by jordan castillo price
Payback - Book 1
I picked up my bag, or satchel, or whatever you want to call it, and checked it again—even though I knew everything was still there. It had to be, because it'd been pressed against my foot, and if anyone had been rifling through it, I would have felt them doing it. Mallet? Check. Wooden stake—hickory, of course? Check. Crucifix? Well, yeah. Like five of those. Rohypnol? Check. Holy water? Check. Eyeliner? Check.
Yeah, eyeliner. It looks good on me. Scary Mary used to say that. She'd sworn up and down that I was one of those guys who could pull it off.
My hand sank deep into the bag and brushed against the eyeliner. Or maybe it was a pen. I inched my fingers down the length of it and felt the tip. Damn. It was a pen. Maybe I could use it for touchup anyway if I sweated off all the eyeliner.
Or else I'd have to find the vampire and lure him out of the club before it came to that.
"Got a light?"
I jumped. I wasn't scared, though. Just startled. It was way too early for vampires, barely an hour past sunset. But I hadn't realized there was anyone standing practically on top of me while I was digging through my bag. Or whatever you want to call it.
"I don't…." He was so hot he was incandescent. "I don't smoke."
The guy who'd wanted the light was smiling. Still standing practically on top of me, too. Staring me right in the eye.
You'd think that would be all. He asked for a light. I didn't have one. And then he would move on. But maybe it was more than that. Maybe he'd just been looking for an excuse to talk.
He slid himself onto the barstool beside mine. I did my best to look nonchalant. He was…amazing. Tall and lean, with ripped up jeans and spiked blond hair, earrings and a snake tattoo on his neck and chipped black nail polish. And he wanted to talk to me.
Couldn't I have run into him any other night? Like, a night that I didn't already have a date with a vampire?
"Got a name, Mister Lung Association?" he asked me.
"Michael, Michael, Motorcycle." He tucked his cigarette behind his ear and shook my hand. Well, more like he jammed his hand toward me, and I either had to shake it or be knocked off the barstool. "Wild Bill."
A hot guy who had the balls to call himself Wild Bill, straightfaced no less, was hitting on me in a mostly-empty bar. My mind reeled. I hadn't been putting on my approachable vibe. I saved that for the vampires. I'd been going through my bag, minding my own business. And here he was, with a cigarette tucked behind his ear, chatting me up.
"Is your name really Bill?" I asked.
"Is yours really Michael?"
I rolled my eyes. He smiled wider, a weird, tight-lipped grin, and planted his elbow on the sticky bar top. "What's with the purse?"
"It's not a…look, I'm meeting somebody, okay? Don't you have anyone else to bother?"
He shrugged and half-turned in his seat to spare a glance for the rest of the place. It'd be a cool enough club once it started to fill up, but right now there was only a scattering of people in it. A tight clique of girls in thick eyeliner and hair extensions dominated a pair of pushed-together tables beside the dance floor. A couple swayed together on the glowing tiles. They were so androgynous you could only tell the boy from the girl by the flat planes of his ass. Fog that smelled like cotton candy wafted around their platform boots. And the remainder of the early crowd hugged the perimeter of the bar, backs to the wall, drinking warily.
I pretty much looked like everyone else there. Black clothes and silver studs. Alone and staring. Except that I'd been staring into my bag instead of cruising.
"I'll keep you company, then," Bill offered. "Until she…or he…shows up."
"He," I said.
Wild Bill's smile curled the corner of his lips.
Damn. If only there were some way, any way at all, I could ditch the vampire and take my chances with Wild Bill. But it'd taken me two whole years to track this vampire down and figure out where he'd been hunting. Two years' worth of newspaper clippings, of Coroners' reports photocopied by bribable janitors, of buried articles printed out from the Internet, accessed through the library's computers, that I'd stared at until their letters slipped out of focus when my body forced me to rest my eyes.
Maybe Wild Bill would take a rain check. But I kind of doubted it. Besides, after I left a smoking corpse in my wake, I'd have to get out of town. Fast.
A thudding bass line that I almost recognized rattled my molars. I could feel it vibrating in my thighbones through the barstool, and along my ribs where I leaned against the bar.
"I love this song," said Wild Bill, his mouth against my ear. He didn't stink of cigarettes, which was good. He smelled like citrusy hair paste and a well-worn leather jacket. "Wanna dance?"
No. For so many reasons, no. I couldn't lose my place at the bar. I'd come early to make sure I would have the best possible view of the front door, the back door, the dance floor and the bathrooms. And no, because I had a leather satchel with fifteen pounds of vampire hunting gear in it.
And finally, no, because it would feel too much like I had a hot boyfriend who liked to dance with me. That we went out together. Dancing. And we lived a normal life. Ideas best left alone, given my real plans for the evening.
Wild Bill backed toward the dance floor with his hands extended in my direction and his fingers waggling in invitation. His chin was tucked down, and that grin, that tight-lipped grin that crinkled the corners of his eyes, cut right through me like a sharpened hickory stake. I'd have to blow him off by pretending I wasn't into him. What else could I do?
He backed to the edge of the light-up tiles, stared at me for a few more beats, then shrugged and twirled onto the floor. Turns out I wasn't the only one there who thought Wild Bill would look a lot better with those shredded jeans around his ankles. Most of the Eyeliner Club decided they had the sudden urge to dance once he'd hit the floor.
A couple of guys peeled themselves off the wall to have an excuse to mingle with the Eyeliner Girls. It wasn't a gay bar, mostly. But the goth crowd was omnivorous enough that it was anyone's guess if the boys wanted to go home with the girls, or with each other.
Now that sparse dance floor was full, with plenty of people to keep anyone from standing out too much, but few enough that everyone had elbow room. And there was Wild Bill, somewhere in the middle. The pale spikes of his hair bobbed above the crowd. Scary Mary would've given him a big thumbs up.
I didn't want to stare, but my eyes kept finding him, lighting on that flash of bleached blond. Eventually I stopped resisting. As long as I didn't spend too long looking at him, my gaze could flick to the front door, the back door, the bathroom, and then find him again, spotting the guy I'd never have, every three seconds, after I'd scanned all the doors.
"Refill?" called the bartender. I turned to look at her, five feet tall and enough metal in her face to throw off a pacemaker. She held the soda gun like she was one of Charlie's Angels—the brunette. I nodded and slid my glass toward her. I should be happy to get any attention at all, drinking plain seltzer. I paid her two bucks and tipped her one more. I wished I could give her a bigger tip, but any more than that would raise suspicions and make me memorable. I couldn't afford to stand out to anyone—except my date.
The bartender turned and cranked out a couple of draft beers in plastic cups. I watched her move, and for a minute I imagined that she was Mary, underneath a few dozen facial piercings and a really weird eyebrow wax. But that was, of course, impossible, thanks to the vampires that'd fed off Mary's lifeblood like a pack of hyenas. Hell of a way to lose your best friend.
I'd always thought we'd grow apart after high school, or at least when each of us started dating seriously, especially if she ended up bagging a closet homophobe. But no. No slow drift for us. Mary had always done everything far more spectacularly than she needed to.
But the bartender could've been Mary…a little thin, but Mary on a diet? Maybe. I could see Mary as a bartender, ogling boys in black lipstick and tucking tips into her purple lace bra.
"Changed your mind?"
I turned to fend off Wild Bill again. Mary might have thought he was lickable, but he just wasn't in the cards for me. It wouldn't take much, I figured. Another rebuff or two, and he'd move on to easier quarry. Except as I swung around to tell him to get lost, a bunch of details clicked into place: black hair, not blond, long leather duster, not a biker jacket, jeweled choker, not the snake tattoo, cynical smile, not….
Not Wild Bill. Someone else.
My heartbeat stopped, then started up again somewhere in my throat. "What?" I said. Brilliant.
"Your drink." He glanced down at my full glass of water. "You're still watching the bartender. Did you want something…else?"
What he'd meant seemed obvious enough, I know. His actual words had been too simple to even consider them in passing as a double entendre. Except I only had a tiny sliver of attention on what he was saying. Most of me was busy trying to take him in, all of him—the way he moved, the way he spoke—to see if maybe he was the one. My date.
I tried not to stare. Nothing more tacky than being obvious. "No, I uh…" I trailed off awkwardly. I wasn't willing to reduce Scary Mary to a half-sentence about "someone I knew once." I shrugged.
The black-haired guy stared at me, looked into my eyes. He was handsome, of course, with startling golden-green eyes and cheekbones to die for. His hair was more done up than my just-below-the-chin-length bob, long in front and spiked in back. Vamps are always slick, always handsome. And he didn't seem too concerned about what was tacky, or what was obvious, or what was awkward. I felt a queasy flutter as he did his thing—just looking and looking and looking—like my spine was reacting to him, sending weird signals to random spots in my nervous system.
Holy crap, after all this time I find him…and me with absolutely nothing interesting to say. I wet my suddenly-dry lips and forced my shoulders to relax, my spine to sag. A half smile that I'd practiced for hours found its way onto my face, a mask of sultry indifference.
His eyes found mine again. I hadn't realized they'd ever looked away. But then I figured out why—he'd been watching me wet my lips. "I'm Michael," I said. And I made a mental note to practice small talk. Something. Anything. The library probably had a great wealth of information about that, just like everything else you could find there, if you were patient enough to sift through a billion other words.
"Gray," he said. "A pleasure."
His mouth molded the word pleasure like it was something dirty. But what was gray? Oh, right. His name. Of course. If he was my vampire—and the way I'd suddenly dropped about a hundred IQ points and developed a pronounced throb in my crotch, I was guessing he was—he wasn't gonna have a name like Howard or George.
I blinked and tilted my head to one side. My long hair slipped down over one eye, and I probably looked just like I'd practiced, waifish and goth in my eyeliner. At least I'd practiced something, and had a bedroom stare to paint over my real expression, which probably would've been something like a deer in the headlights of an eighteen-wheeler hauling two dozen SUVs.
"Cool song," I forced out, even though I could hardly tell what it was. And I wanted to take it back, it sounded so pathetic. But I guess it was better than what I was actually thinking, which was if his skin was really as smooth as it looked, and would it be cold…or had he fed lately? And what would it taste like as I slid my tongue along that angular jaw, and down the cord of muscle at the side of his throat, trailing his collarbone to his chest, his nipple.
And maybe I would've even wondered aloud where I got off letting one of his kind get me all wound up like that. After what happened to Mary.
He would feel even better than I'd imagined. They all do. That's how they manage to stay alive for so long. If they were as repulsive on the outside as they were on the inside, nature would've gotten Darwinian on 'em a long, long time ago.
Evidently Gray didn't think I sounded too stupid—or maybe all of us did, once we'd been caught in his gravitational pull. And besides, I had my repertoire of sultry eyeliner glances to work with. Maybe I was actually ahead of the pack, lack of witty banter notwithstanding.
I searched for something to look at, other than his eyes, because if I kept looking there, I'd be doomed before I even got started, reduced to a gibbering wreck. My gaze lit on the choker. It was a fancy silver charm with a big green gem set in it, dangling from a black velvet ribbon.
"You like?" he said.
I don't think he was talking about the choker. But I nodded anyway.
"It's an antique. I've had it for years. The stone's called a peridot. It's the only gemstone that doesn't come in any color but green." A weird yellow-green that was just like his eyes. I had no doubt that's the main reason he'd chosen it.
Gray slid into the space between my barstool and the one Wild Bill had been sitting on. His thigh brushed mine, and that wouldn't have happened unless he'd done it on purpose. He touched the side of my tall plastic cup and dragged his finger down, drawing a line in the condensation. "Just water?" he said. He could smell it from where he was standing.
I thought about the Rohypnol in my bag. Totally odorless. So I've read.
I shrugged. "Don't like hangovers." That was true enough. My mouth was as dry as if I'd just woken up after a keg party, and I wet my lips again. Gray's eyes flickered down, watching my lips just like I'd stared at his necklace. I gritted my teeth and wished he would just get it over with and skip the whole pretense of seduction. If he wanted me, I was his. Obviously. Like any mere mortal would be, if he'd decided they were on the menu that night.
I grabbed my glass and drank, and the cold, carbonated water felt like it glanced over my tongue without even wetting it. I was exponentially more nervous than I'd thought I would be. But anything to get myself to stop wetting my lips. Even though the lip thing seemed to lure Gray in way more easily than any of my practiced fuck-me eyes.
"Buy you a drink?" I asked, wondering how I could possibly spike it in the club with him standing so close to me. He hadn't been pressed against my thigh in even one of the rehearsals I'd gone through in my head.
Gray smiled. I told myself it was a mocking smile, but it looked strangely sincere. Maybe he'd been practicing in front of a mirror, too, and had managed to strip some of the irony from the expressions that came naturally to him. If he even had a reflection. Sources differed on this.
Gray put his hand on my plastic cup, fingers brushing mine, slippery with condensation. "I'll just help you finish this one," he said. Only he didn't move to drink it. Not right away. He was too busy staring, staring, staring deep into my eyes.
I let go of the cup reluctantly and he raised it, never taking his bright green eyes off me as he drank. I swallowed hard. It'd never occurred to me to drug my own drink. It was too late now, since he obviously wasn't going to let me out of his sight, not even to blink. And since he'd drained my cup in one long pull.
He leaned in close as he set the empty cup on the bar. "Let's go somewhere we can…talk."
Audiobook read by Gomez Pugh coming soon!
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