Only the Dead Know Brooklyn by Chris Vola is a tale about a vampire who must choose between love, revenge, and immortality (available May 30, 2017).
Ryan Driggs has lived in Brooklyn for 128 years, 96 of them as one of the last members of a tribe of blood-eating immortals who have called the borough home since before colonial times. Besides the occasional hard-to-control thirst, his life in the twenty-first century is uneventful, until he meets Jennifer, a human from Manhattan with whom he falls in love.
Unable to leave Brooklyn without reverting back to his original, cancer-stricken human state, Ryan knows he must tell Jennifer who and what he really is. But before he can find the words, she is kidnapped by a tribe of Manhattan vampires—and Ryan discovers that, for a reason unknown to him, he is a target too. After contacting the oldest member of his tribe, a former slave named Frank Lafayette, and after an attempt on their lives that leaves two of Frank’s employees dead, Ryan realizes he’s been thrust into a world that is more dangerous than anything he’d imagined.
As he travels to Manhattan to rescue Jennifer, forsaking his immortality, he gets caught up in a roller coaster of violence, lies, manipulation, and a power struggle that stretches back thousands of years. In a world where conspiracies are more than just theories and where he is the key to an ancient secret, Ryan must decide to fight or forsake both of the species he’s called his own.
Ryan Driggs hated when he was hungry.
Even though the pangs didn’t come as often as they did the first few decades after he turned, and never as strong, they were still a reminder of weakness. Of what you needed to take from another in order to survive. That you still wanted to survive.
But as he walked west on North 7th Street toward the Bedford Avenue L train station in Williamsburg on a sun-drenched, late-spring afternoon, he wasn’t thinking about the meal that was waiting for him in the subway. Or about the fight with Jennifer the previous night, how he was going to try to convince her that they could still make things work.
Instead, he felt oddly reflective.
Maybe it was because he rarely visited the Brooklyn neighborhood where he’d been born almost 128 years earlier—normally he felt uncomfortable being this close to the East River and the border with Queens. Or maybe it was because many of the two- and three-story row houses and decaying industrial buildings on this part of the street remained intact from the first years of his second life, when immigrants from every depressed corner of Europe swarmed the tenements and the horse-dung avenues, when his “mentor,” Frank, would roll back the curtain a little more each day, revealing the seemingly endless possibilities in what they were, what they could become.
When the bodies piled up faster and higher than he could count, or wanted to.
In his mind he saw the drab, woolen-coated workers jostling and shouting in a dozen different languages on their way to jobs at the docks, shipyards, and refineries that lined the nearby waterfront. The Polish and Russian Jews fleeing fascism and later an increasingly hostile Manhattan, across the Williamsburg Bridge. The original tenements decaying. The housing projects rising and welcoming waves of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans to work on new highways and in new industrial spaces. The racial and political tensions, vacant squalor and violent degeneration, the dark years of the sixties and seventies. The artists seeking cheap rents and long-abandoned factory lofts. The galleries, shops, and restaurants catering to condo-dwelling yuppies who didn’t worry about rent as long as their neighborhood was still considered “trendy yet accessible.” The grid of streets that, like him, had remained visibly unchanged for as long as anyone alive could remember, longer than any of the city’s architects would have imagined. Maybe it had been too long.
The scent of fresh sweat and the sound of a relentless, beckoning pulse under the skin of every self-absorbed pedestrian he passed brought him back to the present, reminded him why he was here. His stomach lurched.
He crossed Bedford Avenue, passed a crowded Swedish espresso bar and a Dunkin’ Donuts, and saw the subway entrance—a small sign above a nondescript staircase flanked by a green railing that took up about half of the sidewalk; it wasn’t a major commuter hub. Ryan descended the stairs that led to a small, dim lobby that had seen better days. Dull orange paint peeled from the steel-bar rafters and the chipped-tile walls. There was a ticket and information booth, a MetroCard kiosk, and a single, doodle-scarred bench where a man in an unseasonal wool beanie and a T-shirt featuring the logo of an obscure punk trio was seated and fiddling with a harmonica.
Ryan opened an e-mail on his phone to look at the picture Zoe had sent him after they’d exchanged first names and numbers and decided to meet at the closest subway station to Manhattan. She’d recently moved to Harlem to be close to Columbia University where she was going to graduate school, and the commute was already going to be outrageous for her, apparently, without the extra twenty-five minutes or so to a hole-in-the-wall fried chicken and pizza place near his apartment in Crown Heights, where he’d originally suggested they meet.
He’d found her on the “Strictly Platonic” section of the Craigslist personals pages, where Frank said he’d find something. Her ad was the first he’d clicked on, and it seemed legitimate, all of the necessary information in the correct order without any extra details:
22 years old
Ashkenazi (mother) / Irish-Italian (father)
He didn’t like having to rely on contacts he’d never met or knew anything about, but his last two regular donors had moved out of the borough, the last one a month ago, and Frank had said that Craigslist was generally reliable, that it was how things were heading. Plus, Ryan hadn’t had any B negative from someone in their twenties since before 9/11. A full meal would mean not having to eat again for six weeks, maybe longer. It was worth the risk.
Zoe’s head shot—pale skin, long wavy black hair with side-swept bangs, thick-rimmed glasses, dark lipstick, earth-tone cardigan—looked like it had been taken on a crappy low-resolution webcam, but it was probably good enough for him to figure out if she was in the station or not.
His initial scan of the lobby wasn’t very promising. Besides the harmonica guy, an older Hasidic man buying a MetroCard, and the dozing booth attendant, the only other person he saw was a girl leaning against the far wall, earbuds in, staring at the floor. She didn’t look exactly like Zoe, but she didn’t not look like her either. Vintage-store-frayed jeans, sleeveless collared shirt, a beanie cocked at an ironic angle over the same style of bangs. It had always been like this, he thought as he walked over to her. The more everyone tried to preach individualism, the more everyone managed to look the same.
“Zoe?” he said, trying to get her attention.
She looked up, and for a second he thought he saw a look of recognition, but that quickly turned into a scowl.
She mouthed Fuck off, turned, and started walking toward the turnstiles and the train tracks beyond them.
Shit, Ryan thought. Maybe Zoe had seen him and run off, gotten cold feet. At a toned six foot one and 185 pounds, with short, dirty-blond hair, hazel eyes, and a perpetual thirty-two-year-old face, he didn’t think of himself as particularly intimidating, but she was young for a donor, and it wouldn’t be the first time one had flaked on him. He could feel his muscles ache, an intense pounding reverberating through his skull.
He needed to eat, fast.
As he headed back toward the stairs, his phone buzzed. A long text message.
Hey I’m super sorry I should have let you know sooner but I’m not going to be able to make it to BK like we planned. I definitely need the money but I had a bunch of crazy stuff come up for school, finals next week, etc. I sent my roommate Nicki instead. I told her mostly what to expect and she’s totally down and into it. And is also B-Neg!! She’s waiting for you at the Starbucks on N 7th. I showed her your pic. Sorry again!
He didn’t like it, but at this point his only other immediate option was messy and outdated, regardless of how good the booth attendant had begun to smell. He jogged up the stairs and reemerged into the fading sunlight and the buzz of early-evening foot and bicycle traffic.
The Starbucks was a block away, occupying the first floor of a reclaimed brick warehouse, painted off-white with an all-glass façade. Inside, it was nearly silent besides the trendy ambient music flowing from hidden speakers, and the keystrokes of student types and faux-bohemians seated in front of laptops on the long wooden tables that occupied most of the space. A woman in a black tank top with full tattoo sleeves on both arms sat in a chair near the front windows next to a sleeping baby in a stroller, reading something on an iPad. They made eye contact as Ryan approached and for a second he thought she recognized him before looking back down at the screen.
He was about to say something when a bird-pitched voice shouted his name from across the room. The girl was sitting in a green pleather armchair holding a half-eaten yogurt parfait. Olive-colored skin, attractively curvy in most of the right places, wearing a plaid button-down shirt and distressed jeans, without the bangs but with the same thick-rimmed glasses. She smiled and motioned for him to come over.
“Nicki?” he asked, sitting in the vacant chair adjacent to her.
She nodded. “I’m sorry about Zoe,” she said, nervously twisting her hair with her free hand. “She told me to tell you that she doesn’t normally do this, that she’s usually not this, like, unprofessional.” She looked around, lowered her voice. “But can I just tell you how crazy this is? I always thought she was like an escort or something, I mean she’s definitely hot enough. I didn’t believe her at first when she asked me to fill in, but then I saw the e-mails she sent to you and other clients of your uh, species, and I was like holy shit, this is for real. I’m sorry, I talk too much when I’m on edge.”
This is going to be painful, Ryan thought. But the hunger knives relentlessly stabbing his gut were worse. “Are you sure you’re B negative?” he asked.
“Yeah!” she beamed. “I just found out last week after I broke up with this loser and went to get tested because he was getting blown by a girl he knew from home in Nebraska or somewhere equally negligible. I asked the doctor at the clinic what my type was because I figured as an adult it’s probably something you should know. Oh, and for the record I’m totally clean. Disease free.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, wondering if Frank had just been fucking with him by suggesting the kind of ordeal this was turning out to be.
“Okay, good,” she said. “I hope it’s kosher I’m eating before we do this. I thought Zoe told me to get to the Bedford station by four, but then I remembered that she said that you guys had agreed on five, and I got bored and hungry. Then Zoe just texted me and told me that you would just meet me. So.”
“It’s fine.” He scanned the room. The laptop jockeys, the cashier, and the woman with the stroller were all oblivious, immersed in their electronic devices. The location wasn’t ideal, but the girl was here and he didn’t want to risk upsetting her. Having to go through the process of finding another donor might mean not surviving the next twenty-four hours. He motioned toward the restroom in the back.
“Whoa, we’re doing this here?” she asked tensely, her eyes searching the walls for—he assumed—a security camera. “When Zoe said to meet you in the subway, I didn’t think it would actually go down in the subway. I assumed you had an apartment around here that you used.”
He grinned, in spite of himself. “A lair?”
“I mean, yeah. I guess.”
“This is fine,” he repeated. “Let’s go.”
She shrugged. “Well, so much for the foreplay.” She stood up and he followed her past the counter where the teenaged cashier unconsciously poked at his phone. She dropped her yogurt container into a garbage receptacle and opened the restroom door. He locked it behind them, pausing and listening for a few moments to make sure no one was outside. When he turned around, Nicki was standing next to the toilet, her shirt halfway unbuttoned, lacy yellow bra exposed, neck tilted back, eyes closed.
“I’m ready,” she whispered, fearful and excited.
He shook his head. Rookies. “Didn’t your friend explain how this works?”
“You mean like the actual process? I assumed it was pretty straightforward. You suck and I hopefully get a weird lady boner and you hopefully don’t get all insatiable and kill me. If you prefer thighs, that’s cool too.” She started unzipping her jeans.
“Stop,” he said. “Just relax.” First-timers, even those who had been minimally educated about the process, were beyond irritating. If he wanted to, he could spend hours explaining how he didn’t sleep in a coffin. How he couldn’t get sunburned if he wanted to. How he couldn’t fly. How he hadn’t used what she would call his fangs since transfusion bags and anticoagulants became easily accessible after the Second World War. Or, he could extract her heart through her throat easily and quickly enough, take what he needed, and leave a gory surprise for the next customer or crackhead who needed to pee. But either way, what would be the point? In the seventy years or so since it had become revolting to him to simply drain a body dry and leave, it was always safer—and easier—to say little while maintaining as many stereotypes as possible.
And he was starving.
“Sit down and roll up your right sleeve,” he growled.
“Uh, okay?” Her face flushed with embarrassment, she rebuttoned her shirt, sat on the closed toilet lid, and extended a trembling arm.
He placed the leather satchel he’d been carrying on the floor, opened it, and took out a plastic collection bag attached to a tube and a syringe, a rubber tourniquet, and a small package of cotton balls and alcohol wipes. He leaned over and started tying the tourniquet around her bicep.
Nicki’s eyes widened, then deflated. She stopped shaking.
“How long is this going to take?” she asked, more annoyed now than nervous, an impatient child at a Frappuccino-scented doctor’s office. “I’m really not that cool with needles. I’m also antivaccination, even though my parents didn’t give me a choice.”
He snickered. “But you were cool with me piercing a vein that supplies most of the blood to your brain, with my teeth, no questions asked?”
“I don’t know, the idea of being overpowered seemed kind of sexy, and Zoe showed me the picture you sent to her and it was definitely hot in a moody-adjunct-professor kind of way, and I’ve watched enough trashy movies to assume that—”
“I know,” he said, cutting her off. “This is way more efficient and safer for both of us, especially since I don’t know your medical history. I want to maximize my investment. It won’t take long.”
“Ugh. Fine. Just hurry up because I’m supposed to meet this guy for drinks later at the new Japanese place on North 8th. I don’t want to look pale or whatever.”
In less than two seconds he finished securing the tourniquet, disinfected the puncture area, and inserted the needle. She gasped at the speed and the blood that was already flowing into the bag he was holding above her head.
“That was pretty dope,” she said.
“Yeah,” he mumbled, anxious for the bag to fill. He inhaled deeply. She was right. B negative, premium shit.
A familiar ringtone blared loudly from his pocket, a popular second-wave synth-pop song by a band Jennifer knew he couldn’t stand, that she’d downloaded while helping him set up his phone. He sighed. He’d been putting off the conversation all day, weeks really, trying to figure out the best way to explain to her what he was, why he couldn’t leave Brooklyn, all of the variations of what it might mean for them going forward.
“Ooh, I love this band,” Nicki cooed. “Hey! I think they’re playing at the Knitting Factory in a couple weeks, you should definitely get tickets now.”
“Hold this for a second,” Ryan said, handing her the bag.
“Gross,” she muttered, lifting it with her nonpunctured arm.
He answered his phone without checking the caller ID. “Hey, babe, sorry for not getting back to you after last night. The market was crazy today and I had to monitor a bunch of stuff. I was just about to call you. What’s going on?”
Nothing but the hum of static and dead space.
“Hello? You there?”
He heard a series of breaths, fast but labored, like something was gradually closing off airways, constricting. Then a loud metallic scrape, two or three choked gurgles, and a squeal that could have been either masculine or feminine, he couldn’t tell.
The caller hung up.
A few seconds later he got two picture messages from the same number. The first was a painting of a cherry-red Old-English-style letter M on a black background, hovering above what looked like an upside-down crown bleeding onto a pile of decomposing limbs. He couldn’t remember where he’d seen the image, but it awoke a twinge of discomfort, an ingrained resentment he couldn’t quite place.
The second picture was a photograph. A naked figure facing the camera with his arms raised over his head, suspended, hands bound together and tied to a metallic pipe running parallel to a grime-covered ceiling. A large tube protruded from a festering incision below his rib cage to somewhere off the screen. The concrete wall behind him was bare except for a large graffiti version of the same Old English M. He had pale, milky skin; a taut, well-defined physique; long auburn hair tied into a bun that was protruding from the black cloth that had been placed over his head; a crude star-shaped tattoo above his left nipple.
He remembered what the M represented, who it belonged to. But this was something new, a game changer.
“Fuck,” he whispered, stuffing the phone into his pocket.
“What’s wrong?” Nicki asked. “You look sick. Now I’m sort of glad you didn’t bite me. Do you need to sit down? Or is this like, normal?”
He took out his wallet and dropped a small rubber-banded wad of hundred-dollar bills onto her lap. The bag wasn’t a third full yet, but he couldn’t wait. He cinched the tube, removed the syringe from Nicki’s arm, placed a bandage on the puncture area, and returned the bag to the satchel in less time than it had taken to set up the procedure.
As he moved toward the bathroom door, Nicki was stuffing the money into her purse, trying hard not to grin. “So how does this work for next time?” she asked. “Do I call you or—”
He didn’t stay for her to finish the sentence.
He needed to make it to Prospect Park before dusk. He had to talk to Frank.
Ryan walked out of Starbucks, took the collection bag out of his satchel, and ripped it open with his teeth. He chugged as much as he could, feeling some excess blood running down his cheek and neck. He wiped his mouth, not caring if the tattooed woman in the window or anyone else on the street was watching.
He stuffed the bag in his satchel and ran.
Copyright © 2017 Chris Vola.
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Chris Vola was born in Hartford, Connecticut. A former assistant greenskeeper, bouncer, waiter, and editor, he lives and bartends in New York City. Only the Dead Know Brooklyn is his third book after Monkeytown and How to Find a Flock.