The air was heavy and dry. As a custom, I hate the summer; the long days make me sluggish and irritable, but it released hordes of fresh, pliable bodies into the night that were often flushed with the delirium of sunshine. Wintertime bodies are always cold: closeted behind cloaks and scarves which are harder to manoeuvre, and they are hasty and distant, desperate to escape the frost. I prefer vulnerability and openness, and there is something unsettlingly detached from winter that makes me depressed. That human instinct of love and desire, the need for companionship, is not on display during the winter, and the blood is numb and dull.
I waited in the dry air for my hearing to return first, and the sound of crispy leaves, forgotten vestiges of the previous autumn, scuttled beside my head like scarab beetles. Afterwards I felt the crumbling earth. I scratched at it with my fingers, then crunched it in a fist. I could feel the breeze dance across my scalp, and at last I sat up, lazily. Above me I saw the full moon and groaned inwardly: werewolves would be out today as well. Tasha’a face flooded my mind and I clutched my stomach instinctively. That beautiful beast, with her pitch-black eyes and auburn pelt, cascading down her back like lava, and that clear brown skin of hers. Tasha was a devastating being, and it was my mission to avoid her at all costs. I begrudgingly extracted myself from the makeshift grave, shook the dirt from my clothes, and inhaled the night air.
“Took you long enough.”
“Stop creeping up on me,” I said.
Gerald was behind me, in his typical Tuareg attire, face obscured save a pair of dark, penetrating eyes.
I held my dreadlocks aloft, shook out the remaining dirt, and began walking purposefully towards the cemetery gates. Although most people of my kind resided in our subterranean city, The Cave, away from the prying eyes of humans unaware of our existence, I slept in the cemetery of Southwark Cathedral. I had died there almost a century ago, and always had fond memories of the place. My mysterious companion lived in the Sahara Desert with the rest of his people, the Grim clan, the originators of the Grim Reaper myth, and who all had the ability to kill people with a simple touch of their palms. Gerald was the overseer for all deaths in London, so he was a staple of the city for people like me, as synonymous with London as the Shard or Big Ben.
“Anyway, I got a big job tonight,” Gerald said, coming into step with me. We were walking towards Tower Bridge, swiftly passing through crowds of late-night tourists and drunken city men. We were invisible to them; my totally black eyes did nothing to phase their carelessness, and Gerald’s outfit was just a shadow in the dark.
“Oh yeah?” I said, my eyes scanning the crowds for food.
“Yeah, looks like an odd little party’s going near here, on a boat. Diplomats dinner. Some people are about to get poisoned.”
I stopped abruptly.
“Really now?” I said, “let me see.”
Gerald rummaged in his reams of fabric before withdrawing a scroll of parchment. He unravelled it and presented the names to me.
“Oh wow,” I said, “this is mad!”
“You’re a morbid vampire,” he said.
There was no real reason for our union; we both just spotted each other one night when I was feeding off a group in Soho. I saw him walk past a man, and then the man crumpled to the floor clutching his chest, and I knew he was dead because I could no longer hear his heartbeat. No one else would have been able to detect him, but my eyes were keen, and I distinctively saw a skeletal hand touch the man before he met his fate. That’s when I realised I had just witnessed a real-life member of the Grim clan, shadows of legend, and started following him. I was still bruised from the breakup with Tasha, so this reaper had been a welcome distraction. Since that night, he let me follow along and watch as he did his night shift, and we would hang out, and chat about our weird world of witches and vampires and mages and wraiths and warlocks, all existing beneath our feet and hidden by the Concealment Act, our pact with the royal family and the mayor of London.
“Is that the place?” I said, nodding to the boat. The Floating Restaurant, with its lanterns and fairy lights, bobbing atop of the dark waters of the Thames, was eerily quiet for a party. We watched it silently, observed the shadows of important men flitting past the windows, hover by the bar, and peer over the railings on the top deck.
“That’s it,” said Gerald, “in two minutes, five of ‘em will be dead.”
We both walked down the dock and crossed the footbridge, with Tower Bridge watching us from above, and the noise and chatter of the City Hall concourse growing steadily quieter. At the main entrance we disappeared. Gerald de-materialised and I used super speed to scale the boat and enter one of the top windows, leading to the cloakroom. I positioned myself beside the clear glass door, an advantageous point that kept me hidden and also gave me a birds’ eye view of the party. The catalyst was insignificant: all dignitaries in attendance rose their glasses to the ceiling, took hearty swigs of poison-laced champagne, and then came Gerald, a flicker of a black shadow to the un-trained eye, but I followed him closely with excitement. He had taken off his black leather gloves, revealing the two skeletal hands, without skin, ligaments and muscle, and swept the room in a whirlwind. His eyes glowed scarlet as he worked, and then five times, almost at random, did he touch one of the diplomats with his bony palm. A look of shock overcame their features, before the lights in their eyes died, and they fell to the floor unceremoniously. It happened in an instant.
I escaped the boat just as the screams started, and security guards rushed to the doors, barring the exit to perpetrators. Gerald was outside on the other end of the footbridge. His face was a mask of stern concentration as he carefully crossed the names on his scroll. I knew better than to disturb him; as one of the elders of his tribe and a member of the main family, he was an heir to the top twelve chieftains of the Grim tribe, and as such he took his job seriously. I waited for him to finish writing his closing notes, and did not suggest getting anything to eat until he had tucked everything safely away.
“You’re still in the killing mode, bro,” I said, noting that his eyes were scarlet.
“I am,” he said. His hands were still exposed. “I can feel it; there’s gonna be another death request soon; it’s put me on edge a bit.”
That he was staring at my chest was not lost on me. Gerald knew about a vampire’s weakness: although a member of the undead, there was a piece of our heart, deeply embedded in the aorta, which was still alive, plump with red blood. It was what kept us animated, and was also the only way to kill us for good. I could see a mischievous glimmer in Gerald’s eyes, and he touched a tentative finger to my chest, tracing the outline of my heart tauntingly.
“What? Am I gonna die now?” I said.
“Maybe,” he said, with a smile in his voice, “not by me though; someone’s coming.”
Neither of us had a chance to react. Something detached itself from the shadows beneath the footbridge, and was crouched over Gerald in an instant, locking his arm behind his back in a threatening manoeuvre.
“You’re in more danger than I am,” said Gerald, “I suggest you get off, you’re awfully close to my hands, miss.”
The figure leapt backwards and was on her feet, regarding us warily. And then I understood what Gerald meant a moment before; he had no intentions of killing me, but Tasha did. Her face contorted into something ugly when she saw me. Because of the full moon, she had transformed, and I was confronted with that ethereal beauty that had captivated me three years ago. Her ruddy pelt framed her face like a lion’s mane, and fell down her back in glossy waves. The heart-shape of her face, coupled with its even hue, was chocolate-box perfect. Long talons protruded from her hands, and a lethal set of canines jutted from her mouth. She only wore combat boots, army shorts and a t-shirt, but her left breast was christened with a silver shield badge, her Cave Police identification.
“What are you doing here?” she said to me.
“Just chilling with my friend,” I said, gesturing at Gerald, who was back on his feet.
“Hey,” said Gerald, waving his bony hand at her.
“Identify yourself,” said Tasha, “your attire is awfully suspicious.”
Gerald shrugged before unravelling his intricately knotted headdress. There was a pleasant face beneath it; blue-black skin, high cheekbones that made his eyes crescent shaped, and a neatly short-back-and-sides fade was completed by a tightly coiled hightop of reddish-brown curls. Tasha’s pitch-black eyes widened. She looked at his hands again.
“I see,” she said, “Gerald Reaper, from the Grim tribe. My apologies. Pleased to meet you.”
“Pleasure,” he said, “you’ll be happy to know I see no death for you in the near future.”
“Charmed,” she said.
“See?” I said, “we’re just chilling. What are you doing?”
She shook her head vigorously, as if trying to dispel my presence, and began walking in the direction of where we had come. We followed, just as she began fiddling with her vape pen.
“I was staking out that restaurant,” she said, her head obscured by a candyfloss cloud, “it looks like Russia’s been using some witches to get rid of their enemies, so obviously, the mayor of London asked us to investigate. It’s our problem apparently.”
“And who told him that?” said Gerald, sheathing his hands in the leather gloves, “this second Cold War nonsense is a human issue, so what if a few witches wanna get some shillings off it, can’t blame them, can you?”
“Yes, well, try telling him that,” said Tasha, “he’s got the Queen on his back, and he needs to look like he’s doing something, so he takes it out on us. He even threatened our mayor, said that if witches are involved it’s up to him to do something about it. It must be hard on him, it’s not like he can ask the Met to just dust off their witch-hunting gear and get to it.”
I was barely listening. Human affairs meant nothing to me. But Tasha: having her so close, encasing herself in that tantalising scent, was driving me crazy.
“I’m starving,” I said loudly. “I’m gonna go feed.”
“Was wondering what was taking you so long,” said Gerald.
“There’s none of my group around here, you know I’m a rare one,” I said sullenly.
Another quirk of us vampires is our Disposition: our bodies only really take to one particular blood group, and we can get sick if we drink too much from a type that’s unaligned with our personal Disposition. As kids, or newly made vampires, we all have to drink from blood banks that contain a diluted solution of all blood groups until we discover our true Disposition at a later time. For born-vampires, this time is sixteen years old, for people like me, who was made a vampire upon death, it takes a year. Unfortunately, my Disposition also happened to be the same blood group I had when still a human, the unreasonably rare AB negative, and the reason for my demise. It often inconvenienced my hunting, and I could spend several hours in the night searching for food.
“Well, we’ll find something for you first,” said Gerald, “and then afterwards I’d like to hit Tinseltown; could do with a burger. Police-lady, would you like to come—”
He faltered after seeing my expression and turned away, opting to fiddle with his headdress instead.
“Nevermind,” I heard him mumble, his face hidden beneath his scarf again.
“I have somewhere I need to be anyway,” said Tasha, “Mr Reaper—”
“—please, Gerald is fine.”
“Okay, Gerald, thank you. Let me know if you see anything suspicious, even if you see any other big names on that scroll of yours; oh I know how you Reapers operate, I know how it works” she said to his quizzical demeanour, “I’m sure you could help us, let us know who else is up to get killed. It might give us some leads, give us a location on those witches.”
“You do know that once it’s on my list, nothing can be done,” said Gerald, “I don’t want you police folk meddling with nature.”
“Of course I understand,” said Tasha quickly. She also noticed that Gerald’s eyes flashed scarlet. “I’m just saying, it’ll help us preempt the killers, predict their next moves. I mean, obviously witches are easy to spot—they’re green, after all, but they have enough tricks to conceal themselves, making them very slippery. Cunning foes.”
“Mmhmm,” said Gerald. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Okay, thank you.”
She gave a curt nod, and left. I watched as she crouched low, and then darted away from us in a flash, her mane flapping in the wind created by her own velocity. She was gone in a puff of sweet, strawberry mist. I felt sick.
“Brutal,” said Gerald, “man, if you drank I would’ve taken you to the little warlock pub I know in Docklands, treated you to a few rounds.”
“Thanks man,” I said. I was about to say more, but I caught it; that distinct aroma of a nubile, pulsating meal. “Dinner,” I said.
“There’s that smile,” said Gerald, “good, good.” He fastened his robes and steadied himself.
I took off, dashing forward with super speed towards my meal, and Gerald flitted behind, riding my slipstream. I knew what the rest of the evening entailed; Gerald was going to put on his best consoling face whilst stuffing himself with burgers, and I would be moaning and wailing about Tasha. And she would be off doing her own thing, getting on with her life, and not caring that she had broken one of the hardest, most steel-hearted vampires around.