The Instinct

by August Niehaus

I peer into the rear-view mirror of the Model 3, carefully lifting and tucking rolls of golden hair off my neck. Both my hair and my neck look best that way, and tonight I need to look my best.

The Uber driver, who the app introduced to me as “Randy,” slams on his brakes and the Model 3 lurches. I go into his headrest hairdo-first, clawing for purchase to preserve the shape I so painstakingly crafted. I bounce off cursing as my fingers get tangled in the crocheted cover, tearing a wide hole.

“Are you fucking serious?” I shout at about one-third volume. There is no reason to waste my partying voice on this incompetent. “What about ‘drive carefully’ is not in your vocabulary? God!

Randy is Iranian, or maybe Romanian; I can’t tell the difference. I roll my eyes and pull my passport from my pocket again and wave it in his face. “Do you remember who I am? Say it with me. Charles… Percival… Darlington… Gedge… the fourth.”

By the time I say “Darlington,” Randy is saying my name in time with me. Clearly he does recall who I am. I harrumph and fold my arms, tucking my passport into my Armani suit and staring at the pulsing green and blue lights on the stadium roof, rolling past in slow motion. Seattle is not my first choice of business travel destination, but it was the only place the Giovannis would agree to meet me when they finally made contact six weeks ago.

Randy turns up the volume. The radio pipes out a woman wailing an American folk song. My mind drifts as we cruise up the dark motorway.

The Giovannis.

Most people know little about them, except as a hint of a breath of a whisper of a legend. Nothing more. And what the collective of humanity knows about them is precious little more than that—but I know it all. They have been a family name on the world stage for a long time, their fingers in every kind of financial arena both over and under the table. The virtual marketplace is a Giovanni wet dream.

All of this, I know because I want to do business with them.

It is a lifelong dream. My father and his father would speak of the Giovannis in the kind of hushed tones that imply a pedestal; I knew from the day I first heard of them that I would find a way to strike a bargain and lift my own family out of—well, if not obscurity, a sort of social poverty from which nothing but a herculean effort could save us.

So I scheduled a trip to Seattle, agreeing to meet with the Giovanni agent Chiavetta in the Columbia Tower on the 62nd floor at midnight on April 6th. Eschewing the usual chauffer, I went for the more low-key Uber. A mistake, perhaps—but we are almost to the tower.

Randy turns the Model 3 in to the garage and lets me out. I go to the window, which he rolls down to stare at me.

“Here. Take this.” I extract a large wad of cash from my pants pocket. “Replace your seat cover. Sorry about that. Got a bit carried away, chap.”

Randy takes the money and continues to stare at me. Unnerved, I wave him off and roll away. It is amazing how readily an American will accept a cash bribe.

I opt to take the elevator straight from the garage to the 62nd, once again adjusting my hair in the reflective metal of the service panel. The elevator dings and spills me out into a softly-lit office lobby. There is no one at reception, but I can hear the soft tinkle of piano music somewhere beyond.

I straighten my collar, tip my head back, and walk boldly into the offices of the Giovannis.

There are a few offices to either side of me, walled with frosted glass. Dim lights are on inside but no one seems to be moving around. I follow the tinkling of the piano.

I come around a wall and find her.

She is standing facing the glass to the outside, staring out at the city and the water beyond. She could be Hyacinth Bucket, for how she is dressed: a pearl necklace against her pale chest, a brown plaid skirt-suit combination, and a dark green bowler hat with feathers. But she is athletic and strong.

She is the most attractive woman I have ever laid eyes on.

“Mister Gedge,” says a voice like the soft purr of a bow over a violin.

The woman turns. Her face is proud and sharp with cheekbones and piercing eyes. Her hair is long and dark and wavy; her lips are the brightest red I have ever seen. She regards me with the same cold calculation as a hawk in captivity regards a mouse outside its cage. I can sense a great heritage of aristocracy and sophistication in her gaze.

Still, I feel compelled to say, “You are the agent of the Giovanni, I presume?”

She may be beautiful, and she may be from a very old family, but she will not outclass Charles Percival Darlington Gedge IV.

If she is disappointed that I refuse to address her by name, she does not show it. “Yes, Mister Gedge, I am Liana Chiavetta. I must say, you are a… pleasant surprise.” With this, Liana rakes me up and down with her gaze.

Perhaps it is my imagination, but I feel cold fingers wandering along the edges of my clothes. I shiver, though the room in the skyscraper is warm.

Liana flutters her thick eyelashes. It is an odd contrast of youthful flirtation against the stern matronly outfit she wears. “I expected a much older Mister Gedge. In this age, it is a surprise for me to see a son following so closely in his father’s footsteps.”

I feel a hot flush of indignation rising to my cheeks. “Mister Gedge is my father, Miss Chiavetta, and I daresay that to follow in my father’s footsteps would be to do the same as he has done. I intend to do much more.”

“I get the sense,” Liana hums, “you will achieve immortality, Charles.” She regards me with unblinking eyes, then abruptly smiles. “May I call you Charlie? It seems like such a charming variation on your name: Charlie. Charlie. Char—”

“Charles,” I interrupt coldly, “my name is Charles, and I would appreciate if you called me by my name.”

No one calls me Charlie. Not since Mother.

Liana’s expression falls, the first true disappointment I have seen twist her features. “Very well, Charles it is.” She gestures to a high-backed leather seat not unlike a small throne across from a grand oak desk. “Please, make yourself comfortable, if you wish.”

I halfway commit my body to cross the space between where I stand and the chair, but my father’s voice arrests me. Never allow yourself more comfort than your opponent, Charles, or they have already won.

Instead, I pace behind the chair, watching for Liana to frown again. She does not. “I understand you are in possession of a significant network of connections across the world,” I begin. “I am in possession of a significant family fortune which is currently invested largely in ventures of a legal nature. As I will be taking over operations in the next decade or two, I would like to begin my investments in the kinds of businesses with which my father and grandfather refused, on dubious moral grounds, to engage.”

I fold my arms in front of my chest and adopt a power stance. “My great-grandfather’s money represents nearly three trillion dollars of assets, cash and otherwise, currently stashed away in countries which will allow me to drain those accounts at any moment, without a significant paper trail. I am willing to sign over the majority of this fortune to the Giovanni, in exchange for sixty percent of the profits of all investments.”

Liana’s face transforms. Where there was a weariness of years beyond her age, there is a lightness of spirit a child would be blessed to possess. Where there were creases of hardship, there are creases of laughter.

“Charles, I underestimated you,” she says with a chuckle. She comes around the desk, a glass of wine in one hand, the other reaching for me. “You have quite the instinct for business. Drink with me?”

My father again: Never refuse the alcohol your host pours you.

I finish the thought with my own self-preservation: And if you think it is poisoned, throw it into the nearest plant.

I doubt Liana will attempt to poison me, however. She seems enraptured by my frankness, and if she were going to poison the wine, it would not be the wine she was drinking: she pours from the same bottle into her own glass and a fresh one, and hands me the latter.

I take a deep sip and set it down on the desk.

“Furthermore…”

Liana’s attractive eyebrows rise. “Oh, is there more?”

I toss my head, because my curls are falling over my neck again. A thrill runs through me. “Indeed. Furthermore, I believe the rumors which say the Giovannis treat their business partners with the highest respect, even inducting some of them into their ranks as honorary family members. I would like this honor, should you be willing to grant it to me. Whatever it takes to negotiate that as part of our deal is on the table.”

Now Liana’s expression twists. I recognize surprise, delight, and something I daresay resembles being known. She gently scratches the underside of her chin, regarding me.

“You are a surprise, young Mister Gedge,” she says in that sibilant purr. “Few take the time to understand us before they enter a business deal with our kind. Your preparation will be rewarded.”

I refuse to let the praise visibly puff my chest, but I feel it in my head nonetheless: the gentle, inflating pressure of approval, like a hard-on I did not intend to let rise.

“You are interested in vice syndications, then,” Liana says. I nod. “I imagine you have a few types of businesses in mind?”

“Sex will always sell,” I say, “and so will intoxication. Anything up either of those two alleys looks good in my book.”

Liana nods, resting her thumb prettily against the corner of her mouth. “We have quite a few options for you, then. Let’s go to South Park. Jett will want to meet you, and I’d rather you get a chance to examine the options in person.”

A little thrill rolls up through my body from my toes to the crown of my head. The Giovannis’ headquarters—there are few places more sacred to my father and grandfather, and I will be the one to visit. I stifle my glee and pat the lining of my suit to ensure myself my rolls of American money are still safely on my person.

Liana calls a towncar and climbs into the back seat with me, crossing her right leg towards me. I must actively resist the temptation to pet her shapely ankle. She smells like my mother’s lilac trees and the first cut grass of the spring. I carefully cross my legs.

She says nothing to me on the 15-minute ride. I find myself staring at her hand resting on the seat between us. Her nails are painted a meticulous bright red, but underneath I spot the remnants of a dark red, tacky substance.

The buildings outside sag now rather than push proudly towards the clouded night sky. I register this as we cruise past a group of loitering youth outside a decrepit car. Liana turns her head towards them; the teens jump and cringe and turn away. Liana straightens her head to look straight ahead.

The towncar driver clears his throat and Liana nods. This must be a signal, because the car ponderously turns left. I spot a red light glowing at the end of an alleyway.

The perfect place for an infamous business family to hide their offices. I can hardly imagine a better headquarters myself, were it not for the castle my great-great-uncle brought into the family.

Without a word to the driver, Liana pushes the door open before the towncar stops moving. I scramble to follow. My suit sleeve catches in the door, smearing a line of greasy dust across my sleeve. Before I can register anger, the car is gone into the shadows.

When I turn, Liana stands poised with her hand on a rusty knob. She raises a shapely brow and I heed her summons, following her through the open door.

Inside is an entirely different world.

The walls of the stairway are lined with a heavy red plush, stitched like delicate pillows. The color is luscious and deep, and familiar, but I find I cannot place it. Liana’s plaid-swathed hips lure me down the steps without question.

Beneath the earth, the hallway widens and stretches far. We pass ornate candleholders, gilded paintings of stern-faced individuals from another age, and doorways shielded by heavy red curtains. Eventually Liana turns and guides me into a room that reminds me of a waiting room in my uncle’s castle.

Liana gestures to the fireplace and the armchairs before it. “Feel free to make yourself at home. I will fetch my brothers.”

I choose to stand near the fireplace and examine the books on the shelf. Another of my father’s ever-rotating business tips was something about what a man reads reflecting how his mind works; today, I remember the sentiment but not the exact wording. Still, curiosity draws my gaze to the names of the authors: Lord Byron. Antoine Augustin Calmet. John William Polidori.

An odd collection. Still, it adds to the mystery of the Giovannis. Eclectic reading like this, and they dominate the world stage from behind the curtains. I make mental note of the titles so that I can further my own education.

“Charles…” Liana’s voice cuts into my mental list-making, and I turn to see her approaching with two men flanking her. “I’d like you to meet Jett and Phaeron, my brothers and business partners.”

Phaeron inclines his head slightly. He has light brown hair and pale blue eyes, and the only thing about him that resembles Liana is their judgmental stares. “How do you do.”

Jett looks like he may be of Japanese descent. How these two are possibly Liana’s brothers, I would love to know but dare not ask. Some questions are best left for over a beer; some questions are best left unasked at all.

I nod at them both but choose to remain silent. Speaking feels like willingly giving up an advantage.

“Charles is interested in our business ventures as well as our partnership opportunities,” Liana says, smiling brightly at me. The smile does not climb all the way to her eyes.

Jett puts his hand on Liana’s shoulder in a protective way that is admittedly reminiscent of a brother. “Very good, very good. I suppose you brought him so he could sign his contract and we can prepare a sampling of his choices?”

“Precisely,” Liana says. Her eyes never leave me. I begin to feel a tingling between my shoulderblades.

There is a distinct rasping sound of metal sliding into metal.

The lock.

I cannot help but turn my whole body towards the sound. I can hear my heart in my ears. My vision is roaring into a tunnel as Liana seems to register my reaction and half-turns back towards the door.

She tosses me a sympathetic smile. “There is a violent criminal element in the area. The lock is the only thing to keep them at bay this time of night. You understand.”

I do not understand, but before I can tell her that, she catches Jett by the wrist and whisks away. I concentrate, trying to catch any strains of their conversation, but their banter is strangely muffled. They go through a heavy metal door and the room falls quiet.

Phaeron and I stare at one another. He flashes me a fangy smile that is more snarl than friendliness.

“Do you fancy Li? I thought so. Me too. I’d let her taste me any day.” He talks like he moves: twitchy, sporadic, hungry.

I run my gaze over his threadbare clothes, his cheap metal chain, and I make my decision. “Say, Jett, right? Would you happen to know a way out of here?”

He raises a pale eyebrow. “Leaving so soon? Aw. Don’t think Li would like that so much, eh.”

“I have money,” I say without hesitation. I stare steadily at Jett.

His pale eyes bug out. “Woah. Money. Huh.” Twitch. “What kind of money?”

“Enough money,” I snap. My father and I live by the same advice under these circumstances: Never show your cards, not even after you’ve won the hand. “Enough for you to enjoy yourself immensely, no matter your tastes.”

That gets Phaeron’s attention. He strokes his chin and regards me with a sideways stare. “I know a few ways out. None of ‘em very nice.” A forced laugh. “Unless you like sewers, maybe.”

My lip curls involuntarily. “Not particularly, no.”

Phaeron shrugs. “Well, then.”

He shoves his hands into his pockets and stares off at nothing, whistling tunelessly through his teeth.

I am left wondering whether he will take my money and then take me to safety, or if he has refused me my escape. I have half a mind to try a different angle on the same topic when the metal door clangs open and Liana and Jett enter, now deep in serious conversation.

To my chagrin, their discussion ends as soon as they register that I am within hearing range. Liana hands me a contract and a pen, then folds her hands in front of her, regarding Phaeron with a tilted head.

“Did you two find anything to talk about while we were gone?” she asks.

Phaeron shoots me a hooded look. “Nah, nah. Nothin’ much. Books and escapism, you might say.”

My blood races. Perhaps Phaeron will prove helpful after all. I manage a careless shrug and register that my heart is pounding. This is no longer the boardroom drama I am used to. This is a different kind of negotiation, one held in a luxurious chamber under the seediest part of the city. I am out of my element.

I quickly sign and hand the contract back to Liana. I lick dry lips. “Did you select some samples for me?” I ask, thankful my voice remains steady.

Liana touches her fingers to her full mouth. “Samples, samples… Oh! Your options, yes, of course. Jett gathered them with you specially in mind. I can take you to the consideration chamber.”

Somehow, the phrase “consideration chamber” does not summon to mind visions of a candy shop or a cell phone store. I steel myself and straighten my spine.

“Yes, of course. I presume any special negotiations can take place there as well?”

Liana nods. “Absolutely. Jett, I will see our guest to the chamber.”

I am not sure if she knows I see, but I catch Liana giving Jett a pointed look, one he returns with a slow smile. Suddenly, my so-called knowledge of the Giovanni family feels like an abridged novel.

My feet feel weighted with chains, but I manage to drag them into obedience to follow Liana through the metal door and down a hallway on the other side—less plush than the entrance, with shabby framed paintings and hallway tables with half-dead plants. I can only hope that drugs and photographs of beautiful women await me in the consideration chamber and that I will get to spend trillions of dollars with a flick of my finger.

I clear my throat, a harsh sound in the silence. “Perhaps some of the funds from my family fortune could be applied towards a decorative consultation?” As I say the words, I realize my mistake and rummage for a recovery. “Closer to the entrance it was quite posh. More of that would—”

A scream, harsh as a knife through taut fabric, rakes through the hallway. Icy fingers rake down my back and I whirl around, wildly searching the chamber. There is no sign of anyone or anything. The metal door is closed.

I turn around, my eyes bugging at Liana. “What the fuck was that?”

She tips her head and regards me with a faint, convincing confusion. “What was what, Charles?”

“The—” Words die on my lips, and I begin to feel them tremble. I force out a gravelly whisper: “The scream.”

Liana Chiavetta looks me dead in the eye and says, “I heard nothing of the sort.”

My throat dries out, thick as a ball of cotton. I can feel every nerve in the backs of my hands.

“I will pay you anything,” I whisper. “Get me out of here.”

She must have registered my horror, because Liana’s stance softens and she approaches me, extending a hand. “Oh, Charles, you look so pale. There are places to sit in the consideration chamber. Come, lean on me.”

Through the roar of blood in my head, I somehow manage to stay on my feet and only apply a small amount of my weight against Liana’s shoulder, fearful at her ready dismissal of my money. She guides me to the heavy wooden door that slowly emerges from the strange grey mist rising around us, then gently leans me against the wall while she unlocks the door with a large wrought key. Even if I wanted to run, I am paralyzed by terror.

The stone is cool against my cheek, and—moist? Even in my state of near-panic, I register wetness and pull away sharply, determined not to mess up my curls; I manage to skin my knuckles against the rough wall in the process.

Liana snags my arm and pulls me through the now-open doorway. I stand blinking, trying to clear my vision, certain that the odd light and the sheen of water on everything must be my swimming vision. I rub my eyes. No change.

I am standing in the middle of a tile-floored room with walls like a medieval torture chamber. Three sets of manacles hang from the ceiling, each on a longer chain than the previous. The tiles are stained by water or blood. The stones of the wall have been carved into screaming faces, each less human than the next.

Then Liana shoves me. I fall backwards, flailing my arms, but before I hit the stone my rear hits an unyielding chair and I sit down hard. Liana takes a stalking step towards me and viciously tilts my chin upward so I cannot help but stare at the shackles.

“Which of these do you fancy, Charles?” she asks. “Consider your options carefully. You may kneel before us with your arms high in supplication. You may stand and face your destiny with your hands behind you. Or you may dangle from the ceiling like the pathetic stock you are.”

My heart surges against my rib cage. My blood ices over. With an animal cry, I lunge with all my shaky strength, sliding past Liana and stumbling towards the still-open door.

Before I can reach it, it slams shut by some unseen force. I land against it hands-first with a despairing wail, slapping it wildly, clawing my fingernails down to blood as I try to force my fingers into the crack of the door.

My grunting turns to a scream as the door flares red-hot. I can smell my seared flesh, and I stare at the blisters on my hands. My entire body shakes. The burning sensation intensifies. I fall to my knees.

“Supplication. An excellent choice.” Liana’s voice crawls along my neck and into my ear. “You will soon see eternity, Charles Gedge. Do you embrace it?”

I have no choice. I feel my will slipping away.

“Yes,” I whisper.

I think of all the money I will never spend, the rich and happy life I signed away moments ago. It feels like an eternity ago.

Liana vanishes. The sound of chains rasping against metal fills my head. Death approaches. “Sorry, Charlie,” Liana whispers, and then she bites me.

**

April 6, 2019: Sorry Charlie Day

This tale is loosely set in the Vampire: The Masquerade universe and is based off a prompt from a friend.

Image of stone found on deviantArt.

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