This is what Bella tells herself as she attaches the standard-issue black stockings to her garter belt—that her job is simply something she does. She refuses to allow it to define her. It does, however, keep a roof over her head and enable her to take a single college course each semester. Though it will take years for her to complete a degree, she doesn’t doubt that she will—it’s a promise she makes to herself each and every time she dresses for work. When she checks her appearance one last time before stepping out onto the casino floor, she doesn’t recognize the woman in the mirror. With blood-red lipstick and heavy eye make-up, her glossy brown hair piled atop her head and the majority of her bosom exposed, she looks older than she is and harder than she ever wants to become. The uniform is supposed to make her look like a can-can dancer, but she thinks she looks more like a whore. It’s not a feeling she relishes, so once she is dressed, she tends to pretend she’s someone else.
The casino at which Bella works projects an image of wealth and glamor, but as she walks between the tables in her short dress with her tray upon her shoulder, she sees it for what it is—desperation. She wants to pity her patrons but knows she shouldn’t, reminding herself that although despondency is often unavoidable, hypocrisy is a choice. Instead, she smiles, flirts and pretends she doesn’t mind when strange men try to touch her. She’s yet to find a man at gaming table she doesn’t consider pathetic, until she sees him.
Tall and sinewy, his hair is fire, and his eyes are black. She thinks she imagines him, that beauty like his exists only in airbrushed magazine photos and art galleries, but not in reality and certainly not in Atlantic City. She doesn’t want to let him out of her sight, so as as she waits for the bartender to complete her order, she cranes her neck in order to retain her unobstructed view. Her staring doesn’t go unnoticed.
“Gorgeous, isn’t he?”
Without looking, Bella knows who is beside her. Her supervisor, Angela, always smells like jasmine and vanilla. It’s a welcome contrast to the usual scents of the casino—sweat, smoke, alcohol and avarice—and speaks volumes about Angela. Ten years wearing a bustier and a barely-there skirt haven’t hardened her. She’s sweet, and just as optimistic as she had been her first day working the casino floor. Either that, or her optimism is of the pharmaceutically-enhanced variety.
“Do you know him?” Bella asks, trying to appear nonchalant.
“No better than I know any of the regulars. His name’s Edward, he’s a photographer, and a good tipper.”
Angela studies Bella as she speaks, and finds the look on her friend’s face a bit disconcerting. She looks after Bella—on and off the casino floor—because if she doesn’t, no one else will. In the six months Angela has known Bella, she’s begun to regard her with the genuine affection Angela imagines she’d feel toward a younger sister if she had one. This is why despite her intense dislike of gossip, Angela feels compelled to share the only other piece of information she knows about the object of Bella’s admiration.
“He comes alone, but he never leaves that way. From what I can tell, he has a thing for models and dancers.”
“Don’t be too disappointed; you’ve worked here long enough to know that any man who is a regular has far more vices than gambling.”
Bella’s order of drinks is up, and as she loads her tray, she keeps her eyes downcast and her thoughts to herself. If she’s feeling any disappointment at all, it’s not because of his apparent promiscuity, but because she doubts she’s his type. Though Bella has never gone anywhere with a man, were she given the opportunity, she’d go anywhere with him. This realization both thrills and confuses her, dampening the crotch of the sad excuse for panties she is required to wear with her uniform. As Bella delivers yet another round of watered-down well drinks, she tries to figure out why she is so drawn to him, as well as why her chest aches when he leaves the black jack table (and presumably the casino) with a strawberry blonde. With great effort, she pushes the man with fiery hair and onyx eyes from her mind, not wanting to add yet another regret to what has already been a lifetime of “if onlys”.
Vampires, much like humans, tend to be stuck in their ways. Edward is no exception. Though photography has come a long way since Edward first picked up a camera, his methodology remains as unchanged as his physical features. He uses black-and-white film exclusively and processes it in his personal darkroom, a private sanctuary tucked away in the attic of a home he owns but rarely visits. Believing that modern cameras have stripped the act of taking a picture of its inherent eroticism, he uses a manual camera, adjusting its lens with graceful caresses as if it were his penis and this touch will lead him to climax.
Usually, it does.
During the time of Edward’s youth, pornography was not only hard to obtain, but Edward was certain his father would tan his hide if he brought such trash into the house. So Edward would sneak out of the house at night, climbing trees and hiding in bushes, clandestinely peering through the bedroom windows of his neighbors, hoping to find them in flagrante delicto. He lucked out more often than not—during the day, he took note of which couples around town seemed to have the happiest marriages, and visited those homes more than others. At seventeen, he paid a whore to divest him of his virginity, and though he found participating sexual relations pleasurable, it paled in comparison to the thrill he got from watching others have relations, and though his consequent orgasms were from his own hand, they were far more intense than the one he experienced in the squishy heat of a rented vagina.
Though vampires frequently refer to their metamorphoses from mortals to immortals as being ‘changed’, in actuality, they change very little. Once infected with enough venom, the physical composition of their bodies loses its fragility, but personality traits remain the same, often increasing in intensity. Thus, it isn’t at all unlikely that an unusually perceptive young man and occasional peeping tom bitten by a vampire but not drained of blood, would enter immortality as a voyeuristic, mind-reading vampire.
When Edward woke to his second life, two things overwhelmed him—the burning in his throat and the loud cacophony of the thoughts of those around him. The thirst he quenched with blood, but try as he may, there was no silencing the inner monologues of humanity. Torturous and haunting, what he heard in the minds of others rocked him to the core, serving only to reinforce a belief he was loathe to embrace during his human life—that to one nuanced degree or another, there is evil in everyone.
Outside of his survival and occasional gratification, Edward has no use for others. It’s just as well. His food choice makes staying in one place for too long problematic, or rather it did, until he discovered Atlantic City. Hoping to strike it rich, people arrive by the thousands on buses and trains each hour. Those who are ashamed of gambling addictions don’t tell their friends and families about their little day trips, so when they go missing, Atlantic City is the last place their survivors think to look for them. Because of this, casinos are Edward’s game reserve, and it’s always open season. He feeds freely, disposing of the bodies in the neighboring Pine Barrens. Sustenance has never been easier.
He is sitting at a poker table, listening to the thoughts of those around him when the smell overpowers him. Intoxicating and delicious, it’s like no blood he’s ever encountered. He’s never wanted anything as much as he wants to taste it. Despite the fact he has a royal flush, he folds and leaves the table to follow the scent. It leads him to the far corner of a bar, where a petite, young waitress is loading her tray with cocktails.
Her features are as exquisite as her scent. Her shiny dark hair is piled onto her head in a style not all that dissimilar from what was in vogue when Edward was human, there’s a faint blush upon the pale skin exposed by her decolletage, and her full lips are painted deep red. Edward feels a stirring in the pit of his ball sack and desires her intensely, in a way he’s desired no one else. He wants to take her picture as she comes, yes, but he also wants to touch her, to feel her tremble in his arms as his own orgasm crashes upon him—not the kind of ecstasy he would experience after he takes her life, but the kind he would experience after he takes her.
He studies her from a distance, trying to read her thoughts so he’ll know what to say to her that will compel her to leave with him, but gets nothing. She looks up from her task and smiles, and he tries again, hoping she’s like the others—that she is looking at his bespoke suit and thinking she’ll have a better chance hitting the jackpot in his wallet than the one in the casino, something, anything, to use as justification for what he wants to do to her, so he can make himself believe she deserves it.
Without her thoughts to guide him, Edward is lost. He considers kidnapping her, but the casino’s surveillance cameras render this option impractical. Besides, he doesn’t want to take her by force; he wants her to want to come home with him and show him her body. Edward needs to woo her, but doesn’t have any idea how. For the first time in his second life, he’s nervous.
And just like that, this scrap of a girl dressed like a whore from a bygone era does something to him he didn’t think possible—she makes him feel human again.