Moonshine Excerpt

Chapter One:

I skidded on a patch of ice as I rounded the corner onto Lafayette, only years of experience saving me as I tottered in the bare twelve inches between a shuttered horse-drawn hansom and Model-T. The white-gloved matron behind the wheel had clearly come to regard her motor vehicle the way one might a pet cat that always vanished at the full moon, and the sight of my bicycle sliding gracefully past broke her little remaining self-control. I can’t imagine what she found so terrifying about me. Unless it was the grin I couldn’t keep from my face as I dared the January ice. Daddy always did say I was too reckless in winter.

The matron shrieked and discovered the purpose of that curious little button in the middle of her steering wheel. Her car swerved–thankfully away from the horses, which were even now whinnying and snorting in agitation. I made it past the hansom and auto moments before one of the horses reared and whacked the Model-T’s gleaming rear fender. I winced. Two more seconds and that would have been my stomach.

Damn Tammany, I fumed. Like it would kill those bastards to do something useful like fixing roads in between winning elections? Tonight, of course, the criminally narrow streets were relatively clear. No one respectable wanted to be out after sundown on a new moon. I checked my watch–quarter ’til eight–and pedaled faster. It wouldn’t do for the teacher to be tardy to her own class. Especially not this class. And especially not on a new moon.

That’s when I saw it, of course. Just a huddled shadow on an unspeakably dirty street that hundreds of people had probably passed by today without comment. I sailed past it, too, before something made me dig my heels into the ground and turn around to ride back. It wasn’t as though the back of my neck prickled, or I felt a tell-tale shiver crawl up my skin. I can’t do anything like that, no matter what my students might whisper about me. But I do have a knack for noticing. It’s a skill my Daddy cultivated, since I can’t shoot fish in a barrel and he needed his eldest to be good at something.

I had to kick the spokes to turn the handlebar hard right, then jigger them back out again so I could straighten the wheel. I crashed over the drainage ditch and slid on the worn soles of my boots over the sidewalk. I was deep in the shadow of a monolithic, grimy tenement–the kind that put me in mind of hollow-eyed immigrant children chained to beds by unscrupulous landlords so they won’t escape. They hired vampire guards in those kinds of hell-holes. I shuddered and looked, suddenly, back at the street. Deserted. I think the hair on the back of my neck would have risen then, if it weren’t already smothered by the respectable starch of my shirt collar.

I walked closer to the crawlspace–too small to even be an alley–between the tenement and a former munitions warehouse. A rat, startled by my approach, scrambled over a gray heap that was barely distinguishable from the other refuse and shot into the gutter by my bicycle. My eyes adjusted to the gloom. I could finally see the faint outline of the innocuous little hump that had so firmly caught my attention. It was covered in a child-sized pea coat that smelled of damp wool. Shaking, because by God there is no way to get used to this, no matter how long I’ve lived in this city, I pulled back the cloth. I saw a boy, with hair much redder than my own ochre-tinged brown. His skin was so pale beneath a shock of freckles that I knew what had happened even before I spotted the telltale punctures on his neck.

I sat back on my heels and clenched my teeth. His neck held seven separate wounds–shallow and rough, like they’d been teasing him. I’d bet that if I pulled down the collared shirt and suit jacket–finely made, but worn–I’d see more along his back and arms. It looked like some sort of hazing ritual, and maybe a bit of revenge. It looked like the Turn Boys, and was just one more reason for me to despise them. The young vampire gang ran roughshod over their chosen kingdom of Little Italy and the greater Lower East Side. This poor kid was rather far down Lafayette for their activities, but I didn’t doubt for a minute who had done this. I’d seen enough of their work to know.

A solitary car sped behind me on the road, sending a spray of icy mud over my bicycle and splashing onto my blue tweed skirt. I glanced at my watch. Ten minutes ’til eight. Damn. I had just enough time to speed down to the police station, report the body and get to class. But I also knew what the police would do when they got him. They didn’t take any chances–especially not with the anonymous immigrant children. Too many kids went missing to waste the precious time hunting in one of the hundreds of lower Manhattan tenements for a distraught mother who probably didn’t speak any English. So they took them to the morgues, turned up the electric lights, and staked them. Sometimes they cut off their heads for good measure, if turning looked likely.

This boy wouldn’t keep his head.

He reminded me a bit of my little brother Harry, back in Montana. The same freckles and shock of red hair. He wore one forlorn blue mitten–the other must have fallen off in the struggle.

“Zephyr,” I told myself sternly, attempting to speak some sense to my paralyzed brain, “Harry still laughs about putting a beehive in your knickers. It ain’t him.”

At which good, rousing inducement to sanity I discovered myself scooping the pathetically light body from the ground and toting it back to my bicycle. I always knew the situation was serious when I resorted to country grammar.

I didn’t know what I was doing. I swear I almost never do–I operate on nothing but horrible instincts and a dash of self-preservation. I draped the boy around my shoulders, wrestled the handlebar straight and started back down the street. I could leave him in the school building. It ought to be safe.

I huffed and pedaled faster, sweating now with the exertion. The boy wasn’t heavy, but I’ve never been that strong and I’d just come back from a crisis across the bridge in Brooklyn. A Russian immigrant with a husband and kids, turned a week ago, had apparently missed the warning about alcohol. Or maybe she’d heard it, and dismissed it along with the rest of the Temperance Union’s hand-wringing hogwash. I might have had little personal experience with Demon Alcohol, but there was no comparison between what it did to my little sister when she found her way into Daddy’s stash, and what it did to Others unfortunate or reckless enough to imbibe. A fit of the giggles and a morning headache was nothing compared to…well, that.

The Russian vampire’s skin had turned red, they told me. Not just flushed, like your average speakeasy drunk. Oh no, blood red. It started to bead on her skin, like sweat. It dribbled from her mouth. Her children were terrified, of course. No one had told them what had happened to their mother–only that she was sick. A week’s legally-acquired blood puddled onto the floor, burning through the wood with its foul-smelling venom. The oldest child and the father ran away. The youngest must have frozen–with shock, fear, disbelief, God-only-knows–because he stayed behind. The father didn’t realize until it was too late. The mother–blood starved, drunk, newly-turned and not a little crazed–turned upon her child and fed. She realized what she had done when she was sated. Too late.

Troy’s pack of Defenders got to her first. He told me the woman begged them to stake her. They obliged, along with the boy. Kids are too dangerous to let turn. Or so Defenders like Troy claim. I know him from way back. Even before New York. He’d met my Daddy for some big, legendary Yeti hunt up in north Montana, and when I came down here I worked with his group for a while. I may not be much of a shot, but you can’t be the oldest daughter of the best demon hunter in Montana without learning a few tricks. I pulled my weight, but I had to leave. The Others might not be human, but they’re still people, you know? Troy never seemed to get that.

He called me in during the clean-up to deal with the new widower and his son. Said it called for a “delicate hand.” Troy thinks a strong jaw makes up for a lousy personality.

So I’d been on my bicycle all day and my tailbone felt like someone had been smashing it with a mallet and I had a dead boy–the kind you’re never supposed to let turn, if you’re an ignorant Other-phobe like Troy–who could double as a vampire pincushion draped across my neck and damn if I wasn’t getting some odd looks as I huffed my way through the busy Canal Street intersection. Why did things like this always happen to me?

I had to laugh, and saw my breath float away in the glare of the electric lamps. Because I’m certifiable.

* * *

Two minutes to eight, I shot past a snarl of traffic on Bowery and stopped at the corner of Rivington and Chrystie. Sweat dripped down my neck and made my shirt cling to my back. My buttocks were still quite wet. My toes seemed to have lost all feeling. I leaned, trembling, over the handlebars and panted. Behind me rose the ragged edifice of Chrystie Elementary, smog-crusted and sporadically heated. Only three of its classrooms are equipped with electric lighting, and even that is about as reliable as a succubus in heat. An immigrant school–with quite a few Others, no less–was not a high priority for our delightful city government.

The boy on my neck started to groan. Not a normal groan–you know, made of air and vocal chords and wholesome biology. A distinctly otherworldly one that should have been impossible for such a small child to make. It was too loud, for one thing, like a ship’s foghorn in my ears. Aside from his mouth, his body lay perfectly still. No air entered and exited his chest. I shuddered.

“Vampires are people,” I said quietly, to steady myself. I had not been present at many Awakenings, but I knew enough to realize that I had very little time to put the boy safely away. He looked barely eleven years old–he’d be wilder than most. I struggled off the bicycle just as the boy began to stir in earnest. The motion put me off balance and I found myself sprawling on the ice underneath the school’s shadow, grappling with a weakly flopping vampire.

“Oh, bloody Christ,” I muttered. Okay, one thing at a time. Get up, Zephyr. You’ve got class in a minute. Grimacing, I planted my right foot on a patch of sidewalk that looked miraculously ice-free and wobbled into a crouch. I started to hum a lullaby my mama liked to sing when I was growing up–maybe it worked on little vampires, too? But the boy was getting stronger, his groan turning into a kind of strangled roar. The few people left on the streets in this shaded, ill-lit area hurried past me, their eyes firmly fixed on the sidewalk.

“I could be dying, you know!” I shouted after them. Right. Bloody heartless city. Gripping the squirming boy with my left hand, I pulled my bicycle out of the gutter with my right and hauled them both to the school steps.

“Having some trouble, Miss Hollis?”

I froze momentarily, white-knuckled on the handlebars. I knew that voice. And I can’t say I was entirely pleased to hear it. I turned to face him with a smile I suspected was more than a little harried.

He was leaning on the stone railing halfway up the steps, his arms crossed nonchalantly. Amir, he had said his name was, when he first appeared in my class last week. No last name, or at least none he would give me.

He reminded me of Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik–foreign, handsome, dangerous–but darker, his features broader and a little more attractive. His English was impeccable, if oddly accented. Except after class, when I questioned what possible use he had for a course in Basic Literacy and Elocution. Then he’d given a pitch-perfect impression of a Russian immigrant, two months off the boat.

“That boy is freshly turned,” he said, nodding at the child but not moving.

I grit my teeth. “I am aware of that, Amir.”

“The situation is under control, then?”

At that precise, cosmically aligned moment, the boy gave a bone shuddering snarl and latched his pre-pubescent fangs into the (now quite wilted) collar of my shirt.

“You can’t bleed a shirt, you idiotic–” I was forced to cut off my tirade, for the boy–with a speed I could hardly credit–had wrapped his legs around my torso and forced me to fall. Amir reached me a second later and attempted to remove the boy, who clung to me like an otherworldly leech.

“What time is it?” I shouted over the mewling growls the boy made as he fumbled for the location of my actual neck. Ah, the untold benefits of conservative shirts.

Amir paused. He looked quite nonplussed, which, despite the exacerbating circumstances, pleased me inordinately. “Are you serious?” he said.

I swatted the boy’s mittened hand away when it wandered over my breasts and pressed my back up against the stone railing. “Perfectly.”

He had managed to grip one of the boy’s arms, and so had to reach awkwardly with his left hand to pull out a pocket watch I imagine would not have looked out of place on President Coolidge himself.

“A minute past eight,” he said. “Shall we tell the blood-crazed vampire that you’re late? Maybe he’ll be polite enough to resume his mauling after you’ve finished.”

I glowered at him, but was prevented from coming up with an appropriately dry retort by the sensation of gums and fast-sharpening teeth rasping across my suddenly exposed throat.

I cursed and struggled away from his mouth. Amir now had him gripped by the waist and was slowly prying him off of me.

“Did he bite you?” Amir gasped. To my distant amusement, he seemed quite concerned.

“Vampire gums are not known to be fatal.”

“Oh, should I just let him go, then? Since you find this so easy.”

“I am perfectly capable of dealing with this myself, Amir,” I heard myself saying, despite the copious evidence to the contrary.

With an odd, dangerous smile, Amir lowered his brush-thick eyelashes and let the boy go. With noise like a cat strangling to death on a hairball, the boy launched himself at my neck. The fangs, dull as they were, were good enough to break my skin at a direct attack. I shrieked–still more out of annoyance than fear–and reached deep into my pocket for my switchblade. Pure blessed silver, that blade, a gift from Daddy before I left home. I’d never used it after I left Troy. I’d almost forgotten it was there.

With a practiced movement, I laid the dull edge of the blade against the exposed, pallid flesh of his collarbone. He flinched away from the burning touch of blessed metal. The hesitation was enough to allow Amir to yank him off of me fully. For a moment I had the absurdly funny view of a little vampire struggling like an upturned cockroach.

I stood up. Only a little blood had escaped the tiny puncture wounds on my neck, but I wiped it away carefully and adjusted my wilting collar.

“It bit you?” Amir asked, his voice quiet. The vampire’s noises were gentler in Amir’s grip. Apparently, it did not regard him as quite so tasty a meal.

I shrugged. “Barely a scratch,” I said. Still, my heart was racing.

“Even less can turn a person.”

My, how serious he sounded. It made me smile. “Oh, don’t worry about me. What time is it?”
Warily, he reached for his watch, hanging freely from his waistcoat. “Three minutes past.”

I cursed, and picked up my bicycle. “I must go. Would you…please, there’s a room in the basement I think will hold him. Could you take care of him for me? Just until I’m done. I wouldn’t normally ask this, but…”

He smiled, but it didn’t quite reach those dark eyes. “You’re late. Go ahead. I’ll just have to miss dear Mr. Hamilton tonight.”

I barely registered his gently mocking tone, as I was already up the stairs and opening the door to the school. I knew The Federalist Papers wasn’t the most popular choice as a learning text, but I’ve always felt recent immigrants to this country should at least be aware of the ideals of its founding–even when they did not live up to the reality.

“Thank you,” I said to him, awkwardly, from where he still stood on the steps. The vampire seemed to hardly trouble him at all, now. Not for the fist time, I wondered what precisely Amir was. Surely not human.

“Zephyr,” he said, just before I shut the door behind me. “How do you know you won’t turn?”

His voice was so strange and devoid of mockery that I paused and, to my surprise, answered him.

“Why, because I can’t turn, of course. I’m immune.”

“Is that…normal, for humans?”

I shrugged. “I’ve never met anyone else with it.” And I’d long ago given up asking my parents how it had happened.

“Oh,” was all he said. Since moving to the city, I’d managed to keep that peculiarity of mine from everyone except my roommate. I would have wondered why I’d so blithely revealed it to Amir if I weren’t already so late.

* * *

“Good evening, everyone,” I said as I opened the door.

A few responded with a strained, “Good evening, Miss Hollis.” I hardly counted it as rudeness. It was a new moon, after all.

“We’ll continue with Federalist #10 today,” I said, hoping that work would distract them from noticing that I looked like a drowned mongoose. Papers rustled and the electric lamps above us flickered. Had he taken the boy to the basement? Could he manage alone? Class had never seemed so long, and nearly half my students wanted to talk to me after. I could hardly rein in my impatience when Sarra, a solidly human Russian who attended my night classes because of her late hours at the sewing factory, insisted on quizzing me about the proper interpretation of the eighteenth amendment.

“So it says only the selling is illegal?” she repeated, with determined emphasis. Clearly, this issue had been weighing upon her ever since she discovered this nation’s draconian stance on her home country’s national beverage.

“Because,” she continued, “Boris has cousin, Naum, maybe you heard of him? Came here two years ago, and has a…you know, method with potatoes in a bathtub…”

She paused here, as though she expected me to beg for the recipe. Internally, I shuddered, but made the appropriate noises of appreciation. My solitary experience with a professional liquor (scotch, and possibly the foulest potion I’ve had the displeasure of drinking) made me more than wary of bathtub gin, let alone potato vodka.

“But, Miss Hollis, Naum is family and it is just a little alcohol and–”

“It’s a gift, right?” I said quickly. “You won’t give him any money?”

She pursed her lips, but seemed happy enough to nod. “Gifts, maybe. Gifts okay, yes?”

I smiled slightly. “It’s not illegal to drink alcohol, Sarra. Just to sell it.” A curious loophole that provided the semi-legal rationale behind a hundred gin joints. “You don’t have anything to worry about.”

She nodded, satisfied. “Good. I bring you some next time. Have a nice day, Miss Hollis.”

She handed me back the tattered classroom copy of The Federalist Papers, and turned to leave. I put it back with the others on the shelf and mentally steeled myself to discover what had happened to Amir and the vampire boy. However, when I turned back around to leave, I saw Giuseppe, a vampire who lived in a basement tenement in Little Italy and had been attending my classes for the past year, standing quietly by the door. I had never known him to linger after class–his family was large and his wife absent, which left him with little time. Curious, I put the last of my papers into my bag and slung it over my shoulder. Giuseppe spoke English very well, but he still had difficulty reading.

“Miss Hollis,” he said, when I was halfway to the door. I paused. His skin was pallid under the yellow electric lights. Not a hint of blood tinged his lips or fingertips. It had clearly been a long time since his last feeding. Concerned, I stepped closer. Was there a polite way of asking where he got his supplies? I knew of a few who would help him, if he could no longer afford the street corner blood vendors.

“Yes, Giuseppe?” I said.

“I…have a problem. I would not have bothered you with it, only I’m afraid for my family and you’re the only one I know who can help.” He raised his eyes. “Or, perhaps, will help?”

I walked the rest of the way towards him and gripped his hand briefly. “Of course, Giuseppe. You must know that I’ll do anything I can.”

He smiled, relieved. “Yes, I had hoped…see, Miss Hollis, when I first came to this country, I was not like this. I had a wife. She had given me three children, and carried our fourth. It was hard, but we were happy. And then one night, when I left the factory late, they found me.”

My throat felt dry. I had heard too many such tales, but each one hit me with the force of fresh tragedy. Daddy says I feel too much, but I don’t. He’s a demon hunter. He just feels too little.

“Who?” I asked.

“That little gang of young vampiri, the ones Rinaldo lets run wild.”

Oh god. That little boy, covered in bites and mad in the basement. “The Turn Boys.” I said.

It wasn’t a question, but he nodded. “They turned me. My wife, she tried, but in a year she ran away. That’s what I get for not marrying a good Italiano, they said. I needed blood, and money. The tunnel work…” He shrugged.

I had forgotten he did work on the new tunnel that would soon run from Canal Street into New Jersey. A good job for a vampire, even one as young (and proportionately sun-resistant) as Giuseppe. But it wouldn’t pay nearly enough for his four children.

“So, I went to Rinaldo,” he continued. “I delivered for him. Just a few times a week. And he gave me blood and money. It worked, for a while. But last week…I was delivering a little outside his territory. Some boys from another gang jumped me. The Westies, I think, but cannot prove. They took everything. Rinaldo says he doesn’t care, that I owe him the money.”

How I hated these mob bosses, self-styled kings of the neighborhood, who could destroy one man’s life so callously. As if it were his fault that some rival gang had stolen the delivery.

“How much?” I asked, dreading the answer.

“Two hundred dollars.”

I sucked in air, sharply, between my clenched teeth. That was more than I made in three months of teaching.

“I have one hundred,” he said, “but I need to borrow the rest. He says he will…my children…”

Giuseppe looked close to tears and I realized I had never seen a vampire cry. With hardly a thought, I put my hand over his again and looked firmly into his unnaturally clear, bloodless eyes.

“You’ll get through this, I promise.” I reached deep into my pocket and pulled out the small stash of folded bills I had received just that morning from the local Citizen’s Council, which paid my meager teaching salary each month. “Here,” I said, pressing it into his hand, “this is fifty dollars. If you need help in the future, I hope you’ll ask me or the Citizen’s Council…even Tammany Hall would be better than Rinaldo.”

I couldn’t imagine what would have possessed him to get involved with the notorious bootlegger, Other-exploiter and gangster. He let the Turn Boys run wild, after all, and the Turn Boys had destroyed Giuseppe’s life.

Giuseppe pressed the bills briefly against his cheek and then turned away, as if to wipe his eyes.

“I have no words,” he said, finally. “I swear, I will pay you back, Zephyr.”

The sound of my first name brought my thoughts back, abruptly, to Amir. “Only what you can,” I said. Suddenly I was desperate to leave. How long had I lingered here?

Thankfully, Giuseppe only pressed my hand briefly before leaving. I waited to hear him exit the front doors before I shut the lights, and then made my way by memory through the deserted school halls and into the basement.

As I did so, it slowly dawned on me that I had, in a moment of impulsive pity, given away my entire month’s salary. My rent would be due at the boarding house in three days–a full twelve dollars, paid in cash and upfront. Mrs. Brodsky would hardly be sympathetic. Indeed, I could be assured of being soundly turned out in the middle of a New York winter with my belongings strewn about me on the sidewalk. I shuddered at the thought. Mrs. Brodsky was willing enough to serve me dinners without meat–who was she to complain if her boarders wanted cheaper food for the same price?–but she was decidedly lacking in basic human compassion.

“Well,” I said to myself, as cheerfully as I could, “you have at least three more days of that lumpy bed.”

“Do most do-gooders talk to themselves as frequently as you?”

He was below me on the basement steps, carrying an oil lamp and looking quite as good as he had two hours before, when he hadn’t been wrestling with a freshly turned vampire in an abandoned school basement. This bothered me more than it should. I felt positively dowdy beside him.

“Do most wastrels accost innocent women on staircases?” I said. It was uncharitable of me, seeing as how he’d just risked life and limb for my sake. No matter that it didn’t seem to show.

He laughed–it was rich and warm and made me blink in the weak light. “A wastrel, am I? What kind of a wastrel attends immigrant night school?”

I crossed my arms over my chest and forced myself to breathe. “I haven’t figured that out, yet.”

He laughed again. I had never heard anything quite like it before. “Are you coming down, or will we just argue on the steps all night?”

Feeling decidedly silly, I followed the wavering light of his lamp down the stairs.

“Are you all right?” I made myself ask, when the silence had lasted for half a minute. I was surprised by how keenly I meant the question.

He shrugged. “The boy can’t hurt me. I’m surprised you lasted as long with him as you did.”

I took this as a compliment. “How is he?”

He paused before a closed door a few feet away from the steps. “Sleeping. I brought him a few pints.”

He had an odd look on his face, wistful and angry all at once. I almost touched the sleeve of his gray wool sweater, but some self-preserving instinct stopped me. I somehow knew that touching Amir would not be the innocent gesture of sympathy and friendship it had been with Giuseppe. He was feral and mysterious and Other, a combination I found too fascinating to be safe.

“Why such a small child?” he asked softly. “What possible purpose…?”
His question seemed so strangely naive. “Sport,” I said. “The Turn Boys play with humans like cats play with mice. And far more cruelly.”

“What will you do with him?” he asked.

I glanced up at Amir, startled. “I…I suppose I hadn’t thought of it. I just saw him, and I couldn’t leave him there…”

The sudden realization of my dilemma cut off my words. What in hell could I do? I could hardly bring him back to my boarding house and risk him running wild amongst the other girls. I could leave him here, but what if he broke out during school hours? I would have given him to one of the charitable groups that deal with newly turned vampires, but they had a policy to stake anyone under sixteen. And if even they were afraid of the children, what good was I?

I sighed and leaned against the wall by the door. I felt a prodigious headache roaring into the space behind my temples. It had been a long day.

Amir looked at me. I mean looked at me, with his dangerously dark eyes and ridiculous eyelashes, just canvassing my face until I could feel the blush radiating from my cheeks. It felt impudent and entirely inappropriate, yet I could not say a word.

“I’ll take him,” he said, just when I thought I might melt from the intensity of his gaze. “I know a place where he’ll be safe. He’ll come back to himself. It might take the children longer, but they all do, eventually.”

God, how I wished I knew what he was. Or even just who. He was all mysteries, and yet so very physical, a mere foot from me in this damp, freezing basement.

“But…why?” I was proud of myself for managing to get even that much out.

He smiled. “My own reasons. And I need to ask you a favor.”

It’s just a smile. “Like what?”

“I gather do-gooding does not always come with vast monetary rewards? Well, it’s a simple request, and I can offer you a lot of money. It’s what wastrels have, you see, to make up for their lack of sense and moral fortitude.”

I couldn’t tell if he was mocking himself or me. It was hardly a surprise to learn that he had money. No one who dressed as well and as carelessly as he could be lacking in funds.

“What do you need?” I asked. This, at least, was familiar territory.

“I need you to find me a vampire.”

I blinked, slowly. He was still there. “And why do you think I’m a good person to ask?”

“Because you’re immune, somehow. And no one would ever suspect you. Your perverse love of blood suckers is well-known in this town.”

Just in time, I started to feel angry. “And why on earth would I help you hurt an innocent fellow-creature?”

His smile could have cut diamonds. “Somehow I don’t think you’ll mind. Do you want to know who it is?”

“I don’t imagine I have a choice.”

He cocked his head in acknowledgment. “True enough.”

“So who?”

“Rinaldo.”

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