Chapter 1 of Lust for Life
NOTE: This chapter contains spoilers for earlier books in the series, including Book 3.5, the novella "Let It Bleed," which is available for free download. You've been warned!
Chapter One — Somebody to Love
Halloween is a great day to be dead.
Or, technically speaking, undead. A vampire like me can be just a bit more herself in public, fly the freak flag a few feet higher. At WVMP, the Lifeblood of Rock ’n’ Roll, we hide our secret in broad daylight all year (not literally broad daylight, unless we want to spontaneously combust). But come October, we revel in it.
The station’s Halloween parties at the Smoking Pig are legendary, and tonight’s is no different. The bar is packed to near-fire-code-violating density, our listeners dressed as their favorite musical icons from decades past.
This year I gave in and dressed as Courtney Love, lead singer of Hole and widow of my fiancé Shane’s idol, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. My messy blond hair, white baby-doll dress, and torn stockings enhance the riot grrl ’tude. So does being undead.
Our latest ’60s DJ—Vincent, who is, alas, not a vampire—cranks up the energy with the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night.” The crowd cheers and bounces, heads bobbing.
I spy my best friend Lori leaning against the far end of the bar, near the restrooms. I clomp over in my one-size-too-big combat boots. “It’s one of your favorite songs. Come dance!”
She passes a hand over her forehead. “You go ahead. I’m tired.” Her face is almost as pale as her white-blond hair, but maybe it’s just her Madonna circa Blond Ambition costume.
I examine her glass, which holds only ice. “Too many sea breezes?”
“No, I’m sticking to ginger ale. My stomach’s been funny lately.”
When I was human, I would’ve backed away fast to avoid a dreaded intestinal virus. But that’s not so much an issue for vampires, so I gently loop my arm over her shoulders. “If you’re sick, then go home.”
“I will, after Shane gets here. How much longer?”
I don’t bother glancing at my watch. “Half an hour. I’ve forbidden myself to stare at the door for another thirteen minutes.” I look at the front entrance. “That was a glance, not a stare.”
She gives me a wan smile as she subtly adjusts her “bullet” bra up a few inches. “Are you nervous?”
“If by ‘nervous’ you mean ‘ready to drag him into the nearest alley and rip off his clothes,’ then yes.” I let go of her and do a goofy little shuffle dance, very un-Courtney-like. “I am so stoked. And in six nights, daylight savings time’ll be over!” Winter means to me now what summer meant when I was human: freedom.
Lori goes to take another sip, then realizes her glass is empty. “You’re not worried Shane’ll be different after boot camp? They’re teaching him how to kill.”
“The Control’s first precept is ‘cooperation before coercion.’” I recite it like I’m back in basic training myself. “They teach us how to avoid killing.”
“But, Ciara”—Lori draws out the two syllables of my name, KEER-ah, in that lecture-y tone that somehow soothes me—“you didn’t train as an Enforcement agent like Shane. That division is hard-core. David’s told me stories of his days in uniform.”
Lori’s right—I do wonder if Shane has been changed by his training with the International Agency for the Control and Management of Undead Corporeal Entities. I wonder if they’ve turned my laid-back, grunge-DJ vampire into a hardened warrior, carved out his gentle soul and replaced it with the heart of a killer. I wonder if they’ve cut his hair.
I take a sip of my beer and change the subject. “Seen any of our advertisers tonight?”
“Mel from Creaky Antiques is dressed as Chuck Berry, and Bernita from Waxing Nostalgic is pulling off a pretty sweet 1980s Grace Slick.”
“Good to see our clients getting into the holiday spirit. What about Ray from the Pontiac dealership?”
“Franklin’s got him now.” She points past me, near the bar’s side door, where our sales and marketing director is chatting up one of our most fickle advertisers. Neither is in costume, but Franklin might as well be, with his animated, garrulous, downright swishy public persona.
It’s all an act, especially these days. His boyfriend, Aaron, died of the same mutant chicken pox that would’ve killed me permanently had I not been turned. Since then, Franklin’s real-life demeanor has been even grimmer than usual.
The slithering strains of “Season of the Witch” creep out of the speakers, and the partygoers wrap around each other in pairs, slinking together in the darkness.
Our punk/Goth DJ Regina spies us and starts to head over. Lori dashes for the bathroom, covering her mouth. I’ll assume those events are a coincidence.
Regina strides toward me, the chains on her black leather boots and jacket clinking, because she wants them to. She has the stealth of most vampires, but she likes to make an entrance.
I step forward to meet her at the corner of the bar. “Vincent’s playing your song.”
“Ha ha.” She taps her black-lacquered fingernails on the bar’s polished brass railing, so softly it’s barely audible under the blaring music. Still, Stuart the bartender turns instantly.
“Another Bass ale?” he asks Regina, who just smiles.
I pull my list of clients from the pocket of my denim jacket and take a surreptitious glance around, trying to figure out who I’ve yet to schmooze. “Vincent’s great with the crowd. Best we’ve had since”—I clear my throat to force out the name stuck there—“since Jim.”
“Vincent’s totally brill.” Regina leans back against the bar, crossing her arms over her chest. “Shame we’re going to lose him.”
“Not another one!”
“He put in his two days’ notice tonight.”
“Two days? What did you guys do to him?”
“Nothing, swear. We even let him play cards with us.”
“Just wanted him to feel like one of the gang.”
Playing poker against creatures who can sense the slightest rise in body temperature or heart rate is the surest path to poverty. “How much did you take from him?”
“Total last week? About six grand.”
“Regina . . .”
“David needs to hire one of us to replace Jim. That’s the way it’s always been.”
“The job description does not include the word ‘undead.’ Besides, Jeremy’s a DJ and he’s human.”
She scoffs. “Despite his best efforts.”
Ever since he discovered vampires were real, our emotastic ’00s DJ has tried to become one. Nothing’s dampened his enthusiasm—not even watching me bleed and suffocate on the cold dive into death, then scream and shudder on the twisting climb into un-life. Jeremy likes pain.
I spy him on the far side of the bar and offer a wave. Jeremy waves back with an actual smile, making his lip ring glint in the overhead light. The cute (and surprisingly straight-edge-looking) girl with him probably has something to do with his unusually sunny mood.
I elbow Regina. “Isn’t that Lea from Legal Grounds?”
She glances away from the stage over to Jeremy. “I guess.”
“He told me months ago he had a crush on a girl who worked at the coffee bar. I figured it was Emma-Rae, the only person in our zip code with more tattoos than he has.”
“Opposites attract, right? Look at me and Noah. Or you and Shane.”
“You think Shane and I are opposites?”
“That boy is a marathon brooder. But nothing bothers you.”
“Would I need six months of therapy after that zombie battle if nothing bothered me?”
“Most people would need six years of therapy after what you’ve been through.”
She has a point. In a four-week span last spring, I became a vampire to avoid death by mutant chicken pox; staked my Control commander to save the entire town of Sherwood, Maryland, from zombies; impaled myself on a fallen tree (don’t ask); and had my throat nearly torn out by one of my coworkers.
I’m either resilient, shallow, or totally lying to myself, but whatever the reason, I feel glad to be “alive.” Especially now that the nights are getting longer.
“We interviewed a new candidate for the sixties job,” Regina says. “Adrian’s the real deal. Metaphysically, musically. He’s even got the hair.” Her lip curls a little. Punks aren’t fond of hippies, even though their music shares a call for revolution.
“I don’t care if he’s a mummy with a mullet, as long as he keeps the ratings up.” I chatter on, making alliterations with monsters and hairstyles, while another part of my brain has zoomed in on the name Adrian.
First, the silliness test: The Vampire Adrian. Not bad. Many names are too tame or diminutive to work with the vampire title. Someone named Bob, for instance, better switch to Robert after he’s been turned, or he’ll be laughed at. By me, at least.
Second, the barrage of Adrian anagrams, which I can’t stop: A NADIR, AD IRAN, AND AIR. I’m particularly proud of RADIAN—extra points for keeping it to one word.
Vampires tend to develop obsessive-compulsive behaviors, a nasty side effect of our “temporal adhesion,” which is a fancy way of saying we get stuck in time in the era we were turned. Most vampires still dress and speak as we did when we were alive—we’re basically walking, stalking time capsules.
So the OCD quirks help us feel in control as the world changes around us. Usually the weirdness takes years to manifest, but I started obsessing over wordplay and correct grammar on my first night.
The phone rings behind the bar. I flinch as the sound cuts through the background noise to scrape my spine. Stuart keeps the ringer turned all the way up so he can hear it—he doesn’t know it hurts our sensitive vampire ears, since, like most people, he doesn’t know vampires exist.
He answers after one ring. I turn back to Regina.
“What do you mean, this Adrian guy is the ‘real deal’?”
“I mean, he’s a bleedin’ flower child. If Jim is Altamont, Adrian is the Summer of Love.”
I cringe inside at the name of my stalker and the violent incident she equates him with. Jim loved the sixties for its recklessness, not its idealism. He was one of that decade’s darkest children.
I spy Lori heading for the front exit with David, her husband and WVMP general manager. She gives me a wave and a weak smile. Poor girl.
I wave back, then turn to Regina. “So I guess we won’t be hearing a lot of Doors or Pink Floyd from Adrian.”
“He’s more folk-rock.” She examines the pointy end of one of her long black spikes of hair. “He’s still mad at Bob Dylan for going electric.”
She might be kidding, but I laugh, anyway, mostly from relief, and the fervent hope that WVMP has finally left the DJ-Jim era behind. If the programming lineup can move on, so can I.
Suddenly my laughter fades. Not because I’ve seen or heard or smelled something that stopped my breath. It’s a sense beyond senses, which in my more rational moments I don’t even believe in, because I don’t believe in much of anything.
But now, as I turn toward the front door, where I know Shane will appear ten minutes early, I believe.
“What’s wrong?” asks Regina, in a tone that suggests she doesn’t care, though I know she does.
I hand her my half-full bottle of beer. “Nothing’s wrong now.”
Even in combat boots, my feet seem to float as I cross the room. The crowd parts a little, leaving me a path. Then it parts a lot, revealing Shane framed by the wide wooden doorway.
I stop to drink him in as he searches for me. With his lithe form dressed from neck to toe in the black Control Enforcement uniform, he stands like a statue: a monument to badassery. Thick-soled, calf-high boots add even more height to his six-foot-five-inch frame.
My sigh mixes desire with relief, at seeing him “alive” and well, and at the fact that they didn’t make him cut his hair. The light-brown, nape-length strands still frame his face, making the uniform look borrowed—or, better yet, stolen.
When his pale blue eyes find mine, eight weeks of loneliness melt like snow on a sun-drenched road.
We take a long step toward each other, but the crowd suddenly surges between us, pushed by a force at the other side of the bar.
Stuart is shoving his way toward the stage, his tan-weathered face twisted with urgency. He speaks to Vince, who shuts off the music mid-song. The crowd goes silent and tense.
Stuart takes the mic. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m gonna have to ask you to leave the bar calmly but quickly. Please walk to the nearest exit—do not stop for your coats—and once you’re out, get as far from the building as you can.” He pauses, jaw shifting as he mulls his next words. “Don’t panic, but a bomb threat’s been called in.”
The fear scent of two hundred and fifty people hits me like a shot of pepper spray. I squeeze my eyes shut and stagger back. Everyone is screaming, even the guys. Terror pitches their voices into an eardrum-piercing octave.
I slap my hands over my ears and struggle to open my eyes.
Shane’s voice breaks through the siren in my head. A watery glimpse shows him pushing through the crowd toward me, fighting the flow of fear and frenzy.
I lurch forward, wanting to swipe aside the people between us like bowling pins. A woman dressed as Cher stomps on the ridge of my foot with a spiked heel.
Shane, closer now, calls my name again. I put out my hand, but a crazed, um, person dressed as Boy George shoves me aside with the world’s pointiest elbow.
I’m trapped by my superhuman strength, afraid to push these people for fear of shattering ribs and limbs. But instinct reminds me what’ll happen if I’m touched by fire or sun.
I won’t scald, blister, or scar. I’ll disappear. After about ten shrieky, melty seconds, that is. If I burn like flash paper in front of all these people, the world will know vampires exist.
“Ciara!” Shane pulls me tight to his side. “Don’t let go.”
I let him lead me, my eyes shut against the sting of human fear. Someone to my left has literally pissed herself.
Near the door, the panic and pressure grows as people sense that survival is close but not quite within their grasp. I focus on keeping myself and everyone around me upright. Please let the door open out instead of in.
My foot hits something soft. I look down to see a hand, then behind me to see a body, stretched and inert. Its pale blue shirt is torn and scuffed.
“Franklin!” I pull away from Shane and fight the crowd to stop in my tracks. It’s like trying to tread water in a rushing river.
“Franklin, get up!” I tug at his wrist, then travel hand over hand up his arm like I’m climbing a rope, making my way to his shoulder.
More feet stomp over his chest. I want to rip them off and leave these people bloody stumps for legs.
Instead, I hunch over Franklin as I lift his upper body, shielding him with my less-breakable torso. His head lolls back on his neck.
If I pick him up as easily as I can, I’ll be busted as supernatural, but I don’t care. There’s no time to ask for help just so I can pretend to be a weak human girl. I slip an arm beneath his knees and the other under his shoulders. Fighting the crowd’s own field of gravity, I stand up straight.
Shane is there, looming in front of me. “Give him.”
“No time. Just hold me up and push us forward.”
The mass of flesh is thinning as the last wave of people squeezes out the door.
A step from the threshold, it happens: a sudden shift in air pressure, lasting a millisecond, which to a vampire can seem like an eternity.
A roar, a thrust of air, and the world begins to melt.
From Lust for Life by Jeri Smith-Ready
December 2012 Copyright © Jeri Smith-Ready