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about | excerpt

"Being a vampire isn't all it's cracked up to be. Anyone who tells you otherwise is prowling for a snack."

Tybalt Jones is not your typical creature of the night. He prefers Havana shirts to capes and his "sidekick" is a curvy faerie girl. Not a hunchback in sight. He's been out of the vampire "scene" for years, and he'd be happy to stay out for the rest of his unlife.

But vampires connected to Tybalt are disappearing from St. Sebastian's streets. To make matters worse, he's on a literal deadline to clean up the city.

With a little gypsy know-how, a dab of faerie luck and a crash course in using his unusual gifts, he might just survive to restore peace.

For now.

Chapter One

If you know anything about vampires – or think you do, at least – you’ve probably got a plan for what to do when you meet one. That is, of course, if you believe.

Here’s the thing about believing: it’s not a two-way street. They don’t need your buy-in to smell supper beneath your skin. Deny all you want. Ignore the itch of warning at the back of your brain.

Just don’t get caught alone on Hunting Night.

Hunting Night is one of those things most people know by instinct, but most don’t give a name. Step outside after sundown and the hair on your arms stands on end. You check over your shoulder like a nervous tic and shy away from doorways on deserted streets. Little things – everything – makes you jump. Smart people listen to that tinny inner voice.

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 should be watching movies with my gorgeous girlfriend. Somehow I found myself on a street corner instead, 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 put myself on duty. Absolutely no one expected me to guard the people of St. Sebastian. If I did, though, I had the chance to save someone from the path I’d traveled. The path I regretted most nights of my unlife.

I don’t know what the girl was thinking when she ducked down the side street, but from the way she moved, she knew where she was going. She’d probably walked this exact route a hundred times. Tonight, every fiber of her being should have warned her away from that shortcut, but she couldn’t smell the predators lying in wait. I picked up the pace to be at her back, on her side.

She was young, probably eighteen or nineteen. A coed headed home from a study session, maybe. I didn’t spend much time around the subways so I didn’t know which train had brought her here. The stale air and odor of too many bodies crowded together clung to her like a memory of safety. Maybe not a student, though. She could just as easily have been someone’s mistress or babysitter. It didn’t matter. Not out here. No one would check her resume.

Other shadows were already shifting when I spoke. “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 the best game in town tonight.” Not the best analogy, but sometimes my mouth gets ahead of me. “Just don’t run,” I said again. “Run and things get worse.”

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 matinee 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 coed’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 a 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 make fists. His simple existence urged me to run the other way, but the girl trembling behind me pinned me in place. I summoned up a smile I knew looked thin and tight. “Not tonight,” I answered in a voice that didn’t match; I can swagger too. “Just here to see the girl 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. 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 that grip of his meant business.

“Why,” he asked as he leaned in close, “are you such a buzz kill, T?” His breath could’ve curled my eyelashes and straightened my hair.

He threw me. Not in the slow motion tumble movies present. Not even close. The quick, vicious jerk of his arm felt like it should have torn me apart.

The worst part of a toss like that isn’t getting knocked around. It isn’t even the collision with a dirty brick wall. It’s listening to the low laughter of the pack closing in on a girl whose breath gets punctuated by 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 scraps and empty bottles and picking yourself up to join a fight you never should have seen.

I stepped out of the refuse brushing a napkin from my shoulder and shaking spaghetti off my shoes. The young woman twitched and struggled in the big guy’s grip. She had her hands around his wrist, nails digging stinking 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’d been chased off, I might as well have handed her to a pack of rabid dogs.

If you’ve never witnessed a fight where the brawlers do serious harm, first count yourself lucky. Second, 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 ear on the girl, but facing the trio of underlings kept me busy. I lost the sleeve of my trench coat 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 cloying scents of dirt, decay and rust. Stale, old blood. My stomach tightened all the same, unwelcome stirrings of a need I could almost ignore. I locked arms with an opponent, ducked beneath it with a twist, and yanked upward behind him. Bone and tendons frayed and splintered. He howled and dropped. I moved onto the next.

In the time it took the pretty coed’s lips to tinge blue, I’d dealt with two of them. Not without cost. I had ribs still knitting and I couldn’t see 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, 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 just stopped talking completely. I wiped my hand against my trousers and offered it to help her up. As she stared at it, at me, still in the sprawl where she’d landed, I could all but hear the thoughts racing through her mind. Don’t be afraid? Did he see what just happened? Is he insane?

I got lucky. She didn’t ask out loud and let me pull her to her feet. Not that her hands lingered. Not that I blamed her. My palm was cold and grimy and spattered with flecks of blood. She folded her arms beneath her breasts, not-so-subtly wiping ichors off on her shirt. After a moment in which she must have decided not to run, too, she took an audible breath and her shoulders climbed toward her ears. “I guess you saved me.” She didn’t quite look at me.

“I guess I did.” Not a brag. Just the horrifying truth. “Do you have somewhere to go?”

She flinched and now her gaze snapped back to mine. What little color had been in her cheeks bled away again. “Were they…? I mean, the teeth…”

I could have made up a story, something she could whisper to herself when the nightmares came later, but she needed to remember what had happened tonight. One brave fight and a daring rescue wouldn’t keep her safe. “They were.”

She closed her eyes and pressed her hand to her mouth. Another whimper escaped her but that was it. She didn’t faint. She didn’t break down in tears. The girl was made of stronger stuff than she appeared. She flinched again when I touched the small of her back, but moved with me. Away from the scene of the would-have-been-a-crime. Closer to safety, for a step or two, until another piece of the puzzle snapped into place.

She balked, twisted and stared at me. “Then you’re…”

‘Not like them’ sat on the tip of my tongue, but then the wind shifted and her scent came back to me again. Warm, newly shed blood swirled through the breeze like a crimson thread. She’d been scratched or scraped, probably when she fell. She smelled like Heaven, if such a place existed, welcoming, inviting, promising everything in one 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.

“Taking you home,” I answered. “Making sure you get there safe.”

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 it if you saw me on the street. I don’t fit the stereotype anymore than the thugs in the alleyway. I shouldn’t, with a name like Tybalt Jones.

My mother taught at a junior women’s college in 1927. English and History. She’d moved to St. Sebastian from a farm in Indiana. She was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed all-American girl with a pretty smile and a size nothing waist.

Dad was a musician at a local blues club. He’d been a steelworker before that, walking girders for pay. Somewhere back in his line, red blood mixed with black, and the rhythm of two cultures pounded through his veins. They met on a street corner in the rain, so they always said. She fell in love with him inside a second. Real old-time movie stuff. Nine months or so later, they had me.

People call my skin cafe au lait. My eyes are a color somewhere between amber and hazel-y green. I’m not a big guy, but Mom said I had good shoulders. Call it a take on the world and shrug off troubles kind of build. I just didn’t know the kind of trouble headed my way.

I don’t live in a crypt or sleep in a coffin. I’ve got four walls and roof, a bed and a fireplace. My previously-mentioned girlfriend was sleeping soundly when I let myself in, so I locked the door behind me and limped to the shower to scald myself clean.

When I stepped out of the steam-cloud again, who knew how much later, Violet was awake. She normally slept so hard not even a drop from full height to the bed could wake her. She didn’t sleep well alone, though. Something about magic and strength in numbers. Her people were fae and even harder to fathom than my immortal kin. I smiled and nodded a lot.

I regretted waking her up, for a second, but then she smiled and the remainder of post-fight tension melted away. I climbed onto the bed beside her, losing the towel around my waist halfway there. Neither of us were shy. She’d seen it all and then some.

“Hey,” I said, winding my arms around her ribs and planting a kiss behind one purple, pointed ear. Between the color of her skin and her curly silver hair, you might say she stood out a bit. “Sorry if I was loud. Glad to see you.” She felt warm in my arms, and my fingers danced over the faint lines crisscrossing her back from the wrinkles she’d made in the sheets while she slept. She smelled like pine trees, strawberries and fresh linen. I breathed her deep and my spine unkinked. Things would be okay.

Maybe. Rather than her usual enthusiastic welcome home, she lifted a hand and absently patted me on the head. “Uh-huh.” I frowned, but it was late. I could have let it go.

And she’d turned on the television while she waited for me. That explained some of her preoccupation. Vi had never seen a TV show before we met. I’d never known someone who could literally watch six channels at a time.

The weird part was in the way she watched. She kept her eyes open so wide they might have rolled out of their sockets if someone surprised her with a smack to the back of the head. I counted to twenty and never saw her blink. It took touching her chin and turning her head to steal her attention. Even then, it only lasted for a second. She flashed me a quick, distracted smile, then her gaze wandered back to the flat screen again.

“Look at that,” she murmured half a second later. “Have you seen anything like that before?”

‘That’ was a 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 and everyone 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 blocked off the intersection behind her. A fresh-faced man in a fireman’s uniform directed trickling traffic to a makeshift detour. Paramedics jogged an empty gurney across a corner of the scene. There’d been an accident, she reported, complete with injuries. Strange that it deserved this much attention. Accidents happened every night in our city. It didn’t fascinate me the way it had Vi.

Until 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. 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 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 how could I forget that face? The reporter cheerfully chirped on about the man missing seven years who’d suddenly turned up dead. It would, she promised, baffle the police for weeks to come.

Baffle? If they were lucky. They didn’t know what they’d been handed. The poor fool corner 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 protested. “Not seeing, T.”

I glanced at the TV and down at her again. “I see it, I promise. I should make a phone 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.”

“What guy?” Vi shifted to her knees, all the focus of her spooky attention now on me.

“The dead guy. The one on TV. I fought him.”

“Tonight?”

Vi didn’t normally ask questions about what she called my hero patrols. The less she knew, the less she had to worry. Something weird was going on.

“While I was out,” I confirmed, drawing out my words. “I didn’t kill him, though.”

Vi frowned at me. It looked out of place on a face built for smiling. “And you were nowhere near Kenton and 5th?”

Damn. “Is that where they found him?” The coed’s apartment was two doors down from that corner.

Vi pointed to the television again. “You really need to take another look.”

So much for the cops being baffled. I was getting a little freaked out. Still, I knew when Vi got insistent, it was 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 wasn’t counting this time. I don’t know how long it took, but I didn’t notice the symbol until my eyes had nearly dried out and I had to blink. By the time I got my eyes open again, the phantom symbol was gone.

But the after-image lingered, like the blue haze that haunts your vision after staring into the sun. The ache I’d steamed out of my body came back with a vengeance, making my almost-hundred-year-old bones feel every second of their age.

I’m not an expert on mystical stuff. I know the basics and learned a secret or two, but I can’t see patterns in the air, usually. When shivers go through me, I sit up and pay attention.

The symbol the camera looked at, or through, was powerful and magic. I couldn’t say who laid it down, but I knew they’d done it right. I might have just come in from a brawl, but 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 pulled. I needed to be on the street. I needed to 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. When the moment passed and I probably looked less like I’d bite her for breathing, she wet her lips and gave me a tiny here-goes-nothing shrug. “You saw it.”

“I saw something, at least.”

I wish I had something more clever to say, something reassuring. I’d coaxed and cajoled that coed home, but here and now, I wasn’t inspired.

“That thing, whatever it was. At the corner of screen? That was bad.” Brilliant observation. “Scary,” I went on. I’d turned into a three-year-old caveman. “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.

Instead 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. “We’ll figure it out.”

Hang on a minute. “We?”

She shrugged again. “I saw it, too. I want to know what it means. You don’t have to do this alone.”

True. Violet could more than take care of herself. Hell, she’d been watching out for me going on five years now. The sense of menace I got off my glimpse of the symbol, though, made me want to keep her as far away as possible.

“It’s not for you,” I said lowly. 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, hope in her eyes and the hint of a smile that dusted her lips. “And we don’t care.”

“We don’t?”

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 a 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 singled us out. They called us out. They’re looking for vampires.” How I knew that, I couldn’t say. I just felt it in my bones, like a memory I’d buried and hoped to forget. “You don’t issue a challenge like that and expect us to do nothing.”

Vi leaned into me and reached for my jaw. Her fingers bit into the corners of my mouth, her gaze so intent I felt her will wrestling with mine. “What us? You’re not like them. Haven’t been for a long, long time. There is no you in them. Don’t change your mind now.”

Anyone who’s crossed over – pushed, dragged or willingly – learns an undeniable truth right up front: loyalty lies in the blood. There’s always a we in the vampire’s world. We’re one big dysfunctional family in dire need of therapy.

And what affects one of us touches us all. If someone’s out burning my relatives for kindling, I’m going to try to stop it, even if I’d like to strike the match myself. It’s not a conscious impulse. 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, one silver coil springing into her eyes. “If you know it’s a setup, T, you have to stay away. You’re too smart to just walk into a trap.” Vi didn’t do flattery. She tucked her nose against my chest and pressed her hips to mine, giving me every reason to ignore the taunt and stay with her. “If the rest of them want to investigate, let them. You leave it alone.”

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.

“If you didn’t want me involved, why’d you point it out?” I asked, pressing a thumb into the corner of my eye. With luck, the pain would make me see clearly again. I shouldn’t have put the blame on her, but my mind kept racing. Do something. Stop sitting around. The urge to move tugged at me like the tide, each wave a little stronger than the last.

Vi followed me to the bed and sat close but didn’t crowd me. She pulled her knees up to her chest and rested her chin on top. “I guess I just felt like I should.”

Should. The way I’d been compelled to keep watching. The way I’d involved myself in stopping the hunts tonight. The snakes in my gut became dragons.

“If you go out there, T, They’ll remember you’re around.” I heard the capital letter. “They’ll start asking questions, expecting things.” She nudged my shoulder lightly. “We do okay without them, don’t we?”

I glanced around at my sturdy walls, at the bits of glitter in the texture on the ceiling. We lived a mostly uneventful life, as far away from the undercity culture as we could. Once you got past the vampire-and-faerie pairing, we were practically normal and I liked it that way. “We do okay,” I allowed, knowing I was about to lie and wishing I could take it back already. “I’ll stay out of it. You’re right. I’ll stay.”

Content and design (c) S.L Gray 2013-2014