Setting: 1868: Just after midnight, downtown in The Nocturnal Drinking Den.
I’m not a creature of habit; my lifestyle is a lonely one. The only pleasure in my solitary existence is to sit quietly in the saloon area of the Nocturnal Drinking Bar and wait for my next summons.
Allow me to introduce myself. The name is Ash. Okay, to others, my mode of work might not seem glamorous, but I pride myself on the swiftness of the clean-up job I do. I have no place to call home and wander from location to location, doing my master’s bidding, no questions asked. The master, who owns my life, or what remains of it, seems to know when I have destroyed all the soulless creatures on the hit list they gave me.
The Nocturnal Drinking Den is home to an array of night stalkers who hunt for the inhuman creatures that prey on humanity. Only those crazy enough to live between worlds know of the drinking den's existence, a resting place for those who never sleep. Its shadowy entrance, down a back alley, off the high street, will only appear to those known as night stalkers. The door opens automatically after scanning your mind and body. The bar staff enter by a different route, though I’ve yet to find out how or where.
Oak panelling covers the interior walls, while behind the bar; a mirror runs its length, allowing the staff and clientele to see who approaches them from behind. The specially designed furniture, made of seasoned oak, elm, ash, hawthorn, and holly, bears an array of carved symbols as does every surface within The Nocturnal Drinking Den to protect to all who drink there from the dark forces that roam freely among the human race.
As you enter the den, the wall gas lamps flicker, sending racing shadows across the room. As night wears on and a number of stalkers return, the gloominess of the room is lost when the chandelier, hangs in the centre of the ceiling, suddenly burns brightly. As I take my usual seat, it gives me a clear view of all those who enter. Today, I’m the first customer of the night. The barman comes over to me, and I realise he’s new.
‘What can I get you?’ he asks. His voice is soft, more of a breath than speech. My senses buzz as I meet his eyes. Something in his stance is off, but I smile.
‘A Corpse Reviver, please.’
He smiles a knowing smile and gives a slight nod.
‘Isn’t Tobias working tonight?’ I ask. While straightening my back I drop one hand into the folds of my skirt under the table.
‘No, it’s his night off,’ the barman shakes his head, causing locks of his auburn hair to fall across his eyes. ‘I’m Orion, by the way.’ His young face brightens as he brushes his hair back. It is a nervous gesture. He’s trying to read me as much as I am him.
‘Tobias said you would be in’
I give a gentle nod while tightening my fingers around the stake, hidden in the folds of my skirt. I watch with interest the set of the barman’s back as he walks away. He’s too young, too fresh to be one of the twilight people, I decide.
On his return, Orion places the tray on the table, removes a napkin and one of the two glasses he’s carrying and slides them over to me. As I reach for my drink, the barman seems reluctant to leave. He glances over his shoulder towards the door. The world beyond it is dark, dank and avoid of life.
‘Can I join you?’ he asks, nervousness edging his tone.
‘Of course.’ I sip my drink. It doesn't taste like much, but then I only liked the sound of its name. Food and drink has no taste to me anymore.
‘The thing is…’ Orion says, pulling out a chair and sitting across from me. After looking over his shoulder again, he takes a mouthful of his drink. Suddenly, his eyes narrow. He begins to look a little green. His hand flies to his mouth as he starts coughing.
‘That’ll be the Absinthe. I guess you’re not used to drinking yet.’
‘No…’ he gasps, grabbing a napkin off the tray.
‘Are you alright?’ I ask.
After wiping his mouth, Orion takes a deep breath, his eyes still watering. ‘The reason, I wanted to speak to you…’ He takes a small sip of his drink this time before continuing. ‘Well, I don’t want to be a barman all my life and wondered if you know of any jobs going in your line of work.’
‘And what line of work would that be?’ I say leaning forward on my elbows.
‘Hmm… I’m not sure.’
‘Let me explain what my life is like before you decide.’
At the edge of the woods, in the shade of a massive oak tree, I stand waiting as a cold, full moon rose, bathing everything in a silvery light. Under normal circumstances, stalking among the shadows isn't one of my favourite jobs, but due to my work commitments, I need to hide my presence while still maintaining a clear view of my skulking prey, especially on such nights.
On other nights, I’ve waited in the shadows of more places than I can remember. Time doesn’t mark me like others as I hunt down the half-dead creatures that lurk among the stones surrounding the buildings where those who believe in higher power worship. I’m not one of them. I exist somewhere between this world and the next as a wandering entity.
Every two hundred years, for my reward, I wake from a groggy sleep in a perfume-filled room. After the endless darkness, the sunshine streaming through an arch-shaped window blinds me as I rise from a comfortable bed of white satin sheets. The sweet perfume comes from a luxurious bubble-filled bath waiting for me to soak the dirt and dust from my skin and hair. The sheer pleasure of the sun on my freshly washed skin delights me. I towel myself dry before sitting on a balcony overlooking a garden full of summer flowers, climbing roses, and a cascading fountain. On an ornate metal table, there are succulent fruits, bread, and cheeses covered with a fine cloth of muslin waiting for me to enjoy in the peaceful surroundings. As the sun sinks in the sky, I settle my head again on the comfortable swan-down-filled pillow to allow sleep to rob me of this paradise.
I awake again, dressed once more like a mourning lover, seeking revenge on the one who has forsaken me, in a world of half shadows, ready to pay for my past wrongdoings.
Suddenly, out of the shadows, I see movement. The first on my new hit list is on the move. I must play my part. The one I've refined over the years. At first, I was such an amateur, going straight for the kill. Looking back now, I can't believe the risks I took, not just for myself, but also for the humans under my protection. Though I'm neither dead nor truly alive, mine would be a painful ending if I failed. Being caught between purgatory and here isn't how I wish to spend eternity. Like all beginners, experience has taught me well. I move from my hiding place, making my way slowly between the gravestones, carrying a bunch of fresh flowers someone had recently placed on a grave.
In the late afternoon, I had arrived, by carriage and a team of black horses, in time to join the funeral party leaving the church. I’ve witnessed many such processions over the years. I’m an uninvited guest, suitably dressed for the occasion in my finery of mourning clothes, a long black skirt, black laced petticoats and jacket nipped tight at the waist and boots, with a heavy lace veil covering my face and black silk gloves.
Of course, my weapon of choice is iron-tipped hawthorn stakes, short in length and easy to hide in the folds of my skirt. I have no wish to arouse suspicion for my real reason for joining them. My soul reason was to clean up the aftermath, to restore the harmony between the church and the village, not to prevent deaths.
The prey I’m hunting is already dearly departed. My job is not to predict where and when the resurrection would happen, only to stop the vampires from increasing in numbers.
A whiff of incense and garlic floats towards me as the mourners and pallbearers led, by the priest, make their way between the tombs and mausoleums towards an open grave. The gathering at the graveside is surprisingly large and I felt the dearly departed was a well-loved member of the village.
Many suitors huddled together carrying white roses. Among the mourners are a group of young women. They show no signs of shedding tears for the departed. Their eyes are firmly on the prize, lost now to the inhabitant of the coffin, as they try to make eye contact with the men carrying the white roses.
The weeping, kneeing woman, I guess, is the mother. I wonder whether the tears are for her daughter or the loss of her grandchildren, her protection in her old age. The toughest part for her is what may happen next. The custom of dealing with the undead remains strong in most parts of the country. As the prayers died away, the chanting began as they lowered the coffin.
The gravestone-grey sky splits as the late afternoon sun erupts from behind a dark cloud. The brilliance of its light blinds me even under the heavy veil I wore. I stand my ground, hoping the light will lose its strength. I can not afford to give myself away to either the mourners or my prey.
As the last muttering of the priest fades away, two of the pallbearers jump into the grave. Quickly, one of them lifts the lid of the coffin. From within, snarling sounds rise and mix with the muttering of the mourners.
On hearing the sounds from the coffin, the mother of the departed rushed forward in effort to join her daughter. The father grabs his wife, wrapping his arms around her to still her beating fists against his chest. Her muffled plea for them to spare her daughter’s life floats towards me, but her husband cust her off, begging the priest to end their suffering and to save his child's soul.
The priest raises his hand and begins to chant rhythmically. Each word echoes the thud of a hammer as they drive a stake into the heart of the writhing creature that occupied the body of the girl. With a nod from the priest, the mourners toss handfuls of white rose petals into the grave. As they cascade down onto the creature, it implode, releasing a cloud of dust. Swiftly, the two men drop the coffin lid into place, hammer it home, and leap out to begin back shovelling the dirt. The priest shis bible and bows his head, his work done, and walks away. One by one, the weeping mourners followed him, cursing the darkness.
In the returning stillness of the graveyard, now the mourners are gone, I stand alone, watching over the grave from the shadows. For a while, my only company are the moths and bats, along with an owl or two that call to each other as they swooped among the stones, hunting for small creatures.
Just as I reach the point where even I am beginning to feel the biting cold freezing my limbs, my sixth sense begins to buzz. However, I can't tell whether the sound of my beating heart or his need for blood has enticed him from the shadows to my side.
As the shadows of trees, tombs and gravestones gather around him, his footsteps make no sound, not even marking the frosty ground as he approaches me. With no words of introduction, the vampire lifts the veil away from my face as he runs his dry tongue around his thin blue lips. His white face, with shadowy empty eyes, is undoubtedly handsome for a man who wears death so well.
The pallor vampire arches a brow as I meet his stare. For a moment, I think he recognises something within me. They say vampires read the minds and emotions of humans to the point they can control them, but as I'm not truly human, I have to play along with his seduction.
‘Oh, my dear child, are you waiting for someone special?’ He smiles wolfishly, brushing a cold finger across my cheek and sighed. His breath shows no sign of life, no vapour in the cold air. ‘Could it be me, you’re waiting for?’
I lift my chin to the nightmarish predator and smile sweetly up at him, like a solitary angel about to let the darkness of the night consume her.
‘No, kind sir, my love has forsaken me.’ I lower my head breaking free from the chilliness of his stare, to bend and place the flowers I have been holding on a grave at my feet. I am sure the inhabitants of the weed-covered tomb will appreciate the brightness of the dying flowers.
‘How could a man forsake one so beautiful on such a night as this?’ He holds his hand out to me. ‘Let us dance. Tonight is too beautiful to be alone.’
I take the hand he proffers me. It feels icy to the touch, but then so does mine. He pulls me into his embrace, and we begin to waltz around the stones as the first snowflakes fell. As the wind picks up, the scent of stagnant water and decay fill the night air. While the nocturnal sounds of the night creatures calling to each other mix with the creaking of the winter trees, rustling shrubs and dead undergrowth became the melody of our dance.
As he leads me on, his steps became faster and I find it more difficult to keep in time with him. The snow flies from my skirts, the moon becomes a blur in the night sky, and the stars swirl around my head, making me dizzy. Still, we dance on. His fingers clutch at my flesh as his internal decay catches in my throat. Just as my legs are on the point of crumbling, he whispered in my ear.
‘At last, I’ve met my match.’ His stale breath fill my nostrils as his cold lips caress my neck.
‘You, my dearest one, will be with me forever.' His hands reach for my throat. 'The first bite is as powerful as love, and just as sweet.’
Death lingers in his empty eye. I try not to stare at his bloodless lips while a chilling arm snakes around my waist, leaching what body heat I have. I shiver. The moonlight whitens his fangs as he opens his black mouth before bending to take a bite.
Gently, I’d manoeuvre the stake from the folds in my skirt. ‘You’re wrong.’ I say, ‘Your love is cold, whereas real love is warm and full of passion.’
In his moment of hesitation, I bring the stake up to where once a beating heart resided.
The vampire registers something in my mind. Puzzlement fills his empty eyes. His mouth twitches slightly, but before he can react, my pulse quickens as I drive the stake up under his ribs. I step back as he releases me.
‘No! What have you done?’ he screams, his hands around the stake; his efforts are feeble. He implodes, scattering a fine cloud of dust that the falling snow consumed.
I brush the dust off my clothes and take out my notebook. A quick strike of my pencil, I delete his name from the list. Satisfied, I move to the next on my hit list.
A random thought flickers through my mind. What will become of me once I’ve completed all the tasks?
‘So you don’t know what will happen to you next?’ The barman asks.
‘No. None of us do.’
‘And you only get one day off every two hundred years?’
‘Yes, that’s about it. One day to experience the taste of real food, the warmth of the sun on your skin, after having a hot bath, and a good night's sleep.’
Orion rises, pushes the chair under the table, and asks, ‘Would you like another drink? I’m buying.’
‘So you’re not interested in the job then?
‘No, I’ll stick to being a barman. Much better hours.’
‘Same again, if you don’t mind,’ I say downing the rest of my drink and pushing the glass towards him.
He picks up the tray, damp napkins, and empty glasses and turns away.
Sensible boy, I think just as the door to the Den openes and more night stalkers begin to arrive.
About the author
Paula is married and lives with her husband and two cats in Essex, England. She’s an artist and the author of six books and over a hundred short stories. Check out her blog: https://colourswordspaper.blog/ or just Google her name Paula R C Readman to find out more about her writing.
Did you enjoy the story? Would you like to shout us a coffee? Half of what you pay goes to the writers and half towards supporting the project (web site maintenance, preparing the next Best of book etc.)