BREAK OF DAWN - September 2008
Charity Flynn had sold her soul to experience another moment like this.
The doors of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre burst open to the night, showering the actress with camera flashes, pinpoints that flared like exploding stars. She posed, summoning her brightest, sexiest smile, knowing which angles would make her shine. She pouted her lips ever so slightly, tilted her head, then allowed her Allure…just a touch…to reach out to every man, every woman out there.
Another flash went supernova, worship in motion.
For a hushed instant, the late-summer air went still, the crowd silent in the presence of such magic. It was as if Charity—their Charity—had reached into their chests and stolen their breath away.
Their adoration filled her, fed her.
But this superstar wasn’t reckless. She hid her Allure, trained to know when enough was enough during decades of practice. Time spent Underground, time spent waiting for this second comeback to glory.
Such a long, long wait away from the screen….
The cameras came back alive. A paparazzo shouted to her over the blinding lights as she stepped out of the theatre’s lobby, where the special late-night premiere after-party was in full swing. Her diamond-studded pumps met the red carpet.
“Charity,” the photog yelled, raising his monstrous camera above the heads of the others. “How do you think it’ll feel to be queen of the box-office?”
She swayed to a stop, allowing more flashes to devour her. “It already feels like a million bucks.” Her smile grew, and the crowd smiled right back. “Several million, as a matter of fact.”
They all laughed at her sly nod to the salary Charity Flynn would be commanding after such a big response to her first inevitable blockbuster.
Before she could move on, another voice piped up. “You really look like a million tonight, Charity!”
“Vintage Chanel.” She spread her arms, showcasing the long creamy white silk sheath that flowed over her curves, a sparkling brooch clasping the material together at her cleavage. “It used to belong to…” Another smile, this time a very knowing one that toyed with their expectations. “…her.”
The press had been calling Charity “the new Amanda Grace” ever since she had arrived on the Hollywood scene a few months ago. They had also referenced a second name, “Delia Wright,” to describe whatever Charity had that the camera loved. But Charity didn’t hear this other name as often since “Delia” wasn’t the original. The template.
Platinum-blond Charity—and Delia—with their cherry lips and heavy-lidded smiles, evoked the legendary, carnally inclined, tragically dead Amanda Grace from the late 50s. They reflected her in manner, in style, in…
And it wasn’t just a coincidence.
Charity winked at the cameras and continued to her limo, where she climbed inside to be enveloped by dark grandeur: plush velvet seats and mahogany detailing. Her veins fizzed as if shot through with champagne and, now that she was sequestered, her mouth began to sting with thirst.
Just a taste, she thought. Something to keep me high until the end of the month when the Master infuses me with his own blood again.
Just a cocktail, especially now, in the ecstatic aftermath of tonight’s affection and triumphs.
Charity shuddered, leaning back against the seat while the vehicle took off, away from the pulsing camera lights. But a voice from across the large sitting area jarred her.
Her heightened gaze cut through the darkness, settling on a shadow. In return, he leaned forward, catching some light from the passing streetlamps. Based on his delightful scent, she determined he was human. A Servant, as a matter of fact—one who did much of the Underground’s footwork here Above. His face, punctuated by a cleft in his chin and piercing, pale eyes, was something out of a thug’s casting call. But upon second look, the casual way he moved in his long leather coat, his jeans and boots, made him more approachable.
“Mr. Lonigan,” she said, “I’m ‘Charity’ now. Charity Flynn. Remember?”
The private investigator made a conciliatory gesture. “Sorry. Charity…Delia… I like your first name more than the other two you’ve used.”
She didn’t know him well, so her curiosity almost overwhelmed her surprise at seeing him in her limo. Almost.
“Probably wondering why I hitched a ride?” he asked.
“It crossed my mind.” She used her smile on him. “Is it too much to hope you’re here for a little…fun?”
Charity rubbed a hand over her neck, her nails scratching her jugular.
Matt Lonigan calmly stared out the window, a subtle rejection, even if she’d seen interest in his eyes before he’d turned away. But she could sense a deeper purpose to his visit, even without having to reach into his mind. Not that going into someone’s head was ever a good idea—especially while Above. Here, it could lead to detection from the “others” the Master had always warned them about.
She followed the Servant’s gaze out the window. They weren’t traveling to the hotel where the after-after-party would be held. No, she knew where they were headed: near one of the abandoned quarry entrances of the Underground where the rare hiker wandered or where no production units had ever set foot.
Unease stole over her, because she had an idea about what was going on, about why the Master’s Servant was here with her. She’d all but tuned out the disturbing rumors from Below lately because her attention had been anchored Above, on the career she deserved.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“The Master is gathering every one of you. I was assigned to see you came back instead of partying your big night away. The Master wanted you to understand the seriousness of this call home.”
A gathering. It iced her spine. She’d given everything for this third chance at superstardom.
Well. Amanda Grace wasn’t going to tolerate any threats to what she’d worked her ass off for, to what she’d invested so much in.
Suddenly she couldn’t bring herself to care about the after-after-party she’d be missing.
Soon, the limo disappeared down into the black of a massive cave. Once stopped, surrounded by rock, they alighted. Charity walked ahead of Matt, never looking back at the Servant, even as they passed the wailing echoes of the removed Guard chambers.
She pretended to be unaffected, even as she pictured the lower-level vampires and their red eyes, their barbed tails, their freakish way of moving, like stuttering heartbeats in transit. Guards were their first line of defense, monsters manufactured to protect the Underground.
The damned, she thought, hurrying her steps, hearing the click of her heels against the cold walls.
She slowed only at the entrance to the emporium. There, Matt opened the door, allowing her to anticipate the usual splendid cacophony, the exotic incense, the vivid laughter, the tang of blood.
But…there was only the hint of that normally free-flowing blood tonight as she entered.
This had to be serious.
Pulse tapping in growing concern, Charity greeted a contingent of Groupies, silver-eyed vampires who had entertained her for so many hours Underground while she’d waited for her comebacks. Now, as they sat cross-legged on the marble floor, holding hands, they weren’t the lively, erotic creatures she’d always treasured: they weren’t sidling up to her, playfully biting her skin or stroking her to pleasure.
Tonight they merely watched her return to them, their eyes wide as Charity made her way past the waterfalls, the pools, the blanked grand television screens, and to the amphitheater.
Levels of stone seating held her brothers and sisters—other high-ranked Elites who had been just as worshipped Above as Amanda Grace. As they heard her, they turned their heads as one, every face a beautiful mask of waiting terror, every pair of eyes swirling in preternatural worry.
A hollowness seized Charity, and she placed a hand over her breastbone. She felt empty there. But when she thought of the crowds tonight, the cameras, the utter joy of being loved, she knew her sacrifice had been worth it.
She would do anything to preserve it.
She sat next to Jesse Shane, one of the world’s biggest action stars who’d “died” in blood-soaked mystery eleven years ago. Next to him was the Underground’s newest Elite, Tamsin Greene, who had “expired” just as tragically as Amanda Grace once upon a time.
Charity sat straight, attempting to seem unruffled. She was one of the oldest Elites, and the young ones were looking to her for serene guidance.
“Is everyone here?” she asked Jesse.
He spoke in that carefree cowboy voice that’d made him millions. “Every single one. You know what happened?”
At Charity’s raised eyebrow, he continued.
“We’ve officially been exposed Above.”
Horrified, the actress held a hand to her stunning face.
To the eternally youthful visage she’d paid for with the currency of her soul.
From the book: Break of Dawn, Vampire Babylon, Book