“Be free, my darling,” he said to the languid corpse.

 

With the back of his hand, he wiped away the last drops of the precious nectar he’d drained from her fragile veins. “You have served me well.” He watched as the ghost of his young victim fled her empty body.

He felt crushing remorse that he’d killed her. Her death was kind, painless, and he needed her blood, he convinced himself as he glanced around the darkened hotel room. The warm fluid rushing through him caused the sensation of a post-orgasmic high—so similar was the feeling that he craved the cigarette he usually only smoked after sex.

“No, not here,” he said aloud to himself, his agile fingers placing the pack of cigarettes back into his designer suit coat.

The door to the hotel room opened—a swath of light from the hallway burned into his eyes and his hand instinctively reached up to shield himself from it.

A young housekeeper burst in, her eyes only glimpsing his form for seconds as he moved from the room with such preternatural swiftness that he was just a mere blur to her mortal eyes.

It was several more minutes before his perfected ears heard her scream in terror.

One

“C’mon, baby, don’t run out of gas on me now.”

 

Clara Denton reached over and turned off the air conditioning in her 1986 Ford Escort. The fuel needle, pointed at the letter E, seemed to mock her as she irrationally turned off the radio, as if those minor efforts would have any effect on the amount of gas her old car would burn on her way to work.

 

“One more mile,” she said aloud to the vehicle. “One more mile and I promise to feed you after work. I can’t be late again.”

 

In her worn Fossil hobo purse her last ten dollars sat crumpled. Clara hoped it would provide enough fuel to get her back and forth to school that week as well as to her job cleaning rooms at the newest and classiest hotel on the Las Vegas Strip—the Roman.

Her stomach growled as she flashed her employee badge and pulled into the dark parking structure at the rear of the sprawling resort hotel and casino. At the place she’d worked before the employee facilities, those parts the guests didn’t see, were austere. Here, however, even the employee parking garage was glamorous.

 

As she fled the car, terrified of punching in late again, she thought about how she’d never once seen the reclusive owner of the Roman—his name was Marchetti, she couldn’t recall if she knew his first name. She assumed he was Italian, and rumors floated around that he was handsome, in his thirties, but even though he lived in the sprawling penthouse suite, no one she knew had ever seen him.

 

Clara’s first three rooms were easy cleans, and in the second one she was able to nibble on an unopened bag of potato chips—she hadn’t eaten since the night before when her roommate, Landon Miller, brought home scavenged baked ziti from the pizzeria he waited tables at.

 

The fourth room of her shift, however, was the one that changed the course of her life forever. As she flipped on the lights and walked in with her cleaning basket—maids at the upscale Roman weren’t allowed to push carts into the rooms—she saw it. A foot poking out from the crisp white sheet of the king sized bed. “Oh, sorry ma’am, I thought the room was…” She felt a rush of cool air blast past her, maybe even the faint hint of smoke, and then she saw it.

 

The foot protruding from the Italian 800 thread count Frette linens was not an alive foot. It was ghastly white; the red painted toenails a grotesque contrast to the paleness of the skin. A prank, she thought as she approached it, waiting for something to jump out at her. The air in the room changed, became oddly stagnant, as she sheepishly tugged at the sheet. Clara heard herself scream, as if a bystander, as her body crumpled to the floor.

“The police,” she finally managed to mutter, as she reached for the phone on the mahogany desk. She stared at the phone, unable to remember how to get an outside line for several moments before deciding instead to press the button that was labeled Emergency.

 

Within minutes, several large men in dark suits blew into the room. One lifted her to her feet and asked if she was okay. As she nodded, he glanced at her nametag and said, “You may have the afternoon off, Clara. Thank you.” He turned to look at the body as the other men donned latex gloves.

 

“Uh, we should call the police. This is the serial killer. It’s got to be another of his victims—you know, the Blood Lust Killer.”

The dark suited man in charge flung his body toward hers, his hands braced on his hips. “I believe it’s time for you to go.”

 

“No. You can’t touch anything until Metro comes,” she argued, her voice fighting to sound strong. These men were tampering with a crime scene—her roommate, Landon, when not serving greasy pizza and pints of beer—was in the police academy. Clara had helped him study enough to know these men were breaking the law.

 

“Steven, please escort the former employee from the premises.” He turned to face her once more, and with a sneer said, “We’ll mail your final paycheck. Your services here at the Roman are no longer required.”

 

She stood in shock, unable to process the dramatic turn that afternoon had taken. “You’re firing me?” she finally choked out through her tears. The man never answered her, and she followed him to the central housekeeping department to return her uniform. The dark-suited stoic presence stood outside the changing room and walked her to her car, reminding her that security cameras would watch her exit the grounds of the casino.

 

In her hot car, with guards staring at her, she reached for her cell phone. Despite the glare of the suited Steven approaching her, she dialed 911 and switched it to speaker as she sped down the exit ramp. “Yes, at the Roman,” she clarified to the dispatcher. “Room 80231—she was bloodless! White as a ghost.” She paused as the dispatcher read back the information, then as Clara began to ask about the serial killer her phone went dead. Damnit! Out of minutes!

 

Moments later, she was fighting her way through traffic. “That jerk-off, how dare he fire me,” she hissed into her empty car as she battled the throng of cabs down the small section of Las Vegas Boulevard that was known as the Strip. In shock, fuming and terrified, she barely remembered to make her left on Flamingo when her car started to sputter. “Not the transmission again,” she groaned before her eyes set on the fuel gauge. “Shit!” She covered her mouth with her hand—Clara rarely swore, and when she did, she shocked even herself. “I forgot to get gas!”

 

*****

 

Flamingo was his least favorite place to drive. Stop after stop, he could rarely pick up the kind of speed he craved. When finally he was able to swoop around yet another annoying billboard truck, his designer-shod foot mashed the accelerator down as hard as he could. The Maserati lurched, pressing him back into the buttery leather seats that had been custom made to fit his tall, lean body. And then he nearly ran over her.

 

She fell backward into her battered old car, smashing into the dented frame and falling face down onto the dirty black pavement of Flamingo Road. “Fuck,” he howled, the nimble car coming to a screeching stop as those behind him blew their horns and struggled to maneuver around him. He was able to stop his car at the side of the busy road, in front of the small frame of a young woman lying in the street.

 

“I didn’t hit you, Miss, did I?” He sprang from his car toward her. She’s moving, that’s good, he thought as she placed her palms on the pavement, pushing her lean frame up.

 

“Um, no, I just, I thought you were going to hit me, I jumped and tripped.”

 

“That is a relief,” he sighed. He reached for her hand and helped her to her feet, and as their skin touched, the electric shock between them went off like a hand buzzer.

 

“I-I’m fine now,” she said with a quick tug of her hand to remove it from his. But he couldn’t let go. He held onto her hand as a sensation so foreign, so odd, washed over him. It was just a dry air phenomenon, he convinced himself. It wasn’t the spark; it couldn’t be, not with this simple girl.

 

“Well, thank you for even stopping,” she said with a smile, tugging her hand from his once more. This time he let her soft hand fall from his, but he continued to look into her eyes. They were brown, chocolate brown, he thought. She was young, twenty-one was the number that popped into his head as he stared at her mutely.

 

She ran her hand through her hair as she turned to face her car. “Do you need me to call a car service for you?” he asked as she lifted the rear hatch and pulled out a red gas can.

 

“No, thank you, I’m out of gas. It’s only a few blocks to the station.”

 

“I would never let you do that. Please, I’ll drive you.”

 

She stared at the car—clearly he was a rich businessman, a local, and, she had to admit, breathtakingly handsome. But still, she was no idiot. She wasn’t going to get into his car, or any stranger’s car, with a blood-sucking serial killer roaming Las Vegas murdering young women.

 

“I’m fine, I’ll walk.” She took a few steps and heard him speak again.

 

“No, Miss, you will not. I cannot let you do that.”

 

Let me?” She spun around and glared at him, empowered by the safety of the heavy traffic swirling around them like angry hornets.

 

He held up his hands in apology. “I didn’t mean it like that, I’m sorry. What I meant was it would be ungentlemanly of me. I can call road service, or perhaps go retrieve your gas for you while you wait in the air conditioning of my car?”

 

“I’m sorry to snap. I’ve had a terrible day. I was fired from my job and, well, it’s just been a rough one. I’d rather walk than wait, but thank you.” She set off again, with the man only steps behind her.

 

He caught up to her, his suit coat removed and tossed over one arm in the oppressive heat of summer in Las Vegas. “My name is Santino, by the way, and it is a pleasure to meet you, despite the circumstances of our introduction,” he said, positioning himself between the heavy street traffic and the young woman. “Miss…?”

 

“Clara Denton,” she answered with a smile. This drop-dead gorgeous rich guy is also a gentleman, she thought as he reached to carry the gas can.

 

At the gas station, his phone buzzed. With a quick glance at it, he looked to Clara. “I’m sorry, I have to take this. I apologize for my rudeness.” She nodded as he walked to the side of the gas station.

 

“Wait until I tell Landon about this guy,” she said under her breath as she walked into the building to prepay for the gas.

 

Walking out, can in hand, the man, Santino, had his back to her. He was talking into his phone. She could hear him as she walked by toward the pumps. “Yes, Don, you did the right thing to have it cleaned. A mess like that in my home I would never tolerate.”

Too bad he’s a neat freak, she thought as she pumped the gas into the can, not that it matters.

*****

 

An hour later, Clara was back in her apartment digging through her empty refrigerator. “No one ever buys milk,” she said to the empty apartment. The foil pan of leftovers was the only palatable food she could find, so she finished it off while working on her paper for class the next morning.

 

Her third year at UNLV was going well academically—she was a top student in the English Department, but financially she was in trouble. Student loans were piling up, and her passion was literature rather than a career field that would result in a lucrative job. Even if she taught, she knew her living conditions would be austere at best for the next decade.

 

As she looked at the research she’d done on a Word document on her MacBook, a spoonful of greasy baked ziti perched at her lips, there was a knocking at the thin door. “Landon, take your key once in a while,” she shouted toward the door.

 

But Landon was not at the door. As she opened it, four members of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, or Metro as it was referred to locally, stood there. “Oh come on in,” she said.

 

The police are finally here about the dead body, she thought.

 

“We had a report of a crime from a resident at this address—a Clara Denton. Is that you?”

 

She nodded in relief. “Yeah, that’s me. Is she related to the serial murders?”

 

“She?” The suited detective looked at his notes before making eye contact with Clara again. They followed her inside.

 

“The woman—the dead body I found at work today.”

 

“Miss Denton, there was no body at the Roman. Not at the room number you reported, or any other room. Have you been following news coverage of the killings?”

 

“Well yes, but—wait a minute, there was a body, drained looking, white. The head of security and a few other men saw it, too.”

 

“Miss Denton, I understand the stress you’ve been under. However, calling 911 with a made up story is a serious crime. If we chased every baseless tip we’d be—”

 

“Baseless? I saw her!”

 

“You were fired today, were you not?”

 

“Well, yeah, because I insisted they call the police.”

 

“According to management at the casino, you were fired for being late too many times. As you were leaving the resort premises, you called 911 from your prepaid cellphone and made up a story about finding a body in order to inconvenience the hotel.”

 

Clara shook her head, the blood draining from her face. Was this really happening?

*****

 

Santino paced on the priceless rug that graced the polished marble floors of his penthouse suite high atop the Roman. His trusted head of security, Donovan Salerno, sat on the cognac leather wingback chair and glanced over the notes in his small notebook. The afternoon had been stressful, but Don thought he’d done well.

 

“And the maid? She won’t talk? Let’s make her happy,” Santino said as he rubbed his stubbly chin.

 

“Well, sir, we fired her, it was necessary that—”

 

“What the fuck did you just say? You fired her?”

 

Donovan took a deep breath and willed himself to stay calm. The boss was mad—deadly mad. He stood up and explained. “She demanded we call the police. That one, she was too smart. That young chick wasn’t like the Mexican maids that most—”

 

“I swear to God that if you say one ignorant bigoted thing you will regret it for the rest of your short life.” Santino had no tolerance for small-mindedness.

 

“Um, no, it’s just this housekeeper was not going to be deterred from alerting Metro to the mess in your house, sir.”

 

“So now she’s out there, with no loyalty whatsoever to us, no incentive to stay silent. That is a problem, Don.”

 

“Yes, sir. We’ll take care of her. I apologize for letting her go.”

 

“I don’t want her harmed, I merely want her silent. What is her name?”

Santino’s pale eyes focused on the man as he stopped his pacing. The words his head of security spoke caused him to grow cold, colder than his usual soulless body.

 

“Clara Denton.”

*****

Miles away, Clara sat in a chair, an angry Metro police officer staring at her as if she were the criminal. “Listen, I saw what I saw, and I tried to do the right thing. They were messing with a murder scene! I saw the other day on Law & Order—”

 

His eyes narrowed at her as he cut her off. “Miss, this is not a game. You’ve committed a serious crime.”

 

“I didn’t make it up!” Clara fought back tears—she was not a crier, but this day kept going from bad to worse.

 

The detective took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I think you’re a nice girl who watches too much TV. The thing is, dialing 911 and making up a murder is far more serious than just a nuisance call. I’ve spent hours tracking this down, it took a swarm of officers all afternoon to search the Roman. Not to mention how pissed off your former employer is—a man like Santino Marchetti does not take lightly his guests being inconvenienced.”

 

“Santino? Mr. Marchetti’s first name is Santino?”

 

“Odd, huh? Damn Italians. Listen, Miss Denton, I have to take you into custody and book you.

 

Between us, it’s probably just going to be a misdemeanor. You’ll post bail and most likely be back home by bedtime.”

 

Clara sniffed hard, fighting the tears, pushing down the panic. “I-I don’t have a dime right now. My credit cards are maxed, my bank account is overdrawn, I just lost my job.”

 

The door to the tiny apartment opened and her roommate walked in, his eyes wide at the sight of police. “What’s going on?”

 

She shrugged. “I don’t even know anymore.”

 

“Well this guy is right behind me looking for you.”

 

Behind Landon, in the doorway, he stood. Clara’s eyes met his; the spark from his ethereal blue eyes caused a stir deep within her. He was the owner of the Roman? Her boss?

 

“Gentlemen, I appreciate your hard work today. It seems this is all just an unfortunate misunderstanding.” Clara couldn’t focus on Santino’s words—the sight of him, standing in her crappy apartment in his fancy suit, the five-o-clock shadow across his chin and cheeks, the way his black hair had that one errant piece that dipped over his right eye—it was more than she could process. Why did he have to be so beautiful?

 

“Misunderstanding?” she asked in unison with the police officers.

 

“It seems some members of my security detail were playing a prank on a new hire. A silicone body from our Cirque show was placed in one of the rooms, they meant for the new guy to find it, but someone forgot to put out the Do Not Disturb sign. Poor Clara here, I’m afraid, found it first.” Santino said the words as if they were final; he was the kind of man that no one questioned.

 

The detective stood up, confused. “Why the hell didn’t anyone bother to tell us this while we were searching your hotel?”

 

Santino pursed his lips. Clara somehow knew he was thinking up a lie. “My gentlemen were worried they would be reprimanded by me—and they have been. Firing this fine employee was a further effort to cover their wrong-doing.”

 

Able to breathe again, to think again, she leaned back into the chair. A prank? The body wasn’t real?

 

Santino moved closer, squatting in front of her on the floor. He was so near that she could smell his cologne as he said, “I am sorry, Clara, for everything.”

 

She struggled to speak, but all that came out was a nod. The room was silent, the strange energy between them electric.

 

“This whole thing cost a lot of time and money,” the detective said. “I think it might be best if we go down to the station and discuss this.”

 

Santino’s eyes were still on Clara’s—he seemed to care little about the trouble they were in.

 

He showed no change when the detective’s phone rang, or when the detective began to stammer into it. “Sir, I-I of course meant no inconvenience to him, it’s just this whole thing reeks of…”

 

Santino continued to look into her eyes as the detective spoke again into his phone. “If that’s what you’d like us to do, sure.”

 

The detective walked toward the door and signaled to the uniformed officers to follow. “I’ll need to write a report, of course, and Miss Denton I’ll ask you to stay in town for a few days, but I can see you had no intention of committing a crime. We’ll let this go for now. Good day, Mr. Marchetti.”

 

Santino stood and walked toward the door before turning toward Clara again. “Of course, Clara, I’d love for you to come back to work. I brought a small bonus as an apology. Please take all the time off you need to recover from the hassle.” From his pocket he pulled out an envelope. Inside, she begged him to come close to her again—when he was near it felt like when she touched the metal part of a shopping cart at Albertsons. There was a shock, a spark, an almost painful jolt of energy she felt from this man. Instead, he placed the envelope on her battered dining table and left.

 

Clara didn’t move. Not even when Landon placed his hand on her shoulder and asked, “Are you alright, kid?” She simply nodded. Landon always called her “kid” despite the fact that she was six months older.

 

She didn’t move when Landon picked the envelope up from the table and turned it over in his hands. “Classy paper—thick, beefy like that Santiago’s cock must be,” he teased with a raunchy gesture.

 

“Santino,” she said. “His name is Santino. Earlier I ran out of gas, he helped me. I had no idea who he was.”

 

“Well, that sizzling hunk of a man could not keep his eyes off my little ol’ Clara.”

 

“What? No, he—”

 

“I saw what I saw, baby girl. Maybe he does threesomes.”

 

“Stop it, don’t say that.” Clara surprised herself, she was jealous of a man she’d only just met, a man whom she would probably never see again; a man who would never look twice at a poor stringy haired college student like herself. “I’m sure he dates models,” she said, the thought making her feel nauseous.

 

Landon ripped open the envelope, which didn’t surprise her. He was like that—the kind of guy who got away with anything from their small circle of friends. “Your day is about to get a lot less shitty,” he said with an ear-to-ear smile, the kind that made the dimples emerge on his flawless cheeks.

 

“Did he write me a note?” Her heart skipped a beat as she reached for the envelope. Did he like her? Did he feel it too?

 

“No, but your middle-school crush on the unattainable billionaire boyfriend is cute. It’s a check—and we’re about to go out.”

 

“Severance pay?”

 

“No,” he said, handing her the check.

 

“Ho-ly crap!” Clara jumped to her feet. “This is, this is, this is…”

 

That is five thousand dollars. Get dressed, Clara Belle, we’re eating well tonight.”

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All content and excerpts © 2016 by Sam JD Hunt