The first time Milada had mentioned her interest in Utah and Salt Lake City, Garrick asked, “What institutions of higher education are we talking about?”
The University of Utah boasted a highly regarded teaching hospital and computer sciences program with a number of well-known spin-offs, she told him. Division I football, basketball, and women’s gymnastics.
All fine and good, but Garrick wasn’t referring to the university’s academics. He was thinking of the student body. Or rather, that’s what he wanted Milada to keep in mind. It was a good thing he was over two thousand miles away right then. If he ever got wind of this little fiasco, he wouldn’t give her a moment’s peace about it for the next decade.
Jane was bad enough. Garrick playing mother hen could get downright annoying. Don’t go hunting in your own back yard, he always said, and she saw the wisdom in that advice.
But the University of Utah was a state university, which meant it should be crammed with libidinous and barely legal young adults eager to get stupid over alcohol and sex, religious convictions notwithstanding. She could get what she wanted with a minimum of manipulation.
It was easier for a woman that way—easier to be seduced than to be the seducer. Even her sister Zoë would settle, in a pinch, for strolling into a bar and letting a man get lucky with her. “Like falling off a log,” she’d say, with no little contempt. Zoë had been off men for a century or two, and Milada could see her point.
To seduce was the greater challenge, to consummate the seduction the greater reward. Milada herself hardly missed this intersection of business and pleasure. She could pretend to be above it. But the hunt always thrilled, especially after a long fast. She fell easily into the routines of pursuit. Her long-honed instincts quickened at the thought of blooding the prey.
Which was why her attention this night fell on a comely junior sitting alone at the bar. She was dressed in white cotton and wore about her a practiced look of sophistication. The boys caught up in her scent flitted to and fro about her until she batted them away and they fluttered off, wings and egos bruised.
Milada slid onto the barstool next to her. “Hi,” she said, her arm brushing the girl’s. “Is this place taken?”
The girl beamed at her. “Not anymore.” She tossed her golden locks.
“I just thought—that last boy looked interested in you.”
“He might have been. But I wasn’t.”
“I’m glad you weren’t,” said Milada.
In her rush, Milada had left her driver’s license behind. The bartender wasn’t the same one from earlier that evening. To make matters worse, she couldn’t remember how old she was supposed to be. She was supposed to start out at twenty-one in each rotation. Or was it every other? What a monstrous annoyance the whole routine was.
“Perrier,” she said.
The bartender harrumphed to himself. Yeah, he had her pegged right.
“I’ll have another beer,” said the girl. She said to Milada, “I’m Teresa.”
“Really? Is that where you’re from? Your accent is so cool.”
“I call New York home these days.”
“New York City? Wow. This is really pathetic, but Salt Lake is the farthest east I’ve ever been.”
“Where is home for you?”
The bartender placed two glasses on the counter along with a bottle of Perrier and a bottle of Coors. Teresa took a drink from the Coors. Milada watched her carefully. She guessed the girl had deliberately drunk enough to shut down her superego and relieve herself of any personal culpability should her choices tonight lead her afoul of her desired expectations. This was what college girls called being “liberated.”
Teresa said, “You going to school here?”
Milada shook her head.
The girl looked at her sweatshirt. “You a BYU student?”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t think.”
“I don’t think so either. I got it from a friend.”
The girl giggled. “Not a bad idea. Kind of a turn-on, especially around here.”
“Is there some sport in doing a BYU coed?”
“Next best thing to beating ’em at football, from what I hear.”
Two boys came up to the bar, one to the left of Milada, one to the right of Teresa. “Hi,” said the boy at Teresa’s shoulder. Teresa coolly ignored him. Milada might have enjoyed flirting with them, but she couldn’t be distracted now. She scanned the room and picked out a pair of wallflowers next to the jukebox. The boy’s hand rested on the bar next to hers. She touched his hand and said, sotto voce, “Those two over there are pretty cute.”
The boy picked them out at once. “Hey, Ross, check out those two.” He set off across the floor, the other boy on his heels.
“Pricks,” said Teresa.
“Not all of them.”
“Yeah, I suppose. If you want it, you always know where to get it.”
Milada laughed. “Demand always exceeds supply.” She took a drink of the Perrier. “Do you live around here?”
“A couple of blocks.” Teresa finished her beer. “How about we get out of here?”
They drove north and then east in Teresa’s Honda Acura, her daddy’s old car. Daddy’s generosity, Teresa admitted, was his excuse to get an Infiniti M45. She turned past a lighted sign announcing the campus of the University of Utah. They passed a darkened tennis court, continued down the shaded street. Along the sidewalks the canopy of the trees shadowed the street lamps. Blue moonlight marbled the asphalt.
“What about your roommates?” Milada asked.
“School doesn’t start for a couple more days. They’re still out of town.”
Milada ran her fingers through her short-cropped hair. She flashed a smile at the girl and moistened her lips with her tongue.
Teresa parked in the driveway of a white clapboard bungalow hidden behind a copse of overgrown spruce. Higher up on the university grounds, the rhythmic swish, swish, swish of the sprinklers syncopated with the drone of cicadas and Mormon crickets.
Teresa unlocked the door. “Come in,” she said.
Milada stepped across the threshold. The interior of the house had been converted to a rabbit hutch of student apartments, killing any charm the early twentieth-century architecture promised from the outside. But it was safe here, shielded by thick plaster walls. And empty—except for them.
Teresa shut the door. Before Milada could turn around, the girl had wrapped her arms around her waist and kissed her sloppily on the back of the neck. Milada relaxed into the embrace, her hands resting on Teresa’s before she turned and kissed her back, tasting the alcohol on her breath.
Their lips parted. Teresa cast her eyes toward the bedroom. “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” she whispered, her hot tongue touching Milada’s earlobe.
“Put your lips together and blow.”
The girl giggled. She was not devoid of wit. Or maybe it was a line a boy had used on her once, and she had no idea who Lauren Bacall was. But the girl was enjoying playing the seductress. Or was enjoying the pretense.
Inside the bedroom she darted to the window and yanked down the shades. She returned to the foot of the bed, tugging at her shirttails. Milada caressed the back of the girl’s neck with her cheek, the way a cat marks the object of its affections. Teresa fumbled at the buttons of her blouse. Milada undid the girl’s jeans, eased off her blouse and bra.
They kissed again. This time after they broke apart, the girl flung back the covers of the bed and cast herself across the sheets. Milada stripped off her sweat bottoms and lay next to her. The girl was not, Milada was sure, a lesbian. This was a dare with herself. A self-indulgent form of payback. If she were clever enough and brave enough, she’d write a paper titled “My First Lesbian Experience” and submit it to the prettiest and most progressive of her assistant professors. And titillate the hell out of the cute boy two desks in front of her when he happened to glimpse the report title as it was handed back.
Milada kissed her long and slow. There was venom on her tongue. No more than a drop. The hollow of the girl’s throat invited. She resisted, pressing her cheek against a rising curve. The girl moaned. Milada set to coaxing from her deeper, more passionate exclamations—
Then the girl’s rapture subsided, her breathing slowed, grew even, relaxed. Her face glowed with an almost angelic pleasure. There was a slight smile on her lips. Milada knelt beside her. The palatine tendons tightened across the roof of her mouth. She opened her mouth in a half-yawn. The ophidian fangs snapped down into the vertical grooves along the back of her lateral incisors.
Except, her venom should not have acted so quickly.
The girl was fast asleep.
Milada groaned with frustration. It was the alcohol that had emboldened her after all. The girl’s warmth radiated up at her, a soft heat rich enough to taste. Milada took a deep breath. She could still take her. The blood would be dulled without the hormonal tempering that came with sex. But prey was prey. Blood was blood.
In the aftermath of those incomprehensible days in Southwark, after Rakosi had infected her and her sisters and to his astonishment they had not died, the entirety of her life was given over to the hunger. She had taken girls younger than Teresa and far more innocent. She bent them to her will and shared them with her sisters and then handed them over to Rakosi, who had his way with them and left them for dead.
You shall not be like him. The law Mihaly Daranyi had etched upon their hearts. Never reveal, never infect, and take only in the consent of the act. What counted as consent—what qualified as the necessary quid pro quo—the distinctions she forced herself to make were tenuous ones. But it was in the splitting of these hairs that she created the moral justification for the existence of her soul.
Milada bowed her head, tightening the maxillary muscles in her jaw. The fangs folded back against the roof of her mouth. After retrieving her sweats, she kissed the girl’s cheek and whispered in her ear, “It was a dream, now all forgotten.” She stroked the girl’s cheek, leaving behind the invisible traces that would carry out what she willed.
Milada gathered up the bedding. For a moment, she paused. Propped against the pillows, her left hand draped across her right thigh, the girl was a living portrait of Manet’s Olympia. The resemblance made her smile.
Yet still so innocent. And so she would remain this night.
Milada tucked her in and shut off the light.
It was a mile back to the bar, maybe two—in either case, a brisk, pleasant walk. The exercise should blunt her cravings. She paused at the corner of First South and University, where the street sloped down from the bench and pushed across the valley toward the lake. At the bottom of the hill, the traffic light turned green. A red 1964 Ford Thunderbird convertible, almost black in the yellow penumbra of the sodium-vapor street lamp, climbed the hill, left turn signal blinking.
A kid stood up in the back seat and waved his arms. “Hey!” he shouted. Hey!” He caught Milada’s attention. “Yeah, you! Stay there! Don’t move!”
The car screeched to a halt. The kid toppled over. He picked himself up from the back seat. There was a vigorous exchange of opinions between the occupants of the front seat and the back seat. Even from her vantage point, Milada could see the driver rolling his eyes. But he cranked the wheel over, made a wide U-turn, and pulled up to the curb next to her. The kid scrambled over to the side of the car. “Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” said Milada.
“What’s your name?”
“Milly. What’s yours?”
“I’m Chad. This is Cole, that’s Kevin there in the driver’s seat.” He reached over mussed Kevin’s hair. Kevin tried to look too mature for this sort of horsing around and didn’t quite succeed. Chad said, “So what’s a nice girl like you doing out at this time of night?”
Milada smiled slyly. “Who says I’m a nice girl?”
Chad and Cole stared at each other with wide eyes. “Whoa!” they both yelled and knocked foreheads.
Milada said, “And what are you boys doing out at this time of night?”
Chad held up two plastic grocery bags, each straining with a pair of six-packs. “Refills!”
“You’re going to a party?”
“We’re keeping the party going.”
“Wanna come?” Chad gazed up at her with pleading eyes. He looked like a dog begging for a bone.
Milada laughed. “How about Kevin here? I hope he’s not as drunk as you two.” Realizing how intoxicated the girl had been aroused in her an extra note of caution.
Chad and Cole shook their heads. “Kevin is our designated driver.” Chad spoke like he was narrating a driver-ed video. “He never drinks and drives.”
Kevin smirked. “Yeah, I’m a real Boy Scout.”
“He was, too.”
“A real honest-to-God Boy Scout.”
She asked, “A Mormon?”
“No, no, no, no, no. Hell, no.” Chad turned his puppy-dog look on her again. “Wanna come?”
She felt like patting his head and scratching his chin. “Sure,” she said. “Sounds like fun.”
Chad yelled, “Bail! Bail!” and grabbed Cole by the shoulders and pulled him out of the front seat. Milada couldn’t help laughing. Taking Cole’s place, she said to Kevin, “Interesting company you keep.”
“Yeah, a pair of regular court jesters.”
“Marry, sir,” Cole declaimed, “they praise me and make an ass of me.”
Milada replied, “Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.”
Cole perked up. He struck a dramatic pose. “Foolery does not walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere.”
“Ah, this fellow is wise enough to play the fool.”
“What are you two talking about?” said Kevin.
“Shakespeare,” said Cole. “Twelfth Night.”
Two blocks farther up First South, past a row of frat houses, Kevin made another U-turn and stopped in front of a shabby-looking structure after the American Foursquare design: a two-story, brick-faced house with a squat hip roof and broad overhangs. They tramped into the kitchen. From the sound of things, the party was still well underway. Chad and Cole set to work replenishing the alcohol. Amidst the litter of beer bottles and microwave popcorn bags, a haggard-looking boy sat with his laptop and a liter of Diet Pepsi, staring at the screen with bloodshot eyes. Milada peeked over his shoulder. It looked like C++. She repressed the urge to give him a business card.
“A beer?” Kevin asked her.
“I’m not much of a beer drinker.”
“How about wine?”
“That might be interesting.”
Milada wandered into the living room. The party was a decidedly low-brow affair. She blended right in. An iPod plugged into a stereo amplifier churned through an eclectic collection of Japanese idol pop and German techno MP3 files. Nobody was dancing. A couple lay tangled together by the radiator. Three boys—no, wait, one of them was a girl—crowded together on the couch cradling laptops strung together with CAT5 cable, eyes focused with blazing intensity on the screens, saying nothing except for triumphal yelps when an opponent’s character got blasted to bits.
“Wanna play?” Chad asked. He and Cole retrieved their laptops from the coffee table.
“Video games have never been my forte.”
Kevin handed her a Dixie cup. “Here you go. The best booze in the house.”
She took a cautious sniff. It was a generic red wine, the kind she imagined got shipped from the Napa Valley in tanker trucks. “What vintage is it?”
Kevin laughed. “It’s been in the back of the refrigerator for about a month.”
Milada took a sip. “Hmm,” she said, nodding, “cheap and unpretentious.” She drained the cup. The soft sting of alcohol at the back of her throat, the bittersweet taste of dextrose and tannin focused her appetite. She said to Kevin, “What about you? Are you, as they say, a gamer?”
“Only if I want to lose.”
She laughed and touched his arm. The MP3 player cycled into another techno dance mix. Milada leaned into him and lowered her voice. “So where does a body go around here to get a little peace and quiet?”
Kevin nodded his head toward the stairway. She saw the hot spark in his eyes, the willingness and the desire. Her appetite quickened. She put down the cup and walked toward the stairway, her hand brushing across his arm. It took him no more than a moment to react. As she climbed the stairs, she glanced back at the living room. Nobody seemed to have noticed they’d left.
At the end of the hall, he opened a door and clicked on the light. Milada had to walk almost to the side of the bed so he could close the door. There was barely enough space between the foot of the bed and the wall to access the closet, barely enough space to cram a computer desk into the corner next to the window, barely enough space between the windows and the door to fit a chest of drawers and bookcase. Still, the room did not appear unsanitary. The air was tinged with male sweat and cologne.
Milada said, “You have interesting roommates.”
“As Cole says, this ain’t a Greek house—this is a geek house.”
Milada plucked a book off the bookcase. “Applied Structural Mechanics,” she read.
Kevin held up his hands in surrender. “Okay, I confess. I’m not a true computer geek. I only use them—I don’t live for them.”
“The Thunderbird is your work then?”
He preened. “Yeah.”
“I thought you looked a bit out of sorts.”
“They keep me around for my charm and good looks.”
She smiled at him. Kevin shrugged self-consciously. “Um, want the radio on?” He leaned against her side to click on the boom box perched atop the dresser. The radio was tuned to the university station. The velvet tones of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue filled the small room like a rich perfume.
Milada replaced the book. She leaned back against the boy’s chest and closed her eyes. The boy wrapped his arms around her. She snuggled into his embrace, tucked her arms under his, pressing his forearms up against her chest. He was remarkably restrained—a modern-day college student trained to not misconstrue even the most suggestive of advances by a woman. But even a civilized man had his limits. Milada drew away from him. Not giving him time to imagine he’d done something wrong, she pulled off her top and then smothered his exclamation of surprise and delight with her mouth.
She fell onto the bed with him, her hands playing across his chest. As their intimacy progressed, she tasted the bite of the venom at the back of her throat. Turning the boy on his back, she parted his lips with hers and dripped venom into his mouth. His heart kicked as the drug hit his bloodstream and his blood pressure spiked. The adrenaline in his blood would soon catalyze the drug. In the space of that transition, she must do her work.
She straddled his waist, leaning forward so he could run his hands along her sides, across the velvety sheen of sweat and oil. He watched her like a child watching fireworks, wide-eyed and amazed, simultaneously falling into a waking dream as the alkaloids took hold. He passed the point of no return.
Her breath rushed out of her lungs in a barely controlled gasp. Her fangs sprang into her mouth. She clenched her mouth shut to keep the razor-sharp fangs hidden. When she could again catch her breath, she caressed his face and kissed him. Giving the venom time to do its work.
Consciousness at last fled his mind.
Milada studied his supple body, unspoiled by age. She smiled at the luster of satisfaction on his face. With cool efficiency, she straightened his body and tucked the pillow under his neck. She turned his head to the left and covered his body with her own, pinning him against the mattress, her left hand across his forehead.
Were he to move abruptly while she fed, her fangs would vivisect his muscles and tissues like a hot scalpel through soft suet. She ran her tongue across his neck, tasting the heat in his veins, seeking the optimal point of penetration. Feeding from the wrist was less carnivorous in appearance, but the slighter volume and pressure in the limbs made it markedly less pleasurable and intolerably more tedious.
She opened her mouth wide. Her fangs extended and sank through the flesh, finding the vein with the precision of a skilled phlebotomist. The blood spouted through the hollows in her fangs and arced across the roof of her mouth. Half a pint would suffice. In her present desk-bound state, her body would metabolize no more.
Stopping the palatine ducts with her tongue, she withdrew her fangs and pressed her lips over the wound, sucking the last of the oozing blood. When the punctures had clotted, she licked the skin clean. By morning, only a pair of slight bruises would remain, hardly indistinguishable from a lover’s hickey.
Milada lay on her back next to the boy. The raw plasma burned in her throat. The hemocytes flooded into her bloodstream, disgorging a fresh supply of hemoglobin. Her metabolism spiked as the sudden rush of oxygen surged through her like a hot Santa Ana wind, every cell in her body lighting up in a chain reaction. She arched her back and clenched her fists to keep from crying out.
Her breath relaxed into a throbbing purr. She sank back on the bed exhausted. In this moment, in this silent hour, she was at peace, free from the demons that raged at her out of a dark and wicked past. She drew the covers around her shoulders, laid her head on the boy’s chest, and listened to his beating human heart.
In this moment only, she felt sorry for herself. She indulged her loneliness. There were tears on her cheeks when she fell asleep.
Milada’s watch alarm chimed.
She awoke. The air touching her face was cool, the boy’s body warm. But she could not risk staying longer. She dressed in the darkness. Before she left, she knelt next to the bed. She touched his cheek with the tips of her fingers and whispered, “Do not remember me. I was a dream. And now I am gone forever.”
He’d be groggy in the morning. Over the next several days, however, he likely would feel much better for the experience. Such were the palliative properties of her venom.
The television in the living room was tuned to ESPN SportsCenter, volume muted. No one was watching. One of the gamers had crashed on the couch. A faint electronic beeping caught her attention. The programmer in the kitchen had dozed off at his computer, his forehead resting against the keyboard. The screen printed row after row of the letter “Z.” Milada eased his head off the laptop and rested it on the smooth Formica. He stirred and grumbled incoherently. “Shh—” she said. He complied.
She walked into a dead calm that hung like a curtain over the incipient dawn. By the time she got back to the tavern, the rough edges of the Wasatch Front were painted turquoise blue. She drove home through the gray dawn. She showered and crawled into bed and slept till noon.