Did Cassandra ever tell you how we first met? No, I didn't think so. It was about three years ago, long before we came to New Orleans where you met her. It was a strange coincidence, at least from my point of view. Looking back, I'm far from convinced it was coincidence at all, but why should she have planned what happened? I just don't know, so let's leave it at that.
To understand why our meeting was so strange, you have to know where I come from. I grew up in what is undoubtedly the worst part of San Francisco, that section of the slums where the cops won't go after dark, and respectable citizens not even during the day, at least not if they value their health and their wallets. I scarcely remember my parents. My father drank himself to death, and my mother simply vanished one day. I guess I was about six or seven then. I had two older brothers, but both of them were killed in some fight or other between rival gangs. So at the age of ten or thereabouts, I was left to fend for myself on the streets.
Of course I fell in with a gang as soon as I was old enough to run with them. It was the natural thing to happen in that part of the city. You're with a gang, or you're dead meat. I learned to shoot, to fight with a knife, to short circuit and drive a car, all before I ever could read or write my own name. I've never been to school, Cassandra taught me my letters when I agreed to work for her.
I did pretty much the same things the other kids did - I drank, I fought, I dealt in drugs, though I never took them myself, at least not seriously. Somehow I managed to survive while around me several of my friends who were about my age got killed. I never thought about the future, or what I would do in five or ten years' time. There was always the very real possibility I might not live to see the next day, so worrying about the day after that was pointless. I did, however, dream occasionally of getting out. Hell, who didn't? Leading a normal life without wondering where my next meal would come from and whom I would rob for my next pair of jeans, that kind of thing. Perhaps even a job... but as I said, those were just dreams. Reality was that I would never get out, except in a body bag. Things never changed in that part of the city.
Then, one night, everything changed. I still remember it all very clearly, which is kind of strange, considering that I was drunk at the time. We were out, me and four others from our gang, including our leader. Now, imagine this: five of us, on our own turf, in a street where nobody except us showed their face after dark if they could possibly avoid it. And down this street, walking right in the middle as if it belonged to her, came a woman. She was Asian, strikingly beautiful, well dressed, and all alone. We couldn't believe our eyes. Of course, had we been sober, we'd have suspected something. Things like that simply don't happen. For one thing, we were in the middle of the slums, and a woman like that on her own should never have made it this far. Not under ordinary circumstances, anyway. But as I said, we were drunk, and so we saw her as a bit of fun and a source of cash, nothing else.
We intercepted her, drew our knives, and talked the usual bit of garbage. She stopped and looked at us without the faintest trace of fear or nervousness. Again, that should have set off the alarm bells, but again, it didn't. Then she smiled. I don't know if you've ever watched Cassandra hunting. There's that special smile she has when she's selected her quarry and is making contact, and the prey doesn't even know he's prey. Sure, she never kills or even harms them, but she's a predator nonetheless and sometimes it shows. She smiled at us like that. Then she spoke, and at that moment I was lost.
She said, "Hello, guys. Nice of you to escort me out of here. I'm afraid I've lost my way."
As I already said, escorting her was just about the last thing we had on our minds. But somehow her words made perfect sense to us. She was on our turf, after all, so anyone threatening her was insulting us. And touching her was suddenly unthinkable. To this day I have no idea what went on in the minds of my friends in these minutes, but I suspect they felt very much like I did. Later I learned that the power Cassandra displayed that day was nothing compared to what some of the elders of her kind can do, and back then she wasn't even as strong as she is today. In fact, that night was the first time since her change that she was out. Her sire was near all the time, watching, though we never saw him. Far from having lost her way, she was out to try her new powers, and we had been assigned the part of guinea pigs for the experiment. I guess we would have ended up being lunch or dinner or whatever, if it hadn't been for all the alcohol in our systems. Her kind don't usually react favourably to intoxicated food.
It turned out that Cassandra's power, even as a fledgling, was more than enough for us. I guess that our being drunk helped her, too. We didn't exactly bow or snap to attention, but we did surround her like a squad of bodyguards and escorted her to the border of our turf. We met no one on our way, which was perhaps lucky. Finally we arrived. She looked at us with a smile that turned my bones to water and said, "Thank you." Then she turned and vanished around the next corner, just like that. We stared after her for a minute or two before the spell finally broke. Then we looked at each other, deeply embarrassed, and hurried back to our shelter. We never told anyone about this incident, nor did we ever mention it to one another. Especially our leader, I think, was mortified about the whole thing and was doing his best to erase it from his memory. So no word was ever said about the whole story, and that was that.
It wasn't for me, though. When I woke up around noon the next day, I found myself thinking about her. I remembered her smile, her voice, her eyes, and suddenly I knew that I absolutely had to see her again. I was quite aware that it would be all but impossible to find her, but still I had to try. So I set out to look for her, searching the streets more or less aimlessly, because I didn't have the slightest idea where she might be. Needless to say, I didn't find her. Not that day, nor the next or the day after that.
During the course of my search I changed. I took to wandering around on my own, especially during the nights. I became absentminded and standoffish. Of course my friends noticed, though they weren't aware of the reason. They suspected that I had finally started to sample my own wares and take drugs. In a sense, that wasn't far off the mark. I was suffering from withdrawal symptoms.
For some reason I looked for her mostly at night, rarely during the day. I was aware that I had little chance of finding her in the slums, so I extended my search to the more respectable parts of the city. I was frequently away all night, returning only at dawn and consequently sleeping through much of the day.
To cut a long story short, I spent two full weeks looking for her. And then, one night as I was wandering through an area where I had never been before, I found her. I was just walking past a nightclub, not a particularly fashionable one but what you might call "respectable". And there, beside the entrance, was her picture. I froze in my tracks and stared. There was her photo, and some writing beneath it, and I soundly cursed my inability to read it. I gathered, however, that she was a singer, and the poster probably meant that she was singing at this club one of these nights. At that moment, the door of the club was opened and a couple came out, and through the open door I could hear music. Her voice.
I couldn't believe my luck. After two weeks I had finally found her. Almost without noticing it I wandered across the street towards the entrance of the club. The bouncer, of course, took one look at me and turned me away. As I said, it wasn't a high class establishment, but still quite a cut above me. I didn't mind too much, however. She was here, in the building, and all I had to do was wait outside until she left it after the show. I found my way around to the back where the stage entrance was, hid in a dark corner, and waited.
The hours seemed like days to me. Occasionally I could hear the music from within, her voice singing. I had never cared much for jazz or blues, it simply wasn't the stuff the gang listened to, but that night I became a fan.
At last, it must have been long after midnight, the back door opened and two figures stepped outside. One I recognised immediately: it was she. My heart leaped - and sank again when I noticed her companion: obviously rich, handsome and immaculately dressed, and he seemed to be on very friendly terms with her. Well, you have met James Dafoe, so you can imagine how I felt when I saw them together.
I had just resigned myself to slinking quietly away and drinking myself into oblivion when she turned and looked directly at me. How she saw me in my dark corner I had no idea, though of course it seems less of a miracle now.
"I remember you", she said.
I stepped out of the shadows, hiding had become pointless. Suddenly it occured to me that I had never thought about what I would say to her once I found her. I guess the possibility of success had always been so remote that I hadn't thought it worthwhile to make plans. Or perhaps I had just assumed that I would know what to say as soon as I saw her. Reality, of course, was different: I stood there, feeling incredibly foolish, unable to utter a single word.
She laughed softly, visibly amused. "You need some coffee", she stated. Turning to her companion, she added, "You don't mind us going, do you? I'll come and join you later."
"Enjoy yourselves", he said drily, but he didn't really seem annoyed. All in all, a highly unlikely situation, but that's what happened. I was too stunned to really notice or care, and a few minutes later I found myself in a diner around the corner with the most beautiful woman I'd ever met, sipping coffee, of all things. I finally learned that her name was Cassandra Wong, that she was a professional singer and that the guy she had been with was her producer, but apart from that, she let me do all the talking.
And I talked. The coffee somehow loosened my tongue, and soon I was telling Cassandra everything about myself. She listened, occasionally asking a question, and seemed genuinely interested. That was new to me. I was also uncomfortably aware of the fact that she was much better educated than I was. However, she didn't laugh when I told her, blushing, that I had never learned to read or write, and thus hadn't even been able to learn her name from the poster at the club. She didn't laugh at anything I told her. She showed interest, and she offered sympathy without pity, and both were things I wasn't used to at all.
The night passed much too quickly, and finally she announced that she had to go. Before she did, however, she took something from her handbag and passed it to me. "Here", she said. "I don't know if you care for jazz, but perhaps you'd like to come to the club tomorrow night for my show."
I stared at what she had just given me. It was a ticket. "They won't let me in there", I said.
"They will." She took the ticket and scribbled something on the back before returning it to me. Then she smiled. "If you're not there by nine, I'll come outside and look for you." She glanced at her watch. "But I really must go now. I'll see you then?"
"Yes", I managed, still unable to believe what had just happened.
"Splendid", she said, and with another smile she was gone.
The next day I went shopping. I bought some clothes, nothing really fancy, since I couldn't afford that, but I could hardly show up at the club in torn jeans and my old biker jacket. It would never do to embarrass Cassandra. I stored the stuff in a locker at the station, for bringing it home to our gang's shelter would have prompted unwelcome attention and all sorts of sneering comments.
The hours seemed to crawl by, but finally it was time to leave. My friends had by now got used to my wandering off on my own at night, so they suspected nothing when I left. I hurried to the station, changed, and was at the club at a quarter past eight. The bouncer looked at me, looked at my ticket (including the writing on the back), looked at me again and waved me inside. There was a faint trace of disgust on his face, but he didn't try to stop me.
The club was not a big one. I was fairly early, but most of the tables were already occupied. While I stood near the entrance, trying to find a seat, a girl approached me.
"You must be Miss Wong's guest", she said. "She asked me to show you to your table."
My table? I hadn't been aware that I had one. Still, the girl seemed quite confident that it was really me she was looking for, so I shrugged inwardly and followed her. She led me to a table directly in front of the stage, a little off to the right, took my order for a beer and retreated with a businesslike smile.
I sat down and looked around. Most of the guests were in evening dress, nothing really high class, but better than what I was wearing. I was glad I had taken the time to go shopping; at least I didn't stand out quite that much.
The stage was interesting. On it were a piano, a ridiculously small drum kit and a couple of microphones. That was all. I couldn't imagine how someone could play decent music with so little equipment. A middle aged guy in a dinner jacket sat at the piano and played. I tried to listen to the music for a while, but found it rather, well, bland. Nothing exciting. The other guests didn't seem to mind, though, and two or three couples were even dancing.
I sat there for more than half an hour, slowly getting bored and feeling increasingly out of place. Then suddenly a spotlight appeared on the stage, and there she was. She was wearing a silver evening gown with long gloves, and she was more beautiful than I had thought possible. Without any further introduction, she stepped forward to the microphone, flashed the audience a brilliant smile and began to sing.
You have listened to Cassandra singing, so I don't need to go into any detail. Let's just say I was spellbound. The few scraps of music that had drifted to me when I had been waiting outside had been nothing, I realized. She sang and I listened, forgetting my beer before me on the table and indeed everything else around me.
Before I even realized it was midnight and the show was over. With a last smile and a wave of her hand she left the stage. I sat there for several minutes, trying to gather my wits. Finally I decided it was time to leave, however reluctantly. I was just getting up and putting on my jacket when the girl who had shown me to the table came over to me.
"Miss Wong would like to see you", she said. "If you'll follow me, I'll show you to her dressing room."
This time I did ask. I just had to, this was too good to be true. "Excuse me, but are you sure that you've got the right guy?"
She laughed. "You make this sound like I was trying to arrest you for something", she said. "Don't worry, I'm quite sure. And I don't think she's going to rip your head off, either."
"If you say so", I muttered and followed her.
The first thing I noticed when I came into the dressing-room were flowers. There were at least half a dozen vases in different sizes, all filled. Damn. I should have brought flowers. I had never even thought of it. Well, too late for that now.
Cassandra, still in her silver gown but minus the gloves and make-up, was sitting in front of a mirror. When I entered, she turned and smiled at me. "Hi, nice to see you. Come in." She waved towards a couch in the corner. "Sit down, have a drink, I'll be with you in a moment." Obediently, I sat down. To my surprise I noticed that there were only orange juice and water on the table, nothing stronger. I helped myself to a glass of juice, and I had barely finished pouring it when she nodded at her reflection in the mirror, obviously satisfied, and came over to me.
"Did you enjoy the show?" she asked. "I guess it's not quite your usual line of music."
I smiled wryly. "You know I enjoyed it", I said. "I can't imagine how anyone can hear you sing without enjoying it, and I think you are quite aware of that." I could have bitten my tongue off the moment the words were out. It wasn't exactly a polite thing to say, considering I was her guest.
She laughed softly. "An honest man, quite a rare thing. I like that." She gave me a long, thoughtful look. It was almost like she was studying me as one might study a painting. Finally she asked, "Do you know why you are here?"
I had been wondering about that already, and said so. I had been suspecting that there was something she wanted from me, but for the life of me I couldn't imagine what that something might be.
She nodded slowly. "You are right, of course. There is something I want. I want to make you an offer. And before you accept or refuse it, I want you to think it through very thoroughly."
"Well? I'm all ears", I replied, more curious than alarmed.
"I want you to work for me", she said.
"Work for you?" I repeated, astonished. "You mean, like, regular, with wages and everything?"
"Something like that, yes." She smiled drily.
"What would be my job?"
"For one, I could use a good driver. I can drive, but I don't like it. More importantly, though, I need a bodyguard. Someone to watch over me when I'm sleeping."
"But..." I was confused and made no effort to hide it.
She raised her hand. "Before you answer, as I said, I want you to think very carefully." She rose and walked over to the door. "Also, there are some things you must know before you can even think about it." She reached the door and with a quick movement, locked it. "For example, you must know that I am not human."
With this she turned around, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I nearly fainted. I didn't cry out, I merely stared at her fangs, her now much paler but still inhumanely beautiful face, her cold, liquid eyes. She didn't look like the vampires you see in the movies, she was much too beautiful for that. She looked like a goddess, cool and remote, alien and yet lovely beyond anything I had ever imagined.
It seemed like hours before I finally managed to draw a shuddering breath. "My god", I whispered, still staring at her. While I watched, her face slowly reverted to more human features, the fangs disappeared, and her eyes looked normal once again. "Why me?" I asked at last.
She shrugged and smiled. "I like you", she said simply. "I watched you when we first met, two weeks ago. You're not like the others." She sat down opposite me again. "Make no mistake, I could force you to serve me. It wouldn't even be particularly difficult. I won't do that, though. If you decide you don't want to work for me, a friend of mine will make sure you forget that this conversation ever happened. You'll return to your former life and nothing will change." She gave me that thoughtful look again. "From what you've told me the other night, I gather that you're not exactly happy with your life. I'm offering you a chance to get out. There will be a price, though, and I'm going to demand a lot from you." I opened my mouth to say something, but she cut me off with a gesture. "Let me explain first", she said. "It is important that you understand what it means to enter my service, for it will be a permanent thing. If you agree to work for me you will do so until your death, and that may be a very long time. Because from the moment you start to serve me, you will stop aging."
I stared at her. All this was quickly becoming too much for me. I was still trying to digest the fact that I was sitting here chatting with a creature I had believed to be just a fairy tale a few minutes ago, and she was offering me eternal life? Like, Highlander or something?
My thoughts must have shown plainly on my face, for again she laughed softly. "Sorry. I'm going a bit too fast for you. Bear with me, I'm doing this for the first time and I still haven't quite got the hang of it. You have seen what I am?"
"A vampire", I said, still trying to believe it.
"Yes. Most of what you may know about us, or think you know, is probably dead wrong, but all that stuff about sunlight being deadly is unfortunately correct. This is why we are very, very careful when we go to sleep, for during daytime even the most powerful of us are vulnerable. And since I'm not even anywhere near the most powerful of us, I have to be even more cautious. That's why I need a bodyguard, someone to keep watch while I'm asleep. Also, it's very handy to have someone to take care of all those annoying details that have to be taken care of during daytime - postmen, plumbers, electricians and so on."
I nodded. Apart from the fact that vampires didn't exist, all this sounded perfectly logical.
She smiled. "At first, I didn't want to believe this thing about vampires either", she said. "And no, I'm not reading your mind", she added, "but your face is like an open book... which reminds me. If you work for me, you'll have to learn how to read and write. That's one of the things I'm going to insist on. If you don't want that, the deal's off."
I shrugged. "If you think I can learn it", I said.
"You're not stupid. I wouldn't have offered you to work for me if you were. If you want to, you can learn it. And other things as well. We'll have to work on your choice of language a bit... but that's for later. There are other drawbacks I must tell you about before you make your decision. In a nutshell, the deal is this: You get a tiny fragment of my power. You don't age, you don't become ill, you're almost impossible to poison and generally a bit harder to kill than the average human. You heal faster, and you're stronger. You can go for days or even weeks without food or sleep if you have to. The price for this is love."
I blinked. "I'm not sure I understand."
"You don't", she confirmed. "You see, in order to get everything I just mentioned, you'll have to drink a bit of my blood. And this will make you love me. The more often you drink, and you will have to do it regularly, the more you will love me. Very soon you will gladly die for me should I command it. I won't, of course, but you'll have to take my word for it. And perhaps the hardest part about it is that the love you will feel for me will be unrequited. I know I'm being terribly blunt about this, but I want you to understand that I do not and will not love you. I may come to like you a lot, we may even be very good friends, but that will be all. I will be the centre of your universe, but..." She sighed. "I guess you see my point."
My mind reeled. Suddenly I noticed there was still an untouched glass of juice before me. I drained in one gulp and wished for something stronger. "I always thought vampires drank the blood of humans, not the other way round", I finally managed.
She smiled wryly. "We usually do, but sometimes..." She cocked her head and eyed me curiously. "I've noticed that you don't seem particularly worried that I might suddenly leap at you and drain you."
"Well..." I shrugged. "I might be wrong, of course, but I don't think you'd do that. And even if you did, I'm not so sure that I would mind."
She laughed. "No, I don't think you would, but as I said, I have other plans for you. Perhaps a little sip later..." She winked at me.
I just had to ask. "Will I turn into a vampire if you bite me?"
She was visibly amused. "Good heavens, no. Only into a very, very happy human. But for the moment I need you with your wits about you. You must think. And, as I said, think carefully, for the choice you make will change your life forever."
I looked at her thoughtfully. "Why did you tell me all this? I believe you when you say that you could simply make me serve you, and I guess I'd even like it. Why are you honest with me?"
"Because, as I said, I like you. You deserve a chance, but you also deserve the chance to turn it down. I don't like slavery. On a more rational level, willing servants are both more loyal and more motivated." She shrugged. "Different reasons, take your pick."
I nodded slowly, turning the things she had told me over in my mind. She just sat there, waiting patiently. She had said everything she had to say, now it was my turn. And considering everything, there really could be only one answer. "I'll do it", I said after maybe twenty minutes' silence. "What you are offering is too good to pass by, even with the price I have to pay." I sighed. "I'm in love with you already", I confessed. "And I know I can't have you. But you said you need a bodyguard, and in that case I'd rather the bodyguard was me than anyone else."
"Good", she said. "In that case, you're not going to return to your shelter. From now on, you'll stay with me." Then she raised her arm to her lips and bit it. As she extended it towards me, I saw a single drop of blood gleaming on her wrist like a ruby. "Drink", she whispered, and I drank.
It's useless to try and describe what these first drops felt like on my tongue. There simply are no words for it. You've never tasted it, so you can't know what it's like. I don't know how long I sat there with my eyes closed after the last drop had rolled down my throat.
Finally I opened my eyes and looked at her. "Well?" she asked. "How do you feel?"
"Curious", I admitted. "At once changed and not changed, if you can understand that." I searched for words, then gave up. Suddenly something entirely different crossed my mind. The thought seemed absurdly trivial in the face of what had just happened, but I just had to ask. "Speaking of curious... I'd really like to know..." I hesitated.
"Yes?" she prompted.
"What did you write on the back of that ticket?" I blurted out.
She seemed startled for a moment, then she burst out laughing, a sound like little bells tinkling. She held out her hand, and I gave her the ticket. She turned it and read aloud: "Joey, this man is my guest. If you don't admit him, I'll personally rip your head off. Love, Cassandra."
I stared at her speechlessly for a moment, then joined in her laughter. "Teach me how to read", I begged finally. And she did.