Devotion Calls By Caridad Piñeiro
Contents Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapte...
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Devotion Calls By Caridad Piñeiro
Contents Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23
Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26
Chapter 1 Spanish Harlem, New York City T he saints’ eyes followed him as he worked, scolding him for using them for his lie. Mocking him for denying the truth about what he was. Ricardo Fernandez paused and laid his hands on the altar that embodied the fraud that was his life. All around him the statues of the saints condemned him. But he was used to such censure from those who refused to believe in his powers. Those whose fears forced him to hide behind the guise of a santero. He looked down at his hands and, as he had countless times in his thirty years of life, considered why he had been chosen to carry this burden. Why these hands, which looked just like those of any other man, possessed the power to give life or take it away. If he was a lesser man, he might have fallen into the trap of considering himself almost godlike. He might have opted to sell his abilities to those who paid the highest price to be saved. He could have even made a perfect assassin, able to kill without leaving a trace. But Ricardo had done none of those things. Neither regrets nor revelry had a place in his life now, so he resumed his task. With a gentle touch, he removed the offerings he had placed on the altar the day before: the fine cigar, now just a half-burned stub and a pile of ashes, and the shot glass of fragrant rum, which had nearly evaporated from the heat of the radiator just a few feet away. After checking the water level in the vase of sunflowers he had placed beside one virgencita, he shifted to the last offering. A small pile of coins lay at the foot of one statue. He gathered up the money in his hand and thanked the deity. While he himself was not a true believer in Santería, his customers held to this faith and he wouldn’t besmirch their tenets. He hoped his prayer was deemed respectful enough by the deities that allowed him to use the powers with which he had been born. Ricardo didn’t like living a lie, but posing as a santero—a priest of the Afro-Caribbean religious Santería—was the only way he could use his healing gifts. Many of the people who sought him out might not have come to him if they realized his abilities were earthly. They preferred to think the powers came from rituals beseeching their gods. Of course, if some god hadn’t decided to give him this boon, who had? Ricardo refused to consider the alternative, since he had sworn never to use the dark side of his gift. Not even when someone asked for it. As had happened just the other day with Evita Martinez. He had been seeing Evita for just over a year now, ever since the doctors at one of New York City’s more prestigious hospitals had told her that there was nothing else they could do for her cancer. They’d sent her home to enjoy what was left of her life. But Evita hadn’t wanted to die just yet. Having heard about his unique abilities from some of the other ladies in the neighborhood, she had come to him for help. She and her daughter, Sara. Sara, he thought with a sigh, recalling the way she had stood before him nearly a year ago, condemning him with her body language as he talked about what he could and could not do for Evita. He knew that Sara hadn’t believed him. Worse, that she considered him a charlatan. Her bright hazel eyes had skewered him with disbelief, much like those of the saints.
The disbelief in her eyes turned to trepidation when, after finding out that she was a nurse, he had asked for payment of a most unusual kind—blood. For a moment he’d thought she might run, and take her mother with her, but then despair had crept into her eyes. Sara loved her mother, and at that moment she had been desperate enough to do anything to help her—even if it meant bringing bags of blood to a man she considered less than dirt. Ricardo hated relying on that despair. He hated the lying, but he did what he had to so he could help people. When Sara brought a blood bag later today, he would have to tell the prickly nurse that her mother’s cancer was growing faster than he could contain it, and that Evita had asked him to help her pass peacefully when the time came, rather than suffer with the pain. Healing and killing. His gift and his curse. A tap sounded against the glass of his door. He turned from the altar and stared toward the front of his store. Sara Martinez stood there, her chin tucked into the thick collar of the charcoal-gray down jacket she wore against the lingering chill of winter. A crazy gust of March wind sent her silky shoulder-length brown hair swirling around her face. With a gloved hand, she combed it back and shifted from foot to foot, impatient and intractable as always about these visits. The early morning sun played across her pretty, heart-shaped face. She had a hint of a cleft in her chin, and hazel eyes that expressed so much with just a look. In his case, generally disgust. But he had seen how those eyes could warm to a molten caramel when they gazed upon someone she loved. And her lips…They were full, at least most of the time. Not when she shot him a grim look, as she did right now as she waited at his door. Drawing a deep breath, he prepared himself to break the news that would surely devastate her.
Sara peered through the glass door of the botánica. It was early, but she had just come off a double shift and wanted to get home, sink into bed and not get up until it was time to go back to work again. Before that, however, she had to make her payment to the santero. Plus, she wanted to hear what he had to say about her mami. Her mother had been looking pale lately and Sara wanted to make sure he was doing everything he could do. The plastic sign hanging behind the glass door said Closed, but she could discern the silhouette of someone at the back of the shop. Even in the dim light, the size and shape were familiar. Over six feet tall. Broad-shouldered and lean-hipped. Powerful. She could go on and on about his many physical attributes, but there was enough of that talk from the women in the barrio. So what if his hair, the color of rich soil, hung in thick waves to his shoulders? Or if his eyes were so green they reminded her of the deepest part of a pine forest? Or if his face, composed of finely chiseled lines and high cheekbones, was inherited from some Aztec ancestor? None of that changed anything. She had sworn off handsome men some time ago. Especially handsome men with little means of support. After her one bad experience, the bitter taste of being used still lingered in her mouth. She rapped on the glass with her gloved hand and he turned. He must have noticed her, for he sauntered toward the door, moving with a grace that should be illegal. As the light from outside spilled in, illuminating his face, she noted his serious demeanor and the harsh, thin line of his lips. He was angry.
When he opened the door, she immediately began an apology. “I’m sorry I came so early, only—” “It’s not a problem, really. I was working,” he said, stepping to let her enter. Working. A funny word to use. She wondered if the priests of her own faith, Catholicism, considered what they did work and not devotion. She walked into Ricardo’s store. The smells of the various herbs, flowers and candles he kept calmed her nerves almost instantly. The anteroom of his shop invited her in. He had set up a small sitting area in front of a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf and a display of candles and icons related to various religions. She had waited in one of the comfortable armchairs more than once when she’d brought her mother for treatments. Ricardo followed her there and held out his hand toward the small sofa. “We have to talk.” “Sure,” she said with a nod. When she sat, she opened her knapsack and removed the paper bag containing the blood bank pouches. She handed it to him. He hesitated before taking the sack and peeking inside. One dark brow arched upward as he noted the contents. “Two?” With an uneasy shrug, she said, “I thought that maybe with more blood…” She looked away, unable to finish, because in truth, she didn’t understand what he did with the blood, nor did she really want to know. All that mattered was that her mother seemed to have gotten better thanks to whatever rites he performed. Until lately. In the past week or two, her mom had started failing once again. Sara was too astute a nurse not to notice the signs of her mami’s pain and weakness. “Sara?” She raised her face and met his intense gaze. Understanding mingled there with something else. Something she wasn’t prepared to admit. “You wanted to talk,” she said. He barely dipped his head in acknowledgment, and shifted forward to the edge of his chair. Leaning muscled forearms on his knees, he clasped his hands together. They were strong hands, she noticed, with long, well-shaped fingers. Magical hands, her mother had said after the first time he had laid them on her during a treatment. “Your mami…” He stopped, and his hands moved up and down nervously a few times before he continued. “The cancer’s back and it’s spreading. More quickly than I can—” Sara waved her own hands to stop him. “If two blood bags aren’t enough—” “It’s not that,” Ricardo said, but he could tell that she had shut down and wasn’t likely to listen. She shook her head. “What do you want, then? Money?” Ricardo sighed harshly and raked his hand through his hair in frustration. “It’s not about money.” “Bullshit. How much do you want? I don’t have a lot, but whatever I have, it’s yours.” She grabbed her red knapsack, opened it and pulled out her wallet. Ricardo reached out to stop her. As soon as his hand connected with hers, he sensed her life force. Within it existed a bit of power similar to his own, creating an unexpected harmony. The synchronicity of their forces sent a tingle up his arm, followed by heat. A strong wave of sexual heat that swiftly raced to his groin. But it was the wrong time for such emotion, so he tamped it
down. Sara ripped her hand away. The surprise on her features and the flush across her cheeks told him she’d been similarly affected. “What was that?” It had been a long time since he had accidentally allowed his force to merge with someone else’s. The last time had been during a rather intimate situation well before he had learned how to truly harness and control his power. That Sara could cause such a loss of control was…confusing. So he lied. After all, what was one more lie on top of all the others he had already told her? “I just finished contacting one of my orishas—” At the her confused look he explained, “The living entities that represent the forces of nature and function as sacred patrons. Kind of like your guardian angles.” She nodded and he continued. “Maybe after contacting my orishas there was a remnant of that energy.” She rubbed her hand, almost as if trying to wipe away dirt or something foul. It bothered him more than he liked. “So my touch is only good enough when you think it will heal your mother?” “That’s not it.” Although she denied it, she continued to rub her hand. He ignored her actions and pressed ahead with what he had been trying to tell her earlier. “Your mami is getting worse. If she does get bad—” “She’s not going to get bad. She’s going to get better.” Before he could say anything else, Sara grabbed her knapsack and raced out of the store. The glass rattled as the door slammed shut, but after that, silence reigned. Ricardo heaved a sigh, hating that he hadn’t been able to get through to Sara. Plus, he worried that his concern for her had caused him to lose control for that one moment. A moment that had allowed him to connect with her on a deep emotional level. A sexual level. Even now he could recollect the way her hand had felt beneath his. How the flush had come to her cheeks and her hazel eyes had become that deep golden color he’d imagined earlier, rich with the promise of passion. No matter how he wanted to, he couldn’t explore that initial flare of attraction. Getting emotionally involved with a client could only complicate things, especially when the entire relationship was based on a lie. He knew enough about Sara to know that she wouldn’t tolerate a liar. Rising from the sofa, he picked up the brown paper bag she had brought. No sense wasting the blood, he thought as he headed to the phone to dial a friend who would appreciate the treat.
“More blood, Samantha?” The attractive vampire sitting across from Ricardo held up her china cup to assure him that she was fine. “No, thanks.” It had been nearly three years since he had first met Samantha Turner, at dusk one day when he’d been coming out of his recently opened botánica. After bumping into the attractive young woman, he had sensed an oddness about her life force and realized instantly that she was something other than human. She had sensed his unusual force, as well, and had transformed to her vampire state, ready to protect herself. He had backed away, summoning a calming push of energy in order to soothe her. As he’d raised his hands in a gesture of surrender, Samantha had realized he meant her no harm, and returned to her human state. In the time since then, he had become her friend and keeper of sorts, helping her get blood to satisfy her vampire needs.
Like today’s delicacy, he thought, watching her sip the blood. No matter how many times he saw her feed, he didn’t think he could ever get used to it. He cradled his own thick earthenware mug filled with hot English Breakfast tea, and inhaled its earthy aroma. As he did so, he took a moment to push outward and touch Samantha’s life force. The streaks of anger and hurt that had marred his friend’s aura for so long were gone. “Things are going well?” he asked, just in case he had misread the energy humming off her. Samantha smiled. Happiness filled her crystal-blue eyes. With a sure nod of her head, she confirmed his observation. “Very well,” she said, and picked up her cup, pinky extended in a very proper pose. When she finished, she daintily dabbed at her lips, but not before he caught a glimpse of the telltale black-cherry color staining them. Fresh blood from one of the bags Sara had brought earlier that day. Sara. He wondered whether she had recovered from their earlier accidental encounter. He also worried about how her mother was doing. She had been feeling so poorly the other day, even after his treatment. “Something bothering you, mon ami?” Samantha asked, breaking into his reverie. Looking down at the mug nestled between his large hands, he considered what had happened that morning. Needing to unload, he said, “Do you know Sara Martinez?” “Pretty young nurse from the apartment building around the corner?” “Is she pretty?” he said, because Samantha would only be too eager to start playing matchmaker if she thought he had any interest in Sara. He couldn’t imagine what his friend would do if he confessed to what had happened earlier. “Possibly even beautiful. Not to mention hardworking and honest. Respectful.” “A veritable paragon. Unlike me.” He took a sip of his tea and avoided Samantha’s discerning stare. “I’m assuming your rather grumpy state is because you had a run-in with this paragon.” With a shrug, he replied, “Her mother isn’t doing well. I tried to explain that to Sara.” “But you weren’t able to?” Reaching out, Samantha laid her hand on his and squeezed. “No matter how hard it may be, you need to make her understand.” “Sara doesn’t want to believe her mother won’t get well. She wants…hope.” “Don’t we all? But false hope—” “Is better than no hope at all, isn’t it, amiga? Think about your life before you believed again.” Before Samantha had fallen in love, a few months earlier, she had been brokenhearted. Wounded. Every time she came near he had sensed the stains of her past lives coloring her energy. They’d numbed her to all the good in her undead life. But then NYPD detective Peter Daly had come along. His love for Samantha had freed her to feel human once again. Ricardo was pleased for his friend; she deserved a chance at happiness. He smiled at her and motioned to the plate in the middle of the table, which held the sole remaining beignet that Samantha had brought. “Mind if I have the last one?” “So you like my little New Orleans treat?” she teased, picking up her cup to finish the last of her blood.
He grinned. “Who couldn’t love something deep fried and drenched in sugar?” “Mon ami, I thought you were all about being healthy?” With a shrug and a chuckle, he replied, “We each have our demons. Mine happens to be a severe sweet tooth.” Chuckling, Samantha transformed. Her teeth elongated into wicked fangs that projected well below her bottom lip. Her blue eyes bled out until nothing but a bright green glow filled her irises. “Speaking of demons, this one needs to go make her nightly rounds.” He rose from the table, walked to his window and opened it to give her access to the fire escape. “Will I see you later?” With a fangy smile, she shook her head. “Sorry. Another handsome man is expecting me, and I don’t want to disappoint.” She slipped out the window and, with a burst of vampire speed, vanished from sight.
Chapter 2 T he shiny chrome hubcap held a place of honor much like his Winslow Homer landscape had at one time. Illuminated by a bare bulb hanging precariously from an electrical wire running through the sewer, the gleaming surface of the hubcap reflected back the beast’s image as he stood before it. Stroking a hand along his head, the creature imagined how his wayward strands of jet-black hair fell into place. In reality, his long talons, filthy with the gore of thousands of kills, slicked back the razor-sharp quills that began at the crown of his head and continued downward along his spine. They ended in a heavy tail-like knot of spikes that he prized now the way he had once treasured the manhood that had long ago receded into his lizardlike body. The keen-edged barbs on that knot provided an effective weapon, not that the demon had many enemies. Few people believed he existed, much less came after him. He had little need for self-defense, except against the bite of a large dog, or when he hunted out in the country, a goat or sheep that got rambunctious as he drained its blood. To balance the weight of that prodigious tail, the creature had to hunch, nearly halving his size of over six feet. But what he lacked in height, he made up for with superior strength, speed and efficiency. “Ssso p-p-pretty,” the beast said as he examined his chrome reflection, the words almost lost among the crackles and screeches spewing from his misshapen mouth. Those simple words and a few others were all that he could remember after decades of devolving from his once-human state. Of hiding from and subsisting on the refuse of humanity and its pets. He loved the pets best, he thought, clapping his gray-green-skinned hands with glee as he imagined going aboveground and finding himself a snack. “P-petsss. Eeeat-t.” In the corner of the sewer alcove, piled nearly a foot high, were the remnants of past meals. The decaying bodies of cats, rats and small dogs from the neighborhood above emitted a rank smell, but during his decades of existence, he had learned it was better to take the bodies with him than leave them behind with the telltale signature of his bite—two gaping holes where his sharpest fangs dug in so he could drain the animals. Occasionally, if the pet was particularly mouthwatering, he would gnaw past the fur, sample a bit of the meat. Blood, however, was what sustained him, as it did his vampire cousins. Much as people didn’t believe in him, he hadn’t believed in vampires, either, until the Depression. Pets and other animals had been not as easy to find back then. During an especially lean time, a vampire had come across him after he had chased down a nice fat rat to feast on. He had been so surprised by the demon, he had dropped the rat. The vampire had eagerly snared it, and escaped in a surge of speed nearly as quick as his own.
Despite the briefness of that encounter, he could still remember the smell of the vampire, the energy unique to its undeadness. A hunter always remembered the signs of its prey and of its enemies. Occasionally, he would smell and sense his vampire cousins on the streets above as he went for his nighttime hunts, but he avoided them, having no need or desire to battle a vampire for his meal. Nor had he ever touched humans. They were just too much trouble. But their pets… “P-petsss. T-tassty,” he said out loud, the mangled sounds echoing against the walls in the empty sewer alcove. With a quick hop, the beast dropped onto all fours and loped down the sewer tunnel, eager to go aboveground and find himself an appetizing midnight snack. Sneaking into the night, the creature exited into an alley and quickly climbed to the nearest rooftop to scope out the neighborhood. He had been hunting in this area for weeks and the strays were getting scarce. As he leaped onto another rooftop, a movement down below caught his attention. A fat tabby, slinking along the edge of the building. A good snack, he thought, and vaulted over the ledge and to the ground. The cat sprang away from him, but he was on its trail quickly. Darting from one side to the other, the cat tried to shake off his pursuer, but capture was inevitable. The beast was just too fast. With a swift lunge, he had the cat’s tail in his grasp. The animal emitted a loud howl, but the beast swung it against the side of the building, stunning it into silence. Quickly, the creature returned to his lair, eager for his meal, but as he brought the animal up to his mouth, he sensed something different about the cat. Something…vital. Lowering the animal, he examined it, but could see nothing out of the ordinary. And yet a force radiated about it. Energy unlike any other he had ever encountered made his hands tingle. Human energy. That much he could tell. A human was responsible for what he was experiencing. A human with a great deal of power. The beast wondered what he could do if he possessed such force. Too bad the cat couldn’t talk and say what had touched it, what had given it such special energy, he thought as he raised the tabby’s body to his mouth once again, bared his fangs and sank his teeth deep. The cat’s blood spiced his mouth, supercharging him with the unusual vitality. Once he had drained the animal, he slipped a long nail into one of the holes made by his teeth and sliced open the fur, peeling it off so that he might also savor the cat’s flesh. As with the unusual blood, extra strength flowed through him as he ate. By the time he had devoured the last tasty bit of marrow from the bones, he was nearly giddy from the force pulsing through his body. A force that kindled the small spark of humanity that remained within him. A humanity that realized that whatever had gifted the cat with such uncommon energy had to be nearby. Strays generally didn’t roam all that far once they had found a steady source of food. This well-fed tabby was clearly being cared for by someone. The beast rubbed his paws together, eagerly thinking about what he would do once he found the source of all that wonderful power.
Ricardo prepared the altar, offering up those things he knew the Santería deities would prefer—money, rum and tobacco. For the virgencita, he tossed out the older sunflowers and placed some fresh ones on the altar. Another deity got treated to a rum-soaked pastry brought by a client. Afterward, Ricardo sat down in the middle of the thick mat of woven sea grass in the back section of his shop. Cross-legged, he laid his hands on his knees and commenced his meditation ritual. Many would probably consider what he did to be supernatural, when in fact he was just following a basic law of physics: matter was neither created nor destroyed, merely transformed from one type, one form, to energy, and vice versa. Ricardo was about to gather matter that had slipped free of its physical trappings to become free-floating energy. He chose to harness his power in that fashion, unlike others who stole the vitality of living beings. Some harvested it by a touch here and there, stealing a little bit at a time the way a bee might gather nectar. Some were not so kind, and drained large amounts of power from unsuspecting creatures. Then there were the others—the ones people whispered about in some of the far-off places he had visited during his stint as a marine. The soul suckers. People who completely drained life with their touch. As he had the day before, he stared at his hands. Hands that up until now had only been used to heal. Long ago he had sworn never to suck the energy from someone else. Never to use his power for evil. But was it evil if someone asked him to help them pass to ease their suffering? He had no doubt that Sara would think so. But she didn’t think much of him, anyway, so why did that bother him? Maybe because he had noticed on some level that Sara radiated goodness. It infused her features with light. And thanks to their touch yesterday, he’d learned so much more about her—that she had a pure spirit filled with love and compassion. But he had told himself, she might not wish to share that spirit with a man like him. A liar. A freak of nature. He had no doubt she was a good nurse. He had sensed in her a force very similar to his own. The little bit of healing power she possessed would assist her, even though she didn’t know it existed. Likely it had produced that immediate connection with him— similar forces attracted to each other. No doubt Sara would hate him if he helped her mother pass without pain. But Sara would probably hate him, anyway, when her mother died. Ricardo worried that it would happen soon, before Sara had a chance to prepare herself. Unless he could somehow gather enough energy to change that outcome. However unlikely, he had to try. Returning his concentration to that task, since Sara and her mother were coming by later that morning, he took slow, even breaths while he focused on a point before him—a bright beam of sunlight coming in through the clean glass of the shop’s display window and hitting the freshly swept floor. He concentrated on that sunny spot, letting his vision blur while he opened himself up to the forces floating around him. Little by little he perceived the scattered bits of energy dancing unfettered in the cosmos. If he opened his eyes a smidgen, the life forces were like colorful Christmas lights, frolicking around him. Although his physical body did not move, he imagined reaching out, collecting those points of energy and drawing them within. Piece by piece, he slowly filled his core. He felt the power tumbling within him, roiling and turbulent at being contained. Turning inward, he concentrated on the power, imagined the disparate pieces melding and becoming one, becoming balanced and settled. After those forces were under control, he realized there was still room within him for more energy, and he redoubled his efforts, needing the additional strength if he was going to make any difference to Evita later. A fine sweat covered his body from the physical demand of his task. Wiping a hand across his brow, he decided to shower before Sara and her mother arrived.
It was never too late to make a good first impression.
“That’s it, Sara. Keep up your defenses,” the instructor advised as her partner advanced. Sara positioned herself and then unleashed a dropkick, catching her partner squarely in the chest and rocking the young man backward. She advanced on him rapidly, released two quick jabs, and while he was unsteady, dropped down and swept his legs out from under him. The young man landed on the padded mat with a thud. “Seems like you haven’t lost those hand-to-hand skills, Martinez. Next pair,” the instructor called out. Sara bowed to the sensei and walked to the sidelines as she watched her friend, Melissa Danvers, take her place on the mat. Melissa had joined the dojo after her baby had been born, claiming that she had to work off the baby fat. Though she’d lost it quickly, she continued the kickboxing lessons, much to Sara’s delight. She enjoyed the time with her friend. Once they were in the locker room, removing their gear, Sara wasted no time before she sought Melissa’s counsel. “Do you believe in alternative healing practices?” Melissa plopped down on the locker room bench across from her. Sweat stained her T-shirt, and strands of her blond hair had come out of her ponytail to hang in damp wisps around her face. “This is a familiar question.” Wasn’t it? Sara thought. Over a year ago she had asked her friend the same thing, wondering if taking her mother to Ricardo was a mistake. With science having failed her, however, and the doctors at the hospital indicating it was just a matter of weeks before her mom succumbed to the cancer ravaging her body, she really hadn’t had much choice. Now she was asking again because… Because Ricardo had touched her the other day, and with that bond she had sensed…goodness. And an attraction she didn’t want to consider. She had watched him with her mother yesterday, and he had been kind and gentle. He had seemed shaken by the time they had finished their session, and her mother had appeared better. At least for now. “So, do you believe in alternative healing practices?” she asked her friend again, wanting a doctor’s perspective on it. Melissa pulled off her boxing gloves and then went to work the wrist wraps beneath. She shrugged as she replied, “Acupuncture. Chinese herbal medicine. A lot of things that people used to denigrate are now being considered as viable medical alternatives.” “What about Santería?” she pressed. “This is about your healer again, isn’t it?” “He says the cancer is spreading too quickly. That he may not be able to help her anymore.” Melissa unwound the last bit of protective wrap from one wrist. It dangled in her hands for a moment before she answered. “What does he want so that he can heal her? More blood? Money?” Her friend had made the same assumptions that Sara had. For some reason, after that confusing touch, and how diligently Ricardo had tended to her mother yesterday, the words now sounded harsh. Ungrateful. “He doesn’t want anything else. He hasn’t asked for anything more.” Silence followed her statement. She looked up and met Melissa’s gaze. “I think he might be telling the truth about mami,” she admitted for the first time.
Melissa leaned forward and, with a small sigh, said, “I’m sorry, Sara. Is there anything I can do?” “I don’t think so. I’m not sure there’s anything anyone can do.” “You may say that, but I’m getting a different vibe here. As if you think that somehow this santero—” She snapped her hand up to silence her friend. “Can do more than he says he can?” Melissa sat back, considering her carefully, her intense perusal unnerving. “You say you’re not sure, but I’ve got a hunch about something. Something that is so totally not good.” As if to emphasize the point her hand slashed through the air. Sara considered how a year ago she would have never believed Ricardo could heal her mother. But he had helped. Even yesterday, when her mom had been in so much pain, Ricardo had eased her discomfort, given her strength. He clearly possessed skills, only… From that touch the other day Sara realized he was different. How different, she didn’t know. His touch had roused so many conflicting and unwanted emotions, emotions that confused her, and frightened her, if she were honest. Because she was attracted to a man she couldn’t trust. “Sara? Is there anything you want me to do?” Melissa asked, clearly aware of her uncertainty. Was there? Sara wondered. Nearly six months ago, Melissa had examined her mother as a favor, since she hadn’t been one of the attending physicians. After reviewing her chart she’d concluded that the cancer eating away her liver had disappeared. Melissa had cautioned her, however, that due to the cancer’s location and severity prior to its inexplicable disappearance, she feared that it had metastasized and would return in other places. Her diagnosis may have unfortunately proved accurate. “Sara?” Melissa repeated, when she didn’t answer. “I’m sorry. I’m just not thinking clearly.” Her friend leaned forward on the bench. “There’s more to it than your mom, though, isn’t there?” Sara wasn’t normally one for true confessions, but Melissa was her best friend, and because of that, she spilled all her concerns. “The santero…Ricardo. I found some stuff on the Internet—” “Sometimes not the best source of information,” her friend reminded her. “Sí, sometimes not, only none of the accounts of the Santería rituals match up to the way Ricardo works. Not one.” “So there’s no room for deviation? Is that what you’re saying?” The various sources had said that, in the absence of written texts, everything was passed by oral tradition from one santero to initiate. “Maybe there is….” She paused and shrugged. “It’s just that there’s this power that I felt when he touched me. This tingle and heat—” “Girl, am I hearing this right? Just where did he touch you?” “It was nothing sexual.” Well, not at first, Sara thought. “Just on the hand,” she explained, and to demonstrate she laid one hand on the other.
“That was it? Just like that?” “Just like that,” she lied, not wanting to admit to the other sensations that had come with his touch. “So I guess he’s not attractive,” Melissa said, as she grabbed a jacket from her locker and slipped it on. “Maybe a little.” Melissa was not about to be dissuaded. “Only a little?” At the continued prodding, Sara finally confessed. “Okay, so maybe he’s a lot handsome. Maybe even centerfold material.” “And maybe the tingle and heat when you touched—” “Don’t go there, Melissa.” “Really?” Her friend tossed her arm over Sara’s shoulder as they walked out of the locker room. “I know you swore off men after—” “Por favor, don’t bring him up again.” She shrugged off her arm, but Melissa put it right back. “You should let go of what happened with dandy Dr. Dan. So what if he—” “Screwed me over?” Sara whirled and faced her friend, her hands on her hips. “I should have kicked his lily-white ass—” “When you caught him cheating on you? When you realized that you let his pretty face and needy-puppy act con you?” Melissa’s words stopped her cold. “If you saw it, why didn’t you warn me?” “I tried to. Time and time again. But you, chica, just don’t want to listen sometimes.” They stood there, barely half a foot apart, glaring at each other. But when her friend’s eyes softened with understanding, Sara’s anger deflated. They both took that final step forward and embraced. “I promise I’ll try to listen more,” she said. “And I promise to try and make you listen,” Melissa teased. They broke apart, but Sara slipped her arm through her friend’s as they walked through the dojo and to the street outside. “Can I tempt you with something hot and sweet?” Sara asked. Melissa giggled, an uncharacteristic sound from her normally serious friend. “I must pass, since I have something incredibly hot and sweet waiting for me back home.” Sara chuckled. “That’s what you get for marrying a Latino. I’ll see you in the morning, then.” “See you,” Melissa said, and peeled off to head toward her apartment in the Sixties. Sara watched her go, pleased that her friend was finally happy with a handsome man who could be trusted and relied on. One who wouldn’t mess with Melissa the way dandy Dr. Dan had with her. Or, she thought as she headed for the subway uptown, like the way the totally handsome and seemingly baffling Ricardo Fernandez might be playing her.
Chapter 3 F rustration and hunger clawed at his innards. Frustration because he had been searching for days for the source of the power that had touched the cat he’d feasted on the other night. He had traveled throughout the neighborhood, up above, where the humans lived, trying to identify a trace of the unusual energy. Something that could leave such a potent trace on an animal had to be readily discernable, much like the energies the beast could sense from creatures like his vampire cousins. But he had found nothing. Not even another stray with that same lingering power. For that matter, not another stray, period. It had been days since his last meal. Few animals remained free in the neighborhood above, and he had already decimated the rat population in this section of the sewer. He had to concentrate on getting some food, and then he could resume his search for the special human, he decided, slipping off the manhole cover just enough to slink out and quickly duck into the narrow space between two buildings. Garbage day, he thought, wrinkling his long nose at the scents in that cramped alley. There would be food here, food he’d resorted to in the past, but now that wouldn’t be enough to truly satisfy his hunger. His thirst for blood. Waiting cautiously, he sniffed the air and, despite the chilly mist, caught the telltale scents from the wind blowing up the block. Flowers. A human, probably female. Wet wool. Fur. Dog fur. Yum, he thought, although cats were his favorite. Small but cunning felines always gave him a good run during his hunt. Like the special one from the other night. Craning his neck, he sought out the source of the smell and smiled as the scent grew stronger. A human and its pet were approaching. Something jangled, lightweight from the sound of it. Probably on the dog’s collar. He heard a zip, like something being pulled, then the metallic sound came a little closer. The clack-clack of heels on the cement sidewalk followed the jingle-jangle of the collar. He smiled. Well-heeled meant well-fed. “T-tasst-ty,” he said aloud by accident, made careless by his hunger. The footsteps paused. He held his breath and stilled. Waiting. Hoping. He heard a short yip, no doubt the dog protesting its owner’s lack of movement. The clack-clack began again, slightly slower at first, but then picking up speed. His prey was unaware that he was now just feet away. Seconds later, the tiny ball of white fur came into view, small pink tongue lolling out of its mouth. He sprang out, snatched the dog and receded into the alley. But the leash held fast. He yanked hard, engaged in a tug-of-war before the leash finally came loose. It had been enough to slow his escape, however. The woman peered into the narrow space, and then upward, to where he scaled the walls, his talons digging into the soft brick as he raced for the rooftop. But he was too late. Her scream chased him. With the dog tucked securely under his arm, the beast leaped onto the roof and then to the next building. He jumped from rooftop to rooftop until he crept down the side of another building and toward the manhole hidden in shadow.
Prying the top off with one sharp nail, he eased down into the sewer and doubled back to his lair, where he feasted on the little ball of fur. Later, after the giddy rush caused by the dog’s blood had waned, he grabbed a dark blue milk crate and packed up what few belongings he possessed, taking care to meticulously wrap the chrome hubcap to keep it from being scratched. It was time to move on. Find a new neighborhood where there would be more food and maybe a stray with that unique force he was seeking. Or maybe even a few special strays, which could mean only one thing… He was closer to the source of that unique and humanity-restoring power.
As he did every morning, Ricardo prepared the altar, thanked the deities and then headed to the grass mat for his daily meditation. Sitting down, he crossed his legs, placed his hands on his knees and began his ritual. He drew slow deep breaths in and out, until they became so regular that they and all other physical aspects of his being faded from his consciousness. Then and only then did he reach outward to the particles of energy swirling unfettered around him, like snowflakes adrift in a storm. Each speck was unique. Some of the molecules had been freed from other sources, while others had always been there, part of the universal energy flow in the cosmos that bound everything together. He gathered the fragments, brought them within his core, balanced them and got them settled within him until he felt ready to use that force on others. He was returning into his physical being when he sensed it. The shadow of something dark. Like an approaching storm cloud, it lurked close by. Unnerved by the sensation, Ricardo immediately shut down, wanting to keep the shadow from entering into the space for his own life force. The sudden withdrawal left him with a sensation of incompleteness. With a shudder he tried to shake off the feeling, but the lingering vibrations from the other entity he had briefly touched clouded his mind. He went to the door, opened it and perused the street. Nothing. One lone lady swept the stoop of a brownstone a few buildings down. When she noticed him, she stopped and waved, a bright smile on her face. He forced a cheery smile of his own, waved in response and, seeing nothing out of the ordinary, eased back into his store. Closing his eyes, he reached out with his mind, but sensed nothing this time. Nothing. Had he misread the earlier sensation? With an abrupt nod, he reminded himself that he had a client coming soon, and had to be prepared. The older woman had been suffering from crippling arthritis for years before she started coming to him. He had been able to alleviate the stiffness in her joints and the related pain. Knowing that he had improved her condition provided his true reward and reaffirmed his commitment to helping others. The older woman had little money and paid him in whatever way she could, often in the form of homemade goodies. He wondered what she would have for him today, and hoped it was some of her wonderful bread pudding.
He didn’t need much to survive, being used to lean times. When he was a young child, his parents had been migrant workers, following the crops for their employment, working hard just to put some food on the table. The phone rang, jolting him from those memories possibly best left in the past. The caller ID indicated that it was Samantha. He picked up the phone. “Up early, aren’t you?” he teased, although his vampire friend tried to keep human hours whenever she could. A necessary thing when one ran a shelter for abused women and their children. “Just getting ready for a nap, only…Would you think me crazy if I told you that I felt something weird just now?” “Weird, huh? Would you think I was crazy if I said I felt something, too?” A long pause preceded her reply. “So what was it?” He took a deep breath and raked back his long hair with one hand. Recalling the shadow, he realized he had never experienced anything like it before. “I wish I knew, amiga. I wish I knew.”
The creature paused. From above came the telltale signature of one of the undead. Not good, he thought, and resumed his trek through the sewer tunnel, the milk crate banging against his leg as he trudged along. Many yards away, near the intersection with another shaft, he sensed it. Power like that that had touched the cat. Human power of an amazing kind. Bright and wondrous, it created a spark deep within that he wanted to let grow. A spark of life and humanity he had thought he would never recover. But now… The energy seemed to open up a window to another world, bathing him in bright light full of beautiful colors. He reached upward, his dark, gray-green hand inching into the brilliance, but the light withdrew suddenly, thrusting him back into the murkiness of the sewer. Craning his long neck, he searched for the light again, but it was gone, replaced now by the push of a force searching for him. He had to go, only…he couldn’t move, so strong was his craving for the light. He’d sensed its goodness and purity, the humanity that oozed from it, and he imagined that it could fill him with what he had once possessed and ever since had craved. How incredible that he had found its location. And now that he had, he wanted to experience the light again. With one sharp talon, he made a mark on the stone wall of the sewer, raking his nail over and over again until the mark became obvious. Then he quickly hurried down the tunnel, moving far enough away so that the vampire and the human force he had perceived above would not be able to find him. Despite the danger, he intended to return and encounter the force again. He needed to savor humanity as it came alive within him and set him free from this monster body in which he had been trapped for so long. When he found a niche in the sewer where the morning light poured in from a grate, he placed the milk crate on the ground and unpacked, joy surging through him. After he put the hubcap back up on the wall, he stood in front of it and smiled. Long, slime-covered teeth clicked together noisily as he opened his lipless mouth, and screeched, “Huuuman. I am huuuman.”
Or he would be again soon, he thought, thinking about how the light had made him feel. Thinking that maybe he had found a way back to what he had been nearly a century earlier. “Huuuman,” he repeated once more, before racing off in search of a snack.
Sara’s feet felt heavy as lead. A difficult night at the hospital had made her beyond eager to get home. She had lost a patient last night, a young mother of three, with breast cancer. It always hurt, but even more now when her own mami— She wouldn’t dwell on that. She just needed to get home and get some rest before starting all over again in less than twelve hours. Hurrying up the block, she noticed the door to the botaníca was ajar. Barely seven o’clock in the morning was early for the shop to be open, she thought. She continued onward, and as she did so, Ricardo stepped out and gave her a hesitant smile that caused an odd flutter in her chest. Instinctively, she raised her hand to quiet the stirring, then chastised herself. Get a grip, Sara. A simple smile can’t make a heart flutter, she warned. She could name a dozen medical conditions that could, but to her knowledge she suffered from none of them. “Hola, Sara,” Ricardo said as he tucked his hands into the pockets of his jeans. She couldn’t help but notice that the black, sinfully tight denim hugged an amazing length of leg and lean hip. The black T-shirt caressed the strong planes of his wide chest and bared the defined muscles of his arms. She shut down that awareness, reminding herself that beautiful things weren’t necessarily good. Still, she needn’t have been as curt with him as she had. “Hola, Ricardo. You’re open early.” She paused before him and, nearly a foot shorter, had to crane her neck to look at him. His shoulder-length, dark brown hair hung loose today, framing the sharp angles of his face. When he smiled, an engaging dimple winked at her. She yanked her gaze away to peer into the shop, and asked, “Have a customer already?” Before he replied, he worried his full lower lip for a second, and from somewhere deep within her, she recognized a craving to do that for him—and mumbled, “No, just doing inventory, and I noticed you coming up the block.” Again his choice of words—“doing inventory”—struck her as odd for a religious sort. But then again, he was also a shopkeeper, and, she figured, her Catholic priests, too, likely had to keep track of candles and other necessities for worship. “Oh,” she replied, and grabbed the straps of her knapsack, needing something to do with her hands, since the desire to touch him was suddenly too strong. They stood there in an awkward silence for a moment until she said, “I have to go.” At the same time, he asked, “Would you like some coffee?” “Coffee?” Duh, Sara. You know, that supercharged brew you chug by the gallon? Ricardo nodded and rocked back and forth on his heels in an obviously nervous gesture. She wondered if he realized that something had awakened between them the other day, changing the nature of their relationship. “Sí. Coffee. Freshly made.” He nodded toward the door. As he spoke, a bit of vapor marked his breath, reminding her of just how chilly it still was, and that while she was bundled up, he wasn’t.
She walked through his door, if only to keep the poor guy from freezing. Ricardo breathed a sigh of relief. He followed her in, but she paused at the front of the store and inhaled deeply. “I love the way it smells in here,” she said. “It’s a special blend of herbs and incense for easing stress.” “I could definitely use that, chico,” she stated, a shy grin on her heart-shaped face. She slid the knapsack from her shoulders, one strap at a time, and let the bag hang from one hand. Noticing the taut set of her shoulders, he approached her and instinctively raised his hand to help relieve that tension. He hesitated right before he touched her. He’d never used his powers unless someone consented, notwithstanding the other day’s unintentional loss of control with this very woman. “May I?” Her dark brows flickered in concern before she shrugged in acceptance. Taking a calming breath, he placed his hand on her shoulder, entering not just her physical space but that of her life force. With barely a push of his power, he dispelled the negative energies causing her stress, but he carefully disguised the fact by massaging the spot on her shoulder. She blinked in surprise. “I’m better already. What was that?” But of course he couldn’t tell her. With one last stroke of the exposed skin on her neck, he reminded himself that his silence was for her own good. “It’s a healing massage,” he lied. “I learned it from a Buddhist priest.” She bent her neck and raised her shoulders up and down as if to test the cure. “It’s awesome.” Pointing to a stairway in the rear of the store, he said, “Would you like that coffee now? It’s upstairs.” Sara hesitated, knowing that if she took the first step up those stairs, things would definitely get more complicated. Every other time she had been here, either alone or with her mami, they had stayed in the store. The public part of his life. That step upward… Maybe she was reading too much into his invitation. And why did it suddenly matter to her so much, anyway? It was just coffee. Up in his personal space. With a nod, Sara walked to the back of the store and climbed the narrow stairway that led to Ricardo’s living area. She knew that about him from the tattle in the neighborhood. He was the handsomest bachelor for blocks, and all the women in the barrio gossiped about him while at the bodega or stuffing their faces with sweets at the bakery. Rumor had it that he had once had a thing going with the lady from the shelter up the block. Other than that his life was a closed book. No one knew where he came from or why he had settled in their upper New York City neighborhood a few years ago. As she walked into his apartment, she learned more about him. He had a large family, all of whom smiled out from the framed photographs gracing one shelf of a bookcase. And he’d been a marine, she realized, thanks to a photo of Ricardo in a dress uniform with whom she assumed were his parents. The bookcase was also loaded with an eclectic mix of books, everything from Zamiatin to Orwell to a collection of Shakespeare plays in both English and Spanish. She noticed a leather-bound tome, The Conquest of Mexico and Peru, juxtaposed with a
romance novel. She couldn’t stop a smile. Who couldn’t appreciate a man secure enough to read a romance? she thought. Her information gathering was cut short as Ricardo stepped up behind her, laid a hand on the small of her back and guided her in the direction of a narrow eat-in kitchen to one side of the space. On the bistro-size oak table, a napkin-covered plate rested beside settings for two. “Expecting someone?” Ricardo shrugged his deliciously broad shoulders. “I was hoping I could catch you this morning. Hoped we could talk.” “So let’s talk.” She removed her jacket, stuffed her gloves and scarf into the pockets and draped the garment on her chair. She propped her knapsack against the wall and then sat at the table. He walked to the stove and removed the coffeemaker—the old-fashioned aluminum kind of espresso machine you heated on the range. When he poured the coffee, a heavenly aroma infused her senses. He returned to the stove and came back with a ceramic pitcher filled with hot milk from which curls of steam arose. “Care for some?” At her nod, he topped off her cup and his own, and sat opposite her. Beside the covered plate, just one small bowl rested on the table. As she removed the top she noticed it was raw sugar. “Do you have—” “I don’t usually keep anything artificial, but I could go ask a neighbor.” “No, that’s okay.” A spoon or two, or possibly three, weren’t going to make much difference to her already ample hips, she thought, and spooned sugar into her coffee. “Try a beignet,” he said, removing the cover from the plate. “Samantha made them fresh this morning.” Samantha Turner, she assumed. The lady from the shelter. Maybe some of the neighborhood gossip wasn’t so far off the mark. “Are you and she—” “Just good friends and nothing more,” Ricardo immediately said, apparently well aware of the rumors floating around about their relationship. The fact that he was quick to explain was unsettling. It meant that this cup of coffee might be about more than she’d thought at first. That was worrisome, and Sara didn’t have time for guessing games. She decided to take the direct approach. “I’m assuming this talk is about my mom.” Another shrug of those impossibly broad shoulders followed her question. “I was thinking this could be just a talk.” “As in a personal talk?” The look of a scared little rabbit flashed across her gamin face before the bravado that Ricardo was more familiar with settled in. “Do you realize that we’ve known each other a year and have never spoken about anything other than your mami?” “And why would we want to change that?” she retorted, her perfect little chin inching up a determined notch. Why? Because demand surged inside him, refusing to be denied. He needed to touch her again. To experience the same spark he had the other day. Her goodness and purity. Her passion. It had been too long since he had allowed himself that kind of intimacy. But he didn’t tell her all that. Instead he said, “Because if we don’t, we might regret it for a long time.” Then slowly he leaned across the width of the small table and did the only thing he could. He kissed her.
Chapter 4 H er lips felt chilly beneath his, probably from her walk in the cold. They were hesitant at first, but as the chill slowly left them, so did that uncertainty. He moved his mouth to savor her welcome, to relish the touch. It had been so long since he had allowed himself something even as simple as a kiss. Sara parted her lips, allowing him entrance, and he took the kiss deeper. But danger lurked on the smooth, sweet recess of her mouth. As she matched his intensity, the energy built between them, grew and melded their two similar forces in a stunning palpable surge. As if burned, Sara suddenly withdrew. “What was that?” Confusion and fear were clear on her face. He chastised himself for once again failing to control his power. He should have realized from their touch the other day that Sara could discern his energy, and that any kind of intimacy with her could be difficult, if not downright impossible. Around her, he lost his self-control. He remembered the first time such a thing had happened with a woman. His lover at the time—a doctor with an international relief organization—had been so disturbed by the unusual sensations, she’d left his bed and never returned. He had been more careful in later encounters, always restraining his emotions in order to contain the life energy within him. With Sara, he’d forgotten caution and restraint, so lost was he in the wonder of her kiss. Because of that, some of his energy had unintentionally touched her once again. Retreating across the table, he sat back down and grabbed his mug of coffee. “It was just a kiss,” he replied calmly. Much more calmly than he felt. Sara searched his features, but he had shut down. His green eyes, the color of thick Christmas pines, had grown flat and his pupils were tight little pinpoints of black. She didn’t doubt that the handsome man sitting across from her was lying. He dropped his head to look down at his coffee mug, and his hair slid forward like a curtain to hide him from her scrutiny, further confirming her observation. Being here with him was definitely not a good idea, she decided, recalling how she had fallen for another handsome man’s lies. She knew nothing about Ricardo Fernandez, although he had arguably earned some part of her trust with the way he had helped her mother. At first she had been skeptical of the claims from those he had supposedly “cured.” She had even thought that he might be a con man, only he hadn’t asked for money. So far, he had kept her mother alive far longer than the doctors at her own prestigious hospital had predicted. So, she asked herself, if she could entrust her mother’s life to him, shouldn’t she be able to share a simple cup of coffee and some… “What did you say those were called?” she said, and motioned to the plate in the middle of the table. His head jerked up; an incredulous look had taken possession of his face. “Excuse me?” “May I have one of those?” She pointed to the square, sugar-covered doughy things. “You want one?” he asked. The sharp planes of his face were still taut with concern. “You did ask me in for some coffee and…those things.” “Beignets. They’re called beignets. And you’d like to stay and have one?” A smile slowly curved his lips and seeped into his eyes, warming them to a deep emerald color.
“Yes, but don’t think that means anything else is going on, because I am so not interested,” she said with a nod of her head to emphasize the point. “And that kiss before…” “A mistake on your part, but I’m willing to forget it if you are,” Sara said, although she wasn’t sure how easy it was going to be to forget not only the kiss, but the feeling of rightness that had come with it. When their lips had met, she had sensed so many things once again, including a deep well of goodness about Ricardo. Because of that, she was willing to put aside the weirdness of their kiss, as well as the anger that should have come with his rather abrupt approach. “You want to forget it?” he said, each word slow, as if he needed to make clear to himself just what she had asked. “Yes, I do. And you?” Even as she spoke, a part of her hoped he wouldn’t agree, because the kiss, as unusual as it had been, had been quite good. Maybe better than good. Ricardo cupped the mug in his big hands and hesitated for a second before nodding. “You’re right. Your mami is my client, and mixing business with pleasure—” “Is never a good idea,” she finished for him. But as he handed her a beignet and steered the conversation toward more neutral topics, she felt a dash of disappointment. She tamped it down and told herself she had done the right thing. When would she learn that handsome men with no visible means of support could only bring her trouble?
In the suburbs of New York, people settled into their homes and hibernated like bears for the better part of the winter, coming out only when necessary. Not so in the city. Occasional ice and snow sometimes made the everyday routines of life difficult, but the staunch residents went about their business, burdened with the layers of heavy clothes, their patterns not much different than at the other times of the year, only slower. Just as Ricardo had seen Sara the other morning as she walked home from work, he regularly observed his barrio neighbors as they passed his shop. The brown of the UPS man as he made deliveries down the block to Mrs. Hernandez, who was addicted to one of the shopping networks. The familiar blue of the postman. Mrs. Lopez, wearing her mourning black as she walked her rather rotund table-scrap-fed beagle, who never failed to remind him of the recently deceased Mr. Lopez. Even the animals in the neighborhood had their patterns. Mr. Rivera’s Siamese cat sat on the windowsill across the street, anxiously watching the activity below where a stray black cat—another neighborhood regular—lazed in the sun. Which reminded him, it was time to feed Bob. In a stab at irony, Ricardo had chosen the innocuous name for the calico, one of the feral felines that roamed this part of the barrio. Bob had limped to his doorstep nearly three years ago, one ear nearly torn off, scratched and bleeding from a fight. The cat had been skittish at first, cowering in a corner of the small back patio. Ricardo had advanced slowly, murmuring soft words and reaching out for the calico’s life force. Gently, he had breached its defenses, emitting calming energy to heal the cat’s injuries, just as he had occasionally healed other strays in the neighborhood. Since that day the calico had shown up every morning and night for a feeding. Though it grew healthy and friendly enough to pet, it still possessed a tomcat attitude that said the food wasn’t reason enough to become domesticated. Just like some people, Ricardo thought. Not surprisingly, Sara came to mind. She was all attitude herself. All I-can-take-care-of-
myself. He wondered what her life had been like to create that kind of spirit, as well as her I-don’t-need-a-man-in-my-life vibe. He had definitely sensed that coming off her the other day when he’d kissed her. Even still, he recalled, she couldn’t hide her interest in him. That had been obvious. Grabbing the box of dry cat food from a kitchen cabinet, he headed downstairs and out the back door, only to find that last night’s meal sat untouched. Funny. He couldn’t recall whether he had seen the cat last evening as he closed up shop, but sometimes he didn’t see Bob at night. The calico would sneak in well after lights out, but the dish would be empty in the morning. Ricardo didn’t give it much additional thought, having to prepare for the day ahead and the two clients who awaited his restorative routines, as well as another customer who had placed a special order for a religious statue. As he did every day, Ricardo checked the offerings to the Santería deities on the altars, replenishing them as necessary. Afterward, he sat on the grass mat in the back of the store to begin his meditation routine. Since the incident the other day, a strange sense of darkness had lingered about him, but he had been unable to determine what was responsible. Samantha had confirmed that she had similar sensations and concerns, but likewise, had encountered nothing out of the ordinary during her nightly patrols. Although troubled by that persistent darkness, he forced himself to start. Legs crossed, he laid his hands on his knees and breathed deeply. In and out, in and out. Slower and deeper. Bit by bit he released the tension in his body. Finally he looked toward the spot of morning sunlight playing across the floor in front of him. He focused on it until it blurred into a rainbow of colors. He let himself flow into that light, and allowed the brilliance to course into him, losing all sense of himself as he melded with the forces around him. Calm filled him, spreading outward to shed light on the darkness that had plagued him for days. Like the sun radiates its warmth, his energy poured out from him, touching the energy around him and becoming one with it, and taking it within himself until its strength charged his core. As his power grew, he let himself shift ever outward, aware of the need for more power to heal those who would come to him today. Light suffused his essence. Balance came to him. Ricardo reached out further.
The beast had been sleeping, recuperating from a night spent filling himself with the blood of animals both above and below the surface. For days he had contented himself with the sewer rats until he got a sense of what was available in the neighborhood above. Like any good hunter, he had scoped out the prey and their habits, decided which ones would be easiest to take first—the weak and the alone. The ones no one would notice were gone. Like the rats. The rodents had served their purpose at first and would again, once game was not as easy to capture in the area. But for now, a world of delicacies awaited him. Delicious strays like the two cats from last night. The first one had been thin and weak, nearly on its last legs, which had made it an easy kill. The second one, however, had been a treat. It had dodged him quite well in the confines of the narrow alleyway where he had cornered it, but eventually, he had unleashed his full speed and caught it. The animal had been deliciously healthy and with that special power about it. The power that was filled with goodness, pulling at the vestige of humanity that lingered within him. The humanity that seemed to grow with every encounter with the force.
He knew the source was close. He could soon find out who it was that had the power to cure him, to make him human once more. The touch of that power awakened him as it called to him again. Rising to his legs, the beast lifted his head and sniffed. Nothing alive. Despite that, the power pulled at him. As it had the other morning. The light, he thought with glee, and rushed to the hubcap. If he should encounter the brilliance once again, he had to be ready. He had to look presentable and be on his best behavior if he would be gifted with its compassion. Standing before the hubcap, he brushed back his quills and smiled. A rakish smile, he decided. Women had swooned when he turned that charm on them and let his inquisitive gaze travel over their bosom. In the reflection of the hubcap, he once again saw that image of himself, jet-black hair ruthlessly slicked into place with pomade, blue eyes sparkling above perfect white teeth. He had to be ready, he told himself, and ran his taloned hands down the front of his chest, trying to smooth the gray-green fur and occasional tufts of featherlike patches as if they were the fine silks and brocades of his former life. Satisfied with his handiwork, he went in search of the radiance, dashing back through the sewer tunnels in the direction of the mark he had made. He had already gone there several times during the night, but he hadn’t sensed the earlier presence. But now, as he approached, the force was there again, bigger and brighter and more welcoming than ever. He paused a few feet from it and preened once again, wishing to make a good first impression. Then he crept forward slowly, drawn by the strength of the force contained within the circle of illumination. When he was barely an arm’s length away from the shimmering edge, he raised one hand, stretched it out, reaching ever closer. After a quick nervous breath, he said, “Huumann. I am h-huuman.” Sharp cackles and chirps accompanied his almost indistinguishable words, and then he poked his long nail into the light and once again cried out, “H-huuman.”
Chapter 5 R icardo reared away, falling onto his backside as an unknown force touched his. Leaning on his hands, breathing heavily, he fought to shake off the sensation covering him, heavy and thick like an oil slick, polluting his energy and lingering beyond his control. He shot up off the floor and whirled, examining every part of the room for the source of the other being. Nothing. Rushing to his door, he examined the street once again, as he had the last time he had encountered the strange sensation. Or maybe it was safer to say the alien life force, for with this contact, he knew that was what it had been. Outside on the street, however, things were the same as always. It didn’t surprise him when a few minutes later the phone rang and the caller ID indicated it was Samantha. “Buenos dias, amiga.” “You felt it again, too, didn’t you?” she asked. “I can hear it in your voice.” The noises of the women and children in the shelter as
they prepared for the day filtered over the line. He sighed and pulled his hair back from his face. “Sí, I felt something, but there’s not much you can help me with until the sun is not as strong, verdad?” “Right,” she confirmed with a shaky breath. “I’ll be over as soon as I can. By the way, have you seen Louis?” She said it the French way—“Loo-ee.” “Louis? The gray-and-white cat I always see on your stoop?” he asked. “He’s missing?” “Sofia set out food for him a few days ago, but he hasn’t been around. That’s unusual.” Very, Ricardo thought, recalling his own missing stray. “I’ll keep an eye out for him.” He worried that neither of the animals would turn up soon. At least, not alive. Which brought back reminders of the dark force that had touched him. Ricardo hadn’t had such an unnerving experience in years. Not since his stint in the marines. Thinking back on it now, he realized that one event had irrevocably changed his life. Would this one, as well? he wondered as he recalled that fateful day.
The typhoon had been big enough to toss around even their large ship. A medic, he’d been busy treating an assortment of bruises and breaks as the sailors struggled to ride out the worst of the storm on the open seas. After the torrential rains and gargantuan winds had depleted their force, a bright cloudless sky and welcoming sun brought the call—they were needed in the Philippines as part of a relief mission. The coastal area had suffered devastating flooding and property damage and hundreds of residents were believed trapped beneath the rubble. He had flown on one of the first choppers off the ship, along with a contingent of soldiers, to restore order and begin search-andrescue efforts. He had not been prepared for the havoc the storm had wrought. All along the coast, small huts had been wiped out and bigger buildings had been heavily damaged. As the chopper pilot located a clear spot to land, all Ricardo could think about was how many people might be trapped in that rubble, injured or on the edge of death. He and his team had quickly set up a small medical center. Once the ship pulled closer to shore, additional men and supplies would be sent. While he went out with some of the other medics to provide immediate assistance in the field, the doctors began to treat those who were capable of walking to the medical center. During his training in the marines, Ricardo had realized that he could sense the energies of invalids, much as he had the sick and injured animals he had tended as a child. He had realized that he could help his patients with a simple touch. Whether it was just to calm them or to ease their pain, he would lay his hands on them and do what he could. Because he was a medic, no one questioned what he did or how he helped the injured. There in the devastated village where they had landed, the energies of those who were hurt or dying screamed at him as he passed
by buildings that were still too unstable to enter. Hammered by the attack on his senses, he’d forced himself to focus on those within easy reach, soothing them with his touch so that he could determine the nature of their injuries, then using his medical training to stop their bleeding or splint broken bones until further assistance could be provided. What pulled at his heart was the angry and grating forces of the people who lay dying but fighting for life. He had been trained to place them last. That others might live if he chose wisely. Only he couldn’t. He tended to them, even if all he did was lay a hand on them to ease their suffering, calm them on their way to death. Somehow, he was aware that if he used his energy too many times, he might die, as well. Still, he went on. With each touch, the victims drained something from him until he was too weak to continue. That was when one of the other medics, looking almost as tired and bedraggled as he, motioned in the direction of one lone palm tree that had somehow survived the storm, and instructed him to take a short breather. Ricardo walked over and sat down against the trunk. Closing his eyes, he leaned his head back and sucked in a breath, as if by doing so he might suck in some life. The afternoon sun was still strong on his face, filling him with warmth. Long minutes passed before a shadow blocked the sunlight. He squinted to see what had intruded on his rest, and met the gaze of a wizened old man. A Buddhist priest, the man was robed in orange, which, combined with the bright yellow of the sun limning his body, made him look ethereal. Peace radiated from him, soothing Ricardo’s frayed soul. “May I help you?” He shaded his eyes with one hand so that he might see the man better. “You are a healer,” the priest said in softly accented English. “I’m a medic,” he clarified. “A healer,” the man repeated, and pointed toward one flattened structure. As Ricardo looked in that direction, he realized it was the remains of a temple. He wondered if anyone had been in there. “A few,” the priest said. “One of them lives still. One like you. He is calling for you. You must heed the call.” At first Ricardo thought the old man was insane. Then he felt a sudden sense of another presence close by, and he couldn’t deny the priest’s plea. Despite his weakness, he grabbed his medic’s kit, rose and slung it over his shoulder. Following the diminutive priest, he ran to one side of the building, where there appeared to be a tight tunnel cleared through the rubble. He shot a questioning glance at the priest. The old man slipped his hands from beneath his robes. His palms and fingers were bloody. “I made my way to them, but…” With a nod, Ricardo got down on his belly to fit into the tunnel. He crawled along, pulling himself on his elbows as he went deeper and deeper into the rubble, guided by the growing sense of the other man and his power. A very strong power similar to his, he realized. The closer he got, the greater the connection grew, until he reached the man, another priest. He was pinned beneath a pile of rubble, crushed from his midsection down. Ricardo positioned himself next to him and felt his pulse. It was thready and weak, and the chill of shock already marked the man’s skin. Ricardo knew that the moment the debris was removed the man would bleed to death from his injuries. It was only the weight of the rubble closing off the various injured arteries that had kept him alive. Help me pass, he heard in his head as the man laid a hand on his arm.
That simple touch brought a shock like electricity. He perceived the man’s life force. His energy, sputtering as life failed him, seemed to gather at that spot where their hands touched. Suddenly, Ricardo felt a flow, like slow-moving water slipping over rocks in a stream. It passed over his hand and began to move up his arm. Take this. Heal others, the priest instructed, his face calm, the command clear. Ricardo’s gaze locked with his as, little by little, the power slowly ebbed from the priest, as did his life. When his eyes finally glazed over with death, the connection binding them evaporated. Ricardo felt strangely reenergized, strong enough to go back and help others, much as the priest had asked. He said a short prayer for his soul and then passed his hand over the priest’s face—a serene face filled with joy—to close his sightless eyes. Then he went back out through the tunnel and into the daylight. Ready to heal. Ready to heed the call.
Ricardo remembered that day and how many people he had helped. The old priest who had first sought him out had come to him again, assisting him as he worked on other villagers. They’d labored through the night together, tending those who were not beyond help. Walking from one dying soul to another, they granted peace so the injured could pass. It was only in the earliest hours of dawn that they stepped aside to rest by the palm tree where they had first met. It was there, while sharing water and rations, that the priest explained there was more about healing than Ricardo knew. His power had a dark side. One that might tempt him as it had so many others. Just as he could pour his power out to others to help them, he could also take power from others to help himself. After the unusual event with the now-dead priest, and those whom he had helped that night, Ricardo was not so quick to disbelieve the man. In the days that followed, as they worked together and later rested side by side, the priest had shown him some basic meditation techniques that would help him restore his energy. His teacher had urged him to study so that he might grow more powerful in his abilities. He’d also warned him to always walk the path of light and goodness. Ricardo had listened patiently and tried out the exercises. He discovered that the touch he had possessed since he was a small child grew stronger as he learned to build his life force and direct it. The light the priest spoke of filled his center and gave him focus and peace. But as he and the priest had meditated one night, he had gotten a sense of something dark. A shadowy force skirting the periphery of his consciousness. The priest had warned him to guard his essence quickly, and motioned in the direction of a man circling the buildings they had yet to enter. A dark aura seemed to cloak the figure, and as Ricardo watched him, the priest said, “He is a soul sucker.” “A soul sucker?” “He steals energy. The storm has given him a bounty to harvest, but if that was not there, he would take it from the living.” Ricardo pondered the words as the strange man paused by one building, raised his hands and seemed to enter a trance. Before his very eyes, Ricardo saw what at the time he thought were lights. But now he understood more fully what they had been: the energies of the dead and dying. Set loose, they mingled with the free-floating power of the cosmos, available for harvesting if one knew how.
Like Ricardo now knew. Armed with the priest’s basic instructions, he had made a point of learning all he could about the meditation techniques that allowed him to amplify his natural powers. He also realized that the only difference between him and one of those the priest had called “soul suckers” was that he refused to use his power to rob life. Even if it would ease suffering, he still declined, thinking back to Sara’s mom’s request that he help her pass. Taking that energy from her would free her from the pain of her existence, but doing so could lead him down the path to darkness the priest had warned him against. And while Sara’s mom’s life force was good and pure and would not taint his own energy, her death would hurt Sara. Sara, he thought with a sigh, recalling his connection with her. Like him, she had some of the healing touch within her. It was what had made the connection between them come so quickly. But he couldn’t explore that connection or his attraction to the pretty nurse. He couldn’t afford such distractions, especially with the discovery that a malevolent power was somewhere nearby. He needed to find out more about that evil before it disrupted his meditations again. Before it did worse….
Chapter 6 R icardo had called and asked her out to dinner, despite their consensus that it was unwise to mix business and pleasure. He had sounded conflicted, as if he really didn’t believe he was inviting her, and she had probably sounded just as troubled when she accepted. Was she insane? The question rang like a litany in her brain. Ricardo Fernandez was trouble in a multitude of ways, and she was best off avoiding him. Except she couldn’t forget what had happened the other day, from his surprise kiss to the touch afterward. A touch that had somehow communicated to her that he was a man of honor and truth. How she knew those things defied logic, but with the passage of a few days and his call, she had decided not to run away from discovering more about him. A simple dinner date seemed like just the thing to do. The restaurant Ricardo had picked out wasn’t anything fancy. She preferred that, not liking pretentious places that catered to pretentious people. Give her a place like this little hole in the wall any day, she thought as she examined the interior of the restaurant. Padded benches covered in a dark brown faux leather lined the two side walls of the long, narrow space. Antique brass studs marked the chairs at the small tables, giving the furniture an old-world Mediterranean feel. Wrought-iron sconces fitted with stained glass shades cast golden shadows on the stucco walls and the framed posters of various bullfights. The light also cast its welcoming glow on Ricardo’s sharp features, warming his skin to a delectable caramel color and bringing out the auburn highlights in his dark hair. “Do you like?” he asked, leaning forward slightly across the narrow table. “It’s very Spanish.” As was the menu with an abundant list of authentic ethnic dishes, from paella to a green mariscada. “I thought Spanish would be good since…well, I’m Mexican and you’re…” He paused, waiting for her to fill in the blank. “Dominican, but I was born and raised here in New York City. How about you?” “Born in Mexico and raised there for a little bit.” He shrugged, his broad shoulders shifting beneath the crisp cotton of his pale blue, button-down shirt. He had dressed up for her, in that conservative shirt and dress pants. He looked nice, but she preferred
the kind of bad-boy air he had in his usual jeans and T-shirt. “Where else did you live?” she wondered out loud, recalling the photos she had seen in his apartment. “My parents were migrant workers. For a long time, we went wherever there was a crop ready for harvesting, until we settled in the San Diego area.” A hard edge had crept into his voice, further evidenced by the way he picked up his menu and almost used it as a shield against further inquiries. “Must have been tough on you.” She heard only a murmured “Sí” from behind the menu. She picked up hers, but before looking at it, said, “The barrio was no playground while I was growing up. Lots of gangs and battles for territories. Drive-bys like the one we had a few months ago. Plus Papi lost his job for a little while. We all worked odd jobs to keep from going on welfare.” She noticed then how his menu rattled in his hands. When he lowered it, his gaze was intense, his eyes an even deeper green against the dark woods and leather. “I have three brothers and two sisters,” he said, opening up to her. “And three little nieces.” “I have three sisters, one of whom has a baby on the way,” Sara replied. “Papi hopes it’s a boy, because he says the women in his life drive him nuts.” Ricardo smiled at the image of her testosterone-challenged family. “I enlisted in the marines to earn the money for school, only I never got to college.” “I did the army and did get to college. Why didn’t you—” “I trained as an EMT instead. Did that for too many years.” “Couldn’t handle the stress?” “The pain and dying. I’d seen enough of it in the marines.” A grimace of discomfort marred his face briefly. Sara could have continued. Could have told him that she, too, had seen enough of that at the hospital. That sometimes it tired her more than she could say, and yet she couldn’t imagine not doing it. Then it came to her. “That’s why you opened the shop, isn’t it? This way you can still help people. Still be a hero.” Her comment dragged a ghost of a smile from him. “A hero? I’m just an ordinary guy.” She remembered the touch of his hands the other day. The electricity in his kiss. He was anything but ordinary, but she couldn’t admit that. At least, not just yet. “So, ordinary guy,” she teased, “what are you ordering?” Ricardo glimpsed the grin she tried to repress. She thought she knew him, understood him. In some ways, he suspected she might, more than any other woman he’d had an interest in. But she could never know him completely, not as long as he hid the truth from her, as long as he lied to her. By keeping his powers secret, that’s what it was. A lie of omission. In spite of that, he was too intrigued by Sara to not see where this attraction would lead. It was what had prompted him to call her. “I have to confess that I had a semiselfish motive for bringing you here. I love paella, but I’m too lazy to cook it.”
The grin that had flitted across her face earlier blossomed into a full smile that reached her hazel eyes, making them glitter with amusement. “It’s one of my favorites, but I don’t generally do the cooking thing, either.” “Too much work?” “Nope. I’m dangerous in the kitchen. Just warning you in advance. Not that we’ve gotten that far.” “No, we haven’t, but forewarned is forearmed,” he teased, enjoying their repartee. “Would you like to get the version with the chicken and chorizo? I love chorizo,” she said, and laid her menu on the table. He enjoyed the flavorful Spanish sausage, as well, but…“The paella takes an extra twenty minutes to prepare.” Her smile grew even broader. “And that would be bad because?” Chuckling at her audacity, he shook his head as he said, “I guess we’ll just have to order some tapas to pass the time.” “Maybe even some sangria.” She smiled broadly to emphasize her point. He could drown in her smile and the lightness it brought into his heart. He imagined how it would feel if he could touch her and let that happy energy flow over him, but warned himself it might not ever occur. Things were just too complicated between them. She tapped her full lips with a finger, considering him. Her eyes gave away her thoughts, becoming a darker hue of golden-brown, almost molten. Were they wicked thoughts? he wondered. “This is a bad thing, sabes,” she said. He knew. But he couldn’t resist touching her any longer. He slipped his hand over hers on the table. It was warm, soft. A tingle tickled his palm and quickly developed into a steady, sexual vibration. He smiled and met her gleaming eyes. “Bad? Possibly. But you don’t strike me as the kind of woman to back away from something just because it’s tough.” She smiled again, but slipped her hand away from his. “I’m not. So, the tapas and sangria while we wait?” He nodded, motioned to the waiter and placed their order. As he leaned toward her again, he resumed a neutral conversation, eager to learn more about her in the hopes that somehow, they would be able to find a way to deal with all the issues between them.
This neighborhood had proved to be quite good, the creature thought. Besides the wondrous light, there were lots of well-fed pets and strays, in all shapes and sizes. He had his eye on one specimen in particular—a plump pooch he had spied passing by his sewer grate every morning. He would have to keep an eye out so he could snatch it. The delicious calico he’d recently grabbed rested in his lap. As he stroked his talons over the cat’s silky fur, one torn ear twitched at the caress. “P-preet-ty.” At the sound of his voice, the cat struggled weakly beneath his hold. “Sssof-t. Ssso soft.” He picked up the calico, rubbed its lush fur against the side of his face. The animal renewed its efforts to escape, aware of what would come next.
He had fed from it many times, but had not drained it completely as he normally did. He was a patient man. Patience and reserve were signs of breeding, after all, the stamp of a gentleman such as he. As special as the cat was, he had wanted to savor it slowly, the way one might sip an expensive wine. Over and over he petted the cat until it stilled, maybe almost purred. It was time, he thought, and he whipped his head around and sank his long fangs into its neck. The taste of its blood was luxuriant. Rich. Thick. Special, he confirmed. This animal had been touched by the light for which he himself hungered. As he sucked the cat’s blood, he imagined the energy of the brilliance filling him. Reaching deep within to find what was left of his humanity. Urging that humanity outward, to drive out the creature that had taken him over. That had stolen his soul. By the time he finished sucking the calico dry, its uncommon power ran through him. He fancied that it had changed him, restored some of his former self. So as to not waste any of this precious gift, he slipped a nail beneath the fur at the cat’s neck and slowly slit it open at the throat. As he peeled away the fur and skin, muscles gleamed in the morning light slipping in through the sewer grate. The cat’s skin went up to dry on a screw protruding from the sewer wall. He didn’t normally keep trophies, but this was a remarkable animal and he wanted its essence to linger with him. Because of that, he devoured its flesh, leaving nothing but glistening bones, devoid of any meat or marrow. He found another place for the bones, intending to fashion them into some kind of talisman until he could meet the source of the light face-to-face. The light would know what he wanted. The light would help him, he was sure. And if it wouldn’t…he would find a way to make it happen.
Chapter 7 T he cat food sat untouched. It had been a few days now since Bob had come by for a meal. Louis had similarly vanished. Ricardo walked to the front window of the shop and gazed out at another sunny spring day that promised winter was at an end. Across the street, Mr. Rivera’s cat paced on the sill, anxiously shifting back and forth along that narrow perch, its tail twitching, in constant motion. Ricardo focused on the Siamese and opened himself up to perceive its energy. Angry whirls of red swam around it, and its ears quivered nervously. The anxiety of the animal called out to him. Maybe another cat was bothering it? Ricardo looked down to the ground, where the Siamese’s feral friend usually lounged in the sun. Today, the spot was empty. Another missing feline? Ricardo wondered, and decided it was time to do something about that and the unsettling sensation that still loitered around the neighborhood. The shadow of evil he had encountered remained, a strong presence, worrying him. He put the Closed sign on his door and walked down the block to the Artemis Shelter and Samantha. He hoped her vampire powers could confirm that his worry was unfounded. He knocked on the door and waited. Then waited some more, thinking that he should have called. With all the women and children in the shelter gone for the day, Samantha might have decided to surrender to her vampire needs and indulge in a daytime nap. He had moved off the top step when the door opened wide.
Samantha stood there, hastily tightening the belt of the robe she had carelessly tossed on. Her nearly black hair hung in disheveled waves about her face. She pulled it back with one hand and said, “Ricardo, I wasn’t expecting anyone.” “No. We weren’t,” Peter Daly said as he stepped from the parlor to stand behind her. He, too, was in a robe, his blond hair in disarray and a flush on his tanned cheeks. Guiltily, Ricardo realized what he had just interrupted. “Sorry. Really,” he said, holding his hands up in apology. Samantha laid a palm on his arm to keep him from leaving. The uniqueness of her undead force pushed at him. “Is it that pressing?” His friend knew that only an important reason would make him come unannounced to her door. Was a missing cat important? he asked himself, but then forged ahead. “Is Louis back?” An annoyed sigh escaped Peter before he tossed him an equally disbelieving glare. “You came to ask about her cat?” “Bob is gone.” For Pete’s sake, he explained, “The cat I feed. So’s the stray across the way.” “And a cat—” Samantha put up her hand to silence her lover. “You think the presence you sensed is responsible?” “Sí, but I’ll call later so you can get back to—” “We most certainly will get back to it,” Peter said, and wrapped his arms around Samantha’s waist in an almost jealous gesture. “Sure. Let’s talk later,” Samantha said, but elbowed her lover as she closed the door. Ricardo stood there on the steps of the shelter, gazing up and down the street. A normal, ordinary street, just like any other in the barrio. Unlike him. Not in any sense was he normal or ordinary, not with his powers. Then why not put those powers to work, he thought, and find the source of his disquiet?
Sara arrived at his store just as he was closing. Dusk colored the sky with a dismal cloak of grays and blues that would soon give way to the satin blackness of night. Unfortunately, Ricardo had been awaiting another visitor that evening—Samantha. He peered up the block, hoping his friend would be late. “I wasn’t expecting you,” he said. He thought it best not to voice his pleasure at seeing her. “Please, come in.” “A friend called in sick and I had to pull a double shift, so now I’m off an extra day. Thought I’d drop off this in advance.” As she walked past him, she held up her knapsack, and he knew what that meant. She had the blood for his supposed rituals. Guilt clawed at his gut. “Gracias. Will your mami be able to make it on Friday?” He knew she hadn’t been feeling well, because he had called yesterday to check up on her. The smile that had been on Sara’s face as she entered quickly fled. She reached into her knapsack and once again extracted two blood bags instead of the usual one. “Here,” she said, and almost eagerly thrust them at his chest. “Maybe two will help you….” She motioned uneasily to the altar with the assorted statues of the saints and virgencitas.
He knew she had been skeptical about his services from the get-go, being too logical and practical to believe in any powers that didn’t come from science. But neither science nor his powers could help her mami. Maybe only divine intervention could. While he wished with all his heart for that, he understood just how rare a gift that was. He needed to get that realization across to Sara. “Listen, Sara. Your mami—” “Will get better. I know it. In here,” she said, motioning to her heart. “Sara,” he repeated, and reached for her, but she pushed his hand away and stepped back. “If you can’t believe, how can you help her?” He advanced on Sara until she was against the display counter and could escape no farther. Then he laid a hand on each of her arms and tried to soothe her. “I want to believe, but…she’s weaker. I will try to do all I can, only…” He couldn’t say it. Couldn’t give voice to what they both should know. Instead, he took Sara into his arms. Though her body trembled with emotion, she wouldn’t yield to the comfort he offered, holding herself away from him. “I’ll do everything I can,” he murmured into her ear, “I promise you that.” The top of her head brushed the side of his face before she shakily said, “What if she’s not well enough to come on Friday? What if—” “It’s a couple of days away. Maybe she’ll be up to it, but if not, I’ll come to your apartment.” She quickly dashed a hand across her eyes, and the tears that pooled there. With a snort, she said, “Santeros make house calls?” He cradled her face and swiped at a stray tear with his thumb. “In your case, I’ll make an exception.” “Thanks. So I’ll see you Friday?” It was clear she wanted something more from him at that moment. Despite his better judgment, and the fact that he was expecting Samantha, he didn’t want to pass up the opportunity. “Have you had dinner?” he asked. “Not yet. And you?” Everything in her body language, and the warm glow of energy coming off her, told him she wasn’t disagreeable to sharing another meal with him. “How about some Cuban-Chinese?” he asked, and with her smile, he had his answer.
It was late by the time he returned home after the impromptu dinner with Sara. They had shared rich, sweet mango shakes and Cuban food at La Caridad on 78th Street before returning to their block in Spanish Harlem. Their block. Their neighborhood. Their home, he thought as he perused the street for signs of anything out of the ordinary. He had that odd feeling again…and something else this time. Something more familiar, he realized as he approached the door to his shop. With the metal security gates down over his display window, he couldn’t see inside, but he knew she was there. As he walked in and turned on the light, after dropping Sara off at her apartment, he said, “Been waiting for me, Samantha?” His friend lounged in one of the chairs in the sitting area where his customers sometimes sat to browse his merchandise or drink an herbal tea.
Samantha, however, wasn’t drinking one of his specialty teas. Wearing her vampire face, her life force completely energized, she drank from one of the blood bank bags Sara had brought. All around her, he perceived the telltale signature of the undead—a pale glow, like the light from the moon. It was the reason he had felt her presence beyond the door of his shop. Samantha looked exceptionally savage with her long white fangs protruding well below her upper lip, her irises a phosphorescent green that radiated brightly. “Thank you for the snack. May I assume from that smile that you were with Sara?” He nodded and plopped down on the love seat catty-corner to her chair. “It was nice?” He recalled the pleasant meal and the even more pleasurable kiss at her front door, and smiled. “It was. To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?” “I said I would come by. About the cats.” She shifted forward in her chair, leaned her forearms on her knees and laced her hands together. “Something’s not right. I know it and so do you.” All the joy he felt from his evening with Sara departed swiftly, replaced by concern. He mimicked her uptight pose. “I do feel it. After I dropped by today, I went for a walk to see if I could find something.” “And?” She arched her eyebrows over those strangely ardent eyes, which seemed to have grown even brighter. “I picked up a feeling, stronger than the other morning. But after that…nada.” He leaned back into the cushions and raked his hair off his face in frustration. “Maybe because whatever is causing that sensation isn’t around during the day.” He examined his friend carefully—his vampire friend whose abilities allowed her to sense what others, or even he, might not. “You’re saying it’s another vampire?” She shook her head and her long dark hair waved wildly with the strength of her answer. “No, mon ami. I can sense another of my kind. This is different. This is—” “Definitely not like you. There’s an oddness to it. I’ve felt it a few times now during my morning meditations.” Samantha examined him carefully, as if aware he kept something from her. “So you knew it wasn’t a vampire?” With a careless shrug, he said, “I suspected. Its life force is dark. Like a storm. Turbulent. Not a vampire, but not human. At least, I don’t think it’s human.” “Do you think whatever it is has taken the cats?” Once again he shrugged, then looked out to the seemingly quiet street beyond his front door. “There’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?” He stood and held out his hand to Samantha. “I’ll take the high road and you’ll take the low?” she teased. “Count on it, amiga.”
T heir patrols of the past two evenings had provided them little besides sleepless nights and, for him, sore feet. While Samantha had explored the rooftops, he had pounded the pavement, examining the alleyways and other hidey-holes in search of whatever had intruded into both their psyches. Nothing. Nada, nada, nada, he thought, and slammed the book he held on to the glass display counter, which rattled from the force of the blow. It reminded him that he had to get control. Distractions diminished his abilities. He had to focus his energies in the right direction, because later that day he had to make a house call. Sara’s mom wasn’t up to coming to the store. That she was so weak warned him that her time might come soon. He had hoped it would be otherwise. His meditations that morning were laborious. It took him a long time to lose his fears about the intrusive presence. Besides, this wasn’t just any client who was suffering. It was Sara’s mami, and when she was in pain, Sara was in pain. He didn’t want to fail either of them. So he took his time, finding his center with great care, driving away any fears that clouded his abilities. Only then did he begin the process of harnessing the scattered energies. He reached out into the eddies of natural forces, diligently gathering those wandering particles into him until the power slowly built, developing into an energy he could use to heal. The potency at his center grew greater and greater, but knowing he needed more because of how sick Evita was, he allowed his concern to override his fear of the unknown entity. He stretched his psyche outward, envisioning the light of his aura expanding like a supernova in space. Bigger and brighter, it enveloped everything in its path to feed its own existence. Giddy with the strength pooling within him, he lost sight of the approaching darkness that came at him like a cataclysmic black hole. Before he could pull back, he collided with it, and like a balloon that had been inflated beyond its limits, the energy burst from him, lost into the space from which he had gathered it.
“N-nooo!” The beast wailed as the brilliance exploded before his eyes. He beat the stone wall he had marked with his talons, pounded on it over and over again in frustration until the blood oozing from the cuts on his fists nearly obliterated the deep scratch. Weak from his exertions and the despair he felt at losing the light’s benevolent touch, he dropped to his knees. Lying his forehead against the stone wall, he cried and wailed, until slobber ran from his lipless mouth onto his cold skin. He had displeased the light by being there uninvited, he told himself. That was why it had left him so suddenly. A gentleman didn’t rudely come unannounced. It may have been decades since he had been totally human, but some civilities still needed to be followed. He rose, brushing off the spittle and blood from his hands and body as he did so. He had to make amends. To show the light he was sorry for intruding. A gift. That had always been enough to appease the ladies with whom he had kept company. Tonight he would find a small token of affection and take it aboveground to where the light resided. To the place above the mark. That would do it, he thought, and bolted down the tunnel to begin his search for the perfect present.
Sara opened the door to the man she’d been waiting for. Ricardo had dressed up in another button-down shirt—forest-green this
time—and well-pressed khaki slacks and a dark brown blazer. She tamped down the thought that he had dressed up for her, though she wore her favorite black jeans for him. Favorite because they minimized what she called the junk in her trunk. “Hola,” she said, and motioned for him to enter the apartment. He strolled in cautiously, with an almost hesitant hitch in his stride. “Everything okay?” she asked, disturbed by the vibes she was getting from him. He avoided answering by asking his own question. “How’s your mami?” “Tired.” Sara was unable to state the truth—that her mother appeared even weaker today than she had the day before or the day before that. Ricardo trained his gaze on her. His eyes were a deep emerald today, enhanced by the color of his shirt, and filled with worry. She wasn’t surprised when he said, “There’s only so much I can do.” She nodded and gestured to one of the two back bedrooms. Her parents had one room while she had the other. With her father semiretired and her mother sick, Sara—their only single child—hadn’t felt right leaving them to get her own place. Family was what was most important, after all. She watched as Ricardo knocked at her parents’ bedroom door to announce himself. “Come in,” a voice called. When Ricardo heard it, he shot a quick glance at Sara before opening the door. Eduardo Martinez sat beside his wife, in his lap an open book he’d been reading to her. Evita lay in bed, her small body seeming even more frail than it had barely a week ago, during their last session. Her countenance brightened as she took note of him. “Mi niño, thank you for coming.” “You couldn’t keep me away, Evita.” Ricardo exchanged places with Eduardo, after shaking his hand. The older man caressed his wife’s face tenderly before he walked out of the room. Sara, however, lingered by the door, clearly intending to stay with Ricardo as he cared for her mother. It wasn’t out of the ordinary. She’d often hung around, only this time he felt uncomfortable. After that morning’s meditative misadventure, he was unsure just how much energy he had to help her mother. Unable to ask Sara to leave, he turned his attention to Evita and spoke softly to her as he always did, needing to focus his energy and his thoughts. Holding her hands, he immediately beheld the streaks and breaks in her life force, a testament to her pain and her failing strength. His own energy tried to patch those holes. He attempted to reach within her to find those places where the bad forces causing her pain resided. He succeeded, but there were so many of them and they were so strong. Stronger than he was today, thanks to his failure to hold on to his energy that morning. At the base of his neck, a trickle of sweat ran down, distracting him. He was too far removed from his center and what remained of his power to truly accomplish anything today. At Sara’s call, he released the last strands of connection to her mother. Sara, too, he realized, had sensed something was wrong. Her hazel eyes were dark with worry he saw when he glanced up, and deep lines etched her forehead and bracketed her mouth. He looked back at her mother, at a face so painfully similar to Sara’s. Evita had also recognized his powerlessness. Worse, she understood she was dying. “Ricardo,” Sara said again, this time laying a hand on his shoulder. A weak vibration ran between them, prompting her to pull back her hand as if burned. “Are you okay?”
“I need…” He needed more energy, more strength. But tonight, most of all, he needed to speak with her mother honestly, so that she would understand and be ready. “Can you please give me some time alone with your mami?” Sara looked from him to her mother, who nodded and smiled weakly. “Go make some coffee, mi’ja. It’s rude not to have something for a guest.” With a hesitant look in his direction, Sara left as her mother had instructed, closing the door behind her. “You’re troubled, mi’jo,” Evita said as she placed her hands over his. “Evita, I’m sorry.” He shook his head and gripped her hands tightly. “Because you can’t help me? Mi’jo, I understand.” Guilt flooded him at her compassion. At her sympathy for a man who had lied to her, albeit for a good cause. “There’s something I need to tell you, but…You can’t tell Sara. I want to explain to her myself.” “You’re not a santero.” The shock of her revelation left him silent for a moment, but then he found his voice. “No, I’m not. How did you know?” “Whenever you touched me, I knew you were different. I felt a power filling me. You’re a very special person,” she said, touching the side of his face with one shaky hand. “That power…there’s limits to it, Evita.” He hung his head, almost ashamed by his admission. “You’re not a god, mi’jo. I know that.” She took hold of his hand and gave a reassuring shake. “But God will show me the way. I have faith.” Given all that she had suffered lately, her faith must be strong to still believe God would do right by her. That depth of faith moved him, and inspired him to keep up hope. “My powers…” he began, and slowly explained how he obtained his ability to heal. When he was done, he said, “If you will work with me, maybe we can do something today to help you get better. To give you a little strength.” With a nod, Evita joined hands with him, and patiently, he guided her through the routine he followed. Little by little, they experienced the joining of their energy and, in that unity, Ricardo garnered the strength to reach out. To cast a net woven with their combined energies to ensnare the loose forces that swam about them. A piece at a time, he laboriously gathered energy until something wondrous happened. Within him a light grew, contented and at peace. It bloomed, filled with love and acceptance. When that feeling peaked and then slowly ebbed outward, filling Evita, he carefully talked her back home. Back to her center. When her hands slipped from his, he looked at her and saw the difference in her hazel eyes, now sharp and assessing, clear and unclouded by pain. Her face, which had been pale and drawn when he had first entered, now looked composed and aglow with color. “Evita?” “That was amazing, mi’jo. Beautiful. Is that what waits for us?” He shook his head vehemently, wanting her to understand. “That is what is all around us. Only most cannot open themselves
enough to see it.” She smiled and a dimple, so like her daughter’s, peeked at him from one side of that broad and engaging grin. “I feel it within me. Giving me courage.” “I’m glad that it worked. That you know the truth now.” Although he said it, she was quick to point out what he wasn’t saying. “If you and my daughter are becoming involved, she needs to know this. She needs to understand what you are.” What he was? He wished he truly knew what he was. “Sara and I are…just friends.” With that said, he couldn’t linger, but as he rose, Evita called him back. “Sara is a good girl. Stubborn, but loyal.” He was certain Sara wouldn’t appreciate being described the way one might a favorite dog, but he knew what her mother was trying to say. “Sara is a beautiful woman, and, I agree, stubborn. But that makes things interesting.” “Sí, very interesting. Just remember, though, that if you hurt her, you will have to answer to me.” Even ill, Evita would make a worthy opponent, he knew. Before he could leave her to rest, a knock sounded at the door. When he opened it, the subject of their conversation stood at the threshold. Instead of the usual determination, worry marred her features. To ease her fears he told her, “She’s doing better now.” Then, tossing a last look at Evita, he stepped out into the hallway where Sara’s father waited to see his wife. “Eduardo, she’s all yours.” The older man rushed past him, and Ricardo walked out into the small living room, waiting there for Sara to join him. After a few minutes he heard Sara ask, “Care for some coffee?” He glanced down the hallway, where he could see Eduardo sitting next to his wife, holding her hand. The scene brought a smile to his face, but it didn’t last long as concern for Evita chased it away. “Sara, your mami—” “Is doing better. You said so yourself.” The hope on her face clashed with the reality of the situation. He remembered Samantha’s words about needing hope, but as he had told her that day, the kind of hope Sara had was false. She was too smart a woman, too educated, to not see what was really happening. Like the fact that you might be lying to her about what you are? asked a persistent inner voice. He thought of what Evita had said to him about Sara needing to know what he was. This, he realized, was the time to tell her. “I want you to know—” But Sara would have none of it. She turned away from him, as if by doing so she could shut out the reality of what was happening. “Just go, Ricardo.” He took hold of her hand, needing her to look at him, to hear all that he had to say. “I wish I could do more, but my power—” She yanked free and got into his face, going up on tiptoe to match his greater height. She was nearly nose to nose with him before she spat, “Why don’t you, then? Why don’t you do more?” Answering that question was more difficult than Sara could imagine. Telling her the truth would reveal the secret behind how he really healed. Though he might be ready for that, he suspected she was not. Fear of her reaction made him pull back from the confession he had been about to make. Instead he said, “All I can do is ask for intervention, Sara. But you know that sometimes the answer is no.”
A confused and disappointed look shot across her face before she schooled her features into a passive mask. “Sure, I understand.” But she didn’t. Her tone said as much, as did the awkward goodbye they exchanged at the door. There was no kiss today, no explaining the attraction that still arced between them, despite the tension. Ricardo knew the mistake he’d made by getting involved with her now, while her mother needed him, while his emotions prevented him from controlling his energy around her. Inside him, a war raged: his mind told him to explain what he was, but his heart feared she’d treat him like a freak. More than anything, he couldn’t handle that. “I’ll try again soon. I promise.” But right now he needed to go. His emotions had taken a beating, and being with Sara any longer would just make him hurt worse. Besides, he had promised Samantha he would help her patrol again tonight. Together they would try and find the force that lingered in the neighborhood like an unwelcome smog. Sara said nothing else, but her look of confusion and pain lingered with him long after he left. As he walked out onto the street, her disappointment chased after him. It didn’t make his next task any easier.
Chapter 9 I t didn’t take him long to reach the Artemis Shelter. But once there, he lingered on the steps, uncertain whether this exercise with Samantha would yield anything of value. Ricardo suspected that whatever force had been bothering him wouldn’t be easy to locate. He got the sense from their few distant contacts that it was something old. Not as old as Samantha, but certainly longer lived than the average human. That would make finding it more difficult. One didn’t survive for that long without knowing how to avoid discovery. The door to the shelter opened and Samantha stood there. She had obviously been waiting for him. “I felt you. Why didn’t you knock?” When he didn’t answer, her brows furrowed together above her crystal-blue eyes. “What is it, Ricardo? What’s wrong?” Everything, he wanted to say. For so long he had avoided getting entangled in other people’s lives because that made him want so many things, things out of his reach because of who he was and what he could do. But now Sara had come into his life and he suddenly wanted everything he had denied himself. He said none of that. Instead, he asked her, “Why can I sense other beings? Why do you and other creatures know that I’m different?” Samantha stepped out onto the landing and looked around. “Let’s go inside. This discussion is best kept between the two of us.” “Peter isn’t home?” The detective often worked late hours, thanks to his job with the homicide division. “I’m expecting him later.” She motioned to Ricardo. He walked down the long hallway, passing the parlor where some of the women sat with their kids, watching television, and on to the stairs that led down to the kitchen and the small courtyard beyond. Samantha followed him outside. A cool nip lingered in the spring air. As he spoke, vapor marked his breath, but not Samantha’s. In her human state, her body temperature was well below normal. Only when the vampire emerged, and that strange life force totally took over, did she heat up.
As she stood before him, arms crossed to ward off the chill, he reached out, let himself sample her undead energy and store away the unusual signature of it, so he would have something to compare to the unknown power they had both discerned in the past several days. “Why, Samantha? Why can I do this?” “Why am I a vampire?” she replied with a shrug. “Fate. Kismet. Destiny. We’re all given our roles in life.” She paused and laughed harshly. “Or in death, right?” How true that was, he realized. Each of them had unique reasons for being what they were, who they were. Compared to Samantha’s, Ricardo’s situation was easy. At least he was still human. Gifted in a strange way, but human. “Do you think this thing…will go away?” She shook her head forcefully. “No. I get the sense it wants something.” “Besides our cats? So what do we do?” “We look for it until we find it,” she said, and afterward, allowed herself to morph. While he had seen it happen dozens of times, the transformation still both shocked and intrigued him. Her teeth grew longer and sharper; her eyes, those wonderful sea-blue eyes, became a radiant neon green that pierced the dark of the night. Her body heated up, and now, he knew, she had true superhuman strength. “I don’t think it wants to be found,” he warned her. “I don’t think so, either. But, mon ami, we need to find it before it finds us.”
Sara held her mother’s hand as she napped. It felt warmer than before, with a strength that surprised her. Evita had been so weak prior to Ricardo’s visit, so much paler. But afterward… Sara told herself not to hope. Not to let herself lose perspective. As a nurse, she knew too much about cancer and what it did. As a daughter, she had seen how it had toyed with her mother for the last few years, playing a game of hide-and-seek with the doctors, who had finally said there was nothing else they could do. Evita would be dead in a few weeks. That had been over a year ago. A year since Sara had turned to Ricardo in desperation. At the thought of him, a sigh escaped her. Ricardo confused her on so many levels. She had expected a charlatan, but found an honorable man. She had thought they’d connected on a personal level recently, but tonight it seemed he wanted to get away from her as quickly as possible. Then again, maybe that was wisest, given the situation. “Mi’ja, que pasa?” her mother asked as she roused from her light sleep. “Just thinking, mami.” “You think too much, niña. You always did. Not like your hermanitas.” Despite the words, there was a playful tone to her voice. Her sisters were all happily married and living in the suburbs—two in Jersey and one on Long Island. Sara’s eldest sister was pregnant, only partly because she felt ready to have a child. Sara also suspected her sister thought the prospect of a grandchild might help keep their mami with them just a bit longer. “So, I should stop thinking?” she asked now. “Is that it?” “Ricardo is a good man. Don’t judge what he does or how he does it. Follow your heart’s truth.”
How did her mother know what had been on her mind? And why the wise old adages now? As Sara met her mami’s clear-eyed gaze, a gaze no longer clouded with pain, she saw that her mother was being secretive. About Ricardo? she wondered. “What does he do?” she asked, not that she expected her mother to explain, even if she did know. It made Sara uneasy that she was feeling something for a man who was clearly hiding things from her. But maybe knowing that in advance was better than what had happened to her with dandy Dr. Dan. She had given her heart and body to that creep and never seen the betrayal coming. At least with Ricardo she knew to guard herself. “He helps people, mi’ja. Does it matter how?” Evita said. Did it matter how? Sara wondered. Or did she only need to know that he was a good man, much as her mami said? Filled with guilt about the way they had left things earlier, she decided she needed to apologize. Glancing at her watch, she saw it was barely nine o’clock. She shot a look at her mother, who smiled and nodded in approval. “I’m going to go for a walk.” “Sounds good. If you happen to see Ricardo, thank him again for me.” If she saw him? When she saw him, she thought. Sara hurried from the bedroom, grabbed her jacket and called out to let her father know she wouldn’t be that late. It was odd by modern standards that at twenty-eight years of age she still answered to her parents. But these were the cards life had dealt her. If Fate hadn’t chosen this path for her, she wouldn’t have been here when her mother had gotten sick. Wouldn’t have had the top doctors in the world to treat her. Wouldn’t have met Ricardo. Ricardo, she thought again as she raced down the stairs and out onto the street. His shop was just around the corner and up the block. She hurried, rushing both to set things right and to get out of the cold. She hated winter, figured it was a genetic thing, being Dominican. She much preferred warmth and humidity, sun— She stopped as she saw Ricardo emerge from the women’s shelter with Samantha. Sara told herself it wasn’t what it seemed. That wasn’t a tender look on his face. That was a friendly hug, right? So what if it took a little bit longer than she liked? Or that he dropped his head toward Samantha’s in what looked like a kiss? A good and honest man, huh? Bullshit. Sara whirled, wanting to get away before he noticed her. That would make things too messy. Too hard to deal with. “Sara,” he called out. “No.” She cursed beneath her breath. She hurried her pace, but from behind her came the sound of his footfalls, moving faster than hers. She wouldn’t run. That would be embarrassing. Okay, she admitted, she was running, but her short strides were no match for those incredibly long and well-muscled legs she had admired recently. No match at all, she thought when his hand wrapped around her upper arm to stop her. Unable to escape him without doing him bodily harm—a possibility that did occur to her now that the shock of seeing him with the other woman made her want retribution—she faced him. “Did you want something?”
“It’s not what you think,” he said. Over his shoulder, Sara saw that Samantha still stood on the landing, watching them. Sara lifted her chin a notch in challenge, and the other woman stepped back into the doorway. Sara finally faced Ricardo. His dark gaze feigned concern. Or maybe it was real concern—concern about being caught. “I was wrong about you. So wrong,” she said. When she turned away from him and he grasped her again, her years of army training took over. She grabbed his arm, slipped back and, using his momentum, propelled him over her shoulder and onto the ground. He landed with a solid thud and lay there, staring up at her. Surprisingly, a smile quirked his lips. “I’m not sure I deserved that.” With an agile flip—courtesy of his own military training—he came to his feet before her. “It’s not what you think. We’re just friends. Good friends.” “You expect me to trust you?” Sara shoved past him, but he knew better than to grab hold again. Instead, he fell into step beside her and pleaded his case. “I expect that a bright and logical woman such as yourself won’t jump to conclusions.” His challenge stopped her more effectively than physical force would have. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye to better gauge his response. “You’re friends?” Ricardo nodded. “Just friends. She’s helping me with…” He paused, unsure how to explain. Any explanation risked exposing his true self to Sara, but what he was beginning to feel for her merited truth. He had no choice but to tell her. “I went to Samantha for help, since—” A noise intruded from above. A loud and unusual noise from the rooftop of a nearby building. Sara heard it, as well, for she glanced upward. “What was that?” He raised a finger to his mouth to ask for quiet. The sound came again—a scrabbling like a dog’s nails across a tile floor. A very large dog with very long, very sharp nails. Ricardo wrapped an arm around Sara’s waist and brought her close in a defensive gesture. She didn’t put up any resistance, and they found themselves back to back, his arm bent around to keep her near as they both searched the rooftops above for the origin of the worrisome sound. All he heard was his rapid breathing and her own. They waited for some other sound, some other movement. “Ricardo?” she asked, and suddenly it came. A dark shadow leaped from one building to the other above them. A very large shadow. They heard hard nails raking across the rooftop, followed by a heavy thud as whatever it was landed. But before either of them could say another word, whatever had made the noise raced away, the clatter of its escape echoing in the night air. Sara slipped from behind him and pointed upward. “Do you plan on telling me what that was about?” Now was the time to tell her everything, he realized. He couldn’t hide any longer.
Unlike whatever had made the noise, he couldn’t escape.
Chapter 10 T he light. The light was on the street. The power emanating from it was familiar. No, not an it. The power came from a human; the light was human. A h-huuuman just like me. The beast waited until the man and woman had calmed, no doubt thought him gone. He had only moved a few rooftops away. With his keen hearing, he heard them speaking, then listened as they walked away to the man’s shop. A shopkeeper. He had dealt with more than his share of shopkeepers in his former life, haggled with them for the best prices and merchandise. He had been in the process of haggling, squeezing the last penny from the creepy traveling tinker, when the man had offered to give him something like nothing he had ever seen before. He was intrigued, especially when the man mentioned it would cost him something of little value. He had followed the man to the back of his cart, his curiosity aroused by a thick wooden door with a small window barred with fat iron rods. “What is this?” he’d asked the tinker. At the sound of his voice, something rattled inside the cart. “See for yourself.” The man almost cackled with glee. He’d approached the bars slowly, stopped a foot away when the rattling from within grew louder and a strange combination of chirps and screeches rent the air. He’d stepped back then, but found the odd tinker behind him, urging him forward. “Afraid? Surely a fine gentleman such as you isn’t afraid.” Afraid? He had never feared anything in his life. With a quick stride, he was at the door and peering inward. Even now he could remember the sharp pain across his hand as something bit deep and held on, even as he beat at it with his other fist. A wild and eerie wail erupted from the strange creature when he’d finally freed himself. Whirling, blood dripping from his hand, he had turned toward the tinker, rage seething through his body. “What is the meaning of this?” “You wanted something of value for nothing. Now you have it,” the tinker crowed, motioning to the cart and then down to the wound on his hand. He glanced at the bite, where blood oozed freely, staining the ruffled cuff of his shirt. Reaching into his pocket, he took out his monogrammed handkerchief, shook it open and then wrapped it tightly around the wound. “What do I have, old man? What are you talking about?” “Life eternal. It’s yours now in exchange for something of little value—your soul.” He’d stared at the man, rubbed at his hand, which throbbed painfully. Making a fist, he shook it at the tinker. “You’ll pay for this.” But the other man wasn’t listening. He almost danced with joy as he said, “Suck the life out of me, would you? Me and other poor working stiffs? You’ll get yours, you will. You’ll get yours until you learn the error of your ways.”
The tinker was crazy. That had to explain the wild look in his eyes, the nonsense he spouted about the lack of a soul and being a bloodsucker. Finished with his dealings with the tinker, he had walked away, but days later, the side of his hand still throbbed and a strange gray-green rash had erupted at the location of the bite. The wound had healed, but the rash hadn’t gone away. If anything, it slowly spread. So he had begun to wear a glove whenever he went out. He haggled with the shopkeepers, more resentful than ever, feeling cheated somehow, embittered inside. The rash spread and spread, as did his hostility, until finally, he’d shut himself off from the human world, since nothing pleased him anymore. Only blood satisfied him. First he drained the blood from the animals on his plantation, until none were left alive and he was forced to scavenge the wild game in the hills surrounding his home. He’d wandered farther and farther, and wherever he went, a name chased after him—chupacabra. Only he wasn’t a goat sucker or a vampire. He was human. “H-huuman,” he said now, the word spewing from his lips together with the screeches and other noises so similar to what he had heard so long ago in the back of the tinker’s cart. He looked down and listened carefully. The man and woman had walked away to the man’s shop. He had to follow. Had to see if the building was over his mark. That would definitely confirm his suspicions that this human was the source of the light. The way to be cured of whatever disease the tinker’s beast had infected him with.
If he hadn’t helped her mother, Sara would have left him on the street. She had no time for liars. But Ricardo had helped, and up until a few minutes ago, she had fancied that she might be attracted to him. Although what did she really know about him after only two dinners together? Still, at his invitation she walked with him to his shop. They didn’t stop downstairs. As he had several days ago, he led her up to his private space. He paused in the living room and invited her to sit. “No, thanks. I prefer to stand.” He nodded curtly. “At least take your coat off.” “What makes you think I plan on staying that long?” Sighing, he raked his hair back in agitation. “I thought you came here for an explanation. That might take some time.” She considered him carefully. His dark green eyes were intense. Pleading. Much like when he had promised a few hours ago to come back and help her mother again. Help her mother, Sara thought. If for no other reason than that, she had to listen to him. Ripping off her jacket, she tossed it on his couch and followed it. She crossed her legs and then her arms, wrapping the latter tightly around her. “So? You’ve got some explaining to do.”
Ricardo could tell from the defensive way she sat and the determined set of her chin that it would be difficult to breach her barriers, even with the truth. But even the truth had multiple spins. If there was one thing he had learned in the military, it was how to say “Yessir” while actually meaning “No way.” “I met Samantha nearly three years ago, when we both moved here. We became friends—just friends, despite the neighborhood talk to the contrary.” “Didn’t look like a friendly kind of hug just now.” A pout actually marred Sara’s lips as she said it. He found the pout intriguing. Sexy. He decided to push it a bit further. “Samantha never questioned what I could do, unlike some people.” The pout grew bigger for a moment, before she started to worry her lip guiltily. He knew Sara hadn’t believed in him. That had been obvious from the first time she had entered his shop. Come to think of it, her posture then had been similar to now. She had been uptight, her arms wrapped around her body, her chin thrust out much like it was at the moment. She lowered her chin a smidgen and her teeth bit down a little more, making it hard for him to concentrate, since what he suddenly wanted to do more than anything was to soothe that spot she was worrying with her teeth. He knelt before her and ran his thumb across her lip to stop the nervous gesture. “The other morning I felt something weird. Samantha also—” “Samantha can feel what you feel? How is that possible?” Sara leaned back, away from his consoling gesture, obviously not buying what he had said so far. So much for his power to spin things. “Samantha is…” A vampire. Not that he could say that any more than he could tell her his powers didn’t come from being a santero. He took another stab at it. “Samantha is…intuitive. She senses things, much like I do when I connect with…” Nature and all those other physical forces around me. “Your orishas?” she asked when he hesitated. He couldn’t control the flicker of surprise that crossed his face. “You remembered that?” “Yes. And I read a little about Santería. I know that Oluron—he has the ashe. The spiritual energy the orishas bring to you.” “Sí. That’s how it works,” he lied. “And Samantha?” Sara asked, obviously wondering about the other woman’s supposed abilities. “I can’t explain how she is able to sense things, but she can. The other day we both connected with something. Then the cats disappeared. And tonight…” Sara shook her head, not sure she followed his explanation. “Something was on the roof. Something you think you sensed? Something that stole your cat?” He had the grace to look chagrined, seemingly aware of how ridiculous his explanation sounded. Placing his hands on his thighs as he knelt before her, he rubbed them up and down in an anxious gesture before expelling a harsh breath. “I know it seems—” “Loco? I’m not buying this.” For emphasis, Sara waved her hands before her.
He slipped his hands over hers, his touch gentle. A wry smile erupted on his face. “You’re right. It’s crazy. I’m crazy, but I swear, it’s the truth.” Amazingly, she believed him. There was just something in the way he said it. In the way he held her hands and in the warmth coming off them. It was a comforting warmth, starting where she was twining her fingers with his. “What is this?” she asked. “What is this when we touch?” Ricardo wished he could tell her. Wished even more that he could control himself around her and keep from letting his force spill onto her the way it was touching her now. Only, like before, she wasn’t running. Because of that, he took the risk. “This energy is part of what I am. What lets me help people.” More easily said than he had expected. Sara inched to the edge of the sofa, tugged on his hands until he came into the V formed by her legs. Once he was there, she released one hand and cradled the side of his face. A tingle began there, much like that radiating upward from their joined hands. “So,” she began, and ran her thumb across his lips, “you’re telling me that what I’m feeling is…some kind of power.” He gazed up at her, at those golden-hazel eyes he wanted to slip into, and whispered, “Yes and no. Part of it is power from what I can do, and the other part is…attraction. It’s what I’m feeling for you.” He was probably crazy, Sara thought. She was probably certifiable, too, but she couldn’t deny the heat that pooled deep inside of her at his words. At the way his eyes traveled over her face, as if memorizing every detail. She found herself doing the same. Her gaze wandered over his high, perfect forehead and the slick wings of his brows, down to his eyes, reminiscent of a dewy forest, to his lips, the outline of which she traced with her thumb. Only suddenly, as insane as this was, it wasn’t enough. She leaned over and replaced her thumb with her lips. Opening her mouth against his, she held his smooth face in her hands and tasted the clean mintiness of his breath. When her tongue engaged his in an age-old ritual, he accepted her silent invitation. He wrapped his arms tightly around her, till her torso pressed against his hard chest. He ran his hands up and down her back. The air in the room grew heavier, charged with…anticipation. Ricardo inched his hands beneath the hem of her shirt, which had come loose at the back of her pants. He experienced the warmth of her skin, and imagined that heat against him everywhere. He knew then he was about to lose what little control he possessed, and as pleasant— Pleasant? Who was he kidding? This was absolutely amazing. But it had to end. It took all his willpower to rein in his passion and sit back on his heels, providing them some much needed space. He allowed himself only to join his fingers with hers. “Wow,” she said shakily, but with a smile. “Sí, wow, but…” He hated getting serious, given where the interlude had been heading, but he needed to know. “Do you believe me?” Puzzlement washed across her features for a moment. “You mean about Samantha, your weird feelings or this power thing?”
Clever, and, as she had warned him, blunt. “All of them.” Her grin broadened. “Then I guess my answers would be a yes, a no and a maybe.” He chuckled and squeezed her hand. “Well, I guess that’s a start.” “I do believe it is,” she said. Just to confirm it, she kissed him again.
Chapter 11 S ara’s presence lingered for days in his apartment, even in his shop, just as her kiss lingered on his lips. He couldn’t wait to see her again. Consulting his calendar, he saw he had three appointments for later that afternoon. If he timed them just right, and if Sara wasn’t tired from another unexpected double shift after her day off, he might be able to convince her to go to dinner, then come back to his place. Maybe they could pick up where they’d left off the other— A scream rent the air, shattering his romantic images. The appointment book fell from Ricardo’s hand and he ran to the front door. Another scream, longer and louder than before, greeted him as he yanked the door open. Mrs. Lopez stood there, tugging Lucy, her frankfurter-like beagle, away from his shop. “Lucy didn’t do it. She didn’t,” she said, shaking her head so vehemently, her thick double chin wagged from side to side with the movement. He tracked her gaze down to the sidewalk, where the mangled body of a cat lay. The carcass was carefully stretched across his doorway, its legs angled to make it look as if the cat was walking, its fur, where it wasn’t matted with blood, slicked back smoothly and carefully. All around the body, placed as if in offering, were bits of gladioli, carnations and red roses, all wilted and crushed in spots. “Lucy didn’t do it. Dios mio, who would—” “It’s okay, Mrs. Lopez. Really. I know Lucy didn’t do it,” he said as he started to pull off his T-shirt, intending to cover the grisly sight until someone more experienced could look at it. Someone like Peter Daly. The good detective would know how to find out who had done this. You mean what had done this, he told himself. The closer he got to the body, the stronger the sensation grew. That slick, oily and evil feeling that had dirtied him the other day. He was so involved with Mrs. Lopez and the cat that he failed to see Samantha approaching. Her eyes opened wide, filled with horror, when she noticed the dead cat. He carefully placed his T-shirt over the corpse and rose. She stepped to his side, laid her hand on his biceps. “What happened?” “No sé,” he answered, and in turn, Mrs. Lopez defended her dog again. He slowly raised his hand, motioning for her to calm down. “I know Lucy didn’t do it. Why don’t you go home, Mrs. Lopez? I’ll take care of this.” “Gracias, mi’jo. Gracias.” She babbled on and on as she hurried away, nearly dragging the poor dog behind her on the leash. “Ricardo?” Samantha said gravely as she met his gaze. “Remember the other night when we thought the presence didn’t want to be found? Well, we were wrong.”
Nothing could dispel the chilled malevolence that had come off the cat’s body and settled within Sara as she and Ricardo buried the poor animal. She’d come by the shop on her way home from the hospital, and, though tired, she’d been riveted by the grisly scene. Morbid curiosity? she wondered. Not really. Ricardo’s concern had been palpable and she’d been unable to leave him. She’d stood by
him as Samantha Turner went to get her detective friend. Sara had heard rumors of them around the neighborhood. According to the gossips, the detective had moved in with Samantha several months ago, after helping to solve a drive-by shooting that had occurred in front of her shelter. They seemed like nice enough people. Detective Daly was laid-back and had the kind of looks she imagined fit better on a beach somewhere. He had a rangy, muscular body and longish, sun-bleached hair. Samantha was stunning, with her ice-blue eyes, black hair and skin like rich cream. She was Creole, descended from slaves and raised in New Orleans, people in the barrio said. Samantha had watched her lover—for there was no doubting now the emotion between her and the detective—as he examined the carcass and took samples for processing. After, he had promised to try and get more information while at the stationhouse. Samantha had kissed him goodbye, and then excused herself, leaving Sara and Ricardo alone. Time alone to bury the poor cat, after saying a hasty prayer over its body. A body in which nearly every bone had been broken. When Ricardo had lifted the animal in his hands, it had sagged immediately, as if there was nothing to keep it together. Sara shivered now as she sat in Ricardo’s shop, and tightened her hands around the cup of chamomile tea he’d made to soothe her. “What could have done that? And why?” Ricardo sat next to her on the couch, his arm draped around her shoulders. She allowed herself to burrow into his warmth, hoping that by doing so, she would feel relief from the overwhelming sense of foreboding gripping her. She was wrong. Ricardo shook his head. “Something strong. It would have to be to crush and snap the bones like that.” She shivered once again, and he rubbed her arm. “So it’s strong, but why would it kill the cat and leave it on your doorstep?” She felt the motion of his body against hers as he shrugged. “The way the flowers encircled it—” “Was totally creepy, I know. But why?” Ricardo had asked himself the same thing over and over again. Why? Suddenly it occurred to him that maybe the carcass had been intended as a gift. An enticement for his services, perhaps? The clients who were due that afternoon would bring some kind of offering. Was the carcass intended in the same way? “Maybe whatever it is needs me to help it?” he theorized aloud. Sara moved away, but faced him, sitting cross-legged across from him. “It needs a santero?” Discomfort squeezed his gut. They hadn’t progressed far enough in their relationship for him to reveal more than what he had the other night, so for now he had to keep up the santero facade. “Some rituals require great sacrifices, but I would never kill another living thing.” “Is that why you want the blood bank bags?” His stomach twisted more as the lies piled up. “Sí. The blood…Sometimes that’s enough instead of a life sacrifice.” “So what do we do now?” she asked, and took a sip of tea to calm herself. “We? I think you need to get some rest.” He set his own cup on the table and placed his hand over hers; her skin felt chilled, he noted. “You look tired.” The double shift had obviously taken its toll on her. She needed rest. “I want to help you,” she said.
“Samantha and Peter are already helping.” Sara twined her fingers with his and squeezed his hand to reassure him. “One more can’t hurt. Besides, you’ve helped my family and asked for so little in return.” Ricardo’s smile grew brittle and his body tensed. He pulled his hand back from hers before it gave away any more of his discomfort. “So this is about payback?” She cupped his cheek and smoothed her thumb across the line of his lips. “In part.” “Just part of it? What’s the other part?” he said, unable to figure out her meaning. Unable to figure her out. A sparkle came to her eyes, making them shimmer like gold. Her grin was broad and infectious. Playful, but also decidedly sexy. “The other part—a much bigger part—is that I want to spend more time with you.” He remembered the other night and the pleasure of one simple kiss. How it had been so hard not to take it further. He was pleased that she felt the same, but still plagued by guilt for deceiving her about his abilities. The more time they spent together, the harder it would be to keep the truth from her. Due to all his misgivings, he couldn’t immediately say yes. “Why don’t you go home? We can talk about this after you get some rest.” She narrowed her eyes, as if trying to determine why he was pulling away from her. After a moment she nodded and said, “You can trust me, sabes.” He knew, and he wanted to promise the same thing, but the words snagged in his throat. “I’ll come by to get you later. We can decide what to do then.”
Chapter 12 H e should have known better. How could he ever deny Sara, or her help? That was why she sat at his kitchen table now, listening to Peter brief the unlikely foursome. “I checked the blotter and found an incident involving a dog. A woman complained that her—” Peter consulted his notebook “— bichon frise was kidnapped while she was walking it.” He stuck his notebook back into his suit jacket and continued with his report. “Something stinks about the facts of the attack, but the officers who logged it in weren’t on duty today.” Impatient, Ricardo asked, “So what do we do in the meantime?” Samantha obviously shared his desire for action. “This thing—whatever it is—will kill again. Any small animal it can find.” “But not humans, as far as we know,” Peter advised. “I don’t have any reports of unusual attacks against people.” Samantha leaned into his side and he slipped his arm over her shoulder. Worry marred her face as she said, “Maybe because no human has chased it, until now.” “It seems to want Ricardo’s attention,” Sara said. “We can’t risk not knowing more about it.” Samantha nodded. “No, we can’t.” The detective shrugged, as if well aware that with both women in agreement, the battle had already been lost. “You say you heard it on the rooftop, right?” he asked Ricardo. “So let’s team up and each take different sides of the street. Samantha and I, you and Sara. No one should ever be by himself,” Peter advised the trio.
Ricardo nodded and turned his attention to Samantha. “You have my cell number. Call me if you see anything.” “Likewise,” she confirmed, heading out with her partner.
“I hate this,” Sara said as she looked out over the neighborhood. The roofs rose and fell in an uneven pattern all around them. Occasional shafts of light shot up from the older buildings with skylights above their stairwells, or the topmost apartments. Here and there, wires ran from telephone and utility poles, creating a tangle of lines against the night sky. As well, on some of the buildings microwave repeaters and satellite dishes cast eerie shadows. There was just one thing similar about all of the rooftops—no activity anywhere, Sara realized. Nothing to see except for the occasional wisp of smoke rising from a chimney or heating vent. “You hate what? The uncertainty? The waiting?” Ricardo asked as he came up behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist as she stood by the edge of the apartment building closest to where they had heard the noise some nights ago. “The cold,” she said with a chuckle, and burrowed deeper into her down jacket. It might be spring, but the temperature still hovered in the low forties. Ricardo rubbed her arms, but that did little to dispel her chill. “Does this help?” “Not at all,” she admitted. He unzipped his own jacket, opened it and pulled her close, until she rested flush against his body. Some warmth, finally. She nestled against him, slipped her hands around his back and then underneath the hem of his T-shirt. He shivered in response. “You are cold.” “I warned you,” she teased, and tried to snuggle against him even more tightly. He eased his hands between them and slowly unzipped her jacket. “I think we need to get rid of this.” With a last tug on the zipper, he opened her coat, drawing her close so that the heat of both their bodies mingled. “Better?” he asked, his head bent near her ear. “Better,” she confirmed, and brushed a kiss along the hard line of his jaw. He murmured contentedly and nuzzled the spot just below her ear, generating a different kind of heat. “How about this?” He tongued her earlobe and the small gold earring there before teasing the shell of her ear. She mimicked his actions on his neck, trailing a line of wet kisses that had him hungering for more…until a vibration, sudden, strong and insistent, intruded. “The phone,” Ricardo whispered. He yanked it off his belt and answered. “Nothing here,” said the clipped, serious voice. It was Samantha. “Peter is heading to a late shift at work, so we’re calling it a night. You should probably head home, too,” she said. “We will. We just have something to finish up.” Ricardo gazed down at Sara’s face, flushed by the heat they’d generated between them with their mouths. Without bothering to wait for a further reply from Samantha, he shut off the phone and tucked it into his coat pocket. He cradled Sara’s face in his hands. “You do want to finish this, don’t you?”
She didn’t answer; she merely stood on tiptoe and kissed him.
The creature peered around the edge of the bulky chimney. The large orbs of its green-yellow eyes absorbed every available ray of light, permitting it to see well beyond what any mortal could. He had been watching for hours now as the humans walked from roof to roof, searching for him, but he was well hidden and too far away from whatever senses allowed the human to connect with him. He had sat there for the better part of the night, entranced by the motion of the human who bore the light within him. Even now, a shimmer of his special energy encircled the man’s silhouette. It grew even brighter as he kissed the petite woman with him. The human liked her. She pleased him, the beast thought, unlike the present he had left that morning. The human hadn’t seemed pleased with that. The woman, however, clearly made the man happy. All around the couple, an aura of contentment shimmered, growing stronger as they deepened their embrace. The woman could be helpful. Maybe she could understand what the man wanted, the beast thought as he continued his voyeurism. The humans stood together for the longest time and the aura around them brightened, beaming with beautiful colors. Eventually, however, they broke apart and left the rooftop. The beast dared to move then. He jumped to the next set of buildings as quietly as he could, watching as the man walked the woman around the corner to one building and then returned to his shop. With glee, the beast realized that while the human might not know where he was, he had no such problem. The shop was right above the mark he had made in the sewer.
For nearly two days, his work on a homicide kept Peter from tracking down the two officers who had filed the dognapping report. He finally caught up to them as they were walking their beat along First Avenue. One of the officers was small and thin, while the other had the imposing build of a football player starting to go to flab. “Gerber. Anderson,” he called out as he approached, flashing his gold lieutenant’s badge to identify himself. “You’re a little far from your precinct, aren’t you, Lieutenant?” asked Officer Gerber, the larger of the two men, as he took a quick sip from the foam coffee cup he was carrying. Judging from the way he winced, the liquid was hot. Peter slipped his badge back into his suit jacket. “Actually, I live not far away and this is a personal call. That is, if you have the time to talk about that dognapping you wrote up.” Gerber shot a quick look at his much shorter partner, who picked up the conversation. “I guess it depends on what you need.” Peter adopted a casual stance, his hands loose by his sides and empty of his ubiquitous notepad, since the two officers were obviously uneasy. “I read the report,” he said, “but there’s a few things that don’t seem clear.” They exchanged nervous glances again before Gerber finally spoke. “The lady was freaked out. Totally crazy when we arrived.” “I thought she was an EDP at first, the way she was ranting,” Anderson added in explanation. An Emotionally Disturbed Person?
“Was she injured during the attack?” Maybe that would account for her being so out of control, Peter thought. Anderson shook his head, held out one hand and rubbed his wrist as if to demonstrate. “Just something like rope burn on her wrist. The strap of the leash rubbed her raw when…” He stopped massaging his wrist and looked to his partner, as if for approval. When Gerber nodded his assent, he explained, “She claimed some kind of animal grabbed her dog.” “An animal? Like, what kind of animal?” Peter finally pulled his notebook out of his suit jacket, but at that action, Gerber motioned for his partner to stop. “No way, Detective. You’re not getting either of us on the record with this.” He pressed the officer. “You said an animal. What kind? A bigger dog?” “You plainclothes guys think you’re the only ones with brains,” Gerber retorted. “If it was just another dog, we would have called Animal Control.” “Not another dog, then? Something more exotic? Like a big cat, maybe?” “This broad was carrying on like it was some sort of monster. Big, ugly and toothy.” Gerber emphasized his point by making a clawing motion with his large, beefy hand. “Kind of green with some feathers and something sharp and pointy at its tail,” Anderson added. “That’s all she saw when it took her dog to the roof.” He shot a nervous look at his partner out of the corner of his eye. Gerber hesitated for a moment, eyeballed Peter up and down before elbowing his partner. “Show him what we found at the scene.” Anderson shook his head. “You know—” “He’s not going to believe it anyway. We don’t.” Gerber took another hit of the coffee, but it was obvious he wished it was something stronger. Anderson once again delayed, earning another forceful shove from his partner. At that, he reached into his shirt pocket and removed a folded envelope. Passing it over, he said, “These things were on the ground. Don’t know where they came from and there wasn’t anything I could do with them.” “The creature,” Gerber answered, but with a tone of insincerity that prompted nervous laughter from his partner. “Right. The monster,” Anderson chimed in, his voice a falsetto likely intended to mimic the dog owner. Peter opened the envelope to discover what looked like a very fine, orange-and-beige feather, and the remnant of an exceptionally long nail. More like the talon of a falcon or eagle. Maybe that was the dognapper, although he had never heard of such birds of prey hunting at night or running around on building rooftops. “You’re kidding, right?” he asked, and looked from one cop to the other, thinking that maybe they were putting him on. All too soon he realized they were serious. But then again, who was he to doubt claims about monsters, when he was in love and living with a vampire? “Okay, so let me get this straight. The lady claimed a monster snatched her dog, but you wrote it up as a plain old dognapping?” Anderson gave a brusque nod of his head, as did Gerber. “We convinced her no one would believe her, and promised her we would keep on looking for her dog if she let us list it as a dognapping.”
Peter tucked the envelope and his notepad into his suit jacket. “Did you find the dog?” Gerber shook his head. “We didn’t find it, or for that matter, any other strays. No carcasses lying around, either.” “Meaning?” “It was like someone swept the neighborhood for all the loose animals and took them away,” Anderson replied. “But sometimes the dog fight people do that.” “Yeah, training material for their fighters,” Peter said. After thanking the two officers, he walked toward his sedan. Once he was inside, he picked up the phone and called Samantha. “You have some information, love?” she asked. “Probably not what you were expecting to hear.”
Chapter 13 N eeding some privacy, Sara had borrowed her friend Melissa’s office and computer during her lunch hour at work. She was still pounding at the keys, searching the Internet for “monsters,” when Melissa returned from having lunch at home with her husband and new baby. As Melissa rounded the corner of her desk and noted the keyword, she hitched her hips on the edge of her desk and said, “This is getting too weird, amiga.” It was, wasn’t it? Sara thought. But if she couldn’t tell her best friend, who could she tell? “I don’t want you to think I’m crazy. Promise?” Melissa nodded. “I feel something with Ricardo. When he touches you to heal, there’s warmth and this…sizzle.” She shrugged as words failed her, then plowed onward. “He can perceive power in others, or at least he says he can.” Maintaining a calm countenance, Melissa adopted a professional demeanor. She began to explain, “There’s been literature in the journals about faith healers. Psychic healers, as well. What you’re describing has been documented. However, the healers and their cures have sometimes proved to be fake.” Sara nodded. “I know that. But I’m telling you, I don’t know if he’s for real, but the feelings definitely are.” “So what’s bothering you? Besides being in like with him?” “I’m not in like with him,” she said, but as Melissa raised one eyebrow, clearly incredulous of the claim, Sara backtracked. “Okay, so maybe a little like.” “So you little-like him and you’re sitting here looking for ‘monsters’?” Melissa teased, trying to relieve some of Sara’s anxiety. It didn’t work. In retrospect, they were both fairly serious, driven, logical and scientific women, which made what Sara was about to say all that much harder. “Ricardo says he’s felt another life force and it’s not a good one.” Melissa raised an eyebrow. “And you believe that?” With a quick shake of her head, she said, “Not at first, only several nights back, we heard something weird on one of the rooftops near his shop. Then something killed one of the neighborhood cats and left it on Ricardo’s doorstep. Now other cats have turned
up missing.” Sara leaned back in the desk chair and waited for her friend’s disbelief and possibly even condemnation. She wasn’t prepared when Melissa remained silent and took on a faraway look. It was her turn to press for an answer. “Melissa?” She looked at Sara now. “I don’t think you’re crazy. In the past couple of years, I’ve come across things….” She clearly struggled with what else to say, but finally finished with, “There are some things science can’t explain. Maybe not even faith can justify them. But they exist. Sometimes we have to deal with them.” Melissa’s life hadn’t been all that easy, Sara knew. Both her parents had been murdered, and their murderer had kidnapped Melissa just over a year ago. Sara had never really asked why, sensing that the reasons behind both the murders and kidnapping were ones that likely defied belief. She also sensed that by not asking questions and by behaving as if everything was back to normal, she was helping her friend cope with the recent changes in her life. “This thing taking the cats, if it does exist…you think we can stop it?” A hard glint entered Melissa’s blue eyes. “Probably not alone.” Needing to help rein in the tension that had overtaken Melissa, Sara laid a hand on her friend’s arm. Beneath her fingers, Melissa’s muscles trembled with strain. “You’re not telling me something. Something bad.” Melissa shook her head forcefully, shifting her shoulder-length blond hair back and forth with the movement. “There are people who can help you.” Sara nodded. “Ricardo has friends. One of them is a detective.” Melissa looked up, her brow furrowed. “Peter Daly, by any chance?” Sara shifted back in her chair, surprised. “You know him?” With a curt nod, Melissa confirmed it. “And Samantha Turner. They’re friends. They can help you if…” She let the thought trail off and took a different path. “You know, when you first came to me about this santero, I worried about what he was.” “And now?” Melissa met her gaze straight on, her look fierce. “I worry about what will happen if you get any more involved with him.” Her friend was holding back, Sara realized. Melissa knew more about Ricardo and his friends than she was letting on. That bothered Sara, but what she was about to say would trouble her friend even more. “Then I think you’d better start worrying.”
Peter Daly nervously fingered the plain white window envelope before placing it in front of Ricardo on the table later that evening. The unlikely quartet had gathered once again. “Have you ever seen anything like this before?” Ricardo glanced at Sara before reaching for the envelope, opening it and spilling out the contents. The long nail made little noise as it tumbled out onto the surface of the oak kitchen table. The tuft of what looked like an orange feather landed beside it soundlessly. Both he and Sara leaned forward at the same time to examine the two items. Sara poked at the piece of nail with her own manicured one. “Is that…blood?”
Blood and who knew what else, he thought. “Yes. Where did you get these?” he asked Peter. Peter exchanged a hesitant look with Samantha before he answered. “The two police officers who filed that dognapping report. They found these things at the scene.” Sara trailed her finger along the edge of the feather and then shivered. “This isn’t just another animal taking those strays, is it?” Ricardo shook his head. “No, it isn’t.” Even these small items radiated remnants of the energy he had been sensing for over a week now. They were from the life force that had intruded into his psyche, and seemed to have taken up residence in their neighborhood. He glanced at Sara before fixing his gaze on Samantha and Peter. “What is it?” “We were hoping you had some idea,” Samantha said. He swept the nail and feather into the envelope and passed it back to Peter. “I have no idea. So what do we do now?” With a shrug, Samantha replied, “We do what we’ve been doing—keep an eye out for it. Try to keep it from hurting anything else.” “What if that’s not enough?” Sara said, confirming what they all were thinking but hadn’t voiced. Ricardo leaned over, laid his hand on hers as it rested on the table. “When the time comes, we’ll handle it together.”
Hand in hand they walked along the nearly empty streets, searching. Though they had seen and heard nothing out of the ordinary, they kept up their patrols. Ricardo’s hand was warm around Sara’s, a steadying presence in the dark, dank street. To temper the silence she started a conversation. “Mami is holding steady.” His hand tightened on hers and the apprehension flickered across his face. She sought to alleviate his concern. “I know it’s because you came by this morning. You’ve been coming by a lot lately.” “I want to do what I can. I wish I could do more,” he stated, much as he had said on other occasions. She wanted to understand. Wanted to prepare herself for when her mother’s time came. “Your power. The ashe your orishas gather for you…” His hand stiffened in hers. “There is only so much power they can bring me. Only so much power I have within me to give, and after that—” “You risk yourself,” she finished for him, finally beginning to comprehend. But with that comprehension came doubt once again. She stopped, turned and looked up at him, but he averted his gaze. Reaching up, she pressed her palm to his cheek. It was smooth, but taut beneath her hand. “You’re not telling me everything.” He surprised her by nodding. “I’m not, but…Sometimes you have to have faith, Sara. You have to believe that I would never hurt you or your family.” In her heart she knew as much, which was troubling. Had she placed her faith in him too quickly? She was about to respond when a foul odor engulfed them. With it came the sense of evil that had surrounded the dead cat’s
body the other day. Ricardo experienced it, as well, for he placed his back to hers and wrapped his arm around her in a defensive posture, almost as if they had fought together during their times in the military. The odor—like the stench of something decaying—grew stronger, and they pressed closer to each other, ever more tightly. Then a noise intruded from a nearby alley. A noise or just her imagination? Sara wondered. She had her answer when Ricardo took a step toward the gap. He shifted so that Sara was positioned safely behind him. Bending slightly, he whispered, “Stay close.” “I’ve got your back,” she murmured. With an abrupt nod, he moved to the entrance of the alley. The stench grew more pungent the closer they got. At the mouth of the narrow space between the two buildings, he paused and peered into the darkness, made even murkier by the lack of any moonlight tonight. He made out the shapes of garbage cans near the front of the alley, but not much else. He sensed a presence, however, and confirmed in that instant that it wasn’t a vampire. This thing was darkness. Turbulent, with a unique signature to its force. Even though he couldn’t physically see it, the tendrils of its negative energy reached out for him, trying to reel him in. It wanted something from him. Something big. He moved back a bit, but then took another step away more quickly, out of the range of the creature’s power. This thing— whatever it was—had taken the animals and killed the cat. Ricardo had no doubt that was the source of this malevolence. “Ricardo?” His name was barely a whisper from Sara’s lips. How he wished to hear her say it with something other than fear. “We’re safe.” For now, he thought, and moved farther still from the mouth of the alley. Not a heartbeat later there came an odd combination of sounds. A screech and cackle. A sharp hiss and clack, like sharp teeth snapping shut. “H-huuman.” Ricardo couldn’t understand it. Was almost afraid to. Sara stiffened behind him and grabbed hold of his arm. “What was that?” A clatter arose, and for a moment, he caught a glimpse of something racing up to the roof of the building. With the lack of light, it was difficult to tell what it was, only that it was large and its color indistinct yet dark. “Let’s go,” he said, fearful that the creature might return. If it did, he wasn’t sure he could keep them safe.
Sara huddled on his couch, hunched over slightly, the mug of coffee cradled between her hands. She was safe now. He kept telling himself that, not that the reminder did him much good. He could feel the fear gripping her, painfully aware that some of that fear was about him. About what he was and why the unknown beast seemed to be following him. After the encounter in the alley, Ricardo had ferreted her to safety in his apartment. Once there, he’d phoned Samantha to let her know what had happened, and had heard her promise that she and Peter would immediately investigate further. While he awaited word, he had other problems to worry about. He couldn’t very well let Sara huddle there, alone, surrounded by all the negative energies bringing her such distress. But he feared comforting her would rouse his carnal desires.
In the end he sat next to her and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. A shiver shook her at his touch, as painful as a knife sliding into his gut. A second later, though, she leaned into him and relaxed. Bending his head, he laid the side of his face against her hair and breathed in deeply. It was silky against his cheek and had a clean scent, like orange blossoms. The aroma and silkiness called to him, and he couldn’t keep from reaching up, tangling his fingers through the heavy weight of the tresses and up to her neck. He gently massaged it, trying to ease her disquiet. “That feels good,” she said, and let out a little mewl of pleasure. He kept up the caress, but was careful to curb his power. He didn’t want anything otherworldly to intrude into their time. They’d already had enough of that tonight. As the strain fled from her body, she settled against him more fully and tucked her legs up under her on the couch. “Make yourself comfortable,” he teased. She sipped her coffee, but then placed the mug down on the coffee table and leaned back more fully against him, pillowing her head against his chest. Motioning to the bookcases along the far wall, she asked, “Are those photos of your family?” “Sí. The big one is the entire family—all my brothers and sisters, with their wives and kids.” “The one with you in your dress uniform. Is that your mami and papi?” “Sí. That was taken right before I finished my second tour.” “Hmm,” Sara murmured as she spied one picture of what she assumed was a more youthful Ricardo, and pointed to it. “You in high school?” “My youngest brother. We look a lot alike.” Without a doubt, she thought. Another handsome devil that would break hearts. She wondered if Ricardo had broken his own share of them, but instead said, “Two tours? That must have been rough. Where did you serve?” “At first we did a lot of humanitarian missions. Relieving the suffering caused by earthquakes and mudslides. That kind of thing.” “It was similar for me. Mostly stateside, thanks to a rough hurricane season. But for the last year I shipped out to Afghanistan.” He tightened his hold on her. “I ended my last tour there. Difficult, but—” “Necessary,” she finished. “So why New York?” She had been to San Diego once for a nurse’s convention and loved it. It made her wonder why anyone would trade sandy beaches and perfect year-round weather for sunbathing on tar rooftops and damp, dismal winters. He shrugged. “More people, more possibilities. After training and being an EMT for a couple of years, I happened to be going by the building for my shop. The sale price was too good to pass up.” She shifted, turning so that she might see him better. “So, that’s it? You’ve settled here?” With a cocky grin, he cupped her cheek. “Maybe.” There was a lot to be read from that smile. Including possibly an invitation to take whatever was going on between them to the next level. “Just maybe?” He moved only an inch, but it was enough to bring her body flush against his. “It all depends…” “Really?” She stroked his hair back from his face, wanting to see all those sharp planes and angles. Needing to see his eyes. They
were growing darker, a more intense green, and she knew why. The pleasure of being close to him was arousing her, as well. Tangling her fingers in his thick dark hair, she cradled the back of his head and nuzzled her nose against his. “So tell me why—” “Why don’t I show you instead?” he replied, and before she could utter another word, he took her mouth in a kiss that was almost punishing with its passion. His lips bruised hers at first, then he quickly tempered his kiss. She opened her mouth, savored the hard edges of his lips, sucked in his tongue when he explored her mouth with it. He moaned, paused to draw a ragged breath and asked, “Can I touch you?” “Sí.” He immediately cupped her breast, and her nipple beaded against the palm of his hand. He caressed her, gently rubbing his palm back and forth against the tip until she was straining toward him, wanting more. She shifted her body, and beneath the softness of her belly, his hardness nestled against her. He wanted her as much as she wanted him, she knew, but she sensed restraint in the slight tension in his arms. She pulled away a bit to look at him. “Do you want to stop?” Across the high, proud line of his forehead, a deep wrinkle emerged. Tight lines bracketed the lips she had been kissing just moments earlier. “No, but…There are so many things between us.” “For one night, can’t we try and forget about all our worries and just…enjoy?” Ricardo examined the face that had become so dear to him. Her warm hazel eyes gazed at him, beseeching, and her lips glowed moist and red from his kisses. He felt a tug in his groin. A deep painful tug that wanted fulfillment, release, the ecstasy that could only be achieved buried deep inside her. Sara claimed to want it, too, but she didn’t strike him as the kind of woman to enjoy a man without needing more. As he cupped her cheeks and ran his fingers down her smooth skin, he realized she was putting up a front. A defense against all that might arise to separate them. She was much like him in that way. He kept up barriers, closing himself off for fear of showing her his true self. The one that wasn’t a santero, but just a man with some extraordinary abilities. Caressing her jaw, he slipped his thumbs across her full lips. Silently he let his eyes and hands promise all that she needed, not just for this night, but for the future. A future he wanted to believe was possible for them. With that in mind, he whispered against her lips, “So let’s enjoy.”
Chapter 14 W ith his mouth moving slowly, sensuously, against hers, Sara knew there was nothing she wouldn’t do, nothing she wouldn’t give this man. His lips were warm and pliant, his tongue hard and wet as she took it in, frolicked with it in anticipation of another, more intimate dance. He lowered his hands to her waist and, at her murmured invitation, moved them to her breasts. He caressed them, found the hardened tips of her nipples and tugged. Each pinch echoed between her legs, creating intense need. She mewled in pleasure, and he broke away from her and tugged off the black knit sweater she wore, exposing the lacy black bra beneath. He reached behind, un-snapped it and eased it off. Her breasts spilled free and she moved, bringing one nipple close to his mouth. He cupped her breast, and kissed it, drawing a pleased gasp from her. When he took it into his mouth, she held the back of his head, urging him on. She moved her hips, straddling him.
The strands of his hair were thick and silky, tangling around her fingers as she exhorted him to continue. She loved the way his mouth worked her nipple, while he pleasured the other with his palm. His erection nestled between her legs and he pressed up into her as she rode him. She cursed the clothes that kept them apart. Too far apart. Sara wanted to run her hands over his skin. She imagined it was smooth, like his face, which was clean shaven. Tired of just imagining, she pulled his T-shirt free of his jeans and slipped her hand beneath. Warm, smooth skin greeted her. She inched her palm along his body slowly, taking the shirt with it. His muscles were hard, and as she moved upward, she experienced the hills and valleys of them until she reached her destination—the hard little button of his nipple. She mimicked the play of his hands and mouth, tweaking it between her fingers, dragging a groan from him that vibrated against the peak of her breast. As if by mutual agreement, she shifted back onto her buttocks, allowing him freedom to tear off his shirt, and at the same time pressing herself more tightly against his erection. Now she moaned, as the contact made her want more. At that sound, he sat up a bit, touched her cheek. “This is happening much too fast, isn’t it?” Sara wanted to deny it, but couldn’t. It had been a long time since she had been intimate with anyone. But what she felt—that urgent desire to be close to him—had more to do with him than just the need for sex. She bent forward and laid her hands over his chest, dragged her thumbs across his nipples as she answered, “I don’t want to rush.” He stroked the side of her face and smiled. “Neither do I. So come with me.” Puzzled, she nevertheless agreed, allowing him to slip from beneath her. As he rose, he held his hand out to her and she took it, trailed behind him as he walked to the far side of the room and a staircase she hadn’t noticed before. He walked upward to another level of the apartment. A hall split the floor in half. To the right were two doors, to the left only one. It was to that door he headed, and as they crossed the threshold and he turned on a light, she realized it was his bedroom. A very masculine, but totally tasteful bedroom. A king-size mahogany sleigh bed, just right for a man of his height and size, dominated the middle of the room beneath a skylight. As on the floor below, shelves lined one wall and held books, more photos, and a collection of items that she assumed came from his many travels as a marine. Before the bed there was an entertainment unit, and he flipped on the stereo system. The soft sounds of Sarah McLachlan came from the stereo, dragging a smile to Sara’s lips. “Something to put me in the mood for seduction?” She walked toward him, feeling more like the seducer than he. As he turned and saw her approaching, he grinned. “Something that’ll give us an excuse for a slow dance.” Standing before him, she placed her hand on the center of his chest, then slid it upward to his shoulder. She raised her other hand in dance position. Ricardo didn’t want to refuse her invitation, but he needed something else first. He reached for the snap on her jeans, undid it and then worked the pants down. He paused just long enough for her to toe off her sneakers, before he peeled off her pants and socks. She stood before him in nothing but a black thong that exposed the luscious curves of her hips. She was all woman, lush with ripe feminine curves that he longed to explore. Instead, he contented himself with running his hands up the length of her body. Only now it appeared to be her turn, for as he finally stood upright, she undid his jeans and likewise helped him undress. They both stood there, breathing heavily, their bodies trembling from the anticipation of what they knew was to come.
She held her arms up in the traditional dance pose once again, and he finally slipped into them. Then they began to move to the music, her marvelous breasts barely grazing the skin of his chest, his erection jutting against the smoothness of her belly. It wasn’t enough for either of them, and little by little they drifted closer until their bodies melded together. Skin rubbing skin. Warm, and growing hotter. Damp. He bent his head and kissed her. Kept on kissing her, over and over again. Inside him, heat coalesced in his core. The flow of his energy and the natural forces swirling around them shifted into his body. He reined in that power, knowing that he couldn’t release it during their intimacy. She would run if she felt it. She would be afraid of him, and that was the last thing he wanted. But she was making it so hard to keep control as she inched up on tiptoe and rubbed her body against his. He cupped her buttocks, naked from the thong, abundant beneath his hands as he urged her upward. Sara explored his body in turn. His skin was as smooth as she had imagined. She reveled in the glorious wealth of tanned flesh, lean with sculpted muscles. With his greater height and those amazingly broad shoulders, there was so much to hold on to. He was big…and not just across the shoulders. He held her close, his large hands against her ass, raising and guiding her as she caressed his erection with her body. Between her legs she was damp, vibrating with need. Suddenly his hand was there, parting her legs from behind. Easing beneath the scrap of her thong so he could slip his thumb into her vagina. She gasped and threw her head back, the pressure of that possession nearly bringing her to a climax. “Shhh,” he whispered against the side of her face. He kissed the crook of her neck and then sucked there, the pull of his mouth keeping time with the way he shifted his thumb in and out of her. She held on to his shoulders, her body shaking from the force of the climax that was rapidly approaching. But then he moved, hefting her in his arms and carrying her toward his bed. She felt the cool fabric brush the backs of her thighs and then her buttocks as he slowly lowered her to the edge. When he stopped his caresses, she nearly protested, but he did so only long enough to strip the thong down her body and then kneel before her, slipping into the V formed by her legs. Ricardo looked up at her and laid his shaky hands on her thighs, almost as if seeking permission. She gave it to him, opening her legs to reveal herself. He groaned as he realized she was as bare as a baby, devoid of any hair, exposing her glistening and flushed lips. The sweet entrance to her womb. He had to taste it all. Touch every smooth inch. Bending his head, he began by licking her pubis while he parted her lips with his thumb. She sucked in a breath and her body trembled beneath him, clearly anticipating the journey of his tongue and mouth. He licked her lips, found the center of her with his tongue and she gasped again, laid her hand against the back of his head. He didn’t need to ask her if she liked that, and so he deepened his kiss, sucking and biting at the swollen nub while he eased a finger inside. Slick and strong, her muscles moved on his finger, and he eased another one in. She was tight. So tight that he knew her being here with him was not something she did lightly.
His own body responded at that realization, with a jolt that told him he couldn’t hold on for much longer. He didn’t have a condom within easy reach. He cursed beneath his breath. He withdrew, earning her protest until she realized why. Sara watched him fumble with his jeans, and after, with his wallet, from which he finally removed the shiny foil packet. She took it from his hands. The foil was smooth, the writing worn in spots, which told her it had been in his wallet for some time. The thought pleased her, and she wanted to give some immediate pleasure back. With a quick rip, she opened the packet and removed the condom. She reached for him, but didn’t sheath him right away. Instead, she cupped him, stroked the long length of his shaft, their gazes locked as she did so. The color of his eyes had deepened to an intense dark green, like the shadows beneath a stand of pines. His lips were parted, his breath a little ragged from her caresses. As she covered the head of him, he was wet. Sticky. Losing control. He confirmed it when he reached down and took the condom from her. But she laid her hands on his, followed him as he rolled the condom into place, her hands stroking him through the latex, and after, guiding him to the center of her. They were eye to eye as she sat on the edge of the bed and he slipped the tip of his penis into her. Bracing her hands on his shoulders, she glanced downward to watch, to marvel at his slow entry into her body, stretching her almost to the point of pain with the thickness and length of him. She held her breath as he completed his possession. She gripped his shoulders tightly and he waited, as if aware that her body needed to learn the feel of him, needed to accept his intrusion into the most private of places. That delay was more intoxicating than she could have imagined. Their bodies trembled, reaching for something. The muscles of his shoulders tensed as he reined in his need. The tips of her breasts barely grazed the smooth wall of his chest. “Ricardo?” She didn’t even know what she was asking for, only that she had to say his name. “Sara,” he said with a thready breath. “This is…amazing.” It was. So much so that she didn’t want to move and risk losing the wondrous feeling that being joined with him created. But her body seemed to have a mind of its own, because within her, muscles moved against him, dragging a ragged gasp from him. Ricardo sucked in a breath, almost overwhelmed by what he was experiencing on so many levels. Emotionally. Physically. Spiritually. Some said there was such a thing as a soul mate, and in that moment of unity with her, he thought he understood just what was meant by that. There was a rightness in being with her. A peacefulness, coupled with a storm of emotion that was completely fulfilling. Did she sense it? he wondered as he cupped the side of her face. When she met his gaze, he thought he saw it there. The same emotion. The same sense of completeness. He risked a kiss, almost afraid that the moment might shatter by doing so, but if anything, her gentle and tentative response made it even better. He explored her lips and once again pleasured her breasts as he slowly moved his hips. His strokes were careful until she asked for more, with her hands and with the faint whisper of his name on her lips.
Sara leaned back and took him with her. It deepened his penetration, and she raised her legs, cradled his hips as he pumped into her. She urged him on by tightening her hold on him with her hands and thighs, until the strength of his thrusts shifted her upward from the edge of the bed. She gasped and he stilled with apprehension, but she eased his concern. “No, por favor. I’m fine. More than fine.” His chuckle was followed by a groan, and she knew why. Just another push. Just one more… Her climax rushed over her and she rose up, her back bowing from the force of her release as it transferred to him. With a sharp cry, “Sara!” he stiffened and followed her into the throes of ecstasy.
Chapter 15 H e remained inside her, the length of him still hard and driven deep into her. Even now, moments after their climax, Sara found pleasure, comfort in the weight of him on her, the thickness of him in her. She brushed back his long hair, needing to see his face. She wasn’t prepared for what she discovered. Peace. Contentment. Desire, banked but waiting to be awoken again. “Can you stay the night?” he asked. Sara glanced upward, past his shoulder to the skylight above them. There had been little moonlight tonight, but the stars were out and bright, visible through the clean glass. She’d had little time to appreciate it, but could imagine lying with him beneath the starsprinkled night, making love with him again as moonlight bathed their bodies. But not tonight, she realized sadly. “I’m sorry. But with mami…” “Lo comprendo,” he said, and he kissed her. Although he said he understood, she wasn’t sure that he did, mainly because she wasn’t sure she did. Yes, she felt concerned about being away from her mother too long, and the reality of work early in the morning. But there was something else, as well. Something she couldn’t quite define. Maybe fear—of Ricardo and how he made her need him. Of whether he would lie and hurt her. Not to mention Melissa’s fears for her, as if her friend knew that becoming involved with him might change her life, and not in a good way. “Sara?” Ricardo made no motion to stop her as she gathered her things. She was running, that much he knew. Even while he was still buried within her, he had sensed her withdrawing from him emotionally. But he understood and even considered that it was maybe for the best tonight. They had begun by wanting a night of enjoyment, but somewhere along the way it had become much more than that. And like her, he wasn’t quite sure he was ready to deal with it. Not with so many other things hanging unsettled between them. So many lies on his part. Having little time to consider it further, since she was dressed and ready to go, he said, “Give me a minute to get ready and I’ll walk you home.”
Her polite nod brought an end to the wonder of their night.
The creature had been looking forward to finishing off his feast—that lusciously fat and well-fed hound he had spotted the other morning. The woman who normally walked it had decided to just let it loose in the small alley for its nightly outing. Given the hound’s rotund shape and short squat legs, he had snared it quickly. He had bounded up to the roof where he sank his fangs deep into the sweet rolls of its neck, and tasted the richness of its blood. The dog had whimpered and kicked its short legs in protest, but its movements weren’t enough to dislodge it from his grasp. But he admired the hound’s fight, even if futile, and so he didn’t completely drain it. Some cultures, he recalled, believed one could acquire the spirit of conquered enemies by eating them. He understood it well, for the blood of an animal that had given him a good chase or fight pleased him more than that from the weak or willing. Because of that, he would let this hound linger for just a bit more, and savor the vigor in its blood later. In the meantime, he would slip by the human’s shop and see how he was reacting to their earlier brief encounter. The man had known that something was in the alley, but had he sensed it was him? With the hound’s limp body tucked under his arm, the creature bounded from rooftop to rooftop until it came to rest on the building of the shop. A dim light came from a skylight in the roof, beckoning him to move closer and look within. He crept to the edge of the skylight, careful to avoid being seen. When he did peer down, he saw them. Naked on the bed. Limbs entwined. Loving each other. The woman was beautiful, her breasts generous, with dark copper tips. As she rocked with the force of the man’s thrusts, her head was thrown back, her eyes closed against the pleasure she was experiencing. Her cries of passion drove him away from the skylight, a painful reminder of how long it had been since he’d had a woman. Since he had shared a bed with another human. Felt the warmth of a hand against his face. Felt a human breath spilling on his lips before a kiss. The hound beneath his arm, seemingly restored with his delay, kicked at him once more. He gazed down at the dog. At the two gaping holes in its neck and the blood smeared along its white fur. Nothing human had made those marks. Nothing human…At the realization, misgiving filled his heart, rent it apart as he saw all that he had lost and what he had become. What he no longer wanted to be. He fled to the next rooftop, and was preparing to leap to the adjacent building when the dog renewed its struggles in earnest. Angry at himself and at the humans for reminding him of all that was no longer his, the creature lost his appetite. He tossed the animal over the ledge. The meaty thud of its body hitting the ground reached his ears as he fled from the rooftop and the bitter reality of his lonely existence.
Sara exited the shop and hadn’t even taken a step when she saw the animal lying on the ground near the next building. “Oh, no,” she cried, and raced over to the still body of Mrs. Lopez’s dog. Ricardo chased after her, kneeling beside her as she laid a hand on Lucy’s body. Beneath her fingers, the dog’s muscles quivered, and it whimpered in pain. In its neck were two deep puncture wounds, about a hand’s-length apart.
“What did this?” She gazed up at Ricardo, but he didn’t answer. He brushed her hands aside and laid his own on the dog’s body. As it had before, the dog whined with pain, but then calmed. There was nothing to be seen as Ricardo touched the dog, nothing she could pinpoint, but that calm transferred itself to her. That feeling was followed by another so strong that she found herself backing away. She rose and stood a couple of feet from them, observing Ricardo as he knelt beside the dog. His body was still, and yet she experienced motion all around him. Energy. He moved his hands up the body, to the dog’s neck and the wounds there. The animal’s legs twitched a few times, as did its ears, but then quieted. Ricardo slowly and carefully grazed the dog’s body with his hands until the dog gave a shake of its head—a forceful movement she wouldn’t have thought it capable of moments earlier. Suddenly, the power she had perceived earlier vanished. Ricardo sat back on his heels and rested his hands on his thighs. She returned to him and knelt beside him and the dog. The animal was attempting to rise, but Ricardo issued a command. “Down, Lucy. Down, girl.” The dog complied, its breath rasping noisily in the night air, but with much greater strength than when they had first discovered its body. As Sara glanced at Ricardo, there was a pained expression on his face and his skin glistened with sweat. She laid a hand on his arm, worried for him. “Are you okay?” He nodded curtly. “I couldn’t let Lucy die. Not with Mr. Lopez—” She covered his mouth with her hand, understanding why he had done it. Poor Mrs. Lopez couldn’t lose her dog so soon after her husband’s death. What Sara didn’t understand was how he had done it, and why he couldn’t do the same for her mother. He seemed to recognize the questions in her gaze, but chose to answer only one of them. “Lucy’s life force is small compared to a human’s.” As if to avoid any further inquiries, he shifted into action, tearing off the light jacket he wore and wrapping Lucy within it. “We should get her home,” he said as he rose. Sara stood, as well, but was silent as they took the dog up the block to Mrs. Lopez’s building, which was around the corner from Sara’s home. Mrs. Lopez was surprised and then instantly worried. When she asked what had happened, Ricardo quickly offered up a lie. “We found her by the curb. We think she got hit by a car.” Sara didn’t care for the fact that he included her in the untruth, but couldn’t imagine telling the older woman that some demon bloodsucker had nearly killed her pet. Sara had no doubt about the bloodsucker part, she thought as they left Mrs. Lopez, and Ricardo walked her home. The injuries on the dog’s neck had clearly been puncture wounds. What she had doubt about was Ricardo and what he was. How he had healed an animal that was nearly dead just by laying his hands on it. As they stood at her door, she examined him. He seemed like an ordinary man, hesitant, expectant as he waited for her move. For some indication. But she was too confused by all that had happened that night. And afraid. Of the creature. Of him. Even of herself.
“Will I see you tomorrow?” he asked. It wasn’t in her to be dishonest. Lifting her chin, she said, “Maybe.” With a sad nod of his head, he turned and walked away.
Chapter 16 B loodsucker and animal. After typing those words into the search engine, she looked at the first dozen or so hits and found a word with which she was vaguely familiar. Chupacabra. The stuff of legend and myth. Only nothing legendary or mythical had killed that cat and sucked on poor Lucy, Sara thought. Something real had done that, and as she skimmed the information on one Web site, she decided it merited more detailed research. She typed “chupacabra” into the search engine and pored over the various hits, trying to see if what she and Ricardo had experienced matched any of the assertions at the assorted Web pages. The first site purported a UFO theory that the animal was the result of some kind of alien experiment, or possibly one of their pets. It described the creature as being tailless, with a long nose and a strong sulfuric stench. Sara wrinkled her nose as she recalled the odor from last night—nothing sulfuric, just the smell of rot and decay. The notes also indicated that there had allegedly been thousands of sightings in places like Puerto Rico, Miami, Nicaragua, Chile and Mexico. New York seemed a far cry from those tropical climes, she thought, but continued reviewing the materials at all the sites, making a list of the assorted traits as she did so. Lizardlike. Gray-green skin. Quills down its back. Red eyes. Lots and lots of teeth. Makes two puncture wounds. Able to stand, like a kangaroo. Three to six feet tall. Except for the odor and the two puncture wounds, nothing else matched up. Especially not the orange feather, although there was comment after comment about quills, spikes and gray or green feathers. Which meant that maybe the feather the cops had found came from somewhere else. “I should start charging rent.” Melissa walked into her office, a rosy flush on her cheeks. Sara recognized that flush well. “The baby was down for a nap, wasn’t she?” “Yes, and you’re busy researching again.” She looked at the screen. “Please, tell me I am not seeing—” “Remember the thing taking the cats?” Her friend sat on the edge of the desk. “You think this chupa-whatever is doing it?” Sara swiveled around in the chair and faced Melissa. “Last night we found a dog near Ricardo’s shop. It was near death and had two puncture wounds on its neck.” The becoming blush fled from her friend’s face, replaced by a sickly pallor. “You okay?”
Melissa dragged a hand through her hair, shook her head and cursed under her breath. “I warned you that you should reconsider getting involved, but from that hickey on your neck, I gather it’s even more impossible today than it was when we discussed it.” “Possibly impossible. He’s…amazing. But also amazingly weird. He healed a nearly dead dog last night right before my eyes.” “Healed it? As in—” Sara copied what she had seen Ricardo do the night before. “He laid his hands on the beagle and stroked gently, soothing it. I felt an energy, strong enough that I had to back away, and then after a few minutes, he pulled his hands away and the dog was better.” Melissa rubbed her chin thoughtfully, as if considering what Sara had said. The silence surprised Sara. “No comment? Dr. Science and Logic is actually—” “Maybe he’s not a santero. Maybe he’s a psychic healer.” “Next you’ll say that a chupacabra can actually exist.” When her friend didn’t deny it, Sara felt something shift, like the foundation of a building crumbling. Melissa had always been dependable, predictable and stalwart. Logical and rational. Considering that chupacabras might exist? Never. “You’re serious about this demon being real?” she asked. With a shrug, her friend said, “I’m serious. If Samantha and Peter can’t help you, know that I’m here for you. No matter what you need.” Sara was starting to think that what she needed was to wake up, because this had to be a nightmare. So she closed her eyes, took a deep breath and told herself that it was just a bad dream. That when she opened her eyes, she would be in bed and it would be time to wake up and go to work. Only when she did so, Melissa was still there, gazing at her with concern. “Sometimes real life is scarier than the stuff of our dreams,” she said. Thinking back on the past few years of Melissa’s life and her own, she sadly realized her friend was right.
Chupacabra. The name and images from the Web sites she had visited at lunch trailed her all the way home. As she stopped at the bodega for a few items, she passed two older women in the produce aisle. They were huddled together, whispering like conspirators. When Sara stopped to examine the mangoes, she overheard snippets of their conversation in Spanish. “Big horrible red eyes,” one said, and the other lady tittered in response. “Lots of teeth.” She grimaced and displayed a set of perfect dentures in emphasis. Teeth. Long sharp teeth clacking together. Sara realized those had been the sounds she had heard last night, coupled with that weird screech, like nails on a chalkboard. Putting that thought from her mind, she plopped the mango into her grocery basket and grabbed a bunch of guineo bananas. The fat and potassium in them would be good for her mother. After, she went in search of something that would give her a more
immediate sugar fix. A few aisles over, she picked up a bar of guava paste—her father had finished the last of it a few days ago— and headed for the cashier. One of the older men from the neighborhood finished paying, and as he walked away, he mumbled something that suspiciously sounded like “chupacabra.” She cocked her head and asked the young man behind the counter, “What was el viejo carrying on about?” “The poor old man is losing it. Says he looked out his window last night and saw un monstruo. A chupacabra,” the cashier said as he rang up her purchases. “Loco,” she commented. “Imaginalo—a goatsucker in Manhattan. Poor thing’s probably frozen solid.” Sara was spooked by the time she left the store with her plastic grocery bag. As she walked home, she kept a close eye on the alleys and rooftops, suddenly uncomfortable with the shadows dusk created. She listened for the slightest of noises, any sounds like those from the night before. She sniffed the air for any telltale odors. But there was nothing. When she neared the door to Ricardo’s shop, she paused and peered in through the glass display window. Ricardo was at the register, packing up some candles for a customer. When he looked up and caught her at the window, a hesitant smile came to his lips and he nodded, as if in invitation. The woman at the counter glanced her way and grinned. Then she made some kind of comment that had Ricardo blushing. When the woman took the bag and walked out the door, she asked Sara, “What are you waiting for, mi’ja?” What was she waiting for? she wondered. To wake up? With that thought, she forced herself through the door and over to the counter where Ricardo stood. She knew him well enough already to identify the exact moment pleasure filled his body because of her presence. “Hola.” “Hola. How are you doing today?” he asked. She shrugged, not that he could see it beneath the thickness of her coat. She grabbed her knapsack with one hand, opened it with the other and retrieved the paper sack from within. The one with the blood bank bags. “Will you be by—” “I went by this morning. She’s doing better.” The surprise in his voice about her mother’s condition was painfully obvious. “Mami says you have to have faith.” He nodded and took the paper bag from her. “Faith has been known to accomplish miracles.” Sara slipped her knapsack back over her shoulder and jammed her hands into her pockets. “Is that what you think it will take?” “Sí. Faith.” The words were simply stated, and yet when she met his gaze, she knew he was referring not just to her mother. He wanted her to have faith in him. Faith that he was one of the good guys. Faith that whatever was going on would end well. As if she had any choice about having faith in him. Sara counted on him to help her mother. She needed to rely on him so that the monster creating discord in their neighborhood could be discovered and caught.
“So what do we do now?” she asked. Ricardo read the hesitation on her face. It mingled there with the courage and strength he knew she possessed. The courage that had allowed her to better her life here in the barrio, the strength that she showed every day in the hospital. He had sensed more than once that her work wearied her at times, but she persevered because she was strong. As she would be now. “Samantha and Peter want to get together and talk about what’s happened.” “What time and where?” “They don’t want the kids in the shelter to overhear, so they’re coming here at eight. Do you want to grab a bite—” She shook her head. “I’m sorry, but I need to see mami.” “See you at eight, then?” With a quick nod, she whirled on her heel and hurried out of the shop.
Sitting on the couch at the front of his store, Ricardo glanced at his watch for what must have been the fourth time in ten minutes. It was nearly eight-thirty. “Maybe she changed her mind and isn’t coming.” Samantha laid a hand on his arm in commiseration. “Give her time, mon ami. Finding Lucy like that…” Her voice trailed off as she glanced toward the front of the shop. Ricardo looked up, as well, and immediately saw Sara at the door. She seemed to be shooting daggers at Samantha. A good sign? he wondered as he let her in. “I was worried you decided not to come.” She stepped inside the shop, but cocked her head in Samantha’s direction. “She seemed to be doing a fine job of keeping you company.” Meeting her gaze, he noted the fire in her hazel eyes and couldn’t help but experience satisfaction at her pique. Moreso, he couldn’t resist baiting her. “Jealous?” She snapped her head up to look at him. “Should I be?” “The answer to that better be no,” Peter Daly said as he stepped into the shop, eased past them and went over to Samantha. She immediately rose and embraced the handsome detective. The kiss they shared left little doubt as to where Samantha’s interest lay. “Somos amigos y nada mas,” Ricardo once again stressed, reminding her of his earlier explanation that he and Samantha were just friends. “She seems awful touchy for just friends,” Sara said, a slight pout to her lips that he had to experience for himself. He kissed that pout and took her full lower lip between his teeth for a love bite. As he released it, he whispered, “You’re the only one I think about.” “Good,” she said over her shoulder as she walked to the sofa.
After they were all seated, Sara surprised him by taking the lead. “There’s talk all over the neighborhood that a chupacabra is on the loose.” “A what?” Peter asked, a confused look on his face. “It means goatsucker in Spanish,” Ricardo explained, but then quickly added, “It’s a mythical creature.” At his comment, Samantha raised an eyebrow, and it registered that before meeting her, he had thought vampires were creatures of legend, as well. He motioned for Sara to continue. “I had gone on the Net even before I heard the talk tonight. I searched based on those things we knew, and chupacabra kept coming up. Though I don’t know where an orange feather comes in.” Sara seemed calm on the surface, but Ricardo noted the faint tension lines along the corners of her expressive mouth, and the defensive posture. “Care to run down the info you have?” Peter asked her, clearly in detective mode. Ricardo sat back as Sara provided the characteristics she had gleaned from the various Web sites. The only physical evidence they had so far that matched, however, were the puncture wounds on Lucy’s neck. “The smell’s off, although maybe there was a hint of sulfur,” he mused out loud. Sara shrugged. “I didn’t get a whiff of that rotten egg smell the other night, but maybe that’s the smell it leaves behind, and the stench we got was—” “Up close and personal. Not to mention the noises.” “It was almost as if it was trying to…communicate. Trying to tell us something.” “You think this chupacabra is sentient?” Samantha leaned forward, her blue eyes inquisitive as they settled on Sara’s face. Sara quickly offered up her facts. “It seems to both have avoided us and sought us out. And except for Lucy, we haven’t found any of its other victims, but they must be somewhere.” “It snatched the other dog about two dozen blocks away,” Peter added. “The officers I spoke to said other animals had disappeared. So it knew to leave when it was spotted, or when its food supply ran out.” “But if it tried to talk to them, then it may have a reason for being here other than food,” Samantha suggested. “Maybe,” Sara added, her voice tinged with worry, “it’s here because it wants something or someone.” She speared Ricardo with a look. The others, too, he noticed, looked at him. Could it be? he wondered. Unfortunately, it seemed to make sense. The cat left on his doorstep. Lucy. The fact that the only times they had come close to spotting it, he had been around. He didn’t bother voicing his thoughts. All he said was, “So the only question that remains is, where do we find it?” Peter spoke first. “This thing has avoided capture for quite some time, and we haven’t had any luck finding it, which means that we may need more manpower on the job.” “Diana and Ryder?” Samantha suggested.
Sara surprised Ricardo by asking, “Diana Reyes?” At the mention of that name, he couldn’t help but notice how Peter stiffened, his eyes narrowing as he considered Sara carefully before he spoke. “You know Diana and Ryder?” Which, Ricardo thought, in their secret speak translated to: You know about vampires? It seemed like forever till Sara replied, “My best friend, Melissa Danvers, is married to Diana’s brother. I’ve heard her mention Diana and Ryder, but I’ve never met them. Melissa thinks they’re cool, though, so it’s fine by me.” Which meant she didn’t know that Ryder was a vampire, nor that they existed. Ricardo could almost hear his friends’ and his own sigh of relief. Unfortunately that also meant he had to keep on lying to Sara. Uneasily, it occurred to him that the lies were piling up way too quickly. Samantha hesitated, clearly concerned, before she said, “Why don’t we bring in Diego and Blake, too?” At the mention of her two other vampire friends, Ricardo raised his hand to stop the discussion. “That may be just a little too many…people searching.” He had a feeling that just as he and Samantha could sense the creature, it could sense the vampires. One too many vamps around might drive it away. Peter slipped his cell phone from his belt and held it up. “I’ll call Diana. When’s a good time?” Ricardo replied, “You know the old saying—no time like the present.”
Chapter 17 W hile Peter and Samantha waited for the arrival of Diana and Ryder, Sara and Ricardo slipped upstairs for some private time. He had no sooner closed the door at the top of the stairs when Sara asked, “Isn’t this weirding you out?” She stood in the middle of his living room, her arms still wrapped around her midsection, the lines of her body tight. He walked over, placed his hands on her shoulders and slipped a bit of his energy into hers, seeking to calm her. Beneath his palms, the rigidity of her muscles gradually loosened, and with a satisfied little sigh, she confirmed that the caress had helped. “That feels…amazing.” She was amazing, he thought, recalling the other night and the touch of her body against his. All those delicious Dominican curves and that smooth skin. His body flared to painful life, and she must have sensed the change in him. “Seems to me you need to relax, as well,” she said. She raised her hands to his shoulders and gently massaged his muscles. Her fingers were strong and sure, her movements soothing. “Mmm. Do you do this for your patients?” She inched closer, raised up on tiptoe. “Only the ones I really like.” His grip on her waist urged her up the last distance to meet his lips. At the first touch, pleasure rocketed through his body. He deepened the kiss, opening his mouth against hers and wrapping his arms around her to pull her close. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come tonight.” Sara eased away a bit. “After finding Lucy and lying to Mrs. Lopez, I wasn’t sure, either. I don’t like lying.” A ripple shifted across his shoulders. As she shot a glance at his face, she saw discomfort mar his features. “I don’t, either, but
sometimes people can’t handle the truth.” That he suspected she might not be able to cope with some things was transparently clear, but before she could challenge him on it, a knock came at the door. He left her side and opened it. Peter stood there. “Diana and Ryder are here.” Ricardo allowed Sara to precede him down the stairs. The new arrivals stood in the center of the sitting area. Even if she hadn’t been told who the woman was, Sara would have pegged her for Sebastian’s sister. The siblings shared similar features and coloring: dark, nearly black hair and pale, creamy skin. But Diana, she noticed, had unusual gold-green eyes instead of Sebastian’s hazel. To her surprise, she recognized the man beside Diana. Tall and handsome in a dark and dangerous way, he was striking. She pointed at him and said, “I know you.” He studied her face, and then recognition dawned in him, as well. “You’re Melissa’s friend. I saw you once at the hospital.” “Yes, I remember seeing you, too,” she said and held out her hand to him. “Sara Martinez.” He shook her hand. “Ryder Latimer. And this is Diana Reyes.” Sara smiled at the woman. “Pleased to meet you,” she said. “You look a lot like your brother.” Ricardo stepped beside her, and after the introductions he led Sara to the couch, where Samantha joined them. The others took the chairs opposite. Sara’s presence beside him acted as a good grounding point, Ricardo thought. With the addition of the new couple to the room, he found it difficult to distinguish the nonhuman life forces crashing against his psyche from the human ones. Even if Samantha hadn’t confessed to turning Ryder over a century ago, the telltale signature of his undead essence would have tipped Ricardo off. But Diana’s energy…well, that was confusing him. He tried to concentrate as Peter filled in the new couple and offered suggestions on what they might do to locate the creature. Ricardo’s concentration wavered, however, as he examined Diana, trying to figure out just what was off about her. As she sat next to Ryder, the nature of her life force was indistinct, possibly the same as Ryder’s, though Ricardo couldn’t be sure. It was as if a halo of power surrounded the two of them, making it impossible to confirm whether the female FBI agent was human or vamp. When she caught him perusing her, she shot him an easy smile without a hint of fang. Was that her way of telling him what she was? he wondered. He had little time to consider it further, for Sara nudged him in the ribs, bringing him back to the conversation. “Ricardo, do you think it’s dangerous?” Peter asked, apparently for the second time. “Dangerous?” he repeated. He recalled the images of the dead cat and Lucy, revisited those moments when he had connected with the creature during his meditations. With a nod, he said, “I sensed something bad about its force. But that doesn’t mean it can’t control that aspect of itself.” With an uneasy glance at Ryder and Samantha, he added, “We need to consider that what it did to those animals, it did to survive. That it didn’t know any better.” A pregnant silence followed his statement, along with concerned looks in his direction. Finally, Samantha said, “If you’re right and it does understand, that makes it more difficult to decide what to do.”
“And if I’m wrong?” Ricardo asked her. “We kill it.”
As decided upon in his shop, Sara and he paired up to walk through their neighborhood, making sure to pass those places where they had previously encountered the chupacabra. Ricardo still wasn’t convinced that’s what it was, but figured there wasn’t any reason not to call it something other than “the creature.” They hadn’t said much as they walked, and it was getting late, he thought as he shot a glance at his cell phone to check the time. From the corner of his eye, he noted Sara doing the same thing. They both not only had their cell phones, but earlier in the night they had made sure the GPS chips were activated. With those chips in, Diana had assured them, her brother Sebastian would be able to use his computer skills to track their locations in case of an emergency. Ricardo hoped it wouldn’t come to that. Now he also wanted to ease the tension he sensed growing between him and Sara, so he asked, “Do you believe all life is sacred?” Sara didn’t get a chance to answer as a loud thud sounded to their left and a putrid smell assaulted them from the mouth of the alleyway.
The creature hadn’t eaten since discarding the delectable hound the other night, thinking that by doing so, he might somehow show them he didn’t mean them any harm. Only it occurred to him that the humans had no way of knowing of his attempt at redemption. No way unless he told them. He had practiced before the mirror all day. Had prepared. He’d even found a small break in a water main a dozen blocks or so away and attempted to wash, thinking that might help. Ready to plead his case before the light, he had slinked out a manhole and quickly scrambled to the rooftop of a nearby building. With one bounding leap after another, he had come to rest on the ledge of the building across the street from the human’s shop. He couldn’t just walk up to the door and knock, and so he waited for the human to come out. But then three couples had emerged from the building, huddled close together and clearly in concert with one another. Among them was at least one of the undead, he quickly realized. He backed away from the ledge and to the next rooftop so that he would not be sensed. This was not good, he thought as anger surged through him. He feared he’d be prejudged, again, as he had always been, recalling the many insults hurled his way because he had been a bastard child. Branded even before he’d had a chance to prove himself, he had decided to fulfill their prophecy and become a bastard of a man. A red haze filtered across his gaze, his anger stoked by the memories of his past. Just as he had shown his father and family how strong he was, he would show the human. He would make sure the man knew what he wanted, and ask that he give it to him. And if the human didn’t agree, he would find a way to take it. He dropped down into the alleyway and waited until the couple approached. He knew from watching the source of the light that it cared for the woman with him. That was good. If the human didn’t willingly give what he wanted, the woman could prove handy. The couple knew he was there. He saw them stop and peer into the dark alley. But he was tired of hiding now.
He stepped into a moonbeam so they might finally see him.
“Madre de dios,” Sara whispered. Ricardo pulled her close and urged her to slip behind him, but she remained firm, an equal at his side, and ready for action. He could tell from the shift of her body that she was preparing herself for battle against the creature that stood barely ten feet away. Ricardo could perceive its unique presence and energy. The dark storm he had felt days earlier belonged to this creature. The moonlight played over its gray-green body, a strange combination of lizardlike skin and feathery patches. Although it didn’t appear to be all that tall—no more than four feet on all fours—its body was broad and heavily muscled. When it took a step closer, a beam of moonlight illuminated strong forearms and extremely long, needle-sharp talons. Seeing that, Ricardo took a step backward and, as Sara had done before, adjusted his body weight so he would be ready to defend himself in case it decided to attack. The creature let out a raucous screech then, as if in complaint. With a wave of its front limbs, it moved forward a little more, and the light exposed what appeared to be the end of a protracted snout. Something slimy dropped from two large nostrils, and its hot breath misted in the chill of the night as it noisily snuffed in some air. Beneath that snout glinted lots of teeth, yellow-white and pointy in a lipless mouth, from which came an almost pleading mix of chirps and squeals. “Is it talking?” Sara asked from beside him. In response, the creature shifted up and down again in clear agitation and chattered noisily, only this time Ricardo thought it said, “Talk.” Risking a glance at Sara, he realized she thought the same thing as he. “Can you understand us?” he asked, and the tip of the creature’s snout bobbed up and down. A nod? He thought it looked like that. “It did,” Sara confirmed. “H-huuman,” it said, followed by another bob of its head, this one so strong it sent bits of spittle flying from its mouth. “Yes, we’re human,” Sara answered. At that the creature screeched in apparent protest, and rose up on its back legs to a height close to Ricardo’s own six feet. Continuing the earsplitting noises, it pounded on its chest and advanced on them. Ricardo raised his hand and said, “Stop.” “H-huuman,” it repeated, then took another step closer and said, “H-h-helpp meee…” The last word continued on and on, echoing along the walls of the alley. It was so loud and so high-pitched that it grated on his hearing. Ricardo put his hands up to cover his ears, as did Sara, trying to shut out the ear-piercing sound. At that the creature charged, but they were prepared. Sara moved first, delivering a powerful dropkick that stopped the creature’s advance. But she stumbled back, muttering, “Shit, it’s like a rock.”
Ricardo didn’t wait a second longer, copying her kick, but reaching higher with his greater height. He caught the beast along one shoulder and it stumbled back, flailing its arms as it sought to recover its balance. When it did, it stepped back into the alley, confusing them. Sara assumed her ready position next to him, but before they could do anything else, the beast turned and leaped against the wall. The noisy clatter of nails against the brick signaled its ascent to the roof. Ricardo caught a quick glimpse of its large silhouette before it raced off into the night. Breathing heavily, he relaxed his guard, and beside him, he heard Sara’s audible sigh as she dropped her fists and eased her own stance. She turned and met his gaze. “I guess there’s no doubt now about what it is.” No, there wasn’t. But one huge damning question remained in his head. “What is it doing here?”
The crescent moon sat high in the night sky above the barrio, and still no one had so much as picked up a lead to the creature’s whereabouts. Hours later, all they had to show for their trouble was a description of the beast and proof that it did in fact appear to be sentient. Which on some level only complicated any decision about what to do. The group had finally disbanded, leaving Ricardo and Sara alone in his shop. When he turned to face her, he knew what she was thinking even before she said a word. “We can’t kill it,” he stated. “You would kill a rabid dog, wouldn’t you?” she countered, her arms wrapped around her ribs and her head tilted at a challenging angle. “It hasn’t hurt any of us,” he reminded her, but that did little to appease her. “Not yet, but if it did—” “Then we would decide what to do—” “After the fact,” she immediately retorted. “After someone was hurt or possibly worse.” He laid his hand on her shoulder, and the angry and fearful vibrations in her body communicated themselves to him. He understood them. Understood that as black-and-white as her argument was, she, too, knew there was a spot in between. A gray area where they stood now, while they awaited the creature’s next move. Massaging her shoulder with one hand, Ricardo eased the other against the side of her face. “Are you ready to go home? I’ll walk you.” Sara thought about all that had happened that night and what awaited her at home. About her father sitting patiently by her mother’s side, much as she had done earlier that evening. It was the reason she had been late to their little meeting. She had wanted to squeeze a few more minutes in with her, but now… “A cup of coffee would be nice before we head out into the cold again.” “Coffee, huh?” He shot her a sexy grin and one dimple winked at her. “Do you think that’s the best thing for getting you warm?” He was right. She needed a respite from both her everyday world and the abnormal one she had entered with him. She laid a hand on his chest and coyly said, “Well, I can think of something else that’s dark and sweet that will heat me up.”
The grin broadened to a wicked smile and he caressed her cheek. “Let’s go warm you up.”
Her body vibrated from the release of her climax, quick and powerful as only Ricardo could bring her to. But he was rock hard within her, and his nipples were still tight little nubs beneath her palms. As tight as hers remained. As needy, she realized when he reached up and fingered her, bringing desire to life once again. Maybe too quickly, she thought. As if reading her mind, he tempered his caresses and with great care eased into a sitting position, never moving from inside her. He rested his back against the pillows on his bed, Sara straddling his thighs. She met his gaze and he offered her a tender smile. “You okay?” He brushed a wayward lock of her hair away from her face. As she pressed a kiss against his palm, she could smell the muskiness of their lovemaking, and a shiver of desire worked through her. “You make me…want all the time,” she confessed. Ricardo sensed that admission had cost her. She was always so independent and in control. He wanted to reassure her that even here, with him deep inside her, she could still be in charge. But more importantly, that the feeling was mutual. “You make me want, too,” he said. His hands traced a path over her shoulders, down her arms to her hands, which he grasped loosely. “And what I want more than anything is what makes you happy.” Blazing a similar trail, she slipped her hands from his, ran them up his arms until she cupped his shoulders. She rested her forehead on his, and her breath spilled against the sweat on his skin, cooling it as she said, “I just need…a minute.” He rested his hands on her thighs, stroked them in a tender caress meant to soothe her. Meant to temper his own passion, since the feel of her surrounding him, of her hot, wet sheath, nearly drove him over the edge. If it ruined him to stay inside her any longer, it would be worth losing everything just to feel what he was feeling. The completeness. The oneness. The power and balance in both their centers. Like the other night, their joining might have started as something physical, but had become much much more. He was pleased when she dipped her head to kiss him. The touch of her lips was one of acceptance. Of understanding. How he wished things could stay like this always. But there was so much between them, so much that could destroy the fragile trust they now shared. Sara sensed the tension enter his body. Tension, when just a moment before the peace of the moment had nearly undone her once again. Sitting back, she deepened his penetration, dragging a groan from both of them. “Dios, Ricardo.” “Take me with you, Sara. Love me,” he urged, shifting his hands to her buttocks, where he exerted gentle pressure and guided her into a rhythm that quickly escalated their mutual need. She was trembling, gripping his shoulders tightly, when he flexed his hips and drove up into her. The force of that snapped the last of her control and his. With a rough, shaky breath, she collapsed against him, and he wrapped his arms around her, raised his knees to offer her some support. Face-to-face with him, she kissed him gently, stroked the shaking muscles of his shoulders until he quieted. Somehow she knew that the peace she felt in his arms was reciprocated, and joy surged through her. But that delight was short-lived as, on his nightstand, her phone emitted the ring tone identifying a call from home.
There could be no good reason for the call.
Chapter 18 R icardo stood beside Sara at her mother’s bedside, sensing her pain and desperation as she implored, “Mami, you need to go the hospital.” But Evita shook her head and forced a smile to her face. “I’ll be fine, mi’ja. I just need to rest a bit.” After she said it, she looked past her daughter and up to Ricardo. It had been nearly midnight when Eduardo Martinez’s phone call had summoned them to his wife’s bedside. Ricardo had been there that morning, had given as much of himself as he could. But now, faced with her pleading gaze, he couldn’t just stand there. “Sara, would you—” “No, I won’t go. Not this time.” She lifted her teary gaze to him and shook her head, her hair swaying against her shoulders as she did so. He knew her well enough by now to know that she wouldn’t leave and because he was tired of hiding his true self from her, he relented. Pulling up a chair, he sat beside the bed, took Sara’s hand in one of his, then her mother’s in the other. “Evita, you know what to do,” he said, and her mother closed her tired eyes. Sara shot him a hesitant look, but he nodded and urged her to do the same. She did. “Sara, I want you to think about the cancer,” he said. “Picture it in your mind. Imagine it going away.” But in response, she opened her eyes and stared at him. “Is this—” “What I do? What a santero does?” he challenged, but he saw the desperation in her gaze. She wouldn’t doubt him now. Not when her mother was so weak. Her lids slowly lowered and she even dropped her head a bit, as she might while praying in church. Maybe it wasn’t much different, he thought. Some defined God as a universal force, as the font of all life, and here they were, pilgrims at that font. Beggars asking for that force to fill them and help make one of them whole. Breathing deeply, he heard Sara and Evita matching the cadence of their breaths to his. He released his awareness of them so that it wouldn’t distract him, and focused on the core of his power, awakening it and opening his center to the forces around him. Little by little he took note not only of the energies drifting freely around them, but of those beside him. Evita’s frail and fractured force. Sara’s potent strength and sexual aura, still charged from their earlier lovemaking. The last was more powerful than he had ever imagined. He gathered it all within him and, once he had it under control, slowly directed it to Evita. He perceived the change in her body as she accepted it, took it within and focused it to where the cancer was ravaging her body. Little by little, for as long as he could, he released the force until he felt the nucleus of his body weaken, start to chill. Finally he could give no more and broke off his connection. When he did so, he heard Sara’s shocked gasp and Evita’s murmured thanks. Sara stared at him, confusion twisting her features, her body taut and vibrating from the exertion and drain on her life force. He had taken from her, too, much as a soul sucker might, and it pained him to have done so. His own body was weaker now, but as he glanced at Sara’s mother, she looked stronger. A new vitality swirled around her. She
had slipped off into a restful sleep. “Ricardo?” Sara asked, but he brought his index finger to his lips and motioned to her mother. Sara finally realized her mami was asleep and that a healthy pink glow colored the cheeks that had been a ghostly white earlier that night. Sara felt odd and a trifle drained, but she needed answers from the man sitting beside her. A man she no longer recognized despite the fact that she had been making love to him barely half an hour earlier. She rose, dropped a kiss on her mother’s forehead and then headed out to the living room, where her father anxiously waited. At his concerned glance, she said, “Mami’s better, Papi. She’s sleeping.” “Then I will go rest, as well.” He shuffled off to their bedroom and closed the door behind him. Once it was shut, she faced Ricardo and, feeling uneasy, wrapped her arms around herself. He noticed the gesture and stepped toward her, seemingly to ease her unrest. But she moved away, too conflicted to know what to do about him. “What was that?” she asked. He shrugged his broad shoulders. “It’s what I do. How I heal.” “Your orishas do that? Is that—” “Does it matter how, Sara? Can’t you just believe? Can’t you have faith?” he pleaded. His hands reached out to her, his greeneyed gaze intense as he trained it over her face. “Faith? In you?” The words came out harsher than she had intended and she instantly regretted them. “Perdoname.” “Don’t judge me, amor. Don’t be afraid.” “Why won’t you tell me? Why are you lying to me?” she retorted. Defeat caused his shoulders to slump, and he took a step back from her and toward the door. “I should go.” Sadly, all she could do was agree. “Sí, you should. I don’t like liars.” The muffled thud of the door as he shut it seemed to close off a part of her heart, and maybe it was just as well. She had given herself because she thought she had come to know him. If tonight had shown her anything, it was that nothing about him was as she had thought.
The creature watched as the human walked back to his shop. He considered approaching him again, then stalled. It was too soon. The human was too troubled. The beast could see it in the way the man walked, his shoulders hunched, his head nearly drilling a hole in his chest as he slowly moved along. As the man neared one brownstone, he hesitated and looked up toward the building. One of the undead was within, the creature knew. He had sensed the vampires earlier. A female and a male, but now only the female remained behind. They were friends to the human. He wondered how that was possible, and if it was, whether he, too, could become a friend.
Once the human cured him, that was. Maybe then he could begin his life anew. Maybe then, he thought, and bounded off in search of a meal.
Ricardo didn’t see Sara the next day as he did on most days. Of course, she could have detoured and taken a different path on her walk to and from the subway station. Or she might have had to pull another double shift. There was one easy way to find out. Call her, the voice in his head urged for the hundredth time that day. He picked up the phone and dialed, but it went immediately to voice mail. If she was at work in the hospital, her cell phone would probably be off, he reasoned, thinking of the hospital restrictions on such use. Of course, if she’s avoiding you, the cell phone would be off, anyway. Throughout the day, as he dealt with an assortment of clients, Sara lingered on his mind, as did her mother. Last night’s healing had taken a lot out of him. Thankfully, none of today’s customers had required those skills. But something else remained stuck in his mind—how much stronger and more balanced his center had been when Sara had been by his side. He imagined how it might be between them if he could ever let her truly experience how it felt for him when he was with her. As it was, being with her was more pleasurable and rewarding than anything he had ever encountered, even though he had to rein in his emotions and desire. It was one of the reasons he’d held off his release as long as he had last night, which maybe was a good thing. It had allowed him to pleasure Sara quite well. But he wished that for once he could just let it wash over him, as she had given in to her pleasure. Let himself explore a full and free release. Sadly, he knew that could never happen. Not as long as he was living a lie, hiding from her what he truly was. That troubling thought haunted him for the better part of the day. It chased him as he waited in vain for Sara to pass by the shop, and after, it weighed heavily on his mind as Samantha and her group of friends met in his shop to discuss last night’s events. The two couples paired off as they sat, Samantha with her detective and Ryder with Diana. Again Ricardo got that weird signature from Diana’s life force, but he had little time to consider it as, after the group confirmed the creature was likely a chupacabra, Diana removed a quartet of tranquilizing guns from a bag she’d brought. “This is for you and Samantha,” she said, handing one to Peter. Picking up the next, she handed it to Ricardo, but as she did so, asked, “Will Sara be joining you?” “I’m not sure.” “You can’t go out alone, but this may come in handy for protection.” She handed Ryder the third gun and tucked the fourth into her waistband. As she did so, her jacket shifted to reveal the holster and gun she already wore, which prompted Ricardo to comment, “So I guess this mission is capture and not kill.” “Without a partner, your mission is to sit and wait,” Diana said. Then she looked at Peter. “I think it’s best that you and Samantha keep to the ground tonight. Ryder and I will split up—” “You can’t risk that, Diana.” Peter leaned forward in his seat. “If you run into it—” “Diana can handle it,” Ryder said, and placed his hand on her shoulder. Again Ricardo detected the similarity of their two auras. The blending of them almost as one. If she was human, her signature would be different. And if she was human, and Ryder was
any kind of man, he wouldn’t let her go after this thing on her own. Ricardo wondered why Ryder was willing to do so. As for himself, Ricardo didn’t intend to just sit around and wait. With his years of training as a marine, he knew how to take care of himself. “I can handle it, as well. I’ll stick to the ground. If we find it—” “Use the cell phones and transmit a location,” Peter finished for him. “And if you get close enough, tranquilize it,” Diana added. With that, they all exited the shop. Samantha and Peter immediately went one way and Ricardo headed in the opposite direction—one that would take him past Sara’s building. He hurried off, but before he got too far, he turned and looked back. Diana and Ryder stood in front of the shop. Ryder held Diana’s cheek in his hand, and even from this distance, the anguish on his face was clear. Diana smiled and stood on tiptoe to kiss the much taller vampire. They shared a tight embrace before Ryder stepped back and, with a final caress of her face, leaped upward to land on the second-floor fire escape of the next building. Diana turned and disappeared from sight in a burst of speed that screamed Vampire! Ricardo could only shake his head. That explained the strange life force he’d picked up from her. He walked toward Sara’s home, but as he rounded the corner, he noticed her coming down the steps of the building. She paused as she saw him, but then tilted her chin, pulled back her shoulders and walked in his direction. “I didn’t think you were coming,” he said. “I had to take care of Mami.” She shoved her hands deep in her pockets and buried her head up to the tip of her nose in the thick collar of her down jacket. A chill settled into him, but not from the persistent cold of the early spring night. “I’m sorry she’s—” “Better. Much, much better. She actually asked for and ate one of her favorite meals tonight.” Joy flared to life within him before reality returned. He reached out, took Sara’s chin between his thumb and forefinger and applied gentle pressure to urge her face up to meet his gaze. “I pray that it’s not temporary.” She yanked away from his touch. “It’s not. It’s—” The thud and accompanying screech intruded from a few feet away. The smell came next, pungent and now clearly with the acrid sting of sulfur. Ricardo pulled the tranquilizer gun from the pocket of his jacket. “Packing a weapon now?” Sara asked as she assumed a defensive posture by his side. He held the gun out to her, muzzle down, grip free for her to grasp. “Know how to use this?” Sara grabbed the weapon and pulled back the slide to ready it for firing. “I’ll take that as a yes.” He whipped out his cell phone and sent a text message to someone—she assumed Samantha or her friends. Then he turned his attention to her once again. “Be my wingman.” He stepped toward the mouth of the alley.
Sara followed, tranquilizer gun ready, but close to her side to keep it out of the creature’s line of sight. If it was sentient, it would know what she held. She didn’t want to do anything that would set it off. Incandescent light shone from the windows of the adjacent buildings, shedding just enough illumination for them to see into the alley. As before, the creature waited for them about ten feet in. It must have been in a calmer mood, for it was hunched over slightly, staring at them with its odd, glassy red eyes. It emitted a small cackle, followed by a word she recognized from the night before. Human. It had grown angry last night when she had acknowledged that they were human, which could only mean one thing. “Are you human?” she asked. To their surprise, the creature seemed to clap, and hopped from foot to foot in an apparent sign of satisfaction. It reminded her of the way a small child reacted to a gift. “Ricardo?” she said, for up until now he had been nearly immobile as he considered the creature. Shaking his head, he said to her, “No puede ser.” It can’t be. He didn’t believe it, and she couldn’t argue with him. The beast at the end of the alley demonstrated no human traits. Then it quieted, raised its snout with all those deadly, sharp teeth and nodded, as if to end their doubts. “What do you want?” Ricardo asked. The creature shook its massive head and snout. Its teeth clacked together noisily as it spoke. “H-h-help-p meee.” Sara tried to separate the inhuman noises from the other sounds beneath. Try as she might, however, she couldn’t discern the words. Shooting a quick glance at Ricardo, she realized he hadn’t, either. “Slower, please,” he said. “Say it slower.” An angry blast of noise was accompanied by an agitated shake of the creature’s head. The words, if you could call them that, were louder when they came. Louder, but not any different than before. “H-h-help-p meee.” At their failure to comprehend, the beast grew increasingly agitated. When Ricardo raised his hands again, trying to calm it, the beast would have none of it. It rocked back and rose to its full height, then came at them. Sara raised the gun and fired, hitting the beast when it was still feet away. The dart buried itself in the beast’s meaty chest, but the tranq did nothing to slow it down. It barreled toward Ricardo, who quickly shifted into a defensive posture, landing a solid punch to the monster’s midsection. She came to his assistance, swinging into a roundhouse kick, but the beast blocked her, snagged her leg and with a quick snap of its powerful forearm, sent her flying against the side of the building. The blow drove the air from her lungs and she fell to the ground. Ricardo saw Sara go down, and moved in her direction, but the beast grabbed hold of his hands in its large taloned paws. With that touch, the monster immediately connected with him. The dark and turbulent storm Ricardo had feared on the first day he had sensed the creature engulfed him. His brain filled with images from the beast. Angry and bitter emotions. Selfishness and greed. The storm broke over him and, like a whirlwind, sucked at the center of him, trying to draw out his power.
The creature wasn’t just a bloodsucker, it was a soul sucker, as well. One of the dark ones. As their psyches and forces mingled, Ricardo finally understood what the creature had been saying. Help me. The creature thought it could make itself human again by using Ricardo’s power. He yanked hard, trying to dislodge its hold on him, because he didn’t know how much longer he had. If the creature kept on pulling on his life force… The beast suddenly released him, and through his hazy vision, Ricardo saw Sara brandishing a metal garbage can lid like a shield. What was she thinking, trying to protect herself with something so flimsy? He tried to go to her, but, weakened by his encounter with the beast, he collapsed to the cold ground. When he looked up, he saw shadows deeper in the alley. Were there more creatures? He feared so, until the shadowy forms came into the light and Samantha, Diana and Ryder appeared. Just in time, the trio encircled the creature, keeping it from reaching Sara. Ricardo pushed himself to his knees and took deep breaths to try and recover some strength. As he watched, Samantha and Ryder morphed into their vampire states. Ricardo cursed beneath his breath as Sara’s stunned look made it clear that she had seen the shocking transformation. Apparently the beast shared her fear, because it immediately retreated. With a speed almost as fast as those of his vampire friends, the chupacabra raced for the roof. Ryder and Samantha quickly followed. Diana ran to his side, offering support, and as she did so, Peter finally arrived on the scene, clearly winded from his run to the address Ricardo had text-messaged earlier. Peter knelt beside Sara, intending to help her, but she angrily brushed aside his assistance. Disheveled, her face bruised from her battle with the chupacabra, she approached Ricardo as he knelt on the sidewalk. Tufts of feathers escaped the slashes in her down jacket, stark white against its charcoal-gray color. He looked up at her. She placed her hands on her hips and glared at him. “What the hell is going on?”
Chapter 19 I t took both Diana and Peter to get Ricardo to his feet and to help him walk back the short distance to his shop. Sara followed silently, but her anger vibrated against his battered psyche, adding even more discomfort to that left behind by the creature. Once they were in the shop, Peter and Diana excused themselves on the pretense of making some coffee for all of them. Ricardo slumped against the back of the couch, but Sara refused to sit. She stood before him, her hands shoved into her jacket pockets, her facial expression taut. “What are you?” she blurted. “What are your friends?” The undue emphasis on the last word left little doubt as to her feelings about Samantha and Ryder. “What do you think they are?” She dragged one hand through her hair, wincing as she did so. He remembered her smashing into the wall. Was she hurt? “Let me look—”
“Don’t touch me. Come to think of it, don’t touch my mami again, either, until you’re ready to tell me.” “I’m a healer.” He sat up, braced his forearms on his thighs and nervously clasped his hands together. “I’m not a santero. I lied because people seemed more accepting of that than the fact that I was born with this gift.” “The gift of healing. Just by touching?” She arched one eyebrow in a dubious expression. “It’s not that simple, but yes. Once I gather the power I need—” “And how do you do that?” Her gaze was fixed on his face, searching for any sign of deception. With his hands, he motioned to the air around him. “It’s here. All around us. There’s a universal force—” “And you just tap into it?” With a deep sigh, he nodded, sensing that she wasn’t really buying into the whole thing. Yet she didn’t run away. She remained there, shifting nervously on her feet as if considering whether to stay or go. Finally she asked, “Is that what I felt the other night?” He nodded, but didn’t get a chance to say anything else, since Ryder and Samantha walked into the shop at that moment. With their entry, Sara moved quickly away from them. Seeing her reaction, Samantha tried to explain. “We won’t hurt you.” “You’re vampires, right?” Sara said. “Bitey, toothy, bloodsucking creatures, just like that chupacabra running around out there.” The agitation in her voice grew with each word. “We don’t bite humans,” Ryder said, and held out his hand to Diana as she came down the stairs, followed by Peter. Sara watched as Diana and Peter went and stood beside the two vampires. She motioned to them. “So you two are—” “Human,” Diana confirmed. Ricardo had some hesitation about that statement, but kept it to himself. Sara had more than enough to deal with right now. “They’re all good guys, Sara,” he said. “Do you think you’re a good guy, Ricardo? You lied to me and my mom. You lie to everyone who walks through that door. You have…vampires for friends.” Something drove him at that second to force the issue. “And a crazy-ass chupacabra that used to be human, who seems to think that I can cure it.” “Is that what it wants?” Samantha asked as she walked across the room to sit beside him. She reached out and laid a hand on his forehead. It was cold against his sweaty skin. “You need to rest, mon ami.” “It nearly drained me. Just with its touch,” he admitted, and shot an anxious glance at Sara. “Drained you? As in, like, a psychic kind of vampire?” she said. He nodded and tried to explain. “I only have so much power. My own and whatever I can gather from the forces around me, or from someone or something else.” “You can take power from people?” she asked, thinking back to the other night and the weakness she had felt. “I can, but I usually don’t because…that’s the dark side of the gift—taking life from others. So there’s a limit to what I can do….”
Sara almost winced at the look on his face. Wordlessly, he pleaded for understanding. Not just about his gift, but about what he had been saying all along and she hadn’t wanted to listen to—that whatever he could do for her mother had limits. Limits he had possibly reached. As much as she wanted to comfort him and make sure he was okay after his encounter with the chupacabra, it was just too much for her to take in at that moment. Vampires were real. Her friend Melissa was somehow mixed up in their undead world, she thought, recalling their conversation of the other day. A chupacabra thought it could be human again. And her lover was not what she had thought. “I have to go,” she said, and raced out the door.
Weariness settled into Ricardo’s bones as he watched her rush out. He was too physically drained to follow her, too emotionally drained to call out to her. Sensing that, Samantha laid her hand on his arm in comfort. But her undead force pulled at his, and he shifted away. “Please. I just need to rest.” Diana approached and settled on the coffee table before him. “You said that the chupacabra wants you to cure it. How do you know?” He didn’t expect either Peter or Diana to understand, being human and all. Or, in Diana’s case, at least part human. But Samantha and Ryder would. “Every creature has a force and some creatures—or humans like me—can sense those forces. Even control them for their own purposes. Take them if they want.” Diana shot a glance at Ryder. “So this creature tapped into your power and along the way—” “It got into my head, as well. There was a maelstrom of images and emotions. Most of them not good, but one thing was clear— this thing used to be human.” “And wants to be human again,” Peter added, as he joined the group, sitting on the arm of the sofa near Samantha. “So how do we tell it that being human again isn’t possible?” Ricardo couldn’t imagine connecting with it again. He didn’t want to run into it in another alley or anywhere else. And unlike his vampire friends, who somehow managed to maintain their humanity, he got the sense the chupacabra wouldn’t be as amenable to restrictions on its actions. Diana came up with a plan. “We need to trap it. To make sure it can’t get to Ricardo again.” She glanced up at Ryder. “Did you see where it went?” “We tracked it for a long time, but it was too fast,” he said. “Maybe there’s something else we can do, like tag it somehow.” Diana nodded. “I’ll talk to my brother. Maybe he can round up something we can stick to this thing so we can see where it’s going.” “Anything else?” Ricardo asked. “There’s something I need to do.”
“Not alone, mon ami. It could still be out there,” Samantha advised. “It could, and Sara is alone. I need to make sure she’s all right,” he said. He attempted to rise, but his legs refused to cooperate. He was still too weak. “Give us her address and we’ll check on her,” Diana offered. “Ryder and I will drop by before we head home.” Probably not what Sara either wanted or needed, Ricardo thought, but as a fine trembling settled into his limbs, he realized he was in no condition to go. “You don’t need to. I’ll just call her.” Once again he tried to stand up, and this time managed an upright position, though he wobbled. Peter was at his side immediately. “Let me help you upstairs.” “I’m going to stay here tonight and make sure you’re okay,” Samantha added. He was too exhausted to argue. Not to mention that he wanted to call Sara and make certain she was fine. With a nod, he allowed Peter to help him up the stairs, settle him in bed and hand him his portable phone. Peter stared down at him as he lay there. “Are you sure you’re going to be fine? You kinda look like shit.” “I feel like it, too, but I can’t let them know that,” Ricardo said as he nodded in the direction of the stairs. “No, you can’t ’cause they’ll go all girlie on you, and that’s the last thing you need.” Peter’s humor dragged a chuckle from him despite the gravity of the situation. With a wave, Ricardo bade him good-night and picked up the phone.
Sara knew who it was even without looking at the caller ID. She let it ring…until it occurred to her that the noise might disturb her parents. So she grabbed the phone, immediately hung up and set the receiver on the nightstand. Within a few seconds, the grating beeping blared, reminding her that the phone was off the hook. She tried to ignore it, and when that proved impossible, she grabbed one of her pillows and covered her ears. It wasn’t the clatter of the phone, but the gentle touch of her mother’s hand against her back that made her sit up again. “Mami, perdoname. I didn’t mean for the phone to wake you.” Her mother sat beside her on the bed, her keen gaze settling on the side of Sara’s face, which likely sported a heck of a shiner. “Something happened tonight?” “I’m fine. And you?” Sara touched her mother’s cheek. It was warm and her gaze was clear, with no hint of pain. It brought to mind what Ricardo had said earlier—that there were limits to what he could do. Sara wondered whether this interlude from the ravages of her mother’s illness would be a short one. “Mi’ja, I’m okay,” Evita said, clearly aware of what she was thinking. But then again, her mother knew her better than anyone. “For how long, Mami?” With a shrug, she said, “You need to have faith, niña.” “In Ricardo?” Bitterness tinged Sara’s voice. “In God. In why He’s chosen this path for us.” Evita stroked some wayward strands of hair from her daughter’s face.
This crazy monster-filled path? she wondered, but couldn’t say. What kind of God would make her mother suffer so or create creatures like the chupacabra and the vampires she had seen today? Or make a man like Ricardo? One who could make her feel so many amazing sensations, but had such a wondrous and terrible gift. One that could be used for evil. “Mi’ja?” “I’m sorry, Mami. I was just thinking.” “About Ricardo? He’s a good man, sabes.” She couldn’t face her mother, and so she lay down and looked up at the ceiling, watched as the cracks there blurred from the tears in her eyes. She felt their warmth as they leaked down her face. “How do you know, Mami?” “Some things you just know.” She rose, dropped a quick kiss on Sara’s forehead and left the room. Sara looked at the phone, heard its insistent call, like a clarion that demanded she answer. That she confront him about his lies. Still, something within her made her acknowledge her true sense of Ricardo Fernandez—that he was a good man, much as her mother had said. A good man, but maybe not one she was meant to be with. She picked up the phone.
Ricardo had punched in the code so that he would be called back the moment the line became free. Over half an hour had gone by since she had taken the phone off the hook. He wondered what she had been thinking about all that time. The same thing as him? That their lives had suddenly taken a turn toward horrible? That he didn’t have a clue how to make them better? He was only just beginning to recover some of his strength. He had never had his power depleted this badly before, so he had no idea how long it might take to return to normal. When the phone rang, he instantly grabbed it. “Sara?” Her harsh chuckle cut across the line. “Expecting someone else?” He had to admire her spunk. “Actually, I was expecting you not to put the phone back on for the rest of the night.” Silence greeted his comment, followed by a reluctant laugh. “I wanted to, only the damn noise was keeping me up and I have the early shift tomorrow.” “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.” Her voice was low when she answered. “I’ve just found out that there really are things that go bump in the night, and that the man…” She stopped, clearly struggling for the right words. “Comprendo, Sara. You don’t need to say anything else. Just get some rest and tomorrow—” “There may not be a tomorrow for us.” Pain filled him at her words. “I didn’t take you for the type to cut and run when the going got tough.”
“And I didn’t take you for the kind that would lie to my face.” Ricardo couldn’t contradict that statement. But he also couldn’t let it end like this. “If I had to choose between saving a life or telling a lie—” “You already made that choice, Ricardo. I need to go.” She hung up.
Chapter 20 T he chupacabra stomped back and forth angrily, muttering to himself. The chirps and furious clatter of his teeth echoed off the walls of the sewer. His hands flailed through the air as he sought a rationale for his failure of a few nights ago. He had truly tried to communicate, but the puny humans were too dense to understand. After the touch, however, the human knew. That simple contact had opened a floodgate between the two of them. The human’s energy, his healing strength, had surged into him, along with something else. Images. Memories. As the mortal’s force filled his core, the beast’s humanity had come to life and his own recollections had returned. Images of the man he had been. Of the things he had done. Hateful visions. Too easily came the recollection of the whip in his hand as he beat his slaves. Of his women, crying beneath him as he took them with no regard. Finally, of his family as they turned him away from his father’s funeral. Unfulfilled dreams. The woman he had lost because of his bitterness. The plantation he had destroyed as the beast consumed him. All gone, long before the Civil War that drove him further into hiding. Visions so unlike those of the human. The human had seen so much, done so many things. Good things. The reality of all that decency had only made the memories of his own selfish life that much more bitter. He had done no such good things. Nor had he ever experienced anything like what the human had with the woman. The strongest of the emotions and strength had come from those memories. The chupacabra screamed in outrage at those recollections, at the pain they brought to the newly awakened traces of his former humanity. Once the human totally cured him, things would be different. He would be a better man. Touched by the human’s emotions about the woman at his side, the chupacabra imagined her with him instead of with the human. He imagined the pleasure to be found between her thighs. The sweetness of her breasts at his lips. Maybe when he was human again, he thought, and stalked to the mirror. In the shiny reflection from the chrome of the hubcap, he thought he saw something. Was that a bit of skin? he wondered. Right there at the edge of his brow? Nice pink human flesh. The man had given him that with just the briefest of touches. Imagine what could happen if the human truly sought to cure him, he thought. He stared through the sewer grate at the street beyond. At the human life teeming past the rusted metal and cement. That was the world where he belonged, not hiding out in sewers like the refuse of their lives. Soon, he thought. Soon.
Sara paced back and forth before Melissa’s desk, her arms wrapped around herself as if that gesture could somehow keep her
together in a world that suddenly made no sense. Whirling to face her friend, she said, “You knew about Ryder and Samantha? You knew what they were?” Melissa was clearly troubled by the discussion. She propped her fingertips together, hesitating before she answered. “For most of my life, I’d had a crush of sorts on my handsome uncle Ryder. When I was a child, he always had time for me. He was always there when I needed him.” “And you didn’t know what he was?” Melissa shook her head and dropped her hands, glanced down at them rather than meeting Sara’s gaze. “I didn’t. Maybe it was stupid not to notice that he didn’t seem to get older, but I didn’t notice.” Sara stood there, thinking about it. Her tio Pedro was fairly timeless, kind of like George Hamilton, so she could understand that. “So when did you find out?” “When my parents died. That’s when I discovered I was next in line to watch over him. To be his keeper.” It immediately clicked in her brain. The blood bags she had seen Melissa taking, and which Sara had provided to Ricardo, as well. The blood bags helped feed both Ryder and Samantha. “Are you still his keeper?” Melissa shook her head. “He released me from that obligation, but how do you stop caring for someone who is like family? How do you stop worrying about him?” Her friend finally faced her. The anguish on Melissa’s face was clear. The worry was not just about Ryder, but about her family’s role in his undead life. Walking over to her friend, Sara sat on the desk and rubbed Melissa’s back with her hand. “Whatever you need, Melissa, I’m here.” “When I saw you take blood bags last year I worried you might be a keeper. That your life might be as difficult as mine.” Sara thought about all that had happened last night. As weird as it was, could it be any harder to deal with the undead than with the illness that had plagued her mother for the last few years? “It’s been rough, but not because of anything supernatural.” Melissa understood. “My mom being sick for so long shaped my life long before Ryder turned it upside down.” “But you found Sebastian because of it, so something good came out of it,” Sara reminded her. A broad smile came to her friend’s face and she glanced at the pictures on her desk. One of her and Sebastian on their wedding day, one of their baby daughter, Mariel, being cuddled by her papi and mami. Through the smile, Melissa said, “As hard as it might be at times, I wouldn’t trade my life for anything. Would you?” “Me?” Sara thought about all that had happened lately. “I don’t need any more trauma, so nix the thought of having all those creatures of the night in my life.” “Okay, so forgetting about Ryder, Samantha and this little monster—” “Come on, Melissa. Little is not a word I would use to describe anything about the chupacabra.” Her friend chuckled and mimicked the monster, baring her teeth as if they were fangs, and curling her fingers into fake claws. “As scary as Nurse Simmons from the fifth floor,” she teased, dragging a laugh from Sara. “Get real. Simmons would scare this thing back to wherever it came from.”
Melissa nodded, then paused. “So, assuming you can banish this thing back to hell—” Sara held up one palm to silence her friend. “What makes you think I want any part of this whole banishing act?” “Girl, I’ve seen you in action at the dojo, and when you asked to join my team, I saw your file. You kicked major ass in the army. You’re just not the type to sit around and wait for it to go away on its own.” No, she wasn’t. “So, what do I do now?” “Do you want Ricardo?” She’d have to be dead not to want Ricardo. He was probably one of the handsomest men she had ever seen. As a lover…she got wet just thinking about him. But being an old-fashioned girl in some ways, she wanted forever from her man, and somehow she wasn’t sure that was possible with Ricardo. “I’m not sure,” she finally said. Melissa seemed taken aback by her comment. “I thought you liked him?” “I do like him. But I’m not sure I like like him.” “Because he’s not like like material or because—” “He lied to me. And not just about the vamps. He’s not what he said he was.” She dropped her gaze to her hands to avoid looking at her friend. Melissa, however, was not to be dissuaded. She tucked one finger beneath Sara’s chin and applied subtle force until Sara looked at her. “He lied because that’s the only way he could help people. He didn’t do it to take advantage of you, like dandy Dr. Dan did.” “So what you’re saying is that the end justifies the means?” she countered, well aware of Melissa’s moral fiber and her feelings. “I used to think the answer to that was clear, but not anymore. Sometimes there are too many variables. Too many things that shouldn’t be, but are.” Like vampires and other monsters, Sara thought. And a man who could heal—or kill—with his touch, and who had lied about it. Things that in her book were total negatives. But then the sight of her mother this morning came to her. Her mother at the kitchen table, reading the paper and sharing some coffee with them. Looking happy and downright healthy. If Sara had stuck to the rules of her normal world, she would not have not sought out Ricardo, and her mami would likely be dead. And all those people who came to him to heal their assorted aches and illnesses would be suffering if not for his devotion to healing their pain. Not to mention the women in the shelter Samantha ran. Who would protect them, clothe them and feed them if Ricardo stopped taking care of Samantha? Not normal society. It had failed all those people. But Ricardo and Samantha hadn’t failed them. “The answer isn’t easy, is it?” she said. Melissa cupped her cheek and said, “On the contrary. It’s very easy.” Sara shook her head, certain her friend had lost it until Melissa said, “Trust your heart, amiga.”
Trust her heart? Her heart was telling her that if Ricardo devoted even a small part of himself to her, she would be a very lucky lady. Only there was so much else in the way. Monsters and vampires and, hardest of all, her own mistrust of what he was and what he could do. “Don’t run, Sara. Not now.” Her friend was right about one thing. In her entire life Sara had never let adversity get the better of her. She wasn’t about to start now.
Chapter 21 T he barred wooden door rattled against its hinges, shook with the force of whatever was imprisoned within. The clanging reverberated in the night, growing louder with each echo. Curious, he approached the door, laid his hand on one of the thick iron bars. Sharp teeth sank deep into his hand, latching on and not letting go. He cried out in pain. Ricardo bolted upright in bed, shaking uncontrollably. He checked his hand, which seemed to throb from the bite he’d imagined. It was only a dream, he told himself. A nightmare. It had come to him every night since the chupacabra had touched him. Contaminated him with its hurtful thoughts and negative energies. He had been meditating twice daily in the hope of containing those energies and driving them from his psyche. So far, it had been a difficult battle. Like the bite in the dream, it seemed as if the chupacabra had sunk its fangs deep into his soul. Ricardo rose and shook his body, visualizing that as he did so he was shaking off the lingering remnants of the beast. But still the sensation remained, tenaciously maintaining its hold on him. After his shower and enough coffee to fuel the space shuttle, he went down to his shop, and as he had done for years, replaced the offerings on the altar. After, for good measure, he lit a special candle before one of the saints’ statues. His grandmother and mother did the same regularly before one of Nuestra Señora de Guadeloupe. He offered thanks and prayer to the virgencita, asked for guidance as to what he might do, and relief from the dreams plaguing him. Afterward, he stood and gazed at the statue, laid his hands against the altar and dug deep within himself. He searched for all that he believed in. Reminded himself that he had the strength to survive this. He had survived so much already, from his time in the migrant worker camps to those days in the marines when the suffering all around had nearly undone him. He would find the strength to deal with this, as well. He had his beliefs. He had his friends. At the tentative knock on the door, he turned. Sara stood there, her body enveloped in her down jacket. His gut tightened, his heart skipped a beat, but he tamped down his inclination to rush to the door, uncertain of the reception that awaited him. She’s here, idiot! the voice in his head chastised. Would she be here if she didn’t want to see you? But then reality reared its ugly head, reminding him that there was another possibility why Sara was here. Fear for her mother forced him to nearly race to the door. “Is everything okay?”
She shook her head and chuckled harshly, much as she had a few nights ago on the phone. “Let’s see.” She picked up a gloved hand and counted down each item as it rushed out of her mouth. “One, there’s a crazy-ass chupacabra on the loose. Two, there are actually vampires. Three, it seems as if I’ve become part of the Fang Gang Fan Club, and finally, number four—” A shiver ran through her then, distracting her from her countdown. She rubbed her arms through her jacket, and the action sent Ricardo’s attention to the carefully stitched repairs of the damage done a few nights ago. “I owe you a new coat,” he said. “That’s not why I’m here.” She shoved past him and into the shop. He shut the door, flipped the sign to Closed and stood before her. “Why are you here?” She raised her gloved hand once again, held up three fingers before raising the fourth. “Number four, I think I care enough for you to not want you to go this alone.” In his mind he had pictured hundreds of scenarios for the next time he saw her. Some of them had included a confession such as this one. Of course, the probability for this scenario was the lowest. Now that it had happened… “I think I care for you, as well,” he replied. “Sucks for us, doesn’t it?” He chuckled, because it was painfully true. “It does suck, because we both know that it’s wrong on so many levels.” “Right. Totally wrong.” She patted her hands against her jacket. From one of the repaired tears, an errant feather poked out, and he used that as an excuse to step close to her. He plucked the feather free, held it in his fingers. Then he met Sara’s gaze once again. She looked strong and confident when she said, “I’m not afraid of the chupacabra.” “Well, that makes one of us, then.” He feared not the physical damage the beast could inflict, but the danger to his psyche if it took control of him once again. She removed her gloves and laid her hand on his face. Her palm was soft, but chilled. He relished it nevertheless. “We won’t let it get at you again,” she said. “We? Is that the royal we, as in you and—” “The Fang Gang. And Diana, whatever she is, besides one competent FBI agent.” “So you’ve gotten her vibes, as well.” Craving contact, he cradled Sara’s face with his hands. It had been too many days since he had touched her. “She’s scary strong, but I guess you need to be in her world.” Her world. The way Sara said it seemed to imply that she didn’t consider herself a part of that world. She might not be in law enforcement, but she’d certainly gotten mixed up in another scary world. “You’re strong, too, amor.” She nodded. “I am, but maybe not strong enough to deal with all this every day. Besides, even if I was, and even though I care for you, I’m still not sure I can trust you.”
He dropped his hands and looked down at the floor, fearful of what he would see on her face. “Because I lied.” “In part.” She swept back a lock of his hair that had fallen forward over his face. “I don’t know what you are. What you do. It frightens me.” She couldn’t have hurt him more if she had struck him. He stepped away from her, dragged his hands through his hair before whirling to face her. He wasn’t about to plead with her or to make excuses. “What I am is a good man who did what he had to.” He emphasized each point with an angry jab of his finger. “What I do is help people. That’s my calling in life and I couldn’t imagine not doing it.” In one quick stride he closed the gap between them once more, looming over her petite body. Someone else might have been afraid, of both the size of him and the obvious outrage vibrating through his body. But not Sara. Instead, she pulled back her shoulders like a bantam rooster fluffing its feathers to appear bigger. She laid her palm on the taut line of his jaw. “How do you do it?” Her response tempered his, and with a tired sigh, he began to explain. “I’ve learned all kinds of techniques to help me boost my power. To let me store it and direct it to another person.” “Like you did the other night with my mami?” “Like that, only…” He hesitated before finally saying, “It’s hard to explain.” “Then show me.” She hadn’t just said that! Sara thought. But she had. Not that it mattered. There was absolutely no way that he would ever show her. “Come upstairs, then. I don’t want to do it here.” “Do it?” she repeated, hating the little squeak in her voice that gave away her discomfort. She looked around the shop. “Don’t you do it here all the time?” He shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans and shrugged. The gesture pulled his sweater tight against those incredibly broad shoulders. “I normally do. I center myself here and gather what I need to. Only the other night, when you and I—” “Don’t bring that up now. It’s not about sex.” “You’re right. It isn’t. I was referring to what happened when we helped your mom. Something different occurred, and if it were to happen again…” Sara remembered the sensation the other night when she had helped him with her mother. The feel of his being within her, sharing his force with her mom, while taking some of hers to use, as well. And then there had come that moment when he’d severed himself from the two of them. More than anything she remembered her need for more. Her need to join with him again. If they connected once more… Sara now understood why he wanted it to be somewhere more private. “I’ll go with you.” He nodded and gestured for her to head up the stairs. Much as she had the first time, she felt as if this was another giant step into his world and further away from her own. But she went, needing to understand him and what he did.
She prayed she could make sense of everything. Of what she wanted from him. With him. When they got to his living room, he moved past her to the coffee table and shifted it away from the couch. With the space clear, he sat cross-legged on the rug, his back resting against the couch. She stood before him for a moment, her determination faltering, but not for long. She slipped off her jacket and shoes, plopped down and likewise assumed a cross-legged position. He shifted so that their knees brushed and his hands, palms up, were within her reach. “Hold my hands.” She slipped hers into his. His palms were just the tiniest bit rough, hinting that he worked with his hands on occasion. They were warm, but unlike hers, not damp from nerves. “Close your eyes and relax,” he said. Doing as he asked, she shut her eyes, took a deep breath to calm her nerves. “That’s it. Deep breaths. In and out,” he instructed, the tone of his voice low and gentle. “Now I’m going to try and center myself. You may feel something while I do it. You may not. Just relax and go—” “With the flow,” she replied, as she sneaked a peek at him. He had risked a peek, as well, and was grinning at her. “No fair. Close your eyes.” She did so and let her breathing match the cadence of his. In a few moments her mind and body relaxed. A pleasant warmth began where their hands were joined. It drove away the nip of the early spring day and worked its way up her arms. Since it felt good, she didn’t fight the sensation, imagining how it would keep on moving up her body until it filled all of her. Made her as warm as she would be on a sunny beach. Behind her closed lids, the picture came to her almost as if she was there. Aqua-blue waters lapping against white sand. Her toes digging into that fine sand, which also sifted through her fingers as she lay on a soft towel. Sun warming her body, much like the warmth that now pooled in her center. Ricardo’s warmth. She didn’t know how she knew that. Only that it was like the caress of his hand on her skin. Gentle. Sure. Safe. Then suddenly, darkness skimmed along the periphery of her inner sight, bringing cold within her. She heard a voice in her head. “Help me get rid of it.” A vision came of the two of them, pushing at the darkness, forcing it away, and suddenly, they thrust it from them, bringing forth the sun and warmth once again. She felt secure. Something inside told her that she would always be safe with him beside her. The sensation was wondrous. Liberating. A sudden surge of power raced into the core of her, filling her with brilliance. It connected her to him, only, as she had expected earlier, she needed more. Daring to open her eyes, she realized he was sharing everything with her. He needed what she needed, which was to be closer to him. She eased into his lap and wrapped her legs around him, bringing them together intimately. At every point their bodies touched,
the warmth she had felt earlier blazed ever higher, until she realized that every atom of their bodies seemed to be in sync. Each breath and heartbeat. The tension between them built, until the pressure was almost unbearable. Somehow she asked, “What is this?” “Tantric position. It’s the chakra points, the energy centers of the body…” His explanation faded as his voice grew rough, strained. “Sara.” At her name, she locked her gaze with his. She knew what he wanted—release. She nodded and he raised his hand, placed it directly above her heart. She did the same to him. That touch emancipated the power stored within them. His. Hers. The energy floating all around them. With a blinding blast of light, everything came together, and then like the tide, ebbed back. Again it shifted outward, then returned until it settled within her comfortably. Balanced and centered. “Dios mio,” she said when she could breathe once again. “That was amazing.” “This isn’t what you feel every time, is it?” she asked, and sank against him, the muscles and bones of her body feeling like jelly. He braced his hands on her spine and stroked her in a soothing gesture. “Not like this. The energy this time was unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced.” “Well, cosmic virgin that I am, I can only say, ‘Wow!’” “Yeah. Wow!” She sat there with him, recovering from the episode, but as the sensation from one thing ebbed, another rose up. Quite admirably, she thought. Between her legs, his erection nestled against her. In response, she became wet. “I’m sorry,” he said, and went to move away, but she gripped his shoulder to keep him in place. “Don’t apologize for what you feel. Especially since I’m feeling it, as well.” He traced the line of her cheek with one strong finger. “So what do we do?”
Chapter 22 I n answer, she reached down and unzipped his jeans. She dragged them down, exposing the length of him. As she stroked him, she watched his face, saw the way his eyes darkened and grew heavy-lidded. He licked his lips and she kissed him, running her tongue along his lips afterward. “Sara, this is crazy. I don’t know what I want.” “Liar,” she said, and took him into her mouth. He jerked as she sucked him, moaned when she circled the head of his penis with her tongue. Ricardo closed his eyes, nearly overwhelmed by the sensations she was creating. His hands were fisted on his thighs, resisting the urge to touch her, because if he did, he wouldn’t be able to stop. He wouldn’t be able to let her walk out the door again. But then suddenly, she moved away, kicked off her jeans. She was naked beneath, and when she straddled his lap again, he couldn’t resist.
As she stroked him, her hands slipping up and down with the wetness from her earlier kiss, he found the center of her, easing first one finger inside her and then a second. Each caress brought them ever higher, until there was only one thing he wanted. That she wanted. And he gave it to her. He pulled her forward the last inch and settled her above the tip of his penis. Sanity came back for a moment and Ricardo reached for his wallet and a condom while Sara stroked him. A second later, she helped him sheathe himself. She eased the tip of him into her warmth and plunged downward, taking them both over the edge.
He had no appointments for the rest of the day. She didn’t have to go back to work until later that night. It made perfect sense to them that they spend the time together. After they took a leisurely shower to clean up, and shared yet another session of lovemaking, Ricardo loaned Sara a robe, slipped one on himself and prepared breakfast. They sat side by side at the table, knees brushing. They couldn’t bear to be apart. She forked up some of the scrambled eggs and ate them. “Mmm. These are good,” she said. Spooning some hot salsa out of a jar, he generously covered his eggs with it. “Tasty,” he said, although the eggs, even with the spice of the salsa, tasted wooden in his mouth. Nothing could taste as good as the warm, wet tips of her breasts when he had sampled them in the shower. Because they couldn’t spend the rest of their lives having sex—not that he didn’t want to try—he forced his mind to other things. “What made you decide to be a nurse?” he asked, curious because they seemed to share so many things in common. She shrugged, her slim shoulders barely moving the heavy terry cloth. It reminded him of how physically fragile she was compared to him. Not that she let that stop her, he thought, recalling how she had fought side by side with him against the chupacabra. “You know that old joke about the dog with three legs, no tail and one eye?” He nodded and provided the punch line. “His name is Lucky.” They both chuckled at that, but then she continued. “When I was a kid, that’s what most of my pets were like. I had a tendency to collect injured strays and nurse them back to health.” “Why aren’t you a vet, then?” he wondered aloud, although he had been much the same way as a child. She motioned to his plate with her fork and said, “Could I try those?” He moved the plate so she could get some of the salsa-laden eggs. She ate them quickly, but then fanned her face with one hand. “That’s spicy.” “My mom makes it and ships it to me. So, why not a vet?” he repeated, anxious to learn more about what made Sara tick. She paused to sip some coffee, probably to clear the sting of the salsa, then continued. “In high school I did a stint as a candy striper and I got hooked on working in a hospital. There was just so much energy there, so many ways to help people.” He understood it well. During his years as an EMT, he had loved the hospital environment, but the constant flow of sick and
injured had taken too much out of him. “Sometimes too many.” “Is that why you stopped being an EMT?” “You know how you want to help people get better? How when a patient needs you, you’ll stay by their side even if it’s been hours since your shift ended, or you haven’t eaten in a day?” She nodded, but then leaned forward and laid her hand over his. “But you know you have to let it go because you can’t give that much of yourself when others need you, too.” Although she said it, he knew from gazing into her expressive hazel eyes that she struggled with the same thing. That she was the kind to stay with someone until the very end. He had, as well, more times than he wanted to remember. More times than he should have. “I couldn’t break away sometimes. Too many times. I would try to heal them and sometimes I could, only…It left me weak. So weak that when someone else came along, I couldn’t do anything.” Sara searched his face, not that she had to look that closely to see the anguish there. “What happened?” she said, and slipped her hand into his, hoping to ease some of his pain with that connection. “There was a crash. A school bus filled with kids smacked into a minivan. A few of the kids were hurt pretty badly. I was told to work on them first.” “And you healed them?” “They would have made it anyway, I realized afterward. Their injuries were serious, but they were young and strong. Still, I used my powers to stabilize them, give them a better chance.” He stopped and hung his head. The hair that fell forward hid him from her, but she wouldn’t let him bury those emotions away. She wanted to share more than just her body with him. She placed her forefinger under his chin and gently eased his face upward. His eyes had turned that dark, intense emerald color and a sheen of tears made them glisten. “What happened?” “When I left the bus, I realized my partner was working on the woman they had pulled from the car. He was trying to revive her, so I went over.” The tears slipped down his face. She wiped them with her thumb and urged him to continue with a tender look. “She was young, barely thirty. Two of her kids were standing by, watching her die. I stepped in, but I was too weak. I had used most of my strength on the kids in the bus.” Sara didn’t need to be told the woman hadn’t made it. She moved to the edge of her chair and embraced him. His body vibrated with emotion. “It wasn’t your fault, sabes,” she said, and stroked his hair. “I told myself that, over and over again. But it made me realize that I wasn’t making the right decisions about when to call on my power.” He moved back, but not far, allowing her to continue to brush her fingers through the long strands. “Is that why you quit?” He nodded. “I realized being an EMT placed me in situations where I made wrong choices. It not only risked exposing me, but worse, it prevented me from helping the people who needed me the most.” “Working in a hospital was out, too, I gather,” she said, and he nodded.
“That left working for humanitarian relief agencies. I might have been able to handle that, but I wasn’t sure. And then there was the idea of moving around after all my tours in the marines. I knew I couldn’t do that without losing a piece of myself.” Which explained his decision to settle down in one place, but not so many other things. “That chakra thing. Is that how you heal?” He shook his head. “Not really. My time in the marines exposed me to a lot of other cultures and people. I learned all kinds of different things and which of them work better for me.” She wanted to ask so many more questions. Like how he chose his clients or managed to survive when he asked for so little in return. But she was getting tired and needed to rest before she returned to the hospital later that night. Leaning forward, she brushed a kiss on his cheek and said, “Thank you for telling me all this.” “You need to go, don’t you?” The expectant note in his voice said that he wished it was otherwise. “I need to get some shut-eye.” “There’s a bed upstairs,” he said and pointed to the floor above. “You could sack out there.” Chuckling, she shook her head. “If you join me, I’ll never get any sleep.” With a broad, bad-boy grin, he brushed a quick kiss on her lips. “Find me irresistible, do you?” “Get real, Fernandez,” she teased, and playfully nudged his shoulder. “Okay, so how about you come back later for dinner?” Since he was so irresistible as he had claimed, she said, “Yes.” After she was dressed, he walked her to the door, where they both paused. “Is six o’clock good?” “Six is good. I can head to work afterward. By the way, no Fang Gang meeting tonight?” she asked, wondering what was planned, given the incident a few nights earlier. “Diana is getting some tracking devices that we can shoot at the chupacabra. She’s supposed to be bringing them by later tonight, but you have work.” She nodded. “I do have work. I can’t help you with the chupacabra thing until tomorrow morning.” He shot her a devilish grin, leaned close and, in a very possessive and determined way, grasped her waist. Bending his head, he brought his mouth close to her ear and whispered, “The morning? I guess you could come by for breakfast tomorrow. Share some time like we did today.” A wave of sexual energy sizzled along her nerve endings as she imagined a replay of this morning. Rising on tiptoe, she licked the edges of his lips with her tongue and then said, “Breakfast tomorrow definitely sounds like a plan.”
Chapter 23 R icardo examined the tagging devices that Diana had placed in the center of the coffee table. They were similar in shape to the tranquilizer darts, but with something that looked like a small transmitter or antenna at one end. “Sebastian selected these because they are highly reliable and powerful,” Diana advised the group that had assembled in the shop that night. “We should be able to pick up the signal for quite some distance. He’s already got the frequencies for these tags ID’d, and is monitoring their transmissions on his computer.”
Peter picked up one of the devices. “Do they fit into the tranq guns?” “They do,” she confirmed, but then shot an uneasy glance at Ryder as he sat beside her. “This creature is faster and more powerful than we expected. Not to mention intelligent. If we see it, all we want to do is tag it and run. We don’t want to confront it at this time.” “And once it’s tagged, we’ll regroup and follow it back to its lair. We’ll have strength together,” Ryder said. Samantha looked at Ricardo. “Is Sara coming tonight?” He shook his head. “She’s working.” “That means you’ll have to stay with Peter and me, mon ami.” “And Diana and I will team up,” Ryder confirmed as he reached for one of the tags. As Peter grabbed one of the devices and placed it into the barrel of the tranquilizer gun, Ricardo’s cell phone rang. It was Sara’s mom. “Hola, Evita. How are you doing today?” Sara had mentioned earlier that her mother seemed to be doing better. While they both knew the boost was temporary, he had hoped it would last for just a little bit longer. At least until they had this chupacabra under control so that he could fully focus his power on trying to help her again. He was unprepared for her next words. “Is Sara with you?” “Excuse me?” he asked, unsure he had heard right. Sara had left for work over two hours ago, after their dinner together. “Sara didn’t show up at the hospital. Her friend Melissa just called to see if she’s okay. I thought Sara might have changed her mind and stayed with you, but that’s not like her.” No, it wasn’t like her at all, he thought. “Don’t worry, Evita. I’ll find her.” “Gracias, mi’jo. I don’t know what we would do without her.” Ricardo understood that only too well. He didn’t know what he would do without her, either.
Her head throbbed painfully and something warm trickled down her left temple and along her forearms where her hands were bound above her. Her nostrils burned from the acrid odor of the foul-tasting wad of cloth that had been shoved into her mouth. Sara opened her eyes. Her vision was blurry. Nausea came quickly and forcefully. She took a deep breath to fight the feeling, but the awful smell only made it worse. She told herself she couldn’t vomit no matter what. With the gag in her mouth, she would likely choke to death. Inhaling again deeply through her nostrils, she contained the urge and then took note of her surroundings. The light in the space was dim, but she was surprisingly thankful for that. Anything brighter would have just brought more pain from the concussion she likely had. As she forced her eyes to focus, things slowly took shape in the near dark of her prison. The cement floor and walls were dirty and stained by the passage of time and the elements. As she turned her head, she realized she was in some kind of alcove, barely a few feet wide and not all that deep. On the ground she noticed an old blue milk crate,
filled with assorted rags and some bottles. Had some homeless person grabbed her on her way to work? she wondered. But why would they do that? She shook her head, but that motion only brought throbbing pain in her temples and an ache at the back of her neck. Definitely a concussion, and possibly whiplash, she thought. An instant later came the memory of being knocked out. Fast and brutal, a backhanded blow had swiped the left side of her face. The force of it had been enough to send her smashing into the brick on one of the brown-stones. She tried to remember how it had happened. How after all of her years in the army and keeping up her skills at the dojo, someone could have taken her by surprise like that. The answer came all too quickly—it hadn’t been anything human that had attacked her. It had been the chupacabra. She looked upward, skimming her eyes over the large and brilliantly shiny chrome hubcap that hung on one side of the small alcove. Light reflected off of it and she searched through the gloom for the source. Just across from her she found it. A sewer grate let in rays of light from what she assumed was a streetlamp nearby. There was also some kind of dim illumination at the mouth of the alcove. Focusing her vision, she realized a wire ran along the top portion of the wall. She suspected it was electrical and probably fed lights of some kind in what she now recognized to be a tunnel. A sewer tunnel. It was no wonder they hadn’t spotted the chupacabra on all their nightly patrols. The creature used the rooftops and alleys to hunt. This dank and stinky alcove belowground was where it lived and hid. Where it probably finished off the strays it had captured. Was she next? And how long had she been down here? she wondered. How long before anyone noticed and came to look for her? And how would they think to look for her here? Her cell phone. Glancing around the floor of the alcove, she looked for her knapsack, but it was nowhere to be found. Shit. The chupacabra must have left it behind when it grabbed her. She heard a noise. A loud footfall from something big and heavy. She pulled at her bound arms, trying to break free, but all she got for her effort was excruciating pain in her wrists. Glancing upward, she realized sharp wire bound her wrists and then had been slipped over a large metal hook protruding from the wall. She yanked again as hard as her precarious position would allow, but the wire and hook were too strong, and held fast. She would never be able to break free. Don’t panic, Sara, she told herself. Don’t panic. And then the chupacabra came into view. In one paw it carried a small gray cat by its hind legs. The animal dangled limply, either dead or badly injured. The creature paused before her. Raising the cat to its mouth, it sank its fangs deep into the feline’s neck and began to suck. Sara closed her eyes to block out the sight, but the noises still filtered into her brain. The slurp and lick. The grisly clack of teeth against something. Bone? she wondered, and again had to remind herself not to panic. Nothing in the literature indicated that chupacabras ate humans. There had to be some other reason why the creature had grabbed her. It was sentient, after all, and maybe in its twisted brain it had a reason for imprisoning her. When there had been silence for a few minutes, she dared to open her eyes again.
The chupacabra now stood before her, staring at her intently. Or at least she thought that’s what it was doing. Its odd, glassy red eyes gave little away, but then its mouth opened, as if in a lipless smile. The creature reached out and passed its talons along the side of her face and spoke. “P-preet-ty.” Shit, she thought. Time to panic.
A call to Sara’s cell phone had yielded just one useful bit of information—it was on. With that knowledge, Diana called her brother, who went to work immediately on picking up the signal from the GPS chip they had enabled in the phone on the first night of their patrols. Ricardo paced back and forth by the large window of his store, staring up and down the block with the hope that Sara would miraculously appear. That she hadn’t been taken by a very large and possibly very lethal bloodsucking monster. If there was one thing that kept Ricardo from panicking, it was the knowledge that chupacabras had never been known to kill humans. Not that there couldn’t be a first time. The shrill ring of Diana’s cell phone split the silence in the shop. Whirling in her direction, Ricardo watched her anxiously, expectantly, for some sign that Sebastian had done the trace. Finally she nodded as she jotted down the cross street coordinates. They were ready to go once she hung up. Diana handed him one of the tranquilizer guns loaded with the tracking device. He looked down at it, but shook his head. “This isn’t about tracking anymore,” he said, realizing that there was only one thing he wanted to do—get Sara home safe no matter what. He motioned to Diana’s suit jacket and a telltale bulge. “You’re ready for it, right?” She nodded. “I’m ready, but…You agree this is capture and not kill, right?” He glanced behind her to the rest of the group, who all waited expectantly for his answer. He thought about Sara. About what he would do if the beast had hurt her. He remembered the night the beast had touched him, how he’d felt. The evil within it. Evil that wanted him and what he could do. In his brain, that malevolent energy lingered, almost as if waiting for Ricardo to join with it again. He still hadn’t puzzled out the reason why. And at that moment, he didn’t care. He just wanted Sara safe. As for the beast… He wasn’t like it, and because of that, he knew there was only one answer to Diana’s question. “Capture and not kill.”
Diana and Ryder took one side of the street, while he, Peter and Samantha scoured the other, in search of the cell phone. A large city block versus something small enough to be held in the palm of your hand. Ricardo didn’t like the odds, but he knew this was the only way they had to get to Sara. An hour later the search along the ground had yielded nothing, which, given the chupacabra’s pattern of traveling over the rooftops, wasn’t surprising to him. As they reunited at the far corner, Diana proposed that she and Ryder hit the rooftops on one side of the street while Samantha and Peter took the other. “And you expect me to do what?” Ricardo said, anger and frustration in his tone. “Just stand here and wait?”
“Head back to your shop and act as go-between in case we find something.” She turned to the others. “If anyone discovers the chupacabra’s trail, call Ricardo, who will relay the message to the rest.” Although he nodded in agreement, he had no intention of just sitting there and waiting. After the two couples headed off, he retraced their steps up and down the block, thinking that there must be something they had missed. Sara would have walked down this street to get to the subway. She would have had her knapsack. She always had her red Diesel knapsack. Something red should have been visible along the street or in one of the alleyways unless… Ricardo spied the garbage cans along the curb, waiting to be picked up in the morning. Perfect hiding places, he thought. Did the chupacabra have enough intelligence to know to hide the knapsack? he wondered, but the answer came to him immediately. Of course it would. Slipping his cell phone from his pocket, he dialed Sara’s number and began to slowly walk down the block, pausing at each garbage can for any hint of a ring. His one hope was that she didn’t have it on Vibrate. By the end of the block, despair sank its teeth into him, holding him like a prisoner in its clutches. Not a chirp or beep. He crossed the street and dialed again, listening to Sara’s cheery voice as her voice mail picked up time after time. He was midblock when he dialed again and thought he heard the sounds of Shakira. He shot a quick glance toward the music. It was probably coming from one of the apartments, only… As he disconnected from Sara’s voice mail, the music stopped. He dialed once again and the same exact snippet of the Shakira song started. He tuned into the sound, moving toward the source. It grew louder the farther he moved into an alleyway, the sound filling him with satisfaction and hope. Unfortunately another feeling assailed him, as well—the niggle of a familiar force tugging at his center. The chupacabra’s energy. As the ring tone grew stronger, so did the chupacabra’s energy, until the force of it vibrated within him. And then he noticed the flashing antenna and keypad of Sara’s cell phone on the ground of the alley by a garbage can. As he picked it up, something surged through him—images of darkness and of Sara. Bound and gagged. Somewhere dim and murky. He dropped the phone, severing the connection with the energy the beast had left behind. Breathing heavily, Ricardo tried to refocus his own, but it took several moments before he felt in control once again. When he did, he picked up the lid on the garbage can and looked down at a pile of trash-filled white kitchen garbage bags. And resting right on top, Sara’s bright red knapsack. He removed it from the pail and slipped it over his shoulder, fighting the pull of the chupacabra’s dark energy as he did so. Then he bent and picked up her cell phone, tucked it into his pocket, but immediately, images of her and the chupacabra’s thoughts permeated his mind. Ricardo struggled with the invasion, feeling it sap him of energy, until he realized that the longer he fought it, the longer it would take him to find Sara. With that realization, he opened his mind and let the beast in.
Chapter 24 S ara shivered as the chupacabra ran a razor-sharp nail down her cheek.
“Ssso soft. Ssso p-preet-ty,” the beast repeated, moving closer until all Sara could see was her own pale and bloodied reflection in the lenses of its huge red eyes. Her fear was apparent, riling her. She refused to be afraid. Ricardo would find her. She had to believe that. Then the beast trailed that hideously lethal hand down her neck and under the collar of her jacket. As it moved across the tops of her breasts, she fought back her revulsion, closed her eyes and thought, Ricardo will get here soon.
The human’s female was so pretty, he thought, remembering how her caramel skin had glistened when he’d seen them together through the skylight. How long had it been since a woman had looked at him? Since he had savored a female the way the human had enjoyed this one? Soon he would… Why soon? he thought. Now might be just the right time. With one sharp talon, he sliced the shoulders and sleeves of the jacket, eager to see her. Maybe even to taste her, much like one of his vampire cousins might savor such a treat. At his actions, she renewed her struggles, seemingly aware of his intent. Fear crept into her eyes, tightened the lines of her body as she pulled on the wire wrapped around her wrists. He liked the fear. He had always liked the fear, especially in the eyes of the servant girls he’d once employed, and who had satisfied him on more than one occasion. Like this one might satisfy him—until the force came to find her. And the force would come. He had no doubt that the human would not rest until she was free. It was why he had taken her—to assure the human’s cooperation in healing him. In making him human again. Then he would rightly enjoy this woman. But for now… He rose up to his full height, inching closer to her wrists, where the wire had bitten deep with her struggles. Fresh blood trailed down her arms, and he leaned forward and gave a lick. His long tongue lapped all the blood that flowed freely in a river of red. Her salty flavor was so different from that of the animals he had sampled. Beneath that unique taste was soft, warm skin. Smooth and scented with the hint of orange blossoms. A clean scent that teased his nostrils. He breathed in deeply, imagining how she might smell when she finally lay beneath him. Taking him in. Calling out with the pleasure he would bring her. Inside of him, something stirred for the first time in nearly a century, and he smiled with glee. Soon he could have her. “T-t-taassty.” He licked her wrists until they were clean of blood. Then he danced away from her, clapping his hands as he imagined what he would do once he was human again. Soon…
A warm, metallic taste filled his mouth. Blood. Ricardo stumbled to the mouth of the alley as the beast’s thoughts and energy
nearly overwhelmed him. As the creature’s desire intensified, so did Ricardo’s fear for Sara’s safety. Images of what the beast wanted seared his brain. The chupacabra wanted to be human again…and it wanted Sara. Ricardo thought back to the last time he had seen the beast. It had been so far removed from being human that to make it so would surely kill him. He didn’t have enough power to do a cure of such magnitude, but the beast wouldn’t understand that. Wouldn’t care. And Ricardo knew that if he couldn’t cure it… He refused to acknowledge that outcome, instead renewing his vow to find Sara. His only hope was to free her before the chupacabra realized that its desires would never be fulfilled. That its humanity would never be restored. He headed out into the street, opened himself to the beast’s energy, using those thoughts and the unique signature of its life force to find it. As he neared the curb, the chupacabra’s energy grew stronger, but that made no sense to him. Ricardo stood at the edge of the street, glancing all around, but seeing nothing that would clue him in to where the creature could be. He looked down, lost in thought until he noticed the sewer grate across the way. He remembered the dimness of the images he had briefly touched upon as he had connected with the monster. His friends had headed in the wrong direction. The beast hadn’t gone up onto the roofs, it had headed downward, into the sewers. It made perfect sense. That was how the creature could move unnoticed from spot to spot. It was likely where it kept its lair. Hid its kills. Where it was hiding Sara. As Ricardo stalked across the street, the force of the beast became stronger. He knew then that he had to get belowground. But how? The manhole covers were too heavy to lift on his own. He needed some kind of vampire strength to help him or… He remembered a Con Ed work site about a block up. Whirling, Ricardo broke into a run and raced toward the spot. The Con Ed employees had called it a night, leaving a metal barricade and bright yellow tent around the opening. With a quick look about to see if anyone was watching, Ricardo slipped beneath the metal barricade and into the tent. As he had hoped, the manhole cover was off, giving him access to the tunnels below. He glanced downward, into the darkness. He moved onto the sewer stairs and started the descent, eager to pick up the trail of energy once more. This detour had moved him farther away from where Sara was imprisoned. As he went down, he paused to pull out his cell phone and check out the signal. Full strength, but with each step deeper into the sewer, he lost a bar. Once down below, he wouldn’t be able to signal his friends. Heading back up a few steps, he dialed Diana, who immediately answered. “I found Sara’s stuff and I connected with the chupacabra,” he told her, his voice remarkably steady. “It’s in the sewer tunnel somewhere.” “Where?” she asked. In the background, he could hear loud street noises. Too loud for her to still be up on one of the rooftops. “There’s a Con Ed work site on 108th and Third, but I can’t sense the chupacabra here. I think it’s closer to Second, maybe even First.” Without giving Diana a chance to reply, he said, “I’m heading into the sewer. You may lose my signal.”
With that, he disconnected and quickly stepped down the stairs. The metal bars were cold beneath his hands and slick beneath his sneakered feet, making his footing precarious. He hopped down from the last step into something wet and cold, slimy and smelly, that seeped through his sneakers. He forced himself to ignore what it was and to focus on the life energy of the chupacabra. He had to find it somewhere along this sewer. With a quick upward glance through the manhole, he oriented himself in the right direction—back toward First Avenue, where he suspected the creature’s telltale signature would be strongest. Reaching into his pocket, Ricardo pulled out his cell phone. No bars, as he had suspected, but the glow of the keypad provided the barest of light in the otherwise black tunnel. Slowly he moved forward, ever vigilant for a trace of the beast, for any sound that might tell him where the chupacabra had Sara. A cold sweat erupted on Ricardo’s body as he moved farther and farther away from the open manhole and his sole avenue of escape. But he wouldn’t let fear keep him from what he had to do. He was an ex-marine, after all, semper fi and all that, he reminded himself. He could take care of himself long enough for the cavalry to arrive. Within about ten yards of the opening, he hit a wall as the tunnel in which he was walking intersected with another. Left or right? he wondered, still not picking up any vibes from the creature. Pausing, he closed his eyes, attempting to focus on the chupacabra, but nothing came except a sound. He held his breath and listened carefully, and it came again. A barely perceptible clank. Metal grating against metal. To the right? he wondered, and finally forged ahead in that direction, sloshing carefully through the runoff in the sewer, trying not to make too much noise and alert the chupacabra to his presence. But then again, if he could feel the beast, the beast would probably know he was there, as well. His arrival wouldn’t be a surprise no matter how hard he tried. Undeterred, Ricardo pressed onward.
Diana stared at her cell phone in disbelief. She was blocks away from the location Ricardo had given, and if he went down into the sewers as he had indicated, he would have a substantial lead on her in the tunnel. Dialing Ryder, she quickly gave him the address, but he was even farther away than she was. “I’m going after Ricardo. He can’t handle this thing on his own,” she said, and Ryder agreed. “I’ll call the others and let them know where to meet. What about the GPS chips?” he asked her as she raced toward 108th and Third. “If we’ve lost his signal belowground, we probably won’t be able to track him with the chip, but call Sebastian anyway and have him try to pinpoint Ricardo’s phone and mine.” “Will do,” he said, and with that, Diana surged ahead. She moved as fast as she could, which, since she’d been contaminated with Ryder’s blood, was much faster than human speed. In this case, faster was better, just like her improved healing powers and increased strength, also by-products from Ryder’s blood. Tonight, she welcomed those new powers, thinking that a beast much as the one Ricardo and Sara had described would be no match for an ordinary person. Only she wasn’t ordinary anymore, she thought as she reached the Con Ed work site, slipped past the barricade and tent and jumped down the manhole.
She landed in the wet sewer and cringed at the smells. With these odors in the close confines of the tunnel it would be hard to detect the sulfur scent of the beast. But she plowed forward, heading toward First Avenue as Ricardo had advised.
The dark of the sewer had closed in around him, making it difficult to gauge how far he had gone and where he might be. Pausing, Ricardo closed his eyes and stretched out his arms, attempting to detect the beast’s energy. For a moment, something niggled at his subconscious. Something familiar, he realized. But he was unable to pinpoint what it was. Determined, he forged ahead, and as he did so, there came a tug on his energy. A distinct pull that said someone was searching for him, as well. At the end of the tunnel, he stopped, again trying to figure out whether to go left or right. But if his sense of direction was working, First Avenue was off to the right. As he glanced in that direction, he noticed a dim light at the end of that offshoot. Taking a chance that the sentient chupacabra was somehow responsible for the light, Ricardo raced in that direction. As he neared the next intersection, he finally sensed it. The beast was nearby and agitated. Ricardo could also detect Sara’s presence. The connection they had made the other night was somehow still binding them. He could feel her fear, but also her determination. He wouldn’t fail her, he vowed, as he headed down the tunnel, which was illuminated by some randomly placed bulbs hanging from a wire strung along the sewer wall. The deeper he moved into this section of tunnel, the stronger the sensation of both the chupacabra and Sara became. The images and thoughts surged through his mind, leaving him no doubt about what the beast wanted from him and why it had taken Sara. But what it wanted Ricardo could not provide. With that realization came another—that with his powers he could take much more easily than he could give. Ricardo hoped it wouldn’t come to that. That he wouldn’t break the promise he had made so long ago to never use the dark side of his gift. Mumbling a small prayer beneath his breath, he plunged onward, but stopped short when he caught sight of Sara hanging from a hook in the wall of a small alcove, blood dripping down her wrists.
Chapter 25 T he light was here. From where it rested a few feet from the woman, the creature sensed a sudden surge of energy. Unmistakable energy. With an explosion of speed, he placed himself between the woman and the human. He confirmed his earlier observations of the man—that he was youngish and powerfully built. Not that the human would be any match for him in his current state, but once he was human… Once he was human! the beast thought with glee, and raised his taloned paws, holding them outstretched to the human with the wondrous powers.
“H-h-human,” he said, and took a step toward the man, who surprisingly held his ground, as if unafraid. It puzzled the creature for a moment, but then he realized that the man was putting up a front, trying to appear brave when all around him was the smell of fear. “You want to be human again?” the man asked calmly. Joy surged through the creature as he realized that the man finally understood. Hopping from foot to foot and clapping his hands, he repeated, “H-h-human-n. Maaake meee h-h-human-n.” The man gestured to the woman behind him. “Let her go.” The request prompted complaint from the bound woman, who pulled at the hook, shook her head with agitation and tried to speak past the gag in her mouth. The beast didn’t understand the reason for her pique and didn’t really care. With a shake of his head, he said, “Aaft-terrr h-h-human-n.” The woman’s struggles intensified, and the man glanced at her once again, his look pleading. But then he turned his attention back to him. “Until she’s free, I will not help you.” He had waited far too long to let anything get in his way. Especially a battle over a puny human woman. “N-nooo.” He walked to the woman and grabbed hold of her throat in one large hand. He squeezed tightly and faced the man, resolute in his intentions.
Sara’s gaze locked with Ricardo’s, pleading but not defeated, even as the chupacabra slowly strangled her. Somehow he knew she didn’t want him to give in to the monster, even if it meant losing her life. But he couldn’t sacrifice her for himself. If he could keep the chupacabra occupied long enough, maybe the others would arrive in time. As Sara’s face paled and she kicked the wall in her struggle for air, Ricardo summoned some of his power. He reached out and touched the chupacabra with a promise of what he could deliver—the humanity the beast sought. “Stop and I will help you,” he said. When the creature finally released Sara, she sagged against the wall, hurt but still conscious. Ricardo met her gaze one last time and said in Spanish, “Do not worry. Help is on the way.” Sara heard him. Understood the plea in his voice. But she couldn’t let him save her at the cost of his life. She recalled what he had explained to her—that his power to heal had a limit. That expending too much of his strength could kill him. Help might arrive way too late for him unless… As Ricardo approached the beast, holding his hands out in invitation to join with him, she somehow managed to spit out the cloth the chupacabra had stuffed into her mouth. Hoping as Ricardo had that the beast didn’t know Spanish, she implored, “Kill it. You know you can. All you have to do is touch it. Please, Ricardo.” A sad smile came to his face. “Then I would be no better than it, my love.” A second later, the beast grabbed hold of Ricardo’s hands.
As the chupacabra engaged him, the jolt of the connection was stronger than what he had experienced before. The darkness he had feared for so long arrived, devouring him with its evil, pulling at his center as the beast greedily fed from his power.
Ricardo shot one last look at Sara. Tears streamed down her face as she repeated yet again, “Kill it. Please.” Only he couldn’t do as she asked, even though it would be simple enough. All he had to do was merge the dark power with his own to make himself strong enough to suck the life from the beast. But that evil power would stay with him forever, he knew. Change him. Make him something other than what he was now—a good man. An honorable one. He wouldn’t give in to the evil. Instead, he closed his eyes and focused on his center. He imagined the energy he had within him moving outward into the beast’s paws. Suddenly, the warmth of human skin replaced the slimy chill that held his hands. He opened his eyes and realized that the gray-green scales on one of the beast’s hands was gone, replaced by creamy skin. Human skin. Before his eyes, the talons on that hand receded and humanity slowly spread up that arm. With each bit of progress, Ricardo weakened. Too quickly. At this rate, he would be powerless well before anyone could find them. Pain racked his body as the beast sucked his life from him, draining his energy. Once the creature was done with him, Ricardo knew it would seek retribution against Sara. He couldn’t let that happen. Drawing a deep breath that was rank with the foul odor of the beast, he opened himself to the few pinpricks of free-floating energy around them. With what little strength he possessed, he extended himself and brought those scattered molecules of power within him, feeding them to the beast. He kept that up until no unbound energy remained in the vicinity. Until he had no choice but to sacrifice the last of the energy within himself. As the transformation of the beast surged onward, Ricardo’s legs weakened and he dropped to his knees. If not for the chupacabra’s grasp on his hands, he would have fallen prostrate, he was growing so feeble. Before him, the demon hopped from foot to foot in what Ricardo was recognizing to be its happy dance. An assortment of chirps and squeals came from its lipless mouth, but Ricardo was too weak to concentrate on the noises in order to figure out what was happening. What it was saying. As black circles danced before his eyes, he looked back up at Sara, knowing this might be the last time he set eyes on her. Knowing that in as little as a few seconds, he would lose consciousness. Sara knew it, as well, for she yanked at the hook, trying yet again to get free, but she was too firmly bound. Somehow he drew a breath and, with the last of his strength, said, “I love you.”
She couldn’t let him do it. She couldn’t live with herself if she did. Sara yanked at the hook, wincing as the metal bit deeper. But nothing happened. Ricardo’s eyes closed and he sagged even more. In response, the chupacabra encircled his body in his chimera arms—one demon, one human. But this was no friendly embrace. It was a death grip, if she couldn’t somehow break them apart. She jerked and fought against the wire, her feet barely touching the ground, until it occurred to her she was going about it all
wrong. Picking up her legs, she bent her knees and placed her feet flat against the wall, while maintaining tension on the wire on her wrists. Pain sliced deeper into her skin, but she fought it back. She had to concentrate on her balance, and time her surge carefully…. Closing her eyes, she sucked in a deep breath, shifted her weight so that it rested on the hook, making it possible for her to bunch up her legs on the wall just a little more. Enough so that when she shifted her weight… She pushed upward, while at the same time swinging her bound hands. It was enough. Her hands cleared the hook and she found herself tumbling to the ground. She hit hard, landing with a thud, but the chupacabra was still too focused on Ricardo to notice. Sara didn’t waste a moment. She came to her feet and barreled toward them, knocking into the beast and Ricardo with enough force to loosen the demon’s hold. They all tumbled to the ground, but Ricardo didn’t get up. He lay there, unconscious, as she and the beast faced off. The chupacabra’s rage was something to behold. It reared up on its hind feet and began to swat at its chest like an enraged gorilla. She only hoped that the nondemon appendage now possessed nondemon strength. It might give her a chance in a fight. After the chest thumping, it turned on her, ready to exact punishment for her interruption. Years of combat training took over as she came to her feet, bound hands before her in a ready posture. The chupacabra charged. She let loose with a dropkick to the beast’s chest, but it was like hitting solid rock. The recoil sent her flying backward into the sewer wall. The force of the impact nearly drove the breath from her lungs. The chupacabra advanced on her. She sucked in a breath and steadied herself, needing to be ready to defend herself. But then something blasted past her and into the path of the oncoming demon. For a moment it was just a blur, but then she realized it was Diana. The FBI agent stood between her and the demon. When the chupacabra charged, Diana met it head-on, unleashing a series of jabs and a roundhouse kick that rocked the beast to one side of the sewer tunnel, dazing it momentarily. Diana took that opportunity to call out, “Grab Ricardo and get out of here.” Sara seized the moment and swept behind her to where Ricardo lay on the ground. When she knelt beside him and cradled his head in her lap, she realized he was barely conscious. “Come on, Ricardo. We need to go,” she urged, stroking his forehead in the hopes of rousing him further. In front of her, Diana kept the chupacabra at bay, meeting its every attack with an effective defense. Her hands and feet were a lightning-fast blur, blocking each blow, driving the creature farther from Ricardo and her. As the demon stumbled, Diana slipped past its wildly swinging arms and the knot at the end of its tail to inflict punishment of her own. The beast’s bellow of rage and pain echoed off the tunnel walls.
At the sound, Ricardo rose up on one elbow, shaking his head. When his gaze met Sara’s, she could see he was beginning to understand what was happening. As a particularly loud and meaty thunk came from across the way, he looked in that direction. “Diana,” he said, shaking his head again as if in disbelief that the FBI agent was keeping the beast at bay. Sara, too, found it hard to believe, since the beast was not only larger than the petite woman, but should have been that much more powerful. Too powerful for a human to handle. As Diana vaulted up and over the beast, she seemed superhuman, and in that moment, it occurred to Sara that maybe Diana was not what she appeared to be.
Diana dodged blow after blow, but her body ached where the chupacabra had connected. The monster was strong. Possibly too strong. Still, she kept at the demon, hoping that the others would soon be on their way. Maybe between all of them, they could subdue the beast. Dancing around the creature, she dodged its attacks and got in a few licks of her own. As the beast charged her, she sidestepped its blow, but her foot slipped on a slick spot on the floor. Off balance, she was exposed for a moment while she tried to regain her footing. Sensing that moment of weakness, the chupacabra drove straight at her with its remaining demon hand, sinking its needle-sharp talons deep into her midsection. Fire erupted within her, and with an angry swipe, the beast tore open her abdomen. She grabbed at her stomach, feeling as if her guts would spill out of her body. She lost her footing as the world became an unfocused haze of pain, and she fell back heavily against the wall. Though agony swept through her, she struggled to rise, knowing she had to protect the santero and the woman. As she did, she felt heat slowly build in her midsection, a sure signal that the wound was already healing. Before she could advance on the demon, however, two bodies streaked into the breach between her and the beast—Samantha and Ryder. While Samantha took a step toward the chupacabra, Ryder moved to Diana. She shook off his concern. “Take care of it,” she said, but her voice was weak. Ryder knew better than to argue with her, and turned his attention to fighting the beast who seemed more determined than ever to get to the santero, as if realizing that their arrival put an end to its dream. Ricardo, however, was headed her way, Sara at his side, supporting him. Diana let herself drop to the ground, still clutching her midsection. She looked down. Blood still flowed from the deep slashes. Too much blood. She wasn’t healing as fast as she had expected. Sara sat down beside her. “Let me see,” she said, placing her bloodied hands over Diana’s. “I’m okay,” Diana replied, though she was far from it. In the many months since being contaminated with Ryder’s blood, she’d had unusual strength and speed, coupled with remarkable healing powers. But those powers were failing her now. On the other side of her, Ricardo reached out and brushed her hand away. Quickly he examined her wound and laid his hand on her wound. But then he suddenly pulled away from her, as if burned by the contact.
Diana looked up and met his gaze. He seemed confused, then sad. A second later, he said, “I’m sorry. I can’t heal what you have.” She wanted to ask why, but couldn’t as the chupacabra let out a bloodcurdling scream and charged the two vampires.
Chapter 26 T he contact with Diana had left Ricardo shaken, but the battle before him immediately commanded his full attention. Time and time again, the chupacabra charged Ryder and Samantha, trying to break past them and get to him. He knew that without a doubt, for in the midst of its angry squeals and cackles, he could hear its plea. Make me human. Make me human. It came in his head, over and over again, pummeling him mentally. Only he couldn’t heed its plea, and the demon would never accept that as an answer. That was clear as the chupacabra repeatedly attacked, landing blow after blow on the two vampires. Blood flew from the wounds it inflicted. Spittle dripped from the beast’s mouth as it tried to bite its two assailants. It opened its mouth wide and vented its frustration with an ear-piercing scream. But the two vampires kept up their defense. As the chupacabra’s desperation grew, so did the force of its attack, until it was clear that Ryder and Samantha had no choice. They had to either kill or be killed. Slowly they worked the chupacabra farther away from Ricardo and the two women, almost as if to spare them the sight of the bloodbath that was sure to come. As they pushed it around a bend in the tunnel, Ricardo turned his attention to Diana once more, intending to use his medical training to at least stop the bleeding long enough to get her to a hospital for treatment. But as Diana moved her hand away from the wound, he realized that the deep gashes that had nearly torn her open were rapidly disappearing before his eyes. “How?” he heard Sara ask. Diana shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said as she slowly rose to her feet, her shirtfront soaked with blood and hanging in tattered shreds. From around the bend in the tunnel came the loud screeches and shrill sounds of the chupacabra, punctuated by flesh hitting flesh. Diana reached beneath her jacket and took out her weapon, clearly intending to go help out the two vampires, but then another sound intruded behind them. Someone sloshing through the sewers, Ricardo realized. As they turned toward that sound, Peter came running toward them, gun in hand. At the sight of the blood staining Diana’s shirt, he stopped, worry and fear apparent on his face. “I’m okay,” Diana reassured him, and inclined her head in the direction of the tunnel. “They need our help,” she said. Guns drawn, Peter and she moved toward the fight, but suddenly there came a loud long squeal, agonizing in its intensity and pain. A second later, the ground seemed to shake from the force of something heavy falling. Within him, Ricardo felt something break free and surge out of him, so forcefully that his knees gave way. Sara was immediately at his side, offering support. “Ricardo?” she asked as she slipped beneath his arm and helped him upright.
“It’s gone,” he said, and as if in confirmation, Ryder and Samantha returned from around the bend, bloodied but alive. Instinct took over and he moved toward them, ready to heal them, but then he stopped short. His powers couldn’t work on one of the undead, just as he couldn’t help Diana before. He looked in her direction, where Peter hovered close to her side, his concern palpable. She shook it off, much as she did that of Ryder when he approached. “I’m fine,” she said, but shot a glance at Ricardo. That quick look confirmed that Diana knew something was wrong with her. Something he couldn’t help her with. “Ricardo? Don’t you need to rest?” Sara asked. He nodded, but stopped to ask the others, “Is there anything we can do about…” Ryder spoke first. “Samantha and I will find somewhere to lay it to rest.” “Yes, mon ami,” Samantha confirmed. “It’s best you and Sara go now. You don’t need to worry about it anymore.” He wasn’t about to argue. The fight with the chupacabra had drained him, and Sara needed someone to see to her injuries. “Let’s go, mi amor.” Together they slowly sloshed back through the tunnels to the open manhole. Ricardo helped boost Sara up to the first rung on the ladder, and then joined her, steadying her on the climb up. With his arm slung over her shoulder, they walked back to his shop and up to his apartment. Dead tired, he wanted nothing more than to drop into bed, but they were both covered with the muck from the sewer and blood. The beast’s. Sara’s. Diana’s. Without saying a word, they both knew what was necessary. Ricardo warmed the water in the shower and then they undressed and slipped beneath its caress. Arms around each other, they let the water wash away the filth and death of the night. Afterward, they soaped and wiped each other down, Ricardo taking extra care with Sara’s injured wrists. He didn’t have enough energy to heal her, but he could quell the pain there and accelerate the process a bit. Once they were out of the shower and dry, and enveloped in thick terry-cloth robes, he dressed her wounds and they sat on the couch. “You should—” “I need to—” Ricardo motioned for her to continue. “I need to call Mami and let her know I’m fine.” He handed Sara the phone and sat patiently, uncertain of just where he stood with her. His lies and his lifestyle had nearly gotten her killed, and he wasn’t sure how she would handle that. Then again, if there was any woman who could handle it, it would be Sara, he thought as he recollected her strength and courage as she had come to his assistance in the tunnel. “Sí, Mami, I’m fine. Just a minor problem with the subway that had me running late. I’m off now and with Ricardo.” Sara paused and he could hear her mother on the line, her singsong tones tinged with relief. A second later, Sara said, “Don’t expect me tonight. I’ll be back in the morning.”
He didn’t want to read too much into that statement. It could be she was just too tired to make it home, or thought her mother would freak if she saw the bandages on her wrists and the shiner on her face. Her statement didn’t mean that she— “I want to stay with you tonight.” The words tumbled from her lips and her eyes never left his face. She watched the play of emotions there. Surprise. Confusion. Delight. “Just tonight?” he asked, with a teasing arch of his brow. “For starters.” She leaned into his side and laid her hand on his chest. “How are you?” “Drained,” he immediately confessed, but then quickly added, “You lied to your mami just now.” “Sometimes you lie to protect someone you love,” she acknowledged, relieving some of the worry from his heart. “Does that mean you’ll forgive me for not telling you sooner about what I am? What I can do?” Sara stroked his cheek. She had come so close to losing him, and yet being with him would never be easy. His was a life filled with lies and vampires, and who knew what else was to come in the future? Despite that, he was special enough to take the risk. “You can promise me that you’ll never lie to me again,” she replied. “I can promise that, only…My life is a complicated one and I’ll never be rich. Or work regular hours. Or—” She slipped her hand over his mouth to silence him. “I want only one thing from you.” “And that is?” he mumbled against the palm of her hand. “That you love me.” “Do you think we could start right now?” She smiled, leaned close and whispered against his lips, “Definitely.” He tunneled his hands into her hair, held her close for his kiss. When their lips met, she opened her mouth against his, opened her heart, and within her she felt him. His power and his love, stronger than ever before. “Ricardo?” she questioned as she pulled away. “I’ve had to hold back in the past. To control everything I was feeling. Everything I wanted to show you,” he said. “Then show me now, amorcito.” He did, raising his hands to her shoulders and slipping the robe off to reveal her naked body. Gently he ran his palm down her flesh, and everywhere he touched, her skin tingled and flared to life. As he cupped her breasts, her nipples tightened and he bent his head to lick them. Sara wanted more. She cupped his head to her and he encircled one tight peak with his mouth and sucked on it. Each tug of his lips pulled at the center of her and warmed her core until she couldn’t wait a moment longer to be filled by him. She parted the robe he wore, glanced down at his erection and didn’t hesitate. She climbed into his lap and then slowly sank down onto him. But she didn’t move. She didn’t have to, as with that possession a wondrous sensation grew within her. One that was more than physical. One that was almost beyond spiritual. She gazed down at him, at the happiness on his face, and said to him again, “Show me, amor.”
Ricardo held her close, feeling a unity with her like none he ever had before. He reached up and stroked her face. “Are you ready?” At her nod, he placed one hand over her heart, much as he had once before, only this time, he didn’t hold back. He closed his eyes and let her experience all that he felt for her. All that he wanted. All that he could give. She gasped and her body arched, jolted by the force of everything that he had held back until that moment. But then something wondrous happened as she grabbed hold of his shoulders and gazed down at him. Into his head, into his body came her answering energy, full of passion and life. Full of love for him. His body shook from the strength of it. The force of her caring wrapped around him as her arms encircled him, completing the fusion of their energies with the merging of their physical forms. As she shifted her hips on him, he bent and kissed her breasts, drove up into her center, and slowly the physical took control. When their release came, it was together, the way it should be. Complete and without reservation. Rewarding like nothing else he had ever experienced. After, they sank against each other and he smiled as he caressed her cheek. “Sara Martinez, I love you with all my heart and soul. You’re like no one I’ve ever met before.” She turned her face and pressed a kiss into the palm of his hand. “Neither are you. I love you, Ricardo. I want you in my life.” “Even with the Fang Gang and all its trappings?” he asked as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. “Even with. Just don’t expect me to feed them, okay?” He smiled broadly, bent his head until his lips barely brushed hers. “So it’s you and me, then. Together forever?” “Forever,” she confirmed, and gave herself over to his kiss.