Thursday, 12 August 2010

Excerpt Day – Unclaimed © Amanda Steiger

Excerpt

Chapter One

Ashley stared at a splotch of blood on the pavement. She crouched, dipped two fingers into the sticky puddle and licked them clean. Her tongue tingled with the sharp, electric taste of salt and adrenaline. The blood was fresh, still warm. She leapt to her feet and broke into a run. A waning moon stared down through a gap in the clouds, bathing Chicago's streets in its pale, cold light. Puddles gleamed like molten silver. She glanced at one and saw a swirl of blood in the water.

The trail led to the mouth of a narrow alley. She stopped just outside it, pressed her back against the brick wall, reached beneath her coat and drew her Beretta. She held her breath, listening. Wet smacking sounds drifted from the darkness. Her sweat-slick hand tightened around the gun’s grip as she craned her neck and peered into the shadows.

A figure crouched in the alley, his head bowed, his back to her. The smell of blood wafted from the alley, mingled with the ripe stink of garbage from the nearby Dumpsters. As she watched, the man lowered his head and tore another mouthful of flesh from the motionless body on the pavement. A low, animal growl trickled from his throat.

He was eating the corpse.

She stood motionless, taking slow, controlled breaths, wondering if she could get any closer without attracting his attention.

The vampire raised his head. Blood smeared his mouth like lipstick. His eyes gleamed red as he scanned the shadows, and his stretched wide in a grin, showing jagged, yellow fangs. “I know you're there.” His voice was low and raspy. “I smell you.”

His hunger hit her like a gust of wind, thick and hot, and she tightened her mental barriers. He was too far gone to even bother shielding his emotions.

She stepped into the alley and raised the Beretta. She willed the slight tremor from her arms. Fear evaporated as she found that place inside her head where she needed to be, the cool, empty place where hesitation and uncertainty did not exist. “Hello, David. Been awhile, hasn’t it? You look like shit.”

He tittered, and the sound sent a chill scurrying like cold centipedes down her spine. Her gaze darted to the victim, a heavyset, middle-aged man in a brown overcoat, lying face-up in a red pool. His eyes were wide and empty behind cracked, smeared glasses. Half his face had been eaten, and bits of bone gleamed through the gore like pearl in the moonlight. “How long have you been eating their flesh? Didn’t your mother ever tell you it would rot your brain? Blood is life...”

“‘Blood is life, flesh is death, eat the flesh and draw your last breath.’ Yes, I know that stupid little rhyme.” David licked his lips. They were mangled, sliced up by fangs grown too big for his mouth, but he didn’t seem to notice. Bloodstains covered his denim jacket and faded t-shirt. A silver cross glinted on a chain around his neck. “I recognize you now.” He stood. Blood crusted his nails, dripped from his fingers. He raised his hand to lick the wet, warm gore from his fingertips. “You're Victor's bitch.”

She tensed. “No, I’m not.”

He laughed and wiped the back of one hand across his mouth. “Doesn't matter. Victor can’t touch me now. I’m too strong.” He took a step toward her. “What’s a little wet dream like you doing out here all alone? Aren’t you scared?”

“Scared of a pathetic sack of bones? A walking corpse? No, not terribly.”

His grin faded. “You should be. Their flesh gives me powers you can’t imagine.”

“Give me a break. You’re wasting away in front of me. I’m surprised someone hasn’t killed you yet.”

“No one is going to kill me.”

“You’re already dead. You just don’t know it.”

His eyes narrowed. He hissed, fangs bared, and sprang at her like a cougar. She fired. The bullet tore through his shoulder.

He didn’t even seem to feel it. His body slammed into hers, knocking her to the ground. The Beretta flew from her hand and skittered across the pavement. Flat on her belly, she struggled with David clawing and snarling atop her. Long, ragged nails raked her shoulder, stripping away cloth and skin, and she cried out at the searing pain. His moist, hot breath puffed in her ear, and a tongue slid out to caress her racing pulse. He opened his mouth to bite.

Ashley gritted her teeth and brought her elbow upward in a sharp, hard thrust to the soft space beneath his ribcage, driving the breath from him. He went limp, stunned, just for a moment, but long enough for her to get out from under him. She grabbed her Beretta and rolled onto her back. David leapt to his feet, fresh blood--her blood--dripping from his nails. He opened his mouth. Threads of saliva glistened between his long, sharp teeth.

She fired. He stumbled backwards, a bullet hole in his shirt.

She sprang to her feet and fired again, then again. Hot blood trickled from her shoulder, down her side.

He stood, jaw hanging. He looked down at his chest, now riddled with bullet holes.

She charged, rammed her elbow into his side and knocked him to the pavement. She planted a foot on his chest and pressed down until he snarled with pain. “So...” She aimed the gun at his face. “How’s it feel to be killed by a little wet dream?”

When he didn’t answer, she pressed her foot down harder, and he growled. Blood bubbled between his lips and ran down his chin. Ruby eyes, bright with hate, stared up at her.

She pressed the Beretta’s muzzle to the underside of David’s chin and forced his head back. “Remember the Dickinson boy?”

“Who?” His voice was a weak rasp, barely audible.

“The one you killed. Have you forgotten already? How you skinned him alive, ate half of him and left the rest in a Dumpster?”

“Oh.” A faint wheeze of laughter escaped his throat. “Him.”

Ashley nodded. “This is for him. And for the man you killed tonight.” She fired.

The bullet tore through David’s chin, through bone and brain, and exploded out the top of his skull in a spray of blood.

His eyes glazed over. His jaw sagged. Then, as she watched, his skin tightened, shriveled and cracked. Foul-smelling black liquid ran from his mouth. An eyeball oozed from the socket and slid down his cheek like a glob of red and white jelly. He deflated as his body melted to goo, until all that remained was a set of empty clothes and his silver cross. She reached down and picked it up. A fake ruby the size of a pinhead glittered at its center.

It was very fashionable among vampires to wear crosses. They thought it was funny.

She picked up David’s clothes, wadded them into a ball, and shoved them into the nearest Dumpster. She dropped the cross atop them and slammed the Dumpster’s lid. All that remained of David was a dark, sticky puddle on the pavement. Even now, that puddle was shrinking, evaporating into wisps of greenish smoke.

David’s victim sprawled motionless on the pavement, like a discarded doll. She approached and looked down. David had gnawed half the man’s face off. His throat and chest were a mass of shredded meat.

With two gloved fingers, she pulled his eyelids shut. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

Ashley walked away, her wounded shoulder throbbing. Blood soaked through her shirt in a wet, spreading patch.

Someone would find the body and alert the police. Given the appearance of the man's wounds, his death would likely be blamed on an animal. Most human killers didn't tear out their victim’s throats or eat their faces. The police would probably puzzle over the unusual bite-marks, call local zoos to see if any animals had escaped recently, but they wouldn't suspect the truth. They never did. To the average person, vampires were the stuff of horror novels. To Ashley, they were an everyday reality.

More blood oozed down her arm and dripped from her fingertips, leaving small, dark spots on the pavement. She pressed a hand to the wound, trying to staunch the flow.

She’d left her battered gray Ford parked on a narrow residential street. She popped the trunk, pulled out a black towel and spread it over the driver’s seat before she got in. She’d gotten blood on her seat too many times, and it was a bitch to clean. Tonight, she’d come prepared.

* * * *

Ashley’s apartment building was a brick and concrete eyesore with tiny windows, surrounded by paved lots littered with broken glass and cigarette butts. The narrow strip of yellow grass on the building’s right supported a single, scrawny tree. Its branches stretched skyward like raised arms, as if beseeching God to end its sad life with a well-placed lightning bolt. Someone had draped a condom over the tip of one branch, and the flimsy bit of latex fluttered in the breeze like a miniature flag.

She took the elevator to the fifth floor and walked down a narrow, musty-smelling hallway, past a tea-colored stain on the threadbare brown carpet. The stain had been there since she'd moved into this building three years ago. She unlocked her door, entered and peeled off her blood-soaked, black leather coat. She examined the stain and made a mental note to never again buy any item of clothing made from leather. It was too difficult to clean. She’d bought the coat back in college, before washing blood out of her clothes became a regular chore.

She retreated into her closet-sized bathroom. A fat roach scurried away from her feet and squeezed itself through a crack in the wall. She ignored it and undressed. Her shirt stuck to the blood on her shoulder, making her wince as she pulled it free.

The long, ragged claw-marks had already begun to heal. They looked as though they’d been inflicted last week, instead of an hour ago. Being half-vampire did have its advantages. The shirt, however, was ruined. She shoved the torn, bloody wad of cloth into a plastic bag, which she dropped into the wastebasket.

She showered, soaped away the drying blood, the smell of sweat and fear, and watched the red-tinted water run in rivulets off her body.

She thought about the dead man in the alley. If she’d gotten there even a few minutes sooner, that man would probably still be alive, but thinking about that did no good. With an ease born of long practice, Ashley folded up the memories and tucked them deep into a drawer at the bottom of her mind. She visualized herself shutting the drawer and locking it tight; sealing those thoughts away where they couldn’t hurt her. A psychologist would probably say she was repressing them. Whatever. Maybe ordinary people could afford to air out their bad memories, or come to terms with them, or whatever people were supposed to do. She had too many. If she tried to face them all, she’d end up in a padded room.

A wave of dizziness washed over her. She leaned against the stall wall and shut her eyes until it passed.

She touched the claw-marks on her shoulder. They had already closed, forming hard, pink ridges of scar tissue. Her fingertips wandered over the jagged paths of the scars. By morning, even those would be gone. The wound itself wasn’t the problem. She’d just lost too much blood. Soon, she would have to replenish it.

She shut off the water, toweled herself dry, slipped into her robe and walked to the kitchen, to the stainless steel mini-fridge where she kept the units of whole blood from the local hospital. She opened the refrigerator door.

Bare steel racks gleamed under a tiny light-bulb. Empty.

A cold wire of fear cinched her gut. The refrigerator had been half-full that morning, she was certain. How could half a dozen pouches of blood just vanish? Had they been stolen? But who would steal her blood, and why?

She looked around the kitchen, but saw no other signs that someone had broken in, not that there was much in her kitchen to steal. No toaster, no microwave, just some cheap silverware and a few green plastic bowls. She inspected the living room. The TV was still there, and the stereo. She checked the bedroom and opened the first drawer of her dresser. The spare cash she kept stuffed in a white sock was untouched. Nothing else had been taken. Just the blood.

She went back into the kitchen, closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. She sorted through the familiar smells of dust, linoleum and dish soap, searching, until her nose caught a faint but unmistakable scent.

Victor.

Her hands clenched. He hadn’t even bothered to mask his scent. And it wouldn’t be the first time he’d come into her apartment uninvited. Locks were no deterrence to Victor. But why would he steal her blood?

No time to wonder. Tomorrow she could pick up another batch, but tonight, she needed to hunt. She had no choice.

Another wave of weakness swept over her, and she sank to her knees, trembling. Sweat beaded on her brow. She took deep breaths until the weakness subsided, then slowly straightened. Goosebumps rose on her bare arms and legs. Her apartment wasn’t cold. Her internal temperature was dropping. She touched her forehead. Her skin, always cool to the touch, felt like ice. She had five, maybe six hours before she was too weak to walk.

Ashley changed into a fresh pair of jeans and a t-shirt. She ran a hand through her short, damp hair, buckled a leather holster around her waist and picked up her Beretta. After reloading it, she shoved it into the holster and put on a denim jacket just long enough to hide the gun. Walking around with a concealed weapon was illegal in Illinois, but then, she did a lot of things that didn't really square with the law. She wasn’t about to venture out unarmed in a city filled with vampires.

Her cell phone blared out a ringtone from the coffee table. She gave a start.

Only a handful of people knew her cell phone number. When she got a call, it was usually important. With a muttered curse, she grabbed the phone. “Hello?”

“It’s ten-thirty, Ashley. Where the hell are you?”

Shit. She smacked her forehead. “Jack, I’m sorry. Something came up.”

“Are you coming in tonight or not?”

“I’ll be there in five minutes.” Ashley hung up and rubbed her temples. Jack was going to tear her head off. What was she supposed to tell him? Sorry, but I had to hunt down a crazed vampire serial killer just wouldn’t fly.

Why hadn’t she just told him she was sick tonight? She couldn’t work. She was already feeling the effects of blood deprivation. If she didn’t feed before sunrise, she was in big trouble.

She checked her schedule, scrawled on a Post-it on the cabinet. Well, her shift was only until four a.m. Still time to hunt before dawn. Maybe she could sneak out during her break. She knew she was leaving far too much to chance, but she really couldn’t afford to miss work again. If she lost this job...well, the landlord had told her that if her rent check bounced again she was going to be out on her ass. And if she lost her apartment...

Better not to think about that.

Most people had parents, or at least friends they could crash with. If she lost her apartment, she had nowhere to go except to Victor, and that was not even an option. Sleeping in an empty refrigerator box on the street would be safer. Hell, sneaking into the Lincoln Park Zoo to sleep in the lions’ cage would be safer.

She changed into her work clothes: black slacks and a white, button-down blouse with a dorky little bow on the collar. Not her favorite look, but Jack was picky about what his servers could and couldn’t wear. Wearing a holster to work was out of the question, so she shoved her Beretta into her purse and ran out of the apartment.

© Amanda Steiger

Unclaimed

Author: Amanda Steiger

Publisher: Liquid Silver books

Buy link

When Ashley’s first boyfriend found out she was a vampire, he tried to kill her. Since then, she’s avoided relationships. Now Victor, the most powerful vampire in Chicago, has decided to claim Ashley as his mate, and he won’t take no for an answer. Between fending off Victor’s advances, waiting tables at an all-night diner and keeping her refrigerator stocked with blood, she's about to implode from sheer stress.

Then she accepts a job from the CPRI (Center for Paranormal Research and Investigation) and finds herself partnered with Will Connor, a young telepath. Ashley is immediately attracted to Will, but tells herself that she won’t let this become more than friendship. Loving humans is too dangerous. But as they work together to track down a psychic serial killer, her resolve weakens. Will makes her feel like a normal person, not a monster. Behind his blue eyes lies a pain as deep as her own, and an understanding of what it’s like to grow up different from everyone else. He also has the tastiest looking neck she’s ever seen.

When Victor finds out Ashley’s been sleeping with a human, he challenges Will to a duel…to the death. Ashley knows there’s no way Will can win against such a powerful vampire. Will is doomed—unless Ashley can kill Victor first.

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