Lonesome Paladin

An Urban Fantasy Novel

God is dead. Lincoln Marshall knows who killed Him...

It's been a month since apocalypse destroyed the world as Lincoln Marshall once knew it. The new world is populated by deadly faeries, wild shapeshifters, and humans without a god. Lincoln's sins can never be absolved now that God is dead. There's nothing left for him but the bottom of a whiskey bottle.

Until Cesar Hawke comes seeking help. The undersecretary of the new Office of Preternatural Affairs has manifested uncontrollable magical powers. The only cure lies beyond the frontier of the untamed faerie worlds -- a land that no mortal man can survive. He needs Lincoln to escort him to the Winter Queen through hostile territory riddled by killer unicorns, doppelgangers, and false prophets. No big deal.

Lincoln Marshall once conquered Hell. He's certain he can conquer the Middle Worlds too -- and if he can't, he's happy to die trying.

Excerpt:

Eloquent Blood was only one of a dozen bars in downtown Reno—the oldest of the businesses in the area. It looked its age. Sulfur had long since crystallized on the tabletops and along the edges of the floor, then gathered dust on that, and dirt on the dust. Nobody had cleaned it since the world became new. That was part of the appeal. You could sink into Eloquent Blood and nobody would bother you.
There weren’t a lot of places in America these days where the government wasn’t watching.
That was why Spencer had spent most of his days in the last month at Blood. His golden eyes marked him as one of the Rebirthed, and he couldn’t wipe his ass without the Office of Preternatural Affairs wanting him to check in. Give a blood donation, get scanned for emergent powers, provide the mandatory hours of public service that all citizens were now expected to contribute to rebuild the infrastructure of the broken world.

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Spencer had tried to show up for Work Crew once, a couple mornings after Day Zero, and they’d had him sterilizing a hospital full of orphans. Hundreds of preternatural orphans with uncontrolled powers. Hundreds of crying children who didn’t understand why they’d died, why they’d come back, why they didn’t have parents anymore.
Blood was better. Grimy, smelly, but *better*.
“Two drinks,” Spencer said, lifting a finger to the bartender.
“You know what we’ve got,” said Cassandra.
“Yeah, I know.” They didn’t have any good liquor in the bar. At least, nothing that Spencer could afford.
“How’s it going?” Javi asked, sliding onto the barstool beside Spencer.
“Bad,” Spencer said. Cassandra cracked two beer cans and poured them into glasses. He took one and gave the other to Javi. “It’ll be worse in an hour though.”
Javi squinted up at the light at the surface. There used to be a casino named Craven’s atop what the patrons called Blood, but while the bar had survived urban warfare against demons, it’s surface-level structure had been flattened. The only way into Blood was through a crumbling rebar-prickled crevasse near Fourth Street, which flooded every time it rained and the Truckee swelled against its banks.
At the moment, Blood was dry, and the clear sky beyond was red-shifting away from daytime into twilight. Moonrise would come once the sun vanished. It was a shockingly regular activity these days. The moon came up when the sun went down, and they traded places in the morning. It was magic, no doubt about it, and a small nod toward order in a chaotic world.
They probably had thirty minutes to get to a safe house. The nearest was a five minute walk, not far from Greater Nevada Field on First. Plenty of time for them to drink.
Javi lifted the glass to his mouth, but the rim never met lips; instead of cold glass, his mouth touched the skin of his friend’s hand. Spencer scowled at him from the adjacent bar stool.
“You didn’t give thanks,” Spencer said. “You know better than that.”
Javi set the glass down slowly, and Spencer’s hand followed the rim to ensure that Javi wouldn’t sneak a gulp the instant he withdrew. “It’s three-year-old Coors Light,” Javi said. “It tastes like stale water and beer can. There’s nothing to give thanks over.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Spencer said. “We came back from the end of the world. We aren’t in one of those hospitals. We have *something* to drink, and a lotta people don’t. You think that NKF thinks there’s nothing to be thankful for?”
“I don’t think NKF is thinking much about what’s going on in some underground hole of a bar where two asshole shifters are trying to delay going to a safe house,” Javi said.
“NKF is God. He can think about everything.”
Javi grew quiet at this, contemplating the foul yellow drink in his murky glass. “All right.”
They extracted a couple of wooden crosses from under their shirts. Spencer had gotten a matching pair from a gift shop on North Virginia, right next to the Little Nugget. It used to sell novelty t-shirts and shot glasses. Now it sold crosses, charms, and flimsy switchblades. Nothing that could actually protect anyone from folks who Rebirthed as vampires or whatever, but it made folks feel good.
He wrapped his hands around it, bowed his head to his knuckles.
“We give thanks for this life, and what we’ve got in this life,” he murmured.
“We give thanks,” agreed Javi.
Spencer started to say, “We give thanks for—“
“Careful,” whispered Cassandra as she leaned across the bar to pass napkins to them. Her gaze flicked toward the corner. There was a booth in shadow, its leather sliced open to allow the guts of its stuffing to bulge free. A pair of crossed legs clad in tattered, mud-stained denim extended over the seat. The man was reclining so Spencer couldn’t make out a face.
Face or not, there was nobody to stop him from praying. “We’re supposed to give thanks to NKF every time,” Spencer said.
“Skip this time,” Cassandra said.
“That kind of shit’s how we got in trouble the last time.” If the gods hadn’t been pissed off at the world, then they wouldn’t have all died. The world wouldn’t have ended. They’d still be all human, without safe houses and cheap beer, and Spencer would have his old job at the Amazon warehouse.
If a few people had stopped to give thanks, maybe they wouldn’t have suffered through Genesis at all.
Cassandra lifted her hands in surrender. “You get into a fight with Lincoln, take it outside. We’re not having that in here.”
Javi waved her off. “Nobody’s gonna try to fight us looking like pussy babies who say their widdle prayers before drinking fucking Coors Light.”
“Javi,” Spencer warned.
“I give thanks for my fucking Coors Light,” he said, assuming prayer position again. “I talk crap but I’m happy for it. I’m happy for my life, this world, this ‘beer.’ So I give thanks to NKF.”
“What in the hell was that supposed to be?” The inquiry was said in an unfamiliar voice, gravelly and filled with hot anger.
The person in the jeans.
The man Cassandra identified as Lincoln.
He sat up slowly, his jacket creaking, blond hair slanting across sharp eyes. An arm hung over the back of the booth. He was glaring at Javi and Spencer.
“We’re praying,” Spencer said. “Do you have a problem with it?”
“Fuck, not this again,” muttered a guy down at the end of the bar. He picked up his drink and relocated closer to the surface tunnel.
“Who are you praying to when all the gods are dead?” asked Lincoln.
Spencer silently asked NKF for patience. That was one of the theories going around—that Genesis had been a result of war between gods, and that both sides lost. All the gods were dead now.
They were wrong. Spencer had seen death come upon him, he’d seen the dawn on Day Zero. He knew what it was to believe.
He drained his Coors, shoved the glass aside. “I take it you haven’t heard about NKF yet.” He lifted his wooden cross so that Lincoln could see it. The aluminum clasp caught the fading sunlight topside, making it glow where it draped over his fist. “The god who made us all what we are now. Shifters and sidhe, vampires and witches.”
“Is that right?” Lincoln asked. He pushed out of the booth and came upright. The man was a little above average in most ways. A little prettier than most men, yet a little more rugged; a little more thick-built but also a little taller. Just good enough to catch looks from Cassandra, even though he also looked like he hadn’t showered since Genesis. “How d’you know anything about what’s going on with the gods? You think you’re some kind of prophet?”
“I’m just a follower,” Spencer said. “Javi too.”
“Oh, so that’s how it is? We’re both doing this?” Javi asked. He’d come to recognize NKF more reluctantly, only because Spencer dragged him to worship on Sundays. He’d heard the stories. He believed too. But he wasn’t ready to face some ripped drunk dude over it.
Spencer didn’t think Lincoln would present much of a threat. He was swaying where he stood and it didn’t seem to be a result of alcohol. The man smelled like he’d never touched a drop of hard liquor. He didn’t have the sallow, sagging look of an alcoholic, either. But it had to be something. Everybody was on something to get through life these days.
A quick sniff told Spencer that Lincoln wasn’t a shifter. Wasn’t a vampire. He smelled like human man, unwashed and unshaven and unmotivated.
“God is dead,” Lincoln said. “You disrespect the man by praying to false idols.”
“Are *you* a prophet?” Spencer shot back.
“No,” he said, “but I dated the bitch who killed God, and she told me all about it.”
Spencer and Javi exploded into laughter.
Lincoln wasn’t laughing.
After a moment, it didn’t seem funny. Spencer shot a questioning look at Cassandra. She just shrugged.
“NKF appeared as a vision to people in Genesis,” Spencer said. “There are witnesses. The sidhe gentry—”
“Magic fags, all of them.” Lincoln spit on the ground of the bar.
Spencer’s hackles lifted. He went from dubious about this asshole to instantly loathing him. “They witnessed NKF. They’ve got a temple to our God in Alfheimr, and they talk to him, so his existence is fact.” He dropped off his barstool, cracked his knuckles. “You got a problem with fags?”
“Or just magic fags?” Javi asked. Now he was looming at Spencer’s side, equally offended.
“I got a problem with disrespecting God’s law,” Lincoln said. “The guy might be dead, but that doesn’t mean you should be spreading blasphemy and getting up to unholy bullshit. Leviticus was real clear about men laying with men. Now, my ex-girlfriend—the Godslayer—she said that the Bible was a book of man, not a word of God. But she did go out of her way climbing to Heaven in order to kill God. Maybe I shouldn’t have listened to her about much of anything.” He scratched the blond scruff on his jaw and gave a mirthless grin, a baring of teeth. “I’m gonna trust the Book.”
“Can you believe this dick?” Spencer elbowed his friend. “You hearing any of the shit he says?”
“Take it outside,” Cassandra called.
Lincoln stepped closer to them. When he passed through the last beam of fading sunlight, Spencer saw why he was swaying. The guy was already bruised in a few visible places. It was probably worse in the places his clothes covered. He was swaying from broken bones, struggling to breathe with cracked ribs.
But he didn’t smell like prey.
Spencer didn’t have a lot of experience as a shifter, but he’d run across enough injured people to know that weakness made them smell like prey. Didn’t take much. A broken bone in the foot, a mild flu. Anything that slowed them down and made them vulnerable. Just a whiff of it got Spencer’s animal stirring with frightening hunger, and sent him running to an OPA support group for shifters.
Sniffing Lincoln’s sweat and hair didn’t give Spencer any sense of weakness.
“Are you smelling me?” Lincoln asked.
Spencer had drawn nearer the man’s shoulder by force of habit. His animal liked greeting other shifters by smelling their necks, right behind the ear, along the hairline. And his animal was curious about this limping not-prey. “If you don’t like gay people then I bet you don’t like me getting in your face like this, huh?” Spencer kept his tone tauntingly soft. “Am I gay? What do you think I’ll do, suck your dick? Or are you afraid you’ll wanna suck *my* dick?”
Lincoln shoved him.
Had Spencer braced himself, he wouldn’t have moved an inch, much less stepped back. Lincoln pushed with human strength. But Spencer allowed himself to be rocked back, and he turned to Javi.
“That was a push,” Spencer said.
“Looked like aggression to me,” Javi said.
“Take it outside,” Cassandra said again.
And Spencer would have listened to her. He’d have walked away from this blond asshole in a heartbeat, since it was about time to get to a shifter safe house anyway.
Then Lincoln said, “If there’s still a Hell, I know at least two reasons you’re going there.”
So Javi punched Lincoln.
“Hey,” Spencer said. “That was my shot.”
Lincoln dropped, and Spencer smashed his heel into Lincoln’s gut.
“Fuck!” Cassandra leaped over the bar, yanking long linen ribbons along with her. Magic surged over the runes stitched into the cloth. “He’s human, you fuck-rods!”
“Homophobic too,” Javi said, delivering a bonus kick to Lincoln’s jaw.
“He’s *human*,” she hissed. She shoved between the man on the ground and the shifters standing over him, flinging her arms out to guard him. “And it’s sundown.”
There was no light left in the hole leading to the road.
“Shit,” Spencer breathed.
He grabbed his jacket, grabbed Javi’s arm.
“I already called the OPA,” Cassandra said, checking Lincoln for a pulse. “You know I have to report preternatural crime against mundanes. You know I do. And I warned you. You better not be here when an agent shows up. Nearest safe house is—”
“I know,” Spencer said.
They ran.


Lincoln swam to consciousness with Cassandra the bartender looming over him. She was a pretty enough lady, with big eyes and a little bow for a mouth. Too young for Lincoln. Too much like his kid cousin. She was slapping him gently across the face with her mouth moving, but all he heard was ringing.
When his ears cleared, she was saying, “The ambulance should be here before curfew.”
An ambulance.
Lincoln wasn’t getting in an ambulance.
He shoved away from her, rolled onto all fours. His skull pressed down on his eyeballs and his stomach pressed up against his throat. Cassandra didn’t help him stand, but she backed up to give him room. She had that look of frustrated helplessness again.
“You shouldn’t move,” she said. “They got you good this time. Better than Gutterman did.” Lincoln still had the bruises from that beating. It had a compounding effect. One beating atop another to scramble his neurons. “Hold still until the ambulance arrives.”
“No ambulance,” he said, leaning over the bar to get a water bottle. He fumbled in his pockets for cash. Lincoln had a dollar or two. He was sure of it. “Damn, Cass, can you find my wallet?”
“Just take it. Swear to God—whichever God, I don’t fucking care—you get into those fights because you *want* your ass kicked,” Cassandra said.
“Only a crazy man would want to get beat by shifters,” Lincoln said.
“Then what’s that make you?”
“A winner,” he said. He didn’t find cash in his pocket but he did find what he’d grabbed from Javi before falling. Lincoln lifted the chain and the wooden cross dangling at the end.
Cassandra flung her hands in the air. “Try getting your ass kicked in someone else’s bar once or twice!”
He lurched up the tunnel, lukewarm bottle pressed to his forehead. He couldn’t see much of anything. Couldn’t navigate through the rebar and rubble without slipping. He put the cross in his pocket to free a hand. It felt like he had to climb to the street, even though he knew it was real possible to walk the distance.
Ambulance lights whirled at the end of the street. He pitched the opposite direction, away from the ambulance, up the road toward Virginia.
It was Lincoln’s lucky day. Nine out of ten emergency calls didn’t get a response nowadays. Between first responders failing to return from Genesis, organizational collapse, and the frequency of crime, more people died while sitting on the line with a dispatcher than ever saw those red and blue lights.
But Lincoln was lucky.
So fucking lucky.
Maybe if everyone had woken up one day preternatural, the world could have continued the way it used to. They’d have found jobs for the werewolves and the faeries and vampires. Gotten them nice and integrated. Made them into cops and EMTs and made sure the world kept spinning.
Except people had died without coming back, too.
There were millions of orphans. Millions of businesses suddenly unstaffed. Millions of empty homes and grieving widows.
And a whole lotta folks had turned preternatural on top of that.
It was too much all at once. The world couldn’t keep spinning.
Civilization had kind of stopped.
So Lincoln wasn’t the only aimless soul on the streets of Reno, most of the time. Like most, he didn’t have a home to go back to. On Day Zero, he’d come back into his skin in Reno, Nevada—a city far from what he regarded as his stomping grounds—and without public transit working right, he wasn’t going to get far anytime soon.
In better years he’d heard Reno equated with whores, easy divorce, and gambling. In the worse years, he’d heard about its demon apocalypse. From what he knew, back in 2009—before anyone knew demons and angels were real, before anyone knew that God was on a one-way trip to murder town—there had been a visit from some kind of devil who essentially dropped the city into a sinkhole, rendering it permanently inhabitable.
The city Lincoln staggered through wasn’t in a sinkhole anymore. Not a literal one, anyhow. He’d never seen a city with so many bars. Never seen so many strip clubs, casinos, and homeless filth smeared across the gutters.
Except that these pits of sin had lost employees too. Only a couple of the casinos had opened part of their floors, and mostly just so that they could try to figure out how much was missing. In the meantime, every oversized casino sign was advertising mandatory Office of Preternatural Affairs “services” available to city residents.
“Gold eyes? No problem!” In the photograph on the banner, a model was grinning and pointing toward a structure that looked like a squat stucco house. “Check into your local safe house every full moon and new moon!”
Golden eyes were the universal symbol of shifters. Some of them had silver eyes, but they were the good kind, the type with more control over their animals. Or so they said. There was a push from silver-eyed shifters to be exempted from the brand new regulations saying all shifters had to spend their moons in safe houses.
The ad made it look real nice. Lincoln had stopped to stare at one of those billboards before, drinking in the sight of the flowers lining the sidewalks, the friendly signage, the beautiful model. There were three safe houses around downtown and midtown Reno alone. One on First, one on North McCarran, one over on Plumb. None of them had flowers.
The government was especially struggling to manage a world with thousands of shifters that hadn’t been there before. They’d commandeered bunkers, warehouses, anywhere with barred windows that could hold supernaturally strong people who didn’t know how to control their beasts.
The law said shifters needed to go to such safe houses.
But some of them didn’t.
Some did, but broke out.
Hence the curfew.
The sun had dropped behind Harrah’s, casting the streets in blue-black shadow. The Aces stadium darkened as Lincoln trudged past. He didn’t have to look up to see the big baseball over the ticket stands go dark; it had been bright enough to glint gold on the sidewalk where he stared. Arroyo darkened when he walked past too, and so did the signs outside an art studio, until the only light left on the street was from those damn OPA billboards.
“Answer the call!” A staggeringly attracting man was beckoning toward the camera. He looked like his skin was glowing on the inside. He had wings like a butterfly. “Get screened for sidhe blood at United Health Services!”
Lincoln heard voices behind him.
“It’s him again. Is he following us?”
“Don’t, Javi.”
His night was getting luckier. Turning away from the ambulance meant Lincoln had accidentally gone the same way as Spencer and Javi. They were ahead of him, looking back his way, golden eyes glinting in the casino billboard lights.
Lincoln got to the corner—a pay by the week motel with an art deco sign and a blinking light that said “VACANCY.” Most of the hotel rooms were dark. He’d break into one of them, sleep as long as he could behind the bed. They’d probably give him a room free if he asked, since the government claimed to reimburse hotels that accommodated people displaced by Genesis, but Lincoln didn’t want to ask. Not for that, not for anything else.
“Just keep walking,” Spencer said, trying to push his friend.
Javi resisted. “But he took my cross!”
“I’ll give you mine, all right? The safe house—”
“Hey! Asshole!”
That was all the warning Lincoln had. One shouted insult, a couple fast-pounding footsteps, and then Javi struck.
Brick wall met face.
Stars exploded through Lincoln, hot and sick and tasting like the stale canned lima beans he’d eaten two days earlier.
They were going to kill him this time.
Lincoln was going to die.
Lying there on the pavement, looking at the shifters’ legs as they swung and kicked and knocked his teeth out of alignment, he thought he saw a third person watching over him. A woman wearing black leather and a disapproving frown. He remembered the way her colorless skin had tasted when he fucked her in the shower, damp and sweaty and a little like blood, and he remembered her flat tone perfectly too. *Seriously, Linc? You’re just going to sit there?*
“They’re shifters,” Lincoln tried to say. Something jagged touched his lip. Broken molar. He spit it into the pool of blood. “Can’t fight back.”
He could have fought back. He could have avoided a fight impossible to win in the first place.
*Seriously, Linc?*
“Ask him where he put it,” Spencer said, hanging back, looking nervously around the street.
“Where’d you put it?” Javi asked. His voice writhed within Lincoln’s skull.
“Put what?” Lincoln asked.
Wrong answer.
Javi picked him up, and the change in orientation hurt worse than the impacts at this point.
Lincoln took a fist to the jaw. Felt like he should have been decapitated by the force of it. His head stayed on his shoulders, which meant that the shifters were being gentle. They could have turned his skull into a rotten watermelon with a blow. They wanted him to hurt, not die.
He had the dying part covered anyway. Javi let go of him and he stumbled again, caught in Spencer’s tree trunk arms.
The pale-fleshed woman wasn’t really there, but her annoyance felt so real. She was the only clear thing in a foggy world. She was in sharp focus, from her breasts piled atop the steel bones of her corset to the slick black hair slithering over one shoulder.
*You’re better than this, Linc.*
“I’m not,” he said.
“We don’t have time for this,” Spencer said. “Sorry Javi.”
Lincoln almost relaxed, thinking he was about to be freed, left to stagger to wherever he ended up next.
Instead he took a knee to the gut.
It was instinct to bend over at the impact, folding in half, but that put his face at the right level to take another jab. He was reeling so hard from that he didn’t even realize he’d been thrown into the street until his vision cleared and he saw the yellow double line under his head.
“Hurry,” Javi said to his friend.
Their retreating shapes were blurry and dark. Shadows in dusk. Not shifters, not men. Just the dark dreams that chased Lincoln everywhere he went.
*Seriously, Linc?*
He didn’t try to get up.
From the way it felt, Lincoln suspected he had broken ribs. Inhaling was like taking a knife to the collarbone. But his hand slid into his jacket, and he felt a cold aluminum chain wrapped around cheap wood, and he knew he’d kept the crucifix.
It was some kind of victory. Maybe not a victory that made anything better, but a victory that scuffed dirt in the eyeball of some blaspheming piece of shit clinging to lies after Genesis.
“You killed him,” Lincoln told his ex-girlfriend.
The Godslayer shrugged. *That doesn’t mean there aren’t any gods left, does it? You didn’t need to pick a fight.*
Lights swam over Lincoln.
His whole head was ringing like a bell, so it took him a minute to realize he heard sirens.
A tire stopped in front of him. Boots dropped out of a car. Black-gloved hands grabbed his arms, hauled him upright. Lincoln found himself face-to-face with someone whose eyes were a normal shade of brown, with thick brows at a disapproving slant. He wore a black suit with a silver pentacle pinned to the lapel. He was an OPA agent.
The agent’s mouth moved. Lincoln could hear just enough to figure out what he was saying.
“Are you aware it’s seventeen minutes past curfew?”
Lincoln opened his mouth, vomited on the agent, and blacked out.

COLLAPSE

Suicide Queen

There are only thirty-six hours until Las Vegas will be daylighted by the witches of the Office of Preternatural Affairs. Thirty-six hours until every last vampire in Clark County gets ashed.

A serial killing vampire is taking advantage of every last one of those hours. His perverse game means mutilated vampire fledglings running amok, and it means there's only one vampire hunter who can catch him.

Dana McIntyre's getting out of prison to do what she does best.

And Nissa Royal is waiting to receive her with open arms.

The suicide queen's been dealt. The stakes are deadly. Now it's time to show their hands and find out who has the high card - and who will be winning the soul of Las Vegas.

Cashing Out

With the previous master vampire out of the way, and Dana McIntyre presumed dead, there's nothing standing between Nissa Royal and her vision for Las Vegas: a city of vampires where humans serve as no more than cattle.

Except that someone keeps killing the vampires who are sweeping the streets for victims. A mysterious killer that nobody can seem to find. Someone bent on stopping Nissa...

Police Chief Charmaine Villanueva is losing control of her city to the Office of Preternatural Affairs. She hopes to appease them with a preliminary cure for vampirism--her last shot at reassuring them that she can keep her citizens safe. Except someone has broken into Holy Nights Cathedral to steal the Garlic Shot, even though the church should be impossible to burgle. She can only think of one person with the ability to steal from the cathedral. But Dana McIntyre's been dead for hours. Hasn't she?

Torn between OPA control and vampire control, Las Vegas is a city on the brink of war missing its guardian angel. It's a high stakes game with no limit. But the house isn't letting any of its players cash out yet...not when the game is just getting hot.

Kill Game

Someone's importing illegal metals into Las Vegas. Iron, to be specific: the only substance that can instantly kill one of the deadly sidhe. But there are no sidhe in Las Vegas. Not anymore. Dana McIntyre killed the last of them two weeks earlier.

Importing the iron seems to be a matter of life and death, though. Mostly death. People are being slaughtered over these imports, and Dana can't figure out why. It's a puzzle that must be solved quickly and quietly. If the Office of Preternatural Affairs realizes how destabilized Las Vegas has become, they'll shut down vampire hunters like Dana.

She has no choice but to partner with Nissa Royal, the right hand of the city's master vampire, to hunt down the iron's buyer. Nissa's interested in a lot more than a functional partnership from Dana, though. She won't settle for anything less than Dana's soul...

Excerpt:

Paradise, Nevada—July 2034

The hookah lounge in front of the Mirage probably wasn’t the ideal place for a contraband purchase, especially on a night when the wind carried the scent of rain, but Aggy couldn’t think of anywhere better.

The Paradisos used to pull these kinds of deals out in the desert. It had seemed like a good idea at first. After all, there were no witnesses aside from the Joshua trees and moonlight. But Aggy’d been with the Paradisos long enough to remember when they’d feuded with other murders, like the Southside Killers and Mama’s Dogs, and going out to the empty desert for deals had been like putting a target on their backs. It was easy to track the only cars heading north on the highway, and easier still to ambush them.

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Aggy didn’t know how many vampires had gotten ashed in those days. It was hard to count bodies mixed together with the dust in the salt flats. She’d have bet the numbers hit triple digits, though.

The Paradisos hadn’t lost folks in such numbers since they’d started using public drop points. Basically nowhere was more public than the Mirage’s Strip-facing hookah lounge.

There were tourists everywhere. The obnoxious kind of tourist who wore sunglasses at night and hoped their concealer made them pallid enough to pass for bloodless. And then also the tourists sucking down smoke, blowing it in each other’s faces, and tossing back whole growlers of whiskey. There were slimy guys hitting on women in little black dresses. Bartenders who watered down drinks to save money on liquor. A deejay who thought that everyone seriously wanted to listen to 00s pop.

None of them paid any attention to the actual vampires in the back. It was a setting so public it might as well have been private.

Aggy and Momoe, the healer, repped the Paradisos for this trade. Mohinder trusted Aggy above the other vamps, which was smart of him; she’d rather cut off her tongue and bitch-slap cops with it than narc on her master.

Opposite Aggy and Momoe sat Lucifer’s guys, a pair of new-blood vamps staring so hungrily at the tourists that their eyeballs seemed likely to pop out their sockets. Lucifer was a vampire based in the Nether Worlds whose flunkies sold contraband topside. He was famous for a vampire. He didn’t have to beg for blood, and he couldn’t be arrested for drinking from anyone he wanted. His lackeys were not so untouchable.

“You can’t eat here,” Momoe said. She had to shout over the music to be heard. The deejay was currently assaulting their ears with an offensively brassy remix of Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life,” even though most of the baby-faced mortals at the hookah lounge hadn’t been alive when the song came out.

“No eating? At all?” Roy looked melancholy, and the amount of black eyeshadow he wore and his droopy jowls meant he probably always looked melancholy. Gods only knew what basement Lucifer had dragged that vamp out of.

“Synth blood only in Paradise,” Aggy agreed. “We can have the bartender bring us some.” She waved him down.

Paradise was a city within a city. Few people realized it even existed inside of Las Vegas even though it encompassed most of the local tourist thruways, including the Strip, the university, and even McCarran International Airport. The eponymously named Paradisos owned almost every single square inch within Paradise. They were only missing parts of UNLV. There wasn’t enormous value to a university when you were dead, aside from owning the Rebels to theoretically profit off of their wins, if they ever won. Which they didn’t.

Basically everything else belonged to the vamps.

So yeah, there was no drinking of human blood anywhere in Paradise. Humans weren’t just food. They were money. The little rats would only come wandering through the city if they felt safe doing it. Start picking them off, and who’d pay the bills?

The other of Lucifer’s vampires leaned forward so he could talk more quietly. “You seriously only drink synth on the Strip? You can’t tell me that’s how Achlys rolls in private.”

Sergio was both right and wrong. Aggy’s former master, Achlys, had kept a few feeders who’d pissed her off in captivity. But Achlys didn’t do anything in private anymore. She’d been slaughtered.

Now that Mohinder had taken over the Paradisos, and all of Achlys’s properties, it was more important than ever to keep their noses clean. Lucifer was a drug dealer by trade. He wasn’t exactly going to report Mohinder to the Office of Preternatural Affairs if it came out that the new master liked to drink from the jugular. But even Lucifer had a way of letting rumors get around, and his flunkies would be even bigger chatter-boxes.

Image was everything. They couldn’t risk Mohinder’s run against Mayor Hekekia.

“Synth only,” Aggy said firmly. “It’s the law.”

“Toeing the line of the law is funny coming from someone doing deals with Lucifer.” Roy’s fingertips drummed on the suitcase at his side. It was the size of an airplane carry-on and made him look like he’d just gotten off JetBlue without checking into his hotel.

Momoe Esquerer had a matching carry-on. The witch was an outwardly nice older lady, somewhere in her fifties, and she looked convincingly like a traveler despite sitting with a clutch of vampires.

Except her carry-on didn’t have her medication and curling iron.

It had cash—lots of it.

“I don’t like the looks of this place,” Roy said after another long, baleful look around the patio. “It’s too open. I can’t immediately pinpoint all the cameras. There’s people everywhere. And if there are any avian shifters…”

Aggy would have bet that Lucifer instructed his guys to pull the deal on more favorable territory. Lucifer liked information as much as money, and if his guys could get Paradisos alone, then it’d be easier to pry. Or capture and torture them. Torture had been rival murders’ favorite pastime for years.

“Here is fine,” Aggy said. “Nobody’s paying any attention to us.”

“There are gulls and crows,” Sergio said. He nodded toward the cabana. The indistinct shapes of birds watching for food formed a skyline against the Mirage’s illuminated flank.

“You’re not afraid of a couple birdies, are you?” Momoe’s tone was acid. Same patronizing tone she used when she was healing. Bedside manner was not one of Momoe’s strong suits.

“I don’t want to get killed by shifters because you insist that we do this in such a public venue,” Sergio said.

Aggy took a long inhale of the hookah. “But we do.”

“What?”

“Insist,” she said with a smile. Smoke curled out of the corners of her mouth.

The bartender brought three bottles of synthetic blood over. He knew Momoe wasn’t a vampire just by looking at her. It was easy to smell the mortals even underneath thick clouds of shisha smoke.

Roy gave a gloomy, “Thanks,” and took the bottle.

Bon Jovi switched over to Counting Crows.

“You’re nervous, poor babies, so let’s get this done. Let’s see what you’ve got,” Momoe said.

Roy pulled the carry-on into his lap. He unzipped the top, pulling it open like a mouth so that she could peer inside. Aggy’s night vision was as good as that of any vampire who lived off synth blood. Through the slit, she could see that they had at least some of the promised product.

“What do you think?” Aggy asked Momoe.

Momoe stood and extended a hand. “May I?”

“Enjoy,” Sergio said. “If you try to run off with it, I will rip your head off.” He smiled lazily as he said it, like he was joking.

Momoe lifted the suitcase. It was almost too heavy for a mortal of her strength; she strained to pick it up a few inches. Aggy was surprised that the strap didn’t break. When Momoe set it down again, she was panting audibly despite the loud music.

“All right,” Aggy said. “Looks good.” She stirred the coals on their hookah with her pinky nail, then took another inhale from the pipe.

“This was a weird request, coming from you guys,” Sergio said. “But you must have paid pretty for it if Lucifer sent us all the way across the ley lines to deliver. Makes me think that you’ve got a big change in Vegas if you’re making such weird orders.”

“I heard Achlys is gone,” Roy said.

Aggy remained relaxed, her elbows on the back of the couch. “Where’d you hear that?”

“When a master vampire dies to mutiny, word gets around.”

“Mutiny?” Aggy laughed. “Mutiny!” She probably laughed a little too loud, a little too long.

In truth, it had been mutiny. Achlys had let an unseelie sidhe into her murder, and it had turned out that Shawn Wyn was exactly as much a vampire-hating psychopath as everyone had worried. He’d only played along with vampire politics to get close to leadership.

Shawn Wyn was dead now. He no longer posed a threat to the vampires of Las Vegas.

But when Shawn had gone down, he’d dragged Achlys into death with him.

Mohinder was a much better master than Achlys. Everybody preferred him. He wasn’t as scary as Achlys, who’d slunk around in those Elvira-like dresses with her Corpse Bride figure. That ability to fill people with fear was the reason Achlys had earned her monopoly over Vegas. It had been useful for conquering. In the long term, constant terror was exhausting. Aggy was glad Achlys was gone.

But there was no way she’d corroborate rumors of a coup with vampires from other murders; it made the Paradisos look too weak. “It was Dana McIntyre,” Aggy said. “She killed Achlys. Staked seventeen of her personal security members and then took down the master herself.”

“McIntyre?” Roy exchanged looks with Sergio. “We’ve heard about her.”

“Bet you have. She’s going to kill all of us if we let her run wild.” That was the Paradisos’s official statement on Dana McIntyre, and their attitude toward the Hunting Club at large. Had to make sure to color them as villains, not heroes. Rumors had a way of making history.

“Are you saying Achlys let her run wild?” Sergio asked.

“Mohinder won’t,” Aggy said. “He’s working with the LVMPD to shut her crew down. It won’t be long before Vegas is safe for all of us.” All of us meaning, of course, vampires.

“And that’s why you needed a massive shipment of contraband,” Roy said dully. Sarcastically. “Because Mohinder’s got everything under control.”

“Trade time.” Aggy’s words were muffled through the smoke billowing from her dry lungs.

Roy glanced around the patio. “You’re sure about here?”

“One hundred percent,” Aggy said. There was so much smoke that she couldn’t make out even the people at the nearest couches. Throw in the deejay’s flashing lights, and even vampires wouldn’t see anything. And the gulls wouldn’t care either.

Momoe set her suitcase next to the first one. Roy took hers. Aggy took the heavy one.

And that was that. Sale finished.

Roy stood watch as Sergio gave the cash a cursory counting. He didn’t have the time or the privacy to pull everything out for a more accurate inventory.

“It’s all there,” Aggy said.

“You better hope it is. Lucifer knows how to find you guys if you’re trying to scam him.”

“All this paranoia.” Momoe sneered openly. “Imaginary cash shortfalls, or imaginary seagull-shifters listening to us talk. Nobody’s even looking!”

“Almost nobody,” said a woman who came to stand up at the edge of the table.

Aggy hadn’t seen her coming.

She caught only a glimpse of the woman out the corner of her eye: the short messy hair bleached white, tipped with temporary blue dye; the thick waist and thighs that indicated a woman who wasn’t shy about putting on muscle; the single metal gauntlet she wore with jeans and her tattered Metallica tee.

“Run!” Momoe spat at Aggy. The witch’s hands plunged into her purse—an oversized bag made of the same fabric as the carry-on.

When she pulled her hands out, she was holding a handgun and a wooden stake.

Dana McIntyre bared her teeth. Her canines were slender and elongated, just as Achlys’s had once been. “Don’t even think about it, asshole.” She touched her ear and said, “Now.”

All the lights at the hookah lounge went off. Street lights, casino lights, everything on the block—totally black.

Aggy’s eyes were as good as any vampire’s, but her pupils still needed time to adjust. Going from light to black left her blinded. Her fingers fumbled on the strap for the suitcase, and she tripped over a half-dozen couches trying to run for the exit.

Momoe screamed. “Fuck! Stop!”

Her cries were punctuated by snarls and shrieks, some of which came from Lucifer’s guys. Roy and Sergio weren’t Aggy’s problem anymore. They’d received the cash, and she had the package from Lucifer. If McIntyre was killing them…whatever.

The only thing that mattered now was getting the suitcase to Mohinder.

So Aggy ran.

She was a good runner. Fast. There was a reason she’d been handling trades like these for as long as the Paradisos had existed.

Problem was that the suitcase was really fucking heavy.

Even Aggy’s undead muscles could only handle hauling that thing for a couple seconds. Then she had to drop it to its wheels, and it was smashing into tables, sending hookahs and coals to the ground, making mortals scatter.

It took full-body effort to haul it over the fence ringing the edge of the patio. Still less time than it would have taken to find the exit in the darkness, though.

People were still screaming.

But it was getting quieter. Like a certain vampire hunter had already killed Lucifer’s guys and was now moving in Aggy’s direction.

“Fuck,” Aggy panted, racing down the uneven sidewalk toward the nearest lights she could see. Caesar’s Palace wasn’t far. She could disappear into its depths, jump behind the shopping mall into the employee hallways, go underground.

Her mind ran the calculations as her feet did everything else. A vampire on synth blood was usually three times as fast as a human at top speed. Blood virgins were still mostly human. Even if Dana McIntyre was running ten miles an hour, and the suitcase slowed Aggy to twenty, she had one heck of a head start.

And Caesar’s Palace really was so close.

Aggy almost got there.

But she hesitated at the crosswalk, trying to decide if the pedestrian bridge would be faster or what. An instant of hesitation shouldn’t have made a huge difference. Not with vamp speed against a blood virgin.

Yet when she hesitated, she heard pounding footsteps.

Then a force collided with Aggy’s back. She hit the sidewalk. Rough hands—one bare, one gauntleted—flipped her onto her back, and knees pinned down her arms. “It’s impossible!” Aggy gasped, squirming underneath Dana McIntyre’s pressure.

“Shut up, bloodless.” McIntyre yanked a wooden stake out of her belt.

The power on the block flared to life, bathing the hunter in light from the nearest casinos. She was still white-haired. Still wearing the gauntlet. She was also wearing ash now—heavy gray ash clinging to her shirt and jeans. And McIntyre’s eyes were as colorless as her cheeks.

“You still haven’t been drinking,” Aggy said. “You’re turning into a vampire but you—”

She never got to finish that thought.

Dana McIntyre buried the stake in her heart.

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Drawing Dead

An Urban Fantasy Thriller

The vampire slayer is turning into a vampire? Over her dead body.

Dana McIntyre has been bitten by a master vampire. She's infected with the venom. And after killing hundreds of vampires to keep Las Vegas safe, she'd rather die than turn.

There might be a cure. But the only way to get it is through Nissa Royal, a vampire with close ties to the masters of Las Vegas. Nissa is dangerous -- too dangerous to be allowed to live, much less work alongside.

But if Dana dies, vampires win Vegas. If she doesn't die, she becomes one of the bloodless. The cure's her only chance. In this deadly game of hold 'em, Dana's drawing dead, and whatever happens next, there's no changing her losing hand. Dana only knows one thing: If she's going down, she's taking as many vampires as possible on her way out…

Excerpt:

Nobody at the murder scene wanted to see Brianna Dimaria. Nobody got excited when she shuffled over with her bathtub-sized coffee and wooden pentacle charms, and a couple of the cops didn’t even make eye contact.

“I thought you said that the Hunting Club was coming out,” muttered one crime scene tech to another. Brianna prepared not to hear them.

She’d gotten to the Hunting Lodge at six o’clock that morning, right after sunrise, so she’d been the first person to check the answering machine. The cops had requested a consult on a murder. Brianna put the word out and headed in first.

Dammit, people should have been thanking her for how quickly she’d gotten there.

But no, there was all the whispering and glancing around, seeing if Brianna might be followed by one of the Hunting Club’s more famous associates. Chugging the coffee wasn’t waking her enough to deal with this crap.

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“Ugh,” she sighed once she’d drained her mug. She swirled the dregs of the black coffee around the bottom. “Anyone got chai, by any chance? Or any other tea?”

“The only thing we’ve got here is ash,” Officer Jeffreys said. “You don’t want that.”

“No. I don’t.” She set her mug on top of a police car, made a mental note to retrieve it later, then wiped her hands off on her tunic. “Okay, what’ve we got here?”

“Vampire. Permanently dead vampire.”

“No kidding,” Brianna said.

The corpses left behind by perma-dead vampires were distinctive from those left behind by humans. Sure, they had all the same parts, but every bit of a vampire was flammable in sunlight. If they found the body before sunlight wreaked havoc on the evidence, it looked like finding a human who had been barbecued. Bones charred as well as the soft tissue, and the skin got crispy fast.

Given a few more minutes in daylight, this vampire would have been indistinguishable as having ever lived, much less as a vampire. But right now, Brianna Dimaria was confident that the pieces crime scene techs had fished out of a Dumpster belonged to one of the bloodless.

“What’s that?” Brianna asked.

Officer Jeffreys lifted a piece of bone in his gloved hand, careful to keep it in the shade of the bar’s rear alleyway. “Judging by the curve, I think…skull?” He swallowed wetly.

Who could blame him for looking queasy? He wasn’t just holding a piece of skull. He was holding a piece of skull with clear characteristics of the person it had once belonged to. Probably a masochist, considering that they had screwed metal horns into their skull.

“Damn,” Brianna muttered.

There was no way that the Hunting Club wouldn’t get blamed for this dead vampire.

She heard the bass rumbling on a car’s stereo before it pulled up to the mouth of the alley. The crime scene had been taped off, but someone pulled the tape aside to allow the lifted pickup truck to roll up to the edge of the scene. The windows were opaque black, in stark contrast to the lime-slashed Pepto Bismol of the body’s paint job. The grill on the front looked like it had been used to literally catch cows, since there was dried blood and tissue caked to the bars. The driver was listening to music by Slipknot—Brianna recognized the frantic rhythm of the drums.

A couple cops had the nerve to start applauding when that pickup appeared.

“Oh, come on,” Brianna groaned.

“You can’t blame them. She’s got a legacy.” Chief Villanueva came up to stand beside Brianna. Charmaine hadn’t been doing fieldwork since her promotion, so if Charmaine was watching, then it meant Mayor Hekekia was watching. And so was the OPA.

“Legacy shmegacy,” Brianna said. “Did you know that I used to be high priestess of the single most prestigious coven in the world before Genesis?”

“You might have mentioned it twenty or thirty times,” Charmaine said with a good-natured smirk.

“That, and I show up to consults on time,” Brianna said.

The pickup door popped open. Beer cans tumbled out of the driver’s seat, scattering across the cracked cement, and studded platform boots struck a moment later.

Dana McIntyre glared murder at the cops who’d applauded her arrival, and that only seemed to make them all the more excited.

If a McIntyre was on the scene, they considered the case already solved.

There was nothing to get excited about at the sight of Dana. Her pink-tipped hair was styled into spikes, the solid mass of her body was held snug by a leather corset with stone pauldrons, and she wore a leather skirt. She had an open beer can in one hand and let a belch out of the corner of her mouth as she sauntered over.

“Dana, good morning.” Brianna was grinning crazily and speaking through her teeth again. “How nice of you to join us at a crime scene, with police, where you drove in a pickup while drinking beer. Which is so totally legal.”

“O’Doul’s.” Dana crushed the beer can and hurled it over her shoulder. “Like the flavor. Don’t drive drunk.”

Chief Villanueva was not surprised by this display from Dana. “Glad to have you.” She clapped Dana’s hand in both of hers and shook with genuine relief. “We could have used you last night when I had the master of the Paradisos in my office.”

“Good thing I was there,” Brianna muttered.

“I was on patrol.” Dana lifted her gauntleted fists, and magic sputtered from her elbows to her knuckles, which were just as studded as her boots. These particular studs were bloody on the tips. “There was a shifter brawl, so you’ll want to check in with jail intake later. You guys are full up. Brianna, help me strip.”

Brianna sighed. “What’s the magic word?”

Ngou ho,” Dana said in hetânâ, the magic language both of them were fluent in. Ngou ho meant “fuck you.” The words had absolutely no power coming from a mundane like Dana, except that it made Brianna’s blood pressure spike.

“Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning,” Brianna said. “Try again or else I’ll show your adoring fans pictures of when I helped potty train you. I bet they’d love to hear how you insisted on wearing pull-ups until kindergarten.”

Dana’s eyes narrowed, as if she were evaluating whether or not Brianna was serious.

Brianna was completely serious. She’d been putting up with Dana McIntyre and her stupid family legacy ever since Dana was knee-high to a pig’s eye. When Dana had been a teenager—worst decade ever—awkward childhood photos had been the only threat to control her.

“Help me please,” Dana finally said.

“Happily.” Brianna undid the straps on Dana’s gauntlets, her pauldrons, even her belt. She was left standing with fifty pounds of enchanted gear, which she tossed into the back of Dana’s ugly-ass pickup while Dana herself went to examine the scene.

A crime scene tech handed latex gloves to Dana. She snapped them on and picked up the same piece of skull that Officer Jeffreys had been investigating.

Dana lifted it into the sunlight. It began smoking. She blew the fire off, then peered closely at the remaining bone.

“This vampire was killed by the Paradisos,” Dana said.

“How do you know?” Chief Villanueva asked.

“Because I’ve got fucking eyeballs.” She tossed the skull to Officer Jeffreys, who managed to transfer it to an evidence bin before diving into a corner to barf. “This vampire was starved. No Vegas vampire starves on accident, and no Vegas vampire gets held captive without Paradisos knowing. So the Paradisos did it.”

“Our lab will be able to confirm that the vampire was starving, but we’ll need more than that to pin it on the Paradisos,” Chief Villanueva said.

Brianna shot a sideways look at the chief. Did Charmaine want to pin it on the Paradisos? She’d made it clear that vigilantes and vampires in Las Vegas were on equal footing, and equally fucked if things went wrong.

“Don’t waste your resources.” Dana peeled her gloves off and dropped them into a trash bag held by another tech. “If the vampires are fucking around with a civil war, let ‘em do it. Vamps killing vamps is nobody’s problem.”

“Murdering American citizens is illegal, no matter who does it,” Brianna said.

Dana’s snort wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t meant to be. She reveled in being as disgusting as possible, even while consulting at crime scenes. Maybe especially while consulting at crime scenes. “But the vampires do it anyway, because they’re vampires. They’re killers. They aren’t capable of doing anything else.”

“Help me link this murder to the Paradisos,” Chief Villanueva said.

Dana said, “No.”

She climbed into her pickup. Brianna heard another can of O’Doul’s cracking open before the door slammed shut.

The truck backed out of the alley. Dana’s tailgate clipped a trashcan and knocked it over, spilling its contents across the pavement. She dragged a bag halfway down the street before it finally tore loose, and then she was gone, leaving wreckage and adoring cops behind her.

Dana McIntyre had been there less than five minutes. Everyone looked star-struck and it seemed like Brianna no longer existed.

“Yep,” Brianna said, glancing at her watch. “Just another Tuesday.”

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