I walk the dark and dangerous streets of L.A. gang?land. A seemingly helpless young woman with silky blond hair and magnetic blue eyes. Moving down filth-strewn alleys and streets where power is mea?sured in drops of blood spilled by bullets sprayed from adolescent males who haven't learned to drive yet. I am near the housing projects, those archaic hotels of hostility where the checkout fee is always higher than the price of admission. Because of my supernormal senses, I know I am surrounded by people who would slit my throat as soon as ask the time of day or night. But I am not helpless or afraid, especially in the dark at night, for I am not human. I, Alisa Perne of the twentieth century, Sita of the ancient past. I am five thousand years old, one of the last of two vampires.
But are there only two of us left? I ask myself.
Something is terribly wrong in gangland L.A., and it makes me wonder. In the last month the Los Angeles Times has reported a string of brutal murders that leads me to believe Ray and I are not the only ones with the special blood that makes us impervious to aging and most other human ailments. The victims of these murders have been ripped open, decapitated, and, in some cases, the articles say, drained of blood. It is this last fact that has brought me to Los Angeles. I myself like blood, but I am not eager to find more vampires. I know what our kind can do, and I know how fast we can multiply once the secret of procrea?tion is known. Any vampire I may find this evening will not live to see the light of dawn, or perhaps I should say the setting of the moon. I am not crazy about the sun, although I can bear it if I must.
A full moon rides high above me as I step onto Exposition Avenue and head north, not far from where the last murder occurred-a sixteen-year-old girl found yesterday in the bushes with both her arms torn off. It is late, after midnight, and even though it is mid-December, the temperature is in the midsixties. Winter in Los Angeles is like a moon made of green cheese, a joke. I wear black leather pants, a short-sleeved black top that shows my sleek midsection. My black boots barely sound as I prowl the uneven sidewalks. I wear my hair pinned up beneath a black cap. I love the color black as much as the color red. I know I look gorgeous. Cool stainless steel touches my right calf where I have hidden a six-inch blade, but otherwise I am unarmed. There are many police cars out this fine winter night. One passes me on the left as I lower my head and try to look like I belong. Because I fear being stopped and searched, I do not carry a gun. But it is only for the lives of the police that I fear, and not for my own. A whole S.W.A.T. team couldn't stop me. Certainly, I decide, a young vampire will be no match for me. And he or she must be young to be killing so recklessly.
But who is this youngster? And who made him or her?
Three young males wait for me a hundred yards down the street. I cross to the other side, but they move to intercept me. One is tall and slim, the other squat as an old stump. The third has the face of a dark angel brought up on the wrong side of the pearly gates. He is clearly the leader. He smiles as he sees me trying to get away from him and his buddies, flexing his powerful biceps as if they were laws unto themselves. I see he carries a gun under his dirty green coat. The others are unarmed. The three jog toward me as I pause to consider what to do. Of course, I could turn and flee. Even if they were in training for the Olym?pics, they couldn't catch me. But I don't like to run from a fight, and I am suddenly thirsty. The smile of the leader will fade, I know, as he feels the blood drain from his body into my mouth. I decide to wait for them. I don't have long to wait.
"Hey, babe," the leader says as they surround me in a fidgety semicircle. "What you doin' here by your lonesome? Lost?"
I appear at ease. "No. I'm just out for a walk. What are you guys up to?"
They exchange smirks. They are up to no good. "What's your name?" the leader asks.
"Alisa. What's yours?"
He grins like the young god he thinks he is. "Paul. Hey, you's one beautiful woman, Alisa, you know that? And I appreciate beauty when I see it."
"I bet you do, Paul. Do you appreciate danger when you see it, too?"
They cackle. I am funny, they think. Paul slaps his leg as he laughs. "Are you saying you're dangerous, Alisa?" he asks. "You look like a party babe to me. Me and my stooges, we're going to a party right now. You want to come? It's goin' to be hot."
I consider. "Are you three the only ones going to this party?"
Paul likes it that I'm sharp. "Maybe. But maybe that's all you need." He takes a step closer. There is alcohol on his breath-a Coors beer-Marlboro ciga?rettes in his coat pocket close to his gun. A brave boy, he puts his right hand on my left shoulder, and his grin is now more of a leer. He adds, "Or maybe all you need is me, babe. What do you say? Want to party?"
I look him in the eye. "No."
He blinks suddenly. My gaze has been known to burn mortal pupils when I give it free rein. But I have held something in check for Paul, and so he is intrigued, not scared. He continues to hold on to my shoulder.
"You don't want to go sayin' no to me, honey. I don't like that word."
He glances back at his friends and then nods gravely in my direction. "You don't look like you's from around here. But around here, there's two ways to party. You either do it with a smile on your face or you do it screaming. You know what I mean, Alisa?"
I smile, finally. "Are you going to rape me, Paul?"
He shrugs. "It's up to you, honeysuckle." He draws his piece from his coat, a Smith & Wesson .45 revolver that he probably got for his last birthday. He presses the muzzle beneath my chin. "And it's up to Colleen."
"You call your gun Colleen?"
He nods seriously. "She's a lady. Never lets me down."
My smile grows. "Paul, you are such a simpleton. You can't rape me. Put it out of your mind if you want to be alive come Christmas Day. It's just not going to happen."
My boldness surprises him, angers him. But he quickly grins because his friends are watching and he has to be cool and in control. He presses the gun deeper into my neck, trying to force my head back. But, of course, I don't move an inch, and this confuses him as much as my casual tone.
"You tell me why I can't just have you right now?" he asks. "You tell me, Alisa. Huh? Before I blow your goddamn head off."
"Because I'm armed as well, Paul."
He blinks-my gaze is beginning to fry his brain. "What you got?"
"A knife. A very sharp knife. Do you want to see it?"
He takes a step back, letting go of me, and levels the gun at my belly. "Show it to me," he orders.
I raise my right leg in front of him. My balance is as solid as that of a marble statue. "It's under my pant leg. Take it out and maybe we can have a little duel."
Acting like a stud, throwing his pals a lecherous glance, Paul cautiously reaches up inside my pant leg. Throughout the act, he doesn't realize how close he is to having his head removed by my right foot. But I have compassion, and I don't like to drink from a gusher-it might stain my clothes. Paul's eyes widen as he feels the knife and quickly pulls it free from the leather strap. He handles it lovingly, showing his friends. I wait, acting impatient.
"I want it back," I say finally. "We cannot duel if you hold both weapons."
Paul can't believe me. He is tired of my insolent manner. I begin to tire of him as well. "You's a smart-mouthed bitch. Why should I give you this knife? You might stick it in me while I'm lovin' you."
I nod. "Oh, I'm going to stick it in you, be sure of that. I don't mind that you and your buddies prowl these streets like hungry panthers. This is a jungle and only the strong survive. I understand that, better than you can imagine. But even the jungle has rules. Don't take what you don't need, and if you do, be a sportsman about it. But you're not a sportsman, Paul. You have taken my knife and I want it back. Give it to me right now or you will suffer unpleasantly." I stick out my hand and add in a voice as dark as my long life, "Very unpleasantly."
His anger shows; his cheeks darken with blood. He is not a true animal of the jungle, or he would recognize a poisonous snake when he saw it. He is a coward. Rather than hand over my knife, he tries to slash my open palm with it. Of course he misses because my hand is no longer where it was an instant before. I have withdrawn it to my side, at the same time launching my left foot at his gun. I hit only the revolver, not his hand, and see what the other three don't-the weapon landing on the roof of a three-story apartment complex off to one side. Paul's bud?dies back up, but he continues looking for his gun. His mouth works, but words are slow to form.
"Huh?" he finally says.
I reach out and grab him by the hair, pulling him close, my left hand closing on his hand that holds my knife. Now he feels my gaze as beamed through a magnifying glass set in the hot sun. He trembles in my grip, and for the first time he must realize how many different kinds of animals are in the jungle. I lean close to his ear and speak softly.
"I see that you have killed before, Paul. That's OK-I have killed, too, many times. I am much older than I look, and as you now know, I am also much stronger. I am going to kill you, but before I do I want to know if you have any final requests. Tell me quick, I'm in a hurry."
He turns his head away, but his eyes cannot escape mine. He tries to pull away and finds we are momentarily welded together. Sweat drips from his face like the river of tears the families of his victims have shed. His partners back farther away. Paul's lower lip trembles.
"Who are you?" he gasps.
I smile. "I'm a party girl, like you said." I lose my smile. "No final requests? Too bad. Say goodbye to mortality. Say hello to the devil for me. Tell him I'll be there soon, to join you."
My words, a poor joke to torment a victim I care nothing for. Yet there is a grain of truth in them. I feel a wave of pain in my chest as I pull Paul closer. It is from the wound when a stake impaled me the night Yaksha perished, a wound that never really healed. Since that night, six weeks earlier, I have never been totally free of pain. And I have begun to suspect I never will be. The full extent of the anguish comes upon me at unexpected moments, fiery waves that roll up like lava. I gag and have to bend over and close my eyes. I have suffered a hundred serious injuries in my fifty centuries, I tell myself. Why does this one not leave me in peace? Truly, a life in constant pain is the life of the damned.
Yet I did not disobey Krishna when I made Ray- not really, I try to convince myself.
Even Yaksha believed I still had the Lord's grace.
"Oh, God," I whisper and clench Paul's blood-filled body to me as if it were a bandage that could seal my invisible scar. I feel myself begin to faint, but just when I feel I can take no more of the surging pain, I hear footsteps in the distance. Quick-sounding foot?steps, moving with the speed and power of an immor?tal. The shock of this realization is like cold water on my burning agony. There is another vampire nearby! I jerk upright, open my eyes. Paul's buddies are fifty feet away and still backing up. Paul looks at me as if he is staring into his own coffin.
"I didn't mean to hurt you, Alisa," he mumbles.
I suck in a deep breath, my heartbeat roaring in my ears. "Yes, you did," I reply and slam the knife down into his right thigh, just above the knee. The blade goes in cleanly, and the tip comes out red and dripping on the other side. An expression of pure horror grips his face, but I have no more time for his excuses. I have bigger game to bag. As I let go of him, he falls to the ground like a trash can that has been kicked over. Turning, I run in the direction of the immortal's footsteps. I leave my knife behind for Paul to enjoy.
The person is a quarter mile away, on the rooftops, leaping from building to building. I cut the distance in half before leaping onto the roofs myself, getting above the three stories in two long steps. Dashing between shattered chimneys and rusty fans, I catch a glimpse of my quarry-a twenty-year-old African-American male youth with muscles bulky enough to squash TVs. Yet a vampire's strength has little to do with this muscle power. Power is related to the purity of the blood, the intensity of the soul, the length of the life. I, who was created at the dawn of civiliza?tion by Yaksha, the first of the vampires, am exceptionally strong. Leaping through the air, I know I can catch the other vampire in a matter of seconds. Yet I hold back on purpose. I wish to see where he leads me.
That my prey is indeed a vampire I don't doubt for a second. His every movement matches those of a newborn blood sucker. Also, vampires emit a very subtle fragrance, the faint odor of snake venom, and the soul who runs before me smells like a huge black serpent. The smell is not unpleasant, rather intoxicat?ing to most mortals. I have often used it in the past, on lovers and foes alike. Yet I doubt this young man is even aware of it.
But he is aware of me, oh, yes. He doesn't stop to attack, but continues to run away-he is afraid. I ponder this. How does he know my power? Who told him? My questions are all the same. Who made him? It is my hope that he runs to his maker for help. The pain in my chest has subsided, but I am still thirsty, still anxious for the hunt. To a vampire, another vampire's blood can be a special treat, salt and pepper sprinkled on a rare steak. I move forward without fear. If the guy has partners, so be it. I will destroy them all and then fly back to Oregon in my private jet before the sun comes up, my veins and belly full. Briefly I wonder how Ray is doing without me. His adjustment to being a vampire has been long and painful. I know, without me there, be will not feed.
I hear an ice-cream truck nearby.
In the middle of the night. Odd.