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Authors: Cherie Priest

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BOOK: Bloodshot
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We’re dead, sort of. Everything smells and tastes different.

A few things look different, too. My pupils are permanently dilated, so although my eyes once were brown, now they’re black.
I’m as white as a compact fluorescent bulb, which you might expect from a woman who avoids the sun to the best of her ability, and my teeth … well, I try not to show them when I smile.

They’re not all incriminatingly pointy, don’t get me wrong. When I yawn I’m not flashing a row of shark’s choppers, but my canines are decidedly pokey. Thank God they don’t hang down as long as they once did. (I know a guy. He filed them for me.) These days they may be short, but they’re still sharp enough to puncture an oilcan, and that’s how I like it.

My hair is more or less the same as it always was, a shade of black that doesn’t require any further descriptors. It’s short because—and I tell you this at the risk of dating myself—it was cut in a flapper style when I was still alive. It used to bother me that it won’t grow any longer now that I’m post-viable, but I’ve convinced myself that it’s just as well. It helps reinforce that whole “sexual ambiguity” thing.

Did I mention that already?

No? Well, it’s easy to sum up. I’m on three Most Wanted lists internationally … and on every single one I’m listed as a man known only as “Cheshire Red.” I’m not sure how this happened, or why.

I’m tallish for a woman, or shortish for a man. I’m slender, with breasts that are small enough to go unremarked. In the dark, at a glance, on a grainy security camera, I could pass for a young man. And far be it from
me
to argue with the feebs. If they want to keep on the lookout for a dude, so much the better for my career path and continued operation.

But anyway.

Ian Stott.

The number at the bottom of his summons wasn’t local, and I didn’t recognize the area code. Call me paranoid, but I had some reservations about dialing it up. I considered jaunting down to the
nearest gas station and using the pay phone. Then I remembered that the bastard already knew where I lived, and I’d just be closing the barn door after the horse had run off. Hell, I was lucky he hadn’t shown up on my doorstep.

Come to think of it, I wondered why he hadn’t.

I wondered if he was watching me. I wondered if …

Okay. You would be right to call me paranoid, obviously, yes. But you don’t survive as long as I have by being sloppy and easily accessible. That’s a recipe for disaster. I’m much happier when I feel invisible.

I fondled the card between two fingers and tried to talk myself out of my phobic spiral.

He’d given me a name. Was it his real name? There was no telling. But he’d signed it properly, although I noted after looking again at the envelope, the signature didn’t match the chicken-scratch scrawl of the address. The signature was large and smooth, and easy to read. My address would’ve been more legible if it’d been composed in pickup sticks.

Okay, so he knew where I lived, but he was respecting my space. Apparently. Again I had an irritating flash of nervousness, wondering if he was right outside—or across the street, or downstairs, or hiding in a closet.

Because I couldn’t stop myself, I rushed to the hall closet and flung it open to make sure. Packed with shades of brown, black, and gray as usual, it was devoid of any two-legged lurkers. For about five seconds, I was relieved. Then I scanned the rest of the room with renewed frantic suspicion.

I grabbed a big black knife—my personal favorite, a carbon steel jobbie nearly a foot long—and I kicked in my own bathroom door. Empty. And now it also had a cracked tile on the wall where the knob had knocked it. Fantastic.

Too crazy to stop once I got myself started, I ran to the bedroom
and checked that closet as well. More brown, black, and gray. No intruders.

Into the kitchen I burst. The walk-in pantry was secure.

The spare bedroom, of course! But it was likewise bereft of uninvited guests, as a mad crashing investigation shortly revealed.

Having exhausted my innate store of neurotic lunacy, I felt like an idiot. I really should’ve just called the number in the first place. I sat down on the arm of the couch, fished my phone out of my bag, took a deep breath, and dialed.

The phone at the other end only rang once before it was answered.

“Hello, Ms. Pendle,” said a smooth, low voice.

“Hello, Mr. Stott.” I tried to keep it dry and droll. No sense in letting him know he’d rattled me.

“Please, call me Ian. I thank you for responding to my message. I realize you’re a busy woman, and I am certain that your time is valuable, but I wish to state up front that I’m prepared to pay you handsomely for it.”

I listened hard and tried to get a good handle on the speaker. Another vampire, definitely. I’d known that much already, but hearing the preternatural, almost musical timbre in his words would’ve cinched it, regardless. He was well educated and calm, and American.

“That’s what you implied in your note, yes,” I said. “But as much as I love the money-is-no-object school of business, I still need to know what you’re after before I can name a price.”

“That’s quite reasonable, and I’m happy to accommodate you. However, I am reluctant to discuss such a thing over the phone.” Hmm. A dash of technophobia? He might be older than he sounded.

“Okay. You want to meet up? I can make that happen.”

“You’ll want someplace public, I expect. Bright lights, people milling about.” He didn’t have much of an accent, and I couldn’t place what I detected. Not southern, not urban northern, not mid-western. He could’ve been a TV anchor if he hadn’t been speaking so softly.

“This isn’t a blind date, Ian. I don’t need a room full of witnesses and a girlfriend who knows the get-me-outta-here safe word. There’s a wine bar down on Third Street called Vina. It’s dark and quiet, and it’s often busy but it’s never conspicuously crowded. Two primary entrances, easy to escape if necessary, easy to hide out in the open. Will that work for you?”

I heard a smile in his voice when he echoed, “A blind date. Funny you should put it that way.” Then he said, “Yes, that’s fine with me. Is tonight too soon?”

“Tonight is never too soon. Can you meet me there in an hour?” I checked my watch and noted that it wasn’t quite eight
PM
. “Wait. Let’s make it two hours. The bar doesn’t close until two in the morning, so we’ll have plenty of time to chat.”

“Very well,” he said. “I’ll see you then, Ms. Pendle.” And he hung up.

I hadn’t bothered to tell him he could call me Raylene. As a freelance contractor I like to keep things stuffy on my end. I get little enough respect as it is, since I’m not affiliated with any of the major Houses—either here in town, or anywhere else.

Vampires tend to be pack animals out of social convenience. They coagulate around one particularly old, strong, or charismatic figure and entrench themselves in legitimate enterprises in much the same way the Mafia does. More often than not, this works for them. They mostly get left alone, and when they don’t, they’re tough enough as a group to smack down any external threats.

But external threats are few and far between, and usually they
come from other vampires. Did I say that we were social creatures? I might have misspoken. It’s a love–hate thing, the way we get along with one another. It’s just as well there are so few of us anymore.

I could’ve made it down to Vina in an hour, but I didn’t feel like rushing.

I felt like changing clothes, freshening up, checking my email, maybe playing a game of Internet Scrabble, and then wandering down to Third Street at my leisure.

There was method to my madness.

For one thing, it’s important to always project the appearance of control. We would operate on my terms—when I want, where I want. I always try to establish this right out of the gate, because it gets clients accustomed to the idea that I’ll be calling the shots. They pay me to achieve an objective. How I achieve that objective is up to my own discretion and no one else’s, and I will accept no restrictions. This is not to say that I’m a rabid berserker off the leash or anything. That’s bad for business and bad for the low-key, invisible vibe I struggle to maintain.

But I
am
the queen of situational ethics.

And for another thing, Stott had thrown me more than I would’ve cared to admit, and I needed to calm myself down. I wanted to meet him after a bath and maybe an adult beverage.

I’m not Dracula and I do drink … 
wine
. In fact I rather enjoy it, though more than a glass at a time makes me woozy. Blame it on a semi-dead metabolism or anything else you like, but I don’t process alcohol well or quickly. I’ve never met a vampire who does. Therefore, I kept it light—just a few sips of something out of a box. It was enough to settle my nerves, but not enough to slow me down.

I dressed, but I didn’t dress up. It attracts too much attention.

I wore three shades of gray with black accents—boots, bag, et
cetera. I ran a hand through my hair and called it “done.” I closed my wee, lightweight laptop and stuck it into my bag. I picked up my keys and stuffed them into my pocket. And I left the condo, locking it behind me. The locking part took a full minute. I like locks, and I have some good ones.

Down in the parking garage under the building I keep a blue-gray Thunderbird. It’s not the newest model, but it’s not old enough to count as a classic—and it’s got more miles on it than you’d guess. I could afford a better car, sure, but I like the way this one drives and no one ever looks at it twice. Only this time I left it in its assigned space. Traffic would be a bitch, parking would be worse, and I could make it to my destination in thirty minutes if I kept up a steady pace. It was all downhill, anyway.

I’m not a rooftop-to-rooftop kind of woman. Not unless I’m really desperate.

By ten o’clock I was standing outside
Vina
. I did a last-minute check of my messages, my bag, my hair, and I steeled myself. I hate meeting new people, even new clients who intend to give me money. I try to be pleasant, but I’m not very good at it. The best I can usually pull off is “professional if somewhat chilly.” It’s not ideal, no. But it beats “awkward and bitchy.”

On the phone, I hadn’t asked how I’d know Ian when I saw him, but I was willing to bet he’d be the only vampire on the premises; and if he wasn’t, then I had bigger problems than his anonymity.

But no. There he was.

I saw him through the window, and knew him even before I could hear him or smell him.

It could’ve been his exquisite sense of posture—something you don’t often see in men these days—or it could’ve been the way his long silver hair lay perfectly flat against his shoulders. His candle-white
hands curled around the underside of a wineglass, holding it in the gentle way we vampires sometimes affect when we’re holding something fragile.

Sometimes we don’t know our own strength.

I let myself inside, nudging my way past a hostess and giving her a nod that told her I’d found my party. Or maybe it just told her I was a pushy, impatient cunt. Regardless, I didn’t need her help to find my table.

My business date was wearing glasses. They weren’t sunglasses, exactly, but they were tinted blue. The lenses didn’t hide his eyes or mask them, so I wondered why he bothered.

“Ms. Pendle?” He added an unnecessary question mark to the end of my name as he rose from his chair to greet me. He extended his hand, and I took it to shake it.

“Mr. Stott. Or Ian, as you prefer.”

He gestured at the seat opposite his. While I made myself comfortable, he said, “You’re right on time. It’s good of you to meet me so soon.”

“I’m always on time,” I understated. I’m usually early. “And it was good of you to stay out of my apartment.”

His eyebrows knitted softly behind the wire frames. “I beg your pardon?”

“You obviously know where I live, but you went to the trouble of being polite about it. To tell you the truth, I’m still not sure how I feel about that. People usually contact me through a third party.” I let my jacket dangle from the edge of my chair’s back, and set my bag down on the floor next to my feet.

“Ah.” He took a sip of wine, and a waitress noticed that I was drinkless.

I put in an order for something white and devoid of sparkles, and when our server had toddled off, I said, “Ah? Is that all you’ve
got to say about it? If I were a different kind of woman, I might have perceived your invitation as a threat.”

“I can assure you, I meant no such thing. I only wished to snare your attention in a way you would not ignore. I understand you make a habit of avoiding …” He didn’t lower his voice, which was good. Other people’s conversations are never so interesting as when they’re whispered. “People like us.”

“That’s true,” I confirmed. “You’re my first potential client of this sort since … in a long time. But I’m not working for you yet, so I can’t really accuse you of breaking my streak.”

“I can hardly blame you for your caution. I understand that you have few family affiliations, so staying away from us is probably your wisest course. This is one reason I’ve gone to such lengths to seek you out.”

“Is it?” I asked.

“Oh
yes.

The server returned with a lovely crystal glass filled with shimmering liquid the color of quartz. We paused in our repartee while she set it down and asked if we needed further attentions. We told her no and sent her away.

I picked up the thread. “You’re not trying to recruit me, are you? Because I know all about Japalito’s drive to flesh out his organization, and I’ve already told him where he can stick it. Likewise, Marianne knows that she can go jump in a lake. If I wanted to be part of a House, I’d have joined up a long time ago. So if that’s what you’re here for, you’re out of luck.”

“Then let me set your mind at ease: I, too, lack any House affiliations. Anymore,” he added after a pause.

I almost scooted my chair back on the spot. Instead I held my wineglass and took a hard sip. “You’re an outcast?”

“Not exactly.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

He matched my sips, but he had a head start and his glass was already half empty. “Precisely what it sounds like. I’m not an outcast. There is no bounty on my head, and no allegiance you might offend if you opt to assist me. But there’s a chance you might draw fire from … another quarter.”

BOOK: Bloodshot
4.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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