Wanted: Undead or Alive (Love at Stake #12) by Kerrelyn Sparks
“Get real, Phineas! You can’t expect me to believe this crap!”
Phineas McKinney frowned at his younger brother, who was clutching the steering wheel with white-knuckled desperation. Obviously, last night’s confession had not gone as well as he had thought. “Freemont, you gotta know I would never lie to you—”
“I know that!” Freemont shot him a frantic look, then turned the windshield wipers up to a higher speed to combat the rain that pelted his thirteen-year-old, dented Chevy Impala. “But that doesn’t leave me with a lot of options, you know? First I thought you’d gone crazy. Then I thought you must be doing drugs. Then when I tried to talk to you this afternoon, I thought you were dead! I mean, seriously, start-the-damned-funeral dead!”
“I’m not crazy,” Phineas muttered. “And I don’t do drugs.”
The atmosphere in the car sizzled with tension, interrupted only by the noise of the wipers swishing back and forth. A wet, slushy sound, followed by a high-pitched, prolonged screech reminiscent of fingernails on a blackboard.
Phineas winced. There were times when having supersensitive hearing was not an advantage.
Freemont gave him a wary look. “What—what about that last part? The . . . dead part?”
Freemont gulped audibly. “You weren’t really dead, were you?”
“I’m alive now,” Phineas said quietly, then gave his brother a reassuring smile. “Don’t I look alive to you?”
Freemont didn’t look reassured. His eyes had grown so wide, the whites gleamed as his gaze darted back and forth from his brother to the busy street in the Bronx. “You’re alive now? What the hell does that mean?”
“It means my heart is beating. I’m breathing—”
“You weren’t breathing this afternoon! You scared the shit out of me! I almost called Aunt Ruth—”
“I told you not to.” Phineas didn’t want his aunt and sister to know the truth. Aunt Ruth would probably drag him into church and insist the Reverend Washington perform an exorcism on him. Luckily, the female members of his family were out of town this weekend, singing with the choir at some event in Buffalo.
“I didn’t know what to do! I thought about calling an ambulance, but—” Freemont stomped on the brakes, tires spinning on the wet cement before the Impala halted with a lurch. He slammed a fist on the horn, and the blaring noise made Phineas grit his teeth.
“What the hell are you stopping for, asshole?” Freemont hollered at the car in front of them.
“People usually stop for red lights. You should try it sometime.” Phineas’s attempt at a joke fell flat. His brother was still looking at him like he’d grown a second head. “I have excellent night vision, you know. You want me to drive?”
“No!” Freemont leaned forward, a possessive glint in his eyes as he squeezed the steering wheel with fisted hands. “I need to drive. It keeps me calm.”
This was calm? Phineas hadn’t expected a full-fledged panic attack this evening. Last night his brother had remained quiet during the confession, just nodding his head as if he accepted it all. But Phineas had to admit now that it was highly unusual for his brother to remain quiet for more than sixty seconds. Freemont had been stunned speechless.
“I did warn you,” Phineas reminded his brother. “I told you not to go down into the basement.”
“I thought you were quoting a line from a bad movie.”
“Why would I do that?”
“How the hell would I know?” Freemont yelled. “I told you, I thought you’d gone crazy!”
“I explained it all last night, how I ended up a vampire, and how I needed to do my death-sleep all day in the basement with the window boarded up.”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t really catch that last part, you know what I’m saying? The minute you said ‘vampire,’ I thought you’d gone bat-shit on me. I didn’t hear nothin’ after that. I was too busy trying to figure out how we could afford to send you to a nut hut so you could get your head screwed back on.”
“I’m perfectly fine, Freemont. I was just . . . dead for a few hours.”
“That’s not normal, bro!”
“It is for a vampire.”
Freemont flinched, then turned to glare at the stoplight.
The light turned green, and Freemont accelerated slowly. “You really believe this stuff, don’t you?”
“I’m not shittin’ you, Freemont. Didn’t you see me drink a bottle of blood?”
“You said it was blood, but what the hell, you could have had a V8. If you were really a vampire, wouldn’t you be chomping down on people’s necks? Not that I’m offering mine, you understand—”
“I hang with the good Vamps. We don’t bite people.” Phineas sighed. He’d explained all this last night, how some bad vampires had transformed him and held him prisoner until he’d been able to join the good Vamps and help them fight the bad vampires they called Malcontents. He’d even shown Freemont his fangs, although he hadn’t extended them. He’d tried his best not to freak his brother out. “You saw my fangs, remember?”
Freemont waved a hand in dismissal. “You could have had them filed into points. It’s totally wack, but there are crazy people who do weird shit to themselves. Hell, I saw a guy on TV who had his tongue split so he’d look like a snake.”
“I’m not crazy.”
“You think you’re a vampire. If that’s not seriously crazy, I don’t know what is.” Freemont took a deep breath. “We’ll get you better, Phin. I’ll get a full-time job, drop out of school—”
“No! You just finished your freshman year, and you’re doing great. I’m not letting you drop out.”
Freemont stiffened with an indignant look. “You can’t tell me what to do. You’ve been taking care of us, paying all the bills, for eight years. It’s my turn now. I can do this.”
“You’re finishing college,” Phineas said sharply, then noticed the stubborn clench of Freemont’s jaw. Sheesh. His little brother was becoming a man.
Five years ago, when Phineas had been transformed at the age of twenty-three, his brother had been a skinny fourteen-year-old, all bony elbows and knobby knees. The aging process had screeched to a halt for Phineas, so he tended to forget that his younger brother and sister kept growing. He and Freemont looked close to the same age now.
Phineas softened his voice. “I need your help, bro.”
“Anything, man. Whatever medical attention you need. I’ll get it for you. You can count on me.”
Phineas’s chest expanded with warmth. His brother had grown into a good man. Now if he could just convince him of the truth. “Turn right at this next street.”
“Why? I thought you wanted to go to Brooklyn.”
“I do, but we need to make a stop first.”
“Okay.” Freemont turned onto a street lined with narrow wooden-framed houses with sagging front porches.
“Pull in there.” Phineas pointed at an empty space between two parked cars.
“I’ll be blocking a driveway.”
“We won’t be here long.” While his brother stopped and shifted into park, Phineas surveyed the neighborhood. Because of the rain, the sidewalks were empty. The house was dark, no lights glowing in the windows.
“I don’t think anyone’s home,” Freemont said.
“That’s for the best.”
“Huh? Then why are we here?”
“A demonstration.” Phineas unlatched his seat belt. “Don’t go anywhere. Keep your eyes on the porch.”
“There’s nothin’ on the porch.”
“There will be.”
“What are you—” Freemont’s words cut off when Phineas teleported to the dark porch. He waved at the car, then teleported back to the front seat.
Freemont was a few shades paler, and his mouth was hanging open.
Phineas couldn’t help but smirk. “Now do you believe me?”
Freemont gulped, then his jaw dropped open again.
Phineas snapped his seat belt on. “Told you I wasn’t crazy.”
“Then I must be crazy,” Freemont whispered. “I’m trippin’.”
“You’re not crazy.”
Freemont shook himself. “I didn’t see you get out of the car. You’re not even wet, bro. How did you get to the porch?”
“Tele-what? Isn’t that some sort of spaceman shit?” Freemont stiffened. “Were you abducted by aliens? Did they stick a probe up your ass?”
“No! Freemont, I’m a vampire!” Phineas grabbed the rearview mirror and twisted it toward himself. “Can you see me?”
Freemont leaned over to peer into the mirror. He gasped, looked at Phineas, then back at the mirror. “What the hell?”
Phineas shoved the mirror back in place. “Do you believe me now?”
“You—you’re really a vampire?” Freemont whispered.
“Damn, Phineas.” Freemont sat back with a horrified look. “Are you sure? I mean, this is some weird-assed, spooky shit.”
“I know, but it’s true, bro. I’m a vampire.”
“I don’t suck. I drink from bottles.” Phineas motioned toward the gearshift. “Let’s get going.”
Freemont continued to stare at him. “How did it happen?”
Phineas waved a dismissive hand. “I was attacked by some bad vampires. Can we go now?”
“Attacked?” Freemont grimaced. “What did they do to you, man?”
“I don’t want to talk about it. It was scary as hell and really nasty.”
Freemont’s eyes widened. “They stuck a probe up your ass?”
“No! They ripped my fuckin’ throat out, okay? So now that you know how grisly it was, will you shut up and take me to Brooklyn?”
“Okay, okay.” Freemont shifted into drive and pulled out into the street. “Sheesh. You act like you got a bug up your—”
“Don’t say it!”
While Freemont drove, he shook his head and muttered to himself, “A vampire? Damn. I thought he was a security guard for some old white dude.”
“The old white dude is a five-hundred-year-old vampire named Angus MacKay. He and his wife, Emma, run MacKay Security and Investigation.”
“Five hundred years old? Sheesh! Can he still get it up?”
“I would assume so, since they seem happily married, but I’ve never asked.” Phineas looked out the window at the rain pouring in sheets off storefront awnings and splattering on broken sidewalks. It was thanks to Angus and Emma that he’d discovered the good Vamps. He’d found more than employment with them. He’d found a new extended family, mostly guys. He’d laughed with them, fought with them, mourned with them. The guys had become his brothers.
It had started off like one big bachelor party, but in the last few years, the men had fallen like flies. Even Gregori, the famous playboy of the vampire world. He’d hooked up with the president’s daughter.
Phineas enjoyed teasing them that all their newfound marital bliss was due to his expertise as the Love Doctor, but the joke was on him. He was like the painter who owned the only house in the neighborhood that needed painting. Everybody could find love but the Love Doctor.
And it wasn’t for lack of trying. He’d dated some Vamp women he’d met at the vampire clubs. He’d thoroughly enjoyed playing the role of a popular ladies’ man until he realized they saw him as nothing more than a novelty act, something to try out of curiosity before they flitted away to the next distraction.
He wanted to be more than that. He wanted someone who would look past his outward appearance to connect with his soul. Someone who would see him as special. Worthy of a lifetime, not a single night.
He’d tried over and over with the mortal LaToya, believing his perseverance would eventually pay off. It never did. She’d taunted him that the Love Doctor didn’t know what love was.
Meanwhile, the other guys were all snagging some luscious babes. Shoot, Connor had even scored a real live angel. Carlos had found a girl willing to risk death in order to become a were-panther like him. The ladies who’d married Vamps were all willing to give up mortality to stay with their husbands. Angus’s wife, Emma, was a Vamp, and just recently, Roman’s wife, Shanna, had changed over. And they all did it for love.
Where was the love for the Love Doctor? Who would ever see him as worthy? Certainly not her . . .
“You look bummed out,” Freemont said, dragging Phineas away from his depressing thoughts. “Is it hard being a . . . you know . . .”
“Vampire?” Phineas gave him a wry look. “You can say the word without getting bitten. And yeah, sometimes it’s kinda hard.” He’d gained a life that could last for centuries, but it could only happen in darkness.
Freemont grimaced. “If I was a vampire, I’d miss fried chicken. And waffles.”
“I miss . . . blue. I can never see a blue sky again.” His brain was instantly flooded with a memory of her pretty blue eyes. Her again. He quickly shoved her from his mind.
Brynley Jones was beautiful, brave, and clever—the perfect female human, except for one problem. She wasn’t always human. And her hatred of vampires was as big as the snout on her face when she shifted. She was the worst possible woman to obsess over. But that didn’t stop him.
His brother took a deep breath. “Okay. I’m with you, bro. What kind of help do you need?”
“You’re already doing it. I needed a place to stay. Some wheels. I quit my job last night.”
Freemont’s eyes widened. “What happened? Did you get pissed off with the old dude?”
Phineas shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. I already have another career lined up. We’re going to the Digital Vampire Network in Brooklyn. It’s a TV network just for Vamps.”
“You’re shittin’ me.”
“No. I made a commercial there about two weeks ago for a drink called Blardonnay—half synthetic blood, half Chardonnay.”
“I’m being punked, right?”
“No, it’s true.” First Phineas had made a commercial with the president’s daughter just as a joke, but he’d performed so well, the director had asked him to do it for real with a vampire costar named Tiffany. The commercial had enjoyed an instant success, making Phineas McKinney an overnight sensation in the vampire world. “They call me the Blardonnay Guy now. I’m really popular.”
“From a commercial?” Freemont pulled to a stop at another red light. “How come I haven’t seen it?”
“It’s a DVN commercial. Only Vamps see it. And now they want me to star in one of their TV shows.”
Freemont blinked. “Hot damn, Phineas! Are you famous?”
“I . . . guess. But only around other vampires.”
“That’s awesome, man.” Freemont’s eyes gleamed with pride. “I always knew you’d be famous someday, although I thought it would be with boxing. Never could figure out what happened with that.”
Phineas quickly changed the subject. “We’re going to DVN, ’cause I’m doing a special interview at the end of the Nightly News.”
“You’re going on television tonight?” When Phineas nodded, Freemont looked him over, frowning. “Oh no. Hell no. Not like that.”
Phineas looked down at his jeans and bright orange, number seven Knicks T-shirt. “What’s wrong with—” He stopped when his brother stomped on the gas, swinging the car into a U-turn. “Where are you going?”
“It’s simple, dude. If you want to be a celebrity, you gotta look like one. Right now, you look like a giant Cheez-It. You just leave it to me. I know what to do.”
Phineas smiled. “What are you, my agent?”
“Can I be?” Freemont’s eyes lit up. “I’ll take care of everything, bro. You can count on me.”
Ten minutes later, Phineas was slipping on a black tuxedo jacket in a dressing room at Leroy’s House of Class.
“I don’t know about this.” The white shirt had ruffles on the cuffs. He’d look like a gigolo, or a Scotsman, he thought with a snort. He’d seen Angus and some of the other guys wear frilly shirts like this with their fancy kilts. “You don’t think this is overdoing it?”
“You’re looking fine, bro.” Freemont clenched a fist. “Solid. Like James Bond, going to a casino. You want to take a look in the mirror?”
Phineas gave him a wry look.
Freemont grimaced. “Sorry, I forgot. Sheesh. How do you shave in the morning?”
“Once the sun comes up, I don’t do anything.”
“Damn.” Freemont handed him a black silk tie. “You gonna be able to put this on?”
“I think so.”
“You want some new shoes?”
“No, the boots need to stay.” Phineas knotted the tie around his neck. “How much is this gonna set me back?”
“It’s free, bro. Leroy is Lamont’s dad. You know, Lamont?”
With a smile, Phineas nodded. Lamont was Freemont’s best friend from high school. When the two were together, the other kids called them the Full Monty. “I didn’t know his dad ran a tuxedo rental place.”
“Oh, this is a lot more than tuxedos. Leroy’s House of Class has everything! Wedding dresses and fancy gowns. Costumes for everything from Renaissance fairs to pimp-and-ho parties. He’s even got hula skirts and tiki torches if you want to do a luau. He’s got canopies and tables and chairs and fancy tablecloths.” Freemont yanked his T-shirt over his head, then put on a gold silk shirt. “Lamont works here full-time, but they let me work part-time as much as I can.”
“What do you do?”
Freemont shucked his jeans and pulled on some black leather pants. “I do deliveries, help set up tables and chairs. I usually drive one of their limos on Saturday night, but there’s nothing happening tonight, so they didn’t need me. Which is good news, ’cause Leroy is letting us borrow a limo.”
“That’s great. Thanks.” Phineas paused a moment while his brother put on some shiny black dress shoes. “I appreciate you working to help pay your tuition, but don’t overdo it. You need to keep your grades up.”
Freemont rolled his eyes like he usually did when Phineas acted more like a father than a brother. But with nine years’ difference in their ages, it was something Phineas had trouble avoiding. He was the one who had run off their father, so he felt responsible for his younger siblings.
Freemont shrugged on a purple velvet jacket trimmed with faux leopard fur, then plopped a leopard-skin fedora on his head. “Now I’ll look like your agent.”
Phineas winced. “You look like a pimp.”
“Pimp? Agent? What’s the difference?” Freemont flipped up his collar. “Show me the money!”
“I know what I’m doing, bro.” He grabbed a wooden walking stick with a gold knob on the end and twirled it through his fingers. “Should I ask Leroy to loan us a few party girls for the evening? You’ll look more like a celebrity with some pretty ladies on your arm.”
“Party girls?” Phineas frowned, wondering if Leroy had a little business going on the side.
“It’s legit, man. Sometimes people want a few pretty girls to tend bar and wait tables at their parties. The girls are under strict orders not to fraternize. Believe me, I’ve tried.”
Phineas snorted. “Don’t worry about women. There’ll be plenty at DVN, hoping to get on TV. And my costar will be there. Tiffany.”
“What does she look like?”
“Blond and booty-licious.”
“Hot damn!” Freemont gave him a knuckle pound. “You da man!” He led Phineas down a hall toward the back door of Leroy’s establishment. “As your new agent, I’m gonna need a name that’s tight. You need one, too, bro.”
“I’m Dr. Phang in the vampire world. Also known as the Love Doctor.”
Freemont’s eyes narrowed as he nodded. “That’s buck. I bet you get laid all the time.”
Phineas winced inwardly. The silly names had worked well enough for one-night stands, but eventually, he’d grown tired of feeling like a joke that was funny only one time.
Freemont grabbed a set of keys off a peg by the back door. “Will you introduce me to the Tiffany babe?”
“Yes, but remember she’s a Vamp. She might see you as a snack more than a stud.”
Freemont gulped and eased a finger around the collar of his gold silk shirt. “You’ve got a weird life, bro.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t let anyone hurt you.” Phineas patted him on the back. “And I appreciate your help.” Thanks to his brother, he now looked a lot more convincing in his new role as a television star.
Freemont opened the back door and strode into the parking lot. “So if you’re Dr. Phang . . .”
Phineas followed him, grateful that the rain had finally stopped. He stepped around puddles to keep his boots as dry as possible.
Freemont halted with a jerk. “I know! I’ll be Da Freeze. Kinda like Freemont, but better. Da Freeze, the Ice Man. What do you think?”
Phineas bit his lip to keep from grinning. His brother reminded him of himself five years ago. “It’s . . . cool.”
“It’s more than cool, man. I’m an icy cold blast of refreshment!” Freemont opened the door to a purple limousine. “Only the best for my famous brother.”
“What a bunch of hot babes,” Freemont whispered as they entered the lobby of the Digital Vampire Network. “Are you sure they’re all . . . ?”
“Yes, they are,” Phineas whispered back. “And they all have super hearing, so be careful what you say.”
Freemont nodded, his wide-eyed gaze darting around the crowded lobby. “Your life is seriously weird.”
“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” Phineas muttered, then headed toward the reception desk.
“Oh my God, it’s the Blardonnay Guy!” a pretty brunette squealed.
More gasps and squeals emanated from the scantily clad young ladies who frequented the lobby every night, hoping to be discovered. They rushed toward Phineas, all talking at once.
“I just love your commercial!”
“You’re even more handsome than Denzel!”
“Can I have an autograph please?”
Phineas held up his hands to ward off the full-court press, but before he could say anything, Freemont blocked the girls with his walking stick.
“Ladies!” He flashed a wide grin. “We appreciate your enthusiasm, but Dr. Phang has to do an interview right now. If you can wait till he’s finished, he might be able to spare you a few minutes.”
“We’ll be here!” A blonde held up a Blardonnay bottle. “Will you sign my bottle, Dr. Phang?”
A brunette in a cheerleader costume winked at Phineas. “I want you to sign my thigh.”
“I’ll let you sign my breast!” Another posed, showing off her most talented assets, barely contained in a tight spandex halter.
“That’s all good.” Freemont used his walking stick to herd them back. “But I will need to thoroughly inspect all writing surfaces before I can allow my client to sign. Security protocol, you understand.”
Phineas snorted as he approached the receptionist’s desk. “Hey, what’s up? It’s Susie, right?”
She blushed, almost as red as the dyed streaks in her black hair. “You remembered. I just love your commercial, Dr. Phang.”
“I’m his agent.” Freemont slid his pinched thumb and forefinger along the brim of his fedora. “You can call me Da Freeze.”
“Nice to meet you. For security reasons, we ask all our visitors to wear name tags.” Susie smiled shyly at Phineas. “Of course, you don’t need a name tag, Dr. Phang. Everyone knows who you are.” She wrote Freemont’s new name on a name tag. “Here you go, Mr. DeVries.”
“No, Da Freeze. The Ice Man.”
“Oh.” A confused look flitted over Susie’s face, then she scribbled another name. “Mr. Theismann.” She passed him the name tag, then scurried toward the double doors behind her.
Frowning at his name tag, Freemont whispered, “Doesn’t she understand English?”
“We really should hurry now.” Susie held open the door. “They were expecting Dr. Phang in makeup five minutes ago.”
After a few minutes in the makeup chair, Phineas was escorted to Recording Studio #3 where he greeted Gordon, the director.
“Hey, Phineas.” Gordon shook hands with him, then gave Freemont and his name tag a curious look.
“I’m Dr. Phang’s agent,” Freemont boasted.
“And my brother,” Phineas added with a grin.
Gordon nodded, his eyes twinkling with excitement. He and Stone Cauffyn were the only ones at DVN who knew what Phineas was really up to tonight. “Stone and Tiffany are ready for you. Good luck.”
As Phineas approached the set, which consisted of three chairs on a carpeted dais, Tiffany jumped to her feet, her breasts jiggling and dangerously close to falling out of the sexy red dress she was wearing.
“Dr. Phang!” With a big grin, she threw her arms around his neck. “Don’t you just love it? We’re famous! I want to kiss you, but I don’t dare mess up my makeup.”
“I’m getting fan mail, can you believe it? And all the girls want to know if I’ve slept with you. You don’t mind if I say yes, do you?” She pressed closer, rubbing her breasts against him as she slid her hands down his chest. “It wouldn’t have to be a lie, you know.”
“Well, I—” Phineas grabbed her hands to keep them from venturing too far south. How could he put this? He didn’t want to have sex with her just to give her something to talk about with her fans.
“Places!” Gordon shouted. “We go live in three minutes.”
“We’ll talk later,” Phineas told Tiffany, then he took a seat, sandwiched between her and Stone Cauffyn, the newscaster who had just finished doing the Nightly News in Studio #2.
The sound guy clipped tiny microphones onto the guys’ lapels, then struggled to find a place to attach Tiffany’s mike.
She giggled. “Oooh, that tickles!”
“Does my hair look all right?” Stone asked the makeup girl.
“You look perfect,” she replied, then winked at Phineas. “So do you.”
“Two minutes,” Gordon announced.
“Testing, testing,” Stone said, and the sound guy gave him a thumbs-up. “Take a taxi, tally-ho.”
Phineas gave him a questioning look, then realized the newscaster was warming up.
“The voluptuous vampire ventured into the velvet night,” Stone announced in a serious tone. “Peter Potter from Poughkeepsie packs a pretty pickle in his pants.”
Phineas glanced at his brother who was being herded toward the back of the room. Freemont grinned at him and punched the air with his fist.
“Billy Baker bumped into a barmaid and barfed his Blissky on her bosom,” Stone continued, then lowered his voice to a soft whisper. “I hope this works.”
“It will.” Phineas shifted in his chair and unbuttoned his tuxedo jacket. He took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. You can do this.
“Ten seconds,” Gordon announced, then held up his hand to show them five seconds, four, three, two, then he pointed his index finger at them.
They were live on the air.