Vampires made a badass gluten free blackened chicken dish; however, their interior decorating skills were woefully lacking. June Coffin didn’t need to be an artist to realize this. A colorblind hillbilly would attest the diner was the tackiest thing on the planet, and June had seen drag shows in San Francisco.
The diner, on Chicago’s North Cleveland Avenue, was called Zing’s and had a campy fifties feel crossed with Steampunk, which went together about as well as the concept sounded. The fixtures were bulbous and metal and the walls decorated to look like the interior of some retro spaceship that also served hamburgers and Coke. She sat in a black leather booth with a brass frame, the seat cracked and dingy from previous occupants. The scuffed black Formica table held her empty plate.
A sketchpad lay open in front of her. She drew in it with one of the few luxuries she’d been afforded in the past four months: a set of colored pencils. They weren’t quite a tattoo gun, but her fingers itched to make art. All the other things she’d lost she’d been able to get used to—a cell phone was useless when she couldn’t contact anybody, she’d forgotten how to put makeup on, and entertainment felt hollow and pointless. The outside world in general remained easy to access, though. They had laptops and cable at the house. Unfortunately, the news was always bad.
“How was everything?” a lilting female voice asked. A tall, curvy blond waitress stood over her. The woman had fangs.
“Great.” June slid the empty plate toward her. “Can I get a refill?” She tapped her pencil against her coffee cup.
If she had to sit around, she might as well work up a good caffeine buzz. The restaurant didn’t serve alcohol, though they should have, if they were going to torture patrons with the décor.
“Certainly.” The waitress smiled unnecessarily wide.
Yes, I’ve seen your friggin’ fangs. She wore a fifties style waitress outfit, but black—the only thing in the place not completely ridiculous.
June had learned a great deal about vampires. Sam Haain, erstwhile—if currently sequestered—leader of the Paranormal Alliance, had insisted she get a thorough education, and June didn’t argue. She needed to know what she was up against, after all.
Vampires didn’t naturally grow fangs. Those who had them either had veneers or had their natural teeth filed down. As Sam had explained, normal human teeth could bite through flesh. It was no more difficult than biting through an orange skin. He demonstrated this with an orange, which squirted her, prompting her to swear and throw a cup at him.
Biting proved much easier with fangs, though. Fangs were a sure sign of a militant vampire. The pussy ones went to the transfusion clinics to cleanse their blood.
She paused drawing and nibbled on the end of her pencil. She hadn’t smoked since a certain incident in which a bullet went into her lung, but the compulsion to stick something in her mouth remained. She’d already endured the jokes.
The diner wasn’t crowded—a few people sat at tables and several at the long curving black lunch counter. No one paid attention to her, though she was probably one of the few non-vampires in the place. Most of the other patrons were young and hip, with stylish haircuts and way too many vintage accessories. She didn’t understand why more vampires weren’t punks.
A girl sat a few booths away, alone, facing June. She had long dark hair and wore a halter top and a short jean skirt, her legs crossed beneath the table. She sipped from a coffee cup while reading a magazine, but occasionally, she glanced up at June.
The waitress returned with a silver carafe and refilled June’s coffee cup.
“Nice drawing. You an artist?”
June only had an outline at the moment, a skull with a cat winding luxuriously around it, the cat’s eyes narrowed viciously at the viewer.
“Yep,” June said.
“That’s a badass little kitty.”
“She certainly is.”
“Looks like a tattoo or something.” The waitress tilted her head to the side, exposing her neck. A faint pink scar traversed the tendon there.
“I’m a tattoo artist,” June said.
“Oh, yeah? Where do you work?”
Steam rolled off the black surface of June’s coffee cup. “Nowhere close.”
The waitress smirked. “Didn’t think you were from around here.”
June took a sip of the coffee as the waitress sauntered off. The liquid burned her tongue. Hot coffee was one of the best things on earth, right up there with a clean shot of whiskey, a smooth red wine, and getting finger-banged in a stolen Porsche.
As June set her cup down, someone at the counter turned on his stool: a young sinewy black man. A mass of red-tinted dreadlocks peeked out from under the slanted baseball cap he wore.
She pulled the menu over and eyed the dessert page. This was her first night outside the safety of the house in weeks. Vampires were alive and physiologically human and so had all the old human needs, including the need to consume food. The myths were wrong. They didn’t drink blood for sustenance, but to battle the bacteria that infected them.
While June pondered if there was anything on the dessert menu that wouldn’t give her hives or death, a shadow fell across the table. She looked up. The young black man stood over her. He had starter gauges in his ears and snakebite piercings in his lower lip. He was cute.
“This seat taken?” He gestured to the booth across from her.
“You’ve been sitting at that counter as long as I’ve been here,” she replied. “Do you think it’s taken?”
The guy grinned, showing brilliant white, slightly crooked teeth and fangs bigger than the waitress’s fangs, narrow and curving. How could he even eat with those things? He slid into the seat, dark eyes glittering. June closed the menu.
“I’m Zack.” He leaned on the table, arms folded. He had tattoos winding down both arms, black on his shiny brown skin. His nails were pale and manicured. A scent like patchouli wafted across the table.
“Hi, Zack.” June picked up her pencil. She started sketching again, adding detail to the cat’s fur. She would have a hell of a time tattooing an image of a Tortie, with all the different shades and patterns.
“You ain’t a vampire, are you?” Zack said.
“How’d you guess?”
“The clinic dogs don’t come around here much.” He leaned closer. “And you don’t have fangs. But it’s pretty obvious even without that.”
“Are you looking to bite me or pick me up? Just so I’m clear.”
He sat up, his fang-baring grin coming back. “Which are you hoping for?”
She put her pencil down. “Well, I’m not letting your mouth anywhere near my sensitive parts, that’s for sure.”
Zack laughed, a nice masculine soothing sound. June tilted her head. Vampires didn’t have any sort of glamour, but Zack seemed to glow with attractiveness. Maybe he was just naturally hot. He leaned forward again.
“You’re June, aren’t you?”
She reared back and arched her eyebrows. “Finally! Jesus.”
“Sorry to keep you waiting. You seemed to be enjoying your food. Didn’t want to interrupt.”
She slapped the sketchbook shut. “I haven’t been enjoying sitting around here while the waitress tries to figure out which part of me is the most tender.” She paused. “You said your name is Zack….”
“I’m not Occam. But I can take you to him.”
“Good.” June stuffed her pencils back in their pouch. “I’d like to get this over with.”
“It’s not that simple.” Zack placed a dark hand on hers, stilling her.
A tingle shot up her arm.
He patted her hand. “I need to make sure you are who you say you are. Who we’ve been told you are.”
“And how are you going to do that? I don’t exactly have an ID. They took that at the Institute along with everything else.”
“You do have a special power.” He slid his hand off her. “Siren.”
“Which I can’t use on you,” she pointed out. “Vampire.” Vampires were immune to supernatural influences. No one knew why.
Zack sat back. “That girl over there.” He nodded at the girl absorbed in her magazine. “She’s not a vampire, either. Tell her to show you her panties.”
The girl had her head ducked, her hair swooped forward.
“Are you serious?”
“Quite. She’s been checking you out.”
“Maybe. But that’s not exactly my…thing.”
Her savior-turned-friend, Cindy, had mistaken her for a lesbian once too. Why was that a thing with her? Was it her gruff exterior? Her lack of makeup? Her thick fingers?
“You want to meet Occam or not?” Zack said.
June finished jamming her pencils in the pouch. “I already hate vampires.”
Zack smiled widely, showing his fangs.
June tossed some money on the table for the bill, gathered up her sketchbook and pencils, stuffed them angrily into her bag, and slid out of the booth. After a moment’s hesitation, she strode toward the girl. Zack remained in the booth.
June stopped next to the girl’s table. She looked up at June, her brown eyes questioning.
June cleared her throat and said softly, “Show me your panties.”
June held her breath. A moment passed. Then slowly, the girl turned in her seat and unfolded her legs. June backed up but tried to shield her from view of the other patrons.
The girl gripped the edge of her jean skirt and slid it up. Her thighs were unusually thick for a woman. She hiked the skirt up until she exposed the triangle of her white silk panties.
A low laugh drifted over from June’s former booth.
“Thank you,” June said. “Go back to your magazine and forget about me.” She turned and marched back to Zack, who was still laughing.
“Can we go now?” she said. “Take me to your freakin’ leader.”
“Occam is no leader.” Zack slid out of the seat and rose to his feet. He stood a few inches taller than she, but then, everyone did. “Occam is a visionary.”
“Yes, he’s certainly got some clever disciples.” The girl had slid back into the booth and returned to her magazine. “That’s the first time I’ve used a junior high parlor trick since I made my brother’s friend show me his dick.”
“Now that’s enchantment.” He led the way out.
Despite the late hour, the streets were crowded. They were in the Nocturnal District, the main hangout for vampires in Chicago. Every vampire that passed eyed her, their leers more unnerving than the usual ones she got out on the streets, as if they wanted to eat her.
“Slow the hell down,” she eventually huffed, a few paces behind Zack.
Zack slowed. The night was warm and humid, typical mid-May weather in Chicago, unlike Sacramento where it was dry and cool at night in the summer. June had discovered humidity was not her friend.
“I got shot in the lung.” She struggled for breath as she fell in step beside him. “I smoked like a chimney every day until it happened, so it’s taken a long time to heal. I don’t have any lung capacity anymore.” She also had limited use of her right arm, the muscles connecting it to her torso having hardened with scar tissue.
“You were shot at the Institute?”
“Escaping the Institute.” June cringed as a tall Latino man looked her up and down with slow deliberateness.
“I don’t know much about you.” Zack slowed his pace more. “They don’t talk about you anymore. Every once in a while someone will say, ‘I wonder what happened to the Coffin twins?’ but the papers and the news have bigger fish to fry these days.”
“Yeah, Chicago seems to have forgotten we were ever here.” Had they forgotten about them in California, where they were from, too?
“Most people believe you’re dead,” Zack said. “Normals think you were killed by the SNC or the Paranormal Alliance, and paranormals think you were killed by the Institute. It’s convenient. A dead woman no one cares about. Best subterfuge you could ask for.”
They stopped at a street corner, vampires sliding past them. Music thumped, muffled and distant, from nearby clubs. Neon seared the darkness. The smell of smoke, booze, perfume, and car exhaust hung thick in the air, making it even harder to breathe.
“Yeah, being dead is great.”
Did their mother think they were dead too? Had she accepted the idea? When June closed her eyes at night, it wasn’t thoughts of the Institute that plagued her, or the war that was slowly building, or what they’d do if the police—or worse, Eric Greerson’s supporters—finally found them. Her mother’s face loomed in the darkness. Her friends back home in Sacramento, uninformed and uncertain, haunted her thoughts. She was a spectator at her own funeral and she couldn’t get her balance.
They crossed the street. On the other side, Zack slowed again.
“Not far now,” he said.
Fewer people walked this side of the street. Shadows crawled across the pavement and cloistered them. She raked a hand through her hair—her right one, because Aaron’s doctor told her the more she used her arm the better it would get, which so far had proved to be bullshit. Her arm fell limply to her side again when she lowered it. Her long hair was badly in need of a cut and shaping, not to mention her roots were showing like a bitch. Haircuts and shopping trips were infrequent while in hiding.
“Don’t feel bad about being forgotten.” They turned a corner onto a darker, quieter street with low-rise buildings and a few houses. “This whole city is about to collapse. It won’t matter soon.” He chuckled, an oddly tantalizing and companionable sound in the darkness.
“At the end of the coming clash, the vampires will be the only ones left standing. That’s the beauty of neutrality. We’ll be sifting through the ashes when the fight is over.”
“Like scavengers. Picking the bones for treasure.”
The media heralded the “coming clash” every day on TV and in the papers. The Paranormal Alliance grew more and more radical by the day. Members of the SNC—Aaron’s secular non-paranormal group—had either joined forces with Sam’s group or splintered into rogue factions. All of them wanted the Institute closed down. Unrest swelled: violence, riots, even bomb threats and arson attempts on the Institute.
“The scavengers will inherit the earth,” Zack said. “When the rest of you get done killing each other, we’ll gather up what’s left and rebuild this city in our image.”
They stopped outside a brick building four stories tall, a small porch attached to the front. Lights were on in many of the windows. Music drifted out.
“How’s your lung feel about climbing stairs?” Zack asked. “Because we’re going to the top floor, and the elevator’s been out of service for months.”