“COME ON, KATIE. Hurry up, will you? I need to get in there. Like, right now.”
The sound of Nova’s voice, punctuated by his fists nearly beating down the door, echoed in the bathroom where I stood. The steam from the shower was slowly being replaced by chilly air from the open window. Not fast enough for Nova, it seemed. I was going to wipe clean the mirror so I could check out my bruises, but Nova wasn’t in a patient state of mind.
“Be right out.” I cinched the belt to my fluffy bathrobe tight and tied a knot.
“You said that ten minutes ago.” Even louder rattles at the door.
“Watch it, Nova, you’ll break the door down.”
“It’s either that or I go pee in the kitchen sink.”
“You do that, and I promise I will kick your ass.” I turned away from the misty mirror. The bruises would have to wait. I undid the latch on the door and pulled it open. Nova doing the thighs-clenched, knees-together potty dance as he waited to get past me. In fact, for a change, he was multi-tasking. Hopping from foot to foot, squinting so I couldn’t make out his green eyes, and holding his crotch with both hands.
“C’mon, Katie, I mean it.”
I stepped to one side to let him shoot past me. The only times I saw Nova move that quickly were when he needed a restroom, which was often, or when there was a possibility of a fight, in which case he would be running in the opposite direction. He’d once said he was a lover, not a fighter. He’d only said it once, because the rest of us had laughed for ten minutes straight while he stomped off under the stars in a huff.
That had been the night. The night when everything had changed.
And, as it turned out, Nova was a thinker, not a fighter or a lover.
“Hey, Katie. Nice look.” The remark drew laughs from one of the other two people in the room. Three if you counted Frankie, the wiseass who made the wisecrack.
“I’m chilling, Frankie. If I need to, I’ll put my gear back on in a flash.” I took my seat at the other end of the larger of the two sofas that made up almost all of the furniture in my living room. The wide coffee table that took up most of the space between the sofas made up the rest.
On the table, neatly arranged courtesy of Penny, who sat on the other sofa, were six tall glasses of water and six shot glasses, each with a finger of thick, crimson fluid at the bottom.
I leaned my head back and stared at the blandness of my ceiling as I rolled my head around, feeling the gentle clicks and grind of my neck and muscles. My workout that night had been tough and probably a mistake. Almost a week since my last intake of blood, and I was starting to slow down. Hence the bruises.
Tony at the gym was no slouch, but he rarely managed to lay more than a glancing blow on me. That night, he had caught me on the side of my jaw and, for the first time, put me on my ass. When I went down, he backed off. I guess in case my somewhat notorious temper kicked in. It wasn’t a point of pride or anything. It just was what it was. But I’d been just too damned tired to go chasing Tony around. When he crept back, I held out my hand for him to pull me up, said thanks for a good bout, and headed home.
I’d kick his ass next time.
I looked around at my buddies. Frankie, the lounge lizard, was Italian with a swarthy complexion and jet-black hair that set off his soft, brown eyes. He leaned back on the sofa with his hands behind his head, thinking about . . . well, probably not very much, knowing him. Great with his sword, and that was not a euphemism.
On the other sofa Penny, the perfectionist. Never, ever seen without a complete face of makeup, the Barbie-esque figure always wore pink everything, but beneath the princess exterior . . . man, I’d seen her do things that did not bear repeating. She was a class-A predator with a flawless manicure.
Next to her was Sparks. A cute, mousy, electronics wizard and a bit of a nerd with the thick-rimmed, black, plastic glasses to finish the look. As usual, she had her handheld console with her and was fixated on whatever was happening on the screen, fingers and thumbs working at breakneck speed. She barely ever spoke, but when she did, everybody listened, even if most of what she said was completely over our heads. Nobody knew what her real name was, but there was talk that it was something embarrassing—so Sparks it was.
At last, Nova emerged from the bathroom. He took a seat between me and Frankie, wiping his hands on the front of his jeans. Nova was my best friend. We’d started talking at the bowling alley he ran a couple of years before and had hung out ever since. He had this hair thing going on where he wanted it straight, but it wanted to be curly, so he was fighting a constant battle for control, one he mostly lost. The steam in the bathroom hadn’t helped.
“Is Marty still not here yet?” Nova said as he sat up straight, eyeing the glasses on the table. He was clearly ready, and so was I.
“Not yet. I spoke to him yesterday, and he sounded kinda jumpy,” Penny said. “But he knew that tonight was the night.”
She’d also sat up straight, her shoulder-length blonde hair falling down in straight lines, ending in a razor-sharp edge. Her hair looked so perfect that I had, for a while, been convinced it was a wig, but past events had blown that theory away. She slowly ran the tip of her pink tongue over her cotton-candy pink lips as she fixed her gaze on her glass.
“We might as well get this over with then,” I said. “Marty can have his when he gets here.”
I could feel a strange urge coming over me. It’d grown stronger over recent days, so I knew it was time for me to drink. Before those urges got out of hand.
Nova nodded, eyes locked on his shot glass. Frankie just shrugged, the picture of cool nonchalance, but I saw his gaze flicker to his glass too. Penny was set, ready to drink. And Sparks? She was still playing her game.
“We gonna do this all together or one at a time?” I asked the room.
We had gotten into the habit of taking our shots one at a time, with everyone else watching. I found it just a little disconcerting having eyes watching me, but it was a safety-first thing, everybody making sure everybody else was okay and keeping up with what we needed to do.
“Let’s just do it.” Frankie stopped lounging and sat forward on the sofa, bouncing me as he shifted around. Crappy second-hand sofa with the pokey, too-springy springs.
I nodded my agreement. I just wanted this over so we could have a good night together. It was the first time we’d had a chance to relax in weeks.
“Sparks? You good?” I asked.
Sparks briefly looked up, her brown eyes darting around from one person to another. She sighed, did something on her screen, and then laid the device on the sofa next to her, all while giving an impatient sigh.
I watched as she picked up her shot glass, as did the rest of us, all with our eyes fixed firmly on the crimson fluid inside.
I held up my glass. “Here’s to us.”
Four other voices joined in the toast, as they had so many times before.
We’d found some charms on the black market that enabled us to walk in sunlight unharmed, but blood . . . yeah, blood was an ongoing issue.
I put my glass to my lips and tipped it back. This wasn’t like a tequila shot where the contents of the glass disappeared to burn your throat. The liquid was more viscous, seeming not to want to give up its grip on the inside of the glass until gravity finally got its way, and the fluid ran in a long trail down the side of the glass and into my mouth.
Once the glass was empty, I swallowed. Then I put it back down, tipped a little water from the other tumbler inside, swished it around, and knocked back the now-pink water as a chaser.
Frankie beat me to the finish, but I didn’t much care. Almost as soon as I’d swallowed, a feeling began to wash over me. I never did drugs. I’d seen what they did to people and didn’t want that for my life, but if it made someone feel the way I did after I drank blood, then I could sure as hell see the attraction.
I picked up my glass of water and washed it down, saving some to swill like mouthwash to make sure the last of any blood was swooshed away.
The longer I sat, the more the feeling of . . . how would I describe it? Warmth and wellbeing, I guess, spread through me. My neck aches and muscular pains vanished almost instantly. My hearing and eyesight seemed to sharpen. I could almost hear my heart beating in my chest, although that could just have been my pulse in my ears. I could definitely hear Nova’s breathing more clearly and the sigh of pleasure that came from Frankie as he leaned back to a lounging position.
I made a sign to Penny, pointing at the corner of my mouth, to tell her to wipe the corner of hers. A tiny dribble of bright red had escaped and was making its way down toward her chin. It was a startling contrast against the alabaster of her pale skin. She dipped a pink-nailed finger into her water, delicately wiped the fleck of blood away, and then greedily sucked on the finger until all traces were gone.
Looking around as if she was slightly embarrassed at her little show, she wiped her finger off on a tissue and resumed her upright pose, hands together on the knees of her bright, neon-pink leggings. I kept telling her black would be less noticeable, but Penny being Penny, fashion won out.
Sparks was back on her game, and I swore those fingers of hers were moving faster than they were before, almost a blur, yet I could see each movement as if it were in slow motion.
I relaxed back on the sofa, making sure my bathrobe was keeping me suitably covered up. I hated showing off my legs. I didn’t know why. Maybe it was the large birthmark above my left knee? Bright purple but still smooth, just part of the skin, but to me, it marked me out, especially when I was younger—it had faded a little since then—and I was teased and self-conscious about it. That was why I took up martial arts. Any boy—or girl, for that matter—who wanted to pick on me had better be ready for a painful coming together.
“I wonder what held up Marty.” I tipped my head back against the soft leather cushion behind me and closed my eyes.
Nova was still trying to get the last of his liquid out of the shot glass, seemingly unwilling to let a single bit go to waste. “Dunno, maybe he got held up with something. You know what he’s like. Has anyone tried calling him?”
I opened one eye to see everyone shaking their heads languidly.
“Do you think we should?” Penny asked.
“Somebody should,” I said. “He could be anywhere, and if he doesn’t drink soon, who knows what could happen.”
Penny leaned over to her pink leather purse and pulled out a phone that was decorated with pink glass jewels. How she didn’t rip her ear open when she used it, I’d never know.
She pressed the screen a couple times and then held it to her ear but at least an inch away. Okay, so then I knew.
“Voicemail. Should I leave a message?” Everybody in the room shook their head.
“You have no idea how easy it is to track those things, do you?” Sparks muttered without looking up.
We all stopped what we were doing and slowly turned our heads toward Sparks who was still playing her game, or I assumed it was a game, as if nothing had just happened.
Other than a quick “Hi” when she arrived, they were the first words I’d heard her utter all afternoon.
“Yeah, I know, Sparks, but how else do we get hold of him?” Penny asked in her slightly high-pitched, helium-bottle voice.
“How so? He’s one of the team.”
Sparks huffed. Maybe, I thought, the pressure of having to converse was playing on her, or maybe she was just being her usual anti-social self. Either way, she definitely huffed.
“You huffed,” I said just to make the point that I’d noticed. “What’s the problem?”
“Just about to level up.” Sparks glanced over in my direction without meeting my eye. She struggled a bit with that.
“Oh, right, well that’s okay then. So, what do you suggest we do?” I asked, trying not to let my sarcasm show through too much.
It was making me increasingly edgier to even be alluding to the possibility of one of us getting found out. Vamps weren’t supposed to be like us. We weren’t supposed to be roaming around without the implants that suppressed our bloodthirsty, violent natures. The implants would not only make us docile; they’d take away our true selves. My friends and I weren’t okay with that.
“Simple. We do nothing. If any of us get caught, there’s nothing we can do other than move, and quickly. You know they’ll find a way to make any of us talk, and that means we are all in trouble.” Sparks said it with an almost flat indifference, but I knew better. She was just as afraid as the rest of us.
I couldn’t think of what to say to that. More than two whole sentences in one speech was just about a personal best for Sparks.
“So, we leave him?” Penny asked.
“That’s what I said.”
“Harsh,” Penny said, frowning.
“It’s the only way.” Sparks tapped her screen and started to play again. Apparently, the debate was over.
“She’s right.” Nova yawned as he spoke, so I wasn’t a hundred percent sure I heard him right.
“She’s right?” I asked for confirmation. His comment surprised me. Nova and Sparks didn’t get along. Well, Sparks didn’t really get along with anyone, but she reserved her most withering looks and lethal putdowns for Nova. I was never really sure why.
“Yeah, she’s right. If one of us gets captured, it puts the rest of us in danger,” Nova said. “If Marty is captured, we will need to be out of here and on the move tomorrow.”
See, I didn’t like the sound of that one little bit. First, this was my apartment. I didn’t want to be forced out and have nowhere to come back to. Second, I just replaced my door, and I didn’t want some booted thug in a uniform kicking it to shreds. Third, where the hell would we go?
The trouble with all that was that Nova was right, and Sparks was too. If Marty was caught, we all could be, and if it meant getting out of Dodge to avoid the same fate, then that was what we’d have to do.
“Maybe I should get dressed,” I said, moving to the edge of the sofa, ready to stand.
Frankie, laconic as ever, flicked his hair away from his face. “Nah. We’ll be good until morning at least.”
That was, of course, the moment the front door of the apartment flung open. Everybody jumped as the heavy door banged against the hallway wall, making the cheap photo prints hanging on the living room wall bounce and clatter.
Then the door closed again, and I heard the latch being closed and locked. Generally someone breaking into your place didn’t shut the door after themselves in my experience, or for that matter, lock it and put the security chain on, so I had to work on the assumption that Marty, all musclebound six-foot-four-inches of him, had finally made it.
“Marty?” I said. “Is that you?”
“Yeah, Katie, it’s me.” His deep, rumbling voice came through from the hallway.
There were four deep sighs of relief, and Sparks started playing her infernal game again.
“You coming through?” I wondered aloud.
“I will, just . . . you guys, don’t yell at me, okay?”
“Why would we yell at you, Marty?” Penny hollered, alarm raising the pitch of her voice even higher than usual.
“See, now you’re doing it already,” Marty said quietly.
“Come on through, Marty. I promise we won’t yell at you.” I gave Penny a look as I spoke. She rolled her eyes but nodded her agreement. Penny liked to yell at people, which was sort of amusing given her almost childishly high-pitched voice. She looked kind of disappointed, but I was getting tired of talking to Marty through a partition wall.
“Okay, but remember you promised.”
I could hear the first shuffling of feet, and then, seemingly while I blinked for a millisecond, Marty’s bulk took up almost the entire doorframe.
“Shit,” Nova said, his head turned to the door.
“Che cavolo.” That was Frankie’s effort from the other side of me. Don’t ask me what it meant, but I guessed it wasn’t polite.
Penny recoiled, making gasping noises as she edged farther away along the sofa she was sharing with Sparks, who was playing her game.
“What the hell happened to you?” I asked, as I seemed to be the only one capable of constructing a sentence.
In news reports where somebody was described as being covered in blood, generally there was maybe only a splash or two.
Well, Marty was covered in blood, but I mean . . . covered. Head to toe. Shoulder to shoulder.
Dripping, it was.
I jumped up. The floor in the hall was new too. Well, new-ish. Five years. But I still didn’t want it blood-soaked. Blood was such a bitch to get out of tile grout, and I should know.
“I had an, errm . . . accident.”
“You look like you’ve been wrestling a polar bear, man. If that polar bear were turned inside out.” Nova stood up and took a step toward Marty who was looking very sorry for himself. “What happened?”
Marty looked around the room at everyone, and then he dropped his chin to his chest.
“I bit someone.”
Silence reigned for a second or two, and then everybody started to yell.