Bazyli Breznik used to rule the world, but now the centuries old vampire is at the bottom of the food chain. He’s broke and drives a yellow cab in NYC. He sleeps in the trunk. He’s an alcoholic. His only friends are drunks. He’s a murderer and believes he’s the most evil creature on earth.
Baz is in hiding, like the rest of his kind. They aren’t like normal humans, they were changed more than five hundred years ago by a virus into a version of human who never grows old, heals fast, and requires fresh blood for nutrition. The vampires of myth and legend aren’t some kind of magical beings, they’re real people whose disease is both blessing and curse. And Baz was once the badest of them all.
Baz is satisfied with living a marginal life on the edge of society as punishment for all the sins he committed centuries ago. Until he stumbles across a human trafficking ring operating in New York City. A waitress at one of the diners in his area is nearly kidnapped in front of him. He steps in only to discover that the waitress is really an undercover cop who is part of a sting operation. Baz ends up agreeing to be an informant so the cops will leave him alone. But the traffickers try to take the lady cop, Nika, again, and Baz becomes annoyed. She’s good people, and he’s always hated slavery.
When Nika is finally taken on try number three, he’s not content to look and listen anymore. He discovers that the criminals behind the ring aren’t just bad people, they’re the kind of bad he used to be. and they don’t care who they hurt, or finds out about them. He’s got to stop them, get Nika back, and manage not to kill too many people all at the same time.
He wasn’t cut out to be a good guy.
Some might forgivingly call Joe’s Bar a dive. Others called it home from the hour after they left work to midnight most nights of the week.
It was one of yellow cab driver Bazyli Breznik’s favorite places to be.
The interior of the pub had a dark and smoky haze hanging in the air. A good thing. Who wants to look another drunk in the face and see anything beyond a stupid grin and the glare off a pair of blood-shot eyes?
The smoke didn’t come from cigarettes. Joe liked to serve his famous hell-hot chicken wings grilled over a mesquite wood fire. That smell was in everything, including the beer.
It reminded Baz of happier days spent in the mountains of his childhood, curing deer meat in a smoke shack built by his great-grandfather, surrounded by a thick forest of trees and the many faces of his large family. His parents, sisters, brother, cousins laughing, talking, working…living.
Most of them had been dead a long time. The ones that weren’t dead…well, there was a reason why some nights Baz hated Joe’s guts for conjuring up the memories.
It wasn’t Joe’s fault though, the man was only human, with all the imperfections that went along with that. If the man had been perfect, Baz wouldn’t have come back to the bar a second time. Perfection was over-rated, and inevitably turned out to be a lie. Like the entirety of Baz’s life.
Baz sighed. Depressed again.
No wonder he liked to hang out with drunks.
He parked his yellow cab in front of the bar and turned off the engine, ignoring the slight tremor of his hands on the steering wheel.
Damn shakes. He was going to need a sip of his favorite brand soon.
Maybe more than a sip.
Alcohol was a harsh mistress. Hard to care about anything when you’re three sheets to the wind and farting Jack Daniels out your nose. Too bad he couldn’t live smashed all the time. He had tried it for a few years, but all he’d gotten out of that had been a bad reputation and his name permanently on his mother’s shit list.
He got out of the car and walked in the front door of the bar.
Joe spotted him right off. Baz wasn’t sure how he did it, but Joe always knew when someone walked into, or out of, his bar. Some folks said Joe had a touch of the sight or some other mumbo-jumbo, woo-woo ability.
Baz figured he just knew his bar better than his house.
The proud pub owner waved cheerfully. “Baz!” he shouted, causing some of the patrons, the ones that weren’t too drunk, to turn and squint. A full half dozen greeted him with sloppy grins.
“Where ya been, man?”
“Yeah, we missed you the last couple of nights.”
“Had to take care of some business with my cousin,” Baz said loud enough so he wouldn’t have to repeat himself. He used to wonder why it seemed he had so many friends at Joe’s until one evening Joe himself explained it to him. They liked him because he was, in his own messed up way, reliable. Like the family dog or a piece of well-built furniture. Reliable because he drove them home five nights out of seven.
The irony of a homeless cab driver being reliable wasn’t lost on Baz. Especially since homeless was the nicest thing one could say about him.
“Family?” Joe ambled over. “Why didn’t you bring him around?”
Baz shrugged and discovered his lips remembered how to smile. Sort of. “He’s an asshole.”
“I’ve got one of those,” Mike, a scotch drinker, said. “I’d like to find a blunt object and bash him on the head.”
Next to him, Bill snorted. “I’ve got three of those and they’re all as useless as tits on a bull.” He glanced at Baz. “Where’s this cousin of yours? We could go for a drive and kill him for you.”
Baz didn’t doubt Bill, who’d shipped out of the army on disability thanks to a permanent leg injury, would make good on his offer.
“Yeah, I’ve got a tire iron in my trunk,” Mike added as he downed another swallow of scotch.
“I don’t know.” Baz pretended to consider the idea. “My birthday isn’t for a couple of months.”
“No problem.” Bill waved his objection away with a hand that seemed only partially attached to his arm. “We can wait.”
Mike nodded a little too enthusiastically and nearly fell off his stool.
Their excessive, drunken kindness almost made Baz smile for real. Almost. “Thing is, he’s kind of a hard guy to kill.”
“Is he a cop or something?”
“No.” How to put this discreetly? “He’s in life insurance.”
Baz leaned close to the two drunks, held his breath, because Jesus-on-a-pogo-stick they stunk, and stage whispered, “He works for the Russian mob.” Not entirely true. Their ancestral land was in Slovenia, but most people couldn’t tell the difference and got confused when he tried to explain, so he didn’t bother most of the time.
“Oh.” Mike nodded sagely. “That kind of life insurance.”
Stifling a laugh, Baz patted him on the back, then looked at Joe. “You called?”
“Yeah, for Sam. He’s out cold. Again.”
Joe led the way to a table near the back wall. Sam was draped over it like a wrinkled doily.
“How long has he been like this?”
“About an hour,” Joe said. “We had a group of loud out-of-towners in here. He didn’t appreciate their spurious remarks about the neighborhood. Left his stool at the bar and passed out back here all unnoticed like.”
“Tourists.” Baz said the word as if it was dirty. “You ever think about just closing the door and sleeping all night?”
“Sure, who doesn’t?”
“You?” Joe asked. “Don’t you think about quitting that tin can you call a cab, getting a regular job and an actual address? Maybe one on a sunny beach somewhere with a nice woman?”
That did make him laugh. “I wish, but I’ve got bills to pay. Really big ones.”
“How about I set you up with my niece?”
“Thanks Joe,” Baz said with a shrug. “But I’m not a relationship kind of guy.”
Joe studied him with sympathy pulling down the corners of his mouth. “How long has it been since your wife died? Don’t you think it’s time to make something better of your life than just driving a cab?”
“It’s funny, but the moment I think about being more connected to the world, I get anxious and start looking over my shoulder.” He shook his head. “I probably need a therapist, but I can’t afford one.”
His biggest problem was figuring out how much of his past to share with someone. The line between enough and too much was so thin it was invisible most days. Also, there was a lot he’d like to forget.
Baz looked at Sam and stood a little straighter. “I guess I’d better get him out of here.” He jerked Sam away from the table, got under him, and bounced the drunk onto his shoulder. Then he half dragged, half carried the lush through the bar and out the front door, Joe clearing the way ahead of him.
Sam weighed at least two hundred and fifty pounds. Add to that the ten or so beers he’d consumed, and Baz questioned his decision to carry the drunk to his cab.
Sam reeked of sour beer, stale pretzels, and sweat.
Baz considered giving up breathing for lent.
Heh, like he was going anywhere other than hell no matter what he gave up or how much he confessed.
“Thanks for taking care of him.” Joe walked ahead to open the passenger door of Baz’s dingy, dinged yellow cab. “You know how his wife worries.”
Thanks? If only Joe knew the truth, that Baz was the last person on Earth he should trust.
Baz cleared his throat. “Yeah, well, he’s a good tipper.”
Sam, his head lolling on Baz’s shoulder, let out a snore that could’ve woke the dead.
“And if I roll down the windows, I don’t have to lean on the horn to get traffic moving.”
Joe chuckled as he shoved Sam’s feet across the floorboards while Baz rolled the rest of him onto the seat.
Joe took some bills out of his pocket and handed them to Baz. “Cab fare.”
He tried to give them back. “I’m good.”
A slow grin spread across Joe’s face as he walked away. “You got that right.” Joe stopped on the curb and glanced over his shoulder. “The wives talk to me you know. Tell me how nice and polite you are as you drag in their dead-to-the-world husbands into their homes. How you often refuse to take a dime. How much more money their honey seems to be bringing home since you started driving these drunk idiots home.”
Baz just stood there with his hand out.
“It isn’t hard to do the math and figure out you add a little extra cash to certain people’s pockets on a regular basis.” The bartender moved away, but stopped momentarily in the doorway of his pub. “See you later.”
Shit, this was going to result in the kind of reputation he wanted to avoid. Decent guy, generous, helpful.
Baz let his arm drop, crumpling the money into his fist, and nodded. “Later.” Sighing, he closed the cab door on his snoring passenger and went around the vehicle to get in the driver’s side. He opened his fist. The money lay limp, tattered, and stained in his hand. Just like the rest of him. He stuffed it all in his glove box and slammed it shut, wiping his hand on his pants.
He wasn’t the most hygiene conscious guy, but handling cash always made him feel dirty. Too bad it wasn’t the kind of dirt a shower could wash off.
Sam lived only a few blocks away in a rundown bungalow on a street full of houses in need of a facelift, but Baz didn’t take the direct route to get there. He stopped on a street where most of the homes here were abandoned. He picked a particularly ugly place and stopped under a burned-out streetlamp. He turned off his on-duty light.
Baz needed a drink, now, or he wouldn’t get Sam home at all.
It had been five days since his last swallow of the hard stuff. A fine, sickly sweet-smelling sweat coated his body. Soon the shakes would be hard to hide. Joe hadn’t noticed, and by the time someone did it would be too late. Yet the thought of downing even a single drop made his stomach clench.
Withdrawal was a bitch.
He hated the toxic mistress that was alcohol, yet he always came back to her.
Because he hated himself more.
He got out of the car, opened the backseat door, and moved Sam over a little. Baz wrinkled his nose at the smell of old sweat mixed with smoke and alcohol. How could a man this big of a slob keep a wife happy anyway? Okay, so Jolene was no prize. She was loud, swore better than any sailor anywhere, and had more wrinkles than the money in Baz’s glovebox. Still, she always met Baz at the door and never said a word until after he put her dead drunk husband on the bed, then it was the offer of a cup of coffee and a piece of cake.
She was known far and wide for her cake.
Baz always nodded respectfully, eyes on the floor. He couldn’t meet her gaze. She wasn’t hitting on him, he knew that. It was the gratitude that made his throat close shut. He brought her wayward husband home night after night, with cash still in his pocket, which made Jolene think Baz was the greatest friend her husband could ever have.
But that was a lie.
He wasn’t Sam’s friend or Joe’s or anyone else’s for that matter.
Baz breathed through his mouth and leaned over Sam’s neck. He could hear the rush of blood through Sam’s arteries, the glug-glug of his heartbeat, and see the healthy blush on his skin. Opening his mouth, Baz sank his filed-sharp canines into Sam’s neck. And tried not to gag.
Sam tasted even worse than he smelled.
Not that Baz had any right to complain. Every few nights, he fed from one drunk or another. They were his very own personal herd of sheep, siphoning the alcohol out of their blood streams to feed his unnatural addiction to a poison that could never actually kill him.
It was tough to damage a liver that had been functioning a thousand times more efficiently than a normal human’s for several hundred years.
But, damn it, he was going to try.
Baz drew out a mouthful of blood, letting the alcohol in Sam’s system slide over his tongue.
Oh yeah, baby.
Still, would the terrible taste of Sam’s skin ever leave his mouth?
Did it matter?
Baz drew strongly only five more times. Six draws equalled a pint. He’d had plenty of time to experiment and it wasn’t even something he had to think about anymore. The blood rushed through his mouth and down his throat in a truly horrific progression.
That first taste was sweet, like drinking one of those fruity drinks with rum and pineapple juice.
Two was fuller bodied, a fine red wine you’d have with steak.
Three had an older port-like quality that made you want to sip it slow. But slow was impossible. What if some beat cop walked by?
Four was sour, vinegar without the fries.
The fifth swallow tasted as if it had been filtered through a pair of well-used, unwashed, fungus-filled sweat socks.
Six was torture. Fire ants swarming in his mouth, burning all the way down, setting his throat and stomach ablaze, making him pray for a death he might never get to enjoy.
He’d been praying for it for a long time.
Baz found himself on the pavement next to his car, breathing hard, fighting his gut, trying to keep his first meal in nearly a week down. His intestines twisted and attempted to turn inside out. But after a few minutes, he won the battle. That small amount of blood recharged his muscles with energy, albeit making him slightly off balance. Alcohol didn’t make him drunk as a normal human would understand it per se, just clumsy.
Only another vampire could tell the difference and Baz was careful not to associate himself with any of those stuck up, obsessive, serial killers. He had enough problems of his own manufacture, thank you very much.
Luckily no other self-respecting vampire would ever touch a drunk. Alcohol was the one thing that they avoided because it hurt like you were swallowing razor blades going down, and who needs that when there are significantly more sober people available? No, he never had to worry about someone poaching from his herd.
He turned back to Sam. The puncture holes had already closed and would be gone by the time his wife opened the door. All thanks to the accelerated healing properties of Baz’s saliva. The effect didn’t last long, but it was enough to hide the evidence of what he was and what he did.
Satisfied, Baz got in the car and drove Sam home, hoisting the now not-so-drunk guy over his shoulder and carrying him inside with no problems at all.
Jolene offered the expected coffee and cake and even managed to slip a slice wrapped in cellophane into Baz’s hand before he escaped out the door. If she knew the truth she’d be after him with a pitchfork.
Enough reminiscing. Time to go to work and earn enough cash to fill up his glove box. He had payments to make.
Damned relatives were worse than the devil himself when it came to keeping track of money owed and other assorted sins. His cousin, the prick, even had it all down in a ledger, like some kind of vampire accountant.
The interior of Baz’s car was cold, and the lingering metallic scent of blood-iron made his teeth itch. He rolled down the window to chase away the reminder of the animal he was, put the engine in drive and stepped lightly on the gas.
He headed back in the direction of Joe’s but stopped outside his favorite diner for a few minutes instead of the bar. It was open twenty-four hours, but sometimes the waitresses needed a ride home at shift change.
He parked and waited, checking his cell phone for messages.
Movement from inside the diner caught his attention. Someone walked out and hurried past his vehicle and down the sidewalk. A woman, wearing the old-fashioned waitress uniform of the diner. She was tall, with light colored hair. It was the new girl. She’d only been working at the diner for a couple of weeks, and he’d never managed to sit in her section. Her posture was that of a frightened creature, all hunched shoulders and bowed head. Still, something about the way she walked, her gait, was familiar.
He knew this woman.
His view was blocked by the bodies of two men as they passed by his cab, their pace faster than the woman’s. Aggressive. Predatory.
He didn’t like the look of this. He couldn’t have said what it was specifically about their body language that told him they weren’t just out for a stroll. But something about them set every instinct he had on alert.
He was out of his car and following the men before he could second guess himself.
Yeah, Baz didn’t look like much, and he worked hard to make sure that was the impression he gave almost everyone. Loose fitting clothes, a scruffy beard, and stooped shoulders hid a man who looked forward to these kinds of opportunities. The opportunity to beat the crap out of someone who thought might made right.
He'd thought that way once, and it had destroyed everything he held dear.
Ahead of all of them, the woman turned a corner and disappeared.
“You look like you need a ride,” Baz called out to the two Bozos in a loud enough voice that they couldn’t ignore him.
“Fuck off,” one asshole said over his shoulder.
The other didn’t bother to say anything, his attention on the corner the woman had turned.
“To a hospital,” Baz added, in an offhand tone. “With broken bones.”
Both men stopped, turned, and stared at him.
“And concussions.” He smiled his yeah, I said that shit smile.
“Go ahead,” the chatty asshole said to his partner. “You take care of her. I’ll take care of him.”
So, his gut had been right, this wasn’t just people passing in the night, this was two predators after prey. The quiet one rounded the corner and was gone from view.
“You’re fucked,” the other asshole said, walking toward him with an armed man’s swagger.
“Sorry dude, you’re not my type,” Baz replied.
The asshole reached for something at his back and Baz moved, darting forward to knock the gun out of the other man’s hand.
It went off just as he made contact.
The sound brought them both to a stop and they checked each other out.
No bullet holes in the asshole.
Baz looked at himself. “Fuck.” He pointed at the hole in the toe of his left boot. “These were only a few months old. Now look at them.”
The asshole’s wide eyes blinked, then he frowned. “Doesn’t that…hurt?”
An asshole and stupid.
“No.” Baz punched him in the face as hard as he could. The guy went down like a sack of bricks. “But I bet that did.”
A woman cried out somewhere out of sight. Baz rushed around the corner.
Asshole number two was trying to shove her into a car.
“The lady isn’t interested in your ride,” Baz told him, walking toward them like he wore body armor and held a gun.
The asshole stared at Baz like he couldn’t quite believe his eyes.
Baz got two steps closer before the guy let go of the waitress with one hand to reach for what was probably a weapon.
He probably didn’t expect the waitress to knee him in the balls or elbow him in the head.
Baz hadn’t expected it either but watching her smack the moron trying to kidnap her to the ground put a smile on his face. Her movements were precise, powerful, and could only be the product of years of practice.
Then she pulled out a big fucking handgun from somewhere and pointed it at the asshole’s head.
Whoa, where did that come from?
Baz parked his feet, held out his hands, palms forward, and cleared his throat. “Are you okay?” he asked her.
She glanced at him, frowned, then moved so she could see the asshole on the ground and Baz at the same time. “Yellow Cab, where’s his friend?” Her order had been barked like she’d spent most of her life in the Army. She held her gun the same way.
“Kissing pavement.” He angled his thumb over his shoulder to indicate where.
This was not the same woman who’d hurried past him, looking frightened and weak. Her body language had changed completely, and her voice, he knew her voice. She stood tall, her figure filling out her waitress uniform in all kinds of interesting ways.
She stared at Baz for a moment, her face shadowed by the building. “I heard a shot.”
He knew that don’t bullshit me tone. Shit, shit, shit. She was a cop and he’d interrupted something. Some kind of operation or something.
“Yes, ma’am, you did. Nailed my boot.” He pointed. “Good thing it’s a steel toe.”
“Don’t,” she said with all the warmth of a glacial ice age. “Call me ma’am.”
“No, ma’am, won’t ever.”
Her gaze turned razor sharp.
No matter the situation or how hard he tried, the asshole in him always came out.
“I need to call the cops?” he asked with idle curiosity. Maybe she hadn’t recognized him. Or she’d forgotten who he was. He’d really only talked to her a couple of times while at Joe’s Pub. Her father had been an old friend of Joe’s. A detective who’d retired a couple of years ago.
“They’re on their way.”
“Oh.” This part of the city sounded positively quiet. “I don’t hear sirens.”
She gave him a shark’s smile, and the danger meter inside his head went off. He’d screwed something up all right and now he was suddenly interesting and visible, two things that could make his life exceedingly difficult.
How would a regular guy, an almost homeless military vet who no longer looked at the world as safe, react?
He smacked himself on the forehead—a little dramatic, but it was all he could think of. “Fuck me,” he said with perhaps a little too much emphasis. “You are a cop.”
No wonder he’d never gone into acting.
Two cars and a van came toward them a whole lot faster than the speed limit allowed. No lights. No sirens.
“More cops or do we need to run?” he asked her.
“Cops,” she said, a hint of a laugh in her tone. “You spend time at Joe’s, don’t you, Yellow Cab?”
“Yeah. I’m Baz, Bazyli Breznik. Joe introduced us once.” He glanced around at the rundown storefronts. “This part of town is my beat, I guess you could say.”
This woman didn’t say a single word more than was necessary. “Last couple of years. I was in Chicago before that.”
All three vehicles came to a stop in a half circle facing the lady cop. Men in mostly ill-fitting suits exited with speed, but no fanfare.
“So, are you guys the men in black division of the police?” Baz asked as the group of seven men closed in on him, the blonde, and the asshole.
“Who’s this joker?” the oldest guy in the group asked her, looking at Baz.
“Yellow Cab,” she answered. “Came to my rescue. Check around the corner, there should be one more perp.”
A couple of the newcomers went to investigate.
One of them came back a few seconds later. “The guy is out cold.” He looked at Baz. “What did you hit him with?”
Baz shrugged. “My fist.”
When the cop just continued looking at him, Baz lifted his left foot and shrugged. “He shot my boot, man.”
Two of the cops, the ones in uniform, handcuffed the silent kidnapper, then stuck him in the back of one of the cars.
The kidnapper glared at Baz with a promise of death in his eyes.
He’d been promised death countless times in his life, but no one had delivered on it yet. Baz smiled at him and waved.
“Stop that,” the lady cop ordered, then exchanged significant glances with the cops in suits.
“Well, shit,” the older one said. “How are we going to salvage this?”
The lady walked over to Baz, studying him as if she could see all the way down to the bottom of his soul.
It was damned dark down there and full of nasty shit. He was screwed if she had a flashlight.
“The other waitresses say you’re a decent guy.”
“No, ma’am,” Baz told her, shifting uncomfortably on his feet. “I’m an asshole.”
A couple of the cops in suits chuckled at that.
“Why’d you get in the way of whatever those two had planned?”
“I’m an asshole, not a creep, and what those two guys had in mind was all kinds of wrong.”
“How do you know what they were going to do?”
Baz barked out a humorless laugh. “It was written all over their faces. They wanted their hands on you so bad they were shaking.”
The lady tilted her head to one side, then glanced at the older cop.
Whatever her expression was, it brought him over to stand shoulder to shoulder with her. “You got a plan?”
“A police report and a press release about a cab driver who prevented a sexual assault. Nothing splashy, just a little story saying chivalry isn’t quite dead.”
“Ah, come on,” Baz protested. “You’re going to ruin my badass reputation.”
“You don’t have a badass reputation,” she told him with a shake of her head.
He looked from her to the cop standing next to her. They were going to do it, make him a fucking hero. “Fuck my life,” he muttered, wiping one hand over his face.
“Let’s play this straight. Get a patrol car over here and call an ambulance,” she ordered.
“You got it.” The older cop told the rest of the suits the plan and in a remarkably short amount of time a patrol car pulled in. An ambulance arrived five minutes later.
“Can I go now?” Baz asked, not bothering to hide his disgust with this plan to un-demonize him.
“Nope,” she said. “You’re going to give your statement down at the station, then you’re going to drive me home.”
He turned away, shaking his head and muttering, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Her responding chuckle didn’t make him feel any better.
Baz leaned against his car and stared at the bullet hole in his boot. The newspaper article better be awfully short or his family was going to hear about it. He’d had enough of their interference in his life to last him the rest of his years.
Which was a long fucking time.
He should have let those assholes shoot him.
Nah, he hated waking up in morgues. Too damned cold.
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