Even before I finished getting dressed, I had a bad feeling about the evening ahead. The miserable February weather added to my misgivings. The sleet that had started an hour earlier sounded like roofing nails being thrown against the windowpane. Wind was howling around the corner of my Upper West Side building like a wolf racing after its prey. My whole apartment seemed unusually frigid and empty, hollow within just like me. As a vampire, I chill easily, and now with a cold and tremulous hand, I pulled on my boots, grabbed the black leather motorcycle jacket that matched my leather pants, and headed for the door.
I didn't want to go out, but I had been summoned by my boss, whom I know only as J. If I had my way, I'd still be in my flannel jammies, the ones with cowboys on them from Jackson Hole Traders, my feet toasty in UGGs, and a mug of herbal tea in my hand while I sniffed and moped around my living room thinking about my ex-boyfriend, Darius. Things hadn't worked out as I hoped. He was gone but not forgotten. To crank up my misery to its max, I'd be playing the golden-oldies CDs that make me cry, like Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is" and anything by October Project.
But J called and told me it was time I got back to work. Being a spy employed by an ultra secret American intelligence agency is sort of like being in the military. The higher-ups issue orders. I follow themeven when my instincts tell me they're dead wrong. Ours not to reason why, Ours but to do and die. Tonight I couldn't guess what arcane plot or secret plan lay behind J's directions not to come to the office, but instead to head over to an Irish bar in Hell's Kitchen. I'd been to that bar before. If you like pub fare, they serve some killer potato skins with cheddar, bacon, and chives. I'd be better off with food that appealed to carnivores like me, something nearly raw and bloody. It might supply me with a needed infusion of energy and even optimism. But depression over the break-up and the death of my romantic dreams had killed my appetite. However, considering the urges of my dark side to dine on human blood, a lack of hunger is not entirely a bad thing.
A strange uneasiness about tonight hit me from the minute J told me to get dressed and show up ASAP at the bar which was called Kevin St. James. As I listened to his instructions, an icy hand clutched my heart. I should trust my instincts. They've kept me alive for nearly five hundred years. I should have told J I was sick. I should have stayed home where it was safe. But I didn't. I followed orders.
When I arrived downstairs in the apartment-house lobby, the doorman hailed a taxi for me, then opened the back door of the cab as I dashed through the sleet and got in. I pulled the door shut, and with my pale white fingers pushed a damp strand of hair away from my face and tucked it behind my ear. "Eighth Avenue, between Forty-sixth and forty-seventh Street," I said. "West side of the avenue, a pub, Kevin St. James."
The driver grunted an okay at me and took off fast, jolting me against the back of the seat. He had an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror. It was supposed to give the cab a faux leather smell. It smelled more like faux barf. My stomach did a twist and roll. Just what I needed. Anxiety and excitement had already made me queasy. Obviously J had another assignment for me and the other vampires of Team Darkwing, and I wasn't mentally prepared. I had been wallowing in self-pity. All because of Darius, damn him. Some action might be just what I needed to distract myself.
The city streets were wet and getting slick; the cabbie was going too fast and the taxi skidded every time he stopped for red lights. Neon yellows and blues reflected off the icy pavement, and the world seemed to be breaking up into a kaleidoscope of crazy colors. I felt unsettled and apprehensive. As the taxi raced through the streets, I sensed the future speeding toward me, and I had the distinct premonition that something on the magnitude of a freight train was coming, and I couldn't stop it. I was just going to have to ride it wherever it took me.
I pushed open the pub door into a blast of warm air smelling of beer. Loud music was bouncing off the brick walls. I didn't even get two steps into the place when I heard a voice from south of the Mason-Dixon line shriek, "Daphne! Sugar! Over here!" My colleague and good friend, Benny Polycarp, a native of Branson, Missouri, stood next to a table and was waving frantically at me. I elbowed my way through the crowd to her side and was immediately crushed in a hug.
"Oh, it's so good to see you," Benny said as she put her lips right next to my ear which is about the only way I could have heard her over the din of Matchbox 20 singing "I'm not crazy, I'm just a little unwell." She smelled like hairspray and shampoo, and she looked twenty-five, although she's been undead for over seventy years.
"Good to see you too," I said back at her and looked over her shoulder at the two guys sitting at the table.
"Hello Cormac," I said flatly, sounding like Jerry Seinfeld greeting Newman. The slightly built, pouting young man barely gave me a nod. Cormac always looked sulky; sometimes I felt he was a great black hole that drained the energy right out of me with his negativity. Other times he just pissed me off. But we'd known each other for the better part of two centuries, and I'd often seen him at his worst and only rarely at his best. Then I gave a genuine smile to the Buddha in a baseball cap sitting next to Cormac. "And hey to you Bubba Lee. How are you?" I yelled over the music.
"Jest fine now, little lady," he yelled back and winked at me. Bubba's face was ruddy from alcohol, so I guessed he had already downed more than a few beers. "What can I get you?" Bubba asked as he pulled his bulk out of the seat. Bubba's not fat anywhere except his belly. He's big and solid, like a redwood tree.
"Guinness," I said.
"You got it," Bubba answered and started making his way to the bar.
I rarely drink, but this was an Irish pub, and they had Guinness on tap. It would be a sacrilege not to take advantage of that amenity. Besides, who gets drunk on one Guinness? I figured I could keep my wits sharp and my mind clear.
I peeled off my jacket and dropped into the seat next to Benny. "What's going on?" I asked. "You get a call?"
"Yeah, J phoned me. I don't know what's going on though. Cormac and Bubba were already here when I walked in. They don't know anything more than I do. We've been sitting around, that's about it."
From across the table, Cormac nodded in agreement. "I had a date. You know, it is Friday night," he whined. "And for what? Nobody knows why we're here. I had plans. I mean this really sucks." He slumped farther in his chair and returned to moodily picking the label off a bottle of Killian's Red.
"Do you think J's going to join us?" I said to Benny.
"Uh-uh, I don't think so. I mean we can't discuss anything in this placeeven if it wasn't top secret. We can barely hear each other. He must have something in mind, but who knows? But the hell with that, girlfriend, how are you?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "You know, up and down. Bad days. Good days."
"Have you heard from Darius?" she asked, her big eyes warm with concern.
"No, not a word. I found out he got out of the hospital and nothing else. With him the way he is, well, he could get in some real trouble. I try not to think about it."
"Oh honey, he just needs some time to think. He'll call you when he gets himself together. I just know it," Benny said, squeezing my arm in sympathy.
"Yeah, sure he will," I said sarcastically. "He hates me, Benny. I bit him, and you know . . . now he's . . . now he's . . . "
"A vampire," she said. "And immortal. And superhuman. Hate you? He should thank you girlfriend! He's just an asshole!" Then she shrugged, saying, "All men are assholes, my friend. And you're too pretty to be shut up in that apartment grieving. Let's forget about Darius. And let's forget about our uptight boss and whatever he's planning for us, and have a good time tonight." She surveyed the room, her eyes sparkling with delight. "Look at this. I love this place! Big bar, fireplace, great music. It's Friday night in New York, we're single, we're out on the town, and here's Bubba with your drink."
The big man put a tall dark pint with foam cascading down the side in front of me. I nodded my thanks, and he gave me a nod and a wink.
"And I brought this here concoction for you, Miss Benny," Bubba said as he gently set a cocktail on the table before her. "I was gonna get you one of them there cosmopolitans, but Jennifer, the bartender, told me they was 'strictly passé' and to try a green fairy or Absolut Apeach. I can't get ahold of the idea of drinking anything called a fairy, so I chose Apeach on the rocks for the prettiest lady in the room." His weathered face was creased by laugh lines, and his eyes looked kind as he smiled at her.
"Well, thank you, sugar," she crooned at him in her deep Southern accent and made his day.
Kevin St. James can be a quaint Irish pub some nights, with mostly firemen at the bar and Kevin, the mad tattooed owner, telling stories and everybody laughing a lot. Other times, like tonight, it's a zoopacked wall to wall with a mostly young crowd making noise, drinking a lot, and looking to hook up. Upstairs in the second-floor lounge an Irish group called Beyond the Pale was slated to play songs from its newest CD, Queen of Skye, according to a notice chalked on a blackboard. Starting time of the first set was 10 p.m. Meanwhile pop music was blasting over a sound system.
I picked up my Guinness and sucked in some of the foam. Cormac sat picking at his beer bottle-label while he threw a pity party for himself. Benny and Bubba put their heads close together and were talking a mile a minute: They seemed to be arguing about recipes for the best cornbread. I caught the part about using a cast-iron skillet for a baking pan. Nobody in the pub was paying us any attention: We were four undead, blood-drinking, down-and-dangerous vampires in the big city, but we looked like everyone else, and actually a lot less strange than many New Yorkers.
Sitting there and starting to unwind thanks to the Guinness, I decided to just open up my senses to what was going on around me. I figured I should be watching this place, observing it. After all, why did J want us here? At first glance I didn't see anything out of the ordinary. Right in the middle of the room some hotties in little tiny T-shirts that exposed their bellybuttons were acting silly and looking messed up. I figured they were drunk or highor both. Nothing unusual about that. Nobody looked like a suicide bomber planning to blow up city buses or the subways, and that's what I figured Team Darkwing would be dealing with next. I focused my mind and took in one person at a time, slowly, carefully. I practice Zen meditation regularly with an occasional session of Tai Chi; my philosophy is to take wisdom where you find it. Now I told myself, Be like the motionless cat crouching in the grass, eyeing an unsuspecting bird.
Crowded up against the bar, I saw a dozen young guys in expensive suits whom I figured for lawyers or bankers. Negative energy stirred in their vicinity, but I didn't know why.
At two tables right under the fancy crest that says KEVIN SAINT JAMES NYC sat a party of tourists with fanny packs. Radiating a well-fed Midwestern wholesomeness, they seemed kind of dazed and thrilled at the same time. My gaze shifted to a table of four striking men and women who were nursing beers and projecting an air of desperation. I guessed that they were out-of-work actors. I moved my attention to the next table where two edgy, thirtysomething women wearing nearly identical glasses periodically glanced toward the door. I pegged them for editors, calling it a day after working ridiculously long hours at their jobs in the publishing industry, which still clusters its offices in midtown Manhattan.
Toward the rear of the bar, as far away from the door and as close to the TV as possible, sat a couple of regular- looking guys. I thought they might be off-duty firemen. Chatting with them were two older guys I pegged for plainclothes cops. One was a short guy with basset-hound eyes who dressed down in an old army jacket. The other was a muscular black man in a sports coat, whose eyes darted back and forth and suddenly looked right at me. I shifted my own gaze to a middle distance above his head. When I looked again, the black cop and his partner had taken up positions against the brick wall where they leaned back, not drinking, unsmiling, watching the crowd. Were they narcs? Now there was a tip that something wasn't entirely kosher in here tonight. I wondered what, and again figured J had his reasons for sending us here.
Finishing up my observation of the room, I studied the rest of the crowd, small groups of suburban boys and girls dressed in designer labels. As they drifted together and then moved apart in a modern mating dance, their laughter came in staccato bursts, too fast and too loud. Most of them were probably making this pub their first stop in a long night that would end in Soho. I clearly felt an aura of discordant energy emanating from them, and it was something besides frustrated sexuality and raging hormones. What it was, I wasn't sureexcept that it wasn't anything good.
Then the sea of people momentarily parted in the back of the room where a twelve-foot projection TV screen was showing a soccer game. I was in the midst of taking a drink of Guinness and started choking when I saw who stood not fifty feet away from me. There, largeasfuckinglife, was Darius. The blood drained out of my face, my mind went numb, and I sat still as death.
Benny heard me cough and started to ask "Are you okay . . . ? " when she saw my face, turned her head to where I was staring, and yelped as she also spotted Darius before the people shifted again and he disappeared from view.
Without thinking I was on my feet and rushing into the mob packed around the bar, trying to get to the back of the long room as fast as I could, trying to get to Darius. It wasn't rational, but I needed to see him, to get him to talk with me, to occupy the same space on this planet as he did. Four guys in soccer shirts holding beers blocked my way. "Excuse me, I need to get through," I said as I wedged between them. "Excuse me, sorry, I need to get by." Like thick syrup they moved slowly apart, and I squeezed the rest of the way past them until I could see Darius's blond hair and the brown leather of his bomber jacket. I ducked past a tall guy's elbow and found myself a few feet from Darius, nearly close enough to reach out and touch him.
"Darius," I said loudly enough for him to hear me over the music. My heart was racing. He looked thinner than he had been when we met; his skin was paper-white and his cheekbones more angular with the skin stretched tight over the bones. But he stood tall, commanding, filled with his usual self-assurance. And he was gorgeous, damned breathtakingly gorgeous.
He turned toward me, and a blaze of emotion flashed between us like a lightning bolt in a summer storm. Relief washed through me. Then a door slammed shut in his face, turning his features turned to stone. His eyes got hard. His mouth became angry. "Darius . . ." I began to say and took a step toward him just as an Angelina Jolie lookalike in a black sequined tube top and tight jeans came up behind him and put her hand through the crook of his arm. She spun him around, pulling him toward her, laughing as she leaned close and whispered something in his ear. Then she lifted her gaze and stared directly at me with a cruel triumphant smile. Her eyes glittered with hatred.
My reaction to her was visceral; I literally saw red. Adrenaline shot through me, and my senses clanged like a fire alarm. I stopped in my tracks. What I felt was a mixture of jealousy, fury, and imminent threat, as if I had encountered an enemy who wanted me dead. Meanwhile Darius was focusing on this woman as if she were the only person in the room, and I didn't exist. He turned his back toward me, and I stood there stunned as they walked away together arm in arm. He never glanced back.
Pure anguish ripped through my stomach and blasted up into my throat, bringing with it pain and tears. But the next thing I felt was rage, pure and cold and shiny as liquid silver flowing through my veins. My body seemed to grow bigger and stronger. A flame of energy started to travel across the surface of my skin, and I felt the urge to transform into bat form. I wanted to fly at Darius, catch up to him, and tell him off but good. That sonofabitch. Who does he think he is? It didn't take him long to find someone else. He told me he had been looking for me all his life. That I was his destiny. Seven weeks later it's as if I never existed. Sonofabitch! Was he handing me a line, or what?
Benny's voice came from close by. "Daphy, are you all right?" She must have been right behind me as I hurried across the room, covering my back. She put her hand on my arm. I was trembling with emotion, madder than I'd ever been. "Let's find the ladies' room," she said steering me toward the bathroom. It was empty, and she pushed me into the small space and closed the door behind us. It was none too clean, and we were squeezed in there close enough to be Siamese twins. "Breathe," she ordered.
"In here? Are you nuts?" I growled and reached for the doorknob. "Just let me out. I want to kill the son of a bitch."
"Hold on a minute, sugar. Get a grip. It's been a shock, that's all. And maybe that was his sister."
I gave her a you've-got-to-be-kidding-me look. "Yeah, right," I said.
"Okay, so it wasn't his sister. But you don't know if he's on a date or what the story is. Whateverjust let it go for now. You're too good for him anyway. Daphy, let's face it. You're caviar. He's a fish sandwich at Long John Silver's. You're Bloomingdale's. He's the greeter at Wal-Mart. You're . . ."
I looked at Benny as if she had two heads before I
realized she was babbling nonsense, trying to get me to
cool off. She knew I was on the verge of losing it, and
when a vampire loses it, the results can be dangerous. It
sure would blow my cover if I became a giant bat in front
of two hundred people or so. Hiding who we are is rule
number one for all vampires. Exposure is usually followed
by the pursuit of a vampire hunter, a desperate flight and
escape, or death at the end of a stake.
"No! She didn't have a fang print on her." Benny shot back then folded her arms and smiled, "And honey, that little tramp sure was showing so much skin I would have spotted a hickey at a hundred yards."
I burst out laughing. I couldn't help it. The whole thing was just so insane. I had turned Darius into a vampire when he got shot on our last missionin order to save his life. What did I get for it? Gratitude? No, I got shit on, that's what I got. And so why was I carrying a torch for him? Okay, I had loved him. I still loved him. Get over it! I told myself. "So do you think J set this up? " I said to Benny.
"Nah. He wouldn't have had all of us down here for that. It's true he doesn't like Darius and chances are he's jealous of him too, but I think running into Darius here was coincidence, that's all."
I didn't say anything for a minute, then looked my best friend in the eye and said with a hard edge to my voice. "Benny, I don't believe in coincidences. Especially not this one."
Benny stuck to her guns. "I don't know about that, Daphy, but I just don't think J had anything to do with it."
Somebody pounded on the bathroom door. "Let's get out of here, Benny. I'm okay, really." I pulled the door open, and there were at least four girls waiting outside.
"They were probably doing a line of coke," one of them whispered to her friend, a tiny blonde in lace- trimmed jeans and a designer denim jacket with rhinestone buttons that had to have cost a thousand bucks.
Then the small girl giggled. "We have something a lot better than coke," she said and opened her hand to reveal a glass ampoule.
"Don't let anybody see that," her friend whispered back and stepped in front of her.
I looked at Benny, who shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. "Maybe it's a popper," she said in a low voice.
"I don't think so," I said. "Must be something new." Then I forgot about the girls and their happy dust, whatever it was, as I got back to the table. Still standing, I reached down, grabbed my pint of Guinness, and chugged it. Both Cormac and Bubba were looking at me wide-eyed. Like I said, I usually don't drink.
"You want another?" Bubba asked.
"I'll get it myself, thanks," I answered. A
half-baked plan was forming in my brain. I had seen this
really cute guya man, not a kidsitting at the
bar as Benny and I came back from the bathroom. When we
walked past, he smiled at me in a way that told me he was
interested. Armed with some liquid courage, I figured I'd
go chat him up.