Predawn, off the coast of Southern California, 1946
For a hungry vampire, a cargo ship afloat on a vast ocean was as confining as a straitjacket. The fit was tight, and no matter how much he raged there would be no easy escape. The passage across the vast Pacific was his longest uninterrupted voyage at sea, and it was harder than he’d ever imagined.
Fortunately, the journey was coming to an end. Rory leaned over the steel railing of the cargo ship Ravager as the iron bow parted an unresisting sea. Below the surface of the gently rolling swells, tiny phosphorescent creatures darted along the hull. The illusion perfectly mimicked a sky full of twinkling stars, but these creatures weren’t beacons of heavenly light, they were slimy little jellyfish, possibly squid, coated in bacteria that gave off an alluring glow as they decomposed.
Fairy dust or decay? Sometimes it was impossible to tell the difference. Things were seldom as they appeared at first glance. Such was the way of nature; she was often the great deceiver. Being a vampire had taught him reality often reflected something it wasn’t. In a world where exotic praying mantises resembled frilly pink orchids as they crept up on unwitting prey, he looked like a fresh-faced, twenty-seven-year-old man, when in fact he’d been walking the planet for decades with only the faintest of heartbeats. He too had become a deception, a dark mirror and murky reflection of his human self, and there was no going back.
Quiet footsteps alerted him someone was near. He glanced over his shoulder with caution.
The captain of the ship, a stout Scotsman named Tomlinson, approached. “Oy!” he called. “I can’t sneak up on you, can I? You got the ears of a dog.”
The peace was broken, and Rory became aware that the quiet moment at sea was not so quiet. The ship’s engines thumped a persistent rhythm, boom, boom, boom. Water splashed against the hull. Someone in the galley scraped metal against metal, likely a spatula to the griddle in preparation of an early breakfast. His sensitive ears tuned in to it all.
Turning away from the railing, he faced Tomlinson and stood at attention. “Mornin’, Captain.”
Tomlinson slowly shook his head. “I knew you’d be awake. You’ve never let me down. Ravenscroft, you are the best night watchman I’ve ever had. I can always count on you to be alert. Everyone else dozes off or gets lazy, but not you. How is that?”
“I’m as nocturnal as an owl, sir.” If the captain knew a vampire was aboard his precious ship, he’d scream in terror and leap over the side.
The shadow of a smirk formed on Tomlinson’s lips. “Aren’t you ever tempted to knock back a pint, shut your eyes, and just say to hell with it?”
“Never, sir.” Before he became what he was, he’d loved strong ale, brown as shoe leather, but now alcohol of any kind held little charm. His taste fixated on only one drink, and he preferred it served warm and full of fórsa beatha, life force.
Tomlinson placed his meaty hand on the rail and stared out to sea. “You are a sober lad, I’ll give you that. You’ve been part of my crew for nearly a year, and I’ve not once seen you drowning in your cups. Not even when every bloke went ashore in Singapore to get mad-dog pissed. The crew was wretched for days, but not you.” He chuckled. “Come to think of it, I’ve never seen you eat or drink much of anything for that matter.”
The small amount of food he accepted from the galley was meant solely as a ruse. Most of it went over the side at the soonest opportunity, or was used to tame seabirds to eat from his hand. “I prefer to take my meals alone, sir. In silence with a book.”
“Your mother must be bursting with pride to have raised you right.”
Not so. His mother, Fanny, had been a barmaid and part-time whore, and she had not been the sort of woman capable of raising anything but a fuss. He had his mother’s homely sister, Aunt Martha, to thank for what little goodness and stability had come his way. “Ma’s at rest in potter’s field.”
The captain’s melancholy gray eyes were heavily lined and tugged downward at the corners. “Sorry to hear it. So is my mum, but we’ll see them again someday in heaven.”
It seemed unlikely that Saint Peter would allow vampires into heaven, even those who missed their mothers, but he nodded anyway. “May it be so.”
Tomlinson peered over the side and gazed at the darting streaks of phosphorescence. “Ah. Sea sparks. Cheerful sight. Get a good look now. Sunrise comes in an hour. At the first ray of dawn, poof! The magic’s gone.”
Rory looked at the captain, who was a sensible man in every way. Tomlinson was wrong. The magic never faded, it just hid from view. Enchantment of all sorts, good and evil, dominated the fabric of the world; daylight merely lent magical things a cloak of normalcy and made them trickier to spot.
The captain turned his back to the ocean. “Ravenscroft, have you thought about what I said?”
“I have.” The bow lifted and smacked down on a wave, sending a spray of salty mist into his face. At sea, his already thick, wavy hair had curled into ringlets badly in need of a barber’s attention. He smoothed his dark hair away from his face. “I’ll not be staying on.”
“I’ll make you my first mate and give you a percentage of the profits if you stay on through Panama. It’s far better than sailor’s wages, my lad. For a man as reliable as you, there are greater business opportunities to be had.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “I’ve not approached anyone but you on this matter, and I appreciate your discretion when I tell you there are cargos within cargos, if you know what I mean. There are many generous clients in this world who need things safely shipped from one port to another. Perhaps you’d care to join me in such a lucrative pursuit?”
Smuggling? God help him, he’d done it before. “Sir, I’ve seen enough of open water. I need time ashore.” He needed to feed more freely, or risk losing control and hurting someone. The tiny amounts of blood he stole in the night from his fellow sailors were barely enough to hold him together. “I want to see Los Angeles.”
“Hollywood?” Tomlinson smiled knowingly. “Starlets with platinum hair and shapely gams are calling to you, are they? I understand. You’re a young man. You need to run wild and live your life.” He patted his barrel chest that flowed seamlessly toward a round belly. “I’m fifty-five and been married thrice. Things aren’t so dire for me. In fact, I’ve gone without for so long that going ashore to fuck a pretty lass might kill me, but what a lovely way to go!”
They both laughed at Tomlinson’s sad bit of truth. He’d never considered that he was older than the captain, but he was, by three years.
“You’re a quiet one, Ravenscroft, but dependable. If you change your mind in a couple of months, you could take a train across the country and meet up with the Ravager in Boston. I’ll reimburse your ticket. At sea, you handled the hard times well and never showed fear or lost your head during the cyclone off the Philippines, or even when the crew suffered those horrible rat attacks.” Tomlinson shuddered. “I’m much obliged to you for hunting down those monstrous vermin. I’ve never in my life known rats to be so aggressive.” He shook his head in disgust. “Sneaking around unseen, unheard, attacking men in their sleep, biting throats... they acted more like tigers than rats, they did.”
Crossing the Pacific had been arduous, a time of famine. In the heart of the night, the blood hunger would take hold so badly, he feared he might overdrink a man and leave him for dead. When he did allow himself to feed, he did so with focused restraint, taking only the bare minimum before breaking free and allowing the rats to take the blame. “I was glad to be of help.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to cross the Atlantic with us, then head for home? You could be in Dublin by Christmas with more cash in your pockets, or come to London with me. I know of a group always looking for the reliable services of a young man like yourself.”
There was nothing waiting at home for him except sad memories and the shreds of a life that was no longer his. Even his hearty Aunt Martha was long gone, and he was free to roam the world unfettered by family ties. “It’s a generous offer, Captain, but I’ve made up my mind. I spent most of the war serving aboard some sort of ship, and the better part of this year crewing the Ravager. It’s time I learned to walk on land again.”
He was barely hanging on, and he couldn’t wait to feed freely in a city the size of Los Angeles, where someone like himself might go unnoticed for months, perhaps years.
“You’ll be missed.” Tomlinson patted Rory’s shoulder. “I wish you the best on your next adventure. May your ale be plentiful and your ladies winsome.”
It made him sad that he couldn’t say yes to Tomlinson. He’d grown fond of the man, and except for the privation of easy blood, life for the undead aboard a merchant ship was undemanding.
Like it or not, he had to leave. He’d discovered the hard way that no situation remained safe for long. For him, sleep was optional for days at a time, and he no longer ate, aged, or scarred. Eventually, people noticed and commented on these oddities. It was then he’d pack up and move on. “My bunk’s made and my duffel bag’s stuffed. I’m ready to go.”
“You’re not completely ready. When we reach San Pedro Bay, I’ll open the safe and pay the crew. You’ve earned a bonus, and I have something extra for you. I radioed port. I have an old mate who put down roots in the city of angels. I contacted him. No promises, he’ll need to meet you first, but he might set you up with a job.”
It continually surprised him when people were kind. Deep at heart he feared someone, someday, would look into his eyes, see what he was, and shriek, parasite, walking corpse, or unholy thing! It had yet to happen, but he often wondered when the inevitable would happen.
A flicker on the horizon caught his attention. Distant lights on shore became visible, but like a true night-hunter, he had the advantage of keen sight. “Land, ho!” he cried.
Tomlinson squinted into the darkness as if hoping to force San Pedro Bay to materialize. “That’s so unfair. You always spot land first. What I wouldn’t give to have young eyes again.” He laughed at himself in a good-natured way, dug his hand into his pocket, pulled out a handful of coins and miscellaneous items, and gave them to Rory. “You win again, Ravenscroft. Go ahead, ring the beast!”
They had a tradition aboard ship: the first sailor to spot land rang an old-fashioned bell bolted to the side of the forecastle. The beast was cracked and covered in corrosion of various kinds and made a terrible sound, but the first man to spot land and ring the bell was allowed to collect the contents of the pockets from any man standing nearby.
He walked toward the large steel bell with an iron clapper on a rusted chain and rang the bombastic thing loud enough to wake the ship. “Land, ho!” he shouted.
The sound of the bell made it official; the Pacific crossing was nearly complete. He’d made it. Blood hunger had risen and ebbed, and he had cheated a little, but no one had died. That alone was cause for celebration. Such self-control over so many months would have been impossible when he was a new vampire, and he was proud of his hard-won self-mastery.
Tomlinson pushed himself away from the rail. “I’d better call port. I’ve got reams of paperwork to finalize.” He opened the door to the forecastle and stepped inside. The crackle of a radio signal resonated between the metal walls.
It wouldn’t be long now. Within an hour or two, he could feed. Likely, it would take a couple of moderate feedings to satisfy him. Draining one victim to completion was never an option.
The seconds chugged past. Rory looked down at the water lapping on the bow. The soft pulse of phosphorescent creatures beneath the waves proved hypnotic. A raft of seaweed floated past, as dense and tangled as a head of dark hair. For some reason the sight made him think of his mother, Fanny.
Fanny had had thick wavy hair that was truly black with a sheen of midnight blue, especially after a thorough brushing. He remembered her as pretty, with a dainty oval face and a wide, soft mouth like a full-blown rose.
An only child, he’d been born when Fanny was just sixteen. He was her bit-of-hard-luck, as she sometimes called him when she was cross, which was often. But he forgave her. She was always tired from taking in laundry every day and pouring ale in a pub all night. The owner of the pub paid her to drink with customers and make them laugh, especially the many sailors who came ashore on Dublin Quay.
He and his mother shared a tiny cottage with Fanny’s elder sister, Martha, who was often at sea for weeks at a stretch, crewing aboard various fishing vessels. For all practical purposes, Aunt Martha was the man of the house. She was tall, strong, and unafraid to sail a skiff into the iciest waters, or fist fight on the quay over the fair division of a good catch. Martha dressed like a man, talked like a man, and never put up with anyone’s shitty attitude. Even in the superstitious world of seamen reluctant to allow a woman near their boats, Martha was treated as the one exception the sailors turned a blind eye to.
A crystal-clear memory returned him to a distinct moment in time. One evening, when he was five, Fanny had picked him up and placed him in a small pantry that had a tattered curtain for a door.
She pressed a slender finger to his lips. “Hush now. I’d let you outside to play, but it’s too cold. Don’t leave the space or make a peep for any reason. Do you understand?”
“Why?” he asked innocently.
“A friend is visiting, and he’s not fond of wee ones. If he sees you, he’ll be grumpy and go away. But I have this to give you.” Fanny reached behind her back and offered a perfectly round ball, as golden as a sunset and dotted with pores like a human face. “It’s an orange. You’ll like it. The flavor is sweet and tart. It comes all the way from Lisbon, so be grateful for it.” Using her thumbnail, she scratched the rind until it released a fresh burst of the most joyful scent imaginable into the air.
He leaned closer to sniff his first orange.
“Lovely, yes?” She smiled, revealing a delicate dimple. “Peel it and eat it in sections. It’s all yours to enjoy, but you mustn’t make a sound, my love, or peek from behind the drape so long as my friend is here.”
Nodding in agreement, he settled into the back of the pantry where a cushion and blanket had been set. He curled up in the corner, fussing with the thick skin of the fruit, biting and gouging it with his thumbs. The oil from the rind had a bracing fragrance and made his lips tingle. By the time he got to the juicy center, he was enraptured.
The crunch of heavy boots stomped up to the cottage, and someone knocked. “Are you home, Fanny?” a male voice grumbled through a crack in the door.
Fanny opened the door. “I promised I would be.”
Ignoring his mother’s warning, Rory crept forward and tapped the curtain with his foot just enough to allow him to peer out.
A large man with greasy blond hair and wind-burned cheeks walked inside the cottage, taking heavy, slow steps. The soles of his boots scraped grit across the sanded wood floor.
Rory recognized the man from the quay as a sailor named Jack Gilhooly.
“Where’s that troll of a sister? She’s not going to cause a row because I’m here, is she?” Jack’s gaze darted side to side.
Fanny shrugged. “Martha is crewing on a ship in the North Sea. She’ll be gone for weeks.”
“Weeks? Lucky me.” Jack dug a calloused finger into his mouth. “One of her wallops cost me a molar. I don’t relish another donnybrook with her. Martha’s shoulders are as broad as mine, and she’s got a face that could drive rats from a barn, but at least she earns her way in the world honestly. I’ll credit her that.”
“Watch yourself, Jack!” Fanny became agitated. Her hands fluttered in Jack’s face. “Don’t call me a loosebit.”
“But you are.” He glanced behind a cabinet and appeared to be searching the room. “Where’s the little gypsy bastard?”
“He ain’t no gypsy! Don’t give it a thought. He’s busy.”
Jack sat on the bed and sniffed the air. “It reeks like a fucking Christmas stocking in here. Have you been eating oranges? Don’t be selfish. Where’s my orange? Don’t I deserve a treat? Come here, love.” He pulled Fanny onto his lap and offered a sloppy kiss. “I’m horned up and ready to go.”
Fanny drew away. “Jack, you still owe me a guinea for the last feck. To be fair, I’ll take my two guineas before we start.”
He slapped Fanny’s face and left her cringing. “I’ll pay when I’m ready!” He pushed Fanny down on the bed. “I give you more than money.”
“Like hell you do.” Fanny rubbed her cheek. “Clatty prick!”
Without thought for his own safety, Rory burst from behind the curtain. “Leave my ma alone!” He rushed forward and kicked the man in the shins.
Staring in disgust, Jack’s face purpled. “What’s this? A flea attacking a bear?” He picked Rory up by the back of his shirt and tossed him hard to the floor. “Once the bear is riled, it never ends well for the flea.”
“Stop!” Fanny snatched Rory into her arms and rocked him against her chest. “Forget the guineas, just go.”
“I will!” An ugly snarl twisted Jack’s mouth. “You can starve and go to the devil. You and your little bastard that you stash under the floorboards or wherever it is you hide him from the world.”
“Get out, Jack, or I’ll scream for the constable!” Fanny was already screaming as she chased him out the door and slammed it shut after he left. She slumped against the door and sobbed.
Rory rushed to his mother’s side, hugging her around the legs and drawing her woolen skirt close; its rough texture rasped his cheek. He was sorry to see her cry, but proud he’d helped send the horrid Mr. Gilhooly on his away. “Why did that man call me a gypsy?”
“You’re not a gypsy, Rory.” Her hand smoothed his hair. “Not in the true Travelers sense of the word.” Fanny wiped her nose on her sleeve. “Your father was a proud man, a Spanish sea captain of a mail packet that docked in the quay in the autumn of ’87. He was the handsomest creature I’d ever seen in my life, sparkling dark eyes and hair so black it was indigo. The best things about him were he could sing in two languages, play guitar, and dance like a light-footed devil. All the girls were charmed, but he took a special liking to me. When the winter storms died down and it was time for him to leave, he promised to come back for me but the liar never did. It turns out he didn’t even tell me his proper name. I’d take a wager he already had a wife. Who knows, maybe two....”
* * *
THE SUN ROSE, SKIMMING a golden thread of light over the distant hills of Los Angeles. Even by the faint light of dawn, Rory could see the vast expanse of San Pedro Bay, hosting several separate ports spaced miles apart, but from his perspective, it was one huge consortium that dwarfed the Dublin shipyards of his youth.
The harbor pilot’s tugboat pulled alongside and hailed the Ravager through a bullhorn. “Follow me in. E-dock, slip twenty-three!”
As they drew closer to shore, the air changed, diesel overwhelming the mineral scent of salt. Oil rigs shaped like giant grasshoppers bobbed their heads on the shore, adding the noxious aroma of methane to the muddy decay of a brackish estuary.
Everywhere he looked, there were people. Men worked the docks loading cargo; welders on duty in the shipyards blasted the iron hulls of ships with brilliant showers of blue sparks. Passenger liners pulled away from shore on the rising tide. Rail cars and trollies delivered dockworkers, hundreds at a time. The port of Los Angeles was a hive of humanity coming and going.
He hated that, against his will, his gums ached from holding back fangs that threatened to lengthen. A decent-sized feeding was necessary before bloodlust hijacked what little was left of his self-control.
The Ravagers blasted its horns. With the easy grace that comes from decades of sailing, Captain Tomlinson and the tugboat pilot guided the ship to slip twenty-three, docked, and anchored.
A swarm of longshoremen assembled on the pier, waiting for the signal that they were cleared to off-load cargo.
“Ravenscroft!” Tomlinson stuck his head out of the forecastle. “Get over here.”
He joined the captain at the door but did not cross the threshold. “Yes, sir.”
Tomlinson handed Rory a thick manila envelope. “It’s going to be a busy morning, so I’ll do this now. There’s a year’s wages in here, along with a fifty-pound bonus for going above and beyond. You’ll have to go to a bank and get your money changed to dollars. You know how to add and subtract, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course.” With help from a girl in Dublin, he’d taught himself the basics long ago and added to his education over the decades.
“Glad to hear it.” Tomlinson looked relieved. “It’s best to wait and go to a real bank. Don’t let the moneychangers at the docks fleece you. Even Lucifer would find their rates unfair.” He tapped the envelope. “One more thing. There’s an address written on a card inside. Go see my buddy, Big Bill Boven. Tell him ol’ Tommy says hello, but do me a favor”—he patted his belly—“don’t tell him I got so fat.”
Why was he being asked to do this errand? “You’ll be in port for a few days. Why don’t you go to see Mr. Boven in person?”
“Ah,” Tomlinson sighed. “Big Bill and I respect each other as business associates, but we’re not the sort to sit down for a drink together. That wouldn’t be wise. You see, my first wife was Big Bill’s girl. I stole her from him back when I had charming ways and a full head of hair.”
He sensed this was a half-truth. “And you’re still friends?”
“Not friends, exactly.” The word friends seemed to conjure discomfort in Tomlinson. A fleeting glimpse of something unpleasant crossed his brow. The look came and went so swiftly, most humans would miss it, but he didn’t. “We’re linked by shared associations. We were once brethren of a certain society I cannot name, and I’d be much in your debt if you’d deliver a package to him.”
The favor would certainly help in his quest for housing. After he fed and slaked the ever-persistent blood hunger, the next essential need to be met was a safe place to stay. He longed to have his own private room with a bed that wasn’t constantly rocking, and fall asleep, perhaps for days. “Of course. I’d be happy to do it.”
Tomlinson opened a steel locker, reached inside, and withdrew a large leather suitcase covered in colorful labels. A padlock sealed the clasp shut. “The key is in the envelope. Don’t dawdle around the docks. Take the suitcase straight to Boven, and don’t let it out of your sight until you place it in his hands. Understood?”
He took hold of the handle and picked up the suitcase. It was so light; except for the faint sounds of a shifting object or two, it could have been empty. “Yes, sir.”
Tomlinson brushed his hand against the side of the suitcase. “See these labels? Ignore them. When Bill sees them, he’ll know the case came directly from me. On the rare occasions we cross paths, he usually returns the case to me immediately. This time, he’s free to omit that crucial step. Just ask him to wire it to me.”
Rory was confused. “Wire the case, sir?” How was that possible?
“Bill will know what I mean. You were always a steady hand, Ravenscroft. I wish you were joining us on the Atlantic side.” Tomlinson clamped his broad hand on Rory’s shoulder. “If we don’t meet again, I wish you luck in life.”
Which life, his long-lost human life or his current vampiric existence, and did it matter? Rory nodded. “Thank you, sir.”
The gangplank was lowered. The rest of the crew lined up outside the forecastle, eager to be paid so they too could rush ashore and soothe their needs.
Tomlinson motioned for Rory to leave and resumed handing out marked envelopes to the crew.
Picking up the suitcase, Rory returned to his bunk one last time to retrieve his duffel bag. With the two cumbersome pieces of luggage taking up more space than weight, he bumped his way along a narrow corridor painted and repainted so many times in the same drab shade of gray that the hard edges between bolts and the wall had softened to rounded curves. Ambling down the gangplank, he took long strides along the dock, adjusting to the feel of firm pavement beneath his feet. The sky was clear. A cool breeze blew off shore. Los Angeles and all it had to offer beckoned.
From far behind, someone called his name. He paused and considered ignoring the voice. He could get away with it, too. Most humans would not have heard the faint tones over the sounds of heavy machinery and ship horns. Blood was what he needed, not distractions, yet he turned to see who called to him.
“Where are you off to in such a hurry?” An easygoing young crewman named Hal ran to catch up. Hal was from Blackpool, and his pale ginger eyebrows made his freckled face look naked. “Let’s topple a pint and say a proper farewell!”
A twinge of guilt rose. He’d taken blood from Hal on the long Pacific crossing, and he did owe the young man something. “All right. But it will have to be a quick. I have somewhere to go.” He could almost feel Tomlinson’s disapproving gaze burning a hole in the back of his head as he and Hal walked a few blocks toward a waterfront bar with a painted door that boasted they remained open around the clock, 365 days a year.
Hal swayed on his feet, and he pushed the swinging door open. “I don’t have my land legs yet.”
Drinking at 7:00 a.m. wouldn’t help his balance the least bit. The bar was quiet, but a surprisingly large number of men were already drinking. The likely guess was they were the remnants of the night shift, fresh off the job.
Rory approached a vacant corner table and set the bags down. He motioned for Hal to sit. “Drinks on me. Keep an eye on these, will you?”
“Sure.” Hal nodded. “But why are the drinks on you?”
He shrugged. “Why not?” There was no way he could be honest and say, Hal, I crept into your bunk and drank your blood, and thanks, pal, it kept me going.
Reaching into the envelope, Rory withdrew a bill and showed it to the bartender. “Will you accept a pound?” Digging into his pocket, he withdrew a handful of coins and examined them. Most were from Tomlinson’s pocket. “Or Singapore dollars?”
The bartender frowned. “I’ll take the Sings or your King Georges, but I’ll have to charge you an extra 50 percent.”
“That’s fine.” He didn’t really need the money anyway. Over the past decades, he’d squirreled wealth away in banks in Switzerland, Edinburgh, London, and even New York. Except during the heat of the war, he was always just a telegraph wire away from having his material needs met. “Two ales, please.” He pulled another note from the envelope. “And buy my friend in the corner a few more after I leave.”
“We serve beer in this bar, not ale.” The bartender swiped the coins into his hand. He turned and filled two large pilsner glasses from a keg and then handed the dripping glasses to Rory. “Here you go, buddy. Two beers.” He overenunciated the word.
Rory returned to the table with the overfilled glasses. He handed one to Hal and toasted with the other. “To land.”
Hal shook his head. “Not for long. I’m getting back on board the Ravager and going through Panama.”
Raising his glass, Rory toasted again. “To fair skies and soft thighs.” He held the glass to his lips and drank only the smallest sip. The glass was plunked down with a heavy thud to ensure a good amount sloshed onto the sawdust-covered floor.
“To friends!” Hal toasted Rory with a smile. When he lifted his chin, the artery beneath his ear became visible.
Rory froze. The skin looked warm, flushed, and pulsed with each heartbeat, boom, boom, boom. The quiet rhythm of blood coursing just below the skin became deafening. Boom, boom. For a moment he feared he might explode across the table and snatch Hal by the throat, bite and drink him dry. “Excuse me.”
Setting his beer down, he fled the table. “Back in a flick.” He strode toward the men’s room. Once he was out of Hal’s line of sight, he turned and headed toward a storage room. When he realized it wasn’t an outlet, he ran out the back door into an alleyway.
His hands shook, but the cool morning air sobered his thoughts. No matter how much he needed blood, he refused to harm Hal. The young man had been kind enough to loan him books and make conversation during barren stretches of open ocean. He had to get his rising bloodlust under control. With his hands shaking, he leaned against a wall to collect his wits.
A man’s loud voice attracted his attention.
“Where’s my money? You’re a week late!”
Peering around the corner, Rory saw a tall man with a heavy build shaking another man by the collar. The man being throttled was as slender as a reed and posed no threat to his assailant. He had slumped down the wall and appeared unconscious or dazed, his eyes rolled back in his head. Even at four paces, both men reeked of alcohol.
“What’s going on?” Rory confronted the bully.
The tip of the bully’s nose was brick red and bulbous. “None of your fucking business, limey!”
With vampiric stealth, he moved closer. Now that he was in Los Angeles, he’d have to work on his accent and do his best not to stand out. “I’m not a limey.”
The man snarled, showing chipped teeth. “You sound like one. Step back, you crazy jackass!”
The scent of nervous sweat on the air played on Rory’s hunting instincts, making him salivate. “Let go of that man.”
“Fuck you!” To demonstrate he was the master of the situation, the bully punched the unconscious man in the face and allowed his limp body to fall to the ground. “Oh dear. Look at that. What a shame. The drunken sailor fell down.” He crooked a thick finger. “Come here, limey. It’s your turn. Let me blacken those pretty brown eyes of yours.”
A bustling shipyard in broad daylight where anyone might pass at any moment was not an ideal place to feed, but what the hell, this bastard had it coming. With a menacing hiss, Rory allowed his fangs to descend. The primal predator he worked so hard to restrain rushed to the surface, hungry and defiant, and the man was too busy rolling up his sleeves to notice. Before his victim could blink, he pounced like a tiger and overtook him, thrusting the larger man to the ground with ease.
Rory loomed over the man. “You like making people afraid, don’t you?” His hand grasped the man’s throat and clawed his coat aside. “Be afraid of this.” He unhinged his jaw like a snake, allowing his full dental arsenal to show. With calculated force he struck hard. The man stiffened and arched beneath him, too stunned to struggle in an effective way.
His fangs savagely pierced the skin. The flesh tore and warm blood welled to the surface, redolent with notes of whisky. There was no doubt this man was intoxicated, and if he wasn’t careful and drank too much, he would be too. But after so many bleak months of meager feedings, it proved impossible to restrain himself. He drank greedy gulps, taking more in a few swallows than he’d taken during the entirety of the Pacific crossing. As his hunger waned, his hands warmed and his heartbeat sped enough that he was aware of it. Drinking blood was instant bliss, fulfillment—life for the taking.
The smell of whisky on a man’s breath was an emotionally loaded one. His thoughts drifted back to his mother, long ago...
Fanny slumped against the door, sobbing.
With all his might, he hugged her tight, but it didn’t seem to help.
“Jack’s turned his back on me.” She choked on the words. “What do we do, my love? We can’t hold out until Martha comes home.”
Rory buried his face against her skirt; his hands were still sticky from peeling the orange. “Did I do wrong?”
Her tone was sharp. “I told you to stay in the pantry! If you’d listened, everything would have been fine.”
He wasn’t convinced of that.
She led him over to the bed and pulled the covers aside. “Climb in. I’ll put a little more coal in the stove. At least Martha left us plenty of that. She looks after us.”
“I’ll look after you,” he blurted. “When I’m grown.”
Fanny stopped fussing with the blankets long enough to take a good look at him and brush a gentle hand through his hair. “My beautiful little man. I do love you. I just wish things were better.” She lay down beside him and held him close.
Whenever he had his mother’s full attention and affection as he did at that moment, it was heaven on earth. He allowed himself to bask in it and doze. With fresh coal on the fire, the room warmed quickly but the peace was broken by a knock on the door.
“Who’s there?” Fanny snapped.
“Jack.” He sounded humbled. “Let me in. I’ve something for you and the lad.”
“We were asleep. We don’t want nothin’ to do wit’ ye!”
“Fanny. I’ve come to say I’m sorry. Open the door, sweetheart.”
Fanny roused from the bed and drew the latch, opening the door a crack and allowing cold air to float inside along with the scent of whisky breath. “What do you want?”
Jack handed Fanny a burlap sack. “For you and the young one. It’s bread, cheese, and a flask of whisky. I promise I’ll give you the two guineas as soon as I get paid.”
Fanny accepted the sack. “So, you do care about me?”
“I-I do, love.” He slurred his words. “But you shouldn’t raise my ire.”
“Is your foul temper my doing?”
Jack leaned inside the cottage and kissed Fanny’s cheek. The scent of whisky came with him. “Put the boy abed, meet me at the pub, and I’ll show you I can be sweet as honey.”
“All right.” She glanced at Rory snuggled in the blankets. “But give me a little time to get him to sleep.”
* * *
THE MAN RORY DRANK blood from groaned and made a weak attempt to free himself.
He’d gotten lost in the act. Good God. That had not happened in years. Rory pulled away and wiped his mouth on his dark sleeve. Did he stop in time? Had he taken too much? For a horrible moment he feared he’d gone too far and killed the man. He checked the man’s pulse. It was slow but steady. He would recover, but he’d likely wake with a hellacious headache.
Fishing a handkerchief from his pocket, he held it to the man’s throat. Thankfully, his saliva had a numbing quality, and once he was done feeding, wounds closed quickly. He’d been rough. This man had more than the usual discreet puncture marks. Severe bruises were sure to develop.
When he was certain the flow of blood had stopped, Rory stepped over both prone men and hurried back into the bar, unnoticed by anyone nearby. Revived, his stride was quick.
Hal greeted him with a wide wave of his arm. “Hey, you!”
Both glasses of beer he’d purchased were empty. Damn. He’d been hoping to take a sip and rinse any residual blood from his teeth.
“Rory!” Hal motioned for him to sit. “Where have you been? Your hair looks like someone whipped it with an eggbeater.”
A young woman in a navy-and-white polka-dot dress perched on Hal’s lap with her dainty foot resting on his suitcase. Damn, he’d forgotten about the luggage Tomlinson had entrusted to him.
“Hello, handsome.” The woman reached high to graze her fingers through Rory’s hair. “I like wild men.”
He smoothed his hair with his hands, hoping there was no visible blood on them. Thank God the bar was dimly lit.
A big grin filled Hal face. “Rory, meet Betty. Betty had a small roll in a Betty Grable movie. Can you believe it? We’ve been in America for half an hour and we’ve already met a movie star!”
Shaking her head, the woman was quick to deny it. “You’re not listening, sugar. My name’s Joan, and I tried out for a dancing part in a Betty Grable movie. I didn’t get it. So I’m not a star. Not yet.”
Hal turned toward the bartender. “Let’s get lovely Joan another beer. Can we have three more beers over here!”
“Two.” Rory grabbed his duffel bag and nudged Joan’s foot off the suitcase and claimed it. “I’ve gotta go.”
“What?” Hal squinted in disbelief. “You’re leaving? We just got here. Betty, errr, I mean Joan’s friend is on her way over.” He looked at Joan. “Your friend’s not named Betty, is she?”
Joan shook her head. “You’re not listening, love.”
Rory didn’t care if he appeared rude. He had to get out of there before the angry man in the alleyway roused himself from the pavement and starting babbling a strange tale about fangs and blood drinking. He’d do himself no favors by remaining close enough to have an accusing finger pointed in his face. It was best to leave and let the world think the man was mad or it was the whisky talking.
“Goodbye, Hal! Have a good life.” With the duffel bag slung over his shoulder and the suitcase gripped in his hand, he strode out the front door.
The moment he left the bar and stepped into the relatively fresh air of the docks, he felt better. The blood feed had been a tremendous help. After such a long drought, he was far from satisfied, but it took the desperate edge off his cravings.
He walked beside a steel track. A red trolley came his way with a sign on it that read “Los Angeles Railway: Wilshire Boulevard.”
When the trolley slowed to allow passengers off, he stepped aboard.
A conductor immediately confronted him. “Show me your weekly pass.”
He considered putting the man under a thrall, but thought better of it. “I don’t have one.”
“They cost a dollar.”
Rory opened the manila envelope. He had to get his money changed. He offered a pound note.
“I said a dollar.” The conductor rolled his eyes. “You boys fought hard, but the king’s money don’t mean much around here. I’ll tell you what, there’s a bank on Wilshire Boulevard where you can get it exchanged. My mother was born in Essex, so I’ll let it go this time.”
Blending in might be harder than he’d thought. “I’m not English. I’m Irish. Can you really not hear the difference?”
“Whatever. Where are you headed?”
He pulled the card Tomlinson had given him from the envelope and read the address: Fairbanks Hotel, 7001 Hollywood Boulevard. “I’m going to Hollywood.”
“Of course you are.” An amused grin curled the conductor’s lips. “Who am I to stomp on your dreams?”
“It’s not a metaphor. I have someone I’m going to meet at an address in Hollywood.”
“Oh.” The conductor looked away and seemed disinterested in further conversation.
The trolley wound its way through the shipyard, turned, and headed inland. Los Angeles shimmered in the distance. He’d just arrived and already felt badly out of place.