The Short Second Life (Chapters 1)
AGAIN. I hadn't seen this one yet. Some paperboy must have just restocked the machine. Lucky for him, he was nowhere around now.
Great. Riley was going to blow a gasket. I would make sure I wasn't within reach when he saw this paper. Let him rip somebody else's arm off.
I stood in the shadow behind the corner of a shabby threestory building, trying to be inconspicuous while I waited for someone to make a decision. Not wanting to meet anyone's eyes, I stared at the wal beside me instead. The ground floor of the building housed a record shop that had long since closed; the windows, lost to weather or street violence, were fil ed in with plywood. Over the top were apartments – empty, I guessed, since the normal sounds of sleeping humans were absent. I wasn't surprised – the place looked like it would col apse in a stiff wind. The buildings on the other side of the dark, narrow street were just as wrecked.
The normal scene for a night out on the town.
I didn't want to speak up and draw attention, but I wished somebody would decide something. I was real y thirsty, and I didn't care much whether we went right or left or over the roof. I just wanted to find some unlucky people who wouldn't even have enough time to think wrong place, wrong time. Unfortunately tonight Riley'd sent me out with two of the most useless vampires in existence. Riley never seemed to care who he sent out in hunting groups. Or particularly bugged when sending out the wrong people together meant fewer people coming home. Tonight I was stuck with Kevin and some blond kid whose name I didn't know. They both belonged to Raoul's gang, so it went without saying that they were stupid. And dangerous. But right now, mostly stupid.
Instead of picking a direction for our hunt, suddenly they were in the middle of an argument over whose favorite superhero would be a better hunter. The nameless blond was demonstrating his case for Spider-Man now, skittering up the brick wal of the al ey while humming the cartoon theme song. I sighed in frustration. Were we ever going to hunt?
A little flicker of movement to my left caught my eye. It was the other one Riley had sent out in this hunting group, Diego. I didn't know much about him, just that he was older than most of the others. Riley's right-hand man was the word. That didn't make me like him any more than the other morons. Diego was looking at me. He must have heard the sigh. I looked away.
Keep your head down and your mouth shut – that was the way to stay alive in Riley's crowd.
"Spider-Man is such a whiny loser," Kevin cal ed up to the blond kid. "I'l show you how a real superhero hunts." He grinned wide. His teeth flashed in the glare of a streetlight. Kevin jumped into the middle of the street just as the lights from a car swung around to il uminate the cracked pavement with a blue-white gleam. He flexed his arms back, then pul ed them slowly together like a pro wrestler showing off. The car came on, probably expecting him to get the hel out of the way like a normal person would. Like he should.
"Hulk mad!" Kevin bel owed. "Hulk… SMASH!"
He leaped forward to meet the car before it could brake, grabbed its front bumper, and flipped it over his head so that it struck the pavement upside down with a squeal of bending metal and shattering glass. Inside, a woman started screaming.
"Oh man," Diego said, shaking his head. He was pretty, with dark, dense, curly hair, big, wide eyes, and real y ful lips, but then, who wasn't pretty? Even Kevin and the rest of Raoul's morons were pretty. "Kevin, we're supposed to be laying low. Riley said – "
"Riley said!" Kevin mimicked in a harsh soprano. "Get a spine, Diego. Riley's not here."
Kevin sprang over the upside-down Honda and punched out the driver's side window, which had somehow stayed intact up to that point. He fished through the shattered glass and the deflating air bag for the driver.
I turned my back and held my breath, trying my hardest to hold on to the ability to think.
I couldn't watch Kevin feed. I was too thirsty for that, and I real y didn't want to pick a fight with him. I so did not need to be on Raoul's hit list.
The blond kid didn't have the same issues. He pushed off from the bricks overhead and landed lightly behind me. I heard him and Kevin snarling at each other, and then a wet tearing sound as the woman's screams cut off. Probably them ripping her in half.
I tried not to think about it. But I could feel the heat and hear the dripping behind me, and it made my throat burn so bad even though I wasn't breathing.
"I'm outta here," I heard Diego mutter.
He ducked into a crevice between the dark buildings, and I fol owed right on his heels. If I didn't get away from here fast, I'd be squabbling with Raoul's goons over a body that couldn't have had much blood left in it by now anyway. And then maybe I'd be the one who didn't come home.
Ugh, but my throat burned! I clamped my teeth together to keep from screaming in pain.
Diego darted through a trash-fil ed side al ey, and then – when he hit the dead end – up the wal . I dug my fingers into the crevices between the bricks and hauled myself up after him. On the rooftop, Diego took off, leaping lightly across the other roofs toward the lights shimmering off the sound. I stayed close. I was younger than he was, and therefore stronger – it was a good thing we younger ones were strongest, or we wouldn't have lived through our first week in Riley's house. I could have passed him easy, but I wanted to see where he was going, and I didn't want to have him behind me. Diego didn't stop for miles; we were almost to the industrial docks. I could hear him muttering under his breath.
"Idiots! Like Riley wouldn't give us instructions for a good reason. Self-preservation, for example. Is an ounce of common sense so much to ask for?"
"Hey," I cal ed. "Are we going to hunt anytime soon? My throat's on fire here."
Diego landed on the edge of a wide factory roof and spun around. I jumped back a few yards, on my guard, but he didn't make an aggressive move toward me.
"Yeah," he said. "I just wanted some distance between me and the lunatics."
He smiled, al friendly, and I stared at him.
This Diego guy wasn't like the others. He was kind of…
calm, I guess was the word. Normal. Not normal now, but normal before. His eyes were a darker red than mine. He must have been around for a while, like I'd heard.
From the street below came the sounds of nighttime in a slummier part of Seattle. A few cars, music with heavy bass, a couple of people walking with nervous, fast steps, some drunk bum singing off-key in the distance.
"You're Bree, right?" Diego asked. "One of the newbies."
I didn't like that. Newbie. Whatever. "Yeah, I'm Bree. But I didn't come in with the last group. I'm almost three months old."
"Pretty slick for a three-monther," he said. "Not many would have been able to leave the scene of the accident like that." He said it like a compliment, like he was real y impressed.
"Didn't want to mix it up with Raoul's freaks."
He nodded. "Amen, sister. Their kind ain't nothing but bad news."
Weird. Diego was weird. How he sounded like a person having a regular old conversation. No hostility, no suspicion. Like he wasn't thinking about how easy or hard it might be to kil me right now. He was just talking to me.
"How long have you been with Riley?" I asked curiously.
"Going on eleven months now."
"Wow! That's older than Raoul."
Diego rol ed his eyes and spit venom over the edge of the building. "Yeah, I remember when Riley brought that trash in. Things just kept getting worse after that."
I was quiet for a moment, wondering if he thought everyone younger than himself was trash. Not that I cared. I didn't care what anybody thought anymore. Didn't have to. Like Riley said, I was a god now. Stronger, faster, better. Nobody else counted. Then Diego whistled low under his breath.
"There we go. Just takes a little brains and patience." He pointed down and across the street.
Half-hidden around the edge of a purple-black al ey, a man was cussing at a woman and slapping her while another woman watched silently. From their clothes, I guessed that it was a pimp and two of his employees.
This was what Riley had told us to do. Hunt the dregs. Take the humans that no one was going to miss, the ones who weren't headed home to a waiting family, the ones who wouldn't be reported missing.
It was the same way he chose us. Meals and gods, both coming from the dregs.
Unlike some of the others, I stil did what Riley told me to do. Not because I liked him. That feeling was long gone. It was because what he told us sounded right. How did it make sense to cal attention to the fact that a bunch of new vampires were claiming Seattle as their hunting ground? How was that going to help us?
I didn't even believe in vampires before I was one. So if the rest of the world didn't believe in vampires, then the rest of the vampires must be hunting smart, the way Riley said to do it. They probably had a good reason.
And like Diego'd said, hunting smart just took a little brains and patience.
Of course, we al slipped up a lot, and Riley would read the papers and groan and yel at us and break stuff – like Raoul's favorite video-game system. Then Raoul would get mad and take somebody else apart and burn him up. Then Riley would be pissed off and he'd do another search to confiscate al the lighters and matches. A few rounds of this, and then Riley would bring home another handful of vampirized dregs kids to replace the ones he'd lost. It was an endless cycle.
Diego inhaled through his nose – a big, long pul – and I watched his body change. He crouched on the roof, one hand gripping the edge. Al that strange friendliness disappeared, and he was a hunter.
That was something I recognized, something I was comfortable with because I understood it.
I turned off my brain. It was time to hunt. I took a deep breath, drawing in the scent of the blood inside the humans below. They weren't the only humans around, but they were the closest. Who you were going to hunt was the kind of decision you had to make before you scented your prey. It was too late now to choose anything.
Diego dropped from the roof edge, out of sight. The sound of his landing was too low to catch the attention of the crying prostitute, the zoned-out prostitute, or the angry pimp. A low growl ripped from between my teeth. Mine. The blood was mine. The fire in my throat flared and I couldn't think of anything else.
I flipped myself off the roof, spinning across the street so that I landed right next to the crying blonde. I could feel Diego close behind me, so I growled a warning at him while I caught the surprised girl by the hair. I yanked her to the al ey wal, putting my back against it. Defensive, just in case. Then I forgot al about Diego, because I could feel the heat under her skin, hear the sound of her pulse thudding close to the surface.
She opened her mouth to scream, but my teeth crushed her windpipe before a sound could come out. There was just the gurgle of air and blood in her lungs, and the low moans I could not control.
The blood was warm and sweet. It quenched the fire in my throat, calmed the nagging, itching emptiness in my stomach. I sucked and gulped, only vaguely aware of anything else. I heard the same noise from Diego – he had the man. The other woman was unconscious on the ground. Neither had made any noise. Diego was good.
The problem with humans was that they just never had enough blood in them. It seemed like only seconds later the girl ran dry. I rattled her limp body in frustration. Already my throat was beginning to burn again.
I threw the spent body to the ground and crouched against the wal, wondering if I could grab the unconscious girl and make off with her before Diego could catch up to me. Diego was already finished with the man. He looked at me with an expression that I could only describe as… sympathetic. But I could have been dead wrong. I couldn't remember anyone ever giving me sympathy before, so I wasn't positive what it looked like.
"Go for it," he told me, nodding to the limp girl on the ground.
"Are you kidding me?"
"Naw, I'm good for now. We've got time to hunt some more tonight."
Watching him careful y for some sign of a trick, I darted forward and snagged the girl. Diego made no move to stop me. He turned away slightly and looked up at the black sky. I sank my teeth into her neck, keeping my eyes on him. This one was even better than the last. Her blood was entirely clean. The blonde girl's blood had the bitter aftertaste that came with drugs – I was so used to that, I'd barely noticed. It was rare for me to get real y clean blood, because I fol owed the dregs rule. Diego seemed to fol ow the rules, too. He must have smel ed what he was giving up.
Why had he done it?