Excerpt: Dancing In The Dark
A Children Of Night Short Story
If there was anything Conrad Quintano excelled at—aside from sword play that is, and the acquiring of new languages—it was hiding in plain sight. Given his nearly twelve hundred years of practice, how could that not be the case? Misdirection was second nature to him at this point, discretion as effortless as breathing. But everyone makes mistakes, every now and again; and the likelihood of it happening only increases when one is hungry, or tired. Or lonely. And Conrad was very much alone on this frosty Autumn night.
It had been one hundred years since he’d said goodbye to the love of his life. One hundred years, seven months and twenty-four days, to be precise. Not that he was counting. Not that it was on his mind this evening any more than usual. Until all at once it was.
There was something about the man walking toward him along the opposite side of the nearly deserted city street that caught his eye and sparked his interest. Perhaps it was a similarity in height and build, or in gait, or coloring, or in the way he carried himself. It could have been any of these factors. Or it could have been nothing at all.
He wasn’t Damian. Whoever this man was, Conrad was not yet so delusional that he imagined that to be the case. But the resemblance—whatever it was, and even if it only existed in Conrad’s own mind—was there. And that was enough.
Conrad was overcome with a longing so intense it made breathing difficult. His thoughts were swamped with the desire to once again possess that which he no longer had any rights to. So, without stopping to consider the wisdom of his actions, he called up all his not-inconsiderable powers of charm and persuasion, crossed the street and approached the lad. He was vaguely aware that he was behaving rashly, but what of it? The hour was late. The city of Winnipeg was largely asleep. The risk was small and manageable. It was a harmless indulgence. A momentary distraction. It was dinner; nothing more, nothing less.
Within a matter of seconds, Conrad had the young man backed into a doorway and was happily feasting at his neck. No, he wasn’t Damian. But he filled a need. And, for a short time, Conrad was surprisingly content.
The night had turned cold, but Armand Renaud barely noticed. As he trudged home from the theater after yet another disappointing performance, the change in the weather was the one of the very last things on his mind. Instead, his thoughts were preoccupied with all the missteps he’d made tonight—every flaw, every falter, every instant’s hesitation. They’d been the most miniscule of errors, nothing anyone seated in the audience was likely to have even cared about. If they’d noticed them at all, which they probably had not.
But telling himself that didn't help. Because Armand cared. And he had noticed. And he was certain that those upon whom his career depended would have done so as well. Knowing them as he did, he was sure they were all—at this very moment—asking themselves the same questions he was: Was it possible he would never truly recover from the injury that had kept him sidelined through most of last season? That he would never live up to the potential he’d once shown? That his career as a dancer was over—before it had even properly begun?
What would he do if that were the case? He couldn’t go back to the small farming community where he had been raised. That door had long been closed. And he could hardly afford to stay here in the city without a well-paying job. But what kind of job? Other than dancing, what was there that he could he do? He had no real talent for choreography, no patience for teaching, no head for business. No marketable skills at all worth speaking of. Dance was his life. It was everything—all he knew, all he cared about, all he’d ever wanted.
A slight scuffle on the block ahead of him finally succeeded in pulling his attention away from his own sorry thoughts. The sight of the couple caught in what seemed to be a passionate embrace in the nearby doorway made for a welcome distraction—especially when he realized they were both men. That was beyond unusual, even for this part of town, and all the more enticing because of it. His footsteps slowed as he drew nearer. He felt no qualms at all about looking; if they’d wanted privacy they could have taken themselves elsewhere.
The man with his back to the street was particularly compelling—not overly tall, about Armand’s own height, in fact, but more powerfully built, with broad shoulders, and thick biceps that strained the fabric of his navy coat. His face was in shadow; his lips were latched onto his partner’s neck and whatever he was doing with his mouth, it caused the second man to groan in ecstasy and tilt his head back even further, directly into the glare of the streetlight. Armand stopped dead in his tracks.
“Pierre?” He spoke the name aloud before he had time to consider. If it was Pierre—and that was an idea that seriously boggled Armand’s imagination—it was highly unlikely he would appreciate being recognized just now.
Armand shook his head to clear it. No. Impossible. I must be mistaken. That can’t be Pierre.
If Armand had been asked to bet on the question, he’d have put good money on Pierre being the very last man in all of Manitoba to risk being caught on the street in anyone’s embrace, never mind that of another man. Not only was he still loudly and—truth be told—somewhat tiresomely in love with his new bride, but she was the daughter of an influential local politician, who would certainly not take kindly to the idea of his new son-in-law's being involved in a scandal.
Then there was Pierre himself. The arrogant, sanctimonious prick never tired of criticizing his fellow dancers for what he considered their lack of morals, especially those, like Armand, who didn’t bother to hide the fact that they found both sexes equally attractive and equally worthy of his attention.
And although Armand knew better than most that what one said in public might not always be in perfect alignment with how one behaved in private, the fact remained: those men in the doorway were not in private. Not even close.
He was still pondering the seeming paradox when the man whose shoulders he’d been admiring turned to glare at him and, Nom de Dieu! The only thing that prevented Armand from screaming in fright was the seizing of his lungs. Bloodstained teeth. Glowing eyes. The visage of a monster. Bordel de merde! What had Pierre gotten himself involved with?
A quick glance at his friend confirmed Armand’s worst fears. This was no lovers’ embrace as he’d first assumed. Pierre seemed barely conscious. His expression was slack; his head lolled against the door frame. The collar of his coat had been pulled back and his neck appeared to have been thoroughly savaged. Armand counted at least four punctures, all weeping blood. Pierre looked as though he’d been set upon by a...
By a vampire? Non. C’est impossible!
As though sensing Armand’s thoughts, the creature cast a look in Pierre’s direction as well. An expression of vexation flitted across his face just before he turned back to his victim.
No! Don't! Armand flung out a hand in protest, but his tongue remained tied and his feet seemed rooted to the spot.
An eternity passed—or several seconds, Armand could not have said which—before the creature at last deserted Pierre and fled for the shadows. Armand caught one, final glimpse of his face before he disappeared. Unusual, perhaps. Striking, certainly. He was quite sure he would never forget it. But, for all of that, it was the face of a man now; no sign of the monster remained.
But there was no time to consider that oddity or what it might mean. Deprived of the stranger’s support, Pierre was sliding bonelessly down the wall. Armand sprinted across the street to catch him.
“Pierre, can you speak?” Armand asked as he helped ease the other man down to sit on the stoop. He crouched before Pierre and reached for the collar of his coat, fearing what he would see, but needing to know the extent of the damage. “Talk to me. How badly are you hurt?”
“Renaud?” Pierre opened his eyes and peered groggily at him. “What are you doing here? What’s going on?”
“I don’t understand,” Armand muttered. He sat back on his heels and stared in confusion at Pierre’s undamaged throat. There was no blood, no wounds, no marks of any kind, just perfectly pink skin, a little damp, and slightly flushed with heat, but completely intact. Armand stroked his fingers over the surface. "C'est impossible."
“Stop that!” Pierre batted Armand’s hands away. “Are you mad? Just what do you think you’re doing?”
“Your neck. I-I saw it. You were hurt.”
“Hurt?” Pierre repeated, struggling to stand, but waving off Armand’s assistance. "Of course I’m not hurt. Why on earth would you think that? I’m perfectly fine.”
Armand rolled his eyes. “Yes, I can see that you are. I'm sure you always collapse on your way home. Tell me, who was that man who was here with you?”
Pierre frowned. “Nonsense. I did no such thing. I was merely...wait. What man?”
“The one who just left, of course. Who else?”
“Why ask me?” Pierre shrugged as he put his clothes back in order. “I only just got here myself. I have no idea who you're talking about. Was it a vagrant?”
“I'm not judging you, Pierre. I promise. I have no interest in what you do, or with whom you do it. It makes no difference to me at all. But I saw you—both of you—here, together, in the doorway. Is he... Do you know him well?”
“Va chier,” Pierre said with a sneer. “What a sordid imagination you have. I—” He broke off abruptly, swaying dangerously on his feet. “Tabarnak. I don’t feel very well.”
“You are hurt.” Armand grabbed Pierre's arm to steady him. “I knew it! What did he do to you?”
“Idiot.” Pierre pulled away again. “I don’t know what you think you saw, but there was no ‘he’. No one ‘did’ anything at all to me. I'm just a bit drunk, I think. I… Yes, that’s right. I stopped at a bar tonight, if you must know. I suppose I had one too many. A regrettable mistake, but one that does happen, every once in a while.”
Armand frowned at the absurdity. “Stopped at a bar? Bah. You did no such thing. Why, we've only just come from the theater. You were no more than a few minutes ahead of me. Besides, there’s no place open within several blocks of here.”
“Well, you would know about that, I suppose.” Pierre pushed away from the building and took a few staggering steps along the sidewalk. “And far better than I. But what difference does it make? The fact that I’m feeling a little unsteady is proof that I must have had more to drink than was good for me. So, obviously, I had to have stopped somewhere along the way. N'est-ce pas? The fact I don’t recall where, exactly, merely underscores the point. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get home.”
“Good idea,” Armand said as he fell into step beside him. “I’ll walk you there.”
Pierre glared at him. “Piss off, Renaud. I don’t need a babysitter.”
Armand shrugged. “Too bad for you. T'ant pis por toi. Because you have one all the same.”
The trek to Pierre’s house was uneventful—if tiresome, due in large part to Pierre's continued crankiness. Armand was tempted more than once to leave the annoying bastard to find his own way home. But he couldn't bring himself to do it. Awareness crawled across his skin, and he couldn't shake the feeling that they were being followed. His nerves had him jumping at shadows and glancing over his shoulders to the point where Pierre snapped at him, demanding that he stop being so twitchy.
“And you’re absolutely certain you don’t recall anything that happened to you after you left the theater?” Armand asked, returning once more to the subject. “Anything unusual, I mean?”
Pierre snorted in amusement. “Why, yes, now that you mention it. It seems there's this pervert who's become fixated on me for some reason. He approached me on the street and would not leave me alone.”
“You've remembered something? Bon. What did he say?”
“Oh, some absurd tale.” Pierre shrugged dismissively. “First, he claimed I’d been attacked by some fantastical creature, a vampire, if you can imagine. And then he insisted on accompanying me home.”
“Crosseur,” Armand grumbled crossly. “Don’t flatter yourself. You’re hardly my type.”