Chapter 9

I sit at a poker table trying to bluff a high roller from Texas into folding. The game has been going on awhile. There is one hundred thousand dollars in cash and chips on the table. His hand is better than mine. Yaksha's mind-reading gift has grown more powerful in me--I can now see the man's cards as if viewing them through his eyes. He has three aces, two jacks--a full house. I have three sixes--Satan's favor?ite number. He has the winning hand.

The Texan wears leather cowboy boots, a five-gallon hat. The smoke from his fat cigar does not irritate my eyes. He blows a smelly cloud my way as if to intimidate me. I smile and match his last bet, then raise him another fifty thousand. We are enjoying a private game, in a luxurious corner of the casino,  where only fat cats hang out Three other men sit with us at the table, but they have since folded. They follow the action closely--they all know each other. The Texan will not like to be humiliated in front of them.

"You must have a royal flush, honey child," he says. "Betting the way you do." He leans across the table. "Or else you got a sugar daddy paying your bills."

"Honey and sugar," I muse aloud. "Both like me." I add, sharpening my tone, "But I pay my own bills."

He laughs and slaps his leg. "Are you trying to bluff me?"

"Maybe. Match my bet and find out"

He hesitates a moment, glancing at the pot. "The action is getting kind of heavy. What do you do, child, to have so much dough? Your daddy must have given it to you."

He is trying to ascertain how important the money is to me. If it means a lot, in my mind, then I will be betting heavily only if I have an unbeatable hand. Leaning across the table, I stare him in the eye, not strong enough to fry his synapses but hard enough to shake him. I don't like being called a child. I am five thousand years old after all.

"I earned every penny of it," I tell him. "The hard way. Where did you get your money, old man?"

He sits back quickly, ruffled by my tone, my laser vision. "I earned it by honest labor," he says, lying.

I sit back as well. "Then lose it honestly. Match my bet or fold. I don't care which. Just quit stalling."

He flushes. "I'm not stalling."

I shrug, cool as ice. "Whatever you want to call it, old man."

"Damn you," he swears, throwing his cards down. "I fold."

My arms reach out and rake in the money. They're all staring at me. "Oh," I say. "I bet you're wondering what I had? But you're all too professional to ask, aren't you?" I stand and start to stuff the cash and chips in my purse. "I think I'll call it a night."

"Wait right there," the Texan says, getting up. "I want to see those cards."

"Really? I thought you had to pay to see them. Are the rules different for Texans?"

"They are when you've got fifty grand of my money, bitch. Now show me."

I dislike being called a "bitch" more than a "child."

"Very well," I say, flipping over my cards. "You would have won. That's the last time I show a hand you didn't pay to see. Now do you feel better? You were bluffed out of your wrinkled skin, old man."

He slams the table with his fist. "Who are you anyway?"

I shake my head. "You're a sore loser, and I've wasted enough time on you." I turn away. One of his partners grabs my arm. That is a mistake.

"Hold on now, honey," he says. The others move closer.

I smile. "Yes?" Of course I am protected by the casino. I need only raise my voice and these men will be thrown out But I dislike going to others for help, when I am so capable of taking care of myself. Dinner will be a four-course meal tonight, I think. "What can I do for you?" I ask.

The man continues to hold on to my arm but doesn't respond. He glances at the Texan, who is clearly the boss. The Texan has regained his smile.

"We would just like to play some more, honey," he says. "That's only fair. We need a chance to win our money back."

My smile widens. "Why don't I just give you the money back?"

My offer confuses him. The Texan shrugs. "If you want. I'll be happy to accept it."

"Good," I say. "Meet me at the west end of the hotel parking lot in ten minutes. We'll go for a little drive. You'll get all your money back." I glance at the others. "The only condition is you must all come."

"Why do we have to go anywhere?" the Texan asks. "Just give it to us now."

I shake off the other's hold on me. "Surely you're not afraid of little old me, sugar daddy?" I say sweetly.

The men laugh together, a bit uneasily. The Texan points a finger at me.

"In ten minutes," he says. "Don't be late."

"I never am," I reply.

We meet as planned and drive a short distance from town, each in bur own cars. Then I lead them off the road and into the desert a few miles, stopping near a low-lying hill. The time is eleven at night, the evening cool and clear, the almost full moon brilliant against the night sky. The men park beside me and climb out They are afraid of me. I can smell their fear. Except for the big boss, they are armed. The bulges beneath their coats are noticeable. I smell the gunpowder in their bullets. They probably figure I am setting them up to be robbed. They study the terrain as they walk toward me, puzzled that I am alone. They are not very-subtle. Two of them have their hands thrust in their coat pockets, their fingers wound around their hand?guns. The Texan steps in front and reaches out to me.

"Give us your bag," Tex orders.

"All right." I hand him my bag. The money is inside, much to his pleasure. His eyes are wide as he counts it. I know he had expected to find a gun in the bag. "Are you satisfied?" I ask.

Tex nods to a partner. I am frisked. Roughly.

"She's cool," the partner mumbles a moment later, backing away.

Tex stuffs the money in his pockets. "Yeah, I'm satisfied. But I don't get it. Why did you drag us all the way out here?"

"I'm hungry," I say.

He grins like the crooked oil baron that he is. "We would have been happy to have taken you to dinner, honey pie. We still can. What would you like?"

"Prime ribs," I say.

He slaps his leg again. Must be a nervous gesture with him. "Goddamn! That's my favorite. Ribs drip?ping with red juice. We'll take you out and get you some right now." He adds with a phony wink, "Then maybe we can have a little fun afterward."

I shake my head as I take a step toward him. "We can eat here. We can have a picnic. Just the five of us."

He glances at my car. "Did you bring some good?ies?"

"No. You did."

His impatience is never far away. "What are you talking about?"

I throw my head back and laugh. "You're such a fake! Your politeness only appears when it is useful to you. Now that you have stolen the money I won fair and square, you want to take me out for dinner."

Tex is indignant. "We did not steal this money. You offered to return it to us."

"After pressure from you. Let's call a spade a spade. You're a crook."

"No one calls me that and gets away with it!"

"Really? What are you going to do? Kill me?"

He steps forward and slaps me across the face with the back of his hand. "Bitch! You just be happy I'm not that kind of man."

I put a hand to my mouth. "Aren't you that kind of man?" I ask softly. "I see your heart, Mr. Money Bags. You have killed before. It's good we meet tonight, out here in the desert. If you lived, you would probably kill again."

He turns to leave. "Let's get out of here, boys."

"Wait," I say. "I have something else to give you."

He glances over his shoulder. "What?"

I take another step forward. "I have to tell you who I really am. You did ask, remember?"

Tex is in a hurry. "So, who are you? A Hollywood star?"

"Close. I am famous, in certain circles. Why just a few days ago the entire LAPD was chasing me around town. You read about it in the papers?"

A wary note enters his voice. Once again, his men glance around, this time looking for Arab backups. "You're not connected to that group of terrorists, are you?"

"There were no terrorists. That was just the cops trying to cover their asses. It was just me and my partner. We caused all the ruckus."

He snorts. "Right. You and your partner wasted twenty cops. You must be a terminator, huh?"

"Close. I'm a vampire. I'm five thousand years old."

He snickers. "You're a psycho, and you're wasting my time." He turns again. "Good night."

I grab him by the back of his collar and yank him close, pressing his cheek next to mine. He is so startled--he hardly reacts. But his men are better trained. Suddenly I have three revolvers pointed at me. Quickly, I shield myself with Tex. My grip on him tightens, cutting off his air. He gags loudly.

"I am in a generous mood," I say calmly to the others. "I will give you men a chance to escape. Ordinarily I would not even consider it. But since my cover has been blown, I am not so picky about destroying every shred of evidence." I pause and catch  each of their eyes, no doubt sending a shiver to the base of their spines. "I suggest you get in your cars and get out of here--out of Las Vegas completely. If you don't, you will die. It is that simple." I throttle Tex and he moans in pain. My voice takes on a mocking tone, "You can see how strong I am for a honey child."

"Shoot her," Tex gasps as I allow him a little air.

"That is a bad idea," I say. "To shoot me they have to shoot you first because you are standing in front of me. Really, Tex, you should think these things out before giving such orders." I glance at the others. "If you don't get out of here, I'll have you for dinner as well. I really am a vampire and, for me, prime ribs come in all shapes and forms." With one hand, I lift Tex two feet off the ground. "Do you want to see what I do to him? I guarantee it will make you sick to your stomach."

"God," one of the men whispers and turns to flee. He doesn't bother with the car. He just runs into the desert, anywhere to get away from me. Another fellow edges toward the periphery. But the remaining man-- the guy who grabbed me in the casino, the same one who frisked me--snaps at him.

"She's not a vampire," he says. "She's just some kind of freak."

"That's it," I agree. "I take steroids." I glance at the guy who wants to leave. "Get out of here while you still can. You will see neither of these men alive again. Believe me, you'll hear their screams echoing over the desert."

My tone is persuasive. The guy leaves, chasing after the first one. Now there are just the three of us. How cozy. In reality, I was not looking forward to having to dodge the bullets fired by three separate men. I allow Tex a little more air, let him say his last words. His tune has not changed.

"Shoot her," he croaks at his partner.

"You could try it and see what happens," I remark.

The hired hand is unsure. His gun wavers in the air. "I can't get a clear shot."

Tex tries to turn toward me. "We can make a deal. I have money."

I shake my head. "Too late. I don't want your money. I just want your blood."

Tex sees I am serious. My eyes and voice appear devilishly wicked when I am in the mood, and I'm starving right now. Tex turns deathly pale, matching the color of the moonlight that pours down on us.

"You can't kill me!" he cries.

I laugh. "Yes. It will be very easy to kill you. Do you want me to demonstrate?"

He trembles. "No!"

"I will give you a demonstration anyway." I call over to Tex's partner, who has begun to perspire heavily. "What is your name?"

"Go to hell," he swears, trying to circle around us, to get off a lucky shot.

"That cannot be your name," I say. ""Your mother would never have called you that. It doesn't matter. You are going to be nobody in a minute. But before I kill you, is there anything you want to say?"

He pauses, angry. "Say to who?"

I shrug. "I don't know. God, maybe. Do you believe in God?"

I exasperate him. "You are one weird bitch."

I nod solemnly. "I am weird." The full power of my gaze locks into his eyes. With me boring into him, he is unable to look away. All he sees, I know, is my fathomless pupils, swelling in size like black holes. I speak very slowly, softly. "Now my dear man, you are going to take your gun and put it in your mouth."

The man freezes for a moment.

Then, as if in a dream, he opens his mouth and puts the gun between his lips.

"Chuck!" Tex screams. "Don't listen to her! She's trying to hypnotize you!"

"Now I want you to grasp the trigger," I continue in my penetrating voice. "I want you to place a certain amount of pressure on the trigger. Not enough to fire the bullet, mind you, but almost enough. There, that is perfect, you have done well. You are half an inch from death." I pause and turn down the power of my eyes. My voice returns to normal. "How does it feel?"

The man blinks and then notices the barrel in his mouth. He almost has a heart attack. He is so scared, he actually drops the gun. "Jesus Christ!" he cries.

"See," I say. "You must believe in God. And because I do as well, and I can only drink the blood of one of you at a time, I think I will let you go as well. Quick, join your partners out in the desert, before I change my mind."

The man nods. "No problem." He dashes away.

"Chuck!" Tex screams. "Come back here!"

"He is not coming back," I tell Tex seriously. "You cannot buy that kind of loyalty. You certainly cannot buy me. You can't even buy my dinner." I pause. "You must understand by now that you are dinner."

He weeps like a child. "Please! I don't want to die."

I pull him closer, whisper my favorite line.

"Then you should never have been born," I say.

I enjoy my meal

When I am finished draining the Texan and have buried him far from his car, I go for a walk in the desert. My thirst is satisfied but my mind is restless. Andy will be off work in a few hours. I should be planning how I will convince him to help me, yet I cannot concentrate. I keep thinking I'm missing something important. I contemplate the last few days and somehow I know something is missing--a piece of the puzzle. This piece exists just beyond the edge of my vision. What it is, I cannot grasp.

Arturo's ghost haunts me. The world never knew what it had lost in him. What greater sorrow could there be? I ask myself how he would have been remembered if there had been no Inquisition. If there had been no Sita and no magical blood to poison his dreams. Perhaps his name would have been uttered in the same breath as that of Leonardo da Vinci, of Einstein. It tortures me to think of the lost possibilities: Arturo the alchemist--the founder of a secret science.

"What did you do to Ralphe?" I whisper aloud. "Why did you do it? Why did you refuse to talk to me when we were in jail?"

But his ghost has questions of its own.

Why were you so quick to kill Ralphe?

"I had to," I tell the night.

Why did you betray me, Sita?

"I had to," I say again. "You were out of control."

But I never accused you, Sita. And you were the real witch.

I sigh. "I know, Arturo. And I was not a good witch."

I have come far from where I started. A steep hill stands before me and I climb to the top of it. Twenty miles off to my left is Las Vegas, glowing with extrava?gance and decadence. The almost full moon is high and to my right. The hike has left me hot and sweaty. After shedding my clothes, I once more bow to the lunar goddess. This time I feel the rays enter my body, a tingling coolness that is strangely comforting. My breathing becomes deep and expanded. I feel as if my lungs can draw in the whole atmosphere, as if my skin can soak up the entire night sky. My heart pounds in my chest, now circulating a milky white substance instead of sticky red blood. Without using my eyes, I know I am becoming transparent.

I feel extraordinarily light.

As if I could fly.

The thought comes from an unknown place. It is like a hissed whisper spoken to me from the eternal abyss. Perhaps Yaksha's soul returns to grant me one final lesson.

The soles of my feet leave the top of the hill.

But I have not jumped. No.

I am floating--a few inches above the cool sand.

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