We didn’t get to see the leopard cubs. If the zoo’s intercom had waited ten fucking seconds, we would have kissed. It’s for the best that we didn’t, I suppose. We’re too different. I’m a young, mortal woman from the southern United States, and Carmilla’s a centuries-old Austrian vampire. I spend most months scraping by, and she comes from old money—really old money. Let’s not forget that I’m a private investigator who handles paranormal cases, so dating her would become a conflict of interest. Right?
But she intimated that being with me brought her happiness. I couldn’t believe it, and I’m still blushing thinking about it. I’ve struggled since Mom’s accident, allowed business to slow, bounced from failed relationship to failed relationship, and made that brash deal with Mr. Scratch. And then, brimming with confidence and charisma, she walked into my night. It’s nice to play a part in someone’s happiness without risking my life against supernatural beings or, worse, zealous governmental agents.
After we left the zoo, we grabbed a meal at Fang and Fire, a barbecue joint that catered to supernatural tastes. Janus Johnson introduced me to the place when a freak thunderstorm ruined one of his Sunday barbecues. Lycanthropes loved the generous portions of highly seasoned, smoked meat and the tangy but smooth sauce that kicks up the heat after a few bites. Had the Craven Horn, a succubus-owned tavern-turned gastropub, obtained its liquor license, I would have suggested we dine there. I worried Carmilla might turn her nose up at the juke joint aesthetic, vintage jukeboxes blaring the blues, and the peanut shell-crusted floor, but it appeared she enjoyed the brisket and sausage platter and the three glasses of the Sharpsburg Sanguinovese.
The decommissioned Spring Hill Street Fire Station, a historic building that resembled the station in Ghostbusters, found new life as the Butcher’s Bend Modern Art Museum. The Butcher’s Bend Arts Council held major exhibitions of local and visiting artists in the Jackie Dee Parker Gallery. Erin Zed was a local mixed media artist. Their work combined abstract oil paintings on found canvases, tactile elements for audience touching, and QR codes linking to Zed’s poetry set to obscure Baroque chamber pieces. From Laura’s hype, I thought it would be an interesting event—and an excuse to dress cute.
A larger-than-expected crowd filled the gallery. All dressed well, but most dressed for the summer swelter. Soft blue LED lights provided gentle illumination. Charred oak-scented oil perfumed the air. Servers dressed in red, gold, and black color blocked kaftans flitted through the patches of patrons. The conversational din buzzed in our ears. Carmilla asked if I knew anyone present, and I pointed to Laura, the smartly dressed bald woman with umber skin with bronze undertones, who chatted with an elderly man I recognized as Senator Danforth Planter.
“She’s the only one I see. I’ve got a few other friends who pop in to these from time to time. They might show up later. Or maybe the heat kept them home.”
“I cannot fault them. The heat oppresses.” She nodded and then smiled, extending her arm. “Shall we view the art?”
I smiled and wrapped my arm around hers. We chatted as we perused and engaged with the art pieces. A piece titled Grief and Loss Externalized drew Carmilla’s attention. Deep red, gold, and black slashes ripped through the glass television screen serving as the canvas. Piles of bandages covering corn syrup blood protruded from the glass. When touched, their sanguine contents drizzled onto the canvas and the floor. Upon finishing the poem where Zed memorialized their dead sister, Carmilla stood, eyes closed, in mournful silence.
I squeezed her hand, looked into her eyes, and offered a comforting smile. “Hey. Penny for your thoughts?”
A crimson tear formed in her right eye. I wiped it away as she returned the smile. “I thank you. Soon, but later, I will tell you my thoughts. But tonight, let us enjoy the warmth of life.”
The crowd thickened as the evening turned to night. Laura flitted from patron to patron as she always did, making everyone feel welcome and important. It both relieved and disappointed me I didn’t have the chance to introduce Carmilla to Laura. If something comes of this, I’ll have time to do that. The scented oils either ran out, or I grew accustomed to its presence. I smelled Carmilla’s perfume and nothing else. The din grew louder as more simultaneous conversations occurred.
Carmilla raised her free hand to her ear. Her mouth twitched, wincing. I’ve read in a few places vampires had super-sensitive hearing, so I guess all the conversation and heel-clacking on the hardwood floors got to her. I scanned the room, and then it hit me. A smile crossed my face when I saw the glass door leading to the balcony. I grabbed Carmilla’s hand and led her to the balcony.
“Come with me. Let’s take a break.”
The balcony was a recent addition that, because of federal regulations regarding renovating historical buildings, cost more than it should have. A row of Ionic columns supported the waist-high railing. LED candles flickered atop the railing. The waning moon hung in the clear sky, surrounded by a scattering of stars. Honking and speeding cars produced noise, but, compared to the gallery, the balcony was silent. Carmilla’s eyes fixed on the moon. She leaned forward, resting her hands on the railing. Carmilla smiled.
“Thank you.” Her smile broadened as her fingertip brushed my hand. “The artist’s work is fascinating. I have never thought to incorporate technology into art as they did, but the gallery grew louder than I anticipated.”
I nodded, sliding closer to her. I said, “I noticed you holding your ear. That usually means someone either has an earache or the room is too loud. Besides, I thought a little night air would be nice.”
“Although it is not full, the moon is lovely tonight.”
She slid her hand around my waist, paused, and pulled me closer to her only after I sank into her hand. I sighed and smiled. I leaned into her shoulder and smelled the rose perfume she wore. Beneath the moonlight, we talked and laughed. I bit my lower lip while nuzzling the crook of her neck. Beneath her floral perfume, her natural scent—honey spiced with warm gingersnaps—emerged. I moaned. She twitched and drew a sharp breath into her lungs. Fuck! I ruined the moment. It just—it just felt like being hugged while in a warm bath surrounded by scented candles.
Carmilla pulled away, and I mentally kicked the ground. “I apologize,” she said, “if I have scared or upset you. That is not my intention.”
I wrapped my hand around her soft, pale wrist and shook my head, smiling. “It’s not that. I—it’s just been a long time since someone’s held me in a way that feels like I’m soaking in a perfect bath. It’s nice.”
Carmilla beamed, and a faint pink color graced her cheeks. She stepped closer. We made eye contact. I bit my lower lip to muffle any sounds resulting from my increased heart and breath rates. I nodded as she spoke, unable to hear anything over the jackhammer bursts of my heart. She tilted her head, and I felt her breath, warm like an early September morning, against my ear. My head fell back as my neck muscles went slack. She caught my head in her hand, raised it and slid her hand forward to cup my cheek.
For a moment, I saw an emerald flicker behind her red eyes. She licked her lips as our eyes locked. Her delicate fingers traced my cheekbone. I blushed. If those bad horror movies were right, she heard my blood rushing and thundering through my veins. Her smile remained soft. I didn’t see her fangs. Maybe she didn’t hear my blood.
“May I have permission,” she asked and then paused. “May I have permission to kiss you?”
A kiss? On our second date? She wanted to kiss me? Wait—is this a date? I mean, we’ve never said it was, but she wants to kiss me. So does that mean it was a date? My jaw unclenched. What if I’m a bad kisser? My head tilted. How’s my breath? Questions, fears, and concerns raced through my mind. And then I heard my own voice respond. “Yes.”
Carmilla pressed her lips to mine. I tasted the wines she had consumed throughout the night. Her tongue brushed against my lips. My body beckoned it deeper; she only teased. The back of her right hand stroked my chin, and her left hand encircled my waist. I moaned into her, throwing my arms around her neck. She growled hungrily. My breathing became ragged, shallow, needy. She pulled my body against hers. We spun, head and body, until she pressed my back to the railing.
She nibbled my bottom lip as she broke the kiss. My chest heaved, and I bit my lower lip while batting my eyes. Her chest remained motionless. In the silence, I heard my heart pound.
“Why’d you stop?” I cringed internally as the words escaped my lips. I couldn’t have said something cheesy about her lips tasting like wine. No. I couldn’t say something profound. No. My brain chose that question.
Carmilla chuckled. Her index finger lifted my chin. “Patience. The night is young.”
As the exhibition’s soiree neared its end, Sam and Carmilla reentered the gallery. They found viewing the art easier with a smaller crowd. When Sam asked about Laura’s whereabouts, they learned she had excused herself to complete paperwork in the office. They spoke with Erin Zed, and Carmilla purchased Grief and Loss Externalized. Zed appeared flattered and shocked that Carmilla both appreciated their work and agreed to the five-figure price without hesitation. They chatted while discussing how quickly Zed could pack and ship the piece to Austria.
They continued looking through the other exhibits across the other floors. On the second floor, Sam overheard a conversation between a mother and her young daughter. The girl, with her tangled mess of curly red hair, asserted that she saw a vampire. When the child pointed at Carmilla, her mother pushed her hand down while assuring her that Carmilla was a pale-skinned woman and nothing more. The girl rejected her mother’s counterclaims and rushed toward Carmilla.
The child stood firm, her hands on her hips, as she said, “You’re a vampire, aren’t you?”
Sam swallowed hard. Oh fuck. We didn’t need this tonight.
The mother raced toward us, wrapped her arms around her daughter, and offered Carmilla an apologetic glance. “I’m sorry. She’s really tired and has an overactive imagination. Antonia, sweetheart, vampires aren’t real. We’ve talked about this.”
“They are real, Mommy, and this lady is one!” She pointed her finger at Carmilla.
The mother winced as she pulled the girl’s arm down. “Honey, it’s not polite to point at people. I’m so sorry, miss.”
Carmilla smiled and kneeled, making her was the same height as Antonia. She raised her eyes and winked at the mother and then whispered into the girl’s ear. As Carmilla rose, Antonia beamed. “See, Mommy, this lady is a vampire. I knew it!”
Embarrassed, the mother escorted her daughter from the gallery while reminding her she needed sleep. Sam heard Carmilla chuckled. Sam raised an eyebrow, and Carmilla wrapped her arm around Sam’s waist. Carmilla said, “Children have such imaginations. Within two days, she will have forgotten this. Perhaps she will believe our meeting to be a dream.”
Sam blinked and smiled. That could have been so much worse. Carmilla was so patient and gentle with that child. It was cute.
They left the gallery.
The City Star Grill hostess had already seated everyone when Sam pulled into the parking lot for their weekly brunch. She yawned, chugged her coffee, and grabbed her purse. Her black and white polka dot sunglasses matched her sleeveless fit and flare dress. Her red heels clicked on the cobblestones as she walked to the restaurant. Destiny’s charcoal blazer rested on the back of her chair. Her Food Wars! tank top displayed her cut and muscular shoulders. Laura Kelsington wore a plum pant suit with a lavender button down. Her partner, Rhianna Jefferson, a tall, slender woman with umber skin and a mohawk of thick, neon pink curls, wore a mustard sundress that highlighted the rich undertones of her skin.
Destiny and Rhianna pretended to sip mimosas as Sam sat. She removed her sunglasses, revealing the dark circles beneath her tired eyes. The server, a brunette nearing middle age, brought Sam water and took the table’s orders. As the server left, Laura leaned forward and crossed her arms on the table.
“Sam, I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to talk last night. I hope you and your date enjoyed the exhibition.”
Sam nodded, pouring herself a mimosa from the communal pitcher. “It wasn’t a date, but we did enjoy it.”
Destiny rolled her eyes and snorted. Laura drummed her fingers on the round oak table. “My mistake. I caught a glimpse of you two leaving, and this attractive woman with black hair had her arm around your waist. And, if I am not mistaken, you smiled bigger than a kid who got a puppy and a pony for Christmas. So, was this woman a client?”
Destiny interjected, “Oh, you know Sam suffers from that condition that causes her to deny she’s on a date unless the other person specifically calls it a date.”
“Ah,” Laura said, “Cluelessness. Samantha Blake Hain, you have a natural instinct that makes you a great private investigator, but you never apply it to your love life.”
“And what did you do,” Rhianna asked, “on your ‘not date?’”
Sam smiled as she recounted last night’s events. “We met at the zoo to see the new leopard cubs, but we didn’t make it to the exhibit before the zoo closed. Carmilla got light-headed and dizzy from the heat. She’s Austrian, so she’s not used to our humid swelter. I figured she might be hungry, so we headed to Fang and Fire, which she seemed to enjoy. I knew it wasn’t her usual thing, but she seemed content with the food. And then we went to the Erin Zed exhibition, which she thoroughly enjoyed. She even bought one of their pieces.” Sam paused. She drained half her water glass and, before lowering the glass from her lips, she said, “And we kissed on the balcony.”
Six eyes widened as they stared at her. As the server brought their food, they said in unison, “You kissed?!”
Sam grumbled as she cut the poached quail eggs on her eggs benedict. The yolks and hollandaise oozed over the fried ham and softball-sized biscuits that City Star used instead of English muffins. She stabbed a bite and ate it. She rolled her eyes and pointed the fork at her friends as she spoke. “You’ve all seen me kiss girls before. What the fuck makes this kiss special?”
Destiny produced a pair of wire-framed circular glasses from her purse. They filtered blue light, useful for work and long hours of gaming, but they were otherwise cosmetic. She lowered the glasses to the tip of her nose and over them. She said, “If I may offer the following evidence, Miss Hain, we have all seen you kiss girls. That is true. However, I know that I have only seen you kiss girls whom you were officially dating at the time of the kiss. Therefore, since you and Countess Carmilla Karnstein are not dating—as you have stated—this is a kiss like no other, a scandalous, stolen smooch beneath the light of the waning moon. That answer your question?”
Sam narrowed her eyes. Destiny poured the hot honey over her chicken and waffles. She ignored her friend and business partner’s annoyed glare. Laura and Rhianna shot each other a knowing glance as they sipped their mimosas. Sam sighed. Her shoulders slumped. Her index finger circled the rim of the champagne flute, and she shook her head.
“I don’t know. What if it was a date? Fine, it was a date—our second date.” Sam smiled, gazing wistfully into the distance. “And we kissed on our second date.”
“So,” Rhianna asked, “are you going to tell us about her?”
The server brought another mimosa pitcher, and Sam described Carmilla. Her description began with a discussion of Carmilla’s work, paired with her passion for helping people gain financial independence as they learn to navigate society. Sam smiled as she described Carmilla’s passion for art, particularly watercolor, and her love of painting landscapes. After eating a few bites of her meal, Sam wiped hollandaise from the corner of her lips. Her eyes lit up as she then described Carmilla physically, omitting the details that marked her vampiric nature, while emphasizing her gentleness, confidence, and compassion.
“She sounds like a great catch, Sam,” Laura said, smiling. “But so are you. Don’t forget that. Des, we know you’ve snooped. She worth the ink?”
Destiny shoved an entire chicken tender into her mouth and nodded. “I’ve had my people snoop around the records. She’s on the level and hasn’t caused any problems. Working with me will help Sam handle a few Germanic peculiarities that might pop up.”
“Like the fact that she’ll sound angry when she’s just talking?” Laura asked.
Or that she’ll freak if it looks like she’ll be thirty seconds late?” Rhianna asked.
Destiny pursed her lips and furrowed her brow. She sighed. “Yeah, yeah. Don’t forget, Sam, she’ll value her privacy and will probably be reserved and formal in public. Besides, she’s from old landed aristocracy, so rules and decorum will matter. You’ll have to learn those rules and how to handle her specific dietary restrictions.”
“Dietary restrictions?” Laura asked. “Something common like gluten-free or something rarer?”
“That’s kind of my biggest worry,” Sam said, pulling at her dress collar. “Dating her, as wonderful and amazing as these two dates have been, might be a conflict of interest. Plus, she’s wealthy, and I’m, well, not. I don’t know.”
Destiny rolled her eyes as Sam rehashed the same argument she’d heard before Sam’s first date with Carmilla. Laura leaned forward and clasped Sam’s hands in hers. She looked into Sam’s eyes and asked, “What do you want, Sam? Forget wealth. Forget work. What do you want?”
Sam’s mind raced. She closed her eyes, remembering Carmilla’s compassionate, playful, and truthful response to that young girl at the gallery. Sure, Carmilla was nearly three centuries old, but she still possessed humanity and tenderness. When she wrapped her arm around me, I felt calm, safe, and happy. She’s confident, passionate, and gentle. And yeah, she’s gorgeous, and I know I felt a spark when we kissed. I wanted more, and she promised it. Maybe I should talk to her. I don’t know.
Sam sighed and said, “I’d like to try.”
On Wednesday night, Martin carried a large box to the rear courtyard. Carmilla and her easel stood before the fountain at the hedge maze’s center. The fragrances of the blooming roses, lavender plants, and tulips perfumed the still air. She spent this night, as she had the last five, painting the window-sized watercolor paper she tacked to a canvas. Martin observed the painting as Carmilla sipped her wine. Over the past week, Carmilla spent her evenings recreating the Spring Hill Street Fire Station balcony with Samantha Hain standing before it with the waning moon looking down on her. Although primarily realistic, her paintings still displayed the blooming and feathering common to all watercolor paintings.
“I see you salted the paper to give the stonework a realistic texture,” Martin said. “Excellent choice, my Countess.”
Carmilla smiled. “Thank you. Do you think the colors will fade in the South Carolina humidity?”
Martin leaned forward, inspecting the painting. He shrugged. “I do not know. I am unfamiliar with the United States and its weather. But I do believe I have found a large enough box to hold the work.”
“And I have taken the liberty of addressing the package to Miss Hain’s home. She should receive her gift before…”
“Change it.” Carmilla gestured wildly with her free hand while draining her wineglass. “She hasn’t offered me her address yet. I don’t want her to think we have been watching her.”
Martin rolled his eyes. He nodded and bowed. “Of course, my Countess. Yet, do not forget that Miss Hain’s business partner is Werther Grimm’s daughter. She may have resigned from the family business after that Berlin incident, but family helps family. I am certain that Miss Hain knows everything about you that the Veiled Knights of Wilhelm and Jakob know.”
Carmilla waved a dismissive hand. “Be that as it may, Martin, please have it sent to her office.”
“Yes, my Countess.” Martin bowed. “You do realize that you could simply ask her for her address, do you not?”
“I would like this to be a surprise.” Carmilla refilled her wineglass and sipped.
“Of course. And may I have your authorization to purchase and include the travel documents for your proposed third outing as well?”
Carmilla choked on her wine, wheezed, and coughed. Martin chuckled, an action he suppressed upon seeing Carmilla’s glare. He apologized and removed the canvas from her easel, laying it flat inside the simple shipping box.
“We have not yet discussed that,” Carmilla said, her whispered words inaudible to any without supernatural hearing.
She avoided his gaze, turning her face toward the cloud-draped moon. Martin tilted his head, cocked an eyebrow, and asked, “The two of you have talked for hours each night since your return from the United States. If not the plans for your next rendezvous, what is there to talk about?”
“Many things.” Carmilla smiled, recalling her recent conversations with Sam. “We talked about her plans to be a teacher of literature to middle grade students. We talked about flowers and how, if she ever owns her own home and has a yard, she wishes to grow Dog Roses, Kingscups, and Forget-Me-Nots in her mother’s honor, as she was an avid gardener. We talked about how she missed her mother, and I missed my sister. Did you know her favorite novels are the Murder in the Mix series by Addison Moore? Both of us had a brown and white rabbit as our first pet. She is the reason I’ve been watching this American show Murder She Wrote on Hulu. We share a love for the transient beauty in falling autumnal leaves and winter’s first snow. We disagree on her belief that Fritz Lang’s oeuvre is overrated. We—”
“I see you talked about everything but your next rendezvous.” Martin chuckled. “Regardless, I will package this carefully, change the address on the package, and place this in the post tomorrow morning. Midnight is in one hour, my Countess. Please return to your bed before sunrise tonight.”
Martin bowed, collapsed the easel, and returned to the keep, carrying the painting and Carmilla’s painting supplies. Carmilla sat on the edge of the fountain in the rear courtyard and finished the bottle. She glanced at the sky as an owl hooted from the Stubai Alps surrounding the castle. She returned to the keep and walked down the unlit hall that ended in a locked door. Pressing her hand to the door, she paused in thought. Carmilla sighed and unlocked the door before descending the stairs to the keep’s dungeon.
Carmilla glided down the dusty stone stairs, ignoring the intricate lace patterns of spider webs and the cold, still air. As she opened the wooden door, a silent crypt greeted her. Inside the dust-free room rested a glass coffin where a woman’s preserved body slept atop a purple cushion. A massive bouquet of white lilies rested atop the coffin. A bloody tear slid down Carmilla’s cheek as her fingertips brushed the coffin. The woman inside the casket proved nearly identical to Carmilla, but a golden nameplate identified her as Elisa Karnstein, beloved sister, and asked that one day she would forgive Carmilla.
“You have been silent for the past few weeks, Lisa.” Carmilla’s words raggedly hobbled their way from her throat. “I know you have not gone to your rest, and I know you have not forgiven me. Not that I have earned it.”
Carmilla paused. She sank to the floor, her back against the coffin, as crimson tears plummeted from her eyes. She rested her face in her hands. Memories flooded her mind of that day in 1827 when the reports blamed Annalena Mayer’s death on blood loss by vampire bite; the enraged village mob stormed the castle, and Elisa Karnstein rushed forward, claiming to be Carmilla. They dragged Elisa to the local church, stripped her naked, and drove a stake through her heart. She was still human, having not yet reached the age at which the Karnstein heirs performed the Rite of Turning, becoming vampires. At the moment of her death, lightning set the church aflame, burning everything while Elisa’s body remained inviolate. And that led to Carmilla’s exile in Ireland and her subsequent trial and punishment at the hand of Vlad Dracula, then King of the Vampires of Europe and the Levant.
“I swear to you, dear sister, today, just as I swore to Father then. Annalena was alive when I left her bedroom before dawn. I was so careful. I know it. Never was it my intention to hurt you, but my negligence killed you.”
Carmilla wept. Her shrill, mournful cries echoed through the castle halls. As the echoes of her wails reached Martin’s quarters, the estate steward sighed. He drained his blood orange brandy from the crystal snifter and set his book on the side table. In a routine perfected over the past two centuries, Martin removed a blood bag from the cooler in his room he kept for such situations and set it on the nightstand beside Carmilla’s bed. Then he descended the stairs, heading toward the castle dungeon.
Through her tears, Carmilla choked on her words as she spoke. “I have met someone new, Lisa. Yes, she is a mortal. She is a few years older than Annalena was at the time of her death. In fact, she is the same age as you were when my negligence cost you your life. Her name is Samantha Hain, and she is from the United States. Her country was only a few decades old when you were born. She works as a private investigator, and she helps both mortals and those like us when trouble arises. She is impulsive, gentle, considerate, and kind, but a sadness from missing her mother darkens her heart. Being with her makes me happy. I hope you will forgive me for this.”
Carmilla’s voice trailed to a hoarse whisper as she finished speaking. Through her bloody tear-stained eyes, she searched the chamber, but she saw no sign of company. Her shoulders slumped forward, and she clenched her fists as the tears returned. While weeping, her fangs punctured her lower lip. Blood trickled from the puncture wounds. Her skin’s minimal pigmentation waned to a bluish white as the blood drained from her eyes and lips. And then she collapsed onto the cold stone floor.
Martin emerged from the door to the dungeon, concern and compassion on his face. When he saw Carmilla’s unconscious body splayed on the floor, he nodded and sighed. He kneeled beside her and scooped her into his arms. Carefully but effortlessly, he ascended the stairs, lay her in her bed, pulled the burgundy sheets over her, and then wrote her a note reminding her that blood wine alone is not a substitute for actual blood. He then exited her chamber.