Chapter One, Part 1
Rafael Perez accelerated down the last icy hill, whipped the wheel around, braked hard, and cut the engine with a flourish. The armored Toyota Land Cruiser skidded through a one-eighty into a stop precisely where he’d planned, throwing up a fine cloud of powdery snow over the boardwalk.
Moonlight reflected from clouds and snow-covered mountains, making the former ghost town bright as day to his vampire eyes. Fallen Angel screamed the red light on the saloon’s false front, while a neon bronc rider endlessly strove to outlast his twisting steed. Storefronts urged expensive diversions, from the latest high-tech snowboards to jewelry and electronics. One displayed extravagant lingerie on realistic mannequins, including a long, frothy concoction of silk and lace, trimmed with sable, and complete with matching sable slippers. His wife would have loved it.
Rafael’s face hardened at the reminder of a loss never quite forgotten, despite the passing of 700 years, and he scanned his surroundings for watchers. The streets were empty, except for the sole traffic light blinking yellow in the distance.
After all, when a predator like Rafael visited another one, he expected to risk an ambush. Which was why he’d brought his best weapons: two of his oldest— and therefore strongest — hijos, the vampiros he’d sired.
Ethan Templeton cast one last, long look around the otherwise darkened buildings, then set the safety on his rifle. “No snipers so far.”
“You astound me with your suspicions, mi hijo,” Rafael observed sarcastically, as he unbuckled his seat belt. “Jennings promised to return my hospitality back in 1859, should he ever gain an esfera of his own. We have been invited for a night of good whisky and skiing. Have you no trust in his goodwill?”
“No,” Ethan said simply, unlocking his door. “Better men than he have hungered for Texas.”
“Which is why you’re here and Gray Wolf is back there,” Jean-Marie, Rafael’s best spy and eldest hijo, retorted from the backseat, above the unmistakable click of semiautomatics being double-checked. “So you can go into danger, while the heir stays safe.”
Rafael’s mouth curved as he opened his door. Ethan was so good at looking for trouble, even when the chances were slim.
Poorly set ambush, Ethan commented mind to mind, when they all stood on the boardwalk. Not a prosaico in sight, when it’s midnight in a top Colorado resort?
Rafael snorted silently. It’s midnight on a Sunday, Ethan, with a blizzard coming in. There shouldn’t be any prosaicos around. It had better be peaceful here, with or without an ambush.
After all, assassinations were the usual method for a vampiro to take over an esfera and become a patron. Just like Chicago mobsters during the 1920s, vampiros fought bitterly for every scrap of advantage, resulting in a rapid turnover of patróns and esferas whose boundaries were fluid, to say the least. The average Patrón only survived for thirty years or so before being killed by a younger, smarter, or faster challenger.
But Rafael had received Texas and Oklahoma from a Spanish king and held them ever since — despite frequent attacks from greedy vampiros, many of which had once called themselves his friend.
The best attacks involved prosaicos, ordinary mortals who’d never drunk vampiro blood or done so seldom that their everyday lives hadn’t been affected. In other words, their scent hadn’t been changed by frequent contact with vampiro blood. Since the vast majority of mortals had no idea that vampiros existed, it was very easy for those allied with vampiros to hide among their prosaico brethren — becoming invisible to keen vampiro senses. Given the opportunity, a hidden prosaico would make the perfect assassin. A paranoid patrón therefore allowed no strange prosaicos near him.
But this was Jennings’s town in Jennings’s esfera of Colorado. It could easily be full of watchers, especially prosaicos — who could be assassins, if Jennings had ambitions to take over part or all of Texas. As a guest, Rafael would be well within his rights to refuse to leave his armored SUV if he saw any prosaicos, or even kill them if he felt particularly threatened and prosaico law enforcement members weren’t around.
But none of that applied in this case, since there were no prosaicos and no silent watchers on the rooftops. There might be an ambush waiting inside but that would be dealt with in its own time.
Jennings has been running Colorado with a heavy hand. Tortured or killed most of the old vampiros, then replaced them with his own hijos, Ethan pointed out, settling his black parka over the extra ammunition at the back of his waist.
Jean-Marie’s shrug was as blatant as his parka’s blue and silver. All new patrones do that. He’s only held Denver for twenty years, so it’s still recent history.
Verdaderamente, Rafael agreed. Relax a little, Ethan — Luis is just behind us with a dozen vampiros. He waited for Ethan to push the saloon’s doors open.
The Fallen Angel’s interior was an almost perfect recreation of an 1880s Rocky Mountain saloon. Carved wood, etched crystal, flocked red wallpaper, and sawdust-covered floors greeted Rafael’s appreciative eyes. An ornate bar covered one wall, while a staircase led to a balcony that swept around the other three sides. The lighting was soft and intimate, mimicking the effect of old-fashioned oil lamps and chandeliers. A stage let beautiful women strut their charms, while small tables invited men to join games of chance. Upholstered booths recessed into the wall invited more intimate encounters.
Poker players, all vampiros, occupied most tables, with pretty girls leaning over their shoulders or sitting on their knees. A pair of bartenders polished glasses, one of them chatting with the cowboys drinking there. A jazz trio played ragtime variations on cowboy standards, providing a comfortable backdrop.
The temperature inside was closer to September than January, with the occupants dressed accordingly. The men wore long-sleeved shirts and jeans, not sweaters and turtlenecks, while the women’s dresses left very little to the imagination.
The three Texans crossed to the bar and leaned against it, taking in the scene.
Sure would’ve appreciated fine clothing like that, first time I rode into Abilene in ’66, Ethan drawled, eyeing the closest poker player. Especially these ladies’ silks. They’re prosaicas, of course, not vampiras. But they’re still lovely.
The half-dozen females he gave El Abrazo to didn’t even see their first dawn, Jean-Marie remarked. Bad record, but I’ve heard of worse. Gorshkov actually managed to keep two alive for several days by—
Just because one patrón torments females with El Abrazo doesn’t mean that gentlemen need discuss it, Rafael cut in, baring his fangs slightly.
His hijos wisely fell silent as he turned to the closest bartender. “Glass of rye, please. Pikesville Rye, if you have it. And for you, gentlemen?”
A few minutes later, civilized behavior was restored with the arrival of excellent whiskies. Ethan drank his Jim Beam Black bourbon with evident satisfaction, his hazel eyes lazily scanning the room.
Rafael, who’d finished his own survey minutes earlier, drank rye, pleased to find this much civilization in Jennings’s domain. Jean-Marie hummed an old tune as he sniffed his Glendronach scotch, a song he’d once whistled before garroting French sentries during the Peninsular War.
Jennings strolled through a side door a moment later, a stocky man, tough and level-eyed, who’d sailed with Drake. Three beautiful young women accompanied him, who smiled curiously at the three Texans.
“Don Rafael! What a pleasure to finally welcome you to my esfera.”
Rafael embraced him. “Jennings, amigo! You remember Jean-Marie, of course. And this is Ethan Templeton, my alferez mayor.”
The two nodded to each other. Rafael smiled to himself, to see them so apparently friendly on the outside, but measuring each other so thoroughly.
“Gentlemen, may I introduce you to my friends, Amber Townsend, Serena McAlpin, and Anya Martinez?”
“Estoy encantada, señoritas.” Genuinely delighted, Rafael bowed. All three women were extremely attractive to his vampiro senses, glowing with sensuality and emotion eager to be brought to a carnal boil— and tapped. They were also healthy and athletic, well capable of multiple orgasms to feed him and his hijos many times.
Behind them, other unattached women gathered to watch hopefully, their eyes caressing the three Texans’ bodies. Ah sí, truly Jennings had prepared a garden of delights to accompany the promised fine skiing and whisky.
Jennings rumbled wordless approval. “Would you care to sit down for a few minutes, Don Rafael? Share some whisky with the ladies? After all, you and I don’t need to try the slopes at night.”
Rafael smiled down into Amber’s glowing brown eyes. “Yes, indeed I would enjoy that.” And just where will I take the very first nibble on that long neck of yours, querida?
They settled into one of the upholstered booths, Jennings bringing both Serena and Anya. Ethan and Jean-Marie took a table close by, where Ethan would have a clear line of fire if necessary. More of Jennings’s lovelies joined them there, to be readily appreciated by the younger Texans.
“What do you do back in Denver?” Rafael’s keen vampiro senses heard Ethan croon to the blonde cuddled against him.
“I’m a kindergarten teacher.” She smiled back up at him, batting her long eyelashes innocently. Rafael shook his head and turned his attention back to Jennings. Ethan might enjoy himself now but he’d be bored within hours.
Amber snuggled closer to Rafael. “Where do you come from in Texas? I’ve been to Dallas.”
“Outside Austin, on a ranch in the Hill Country.”
“A genuine cowboy?” Her eyes were huge.
He grinned, thinking of just how long he’d been a vaquero. “Yes, ma’am.”
Her hand began to stroke his knee tentatively. “Wow. That’s not much like Connecticut, where I was born.”
Jennings smiled from the other side of the table, very well pleased. Too well pleased by a minor flirtation.
Rafael’s senses came alert. Surely Jennings wouldn’t be stupid enough to try anything, especially with so many prosaicas around? Even if the room was full of his mesnaderos?
A shot rang out. The bullet creased Ethan’s head, drawing blood.
Time slowed to a crawl.
The gun sounded like an AK-47 — single shot or full automatic?
Rafael’s eyes snapped back to Jennings. Knowledge lay there — that Jennings’s man had fired as planned, but earlier than expected. Then Jennings shrugged and reached for his gun, mouth curving as he anticipated success.
Ambush. The saloon’s air was about to fill with lead.
Rage heated Rafael’s blood. The fools knew they’d kill every female in the room, yet they’d started this anyway.
Rafael pulled Amber’s head onto his lap, palmed his Beretta, and blew a hole in Jennings’s head. If he died here, he’d at least do so while saving the women.
He shoved her down his legs and yanked the girl next to Amber onto the floor as well. Jennings’s body started to dissolve into dust, as Rafael managed to pull the third girl under the table. A long minute later, they began to wail.
He lunged out of the booth, a Beretta in each hand, killing any of Jennings’s vampiros that survived Ethan and Jean-Marie. The room was full of flying lead and women’s howls.
The fight was over in less than two minutes, leaving behind dust as vampiros’ bodies and blood quickly disappeared. The women remained, sobbing hysterically.
Rafael holstered his guns. How’s your head, Ethan?
Already healing, sir. The prosaicas are all alive, although a few will need some stitches.
Good fight, Jean-Marie commented. Plus, thanks to it, we’ll have more friends in Colorado now and other places.
They’d have been more dangerous if we were facing Madame Celeste and Devol, her enforcer. Now that’d be a real fight, against a worthy opponent, Ethan commented, as he hunted for first-aid supplies. We’d have to use all our men, close the borders. . .
Or that Russian assassin, Jean-Marie agreed, heading for an unconscious prosaica. He’s a devil to be truly feared. Only Don Rafael can smell him, since they’re both vampiros mayores.
Rafael froze briefly as he bent to the terrified girls, still cowering under the table. Madame Celeste would never leave New Orleans to visit Texas, the home of “cows and snakes.” As for that Russian assassin, he’s not even on this continent, so why worry about him either?
There’d been no word of Diego since Communism fell. After two centuries of torture at his hands, Rafael knew that pendejo too well to think a prosaico mob could destroy him. But if he ever showed his face in Texas, revenge would be very sweet.
Excerpt from Bond of Blood by Diane Whiteside
Copyright © 2006 by Diane Whiteside
All rights reserved