The sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore biters and reprobates they called Anakim. And mankind turned against the Anakim and would not sustain them. And they began to sin against birds, and beasts, and reptiles, and fish, and to devour one another’s flesh, and drink the blood.
The Enochian Bible, the Book of Watchers, Ch 1 V 25
“DO A bit of private work,” they said. “Easy money,” they said. It turned out “they” were a bunch of liars.
Took went down on one knee in the wet Georgia dirt next to the ranking detective on the case. Deputy Gatlin hadn’t been too pleased when the sheriff ordered him to walk a Charleston PI through his missing persons case, but now he cracked a dazed grin up at Took.
“Feel like I got kicked by a horse,” he said raggedly. Gatlin tried to take a deep breath and huffed out a shaky laugh when he couldn’t. “Can’t catch… my breath. Thank fuck for the vest.”
“Yeah,” Took said as he glanced down at what was left of Gatlin’s lower torso. The explosion set off by the trip wire had caught him from the side and blown the meat off him. From foot to knee his legs were untouched, but above that broken, white bone showed through pulped skin and the stiff patches of charred fabric where his uniform had melted against his skin. “Where’d you be without it?”
Gatlin laughed again. His smile wobbled at the corners, and Took could see the awareness in his glazed blue eyes that something more than a hard knock was wrong with him. His brain just didn’t think it was time to let him in on what had happened. Took had been there.
A flash of sharp, self-scathing humor twitched the corner of Took’s mouth. Admit it, it dared him, most days he was still there.
Took tucked his phone between his ear and his shoulder as he roughly stripped his shirt off and the expensive little buttons popped off into the long grass. The ringtone trilled in time with Gatlin’s blood loss as his life spilled out onto the grass. Took swore through his teeth as three rings seemed to take forever.
He’d told Gatlin this was a bad goddamned idea. It didn’t matter what Willie Daly had been willing to do back when he was meth-head peeper. He was a Goat now. The local district attorney couldn’t come up with a deal that would tempt him to snitch. As for whatever passed for a conscience, that wasn’t the first thing to go. It didn’t last long, though.
But Gatlin had been determined to show the big-shot detective from Charleston that he didn’t know everything. So he’d pulled the wire-and-nerves man off the streets and leaned on him until Willie spilled what he knew—or claimed he had. When Willie led them up here by a series of backwoods turns that scraped the suspension against the rutted concrete, Took expected to be led around by the nose until it got dark. Enough time to give Willie’s patron a chance to sneak out with the sunset, not for him to walk them into a well-set trap.
Took ripped the shirt in half and tied the strips of fabric as tightly as he could around Gatlin’s ruined thighs. It wasn’t good first aid, but their resources were limited and he couldn’t see that there was anything left below Gatlin’s hips to save. He couldn’t see that there’d be anything of Gatlin to save, but he had to do something, even if it was pointless.
The call finally connected.
Took interrupted the irrepressibly cheerful chirp of the operator before she could finish her script. “This is VINE Agent Bennet,” he snapped. Not exactly true. His active agent status with the Violent Infections and Nullifications Enforcement department was on hold, but it was an old habit. It would take too long to correct himself, so he let it stand. Besides, it might make things easier. People might yell about breathing rights when VINE cracked down on Hunter activity, but those same people were always the first to call when they had a feral bloodsucker problem. Invoke VINE and people listened, and Gatlin needed them to listen to Took. Despite his makeshift bandages, blood still soaked the ground. “We have an officer down. I’m out at….”
Shit. He didn’t know.
Took sat back on his heels and looked around, his hands still pressed down hard against the raw meat of Gatlin’s leg. The ripe smell of hot blood and wet earth was thick enough to taste, but he did his best to ignore it. He could hear the soft growl of the road behind him, muted by the shield of trees and the distance the four of them had walked along the narrow dirt road after they left the patrol car. It hadn’t been an official road, just a worn-down pull-off on the shoulder. Gatlin knew where it was, but Took had only half listened to the Goat’s directions.
He’d been sure it was a wild goose chase.
“What happened?” the operator demanded, her voice high and worried. In the background of the call, keys clicked and people asked muffled, worried-sounding questions.
“Bend,” Gatlin wheezed out. The mania had faded, and the realization that something was wrong was etched on his solid, heavy face. He picked at Took’s arm with sweat-damp, swollen fingers. “Round the bend.”
He might have just meant he was, but Took didn’t have anything better to tell the operator.
“Something about a bend?” he said. “Off the expressway, just past three big billboards for McDonalds.”
The operator gave a relieved sigh. “Round the Bend. I know it. It used to be a rehab facility. We’re on the way. Agent, can I speak to Gatlin?”
Took looked down. Dry, quick gasps of air whistled between Gatlin’s lips, so technically he was still alive. But he wasn’t going to give any more information. His eyes were rolled back in his head, just the bloodshot whites and a rim of hazel green to be seen.
“Not right now,” he said. “Gatlin’s injured. Your Goat led us into a trap.”
“What about Deputy Allan?”
Took’s fingers tightened against Gatlin’s stained bandages and made him groan weakly. Blood welled up between Took’s knuckles. He forced himself to let go and lean back.
“Allan was….” Taken. That was the phrase they usually used, spat out with easy familiarity and the understanding that they had to expect the worst. But it caught on Took’s tongue and he edited it. “Willie grabbed Allan. He used her to lure Gatlin into the trap. What’s your ETA?”
The operator made a frustrated sound under her voice. “Ten minutes. Maybe fifteen? We’ll be there as quickly as we can. What are Gatlin’s injuries?”
“Extensive,” Took said.
The shirt had started out white—fresh from the dry cleaner, the creases still in the elbow—but now it was stained a dark, wet red. It obviously wasn’t up to the job. If Gatlin made it, it wouldn’t be down to anything Took had done.
He closed his eyes for a second and saw Allan’s face as she was dragged away, her mouth lax and her eyes too surprised to be afraid. Yet. A long graze on the side of her face—received when Willie shoved her into a tree—had dribbled blood down onto her starched buff collar.
“Follow the dirt path from the car,” Took said as he scrambled to his feet. He reached back and pulled his gun from the holster at the small of his back. It was heavy and solid in his hands, the weight of it familiar as he checked the chamber, and if it didn’t feel as familiar as his usual weaponry, it would just have to do. “You can’t miss him. I’m going to go after Allan.”
The operator tried to argue with him. Took just dropped the phone next to Gatlin to keep him company and broke into a jog as he followed the path—and Willie—farther into the woods.
It was supposed to be a milk run. No one was meant to get hurt.
“Arrogance,” his old instructor had told them at training. “Never take a hunt for granted. Never think you know them. Arrogance kills more agents than vampires ever will. Remember that.”
OLD SCARS itched as the sun got to them—pinprick nerve twitches that crawled around under his skin and even scratched their way up under the sleeves of his T-shirt. Took knew it would only make it worse if he scratched, but he paused to dig his finger into a particularly irritated comma-shaped scar over his collarbone. It didn’t help. The itch just spread down the bone into the nearby tissue.
Took gave one last scrape and let it go. It would fade eventually.
The dirt road had evolved into a cracked concrete path. Muddy footprints—department-issue boots and patched-up sneakers—scuffed over the gray stone and then dried up and faded away. It didn’t matter. They could only be heading to the big old house that stood derelict at the end of the drive.
Years of exposure had bleached the redbrick walls down to pink and yellow. Kudzu had made inroads on the foundations, a green crust that had anchored itself in the mortar. The windows were still intact, but the glass was scabbed with dust on the outside and mold on the inside.
Took paused at the gate. A white sign bolted to the gate announced it was the Ron Bern Life Center, the first step on the road to a life free from addiction. From where he stood, Took could see rows of bottles neatly lined up along the weathered porch that wrapped around the house. Tall and small, the distinctive brown beer bottles tucked in among the clear spirits. Someone hadn’t taken the place’s motto to heart.
He pulled up the hem of his T-shirt and wiped the sweat and a splash of Gatlin’s blood he hadn’t realized was there from his face. His hands were steadier than he expected. After two years on suspension, he’d started to believe they were right—his nerve was gone, and he wasn’t fit for field duty anymore. Instead the punch of adrenaline had left his mind clean and sharp. He felt steadier with a gun in his hand and blood under his nails than he did in his therapist’s office as they traded lies about how well he was doing.
It might feel a little too good, but he wasn’t going to tell the therapist that.
Took pulled his shirt back down, wrapped both hands around his gun, and gave the gate a nudge with his boot. It had dropped on its hinges and one corner was buried in a well-run rut, but it moved when Took put his weight against it. The scrape and groan of rusted metal might have given him away, but he doubted it mattered. Willie had hung around to gloat over Gatlin’s corpse, and he’d seen Took scramble back to his feet in the aftershock of the blast.
The Goat knew that Took was on his heels. Speed was going to work better than stealth here.
The grounds had been landscaped once. Roses grew scrubby and wild among the weeds that overran the flower beds, all thorny canes and small white flowers. The long expanse of the lawn still had a mostly sharp square shape, even though the grass was yellow and spongy under Took’s feet as he loped toward the house.
Old habits creaked rustily back into play. Even though he was on his own—VINE two states away, local backup ten minutes out and more concerned with their injured man—his brain broke radio silence anyhow.
Attempting entry through the front door, it chattered to no one as he jumped onto the porch and put his shoulder against the doorjamb. Unsub is armed and has a hostage. Hold fire.
Took tried the door. It was locked. Good. He left it closed and cautiously made his way to one of the dirt-crusted windows. Filthy curtains, whatever pattern they’d originally had hidden under a spiderweb of frilly mold, were pinched tightly closed in front of them. It was hard to tell through the grimy glass, but Took would bet they’d been sewn.
He punched the glass with the butt of his gun. It shattered—always a louder sound than he expected—and he used his gun to clear the leftover pieces from the crumbled putty.
Front window right, his brain supplied as he grabbed a handful of the slimy curtains and wrenched them down. Cleared. The curtain pole snapped and hit the cracked linoleum with a rattle, followed by the crumpled pile of old fabric.
Fresh blood—Gatlin’s blood—smelled like pennies and salt. Old blood smelled like rotten meat and sweat, thick and slimy enough to coat your nose and slide down your throat. The inside of the derelict building smelled like old blood—a lot of it.
“Fuck,” Took muttered as he spat to clear the taste from his mouth.
That wasn’t a two-corpse stink. It wasn’t a sane-vampire stink either. Most of the undead didn’t want to live in their own filth any more than the people they’d been before the bite would have. Unbalanced and a monster—that was always messy.
Took crawled through the window, bits of glass he’d missed in the frame sharp as they scratched against his arms, and into the dusty, blood-sour room. It had been an office once, based on the broken desk in the middle of the room and the dented filing cabinets on the wall, but now it looked like a squat. There was a pile of sleeping bags in the corner. The shiny blue fabric was blotched with bleached-out patches and wear.
More bottles were lined up along the wall, but instead of spirits they held the dregs of clotted, black liquid. Maggots squirmed in the bottom of them, lively and bloated.
Took grimaced and walked over to the sleeping bags. He poked them with his foot and flies rose in a lazy haze and buzzed resentfully away. There was something wrapped in the old blankets and sleeping bags, but not something that moved.
It was pointless to hold his breath—everything stank—but Took did anyhow as he crouched down and gingerly peeled the folds back. The man had been dead for a while, although he looked like he’d died badly. The pock mocks on his collarbones and gnawed into the bend of his elbow were sunken into rotted wells, and his skin was pulled tight over his bones. His collarbones jutted through his skin like knives, and his hair was dry and patchy.
Someone had tried to turn him, tried quite hard, but it hadn’t taken. Some people, all it took was a bite and a lick of spit. Others, though, could have their blood replaced pint by pint with ichor, and all it would make them was dead.
“It might not have seemed it,” Took said as he pulled a tattered corner of blanket over the gray, withered face. “You’re one of the lucky ones.”
Even if he had turned, gone cold, and grown fangs, he wouldn’t have been much of a person anymore. The Anakim…. The code-switch to the politically correct term in this situation—you couldn’t exactly call your colleagues vampires to their face—was so automatic that it almost amused Took for a second… until he remembered there was no one to offend or to back him up. Vampires cosseted the about-to-be-turned like wagyu beef, inoculated them to the curse with each Kiss they gave until something like them sat back up. Turned like this, the curse spat into him from a dozen different hungry mouths, all that would get up was a body that would hunger and do what it was told. Back in Europe they called it a ghoul, and old families had whole packs of the empty retainers.
Took pressed his gun to the covered head and pulled the trigger. The recoil punched back against the heel of his hand, all the way to his shoulder, and what was left of the man’s brains splattered out over the floor.
In the US they called it a mongrel and they put it down.
He glanced at the ichor-stained bottles and swallowed the sour tang of acid on the back of his throat. Before he had to decide what to do with the fat, squirming maggots, he heard a stifled shriek from somewhere in the house.
Took swore under his breath and loped to the door. He shouldered it open and stepped out into the hallway. It still stank.
“Deputy,” he yelled, his voice calm and steady. “Are you okay?”
“Agent—” the shrill, panicked voice blurted in answer to him. It cut through the musty silence of the house and then cut off abruptly with a yelp.
The single word had been enough to give Took something to work with. He turned slightly and headed toward the back of the house. His feet scuffed over the battered tiles as he lifted his gun and nudged the door open.
Did it smell worse back here, he wondered, or was that just his imagination?
“Willie,” he said. “You want to let the deputy go.”
A laugh creaked out of the dark. “What?” Willie asked, his voice rasp-rough and arrogant. “They’ll go easy on me if I’ve only killed one deputy? You’ll put a good word in for me? Fuck off, Special Agent Man. I don’t need help from the likes of you. He’s promised he’ll see me right.”
Took paused to let his eyes adjust to the dim light in the hall. Photos were hung in a regimented row at eye height against the damp-bulged wallpaper. Women with eyes that looked like bruised fruit and men who hadn’t unclenched their jaw in years smiled out tightly with rows of identical white veneers. Or they used to be identical. Someone had gone along with a sharpie and assiduously defaced them with blackened gaps and carefully straight braces.
The small show of bleak humor unexpectedly amused Took. He let the feeling wash away as he pushed two doors open and peered into the small, cell-like rooms that hid behind them. Both looked as though they’d been in use recently, with stained sheets tangled on the bed and the smell of old sex thick in the air.
Every time some delusional fangbanger with bite tats and fear-pheromone perfume tried to play vampires off as romantic monsters, Took wanted to take them on a tour of a trap house. It had as much class as a frat house after a homicide.
He let the doors creak shut and walked toward the last door. It had a Staff Only sign fastened to it at eye level. Kitchen or infirmary, Took supposed. Over his head he heard something scrape over the floor. He paused midstep to look up, his eyes on the lumpy plaster as he tried to imagine the layout upstairs.
“What are you waiting for?” Willie interrupted him. “An invitation?”
He laughed at his own joke. Took took his eyes off the ceiling and pushed the last door open. He’d been right, it was a kitchen. Pots hung from racks on the ceiling and a clock shaped like a coffee cup was stopped exactly at 10:00 a.m. forever.
Willie stood on the other side of the stove with his arm crooked around Allan’s throat. The point of the knife dug into the tender skin behind her ear, deeply enough that more blood dribbled onto her no-longer-stiff collar.
“Help’s on the way, Deputy,” Took said as he met her gaze. “Stay calm.”
She rolled her deep brown eyes toward the corner of the room. “We aren’t alone.”
Willie jabbed the knife deeper and twisted it. “Shut up,” he hissed. “Stupid cow.”
“I see him,” Took said.
The pale, naked—he’d never met a vampire that slept in pajamas—figure dangled in the periphery of his vision. Someone had hung him from a meat hook for the day, the point of it jammed into his back and threaded up under his shoulder blade. Lines of black ichor stained the white skin and dripped down into pans laid out under his feet. His eyes were open, but it was a reptile sort of alertness, slow and cold. He’d gorged—his stomach was distended with too much blood, and he needed to digest before what passed for a person could come back.
He wouldn’t react unless someone got too close to him.
“Let Allan go,” Took repeated calmly as he lifted the gun. “All I want is to get her out of here. Then you and your master can try and get away before they burn this place.”
Willie’s laugh showed rotted teeth and a white coating of pus on his tongue. Pride glittered in his eyes, which were still unexpectedly pretty despite the drugs and the ichor. He pulled himself up straight.
“Him?” He spat in the direction of the hung vampire. “I don’t work for him. Not anymore. He works for me now.”
Allan dug her fingers into his arm. “You’re going straight to hell for this, Daly,” she spat out. “The sheriff will track you down and gut you if you touch me, and for what?”
“I damned myself years ago,” Willie said flatly. He licked the blood off Allan’s neck, and she grimaced in disgust, but the knife at her throat kept her still. Willie lifted his head, spit and blood smeared around his mouth, and smiled widely. “Might as well enjoy the ride. And once I prove myself, I’ll get to enjoy it for a long, fucking time, maybe even longer than the sheriff is around. He’s an old man. Things happen to old men, and young ones take over.”
Behind Took, on the other side of the door, the stairs creaked.
Time was up. Took swung the gun away from Willie and fired two shots straight into the vampire’s bloated stomach. It burst in a welter of clotted blood and a tangle of wet intestine that squirmed and dripped bile into the blood bowls. The vampire screamed itself out of his torpor and thrashed blindly on the hooks as they tore through muscle and meat. As it ripped itself free, Took tossed his gun into the sink.
Allan yelped and tried to bolt, but Willie dragged her back. He tightened his grip on her arm as he backed away from the vampire.
“It was him,” Willie yelled, his voice pitched to cut through the eerie, off-timbre screech that vibrated out of the vampire’s throat. He pulled the knife away from Allan’s throat and jabbed the bloodied point toward Took. “He did it. He shot you, Matthew!”
The vampire dropped to the ground with a thud. Its bare feet slapped against the tiles as it lunged at Willie—the only one in the room with a weapon. It slapped Allan out of the way with an almost dismissive backhand that sent her flying.
“You hurt meee,” Matthew mangled out through two sets of fully extended fangs as it grabbed Willie’s wrist. The bone snapped with a matchstick-brittle sound as Matthew tightened his fingers and lifted him off the ground. “Little liar.”
“No!” Willie writhed like a fish on the hook. He dropped the knife from bruise-purpled fingers and caught it in his other hand. “Not me. You know me! Goddammit, not me! It was him!”
Matthew didn’t listen. It latched onto Willie’s neck with dagger-sharp teeth and tore it out. The gush of blood splashed over Matthew’s face and throat, and it gulped it out of the air like water from a fountain. Pain wrung a cry out of Willie, but the one advantage of being a Goat was resilience. He punched his knife up through Matthew’s chin with a quick, brutal stroke and twisted the blade.
With a shriek of garbled offense, tongue pinned to the roof of his mouth, Matthew flung Willie away from him.
“Come on,” Took hissed as he grabbed Allan’s collar and pulled her up. “We need to go.”
She scrambled unsteadily to her feet. Her eyes were unfocused and her lips split.
“I… I…. This wasn’t supposed to happen like this.” Allan shook her head and blinked hard. Her gaze shifted over Took’s shoulder and widened in dismay. “Look out!”
Took ducked and a pretty blonde girl missed his throat by half a foot. Matted hair flapped in filthy elflocks as she flew past. She tried to twist in midair, enough to give Took a glimpse of her pale, half-made-up face, but didn’t quite pull it off. She hit the ground and tumbled head over heels into the wall.
“Go,” Took snapped at Allan as he shoved her toward the door. “Think later.”
He dragged her with him down the vandalized hall of past clients. Three photos down and Allan pulled herself together, the stumble gone from her steps as she pulled even with Took.
“There’s others,” she said. “They’re in the garage. Willie told them to wait until he got Ma… the vampire. We have to stop them.”
Took laughed at her. “I dropped my gun. You’ve lost yours,” he said. “What are we going to do, order pizza and breathe garlic at them? Just move.”
She looked reluctant but did as she was told. They burst through the doorway into the hall, and the pale gray man in the pale gray suit swung a crowbar in a short, brutal arc at Took’s head. There was no time or space to duck.
Took caught the crowbar. The metal hook jarred against his palm and stopped. Slow, dull surprise crossed the gray man’s face. Took bared his fangs and growled as he wrenched the crowbar out of the Goat’s suddenly slack grip. He jabbed it into the man’s stomach, buried the shaft inches deep in soft flesh, and doubled him over in a spray of vomit.
“You’re one of them,” Allan spluttered. Her voice was threaded with desperate, raw panic as she tried to pull away from him. “What is this, a game? A trick?”
Took reeled her in and shoved her at the door. “Yes,” he said—still, two years in, sorta lisped—as he stepped over the groaning gray man. “We’re pranking you. Just get outside. I called the sheriff. He should be here soon.”
It didn’t work to calm Allan down. It had been one shock too many, and she was caught up in her fear. She stumbled forward at his prod, but the muttered round of accusation and plea continued under her breath.
“I don’t want to be a vampire. Mary, Mother of God, be with me now. Kill me. Kill me, don’t damn me. It should have been… not Gatlin. It was meant to be—”
Took fumbled the door open and both of them fell out into the evening sunlight. He lost his grip on Allan and she lurched away from him, her feet tangling as she staggered down the stairs. He swore and went after her.
It felt like a punch at his back. Took didn’t realize what had happened at first. It was only when he crashed into Allan, both of them blown off their feet and his back hot and itchy from fire and splinters, that he registered the crackle of fire behind him.
Allan sprawled under him on the ground, unmoving but still breathing. After a shaken second, Took rolled onto his raw back. Chunks of bricks and glass slid off him as he moved, and he stared at the old house as it went up in flames. Curtains flared with the eagerness of polyester blends, and the closed-off windows darkened and cracked.
Someone screamed. It would be Matthew, Took knew. Vampires were hard to kill, but he couldn’t work up the energy past his ringing ears to care. He stared at the fire for a few moments longer and then let the blow to his head drag him down into oblivion.