My name is Anna Strong. I am a vampire.
An Excerpt From: THE BECOMING from Penguin US / ACE.
Copyright © Jeanne C. Stein, 2006
All Rights Reserved, Penguin US / ACE.
My name is Anna Strong. I was thirty on my last birthday, and I will be thirty when you read this. In fact, physically I will never be older than thirty no matter how many mortal years I have on this earth. I am Vampire. How I became, and what is the nature of my existence, is the reason for this story. I tell it the way it happened so you will learn the truth as I did.
It may not be what you expect.
It’s one in the morning, late last July, and hot. I’m squirming around on the front seat of my car like a fidgety five-year-old. I can’t even keep my fingers still. As if with a mind of their own, they drum a restless tattoo on the steering wheel.
David should have had Donaldson out of that bar thirty minutes ago. What can be keeping him?
I squint around the dark parking lot. I hate waiting. I’m no good at it. You’d think after two and a half years chasing scumbags—excuse me, alleged scumbags—for a living, I would have developed some patience.
I open the car door and step out.The dampness folds around me, a combination of heat, humidity, and a stubborn fog that clings to theSouthern California coast like a soggy blanket. It’s too late in the season for “June
gloom.” What happened to real summer, with a lazy sun and warm desert air to dry things out? Instead, the humidity plasters my silk blouse to my skin. Shit, it’s like living inFlorida . I shake out of a linen jacket and throw in onto the front seat before slamming the car door shut.
Impatiently, I smooth wrinkles out of my skirt. I should have taken the time to change into my usual work garb—jeans and a cotton tee. Besides being downright uncomfortable, these clothes remind me that I had once again subjected myself to a less-than-perfect dinner spent trying to justify my work to my parents. For the first time in thirty years I have a business of my own and real money in the bank. I’m happy doing exactly what I want to be doing. But is that enough for them?
Of course, if they saw me now, standing in a smelly alley behind a storage building in a not-so-upscale San Diego suburb, they’d be convinced they are right.
Good thing they can’t see me.
I draw in a breath, blow it out and look around.
What a place for a bar. The shabby clapboard building has only one light, a sputtering, feeble bulb against the wall. But there are at least fifty cars parked up and down the street and inside, raucous laughter and pulsating music, punctuated by the occasional wild cheer, reverberates like thunder on the still night air.
I draw another impatient breath. Two of the people inside that bar are my partner David, and our skip, John Donaldson. David and I are Bail Enforcement Agents, bounty hunters, and this shouldn’t be taking so long.
Maybe Donaldson is giving David a hard time.
That thought brings a smile. My partner is 6’6”, weighs two hundred and fifty pounds and was a tight end for the Raiders. He’s big and looks mean, more than a match for John Donaldson, whose rap sheet showed a skinny, anxious man with thinning hair and wire rim glasses perched atop a bulbous nose—an accountant of all things.
I stretch and yawn, and do a few squats to stretch taut leg muscles, not easy when you’re wearing three inch heels and a short skirt.
Still, there’s not much chance he’s giving David trouble. Besides the obvious, Donaldson is nothing but a white-collar wannabe who played fast and loose with his employer’s retirement account. When they caught up with the idiot, his string of shady business deals had landed him in jail on embezzlement charges instead of in the morgue, where that same enraged employer threatened to send him. Fifty thousand dollars and some pricey La Jolla real estate got him released pending trial. He skipped about the same time his wife found out he’d been keeping a mistress. She became instantly cooperative. She wasn’t about to lose her house because the creep decided to jump bail.
But the infidelity—that’s her problem. We work for the irate bondsman who will be out a cool five-hundred-thou if we don’t get him back in custody tonight.
Which is exactly what we intend to do.
This should be a piece of cake. Donaldson doesn’t have a history of violence. Why he ran is still a mystery considering, as it turns out, he didn’t run far. We discovered him holed up inChula Vista, in aSouthBay low-rent district, no less, with the same blonde bimbo who caused his wife to give him up. We assume he plans to beat it south to Mexico, but for whatever reason, he hasn’t yet.
Still, he’s been a slippery little bugger. We thought we had him twice before and he managed to elude us.
But not tonight.
Tonight Donaldson decided to take a little excursion to a sports bar all by himself . It’s a perfect set up. Once someone recognizes David, the reaction is predictable. And someone will recognize him—ex-football jock, local hero, David attracts attention the way the North Pole attracts a compass. Then it should be a simple matter of getting Donaldson’s undivided attention. David will buy him a few drinks to loosen him up, maybe, or offer to show him his Heismann trophy or Super Bowl Rings. Anything to get him outside.
After that, it’s a trip downtown, a little paperwork, and five thousand dollars deposited into our account in the morning.
Easy money. Especially for me.Tonight I’m the designated driver.
So what’s the holdup?
I roll my shoulders. I want a nice, cool bath. I want out of these clothes. Come on, David, I repeat like a mantra, let’s get this over with.
I can’t stand waiting any more. The smell is getting to me. If I cross to the other side of the parking lot, I can look through the bar’s front door and see what’s going on. Maybe David needs a little help. A short skirt and high heels may be a better inducement to Donaldson than trophies and big diamond rings. And I’ll still be close enough to beat it back to the car if they’re on their way out.
Anything is better than cooling my heels in this stupid alley.
I start across. The throbbing bass is shaking the place and grows louder with each step. David must be deaf by now.
But it’s not so loud that it drowns out a familiar voice bellowing across the lot. “Hey, Donaldson, where do you think you’re going?”
Shit. Something went wrong. I reverse directions and scurry back to the car. I hear the thump of running feet before I actually see two shadowy forms sprinting toward me. No time for pepper spray or theTaser . And no way am I going to let this jerk get away from us a thirdtime . I unclip my .38 from my belt, take a deep breath, and wait for them to get just a little closer before I step out.
The gun has the desired effect.
Donaldson pulls up short, eyes riveted on the gun leveled at his middle. “What is this? What do you want?”
His face is devoid of color and looks different from his mug shot—leaner and meaner. His black eyes are sunk deep into their sockets and flash in the dim light like a cat’s.
Those eyes are disconcerting, but I shake it off and put on a bright smile. “Let me give you a hint. You have a court date tomorrow. For some reason, your wife is afraid you might be planning to miss it. Might have something to do with that blonde you’ve been shacking up with.”
David moves up behind him. He slips handcuffs from his pocket and leans his head close. “So, we’re your escorts. No need to thank us.It’s compliments of your full service bail bondsman.”
Donaldson smiles, his mouth cracking in a cold, humorless slit. “You work for Reese? Why didn’t you sayso. Listen, I’ve got money. I can double what he’s paying you right now.” He steps toward me, his hand moving to a pocket in his jacket.
I take a step backward at the same time David grabs for his hand.
“Against the car,” David barks. “Spread ‘em.”
But with amazing quickness, Donaldson ducks under David’s restraining arm and is off again across the parking lot.
David groans. “I don’t fucking believe this. Anna, start the car. I’ll stop this bastard if I have to shoot his ass to do it.”
I can’t remember the last time anyone got away from David. Once he collars someone, they generally stay collared. This is definitely an annoyance. A sarcastic comment about David letting this guy get away springs to my lips, but when a gunshot explodes behind me, it dies in my throat.
For a moment, I’m frozen in place, hand on the car door. There is no longer the sound of running feet. David has disappeared. I crouch down, work my way around to the front of the car. Where is he? Did he actually fire at Donaldson? Did Donaldson have a gun? Shit, we hadn’t gotten a chance to frisk the guy.
The taste of bile burns the back of my throat. Why isn’t David calling out to me? I tighten my grip on the .38 and push to my feet. I know he must be hurt or he’d be yelling.
I’m trying so hard to see what’s in front of me that when the attack comes, it’s from behind and without warning.
Donaldson is suddenly beside me, wrenching my right arm back. The pain causes my hand to open reflexively and I watch my gun skid across the pavement. Then I’m slammed into the car.
“So, hot shot,” he says. “What are you going to do now?”
His breath smells of alcohol and rage. He’s knocked the wind out of me and I gasp for air. My right arm feels like it’s going to snap. I fight to catch my breath, to keep the fear out of my voice. He’s much too strong. “Get off me, Donaldson. You’re breaking my arm.”
He laughs, torquing my arm even higher. “Where’s that partner of yours, huh? Maybe you’ll be more cooperative now without him.”
I try to straighten up, to take some of the pressure off my arm, but he pushes me back against the car with no effort. He’s on something; he must be. I can’t control the speed of my words, they tumble out in a rush. “Listen, Donaldson, you’re already in trouble with the law. I know David must be hurt. Let me help him. We’re not cops. You know you can leave now. Don’t make it worse for yourself.”
But he’s still laughing, the sound so harsh and grating it seems to burn my cheek. “What makes you think I’m in a hurry to leave?”
I’m pinned against the car by his body. His hands begin groping. My stomach muscles constrict. I shove back against him, fighting to gain leverage. “Someone will have heard the shot in the bar. They’ll come out.”
But he cocks his head in the direction of the bar. “With that racket? I don’t think so. Go on, scream.”
I do, yelling until my throat hurts. The noise from the bar swallows my cries.
“See? What did I tell you.” He fumbles at the buttons on my blouse. “I think we should get to know each other better, don’t you?” He gives up on the buttons and rips it open, spinning me around to face him.
I try to fight him off. I’m five-foot-five inches tall and weigh 125 pounds. He’s not much taller or heavier, but he overpowers me as if I were a child. He grabs my hair and yanks my head back. He’s got the door open, and he pushes me down onto the back seat. I gouge at his face and neck, drawing blood that looks thick and black in the dark. He acts like he’s oblivious to the pain. I’m pinned under him, pitching and bucking against his weight, but I can’t shake him off. He’s unbuckled his pants, one hand holding me down, the other working at the zipper. I don’t have room to kick at him, so in desperation, I reach between his legs and grab and squeeze.
In the darkness, I don’t see the blow coming. There’s a brief flash of exploding color. Then, nothing.