Book: Led Astray: The Best of Kelley Armstrong

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An Otherworld Universe Story

The man on the subway car was dead. He looked like he was just passed out drunk, but Roger wasn’t fooled.

The dead man slumped against the window, eyes closed. His mouth hung open, one cheek damp with drool. A teenage girl started to slide in beside the dead man, then stopped, nostrils flaring as the stink of BO and booze hit her. She quickly moved on.

The man hadn’t been dead long. The blood dripping down his neck still glistened. Three drops of it had fallen on his dingy white shirt, forming an ellipse. To be continued, the mark said. Fate’s idea of a joke, Roger supposed.

When Roger saw the twin puncture wounds on the dead man’s neck, he’d thought of finding another seat. But by then, the vampires had spotted him, and he’d had to sit down. Pretend he didn’t realize the old man was dead. Pretend he didn’t know they were there.

Roger never doubted that they were vampires. He knew what those neck wounds meant. Any fool should. The fact that the local media failed to draw the same conclusion about two other blood-drained corpses proved his suspicions regarding their collective IQ level.

He supposed the real question should be: How did vampires manage to drain a man’s blood on the subway? A tragic reflection on modern society. The bigger tragedy was that Roger wasn’t surprised.

He looked around at his fellow commuters. The teenage girl had taken a seat across the car, earbuds planted, music blasting, gaze fixed on the nothingness zooming past her window. Opposite Roger, a businesswoman’s fingers flew over her cell phone keyboard. A man in a coal-gray suit was trying to catch her attention, a mission as futile as flirting with the metal pole between them. Two more men sat farther down, hidden behind their newspapers. They shared a subway car, but they might as well have been in hermetically sealed pods for all the attention they paid to their surroundings.

The only ones who were paying attention were the vampires. Two of them. Neither looked like he’d passed his twentieth birthday. Both were dressed in leather jackets, motorcycle boots, worn jeans and tattoos. Their fingernails were clean though, even their beard stubble carefully cultivated. Wannabe thugs, the kind you could find on any city street corner, attracting girls who thought they’d be a safe walk on the wild side. All bark, no bite. These boys, though, had plenty of bite.

He’d known they were the vampires the moment he’d realized what happened to the old man. It wasn’t the flush of color on their pale cheeks. It wasn’t even the faint smear of blood in the corner of the older one’s mouth. It was the eyes of the younger. Hard, vacant, empty eyes.

The train slowed for the next stop. A transfer station. The businesswoman snapped her phone shut and walked past, giving Roger an appraising glance that earned him a glower from the would-be suitor dogging her heels. The other two men got off, too. Roger didn’t. That would be the smart thing, he supposed, under the circumstances, but that would mean leaving the teenage girl alone with the vampires. So he’d stay.

As the train pulled from the station, the younger vampire said, “What are you looking at, old man?”

Roger glanced over his shoulder, thinking someone else must have gotten on.

“I mean you, old man.”

He turned and met the boy’s empty eyes. Old man? He could have laughed at that. The businesswoman certainly didn’t seem to think he was old. But, he supposed, to this boy, he was.

“I asked what you’re looking at.”

Roger thought of saying “not much,” but it didn’t seem wise. Nor did denying that he’d been looking. So he murmured an apology and fixed his gaze on the dead man, then quickly shifted it to the window.

The seat beside Roger squeaked. He glanced over to see the older vampire sitting there, arms crossed, staring at him.

Roger nodded. The vampire scowled, and thumped his leg down on the seat opposite them, blocking Roger’s exit and smirking a challenge. Roger nodded again and returned to gazing out the window.

“That old guy’s really tired, huh?” the vampire beside him said.

Roger considered pretending not to hear him, but settled for a vague, “Hmm?”

The vampire waved at the old man slumped in his seat. “Dead to the world.”

Roger managed a small laugh. “Looks that way.”

“Maybe he’s not sleeping.”

Roger peered at the old man. “I think you’re right. From the smell of him, he’s passed out drunk.”

The vampire caught his eye. “Should I check?”

Roger shrugged. “If you like.”

The vampire didn’t like that. He said nothing, though, just squirmed in his seat, glancing over and then, waiting for Roger to realize he was sitting across from a dead man.

Roger took out his calendar and flipped through it, checking his appointments for the week.

“You’d better not be planning to get off anytime soon,” the vampire said.

“I’m not.”

A pause, then the vampire called to his friend across the aisle. “Tasty, isn’t she?”

Roger glanced over to see the younger vampire sitting beside the teenage girl. She was still staring out the window, music cranked up, oblivious.

“Very tasty.” The younger vampire leaned over and inhaled. “She even smells good.”

Roger returned to his calendar. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the younger vampire poised over the girl, his gaze shunted Roger’s way, waiting for a reaction. When none came, he growled and the older vampire snatched the calendar from Roger’s fingers.

“You won’t be needing this.” He tore the book in half and dropped it on the subway floor. “Something tells me there won’t be any more appointments in your future, old man.”

The younger vampire laughed. The train slowed, pulling into a station.

“Actually, I believe this is my stop,” Roger said, standing.

The vampire put his feet up on the seat, blocking Roger’s path again. “No, I believe it isn’t. You’re going all the way to the end of the line, old man.” He flashed a smile, fangs extending.

Roger froze. He glanced out the window and waited until the train stopped, doors opening. Then he scrambled over the blond vampire’s legs. The younger vampire lunged, but Roger dodged and made it out the doors, the vampires on his heels.

As the door closed behind them, the younger vampire let out a string of curses, realizing he’d lost the girl. Roger barreled through the sleepy late-evening commuters. A guard shouted. Roger glanced over, but the man’s gaze was fixed on the vampires behind him—the thugs chasing the middle-aged businessman through the station.

Roger broke into a jog and raced out the exit as the guard called for backup.

Roger made it to the road, only to find he’d exited into a section of downtown that had closed hours ago. Office buildings lined the road, only the occasional lighted window suggesting signs of life.

He looked up and down the empty street.

“No cabs out here, old man,” a voice called.

He turned to see the two vampires sauntering toward him, teeth glittering under the sickly glow of the streetlights.

“No cabs, no buses, no cops . . .” the younger one said. “Guess you should have stayed on the subway. Let me finish the girl. Maybe I’d have let you go. Now I’m hungry. And the more you make me run, the hungrier I’m going to get.”

Roger took off.

After ten minutes of running, Roger began to reflect that he really needed to add a workout routine to his daily schedule. Seemed those boys were right. He really was getting old.

He veered down another back road. His shoes thumped against the pavement, as loud as a locomotive chugging along the tracks, the sound echoing through the emptiness.

That was the only sound he heard, though. Had he lost them? He turned into an alley, gaze fixed over his shoulder, watching and listening for—

A thump in front of him. He spun to see the older vampire standing there, the fire escape overhead still vibrating from his leap.

“Gotcha,” the vampire said, flashing his fangs.

“Actually, no. To get me, you needed to jump down after I passed you and found myself trapped in a dead-end alley.”

The vampire frowned, momentarily thrown. He recovered with a grin. “Maybe I don’t want to trap you. Maybe I like running.”

“True, but I don’t. Getting old, as you so graciously pointed out. Which is why I appreciate what you’ve done—trapping yourself between me and that dead end.”

Roger smiled. A wide, teeth-baring smile.

The vampire blinked. “What the—?”

He didn’t get a chance to finish the sentence.

Roger crouched on the fire escape. He could hear the younger vampire stomping along the empty street, calling to his buddy, his tone taking on a crackly edge of worry.

Roger stomped on the fire escape floor. The metal twanged, and the boy raced into the alley, then stopped and looked around.

“Tim?” he said.

Roger dropped from the fire escape. He didn’t thump when he hit the pavement. You don’t reach his age by being noisy and careless.

“Tim?” the boy called, louder.

“Over there,” Roger said.

The boy whirled, stumbling. Seeing Roger, he tried to find a suitably menacing glower, but couldn’t quite manage it.

“Over there.” Roger pointed at the trash bags littering the end of the alley. A boot stuck out from behind one. “And over there.” He pointed to a lock of blond hair peeking from behind another. “I think there’s part of a hand over there, too, but that was an accident. Getting old. The reflexes are the first thing to go.”

The boy looked from body part to body part, then turned to stare at Roger.

“You know what else happens when you get old?” Roger continued. “You get comfortable. Set in your ways. You find a city like this.” He waved around them. “You settle in. You make it your own. And you really, really hate it when some young bloods waltz in and crap all over the place.” He ran his tongue over his teeth, letting his fangs extend. “It’s very inconvenient.”

The boy backed up. “I—I didn’t know . . .”

“But you should. It’s basic respect. You don’t have it and, I’m sorry to say, it doesn’t look like anything you’re capable of learning. Now I need to clean up the mess you made.”

The boy bolted. He managed to dodge Roger and raced onto the road. But he didn’t get far.

Roger was finishing up when his cell phone rang. He checked the call display. Leslie.

“Please tell me you’re on your way,” she said when he answered.

“On my way. . . ?”

“To Fresno’s? For drinks? At eleven?”

He swore.

“Forgot, didn’t you?” she said with a chuckle. “You’re getting old, Roger.”

“So I’ve been told.” He sighed and finished tucking the young vampire’s body behind the trash bags. “So I’ve been told.”

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