Downtown in the club and drug district, Phury was flying through an alley off Tenth Street, his shitkickers pounding the ratty pavement, his black windbreaker flapping behind him. About fifteen yards ahead of him was a lesser, and given their positions, technically Phury was in pursuit. In reality, the slayer wasn't trying to get away with all this heel kicking. The bastard wanted to get deep enough into the shadows so that the two of them could fight, and Phury was so on board that train.

Rule number one in the war between the Brotherhood and the Lessening Society: no roughhousing around humans. Neither side needed the hassle.


That was about the only rule.

The sweet smell of baby powder wafted back to Phury, the wake of his enemy one hell of a nose-cloying nasty. It was so worth the stink, though, because this was going to be a good fight. The slayer he was after had hair that was fish-belly white¡ªwhich meant the guy had been in the Society a long time: For reasons that were unknown, all lessers faded to pale over time, losing their individual hair, eye, and skin coloration as they gained experience in hunting and killing innocent vampires.

Great trade-off. The more you murdered, the more you looked like a corpse.

Dodging a Dumpster and jumping over what he hoped was pile of rags and not a dead homeless human, he figured in another fifty yards he and his lesser buddy were going to hit pay dirt for privacy. The bowel of the alley was an unlighted dead end, bracketed by windowless brick buildings and¡ª

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There were a pair of humans in it.

Phury and his slayer stopped short in the face of the buzz kill. Keeping a healthy distance from each other, they assessed the sitch as the two human men looked over.

"Get the fuck out of here," the one on the left said.

Okay, this was obviously a case of dealus interruptus. And the guy to the right was definitely on the buy side of the exchange, and not just because he wasn't trying to take control of the intrusion. The mangy bastard was twitchy in his dirty pants, his fevery eyes wide, his sallow skin waxed out and spotted with acne. Most telling, though, was that he went back to focusing on his dealer's jacket pockets, not at all worried about the possibility of getting capped by Phury or the slayer.

Nah, his biggie was about getting his next fix, and he was clearly terrified he'd have to go home without what he needed.

Phury swallowed hard as he watched those empty-house eyes bounce around. God, he'd just had that stinging panic... had tangoed with it right before the shutters had gone up for the night back at home.

The drug dealer put one of his hands to the small of his back. "I said, get out of here."

Fuck. If the asshole pulled out a gun, all hell was going to break loose because... Okay, right, the slayer was also reaching into his jacket. With a curse, Phury joined the party by putting his palm to the butt of the SIG at his hip.

The drug dealer paused, clearly realizing everyone had lead accessories. After doing some sort of risk evaluation, the guy put a pair of empty hands out in front of him.

"On second thought, maybe I'll just take off."

"Good choice," the lesser drawled.

The addict didn't think that was such a hot idea. "No, oh, no ... no, I need¡ª"

"Later." The dealer buttoned up his jacket like a store-keeper would lock up a shop.

And it happened so fast, you couldn't have stopped it. From out of nowhere, the addict brought out a box cutter and with a messy, more-luck-than-skill slash, he sliced the dealer's throat wide-open. As blood went everywhere, the buyer busted the dealer's shop apart, going through jacket pockets and stuffing cellophane packets into his beat-to-shit jeans. When the raid was over, he tore off like a rat, hunched over, scampering, too juiced with his lottery win to bother with the two bona fide killers who were in his path.

No doubt the lesser let him go just to clear the field so the real fighting could begin.

Phury let the human go because he felt like he was looking into a mirror.

The rank joy on the addict's face was a total head nailer. The guy was clearly on the express train to one hell of a bender, and the fact that it was a free fix was only a small part of the buzz. The real boon was the lush ecstasy of super-surplus.

Phury knew that orgasmic rush. He got it every time he locked himself in his bedroom with a big fat pouch of red smoke and a fresh pack of rolling papers.

He... was jealous. He was so¡ª

The length of steel chain caught him on the side of the throat and wrapped itself around his neck, a metal snake with one hell of a tail recoil. As the lesser yanked, the links dug in and cut off all kinds of things: breathing, circulation, voice.

Phury's center of gravity shifted from his hips to his shoulders, and he fell forward, throwing out his hands to keep from face-planting it into the pavement. As he landed on all fours, he got a brief, vivid eyeful of the drug dealer, who was gurgling like a coffeepot ten feet away.

The dealer reached out a hand, his bloody lips working slowly. Help me... help me...

The lesser's boot hit Phury's head like it was a soccer ball, the cracking impact sending the world spinning round and round as Phury's body did the dreidel. He ended up flush against the drug dealer, the dying man's deadweight stopping his roll.

Phury blinked and gasped. Up above, the glow of the city canceled out much of the galaxy's stars, but didn't touch the ones that were doing laps in his vision.

There was a choking gasp next to him, and for a split second he shuffled his dazed eyes next door. The drug dealer was doing a meet and greet with the Grim Reaper, his last breaths escaping through the gaping second mouth at the front of his throat. The guy smelled like crack, as if he were a user as well as a peddler.

This is my world, Phury thought. This world of Baggies and wads of cash and using and worrying about the next fix consumed more of his time than even the Brotherhood's mission.

The wizard popped into his mind, standing like Atlas in that field of bones. Damn right it's your world, ya fried daft bastard. And I am your king.

The lesser hauled on the chain, cutting off the wizard and making the stars in Phury's head even brighter.

If he didn't get back in the game here, asphyxiation was going to be his best and only friend.

Bringing his hands up to the links, he gripped the fuckers in two thick fists, jacked into a tuck position, and roped his prosthetic leg around the steel leash. Using the foot for leverage, he pushed against the links that ran under the sole of his shitkicker and created some slack so he could breathe.

The slayer leaned back like a waterskier, and the prosthesis weakened under the pressure, the angle of his fake foot changing. With a quick unhook, Phury freed his leg from the chain, dropped the slack on his end and braced his neck and shoulders. As the slayer went flying against the brick wall of a Valu-rite Dry Cleaners, the undead's force and body weight yanked Phury up off the ground.

For a split second the chain went loose.

It was just enough for Phury to spin around, get the thing off his neck, and palm a dagger.

The lesser was stunned from getting body-slammed by the building, and Phury took advantage of its struck-stupids, lancing forward with his blade. The steel-composite tip and shaft went deep into the lesser's soft, empty gut, springing a leak that ran glossy and black.

The slayer looked down in confusion, as if the rules of the game had changed in the middle and no one had told him. His white hands came up to stem the flow of sweet, evil blood and got nowhere against the deluge.

Phury wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve, as a tingling anticipation lit him up from the inside.

The lesser took one look at his face and lost his out-of-it expression. Fear seeped into his pale features.

"You're the one..." the slayer whispered as his knees went wonky. "The torturer."

Phury's can't-waits faded a little. "What?"

"Heard... about you. Mauls first... then kills."

He had a reputation in the Lessening Society? Well, duh. He'd been making messes of lessers for a couple of months now.

"How do you know that's me?"

"By the way... you're... smiling."

As the slayer slid down onto the pavement, Phury became aware of the gruesome grin he was sporting.

Hard to know what was more horrific: that it was there or that he hadn't noticed.

Suddenly, the lesser's pupils shot to the left. "Thank... fuck."

Phury froze as a gun muzzle pressed against his left kidney and a fresh wave of baby powder shot into his nose.

Not more than five blocks to the east, in his private of fice at ZeroSum, Rehvenge, aka the Reverend, cursed. He hated the incontinent ones. Hated them.

The human man dangling in front of his desk had just pissed in his pants, the stain showing up as a dark blue circle at the crotch of his distressed Z Brands.

Looked like someone had nailed him in the hey-nanny-nannies with a wet sponge.

"Oh, for God's sake." Rehv shook his head at his private guard of Moors, the ones who were playing hanger to the piece of shit. Trez and iAm both sported the same disgusted expressions that he did.

Only saving grace, Rehv supposed, was that the guy's pair of Doc Martens seemed to function okay as a pair of punch bowls. Nothing was dripping.

"What'd I do?" the guy squeaked, the pitch of his voice suggesting his balls were somewhere north of his wet boxers. Any higher and he could have been a contralto. "I didn't do noth¡ª"

Rehv cut the denial off. "Chrissy showed up with a busted lip and black-and-blues. Again."

"You think I did that? Come on, the girl whores out for you. It could have been any¡ª"

Trez raised an objection to the testimony, cranking the man's hand into a ball and squeezing the forced fist like an orange.

As the defendant's bark of pain trailed off to a whimper, Rehv idly picked up a sterling-silver envelope opener. The thing was shaped like a sword, and he tested the point with his forefinger, quickly licking off the dot of blood it left behind.

"When you applied for work here," he said, "you gave an address of Thirteen-eleven Twenty-third Street. Which is Chrissy's addy, too. You arrive and leave at the end of the night together." As the guy popped open his piehole, Rehv held his hand up. "Yes, I'm aware that's not dispositive. But you see that ring on your hand¡ª Wait, why are you trying to put your arm behind your back? Trez, you mind helping him plant that palm of his on my real estate over here?"

As Rehv tapped the tip of the opener on his desk, Trez muscled the beefy human over like the guy weighed nothing more than a laundry bag. With absolutely no effort at all, he flattened the bastard's hand out in front of Rehv and held it in place.

Rehv leaned forward and traced a Caldwell High School class ring with the opener. "Yeah, see, she's got a funny mark on her cheek. When I first saw it, I wondered what it was. It's this ring, isn't it? You backhanded her, didn't you. Caught her in her face with this."

As the guy sputtered like a bass boat, Rehv ran another little circle around the blue stone of the ring, then took the razor-sharp point and stroked the man's fingers one by one, from the bony knuckles on the hand to the flat nail beds at the ends.

The two biggest knuckles were bruised, the pale skin purple and swollen.

"Looks like you didn't just backhand her," Rehv murmured, still petting the man's fingers with the opener.

"She asked for¡ª"

Rehv's fist pounded into his desk so hard, his multiline office phone did a jump and scramble, the receiver bouncing free of the cradle.

"Don't you dare finish that sentence." Rehv fought not to bare his fangs as they punched out into his mouth. "Or so help me God I will feed you your own balls right now."

The ass-wipe went inanimate as a subtle beep-beep-beep replaced the phone's dial tone. iAm, cool as always, calmly reached forward and replaced the receiver.

As a bead of sweat dripped off the human's nose and landed on the back of his hand, Rehv smoothed out his anger.

"Right. Where were we before you almost got yourself castrated? Oh, yeah. Hands... we were talking about hands. Funny, I don't know what we would do without two. I mean, you couldn't drive a stick-shift car, for example. And you have a stick, don't you? Yeah, I've seen that tripped-out Acura you tool around in. Nice car."

Rehv laid his own hand down on the glossy wood, right next to the guy's, and as he made comparisons, he pointed to the salient distinctions with the envelope opener.

"My hand's bigger than yours in length... and width. Fingers are longer. My veins stand out more. You have a tattoo of... what is that at the base of your thumb? Some kind of... ah, the Chinese symbol for strength. Yeah, my tats are elsewhere. What else, now... your skin's lighter. Damn, you white boys really need to think about tanning. You look like death without some UVs."

As Rehv glanced up, he thought of the past, of his mother and her collections of bruises. It had taken him far, far too long to do right by her.

"You know the biggest diff between you and me?" he said. "See... my knuckles aren't bruised from beating a woman."

In a quick move, he drew the envelope opener up and slashed it down so hard the tip didn't just go through flesh; it penetrated the teak of the desk.

The hand he stabbed was his own.

As the human screamed, Rehv didn't feel a thing.

"Don't you dare pass out, you fucking lightweight," Rehv spat as the asshole's eyes started to roll. "You're going to watch this carefully so you remember my message."

Rehv yanked the opener free of the desk by jacking up his palm so that it caught the scabbard and popped the blade out. Putting his hand up where the man could watch, he twisted the opener back and forth with grim precision, creating a portal in his skin and bones, widening the puncture into a little window. When he was finished, he withdrew the blade and put it carefully beside the phone.

As blood dripped down the inside of his sleeve and pooled at his elbow, he looked at the man through the hole. "I'll be watching you. Everywhere. All the time. She turns up with another ¡®bruise' from ¡®falling down in the shower' and I'm going to mark you up like a calendar, feel me?"

The man jerked to the side and threw up down his pant leg.

Rehv cursed. He should have known something like that was coming. Fucking pansy-ass bully bastard.

And good thing this fool with the partially digested pasta dripping onto his piss-laden Doc Martens didn't know what Rehv was really capable of. This human, like all the other humans in the club, had no idea the boss of ZeroSum was not just a vampire, but a symphath. Motherfucker would have shit himself, and what a mess that would have been. It was already wet-obvious he wasn't sporting Depends.

"Your car is now mine," Rehv said as he reached over to the phone and dialed housekeeping. "Consider it repayment plus interest and penalties on the cash you've been skimming from my bar. You're fired for that, and for side-dealing H in my private zip code. PS, next time you try to crop off someone else's turf? Don't mark your packs with the same eagle you wear on your fucking jacket. Makes it too easy to figure out who the rogue dealer was. Oh, and like I said, that lady of mine had better not show up with so much as a chipped nail or I'll be coming for a visit. Now, get the fuck out of my office and don't ever come in this club again."

The guy was so shell-shocked, he didn't argue as he was frog-marched toward the door.

Rehv slammed his bloodied fist into the desk again to get everyone's attention.

The Moors halted and so did the meat. The human was the only one who looked over his shoulder, and there was absolute terror in his eyes.

"One. Last. Thing." Rehv smiled tightly, keeping his sharp canines to himself. "If Chrissy quits, I'm going to assume its because you forced her to, and I will come after you for my pecuniary losses." Rehv leaned forward. "And bear in mind, I don't need the money, but I'm a sadist, so I get a hard-on hurting people. Next time, I'll be taking my piece out of your hide, not your wallet or what's parked in your driveway. Keys? Trez?"

The Moor crammed his hand into the back pocket of the guy's Z Brands and tossed over a key chain.

"Don't worry about getting me the title," Rehv said as he caught it. "Where your Ass-cura is ending up, we don't need paperwork to transfer ownership. Bye for now."

As the door shut behind the drama, Rehv glanced at the key ring. The tag hanging off of it read, SUNY NEW PALTZ.

"What?" he said without looking up.

Xhex's voice was low, seeping out from the dark corner of the office, where she always watched fun and games go down. "If he does it one more time, I want to take care of it."

Rehv fisted the keys and leaned back in his chair. Even if he said no, if Chrissy got cracked again his chief of security would probably roll out a beat-down anyway. Xhex was not like his other employees. Xhex wasn't like anybody.

Well, that wasn't entirely true. She was like him. Half symphath.

Or half sociopath, as was the case.

"You watch the girl," he said to her. "If that sonofabitch gets busy with his class ring again, we'll do a coin toss for who gets to fuck him up."

"I watch all your girls." Xhex walked over to the door, moving with smooth power. She was built like a male, tall and muscular, but she wasn't coarse. In spite of her Annie Lennox haircut and her tight body, she wasn't some bulky she-male bitchsicle in her standard uniform of black muscle shirt and black leathers. No, Xhex was lethal in the elegant way of a blade: quick, decisive, sleek.

And like all daggers she loved drawing blood.

"It's the first Tuesday of the month," she said as she put her hand on the door.

As if he didn't know. "I'm leaving in a half hour."

The door opened and closed, the sound of the club on the other side flaring, then getting cut off.

Rehv lifted his palm. The blood flow was already stopping, and the hole would be closed in another twenty minutes. By midnight nothing would show of the penetration.

He thought of the moment when he'd impaled himself. To feel nothing of your body was an odd kind of paralysis. Although you moved, you didn't recognize the weight of the clothes on your back or whether your shoes were too tight or if the ground beneath your feet was uneven or slippery.

He missed his body, but either he took the dopamine and dealt with the side effects or he tangoed with his evil side. And that was one MMA fight he wasn't sure he could win.

Rehv palmed his cane and carefully eased himself up out of his chair. As a result of his numbness, balance was a bitch and gravity wasn't his friend, so the trip over to the panel on the wall took longer than it should have. When he got over to it, he placed his palm on a raised square and a door-sized panel slid back, all Star Trek and shit.

The black bedroom-and-bath suite that was revealed was one of his three crash pads, and for some reason it had the best shower. Probably because with only a couple hundred square feet, the whole place could go tropical just by running the damn thing.

And when you were cold all the time, that was a serious value-add.

Stripping off his clothes and starting the water, he did a quick shave while he waited for the spray to get nuclear hot. While he ran the razor down his cheeks, the male staring back at him was the same as always. Cropped mohawk. Amethyst eyes. Tattoos on his chest and abs. Long cock lying loose between his legs.

He thought about where he had to go tonight and his vision changed, a red haze gradually replacing all the colors of his sight. He wasn't surprised. Violence had a way of coaxing his evil nature free, like food laid out to the starved, and he'd had only a sweet lick of the plate back in his office just now.

Under normal circumstances, it would be time for more dopamine. His chemical savior kept the worst of his symphath urges at bay, swapping them for hypothermia and impotence and numbness. The side effects sucked, but you had to do what you had to do, and lies required upkeep.

As well as performance.

His blackmailer demanded performance.

Palming his cock, like he could protect it from what it was going to have to do later tonight, he went over and tested the water. Even though steam was thickening the air until he felt like he was breathing cream, the shit wasn't hot enough. It never was.

He rubbed his eyes with his free hand. The red in his vision persisted, but it was a good thing. Better to meet his blackmailer on like terms. Evil to evil. Symphath to symphath.

Rehv stepped under the spray, the blood that he'd spilled washing away. As he soaped up his skin, he felt dirty already, totally unclean. The feeling was just going to be worse by the time dawn came.

Yeah...he knew precisely why his working girls steamed up their locker room at the end of their shifts. Whores loved hot water. Soap and hot water. Sometimes that and a wash-cloth were all that got you through the night.

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