It looked like the cure for aging, but all progress comes with a price tag. Now, eternal youthfulness will be paid for by the blood of the innocent…
Read an excerpt from Blood World, a new thriller by author Chris Mooney—available now from Berkeley Press!
The blood of “carriers” is the most valuable commodity on earth. When treated with a new wonder drug, it cures disease, increases power, and makes the recipient a virtual superman.
It also makes the carriers targets. Young people with the right genes are ripped from their families and stashed in “blood farms.”
Ellie Batista became an LAPD officer specifically to fight this evil as a member of the Blood Squad, but her ambitions are thwarted—until the day she and her partner are ambushed during a routine stop. The resulting events plunge her into an undercover world more dangerous than she could have ever imagined.
Because a madman has found a way to increase the potency of the blood to levels previously unimagined. As he cuts a bloody swath through the already deadly world of blood cartels, Ellie is the only hope to stop him before the body count explodes.
Thy Kingdom Come
When Ellie Batista turned the patrol car onto Montclair, a quiet street in Los Angeles’s Brentwood neighborhood, she spotted a big Secret Service–looking dude in slick mirrored sunglasses and a black suit ushering a boy dressed up in prep school clothing to a Chevy Suburban with tinted windows parked at the top of the driveway of a spacious, contemporary ranch house. The guy holding open the SUV’s back door was bigger and taller than his partner, but the thing Ellie noticed right away was how both men were looking around like a sniper was lurking somewhere nearby, in this neighborhood where the greatest danger was living next to someone who hadn’t paid their parking tickets.
Ellie was close enough now to see the anxiety on the kid’s face. She hit the lights but not the siren. Her partner looked up from his smartphone, saw her shooting up the driveway, and rolled his eyes.
“No,” Danny said. “No, we are not doing this again.”
“Relax, Pops. I’ll take care of everything.”
Ellie parked at an angle so the SUV couldn’t escape—at least down the driveway. She couldn’t see the driver—the SUV’s windows were tinted, almost black—but if there was someone behind the wheel, he might decide to make a break for it, tear across the lawn.
Danny sighed as he unsnapped the holster of his sidearm. “You’re doing all the paperwork—and you’re picking up lunch.”
“Jimmy J’s taco truck.”
“The place where you got food poisoning?”
“I think it was a stomach bug.”
“Still,” she said.
“That’s the deal. What’s it going to be?”
“Your funeral,” she said, opening the door.
At five feet eight, Ellie was tall for a woman. The guy holding open the SUV’s back door stood six feet six and weighed probably close to three bills. He looked, Ellie thought, like vanilla pudding poured into a cheap suit. He had a tiny pug nose and small hands for a man so large, but there was no doubt in her mind that he could swat her away like a fly.
The driver had rolled down the windows. He knew the drill, and he rested his hands on top of the steering wheel.
“IDs and permits,” Ellie said.
Vanilla Pudding sighed. “We’ve been stopped three times by you people just this past week alone. You’re seriously screwing with our, you know, productivity.”
Ellie looked to the driver. “Sir, please cut the engine and step outside.” Then, to the group: “Put your hands on top of the car roof so I can see ’em.”
As Danny frisked them, taking their licenses, gun permits, and handguns, Ellie studied the boy from behind her sunglasses. He looked to be eleven, maybe even as old as thirteen, and had a sweaty pie-shaped face and stringy blond hair, and there were dark circles under his eyes. He kept swallowing nervously and his eyes skittered across the ground in front of him as if it contained hidden land mines.
Carrier, Ellie thought. Had to be, given all the security. If this kid had the gene, he was worth big money. The rule of thumb in the blood world was the younger the carrier, the more potent their blood, the more he or she was worth. Blood didn’t discriminate. Boy or girl, black or white, mentally challenged or potential Mensa candidate, a single child could be worth several million dollars over the course of his or her life—unless the kid was drained and dumped, the blood sold for quick cash. That seemed to be the norm these days, at least here in California, with everyone looking to make a quick buck.
“What’s your name?” Ellie asked the boy.
“Nice to meet you. Do you know these men?”
The boy nodded. He wore dark gray pants with loafers and a navy blue suit jacket with a school crest on the lapel, over a white shirt with a red tie. Prep school kid, lots of money.
“I need to hear you say it,” she said.
“I know them.”
“Are you in danger?”
“From anything. Are you a carrier?”
Vanilla Pudding, standing with his hands splayed on top of the SUV’s roof, turned his head and spoke over his shoulder. “Don’t answer that, Christopher.” Then, to Ellie: “Look, kid’s already late for school, and we’ve got to get him there before noon. He’s got a big test today he can’t miss.”
“I’m not through with my questions.”
“All due respect, Officer, what you’re doing, LAPD—it’s harassment.”
“So, if I’m hearing you correctly, sir, you don’t want to cooperate.”
“How about you take our licenses and gun permits, our weapons, do the background checks, whatever, while you follow us to his school? We drop him off, and then we can play question and answer for as long as you want. I’ll give you the numbers for his parents, too. You can call them along the way, make sure everything’s copacetic.”
“Give me the numbers.”
The parents’ names were Cynthia and Francis Palmer. After she wrote down the numbers, she showed them to the boy. “Are these your parents’ phone numbers?”
“Yes,” he replied. “Can I sit in the car, please? It’s really hot out.”
Ellie opened the back door for him. Then she looked at Vanilla Pudding and said, “Lead the way.”
Danny took over driving duty so she could work the laptop installed in the car. As she checked the licenses and permits, she thought about the steroid-laced goons playing rent-a-cop and wondered if someone, maybe even a group of people, was watching the boy right now, shadowing his movements and working on a plan to abduct him. She doubted anything would happen on the way to school, but something might go down at the school. Last month, a group of masked men armed with assault rifles stormed their way into a fancy private high school in Van Nuys to abduct a pair of teenagers who carried the blood gene. The gunmen were killed, along with two students and six school employees. There was a lot of talk in the state about teachers arming themselves.
The bodyguards checked out. Their gun permits all checked out. Ellie called the numbers Vanilla Pudding, whose name was Trevor Daley, had given her. She got the boy’s mother on the phone, but the woman refused to answer any questions until Ellie gave her own personal information.
Ellie didn’t blame her. Families of carriers had to worry about people posing as police and federal agents. You couldn’t trust anyone these days. Anyone.
When the boy’s mother called back fifteen minutes later, she seemed more relaxed. Ellie asked the woman a series of personal questions, comparing her answers with the information listed on the computer screen. Everything seemed to be in order.
St. Devon’s Academy looked more like a maximum-security prison facility than a private school. Its sleek modern buildings sat behind tall concrete walls that had barbed wire installed along the tops. Almost all schools these days had fences or walls, but this was the first one she’d seen that had its own guard tower. Seeing a guy armed with a high-powered rifle and a scope looming above a bunch of little kids kicking around a soccer ball or just hanging out, acting like this was all normal, made her heart sink.
When it came to carriers, the police were subject to the same checks as ordinary citizens. Ellie and Danny had to wait several minutes while two men armed with assault rifles checked and rechecked their IDs. Forms were signed, fingerprints scanned, and after the gate was unlocked, Danny pulled up against the curb of what appeared to be the main building. Another pair of armed men guarded the door. Others were stationed at various checkpoints and roamed the perimeter and parking lot.
Vanilla Pudding pulled up behind them. Ellie got out and again asked the boy if he felt safe. He assured her that he did, and off he went to the front door to submit his hand to the portable fingerprint scanner one of the guards was holding.
“You happy with your job?” Vanilla Pudding asked.
Vanilla Pudding smiled. He had tiny, baby teeth. “Reason I’m asking is, my company has a lot of clients who are young girls. They’d feel more comfortable in the presence of a woman.” He reached into his coat and came back with a business card. “If you want to make some real money, with real health benefits, call me.”
Ellie thanked him, handed him back his documentation and weapons, and headed back to the patrol car.
“Your stop-and-frisk routine back at the house,” Danny said as they drove away. “You mind telling me what that was about?”
Ellie shrugged. “We saw something, so we stopped.”
“The kid looked scared shitless, so I decided to check it out.”
Danny’s gaze cut to her; he wanted, she knew, to call bullshit. And he’d have been right, of course.
Ellie had been a patrolwoman for a little over a year, but her real goal—her future—lay in the LAPD’s newly formed Blood Crimes Unit. Admittance was extremely competitive—only the best and brightest. She considered herself reasonably intelligent, knew she was a hard worker, and, for the most part, had good people skills. What she had going against her was lack of investigative experience—and BCU looked for two years minimum, even for lowly data analyst positions.
The way she figured it, the more information she could collect on the blood world during her stop-and-frisk routines, as Danny called them, the more knowledge she would accumulate, and the more attractive she’d look when she reapplied to the BCU.
There was another, more personal reason she didn’t want to get into it with Danny—with anyone.
Ellie was about to change the subject when Danny, thankfully, did it for her. “You ever wonder what it’s like?” he asked.
“Being a carrier?”
“Getting an infusion.”
Ellie shrugged. “Don’t really see the point.”
“You can say that ’cause you’re young and good-looking. How old are you, again? Twenty-four?”
“Twenty-six, which is a whole two decades younger than you, Gramps.”
“Yeah, wait until you hit middle age. Your body starts changing without your permission. Everything begins to wrinkle and sag, and everything hurts. It’s depressing as hell.” Danny sighed. “You do know this is one massive government conspiracy, right?”
Ellie drew a slow, deep breath through her nose as she shifted in her seat.
“No,” he said. “No, don’t give me that look. I’m not some conspiracy nut. Carrier blood is a real thing. It’s a fact. It’s got that circulating protein there, that enzyme called eNAMPT that makes cells produce these unbelievable amounts of energy, which is why carriers look like they don’t age, why they seem to be able to fight off disease. I mean, that’s a legitimate medical thing, right?”
Ellie sighed. “Yes.”
“Okay, and we also know a full-body transfusion of carrier blood alone doesn’t erase wrinkles and burn belly fat and increase muscle tone and all that other wonderful stuff—which is why, back in the day, scientists and biohackers started experimenting with carrier blood mixed with other medications. They found one that worked, that chemo pill that’s now off the market because it’s supposedly carcinogenic, Vira-something.”
Danny snapped his fingers. “That’s the one. So, all these megawealthy one-percenter types start flocking to these holistic centers that are springing up like warts all over the East and West coasts, and they’re paying mucho dinero to get these carrier transfusions mixed with Viramab, and, voilà, the shit actually works.”
Everything Danny had said so far was 100 percent true. Now here comes the crazy curveball.
“This goes on for about a year,” Danny said, “and then suddenly the government shuts everything down because people getting these transfusions allegedly die from them.”
“Allegedly?” Ellie chuckled, saw that he was dead serious. “Danny, people actually died. They were on the front pages of major news sites. Their immune systems eventually broke down—”
“That’s what the government wants you to believe.”
“You’re saying that all those well-known actors and actresses and titans of industry and rich folks from all over the world who died from these blood transfusions were targeted by the CIA or some such bullshit? Please don’t tell me you believe that.”
“I’m talking about the Illuminati.”
“Okay, we’re done here.”
“You read that article last week in the Times, the one about Senator Baker from Ohio? Guy was showing early signs of dementia, right? People were urging him to retire. Now the dementia’s gone—”
“According to an anonymous source,” Ellie said. “There’s no direct proof—”
“Oh, please. Pull up the side-by-side pictures. There’s no doubt he’s using carrier blood. And that’s my point. Wealthy people, people in power—you know they’re getting carrier blood from someone who has perfected the recipe. Could be an underground supplier, could be big pharma. Who knows? Point I’m trying to make here is that the law and rules of society only apply to common folk like you and me. The wealthy and the elite—these are the people who can get their hands on this stuff. These are the people who will continue to live and reproduce, and in time they’ll create a new world order.”
Danny had a point. Not about the whole new-world-order bullshit, but the fact that the privileged and the elite had access to things that regular people didn’t. She wasn’t naïve about the way the life worked, especially when it came to crime—the one person with the best political connections and the best lawyer, sadly, had the chips stacked in their favor. But when it came to carrier blood and whatever chemical cocktail worked—if there actually was one—so much was still unknown because the whole process had all been driven underground, made illegal. Younger carriers had blood that was “fresher” and, it was believed, more powerful and longer lasting—which was why kids were being abducted in record numbers not only in California but across the country, imprisoned and forced to live out their lives like golden geese.
At least that was the operating theory. No one had ever found or seen one of these mythical “blood farms,” as they had been dubbed by the media, so no one knew for sure if they existed. The blood world in LA consisted of two main factions: Armenian Power X was a cartel that, on the surface, seemed more organized than the second faction, the Mexicans, who seemed to favor draining and dumping carriers.
“The blood I’d want to try,” Danny said, “is Pandora.”
You and everyone else, Ellie thought.
“Bye-bye, wrinkles and belly; hello, smoother and tighter skin, thicker hair, more muscle tone, and less body fat. But wait—there’s more! Order now, and we’ll throw in, free of charge, the most intense orgasms you will ever experience in your entire life.”
“If Pandora actually exists,” Ellie said.
“Blood Unit believes it does.”
“But there’s no proof. No sample has ever been found, and no one has ever been caught using it. For all we know, we could be chasing a unicorn.”
“There you go with we again.” Danny rolled his head to her and cracked a grin. “That’s what all this stop-and-frisk shit is all about, isn’t it? You’re doing a little R & D, hoping to find something, something big, so you can try to secure a spot on that unit.”
Ellie smiled. “Look at you, playing detective. How cute.”
“It’ll never happen.”
“You becoming a detective?”
“You working on the Blood Unit.”
Ellie’s throat clenched. “That’s a real shitty thing to say.”
“I’m just giving you the lay of the land. It’s not about how good or talented you are; it’s who you know and who you blow. You don’t strike me as the type who—”
“Danny, look out!”
The patrol car’s forward-collision warning system sounded. The vehicle automatically decelerated, Ellie’s attention locked on a black Labrador retriever that had darted into the road and, instead of running away, stopped and looked at them, its tail wagging.
Danny swerved to the right. The Lab didn’t move, and Ellie let out a small cry when she heard and felt the front-left corner of the fender hit the dog, the yelp it let out freezing her heart.
Ellie was already out of the car before it came to a stop. She got down on one knee beside the dog and Danny remained behind the wheel, blinking in shock, Ellie knowing he was thinking about his Bernese mountain dog, Mickey. The dog had been the most loving thing during the final months of his marriage—his anchor, he had admitted to her more than once.
He threw open the door, his gut brushing against the steering wheel as he got out. The dog lay on its side, shaking and panting, its eyes closed against the bright sun. Danny looked like he was going to pass out.
“Didn’t break any bones, as far as I can tell, and I don’t see any cuts,” Ellie told him. The Lab flapped its tail in agreement, then stopped when Ellie started rubbing its soft pink belly. “Probably just whacked Sasha here with the fender.”
Danny let loose the caged breath he’d been holding. “Sasha?”
“Dog’s name, according to the tag on his collar.”
The dog had several tags. Ellie was focused on the one shaped like a red fire hydrant. SASHA was etched on the front, along with a phone number and an address right here in Brentwood.
Ellie held the tag along its side. “Take a look at this,” she said, and flipped the tag over so Danny could see the words someone had written in black marker, beneath a bloody fingerprint:
Ellie bagged the dog collar just in case this turned into something—and it had to be something; it was too bizarre not to be something. Afterward she placed the dog in the backseat, Sasha wagging her tail, the memory of being hit already forgotten. Ellie slid into the passenger seat, got on the horn to dispatch, and worked the laptop while Danny drove to the address printed on the dog tag.
One twenty-three Bleeker was a lot like the typical Mediterranean-style houses popular in affluent Los Angeles neighborhoods: a low-pitched red-tile roof with stucco siding and arched windows and wrought iron balconies. There was a fountain in the front, and the grounds were meticulously maintained—no doubt thanks to the abundant and cheap migrant labor.
A driveway wrapped around the front of the house. By the time they had pulled in and parked, Ellie had some background info on the home’s current owners. She showed Danny the license pictures on the laptop’s screen.
Louis Vargas was fifty-nine and wore every second of it on his face: dark circles under his eyes; jowly, wrinkled, and saggy skin. Sophia Vargas was fifteen years his junior but could have passed easily for late thirties: perfect complexion, black hair, and lovely dark eyes. No criminal record, either one of them. No traffic tickets or violations or citations. No children. No report of a missing dog.
Danny left the engine running. Before he got out, he cranked the AC up to its highest setting, since the dog would be staying in the back for the time being. Ellie slipped on her sunglasses, a pair of Ray-Ban Caravans, and followed Danny to the front door, a big ornate slab carved from oak. He rang the doorbell.
No one answered the door. He tried the doorbell again, and got the same response. Danny was about to knock when they heard splashing coming from somewhere out back.
“Let’s go check it out,” Danny said, and Ellie nodded.
They discussed the approach as they moved back down the steps. Ellie walked around the left side of the house, Danny around the right.
The fence was a custom job, made of redwood boards with a matching inset gate, the shrubbery incorporated into the fence. In the spaces between the boards, Ellie could see into the backyard. The surface of the swimming pool was still rippling from the person who had been in it: a tanned beanpole of a kid who couldn’t have been any older than sixteen. He had that surfer thing going on, and part of his long blond hair was tied up in a goofy man bun.
He sat on the corner of a chaise longue, hunched forward, texting on his phone. Ellie didn’t see anyone else in the yard. She opened the gate and walked across the cobblestones, underneath a roofed area off the back of the house. Floor-to-ceiling windows looked onto a good part of the downstairs—what real estate agents called “open concept.” In the adjoining kitchen, a big cooler, its lid open, sat on top of a dining table. She didn’t see anyone inside the house, and she gave the all-clear signal to Danny, who was moving with his hand resting on the butt of the nine tucked in his hip holster, on the other side of the yard, twenty or so feet away from the kid.
Then the kid looked up.
Saw Ellie, but not Danny.
Seeing one cop was enough. His body froze but his head swung across the pool, to the chaise longue sitting on the other side of the yard. The chaise was propped into a sitting position and faced the fence. Ellie couldn’t see who was sitting on it, just a woman’s tanned and slender arm hanging limply over the side, blood dripping from the fingers.
Ellie pulled out her sidearm, about to make the approach when Danny waved her back. “Stay with the kid,” he said. “And keep an eye out.”
Then, to the boy: “You. Keep your ass parked right where it is.”
Danny lumbered across the area around the pool and stepped cautiously on the grass, eyes scanning the backyard. Ellie took up a vantage point near the corner of the pool; it offered her the best view of the kid, the inside of the house, and Danny.
“Mrs. Vargas?” Danny called out.
The woman didn’t answer. Didn’t move, either, Ellie noticed. Her gaze cut sideways, back to the house. The living room and adjoining kitchen were still empty—as far as she could tell. She thought about the two words written on the dog tag—Help Us—and wondered who was inside the house. Wondered if she was being watched.
Danny moved across the lawn, taking bigger steps. Ellie thought she saw the woman’s arm twitch.
“Mrs. Vargas?” Danny called again. “LAPD.”
Still no answer, and that set something off in Ellie—an uneasiness that made her move into the backyard so she could get a better look at the woman lying on the chaise longue.
Ellie had seen a lot of messed-up shit during her short time as a patrolwoman. What she was witnessing right now immediately shot to the number one slot: Sophia Vargas—and it was her, no question, the woman an identical match with her driver’s license photo—wearing a pair of earbuds, her eyes closed and her mouth open and her right hand, buried underneath the tight fabric of her black bikini bottom, moving up and down, up and down, like she was trying to coax a genie out of its bottle.
When Danny’s shadow passed over the woman’s face, she opened her eyes. She saw the blue uniform and swallowed—not in embarrassment but in pleasure.
“Wait,” she said to him. “I’m almost there.”
Ellie watched, thunderstruck. She could see the still-fresh IV puncture wound in the crook of her arm, the wound bleeding, she was sure, from a recent transfusion.
“Ma’am,” Danny said, “I need you to stop masturbating.”
Sophia Vargas ignored him. She kept going, moving her finger even faster, trying to climax, not stopping or slowing down even when Danny leaned forward and yanked out her earbuds. Ellie had been told one of the side effects of blooding, at least in the initial hours after a transfusion, was a heightened sex drive, but she had never seen anything like this before.
Sophia Vargas arched her back. Her limbs stiffened and she cried out in pleasure.
Danny’s face was as red as an apple. He had to clear his throat before he could speak. “What happened to your arm?”
The woman didn’t respond. She relaxed back against the chaise longue, trying to catch her breath.
Again Ellie glanced at the house—all clear downstairs, from what she could see—and then she looked back at the kid, who was sitting with his forearms on his knees and acting like what was unfolding here in the backyard was no big deal. Like he couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. He was way too young to administer a transfusion all by himself, but had he assisted someone? Was that person, maybe even group of people, hunkered down inside the house at this very moment?
Ellie had never heard of blooding being performed in someone’s home, but then again, this was Los Angeles, where if you were rich enough and willing to pay the price you could get anything you wanted, anytime.
“What happened to your arm, Mrs. Vargas?” Danny asked again.
“I gave blood,” the woman replied between breaths. “This morning.”
She licked her lips. Smiled. “One of those Red Cross mobile things.”
Bullshit, Ellie wanted to say. And why was Danny bothering with the whole Q & A dance? He had more than enough probable cause to arrest the woman on suspicion of receiving carrier blood.
The sliding back door slammed open. Ellie turned, saw a shirtless guy step out. He was tall and jacked with muscle, his chest and arms exploding with all kinds of shitty, colorful tattoos, like a box of crayons had vomited on him. The largest and oddest one was on his left shoulder: a gingerbread man with a bloody knife clamped between its sharklike teeth. He was a redhead—skin so pale it didn’t tan, freckles, and blondish red hair that had been shaved into a military-type crew cut.
Despite his intimidating build, Ellie didn’t feel threatened; his hands were empty, and she didn’t see a weapon in his shorts pockets. He was smiling, too, but there was absolutely nothing pleasant about it.
“Something wrong, Officers?” Gingerbread Man asked, his tone casual and relaxed, like he was receiving guests at a party. He didn’t wait for an answer, didn’t even give their presence a second thought; he walked away from them, to his right, heading toward a custom-made barbecue island.
Ellie was scanning the island surfaces, looking for a weapon, when Danny said, “Sir, I’m ordering you to stop right where you are and—”
Gingerbread Man lurched forward, had his hand on the grill handle when the kid, who had been staring sullenly at his feet the whole time, reached into the canvas bag beside him.
“Stop! Hands in the air!” Ellie shouted, just as the kid came out with an Uzi, the submachine gun looking way too big in his small hand.
“Down!” Ellie screamed, locked in the Weaver stance, like she’d been trained. Only this wasn’t a training exercise; this was real and this was happening and her career and life were hanging on whatever she did next. “Put the gun down now!”
But the kid wasn’t listening, and Gingerbread Man had flipped open the wide hood of the grill, revealing the AR-15 lying underneath. Two targets, both armed, spread across the area, a civilian and her partner in the middle. No good options.
She fired a warning shot at the kid, the round going high above his head.
“Drop it!” she screamed. “Don’t make me—”
But the words fell on deaf ears. The kid had the gun up and the safety off.
Ellie dropped to the ground, behind a waist-high wall made of blue-gray stone. The first rounds ricocheted off the stone and then more rounds cut across the grass behind her. She was trapped and she knew she had to deal with this; it was happening; it was full-on; she was in a gunfight, her first. She had to put both the kid and Gingerbread Man down. That was her only option. She said a quick prayer, begging God to keep her safe, and when she came up with her weapon, the backyard erupting in a hailstorm of bullets, she saw several rounds tearing into Danny’s chest.
Excerpted from Blood World, copyright © 2020 by Chris Mooney