Excerpt from Running in the Dark

October 22nd, 2012

 

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Running in the Dark will be released into the wild a week from today. It’s available for pre-order wherever e-books are sold, but for your reading pleasure, may I present the first chapter and a half…

 

Chapter One

 

I was driving a clinking, clanging, rusted-out POS that hadn’t been new since I was in diapers. The driver’s seat boasted a rogue spring with bad intentions and the exhaust system had all the dignity of a very old, very drunk man working his way through the world’s most disgusting bucket list.

I didn’t even care, because I was lost.

With half my night’s deliveries still threatening the seams of my courier bag, I turned the Tercel onto yet another unmarked, unpaved road. And lurched to a stop in front of a locked metal gate.

“Camino privado,” I muttered. The industrial area northwest of Santiago was a labyrinth of private roads. I flipped my map over and back, then rotated it sideways to align it to the actual direction the roads ran. The sign across the street was barely visible under the blinking yellow streetlight.

I could have marked the map before I left, could have taken a red felt pen and drawn my route like a—gag—wandering tourist. But that would have made me a pretty poor excuse for a vampire courier.

Vampires, for all their various talents, can’t use technology. Their altered energy, that strange current that keeps their undead bodies ambulatory and brains ticking, is murder on electronics. So they rely on us, human couriers who can drive all night—and during the day, when necessary—between their plush homes, swank offices and blood lounges without allowing ourselves to be tailed or corrupted. Or to get lost. I looked at my watch and felt the line between my eyebrows deepen.

I fought the car into reverse, spun the nose toward the road and ground it into gear. I’d been in Santiago for a month, during which time I’d learned that Chilean water tastes like it was ladled out of a public pool and that I could live happily on empanadas for the rest of my life. I’d also discovered that a city ten times larger than my prior base of Anchorage, Alaska, was more than ten times harder to work in when everything was written in a language I didn’t understand. My Spanish consisted of common words and a few key phrases. Essentials such as “Where is the bathroom?” Lies to protect my real identity, like “My name is Aerin Crane.” And common business phrases: “Sign here, please” and “I’m not for biting.”

I cruised between the darkened hulks of warehouses and faded shipping containers. The passing headlights ahead signaled a major cross street. If I reached that, I’d gone too far. My lips pressed tight together and I shook my head, willing my destination to appear.

And, voilá, a shiver ran down my spine, one that had nothing to do with cold and everything to do with the jittery offbeat current of vampire energy. I braked, turned onto a pair of overgrown ruts with aspirations of roadness, and crept toward a long, one-story building with corrugated metal siding. What should have been a parking lot was overgrown with weeds, and the angular shapes looming in those weeds indicated trash—big metal trash. I parked forty feet from the building. Even though the car sucked, I’d rather keep my ten bucks than pay my employer to replace it. I stepped out of the car, settled my bag diagonally over my body and made sure my laminate ID and clipboard were visible. Those were the official tools of a courier.

Unofficially, I carried a can of pepper spray the size and shape of a lighter, and a six-inch pocket knife, currently in my back pocket and the side pouch of my bag. Couriers are technically off-limits to poaching by vampires, but I’d learned my lesson on how well suckers follow rules.

“Suba las manos, con las palmas boca arriba.” The voice, coming from the shadows stretching away from the high fence, was bored, male and dropping letters from the ends of words. I didn’t have to see him or have an academic knowledge of the Chilean dialect to know that he was lower class. My brain ran a quick translation with my limited vocabulary. Hands out, palms up. I raised my arms outward and pinched the clipboard between thumb and forefinger to comply with the order as well as I could.

“Entrego un paquete. Es para Guillermo.” I’d given the speech close to a thousand times during the six years I ran packages in Anchorage. Saying I was making a delivery and giving up the name of the recipient was my invitation, my protection and my get-out-of-jail-free card all in one. Then one night, two vampire regimes jumped from feud to war, and I found myself stuck in the middle as they started duking it out for the territory. Laminates aren’t effective shields when suckers are on a rampage.

I’d made serious bank as the preferred courier for Master Bronson, the head vampire in the Last Frontier. Almost enough to retire on. In the process I’d gained a reputation as the one runner in Alaska who couldn’t be corrupted. But when the bloody game of capture the flag took off, it turned out I was part of that flag. The insurgents went after the humans Bronson trusted to run his business, which included me since I delivered his messages and orders. I don’t like being a target. Thankfully, things were calmer in Santiago.

It was, technically, another of Master Bronson’s territories. He ruled the undead here just like he did in Alaska. But while he’d been fighting off the attempted coup back home, the suckers eight thousand miles to the south thought it was a fine time to try to gobble up pieces of Bronson’s Patagonian empire.

“Guillermo no está,” the sucker said, now right behind me. The hive leader wasn’t there. I’d heard that a lot in the last two weeks.

Since there were no other vampires with a master’s strength in Santiago, power had splintered rather than shifting. Unaffiliated vampires—those who had been disowned or were set adrift when their makers died—formed hives together. If Bronson were here, his power would draw the orphans who sought protection and cow anybody else. But in defiance of the normal seasonal vampire migration, he’d stayed in Alaska, and the ambitious were making moves. The stronger suckers and their gangs skirmished over a few blocks here or a stake in a blood lounge there. Vampires were changing allegiances nightly.

And Guillermo was no longer ruling this poor hive. I wouldn’t care, except I needed a signature. The package wasn’t designated His Hands Only, so Guillermo’s usurper or successor would do just fine.

I asked for the new guy, or anyone with signature authority, then swiveled until I spotted the male I was talking to. He had two hands. Surely he was capable of signing. The vampire crept up, his energy buzzing against me like an electric razor.

“Who is it from?” he asked through a thick accent. I tilted the clipboard and squinted at the “sender” line.

“Goya Worldwide.” I frowned. Vampires tended to go by first name only unless there were several of them with the same name—which was surprisingly infrequent—or if they weren’t affiliated with a master. I rarely delivered anything corporate. He made a low sound, impatience or frustration, but didn’t come any closer.

“What will you do if you cannot deliver it?”

“Anyone can sign for—”

“And if nobody does?”

“Then I come back tomorrow night,” I said cheerfully, like I believed the customer was always right rather than exceedingly frustrating. “Can I put my arms down?”

His curse was barely audible, but enough to alert me that something was off, way off. Suckers might get irritated by their deliveries the same way I get irritated by junk mail, but that doesn’t stop me from going to the post office. Power brushed against my right side and I turned on my heel as a new vampire joined us. Great, a welcoming committee instead of just one ill-mannered sucker.

Suckers emit an almost static-electric feeling, constant rather than a shock. It’s uncomfortable, and cold, and most humans don’t feel it so much as sense there’s something not right about the person generating it.

Thanks to dear old mom ingesting vampire blood while she was pregnant—a scientific no-no—I’m acutely sensitive to vampire power. Luckily, I can also resist them when they try to charm-slash-brainwash me.

“You may lower them.” The female spoke English with a British accent, and as she walked into view, I lowered my head along with my arms to hide my smile.

I dress up for a reason, baggy clothes to hide my true size, dyed hair—a phenomenal pine-green at the moment—to disguise the color, and theatrical makeup to alter my appearance. I changed it up nightly so that if I needed to bolt, I’d have a chance at getting away without being recognized. She, however, was distinctly dressed like the lovechild of Stevie Nicks and Little Red Riding Hood. There was a lot of floppy red velvet and feathered black hair going on and it didn’t appear to be a disguise.

“Thank you, ma’am. Now, if I could just get a signature, I’ll be on my way. The delivery was scheduled for tonight, and the sender is one Goya Worldwide.”

She smiled, but as she moved toward me I had to force myself to hold still. The male circled around, moving like a vampire should, quick and quiet. She, on the other hand, lurched, all hunched forward, arms twitchy inside her cape as if she was having trouble with her balance. The male murmured, and her eyes narrowed. She snapped at him, straightening slightly so that, in the beams of my headlights, I saw her belly, grotesquely distended. Like she was about to give birth to triplet ponies. I didn’t want to—couldn’t—imagine what she’d done to get that way, so I concentrated on the male instead.

He was massive, barrel-chested in what looked like a threadbare gondolier’s shirt. And he had muttonchops for days. The truly impressive kind, black and really puffy. They argued, paying no attention to me, until the vampiress raised a hand and screeched a command. Despite the tattered display of power that accompanied her words, he lowered his head in submission. I almost felt bad for him, being yelled at in front of a human. She turned to me.

“Give it to me,” she demanded, opening and closing her hand like a compulsive puppet. I offered her the clipboard, keeping my gaze above her belly but below her eyes.

“Sign here, please.”

She slapped the board with such force that something in my wrist popped from the effort of holding it. My right hand tripped around to my back pocket and I swallowed hard. Keep calm. Stay professional. She began panting, and heat emanated from her like she had a fever. Her eyes followed the kohl line down the center of my nose, the ribbons that arched over my brows and back down to my cheekbones.

“Brujita, tú no sabes con quién te estás metiendo. Aquí mando yo. Dame el paquete.”

I didn’t catch all of it, but the bravado spelled it out just fine. You don’t know who you’re messing with, you little witch. Give me the package. Blah, blah, blah.

“All I need is a signature and you can have your…”

She raised a hand, focused, and tried to will me to release the package. Blotches of cool power pressed against my forehead, and I stiffened in anticipation of it exploding behind my eyes. But…nothing. Her glamour—a vampire trick to temporarily alter a human’s reasoning—didn’t even make contact with my mind. She was talking the talk, all arrogant and snappy, but she clearly didn’t know what the hell she was doing.

Not that I was going to tell her that. My top three rules of survival all used to involve not pissing off vampires, but the bastards didn’t seem to care how careful I was. Now, rule number one was that nobody could find out I couldn’t be influenced. Not vampires, not humans, not anybody.

So here I was, running late on the night I’d promised myself I’d finally make it back to the shop on time. And then she pulled this shit. I couldn’t “obey” her glamour nor could I laugh off her feeble attempt to influence me.

I swayed a bit to make it appear I was affected and—drama queen that she was—she raised her other hand. The cold force of her will crawled across my forehead and dipped toward my ears, dampening sound and making my teeth tingle like I’d bitten aluminum foil. According to the laws of vampire conveyance in Chile, she’d already assaulted me—the clipboard being a designated extension of the messenger. Plus she’d called me a little witch. Now she intended to crush my puny human mind like a peanut shell. My lip curled.

I pulled the canister from my pocket, flicked the cap off and sprayed. I jogged backward, because that shit goes everywhere and my plans did not include spending the rest of the night a red-eyed mess with no control over my mucous membranes. The suckers skittered away into the dark, which would have been spooky except I could hear them coughing and gagging and scratching at their faces. I hadn’t even aimed it directly at them.

“Last time,” I said in a tone I’d never have used with a vampire who had real power. “Somebody signs for this, or I mark it undeliverable as addressed and incinerate it.”

Stevie Hood stomped back into the glow of the Tercel’s headlights, grabbed the board and scratched out a single name, Livia. The inside of my nose began to burn and I blinked hard as I extracted the padded envelope from my bag, double-checking the address. Livia took it, and I backed up a couple more steps as the pepper cloud wafted toward me.

She stared at the package, turning it slowly in her hands. The blood-flush drained from her face. Maybe I’d used too much. Maybe in high enough concentrations, pepper spray was toxic to suckers, with their heightened senses.

I’d be in so much trouble if I killed a vampire on the job.

She looked at me and her fangs dropped. I stopped breathing. Then she turned her head, as if to call over her shoulder, and vomited a stream of blood. I leaped back with a startled yell. The other vamp darted away from the slat fence he’d been leaning on, and held Livia upright while maneuvering to avoid her line of fire. She heaved out a couple more pints, then wiped her mouth on her cape. Her shirt rode up and I nearly gagged at the sight of her belly, the veiny skin stretched so tight it was nearly translucent. Her giant gondolier picked her up and carried her to the low warehouse.

The door slammed, then squealed as it swung back open a few inches. The blood on the ground steamed in the cool air. Creepy. I climbed into my car, set my bag on the passenger’s seat and aimed for the next address on the list. I’d expected a silent, scary entourage engaging in icy intimidation and sly attempts to deceive or seduce. I’d gotten a powerless glutton with bad fashion sense and no manners.

They weren’t making vampires like they used to.

 

 

I pulled into the garage of Carla’s Mensajero y Correos at a quarter past five in the morning. Not only wasn’t I late, mine wasn’t even the last car in. I resisted the urge to squeal with joy and commando roll over the hood of the car. Yeah, my self-control is pretty stellar. Or maybe I just didn’t want to be fired for idiocy.

Carla squinted through the window between the garage and office as she talked on the phone. Her eyes went from the car to my bag and back again, searching for a reason for me to have returned early. She was somewhere between a hard forty and mild fifty, and had converted the repair shop she’d inherited from an uncle into a low-security courier shop.

During my interview, she alluded to having been a runner herself, but she was fairly calm and very feminine and, every once in awhile, talked down to us in a way that indicated she had no idea what happened on the streets after dark.

She was a fair enough employer so far, though the rules in Chile were different from those in the States. Runners here worked the same number of hours—low—and earned an hourly wage, also low, with bonuses for completing express deliveries. Since I was the new girl, I got the milk run. For me, nothing was urgent, which meant nothing paid well.

The building boasted a small, bright office and three car bays. The traps in the floor had been covered over, though the last bay—mine—still had a working lift for quick repairs that didn’t require a real garage. Which is where Mickey the wonder mechanic came in. Mickey, who was wandering toward me with worry in her big, brown eyes and a greasy rag in her small, strong hands.

“What is wrong with the car, Aerin?” Mickey’s real name was Maricela, but only Carla called her that, and only when she was angry. She spoke excellent English, which I’d discovered when she’d handed me the keys to my car, then proceeded to describe the myriad defects. “It does not work?”

“Running just fine.” I bit the inside of my lip to keep from grinning as I pulled the clipboard from my bag and headed for Carla. Behind me, the hood release popped.

“Fine?” Mickey asked. “She is never fine. Why does the inside of the car smell like lemons?”

“Olfactory camouflage,” I said. I’d slathered my clothes in oregano, aquarium water and furniture polish before coming to work. Even though Carla wasn’t big on her runners hiding their natural scents from the local vamps, I kept it up. She thought the odds of a vampire crossing a runner’s path outside of work were too low for it to be an issue. Vamps track blood best of all, but their senses are good enough that they can identify humans by scent. Evasive driving and disguises might keep humans from following me home, but suckers require a bit more effort, effort I was absolutely willing to make. Someday I might even find something that didn’t make me want to tear my clothes off and bathe in a public fountain by midnight.

My grin slid away as Jacinta, Carla’s longest-tenured runner, glanced up at me from a battered love seat in front of bay one. “You forget something, novato?” Jace asked, swinging one long leg off the end of the couch. She had a good four inches on me, putting her somewhere around five foot ten, and was built solid. She wore her hair in a long, well-conditioned ponytail over shorn sides, and had a talent for skeletal black-and-white makeup. In a black leather bustier, she looked like a Halloween warrior princess with a pug nose.

She also had something I wanted, the premium route. She got the best—meaning most lucrative—of Carla’s regular deliveries, as well as first choice on last-minute calls. I had a pile of scraps and no say. Of course, I was working under an assumed name and hadn’t presented any references when I applied, so I didn’t have a reputation. Yet. Tonight was step one in changing that.

“Thought I’d knock off early and come see how the other half live.” I stepped over her leg when she wouldn’t move it. The door to bay two opened and Tilde’s white Peugeot rolled in behind me.

Carla surged through the office door, her silky turquoise skirt swishing, her plump caramel arms pumping. “Aerin, you cannot return until you have finished the entire run. If you have trouble, you call and we figure it out. How many are left?”

I slid the signature sheets off the clipboard and handed them over without taking my eyes off Jace, who sniffed dismissively. But not before I saw the concern in her eyes. Jace was top dog but this was a small shop, and while I hadn’t seen her drive, she seemed sloppy.

Sloppy meant picking up a tail and leading fang-bangers or rival gangs to customers, or forgetting to switch your plates and getting jacked by punks seeking to intercept or ransom correspondence. Sloppy meant letting vampires know your weaknesses, which was the same as giving them a means to corrupt you. Sloppy meant dead, or good as.

Jacinta was bright enough to sense her position might be at risk, so maybe she’d step up her game. Mickey wandered up, wiping at a smudge on her cheek with a rag. She peeked over Carla’s shoulder, then grinned at me.

“Well done! Drinks are so very much on you tonight!”

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

“They call us witches, even though they know we’re nothing like those sangijuelas de mierda,” Jace slurred.

“Motherfucking leeches,” Tilde translated pleasantly. Carla and the other runners defaulted to speaking English as a courtesy to me and Tilde, since she understood English far better than any of us spoke Swedish. But every once in awhile they dropped phrases that baffled my dictionary.

I smiled my thanks and glanced around the bar. The people who quickly shifted away from my gaze weren’t a problem. Regular people didn’t tend to stare at messengers. Jace raised a finger and pointed at me

“Are you listening?”

“Oh, totally. This is fascinating.”

“You know, my brother really is a witch.” She nodded to herself. “He could show them.”

“He’s no brujo,” Carla said conspiratorially. “He was a computer hacker. Got caught by Interpol. Now he lives with his mother with a…” She set her foot on the seat of my chair and wrapped both hands around her lower leg.

“Ankle bracelet?”

“Sí, sí.” She clinked glasses with Jace and Tilde. They each downed a shot. Carla let out a little squeak. Jace shook her head rapidly, then tossed her head back and howled. I shifted, glancing around from beneath my lashes. Low profile, that was us. Tilde merely licked her lips. She was waifish, with a white-blond pixie cut, but she was matching Jace shot for shot. The tiny Swede could drink.

“Why do they call us witches?” I asked around the mouth of my beer bottle. Carla rolled her eyes.

“Not us. I am a businesswoman.” She waved her hand as though shooing off a bug. “It’s a name for messengers.”

I narrowed my eyes. There was no way she’d ever handled a run in her life. Veterans of the job didn’t dismiss it, and those who’d tried and couldn’t cut it were either bitter or awed, never scornful.

“The Spanish—the Catholics among them—back then believed that vampires were devils, and that any who consorted with them and lived must be enchanted. Really, it was because certain humans were in business with vampires and not giving the church a…a…”

“A cut? A percentage?”

Sí. The name remained when humans began working as couriers. You were not called such things where you come from?” She asked the question lightly, but her entire body focused on me, shoulders arching forward, eyebrows rising in encouragement.

“No.” I made a show of shaking my empty bottle, seeking a distraction. As if on cue, Mickey ejected out of the tight crowd. She landed at the table with another couple of beers and my change, which turned out to be the same bill I’d given her.

“What, did you steal them?”

“A man bought them for us.” She squinted toward the bar, then waved to someone. “He asked if he could speak to you. He is very polite. A gentleman.”

I turned and caught sight of a tall, slender man with light, reddish hair. He was handsome, almost pretty, with blue eyes so bright I could see the color across the room. He sipped from a short glass of amber liquor, seemingly oblivious to the slosh of the late-night crowd. A chill ran through me and I grabbed the edge of the table to anchor myself. The population was higher in Santiago than in Anchorage, so there were more of them, but it was still a surprise every time I noticed a vampire. A lone vampire, anyway. They tended to avoid human establishments, and when they did go out, they usually went in groups. That always brought to mind images of animals on the hunt, but in reality the groupings probably had more to do with self-preservation. They might be faster and stronger, but humans outnumbered suckers thousands to one, and they weren’t exactly popular.

This guy just looked like he was stopping off for a nightcap on his way home. He turned back to the bar and I glanced at Mickey, wondering if she had unwittingly been glamoured by the vampire. She shook her head and pointed farther to my right. A stout man with a mullet glowered imperiously back at us from over an abundance of chest hair. He winked. I choked back a laugh and jabbed the neck of my bottle into Mickey’s ribs. She whimpered dramatically and fell into Carla’s lap.

“If he is a gentleman, then I am a fucking fairy princess.”

Excerpt from Don’t Bite the Messenger

January 10th, 2012

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!


Chapter One

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.

 

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© Copyright 2012 Hillary Jacques