“I wish I could get a tattoo.”
Terry contemplated the ice chilling his single malt — shiny amber in the weak lighting. He’d let the ice melt a bit before finishing and ordering another.
It was a small bar into which the owners had invested the absolute minimum necessary to avoid being shut down by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. Even so, Terry assumed that part of the proprietors’ investment had been in the form of red packets. The bar was popular with people who preferred to step away from the mainstream. People whose idea of being fashionable was to be non-conformist and to pretend they didn’t give a shit about appearances. Tucked away down a flight of cracked steps, the bar was not the sort of place people walked past and stepped in for a drink. For customers it was somewhere you could talk without shouting and where conversations were interesting and prices were reasonable compared to Soho’s more salubrious establishments.
Among those who frequented the establishment it was called ‘the bar’ because it didn’t seem to have a name. If it did, it wasn’t displayed anywhere not even on the hand-written bills that read CASH ONLY. The patrons were regulars; people who didn’t wear suits, didn’t complain about cigarette smoke or the occasional rat scurrying along the gutter and who weren’t averse to buying more than just alcohol.
“Yours are pretty damn good. What is that? The four horsemen?”
The girl was talking to him? He looked up. Eurasian. Long black hair cut in a bohemian style. High Slavic cheekbones, wide eyes and long limbs packaged in tight jeans and a low-cut leather top. He wondered how tall she would be when she dismounted from her bar stool.
“Yeah. The four horsemen. I had it done in Macau back in the nineties when we were building one of the new casinos.” Terry angled his arm to give the girl a better look. He flexed his bicep and was gratified to see she noticed.
“Casinos? Big construction sites have their uses. You’re not a lawyer are you?”
“No,” said Terry. The girl was talking to him and she looked like she’d had a few. He didn’t have a problem with either proposition. His girlfriend had again been a no-show. In his world that gave him license for the evening.
“That’s good because lawyers are dumb, they just don’t know it. Of course you’re not. A lawyer wouldn’t be into tattoos. Don’t go with the gowns and wigs thing.”
“Can’t argue with that. Can I get you another?”
“You’re hitting on me? Bad call, but go ahead. I could do with a man right now.” She slid across from her bar stool to the empty one between them, nudging her nearly-empty glass along the heavily scratched counter.
“Another, C.Y,” she said to the bartender. She drained the last of the dull red mixture of tomato juice and something. She placed the empty glass a few centimeters further away and angled her body towards Terry.
The scrawny man with the goatee on the other side of the counter was moving at a speed that didn’t suit this place.
“Bloody Mary?” asked Terry.
“Yeah. Dad named the drink after me. My very own drink.” She laughed as she spoke. A quiet cynical laugh.
Terry laughed. “I take it your name’s Mary?”
“Got it in one, my well-inked inebriant.”
They watched C.Y. add ground pepper and salt. “You can skip the celery,” she instructed.
“‘Same again, please.” Terry tapped his own glass to make sure the bartender didn’t give him what the girl was drinking.
“War is my favorite,” she said.
“Horseman of the apocalypse. War. He was the red one. Famine, all dressed in black and Pestilence with the extremely monotonous white wardrobe. Very dull imaginations they have. They’re all men of course, although I’ve never been too certain about Pestilence. Not sure anyone else is either.”
She was, thought Terry, as drunk as she was exotic.
“I missed one,” she said.
“Death. The pale rider.” Terry pointed to the largest of the figures inked into his skin. It didn’t look pale against his olive complexion.
“Death. How could I forget Death? Funny guy once you get to know him. Dad used to hang out with him. He’s a bit taller than the others. Of course there’s more than four now. Hammurabi was the fifth — that bastard really earned it — and what’s his name Marx. Yeah Karl Marx was the most recent.” She sneered.
Terry thought this was getting a bit silly, taking the Goth lifestyle too far, but he did have an old Cure CD back in his apartment. In his youth he’d seen them live. Maybe she’d be interested.
The bartender placed the drink in front of Mary.
“I said to skip the celery. Never mind.” She deftly transferred the offending stick of green from the new glass to the old one. A few drops of the red liquid ran down the stalk and onto the scratched and stained wooden counter. She absently mopped them up with her forefinger and licked it. C.Y. snatched the glass with the red-stained celery from the counter.
“Who’s Hammurabi?” Terry felt stupid as soon as he’d asked the question.
“Babylonian king. Inflicted the world with laws, regulations and red tape and the legal profession. And you know Marx. I mean, look how badly his so-called economic theories did when despots applied them in the real world. Death, pain and misery to the nth degree. Thanks.” She raised her glass in Terry’s direction, sipped the drink and grimaced.
“You wanna know something? One shit-faced drunk to another?” She leaned closer, giving Terry an opportunity to look down her top. “It sucks being me — pun intended.”
“You don’t believe me? Carry on and you will. Nobody ever does until it’s too late. It’ll be a shame about your tatts.”
Terry took delivery of his latest. He’d find out how many he’d had when he settled his tab for the night. Whatever the tally, it had to be less than the girl sitting next to him.
“It’s not like I’m the only weirdo around here,” Mary said. “There’s too fucking many of us for comfort. Not many of my kind of course. We’re the solitary type. But look around you. How many of these people are normal, nine-to-five types with mortgages, affairs and holiday plans and Facebook pages and ingrown toenails?”
“Are you that good at reading people?”
“Prick someone,” she said. “I mean, pick someone.”
Terry nodded towards the nearest table. The young Chinese woman pulled a cigarette from a black-label package and neatly pinched the filter off. Placing the shortened cancer stick between her lips, she allowed her date to light it with practiced nonchalance and drew heavily. The tip glowed in the poor lighting.
“Who? Her? Druggie. I can smell her. Even over the booze and the cigarette smoke and the armpits I can smell her addiction from here. Crystal meth. In the lab, they call it methamphetamine hydrochloride.”
“You’re a chemist?” Terry asked.
“Nah. Not even close. I just mix with interesting people. Writers. Arty types. Pick another.”
Terry looked at the bartender, lugubriously pulling handles for a small group in the back corner.
“Him? C.Y. He owns this place. Well, not technically. His wife ran off with his partner, business partner that is, and kicked him out. His partner still owns half of it, at least until they find the bodies, which they won’t. As I said, construction sites have their uses. C.Y. and I understand each other.”
Terry was beginning to wonder if there was more to her than alcohol and an over-developed imagination.
“So what do you do?”
“I asked you first,” she said.
“If you’re not a chemist…” Terry prompted.
“I teach creative writing at night school. How else is a loser like me going to earn a living? Regular jobs are out but unless I want to spend my days hiding under six feet of dirt and my nights robbing clothes lines for something clean to wear, I have to pay my bills like everyone else. And you? You’re not a banker, are you?”
“Hell no. Why’d you think that?”
“I did a banker last month. Thought it would be fun to do something popular, but she bled red just like everyone else. I was half expecting it to be green like money.”
“Wait up. You said “bled”?” The girl had to be taking the piss.
“Yeah. I told you, didn’t I? Or not. Anyway, I’m a vampire. A very drunk vampire with an ethnically inherited shortage of ethyl dehydrogenation enzymes, that’s my mother’s side of the gene pool, but still a vampire.”
“Read too many Anne Rice novels?”
“Yeah. They’re pretty good, but nope, I’m the real deal. That’s not exactly tomato juice C.Y.’s been pouring for me.”
Terry was starting to wonder just how far Mary, if that was her name, was going to push this.
“A vamp, huh.” Terry felt stupid saying it.
“That’s not polite. Not at all. Makes me sound like some cheap low-life.”
“Sorry. So … er … how did you … end up like… ?” Terry was happy to play along so long as the possibility of more physical forms of fantasy was on the table.
“Born this way. Dad is or was the big guy that everyone talks about. Mum was normal. A strange kind of normal by all accounts but just a run-of-the-mill warlord’s daughter who fell for the wrong guy.
“Some days I feel like I’m the oldest person on the planet and other times like I’m gonna be a teenager forever. Of course, I’m neither. Dad you know about. My mother . . . whatever they called blue blood and fashionable in Shanghai in the twenties. My grandfather was a warlord. I said that already, didn’t I? A failed warlord by all accounts, but is there any other kind? So Mum smoked like a chimney and seduced the man with no heart, no soul and no conscience. Somehow she got through to him. Didn’t change him though. No chance. She died when I was eleven. Couldn’t breastfeed me anyway, not that I needed it. I didn’t feel anything when she died. I’ve always been a Daddy’s girl.”
Terry just looked at her.
“Mum was his second wife; that I know of anyway.”
“And his first wife?”
“Countess Erzsebet Bàthory. Elizabeth. Romanian bitch, or maybe Hungarian. Anyway, she tried to impress Dad by, you know … anything for eternal life, but fat chance. And she actually believed that bathing in the blood of virgins would keep her young. Female virgins only, of course.”
“Well, some people will believe anything.”
“She certainly did. Dad was pretty underwhelmed, but once he got rid of Count Ferenc — her first husband and a right murderous bastard — Dad got to live the high life in a castle and all that and didn’t have to worry about disposing of the leftovers. It was all good until too many people found out. Dad just quietly slipped away and left her. She spent the last few years of her life bricked up in Cachtice Castle.”
“Sounds like a very unpleasant woman,” said Terry, feeling he had to say something.
“Oh she was. She most definitely was. The castle’s still there. It’s mostly ruins but worth a visit if you’re in Slovakia. Dad showed me around in the 1940s. We did something of a European tour after the big war. He was going through a nostalgic phase. It didn’t last long.”
“Is your father still around?” Terry asked.
“Oh, Dad’s been dead for a while now. I haven’t seen him since, when was it … oh yes, the Gulf War. We hung out together in Iraq for a bit. Good bonding session but the curfew was a downer. It would have been nice if he’d bothered to tell me how long he was planning on staying dead this time but, no, not him. One day he’ll just resurrect himself and turn up and expect to see a birthday present for every year he’s been out of my life.
“Speaking of which, what do you get a man who is 712 years old for his birthday? It seems to get harder each year. Last year, I brought one of Bela Lugosi’s capes at an auction. Actually, I stole it. I don’t have that kind of money. Stealing wallets can only get you so far. But pretty cool, huh? The definitive vampire gets to wear what the definitive vampire actor used to wear. It’s not in very good condition, but neither is Dad’s favorite coffin. I’m really stumped for this year. Maybe another Ferrari, they’re not easy to steal, people notice, but they do come in the right color.”
“Sounds difficult. How about a first edition of the book?”
“Stoker’s? That’s not a bad idea. I bet they’re expensive though, not that it matters. I’d be lifting it anyway. Dad appreciates those little touches.” She sipped her drink and frowned. “Where’s the best place to find a copy?”
“London I’d imagine. Or New York. There are some good rare book shops in Midtown.”
“Travelling’s a pain, though, getting forged papers. And airport security’s a total bitch. Fucking sniffer dogs freak out and I get patted down by 300 pounds of TSA-enabled French fries and soft drink every damn time I try to board a plane. I wouldn’t mind so much if they were Keanu Reeves or Jet Li. I’d prefer Jet Li. He’s seriously cute.”
Terry couldn’t think of a response to that, not one that was rational anyway. She’d moved on anyway.
“I used to hate killing people because of Mum but it didn’t take long to realize that it was a lot better to kill someone properly than leave them wandering around like extras on the Walking Dead. After a while you don’t care anymore. I don’t. I don’t want to. And that’s the whole problem. I don’t like hurting people, well most of them, but I don’t have a choice. I just don’t. It really sucks being me. I already said that, didn’t I?” She inched her bar stool a little closer.
“What about True Blood?” Terry could quote from TV too if it might lead somewhere.
“Nah. I tried raiding a blood bank. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Too many cameras and security guards and people working late. Not that it matters. Drinking blood that’s been processed is the kind of thing you only do once. It’s like drinking vodka that’s been through someone else’s kidneys. Puke city”
“I’ll take your word for that.”
She rotated her glass on the counter, the absent motion of someone who might have run out of conversation.
“Engineer,” he said.
“You asked what I did. I’m a construction engineer.’
Mary ran a finger down the condensation on her glass before replying. “That’s okay, I guess.”
“Not when you have to be out on a site when the weather’s bad, it isn’t. A few years ago I worked on a convention center in Harbin. Being up on the scaffolding when it’s ten below is not fun.”
“Winter is the best time. It’s cool and the nights are longer. I like winter.”
“What about Shanghai? Go back to your roots?” Terry asked.
“Nah, I stand out a bit in China. Not as much as I did in the sixties and seventies when foreigners were as rare as reality but it’s easier to blend in here. Besides, it’s depressing. The communists built a fucking building on top of my maternal ancestors’ graves. A police station, would you believe it? A fucking shithole of a police station. If I want to go to Shanghai to worship my ancestors I have to get arrested. It’s not consecrated ground so I suppose I could, but why? Hong Kong is good. Actually, most Western countries are okay too — it doesn’t really matter what you look like, you can blend in. You married?”
“Briefly,” he said.
“She dumped you?”
“In a manner of speaking. Chantal died. Cancer.”
“And you still love her?”
“I suppose I do but I have to force myself to remember and it bothers me that it takes more effort than it should. I suppose it was a long time ago now. That’s why I came out here….”
“Yeah, I tried the whole relationship thing. It worked for a bit in the sixties. Insomniac. He slept most of the day so we had something in common but that was about it. He wanted kids and . .. do you see me as the maternal type?” She laughed, conveying a sense of absurdity. “It was pretty cheesy but he said I was to die for. Big mistake there. Sometimes I can’t even remember his name.”
“But you fell in love with him anyway.”
“Fell in love? No. I don’t fall in love, not if I can help it. It just means more pain later. As I said, being in a relationship was a bit of a lifestyle experiment. I made sure that it was someone I didn’t really like all that much so that when the time came … like having to put down the family pet. It hurts for a while but you pick yourself up after a bit.”
“So how do you deal with it?”
“Well, … I thought therapy would help me. Needless to say I was living in the States, reading all these self-help books, Chicken Soup for the Soulless, that kind of crap, trying to accept who I am. They worked to some extent but draining my therapist was the best. Oh g . . . g . . . god, I hated her. But at least I got to say g … god without puking. Small g, of course. I still can’t do the big one. But it’s more than Dad ever managed.
“And then there was this one time I actually tried to get religion. Me! One of my more morbid phases. It was kinda hard when you can’t even cross the threshold of the local church. I can’t visit the graves of all the people I’ve killed either, well the ones that have graves, not that I’d want to. Navel gazing has its limits.” She leaned closer and ran a finger over the four horsemen. Her touch was surprisingly firm.
“It does,” Terry said. “Sooner or later you have to move on.” There was something erotic about the lacquered fingernail moving against his skin.
“Get a good look? Just remember that my tits and my fangs are a package deal.” She signaled for another drink.
Terry averted his eyes. It wasn’t easy.
“Do you have any idea how hard it is for a vampire to get a tattoo?”
“It never came up when I was doing biology in high school,” he said.
“I’ll tell you. It’s fucking impossible. The needle breaks the skin. The ink goes in and then what? The body heals itself. Two days tops and the ink begins to fade. By the end of the week I’m back to looking like an advertisement for skin whitening products or a corpse in my coffin.”
“So you have a coffin?’ He thought about calling her on that.
“Several actually, but I usually sleep in a freezer. It’s quieter and cooler, Mid-Levels is bloody noisy and it uses less electricity than air-con. Saving money and helping the environment. Who said I don’t have a conscience?”
“Not you. No, you didn’t. You know something? I tried being all ethical. I’d check people out and make sure they weren’t rare blood types. Well, it was a pain. Even for me, it’s not easy to steal someone’s wallet and see if they have a donor card. Here they don’t put the blood type on driver’s licenses anyway, so it’s basically impossible. Then there’s CCTV, damn security cameras, and not everyone’s as dozy as they look. Anyway, I gave it a go for a couple of years but it was more trouble than it was worth so I gave up. Life was easier once I got past all that doing the right thing shit.”
“Are you happier now?”
“Not really but, after that, I understood why people keep saying life’s too short. Well, not for me, but you know what I mean? You know, right?”
“Yeah. Like when …”
“C.Y. ? Yo, C.Y.! Add some more vodka, will ya? This is getting pretty rancid.”
“Sure, Mary.” The unshaven barman applied the bottle without regard for details like quantity. The resulting mixture faded from deep red to a dull uneven pink. This time the drink was mostly alcohol.
“Jus’ about out.” He squeezed a measure of tomato juice from the container. “One more, maybe.”
C.Y. hastily poured another single malt and pushed it in front of Terry. It must have been at least a triple. “On the house,” he said without making eye contact.
“Thanks,” said Terry.
The girl looked at the drink and then at Terry. “Unless you walk out of here now, you know how this is going to end, don’t you?”
He shook his head.
“Yeah, you do. So we’ll have a nice date. You can have the best burger Soho has to offer or whatever and we’ll get even more pissed and you’ll get horny and I’ll get thirsty and then we’ll go somewhere quiet and fuck and when we’re done I’ll kill you. Not at my place, I hate cleaning up afterwards but at least you’ll die happy which is more than I’ll ever be able to do. I can’t even get a tattoo.”
This story previously appeared in Hong Kong Gothic (2014), a Hong Kong Writers Circle anthology.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Simon Berry is a recovering lawyer who has called Hong Kong home since 1992. He has completed an MFA in creative writing and a PhD in English literature at City University. In addition to writing short stories, his novels A Wasting Asset, and A Debt To Pay are available on Amazon. He is working on his next fantasy novel.