After midnight, when the police cars go home and the city turns over and tries to forget, a shadow haunts the fitful sleep of the junkies and assorted vagrants who lie in the waste land between the river and the park where mothers and joggers patrol by day.
The shadow is already legend. Every so often, a baleful junkie will shriek the legend in a police station, raving about a vampire that harvests souls in the blackest pit of night. The less kind police simply laugh and taunt, others shake world weary heads and mutter things about the full moon.
Hardly any of the city’s orange night light falls on the waste land. Yet the figure moves through the dark without error, as if every rubbish heap and jagged shard of metal has been committed to memory. It seems possessed of inhuman patience.
The older hands long ago learned the value of huddling together. There is something about the power of numbers against the dark. But sooner or later a fight will break out, and someone gets detached from the herd.
The figure curls into a vantage and watches. So perfect is its disguise that victims swear it literally twists out of the dark. No one has come near the woman for over an hour. The figure rises, certain there is no one within earshot.
It is some time before the woman notices. The figure sits just a few feet from her. She is rocking to and fro and clutching something, an empty bottle. For some reason, it is important that she notices, that she speaks first.
“Oh no … oh God no. Oh Holy Mary mother of …”
“Relax.” The figure speaks in a voice painstakingly learned, something carefully honed to stifle hysteria. “I won’t do anything. Do you want something to eat? Some cigarettes?”
“What is it you want?” She tries to crawl backwards, trying to keep her face to the figure. “I’ll do anything you want. Please don’t kill me.”
“Tell me what you want.”
“I’m here to give you what you want.”
“I don’t want death.”
“That’s good. I’m not a murderer. What else do you want?”
She stammers out the street name of a narcotic. He obliges and helps her prepare.
“It’s totally clean. You don’t need to worry, not that…”
“It doesn’t matter anymore.”
There are deep, quivering breaths as she rides the first waves of the drug. When she speaks, her voice is deeper, calmer.
“Now will you tell me?”
“You want something. Everybody does. What is it?”
“I want you to tell me about it.”
“I want you to tell me how you got here. Leave nothing out, and I’ll give you all I have left. Tell me to go away, and you get nothing else, but I’ll leave you alone, no harm done.”
“You want … my story?”
“I want your story.”
“Maybe. Are you going to tell me?”
And after a few moments, she starts. There are occasional deep, gusting sobs which seem to well up from some epicentre of her, but he is amazed by how clearly she can recollect, how ordered the mind buried underneath seems to be. He listens – as he does every night – and says almost nothing.
Hours later, as the first grey chinks of day spy the wet hulk of the city, he will steal through the secret hole in the fence between the waste land and the park. Moving very quickly, he will strip out of his black clothes, hiding them in the holdall he keeps in a space known only to him. He will don his city clothes and walk without stopping back to his apartment.
He will go straight to his computer and write up the notes he has been taking all night. The rest of it – the showering and the breakfast – can wait. Already his awareness thrills with the quality of this night’s catch.
The young woman’s story could make a new novel, or at least an award winning short story, adding ever more to his reputation as the owner of his country’s most fertile, unsparing imagination.
No one at the endless award dinners, none of the worshipful magazine writers, no one in his circle, knows that it has been twelve years since he last had an original thought.
That is a secret between him and the souls he harvests every night.