In Vino, Veritas

        The bottom half of my longneck shattered, spilling golden liquid all over my jeans and the bar’s floor. The mirror in front of me, already pockmarked with chips, now also had a hole courtesy of the bullet that had drilled through to the wood. The cracks spidering out from the center showed me back my own short brown hair and startled black eyes, and the joker with the gun backlit in the doorway.
        I couldn’t see him very well, just a dark silhouette against the rusty evening light spilling down the stairs of the basement bar. But I wouldn’t have recognized him anyway. Most of my varied acquaintances wouldn’t have taken the shot, and the rest would have made damn sure not to miss.
        “That’s gonna cost you five bucks,” I said, swiveling around. My own gun was out, but I didn’t return fire. The guy hadn’t taken the second shot, which meant he wanted to chat. Since I was still recovering from a near death experience all of two days ago, I was up for it. And if my vampire sense was anything to go by, a handgun wasn’t going to be much use against this joker anyway.
        “You want to stay out of our business,” I was told, as everyone else scattered to the four winds. The large shape moved into the bar and resolved into a good looking Asian guy in khakis and a brown leather jacket. The ensemble looked more weekend-in-the-Hamptons than biker chic and clashed badly with the orange and black tiger tat prowling around the right side of his face.
        The tat told me a lot, none of it good. The Chinese don’t like tattoos. In ancient China, they were used as punishment, branded on criminals before exile to insure their easy identification should they ever return. They are still seen by many as a defilement of the body and a sign of generally poor taste. That attitude is changing among the young, but despite the glossy black hair and unlined face, this guy hadn’t been young in centuries.
        Of course, there was one group in China who had always liked tats.
        “I don’t have any business with the Chinese mafia,” I told him, walking behind the bar to get myself a new drink. “Particularly not the vampire kind.”
        “Then how did you know what I am?” he demanded, coming closer.
        The light inside the bar mostly came from the small TV flickering overhead, but it was enough to show me that I’d been right. The facial design was new, but it hid an old secret. I could still see the lines of the original tat, infused with magic so as to be irremovable, flowing under the newer, brighter colors.
        “The artist was good, but magical tattoos are a bitch to hide, aren’t they?” I asked with a smile.
        The man’s right hand twitched, like it wanted to cover his face. Or maybe rip off mine. “Like my teeth marks in your throat!”
        “Not on the first date,” I said, baring my own small fangs. “And I know who you are because I recently met your boss.” As I recalled, Lord Cheung and I had parted as…well, not friends exactly, but I hadn’t expected him to send an assassin after me.
        Even one as inept as this.
        “You’re dhampir.”
        It didn’t appear to startle him. And it should have. The children who result from a coupling between a vampire and a human vary widely in appearance and abilities, with some looking scarier than the creatures who sired them.
        But not in my case. Other than for the vestigial fangs, which aren’t noticeable unless I’m pissed off, I’m pretty much human standard. On first sight, most people think I’m sweet and innocent.
        Most people are wrong.
        But it looked like Tiger boy had known who he was shooting at, after all. And then he confirmed it. “They say you’re almost five hundred.”
        “A lady never tells her age.”
        He leaned on the bar, like we were having a nice, normal chat instead of planning to kill each other. “If you’re that old, you should know how to avoid trouble.”
        “Guess I haven’t been paying attention.” I glanced over his shoulder. Was I being set up somehow? Because he just couldn’t be this stupid. But there was no one there.
        I glanced back to find him looking annoyed, like I wasn’t keeping to whatever script he’d worked out in his head. Annoyed, but not afraid, despite the fact that I had one hand below the countertop. That told me he wasn’t that bright. Well, that and the fact that he’d deliberately sought out one of the few things on earth capable of killing him.
        “You aren’t clinically depressed, are you?” I asked. “This will be no fun if it’s some sort of suicide-by-dhampir.”
        He looked confused for a moment, then his face rearranged itself into a sneer. “I saw one of your kind once. A master I know keeps him on a leash. Like a dog.”
        “I doubt that.”
        “He didn’t look like much.” He took in my less-than-impressive height, my slender build and my dimples. His lip curled. “Neither do you.”
        “Looks can be deceiving.”
        “So can little girls who have been surviving on their reputations for too long!”
        Okay, maybe he could be that stupid. “I deserve my reputation,” I said mildly.
        “Sure you do.” His eyes went roaming again, sliding over the black leather of my jacket until they fixed on the vee of my red T-shirt. “Prove it.”
        So I did.
        “Damn it, Dory,” Fin scurried up as I walked around the bar and knelt by the still smoking corpse. The owner was a Skogstroll, a kind of Norwegian forest troll, although to my knowledge the closest he’d ever gotten to the land of his ancestors was a PBS documentary. But it meant he didn’t have to bend down to examine the damage the shotgun he kept behind the counter had done to the bar. “That’s going on your tab!”
        “No problem,” I said, showing him the contents of the guy’s wallet.
        “No way.” He started backing up, but tripped on his beard. “I’m not touching Tiger money! Not if the whole place burned down!”
        I frisked the guy, but of course, there was no I.D. Assassins didn’t carry it, as a rule. I did find one thing of interest, though.
        “Raymond,” I said, with feeling.
        “Is that his name?” Fin asked, staring at the book of matches I’d found in the not-so-recently deceased’s coat pocket.
        “No. Tell me about--” I began, when the body started twitching. So he wasn’t just a regular old vamp, who would have been killed by that shot as sure as a human. Dumb as a rock or not, he was a master. Cheung really wanted me to get the message.
        Whatever the hell it was.
        “Don’t do it, Dory,” Fin warned, his tiny blue eyes worried. “You kill one, and they’ll all be hunting you. That’s how these guys operate.”
        “I’m not planning to kill anyone,” I squawked, because the vamp had grabbed me around the throat. So I stuck a knife through his, pinning him securely to the wood.
        Fin’s glare intensified. “Dory!”
        “Relax, it won’t kill him. I’d have to take the whole head for that.” I sat back on my heels. “And when did you become so squeamish?”
        “I’m not! But you don’t want to mess with these guys.”
        “I haven’t been,” I said, exasperated. “I had a run in with his boss recently, but we cleared that up.” Or so I’d thought.
        Fin didn’t look convinced. “He sent a master to screw with you for no reason?”
        “Let’s find out,” I said, wrenching the knife out.
        But even though I’d taken care to miss the vocal cords, it looked like the vamp had lost interest in conversation. An arm sent me skidding on my back into the forest of tables, reducing a few of the battered old pieces to kindling. I leapt back to my feet, but the vamp didn’t press his advantage. He was gone between one blink and the next, out the door and up the stairs, despite the fact that, in vamp terms, sunlight + major blood loss = bar-b-que.
        If I was lucky, anyway.
        Fin hopped about, contorting his body to avoid the shaft of light spilling over the old boards. Older trolls could withstand direct sun, and even those Fin’s age didn’t actually turn to stone. But he said it gave him hives.
        “And stay out!” he shouted, flipping the door shut with his toe.
        I picked myself up and assessed the damage. Other than for some bruised ribs and a jacket full of splinters, I was unharmed. The same couldn’t be said for my cell phone, which had been in my back pocket. I fished out a few pieces of plastic and some metal innards, extracted the memory chip and threw the rest in the trash.
        It could have been worse; it could have been my head. And maybe next time it would be. Because it was a little hard to stop doing whatever was pissing Cheung off when I didn’t even know what it was.
        I walked back over and retrieved the guy’s wallet. “You going to tell me what you know?” I asked Fin.
        “It isn’t much,” he said, eyeing the fat sheaf of banknotes peeking out of the natty eel skin cover. “They call themselves Leaping Tigers, and they’re new. The first of them showed up about a month ago, but they operate out of Chinatown, not here. I heard they pretty much destroyed a couple gangs over there, setting up house. They’re bad news.”
        Tell me something I don’t know, I thought cynically. “And this house would be where?”
        He licked his lips. “You, uh, you gonna need all that?”
        I fanned myself with the fat stack of bills. “I thought you wouldn’t touch Tiger money?” He gave me a limpid look and I sighed. “You’re planning to tell everyone I took it, aren’t you?”
        He looked pained. “You can take care of yourself better than me. And you did shoot him.”
        “So give.”
        “I already did. Nobody knows where they hole up during the day. It’s like they just vanish.”
        “You mean nobody wants to know.”
        “That, too. Anyway, they’ve made a big impression pretty damn fast. You’re better off staying away from them.”
        “Yeah. But will they stay away from me?”
        “Just take care, Dory.”
        “I always do.” I fished out a five and tossed the rest on the bar. “Drinks are on him.”

*   *   *

        Raymond Lu was a disreputable nightclub owner who had recently become a disreputable snitch. He didn’t have a tiger tat, probably because he wasn’t important enough to deserve one, but his boss just happened to be Lord Cheung. And the last time one of Cheung’s guys had taken a shot at my head, it had been due to my association with Ray.
        His club’s logo had been emblazoned on the matches I’d found in the hit man’s coat, so I decided to see if anything interesting was happening. It wasn’t. Of course, that in itself was interesting.
        The club usually did a pretty good business, despite being wedged between an acupuncturist and a cut rate electronics store on a back street of Chinatown. Not tonight, though. The jazzy neon sign was dark and the usual bouncer and rope combo was missing from the front door.
        Instead, a large guy leaned against the dirty bricks, in the process of lighting a cigarette. The glow of the flame into his cupped palm highlighted a familiar craggy face. Zheng-ze, AKA Scarface, Cheung’s right hand vamp and a first-level master with power to burn.
        He and his boss were in the process of challenging for seats on the Senate, the ruling body for vamps in North America. From what I’d heard, they’d been doing pretty good. I silently cursed and shifted a little closer to the Dumpster that was providing my cover. The fact that Scarface was standing guard duty cut down my chances of getting in by at least half.
        A moment later, he finished lighting up and relaxed against the wall. And grinned at me. I gave it up and crossed the road.
       “Haven’t you heard that stuff’ll kill you?” I asked, as he took a long drag.
        He laughed it back out. “You look like shit,” he told me cheerfully, his eyes on the not-yet-faded bruises under the pancake I’d slathered on before leaving the house. “I heard you got yourself blown up.”
        “You heard wrong.” Although it had been pretty damn close.
        “Good. Once I get the Challenges outta the way, you and I gotta square off.” He showed me some big, white teeth. “See who’s best.”
        “I know who’s best.”
        “That’s the spirit,” he said approvingly. “There’s no sport in it when they just give up and die.”
        I ignored that in favor of nodding at the building behind him. “So what’s going on?”
        I hadn’t really expected an answer, although I got one—sort of.         “Lord Cheung’s trying to clean up his image. He’s jonesing for a senate seat bad and thinks some of his activities might not look too good if they’re brought up in the voting process.”
        “I thought combat decided the new senators.”
        “Combat narrows the field,” he corrected. “But once we’re through, we got to be confirmed. And your senators are going to be looking for any possible reason to turn us down.”
        “They’re not my senators,” I said flatly.
        The senate employed me to clean up their messes from time to time, but the fact that I occasionally proved useful hadn’t made me any more popular. The only one who might not hate me was Mircea, second in command to the consul, the senate’s leader. Most vamps treated him like he was scary with a little scary on top, which I’d always found puzzling. He sparked a confusing tangle of emotions in me, but fear had never been one of them.
        Of course, that might be because he was also my father.
        “Look, I don’t care who does or does not get on the senate,” I told Scarface. “I just want to know why your master sent a hit man after me.”
        “You’d have to ask him about that.”
        “Is he in there?” A brief nod. “Then get out of the way and I will.”
        He blew smoke at me.
        “I’m going in there,” I informed him.
        He dropped his cigarette to the stained concrete and ground it in with his toe. “I was hoping to wait until you recovered to beat you up,” he said regretfully. “It won’t be nearly as much fun this—” he broke off as I turned on my heel and headed down the sidewalk.
        “Hey! Where you going?”
        “The side exit.”
        His booming laughter followed me around the building.
        The short alleyway stopped after half a dozen yards, ending at another brick wall. Three steps went up to a door, steps that were occupied by another bored-looking vamp. He didn’t seem surprised to see me, having heard my conversation with his buddy out front, and he didn’t even stand up. I decided that was rude and started rooting around in my big black duffle bag. 
        “What are you going to do?” he asked, amused. “Mace me?”
        “Good idea.”
        The heavy iron headed mace caught him upside the head and sent him crashing through the rusted railing and into the river of slime flowing down the center of the alley. I didn’t wait around to see what mood he’d be in when he picked himself up. I threw open the door and sprinted inside, pausing only long enough to see that the sole source of light was on the balcony, one level up. 
        I heard a faint foot scrape behind me and slammed the heavy old door in the vamp’s face. He cursed and staggered backwards, and I took off across the dark dance floor. I reached the curving iron stairs to the balcony and took them two at a time.
        I was halfway up when the guard’s foot hit the bottom step--and then abruptly fell away. He was soon joined by the rest of Cheung’s men, but they bunched at the bottom, making no effort to follow me up. That didn’t make sense until I burst out onto the catwalk and realized two things: there was already a vamp up here and he didn’t need any help.
        He was standing in front of the manager’s office, halfway down the balcony. What he really looked like was anyone’s guess, of course; most of the older masters found it useful to present an attractive appearance. In this case, that meant bronze skin, high cheekbones, dark, almond-shaped eyes and a hawk-like nose with a proud tilt.
        I didn’t know Cheung’s background, but he looked like the kind of guy who should be wearing heavily embroidered silk or possibly warrior leathers. Something exotic and powerful, anyway. So he appeared a little out of place in a double-breasted pinstripe tailored so tight he could have cut paper on it.
        The elegance of the outfit made the large orange and black tiger tat prowling around his smooth olive skin that much more noticeable. Of course, the movement helped, too. I watched it stalk around the back of his hand before returning to the concealment of the shirt sleeve, tail slowly swishing. It was beautifully done—all long, sleek muscles under a rich blanket of fur, with watchful emerald eyes and an occasional flash of sharp white teeth.
        It’s expression wasn’t so nice. At the moment, both tiger and man wore the same one--of barely concealed impatience. “I thought I had warned you off,” Cheung said, without preamble.
        “Was that what you were doing?” I moved forward since it wasn’t like I could go back. “I guess the bullet grazing my ear must have confused me.”
        “The fact that it missed should have told you as much.”
        “Oh, I’m sorry.” I stopped a yard or so away, close enough to smell his cologne, far enough away to have a chance to reach my weapons. “Maybe next time you could shoot me an email instead?”
        Cheung ignored that. “I know your father’s power, dhampir. I have no wish to return you to him in pieces. If you swear to cease interfering in my business, you may go.”
        “It would help if I knew what your business is,” I pointed out.
        Cheung’s eyes narrowed. “You do not?”
        “Would I be asking if I did?”
        His expression darkened, but he didn’t reply, possibly because the front doors took that moment to slam open, allowing a dozen more vamps to pour into the room. It was starting to look like Cheung didn’t have anybody on staff lower than master level; either that, or he’d left the riff raff at home. These radiated enough power to ruffle my hair, even this far away, which made it a little ridiculous that they were dragging one short, pudgy guy.
        He wasn’t halfway across the floor when I recognized him: Raymond, looking a little worse for the wear. He was trying to struggle but not managing it too well considering that neither of his feet was actually touching the floor. A tall vamp with Asian features but a pale blond buzz cut had him by the back of the neck, like an errant puppy. 
        I crossed my arms and got a grip on the stake up my sleeve.
Cheung noticed but didn’t do anything, other than to roll his eyes. He looked past me as Raymond was dragged up to us and forced to kneel. Or maybe his legs just gave out. He looked pretty damn terrified.
        “You appear to make enemies wherever you go, Raymond,” Cheung said, looking at him with a slight curl to his lip.
        “I g-guess I’m just lucky like that,” Raymond said. It sounded cocky, even with the stutter, and won him a cuff upside the head from the blond. But I didn’t think it had been meant that way. Raymond was at the stage of terror where the mouth is on autopilot because the brain has retreated somewhere inside the skull in order to gibber quietly. If he’d been a human, he’d have soiled himself by now.
        “Are you going to tell me what is going on?” I asked Cheung.
        “I believe I shall let Raymond do that,” he said, looking with distaste at his cowering subordinate.
        Ray looked from me to the boss and back again, but didn’t appear to find anything helpful. “Well?” I prompted.
        He swallowed. “Uh. I might have, you know, mentioned that, uh, that the senate had appointed you as my, um.” He stopped, looking at me pitifully. His usually beady blue eyes were suddenly large and soulful, like the aforementioned puppy.
        Or an albino rat.
        “Your what?” I demanded.
        “My bodyguard?”
        I pinched the bridge of my nose and thought about saving everyone a lot of trouble and staking Ray right here. But I doubted he’d told the senate all he knew yet. And without his information, we had pretty much a zero chance of shutting down the smuggling ring he’d been running. Not to mention that the little guy had done me a few pretty big favors recently.
        I was going to have to figure a way to get him out of this.
        I could always stake him later.
        “Then he was lying,” Cheung said, looking satisfied.
        I glared at Ray, whose eyes were still doing the huge and pleading thing. He clearly thought this was it. It didn’t help that I was pretty sure he was right.
        I sighed and accepted the inevitable. “Not exactly.”
        Cheung’s forehead creased slightly. “You are assuming responsibility for him?”
        “I am saying I already have it.” I reached down and jerked Ray over to me by his collar. His eyes bugged out a little, but he didn’t protest. If nothing else, that told me how serious this was. He usually whined non-stop. “He’s mine.”
        “Yours?” One dark eyebrow rose. “You did not sire him. By vampire law, he is my property to do with as I wish. And I doubt the senate will flout thousands of years of tradition, even to save the life of their favorite…what is the word? Canary?”
        “Your vocab’s a little out of date,” I said sourly. “And that’s not how I remember it.”
        “I beg your pardon?”
        “The last time you, me and Ray were all together, you gave him to me.”
        The crease grew into a frown. “I did nothing of the kind.”
        “In exchange for me helping to cover up the fact that you’d kidnapped a senator’s brother, threatened him with death and trashed his new and very expensive car. Ring any bells?”
        “There was no formal transfer made. You misinterpreted a casual remark.”
        I had done no such thing, and he damn well knew it. “I guess we can let the senate decide that.” They’d have to support Ray, like it or not, or lose all that lovely information he still had locked in his fat little head.
        Scarface came up the stairs and Cheung glanced at him. “Careful,” he told him, looking at me narrowly. “She is dhampir. I don’t know what she can pick up.”
        Not a hell of a lot, I didn’t say. Vampire mind speak had never been my forte. Especially not if it was in Cantonese.
        But Mircea had spent some time in the East, and for all they knew, so had I. I decided to capitalize on the moment. “May I speak to Ray privately?”
        Cheung hesitated for a moment, but then he nodded, probably wanting his own private confab. I didn’t give him time to change his mind, but dragged Ray through the door into the office and slammed it shut with my foot. “Are we private?” I demanded.
        He sighed morosely. “There’s a privacy spell on the room; they can’t hear us. Not that it matters. They’re going to kill me.”
        “You should be more worried about me, at the moment,” I hissed. “Why the hell did you tell Cheung I was your bodyguard?”
        “Well, you should have been,” he said spitefully, suddenly growing some backbone. “Or somebody shoulda been. What did you think was gonna happen, as soon as I started spilling my guts? The master was gonna give me a medal?”
        “He knew I was going to take you in. He had to expect--”
        “What he expected was that I’d die before the senate could question me. I was a little under the weather, if you remember?”
        The sarcasm was understandable. Ray had been sans a head at the time Cheung and I had cut our deal, and the body parts he’d had left had been pretty beat up. Vampires are sturdy, but what he’d been through would have killed many at a higher power level than he was ever likely to reach. Cheung’s conclusion had been reasonable.
        But Ray was tougher than he looked, and he’d had some supernatural help Cheung hadn’t known about. He’d not only lived, but once all his parts were reattached, he’d sung like…well, like a canary. And what a song it had been.
        “Why didn’t you ask the senate protect you?” I demanded. “You’ve given them enough information already to shut down half the illegal smuggling in Manhattan.”
        “I did!” he said indignantly. “But this challenge mess is all anyone can think about. And I don’t think they believed the master would move against me, not with him vying for a senate seat and all. He’s supposed to be on his best behavior.”
       “Yes, he is,” I said hopefully. “Maybe we can use that. He’s risking a lot.”
        “He’s risking nothing! When I disappear, the senate might suspect him, sure. But I also could have lost my nerve and ran. I thought about it, you know. I got a lot of contacts among the fey, and they can hide anybody. If they didn’t creep me out so damn much… Anyway, without proof, they can’t move against him. And since Lord Cheung is my master, nobody else can trace me.” He slumped onto the edge of the desk. “I’m toast.”
        I thumped him. “And thanks to you, so am I! I’m the only one who can tell the senate you didn’t go on an extended vacation!”
        “Then I guess you better figure us a way out of this,” he told me resentfully, rubbing the side of his head.
        I’d have thumped him again, but I didn’t have time. I glanced around, but things weren’t looking promising. As I’d already noticed, there was no phone, and mine was still in pieces. There was only one door in or out, and the only window was merely a paler square of brick in the wall behind the desk. Ray’s place wasn’t exactly up to fire code, having been designed for the convenience of the vampire owner and staff, not ease of egress.
        “I don’t suppose they left you a phone?” He just looked at me. Of course not. And his penny pinching ways had led to him skipping the usual magical escape routes.
        “I bet you wish you’d invested in a few emergency exits now,” I said harshly.
        “You don’t need ‘em when you got a portal,” Ray commented, and my eyes jerked to the blank stretch of wall across from the door.
        “That’s right. You have a portal,” I said, brightening.
        “Had. The senate’s goons were here yesterday. I guess they wanted to plug my link to Faerie before they started on the smaller stuff.”
        “Then the only exits are in the main room?”
        Ray nodded bleakly. I stared at the door and faced reality. As usual, my duffle contained a few surprises, but no way was I carving a path through all that. Not on my best day, which this definitely wasn’t.
        I was going to have to come up with something else.
        The door opened and Lord Cheung leaned against the sill, looking considerably more upbeat. “I have been reminded that, in a case of disputed ownership, a duel is the common remedy.”
        I stared over Cheng’s shoulder at Scarface’s smug grin. I didn’t have to ask who had done the reminding. He’d just seen me walk away from a challenge outside. I was in no shape to duel a kitten right now, much less a first-level master, and he damned well knew it.
        “That’s not going to get us anywhere,” I said, trying to keep my voice even. “If you leave me alive, I’ll tell the senate you killed Ray, ruining your chances at a seat. And if you kill me, Mircea will return the favor, for pride if nothing else. Then we’re all dead.”
        Cheung’s face gave nothing away, but I didn’t need expressions to know what he was thinking. Mircea could only take revenge if he knew Cheung was responsible for my death, which he might never find out. But then, Cheung couldn’t know who I might have told where I was going. Or, for that matter, what kind of a bond Mircea and I had.
        In the end, he decided not to risk it. “You have a better solution?”
        “Yeah. You want Ray; so do I. So we’ll gamble for him.”
        “You wish to flip a coin?” The sarcasm was palpable.
        “Coin tosses can be rigged. I’d prefer something where we both have an even shot, where no one gets dead, and where the outcome is sure.”
        “What then?” Cheung asked, looking wary.
        So I told him.

*    *    *

        “Okay,” Ray said, coming in from the storeroom flanked by two babysitters. “This is the lot; this is all I got.”
        He carried a card board box over to one of the club’s small tables, which had been placed in the middle of the dance floor. Cheung had chosen the location, I guess to give his boys a chance to crowd around and see him kick my ass. Ray pushed through the throng, but then just stood there, the glass bottles inside the box chiming against each other because his hands were shaking.
        “Put it down,” Cheung told him impatiently.
        “T-there’s not room on the table.”
        Cheung looked skyward. “Then put it on the ground.”
        Ray obliged, and peeled back the cardboard top.
        “That should be enough,” I said dryly, eyeing the stash that was revealed. There were twelve bottles, each holding maybe a pint. That didn’t sound like much, unless you knew what was in them.
        Fey wine wasn’t really wine. It wasn’t much like anything else found on Earth, either. A distillation of plants, mostly fey in origin, plus some herbs, spices and God knew what else thrown in for taste, it could put a bull elephant on his knees. That much would drop the whole damn herd, only they weren’t going to be drinking it.
        We were.
        I’d have preferred something else, since my metabolism neutralizes regular old alcohol almost faster than I can drink it. Unfortunately, the same is true for vampires. If I wanted to win, Cheung had to end up under the table. And that meant hauling out the hard stuff.
        “Is it not customary to cut this?” Cheung asked, as Ray poured a clear liquid into a couple of shot glasses. A little sloshed onto the table. I was slightly surprised it didn’t eat on through. 
        “If you feel the need,” I told him sweetly.
        Cheung narrowed his eyes at me and tossed back his first shot. He didn’t do anything so unmanly as choke, but his eyes widened perceptibly. And then it was my turn.
        I’d proposed a drink-till-you-drop challenge for two reasons. Physically, it was all I was up for at the moment. I was in no condition to take Cheung, and even if I somehow did the impossible, no way was Scarface letting me walk out of here after killing the boss. But it was reason number two that I was betting the farm on. Or at least Ray’s continued existence.
        One of the interesting facets of life as a dhampir is frequent rage-induced blackouts. They are a natural result of the vampire killing instinct mixed with an excitable human nervous system, but tell that to the people who’ve encountered one of us on a rampage. Not that there are usually any left. 
        Because of the scarcity of my kind—and the fact that we aren’t on most people’s Christmas card list—nobody had ever bothered to devise anything to control the blackouts. But after hundreds of years of questionable sanity, I’d recently discovered a remedy on my own. It wasn’t a perfect solution: it kept me more or less sane, but it severely reduced my ability in battle--something that, in my line of work, was considerably less than ideal.
        It also had some interesting side effects.
        I picked up my glass, hoping one in particular was going to kick in. Because, otherwise, I didn’t have a much better chance at this contest than I would at a duel. I might drag it out longer, but my half human metabolism was almost certain to be more susceptible to the wine’s effects than a full vampire’s.
        I slammed back the shot, and felt my eyes start to water. Fey wine varied a lot in type and potency, depending on what exactly went into the mix, and this particular batch ought to be illegal. Of course, come to think of it, it was.
        “You okay, there?” Scarface asked, looking amused. I nodded, my throat burning too much to speak, and sat the glass down beside Cheung’s. Ray immediately refilled them, while I concentrated on my version of a Hail Mary pass.
        I had not inherited the vampire ability to mind speak. But I had found that, if I drank the feys’ favorite beverage in enough quantity, I could pick up bits and pieces of what others were thinking. And I could speak to the mind of one vamp in particular.
        This had led to some awkward situations, as the vamp in question, Louis-Cesare, was also my…well, I didn’t know what to call him. We weren’t lovers, exactly, at least not yet. And we were only fiends in the sense that we yelled at each other a lot. But there was definitely an attraction there. And for a few intimate, wine-fueled moment, I’d felt closer to him than anyone else I’d ever known.
        I didn’t know that he could pick up my thoughts from this far away, as we’d never done any actual experimentation with our connection. But a long shot is better than no shot at all. I downed the second shot and thought “hurry up, hurry up, hurry up!”
        Fifteen minutes and a full bottle later, it became obvious that Louis-Cesare was not hurrying. I licked numb lips and decided there was a silver lining. At this rate, I wouldn’t be able to feel it whenever they got around to shooting me.
        “You owe me,” Ray hissed into my ear, as I sat staring resentfully at my tenth or fifteenth or twentieth shot. I’d lost count. But it basically added up to too many.
        “Nowhere near this much,” I muttered, trying not to slur my words.
        “Oh, so now we’re putting a price on friendship?”
        “We’re not friends,” I told him darkly. I’d just seen Cheung toss back another shot. He’d lost his suit coat and loosened his tie, but other than that, he looked exactly the same as when I’d come in. The damn vampire wasn’t even sweating. 
        “Don’t talk,” Ray said, putting a glass in my hand. “Drink.”
        I wasn’t aware that I’d been talking. That probably wasn’t a good sign. But at least I was still sitting straight. Cheung had started to list a little.
        “That’s you,” Ray said, hauling me upright and handing me another glass. 
        “Hey!” I protested. “He has to drink first.”
        “He just did.”
        “I didn’t see.”
        “It’s difficult to see anything when one’s eyes are crossed,” Cheung said. And then he giggled.
        I know I wasn’t imagining it, because his vamps’ heads all swiveled in his direction, expressions of incredulity on their faces. Scarface scowled at them and they quickly looked away. But a few were coughing and one had to abruptly leave the room.
        I downed another shot and grinned at Cheung. “I c’n do this all night,” I told him. “And you’re already drunk.”
        Cheung gave me a superior look and tried to pick up his glass. He missed.
        “He may be drunk,” Scarface said, “but you’re about to fall on your ass. And as soon as you do, that son of a bitch is ours.” He scowled at Ray, as if his boss’s loss of dignity was all his fault. Ray must have interpreted it that way, too, because he quickly sloshed some more liquid into the glasses.
        “I am not even close to being on my ass,” I said, offended. “And Ray’s gonna be fine.”
        “That’s right,” Ray said staunchly.
        Fifteen minutes later, I’d decided Ray really was toast.
        “It’s okay,” he said, massaging my shoulders. “You’re doing great. Just really, really good.”
        “How many more bottles are there?” I asked blearily. The way I felt, we must have gone through most of the case.
        “Nine?” I did a little mental arithmetic, which was way harder than it should have been. “We’ve only been through three?”
        “Three and a half,” he said, and refilled my glass.
        “That wasn’t so bad,” I decided, after downing the shot. Maybe I was getting my rhythm.
        “Because you threw it over your shoulder,” Scarface told me, looking smug.
        “Did not.” I looked behind me, only to see an outraged vamp with fey wine dripping down his face. “Oops.”
        “It was for luck,” Ray said defensively, wrapping both my hands around a glass.
        I drank.
        An indeterminate time later—my eyes couldn’t seem to focus on my watch anymore—someone slapped me across the face. “Big, bad dhampir, remember?” Ray said, his face looming large in front of mine. It appeared agitated.
        “Big, bad dhampir wan’ go sleep.”
        “They’re laughing at you,” he said, grabbing my chin and turning my head toward Cheung’s men. “Look at them. They’re laughing!”
        It took me a moment, to focus, but when I did, they didn’t look like they were laughing. Mostly, they looked bored and a little nervous. Apparently, the novelty of seeing the boss shit faced had worn off and a few of the smarter ones had started to wonder just how much they were going to pay for having witnessed this.
        One look at Cheung, and I didn’t think they needed to worry.
His tie was gone, his shirt was open halfway down his chest, his bangs had all flopped into his eyes, and while he might not have been sweating, he was looking pretty damn green. I wasn’t sure how much he’d remember tomorrow, which was just as well since he also appeared to have developed a fascination with Scarface’s hair. He kept reaching up to poke at the spikes, and appeared amazed when they weren’t sharp.
        “You can take him!” Ray whispered in my ear.
        “Damn straight.”
        The next thing I remember, Ray was fishing me out from under the table. Or, at least, he was trying to, but Scarface’s foot was in the way. “On. Her. Ass,” Scarface said proudly.
        “She just slipped,” Ray said, sounding frantic. “Anybody could slip. She’s fine!”
        “Like hell she’s fine. Look at her!”
        “I am,” someone said, from somewhere behind us. “Would you care to explain to me what is wrong with her?”
        Scarface slowly straightened, his foot sliding off Ray’s wrist. Ray seized the opportunity to drag me upright. “I love you, man,” I told him blearily, catching one of his hands.
        “God, just. Shut. Up,” he muttered.
        The room appeared to be spinning anyway, so I followed it around to where a handsome auburn-haired vamp was standing by the main entrance. He had a sword in either hand and appeared miffed. Louis-Cesare, my brain supplied helpfully, after a minute. I was pleased to see him, although I couldn’t exactly recall why. But I sent him a sloppy smile anyway.
        “She has not been injured,” Scarface said, stepping away from the table to give himself room to maneuver. And as soon as he did, his boss slowly slipped off his seat and into a well-dressed lump on the floor.
       “On his ass! On his ass!” Ray said, letting go of me to point.
        “So is she,” Scarface hissed, as I flopped face first onto concrete. “And she was first.”
        “Only because you were holding him up! You were cheating!”
        “No, this would be cheating,” Scarface said, and smashed a bottle upside Ray’s head.
        And then things got a little confusing.
        Scarface lunged at Ray, who stumbled back, squeaking. But he tripped over me and slammed into the case of few wine, crushing it beneath him. Thank God for large favors, I thought fervently.
        And then I remembered why I was happy to see Louis-Cesare.
        “Love you!” I yelled encouragingly, which caused him to start suddenly. Then, for some reason, he scowled. And then the sprinkler system got turned on, although that might have been later, because when I looked around, I was by the bar.
        Someone was trying to pound the butt of a shotgun through my skull. So I yanked it out of his grasp and brought it down on his kneecaps. He screamed in pain and grabbed for the weapon, we struggled and it went off, blowing a hole the size of a basketball through the fake wood paneling separating the club from the bar.
        We both stared at it for a second, before he grabbed for me--at the same time that another vamp brought a club down, trying to crush my hand. I rolled out of the way and he hit his buddy’s instead, with a crunching sound that indicated a broken bone or three.
        The first vamp screamed again and reflexively kicked out, knocking his buddy back into a nest of bar stools. The stools scattered, the vamp fell backwards and my hand closed on one of my guns.
        I didn’t even try to aim, since I was the only one here who could be killed by a stray bullet. I just sprayed them everywhere. I don’t think too many connected, but it distracted my attackers long enough for me to reach the hole in the wall. One of Ray’s boys looked through at me, his bright black eyes wide.
        “Scotch?” I asked, as a chair was slung across the room at my head. I ducked and the bartender handed me a bottle, just as the chair-tosser lunged at me. I broke it over his head, staggering him. “A light?” My lighter was in my jeans, and no way was I coordinated enough to get it out.
        I was passed another matchbook embossed with the bar’s logo and, a second later, the vamp went up in flames. He could have stopped, dropped and rolled them out, but most vamps aren’t that level-headed about fire. This one proved to be no exception. He panicked, crashed into his buddy and they fell to the floor, screaming Cantonese invective at each other.
        I looked around for the next threat, but all I saw was Louis-Cesare standing over a pile of vamps, none of which appeared to be in proper working order. It would have been cause for celebration, if it hadn’t been for the boots hitting the street outside. I decided to get out before Cheung’s reinforcements ruined the odds again, tossed a potion grenade at the front door and jumped out the side.
        Louis-Cesare was right behind me. We landed hard, in front of the puddle of water that spanned most of the alley. It reflected the explosion in the club behind us, flames shooting upside down, livid and wavering, until a screaming mass of panicked vamps came pouring out of the door. They scattered in all directions, some splashing through the water and turning it into a rippling mass of flame.
        One of the last to emerge was Scarface, with the boss draped inelegantly over one shoulder. “You,” he pointed at me. I blinked at him. “Later.”
        I nodded and waved him off, as Ray came scooting out the door, the seat of his pants smoking. “Now who owes who?” I demanded, as he hightailed it down the alley. He paused at the corner to shoot me the bird, before disappearing in the opposite direction from Cheung’s vamps.
        “He’ll be okay,” I told Louis-Cesare. “He’ll run straight to the senate and now that they know there’s a danger, they’ll have to—”
        Somebody started shaking me, which was not a good idea under the circumstances. “Don’ do that,” I said, grabbing hold of Louis-Cesare’s jacket.
        “You’re drunk,” he accused. But he did stop shaking me.
        I pondered that for a moment. It was undeniably true. And then I remembered that there were extenuating circumstances, some of which involved him. “Well, you were late.”
        “I was in Brooklyn!”
        “You went to see me?” I grinned happily. And then stopped, wondering if he’d had some other reason for making the trip. It wasn’t like we had a Thing. Not an official Thing, anyway. He didn’t have to visit, although I couldn’t think of any other reason he’d be in Brooklyn. Louis-Cesare was definitely more of an Uptown kind of--
        “Why are you out of bed?” he demanded, looking like he wanted to start with the shaking again.
        “I just wanted a quiet drink,” I said defensively. That and I’d been going crazy with boredom.
        “It appears that you found one,” he said dryly. 
        “Well, I don’t know how quiet it was…” I broke off, because something in his expression was wrong. It took me a minute, but I finally sorted through exasperation, fondness and relief to something that looked like hurt. And that didn’t make sense.
        “We won,” I said distinctly. “At least, I think so…” I looked around. The alley was quiet again, except for the crackling fire and the distant sound of sirens.
        “Yes, we won,” he affirmed.
        I looked back up at him, fuzzily. “So why the long face?”
        He took a deep breath. “I was hoping that the first time you expressed affection for me, it would not be in a room full of strangers. And that you would not have just said it to a sniveling creature like that Raymond!”
        “I expressed affection for Ray?”
        “Man, I really must be drunk.” Louis-Cesare just looked at me. I blinked politely back, until I realized that he expected a response. “Uh. Sorry?”
        “Isn’t there anything else you wish to say to me?” he asked impatiently. 
        I swallowed. “Yes. Yes there is.”
        Warm arms suddenly engulfed me, pulling me in, and one large hand tucked my head into his chest. “What is it?” he asked softly.
        “I’m about to yak all over your shirt.”
        Vampire reflexes got me to the side of the road instead, and then he crouched there, brushing my hair away from my sweaty cheeks as I made good on my threat. He sighed.
        “One day, you will say it to me again. You will be sober. And you will mean it.”
        I was actually terrified that I already meant it. A guy might just be a keeper who hears your cry for help in his head. And comes into a den of thieves to get you out. And then holds your hair while you throw up for ten minutes.
        Then again, I was in no condition to judge. But that old saying kept rattling around in my head. “In vino veritas,” I whispered, faintly appalled.
        “Nothing.” I looked up at him as he pulled me back to my feet. “Let’s go home.”

The End