Underground Vampire, page 16
Ratman stood and, reaching grimy fingers into his rags, fished around until he located the correct pocket and triumphantly produced a brass key which, bending so his beady eyes were close to the lock, he pushed forward, pausing to spit once, “Lubrication,” he said, as the lock clicked open. The inside was dark as hidden sin, smelling of ancient decay. Arabella motioned Ratman forward saying, “Slowly, my friend, we will follow along behind you.”
Ratman stepped through, disappearing into the dark. Taking his hand, Arabella guided him in so that they were all beyond the door. Behind him he felt rather than heard Ratman pull the door shut and lock it from the inside. “If we should become separated, meet me here and I will open the door,” squeaked Ratman, as he brushed past. “Don’t lag, you will get lost.”
Claustrophobic fingers tightened around Jesse’s throat and he wanted to scream, how am I going to find the door in the dark, what if something happens to you, what if I get separated from Arabella, where are we going? Instead, he took cleansing breathes, drawing the taste of the sewers of Seattle into him so that he didn’t scream, and when Arabella lightly squeezed his hand he was able to squeeze back and follow her down dark corridors, twisting and turning, until he was lost and knew he could never find his way out.
The thought liberated him. His future was as tenuous as his next step, and he grew bolder until she touched his lips with a cool finger and secretly shushed him to slow down. After an unknown time in the maze they halted and she handed him the smoky black goggles she’d brought to protect their eyes from the surprise that would, they hoped, equalize the battle.
Slipping the goggles over his eyes, he settled down in the cozy, damp vestibule she had whispered to him to wait in. Leaving him with a last touch, she disappeared to the other side to lie in wait. Sitting on a rocky ledge, with seeping water soaking his backside, he waited, cradling her treasured .45 in his cold, sweating hands as he squatted and tried not to think about what was coming. Wiggling to relieve his cramped thighs, his wet behind shameful and uncomfortable, he waited for a sign in the dark.
Doubting he would be able to hear them coming, anxiety crept through him till he thought he would begin sneezing, as the hot sweat turned cold against his skin. Sinking into the meditation practice he’d picked up since he met Arabella, he concentrated on the hot spot at the end of his nose, gradually coming into equilibrium with his present. Assimilating the annoying sounds intruding into his session, he jerked at the savage needle teeth at his ankle and, before he could lash out, a familiar voice from darkly close squeaked, “Now, Human,” and the 1,000,000 candlepower light went off, and even behind his goggles his eyes burnt but he could see Vampires blinded by the light.
They stood still in the tunnel, a long line, more than they’d planned on. Stepping out, he opened fire with the .45, moving from target to target as the angel of death dropped into their midst. If she didn’t have the flaming sword, the one she brought was sufficient and she began to hack and slice as they collapsed to the ground, their final flames providing eerie illumination.
Their leader, a pale salamander with long hair and eyes bulbous from life Underground, came up behind Arabella as she advanced against the rear of the raiding party. Jesse shot twice, the first round stunning him, the second knocking him to the ground. Shocked, the moist Vampire lay in the waste trickle draining the bottom of the tunnel. Recovering, he rose to a knee.
Jesse, moving forward to shoot him again, held his fire as a flood of grey brown flowed over his feet and ankles, carpeting the tunnel, engulfing the struggling Vampire. The river of rats covered the Vampire, each taking a mouthful until his flesh was stripped and a last skeleton hand pulled voracious, murdering rats from his face, exposing a nearly naked skull with a sleek sewer rat locked onto his protruding, bloody tongue. The Vampire sinking under the collective assault, the writhing mass moved off, resembling an anaconda that swallowed a struggling animal as it disappeared into the tunnel.
He faced Arabella looking past her down the tunnel while she looked past him. “I don’t see anything,” she said. “Me either,” he replied.
They stood, elated to be alive. “I think that’s enough for tonight,” she said, “We got them all, I think.”
“Nothing got by me,” panted Jesse, adrenaline still pumping.
“You did a good job,” she said, “These were unformed, grown on rat blood, occasional Human; a good start for you.”
For a moment he deflated, as if his contribution had been against the backups, not the first string. Then, seeing her smiling face, he savored the moment, accepting his fear and that he had stood and advanced in the blinding light, unsure of how many Vampires there were or the outcome of battle. And they fell into each other laughing that they were safe and alive, as only those who share combat do.
Over her shoulder, Ratman crouched in the shadows watching them hug, surrounded by the votive flames of the defeated. As if she could see from the back of her head, she said, “Well done, Ratman, are your brothers and sisters satisfied?”
“Yes,” a satisfied sibilant sound. “They are grateful for the meal, revenge served hot,” giggling at his witticism.
“Take us back,” was all she said.
“Another way, I think,” he said, nails scratching across the rocks. “My family may be unpredictable in their celebration and attack out of joy.”
“By all means another way,” said Jesse, not wanting to see the horde swarm again, ever.
They left the maze through another passage, exiting closer to Yesler, and when Ratman led them to the street, they were both soiled from the evening and she said, “let’s go home and shower and I’ll order in, you must be starved. Chinese alright?”
“Perfect,” he said. “This was a date, right?”
“Don’t start,” she said, marching down Madison.
“Come on, admit it, a nice cozy dinner, a nice stroll in Seattle’s finest sewer, a bit of Vampire annihilation, now home for a quick bite, it was a date.”
“OK, if it will make you shut up, it can be a date.”
“Our first date, how romantic.”
This part of the Underground was alive with lights and shops, as unlike his previous forays to the Underground as the City dump was to Pacific Place, thought Jesse. So far, Vampires were horrible creatures from the depths, rat eaters, except of course Arabella, who was perfect.
He tried not to gawk like a tourist, but the fashionably dressed Vampires promenading down sidewalks in front of expensive shops was so startling that it was all he could do to keep up with Arabella as she strode down the middle of the street. The crowds parted in front of her, some with marked deference, greeting her warmly; others, Jesse noticed, turned away, whether from fear or dislike he could not tell. She seemed impervious to the shock her appearance caused when she stepped out of the dark tunnel onto the homey brick street.
At their approach, guards materialized from boxes challenging their passage, shrinking back to the shadows when they recognized Arabella. One was so startled he tripped getting out of her way as she neither wavered in her course nor acknowledged his presence. Following her, Jesse felt like a merchant vessel escorted by a man-o-war, completely protected and mostly irrelevant.
They’d entered the Underground through the Blue Anchor, nodding to Mr. Finkelstein as they went by. If the skid row drinkers thought it strange that a fashionably dressed lady and Jesse went through the tavern and down the basement steps, they kept it to themselves.
This time when they entered the Underground Arabella openly walked down the sidewalks with no effort at discretion. Again, Jesse tried to navigate and thought they were heading toward University but he couldn’t be sure. Asked what street they were under brought a cryptic, “The Underground has its own geography.”
“How could that be?” he demanded, hurrying to keep up with her as she turned into a passage he couldn’t see in the darkness.
“In the rebuilding after the fire, streets down
“What the hell does that mean?” he blurted out, but she ignored the question with a curt “try to keep up” as she floated down the passage, her impossibly pointy heels barely touching the rough ground.
“Hold on,” he shouted at her back and when she stopped and turned a frustrated face, he asked, “explain the streets please, in case we get separated, partner.”
“It was thought that a maze would present better defensive options than a mirror of above, so …changes were made.”
“I don’t suppose there is a map,” he asked.
“No, no map,” definitively. “Any Vampire may carve out space down here so that no one, except maybe Ratman, knows the full extent of the Underground.”
“Oh,” replied Jesse.
“Partner,” replied Arabella sweetly.
The left side of the street was lined with men’s and women’s clothing shops. He recognized brand names and followed Arabella as she veered over to inspect a ziggurat of Blahniks arranged in the main window of Drop Dead Chic.
As soon as she stopped the proprietor, a cadaverous Vampire holding a Pomeranian in the crook of his arm, swooped out and did kiss kiss with Arabella, saying, “It’s been too long, too long.” He looked at Jesse’s jeans and grey long sleeve t-shirt and turned away with a, “God spare me, what can you possibly be doing with him,” look on his face. Jesse wanted to punch him in his bony, pointy face but Arabella had drilled him not to do anything, no matter what, and not to respond to any perceived provocation, period, or he could just stay home. She promised the shopkeeper she would stop in on her way out, as he had something that he’d been saving especially for her.
Past the clothing shops was the Olympia, an Italian Renaissance five star hotel, slavishly copied from the original located upside at 4th and University. The scene was eerily reminiscent of downtown Seattle, except for the total lack of automobiles and buses. In their place was the incongruous sight of Humans harnessed to rickshaws pulling well-dressed Vampires, many carrying shopping bags, others obviously inebriated about the Underground.
On the other side of the street were nightclubs, restaurants and casinos known throughout the Vampire world for their hospitality and pleasures. The worldwide Vampire economy was based on the availability and acquisition of sustenance. When she explained the economics of Vampire society, Arabella put it in basic terms. “Blood; Clans control supply, Vampires live in demand.”
With the enactment of the Concord the availability of blood became restricted. Without free hunting, individual survival became about securing a constant and reliable supply of blood. Blood banks, hospitals and donation centers are controlled by the Clans, leaving Vamps to enroll Humans voluntarily if they can. While legal, the practice was dangerous because, once exposed to the Underground, it wasn’t feasible to allow a Human to return to their prior life, leaving death or conversion as solutions.
For political reasons the queen rigidly controlled and limited conversion, leaving death as the only alternative. Fortunately for Humans, the Queen frowned upon her Vampires taking Humans and keeping them as blood servants, not for Humanitarian reasons but because inevitably problems arose. Vampires fell in love with the Humans; Humans fell in love with Vampires; Humans grew lonely; Humans became ill requiring specialized medical care not available Underground. Humans were problem pets.
Tiring of the constant problems, the Queen banned private ownership of Humans, granting licenses to select Vampires allowing them to recruit and maintain Humans. From this decision developed the fantastic Seattle Underground, for there was no place else in the world that provided the variety and quality of the blood purveyed. The bars, nightclubs, private dining clubs and casinos lining the right side of the street catered to every taste and pocketbook. And everyone on every transaction paid a tax to the Queen.
Arabella walked diagonally from Drop Dead across the street and to the end where a small polished brass plate was embedded in the brick wall next to a lacquered crimson door. The brass plate said “Blood Simple,” and standing next to it was an impossibly giant Tongan dressed in tuxedo trousers, patent leather shoes, a starched wing collar shirt with a white tie, all surrounded by a magnificent tail coat.
He snapped to attention as Arabella reached the door and offered his arm, saying, “How nice to see you this evening, Miss Arabella.” She eyed him from head to toe without saying anything, and he stood there without moving, apparently used to being inspected like the largest bull at the county fair. Jesse had the wild thought that she would pry his mouth open so she could inspect his teeth.
“Ismaeli,” she said, “You’ve gotten bigger since last we met.”
“That is true,” the giant rumbled, “no one causes trouble, no one makes the challenge anymore, I grow fat waiting.” His large round face was sad from the boredom of his life but broke into a wide grin showing his affection for Arabella.
“So instead, you eat,” she replied giving him a hard poke in his ample stomach. “Tonight you may get some work, so pay attention.”
“Oh, Miss Arabella,” rolled over his large full lips, “You here to cause Ismaeli problems?” He bent over level to her face and carefully looked at her. “That would be a great sorrow.”
“Tell him I’m here,” she ordered, all business now that the chit chat pleasantries were over. “If there is a problem it will be him and not me that causes it.”
Ismaeli turned and spoke into a phone sticking out of his lapel like a boutonnière on a prom boy. “He says go right in,” said Ismaeli, sweeping the door open and bowing her in. “Your table is ready; I certainly hope you have a pleasant evening, Miss Arabella.”
Nodding to him, she swept by and into the club vestibule where she rebuffed a comely young Vampire in a short black cocktail dress who attempted to take her jacket. Jesse, annoyed at being invisible, caught up with Arabella saying, “If we have to fight our way out of here, I don’t like having that sumo guy behind us.”
“Don’t worry about him, he’s an adorable sweetie,” she absently responded, “all the trouble is in front of us and here it comes.”
From the dining room a hatchet faced Vampire glided toward them. Olive skin with thick black hair combed straight back, he was dressed in a shawl collar tuxedo that actually looked comfortable. Off to the side, Jesse saw two more with the handsome, well-dressed Italian thug look that seemed to be the theme among the club staff. Jesse was beginning to wish he’d taken a little more care in his wardrobe, since he was clearly the worst dressed person under Pioneer Square and, come to think of it, probably upside too.
Hatchet face stopped just out of punching range, drew himself up and said, “Your table is ready,” with a slight bow he stepped back so Arabella could precede him into the room and then moved forward to block Jesse from entering the club.
Arabella turned, saying, “He is my guest.”
“Surely you remember this is a Vampire establishment; Humans are not allowed,” replied hatchet face, not budging. “Besides, he is carrying a gun which, as you know, is strictly forbidden.”
“Hey, don’t think I’m giving up my gun,” grunted Jesse.
“I am going into the club with my guest and his gun,” said Arabella, speaking so softly they all leaned in to hear. “If you impede my progress or abuse my guest in any manner, I will take your actions as a personal insult.”
Jesse decided to shoot the two Vampires standing off to the side first and then go for the Tongan. Arabella stood still, as nonchalant as could be, and then demanded in her best bossy tone, “Get my table now, what is going on with the service in this place.” Immediately, the trance was broken and hatchet face became the obsequious maître d’hôtel, bustling them off to their table, all transgressions forgiven if not forgotten.
“That was close,” said Jesse after they’d been seated at the table.
“Why don’t you shout it out to the whole room,” she said
“I was whispering,” he mumbled, “no one heard me.”
At the next table an elegant older gentleman with silver hair dining with a ravishing young woman in a deep décolletage red dress leaned over tapping his ear and said, “Hearing like dogs, you know.” The room burst into laughter at Jesse’s obvious discomfort.
“Remember, I told you not to say anything,” she hissed, visibly annoyed with him.
“Well, you could have explained it a little better, and you just can’t tell me to shut up,” Jesse retorted.
“I would never say ‘shut up’; that would be rude,” she snapped. “My exact words were, ‘don’t say anything.’ Why can’t you remember and, if you can remember, why can’t you do it?”
“I can assure you that Arabella is never rude; other things she may be but rude, no, never, even when she is angry,” said the most extraordinary person Jesse had ever seen.
“Jason,” said Arabella, “I hoped you would be here.” The albino bent gracefully and kissed Arabella’s cheek, commenting on her appearance and generally being the smoothest S.O.B. that Jesse had ever seen in action. If he felt uncomfortable being under dressed for the occasion, he now felt like the country clod who stumbled into the opera by mistake.
She introduce Jason to him and he did his best not to look into his eyes, but when the Vampire took his hand and said how happy he was to meet a friend of Arabella’s, rolling her name out so it sounded French like it just got out of bed from a night of lovemaking, Jesse hated him as only a jealous lover can, and looked him in the face and found himself paralyzed in his pale blue eyes.
“Jason,” Arabella warned. Jason blinked his eyes and, released, Jesse fell out of his eyes and back into his chair.
“Jason,” said Arabella conversationally, “as you said, I cannot tolerate rudeness; once more and Blood Simple will need a new owner, understood?”
“Of course,” Jason replied. “I apologize, Mr. Jesse Ortega.” He sounded sincere, he acted sincere and Jesse knew he was lying and Jesse knew Jason knew he knew he was lying, and Arabella knew, too, but that was the end of it, for now.