An Excerpt From: THE BECOMING from Penguin US / ACE.
Copyright @ Jeanne C. Stein, 2007
All Rights Reserved, Penguin US / ACE
IT’S LATE OCTOBER IN SAN FRANCISCO AND IF I WERE still human, I’d be freezing my ass off. A frigid wind funnels straight up from the bay making the fifty-degree temperature feel more like thirty. Even my partner, big, tough, ex-football player David Ryan, looks uncomfortable.
But it’s not the cold that has him frowning. It’s realizing that our whole game plan for this particular snag and drag has gone up in smoke. And why.
We’re standing in the middle of the block on Hollister, watching the entrance of a bar on the corner a few doors away. For a Wednesday, the place is jumping. Good news and bad news for what we intend. Good news because a crowd offers cover. Bad news because there’s always the danger that some pain-in-the-ass innocent bystander might misunderstand and try to intervene. It’s happened before. But since we know our skip, Tony Tuturo, is inside—we followed him here—it’s a chance we’re prepared to take.
And did I mention we had a plan? I’m dressed in a short black skirt, silk halter top, learner jacket, come-fuck-me pumps. The idea was I’d go inside, entice him with my womanly charms, and make him an offer he’d be too dazzled to refuse. Once outside, David and I would hustle his ass into a car. In less than an hour, we’d be off to the airport and home with our bounty in San Diego. Should have worked. Should have been a piece of cake.
David looks at me. “It’s a gay bar. Did you know Tuturo was gay?”
I do now. Laughter erupts before I can stifle it. “Would I be dressed like this if I did?”
He frowns. “So what do we do?”
I can’t believe he has to ask. “What do you think we do? You go inside and I wait here. God, one look at you and…”
“Okay.” He stretches the word out. He’s watching the door and a steady stream of well-dressed twenty- and thirty-something men making their way inside. Melancholy strains of soft jazz float out each time the door opens. He runs a hand through thick, close-cropped hair. “I don’t think I’m dressed properly for this.”
He’s wearing jeans, a black T-shirt and a black leather duster. Underdressed, perhaps, compared to the suits we’ve seen pass into the bar. But David was a tight end for the Broncos when they were Super Bowl champs and he’s in as good physical condition now as then. His muscular 250 pounds is well distributed on a six-foot-six frame. He’s model handsome—high cheekbones, smooth tan, generous mouth.
I lift an eyebrow. “Believe me, nobody is going to notice how you’re dressed.”
He looks down at me, still frowning. “Okay, then.” He hands me the car keys. “See you in a few.”
David goes inside and I’m left on the sidewalk to twiddle my thumbs. I move off to stand beside our rental car. I like it so much more when I’m the bait. Inactivity grates. It makes me think about how different my life has become since a night very much like this one last summer. Except that skip turned out to be—not what we expected. And when he attacked, the commingling of our blood turned me into a vampire.
I lean my butt against the door and press fingers against my eyeballs.
I’ve come to terms with it. Mostly. I accept that drinking human blood is my sustenance and immortality my future. But I haven’t accepted it all. The balance between the supernatural and the human side of my personality is shifting. I feel it more every day. The animal within me is becoming stronger, harder to keep in check. I have a mentor who is helping me and a support group, of sorts, to make the transition easier. But I also have a human family and a business partner who don’t know what I’ve become and I’m fighting to hold on to them as long as I can.
The door to the bar swings open and David is back, his arm across the shoulders of Tony Tuturo. They’re both laughing and Tony puts an arm around David’s waist and pulls him close.
That didn’t take long, not that I thought it would. I slip into the driver’s seat and crank the engine.
David steers Tony toward the car. Tony is a few inches shorter than David, and about seventy pounds lighter. He has brown hair and smooth olive skin that shimmers in the dim light and screams tanning bed. He’s meticulously dressed in a gray Armani suit and pin-striped shirt. No tie. No gun, either, unless his tailor had made adjustments for one in the jacket. He’s wanted in New York, accused of extortion and grand theft. I bet there’s a gun.
They’re approaching the car. David lets his hand drop from Tony’s shoulders and skim his jacket as he laces his arm through Tony’s.
Very smooth. The subtlest frisk I’ve ever seen.
For the first time Tony notices that David is guiding him toward a car with the engine running. He takes a step closer, sees me, and stops.
The smile dissolves into a puzzled frown. “Who’s in the car?” he asks.
David’s grip tightens, one hand is still around Tony’s waist, the other closes on his arm. “A friend, Tony. My driver.”
I flash a smile.
Tony starts to fidget. “We don’t need a driver. We’ll take my car.”
But David has him close enough to the car to drop the subterfuge. He gives Tony a push that sends him sprawling against the side of the car. While he’s still off balance, David snaps on the cuffs and with one hand holding him against the car, pats him down.
The gun, a nice little Smith & Wesson .38 LadySmith, is tucked into a nice little ankle holster.
David opens the back door and shoves Tony in. He climbs in beside him, handing the gun to me over the backseat and clucking his tongue. “Rosewood grip,” he says. “A little too fancy for my taste.”
I turn it this way and that, admiring the sculptured wood. “Real nice gun, Tony.”
Movement from the direction of the bar catches my attention. A man bursts from the door, looking first to the right and then to the left.
“A friend of yours, Tony?” I ask.
Tony doesn’t respond.
The guy is moving toward our car. He’s handsome in an Italian silk suit and slicked-back hair kind of way. He’s trying to see into the backseat of our car but in the dark, the tinted windows are opaque.
“I think this is our cue,” I say to David, gunning away from the curb.
The guy watches us pull away. He has an uncertain frown on his face, but he makes no move to rush to follow us. I let myself relax and head for the freeway.
“Wave good-bye, Tony,” I murmur.
But once again, there’s no response from the backseat. In fact, Tony doesn’t say a word all the way to the airport. He doesn’t ask who we are or where we’re going. His lack of concern makes me all the more attentive. Nobody ever gives up this easily.
There’s a commuter flight from San Francisco to San Diego almost every hour until the midnight curfew closes our airport. It’s ten o’clock. We’ll just have time to catch the last flight out. I stand with Tony near the shuttle bus at the car rental agency, his jacket draped over his shoulders, concealing the cuffs. When the doors open, I climb the steps first. David prods Tony. He takes the first step, stumbles back, knocks David off balance. Quicker than I would have thought possible, he head butts David, pushes him aside and is off across the parking lot.
But as fast as he is, I’m faster. I hear David behind me, but the adrenaline has kicked in. Predator and prey. It’s instinctive. I’ve got Tony facedown on the asphalt before either of them realizes what has happened. I’ve let the vampire take over, and while David is still far enough away to keep from hearing, I growl in Tony’s ear and turn his face to look into mine.
I don’t know what my vampire face looks like. I no longer cast a reflection. I can only feel the change—the heat, the quickening of blood. It’s been weeks since I’ve fed. My human job has occupied a lot of my time and the rest has been taken up with—something else. I didn’t realize how intensely the hunger has been building until without conscious effort, my lips curl back from my teeth and a hiss erupts from deep inside.
Tony cringes and tries to get away.
Fingers like steel close around his arms. My mouth is at his ear. “Try that again,” I whisper. “And I’ll tear you to pieces.”
His body is rigid beneath mine. I am aware of the frantic beating of his heart. I smell his fear, see his blood pulsing as it rushes through his carotid, just a kiss away at his jawline.
A kiss away.
David puts a hand on my shoulder and I jump.
“Anna, are you all right?”
It takes a couple of heartbeats before I can relax, let go of the bloodlust. I compose myself and sit back. “I’m fine.” My voice is harsh, unsteady. Still, I climb to my feet, hauling Tony up beside me. “I was just explaining to our friend here how it works.” As I speak, I straighten Tony’s jacket and pat his shoulder. “I think we understand each other now. He’s not going to give us any more trouble. Are you, Tony?”
Tony stares at me, his eyes wide. His mouth opens and closes a couple of times but his brain is still trying to process what he saw in my face. Obviously, it can’t process fast enough to form a coherent thought.
I pat his shoulder again. “That’s okay, Tony, you don’t have to say anything.”
David gives him a shove toward the bus. “Jesus, Anna,” he says. “When did you get so fast?”
“I’ve always been fast. You just never noticed.”
Tony draws a deep, unsteady breath and moves to David’s side. He looks up at David and says with pathetic urgency, “Keep her away from me, man. She’s like a mad dog.”
I smile. Yeah. Kind of like.
WHEN WE GET BACK TO SAN DIEGO, DAVID drops me off at the office before delivering Tony to the cops. Tony seems relieved to see the last of me. Imagine that. Maybe he’ll think twice before jumping bail again.
I pick up my car, intending to head for home. But the dance I did with Tony set something loose. Hunger is gnawing at me, refusing to be ignored. If I go home now, I’ll face a long, sleepless night of restless anxiety. I need blood.
I know where to go. Mexico.
Culebra doesn’t seem surprised to see me when I appear at the door of his bar at two thirty in the morning. He’s seated at a table with two other male vamps and a couple of human women. There’s no one else in the place and disappointment slumps my shoulders. Obviously, the women are the companions of the two vamps. And the feast is over. They wear the sated, content look of females who have been well serviced. And even if they weren’t, vampires are not big on sharing blood supplies.
Culebra reads my mood, senses my hunger, in the instant it takes me to cross to the bar and plunk myself on a bar stool. He joins me, handing me a bottle of beer from the cooler at the end of the bar.
Here. This should help.
Only if it’s type O. But I take it, pop the top, and drink.
Culebra is a shape-shifter, a gruff old bandit with a rutted face and the ability to crawl inside my head at will. He’s my source of sustenance. Movies and TV depict vampires existing on animal blood. It’s not like that in real life. We need human blood to survive. Culebra provides a place for vampires to connect with humans willing and eager to be fed upon. Humans find the process highly pleasurable. Combine it with sex, and the experience is as addictive as cocaine and just as dangerous. Most victims of vampires die because they don’t want it to stop and an unscrupulous or undisciplined vampire loses control. Culebra keeps a close eye on those who come here to feed and protects both vampires and their human hosts.
Culebra is watching me, eyes hard and bright in the dim light. Where’s your friend Frey? He would not refuse you.
I shake my head. Probably not. But he’s a schoolteacher, you know, and it’s late. I’m sure he’s home asleep.
Daniel Frey is also a shape-shifter. We’ve had sex and he’s let me feed from him, but I’m not about to awaken him in the middle of the night because I’ve waited too long to feed. Besides, the last time I called him, a woman answered the phone. There was something in her voice when she asked if I wanted to leave a message that made it clear she hoped I didn’t.
What you need is a steady human boyfriend, Culebra tells me, shaking a mental finger. It’s much safer than these indiscriminate pairings. You should know that after what happened.
Culebra is referring to something that happened a few weeks ago. I came very close to attacking and killing a human who had hurt a member of my family. As a result, I risked exposing myself as a vampire to a mortal world not prepared to accept that such things exist.
Yet I’m not ready for the other alternative, either. I had a human boyfriend. Max. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him what I had become, which meant I could not and would not bring myself to feed from him. At the same time, I couldn’t seem to stop myself from feeding or having sex with non-humans that came my way. No, that’s not exactly true. I didn’t stop myself because I didn’t want to.
And there’s another reason. Max seemed suddenly intent on taking our relationship to the next level. There was a time when that might have made me happy. But even though Max is a good man—strong, loyal, beautiful—because of what I am, that cannot happen. Not only for the obvious reasons, but because I’ve been unfaithful to him twice with otherworldly men, and I know I will be again.
It’s the nature of the beast in me.
Max deserves a woman who can love him as a woman—a real human woman. Not a pretender. I’ve been practicing the speech since the last time we were together. I just haven’t seen him to test whether or not I’ll have the guts to deliver it.
I drain the last of the beer, place the bottle on the bar and stand up. With a last glance around, I prepare to leave. When I had Tony on the ground, it took every ounce of strength not to open his neck. I know what would have happened if David hadn’t been there. I’ve got to stop waiting so long between feedings.
I don’t need to say any of this to Culebra, either verbally or telepathically. He picks my thoughts out of the air like leaves drifting in the wind.
You need blood. What are you going to do?
I shrug. Go home. Go to bed. Try to sleep. Tomorrow I go see Williams.
At last I’ve said something that eases some of the concern from Culebra’s face. I’m glad you have come to your senses about that. He has much to teach you.
He walks me to the door. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll have someone for you. He gestures to the table and the four seated around it. It’s been a slow night.
I nod and start for the door. Before I can push it open, it swings inward. A man is silhouetted against the moonless night, black on black. He takes a step into the light and I step back, startled. It’s the last person I expect, or in truth want, to see.
“Max. What are you doing here?”