Desperate and with only days left to live, Selah flees to the vampire city of LA in search of a cure. Her goal: to undo the curse that is turning her into the most powerful vampire to have ever walked the night.
Yet time is running out. As Selah becomes enmeshed in LA’s corruption, violence, and vampiric politics, she comes to realize that the price of salvation may damn her soul even as she seeks to save it.
Praise for Phil Tucker’s VAMPIRE LA
“Big things happen here. BIG THINGS! A few dangling threads are tied off and a few more are laid out. There are moments of heartbreak and moments where Selah’s choices shine a stark light on what she’s becoming. I can’t wait to see where book 3 takes us!” – On a Book Bender
They drove down through the Cajon Pass, through the last vestiges of night, leaving the hills and mountains behind them for the dawn and San Bernardino Valley. Their cross-country trek had been a frantic one, Cloud seeking to outrace the gathering darkness in Selah’s eyes—but it was a losing battle. Chin in the crook of her elbow, which in turn rested on the sill of the Cadillac’s open window, Selah watched the line of mountains recede behind them in the side mirror, their peaks lightening to dusky rose under a hazy peach sky. By this time yesterday the curse had already receded, the sclera of her eyes having turned murky gray, the browns of her irises struggling to the fore. She forced herself to look at her reflection in the vibrating mirror, and stared numbly into eyes that were still twin pools of jet, as inhuman as the eyes of a predatory bird. Vampire eyes. Eyes that betrayed her impending damnation.
Cloud quietly whistled the opening bars to “Stairway to Heaven,” one wrist limp over the apex of the steering wheel, while Selah closed her eyes and listened. Allowed the thrum of the car, the sound of the tires as they raced over the crumbling asphalt, and his thready whistle to lull the fear that clenched her heart and cramped her stomach. Cloud. She reached out with one hand and found his, felt his fingers interlace with hers and give them a squeeze. He kept whistling, and she smiled. He couldn’t carry a tune to save his life.
They drove on for another five minutes, until Cloud pulled onto the shoulder, tires crunching on loose gravel as they stopped. Selah looked up, blinking against the brightness of the dawn. He’d parked in the center of a flat bridge that passed mere yards over a broad, stony riverbed through which a half-dozen small streams carved their passage.
“How you feeling?” His voice was low, controlled. She didn’t want to look at him, wanted to stay fixed on the near hills and the great transmission towers that passed over the riverbed a half mile away. He squeezed her hand again, and with a sudden thrill of fear Selah made eye contact, stared at him with eyes that she knew reflected his face like an ebon mirror. A fierce desire to see him flinch arose within her like a storm of sharp flints, to see the first sign of rejection. Instead he frowned and shook his head. Lines of fatigue were carved into his face. “It’s almost six fifteen. That’s sunrise nearly thirty minutes gone.”
Selah nodded mutely and turned away. Turned out she was the one who couldn’t meet his eyes. She examined the road that rose before dipping out of view, creating its own horizon. Her anger ebbed, and they sat in silence, the Cadillac rocking as the occasional car rushed past. She held onto his hand as if it were all that kept her from drowning, unable to speak, wrestling with her terror, and studied the heavy clouds whose contours were traced by the growing light, ranging from buttery yellows at their closest tips to darker slate and purples in their farthest depths.
One morning, she knew—and perhaps it was this one—her eyes simply would not change back. One morning she would instead be overcome with an undeniable desire to sleep, and that would be it. She would be lost. Selah sat still, frozen, and waited. It was almost unbearable.
As always, she felt the change take place. Felt the grip of Sawiskera’s curse relax and release her, an uncoiling of tension, an evaporation of power. It was as if scales swam across her eyes, a flick of a fish’s tail disturbing a pond’s surface before sinking from view. The darkness fell away, and she felt the vampiric detachment go with it. She hadn’t thought her emotions muted before, but now they raged to the fore and roiled in her chest, terror fighting with relief as tears flooded her eyes. She had one more day. She wasn’t a monster yet. Her relief was too powerful; she covered her face with her hands and held back a rising sob.
She heard the seat groan as Cloud shifted over and then pulled her into his arms. She remained stiff at first, resisting comfort, and then allowed herself to relax. He rested his chin on her head and held her tight. “Not yet. Not yet. We’ve still got time. That’s the San Bernardino Valley right ahead of us. We get through that, cross the Pueblo Hills, and find Chico on the other side. He’ll get us into the Core, and there we’ll find your cure. We’re that close.”
It had become their mantra ever since they’d fled Miami, escaping over the militarized Wall that enclosed the city through the use of Selah’s new abilities. She’d felt nothing but gratitude for them at the time. Find Chico, get into the Core, discover the cure. No question about their being one. Cloud never allowed her to voice that doubt. There was a cure. They would find it. He seemed to know through and through that she was going to be fine.
Selah pushed away from him and dried her eyes on her sleeve. Studied his worn face. “We’re running out of time.”
Cloud nodded, tenderness and sorrow both in his expression. “I know. We’re cutting it close.”
Selah shook her head. “You don’t know. One morning soon I won’t come back. You’ll be in danger. From me. You don’t understand what you’re doing.” Fresh tears pricked her eyes. How was he so infuriatingly calm about this? Cloud took her hand. His palm was dry, callused, and he held her gaze with an unswerving confidence that stopped her voice.
“Maybe I don’t understand. But I don’t have to. All I know is that we’re going to make it. We have to make it. We’ve come too far, we’re too damn close to give up now.” Cloud looked out the windshield over the desiccated landscape, eyes moving from side to side. “And—this is bigger than us. Remember? The General said we might be able to make a vaccine out of your blood. Can you imagine? That would change—everything.” He looked back at her. “You have to stay strong, Selah, just for a little longer. Keep on fighting.” Selah’s anger and fear melted away before her love for him. She moved forward into his arms and kissed him, felt his stubble against her face, held him hard, and then pressed her face into his neck. He hugged her tight, and she lay still, eyes closed, breathing in his smell, his hair tickling the tip of her nose. Slowly she grew calm. One more day.
Eventually Selah pulled back and wiped her eyes one last time. “And how are you holding up? You good to keep going?”
Cloud rubbed his face and smiled. “You think I’m going to fall asleep this close to LA? You got another thing coming.” He yawned suddenly, explosively, eyes cinching tight as he brought his fist up, blinked away tears, and then laughed as her look became skeptical. “I’m fine. Let’s keep going.”
Selah settled back as Cloud eased them onto the road. Traffic was sparse; everybody knew you didn’t drive into LA. Not anymore. LA had become the place where roads went to die.
They cruised down the I-15. It descended gradually and curved around the base of the mountain until the distant hills that cupped the valley before them slid into sight. A haze persisted over the land, making the horizon a vague and indefinite sight. Up ahead and to the right, Selah saw the first signs of human habitation. A cacophony of shacks and sheds engulfed the highway as it plunged into the slums that had once been the barren north slopes of Fontana. Selah smelled smoke in the air, a faint hint of burning rubber that faded even as she registered its presence.
“How far in are we going to try to drive?” she asked. The shoulder was crammed with abandoned cars, most pushed right off the cracked asphalt and onto the dry scrub. Cloud didn’t answer. She looked over at him and saw that his knuckles had whitened on the steering wheel. She shifted her weight in her seat. It still took her by surprise how quickly he could shift from his subdued and detached manner to full-on simmering anger. His eyes were locked on the shacks ahead of them. A muscle flickered over the joint of his jaw.
“Look at that,” he said. “Right here in the US of A.” He began to slow down. The clouds before them had incandesced to white, only their farthest reaches yet harboring hints of salmon pink and rose, yet the valley below remained shrouded in a thin fog. A few electric lights glimmered in the haze before them, so that it seemed that the whole city slept, unaware of their approach.
Selah tried to think of something to say. With the weight on her mind, it was hard to drag out her empathy. Her concern for random strangers. But being with Cloud made her look at it all afresh. The traffic thickened and reduced them to a slow crawl as they hit the rear end of a weaving curl of cars and buses impatiently inching forward. Selah watched, face blank, as they passed the first homes built right up to the side of the interstate. They were ramshackle affairs, cobbled together from a mess of raw brick, cinderblocks, and corrugated metal roofing. Hanging drapes blocked windows, and even at this raw early hour, people sat in their doorways, watching the passing cars with subdued curiosity.
Cloud inhaled deliberately through his nose. Selah hunkered down and stayed quiet. “Tell me how people all over the country are OK with this,” he said. “Up in Chicago, Seattle, New York City. How do people go about their lives with this—this insanity—right in their face?”
Selah shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“Not good enough.” He drove on, brooding. “What. People cut a twenty-dollar check to the Red Cross, donate some canned food to their local church, and that makes this all right? How many millions are rotting right here? Begging on the streets? Dying without medicine, without anybody giving a shit? Does anybody know?”
Selah reached out and placed her hand on the back of his neck. She squeezed at the tense muscles. He resisted her, but she knew him, worked at the tension, the anger. He rolled his head from one side to the other, and then finally closed one eye and stared at her sidelong. Selah blew him a kiss, and he snorted, looked away. Keeping her hand on his neck, Selah watched the world outside her window. She felt a pinprick of guilt. Just a few months ago she’d been one of those people Cloud was railing against. Up in Brooklyn, living her high school life, concerned with her own priorities and ignoring what was going on here, going on in Miami.
As they eased farther down the I-15 into the valley, the density of the shacks turned the area beyond the shoulder into an outright slum. It looked like a giant child had dropped a collection of brick and concrete blocks onto the side of the road, allowing them to lie where they fell, chaotic and piled in places to two or even three stories in height. Winding lanes and alleys disappeared between them, as crooked as the architecture, and thin plumes of smoke choked out of tin pipes that speared the dawn sky.
People were already working the cars, hawkers moving slowly up the lanes with hanging trays heavy with wares. Others held aloft plastic bottles of water, which Selah could see had broken seals as often as not. Children with scrubby faces, eyes solemn or quick, moved between the cars with the energy of birds fishing amongst the waves, crying out that they had gum, they had tools, they had batteries and even secondhand Omnis. Selah watched them, lips pursed, and slid on her sunglasses as the first approached.
He was young, perhaps eleven or twelve, and in the washed-out morning light his skin was a dusty brown, rising to rich ruddy copper on his cheeks and brow. His hair fell in thin braids, each ending in a small metal shape that as he stepped closer she saw were miniature bells. It was his missing eye, however, that drew her attention, the dry socket that he made no attempt to hide. A jarring crater in an otherwise untouched face that weaponized his brilliant white smile.
“Water? I have water, fresh water, each bottle treated with iodine, safe to drink. Cold water? No? I have food, protein bars, meat paste stolen from the military only days ago, very good, very rich—no?”
He walked alongside the Cadillac, easily keeping pace, one hand holding a plastic bottle without label, its contents vaguely clear, while the other held up what indeed looked like military-issued rations. His grin was constant, his energy obvious as he kept pace with sidestepping hops.
“No thank you,” said Selah. She couldn’t help but smile back.
“It will get very hot soon, you will dehydrate. Very dangerous, you can get dizzy, headaches, dry mouth, tongue bubbles, see spots, get brain fever, fall over, all without knowing you are thirsty, yeah?” His smile grew only more enthusiastic as he listed the maladies, and Selah laughed, shaking her head again.
“Then maybe I can get you something else? Do you need anything? I know everybody. I can get you gasoline, I can get you new Omni—well, pre-owned Omni—I can get you maps, or Blood Dust, the darkest Dust in all LA?”
Cloud looked over at him for the first time. The kid blinked, but he was tough. Cloud’s leopard stare didn’t faze him long.
“Blood dust?” Selah sat up. She’d heard back in Miami that LA was where the drug came from. The drug that her father had been investigating—and it’s connections to the US government—when he disappeared. It had been why she’d allowed herself to be deported to the vampire city of Miami in the first place, placed in her grandmother’s custody, all to learn more about this drug and its world. Miami had turned out to be a huge dead end, but here, in LA, maybe she could finally get some answers. She stared at the kid. “You sell it?”
The boy’s expression changed subtly, as if he were mentally recategorizing her. “I don’t have any on me, but I know people who do. You want some? Only …” He paused, thought quickly, “fifty dollars for a packet. I can get it so dark it’s almost black.”
“No. Thanks,” said Cloud. Selah turned to him in annoyance and surprise, eyebrows raised, but he ignored her.
“OK,” said the kid, not missing a beat, “last offer. For a dollar, I can save your life. No joke. If you keep driving, they will come at you with guns. Take that Omni there, take everything.”
Cloud looked past Selah to stare at the kid. “Enough. Get out of here.”
“No problem,” said the boy. “You wait, I’ll show you.”
Her window rolled up and the sound of hawkers’ cries and the distant yells from within the slum grew muted. “That kid was starting to annoy me.”
“I was asking him questions,” said Selah.
“Yeah? And just how trustworthy do you think he is?” Cloud shook his head. “We’re better off waiting to ask Chico.”
Selah looked ahead. The number of people moving between the car lanes had grown. The sun had cleared the low line of hills behind them, and more people were stirring in the shacks and homes lining the interstate. A curtain was drawn back and an old lady with a brightly patterned headscarf and gummed lips appeared, blinking rapidly as she looked down upon the cars that passed right below her window. They met eyes for a moment, and Selah felt as if the woman were looking at her through a window from another world, her eyes ancient with dull pain and resignation.
Other kids approached their car and knocked on the windows with curled fingers, displaying more goods they didn’t want. Selah searched for a moment and then spotted the boy with one eye. He was keeping pace along the highway’s shoulder, and as their eyes met he gave her an exaggerated wink.
Cloud shifted impatiently in his seat. “We’re still thirty five miles out. I say we take the car in a little farther, see if we can’t get past the 210 intersection. Then we ditch it and head out on foot. What do you think?”
“Sure,” said Selah. The valley was opening up, the last of the hills peeling back and out of sight, barely visible over the shacks. There wasn’t much of a view before them, but up ahead on the left she saw an old tower displaying signs to a long-defunct shopping mall that had been engulfed by ramshackle buildings: Party City, Chase Bank, Del Taco. “Though we could probably already go faster on foot. This looks like it just grinds down into a permanent jam.”
They had been warned back in Barstow that this would happen. A couple of young guys getting high in the shade of a Seven Eleven had told them to catch the bus to the city limit and not bother with driving, that every car that forced its way into the heart of San Bernardino was inevitably abandoned as it crawled unwittingly into the maw of the greatest chop shop on earth. “It’s awesome,” the guy with the blond dreads had said, his stubble glowing like sparks on his pale, pocked jawline. “Human ingenuity at its best. A whole bunch of dudes with guns just turned the whole I-15 and I-10 intersection into one massive processing complex, you know? Every car gets confiscated and driven into the old Ontario Mills mall to be taken apart. You don’t want to make it that far, guys. Take it from me. I know.” And then he’d shared a look with his half-conscious buddy, and both of them laughed, blowing metallic smoke into the dry desert air as they shared an inside joke.
More kids pressed at the car’s windows, peering in, offering Selah and Cloud junk. They crawled forward, following the interminable descent down into the valley below. The one-eyed kid walked alongside, a constant shadow against the fronts of the shacks. Fifteen minutes passed, the smell of burning rubber and garbage returning now, the air heavy with dust and coal. The kid stepped forward again, and knocked on Selah’s window.
“Here we go,” said Cloud, but Selah went ahead and did so.
“Look,” said the kid, peeling something off the outside of her door. It was a sticker, simple and faded blue. “See?”
“You got tagged. This sticker, it means you were picked out. One of the kids, they saw you had good stuff inside.” The kid grinned cheerfully at her. “A few blocks farther down? A couple of guys with guns watch for cars with stickers. They will come up, gun in your window, and take everything you have.”
Selah looked over at Cloud, who shook his head. “Who’s to say he didn’t stick that thing on there himself?”
The kid snorted and rolled his eye dramatically. “Ai dios, what, it going to take guns in your face for you to believe? I bet, even then, you will say, ‘Oh, man, that kid is good, these guns look almost real.’”
Cloud couldn’t help himself—his dour stare slipped and he laughed. Selah grinned. “What’s your name?”
“Ramonito. I swear to you, I’m not lying. You are in big trouble if you keep going.”
“Ramonito,” said Selah, testing the name on her tongue. “I’m Selah. This is Cloud. How long you been in LA?”
“All my life.” He seemed happy to share. “I was born in Pomona during the War, but my father, he moved us up here to get away from the gangs, to make some money. He always said we would leave, go to Nevada, or Utah, but when my mother died, he gave up. Now I work, but one day? I will save enough to buy a bus ticket to San Diego, and move to the Mexican Free States.” He was still walking alongside them, giving the occasional dirty look to any other kid who tried to press in. His looks were vicious; the other kids kept back.
“There, see? That is the 210 overpass. They wait for you there. They come up, take all your stuff, maybe hit you to scare you, and then run to hide until you drive on and the next marked car comes by. It is a very good system. They work it all day.” Ramonito nodded approvingly.
Selah and Cloud peered ahead. An overpass soared over the slums, an improbable concrete bridge that arched out over their highway. Homes had been built on it, rendering it useless for traffic, three- or even four-story cinderblock and brick houses and huts from whose bases vines and plants grew down to trail over the tops of the cars that passed beneath. Cloud dug into his pack in the backseat, and pulled out a pair of binoculars. He scanned the bridge, and then lowered it. “I don’t see anything.”
Ramonito clutched at his head in despair. “You think they stand there waving their guns?” He shook his head. “You are not very quick, are you? You need my help. The way you’re going, you won’t make it in LA for long. Here, I will help you. Leave your car. I will take you on foot. Where are you going?”
Selah stared at the overpass as it inched ever closer. “We’re heading over the Pueblo Hills, into Buena Park.” She looked at Ramonito. “That’s got to be out of your area, no?”
Ramonito shook his head, grinning once more. “No way! I know all of LA. OK, maybe not all, but much more than you. How were you going to get there? You weren’t going to just walk?”
Cloud nodded. “Sure. How else?”
Ramonito clutched his head again. “You’re crazy! This area up here, Fontana, north Ontario, it’s not really under anybody’s control. Just little pinche gangs, yeah? But when you get down close to Chino Hills, or Diamond Bar, that is getting into the territory of Las Culebras, and man, they are serious. They control everything west of Pomona, right up to the Wall, yeah?” He looked at them, hand resting lightly on the door, checking for understanding. Both Selah and Cloud looked back at him blankly.
“If you say so,” said Selah. “I’ve never heard of them.”
“Our friend Chico said he works with a group called the Buena Park Locos. Said they control the area down there,” Cloud said, driving with one eye on the road.
“If he’s in Buena Park, he has no choice,” said Ramonito, nodding. “Mira, you won’t get far without my help.”
Selah looked down the road. There weren’t any blocks to measure distance by, but if there were, it would be about two more to the overpass. Ramonito had peeled off the sticker, but they were bound to get into trouble sooner or later. She studied the kid’s face, met his single intent eye, and saw a spark of intensity deep within that she decided to trust. “Why you helping us out? What’s in it for you?”
“Money,” grinned Ramonito. “You pay me much more for help like this than for water. I bet you get real generous if I help you get to Buena Park, like two hundred dollars, no?”
Selah laughed again. “Maybe.” She looked at Cloud. “What do you think? I say we give him a shot.”
Cloud frowned. “I don’t know.”
“Don’t you ever just read somebody? Get a good feeling? He obviously knows what’s going on around here. We obviously don’t. A guide is a good idea. And I do believe him about that sticker. Which means he already saved our asses.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Cloud looked like he could argue some more, but then he nodded. “All right. Let’s give him a shot.” He gave Ramonito a thumbs up. “You’re on, kid. What do we do with the car?”
“Sure,” said Ramonito. “People do it all the time. Somebody will jump in and drive it for you, no problem.”
Cloud snorted. “Figures.” He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel once more, a restless and complex tattoo of sound, and then smacked his hand down on the dash, the sound one of finality. “All right. Good luck in the chop shop, Baby Blue. Let’s go.”
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