John had been here before. Wounded, helpless, dying.
Then, as now, there had been vampires present, although on this occasion, the vampire who held him in his arms and carried him away from the fading fight seemed to have no intention of drinking his blood. John knew this vampire. He was an ally, and his name was Béla.
As if from a great distance, John could hear voices, friends’ voices: Mihaela’s and Cyn’s, shocked, hushed with grief. In his head, Maggie whispered, Oh no. Oh my poor soldier…
Saloman’s voice, deep and commanding, said, “Give him to me.”
And then, Cyn’s again, frightened and pleading: “Don’t turn him, Saloman. You mustn’t turn him!”
John wasn’t afraid. Somewhere in the dizziness, in his sheer distance from the real world, he knew these vampires wouldn’t hurt him, unlike the one who’d stabbed him with, ironically enough, a sharp wooden stake. Actually, he knew no one could hurt him more than this. He was twenty-one years old and about to die.
And yet he hung on to that fraying gossamer thread that barely connected him to life. He wanted to live. He needed to live, for all the things he hadn’t done yet, for the difference he’d always wanted to make to the world. A gentle hand smoothed his forehead. Saloman’s. The vampire prince had saved him once, given him another year and more of life by killing those other undead who’d have finished him off in Afghanistan, after the IED had blown off his arm and a larger slice of his head than the doctors had considered safe. But this was his heart, now, slowing and stopping…
Saloman’s deep, low voice murmured soothing, incomprehensible words. His fingers were on John’s lips, and he tasted something cool and salty. How could he taste, if his heart had stopped? Pressure forced his mouth open. Something dripped onto his tongue, and he gasped and swallowed. His heart couldn’t have stopped. He still lived, still hung on.
Another drop, and another, and John choked, but the drips kept coming, and he thought he was drowning in his own blood. Internal bleeding or external, it didn’t matter. If he bled, he was alive.
Somewhere, a baby cried—Elizabeth and Saloman’s baby, for whom he was surely dying, however tenaciously he hung on…
Sudden, vivid pictures flashed into his mind, almost like blasts of a television screen with the channel constantly changing. Flashing beams of colored light, figures and faces that moved and changed too rapidly for him to see, shadows shifting in the darkness, a girl pulling him into the light. Not a girl he knew, but one whose beauty dazzled him as she drew him down onto her naked body. Night-black hair streamed across a pristine white pillow. Large, dark eyes gazed up into his from the loveliest face he’d ever seen or imagined—all flawless, translucent skin and delicate bones and glistening, parted lips. But it was her expression that moved him most, drew a powerful, aching response from deep inside him: worshipful, loving, clouded with passion as he moved inside her. Warm, naked flesh on his, rapture building like a storm.
So he was dead after all, and this was heaven. He’d never expected that.
His heartbeat exploded inside him, drumming rhythmically, relentlessly, and he threw himself forward, sitting up with the hugeness of his gasp for air.
But there was no girl, only Saloman, staring down at him, long, elegant fingers perfectly still on his half-buttoned cuff. The Ancient being’s eyes were wide, his lips parted not so much in wonder but in a kind of stunned amazement John had never seen in him before. He doubted many had.
“How…unexpected,” Saloman murmured. “Where in the universe did you go?”
John tried to speak, to answer, but the vampire’s cool fingers brushed against his eyelids. “Later, my friend. Sleep, now. Death won’t come for you tonight. It’s not your time.”
Eva, who often called herself Kate to avoid difficulties, had sin on her mind.
She made the taxi from Schiphol airport drop her at the edge of the red-light district, and then prowled the dark, lively streets of Amsterdam on foot, letting anticipation build within her as she circled gradually nearer and nearer to her target: an old church used now as a needle-exchange center for drug addicts.
Her senses wide open, she scanned for any familiar presences, human or undead, that might indicate she was being followed. But although a thousand blood scents bombarded her, none stayed with her. There were only the men and scantily clad women draped in doorways or windows or against lampposts, offering drugs and sex and combinations thereof. Eva ignored them, and none of them called after her twice. They were streetwise. They could sense danger in whatever guise it turned up.
Likewise, the scattering of menacing vampire presence in the city remained scattered. None of it changed direction when she did.
Eva stretched out her fingers and curled them as though grasping the excitement that hummed through her. Subtly, she relaxed, letting her hips sway, and thought of the vampire Marius, whose lair beneath the church was her goal.
Her whole body tingled. Between her legs pooled the hot moisture of sexual desire. Marius, dark and handsome, tied to no one, filling her, biting her… Oh yes, sex with Marius was good, and right now it was necessary. It was why she’d come to Amsterdam. He was wild enough to match her sexually. And there was no denying she was attracted to his rebellious, don’t-give-a-shit nature. It all helped to distract her from what she clamored for, what she yearned for with so much force it hurt. What she could never have. The blood of another.
Instead, Marius could have hers. That was good. That was bliss…
The church building was in darkness at this time of night. Eva walked past its front gate and down the narrower street to the left, where she jumped over the surrounding fence and walked up to the blank stone wall. As she stared at it, a door seemed to shimmer into existence. It didn’t really, of course. The door had always been there. It was just enchanted to prevent perception of it. But Eva had been here before.
Drawing the stake from her pocket—just in case Marius chose to attack before checking out his visitor—she pushed open the door and went in, drawing it closed behind her again.
Darkness enveloped her. He wasn’t here. She felt that at once. No big, strong, turbulent presence. But someone was here, a vampire, just sitting in the darkness. Wim. She’d met him last time. A young vampire just emerging from the fledgling state. He ran errands for Marius, guarded his lair when asked.
“Wim? It’s Kate.” Keeping the stake handy, she felt for the electric light switch and pulled it. A dim light spread over the stone stairs and the undercroft beneath. Wim sat on the floor, under the large altar table on which Marius had placed his mattress. He looked young and emaciated, his tangled brown hair even more unkempt than usual. Eva suspected he’d died of a drug overdose about ten years before.
“He isn’t here,” Wim said. “Go away.”
“Where is he?”
The vampire glared up at her, his eyes flashing red in the strange light. “Marius is dead.”
A pain spiked through her. “No more than you, I trust,” she managed as she walked down the stairs toward him.
He watched her, unmoving. “A lot more than me, as it happens. True dead.”
“No.” Numbness soaked up from her toes. Vital, wicked, sexy Marius—dead? He couldn’t be, and yet vampires didn’t joke about true death. “I don’t believe you.”
“I saw him. I was there.” Annoyance seemed to pull Wim together. He stood up, watching her approach him, and his hungry eyes gleamed. “On second thoughts, if you came to screw Marius again, you can stay. I’ll screw you instead.”
He took one step toward her before she covered the rest of the ground and twisted one arm up behind his back while she pricked the skin over his heart with her stake.
“No, you won’t,” she snarled. “If you even speak to me again, you’re dust.” She whirled away from him and leapt up the stairs in three bounds, slamming the door behind her.
Her heart felt as if it would burst. She strode away from the church in a rage of anger and grief and loss. Marius was dead. Wim wasn’t grieving for him so much as regretting the loss of his security, his protection by a stronger vampire. Was it only Eva who’d mourn him? And she couldn’t weep for him; she wouldn’t.
Hell, she barely knew him. She’d miss his charm, his wicked fun, his wild, sexy lovemaking, his bite… But it wasn’t as if she’d loved him. She couldn’t, for one very good reason: John Ramsay. His face swam into her mind, all sharp lines and broad bones and hard, steady eyes. Firm lips that might soften into smiles but would never, ever kiss her.
But this, what she felt and needed now, wasn’t about John. She couldn’t even let it be about Marius, or she’d cry. She couldn’t cry. She could dance. She could raise hell, in Marius’s honor.
The loud beat emanating from a nearby nightclub drew her like a magnet. She found it in a dark, narrow street, in an old, neglected building that had once been quaint. The upper windows were shuttered, possibly the brothel end of the business. Eva could actually hear the rush of hot human blood within, mingling with cold, heavy vampire presence. Some hungers she could assuage, some she couldn’t. That was life, but hell, she’d take what she could get.
The smell of alcohol and a toxic cocktail of drugs hung in the air as she stepped inside and strolled up to the vampire bouncer, hips swaying.
The whole place reeked of violence and trouble and sex. Just what she needed to distract her from blood and grief, hunger and loss.
Here’s to you, Marius.
Mina Rietveld wasn’t afraid of much. She’d hung around in biker bars, run amok with skinheads and football hooligans, without ever coming to harm—probably because she’d always found a level on which to relate to even the most violent or alienated in society. But now, as she stood on the deck of the small canal boat, surrounded by the strangers she’d summoned in a moment of madness, she felt more isolated than she ever had in her life—both from her companions and from the gangs she’d brought them here to observe.
From the deck, she gazed up at the two groups of skinheads charging at each other from opposite sides of the bridge, yelling at the tops of their voices.
The clash was violent, as always. Swinging chains, knives, and knuckle-dusters flashed under the streetlights. Even from the boat, blows thudded loudly enough to make Mina wince, interspersed with bloodcurdling yells and screams of pain.
She’d seen this before. It was her companions’ reactions now that interested her.
There were six of them in the boat with her: five men and a woman, an eccentric mix of age, race, and appearance. The violence didn’t appear to appall any of them. The girl, Cyn, watched with little more expression than the faint curl of her upper lip.
Mina risked a glance at the tall young Scotsman on her other side. For some reason, it felt like taking a chance—perhaps because she liked to look at him and this was definitely not the time or place to give in to attraction. He hadn’t said much since they’d met. She had the distinct impression he was the kind of man whose body did most of the talking. And it was certainly a body any red-blooded woman would be happy to converse with. Even here, in this fraught and unpleasant situation, she was ultra-aware of him.
He held himself very upright, like a soldier, still and poised, his broad shoulders straight under his loose combat jacket, his eyes steady, observant, and unforgiving—too old for his youth, she might have said if she was given to such imaginings. Hard, cool eyes that seemed to have seen too much too young. Which tied in to Mina’s theory of him being a soldier, although it begged the question what he was doing with the mercenary muscle who hired themselves out over the Internet as experts in dealing with “problems that won’t die”—an online euphemism for what she had once regarded as total nonsense.
And yet she’d contacted them in her moment of weakness, and they’d arrived the next day, apparently conveniently passing through.
“Brutal,” one of the American men observed. His name was Pete. Although he looked and dressed much more formally than the others, he appeared to be no more fazed by the battle raging only yards away. “But I can’t see how it concerns us.”
“Watch,” Mina advised.
“Perhaps they’d be more comfortable knocking lumps out of me instead of each other,” Cyn said wryly. Since she was African-American, Mina understood the comment only too well.
“No, they wouldn’t,” said Béla, the east European. He stood very close to Cyn, and Mina guessed he was her lover. In appearance, big and shaven-headed, he was as scary as any of the fighters they were observing.
“Skinheads are not necessarily racist,” Mina argued. However, this was not the best time for such pedantic discussions. She shrugged. “On the other hand, by their conversation as well as the language used on their blog, the group on the right definitely are racist.”
The young soldier—whose name was John—turned his head to look at her. “Conversation? You talk to these guys?”
Stung by the implied criticism, despite his neutral tone, she lifted her chin. “I’m studying them for my PhD. I have to talk to them.”
She couldn’t tell what he thought of that. He merely turned back to the fight.
Mina drew in her breath. “In fact, I gathered a lot of data and insight, much of it worrying for society in general. However, it’s the mob on the left which has come to really worry me.”
“There are more of them,” Pete observed.
“There are now,” Mina said grimly. “Watch.”
Although fierce, the battle was mercifully short. The skinheads on the right, her skinheads, began to back off, bleeding and limping. As if a referee had blown a whistle, the left-hand mob also began to withdraw to their own side of the bridge. One carried a bloody and unconscious body over his shoulder; another dragged a struggling, screaming man inexorably with him.
Beside Mina, John, the soldier, frowned, stepping closer to the edge of the boat. “Wait,” he said. “Aren’t they…? Mina, those aren’t their injured comrades they’re carrying, are they? They’re captives from the other group.”
“Exactly,” Mina said, pleased by his observation—and by the pleasant little flutter of her heart at hearing him pronounce her name in his clipped Scottish voice. “And what’s more, when they come out to fight tomorrow or the next night, or next week, whenever, tonight’s captives will fight on the side of their captors.”
“Weird,” Pete said. “It’s like a children’s game, only with blood and bodies.”
“No,” John said, staring after the retreating vampires with their captives. “No, it isn’t.” He dragged his gaze back to Mina, who was carefully steering the boat farther into the left-hand bank of the canal. “You know what they are, don’t you? That’s why you called on us.”
Mina’s blood ran cold all over again. “You know what they are.” God, was she right after all? She wasn’t used to this uncertainty in her mind, or to the difficulty of meeting another gaze.
“I suspect,” she managed.
John scanned her face a moment longer, then turned away and, without warning, leapt from the barge deck onto the paved bank. He moved with incredible speed and agility that caught at Mina’s breath, even before he took off after the victorious skinheads, who’d cut down an opening in the street running parallel with the canal.
“Be careful,” Cyn hissed after him.
That was it? Mina stared at her and the others. “You’re letting him go alone? Have you any idea what they could do to him?”
“More idea than you,” Cyn said without heat.
Mina released the wheel and stormed toward the edge of the boat. Suddenly she was jerked back by the arm, and stared into Cyn’s determined face. Although Mina was young and fit, she couldn’t break the other woman’s grip.
Cyn said, “Johnny can take care of himself. He’s gone to observe, not start a fight. Let him do his job.”
“Be careful,” Cyn called after him as he ran.
Aren’t I always? John spoke telepathically, since they were able to communicate this way quite easily now.
They’ll know what you are, Cyn warned.
I know what they are too. John paused at the mouth of the narrow alley taken by the skinheads, listening.
They’d moved on, so John did too, running lightly down the length of the alley and around the next corner. Across the road, something moved. John glided into the shadows and saw a figure with a shaved head and a short beard move out of an open garage doorway and slouch up the road away from him.
When the figure disappeared from view, John walked on toward the garage. He could hear chanting coming from there, counting in Dutch by the sound of it, along with rhythmic stamping. Obviously they didn’t care about noise, but then the houses opposite the garage seemed to have been gutted by fire, so were unlikely to harbor witnesses right now.
Drawing the stake from inside his jacket, John peered cautiously around the garage door.
He needn’t have worried. Whatever was going on here appeared to have engaged everyone’s attention. By the light of a single overhead electric bulb, the skinheads were crowded around a tall man in the middle of the garage, who was bent over the neck of another bald man slumped in his arms. Around the wall, several denim-and-leather clad men were chained up like animals. Some of them seemed to snarl like animals too, even while they joined in the chanting and stamping.
John turned his attention back to the center of the garage. The tall man raised his head from the throat of his captive and smiled openmouthed, revealing the bloody fangs of the undead. Blood trickled over his lips and down his chin.
The watching vampires shut up, their chanting cut off as if someone had thrown a switch. The tall vamp raised one hand to his mouth and swiftly, shockingly, sank his teeth into his own wrist and tore. Then he shoved his bloody wrist into the lolling face of the man he still held in one arm, and John’s veins seemed to ice up. He could almost taste the blood in his own mouth, like the dream when he’d almost died last year. He banished the memory, concentrating on the vampires, counting them, committing their faces to memory. There was nothing else he could do right now. The captive was already dead, and undead.
The skinheads chanted again, stamping their feet, drowning out the disgusting slurps of the dead man, who’d begun to drink with noisy greed.
John had seen enough. He whirled around to run back the way he’d come—and a skinhead dropped from above right in front of him, wrinkling his nostrils. Vampire. He moved too fast to be anything else.
“I smell hunter,” he said in a stage whisper.
“And I smell too many vampires,” John said grimly.
This vampire was quick, his hand shooting out to grab John by the throat. John threw up his prosthetic arm to protect himself, and the vampire’s knuckles jarred against it. At the same time, John drew back his stake for the kill.
This was the vampire’s moment to choose. Run or die. With at least twenty vampires inside the garage, John wasn’t going to follow him there. And most vampires knew better than to engage a hunter. Even an unofficial one.
But these vampires were already breaking all the rules. Even as the back of John’s neck prickled in warning of another attacker, this one lunged forward instead of back, and John’s stake took him smoothly through the heart. As the vampire exploded into dust, John absorbed the puny energy release, already spinning around to face the threat behind, grabbing his second stake from his pocket as he went. He threw it in one quick, forceful jerk of his arm, before his brain had even registered that this was the bearded vamp who’d left the garage earlier. John’s aim was true, but at the first shiver of the vamp’s dispersing dust, he turned and bolted as fast as his legs would carry him.
It would take only an instant for the vampires in the garage to feel the loss of their comrades, smell the hunter in the air, and charge after him. In this case, discretion was most certainly the better part of valor.
But John heard no running footsteps, no sour breath on the back of his neck. As he bolted around the first corner, he glanced back and saw several dark, unmoving figures in the garage doorway, not chasing, just watching.
For some reason, that gave John the shivers.
“They’re vampires all right,” he told the others with grim certainty as he came to a halt beside the barge. Of course, they knew that already. Cyn would have sensed them even before the battle had begun. But it did no harm to state the hard fact to Mina, who’d chosen to bring them here, apparently against her better judgment. John jumped down onto the deck. “And they’re turning the local hooligans.”
“I don’t see why,” Rudy said. The oldest of the mercenary posse, he voiced what they were all thinking. They’d brought Mina back with them to their hotel on the Leidseplein, where they sat in the more or less empty bar drinking coffee and Dutch gin. “I thought Saloman had forbidden the creation of new vampires.”
Béla nodded. “These guys aren’t playing by anyone’s rules.”
“Just to take over a skinhead gang?” Cyn knocked half her gin down her throat. “What’s the point? Even if hunters don’t get to them, when Saloman finds out, they’re history.”
Mina’s head turned from speaker to speaker, her expression rapt and fascinated. John half expected her to get out a pencil and take notes.
“Well, they’re definitely risking it,” he said. “And as Mina says, they’ve been doing it for some time.”
“We can’t let it go on,” Rudy stated. “If she’s right, they must have scores of mindless fledgling vamps running around the city.”
“Mindless fledglings?” Mina repeated. “Is that worse than older—um—vampires?”
Despite summoning the posse, she obviously still felt silly saying the word “vampire” in connection with reality. John had been there once too.
“Much worse,” Cyn explained. “They’re like über-strong humans with the minds of babies, just a mass of appetites—mainly for blood—which they have neither the ability nor the desire to control. Older vampires have learned discretion and, these days at least, rarely kill humans.”
Mina’s eyebrows flew up as she took this in.
Rudy said, “So, there should be a hugely increased murder rate in Amsterdam.”
“It’s not huge,” Pete said. He had his laptop open in front of him. “If there was, it would have drawn the official hunters. There are only a couple of reported unsolved homicides.”
John shoved his empty coffee cup away from him with an impatient frown. “No murder reports, because to the skinheads, their guys aren’t dead, just changed sides. The vamps keep their fledglings restrained and loose them in these fights, which the human skinheads are hardly going to report to the cops. Antiestablishment subculture, remember?”
Mina, the academic, nodded approval of this reasoning.
John added, “Rudy’s right—the important thing here is why?”
Béla twirled his glass, watching the liquid swirl. “I’ll go and have a nose around both camps.”
“You do look the part,” John agreed, considering Béla’s shaven head, skull earring, and tough-as-nails appearance.
“No, he doesn’t,” Cyn disputed, affronted.
“Yes, he does, and so will I if run a razor over my head.”
Cyn shifted in her seat. This job made her unusually uncomfortable, and John could see why. It wasn’t a particularly savory bunch of humans they were trying to save. John would have been inclined to let the two groups slug it out if it wasn’t for the danger presented to the rest of the public by the increasing number of skinhead fledgling vampires. Which was a nightmare in anyone’s book.
“Fledgling nests are fair game,” Cyn said, setting down her cup with decision. “We should clean that out in daylight.”
“First things first,” Pete, the accountant, said smoothly, regarding Mina in a friendly fashion. “How were you planning to pay us?”
Amusement tugged at John’s lips. He sat back and let the others cope. This was one problem they’d have to deal with, with or without pay; though pay would undoubtedly be better. From across the room, the barmaid smiled at him.
It wasn’t the first time, and John was more than happy to smile back, see how long they could maintain eye contact. She was pretty, blonde, not much older than he was, and increasingly desirable, according to the stirrings in his jeans.
While Pete and Mina talked money in the background—bizarrely, Mina seemed able to use a university department grant for the purpose, since the vampires were interfering with her study of the human skinhead group—John let the barmaid’s eyes flirt with his. He couldn’t tell if he was flirting back, but he began to hope it was his lucky night.
Finally, John stood up, still watching the barmaid. “Anyone want another?”
Amid a chorus of tired refusals, Mina jumped to her feet. “I have to go,” she said abruptly. “Keep in touch.”
As she stalked toward the exit, John glanced after her in quick surprise.
“You’d better tell him, Rudy,” Cyn said wryly. “I’m going to bed.”
“Tell me what?” John demanded.
“Go on then, one for the road,” Rudy said, and John shrugged before walking over to the bar and ordering two more gins.
“And one for yourself, if you like,” he offered, watching the barmaid’s elegant hands with their colorful splash of green-and-gold nail polish as she poured the drinks.
She smiled. “I’ll save it for later,” she said in English, her accent unmistakably Australian. She waited until he raised his gaze to hers. “I finish in an hour.”
John let the smile play around his lips. “Room 212,” he said, as if for adding the cost of the drinks to his bill. Her name badge said “Sarah.” Raising his eyes to her face once more, he added, “Come up when you finish, if you want. Have that drink.”
Her eyes sparked with promise. “Maybe I will,” she said, just a shade breathlessly, and John’s nether regions rejoiced. He was on a promise.
On the other hand, as he walked back to the table with the drinks, he was aware of his brain’s disappointment, as if the promise had been too easily won.
Women liked John. He’d found that out while still in his teens, although some had since been put off by his missing limb—John could spot the confusion of sympathy and revulsion quite easily now, and neither was acceptable to him in a bed partner. He wondered dispassionately if it would put Sarah off. He hoped not. The trouser tension was killing him, especially as he watched Cyn and Béla walk out of the bar, the vampire’s hand down the back pocket of her jeans.
Rudy, looking in the same direction, sniffed his disapproval. “It’ll never last,” he prophesied. Cyn was like his daughter, and he found it hard to see her with a vampire—even one who seemed to treat her well and make her happy.
That would be all the good sex vampires were famous for. John wouldn’t know. He’d never slept with a vampire.
“It might,” John said neutrally, pushing Rudy’s glass over to him. He rather liked Béla. “She could do worse, Rudy.”
Rudy grunted and clinked his glass off John’s. “I don’t know. Always thought she’d end up with you.”
John gave a lopsided smile. “She’s like my sister.”
Rudy lifted his brows, sipped his drink. “Seems you have a lot of sisters. Cyn, Mihaela, Elizabeth Silk.”
John lifted his glass in an ironic toast. In fact, his heart still gave the odd twinge for the unattainable Elizabeth. Ten years his senior, she was the companion of the vampire overlord Saloman, but once, when his world had been falling around his ears and he was at his lowest, Elizabeth’s beauty and compassion, and her sheer depth, had given him something to live for and live up to. It was a crush he’d grown used to in time and which had faded now to mere tingles of pleasure in her company.
Not that he wouldn’t die for her, because he would. He and just about every other man who knew her. And part of her charm was being completely oblivious to this devotion, which she imagined was all given to Saloman and to their child, billed as the savior of the world.
“She’s not a sister,” Rudy observed, jerking his head toward the bar and the promising Sarah.
“No, she’s not a sister,” John confirmed. He drank his gin. The trouble was, women like Cyn and Elizabeth Silk and Mihaela and the vampire Maggie gave other women an awful lot to live up to. So much so that he’d begun to separate pleasures of the mind from pleasures of the body. He didn’t know anything about Sarah except that she was pretty and she seemed to find him attractive; but he’d happily screw her for as long as she’d let him. Did that demean her? Or him?
He stirred. “So what’s all this ‘you tell him’ stuff when Mina left?”
“Mina was eyeing you up all night,” Rudy said with a lopsided grin. “Didn’t you notice?”
John stared at him. “She’s a client.”
Rudy winked. “Take your pick, Johnny. Hell, you’re a young man. Sow your wild oats.”
Is that all there is? Wild oats and women I could have loved but can’t?
Unbidden, a dream memory flashed into his mind. A girl with night-dark hair and almost black eyes, clouded with passion as she made love with him. She had been in the first of those dreams, the vivid, real, living dreams that had begun the night Saloman’s daughter was born and John had nearly died. They weren’t frequent, never more than two in a month, often less, but they stood out for him.
Not that he’d ever dreamed of the beauty in his bed again. He’d always been doing other things. But the girl… He could never shake the notion that she was more than a sexual fantasy. He’d felt too much sheer emotion; there had been so much care and protectiveness…
And he was probably making that bit up. He’d dreamed about screwing a very beautiful young woman, and his lonely, misunderstood soul had transformed her into an ideal that didn’t exist. A special woman he could fuck and love.
John stood up, ridiculing himself. Although he sometimes felt a hundred years old, he was only twenty-two, and in his line of work, hardly ready to settle down with a mythical one and only. Wild oats it was.
He raised his glass to Sarah at the counter, who smiled as he knocked back the dregs of his gin before leaving the bar with Rudy. They walked upstairs and parted at John’s bedroom door. Earnings were good these days: they no longer had to share hotel rooms when they traveled.
Inside, John closed the curtains on the picturesque, moonlit view of canals and streets lined with trees and bicycles. Amsterdam was a pretty, friendly city. It didn’t deserve to be marred by violent skinhead gangs, alive or undead. Taking off his jacket, he threw it over the armchair in the corner, then finished unpacking his meager bag—three pairs of jeans, a few T-shirts and overshirts, underwear, basic toiletries, and several sharpened wooden stakes. He placed one of the stakes under his pillow as usual, then, after a moment’s hesitation, stuck it into the drawer of his bedside table instead. He didn’t really want to get into that discussion with Sarah.
If she joined him, he reminded his impatient body. She could change her mind. She might not have meant it in the first place. He found a couple of glasses in the minibar and set them on the table above, but he’d no real desire to drink on his own right now. Instead, he propped up one of the pillows against the headboard, sprawled on top of the bed, and checked the messages on his phone.
There was only one, from Cal, reminding him he hadn’t answered the wedding invitation.
John couldn’t imagine Cal married. They’d been best friends since primary school. They’d even joined the army together and served together in Afghanistan. But people changed, moved on. John had no desire to go to Cal’s wedding. For one thing, when he’d last run into Angie, Cal’s fiancée, she hadn’t been able to talk about anything other than John’s missing arm. Unlike his own girlfriend, Hannah, who hadn’t been able to talk about it at all. But she wasn’t the reason John wasn’t going. Even Hannah wasn’t the reason he wasn’t going. Cal was.
Because Cal had walked away. Cal, who’d have done anything for him in a fight, had backed hurriedly out of the door when John had confided in him about the vampire attack. It was the pity in Cal’s eyes that had killed the friendship. Well, that and a year-long silence. The first John had heard of him again had been the invitation to his wedding. Apparently, Hannah was the bridesmaid.
John had smiled and thrown the invitation aside without answering it or even thinking about it again until now. He’d moved on too.
He texted, Sorry can’t make it, but all the best to both. J, and sent it. Then he hesitated. He should really call his dad, make sure the old bugger was all right. They hadn’t parted on the best of terms, and John knew he had to fix that. But it was the middle of the night. His dad would be sleeping it off on the sofa. Since his mum’s death, pub night wasn’t just twice a week anymore.
He’d call in the morning. Tossing the phone on the bed beside him, he thought instead about the peculiar new vampire problem they’d encountered here.
Cyn was right. They should go in tomorrow morning and kill the sleeping fledglings. After that, maybe he and Béla should go undercover and find out what the hell was going on. Béla was likely to be stronger than any of the vampires here, and John could take care of himself against most humans as well as vamps.
He didn’t mean to close his eyes, not until the hour was up and he knew for sure that Sarah wasn’t coming. After all, his body was jangling, clamoring for release. But he must have been tired with the day’s travel, or perhaps it was the strong Dutch gin. Whatever, his eyes closed, and he plunged headlong into a dream.
One of those dreams, the vivid, thinking, lucid, real kind that had haunted him ever since the night Saloman and Elizabeth’s daughter was born and he’d nearly died. In those dreams, he seemed to behave much as he did normally, except in different places, often with people he didn’t know. He fought vampires, ate in restaurants, discussed problems, trained to keep fit, occasionally got into fights with humans. But never since that first dream, annoyingly hazed now by his near-death experience, had he ever had sex in them.
But perhaps tonight was his lucky night, because he stood in the doorway of a nightclub, the relentless beat of the music vibrating through his feet, drawing him toward the excitement of colors, flashing light, and shadows inside. Until the large vampire bouncer placed himself in his path, glaring into his face, making sure John could see his fangs.
John didn’t know the bouncer. It certainly wasn’t Béla, who, from time to time, guarded the Angel Club in Budapest, the only vampire bar he’d ever hung out in more than once. But then, although it seemed to be full of both humans and vampires, this wasn’t the Angel.
He hadn’t paid. No wonder the bouncer was pissed off. Under the poor, pinkish glow from one ceiling bulb that was probably meant to be atmospheric but didn’t really make it past dim and sleazy, a couple of young, underdressed people seemed to be buying tickets from the desk to the right—although it looked more like fingerprinting to John’s fascinated eye. A till screen showed the price, and the boy put his finger over it, a light flashed around his finger, and a machine bleeped. It appeared to count as payment, because a moment later, the couple got their hands stamped, and they both headed toward the music. Nightclub technology, even in a dump like this, appeared to have moved on since his last night out.
Over the bouncer’s shoulder, John gazed after them. As they vanished through the open doorway, a female figure passing in front of them paused, blocking the ever-changing light so that he couldn’t see her face, just a dark, alluringly curved silhouette. But she did seem to be looking right at him. Then she moved, strolling toward him through the flickering pink glow of the foyer—a young, sexy woman with jet-black hair stylishly cut to fall forward over one side of her face. It seemed to cast shadows over her delicate bones, shadows that, together with the controlled grace of her walk and the darkness in her hooded, challenging eyes, shrieked danger. Lethal, physical threat.
But it wasn’t those things that jolted John’s heart. It was recognition.
She brushed past the scary bouncer without so much as a glance. She wore sheer, skintight trousers of the finest black leather and a figure-hugging black top that glittered silver across one shoulder.
“Johnny,” she said huskily. “I didn’t know you were in town.” Something flatteringly like pleasure gleamed in her beautiful, dangerous dark eyes.
It was the girl he’d been making love with in the very first dream. She held out her hand, part plea, part provoking, teasing challenge.
Thank you, God.