Henrietta Olivette knew instinctively that this plague was different than the other yearly flus that plagued humanity. She couldn’t put it into words as she watched the coverage on TV encouraging everyone to stay home, wear masks, wash hands, and generally stop the risky behaviors that they could use to spread the virus.
As a night nurse at Sir John’s Hospital, she pulled late shifts and extra hours as time allowed. As a Nightwalker in the slowly lengthening days of winter, she knew it wouldn’t be long before she would be offering to take on double shifts to avoid leaving work while the sun was out.
She took great pains to keep her position in good standing at the hospital. Working nights was a necessity for her, not merely a quiet luxury or forced annoyance.
How often had she fought the desire to snack on the pouches of red sustenance that were set aside for the dying. And now, looking into the eyes of her coven’s leader, she felt more pressure than ever.
“No,” she said to Lady Antinov. “I can’t lose my job, we can’t lose the blood at work, and—and—just no!”
She sighed. The once-countess felt every year of her age weighing on her shoulders as she primly sat in an overstuffed armchair. “We’ll need new stores of blood soon,” she advised, “and this disease will change everything for a time. I can’t stress this enough: The hunting grounds will have to be widened and overlap with our neighbors is inevitable.”
Antinov rubbed her temples. “I know a few investments I can pull from, and I’ll have Van Der Barr follow up on a lead for—” she paused. “Sub-quality sustenance.”
Henrietta rose. She nodded. “I have the day off tonight, so I’ll try and get a feel for what we’re up against.”
Henrietta nodded again and fled the room, passing Faye in the hallway.
“’Etta!” Faye called, but Henrietta had begun to descend the stairs already. Faye looked at the doorway to Antinov, then back at Henrietta before giving chase to her roommate. “’Etta, is everything okay?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. Lady Antinov told me to sneak blood from the hospital stores. She knew it would put my position in jeopardy, but she told me to anyway. And I told her no.”
Faye’s jaw hit the floor. “You what?!”
“I told her no! She’s not senile, but she’s used to the old ways. This hospital has security cameras and it’s a recipe for disaster.”
Henrietta shook her head to clear it.
Soft piano music began to play in the great room below, and both ladies descended the stairs. Edwin Van Der Barr sat at the grand piano, gently traipsing his fingers along the keys with purpose. He tilted his head slightly, inclining into the notes until he held one, then tapping it so that he could tell the difference from its normal tone. “We need a tuning.”
Faye sighed. “And here I was thinking that you could finally give me another piano lesson.”
Edwin eyed her suspiciously. “I wouldn’t give you another lesson if you begged me.” His eyes widened. “That’s IT! If O need a job in this pandemic, all I have to do is put on a mask, and BAM! Instant normal guy teaching piano, none of that pointy teeth business from my great uncle’s legacy. I’ll be—no, we’ll all be seen as normal. Isn’t that great?!”
She was so used to wearing them intermittently at work that trading her toothy grin for a prim closed-lipped smile was something of a skill she maintained. She nodded, then turned away.
“Be seeing you both, it’s time I found a snack.” Henrietta picked up her phone, wallet, and keys from the table next to the couch in the foyer. She added them to her jacket and went out into the cool April air.
She had heard about it while hunting, a home for unique individuals like herself, in Grove Tower park near the Saint Louis Botany and Wildlife Center. She had been working in the Park Forest neighborhood, doing her best to keep to herself, keep an income, and stay away from everyone.
She did her best to avoid places like the Art Muse’ with its silverdust mirrored staircases and odes to vampire slaying in portraits of oil and acrylic. Henrietta only made the mistake of visiting it once.
Luckily, nobody else saw except her.
Normal mirrors had held her visage for years, she had grown quite used to it. Metal surfaces would catch her dark complexion’s reflection and cast it back at her. She thought back to the first mirror she saw her eyes in since being turned, so very many years ago. She marveled at her eyes, interlaced brown and light flecks of yellow, and a shimmer of mischief that even she didn’t know she had.
Her phone vibrated in her pocket. “Come in,” said the text message from her boss. She blinked as it vibrated again. “We have a power outage.” As an afterthought, it vibrated a third time. “Please.”
She immediately turned around and headed back to Crimson Tears, where her car was parked. No hunting tonight.
By the time she arrived the backup generators had kicked in, but the fallout of being without power for even a few minutes was catastrophic. She found her coworkers scrambling and joined in their bee-like dance between the rooms, introducing herself to patients as being one of the nurses on staff and getting their vitals if needed. One of the rooms was empty.
“Does B250 have a patient? They’re not in their room.”
“Severe dehydration, showed signs of the CHANGE if you know what I mean,” said Stacey, one of the other night nurses that had been called in off-shift.
She did her best to remain expressionless but her mind ran through the options of what could have happened. If Antinov was looking at expanding the hunting grounds, the Venn diagram of who could have been admitted to the hospital for scavenging was up by three covens at least, not including hers. “That’s not good,” she settled on as a response.
“It’s absolutely not. With us on auxiliary power, the cameras aren’t on. It could be anyone and we don’t know.”
“What name did he use to check in under?”
“Rhett Scott. That’s all we had on him. He filled out the chart saying he was homeless and didn’t have contact information. We were going to have a care worker check him into a containment center to see if the CHANGE could be stopped and reversed since it was so early in his—” She stopped short. “I have to go check on a patient he came in with. He might have gone to visit them.”
Stacey turned to leave. Henrietta tapped her on the shoulder. “What does he look like? I want to make sure I know who I’m looking for.”
“Dark brown hair, green eyes, light skin, a little skinny, kinda short, mild southern drawl. Said he came from the boot heel of the state. I gotta go.”
“Okay,” Henrietta quickly made her way to the supply room and found the door to be locked and barred. She rapped at the door. “Rhett? Rhett if you’re in there, it’s not too late. Come out and we’ll talk.”
Henrietta grabbed her cell phone and called security for the hospital. “Possible breach in progress in the supply room on 3, please hurry.”
“Go away and I won’t hurt you,” growled a voice from the other side of the door. “I’m ready to eat every human in this hospital alive. You guys can spare the blood. I’m sure you’ve got some stashed somewhere in here.”
She wasn’t about to tell him that they only kept blood on every other level. Let him keep searching.
“Rhett if you keep acting this way, we won’t have any choice except to have you sedated by security and locked in quarantine away from everyone and everything. I don’t want that for you. You don’t want that for you. Come out.” She leaned against the door and willed him to come closer. “You are not alone.”
She felt the energy sap from him as he leaned against the door. “Of course you understand. And you know how critical these next few hours are for turning, or I’ll never become one of you.”
“Is this an initiation? Rhett, did your clan semi-turn you then instruct you to come here, into Antinov’s territory?! This could mean war if I report it to her, you don’t understand what this would mean for the rest of the pandemic. There’s no way…” She stopped short as security, two larger men and a woman arrived. “It’s too late. Oh no. Give yourself up, Rhett. It’s the only option.”
She did, though her heart protested heavily. They kicked in the door, the broom holding the doorknob in place slipping.
Rhett scrambled to the back of the room, near the broken-but-not cleared window with a two story drop. He scrambled to get through it, but the two men grabbed him by the torso and pulled him back inside. “She’s like me! She’s just like me!” He shrieked it as they dragged him past Henrietta to quarantine. The female in security gave Henrietta a look but ultimately went after her two male colleagues.
Later that evening, she was called into an office on the 15th floor, the executive suites. “Henrietta?” the voice of Director Michael Phan said as she entered. “Good to meet you. I have a few questions.”
Henrietta nodded under her mask.
“First of all, we’re six feet apart, how about you take the mask off.”
It took a second for her to find the right words. “I feel more comfortable with it on, thanks. What is this about?”
Director Phan nodded. “To the point. I like that.”
“I can’t ask you to reveal yourself to me, but I can commend you for being here, day in and day out as an extraordinary member of our team. I know a few things about you. According to the address on your paperwork, you have residence at The House of Crimson Tears. That coven is elite, not everyone is accepted under Antinov’s guidance and watchful eye. Why don’t you sit down?”
Henrietta felt herself go cold. She sat.
“I also know that you work double shifts in summer. That you have never once given us reason to doubt your allegiance to your position here at the hospital. Now I’m going to ask you directly, does Antinov have any intention of using you, during the pandemic, to violate your position here in an attempt to feed her children?”
“Make it simple.”
“He wasn’t one of ours.”
“I know. The question stands.”
Henrietta took a deep breath.
“She asked me if I would consider smuggling blood from our stores here, at the hospital. Just a few packs. But I knew that it would become a regular thing if I told her yes, so I refused outright. She accepted it.”
“Not everyone has the strength and fortitude to stand up to an ancient one such as Antinov. She’s a legend in the circles around here. I’m almost frightened that she considered us as a possible target.” He opened his desk drawer and offered two business cards. “There’s a new butcher shoppe opening in her territory. With my card, they’ll likely consider associating with you for some sub-quality red stuff. They’re family.”
Her eyes widened as she took the cards, then drew her eyes back to Director Phan. “Thank you.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Thank you for everything.”
“You’re welcome. I think everything’s stable for the rest of the night, in case you wanted to go home.”
“I don’t mind staying, but you’re right, I should be going soon.”
“Go on then. Clock out. Thank you for your loyalty to HIPAA.”
She rose and left the room to go clock out.
It had been an eventful evening, and she had high hopes for the butcher shoppe card she had received from Director Phan. Butcher shoppes were a golden commodity amongst the clans, and Antinov hadn’t contracted with one in a long time. She had expressed recently how she had missed them and their steady stream of liquid.
Henrietta changed out of her scrubs in the changing room, slid on her sweat pants and coat, and nearly ran into Stacey on the way out.
Henrietta shook her head. “No, I hadn’t. Walk and talk?”
“I’ll keep it short. When he got to Quarantine, he tried to bite one of the security staff. They tased him. The police are picking him up now.”
There was a pained feeling in her chest. That could have been her pick-up, too, if it hadn’t been for the director. “That’s hard. I’m glad you weren’t hurt.”
“Yeah, you too. Go to bed, girlie. Talk to you later.”
Henrietta smiled under her mask. “Go home soon. Have a good morning.” With a wave she passed by the front desk and made her way back to her car. She found the female security guard waiting for her there.
“Okay.” Henrietta made to move past her.
“If you step out of line, if you do anything that would harm a patient or anyone… anyone…”
“I wouldn’t. I know that my life is not any more important than anyone else and wouldn’t dream of harming anyone at the hospital.”
The security guard nodded and let her pass.
She looked back over her shoulder. She would be doing that a lot, she felt. She knew it was better than the alternative.