"Sixth Street and Main." The bus driver's gravelly voice cut through Daniel's dull contemplation of the darkness outside the dirty rectangular window. Around him the other passengers were frozen to their seats like frightened sheep unwilling to be herded off at this particular destination. Everyone knew that Sixth Street was where the deviants played. It was where you could get a blowjob if you stepped into the right back room of the right bar. Where men wearing black leather and chains waited to beat you or suck you or fuck you--or to be fucked by you. However sick your preference was, however twisted your desire, you could find it on Sixth Street, or so Daniel had heard.
Cowards, he thought contemptuously, looking around at the anxious faces. But he knew it wasn't just the gay element keeping his fellow passengers glued to their seats. There were other things that stalked the night in this part of town--one bus stop down to be precise, on Seventh and Main--the Crimson Quarter, as it was called.
Vampires. The thought gave him an uneasy rush of adrenaline, and he looked out the smeared glass window again, as though one of the Lost might appear out of the neon-lit night. It was a foolish fear. The vamps kept themselves quarantined to the Seventh Street block. As long as you stayed out of their area, they wouldn't bother you. It was the best compromise the city fathers could arrange, and to give the vamps credit, they hadn't crossed the line yet. Too many curious humans were willing to risk becoming prey--so the vampires never went thirsty.
And anyway, he reminded himself, it wasn't vampires he was interested in. He had boarded the bus for Sixth Street with one intention. To find out if he was...
Queer. "Are you queer, boy? Are you a faggot?" His father's harsh words rang in Daniel's head like the clanging of a bell, and he clenched his jaw. If only he had hidden his sketchbook better. If only the old man hadn't come snooping around his room, looking for God knows what. Maybe evidence that his only son was gay, or maybe something to refute that fear. If he had been hoping to find a few Playboy or Hustler magazines half hidden under the bed, he'd been disappointed. All he found was the expanse of creamy drawing paper filled with nudes--male nudes--and all drawn by his son.
Sensitive, artistic, creative. Weren't those different words for faggot? Daniel knew his father was disappointed that he wasn't on his college football team like his old man had been before him. But at five-seven and one-sixty, he could hardly be a linebacker, and even if his body had been fit for the sport, his face would have ruled him out at once. Thick, dark blond hair; wide, dark blue eyes; and a mouth like a pink bow looked back at him from the bus's dirty window. Handsome wasn't the word to describe him--pretty was the correct term. He had carried that burden all his life.
But pretty or not, he'd dated girls, even kissed a few. Hell, his senior year at Dumont High, Prissy Rogers, the class slut, had gone down on him behind the bleachers. It had been a disappointing experience to be sure, but a heterosexual one all the same, one Daniel had felt no need to repeat. He liked girls--they made the best friends, the most willing confidants, and they were easier to be around than the testosterone-driven jocks who had clogged the hallways of his high school. But ... they weren't much good for anything else, in Daniel's opinion.
Still, just because he had little interest in the opposite sex didn't make him gay, did it? What he needed was a trip to the wild side--just one experience with another guy--another man, he hoped. Someone older, someone experienced. Someone who could show him the way. Then he would know for sure. Knowing the worst would be better than not knowing at all, or so he told himself.
"Are you a faggot?" His father's words poked him again, like a hot needle inside his brain. "Well, are you?"
"I don't know, Dad," he muttered under his breath, staring at the pulsing neon lights of Sixth Street sliding past his window. "But I guess I'll find out."
"Seventh Street and Main. Everybody for Seventh and Main out now." The bus driver's voice cut through his reverie, and Daniel jumped up with a curse. Seventh and Main--the Crimson Quarter! He'd been sitting here feeling sorry for himself and not noticing that the bus moved to the next stop. Now he'd gone one stop too far.
A limp gray man sitting across from him looked up from his paper with something like surprise in his bespectacled eyes. "You getting off here?" he asked Daniel, who stood, undecided, in the aisle.
Daniel swore again, more loudly. Get off or stay on? Risk the danger of Seventh to get back to Sixth, or sit back down like a good little lamb and ride to the end of the line where he could catch another bus home? Home, where his father sat and waited to demand where he had been and what he had been doing. And let's not forget with whom he had been doing it.
The grim image decided him. A whole pack of vampires wasn't as scary as the thought of his father, half-disappointed, half-enraged as he questioned and badgered and probed to find out where, why, who, when.
"Seventh and Main? Anyone?" The bus driver, an older black man with knowledgeable yellow eyes, stared at him in the rearview mirror.
"Yes," Daniel said, moving to the front of the bus. "Me. I'm getting off."
"It's suicide," the bus driver said amiably, with no excitement in his tone. "You sure?"
"I'm sure." Daniel walked to the folding doors and waited for them to open with a muted whoosh.
"Suit y'self," the bus driver said, and before he knew it, Daniel was standing on the corner of Seventh Street and Main, watching the bus disappear into the distance.
Seventh wasn't nearly as brightly lit as Sixth, he noticed, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his denim jacket and shivering against the icy blast of air that swirled around him. In fact, it was damn dark--even the streetlamps were burned-out husks. The city couldn't pay workers enough to come into the Crimson Quarter to change them, and the vampires plain didn't care. Why should they? It was rumored that they could see in the dark as easily as they could in the light.
The neon lights of Sixth beckoned him, only a block away. The lights of experience, the lights of knowledge. Daniel squared his shoulders, shoved his hands tighter into the pockets of his jean jacket, and headed for them, his steps quick and light. On either side of the dark street, signs glowed in dim, flickering red. CRIMSON QUARTER HOUSE OF PAIN, UNDER THE FANG, and THE BLOOD LUST beckoned him, and he passed by them all. He was more interested in the dance and leather clubs of Sixth Street than the dank and dangerous blood bars of Seventh.
Nothing to it, Daniel told himself, keeping his chin high. Just stay out of the bars and keep moving. The green street sign that proclaimed SIXTH STREET came into view, and he felt a renewed sense of confidence. After all, it wasn't like the vamps could appear out of thin air, was it?
"Hello there, my pretty one." The low, grating voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. Daniel stopped dead in his tracks--he had to, or he would have run into the tall, cadaverously thin man who suddenly stood directly in front of him.
"Going somewhere?" the man inquired, grinning widely to expose a pair of long, yellowish, needle-sharp fangs. A vampire--one of the Lost. Daniel had never seen one before, but this one looked like he had imagined--dark, foul, wicked.
He swallowed hard and heard a clicking in his throat. His mouth was dry, and his heart pounded so hard that he felt like it made his entire body shake. The skeletal vamp was dressed in black and had long, greasy, black-gray hair straggling down his skeletal shoulders. He looked like a concentration-camp survivor, but there was something about his face that spoke of ancient evil and hideous strength.
Stay calm, Daniel told himself. Let him know you're not interested and move on. "I'm going to Sixth Street," he said, moving to step around the vampire. "Excuse me, please." It sounded ridiculously polite, but you didn't piss off creatures that were capable of having you for supper if they felt like it.
"I don't think so." The vampire moved to block his path almost before he could take a step in the new direction. "You're too tender a piece of meat for Sixth Street, my pretty. The likes of you belongs down on Seventh with us--in the Crimson Quarter."
"Please." Daniel took a step backward, nearly stumbling. "I ... I got off at the wrong bus stop. I didn't mean to come down here at all."
"That's too bad. You're here now." The vampire grinned wider and leaned forward to nuzzle Daniel's neck. His breath was cold and foul--a rank odor of stale air and old blood like meat gone rotten in the refrigerator.
Daniel flinched away, but the vampire had his arm in a horribly strong, bony grip, and he seemed to be everywhere at once. No matter which way Daniel moved, he couldn't get away. He was going to die here, with the lights of Sixth Street shining mockingly in his eyes, without ever really knowing the truth about himself.
"So sweet, my pretty," the vampire hissed. Needle-sharp fangs grazed the vulnerable flesh of his neck, drawing droplets of blood, and he tasted terror, slick and hot, at the back of his throat. He would disappear off the face of the planet without a trace. His father would probably be glad.
A deep voice cut through the frantic sound of his heart pounding in his ears. "Let the boy go, Baird." Abruptly, the stale, foul breath of the creature holding him was replaced by the clear night air. Daniel gasped it gratefully, feeling like he might hyperventilate.
"This is none of your concern, Gabriel." The thin vampire still held him in an unbreakable grip, one arm locked around his throat, but there was unmistakable tension in his grating voice.
"I'm making it my concern." The speaker came into view: a big man with thick brown hair and hazel eyes that flashed in the darkness. He was dressed in faded jeans and a cream-colored cable-knit sweater that emphasized the width of his shoulders. The look on his face was stern, determined. "The boy said he didn't mean to come here--he's not fair game. So let him go."
"Too late." A cold tongue traced the shallow wounds on his neck, and Daniel shivered with helpless disgust. "I've tasted him now," the vampire called Baird said. "I've marked him as a willing victim--he's mine."
"Do you want to go with him?"
It took Daniel a minute to realize that the man with brown hair and broad shoulders was talking to him. Mutely, he shook his head. He wanted to say something more definite--wanted to scream no at the top of his lungs--but his tongue was frozen to the roof of his mouth.
"He doesn't want you, Baird. He doesn't choose you," the man called Gabriel said. "Release him now or suffer the consequences."
"I'll show you consequences," Baird growled. He let go of Daniel and launched himself at the man. There was a white blur as Gabriel met him halfway. Daniel watched, wide-eyed and unable to move, as a fight so rapid it was impossible to follow took place in front of him. He barely had time to stumble backward out of the way before it was over.
"There." Gabriel appeared in front of him, brushing dust off his sweater and not even breathing hard. Of Baird, there was no sign. As suddenly as he had appeared, he had vanished, much to Daniel's intense relief.
"I ... You ... Thank you," he managed to stutter, staring up into the face of his savior.
"You're welcome, little one." Gabriel smiled at him. "Now let's take a look at your neck."
Before Daniel could protest, strong hands tilted his face to one side to expose the long, ragged scratches the vampire had made. It made him feel vulnerable to expose his neck like this, but not in the horrible, helpless way caused by Baird's ugly touch.
"This isn't good." Gabriel was frowning. "Baird really did mark you as willing."
"I don't know what that means. I just want to go to Sixth Street." Daniel looked at him pleadingly. "I want to forget this ever happened. I swear to God, I won't ever cross over to Seventh again."
"It doesn't matter if you cross or not. Baird's mark on you will draw other vampires to you. You won't be safe anywhere in the city." Gabriel shook his head. "I can't fix this here. You will have to come home with me."
Daniel gaped at him. Being invited home with a handsome stranger was exactly what he had been hoping for, but not under these circumstances. He wanted to get some experience, some self-knowledge, not some first aid from a well-meaning but probably straight man who just happened to be wandering in the Crimson Quarter at the right time to rescue him. Besides, what did he really know about the guy?
Gabriel didn't give him time to decide. Taking Daniel's hand in his own, he led him down a side street and into a maze of dark alleys deeper into the Quarter. Before Daniel could protest, they were standing in front of a set of steps that led down to a basement apartment.
"Wait a minute." He pulled his hand out of Gabriel's, eyeing the subterranean dwelling with sudden unease. "What is this place?"
"My home." Gabriel turned to face him. "I'm making myself vulnerable bringing you here, you know..." He frowned. "What's your name, anyway?"
"Daniel," Daniel said. "But I don't want..."
"It's not about what you want--it's about cleaning that mark and making you safe." Gabriel tugged him down the steps. Before he knew it, Daniel was through the door and into a small, warmly lit room.
As apartments went, it wasn't stylish or expensive, but the overstuffed furniture and the flames crackling in the small fireplace made it look cozy and inviting. The walls, a warm pale gold, were lined with bookshelves. He noted the worn but clean red rug on the hardwood floor. A fluffy white Persian cat came up to Gabriel and wound around his ankles while voicing a rusty purr.
"My cat, Isabel," Gabriel said apologetically. "Excuse me a minute while I feed her, won't you?"
"Uh, sure." Daniel felt the knot of tension that had been building in his chest all night loosen, just a bit. He was an animal lover himself. Surely a guy who had a cat and treated it well couldn't be bad. He settled onto the couch, which was a few shades darker red than the rug, and shrugged out of his jean jacket.
"Now that she's contented, we should have some peace." Gabriel came around the corner, startling Daniel. How could he move so quietly and so quickly? For the first time, Daniel wondered uneasily exactly how Gabriel had been able to defeat the vampire. Everything had happened so fast. Weren't vamps supposed to have superhuman strength? So then how...?
"I hope you don't mind, but it's too damn hot in here for me." Gabriel interrupted his thoughts by pulling the sweater over his head, exposing a bare, muscular chest. He kicked off his shoes too, so he was wearing only the tight, faded jeans. The firelight licked across his body, turning his skin golden and adding red highlights to the rich brown of his hair.
"I ... um..." Daniel tried hard not to stare. Whatever Gabriel was, if he was straight and decided Daniel wasn't, and caught him staring ... Well, he'd been beaten up enough after gym class in high school to know how that scenario always ended.
"It's just that my body temperature is naturally lower than yours--than a human's," Gabriel explained. "So I feel hot more quickly."
"Than a..." Daniel's head whipped up, and he stared at the man beside him on the sofa in sudden terror. "So you're...?"
"A vampire." Gabriel said it as though it was the most natural thing in the world. He smiled, revealing fangs every bit as sharp looking as Baird's, although considerably whiter. They glimmered like twin pearls in the firelight.
Daniel jumped up, panic buzzing in his head, but Gabriel's long, strong fingers encircled his wrist. The vampire wasn't squeezing or hurting him in any way, but it was clear he couldn't break free.
"Sit down," he said in gentle voice. "I didn't mean to scare you. What did you think I was, anyway?"
"I don't know." Daniel sank unwillingly onto the edge of the couch, keeping as much distance between himself and the vamp as he could. "But you don't ... you don't look like a vampire."
"Really?" Gabriel smiled at him again, an expression that reached all the way up to his hazel eyes. "And what do vampires look like, Daniel?"
"Like ... like him--the other one that attacked me. The one you called Baird."
"Oh, so all of the Lost are evil and ugly? Slimy wretches climbing out of the sewer to prey on the innocent human boys they find trying to escape their territory?" Gabriel's voice wasn't angry, but sad, with a tinge of sorrow in its soft tones that made Daniel swallow hard.
"No, I ... I didn't mean it that way," he protested. "I'm sorry if what I said came out wrong. I just..."
Gabriel released him. "Don't apologize. To be honest, there are more vampires like Baird out there than like me. I'm a Guardian--sworn to protect the innocent against my kind. You're lucky I happened to be out tonight instead of home in front of the fire with a book." He sighed. "But it gets lonely here with no one but Isabel for company, so I came out just in time to find you."
"Yeah--uh, thank you." Daniel licked his dry lips. "So you're not going to hurt me? Bite me?"
"I didn't say that," Gabriel said quietly. He reached out again, catching Daniel's wrist before he could rise from the couch. "Settle down, I'm not going to bleed you dry. But I'll have to clean the wound Baird made and put my own mark on you to keep you safe. Then I'll let you go." He tugged on Daniel's arms, pulling him closer to his broad chest. "Come a little closer, and we can begin."