NIGHT RISING , Book 1 - February 2007
A red mist hung over Los Angeles at midnight, a mist so thick that it blocked the moon’s glow.
One so dense it almost hid what would become another shocking Tinseltown legend by the time morning rolled around.
The damp air had been tinted with crimson neon from a dingy alley’s bar sign: Lenny’s, it read in cursive beneath the tilt of a cartoon martini. As the wiring flickered on and off, so did the atmosphere, an apathetic heartbeat on the fringes of Hollywood Boulevard.
A police radio from one of the many black-and-whites blocking the entrances to the alley broke the silence with a burst of static, then buzzed to nothing. A hushed crowd was gathering on the slick pavement nearby, craning their necks to gape through the fog and into the slender passageway but, even though the cops were doing their damndest to contain the scene, they couldn’t cover up the accident.
At least, that’s what they’d called it at first.
From the looks of the Aston Martin, it was a fair assessment. The sleek machine was nothing more than wheezing, twisted steel embracing an electrical pole, an abstract sculpture you might find in the victim’s own Malibu mansion. But that’s where the “accident” ended and the horror began.
Nothing made sense anymore after the cops looked past the car and toward the dead man.
The world’s biggest action star had his back to the bar’s door, his muscled arms spread wide, his hands pierced by shrapnel, pinning him. His head, with that glorious fall of golden hair, hung to one side, a wedge of sparkling, jagged window glass embedded in his forehead. His million-dollar blue eyes were closed, his aging yet still bankable face bathed in red. He’d died just moments ago, unable to speak around the blood that was choking him.
Sure, freak accidents sometimes happened. Bodies flew from crashed cars, metal followed, people died.
But what the beat cops couldn’t figure out was the rest of it: The way the victim’s shirt had been torn open to reveal the bare chest so many women had swooned over.
The way shattered glass had cut into his skin, forming one word.
Soon, the detectives arrived. Overworked, underpaid, their clothing rumpled by long hours on the job and a lack of giving a shit about appearances. A detective, one who haunted the perimeter, took a long glance at Jesse Shane, Big Time Movie Star, and just nodded his head.
“You get what you ask for,” he said to himself, then ambled into the darkness.
There was so much glass and metal gouging Shane’s legs that blood had pooled and trickled over the ground, heading toward a nearby square of sewer grating. The police merely walked around it as the star’s life flowed away from them, leaking past the grating and into the echoing darkness of the underground.
They worked until their eyes hazed over from cynical exhaustion. But what the average cop wouldn’t discover was a mouth yawning open, just beneath the sewer grating. It was catching every drop of cooled liquid on its tongue.
Hidden from view, the creature swallowed, blocking out the noise from above, closing its eyes and shuddering in pure delight, in agonizing need.
Digging its claws into the skin of its palms, the thing leaned its head back again, blood splashing onto its chin, then into its mouth. A slant of wan light caught the gleam of iron fangs as it gulped down the taste of beautiful memory.
More, thought the thing while the blood wet its throat.
As keen yearning tore through the creature, it licked its lips and opened its mouth again, whimpering from the hunger, the sharp craving. Waiting for the next drop to fall.
Meanwhile, back up above in the streets, the cops went about their business, trying to solve the mystery of Jesse Shane, a man whose life had ended in its prime.
A man whose bizarre death would, oddly enough, keep him alive for years to come.
When Dawn Madison got back to L.A., her dad had already been missing for four days.
That’s right. Frank Madison, age forty-seven, a towering charmer with linebacker shoulders and hands strong enough to crack heads when his usual job as hired muscle called for it, was gone, just like that. A fading picture on a WANTED poster. Or maybe even an image on a milk carton or—more appropriately—a bottle of Ex-Lax or whatever geriatrics were gulping down these days. Because in La-La Land, you might as well be dead if you were over thirty.
Harsh, but true.
Not that Dawn really believed he was in actual trouble, at that point. Every so often, the man went off her radar, hopping on his Harley to take a spin up the California coast so he could carouse with the finest elements of society in roadside greasy spoons and bars. Or sometimes he went on mysterious fishing trips near Mexico only to resurface a week later with crazy stories about mermaids or any variety of tall tales he could bullshit after drinking enough Tequila to disable a small army.
It’s just that, this time, someone else had contacted Dawn to tell her about his absence and, damn it all, if they thought his MIA act was worth calling about, she was compelled to check into it. Pronto. No matter where he’d gone off to this month.
As dusk mingled with the smog, she pulled to the curb of his latest place of employment—some kind of investigation agency—then cut the engine of her battered Corolla. For a full minute, she couldn’t move. Didn’t really want to.
What if all she found was bad news? Or what if…?
Thoughts of her mom crept along the edges of Dawn’s memory, taunting her with the specter of death. The guarantee that nothing lasted forever, even if you spent long nights awake and alone, wishing you had the power to make things different.
But…Dawn blocked out a sadness that’d dogged her for years. She’d never known her mom except through beautiful images and painful comparisons. So why did the emptiness still feel like it’d been inflicted a second ago?
Shaking it off, Dawn threw open the car door, slammed it. Eva Claremont had nothing to do with Frank. He’d be okay. No need to get rattled. Come midnight, Dawn would probably find herself back on a plane zooming across the country, cussing at Frank and letting him run free again.
So nix the worry wart act, she thought, walking toward the private investigation agency, a Spanish Revival house with the dubious title of Limpet and Associates hand-painted on a small sign hanging from its hinges over the porch. It reeked of golden-age glamour: iron grating covering the large circled, curtained windows, red tiled roof basking under the watch of a worshipful sky, tan stucco patching the aging face of the exterior. The only thing that didn’t seem to go with the whole Black-Dahlia-dollhouse feel was a gothic iron cross poised over the doorway.
How very medieval chic. How terribly L.A.
As she approached the door, lights flared on and washed over her. What was this, prison?
Ringing the doorbell, she fanned her face, chasing away the July humidity, then checked her clunky watch, exhaling in frustration because it was already quarter ‘til eight and she was pretty sure that Mr. Limpet had closed down for the day.
The chimes echoed throughout the building. She jammed the bell again. When Kiko Daniels had called her last night, she’d come running, all the way from a job in Virginia, but maybe she hadn’t gotten here fast enough…?
Jeez, chill, she thought. If the guys at work could see you now, you’d never live it down. They don’t call you “Mad Dog” on the set for nothing, baby.
Clean out of patience, Dawn fumbled with the cell phone in her jeans pocket. But then the heavy door whooshed open, and she stopped. Stared.
Darkness stretched in front of her.
“Hello?” The greeting bounced off the walls.
Just as she was wondering whether to go on in or to take a few prudent steps backward—yeah, like prudence came naturally to her—she heard a sigh gushing from somewhere near hip level.
A young “little person” stood there, hand on his hip, wearing such an astounding look of exasperation that she felt like apologizing without knowing what she was sorry for. He was blond, with round blue eyes, long sandy lashes, rosebud lips, and a dimple in his chin under a faint soul patch. Kinda pretty, if you asked her.
“What?” he demanded in a familiar tinny, scratchy voice.
Kiko, the guy who’d called her?
He didn’t seem to like her hesitation. “You think I’m a bug pinned to a piece of velvet for your amusement?”
“No,” she said, otherwise speechless. His rudeness shocked her more than anything. God, over the course of four films and three TV shows as a stunt woman, she’d worked with dwarves, giants, and even a woman who could pull her lip over her head. Dawn, herself, frequently spent her days falling out windows, being thrown into walls by evil creatures, and fighting villains with roundhouse kicks.
Out-of-the-ordinary was a regular part of Dawn’s world.
“Well…?” he added.
She tried not to revert to any trademark assertiveness, i.e., bitchery. Frank had always told her to be nice unless the person deserved a split lip. And she’d needed a lot of lessons about “nice” while growing up. So, even though she was irritated by this guy’s mouth, Dawn supposed this was pretty much a situation for “nice.”
Sticking out her hand, she bent down slightly so the smaller man wouldn’t have to reach up to shake. “I’m Dawn Madison, Frank’s daughter.”
He glanced at her hand like she was holding road kill on a stick. Then he turned around, leaving her greeting flapping in the wind.
“’Bout time you got here,” he grumped over his shoulder as he walked away. “We’ve been waiting.”
Gee. Color her welcomed.
Had she done something besides getting here as fast as she could to encourage this crankiness? Or, worse yet, what had Frank done?
Dawn stepped over the threshold and, as soon as she shut the door, faint darkness took over, helped only by the waning light fighting through the thick curtains over the foyer windows. There was also a hint of something in the air—a scent that belonged to old houses, places with a story or two behind their walls. Must, wilted roses, aged wood, lemon polish that tried to reduce all those histories to a dull shine.
As her eyes adjusted, she realized that she was standing beneath a sprawling black iron chandelier, complete with gutted candles. To her right, the faint glow of a grand staircase curved to the second story.
“I came up here to fiddle with the fuse box,” his Jolliness said. “We blew something downstairs.”
She was about to ask him if he’d heard her ringing the bell when he beat her to the punch.
“Uh-huh,” he said in response to the non-query, “so I thought I ought to come up here for that, also.”
Brows puckering, she started to ask how he’d know what she was going to say.
“None of your biz.” His footsteps clomped on the floor.
The snot was walking away from her again.
Odd duck, she thought. Probably some guy with a few psychic moments who made most of his money on the Venice Beach Boardwalk hustling tourists. His parlor tricks didn’t faze her though, because L.A. had one of every kind. The city was a bowl that held all types of fruit.
And as a kid who’d been raised in Hollyweird, she’d pretty much seen everything.
Following him through the dimness, she traced a hand along the walls. They were rough, paint layered upon itself year after year. He came to an abrupt halt, and she bumped into him.
“Have any flashlights?” she asked.
“Please. I know this place like the back of my hand.”
Sweek, went the sound of a metal door being opened. Snick, snick, snick, went the pulse of switches being levered.
A burst of white illuminated the room, compliments of that chandelier. It allowed her to see the humming starkness of creamy walls, the aged hardwood floors, a massive blackened granite-edged fireplace. A sienna-tinged painting hung above the mantel, featuring a red cape that wrapped like a column of fire around a nude, lushly curved woman. She had a wicked gleam in her narrowed amber eyes—something like an invitation.
Absently, Dawn brushed over her neck with her fingertips, her skin misted with sweat from outside.
This place was overkill. So L.A. A melodramatic Frankenstein Castle decorated with “LOOK AT ME!” desperation.
“Let there be light,” he said.
“Not as much as outside, thank God.”
“Oh.” The man was wiping his hands together, his gaze trained on Dawn again. “The UVs. Ultra-violets.”
While languidly rubbing her neck, she resigned herself to what he was seeing: an average Josey who could never compete with that woman in the painting. A tall brunette chick wearing a long, low ponytail and dressed in a sleeveless black T with black jeans and biker boots. Tanned skin, light brown eyes, a slim white scar riding one brow. A predilection for leather bracelets and a lone silver armband that circled her biceps like a coiled snake. Her only other jewelry decorated her pierced ears, her right lobe featuring two earrings instead of one. The extra bauble featured a moon dripping delicate silver chains and ruby gem-beads, a proud souvenir.
Yup, physically honed Dawn Madison, a twenty-four-year-old who was connected to her daddy in rough-edged looks and her stupendously famous sex goddess mother in…
Well, nothing, except for lineage.
“So you’re Kiko?” she asked, running a look up and down his body, too, just to be ornery.
He bristled. “What? You’re put off by my kind? Figures. I get it from all sides. Women, casting directors, society in general…
Way to endear yourself to strangers, Dawn.
She started to explain that she had no issues with his shortness. “I--”
He sighed. “Being psychic really stands out.”
Shrugging, he stood on his tiptoes to close the fuse box. “Luckily, I’m also an actor. Makes me less of a curiosity.”
“Yeah. So you must have an understanding boss to be able to go on auditions during work hours,” she said, trying to steer the topic back to work. Back to Frank. “What do you do when you’re on location or shooting daylight here in town?”
Kiko was frowning, as if wondering why she didn’t know dip about her dad’s career. “Mostly, the boss uses us at night. Our work isn’t always conducive to sunshine hours, you know.”
Special schedules. Night hours. Was Limpet and Associates some seedy joint where they spied on unfaithful spouses during nocturnal assignations?
Par for the course, Frank, she thought. Were you the Bluto who crashed in motel room doors to snap a few sleazy pictures?
“Oh, the boss knows more about that,” Kiko added.
“Would you stop it?”
“Answering questions I haven’t asked.”
“Mmmm.” Kiko smiled to himself. “Maybe you’re just that transparent.”
“If I were, you’d know that all I want to do is find out what’s happening.”
“Of course.” Kiko unsmugged himself, nodding, avoiding her eyes now. “We all wanna know.”
Stunned, Dawn didn’t say anything for a second, taking in the fact that the agency was as clueless as she was, swallowing back an ache in her throat.
But this wasn’t the time to get all sensitive. She could do that alone, where people couldn’t feel sorry for her.
“We thought you might give us a better idea about where he is,” Kiko added. “That’s one of the reasons I called you.”
She couldn’t ask about the other reasons he’d gotten in touch, not while she was still slammed by the bad news. If they didn’t know where Frank was, who would? “You can’t…I don’t know…divine any details?”
“I’m blacked out where your dad’s concerned. I tried touching his old clothes, his possessions to get a read from him, but…nothing we didn’t already know.”
“That’s it? That’s all you’ve got? Nothing?”
“Well… We know this. Frank was on a job for us when he disappeared.”
He shuffled his black combat boots. She hadn’t noticed before now that his feet were too big for his body.
“Do you have an answer?” she asked.
“The boss is gonna tell you.”
“I’m sick of hearing about Mr. Limpet. Can’t you tell me?”
“We don’t call him Mr. Limpet,” Kiko said softly.
She toned down her temper because she sure as sugar wasn’t getting anywhere by losing it. But just as she was cooling her jets, something creaked behind her, moaning, yawning awake.
On edge, she whipped around, raising her hands in front of herself defensively. Krav Maga—street fighting—at its best. Pure instinct.
But it was only a door opening. When a petite woman dressed in an apron peered around the wood, Dawn lowered her arms, stilled her adrenaline.
The interloper was gorgeous, a Hispanic heartbreaker with dusky skin, huge dark eyes and bobbed, black, Louise Brooks hair. Her features were strong and wide yet utterly feminine.
A soulless zzzmmm, like the sound of captured electricity, escaped from behind the door and into the large room.
“Kiko?” she asked in heavily accented English. The words rushed out of her, intense and urgent, even kind of ADD-like. “Just send the girl upstairs and get yourself down here.”
“Tell me you got a break.” One minute, there’d been sadness about Frank. The next, Kiko was hopped up on whatever this woman had to tell him. He was kind of a schitz.
“A big break.” The newcomer scoped Dawn out as thoroughly as Dawn had done to her, then busted out with a blunt, “Frank’s daughter?”
Kiko nodded, darting over to her and reaching up to grasp the fancy iron doorknob. “Breisi, this is Dawn. Dawn, Breisi.” He pronounced her name breezy, like wind meandering through a meadow on a summer’s day. Irony didn’t get any better than that.
Dawn gestured a hello to her, but Breisi visually brushed her aside by making some kind of “get over here” motion to Kiko.
“Just hurry,” the woman said, then disappeared.
Her tennis shoes slapped on the stone floor, fading downward, as if there were stairs leading to a dungeon. And, truthfully, with this funhouse, Dawn would’ve expected to see skeletons chained to the walls down there.
“We’re on a case,” Kiko said.
“Not my dad’s, I suppose.”
“We’re not really sure.”
He glanced at his watch, flicked his gaze toward the foyer where the dark of approaching night was shading the window curtains, then seemed to come to a decision. “Go ahead to the boss’s office. Upstairs and to the left, the door at the end of the hall. Don’t bother knocking because he’ll be expecting you now, but I’ll be up there soon as I can.”
She didn’t ask how “the boss” knew exactly when she was coming. A Kiko vision had no doubt informed him.
With that, the psychic flipped around the door like a puppy tearing around a tree after a rabbit. The oak crashed closed after him, the heavy thunk of a lock jammed into place.
Dawn gazed up the stairway with its wrought-iron railing and endless distance. It faded into the oblivion of the upper floor. Upon closer inspection, she noticed that the railing sported gargoyles in flight, wings spread like open arms.
Hardly comforted, she started climbing. But halfway up, a shiver traveled across her shoulders.
The sensation tingled, undulating like a heat wave down the rest of her body. Dawn grabbed the banister and slashed a gaze down to the foyer, where the painting of the fire woman stared back, her eyes fixed on Dawn.
Wait. Hadn’t she been looking straight ahead before…?
God, spending all day on a plane and worrying about Frank had frayed her nerves to a crisp.
Keeping her mind on this meeting with “the boss,” she managed to avoid more Twilight Zone moments and eventually arrive at the door Kiko had mentioned, a monstrosity that loomed from floor to high ceiling in all its dark grandeur. Surprisingly enough, when she opened it, not a sound was made.
Still, unsurprisingly, the room was black and quiet, minted with a different smell—something she couldn’t identify. Not a bad something, either. Old and new mixed together like various colors of paint before they merge. Like…
She tried to identify the scent, but couldn’t.
Then she heard the voice.
“I’ll turn on the lights,” it said.
Without warning, an eye-stinging flood of yellow whooshed over her, forcing Dawn to shut her gaze against it. But she barely had time to hitch in a breath before a gust of chilled air slammed against her. No— through her.
Thrown off guard, she startled backward, hitting the wall.
The oxygen rushed out of her lungs as she tried to recover, opening her eyes and lurching into a boxer’s stance, swiping one arm upward as if blocking a physical blow. Gasping, heart stuttering, she stood ready to beat off another attack.
Blindside me, you bastard? she thought. Try it again.
But she was stopped by the coldness that had taken root in her chest. It was turning itself inside out, swirling into a warm glow, spreading, sliding down her body, heating and lining her belly with tremors and slick weakness.
Dizzy, she slumped down the wall, her eyes taking in the space around her, seeking a culprit.
But there was no one else in the room.
From the book: Night Rising, Vampire Babylon,
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