He died right in front of me and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do to save him.
It all started on a Wednesday night about half past midnight. I was sitting in the back of the Tampa General ER waiting my turn, wondering why it always took so goddamned long to get seen.
Of course, it wasn’t like I was in mortal danger. I wasn’t having a heart attack or a stroke or convulsions, like the poor guy in the bed beside me. (I had seen him thrashing through the thin sheet-like curtain that separated my cubical from his.)
No, I wasn’t about to die, I just needed stitches. Directly above my thumb on the inside of my right wrist was a deep, nasty bite.
A vampire bite.
The Komodo dragons of Indonesia, the largest lizards in the world, have a bacteria in their saliva that makes their bite deadly. They don’t even have to run down their prey. They just have to get close enough to get one good mouthful and within a few hours, the bacteria has done its job. The prey drops dead and the dragon has lunch.
A vampire’s bite is like that. It’s orrendo—unclean both physically and spiritually. I had already disinfected the wound twice, once with holy water and once with rubbing alcohol.
It was a toss up between which hurt worse.
Instead of bacteria, vamps carry a virus in their blood and saliva that works to instantly kill or turn any human they bite within hours of being bitten. Ninety-nine percent of those bitten will die of the bite and the other one percent is awakened to darkness.
In other words, they become a vamp themselves.
But either way, like the prey of the Komodo dragon, even if a vampire doesn’t drain you dry, you’re still dead the minute they sink fangs into your flesh.
By my calculations I had been bitten exactly three hours before in a show-down with a nasty little leech from the bottom rung of the Valerio family. I’d been after their Elder, of course, but right before I’d taken my shot, a suck-head I’d thought was down for the count had popped up and ripped into my arm like it was an ear of corn. The minute I took care of the Elder, the leech was ash, but his bite lingered to remind me to be more cautious in my killing next time.
And there was always a next time.
So why wasn’t I writhing in agony or lusting for blood myself? That’s easy— I’m a giustiziere de morto—a Slayer of the Dead or Death Slayer for short.
Because that’s all vamps are—the walking, talking, biting dead.
To the Holy Roman Church they’re a sacrilege—an offense against God. To a girl like me, a slayer of the line of Cosenza, they’re just cockroaches to be wiped out. Luckily I have a genetic immunity to their nasty bite so I wasn’t about to turn or die myself. But I was going to keep on losing blood until I got myself sewed up.
I cursed the bad luck that had lost me my last doctor—a great old guy who still made house calls and didn’t ask questions. Unfortunately, our frequent meetings had been noted by a pack of vampires from the Andretti family that wanted to wipe me out. They missed me but ended up turning good old Doc Somersby.
I’d had to stake him myself and that had been damn hard—I’d known him since I was a little girl when the mark of the Cosenza clan had first appeared on the inside of my right thigh. The cross-shaped birthmark, paler than the rest of the skin around it, proved my immunity to vampire venom and pre-ordained my destiny as a slayer.
And to think when I was five I just wanted to be a ballerina.
“Hi there, Mrs. Cosenza, I’m Doctor Moran.”
The deep, friendly voice interrupted my brooding and I looked up to see a fresh-faced intern smiling down at me. He was probably around the same age as me but the clear green eyes that were looking into mine had an innocence about them I envied.
“It’s Miss Cosenza. See?” I wiggled the fourth finger of my left hand at him, showing the absence of a gold band.
I could have been a real hard-ass and told him to call me Ms., but really, what’s the point? I’ve never gone for any of that pseudo-feminism crap. When you do what I do for a living, you don’t need any extra ego stroking to know you’re the equal or better of any man on the planet.
“Sorry about that.”
He sat on the bed beside me, still smiling, and brushed a strand of blondish-brown hair out of his eyes. He had a nice even tan all over that had to be his natural skin color. I knew most of these guys, interns I mean, didn’t get out in the light often enough to do much sunbathing. Mostly they were in the hospital twenty-four hours a day— married to their jobs.
I knew the feeling.
I noticed that Doctor Moran wasn’t wearing one of those sterile white lab coats you see a lot of medical personnel in. He just had on a pair of slightly rumpled pale green scrubs that looked like they had seen better days.
In fact, everything about him looked slightly rumpled from the laugh lines crinkling the corners of his eyes to the thick tousled hair he pushed carelessly behind his ears. It wasn’t a fashion statement—he just needed a haircut and probably didn’t have time to get one.
The hair coupled with the natural tan and the impressive muscles that were visible beneath the scruffy scrubs, made him look a little bit like a Viking you might see on the cover of a romance novel—if you read that kind of thing.
Soldier of Fortune or Guns and Ammo were more my preference. Still, I couldn’t help noticing his physical presence and it had been a long time since I’d noticed any man that way.
“What seems to be the problem?” he asked.
He had a clipboard in one hand and I could see my own uneven left-handed scrawl straggling across some of the forms, but I guessed he wanted to hear it in my own words.
“This is the problem.” I held out the wrist I’d been squeezing tightly to slow down the blood flow and showed him the wound.
“Mmm.” He pulled on a pair of latex gloves that he’d produced out of nowhere and leaned over my arm. He tugged at the ragged remains of my right sleeve, a shiny black vinyl, the same as the rest of my suit.
Vinyl doesn’t breathe very well and it’s hell to wear in the summer, but it’s slick enough that the vamps can’t sink their fangs or claws into it very easily. A little sweat is worth that extra protection. I don’t even mind the stares the suit invariably gets since I look like a full-service dominatrix when I wear it.
Nicely rumpled Doctor Moran was having trouble with my sleeve which didn’t want to pull up so he could see the entire bite.
“Is there a zipper or something here?” he asked, turning my arm this way and that.
“Here.” Impatiently, I pulled my arm away and yanked at the rip in my sleeve with my teeth. The vinyl parted to reveal my pale skin.
I’m so white I practically glow in the dark—another good reason to wear all black when I hunt at night. My lily-white epidermis along with my black hair and pale blue eyes is another mark of the Cosenza clan. You’ll never meet a slayer with blonde hair and a California tan.
My pale skin means the only thing that burns faster in the sun than me is a vampire—small comfort.
“I could have used some scissors,” Doctor Moran said mildly as I finished making the tear. “But this way works too.”
He bent over my arm again, grabbing some gauze from the little rolling table beside him to sop up some of the blood. Then he started disinfecting the bite. I thought about telling him not to bother, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t do any good.
This was going to be one clean wound.
“What happened?” he asked.
In cases like these I find it’s best to tell the complete truth.
“I was bitten by a vampire,” I said, totally deadpan.
Doctor Moran laughed.
“Funny girl—I like that.” He looked up at me and the smile died on his lips. Maybe it was the ice-cold look in my eyes—I’ve been told I don’t have much of a sense of humor and in this case it was probably showing. “Or not so funny,” he continued with a shrug. “I think we’re going to need some stitches here.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” I said, trying to be stoic. As many times as I’ve been bitten and shot and stabbed and clawed, I still don’t love needles.
Some fearless vampire slayer, huh?
Apparently Doctor Moran picked up on my false bravado.
“Hey, it’s all right.” He stroked my forearm soothingly, just above the still oozing bite. “I’ll use a little lydocaine to numb it up first,” he said, that warm smile lighting his face again. “You’ll hardly feel a thing—I promise.”
I bit my lip against the fire his kind words and gentle touch started in me. Then I mentally kicked myself.
It had been too long between men, that was all. Time to go out and get laid. If only it wasn’t such a damn hassle finding a halfway decent guy that was up for no-strings attached sex.
Yeah, I know it sounds like a man’s dream come true—and that was exactly the kind of man I wanted to avoid.
“I’m fine,” I said, not meeting his eyes. “I’m used to it.”
“Oh, I see.” He was quiet for a minute, getting his suture kit ready. I doubted that he really did see, but what was I supposed to say?
I looked away while he drew up the syringe of lydocaine.
“So, this must be a busy night for you guys,” I said, trying not to think about what he was doing.
“About so-so. You should see it on weekend nights. That’s when things are really hopping. You’re going to feel a small pinch now.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, feeling stupid and girly but unable to help myself as the needle bit into my flesh. But actually he was right—it was more like a pinch than a bite.
“You can loosen up a little bit, Miss Cosenza.”
“Call me Kate,” I said grudgingly, not really sure why I was giving him my first name.
“Kate, then. And I’m Michael. Doctor Michael to you.” He sounded mildly amused. “But seriously, Kate, you can relax. I’m really good at this—you’re not going to feel a whole lot.”
He said it as a fact, not bragging, and I found myself liking his confidence in his own skill.
I’m like that when I’m on the prowl—nobody kills vamps better than I do because I was trained by the best—my uncle Harry who had died four years before. I’d lost him long enough ago that thinking of him just gave me a dull ache—not the sharp stabbing pain in my heart his memory had caused for so long.
I tried to put the memory of my murdered uncle to one side. Instead, I dared to open my eyes and watch Doctor Michael’s progress. To my surprise, he was almost done and I had hardly felt a thing.
“Hey, you are good,” I said, admiring the neat row of black stitches marching up my wrist like an orderly line of ants.
“Told you.” He looked up briefly to grin at me, then back down at my arm. “You know,” he said, keeping his eyes on his work, “I have the number of a shelter you could call. They can come and get you tonight. He’ll never find you. Never be able to hurt you like this again.”
Crap, he thought I was a battered woman. Well, I was in a way, but not the way he was thinking.
“I think you have the wrong idea about me,” I said as gently as I could. “Nobody I love did this.” I gestured with my left hand at the right where he was still stitching. “It happened at work.”
He glanced up at me again. “What line of work are you in? If you don’t mind me asking.”
I could tell by the tone of his voice that he thought I worked in a fetish club or a bondage bar. It was on the tip of my tongue to say, ‘I’m a vampire slayer,’ but what came out instead was, “Animal control.”
I closed my jaws with a snap. Now why had I lied to him?
“Do you know if the animal that bit you has had its shots?” He looked up, concern in his green eyes. I noticed there were flecks of gold in the green, like splinters of sunlight in deep water. “If they haven’t, we might need to do a series of rabies shots on you.”
The thought of more needles made me sit up and take notice.
“He had his shots all right,” I said, thinking of the two hollow point bullets filled with a mixture of silver nitrate and holy water I’d put in the leech’s head. “All of them.”
My smile must have looked a bit grim, because Michael Moran gave me a doubtful look.
“Seems like there must be an easier way to earn a living,” he said, finishing up the last suture.
“What, like sewing up weird Goth girls at one in the morning?”
“Touché, Kate.” He gave me a genuine grin. I noticed that even though he’d finished with my stitches, he still hadn’t let go of my arm. “Listen,” he said, “I don’t usually do this. Well, to be honest, I never do this. I’m pretty sure it’s against hospital policy, but…”
“But?” I said, not quite sure what was coming.
He shrugged his broad shoulders, a self-deprecating little smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
“My shift is over in the next hour. Would you like to grab a cup of coffee or something? There’s a little all night diner just around the corner—Mannie’s. They have this homemade cherry pie that’s…well, it’s really good.” He shrugged again. “You interested?”
I decided to be frank.
“In the pie? No. In you—yes,” I told him. “But…”
“Ah, there’s always a ‘but.’ You’re involved with someone, aren’t you?” He sounded resigned.
“No,” I said with real regret. “But I can’t get involved either. I’m just not at a point in my life where a relationship is such a good idea.”
There was never going to be a point in my life when it would be a good idea. A white picket fence and two point four kids didn’t figure strongly in my future.
I had a better chance of becoming the ballerina I’d longed to be when I was five.
“Coffee and pie aren’t a relationship,” he said gently. “But I won’t push. If you change your mind I’ll be at Mannie’s in about an hour. As long as a major trauma doesn’t come in, that is.”
I opened my mouth to thank him when the guy in the bed next to me started convulsing again. The nurse had given him something earlier and he’d been quiet for about forty-five minutes. But now I could see the shadow on the sheet-like divider between our beds jerking and writhing like a big black bat and some kind of monitor was sounding a high-pitched warning wail.
“Shit.” Michael Moran was off my bed in a second and around the curtain shouting directions at the nurses for fifteen ccs of some drug I’d never heard of.
“We’re losing him, Doctor! I can’t find a heartbeat,” I heard a panicked voice shout.
“Pressure down to forty over twenty,” said a second voice. “Dropping fast.”
“I need another fifteen ccs of…” His voice faded out abruptly. Then he said, “What the hell is going on with his teeth?”
I knew right then what was going to happen but I’d had to leave most of my weapons in the car and my right hand—my good hand—was still numb from the lydocaine. I reached for the curtain anyway and ripped it aside, making the metal rings it was hung on jingle against the metallic frame.
There was something strange about the leech on the bed but I didn’t have time to study his face. It was his fangs—three inches of razor sharp ivory that protruded from his upper gums where his incisors should have been—that drew my attention.
“Get back!” I shouted. But it was already too late.
The leech bypassed the easier target of the pretty blond nurse bending over his bed and grabbed for Michael, dragging him down by the v-neck of his pale green rumpled scrubs.
To give him credit, the doctor resisted. I saw the muscles in his broad back strain and bunch under the suddenly tight fabric and one of the seams actually started to rip as he tried to pull away. But the strongest human still isn’t a tenth as powerful as the weakest vamp.
It was no contest.
By the time I’d fumbled my silver stiletto from inside my left boot, the leech had already sunk fangs into the meaty part of Michael’s neck—right where the shoulder and throat meet.
Like I said—he was dead right in front of me, or as good as, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do.
But I tried anyway.
I ran forward and planted my knife in the vamp’s right eye. I pushed hard, feeling the same resistance you get when you slice semi-soft cheese, until I heard the dull scraping of the stiletto’s point meeting the inside of the skull.
That wouldn’t kill an older vamp, not even a leech—but it would sure as hell slow him down.
The leech let go of Michael Moran and started thrashing again—this time I knew his convulsions were real. I dug a vial of holy water out of my other boot, flipped open the cap, and poured it down the bloody-fanged throat that was open wide in a silent scream.
The leech began smoking and jittering like a broken toy and a few drops of the liquid landed on the doctor’s wounded neck. They skated across his skin and started to hiss and sizzle like water on a hot skillet. I knew what that meant—he wasn’t going to die of the bite.
He was going to turn.
I knew I ought to kill him then and there. It would save me the trouble of hunting him down later and taking him out after he already had several kills of his own under his belt. But the only good knife I had with me was still planted hilt deep in the leech’s brain and besides, my arm still tingled where he had touched me.
It was stupid and sentimental and foolish—all the things Uncle Harry had trained me never to be—but I still couldn’t bring myself to kill him. Not right there, anyway.
So instead of twisting his head until his neck broke like I should have, I grabbed his muscular arm. Ignoring the commotion all around me, I started dragging him towards the sliding glass doors of the ER exit.
“What are you doing? Where are we going?” Doctor Moran sounded dazed but he followed me docilely enough.
“Out,” I said. “Away.”
The security guards were just beginning to look around and realize that what they probably thought was a murder had been committed when the glass doors opened with a whoosh.
Knowing it was a stupid decision didn’t stop me.
I dragged Michael Moran, the nicely rumpled doctor out of his comfortable world and into the night, changing both our lives forever.