Chapter 1 (Demonic Manifestation [Dred Dixon])

The vampire threw a hamburger at me.

I dodged, keeping my gun leveled at him. The sandwich fell apart in the air, and the pickles smacked against my chest, leaving a mayo and ketchup trail down the front of my top. What a jerk. Now I’d need to get the top cleaned, which required a dry-cleaner because it was linen—perfect for hot days, but not perfect for stains.

“That used to be my favorite place to get a hamburger,” he said, pointing at me in rage. There was a maniacal look in his eyes—a preternatural blue—and a very disheveled aura to his general appearance. Not a standard style for vampires.

Something was off with this one.

“Hires Big H?” I asked, raising my Colt 1911 and aiming at him. Hires was where the ruckus had started, a block away from Trolley Square. The vampire had called in an order. When he went in to pick it up, he’d gone a little nuts, scaring off the other patrons. Feigning attacks and throwing tables and chairs. “Good burger, I’ll give you that. Not nearly on the same level as a burger from Lucky 13, though. It’s down on 9th, by the baseball field? You been there?”

We were both engaging in distraction. The vampire stood with his back to the railing surrounding the illuminated Trolley Square water tower where red light bathed us in a bloody glow. I’d followed him up there during the chase when he’d flown up and I just hoped he didn’t fly off again before I could do something.

I didn’t want to kill him yet, but I would if things got out of control, since he seemed to be having a breakdown of some kind. A berserk vampire, that’s just what this city needed. Despite that, what I needed, personally, was answers.

Then I’d kill him.

“No,” he answered, his fangs fully extended. “Sounds like a tattoo parlor.”

“Hipster burger joint. Kind of a dive but I highly recommend the peanut butter and bacon burger. Geez, my mouth’s watering just thinking about it.”

This infuriated him further. He shrieked at me.

I smiled. “What? Is blood not cutting it for you?”

More shrieking.

I’d anticipated dealing with a thoughtful, pensive vampire—I’d heard that he’d been an assistant professor nearby, at the University of Utah—not this. Apparently, Mr. Burger-Eater-Vampire was a regular customer at Hires. Did he eat burgers now, as a vampire? Or was that before he changed?

The change could really unseat the personality traits that defined a human before they became a vampire. If someone was borderline unstable, turning into a vampire might push them over into wholly unstable. Or, it might pull them into a serene, almost inhuman stable. Which was just another form of unstable, really, if you thought about it.

“Let’s talk. You like burgers. What else do you do for fun?” I laced sarcasm into my voice. Maybe he’d actually answer. That would make my job easier.

“You think you’re clever? You’re just a girl. And you ruined my night.”

Just a girl?” I snorted. “Shows what you know. And for the record, relationships are a two-way street. See, for me it feels like you ruined my night.”

“I’d planned to eat that. Instead you practically begged me to throw it at you.”

“That’s where things go a little awry for me. Burgers and bloodsuckers don’t mix. What are you doing eating them?” The sweltering heat of the summer night made my fingers sweat. My trigger finger burned to feel the single-action resistance against it and I was just about ready to comply. Our conversation wasn’t giving me enough answers, and I wasn’t going to risk losing him again. He was clearly deranged. “Also, I’ll send you the dry-cleaning bill for the shirt. Well, if you’re still alive.”

“How’s it going up there, Mildred?” Theo Scott shouted up at me from the ground. My Flameheart partner of three years, we did everything together.

“Wow, that caught my attention. You must want to die, Scott,” I yelled back, fuming at his use of my birth-name: Mildred. A puke name that my parents had given me for Buddha knows what reason. I went by Dred or Dreddie. Mildred meant someone wanted to die at my hands.

“Death threats. She’s OK! Just checking.” His laughter drifted up to me. “I got a dead one down here. Fun little stake through the heart. Going after the rest.”

Mr. Burger-Eater-Vampire snarled, and moved to brace himself against the railing surrounding the scaffolding. He glared down at Scott between the bars.

I risked a quick glance over the iron railing as well, curious about what the vampire was seeing.

Scott was alone. All that was left of the vampire was a puff of black smoke nearby dissipating into the ether. I looked back but my vampire had disappeared. I cursed.

Why had I fallen for that ploy?

I hurried around the tower, keeping my Colt ready as I stalked over the metal deck. There was no sign of him.

“He got away, Scott,” I shouted when I reached where I’d started the circuit.

“Come down, Dred. I got eyes on him. And the others.” Scott’s voice rose above the sounds of traffic and honking horns. Nine pm in late June in the city was prime for the nightlife. We were doing our best to keep the collateral damage low, to prevent full chaos breaking out and sending ripples of Hidden World sightings across the city.

When that happened the Supernatural Relief Guild had clean-up crews who “helped” with forgetting.

I went into the tower through the door, using a key that unlocked all city buildings—an enchanted tool that the Flamehearts were entrusted with—and accessed the spiral staircase. I clattered down the metal stairs, my 1911 gripped tightly in my sweaty palm.

Scott was waiting for me at the bottom.

“Let’s go. They ran this way.” Scott pointed toward the walkway between buildings.

“Why are they running? They usually run at us, not away. Has to be a trap.”

“Might be. But we go into traps. That’s our thing. This has been too easy so far. First sign of a trap.”

“Yeah, so let’s plan on one.” I holstered the Colt in my waistband in the small of my back and slipped the enchanted key into my jeans pocket. Sweat trickled down my torso beneath my tank top. It was also enchanted—against bullets and spells—and now it was smeared with ketchup and mayo. Scott studied the stains in the glowing red lights of the water tower.

“A little accident, Dreddie?”

“The vampire.”

“That’s what all messy eaters say.”

“Careful, I’ll throw a slice of tomato at you.”

He laughed and we took off in the direction Scott had indicated. His usual attire of skater shorts and T-shirt bobbed in front of me in the twilight as we moved from shadow to shadow. There were alcoves and dark overhangs that a vampire could fade into easily.

I remained on high alert, peering into each blackened corner, my eyes intent for any sudden movement or a flicker of ambient light reflecting off a fang.

“Shift,” I said to Scott, urging him to take his mountain lion form.

“Nah, the Rossi’s got this. Too many people around. Not enough vampires.” Scott’s voice drifted toward me over his shoulder.

The Rossi was his firearm of choice—a .44 magnum lever-action carbine, like the kind out of cowboy movies. It had a kick because it was powerful and Scott used it because he took no prisoners in the battle. Shifters came with a unique tool chest of items they could summon—clothes, weapons, and other items.

“The Rossi’s loud. A mountain lion’s all stealth,” I whispered as the shadows seemed to intensify. I felt a presence as our footsteps took us deeper into the unnatural darkness that filled the space between the parking garage and Williams Sonoma.

“They’re coming,” Scott said, stopping.

“Let them come,” I said, positioning myself beside him and drawing my Colt.

From the shadows, a vampire lunged at my throat.

Her talon-like fingernails dug into my biceps as she fought to sink her teeth into my flesh. I had three seconds to win this. Mercy was not an option. I shoved the suppressor, fitted to the end of my Colt 1911, against her chest and pulled the trigger.

She shrieked in my ear as the silver bullet went through her heart.

It kind of stung being so murderously good at my job. It wasn’t like I found it fun to kill vampires. I didn’t love them, but they were like any predator—a result of natural selection, part of the process of life and death.

These were not popular ideas with any of the other Flamehearts. Scott tolerated them. But I knew he didn’t agree with me.

The vampire’s grip on my arms faltered.

“Why?” She whimpered as she weakened and fell.

“You broke the rules, sweetheart. Wanton feeding on normals. Next time don’t.”

There’d be no next time. But why tell her that? She knew and I wasn’t a cold-hearted jerk.

Along with her crazy ex-professor friend and three others, she’d already killed two non-magical humans—normals. Gang-feasting, we called it, when a little tribe of vampires fed like that. There was something really unsavory about it. Scott and I had tried calling it gang-sucking as the trend grew, but, well, for obvious reasons that term had never caught on.

“Good kill, Dred,” Scott said, from behind me.

“Thanks. Feel free to shift at any time.” From my peripheral vision, I saw the faint glow of his Rossi. It was a gorgeous gun, but it kept both hands tied up in a fight. I preferred the optional use of one hand for pulling the trigger, the other hand for punching faces when necessary.

“Chill, Dreddie. I’ll just shoot them,” he said. “Plug your ears.”

He knew I couldn’t do that. “Just do it quick. I’ll take the deafness if you need to shoot. But know this, I’m annoyed you’re not shifting.”

“In my defense, I didn’t store any back up clothes in the Domain,” he said.

That was the catch. Shifters had to spell their items into a sub-dimension dubbed the Domain to call on later. Some shifters, like Scott, were terrible at planning for emergencies.

“I’ll loan you my tank top.” And I was a bad partner. Because I enabled his poor planning.

“Done,” he said. “Here, hold my gun.” He held out the Rossi and like a fool, I took it. In one hand I held my Colt. In the other, the Rossi.

Before I could register the course of events, a gorgeous, large mountain lion was leaping into the shadows. He was sinuous, deadly grace. I kept him in my peripheral vision while staying alert to my surroundings. He vanished into the darkness. Snarls, cries of pain, and the sounds of bones snapping filtered toward me.

I blinked and, quiet as a snake in grass, the ex-professor vampire was standing in front of me, his fangs coming toward me like the maw of a desert worm from Tatooine. That was the strange thought that glided over my brain as I reacted to the danger—Star Wars thoughts.

I fired my Colt twice. He hesitated and waved his hand. The slugs fell to the ground.

In that moment, I realized I’d underestimated him. I’d assumed he was a recently turned vampire. But he was stronger than I suspected. If he could call on vampire magic to stop bullets, he was quite old. Perhaps several centuries older than what I’d initially believed.

“Who are you?” I asked, in disbelief. “How old are you?”

“Older than you’ll ever know.”

“Pretending to be new.” It sounded like an accusation, because it was.

He grinned at me and ran his hand through his hair, smoothing it down. He winked at me. I cringed. The audacity. Suddenly debonair and suave, he began to try to enthrall me.

“And now you are mine, Flameheart.”

I would have believed that too, but almost two hundred pounds of concentrated big cat muscle landed on him from above.

Scott wrapped his powerful paws around the vamp and they tumbled across the sidewalk into the darkness. An animalistic snarl—the kind that awakens the primal gut-level fear and reverberates through your body—shook the air. Adrenalin jolted through me at the sound, urging me to run.

I held my ground and listened to the battle. Darkness swirled from the shadows like black eddies of tarry water. The noises continued as the contest carried on. Concern for Scott’s safety pricked my thoughts. I was weak against the vampire, but I’d still try. Perhaps a bullet could reach the creature of the night while he was distracted by the cougar.

I took a step in the direction of the sounds. I raised both guns, ready to fire but hesitated, and then the mountain lion bounded out of the shadows, limping.

“You OK?” I asked.

“He got away. Don’t go after him, Dred,” Scott said, his very human voice coming from the maw of the mountain lion. “He’s too strong.”

I searched his body for the source of the limp. “He hurt you?”

“Just a scratch. I’ll be OK.”

“I disagree. We should go after him. We got the others, but he’s still on the loose. Job not complete.”

“Save it, Dred.”

“No, you save it. He hurt you. I’ll kill the bastard.”

“We’ll get him. Just maybe not tonight. I’m shifting back. Get your tank top off.”

I fumed, but I’d promised, and we’d killed the others. That meant just the one vampire would be somewhere out there, making disciples.

“Boy, you’re going to get it.”

“I hope you mean that, Dred. Looking forward to it.”

I holstered the Colt and balanced the barrel of the Rossi on the ground, leaning the stock against my thigh so that I could remove my linen tank and throw it at him. I still had a sports bra on, but the trade was worth it to not have to deal with the report of the Rossi, to not have to fight a bunch of vamps with my gun and bare hands.

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