Vampire’s Champion

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It was three am when the vampire walked in. Witching hour for San Francisco. Rush hour around here. Or as close as Harvey’s gas station bodega ever got.

I was restocking the freezers when the bell above the door rang. Yeah, okay, I wasn’t so much restocking as standing near the freezers, rearranging energy drink cans when I wanted to look busy, but you know what I mean. I tended to spend most of my shift “restocking.” The humming noise the freezers made halfway drowned out the shitty eighty’s pop music Harvey kept on heavy rotation. At the time, it was some overwrought synth ballad right off the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. And the store’s speakers probably predated the last war, so they made everything shrill and tinny as hell. There was a saxophone solo that routinely set off dogs howling all down the street. I’d heard it probably four times since my shift started. One more and I think it would have legally counted as torture.

I was trying so hard not to use my ears that I probably wouldn’t have noticed the bell above the door ringing if I hadn’t seen Tony flinch. Tony was a regular, in for milk and cigarettes like he was every night. I saw his broad, craggy face contort at the jangling sound, bearing his two inch tusks at nothing. I kept telling Harvey we should replace that bell with an electronic chime, but Harvey didn’t think we got enough Trollish customers to bother. I gave Tony a sympathetic look but he waved it off, like the migraine he was probably getting was no big deal. Tony was good people.

I looked back down at my phone— I’m not one of those people who stays on their phone the whole time they’re supposed to be working, honestly, but I got a text from my brother and I needed to reply.

“Got home safe,” it read. “You left the door unlocked again. Bring home pizza?”

I could have kicked myself for forgetting that stupid door again. We couldn’t be taking chances like that. Not with the neighborhood we lived in. At least since Aaron got accepted into the scholarship program at that fancy magnet school we had the same schedule. One upside to vampires running everything is the kids could be on the nightshift too.

“Finish your homework before I get off and I’ll think about it,” I wrote back. “Send photo evidence.”

Someone cleared their throat and I made about the same face Tony did when he heard that bell. The store manager, Dwayne, was Harvey’s nephew and a Grade A shitheel. He spent more time out back taking “smoke breaks” than he did in the store. Didn’t stop him from finding something to nag me about every time he decided to actually do his job, though.

“If I see that phone out again, I’m writing you up,” Dwayne threatened, wagging a finger at me like he was my mom and not a greasy creep with the skin of a particularly shower-averse teenager and the beer gut of a forty year old alcoholic.

“Come on man,” I complained. “It’s just my kid brother letting me know he got home from school alright.”

“No phones during work hours,” Dwayne replied with a dismissive sniff. “You know the rules. He can text your parents if it matters so much.”

“My parents are dead,” I replied flatly, resisting the urge to add “asshole” to the end of that statement.

Dwayne only looked flustered for a second.

“I don’t care,” he said. “No phones during work hours! And you’re lucky I don’t write you up for insubordination on top of it!”

He turned and hurried off to another smoke break, hassling me apparently being all the work he could take at once.

“Yeah, write me up, ugly son of a bitch,” I muttered under my breath as I shoved my phone in my pocket. “If I get fired you might actually have to do some damn work around here.”

Tony, who had been pretending to study the nutritional info on the back of a milk carton, watched Dwayne go with his rheumy red eyes, then leaned closer to me.

“Want me to eat him?” he asked in a conspiratorial whisper that sounded like tires on gravel. I snorted.

“Not this time, big guy,” I replied. “You ready to check out?”

There were three other customers in the store as I rang up Tony’s milk and got him his cigarettes. One was another regular, an old Witch called Mrs. Beatty. Her raggedy old familiar was the only reason she was still remotely functional. The big black hound shepherded her through the aisles, nudging her on when she got distracted.

The second was a tired looking older man I’d seen in there once or twice. Judging by the quiet growls he exchanged with Mrs. Beatty’s familiar, he was probably a wolf.

And the last was a vampire.

Tall, 6’3″ maybe, with short, sleek black hair and dark, wicked eyes, browsing postcards. He wore jeans and a black blazer that looked casual until you noticed the subtle brand names and custom tailoring. He could have been anywhere from sixteen to sixty. His face had that timeless thing going on that all vampires do. It’s the fastest way to recognize them. Even the young ones just have something around the eyes that makes it impossible to pin down how old they are. It’s unsettling as hell sometimes. Especially when they’re staring at you the way this guy was staring at me.

“Anything I can help you with?” I asked him in my best customer service voice as I handed Tony his receipt. The vampire smiled at me. I swear all bloodsuckers practice that same creepy ass smile. The “hello, food” smile. He sidled up to the counter, taking his time. He had plenty to spare, unlike the rest of us.

We’d had vampires in the store before, of course. This wasn’t exactly their side of town— not enough money and neon for their sophisticated uptown tastes— But we got all kinds in there sooner or later. No matter the species, everybody needed gas and cheap junk food. Tony lingered near the magazines. Like me, he could smell trouble. I shook my head and waved him on, despite my better judgment. I could handle this. Tony looked unsure, but shrugged and made his exit.

The vampire leaned on the counter across from me. I could smell his cologne, understated and expensive, like I could feel his eyes raking over me. Vampires were experts at making you feel self-conscious and inadequate. I did my best impression of a troll and pretended to be made of stone. His roving eyes finally landed on the name tag pinned to my shirt.

“Evie,” he said, his voice a low purr. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”

I tried to look more unimpressed than worried.

“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, tacking the sir on because only people with a death wish were rude to vampires. “I don’t think we know each other.”

“Not yet,” he replied, smiling at me with white, too sharp teeth. “But I’m hoping we’ll become very close.”

“Not fucking likely.” Alright, so maybe I have a death wish. “Unless there’s something store related I can help you with, sir, I have other customers to assist.”

The vampire blinked slowly, then turned with exaggerated care to look behind him at the nonexistent line. Mrs. Beatty was still futzing around in canned goods. The older man was pondering the drinks case in between casting dirty looks at Mrs. Beatty’s familiar. The vampire turned back, smiled at the sour look on my face, and leaned on the counter again, as though settling in.

“I have a business proposal for you.”

I licked my lips and leaned in to speak to him in a lowered voice.

“Look. Buddy,” I hissed. “I’m not a fangbanger. I don’t know what your problem with me is, but if you’re looking for an easy feed-n-fuck try the club up the road. We don’t sell your kind of convenience food here, okay?”

His smile just widened further.

“Domino sent me,” he said, and my heart briefly stopped beating. He could probably hear it. “And as much as I would enjoy trying your convenience food-” he paused to let his eyes wander over me again for a second. “When I said business proposal I was being literal. Domino recommended you for a little adventure I have in the works. Dante, of House Belial.”

He held out his hand to shake, which I ignored. He pulled out a card instead, sliding it across the counter towards me with a finger. His first name, house affiliation, and a number. No title, which didn’t necessarily mean he didn’t have one.

“I don’t do that anymore,” I said, when I could speak. “And you can remind Domino to stop giving people my name.”

“He gave me a bit more than your name.”

A chill ran down my spine.

“He told me about how you lost your parents,” the vampire continued, while I gripped the cash register so hard I could feel my pulse in my fingertips. “Freak accident, I think he said? He also told me about your brother and that expensive school he’s attending—”

“If you touch him,” I said in a low snarl, anger boiling in my chest. “If you so much as breathe in his direction—”

“Evie, please,” the vampire chuckled, light and easy like tea time by the sea side. “I’m not threatening you! I’m making you an offer. I understand your situation. I know this is only one of three jobs you’re working, and that you gave up your chance at college and a career in order to raise your brother. I know you’re putting every penny you earn towards his tuition at that charter school. I know that you’re falling more into debt every month and that even if you get him through grade school you won’t have anything left to get him to college.”

My mouth tasted like ash and there was a ringing in my ears, playing in key with the 80’s music. Listening to him calmly describing the way my life was falling apart made me want to lunge across the counter and strangle him. If you even could strangle a vampire. At the same time it made me want to curl up behind the counter and hide until someone else, someone more responsible, came and fixed everything.

“I’m offering you a way out,” the vampire continued. “One job, one night, that will set you and your brother up, not just adequately but comfortably, for the rest of your lives.”

Sometimes, temptation can be so intense it’s almost tangible. You can see it, dangling in front of you, glittering. You can taste it in the back of your throat. The impossible made possible. The only magic that matters.

“No,” I said, and almost choked on it. “I told you, I don’t do that anymore. It’s not worth the risk of Aaron ending up alone. Nothing is.”

He frowned, almost puzzled, a curious expression on that too perfect face.

The bell over the door rang again before he could say anything more. Three young men entered the store, moving in an arrow formation that would have given them away as wolves even if I hadn’t recognized their pasty faces past their lanky, matted hair.

I didn’t know their names, but they were infamous in the area. Products of the local trailer park. Uncharitable locals called it the pound or the dog park for how many wolves lived there. Mundies on the news called it a white trash ghetto and a blight on the city’s good name. Whatever you called it, it hadn’t done these three any favors. They all had a record as long as my arm, mostly for vandalism and petty theft, stealing bikes and breaking windows. But they’d been escalating recently. People in the neighborhood were pretty sure it was them who’d mugged a guy around the corner last week.

They looked ready for trouble tonight, whispering to each other and throwing glances in my direction as they slunk towards the candy aisle. I bit the inside of my cheek and stayed behind the register, giving them the benefit of the doubt. They were only a little older than Aaron, barely out of school. The shit I’d been getting into when I was that age made them look like boy scouts in comparison. If shoplifting candy was the worst they got up to tonight, they might still have a chance to pull their shit together.

“Miss, could you tell me if this is the right can?” Mrs. Beatty asked, toddling up to the register, her dog beside her. The vampire stepped graciously out of the way, though she hardly seemed to notice him.

“Of course, Mrs. Beatty,” I said, accepting the can she was waving at me.

“Is it crushed tomatoes or diced tomatoes? I can’t read the packaging. They make the letters so small these days! My recipe needs crushed tomatoes. Crushed. If I use diced it’ll be all wrong!”

“This is tomato sauce, Mrs. Beatty.”

“Oh, damn!”

Her familiar gave me the most exhausted look I’d ever seen on a dog.

I helped the old woman find her tomatoes and checked her out, taking my time. Half so I could keep an eye on the wolf pack still milling around in the candy aisle, half to delay dealing with the vampire. He was still leaning one elbow on the counter, ankles crossed, idly watching me work. I looked at the door to the back and for probably the first time longed for Dwayne to return from his smoke break.

I saw Mrs. Beatty out and hadn’t made it back to the register before I heard canine snarling. I turned around in time to see the older man hurrying out of the store with his tail literally between his legs, half shifted from stress. I could guess by the laughter coming from the candy aisle that the wolf pack had driven him out. It was just me and them and the vampire now. The vampire was apparently getting bored waiting for me and was flipping through a magazine.

Luckily for me, the wolves started heading for the register at the same time I did.

“You guys actually planning to pay for all that?” I asked, eyeing the candy and snacks bulging from their pockets.

The largest of the three, whose bent, repeatedly broken nose and cigarette burn scarred arms pretty much told his whole life story for him, pulled a gun out of the back of his pants.

“Empty the register,” he said in a controlled voice he’d probably practiced. “Now!”

My nostrils flared, anger almost greater than my fear as I put my hands up. I fought the urge to tell them how stupid they were being and just stepped back to open the register. Dwayne would probably fire me, but this job, as much as I needed it, wasn’t worth getting shot over.

The vampire apparently disagreed. With an expression like this was all just too tedious for words, he rolled the magazine he was holding up into a tube and smacked the nearest wolf in the head with it.

“Bad dog, down boy.”

The confused astonishment on the young men’s faces quickly became rage. One of them threw a punch, which the vampire easily caught, twisting the wolf’s arm until he went down to his knees with a shout of pain.

“I said down, Fido.” He twisted harder as the wolf struggled until I thought I heard the creak of bone. Snapping his arm would be beyond easy for a vampire. It was probably more effort not to. “Honestly, I’m trying to help you here. What exactly are you inbred mongrels hoping to accomplish? Other than jail time, obviously. A few candy bars and maybe a hundred dollars? You didn’t even wear masks!”

“Shut the fuck up, dickleech,” the leader snapped, turning his gun on the vampire. He was angry enough to have half shifted, fangs bared and fur standing on his neck.

“Do you really think that peashooter is going to do anything to me?” the vampire asked, lip curling in disdain. “You might as well use your teeth like the animal you are.”

The wolf considered it for a moment, then pointed the gun at me again.

“Bet it’ll do something to her. Want to find out?”

I almost laughed. Like he gave a shit about me. But the vampire, to my surprise, let go of the wolf he was holding, who stumbled away whining. The humor had vanished from his face, leaving it oddly blank.

Later, I’d probably be terrified imagining what he was getting ready to do. But at the time I was too busy being pissed off. The werewolf with the gun had come behind the counter, the better to hold me hostage, and made the mistake of grabbing me by the hair. He demanded something that I didn’t hear over the blood boiling in my ears. Maybe it all would have turned out differently if he’d just grabbed my arm. But you don’t drag a girl around by her hair.

Before I could stop myself I’d grabbed the barrel of the gun with one hand and the wolf’s head with the other, fisting my hand in his greasy hair. Before he could react I slammed his face into the counter with enough strength to crack the tile. He slumped to the floor, nose broken again and gushing blood. I let him go and straightened up, turning just in time to catch his pack mate’s fist with my jaw.

I’ve been punched before, plenty of times. There’s an art to relaxing your jaw and letting your neck roll to absorb the impact. Which are hard details to remember when you’re being sucker punched. But I barely felt the fist that slammed into my face. It was like being slapped by a child. I saw the werewolf’s eyes widen in confusion for a second before I decked him. He reeled back, dazed, then charged at me, claws outstretched as he became more wolf than man. The anger in me was like a furnace, filling up my thoughts, whiting out my better senses. I caught the wolf by his belt and the collar of his shirt, heaved him over my head half on the momentum of his own charge, and hurled him into a snack display. He did not get back up.

I had a heartbeat to breathe, to realize what I’d done. I looked at the vampire, who was staring at me with an expression of surprise and definite interest that made worry coil in my stomach. I started to say something, explain myself. Then the leader of the werewolves, apparently having recovered from having his head put through a tile counter, staggered to his feet and fired three rounds.

I heard the freezer doors shatter behind me as time seemed to stop, panic gripping my heart like a squeezing fist. The vampire was there a second later, striking a precise blow to the werewolf’s temple that knocked him out cold.

As the vampire pried the gun from his hand, I searched myself for bullet holes with shaking hands, and found nothing. He missed. He must have missed.

The back door creaked as it opened and Dwayne wandered in. His cigarette fell from his mouth as he took in the destruction before him.

The vampire cleared his throat and smiled at me again.

“Are you still absolutely certain you don’t want that job?”

The Source of Magic (Excerpt)

EXCERPT: I followed Dorian’s nod, my gaze landing on a slender woman. Her thick, brown hair fell in waves over her pale, round shoulders and tumbled over the bodice of her black, satin dress. Somehow, I’d expected something more...

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