02 – Plans Are For Suckers

Three days is an eternity when you are waiting.

This Rowena woman terrifies me. The first night we spent together, I cracked a joke about runes and tattoos, causing her to launch into a lecture about how yanks are the devil and take nothing seriously. She lit up like the Rockefeller Christmas tree and blew me across the room with a rune no larger than my palm. After that, I stuffed the jokes and buckled down. In the end, I came to appreciate that Rowena Harper is a stern but brilliant teacher.

“Yer human brain cannot understand the complexities of offensive runes yet.  We’re gonna stick to the stuff yer capable of. This rune, it’s to keep yer mind sharp. Vampires ken how to muddle your thoughts and make ya believe its yer idea.”

Her Irish brogue keeps the smile plastered on my face, even if she is insulting me. It’s like listening to the Lucky Charms leprechaun.

“This one, here, it brings the blessin’ o’ Paul.  Givin’ ya the strength to persevere.”

I nod and trace them with my fingers, going slow at first. Rune magic is all about details. One slight blip and your rune sends a person flying when they should have been encased in a protective shield. My journal is full of the runes we have access to in the archives, but these runes are more intricate, commanding more focus to create, and providing far more power than I had ever used before. I’m drained after practicing them for a few hours.

Rowena does not explain how she can do them effortlessly, but my guess is she is a Half Divine. Half Divines are descendants of divine beings. Traditionally speaking, it is the Christian Pantheon, but the others could manifest. Cardinal Renford, the current leader of the Iscariot, is not beyond using whatever holy means he can lay his hands on.

I told Jack I wasn’t afraid, because that is what he needed to hear. The truth is I am terrified. That man already carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. I’m not about to contribute to it by pointing out all the flaws in our plan, talking about what happens if it goes wrong, or even that I’m afraid to be put out there alone. This operation is dangerous and terrible. Trevor says he can take the shot, but I’m still worried. If he is even one second too late, then our entire plan goes up in smoke.

I stare in the mirror and barely recognize the woman staring back. I had hoped this dress was for our victory celebration when we caught this vampire.

If you could call this a dress.

I’m a highly trained, decorated soldier who can kill people with my bare hands. Yet, here I am, in two scraps of clothing that Forever 21 calls a dress. My hot mess of curly hair is pinned into a mohawk, pooling down my back like tendrils of fire. After a quick lip pop, my gloss is perfect. With a sigh, I remind myself this was my idea, so I can’t be too put out.

The idea is to behave like an American girl in Venice: party too hard and wander off alone. It’s stupid and reckless. Jack was right; I am trying to prove myself to the guys. Maybe too hard. If it weren’t for the long hours with Rowena placing protection runes in every viable location of my person, I would not be doing this.

My heels tick on the old stone floor as I head to the war table. My mother comes to mind. Her quiet strength, even when she was dying carries me forward. She had been the glue of our family and passed the torch onto me. Jack, Trevor, and Buck are my family now, and I refuse to let them down because I’m getting cold feet. I fold the envelope in half in my hand. I still haven’t decided who to give my just-in-case letter to. The hardest part of being a part of a top-secret special-ops team is not being able to write home about what is going on in my life. The contrast between the men in their tactical gear and this scrap of fabric I’m wearing makes me feel naked.

Buck whistles low and stares at me with narrowed, hungry eyes the entire time I walk down the stairs.

Trevor and Jack exchange money and grin.

“Hot damn, Murphy. You look pretty enough to give candy to,” Jack drawls.

Trevor pats his hand rapidly against his chest.

“Yeah. Yeah. Laugh it up. Where’s my ride?” My cheeks flush from the compliments, and the bile in my stomach settles down. Covering up fear with brash bravado is this team’s go-to coping mechanism. Doc Ford would have a field day with today’s plan.

“Waiting outside. Holy rollers already took off to get in position. Your driver will drop you off at the party, and then it is all you. Stick to the plan. Don’t deviate. If it gets too hot, abort. We all go home.” Jack barks in commander mode.

“Hoo-Ah,” we call back.

When Jack and Trevor head to the truck, I catch Buck’s arm. “Hey, big fella. Do me a favor?” He turns, stepping in close. His strength lends me courage as I give him a smile.

“Anything. So long as you let me see you in that dress stateside.” His soft green eyes trail down as far as he can see and he wriggles his brows at me.

“Cute,” I snort. “I’m being serious. Look. In case tonight goes…” I hold the folded letter out to him. “It’s for my old man.”

Buck’s body stiffens and his playful smile fades into a stern grimace as he takes the letter. “You ain’t dyin’ tonight, Tabitha. If I have to blow up all of fucking Rome, you are not dying tonight.” He pulls me into a hug and kisses my forehead.

My heart races and I smile, relishing in his tender gesture. For a massive brute of a man, he knows how to make a girl feel cherished.

We are breaking the rules. Fraternization is frowned upon in the squads because emotional attachments become liabilities in the field. That hasn’t stopped us from pretending to just be buddies while fucking like bunnies. So I linger in his gentle embrace enjoying the brief reprieve it brings. Before I let him go, I inhale sharply to get one last scent of Buck to keep with  me for the evening..

I watch him catch up with the rest of Shadow Squad, leaving me alone in the foyer to wonder what I have gotten myself into.

My gaze turns to the crucifix tacked above the door with a motto in Latin. The words bring me comfort, and I cross myself before following the team.

Only a small car with a driver waits for me. On the ride to the piazza, I stare out the window, taking in the ancient sights of this beautiful city of Rome..

“Are you meeting someone tonight?” the driver asks. His Italian accent is so thick that it takes me a moment to recognize he’s speaking English.

“No. I am on an adventure! Just graduated and came to Europe to celebrate!”

“Someone as beautiful as you should never be alone.” His gaze shifts from the road to the rearview mirror as he takes in an eyeful. “I hope you enjoy the festivities tonight.” He pulls into the drop-off location.

After handing him far too much money, I bounce out of his cab like I can’t wait any longer to get to the fun.

The piazza twinkles under the strands of lights strewn across in a hap-hazard pattern. Glow stick jewelry halos figures in the crowd to make them look like neon angels as the young and beautiful pulse to the music. Amongst the angels are demons swathed in black clothes, holding trays full of pill cocktails and booze. Strobe lights flicker above the crowd giving an eerie stutter effect on the otherwise fluid movements of the ravers.

Someone gives me a cold glass filled with liquid as a hand on the small of my back guides me into the masses. I go with it. I have no intention of drinking whatever I’m holding, but I bring it to my lips and look like I am. As the music grows louder and faster, I bump and grind with the crowd, allowing it to slosh out of the cup.

Minutes tick by, and I can feel my skin crawl with the nagging sensation of being watched. I push my way through the sea of bodies. Sweaty and breathless, I finally emerge from the masses to see the make-shift bar.

I giggle as Buck jokes in my ear piece about how unfair it is he has to watch from the shadows. Jack scolds him for complaining. I haven’t seen a single Iscariot yet, but the crowd is heavy, and they’ll be blending in. The nagging feeling of being watched makes me shudder. Even though I know my boys are watching me and will do everything to keep me safe, the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

After getting another drink, I fall back into the crowd. My body stiffens when the rune on my hand begins to glow, confirming the nagging sensation that I’m in danger.. Even if it isn’t the vampire we’re after, something has tried to get me to comply with its wishes.

I turn from the crowd and head in the designated direction. With every nerve in my body on edge, I decide I need a little liquid courage and take a sip of my drink.. The runes running up my arms flare to life and then flit away like ashes. Any normal person would panic and attempt to flee. My heart beats faster, and I continue forcing myself to walk forward, hoping to draw whatever is pursuing me from the shadows.

“Oh, you precious girl. Did you really think those would work against me?” His voice is rich and purring, like a tiger creeping out of the tall grass. He isn’t chuckling, but I can hear the amusement in his voice.

The runes on my chest burn to life, revealing they are providing me what little protection they can offer. Resisting the urge to stop moving, I swallow hard and fish out the only weapon I have, a small silver stake. If I can pierce the vampire’s skin with it, we can track the beast.

The runes on my chest flit away in ashes.

I turn to face the monster following me. Averting my eyes from his face, I look at his chest as he comes close enough to slide an arm around my waist.

From what I can see, he doesn’t look like a monster. The business suit he’s wearing gives him the appearance of a typical white collar worker..

Runes flare to life left and right. As my defenses fall away, I can feel my will slowly succumbing to the sweet song in my ears.

Obey. Comply. Submit.

“Murphy!” I hear Jack roar, but it is muffled and distant like a dream.

“Fuck. Take the Goddamn shot!” Buck’s voice follows.

“Where the fuck are they?”

I am lost.

The vampire smiles at me and it seems odd his chest is warm, and enticing. The desire to submit to him grows ever stronger.

“I promise, my little firecracker, you will enjoy this. Be a good girl, and I will give you what you deserve.”

The last rune lights up on my forehead.

I tilt my head and press against him. My body responds to him as though I were holding onto Buck. My heart races. My skin flushes with anticipation. My muscles tighten from fear. I’m helpless to resist now and can only hope Trevor takes the shot.

The vampire’s lips kiss against my neck, and I fade into bliss, pure bliss.

I moan. My hand wavers as he sucks against my neck, and my body trembles against him as the best fucking orgasm I have ever had courses through me. My eyes close.

I am too close to stake him in the chest with how he cradles me to him. I do, however, manage to jab the stake into his side.

The rune on my forehead burns as it disintegrates, leaving me completely defenseless.

When he growls in pain, the bliss I felt seconds ago turns to agony.

I scream in pain.

Our bodies suddenly jerk and I register that it must be Trevor’s round that hit the vampire.

I can’t catch my breath. Large, hot tears roll down my cheeks.

The vampire pulls back from my neck and snarls at me, his lips stained with my blood. He doesn’t let go of me, and I’m too exhausted to fight.

“Go! Go! Go! Where the fuck are they?” Jack shouts. “No! Buck, you’ll kill her. Fuck! Buck!”

Wherever the vampire takes it, it’s too dark for me to see. White pain racks my body and paralyzes any movement from me. His murderous gaze tells me he has no intention of leaving me here, as he had with his previous victims.

He rips the round from his neck. The UV and silver nitrate concoction spread through his veins like black ink. He jerks me closer and sinks his teeth into me again.

It’s pure torture this time. Every fear I have ever had conjures itself at once. Every doubt. Every insecurity. If it brought me any kind of suffering, it is now happening tenfold. My skin burns like it’s being ripped from the muscle. I can’t breathe or move. I sob, begging for him to make it stop. The agony reduces me from a highly trained soldier to a blubbering young woman.

The movies don’t tell you about the dark side of vampire kisses.  In addition to insane ecstasy, they can also bring excruciating pain. Vampire venom will manifest your deepest, darkest fears in your mind until you are nothing but a dried husk of insanity.

I cling to my tormentor as my head swims. I have lost too much blood. My heart thunders in my chest as it struggles to pump the blood that isn’t coming. 

The alcove lights up with a booming bang.

I scream, too terrified for rational thoughts. My body crumples to the ground as it is suddenly released. The last thing I see before I succumb to unconsciousness is a black cloud of bats fleeing like the wind.

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