Copyright 2015 Beth Bishop. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned or distributed in any form, including digital and electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the Publisher, except for brief quotes for use in reviews. This book is a work of fiction. Characters, names, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Chapter One: Slash and Burn
I am used to the stench of burning flesh, and I am used to stains of blood spray on my clothes. Yet, no matter how many times I kill a vampire, I never get used to the screaming.
I was lucky to catch my latest victim while snoozing. Once he realized what I was about, he fought to sink his teeth into my neck. I held him off with a firm shove against his forearms and freed my right hand. Knife ready, I plunged it into the base of his throat and wrenched it in circular motions, widening the hole so that the blood flowed freely. He tried to cough and blood spurted from the wound. With a swift kick to his stomach, I sent him sailing through the open patio door and into the Florida mid-morning sun.
His flesh smoked and charred just before it caught fire. His scream pierced the silence of the day, and I flinched at the sound. As I watched from the living room, he trudged toward the door. Three paces from it, he fell to the concrete patio and roasted, his life after death finally ending.
“You got him?” Justin asked as he came into the living room from the kitchen.
I nodded. “Yeah. Quick and easy.”
“Mine, too. I didn’t even break a sweat. Small nest,” he said, looking at the smoldering pile on the patio. “Let’s see if we can find anything worth taking back.”
We kicked and scattered ashes. Justin’s vampire bit it in the grass, so we sifted fresh dirt over the charred places. A few buckets of water washed the remains of my target from the patio.
We searched the house for supplies. Since the two male vampires had no human slaves or soldiers, we found no food or weapons. There was a TV, but with no electricity, we couldn’t use it to check the news.
Justin found a closet full of clothing and linens, so I helped him load the spoils into the compact car we acquired in Virginia. After that, we stripped the vampire-safe tint off the windows and took down the blackout shades. With the nest empty and unusable, Justin drove us back to the new house. He pulled the car behind the house and parked by the back door. As we filed into the kitchen, my mother looked up from food inventory and gave us a tentative smile.
“Well?” she asked.
I gestured to my shirt. “We got ‘em.” Justin edged around me. He gave my mother a kiss on the cheek and headed toward the bathroom. I walked over to the counter and surveyed the two grocery bags sitting there. “That’s all we have left?”
“Cami, I hate to ask you to go out again so soon, but we need more food than this. It’s only noon.”
“No problem.” I kissed her cheek.
As I left the kitchen, she said, “Check in and see if your father needs anything before you go. He’s down in the basement. Oh, and bring me your dirties when you change. I’m washing today.”
“Okay. Thanks, Mom.”
As I tromped down to the basement, I saw the faint glow of the lanterns. My father set them up around the room to light the work area. Although mostly above ground, the basement had no windows, not even in the door.
From the bottom of the stairs, I said, “Hey, Dad, I’m going into town soon. Anything in particular you need me to get?”
With the blade he was cleaning, he pointed to a rag on one of the tables. “You’ve got kunai?” I took one of the beveled knives from the pouch at my waist and twirled it on my index finger to show him that I did. “Okay, but clean a hunting knife and take it with you.” I picked up a rag and began oiling one of the knives to guard it against the moisture that inevitably existed in basements and the humidity that characterized the southern United States. “If you can find it, pick up some wine. It’s almost November, and we should celebrate a little.”
I nodded to him. This autumn marked twenty years since the vampires took over and enslaved humans, twenty years since my parents took my sister and me into hiding. I had been four and Aster nine. I don’t remember much from the time before, when I wasn’t hiding in bunkers, afraid of monsters in the dark, which, it turned out were real and did want to eat you. When I finished oiling the knife, I slipped it into the mpty sheath on my belt. It rested just in front of my left hip whereas the kunai pouch stayed on the right.
“You had success?” my father asked, setting his knife down on the towel he had spread over the pool table.
“Yeah. There were only two. Justin’s unloading the loot.”
“Good. Okay, well take those bed rolls up.” He jerked his head toward them. “You, Mandy, and Patrice are taking the second bedroom.”
“Yes, sir,” I answered in military fashion, but before I left him, I gave him a quick sideways hug. We had this large, secluded house under surveillance for over a month before we cleared vampires from the surrounding area. When no one noticed that they went missing, we started moving in supplies. We holed up in the basement for a few weeks. Now that we were sure no one was watching us, we began the move upstairs.
As the three single, adult females, Mandy, Patrice, and I always shared a room. I brought the bedrolls to it and helped them organize the room. I changed from my slayer wear of dark leggings and a snug tank into the street clothes I acquired for going into the city. Today, I chose jeans and, even though there was a nip in the air, a short-sleeved T-shirt. It would show off the self-inflicted “vampire bites” on my arms. They were painful to make but necessary for me to keep up the appearance of being a slave.
Once properly dressed, I got the keys to the compact from Justin, traded my mom my dirty clothes for the grocery bags, and exited through the back door. With the goal of scoping out more neighborhoods for nests and getting as much food as I could, I set off toward the grocery store.
The morning sun had given way to clouds that warned of rain, but I rolled down my window to enjoy the fresh air. We tried to avoid colder, snowy climates in fall and winter. Even though the changing foliage that we saw while passing through the Carolinas and Georgia was beautiful, Tallahassee promised a moderate winter. After the first scouting trip, it also promised well-stocked, operational grocery stores. We wouldn’t have to settle for only canned items scrounged from gas stations. If Justin’s report was
correct, I could expect fresh meat and produce as well as dry goods from the store I planned to hit.
I looked down to check the gas needle. This little compact, according to the owner’s manual, was a 2010 Honda Civic, ran pretty well to be twenty-two years old, and it got great mileage. Although it wouldn’t be a problem in a large city like Tallahassee, gasoline was usually hard to find. The needle said I had more than half a tank, so I drove past the station and on to the store.
I pulled into the parking lot of a Human Foods store. With no other cars in the lot, it looked deserted, but after I traveled up and down a few aisles, I passed a woman only a few years older than me. The smile she sent me was brief and emotionless. My hello registered no response from her, as if I’d said nothing.
After that, I didn’t speak to the other three people—one man and two women—that I passed. I kept to myself, and my quick and efficient manner of shopping drew no attention. At least, that’s what I thought.
As I knelt down to pick up a five-pound bag of rice, a young man stooped beside me and snagged it. “Hi, I’m Mark.” He dropped the bag into my buggy. “I haven’t seen you around here before…” He gave me a leading look.
“Lily,” I lied.
“You must be one of Benoit’s new girls.”
“Who?” I asked before I thought.
He lifted his eyebrows. “Guillame Benoit.” At my blank look, he said, “The ruler of Florida?”
Slowly, I shook my head. “Uh, no, I’m just trying a different store this week.” I turned the buggy and, leaving Mark behind, headed toward the meat counter. From the butcher, I acquired several packages of pork chops, which he gladly packed in ice. My mouth watered just thinking about anything my mother might do to them.
At the bakery, I took four baguettes and a sack of dinner rolls. Fresh bread—it had been ages since I’d had any. I resisted the urge to sniff it. I wheeled over to the empty checkout lanes and transferred the items from my buggy to the grocery bags.
“No, no, here,” Mark called. He strode over to me, waving store bags. Instinct had me shifting into an offensive stance. “Whoa!” He held up his hands. “I just wanted to give you some Human Foods bags, you know.” He deliberately looked down at my bags. “We wouldn’t want you advertising the competition around our store.”
I looked down at my bags and the block letter “Consumables” stamped across them. I shook my head and relaxed. “Sure, sure. Sorry.” I ordered myself to be calm. It was no time to get sloppy or overreact to basic friendliness. Mark just behaved so differently from the robotic customers. I waved for him to give me the bags, but he joined me in bagging.
“You’re a little jumpy.” I ignored the comment. “Are you a soldier? Is that why you have all those scars?” When I looked up at him, I found him scanning my visible skin with interest.
“No, just a house servant. I’m accident prone.” I took a deep breath and struggled not to cram the groceries into the bag. I practically snatched the other bags away from him. “I have to go. I’m expected back soon.”
I kept my breathing under control and my pace slow as I passed through the automatic doors. I managed not to run to the car, and I drove from the parking lot at an acceptable speed. When I got two miles away, I went through every bag of groceries. I patted down the bags and turned over all the merchandise looking for anything that might track me. When I found nothing, I put the car back in drive and headed for the house.
* * * *
“This is excellent,” my father said. My back was to him as I helped my mother put up the groceries, but I heard his fingers drum on the table while he thought aloud. “Guillame Benoit. I’ll be damned. You know who he is, of course.”
I nodded. “He’s the one that destroyed the group that took Aster,” I answered and turned to look at him.
My father nodded solemnly. “If we take him down, it would open up northern Florida, bring about some chaos in their world. This Mark person sounds nosy, but he might be a good resource. I think it’s time we had regular grocery store runs.”
While I stacked cans in one of the cabinets, my mother spun around to look at him. “Harold,” she interrupted. “Are you sure? That’s risky, even for Camellia.”
My mother, Iris, had a thing for flower names. Although she wasn’t a fighter, she took care of the hodgepodge of people that formed our family. Overprotective mother was part of that role.
“She’ll be fine,” my father said dismissively. “I want to know as much about this vampire as possible.” He waved me off, as Robert and Justin entered the kitchen to discuss some other business that didn’t involve me.
I went to the room I shared with Mandy and Patrice and stretched out on my bedroll. I stared at the ceiling, thinking about how vampires, who didn’t even need to use beds, had as many as they wanted. This house had two—one in the room my parents were using and one in the children’s room.
One of the few memories I had of the time before we went into hiding was of a bed. It had one of those canopy things with ruffled curtains in a lily theme. Maybe that was why “Lily” popped into my mind.
I thought about Benoit and tried to imagine what it was like to rule a state. To get ahead in the vampire world, he had to have power and a serious following. He had wealth or else he had slaughtered the competition in a hostile take-over. Either way, it meant that he was ruthless.
As I wondered if vampires felt guilty about killing their own kind, a face intruded into my field of vision. I focused and found Justin smiling down at me. I smiled back.
“Time for training,” he said. “We’ll do some one-on-one with throws today.”
“Yeah, okay,” I grumbled.
He offered me a hand up, and after I took it, I followed him through the house and out the back door. We walked to the natural clearing in the pine forest that started at the back of the house. After stretching and warming up with a bit of sparring, Justin spent the next hour teaching me how to throw opponents by repeatedly flinging me to the ground. I had the breath knocked out of me so many times that my chest hurt, not to mention everything else.
“Is there any reason why you’re pounding the hell out of me?” I asked, half-jokingly.
“C’mon. I’m training you.” He smiled at me. “You need to learn these throws and how to recover and fight when you’ve had the wind knocked out of you.”
“Sure.” I jumped on his back, and he grabbed my wrists and hurled me over his head while simultaneously bending at the waist. I did a lame front flip and landed flat on my back. He still held my wrists. “I’ve had enough,” I declared. “I’m covered in dirt and pine needles.”
“We could move on to something else if you like,” Justin said, softening his voice. He kept his hold on one of my wrists and stretched out beside me.
“In the mood are you?” I asked wryly. Justin had been with our group for about five years, and not long after we found him, he and I became partners of sorts. We trained together, worked together, and a few times a month, slept together.
“It’s been a while.” He kissed my open palm.
“We’ve all been in the basement,” I reminded him.
“Well, we aren’t now. Don’t you have needs? Desires?” He released my wrist and brushed the back of his hand down my cheek.
“I can usually take care of that myself. Can’t you?”
“Well, yeah, but it’s not nearly as fun as the real thing.” He propped up on an elbow and smiled down at me. After letting Justin hurl me through the air all afternoon, I definitely wasn’t in the mood.
“It takes less time and effort,” I said, which was true.
“It’s always about efficiency with you.” He stroked a finger down my arm. “I’d like to watch you. It’ll make my ‘alone time’ more efficient.”
“I’m sure it would.”
I rolled my eyes. It wasn’t lack of attraction. I had been slow to learn that sex, to Justin, meant attachment—something I was unwilling to allow myself. Attachment meant the vampires had yet another weapon they could use against me. It was a difficult situation because I liked sex, and I liked sex with Justin, but I didn’t want the emotional portion of it.
“It’s not going to happen today.”
Then, he said the dreaded words, “I have feelings for you.”
Needing to nip this in the bud, I chose denial. “No, you don’t. I’m just one of very few viable females left in the world is all.”
That did the trick because he practically jumped to standing. He looked down at me much as he had in my bedroom, except now his face was pinched in anger. “I’m not just saying that so you’ll have sex with me,” he huffed out, “even though I want that.”
“If that were the reason, if it was just sex, I could buy it, even go along with it.” I sighed.
“You know very well that people can’t afford feelings these days, Justin. We have sex, good sex. You shouldn’t let your emotions get involved.” I looked up at him. “It’ll only screw you up. Besides, you don’t really know me.”
He crossed his arms over his chest, and I sat up. That would be enough to send him on his way, even if he was in a stubborn mood. “You can say whatever you want, but I know what I’m feeling, and I know you. People need to feel. Sometimes, it’s all that keeps us going.”
He rushed past me but stopped and came back. He put his hand behind my head and kissed me quick and hard before he stormed off toward the house. Apparently, Justin wasn’t through trying to convince me that he had feelings, and I worried he would try to convince me that I had feelings, too. Well, I had them, but they were friendly, not mushy, lovey-dovey ones.
Suddenly, I felt exposed. I jumped to my feet, turned my back toward the path to the house, and crouched into a fighting position. The wind blew my way, and I sniffed. Something subtle was there, almost minty. Slowly, I backed into the trunk of a large tree as I scanned the woods.
Nothing. Nothing, but I could have sworn that I sensed something or someone. I shivered and fled to the house. I didn’t want to alarm anyone if it wasn’t necessary, so I kept my paranoia to myself. I decided the best way to clear my head was weapon detail.
In the basement, I positioned a whetstone in the vise clamped on the pool table. I was sharpening the hunting knives when my father came to speak with me, or rather at me, as was his usual style.
“You should let Justin do that,” he said. “He’s a trained blacksmith after all.”
“That may be, but I can sharpen a blade just as well as he can, Dad. These knives we picked up during sweeps are nicked and rusty. They need seeing to.”
“Well, then, stop whatever you’re doing to him,” he commanded. “He’s all messed up.”
“I’m not doing anything to Justin. He’s doing it to himself,” I insisted. I could probably sharpen a knife in my sleep, but I focused all of my attention on what I was doing. As I pressed and drew the blade over the whetstone, I listened to its metallic sigh.
“Do I need to explain to you how important he is to us?” I shook my head but didn’t look up at my father. “Don’t run him off. You need to get your head back in the game.” He came over and put his hand on mine, so I had to look at him.
“My head’s never been out of it.” I stopped to give my father the attention he wanted. “Justin is the one with weird ideas about our relationship.”
“You’ve been with him.” It was statement more than a question. “More than once?”
“Yeah. You know I’m twenty-four, right? It’s not serious,” I assured him.
“I know how old you are,” he snapped. He let go of me and ran his fingers through his hair. “To him, it apparently is serious.”
“Why don’t you try steering him toward Patrice? She likes him, and she isn’t a fighter. She’s quiet and really sweet, despite Mandy’s influence.”
“You’ve never been in love,” he said softly. My father looked at me, almost with pity. What he didn’t know about love and me was a lot. I had been in love and lost. I refused to put myself through that again. He knelt in front of me. “You can’t shut it off when you want to or focus it on someone else when it’s inconvenient.”
“It doesn’t matter, Dad. I can’t afford love.” I went back to honing the blade. “It’s bad enough worrying about what it would do to me if I lost you or Mom, especially after Aster.”
“It’s hard for your mom, being back here in Florida.”
“I know. I’m trying to spend more time with her.”
“You might not have a formal education, but you’re a smart one, Camellia. I know how you feel.”
Because I knew he needed to see a positive reaction to this little chat, I gave him a small smile. After that, I focused on work, an effective way to block out all thoughts. He stood looking at me for a while and then left.