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The guy squirms against me like a worm on a hook. He's in his early twenties, built like a defensive lineman—big muscles, big gut, no neck. He keeps moaning and pressing himself against my chest and I have to hold his head to keep a good grip. Culebra said he'd been here before, but the way he's wriggling around, I'm afraid I'm hurting him.
I swallow a mouthful of blood, open my eyes, and look up at Culebra. I need more but I'm unsure if I should continue.
Culebra's arms are crossed on his chest. He isn't paying attention. In fact, he looks bored, and when he feels my eyes on him, he shrugs and says, "What?"
My thoughts reach out. Should I stop?
His own come back. Have you had enough?
No. But he keeps moving.
He rolls his shoulders again. He's been well paid. He's here because he wants to be. He is not a virgin, you know. He's done this many times before. He moves because he finds it pleasurable. Watch his hands.
I do. They're at his crotch, caressing a bulge in his jeans.
Oh my god. Is he...?
The lines on Culebra's face deepen as he grins. You could make it more pleasurable for him, you know. All you would have to do is—
I gulp two or three more mouthfuls. I know what he's going to say. All I want is the blood. Just what I need to refresh and restore. I've learned to ignore the other sensation, the thrill that spirals into powerful sexual hunger if you let it. When I finish and pull away, the kid actually groans louder and reaches up to pull my head back down to his neck.
Culebra laughs. I hear as well as sense it.
I reach down and help the kid into a sitting position. "Are you all right?"
His mouth curves upward in a grin, but his eyes are clouded. He makes no move to get up. "You didn't have to stop, you know." It's a combination of a growl and a whine. One hand remains between his legs and the other is on his neck, though there's not a mark to show I've drunk.
I always make sure of that.
I raise an eyebrow at Culebra. Next time, I want someone who does it just for the money.
Again, the shrug and the upturned palms. As you wish.
I follow Culebra out of the back room of the saloon, leaving my libidinous donor to his own devices. It's September, late afternoon, and bright sun pours through the swinging doors. In the glare, dust motes dance and twirl on an invisible draft of air.
The place is almost deserted. Two humans, friends of the guy in the back, wait for him at the bar, nursing drinks. One vamp couple sit, knees touching, at a table against the back wall. Their thoughts are hot with desire. As soon as I pick up on it, I shut down. Vampire telepathy is not always a good thing. The sexual energy they're emitting makes me edgy, especially after feeding.
We cross to the bar where the bartender greets Culebra with marked deference. The bartender is human, another of those who find it exciting to be in the presence of supernaturals. He asks what we'd like to drink.
Culebra waves him off, reaching into the cooler under the bar for two beers. Culebra owns the place. In fact, he owns the entire town. Without a word, the bartender moves away.
Culebra pops the tops and hands me one of the beers.
I take a long pull. It goes down easily, washing away the salty aftertaste of the blood, refreshing in the way that an icy drink satisfies after eating peanuts or spicy foods. Consuming liquid is the only form of human sustenance left to me.
Culebra is watching me. When I meet his eyes, he nods. What happened back there, it's not perfect, but it's the best we can do.
I know it's true. I don't have to like it.
He leans across the bar, sharp eyes acknowledging a response he's plucked from the air. His face is ageless yet old, the surface covered with tiny lines and wrinkles etched by the stylus of a life I know nothing about.
He shuts me out of his thoughts now, and the ease with which he can do that makes me uneasy. I am vampire and supposedly at the top of the food chain as far as immortals are concerned. I don't know what Culebra is. He hasn't shared that yet. He can read my thoughts and I his, when he lets me. He is the only nonhuman creature who can hide himself so completely that I can't glean the smallest fragment of his true being. And yet, with the death of Avery, the vampire doctor who took care of me when I first became vampire, this unlikely character, with the name that means "rattlesnake," has become one of my closest friends.
He's staring again, picking through my thoughts like a beggar with a bag full of clothes—hopeful, expectant but resigned to the reality that all he's likely to find are cast-offs. Nothing new and nothing that fits.
So. His mouth turns down in a frown. You haven't spoken with Williams yet, have you?
Williams. Chief Williams of the San Diego police, that is. A friend of Avery's, or so I thought. Culebra thinks he should finish what Avery began—my instruction into what it means to survive as a vampire. But the relationship between Williams and me got off to a shaky start—and ended even worse. I shake my head. What can he say to me? Nothing I want to hear. And what can I say to him? That I'm sorry I almost killed him? That would be a lie.
He sniffs impatiently. I suppose it has never occurred to you that he might have things you need to hear. Important things. Like your heritage and what lies ahead.
My heritage? You mean like finding out I'm a descendant of Vlad the Impaler? That provokes a snicker that bubbles up before I can stifle it. When did Williams put you on his payroll? Every time I come down here it's the same thing. It's becoming tedious.
The frown deepens. Then take me up on my offer. Stay here. Work with me. I can teach you what you need to know.
I lay the bottle down on the counter and wave a hand. This is what I need to know. I have a life in San Diego. My home is almost rebuilt. My business is going well. How would I explain leaving all that behind to move down here? What would I tell my parents?
Culebra radiates aggravation. This concern for mortals. His tone is sharp. I understand now why Avery found you so irritating.
My shoulders draw tight. Culebra's mention of Avery is deliberate and cruel. I placed my trust in Avery and he not only betrayed that trust, but almost destroyed me. I thought I loved him, which made all that happened between us that much more hurtful. Culebra knows this.
I place both hands on the bar to steady myself before raising my eyes to meet his. You cannot bait me. I owe you a debt. One I am willing to repay. But I will not relinquish whatever natural time I have left with my family and friends to stay here with you. My life is my own. I thought you understood that.
He looks me in the eye. A life that involves chasing human scum wanted for petty crimes. You deal with criminals. You are above that.
I smile. This town, Beso de la Muerte, Kiss of Death, isn't this a Mexican hideaway? Isn't this home to criminals both human and otherwise who have earned your protection in one way or another? You, too, deal with criminals. How is that so different from what I do?
Culebra has no answer. A long moment passes. He looks away, then back at me and the rancor is gone. Sooner or later you will have to accept what you've become.
What have I not accepted? I'm here, aren't I? I will not deny myself the time I have left with those I love. Neither will Williams. Neither will you.
Suddenly, the cloud lifts from Culebra's face and his thoughts clear, become neutral. The corners of his lips curl upward. I'm impatient. An illogical emotion for one who is immortal, I know. But now you had better go. The lines at the border crossing will be long. I believe your parents are expecting you for dinner.
Something I know I hadn't mentioned. I raise an eyebrow. Again, he has pulled a bit of information from my subconscious. I scowl at him.
You are annoying, you know that?
I leave Culebra with a wave. The next time I see him will be the next time the hunger strikes. I won't miss the lectures.
My car is parked just outside the saloon. One dusty, slouching, wooden building in a street full of them. It's an hour's drive from the border yet no one ever ventures here uninvited. I suspect Culebra has cast some kind of protective spell over the place.
Another of those things I would have thought preposterous two months ago.
Two months. Sixty days since a fight in a dark parking lot changed me forever. Even now, when I think about it, it doesn't seem real. My partner, David, and I were on a midnight run. A simple snatch job that should have taken no more time or effort than a hundred others we've performed as bounty hunters. The guy was an accountant wanted for embezzlement. No priors. No history of violence. What we didn't know, what we couldn't have known, was that he was a newly turned vampire.
He overpowered David and attacked me. He intended to kill me. He didn't. Not in the normal way. But during the struggle, we exchanged blood.
I became a vampire, too.
Destined to feed on blood and spend whatever time I have left with my human family pretending I'm not a monster.
It's all I have.
I glance at my watch.
Culebra was right. I need to get on the road. My folks live on Mt. Helix, a bedroom community east of San Diego. They're expecting me at six and I'll be cutting it close. I press my foot down on the accelerator and let the Jag have its head. We race a funnel of twirling, dancing dust out of town.
I look back in the rearview mirror and see Culebra standing alone on the sidewalk, watching. He sends a silent message of farewell.