Downtown Miami blazed with life, even at ten o’clock in the evening. The Miami Arena emptied thousands of Heat basketball fans into the streets after a mid-week night game. Devon Furst wove through the oncoming crowd on his short walk to Contour, a high-end fitness club where he worked out and met women. The bright, colored lights of Bay Front Mall lent a carnival atmosphere to the main drag of Biscayne Boulevard.
Earl Klugh’s “Late Night Guitar” album played through the mini-speakers in Devon’s ears. He found the smooth jazz helped to calm him down after a marathon day of tax-season deadlines. A faded Adidas gym bag bounced against his hip. He hummed along with the music, passing “Coco-Loco-Nuts,” the trendy bar and grill Devon always avoided on his way to the gym. Bars in general had lost their attraction for Devon. He had given up drinking alcohol during his cocaine rehabilitation days. Drinking had never been a problem for Devon, but after rehab, he avoided any substance that might gain power over him. Alcohol abstinence became the voluntary half of a package deal.
His father was the chairman of a powerful corporate law firm in Miami. Devon made the grades and LSAT scores to get into Columbia Law School. Three semesters later, he flunked out. A year of therapy taught him that the best way to be successful and avoid self-destructive behavior was to stay out of his father’s shadow. He had no desire to become a doctor or lawyer, so he chose accounting, the third most popular professional choice of adult Jewish males.
In therapy, Devon sought to understand and reconcile his competing drives. He wanted security and simultaneously craved adventure. He told himself he wanted to settle down while going through woman like the number two pencils he used at work. He felt a constant restlessness inside—a need for something more than what was in front of him. He had yet to find the elusive “something more.” Perhaps the uneasy feeling had led to his addiction.
He hitched the Adidas bag up on his shoulder. The Contour building hove into view. He anticipated a decent crowd at the gym populated with enough good-looking women to keep him motivated to do his lower body workout. He hated leg exercises, and he was tired from the long day.
When are you going to take some time to relax? Tax-season will whittle you down to a splinter if you don’t take some time to slow down.
These thoughts crept into his mind, uninvited and without warning. He suddenly felt thirsty, as if he had just polished off a large tub of salted popcorn. He desperately needed a drink of water. He had drained the last of his water bottles at the office. No stores or small restaurants remained open at this hour. Coco-Loco-Nuts loomed as the only watering hole in sight.
Once inside, he ordered a large bottle of Perrier at the bar. The conversations of a roomful of people and a driving Latin beat reverberated like buzzing insects off the rosewood walls and factory-style, black-painted ceiling. The slinky bartender with straight black hair, Asian features, and too much eye makeup appeared with the sparkling water and a glass. Devon held up a hand.
“I’ll just take the bottle with me,” he said, placing a bill on the bar. “Keep the change.”
“Let me get you a bag,” the bartender said. “We’re not supposed to let customers walk out with bottles. But hey, it’s not alcohol, you tip big, and you’re cute as hell.” She winked at him and walked away. She had a very nice ass and long legs underneath her short black skirt. Devon felt a rise in his pants. It had been too long a day to start feeling horny. He couldn’t wait to take a deep swig of Perrier and be on his way.
He became aware of a sultry, sandalwood fragrance to his left. He turned and gazed into the blazing green eyes of a woman with flowing red hair who had taken a seat next to him. She wore a pink striped black business suit accented with purple elbow-length leather gloves. Pink lipstick outlined her sensual mouth. Freckles dotted the pale skin of her face. Her wide cheekbones and subtly concave cheeks gave her the look of a European aristocrat. She sat with perfect posture on the bar stool, long shapely legs showcased in sheer purple stockings propped on the brass railing near the floor. She continued to stare at him without saying a word. Light danced in her eyes, as if they absorbed energy from every light source in the room.
Devon smiled at her. She smiled back, revealing a perfect set of brilliantly white teeth. Her open expression told him that she wanted to talk. “I’m not used to seeing gloves in the middle of summer, but they’re lovely and compliment your suit beautifully.”
“Thank you,” she said, extending her hand. “Mathilde de Roche is my name.”
Devon picked up a slight accent in her voice. He introduced himself.
“You’re a man of good taste yourself,” she said, regarding his double-breasted Versace business suit. Devon had recently taken to wearing silk handkerchiefs in the breast pocket. Tonight he wore gold to accent the navy suit. It made him feel less like a bean counter—more his own man.
“I hear some French in your background. Are you from Canada or France?”
“I went to University in France. Parlez vous Francais?”
“Took eight years of French. Don’t speak a word.”
Her lips smiled but not her eyes. Those eyes…they were magnetic.
“Most people have to live in a country to learn how to speak the language,” she said.
“That’s what I tell myself to keep from feeling stupid.”
The bartender came back with Devon’s bottle of sparkling water wrapped in a plastic bag. “Put it in your gym bag before you leave. I don’t want to lose my job.” The bartender winked again. Under different circumstances, Devon would have asked for her phone number in exchange for his business card.
He turned to Mathilde. “Care to join me in a glass of innocent refreshment?”
“Thank you. I’m actually quite thirsty.”
“I think it must be the summer heat and humidity. I’m parched. Can we have two glasses?” he said.
The bartender glanced briefly at Mathilde and frowned. Reaching up and pulling two glasses from the overhead rack, she set two wine glasses on the bar. She left abruptly when another customer called to her from the other end of the crowded bar.
Devon poured the effervescing water into both glasses.
“What a coincidence, the two of us being so thirsty and meeting like this,” Mathilde said, raising the glass to her lips.
Devon raised his glass. “To the eradication of thirst.” He downed the sparkling water in a series of greedy gulps. His eyes watered. He felt slightly embarrassed. “I don’t usually drink like a dry cocker spaniel,” he said. "It’s just that, well, I can’t remember the last time I felt this thirsty.”
“You’re forgiven. I’m unusually thirsty myself, but I don’t think it’s from the heat.”
Was there a sexual innuendo in her last statement, or was it just his overactive male ego? Then it dawned on him: Mathilde was a Working Girl. She had to be a very expensive one at that.
Her smile disappeared, almost as if she had read his mind.
Somewhere deep in the subterranean bedrock of his subconscious, a faint alarm sounded. He paid no heed to the distant warning. Something about this woman excited him. He liked her poise and self-confidence. Was it real or manufactured? He had the strangest feeling that she knew him—maybe not his deepest secrets; but more than a total stranger could know about him.
Devon poured another glass of water. He offered the bottle to her, but she shook her head. After a few more gulps of the refreshing water, he wiped his mouth again. His monstrous thirst began to abate. I must look like a thirsty diabetic to her, he thought self-consciously.
She continued to look directly at him. What was going on behind that lovely gaze? He felt for a second like he could fall into the depths of her eyes—just sit and look at her beautiful face, into the depths of her luminous eyes, without speaking for hours. She would politely excuse herself and leave if he continued to stare at her like a teenager.
“What do you think of the disappearances?” Devon inquired to change the subject.
“I don’t pay that much attention to them.”
Mathilde’s response surprised him. It was odd, to say the least.
At the age of twenty-eight, with good looks and a five percent body fat ratio, Devon ranked at the top of the list of the local endangered citizenry.
“I don’t want to scare you, but we both fit the profile of the people who’ve gone missing. Aren’t you at least a little concerned for your safety?”
“I can handle myself,” Mathilde said.
In the past six months, Devon had undertaken uncharacteristic measures to avoid becoming a victim. The 22-caliber sub-compact pistol strapped to his belt shared equal importance with his wristwatch and smart phone. He stole one hour a week from his busy schedule to practice shooting, despite his lack of history with guns or any particular affinity for them. His upper-middle-class parents encouraged education and sports. Criminals and barbarians carried guns, not upwardly mobile Jewish men.
Times had changed.
Before a twenty-five year-old fitness instructor named Donna Longren had disappeared, Devon fit the accountant stereotype of a mild-mannered creature with little use for firearms. Nine more people vanished after Donna; all of them from the South Florida area; one per month. Who was next? The tragedy of the missing persons had radically altered Devon’s self-defense perspective.
The disappearances baffled and frustrated the authorities. The media sensationalized the story and cried for action. Someone (or something) had removed ten young professional men and women from the face of the Earth without a trace of evidence or explanation. UFO abduction stories from whackos and dark humorists circulated on the Internet. Talk shows speculated about the identity of the culprit. Police departments fielded calls from frightened citizens describing monsters and aliens roaming the streets. The mystery held the population of South Florida in a spell of panic and fear.
Most of the young professional people Devon spoke with took the disappearances seriously. His friends tended to stay in groups when they went out on weekends. Some, like him, bought guns to protect themselves. Others took up martial arts.
“Do you own a gun?”
“I don’t like guns.”
“Are you trained in martial arts?”
“Are you worried about me?” Mathilde asked with a sly smile.
“I don't mean to pry. It’s just…someone as beautiful as you should be careful. The abductor chooses good-looking victims."
No blush, no “thank-you” for the compliment: only a slight look of disappointment.
“Have I offended you?”
Her light laughter sounded like a wind chime. “I don’t take offense when a handsome man calls me beautiful.”
She looked away, perhaps to conceal a blush, or possibly to signal her waning interest in the conversation.
He usually read people by using his intuition, observing body language and facial expressions, and listening carefully to what they said. With Mathilde, he couldn't get past the first few sentences of Chapter One.
The challenge of unlocking a few of this fascinating woman's secrets kept him asking questions. “What do you do?”
She turned back to him and said nothing. He thought it was time to excuse himself and leave the bar until she finally said, “I’m a painter.”
“Is there a gallery in town where I can see your work?”
“I don’t sell my work. I do it for the pure passion and feeling of accomplishment it gives me.”
“How do you support yourself, if you don’t mind me asking?
“I do mind you asking.”
The Call Girl scenario popped into his head again.
“I’m not a prostitute,” she said without a trace of indignation or judgment.
“You’re either incredibly good at reading people or you read minds.” He meant it as a joke, but she took the question seriously.
“Do you believe in mindreading?”
"No. What brought you to Miami?”
“Love,” she said.
She had a husband or a boyfriend. Maybe she had just broken up with someone. Whatever the case, he decided not to get in the middle of it.
“Well, it’s been nice chatting with you. I have to be on my way. Big day tomorrow. Big plans afoot. Gotta get my workout in before hitting the sack. Perhaps we'll meet again.” Yeah, like next century. Good luck and have a nice life.
“Perhaps you’d enjoy your rest better after we’ve had a chance to satisfy another kind of thirst?” She smiled and finished her glass of sparkling water. “I’m leaving Miami tomorrow. We’ll never see each other again. Don’t you want to make the most of our time together?”
Her eyes held his in an irresistible embrace. Hit and run. No one gets hurt. What the hell. “Sounds interesting.”
“I’m sure we’ll find it interesting,” Mathilde said, her lips slightly parted. “Shall we?”
What They're Saying
"With so many vampire novels on the market today, one could wonder at the need for yet another; but Scarlet Ambrosia is a vampire story of a different color, seasoned not so much by the drama of blood-letting as by the more universal themes of self-discovery, human nature, and redemption. Ultimately this is what makes or breaks any genre; especially one such as the urban fantasy or vampire story, which too often tends to eschew self-examination in favor of high drama. And this is just one of the reasons why Scarlet Ambrosia stands out from the urban fantasy genre crowd."
Diane Donovan, Senior e-Book Reviewer, Midwest Book Review