Excerpt: The Book of Thoth
Sharkey’s was a dive’s dive in Jersey City. The beer was so-so, and the music was about the same. The bikers — Cain’s Kids — who called it home loved it. Everyone else pretty much passed it by.
But not tonight.
When it all went down, the bar was empty of everyone except the die-hard drinkers, a bartender and a bouncer.
At the bar, Joker and Dirty Dan were busy loudly arguing about the relative merits of the Giants and the Jets. Three-Eyes was fiddling with the jukebox and Viking was just coming back from the pisser. Grubb was polishing the bar, hoping the bikers would get lost so he could close up, and Rocco was trying to stay awake by the front door.
And then she walked in. Blonde and beautiful, and the outfit didn’t hurt either — a tight white t-shirt, a leather microskirt, thigh-high boots and a big nose-ring for (real or posed) big attitude.
Every eye in the place was on her in zero seconds flat, and stayed on her as she sauntered up to the bar.
“Hey lady,” Grubb said. “What’ll it be?”
Alice’s pale blue eyes flicked up to the neon signs overhead and then back down at the chubby bartender. “Beer.”
“Picky, huh?” he asked with a strained smile. It had been a long night. “Beer it is.”
Dirty Dan eased himself off one stool, wandered over and leaned against the bar next to Alice.
“Evening, gorgeous. How ya doin’?”
She looked over at him with a half-smile. “Been better, been worse.”
“That’s Zen. I like it.” He looked her up and down. God damn, T&A all the way… “Name’s Dan. Dirty Dan.”
“Oh yeah. I got a dirty mind.” He leaned in a little bit and leered. Five (six? seven?) beers made him bold, and this being his home turf and her being flirty (he thought) and dressed for fun made him bolder.
“All right. Tell me, Dirty Dan, what do you think’s going to happen?”
“Well.” Dirty Dan showed his yellowing teeth in a huge grin. “Yer gonna hop on the back of my ride and then…” He waggled his brows at her. “Ride of yer life, gorgeous.”
Alice’s smile was a cool one. “That’s not actually what’s going to happen.”
“Oh yeah? What’s gonna to happen?”
“What’s going to happen is I’m going to open this bottle here,” and she did, “and let it pour onto the floor, and before it stops, I’m going to kill every one of you.”
The bikers, who had all drifted in close to see how Dirty Dan did, stared at her. One of them almost laughed, a wild nervous sort of laugh, but he held it back so it became a sort of muffled gasp instead.
Alice set the bottle down and as it began to pour down onto the floor, she moved.
Dirty Dan’s jaw dropped. She smashed her fingers into his gaping mouth, popping a dozen teeth loose.
Dirty Dan gagged as he swallowed two teeth and then went “ghk“ as Alice jabbed him again, this time in the Adam’s apple. Choking, he fell and died in a matter of seconds.
Joker yelled and took a wild swing at Alice’s head from behind. She let the blow connect and grinned at the man’s yelp of pain.
Joker swung again. This time, Alice caught his fist in her hand. She squeezed, shattering half the bones in his hand, and then finished him with a quick crushing jab to the throat.
Three-Eyes flicked out a switch blade and stabbed at Alice. The blade slipped between her ribs… and stayed there.
“What — how — what —” were Three-Eyes’ last words on this Earth. Alice grabbed his jaw in one hand and his shoulder in the other, and with a quick jerk, snapped his neck.
“Crazy ass bitch!” Viking yelled. He waved around a big black pistol. Alice did a backwards kick that collapsed his ribs inward and punctured his heart. The gun went off just once as Viking fell back.
Grubb was just coming back up from under the bar with a shotgun when Alice brought her fist down on the top of his skull.
Rocco dove at Alice like she was an escaping running back. She stopped all 250 lbs of him with one neck-shattering kick.
The beer stopped pouring out of the bottle. Alice flicked a finger and the bottle jumped back up, swayed crazily and then settled into a standing position.
She turned and looked back at the door, where another vampire — a huge hulking gorilla of a man — leaned and sneered. “You in trouble now, bitch,” he declared in a thick Russian accent.
Alice stared at him. “Am I now?”
“You are. The Count don’t like it when we aren’t careful. And you were not so careful.”
Alice entertained images of ripping the man’s throat out with her fangs. The Count? “Well, that’s exciting.”
The biker sneered and bared his fangs, as if that might somehow intimidate Alice. “Yes. He’ll think so, too.” He gave one last sneer and then stomped off.
“Well… that’s definitely exciting,” Alice murmured to herself as the door slammed shut behind him. A minute later, she followed, emerging into the night air. Across the river, she could see the gleaming lights of the city.
“Hello, New York,” Alice murmured as she headed for her own bike with a huge smile on her face.
“Home sweet home, Miss van Wyck.”
Unh… Nicole van Wyck snapped out of her hazy daydreams as the town car eased to a stop. A glance to her right confirmed Jimmy’s words. Home sweet home — the Madison Royale.
And if you’ll look out the left side of the airplane, you’ll see St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the airplane pilot voice in her head said (not that any pilot had ever made such an announcement on any flight she’d been on, but it was something she’d picked up from her parents over the years). From this side, and street level, the cathedral was less majestic than it might have been. The rear of the great church was flanked by two smaller Gothic buildings — diocesan offices, Nicole guessed. She had often wondered what exactly went on there, but not enough to actually find out. Church business that was probably exceptionally boring even to the people who conducted it.
Jimmy pulled the door open and Nicole smiled gratefully as she got out, tottered a little on her expensive heels, and steadied herself with one hand planted on the roof of the car.
“Fun times, huh?” Jimmy asked with a grin.
“In-vig-o-rat-ing,” Nicole replied tiredly. It was mostly a lie, but she didn’t want anybody feeling sorry for her, or even pretending to feel sorry. Especially not the help. Really, the wine that flowed freely at the family office parties was the only thing that made them even slightly bearable. Just slightly, emphasis on slight. Mother didn’t say anything, but she did give Nicole one of her icy Looks after seeing her second-born working on her third glass of rosé.
“Well, don’t invigorate yourself face-first into the sidewalk, Miss van Wyck.”
Nicole nodded in silence. That would be the perfect way to turn a so-so evening into a complete train wreck, wouldn’t it? “It’s not part of my five year plan, no,” she assured him before giving another nod as a farewell.
“Will do.” Jimmy tipped his hat and wandered back around to the driver’s seat as Nicole headed to the front door of the Madison Royale.
Van Wycks had been living in the Royale, off and on, since it was first built in the 1880s. Family lore had it that they’d helped finance the construction of the old Patrician Towers that had evolved into the Royale, but any proof, positive or negative, was long gone by now.
Nicole had her doubts. True or not, she had to pay (a lot) for her condo the same as everyone else.
Said condo was 1400 square feet of luxury, with a master bedroom (complete with antique four post bed), guest bedroom, kitchen, living room (with a TV and a couch Nicole valued almost as much as her great-grandmother’s bed) and two and a half baths of marble elegance. In Nicole’s mind, at least, the highlight of the apartment was a tie between a complete set of the 1911 Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, an Arthur Hughes original, and a signed painting by the criminally obscure American painter Monica Mullins, a self-taught Irish immigrant who brought the rural coast of late 19th century Oregon to vivid life.
The Royale also offered a 24–7 concierge, a wine cellar (rarely used by Nicole), a gym (often used by Nicole) and a rooftop terrace with a stunning view of St. Patrick’s and the rest of Midtown. Up on the 18th floor, Nicole’s sole neighbor was the Duke of Dornburg, or at least the pretender to that particular title (which had been officially abolished at the end of World War One along with all the other German monarchies). The current Duke was a harmless old man, Karl-Gustav Stoschberg von Hoffmann und Vogelberg, who spent most of his time reading newspapers in the wine cellar or playing racquetball with his equally old and equally harmless friends. He had two dogs, and everyone in the building pretended he only had the one Royale policy allowed.
Nicole pushed through the fancy old revolving doors and into the Royale’s lobby. She hadn’t been entirely on the level with Jimmy. Tonight’s party hadn’t been invigorating. It had been weird.
+ + +
“ — so boring. This year I think I’m going to Majorca.”
“ — market is killing me, just killing me.”
“ — fourth time for me, Doctor Lee does marvels, I should give you his card.”
“ — girl’s a walking pharmacy. Can’t believe she can even stand up.”
“ — believe me, if the IRS ever found out, they’d go away for a long, long time.”
Nicole let the conversational white noise wash over her, ignoring every word she overheard while still keeping a polite smile on her face. It was a fine line between ill-concealed and un-concealed boredom, and Nicole was a master of staying on the safe side of it.
It was essential to her social survival. And as far as Nicole was concerned, her social survival was essential to her actual survival. Otherwise she was just another trust-fund baby with no job and a college degree worth less than the paper it was printed on, let alone the six-figure cost of obtaining it.
So, parties and fitting in.
To be fair, it was a pretty good party.
If you ignored half the people there.
On the plus side, all Nicole’s friends — well, acquaintances — were there, and a good slice of the more entertaining members of Manhattan society. Nicole lazily looked around again to see if the head count had changed. No. Three Hollywood actors, a State Assemblyman, no fewer than five famous (a.k.a. awful) modern artists and a whole swarm of the otherwise wealthy, all drawn to the floating party by the enduring cachet of the van Wyck name (or possibly the enduring strength of the van Wyck bank accounts).
After making the obligatory rounds of the people her parents considered especially important, Nicole desperately needed fresh air.
The portside deck was empty as Nicole emerged, although not far away on the open aft deck, more partygoers were nosily enjoying themselves.
She leaned out over the deck rail and stared out across the waters at the city. Directly opposite the yacht were more specimens of the breed, all hosting their own parties, big or small: the Ravenmark, the Augusta, and a couple more she couldn’t make out the names of. Beyond them was the greenery of Battery Park, black and grey at this hour, and past that, the glittering towers of Lower Manhattan. Overhead, a big jet airliner passed by, bound for a runway at JFK, maybe, or stuck in a holding pattern.
Nicole could sympathize.
Above everything else was the full moon and a starless sky. It was a cloudy night, but even without the clouds, you’d never see any stars, not anywhere near the city.
“Nice view, don’t you think?”
Nicole started, then looked over at the new arrival on deck — another woman, blonde, a little older than her and with piercing blue eyes, in a simple burgundy dress.
“It’s beautiful,” Nicole thoughtlessly but honestly said. “But stars would be nice.”
“That they would,” the woman agreed. “But you take what you can get in the city, don’t you?”
“That’s for sure,” Nicole said. A sigh escaped her lips.
“Are you okay?” the woman asked in a low voice.
Nicole stared down at the moon’s wavering reflection in the water for a second. “I don’t know. I guess. Yeah.”
The woman let out a little laugh. “Well, that certainly convinced me.”
“I’m a master of the art of persuasion.” Nicole laughed herself. “Just an off night, that’s all.”
“It does.” Nicole looked at the woman, then at the Manhattan skyline. “Ever feel like…”
“Like?” the woman prompted after a few seconds.
“Like you’re trapped. Like you hate where you are but know you’re never going to get out. That you’re not strong enough to change.”
The woman looked at her for a long, slightly uncomfortable moment. “You seem strong to me,” she finally said.
Nicole snorted. “Yeah. That’s me. More like Olympic gold-medal winner at the 500 meter fail.”
“You are having a bad night, huh?”
“Sorry — I don’t mean to bring you down,” Nicole said. She felt like an idiot now. Why was she even telling her all this? “This is a party.”
“So it is.”
Nicole forced a smile to her face. “And my name’s not Debbie Downer. It’s Nicole.”
“It is truly a pleasure to meet you, Nicole,” the other woman said with a smile of her own.
“On that note, I think it’s time to mingle.”
Just as she said that, there was a “Hey! There you are!”
Nicole turned and spotted one of her acquaintances-but-not-quite-friends, Carla Boyd.
“Yes, here I am, exactly where I said I was going. Amazing.”
“Pfft. You so missed Steffi getting shot down in flames.” (Steffi Bensen, of the 3rd Avenue Bensens.)
“Uh-huh! It was a thing of beauty. Now come on, we have to talk her down,” Carla said, switching from glee to commiseration in zero seconds flat. She grabbed Nicole by the wrist and yanked her towards the door leading to the party room.
“Guh — ” Nicole squawked. She turned her head to say good-bye to the blue-eyed woman, blinked when she didn’t see her, then felt like an idiot as she spotted her vanishing into the aft crowd.
Nicole had come, but she couldn’t get the weird after-image of those bright blue eyes out of her mind, and even less the mental itch the woman’s words had exposed.
+ + +
Just as she reached the 18th floor, Nicole’s phone buzzed and vibrated alike, pulling her out of her uncomfortable recollection of the uncomfortable conversation on the family yacht. She dug it out of her shiny little purse and read the incoming text.
Message from Cathy Reynolds: U AWAKE?
(She was even more noisy and excitable in person)
Message from Nicole van Wyck: I am. What’s up?
Message from Cathy Reynolds: PARTY @ PENUMBRA NOW U IN?
Nicole squinted at her phone. Penumbra? Oh… The trendy art gallery du jour. It had opened — what? four months ago? — and all the see-and-be-seen types (such as Nicole and Cathy) loved it for now. Nicole wasn’t fond of Penumbra’s collection, though, it was all cubism and modern art, which didn’t do much for her. But Society adored it. It also had the allure of being deliciously close to the less reputable parts of Manhattan where Little Italy and Chinatown blended together. (Nicole personally wouldn’t have wanted to be there after one or so, even in a group, and pretty much never if by herself)
Message from Nicole van Wyck: Oh very well. Be there in twenty.
Message from Cathy Reynolds: HURREEEEEE.
Nicole rolled her eyes and slipped the phone back into her purse, then hurried up to her apartment to change.
At the same time Nicole was changing, across the city, other people were making their own plans for the night…
“All right kids, you have the plans. Don’t get captured,” Wally Pelton declared. His deep baritone voice, the voice of a singer in search of a choir, echoed around the back of the cramped office where he and the others were huddled together around a big wooden table.
Atop it, for now, a pile of weapons.
“What, you wouldn’t come save us?” Riley Piatek asked. She grinned impishly at him.
“Well, maybe you, Blondie, but those ugly shits there, no way,” Wally answered with a nod at Lamar Carter and Marty Black.
“Hey,” Riley protested. “Don’t diss my man. He might be an ugly shit, but he’s my ugly shit.”
“What about me?” Marty asked.
Riley shrugged. “Enh.”
Lamar snickered. “See, what’m I always telling you?”
“Beats me, I don’t listen to you, dude.”
“That’s cuz you’re stupid, you know. Anyway, what I’m telling you is that you’re — what’s the opposite of awesome?”
“Kiss my pasty white ass.”
Riley rolled her eyes at the two guys. “If he’s going to be kissing any white ass, it’s mine.”
There was a moment of silence around the weapon table, broken when the last member of the team, Sarah West, came back from the bathroom. She stopped dead in her tracks.
“What? What’d I — ?”
“Nothing,” Riley muttered. She looked down in that way she had that made her long blonde hair spill down to cover her face and cheeks, which were burning red at the moment. Nobody had the heart to tell her that when she did that, it just underscored the fact that she was blushing.
“… Okay then,” Sarah said. She grabbed a pistol off the table and gave it a quick inspection before jamming it into her belt holster.
“Right,” Wally said. “And now…”
They all linked hands and bowed their heads.
“Oh Lord,” Wally began. “Once again we enter battle for You. Please watch over us and keep us safe.”
Here we go again, Sarah thought.
God, Marty thought.
Jesus, keep her safe, Lamar thought.
Please don’t get hurt, Riley thought
A strong chorus of “Amen“ answered the prayer. The five of them stood there in silence for a minute.
“All right, then. See you all on the other side,” Wally said. “C’mon, you two…” Sarah followed him out the back alley door, while Marty headed the other way, to the car he’d left parked out front. Lamar lingered long enough to give Riley a good long kiss and whisper a
“Stay safe, baby.”
She smiled and held him close before stepping back and heading out the front after Marty.
+ + +
“Eight thousand? I wouldn’t pay eight hundred,” Cathy tutted as she studied some painting called Box Car 825. It depicted a bunch of overlapping circles and any resemblance to a box car was entirely theoretical..
“You bought that… thing… with the triangles…”
“That was different. That was good.”
Nicole shrugged and looked around. The gallery — the building itself — was far more interesting than the collection, in her opinion. Once upon a time, Penumbra had been a library, an art deco masterpiece of a library, and while the subsequent owners had done their best to gut it and generally ruin it in every possible way, they hadn’t entirely succeeded. The arches that gracefully supported support columns and doorways remained intact, and a few still had their little geometric patterns.
“I like the colors,” Kevin Burke said. “It’s bright.”
“That’s fantastic,” Cathy said with a fond smile. She turned back to Nicole. “So how was the party?”
“Ugh. Boring,” Nicole sighed. “They’re always boring.” She left out the woman and the ennui overload she’d triggered in Nicole.
“Then why do you keep going to them?”
Because I hate being there, but I hate not being there more. Instead of saying that, Nicole just smiled and said “The wine’s good and the food’s free.”
“Amen to that, sis,” Kevin declared. He bobbled his head in a nod and then stretched his arm to pluck a glass of champagne off a passing waiter’s tray.
“Go slow on the booze, man,” the last member of their quartet, Neil Kemp, advised.
“Yeah, yeah. Where’s the pale ale, dude?” Kevin demanded.
Nicole rolled her eyes at the two of them and took another look around the gallery. Boring art, boring people (present company excepted), lingering good architecture.
“We should get outta town,” Cathy said after a few minutes of comfortable silence.
“What? Tonight?” Nicole asked. Kevin and Neil were too busy silently mourning the lack of good (or any) beer.
“No, like this weekend. Go out to Jersey or Long Island, or Philadelphia even.”
“Oh, man, yeah,” Neil agreed. He held up his empty glass to emphasize his point. “We definitely should.”
“I’m game,” Kevin said. “How about it, Nicole?”
“Well — sure. Why not?” she asked.
“That’s the spirit,” Cathy said excitedly. “Road trip!”
“Road trip!” everyone cheered, and that’s when the vampire joined them.
+ + +
“So. I gotta ask. When is Lamar gonna come to his senses and ask you the big one already, anyway?”
Riley looked over at Marty. “If I knew that, I’d already have a ring on my finger, right?”
Marty shrugged and jammed his hands into the pockets of his long coat. “Just asking, that’s all.” He didn’t know why Lamar was waiting so long. He and Riley had been going out for three years now — almost four, wasn’t it? — and Marty couldn’t see a single reason in the world for his friend not to ask. Lamar loved Riley and Riley loved Lamar. Lamar was a good guy, honest, tough, hardworking, and Riley was about the same (she was, to be honest, the weakest one in their little circle, but that still put her ahead of at least 80% of the people in New York).
“Soon. I hope. For his sake.”
“What’s he even waiting for?”
Riley gave him another look. “Again, if I knew…” She could guess. Who wanted to risk marriage, kids, when on any given night it could all end with fangs out of nowhere? The notion made her hate vampires even more, and want to thump Lamar upside the head, too. What the hell were they fighting for, if not the chance for people to have normal lives?
Marty saw the expression on her face, as thoughtful and pensive as Riley got, and decided now was an excellent time to drop the subject. “So. Uh. Nice weather.”
Riley glanced sideways at him. “I can’t believe you don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Hey now — ”
Riley giggled and then reached into her pocket as her phone vibrated. Marty did the same, and the display was identical — POSSIBLE FFRIEND @ PENUMBRA.
Marty made a face. “Great.”
“What’s Penumbra?“ Riley asked.
“An art gallery in Manhattan. Somewhere on Hester, I think.”
“A yuppie lair. My idea of a good time,” she muttered.
“It’s not the place, it’s the people,” Marty said.
“Like I said, yuppies.”
“Hey, if that’s the worst it has…”
“Well, okay, good point,” Riley conceded. “Come on… let’s go save the stupid people.”
+ + +
Kurt pleasured himself with thoughts of the horrors he’d inflict on these four. The boys would be the feeding, the girls the fun — that was how it usually went when you managed to get more than one human. One you ate fast and messy, the other one you took your time with. Kurt had a big black van, a dozen knives, and duct tape.
He was going to have a lot of fun tonight.
+ + +
Marty did a quick gear check as he walked down the sidewalk. Sidearm, check. Stun gun, check. Big-ass knife, check.
Nervous as hell, check.
“Can I be detective this time?” Riley asked in a low voice. You didn’t want to blab about that sort of thing, let alone the whole vampire thing, in public.
“You were last time,” Marty answered.
“Last time we were out on patrol together. It doesn’t count what you call when you’re with Wally or anybody.”
Riley turned and gave him a sour look. “Fine, fine,” she muttered. “Dee-tec-tive Black.”
“Yeah, yeah. C’mon, game time,” Marty said.
Well, pre-game show, anyway, from the looks of things as they reached the gallery. He and Riley both made the vampire in one glance. After a while, you could just tell — there was something about the way they walked, the way they carried themselves. They were a little reptilian and a little robotic mixed together.
This vampire had an entourage — a herd, more likely — two boys, two girls. They all walked right past Marty and Riley.
He didn’t know the herd — the victims to be — any better than Riley did, but the vampire, he did. He tried to remember the (fake) name that went with the face, and the rest of the thing’s biography they’d cobbled together over the years — his team, and the ones that had come before. Nothing came to mind, but he knew the face, had memorized it, and all the other photographs in their grim little album.
Right now, Vampire Anonymous was chatting up the brunette, who looked faintly annoyed beneath a mask of boredom.
“All right, cowboy, go save the pretty girl,” Riley whispered. “I got your back.”
Marty allowed himself a grin. The brunette was pretty, in that stratospheric One Percent kind of way you saw around the fancier parts of the city. He could imagine how it happened. The vampire saw them all together, giddy and a little tipsy off the gallery’s drinks, and said a few words. After that, he just looked them in the eyes, and he had them.
Now it was just a question of taking them someplace private to do the thing.
Marty shook off the distracting thoughts and stepped into the center of the sidewalk, heading the vampire’s way. Whoever the vampire was, whatever he was called, he was out for blood, and — well, that was enough. It didn’t matter that Marty liked the looks of the girl in danger.
“Hey!” he called out in a loud, friendly voice just as the girl shivered and adjusted her long scarf a little. Maybe she’d sensed, somehow, the danger she was in. A little late, if she had.
Both the vampire and the intended victim (and her friends) stopped, and they shared a perplexed look.
“What’re you guys doing here?” Marty asked. “You know you can’t drink on the street.”
Sure enough, one of them had a bottle of champagne in hand — a pilfered bottle, at that. The real people looked suitably chagrined, and Marty felt some quiet satisfaction at that. His Authority Figure voice was a poor third behind Wally’s and Sarah’s, so it always felt him feel warm and fuzzy when someone took it as intended.
“What? Fuck off,” the vampire snapped at him.
Marty’s smile turned into a smirk. “That’s ‘fuck off, officer,’” he said, pulling the (fake) police badge out of his jacket. “Callahan, 116th precinct. You better get the hell out of here before I decide I really don’t like you.”
The vampire’s expression warmed Marty’s heart.
Still, Marty braced himself. There was a decent chance the vampire would decide ‘fuck it’ and try to take him down, then have some fun chasing down the panicky quartet as they tried to escape. They didn’t care about making a scene.
The stand-off lasted about a second and a half, then the vampire sneered and backed away.
“Fucking pig,” he snarled before turning on a dime and starting off away from Marty and the party (and Riley, lurking in the shadows, ready to jump in if need be). After just a few seconds, the darkness swallowed him up.
Once it had, Marty turned and smiled at the girl. And her friends. But mainly the girl.
Nicole offered a hesitant ‘what the hell was that?’ smile in return. “Yeah. We were just leaving, too,” she declared aloud. Her brows weren’t quite furrowed, but almost. “Going home, I mean.”
Cathy, Kevin and Neil all nodded along. “Totally.” Yeah, officer.” “You bet.”
“Uh. You do that,” Marty said with a lame smile. “Can you get home okay?” he asked a second later.
Nicole gave him a reassuring smile. “ I think we’ll be okay.”
“Well, okay,” Marty said, smiling lamely again now. “Good night. Stay safe.” Then he coughed and stepped back, watching as Nicole and the rest headed off in the same direction he and Riley had come from.
Just before they turned the corner and put the scene out of sight, Nicole stopped and looked back. She let out a puzzled noise as she saw the cop, and his quiet blond friend, heading the other way, after the guy who’d promised them a really great party. Definitely time to go to bed, she decided.
Twenty minutes later, as Nicole collapsed into her bed and pulled the covers up to her chin, the last waking thought she had was Something was weird about that…