My new gothic horror novella, Gods and Insects, is out today. This is a sequel to Love is the Cure. To celebrate the new release, I’m offering the first book free for 5 days (until next Tuesday).
If you’ve read the first one, this one is a little bit different: it’s all from one point of view, Asher’s, with a more traditional narrative structure, and more than twice as long. Asher is the youngest vampire from the first book. This new book follows his ill-fated attempts to find his place in the vampire world. There’s more horror, freaky blood trips, gay and bi characters, a trans vampire (yay). At its heart, the story is a tragedy, and a fall (in the biblical sense).
Here’s the first chapter of Gods and Insects to whet your appetite. You can buy the ebook on Amazon (and download the first one for free until next Tuesday). There will also be a paperback edition to follow soon. I hope you enjoy the read.
I should have fed before my shift. Now my skin is on fire with the need, my nostrils full of the scent of my co-worker’s blood, as I try to keep my distance in the enclosed space of the coffee shop counter. The tick of the clock on the wall echoes round my head, mocking me. Still forty minutes to go. And then I have to feed somehow. I botched the last one four nights ago; lost control of the guy I was feeding from. I’m no good at mind tricks. He tried to run and I had no choice but to—
The door opens to the night and the swish of tyres through the spring shower. My eyes are drawn to the man who enters. I can tell he’s one of my kind straight away. He has that presence the older ones have, somehow bigger than his physical body, straining against the limits of geometry. And the absence of the animal scent that mortals have, which most people don’t even notice. He joins the queue behind two drunk students and a weary looking woman in surgical scrubs and a coat. My eyes flick to him constantly, as if magnetised.
When it comes to his turn, I’m on my guard. He walks up to the counter and flashes me an amused smile, dark eyes twinkling. His skin is light brown, his black hair short, and he looks a little older than me. He has killer cheekbones. Even in this confined space, he moves like a dancer. He pulls a note from his pocket and that simple gesture is elegant, the rise and fall.
“So it’s true,” he says softly enough that only we can hear.
I’m not sure what to say, but I don’t want to look like a fool. Images of Sebastian and Kerrick flash through my mind, spattering blood across my thoughts. My creator and his other child. I try to push this fear aside, these violent memories. They can’t all be monsters. We can’t all be monsters.
“What?” I ask, trying not to show my nerves.
“One of our kind working in a coffee shop.” He chuckles and I bristle.
“Can I get you something?” The irritation sounds in my voice, but at least it hides my fear.
“Why don’t you choose for me? It doesn’t matter what, after all.” He gives me a conspiratorial grin.
I turn and prepare the machine to pour a double ristretto, the most expensive drink I can make. My tiny piece of revenge. His eyes bore into the back of my neck, as the dark liquid trickles into a cup at an agonising rate.
When it’s finally done, I place the cup in front of him and risk eye contact. His eyes are a rich dark brown. Permanently amused.
“When do you get off?” He slides the note towards me.
I try to read his face for some clue to what he wants from me, but he seems so relaxed. “Half an hour.”
“I’ll wait for you.” He lifts the cup to smell the coffee, eyes full of humour. His amusement doesn’t seem malicious, but I’m pretty sure I’m the joke.
I go through the motions for my last half hour, my eyes constantly flicking to the back of his head, as if I’ll find answers there. Contrasted against the dark of the night outside, the harsh electric lighting seems to spotlight me, picking me out for scrutiny. I wonder if he can see my hunger written across my face, as my co-worker nudges past me to clear the tables. If I could just taste her— I force the image back, though it seems more real to me than my surroundings. I can control this.
He’s sitting in one of the far booths, facing away from me, staring out into the night. That presence he has, I wonder whether I have it too. I’m sure it’s just the older ones. I’ve no intention of returning to Sebastian or Kerrick to ask them for advice. Kerrick offered me this escape from him, this chance to make my own way. At the time, I’d been afraid to be alone, but now I’m determined to make it work. I got this job far away from Spitalfields and Kerrick’s other haunts. Far away from Kensington, and Sebastian’s sphere. Somewhere central and neutral, where I thought no one would ask questions or even notice me. But clearly there’s nowhere to hide.
When I’m done for the night, I untie the apron from my waist, fold it into my satchel, and grab my coat from the back of the shop. The visitor is still waiting for me in the same place, his cup of coffee untouched. He turns as I approach.
“Sit yourself down,” he says, with that same sparkling smile. He gestures to the bench opposite.
It’s getting close to 2am. I work the night shift, of course. The graveyard shift.
“I’m Xavier.” He offers his hand. He has the trace of an accent, though I can’t place it.
His handshake is brisk and business-like and I try to ignore the pang of loneliness that hits me with his touch.
“Asher,” I say, though it’s right there on my badge. I slide into the booth.
He tilts his head to one side, examining me. “You don’t look like an Asher.”
“I changed my name when I left home. It used to be Alex.”
He nods. “You look more like an Alex.”
I stifle a sigh. This again. “You mean, I look Greek.” Kerrick and Sebastian both held fantasies of gods and heroes from ancient times, and somehow I was in them. It seems to be an obsession with these older vampires.
He shrugs. “There are worse things to look. Don’t be sorry for your roots. I’m from that part of the world myself. From Venice, originally.” Venice. That was the accent. “Long time since I was there,” he continues. “But you’re quite new. Who made you?”
I tense at the question. Was this information I should share freely? There were so many rules, and I hadn’t paid enough attention to Kerrick’s lessons. Or, rather, some of them had overshadowed the others.
“You don’t have to tell me,” he says in answer to my silence. “I’m just curious. I heard a rumour one of our kind was working in a coffee shop off Tottenham Court Road. I wondered, how does such a thing happen?”
I’m a rumour. Perhaps other vampires have seen me too; perhaps they were here and I didn’t notice. I feel on display in this glass box with the night pressing in all around. But I force myself to answer. “I needed a job.”
“Alex, this isn’t a job for one of our kind.”
“Asher.” I shouldn’t have told him my old name.
He waves his hand as if it’s nothing. “As you like. Asher, where’s your creator? They should be taking care of you. You should still be by their side.”
“Kerrick,” I say. There’s a flicker of recognition on his face. He has enough mastery of his emotions to hide whatever else he’s thinking, but I can guess. “George Kerrick made me. But I left him.”
“Ah,” he says, and revolves his cup around. “Well, that’s a hefty legacy.”
“You know him, then?”
“Everyone does. I don’t know him well. Just by sight. He keeps his own society.”
Beyond Kerrick, and Sebastian’s little closed, incestuous world, I’ve never met any others of our kind. But the way he talks makes me think there’s a whole lot more of us. I suppose it was just a matter of time that they’d crawl out of the woodwork.
“Maybe I could find you work,” Xavier says.
I shift in my seat, my skin prickling. Why does he want to help me; why the interest? I take a breath to steady myself. “What kind?”
“Something better suited to your nature.”
I’m not sure what that means. All I’ve seen of our nature is violence. Xavier doesn’t seem like the violent type. Then again, neither did Sebastian.
“These are dangerous times, Asher. Ancient powers are on the move. You need the company of your own kind. Do you even have a safe haven?”
I live in a shared flat in Stratford, above a seedy club. It’s a dive. Barely habitable. I don’t even have my own room. My dad said he would send me money, but it hasn’t arrived. I keep checking the cash machines, hoping the balance finds its way a little further into the black. I don’t want to beg. I want him to think I’m doing okay.
“You need to learn to guard your thoughts, as well,” Xavier says. “Those of us who’ve been around a while, we tend to pick things up if you think so loud. Listen, I’m going to a club. Why don’t you come? I’ll get you in.”
I look at my watch, trying to focus on that and not my heart pounding in my chest. I don’t know how to refuse him, or even if I want to. I don’t even want to think in case he hears me. I stare at the second hand ticking away, paralysed with indecision.
“Plenty of time, yet,” Xavier says smoothly, as if I haven’t just frozen. “Besides, they have rooms if we get stuck at dawn. It’s a special club.”
In the bright light of his smile my worries appear foolish. Those eyes of his warm me through, relaxing me. I want to trust him. I’m sick of being alone, sick of the frail existence I’ve built for myself, so insubstantial I could knock it over with a breath.
“All right,” I say. His smile grows into a satisfied grin.
The club is walking distance from work, in Soho, but it’s easily missed. There’s a little gateway in one of the buildings. No signs. It’s been recently painted in black and gold. We walk through the entrance into a small courtyard enclosed on all sides by high buildings. Neat little topiary bushes sit about in pots. A gold plaque by the door says ‘Varney’s’ in a modern italic script.
“Just a little joke.” Xavier gestures to the sign. I must look blank, because he says, “have you never heard of Varney the Vampire? I guess you’re pretty young.”
“Twenty-one,” I say.
“Jesus. You weren’t one for gothic literature in your mortal life, then?”
“I don’t really read much.” I shift awkwardly, my hands in my back pockets. I always end up feeling like a dumb kid around others of my kind.
“Don’t worry,” Xavier says. “I was an ignorant fuck in my mortal days, as well. I just happened to be living in Renaissance Venice, so I couldn’t help but fall into some culture now and then. Cheating, really.”
Ignorant fuck. His words sting. He smirks and this time the joke’s at my expense.
“The owner of this club is one of us. Nathaniel Hook, he’s called. Did your creator explain the rules about young vampires?”
I shake my head.
Xavier brings his thumb and forefinger up to the bridge of his nose and massages it. “All right. Here’s the thing. You shouldn’t really be out without your creator, not among other vampires. I’ll vouch for you tonight, say you’re under my protection. You don’t have any quirks I should know about?”
My mind races for an answer, but in the end I shrug. “I don’t think so.”
“Funny feeding habits? Propensity to fly into violent rages?”
I shake my head. I’m not sure if he’s joking now.
“What are you good at?”
I shrug again. “I’m fast. Strong.” My list falls short.
“You don’t have a bloody clue, do you? Never mind. Perhaps it’s too soon for you to know. Follow my lead. You can trust Hook. Be careful of the others.”
I follow him through the anonymous black door. A bulky bouncer nods to Xavier as we enter. On the other side is a modern looking bar buzzing with people. They all seem to be mortal, including the bouncer. The smell of their blood overwhelms me.
Xavier puts an arm on my shoulder, and pulls me closer. So close I can smell the sharp tang of his cologne, feel his body press against mine. Bolstering me against the pull of that scent. I realise how alone I’ve been.
“This is just the public section. The club is out back,” he whispers hot into my neck.
We pass the bar which stretches the length of the room. It’s carved from golden wood, cut into waves and polished to a shine. A small man leans at the end, watching us approach. He has a long face, with a long nose, and, as I draw near, I realise he’s one of us. That strange trick of space and presence again.
“Hook!” Xavier exclaims. “Good to see you. This is my friend, Asher. I’m showing him the sights.”
Hook smiles at us with his thin lips and looks me up and down. “He seems a little fresh, my friend.”
“I’ll vouch for him.”
“See that you do. Welcome to Varney’s, Asher.”
“Thanks,” I say, and he gives me a brief nod.
We go through a door behind Hook, marked ‘Private’, into a cloakroom dimly lit by a red bulb.
“What does he think I’ll do?” I ask.
“Lose control,” Xavier says. “Act inappropriately with the guests. But I think you’ll be all right, as long as you stick with me. Okay?”
“When you meet someone new, just bow your head and keep your eyes on the floor. Don’t address them as you did with Hook. Most of our kind are very concerned with seniority and good manners. Do you understand?”
I nod, a lump rising in my throat. I’m no longer sure I want to meet anyone. I’m not in the mood for bowing and scraping. It sounds like the sort of game Sebastian would enjoy.
We go through a set of double doors. My feet sink into thick carpet. The light is golden, glistening from chandeliers and wall sconces, all electric, but with a muted tone. It shines off the gilt-edged decoration and furniture. I can’t help but think of Sebastian’s beautiful antiques.
The place is nearly empty. A middle-aged woman reclines on a couch in one corner. She wears a colourful patterned robe and a turban, and fingers a long string of beads around her neck. With the other hand she smokes a cigarette in a long holder. Two men lean against a small bar in the corner, regarding us. They’re both smartly dressed in suits, their ages difficult to guess, perhaps somewhere in their forties. They nod at Xavier and I look down as he’s told me. His hand presses against my back, guiding me to a couch on the far wall.
“Good,” he says, his breath against my ear. I crave that closeness. “You’re doing fine. It’s very quiet tonight.”
We sit on the couch. The woman in the corner is watching us with interest. Xavier smiles and nods at her, a respectful gesture of acknowledgement, but he doesn’t seem to want to engage. His focus is all on me.
“Have you fed?” he asks.
I shake my head, ashamed, picturing my last victim running across the park, me driving him down to the ground, before he could escape. He’s not the first I’ve messed up. I’ve tried so hard not to kill like Kerrick. Each victim is etched in my mind, a tally marked across my soul.
He strokes my cheek with his hand. “What did they do to you?”
I meet his eyes. I don’t have the words to tell him my fear and I’m not sure I want to, but I feel the brush of his consciousness against mine. It’s the softest touch, not like Sebastian’s force. I soften and melt towards him. His arm wraps around me and I rest my head on his shoulder.
“Evening, Xavier.” It’s a woman’s voice. I raise my head to see, but it feels heavy; my whole body is like lead. It’s easier not to fight this strange, sleepy feeling, but to release myself to it. My eyelids flutter, allowing me a glimpse of the slender young woman in front of me. She wears a long deep blue satin dress, which drapes over her hips and flows down to the floor like water, pooling at her feet. Blonde hair falls to her waist. I don’t look up to her face.
“Do you have any guests tonight?” he asks.
“Of course,” she says. “Would you like a room?”
“I think that would be better,” he says. He turns to me. “Come on, little sleepy head. We’re going to get you something to eat.”
Somehow I rise. It’s as though I’m floating, pulled by an invisible string. I bob along beside him in the gentle stream he’s made for me. We leave the room, following the woman. The satin of her dress whispers to me, as we move along the corridor. She opens a door for us and ushers us in. The room is modern, a wash of pale cream with touches of red. It has a Japanese feel. There are no windows. A large bed dominates the room.
“We’ll take the room until tomorrow night, if that’s all right?” he says.
“That’s fine. Shall I put it on Mr Sforza’s account?”
I sink onto the bed, the covers softer than anything I’ve felt. What’s he done to me? I can’t control my body, but my senses are amplified a thousand times. The cream blankness of the ceiling is comforting, as I stare up at it and imagine myself floating up to meld with the nothingness. The woman leaves us. The door hisses across the deep carpet and clunks neatly into place.
“Are you a messy eater?” Xavier asks me. He towers above me. I see Sebastian ripping chunks of flesh away with his teeth, blood pouring down his shirt.
“No,” Xavier says. “You need to stop thinking about that.” His consciousness holds mine a little tighter. “You’re afraid to feed. You must understand you need the vitality to function. Do you want to die?”
Once I did. Now, I’m not sure. Can he see that uncertainty in my mind? I can’t speak. He must know I can’t speak. My throat tightens as my panic rises.
“Shh,” he says. “Stop fighting me.”
I didn’t realise I was. I’m not sure how to control it. I sense him probing my thoughts. I imagine my mind like a flat blank plain, like the ceiling. A vast expanse with no walls. Everything fades bright white around me, until I’m floating in that nothingness.
I remain there for a long time, enjoying the peace of that empty space. The uncomplicated blank. Then there is red, a dribble at first, across the whiteness. It’s hot in my throat, as it blossoms into a bloody flower. I reach out with my mind and touch a petal. It’s soft-fuzzed and delicate. I stroke it, savouring the velvet surface.
Xavier’s voice comes from very far away, calling me back, and I float up into the room. There’s a man kneeling beside the bed, a mortal man. He doesn’t look much older than me. He smiles as I open my eyes. He’s holding his wrist out to me, two clean puncture marks where I’ve fed from him. I pull myself up onto my elbow and lick the wound. It heals.
“Thank you,” Xavier says, from behind me.
The man nods, and stands. He pads out of the room, barefoot. I roll over to find Xavier sitting beside me, leaning back against the bedstead.
“That was very nicely done,” he says. “The flower, and everything. They love that sort of thing.”
“I didn’t—” I begin.
“I controlled your panic, the traumatic responses you’ve learned. But you created the vision and he shared that as you fed from him. These are the things your creator should have taught you.”
“Who was the man?”
“One of the mortals, who visit here. They call them guests. Some people enjoy being fed from. They find it pleasurable. Hook provides a specialist service, in two different senses. A complementary arrangement.”
“They actually enjoy it?”
“Sure. Why not? It can be a rush for some of them. And, of course, there’s the thrill of danger.” His lips draw into a slow smile and I catch the glimpse of his fangs.
“Can we feed here all the time?”
Xavier shakes his head. “Sadly, not. Hook just can’t supply enough. He must be very careful who he invites here, for our security. And it’s not a good idea to depend completely on another for your sustenance. You make yourself a slave to them. Understand?”
I nod. “Just like we can’t feed from each other.”
“Not quite. It’s simply unwise to trust everything to others. That’s all I mean. What you said isn’t quite true. We can feed from one another and it isn’t always bad. There are different bonds we can create with our blood. But you have to be careful. My lover and I, we’re bound to one another. It’s a mutual bond, but created over a long time.”
I feel a pang at the mention of a lover. Stupid. We’ve only just met but I don’t want to share him.
“What did you do to me, before, when I lost control?”
“It’s a mind-trick, baby boy. Did you like it?”
“I’m not sure.” My confusion is real. I know, somewhere at the back of my mind, that I should fear this, but I can’t find my fear. I want to trust him so badly.
“Would you like to spend the day here with me? I’ll keep you safe.”
“Yes,” I blurt out, far too eager.
“Would you like me to teach you?”
I nod, too afraid to speak in case I spoil something. It’s too perfect. He’s too perfect.
“I need to make a phone call, Asher. Perhaps tomorrow night you can come home with me. I need to check. I share my safe haven.”
He slides off the bed and disappears through the door.
(c) Ambrose Hall, 2016