The woman striding across the parking lot toward the now-closed Hepzibah's Wings bristled with weaponry. An untrained eye, like those of the two men leaning against the wall of the Mediterranean grocery, smoking, would see a tallish redhead, maybe five foot seven, in a black leather duster and sensible boots, wearing elaborate eyeglasses. Oren Stolt knew better. She was armed, and heavily. He might be dead tired, his own coat shredded from tangling with an ancient vamp earlier tonight—and why hadn't the local vampire organization put that poor, skeletal thing out of its misery?—but a blind man could see the way the coat swung heavily around her long legs, the pockets weighted, most likely with ammunition.
She walked with a slight limp, and he suspected a sword or a crossbow quiver strapped to her leg. Gang members didn't carry that sort of weaponry, not even in this part of town. If the Memphis PD caught her, it would be a trip to a holding cell at 201 Poplar for sure. But they never came down to this part of Orange Mound, where rap and Latin music warred for dominance with the half a dozen languages in the air. It was a favorite hunting ground for renegade vampires, who didn't adhere to the local rules.
She made her way up the deserted side street, fully alert even at this hour, which looked good only to suicides. Oren stepped out of the alley and tried to fake going about his business. Not that anyone had much business in this neighborhood at any time of day. Animal control was his business. He ran this territory, and no paranormal entered its boundaries without his people knowing—not vampire nor Undying—and she was likely the latter. Vampires didn't normally carry weapons. The Undying followed trouble, usually. A rare few arrived in advance. Neither sort was welcome.
He heard the distinctive sound of a crossbow's crank from behind him. That settled it. Undying for sure: only they used such archaic weaponry, finding crossbows well suited to their task.
"You, Ungodly. Stand and identify before I shoot you in the back." Her voice carried, cold and flat. He wondered if she was one of Jacob's Undying protégés. Oren never wanted to work with Jacob's people. It was said that the renegade Undying trained only psychopaths, and rumor had it he removed their pleasure centers before releasing them into the wild to hunt their own "ungodlies." Oren gave the last no credence—Undying could regenerate from anything, he'd heard.
He stopped in his tracks, raising his hands to show they were empty. "Oren Stolt. You one of Jacob's people?"
She stepped into his line of vision, the pistol grip crossbow loaded with a sharpened stake and a Magnum in the other hand. "No, I'm one of Lielit's."
Oren breathed more easily. Lielit was one of the sanest Undyings he knew of. He'd heard she was a stickler for rules and for doing things right. All of the Undying went a little mad in some way, and obsessive compulsion was an easier shade of crazy to live with than full-blown homicidal mania. The trauma of waking up after being dead tended to shake an Undying's world to the foundations. The atheist ones had it worst, the stories said. At least the monotheists had a myth from Genesis to explain it, inadequate as the story was. Polytheists, rarer in this day and age, came up with their own stories, according to his mother's research.
Now all he had to do was stay alive long enough to explain who he was.
The woman used the hand with the Magnum to flip a lever on her eyeglasses—Spectral Specs, he saw now, all the rage among ghost hunters, parapsychologists, cryptozoologists, and other crackpots. He'd heard rumors more of the Undying were using them. He only wished he'd come up with the scam. The inventor had to be raking it in.
"What are you? You don't register as demon or werewolf." She tapped the glasses and flipped a couple more levers.
Oren scowled. Half the filters on the Specs were garbage, screening for nonexistent creatures.
"And my vamp reading is wonky. I knew I needed a new filter."
"Human, actually," Oren said. "Or mostly so. Mama said Daddy died and came back as a vampire before I was born."
She stopped flipping levers and took off the glasses. "A Breather? I've found an honest to goodness Breather?" She lowered the Magnum.
Breathers were Undyings who had not yet experienced the violent death necessary to make them immortal. The theory Oren had heard was that the adrenaline and cooling of the violent death activated the vampire virus encoded in the RNA and started its rapid replication, which brought them back as Undying, just as the cooling of the body and anoxia from lack of circulation activated the vampire virus in the blood of new vampires. Most Breathers only learned about the status in retrospect, after becoming Undying. Encountering a Breather was as likely as finding an uncut diamond lying about. Oren wasn't a fan of the word, because of the implied ease of changing that status.
He cleared his throat. "Now, sugar-tits, why are you in my territory?"
She looked him over and didn't offer a handshake. Must have taken the sugar-tits crack to heart. "Anne. The Council sent me." She didn't offer a last name.
He nodded. "And why does the Council think I need you?" He let his eyes roam over her curves, visible under the close fitting leather pants and vest she wore. "Other than the obvious—as if that pack of dried-up old mummies had any idea of the obvious."
"You're about to have a large migration of animals into your territory. Like, heroic-sized, epic proportions. So you need heroic proportions to help. That's where I come in. I'm here to help with animal control."
She gave him a wicked half-smile that said she'd noticed him looking and stood up straighter, thrusting her breasts forward. She ran a bit Amazonian, and her proportions, what he could see of them, were indeed heroic. Apparently, she forgave fast. "Of course, the obvious is always fun. And you shouldn't speak ill of the Council—even if most of them haven't had an orgasm since the reign of Charles II."
He decided he liked her and her smart mouth. "You Undying are all alike, heels shorter than a dining chair's rockers. At least, those of you with pleasure centers." Oren checked his own crossbow and did a fast scan of the street.
She laughed. "'Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit,' as the poet said," she said, quoting the Nurse's sex joke from Romeo and Juliet. "It's the only pleasure that doesn't pall with the centuries. You got someplace private? Your territory is clear, at least for tonight. I want to see if it's true what they say about Breathers."
Oren considered. He wasn't going to take her home. Trouble followed Undying like buzzards followed corpses, and he certainly wouldn't risk it with all the kids in residence. Even Brett, the weakling, was home, although he'd rather be anywhere else. Oren had been married and procreated before learning about his Breather status. Now that his kids were old enough to be useful to the Council, he worried about them more. Bringing home an Undying would be letting trouble into the front door. "There's a motel nearby. Getting late."
She nodded. "Lead on."
As they walked, he called home. Brigitte caught the phone, awake as usual and monitoring him as he patrolled. His operation made sure renegade vampires learned exactly how unwelcome they were in his city, and most nights, he himself went out. Death wish—or rather, Undying wish? He didn't know or care. Protecting the city of Memphis was his charge and duty.
His boys—except Brett—were all dead shots with pistol or crossbow, even little Dennis, who was only fifteen. He didn't like the girls fighting, although he had trained them to shoot. They handled the technical side, setting up monitors and computers and arranging his security network. They had set up maps of the sewers and steam tunnels, so he could avoid the surface traffic, and they monitored the police bands and kept the cops away. Brigitte was a whiz of a hacker and could follow him through almost any public security camera.
He looked Anne over again. She stalked like a fighter, not gracefully and utterly unlike a hunting cat. Her crossbow and Magnum stayed ready.
She caught him looking.
"They're not for you. It's not safe for a pretty girl all alone at night. Especially in this neighborhood." The half-grin never left her face, and irony dripped from her voice. The dangers she faced would send ordinary women gibbering to their priests or shrinks. Plenty of things could kill her—a lot probably had—but nothing could make her stay dead. That didn't mean she was out looking to be mugged or raped or killed.
"Here," he said, gesturing to the little motel just off Park Avenue, a two-story building of 50's vintage cinderblock construction.
"Love, the bedbugs have already left this place for better quarters," she said, looking over the fleabag motel advertising color TV and Magic Fingers beds. "Does it charge by the hour?"
"I have a permanent suite. Sometimes I need to get away from the kids."
She laughed as he unlocked the door with an old metal key on a numbered plastic tag, hooked into his key ring at one end. "Funny to think you have kids. How many?"
"Six. Two girls and four boys, even if one of 'em's just useless." He snapped on the light and pretended he didn't see the rat scuttle under the nightstand.
Anne rapped the door lightly with one knuckle, and he saw the thin wood shiver under her hand. "You sleep with only this between you and the big bad night? You're either braver than I thought or a lot dumber than you have any right being at your age."
Oren shrugged, amused by her attitude. "I don't seem to have any trouble."
She set her crossbow on the nightstand, facing it away from the bed with the safety on, and dug in one of her pockets. "Well, if I'm staying here, I'm warding it." She pulled out a broken stick of blue chalk. "They can't smell you, but they'll come for me."
Oren sat on the mostly-clean bed and took his shoes off, watching as Anne chalked a Seal of Solomon on the shut and locked door, and then a second on the window. More uselessness. The vampires might smell her blood, but chalk lines on the door would have no more effect than crosses or holy water. Magic charms and spells from an age that didn't understand viruses were ineffective in combating those with the virus. But she was in the grip of unbreakable training, drilled into her by an obsessive-compulsive teacher.
Finally, she turned and shed her coat. Oren tried to identify what she was carrying by the clunks it made when it landed on the chair. Definitely a flask of holy water, a lot of wood, some metal, and a rattle that could only be bullets—probably entirely silver, if he had any idea of her training. His own were wood with silver tips and cores for weight.
He looked her over as she ran her fingers through her short red hair. Good tactics—no ponytail or bun for a vamp to grab. Everything about her said professional, except for the decidedly lusty look in her green eyes.
She stripped off her leather vest and light cotton shirt, and then peeled out of her leather pants. More professionalism. The leather acted as a little bit of armor against claws and fangs. The industrial-strength bra restraining her heroic bosom and the plain white panties were necessity rather than fashion statement. The row of hooks down the bra's front looked rather daunting, and the panties added a curious innocence. He'd half-expected leopard-print silk or something, but the plain white cotton, soft and a little stretched, tempted him more. It told him she was practical and sensible as well as deadly. He loved practical women.
Anne plopped into his lap. "I always think it's more polite if the gentleman finishes unwrapping his present himself."
"Who said I was a gentleman?" He started on the ten hooks that held her bra shut.
In response, she kissed him deep and hard, claiming his mouth for her own with an energy that startled him. This one was no quiet flower to let him lead, and he wondered why he had expected her to be shy in any way. Surely the shyness wore off after the first century of so.
Oren grinned under the kiss, getting her bra open and shoved off of her arms like a vest. A flick of her wrists sent it dropping to the floor. He eased one free hand between her body and the crotch of her panties. The great fireball in his arms kissed him again, shoving her tongue into his mouth even more intrusively, and pressed into his hand harder. When he pinched one of her already-hard nipples, she moaned and bucked her hips against his hand.
She came up for air, eyes wide and mouth red with kissing. He jabbed two long fingers into her and made her gasp. She rode his fingers, growing wetter at intervals but never crying out. He grasped one large breast and guided it up to his mouth. She didn't protest the treatment, but she came as he started sucking her nipple. When he bit down, just testing her, she came harder and ground herself into his palm. He dragged a rough thumb over her clit, and Anne finally yelped.
He disengaged his hands and laid one wet finger over her lips. "Shh. The walls are paper-thin here. You'll wake the neighbors."
She giggled, a disconcerting sound from this sensual and deadly woman, and sucked on his wet finger. Oren groaned at the sheer hotness of it.
"Maybe you should give me something to stop my mouth, then," she teased, licking the length of his finger and rubbing her sodden panties against the bulging crotch of his jeans.
"Undying." She shrugged. Then she climbed off his lap and shed her panties.
He stole a glance at her neatly trimmed auburn bush, but noted her lack of armpit hair or leg hair. "How old are you?" he asked. Many of the Undying never quite gave up the beauty standards of their original eras. She seemed to have adopted fairly recent trends, if not quite the pubic deforestation that was currently so popular.
"Three hundred and some," she said. "I died when it was still the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Hanging for witchcraft is an ugly way to go, especially when they foul up the drop and don't break your neck. Stupid red hair."
He unfastened his jeans. "Bet it only confirmed their suspicions when you woke up."
"I hightailed it out of my little village and lost myself in Boston, and later, Philadelphia." She pushed him back on the bed. "I really can do more with my mouth than smart off. Is yours any good?"
He licked his lips, the stubble against his tongue reminding him he hadn't shaved in three days. He hoped she was game for it. "Climb aboard, and let's find out."
She licked his rough face, then swung around to sit above it, before leaning down to make good on her promise.