Mark could not believe his luck as he hailed the cab. The rain that had fallen all day had petered out to a light drizzle. As the cab came to a stop it pushed water from the curb onto his shoes. He opened the door and looked back to the entrance of the bar. She was still there smiling as she started to walk over to the cab. She moved like a cat, all long legs and curves. The raindrops seemed to part like a curtain as she made her way to the vehicle and he could swear that she was completely dry as she bent down and slipped inside. Mark himself was wet, so he quickly closed the door after she pulled her legs inside, hurried to the far side of the cab and sat down behind the driver.
"Where to Jack?", the driver asked as he leaned over and started the meter.
"The Hilton Garden Inn on Peter Street." Mark answered, noticing that the driver kept his eyes on his companion while talking to him. It was something he was getting used to, everyone at the bar had stared at her since the moment she had walked in and sat next to him, men and women alike. He could not blame them, he had rarely taken his eyes off of her himself.
"That's just around the corner, we'll have you there in no time." the driver responded, checking over his shoulder at the downtown traffic before pulling out onto Front Street.
Mark turned his attention over to the passenger seat just as she reached over and gave his knee a squeeze. Her hand was very warm, the squeeze gentle and brief before she slid slowly up his leg to settle on a spot mid thigh. Her voice was deep and husky, with the trace of an accent that Mark could not place, it added to her seductiveness and mystery, full of provocation and temptation. "I can't wait to get to your room and pull off these shoes", her large, brown, almond shaped eyes danced with delight "I love the way they make my legs look, but 20 minutes after putting them on, my feet are ready to murder me for it."
Mark smiled and assured her that she would be able to rest her feet shortly. She smiled back before giving his thigh a small squeeze and turning to look out the window at the passing street. She let go of his thigh and reached up to run a hand along her jaw and neck. Mark watched, transfixed, as she idly pulled her long black hair over her shoulder, hiding the profile of her face before she spoke.
"Thank you for spending some time with me. It's rare I get the chance to get out, the demands at work are never ending and they keep me eternally busy. It's nice to meet someone outside of ... the office." Office was said like it was not really what she meant, just a word that somehow fit the occasion and Mark remembered that he knew very little about the woman he was currently taking back to his hotel.
"I know what you mean" he replied, "it's hard to balance work and a personal life. The headaches involved over dating employees or clients are not worth the trouble. Let alone the rules. Makes a social life extremely difficult if you work a lot."
"The only rules at my job are the ones I make." she said, emphasizing I in a way that made Mark believe her. "A woman in my position however, has to rule decisively and with authority. Makes the men who work for me kowtowed and subservient. Definitely not traits that I look for in a ... companion. But a woman has needs and sometimes you get an itch that just can't be scratched on your own. That means, once every century or so I have to get out and let my hair down." She looked back at him, her hair parting a little at the side and showing Mark the first imperfection that he had seen in this woman. Her ears were slightly pointed at the top, like she was wearing a prosthetic for a Star Trek convention. The hair fell back in place and Mark dismissed what he had seen. This woman was so beautiful that Mark had been wondering if she was really even human, or if he had suffered a stroke and was hallucinating the entire encounter while lying on a stretcher in the back of an ambulance. Pointy ears somehow humanized this woman, made her reality more plausible.
“What kind of work do you do?” Mark asked.
“Oh Mark” she began in a cool voice, “we’re in town for only a short time and we both know what this is. I appreciate the effort, but it’s not necessary. Tomorrow, we’ll go our separate ways with only the memories we make tonight, nothing more. Talking about work will only dampen the mood. I don’t think you want that. I know I don’t. Let’s just say I work in the penal system and leave it at that.” She laughed, reached over and gave his knee another squeeze. "And it’s time to let off some steam."
Mark turned, looked in the rear view mirror and caught sight of the driver. He looked like a man who hadn't eaten in days watching someone about to devour a 10 course meal from across the room. He felt a surge of pride and confidence and smiled back at the man.
"Ahhh, yes" his companion said, her voice low, almost purring, "you are a lucky man tonight Mark. But lust is already a sin you’re committing, don't put yourself on anybody's radar by adding pride and trying to incite envy in others. I know bad when I see it, and you are not a bad person Mark. I know. You could almost call me an expert on the subject, so be cautious how you act. You wouldn't want to corrupt yourself too much would you? It's not .... pious ... and you never know who's watching ...." And with that cryptic comment, she turned again to the window to watch the street as it passed.
Mark thought pious was a strange word to use considering their current situation. He was not even sure he had heard it used since his days as an alter boy 20 years ago. He tried to imagine this woman as the warden in a prison and could not. This woman was sexy, intelligent and strong-willed. She could do anything she wanted, why would she work in the penal system? She was definitely a woman of many layers, but it appeared as if Mark was not going to get the chance to explore them all. She was right, he had no wish to dampen the mood. If tonight was all he was getting was, he was planning to make it count.
He had been sitting at the bar of the Azure Lounge, drinking a martini and wondering if he should order something off of the menu when he had seen her walk into the room in the long mirror behind the bottle collection. Long, jet black hair, almond shaped dark eyes and full lips framed an almost perfect face. She had a darker hued skin color, not black or tanned but almost reddish in color, like a subtle maroon, or the color of weathered red bricks. Her shapely figure was in full effect wrapped in a long, form fitting red dress that ended well below the knee but had a slit at one side to the upper thigh, flashing long, muscular, but very feminine legs. She paused at the entrance to the bar and looked around the room, seemingly indifferent to the open stares of every table. She locked eyes with Mark through the mirror before starting in his direction. She moved like a model, long strides, one foot in front of the other like she was walking across a narrow beam. She held Mark's gaze in the mirror as she approached, never acknowledging the attention of the other patrons. Mark could almost hear necks muscles creak as she passed by. She took the seat next to him without ever asking if it was occupied, and only after she was seated did she break Mark's gaze in the mirror. She looked down at the bartender who had paused while wiping glasses, apparently transfixed by her presence as well.
"I'll have whatever he's drinking" her voice snapping the man from his reverie. She then turned to Mark and introduced herself. "Hi, I'm Ereshkigal. What are we drinking?"
"Mark", he replied after a pause, "I mean, my name is Mark. We're drinking martinis … vodka martinis. This one is a plain vodka martini, but the bar has a whole list of signature ones if you wanted something different..." he trailed off, aware that he was stumbling around in the dark and stammering like a teenager on a first date.
"Plain is fine" she replied with a smile that said she knew how uncomfortable she was making him feel. She turned back to the bartender who had started to mix her drink and said "Make mine dirty and drop in a couple of olives." She turned back to Mark, leaned in close and whispered "I usually take them dry, but I'm feeling a little naughty tonight." Up close, Mark could smell a heady aroma of herbs. He thought he detected garlic, cloves, fennel and ginseng. Underneath that though was a stronger odor that it was masking, a smell like you would get from coals after a charcoal fire had burned down. Also up close, he could tell that she was hot, like she had a fever or had just stepped out of the sauna after a marathon session. The very air around her felt charged with electricity. He felt his hair start to stand up and bend towards her. A friend in high school had a plasma globe in his room. They used to turn it on, smoke pot and watch the colored lights dance around the ball. When he touched it, he would feel a tingle in his hand and his hair would stand up. The product of electrical discharge through the gas that filled the globe. Being next to Ereshkigal felt the same as touching that globe. Then she laughed and pulled away, breaking the spell. The bartender put a drink in front of her and she pulled it to her lips to take a heady gulp.
"Delicious", she said and touched the bartender on the hand, "I couldn't have made a better martini myself." The bartender had been staring at her lasciviously, gaze planted firmly on her chest, but he started when she touched him, like he had been shocked or touched unexpectedly when napping.
"Uh, thanks", he replied, staring at her like he was unsure what he was doing in the bar in the first place, "no problem, glad you like it", he shook his head slowly, turned and moved towards the far end of the bar, his first few steps unsteady, like a newborn deer. She watched him walk away before letting out a small chortle and turning back to Mark. She fixed him in place with her eyes and took a smaller sip of her drink. She sat staring at him, unspeaking, an expectant look on her face.
"Ereshkigal?" Mark asked after he could not handle the charged silence or her penetrating gaze any longer, "That's a unique name, I don't think I've ever heard it before."
"It's an old middle eastern name. It means ‘Queen of the Great Earth.’ It's not common, but then again, neither am I." She smiled at him again, the muted light of the bar making her eyes seem to dance as if on fire.
"Um, are you here for the convention?" Mark asked, reaching down to grab his own drink and taking a much needed swallow. He knew he was not an unattractive man and had never experienced problems talking to women before, but he had also never had an encounter quite like this one. Ereshkigal was definitely the most attractive and sexy woman that he had ever met. That and her aggressive style was putting Mark on the defensive.
"Convention?" she asked, "What convention are you talking about?"
"The Yoga Conference and Show" Mark replied, "at the Metro Convention Center down the street. I run a chain of Yoga studios in Vancouver and we have a booth set up in the hall."
"Yoga hmmm" Ereshkigal replied and took a long look at Mark starting with his feet all the way up to his head. It added to his discomfort and he idly wondered if this was how women felt when they walked by a construction site. Lots of men fantasized about an aggressive, sexualized woman, Mark himself one of those, but now that he was facing just such a woman he realized that the fantasy may be a little more than he could handle. "I like a limber man. So many possibilities." She reached for her glass, drained what was left and then fixed her eyes onto his. "You'll do.” she said in a matter of fact tone, “Why don't you take me back to your hotel."
Mark felt a bead of sweat start at the base of his neck and drip down to his collar. This was crazy, unbelievable. Things like this only happened in letters written for magazines that were stored at the bottom of closets or underneath mattresses. 15 minutes ago he had been sipping a drink after a long day and wondering if he should order food. Now he was in a situation without precedence, an opportunity that any man would be crazy to turn down and completely unsure what to do about it.
Ereshkigal laughed, that deep, husky laugh again, like she knew exactly what he was thinking, exactly how she was making him feel, and enjoying every second he squirmed. "You're not afraid of little old me, are you?" she said, delight dancing in her eyes. "Such a big strong man like you? Besides" she added, standing up from her stool and looking around the room before returning her gaze to his, "are you going to get another offer this tempting?"
Mark again became aware of the smell of her, the heady aroma of herbs. Ginseng and ginger filled his nostrils. The physical heat she was putting off in waves was palpable and Mark felt more sweat forming on his back. This woman could turn any bathtub into a Jacuzzi just by getting into the water. She was obviously crazy, beautiful, but crazy. Or it was a con and he would wake up in the morning handcuffed naked to the bed, his wallet gone. No one acted like this, it just never happened. "I...uh...look", he began starting to get up from his stool, he met her gaze again and then promptly forgot everything he was going to say. An image of what this woman would look like naked came bursting into his mind. She was physical perfection. All curves, taunt and fit but zoftig at the same time. Mark may never meet a woman like this for the rest of his life, much less have the opportunity that she was offering. She was playing in a league all of her own and he would regret not taking this chance for the rest of his life. She was right, as fit as she was, she was just a woman. Mark spent his life working out and easily had 60 pounds on her. If she had an accomplice waiting, someone who would follow them to his hotel, ready to burst in and rob him, then they were going to be disappointed. He was not staying at some seedy No Tell Motel. The Hilton had security and tons of cameras, no one was slipping in at night unseen and unchallenged. If that was her game, she would back out once she entered the lobby, no harm, no foul to him. He reached an impulsive decision, locked onto it and dove in headfirst. He reached for his wallet.
"Let me pay the tab and grab a cab." He smiled at her and she smiled back. Mark had another moment of doubt when she smiled, she looked like a cat that had cornered a mouse, predatory and in control. Her teeth were incredibly white, jarringly so against her dark skin, her canine teeth more pointed and pronounced than he had realized before, adding to her predatory demeanor. In an instant however, the look was gone, replaced by one of lust and playfulness. Mark again smelled that heady mixture of herbs, ginseng and ginger at the very forefront. He stood, laid his money on the bar, placed an arm around her waist and started for the door.
By the time they arrived at the hotel, he was convinced that she was indeed running a con and would concoct an excuse to leave when she saw that the hotel was upscale, cameras in the lobby, employees alert and engaging everyone who entered. She made no such excuse however, met the gaze of everyone who entered her field of vision and made no attempt to conceal her presence. Not that she could anyway. She was definitely the center of attention in any room she entered. Nobody was apt to forget the tall beautiful woman in a skin tight red dress. She said nothing as they made their way through the lobby, up the elevator to the third floor and down the hall to his room. Mark used his key card to unlock the door and held it open for her. She entered the room without hesitation and slowly made her way past the bathroom and into the living area. Mark had only seen her walk towards him, he had also walked beside her, but this was his first opportunity to watch her move from behind and he was not disappointed. She walked slowly, knowing that she was giving him this glimpse for the first time, hips swaying back and forth seductively, the slit in her dress flashing her long tanned legs. She kicked off her shoes as she entered the living area and looked back at him over her shoulder, a knowing smile on her face. "Much better," she said "my feet are eternally grateful." Mark still stood in the doorway, transfixed until she beckoned him in with her finger. "Why don't you come in and help me with my zipper." She brushed her long dark hair over her shoulder, revealing the back of her dress and Mark entered the room quickly. He walked towards her and pulled the zipper down, parting the garment and revealing a long slice of perfect silky skin. She walked three steps forward and pulled her dress down over her shoulders, let it fall to her midriff and then pulled it down again past her well-rounded hips. The garment fell to the floor and Mark saw that it was the only item of clothing that she had worn. She took another four slow steps further into the room before turning around to face him.
"You like?" she asked, a small coy smile played across her face. Her tongue darted out and licked her top lip. Mark could see that it was very long, narrow and ended in a point. Another small imperfection, but immediately put aside in his mind. He had imagined how this woman would look like naked, tried to picture it in his mind, but even his most unrestrained imaginings paled in comparison to the image that now stood before him. She was the dream woman that you would not, could not even dream was real. She was perfection. His lust, which had been simmering since she had first sat down next to him, now boiled over into a frenzy. How could he have ever thought to turn this woman down? How could anyone? He felt heat rush into his body and he started moving towards her, that heady smell of herbs growing stronger with each step. Gone was any doubt, his fears were forgotten and any misgivings were thrust from him and swept away in the tornado of his desire. Just as he reached her, was reaching out for her, to touch her, the phone on the bedside table rang. It was unexpected and broke the spell of his lust. He saw her turn towards the phone and look at it with pure hatred.
"She knows who's calling" he thought, "She knows and it's for her." He walked over to the bedside table and picked up the receiver, "Hello" he said into the mouthpiece, "can I help you?"
"Ereshkigal" was the reply, not a question, simply a statement. The connection was hollow and full of static, like the caller was on a cell phone in a parking garage. The voice itself was all wrong. It hurt to listen to, even though he only spoke the one word, Mark cringed when it was uttered. It sounded like the caller was speaking while chewing glass.
"Who is this and how did you know she was here?" he answered angrily, thoughts again of this being a con flashed in his mind, lust started to be replaced by fear and his mind raced as he wondered what type of trouble he was in and how he could extricate himself from this predicament. Then he felt her hand on his shoulder as she reached over with the other to pull the phone away from him. She pulled the receiver from him easily, his hand went numb, the fear and anger poured out of him and he suddenly felt weak. He backed away from her as she tossed her hair to the side and put the phone up to her pointed ear.
"This had better be important" she said in a tone filled with malice. Gone was the sexy, seductive voice. It was replaced by one so menacing that it sent a chill down Mark's spine. "I've only been gone for a few hours, how could someone even as worthless and stupid as you have fucked things up so badly, so quickly, that you needed to call me now?" Mark had backed up until his legs had bumped into the chair at the far end of the room and he sat down on it heavily. Ereshkigal listened on the phone as the person with the mouth full of glass apparently spoke. He watched her as she listened, her body tensing in anger, the sexy and seductive siren that had been standing there turning into seething pile of rage. He felt the heat coming off her body in waves and they were growing hotter by the second. Gone was the aroma of herbs, that burnt charcoal smell now dominated. Mark looked down at her feet and could swear that the carpet had started to smolder. He looked back up at her face and watched the point of her ear grow longer, almost bat-like. The maroon tint of her skin changed, becoming more crimson. He watched in growing horror as the hair on the top of her head bulged out and he thought he saw a bony tip start to protrude. It almost looked like she was growing horns. "You are as much of a disappointment to me today as you were when you first arrived Gallu. Is one night away every century or two too much to ask for? Your penance for this intrusion will be monstrous. Do nothing. I will return shortly." She turned her back on Mark to hang up the phone and took several deep breaths. The heat radiating from her subsided, her color deepened back to it's original, muted hue and when she turned to face Mark again, the bumps on her forehead were gone, her ears less pointed and he wondered if he had imagined it all. She smiled and stepped towards her dress. He saw that the carpet was blackened where she had stood, blackened perfectly into the shape of 2 feet and knew that it had not been a delusion.
She stepped into her dress and pulled it up. "Zip me up?" she asked, smiling at him as he sat on the chair. Gone was the monster of a few moments ago, replaced once again by the seductive beauty that had approached him at the bar. He could not trust himself to answer and merely shook his head side to side. The monster may be gone, but Mark had seen behind the curtain. He had caught a glimpse of the real entity and knew that the person facing him now was only a mirage, a spell cast to allow her to walk and move among regular people. He knew that what he shared the room with was unnatural, inhuman and he dared not approach.
"No?" she said, "No matter, I think I can manage." She smiled and reached back with her arm, it stretched out and moved in an unnatural way. It continued to stretch over her shoulder all the way down to her lower back until she grabbed the bottom of the zipper and pulled it up. The physicality of the movement impossible but she accomplished it without showing the least exertion, the smile never leaving her face. "How many yoga classes till someone can do something like that?" she asked and laughed again. "Sorry to cut our night short" she continued, "but duty calls. So hard to find good help nowadays, especially when you don't get the cream of the crop. He”, she looked up and made a face, “gets all the thinkers, the planners and the poets and leaves me with all the brutes and the animals. No first bite at the apple for me so to speak". She looked at Mark with wide eyes, smiling and waiting. When Mark did not answer she pulled another face, this one of exasperation. "Oh, come on ... first bite at the apple ... that's funny, don't you think?"
Mark could only stare at her. He was paralyzed with fear, his whole body cold and numb. He swallowed and managed to spit out "Apple?"
"Oh for Christ's sake" she said, "get it together and stop being such a pussy Mark. Be thankful that you’re not one of those I left in charge before I left. Those fuckers are the ones in trouble." She took a few steps towards him and pointed a finger at his chest. "And mind our conversation in the cab, or you will get to see everything I am and can be for all eternity."
"You’re not going to kill me?" he asked.
She threw back her head and laughed. "Oh my, someone is feeling dramatic. Why would I kill you."
"I have seen you. I know who you are. I could tell the world about you" he said.
"That you could … that you could" she replied, "but, then again, who would believe you? Locked up in a cell, doped up and drooling over a kid’s jigsaw puzzle is where you would probably end up. You're a smart man Mark. Would you believe a story like yours? You have a nice life, you're attractive, successful, why jeopardize that life to tell a story that people are just not willing to hear? I think not. Go back to Vancouver, go back to your life, live it like any day could be your last. But not too well. You have seen a little of what follows, and in my case, the grass is definitely greener on the other side of the fence, or gate as it were." She then turned and walked to the center of the room. An energy began to fill the space, Mark felt it tingling along his skin, a low humming sound began to emerge from nowhere and everywhere. Ereshkigal turned and looked at Mark, "Chow, it's been fun" she said and smiled again, "be seeing you ... maybe". The energy reached a crescendo, the hairs on Mark's skin rose, he felt an ache in his fillings and the low humming rose in volume until it filled the room. Ereshkigal winked at him and then, the next moment, she was gone. He heard a popping sound and the air in the room was suddenly filled with the smell of sulfur. A fine haze of ash appeared as if from nowhere and drifted about the room. The energy was gone as well as the hum, disappeared with Ereshkigal.
Mark sat dumbfounded and silent, watching the ash settle over his room for several minutes, too weak and tired to move.
"First bite of the apple" he mumbled finally to the empty room, "oh, I get it."