Los Angeles, California. Present day
Vampires had a vibe, and right now it was thick. She could feel them on her skin, making her flesh crawl beneath it. Oh, yeah. Tonight it was on! Damali glanced around the club, all her extrasensory instincts humming. The electric blues, fluorescent greens, and flaming orange stabbed into her brain as the insistent reggae tempo seeped into her blood and created a second pulse within her. She could feel the rhythm of her walk becoming smoother, longer in stride as the music filled her up. It beat inside her, mingling with the grief and rage that had been her companions for the past month.
Lingering cigarette and spliff smoke burned her eyes. The stifling, club-sweat heat of bodies dancing, pressing, grinding, nearly smothered her as she shoved her way through the crowd to get close to the bar. Screw what Marlene and the guardian team had to say about her venturing out alone at night. She was a full-blown Neteru now - a vampire huntress... and the vamp empire had killed her man. A Corona was in order... no, perhaps a Red Stripe beer. Fuck it. Make it Jack Daniels.
"Whatchu having, pretty sis?"
How about every vampire's head on a silver platter? she wanted to say. Ever since that cop, Berkfield, had rolled up on her earlier today asking about Carlos, grilling her about his Jamaican territory, and wanting to know where he was, she'd seen red. She'd clean out every lower-level vamp left in Nuit's old vamp zones while the cops chased drug dealers till the end of time. That's all she had left to cling to—revenge, the old-fashioned way...just like Carlos would have done for her, if the shoe was on the other foot.
The bartender leaned in and smiled. "Having trouble making up your mind? I'm not g'wan card you, baby. Dis your first time out?"
The comment grated her. Yeah, she'd cut out his heart, too. Then she checked herself. Okay, so the bartender wasn't a vamp, but the hair was standing up on her arms.
"A Red Stripe," she told him instead of ordering a Jack. When in Rome... and it wasn't about getting totaled if she was gonna kick some serious ass.
The bartender nodded and turned away to fill her order, but the sideline glance he'd cast to the other end of the bar forced Damali's gaze to follow.
The moment her eyes locked with the dark stranger's seated twenty-five feet away, Damali opened herself up and her internal radar kicked up a notch. Yeah. Vamps were in da house. Cool.
She accepted the beer, declined a glass, paid for her drink, and took a healthy swig from the bottle. She allowed her peripheral vision to scope out a potential rush. She could now sense at least four of them, and knew they could smell her. Good.
Damali watched the condensation trickle down the side of the cold bottle in her hand as she waited for the approach that she knew was imminent. A fucking pretender to the throne... She hated lower, third-generation vamps - always trying to push up on a sister. But that was all there was left to battle. The vamp empire had wiped out all rebel second-generations, and what the civil war didn't claim, she had dusted or they'd gone into deep hiding. Weak bastards.
"Lovely lady, what brings you out on a night like this... to a place like this?"
She didn't turn around as the smooth island lilt penetrated her ear and stroked it with sensual precision. She glanced down to where the dark stranger had been sitting and sighed at the empty seat, knowing that he was behind her and just inches from her jugular. Damali sipped her beer.
"Was looking for some action. Got bored home alone," she said in a weary tone, then casually took another swig of her beer. "There are no more masters of the game left in LA, or didn't you hear?"
The stranger laughed, slow and easy, just like the music.
She finally turned to look him up and down. She smiled. Brother was fine. Shame. Long, black, shoulder-length locks, height judged to be about six two, built, nice chest, perfect abs, the color of semi-sweet chocolate beneath an opened, burnt-gold silk shirt and black leather pants... flawless complexion, dark, lazy eyes - and very white teeth.
She took another swig. Such a waste, and she'd have to dust his ass. But at least some mother's child would go home safely tonight.
For a moment, they simply stared at each other. His smile was one of challenge, hers of warning.
"So, you came out looking for something different, tonight—something unusual?"
"Yeah," she snapped, growing annoyed that he was playing with her.
She could feel his hot gaze rove over her as it caressed her throat, fondled her bare breasts beneath her black belly shirt, then licked at her exposed navel, and began to trail down to that precious place beneath her boot-cut black jeans. Her muscles tensed at the psychic violation, and the Isis dagger stashed in her right boot began to feel warm against her calf.
"Chill," she said, her tone attitudinal enough to brush off the vampiric invasion. "You don't know me like that, yet."
"My bad," he crooned. "But the operative word is yet."
"Can a sister at least finish her brew?" Damali let her breath out with impatience. "Or you could buy her a drink - since you gettin' all familiar."
"Name your poison," he murmured, stepping closer to her than advisable.
He stared at her for a moment, and then a slow smile spread across his face, giving her a glint of fang. She shook her head. The lower generations were so much less cool than the seconds or masters. In a public fucking club, this bastard wanted her so bad he was giving her fang? Pullease.
"Carlos made you? Before his unfortunate - "
"We were close," she said, the venom in her voice cutting off his statement. "He and I went to Hell and back together. Shit happens. Let's leave it at that." She didn't even want to think about it.
The dark stranger rubbed his palm over his chin and glanced at his four henchmen in the crowd. "Damn... I thought for sure I was sensing Neteru. And, if so, then Carlos is the only one who could have turned her."
Damali followed his gaze, monitoring the reactions of the vamps with him. Good, she was talking to their leader, which meant his backup was a generation below him. Four brothers, each a serious specimen of Jamaican male in a delicious range of hues from cinnamon to ebony, serving silk and leather, muscle shirts and kid glove - supple pants, skin and sculpted fineness, brilliant smiles set in fine faces, all nodded at her.
"We are what we are," she finally said, her tone now becoming amused. "Can't take everything from a girl in one night."
The leader nodded, stepped closer, and ran a thumb over her jugular. "Sorry to hear 'bout what happened to your man... but, as they say, it's all good. You're still here, got to live your life now. Right?"
"Yeah," she repeated, her tone once again icy. "It's all good." Damali set down her beer hard on the bar. "Can't sleep during the day anymore, though. You feel me?"
"I feel you..." he murmured, low and sexy. "Wanna get out of here?"
"Yeah," she said. "And bring your friends. Miss Rivera already." She let the truth dangle as bait, knowing they'd sense authenticity in what she'd said. But the truth cut her to the bone.
He hesitated, stared at her, confused, and then chuckled. "That's five of us, you know."
Damali cocked her head to the side and smiled. "And?"
"Damn, sis... aw'ight. That's cool."
"I was made by a master. What did you expect?"
The vampire before her shook his head. "I'd heard about master-made second-level females, but I confess I didn't know it was like that."
"Follow me. Watch and learn... since this is your first time with a sister like me." She didn't even wait for his response as she strode through the crowd toward the off-limits section at the back of the club, elbowing people out of her way.
She could feel the five eager vamps behind her, knew they were intrigued and off-guard. Half of her questioned her own judgment; the other half of her just wanted to get it on. What was there to live for, really? If she went down, she'd go out swinging. If she lived, so be it. Either way, all these potential victims in the house got another night of reprieve.
As she passed club-goers, she glanced at the silver crosses some of them wore, and other religious objects embedded in their jewelry, disheartened by the fact that none of it would ward off an attack if the wearer of the object didn't believe. Most didn't.
The narrow hallway she'd entered that led to the back alley made her claustrophobic. It was too reminiscent of the corridors of Hell she and Carlos had battled in together. Everything reminded her of him, especially the thick, palpable desire emanating from the vampires that followed her in the dark.
She threw her weight against the heavy, metal door and was greeted by fresh air. The evening was unseasonably cool, and she welcomed the rush of breeze against her face. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back for a moment, preparing for the inevitable. A pair of chilly hands rested on her shoulders. Icy breath filled her ear.
"You have any preference about which one of us goes first?" a deep male voice intoned.
"No. Do you?" she murmured, shrugging out of his hold and bending over so she could reach the pant leg zipper, concealing her stashed dagger.
"Damn," one of the henchmen whispered. "I don't care, man. Just as long as I'm in the lineup."
"Good," she said, chuckling as she glanced up at the four weaker vamps hanging back in the shadows. A hard erection poked at her behind in a sultry grind. Hands were on her hips now, caressing them, stroking her backside, and making the beaded triangle sarong that was tied against them shake. "I'm not choosy about which one of you goes first, either."
"Pull down your jeans, baby. We'll work it out."
"Okay. But first lemme show you what I'm working with," she said with a dangerous half smile, peering up at him over her shoulder.
In one deft move, she unzipped her pant leg, snatched her dagger, spun, and plunged it into the chest of the vampire that had been on her ass. His eyes opened almost as wide as his mouth. His fangs exploded from his gums and he made a choking, gasping sound as he tried to speak. His face was still frozen in shock as his skin turned to ash and crumbled away to red glowing bones, which then disintegrated.
"Oh, shit! A fucking black widow!"
Damali wiped her blade on her thigh, ignoring the comment as the four remaining vamps took battle stances. Adrenaline shot through her as she watched their size bulk up, their once deep brown eyes turn fiery red, and their sensual smiles gave way to full-fanged snarls.
"Only two inches of fang, gentlemen? Rivera gave a girl six to eight, when provoked. Is this the best you can do?" She shook her head and studied her fingernails. "Guess there really is a difference between masters and wannabe lower levels. Size does really matter after all."
She sensed them go airborne before she'd even looked up, and quickly dodged the first one's grasp as the others came down in a circle around her. She moved counterclockwise to their movements, their snarls and growls making them sound like rabid pit bulls. Her senses heightened, she waited for them to attack again.
The one behind her was the first to strike - and was the first to get his throat slashed as she spun and kick boxed a second one away from her. As soon as the second fell back, another was on her, only to find her Isis blade deeply imbedded in his chest. Another pile of ash crumbled at her feet, and she sidestepped the burning, putrid heap, assessing the placement of the last two vamps in the alley.
They stared at her then glanced at each other.
"Later, bitch!" one of them said.
"Bring it now, punk," she spat back.
"Later," the other repeated.
Then they were gone.
"Can't even get a good whup-ass on out here!" she screamed into the nothingness.
Pure frustration claimed her. Two of them had gotten away. "Damn!"
Club music and street traffic filtered into the dark alley. Damali kicked the Dumpsters as she passed them, hoping the vamps might have changed their minds and been lying in wait for her, or at least might have gone somewhere to bring back a fresh crew for her to mix it up with. What was wrong in the world? Couldn't even get a good beat-down these days. Her hands were shaking, not from fear but from total rage. Anything left from Nuit's line had her name on it—tattooed to its skull like a bull's-eye. That was the least she could do. She felt hot moisture rise in her eyes, and she blinked it away. Fuck it. Whatever. If this was her life, so be it.
A sudden motion made her go still. She watched a male form approach her from the shadows, coming from the direction of the street just beyond the alley. She listened to its footfalls and clenched her dagger in her fist more tightly. Heavy. Too heavy. She sniffed the air. Sweat. It was human. She relaxed.
"Can't get a good alley fight on? Is that what I heard you yelling, young lady?"
Detective Berkfield shook his head as he stepped closer to Damali, holding up his shield, his expression of confusion now clearly visible under the dim alley lights.
"What the hell is a female rap star doing out, alone, at night, with no security, in the freakin' Jamaican badlands?" He glanced at her hand. "Clearly looking for a fight."
"I'm a hip hop, spoken-word artist - not a rap star. And for your information, my songs are neo-soul."
"Whatever," the detective said, pocketing his badge. "If you're looking for trouble, this is a place to find it. What's the deal? What're you doin' in an alley by yourself, hon?"
Damali looked at the pudgy, balding white man in the rumpled raincoat. He was still huffing just from the mere exertion of walking fast. She let her breath out hard and bent to sheath her blade in her boot.
"An expensive, flashy entourage ain't my style, and I only came out here for some air," she grumbled. "Some punks thought because I'm a fairly successful hip hop artist, I was soft, okay? What's it to you? They're gone and I didn't stab anybody. I was protecting myself and wouldn't recognize them again if I saw 'em."
She stood and folded her arms over her chest, defying him with her glare.
Berkfield nodded. "Okay, okay. But, lemme ask you this. Why is it that after you've been somewhere, there's always these mysterious piles of ash left in a goddamned alley, huh? What is it with you and Rivera?" He glanced at the ashy heaps and then stared at her harder.
"You really don't want to know. Trust me."
"Try me." He held her gaze, thinking about the last contact Carlos had made with him - an envelope with all the Jamaican territory laid out... this club listed as a source of trouble. And there was something in her eyes, the unsaid, that made him realize she had to know that Rivera wasn't the average Joe, Carlos's drug-dealing history notwithstanding.
Locked in a standoff, for a moment all he could do was stare at her.
This kid was so wrong when she'd just said that he wouldn't want to know. It had been the very question that had kept him up at night for months. Yet he didn't want to sound crazy, even to himself, by broaching the subject. He couldn't explain any of what he'd witnessed to another living soul. The unfathomable possibility of what Carlos might be had forever changed his life, his perspective, and it was now possibly threatening his sanity. He'd almost been able to chalk it up to the trauma of being double-crossed by a trusted partner and nearly shot in the process. That had somehow been a comforting rationalization - until the Brazil thing had gone down. The carnage there just reminded him too much of the unsolved cases that would always haunt him.
The detective searched the young woman's face with his eyes. He had to know if he'd seen what he'd seen in that alley in LA... had to know if there was something else on this planet that wasn't human.
Berkfield practically held his breath as he continued to eye the angry young woman before him. If she were somehow Carlos's woman, Rivera wouldn't have been able to stay away from her. Every instinct in him as a cop and a man told him that much. That's what he trusted.
"Look," Berkfield finally said more gently. "I'm not after him for something he did... I'm just trying to get a bead on something that went down. It struck me as odd. That's all I can say about it now, but when me and Rivera met in an alley, one time a while back, I saw some things... some shit I still can't totally comprehend. He saved my ass that night and - "
"If he saved your ass, you'd have to ask him," she said coolly.
"That's why I came looking for you - to find him," the detective said. There was no anger in his voice, just the urgent need to know. He could see her studying him, deciding, but every instinct he had as a cop told him she knew - had seen it - just like he had. "I don't care about the Jamaican territory," he said quickly, coming in close to her and holding her by both arms.
She appraised his hold with cool disdain, but didn't move. All she did was look at his hands and then narrow her gaze at him. "Then why did you ask me about it, huh? Why'd you roll up on me in the street while I was out grabbing some lunch and start poking around in the subject? Now you're sweatin' me, following me and shit? You keep talking about the Jamai - "
"That was the last contact we had with him," Berkfield said, his tone becoming more panicked as he watched her mentally retreat. But what the hell was he doing, telling an unknown risk about his info source - giving up his inside man like that? He either needed more stress counseling, or it was too late and he'd already lost his mind.
"Berkfield, I'm warning you. There are some things in life you just don't wanna know."
He quickly dropped his hands away from the young woman before him, now becoming terror-stricken as he stepped back. That's exactly what Rivera had told him. What if she was one of those things like Rivera? He was alone in an alley with no backup. The reality sent a chill down his spine.
Berkfield crossed himself as she simply stared at him. "All I want to do is ask him a personal question so I can sleep at night." His request came out as a plea. Heaven help him if he'd stumbled upon a female monster.
"Too late," Damali said softly, looking off into the distance.
"And why's that?" His voice caught in his throat as he glanced around. The darkness was now suffocating him, and he nearly pulled his gun on her, then remembered what Rivera had done to his partner - sent the bullet right back through the man's chest.
She didn't even look at the detective as she began walking away. "Because Carlos Rivera is dead."