Chapter 1 of AGE

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The complete first chapter of At Grave’s End has been released!

Chapter One

The man smiled and I let my gaze linger over his face. His eyes were a lovely shade of pale blue. Their color reminded me of a Siberian husky, except the person sitting next to me was no animal. Of course, he wasn’t human, either.

“I have to leave now, Nick,” I said. “Thanks for the drinks.”

He stroked my arm. “Have another one. Let me enjoy your beautiful face a little longer.”

I stifled a snort. Wasn’t he flattering? But if he liked my face so much, then his eyes wouldn’t have been glued to my cleavage.

“All right. Bartender…”

“Let me guess.” The loud voice came from across the bar. An unfamiliar face grinned at me. “A gin and tonic, right, Reaper?”

Shit.

Nick froze. Then he did what I was afraid he’d do – he ran.

“Code Red!” I barked, vaulting after the fleeing figure. Heavily armed men in black clothes sprinted in the bar, shoving the patrons aside.

Nick threw people at me as I chased him. Screaming, flailing bodies hit me, making my attempts to catch them and fling a silver knife through Nick’s heart even more difficult. One of my blades landed in Nick’s chest, but too far center to have hit his heart. Still, I couldn’t just let those people splatter to the floor like so much garbage. Nick might think of people that way. I didn’t.

My team fanned out, guarding all the exits and attempting to herd the remaining patrons out of the way.

Nick reached the far end of the bar and glanced around frantically. There was me, advancing with my silver knives, and my men with their Desert Eagle handguns pointed at him.

“You’re surrounded,” I stated the obvious. “Don’t make me angry, you won’t think I’m pretty anymore when I’m angry. Drop the girls.”

He had two of them in his grip, one hand on each vulnerable throat. Seeing the terror in those girls’ eyes made anger flare through me. Only cowards hid behind hostages. Or murderers, like Nick.

“I leave, they live, Reaper,” Nick hissed, no romance in his tone any longer. “I should have known. Your skin’s too perfect to be human, even if your heart beats and your eyes aren’t gray.”

“Colored contacts. Modern science’s a bitch.”

Nick’s icy blue eyes bled to glowing vampire green and his fangs slid out.

“It was an accident,” he yelled. “I didn’t mean to kill her, I just took too much.”

An accident? Oh, he had to be kidding me. “Her heartbeat slowing down would have warned you,” I replied. “Don’t try that accident crap on me, I live with a vampire, and he hasn’t had an ‘oops’ moment once.”

If possible, Nick looked even more ashen. “And if you’re here…”

“That’s right, mate.”

The accent was English, and the tone was lethal. Invisible waves of power rolled over my back as my men parted to let Bones, the vampire I most trusted – and loved – through.

Nick’s gaze didn’t shift, which I’d been hoping for. No, his eyes didn’t leave me as he suddenly yanked my blade from himself and then stabbed one of the girls in the chest.

I gasped, catching her instinctively when Nick threw her at me.

“Help her!” I screamed to Bones, who’d lunged at Nick instead. With that wound, unless Bones healed her, she only had seconds to live.

I had time to hear Bones mutter a curse before he spun around, abandoning his pursuit of Nick to drop to his knees beside the girl. I vaulted after Nick, doing some cursing myself. Gunshots went off, but only a few. With the rest of the bar patrons still scrambling for the doors, plus Nick holding the other girl like a shield, my team couldn’t just open fire. Nick knew that, and so did I.

Nick leaped across the heads of the crowd in a gravity-defying burst, flinging the girl at a member of my team as if she were a weapon. Helpless, the nearby soldier fell back with the girl on top of him, just in time for Nick to swoop down and yank his gun away.

I flung three more of my knives, but with all the jostling from the people around me, my aim was off. Nick let out a yell as they pieced his back, missing his heart, then he turned and fired at me.

I had a fraction of a second to realize that if I ducked, those bullets would hit the people around me instead. They weren’t half-vampire like I was; it would likely kill them. So I braced myself…and was spun around in a blur in the next heart beat, my head jammed into Bones’s chest while three hard vibrations shook him. The bullets meant for me.

Bones let me go, whirling around and flying across the room to Nick, who tried to snatch another hostage. Nick didn’t make it. Bones plowed into him hard enough for both of them to smash through the wall. I ran, hopping over people, in time to see Bones twist his knife in Nick’s chest.

I relaxed. Silver twisted through the heart meant curtains for Nick – and any vampire.

Bones gave one last twist for good measure and then drew his blade out, his eyes flickering over me.

“You’re bleeding,” he said, concern creasing his face.

I touched my cheek, where someone’s belt or shoe or whatever had scored me when Nick was using people like human speedbumps to slow me down.

“You’ve been shot, and you’re worried about a scratch on me?”

Bones came over, touching my face. “I heal instantly, luv. You don’t.”

Even though I knew what he said was true, I couldn’t help but feel his back to reassure myself that his skin was smooth, no more shredded flesh from the bullets.

“Speaking of, there are dozens of injured people here you need to heal. You can get to my scratch later.”

Bones ignored that, drawing his thumb across a fang and touching the cut it made first to my cheek, then my mouth.

“You always come first for me, Kitten.”

No one else called me that. To my mother, I was Catherine. My team called me Cat. To the undead world, I was the Red Reaper.

I licked the blood off, knowing that arguing with him was useless. Besides, I couldn’t help but feel the same way when it came to Bones.

“All right,” I said, the burning now gone from my cheek. “Let’s wrap this up.”

The girl Nick had thrown at one of my men was lying a short distance away. Bones gave her a sweep of the eyes, saw she wasn’t physically hurt, and moved on.

“That’s a…he’s not…” she started to babble, seeing his fangs and glowing green eyes.

I patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry. You won’t remember any of this in ten minutes.”

“B-but what…?”

I ignored the rest of her stammering and started checking on the other people. No one seemed to have gotten killed, thank God, aside from Nick. Bones had healed the other girl who’d been taken hostage. Now the only thing on her chest was a blood smear and a tear in her shirt where my knife had been. We’d gotten lucky.

“Damage report?” I asked Cooper, who was kneeling over one of the patrons who’d been chucked at me.

“Not too bad, Commander. Multiple fractures, abrasions, contusions, the usual.”

I watched as Bones picked his way through the injured to force the ones in serious condition to swallow a few drops of his blood. Nothing worked like vampire blood for healing.

“Another Code Red, querida,” one of my captains, Juan, observed. He pointed to the loudmouthed vampire across the room being restrained by Dave, our other team captain. Dave was a ghoul, which meant he could hold the wriggling vamp. None of the humans on my team could have managed to.

I nodded. “Unfortunately.”

Juan sighed. “That’s three times in a row. You’re not easily camouflaged, even with a different eye and hair color.”

He wasn’t saying anything I didn’t know. I caught Bones’s look and his face nearly screamed I told you so.

Things had gotten more dangerous in recent months. Too many people in the undead world now knew there was a half-vampire human who hunted them, and they knew what to look for.

I glared at the captive vampire. “Thanks for blowing my cover.”

“I only wanted to buy you a drink,” the vampire sputtered. “I wasn’t even sure it was you, but your skin…it looked too perfect to be human, no matter that you breathe. And you’re a redhead, I saw that when you raised your arm. The shadow of hair there wasn’t blond.”

Incredulous, I hefted my arm and inspected its shaved crease. Now I’d heard everything.

Dave studied my armpit too. “He’s right. Of course, who’d think people would be checking out your armpit?”

Who indeed? I ran a frustrated hand through my dyed blond hair. There were no more colors left for me. I’d done black and brunette, too, to try and throw off my targets, plus wearing multiple colored contacts, but lately it hadn’t helped.

“Juan, hold these,” I said, handing him my knives. After blinking several times, I got the brown contacts out. Ah, relief! They had been annoying me all night.

“Let me see them,” the vampire suddenly asked. “I’ve heard, but can you show me?”

Dave tightened his grip. “She’s not a carnival freak.”

“No?” I sighed, and then let my eyes blaze forth.

Their new glow shone like twin emerald headlights, exactly as all vampire eyes could. Undisputable evidence of my mixed heritage.

“All right, start talking. Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you.”

“My name’s Ernie. I’m from Two-Chain’s line. Two-Chain is a friend of Bones’, so you can’t just kill me.”

“With friends like you, who needs enemies?” Bones said scathingly, gliding over to me once he’d finished healing the injured human and instilling their new memories with vampire mind control.

“Bloody hung a target around her neck by screeching her name out,” Bones continued. “Just for that, I should rip off your stones and feed them to you.”

For some people, that would just be a figure of speech. Not Bones. He never bluffed. Apparently Ernie had heard of his reputation. He crossed his legs.

“Please don’t.” Now he went from negotiating to pleading. “I didn’t mean her any harm, I swear to Cain.”

“Right.” Coldly. “But you’ll need more than the maker of all vampires to help you if you’re lying. Kitten, I’d like to box him and take him back to the compound, until I can verify that he really is one of Two-Chain’s people.”

Bones was deferring to me, since in work matters, I was in charge. In matters of personal vampire affairs, however, Bones outranked me by more than two centuries.

“Sure. He’ll hate the capsule, though.”

Bones laughed a trifle grimly. He knew from firsthand experience how unpleasant our vampire transportation was.

“If he’s lying, that’ll be the least of his concerns.”

Cooper came up to us. “Commander, the capsule’s prepped and ready.”

“Strap him in. Let’s get this scene contained as quickly as possible.”

My second-in-command, Tate Bradley, walked in the club. His indigo gaze swept over the room, seeking me out.

“Cat, this is the third time you’ve been recognized.”

As if I didn’t know. “We’ll just have to come up with a better disguise. Fast, before the job next week.”

Tate didn’t let my tone dissuade him. “All this risk is going to get you killed. One of these days, someone’s going to recognize you and just pull a fucking gun instead of offering to buy you a drink. This is getting too dangerous, even for your standards.”

“Don’t tell me what to do, Tate. I’m in charge, so you don’t get to play all Papa Bear with me.”

“You know my feelings for you aren’t paternal.”

Before I could blink, Bone had Tate by the throat with his feet dangling in the air. I was so annoyed by Tate’s comment, it took me a moment to tell Bones to let him down.

If I hadn’t known Tate for several years, I’d throttle him myself for how he continued to bait Bones over me.

Instead of kicking or fighting, Tate managed a grimace that resembled a smile.

“Whatcha gonna do, Crypt Keeper?” he garbled. “Kill me?”

“Put him down, Bones. There are bigger problems than his attitude,” I went on. “We have to finish up here, check on Ernie’s lineage, give our report to Don, and then get home. Come on, moonlight’s burning.”

“One day, you’re going to push me too far,” Bones growled, letting Tate drop to the ground.

I gave Tate a warning look. That’s what I was worried about, too. Tate was my friend and I cared for him, but his feelings for me ran along very different lines. It didn’t help that lately, Tate seemed determined to show those feelings, especially around Bones.

Which was like waving a red flag at a bull. Vampires weren’t known for their gracious sharing tendencies. So far, I’d been able to prevent a real fight from breaking out between them, but I knew if Tate ever made Bones truly lose his temper, he wouldn’t live long enough to regret it.

***

“Senator Thompson will be pleased that his daughter’s murderer was punished,” my uncle and boss, Don Williams, said later when all of us were seated in his office. “Cat, I heard you were recognized again. This is the third time.”

“I have an idea,” I suggested. “Maybe you, Tate, and Juan can line up and all shout it from the rooftops. I know it’s the third fucking time, Don!”

My language didn’t ruffle him. Don hadn’t been around for the first twenty-two years of my life, but he’d been front row and center for the last five. I hadn’t even known I was related to him until a few months ago. Don hid our family connection from me, since he didn’t want me knowing that the vampire who – allegedly – raped my mother was his brother.

“We’re going to need to get another female to play bait,” Don stated. “You can still lead the team, Cat, but there’s too much liability to have you dangling on the hook any longer. I know Bones agrees.”

That made me give a sharp bark of laughter. Bones liked me risking my life on a regular basis about as much as I liked my father.

“Of course he does. Hell, Bones would dance on your grave if I quit my job.”

Bones arched an unperturbed brow, not disputing that.

“You’d just have him pull Don out from under the dirt, Cat,” Dave said with a wry smile.

I smiled back. That’s what Bones had done to Dave after Dave had been killed on a job. I’d known vampire blood was a powerful healing elixir, but I hadn’t known if a mortally wounded person swallowed some before they died, he or she could be brought back later as a ghoul.

Don coughed. “Be that as it may, everyone agrees it’s become too dangerous for you to continue on as bait. Think of the bystanders, Cat. Whenever there’s a Code Red, more of them stand a chance of getting killed.”

He was right. Tonight was a prime example. Vampires and ghouls got pretty desperate when they were cornered. Add in the fact that I didn’t have a reputation for taking prisoners, and what did they have to lose by taking as many humans down with them as they could?

“Shit.” It was an acknowledgment of defeat. “But we don’t have any females on our team, thanks to your sexist rules, Don, and we have another job next week. That’s not enough time to round up a qualified female soldier, break the bad news to her about vampires and ghouls, train her to defend herself, and then have her dolled up and ready for action.”

There was silence after this pronouncement. Don tugged at his eyebrow, Juan whistled, and Dave cracked his neck.

“What about Belinda?” Tate suggested

I gaped at him. “But she’s a murderer.”

Tate grunted. “Yeah, but she’s performed well as a training toy with the men. Based on her good behavior, we’ve promised to let her go in ten years. Maybe taking her out on jobs will be a good indicator of whether she’s turned over a new leaf like she’s claimed.”

Bones gave a slight shrug. “It’s risky, but Belinda’s a vampire, so she’s strong enough for the work. Plus she’s fetching enough to pose as bait, and she’d require no training.”

I didn’t like Belinda, and that wasn’t just because she’d once tried to kill me. Belinda also had a history with Bones that involved his birthday party, another vampire named Annette, two other girls, and very little talking.

“Don?” I asked.

“We’ll try Belinda next week,” he said at last. “If she can’t handle it, then we’ll have more time to find a suitable replacement.”

Using a vampire as bait to trap and kill other vampires. It was almost as crazy as what we’d been doing, which was using me, a half-vampire, for the same thing.

“There’s one more thing to discuss,” Don said. “When Bones joined us over three months ago, it was with conditions. His most significant contribution to our operation hasn’t been requested…until today.”

I tensed, because I knew what that meant. To my left, Bones lifted a bored brow.

“I won’t welsh on our agreement, so name the man you want me to change into a vampire.”

“Me.”

The single word came from Tate. My gaze swung to him.

“You hate vampires!” I burst out. “Why would you want to turn into one?”

“I hate him,” was Tate’s immediate agreement. “But you’re the one who said it’s the person who makes the character of a vampire, not the other way around. Which means I would have hated Bones when he was human, too.”

Nice, I thought, still shocked by Tate’s intention. Good to know he was keeping an open mind about the undead. Yeah, right.

Bones raked Don with a look. “I’ll need time to prepare him for the transition, and let’s get one thing clear straightaway.” He turned his attention back to Tate. “It won’t make her love you.”

I glanced away. Bones had said out loud what I’d been worried about, too. God, I hoped I had nothing to do with Tate’s decision to be the first person on the team to turn into a vampire. Please let him not do something that drastic because of me.

“I love you as a friend, Tate.” My voice was soft. I hated to say this in front of a group, but they all knew how Tate felt. He hadn’t been very shy about it recently. “You’re one of my best friends, in fact. But a friend is the only way I see you.”

Don cleared his throat. “Unless you or Bones have a legitimate concern, Tate’s personal feelings are irrelevant.”

“Motivation is my concern,” Bones said at once. “What if bitterness overwhelms him when he can’t pry her from my side, and let me assure you, mate, you won’t. So the question remains – is he choosing this for himself, or for her? If he does it for the wrong reason, he’ll have plenty of time to regret it.”

At last Tate spoke. “My reasons are my own, and my commitment to my job won’t suffer for them.”

Bones gave him a thin smile. “In a hundred years this job and your boss will be long gone, but you’ll still be my creation. You’ll owe me your fealty unless I permit you your own line or you challenge me and take it. Sure you want to sign on for that?”

“I can handle it,” was all Tate said.

Bones shrugged. “Then it’s settled. If all goes well, soon you’ll have your vampire, Don. Like I promised.”

Don had an expression that was both grim and satisfied. “I hope I won’t regret it.”

So did I.

Comments

  1. ranata

    September 23, 2008

    Thanks so much!!! Sooo excited!!

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