Taking a Bite Out of Crime
Ride 'em, Vampire: The Caleb Ride Chronicles
Book One
Caleb Ride is having a rough night. He's got conjugal troubles with his acolyte/companion, who's about to leave him. He's exhausted after clearing a nest of rogue vampires preying upon local prostitutes. He's been given a partner he doesn't want, the sexy, mysterious human agent Selene Sanders. And to top it off, one of the bad guys has sliced him in the shoulder with a sword and ruined his favorite leather coat.

Can he go home to get a bite, get some rest, and restore domestic tranquility? Of course not. A rodeo clown has turned up dead at the Houston Livestock Show, blood-dry, completely drained--and Caleb and Selene have to investigate.

Enjoy this Chapter One Preview!

Ride 'em, Vampire
Chapter One

by Chuck McDaniel

The killer off my left shoulder chuckled. He knew they had me, dead to rights, if you can stand the pun. The killer off my right didn't say a word. He just kept twirling his sword, over and over, its blade hissing like a puff adder.

The killer in front of me leered. Her lips curved back away from her teeth, her extra-pointed canines glinting in the shadows. Her eyes sparkled, moist, jet black, soulless. She planned to watch me die slowly. She would enjoy it.

I shook my head. Caleb, I said to myself, you are some kind of "idjit."

Now an "idjit," my mama used to tell me, is more than just an idiot.

"Everybody's an idiot at one time or another," she used to say. "Lots of things can make you an idiot. A girl or a job or a cause. Anybody can get themselves in that kind of fix, now and again. But you got to choose to be an 'idjit.' Being an 'idjit' means you had a chance to walk away from something really stupid, but you decided to blunder on in there anyways."

At that point, she'd always give me a hug and whisper in my ear, "Don't ever be an 'idjit,' son. It could be the death of you."

Suddenly my mama was looking awful smart. And me? Not so much.

The woman ran her hands down her sides, willing me to look at her, to quiver with desire for her sleek figure and protruding breasts. Old Ones are often extra-conceited, like aging models and washed-up beauty queens, always hoping for one more turn on the runway.

A close gander let me know this Old One had once been a stunner, still was, in most respects. But the daubs of makeup on the sides of her eyes and mouth told me she wouldn't agree. She'd find the crow's feet and laugh lines hidden underneath as disfiguring as keloid scars. These hints of aging, so attractive on a Norm woman, reveal a female vampire has entered the Final Stage. Most Old Ones accept the End gracefully. Most. Not all.

I know what you're thinking. Most folks believe we vampires can live forever, as long as no one pops a stake in our heart or douses us with holy water or exposes us to sunlight for more than five seconds. Not true. And the nightmare in front of me was living proof.

She was still leering, so I nodded to show she had my attention. Better to let her have some encouragement, but not too much. Otherwise she'd start soapboxing and we'd be there all night.

"You are trespassing." Her voice was low and sensual, with just a hint of Russian. No surprise, since she was indeed Russian and had been practicing that tone for centuries. "Go now if you wish to avoid any unpleasantness."

Of course, she didn't mean a word. The second I turned my back, Killer One and Killer Two would jump me.

"Evening, ma'am." I gave her a grin. "You sure are looking lovely tonight. Is that a genuine black velvet cape? Woo-wee! Tres chic!"

Can you believe it? A black velvet cape. Like wearing a Mexican painting without the Elvis. I swear, every Old One you meet has the fashion sense of a sixteen-year-old Goth princess.

"Young man . . . " She made it sound like an insult. I suppose it was. "I am sure you did not break into my home to critique my clothing."

The killer on my left gave out a barking laugh, like his mistress said something extra clever. Bad luck for me. His breath could have melted glass. The killer on my right just kept making his sword buzz.

"Ma'am . . . " Who says I don't mind my manners? "Are you the vampire known as Marla Margola?"

The woman hissed like a new-branded calf. "My name is Marusya Matsevich. And I prefer the term Chosen."

"Very well. Chosen, if you like. My name's Ride. Marshall Caleb Ride. I'm investigating the illegal capture and killing of several young Norms in this jurisdiction. Six girls dead and one more missing . . ."

My eyes swept the basement, confirming the impressions I first had when I stepped down the stairs into this ambush. The walls were bare cinder blocks without the usual ornamental hangings, though every so often a fake torch broke the monotony, its "faux" flames tossing an orange smear across the speckled surface. I guess they wanted to give the place that homey touch, and nothing says "dungeon" like a bunch of fake torches.

Off to Marusya's right I caught a flutter of movement inside the mesh metal cage filling that corner of the room. On the floor of the cage was a pile of rags, the remains of what had once been a slinky spandex dress. Occupying the rags was a young girl of about twenty, medium build, light blond hair now caked with grime.

I sniffed. The girl's secretion glands had gone into overdrive, pumping out a mix of acidic sweat and fear. She moaned, her eyes screwed shut so she didn't have to see what she assumed was a drug-induced nightmare. Sad for her, the nightmare was all too real. Marusya needed her blood. Desperately.

You see, we vampires might live ten times longer than your average Norm, seven hundred years, give or take. But we pay for it when we die. When vamps reach the end station, death comes fast, in a matter of days, as our rejuvenation systems break down and we begin to fall apart. The heart goes wonky, lungs can't fill with air. And, most important for some, looks begin to fade.

Old Ones keep the symptoms under control for a time by drinking copious amounts of youthful blood, but not from kids. Thank the Lord, children's blood can't help them. No, the blood has to be from a young adult, consumed in one long, continuous slurp. And the girl in the cage was next on the menu.

She began to weep, and I nodded toward her. "You see, that's what I'm talking about. There's a Norm girl over there in that cage. And lookie here."

I bent forward to peer at the basement's only furniture, a large oak table set in the center like a ritual altar. So cliché. "Goodness gracious, sake's alive! You got blood stains on your table. You should try corn starch. It always works for me."

Marusya's smile never wavered. She was toying with me, and we both knew it. "So you are Caleb Ride. It is a pleasure to meet you, Marshall. Your reputation is quite . . . formidable." Her eyes darted to each of her gorillas, then straight back to me. "But overstated, it seems. You should have brought more men."

As I pushed my white Stetson up on my forehead, I felt a bead of sweat start to form. The white Stetson. What an idjit! To my fellow vampires, it was like wearing a bull's eye in the dark. Time for a small diversion.

"No need for us to get hostile with one another." I held out my right hand. "Now I'm going to reach in my coat pocket, so I can show you my badge and authorization, keep everything official. You tell your boys to sit tight. I got no gun, and we don't want to do anything we'll all regret later."

"I think you already regret being here, Marshall," Marusya purred. "But by all means, make this visit 'official.'"

I inched out my wallet and presented my badge. To the casual eye it would look like the regular identification of a Texas Ranger captain. But vampires can see a lot more clearly than Norms, especially in low light. I turned the badge so all three of them could check the hidden insignias designating yours truly as an Enforcer, an agent of the state, authorized to execute the law and use lethal force when necessary.

Me being the vampire equivalent of 007 helps keep the peace. Folks are less likely to put up a fuss if they know you have a license to kill and can burn them alive for an aggressive gesture. Unfortunately for me, this crew was a special kind of stupid.

Marusya licked her lips. "Oh, look, Borya, Kiril. Marshall Ride has a license to kill. Doesn't that make you afraid?"

Borya, the one to my left, growled like a dog with stage three rabies. Kiril, the one on my right, just kept twirling that sword. I bet he performed with the marching band in high school.

I reached into the wallet case and extracted a single sheet of paper, which I unfolded and flashed their way.

"This is an official warrant for the arrest of one Marusya Matsevich, who has rented this property under the alias 'Marla Margola.' The warrant includes any unnamed associates who might have aided and abetted Marusya Matsevich in the following crimes: entering the country without authorization, kidnapping six Norm females, murdering said females, and the abduction and attempted murder of a seventh. Now, if you three come quiet-like, the local magistrate has offered you a deal. One year less in the Box per count. That's a generous offer. I'd take it if I was you."

Marusya drew herself up two inches taller and gave her head an arrogant toss. "Why should we Chosen be imprisoned because we deigned to cull some cattle?"

I quit moving and my voice got low. "You killed Norm girls. Innocent girls. There's a cost for that."

"Innocent?" Marusya spat out the word. "They were scum, selling their bodies on the streets. Why should you care for such trash?"

I looked her straight in the eye, staring her down the way you stare down a rattler. Not letting it see you blink.

"You know the law. We do not kill without need. We do not draw attention to ourselves. And we do not put our fellow vampires in jeopardy."

"I had a need. You know my condition. Without the blood of youth . . ."

I jabbed a finger towards the cage. "That girl is the daughter of a state senator. Got into some drugs, ran away from home, found herself on the streets. Anything happens to her, there will be a hue and cry like you've never seen. FBI. Federal Drug Enforcement. You're putting us all in danger, and for what? For nothing. You're reaching your End, like everyone else before you. It's a fact and you can't stop it."

I took a deep breath and put on my "official" face. "Now, we're going to wind this up peaceable. You all come with me. I'll send a crew to get the girl later."

Marusya's hoarse laughter echoed through the chamber. "No one is going anywhere, Marshall Ride. Not the girl. Not you. I had intended for her to be my last feast in this place, a final rejuvenation before we moved to fresher hunting grounds. But now my plans have changed. Instead, my men will hold you down while I consume your essence, to the final drop. You are worth a hundred such Norms. I will not need to feed again for months."

She really had gone over the edge. Drink that much vampire blood without needing it to heal a wound, and you go bat guano crazy. Come to think of it, she already was bat guano crazy. Not good.

"What about the girl?" I motioned toward the cage. "You can let her go. You won't need her."

Marusya kept smiling. "The girl will be a reward to my men, for services rendered."

I tried to look cool as I tugged at the cuffs of my shirt. "You sure I can't change your mind?"
"Positive." She nodded to her thugs. "Take him."

Borya and Kiril each lunged at me. To a Norm they would have seemed like blurs, but then again, I'm not a Norm. They had about ten feet apiece of ground to cover before they got to me. It wouldn't be enough.

They'd each taken about a step and a half when I flung the pea-sized pellets I'd been palming into their faces.

Now there are a lot of myths floating around about vampires, like we can't touch crucifixes or holy water or garlic. The burning thing, however, has more than a grain of truth to it. We do tend to be more combustible than your average Norm, and the flame source doesn't have to be that intense. Two bangs reverberated through the room, and Borya and Kiril each had a head that looked like the business end of Roman candle.

I found out a while back that those poppers the kids use on sidewalks come Fourth of July work real well on thick-headed old vampires, especially the ones who only wash their hair once a millennium. I aimed for the hard bone of their foreheads and scored two hits. The resulting sparks scattered into their greasy manes and set them alight.

As soon as his head erupted in flames, Borya dropped his sword and ran around like a pyrotechnic chicken, his squawks ricocheting off the cinderblock walls.

Kiril, more single-minded than his companion, let out a war cry and made a mad dash for me. As I sidestepped, he chucked his weapon at my torso, nicking my shoulder in the process, painful, but no more than a scratch. I didn't even bother to pinch it shut, since the cut was so shallow it began to seal itself right away.

To tell the truth, I was more upset about my favorite suede coat getting ruined, but I saw no need for payback. For some reason, as Kiril bellowed past, he neglected to watch where he was going. He ran into the wall, bounced back, ran into the opposite wall, bounced back again, then began careening around the room, each wall serving as his personal pinball cushion.

Not to be outdone, Marusya started shrieking and chasing after her charges, trying to put out their raging hairdos with that God-awful cloak of hers. Instead, she only fanned the flames, making those heads burn that much brighter. It would have been funny, except I had to keep a sharp eye out so the blazing Bozo twins didn't run into me and accidentally light my fire.

To avoid such an occurrence and help things along, I picked up the two swords Borya and Kiril had abandoned and slashed the blades thorough the air. Two flaming vampire noggins popped right off and rolled into a corner, where the fire quickly consumed them, leaving two smudges on the floor and blanketing the room with the odor of scorched flesh.

I tossed the swords on the ground between me and the now minionless Marusya, who wailed as if she was in pain.

"Those were my children! We have roamed the world together for over three centuries!"
I could feel a soapbox coming on. Time to put a stop to it.

"Now just hold on a minute . . . granny."

Marusya looked like I'd slapped her one across the jowls. Like I said, the Old Ones are real vain about their appearance.

"You dare . . . !" she sputtered.

After gulping air for a moment or two, the old girl got a hold of herself and turned a hateful stare on me. Then she snatched up one of the swords and pointed to the other. I guess she wanted to duke it out, mano y mano. I held up my left hand.

"Look, before we start this epic, fight-to-the-death battle, there's something I really have to tell you."
Marusya looked down her nose at me for the last time. "And that is?"

"I lied about not having a gun."

Marusya's jaw had just begun to drop when the three hollow-point slugs from my Colt Automatic tore into her skull. That's another thing the vampire books get mostly right. Vampires, like most living creatures, have difficulty living without a head. When the bullets hit, Marusya's cranium exploded like an overripe cantaloupe and her body collapsed to the floor.

I stood over the rapidly cooling corpse for a moment, contemplating the carnage and the pain and the futility. No one, not even a vampire, can cheat death. The relief Marusya got from draining young girls was temporary. And, like all Old Ones who take that route, over time she began to go soft-literally. That's why her head did a Humpty Dumpty.

Under normal circumstances, Marusya would've had a sizeable hole in her noodle, nothing more. But the way her skull crumpled on impact, she must've been knocking back Bloody Marys for quite some time. She might still be sucking them down if she hadn't had the misfortune to kidnap a senator's daughter. That was what let us connect the dots, track her to her present location and eliminate her for good.

I took out my phone and hit the speed dial.

That deep feminine voice I know too well answered on the second ring. "Jenkins, here. Talk."

"It's Ride. I need a clean-up at 2317 Meadow Drive. Tell the crew to come downstairs. The house actually has a basement, if you can believe it."

"The damage?" Jenkins tried to sound casual, but her voice had an edge to it.

"Three bad guys down. One Norm civilian safe."

"The senator's daughter wasn't harmed, I hope?"

"I suppose. Her body's intact, at any rate."

Jenkins exhaled a sigh of relief and gave me orders. "Take the girl home, but condition her properly first. Then check in with me via your car terminal. You've got another assignment."

I groaned, unable to help myself. "Look, Boss. I'll take the girl, but can't this new case wait till tomorrow? I know the night is young, but I need to get home. Things there . . . have not been good."

"Your domestic difficulties will have to wait, Ride. It's murder. Another Norm dead, and the perps are definitely vampires. So take the girl home, then check in. Immediately. That's an order." She hung up without saying goodbye. My evening was getting better and better.

I went over to the cage, which was sealed with a pretty hefty padlock. I grabbed it and twisted and it broke away in my hand. The girl whimpered and shied back when I tried to touch her.

"What are you gonna do to me?" she whispered, her voice cracking.

I put on my most persuasive face. I'm very persuasive when I want to be.

"You're goin' home, ma'am," I told her. "Where you'll be safe."

At least, safer than a shabby basement with fake torches and headless corpses. I kept that last thought to myself. No need to tell a girl who'd almost had her blood drained dry there were other rogue vampires out there somewhere. And they were killing Norms, too.

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