Authors: Marcus Pelegrimas
“No nookie for Skinners, huh? If I’d known that, I might not have signed on.”
Even though Paige was nearly a foot shorter than him, she carried herself as if she was merely keeping her head down before making her big move. Stepping up to him, she said, “It’s got nothing to do with nookie and everything to do with expectations. Have you seen any other Skinners around here checking out the hot Nymar babes?”
“Ever since Prophet left, I haven’t seen any Skinners at all.”
“Prophet doesn’t count. At least, not completely.”
“Then I guess I haven’t seen anyone but you.”
“Exactly,” Paige said. “As far as I know, we’re the only ones within four states who think of vampires and werewolves as something other than characters in one of those games you
design. The only thing keeping all Skinners alive is the fact that nothing out there knows the whole story about us.
“If the Nymar knew how few of us there are, they’d pull themselves together and take us out. If they knew they could get one of us into bed or hooked on God knows what they’ve cooked up in their drug labs, we wouldn’t stand a chance in hell of keeping them in their place. We’re a threat and a mystery to them. The second we become something less than that, we lose our fight. Understand?”
He let some of his pride go along with the breath he’d been holding and said, “Yeah. In my defense, though, I’ve been taking a lot of bumps to the head. That could explain some dumb behavior.”
“And maybe you’d get hit less often if you didn’t tap away on that computer when you should be practicing.”
“That computer brings in the money, lady. In case you haven’t noticed,
has been doing well enough for me to pay some bills around here.”
The weapons in Paige’s hands shrank back down into normal batons like melting candles. “We’ve been down here for three hours,” she announced as she picked up the shirt she’d discarded.
Cole looked around and saw nothing but gray block walls and greasy stains around him. “Did you finally put a clock up down here?”
“Oh, great. Am I going to have to hone my awareness of time as some goofy part of my training?”
“You could.” Lifting the little item that had been on the floor beneath the shirt, she added, “Or you could buy a watch, Mr. Moneybags. Show me a twitch and we can call it quits for the day.”
“A twitch, huh?”
“That’s all that stands between you and dinner.”
Knowing it was useless to bargain with her, Cole extended both arms as though offering Paige his weapon. He tightened his grip around the spear and winced as the thorns dug into his palms. Even though the sharpened protrusions were less than half an inch long, they felt as if they’d bored tun
nels all the way up to his elbows. In many ways they went a lot deeper than that.
After a few quiet seconds, Cole glanced up to find Paige standing with her hip cocked and her hand resting upon it. Her hair was long enough to be pulled back in a tail, but several strands always came loose no matter how hard she tried to keep them under control. A single bead of sweat emerged from her forehead to trickle along the crooked side of a nose that still looked cute despite having been broken long before he ever met her. The sweat dripped off her chin and made a wet spot upon the inviting slope of her breasts. When she absently dabbed it away, he muttered, “I’m feeling a twitch or two right now.”
“If I see anything other than that weapon move, I’ll put it down real quick,” she told him while slapping her baton against her open hand.
Cole pulled in a breath and focused upon the forked spear in his hands.
“Concentrate, young one,” Paige said in the bad kung-fu master impression she always found to be amusing.
Just as Cole was about to chalk up his poor performance to being tired, he heard the spear creak.
“That’s it,” Paige whispered.
It wasn’t much, but the spear bowed inward just enough for him to feel the movement.
Paige’s eyes widened and she moved in closer to him. “There you go. Just like that.”
Cole’s mind drifted further away from what he was trying to do and ventured into the area of what he
to do. The spear in his hands creaked like a board getting ready to snap, but he couldn’t exactly appreciate it.
“That’s the way, Cole,” Paige said encouragingly. “Keep doing that.”
“Stop it, Paige.”
“You’re making it hard to concentrate.”
Smirking, she asked, “I’m making it hard?”
After using the back of her hand to wipe the remaining sweat from her brow, she lifted her right leg so she could
slip her baton into the leather holster attached to her ankle. The moment her foot touched down again, she smiled and placed her hand upon Cole’s shoulder. “Sorry. You really are doing well.”
“Better than the other eight people you trained before me?”
“Now you’re just jerking my chain.”
“Maybe,” she said with a shrug while her hand slid down along his arm. “You’re putting on some muscle, though. I’ll get you into shape yet. Who knows? Before too long, I may not be able to resist.”
As Paige spun around to head for the stairs, the weapon in Cole’s hand creaked again. The spear bowed, but it was tough for him to tell if the wood was changing shape or if he was about to snap it in half.
It had been eight months since Cole first met Paige Strobel. In that time, he’d also met vampires, werewolves, and a few other things that he didn’t quite know how to categorize. He still had an apartment in Seattle, but was currently leasing it to one of the level designers at Digital Dreamers. The sporadic rent checks he received were enough to help pay for some expenses, but not nearly as much as his salary when he’d headed the team responsible for building video games like
and the ever-popular Sniper Ranger series. Digital Dreamers was also behind
versions one through four,
and plenty of others. Although Cole never wanted to be one of the corporate guys, he would have picked that over getting beat up in a basement any time.
On the upside, he’d definitely lost some weight. There was a mirror hanging from the wall of the walk-in freezer that had been converted into his room, but he was too tired to get up and look into it. Instead, he peeled off his workout clothes, looked down at his somewhat flat belly and gave it a few appreciative slaps.
“Not quite a six-pack, but I’m up to at least a two.”
The longer he sat on the edge of his cot, the more ex
hausted Cole felt. Rather than watch his stomach expand as he relaxed, he looked up and rubbed his hands over the top of his head. His hair wasn’t much more than stubble sprouting from his scalp. It was cool in the Chicago heat and easy to take care of. His clean-shaven face was thinning a bit as well, but still ached from the hits he’d taken during his frequent sparring sessions.
Paige’s timing was impeccable. The very moment he thought about how great it would be to take a hot shower, he heard the water start to run in the restaurant’s only bathroom. Technically, there were two other bathrooms in what used to be the main dining room, but those were filthy enough to discourage homeless people from wandering into the place. A good portion of the dining room had also been rigged with traps to keep the local monsters at bay.
Cole still couldn’t quite get over how many times he used that word in legitimate sentences. The supernatural creatures out there had not only knocked him out of his happy, video-game-designing existence, but even sucked the fun out of the simple things. For instance, the shower he so desperately wanted would only be ruined by the soap Paige forced them to use. The stuff was supposed to keep their scent from being detected, but it smelled like old tires and felt like a brick of oatmeal. Despite the fact that it didn’t even do a very good job of masking their scent from the things that hunted them, Paige insisted on using the stuff. It was also cheap.
Cole’s room wasn’t bad, as far as renovated freezers went. It was quiet, there were plenty of shelves for his stuff, and it contained more than enough outlets for his computers and recharging needs. Ironically, however, it wasn’t nearly as cool as the other rooms in the place. Since the actual refrigeration unit was gone, the aluminum plated walls were real good at holding in whatever kind of air was left. In the middle of summer, that air was hot.
Paige took her time in the shower, so Cole decided to get to work. Rather than switch on his laptop, he picked up the forked spear and held it in both hands. He’d found it was easier when he didn’t think too long before sinking the thorns
into his palms, so he simply gripped tightly and exhaled as the sharp little buggers dug into all the familiar places.
Every inch of the spear was varnished to a dull sheen using a concoction that Paige had taught him how to brew. He applied another coat every two or three days, so the spear was pretty much soaked through by now. Since the varnish was mixed using shapeshifter blood, the weapon would eventually change shape on command. If he hadn’t seen Paige pull off the trick, he never would have believed it was possible.
“Come on,” he snarled as he held on and stared at the petrified weapon.
The longer he begged and threatened the spear, the less it moved. Finally, he couldn’t even bend the damn thing using brute force.
“Honestly, honey,” he mumbled. “This has never happened to me before.”
If the spear hadn’t been attached to his hands, he would have thrown it into the corner. He made do with setting it down gently and kicking it to the other side of his freezer. Cole looked down at his hands to watch the puncture wounds seal themselves up. That part had something to do with the varnish as well. Nymar saliva was another ingredient that naturally sealed puncture wounds to keep victims alive while they were being fed upon. Nymar proteins were also used to make a powerful Skinner healing serum. If those freaks were good at something other than sucking blood, it was healing.
“Nothing’s ever easy,” he grumbled as he straightened up and walked over to the stack of plastic crates he’d been using as a desk. When he got his laptop warmed up and started typing, he realized it had only hurt a little to walk. After a nice shower, he might even be back to normal.
“Bathroom’s all yours,” Paige hollered from another room.
Cole waited for it.
“Hot water’s gone, though,” she added.
And there it was.
When Cole had arrived in Chicago to meet Paige for the first time, the city felt like a different place. The sights and smells were comforting. Driving down West Cermak, he looked at the same city and saw another beast completely. Instead of something that was just there to be sampled, consumed, and abused, Chicago stared back. It dared him to spend too much time in its dark places and enticed him to venture into the most delectable spots that he had yet to peruse.
At the moment, however, the only thing Cole wanted was a White Castle hamburger. White Castle wasn’t exactly confined to Chicago, but he couldn’t get them in Seattle. Some grocery stores carried frozen versions of the burgers, but those were simply blasphemous and cruel to anyone who’d ever tasted the real thing. Real White Castles were warm, squishy, about the size of a coaster, and were steamed all the way through with pickles and onions. His ex-girlfriend Nora swore a recipe she’d found online allowed her to make them, but those weren’t the same. After making the mistake of sparing her feelings with an approving thumbs-up, he was forced to eat the false idols every couple of months.
Cole hung a right onto South Cicero Avenue and grinned as he caught sight of a White Castle which he loved despite the damage it consistently did to his intestinal tract. When he drove around the newly remodeled fast food joint, he kept his window rolled down to fill Paige’s car with the glorious
scent that hung like a cloud over the gleaming white building. The line at the pickup window was long and moved a bit too slowly, but brought him to a kid wearing a blue visor who handed him paper sacks stuffed with pure joy. Hamburgers contained in little cardboard castles were stacked on top of flat rectangular boxes stuffed with fries and onion rings. Still sifting through the food to make sure his order was correct, Cole managed to turn back onto Cicero and start his journey toward Twenty-fifth Street.
Between the hot touch of summer reaching in through his window and the heavenly aroma seeping through the car’s interior, he almost missed the group of vampires loitering in the narrow alley between a bank and a small industrial supply company. The three didn’t look like monsters. They barely even looked like trouble, but they did cause a reaction to the scars left behind by his weapon, which felt like spiders crawling under his palms. After having so much of the potent varnish introduced to his system, he could feel that reaction through both arms by now.
Only vampires made him itch like that. Actually, they insisted on being called Nymar. Applying the V word to them was like calling a large percentage of the human population “brown people.” It wasn’t inaccurate so much as just plain ignorant.
He slowed down but didn’t stop. While turning onto Twenty-fifth, he took out his cell phone and called Paige. She answered on the third ring.
“Did you forget my order?” she asked.
“It’s not that,” Cole said anxiously. “I just saw three Nymar hanging out on Twenty-fourth Street.”
“What were they doing?”
“I don’t know.”
“Were they feeding on anyone?”
“No,” Cole quickly replied.
Upon hearing her sigh, he had no problem picturing the annoyed shift of Paige’s facial features. “Then why are you so worked up?” she asked. “I’m hungry.”
“Aren’t you the one who told me there shouldn’t be any Nymar this close to us?”
“Yeah, I told you that. I just didn’t think you’d remember. Why don’t you go and see what they’re doing?”
“That’s more like it. How long before you get here?”
“I’m staying put.” After a few seconds of dead air, she added, “Think of it as practice. You didn’t think I’d be around all the time to wipe your nose, did you?”
“No,” Cole said defensively. “I’m just not done training. I can’t even do the fancy stuff with the spear yet!”
“You’ve got your weapon with you, right?”
He reached back to pat the length of petrified wood resting behind the passenger seat. “Wouldn’t leave home without it.”
“And the .44 is still in the glove compartment. Tuck one under your belt, keep the other where the Nymar can see it, and you should be fine. Before you get too cocky, remember that you don’t have nearly enough room in your pants for that spear.”
“One last jab before sending me out to die, huh?” Cole grunted. “Classy.”
“Come back without my cheese fries and you’ll be dead for real.” With that, Paige hung up.
Cole tossed his phone onto the seat, where it immediately slid beneath the warm sack of burgers like a rodent burrowing for refuge beneath a stump. He made a right onto South Fiftieth Avenue, another onto West Twenty-third Street, and yet another to head south on Cicero. It was late, but not late enough for the streets to quiet down. There were a few people walking along the sidewalks and cars sharing the road with him, but he wasn’t distracted by any of that. Instead, he allowed the itching to guide him toward his destination.
When he spotted the trio of figures huddled exactly where they’d been on his first pass, he was vaguely disappointed. If they’d taken off, he could have just driven around for a while before heading home to enjoy his food. He parked at the curb near the corner of Cicero and West Twenty-fifth Street, hoping the Nymar would just bolt when they figured out who he was. That would be a nice little boost to his ego.
The engine of Paige’s battered Chevy Cavalier rattled to a stop like a wheezing old man who’d been smoking for most
of his life, which wasn’t far from the truth. He took a deep breath, propped his spear on the floor against the passenger door, and reached into the glove compartment to find the .44 revolver right where it should be. Tucking the pistol under his belt, Cole stepped out of the car and pulled his shirt down to make sure the gun was covered.
“I shouldn’t be doing this,” he muttered. “I should make Paige come down here with me. I should just go back and tell her there’s nothing to worry about.”
But there was something to worry about. That’s why he was getting his ass kicked every day in a basement while learning how to fight with a petrified stick. If things were all well and good, there wouldn’t be monsters loitering on Cicero Avenue.
The three figures standing at the mouth of the alley all turned to face Cole. One of them looked to be in his early thirties, with light brown hair styled into a mullet. The second was a younger guy with a full beard and short black hair. Both of them were dressed in clothes that could have been pulled out of any department store in town. Not too fancy and not too tattered. The third was a girl who appeared to be somewhere in her late teens. She was cute in a naughty kind of way and played that to the hilt by pulling her dark hair into pigtails and wearing her blouse open to display a lacy bra.
The guy with the mullet stepped forward and asked, “What’s goin’ on? Help ya find anything?”
Cole nodded and stood with his feet planted shoulder width apart and his thumbs hooked over his belt. The more he hoped to keep his cool, the more he knew he was blowing it. Before he started to shake, he said, “I was about to ask you the same thing.”
The other three chuckled and looked back and forth at each other. In those few seconds, Cole was able to pick out the black markings beneath their skin. Nymar were named after a growth on their heart that fed off of human blood. That growth spread through its host’s body using black tendrils that showed up like veins. At first glance the black markings looked like tattoos. A second or third glance was
usually enough to reveal that those supposed tattoos were slowly writhing just beneath the skin’s surface. There were ways to tell how old or powerful a Nymar was by studying those markings, but Cole couldn’t think about them now. It was all he could do to hold his ground as the three moved in closer to him.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mullet asked.
“I was going to ask if you needed any help,” Cole replied.
The girl nudged the bearded man aside so she could reach out to tug the front of Cole’s T-shirt as if straightening an invisible tie. “Help with what, cutie?”
Her arms were slender and the black marks stretching under her wrists were thin. She was Nymar, but hadn’t been one for long. The tendrils were dark enough to show that she’d fed recently.
Before he could think of anything better, Cole said, “Maybe you’re lost.”
Mullet narrowed his eyes and scowled in a way that allowed Cole to see his teeth. He hadn’t extended any fangs yet, so the guy must have just been a mouth breather. “Are you a cop? We’re just standin’ here.”
“Yeah,” the bearded guy chimed in. “We’re not doing anything wrong.”
Cole leaned to one side so he could get a look farther down the alley. The space between the two buildings wasn’t wide enough for a car to drive through, but there was plenty of room for things to happen back there.
Putting herself squarely in Cole’s line of sight, the girl with the pigtails asked, “What are you looking for? You must’ve stopped for something. Maybe you’d like me to nibble on you and you’re just too shy to ask.”
Cole tried to think of what Paige might say. After that, he thought of about a dozen reasons why he shouldn’t say what Paige would say.
Slowly, the girl in pigtails smiled. When she did, she stared at him in a way that nobody her age should have been able to pull off. There was confidence without cockiness. Some arrogant little teen would have written him off already, but she watched him like a predator that was as aware of herself
as she was of her prey. “Look at him,” she said softly. “He
Mullet stepped up so he could bump his shoulder against Cole’s. Some people walked along the sidewalk toward the alley, glanced at Cole being surrounded by the other three and quickly crossed the street to give them some space. He could sense their fear, but the Nymar could practically drink it down.
“You want her to suck you or not?” Mullet asked. When he didn’t get an answer right away, he reached out to grab Cole’s shirt. “Then move the fuck along.”
Cole slapped Mullet’s hand away out of pure reflex and shoved the Nymar back with a move that had been one of the first Paige taught him. While Mullet was recovering his balance, Cole turned to the girl and asked, “You belong to Stephanie, right?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“I’m a friend of hers.”
The girl shook her head just enough to wiggle her pigtails. “Mister, you don’t know what you’re talking about and you sure don’t know Stephanie. If you want to party, just say so. There’s no need for all of this testosterone to be flowing.”
“I know Steph well enough,” Cole said. “Is she still keeping Ace on a short leash? I mean, she’s got to be the one who insists all of her girls wear those pigtails. If it was up to Ace, you’d probably be branded or something.”
All three of them took a step back, eyeing him as if committing every detail to memory.
“If I look in that alley, will I find out you three have been feeding in the open?” Cole asked. “You know that’s against the rules.”
At first Mullet looked surprised. His slack-jawed expression quickly gave way to a snarl. When he curled his lips back, the big set of upper and lower fangs slid out from his gums. Cole knew there was a third set of fangs in there, but the Nymar wasn’t laying all his cards on the table just yet. “So you’re the new Skinner we’ve been hearing about?”
The Nymar with the beard crouched down a bit while keeping his eyes fixed upon Cole. That one did extend his
other set of upper fangs. The thinner, curved teeth dropped into place, where they were framed by the thicker set used for feeding.
“Take it easy, Sid,” the girl said. “Even a Skinner might want a bit of lovin’.”
“Oh yeah,” Cole chuckled. “You’re one of Steph’s all right.”
Her smile didn’t fade in the least. She reached out to let her fingers wander along Cole’s chest. “All kinds of normal people pay us good money to feed on them, you know. I’ve got more regulars than I can handle, and we only just set up shop here a week ago.”
“You shouldn’t have set up shop here at all. You’ve been warned to stay away from Cicero.”
“Warned by who?” Mullet asked. “Gerald was the only real Skinner around here, and that old man’s dead. I hear his skinny little partner got killed too. That only leaves some short broad, which sure ain’t you.”
That dredged up some bad memories, which Cole couldn’t keep from showing on his face. The instant he felt the warm flush run through his cheeks, the Nymar took note.
“You knew Gerald?” Mullet asked.
This time Cole didn’t have to dig down to put an edge into his voice, and he didn’t have to try to make his anger seem convincing. “I knew Gerald well enough, and if you’ve been feeding in the open, I’ll do Gerald proud by kicking your asses all the way back to the Levee.”
“We conduct our business where we please, Skinner,” Sid growled. “That is, if you even are a Skinner.”
The girl’s fingers encircled Cole’s wrist. Before he could pull away from her, she twisted his hand up to get a look at the scars on his palm. “He
a Skinner. Looks a little fresh, but—”
“Show me the alley,” Cole snapped as he pulled against the girl’s thumb just as Paige had taught him. Even if the Nymar was stronger than him, she still had a weak point in her grip, just like anyone else who walked around using all the human bits and pieces.
Clenching her hand into a little fist, she stepped back and
allowed the other two to stalk forward. “You want to look down that alley?” she asked. “Be our guest.”
Cole glanced up and down the sidewalk. There were a few people here and there, but none of them were anxious to have any part in what was going on near the alley. Suddenly, he thought of something that didn’t involve walking into a cramped spot with three Nymar bloodsuckers behind him. Surprisingly enough, his idea didn’t involve running away either.
“It’s all right,” he shouted toward the alley. “You can come out now.”
A dog barked somewhere. Farther up on Cermak, someone blasted their stereo loud enough for the bass to rattle Cole’s back teeth. Other than that…nothing.
“Nobody’s going to hurt you,” Cole added. “No charges will be filed if you just come out right now.”