FIRST BLOOD - August 2008
Vampire Babylon novella in the FIRST BLOOD collection from Berkley Sensation, 8/08
New York, 1978
The woman moved like red light easing over a midnight street as she slipped onto the dance floor.
Ben Tyree watched her from his dark corner, hidden from the slow, throbbing disco music. He was biding his time, having traveled too many miles for answers regarding the death of his older, better brother.
As a deputy back home, he knew his way around an investigation. But here, the NYPD seemed so wrapped in red tape that Ben had ventured out on his own. The cops were cooperating by sharing what they already knew, yet Ben hadn’t accepted the lack of progress.
“Severe blood loss,” the young detective who wore glasses, a plaid tie and an officious attitude had said. “That’s all we really know about the cause of death right now. No clear indication of drug use, no signs of violence or attack like stab or gunshot wounds…”
So Ben had done his own tracking, starting with Nolan’s hotel concierge, a whey-faced man who’d jokingly mentioned Studio 54 to Nolan after he’d asked about city hot spots. The employee had known the obvious family man wouldn’t get in, but Nolan had taken him seriously.
It didn’t sound like his brother at all, but Ben had still followed up, even though the cops had already covered this ground.
And his tenacity paid off when he found something they hadn’t.
While working his way from the back of the club’s waiting mob to the front, Ben had encountered two women dressed as disciples of the Marquis de Sade by way of the Bee Gees. They’d told him that a woman named “Ginny”—early 20s, dark-haired, looked like Elizabeth Taylor back when she was fresh and young—had been seen with “the dead guy” outside this club the night before last.
Consequently, Ben hadn’t expected to get in to Studio 54 since it was known for its selectivity, so he’d resigned himself to staking out the crowds gathered around the entrance for this “Ginny.” But a slight guy with wiry hair had been handpicking customers, and Ben somehow caught his eye and was ushered past the velvet ropes as women in feathers and glitter and men in butterfly-collar shirts begged the same admission.
Now, under the pulsing lights and the synthesizer-driven chug of music, Ben honed in on the woman who just might hold more answers.
The lady who really did look like a young Liz Taylor, swaying so gracefully to the music.
Her short hair curled to just below the ears, a white flower poised in its black curls. Thick lashes surrounded eyes that seemed to flash blue against pale skin. Crimson lipstick shaped a lush mouth.
He couldn’t take his eyes off of her. Then again, neither could the other dancers—male and female—who’d gone still to watch her, enthralled.
Every one of Ben’s cells hammered downward until they gathered in his gut, stretching then twisting until they overcame him, tearing him apart with every undulation she made.
A flame, he thought while she smoothed her hands up her red dress, lifting her face to the catwalks lingering over the floor.
A lure that shouldn’t be tempting him.
He tore his gaze away, gathering his guts by reminding himself of why he was here and where he was.
A Sodom wrapped around Gomorra. A cavernous former theater from the 1920s that had been turned into a radio/TV stage, then morphed into this pit over fifty years later. A place with bared bodies writhing under a piece of artwork that symbolized debauchery—a man in the moon, complete with a cocaine spoon lifted to its nose.
Life in the goddamn city, he thought. And his brother had died in its embrace.
As Ben quelled his emotions—he’d already allowed himself grief, but now vengeance overtook it—the music escalated to a more urgent beat, pumping in time to the lights.
In spite of himself, Ben’s gaze was pulled back to the woman’s allure.
She would be the key. He just knew it.
Fingers buried in her hair, she had stopped dancing, closing her eyes as if craving the slow churn of the previous song. She allowed her hands to trail down the sides of her long, pale neck, over the clasp of her halter, then her collarbone. Her sliding touch was a sensual fade, one last long note in the song still humming through her.
She brushed the swell of her breasts, and his belly clenched. But then he forced himself to think about Nolan and the pictures that the cops had shared.
The sightless eyes of a man who’d died in the throes of…
What? Ben had been wondering just what the hell it was that defined Nolan’s gaze in those pictures. It had compelled him, haunted him.
Ben had seen a few corpses in his own small-town Texas job, but he’d never seen this, and he found himself wondering just what Nolan had found in death that had eluded him in life.
What could’ve possibly given him such a look of ecstasy…?
When the images faded from his mind’s eye, the woman was gone.
He thought of the .45 in his ankle holster. Ready for anything.
Emerging out of his shaded corner, he scanned the club, past the mirrored bar by the dance floor, past the stage, past—
He sucked in a breath when he met a pair of bright blue eyes.
Fight-ready, he immediately went into defense mode, his heartbeat trumping the music and banging in his ears, his chest.
But…he couldn’t move. God, he was captured by the blue gaze, which had somehow turned a pure, fathomless silver in the endless second it’d taken him to recover.
A strange peace filtered through him, and he thought, This is what Nolan saw while he died.
Suddenly, he knew that he shouldn’t be so on guard. Not around her.
Not around Ginny.
As he stared and stared, he felt the vague sensation of fingers riffling through his mind, quickly and efficiently exploring.
Then, as soon as it had started, it was over.
He was still looking into her eyes, but they were blue again. Music blasted, as if turned way up, even though Ben instinctively knew that it was the same volume as before.
The woman in red didn’t speak over the drumming rhythms, only crooked her finger at him, inviting him to follow her.
He probably should have thought twice about obeying, but he didn’t. Couldn’t. His body seemed to be doing all the thinking for him as he followed her to a staircase, where they climbed to a balcony dominated by old theater seats.
And the chairs weren’t empty, either. No, all around, there were bodies—half-dressed, undressed, exposing sleek limbs and grinding hips.
A twinge of warning told Ben to leave, to let the NYPD do their own work, but abandonment wasn’t natural to him. Besides, Ginny had taken his hand, leading him past a woman who was snorting cocaine while she straddled another female. The second one was strumming the first one between the legs, a naughty smile on her face as she checked out the new arrivals.
Then they moved on, past a woman wearing nothing but gold paint while she laved the penis of a man who was casually drinking a martini.
Eventually, they found a relatively quiet area of their own, and Ginny turned to Ben.
God, she was so beautiful that looking at her almost seemed blasphemous. But he did it anyway.
And his cock went hot and hard, as if he had no control.
She gestured to a seat, but he refused. Nonetheless, she folded herself into a chair, crossing one long leg over the other.
“From the way you were watching me,” she said, “I thought we might enjoy a little privacy.”
Privacy would be great for this interview he needed to conduct with her; if it panned out, he’d let the NYPD in on the lead.
Or maybe privacy would be Ben’s downfall.
He steadied himself, and she must have misconstrued his hesitation.
“There are other places we can go if that makes you more comfortable,” she said. “Haven’t you heard about the upper area—the real ‘Upstairs’? Private, secret rooms. I know the owners of Studio, so--”
Ben tried to clear his head. What the hell was going on with him?
“I’m not here for any other reason than to talk,” he managed.
“Really?” It wasn’t so much a question as an amused statement.
“Really. I’ve got some business to take care of and you’re on my check list, Ginny.”
A lift of her brow was further proof that he’d found the right woman.
As she cocked her head, inspecting him with cool negligence, he strengthened himself with thoughts of his older brother: Nolan laughing at a family barbecue, then gone the next morning on a business trip to New York. The phone call his wife had received yesterday, announcing Nolan’s death in a condemned building down in the Bronx.
Ire all but pummeled Ben as it batted away the grief. Got to find out what happened.
Then, a crazier thought.
Got to know what Nolan saw before he died with that fulfilled look in his eyes….
“How do you know my name?” Ginny asked, eyes narrowing. But she grinned, too. Sultry, languorous.
Ben stepped forward, knowing the interview had begun. Over the balcony’s stench of sex and sweat, he caught the lovely scent of the magnolia in her hair.
Or maybe that was the smell of her skin…?
His cock strained against his fly, blood thrusting through his veins and tearing him apart as he struggled for composure.
“Two nights ago,” he said tightly, “people saw you outside this club with my brother, Nolan. Seven hours later, he was found dead. I thought you could offer some insight about what happened between then and there.”
Something seemed to roll over her, like the moon losing its light, and Ben knew that he hadn’t wasted his time tracking her down. This Ginny knew what he was talking about.
But before he could start in again, a voice sounded from behind him.
“You going to tell him, Ginny?” a second woman asked, and she sounded exactly like her. Like Ginny.
When Ben turned around to see who she was, he realized that it was Ginny.
Or at least her double.
From the book: First Blood (story title: “Double the Bite”)
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