Following is an excerpt from the first chapter of Don’t Bite the Messenger, coming 1.16.12 from Carina Press. The electronic novella is receiving good feedback so far, which absolutely thrills me. I’m an introvert but, from safe behind my computer monitor, I do like to entertain. Enjoy!
I was running late. My coat crackled as I took the stairs two at a time, arms pumping, ratty old messenger bag grating at my shoulder and bumping against my hip—each tap a reminder of time ticking down. Visions swam through my mind of a white rabbit in a waistcoat, hopping frantically, his big feet bloodied, his monocle cracked. I was never late.
I shoved through the door to the fourteenth floor of the PetroTech Building at a dead run, grabbing the wall to whip into a turn, then cursed as I almost collided with a big blond man in a leather coat.
“Take it easy,” he said, raising something toward my face. Reflexively I slapped it away, then rolled my eyes when it slid across the polished tile. It was a plain brown envelope secured with a red string, totally normal for an office building. The man crouched to pick it up, his eyes still on me, and I shivered despite the fact that I was sweating.
“Sorry,” I said, gulping air. “In a hurry.”
“So I see.” The man picked the envelope up and extended it toward me. “Don’t forget this.” As if I’d dropped it rather than knocked it out of his hand. I blinked rapidly as pressure built behind my eyes, and my heart found another gear as I did the math. Cold flash plus insidious attempt to influence equaled not human.
“If you knew who this delivery was for,” I said, backing away, “you wouldn’t be hustling me. Rule number one for surviving your undeath in Alaska is that you don’t steal from the Master.” I slipped through the glass door announcing the law firm of Deglio, Caravel and Aronofsky in frosted script and came to a hard-breathing, red-faced stop in front of a sleek receptionist with drawn-on eyebrows.
“Delivery. For Mr. Deglio.” I looked out the window behind her at the drab view of Cook Inlet, even more dismal in the evening gloom. I had a plan to trade Anchorage and its muddy banks for the sandy beaches of Hawaii. I just needed a little more money, then I could finally be rid of the cold and the dark. The muffled ding of the elevator sounded out in the hall. I refocused on my reflection in the glass and the wavering space behind me. It was empty. My wannabe interceptor had disappeared.
“You may leave it with me.” The receptionist’s expression soured as she looked me over.
“Sorry.” I pulled the clipboard out of my bag and tapped it with authority. “The order says it goes in his hands only.” I glanced at my watch. Six fifty-two. When I’d met the pilot at the small plane airport, he’d told me that delivery before 7:00 p.m. was imperative.
The receptionist painted on a thin veneer of patience and opened her mouth to put me in my place. Screw this. I’d broken a couple of traffic laws to get here in twelve minutes. I wasn’t about to let an anorexic clerk cheat me out of my bonus.
I turned on my heel and stalked down the hall, ignoring her stage-whispered protests. I’d delivered to Deglio a few times before and knew the layout of the office. He wasn’t the sort to come out and greet a courier.
I knocked before I opened the door. Not because I’m polite, or even all that professional, but because I knew what probably waited inside the large corner office. Even though they would know I was there, it was good sense not to burst into a room full of vampires. One of them might take it as an excuse to exercise their fangs.
The door glided open. Deglio stood behind his broad desk, faced by two groups. One wore black leather and blank expressions, the other a mishmash of business attire spanning the fashions of the last century. The sight was a still life of a joke, four lawyers and eight vampires. Now who’s the bloodsucker? the punch line would go. All eyes swung in my direction, the vampires stone-faced, except for Lucille, who scrunched up her sharp nose and gave me a clandestine finger-wave. I fought back a smile. You’d think the personal secretary to the master vampire of Alaska would be stodgy, but when Bronson wasn’t watching, she was actually pretty cool.
“Apologies for the interruption, Mr. Deglio,” I said, striding into the room with my shoulders back and my chin up. I ignored the cold spike of anger from the strange vamps on my left, and resisted veering toward the smooth hum of power from Master Bronson and his entourage on my right. “But I’ve got a package for you.”
“This is unacceptable, young lady,” Deglio barked. “Sheila, why did you permit a messenger to barge in here?” Behind me, the receptionist sputtered, but she stayed in the doorway. Even if you didn’t know what they were or couldn’t feel their disconcerting energy, you’d know to stay away from vampires. They’re the normal-looking people you cross the street to avoid, the ones who make you want to lock the door when they pull alongside your car in a perfectly presentable Mercedes. They dress like humans, they transact business like humans—though with a certain sadistic edge—but they’re not human. Not anymore.
“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry ’bout that. But I’m supposed to be off in a few minutes, so I really can’t wait for your super-important meeting to get done.” One of the visiting attorneys laughed, a snide giggle. He obviously represented the dumb-shit suckers in the unseasonably heavy, floor-length coats who were glaring across the room at Bronson.
I knew better than to look at Bronson, knew better than to be fooled by his handsome Slavic features and his customary placid expression. Vampires did not achieve high ranks due to fine minds and good manners. He ruled this town, and whatever I was delivering, it was ammunition for his bureaucratic war against another attempted invasion. The vampire gangs hadn’t fought fang and fist in front of humans in a long time. Most of their battles started and ended on paper.
I extracted my delivery and offered it to Deglio. I hadn’t paid much attention at the pickup, but the envelope was a dead ringer for the decoy the vamp in the hall had tried to give me. Bronson’s opponent must have been desperate to try to chisel a runner. Despite being alive and full of warm blood, we’re considered off-limits by vampires. That’s a cold comfort on a long, dark night, but I’d take it. Deglio’s nostrils flared and a few of the vampires, the younger ones no doubt, shifted with a restless sort of flutter, zeroing in on his excitement. I’d never understood how anyone could forget what they were—predators.
“Sign here, please,” I said, handing Deglio my clipboard. He scrawled his signature, tore open the envelope and, for a fleeting instant, grinned like a cat that had just caught the fattest rat on the planet.
“Have a good evening, sir.” I turned, my gaze skipping over Bronson’s smile, and marched out of the room. A slight curve of lips, even lips as well-shaped as that, shouldn’t exert a physical pull. Worse, his smile hinted at approval, and there was no way I was going to let any of them see my answering surge of pride. Tricky vamps and their mind games.
I jogged down the stairs and out into the cold night. Snow crunched under my feet, but L Street had been plowed smooth and sanded so gently the de-skidding product could have been applied by a pepper shaker. That was one of the perks of living in a vampire migration path: good roads. I smiled at my car, sitting in the loading zone, flashing her hazard lights like a beacon.
A harried paralegal power-walked toward me, her head down, arms full of files. I dodged away. Even glancing contact could transfer scent, and our customers have disturbingly keen olfactory skills, so good they can sniff out natural resources. Alaska is rife with buried treasure. Long story short, sucker met tundra and the stagnant Alaskan economy went boom. In a good way. New reserves of oil. Gold. Inexplicable stashes of zinc and precious gems. Since their weird altered energy fries cell phones and they have a slightly less instantaneous—but in no way less devastating—effect on wired technology, vampires send messages the old-fashioned way. The really old-fashioned way. The flipping Pony Express way.
I don’t ride a pony because I don’t want all my income going into replacing frozen horses. I drive an Audi A6 because I need to be able to move and maneuver, and I like to do so in style. Gunmetal gray. Polarized tint to the windows. Nothing flashy. Nothing obvious. I unlocked the door and slid into the warm, leather seat.
A last-minute call on a busy night, an airport pickup and a delivery within a half hour? Easy five grand in my pocket. Six more drops in the metropolitan area tonight, and then I could celebrate.
“Another round,” Rogers yelled, thunking his empty beer bottle on the tabletop. I slid into the empty seat between him and Eugenie, scanning the bar for the boss. Rogers grinned at me, the elaborate spiderweb he’d drawn over the lower half of his face stretching around his teeth. The outrageous makeup, combined with the long limbs finally gathering muscle, made him look slightly menacing. I found this hilarious since, out of his war paint, he was all puppy-dog eyes and light, tousled hair.
“That your first?” I asked, eyeing the bottle. Rogers was almost twenty-two, but that didn’t mean I had to stop treating him like an adopted baby brother.
“Maybe it is and…yes. It is. McHenry ain’t here yet.”
“Still counting his money, most likely,” I said.
“Bunch of late calls came in,” Eugenie said. “Something buzzing at the end of the night.”
“Could be another land deal.” Rogers rubbed his hands together. “Maybe Bronson’s guys sniffed out another gold mine.”
“We would have heard,” I said absently. “They do love the limelight.”
The noisy punk crowd had ebbed for the night, but there were still fifty or more people in the bar. I unzipped my coat, which smelled of tom yum goong—one of my least-favorite Thai dishes—and melon air freshener, and shoved it under my seat. I prided myself on my olfactory camouflage, but had yet to find a combination sufficient to hide my natural scent that I didn’t want to scrub off after a few hours.
“It ain’t a deal.” Eugenie eyed the tables around us, then leaned forward. “Couple of the vamps’ charges trotted in around eight with armloads of messages. Something nasty’s brewing. Mark my words.”
More likely they were batting cleanup after quashing another vamp’s dreams of grabbing a piece of the territory. Although, if Bronson’s legal affairs had settled in his favor, the messenger traffic should have gone down afterward. Maybe that had only been round one of the negotiations. I smiled at the idea of another rush delivery and all the dollar signs that would come with it.
“‘Mark my words.’” Rogers snorted. “Okay, Gene. Your words have been duly noted.” He turned to me. “You winning, Mary?”
I blinked. Six years of using the cover name “Mary Pike” and sometimes I still forgot it. I smiled at the reference though. That was Sean Oester’s end-of-the-night line before he sold his ragtag band of runners to Douglas “Doughboy” McHenry.
Innsbruck and Oester is a vampire courier service. The customers call us I&O. We runners call ourselves In and Out. As in, get in, get out, keep your head on. The last part’s implied.
“Every damn day, kid.”
“What brings you here, Pike?” Eugenie asked from the other side of a row of amber-colored shots. She had short-cropped, blue-black hair, artfully spiked over a bad complexion. She must have spent a fortune at the salon to copy my looks, since I changed colors every few weeks. My hair was a little longer, and the pigment was uneven since I dyed it in my bathroom sink. That was where the similarities ended. Under the makeup, my face was angular, my skin dusky even though I rarely saw the sun. Eugenie’s was pale and round, with a ring through the center of her lower lip. I had warned her the piercing equaled a Very Bad Idea, that even if she removed it she could be identified by the scar, but she hadn’t listened.
“To a bar?” I swiped the cold beer the tattooed waitress set down for Rogers. “Having a drink, Gene. What’s it look like?”
“You up for a run this weekend?” Rogers asked. I wrinkled my nose.
“No winter parkour for me, thank you very much. I always end up slipping and falling on my ass.”
“I know.” He laughed until his eyes brightened with tears, then hovered his hand over my shoulder and assumed a serious, earnest look. “That’s why it’s so fun to have you around.”
“Go away, child.”
Rogers fumbled a handful of quarters and lurched off toward the jukebox, no doubt to program in the worst songs ever concocted. He’d been hanging around the I&O garage since he was old enough to keep up with his brother Dale, and he’d never developed good taste in women or music. After Dale hit the wall, went to rehab and moved down south, I’d taken it upon myself to talk Rogers down from his terrible crushes. I wasn’t as successful with the tunes.
Eugenie glanced at the bottle I held and then pointedly at Rogers’s back.
“He likes to share,” I said, at the same moment Rogers called over his shoulder: “I don’t mind sharing.”
“You never come out with us.” Gene’s tone was vaguely accusatory.
I shrugged. I got top picks from McHenry, plus exclusive handling of the busy Bronson run, which the other couriers talked about as though it was a nocturnal cash cow. What they didn’t realize was that my old age—twenty-six—hadn’t earned me the routes. They were a reward for over half a decade of sterling, shiny, balls-to-the-wall performance. I monitored the weather and traffic religiously, varied my routes nightly and, most important, I didn’t give vampires a chance to leverage me. If you didn’t show them weakness, they didn’t have an in.
“How’s the WRX?” I asked. Eugenie stretched her legs under the table, and I scooted back before she touched me. Careless of her.
She’d applied for the job because she liked the idea of the lifestyle and the money, but she wasn’t going to make it through her first winter. She wore the same makeup every night, reverting to a face she recognized in the mirror, and McHenry had reduced her to minimal deliveries after catching her driving the same routes during a weeklong audit. No wonder she’d been around when the vampires’ human charges came in. She wasn’t adapting, so she’d been benched. The best couriers never stopped changing. That had been drilled into me from day one, that it didn’t matter if I couldn’t remember what I looked like, so long as my customers couldn’t either.
“Haven’t got the car yet,” Eugenie said, slurping bourbon from the middle of five glasses. I hoped she was sticking to a single round. “Had to replace the alternator in the Jetta again. Gotta get new tires. Don’t have enough cash.”
I grimaced, draining half of the remains of Rogers’s beer.
“How much have you got?” I asked, shuffling my feet. It took me a long time to come down after a shift, now that I’d given up chemical relaxation. Eugenie twirled her glass and shrugged. I leaned forward over the table. “Come on, Gene. How much are you short?”
“Rogers said that you’ve been pulling in fifteen K a month,” she said, gray eyes abruptly sharp. It was my turn to shrug. “The WRX I want is going for fifty-eight.”
I coughed, almost shooting beer out my nose. “Fifty-eight? That’s highway robbery.” I shook my head, unable to fathom how Eugenie made it through life this clueless. “Go down to that shop on Riddle Street. Two days, they’ll get you the year, model and goddamn color you want, for no more than forty-five.” Gene started to shake her head, automatically objecting before she’d even figured out what she was protesting.
“Ask for Davy. Tell him I’m calling in that favor he owes me. The big one.” I wasn’t planning to be around to use it, and I hated to let anything go to waste.
“Really?” Gene’s tongue wandered out to worry her piercing. I looked away, disturbed by the grateful expression working its way onto her puffy face. “Geez, Pike. That’s…well…thanks. That’s real nice of you.”
I nodded stiffly. The evening’s joy at my fattening wallet faded. Extracting oneself from a vampire-related gig was a glacially slow process. I liked my job, hitting each night at full speed, but there’s no such thing as an old runner. Statistics kill us. Drunk drivers. Missed turns that send us sideways into concrete bollards or streetlights. Adrenaline-soaked brains a few steps ahead of common sense. Low-level vampire turf wars. Hell, we barely even trusted each other. McHenry was a decent boss, but he was a manager, not a runner. To him, I&O was a way to make money and, after he retired, he’d shuffle it off to someone else, or sell out to one of the international conglomerates. I’d heard they required uniforms, the very idea of which made me shudder. My job, especially this job, couldn’t be everything I had. I needed something else to round out my life.
I glanced up at the TV, sighing at the sight of adults picketing somewhere flat and sunny. Closed-captioning sputtered out an explanation of a new anti-vampire bill coming up before the legislature somewhere in Middle America. Brilliant move, guys. Prohibiting vampires from owning property or businesses…in a state they’d never set foot in. The sun dominated too many hours of the day for places like Kansas or Texas to interest the undead. If I barely slept, I wouldn’t move somewhere where I’d be locked inside my house for half of any given day either.
The door at the end of the bar opened, and a pair of tall, bald men entered—imposing inside of leather coats. Long, leather coats like Bronson’s challengers had worn. I turned away and watched them peripherally in the mirror behind the bar. Their faces were serene but their eyes intense as they surveyed the shotgun-style room. Maybe Bronson’s opponent hadn’t taken well to having his attack parried by whatever I’d delivered tonight. Couriers were never in season, but that didn’t mean that we couldn’t be poached. Maybe the loser thought it was a good idea to shoot the messenger.
Available now for pre-order from: Carina Press, Amazon, Barnes and Noble.
© Copyright 2012 Hillary Jacques