The first thing Selishi thought when he touched down was ‘how are they not cold?’
While he could no longer feel the cold needles of the air against his skin, he was taken aback by the outfits they wore here as if their mortal bodies had somehow learned to ignore the frigid air. The flight attendant showed enough of her legs that Selishi was sure he would have able to see the gooseflesh crawling up her skin, but no nothing. The same was true of one of the local ambassadors that met them at the airport, who wore a tight-fitting t-shirt and left his arms bare. Perhaps it was an inherent skill or talent of the Parisians. Maybe the people in this part of the world simply could not feel the cold as he once did.
Now, they were in a car – a black limousine, like the ones that Ethiopian royalty used back home. He sat quietly, craning his neck out of the window to see the city. He’d never been before – he’d never even been out of his small corner of Africa before – and Europe was breathtakingly different. Every building was constructed of brick and mortar – with some made instead of steel and glass. There were churches and shops and structures that looked hundreds of years old and yet were sturdier than almost every building in Ethiopia.
And the people! Even in the smallest hours of their morning, they were here, walking around and dressed in all manners of clothing with dazzling colors and dizzying designs. Some walked little yappy dogs behind them and others rode little silver motorcycles that buzzed pleasingly as they passed by. They sat in all-night streetside cafes, sipping their coffees and talking aimlessly about their frivolously pleasant lives or stumbled out of bars, singing songs of praise to the twin gods of beer and wine.
Do they know? Selishi wondered. In the back of their heads, do they know that something’s not quite right?
“Selishi,” Miss Knight’s sharp pointed voice cut through his idle thoughts. She had been conversing with the tight t-shirt aide that had picked them up at the airport at the other side of the car, but they were using French, so Selishi had tuned them both out and admired the city. Now, that it was clear Miss Knight was talking to him, Selishi’s attention snapped back to her. He bowed his head slightly, avoiding her gaze ever so subtly – an old trick he had learned a long time ago so as not to offend the older soldiers.
“Yes, Miss Knight,” he answered, his thick accent leaping from his lips.
She smiled at him. There was a kindness to her that Selishi was unaccustomed to. She was an elegant woman, who appeared to be in her late twenties or early thirties, who dressed in professional yet alluring dresses, kept her blonde hair at a perfectly prim shoulder length, and always wore a large silver chain around her neck. Selishi paled in comparison to her – so much so that he found himself ashamed of his ragged clothes, unkempt hair and mottled skin. “Are you enjoying Paris?”
“It is a beautiful city,” he enthused. “Tell me. What is that beautiful tower over there? The one made of folded metal?”
“Le Tour d’Eiffel.”
“It is spectacular. I have never seen anything like it.”
“Well, you’ll have to get a better look at it another time, I’m afraid. We can’t stay long.”
“Yes, of course. I understand.” Selishi was diplomatic, but disappointed. He would have given anything to climb that tower and see the world from the top of it. He doubted he had ever been that high before, except in the aeroplane, of course.
“Antoine here is our U.N. attache. At my request, he has arranged us rooms at the hotel and tomorrow, we will go and meet Louis. Sound good?”
“Of course, Miss Knight. Thank you again for bringing me along on this trip.”
She smiled lightly again. Selishi could tell she wanted to say something else, but couldn’t or wouldn’t with Antoine in the car. Now, that his attention was on him, Selishi could smell him – he could hear the blood pulsing through his arteries, getting dangerously close to the surface in that sweet exposed neck of his. Unconsciously, he licked his lips as he watched, but Miss Knight’s rapped him on the knee quite viciously with a clipboard that was nearby.
“Wait for the hotel, dear,” she scolded.
Selishi nodded, full of embarrassment and returned to the window, allowing himself to admire the City once more and trying to force the scent of blood from his nose. Fortunately, the drive was short and uneventful. Miss Knight returned to her conversation, switching effortlessly into French, while Selishi wondered over the outside world.
Eventually, they pulled up underneath the overhang of an elaborate, beautiful building. It was as tall as the royal palace back in Ethiopia, but much more garishly decorated. Little light bulbs lined most of the edges and a sign, seemingly carved of gold, hung above the marquee announced the building’s name to the world: L’Hotel Toreador.
Antoine quickly got out as the car came to a stop and started to walk around to open up. Miss Knight turned to Selishi with a stern glare. “Let me do the introductions.”
“Of course,” he said, nodding again.
The car door opened smoothly as Antoine opened it. Miss Knight swung out her high-heeled feet out of the car in a single, elegant practiced motion. Selishi tried to follow suit and look somewhat professional, but he focused too much on his legs and ended up knocking his head on the top of the car. She stood behind Miss Knight, keeping his head low. It was remarkable how small he felt when he stood there, especially considering he was nearly a foot taller than the woman.
Men in little black uniforms popped out and took some bags from Antoine, who was pulling them out of the trunk. He refused to give them a black briefcase, which he instead brought directly to Miss Knight, who accepted it with a polite nod.
She took a deep breath in (or at least the facade of one) and then went inside with her head held high and her chest puffed out. Selishi followed in small, nervous steps.
“Mon cherie!” came a voice as soon as they stepped into the building, speaking in so sickly sweet a French accent that it almost sounded as if the City of Paris had come to life and spoken to them directly. They were greeted by a woman, whose skin was of such perfect alabaster that it was difficult to tell what was flesh and what was the white silk formal gown she wore over it. Her hair was as dark as the night sky, as was her lipstick, but her eyes blazed in the most dazzling shade of blue one could imagine – as if daytime only existed with her irises.
“Amelie!” Miss Knight returned, embracing the woman. “It has been far too long.”
“You as well, my dear. You are a sight for my sore eyes.” They embraced and kissed each other on the cheek multiple times, though to Selishi, it seemed like this Amelie lingered a little too long on each kiss. As they separated, Miss Knight brandished her briefcase, holding it as if to present it, then opened it slightly. Amelie’s eyes lit up, closed and took the case and they embraced again. “You are spectacular, Elizabeth. What ever would I do without you?”
Miss Knight smiled gently at her. “Well, actually, I’m hoping I can call that favor in straight away.” She looked back at Selishi and beckoned him over.
“My goodness!” Amelie said in feigned surprise, turning to Selishi as he approached. “Forgive me, mon cherie. I assumed you were just another minion, but now that I look at you, you are clearly so much more than that.” Selishi nodded at her in greeting before she turned back to Miss Knight. “Your first, Elizabeth. He must be very special.”
“I need him cleaned and fed. We head to New York in three days.”
“Consider it done, mon cherie,” Amelie said matter-of-factly, before stepping to Selishi’s side and linking her elbow with his. She began walking and he obediently followed her lead after getting a nod from Miss Knight. “And what do I call you, hmm?”
“My name is Selishi,” he said simply. “And you are Amelie, yes?”
“Oh, no, cherie. Only my friends call me that.” She still had that sickly sweet accent, but her tone had dropped slightly to reinforce what was clearly a slight threat. “Everyone else calls me the Widow.”
“Oh, I see. Then I apologize, Miss Widow, and I also apologize for your loss.”
“No, dear, you’re sorry for my loss. If you apologize for it, it makes you sound like you’re responsible for it,” she said with a shark’s smile on her face. “And I can’t have you claiming credit for my good deeds now, can I?”
Selishi nodded awkwardly in response, not really knowing what to say and they continued to walk through the building. The interior of the hotel was stylish and elaborate and beautiful, decked out in a fanciful mix of black and white, complete with expensive furniture and chairs. People bustled around, the employees in their black bellhop uniforms and the guests in their fancy dresses and suits. Once again, Selishi was impressed with how many people were up and around at this time of night – the people of Paris clearly didn’t sleep all that much or perhaps it was a simple side effect of the big city and all of its lights.
The Widow led Selishi into an elevator, then pushed the button. Two of her employees tried to get in the elevator with them, but she gave a stern glare and they backed off, getting the unspoken message rather clearly. The doors closed – and suddenly Selishi realized he was in a tiny box with one of the most dangerous women he’d ever met. He had an awful feeling that he’d just walked into a cage with a hungry tiger.
She reeled on him and those blue eyes bored into his soul – or, he supposed, his lack of one. “So,” she said, her accent fading slightly as she ended the public show. “You must be very new. Have you eaten yet?”
“Um, just the once,” he said, honestly.
The Widow nodded. “Good, at least I won’t have to explain that merde to you. Now, I’m sure Elizabeth has answered some questions, but I’m also sure that you have more of them. So, go.”
Selishi had lots, but he’d thought he’d start at the beginning. “You’re a vampire?”
The Widow nodded. “Turned 1798.” Selishi gulped.
“You run this place?”
“It’s my racket. You want to survive in this world of darkness, you have to find your own. You’re a big boy, hitting people for hire might work, but honestly I’d find something a little more lucrative and a little less exhaustive.”
“Why are you helping me?”
“I owe Elizabeth a favor,” she brandished her briefcase. “I took advantage of her racket, now she’s taking advantage of mine. That’s the way the game works.”
“What’s her racket?”
The Widow span the briefcase around and opened it, revealing an old locket made of tarnished gold. An elaborate letter T was delicately carved into its front and simple hinges on its side betrayed that there was another treasure hidden inside. “Most kindred don’t like to travel, but Elizabeth is the exception. She’s very good at delivering messages and collecting things from overseas that I don’t trust with some bete kine. This is an old heirloom of mine, lost in French Algeria, but no longer.”
The elevator doors opened and she spun around on her expensive heels and stalked down the lavish hallway. It was empty, except for the two of them, and there were a few doors on either side of the hallway. Selishi followed.
“This is the suite level. Special guests only – and that’s you now. Congratulations. You’ve moved up in the world.” She stopped in front of a door. The sign on the front of it read 101. “Tomorrow night, we will get you scrubbed and give you some clothes and get you presentable. We can’t have you running around making Elizabeth look bad with,” she gestured offensively to Selishi, “all of this.” She moved her head, dismissing him and went to open the door.
Inside, in the large and beautiful suite, a man was tied to the bed – he screamed through the gag as the door opened. Selishi’s eyes widened and he slammed the door quickly. The Widow simply stared back at him, her dazzling blue eyes were as dead as she was. “Is there a problem, Selishi?”
“There’s…” he stuttered out, “there’s a man…”
“Well, I assumed that when Elizabeth asked for you to be fed that this is what she meant. I can get you some cheese and crackers if you would prefer to throw them up all over my floor.”
“No… I…” he apologized again, keeping his eyes low. “I… I can’t ask you to do this for me.”
“I agree. I owe you nothing,” the Widow replied, simply and with no sense of shame or remorse. “But, your dear sire has called in a favor and I will not have it said that I do not deliver on my promises.”
The Widow shook her head – clearly annoyed. She opened the door and forcibly pushed Selishi inside – she had much more strength than he expected in her petite frame – then stepped inside herself and slammed the door. The man bound to the bed screamed again through his gag – now that Selishi could properly see him, he could tell he was clearly a homeless man of some kind. His clothes were dirty, his hair was matted and gross, and he smelled like the inside of a trash can.
She walked around the bed and the man fell silent in fear. “For many decades now, I have spread rumors across Paris about the fact that I dump the leftover food from the hotel restaurant in an alley in the back. Most of the time I have the boys chase them away, but I let enough of them get food that they keep coming back – and so, I bring the poor of Paris here to me without any effort at all. It is all part of the game, Selishi.” She ran a delicate hand over the man’s neck and up his face. “No-one misses a vagrant or two and even if they did, I have plenty of proof that I chase them away from here on a regular basis, so no one looks. I disinfect the room, sanitize the linens and dump the body in the Seine. It is a system that has worked for a century.” She pinched the man’s cheek and slapped him lightly. He squirmed and whined at her touch.
Selishi once again hesitated, but eyed the man – he could feel the hunger rising in him; that dread beast newly implanted in his chest that he struggled to ignore.
The Widow walked to him and grabbed his face harshly, dragging his eyes to hers. “You are new. You are fresh. I empathize, I do.” Her voice was calm and stern and filled with malice. “I do not know your story. Perhaps you are unaccustomed to death and to blood.”
“No,” Selishi said, meeting her dazzling eyes for the first time. “I am accustomed.”
“Then you have not yet accepted what you are, what you could be,” she said. “You are not a man anymore. You are beyond a man. You are the closest to the divine this cruel world has ever seen.” She stood on her toes and pushed her cold lips against his. It was perhaps the first time Selishi has ever been kissed – but it had no love or romance to it, rather it was violent and emotionless. She lashed out with her teeth, catching his bottom lip and biting down hard. He cried out slightly before his own blood flowed into their mouths and dripped down his lips.
He pulled back – and the Widow’s white chin was stained with rivulets of crimson. Somehow, it made her even more attractive – and Selishi, in awe of her, understood the lesson.
“Eat,” she said with a seductive smile. He did not need telling again.