They, the jailers—gatekeeper one and three of his cronies—joined in the goose-stepping parade down what might have doubled as a middle school hallway. Doors with the top half sporting frosted glass lined each side of the tiled corridor. It lacked the ambiance of hospital sterility, yet still managed to give the impression of being easy to clean with a power washer and a liberal application of chlorine bleach.
It also fucked with my perspective, disappearing into a single point without resolving what, if anything, was at the end of the corridor.
Stanley’s largesse might have been an ill-considered indulgence on my part, though at the time it seemed a good idea, topping off the tank that Richter had filled before my incarceration, complements of the Feds, and my layover with Annie. Why the vamp had decided to share a blood bond with no strings attached that I could see was a question worth considering.
The problem was the inevitable high, the kind that made ‘invincible’ a viable label, and that promised to muddy the waters. When it had been just Richter and me, calling it a simple addiction was enough. Yes, there were consequences but they were my own and his. As they said… no harm, no foul.
On the other hand, I wasn’t stupid. To my lord and master, our dungeon games were surely part and parcel of some grand design. I accepted that, as I did most things Richter, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling his design had gone sideways, especially after his Me darling bombshell.
Never a deep thinker, it was far too easy for me to ignore the warning bells in my hard skull and just concentrate on the job. It’s what got me by. And it was what would be my downfall—that and the choices I’d made along the way, choices that fed needs Richter understood better than anyone, even me.
Why was Richter the target? His cryptic Me darling only made sense if he’d been privy to inside information about the hit and planned on using me and my questionable skills to eventually thwart whoever was behind it. Dominic could either be top of the leader board for that initiative, or I was tasked with enlisting his help.
Could he have been any more cryptic?
The twenty-five watt bulb that constituted my brain cells lit. Cryptic meant nothing was cast in concrete, cryptic was open to interpretation, cryptic suggested I needed to take care in responding to the ladder of challenges yet to surface. So far I’d passed inspection, jumping two hurdles and probably signing the death warrant on two minions.
Dominic, like all vamps who’d outlived reasons to care, liked games so much they forgot what it meant to live in a normal universe without constantly shifting rules. The trick was living long enough to turn those rules upside down and make them work for me, not against. No easy task.
Richter had given me the tools I needed, turning me from a who into a what: the ultimate vamp weapon, a daywalker.
The problem arose in the residual humanness I was loathe to shake. Contrary to my mandate, I’d rather liked Sam and Stanley, so much so the sibilant ‘essss’ echoed like phantom regret.
Ssssorry Ssssam. Ssssorry Sssstanley…
I’d tasted them in a very intimate act of dominance and submission, turning the tables, using their loyalty and fear and lust to serve purposes still to be determined.
I am succubus, hear me roar…
Except… I wasn’t. Otherwise Annie’s touch, the frictionless gloss of passion she’d left coating my skin, the empathy and outrage over what had been offered freely, none of that would still resonate in the hollows of indecision… Those little pockets of self-doubt and denial pockmarked what was left of my soul, if such a thing was real.
The blade pricked my leather-clad ass, teasing, playful and oh-so-deadly.
“In there,” was followed by a shove through an entrance into a vestibule and yet another staircase plunging into the depths of hell under God’s sanctuary. It was the ultimate corruption, so I followed my nose, once more alone.
The staircase was out of a gamer’s worst nightmare. Rather than comforting granite, carved with precision and an eye to longevity, this section had been hacked from compacted gravel and clay, a conglomerate if memory served. The stairs threatened to crumble at the slightest pressure. The urge to skip down, floating over the surface, rocketing to the bottom at speed, nearly overwhelmed the instinct to take care. But it didn’t, mostly because the alternative of an ass-slalom in a skimpy leather skirt didn’t appeal.
The fickle notion that hospital sterile was ambiance enough hit hard as I reached the landing and yet another long corridor, this one lit with torches spaced irregularly. It left vast expanses of darkness interspersed with the rank odor of smoking oil casting weak light, barely enough to show the way forward. No doors or other forms of escape hatches relieved the utter boredom. If Dominic wanted me quaking in fear, he’d have to do a lot better than that.
It could have been the stale air, or the unrelenting grey-muddy brown alley stretching infinitely away, but the feeling I was sleep-walking, not quite awake, not quite here, was hard to shake.
There was no memory of drawing the blade, no recollection of pulling the peashooter from the ankle holster, yet there they were, right hand, left hand… swinging in a wide arc in a narrow tunnel shrinking before my eyes.
The mushroom that had been Stanley finally unleashed a torrent of bizarre, and I shouted, “Fuck this! Fuck you, fuck …” and squeezed, squeezed, squeezed as time slowed.
“You’ll feel a little disoriented.” The voice was familiar. The hand on my forehead, stroking softly, cheek to ear, temple to chin, was too soothing. It interrupted the fireworks and explosions of pain erupting from nodes on my scalp, pain I needed to keep myself from falling back into limbo.
My eyes were still glued shut in a rictis of agony. Scenting on the wrist held tantalizingly close to my nose, I clamped my lips shut tight, refusing the offer. The voice murmured, “It’s all right, sweetheart,” and the memory of a finger to thin, stern lips, silencing me, silencing him, flashed like an afterimage, a flashbulb of perception.
“It’s just water.” More insistent. I ignored it, him. “Okay, babe, do it your way.”
A hand … it felt like Sam, now … brushed the length of my arm, no longer soothing. That hand had purpose. It, he, him, them, Sam or Stanley or an angel of mercy twisted my wrist, exposing the soft, fleshy underside of my elbow.
Tap, tap, tappity-tap.
“This will sting…”
Sting, Stanley, sting…
Waiting for the rush, bracing for the hit… All that happened was a monumental explosion of energy, electrical charges branching along every nerve ending and it hurt, fuck it hurt beyond stings and dings and pings, carving my initials on the underside of skin stretched too thin, until even my toenails objected.
The needle withdrew, millimeter by agonizing millimeter, until all that was left was a flush of super-cooled air plunged aside with pressure and gauze and the sticky comfort of adhesion to thin skin.
The not-Sam, not-Stanley voice asked, “How are you…”
He chuckled. “It’s just B12, darling. You’ll be right as rain in no time.”
Hissing, “Fucking Oracle,” I turned my head toward the sound of his movement, trying to center myself with the auditory cues. The footsteps receded. A door soughed shut. A fine click as it engaged, then another. Double doors. Pneumatic.
You’re not in Kansas anymore, Finna. The scents were all wrong, and familiar. Again with the familiar. Familiar voice, familiar hands, familiar sounds. No dank, dirty dungeon. No sterile hospital corridor. No grotty maze of cheesy steps crumbling under foot.
Foot. Foot locker.
When I tried to move my arms, I couldn’t. Ditto the legs. My body was still too confused to identify what, and how, let alone why and where. The slab was cold, steel cold, cold enough to seep into my ass through the ridiculous skirt. Cold enough to cough up its edges. Warmth there, just out of reach, the straps so supple my skin couldn’t even register them as not my own flesh.
If I survived, and if it really was Stanley doing the caregiver schtick, I was going to become his biggest fangirl on the planet. Not even Nicky’s elixirs gave out of body as good as old Stan the Vamp.
If it was Stan.
The B12 started firing synapses toward the rational, survival side of Finna’s brain. Finna was less disappointed and more pissed, and the faster the chemicals raced through her system the more irate Finna got and Finna was a force of nature when she had a hard-on for revenge.
What Finna wants, Finna gets…
Chuckling from my right. “Finna can’t sing for shit.”
That stopped my mouth more effectively than a slap. The sub-text, the undertone of satisfaction was just the beginning. When it came, it was flat palmed, bitch-worthy, hauled off for the quick strike, ka-ping, whack, sending my head in a short, sharp arc, whiplashing chin-to-chest-to-shoulder. My eyes unglued, watered. I saw but there was nothing to see, just gauzy waterfalls and shapes shifting in and out of my field of view.
I said, “Ow,” and paid with a cuff to the ear, fingers pinching my mouth closed, tight enough to swell and puff them in an absurd parody of a pout.
Lips. Lips lips lips, oh Christ, lips brushed my pursed mouth and my tongue retreated, withdrew, seeking the shelter of my throat.
“Do you see?”
“Unh,” meant No, I don’t see mutha—
“You will.” Those lips moved across my cheek and parked alongside the other ear, the one not still ringing and stinging and aching from the blow. “I,” pause, “promise,” fucking, sucking, wet, disgusting, tonguing, “it.”
The footfalls retreated, more soughing noises, then silence, the silence of my body cursing me out for falling into this trap. Nicky would not be pleased, though we’d talked about this possibility, planned for it all those years ago. The problem with that plan was it hadn’t factored in me being scared shitless, because I was. Shitless and spitless and unable to blink away the tears that betrayed what the rest of me had been so carefully honed to withstand.
Richter’s secret weapon had been immobilized, made irrelevant, a joke. I had failed before I even started, rendered powerless and all-too-human once again.
Better living through chemistry. I should have paid attention in school. Should have known there would be counter-measures for the slow infusion that altered my genomes and made me more…
…more resilient, more alluring, faster, deadlier, sexier, able to leap tall buildings with a single bound. All packaged in plain and uninteresting, and ultimately invisible to all but Vampyr.
My brain shot me a yes but…
Anne Maria Sanchez, my Annie. She had seen something in me, gone beyond the obvious. She who was immune, unaffected by the corruption of my very essence, she had taken me to her bed, stroked me into a nirvana I never imagined. Never wanted.
Richter knew me better than that. He knew about the pain and where the lines crossed and faded and reformed. He had helped me redefine pleasure to something … more.
And now, this stranger, this man, vamp, not-Stan, maybe-Sam, this beast was going to obliterate all I knew once more…
Who the hell are you?
Where is Dominic?
Oh God, I want to, Nicky, I so desperately want to, but you see, the thing is … I may have succeeded beyond your wildest expectations.
The doors sighed open. My eyes sighed open. My mouth loosed a long soft sigh of despair.
And then I prayed.