The soft-blue bundle of paper sat idly on the warped coffee table, its rubber band crinkling and creasing its center. Ariana D’Angelo sat on the couch and watched it, waiting for it to dance off the edge like the dead frog from the Bugs Bunny cartoons, but the bundle wasn’t moving.
Blowing air through her teeth, she stood and rounded the table. Ari had already removed the band and read the note that her roommate, Ria, had left her. The writing was obviously hers, but the words somehow seemed wrong. They lacked the bond she’d grown used to: the missing words or miss spellings, and of course, the end, where her best friend scripted an I love you. I love you’s were only for dire situations, not the cheery type Ria had described in the note. No, the note called for their normal I moo you.
Besides, there was ten thousand dollars bound between the thirds of ethereal blue paper. And there was no fucking way that Ria could have come up with that kind of money, not with the way they had been struggling these past five years.
Ari rubbed her arms over the goose bumps that had scurried up her flesh. Don’t worry, babe. Just off to have a little fun. I’m taken care of.
It was bull, and whoever wrote it had no clue what the fuck they were doing or who they were dealing with. She reached down and scooped up the bundle in an agitated movement. The heat inside of her was a caustic mixture of shame and fear and love. Yesterday, she had felt relief as she took two thousand of it to pay rent and buy groceries. It was short lived; now trepidation had chained itself to her like a fucking monkey child, flinging shit back up at her and fraying her nerves.
A bang vibrated against the front door, and Ari jolted, dropping the bundle to the cold hardwood floors. Her neighbor, Mrs. Dugger’s, voice creaked under the front door. “Ariana. That scarlet of a child you used to live with is on the phone.”
“Fuck.” She kicked the cash under the couch and went for the door, pulling it open in haste as her heart bulldozed into her ribs. Mrs. Dugger hadn’t waited on her. The old woman was already teetering back down the hallway in her puffy pink slippers and green, Hawaiian-style nightdress.
Ari rushed after her, squeezing inside the door and barely missing Mrs. Dugger in her dash. The receiver fell from her tricky fingertips and banged across the floor. The pain from biting her inner lip was sharp as she swallowed curses for her neighbor’s sake, that and to keep her from receiving a lecture for half the night.
“Ria.” Her voice squeaked, and she had to bite back another string of expletives. She’d always been able to keep her face on straight, but Ria had always been there, too. “Are you there?”
“Ari, I’m here.”
Ria sounded calm, if not a little sad, but her friend’s voice didn’t tremble anything near how hers had. She couldn’t keep herself in check; her voice blew from her like the air from a deflating balloon. “Oh my fucking god. I thought something happened to you. I mean, you left me this note saying not to worry and shit, but I expected you to call once the two of you had settled in or whatever. When you didn’t, I started to freak.”
Mrs. Dugger huffed from her chair. That lecture was all but definite from that last burst, so she may as well relax.
“Right, my note. What did it say?”
“What? Um, it said not to worry and that you loved me. Why don’t you remember?” Ari’s hand twisted around the receiver as she turned from Mrs. Dugger’s weighty gaze.
“Sorry, Ari. I guess I was drunk. James had brought a bottle of wine.”
“It’s all good baby doll. Where’d you get all the dough though?”
“Where do you think? How much was there? Is it enough to last you a little while longer?”
James gave it to her? Pangs cramped her stomach. Was that true? Why did it still not feel right? “Yeah, there was a good stack there. I bought some groceries. I didn’t think that you’d mind. And I paid the next two months rent, since there was plenty enough to do it. I mean that’s what it was for right?”
“Hon, I miss you. How long are you gonna be on vac-a?”
“Not sure yet. I’m gonna try to be home as soon as I can.”
“Oh, no, don’t worry about running home because of me. Just, you know, call me so that I don’t flip shit. ‘Kay baby doll?”
“Yeah, about that.” She paused. The trailing in her voice made Ari’s knees wobble. Ria was coming home, right?
“Listen, I might not be able to call for a while. I’m on a pay phone now, and only because James is off doing something. Just know I love you.”
I love you. Maybe Ria had written that note…
“Ria, you’re scaring me. Is he fucking with you? Did he get you hooked on something? ‘Cause I swear to God, I don’t care how fine of an ass that boy has. If he has you on all sorts of drugs, I will tear him apart, bake him in a pie, and feed him to the neighbor kids.”
Mrs. Dugger laughed gruffly behind her.
“That’s sweetly sadistic, but I’m not addicted to anything.”
“Okay.” She paused composing herself and making sure Ria wouldn’t worry too much about her. “’Cause you know it would be a damn shame to destroy something that beautiful.”
An uncontrollable urge to cry seeped into her chest.
Ria cleared her throat as if she were experiencing the same overwhelming leakage problem. “I miss you, Ari.”
“I miss you too, Ria.” She paused again and spoke in a serious tone. This wasn’t to check up on her. This was more of a good bye. “You have to go, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Okay. Be safe and shit. I moo you.”
A rough and wet laugh came through the phone and forced a smile on Ari’s face. “I moo you back.”
Ari awoke to the feeling of being watched. Ria wasn’t here, and she should have been. Swinging her feet over the side of the bed as quietly as she could, they met a cold hardwood floor. Walking on the balls of her feet, she was unsteady but silent. The alarm clock showed 5:38 in large red square numbers.
Peeking through her doorway, her apartment seemed too big. It had never felt that way before, but she was alone, and that made her somehow vulnerable. Something told her that she wasn’t alone, and whoever was out there reeked of about to get a bat to the head, if only she had a bat.
Heading down the hall, she pressed her back against the wall until she was opposite the bathroom. The door was open, and the night-light glowed brightly. There were no lurking shadows there, so she kept moving.
Slipping into the kitchen, she grabbed two steak knives from the block on the counter and squeezed the handles a few times. Once she was confident with her grip, she stalked to the living room, her heels stomping on the hardwoods.
Not but three steps into the living room, hot breath trickled down the side of her neck, and she froze.
She made the gentle movement of turning to see who it was without seeming too frightened. Let the bastard touch her, she’d flay him to next given Sunday.
Oh God. A man whose smile was all she could see stood even with her. His teeth seemed to glow and his canines made small indents in his bottom lip. If it hadn’t been for his fangs, he would have had a Hollywood smile.
Ari’s hands shook, but he just stood there. Moving her mouth, she couldn’t get herself to say anything.
Then he traced his fingers over the flesh under her chin, causing her to whimper. Something in his touch made Ari act.
She stuck him in his stomach hard enough to sink the knife to the hilt. He let out a small humph, grabbed her by the back of her hair and pulled her face so close to his that she was finally able to make out his features.
He had a lopsided nose, a wide thin mouth, and brilliant Caribbean blue eyes. Looking into his eyes made her lungs catch and shrivel a bit.
“Ouch.” His voice was light and playful and mocking. “Why don’t you drop the other knife?”
Never in a million fucking years would she have listened to him. But she released her fingers without thinking about it, and there it went, falling to the hardwood floor with a clank.
“Why do women insist on being able to defend themselves? It only makes men far more irritated and likely to hurt them worse. Go ahead and feel the wound.”
No fucking way. She didn’t want to, but her hand moved. She placed two fingers through the hole in his shirt. There was no wound, just a flat, muscled stomach.
“Wasn’t very smart on your part, now was it? You’re lucky that we need you, or I would have drained you dry already.” With that, he swung her over his shoulder, and they disappeared through her fourth story window.
The man had laid her tied at the wrists and ankles in a soft bed. It had been hours, and he still hadn’t told her what he wanted from her, but she was pretty sure she was going to die. Fuck that piece of shit. He’d have to fight for every damn inch of her flesh if he wanted it.
Cold air shifted in the dark room, and the powdery smell of that man came to her on the current.
“That heart beat of yours is intoxicating, human.”
“Fuck off you piece of shit.”
A prickly laugh smothered her skin and tugged at her lungs.
The bed shifted to her right, and she rolled, sinking into the dip his body created. She bucked and wiggled, fighting her way back across the bed. Not that it mattered; he grabbed her around the waist and pulled her up against his side in a position that would give her a charlie horse before too long. His nose sank into the hair just behind her ear.
Ari jerked away again, making him tighten his arm around her.
“You smell like her.”
She jabbed him with her elbow. “Oh, I’m sure I do, you freak.”
“I see she’s not the only one with a mouth.”
No way was she even asking. If he wanted her to know who he was referring to, he could just come out with it. The man leaned in and nipped her shoulder with his teeth.
Ari pushed forward against the rail of his arm. “Who?” Fuck, if it would keep him from putting his mouth on her, she’d cave a little, but it didn’t. He licked along her throat and pressed a grin against her ear. “Why, your girlfriend, Ria, of course.”
Pain punctured her as if he had thrown her into a long needled cactus.
“Did you not know? She’s on the run, a hefty prize for whoever is able to bring her in, and I have the token right here…” He ran his nail down her soft cheek, dipping into the flesh and tearing at the top few layers of her flesh. “She’ll come for you when everything else fails. And when she does, I will claim you both.”
“Why?” Ari had expected tears, but a ball of fire built inside of her instead. “What the fuck do you want her for?”
Prickling laughter wormed its way through her hair and down her neck, and he nibbled her flesh again. Her stomach was climbing up her throat.
“Because she’s one of us now, and awfully powerful for being such a newb.” The man’s hand shifted along her body, turning her so that her ass was pressed back against him. “Might just get permission to change you, too. How would you like to die?”
He didn’t wait for her answer