I tapped the shoulder of the woman in front of me. She had so much eyeliner on she looked like a raccoon.
“Is there a guest list?” I asked.
She nodded. “It’s a private club. You have to be on the guest list if you’re not a member.”
“Well, I’m sure my friends put me on it.”
Raccoon girl smiled at me pityingly.
The 200-pound gorilla quickly dispatched the line. “Name,” he grunted at me.
I choked out my name.
“Angie, okay, you’re in.” The behemoth stamped my hand with a tiny bat in iridescent purple ink. I waved casually to raccoon girl and headed inside.
A dark hallway ended in a steep, narrow stairway, probably the servants’ stairs. Spine-crushingly loud music exploded from the rooms above. I could barely hear myself think and I wasn’t even upstairs yet. People pushed around me to get in, and I let myself be swept along in their tide, trying to gawk and simultaneously appear as if I knew where I was going.
The House of Usher’s main vestibule seemed virtually unchanged from its Victorian mansion heyday. A large circular velvet couch sat in the center of a room dimly illuminated by gaslights in a crystal chandelier. Twelve-foot high walls were topped with ornate moldings. Wide doorways led in five directions. To the left were the bathrooms and a coat check. The chambers were marked Girls and Boys but men and women ignored the signs and entered indiscriminately. I made a mental note to try the Boys room later just for the novelty.
To the right were a tiny poolroom and a long ornate wooden bar arrayed with backlit bottles of booze that glowed like lava lamps. The largest doorway opened onto an auditorium filled with people swaying to the deafening music, smoking or yelling into each other’s ears. Directly in front of the stage a small but intrepid portion of the audience were dancing with wild abandon.
The band members didn’t seem particularly vampiresque, except for the fact that they were all pale as an alligator’s underbelly. The guitarist, wearing black leather pants and naked to the waist, was pounding three chords for all he was worth. The front man was a whirl of long black hair and a costume that seemed to be made entirely of rags. He crouched low and slunk across the stage, screaming lyrics at an indecipherable speed and decibel level. I put a finger into my ear, then checked it for blood.
I passed into another room, separated from the stage by a heavy door so the noise level was almost tolerable. White-clothed tables topped with flickering candles created an aura of genteel elegance. Most of the people in the room looked like what you might expect at any hip nightclub. Lots of black clothing and leather jackets, red lipstick, and everyone smoking. I guess if you think about it it’s kind of hard to tell a vampire from a typical night-living poet or musician. Same pale skin, same dark circles under the eyes, same intense faces peering through wafting cigarette smoke.
I glimpsed Suleiman and Moravia sitting at the back of the room. Kimberley was between them, looking like Casper the Friendly Ghost in a white sleeveless dress. She couldn’t have been more conspicuous, but I knew she’d done it on purpose. Kimberley never made a fashion mistake. I walked over to the table.
There was a woman on the other side of Moravia: painfully thin, with a face that was all sharp angles and lines, but her blue eyes were huge and long-lashed. Her nose, her right eyebrow and the spot just below her lower lip were pierced with gold studs and rings of varying sizes.
Suleiman stood up and made his customary bow. “Angie, I’m glad you decided to come. Please, have a seat.” He pulled out the chair next to the thin woman for me. Kimberley smiled and raised her champagne glass, as if to toast me for making it this far.
Moravia was concentrating on her martini, staring into it like she was reading her fortune. She didn’t seem to be drinking so much as inhaling. A female wraith in a black leather corset took my order for a Cosmopolitan. I usually drink wine but I felt like I needed some liquid courage.
Suleiman introduced the blonde woman as Lilith. She offered me a hand that felt like twigs in a silk bag. She twirled a hank of her bleached blonde hair nervously around her other hand. If you were into Dickensian street urchins, you would find Lilith very attractive. I was searching for something to say to her when a man materialized out of the smoky darkness and pulled out the chair next to mine. When I looked at him I got gooseflesh. No, it was more than that. It felt like my skin was trying to slide off my bones in an attempt to get closer to him.
His long reddish-blond hair was tied behind his head, framing a face with a slender nose, square jaw and sumptuous lips. His eyes were such a light blue they seemed to glow in the dark. He was what I imagined a French prince of the eighteenth century would look like if there had been no inbreeding. The suit he was wearing was right out of Jane Austen, a soft midnight blue velvet that you only see in women’s lingerie nowadays, but on him it looked as masculine as a leather jacket and a cowboy hat.
This man was not just handsome. I had seen the Mona Lisa in person on a high school chorus trip, and like her, he made you want to stare until your eyes dried out. His gaze enveloped and then stripped you, literally and figuratively. It seemed he already knew your every hope, dream, fear and crime, there was nothing you could say that would surprise him. With his lips lifted in that same tiny smile as Mona, he seemed both amused and slightly impatient with the antics of normal humans.
I heard a noise like a fly buzzing on the outside of a window, which turned out to be Suleiman speaking to us. “Eric, nice of you to join us. I’d like you to meet Kimberley Bennett and Angie McCaffrey. They’re the ones I told you about from the ad agency. Ladies, may I present Eric Taylor.”
Eric Taylor? He should have been named something exotic and unpronounceable. But when he took my hand and put it to his lips I forgot his name anyway, giving myself up to a brief but blissful sexual thrill. He kissed Kimberley’s hand as well, but she didn’t seem as moved. He sat down between us, but turned to me.
“That is a beautiful dress you have on. You look like you fit right in.” A slight accent, maybe French, rolled the r in dress.
“Is that a nice way of saying I’m obviously not a regular?” I responded. When I’m nervous I tend to get a little uppity.
“No, of course not, I was just teasing. There’s nothing to be obvious about. This is just a nightclub. Most of the people here have nothing to do with the lifestyle anyway, except that they like to wear black and go to clubs. No, Suleiman told me about you. He mentioned that you were fascinated by us.”
“Really, now.” I was all the more indignant because it was true. “I don’t believe the word fascinated ever crossed my lips.”
Eric leaned into me so that his lips were about two inches from mine. A rich sweet scent rose from him, something I thought I recognized but couldn’t quite place, definitely not cologne but almost an internal perfume.
“But you are fascinated, aren’t you, Angela?” he whispered, his voice low and caressing.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, trying to get a grip on myself. But when I inhaled my head spun like I’d had three Cosmos. With my eyes still closed I leaned closer, forgetting for a second who and where I was, wanting to enter the smell, wanting to kiss the lips… then somehow my cerebrum came back and took over from my cerebellum. I leaned back and opened my eyes, mentally pinched myself. I took a big slug of my drink. Eric sat back in his seat so that he was facing the whole table.
“So, Eric, what do you do for a living?” Kimberley asked.