III

 

As Ralphie zipped up his pants and Chelle reorganized herself under her skirt, he was razor-alert but not buzzing, the orgasm having taken the edge off the coke. Locking his molars, he curled up his arms and tightened all the muscles in his upper body, the torsion curving his spine forward, his lips coming off his front teeth, his bones bending.

The sound he made brought his crew’s faces around.

“He’s ready! He’s the monster!”

At that moment, like the “officials” had been waiting for him to bust his nut, the air horn sounded down at the far end of the garage level.

His crew started chanting, and Chelle came up and leaned into him. He kissed her forehead and said ILY quietly enough so no one but her heard. Then he walked forward, his boys forming a spear of bodies ahead of him, Chelle bringing up the rear. When they penetrated the crowd, people got out of their way, the cheering reaching volumes that would have attracted attention—if anyone had been anywhere near this shitty part of town.

Inside, Ralphie was smiling. Outside, he was all about the fuck-you.

The Reverend had arranged this bout three days ago, with some out-of-towner who had no record and a name no one had heard of. So this was going to be a piece of fucking cake.

“Monster! Monster!”

His crew was chanting his name, and the crowd picked up on it and carried the ball. And even though he knew she was watching, he had to glance back to make sure Chelle was checking this out. She was. Her chin was down, but her eyes were on him, and she had a secret smile on her face that made him feel taller than he was. Thicker than he was. Stronger than he was.

She was his source of strength.

’Cuz he wanted to see that little happy on her face all the time.

Ralphie pulled himself together and refocused on the bodies that were getting out of the way for him. As he closed in on the fighting area, he entered a field of sallow illumination thrown by the running lights of the few cars that had been allowed through the barricades down at street level for just this Xenon purpose. The crowd started to go even nutserer, and he pretended that he was in the WWE and about to crack a skull in the ring.

Even though all he had was a red circle spray-painted on the stained concrete.

There were two circles, actually, the inner about fifteen feet across, the outer providing a five-foot buffer that the crowd was not supposed to get into—but always did by the ends of the matches. At the start, they followed the rules, though, so he left his crew behind as he alone went into the punch zone.

Beneath his boots, the dried bloodstains from last week’s fight were the color of mud, and he cracked his knuckles as he paced around, his heart pumping as he remembered breaking that nose and knocking out those teeth. As he psyched himself up, the crowd—even his boys and Chelle—disappeared from him. Everything went goodbye. He was in himself and of himself. In himself, of himself. In himself—

As the mantra began to repeat and repeat, a train catching at its tracks, the momentum creating its own kind of surge, he sank his weight into his knees and went from boot to boot with his lean. Fists up, biceps curled, eyes barely blinking, he focused across the circle, at the ring of bodies that had yet to part to reveal his opponent.

Bouncing.

Breathing.

Bouncing.

Breathing . . .

After a minute and a half of that shit, Ralphie got pretty fucking impatient. What the fuck. Where was the motherfucker? Fucking pussy-ass, out-of-town fuck—

All of the sudden, people in front of him started vibing like they were uncomfortable, heads ripping back and forth like some kind of shit was going down. And then they were moving too quick, a few tripping in the scramble.

Jesus, no one better be outing a goddamn gun—

A thirty-foot-long chute was formed by the hyping bodies, the messy aisle running from the fighting circle to the far breezeway. At the end? A fighter who stood alone, facing away from everything, from everyone, his heavy shoulders silhouetted against the city’s cold steel glow.

Ralphie’s jumping stilled. His heart skipped a beat.

But then a woman dressed like a Karen stumbled into the safety zone and looked around with bug eyes, as if she had no frickin’ clue where she was.

Ralphie kicked his own ass. What the fuck. Was he the pussy here? That guy was no different from any other big ass idiot. The bastard turned around? He was probably fatter than Uncle Vinnie.

Fuck him—

The lightning came from out of nowhere, the flash so fucking bright, it turned the inside of the garage into noontime. And as people in the crowd, and even his crew, put their arms up over their heads and crouched down, Ralphie did neither.

He just stood there.

And measured the tattoo that covered the other fighter’s massive, muscle-ribbed back. The black and whiter was a huge fucking skull, the crown of bone up at the nape, the jaw with its sharp teeth down at the waist. And even though the eyeballs were gone, all death-rotted out, nothing but evil radiated from those pitch-black sockets.

Slowly, the fighter turned around.

Ralphie flushed and could not breathe. As his opponent smiled like he was serial killer staring down his next victim, his teeth seemed way too long. Especially the canines.

I am going to die tonight, Ralphie thought with an absolute that had nothing to do with coke paranoia.

It was more like the Grim Reaper’s bony hand had landed on his shoulder . . . and closed its claiming grip. Forever.

What was about to come down at him was an actual monster.

##########

Mae got past the bouncers at ground level. Of course she did. And she managed it without resulting to a replay of Dady’s Girl tactics—although she would have gotten physical if she’d had to, and as a vampire, she could have knocked the block off of any of those barrier-to-entry men. It was more efficient, however, to just flip switches in those human brains and slip inside like she belonged, a pimento among Swarovski crystals.

And now she was up here, packed into a thicket of humans dressed for show, their shoulders bumping into hers, their scents invading her nose like stabbing fingers, their excited chanting a tangible, noxious smoke thickening the air and clogging her lungs. Assaulted by the miserable sensory overload, her brain tried to rise above, but her awareness was like a snow globe, all swirling agitation that obscured the centerpiece.

Where was the Reverend?

Forcing herself to calm down, she tried to send her instincts out. She had no idea what the male looked like, what his real name was. But vampires could locate vampires, and she was not leaving until she found him—

The crowd abruptly shifted, the humans moving like spooked cattle in the concrete acreage of the parking garage—and as she tried to get away from whatever commotion was happening, she suddenly found all kinds of space around her. She was standing totally alone.

Looking down, like maybe there was a bomb in a briefcase she’d somehow missed, she saw two red spray-painted lines. And when she glanced back up, she found herself at the head of long break in the sea of bodies . . .

Mae lost all breath in her lungs.

Time slowed. The people disappeared. She wasn’t even sure where she was anymore.

The vampire down at the parking level’s far end, who was facing out into the night, was extraordinary . . . and terrifying—

Before she could form any further thought, blinding light erupted everywhere.

The night sky flooded with an illumination so bright, so vast, it was as if the Scribe Virgin had turned her wrath upon the earth itself. And then came the explosion. Whatever impact occurred was so devastating that an even more intense flash permeated the whole level of the parking garage, the white light barging in on all sides and taking over as a distant thunder reverberated throughout the city.

Yet in spite of all this, Mae only had eyes for the male.

That tattoo of death across his broad back was a thing of horror, and she had a feeling so was he—

The fighter turned around and she gasped. He had great shoulders bulked with muscles and thighs that were set more solidly than the concrete he stood upon. His bare chest was likewise tattooed, the black-and-gray-inked landscape over his pectorals and abdominals depicting a bony hand reaching out of his torso. As if he were the conduit through which Dhunhd claimed its due.

“Get back!”

For the second time, Mae spaced on the fact that she was being addressed. But then a hand grabbed her arm—and for a split second, her brain told her that it was that claw of the fighter coming for her. With a scream, she jumped—and before she could reassemble reality, she was dragged back.

“You’re in the fucking safety zone,” the man snapped. “And trust me, you’re going to want to get out of the way of that.”

There was no question what the guy was talking about, and Mae tucked her arms around her middle, even though she was not the target. And whether the male’s opponent was ready or not, whether the crowd could handle what was about to happen, the vampire started to come forward, a menace in heavy boots that landed like he was dominating all of Caldwell. With his chin down and his nasty stare straight ahead, his heavy brow and his brutal expression made it impossible to tell what color his eyes were, but in the marrow of her bones, she knew they were black. Black as the depraved soul that dwelled within that awesome and powerful body.

As a sick sense of dread rivered through Mae, she tried to get away even farther, but the bodies behind her were too packed in. And then it dawned on her. This male was going to face off with someone.

She shifted her head in the other direction. “Oh, God . . .”

The human who was going to be eaten like a meal stood inches shorter and a hundred pounds lighter, and it was clear, going by the naked expression of fear on his lean face, that he knew he was in trouble. He, too, had tattoos, but they were a hodgepodge of different scripts, symbols, and ink colors, the random collection no more coordinated than what had fallen out of her bag onto the floor the night before. And she imagined, going by his wide, dilated eyes, that his thoughts were no more organized than his markings.

Mae wanted to tell him to run. But he already knew escape was in his best interests. He was checking behind him like he was assessing his flight path—yet for some reason, he sank down into a semblance of a fighting stance, and raised his bony fists up to his cheeks. As his head and shoulders leaned forward, the rest of his body arched back on his hips—like his vital organs wanted no part of this.

And still the male kept coming.

The vampire stopped only when he was inside the wobbly inner circle that had been spray-painted on the concrete—and unlike the human, he didn’t brace for aggression. He just stared at the man with his arms down at his sides and his spine straight as an oak. No fists were made. No lunges hinted at or initiated.

Then again, he was a predator so deadly, he required no defenses and no offenses. He was a law of physics, undeniable and inevitable.

As the crowd went silent and the two fighters became an on-the-verge tableau of a beat-down, Mae found herself staring at the male’s bare chest. There was something captivating in the way the bony hand moved as the male breathed with controlled, calm inhales. Meanwhile, across the circle, the human waited for an attack with a jittery series of hops and skips. When nothing came at him, his eyes wilded around. The crowd was becoming restless, and the man seemed to be compelled by their impatience. He approached with caution, the male not moving in response. And then the human threw the first punch, the angle upward and seeking that heavy jaw—

The male caught that knobby fist in his much larger palm, and he twisted the arm like a rope. As the human let out a scream and fell to his knees, the crowd gasped and then went silent again.

“Stop,” Mae said under her breath. “Stop this . . .”

The vampire’s expression never changed. Neither did his breathing. And both made sense. He was a killer who was not exerting himself.

Without a care in the world, he forced the human onto his back and then straddled his prey. The man seemed momentarily incapacitated by terror. That changed. Some gear clicked in his head and he began kicking, his leg small enough that it could bend in and punch his foot out into the crotch area. The vampire jumped out of range—and came back down with a set of face-targeting knuckles that were barely avoided with a roll. The concrete cracked under the force of the punch’s impact and the human jumped back to his feet. His balance was bad, and his greater opponent took advantage of this, grabbing the other arm, spinning him around, and yanking him back against that huge chest.

Don’t bite him! Mae thought. Are you crazy? With this many humans—

Except the man was the one sinking canines through skin, his flat-topped teeth locking onto the forearm. That didn’t last long. The vampire ripped him free even though flesh went away with that mouth, and then he threw a punch for a second time.

Those knuckles to the side of the skull knocked the human out cold, the thin body going boneless to the concrete, a pool held together only by the sloppily tattooed bag of skin.

That was when the vampire’s smile returned.

Slow. Evil. Deadly.

With only a hint of fang.

As the human began to move his arms and legs like he wasn’t sure they were still attached, the male bent down and waited for consciousness to be fully resumed. Because, clearly, it was not enough to kill. You had to murder your victim only when they were aware you were taking their life—

Suddenly, all Mae could see was her brother. Rhoger was the one lying beneath the menace. Rhoger was the weaker of the two about to be struck. Rhoger was about to die—

“No!” she yelled. “Don’t hurt him!”

Given the shocked silence of the crowd, her voice carried throughout the parking garage’s level, and something about it—the pitch? the tone?—made the vampire jerk to attention. Then that terrifying face turned to her, and those horrible eyes narrowed.

Mae’s heart stopped.

“Please,” she said. “Don’t kill him—”

From out of nowhere, the human’s hand struck out with a flimsy punch that once again missed the mark of that prominent jaw.

Except then came the blood.

A trickle. A gush.

A geyser.

From the throat of the vampire.

Confused, Mae looked to the hand that had done the flimsy swipe—and saw something silver glinting in the human’s grip. A knife.

As the red rain fell on the man’s throat and chest, five hundred pairs of shoes and high heels went on a bolt across the concrete, the crowd racing for the stairwell. Meanwhile, the human seemed shocked at his success. As for the vampire? His expression still had not changed, but not because he was unaware of his mortal wound. He touched the second mouth that had been opened at the side of his throat and then brought his glossy fingers into his field of vision.

If anything, he was merely annoyed as he listed to one side. Fell to his knees. Propped a hand on the concrete to keep from totally collapsing. Meanwhile, clearly unsure whether he was free from danger or not, the human wriggled out from under and took off at dead—natch—run.

Mae looked at the vampire. Then glanced at the stairwell, which was choked with bodies trying to get out of the parking garage, out of the neighborhood, out of the state.

“Shit,” she muttered as gurgles rose up from the male.

Do not get involved, she told herself. Your first and only concern is Rhoger.

Except she wanted to help. Hell, she felt responsible because she’d distracted the vampire—and that was the only reason the human had survived, the only reason why the male wasn’t going to.

But her brother needed her more than this violent stranger.

The male made a sound.

“I can’t help you,” she said in a cracked voice.

The male was struggling to speak, and as he coughed up blood, she looked around. And then went over to kneel down beside him. There was no 911 equivalent for vampires, and even if there were, he was losing blood too fast for any kind of ambulance—or even a healer who could dematerialize to him. Besides, who could she call?

Maybe the King’s Audience House phone number?

No. There were rules against fraternizing with humans, ones that she was very certain precluded underground-fighting in a sea of Homo sapiens and trying to kill members of that species in front of hundreds of those rats without tails. If she called the King’s people, both she and this vampire were going to be in huge trouble.

And Rhoger had to come first.

“Is there someone I can get for you—”

“Go,” he said between labored breaths. “You must leave me. Go! Save yourself!”

His voice was very deep and really rough, and when she didn’t respond, his eyes focused on her with a glare that shot right through the back of her skull. “For godsakes, female, take care of yourself.”

It was the very last thing she expected him to say, and when he repeated the strained words, Mae got to her feet and stumbled back. As she moved away, his hard stare tracked her, even if she wasn’t sure he was seeing her.

“Go,” he ordered in spite of the blood coming out the side of his neck. “Go!”

“I’m sorry—”

“Like I give a shit!”

Trembling from head to foot, Mae closed her eyes and tried to concentrate.

When she was finally able to dematerialize, the gurgling sounds of the dying vampire haunted her. But she had her own problems, and he was right. She had to take care of herself. Her brother was depending on her.

Besides, if you lived by the fight, you died by the fight.

It was a fact of fate, and not something someone like her could try to change.

Or should.