I straightened the cuffs on my neatly pressed white shirt and buttoned my overcoat.The shiny brass buttons glinted in the lamplight as I turned the corner onto Laurel Street.
I wiped my face, to make sure no blood lingered on my lips.Id visited my barmaid from Miladies, sating my hunger before my evening out on the town with Callie.
The barmaids blood had tasted sweet, like lilies dipped in honey. The second the warmth had hit my tongue, my senses had become honed and the world had sharpened around the edges.
Now the cicadas shrieked in my ears and the smell of roses assaulted my nose, but my stomach was calm and my veins were sated. I was ready for my date.
The park at the end of the street was filled with magnolias and ancient elm trees, and in the center, a marble fountain was topped with a sculpture of a naked woman. Through the burble of the fountain, I could hear the beating of a human heart.
“Hello?” I called.
“Stefan!” Callie stepped out from behind a stone cherub into the weak light of a gas lamp. Her red hair, a flame in the flickering light, hung loose and curly around her shoulders. She wore a simple, cream-colored dress, with a lace bodice and a flouncy skirt that draped over her tiny hips.
Blood raced through my body.
“What?” Callie said, reddening as she noticed my stare.
“You look, uh, like a girl,” I said. She looked beautiful.
“Gee, thanks.” Callie rolled her eyes and softly slugged my shoulder. “Youre just used to seeing me in work clothes.” She gazed at me. “You look quite handsome.”
I cleared my throat and tugged on my collar. Suddenly my clothes felt uncomfortable and constricting, and the night air stuffy. I wondered briefly if the barmaid had something in her blood that hadnt agreed with me. “Thank you,” I said formally.
“Stefan?” Callie lifted her arm expectantly.
“Oh, of course.” I took her arm in mine. Her freckled hand grazed my palm. I flinched and readjusted so that her hand was resting on the soft fabric of my jacket.
“Where to, Miss Gallagher?”
She looked up at me, a smile on her face. “Bourbon Street, of course.”
Callie guided me through cobblestone side streets, where gardenias dripped from balconies. On a whim, I grabbed one and tucked it behind her ear. Back home in Mystic Falls, it was customary to bring flowers or a small token when visiting with a lady.
“Want to know a secret?” Callie whispered.
“What?” I asked, curious. I was already the bearer of too many secrets. But perhaps Callies could lead me to Damon
She got up on tiptoe and cupped my ear with her hand. The sound of her blood pumping beneath her skin magnified tenfold. I gritted my teeth, forcing my fangs back down. “Your shirt has come untucked,” she whispered.
“Oh,” I said, as I self-consciously smoothed down my shirt. “Thanks.”
Callie let out a gleeful laugh. “You know what I really want to see?” she asked, grabbing my arm.
“What?” I asked, trying to devote all my energy to not listening to the steady thrum of her blood.
“A burlesque show. Madame X has a showeveryone’sbeen talking about,” she said.
We walked together through the town, past bustling crowds and wavering street carts, ending up in a well-kept neighborhood in front of a pristine, stately house. A simple placard next to the door readMADAME Xin black script. Soft lamplight shone from all the windows, and carriages pulled up, one after another, to the front gate, releasing their well-dressed passengers into the depths of the club.
I momentarily panicked. I didnt have any money. And I was wearing a schoolboys clothes that hadnt been in style since the turn of the century.
“Callie, I think ” I began, trying to come up with an alternate idea for our evening when the front door swung open to greet us.
“Good evening. Are you guests of the house?” The mans eyes flicked down my old clothes. I was wildly underdressed for this venue, and I knew it. Callie, however, looked radiant.
“Yes,” Callie jumped in, straightening her shoulders.
“And your names?”
From the way Callies lips flattened, I could tell she hadnt realized there was a guest list. I stepped in front of her, suddenly inspired. “Were the Picards. Remy and his wife, Calliope.”
“One moment, sir.” The man waddled in his slippers over to a podium holding a list that almost certainly did not include Mr. Remy Picards name. He turned a page, then turned it back.
“What are you doing, Stefan?” Callie whispered.
“I have it under control,” I said quietly. “Just smile and look pretty.”
The man returned, looking genuinely distressed.
“Im terribly sorry, sir, but your name is not on our list for tonight.” He glanced around, as if ready to beckon a security guard if we made trouble.
I want you to let us in without asking us any more questions, I thought, channeling all my energy. “Wed really like to come in,” I said aloud, concentrating on looking deep into his eyes, ignoring Callies curious gaze boring into my back. “Are you sure you didnt see our names on the list?”
The mans eyes flickered.
Let us in without looking at the list.
“You know, I believe Imighthave seen your names. In fact, Im sure I did. The Picards! Im sorry. It was my confusion. Right this way,” he said, a slightly vacant expression on his face. He led us through large double doors and into a sumptuous parlor. Low crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and the air smelled of jasmine, magnolia, and freesia.
“Enjoy your stay at Madame Xs. And if I can be of any assistance to either of you, dont hesitate to come fetch me,” the man said, turning on his heel.
“Thank you,” I said.
Callie simply stood there, looking slack-jawed at me. “How did you do that?”
I shrugged. “I just made him doubt himself. He wouldnt want to say no to the Picards, whoever they are. Besides, what if our nameswereon the list, and he said no to us, then we complained to the owner?” Secretly, I was thrilled.
My Power was strengthening.
“So I take it that this isnt your first time sneaking in where you dont belong?”
I glanced at her slyly. “You of all people should know that to be true.”
She laughed, and I gave her an impromptu twirl. People stared at us. Even though a pianist was playing a jaunty tune in the corner, this wasnt a room where people danced. Instead, guests drifted from one conversation to the next as they sucked on cigars and gulped down champagne.
“Do you know anyone here?” I asked as we brushed past couple after couple, all clad in finery.
Callie shrugged, the shadow of a frown crossing her face. She glanced around the room. “They all hate Father. They say hes a Unionist whos taking advantage of New Orleans with his business. And perhaps he is, but at least his show doesnt pretend to be something its not,” she said, jutting her chin.
I shifted in my seat. Wasnt that exactly what I was doing? Pretending to be someone I wasnt? I couldnt look at her, in case she could see the depths of my lies in my eyes.
A server came by with a tray laden with champagne. I grabbed two glasses.
“Cheers,” I said, handing one to Callie.
As we sipped the bubbling liquid, conversations swirled around us, growing louder and more boisterous with every tray of drinks the waiters brought out to serve. Mens movements grew more languid, women laughed more readily.
“Is your father ready for the next show?” I asked, forcing a conversational note to my voice.
“I suppose so.”
“Who will the vampire be fighting?”
“I dont know,” Callie said. “A crocodile, or maybe a tiger. It depends on what Father can get on such short notice. Why?”
I shrugged noncommittally. “I want to place a bet.”
“Father wants something cheap. Hes worried people wont pony up as much money for another animal fight. It seems the monsters much stronger than a beast.”
“Oh,” I said, trying to process the information.
“But lets not talk about work. Tonight is supposed to be fun! Lord knows we dont have enough of it in our real lives.” Callies voice grew melancholy. “Speaking of fun,” she said, pointing to a small crowd moving through a set of double doors at the back of the club, “I think the burlesque show is back there.”
“Shall we?” I asked, offering my arm.
The back room, much smaller than the first one, had numerous wooden tables crammed onto the floor. A stage was set up at the front of the room, and the space was dimly lit by candles. Instead of joining the crush toward the front, Callie and I sat back on a low-slung, red velvet bench beneath a large mirror in the back of the room.
As soon as everyone settled into seats, a master of ceremonies took to the stage. I was surprised to see that he was a man wearing a dinner suit and cape. Id imagined a burlesque show to be louder, larger than this, with plenty of music and scantily clad women.
“Good evening! As weve all heard, we have a vampire in our midst,” he said dramatically.
Audience members tittered nervously. I glanced at Callie out of the corner of my eye. Was this some sort of trap? Did she know what I was? But Callie was leaning forward, as if mesmerized by the mans words.
The master of ceremonies smiled, drinking in the suspense. “Yes, a vampire. Down at that two-bit circus by the lake.”
Jeers filled the room. Callie hadnt been exaggerating when shed said her father was infamous in this town. I turned to look at her. Although her cheeks were as red as her hair, she gazed straight ahead, her elbows on her knees.
“And eyewitnesses say Gallagher had to chain his up so it wont run away. But, here at Madame Xs, our vampire has come to visit all on his own.”
“We can go if you want,” I whispered.
But Callie shook her head and clasped my hand. It felt warm against my cool skin, but this time I didnt push her away. “No, I want to stay.”
A thin man walked onstage, clad in a black cape. His face was powdered, and thin lines of fake blood were drawn from the corners of his lips. He smiled at the crowd, revealing fake fangs. I shifted in my seat. “I am a vampire, and you all are my prey! Come to me, my pretties!” he cackled, in an exaggerated voice that made me squirm. The “vampire” stalked around the stage, his teeth bared and his eyes scanning the audience. A woman in a pearl-embroidered gown stood up from a table in the front and walked toward the stage as if in a trance, emitting a low moan with each step.
“The vampire has special eyes that can see through clothing. And this vampire, ladies and gentlemen, likes what he sees!” The master of ceremonies leered at the audience.
At this, the audience applauded enthusiastically.
I glanced at Callie again. Had she known this was a show about vampires?
“But, now, the vampire has his hunger awakened. And what hell do to feed the hunger, you wont believe,” the master of ceremonies said as the vampire onstage waved his hands toward the woman, as if conducting an orchestra. As he did that, a trumpet player began playing a slow, mournful tune. The woman began to move her hips, slowly at first, and then more and more quickly until she looked as though she would topple over.
“Maybe Father should give our vampire dance lessons,” Callie whispered, her breath hot on my cheek.
Then, suddenly, the vampire stopped waving his arms. The music stopped, and so did the woman. The vampire lurched toward her, took hold of the sleeve of her dress, and tore it off, exposing her milky-white arm.
“Do you feel wicked tonight?” the vampire called to the audience, waggling the fabric toward the crowd. Then he tore off the other sleeve.
My stomach turned.
“I ask you, do you feel wicked tonight?” he called again, tossing the fabric into the audience.
The crowd cheered as the dancer continued her gyrations, rubbing her back against the “vampire.” Slowly, she peeled away her clothing, item by item, sending a silk stocking or a slip into the audience until most of her body was on display.
As the music picked up speed, she got closer to becoming entirely nude. At last, she sat in a chair on the stage as the master of ceremonies pulled off the last bit of her top, forcing her to cover herself with her hands.
“As he is a beast from hell, the only way to stop a vampire is with a stake to the heart. But they can also be kept away with a crucifix “
At this, the dancer pantomimed a futile search for pockets that might contain a stake or crucifix.
I slumped in my chair, thinking of my own attacks. Of Alice, of Lavinia, of the nurse whose name Id never known. There was nothing beautiful or romantic about those attacks. They were quick, bloody, deadly. Id ended their lives without a second thought, with swift violence and a thirst for more.
“Are you okay?” Callie asked.
For the first time, I realized how tightly Id been clutching her hand. I loosened my grip, and instantly she snuggled closer to me in my seat. Her blood pumped like sweet music through her body, and the warmth of her body soothed my anger. I relaxed into her, taking in the softness of her voice as she laughed at the play. Callie was warm and soft and so veryalive. I wanted this moment to freeze, to last into eternity, with nothing but me and Callie and her beating heart. There was nothing else I needed in that moment, not blood, not power, not D–
My body tensed and I sat straight up. What was I doing? Had I forgotten my brother, what I had done to him, so quickly?
I stood up.
“Down in front!” a voice barked a few rows behind me.
“I-Im sorry. I have to go,” I said, stumbling toward the door.
“Stefan, wait!” she called.
But I kept going until I was on the street, running from the late-night bustle all the way to the riverbank. As I stared down at my reflection in the swirling water, Percys words echoed in my head: “Youll either want to kill her or kiss her, and neither scenario will end well for you.”
He was right. Because while I truly didnt know whether I wanted to kiss or bite Callie, I knew I wantedher.