“You’re awfully prepared,” I say.
“Some guys from La Eme used to try this shit all the time. No idea what they were fucking with, but they caught us with our pants down once. That’s never happening again.”
An emaciated woman peers in through the door. Stringy brown hair, jeans and a purple tank top. Wide eyes, sallow skin, sores at the corners of her mouth. Arms are pockmarked with needle tracks. I think junkie and then I smell the blood on her. Vampires don’t drink the stuff, but you can smell it on them, anyway.
“Jean, get everybody up. We’ve got a fight coming.”
“How long?” she says, hunger greedy in her eyes.
“Not long enough for a hit,” Gabriela says. “I’m sorry.” The woman’s face falls. “Hey, you knew what you were signing up for. You want a place to stay you fucking well fight for it.”
Gabriela’s tone is a sharp slap. A touch of brutal honesty, but not without compassion. I can see how she’s managed to carve this niche out for herself. And how she’s managed to keep it. Jean nods and disappears down the hall, banging on doors.
“One of your ‘hidden homeless’?”
Gabriela nods. “Sort of the unofficial spokesperson for the rest. She used to be somebody, I guess.” She heads to the door. I draw the Browning from the holster at the small of my back, start to follow her out to the hallway. She freezes halfway through the door.
“Fire escape,” she yells. I don’t even bother looking, just turn and pop off a couple of rounds. Glass shatters, I hear a scream and clanging of metal as whoever I hit rolls down the stairs.
We dive low out of the room. I take up position at the doorjamb, ready to shoot. She ducks behind me. Return fire punches through the plaster walls over our heads. She’s got her eyes closed tight, deep in concentration. A moment later they pop open and she swears.
“You all right?”
“I’ve got wards on every door, window and fire escape for this building. If someone comes near I know it. And they just walked right through them like they didn’t exist,” she says. “None of my alarms tripped.”
More bullets blast through the open doorway. We’re going to have to get past it to get to the stairs or the elevator at the end of the hall. Some of Gabriela’s emaciated vampires stand at the end of the hallway, unsure what to do. I don’t blame them. I’m not entirely sure what to do, either.
“Kettleman,” I say. “The guy the Russian skinned the other night was Harvey Kettleman.” Every spell has a counterspell and a mage like Kettleman would know his shit well enough to take her wards down. So even if the Russian didn’t know how to deal with Gabriela’s magic before he sure as hell does now.
“Would have been good to know that before,” she says.
“Would it have helped?”
“No, but this gives me something to bitch about besides my own arrogance.”
There’s a sound of breaking glass from inside the office as someone brushes what’s left of it out of the window frame. Shoes crunch as the invaders start to step through.
I shove the Browning through the open door and fire blind. Screams. Bodies hit the floor. I pull my hand back in time to avoid the return volley.
“Any idea if they’ve come up through other rooms?” I ask.
“Not if they can just waltz through my fucking alarms,” she says. “Goddammit. This is going to take me weeks to clean up.” She digs into the pocket of her jeans, pulls out a red glass marble.
“Might want to cover your ears.” She reaches past me, flicks the marble through the open door with her thumb, turns away with her eyes closed, slams her hands over her ears.
I do the same as well as I can. I’ve got a gun in my hand and I’m sure as hell not going to drop it. A second later there’s a quiet pop and I think, well, that’s not so bad.
And then the whole office explodes. Glass and wood, bits of paper and insulation, chunks of bone, muscle, skin all blast through the open doorway, pepper the opposite wall. There’s no flame, no heat. Just an immense pressure that pulps everything in the office, blowing out the windows. I start to move and she grabs my hand, hard, yanking me backward.
Good thing, too. The show’s not over. The air, full of plaster dust and vaporized blood, pulls back into the office with a sound like a jet engine. Debris sucks back in, pulls the oxygen from the hallway. I can feel the pressure tugging at my clothes, my lungs straining.
An earsplitting shriek, a flash of bright blue and the walls of the office bow in. And then silence. Except for the high pitched ringing in my ears.
“Is it over?” I yell. I can barely hear my own voice. I haven’t been this deaf since I saw a Danzig show in the nineties.
“Yes,” she yells back.
“Tell me my hearing’s coming back.”
She pulls pieces of some kind of woody root from her pocket, hands one to me, pops the other in her mouth. “Chew this. You’ll be fine.”
It is the nastiest shit I have ever tasted, but I chew it anyway. A few seconds later, my hearing goes back to normal. Some of the pain in my side subsides, too. I’ll have to get more of this stuff.
I poke my head through the doorway. The windows are gone. Torn-out holes edged with exposed brick. Carpet stripped from the floor, walls scoured bare. All the furniture is gone. There isn’t even a speck of blood.
“You got any more of those?” I ask.
“A couple.” She grins. “Want one?”
She digs another marble out of her pocket, drops it in my hand. “It’ll fill the space of whatever you set it off in. A room, a suitcase, doesn’t matter.” She waves her hand over it and it flashes blue. “It’s attuned to you now. Think hard about setting it off and it’ll go off. Don’t use it in my hotel.”
“Deal. And thanks.”
Jean and the other vamps run up to us from the end of the hall, pausing at the doorway and gaping in awe at the negative devastation. There’s just nothing left in the room.
“I called some of the others,” Jean says. “They should already be down—” She’s interrupted by screams and gunfire coming from the lobby. Gabriela bolts for the stairs and the rest of us follow. Two mages, five vampires and whatever she’s got downstairs.
The stairs allow for two of us to head down side-by-side. We pause at the second floor landing and duck. A cacophony of gunfire, yelling, screams. I pop my head up and look over the side of the railing.
It’s the weirdest bar brawl I’ve ever seen. Thugs with close-cropped hair, tight leather jackets, button-down shirts going toe-to-toe with a crowd of pissed-off tweakers. The guns aren’t as big an advantage against the vampires as these guys seem to think. Sure, a bullet will slow them down, but it won’t kill them. It’ll do a bang-up job of pissing them off, though.
I see one of them put a couple rounds into a vamp’s chest, thick black ooze spreading into his shirt where the bullets punched through. It doesn’t even slow him down. He gets the guy into a bear hug, his spindly arms wrapping around him like a spider. But the gangster’s gun is between them and he unloads the rest of it into the vamp, dropping him.
Similar scenes are playing out all throughout the lobby. There’s at least thirty people down there. A lot of the gangsters are cluing into the fact that putting holes in vampires is a fool’s errand, dropping their guns and opting for collapsible batons, instead.
“How is it?” Gabriela says as I duck back.
“Messy,” I say. A stray bullet ricochets up through the gap between the stairs and gouges a hole in the wall. “You sure you want to get into that?”
She hefts the machete in her hand. “Nobody comes into my home and shits on my carpet.”
She digs into her pocket, pulls out a scrap of paper, wads it into a tight ball, then tosses it over the side of the railing. There’s the tiniest of flashes. The gunfire stops. I can hear the click of hammers and triggers, but no rounds fired.
“Did that just turn this into dead weight?” I say, showing her the Browning.
She winces. “Sorry. It’ll work again once you get out of the hotel.” Great. Using the gun in that mess probably wouldn’t be a great move, anyway, and using the pocket watch would be the mother of bad ideas. I pull my straight razor out of my coat pocket, flick it open. I’m going to have to sterilize this thing before I use it on myself again. It’s a wonder I don’t have Hep C.
Gabriela hefts the machete in her hand, bolts down the stairs. Lets loose a warrior princess shriek like a tiny, pissed off Xena. She’s five feet of screaming fury swinging a machete. I don’t know if that’s badass or suicidal.
All right, then. Let’s do this.
We’re outnumbered. Three to one, at least. Floor littered with bodies. Mostly Gabriela’s men, a few the Russian’s. A couple of the vampires are on the floor, slowly leaking out black, oozing blood, massive bullet holes through their skulls, or their chests. That’ll slow them down a day or two.
I get to the bottom of the stairs and see two guys on Jean, hitting her with batons. She’s not a great fighter, but what she doesn’t have in skill she makes up for in not going down. It’s not entirely clear she can feel the blows.
I hit the closest from behind. Pull his neck back. Slice the razor deep through his throat. I knee him in the back as his eyes bug out. He stumbles, falls into his buddy. Jean grabs the opportunity, gives a vicious uppercut with an open hand, fingers splayed. Her nails are like spikes, punching up though his jaw. She pulls back, wiry muscles straining. Crack, twist, pull. The man’s head comes off his shoulders and she flings it aside like it’s a rotten fruit.
Every time I see a vampire fight I wonder how they haven’t managed to take over, and then I remember that they have notoriously bad judgment. Sure, they’re frighteningly strong, but they’ve got the addict’s mindset, a mess of neuroses. Driven by their addictions, they’re barely functional. Thank god for small favors.
I turn to see Gabriela going mano-a-mano with some mobster with a Bowie knife. Another coming up behind her. There are too many people fighting between me and her and a straight razor’s not exactly a throwing weapon.
There are a lot of corpses, and plenty of them are leaving ghosts, so I’ll have to make this fast. I break into a run toward her, three guys stepping into my path. Before I get to them I flip over to the dead side and pass right through them.
The new ghosts, some of the Russian’s men, some of Gabriela’s normals, see me immediately. Confused, frightened, too new to know what the hell is going on, they act on whatever passes for instinct in the newly dead and come right at me.
I sidestep one as it takes a swipe at me, get up between Gabriela and the guy coming up behind her and pop back into the real world. I sweep the razor in an S pattern, catch him across the eyes, widen his mouth and finish him off with a deep cut through his throat.
The distraction of my appearance surprises the guy with the Bowie knife and he misses Gabriela’s machete swing. Whatever she’s magicked that blade with is pretty fucking impressive. It cleaves clean through his arm. She brings the machete back around and chops through his leg, dropping him to the floor. She could finish him off, but instead she nods at me as she moves onto the next guy, leaving him to bleed out.
I immediately get into it with another of the Russian’s men, stepping in close to keep his baton from caving my skull in. I take a hit on my already bruised side, the magic in my tattoos flaring to spread out the impact. I catch him on the inside of the wrist with the razor as he brings his baton in for a second hit, but he doesn’t drop it.
That’s okay. I didn’t really expect him to. The important thing is that he’s bleeding. I shove my way closer, grab him in a bear hug that takes him to the floor and pop both of us over to the dead side.
The ghosts are on us in a flash. The blood from the razor cut is like chumming the water for sharks. One of them swipes at me, catching me along the back with a hand that bites like ice on fire before I can roll off the mobster and pop back into the real world. I leave him behind for his dead friends to snack on.
I’ve been hit by ghosts before. It’s not fun and my body’s not reacting to it well. My back seizes up momentarily, the wound a cauterized furrow in my flesh. It takes me too long to get up.
“Stay down,” Gabriela yells. I look up to see a guy with a hatchet coming at me. She’s a good twenty feet away but she throws the machete overhand, anyway. It sails end over end through the air and bites a good three inches into his skull. She gestures for it, and the blade pops out of his head like a cork to fly back into her hand. She has the coolest toys.
I pull myself up from the floor, take a look around. Now that things have gone hand-to-hand, the tide’s starting to turn. Gabriela runs through the fight like a mad dervish. Taking advantage of her height, ducking in low to hack through kneecaps. Once a man’s on the ground it’s pretty much over.
And then I see them. The Russian wearing Kettleman’s old man skin suit and the crazy chick from the train walk through the front door. Up close and in the light I still can’t tell it’s not him. If anything he looks more like Kettleman than he did on the roof of the observatory. Whatever magic is in that obsidian blade has got to be pretty fucking powerful.
The woman, though, she’s not looking so hot. Bruised, beat to hell. There’s a large, red welt down one side of her face less than an inch from her eye. She has a bandage wrapped around her left hand. I can see blood seeping through it. There are bite marks on her neck. Those dead train passengers really did a number on her. I wonder how she got away.
She sees me from across the room, tugs on the Russian’s sleeve and points. He sees me, sees the way the fight is going. I feel him pull power from the local pool. A lot of it. Gabriela pops her head up, blood spattered across her face, matted in her hair. She feels it too.
I’m moving too slow and I’m running low on power. Even if I wanted to cut across the room on the dead side—suicidal at this point, there are more dead in this room than living—I don’t have enough juice to do it. I consider just wildly throwing shit in his direction, but before I can do anything he touches the floor with his hand and a wave of power blows out in a ring around him. I’ve done enough summoning to know he’s just called in the cavalry. A flare goes off near the staircase, one by the front desk. I feel displaced air behind me, spin around.