Hold the Salt

Hold the Salt

A Story for the Big Closet October 2011 TG Terror Contest!
By Dr. Bender

In a world where sometimes it seems like every day is Halloween, James Samson has but one concern. He needs a job. An announcement over the radio answers his prayers for a better life but what strings come attached to this opportunity of a lifetime?

Hold the Salt

A Story for the Big Closet October 2011 TG Terror Contest!
By Dr. Bender

“You vill get up in five… four… three… two… ONE! HA-HA-HA! HA-HA-HA! HA-HA-HA! HA-HA-SQUERK!”

I shut off my ‘Count Alarm’ alarm clock by bashing it right on top of the purple noggin. The button didn’t work unless you showed it who’s boss. Hauling my pudgy ass out of bed, I forgot myself and bashed my head on the low ceiling. Stumbling forward, clutching the back of my head, I then promptly kicked my big toe on the nearby desk and hopped the rest of the way to the bathroom after some cathartic swearing.

My apartment was tiny. I had one room that served as both living room and bedroom, a bathroom the size of a closet and a kitchen that was actually impossible for more than one person to squeeze into at a time. With such limited space, I was forced to stick to the essentials. My aged laptop sat on my desk directly next to the bed with a swivel chair that I’d rescued from a dumpster tucked underneath. By contrast, the bed was cheap lacquered pinewood only a few years old having been bought the day I’d moved in. The worst part was the low ceiling which forced me to stoop if I didn’t want to bruise my scalp but at least I got a rent reduction for it.

Stepping into the shower, I switched on the bright yellow waterproof radio that hung from the head before twisting the tap and letting the coppery-scented water splash across my face. The pipes in the building groaned on occasion but it were in generally good condition unlike the wiring, which had needed refurbishment twenty years ago.

“…elcome to Mourning Talk on S-C-A-R-E Chicago! I’m Kurt Mezoic bringing to you the news, entertainment and events by and for our brothers and sisters in the Supernatural Community. A little later on we have a very special guest, author of the autobiography ‘One Decade, One Millennia’, Cassandra Vasquez along with her husband and Vampire American Feliciano Vasquez. Until then we have the news for this lovely overcast day of October the 29th here in the Windy City and boy are things ramping up for this Halloween, the biggest celebration ever to grace our city since the Revelation in 2001…”

As much as I enjoyed Kurt’s show most mornings, my brain tuned out the banter subconsciously as I went about my daily routine. I didn’t notice how bad I looked until I stepped out of the shower and saw the black circles around my eyes that made me look like a panda. Muscles still ached from all the pavement I’d beat the day before job hunting, though my efforts were fruitless.

My mind wandered back to 2001 and the Day of Revelation. I remembered staring wide-eyed at the screen in the school auditorium as King Dracul announced the presence of Supernaturals across the world and declared their message of peaceful co-existence. I remembered the initial panic, people huddling inside their homes afraid to go out at night, street vendors selling useless charms and wooden stakes on every corner. The came the werewolves, witches, ghosts and just about every other kind of monster you could pick out of human folklore.

Problem for all the alarmists was that nothing happened. The apocalypse never came, the legions of undead and rabid, infectious, werewolves never beat down anyone’s door. Eventually people caught on to the fact that Supernatural Americans were people like you and me, just different.

I’d said so from the start but no-one ever listens to the depressed Goth kid that was voted ‘most likely to gun down classmates’ three years running. Heck, with parents like mine, you’d have been angry too. Very few people really understand what it’s like living on the fringes, looking in but unable to break through. I did, but by the time I was vindicated, nobody wanted to acknowledge that I’d been right all along, as always.

Shaking myself, I poured some cereal and ate while I browsed the net for job listings, keeping one ear on SCARE for any relevant news. It wasn’t normal for a human to listen to SCARE but I’d been into monsters before anyone knew they were real, ever since I snuck my first cheesy horror comic under my bed when I was a kid. The Count Alarm clock was a memento from those days, my last connection to a past I didn’t want to remember but couldn’t forget.

I was about to give up when Kurt returned to air after playing Lordi’s ‘Babez for Breakfast’. “Mmmmm, I sure could go for one of those right now myself… just kidding! An exciting announcement just came in over this newfangled e-mail thing… God I love this technology mumbo jumbo… it seems that Hold the Salt is hiring!”

Standing up too fast, I hit my head on the ceiling again and fell back over the chair, hitting the floor hard. The neighbour above me stomped and yelled something incomprehensible at me in protest. “Sorry!” I called back, picking myself up. Retrieving one of the large Tupperware containers in the filthy, damp, cupboard under the sink in the kitchen, I cracked it open to get at my nice, dry, clean suit. Pulling it on quickly, I paused to rub my hand across the other garment that I kept underneath the rest. The dress was a keepsake of a different kind, one that I’d never be able to wear yet found strangely comforting to have.

“Seems that Tabitha, longtime bartender and friend of the enigmatic Ringmaster, is short on table staff for Halloween,” Kurt continued while I dressed, “interviews are happening today only and the job is only on offer until Tabitha picks a suitable candidate, so rock up to Doorman with your resume if you’re interested and knock three times. I repeat, knock three times, no second chances. And back to Mourning Talk her on S-C-A-zerk.”

With the radio switched off, I grabbed one of my resumes from the pile in my desk drawer, slipped it into a plastic sheaf and hopped over the line of salt I kept in the groove under my door on my way out so it wouldn’t be disturbed. Hey, I love monsters but I’m not crazy, there were some real assholes in my neighbourhood.

Speaking of assholes, one of them caught up to me while I was fumbling with my keys trying to lock my door from the outside. “Samson, I got complaints about the noise from your room again,” my landlord growled, ignoring the screams of the prostitute he pimped out from the room directly across the hallway. Mr. Humbolt was the sort of unpleasant old creep that makes your knuckles itch, somehow managing to drink and smoke constantly without so much as a cough despite having a larynx like a cement mixer filled with gravel. “And your rent’s due on the 1st, cupcake, plus the rest of last month’s. One day late, I’ll toss your ass out on the street an’ sell your shit to make do.”

Finally getting the door to lock, I held up my hands and backed down the stairwell as I talked, his mere presence making my skin crawl. “It’s ok, Mr. Humbolt, I’m going for another interview right now. I’ll have your money, I promise.”

“A job? You? Wait, don’t tell me, someone needs a cocksucker for a bathroom stall glory hole, huh? Fucking loser!” He called out after me.

“Dickhead,” I murmured when I was out of earshot.

I caught a bus across town and had to get off a few blocks away, having passed by the club many times. Hold the Salt’s not the sort of establishment you miss, the building itself is a converted 30’s era art deco club with gothic detailing and stained glass windows, perfect for that creepy ‘every day is Halloween’ atmosphere. I arrived close to half past eleven, noticing from the sign outside that the restaurant opened at 12, so it wasn’t surprising that the building looked deserted when I arrived.

A girl arrived just before me, so I followed her up the stairs towards the towering entryway. She was wearing a light grey midriff hoodie over a red leather jacket with black jeans and appeared perfectly normal from the back. Horror stopped me in my tracks when snakes that slithered out from under the hood to peer back and hiss at me when I came within five feet of her. Taking the hint, I waited as she walked up to the large double doors and knocked four times. She fidgeted for a few moments before knocking four times again and when the doors still didn’t open, she hissed in frustration, stamping her foot and banging on the door harder.

“Jeeze, Louise!” The door cried out, leering faces emerging from what seemed to be solid wood. “Enough with the banging already! You got one try, girlie, now take a hike!”

She stomped her feet again and hissed louder at the door.

“And how are you going to take people’s orders if you can’t follow a simple instruction? Sorry, toots, get lost.”

I was debating whether or not to ascend the staircase as she continued to beat on the door when a second girl deliberately bumped me with her shoulder, pushing me into the railing of the handicapped ramp as she continued on like I didn’t exist. “Outta my way, pinky,” she growled from her lofty seven foot tall vantage point before unceremoniously pushing the gorgon aside and rapping on the door three times. Swung open quickly and closed with as much alacrity, slamming itself in the gorgon’s face before the snake-girl could scramble through.

“Are you ok, miss?” I asked, approaching her cautiously as she clutched her face in her hands. When her snake-hair hissed at me again, however, I held up my hands and backed away. “Sorry, I was only trying to help…”

She moved her hands and I turned my head away immediately, trying not to look her in the eye as she hissed at me, clawed hands outstretched.

“Uh, kid,” the doors addressed me, “you got a mobile phone? ‘Cause now might be a good time for 911.”

“No, I don’t have a mobile. Can you translate for me?” I begged.

She hissed again.

“She says she understands you just fine,” the doors said, “and she also wants to pluck out the eyes of anyone who witnessed her shame so you can tell the whole world to never disrespect her kind.”

“She said all that with a hiss?” I asked, my voice raising an octave. I backed away from her parallel to the door, not wanting to risk tripping down the stairs.

“Gorgon is very efficient,” the door informed me glibly.

She screamed, scaly hands outstretched as she charged at me. Reacting reflexively, I reached out and knocked on the door three times. The portal swung open with enough force to bash the gorgon down the stairs, bouncing several times. She hit the bottom and lay still, groaning.

“Doorman,” a booming voice inquired from inside, “what in the blue hell is this?”

Peering around the edge of the open door, I came face to abdominal muscles with one of the restaurant’s most famous icons: Frank the Bouncer. Composed of the scarred blue flesh from more than a hundred cadavers stitched together into a bizarre patchwork body much like the fictional monster he was named after. Sorry Hammer Horror fans, no bolts in the neck. He was more ripped than a professional wrestler, towering over me at nine feet tall. He was wearing a tight black shirt with ‘security’ emblazoned across both the front and back in white with matching jeans tucked into steel-toed combat boots that made the earth move with his every step. The giantess that had pushed past me was slung over his shoulder, unconscious.

“Sorry, boss,” Doorman answered him, “the natives are restless. What happened to Greta?”

“Seemed to think she could do my job better than me,” Frank grunted, though his voice had a hint of a cultured British accent. Putting his available hand on his hip as he appraised the scene, he shook his head in disbelief. “And who, pray tell, are you?”

“I-I-I’m here for a job interview,” I answered, holding up my resume to prove myself.

He stared at me for a long moment that seemed to drag on forever. “All right, you can show yourself in while I get these ladies a ride home. Tabitha’s in the main room, you can’t miss her.”

“Thank-you,” I said, nodding rapidly as I scampered through the door before it closed behind me.

“Good luck,” he shouted after me as a parting gesture.

Inside was a short, dark, hallway that led through some glass doors with the Hold the Salt logo etched into them, beyond which was the restaurant floor. The walls were draped with midnight blue cloth while the ceiling above was dominated by a frosted glass dome depicting the phases of the moon. The bar took up the middle of the wall on the left next to some doors marked staff only. The stage dominated the back wall and I noticed the door to the toilets next to it on the right. Most of the space was taken up by sturdy wooden tables that stood on polished floorboards with the chairs resting upside down on top, all except for one.

Tabitha was sitting at that one table. I knew that the bartender of Hold the Salt was a witch but looking at her, you’d never guess. Witches don’t have the tells that people usually associate with them thanks to Wizard of Oz; no warts, green skin or long noses and even the hats and brooms were optional. She was a long-limbed, curvaceous, Latino bombshell with a mane of lustrous black hair and doe-like brown eyes. Her bright red tank top showed ample cleavage tucked into loose black slacks with low-heel sandals. Layers of gold jewellery adorned her neck and wrists, letting people know that she enjoyed her ample salary.

She set aside some paperwork before looking up at me as I approached, her right eyebrow slowly raised in askance. I was a little star struck but eventually I caught on and handed her my resume. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am,” I greeted cordially, “I’m here about the table staff position, I heard your ad on SCARE.”

Dropping my resume on the table, she gave me a glare that would have cowed The Rock. “Sit,” she ordered before lowering her eyes to scan the front page. I did what I was told and waited patiently. “James Samson,” she read out my name from the top of the resume, “do you really think you’re cut out for this job?”

Gulping, I took a deep breath. “Ma’am, I know I did most of my growing up before the vamps came out of the coffin and I know I don’t have much experience waiting tables. However, I think I have some knowledge that would be of benefit to this establishment. I have excellent people skills, I am a hard worker and I am sympathetic to the supernatural community.”

“Would you be willing to take a truth serum before repeating that statement?” She asked.

“Absolutely,” I answered with conviction.

“Interesting,” Tabitha murmured, scanning the rest of the sheet, “you have a Bachelor of Arts?”

I squirmed a little in my chair. “My work isn’t doing as well as I’d hoped. I’m also currently studying paranormal psychology by correspondence.”

She gave me another look. “Monster groupie?”

“N-no! I mean, I have no problem with Supernatural Americans and I think you’re kind of cool but I’m not going to make trouble, I can be professional.”

“Monster groupie,” she sighed, completing her judgement. “All right, Mr. Parapsych, a party of Nekomata gets riled up when the human child of a werewolf steps on one of their tails. You have thirty seconds to defuse the situation.”

Taking a deep breath, I tried to put myself in that position and took ten seconds to calmly rationalize an answer. “Both groups are territorial and wouldn’t take kindly to moving tables. I’d distract the Nekomata by offering some complimentary snacks, preferably some sort of bird or fish, and ask the Werewolf to apologize on behalf of his child. Once tensions ebbed, I’d offer to help move the kid’s chair away from the other party if necessary.”

“Not a bad answer,” she admitted. “Do you have any combat training not mentioned on your resume?”

“No,” I admitted, “would that be relevant?”

“If the confrontation I described got violent, yes,” she answered. “We have Frank for a reason, you know. I’m sorry, Mr. Samson, but this isn’t going to work. Thank you for your application, you can see yourself out.”

My stomach sank through the floor. I stood with my head bowed; I’m sure I looked like a misery as I turned away and started walking. After a few steps, however, I stopped and turned back to her. “Ma’am, can I say one more thing?”

Tabitha gave me another look, like she wasn’t sure what she was about to do was worth the effort. “All right, go on.”

“Ma’am, I need this job,” I said with as much determination as I could muster. “I’m not about to tax you with my sob story, it’s not much of one anyway, but I will say one thing. If there is anything, absolutely anything, that I can do that would change your mind, I’ll do it.”

“Anything?” She asked rhetorically, chuckling in disbelief. “You have no idea what the word means.”

I shook my head. “I don’t say things I don’t mean. This is my last shot, name anything short of criminal activity, and I’ll do it.”

She tapped her lips for a few moments as she considered the proposal. “Very interesting… you say you’re an artist, Mr. Samson? Well, as one type of artist to another, do you think you can handle the truth about why I’m refusing you?”

“Yes,” I answered simply.

“The truth is, I’m looking for two important criteria from my waiting staff. The first is being a member of the supernatural community; my table staff need to be able to handle customers that could demolish a house with their bare hands. The second and most important criteria would be femininity…”

“…because alpha males would see a man’s interference as a challenge to their authority,” I finished for her, sighing in defeat. “Of course, I’m sorry for wasting your time.”

“Wait,” she ordered, preventing me from turning back to the door. Leaning back in her chair, she folded her arms and crossed her legs as she considered me. “Normally I wouldn’t consider this but I’d rather have someone cut their teeth on service today before the main event and you’ve piqued my curiosity. Tell me, what made you so eager to apply for this job?”

“Desperation,” I answered, sighing heavily. “Ok, if you want to throw me in with the monster groupies, maybe I can’t dispute that but I’m not a blood bag or a tail chaser. When I heard the ad on SCARE I just thought something might click together. I don’t mind hard work, I can take instruction and I’d get to work with the supernatural. On top of that I can pay my rent, everyone wins.”

“Aren’t you in the least bit scared?” She asked seriously.

“Ma’am, normal people frighten me,” I laughed bitterly, “frankly the idea of dealing with someone that just wants to drink my blood is kind of refreshing.”

She chuckled. “Now I really want to see if all your talk is just hot air. I have a deal in mind for you, are you willing to listen?”

I nodded cautiously. She snapped her fingers, pulling a thin strip of darkly coloured ribbon out of a puff of grey smoke. The ribbon had a silver clasp on each end delicately engraved with depictions of thorn bushes that looked as if they would intertwine when the clasp was locked together. I recognized it as a choker from my Goth phase in high school, it was a common accessory that went well with a corset.

“I need a waitress, Mr. Samson,” she explained, “that is the one rule I cannot break. You say you’re willing to do anything for this job… tell me, are you willing to work as a woman at this establishment?”

“This can turn me into a woman?” I asked incredulously, staring at the garment in disbelief. Peering closer, I could see that the ribbon was a very dark purple with tiny crimson runes stitched along the edges.

“Its original use was to make the woman wearing it more attractive,” Tabitha explained, “but the magic can only make one an attractive woman. Tell me, are you willing to make that sacrifice to work here?”

The question hit me out of left field, sounding too good to be true, so I stalled. “Can I take it off?”

“Not until All Saints Day,” she informed me, placing it on the table between us. “After that, we’ll see if there’s still a place for you here.”

“Um… I need to pay my landlord by the 1st,” I mumbled, “if I do this, would it be possible to get an advance?”

“I will personally put the money in your hand, double pay for the next three nights. I think that should be more than enough to take care of your debts.”

Standing slowly, I picked up the choker and held it between my hands, my eyes locked on the innocuous strip of cloth. Conflicting thoughts and feelings spun around in my head while my knees secretly trembled. I knew that I was about to make a pivotal choice in my life, something that may be reversed but never undone. Then again, the voice from my subconscious asked, what am I really fretting over? Change? Isn’t this what you always wanted?

“Well, Mr. Samson?” Tabitha pushed. “What do you th…”

I surprised her by wrapping the choker around my neck and locking the clasp. The enchantment was a three step process, none of which was either pleasurable or painful. First, my whole body shrank, more in some places than others. My arms, hands, waist and feet were the most noticeable, though I lost a few inches of height too. The second stage was the filling out of my hips and chest along with the sudden contraction of my penis into my stomach. Finally I endured the minor cosmetic changes such as the shifting of facial features, disappearance of body hair, the lengthening of my head hair down to my shoulders as it darkened to pure black and the growth of my nails. I was swimming in my suit by the end of it, my shoes were loose and I had to hold up my pants.

Tabitha rose to her feet during the change, staring at me goggle-eyed with both eyebrows raised. She had to take a few deep breaths to compose herself. “Ok, honestly, I thought you were going to chicken out,” she admitted, chuckling. I fidgeted nervously as she circled me, checking out my new body from every angle. “Yes, I think we can work with this. Let’s see, Jamie? Jessica? No, I think you look like a Jacqueline, how does that suit you?”

Gulping, I looked down at myself and had to brush my hair out of my face to see. Everything felt different, inside and out, it didn’t help that my clothes were really uncomfortable as loose as they were. I looked younger, I guessed in my early twenties, with a body I would have killed for moments ago. “Fine, I guess,” I replied weakly, surprised at the sound of my own sultry voice. You might think I’d be elated but faced with the reality of my secret fantasy, I was terrified. It was all so new, so strange and different; I didn’t know how I was going to handle actually being a woman. I was walking into the maw of the unknown, never a comfortable first step. Finally, I nodded, accepting that I needed a new name and Jacqueline was as good as any.

“Excellent! Welcome to Hold the Salt,” she said, grinning as she shook my hand warmly. “Come on; let’s get you out of that suit and into uniform.”

After shuffling in my oversize shoes for a bit, I picked them up as she pushed through the staff door, leading me past the eerily quiet kitchen and into the staff locker room. There, she assigned me my own locker so I had somewhere safe to put my suit while she retrieved a few uniforms in my new size from storage. I thought underwear was going to be a problem but Tabitha simply conjured several sets for me out of thin air, explaining that they should last a week before dissolving. I thanked her profusely for the effort, though she told me not to make a fuss over such a small thing.

While she was away, I had a chance to look into the floor-length mirror and get a closer look at the new me, particularly my face. Tabitha hadn’t been wrong about the choker making the wearer attractive, I’d turned into a slender woman with a swan-like neck, long legs and a face that somehow managed to be regal and kittenish at the same time. My most attractive feature was my large, deep blue, almond eyes, though I was the complete package. I was definitely going to attract attention wherever I went, which was both thrilling and frightening at the same time.

As I was staring at myself, I felt the choker pulse with a strange warmth that seemed to crawl across my skin. Confused, I prodded it for a moment, wondering if something was wrong but it didn’t feel any different and nothing seemed to happen so I shrugged it off. When I returned to looking at myself in the mirror, I decided that I liked what I saw, which was obviously the most important thing.

The tags on the bras Tabitha had conjured for me said I was a c-cup, which turned out to be accurate. The panties were easier to get on, naturally, even though the material and cut felt strange around my hips. Becoming increasingly self conscious about my state of undress I turned away from the mirror, folded my arms across my chest and prayed for Tabitha to get back with some clothes to dispel my goose bumps.

When she finally returned, she brought clothes but the last thing the Hold the Salt waitress uniform was going to do was dispel my goose bumps. Holding up the scandalously thin white tank top, I was embarrassed by the naivety of the whole ‘females wouldn’t provoke alpha males’ statement I’d made earlier. The Hold the Salt logo was emblazoned on the left breast at the front and a cartoon of a kid chasing a monstrous salt shaker was printed on the back. A pair of form fitting black spandex shorts, black sneakers and short socks completed what there was of the outfit, which would preserve modesty without actually concealing anything. I felt almost as naked with them on as I’d had in the nude. I caught a whiff of conspiracy when I noticed that the underwear Tabitha had conjured was also black, so naturally the outline of my bra was visible through the tank top.

“Hot,” Tabitha complimented, doing another walk around. Stopping in front of me, she slapped my hand away where I was fidgeting with the hem of the shorts where they pinched my thighs. “Don’t fret, it’s unbecoming. I understand you’re nervous but the most important thing is that you remain calm, cool and collected. Project an air of confidence, smile and be happy for the customers and you’ll have a lot less problems. Remember, if anyone gets out of line, Frank is here to ask them to leave.”

Reassured, I tried to smile. I wasn’t sure how well I succeeded but it seemed to please Tabitha that I was at least trying.

“All right, just a little make-up and we’re done,” she said, pulling a box out of thin air the same way she had with the choker. “Now, you’ll have to re-apply this yourself every so often. I’ll explain what things are, what I’m doing and why but you need to pay attention.”

Nodding, I let her guide me through the process, though the longer she talked the more certain I became that I was going to forget most of what she said. When she finished at told me to try it myself, I almost swallowed my own tongue. Picking up the lipstick, I paused for a moment when I felt another warm pulse from the choker. Blinking, I took a deep breath and tried to pucker my lips as Tabitha had shown me and applied the pink tone to my lips.

“Hey, that’s pretty good,” Tabitha complimented, “you really haven’t done this before?”

“Not since I was eight,” I murmured, just as surprised as her. I seemed to have a knack for the rest of the cosmetics too, which impressed Tabitha no end and did wonders for my own confidence. We forbore on the nail polish, though, considering we only had a few minutes until the club was officially open.

We almost had everything packed away when another girl walked in on us. She was taller and a little lankier than I was but more athletic. Her hair was stylish, close cropped but left a little shaggy and bright red, with ears pierced in multiple places along with her lips and eyebrows. Hot purple lipstick and matching nails stood out on her pale skin along with her tattoos. She was already wearing the waitress uniform under a leather long coat and was in the middle of pulling it off when she paused, standing dead still in the doorway.

“Um, hi,” I greeted, waving timidly in her direction while Tabitha ignored her, “I’m, um, Jacqueline.”

The newcomer sniffed the air before looking over to the masculine shirt that was hanging in my open locker. From there, her gaze moved to the choker around my neck and I watched the change in her expression as realization dawned. “Oh, fuck no, Tabitha,” she growled, her incisors sharpening into long fangs.

“Goddess, grow a vagina Claudia,” Tabitha snapped, “she was the best candidate for the job.”

“She?” Claudia asked sarcastically, throwing her longcoat away in frustration. “Not to mention it’s a freekin’ normal!”

“She handles herself well,” the witch insisted, “and we need someone that’s up to speed before tomorrow night.”

“So, we’re hiring blood bags now? Offering juice fresh from the tap?”

My eyes narrowed and I took a step forward, though Tabitha moved between us so I couldn’t get in the vamp’s face. “Hey, you take that back! I’m nobody’s blood bag.”

“Yeah? Give me ten seconds alone with your ass,” Claudia snapped, “that’s how long you’ll have before you’re begging for it.”

“ENOUGH!” Tabitha interrupted, putting her hand up in front of Claudia’s face. “There will be no direct feeding here as long as I’m still in charge, is that perfectly clear?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know the rules,” Claudia acknowledged, crossing her arms petulantly. “You want to throw the normals a bone and hire a pet that’s fine with me but I ’ain’t sharing no locker room with some transsexual juice box.”

“Hey!” I protested lamely.

Tabitha sighed. “First of all, Claudia, you’re already in uniform. Secondly, I think you can put up with it for three nights. If she doesn’t work out, we’ll let her go but you were the one that insisted we needed a helping hand before Halloween; unless you want me to hire Greta and let her and Frank demolish the joint.”

“Greta? Fuck,” Claudia swore. “Those two need to bone and get that shit over with.”

“Be that as it may,” Tabitha said with a note of exasperation in her voice, “we’re opening for lunch and I need you to show Jacqueline the ropes.”

The look Claudia gave me combined bitter resignation with disgust and naked hunger. “All right, fresh meat, I’ll see you on the killing floor,” she sniped before storming out.

“Don’t worry,” Tabitha tried to reassure me, “as long as you do your job she’ll come around… after she tortures you a bit. Just go with her and watch everything she does. Just, please, don’t emulate her. I’ll be in my office if there are any explosions. Introduce yourself to Chef on the way past; he should be in the kitchen by now.”

She wished me luck on my first day but my thanks came out as a nervous squeak. My stomach was doing flip-flops as I crept towards the kitchen, noting from the sound of things that Chef was indeed in. Poking my head through the door, I thought I’d seen the worst Hold the Salt had to throw at me. I wasn’t expecting to come face to face with a Devil. Yes, a real Devil: red skin, black hair, pointed black beard, cloven hooves for feet and ram’s horns that curled around his ears. Only difference between Chef and the classic cartoon Lucifer was he was wearing kitchen whites and holding a knife rather than spandex undies and a pitchfork.

“Ah! Mademoiselle,” he greeted with a broad smile that showed off rows of shark-like teeth, “bonjour! Velcome to ze ‘ouse of Chef, it iz ze pleasure to make yor acquaintance; just please, no ‘ell’s kitchen jokes.”

I stared, I couldn’t help myself. “Uh, hi… wait a minute, is that accent supposed to be French or German?”

He scratched the back of his head sheepishly, answering in a broad New York accent. “Ok, you got me, I’m 100% American, born in the NY Underground. Rubes like the accent… and it gets me more chicks,” he said, giving me a sly wink.

“NEW GIRL!” Claudia shouted over the pass. “HOUSE FLOOR, NOW!”

“That’s my cue,” I sighed, “see you around, Chef.”

“Don’ worry, you’ll be sick of me by the end of the night.”

I had no doubt in my mind about that as I stepped out into the restaurant. Noting my arrival, Claudia motioned for Frank to open the front doors for business before getting down to business. “All right, new meat,” she growled, shoving a notebook into my hand, “people come in, you walk up, give them a spiel and abbreviate their orders on the pad. Price list is near the cash register under the bar when they want to pay. Table numbers go clockwise around the room but they’re right there if you forget. Got it?”

I nodded meekly which just seemed to anger her more.

“Fucking normals,” she murmured, turning to see the first group come through the doors, a group of four wearing casual business attire. “All right,” she whispered, extending her fangs, “people come here for the show, meat. Just keep an eye on me and take notes.”

Nodding, I kept Tabitha’s warning in mind as I watched Claudia glide across the floor. “Well hello there, gentlemen,” she greeted, playing up her dangerously sensuous appearance for all it was worth, “if you’ll just follow me please.”

She let them check out her butt on the way over, then bent over for them when she ‘accidently’ dropped her pen. It was like watching Maralyn Monroe playing a biker chick except everyone knew she really could tear them all limb from limb in under five seconds. When she returned to the pass, they all stared longingly after her.

She returned to the bar and leant against it with a self satisfied smile on her face. “Think you can top that, meat?”

“Oh, I am so not embarrassing myself like that,” I countered.

“Don’t be jealous of the vamp,” she purred, obviously getting a kick out of the whole thing. “Look out, you’re up.”

Spinning around, my heart leapt up into my throat as a family of four made their way inside, the wife carrying their little girl while the older boy scowled at the world. Grabbing some menus, I felt the choker pulse again, which was honestly starting to get on my nerves. Putting my own worries aside, however, I put on a confident smile and got to work.

“Hi,” I greeted warmly, “welcome to Hold the Salt, if you’d like to step this way, please?”

The son glared at me the whole time while I moved them to an appropriate four top. I pegged him at around eight or nine years, old enough to have a smart mouth, dumb enough to open it too much. “What sort of monster are you?” He asked, obviously unimpressed.

“Stephen,” his mother snapped as the father took the younger sister from her to put her in the high chair, “these people aren’t monsters.”

“Well, actually I’m human,” I answered, “and you should listen to your mother, the other people here are really very nice.”

“Lame,” he sighed, slumping in his chair.

Keeping my smile on, I took their drink orders and returned to the bar, quickly finding my way around. “People seriously still call you monsters?” I asked Claudia when she returned from another table.

The vampire raised an eyebrow at me. “Just the kids, though if you ask me I’m a monster and damn proud of it. Fuck the noise of you damn breathers.”

Peering over my shoulder, she noticed the son staring at her, so she gave him a big toothy grin with full fangs. I had to chuckle when he gasped and hid his face.

Returning to the table, I served the drinks and took their food orders. When I was done, Stephen looked up at me again with wide eyes. “Is she a vampire?” He asked in a low whisper.

“Why yes, she is,” I answered politely.

“Does she drink blood?” I pried eagerly.

“Stephen!” Mom snapped again.

“That’s what vampires drink,” I answered.

He seemed to get suspicious. “I thought vampires burned in the sun?”

I shook my head. “Sorry, that’s a Hollywood myth like werewolves changing on the night of the full moon. They also cast a reflection.”

“Well,” the mother muttered, “I guess she can’t use that excuse for looking that way.”

“I’m… just going to check on your food,” I said, making a quick exit before I said something that could get me fired.

The tables filled up over the next few hours until both Claudia and I were running between tables, the pass and the bar to get everything done. As the orders came thick and fast, it got harder to keep everything straight in my head and the hubbub of conversation didn’t help my concentration. I only made one or two mistakes but Claudia was rode me over every little detail until I felt like ripping her fangs out with my bare hands. The worst part was I had to keep smiling every time I walked up to a table, no matter what anyone said or did.

I ignored the looks guys gave me as I wandered past, it didn’t seem to matter that I wasn’t doing Caludia’s snake-like strut, their eyes were drawn to me anyway. She was getting bigger tips than me on her bills, though, which I didn’t really mind since I was earning more money in one afternoon than I’d seen in four months.

Nobody actually disturbed me until a mixed group of six, four men and two women, stepped through the door close to sundown. Claudia was busy working a table, so I stepped up to give the usual greeting. The moment I got within four feet, however, I noticed all of their nostrils flare slightly, which stopped me in my tracks. The leader, a rakish man of Mediterranean descent with long black curly hair, looked down from my face to my neckline with literally hungry eyes. “Ah… hi,” I greeted in a small, uncertain, voice, “welcome to Hold the Salt, table for six?”

“We have a reservation,” the leader informed me. “Maybe you would be so kind as to join us, kitten?”

“Sorry,” I answered, taking a few steps to put some distance between us, “I’m not on the menu. Please come this way.”

I led them to the only reserved table in the restaurant and laid the menus out rather than handing them over directly and took my notepad out while I waited for them to seat themselves. “Would you like anything to drink?”

One of the men, a pale blonde in a white suit, made me jump when he grabbed my arm, turning it over to sniff my wrist. “I can think of something I want.”

The woman sitting next to him licked her lips. “She does look a good vintage.”

“Hell,” the leader commented, leaning back and stretched out his arms across the backrests of the chairs next to him, “I can smell it form here.”

I tried to extract my arm but his grip was too strong. His hand was cold and clammy too, which made my skin crawl. “Like I said, I’m not on the menu. How ‘bout I get you a round of bottled blood?”

Blondie snickered. “I prefer mine right from the vein. Come on, baby, I guarantee you’ll love it.”

“Maybe I should take this table, honey,” Claudia interrupted, appearing out of nowhere.

The leader nodded to her. “Claudia.”

“Marcos,” Claudia nodded back. “Want to call off your pet here before he gets his nose wet?”

The blonde growled but Marcos waved him down. “I don’t see a problem here as long a Herman’s willing to pay for his drink. This is America after all, an establishment shouldn’t appear to offer something if it’s not willing to sell, that’s the capitalist way.”

Leaning over, Claudia extended her fangs. “Herman, I’m older than the six of you put together,” she informed him in a low, calm, voice. “I don’t want to make a scene in my place of work, so here’s how this works. If you don’t do what I say, you will spend the rest of eternity without sexual organs. Nobody taps a vein in Hold the Salt, those are the rules, get over it or get out.”

Blondie clenched his teeth, looking like he wanted to test her for a moment before letting go of my arm. Claudia looked at me, smiling for the benefit of the other patrons. “Why don’t you take a break? I can handle this.”

Nodding, I scampered back through the staff only exit and back into the locker room, holding back tears until the door was safely shut behind me. I sank onto a bench before my knees gave out and sobbed, rubbing the skin of my wrist where he’d grabbed me compulsively. The nebulous fear that I’d felt since Tabitha had told me what the choker would do to me clutched my heart. Frankly, I didn’t mind the idea of donating blood but being a donor is a lot like sex. If it was going to happen, it had to be with someone I liked and trusted, the idea of being passed around like a spliff made me shudder.

“Are you ok?”

Wiping my eyes, I looked up to discover an Asian girl peeking at me around a row of lockers. She was pretty but almost looked too young to be a waitress. She covered her mouth with her hand, seemingly extremely shy and a little scared of me.

“Uh, yeah, I’m ok,” I lied for her benefit, “I just had a run in with some vampires out there. Hi, I’m Jam… Jacqueline, the new waitress.”

Her head nodded strangely for a moment, like she was a living bubblehead. I jumped when her neck stretched, pushing her head towards me. Long and sinuous, moving with the sinuous strength of a boa constrictor, her neck stretched out five feet so she could appraise me. “I’m so sorry, they can be a real pain,” she apologized, prim and proper. “I’m lucky, Rokuro Kubi blood tastes bad, they think it might be a natural adaptation to make us unacceptable as prey. I’m Kiku, it’s nice to meet you. I’m sorry to be so forward but what species are you?”

I coughed. “I’m, uh, human.”

She recoiled from me a little, her neck twisting into a spiral. “Oh! I didn’t know Tabitha was hiring a human. No wonder the vampires are giving you trouble… I better get out there and give Claudia a hand.”

Her head snapped back to her body as she delicately minced out the door a little too fast. I had to chuckle once she was out of earshot, I’d never thought that I’d make one of the ‘monsters’ nervous.

Feeling a little better, I noticed that my tears had streaked my eyeshadow unattractively down my cheeks and I had quite a bit of it on my hands. Washing off in the sink, I returned to the box of makeup and started from scratch. I amazed myself by having the whole operation done in minutes. Feeling elated, I turned away from the mirror to come nose to nose with a ghostly grey apparition looking me right in the eye with her own glowing red orbs. Unlike vampires, wraiths actually don’t cast a reflection; the form that you see isn’t real, just a mental construct in your own mind.

For a ghost, her body was remarkably detailed. She was wearing a long black 20’s style gown with high heels and appeared to be dripping wet, her hair attractively bedraggled despite being matted to her scalp, shoulders and back. Pearl earrings, necklaces and bracelets swung hypnotically as she moved and her skin was just as smooth, perfect and beautiful as her jewellery.

I bit back a scream as I felt the blood drain from my face, telling myself over and over in my head that wraiths are generally harmless. When she reached out with her hand, pointing at the choker around my neck, I could feel the cold radiating from her finger intensify, sending a chill across my skin. “Where did you get that?” She demanded.

“T-T-Tabitha,” I stuttered my reply. “P-pleased to make your acquaintance, miss.”

She smiled, showing off perfect white teeth. “Call me Esmeralda, everyone does. My, my, my, aren’t you a pretty little Princess? I have half a mind to wear you like a set of stockings; most men never get a chance to have a woman inside them.”

“H-how did you know?” I asked, backing away a few steps.

She laughed. “Don’t fret, darling, I’m only teasing. I took the liberty of peeking inside your locker; voyeurism is one of the few pleasures left to a ghost girl. Tell me, what’s it like being trapped in a cage of flesh that’s not your own?”

Her turn of phrase made my stomach flop around again. “I, um, honestly, I’ve been avoiding just thinking about it.”

“Really?” she asked with a note of disappointment. “Then let me give you some words of wisdom, Princess. Magic is alive and unpredictable, just as alive and unpredictable as those who wield it.” With that enigmatic statement, she floated through the wall out of sight.

Taking several deep breaths, I managed to steady myself despite my heart, which was fluttering against my rib cage like bird trying to escape its cage. When I finally opened the door to the main room, the buzz and babble of a hundred or so people hit me like a wall. It had gotten dark outside and the house was in full swing. Tabitha had taken her place at the bar; putting on a show for a bunch of gawking kids directing a quartet of singing glasses. Claudia was doing her usual thing, teasing anything with a heartbeat and somehow managing to get away with it. Esmerelda gave me a wink as she floated past, levitating several trays of food and drink at once high over everyone’s heads. Kiku, for her part, was almost normal, though her ability to put food on one table with her body while taking orders from another with her head obviously entertained her audience, even if she managed to scare some of the smaller children.

Not quite knowing what to do, I made a bee line for the front doors, grabbing some menus and quickly scanning the room for free tables, ignoring Marcos as he saluted me with his bottle of blood on my way past. When the next customers came in, I couldn’t stop staring at the pair of them. The first wasn’t so unusual; she was an athletic teenager who obviously had enough money to pay her way considering the size of the diamond on her ring finger. Her outfit was a nifty black Chanel dress that went well with her Christian Louboutin high heels, combined I could probably have pawned it all and payed my rent for the next year. What was unusual was that she was a brunette with blonde roots, though it made a certain dreadful sense when I considered her companion.

Comparably, the guy with her looked like hell. It didn’t take me a moment to recognize that he was a vampire, the way he was flashing his fangs around. It was also easy to tell up close that he was trying to hide the bags under his eyes with cosmetics, the tone he used didn’t quite match the sickly pallor of the rest of his skin. To top it all off, he obviously hadn’t ironed his clothes properly before leaving the house and his brown leather jacket had seen better days. Most noticeable, however, was the fact that he was wearing glitter so that his skin sparkled in the light.

“Hello?” The girl inquired petulantly, snapping her fingers in my face to get my attention. “I said table for two, what are you, retarded?”

“Not at all,” I answered, recovering my composure smoothly, “right this way please.”

I couldn’t stop glancing at the guy all the way through taking the girl’s order after they were seated, as hard as I tried to concentrate on my notepad. It was like driving past a train wreck, you want to look away but your neck keeps turning of its own accord. “And what can I get you, sir?” I asked him when she was done.

“Animal blood only, please,” he said. The girl gave him a reassuring pat on the hand as if it was a reward.

“Coming right up,” I said, feeling unsure and nervous now for entirely different reasons. Tapping Claudia on the shoulder, I brought her attention away from whatever she and Tabitha were discussing over the bar. “Hey,” I greeted, “thanks for the help before. Who the heck is the Edward-wannabe with the poster child for artificial intelligence over there?”

Claudia’s face turned sour for a moment as she glanced in their direction. “Masterson,” she muttered darkly, “why?”

“He looks really sick up close,” I whispered. “I mean, really sick. All he’s ordered is animal blood and the girl doesn’t have so much as a scratch.”

“He’s a humanitarian,” Claudia said seriously, “as much as I don’t like it, it’s his choice.”

“He’ll die!” I hissed through clenched teeth.

“What’s the problem here?” Tabitha asked, interrupting us.

I quickly explained the situation. “It’s assisted suicide,” I concluded, “he’s hiding it well but you can tell how much he’s hurting, it’s like watching someone with anorexia asking for food when you know they’re going to throw it all up once they get to the bathroom.”

“Like it or not, if so much as a drop of human blood passes his lips he can put us out of business,” Tabitha rebutted as she pulled the animal blood from storage. “How he chooses to live, or die, is his problem.”

Shoving their order in line on the pass, I muttered darkly to myself when I came back to ferry their drinks to the table. Masterson took his bottle of animal blood and said thanks, making a face as he sniffed the liquid inside. “Just remember, you’re doing the right thing, darling,” the girl encouraged him.

“You know if he doesn’t get human blood every now and again he’ll die, right?” I asked, the question slipping out of my mouth before I could stop it.

She got angry, immediately glaring at me. “How dare you talk to us like that? Who the hell do you think you are?” She whined the question in the same tone one imagines a girl begging her daddy for use of the convertible.

I felt another warm pulse from the choker, almost like it approved. “Don’t get mad at me, I’m just stating a fact,” I continued, feeling more confident. “It takes a year or two of abstinence but eventually he won’t be able to move so much as a finger. A couple of months later he’ll just crumble to dust.”

Masterson put his hand on the girl’s shoulder before she could get up and make a scene. “Miss, I appreciate what you’re trying to do,” he said to me, “but this is my choice. I don’t want to prey on people anymore.”

She tried to give him the goo-goo eyes again but I’d noticed something else when he’d reached out to touch the girl. Grabbing his wrist, I was able to pull his sleeve back with surprising ease, revealing a slim crimson line with a reddish bruise around it on his forearm. The girl got angry again, slapping my hand away with surprising strength, the sound of the smack rising above the general din of the room. “Get your filthy hands off him!” She growled, rising to her feet in outrage. Glancing nervously around, Masterson pulled his sleeve back up to cover the evidence.

The girl might have done more but suddenly Marcos was standing by the table. “Masterson,” he said gravely, holding out his hand, “show me your arm.”

Fidgeting as the whole room went suddenly quiet, all eyes on us, Masterson held out the wrong arm for inspection.

Marcos snarled. “Don’t try my patience…”

“Do we have a problem?” Frank asked as he arrived on the scene.

I backed up next to the golem to explain. “He as a cut on his arm, it looks like someone was sucking on it recently.”

“Oh, that’s just absurd!” The blonde protested. “He’s been with me all evening.”

“Yes and don’t you look ravishing tonight,” Marcos quipped bitterly.

“Marcos,” Claudia snapped to get his attention as she walked up with Tabitha, “back off, we’re handling this.”

“Will you?” Marcos asked her, his tone implying something else that I didn’t catch.

Claudia raised her eyebrows at him. “We’ve got this,” she stated, enunciating each word slowly and clearly.

He nodded reluctantly before walking, tipping his head to me as he went back to his table.

“I don’t see how this is any of your business,” the girl blustered.

“Vampire blood is a controlled substance, ma’am,” Frank in formed her coolly, “I have to ask you to come out back and wait for the police.”

At first she looked shocked, then angry before finally calming down into quiet fury. “All right but we’ll see how you all feel once my daddy’s lawyers tear this place apart,” she said loudly so that everyone could hear before bumping my shoulder hard on her way through. For his part, Masterson went along meekly without a word, his eyes fixed on the floor.

Tabitha put her arm over my shoulder and dragged me back to the bar. “You are a magnet for trouble,” she whispered to me. “Stick with me behind the bar; I’m keeping an eye on you.”

I got the hang of mixing drinks with remarkable speed, impressing both myself and Tabitha once again. It was much later before Frank came back out from the back room but we didn’t have any more trouble. He let Tabitha know that the police had taken the couple for questioning before returning to his place at the door outside, much to everyone’s relief.

We were in full swing when the lights started to dim, the crowd cheering as a single spotlight lit the stage. “Don’t drop the glasses,” Tabitha warned me moments before an explosion of smoke filled the stage area, quickly dissipating to reveal a man posing for the crowd. I managed not to drop anything but only just.

Everyone in Chicago could recognize The Ringmaster; his distinctive visage grinned playfully at viewers from billboards across the city. He didn’t hold to the traditional circus outfit of his namesake, preferring a vertically striped black, red and white tuxedo with a white bow tie and matching top hat. His hair was long and bone white, curling unnaturally around his cheeks like horns, his moustache equally stiff as it stuck out from both sides of his face. The look wouldn’t be anything without his infamous silver sceptre, topped as it was with a miniature crystal skull that refracted a halo of tiny rainbows, or the rings on all ten of his fingers that would have made a rapper blush in embarrassment. Nothing matched his eyes for raw charisma, dark blue-grey irises just as intense as the storm clouds they resembled.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” he greeted, his voice sounding amplified despite the fact that he wasn’t using a visible microphone, “I am your host, The Ringmaster!”

He ate up the cheers while Claudia and Kiku made a discreet exit out the back, taking a break. Esmerelda followed them, though she simply phased through the wall.

“What you are about to see is pure illusion,” Ringmaster explained, lowering the tone of his voice, “but I must warn, you will see it and you may touch it but you can certainly hurt yourself with it. In other words, don’t get too close to the fire, little moths, lest ye get burned.”

With a snap of his fingers, every horizontal surface in the room was covered with lit red candles that looked like they’d been burning there for centuries with rivulets of solid wax even running over the edge onto the floor. I could feel the warmth of the flames on my face, reaching out in wonderment toward the dancing flames. Some startled cries attested that not everyone found the illusions as wonderful as I did but I honestly couldn’t tell that they weren’t real candles standing in front of me. I started clapping and soon the crowd joined in with the Ringmaster bowing before the adulation.

Following the same theme, another casual gesture dispelled the candles and replaced them with table dressing that made the settings look like idealized picnic tables complete with tartan tablecloths and plastic dinnerware. Yet another gesture and the walls seemed to fade away, revealing a perfect grassy meadow as the sun rose over the horizon. Children cheered when he began to add castles, noble knights and flying dragons. Soon he was telling a story on stage with an illusory cast about kings and queens, knights and Princesses, placing himself in the narrative as a cross between a jester and court wizard.

It took me a while to realize that the characters were based on his staff. I didn’t really catch on until one knight, who had kept his helmet on as a major plot point, revealed his scarred face as he begged for the hand of a Princess that I finally recognized as Claudia only without the tattoos or piercings and sporting a mane of floor-length hair. On the other hand, I had to wonder how she’d feel about being depicted in a dress. The finale was the most beautiful segment, however, as a dark-haired maiden that I didn’t recognize sung a dirge for love never found over a storm-tossed sea as mermaids carried her off to a far away land where dreams could become reality with a replica of Esmerelda beckoning to her in the distance.

When the lights came up, The Ringmaster was gone, though the audience gave Tabitha a standing ovation in his absence. When I looked across at the pass, I could see Chef and the girls all looking out through the window, whispering to each other between furtive glances in my direction. Moments later, we were inundated with orders for drinks and I was too busy to pay attention to anything else.

As the night rolled on, the business started to wind down. Most of the kids were ushered out before eight or nine, leaving only a few asleep in their chairs here and there as their parents continued to talk through the night. After that, people came in sparsely and left quickly, allowing those of us who retained a pulse to breathe easier as the tireless amongst us actually gathered steam.

“What happened to Masterson?” I asked Tabitha in a low voice while we leant against the bar, sipping water.

“Frank said the cops found needle marks,” she answered. “He broke down and confessed that the girl was selling his blood to her friends.”

I blinked. “Wait… that’s, like, properly illegal isn’t it? Like jail time illegal.”

Tabitha nodded. “She’s a minor, though, and daddy has lawyers. Even so, she’ll probably wish she never came up with the idea when she comes down in rehab. Masterson on the other hand… if he’s lucky, they’ll put him away for a while.”

Guilt hit me like a lead brick to the face.

“Don’t fret,” the witch said when she noticed the look on my face. “Claudia knows and if you’d done wrong, she wouldn’t be in such a good mood.”

Turning to look at Claudia, I watched as she practically put her booty in a guy’s face. “How the heck does she do that?” I asked.

“Do what?”

I pointed to Claudia as she fed another guy a piece of cake on the end of a fork. “That.”

“Oh, centuries of practice, vampiric grace and a sensuously wicked nature,” Tabitha explained. “The day we hired her, we doubled the take of the previous night. So we keep her on… despite the foibles.”

“Is she really that old?”

“From what I’ve heard, yes. Why she hired on is her business, though, I don’t like to pry into the personal lives of staff… like, for example, why you put on that collar.”

I touched the clasp for a moment, suddenly reminded that it was there. “I…”

She held up her hand to stop me speaking. “That wasn’t an inquiry. Just a word of warning, though, the community is small and news travels fast. What you did with Masterson will make waves and there’s no telling how people will react.”

Frowning, I rubbed the clasp of the choker absently. “What kind of self respecting vampire wears glitter anyway?” I asked, commenting off hand. Unfortunately, Tabitha chose that moment to take a drink and had to spit it back out before she choked on her own laugher.

Everyone cleared out before 1am. Esmerelda had the floor swept clean in ten minutes which left me wiping down the bar while Tabitha and the others disappeared into the back room. I was almost done when Claudia suddenly appeared out of thin air across the bar.

“AAH! Christ, you almost gave me a heart attack!” I snapped, my nerves worn thin thanks to the soreness in my feet and back.

“You need a ride home.” She stated flatly.

“No, that’s ok, I can get the bus…”

“I don’t remember asking a question,” she said in the same tone.

It took me a moment to get what she was saying. “Uh… I don’t want to trouble you…”

“If I didn’t want to, I wouldn’t demand it,” she said, giving me a sly wink. “Meet you out back once you finish up, Tabitha’s conjured you some clothes.”

“Ok,” I said to her back as she left, wondering if I should make a call to my next of kin. Reminding myself how I’d said for years that vampires were just regular people with special needs, I finished cleaning up. Before I could get to the back, however, Chef leant out through the pass window.

“Mademoiselle,” he said in his fake accent, “I wish all ze gurls we ‘ired whre az professional az you.”

I favoured him with a smile as the choker pulsed happily again. “Thanks, Chef, that’s nice to hear.”

Feeling a lot better when I entered the locker room, I found the clothes Claudia had mentioned hanging in my locker with a note from Tabitha attached that said simply ‘see you tomorrow’. Feeling the same warm, fuzzy, feeling on the inside that Chef had given me, I struggled out of my uniform and into the tight blue jeans and white babydoll t-shirt with new socks and white sneakers before running into Frank in the hallway. Wearing a small pair of circular reading glasses on his nose, he perused a softback copy of Pride and Prejudice that seemed tiny in his huge hand. “You’ll do for two more nights,” he informed me gruffly while keeping his eyes on the text, “just do me a favour and try not to start any more fights with the vamps, ok?”

“I-I wasn’t trying…”

“No,” he interrupted me, grinning, “you don’t have to try to start a fight. I’d take it as a personal favour, though, if you tried NOT to.”

“Oh… ok, I’ll be more cautious then,” I said, nodding. He stood aside and let me out the back door, where I found Claudia and Kiku waiting for me in an M series BMW. My eyes nearly popped out of my head when Claudia opened the passenger door and motioned for me to get in. Claudia started moving before I got my belt on properly but in moments we were racing down the street with the vampire literally howling at the moon.

“Claudia,” Kiku whined, “slow down before I leave my head behind!”

“Live a little for god’s sake, Kiku,” Claudia admonished. “The night’s not over yet!”

“It is for me,” I sighed, bone weary, “where are we going first?”

“My place,” Claudia said.

“Wait, this is Kiku’s car?”

“Sorry, Jacqueline,” Kiku apologized, “this is all her and Tabitha’s idea.”

Claudia gave her a dark look through the rear vision mirror. “You’re staying with us tonight,” she told me with the same note of finality in her voice as before.

I frowned. “Like hell I am, let me out.”

“All right,” she sighed, “if you really want me to drop you off, I will. Where do you live?”

She threw her head back and laughed when I told her. “Oh, hell no, there’s no earthly way you’re staying in that neighbourhood tonight. I don’t care if I have to pack you into the trunk, you’re staying with us.”

“Claudia, you’re starting to freak me out. I’m not an idiot, heck I have a line of salt under my door.”

She snorted. “That’s fine for spells and vampires but what about mortal servants? Look, that stunt you pulled with Masterson today? That’s going to be all over the community come sunup. Personally, I think you got him out of a bad situation that would have ended up worse down the road but we can’t count on everyone seeing it the same way. So, I’m giving you two options: stay with me in a nice, comfortable, bed or sleep in my trunk, your call.”

My choker pulsed again and I found myself looking at her, smirking. “All right,” I agreed, “if you’re that concerned about me how can I refuse?”

Kiku snickered from the back seat as Claudia’s face fell. “Hey, hey, hey! Let’s get one thing straight here; I do not give two shits about you! It’d be bad publicity for Hold the Salt if we just went and let you die.”

“Whatever you say, Claudia,” I said, maintaining my smirk. After a moment, her face broke out into a momentary grin which we pretended not to notice, travelling the rest of the way to her house in silence.

We turned up at what was less of a house and more of a mansion. She had an electric gate and we had to drive twenty feet into the garage. The building itself was three stories tall and the smallest room was bigger than my entire apartment; heck the cupboards were cleaner than my kitchen. It wasn’t the height of opulence but it was better than any house I’d ever lived in by a long shot, so I was more than a little awestruck. Kiku went straight up to her room while I gawked with Claudia following close behind.

“Kiku keeps some cereal and stuff for breakfast in the morning,” she informed me, “you can stay in the other guest bedroom. I think I have some pyjamas that might fit you if you want.”

“Thanks,” I said, enraptured. “Your house is amazing.”

“Eh, it’s the ‘burbs, you should see the Duke’s place downtown. Drink?”

Agreeing absently, I tried to think of who she meant. “Sorry, there’s a Duke?”

“Vampire Duke of Chicago,” she said, cracking open a soda and handing it to me, “our society’s still pretty medieval.”

“Oh, right, like King Dracul. Look, I’ve been dying to ask… no, wait, that’s a bad turn of phrase. I wanted to ask, why do you work as a waitress if you’ve got all this?”

She smiled knowingly. “Connection to the real world, fun, profit, not having to worry about responsibility or being burdened by other people’s problems outside your circle of friends. I’ve got a lot of reasons but the main one, and I think most vampires would say this, is that connection to other people. We didn’t have that ten years ago; I’m making the most of it now. Hell, Masterson was the same; he just got carried away with it.”

“What do you mean?”

She got me to sit down on the softest leather couch I’d ever sat in. Playing my hand over the armrest, I decided that I loved leather.

“Where to begin,” Claudia sighed, sitting back in her armchair. “Imagine fifty or a hundred years ago before the Revelation. Nobody believes in vampires or that anything else even exists, other than a few crackpots. Even though you don’t burn up in the sun, people notice that you don’t age and how the people close to you grow weak for a few days of the week like clockwork. Even if you hypnotize them, you can’t get rid of that look in their eyes like they know you did them wrong. Eventually, they go with their feelings and turn their back on you, betray you, no matter what you do to make up for it.”

I nodded slowly, trying to imagine myself in that position.

“We were all like that once,” she continued, “paranoid, angry, depressed and without hope. Despite not having to kill… some of us killed out of hate or spite. Some can’t take the life and choose to end it, which isn’t generally pleasant because vampire suicides necessarily involve fire or starvation. That’s where Masterson was fifty years ago, merely ten years dead after less than a score alive. When the world opened up to us again, some of us went a little crazy. We pushed to be involved in life for the first time and got a taste for it. Masterson never completed high school or went to college, so he started there. Heck, I never went to college either but I read a lot, keep up with the times, too many of us get stuck on what things were like when they were alive and don’t change.”

“So he gets into high school,” I surmised, “and at first he’s kind of scary, so he tries to be nice and gets a reputation as a soft touch. Then someone finds out that vampire blood makes humans better and some girl attaches herself to him and shows him how he can make a bunch of friends…”

Claudia nodded sadly. “It happens that way too much.”

Taking a long drink, I considered what she was saying. “I can sympathize. When I was at school, I was the loner geek kid that was into all things weird and the girls liked to tease me. Some kid once asked me if I’d like to buy a friend… how after school special can you get?”

“And now you’re the cute chick,” she complimented.

I blushed hard. “Yeah, uh, I guess; at least for a few days. How… bad could this get?”

She considered me for a minute before answering. “You’re a cute, human, virgin who either saved a vampire from a short life of practical slavery or damned one of our own to imprisonment or possible death, shaming our entire race. No matter what, I guarantee we’re going to have the biggest turnout of vamps at Hold the Salt on record tomorrow night. Hell, the Duke will probably want to meet you at some point. Fortunately it’s Devil’s Night tomorrow, so we’re all booked out in advance.

“Sorry, Devil’s Night?”

“In the old days, Devil’s Night was about making mischief after Halloween itself became too commercialized,” she explained. “These days, we use it as an excuse to split our Halloween party over two nights.”

Yawning, her talk about work reminded me how sore I was. “Speaking of work, I better get some sleep.”

Nodding, Claudia led me upstairs and showed me where my room was. Other people would call such a simple room Spartan, I called it luxurious. The mattress felt so soft when I tested it with my hands that I was tempted to lie down and sleep in my clothes.

“I’m so sore,” I complained once Claudia returned with the pyjamas she’d promised me.

“I could fix that for you,” she offered, giving me a smoky look.

“I von to suck your blood,” I teased, yet another pulse from the choker warming my body.

Claudia giggled as I mocked her with playful hisses and reaching ‘claws’. I blinked and the next thing I knew she was holding my arms down on the bed, straddling me. “That’s supposed to be my line,” she whispered huskily.

Another pulse from the choker echoed through my body. I stared up at her, her face shadowed by the light above and I came to a decision. “Let go,” I said.

She frowned sadly for a moment and pulled back reluctantly but I grabbed her wrists before she could leave. “Wait a moment,” I begged, reaching up to pull my hair away from my neck, turning my head slightly to expose myself to her.

I gasped when she leant over to breathe in my scent, her lips brushing against my skin thrilling me to the core. I moaned when she licked the vein, tasting my pulse under her tongue. She surprised me by pulling back again despite the ardour in her eyes as she gazed longingly at my neck. “Shirt off,” she ordered, stripping herself.

Blushing deeply, I complied, drinking in the sight of her naked body as she pulled a towel out from under the bed. I was a little confused until she pulled me up so that she could place it underneath me when I lay back down. “Wow,” I commented cheekily, “you keep those under all your beds.”

“Yep,” she answered, grinning wickedly, “centuries of practice.”

Then she sank her fangs into my neck and I was lost to a void of pleasure beyond description. I ran my fingers through her hair as she drank me in, the feel of her tongue against my skin sending chills down my spine. Her hands roamed my body and my back finally arched as I was rocked by my first female orgasm, consciousness passing away in a delirious haze as she kissed me.

When I woke, I discovered her watching me, her nose inches from mine as she held me close. “Hey there,” she whispered.

Dopy from sleep and joy, I smiled back. “Hey,” I greeted, “don’t you sleep?”

“Nope,” she admitted with a grin.

“Oh, yeah, right,” I said, feeling silly. “God I feel so good…”

“That’s my blood,” she chuckled, kissing me on the lips again.

I frowned between kisses. “When did you feed me your blood?”

“Around the point where you were sucking my tongue,” she teased, “don’t worry, one little drop’s well below the legal limit.”

“I know,” I said, blinking. “Jeeze, I must have been out of it if I don’t remember that, it’s all just a blur.”

“The bite can do that. Speaking of, you need breakfast, wait right here,” she ordered before disappearing in the blink of an eye.

I missed the warmth of her body next to mine in the bed but I was also too comfy to move, so I let her go without protest. She returned with cereal, orange juice and vitamins, which I consumed eagerly. Donating blood to a vampire is serious business beyond just the fact that it’s a lot like sex, replenishing yourself is important… particularly if you want to do it again. Besides, Claudia seemed to enjoy fussing over me like a mother hen and I discovered that I enjoyed being pampered.

“Oh, crap,” I said suddenly during breakfast, slapping myself on the head, “what’s the time?”

“Relax, we’ve got five hours before lunch,” Claudia reassured me, “enough time to get your things out of your apartment and do a little shopping.”

“Wait, what?” I asked stupidly.

“Well,” she started, sitting on the bed and crossing her luscious legs in front of me in full view, “I know this might be moving a little too fast but I think we should get you out of that hell hole you live in asap. I’ve already got one lodger and I’m fine with a second if you want the room. Don’t worry, I’m not asking for a permanent relationship or anyth…”

The choker pulsed again and I found myself silencing her with a deep kiss. “What happens after Halloween and I go back to the way I was?” I asked nervously when we were done, hugging my legs.

She stroked my cheek fondly. “I didn’t bite you for the way you look, I did it because I like what I see when I look into your eyes. Maybe things will work out, maybe they won’t but I’d like to give it a try.”

When I finally finished breakfast and managed to hop out of bed, I felt better than I’d ever had in my life. I showered with the choker on, figuring that it would clean and dry itself which turned out to be a good assumption. The first thing I noticed was that my hair had grown past my shoulders overnight, a side effect of the vampire blood I’d ingested, which forced me to brush the tangles out of my hair. The choker pulsed several times while I was in the shower but I couldn’t work out what exactly was setting it off. I was a little frustrated when I left the bathroom with my hair up in a towel but I got over it by the time I was dressed.

“Morning, Kiku,” I greeted cheerfully when I ran into her downstairs. I started to get worried when she stoped to stare at me. “Uh, Kiku, is there something wrong?”

She shook her head quickly. “No! No, nothing’s wrong. You just look… um… different this morning. Hey, why don’t you go out to the kitchen, Claudia’s listening Mourning Talk on SCARE.”

“Cool, that’s my favourite show,” I said cheerfully, allowing nothing to penetrate my bubble of happiness.

Kurt Mezoic was talking on the radio when I entered the kitchen. Claudia hovered over it, intent on every word. “…and now a repeat of our top story this morning on S-C-A-R-E Mourning Talk. The mysterious new waitress at Hold the Salt made local news last night, revealing that the daughter of a wealthy businessman who has yet to be named by police has not only imbibed the blood of her vampire lover despite being underage but sold that blood illegally to other minors. Police have confirmed that the quantities sold were well over the legal limit for adults and may call into doubt her school’s recent sporting results. The vampire in question has been incarcerated and placed on suicide watch pending a psychological examination of his competency to stand trial. No word as yet on the girl in question, though she apparently remains in custody. Tabitha from Hold the Salt has confirmed, however, that the new waitress known as ‘Jacqueline’ will be working from 1pm to 1am tonight, so swing by if you’d like to give her your personal congratulations. Now the wea...”

The radio clicked when Claudia hit the off button.

“Wow,” I commented, stunned. “You weren’t kidding.”

“I don’t kid,” she sighed, rubbing her forehead. Looking at me, her eyes narrowed. “Well, you seem… different this morning.”

I rolled my eyes, putting my hand on one hip as I leant against the kitchen bench. “Yeah, Kiku said the same thing,” I told her, pausing for a moment as the choker pulsed again. “Say, how ‘bout that shopping trip you promised?”

Claudia blinked, taking a longer look at me. “What the heck was that just now?”

“What was what?” I asked, confused.

“That little jump like something gave you an electric shock,” she pressed.

“Oh, I don’t know, the choker keeps making these little warm pulses… it just startles me for a moment, that’s all.”

She frowned at me. “You seriously want to go shopping for clothes?”

I grinned, pressing myself against her affectionately. “Hell yes! It sounds like fun!”

“Ok, you are not yourself,” she accused, frowning even more deeply, “sit down while I call Tabitha.”

Feeling hurt, I flopped happily into one of her comfy leather chairs and sighed lustily. “Come on, it’s probably just the effect of your blood.”

“Seriously, I didn’t give you anywhere near enough blood to make you act so… so… sexy,” she countered, picking up her phone and dialling super-fast. “Not that I’m complaining but what happened to little miss bundle of nerves from yesterday?”

I arched my back and stretched, displaying myself for her. “Maybe all she needed was a good fang-fuck.”

Claudia almost dropped the phone which was gratifying. “Hello? Tabitha?” She asked once it was back against her ear. “It’s me. What the fuck is that collar thing you’ve got on Jacqueline? Why? You want to know why? Jacqueline, come over here and say something to Tabitha.”

Rolling my eyes, I got up and sashayed over to Claudia, giving her a kiss before taking her phone. “Hey, Tabitha.”

“Jacqueline,” Tabitha greeted from the other end of the line, “is something wrong?”

“Yeah,” I answered, “Claudia’s chucking a fit for some reason because I want to go clothes shopping. I don’t know what her problem is, she offered.”

There was a long pause. “All right, what exactly were you going to use to pay for those clothes?”

I opened my mouth before realizing that I didn’t know the answer. “I guess I could… borrow some off Claudia and pay her back later. I’m moving in with her, after all.”

“You are?” She asked incredulously.

“Don’t say it like that, we’re getting along like houses and fire,” I said conspiratorially, “and don’t spread it around but I let her drink my blood last night. It was a-maz-zing, just thinking about it makes me want to touch…”

Claudia ripped the phone out of my hand, blushing furiously. “You hear that? Thank you,” she said before hanging up. “She’ll be right over.”

It wasn’t just a throw away phrase, I almost jumped out of my skin when Tabitha popped into existence in front of us with a sudden ‘womph’ sound. “HOLY CRAP! Why do you people keep doing that to me?”

Tabitha looked me up and down slowly. “What the hell?”

“Yes,” Kiku added, peering at us from around the corner shyly, “she’s been acting like that all morning.”

I put my hands on my hips and looked them all in the eye. “Hello, would someone mind filling the clueless human in on the secret supernatural business?”

“Secret?” Tabitha snorted. “Look at the way you’re standing!”

I looked down. I had my hands on my hips, keeping my weight on one so the one side cocked out alluringly. My back was also straight with my shoulders back, which made my breasts and butt stand out. “Yep, I’m bringing the sexy back,” I commented. A moment later it hit me. “Wait, what the hell did I just say?”

Tabitha glared at Claudia meaningfully.

“Look, I gave her a drop of my blood to take the edge off how sore she was after work last night,” Claudia admitted, “but one drop of vampire blood doesn’t suddenly turn someone into a sex bomb. I swear to you that I haven’t messed with her head. She said the choker pulses occasionally; do you know anything about that?”

“No,” Tabitha answered, “but I know someone who will.”

A half hour later, I was standing in front of an old man in a bathrobe inside what looked like an antique store in the middle of the local mall, wanting nothing more than to nip into the lingerie store next door rather than stand there for his inspection. “I don’t know why we have to do this, I feel great.”

“Of course you do,” the old man growled sarcastically as he examined the choker with a weird, smoky, monocle. “Now hold still!”

Sighing, I did as I was told.

“Any ideas?” Tabitha asked, actually nervous.

“Well, it’s working to spec,” he commented, “and damn fine work if I do say so myself. Where’d you get a hold of it?”

“The Ringmaster gave it to me years ago,” she said.

The old man smirked. “Well you must have gotten what you wanted out of it.”

She shrugged. “All it did was make me a little more attractive, I gave it up when I felt I didn’t need it anymore.”

The old man laughed suddenly before going back to examining my neck. “Sure, sure.”

“Look, enough with the riddles,” Claudia shouted in exasperation, “can you tell us what it’s doing to her?”

“Just what it’s designed to do,” he spat at her, “are you deaf, I told you it was working to spec.”

Tabitha smirked. “See? I told you it wasn’t the choker.”

“Woah there,” the old man said, pointing a bony finger at her, “that’s where we have our breakdown in communication. This necklace doesn’t make the wearer an attractive woman. It changes the wearer to make what they truly desire a reality.”

I blinked. “Wait, what?”

“Let me take a wild stab at the chain of events here,” the old man said. “The little witch over here hands you this choker and tells you it’ll make you an attractive woman so that you can work as a waitress. But your greatest desire at that point in time is getting the job and the only way you’re doing that is to become what she wants, so the necklace fulfils that desire.”

Tabitha’s jaw dropped.

“Now, you’re really nervous but you need this job and suddenly you seem to have a talent for things you’ve never tried before. But to be better at the job, you need to become a better woman, so you start getting better and womanly things. The vampire here starts to take notice and you start to take notice of her. Next thing you know, you’re in bed together… before either of you look outraged, it happened because Jacqueline here wanted it to happen, the choker alters her so she can say and do the right things at the right time. Now it’s the morning after and she’s insecure because things seem to be happening too fast and she doesn’t want Claudia to run away. Bang, she starts acting sexier and wanting new clothes… how am I doing, Jacqueline?”

I thought back to all the decisions I’d made in the last few days, trying to remember every time the choker had pulsed. Slowly, I nodded, coming to the conclusion that he was right on the money.

“Wait a minute,” Tabitha interrupted, “The Ringmaster was the one who told me it made the person who wore it an attractive woman.”

The old man shrugged. “You’ll have to ask him about his intentions. Most people desire to be attractive, if only deep down, so it would fulfil that desire as a matter of course. From there on it would depend on the individual wearing it. Maybe the whole femininity thing is the device’s own foible rather than a direct effect of its magic.”

Tabitha flushed. “He tricked me,” she confessed, starting to pace, “I wanted to be a business manager, earn some respect, grade well in the witch trials…”

“Wait a minute,” I interrupted, “then what was all this about the choker coming off at midnight on Halloween?”

“Oh, that’s the ingenious part,” the old man enthused, “if the wearer decides that what he has isn’t what he really wants by midnight on Halloween, the choker returns him to his former self… though it doesn’t erase whatever happened to him or her during that time. Of course if you’re satisfied, you’ll stay that way when it unlocks.”

Claudia caught me when I feinted, though I was only out for a moment.

“Well, that’s good news then,” Claudia told me after I’d calmed down, trying to look on the bright side, “either way you’ll be happy and have what you really want. That’s a blessing, right?”

The old man nodded, smiling. He was creepier than Esmerelda when he did that.

“I guess… wait, what happens if I desire something bad? Would that come true too?”

He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “It doesn’t make things come true, it changes you so that you make them happen naturally… let’s just say that you might want to get a tight grip on your anger for the next two days.”

The butterflies in my stomach fluttered madly in protest at the rollercoaster ride they were enduring inside my torso. We ate a small lunch quietly in the food court, each of us lost in our own thoughts. From the look on her face, I guessed that Tabitha was stewing over how Ringmaster had tricked her. Claudia was hard to read but she stayed close to me, which was reassuring. Kiku was inscrutable but obviously worried. I was trying very hard not to think of, or particularly desire, anything.

“I’m going to call Ringmaster when we get to work,” Tabitha informed us once we were back in Claudia’s car, having decided to skip retrieving my things and going straight to Hold the Salt. “We’ll see if he has some answers. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for the trouble this is causing you Jacqueline.”

I glanced at Claudia. “I’m not sorry. I don’t know what’s going to happen but so far, the last 24 hours have been the best day of my life. Wherever this goes, I think that’s the most important thing. Let’s roll, Claudia, we can’t let those people serve themselves.”

The vampire gave me a happy grin as she threw the BMW in gear and I squealed in delight as we tore out of the car park.

Service ramped up a lot faster than it had the day before. Esmerelda, bless her incorporeal heart, had all the decorations set up before we arrived. The tables and drapes had been changed to the traditional orange and black with pumpkin lamps hand carved by Chef and his legion of imps on each. There was a line of customers waiting when Tabitha ordered Frank to open the doors. The flow of people was slow with the golem vetting each group before allowing them entry but they were constant.

Claudia’s prediction about me catching the attention of the vampire community had been spot on. It felt like a full third of the tables in the house had at least one vampire in the group, though there were plenty of werewolves, catgirls and even some satyri mixed in with the crowd. Luckily nobody brought their kids, I assumed because they were resting up for the big night.

I’d finished taking orders at a table when one of the vampires insisted on shaking my hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jacqueline,” the seemingly middle aged lady greeted me enthusiastically. “I just wanted to thank you for helping that nice boy Masterson out of such a dire situation.”

“Well thank you,” I said, smiling back on reflex, “I just wish there was more I could do to help…”

Just after I said it, I knew I’d made a mistake. The choker’s pulse of warmth confirmed my suspicion. Excusing myself, I hurried back over to the pass before getting Tabitha’s attention. “I think I just made a boo-boo,” I told her, explaining what I’d said.

“Please tell me you don’t have a sudden desire to become a lawyer,” she practically begged.

“What? No,” I denied honestly, “just tell me if I start acting funny, all right. Did you get onto Ringmaster?”

“No,” Tabitha admitted, “which is strange of itself. He’s never failed to answer my call before. Either he doesn’t want to answer me or something’s keeping him from answering.”

Feeling bold, I decided that it couldn’t hurt for me to ask the next question. “Look, what is he? You seem to have known him for a long time.”

“Nobody knows what Ringmaster is,” she told me sourly, “believe me, I wish I knew, especially now. I don’t know what to think, I’ve never seen him mess with anything like this before. Working for him has been good for me, so I’m ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. We can only hope he has the best of intentions.”

“Great,” I sighed, getting back to work.

Sundown seemed to roll around faster than it had the day before; though we were so busy it was probably just a matter of perspective. As the day wore on I noticed the change in my behaviour more and more. While I was still getting ‘those looks’ from the customers, my reaction to them was remarkably different. I was enjoying being oggled, secretly thrilled at the attention. Even more thrilling were the looks I caught Claudia giving me out of the corner of her eye.

As the night wore on, the crowd started to get restless and it seemed like we were placating more customers and answering more questions about when Ringmaster would be putting on his show than we were taking orders. 9 o’clock rolled past. Tabitha was visibly starting to sweat by 10. By 11pm, she called all the staff into the kitchen except for Frank who remained to keep order.

“Please tell me you’ve heard from him,” Claudia demanded, getting straight to the point as we gathered in Tabitha’s office.

The witch shook her head. “I’ve never known him to miss a show. If he doesn’t turn up by midnight, I’m going to refund the cover charge. Don’t worry; you’ll all still be paid for the night’s work…”

She was interrupted by the sound of smashing glass. Kiku squeaked timidly in fright, clutching a tray across her chest.

“Shit,” Tabitha swore, “get back out there, I’ll make an announcement.”

We returned to find Frank in control of the situation, holding a stroppy human’s arm behind his back as he ejected him and his companions from the room. The crowd was somewhat placated at first by Tabitha’s announcement but as the minutes ticked by, the tension in the air rose again and we were forced to start handing out rounds of free drinks. With five minutes left until midnight, Tabitha took the stage again.

“I’m sorry, please, everyone,” she shouted over the angry shouts and catcalls. Frank had to step up to the stage and cross his arms before everyone fell silent. “I’m sorry,” Tabitha apologized, “I know you’re all here to see The Ringmaster put on a show for Devil’s Night. Believe me, I was expecting him much earlier than this and he gave me no indication that he would be late for the festivities. I was hoping and praying all night that he was going to turn up by midnight but…”

“Wait.” A voice interrupted from the middle of the room.

Everyone wherever they were, seated or standing, turned towards the speaker. Kiku snapped her fingers and a spotlight appeared over her head. “It’s all right,” she said calmly, her usually small voice projecting loudly through the room, “The Ringmaster is here.”

She exploded in a puff of smoke, causing some of the diners to take cover under their table. The smoke snaked high into the air before plunging down next to Tabitha, the shadowy figure inside shifting from Kiku’s silhouette to the Ringmaster’s before the striped man emerged into the light to a thunderous round of applause.

“OH SHUT UP!” Ringmaster roared, his hair momentarily reforming into spines and his teeth sharpening to a maw of fangs as he demanded silence. He was more intimidating that Frank, who quickly pulled Tabitha down off the stage, shielding her with his own body. “Yes, yes, you all pay attention to me now,” he growled, pacing across the stage, “never timid little Kiku, oh no. You all make me sick. Welcome, one and all, to the Devil’s Night show… I’m sorry but none of you will be leaving alive.”

The crowd jumped as the doors and windows slammed shut, security blinds locking into place in moments. Most of the crowd seemed to think it was still all part of the show but looking at the terror in Tabitha’s eyes from across the room, I knew the truth. Something was seriously wrong.

Calm again, The Ringmaster removed his top hat and placed it on the ground so he could sit on it. “Now that you are all a captive audience, let me tell you a story…”

Claudia came on the stage in a blur of motion but was suddenly knocked down by an invisible force that splintered the floorboards. I screamed, suddenly gripped with crushing force as if by an invisible hand before I could run to her side. The audience applauded. “Bastard!” Claudia swore. “What did you do to Kiku?”

Ringmaster laughed. “I am Kiku, you foul-mouthed tramp. Or should I say, sometimes I was Kiku, sometimes Kiku was just an illusion. Be a good little hound and stay right where you are, Frank,” Ringmaster warned when it looked like the golem was about to turn on him, “I’d hate to cut Tabitha into dog meat after all the trouble I put into raising her.”

Frank glared at him with baleful eyes but remained still, keeping himself between the insane being on stage and the witch.

“Now where was I?” Ringmaster asked himself absently. “Oh yes, let me tell you a story. This is the story of a boy who, years and years ago, discovered an item that was particularly special in a land where everything is inherently magical. He named it The Torc of Desire. The Torc’s power was such that it would grant the one who wore it their deepest, darkest, desires allowing them to reforge their life. The boy’s deepest desire was to travel the world, see everything there was to see and learn everything there was to know. The Torc fulfilled his every wish, taking him to lands undreamt of in human experience. The more he learned, however, the less he felt he knew and the more he realized that the one place he didn’t understand was his own home.”

The audience murmured, wondering when the illusions were going to start. I tried to struggle but I couldn’t even see what I was struggling against, though the grip was freezing me to the core. Claudia seemed to be pinned to the ground by the same invisible force, though she was able to fight against it to some extent until it crushed her into the ground again.

“When he returned, the boy met his soul mate but unfortunately they couldn’t be together unless he could get the permission of the King. To win her to his side, he befriended the monarch who promised her as a boon on a single condition. Find me my own bride in the mortal realm, he said, find me a Queen. Eagerly the boy returned to Earth but, even knowing all that he did, finding a single soul that could mirror that of the King of Death was an impossible task. Instead, he set about creating one.”

The audience’s murmurs of confusion became angrier. Some of the smarter ones were starting to get nervous as they caught on to the fact that what they were watching might not be part of the show.

“One doesn’t just cobble together a soul from bits and pieces like one might build a golem, however,” Ringmaster continued. “Nor can anyone just pull one from the figurative primordial ooze of the Junian overmind. Eventually, the boy became a man and he realized that the answer was wrapped around his throat.”

“I’m going to eat your eyes,” Claudia threatened from where she was stuck prone on the floor.

“Then allow me to wish you bon appetite,” Ringmaster murmured, making some of the more clueless members of the audience laugh half-heartedly out of politeness, though even they were starting to catch on.

One of the vampires leapt out of his seat and started to beat on the security doors, swearing profusely. “You can’t keep us here,” he protested, shaking his fist at Ringmaster, “let me out, now!”

Blood seemed to burst from his pores, dripping and spraying across the room. Some of the audience members got wet. He wailed for a moment before his flesh melted into a puddle of bloody slime.

“The next person to interrupt will die by fire,” Ringmaster informed everyone coldly, cowing the rest as they huddled together in terror. “The Torc, when given to another would bring what they desired to fruition. All I needed was someone who might be persuaded to truly desire the King of Death and present her to him during Samhain, the day he may cross over into this world. Many brides have been considered and rejected but today we may rejoice, because I believe that my final candidate has arrived, brought into my hands ironically by purest chance. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the sacrifice of the evening… Jacqueline!”

A second spotlight illuminated me where I continued to struggle, causing ghostly wet arms to fade into view around my torso. “Esmerelda?” I gasped, puffing from exertion.

“Sorry darling,” she whispered viciously into my ear, “it’s amazing what nearly a hundred years of abstinence will make a girl do.”

The Ringmaster grinned as somewhere in the distance, church bells began to toll, extending his arms out from his sides. “Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen… the gate opens.”

The stage shuddered as light and matter twisted itself into writhing vortices of darkness. The wooden floorboards began to sprout, green vines snaking upward to entangle themselves in the shape of a spiralling arch before sprouting inch-long red thorns. Panic spread as the vines reached out, creeping across the floor, menacing and entangling anyone in their path. Frank grabbed Tabitha and forced her to hold still while others that struggled were pierced and eventually dragged down by the implacable limbs. The vines withered on contact with the wraith’s deathly aura, however, leaving the two of us standing in a small clean circle.

Turning to the arch, Ringmaster knelt, placing his cane at his feet as mammoth shadow reached into our world. Baleful green luminescent eyes peered at us from under the ragged hood that emerged from the portal, fluttering in an ethereal breeze that no-one else could feel. Stepping through, the figure came into the light revealing that it was swathed in a long cloak of raven feathers. Holes torn in the sides of the hood allowed a magnificent crown of antlers to reach up over his head. He was also obviously male, as his muscular chest and thick, powerful, arms testified.

“Welcome, Harvestman, Lord of Autumn, King of Death,” Ringmaster greeted obsequiously, “it is an hono…”

“Spare me, Levoreth,” the Harvestman growled, “my patience with you has worn thin. Bring your girl forward for consideration… but I will tolerate no more trickery.”

I saw fear in The Ringmaster’s face as he extended his hand towards me. “Majesty, you have but a day to make this woman desire to be your perfect bride and it shall be so.”

My heart hammered in my chest as those terrible eyes turned in my direction. “She has been claimed by the redhead here.”

“I didn’t think that would be a problem, your majesty,” Ringmaster said flippantly.

“It is not. Come here,” he ordered, reaching out to me.

Esmerelda let me go as the vines receded, clearing my path to the Harvestman. My hands were shaking as I took my first step towards him. His gaze seemed to intensify and I suddenly felt the desire to be close to him. The choker pulsed in response, stronger than ever before and my next step was faster and more sure footed. By the time I reached the stage, I could feel the overwhelming force of his presence stoking a heat in my belly that I’d only felt once before in the arms of Claudia.

“Jacqueline!” Claudia screamed. Mesmerized by the Harvestman’s presence, I didn’t even turn to look at her.

The Havestman chuckled. “Pretty little redhead, my claim outranks your own by such orders of magnitude that you cannot even conceive my place in your universe. I am the god of desire, master of the hunt and harvest; I am hunger and lust embodied. In short I am the master of all predators. You will learn your place in my kingdom before this day is done.”

He beckoned to me and I took another step towards him without thinking, his pull on my soul too strong to resist. I shuddered as he stroked my cheek, the choker pulsing as the merest brush of his skin brought me to orgasm. “Yes,” The Harvestman said with some heat, “this is the clay from which I will sculpt my Queen.”

Pulling me against his body, the choker began to pulse with my every movement and action. My body pressed against his, pulse. My cheek rubbing against his chest, pulse. My hand sliding under his cloak, pulse. My breasts mashed against his body, pulse. His hand sliding down my back, pulse. Our eyes meeting, pulse. His tongue sliding into my mouth, pulse. The ache of need between my legs, pulse. The warmth of his cloak as he wrapped me in its shadowy embrace, pulse. I was so far gone that nothing else mattered as I clung to him, wanting him in every conceivable way.

“Unfortunately, Levoreth,” my King whispered, “while you have performed far beyond my expectations, you have not fulfilled our bargain.”

“What?” Ringmaster cried out in askance, half standing.

“You were to deliver a bride,” The Harvestman explained, wiggling his finger at Ringmaster the way one might scold a child, “she is fit to become my bride… but she is not yet a bride.”

“T-that’s… semantics!” Ringmaster protested lamely. Suddenly realizing that the sewerage he was in was slowly rising above his nostrils, he turned to run but was brought up short by the wall of brambles behind him. “Esmerelda!”

The ghost fell to her knees, weeping. “I’m sorry,” she wailed, falling to her knees, “darling, he won’t let me move!”

My King laughed. “She is also a creature of desire and she is of the dead, both aspects bring her under my control. As are you, Levoreth, your desire for her damns you.”

The Harvestman reached inside his cloak and pulled fourth a curved, sickle-like, dagger, placing it in my hands. “Jacqueline,” he whispered, “you desire me, you desire Claudia and you desire revenge. Prove yourself worthy of me, fulfil your desires and everything shall be yours.”

The choker pulsed again as my hand closed around the dagger’s handle, my king’s hunger filling and emptying me at the same time. Ringmaster scrambled across the floor away from me on his back as I turned to face him, feeling empty of everything but need. Hunger gnawed at me as I cornered my betrayer, pouncing atop his old, fragile, body and pinning him there with my knee, I raised the dagger high over my head.

Blood sprayed across my face, pulse. The salty, metallic, tang of his blood on my tongue, pulse. The way consciousness faded from his glassy eyes, pulse. The feeling of his limp body between my legs, pulse. The feel of flesh and bone parting under my blade, pulse. The still lump of muscle torn between my teeth, pulse.

All was black.

When my consciousness fully returned, I felt myself falling slowly through endless darkness. I felt calm and safe there in the perfect void, enjoying the silence. Eventually I alighted on something soft and smooth and I was pulled down onto my back, luxuriating in the feeling of silk against my skin.

It was as if my mind suddenly rediscovered light and movement. Sitting up, I found myself in an enormous double bed of spiked wrought iron, lying amidst bedclothes of crimson silk. I would have been naked except for the dried blood that caked my skin, the sight of which made me feel incongruously content. The rest of the room was tiled in alternating mid-grey and dark grey tones, though the room was in a state of disrepair with cracks and missing tiles dotting every surface. Most of the furniture looked like it was cast from human bones. A giant silver mirror dominated one entire wall, allowing me to see my gore-stained face. What really caught my attention was the lone figure standing at the foot of my bed, staring at me with deep green eyes. The eyes were different but I recognized my vampire lover immediately despite the lacy scarlet gown she was wearing that really wasn’t her style no matter how good she looked.

“Claudia?” I asked, forgetting everything else as I scrambled onto my knees and wrapped my arms around her neck. “God, Claudia, what the fuck is happening?”

She was motionless for a moment before grasping my wrists and pushing me away. “I’m sorry, Princess,” she apologised with uncharacteristic politeness, “your fiancée has instructed me to help you bathe before the ceremony.”

I placed my hand on the clasp of the choker, my heart skipping a beat when I found it still around my neck. “Claudia? What’s he done to you? How long have I been out?”

She cocked her head to one side as she considered the question. “I am a predator; it is my pleasure to serve. You have slept the entire day, All Saints Day approaches rapidly. You must bathe quickly for the ceremony.”

Following cautiously, I let her lead me through to an open circular atrium of black marble and tarnished brass. The sky above was overcast and thick with the smoke of distant fires. Gargantuan gothic towers rose up all around us with twisted gargoyles leering down on those far below, covered with thorny vines that occasionally moved of their own accord.

“Relax, Princess,” Claudia reassured me as she guided me into the water, “we are perfectly safe in your future husband’s domain.”

My nipples tightened as the memory of the Harvestman rose unbidden. The water was warm but my thoughts of him made me flush with heat as I imagined his hands exploring my body. The choker pulsed and I had a sudden vision of him between my legs, taking my body and soul for his own. It was all I could do to lie there in fear and pleasurable torment as the image took root in my mind.

Claudia helped me wash with soap and a soft cloth, cleaning the dried blood off my back while I worked on the rest of my body. “You want to look your best for him, don’t you?” She asked.

“Yes,” I admitted, my heart aching for his approval even though it brought tears to my eyes. Overcome with so many conflicting emotions, I broke down and wept.

Once I was clean and the storm of sobs was over, I rose out of the bath with Claudia close behind. I refused to let her dry me, insisting on doing it myself, so she opened the door to the next room for me. Beyond the door was a dressing room dominated by a mannequin wearing a black lace wedding dress; the veil resembled cobwebs and the embroidery depicted skulls wrapped in thorny vines with black roses in bloom, literally a Goth girl’s dream wedding dress. The choker pulsed as I stroked the black leather corset, noting the metal spikes that ran down the spine under the veil. Fascinated, I stepped around the dress, looking at it from every angle. I wanted to wear it so badly it was a physical pain.

Claudia steered me into a chair in front of a mirror and began brushing out my hair before plaiting and arranging it to suit the dress. Next she produced dark make-up, circling my eyes with black eyeliner and darkening the area around them with eye shadow. Pale highlights were applied to my cheeks with black lipstick finishing the effect.

I was giddy with joy as I stood to be dressed, making an effort to stand still as Claudia did most of the work. We started with the lacy black lingerie, stockings and garter belt. At first, I thought the high heels were going to be a problem but the choker pulsed and suddenly I was walking in them like a pro. The dress itself was a pain since it had to be put on in several stages and arranged just right each time, particularly the train that trailed several feet behind me. The corset was tight but not too uncomfortable, though I was worried about the circulation in my arms when the frilly gloves had to be belted around my upper arms to prevent them from falling. Finally, the veil covered my face and I was ready, though I couldn’t help trembling like a leaf.

“Claudia,” I whispered hopefully, “are you still in there?”

“I’m still here, Princess,” she said without the slightest heat. “I’m afraid your fiancée has forbidden any dalliances until after your honeymoon. He wishes to take your innocence for himself.”

The euphemism made the traitorous organ between my legs clench eagerly despite my conscious mind’s revulsion. At least, I hoped it was a euphemism.

Another set of doors opened and we began to march, Claudia’s arm in mine as we entered an enormous hall of basalt and iron, appearing to be as much a natural cave formation as worked stone. Some of the witnesses were bound to the walls by vines, I recognized what faces I could see from the audience at Hold the Salt, but there was also a different crowd waiting to cheer as I stepped onto the red carpet walkway. They were pale-skinned with generally dark hair and clothes ranging from blacks to purples and deep reds. They were slender and ethereally beautiful, their ears pointed. Some had sharp teeth, some bore scars and others were monstrous yet still possessed a strangely sensual appeal. All were armed with weapons so exotic that I couldn’t identify them, though their attire seemed to mimic that of a mortal medieval court.

As we approached dais at the other end of the room, I saw my King waiting for me by a stained altar stone. Frank and Tabitha called out my name as I walked up the stairs, trapped behind the bars of a gilded silver cage. Esmerelda was trapped there too but all she did was stare at her hands and weep. I was too enraptured by the presence of my fiancée to answer their pleas as my insides melted with the need for him. He reached under my veil to stroke my cheek, making me moan with abandon despite myself.

“Are you ready?” He whispered the question so only I could hear.

“You’re fae!” I hissed under my breath, trying to concentrate on anything but my rampant lust.

He laughed. “We are the harvest, the season of death, clearing the land so that new life can take root. We are hunters, we are hunger, we are your death no matter how large or small. Welcome to the Autumn Court, my bride.”

A chill ran down my spine as I rubbed the clasp that rested on my neck, feeling the pattern of intertwined silver vines that held it shut. Everything that had happened suddenly clicked together in my head. “This choker is yours,” I accused, “you tricked Ringmaster.”

“Excellent deduction, Princess,” he said, smiling. “Levoreth was a useful pawn, if predictable and narrow of vision. It takes a special mind for the Torc to forge a being into my Queen. Certain repressed desires need to already be present, waiting to be unleashed. You are the culmination of my plot, the fertile soil in which I shall plant the next generation.”

The choker pulsed as I considered the proposition of children, an old longing that I was familiar with though I knew it was no longer entirely my own. “If I give myself to you, will you let everyone else go?” I asked though clenched teeth, trying futilely to resist my body’s new instincts.

He smiled. “If that is what my bride would wish.”

“Then I’m ready,” I said, making my decision.

He took my arm away from Claudia, who knelt in reverence as he led me to the altar. “Generations of kings have sacrificed themselves on this altar for the good of the people,” he told me, “by their sacrifice, we will be bound.”

On the altar were two rings and the dagger that I’d used to kill Ringmaster, still stained with his blood. Taking one of the rings, he slid it onto the ring finger on my right hand. “This ring symbolizes eternity,” he intoned, speaking the words from memory, “the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth. By these rings and the blood, I pledge my fate to yours and make you my Queen.”

I picked up the other ring, placing it on his finger. “This ring symbolizes eternity,” I repeated, “the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth. By these rings and the blood, I pledge my fate to yours and take you as my King.”

“Almost midnight,” he said, glancing up at the roof, obviously seeing something I couldn’t, “kiss me now.”

Our lips met. I had a momentary sense of vertigo as he held me close, waves of sound breaking around as the audience applauded. My bones literally turned to jelly for a moment as my muscles stretched and shifted under my skin as I was reborn. The only change that I found disorienting occurred in my ears as they grew into long points. I felt a buzz like I’d just knocked back half a dozen shots of coffee, so light on my feet I might have sworn I could fly. In the distance, a bell slowly began to toll. The sound was so familiar that it cut through the haze of my King’s enchantments. Frowning, I realized that there was something I was missing, something fundamental.

“Darling,” Harvestman whispered, “is something wrong?”

“Yes,” I said, shaking my head, “yes…”

“Do you not have everything you desire?”

Looking up into those green eyes, I was so close I could see his face under the hood. He was beautiful in a cruel and callous way, though I longed for the taste of his lips I was also dissatisfied. “No,” I answered, “I just realized there’s something else I want.”

His face fell as the bell continued to toll. “What?”

Grabbing the dagger from the altar with unnatural speed, I watched his eyes bulge as I slid the blade between his ribs. “I want a divorce!” I growled from between clenched teeth as I searched for his heart with the tip. Yanking it free, Harvestman fell to his knees, looking up at me in stunned disbelief as I plunged the blade down between his neck and his collarbone. At that moment, the bell tolled its twelfth and final note, unlocking the clasp of the choker which fell from my neck.

The fae screamed, bursting into white fire as reality seemed to collapse in on itself. The vines withered, lowering their captives gently to the ground while Frank and Tabitha’s cage evaporated into mist. Harvestman’s illusions were drawn into a vortex over our heads, peeling away to reveal the ravaged interior of Hold the Salt before imploding spectacularly.

Moments later, the police knocked down the doors, waving their guns around looking for perpetrators that no longer existed. They found the stunned and confused customers on the floor who had no memories of their captivity. Naturally, we let the cops lead us from the building, though Tabitha and Frank took charge and ran interference for Claudia and I. We clung to each other like sailors on a raft in a stormy sea, caring about nothing except for the fact that we still had each other.

Harvestman and Ringmaster’s bodies disappeared along with Esmerelda and the rest, leaving the only verifiable casualty being the pool of sludge that had once been a vampire. The whole nasty affair was blamed on Ringmaster and Hold the Salt was shut down despite Tabitha’s vehement protests.

When all was said and done, I was still a newly reborn fae. Doctors and wizards from all over the globe wanted to poke and prod me for several years but our friend in the bathrobe got me off the hook and even recommended a tutor to help me explore my new powers. Claudia and I moved in together and we’re both blissfully happy, though I had to stop her from having Humbolt killed after one meeting. Also as it turns out, fae blood is like booze for vamps, so we have to take things slow. We’re both looking for a man who can handle being in our lives but we just can’t seem to catch the right one.

I sold my story to Kurt Mizoic at SCARE for a cut of the millions the station made selling it on to other media groups. There’s even a book and movie in the works. Best of all, Claudia and I pooled our resources to finance Tabitha’s new project: a reinvigorated Hold the Salt at an all new location in Chicago. Frank’s already signed on, though that was a given after he and Tabitha hooked up, Chef’s coming back from an extended vacation in Spain to man the kitchen and we even rescued Doorman before the original building was demolished.

As for the Torc of Desire, I’ve still got it. I figure it might come in handy one day, if I ever come across someone worthy enough. Come to think of it, we’re going to need a new waitress or two.

Say… anyone need a job?

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