Peter opened his eyes to bright light and winced.
“Peter?” It was Nine, and she sounded worried.
He opened his eyes again finding Nine’s beautiful face full of concern. He tried smiling, but his lip hurt.
“You’re at the hospital, Peter.”
“The restaurant,” he said. It didn’t feel necessary to finish his comment about the accident. More importantly, he didn’t seem like the right moment to mention the intruder, Kandice Knight. Was she really there? Odd that after deciding to look for the woman mentioned as requiring help in the letter from Steve Reynolds, she appeared right there inside the restaurant. Her presence had felt more like a ghost.
“Boris is there,” said Nine. “Richard, too.” Erasing the worry from her face, she smiled in her cute way, the corner of her lips turned up on one side. “Never mind the restaurant, Peter. We need to get you healed.”
“A little banged up, am I?”
Lifting his head from the pillow, he surveyed the damage. His left arm was in a sling and a big white patch covered his shoulder. An ugly hospital shirt draped over him. He still had his underpants on at least. A brown wrap held his right knee tight. His head hurt, but no more throbbing. All he could think about was how many victims of abuse or embarrassing accidents used falling down stairs as an excuse.
“The doctor says you’ll be good to go today, but wants to ask you a few questions first.”
After the physician conducted a game of twenty questions—about the president, day of week, things that only challenged toddlers—there was some finger poking and more stupid questions, and finally he was released into Nine’s care.
Thankfully Nine had the foresight to bring spare clothes, because the hospital staff sliced his shirt and trousers up pretty good. Where she had found them, he didn’t care to ask. Older jeans and a shirt for cleaning, which he must had left in the office. Getting into a hearse in front of the hospital felt awkward. At least he wasn’t climbing into the back.
Nine apologized. It was the only car available at the family funeral home.
By the time he returned to the restaurant, it was evening and Autumn Twilight was serving dinner. And serving smiles along with plenty of hugs. Even Boris gave him a hug, but a crushed arm turned the warm welcome into a sputter of apologies. He could manage on his own, but Richard and Laura helped guide him upstairs and onto the sofa in the break room.
Laura returned with a large plate of dinner straight from the kitchen. Peter felt embarrassed being waited on, but he thanked everyone. It’s not everyday a person falls down stairs—twice it seemed, but he didn’t want to correct anyone.
“Do you have someone to stay with you?” asked Nine. “Tara?”
“I don’t want my sister pestering me.”
“Well, the doctor says someone has to stay with you for a day to make sure you’re head stays in good shape.”
“Are you asking to spend the night with me?”
A grin, and she blushed. “How about we make a quiet little party of it?”
Richard, Laura, and Tiger agreed to stay after closing. Listening to music from someone’s phone connected to the big speakers on the stage, they played cards at one of the tables and chatted. Laura hated biology class, and Richard studied engineering at Roseland University. According to Laura, Beth had a child in advanced placement class, a regular little genius. Crank had earned his nickname due to his younger brother having trouble pronouncing Croening, which made complete sense. In one hour of card playing, Peter learned more about his staff than he did in two weeks working with them. He also learned the trick to reciting the alphabet backwards through visualization, which Laura performed at a staggering rate.
After the music ended, after Richard and Laura had departed, Peter found himself sitting in near darkness. The lamp behind the bar provided illumination along with green glow from two exit sign. Sitting on the opposite side of the table, Tigris—completely nude—hugged her knees to her chest and gazed in the direction of the stage.
There in near dim light it was plain as the exit signs over the doors, Tigris’s eyes were iridescent red. Eerie and beautiful, it was like firelight inside her irises, a jagged pattern of reds and oranges. Of course, he already knew about her fangs spotting them whenever she laughed.
Peter couldn’t recall what had happened to her. He supposed he had dozed off, but he didn’t feel groggy or have any of the normal waking sensations.
“Body drop,” said Tiger, and wiggled her eyebrows. “My turn for nurse duty.”
Looking around, Peter searched the dining room making sure the two of them were alone. He searched the shadowy space behind the stairs for anything out of the ordinary, an uninvited guest. Kandy Knight, or her ghost, had been on the stairs and sitting behind his desk last night. Satisfied nothing spooky lurked about, he looked Tigris over.
Her knees and arms wrapped around barely covered her small breasts, but he barely gazed at them. Her mouth had his attention. Or more accurately, the fangs he pictured hiding behind her closed lips. Not the costume fangs vampire wannabes wore to clubs.
“You’re not human,” said Peter.
“Nope,” said Tigris. She glanced around the room before meeting his gaze. She smiled and said, “I’m supposed to keep you hydrated.”
“You really don’t like wearing clothes, do you?”
“Sorry,” said Tiger. She stood and walked over to a table where her clothes sat in a pile. “I forget about how uncomfortable I can make people.”
“It’s okay,” said Peter, “but what’s with all the nudity?”
Tiger pulled her skirt on and gazed at the table, staring. Finally, she smiled briefly, and her expression darkened.
“When I was young,” said Tiger. She nervously tugged at the end of her skirt. “Illness had nearly taken me, and my family believed I had died. They had dressed me up in the finest gown, corset and all, and put me in the ground. And I had awakened in that box to the sound of the shovel.”
Her eyes went wild, and she scrunched her skirt in her fist. Rising up, Peter started to go to her, but seeing the anger in her eyes, he paused.
“Buried alive without even a bell to ring,” said Tigris. Twisting her skirt, she gathered it around her waist. “I was so hot, and I wanted out bad. I hated that gown so terribly much. After my rescue, I tore my dress to pieces.”
Peter started to apologize for asking, but seeing the anger in her eyes quieted his thoughts.
“I fucking hated that dress” said Tigris. The darkness fell from her face, and she slapped her hand over her mouth. She released hold of her skirt. “Pardon my language, Boss Peter.”
He couldn’t find any words of comfort. As far as he was concerned, she could wear whatever she wanted for work—bow tie around her bear neck, short skirts, and sleeveless whatever—as long as she was appropriately covered. The rest of the staff would just have to deal with it. No wise words, but he thought he could at least try lighten the mood.
“After hours nudity is fine,” said Peter. He grinned like the devil. “I don’t mind at all.”
Tiger wiggled her finger and said, “But we don’t want to make Nine jealous. She has an eye for you, Boss Peter.”
She walked over to the bar. Even without music, she had a spring in her step and moved like silk in the breeze.
“Are you like a vampire?” He felt silly for asking.
Behind the bar, Tigris stood still, frowning. She seemed to contemplate his question then smiled.
“Is it okay if I have a glass of wine?” she asked.
“Not a problem, Tiger. I should probably pay you for babysitting.”
Tiger returned and set a tall glass of water on the table, a brandy goblet full of red wine on her side. Topless without a care, she sat down and sipped her wine.
“Not a vampire,” said Tigris. She rested an elbow on the table and gazed at Peter. “I’m a person like everyone else.”
“With fangs,” said Peter.
Tigris took another sip of wine and set her glass down. She didn’t appear upset, but she didn’t seem happy, either. Opening wide, she showed him her teeth while she scrunched her face appearing both menacing and strangely adorable.
“Itoril,” said Peter. He didn’t know where the term came from, and he repeated it testing the word. Something he had heard somewhere, he supposed.
“Yep,” said Tiger, “named after the great one, Ithuriel.”
“But you’re not a vampire?”
“Peter, folk like you know about us,” said Tiger, “but there are things we don’t talk about. Do you understand?”
Holding up his hands, Peter apologized.
“I’m not a vampire,” said Tigris. Heated, the tiger in her seemed to be coming out. “I don’t kill people. I don’t drink blood. I’m a good person like you, Boss Peter.”
“No, Tiger, I think you’re the better person.”
He was about to mention he had killed in war, but realized it didn’t compare to slaughtering innocent life like he had implied. He had killed soldiers with guns. His knowledge of vampires came from movies, most of them bad flicks. They had taught him that vampires were dangerous, killing whomever, but young women still wanted sex with them. Which seemed rather morbid considering a vampire was supposed to be a spirit reanimating a corpse, or recently dead, anyway.
“Anyway,” said Peter, “I only wish I could dance half as good as you, or had your knowledge behind the bar.”
Blushing, Tiger batted her hand at him.
He still needed a new phone, and he wanted to find out more about Kandice Knight. Tiger seemed happy to help, more than happy, really. The stairs were nearly lost in darkness, but Tiger’s night-vision guided him safely. Taking a chair from the break room, he sat beside his desk while she took control of the computer.
“Tiger, how did you know I knew about your secret?”
She glanced at Peter and back at the screen. “They don’t have your model available anymore.”
“Just pick a phone.”
Tiger clicked the mouse and shot him another quick glance as if she was trying to read him. “Don’t tease,” she said. More mouse clicks. “You knew I was Itoril the moment we met. It’s why I asked about a job.”
It made sense. Why else would a highly skilled bartender and waitress capable of earning massive tips work at a small-time restaurant for an inexperienced owner? It’s also why she worked at Necropolis once a week. That club sells the vampire image where girls like Tiger were simply part of the show. Keeping fangs a secret from guests was one thing, but hiding from co-workers on a nearly daily basis could become a challenge.
“Who else in the restaurant knows?”
“Your phone will arrive on your doorstep Monday,” said Tiger.
“And the car,” said Peter. Leaning over, he spotted the registration on his desk. “That’s it there.”
“The DMV charges seventeen dollars transaction fee to access free public information.” Tiger shook her head. “That’s government for you. Charging for free stuff.”
Nine knew about Tiger. Another game of twenty questions didn’t sit well with Peter, so he folded his arms and tried his best to appear intimidating. With a fat lip and bruises, he felt he had a decent chance of pulling it off.
“And Richard,” said Tiger, grinning. “He’s practically human, but he can recognize his own kind.”
“I didn’t know about Richard.”
“Only a single owner,” said Tiger, her eyes on the screen. “Kandice Knight drove that automobile off the lot in nineteen sixty-eight.”
“Of course, she did,” said Peter.
Kandice Knight couldn’t be an elderly woman in her seventies. No, it seemed more likely Kandy was Itoril like Tigris. Could an Itoril become ill? It seemed reasonable. Maybe the serum from Steve Reynolds was some kind of special cure for an Itoril sickness. Of course, none of it explained why he had seen Kandy in the restaurant last night.
A crash downstairs, and the alarm siren screamed.