You knew your life had hit a new low when your sixty-year-old inebriated next-door neighbor offered you a ‘quickie’ behind the bar of the Witch’s Watering Hole. I was still thinking up a diplomatic response when he plunked down a glass jar of cloudy alcohol to sweeten the deal. “What do you say, Leda?” he slurred, smacking his lips. His breath smelled like acetone. That you’re three times my age. I reminded myself that he was drunk—and that it wasn’t nice to throw your drink in your neighbor’s face. He wasn’t the only one. The Witch’s Watering Hole was packed tonight, an inevitable consequence of payday and Friday night colliding. Everyone in the bar was drunk— everyone, that was, except for me. I had work to do and no time for moonshine. “Dale,” I said, smiling. Yes, he was drunk, but that was no reason to forget my manners. “I’m flattered. Really I am, but I think Cindy would be very disappointed if I took you up on your offer.” I gave the busty redhead across the room a little wave.
Dale followed my gaze to Cindy. As soon as his eyes fell upon her, her full lips spread into a sultry smile and she shifted in her seat, crossing one very long leg over the other with leisurely ease. Her miniskirt slid a few inches up her thigh, which sealed the deal for Dale. He stumbled off his barstool and staggered toward her, puffing out his chest like a peacock. I slid the jar of abandoned moonshine to a safe distance, then took a sip of my pineapple juice to cleanse my senses. Despite his questionable taste in alcohol—which, to be fair, half the town was also drinking—Dale wasn’t actually a bad guy. He was usually very quiet and friendly. He’d probably regret his lewd words in the morning. Assuming he even remembered them. The shiny red jukebox in the corner blared to life, singing out a humorous song about a witch who’d fallen for a vampire.
The jukebox was a recent import from New York City, and Brooke, the owner of the Witch’s Watering Hole, was quite proud of it. As well she should be. This bar was the only one in town that had a jukebox. Out here on the Frontier, at the dividing line between civilization and the monsterinfested Wasteland, we didn’t have a lot of amenities. It was no wonder that the survivors of the Scourge had renamed this town Purgatory. Besides the jukebox, the rest of the Witch’s Watering Hole looked like the quintessential old western saloon, which was probably the era the furnishings had come out of. Handmade wood tables and chairs, rundown but clean, sat at the edges of the room, leaving a small dancing area beside the jukebox. Overhead, an old fan turned slowly, stirring the thick summer air. Most things here were powered by good old water or mundane steam, and the fan was no exception. The jukebox, however, was of a whole other class.
Its power source was enchanted steam—or Magitech—an energy the gods had gifted humanity two centuries ago. Well, at least if you happened to be lucky enough to live in one of the world’s high-tech cities. For everyone else, the enchanted energy was difficult—if not impossible—to get. And it was always egregiously expensive. “You look nice tonight, Leda.” I turned around to face my next admirer. That was the sixth guy so far tonight. Maybe the crop top and hot pants hadn’t been the best wardrobe idea after all. But I had to attract my mark’s attention somehow. If only he’d gotten here an hour ago like Calli’s intelligence had said he would, then I’d be long gone by now.
Admirer #6 turned out to be Jak, the shy nerdy kid who’d had a crush on me since third grade—and yet had never spoken more than three words to me. Until tonight. Tonight, the words were gushing out. “So, do you want…um, what I mean is…only if you’d like to…” His hand held to the jar of moonshine for dear life. So that’s where his sudden burst of courage had come from. He’d swiped Dale’s glass from the counter. Finder’s Keepers was the motto out here, and most people just accepted it. Besides, Dale was too busy making out with his new friend to notice his missing moonshine. “…I was thinking it might be nice to…you know, seeing how long we’ve known each other…” “Spit it out, Jak,” I said, checking the impatience in my voice. It wasn’t his fault that my mark was late or that five other men had hit on me before he’d wandered over.
“Dance with me?” he blurted out. He was squeezing the jar’s handle so hard that all color had drained from his hand. “Take a hike, junior,” someone said behind Jak, causing him to jump. Jak took one look at the cold gleam in the man’s dark eyes, then ran off. The new arrival gave the moonshine a disgusted look, then ordered a whiskey. “I’m Mark,” the man said, extending his hand. He smelled strongly of cologne and peppermint. He was as out of place in this bar as the shiny red jukebox in the corner. The bar’s other patrons wore faded cotton and denim. They had smudged faces and dirt under their fingernails.
Mark looked like he’d stepped off a fashion runway. He wore a black silk shirt, half of the buttons undone to expose his muscular chest. Boots with a slight heel over form-fitting black leather pants completed his ensemble. His hair was combed back and styled with gel. Platinum blond, it was nearly as pale as my own. Except his hair was dyed, clearly an expensive color job from a high-end city salon. “Leda,” I replied, smiling demurely at my mark. I’d have been able to peg him even without having seen the photograph on his wanted poster. He stood out like a sore thumb. And the irony of my mark’s name being Mark was hard to ignore.
“Leda,” he said, as though he were savoring every letter of my name. “Such a beautiful name.” He looked over his glass, returning the smile. “For such a beautiful woman.” Smooth. Real smooth. He spoke with an easy grace, as though he didn’t have a care in the world. As though he weren’t on the run from the law. “You’re not from around here,” I said, trailing my gaze down the length of him as though I were checking him out. He wasn’t wearing any weapons that I could see.
“I’m from the city. New York,” he added with a conspiring wink. “Oh,” I gasped. “I’ve always wanted to go there.” I fluttered my long eyelashes at him. He took the bait. “Maybe I’ll take you sometime,” he said, wrapping his arm around me. I moved in closer, reaching around him to run my hands down his back. No weapons. I moved down to his legs.
Nothing. Either he was very good at concealing them, or he was an idiot. I was leaning toward idiot. After all, he had given me his real name. He seemed to think he was safe out here on the border of civilization. “Would you really take me?” I asked. “Of course, honey.” Liar. He was on the run from the New York authorities, charged with kidnapping and theft of Legion property. The only way he’d be going back to the city was in handcuffs.
Preferably mine. “You smell so good,” he muttered into my ear. “Has anyone ever told you that?” Only every other guy who wanted into my pants. I kissed his smooth jaw, then pulled back to hit him with my best sultry look. Despite hours of practice in front of the mirror, I still didn’t have the best bedroom eyes, but Mark didn’t seem to care. He leered at me as I stirred my pineapple juice with one hand. The other hand was busy discreetly dipping into my purse for the handcuffs… “Hello, Leda!” a voice belted from across the bar. I knew that voice all too well. I glared at the bounty hunter coming my way. He wore a black-and-red leather motorcycle suit that was a hundred times cooler than he was.
Jinx. That’s what he called himself, and I didn’t know his real name. Only that he was a scavenger. A damn hyena. “Hey, sweetie pie.” Jinx stopped in front of me, grinning. “Do you know this fellow?” Mark asked. “Unfortunately,” I growled. “Leda and I go way back,” Jinx said. “We met during the Sunset job.
” Shut up. I tried mentally sending him that message on all frequencies, but I’m not a telepath, so my message fell on deaf ears. “Or was it the Blacktown affair? I can’t for the life of me remember which.” He laughed. “We’ve done so many jobs together.” No, you’ve stolen many jobs from me, you thieving son of a bitch. “What kind of business are you two in?” Mark asked. “Bounty hunting,” Jinx replied pleasantly. “Speaking of which, Leda, did you ever catch that guy out of New York?” Stools tumbled, scraping against the floor as Mark bolted for the door, running out of the bar like his tail was on fire. I glared at Jinx, but there was no time to tell him off—and I wasn’t strong enough to best him in hand-to-hand combat.
But I was fast. I had him handcuffed to the bar before he could move, then I dashed out after my mark, Jinx’s stream of enraged curses bouncing off my heels. Now out on the open street, I pumped my legs as fast as I could. My boots barely touched the gravelly ground. I had to get to Mark before he escaped—or worse yet, Jinx got him. The cuffs wouldn’t hold the other bounty hunter for long. “Leda, our mark just turned down Third Street. I’m in pursuit,” my brother Zane said over the comms. The tiny Magitech-powered device hidden inside my earring had cost us a small fortune, but it was worth every penny. It made teamwork like this possible.
“Keep your eyes peeled for Jinx,” I told him. I was not letting that scavenger muscle in on our gig—not this time. We couldn’t afford to lose this paycheck. We’d already spent the money to pay our sister Bella’s first tuition bill to the New York University of Witchcraft. “Shit.” “Zane?” I asked. “Mark is headed for the wall.” If he made it over the wall, we’d lose any chance at that bounty. I ignored the raging hellfire burning inside my muscles and pushed my protesting body to move faster as I sprinted around the corner onto Third Street. Now, I was a fast runner.
It was an essential skill for someone always chasing people. I practiced hard and long every day, and as a result, I could outrun almost anyone. But not Mark. He moved fast, especially for someone wearing unbroken leather pants. The wall stood tall and imposing at the end of the street. Beyond it lay the Wasteland, where monsters roamed freely, uncontrolled, unchecked, unstoppable. That wall was all that stood between this town and an all-out slaughter—that wall and the paranormal soldiers who stood guard atop it. The soldiers watched Mark run toward the wall, and they didn’t even lift their rifles. Their job was to keep the monsters out. If someone wanted to run off into the Wasteland, they wouldn’t lift a finger to stop him, criminal or not.
They knew the monsters would get him anyway, and they got paid either way. We, on the other hand, only got paid if we brought Mark in alive. Which wouldn’t happen if he ran off into the Wasteland. Maybe we could get him before the monsters did, but I wasn’t about to risk our lives out there. I might be crazy, but I’m not that crazy. Not like some other bounty hunters. Mark jumped into the air, hitting the wall. He was going to climb it. The wall was over thirty feet tall, and he thought he could tackle it with just his bare hands. Maybe he was right.
He was making surprisingly fast progress. Too fast. We’d never be able to overtake him. I was still too far away. So I pulled out my gun and shot him in the leg. Mark howled, his cry piercing the crickets’ evening song. When he didn’t let go of the wall, I shot him again—this time in the hand. His grip slipped, and he slid down the stony surface. As soon as his feet hit the ground, he spun around to glare at Zane, his eyes pulsing with a distinctive silver-blue sheen. “A vampire,” Zane gasped inside my earpiece.
Well, that explained his speed. “His file said he was human,” I said, running toward them. “Guess it was wrong.” Fantastic. Mark darted forward, backhanding Zane across the street. My brother hit the ground hard. I lifted my gun to shoot the vampire again, but he was in front of me in an instant. Growling, he knocked the weapon from my hand, then slammed me against the wall. I kicked and pushed against his iron grip, but he didn’t give an inch. This was why I didn’t fight people up close, especially not vampires.
Thanks to my mystery supernatural blood—no one seemed to know what kind of supernatural I was supposed to be—I’m stronger and more resilient than a human. Otherwise, I’d have already been dead. But I was not stronger than a vampire. That was undeniably obvious as Mark’s hand closed around my throat, his tightening grip slowly choking the air out of my lungs. Then he just let go. His body fell away, revealing Zane standing behind him with a taser. The vampire snarled and smacked him to the ground. Still coughing out bruised breaths, I pivoted around, looking for something—anything —that could help me against a vampire. I came up short. Paranormal soldiers had potions and guns with magic bullets to help them fight the supernatural baddies.
My options were more limited. I grabbed a steel rod off the wall, bracing my legs to free it. As the vampire turned away from Zane to face me, I swung the rod at his head. The force of the impact knocked him to the ground. He jumped up, enraged, but I was already moving, running toward my gun. I snatched it off the ground and unloaded everything I had into him. If I’d known that I’d be facing a vampire tonight, I would have brought along something more potent than these weak tranquilizers. I wasn’t even sure they did anything to vampires—well, except annoy them. The bullets did slow him down, but not enough. He rushed toward me, murder shining in his eyes.
I avoided the first punch—but not the second. I was too slow. As I turned, his fist grazed my ribs, brushing them. If I’d been a fraction of a second slower, his blow would have broken them. His next punch took me hard in the head. My head spinning, my vision clouded, I tripped to the ground. I scrambled to my feet, but his hand closed around my leg, holding me down. Scratching furiously at the ground, I scooped up two handfuls of dry dirt and hurled them into those inhuman silver-blue eyes. His hands flew to his face, trying to rub the dust away. I jumped up, ignoring the fresh surge of pain in my side.
There would be time to be wounded later—when an enraged vampire wasn’t trying to kill me. I snatched an old sweater from a nearby clothes line, wrapping it around the biggest rock I could find. Then I swung it at the vampire’s head. He roared, falling back. But before I could hit him again, he jumped up, pushing me and my rock to the ground. He kicked a fresh helping of pain into my side. Then he stared down at me, wiping the blood from his mouth. “You shouldn’t have come after me,” he said, lifting his boot over my head. Pain and shock twisted together inside of my stomach. I grabbed his leg, trying to shove his boot off my face.
“It’s a shame really,” he said, his boot pushing harder, overpowering my feeble attempts to free myself. “You’re such a pretty girl. I hate to stomp your skull in.” He smiled wistfully. “But I really must.” I pushed and kicked and punched with every shred of strength in me. And it didn’t make a damn difference. He angled his foot for a killing blow. And then he just stopped. Zane came up behind him, chanting under his breath.
The vampire staggered back, holding his head, roaring in agony. “Stop,” Mark growled, his voice cracking. He dropped to his knees. But Zane didn’t stop. He continued his telepathic assault. The vampire roared and raged, his wild movements knocking Zane over. Fury flooded me, displacing pain, filling me with strength. I leapt to my feet and tore an old shutter off of a nearby building. Adrenaline soaring, I swung it at the vampire, hammering it straight through his abdomen. Shock sparked in his eyes, then he passed out.
I limped over to Zane, my crashing adrenaline letting the pain back in. “Are you all right?” I asked as I helped my brother to his feet. “Fine.” He looked from the vampire to me. “What the hell was that, Leda?” “I got mad.” His eyes widened. “I can see that.” “Ok, enough fun,” I said. “Let’s get this vampire tied up and brought in before he decides to wake up.”