Shivering despite the unseasonably warm evening, Ambrose slumped on a splintery park bench in Golden Gate Park, face buried in his hands. The empty vaults of his stomach echoed with frustrated need, sapping him of the energy to pull himself fully upright.
Through the fine fault-lines separating his fingers, he glimpsed the chilly, unsympathetic light of the full moon. The fog hadn’t moved in from the bay yet to cloak her pallid nudity. Back when he was mortal, he’d never fully appreciated the frigid timbre of her light; her barren, arid dust drained all warmth from her share of the solar wind before reflecting the stripped remnants into space. Although that bleak, infertile quality rendered her light safe to one such as him, it still reminded him of the ghost-white cave-spiders he’d seen on a late-night documentary. The only kind of documentaries he could watch these days. Bitterly, Ambrose snickered: he should be kinder in his judgment since she and he were now kindred parasites.
Or at least they should have been…
Seated on a padded stool as he inhaled the familiar, toasty incense of barrel-oak that suffused the wine-cave, Ambrose gazed through his eyelashes at the cadaverously lean, pale man across the table. Who was this rare soul, to have enough sway with the head winemaker to be graced with a private tasting of the rarest library wines long after normal closing-time? He hadn’t provided a name, so Ambrose could only speculate. Although he almost certainly had paid a hefty premium for the experience, the other man took only tiny sips, spending far more time inhaling the bouquet of the various wines poured than imbibing. In Ambrose’s experience, it was usually the reverse. Particularly when it came to high-rollers, who counterintuitively lived in eternal hope of a substantial bulk discount.
Reminded of the lateness of the hour, Ambrose clamped his jaws shut around a yawn. He hoped this anonymous personage would buy enough booze at the end of the night to make the cut the assistant winemaker was paying him in lieu of overtime worthwhile. Although he’d thought he’d succeeded in silently stifling the yawn, the man’s impossibly iridescent blue eyes darted towards Ambrose like a panther scenting weakness. That sleepy, almost-predatory look jarred him for a moment before he concluded that it was just a trick of the low-level mood lighting, which hadn’t been designed for use at such odd hours.
Voice tinged with a faint accent Ambrose couldn’t place, the man asked, “And this particular red, what does it smell of to you? I would learn the thoughts of an expert.”
European, Ambrose decided. He must be European, with that sort of stilted diction. Perhaps former minor nobility. Yet he didn’t sport the usual sleek Italian designer-brand labels. Instead, his clothes were cut loosely and almost clumsily, with far too many buttons. Nor did the man reek of ubiquitous pricey cologne. Although most connoisseurs considered it bad form to wear heavy fragrances at a wine-tasting, that had never stopped any of the celebrities that Ambrose had met in his time working at the winery. But the man didn’t smell of pungent sweat either. In fact, he was almost an unnatural void of scent.
Trying not to betray amusement at the pretentiousness of the man’s obvious costume contact lenses, Ambrose looked down, staring instead at the splash of the winery’s most highly-scored vintage pooling in his hand-blown wineglass. After a vigorous yet calculated swirl, he breathed in its divine aroma. “While our promotional materials profile this particular full-bodied wine as featuring cassis and cherry fruit leather elements enriched with notes of pepper and warm spice, I also personally discern a hint of black licorice straws, which is unusual for a Cabernet.”
“What a spectacular deep crimson hue it has. Tell me, how would you describe it? Reminiscent of blood, perhaps?”
Having just taken a second sip, Ambrose nearly choked. “Good God, no!” he sputtered too forcefully for his carefully-cultivated, suave professional persona after a few moments of coughing. After a few heartbeats, he let out a weak chuckle. “My apologies, sir. It would be disastrous for my career if I allowed myself to associate the color of wine with blood. I’m afraid I faint at the sight of blood. As you can imagine, that would end my employment here quite rapidly.”
The man threw his head back and guffawed, his teeth gleaming in the dim subterranean light as oddly as his eyes. Laser tooth-whitening gone too far, Ambrose decided. His spine crawled as that laugh vibrated repulsively in a pitch that inexplicably reminded him of the moldy basement funk of a corked bottle of wine. “What an… amusing… malady.”
Inhaling sharply in offense, Ambrose decided that, even for a VIP, the man had overstepped himself. He opened his mouth to protest, but found himself silenced as those fascinating eyes scintillated with an irresistibly lustrous sheen. They pulsed with the unnatural blue of the treacherous ice rotting at the foundations of a glacier. The flickering world that lived in his peripheral vision froze in place as azure orbs filled his vision. Ambrose forgot what he’d meant to say. Surely he’d never meant to criticize such a god…
“A oenophile with an exquisitely educated palate who faints at the sight of blood. What a rare jest,” the elegant creature across the table murmured in a taunting voice that scraped like broken glass against Ambrose’s eardrums. “No, I simply cannot resist. Damn the rules. Ambrose, I have a far more unusual vintage for you to partake of… If you can.”
“Of course,” Ambrose found himself muttering without consciously willing the words. “Anything you say, sir.” His head felt fuzzy, as if he’d had several glasses of wine rather than two subdued sips. Something nagged at him. But surely this fine gentleman knew best…
With another of those musty chuckles, his commander instructed, “Excellent. Follow me, Ambrose.”
And, without any thought of turning off the lights or locking the winery door or closing out the register or completing any of the usual closing preliminaries, Ambrose rose to his feet and did just that.
Instinctively, Ambrose sucked in a breath and lost the vivid memory as someone strolled past him, spewing fleshly fragrance into the nearby air like an evening primrose. His stomach redoubled its shrieking. Middle-aged and sweat-soaked with nervous aggression, the passerby exuded a distinct sauerkraut-like note to Ambrose’s trained nose. It was the olfactory signature of a heavy drinker of hard spirits at minimum, one likely addicted to heavier, more malign drugs. While it was far from his favorite flavor-profile, Ambrose would still have happily drained that particular goblet whole, if only…
Earlier in the evening, the park had tortuously reminded him of a tasting-flight, populated by after-dinner strollers, courting couples, and insomniacs. As any consumer of jamon iberico or Wagyu beef knew, diet, breed, and age affected flavor. Like the fine wine that had led to Ambrose’s downfall, each individual gave off a uniquely nuanced essential attar. Now, however, only the truly desperate or malevolent prowled the deserted park. The wholesome, manicured flower-beds had degenerated into a labyrinth of tangled weeds and thistles. Yet Ambrose himself had also grown desperate. It’s not fair, he murmured to himself. This whole situation is just completely unfair. I never did anything so terrible in life to deserve this postmortem hell. All right, there were those couple of times I tampered with the tip-jar, but still…
A brief pause hitched the human cocktail’s motion as it glimpsed Ambrose and homed in on his vulnerable sprawl and sunken frame. The breeze wafted upwards a sudden intensification in that majestic perfume. Hard-won recent experience told Ambrose that the pressure of the blood flowing swiftly through the interloper’s veins had increased with excitement, betraying its malicious intent.
It wasn’t guilt that held Ambrose back. After nearly two weeks of deprivation, he was far too thirsty for guilt to sway him any more, particularly when combined with the added justification of self-defense. Instead, the futility of the entire endeavor drained away his will. Like any jungle predator, he begrudged wasting energy in a chase that inevitably ended in failure. Always, always, he fainted after he’d penetrated the thin, outer flagon-like layers of his victim’s skin, uncorking that intoxicating sweet-copper aroma, and glimpsed the first trembling drop of blood. Maybe you should try hunting blindfolded, he taunted himself. Like pummeling a piñata.
Another shudder, equal parts thirst and frustration, convulsed Ambrose. With vast effort, he sat up. In one last moment of hesitation, ignoring the circling would-be mugger, he stared at his hands: slim, uncalloused fingers tipped with new and unnaturally sharp fingernails that glimmered with pearly luster in the moonlight. No, I have no choice. I won’t let myself starve. There are far too many glorious aromas left in this world to savor yet. All that is required for survival is one simple, though somewhat painful sacrifice. Scientists claim that scent is the strongest, most primal sense gifted to humans, anyway. What’s a few centuries wearing designer sunglasses?
And, by happy accident, the arrogant old vampire with the spiteful sense of humor who’d inflicted this nightmare on Ambrose had left his tab open when he’d led Ambrose out into the hungry night. Even if it was an alias, Ambrose had memorized a name and address now, and he had fully committed himself to collecting the last laugh. Personally. By any means necessary. Bracing himself, he drove his talons with resolute force towards his traitorous eyes…