I pushed open the door, a knot of nerves twisting tight in my gut.
I glanced around the shop, shuffling awkwardly towards the empty counter on the far side of the room.
It was made of broken chip-wood with a massive crack running right down the middle. It, like the rest of the shop, was a mess. A quick glance around and I saw old dust-filled cobwebs tangled against the walls and massed around the mildew covered windows.
My old worn-out black ballet shoes suddenly crunched against a pile of torn up candy wrappers and a few scraps of abandoned newspapers.
By the time I made it to the front desk I was chewing so hard on my lip I was sure I was ready to swallow it.
There was nothing on that cracked wooden counter aside from a single bell. Unlike everything else in this jumble of an establishment, the counter bell was polished, pristine – as if someone had taken it out of its packet only that morning.
With a nervous twitch traveling from deep in my gut and shooting hard across my shoulders, I locked my eyes on the bell.
Ring that, and there’d be no going back.
Then again, who was I kidding? There was already no going back. I was out of work, out of luck, and if I didn’t find a way to scrounge some money by the end of the week, I’d be out of my flat, too.
A month ago, I hadn’t imagined myself here, picking through the dust and junk in desperation. Because a month ago, they hadn’t passed those new, shock work regulations.
From 1 April – two weeks ago – the federal government had voted unanimously to split work between the races. With only a few exceptions, ordinary humans could work for ordinary humans, and otherworlders – like myself – had to find employment amongst their own kind.
On 31 March I’d been a librarian working for the local university. On 1 April, I’d been summarily dismissed. No redundancy. No package. Just a boot up the backside and a hastily signed dismissal form.
I took a deep breath, locking it in my lungs as I pressed my lips open and whispered to myself, “Come on, girl, there’s no other way.”
Finally I reached forward, shoulder locked with tension as I gathered the strength and determination to ring the bell.
Its light tone barely competed with the wind bustling through the streets outside.
Hell, my panting breath was louder.
But just when I thought I should try to clear my throat or do something similar, I heard a set of hurried footsteps fly forward from the back of the shop. Right behind the counter was a door. Unlike the rest of the shop, it was clean, freshly painted in fire-truck red and sanded smooth. It looked like it belonged in a show room.
A second later, just as my nerves reached a crescendo like an orchestra madly playing a death march, I saw the polished brass door handle move.
The mechanism was so smooth, it didn’t even creak.
The door shifted open.
And out walked a man. Middle aged with a perfectly round bald patch that matched his perfectly round pot belly, he looked like Mr Sheen off those cleaning ads. Well, apart from his expression. That belonged on Jack Nicholson right before he threw you out the back door and killed you in your yard.
The guy was about my height, and I was all of 5’3. He had a starched white shirt rolled up at the cuffs, suspenders that were slightly loose on the left, and pilled woolen pants.
“What?” he demanded as he brought up his unusually scrawny arms, considering his otherwise stocky build, and wrapped them moodily around his middle.
I tried to smile. I also tried to shove a shaking hand in my bag and remove my resume.
For an otherworlder, my flat mate always accused me of being easily flustered. Otherworlders were meant to be tough, powerful, and brimming with attitude. Me? I was anything but. A spider had dropped on me the other day, and I’d freaked out so badly, I’d tripped into the coffee table and broken it in half.
“What do you want?” the guy growled as he flashed his less-than-patient gaze to my hand.
I was still frantically searching for my resume. “Ah, I… I was wondering if you had any work—”
“For the love of Belzox, another one, ha? Didn’t you read the sign on your way in, lady?” He pointed a pudgy, red finger at the door. “No help needed. Now get out of my shop.” He ticked his lip up and shot me a disgusted look. “Plus, you really think you’ve got what it takes to be a magical PI? Just look at ya, you can’t even find your own CV.” He pointed to the floor by my feet.
Flustered, cheeks turning as fire-truck red as the door, I realized my resume had dropped by my feet. I stooped to pick it up. By the time I was standing again, he’d turned his back on me and marched back through his pristine red door, muttering, “Get out before I throw you out.”
Heart sinking through my stomach, I brushed the dust off my resume, crammed it in my bag, and walked out of the shop.
Instantly a cold blast of wind shot into me, tugging my scarf from around my neck and sending it tumbling down the street.
“No,” I gasped, lurching after it. That scarf was Buccano – a semi decent Italian brand, and one of the most expensive things I owned. Spun blue-and-purple silk, it hid the otherworlder tattoo on my neck while also making me look respectable enough to score a job.
I ran after it, but the wind snatched it and sent it spinning across the road.
Though I tried to dart into traffic, a car almost hit me, and I threw myself back on the pavement just in time.
A leering woman in a leather-jacket and a red shift dress snarled at me through her window.
One look at her plush, almost luminescent red lips and her pin-prick black eyes, and it was clear she was a vampire.
I cast my gaze back to my scarf, but it was gone.
With a truly sinking feeling pushing hard through my gut, I yanked my collar up as high as it would go, and fought against the chill escaping down my back.
It was nothing compared to the dread and guilt churning through my gut.
I walked my way through the streets. I was in the otherworlder section of town, and I had to keep darting down into the gutter to avoid all the other colorful characters, from vampires, to werewolves, to witches and warlocks.
They all had power, an undeniable presence.
Me? I had nothing.
I wasn’t from a recognized race. I hadn’t been schooled since birth on how this world worked.
No. I just had the gene. The one that proved I wasn’t human. Until last year, I hadn’t even known I was an otherworlder. But when the government had enforced mandatory DNA tests for every citizen, I’d got the letter in the post. A few weeks after that, I’d got the tattoo, too.
Glum didn't come close to what I was feeling now. Completely and utterly, soul-crushingly defeated, did.
I’d been clutching at straws when I'd gone to that detective agency to get a job.
But now – now there were no longer any straws to clutch at. This was over. Done. There was nowhere left to get a job.
I brought a hand up, crammed it over my cold, clammy brow, and tried seriously hard not to cry.
A few seconds later, my phone rang. It jolted me from my self-loathing, and I chucked a hand into my pocket, answering the call with a swipe of my thumb. “Yes,” I said in a truly pathetic tone.
There was a long pause. “Wow, you didn't get a job then, did you? Oh, sweetie, you sound like you're about to cry.”
Though it was very tempting to tell the truth and admit that I wasn't just about to cry, but that I'd likely crumple and start whingeing in the gutter, I made a brave face. “No, I'm fine, Sarah,” I lied with the kind of false tone that wouldn't be able to convince a slime mold.
Sarah paused again. Then I heard her take a pointed hiss through her teeth. “Sweetie, tell me where you are. I’ll come pick you up.”
“Sarah, aren’t you working a night shift at the bar tonight? Don’t you need to go to sleep now? I'll be fine.”
She snorted. “You most certainly won't be fine. You'll be moping. Now come back to the apartment and we’ll look through the classifieds together. There's got to be something out there. Heck, I have friends at a few of the otherworld bars. I'm sure they’ll pick a pretty girl like you for a barmaid.”
I gave a false smile, all crumpled and tightlipped.
Sarah was a terrible liar. A) I wasn't a pretty girl. I was plain as plain could be. I was the kind of ordinary that spy forces would pick for espionage agents because there is no way I would stand out in a crowd. Ever. It was almost as if my parents had crammed together every feature on the planet and every range of beauty and picked the one dead in the center.
While average had been okay several years ago, it was the new ugly now. Normal just couldn't compete with the extraordinary, otherworldly beauty of the vampires and other assorted magical creatures. While us poor ordinary folk had to contend with Botox and plastic surgery, the magical world had much more effective, much longer lasting, and much cheaper methods of beautification.
Oh, and they could actually sparkle.
Plus, even if I wasn't average and mousy, no bar owner in their right mind would employ me. I had exactly zero personality. No charm, no pizzazz, and no ability to offer the drunk and truly irritating a rakish smile as they slurred for another whiskey on the rocks.
I didn't point this out to Sarah. Instead I winced as I switched ears. “Like I said, I'll be fine. I promise,” I said in what I hoped was my most convincing voice.
Sarah just sighed. “I'm serious, Lizzie. You should look into bar work. It's not that hard. Nor is it particularly daunting. You're smart. You're attractive. You can do this.”
Sarah stopped just short of telling me I had no option but to do this. That was her real point, though. There was a finite amount of time I could crawl through the otherworld section of town looking for a job before I caved.
“Okay, okay,” I said reluctantly through a deep, groaning breath. “I'll look into it.”
“Really?” There was undeniable excitement twisting high through her tone.
I didn't stop wincing. “Yeah. I’ll keep trying to find a job today. If nothing comes up,” I had to grind my teeth together as I gathered the gumption to finish my sentence, “I'll… I'll grab those details off you and head to that bar tonight.”
“I'm texting them to you now. And, Lizzie, you won't regret this. Plus, it would be kind of fun. We'll both have the same jobs.”
I didn't point out that we would not have the same job. She’d work in a human bar with other humans. Human clientele, and human regulations.
I'd been to otherworld bars once or twice, and it had been goddamn harrowing, like getting stuck in a haunted house at one of those funfairs. Except, in this place, no one had been pretending to be terrifying and there was nowhere to run.
I walked around town for the rest of the day, trying everything and going everywhere to find work, no matter how badly it paid or how undignified it would be.
Before I knew it, 9 o'clock rolled around.
Sarah had already left for work, leaving me a massive, cheery scrawled message on the blackboard in our kitchen. It mentioned the names of several otherworld bars I should look at.
I faffed around for a good half an hour until I gathered the gumption to go. Shrugging into a pair of nylons, a fitted skirt, some low heels, and a flouncy blouse that was kind of Edwardian and would, hopefully, gather the attention of any vampire managers, I reluctantly hauled my ass out the door.
I was not a nighttime girl. Especially these days. Especially around the otherworld section of town. But it was precisely where I had to go to find these bars.
To get to the otherworld side of town, I wisely chose to go on the bus. It was that or the subway. And there was no way in heaven or hell I would cross the subway line that led to the other half of town. The terrifying stories I'd heard could fill up a horror book. Even before the existence of magic had been revealed, that section of the subway had been terrifying. From murders to assaults, to plain old disappearances, the subway was about as friendly and safe as a wolf baring its teeth a centimeter from your jugular.
Still, I could hardly say the bus system was much better. As soon as we reached the rough demarcation line separating the normals from the otherworlders in Hope City, every single human got off the bus. Which just left me and some seriously shady blokes in hoods.
Heck, the bus drivers even switched.
I had to grip my hands into fists and grind my teeth into my bottom lip just to gather the courage not to jump off the bus screaming.
Before I knew it, the new bus driver gunned the engine, and we crossed the line. Immediately my hackles were raised, my blood pressure shot through the roof, and my heart started to beat a veritable military tattoo in my chest.
“This is such a bad idea. Oh god, oh god, this is such a bad idea,” I hissed to myself over and over again. But at the same time, I appreciated there was no going back.
I knew full well that the Draconian regulations that had stopped me from working at the library wouldn't get better. They’d get worse. This was only the beginning of separating the human population from the magical population. Sarah could look after me for now. But I very much doubted I’d be able to live with her forever. If I didn't fall on my feet, in a few weeks, I be thrown to the ground.
So I forced myself to stay on the bus until we reached the club district. The shady blokes in hoods got out, grins pressing over their white bloodless lips as they headed straight for a bar sunk down a long, winding set of steps that looked as if it led straight into the heart of a crypt. There were even eerie cold wisps of smoke filtering up from the bottom of the stairs.
Atmospheric – and creepy as all hell.
I watched them disappear, the smoke curling around their hoods like hands. A freaking powerful shudder charged down my shoulders, and I shrugged further into the collar of my blouse.
It was nothing, however, compared to the heart-shuddering shock that pulsed through me as a door opened beside me and three vampires pressed out.
I hadn't seen them coming, and they moved with such cold precise speed, I immediately jolted backwards.
I lost my balance and tumbled into a sign behind me.
A sharp edge caught the side of my leg, snagging my nylons and slicing the flesh beneath.
A droplet of my blood splashed right beside one of the vampires.
He was tall, he was gaunt, and he was dressed in Gucci. He was also, however, categorically the most terrifying person I'd ever seen. His gaze was so hard and direct, it was like a hammer between the center of your eyes.
And that gaze – that godawful, penetrating gaze – only grew harder and more terrifying as he looked down to see the blood trickling over my knee.
His friends had already moved on, and they were halfway across the street.
I froze. Every muscle and joint and bone locked in place as if someone was going to make a plaster cast of my body.
He leaned down. Slowly. So goddamn slowly that I was treated to a precise view of his tight pronounced muscles pushing hard against his shirt.
Slicing his gaze from my cut knee to the drop of blood that had landed by his foot, he pressed out two fingers to touch it.
Immediately, I jerked a foot forward and covered the blood with my heel. It did, however, bring my bleeding knee right in front of the guy’s face.
He swiveled his gaze and locked it on mine. Then he smiled. His lips pulled back from around his teeth until he revealed his canines in all their glistening ferocious glory.
He tipped his head to the side and ran his gaze languidly up and down my leg. “Need a hand?”
I spluttered. I also shot up, grinding my heel over the drop of blood as if I were trying to stamp a cigarette out.
With his eyes still on my legs, he brought a tongue up and ran it pointedly over his pointed teeth.
He smiled, twisted his lips to the side, and practically purred. “Where are you heading tonight?”
I didn't goddamn answer him. Instead, locking a hand on the top of my blouse and ensuring it was tightly closed, I shoved past, charging along the pavement until I was on the opposite side of the street.
I didn't bother turning to check if he'd followed until a gaggle of witches walked out from a bar by my side and surrounded me as they walked down the street.
Oh God – thank God – he hadn’t followed.
He was, however, watching me.
And as I jerked my head back to check on him, he clearly tilted his head my way and parted his lips open. “I'll be watching you,” he mouthed. Then, with a chuckle, he disappeared.
My gut locked with such tension I was sure it was going to be torn in half. This – this was why I hadn't bothered to come look for work in the otherworld bars before.
It was too dangerous.
Feeling completely and thoroughly sick, I pretty much threw myself towards the nearest bus stop.
A part of me appreciated how pathetic I was. While I'd gathered the gumption to make it this far, I hadn't even been able to head into a single bar.
Oh God, I was a goner. When they changed the laws and Sarah wouldn’t be able to look after me anymore, I'd be dead within a week.
A heady mix of guilt, shame, and crippling fear swarming over me like locusts, I made it to the bus stop. Or at least, I thought I made it to the bus stop.
The bus stop that would lead back into the normal human section of town was theoretically on the corner of the street. The only problem was, as I threw myself up to it, I realized it was closed. A torn piece of paper was stuck over the bus timetable by scraps of clear tape.
Bus line closed. There will be no more late night buses back to the hums.
The hums, I was vaguely aware, was what the otherworlders referred to as humans.
That, though, that was irrelevant. What was really goddamn, terrifyingly relevant, was that I was stuck here.
The subway didn't run this late at night, and it would take me a good two hours to walk back to Sarah's.
My stomach started to knot with nerves. Tighter. Tighter. Until it felt as if somebody was tying a noose around my intestines.
“Oh shit, oh shit,” I muttered as I crammed a nail into my mouth and began chewing furiously.
I darted my terrified gaze from left to right as I wondered what the hell I should do now.
The bus stop backed onto a winding alley that cut around several buildings and rapidly became as dark as a cave. The air was fetid, and the vibe coming off the place was about as friendly as a gun pressed against your temple.
I moved to walk back towards the bars, in the slim hope I may be able to find some other bus stop.
Before I’d taken two steps, a taxi rammed up the pavement and came to a stop several feet beside me.
I screamed, jolting back, my heart exploding in my chest.
The taxi driver wound down his window, pressed a long, hook-like arm against the windowsill, and leaned out, gaze leering. “Want a lift back into town, sugar?” He put the kind of emphasis on sugar a junky puts on the word hit.
I cowered back, jerking my hands in front of my face.
“Come on, sweetie, you look lost.” The guy leered as he opened his door and got out.
I freaked out.
I lost all goddamn reason, turned on my heel, and began to run in the opposite direction, down the alleyway.
The guy followed, protesting a little, shouting at me that he only wanted to take me for a ride.
The alleyway snaked around several buildings, becoming narrower and somehow darker. Despite the fact the otherworld section of town was lit up like a Christmas tree, none of those neon flashing lights made it into this laneway.
It was so oppressively dark, that after a few more steps, I stopped, lest I fall over and crack my head on the pavement.
I stared behind me with wide desperate eyes, waiting for the taxi driver to lurch around the corner.
… He didn't.
But something else did.
A door opened from behind me, leading into some building that was pumping with music.
As I tugged my head around, I realized someone was now standing behind me.
My eyes were beginning to adjust to the gloom, so I could see enough to recognize who it was.
My heart tumbled out of my chest and shot through the pavement beneath my feet.
It was him. The vampire from before.
He looked me up and down, one hand casually pressed into the pocket of his Gucci pants.
He tilted his head to the side, and slowly, deliberately, his lips curled into a calculating smile. “Miss me already?”
I jolted backwards, bringing two hands up defensively. “Leave me alone,” I begged in a shaking voice.
With his hand still pressed into his pocket, he took a languid step forward, gaze constantly darting up and down my form, lingering on the cut on my knee.
“Come on, don't be like that. You're the one who offered me a taste.”
“You practically threw your blood at me.” He smiled, now only locking his gaze on the gash in my knee.
I felt so sick my stomach could have fallen out and withered at my feet. My hands still pressed up, I kept backing away from him until my shoulders jammed against the wall.
“Got any family?” he questioned around a snarl.
“No? Then there’s no one to miss you.”
In a snap, he was upon me. He grabbed my wrist, twisted it against my stomach, and made my shoulder arch up, revealing the long line of my neck.
I heaved against him, bucked, tried to use my spare hand to scratch at his face.
He shoved me harder into the wall, wrapping an arm around my back as his head descended against my shoulder.
Then he bit me.
I shrieked as a wave of pain stabbed down my neck.
I’d read about what happens when a vampire bleeds you dry. The good ones can soothe you with their mind tricks, making you feel giddy and happy as you drift away on the wings of death.
The bad ones want your fear. It made your blood taste purer.
I screamed, shrieking as loudly as my cracked throat could manage. My cry split the air, echoing down the alleyway and bouncing off the brick walls around us.
He shoved me harder against the wall and stars started to explode through my vision.
This was it. I was going to die.
Just as my head began to thump, and a ringing split between my ears, he began to shake.
I… felt something. Surge through my stomach, dive into my heart, and explode up my neck.
Suddenly, just when I was sure I would black out, the vampire was thrown off.
I watched his eyes bulge in his head, those black, pin-prick pupils suddenly shuddering like a shaking hand.
He gasped and started to claw at his throat.
… I couldn’t catch up.
Seconds before I’d been on the verge of death, unable to throw the vampire off – now he was kicking and screaming in the dust as if I’d somehow poisoned him.
I watched in heart-pounding terror as he hit the ground, his legs lurching out from underneath him. He began to shriek and wail like a strangled ghost.
Then, all of a sudden, nothing.
He stopped moving.
I was still pressed up against the wall, body locked with terror, face slicked with sweat, hair tangled down my shoulders.
Cracks started to appear in the vampire’s skin. Cracks that bled a brilliant white light.
I jerked a hand up to my head and covered my eyes just in time.
The vampire exploded, a brilliant burst of illumination bathing the entire alleyway in so much light, it looked as if 100 flood lamps had been attached to the roofs.
I groaned into my hand, but a second later, the illumination ebbed.
Blinking past the afterglow burned into my retinas, I dropped my hand and stared.
… The vampire was gone.
Nothing remained but his clothes and… dust.
Particles of white dust that shimmered like fragments of diamond.
… I couldn’t move. Not a muscle. Not a twitch. My whole frame was riveted to that damp wall as my shoulders convulsed under my torn cotton jacket.
It wasn’t long until I heard voices from along the main road.
Just as terror surged through my heart at the prospect it could be the vampire's friends, I saw a light. A familiar blinking light. I heard the sirens, too.
The police. Oh, thank God, it was the police.
Sure enough, there was a grind of tires and the growl of an engine, and a second later, a squad car came into view.
I struggled, trying to push myself up, but there was no point. My legs had turned into jelly, my body nothing more than soggy cardboard.
A uniformed officer jumped out of the front seat, just as a detective piled out of the back.
The detective ran up to me, scooting down to one knee and staring earnestly into my eyes. “Ma’am, are you all right?” His eyes locked on the droplets of blood trickling from the wound in my neck.
I brought a shaking hand up and pressed it over the wound, finally managing a shaky nod. “I was attacked. I was attacked,” I stuttered so badly my words would be indiscernible.
Immediately the guy pulled off his jacket and furled it around my shoulders. Then he started looking around the crime scene. “Where’s the perp? Where did the vampire go?” He swiveled his gaze back to me. “And what was that almighty burst of light? We saw it from several blocks away.”
My head began to buzz as he mentioned the light, but it wasn't nearly as bad as the awful metallic taste that swam through my mouth when he asked where the vampire had gone.
“Did he get away? Ma’am, did you see where the vampire went?” the detective asked in a direct, calm tone clearly designed to put me at ease.
Finally I brought up a shaking hand.
I pointed at the pile of ash by my feet.
At first the guy didn't understand. At first the guy kept swiveling his gaze around, clearly looking for any indication where the vampire had run off to.
Then the detective stopped. And slowly he turned his attention back to me. By now the uniformed officer had gotten out of the car. He had some kind of strange glowing device in his hand that burned with an unmistakable red, magical glow.
As soon as he brought it towards me, let alone the pile of dust on the ground, it began to beep like an overexcited Geiger counter.
In a single snapped second, the detective’s crumpled, caring gaze changed.
He pushed to his feet, his wary, dark eyes locked on me. “Ma’am, did you kill that vampire?”
The question made my already ringing mind twist into freefall. My head began to spin, faster and faster, faster and faster.
“Ma’am, did you kill that vampire?” the detective asked once more.
“I didn't mean to,” I managed. Then I blacked out.
The rest of Angel: Private Eye Book One is available from most ebook retailers.