Don’t Talk to Strangers (Even if They Buy You Gin)

Who’s ready for another short story with a dubious ending? That’s right, you are!

Seriously though, if you don’t want to read through something that technically ends with a cliff hanger, this isn’t the post for you. Neither, probably, is most of the My Writing tag. Still, the excerpt I’m going to include here was one I quite enjoyed making and thought would be a good one to include on the blog. I wrote it in November of 2019, and I was reading through it recently. It was strange to look back on it with a lowered sense of connection from when I had been actively working on it.

This short story took a lot of researching. A lot more, in fact, than some of the full stories I used to write, of course those ones were also never given editing. It’s probably one of my own writing weaknesses. Research can sometimes feel stretched out when you just want to get to writing, but in this case, it wasn’t so bad. I did learn a lot more about The Great Stink of London in 1858 than I needed to, though.

A great stink. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? There’s no need to worry about anything gross in this excerpt, however, because a lot of the particular details didn’t make it into the short story. I won’t elaborate on the title in this introduction, but now you know the time period, and have some knowledge of what to expect. Maybe.

As a small warning: Despite me calling it a short story, and putting “short story” in the tags, I think this post has gotten longer than some of my other excerpts. End of warning.

Abel never really saw the fist coming.

The man swung out of nowhere, his knuckles bashing against Abel’s jaw with enough force to knock him to the floor. A few other patrons glanced in their direction. None of them made any attempt to help. In fact, most of them appeared to be mildly annoyed. 

He groaned as his attacker lifted him by the collar of his shirt, and brought him nose to nose with the man. Abel avoided his eyes, watching the spittle dribble from the side of his mouth. It flew at him when the man began to speak.

“Was you s’riously tryna steal from me, boy?” He shook him and Abel felt his teeth chatter together. “Huh? Ya think you can best me? Oh, no.”

“I wasn’t, I swear it, sir,” Abel said. In truth, Abel’s promises were worth about a grain of sand, but telling the man that would only anger him further.

His reply only gained him a snarl. “Yeah, right. Hold still.”

“Not like I have a choice,” Abel managed to grunt out. Before his eyes, the arm drew back again, a beefy fist was directed at his nose, and he swore he could already feel blood flowing from his nostrils-

“Sammy.”

A voice like silk broke through the noise of chatter, and with that one word the man’s fist halted. “Sammy” looked like a child that had been denied a piece of candy. Roughly, Abel’s feet were set back on the ground, but Sammy still kept his hold on him. Abel didn’t quite mind. He was too focused on searching the tavern for his savior.

A woman Abel had never seen in the city before made her way toward them. Her yellow dress swirled around her legs, and dark hair tumbled over her shoulders in waves. Abel’s brain barely had the time to form the sentence of she’s beautiful before Sammy shoved him against the nearest table.

“Gentle, now. We don’t want to cause any trouble,” the mystery woman said. She looked Abel up and down shrewdly. “And buy this good man a drink.”

As if Sammy’s night wasn’t going awful enough. He gaped at her for a good five seconds, and then grumbled as he went up to the barman. The mystery woman waved her hand to the table (which Abel was pretty sure had left a horrible mark in his back) and Abel, not wanting to upset the person who had stopped a brute like Sammy, promptly took a seat. She sat across from him.

Abel stared at her, unable to mask his confusion. She stared back for a while until she let out a laugh.

“Oh yes, how rude of me, I haven’t introduced myself. My name is Clara Cojocaru.”

“Johnson. Abel Johnson,” was Abel’s weak response. Her name didn’t explain much. It didn’t tell him why the pub owner let him in or why she had so much power over Sammy. Was he her servant? It didn’t seem likely.

The only thing Abel could derive from Clara’s name was that she was a foreigner. He had guessed so from her accent, and the fact that he didn’t recognize her. He knew everyone, whether they liked their acquaintance with him or not.

“I mean no offense, but, your family name is…” Abel trailed off. What was he thinking? Clara was probably a noble, or at least higher up on the social hierarchy than Abel.

“Strange?” Clara finished, and Abel winced. To his surprise, Clara gave him a closed mouth smile and explained. “It’s Romanian.”

Sammy slammed a mug of gin dangerously close to Abel’s right hand. He then lumbered off, still grumbling about bloody thieves. It was only after he was a fair distance away that Abel dared to take a sip of the drink.

“Whatever are you doing in London?” he asked next. The city wasn’t the best to visit. Especially not that summer, with the Great Stink and people dropping all around like flies from diseases. Everyone knew of the miasma theory.

“I’m taking care of my grandfather. Time hasn’t treated him kindly, and he doesn’t really have anyone else to look after him in his old age.” Clara sighed, and tossed a glance over at Sammy. “Besides his lot, of course, but that man is the thickest I’ve ever seen. He wouldn’t be able to tell a hucul pony from a mule.”

“Ah,” said Abel, and he paused for a moment. “I didn’t mean to steal from him.”

Clara winked. “It’s quite all right, Mister Johnson. You don’t have to lie to me. In fact, I highly recommend that you don’t if you know what is in your best interests.”

Apparently, Clara knew just the right way to refocus Abel’s attention. “Seriously? A real, paying job?”

“A real, paying job,” Clara confirmed. “It will only last a few months or so. But I promise you, it will give you enough money to last you the rest of your life.”

Abel didn’t realize he was literally hanging off the edge of his seat until he nearly fell off. He pushed himself back, and took another sip from his mug as if that would clear his thoughts. Clara’s offer sounded amazing, but it was way too good to be true.

“Why would you hire someone you just met?”

“Because although we haven’t met, I have known you for a long time. I’ve been watching you, Abel Johnson.” Clara smiled then, fully that time, and Abel could clearly make out a set of fangs glinting in the candle light. “I am in need of your assistance.”

Every muscle in Abel’s body tensed and his mind shouted at him. Vampire. Abel shot up, and bolted out the tavern’s door into the streets. An awful stench reached in and scratched at the inside of his nose, but Abel barely stopped to gag. He simply pulled his shirt up over half of his face and kept running.

Clara wasn’t from London. She couldn’t know the city like Abel did. He darted through the alleys madly, and checked the skies multiple times to make sure that no bat was flying overhead. After a minute of this, Abel finally slowed down and took a rest against the nearest building.

Heavy footsteps sounded from around the corner of Abel’s alley. Logically, he knew that it probably wasn’t Sammy, yet he still backed away in fear. He caught a shadow in the shape of Sammy’s outline as he hid behind a house. If Abel remained quiet, he would move on and go away. Everything would be fine.

That line of thought lasted a good second before he turned around to find Clara standing directly behind him. Abel lost all composure that he had left, and screamed.

Sammy’s footsteps continued to sound, louder and faster that time, while Clara stood still and watched Abel. There wasn’t any maliciousness in her eyes, only polite curiosity. Abel never got far in escaping a second time, because soon enough Sammy’s hand was clamped down on his shoulder. He really should have brought some garlic out with him that night.

“It’s rude to run out on a lady like that, Mister Johnson,” Clara chided lightly. Abel tried to wrench out of Sammy’s grip to no avail.

“You’re no lady,” he spat out.

Clara feigned offense, placing a hand above her still heart. “Just because a woman is a monster, doesn’t mean she can’t be a lady.” She snapped her fingers, and Sammy slung Abel over one shoulder as if he was nothing more than a bag of feathers.

They wandered back to the tavern. Abel felt too terrified to speak, and if he tried the heat and the constant swinging of Sammy’s movement would make him retch. After a while, Sammy cleared his throat.

“Can’t I pummel ‘im now, ma’am?”

“No.”

“But I-”

“Not now, Samuel.”

And that was that. Sammy huffed, readjusted Abel into the most uncomfortable position, and followed the vampire all the way to the tavern door. Once they were right outside and could make out the vulgar drinking songs, Sammy put Abel back on the ground. Clara turned to face him.

“Here’s what is going to happen,” she said lowly. “The three of us are going to go back in there. You’re going to finish all of the gin. And we’re going to discuss the details of the job like civil people. Understand?”

Abel could do nothing more but nod. Clara opened the door, and led him back to their table, with Sammy hovering over his shoulder every step of the way. Abel sat down, staring forlornly at his mug. What would happen if he shouted to the rest of the occupants and warned them that there was a vampire in their midst? Would they flee? Would Clara deal with them?

He took a glance around the tavern, and found that none of them even found it odd that Abel had ran off and just returned. They probably wouldn’t notice if he warned them, anyway.

“Are you going to suck my blood?” Abel murmured.

“Of course not.” Clara almost looked scandalized by the idea. “You’re too important for that.” Abel’s head spun. Whatever she needed him for, it couldn’t possibly be good.

“Why is that?”

“You’re a talented thief. I want you to steal for me.”

“I-what?” Out of anything the vampire would have wanted from him, Abel hadn’t been expecting that. “You want me to steal something?”

Clara took the other chair and placed it next to Abel, then sat down by his side. Goosebumps travelled up his arms as she leaned in to whisper to him. “I’ve been scouring all of Europe for a competent thief that can aid me. You are quite promising in that regard, Mr. Johnson.”

“I’m not that competent,” Abel rushed to claim. Normally he would have taken pride in such a comment, but not when it came from some random vampire he met in a tavern who was trying to drag him into her plans. “I mean, even Sammy caught me trying to swipe his coin purse.”

“He went for me ento’ire coin purse,” Sammy complained. “Not just a penny, not a shillin’, no, no. The ento’ire thing.”

“I told you I’ve been watching you. We followed you in here and made sure that his money seemed appealing enough for you to try and take. He even acted like an oblivious brute; which, not difficult for him,” Clara said, and Abel cringed as he waited for Sammy’s reaction. Besides a slight stiffening behind them, he did nothing. “But Sammy knew to look for you. When faced with most situations, you are successful in taking home your prize, are you not?”

Abel didn’t respond.

“Are you not?” Clara repeated firmly. Abel hesitated, and after a tense moment of weighing his options, nodded. Satisfied, Clara nodded as well, then pointed to his abandoned mug. “Drink.”

“You’re just trying to make me drunk,” Abel protested.

“Drink.”

“For all I know it’s poisoned.” The thought made him sick to his stomach. He had already ingested a fair amount of the gin.   

Sammy’s hands gripped Abel’s shoulders once more. The threat was clear enough, and Abel obediently picked up the mug to raise it to his lips. Even so, he made sure to take only the smallest of sips. Sammy removed his hands after a few seconds, to Abel’s relief, and he felt safe enough to set the mug back on the table.

“All right, I’ll indulge for now,” Abel told Clara. “What is it that you want me to steal?”

A pleased smile crossed Clara’s face. She sat back in her seat, and smoothed her skirts. “Nothing too serious. Only an artifact from the Buckingham Palace.”

Abel began to hack on his own spit. Clara waved her hand dismissively when a few patrons glanced their way (Oh, now they care, Abel thought to himself), while Sammy thumped his hand on Abel’s back. It felt like the man was trying to shatter his spine. Buckingham Palace. She must have been crazy.

“No,” Abel said. “No. That’s insane. I can’t break into the palace!” He was far from the monarchy’s good graces in the first place.

“You’ll be in and out in no time. I’m sure no one will even notice what you stole went missing. Easy.”

“If it was truly easy, you wouldn’t put so much effort into seeking me out.” Abel rested a hand over his eyes, and released a sigh. “Why, pray tell, can’t you just do this yourself?”

“Me?” Clara pointed to herself, eyebrows raised. “My kind don’t get anywhere without an invitation. Besides, I’m not a thief, Mister Johnson. I don’t do stealth.”

He knew she had a point, but he peeked at her cautiously from behind his fingers. “Aren’t you a vampire? Creature of the night, mistress of secrecy?” Abel’s question made Clara wave to her brightly coloured dress.

“It’s adorable that you think so, but I, for one, tend to stick out in a crowd.”

It was true, Abel had to admit to himself grudgingly. Several men had been eyeing her since she showed up. Strangely for her kind, Clara was dazzling. The way she held herself made her seem like sunshine incarnated. Abel, on the other hand, was forgettable. Average. He was just another face in the crowd, and everyone’s gazes slid right over him. Perfect for thieving.

And, unfortunately, perfect for Clara’s job. Abel closed his fingers and began to slide down in his chair.

“It’s a family heirloom that was stolen from us. From my grandfather,” Clara said, and for the first time, there was a hint of anger in her face.

“Oh, so the ‘taking care of my grandfather’ isn’t part of the ploy, huh?” He’d been sure that it was. In fact, as Abel thought it through, there were a lot of things he was sure of.

Most of it was that if the heirloom was stolen, it must have been for a reason. What if it was dangerous? What if Abel dropped a weapon into the hands of some of the already most dangerous people in the world?

Yes, but what will happen to you if you say no? a voice deep inside of Abel’s mind whispered. He shuddered.

Clara was speaking, with every word passing over Abel’s head. She laid a hand on Abel’s forearm and shook him gently to bring him back to the present. He blinked, looked around, and met Clara’s eyes.

“Are you all right, Mister Johnson? You’re looking a little sickly,” she said.

“Because you poisoned me!” Abel snapped in response. He could already feel his mind fogging up, becoming as messy as the Thames.

“Don’t be ridiculous, there was nothing in your gin. Sammy didn’t bring any poisons with him tonight.” Clara took his chin, and inspected him closely. “You are, however, rather drunk.”

Abel stared at her, trying to maintain focus. He couldn’t deal with her while his mind was addled. “Your grandfather.”

“As I was saying, he is real and truly in need of taking care of. You don’t exist for thousands of years without shaking a few screws loose.” Clara laughed, and Abel laughed as well, although he wasn’t sure why. “I moved to London to help him this spring. But I also moved to take back what is rightfully ours.”

“What?”

“Oh, just a pysanka. A little decorative egg.”

Of course. Clara only wanted Abel to break into the Buckingham Palace itself to retrieve a harmless egg. It all made perfect sense. Abel reached out when he felt his mind slipping away from him, and braced both hands against the table. Concentrate.

“What does it do?” he demanded.

Clara furrowed her brow. “I beg your pardon?”

“What does it do?” Abel repeated slowly, half to make sure Clara heard him, and half to make sure he didn’t slur his words. “Why do you want it?”

“It’s important to my grandfather, and it’s important to me.”

Her expression closed up, and she slammed her mouth shut afterwards. Abel tried to point an accusing finger at her, but failed, and ended up slumping against her side. He suddenly had the overwhelming urge to cry into her shoulder. Clara and Sammy helped sit Abel back up right.

“You wouldn’t go through so much trouble,” Abel managed, “just for a family heirloom.”

“Fine, sure,” Clara said with a tight smile. “If you’re going to be so cynical about this, it does have quite… an enchanting effect on humans.”

“Makes fer easy prey,” Sammy added gruffly.

“Not doin’ it. Not helpin’ou.” Abel’s eyes stung, and Sammy had to grab his shoulder again just to keep him from face planting the mug.

“I already told you that I’d make it worth your while. Don’t you at least want to know how much money I’m offering?”

He did, honestly, but he wasn’t going to say so. What kind of bugger agreed to hand over a weapon to a vampire? It didn’t seem to matter what Abel had to say, however, as Clara promptly leaned in and whispered the amount in his ear. Within seconds, Abel’s eyes were nearly the size of saucers.

That many pounds really would set him up for life. The thought of never spending his nights on the streets, of no more pickpocketing, stealing, and risking his safety to stay alive made his heart skip a beat. Still… Abel closed his eyes.

“Suicide mission. Tha’s wha it is. Besides, tha egg sounds dang’rous.”

“Come on, Abel,” Clara prompted. “You know you want to do this. You’ll be rich! I promise I won’t use the egg to cause harm; I simply want it back for my grandfather. And I believe you are the only one that can do that for me.”

Abel rolled her words over in his head, and found himself nodding along. If he could figure out the routine of Buckingham’s guards, then maybe he would have a shot. It wasn’t as if a pysanka could really cause that much trouble, right?

He gave Clara a look. “Promise no harm?”

“I promise,” Clara said, her voice still as smooth as silk. “Now, do we have a deal, Mister Johnson?”

The vampire extended her hand to the thief. Abel knew in the depths of his consciousness that he wasn’t thinking clearly and should say no, but he still accepted Clara’s hand and shook it. Already it felt like a huge mistake. The tears that had been piling up trickled out of his eyes, and sobs escaped his mouth.

“That’s just the gin as well, Mister Johnson. We should get you some place where you can rest,” said Clara. She gave Abel’s hand one last squeeze, and stood up.

Abel was only vaguely aware that Sammy picked him up again as he cried. He really was only vaguely aware about anything the entire trip through London’s winding streets. At some point they entered a large house, which according to Abel’s memory was definitely not his. Clara stopped to talk to an elderly man, whom she called Bunic. Then she continued to lead Sammy and, by extension Abel, to some sort of guest room.

He was set in the bed and brought a glass of water by a young woman that closely resembled Sammy. She pulled the covers up over Abel, and Clara observed the scene from the doorway. The servant finished up, curtsied to Clara, and scurried away from the room as fast as she could. The two were completely alone.

“All those people,” Abel whispered. “Dying from cholera. It’s not just the sickness killing them off, is it?”

Clara’s expression wasn’t unsympathetic when she answered, “I have to get blood somehow, don’t I?”

He rolled over and buried his face into the pillow. He didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He just wanted to drift off to the dream world, and hopefully survive whatever hangover was waiting for him in the morning. Then hopefully survive whatever would come next.

“Sleep well, Abel Johnson,” Clara said to him as she left, turning down the gaslamp. “We have a lot to plan when you wake.”

A few fun facts from the referenced research I did on this: The miasma theory was a medical theory that proposed diseases came from miasma, or “bad air”. Hucul ponies were originally bred in the Carpathian Mountains. A pysanka is a Ukrainian Easter egg. It’s estimated that 6, 536 people died in London during The Great Stink, and 20, 000 people nationally. It was apparently caused by a large wave of heat in the summer making all the waste in the River Thames ferment. In addition, there were a lot of cool vampire myths.

I can’t recall why I wanted to write a short story with a vampire at the time. Maybe because Halloween was nearing when I started, or I was inspired by something else I saw. Either way, it was a lot of fun to write, and an interesting storyline that I could perhaps pick up again.

Some day I will post a short story that has a better ending. Today is not that day.