An Excerpt From: CHOSEN from Penguin US / ACE.
Copyright @ Jeanne C. Stein, 2010
All Rights Reserved, Penguin US / ACE.
I wasn’t sure at first. I haven’t been vampire that long, but I sure as hell don’t remember sweating since becoming one.
Drops of moisture pool between my shoulder blades, soak my underarms, collect between my breasts, making a soggy mess of the blouse underneath my jacket.
A new blouse.
It’s sweat, no doubt about it.
I can’t take my jacket off. I’ve got a .38 clipped to my belt.
Might make the natives restless. Or excited.
I glance over at my partner. He hasn’t broken a sweat, so it’s not the room. Even if I didn’t have a constitution that is impervious to ambient temperature, the air conditioner in this dump is cranked up to ice age.
I start to squirm on the barstool, impatient to get out into the air. Impatient to escape.
What the hell is happening?
My temple throbs, like my head is in a vise. A vise that’s being slowly tightened.
I swipe a hand across my forehead. It comes away wet. I sneak a look across at David to see if he’s noticed.
He’s busy watching for the skip, Curly Tom, the reason we’re stuck in this dive.
I look around, too.
But not for the skip. Something is wrong. I don’t know what.
David takes a break from skip alert and peers at me over the rim of his beer bottle. I feel his eyes on me like an irritating swarm of gnats buzzing around my head.
I look up at him and bark, “What?”
“You’re squirming like a worm in shit. You not happy to be here?”
Like I should be? I’m burning up and my insides are quivering like a Jell-O shooter. Then there’s Lance, tall, blond and sexy, waiting for me at home. No, I don’t want to be here. I frown at David. “You said we’d be done by ten thirty. And yet, here we are”—I glance at my watch—“at eleven, in a place reeking of stale beer and ripe biker. Bumfuckville, David.”
He drains the bottle and motions to the barkeep for another. “Eyes on the prize, Anna. Twenty thou.”
“So where is he?”
David swivels on the barstool, takes a slow, lazy look around. “Don’t worry. He’s coming.”
“So’s Christmas. I want to go home.”
It’s my turn to read David’s expression. Aggravation mingled with frustration.
“We’ve only been here an hour. What’s your goddamned rush?” He leans back, his elbows on the bar, facing the door. “Let me guess. That scrawny model boyfriend of yours is waiting for you at the cottage. Am I right?”
“Lance is not scrawny.”
“What’s he weigh? One-seventy soaking wet? I don’t know what you see in him. In a fight, he’d snap like a matchstick.”
Oh, David. Would you be surprised. Lance is a vampire, like me, and if it came to a fight, he’d be the one doing the snapping. I force a smile. “He’s lean, David, not scrawny.” Comes from not consuming a carb in the last fifty years. “Not every man is a pituitary case like you.”
A flash of irritation tightens the corners of his mouth. I immediately regret my snarky remark. David is big, true, but a former football player who’s kept in shape. He’s my partner and friend, and he didn’t deserve the crack.
I rub at my eyes with the palms of my hands. It’s this damned headache.
I have a headache now?
How can a vampire get a headache?
David swivels his stool away from me and focuses his attention back to the door—a deliberate cold shoulder. Not that I blame him. I don’t try to mitigate his snit. Instead I focus on whatever the hell is going on in my body. The headache has turned into an annoying hum and the stomach quiver into a clenched fist. Granted, I’ve been a vampire for less than a year, but I’m pretty sure we don’t get the flu.
Which is what this feels like.
I rub at my eyes again and look around, trying to focus. This is a biker bar—a real biker bar—on the outskirts of Lakeside in east San Diego County. Run-down, no flashing neon beer signs in the windows to attract customers. No windows at all. No back door. Probably be in violation of a hundred fire codes if it wasn’t classified as a “private club.” Sawdust crunches underfoot, absorbing spilled beer and the occasional body fluid. Some wise guy has tacked a Health Department rating code of “F” above the bar.
Members wearing the colors of the local Angels’ chapter slouch at the bar or shoot pool under the glare of a green-shaded light. The only reason David and I have been left unmolested and unchallenged is because we know the president of the club. We did him a favor a few years back and he’s repaying the debt.
He was only too happy to oblige. The guy we’re after isn’t a biker. He’s a pain-in-the-ass wannabe who robbed and shot a dealer in L.A. and skipped bail. He’s been hanging around the bar, bragging about his score, thinking it might gain him access to the club. Trouble is, the prez knows it’s only a matter of time before the cops trace him here. He’d rather we get him first. Saves the club the trouble of dealing with Curly Tom.
Good for us. Better for Curly Tom.
With us, it’s a payday and he’ll end up in jail. With the club, it’s self-preservation and he’ll most likely end up in a shallow grave in the Anza-Borrego desert.
I let my gaze sweep the room. No one seems to be paying us the slightest bit of attention. Most know why we’re here. But I feel—something. Anxiety. Apprehension. Dread.
Why? Over this jerk, Curly Tom?
Makes no sense.
David and I are bounty hunters. We’ve done jobs like this a hundred times. We’ve faced tougher guys than this joker. And that was before I became vampire. Having superhuman strength and speed tends to boost one’s confidence.
So if I’m not experiencing this foreboding over Curly Tom, what is it?
The humming in my head grows stronger.
That’s when it hits me.
The last time I felt anything like this, a witch was behind it.
The thought propels me off the barstool. The abrupt movement brings David to his feet, too. He looks around, right hand moving instinctively to touch the gun under his jacket.
“Is he here? Do you see him?”
I shake my head. “No. He’s not here.”
I look around.
But something is.
David glances around to see how much attention we’ve attracted with my vault off the barstool. The noise level remains the same, and except for the biker next to David who got bumped when he leapt up, no one seems to have noticed.
That guy is not happy. Beer drips off the elbow of his leather jacket. “Hey, asshole.”
David mumbles, “Sorry, man,” and signals the barkeep for another round.
The guy shoots off his stool, but when he’s standing next to David, who is six inches taller and built like a tank, he shrugs and accepts the beer with a grudging nod.
David waits for him to sit down, then turns his frown on me, “What’s the matter with you?”
I settle my butt back on the stool. If I told him what was the matter—that I think a witch might be trying to put a spell on me—I imagine the reaction would be the same if I told him his partner was a vampire. And had been for almost a year.
Not an option.
What is an option is for me to get the hell out of here and find out who, or what, is after me.
Time to go on the offensive. “Ten minutes, David. I’ll give it ten more minutes. Then I’m gone.”
He opens his mouth to object but snaps it closed again, his eyes on the guy who just pushed his way through the door. “There he is.”
Curly Tom isn’t curly. He’s bald and short and fat, about two hundred forty pounds on a five-ten frame. He’s dressed in leathers that bear no markings. At least he’s smart enough to know wearing Angels’ colors uninitiated is a death sentence. He looks around the bar, a goofy smile on his face, as if waiting for an invitation to join one of the groups clustered at the bar or in the back by the pool table.
No invitation is forthcoming. The barkeep leans over to David and whispers, “Get him and get the fuck out of here.”
With bikers, gratitude only gets you so far.
David slides off the stool and motions to the right. I go that way and he goes to the left. Before Curly Tom realizes what’s happening, we’ve got him flanked.
David takes his arm in a steel grip that makes the biker flinch. “Let’s take a walk,” David says.
Curly Tom’s eyes widen, the smile falls from his face. He struggles to break David’s hold but in a flash, I’ve got his other arm. When my fingers close around his forearm in a grip even stronger than David’s, he yelps.
“Who the fuck are you?”
That makes the bikers closest to us look around. But they know what’s going on. They tighten ranks, their backs to Curly Tom, and in an instant, he sees he’s on his own. He starts to dance around, trying to shake us loose. When that fails, he unleashes a shit storm of invective that’s as creative as it is ineffective.
David and I hustle him outside.
While Curly Tom continues his diatribe, David and I have a conversation of our own.
“Told you he’d show up,” David says.
“Yeah, yeah. Can you get him downtown on your own?”
“Why? You going back inside?”
When I don’t answer, he says, “See if you get lucky?”
I push Curly Tom’s head down and shove him into the backseat of the Ford Crown Vic we use for work. David snaps his cuffed wrist around a steel bar in the door and straightens to peer at me in the dim light of the parking lot.
“How will you get home?”
“I’ll call Lance.”
“You’ll call Lance. And he’ll have to drive all the way out here from Mission Beach to pick you up. Doesn’t make sense, Anna, even for you.”
His tone makes the thudding in my head worse and the knot in my stomach tighten. Whatever is wreaking havoc with my nervous system is here in this place, and I need to find out what it is. But David is not giving up without a fight.
I slam the car door so hard, Curly Tom bounces in the backseat. “I don’t ask you to explain every thing you do. If I did, I might start with why you and that booking clerk from jail pick my side of the desk to fuck on when you sneak back to the office in the middle of the night.”
He turns startled eyes toward me. “How—?”
“How do I know?” I smell it. Not the answer I can give. I shake a finger. “I just know, okay. And since she’s on duty tonight, I imagine you’ll be heading there after you drop this dirtbag off.”
He puts a finger to his lips and jerks his head in Curly Tom’s direction. “Are you crazy? What if he hears you?”
“Your problem. Now, are you finished grilling me?”
David snatches the car keys from my outstretched hand. It wasn’t fair bringing up his affair—he has a steady girlfriend that I’m sure knows nothing about his on-again, off-again fling with the chick from jail—but lately, nothing much is. He stomps around to the driver’s side of the car, drops into the seat and peels out of the parking lot.
I release a pent-up sigh.
The night closes around me. Moonless. Dead quiet. Mid-July hot. Even so, I start to shiver. I turn my face toward the bar. Whoever—whatever—is affecting me is inside.
The realization makes the feeling grow stronger. Something is there—just out of sight. Something evil. It draws me back. If this is a spell, it’s like nothing I’ve felt before. The witch Belinda Burke’s black magic drained her victims of physical strength and left their bodies ill and dying. This is attacking my brain at a primeval level. A warning of danger that’s repulsing and magnetic at the same time. I can no more leave it unexplained or unanswered than I could convince David to leave me here alone at a biker bar without resorting to blackmail.
I’ll apologize for that later.
A car pulls into the parking lot.
A dark Ford sedan.
Followed by a second.
Nothing says “cop” like identical Ford sedans.
I step back into the shadows and watch.
When one of the drivers steps out, I recognize him.
Detective Harris, SDPD Homicide.
Three more cars, patrol cars this time, pull up around the perimeter of the lot, effectively sealing it off. Harris directs the cops with hand signals, stationing them by the door and around the row of Harleys parked in front. One he sends around back, but the cop returns almost immediately. As David and I discovered earlier, there’s no exit in the back, just one small window near the ceiling of the women’s bathroom.
When Harris is ready, he unclips his gun, holds it out of sight at his side and disappears through the door.
Hell breaks loose.
Shouting. Swearing. Scuffling and running feet. Bikers pour out the door and straight into a line of cops, all waiting with guns drawn.
At the same time, I hear a sound from behind the building. A small sound, a window sliding open. Too soft for the cops out front to hear but not for a vampire.
Besides, the cops are occupied with corralling stampeding bikers. I make my way unnoticed to the back.
There’s a man trying to wriggle through that one tiny bathroom window. His head is down, his hands flailing for purchase against the wood siding. He’s stuck.
He raises his head, spies me. “Hey, bitch.” He’s whispering, but his voice is hard, commanding. “Help me out of here.”
The sick feeling in my gut grows stronger.
I stare at the face. Dark skin, eyes filled with hate, mouth twisted in a sneer.
I step back.
“Didn’t you hear me, bitch?” He’s trying to prop himself up.
This time when he raises his head, I’m ready. I steel myself for the wave of nausea his gaze unleashes.
The headache, the sense of evil, the foreboding twisting my gut. It’s all emanating from an asshole stuck like a fat toad in a bathroom window.
I swallow down disgust. “What are you?”
He pauses in his struggles to shoot me a look that’s part astonishment, part rage. “What do you mean, what am I? Are you nuts?”
All my vamp senses have sprung to alert. I try to get inside his head. Are you a vamp? A shape-shifter? A witch?
All I get is a black void, a deep well of malevolence.
And the certain knowledge that he’s human.
How could that be? How can he be affecting my senses like this if he’s human?
We stare at each other. He’s got my mind locked in a steel vise. Every instinct screams I should rip out his throat, now, before he frees himself, before he gets loose and—
He rouses himself first, face reddening. “You stupid cunt. When I get out of here, I’ll kill you.” He resumes his wild thrashing, pushing against the wall with the palms of his hands, trying to get his lard ass through an opening barely bigger than his head.
I have two choices. Yell for Harris or let the guy do it himself when he realizes he’s wedged so tight in the window, he’ll likely starve to death if no one finds him.
No. There’s another choice.
A voice inside my head.