DARK THIRST Excerpt:
Somebody's here. There was an empty glass sitting in the dish drain that had, as of last week, been empty. Three empty beer bottles were turned upside down to drain in the plastic rack, and a plate had been propped against them to air dry.
Lina’s left hand moved for her iPod while her right moved toward the small of her back, reaching beneath her sweatshirt hem for the butt of her pistol. She turned off the music, cutting Mary J. off in mid-croon. She pulled the gun out, settling her index finger lightly, reflexively against the trigger as she thumbed off the safety, and reached with her other hand to pull the headphones out of her ears. With the plugs gone, the music off, she heard what she had been oblivious to since walking in the door―the sound of water running from the bathroom, the shower in use.
Lina frowned, walking slowly, cautiously out of the kitchen and down the corridor toward the bedroom. No one was supposed to be there. Jackson would have told her if he’d given anyone permission to use the apartment. He didn’t have a girlfriend at the moment, or many close friends for that matter―certainly no one he would have awarded a key to the apartment, or to whom he would have revealed the location of his hidden key.
Somebody was trespassing; somebody who clearly knew Jackson was out of town, and thought their presence would go unnoticed.
Think again, asshole.
She stepped carefully into the bedroom, holding the gun between her hands, the muzzle aimed before her as she cut her eyes about, surveying. The bedclothes were turned back on Jackson’s queen-sized mattress; someone had been sleeping there. A peculiar little notebook rested on the bedside table; no bigger than an index card, it was housed in a decoratively engraved brass casing, with a long chain affixed, as if someone wore it about their neck. She saw an oversized duffel bag on the floor, with a tangle of clothes, a pair of jeans, a discarded t-shirt, a beige barn jacket crumpled beside it.
She saw no evidence of anyone having gone through Jackson’s drawers or closets, but that didn’t mean they hadn’t, and had simply cleaned up after themselves. Her frown deepened as she crept toward the bathroom, and she paused, her breath drawing abruptly still as the shower suddenly cut off.
She heard the soft dripping of water and the creak of the shower door hinges as it swung open. She heard movement, the rustling of a towel. The door was half-way ajar, and she saw steam curling out in a warm, moist cloud. She sidestepped toward the door and used her shoulder to ease it open further, awarding her an unobstructed view of the bathroom beyond, and its occupant
Its naked occupant. Its naked male occupant.
He stood with his back to her, rubbing a towel against his dark hair. He was white, tall, lean, and built magnificently. Lina stood, momentarily dumbfounded, blinking in stupefied admiration at the well-etched musculature of his back and shoulders, his sculpted buttocks and legs. The sight of him sent a shiver through her, along with the startling realization that it had been three months since Jude had left her; three months since she had been with a man, or even caught a glimpse of one in such a state of undress.
She shook her head, forcing herself out of her reverie. What the hell is wrong with me? She cleared her throat, narrowing her brows and putting on her most stern, businesslike façade. “Police officer,” she said. “Put your hands up and come out of there.”
He didn’t turn, startled by her voice, as she might have expected. He didn’t comply with her command, either. He didn’t do anything, in fact, except keep toweling his hair dry, as if she hadn’t even spoken at all.
“Hey, buddy,” Lina said, her frown deepening. God, does he not speak English? Is he drunk or on meth or something? That’s all I need. She considered ducking out and calling for back-up, but decided against it. In addition to being a cop, and armed, she was also a second-degree black-belt in aikido. Jackson had taught her, being a fourth-degree black-belt himself.
“I’m a cop, buddy,” Lina said, more loudly this time, as the guy still didn’t as much as flinch. “Soy policia, hombre. I’ve got a pistol in my hands and I’m telling you to put your hands up. Turn around to face me―nice and slow. Do it now.”
He bent over, rubbing his calves with the towel. Why in the hell did he have to go and do that? Lina thought, because it awarded her an admittedly pleasant view. She shook her head again and reached forward, tapping him with her fingertip.
“I’m talking to you, asshole,” she said, poking him in the back. “I said put your hands―”
He whirled, startling her, moving so quickly, she had no time to react. She felt the blade of his left hand strike the side of her pistol, battering it from her grip and knocking it toward the bathroom sink. His right hand darted forward, with the heel of his palm presented in an aikido-style punch, and Lina parried the blow instinctively, swinging her own arm up to block. The force of his punch sent her staggering backwards, and she crashed down onto her ass.
Again, she moved out of instinct, punting out her right leg and smashing the heel of her Reebok squarely into his knee. He uttered a soundless grunt of air and stumbled sideways, catching himself against the sink vanity.
Lina scrambled to her feet a split second before he came at her again, swinging at her with a volley of swift, sudden, powerful punches. Whoever he was, he was trained in martial arts, and he was goddamn good at it, too. She had never seen anyone move so fast before in her life, not even Jackson.
She swung her arms again and again in a blind panic, ducking and weaving, trying desperately to prevent him from landing one of those powerful, brutal blows to her face. She tried frantically to fend him off, sending her own punches flying whenever she could, striking at his eyes, his throat, the vulnerable plate of his breastbone. She kicked at him, driving her feet around again and again in sweeping roundhouse kicks, but he danced around them, blocking them with his hands, using his legs and feet to counter her best attempts.
He forced her toward the bed, and she floundered when the backs of her knees met the mattress. She sat back, using her momentary loss of balance to her advantage. She swung her legs up, punting him with both feet squarely in the midriff, pummeling the wind from him. He doubled over, gasping sharply, and then tripped over the tangle of clothes piled on the floor. He fell forward and against her, knocking her back onto the bed. Lina struggled but he recovered enough from her kick to grasp her firmly by the wrists, pinning her arms helplessly against the mattress.
She thrashed beneath him, bucking her hips, struggling to draw her knee between them to drive into his groin. “I’m a police officer!” she screamed. “Get off of me, you son of a bitch! Get off of me!”
She locked her legs around his midriff and heaved mightily, managing to throw him sideways. They rolled together on the bed, and she wound up on top of him, straddling his hips. “You’re under arrest!” she shouted, her voice hoarse and winded, her baseball hat long-since tumbled from her head, her dark curls splayed in a disarray about her face. She clasped her hands against his wrists and leaned over him, putting her full weight against him, struggling to hold him down. “I said you’re under arrest, goddamn it!”
He fell still beneath her, blinking up into her face, and for the first time, she saw him―dark eyes, dark hair, strikingly handsome, no more than his early twenties at the most. There was a faint but distinctive scar running beneath the shelf of his chin, a thin, pale line cutting nearly from ear to ear. She loosened her grasp around his wrists and her mouth dropped in stunned surprise.
“Brandon?” she gasped.
He nodded once, looking rather sheepish all of a sudden, and moved his hand, his fingers sweeping in erratic patterns in the narrow margin of open air between them. Sign language.
Hi, Angelina, he finger-spelled.
DARK HUNGER Excerpt
“Hey, you got a light?”
Rene looked up to find a young man in his early twenties standing between him and the restroom building. The kid had long, dirty-blond hair caught back beneath a red bandana tied over the cap of his skull. He wore an old AC/DC T-shirt, grease-spotted, ratty blue jeans and a pair of faded black Chuck Taylor sneakers.
Rene had been a police officer long enough to recognize the nervous, darting light in the kid’s eyes. Strung out on something, he thought, wishing all of a sudden that he hadn’t left his Sig Sauer in the glove compartment of the car. “Sorry, pal. I don’t smoke.”
The kid nodded, cutting his eyes to the snack machines. Rene decided to hedge his bets and get the fuck away from him. Just as he turned, presenting his back to the younger man, he heard the distinctive snict! of a gun hammer being drawn back.
“I guess I’ll just take your wallet then, pal,” said the kid, with pointed, sarcastic emphasis. “And your car keys, too. Hand them over.”
Rene pivoted, stepping in a slow semi-circle toward the kid and found himself facing the business end of what appeared to be a 45-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver.
“Your wallet,” the kid said again, giving the gun a little demonstrative waggle in emphasis. “And your car keys, too. Come on.”
Rene could see beads of perspiration beading along his brow line below the edge of his bandana. He could smell the kid, a mix of sweat and adrenaline, and could sense the mounting, anxious rhythm of his heartbeat.
Christ, he’s wired. What’s he on?
“Take it easy,” Rene said, keeping his gaze steady on the kid as he reached slowly for his pocket. Unbeknownst to the young man, he opened his mind.
Tessa, where are you?
“You sure you want to do this?” he asked aloud, because he had no fucking intention of handing over his car keys if she was still sitting in the front seat. The gun would be a problem he’d then have to deal with somehow, but he figured he’d cross that bridge if and when he came to it.
The kid glanced beyond Rene’s shoulder at the sleek Audi sports car, then back to Rene, his brow arched slightly. “Oh, yeah. I’m sure.”
Tessa? Rene thought again.
I’m using the bathroom! she snapped back, sounding irritable. Jesus, I’ll be right out!
No, that’s okay. Rene slipped his hand into the hip pocket of his jeans and hooked the ring to his car keys with his fingertip. Just stay there for a few minutes. Take your time.
Don’t tell me what to do, she groused in his mind. I’m sick and tired of you doing that—bossing me around.
Goddamn it, I’m not bossing you around, he thought, bristling as he held up his hand, the key ring around his middle finger. The key dangled against his palm for the kid to see. I’m just asking you to stay put for a bit.
“And your wallet,” the kid said, jabbing again with the gun. “Give me your wallet, too.”
Don’t you curse at me, Tessa said. I’m tired of you doing that, too, goddamn it. Asking means you phrase something as a question. It means you say ‘would you mind to do this, please, Tessa?’ Not just ‘do this’ or ‘do that.’ That’s telling, Rene. You were telling me what to do. Again.
The kid’s eyes cut about uncertainly, wide-eyed with startled fright as a semi roared by on the interstate. “Hurry the fuck up, man. Give me your goddamn wallet.”
“Take it easy,” Rene said again, moving his free hand for his back pocket. “I’m getting it for you.”
He didn’t give a shit about the car or his wallet. What mattered was Tessa; getting the kid, his pistol and his hyped-up, itchy trigger finger the hell out of there before she came out of the ladies’ room, even though she was picking the absolute worst time to pull one of her Miss High-and-Fucking-Mighty routines on him, and if she had been standing in front of him, he might have been momentarily tempted to shoot her himself. He pulled out his wallet and held it up with the key. “Take them. They’re yours.”
“Damn right,” the kid said, stepping forward and reaching for the wallet. Right about that time, the door to the restroom swung open wide and Tessa marched out, her brows narrowed, her face twisted in a scowl.
And furthermore, you asshole… her voice began in his mind. She skittered to an uncertain halt when she saw Rene, then shrank back, her eyes flying wide when the kid whirled to her in surprise, pointing the muzzle of the pistol directly at her face.
“Don’t move!” he screamed, and she dropped a bottle of Diet Coke she’d been carrying. She’d opened it in the bathroom, and it spilled in a sudden, frothy puddle around her feet.
“Rene…!” she hiccupped, looking to him in bright, desperate fright.
“You don’t move, either!” the kid screamed, whipping the gun back to momentarily aim at Rene. “Both of you just stand the fuck still!”
“Take it easy, kid,” Rene said, keeping his voice calm and quiet, locking eyes with the boy. “We don’t want any trouble. There’s more than five thousand dollars in my wallet. It’s yours. Take it—the car, too.”
The kid cut a glance at Tessa, letting his eyes crawl along her body, his gaze lingering at her bosom. Rene didn’t need to read his mind to know what he was thinking. “Maybe I just found something else I want, too,” he said, the tip of his tongue darting out to swipe across his lips. He shoved the gun toward Tessa and she flinched, hunching her shoulders and crying out softly. “Move, bitch. You’re coming with me.”
Rene saw the world suddenly become cast in brilliant, nearly blinding glare as his pupils opened fully, filling his corneas. He felt the sudden rush of blood to his gums and his canine teeth extended, the bloodlust coming over in him almost instantaneously. “No,” he said, reaching out, clapping his right hand against the kid’s arm. “She’s not.”
The kid swung the pistol back around. Rene clapped his left hand over the front of the muzzle, meaning to shove it aside, but when the younger man saw his face, his eyes and teeth, he uttered a breathless shriek: “What the fuck—!” and pulled the trigger.
The sound of the gunshot was like thunder trapped in the narrow confines between the snack machines and the bathrooms. Tessa’s scream overlapped the booming report, and pain ripped through Rene’s hand, spearing up his arm and slamming into him like a head-on collision with a locomotive.
He doubled over, gasping on the smoke, blinking at the shocking agony. When he looked up, his eyes smarting with tears, he saw the kid dancing clumsily back, the gun dangling limply in his hand, his mouth agape.
“Oh…!” he whimpered. “Oh…oh, shit…!”
“Why…why did you…have to go and do that?” Rene seethed from between clenched teeth as he staggered upright. He cradled his wounded hand against his belly and felt blood coursing down his arm, spattering heavily on the sidewalk between his feet. “You…you stupid son of a bitch…now I’m going to have to kill you.”
DARK PASSION Excerpt
Brandon turned and was surprised anew to see his youngest brother Daniel tucked against Augustus’s leg, his small fingers laced through his grandfather’s. At the sight of Brandon’s face, the boy’s eyes flew wide and his mouth dropped agape. Breaking away from Augustus, he darted across the room, arms outstretched.
Brandon uttered a soundless, reflexive laugh and leaned down to greet him, catching the boy in his arms and hoisting him aloft, hugging him fiercely against his chest. It hurt like all fuck, especially in the still-tender place where Rene had shot him, but Brandon didn’t care. He clutched Daniel to him, closing his eyes and kissing his ear through the boy’s tangled dark hair.
Brandon! Daniel cried, his breath hot as he gasped against Brandon’s neck, his arms wrapped so tightly about him, he nearly throttled his brother. You’re here! You’re alright!
I’m here, Daniel. Brandon kissed him again, then rubbed the tip of his nose against Daniel’s, smiling despite the sudden sting of tears in his eyes. I’m alright. Everything’s alright now, I promise.
No, it’s not, Daniel whispered, the joy in his face abruptly faltering. Behind him, Augustus crossed the threshold and closed the door behind him. Brandon shot him a dark, suspicious glare and held Daniel against him more protectively.
It’s not alright, Brandon, Daniel whimpered, and suddenly his large, dark eyes glossed over with tears. His bottom lip trembled and when he spoke aloud, the tremor carried through in his words. “D-daddy’s gone, Brandon.”
Brandon blinked, bewildered. What? Another glower at Augustus. What the fuck had he been telling Daniel? What do you mean, gone? He shook his head, managed a clumsy smile. He’s just gone to the barns, like he does every day…at his office, I’m sure.
But Daniel shook his head, and now the trembling made its way through his entire little body; he quaked against Brandon as if caught in a draft. His tears spilled, and when he talked, Brandon struggled to make sense of the words. “He’s gone,” the boy hiccupped. “The…the Grandfather told me…he…he said he was gone, Brandon…that he’s never coming back!”
And then the next part, Brandon was sure he misunderstood; the boy’s tears had distorted his words, making lip-reading him accurately all but impossible.
“He’s dead!” Daniel exclaimed as he burst into sobs. “Daddy’s dead, Brandon! He’s dead!”
There was no way that was true, no way that could be right, and Brandon drew his brother against him more tightly than ever. No, he’s not, Daniel, he said inside the boy’s mind. Oh, God, who told you that? Who put that idea in your head?
But he knew. He knew damn good and well, and when he set Daniel back down on the floor, he squared off against Augustus, his fists bared, his brows furrowed in murderous outrage.
You son of a bitch, he seethed. Augustus didn’t react to this; his face remained granite-smooth and sternly impassive as Brandon marched toward him, his entire body rigid with fury now.
You lying, goddamn son of a bitch, Brandon said, then whipped his fist around in a sharp, hooking arc, slamming the bridge of his knuckles into the side of Augustus’s face. Augustus’s cheek whipped toward his opposing shoulder with the force of the blow, and he staggered sideways, catching himself against the doorframe and sparing himself a graceless fall.
You do what you want to me, but you leave Daniel alone! Brandon cried. Do you hear me, you son of a bitch? No more feeding him your lies, your goddamn manipulations and games!
He drew his fist back again and let it fly, feeling pain shoot from his hand clear to his shoulder at the brutal impact. This time, he drew blood as he connected with the corner of Augustus’s mouth, and Augustus fell sideways, crashing to the floor.
I’m right here, you son of a bitch—leave Daniel alone! Brandon shouted, standing over him, fists still clenched. Do you hear me? Do you—
Augustus looked up, his brows furrowed, his eyes smooth and black, his fangs extended. He shoved his hand forward, fingers splayed. It wasn’t a blow, not in the physical sense anyway, but all at once, as if plowed into by a runaway freight train, Brandon flew off his feet and backwards across the room. He slammed into the far wall, crunching the plaster beneath him, then crumpled face-first to the ground, landing in a shuddering, breathless heap.
Holy shit, he thought, gasping, his ears ringing from where he’d smacked his head against the wall. He’d bitten his tongue hard upon the impact and watched with dazed fascination as he spat blood onto the floorboards beneath him. What…what the fuck just happened…?
Do you feel better now, boy? Augustus asked, and Brandon looked blearily across the room, watching his grandfather limp slowly to his feet. His mouth was still bleeding; he brushed his fingertips against the battered corner. His fangs had receded, but his eyes remained blackened, his brows crimped furiously. Do you feel like you’ve accomplished something? Proven you have balls somewhere between your thighs—at least to yourself?
When the bloodlust came over him, Brandon watched the world flood with sudden, bright glare; his pupils expanded, swallowing his eyes in darkness, and his gums throbbed as his canine teeth began to lower. Fuck you, he seethed, letting bloody phlegm fly at Augustus. You think two right hooks, a goddamn busted lip is going to make up for all of the years you terrorized me?
Terrorized, Augustus repeated, his brow arching sharply as he offered a dismissive snort. I did nothing to you, boy, but expect you to honor your birthright—and your clan.
Nothing to me? Brandon cried, limping to his feet. You did nothing to me? You broke my goddamn hands!
Because you disobeyed me! Augustus shouted back. You went behind my back—against my goddamn word—when you applied to that college! What would you have me do? Every time I turn around, you defy me—abandoning your bloodletting, making your sister—little more than a child—take your place in the hunt, mingling with humans, fleeing the farm! You’ve been a constant source of aggravation and infuriation for me, boy—a thorn in my side nearly from the moment of your misbegotten birth!
There’s the truth of it, isn’t it? Brandon yelled, closing his hands into fists again. Say it, why don’t you, you son of a bitch! All of my life, you’ve hated me—humiliated me, hurt me! You wish I’d died the night my throat was cut!
Brandon, no—! Daniel cried out in his mind, but Brandon charged forward anyway.
He swung his fist, meaning to hit Augustus again, to hit him over and over until he broke his hands for the third time in as many years, more than willing to shatter the bones irrevocably this time if it meant wiping that goddamn smug, stoic look off his grandfather’s face. He sent his knuckles careening expertly for Augustus’s temple and gasped in stunned surprise, his eyes flying wide, as all at once, his fist stopped in mid-air, captured in mid-swing by something that felt like an invisible hand.
There was nothing there that he could see, but he could feel the air compressing around his wrist, the way water will exert tangible pressure the deeper you sink into a swimming pool.
What the fuck…? He tried to pull his hand back, loose of this unseen grasp, but it held him fast.
Stupid boy, Augustus said with a frown. You should have died on the night your throat was cut. Hated you, hurt you, humiliated you—I made you, boy.
DARK PASSAGES: TRISTAN & KAREN Excerpt:
The next morning, Karen woke to the sweet strains of piano music. Her eyes opened a bleary half-mast, and she blinked sleepily across the breadth of a king-sized bed draped in white sheets and a pale, pillowy down comforter.
Tristan’s bed, she thought with a soft smile, even though there was no sign of Tristan. The music continued from downstairs, unabated and intricate, giving her a pretty good idea of where she’d find him.
It was real, then. The thought made her smile shyly, her hand darting to her mouth. It really happened. Tristan made love to me.
Her smile still tugged at the corners of her mouth as she slipped out of bed. She was naked except for the skirt she’d worn the day before. This was tangled around her waist, the hem hiked so high, it hugged her more like a belt or bandeau, and she tried to tug it back down toward her knees. Her high-heeled shoes lay in a pile by the closet door, and as she slipped them back on, she spied a rumpled T-shirt on top of his nearby dresser. She slipped it over her head, then glanced at herself in a nearby mirror—wrinkled clothes, sleep-tousled hair—and winced.
God, I look rough, she thought, trying to smooth her hair down, tucking it behind her ears. But it was worth it. Every last glorious minute.
As Karen crept down the stairs, she could look out across the open interior of the first floor below. Tristan’s house was framed by towering windows on all sides, awarding a nearly panoramic view of the surrounding vista overlooking Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay. Some of these opened onto a large adjoining patio and had been left deliberately ajar to allow the crisp, cool morning air to filter inside.
She saw Tristan seated at a grand piano, dressed only in a pair of sweatpants, his chest and arms bare. Although he faced the keyboard, his hands rested at his sides, his fingers hooked over the edge of the bench beneath him as if he braced himself against an impact or a blow. His head was tilted slightly backward, his eyes closed, a soft cleft between his brows suggesting deep concentration. In front of him, she could see the keys moving up and down, flying in rapid-fire procession, as if invisible hands drilled against them.
Which, in a manner of speaking, was exactly what was happening.
Because he fed from other Brethren, Tristan was endowed with telekinesis. Blessed with a natural ear for music, he could use this unnatural and, in Karen’s opinion, extraordinary ability to hear any piece of music, then play it for himself, all without laying a finger on a piano. He could play by hand, of course, having been taught in his youth by his now deceased mother. However, he did so rarely, preferring instead to play by benefit of his mind. The Brethren way, as he called it.
The music abruptly faltered, and he lowered his head, opening his eyes as he glanced over his shoulder at her. She hadn’t made a sound, had been trying her best, in fact, to be as quiet as possible lest she disturb him, but she may as well have not bothered. The Brethren were also telepaths.
He probably sensed me the minute I woke up.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to…”
He shook his head, cutting her off. “It’s all right.”
“The music was beautiful,” she said. “What was it?”
“Ravel. Gaspard de la nuit.” He leaned back, resting his elbows against the piano keys with a disharmonic sound. “Listen, I’m glad you’re up.”
“Why?” she asked, a mischievous smile tugging the corners of her lips. She considered going over to him, straddling him on the piano bench, hiking her skirt back up to her hips to allow him easy access.
“I’ve got some things to do before I have to check in at the clinic today,” he said, stopping her cold in her tracks. “I need to take off in a few minutes.”
“What?” Karen blinked at him, bewildered. She didn’t know what she’d been expecting—if not an encore performance of the previous evening’s main event, then at least maybe a cup of coffee and a smile—but this sure wasn’t it.
“I can give you a ride back up the hill to your place, if you want,” he offered.
What is he talking about? He can’t be serious. She stared at him, wounded. Not after last night.
Although the Morins didn’t feed from humans, they did intermarry with them, have sexual relations, even children with them. Not Tristan, however. While many of his siblings, cousins, and kin were the results of these human-Brethren matings, Tristan had been born to a Brethren mother, sired by a Brethren father. He was the last full-blooded Brethren to be born among the Morins. Because of that distinction, he wanted to breed with a Brethren woman to continue his bloodline.
Not a human, she thought, her eyes stinging with tears, because that was part of the reason she’d been so excited by the urgency she’d seen in his eyes as they’d left the gravesite. I thought he wanted me.
Less than a week earlier, he’d damn near married a young Brethren woman named Tessa Noble, not because he’d loved her—he’d hardly even known her—but because it would have meant, in his estimation at least, a suitable breeding partner.
Although she’d never admit it aloud, she’d been deeply hurt when she learned of the aborted elopement—so much so, she’d nearly quit the clinic. She’d typed up her letter of resignation in her fit of wounded outrage. Only her father’s voice inside her mind had stopped her from turning it in, a patient cadence and gentle words she remembered fondly from her youth: “Your mother and I, we didn’t raise any quitters, Kay.”
Although her father was in Manhattan, Kansas—three states and two time zones away—he’d still been able to impart wisdom upon her. In the end, Karen had shoved the letter in the glove compartment and forgotten about it—until now.
“So do you want a ride?” Tristan asked again.
Forcing herself to smile despite bright patches of hot, humiliated color blazing in her cheeks, she said, “That’s okay. I…I can walk.”
He cocked his head. “You sure?”
“Yeah. It’s not far.”
“But…” It was his turn to look uncertain. “It’s cold.”
“I don’t mind.” All at once, Karen wanted to get the hell out of there, because she’d been through this before—the big brush-off—with ex-boyfriends galore. She’d come to expect it from just about every man she felt attracted to anymore.
But not you, Tristan, she thought, pressing her lips together in a strained line. God, I never would have expected it from you. Not in a million years.
“Let me at least get you a coat, then.” When he stood, his expression looked sheepish. He could read her thoughts if he wanted, and though she had no way of knowing whether his mind was open to her, he wasn’t blind or deaf. He saw the tears in her eyes, heard the damnable warble in her voice.
“No, thanks.” She bee-lined for the door, T-shirt, miniskirt, and bare legs be damned. But he could move impossibly fast when he wanted to, another Brethren benefit, and with a sudden blur out of the corner of her eye, he beat her to it, blocking her path.
“Karen.” In that moment, he looked for all the world like a lost little boy, vulnerable, wounded to the core. His mouth opened slightly, as if he meant to speak, but then catching himself and thinking better of it, he pressed his lips together. She’d lost him again.
Not that I’d ever had him, she thought sadly. That much was painfully obvious.
“Here,” he said at length, reaching for a coat rack just beyond the front door. His parka hung here, black and down-filled, and he slipped it from the hook. For a moment, he leaned toward her, close enough for her to feel the warmth radiating from his skin as he drew the coat around her shoulders. “There’s frost outside.”
Didn’t last night mean anything to you, Tristan? she thought helplessly, swatting at a tear as it rolled down her cheek before he might notice. Don’t I?
Abruptly he drew back, not just leaning away, but backpedaling as if he’d smelled something offensive or she’d slapped him in the face. The gesture hurt her more than any words or physical blows ever could have, and with a frown, she shoved the coat off, letting it fall heavily to the floor.
“Keep it. I’ll be fine,” she assured him drily. Hoping he was listening, that he could hear the venom in her thoughts, she added: It’s the frost in here that’s getting to me, anyway.
DARK VENGEANCE PART 2 Excerpt:
“So you’ve got sinkholes in Florida,” Lina remarked to Elías. “And…let’s see. Fire ants, too.”
“You’ve got hurricanes…” She held up her hand, ticking off on her fingers. “Scorpions, alligators…”
“And crocodiles,” he interjected helpfully.
“Barracuda,” she continued, and now she had to hold up her other hand to continue keeping count. “Snakehead fish, jellyfish, sharks and Burmese pythons.”
“You forgot wild boars, panthers and black bear.”
“Tell me again, Elías, why in the hell anyone would want to live here?” Lina asked, making him laugh.
“That’s easy.” He clapped his hand against her shoulder. “No snow.”
Before venturing into the flooded pharmacy, they’d donned rubber boots on loan from some firefighters parked near Elías’s gunmetal-grey Dodge Charger. As they leaned together against the trunk to wrestle their way out of them, Lina’s cellphone began to ring. She carried it in the hip pocket of her slacks and paused, leaving her boots on as she reached for it.
Her mother, Latisha, had left town unexpectedly the day before, having learned that her sister, Livinia, had suffered a heart attack. Livinia lived in Alabama, and had been admitted to the intensive care unit at Providence Hospital in Mobile. Latisha had been beside herself with worry; Livinia was the youngest of the siblings—five sisters and two brothers, with Latisha the oldest—and had always been coddled. To Lina and her brother Jackson, she was “Aunt Baby Sis,” and no one Lina knew called her by her given name unless it had been some kind of formal or legal reference.
Expecting an update from Latisha on Baby Sis’s condition, Lina was surprised instead to see an unfamiliar number on her caller I.D. When she saw the incoming call’s area code—859—she felt reflexive excitement, momentary hope.
Because that’s a Kentucky area code. Brandon’s area code.
But it wasn’t Brandon’s number, because she had him preprogrammed into her iPhone. Besides, he hadn’t contacted her even once; not even a simple “hello” or “I miss you” that might have eased some of her pain or given her even a modicum of hope that he was still thinking about her. Hesitantly, she answered the line. “Hello?”
“Good morning, Angelina.”
Like a soft caress, the voice on the other end of the line sent a sudden shiver through her, the visceral resonance leaving the hairs along the nape of her neck stirring. Ordinarily, she might have found the sensation pleasant, sensuous even, but in that instance—with that caller—she reflexively frowned instead, her entire body tensing as if she’d just discovered a live eel squirming across the top of her bare foot.
“What do you want?” To hell with niceties. She had nothing nice to say to the man. In fact, since she pretty much considered him to be the singlehanded reason she and his grandson, Brandon—with whom she was still deeply, heartbreakingly in love—had broken up, she didn’t want to say anything to Augustus Noble at all. Except maybe fuck you.
“Do you really think this is what’s best for Brandon? That you’re what’s best?” Augustus had asked her before she and Brandon had left California for their ill-fated visit to Florida. His words still echoed almost constantly in her mind, tearing at her heart, as if with the same viciously hooked fangs that Augustus and the Brethren—including Brandon—used to feed from their prey.
“He needs to be with his own kind.”
“I’ve been unable to get a hold of Brandon for several days now,” Augustus told her, his tone mild, as if her cold reception had been fully anticipated, and did not bother him in the slightest. “My texts have gone unanswered.”
Maybe he finally wised up and realized you’re full of shit, Lina thought with a smirk. Maybe he finally sees this so-called kinder, gentler version of yourself you’ve been pawning off on him is nothing but bullshit, a trick to keep him in the fold, just another male heir in your Brethren bloodline head-count.
She wanted to say this out loud, but didn’t, and the momentary silence was enough to prompt August to continue speaking, albeit in a more begrudging tone.
“I was hoping you could assist me in contacting him,” he said.
“Gosh,” Lina said, a faux-friendly gush, the corner of her mouth hooked in what could probably be best described as wicked triumph. “I’d sure love to help you with that, Augustus, but you see, I don’t know where he is either. I broke up with Brandon…” Her tone changed from forced good cheer to sudden, sharp acidity: “As I’m sure you’re aware.”
Another prolonged silence. Then Augustus said, “I am not, no.”
That caught Lina by genuine surprise, so much so that her victorious smile withered. Surely Brandon had told Augustus about their falling out. Lately, it seemed like he’d confided in his grandfather every time he took a shit.
“I’m very sorry to hear that, Angelina,” Augustus said.
She laughed at that, a sudden, bitter bark. “Yeah. I’ll bet.”
“I am.” She could have sworn he sounded nearly wounded by her scoff. “I’m sorry to learn of anything that would cause Brandon pain…or you.”
Lina laughed again. “Spare me. You’re probably dusting off a bottle of Dom Perignon as we speak.”
“I have never felt any ill-will or regard toward you.”
“Except you don’t think I’m good enough for your grandson.”
“I have questioned your compatibility as a species with Brandon,” Augustus corrected. “The matter of your worth has never arisen.”
He sounded so cool, so detached, so goddamn aloof. It infuriated her, left her shaking, her free hand balled into a tightly clamped fist, her brows furrowed. She wanted to reach through the phone and throttle him, grab him by the long sheaf of his ivory-colored hair and ram his head repeatedly, face first, into something concrete.
This is all your fault, she wanted to scream at him. We were happy until you came along and messed with Brandon’s head, his heart—messed with everything! Why in the hell couldn’t you just leave us alone?
“Go fuck yourself, Augustus,” she seethed, disconnecting the call.
DARK PASSAGES: PILAR & ELIAS Excerpt:
Elías hadn’t planned on taking Pilar to his house that night. Hell, he hadn’t planned on doing more than standing on her front porch and talking to her—confronting her, in truth, demanding that she tell him about her brother’s involvement in Miguel Torres’s murder.
Because I know he’s involved in it, he thought. And in gang activity. But here I am, taking her to my house, showing her where I live, for Christ’s sake. Debo estar loco—I must be crazy.
But despite this nagging voice in his mind, he’d brought her anyway. Because I trust her. As strange as it seemed—as inexplicable—he couldn’t help it. I trust her.
He hadn’t mentioned Miguel Torres, and as they stood together on the beach, he’d stared at her as she stared out at the water, the moonlight sparkling in her eyes. God, you’re beautiful, he’d thought.
At this, she’d glanced at him, seeming shy, and it was strange, like she’d heard his thoughts somehow—impossibly. But when she smiled at him, he melted inside, his line of sight collapsing down to the scant centimeters of earth and air surrounding her.
He hadn’t anticipated company that evening, and winced as he led her into his home. He wasn’t messy by nature, nor was he a neat freak, and he moved ahead of Pilar as quickly as he could, collecting wayward clothes and dirty dishes. She feigned polite obliviousness and crossed his living room.
“So this is how a cop lives,” she remarked, hands clasped lightly at the small of her back as she studied his entertainment center, perusing the haphazardly arranged photographs and books on nearby shelves.
“You were expecting something different?” he asked, shoving an old T-shirt he’d found drooped over the back of his couch unceremoniously into the bathroom hamper.
“I don’t know.” From his vantage as he walked back down the hall into the living room, he saw her shrug. “Maybe have crime scene photos or something stuck all over your walls. A gun rack, maybe, or handcuffs lying around. You know, like on TV.”
He laughed. “I’m afraid real life’s a lot more boring,” he said. “My work stays at the office. My gun and handcuffs are in a drawer in my nightstand.” With a sardonic wave to indicate the room, he added, “They don’t really go with the décor. The gun rack’s in the trunk of my car.”
Looking dubious, she raised her brow. “Why there?”
He laughed. “Because my shotgun’s there too.”
“What is it, a Mossberg 590?” she asked, and he blinked at her in surprise. “Pump-action short barrels are pretty standard for police officers, right? For riot control?”
He blinked at her again, then managed a laugh. “It is…and they are, yeah. How do you know so much about guns?”
She shrugged. “My dad taught me.”
“About riot guns?” he asked and as she nodded, it occurred to him. By the previous year, Pepe Cervantes had more than comfortably established himself and his branch of Los Pandilleros in Bayshore. He would have already made his plans to supersede control of the region from Los Guerreros. Enrique Ramirez had taught Pilar about guns because he’d been expecting a war.
Catching sight of something on one of his shelves, Pilar leaned forward, curious. “Who’s this?” she asked, picking up a framed black-and-white photograph of his father in full boxing regalia, taken when he’d been little older than Elías’s own twenty-eight years.
“Mi padre,” he replied with a smile.
“He was a boxer?”
“Oh, yeah. A really good boxer. Won championship titles and everything, even competed once in the Olympics.”
She regarded the picture with a wide-eyed, incredulous sort of admiration. “Wow,” she said, setting it back above the TV. Taking another in hand, she said, “Whose little boy?”
Feeling strangely embarrassed, as if she’d just discovered more about him than he’d realized he was willing to share, he reluctantly said, “Uh, mine. His name’s Manuel. He lives in Miami with his mother.” Quickly, he added, “We’re divorced.”
Pilar took the picture and studied it closely for a moment. Looking back at Elías, she said with a smile, “He looks like you.”
He laughed. “Don’t tell my ex-wife that.”
A small counter bar separated the kitchen from the living room, and as he went into former and began going through cupboards, she remained in the latter, leaning over the bar and watching him with undisguised interest. “What are you doing?” she asked as he pulled out a container of flour and a mixing bowl.
“Making empanadillas,” he replied, reaching into the stainless-steel refrigerator behind him and pulling out a carton of eggs.
“You mean from scratch?” she asked, and when he nodded, she said, “Wow. I’m impressed.”
“Don’t be.” He dropped her a wink. “You’re going to help.”
She laughed. “I am?”
“Yeah. Come on.” Smiling wryly, he turned her words from the beach around on her: “I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise.”
“Okay, then.” Pilar walked around to stand next to him at the counter. “Tell me what to do.”
God, he thought, blinking stupidly at her for a moment. Did she have to give such an open invitation? Because Madre de Dios, the things I could imagine…
DARK VENGEANCE Excerpt:
Brandon, stop, Lina thought to him, gasping for breath, exhausted from their lovemaking. They’d never been at it that long before, not non-stop and all in one sitting.
No. He looked down at her, bracing himself with his hands on either side of her head, his eyes round and black, his breath wheezing through clenched fangs. No, no, please don’t ask me that…not now, God please…I’m so close…
She'd never seen Brandon so fully enthralled by the bloodlust before—not without him feeding from her or finding sexual release. It had left him exhausted, flustered and—she realized suddenly—frightened.
Because he’s never seen himself like this, either.
“Brandon,” she whispered, reaching up to press her palm to his cheek. God, he was burning up, his skin hot like the side of a glassworks furnace. “Feed from me.”
Don’t ask me that, he gasped, shaking his head. God, Lina, please. I can’t!
“Yes, you can,” she pleaded. “You have to try. This isn’t working.”
It has to! he cried. Shaking his head his head to dislodge her hand from his face, he then seized hold of her, locking his fingers through hers, pinning her hands down against the bed. You don’t understand, he seethed, his brows furrowed. He leaned down enough for her to see herself—her sudden, visible alarm—reflected in the obsidian pools of his eyes. This has to work—it has to. If I bite you now, I won’t be able to stop. Do you get it? Do you hear me? I won’t be able to stop myself!
OUT OF THE DARK Excerpt:
Naima could see the first hint of new morning sunlight visible as a dusky blush through the trees. The woods around her lay still and silent and cold, but she worried that in the brightening light, she would be too visible and vulnerable if she stayed close to the car.
Having been careful to insure that she’d left everything as she found it, including locking the car before closing the door with her hip, Naima started to creep back among the trees. She heard a chirping sound—a car alarm—and jumped in surprise when, unexpectedly, the Infiniti’s headlights and taillights flashed once, the doors on either side of the car unlocking.
Oh, shit…! she thought. Wheeling around, meaning to bolt into the woods, she came instead to a skittering halt as Aaron, using the sound of the car alarm and the flash of its lights to find it, came stumbling out of the trees.
He backpedaled clumsily when he saw her, his eyes flown wide. To that moment, he’d been carrying Mason’s gun in his hand, dangling at his side, but he raised it now, a swift, startled movement, taking aim for the center of her face. His finger was against the trigger.
Naima couldn’t breathe. Her heart jackhammered beneath her breasts. Her entire body shook and she stared at him, her emotions torn all over again, her heart ripped open wide and left emotionally eviscerated.
“Aaron,” she breathed. She could have used her telekinesis against him, could have disarmed him with only a thought, but didn’t. The impact of his injuries was apparent now; his face was bloody and battered, his posture stooped and limping. Augustus had told her he’d overpowered Rene at the clinic, but she couldn’t imagine how; Aaron looked ready at any moment to crumple to the ground in a dead swoon.
“Get…away…from the car,” he rasped, leaning his shoulder heavily against the nearest tree as his knees threatened to buckle beneath him. The gunpoint wavered, but only for a moment. Brows furrowed, teeth gritted, he leveled the muzzle again at her head. “Get out of my way.”
“You won’t shoot me.”
Naima heard the distinctive snict! as he thumbed the safety off. “You…wanna bet?” he asked.
“Aaron,” she pleaded. “It’s me. It’s Naima.”
Earlier, there had been nothing in his face when she’d said this; he’d stared at her, stoic and impassive as granite. This time, though, something in him cracked; she saw a fleeting but definite hint of pain in his eyes. As quickly as it came, it was gone, however, and his brows furrowed. “I said…get out of my way.”
Moving slowly—because even the most slow, deliberate gesture brought bright panic into his eyes, and caused him to refocus his bleary gaze and aim—she held her hands up, palms facing him. “I know you remember me.” As she uncurled her fingers from her right palm, the St. Christopher medal dropped down, dangling on its silver chain. “I found this in your car.”
His eyes widened as they fixed on the pendant. Again the gun drooped toward the ground and again, sucking in a sharp, wounded breath, he raised it. “What…what do you know about that?”
“You gave it to me,” Naima told him, stepping forward.
“That’s a lie.” With one hand, he hooked his fingers like claws into the trunk of the tree to keep himself upright.
“No, it’s not,” she said. “On the night of October twelfth, in the year 1815, you gave this to me. Right before you helped me to escape from your father.”
She stepped toward him again, and that bright panic flared in his eyes. “Stop right there,” he gasped, flexing his index finger in and out treacherously against the trigger. “Don’t…don’t come any closer.”
“You won’t shoot me,” she said, taking another step, then another, standing directly in front of him now, close enough to touch him.
“Yes, I will,” he seethed, his chest heaving with every pained, panting breath.
“No, you won’t.” She drew her fingertips lightly against his cheek. Her thumb brushed against his lower lip, and this time, she felt a shudder run through him like a live electrical current. “Don’t you remember, Aaron?”
IN THE HEART OF DARKNESS Excerpt:
Julien groaned, his eyelids fluttering open as a soft, familiar voice breathed his name. He was dreaming; he knew he must be. He felt like shit; his condition had seemed to worsen, his struggle to breathe intensifying to the point that the sheer effort had exhausted him. Stripped completely of his strength, feeling as frail as a newborn kitten, he realized that he must be dying. He was suffocating from the inside, and now his mind had abandoned him as well, because there was no way in hell he could hear the voice he thought he had—no way that Mason could be there with him in that shithole bedroom.
He saw a dim, blurred figure at his bedside and felt a cool hand press against his flushed cheek, the light stroke of someone’s thumb across the seam of his dry mouth. It was a trick his mind played on him, heartless and hurtful, and with another soft groan, Julien closed his eyes again.
“Please…stop…” he croaked, talking to himself, begging his own mind and memories to leave him alone, to stop tormenting him.
“Julien, it’s me,” the man beside him said, and goddamn if it wasn’t Mason, then he sounded enough like him to only add to the cruel illusion. “It’s Mason.”
Again, Julien felt gentle hands touching him, caressing his face, brushing his hair back from his brow, and it had been so long since anyone had touched him with anything like tenderness, he began to tremble. “No,” he whispered, but when he opened his eyes again, his vision swam into murky view and he could see Mason’s face almost exactly as he remembered him. His dark eyes gleamed with tears, and he smiled at Julien so gently it nearly broke his heart. “No, you…” He shook his head, clamping his eyes shut as his own tears welled. “You can’t be…”
“It’s me,” he heard Mason say again, pressing his hands to either side of Julien’s face. Julien shook his head again, even as he felt Mason’s lips light against his own. Even though it had been two hundred years—even though it was only in his mind, a hallucination—Julien lifted his chin to meet him. He let his lips part as Mason’s tongue prodded lightly against them, and whimpered as he touched it, tasted it with his own. God, if he was going to die, this was how he wanted it to happen—lost in this wondrous, impossible dream, imagining himself reunited with the only man he’d ever loved.
DARKNESS FALLS Excerpt:
“Aaron Davenant is the one who attacked me that night,” Lina told Augustus.
“What?” He raised his brows in surprise as he stepped back from the threshold of his suite.
“I had a dream where Brandon came to me,” she said, marching through the door without waiting for an invitation. “He was afraid of someone, he said—someone stronger than he is, who he thought might hurt me again.”
Augustus inclined his head, regarding her for a moment. “A dream,” he repeated.
“Don’t look at me like that. It wasn’t a regular dream. It was Brandon reaching out to me with his mind. Coming to me for help.”
“Angelina,” Augustus said again, his expression weary. “I saw Brandon…”
“I know,” she said. “You’ve told me. Now I’m telling you there’s no way Brandon would have done that to me. Davenant tricked you somehow. He made you see what he wanted you to see.”
“Angelina…” Augustus said again.
“I think Davenant got back into the great house somehow. He lured you out, then circled around, climbed back in through the infirmary window again, then somehow came across me and Brandon on the stairs. He must have done something to Brandon, overpowered him somehow, then attacked me. He could have used his telepathy to trick you into seeing Brandon instead of him, like you tricked the cops in Bayshore into seeing you as Elías.”
“He’s not strong enough to do that,” Augustus said. “Not to me.”
“Maybe he is,” Lina insisted, and when Augustus frowned at this, clearly dubious, she doubled down. “You said so yourself—you can’t read his mind. You have no idea what he’s capable of—Aaron or his sick, piece-of-shit brother.”
“Maybe Julien’s the one who attacked me. Did you ever consider that? You know, our old friend El Jefazo, the one who murdered Téo Madera Ruiz in Florida? The one Vladan Nikolić had been working for prior to his untimely demise, not to mention Tejano Cervantes? The one we saw on Valien Cadana’s security video kidnapping Brandon—who tortured him pretty much daily after that?”
“Angelina.” Augustus spoke through his teeth now, his voice strained.
“Julien could have followed Aaron here,” she insisted. “He could have broken in after—”
“Angelina!” he exclaimed, and why the hell did he keep cutting his eyes to the right, which she’d noticed he’d been doing ever since she’d stepped into the room?
“What?” Brows narrowed in a scowl, she turned, following his not-so-surreptitious glance.
And realized they were not alone.
Standing in the doorway between the antechamber and library—well within ready earshot—was a young man. He was well-dressed in a perfectly tailored black suit and blood-colored tie, with his dark hair swept back from his face. Slightly short of stature, no taller than she was, he was nonetheless striking in appearance, if not because he was quite handsome, then because his eyes, even from a distance, were a remarkably bright shade of blue.
“I’d like you to meet Julien Davenant,” Augustus said in that same tight voice.
Andrew limped to his feet and looked around, trying to get his bearings. The overhead lights were off, but thin fluorescent tubes mounted beneath periodically positioned overhead cabinets cast dim puddles of pale glow on countertops and the floor. He saw a suite of small examination rooms on one side, rows of supply shelves and medicine cabinets on another.
Though he’d seen Prendick and the haz-mat clad soldiers leaving the infirmary shortly before being locked in his room, and Suzette had said she would bring O’Malley there on the wheeled stretcher, the area was strangely empty and quiet.
Where did everybody go? Andrew crept forward, curious and cautious. He picked his way across the infirmary, slipping in and among more carts and tables along the way. Once he reached the examination rooms, he walked slowly down the row, pushing each door open and peering inside, flipping light switches on each in turn and frowning to find everything vacant.
That doesn’t make any sense, he thought. Suzette wouldn’t have ordered O’Malley back to his room. He was way too bad off. She’d have kept him here, where she could keep an eye on him, give him medical attention.
Andrew stopped all at once, a peculiar, creeping chill stealing down the back of his neck. You don’t need medical attention when you’re dead.
“Shit,” he whispered, because he’d reached the end of the line, literally. The last examination room was empty. There was no one in the infirmary.
He heard a loud clatter from behind him, the tinkling crash of broken glass as something large and heavy fell to the floor. Andrew whirled, eyes flown wide.
There was no further sound except the rush of his own frightened breathing. Not at first, anyway. Then he heard something moving through the
shattered remnants of glass. Out of his view around the nearest wall dividing the main infirmary from the exam rooms, it sounded distinctively like someone walking, or shuffling, more specifically, a heavy, clumsy, dragging sound.
That soldier is back. He must’ve gone to get the pass code, then come back.
“Shit.” Andrew cut his eyes around quickly, catching sight of an empty IV stand in one of the exam rooms. Leaning across the threshold, he grabbed it. Twisting the chrome shaft between his palms, he unscrewed it, leaving the plastic base behind. Warily, keeping the metal rod poised in his hands, he crept back toward the main area once more.
He didn’t hear footsteps anymore, but a new sound had taken their place—a gurgling sound, soft and thick, like someone trying to breathe through a lungful of oatmeal. It reminded him of the way O’Malley had sounded earlier that night, congested, nearly sodden.
Maybe this guy’s sick, too, he thought, visions of ebola and anthrax dancing in his head. Maybe there’s been some kind of breach in Moore’s lab, that’s what the alarm’s about. There’s some kind of outbreak they’re trying to contain.
As he inched forward, ahead of him, he could see the expansive main room coming more and more into view. Scattered pieces of broken glass, hundreds of shards, glittered in the faint light, winking like stars. One of the fluorescents from somewhere out of view had started blinking on and off as if on the verge of burning out, a strobe-like effect bouncing off the floor tiles and walls.
Then he heard something else, a quick, staccato-like flurry of sounds, sharp inhalations that made him think of a dog trying to scent the wind.
Sniffing, he thought. No—smelling. Like something’s out there and it smells me.
He’d reached the doorway, but didn’t venture past. Instead, he pressed himself back against the wall. He could feel fear-infused adrenaline coursing through him, causing his arms to tremble, his palms to sweat, slick against the chrome IV stand.
He heard another shambling step, a coarse dragging sound, the muffled tinkling of glass crunching under foot. He leaned forward enough to still have the cover and protection of the doorway, but peek into the room beyond. Though he couldn’t look back in the direction of the sound, ahead of him, he could see another wheeled cart. Waist-high and square shaped, its sides were made of polished steel, and though its reflective quality was anything but mirror-perfect, through it, he caught sight of a figure outlined in silhouette against the backdrop of the flashing, pulsating light.
Shit. Andrew drew back, pressing into the wall again. It was the soldier he’d seen looking through the window in the door. It had to be. Who else could it be? he thought. I don’t think anyone was here when I first got inside. I didn’t see anyone. And who’d be sitting in the infirmary in the dark, all alone?
If it was the same soldier who’d peered in through the window, then he didn’t know Andrew was there. Not with any certainty.
Which means I can get the jump on him. Andrew adjusted his grip on the IV pole, readying himself. One end of it tapered down to a threaded, three-inch long prong where it had screwed into the base and the other forked in a T, twin hooks where bags of intravenous fluid or medicine could be attached. Andrew raised this end back in his hands, ready to swing around like a Louisville Slugger and drive it squarely into the soldier’s head. He took a deep breath, let it loose, then leapt from around the doorway.
Only it wasn’t a soldier on the other side, at least not the sort Andrew had been expecting. What stood before him in the infirmary didn’t even register as human at first in Andrew’s brain, and he shrank back, his arms drooping to his sides, holding the IV stand with limp-wristed impotence.
It was shaped like a man, upright and bipedal. From there, most other resemblance ended. Grotesquely deformed, its flesh seemed to have erupted, enormous overlapping tumors stacked thickly one atop the other, protruding from nearly every visible inch. So violently had these growths occurred, they had actually ripped through the skin in places, peeling it back in broad swaths, leaving behind panels of red, raw, exposed meat and tendons. Its facial features had nearly been obliterated by the disfiguring growths, and its bald scalp had split open and retracted, the skull bulging out on one side like something beneath had swelled to near bursting. What remained of its skin was slick with pus and blood, both of which oozed, greasy and glistening, from the lumps and cysts covering its form.
It was a mottled pair of fatigue pants and combat boots it wore that finally gave it away.
“Jesus Christ,” Andrew gasped, shocked, horrified. “O’Malley?”
ONCE BITTEN Excerpt:
The apartment had an odd smell about it. More than just the musty odor of a small space that had been closed off for a week, there was something underlying and foul, like spoiled food.
His eyes adjusted to the gloom and he realized why the apartment was so dark. It looked like someone had taped overlapping layers of black plastic over the windows and glass patio doors.
Not just plastic, he thought as he approached the doors. Trash bags. The heavy-duty lawn kind.
“What the hell?” he murmured, running his fingertips lightly down the tautly drawn bag.
He dug his cell phone out of his pocket and flipped back the lid. It took him a bit longer to fish Monroe’s business card out of his wallet, considering he didn’t make it a habit to call his ex-wife’s boyfriend. Monroe answered the line mid-way through the second ring, his voice muffled and moist, like he spoke around a mouthful of ham salad.
“You know, you really have to be about the stupidest, sorriest excuse for a police detective I’ve ever seen,” John remarked mildly.
“Well, hey, Harker, nice to talk to you again, too,” Monroe replied. “This makes, what? Twice in one day? People are gonna think you’ve got a crush on me.”
“Like I’d ever be that hard up,” John said. “Hey, you know that little report of yours on Lucy Weston’s disappearance?”
“The one that probably cost you a good, what? Twelve bucks to copy?"
“Fifteen,” John said. “You completely forgot to mention the fact she’d taken stock in the Hefty garbage bag company and used it for window dressing in her apartment.”
“Did I leave that out?” Monroe said. “I could’ve sworn I typed a report on it.” John heard the momentary rustle of papers, as if Monroe put on a show of rifling his desk top. “I must’ve filed it somewhere else by mistake. Sorry. I thought that was kind of weird, too.”
John frowned. “Weird? It didn’t raise any kind of red flags with you, Monroe? Like between that and the fact this whole place smells like rotten eggs, maybe she was up to something in here, say, oh, I don’t know. Cooking drugs?”
Homes in which methamphetamines were being produced frequently had foil or trash bags layered over the windows to keep prying eyes away. What kind of Barney Fife dipshit doesn’t know that?
“Oh, it raised flags all right,” Monroe said. “I did a search on the spot based on probable cause. There was nothing there I could find, no chemicals, no tools, no cook kits. I even called in a drug dog from Key West, had it do a sniff sweep. No dice.”
“Oh,” John said, deflated. Apparently Monroe wasn’t as Barney Fife as he’d thought.
On the other end of the line, Monroe chuckled. “Maybe she just liked things dark, Harker.”
With a frown, John snapped the phone shut then shoved it back into his pocket. “Asshole,” he muttered.
He heard a strange sound from behind him, near the bedroom doorway. When he’d first started dating Bevi a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, she’d had a cat named Prince Humperdink that had hated just about everyone, but especially John. In their later divorce hearings, Bevi had once remarked that she should have better trusted the cat’s judgment.
Prince Humperdink had a habit of hiding beneath the recliner Bevi had kept in her living room, and whenever John had spent the night with her, he’d have to walk past that chair in the dark to get to the bathroom. During those late-night excursions, he’d invariably hear Humperdink from beneath the La-Z-Boy, a low, throaty, somewhat high-pitched growl emanating from the darkness. The sound he heard coming from Lucy Weston’s bedroom was very much the same.
What the…? He pivoted, brow raised, curiosity piqued. Neither Ruth nor Monroe had mentioned anything about Lucy having a pet. And surely the girl’s mother would have taken a cat or dog home with her instead of leaving it at the apartment.
When he saw the figure standing in the bedroom doorway, silhouetted against the backdrop of shadows, he froze.
And then he realized.
During his tenure as a cop, he’d seen all kinds of people who’d been all kinds of fucked-up: meth addicts and crack heads, strung out and slavering, staggering drunks who’d pissed or puked all over themselves; schizophrenics who’d abandoned their meds or hadn’t started them to begin with. But nothing in his life had prepared him for the woman who now shambled more fully into view.
The sunny-faced girl from Ruth Weston’s photograph was gone. Her pale hair hung about her face in a tangled, matted, disheveled mess. Her shoulders were hunched, her footsteps shuffling and slow, her hands dangling limply at her sides. She looked haggard, her cheeks sunken and gaunt. She wore only a bra and panties, but there was nothing titillating in the view. Her body looked emaciated, the bony prominences in her collar, sternum, rib cage and pelvis all starkly apparent. Her skin looked like mottled putty, ashen grey with purplish patches of shadowed bruising.
John drew back, stumbling over the wrought iron frame of one of her dining room chairs.
Her mouth hung open, slack-jawed and agape, her lips cracked deep enough in places to reveal red, raw meat beneath. Saliva crusted the corners and frothed along the edges.
But the worst thing was her eyes—sunken deep into the recesses of her sockets, shadow-rimmed, nearly black, the visible slits of corners so bloodshot, they looked vermillion.
“Lucy,” he said again and as she took another clumsy step toward him, he matched it in reverse, reaching behind him and pawing at the edge of the table, easing his way around it. “Lucy, my name is Jonathan Harker. I’m a private investigator. Your mother hired me to search for you.”
Again, that guttural, cat-like growl rose from her throat. Again, she lurched forward, and now the foam at her mouth began dripping against the floor in fat, frothy droplets.
What’s wrong with her? John thought, backing away again. She was between him and the front door, the only way out of the apartment. Her patio was to his immediate right, hidden behind the trash bags, but she lived on the second floor.
“Lucy, your mom sent me,” he tried again. If his repeated mentions of her name registered with her, she didn’t show it. She didn’t say anything, just kept growling at him, her small breasts hitching up and down as she drew in heaving, ragged breaths. Her left leg appeared to be injured or lame and she dragged it behind her as if it was something leaden or paralyzed.
“I’m here to help you,” he said.
With a shrill, scraping cry, Lucy sprang cat-like from beside the breakfast bar, tackling him. She moved so quickly, so utterly unexpected that he didn’t have time to do anything except flounder in startled recoil. She plowed into his chest, knocking him off his feet, sending him crashing to the floor.
He had a split second to see her mouth open wide, her canine teeth elongated and hooked like the vicious fangs of a sabre-toothed cat. John managed to throw his arm between them before she buried those hideous teeth deep into the meat of his neck. Instead, they sank into his forearm, punching through his shirt sleeve. It felt like her mouth was on fire, filled with napalm or acid that seared clear down to the bone. He struggled to shove her away, but she clamped down all the more, holding on with the ferocity of a rat terrier with a ham hock. All the while, she kept growling at him, that savage, guttural sound, even as his blood sprayed up from the bite wounds, peppering her face, spattering into her hair.
“Get off of me!” John yelled, balling his free hand into a fist and pummeling her with it. Again and again, he plowed his knuckles into her head, punching her in the temple, the cheek, the nose, over and over, trying to dislodge her.
He managed to wedge his foot between them, planting the sole of his shoe against her belly. With all of his might, he punted, ripping her fangs loose from his arm and sending her careening backwards, slamming into the far wall. She hit her head hard enough to stun her and she crumpled to the floor.
Clutching his wounded arm to his chest, John stumbled to his feet. What the hell is wrong with her? She was foaming at the mouth! Does she have rabies or something?
“You stay back,” he told her breathlessly as she lifted her head and glared at him, her eyes blood-red. Her lips peeled back to reveal purplish-black gums beneath, and those teeth, those fangs. She hissed at him, a scraping, menacing sound.
“Stay back,” John said again, limping forward, meaning to inch around her and get to the door. When she’d landed atop him, her weight had landed nearly in full against his groin, and his balls throbbed with an incessant, pulsating ache. “You stay the hell away from me.”
She leaped at him again and he danced clumsily backwards, catching her wrists in his hands as she struck him. They swung together in a reeling pirouette toward the living room. He could smell her. Here was the stink of something rotten that had been so pervasive in the apartment. It was Lucy herself.
Her legs locked around his waist and she snapped at him with her teeth, trying to bite his face, his neck, his hands. John ducked and spun as he struggled with her. He tripped over the coffee table and fell again. The cheap wood and brass frame collapsed beneath his abrupt weight. He hit the floor hard and Lucy lunged, sinking her fangs into his throat, catching him at the delta of his shoulder. Her lips clamped against his skin, dry and cold, like the mouth of something dead and embalmed. Just before her mouth formed a fervent seal against his neck, something hot and wet splashed up into his face—blood.
My blood, he realized in stunned horror. Oh, Christ, she’s drinking my blood.
Because Lucy Weston was sucking furiously at his neck, uttering sloppy, sodden slurping sounds. John slapped helplessly at her, trying to push her away. According to her mother, she weight one hundred and five pounds, but at that moment, it felt like Lucy weighed a ton. He couldn’t move her,couldn’t budge her, not to save his own life.
Which, he realized, it may well boil down to.