And now for anyone who's interested in my fiddling...
Della Kelly hated prowling through these despicable areas of town, listening for any clues that might lead her to the Hiera Sacra's most ancient enemy, the vampire. Vampires in Los Angeles was a terrible cliché, overused in every conceivable form of sensationalistic horror fiction, but it was no doubt true that more reports of actual vampires came out of the Southern California area than any other place in North America except for New York City and Charleston. Old vampires choose to prowl old cities; the young, just like the humans they resembled, came to the eternal youth of Los Angeles.
Della hated it. She wanted to be in London, on a case that mattered, trailing after the despised Ashoka, one of the ancients. Perhaps closing in on the feared Erlind. But most of all, she wanted to be following the path of hated Amanda, the worst of all of them, the vampire ancient who had killed her father's first wife. She didn't want to be trolling through hideous, dank American bars hoping to eliminate a few mostly helpless fledgings, turned themselves by fledglings, who had no power to speak of and generally were as easy to eliminate as cockroaches. Many of the very young vampires, turned by those equally as inexperienced as they, couldn't even hypnotize their victims, not even so much as charm. They were pathetic, and Della felt she had been classed as pathetic, as well, being given this assignment.
It wasn't as though the Kelley family were newcomers to the Hiera Sacra. For over a hundred years the Kelleys and the Devines had been a part of the Organization, giving life's blood, often literally, to the cause, the extermination of vampires. Della's parents had been operatives, same as their parents before them.
She sighed and leaned on the table, listening without appearing to listen to the conversations taking place around her. A thick-necked young man was sitting nearby trying to get someone to listen to him, his babbling barely discernable through the buzz of voices around him, but suddenly something he said made her turn and look at him. "I tell ya, I shot him. I shot him and he got right back up. I shot him and he got right back up."
Della took her drink and the bag that held her laptop and shifted tables. "Tell me about it," she said, giving him a winning smile which he barely noticed as he clung with both hands to the beer glass in front of him. He was probably in his late teens or early twenties, with the shabby dress and dirty appearance of a street person, although he was clean-shaven, and his clothes may have been good ones, once. His eyes were the glazed bloodshot of a drug addict. Still, every lead had to be checked. "You shot someone?"
"I told him to gimme his wallet," the boy slurred. "I told him and he wouldn't do it. Son of a bitch was wearin' diamonds all over his suit, couldn't pony up a wallet, few bucks. I didn't mean to shoot him but the gun went off. I got him, I know I did, I got him clean. Knocked him right over, there was blood everywhere."
Della glanced around. No one was listening, or appeared to be. If this guy wasn't crazy, he should probably be locked up. She considered the mace in her bag, but the boy didn't appear to be as dangerous as he sounded.
"I went to get his loot and he grabbed me. Dead guy just grabbed me," and he held out his wrist. Della's eyes widened. The boy's thick wrist was ringed with mottled bruises, the clear marking of a hand which had closed around it with crushing force. "He yelled at me. He was dead and he yelled at me. Took my piece. Then they gave me this." He put a hundred dollar bill on the table. "Don't understand." He bent his head over the beer again.
"Where did this happen?" she asked.
"Don't know. Was in Burbank," he muttered. "Thought just rich folks, them rich rednecks, be easy, get a few bucks. Crazy dead man. Didn't call the cops. Crazy 'cause a dead man grabbed me."
He was doing nothing but mumbling, now, and Della strained to listen. "Did he do anything else?" she asked carefully. The boy's head fell forward onto the table. He shook it, though, indicating he wasn't passed out.
"Gave me money," he slurred. "Dead man got up made them give me money." His words trailed off, and after a moment, he started to snore heavily. Della sighed. The phrase "rich rednecks" and the improbable description of "diamonds" on his clothes probably meant it was one of those country bars which dotted the Los Angeles landscape, the sort of bars which were second only to biker bars in being the ones she avoided. Suppose it wasn't a vampire, suppose this fellow was just high or drunk or both, and had dreamed the whole incident? Della let out a long breath. She had to risk making the trip in case there was a vampire lairing there. Any potential evil must be checked on and eliminated. That was the mission of the Hiera Sacra.
Catching a cab by chance was almost impossible. She got the phone number from the bartender and called for one, asking prices from Hollywood to Burbank. It was costs like this that her expense account was for. She looked up the names of country bars on the web while she waited for the cab and narrowed her search down to three. She'd have to check them all, but decided the first would be the biggest.
A little over an hour later, her cab pulled up in front of a large nightclub with a vibrant blue neon horse over the sign proclaiming it "The Nightmare." As neon signs went, it was somewhat understated and didn't blink or move or do anything flashy. Beneath it wide doors lay open to a well-lit front area where she could see a box office and dozens of people in cowboy hats and boots milling around. The windows to either side of the door were filled with more neon, proclaiming Budweiser and Coors and "Live -- Real Country Music" in multiple colors and hues.
Della glanced at her plain shirt and jeans, light leather jacket and heavy leather laptop case. Ordinarily, she wouldn't stand out at all, which was why she chose such nondescript clothes; but here, it looked more like to blend with the crowd meant to wear shirts in amazing colors and patterns and fringe. Everyone was wearing boots, and many had hats. Her simple ponytail seemed extremely bizarre around woman with hair teased seemingly to the ceiling.
"Howdy, ma'am," said the movie-star-handsome man sitting in the box office as she walked up. He was probably one of those wanna-be actors, working here between auditions. He had dark-tanned skin and what looked like bleached-blonde hair. His brown eyes twinkled cheerfully at her as he spoke in his strange Western drawl. “Cover’s twenty-five.”
“That much?”she asked, startled.
“You’re not here for the show? Cover goes up when it’s a big name,” he gestured to the poster in the corner of the office window, displaying a stark, lean face mostly covered by the wide brim of a cowboy hat with a bizarre name emblazoned under it.
“No, just coming in for some music and a drink,” she said, feeling somewhat embarrassed that she didn’t know who this “big name” was. “I’m new in town.”
“Well, you’re welcome to the Nightmare,” he said, taking her money. “Can I see your ID, ma’am?”
She paused a moment. She’d been trolling bars in Los Angeles for weeks now and this was the first place to ask. He gave her a sharp look and she immediately handed over her English driver’s license. “I don’t have a local one yet, but I have my passport,” she said.
The handsome man smiled as he glanced at the date. “That’ll do, ma’am. You’re of age.” He handed back her license and strapped a blue wristband around her wrist. “This’ll allow you to buy likker.” He winked and she passed by him into the dim light of the bar.
It was a cavernous place, almost as large inside as it was outside, with a bar lining the entire left side of the huge room. Della let her eyes adjust to the darkness inside as she took in the large dance floor in the center, with tables and an auxiliary bar on the right. The stage was straight ahead, where a flock of young women were clustered, although there was no one yet performing. Loud country music was playing over the speakers from a jukebox that flashed with color and light. Over the dance floor swirled, instead of a mirrored ball, a mirror-spangled saddle. Spotlights focused on it sent tiny prisms of color everywhere. There were couples on the floor swinging to the tune, their movements graceful and attractive. It was nice to see couples actually dancing, rather than just gyrating.
The bar was packed with people. Della made her way through the crowd to a place close to the middle. Glasses and bottles of every color and description lined the walls behind the bar, but unlike most of the other bars she’d been to, there was no mirror hanging there.
“What can I get for you?” asked the bartender in a voice pitched loud enough to hear over the music.
“Amaretto on the rocks,” she replied, and though she hadn’t heard her own voice, the bartender turned immediately and reached for the Disaranno. “I’ll start a tab,” she added, and he nodded as he placed her drink in front of her. Della took her drink and looked around the bar again. Neon signs everywhere cast a glow into far corners and onto unlit tabletops, especially the gigantic red, white, and blue state of Texas that dominated the far wall.
It occurred to her that her vampire might no longer be around. After all, if he’d been shot with a gun he’d have needed to change his bloodstained and torn clothes. Still, where there was one vampire, there were often others, and she ran her fingers over the leather of her laptop case, where she also carried wooden stakes, a small bottle of holy water, and her cross. All the tools of the trade. This place was larger and more crowded than anyplace she’d ever found a vampire in before, though. Maybe she should have started smaller.
The jukebox song ended and someone turned it off. The corner it stood in went dark as the lights shifted and a tall, thin man in a spangled white jacket came onto the stage. The spotlights turned him into as much of a mirrored ball as the saddle that rotated overhead. "Howdy folks, and welcome to The Nightmare!" he said, wincing slightly as feedback echoed through the room at his first words before the mic levels were adjusted properly. The girls at the base of the stage screamed. "My name's Sean Patrick O'Connor, and this here's my bar. I'm glad to have y'all with us here. I know, I know, y'all are waitin' on Dwight, and he'll be up here in just two shakes. In the meantime, I'm gonna play and sing you a few songs, get you all warmed up. Wanna hear some country music?"
"YES!" shouted most of the audience, their roar deafening. Della glanced around at the crowd, feeling their energy. They all seemed very much alive.
But that name. Sean Patrick O'Connor. Something about it teased the back of her mind and she flexed one hand on her laptop as she watched the man on the stage sing. Sean Patrick. Could it be? The long-lost missing vampire, who had simply dropped out of sight of the Hiera Sacra in the early 30's?
He started to sing and play the guitar, swinging the tempo so it was nearly impossible to sit still. To her surprise, he was actually pretty good. Well, really good, especially provided one liked this kind of music, as apparently the entire audience did. He was too far away for her to really see clearly, but he looked young. Very young, particularly if he really was the owner of this bar. Perhaps even eternally so. He certainly was wearing "diamonds" on his clothes. Della moved a few stools closer to the stage, watching his performance carefully. Nothing about him particularly said "vampire" to her, except maybe his too-fluid movements. Vampires enjoying the spotlight was considered the stuff of fiction. Real vampires liked to maintain their anonymity. They also changed their names regularly, to keep that status. She leaned back against the bar and sipped her drink.
It couldn't be, simply could not be THE Sean Patrick.
"Hey, there, pretty lady. Care to dance?" Yet another tall, thin cowboy had materialized out of the mass of people and was smiling down at her. Most of the men in the bar tended to fall into two body types, either long and lanky or big and thick-set; this was one of the former, with a well-tended large moustache and a black hat with a knotted braid band.
Della opened her mouth and closed it, then gestured to her laptop case. "I don't have anyplace to put this!" she shouted back.
"Oh, I'll hold it for you," said a pretty blonde girl seated on the stool next to Della. "There's lockers, too."
Della clutched the bag a moment, feeling trapped. She couldn't let anyone see the contents of her bag, but at the moment, it was zipped shut. "C'mon," said the cowboy in front of her, grinning. He offered his hand and, after another hesitant moment, Della handed her bag to the blonde girl and followed him onto the floor.
"I've never danced these kinds of dances before," she said.
"Don't worry, sugar, just follow my lead," he answered, and spun her into a surprisingly simple dance which looked far more complex than it was. It reminded her of the country dances in Ireland they'd gone to when she'd been a child. When the song ended, the cowboy twirled her back to her seat. "Thanks, ma'am," he said, tapping the brim of his hat before going on to find his next partner.
Gasping a little, Della smiled at the blonde girl as she took back her bag. "Thank you. You said there were lockers?"
"Yeah, come on," the blonde hopped off the stool and lead the way around the dance floor to the other side of the bar, through the tables and past the auxiliary bar to where a red neon sign proclaimed "Rest Stops" over a swinging door. Once past the door, the noise level dropped significantly. "Back through here." The blonde walked them past the doors for "cowboys" and "cowgirls" and around a corner where there was a good-sized room filled with small lockers. Many of them were in use, their little crystal-blue keys missing. As Della selected an empty locker, she realized she'd noticed these little keys dangling from the wrists of a number of women on the floor.
"That explains the matching accessories out there," she said, taking the key and slinging it around her wrist.
"Yep. I'm Cody," said the blonde, holding out a hand. Della shook it, returning her infectious smile.
"You come here often?"
"I've been once or twice, but I just got hired, so I'll be working starting tomorrow," replied Cody. "I just got the grand tour from Matt, so now I know where everything is."
"You've been hired here?" asked Della. There was no doubt this woman was human, her suntanned skin and rosy cheeks testament to her being alive. And who was Matt? She hadn't examined the bartenders closely.
"Yep. I'm kinda excited about it, the Nightmare gets all the best country singers, you know, the real ones. Last time I came here was when Hank III played."
"Ah," said Della noncommittally. She didn't know who Hank III was, either, any more than the fellow on the poster who called for a twenty-five dollar cover charge. "I'm Della Kelly," she said, brightly, remembering her manners.
"Great to meetcha," replied Cody. "Come on, I want to hear the rest of the set." Della followed her back into the din of the main room, her eyes immediately going to the stage.
Sean Patrick O'Connor. Turned by Amanda in the early 1880's, if she remembered correctly. Traveled with Amanda until the early 1930's, when he encountered Hiera Sacra operatives on his own and escaped from them in London. That part of the story Della knew very well. She tightened her jaw and almost turned back to get her laptop out, so she could check the files and find a picture.
On the stage, Sean Patrick O'Connor spoke, "All right, that's about it for me. Before I go I'll do one more song, then make the way clear. How about that?" Cheers. "Then let's all stay a little longer." Even more cheers as one of the musicians started up a raucous fiddle tune. Beside her, Cody bounced a little.
"Oh, I love this song! Come on, let's find dance partners." Cody grabbed a nearby thick-set fellow who was tapping his toe in time to the music and he happily followed her to the dance floor.
Della, not quite as outgoing, wandered to the split-rail fence which separated the dance floor from the rest of the bar and leaned on it. For a moment, she watched the dancers, then her eyes traveled back to Sean Patrick O'Connor. The melody was certainly infectious. She found herself tapping her toe to the beat as he asked the whole audience to "stay all night, stay a little longer." When he finished the song with a flourish, he handed his guitar to one of the stage hands and hopped lightly off the stage, worming his way through the women gathered around. When the applause died down, there was a moment or two of startling quiet before someone started up the jukebox again.
Della went back to the bar and her stool, where her drink had been cleared away. She ordered another and watched as Sean Patrick O'Connor shook hands, chatted with people, and even paused to take pictures with them.
He made his way to the bar and tapped it a couple times. One of the bartenders glanced over his shoulder, saw him, and filled a highball glass with ice, then poured a significant amount of Jack Daniels over. She saw Sean Patrick say "Thanks" and he continued on, greeting people as he came. His brown eyes met hers for a moment, and he smiled.
Della was taken aback. She liked his smile. It was surprisingly warm and friendly, and suddenly she hoped she was wrong, and he wasn't that vampire at all. Still, she watched him warily as he came toward her.
"There you are," said Cody, appearing at her elbow. Then Sean Patrick was right next to them, still smiling that engaging smile. "Hi!"
"Howdy. Enjoying yourself?" he asked.
"You bet! Thanks again," she replied, grinning up at him. He set down his drink to grip her hand in both of his a moment.
"And you are?" Sean Patrick turned his attention to Della, who felt the effect of his personal charisma like a slap. But she took his proffered hand and knew at once he was the vampire.
Despite the exertion, the hot lights of the stage, the crowd, and his heavy coat, he wasn't perspiring. His hand wasn't cold, but it didn’t have the same feel as the hands of living people. She’d never shaken hands with a vampire before. It made the skin on her neck crawl.
"Della Kelley," she said, pitching her voice too low for any normal person in the bar to hear. Most people would have asked her to repeat themselves. He didn't. Instead, he smiled again, and his brown eyes flicked over her face, taking in her features.
"Nice to meet you, Miss Kelley," he said. "How 'bout you? Havin' a good time?"
"Very much," she replied, wishing for her bag. Not that she could eliminate him here, in front of all these people. And how many of the employees were his minions, even fledglings? Best to keep him engaged, learn his patterns. If she remembered her files accurately, no one had any reliable information on this vampire that dated past 1932, provided he was the one and only Sean Patrick, which she was still uncertain of.
"I don't think I've seen you here before," he said, leaning one elbow on the bar and picking up his drink again. He stood close, bending slightly, in that intimate way that comes second nature to the denizens of loud music-filled bars. He was taller than she'd expected him to be, long and lean and even younger up close than he’d looked from a distance. His eyes were mesmerizing, and she had to force herself to stop looking at them lest he attempt to hypnotize her. His skin wasn’t as pale as most vampires, a warm café au lait color, but certainly these days there were such things as spray-on tans.
“I’m new to town,” she answered, running a finger around the rim of her glass as she smiled as warmly at him as she could. “I just stopped in for a drink.”
“So you’re not here for the concert?” he asked, jerking a thumb to the stage, where roadies were hurriedly setting up a chair, a music stand, and bringing out instruments, including an acoustic guitar and a stand-up bass.
“No. I didn’t even know someone was going to be playing tonight.”
“This is the place in Los Angeles for live country music,” he said. “As many of the real ones as we can book, and once in a while a big name. Even had Merle play here once.”
Whoever that was. “It’s a very nice bar.”
“Thanks. You’re from England, right?”
“Yes. I was born in Ireland, but I grew up in London.”
“Got Irish blood m’self,” he said. “My daddy’s family came from the Auld Sod.” He grinned, spinning the ice and whiskey around in his glass.
“That explains your name.”
"Irish as they come," he said with a nod.
"You don't look Irish," she commented.
He laughed. "Mama was a half-breed Apache," he said, and gestured to the nearest bartender. "Carlos, another round for me and the lady."
"You got it, boss." The bartender glanced at her and her glass and brought a brand-new amaretto, garnished with a cherry, and refilled Sean Patrick's glass.
"Can I show you around the place?" Sean Patrick asked, sipping his drink.
Della considered him for a moment. Surely he wasn’t just trying to pick her up. He was far better looking than she’d expected, or wanted. Still, she answered, "I'd like that."
The crowd at the base of the stage started to scream in earnest as the music and lights changed again, and yet another long, thin cowboy appeared on the spotlight, apparently the object of the crowd's affection. He picked up his guitar and slung it on like a belt, not moving the hat that shaded his face completely. Sean Patrick paused and watched as the first song started, then took her arm and guided her once more across the room to the swinging doors.
"He just doesn't sound the same without Pete," he said, shaking his head. Della decided not to ask, even though she didn't know what he was talking about. "Sure you don't want to see the show? He always does a great one."
"Well," she said, looking back at the stage. The high, nasal voice wasn't unpleasant, but it wasn't exactly Pavarotti, either. "I would like to see the rest of the place. I didn't actually come in for a concert. And it looks like closer is the best place to be," she gestured to the crowd packed tight to the stage.
"Never did understand that, but I guess he's got the gals eating out of the palm of his hand. All righty." He took her elbow with the possessive manner of men from a time gone past. Della didn't shake him off. It occurred to her she had to be on her guard, because getting him alone could be dangerous if she didn't. Still, many people had seen her walk back here with him. And she was prepared if he tried to turn on her. "You've seen most the main room, and that’s really the showplace," he said, as they passed through the swinging doors and the sound was once again muted. "And I see you've been to the lockers," he gave her arm a little shake to make the locker key dance, "but that isn't all there is. Back here," he turned them to the left, "we've got game rooms," another pair of swinging doors led into a large billiards room, with several pool tables dominating the center of the room and what looked like a window into the main area, but it was perfectly silent. She watched the lights on the stage highlighting the movements of the singer, and the response of the audience.
"It’s soundproofed?" she asked, intrigued despite herself.
"Yep. Private parties can get in here and play their own music," he gestured to the jukebox in the corner, lined up with a half-dozen video games both "classic" and new, "Or they can turn on the speakers from the stage and watch the show from in here." He reached up and flicked a switch, and the room was filled with music. "Usually there's always someone in here playin' a game, but it looks like the main stage is popular tonight." He clicked off the speaker. "The next room here's about the same, but it's for private parties. We cater in here." Similar in size and shape to the pool room, the next was filled with tables, including a large buffet table along one wall and another window to the main room. The setup was similar, with a jukebox or live speaker arrangement. "There's four rooms total like this, and another pool room on the other side, behind the bar, with more tables. Sometimes the studios around here come in for their parties and dinners. We have a full kitchen available with a twenty-four hour notice. The rest of the time just the fryers are open."
"You don't have to sell me, I think I'm sold. It's a very nice place," Della admitted. "I like it."
"I'm glad." He smiled down at her. "These are the offices, back here. Employee dressing rooms and break rooms, Matt's office, and my office. Back there is backstage, where the bands come in, their dressing rooms, and so forth. Come on in."
He opened the door to a fairly ordinary office, although like the rest of the place, there were no windows or mirrors. Every piece of artwork was framed in non-reflective glass. There was a turn-of-the-century map of Texas on one wall, a fairly intricate genealogical chart with the name "O'Connor" and an Irish family crest emblazoned on it behind the desk, and many pictures of Sean Patrick himself with dozens of different people, all of whom appeared to have signed the pictures with such quotes as "Best time I've ever had, thanks!" "To Sean Patrick, a great friend! Thanks for the wings!" and "Best honky-tonk in California." The desk was nondescript, plain wood with a calendar blotter and general clutter, with a good executive office chair behind it and several straight-backed chairs in front. There were three file cabinets under the map of Texas and one in the rear, not quite in the corner.
"Very nice," she said.
"Have a seat." He closed the door behind them, but didn't immediately go to his desk. "So. The Hiera Sacra's finally found me," he said, his voice turning from warm to chill and gaining a menace it hadn't had before. Della felt her heart sink as her eyes widened. She reached for the small cross she wore under her blouse.
"I beg your pardon, what's that?" she asked.
He chuckled. Della kept her eyes on his desk, feeling him moving closer behind her. "This ain't my first rodeo, Miss Kelley. You knew what I was the minute you met me, otherwise you wouldn't have been whisperin' out there and knowin’ I'd hear every word. I saw your expression when we shook hands. But most of all," he put his hands on her upper arms and bent down, his face close to hers, and said, "you look just like your grandmother."