Nineties alt-rock crackled through the stereo system of Squeaky’s. The lyrics about having the time of your life were nearly lost to the constant whir of washing machines. I stared through the cloudy glass at the laundry spinning in rhythmic circles, my elbows propped on the scuffed counter. My mind began to drift as my eyes tracked the movement. When the room began to spin, I tore my gaze away and blinked at the dirty walls of the laundromat where I worked.
The moment my stomach settled and the dizziness cleared, I looked back at the washing machine and repeated the process.
“Damn, Raelynn. I never thought I’d be jealous of the way you looked at an inanimate object, but damn, you’ve never stared at me so intently before.”
I bit back a sigh at the familiar voice and straightened to meet the hungry gaze of the guy across the counter. “Hi Wade.” I forced a smile.
Wade was one of my regular customers… and regular hookups. A side hustle I had zero guilt over. Whoever said not to mix business with pleasure probably had a more glamourous job than laundry clerk.
Today, Wade had a bag slung over his shoulder that probably contained all of his dirty underwear. Gross. He also sported a few days’ growth of blonde stubble on his nicely sculpted jaw. Not gross.
“Exciting day?” he asked with lifted brows that suggested a different sort of excitement might be in my future—the naked kind. Even without saying the words, Wade was somehow always suggesting I take my clothes off. Normally, the feeling was mutual, but today…
I didn’t want company today.
Besides, I’d already spent more time with Wade than I usually allowed myself before moving on. It was time to find a new meal ticket.
“Never a dull moment at Squeaky Clean’s Laundromat.” I let the words drip with all the sarcasm I felt for the shithole that paid my bills—sort of.
Wade quirked a smile but his gaze traveled lower than my eyes. A lot lower. Wade was kind of a dog like that, but he was also hot, and he had more stamina than most males which meant more core energy. And higher core energy meant I didn’t go hungry. It was the only reason I kept seeing him, but even Wade’s bedroom skills weren’t enough to break my own rules about getting close to someone.
“Not today, Wade,” I said and his pretty blue eyes snapped back to mine. The light in them faded, and I could read him well enough to know he was trying not to care that I’d just rejected him.
“What about tomorrow, sugar?” He grinned invitingly.
I sighed. “Maybe.” But only because it had been days already, and I was too hungry to take the time to find someone else on short notice.
“Shut up for a second, you two.” Norma, my boss, waved a thick, reddened finger in our direction.
Norma was wrinkled and calloused—and not just her hands which had done more ironing in their lifetime than I’d once thought possible for one human. She was a sourpuss on a good day, but she paid me on time in cash. And she didn’t ask questions about my past nor did she call out my fake ID, though I had a feeling she knew it was.
She’d also helped me find the disgusting one-bedroom apartment I currently rented from a prick named Shady McBoots seven blocks over. The place was gross and infested with roaches, but it was a roof over my head from a guy who hadn’t asked for a background check. It was also in a part of the city I knew no one would ever look for the girl I used to be.
Today marked five long years in this shithole life. But I’d made it. And even though I had to do it silently, I grieved my dead to honor their lives. And I renewed my vow for vengeance upon those who’d driven me out.
“Sorry, Norma,” Wade called, but she only gave him a second dirty look that said Didn’t I say shut up?
Wade cast me a look with raised brows, and we both fell wisely silent. Norma stretched onto her toes and turned up the volume on the small television in the corner that she always left on at a low hum. I usually tuned it out—I couldn’t afford to react to the constant bullshit spewed by the human media about how awesome our Protectorate was. That would only get me discovered. But now, the news anchor’s current report caught my attention.
“…another attack this morning in Central Park that left at least six dead and a dozen more injured. Among the dead were three humans, two goblins, and a hag.”
I turned my attention away from Wade and frowned up at the screen while the reporter went on.
“The Registry confirms all six of the deceased victims were ambassadors for the New World Party visiting our capital city for their annual peace talks. We’re live at the scene now.”
The camera panned to the scene at the park, and I kept my expression carefully blank as I took in the carnage behind the male news anchor. At least a dozen bodies were strewn across the brown grass. None of them moved as emergency crews rushed toward them. Nearby, a small fire still burned, the flames licking at the singed hedges in the background.
On the far left, I could just make out the dark form of the monster that had done this. Shadows hung around it, even in death, and judging by the large stream of black blood pouring from its throat, it was definitely dead. A trio of vampires stood near it, their chests puffed up to hold their obviously too-large egos. All of them wore the black on black uniform that labeled them Special Ops, the Protectorate’s symbol sewn into the fabric directly over their undead hearts.
“Looks like a hellhound,” Norma said with disgust as she eyed the dead monster.
“I thought hellhounds were extinct,” Wade said, brows wrinkling.
She whirled on him, her dull brown eyes suddenly ablaze.
“Uh-oh. Triggered,” I muttered, but Norma ignored me and shook her fist at Wade, her knuckles red from the heat of the iron she spent most days wielding.
“Oh, you have no idea, boy. That’s what they want you to think,” she practically hissed. “But the real truth is that the demons are alive and well. They’re just hiding, all of them waiting.”
“Waiting for what?” Wade asked uncertainly.
“For the right moment to rise up,” Norma said.
I rolled my eyes.
“To rise up against what?” Wade shot back. “They’re already at the top of the damned food chain.”
Norma’s eyes flashed. “Are they, now?”
“Sure, just look at the body count,” he said, gesturing to the television still reporting on the latest attack.
“You see what they want you to see.” Norma jammed her finger into Wade’s chest, and he flinched back.
“Norma,” I warned.
She huffed at me, her jaw tightening.
I braced myself for an argument. Not because I disagreed with her, but because doing this in front of Wade was dangerous. Not to mention Homeless Ted snoozing in the sunlit corner. Not that I worried he’d report us—unless he was bribed. Ted was a sucker for the fro-yo place around the corner. But instead of continuing to rant like she usually did, Norma clamped her weathered mouth shut, stared me down with a look that made me shudder, and walked off.
A second later, I heard the screeching of the curtain as it slid closed, sealing Norma in the back room once again. She’d gone back to her ironing.
I let out a breath and swung back to Wade, ready to warn him off getting Norma going like that again, but he was on his phone so I let it go.
Doing a quick scan of the rest of the space, I checked on the customer laundry still spinning in the full-service section. Before I could stop myself, my gaze landed on the notice posted just above the bank of coin machines. It was more of a list, really, and the same one was posted in every business, on every light pole, and in every government office in the country. The left side was a list of the creatures who were legally cleared to exist inside the boundaries of the Protectorate. On the right, the longer list of illegal creatures made my heart pound.
Hellhound was on it, because those assholes could never seem to control their bloodlust, proven all over again today. But that wasn’t the creature that made my stomach roil. Halfway down, tucked in between mantis and fae was succubus.
I was only half, but that wouldn’t matter to them. If they found me inside this boundary line, I’d be arrested, executed, or both. And that didn’t even take into account my real name.
For five years, I’d managed to hide myself, lost in the bowels of a city both crumbling and desperate to rebuild itself after a century of living a nightmare. Overpopulation, violence, and hopelessness ruled New York, and while my heart broke for the people who Fate had seemingly forgotten, I couldn’t deny living among them all was the perfect place to disappear.
In a place like this, no one saw each other anymore. No one even cared to look.
By the time I tore my gaze away from the posted list, Wade was watching me, and I realized he was waiting for me to respond. I replayed his last words, trying to remember what he’d even said. “Yeah, definitely a hellhound,” I agreed finally.
“So.” He dropped his bag of laundry on the counter in front of me and grinned. “What’ll it take for me to get the employee discount on the full service?”
I gave Wade the discount and tried not to hate my life even more over the fact that I was about to wash Wade’s dirty underwear for him. On the way out, he stopped at the door to rake his eyes over me one last time. An invitation I ignored before shooing him out so I could get to work.
He didn’t press it, especially since I’d given him the discounted rate. Too late, I realized that might’ve been all he’d really been after anyway. Whatever. At least it got rid of him, and right now, I needed that more than I needed my dignity. In fact, that was the strategy that had allowed me to survive for the last few years.
Survival before dignity.
Maybe I’d have it etched on my tombstone. Then again, if I died out here, with nothing and no one to claim me, pretending to be human, I wouldn’t even have a tombstone. I’d get the same thing every low-income citizen got: a cremation. No funeral. No scattering of the ashes. Just…forgotten.
In a world full of monsters, humans had become the bottom of the food chain. And death was expensive.
Maybe someday I’d find myself in a better place than this. A place that offered more dignity in death. A place that offered more life, too.
I crushed that thought before it could distract me, and snatched Wade’s laundry bag from the counter, letting it swing from the drawstring as I carried it to an empty washer. Thoughts like that only made my life harder, and the world sucked enough without me and my impossible wishes adding to the pile.
For the next three hours, I did my best not to think too hard about monsters, vamps, who I used to be. I even steered clear of thoughts of Wade and what he could offer me if I went to his house instead of my own.
Something about today marking five years in hiding had me in a grouchy mood. Mostly, I was angry with myself. I’d grown comfortable in this life—as fucked up as that sounded. It was time to move forward, or maybe more accurately, it was time to go back.
At the end of my shift, I stuffed Wade’s clean clothes back into the bag and shoved it under the counter. I knew he was hoping I’d bring them over tonight, but my mood had turned way too dark for that.
When the clock chimed the hour, I shut off the TV, chased Ted out the door, and locked up.
“See you tomorrow, Norma,” I called.
“See ya, Rae,” she called back and I let myself out.
Norma had a small apartment over the laundromat. She’d been robbed twice in the year I’d worked for her, and I’d offered to move in with her every time, but she always turned me down. Norma had more guns than I had pairs of pants—and something about the gleam in her eye told me she wasn’t afraid to use them if it came to that. So far, the criminals had gotten in and out with the cash from the register before she could get a clear shot at them.
Maybe Norma wasn’t the one who needed protecting.
On the sidewalk, I breathed in the night air that smelled like exhaust, roasted meat, and stale cigarettes before heading for home. Night had fallen, plunging the streets into a darkness that had much more to do with the nocturnal creatures that roamed than it did the setting of the sun behind crumbling skyscrapers. Arachnes and night hags were the main concern. Despite the fact that both were on the illegal list, they managed to thrive especially in the lower half of the city where crime was high and protectors were basically nowhere to be found.
I wondered what those three vamp Spec Ops guys would do if they ever encountered a pack of night hags in Crooktown. Sure, they’d taken out a hellhound but those beasts were all about ripping out hearts, which wouldn’t matter much if theirs are already dead anyway. Night hags, on the other hand, paralyzed first and then toyed with you until you wished you were dead.
I shuddered just thinking about it. A quick death—that’s what I wanted. Hell, that’s what all of us wanted these days when our time came.
A guy reeking of alcohol bumped my shoulder, and I grunted, shoving him off.
“What where you’re going, asshole,” I said.
“You ran into me, stupid bitch.”
I clamped my mouth shut and kept walking. I couldn’t afford a street fight, not to mention my strength was lower than I liked already.
A few stories up, something scurried in the shadows before ducking in through a broken window of the high rise. I shook my head. Even with the sense of danger looming in every alleyway, the streets were scattered with pedestrians, cart vendors, and too many bodies to allow the cars to do anything but creep slowly past. Not that many could afford cars anymore anyway.
I turned another corner and left the crowds behind. The streetlights too. They’d either burnt out and the city couldn’t afford to fix them or they’d been busted on purpose by nocturnal hunters.
Instead, an array of never-ending neon lights lit my way home, some signs blinking with a simple message like HASH or GIRLS, some offering holographic images of dancing girls—or guys. At the far end of the street, there were other dancing figures on the signs, the images offering a larger variety of creatures.
Cambions—the name for the hybrid creatures that were half-human, half-monsters—were a popular sideshow, especially the ones that sported human torsos and beastly bottoms. Their performances were usually met with a combination of morbid curiosity and hate-groups looking for an easy mark.
I fisted my hands at the rage that welled up as I thought of my own father as a target for those who feared and mocked what was different.
God, today was a shit show.
I should have called in sick.
I turned another corner and left the strip clubs and drug parlors behind. The skyscrapers were all behind me now. A century ago, the concrete jungle of New York City had extended far beyond this spot but not anymore.
In front of me, the skyline stretched, and I slowed my steps to take it in. As a kid, I’d loved the savage beauty of the half-restored, half-condemned city skyline. Back then, I’d only seen the worst of it from a distance. From my bedroom window, high in a fancy tower across the river, the twinkling lights had made it appear much more pristine than it was. The reality was much dirtier and far more dangerous. New York City had once been the prize of the country, but it was no longer called New York City, not to the people in charge, anyway—and this was no longer a country.
The United Territory of Eden, the Protectorate had the gall to rename it. Of all the names they could have chosen, the vamps had picked Eden, that utopian garden from the Bible. It felt like a cruel and twisted joke considering the only garden worth mentioning around here was Jade Garden, the Chinese restaurant a few blocks west that served the best miso soup right alongside a selection of cocktails made with fresh blood they purchased from the local blood bank. Catering to the vamps that now ruled this world was a way to ensure booming business, after all.
Eden, my ass… This world was nothing like paradise. It was also nothing like it had been even five years ago.
On my left, steam rose from the water drainage where the crumbling sidewalk met the broken asphalt streets. I pulled my collar tighter and veered around the steam shafts. Yes, it was warmer to walk through them, but it wasn’t worth getting close enough to allow whatever was in there sending out a heat signature to grab me by the scuffed boot and drag me through the opening to the sewer below. Sadly, that happened way too often.
“Excuse me, are you Raelynn Levitt?”
I froze at the sight of the pale-faced man in front of me. He was slim though muscles didn’t matter on a creature like him and there was a glint in his eye that set off alarm bells in my mind. His fitted clothes hid no weapons, nor did his clothing bear the mark of an official guard, but then he didn’t need weapons or status on his side, considering the crimson eyes and elongated fangs he was currently baring at me.
“Nope, sorry. You’ve got the wrong girl.” I kept my voice light. Airy, even. Then I stepped around him and kept walking, mostly so he wouldn’t see the panic that was probably showing in my eyes. But my heart thudded in my chest, and that wasn’t something I could hide. Not from a vamp with supernatural hearing.
Still, I kept moving anyway, my pace casual but purposeful—as fast as I dared to go. I held my breath, waiting for the man to call me back or to chase me down and call out my lie.
Then again, I hadn’t lied. I wasn’t Raelynn Levitt.
No one was.
Raelynn Levitt didn’t exist.
My breaths puffed into the cold air as I walked, head down, feet moving fast over the uneven sidewalk. I zigzagged around a hot dog vendor offering sausages and other roasted mystery meats. Someone muttered at me for jostling their shoulder as I passed, but I didn’t stop or look back. At the next opening, I slipped into the alley between one building and the next. It was a dangerous move if the vamp was still on my tail, but it meant I only had one more street to go before I was home.
Why in the hell had a vamp approached me today of all days?
I’d interacted with a couple of them over the years—you couldn’t go three feet in this city without tripping over one—but none of them had known my name. In fact, the only encounters I’d had were the occasional cambion responding to my pheromones. Full-blooded vamps were immune to the scent of a succubus, but cambions… their human side couldn’t resist the siren call in my blood when I was hungry. Maybe the guy I’d seen back there was a cambion. As if in answer, my stomach grumbled with the hunger gnawing at me, and I wondered what his life force would taste like.
The air behind me shifted, and I knew I was about to get the chance to find out.
I whirled just as the vamp closed the remaining distance between us in a single leap. The sheer length of his jump was inhuman enough, but when his arm came down on my wrist raised to deflect him, I stumbled at the force.
Not cambion then. Not with that kind of strength.
Backing away, I straightened and met his hard gaze. It told me everything I needed to know about what he wanted from me. Something told me asking my name had been a ruse. He either already knew who I was or didn’t care. Either way, he didn’t plan on letting me leave this alley alive.
I smiled at him, my lip curling in feral anticipation. At least our feelings for each other were mutual. I just hoped my remaining life force would be enough to take him down.
“You’re going to regret touching me,” I said quietly.
He paused, regarding me for only a split second before he came at me again. This time I was ready.
He swung out, his fist aimed at my jaw, but I ducked and spun, landing my own punch in the small of his back. He barely registered the blow, but it was enough time for me to reach inside my boot and grab the dagger I kept there.
When he spun to face me, I was already rushing toward him. Vamps were the fastest creatures alive but succubi were a close second—and this asshole had clearly underestimated li’l old me.
The dagger slid into his chest thanks to the momentum of our collision, and his eyes widened in surprise.
My lips curved. “You didn’t expect that, did you?” I murmured.
He scoffed, the surprise in his widened eyes contradicting the cruel twist of his lips. “It’ll take more than that to kill me, bitch.”
He grabbed me as he fell, taking me with him. The moment he hit the ground, his arms closed around me and he shoved us both sideways so that we rolled until he pinned me underneath him. I glared up at him, my chest heaving, and his mouth twisted into a vicious smile as his hand began roaming over my hip.
“You look hungry,” he said in a low voice. “I can help with that.”
“Don’t touch me,” I warned him, my muscles coiling.
The dagger still protruded from his heart. He didn’t even bother to remove it, clearly too distracted by another protrusion to care about what must have been nothing more than a splinter to him.
That was to my advantage then. I just had to wait.
“Come on,” he said as he slipped his hand roughly between my legs. “Don’t you want one last meal?”
Rage clouded my vision until all I could see was crushing the bones of the vamp who held me down beneath him. I forced my breaths to remain steady and stopped struggling against him. He relaxed against me, probably thinking he’d won, and I used all of my strength to shove the dagger as hard as I could into his chest.
The blade sank in to the hilt, and the vampire hissed at me through his fangs. “You bitch.”
He removed his hand from between my thighs and raised it to strike. I held my breath, waiting for the effects of my weapon to kick in. His hand landed hard across my face, the slap driving my head hard to the side. I winced and spat out a mouthful of blood where his hand had driven my lip up into my teeth.
Anytime now would be great.
The vamp snarled at me and raised his hand a second time, but before he could bring it down again, his arm froze in midair and then suddenly fell limp to the pavement. He made a strangled noise as he tried raising it again, but nothing happened. He tried using his other hand but it was already limp too. Burying my dagger in his heart wasn’t enough to kill him, but the vervain I’d coated the blade with was finally beginning to paralyze his muscles.
“What did you…?” His body grew heavier over me as his muscles became less and less responsive. Finally.
I shoved hard against his deadweight, sending him sprawling onto his back as I rolled on top of him. The remnants of a human’s life force pulsed inside him. It called to me, and the hunger in my belly warred with the bloodlust in my veins.
“Looks like I’m not the only one out here with food on the brain,” I whispered, my lips nearly brushing his as I drank in a small taste of what he’d consumed.
Somewhere nearby, a human had lost his life only moments before this asshole had threatened mine. It was a line I didn’t normally cross for my own feedings, but vamps didn’t have the respect for life that I did. Vamps didn’t respect anyone but themselves. It was the only reason I didn’t think twice about what I was doing now.
I inhaled again, pulling on the thread of life that clung inside his veins. He groaned as the first threads of that energy passed from him to me, but I couldn’t tell whether it was out of enjoyment or rage. Most humans would be so caught up in their own sense of lust by now, they wouldn’t care whether they lived or died when I was done with them. But vamps weren’t nearly as susceptible to my thrall, which meant this guy did care, and his grim stare made it clear he knew which one would be his fate.
“Who sent you?” I asked.
His eyes narrowed, but he remained silent. I knew the vervain had affected his ability to speak, but even so, he offered no attempt to communicate.
I pressed against him just a little, and he sighed quickly before catching himself. The human’s life force inside him was strong enough yet that it warred with his own cold, controlled nature.
“Who sent you?” I repeated, snarling the words this time. “Tell me, and I’ll give you the antidote to the poison.”
But he didn’t know that.
“Your time is up,” he said in a strained voice. “Raelynn.”
I blinked, wondering what he really meant by his words. “What are you talking about?” Did he know who I was? Had someone sent him? Someone—
I grinned, a feral smile that conveyed everything I was capable of. Everything I’d been holding back while he’d convinced himself I’d been too weak to fend him off. “Oh, you aren’t quite that lucky,” I breathed. “But a girl’s gotta eat.”
I leaned in again and inhaled deeply through my nose, hyper-aware of every single inch of his body pressed against mine. My own desire rose, and I felt it like the sharp prick of a needle against my skin. I wouldn’t lower myself to have intercourse with him, but I didn’t need to. The dead human’s lingering life force would be more than enough to satisfy my hunger.
I pressed harder against him, the hilt of my dagger digging into my sternum where it stuck out of his bloody chest, but wave after wave of desire made it impossible to care about the discomfort—or the black blood now coating my favorite jacket. Running my lips lightly over the vampire’s jawline and then his throat, I opened my mouth and sucked his victim’s life force down my throat. When he was empty of anything I could possibly want to consume, I yanked my dagger free and used it to cut out his heart.