Pool of Crimson
Author:Suzanne M. Sabol

Chapter 1



I was in trouble. A cool wash of vampire power pushed at my back, making the hair on the back of my neck stand on end and a shiver run up my spine. I didn’t move. There was no point. I had nowhere to go. He’d already found me. I stood motionless in one of the best art galleries in the capital city and waited for him to make his move.

The push of preternatural power was an uneasy feeling, twisting my gut into knots. Even after ten years of dealing with the undead, their power still sent shivers up my spine and gooseflesh pimpling across my skin. Each power signature was as individual as the vampire who possessed it but generally, it felt like being on an airplane at 30,000 feet that was pressurized ... wrong. It was in my brain, in my bones, and in my gut. I didn’t like it.

The power percolating behind me was strong, really strong. I slid my hand slowly across my stomach, gliding my fingertips across the waist of my jeans until the hard, comforting smoothness of oak grazed my warm hand. I clasped the small stake and braced for a fight.

“Beautiful,” his deep, velvet voice said from behind me. He was close enough to my ear that his breath moved the hair around my cheek, brushing softly against my skin. I froze as he smugly added, “The painting.”

A shiver ran through me as his words slithered around my body and deep into places a voice had never touched before. No matter what my body told me, I knew better. My instincts drove me to remove the stake from its sheath, then lower my hand casually to my side, keeping the stake hidden within the sleeve of my leather jacket.

I looked up at the painting on the wall before me and gave it a hard look. I wasn’t in immediate danger, not surrounded by people anyway. A dark alley was another matter altogether.

The canvas was enormous on the stark white wall, almost double my size, and I was 5’10”. Shades of red, orange, and yellow covered the canvas in thick paint as angry strokes slashed across the taut cotton. The painting and the artist’s rage resonated with me in ways I wished it didn’t. I turned quickly, and gave the vampire a quick once-over.

He was tall, lean, with hair the color of coal that stuck out in organized chaos. His dark eyes focused on me in singular pursuit that should have made my fingers itch to turn the stake in my hand and prepare to use it. Instead, my heart raced and my mouth went dry under his gaze. The blood thumped in my ears, and I took a quick step back. I needed some space between us. I couldn’t think with him that close. Dammit, I needed to think.

His face was too narrow and his features too large to be considered handsome but in those dark, almost midnight-black eyes was intelligence and a hint of humor that made him more attractive than I’d originally thought. Those eyes made me hesitate.

“If you say so,” I said stiffly, trying to regain some semblance of myself, tugging my jacket tight around me. Ohio in early October was just cool enough to wear jeans and a jacket. I’d come down to the Short North to relax and disappear into a crowd, not this, not vampires. The Gallery Hop was a once-a-month event, and I never had time to go. I was always hunting them.

I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and turned my head slightly to look. I didn’t dare take my focus off the vampire in front of me, though, and shifted only slightly. A woman in stone-washed jeans swished a glass of wine around in a large pinot noir glass. As the liquid moved against the sides, the thick consistency clung to the curves of the crystal longer than it should have. I met her gaze with my own depth of cold warning.

She evaluated me from the back of the gallery, running her hungry gaze over me as she took in my scent with a flare of nostrils. She quickly rolled her eyes and turned her attention to the smarmy, dark-haired, short, unshaven man with exposed chest hair beside her.

It shouldn’t annoy me that she’d disregarded me. It worked to my advantage if vampires didn’t see me as a threat, but it pissed me off just the same. I hate being ignored.

She hung her right arm effortlessly over his shoulders and smirked contentedly. She was a few inches taller than Smarmy. She whispered something in his ear that turned up the corners of his mouth in what passed for a smile. He pulled the hand that she draped over his shoulder quickly to his lips for a quick kiss, before encouraging her to follow him through a door in the back.

Damned vampires ruin my night every time. Next time I want to relax, I’ll just stay home!

I had a vampire leaving with a human out the back door and one standing before me who was trying to engage me in conversation, which was definitely new for me. I needed to blow him off and get my ass outside. There was something about him that made me want to stay and talk to him. It wasn’t his power that made me stay or that he was doing anything out of the ordinary, other than making eye contact. I found him attractive. I couldn’t put my finger on it. He looked like he belonged in a library surrounded by old, dust covered tomes. He intrigued me.

His focus narrowed even more on me, and he grinned, a small boyish upturn of his lips. His dark, cunning eyes tugged at places low in my body.

“Don’t you like it?” he asked, a hint of amusement in his voice. I took another really good look at the painting, and then returned my attention to him. My pulse picked up a notch as I met the heat in his eyes. He was looking at me in a way I didn’t deserve, as if I mattered. I liked it.

I thought about my response carefully before I answered. I needed to get outside and track down Stone-washed jeans and get away from this guy. He was more dangerous than I’d originally thought. He distracted me. I knew it, and a part of me didn’t care. “All I see is pain ... and death,” I said in a more defeated tone than I’d intended.

He smiled sadly, and all those tiny butterflies that I thought had disappeared began to flutter in my stomach as his eyes seemed to pull me to him. His expression seemed sincere and the smile lit up his face, wrinkling the skin at the corner of his dark eyes. I had a feeling he didn’t smile very often. It looked good on him.

“But death can be beautiful,” he said with a slight smile still on his full lips. I bet. “As in Brueghel’s The Triumph of Death. But then I suppose that most know nothing of real pain or death, do they?” he asked with a familiarity in his eyes that unsettled me.

I took another step back and tightened the grip on the stake still in my hand.

He glanced down at my clenched fist, stiff at my thigh and turning my knuckles white with tension. His gaze slowly trailed back up my body as if evaluating me. When his eyes met mine, there was amusement twinkling in their dark depths. He was wary of me, but he wasn’t afraid. I’d forgotten for a moment, just a moment, that he, too, was very dangerous.

“You’re probably right.” I spoke quickly, scanning the area for a quick exit. I needed to leave, and I wanted this conversation to end. I didn’t like the way he made me forget my mission.

“Are you suggesting that you do?” he asked.

I couldn’t tell whether he believed me or not. I didn’t want to talk death, but I couldn’t seem to let his comments fall.

“Probably more than most,” I said, sadness thick in my voice. I thought about all the death I’d seen over the last decade. I thought about how many times I’d come too close to death myself; about all the scraped knees, broken bones, twisted ankles, cracked ribs, punctured lungs, and more bruises than I cared to count. Yeah, I knew more than most about pain and death.

Walk away.

“Some say that the viewer brings their own psyche to the art. Perhaps the painting doesn’t reflect pain and death but instead, you do?”

I ground my teeth at his notion.

Son of a BITCH!

“Fascinating,” I snapped with as much vitriol as I could shove into that one word.

His shoulders squared and that twitch at the corner of his full lips fell just a bit.

“I have to go.”

“But I don’t know your name,” he called, amusement back in his deep, velvety voice.

“Dahlia,” I snapped back over my shoulder as I strode away. I didn’t wait for him to ask me anything else. I wasn’t even sure why I’d given him that much. My name was out of my mouth before I knew what I was saying. I made my exit through the front door and onto the crowded sidewalk. I didn’t look back, no matter how much I wanted to.

The lights from the arches crowning High Street twinkled in the dark Columbus night like a Ferris wheel, shifting color over the busy street from yellow to green, blue to purple, red to orange, and back again in a seamless wave of LED color. People crowded the streets, moving in every direction as they weaved in and out of bars, galleries, and shops. The brisk autumn breeze whipped my hair around as if I stood on the edge of a cliff near Lake Erie, not the center of a busy city.

I glanced in one of the gallery windows on my way down the street. The art was beautiful, the paintings too rich for my blood, and all I saw was a herd of human cattle ripe for the picking as they moved about the packed room with glasses of wine in their hands. I turned my head and kept walking. I had someplace to be.

I pushed through several middle-aged men and their wives, apologizing as I went. I shoved my way through a thick group of teens surrounding a musician, then a smaller crowd surrounding a street performer blowing fire as I made my way down the block as quickly as I could. I’d already lost too much time.

The alley next to the gallery was dark. I assumed the back exit of the gallery led out here. There weren’t many other options. The alley wasn’t lit and covered in shadows from the street lamp at the corner. Dumpsters were scattered haphazardly down the narrow alley, throwing more shadows into an already dangerous place. I paused under the streetlight and waited. I didn’t want to go down that alley, not if I didn’t have to. There were more dangerous things hiding in dark alleys than just vampires.

I stood motionless for a few brief moments, trying to push the street noise from my consciousness. Muffled whimpers, the sharp skidding of heels on pavement, and a soft slurping filled my ears from the far side of a dumpster in front of me. A woman’s soft plea for help rang clearly over the musician on the street behind me singing Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”.

I took the first step into darkness, edging slowly along the building wall, trying desperately to make as little noise as possible. It was more difficult than I’d thought in stiletto-heeled boots. The click of my heels on the uneven pavement echoed in my head and against the building walls as I moved. I shifted quickly to the balls of my feet, though it was more difficult to balance.

I lifted my sweater and leather jacket slowly to expose the belt strapped against my torso like a second skin. That belt was my lifeline, housing a series of sheathes filled with wooden stakes five inches long and about a half an inch thick. It had been a special order, expensive and worth every penny.

I pulled a second stake, sliding it from the belt easily and soundlessly. I gripped one in each hand, and peeked around the corner of the dumpster. My nose filled with the smell of rotten fruit, stale beer, and cat piss.

Lovely.

I held my breath to keep from gagging.

There they were; those same damned stonewashed jeans, crouched over a very pretty pair of red patent-leather pumps and two shapely legs. The woman on the ground and the owner of those shapely legs struggled sporadically beneath the slender but unnaturally strong woman in those horrible stonewashed jeans.

Smarmy stood a few feet away, ogling something in his hand that I couldn’t quite make out and ignoring the show on the ground completely. His other fist was clenched tightly around something else as he spoke.

“We thank you for your business. You’ve been paid and fed. Ethan expects you out of his territory by dawn,” Smarmy said stiffly with a greedy glint in his eyes. Stonewashed Jeans didn’t reply as the woman beneath her continued to struggle.

I cleared my throat loudly in the darkness.

Smarmy’s eyes met mine. The vampire’s head snapped up and away from the young woman’s throat, turning instinctually to me with a single drop of her victim’s blood running down her chin. She stuck out her tongue and licked the crimson stream from her face as her gaze narrowed on me.

The woman on the ground gasped for air and tried to speak, or scream. I couldn’t tell. Her breath gurgled in her throat like bursting bubbles as she gasped for breath, and the wound marring her slender neck looked like a sloppy damn mess.

The vampire stood easily to face me, discarding the poor woman as if she was abandoned trash. Smarmy took a step back, out of reach. The woman on the ground scampered behind the dumpster to hide, then curled up into a fetal position with her knees pulled firmly to her chest, tucking them beneath her chin as she hugged herself and rocked back and forth absently. Her eyes focused on the ground as if hoping she could just ignore the horror surrounding her and wake up from the bad dream she was having.

The vampire in stonewashed jeans straightened her cable knit sweater as if she’d been caught in flagrante. She was unattractive, with dingy, stringy, brown hair that looked unconditioned as it clung to her head. The ill-considered tattoo on her cheekbone didn’t help. It was an odd symbol, high on her cheek and too close to the edge of her eye to be hidden easily.

The image on her face resonated in my mind. The mark meant something, I was sure of it. The tattoo was done in red as if she’d been tattooed with blood. The small red spider had a dark black trident emblazoned across its back like a brand. The whole tattoo looked as if it could move across her face. It gave me the creeps.

She glared at me with annoyance sparkling in her luminescent eyes for a moment before she spoke.

“I don’t have time to deal with you.” Her tone was cavalier and contemptuous, like I was nothing but a pest.

Arrogant bitch! I ground my teeth together in annoyance.

Don’t let her get to you.

I smiled at her, a touch of menace curling my lips as I flipped the small wooden stake in my hand a hundred and eighty degrees and flung it to the center of her chest with all my strength.

She stood stunned as the stake penetrated her skin through the thick cable knit. I used the several seconds she stood gaping at me in surprise to draw the sole of my boot up and drill the stake through her ribcage with a swift solid kick to her chest. She grabbed at me in a frenzied attempt, arms flailing as she sank to her knees. Her snarls ricocheted through the alley, a ferocious sound of fury as she crumpled.

The life behind her eyes died, shifting to a glassy, unresponsive white film. Her skin shrank and pulled against her muscles and bones with a tearing sound that made my stomach turn. I’d misjudged how old she was. Her decaying corpse looked like she’d been undead decades, long enough to know better.

Smarmy stared at me with wide, indignant eyes. He hadn’t cared one way or another if I’d killed her. Frankly, he looked pleased. I’d probably saved him some work. He’d gotten what he wanted and shoved it into his jean’s pocket, which required more effort than it should have. His jeans were too tight and his shirt too open for common decency’s sake.

He lunged for me in a quick, uncoordinated move that was all arms and legs with no direction. I stumbled back a step or two, trying to avoid the talon like fingernails cutting the air like razor blades. He grabbed the lapel of my jacket and pulled me toward him, yanking me off balance and into his chest. His coarse chest hair brushed against my cheek, and I fought the urge to retch. He couldn’t hold my weight, and we fell to the ground in a mangled heap. I landed on top of him, straddling him at the waist.

I brought my fist back and swung down at his exposed face. His nose cracked beneath my knuckles in a sickening crunch of cartilage. He screamed before bringing his hands up to cover his now blood-soaked face.

“You stupid bitch,” he snarled through his fingers.

“Ah,” I said casually. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you didn’t like me.”

He bucked beneath me, tossing me from his body. He rolled to his knees, then crawled quickly out of my reach. He rose to his feet and glared at me. I got to my feet, too, ready for another go, but he remained in place, his beady eyes darting about the dark alley.

“You don’t know what you’ve done,” he said with a quiver in his voice. He focused on a spot on the ground where his blood still dotted the concrete. He looked like he wanted to take a step. His right foot pushed forward, then moved back in hesitation. He met my eyes again with the first signs of fear. His steps backward were slow and uneven as he hissed at me. He actually hissed at me. I didn’t know humans could make that sound but he did.

“I’ve done nothing I wouldn’t do again,” I said with a quick upturn of my lips in a self-satisfied smile. I casually brushed a piece of dirt from my sleeve. “And I know one thing,” I started with a confident smirk as I turned my full glare on him. “I’ll sure sleep better tonight.” Smarmy’s face turned red and his lips pressed into a flat line between his teeth as he looked from the pile of dead flesh then back to me.

He turned on his heels and ran in the other direction without another word, reaching in his pocket for what looked like a cell phone.

I followed him for a few steps, but shook my head in disgust as I watched him disappear around a corner back toward the crowds. There wasn’t anything I could do to stop him without being seen. I never would figure out why humans flocked to vampires. Humans were lower on the food chain. After all, death was the only constant like living with a full-grown lion and thinking that the lion won’t eat you. Yeah right!

I should have followed him, but I couldn’t outright kill him. He was human. The only thing I could do was let him go and hope he wised up. I didn’t have much hope for that. By the looks of him, he didn’t have many viable options. Vampires or porn: and the Ron Jeremy look went out in the 80’s.

I walked the few steps to the spot where we’d tussled and found something he’d left behind lying on the ground. It definitely wasn’t mine. I bent down and evaluated it carefully before I reached out and picked it up. The tiny little thing hummed in my hand. It was warm, almost hot, against my skin. A pulse of magic washed through me, like dipping my skin in hot wax, racing up my hand and arm as I stood with it clutched in my grip.

It was a circular braided disc made of what looked like delicate branches. They were too thin to be tree branches, dried vines, or herbs maybe. In the center was a black stone, speckled white like a robin’s egg and smooth to the touch. There was a hole in the center of the flat stone, creating a ring, as if it was meant for jewelry instead of this ... thing. I flipped it over a few times in my hand. It was light, and the magic humming through my fingers made my hand tingle where my skin made contact with the object.

Slipping it into my pocket for safe keeping until I could get it home and really examine the strange object, I turned to leave the alley and go home. I needed to find out what the thing in my pocket was and why Smarmy had wanted it so badly.

A hoarse whisper from behind the dumpster caught my attention and I froze, turning slowly at the sound. Frightened, tear-filled eyes focused on me in horror. I looked closely at the woman’s neck. She appeared to be suffering from shock and slight blood loss since the bleeding had stopped once the vampire pulled away. Most vampires’ saliva had an anticoagulant in it to maintain blood flow so they could continue to feed. Once the vampire pulled away, the blood would slow naturally. The wound looked worse than it was. She’d live.

I met her dazed expression and wide eyes. Mascara streaked down her face, following the trail her tears had taken. I wasn’t sure if she was afraid of me or everything that had happened, and I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to feel any more like a monster than I already did.

“What do I do now?” she whispered to me in the darkness. Her voice sounded pathetic and small. There was a part of me that hated her just a little for the victimization in her voice. She still clutched her legs to her chest, as if that would protect her.

I could have told her that everything would be all right, and she wouldn’t have nightmares about the attack for the rest of her life, but I knew better. Her fingers trembled as they touched the damaged skin at her neck. I watched her with anger- laced pity as she stared down at the blood on her palm.

Lying down and dying would never keep you safe. You only lived if you fought back. Sometimes that killed you faster but if you fought, the vampires never lingered to play with you, which was always worse than death.

“Go home. Eat a cookie or drink some juice and forget this night ever happened,” I said flatly. I walked out of the alley and back toward the noise and light of the street, leaving her behind.

Standing on the corner under the streetlight was the vampire from the gallery and his familiar dark eyes, watching me with a faint and almost imperceptible upturn of his full lips. I turned back to look at the woman behind the dumpster as she stood on her own two feet, wobbly but upright. She stumbled the other way, and I met his eyes again. He watched me with the same heat in his gaze that I’d seen in the gallery and now he knew my name.

Stupid!

I was one of the few that still believed in vampires, ghouls, ghosts, werewolves, and all the monsters that lurk in the dark. I’d seen them. I’d killed them, and I feared them. Now one of them knew my name.