Vampire Council: Hunted
A road trip with a killer is not how Carmen wanted to travel to the opening ceremonies of the Convocation. But someone has been murdering her kind, and her traveling companion might be the only chance Carmen has to make it to the annual meeting of vampire society in one piece.

Assuming he doesn’t simply take Carmen out himself.

Only a week remains before the Convocation, where the vampires will gather to witness their mysterious Council, the strongest of their kind, make new laws and pass judgment on transgressors.

Carmen has no choice but to attend. The only question is which threat is more deadly: those that pursue her, those that wait for her, or the one traveling beside her….

A Sample from Chapter 1...

Ryan arrived early, as usual. He was punctual and thought ill of those who weren’t. Time was precious when you had little left, and Ryan knew his own time was short. Sooner or later his luck would run out.

He was satisfied to see she had also arrived early. He didn’t have her description; only a name, time, and location where they were supposed to meet. Even with that limited information she was easy to spot.

She sat alone at the bar nursing a Mai Tai, a drink that was a couple of decades out of fashion. Despite an air of self-assurance, her tension was obvious. Her posture was stiff under the little black dress, a manicured nail tapped the side of her glass, and she periodically scanned the bar, eyes darting nervously among the patrons waiting for their turn to be seated. Her gaze rested on Ryan for a moment before moving on in dismissal.

She was older than Ryan’s own twenty-nine years; he placed her somewhere in her mid-thirties. She was slender, with shapely but not excessively muscular arms and legs, and dark shoulder-length hair cut in a style that said boardroom rather than nightclub.

When she turned for her next scan of the room Ryan got a better look at her. She was beautiful. Her brown eyes crackled with life despite being burdened by obvious worry. By the confident way she held herself Ryan knew she was unused to being at a disadvantage, and he imagined the unfamiliar situation bothered her.

Ryan didn’t allow himself relationships. It was one of his rules. In his business, relationships could only end in tragedy. Every so often he encountered a woman who made him regret his choice. Take this one, for example. On a purely superficial level Ryan could see spending his life with her: she was beautiful, classy, self-confident, and knew how to dress.

Of course, she was probably a bitch. Her type usually was. The main advantage to Ryan’s “no relationships” rule was that he never had the opportunity to be disappointed by one.

Ryan glanced up from his menu and took a harder look at the lady he was supposed to protect. He stripped aside the surface qualities and found a tired woman on the run. Her dress was slightly disheveled; her makeup was rubbed thin in some places but not others. He guessed she probably put it on some time ago and had no opportunity to touch it up, possibly even sleeping with it on.

Ryan was surprised he had missed those things on his first pass. He normally did a better job sizing people up. He had been so enamored by her first impression that he had gotten tunnel vision, missed the important details; another thing he couldn’t afford to do in his profession.

Ryan stood by the hostess podium feigning interest in the menu for another half a minute. He had no intention of eating there and even if he had he wouldn’t need the menu to order. This chain restaurant served the exact same food for greater America as its six or seven nation-wide competitors. Ryan was positive he could name a dozen things that the eatery offered without the bother of a menu. He assumed it was why these types of places were so popular among the sheeple. It was all about sameness and consistency; people took comfort in those qualities.

What he did instead was make sure neither he nor the lady had been followed. He always checked for tails, even though he was usually the one doing the following. It was another of his rules: just because you were a predator, didn’t mean you weren’t someone else’s prey.

In his line of work it always paid to be careful. Being sloppy could cost you your life. The job to protect this woman was an anomaly. Ryan didn’t protect people, he killed them. Well, not people. Things. He killed things. Vampires, werewolves, faeries, trolls, demons, witches — it didn’t matter, Ryan killed ’em all.

This was a special case. Ryan’s oldest friend had asked him for a favor. Some vampires were after this woman, and Ryan had agreed to make sure they didn’t get her, at least until she could reach the safety of Chicago. What happened to her after that, and why they were after her in the first place, Ryan didn’t know and didn’t care.

It didn’t bother him that he was out of his element. He figured the bodyguard duty would be the same thing as hunting monsters, only easier. This time the monsters would be coming to him.

Though he doubted it would come to that. Ryan planned on depositing her in Chicago by breakfast the next morning. He figured the worst part of the job would be the line at airport security and the gropey TSA agents.

It had been years since Ryan had been to Chicago. The first thing he planned to do after delivering this woman safe and sound was to catch a White Sox game at Cellular Field. Assuming everything went as scheduled, he’d be eating a hotdog, drinking a beer, and watching the Sox take on Detroit this time tomorrow night.

Ryan didn’t know why Bill wanted the woman protected. Maybe she was a relative that he had never mentioned before, maybe she knew some secret that Bill wanted, or maybe he was doing it just to piss the vampires off. Whatever the reason, it was none of Ryan’s business. He trusted the man asking the favor implicitly. If Bill wanted it done, that was good enough reason for Ryan.

Ryan didn’t have many friends for the same reason he didn’t get emotionally involved with women. He didn’t want them to get hurt, or risk the chance that they would be used against him. Bill was the exception to his rule, one of the handful of people Ryan would call a friend. So when Bill asked him to make sure this lady made it to Chicago, Ryan agreed immediately. He abandoned the break he was taking after chasing that werewolf all over the Sierras, loaded up the car, and made a beeline for the San Francisco Bay Area.

A long time ago Bill had saved Ryan’s life from the very things he now hunted. Since then he became Ryan’s closest friend, almost a father to him. Not that they saw each other much; they lived in different states and both had careers. Ryan’s was hunting monsters; Bill’s was running an import business. Antiques and artwork out of Europe.

On the rare occasions they did get together, they spent the night reminiscing or talking about current affairs. Sometimes they just sat and had a few drinks, quietly wasting away the time on Ryan’s back patio.

Periodically Bill would contact Ryan about a job. Bill traveled a lot and knew what to look for and when he found something he’d call Ryan. It was a good fit; Bill had a knack for finding things that needed killing and Ryan had a knack for killing them.

Ryan hoped this job would involve none of that. He placed the menu back in the holder on the side of the hostess podium, satisfied that no one else in the room was interested in the lady—or at least unusually interested. With her looks, every straight guy in the place had already noticed her. But it was a restaurant bar, and most of the guys were either with dates or their families. Their loss.

Ryan sat down next to her, got the bartender’s attention and, like the woman beside him, ordered an archaic drink. A CC7. It would be his last drink until they got to Chicago. He didn’t drink on duty. Everything he hunted was stronger and faster than he was, and he couldn’t afford the slightest handicap. He shouldn’t be having this one, but Bill had warned him that the lady was a handful. Ryan wasn’t a patient man, so he figured he might need it.

The bartender doubled his tip by not only knowing what it was that he ordered, but having the Canadian Club on hand. They didn’t have 7-Up of course, so Ryan had to settle for one of the poor substitutes, but he didn’t ding the man for the restaurant’s questionable stocking decisions.

Ryan took a sip of his drink as the lady turned to him with an expression of practiced patience. She assumed he was about to drop a line on her and was clearly ready to give him the preemptive brush off. She had done it so often that it was automatic.

Ryan set his drink down and faced her. Damn, she was even more beautiful up close. Something in his chest jumped, but he quickly beat it into submission and headed the woman off before she could tell him to take a hike.

“Ryan. I’m your escort to Chicago,” he said, extending his hand.

“You’re Ryan?”

The woman gave him the once-over, not bothering to hide her displeasure or take the proffered hand.

# # #

Carmen appraised the man opposite her. It was something she was good at, sizing people up. He was somewhere between twenty-five and thirty. Tall, well built, not overweight. It was hard to say exactly how fit he was; he wore a heavyweight dark green shirt tucked into loose-fitting black pants covered in pockets, and over it all he had thrown a baggy tan canvas jacket. None of it was fashionable, no matter how many decades you went back.

The rest of him was clean cut: chiseled features with short-cropped brown hair. He was definitely more ruggedly handsome than pretty boy. A thin white scar started below his right eye and ran a few inches down the side of his cheek. Another more obvious one crossed his chin. But most telling was his demeanor. The way he carried himself had a cool, hard edge that she recognized well. The man was a killer.

When Charles said he was sending protection, Carmen had assumed the person she was to meet would be the head of a security detail, not a single man. She assumed he would be a professional, not a thug. She was used to security wearing suits. They blended in to the types of places she frequented. It was why she had dismissed him when she saw him at the podium earlier. She decided that the only place this man would blend into would be a homeless shelter or, more optimistically, a blue collar dive bar full of unemployed construction workers.

But Charles had been confident, almost too confident, and in all the years Carmen had known Charles, he had never let her down.

Even so, she was beginning to feel she had made a mistake going to him. Carmen had been a little shaken when she heard the news. Three more attacks. One more of their own had been killed. Peter and Elizabeth had only narrowly escaped with their lives. That’s what prompted Carmen to ask for help in the first place.

But a full day had passed since then. Carmen had calmed down, began to make peace with Henry’s death, and now was quite sure she could handle matters herself. But first she had to figure out what to do with the “protection” that Charles sent.

# # #

“I wouldn’t lie to you, you’re too pretty,” Ryan said in response to her skepticism.

“I’ve always found the opposite to be true. Men lie to the pretty ones the most.”

“Only men that can’t get what they want by playing it straight.” Ryan noted that she had no accent. It was a thing he listened for automatically. It helped in his line of work, especially identifying vampires. They had certain tells: under thirty, attractive, slightly elongated and sharp canine teeth, pale skin, faint accents leftover from wherever and whenever they were from. Many tended to hold on to little bits of their past: a piece of fashion, an affectation, outdated turns of phrase.

She cocked an eyebrow, looking into his cold gray eyes. “And I take it you play it straight, and have no problems getting what you want?”

When their eyes met Ryan’s heart did that thing again. He wasn’t sure what it was about her, but whatever it was, it worked. “I do when I get the chance, but my vocation doesn’t exactly lend itself to a whole lot of opportunity, if you know what I’m saying.”

“Are you telling me you don’t encounter pretty girls in your line of work?”

“Not that don’t end up dead.”

It was true. Hunters tended to be predominantly men, and not necessarily attractive ones. The women he encountered while hunting were either monsters or were so damaged by monsters as to be off limits.

Even when he found a woman he liked he never allowed a relationship to move forward, at least not anything long-term. Getting close to someone was just leverage for the other side, something that could be used against you. One of the things that gave him an edge was that he had nothing left in the world he cared about losing, nothing of consequence that anyone could take away from him.

A long time ago that had been different, but not anymore. Now he did the taking, and he planned on keeping it that way.

# # #

Carmen watched his expression change. It was like reading an open book. First cocky, then thoughtful, then angry. Probably at being such a failure at what he did. What the hell kind of bodyguard had Charles sent her? Not only was he bad at it, he freely admitted it.

“Well, at least you aren’t overconfident in your abilities. So, you’ve been doing this long?” Carmen asked, taking a sip from her layered, multi-colored drink.

“Awhile,” Ryan answered.

“And people still hire you?” Her trust in Charles was being shaken like a martini. Carmen wondered if Charles owed the guy a favor and was giving him a pity job. She made a mental note to, next time she saw Charles, to thank him properly for sending this guy.

“Most of the time I do it for free, why?”

“That makes more sense. I can’t see too many people lining up for a bodyguard with your track record.”

“What are you talking about?” Ryan frowned.

The guy was slow, Carmen thought. Maybe he was some distant cousin to Charles. She knew they used to inbreed a lot on that island Charles came from. “I thought that, since most of your clients ended up dead, you probably couldn’t be charging too much of a premium.”

Ryan’s look had gone blank with confusion at her last statement. She waited for him to drool, but a light bulb flickered to life behind his eyes. The revelation was plain as day. The man smiled and let out a chuckle. “Oh! No, see, I don’t normally do this type of work. I’m more offense than defense. In fact this protection thing is a first for me.”

It was becoming obvious to her that Charles was trying to do two favors at once: hook Carmen up with a bodyguard, and supply this lug with a job. It would have been a noble gesture if it wasn’t going to cost Carmen her life. She couldn’t believe Charles would do this to her.

“Wonderful.” Carmen speared the cherry in her drink with a quick jab of her narrow red straw. She pretended it was Charles while she wiped the offending fruit onto her napkin.

The man adjusted slightly in his stool. “Don’t worry, I got you covered. This will be just like killing, but in reverse. Hey, you’re not going to eat that?” Without waiting for an answer, Ryan took the cherry from her napkin and popped it in his mouth and washed it down with a swig of Canadian Club and 7-Up substitute. He held up the stem. “I met a girl once who could tie one of these things in a knot with her tongue. I guess everybody’s got a talent, right?”

When she frowned rather than answering, Ryan gave a shrug, and then reached into his glass with his fingers to try to pluck out his own maraschino cherry. A CC7 shouldn’t have had a cherry, but Ryan liked them so he forgave the bartender for the faux pas. “These little guys are the best part.”

Carmen’s frown deepened. “You’re not even a—” She stopped herself and closed her eyes for a moment, reining in her mounting anger. Once it was under control she continued.

“Look, no offense, but I thought this was a bad idea when Charles first suggested it, and I’m thinking it’s an even worse one now.”

After the cherry fell to the bottom of his glass, Ryan gave up using his fingers and picked up Carmen’s discarded straw. “No idea who Charles is, but I wouldn’t worry yourself about it. By tomorrow morning you’ll be safe and sound in Chicago, and I’ll be out of your hair forever. We’ll both be happier.” Ryan’s brow creased as the cherry managed to adeptly dodge the straw. He tilted the glass as much as he could without spilling and redoubled his efforts to skewer the uncooperative red orb.

“By tomorrow? And how exactly do you propose we do that?” Carmen cocked her head and crossed her arms waiting for the answer.

# # #

There it was. Ryan knew she had been too perfect. Not only was she in fact bitchy, which he had assumed, but she was obviously a little slow to boot. She had the looks to get away with it. Most men would forgive her because of that, but not Ryan. He liked his women to have at least a modicum of intelligence.

He tried not to let his disappointment in her cognitive ability show as he set his glass down on the bar, cherry resting happily at the bottom. “The same way most people get from California to Chicago: by airplane. We’ll be catching the 11:45 out of SFO. I already checked, and there are still open seats. If we leave now we’ll make it to the airport in plenty of time. It’s even a non-stop flight; the trip should take less than five hours. With the time difference, you’ll be in Chicago at dawn. We’ll grab a cab to wherever it is you want to go, and voila—we’re done. Easiest gig I’ve had all year.”

“Are you crazy?”

“Excuse me?”

“I couldn’t take that flight even if I wanted to. Which I don’t.”

“Why not? Oh, don’t tell me you’re on the no-fly list.”

Christ, Ryan thought, who was this woman? If she was a fugitive from justice it was going to seriously up the difficulty of getting her to Chicago. Ryan knew Bill had been hiding something about her. He had sensed it. He’d hoped it was something less inconvenient like uncontrollable body odor, or Tourette’s syndrome.

Carmen shook her head. This guy was some combination of dense and mathematically challenged. It would be daylight before they got out of the airport. “No, I’m not a terrorist, I simply don’t do airplanes. Flying is unnatural. And even if I did fly, that time doesn’t work for me.”

Just peachy, thought Ryan. This complicated things. It meant a road trip. It meant spending the better part of a week with this woman. So much for his ballgame. His hotdog. His beer. They would still make it to Chicago by Friday, of course, but it would be too late. The Sox would have left the city for their game against Cleveland.

He thought back to last night when Bill called. Bill had asked for Ryan’s help finding someone to handle an impossible job. He desperately needed to find the best bodyguard there was, one who could not only handle vampires, but a high-maintenance and thoroughly difficult client.

Ryan immediately offered, but Bill had declined, saying this client was important and he needed someone with experience. When Ryan persisted Bill stressed that the client would be exceptionally difficult to work with, and he wasn’t sure Ryan could handle it.

Bill had baited him perfectly, and they both knew it. It was a game they played. But Ryan was still going to punch Bill in the jaw next time he saw the man. He owed him that much for thrusting this piece of work on him.

“Fine. We’ll drive,” Ryan said, wondering if maybe buying the lady a nail file and some bubble gum would keep her quiet until Chicago.

“I think I’ll pass.”

“Relax. Babysitting you is not my idea of a good time, either, but a lady in your predicament can’t be too careful or too picky. Going to Chicago alone when you’ve got someone trying to kill you is stupid, and just because I don’t usually do this type of work doesn’t mean I’m not good at it.”

“No, that’s usually exactly what it means.” Carmen reflected that not only was this man rude, he was also as dumb as a post. The only thing he could possibly protect would be attendance figures in a remedial class.

“Look, I gave a guy my word that I would get you safely to Chicago, and that’s what I’m going to do. What you’re going to do is listen to everything I say, and do everything I ask. Do that and you’ll make it to Chicago alive. After that,” Ryan shrugged, “you won’t be my problem.”

Carmen was losing patience. She had come all the way up to the Bay Area from L.A. for this? She could have been in Las Vegas by now, safe with her friend Sylvia.

If Charles hadn’t personally vouched for this man, Carmen would have hauled him into the parking lot and had him for dinner. She was hungry. She hadn’t eaten in two days and it made her crankier than usual, which is why she was particularly proud of her self-control when she smiled and said, “While I appreciate your misplaced optimism, I’m better off without you.”

“No offense, honey, but if bloodsuckers are after you, you don’t have a prayer without me.”

“Bloodsuckers?” Both of Carmen’s brows raised up this time.

“Yeah, you know, vampires? You do know that’s what’s after you, right?”

Ryan sincerely hoped she did. It would make things even harder if she were in denial about them. Most people were. Vampires were fiction as far as they were concerned. But Ryan wanted to assume, seeing as they were trying to kill her and all, she would at least know they existed. He let out a sigh. This job was going from bad to worse.

“Yes, I’m quite aware of that,” Carmen said, using three fingers to rub one temple. By the man’s tone it was becoming obvious that he had no idea who she was, or simply didn’t care.

“Okay, good, that helps. Now don’t worry, I specialize in bloodsuckers.” Ryan tried an encouraging smile, which Carmen thought made him look even slower.

“Charming. Again, thank you for the offer, but I’ll take my chances on my own.”

“You don’t understand. I’m here to help you,” Ryan said.

Carmen could sense his mounting frustration, probably exacerbated by her use of words larger than one syllable. But she decided to give him one last break for Charles’ sake. Maybe this guy really needed the money and was seeing his payday slip away.

“Don’t worry ­— I’m aware you’re being paid for this job. I’ll make sure you get your money, okay? I’ll see to it that Charles pays you, right after I slap him in the face for sending a goon to look after me.”

Goon? Ryan had been called worse, but he still had some pride. He thought he at least rated “thug” or even “muscle.” Goon was kind of low down on the minion totem pole.

His patience was gone. It was time to set things straight with her.

“Okay, let’s try this again. It wasn’t an offer. A good friend of mine asked me, as a personal favor, to haul your ungrateful ass across the country and make sure that you reach the other side alive. Don’t ask me why. After meeting you I can’t come up with a good reason for it myself. But I gave him my word, and I never go back on my word.”

It was clear the goon was going to continue with his tirade, but Carmen didn’t care. She was done. She removed her fingers form her temple and used them to make a stop sign, extending her palm out toward his face. “Spare me the ‘I have to do this out of honor’ speech. Now if you’ll please excuse me, I have to go.”

Carmen rose to leave, but Ryan snaked out a hand to catch her wrist. She tried to pull away and found, though his grip was gentle, it was unyielding.

Ryan gave the woman the stare he normally reserved for creatures he was about to snuff out. He had honed the menacing scowl over the years, and was particularly proud of it. “Look lady, either you come willingly and we can enjoy the beautiful countryside this great country has to offer while we roll down the highway playing the license plate game and singing songs, or I can knock you out, tie you up, and toss you in the trunk. Either way I’m personally delivering you to Chicago.”

# # #

Even though the man was strong, Carmen knew she could break the grip, along with his arm. But his move had already garnered unwanted attention from the bartender. If she damaged him here she would have a mess to sort out.

Carmen’s brow furrowed, her eyes traveling from his hand on her wrist to his face. It had been a long time since anyone had talked to her like this. Decades, in fact. Even longer since anyone had dared grab her. The last person who did experienced a sudden, forcible separation of his head from his body.

But she couldn’t stop a smile from playing at her lips. It had been a while since she encountered anyone quite so bullheaded. As dumb as this guy was, and as useless as he probably would be as a bodyguard, he might be amusing for a couple of days at least. He could serve as a distraction, and with everything going on maybe it would help get her mind off things.

And once she became bored with him, she could have a nice meal and then discard the dullard somewhere along that beautiful countryside he’d mentioned.

“Fine,” she said, sitting back down. He released her wrist and she extended her hand to him. “I’m Carmen.”

# # #

Ryan looked at the proffered hand, thought about stiffing her like she had done him when he tried to shake earlier, but took it anyway. He didn’t shake a lot of women’s hands, and the ones he did were usually limp. Ryan didn’t care for limp handshakes. Every time he encountered one he felt himself having to retract his grip lest he crush them. Hers wasn’t limp; it was firm and confident. Pleasant, if cool.

Ryan was a little unsettled by the predatory grin that had crept its way into the lady’s features. Something about it troubled him. But he shrugged it off. There was no way she could be worse that the monsters he normally tangled with.

Buy Now