A Night of Hunting
by Nicole Tanquary
Dragan rolled down the taxi window and leaned out just enough for the wind to brush across his face. He drew in deep breaths, holding them in his sinuses for a moment before letting them escape through his mouth. If the driver gave him a sidelong glance, he didn't notice … the driver was none of his concern. Middle-aged, white and sagging, his smell was a greasy one that turned Dragan's stomach. Besides, he had eaten well not long ago. The meal in question had been an Italian man, Filipo, with dark skin and a savor that was almost like chocolate. Filipo had liked quiet, gentle sex in a king-sized featherbed, in the penthouse Dragan had come to live in for the week that Filipo had lasted. With something like that in his belly, Dragan could afford to skip the driver and search for someone tastier.
In the dark, Dragan's eyes were yellow orbs, and his teeth had a certain sharpness in them when he spoke. "Pull over here." The driver's head bobbed in a little nod, and the taxi glided into a space by the curb. A night club pulsed with light beside them. There was a university nearby; Dragan could smell loud college-student sweat here, so thick it was almost a layer of atmosphere.
Dragan pulled a twenty from Filipo's wallet and handed it to the driver. Their fingers brushed, and the driver's eyes lifted, trying to meet his own. But Dragan was already pulling himself through the open door and into the night.
As he suspected, the students inside were young, their scent soaked with alcohol, most of them drunk enough to make Dragan's eyes water. He smoothed a hand over his hair, staining it black as he went, and rubbed his chin to add a bit of goatee. His suit had the gleam of the well-to-do, but was unbuttoned at top, loose with a natural ease he had perfected over the years – the sort of ease that people were naturally drawn to.
He let a grin come onto his face as he walked to the door, cigarette butts crunching under his heels. Yes, Filipo had been good … very good. But even a full stomach couldn't replace the feeling of a fresh hunt.
He found what he was looking for maybe five minutes in. As it always did, a scent came to him in a faded movement of air, as he was turning his head toward the bar. There was a girl there, young, nineteen at the most. Her hair had streaks of raspberry-blue dye running through, and was cut close around her ears. Even so, she was quiet. Her hand was fit around a glass of beer that was only just sipped at. As he watched, she wiped the foam from her upper lip and cast a glance over her shoulder. Most of the others were up and dancing, the guys feeling the girls' butts and the girls being too drunk to care.
The seat next to Blue was empty … not that it would've mattered. Dragan would simply have maneuvered whoever was in the seat away, drawn them out to the dance floor and kissed them, just enough to make them feel dizzy and need to sit down for a while, out of sight, out of mind.
He drew next to Blue and sat down, smoothly, raising a hand to catch the bartender's attention. "You have malt beer?" There was a nod, and a moment later Dragan was taking a long gulp from a bottle. His stomach shifted uneasily from the human drink, but it wouldn't do him any harm. He'd gotten used to it over the years.
Dragan let out a sigh, then turned his face towards Blue, just enough to get a look at her. She was pale, with high cheekbones and large brown eyes that were fixed on her hands. The fingers were covered in black smudges.
He cleared his throat, and she glanced at him, her eyebrows raised. "Do you garden?" he said. "Your hands are dirty."
Her face was blank for a moment. Then she looked down at her hands, and laughed, shaking her head. "No. Just an artist. Charcoal is kinda like dirt, though. Gets everywhere." She scrubbed her palms together, trying to rub it off. "Coulda sworn I washed up before coming here."
A shrug rolled through Dragan's shoulders. "Don't worry about it. It's cute." Here he smiled, and let just enough of his true face glint through to capture her interest. He was always careful with that; careful to keep the fangs tucked away, the slits in his pupils properly rounded, even as his skin glowed with intense, demonic life.
Now they were talking, and Dragan started warming her up, breathing in her smell all the while. There was a lovely simplicity to it … sweet and savory, like a salted caramel … and before long, his lower abdomen was lit in warm anticipation.
Her name was Phoenix, and she didn't usually come to places like this. Mostly she was there for her roommate, Sasha, who liked Smirnoff a little too much and who would need to be escorted home before too long. They shared an apartment that was walking-distance from the bar. The other night, Sasha had fallen on the way back, gotten a nasty gash to her head. The whole thing felt a lot like babysitting, but what could you do? She needed Sasha in one piece to get the rent paid.
Dragan asked her to point Sasha out, and a slender finger came up, sending his gaze to the back of the room. Sasha, a tiny brunette with blue eyes, was kissing another girl – the kind of kissing that's deep, as if you're trying to drink the other person in, body and soul.
He turned his focus back to Phoenix. "Is she … you know … like that normally?"
"You mean a lesbian? Yeah. She likes girls."
"And what about you?"
Hot red blush came in along her cheekbones. "I'm not picky when it comes to things like that. I mean, if it's love, it’s love." She swirled her glass in her hand, hesitated a moment, took another sip. "Guess you could call me Bi," she said, eventually.
Dragan rolled his eyes, which were gleaming auburn-gold in the low light. "Trust me, I don't worry about labels."
The talk rolled on, and Dragan let himself lean closer in increments. Phoenix felt the draw, he could see it on her face, but she was being careful. Not that it mattered. With time, Dragan would bring her out.
What he didn't count on was the scent that came to him next.
He had been talking, but the end of his sentence trailed, as he lifted his head and turned towards the door, nostrils flared. The smell that was coming through was louder than the warm, sweating humans, their heady drinks, their adrenaline. It was a hollow, coffin smell. A familiar one, at that. Damn, he thought. Of all the shitty luck.
The woman who had just walked in froze mid-step, her yellow eyes narrowing. Her appearance, like Dragan's, was carefully constructed; a sleek dress cut high enough to show her slender legs, and her hair was a long, blue-black sheen. Her face had been pointed towards Phoenix. Now it turned just a little, and her gaze met Dragan's. Fuck off, Lilli, this is my human, he broadcasted, hunching his shoulders and frowning his eyebrows at her.
Lilli hesitated a moment. Then her mouth, the lips plump with gloss, curled into a smile. Her steps clicked against the floor as she made her way over to the bar. "Tequila, please," she called to the bartender, leaning against the counter and adjusting the strap of her purse on her shoulder. The movement caught Phoenix's eye, and she turned a little, her fingers tightening on the beer glass.
Reaching for the tequila, Lilli brushed the edge of her wrist against Phoenix's forearm. A shiver traveled through Phoenix for a moment, her eyes closing and opening in a slow blink. Clumsy, thought Dragan. At least he could never be accused of not having class. Then again, that was Lilli's hunting style. No subtlety at all. Just aggressive, physical interaction.
She turned her yellow eyes on Phoenix, wearing an apologetic smile. "Sorry, did I bump you just now?" Phoenix managed a shrug, her charcoal fingers rubbing where Lilli had touched.
"I'm not made of glass. I think I'll be all right." Dragan's left hand was beneath the table, and he felt it clench, the nails lengthening and digging into his palm. Calm down, he told himself. You're better than she is. You'll get the human. CALM DOWN.
Still, he smiled, because that was what was expected from him. "Looks like you make friends pretty easily."
"Huh? No, not at all. Normally people avoid me like I've got the plague."
"I find that hard to believe."
Lilli cleared her throat, and Dragan swallowed back the urge to roll his eyes at her when she spoke. "How come you're not touching your drink? Not a beer fan?"
Phoenix cast a look down at her glass. Her eyes matched her scent, light brown and sweet. "I don't know … I guess it's just not what I'm used to. Usually I pop open a can late afternoon and drink from it all night, while I'm working. Feels like I should be doing something now, you know? Not just sitting around."
"Really? What do you do?"
"Art stuff. Charcoal and acrylic painting, usually. Sometimes mural-sized, sometimes smaller … whatever rich old couples are buying, you know?" Dragan raised his eyebrows."That doesn't sound very artistic."
That got a laugh out of her. "What am I supposed to do? I gotta eat. And there's always rent. If I ever win the lottery, then I can be an artsy-fartsy, go-where-the-inspiration-takes-me kind of artist. Until then, I gotta have money."
Lilli tapped a nail against the counter to snatch Phoenix's attention from Dragan again. This time he couldn't help it; he frowned at her, his eyes less human and more snake-like now, slitted and bright. "Do you have a gallery somewhere? I'm working on furnishing an apartment. I'd love some paintings for the walls, but I'm new in town, don't really know where to go or who to ask yet."
"… yeah, I sell stuff at a co-op on Townsend. I have pictures online, too, if you want to see if the style's right first. Just look up 'Phoenix Robinson,' and you'll find it." A frazzled look had come into the corners of her mouth, her eyes wide and dazed – full of headlights.
Her phone vibrated at her hip, and she pulled it out in a slow motion, staring at it for a moment before comprehending what she was seeing. "Sorry, gotta take this," she murmured, then clicked it on and walked off towards the bathroom, where the music wasn't quite so loud.
The moment she was out of sight, Dragan whirled in his seat, his lip curled back in a silent, barely-human snarl. "Lilli, what the Hell are you doing?" Lilli shrugged, and folded her long, smooth legs. Dragan could feel the stares of some college guys across the room following the movement, and this only made him angrier.
"I smelled someone good in here, so I came in. I had no idea you were even in the area. We stopped talking, remember?" She gave him a look that he ignored.
"I found her first, so she's mine. Go find someone else."
She frowned, and a shadow of her true look came through in the darkness beneath her eyes. "There's no one else in town that smells any good. Trust me, I've been stalking around all night." Dragan sneered at her.
"Well, then toughen up and eat someone that's not perfectly suited to your tastes, your highness." Lilli's lip was curled now, too. A growl that seemed much too deep for her small body came out of her chest. The bartender gave them a glance out of the corner of his eye, then turned away, hurriedly. We're showing through too much, Dragan thought, but they were both caught up in the confrontation.
"There you go again. Always blaming me. Always-" She glanced over his shoulder, and forcibly relaxed her shoulders, drawing into herself until she was just a human again. Dragan took the hint and did the same, running a hand over his shirt to smooth out the wrinkles.
Phoenix tucked away the phone as she came back in, her blue-striped hair mussed, shining dimly under the club lights. She was rummaging in her purse for her wallet. "Well, it's been fun, but I'm going now. That was Sasha on the phone. Apparently she checked outta here with the other girl, so she won't be coming home tonight. Anyways, see you around." She tipped a hand to both of them, a strange half-smile on her face, and began laying down some money for the drink and the bartender's tip.
Dragan got to his feet, putting on a look of concern. "You shouldn't walk home alone in the dark." He reached out a hand for her, but she pulled away, her eyes screwed up in a look of … was that amusement?
"Listen, I'm done with demons for today. I sure don't need one escorting me home." Dragan froze, his lips parted in what, had he been a living, breathing human, would've been a gasp.
In the corner of his eye, he could see that Lilli's face had gone slack from shock. If she'd been holding her tequila glass, it would've fallen through her fingers and smashed against the floor. Neither of them had ever been found out before. "Y… you knew?" Lilli managed, eventually.
Phoenix shrugged at them. Then she showed them her hand, palm face-up, wiping away some of the charcoal. Beneath it was a tiny tattoo of a pentagram, flanked by symbols that would've meant nothing to other humans but which Dragan and Lilli could read as clear as signposts – which was what they were, anyways.
"Mom was a witch, which, technically speaking, makes me a witch too," Phoenix explained. Her voice still had that easiness to it … as if talking to a pair of demons was business as usual. "I wasn't kidding when I said people avoid me like I've got the plague. Something about the sense I give off scares the shit outta them. So when super-sexy people come up to me and start flirting, I know they aren't exactly of this world." She let out a small sigh, her eyes flicking up and down, taking them in. "At this point in my life, I'm not interested in having my soul taken out of me in bite-sized chunks. Simple as that. So … later." She paused long enough to adjust the strap of her purse on her shoulder, then walked to the door.
For a moment she hesitated, casting a long look back at them. "By the way, some friendly advice; it didn't work so well when you two were trying to draw in the same person. Felt like I was being pulled in two directions at once, that I'd snap in half pretty soon. Maybe it'd be a good idea to not act out your relationship problems through humans? Then again, what do I know?"
There was a cling as the door shut, and she was gone.
Dragan leaned back on the stool, his lips pursed and musing. "A witch, huh? Haven't seen one of those around in ages. Thought they died out."
"Yeah, me too." Lilli was staring out through the glass door, squinting her yellowing eyes to make out Phoenix's shape as it retreated from view. Witches were off-limits to their feeding routines; besides, they were powerful in their own right. Going after one would be none too pleasant for either of them. Still, she had smelled delicious, and the loss was a painful one.
Lilli let out a sigh and glanced down at the cool human drink in her hand, condensation collecting where her skin touched the glass. "Do you think we're getting old, Dragan? Are we losing our touch? Seemed like she found us out pretty quickly."
Dragan squinted at her, a slit coming into his pupils. "You're saying that because you're hungry. When's the last time you ate?" She glowered at the floor.
"About a week ago, though it's none of your God-damned business." Then, after a pause, "Why do you ask? You know someone half-way appetizing around here?" The door opened and shut, and a cold wind trickled through. Autumn again, Dragan realized with a touch of surprise. He could taste a hint of snow in the air.
He pointed vaguely behind them. "There was an old man in the next town over. Jasper, I think it's called. I had my human then, so I didn't bother with him. Smelled like … what do you call it …" He snapped his fingers, trying to think of the word. The snap was dry and had an echo to it that hinted of dark places, empty dark places where the heart should've been. "Balsamic," he said at last. "Like balsamic vinegar. You like unusual flavors, right?"
The smile she gave him was a weary one. If he looked close, he could see the very tips of fangs in the corners, faint as moonlight. "Anything that isn't the usual mush works for me."
Dragan paid for his and Lilli's drink, setting down a fold of Filipo's money without looking at the faces. Why bother? Money changed. Bars changed. Alcohol, clothes, language, none of it was solid.
The time he'd been with Lilli, though, years ago … there'd been something in that. Something tangible, something more than the hollow seduction rituals, the dances in words and body language he'd practiced over years and years and years. She felt the same way, he could see it in her face. She was leaning towards ever so slightly, the two of them glowing with life in a bar that seemed suddenly lifeless.
Dragan was done hunting for the night; there was no need to keep up appearances anymore. Gray tints came into the skin along his cheeks, and his jawbone sharpened, as did the tips of his ears and nails. The expensive suit sluiced along his arms in washes of black. Lilli let herself go in the same way, a sigh rattling out of her lungs. Wearing a human skin over themselves took up energy, and that only made her hungrier.
There was a couple standing nearby, and after glancing at Dragan and Lilli, they turned firmly away and drew closer to each other, shivering. The lighting in the club was dim, threaded with neon; within a few minutes, the couple would convince themselves that their minds had been playing tricks on them. Dragan had seen it a thousand times before. Chances were he'd see it a thousand times again.
"You know, this wasn't a total loss. Witches are damned useful to have around. We're lucky to've found one."
Lilli nodded, after a moment of thought. "True enough. You want to go after her and ask for her number?"
"No, not tonight. She'll think we're trying to seduce her again." Lilli chuckled to herself.
"A threesome between two vampires and a witch. Sounds like fun."
Dragan rolled his eyes. "You'd never agree to a threesome. You don't like to share."
"Neither do you."
He smiled before he could help it, the tips of his teeth peeking from under his upper lip.
Side-by-side, they strolled through the door and into cold, fresh air. Almost without thinking, he looped his arm in Lilli's and waited for her to shrug him off.
Nicole Tanquary lives in central New York State in the US, where she is working on a bachelor's degree in Writing and Rhetoric, with minors in Geoscience and Studio Art. When not studying, she works a number of part-time jobs as a writing tutor, a research assistant, and a writer for her university's communications department. As a fiction writer, she enjoys exploring the 'speculative' genres; she has been known, however, to venture into unknown territories for the sake of a good story. Her work has been published by a menagerie of venues, most recently Plasma Frequency Magazine, Mad Scientist Journal, and A Murder of Storytellers. When not writing, working or studying, she is usually playing with her pet rats or watching funny cat videos.