before almost everybody on the floor begins rushing to the exits. Some are even hiding under tables.

“Damn it, Jacobi, what the hell is going on?” I ask into a hidden microphone on my lapel connected to the radio in his ear-piece.

“They knew we were coming,” Jacobi calls back into the radio. “I'm coming out hot.”

“Damn it,” I swear under my breath. “Bloody lot of good all that subtlety got us.”

Then I see them. One of the casino's staff points at me to a group of heavily armed security. I pull my pistol from its holster beneath my jacket and crouch out of sight. Have we been betrayed? I wonder. But by whom? Malichi? Jacobi? I stand up from behind the table and fire four shots. The two security guards crumple, dead. I can smell the warm blood, and feel myself salivate. Hunger is almost an unbearable sensation for our kind. That's why most novice vampires are usually murdered by humans before they develop the skills that allow them to survive. In this moment, my appetite almost becomes a distraction.

As I walk from table to table, crouched to half my height, I make a connection. The security feed. They must have seen Jacobi and I walk in together. Two unfamiliar men coming into most expensive floor of the casino must have made quite an impression. I also realize that the security guards shot bullets at me instead of firing wooden stakes with high-tech crossbows. That means they may not realize I'm a vampire. Yet.

A silver-haired mane comes up from beneath one of the card tables fifty feet away. A black-gloved hand pushes the man back into safety, but not before I recognize him. Donahue. His security team surrounds him, but that's not enough to keep him from me. I begin to run toward them, and a moment before they see me, I pull the trigger. The kills are quick, clean. Through the frontal lobe and out the back of the head. His men wear suits instead of armor, but I still can't kill them all.

In their shock, I pull Donahue toward me and place my pistol to his temple. “Drop your guns,” I order. “I'll kill him if I have to.”

“Listen to him,” Donahue growls. I am surprised. I half-expected the stink of piss and trembling muscles, but Donahue's calm unnerves me. His men obey him, but I see one speaking into a radio he has hidden on his wrist.

I begin backing away with Donahue in front of me. His neck is bent with the force of my gun at his head. “It feels good to improvise,” I whisper into his ear. “It's nights like this that make me feel young again.”

“You're one of them, aren't you? An abomination,” Donahue realizes. “Then this is about the hematochondria treatment, isn't it. I have stock-holders, or don't you realize? I must remain profitable if I am to develop more drugs.”

“Rationalize however you wish,” I respond. “I have a thirst for justice,” I tell him, running an incisor along his neck. The urge to bite is almost unbearable. I like to tease myself like this, because when I finally do satisfy my hunger, the build-up makes the pleasure feel even better.

I am about to enter one of the stairwells when I see something that turns my bowels to ice. Jacobi's body is thrown to the floor. He's been impaled through the back by a foot-long wooden stake. “I am Nikita Dracul,” the voice booms. “I have killed your friend. Surrender now to die a quick death. If you make me pursue you, I will leave you in the sun to burn. Decide now.”

Nikita, I curse. He is from one of the oldest vampire families, and by far the most powerful. Bram Stoker knew his grand-father, and wrote about him. Then they made countless movies based on his life. Only his grand-son is the worst of our kind. He has betrayed us to the humans. They let him survive so that he can hunt us into extinction. Fool, my mind screams, when the humans have no more use for you, you'll be destroyed too. Instead, I call back to him, “If you want him so badly, Nikita, you'll have to come and get us. I'm paid to take the old man, but if I have to kill you on the same night, I will.”

He fires a bolt at me from that monstrous cross-bow of his. I close the metal door at the last possible moment, and hear a booming thud as the bolt collides with the metal. Its steel protects us, but now the door's bent inward like a tooth-pick into tin-foil.

“I'm worth a lot of money,” Donahue tells me. “Is that what you want?”

“I want to make a statement,” I tell him. “We suck the blood of the living. You suck the blood of the dying. Vampirism is only a disease to you, isn't it? But it's not a disease. It's evolution. You think because you're human, you have no predator? I am the ultimate predator. Only now, the prey fools himself and calls himself 'hunter'. I am here to put you in your place, Donahue.”

Once I am sure they're not going to come into the stairwell, I rip open Donahue's collar. I see the throb of his carotid artery, and the thrill it sends me is almost erotic.

“Who are you?” He asks. I can finally see the fear in his eyes. It is delicious.

“I am what you have sown. Time to reap a bloody harvest!” My fangs sink into his flesh and I feed. I feed deep.

The sensation that ripples through a vampire when they are feeding is a hard thing to describe. It feeds a hunger humans don't experience, one as mean and endless as a junkie's. Yet it's fulfillment brings more pleasure than any needle. It's a physical rush, to be sure, but metaphysical as well. There's a spiritual connection between vampire and victim. I can feel them rushing toward a tunnel of light, and I think they can feel me waving goodbye. A sense of themselves enters into me. I don't steal their essence or anything like that, but they leave an imprint that flavors the taste, so to speak. Donahue is bitter-sweet. Despite his immense greed, the man has a gentleness. Contradiction adds complexity.

I slake my thirst and wipe my chin with the back of my dark sleeve. It's convenient for a vampire to wear black. If we wear white, we frighten dinner away. My breath comes back to me, and I find clarity in my situation. It is still precarious. Another vampire. I always prepare for this eventuality, just in case. It is a great crime to slay another vampire—we are almost an endangered species. But I will if I have to.

A small aerosol can and a lighter are all one needs to create a fantastic blow-torch. Fire will not kill a vampire, but it certainly stings. And in that time, one can improvise any wooden object—a chair-leg, a piece of cabinet, even a number two pencil will do in a pinch. Nikita can be killed by his own wooden bolts, I know. If I can get close to him.

I lock the door shut, and then break the lock. But it's all for naught. I can already hear commotion from the top and bottom of the stairwell. My smart-phone records a picture of Donahue's dry corpse (Malichi is a stickler for details), and I tuck it back into my pocket. Then I rush toward the glass of the stairwell's window and shatter it with bones more durable than steel.

My stomach drops as I plunge four storeys, but I know how to land, and even if I didn't, vampires are nearly invulnerable to moments of clumsiness like this. Good thing almost every building in this town is made of glass, I think on my way down. My forearm finds a smooth piece of asphalt, and I roll forward with all the grace of an alley-cat landing on its feet. I may have a bruise for the next few minutes. Donahue's blood gives me a rejuvenating thrill, and I feel ready for a fight.

A wooden bolt pierces the windshield of a car next to me. Nikita is behind me, nearly thirty feet away, still at the casino's entrance. I hide behind the car, a spider hidden in its lair, waiting for an even bigger, clumsier spider to fall into its web. All eight eyes are watching you, I say silently as I see him approach through two layers of tinted window.

Nikita takes a tall leap and hops onto the roof of an S.U.V. He scans his eyes side to side, and I duck beneath the car's door, afraid to be seen through the tinted windows even from this far away. I'm hiding behind a black corvette, probably somebody's idea of a mid-life crisis. At least in the night, the car will blend in with its surroundings, and not draw Nikita's attention. From beneath my pants leg, I reach above my sock and pull a wooden dagger from a sheath velcroed around my lower-calf. It's dangerous to wield a weapon fatal to one's self, but against another vampire, my pistol is useless. I keep the gun in my left hand in case any humans draw too close. They are dangerous in their own way.

My dagger is an heirloom, though exquisitely functional. It's made from ironwood, and crafted by an aboriginal vampire hunter and shaman. How it fell into my family's possession, I've no idea. It's rumored to be bought from a Dutch merchant after the tulips lost their worth so many centuries ago. I took it from my father after I buried him, and have carried it with me ever since. I've only used it a few times, but it can break through even a vampire's breast-brone without snapping if thrust with sufficient force. I kiss its pommel and let my eyes gaze through the bottom of the corvette's window.

I can't see Nikita anywhere. Has he fled? That's not like him. In a fit of anxiety, I spin around and look behind me. But no one's there. Then I hear the crunch of glass and aluminum as Nikita's heavy frame crashes onto the Corvette's roof.

Jebem boha!” I hear Nikita curse in Slavic. He swings a heavy wooden baton, almost the size of a baseball bat, carved at its end in a sharp wooden tip. Nikita's club is made from some kind of hard German wood found in the Black Forest. The trees it's carved from were bred on the grounds of some ancient feudal castle now in ruins, once belonging to some long-forgotten lord. He is exceedingly adept at its use.

I roll out of the way, but not in time. Instead of crushing my skull, the club only hits my shoulder at a glancing blow. It's enough to slam me into the parking lot, but I roll back up and face Nikita in a kneeling crouch. I fire my gun at his hand holding onto the club's grip, hoping to knock the weapon away, but he bats the bullets like so many flies, ricocheting them from the club's round face and onto the parking lot. He's dragging his weapon behind him now as he approaches me, fangs bared.

At nearly seven feet tall and almost three hundred pounds, Nikita is exceedingly monstrous. He jokes that his mother was a bear, but I've heard it spoken behind his back that he is the fruit of a union between Dracula and the Bride of Frankenstein. Or King Kong.

I wipe blood off my cheek and scowl. One of the ricochets grazed my cheek as it flew past. I swing my knife in a wide arc and Nikita leaps back, almost evading my strike completely. His leather jacket is torn, and I've slashed through his white tee-shirt. A thin stream of blood oozes from his pale, slab-like abdomen.

Jebem ti svatu Mariu Kurvu!” he curses again. I am too close this time when Nikita swings his club, so I take the brunt of his blow across the side of my face. I feel my cheek bone shatter and begin to swell. Blood pours from my nose and into my mouth with a metallic tang. One of my eyes swells shut immediately, but at least this keeps me from having double-vision.

Instead of retreating, I shake off the blow and attack Nikita before he is ready. I stab at his face and feel my knife slide through his jellied eye; it is a miraculous stroke of luck—I never could've managed to inflict this wound on purpose. Nikita howls in pain and pulls the knife from his eye, sliding it from his socket. He flings it at me, but half-blind as he is, I am able to duck beneath it quite easily. Before Nikita recovers his wits, I crouch silently and make my way between the other cars. One still has a driver inside of it, a young man snorting cocaine in his front-seat. “Hey!” he yells as I pull him from inside and throw him out onto the ground. “My stash!” he cries as he pounds on the door. I take a white baggy resting beneath his console and fling it at his face before I peel away. Degenerate, I judge silently, though I have known the kiss of the white lady myself.

Nikita sees me driving toward the parking lot's exit, but he's uncomfortably close to my destined path. I decide to intimidate him by driving full-speed straight at the old brute, only to evade him at the last moment. My plan half works--instead of slamming his club into the hood of my car, he only strikes my headlight. I lurch to the side, and for a moment I find myself on two wheels. I feel time magnify to what feels like a small eternity, but the moment scarcely lasts half a second. Mercifully, I land on four wheels and speed away in a clumsy, fish-tailed fury back onto the Sunset Strip.

I pull the rear-view mirror down in my direction and inspect my face. I'm an ugly mess, but as a vampire, I will only take a day or two to heal. Nikita won't be so lucky. A vampire can heal wounds, but not regrew limbs or other missing body parts. The next time I see him, Nikita will wear an eye-patch, or knowing the scale of his vanity, a glass eye. At least it will lower his proficiency with a cross-bow, I realize with a grin.

An empty path opens up before me, and I push down on the accelerator, rushing through stop lights back toward Malichi to tell him of my triumph, and of the loss of his protege. I don't relish bearing the news of Jacobi's death, but Malichi is well-seasoned veteran with these kinds of affairs and understands the cost of doing business all too well. The night is cool enough, so I lower the windows of the car I've taken, a black Impala with a decent engine and a fair amount of muscle. My ride is over all too quick, and in a few minutes, I've pulled up to Malichi's headquarters. “You'll want to dispose of this,” I tell the valet, handing him the keys. “It's hot.”

I nod to the concierge standing behind the hotel's desk and press a button for an elevator inside the lobby. He nods, and picks up his telephone to tell Malichi I'm on my way. In the metal reflection of the button panel, I see the bruises Nikita's left on my face. I blow blood into a handkerchief, and feel my nose open back up and take a deep through it. My fingers press into my face, and I push both pieces of my cheekbone back into to place so they can begin to stitch back together. The doors slide open when I've reached Malichi's office. He's leaning back in his chair, a glass of iced bourbon sweating in his palm as he blows out a breath of cigar smoke. As I enter, he stubs out the cigar in a crystal ash-tray and stands to meet me.

“You're back,” he observes. “Where's Jacobi?”

“Slain,” I tell him. “Nikita impaled him with a javelin-sized bolt from that bloody cross-bow he wields. He nearly killed me too, but I put a dagger in his eye and was able to escape.”

“I see,” Malichi nods. “I didn't expect that turncoat to work for Donahue, but I suppose I should have. Nikita always did serve the highest the bidder. Speaking of Donahue, how fares our quarry?”

“Exsanguinated,” I tell him. “I left him drained within the stair-well of the Colosseum. Our message will be unambiguous.”

“Very well,” Malichi drinks his bourbon until there are only clinking ice cubes left in his glass. He puts it back on his desk and stands, pulling a leather briefcase from beneath him to place upon the table. “Count it if you'd like, it's all there.” His fingers flick open the briefcase and I see stacks of banknotes held together by thick rubber-bands.

“No need,” I tell him, closing the briefcase and picking it up. “By the way, I lost my grand-father's dagger, the one I received from him centuries ago. I left it in Nikita's eye, but still.”

“A terrible loss,” Malichi nods his head in agreement. “Here, this was given to me by an Inuit. It's an ironwood blade with a whale-bone hilt.”

“From the land of sunless winter?” I ask, eyebrows raised. There are runes carved into the blade. It's well-balanced, but heavy enough to pierce bone. “I shall treasure it.”

“I hope you will. I have a place for you here, if you'd like. Especially now that Jacobi's gone,” Malichi offers, rather graciously in my estimation.

“Thank you, friend, but it's time for a bit of solitude,” I say, tucking his knife into my belt. I take the briefcase and turn to leave.

“Back to your cabin. How rustic,” he remarks. “Find me the next time you yearn for civilization. I'll likely have another job waiting for you.”

“Until then.” I bow, and leave his office. In the elevator, I hum, and ponder my next quarry.