Art In The Blood Chapter One

Author: P.N. Elrod

Series: Vampire Files #4

Genres: Mystery , Fantasy

HUNGRY AND CARELESS, I'd opened the vein more than necessary and the blood slipped past my mouth and dribbled down the animal's leg. I shifted my right hand above the wound and applied pressure, which slowed the flow, and continued with my meal, siphoning off more than usual because I'd been on short rations the last few nights. I drank my fill and more, the excess partly due to curiosity; I wanted to know if I'd swell up like a leech or if I could get away with fewer feedings per week.

The cow didn't mind, she could afford to spare a quart or more-there'd just be that much less to spill out when they finally slaughtered her for someone else's dinner.

I drew away, a handkerchief immediately at my lips so as not to spot my clothes, and tightened the pressure on the leg. It worked, and the bleeding eventually stopped. My hand looked the same, at least-no puffiness there. I wondered how long it would take for the red to fade from my eyes. The usual time was only a few minutes, but there was no way to tell. These days I preferred to avoid useless mirrors and their many complications.

To spare my shoes from farmyard-style damage, I went incorporeal to get out and flowed past the wood corrals and their complaining occupants. It was a disorienting state, but I knew the route well and was soon back on the open street again, doing my best imitation of a normal man out for a walk. My car was parked less than a block away, but I always varied my route into and out of the Stockyards. Few people believed in vampires these days, but it never hurt to be careful.

The first aid to the cow had stained my fingers somewhat, so I took a swing past Escott's office with a mind to borrow his washroom. His lights were on, which surprised me, for only yesterday he'd mentioned a dearth of business. I didn't feel like his company just then and kept walking, but silently wished him luck as I passed. He detested being idle. A dripping tap in an alley down the street provided all the cleanup I needed, and I tossed the stained handkerchief into a trash can.

Escott's laundry service, which I shared now, had once asked if his houseguest suffered from frequent nosebleeds.

The car started up without fuss and I drove aimlessly, turning when the mood struck me and obeying the stop signals like a good citizen. I pulled up and parked near the Night-crawler Club up on the north side and pretended it was only an impulse that took me there, and not some inner need.

They had a new man out front. He looked askance at my ordinary clothes, but let me in when I asked to see Gordy. The hatcheck girl was not new, I rarely forget dimples, but she didn't know me from whosis, and put my plain gray fedora next to the flashier silk toppers with a friendly if impersonal smile.

I knew the place had been raided by the cops at least once since my last visit, and Gordy had taken the temporary shutdown as an opportunity to redecorate. The walls were bright with fresh paint, and the tables, chairs, and bandstand were now shiny black with gleaming chrome trim. The only thing unchanged were the costumes on the girls, which remained black with silver-sequined spiderwebs patterned on the happily short skirts. The leggy details were enough to keep me occupied until Gordy showed up.

He was puzzled to see me, maybe slightly wary as well, but when I stuck my hand out he took it. He was a big mountain of a man with a solid, but not crushing grip.

He had no need to prove his strength against anyone, taking it for granted people could figure it out for themselves.

" 'Lo, Fleming, what's up?"

"This and that. Got a quieter place than here?" I gestured at the band across the dance floor below. They were just starting off another tune for the patrons.

He nodded, not one for much wordage, and led the way through a door marked Private. The soundproofing did its job and we were in the casino room, up to our eyeballs in stale smoke and the tight atmosphere of prolonged tension. Gordy nodded to a couple of tough boys in tuxedos guarding the money cage and threaded through the craps and roulette tables to the back exit. We took a short hall and some stairs up to an office I remembered very well. The redecorating had gotten this far with a new rug, paint, and paintings. His deceased boss's boats had been replaced by green-and-brown pastorals. A canvas depicting a lush forest covered a section of the wall where six slugs from a .38 had embedded themselves one memorable night.

"Nice picture, huh?" he said, noticing my interest. There was a very slight humor coming from his eyes. "I like to look at it."

"That's what they're there for." I noticed it was not an ordinary store-bought print, but a real oil with a decent frame.


He pointed at a deep leather chair and settled into a wide matching sofa, taking up most of it. He wasn't fat, just big, and I knew from experience he could move fast and light when he wanted to; the present slowness was all pan of his camouflage.

Large men were supposed to be slow and stupid, so Gordy cultivated that image and thus kept a lot of people off balance. In his business an edge always came in handy.

"Want anything?" he asked, meaning refreshments.

I shook my head and with some caution removed my dark glasses. From his reaction I could tell my eyes were still quite red from the feeding.

"You look like you had a hell of a weekend."

"I did."

"You're not the social type; Fleming, at least for places like this and mugs like me.

You got a problem?"


He apparently recalled the last time he'd seen my bloodied eyes. "Trouble with Bobbi?"


"Another woman?"

I couldn't tell if he was being perceptive like Escott or if it was simply the next logical question for him to ask. "Yeah, you could say that."

"What kind of trouble?"

"I killed her."

The news didn't exactly send him into a panic. "You need protection, a cleanup job?"

"No, nothing like that."

He had one of those phlegmatic faces under his short-cropped blond hair, great for poker or making people sweat. "You need to talk about it?"

My instinct to come see him had been right, and I nodded, inwardly relieved.

"So talk," he said. He wasn't the soul of encouragement, but he settled back into the depths of the sofa to listen. I gave him a short version of how I'd killed the young woman and why I'd done it, just stating bald facts and not bothering with any defense. During the story he stared at yet another painting above and behind his desk, his eyes hardly blinking the whole time.

"I'm sure Charles knows about it, but he hasn't said anything. I don't think he ever will."

"Smart guy, then," he approved. "What about Barrett?"

"He apparently took the suicide at face value."

"He probably wants to. How are you taking it?"

" I feel like..." But I couldn't finish. I couldn't put words to what I was feeling.

He raised a hand to call off the question and tried another. "You remember the war?"

"I was in it."

This confused him, since I didn't look old enough, but he continued. "You fight?

You have to kill?"

"Yeah, I see what you're getting at. This was different."

" Why? Because it was a woman and in a nice house and not out in a field of mud with the noise and cold? She was killing people. You had to stop her. What's the problem?"

"Living with it. Why me?"

He shifted his sleepy-looking eyes from me back to the painting. It was a soft overview of a farm near sunset, in one corner a boy was leading two plow horses back to the stable. "When I was a kid, I once knew a retired hangman. I asked him about it. He knew how to do it better than anyone else but he didn't think much about it, it was just a job to do. I can't say he enjoyed it, but he knew he was doing his part in making things cleaner."

It seemed an odd statement coming from him, considering how he came by his living. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. You either learn to live with it or you go crazy. Make up your mind."

"Is that what you've done?"

He glanced over, again with faint humor. "I'm just a businessman."

"That's what Capone used to say."

"Huh. He never talked about the dirty side of the business, not where he could be overheard. He'd pretend it wasn't there. Maybe that makes him crazy. I know it's there, I don't enjoy it, but I'm good at it. And I'm not crazy."

The humor was more pronounced, but under it was something hard and very cold. The base of my spine went stiff as I suppressed a shiver.

A few days, or nights, later I was just coming down from the upstairs bath when I heard Escott let himself in the kitchen door. His arms were full with a newspaper, raincoat, and several small canons, and the latchkey got stuck in the lock again.

When he started to jiggle it loose he nearly lost the cartons. Drawing a breath to say hello I caught a strong whiff of Chinese food and rushed to rescue the soggy white boxes before his dinner ended up on the floor.

"Thank you," he said as I transferred them to the counter by the sink. He extracted his key and glared at the lock for exactly one second, tossed his coat and hat on the table, and stalked into the dining room. He was back almost immediately with a screwdriver and small oil can, and began an energetic assault on the rusty mechanism.

"Your dinner'll get cold," I said, leaning against a doorway to watch the show.

"A distinct possibility, but I'd rather it be cold than suffer the indigestion this recalcitrant lock is likely to cause me."

"You almost make me glad I've given up eating."

His mouth twitched, whether from amusement at my remark or frustration at the job was hard to tell. Something gave, and he seized the oil can and attacked the breach in the lock's defense while it was vulnerable. He experimented with the key, grunted with satisfaction, and put things back the way they were.

"Good evening. Jack," he said, standing and dusting his knees off. It was his way of starting things over fresh. "How arc you tonight?" His suit coat joined the raincoat on the table und he turned on the hot water in the sink to wash his hands.

"Fine. You look tired."

"Thank you so much. I can assure you it is not from overwork."

"You were busy the last few nights."

"Yes, but that little-extremely little-job is resolved and I've nothing to do now."

"Boredom?" I knew how exhausting that could get.

"Inactivity. I never allow myself to become bored, but inactivity may strike at any inconvenient moment."

"There's a difference?"

He registered mock surprise as he toweled dry. "Most certainly. One cannot help inactivity, but boredom is a self-inflicted disease. I firmly believe there is a special Providence watching us all for signs of boredom, the moment we declare ourselves in that state some disaster will occur to take our minds right out of it. The last time I was bored was the year 1920. I was carrying a spear, so to speak, in the court of King Claudius..."

I looked blank.

" Hamlet!" he suggested, by way of clarification.

Dawn broke. "You were on stage in front of an audience and bored? I'd be scared to death."

"Given time, one can become used to anything. I'd grown all too familiar with that particular scene in that particular play and thus declared myself bored. The next thing I knew the trapdoor we used for the Ghost to enter from under the stage gave way and down I went. It was one of my more spectacular exits."

"Were you hurt?"

"A bruise or two when I landed on the platform below had me limping for a week.

It seems the fellow playing the Ghost forgot to latch the trap properly after his last scene."

"Did you kill him?"

"He was terribly embarrassed so I thought it more vengeful not to put him out of his misery." He pulled out a few clean plates and emptied the cartons onto them.

"Since then I've schooled myself to patience when it comes to inactivity. I've completely sworn off boredom."

I shoved his things to one side of the table to give him room. "So work is slow?"

"I more than caught up on my reading." He nodded at the crumpled newspaper.

"Not even a divorce to turn away?"

His thin lips curled in distaste. "Please, I am about to eat."


"What social event are you off to tonight?" he asked in turn as his long fingers snapped up a set of chopsticks with practiced ease.

"How did you-"

"You've taken more care than usual with your hair, that is a hew shirt and tie, and I believe Miss S my the will be quite impressed with the after-shave and shoe shine."

"Looks okay, then? I can't really tell."

"Mirrors must be a considerable source of annoyance to you these days."

"You can say that again," I grumbled.

"The event?" he repeated, just before plunging into his chow mein or whatever it was; the smell was making me vaguely nauseous, but that was my usual reaction to solid, cooked food.

"Some kind of party. Bobbi and Marza got a job singing and playing background music, and their boss said it was okay to bring a date."

"It sounds an odd mix of the formal and informal."

"Yeah, bunch of artists up along the north shore. One of them's loaded and wants plenty of people along to celebrate a show he's having at his fiance's gallery."

"His name?"

"Leighton Brett."

His right eyebrow bounced once and he indicated the paper with his chopsticks.

"Page eight."

I uncrumpled it and opened to the page. It was a splashy article placed above the fold with lots of photos. A picture of Brett standing with some people took up most of the space. It was a standard pose of him shaking hands; in the background was some kind of landscape painting. The caption said he'd won the Lloyd A. Farron Medal and five hundred dollars for a painting called Homeward Bound. Brett was a big man, towering over the others by a head. He had a long, solemn face, dark, curly hair, and serious eyes.

Another photo of him with his fiancee Reva Stokes had them standing before his portrait of her. He was accurate and had caught her looks exactly right, but somehow softened and sweetened them so at second glance it seemed like a different woman from the cool-faced blond next to him.

The article went into detail about Brett's award presentation and the opening of his own gallery. Reva would be managing the sales; his job was to keep the place filled with new work. The between-the-lines message indicated he was destined to be one of art's new masters and consequently a good investment for collectors.

I went back to the first photo, drawn by something familiar in the painting. It looked very much like the farm scene hanging above Gordy's desk. This one still had a boy leading two plow horses, but the stable was gone, replaced by trees and part of a dirt road.

"This painting"-I pointed out Homeward Bound- "Gordy's got an almost identical one in his office."

"You've been to see Gordy?" He was mildly surprised.

"Just to say hello. I'll have to ask him who the artist is."

"It could be Brett, I understand he's quite prolific."

"But why paint the same scene twice?"

He shrugged. "You could ask him. More than once da Vinci did two versions of one scene. The Virgin of the Rocks comes to mind, and La Gioconda." He rolled the foreign word out with dramatic relish and attacked his rice.

"La what?"

"The Mono Lisa, my dear fellow."

"There's only one Mono Lisa."

"In the Louvre. There's another sitting quietly in a bank vault in New York. It's a shocking waste."

"You're pulling my leg."

"I assure you it is absolutely genuine."

"How come no one's ever heard of it, then?"

"Because the owners want no part of the attitude of disbelief, which you are presently displaying with such clarity, or to attract the attention of potential thieves."

"How do you know about it?"

"I read a lot," he said, but I picked up a note in his voice that indicated he was skirting the truth. Before I could jump out with another question, he glanced up at the kitchen clock. "Perhaps this is forward of me, but I noted in the story about Leighton Brett that the party he is having tonight begins at eight, and it is just now-


"Holy shit." I ran down to the basement and grabbed my hat and coat. To save time I vanished and reappeared in the kitchen, a stunt that often unnerved Escott. It worked. He nearly choked on his bean sprouts, but recovered beautifully.

"Shall I leave the latch off?" he asked dryly, knowing full well I had no problems with locked doors.

"Nah, but don't wait up for me."

He tossed my wry look back and saluted me out with a wave of his chopsticks.

Traffic wasn't good, but I was less anxious for my own lateness than Bobbi's; I had no wish to cost her a job. I rounded the last corner to the front of her residence hotel and saw them already outside looking for me; Bobbi, her accompanist Marza Chevreaux, and Marza's date, Madison Pruitt. Bobbi opened the passenger door and swooped inside to plant a quick kiss on me before Marza could scowl disapproval.

"Sorry I'm late," I said.

"You're timing's always been perfect for me," she whispered with a little smirk, and then Marza and Madison were piling into the backseat. Marza did have something acid to say about my lateness, but Bobbi's last remark had my head swimming, so I didn't hear any of it.

Bobbi brought out a much-folded scrap of paper and called directions, while Madison tried to engage me in a political discussion. He had taken great stock in last Wednesday's rumor that Hitler was planning to retire and turn the chancelorship over to his air minister, Goering. I didn't see that it would make much difference, but all the way along Michigan Avenue he argued passionately in favor of keeping Hitler in charge of things.

"I thought the Communists didn't like Hitler," I ventured when he paused for breath.

"We don't, but Goering would be worse. He's better educated and a trained military leader. As soon as they finish practicing in Spain his air force is going to be bombing Paris next. Don't forget the German army moved into the Rhineland one only last March-"

Marza finished for him. "-and next thing you know they'll be using the Eiffel Tower for target practice. We've heard it all before, Madison."

"But Jack hasn't. Have you?"

"I'm always interested in hearing people's opinions."

In the mirror I saw Marza shoot the back of my head a look that would have done Medusa credit, and Madison continued with his political observations for the rest of the trip. Occasionally, he even seemed to make sense. Bobbi kept us on course until we were in the middle of what I would call a rich neighborhood, and counted off house numbers. The one we wanted took up an entire block and was lit up like New Year's.

"Look at the cars," said Marza. "We're late."

"They're early," Bobbi corrected. "Reva said there'd be some hangers-on from the gallery opening."

"I'll drop you at the front and park the buggy," I suggested. "No sense in all of us taking a hike."

"They should have hired some valets," said Marza, still wanting to stew.

Madison snorted. "And lose their image as unworldly artists?"

"Darling, anyone who lives in a pile of such proportions has a very clear idea of how the world works, and it certainly would not have stretched their budget much to provide a little basic comfort to their guests." Marza had apparently forgotten she was at the party to work, not play. Bobbi glanced at me and managed to keep a straight face.

The exterior of the house was comfortably ugly, built of large slabs of gray stone in the shape of a mock castle, complete with a crenelated roofline. The grounds were formal and well kept, with only a few early leaves skittering in the wind over the gray brick driveway. I paused under a huge covered entry to unload the others, then rolled out again to find a parking space. Space found, I strolled back up the drive with a few other arrivals. Some were in formal clothes and looking smug about it; another group was dressed for an afternoon in the yacht basin and looking equally pleased with themselves. I overheard one of the formals also complain about the lack of parking valets, but no one else seemed to mind. . Bobbi was waiting in the entry for me and slipped a possessive arm through mine.

"What happened to-" I started.

"Madison spotted some friends and dragged Marza along inside. For all his dad's money you'd think he could afford to buy some manners."

"Or even rent them. Don't worry about it, Madison's still a kid."

"He's over thirty."

"There are kids and then there are kids. Have I told you how gorgeous you are tonight?"

"Not out loud, but feel free to-oomph..."

She said to feel free, which is why I grabbed her and kissed her, garnering a few whoops of encouragement from a clutch of passing guests. Despite the distractions, Bobbi didn't put up any fight and gave as good as she got.

"When does the party end?" I asked.

She took a deep breath. "Five minutes from now would be too long, but hold that thought."

I grinned back, and we assumed a more sedate posture and walked inside.

The windows were wide open, but insufficient to the task of cooling down the rapidly crowding room. Brightly clad bodies, cigarette smoke, and the steady rumble of conversation filled all the corners, and this was just the front hall. I automatically looked for a familiar face and was mildly surprised to spot one, though I'd never met her before. Reva Stokes, slim, self-possessed, and carefully dressed in a shade of chocolate brown that matched her eyes, broke away from a conversation, extending a long hand at Bobbi.

"So glad to see you, Miss Smythe." Her voice was smooth with a touch of throat to it. Bobbi introduced me as her date and asked where she was to sing.

"The long hall, I'll take you there." She turned and led the way, talking over her shoulder. "It's the largest room we have, but I'm afraid the acoustics are terrible.

Leighton refused to have the piano moved."

"I'm sure it will be fine. The gallery opening went well, I hope?"

"Oh, yes, just wonderful." She sounded anything but enthused.

Bobbi was nerved up enough to hold my hand all the way there. The long hall had fewer people in it, but the twenty-foot ceiling and bare floor turned it into a cross between an echo chamber and a bowling alley. I never did notice the walls for all the humanity in the way.

Folding chairs and music stands were arranged to one side of a grand piano the size of my Buick. Several men in tuxedos were sorting through some sheet music and tuning their instruments. Reva asked them to start the background music as soon as they could and told Bobbi she could pick her own program. A white-haired man in the back spotted Bobbi, broke into a smile of greeting, and came over to kiss her cheek.

"Bobbi, you look wonderful as always. Now who's the tall fellow getting so jealous?"

"Titus, this is my date, Jack Fleming. Jack, this is Titus Noble, leader of the band."

Noble pretended to wince. "String quartet, my dear girl."

He glad-handed me. "I remember you from Bobbi's house-warming party. Marza said you were in the rackets."


"Bobbi, if I don't ask questions, I'll never learn anything. The hard part is surviving the answers. Well, Mr. Fleming?"

"Jack," I said automatically. "And sorry if it disappoints you, but I'm not."

He craned his neck to one of the other musicians. "Teddy, you owe me a beer.

Then what do you do besides escort beautiful young singers around to places like this?"

"I'm a writer." My answer popped out naturally and hopefully covered out-of-work journalists like myself.

"Ohhh." He nodded a bit vaguely, then leaned close to Bobbi's ear. "Don't marry him until he has at least three bestsellers under his belt."

She cuffed his arm playfully, then they started hashing out the music program for the evening. They didn't get far before realizing they'd need Marza. I volunteered to go look for her and started weaving through the knots of chattering people and waiters balancing silver trays.

She was with Madison, who was holding forth before a group of Bohemian types on his favorite subject: the unfairness of the world in general, and how Marx had given them all a blueprint on how to make things work. Marza looked bored to death, and if she didn't exactly welcome my interruption with open arms she had no insults ready, either. I told her where Bobbi was and she walked off-rather quickly. I listened for another minute to the political lecture, decided he'd ceased to make sense again, and drifted back to the main hall to watch the show.

It didn't take long for Bobbi to get things straight with Noble, who led off the music with one of those chamber things that all sound alike. I was surprised at the volume coming out of their stringed instruments, and it had an immediate quieting effect on the people closest to the players. Titus played a violin with the apparently easy concentration of a true professional, but I found it difficult to sit and listen, for some of the high notes sounded like nails on a blackboard. He was an expert enough player, but now my ears were just too damned sensitive to listen with any comfort.

After a few minutes I was getting to the limit of my duration, but then the music abruptly wound up to a self-satisfied finish and everyone started applauding.

Marza gave him enough time for a decent bow, then attacked the piano keys with her maroon talons and Bobbi launched into one of her club numbers. It was a light love song and apparently a favorite, as a few more people squeezed into the room to see who was singing and then stayed because Bobbi's looks matched her voice. She was quietly dressed in a high-necked, long-sleeved gown of midnight blue, but it was some kind of soft, clingy fabric that floated and moved with her body. I was hypnotized along with the rest and didn't make a sound until she was finished and bowing to her share of the applause.

Titus took another turn, a somewhat longer piece with not much violin to it, so I was able to tolerate things. Bobbi edged away from the piano and came over to see me.

"You bite a lemon or something?" she asked.

"The music's fine, I just can't listen to it." I explained my sensitive ears and she sympathized.

"I'll tell Titus, then, or he'll think you won't like his playing. He's been worried enough about whether Reva's brainstorm would work."

"What's Reva's brainstorm? Mixing you and Titus together?"

"Right, the idea is to give everyone something they like. I think it's supposed to reflect her husband's painting style."

"Any of his stuff hanging around? I'd like to see it."

"Probably. Find a wall if you can and follow it. I'll have a break in about thirty minutes..."

"I'll be back."

She squeezed my hand and returned to the chair reserved for her next to Marza, who was pretending to study her sheet music.

Madison appeared next to me, a disappointing and depressing substitute at best.

He shook his head at the general direction of the players and sighed. "What a waste of money."

"People gotta have music."

"Don't you see, though? Look at the way the world is and tell me we couldn't fix things if we could develop a classless society to spread the wealth around."

"Probably," I agreed with caution. "But it would only work if everyone was in it on a voluntary basis and stuck to it."

"That's what I'm trying to do, only sometimes it seems impossible."

"You get that as long as you deal with people. Everyone's got an opinion and they generally think theirs is right."

"But I am right!"

"Keep your voice down, you don't want to get thrown out and us with you."

He calmed down very little, grinding his teeth in time to the music. "You hungry?" he asked, lighting on a fresh subject, no doubt inspired by the close passage of a waiter with a tray.

"Nan, you go ahead." And he was gone before I'd finished speaking. The quartet piece ended and Bobbi was up again, this time singing three in a row, finishing up with a version of "Melancholy Baby" that would stop traffic on a hot day. The hall was full up by now and more were more trying to crowd in. Bad acoustics or not, Reva had a success on her hands, if you could tell anything from the applause.

Titus started up another chamber piece and Bobbi slipped away. We couldn't get together because of all the people in between, so she pointed in the direction she planned to go and I nodded over the mass of heads.

The air got considerably cooler because a bank of French windows leading into the back garden were wide open. Bobbi went out one on her side, I used mine, and we met in the middle on the back porch.

"Thought I was going to suffocate," she said, grabbing my arm. "Let's take a walk, I need the air."

"You need a medal, you're just the greatest."

She smiled and glowed and I felt that pleasant stab hit me all over again because she was so beautiful and we were together. We didn't bother with talk and followed a winding cement path on a slow stroll. I hardly noticed the garden, getting only an impression of thick, high hedges, faint Japanese lanterns, and cast-iron furniture at convenient spots. She picked a wide seat trimmed in white-painted grapevines and sank onto it with a sigh. I sat next to her, holding her in the crook of my arm in case it was too cool for her after the pressing warmth of the hall.

"I'd like to have a place like this," she said. "A garden so big you lose yourself in it, and someone else to bring me breakfast in the afternoon."

"Don't you mean morning?"

"Not with the hours I keep. Did you mean that when you told Titus you were a writer?"

"It'll do until something else comes along."

"What do you write?"

"Your name across the sky in diamonds."

She laughed at the image, no doubt expressing her good taste.

"Would you like some?" I asked.

"What, diamonds?"


She sobered. "What girl wouldn't?" But her tone was off.

"You don't like the idea?"

"I like the thought behind it, but I don't want that kind of gift-not from you."

"Why not from me?"

"Because of the way it used to be for me. I took things like that from Slick, like a fancy payment-you know I was no angel-but I don't want anything like that from you. Things are different with you, and I want them to stay that way."

She looked uncertain on how I was going to react, but I didn't have any choice in the matter. I pulled her tight and close and didn't stop kissing her until she insisted on coming up for air by thumping the back of my neck.

"Like I said," she continued, "hold that thought."

"I'll do more than that," I said, and started exploring her lips again. Her heartbeat was way up, along with her breathing.

"On the other hand, why wait?" she asked, and I paused.

"What?" Sometimes I can be pretty dim, but I caught on fast when she did something with her collar and it dropped several inches. "Oh, you can't mean here and..."

"Why not? I'm ready for you now and I don't want to wait till after the party. I'll be too tired to enjoy things."

I could see her point, but felt suddenly vulnerable. The alcove we occupied didn't seem all that private. I could still hear voices uncomfortably near. She put her mouth on mine again and her arms went up my back to pull me closer.

"It's really very dark here," she whispered. "No one can see and if they do they'll just think we're necking-won't they?"

She was certainly right about that-in more ways than one-and I couldn't stop kissing her anyway. The pumping of her blood was as hypnotic to me as her voice, and I gradually sank lower along her neck until I was just over the two small marks left by our previous encounters. My canine teeth were already out and ready, but it was a new angle for me and I had to twist around a little more so I wouldn't hurt her.

She kept silent as I broke the skin, but her body went stiff and then shuddered, and she held me harder than ever as the pleasure rolled over her again and again. I drew it out for both of us, taking one seeping drop at a time. The thunder of her heartbeat and her now-languorous breathing drowned out all other sounds for me.

There was only the shimmering woman in my arms and the taste of her life enriching my own.

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