So, somewhat full disclosure. The cryptic comments I've made about being off my game boil down to this: there are serious health issues impacting my mother and her partner. Finding out about them made my already wobbly attempts to stay on track here even more unstable. Hence things like, oh, missing my Words on Wednesday post.
This should all be settled, for me at least, toward the end of this month. I will be doing my best to keep on top of posting and tweeting and things of that nature, but I'm going to ask for your patience ahead of time so I don't have to spend a lot of time apologizing if I miss days and postings. There may even be a week in there where I don't post at all. We'll see.
But you all rock, so this won't be a problem. And if you've got good thoughts to spare, send them toward Virginia, will you? :)
On to happier things:
Words on Friday! That's right. The first chapter that I promised you on Wednesday is live today. This is the first chapter of Immortal Lies, the urban fantasy with the jaw-droppingly gorgeous cover I showed you. I am working on formatting this book so I can get it into epub format and into the hands of the hungry and curious. I am so excited, I can't even truly express it. I really think you're going to like it. I hope you do, at least.
And. AND! It's June. That means that C.E. Murphy and I will do at least a little work on Legion, the awesometastic YA that will Rock! Your! Socks! Off! No really, it will, just wait. It may not be a complete novel in a month as we originally planned, but there will be work. And it will be amazing! There may be a work log. There may be goofy quotes on Twitter. (There probably will.) Follow along! Cheer for us! Other things that require exclamation points!
This weekend, I will be Ren Fairing it up. If you are in the Tahoe area or will be up that way, come check out the Valhalla Renaissance Faire. I'll be with the Needle's Eye tailor's guild. Good fun.
But now? Fiction! Under the jump.
It's one of those things everyone recognizes and most people can't name. Ordinary folk step outside after sundown and the hairs on their arms stand on end. They check over their shoulders like a nervous tic and shy away from the dark doorways on deserted streets. Little things -- everything -- makes them jump. Smart people listen to that tinny inner voice, stay inside and lock their doors.
There are a lot of not-smart people in the world ignoring their lizard brains.
Mine told me that on a night like this, I was better off watching movies with my gorgeous girlfriend, and yet somehow I found myself on a street corner, looking out for the unwary wanderer. Alone. Again.
Not that I had to be out there. No one pointed at the sidewalk and commanded me to stay. I'd put myself on duty. I didn't have to play guardian to the side of the city, but if I did, I had the chance to save someone from heading down the path I'd traveled. Regretted most nights of my unlife.
And honestly, who wouldn't get a little thrill from being the lurking shadow at the corner of the eye?
I don't what the girl was thinking when she ducked down the side street, shoulders hunched around her ears, but I imagined she at least had a fitting soundtrack on her mental radio. She'd chosen a shortcut that every fiber of her being should have struggled to avoid. She couldn't smell the predators lying in wait, but I picked up the pace to be there, at her back, on her side before it was too late.
She was young, probably eighteen or nineteen. A co-ed maybe, headed home from a late night study session. I didn't spend much time around the subways so I didn't see which train had brought her here, but the stale air and odor of too many bodies crowded together followed in her wake. Maybe not a student. She could just as easily have been someone's mistress or babysitter. It didn't matter. No one would check her resume.
Not out here. Other shadows were already shifting in the alley when I spoke and scared her breath away. "Don't run," I warned, rewarded by a squeak that was mostly air and stank of fear. "They're cats, you're the mouse, and they like it when you try to get away." Not the best analogy to make, maybe, but sometimes my mouth gets ahead of me. "Just don't run," I said again. "You're safe with me."
Not exactly the truth, considering the odds, but the girl -- young lady -- had enough to deal with, facing four would-be-killers with wicked grins and crueler teeth.
Vampires. Not your Sunday afternoon movie monsters or pasty boys with trendy clothes, bad accents and slicked back hair. A handful of that sort would almost have been welcome. No, these guys were a St. Sebastian special, city-trained predators and a far less dignified breed. No doubt they'd been in the co-ed's shoes not so long ago. They had no grace and even less finesse. They reeked of hunger and deadly desperation. They moved as a unit, pack animals wearing human skins.
"Hey, T!" The biggest of them, easily six and a half feet tall and nowhere near as smart as he was good-looking, stepped out of the cluster and tagged me on the shoulder, just like we were bosom friends. "You decide to party with us after all?"
His grin turned my stomach. His swagger made me clench my fists. His simple existence urged me to run the other way, but the girl trembling at my back pinned me in place. I summoned up a smile I knew looked thin and tight. "Not tonight," I answered in a voice that matched. "Just here to see my friend home."
The girl pressed against me, one hand knotted in the back of my coat. She'd apparently taken comfort from the lie I told her. The vampires, on the other hand, laughed, to a man. The big one reached for my shoulder again.
If I'd been alone, I would have flinched away. On the off chance that he'd touch the girl, I stood my ground. His hand landed on my shoulder and his grip was fierce.
"Why," he asked as he leaned in close enough to curl my eyelashes with his breath, "do you have to be such a buzzkill, T?"
He threw me. Not in the slow motion, graceful aerial tumble the movie and television studios love to orchestrate. This quick, vicious jerk of his arm felt like it should have torn me apart. Luckily, I'm made of pretty sturdy stuff.
The worst part of a toss like that isn't getting knocked around. It isn't even the sudden collision with a dirty brick wall. It's listening to the low laughter of the pack closing in on a girl whose breath had gone thready, punctuated by the first whimpers of a building scream. It's the thud of impact, echoed by the crash of the trash can she'd kicked over, not-so-sensibly shod feet flailing as she was lifted by a hand at her throat.
It's landing in a pile of last night's scraps and empty bottles, then picking yourself up, knowing you're about to have a fight you never should have seen.
I waded out of the refuse brushing a napkin from my shoulder and shaking spaghetti off my shoes. The young woman twitched and struggled where she dangled. She had her hands wrapped around the big one's wrist and her nails dug shallow gouges in his skin. Atta girl, I thought. Still some fight left in her. I had time.
Because while dropping him might have been satisfying, he had three more scavengers backing him up. If the girl hit the ground wounded and winded before they were gone, I might as well have handed her to a pack of rabid dogs.
If you've never witnessed a fight where the brawlers mean to do serious harm, first count yourself lucky. Secondly, imagine it ten times as vicious and twenty as fast. Vampires don't pull punches when they're mad and hungry. They don't do love taps and they're not quick to quit.
I did my best to keep an eye -- an ear -- on the girl, but being harried and beaten by the trio of underlings kept me pretty busy. I lost the sleeve of my trench coat only a few seconds in, seam separating with a series of pops like muted gunfire.
My nails tore skin that parted like soft leather and the alleyway filled with the scent of iron and stale, old blood. My stomach tightened all the same, unwelcome stirrings of a hunger I could almost ignore. I locked arms with an opponent, ducked beneath it with a twist, and yanked upward once behind him. Bone and tendons frayed and splintered. He howled and dropped. I moved on to the next.
In the time it took the co-ed's lips to tinge blue, I'd dealt with two of them. Not without my own injuries. I had ribs still knitting and I wasn't seeing clearly with my left eye, but I felt pretty damned triumphant. One last obstacle to overcome.
Who took a look at my battered glory, let go of the girl, turned on his heel and fled. If only every battle ended that easily.
"Don't be afraid," I told her. Another stupid thing to say. She might have been better off if I'd just stopped talking. I wiped my hand against my trousers and offered her a hand up. As she stared at it, at me, still in the sprawl where she'd landed, I could all but hear the thoughts flickering through her mind. Don't be afraid? Is he insane? Did he see what just happened? How is that not scary?
I got lucky. She didn't ask out loud and let me pull her to her feet. Not that her hand lingered. Not that I blamed her. My palm was cold and grimy. She folded her arms beneath her breasts and pushed her shoulders toward her ears. "I guess you saved me," she mumbled, not looking at me.
"I guess I did," I answered. Not a brag. Just the horrifying truth. "Do you have somewhere to go?"
She balked, wide eyes on mine now. "Were they...? I mean, the teeth..."
I could have lied. I could have made up a story she could tell her friends or whisper to herself when the nightmares woke her, but she'd been brave and she needed to remember tonight. One rescue didn't make her safe. "They were."
She flinched when I touched the small of her back, but moved anyway. Away from the scene of the would-have-been-a-crime. Closer to safety. "Then you're..."
'Not like them' sat on the tip of my tongue, but then the wind shifted and brought her scent back to me. Warm, newly shed blood swirled through the breeze like a crimson thread. She'd been scratched or scraped, maybe when she fell. She smelled like Heaven, if such a place existed, welcoming, inviting, promising everything I wanted in one tantalizing sniff.
I pricked my tongue on the tip of a descending fang. On purpose. Pain jarred me out of my brief fantasy and reminded me of the choice I'd made. I might claim I wasn't like them, but I knew the truth: there but for the grace of God and my own stubborn pride. "Let's get you home."
# # #
The easy answers aren't always simple and the simple answers aren't always true. Yes, I'm a vampire. There, it's out in the open. Probably wouldn't know if you saw me on the street. I don't fit the stereotype any more than the thugs in the alley. I shouldn't, with a name like Tybalt Jones.
My mother was a teacher at a junior women's college in 1927. She taught history and English, nothing out of the ordinary. She'd moved to St. Sebastian from Indiana, where her folks had a farm. She was your blonde-haired, blue-eyed all-American girl with a size nothing waist. She crocheted tea cozies.
Dad was a musician at a local blues club. He'd been a steel worker before then, walking girders for pay. Somewhere back in his line, red blood mixed with black, and he had the rhythm of two cultures pounding through his veins. They met on a street corner in the rain, so they'd always say. She fell in love with him inside a second. Real old-time movie stuff. Nine months or so later, they had me.
I ended up somewhere between them. People called my skin café-au-lait. Dad's eyes were almost black enough to be pure reflection but mine are a color that can't decide between amber and hazel-y green. I'm not a big guy, but Mom said I had good shoulders. I call it a take on the world and shrug off troubles kind of build. I just didn't have a clue what kind of troubles they'd eventually be.
I don't live in a crypt or sleep in a coffin. I've got four walls and a roof, a bed and a fireplace. I also have a girlfriend, who was sleeping soundly when I let myself in, locked the door behind me and limped to the shower to scald myself clean.
When I wandered out again, who knew how much later, Violet was awake. My girl slept like the dead when she was really out, but I hadn't been home all night and she was a pro at worrying. I felt bad about waking her up but the sight of her melted the rest of my post-fight tension away. I relaxed, comfortable in my skin again. I climbed onto the bed behind her, the towel around my waist sagging off halfway there. Neither of us were shy. She'd seen it all and then some.
So there we sat, the vampire and his faerie girlfriend. We made a hell of a pair, me with my sometimes ashy complexion, Vi with decidedly purple skin, wild, corkscrewing curls of silver hair and a black dragon tattoo that twined from ankle to thigh on her right leg.
"Hey," I said, winding my arms around her ribs and planting a kiss behind one pointed ear. "Sorry if I was loud. Glad to see you." Even though I'd just stepped out of the shower, she felt warmer, faint lines criss-crossing her back from the wrinkles she'd worked into the sheets in her sleep. She smelled like a combination of her pine trees, strawberries and fresh linen. My favorite scents.
"Uh-huh." She lifted an arm and scratched my head, absently. Not her usual enthusiastic welcome home, but it was late. I could have let it go.
But Vi had apparently been awake for a while and decided to turn on the television while she waited for me. That in itself wasn't so odd. She'd never seen a TV show before we met. I'd never known someone who could literally watch six shows at a time.
No, the weird part was the way she watched the thing. Her eyes were open so wide they might have rolled out of their sockets if she'd leaned forward. It took touching her chin and turning her head to break the trance. Even then, she only looked away for a second. The gesture earned me a quick smile, then her gaze wandered back to the flatscreen she'd insisted we buy.
"Look at that." She pointed when I kept staring at her instead. "You ever seen anything like that before?"
It was a typical, happening now, 'we interrupt this program' sort of setup. Late night talk show fans across the city were probably cussing at their TVs. Red and blue lights flashed somewhere off camera, washing everything in a color-changing glow. A reporter, makeup perfect and hair sprayed stiffly into place, struggled to be heard over droning sirens, shouted commands and the tromp of booted feet.
Yellow safety tape had been strung up across an intersection and a fresh-faced man in a fireman's uniform directed what few cars there were to a makeshift detour. He bent at the window of every car, no doubt explaining what had happened. Paramedics pushed a gurney across a corner of the scene even further from the camera. There'd been an accident, complete with injuries. Strange that it deserved this much attention, interrupting other programming and all, but it didn't fascinate me the way it had Vi.
I probably would have stopped looking, if not for the flash of a face I'd hoped to never see again. The reporter said something about an unexplained turn of events and I couldn't help the groan that escaped me. This was not good.
It was him. The thug. The big vampire on the prowl who'd been leading the hunt tonight. He stared out of the screen, jaw set and lips twisted up into a faint and apparently perpetual sneer. The picture looked a couple decades out of date since skinny ties weren't all the rage anymore, but I wouldn't forget that face. The reporter cheerfully chirped on about the mystery of a man missing seven years might suddenly turn up dead. It would, she promised, baffle the police for weeks to come.
All I could think was that they didn't know what they'd just been handled and were probably better off that way. Some poor fool coroner would get the surprise of his life when he opened the body bag.
I was halfway to my feet when Vi caught my wrist. "You're just looking," she told me. "Not seeing, T."
I glanced at the TV and down at her again. "I see it, I promise. I should make a call." If I could scrape the glue of distaste off my tongue and speak. If I could come up with someone who gave a damn about what I had to say. "I met that guy tonight."
Vi was on her knees, put her hands on my hips and held my gaze. "You're not looking."
All right, I'll be honest, her behavior had me more than a little freaked out, but when Vi sets her mind on something, it's better to just give in. I braced myself, pretty damn sure I didn't want to see whatever she thought I'd missed, then turned to face the TV and stared until my eyes started to sting. I watched until I had to blink or go blind.
I didn't notice the arcane symbol behind the reporter until just before my eyes betrayed me. By the time I got them open again, it was gone.
But the after-image lingered, like the blue haze surrounding everything after a too-long glimpse of the sun. The ache I'd steamed out of my bones came back with a vengeance, making my almost-hundred-year-old bones feel every second of their age.
I'm not an expert on magical, mystical stuff. I know the basics and I've picked up a secret or two along the way, obviously, but I can't see patterns in the air, usually, and I don't have a tenth the knowledge of the spooky Vi has in her pinky. When shivers go through me, I sit up and pay attention.
The symbol the camera looked at, or through, was powerful bad magic. I couldn't say who laid it down, but I knew they'd done it right. Despite the fact that I'd just come in from a brawl, I wanted to be back out there. I wanted to fight. I wanted blood, and I wanted it bad. I felt like I had ants crawling over my eyeballs. I felt like someone had shoved a white-hot brand into my guts and hooked me. I needed to go back out on the street and see the thing in person and God help anyone who tried to get in my way.
Vi stood and wrapped her arms around my waist. I nearly came out of my skin. She flinched back in turn. When the moment passed and I probably didn't look like I'd bite her for breaking the silence, she wet her lips and gave me a tiny here-goes-nothing shrug. "Talk to me."
I wish I'd had something clever to say, something reassuring. If I could have put what I felt in clear words, I'd have spilled my guts. "That thing, whatever it was. At the corner of the screen. That was bad."
Brilliant observation. "Big and bad. Scary," I went on. I'd turned into a three-year-old caveman, apparently. "I can still feel it," I confessed, hand pressed against my stomach like I could tame the serpents doing somersaults in there by touch. "I have to find out what it means."
To her credit, Vi didn't laugh me out of the apartment. Crazier words had never crossed my lips. Not even when I spent the occasional night playing hero and borrowing trouble that wasn't mine.
She caught her bottom lip in her teeth, chewing back the urge to call me names, I figured, and simply took my hand, threading her fingers through mine. "I shouldn't have said anything. Let's just pretend we didn't see it, okay?"
Calm. Sensible. If an ostrich didn't mind breathing sand, why should I? "I don't even know exactly what I saw, Vi."
"Neither do I," she agreed, home in her eyes and the hint of a smile that dusted her lips. "And we don't care."
Her smile blossomed as she shook her head. "Promise me."
A smile like that one couldn't be ignored. I felt my lips twitch into a pale reflection of hers. "What am I promising?"
"To leave it alone." Her fingers tightened on mine. "It's not for you. Just leave it be."
My stomach knotted again and my lip curled back from my teeth. My hand jerked in her grip. That nasty little symbol had gotten me but good. I wanted to give Vi what she wanted, forget the past few minutes and go to sleep, but I felt the power of the sigil writhing under my skin and I blurted out the only words that could make it stop. "I can't. Whoever planted that spell, they just called us all out. You don't issue a challenge like that and expect us to do nothing."
Vi leaned into me and reached for my jaw. She had my attention again, her fingers biting into the corners of my mouth and gaze so intent I could all but feel her will wrestling with mine. "What us? Maybe you're a vampire, baby, but you don't want to be one of them. That's what you keep saying. You're not changing your mind, are you? There is no you in them."
Anyone who's crossed over knows that isn't true. Pushed, snatched or a willing convert, there are truths that can't be denied. One of those, the most important, is that there's always a we. One big family in need of a lot of therapy.
But what affects one of us touches us all. If someone's out burning my relatives for kindling, I'm going to do something about it, even if I hate the crispy bastards. It's not exactly a conscious thing. It's something we feel, deep down inside. It's a tug on our shriveled, desiccated hearts. And it's powerful.
"I have to go."
Vi might have crushed my hand if she held on any harder. She shook her head so hard one silver coil bobbled into her eyes. "It's a set-up, T. You know it is. Whoever this is, he's trying to get you to show yourself. It's probably just some teenage kid messing with things he doesn't understand." Then she tried a different tactic, letting go of my hand to slide her arms around my waist. She tucked her nose against my chest and pressed her hips against mine. "If the rest of them want to go out there, let them. You have to stay with me."
The talk show broadcast had come back on the air. The host's dry, droning humor didn't suit the mood. I reached past Vi and punched the power button. Off. The sudden lack of sound felt like fingers in my ears, but I didn't care. I peeled Vi's arms loose and went back to the bed to sit. Please the girl or scratch the itch? "If you didn't want me involved, why'd you point it out?" I asked, pressing a thumb into the corner of an eye in hopes that the pain would make me see clearly again. I didn't mean to accuse her, but my mind raced on. Do something. Stop sitting around. The urge to get up and go kept tugging at me like an undertow.
"I don't know," she whispered, tucking close against my side again. She pulled her knees up to her chest and rested her chin on top. "I guess I felt like I should."
Should. The way I'd been compelled to keep watching. The way I'd involved myself in stopping the hunt tonight. The snakes in my gut became dragons.
"If you get involved, They'll remember you're around." I heard the capital T. "We're doing good, keeping quiet, you and me. Aren't we?"
I glanced around at my sturdy walls, at the bits of mica glittering in the texture on the ceiling. We lived a comfortable, mostly uneventful life, as far away from the clubs and undercity culture as we could manage. Once you got past the vampire-and-faerie pairing, we were practically normal and I liked it that way. "We're good at keeping quiet," I repeated, knowing I was about to lie and wishing I could take it back already. "I'll try to keep my nose clean."