January 8, 2010

Artwork by Chevrolet ~ Enhanced by Lauren T. Hart

Consciousness returned to the woman who had been Miranda Grant bringing with it cruel realities. Weakness. Pain. Hunger. She choked and coughed as she sucked air into her aching lungs. The oxygen rich air felt crisp, cool, and light. It was a welcome contrast to the thick, heavy, blood. She was acutely aware of three distinct spots on her back that felt like red-hot pokers lodged just beneath her skin; the un-expelled bullet fragments no doubt. But she was alive and that, at least, was something.

The sky was awash in peachy hues, coloring the dull warehouse walls with squares of color.

Sunset.

She lifted herself off of the icy corpse of Danny Leon, still staring open mouthed at the ceiling. Her hand still clutched the silver locket in her palm. She held it up in front of her. It would never open again she knew. But at least the myth of being killed by silver had been resolved, not that she had held much credence in that to begin with. She'd worn the thing around her neck for most of her life with no ill effects.

She was caked from head to foot with blood in various states of coagulation. The smell was putrid. Which she knew was the result of her blood mixing with that of the recently deceased Mr. Leon.

"Damn it," she cursed. Another mess to clean up.

She surveyed the empty room around her, four cold gray walls and a concrete floor. Windows and walls were of little use to her right now. There was no time to do this the right way but thanks to Paul's constant need of a light, she could at least do what had to be done. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a book of matches. "I'm sorry about this Mr. Leon," she said as she lit the match. "I really am."

Mr. Leon stared blankly ahead as she struck the match then lowered it slowly to his lapel and lit it on fire.

"It's for the best you understand." She said coolly. She watched the fire spread its way across his chest. "Maybe you don't."

She picked up her gun and stood, steadying herself in her heels before taking a calculated step away from the flames. The smell of his tainted flesh filled her lungs, it was repulsive. She knew it was only a matter of moments now. She took another step away.

It started as a gasping sound, which startled her, despite the fact that she had been expecting worse, or maybe because of it. It was wretched, low and gurgling. Was he trying to breath? Then he began to twitch, slowly at first, and then more violently, until he was practically convulsing amidst the flames. Awake, but not aware - at least she hoped not - his glassy eyes darted about the room. He reached out for her, scowling, but she was safely beyond his stiffening grasp. Finally, came the reaction she had been expecting, he screamed. It was high pitched, squealing, and fierce. She forced herself to watch the horror before her, to keep as a reminder - or maybe as a punishment. Eventually he was still again, and fully ablaze. "Goodbye Mr. Leon." she turned her back to him and left, never looking back.

It was a cruel fate, even more so than the one she had dealt him earlier - not that he had deserved that one either. But she had been doing her job then. It wasn't up to her to decide who got killed, it was her job to make sure they got killed, and she was good at it - very good.

Maybe that's why there had been a hit on her. But Paul worked for the same people she did. It had to have been an inside job. The question was why? Not that the answer mattered she was still going to kill Paul Grimould - and whoever else she had to in order to void the contract. 

The sharp burning sensations in her back were intense. They demanded her attention, pulling her focus to them and away from her thoughts of vengeance. She reached her hand behind her to see if she could touch the spots that burned hotter now than they had when she was first shot. Useless. At best, if she stretched her back taut, the pressure was momentarily less.

She stopped briefly at the spot that her Coupe de Ville had been parked. She knew long before she got there that it wasn't going to be there, but the sight made her curse anyway. She wondered how long she would have to walk before she came to something that didn't resemble an abandoned warehouse.

She would have killed for knowledge of a familiar or a safe haven in the city, not that they would help her, but at least she would have a better option - albeit slight - than the one she was currently considering.

Exposure. It was never a good idea. Never. History told that much, and Jonas had told her far more terrifying tales than recorded history knew. One might argue that the knowledge of how to kill an immortal would be their greatest weakness. The fallacy in this is, that for some, the idea of someone possessing immortality was reason enough to take it away - with or without the knowledge of how - which in reality was fairly common knowledge, even if it did reside among myths and legends.

The buildings in this area of town were mostly deserted save for the occasional vagabond. It was the reason she had picked the area to meet with Mr. Leon in the first place - fewer witnesses. She saw a couple of figures across the street and down a block duck into an alleyway. She crossed the street and made her way down the alley. Midway down she came to a door held open with a plank of rotted wood. She quietly slipped inside.

The building had once been a manufacturing plant of some kind. She quieted herself and did her best to concentrate, despite the unrelenting stabs in her back. Being careful to remain in control of her senses she loosed them only slightly, and listened. She could hear them. There were five, maybe six, and they were young. She could smell them - they were filthy, but there was something more, something savory and sweet.

She forced the sensation away as she felt her fangs aching to descend, the pointed reminder of her illicit origins, as a bastard child of a blood-sucking immortal. Vampires some called them. The undead. Little more than leeches that stalked the night, tormenting the living. Mr. Leon had become such a monstrosity. However, most immortals - blood sucking or otherwise - did not refer to themselves as such. "We are what we are," Jonas had told her. "Who we are is the important part."

Whatever she was - who ever she was - at this moment she was scared and desperate. A combination that often led to foolishness, but as a searing burst of pain shot through her back she knew what her options were and knew she had to take the risk.

She made her way down a long corridor toward them. She held her breath for a moment, and then entered, her gun aloft. She scanned the room with it, before lowering it to her side, as if clearing the room of some kind of threat.

Two teenage girls sat huddled together on a heavily stained mattress on the left side of the room. Two boys in their mid teens sat further back, sorting through the day's loot. Two other boys were stoking a fire with scraps of wood and old newspapers.

The older of the two girls was the first to spot her, she screamed as she clutched the girl next to her. One of the boys stoking the fire ran and hid behind a desk. The other backed away from her with fear in his eyes.

Useless to her, the lot of them, and then, one of the boys in the back, the younger of the two stood up.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

Fate was being kind. He couldn't have been more than sixteen but he would do well if he were willing.

"What's your name?" she asked.

"David," he said. "What's your name?"

"That's privileged information," she smiled. "But I'll tell you if you come with me, David."

"Why would I come with you?" he asked.

"I can give you a better life," she said.

"How do you figure that?" He stepped toward her.

She could not have found a better choice for a familiar had she spent months scouting for one. "All right," she sighed, taking a step closer to him.

She raised her gun to him. He didn't even flinch.

"How about this?" she smiled and turned the gun on the girls. "Come with me now, or I kill the others while you watch, and then, I take you anyway." She growled, meeting his eyes.

David's mouth dropped open. He looked like he was going to be sick.

The girls clutched each other tightly, whimpering. It was rash and cruel and completely without merit considering her gun was empty, but she was desperate.

"Okay. David found his reason again. "Okay. I'll come with you. Just don't hurt anyone."

He crossed the room to her, looking briefly to the others as he passed. His eyes locked for a moment with those of one of the girls, she was blond, pale and thin.

"David," she whispered. "Are you sweet on that girl?"

David shook his head, his eyes to the floor.

"Don't lie to me David," she pressed.

"She's with Lance." His eyes met hers, briefly. 

"And what about family? Have you got one of those somewhere?"

His jaw tightened. "Not anymore," he said clearing his throat, an attempt to control his tone.

This was a sentiment she understood. She nodded. "Let's go then." She grabbed him by the arm and led him out of the room.

As they reached the exit at the end of the corridor he asked, "Are you going to kill me?" His tone was oddly calm as though he already knew the answer, had already accepted his fate.

She stopped and turned to face him. His cheeks were strewn with tears. Their long wet streaks were the only clean part of him.

"I'd say that's up to you at this point. Now give me your coat," she commanded.

"What do you mean 'it's up to me'?" He shrugged out of the over-sized sports coat he was wearing and handed it over to her. He wiped his face on the sleeves of his once white T-shirt, smudging the dirt across his face.

"I mean," she winced as she put her arm behind her to slip into the jacket. David reached forward and pulled it up over her shoulders. It didn't completely cover the gore but it would suffice for now. She took a deep breath to calm herself before she continued. It was becoming harder to calm her senses, and with that, to calm her emotions. "I don't want kill you, David." She hoped she sounded reassuring. "As long as you do as I say, we'll both be fine. Understand?"

He couldn't really understand, she knew, but he nodded anyway.

"Good." She stowed her gun in the jacket pocket, took hold of his arm again and pulled him at speed, out of the alley, into the street, and away from the world he once knew.

They hadn't gone far, only a couple of blocks before she had to stop and catch her breath. Of course it didn't help that she had held her breath each time a searing stab of pain shot through her back.

"Are you okay?"

"I just... need a minute," she said through gritted teeth, fighting to keep her senses concealed.

"Obviously your hurt," he waved his hands in front of her in reference to the blood. "Maybe we should find you a Doctor," he suggested.

She chuckled. "No," she said more sternly than she had intended to. "We need a car," she panted.

"There's a bar just a few more blocks from here," he said. "Do you think you can make it?"

She took a few more deep breaths. "I can make it."

He held his hand out to her, she eyed him suspiciously and then took it. He took care to let her set the speed. She wanted to run, but too much exertion only sent her into another painful fit and she would have to stop.

After a few blocks the scenery began to resemble living civilization. They came to a grubby little hole in the wall called Bobby's. A row of cars lined the street in front. Among them was a 1941 Chevrolet Royal Clipper with the keys in the ignition. "Eye it, try it, steal it," she smiled at their luck.

David was utterly un-amused. She'd seen the stash of watches and wallets he had been peering over, surely he couldn't be against them stealing a car. Maybe he was just too young to remember the slogan.

She was sweating. Not a good sign. She wiped her brow on the sleeve of David's coat. It left a long smear of red blood, re-moistened from the unnatural sweat on her brow. Well, unnatural for her. An intense shot of pain ripped through her back. Maybe she had been too quick to judge silver as harmless. She suppressed a scream by biting her lip.

"I really think you need a doctor," David said as he took a step close to her. He put his arms out, hovering inches from her, as if to aid her in some way but he did not touch her.

"You are my doctor," she growled at him.

"What?" his voice cracked. "I'm not a-"

"Can you drive?" she cut him off.

"I'm only fourteen," he said shaking his head.

Fourteen. He was younger than she had thought. She wrenched opened the driver's side door, a piercing sensation ripped through her back. "Get in," she grimaced.

He did as instructed, positioning himself as far away from her as he could manage. She climbed in beside him and pulled the door shut. It was painful, but pain fueled the adrenaline and kept her moving.

The engine roared to life, she put the car in gear and pulled slowly out into the street. She held tight to the steering wheel, leaning forward as far as she could so that her back would not touch the seat, and gunned it.

She was acutely aware of David's eyes on her. But she did not look at him. He was a smart kid, she wondered what he had been able to deduce about her.

"We're going to a hotel," she managed. "The Imperial. Have you heard of it?"

"Of course I have." He said quietly, offended. "It's the nicest place in town. Why are we going there?"

"I have a room there," she said.

He was definitely working things over in his mind, but he did not respond.

"And it's safe." She added.

He turned his scrutinizing gaze back to her. "What happened to you?" he asked.

"I was betrayed by someone I trusted," she said softly.

He stared at her for a long time, but was silent for the rest of the ride. She didn't really feel like talking anymore and was grateful that he didn't either.

The Imperial was pure luxury. From it's opulent gardens to its ornate crystal chandeliers and silver dining ware. She drove past the well-attended front entrance with its grand porte-cochre and ornately embellished front doors.

"Neither of us is front desk presentable," she explained. She pulled the car around to the side of the building and parked it in a spot close to the side door. "We'll have to sneak in - unseen - and take the stairs to the room, fifth floor, room five-twelve."

"Are you sure you can make it that far?" he asked.

"I'll be fine," she sneered. "Now, listen carefully, I need you to retrieve the key. It's hidden under a potted fern at the entrance to the pool - left side. Can you handle it?"

"Sure. No problem." He nodded.

"Good," she sighed. "Get the key, then meet me on the stairs, and whatever you do, try not to be seen. Okay?"

"Okay." He repeated. "Do you want me to get your door for you? Or you could wait for me to get back so I could help you with the stairs," he offered.

"I'm tougher than I look kid." She smiled at him, and then pushed the open door with her foot.

She caught a brief glimpse of her reflection in the hotel door as she pulled it open; she looked like the walking dead. Her complexion was sallow but remarkably the left side of her face didn't look too bad. Blood smeared across the right side of her face, and matted her dark hair on that side.

The walking dead, the thought stuck with her, she knew it was stupid but she couldn't help herself, she checked her pulse - still beating. But of course it was. She made her way as quickly as she could up the stairs and hoped that David wasn't too far behind.

She heard the door at the bottom of the stairs open just as she arrived on the fourth floor. "David?" she called.

"It's me," he called back, already at the second floor. He was practically leaping up the stairs.

She kept moving. He arrived in time to hold the door open for her. "Wait," he said as he checked the hallway.

It was silly, but she felt better about the fact that they were both out of breath now.

She hadn't been in the suite since she had checked in over a week before. She'd been staying at a cheap Motel in a slightly less than favorable neighborhood. The type she always stayed in. The predictability meant that no one would suspect that she had another room at one of the most luxurious joints in town.

She went strait for the bathroom, kicked off her pumps and began immediately to strip her blood soaked clothes from her body. She dropped them carelessly to the floor.

"David," she poked her head out of the bathroom.

He was staring in amazement at the opulent and ornate room before him. He turned to face her, but quickly looked away, his mouth agape when he realized that she was wearing only her underwear.

"David, look at me," she ordered.

He met her eyes, and swallowed hard.

"Get my suitcase from the closet and dump it out on the bed."

He immediately went to task.

"It has a false bottom," she continued. "Bring a knife."

"Which one?" David's voice called.

"The sharpest." She gripped the edge of the counter, her legs threatening to give way beneath her. The battle beneath her skin threatened to erupt into full-blown war. She tried to focus on her breathing. She could hear her blood pumping in her ears. She caught her reflection in the mirror. Her pupils had become deep reflective orbs.

"No." She told her reflection. She shut her eyes against her vision and took a sharp breath in through her nose. David's filthy sweaty, dirty, - yet somehow savory scent filled her senses. She gasped, falling to her knees.

"I really think you need a doctor." David said from the doorway.

"David," she breathed his name. Her salvation, she reminded herself. She needed to calm her senses. "David," she said his name again. It was odd, but saying his name had a calming effect on her. "David."

"I'm right here," he said.

Her senses effectively dulled again, she turned to face him. "I have three bullet fragments lodged in my back," she said, "and I need you to cut them out."

"What?" he yelped. "You're crazy."

"David," she calmed herself. "David, I need your help."

"What if I refuse?"

"The weaker I become the more dangerous I become to those around me," she sighed. "If you refuse, then I suggest you make an honest run for it, you're the strongest thing in my senses right now, which puts you most at risk."

"Yeah, why me?"

"I never would have involved you in this if I could have done it on my own David. I picked you because you were the smartest and the bravest. You willingly sacrificed yourself to protect your friends. Now I'm telling you how to save yourself."

"There's no other way?" he pleaded.

"Sure there is." She managed a smile, "But this is the only one where we both remain living." Another sharp searing pain shot through her back. "Damn it," she uttered through gritted teeth.

"O- Okay." His voice quivered. "Shouldn't I wash my hands or sterilize the knife or something?"

"There's no need." She turned her back to him. "Let's start at the top, just to the left of my spine."

"I can see it," he said. "It's all bruised, and red, but there's no bullet hole."

"Nope."

"But how is that possible?" he squeaked.

"It's not possible," she grimaced, her teeth and fists clenched. "But it is extremely painful. Now would you just cut the damned things out already?"

He brought the knife close to her back. She braced herself, but he hesitated. "How do I do this?" he asked.

"Quickly," she ordered.

He took a sharp breath in then plunged the cold tip of the knife blade into her back. He sliced the skin downward.

The chill of the knife and the release in pressure brought unexpected relief to her despite the pain.

He pulled the skin apart with his dirty finger. The bullet fragment was barely visible through the blood. He used the tip of the knife to pry it free then carefully pressed the skin back together. He applied pressure for just a moment then moved on to the next spot. He had to undue her bra to get to the second one, which was the only time his hands shook. By the time he had finished the third and final one, the skin from the first incisions had already stopped bleeding.

She still felt weak and tired, but she knew that she would recover completely now.

'Thank you, David,' she heard the words in her mind. She wanted to say them, but instead she said: "Wash your hands, then go and order room service, lots of it."

He quietly did as instructed.

She pulled herself into the shower. The hot water soothed her, calmed her, and tempted her with thoughts of sleep. When the water finally ran clear she shut it off. She wrapped herself in a pale blue towel that matched the blue bird motif of the bathroom. She wrapped a second towel around her head and made her way out of the bathroom.

David stood at the far end of the suite looking out the window, his arms pulled tightly around him. He shifted his weight as if to acknowledge her presence but he did not turn to face her.

"You're turn," she said softly.

He didn't move.

"I left the robe for you," she offered.

Silence.

"David?" She tried to sound concerned but it came out more stern than anything.

"What do you want from me?" he asked.

She didn't really have an answer for him. He'd done what she needed. She would cut him loose if she could, but she knew the consequence of that could be far more dangerous to her than keeping him. What did she want from him? What does an immortal want from a familiar? "Your loyalty." she said, defeated.

He turned at this. "What?" he asked incredulously.

"I know," she said quickly. "I have no right to ask for something that I haven't earned, but you have mine."

"I don't even know who you are. You're just some crazy..." he shook his head, looking for the word. "I don't know what you are," he finally said. "Not human." He crossed his arms again, slinking back toward the window.

"I'm human enough," she replied.

"Well fine, human enough," he mocked, stalking past her. "You look like you're doing okay now. I'm leaving."

"David you can't."

"Yeah? Why's that?"

"Because you know."

"What do I know?" he said. "I don't know anything. And I'm not going to tell anyone anything."

"It doesn't matter," she said calmly. "The life you had before is over. You are a familiar now. You'll have a good life with me. I promise, I'll always look after you. If you leave..." she took a slow breath before she continued. "The laws by which I am governed require that I kill you."

She had already committed one of the most horrid crimes imaginable among immortals by creating a vampire, even if it was an accident. She could only hope that she might find leniency. David on the other hand represented another set of problems for her. Creating a familiar out of someone she had picked at gunpoint was really pushing it. Having to kill him a few short hours later because he had decided to leave, or worse - not killing him - would undoubtedly mean her days, and his, were numbered.

"So if I leave, you're going to kill me?" David asked.

"If not me, someone else will." She crossed to the bed and sat down. "I'm sorry David, I really am."

He stared at her for a long moment, then stormed into the bathroom and slammed the door behind him. Soon the water was running. Nothing about this was going to be easy, she could tell.

She grabbed her pajamas from the pile of rumpled clothes on the bed and slipped into them. She piled everything else into the open suitcase and shoved it off the end of the bed.

'Not human.' David's words flitted through her mind. 'Human enough.' He had mocked.

With harsh reality she realized that she had not told him her name.

Chapter 2 - Strangers With Guns

(c) copyright 2010-2016 Lauren T. Hart