It might not have been too bad, afterward, except for two things. The nightmares. And the fact that the cut on my breast wouldn’t heal.
That’s nonsense, of course. If I’d been able to face being honest, there was no way it
I suppose I didn’t realize how rough I was that first morning. After I had one bath I had another. (Bless landladies with absurdly huge water heaters.) I washed my hair three times during that first bath and twice during the second. Hot water and soap and shampoo hurt like blazes, but it was a wonderful, human, normal, this-world sort of hurt. Getting dressed wasn’t too difficult because my wardrobe specializes in soft, well-worn, and comfortable, but finding shoes and socks that didn’t feel like they were scarifying my poor feet with steel wool was hard. Then I drank a pot of very strong tea and on the caffeine buzz I almost half convinced myself that I felt almost half normal and if I felt half normal I must look half normal.
At the last minute I didn’t burn the dress. I put it in the sink with some handwash stuff and then hung it in a corner with a bowl under it to drip dry. It leaked thin bloody-looking water and this made me so queasy I almost screwed it up to be burned anyway. But I still didn’t.
I did burn the underwear I’d worn. It was like I had to burn something. I took it out—nearly on tiptoe, clinging to the shadows, as if I was doing something illicit I might be caught at—and stuffed it into the ashes and wood chips on Yolande’s garden bonfire heap. My hands shook when I struck the match, but that might have been the caffeine. It burned surprisingly well for a few scraps of cloth, as if my eagerness to see something go up in smoke was itself inflammatory.
I stuck that note in a drawer so I didn’t have to see or think about it. Or about who had written it.
The house key that had been a jackknife lay on top of a pile of books next to the sofa. It had been one of the first things I’d seen when I’d managed to lever myself upright. I had done all of this other stuff—wash, rewash, inject caffeine, set fire to things—while not deciding what to do about it. It wasn’t that an extra house key was an enormous problem. But it was a house key that had been a pocket-knife. Was supposed to be a pocketknife. And I
I had opened all the windows, and the door to the balcony; I wanted as much fresh air as I could get. I wanted no faintest remaining scent here of anything that might have come back with me last night. The blanket that had covered me was soaking in the tub. I had brushed the sofa within an inch of its life, with a whisk broom that would take the hide off an armadillo. The cushion I had had my head on had spot remover troweled over it and was waiting to dry.
I stood on the balcony, closed my eyes, and let the sun and the soft breeze move over me. Through me. I heard—felt—the leaves of my tree stir and rustle. My grandmother had taught me that if you handle magic, you have to clean up after yourself. Just like washing (or burning) your clothes or troweling spot remover on a sofa cushion.
I went back indoors to pick up the house key that shouldn’t be left a house key. I knelt on the floor inside the balcony door, in the sunlight, near enough the open door to smell the breeze from the garden.
It was so easy this time. I felt the change, felt the key slip from keyness to knifeness. It was like kneading dough, feeling the thing become what you want it to be under your hands, feeling it responding to you, feeling it transform itself as a result of your effort. Your power. Your knowledge.
I didn’t like it being easy.
But I liked having my knife back. It lay in my hand, looking like it always had. “Welcome back, friend,” I murmured, and refused to feel silly for talking to a jackknife. Maybe I was talking to myself too.
Then I put it in my pocket and went to look for incense. I never use incense in my life as a coffeehouse baker—I much prefer the smell of fresh bread—but it was one of those things that people who need to give you something but haven’t a clue who you are give you. My aunt Edna, my mother’s other sister, every year at one solstice or another, gives me a packet of the current hot fashion in incense. So there was probably some lurking in the back of a cupboard somewhere. There was. I lit a wand of World Harmonics Jasmine and put it in a glass and said the words my grandmother had taught me. I didn’t have to remember them, they were right there, like my tree.
Then I called the coffeehouse to tell them I was back, and all hell broke loose. Especially after Mom belted out to my apartment when I explained I didn’t have a car any more, to pick me up, and got her first look at me.
I won’t go into a lot about that. It was not one of our finest mother-daughter moments.
I did go to the doctor because everybody said I had to. The doctor said there wasn’t much wrong with me but minor dehydration and exhaustion, gave me a tetanus shot, and some cream to put on both my feet and my breast. He asked me how I’d got the cut on my breast because as he put it, in that portentously unruffled and infuriating way of doctors, “It looks a bit nasty.” But I hadn’t decided how much I was going to tell anyone, and having had everyone who had seen me so far freaking out (except the doctor, who was doing portentously unruffled like a kick to the head) wasn’t helping. So I said I didn’t remember. He said “mm hmm” and put some stitches in so it would heal neatly, muttered something about post-traumatic shock syndrome, offered me a reference to someone who could talk to me about remembering and not remembering, and sent me away. Mel had brought me. He borrowed Charlie’s car so I didn’t have to ride pillion on a motorcycle. (I hadn’t known Mel could drive a car. He drove his motorcycles in all weather, including heavy snow and thunderstorms.) And he brought me back. To the coffeehouse. The thought of going back to my apartment was only fleetingly tempting. I wanted to return to my
Mom tried to insist that I stay at the house—move back in with her and Charlie and my brothers. I said that I would do nothing of the kind. I meant it, but I was a little hindered by the fact that I no longer had a car. (They never did find my car. I had liked that car.) That afternoon, after talking to the doctor and about forty-seven kinds of cop, Mom and I had a big shouting match that I didn’t have the strength for, and I burst into tears and said that I would
Then Mel, who had been left more or less singlehanded to run the coffeehouse while all the drama went on in the office, began collaring the staff who had crammed into the office door to watch and be a kind of Greek chorus of horror, and one by one heaving them physically toward what they ought to be doing, like minding the customers, before
“Nobody’s been in here while you’ve been gone. We gave Paulie the time off.”
Paulie was my new apprentice. I had stopped crying for the moment but this made my aching eyes fill up again. “Oh…”
“Hey, we didn’t know what to do. No Carthaginian idea.” Mel sounded grim but studiedly calm. For the first time I had some glimpse of what it must have been like for everybody here when I disappeared. I wasn’t the disappearing kind. They would have feared the worst. It was the right response. And given what could have happened, I probably looked a lot worse than I was, so everybody was taking one look at me and fitting this vision against what their dreams had been churning out the last two days.
“Hey. Sheer. This is me, okay? I saw you not taking the name the doctor wanted to give you about someone to talk to. You don’t have to talk to me unless you want to. Or anyone else, including Charlie and your mom. But if you tell me what you do want, I’ll help you make it happen. If you’ll let me.”
Thanks to all the gods and angels for Mel. I couldn’t explain that while yes, I’d always been a bit solitary, a bit disinclined to talk about what mattered to me, about what I was thinking about, it was
I hadn’t forgotten nearly as much as I was pretending I had.
Mind you, I’d forgotten a lot. Post-traumatic whatsit, like the doctor said. The cops mentioned post-traumatic whatsit too. I had to check in with the cops because Mom and Charlie had, of course, reported me missing. I said that I’d driven out to the lake Monday night and didn’t remember anything after that. No, I didn’t remember where I’d been. No, I didn’t remember how I’d got home two days later. No, I didn’t remember why I was so beat up. Mel went with me for that too, even though he was pretty allergic to cops. (Charlie, trying to make a joke, said that he hadn’t done so much cooking for years, and did I want Mel to take me anywhere else? Florida? The Catskills?)
I didn’t say “vampires” to anyone, and I sure remembered that much. If I had said it, SOF wouldn’t have just talked to me, they’d’ve
I had to talk to SOF, because anything mysterious might be about the Others, and SOF were the Other police. But I told them I didn’t remember anything too. By the time I talked to SOF I was getting good at saying I didn’t remember. I could look ‘em in the eye and say it like I meant it. They were cleverer about questioning me. They asked me stuff like what the lake had looked like that night, where exactly I’d sat on the porch of the cabin. They weren’t trying to trick me; they were trying to help me remember, possibly to our mutual benefit, trying to help me find a way in to remembering. I pretended there was no door, or if there was one, it had six locks and four bolts and a steel bar
It was easier, saying I didn’t remember. I walled it all out, including everybody’s insistent, well-meaning concern. And it turned out to be easy—a little too easy—to burst into tears if anyone tried to go on asking me questions. Some people are mean drunks: I’m a mean weeper.
The first days started passing and became the first week. The bruises were fading and the scratches skinned over, and I began to look less like hell on earth. On the second Monday movies night at the Seddons’ after my return, people began to make eye contact with me again without looking like it was costing them.
And I was making cinnamon rolls and bread and all like a normal crazed coffeehouse baker again, thus deflecting poor Paulie’s imminent nervous breakdown. He was going to be good, but he was still new and slow from lack of experience, eager to gain that experience, he’d been several weeks going through the wringer, or the five-speed industrial strength mixer, with me, and then I disappeared and everybody was barking at him because his presence reminded them that I wasn’t there, and sending him home. I wanted to cheer him up, so I let him in on the secret of Bitter Chocolate Death and he made it, beautifully, first time. This bucked him up so much he started humming while he worked. Gah. It was bad enough having someone in the bakery with me some of the time, so I could teach him what to do and keep an eye on him while he did it: humming was pushing it. Was it absolutely necessary to have a cheerful apprentice?
Charlie found someone who could loan me a car till I could replace the one they never found, and then found another one when the first one had to go back. The insurance took forever to cough up but it did at last. Their agent wanted to complain about my not remembering exactly what had happened, but he was promptly inundated by people from Charlie’s, staff and regulars, offering to be character references, the doctor I’d seen and the cop shrink I’d seen said I was genuine,
During borrowed-car gaps Mel gave me a lift on his motorcycle of the week (favors don’t get much more serious than giving someone a ride at four a.m.), and then I started using Kenny’s bicycle. Kenny was at an age when bicycles are deeply uncool and he didn’t miss it. Downtown where the coffeehouse is is a drag on a bike, cars and buses first run you off the road and then leave you asphyxiating in their wake, but it’s nice out near Yolande’s and bicycling helped make me tired enough to sleep through the nights. Although it meant getting up at three-thirty to get in in time to make cinnamon rolls. Which is ridiculous. Also, Mom was having kittens about my riding a bike after dark (or before sunup), and she was perhaps not entirely wrong about this, even if she didn’t know why, and even though there was no record of anyone ever being snatched off a bike in New Arcadia. There was no record of suckers at the lake either. So I did buy another car. The Wreck. It ran. I bought it from a friend of Mel’s who liked tinkering with cars the way Mel liked tinkering with motorcycles, and the friend guaranteed it would
The doctor took the stitches out of my breast. My feet healed. Life started to look superficially normal again. I took a deep breath and asked Paulie how he’d like to get up at four in the morning once a week to make cinnamon rolls. He was delighted. Another head case joins the inner cadre at Charlie’s. He chose Thursday. I now had two mornings a week I didn’t have to get up before sunrise. Theoretically. I didn’t tell him what if he was paying attention he already knew, that the coffeehouse schedule was a thing that happened on paper and never quite worked out that way. But letting him think he got to choose should be good for morale. His morale. And even an unpredictable series of fours in the morning I didn’t have to get up at was going to be good for
Aimil and I started going to junk and old-books fairs again. And when I went hiking with Mel we didn’t go out to the lake. Not being able to decide what to tell anyone about anything had become the habit of not telling anybody anything. The funny thing was that the nearest I came to telling anyone was Yolande. There was something about the way she put me in a chair and made pots of tea and sat with me and talked about the weather or the latest civic scandal or some book we had both read, and not only didn’t ask me anything but didn’t appear to be suppressing the desire to ask me anything either.
The second nearest I came was one night with Mel, when I woke up out of one of the nightmares, and was out of bed and across the room before I had registered that the body I had been in bed with— had had my head on the chest of—had a heartbeat. Mel didn’t say anything stupid. He sat up slowly, and turned the light on slowly, and made me a cup of tea slowly. By that time I was no longer twitching away from every shadow but I was too pumped with sick adrenaline to sleep. Mel took me downstairs and put a paintbrush in my hand. Every now and then he got talked into doing a custom job on one of the bikes he’d rescued. I had laid down primer and first coats for him a few times, and buffed finishes, but that’s all. That night he had me filling in the outline of tiny green oak leaves. When I had to stop and get ready to report for cinnamon roll duty I felt almost normal again. No, not normal. Something else. I felt as if I’d accidentally re-entered my grandmother’s world, where I didn’t want to go. But if that was where I had been, it had done me good. I wondered who the bike was for, why they wanted an oak tree. Mel would never do the standard screaming-demon thunderbolt-superhero sort of thing, all jaw and biceps and skeggy-looking flames, and one of the few little dumb things that would ruffle that calm of his was the sight of a bike decorated with a flying sorcerer, but a tree was a…well, a funny symbol for something with wheels that was built to go lickety-split. Or look at it another way. The main symbolism around trees is about their incorruptibility, right? Their immunity to all dark magic. This is not something you expect your average biker to be deeply interested in.
I felt a little breeze—Mel had opened a window—heard leaves rustle. It hadn’t occurred to me that my secret tree might be, say, an oak, or an ash, a beech, some particular kind of tree that related to a tree I might find in an ordinary landscape. I didn’t want my grandmother’s world to have anything to do with this one. I didn’t want what had happened to me at the lake to have anything to do with this world, this ordinary landscape. I laid my paintbrush down and went and stood with Mel by the open window.
After the first week or two of armed and sizzling silence after the argument, and all messages passed through pacifist intermediaries, Mom had started giving me charms. She’d turn up at the coffeehouse at about eight in the morning with another charm done up in the standard charm-seller’s twist of brown paper. I didn’t want them, but I took them, and I didn’t argue with her. I didn’t say anything at all except (sometimes) thank you. Mom and I hadn’t gone in for light conversation in years, since it never stayed light, between us. I did things with the charms like wrap them around the telephone at home, to soften any bad news it might be bringing me, or drape them round my combox screen, ditto. This kind of abuse wears charms out fast. I’m not a big fan of charms—barring the basic wards, which I admit only a fool would dispense with, fetishes, refuges, whammies, talismans, amulets, festoons, or any of the rest, I can do without ‘em. They take up too much psychic space, and the sooner these new ones crashed and burned the sooner they’d stop bugging me. But Mom was trying to behave herself, and the charms seemed to relieve her feelings. Once I had a car again I started stuffing them in the glove compartment. They didn’t like it, but charms aren’t built to quarrel with you.
The mark on my breast, which appeared to have closed over, cracked open again, and oozed. It was nearing high summer by then and I, who generally wore as little as decency allowed because it got so hot in the bakery, was suddenly wearing stranglingly high-necked T-shirts. You can’t ooze in a public bakery. I went back to the doctor and he said “hmm” and had I remembered yet how I’d gotten the cut in the first place. I said I hadn’t. He gave me a different cream for it and sent me home again. It seemed to heal for a while and then cracked open again. I grew clever about taping gauze over it and ripping the armholes out of my high-necked shirts and wearing lurid multicolored bras—fortunately there was a vogue on for lurid multicolored bras—so it looked like I was merely making a somewhat unfortunate fashion statement. Mel knew better, of course, and if it hadn’t been for him I would have stopped going to the doctor, but Mel was a stubborn bastard when he wanted to be and he wanted to be about this, drat him. So I had to go back again. The doctor was starting to worry by now, and wanted to send me to a specialist. A specialist in
Some cop or other came by the coffeehouse at least once a week “to see how I was doing.” Any of our marginally half-alert regulars knew the Cinnamon Roll Queen and chief baker had been absent a few days under mysterious circumstances and that whatever had happened to her was still casting a pall over the entire staff at Charlie’s. That was everybody. And our SOF regulars are better than half alert or they wouldn’t be working for SOF. So I had cops coming in and our SOFs watching the cops and the cops watching our SOFs. It should have been funny. It wasn’t. I think Pat and Jesse actually suspected the truth, although I don’t see how they could have. Maybe they thought it was ghouls or something, although ghouls don’t generally have the foresight to, like,
I did notice the difference between the people who were really bothered for me, or for the sake of the society they were paid a salary to keep safe, and the people who wanted to know more because it was like live TV or those cheesy mags with headlines like I ATE MY ALIEN BABY. Fried, with a side salad and a beer.
The most serious drawback to the telling-nothing approach is that it made that much more of a mystery of what had happened, and the nature of gossip abhors a vacuum of the unexplained. This meant that soon everybody “knew” that whatever had happened did indeed involve the Others, because that made a better story. I think they would have liked to assume that it involved the Darkest Others, because that made the best story of all, except that, of course, I was still
Nobody escaped from vampires.
I didn’t know if the everybody who knew this included SOF or not, but I could hardly ask.
* * *
Meanwhile there were the nightmares. There continued, relentlessly, to be the nightmares. They weren’t getting any better or easier or rarer. There’s not that much to tell about them because nightmares are nightmares on account of the way they feel, not necessarily by the mayhem and the body count. These felt bad. Of course they always had vampires in them. Sometimes I was being stared at by dozens of eyes, eyes that I mustn’t look into, except that wherever I looked there were more eyes, and I couldn’t shut my own. Sometimes there was just the knowledge that I was in a horrible place, that I was being contaminated by the horrible place, that even if I seemed to get out of it I would take it with me. The nightmares also always had blood in them, one way or another. Once I thought I had woken up, and my bed was floating in blood. Once I was wearing the cranberry-red dress and it was
I told myself that those two days at the lake were just something that had happened. That’s all. The dreams were like the wound on my breast: my mind was wounded too. The bruises and scratches were the superficial stuff: of course they healed quickly. And everybody dreams about vampires; we grow up dreaming about them. They’re the first and worst monster that lives under everybody’s bed. You do get mad Weres or a demon that’s tired of passing for human and not being able to do the less attractive demon things, but mostly it’s vampires.
I never dreamed about…The funny not ha-ha thing was how hard I was trying to forget about him too. He’d saved my life, sure, but he’d destroyed my world view in the process. The only good vampire was a staked and burned vampire, right? So what if he’d shown a little enlightened self-interest about me—as well as having a sense of honor straight out of some nineteenth-century melodrama with dueling pistols and guys who said things like “begone varlet,” which was how I’d lived long enough to present him with an opportunity to display enlightened self-interest. He was still a vampire. And everybody he’d…my brain wouldn’t go there…was still dead. To put it another way: the loathly lady was still a loathly lady, she hadn’t been cured by whatever, and there was no reason to suppose she wasn’t going to go on eating huntsmen and their horses and hounds, and probably the occasional knight who didn’t give her the right answers as well.
I didn’t think there was a word for a human so sicko as to rescue a vampire, so he could go on being a vampire, because no one had ever done it. Before.
When I woke up out of one of these nightmares I didn’t dare go back to sleep again. And they kept coming. So after a few weeks I segued from being flipped out and exhausted by what had happened to being flipped out and exhausted from being flipped out and exhausted.
During this first time in my life I didn’t want to read lots of news reports about Other activity, there seemed to be more of them around.
Some of it was okay. There was another long heated debate—as a result of some statistical review stating that the numbers of those afflicted were rising—about whether incubi or succubi were living or undead, which is an old argument but no one has ever settled it. The obstacle to scientific study is that the moment the psychic connection is cut your object of investigation disintegrates, and by seizing one of the things for scientific study you are ipso facto severing the link. At least until the global council decides it’s okay to keep a human being as a thing-thrall, which is at present even for purposes of pure research
There was a project drawn up not too long ago with a list of volunteers to be thing-thralls but that never got off the ground, maybe partly because the ‘ubis like choosing their own prey and bait on a string doesn’t interest them, but mainly because there was this huge public outcry against it. Mind you, you have to wonder about the volunteers. ’Ubis may be a bigger problem than anybody knows because thing-thralls are usually having a
There was a series of articles about how many different kinds of Weres there are, another favorite topic. Wolves are the famous one, of course, but they’re actually comparatively rare. There are probably more were-chickens than there are were-wolves, which if you’re asking me explains why comparatively few Weres go rogue as against, say, how many demons. And possibly why the black market in anti-Change drugs is so slick, although the idea of black marketeers with either a sense of humor or of compassion is maybe stretching it a little. More likely the were-chickens will pay
But there are were-pumas, for example, and were-bears. Were-coyotes are enough of a scourge that the SOFs go after them and do a horrible sort of mop-up about once a year. Were-raccoons are nasty little beggars and were-skunks are, well, beyond a nightmare. Get a were-skunk mad at you and your life isn’t worth living. There’s a special flying SOF unit for were-skunks. Every city over about a hundred thousand has a SOF were-rat unit, speaking of horrible mop-ups. New Arcadia has one. But according to Pat and Jesse you can stay one jump ahead (so to speak) of all the Weres, even the rats, as long as you don’t get careless. Nobody ever stays a jump ahead of vampires.
Maybe because there was all this other stuff about the Others, and because, of course, I wanted not to be noticing, I ignored for a while that there were more local stories about vampires. Sucker sightings, sucker activity, which is to say fresh desiccated corpses, aka dry guys. As I say, New Arcadia is pretty clean, but nowhere is really clean of vampires. And so I didn’t notice right away—who wants to notice bad stuff happening next door? And even if it was happening, it didn’t mean it had anything to do with my little adventure. I could ignore it if I wanted to.
The coffeehouse is in the old downtown area, called Old Town now. It had been a pretty grotty place when Charlie’s first opened, and he catered to grotty people, figuring that everybody has to eat. Since he apparently didn’t do anything—including, I swear, sleep—in the beginning but run the coffeehouse, he could do everything himself, including cook from scratch. He didn’t even have a regular waitress the first couple of years; the kitchen, such as it was, was lined out along the fourth wall. This kept his overheads low, and I’ve already said he’s a good cook. The cleaner and more lucid of his grotty clientele began to bring their less grotty friends there because of the food. When Mom and I moved in two blocks away the gentrification had only just begun—begun enough that Mom wasn’t totally stupid to move in—but there were still drunks and hype heads on more corners than not, and Ingleby Street was still all old-books shops, the kind where walking in the door puts you at immediate risk of being crushed to death by a toppling pile of crumbly yellow magazines no one has looked at in fifty years. (This nearly happened to me when I was twelve, and the owner was so relieved I wasn’t going to tell my mom on him—my mom even then had a local rep as someone you didn’t mess with—that he gave me a great deal on them instead. This motley assortment included an almost unbroken run of
When I was still in high school the city authorities got really excited because New Arcadia was going to be on the post-Wars map. This was partly because we’d had—comparatively—quiet Wars, so most of the city was still standing and most of its occupants were still sane, and partly because our Other Museum by the mere fact that it was still there had become nationally and perhaps globally important. I had never liked it myself; the exhibits for the public were real lowest-common-denominator stuff, and you had to have six PhDs, no dress sense, and a face like a prune to get into the stacks or any of their serious holdings, which included stuff you couldn’t get on the globe-net. You could say my nose was out of joint. I was going to like it even less if it was going to swamp us with the kind of loony-tune academic that specialized in Others, but the city council thought it was going to be totally thor.
One of their bright ideas about raising Old Town’s attractiveness level, since we were inconveniently close to the museum, was to dig up all the paving and put down the cobblestones that the city authorities had dug up seventy years ago to put down paving, and replace the old (and, by the way, brighter) street lamps with phony gas lamps with electric bulbs in them. Then they stuck a raised flower bed in the middle of what had been the road, and made it a pedestrian precinct. The old-books stores left and the antique shops and craft boutiques moved in, and for a while there Charlie and Mom were thinking desolately about trying to relocate the coffeehouse because we didn’t want to learn to make Jackson Pollack squiggles out of raspberry coulis, thank you very much. And if the taxes went up as predicted they would have to sell the house even if they kept the coffeehouse, which they probably wouldn’t do either because they wouldn’t be able to bear putting up the prices enough for the sort of hash and chili and chicken pot pie and succotash pudding and big fat sandwiches on slabs of our own bread menu that we do so well— this was before my bakery was built and so before we were also known for toxic sugar-shock specials—to keep us in the black. Our regulars wouldn’t be able to afford it, even if the new upscale crowd wanted to eat retro diner food, or we wanted to serve it to them. Meanwhile the pedestrian precinct seemed to be pretty well shutting down our trucker traffic, and Charlie’s has had truckers from its first day. There used to be a joke that a New Arcadia route trucker wasn’t the real thing till he could get his rig within two blocks of Charlie’s.
But it turned out there were more of the old grotty people still clinging on than anyone realized—well, we realized it, because most of them ate at the coffeehouse (including the better class of derelicts who knew to come to the side door and ask for leftovers), but we thought the Rolex shiny-briefcase thugs would drive them out. Only it was the Rolex shiny-briefcase thugs that eventually left. So the old grotty people are still here, and the coffeehouse is still here, and Mom and Charlie still live around the corner, and most of the antique shops have subsided or are subsiding more or less gently into junk shops again, and some of them are beginning to have piles of old books in the corners, and most of our truckers still come in the back way, although they can’t get within two blocks any more. And when the city in disgust told us to mind our own flower bed because they weren’t going to do it any more, Mrs. Bialosky, who is one of our most stalwart and ubiquitous locals, organized working parties, and nearly every year since then our flower bed wins something in the New Arcadia neighborhood gardening festival, and I like to think I can hear the sound of city authority teeth grinding. Mrs. Bialosky owns a narrow little house on the corner of Ingleby and North where she can keep an eye on almost everything that happens, and the two-seater corner booth just to the right of the front door of Charlie’s also belongs to her in all but real estate contract, and woe betide anyone who sits there without her permission. Mrs. B, by the way, is suspected of being a Were, but there is no consensus on a
For the most part our neighborhood is a good thing. Who wants to be dazzled by Rolexes and aluminum briefcases every time you want to have a quiet cup of tea sitting on the wall around the award-winning flower bed? I’ll take the odd wandering vagrant any day. But it means that if you’ve got vampires moving in from the outside they’re going to move into our neighborhood before they move into a neighborhood like the one the city authorities had planned for us. Suckers don’t like their food in a bad state of preservation any more than humans do, but our population is predominantly sound and healthy, just not very well-off or important. Furthermore, when the city went into its snit about our bad attitude, they had finished tearing out all the old streetlights but hadn’t finished putting in new ones, and since then they keep claiming they can’t afford to finish the job. Some of our shadowy corners are really
And then one of the dry guys turned up on Lincoln Street, less than three blocks from Charlie’s.
You might think the neighborhood would shut down, everyone staying indoors with the doors locked, iron deadbolts stamped with ward signs and shutters hung with charms, but far from it. Charlie’s was hopping the next evening, and since Charlie himself would almost rather die than turn away a customer—not because he always has his eye on his profit margin (Mom would say he
Things got really exciting when the TV van showed up. I was in the bakery, feverishly turning out whatever-took-the-least-time to feed the extra people, but I heard the commotion and Mary put her head in long enough to tell me what was going on. “I’m not here,” I said. “If it comes up.” She nodded and disappeared.
But too many other people knew I was there. I’d been interviewed—or rather they’d tried to interview me—right after it happened. SOF is supposed to “cooperate” with the media, but I know Pat and Jesse are in a more or less continual state of pissed-offness because someone is forever leaking more stuff from their office than they feel anyone but them needs to know, but their boss, or rather their sub-boss, widely known as the goddess of pain, refuses to try to shut it down, so they are stuck. In this case it meant that it had got leaked that SOF was very interested in whatever had happened to me, even if I hadn’t given them any reason to be interested, and even though apparently nothing else had happened since (if I’d developed a rider, like an incubus, or a hitch, from a demon having me on a tether, there are signs, if you’re looking). So now Mr. TV Roving In Your Face Reporter, exploring neighborhood response to a sucker in our midst, wanted to interview me, and at least eight people had told him I was on the premises. Mom, for good or bad, had gone home; she hates packed-out nights and in theory we didn’t need her. She would have given Mr. TV Pain in the Butt Interviewer something to think about. It mightn’t have been such great publicity for Charlie’s but we don’t really need to care what local TV thinks of us.
Charlie is great at blandishing. Few people can resist him when he’s in Full Blandish. But he’s nowhere near as good at getting rid of assholes as Mel is, and it was Mel’s night off. Charlie came back after a while and asked if I could bear to come out and be stared at. “You can say no a few times and come back here; I’ll keep ‘em out after that. But if you’d be uncooperative in person first it would be easier.”
Charlie knew I hated the whole business, which I did, but that wasn’t the real problem. The ever-ready-for-fresh-disasters media guys had walloped my bruised and messed-up face onto TV seven weeks ago, though I’d refused to talk to them. I don’t suppose I could have stopped them even if it had occurred to me to try. I’d thought about it later. I hadn’t wanted to, but I did. Did vampires watch local news on TV? Seven weeks ago they might still have been prying up floorboards for where I might be hiding.
Most of what goes on TV, even on local TV, gets archived on the globenet within a few weeks. And vampires use the globenet all right. Some people believe vampire tech is better than human.
I went out front like Charlie asked. Mr. TV was there with his camera slave, half Quasimodo and half Borg. Mr. TV had amazing teeth, even for a TV presenter. “I don’t have anything to say,” I said.
“Just come outside a minute, where we can get a clearer shot,” said Mr. Teeth. I wondered if vampires ever got their teeth capped. I went off on a teeny fantasy about specialist fang caps. Probably not.
“You don’t have anything to get a clearer shot of,” I said.
“Oh now you want to leave that up to us,” said Mr. Teeth, grinning even wider. He put his hand on my arm.
Mr. Teeth dropped my arm but his eyes (and his incisors) glinted with increased interest.
I had been avoiding thinking about any implications in a sucker victim found three blocks from the coffeehouse, as I had been avoiding noticing there was more local sucker activity at all. If I’d been avoiding it less hard, it might have occurred to me that some kind of news gang would turn up to pry a few ravaged expressions and maybe if they were lucky some sign of an incipient crack-up out of some of the natives. (Possibly not realizing that Old Town always had natives on the brink of a crack-up.) The police hadn’t identified the body yet—they called it “the victim”—and nobody at the coffeehouse was missing anyone.
I had no idea what the homogeneity of TV broadcasting might be from a vampire perspective. I didn’t want to know.
The camera swung to point at me.
I raised a hand against it. “No,” I said.
“But—” Mr. Teeth said. He was trying to decide whether more smiling was called for or if he should try a frown. I put up my other hand, blanking out most of the lens. Quasi-Borg said, “Okay, okay, I get the idea,” and let the thing sag. If it was still taping it was getting a good shot of a dirty apron, purple jeans, and red sneakers.
Mr. Teeth, the mike still glued under his chin, said, “Miss Seddon, we only want a few words with you. You must understand that the assaults on any human by the Others are always of first importance to every other human, and it is the duty of a responsible media that we report anything of that sort as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Miss Seddon, a man
“I know,” I said. “Fine. Go report it.”
Mr. Teeth looked at me a moment. I could see him deciding on the hard-man approach. “Miss Seddon, it is very plain to many of us that whether you wish to discuss your experiences or not, you too have been a victim of an Other attack, and the fact that a mere few weeks later a
“Two months,” I said. “Not a few weeks.”
“Miss Seddon,” he said, “do you still deny that you were set on by Others?”
“I don’t say anything one way or another,” I said. “I don’t remember.”
“She’s told you she has nothing to say to you,” said Charlie. “I think that’s enough.” He was so rarely hostile I almost didn’t recognize him. In the back of my mind, a thought was forming: if he can get rid of a tanked up six-and-a-half-foot construction worker with a few friendly words, which he can, and if he just failed a few minutes ago to get rid of a tanked-up-on-his-own-importance TV asshole because he had been unable to get confrontational about it, what does it mean that he’s suddenly feeling so antagonistic toward Mr. Responsible Media Reporter now? I didn’t like the answer to that question. It meant that he thought Mr. Responsible Media—and our suddenly over-watchful Pat and Jesse and their friends—were right about what had happened to me. How could they
Mr. Responsible Media was looking rebellious, but this was my country. I was Cinnamon Roll Queen and most of those assembled were my devoted subjects. “Hey, leave her alone, man,” said Steve, idly rolling up to stand next to the counter stool he’d been sitting on. Steve isn’t major league tall, but he is major league in the looming unspoken threat department. Things had gone kind of quiet in the last few minutes while everyone watched me refuse to be interviewed, and now they went quieter yet. One or two other people—that is to say, guys—stood up, just as idly as Steve had. I was suddenly glad it was Mel’s night off after all; under the good-old-boy exterior he had a temper on him, and he’d been feeling kind of protective of me lately. Over Mr. Responsible Media’s shoulder I met Jesse’s gaze. He and Pat and John were sitting squashed together at a two-person table. I could see by their stillness that they
“All right, all right,” muttered Mr. Responsible, and he waved at his camera slave, and they left the coffeehouse reluctantly.
“Thanks,” I said to everyone generally. I patted Steve’s hamlike shoulder on my way back to the bakery (and sent him three cranberry and sprouted wheat muffins via Mary, which were his favorite) and didn’t come out again till closing, although Mary came in a few times to tell me what was going on. She had her break in the bakery too so she could tell me in detail about the interview Mr. Responsible had had with Mrs. Bialosky, who knew how to play an audience. She’d learned a lot in the years of running our flower bed, and she’d never been somebody any sane person would want to jerk around. Mary had me laughing by the time she had to go back to work.
Jesse came in right after Mary left. It was like he’d been listening at the door. He stood there looking at me. I went on hurling large spoonfuls of batter into millions of muffin cups. Muffin cups in my bakery were real sorcerer’s apprentice material, like the dough for the cinnamon rolls every morning could have stood in for The Blob. “There isn’t room to hang around back here,” I said. There wasn’t, although people often did. It was illegal to have customers back here, but the local food inspectors were all Charlie’s friends, just like our local fire inspector was. We’d had the head inspector’s daughter’s fifteenth birthday party here about six months ago: the story was that the coffeehouse was the compromise reached between the party her parents wanted her to have and the party
“Mary was in here for fifteen minutes.”
“You tell time real well,” I said. “Is that an important skill in SOF? Mary will fit on the stool. You won’t.” I kept a stool wedged in the one semifree corner that wasn’t next to the ovens, for staff on break, or anyone else I felt like letting into my territory. No SOF was on that list tonight, and I wasn’t in a good mood.
Jesse went and sat on the stool. He did fit. SOF made you keep in shape to keep your job. No lard butts there. The SOFs weren’t that much easier to keep topped up than teenage boys. All that fitness makes you eat. Pat in particular could put it away. When he sat on that stool I had to keep a sharp eye on him. He could make whole loaves of bread disappear in moments.
I opened the oven doors and dragon breath roared into the room. I shoved in muffin tins. I closed the doors and set the timer. I dumped the bowls in the sink and turned on the water. The coffeehouse doesn’t have the most efficient layout in the world, and the dishwasher is in the main kitchen. When I had time, I washed up my own stuff.
I made as much noise as possible.
“Rae,” said Jesse at last.
“Yeah,” I said.
“We’re on the same side.”
I didn’t say anything. Are we? Am I sure I’m on the right side any more? It was a very pretty conundrum. People don’t escape from vampires. Since I’m alive…It wasn’t really consorting with the enemy. It was just something that happened. Yeah, and it just
It wasn’t him I needed to forget. It was
Why would a vampire stick around to feed a human milk and muffins—and make sure she didn’t choke on them? Honor among thieves? I’d said that. To him. Why the hell had I
Why had my tree said
Maybe the fact that the vampire slash on my breast hurt all the time and wouldn’t heal was a good sign. Maybe it meant I was still human.
Eventually Jesse got down from the stool and went away.
The nightmares that night were particularly bad, and apparently I’d been clawing myself in my sleep, because when the alarm went off at three-forty-five and I groaned and rolled over and turned the light on, not only had the scab split open again but my pillow had big ugly streaks and blotches of blood all over it.
The alarm was still going off a quarter hour earlier than it used to because it took me a quarter hour longer to get moving in the morning than it used to. I was still tired all the time. Okay, it was just the nightmares stopping me sleeping properly. Plus worrying about stuff like my face in the globenet archive and what all my friends thought. I wasn’t losing enough blood from the vampire slash to make me tired that way. And it didn’t hurt all that much. It was just a nagging nuisance.
I drove to the coffeehouse and made cinnamon rolls and rye bread—it was rye bread day—and then I made banana honey nut bread and fig bars and Hell’s Angelfood and Killer Zebras and a lot of muffins, and by late morning I was done. I had the rest of the day off till six.
There was one thing that helped the tiredness a little, and stopped my breast prickling and itching as well. Sunlight. It was a glorious, blue, sunny day and I went home and lay in it. For nearly seven hours. I should have burned to a crisp, but I never sunburn. It goes
Okay, I had a lot of catching up to do. The part of me that was my grandmother’s granddaughter had been having a free ride the last fifteen years, and out of nowhere I’d tapped her flat. Whether for good cause or bad. Recharging was in order.
But it wasn’t just that. It was like I was under attack. And it didn’t feel like it was only from my own negative thinking.
There were more people than usual at the coffeehouse that evening too, but not as many as the night before, and there were no TV vans and nothing to make me jumpy, except maybe that six of our little SOF gang were there.
No, they didn’t have lives. SOFs weren’t expected to have lives. You were a SOF, you stayed very fit and you didn’t have a life. A bit like running a family coffeehouse really. Maybe that was why they felt we should be kindred spirits. And our SOFs had dinner at the coffeehouse more nights than they didn’t, and a lot of the staff from our county SOF headquarters, which was only about a half a mile away north of Old Town, came by some time in the mornings for coffee and a cinnamon roll. Relax, Sunshine.
I tried to relax. They released the name of the poor bod that had got sucked: nobody any of us knew. He lived in our city, but not around here. Nothing else happened. No more dry guys, at least none left for us to find. By three days later when things appeared to be back to normal I managed to say, “Hey, how’s it going,” in an ordinary voice when I found Jesse and Theo sitting at the table next to the door when I walked in for the evening dessert shift. Paulie had been in the bakery all afternoon, and he was eager to leave. I was still letting him have most any evening he wanted off, letting him put his hours in during the days; I was chiefly interested in that second morning a week I didn’t have to get up at three-forty-five. I was used to not having a life, and I wanted to hold on to Paulie. He was the first apprentice I’d hired who both had a brain and liked playing with food. Also he was the first guy who didn’t seem to think his manhood was under threat by having to learn stuff and take orders from someone of my age and gender. He still had to live through his first August in the bakery with the ovens on, but I was hopeful.
We emptied out a little earlier than sometimes, especially surprising on a three-day-weekend Sunday. We’d be open tomorrow while most of the rest of the working world was celebrating the birth of Jasmin Aziz, the famous code-breaker of the Voodoo Wars and why we still have Michigan, Chippewa, and most of Ontario instead of the biggest smoking hole on the planet. But she had been nicknamed Mother Durga, “She Who Is Difficult to Approach,” long before she was a hero, and the name stuck. Ha. Even if Charlie’s didn’t stay open automatically for three-day weekend Mondays, we’d’ve had to stay open for that one.
I’d pulled the last trays out of the ovens a while back, racked or frozen what wasn’t going to get eaten that night, started roll and bread dough for tomorrow morning, and had come out front to sit at the counter and gossip for the last few minutes with Liz and Kyoko, who were on late that night, and Emmy, who had recently been promoted to assistant cook and wasn’t sure she could take the pace. (I was slightly insulted by this, since I’d been using her in the bakery between apprentices, and felt that I must be at least as merciless and temperamental a taskmaster as anything the main kitchen crew could do.) Theo showed occasional signs of wanting to get fond of Kyoko, but she knew about SOFs, and she wasn’t having any. Charlie was there, prowling; he didn’t know how to sit down. Mel was closing down in the kitchen, which included preventing Kenny from sloping off early. A quiet night gave you time to catch up.
It was warm, and the front doors were open. There were still a few people sitting at one of the outside tables; another couple had drifted off with their cups of coffee to sit on the flower bed wall and smooch. One of the last closing-up rituals was to have a sweep through the square for coffee cups, champagne glasses, and dessert plates. If you paid your bill beforehand, we didn’t stop you taking your sweetheart and your sweet thing on a plate to a quieter spot. (Your bad luck if you chose a spot already occupied by a wino or a hype head, but hey.) This was probably illegal too, by civil regulation 6703.4, subheading Behavior of Clientele at Eating Establishments and Potential Broadcasting of Crumbs to Deleterious Effect, viz., the Vermin Population, but no one had stopped us yet.
It was so quiet. Peaceful. Even the SOFs looked pretty relaxed, for SOFs.
And I heard a familiar goblin giggle.
Did I hear it? I don’t know. I’ll never know. But I
No human has ever destroyed a vampire by thundering down on it brandishing a table knife. In the first place, vampires are fantastically faster than humans. You can’t
In the second place, a table knife is a real bad choice. You can do it with wrought iron, although no one in their right mind is going to haul a wrought iron stake around with them when wood works better and weighs a lot less. But stainless steel, forget it: it slithers off, like a swizzle stick on an ice cube. You have as much chance of punching a hole in a vampire with stainless steel as you have racing up to it and getting it to hold still while you try.
Wood will break through that little layer of whatever-it-is, the electricity of the undead, and let your stake penetrate. You still have to ram it in hard, and you have to know where it’s going, and it has to reach and enter the heart, or you’ve just died as the vampire rips your head off. A sucker repelling a staking doesn’t bother to be cool about it. (Note that while a vampire may have to ask permission to suck your blood, it can kill you any time it likes. It just won’t get a square meal out of the experience.) Macho SOFs will go straight in through the breastbone, but the more sophisticated approach—as well as the more likely to be successful—is up underneath it. The notch at the bottom of the breastbone is a useful road marker—so I’m told. It’s still not at all easy to do. There are lots of dead people who have tried. There have been a lot of studies done about the best wood for stakes too. Turns out it’s apple wood—and not any old apple, but a tree that is home to mistletoe. Retired or invalided-out SOFs (this latter category a small number: SOFs tend to live or die with nothing in between) often end up tending SOF orchards, and making sure the mistletoe is happy. Mistletoe is cranky stuff, and nobody knows why it sometimes grows and sometimes doesn’t. Makes you wonder what the druids knew—or Johnny Appleseed. Of course the druids are a fairy tale and Johnny Appleseed never existed. They say. But then, they also say that no human has ever destroyed a vampire by charging at one flashing a table knife.
Maybe no human ever
I did have one advantage. He wasn’t expecting
I had time to see the look on his face. I probably didn’t figure out what I’d seen till later, but this was what it was: he was looking for me—for
Maybe it was just the surprise of seeing someone thinking they could do anything with a table knife.
He paused. The girl he’d been pulling under stood swaying and stupid while he turned to me. We stared into each other’s eyes for the last time fragment, my last few running steps, before I thudded into him…
…and slammed the table knife up under his breastbone, and into his heart. I remember the hot evil smell of his last breath on my face…
I’d never heard or read anywhere that vampires explode when staked. Maybe it’s only when you use a table knife. Vampires aren’t made of flesh and blood quite the way we are…but near kali goddam enough. It was…horrible. The contact, when I drove against him, not just arm’s length with the knife— The sense of the knife going in—maybe I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it either; maybe that was the plan— The
The surprise on his face, just before my knife reached his heart and it stopped—being a face—
The pressure of the—blast—which made me stagger, which smeared and stained me with—
From the taste in my mouth a few minutes later, I assume I threw up. Maybe I passed out as well, although I was still on my feet when I began to hear someone shouting, “Rae! Rae! It’s over! You’re okay!” and also began to realize there were arms around me and they were trying to stop me thrashing around. There was a lot of other noise; someone screaming; other people shouting; and, coming closer, a siren. The siren should have been reassuring: the sound of approaching authority. Authority would take over and I could relax. Relax, Sunshine.
It wasn’t reassuring. But it did have the effect of sobering me up. I stopped flailing. The arms loosened—not very much—and let me stand on my own feet. It was Jesse, holding on to me.
There was already a crowd. I suppose the screaming brought them. We’re the kind of neighborhood that responds to screams. Jesse and I were in a little alleyway—one alley over from where the corpse husk, the dry guy, had been found a week ago—and from somewhere someone had found a couple of halogen floodlights. This meant you could see…
I started retching, and Jesse turned me round and started hauling me toward—what turned out to be a car, driven by Theo. It’s a good trick, getting anything with four wheels, including a kid’s little red wagon, this far into Old Town. Maybe that’s part of SOF training too. The crowd was still gathering. Maybe they didn’t understand what they were seeing—the dark, dribbling blotches on the ground, stickily trailing down the enclosing walls—the charnel house smell might have been a dead rat or a backed-up drain; Old Town can be like that—but the scene the floodlights illuminated…I managed to look away before I heaved again, not, I think, that there was anything left to come up.
Jesse bundled me into the back seat and was now…wiping me down with a towel. I had…horrible stuff all over me. Did SOF vehicles automatically carry large absorbent towels for…cleanup? This one had hung outdoors on a line. I tried to think about the smell of the towel—laundry soap, fresh air,
I croaked something. I didn’t understand what I said either, and Jesse said, “Don’t talk now. We’re going to get you some clean clothes and a cup of cof—tea.” He knew me well enough to know I didn’t drink coffee. That should have been reassuring too, that I was with friends—but I wasn’t with friends. I was with SOF. Who had seen me explode a sucker with a table knife. I wondered if they were getting me away so fast, before anyone from the coffeehouse had a chance to intervene. Mel. Charlie. Where were they taking me anyway? And why? I could make a guess and it didn’t make me feel any better.
Jesse’s dark face was invisible in the darkness of the back seat. I was almost desperate enough to ask to turn the dome light on, just so I could see his face. That he had a face. A human face.
I croaked again. “Will she be all right?”
“Who?” said Jesse.
“The girl. The…girl who was screaming. The girl who was…under the dark.”
Jesse said, “She’ll be okay.”
I was silent a minute. We were out of Old Town. I couldn’t figure what we were doing at first; I was used to the front door of the SOF county building—not that I made a habit of going there—of course there would be a back way. Where they parked their cars. Also perhaps where they brought people in they didn’t want to be seen. How soon before the TV van showed up in the alleyway and started panning over those blotchy walls, those gruesomely amorphous lumps on the pavement?
“You don’t know, do you? You don’t know if she’ll be all right.”
Jesse sighed and sat back, leaving the towel in my lap. It didn’t smell like sunlight any more: it smelled like disintegrated vampire. The car smelled like disintegrated vampire. Jesse, because he’d been holding on to me, had disintegrated vampire all over him too. In the flickering light as we went from one streetlight’s aura to the next he looked rather too much like a pied demon. Pied demons are not among the nice ones. “No. I don’t know. We don’t snatch people out from under the dark at the last minute like that very often. But I’m pretty sure she’ll be all right. I can tell you why, but you could tell us something too. Something for something.”
I grunted. I had been rolling my window down for some fresh air, and had discovered that it would only roll down halfway, and that the doorlock button was engaged, but not by me. No escapees from the back seat of a SOF car.
He almost laughed. “It’s not what you think. Hell, Sunshine, what do we have to do to—”
The car stopped. We were in a parking lot tucked in among a lot of big civic-looking buildings. It was nothing like empty, as you might expect it should be at this time of night, although all the cars were parked at one end of the lot, near one particular building. I didn’t recognize SOF HQ from the back, but I could guess that was what it was. Most municipal departments don’t run a big night shift, and the ordinary cop station was across town.
The doorlocks popped open. We got out of the car, first Theo and then Jesse again holding my arm, as if I either needed support or might run away. They took me up some stairs and down a long ugly windowless hallway with doors opening off on either side. Eventually Jesse tapped on a cracked-open door with a light behind it.
“Annie,” said Jesse, “can you give us a hand?” Annie wasn’t reassuring either, but she was nice about trying to pretend that she didn’t think there was something extremely fishy about why I was there and in what condition and at this time of night. After all, she was right: there was something extremely fishy about it. She took me to the women’s shower room and gave me fresh towels, soap, and this shapeless khaki jersey fuzzy-on-the-inside one-piece thing to put on that was like little kids’ pajamas only without the feet.
I walked into the shower with all my clothes on. It was harder getting them off wet, but I didn’t want to wait even long enough to get undressed before I made contact with hot water. Then I knelt on the shower floor and scrubbed them—and my sneakers—and left them in a heap I had to keep stepping over while I washed myself. But I wanted
I belatedly rescued the contents of my pockets when I hung my sodden clothes over the midsummer-cold radiator. My knife didn’t mind a wetting so long as I dried it off again right away but my leather key ring would probably never forgive me, and the charm loop on it was definitely a goner. It was one of Mom’s charms and it was one of the sort that keep going
I paused a moment when I was dry and dressed to gather together what faculties I had left. I was so tired.
Annie was lurking outside to take me to wherever. She offered me some shuffly fuzzy-on-the-inside slippers too, also khaki, but enough is enough with the regression to childhood, and I stayed barefoot. Besides, I hate khaki.
I figured it was Jesse’s office, since he was the one sitting behind the desk, while Theo was tipped back in a straight chair to one side, his feet against the edge, the toes of his shoes curling up the messy pile of papers on that corner and leaving black marks on the bottoms of the pages. Tsk tsk. Jesse’s jacket had disappeared and he was wearing a clean shirt that didn’t fit. There was a coffee machine in the corner going
Nobody said anything right away. If this was supposed to make me start talking to fill up the silence it didn’t work. There wasn’t anything I could say that wouldn’t get me into more trouble than I was in now. Okay, here’s another thing: magic handlers have to be certified and licensed. I had lied about what had happened by the lake for a lot of reasons, and needing to register myself as a magic handler was the least of them and barely worth mentioning from my point of view, but by not doing it I’d still committed the sort of crime that even the ordinary police don’t like and SOF really hates. Tonight I’d totally, inexorably, undeniably, blown it. Even a magic handler shouldn’t have been able to skeg a sucker with a table knife.
I wasn’t going to be able to fudge that one either. The table knife in question was lying on the one clear space on Jesse’s desk. I assumed it was the same knife. It was the coffeehouse pattern and while it had been wiped roughly off, the smear of remaining bloodstains was convincing.
I had no idea when I’d dropped it. But the fact that it was here meant that they knew what had happened. No escape.
And then Pat came in carrying a pot of tea and a paper bag with the Prime Time logo. I wanted to laugh. They were sure
I stopped wanting to laugh when I noticed that Pat looked like a man who had been got out of bed for an emergency.
It was even good tea.
Jesse said, “Can you tell us what you’re afraid of? Why you won’t talk to us.”
I said cautiously, “Well, I’m not licensed…”
There was a general sigh, and the tension level went down about forty degrees. Pat said, “Yeah, we thought that was probably it.”
There was a little silence and then the three of them exchanged long meaningful looks. I had tentatively started to relax and this stopped me, like sitting down in an armchair and discovering there’s a bed of nails instead of a cushion under the flowered chintz. Uh-oh.
Pat sighed again, this one a very long sigh, like a man about to step off a cliff. Then he shut his eyes, took a deep breath, and held it. And held it. And held it. After about a minute he began to turn, well, blue, but I don’t mean human-holding-his-breath blue, I mean
Theo gently lowered the front legs of his chair to the floor, drifted over to the office door, and locked it. He returned to his chair, put his feet against the edge of the desk, and rocked back on two legs again.
Pat started breathing. “If I let it go any farther I’ll start popping my buttons. Pardon me.” He unfastened his belt buckle and the button on his waistband.
“Only a quarter,” said Pat, “but it runs pretty strong in me.” His voice sounded funny, deeper and more hoarse. “My full brother couldn’t turn if he held his breath till he had a heart attack. Nice for him. Sorry about the locked door, but it takes a good half hour for the effects to wear off again.”
It’s only really
It’s probably worse, the partbloods that are fine till they hit adolescence, and suddenly find out that the Other blood, which they may not have known about, is alive and kicking and going to ruin their lives. Every now and then it happens to a grown-up. There was a famous case a few years ago about a thirty-eight-year-old bank manager who suddenly grew horns. They fired him. He’d had an exemplary career till that moment. He appealed. The case got a huge amount of publicity.
They still fired him.
As “sensitive” industries go, SOF was at the top. No way any demon partblood was going to get hired by the SOFs.
Even someone like Mary might be turned down if she applied for basic SOF training, if anyone was so poor-spirited as to report to her recruitment team that the coffee she poured was always hot. Mary wasn’t registered. If the government insisted on registering everyone who could sew a seam that never unraveled or pour coffee that stayed hot or patch a bicycle tire that didn’t pop somewhere else a hundred feet down the road, they’d have to register sixty percent or something of the population, and fond as the government was of paper trails and tax levies, apparently this boggled even their tiny minds. But SOF cared down to this level. The deep widow’s peaks you sometimes get with a little peri blood and which are so fashionable that models and actors are forever having cosmetic surgery to implant them, if one of these people had a sudden desire for a midlife career change to SOF they’d have to go in with their surgeon’s certificate taped to their forehead, or they’d be turned away at the door. SOF didn’t fool around.
Pat blinked his blue eyes at me and smiled. He had a nice smile as a demon. His teeth were blue too.
“SOF is rotten with partbloods,” said Jesse. “I’m one. Theo’s another. So is John. So are Kate and Millicent and Mike. We somehow seem to find each other to partner with. Safer, of course. ‘Hey, doesn’t that blue guy look a lot like Pat? Where is Pat, anyway?’ ‘Look like
I had maybe about managed to keep my jaw from dropping round my ankles while Pat turned blue—it had taken several minutes, I could go with the flow—but this was absolutely one too many. This was on a par with, say, finding out the president of the global council was a sucker, the moon was made of green cheese, and the sun only rose in the morning because of this complicated system of levers and dials overseen by an encampment of the master race from Antares settled on Mars…“What the hell d’you mean SOF is rotten with partbloods? What about the goddam blood test when they take you?”
All three of them smiled. Slowly. For a moment I was
The moment passed.
“It must have been a bastard in the beginning,” said Jesse.
“When the only drug that worked made you piss green for a week,” said Pat.
“Or indigo or violet,” said Theo.
“Yeah,” said Pat. “Depending on what kind of partblood you were.”
“But the lab is pretty well infiltrated by now,” said Jesse. “Once you get that far you’re usually home already.”
There was another pause. Maybe I was supposed to ask what “you’re home already” meant, but I didn’t want to know any more. I hadn’t been so mind-blasted since I woke up next to a bonfire surrounded by vampires. As the silence lengthened I realized that the tension level was rising again, and there were more meaningful looks flashing back and forth. I tried to rouse myself. But I was so tired.
At last Pat spoke. “Okay,” he said. “Where we were. Um. We’ve been thinking for a while that something like…turning blue must have happened to you out at the lake. Or—wherever. But we haven’t had a good excuse to, well, ask you about it closely. Somewhere we could lock the door when I held my breath.”
“Till tonight we haven’t been totally sure that’s what we were looking at anyway,” said Jesse. “Arguably we still aren’t.”
They looked at me hopefully.
I thought about what I could say. They’d just handed me all their careers on a platter. All I had to do was walk out of here and tell someone—say, Mr. Responsible Media—that Pat turned blue, three-eyed, and twelve-fingered if he held his breath, and that several of his closest colleagues including his partner knew about it, and they’d tie Pat to a chair, put a plastic bag over his head, and await developments. They’d have to. Even if the twenty-four-star bigwig supreme commander honcho of SOF was a fullblood demon him- or herself and knew the name of every partblood in the service, the public furor would make them do it. Being an unlicensed magic handler was a mouse turd in comparison.
My brain slowly ground out the next necessary connection to be made. Oh…
“You know about my dad?” I said.
They all snorted. Pat sounded like the horn on something like a semi or a furniture van.
With or without the help of the guys from Antares? “Then probably you know that my mom raised me to be, er, not my father’s daughter.”
“Yeah,” said Pat. “Made us real interested, if you want to know.”
I stared at him. “You had better not be telling me you have been hanging around the coffeehouse
It wouldn’t be turning blue, of course. Unlike demon blood, magic handling was welcomed by both government and corporate bureaucracy in its employees—sort of. What they wanted was nice cooperative
“We hang out at the coffeehouse because we’re all addicted to your cinnamon rolls, Sunshine, and your lethal dessert specials, especially the ones with no redeeming social value,” said Pat. “You didn’t see us half so often before Charlie built the bakery. But your dad didn’t hurt as an excuse on our expense accounts.”
Another pause. I didn’t say anything.
“And your mom seemed kind of…well,
And another pause. I seemed to be missing something they wanted me to catch on to. But I was so
“And the coffeehouse is a good place to keep an eye on a lot of people. Gat Donnor.” Poor old Gat. He was one of our hype heads. Sometimes when he got the mixture wrong—or right—he turned into a skinny orange eight-foot lizard (including tail) that would tell you your fortune, if you asked. The locals were used to him but tourists had been known to go off in the screaming ab-dabs if they came across him. SOF was interested because a slightly-above-the-odds number of the fortunes he told were accurate.
I brought myself back to the present. Sitting in a SOF office with a blue demon SOF and a few friends.
“I suppose you know your Mrs. Bialosky is a Were?”
I did laugh then. “Everyone believes she is, but no one knows
“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” said Jesse. “So, you grew up being your mom’s daughter, with no higher ambitions than the best cinnamon rolls in the country. Did you know about your dad?”
I hesitated, but not very long. “More or less. I knew he was a magic handler, and I knew he was a member of one of the important magic-handling families. Or I found that out once I was in school and some of the magic-handler kids mentioned the Blaises. I was using my mom’s maiden name by the time I went to school, before she married Charlie. I knew that my dad being a magic handler was something to do with why my mom left him, and…at the time that was enough for me.” I thought about the “business associates” my mom hadn’t liked. That was what she’d always called them. “Business associates.” It sounded a lot like “pond slime.” Or “sorcerer.” As I got a little older I realized that people like my mother mean “pond slime” when they say “sorcerer.” Lunatic toxic kali pond slime.
“I did know something. My gran—my dad’s mother—showed up again a year after we geared off. I used to visit her—at our old cabin at the lake. She’d meet me there. My mom wasn’t happy about it, but she let me go. My gran told me some—taught me some.”
“Taught you,” Jesse said sharply.
“Yeah. Stuff changing mostly. Little stuff. Enough to know that I had something, but not so much that I—had to use it, you know?”
They nodded again. Magic handling, like Other blood, often makes its presence known, whether
“Then my gran disappeared. When I was about ten. Just before the Wars. And just when Charlie married my mom. Charlie didn’t seem to mind having me around. He adopted me, let me get underfoot at the coffeehouse. And yeah. I
“And then two months ago,” said Jesse. Why did I feel there was something else going on with these guys? Like we were having two conversations, one of them silent. It seemed to me that this out-loud one was enough.
I sighed. “All I did was drive out to the lake on my night off. I had a headache, I wanted some peace and quiet, you don’t get that anywhere around my family, including away from the coffeehouse. I’d just had my car tuned, it was a nice night. There hasn’t been any trouble at the lake that I know of since the Wars were over, so long as you stay away from the bad spots. I drove out to our old cabin, sat on the porch, looked at the water…”
That was as much of the story as I had told before. I still wasn’t expecting my heart rate to speed up, my stomach to hop back and forth like water on a hot griddle, and tears to start pricking the backs of my eyes at the prospect of telling even a little bit more. I looked down at my shapeless jersey kids’ pajama lap, and then glanced at the table knife on Jesse’s desk. The world started to turn faster and at a funny angle.
Jesse reached into a bottom drawer and brought out a bottle of…oh, hey, single-malt scotch. Some SOFs did know how to live. Theo had turned the Prime Time bag upside down. There was an assortment of greasy-paper-wrapped bundles and they smelled…like food. Real human food. “Have a sandwich,” said Theo. “Have some chips. Have—hey, Pat, you’re living dangerously. Have a Prime Time brownie.”
“No thanks,” I said automatically. “Too much flour, too much raising agent, and the chocolate they use is only so-so.”
“Your color’s improving,” said Jesse. “Tell us more about Prime Time’s sins. I’m sure their bread isn’t as good as yours either.” It isn’t. “Have some scotch.” I held out my (empty) tea mug.
I had half a Swiss cheese and watercress sandwich (on mediocre anadama) to give my stomach something else to think about.
It hadn’t occurred to me before. I
Dear gods and angels,
It’s not only paranoia and bureaucratic oppression that demands partbloods be registered. Human magic-handling genes and certain demon genes mix really, really badly. There are lots of minor charm-twisters who have a touch of both the human capacity for magic and the demonic, and there’s a story that some of them can do stuff no one else can, although it tends to be more goofy than useful. But this is strictly trivial magic handling.
Not all demons can do magic; some of them just
Strong magic-handling genes and even a weak unmanifested-for-generations magic-operating demon gene in the same person gives you about a ninety percent chance of being criminally insane. It might be as high as ninety-five percent. There are asylums specially built to hold these people, who tend to be extremely hard to hold.
Important magic-handling families for obvious reasons therefore become kind of inbred. Although this isn’t an ideal solution either, because over the generations you start getting more…
The Blaises’ name still casts a long shadow. But even I knew they’d hit their peak a while back, and that there weren’t many of them—us—around any more. There didn’t seem to be any at all left since the Wars. I hadn’t thought about this. It might have been an issue if I had wanted to be a magic handler, but I didn’t. It’s pretty amazing what you can
Outcrosses in a magic-handling family on the decline…like me…are viewed with mixed feelings. We may be salvation. We may be catastrophe. It depends on the bloodline on the other side.
Dubious outcrosses are often exiled or repudiated by the family. It’s easier if the alien parent is the mother too, because then they can claim she was fooling around. Paternity tests applied to bad-magic crosses are notoriously unreliable.
No. There was no whisper of demon blood in my mother’s family.
Would I know? My mother’s sisters were both several sandwiches short of a picnic in terms of common sense. They were not the kind of people who would be entrusted with dark family secrets. And I didn’t have to waste any time wondering if my mother would have told me. “Overprotective” is my mom’s middle name. She wouldn’t have told me.
My mother’s parents had been
I’d never seen my father again after my mother left him, nor any of the rest of his family. Only my gran. Who was maybe choosing to see me privately and alone not in deference to my mother’s feelings but because her own family had ordered her to have nothing to do with me.
Maybe my gran had some other reason for believing I was okay. Or maybe she didn’t know why my mom had left. Maybe she thought it was my dad’s business associates. Magic-handling families can be pretty conceited about their talent, and pretty offended by commoners feeling they have any rights to inconvenient opinions. Maybe my gran thought her family were just being arrogant.
If you were in the ninety percent, it showed up early. Usually. If you weren’t born with a precocious ability to hoist yourself out of your crib and get into really
The sane five or ten percent most often have personalities that are uninterested in magic. One of the recommendations, for someone who finds out they’re in the high-risk category, is
She might have. My mother makes Attila the Hun look namby-pamby. If she wanted me not to be a bad-magic cross, then I
I hadn’t come home and started knifing old ladies or setting fire to stray dogs.
I was kind of a loner though. A little paranoid about being close to people. A little too interested in the Others.
My mother would have assumed that my gran had tried to teach me magic and that she hadn’t been successful. So my mother would have assumed the Blaise magic genes were weak enough in me, or her own compromised heritage had missed me out.
Maybe my mother could be forgiven for being a little over-controlling. Because she’d never be sure.
Bad-magic crosses don’t invariably show up early. Some of our worst and most inventive serial murderers have turned out to be bad-magic crosses, when someone finally caught up with them. Sometimes it turns out something set them off. Like doing magic. Like finding out they could.
And I hadn’t done any magic in fifteen years.
I stopped chewing.
Pat and Jesse assumed I’d thought of all this before. They were assuming that’s why I hadn’t been able to talk to them. Had been afraid to talk to them. The licensing thing was piffle. They would know that I knew that too. If it was just a question of not being a certified magic handler, hey, I could get my serial number and my license. The bureaucrats would snuffle a little about my not having done it before, but I was a model cinnamon-roll-baker citizen; they’d at least half believe me that I’d never done any magic before, they probably wouldn’t even fine me. Licensing was a red herring. Pat wouldn’t have turned blue over a question of late magic-handling certification. So I had to be afraid of something else.
They were, in fact, offering me a huge gesture of faith. They were telling me that they believed I wasn’t a bad cross. They must really love my cinnamon rolls.
What they didn’t know was that I’d rescued a vampire. Which might be read as the polite, subtle version of becoming an axe murderer.
“Have some more scotch,” said Jesse.
And now, of course, they only thought I was dreading telling them about what had happened two months ago.
Okay. Let this dread be for the telling of the story. Nothing else. The story of how I rescued a vampire. Which I wasn’t going to tell them.
I put my mug down because my hands were beginning to shake. I crossed my arms over my breast and began rocking back and forth in my chair. Pat dragged his chair over next to mine, gently pulled my hands down, held them in his. They were a pale blue now, and not so knobbly. I couldn’t see if he still had the sixth fingers.
I said, speaking to Pat’s pale blue hands, “I didn’t hear them coming.” I spoke in a high, peculiar voice I didn’t recognize as my own. “But you don’t, do you, when they’re vampires.”
There was a growl from Theo—not what you could call a human growl.
It was a creepy, chilling, menacing sound, even knowing that it was made on my behalf. Briefly, hysterically, I wanted to laugh. It occurred to me that maybe I
Jesse let the silence stretch out a little, and then he said softly, “How did you get away?”
I took a deep breath. “They had me shackled to the wall in—in what I guess was the ballroom in—in one of the really big old summer houses. At the lake. I—I was—some kind of prize, I think. They— they came in to look at me a couple of times. Left me food and water. The second day I—transmuted my jackknife into a shackle key.”
I took another deep breath. “Yes. No, I shouldn’t have been able to. I’d never done anything close. I hadn’t done anything at all in fifteen years—since the last time I saw my gran. It almost…it almost didn’t occur to me to try.” I shivered and closed my eyes. No: don’t close your eyes. I opened my eyes. Pat squeezed my hands. “Hey. It’s okay,” he said. “You’re here.” I looked at him. He was almost human again.
I wondered what I was. Was I
“Yeah,” he said. “What you’re thinking.”
I tried to look like I might be thinking what he thought I was thinking. Whatever that was.
“SOF is full of Others and partbloods because it’s vampires that are
And bad-magic crosses.
“—but there are lousy stinking humans too. We take care of the Others and the straight cops take care of the humans. If we got the suckers sorted the humans would calm down—sooner or later—let the rest of us live, you know? And then we’d be able to organize and
There was a story—I hoped it was no more than a myth—that the reason there still wasn’t a reliable prenatal test for a bad-magic cross was the prejudice against partbloods.
Jesse said patiently, “You transmuted worked metal.”
“Do you still have the knife?”
I dragged my mind back to the present. I’d decided earlier that the light in the office was good enough, so I nodded again.
“Can we see it?”
Pat let go of my hands, and I pulled the knife out of my fuzzy pocket and leaned forward to lay it on a pile of paper on Jesse’s desk. It lay there, looking perfectly ordinary. Jesse picked it up and looked at it. He passed it to Theo, who looked at it too, and offered it to Pat. Pat shook his head. “Not when I’m coming down. It might crank me right back up again, and we can’t keep the door locked all night.”
“What would happen if someone knocked?” I said. “You’re still a little blue around the edges.”
“Closet,” said Pat. “Nice big one. Why we chose Jesse’s office.”
“And we would be so surprised that the door was locked,” said Jesse. “Must be something wrong with the bolt. We’ll get it checked tomorrow. Miss Seddon is all right, isn’t she?”
“Miss Seddon is fine,” I lied. What was wrong with her was not their fault.
“Rae—” said Jesse, and hesitated.
I was holding myself here in the present, in this office, so I was pretty sure I knew what he wanted to ask.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t been back to the lake since. There’s a really big bad spot behind the house, maybe that’s part of why they chose it, and when—when I got out of there I just—followed the edge of the lake south.”
“If we take you out there—let’s say tomorrow—will you try to find it?”
It had little to do with what I hadn’t told them that made the silence last a long time before I answered. What I had told them was plenty for why I didn’t want to go there again. “Yes,” I said at last, heavily. “I’ll try. There won’t… be anything.”
“I know,” said Jesse. “But we still have to look. I’m sorry.”
I nodded. I picked up my jackknife and put it back in my pocket. I looked at Jesse. Then I looked at the blood-smeared table knife lying on his desk, and he watched me looking. “That’s the next thing, isn’t it?” he said. “Okay—you have some kind of line on worked metal. Some pretty astonishing line, it must be. But that doesn’t explain…”
The phone rang. He picked it up. “Ah. Well, better send him up then.” We all looked hard at Pat. He wasn’t blue at all. Theo unlocked the door.
Mel came through it about ten seconds later, looking fit to murder battalions of SOFs with nothing more than a table knife. “What the dharmic
I managed to keep a straight face. “Red-eyed boy” (or girl) is an accusation of Other blood: just the sort of thing a pissed-off civilian would say to a SOF. They all looked perfectly blank. “Sorry,” said Jesse. “We didn’t mean to keep her incommunicado. We were getting her out of a bad situation as fast as possible—brought her in the back way, of course. The media jokers can’t get to her here. But we forgot to send word to the front desk that we weren’t—er—holding her.” Sure you forgot, I thought. Mel, still quivering with fury, and equally aware Jesse was lying, turned to me. “I’m okay,” I said. “I was a bit—hysterical. They let me have a shower,” I added inconsequentially. I’d had a rough night, and it was getting harder and harder to remember what I’d told whom and why.
No wonder Mel was feeling a little wild.
“It’s sort of a long story,” I said. “May I leave now, please?” Before you start asking me about tonight, I thought.
“That’s what I’m here for,” said Mel, throwing another good glare around.
“See you tomorrow,” said Jesse.
“What?” said Mel.
“I’ll tell you on the way out,” I said.
“Sleep well,” said Pat.
“You too,” I said.
They gave me my soggy clothes in a plastic Mega Food bag and I managed to jam my feet into the clammy, curled-up sneakers so I could walk. Jesse offered to call a taxi, but I wanted some outdoor air. Even midtown civic center outdoor air.
We had to go back to the coffeehouse: the Wreck was there. Mel had walked over. Well, I don’t know about
And if I managed to tell him, what was he going to say? “I’ll start ringing up residential homes for the lethally loony tomorrow, see where the nearest openings are”?
“Don’t even try to tell me what happened till you’ve had some sleep,” said Mel. “The goddam
“I think they are okay,” I said, regretfully. In some ways it would have been easier if they weren’t. “Jesse and Theo did get me out of there—um—and they couldn’t help being, you know, professionally interested.”
Mel snorted. “If you say so. Listen, the whole neighborhood is talking about it. Whatever it is. The official SOF report—what they’ve already fed to the media goons—is that you were an innocent bystander. None of us is going to say anything, but there were a lot of people in that alley by the time Jesse and Theo got you away, and it’s unanimous that you were…”
There was a pause. I didn’t say anything.
He added, “Charlie seemed to think Jesse
Yeah. Further destruction of personal world view optional.
Mel sighed. “So we hung around the phone at the coffeehouse, waiting—Charlie and me. We sent everybody else home—including Kenny, sworn on pain of having his liver on tomorrow’s menu not to tell your mother anything. The phone didn’t ring. So then we rang SOF and got yanked around by some little sheepwit on the switchboard, and that’s when I came over…”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
The coffeehouse was dark and the square silent and empty, although there was some kind of distantly audible fuss going on somewhere it was easy enough to guess was a block or two over and down a recently defiled alley. We went round the side of the coffeehouse and I could see a light on in the office. Charlie, drinking coffee and pacing. He had his arms wrapped around me so tight I couldn’t breathe almost before I was inside. Charlie is such a
“I’m okay,” I said. Charlie gave a deep, shuddering sigh, and I remembered him backing me up with Mr. Responsible Media. I also remembered all the time he’d spent in years past, encouraging my mundane interest in learning to make a mayonnaise that didn’t crack, how much garlic went into Charlie’s famous hash, my early experiments with what turned out to be the ancestors of Bitter Chocolate Death et al. There was no magic about Charlie. Nor about most restaurants, come to that. Human customers tend to be a little twitchy about anything more magical than a waitress who could keep coffee hot. I wondered about my mother’s motive in applying for a job as a waitress all those years ago: I was already making peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies while we were still living with my dad (if there was a grown-up to turn the oven on for me), and if she was looking for nice safe outlets…“Tonight. It’s—it’s connected with what happened—when I was gone those two days.”
“I was afraid of that,” said Charlie.
“Jesse wants me to try to find the place it all happened. Out at the lake. They’re taking me out there tomorrow.”
I shrugged. “Might as well. I have the afternoon off.”
“The lake,” said Charlie thoughtfully.
I’d told everyone I’d driven out to the lake. I hadn’t said that what happened afterward also happened at the lake. Till tonight my official memory had ended sitting on the porch of the old cabin.
“Yes. I was—er—held—at a house on the lake. They want me to try to find it.”
Either Mel or Charlie could have said, when did you remember this? What else do you remember? Why did you tell SOF when you haven’t told us? Neither of them did. Mel put his arm around me. “Oh, gods and frigging angels,” he said.
“Be careful,” said Charlie.
One of the (few) advantages to getting to work at four-thirty a.m. is that you can be pretty sure of finding a parking space. When I come in later I’m not always so lucky. I’d had to park the Wreck in a garage lot that evening, and it was locked at eleven. Mel took me home. When we got there and he turned the bike off the silence pressed against me. The sudden quiet is almost always loud when you’ve been on a motorcycle and got somewhere and stopped and turned it off, but this was different. Mel didn’t say any more about the night’s events. He didn’t say any more about SOF taking me out to the lake the next day. I could see him
It had never occurred to me that leaving someone alone could harden into a habit that could become a barrier. It had never occurred to me before now.
I had to repress the desire that he not shut up this time. I had to repress the desire to ask him if I could talk to him.
But what could I have said?
We stood there in the darkness for a minute or two. He was rubbing another of his tattoos, the sand wheel, on the back of his left hand. Then he came with me to check that I still had Kenny’s bicycle and the tires weren’t flat. Then he kissed me and left. “See you tomorrow,” is all he said.
I reached over my head to touch the wards strung along the edge of the porch roof on my way indoors. These were all Yolande’s. Her wards were especially good and I’d often thought of asking her where she got them, but you didn’t really ask Yolande questions. I had noticed that her niece, when she was visiting, didn’t seem to ask questions either, beyond, “I’m taking the girls downtown, can I bring you anything?” And the answer would probably be “No, thank you, dear.”
I wiggled my fingers down the edges of my pots of pansies on the porch steps, to check that the wards I’d buried there were still there, and that a
Then I made myself a cup of chamomile tea to damp down the scotch and the cheese. I took off the bunny pajamas and put on one of my own nightgowns. The toilet paper had held; there wasn’t any blood on the SOF thing. I put my still-wet clothes in a sinkful of more soap and water. Tomorrow I would put them through a washing machine. I might throw them out anyway, or burn them. (I still hadn’t burned the cranberry-red dress. It lived at the back of my closet. I think I knew I wasn’t going to burn it after the night I dreamed that it was made of blood, not cloth, and I’d pulled it out of the closet that night, in the dark, and stroked and stroked the dry, silky, shining fabric, which was nothing like blood. Nothing like blood.) My sneakers would live. I had dozens of T-shirts and jeans if I decided I wanted to burn something but I wasn’t going to sacrifice a good pair of sneakers if I could help it.
I pushed open the French doors and went out and sat on my little balcony. It was a clear, quiet night with a bright quarter moon.
When Yolande had had mice in her kitchen I had set take-‘em-alive traps and driven the results twenty miles away and released them in empty farmland. (Wards against wildlife are notoriously bad: hence the electric peanut-butter fence to keep the deer from eating Yo-lande’s roses. And a house ward successful against mice and squirrels would be almost the money-spinner that a charm to let suckers walk around in daylight would be.) I couldn’t kill anything larger than a housefly. I’d stopped putting spiders outdoors after I read somewhere that house spiders won’t survive. When I dusted, I left occupied cobwebs alone. I hadn’t drawn blood in anger since the seventh-grade playground wars.
I don’t eat meat. I’m too squeamish. It all looks like dead animals to me. On the days I cover in the main kitchen, the only hot food is vegetarian.
Maybe my mother had successfully coerced and brainwashed her daughter into being a nice, human wimp.
But I’d blown it. I’d blown it when I’d turned my knife into a key, because it was the only way to stay alive. Because—maybe only because I didn’t know any better—I wanted to stay alive. I looked down at my arms, at my hands cupping the tea mug, as if I would start growing scales or fur or warts—or turning blue—immediately. Most demon blood doesn’t make you big or strong or blue though, whether it comes with magic ability or not. A lot of it makes you weaker or stupider. Or crazier.
I’d been doing okay as my mother’s daughter. My life wasn’t perfect, but whose was?
Yes, I’d always despised myself for being a coward. A wuss. So? There are worse things.
And then I had to drive out to the lake one night. They’d started it. And I may be a wuss, but I’ve never liked bullies. Maybe, if it was all about to go horribly wrong, I could at least go out with a bang.
How cute and sweet and winsome and philosophically high-minded, that I didn’t like bullies, that I wanted to go out with a bang. I was still a coward, I had a master vampire and his gang on my tail, I was all alone, and I was
“Oh, Constantine,” I whispered into the darkness. “What do I do now?”
I slept the moment my head touched the pillow, in spite of everything that had happened. It was very late for me though, and I’d had two generous shots of scotch. The alarm went off about three hours later. I woke strangely easily and peacefully. I can get by on six and a half hours, just, and only if I’m feeling lively generally, which I hadn’t been lately. Three hours’ sleep doesn’t cut it under any conditions. But I sat up and stretched and didn’t feel too bad. And I had the oddest sensation…as if someone had been in my bedroom with me. Given the events of the night before, this should have been panic stations, but it wasn’t. It was a reassuring feeling, as if someone had been guarding me in my sleep.
Get a grip, Sunshine.
I had to get moving quickly however I was feeling, because it took so much longer to bicycle than to drive into town. But as it turned out, it didn’t. When I went round to the shed to fetch Kenny’s bike there was a car parked at the edge of the road, engine off, but SOF spotlight on, illuminating the SOF insignia on the door, and the face of the man leaning against the hood. Pat. “ ‘Morning,” he said.
“Sheer. I know you’re going in to make cinnamon rolls. You want to be setting some aside to bring with you later on. The only good Monday is a holiday Monday when Charlie’s is open. But we figured that Mel would bring you home last night which would leave you with only two unmotorized wheels this morning. And we don’t want you tired this afternoon.”
Tired but alive would do, I thought. Dawn isn’t for another hour and a half, and if I’m the first person to stake a sucker with a table knife I could be the first person to get plucked off a bicycle…I had been thinking about this as I walked downstairs in the dark. Living alone has its advantages in terms of warding: your wards don’t get confused, nor do they blunt as fast as they will if there are several of you. A big family with a lot of friends will go through wards like the Seddons through popcorn on Monday nights. And unless you are so fabulously wealthy that you can spend millions on made-to-order wards, there are always going to be some holes in the barrier. Someone living alone who isn’t constantly having different people over can probably build up a pretty good, solid, home ward system. That’s
But wards are unstable at best, and they tend to blow up or fall over or go rogue or get their attributes crossed and morph into something else, almost certainly something you don’t want, pretty easily, and generally speaking the more powerful they are the more likely they are to go nuts. And wards are the
Consequently the eternally vexed question of warding your means of transportation. And while it’s true that the chauffeur-driven limos of the global council are almost more ward than limo, it’s also true that no council member travels anywhere without a human bodyguard stiff with technology, including to the corner store for a newspaper. If there are any global council members that live in neighborhoods with corner stores, which there probably aren’t.
The irony is that the best transport ward for us ordinary schlemiels remains the confusing fact of motion itself. (There’s a crucial maintenance speed of a little under ten mph. This is a
But what kind of homogeneity is it, about sucker senses? Had the goblin giggler’s last sight of the human who offed him been
I’d felt relatively safe inside my apartment. I had good wards, and you can kind of feel the presence of the screen they put up, that it’s there, and there aren’t any big drafts coming through it. And you feel it when you come out from behind it too.
But I’d never been able to bear a charm against my skin. They make me a total space cadet. I’d agreed to the key ring loop to make Mom feel good, and that was pushing it. Poor thing. It had probably been grateful to be drowned in the shower, last night, if it had survived the little incident shortly before.
I said to Pat unkindly, “You might have thought of that last night.”
He grinned, and opened the passenger door. I got in. “Why did you draw the short straw?”
“ ‘Cause I’m best at going without sleep. My demon blood has its uses.”
There were at least two classes of demons who didn’t sleep at all. My favorite is the Hildy demon, who gets all the sleep it needs during the blinking of its eyes. You’d think this would seriously interrupt any train of thought that takes longer to pursue than the time between one eye blink and another, but not to a Hildy. (They’re called Hildies after Brunhilde, who slept for a very long time surrounded by fire. Hildies also breathe fire when they’re peeved, although they’re even-tempered as demons go.) Hildies aren’t blue though.
I certainly couldn’t get all the sleep I needed by blinking my eyes.
I stayed in the bakery all morning. Charlie and Mel kept everyone who didn’t belong behind the counter on the far side, Mom answered more phone calls than usual and said “she has nothing to say” a lot. With the bakery door open I could sometimes hear conversations in the office. Mom is good at hanging up on people. It’s one of her great assets as a small-business manager. (She and Consuela had lately been working up a good cop/bad cop routine that was a joy to eavesdrop on.) I had no idea what Charlie had told her about the events of the night before. I didn’t want to know. But he must have told her something. Miraculously, she left me alone, although a particularly lurid new charm was waiting for me on my apron hook that morning. I left it there, glowering to itself. I like orange, but not in over-decorated feather whammies.
It wasn’t as bad as it might have been by a long shot. I felt some grudging admiration for SOF.
Nobody tried to follow me when I left the coffeehouse at ten, or at least nobody but some of the overweight so-called wildlife that hangs around the pedestrian precinct and tries to cadge handouts from the weak-willed. They know a white bakery bag when they see one, and I was carrying a dozen cinnamon rolls. I swear some of our sparrows are too fat to fly, but the feral cats are too fat to catch them. And the squirrels should have had teeny-weeny skateboards to keep their bellies off the ground. One of the recent rumors about Mrs. Bialosky’s neighborhood activities was that she ran a commando unit that protected us from some of Old Town’s larger, more threatening wildlife, the rats and foxes and mutant deer that never shed their short but pointy horns. If Charlie’s had had to keep
It was just Jesse and Pat today. They put me in the front seat—of an unmarked car—with Pat alone in the back. Jesse ate four cinnamon rolls and Pat ate five. I didn’t think this was humanly possible—but then maybe it wasn’t. I ate one. I’d had breakfast already. Twice. Ten o’clock is a long time from four in the morning.
We drove first to the old cabin. I was still clinging to that mysterious sense of someone keeping a protective eye on me, but I was beginning to feel a little rocky nonetheless. Maybe I should have brought the feather whammy instead of hiding it under my apron when I left. As the weed-pocked gravel of what had once been a driveway crunched under my feet, I put my hand in my pocket and closed it round my little knife. I had been not remembering what had happened two months ago so emphatically that the edges of my real memory had become a little indistinct. Standing on the ground where it had begun brought it horribly back. I looked at the porch, where I hadn’t heard them coming from. I looked at the place where my car had no longer been, two days later.
I went down to the marshy reach near the shore, where the stream had run fifteen years ago. It didn’t look like anybody had been there playing in the mud recently. I went back to the cabin. “Yeah,” Pat was saying.
“But it’s been a long time, and they haven’t been back,” said Jesse.
They were just standing there, no gizmos in sight, no headsets, no wires, no portable com screens with flashing lights making beeping noises. I guessed it wasn’t technology that was helping them draw their conclusions.
What a good thing Pat hadn’t walked on my porch this morning, and up my stairs and knocked on my door and, maybe, walked into the front room where the same, if savagely stain-removed, sofa still stood, and the little square of carpet beside it, and maybe even the handle of the fridge door, the same handle that had been there ready to expose a carton of milk behind it if someone pulled on it, two months ago.
What a good thing that good manners dictate that you don’t idly cross people’s probable outer ward circle and knock on their doors unless invited.
We got back in the car and drove on the way we’d been going, north.
There was a bad spot almost at once. I picked it up first, or anyway I was the one who said, “Hey. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to go any farther this way.”
“Roll up your windows,” said Jesse. He hit a couple of buttons on the very peculiar dashboard I was only now noticing and suddenly there was something like heavy body armor enclosing me, oppressive as chain mail and breastplate and a full-face helm, plume and lady’s silk favor optional. I could almost smell the metal polish. “Ugh,” I said.
“Don’t knock it, it works,” said Jesse. Our voices echoed peculiarly. We drove very slowly for about a minute and then a red light on the dashboard blinked and there was a manic chirping like a parakeet on speed. “Right. We’re clear.” He hit the same buttons. The invisible armor went away.
“Spartan, isn’t it?” said Pat.
“No,” I said.
We drove through two more bad spots like that and I hated the body armor program worse each time. It made me feel trapped. It made me feel as if when I woke up again I’d be sitting at the edge of a bonfire with a lot of vampires on the other side.
It was a long drive. Thirty miles or so. I remembered.
Then we reached a really bad spot. Jesse hit his buttons again but this time it really
When I came to, I was screaming. I stopped. Even the guys looked shaken. I could see the scuff marks in the road ahead of us, where Jesse had slammed us into reverse. Good thing the driver hadn’t gone under. I put my hands over my mouth. “Sorry,” I said.
“Nah,” said Pat. “If you hadn’t been screaming, I’d’ve had to do it.”
“What now?” said Jesse. They both looked at me.
“Maybe this is the really big bad spot behind the house,” I said. “I told you there was one. We’re pretty well north of the lake now, aren’t we? Seems like we’ve come far enough, but I keep losing the lake behind the trees.”
“Yeah,” said Jesse. “The road’s well back here, because this is where the big estates are. Were.”
“Okay,” I said. “So we walk.” I opened the car door and clambered stiffly out. This was harder than it would have been if I hadn’t been squashed by SOF technology four times, especially the last time when it didn’t work. I patted my stomach as if checking to make sure I was still there. I seemed to be. The cut on my breast was itching like crazy: the sort of variable itch that reinforces its performance by regular nerve-fraying jabs of pain.
My jackknife seemed to be trying to burn a hole through its cotton pocket to my leg. I wrapped my hand around it. The heat was presumably illusory, which perhaps explained why the sense of being
I didn’t bother trying to figure out where the bad spot ended. I went down to the shore of the lake and turned right. Walking on the shore, while awkward, all shingle and teetery stones and water-tossed rubbish, wasn’t so bad as walking through the trees. I was in sunlight out here, and the memories were under the trees. I hadn’t walked on the shore before.
It was the right bad spot. I came to the house much too soon. I could half-convince myself I was enjoying walking by the lake. I like walking by water in the sunshine. I’d often enjoyed walking by this lake. Before. I stopped, feeling suddenly sick, and waited for the other two to catch up with me. “I’m not sure I can do this,” I said, and my voice had started to go funny again, as it had last night, when I told them you don’t hear vampires coming.
“It’s daylight, and we’re with you,” said Jesse, not unsympathetically.
I said abruptly, “What if we get back to the car and it won’t start? We’d never get out of these woods before dark.”
“It’ll start,” said Pat. “You’re okay. Hold on. We’re going to walk up the hill toward the house real slow. You just keep breathing. I’m walking up on your left and Jesse is walking up on your right. We’ll go as slow as you want. Hey, Jesse, how’s your nephew doing with that puppy he talked your folks into buying him?”
It was well done. Puppy stories got me to the stairs. By that time Pat had me by the elbow because I was gasping like a puffer demon, except they always breathe like that, but having a hand on my elbow was too much like having been frog-marched up those stairs the last time I’d been here. “No,” I said. “Thanks, but let me go. Last time, you know, I had help.”
The porch steps creaked under my weight. Like last time. Unlike last time, the steps also creaked under the weight of my companions.
Almost dreamily I went through the still-ajar front door and left across the huge hall toward the ballroom. It was daylight, now, so I could look up, and see where the curl of grand staircase became an upstairs corridor lined by what had once been an equally grand balustrade, but some of the posts were cracked or missing. There were still glints of gold paint in the hollows of the carving. In the dark I hadn’t known the railings were anything but smooth. I wouldn’t have cared.
The ballroom was smaller than I remembered. It was still a big room, much bigger than anything but a ballroom, but in my memory it had become about the size of a small country, and in fact it was only a room. As ballrooms go it probably wasn’t even a big one. The chandelier, very shabby in daylight, still had candle stubs in it, and there was a lot of dripped wax on the floor underneath. There was my corner, and the windows on either wall that had bounded my world for two long nights and a day in between…
“Steady, Sunshine,” said Pat.
I had been worrying about the shackles in the walls. I was going to have to revert to not remembering, when Pat and Jesse asked me about the second shackle, the one with the ward signs on it.
There were no shackles. Just holes in the walls. I almost laughed. Thanks, Bo, I said silently. You’ve done me a favor.
Pat and Jesse were examining the holes, Pat still half keeping an eye on me. The holes looked like they’d been torn—as if the shackles had been ripped out of the walls by someone in a rage. By some vampire: no human could’ve done it. But I guessed the rage part was accurate. A frustrated—possibly frightened—rage, or on orders? On orders, I thought. I doubted Bo’s gang did anything that Bo hadn’t told them to do first. But however it had happened, I didn’t have to explain a shackle with ward signs on it.
They did, of course, want to know about the second set of holes.
“This is where I was,” I said, pointing to the holes nearer the corner.
“And this?” said Jesse, kneeling in front of the other holes.
“I don’t remember,” I said automatically.
There was a silence. “Can we have an agreement, maybe,” said Pat. “That you stop saying ‘I don’t remember’ and do us the kindness of telling the truth, which is that you’re not going to say what you remember.”
There was a longer silence. Pat was looking at me. I met his eyes. He had held his breath till he turned blue last night. He’d already made up his mind to trust me, even knowing that I was lying about what had happened. That made me feel pretty bad until it occurred to me that there was another angle on last night’s demonstration: not only that Pat and Jesse and Theo were willing to trust me, but that they understood sometimes you had to lie.
“Okay,” I said.
“So,” said Jesse. “This second set of holes.”
I took a deep breath. “I’m not going to tell you.”
“Okay,” said Jesse. “I think these holes are from another shackle. If it had been empty while you were here, Rae, you wouldn’t mind telling us that. So, there must have been another prisoner, and it’s this other prisoner you aren’t going to tell us about.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Interesting,” said Jesse.
Pat stared out one of the windows, frowning. “Shackles in a ballroom aren’t standard equipment, so the suckers will have put them in special. The thing is, the space cleared around this house has been done recently too. You have to assume they did that as well. Why?”
I could keep silent on this one a little more easily. It seemed pretty weird if you didn’t know. And this one they couldn’t guess. I hoped.
They went off to look at the rest of the house. I stayed in the ballroom. I sat on the windowsill nearest my shackle, the one on the long wall—the window I’d peed out of. The window I’d knelt in front of when I’d changed my knife to a key. The lake looked a lot like it had the day I’d been here: another blue, clear day. It was hotter today though, summer rather than spring. I leaned back against the side of the window and thought about cinnamon rolls and muffins and brownies and the cherry tarts I’d started experimenting with since Charlie had ordered an electric cherry pitter out of a catalog and gave it to me hopefully. Charlie’s idea of post-traumatic shock therapy: a new kitchen gadget. I thought about the pleasure of sitting in bright sunlight. With two humans in easy call. I might have opened my collar and let the sun shine there, but I had the gash taped up and I wasn’t going to risk Pat or Jesse seeing it.
I thought about the fact that Mel, easygoing, laid-back, mind-your-own-business Mel, kept nagging me to look for a doctor who
Jesse and Pat came back into the ballroom and hunkered down on the floor in front of me in my window. There was a silence. I didn’t like this. I wanted to leave. I wanted to get away from the lake, from what had happened here, from being reminded of what had happened here. I’d done what they’d asked, I’d found them the house. I didn’t want to talk about this stuff any more. I wanted to go back to the car and make sure it was going to start, and get us out of here before sundown. I wanted to sit in the sun somewhere other than beside the lake.
“So, last night,” said Jesse. “What happened?”
“I don’t—” I said. Pat looked at me and I smiled faintly. “I wasn’t going to say I don’t remember. I was going to say I don’t know. It was—it was like instinctive, except who has that kind of instinct? If it was an instinct, it was a really
“Except that it worked,” Pat said dryly. “So, you didn’t think, ah ha, there’s a sucker a couple of streets over, I think I’ll go stake the bastard? Never mind that I don’t know how I know it’s there or that I’m going to stake it with a goddam
“No,” I said. “I didn’t think at all. I didn’t think from the time I—I stood up from where I was sitting at the counter to when—when Jesse had hold of me and was yelling that it was all over.”
“So why did you stand up—and pick up a table knife—and take off at a speed that wouldn’t have shamed an Olympic sprinter?”
“Um,” I said. “Well, I heard him. Um. And I didn’t like having him…on
“Heard him. Heard him what? Nobody else heard anything.”
“Heard him, um, giggle.”
“Was this by any chance a sucker from two months ago?” Pat said gently. “From what happened here?”
“Can you tell us any more?”
He’s the one that made this mark on me, I thought. This slice in my flesh that won’t close. You could say I had a score to settle. That doesn’t explain why I managed to settle it though. “He was—he was the other one that had hold of me, coming here. I don’t know how many of them there were altogether—a dozen maybe.” I thought of the second evening, the twelve of them fanning out around me and the prisoner of the other shackle, coming closer. Slowly coming closer. How I’d been pressing myself against the wall so hard my spine hurt. “Most of them didn’t say anything. The one I think was the Breather—he seemed to be giving the orders. I thought of him as—as the lieutenant of the raiding party. He talked. And he held one of my arms, bringing me here. This—the one from last night, he held my other arm. He talked. He was the one with the…sense of humor.”
“The lieutenant of the raiding party,” said Jesse thoughtfully. “That sounds like there was a colonel back at headquarters.”
“You’d expect that, a setup as elaborate as this one,” said Pat. “This is a gang run by a master vampire.”
They both looked at me. “Do you know anything about the master?” said Jesse.
I could have said, I’m not going to tell you. I said, “No.”
There was another silence. I tried not to squirm. This should be when the SOFs revert to type and start yelling at me for withholding important information and so on.
“We have a problem, you see, Sunshine,” said Pat at last. “Okay, we know you’re not telling us everything. But…well, I probably shouldn’t be telling
“But you’ve done something pretty well unprecedented. Twice. You got away from a bunch of vampires—alone, and out in the middle of nowhere. It happens occasionally that a sucker gang gets a little carried away, teasing some kid from a human gang that has been jiving in the wrong place, hoping to see vampires. The kid gets a little cut up, but we take him to the hospital and they stitch him up and give him his shots, and he goes home good as new if a little more prone to nightmares than he used to be. It doesn’t happen that a young woman alone in a wilderness gets away from a sucker gang so determined to keep her they have her chained to the wall. So far as I know it hasn’t ever happened before.”
I wished he would stop saying “alone.” He hadn’t forgotten the second set of holes in the wall any more than I had. Thank the gods at least the telltale shackle itself was gone.
“And that’s only the first thing. The second thing is that you sauntered up to a sucker last night that in the first place you had no way of knowing was there, in the second place he stood there while you staked him without any warning or any backup, and in the third place staked him with a stainless steel table knife. People have staked suckers without backup, but they’ve never done it by running up to one in full sight and they sure as suckers hate daylight don’t do it with a goddam table knife. I pulled the research on it that proves it can’t be done, last night. Stainless steel is a no-hoper even if you’ve had the best wardcrafters and charm cutters in the business do their number on it first.
“I told you I don’t need much sleep. I spent the rest of last night going through the files for
“We ought to put all this in our report, and pass it on up the line, and then you’d get a horde of SOF experts down on you like nothing you’ve ever imagined, and, speaking of shackles, you’d probably spend the rest of your life chained to the goddess of pain’s desk. She’d
“But we don’t want to. Because we
I shook my head on a suddenly stiff neck.
“Yeah. So, anyway, if you can off suckers with common household utensils, we want you out there doing it. We’ll even lie to the goddess of pain about you to keep you to ourselves, and babe, that takes balls.”
Would they still want me out there doing what I could do if they knew what else I could do? If they knew the truth about the second shackle?
Were the vampires really going to win within the next hundred years?
When we got back to the car it started the first time. There wasn’t much conversation. We were most of the way back to town when Pat said, “Hey, Sunshine, talk to us. What are you thinking?”
“I’m trying not to think. I’m—” I stopped. I didn’t know if I could say it aloud, even to make my point. “I’m trying not to think about those stains on the walls in the alley, last night.”
There was a pause. “I’m sorry,” said Jesse. “We do have some idea what we’re asking you. Don’t let Pat’s pleasure in his own rhetoric get to you.”
“Hey,” said Pat.
“I haven’t been your age in a long time,” Jesse went on, “and I grew up wanting to join SOF. I knew it was going to be bad, what I was going to be doing, if I stayed a field agent, which I wanted to be. And it is bad, a lot of it, a lot of the time. You get used to it because you have to. And SOF doesn’t throw you in like you’ve been thrown in. Last night was rough even for a grizzled old vet like me.
“Rae, we aren’t asking you to make a decision to save the world tomorrow. But please think about what Pat said. Think about the fact that we really, really need you. And think, for what it’s worth, that we’ll back you up to the last gasp, if you want us there. If last-gasp stuff turns out to be necessary.”
“And just by the way, kiddo,” said Pat in his mildest voice, “I’m not accusing you of anything, okay? But it must be fifty miles from here back to where you live with that weird siddhartha type. I ain’t saying it’s not possible, Sunshine, but that’s a hell of a hike for anyone, let alone someone who’s spent two days chained to a wall expecting to die. I’m thinking your last gasp is pretty worth having.”
I stared out the window, thinking about the second shackle.
* * *
I got through dessert shift that night on autopilot. Nobody asked me how my afternoon had gone and I didn’t volunteer anything. The atmosphere of Repressed Anxiety was thick enough to cut chunks out of and fry, however. I wondered what you’d have on the side with a plate of Deep Fried Anxiety. Pickles? Cole slaw? Potato-strychnine mash? Things were so fraught that Kenny came into the bakery long enough to say “Hey big sis” and give me a hug. He hadn’t called me Big Sis since the time he was eight and I was eighteen and I’d caught him spying on my then-boyfriend Raoul and me and he went around the house yelling Big Sissy Kissy Kissy and I sent Raoul home and went into my brothers’ room and destroyed the backup discs to every one of their combox games that I could find. Which was a lot. You might think this was overreacting (Mom, Charlie, and Billy did), but I was lucky he’d only caught us kissing, and I wanted to be sure I’d been discouraging enough about this sort of fraternal behavior. Anyway neither Kenny nor Billy spoke to me at all for about six months, by which time I’d graduated, the Big Sis era was over, and shortly after that I’d moved into my own apartment.
Mary took her break in the bakery again, and told me the latest Mr. Cagney story, but her heart wasn’t in it.
“I’m okay,” I said. “Really.”
“I know you are,” she said, but she hugged me anyway, and got streaks of flour and cinnamon all down her front.
I was due to stay till closing but they packed me off an hour early. I didn’t argue. I fetched the Wreck and drove home slowly. I was so tired—bone tired, marrow tired, what comes after that? Life tired? That’s the kind of tired I was. It wasn’t just lack of sleep tired, though I did have a few fuzzy cobwebs at the corners of my vision.
I could hear some of Mom’s charms moving around in the glove compartment. Once a charm has been given someone’s name, if that someone doesn’t snap it and let it go live, it may pop itself, and try to come after you. When I opened the glove compartment to put a new one in now, half a dozen of the old ones tried to climb up my arm. They were probably all totally cracked from driving around in a car though.
It had been dark for two hours. The moon was rising. I thought about trying to talk Charlie into keeping the coffeehouse open twentyfour hours, drive those inferior Prime Time brownies right out of town. Then I could never leave the coffeehouse again, for the rest of my life. Pat and Jesse would be disappointed, of course, and we’d have to gear hard after the insomniac market, to keep the customer flow up, all night long, since you can’t ward a restaurant. But these were mere practical problems. The thing that really bothered me was that I’d have to tell everyone why.
That there was a vampire—a master vampire, and his gang—after me. Specifically the ones I’d got away from two months ago, and it turns out suckers are poor losers. And persistent bastards.
That maybe I was the first bad-magic wuss in history. The lab-coat brigade would probably want to do exhaustive research on my mother’s child-rearing techniques as well as on my blood chemistry. Academic prunes would write papers. If they knew.
If I lost it and they found out.
There was a light on in Yolande’s part of the house, spilling across the porch and toward the drive. I still went up my own stairs in the dark; there was a hall light, but electric light in that narrow window-less way made me feel claustrophobic. When I got upstairs, and bolted the door behind me, I still didn’t turn the light on. I had another cup of chamomile tea on the dark balcony. Moonlight was beginning to glimmer through the trees at the edge of the garden. And I turned off thinking. I sat there, listening to the almost-silence. There were tiny rustling noises, the hoot of an owl, the soft stirring of the wind through leaves. External leaves. Internal leaves.
A tree? It shouldn’t be a tree. My immaterial mentor should be one of those things in one of my brothers’ combox games that you zapped on sight, all teeth and turpitude.
I was so tired. At least tonight I had the option to go to bed early. I put my cup in the sink, put my nightgown on. Like last night, I was out as soon as I lay down.
But I woke again only a few hours later, knowing he was there. I lay curled up, facing the wall; the window, and the rest of the room, were behind me. I didn’t hear him, of course. But I knew he was there.
I turned over. There was a bright rectangle of moonlight on the floor, and a dark shape sitting motionless in the chair beyond it. He raised his head a little, in acknowledgment, I think, of my waking. He’d been watching me.
I thought about being in the same room with a vampire. I thought about the fact that he’d come in, however he’d come in, through some charmed and warded door (or window). I thought about the fact that I had, of course, invited him in, when he had brought me home, two months ago. I hadn’t thought about inviting him in, but I’d been beyond that kind of thinking then anyway, and he’d been doing me the small service of saving my life at the time. I shouldn’t now object to the idea that once I’d invited him over my threshold the welcome was, apparently, permanent.
You can kind of feel the barrier your wards are making for you, feel if there are any big drafts flowing through any big holes. There weren’t any drafts. None of my wards were reacting to his presence.
I assumed the invitation was particular to him. That I hadn’t thrown the way open for vampires in general. Not a nice thought.
Maybe I’d invited him over my threshold a second time when I stood on the edge of the darkness two nights ago and said,
There were things I’d forgotten. I’d forgotten the
The one person—creature—whatever of my acquaintance who wouldn’t be in any danger if I snapped. Even a criminally deranged almost-human berserker is no match for a vampire.
The one whatever of my acquaintance who probably would still make me look virtuous and morally upstanding if I did snap.
I didn’t find this very comforting.
“You came,” I said.
“I was here last night,” he said. “But you slept deeply, and I did not wish to disturb you.”
I’d also forgotten how uncanny his voice was. Sinister. Not human.
“That was nice of you,” I said, listening to myself and thinking
“Yes,” he said.
Silence fell. Some things hadn’t changed.
“Bo is looking for me,” I said at last.
“Yes,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said humbly, “I don’t know what to do. I…I…All I did was drive out to the lake, that night, and everything else…I’m sorry,” I said again, a little wildly, and only too aware of the irony: “I don’t want to
“Yes,” he said again.
This time I heard the pause as one of those “you’re not going to like this” pauses.
“Bo is looking for me too,” he said. “When he finds me, he will be careful to destroy me. Last time was theatrics. This time he will take no chances.”
Well, that was the most cheering news I’d heard all week. Even better than ghastly revelations about the possible truth of my genetic composition. No one really understands genetics any more than anyone really understands world economics, and what I’d been guessing might not be true. I could just
I looked into what was probably a short, bleak future, and realized that one of the reasons I’d been glad to see that dark shape in the chair was that with him here, for the first time since I’d come home after those nights at the lake I’d felt maybe…not totally clueless and overwhelmed. Yes, he’d been the one shackled to the ballroom wall with me, but they’d been
And now he was saying that he was out of his depth too. That it
Rescuing the odd vampire from destruction had already fulfilled my bad-gene quota of antisocial behavior. Please.
“Why does he hate you so much?” I said.
The silence went on for a while, but I could wait. What else was there to do? Walk outside and shout, “Here I am!”? I might be due for a short, squalid future, but as a basic principle I was going to hold on to what there was of it.
He hadn’t refused to answer yet.
“It’s a long story,” he said at last. “We are nearly the same age. There are different ways of being what we are. Mine is one way. His is another. Mine, it turns out, has certain advantages. If others perhaps thought the implications through, some things might be different. Bo does not wish anyone to think those implications through. Destroying me is a way to erase the evidence. Plus that he does not care for me to have advantages no longer available to him.”
This was interesting, and under other circumstances would have made me curious. Constantine couldn’t be very old—by vampire standards—only young vampires can go out in strong moonlight, like tonight. Middle-aged ones can go out when the moon is young or old enough. Later middle-aged ones can only go outdoors when there is no moon. Really old ones can’t be outdoors under the open sky at all, with any possibility of the dimmest reflected sunlight touching them. That was one of the reasons older ones began running gangs. If they survived to be old they’d also developed other powers. “He has another urgent reason, now. If he does not destroy me, he will lose control of his gang. Bo likes ruling. It is also necessary to him that he rule—to do with those advantages I possess and he does not. And while as the leader of his gang he is much more powerful than I am, alone, I am the stronger.”
“And you don’t run a gang,” I said.
I thought of saying, So, what now, do we hold hands and jump? How long a fall can a vampire walk away from? How high do we have to climb first? A mere almost-human pretty reliably goes splat after about four stories, I think. I was beginning to feel sorry that he’d come. No. I’d rather jump out a window and get it over with fast than fall into Bo’s clutches again. I was merely resisting the idea that jumping was my best choice.
“I have thought of it a good deal, these last weeks,” he was saying, “for I knew what happened at the lake would not be the end. Not with Bo. I also know that singly you and I have no chance.”
I do wish you’d stop saying that, I thought.
“But together,” he continued, “we may have a chance. It is not a good chance, but it is a chance. I do not like it. You cannot like it. I do not understand what it is that you do, and have done. I am not sure we will be able to work together, even if we attempt it. Even if we are each other’s only chance.” He was sitting in the darkness beyond the moonlight, and I could not see his face. I could—a little—see movement as he spoke; vampires also speak by moving their mouths. But this conversation was a little too like talking to a figment of your own imagination. Your darkest, spookiest, most bottom-of-your-unconscious-where-the-monsters-lurk imagination. Even the shadow in the chair was half-imaginary.
No it wasn’t. There’s really no mistaking the presence of a vampire in the room.
“Will you help me?” he said. It is very peculiar being asked a life-or-death question in a tone of voice that has no
“Oh,” I said intelligently. “Ah—er. Well. Yes. Certainly. Since you put it so persuasively.”
There was a pause, and then there was a brief noise that, mercifully also briefly, unhinged my spine. He had laughed.
“Forgive my persuasiveness,” he said. “I would spare you if I could. I do not wish this any more than you do.”
“No,” I said thoughtfully. “I don’t suppose you do.” If I’d been honest I suppose what I’d really wanted him to do was say, “Oh don’t worry about it. This is vampire business and I’ll take care of it.” Dream on. “So,” I said. I didn’t want to know, but I guessed I should make an effort. “What do we do now?”
“We start,” he said, and paused. I recognized this as the middle of an unfinished sentence, and not one of his cryptic pronouncements, and waited. Then there was a funny breathing noise that I translated provisionally as a sigh. Vampires don’t breathe right, why should they sigh right? But maybe it means vampires can feel frustration. Noted. “We start by my trying to discover what assistance I can give you.”
Somehow this didn’t sound like the usual movie-adventure sort of “I’ll keep you covered while you reload” assistance. “What do you mean?”
“We must face Bo at night. Your abilities would not get us past the guards that protect his days.”
I didn’t even consider asking what those guards might be.
“Humans are at great disadvantage at night. I think I may be able to grant you certain dispensations.”
Dispensations. I liked that. Vampire as fairy godmother. Or godfather. Pity he couldn’t dispense me from getting killed. “You mean like being able to see in the dark or something.”
“Yes. I mean exactly that.”
“Oh.” If I could see in the dark I would never again have to trip over the threshold of the bathroom door on the way to have a pee at midnight. If I lived long enough to need to.
“I will have to touch you,” he said.
Okay, I told myself. He’s not going to forget himself and eat me because he comes a few feet closer. I thought of the second night in the ballroom:
And somehow pointing out that I now was in bed and wearing nothing but a nightgown and would like to get up and put some clothes on first, please, was worse than not mentioning my inappropriate-for-receiving-visitors state of undress. So I didn’t mention it.
“Okay,” I said.
That fluid, inhuman motion again, as he stood up and stepped toward me. I’d forgotten that too—forgotten how strange it is. How ominous. Too fluid for anything human. For anything alive.
He sat down near me on the bed. The bed dipped, as if from ordinary human weight. I pulled my feet up and turned toward him, but I did it carelessly, more conscious of him than of anything else— which is to say, more carelessly than I had learned to move over the last two months, carelessly so that the gash on my breast didn’t just seep a little, but cracked open along its full length, as if it were being cut into me for the first time. I couldn’t help it: it hurt: I gave a little gasp.
“Stop,” he said in what passed for his normal voice. “I offer you no harm. Tell me about the blood on your breast.”
He didn’t linger on the word “blood.” I muttered, “It won’t heal. It’s been like this for two months.”
He wasn’t as good at waiting as I was. “Go on,” he said immediately.
I’d stopped shrugging in the last two months too: you can’t shrug without pulling at the skin below your collarbones. “I don’t know. It doesn’t heal. It seems to close over and then splits again. The doctor put stitches in it a couple of times, gave me stuff to put on it. Nothing works. It just splits open again. It’s a nuisance but I have been kind of learning to live with it. Like I had a choice. This is—er—worse than usual. Sorry. It’s only a shallow gash. You may—er—remember.”
“I remember,” he said. “Show me.”
I managed not to say,
“I offer you no harm,” he said again, gently. “Sunshine. Open your eyes.”
I opened them.
“The wound is poisoned,” he said. “It weakens you. It is very dangerous.”
“It was for you,” I said, dreamily. I felt like one of those oracle priestesses out of some old myth: seized by some spirit not her own, a spirit that then speaks from her mouth. “They wanted to poison you.”
“Yes,” he said.
I thought, I have been so tired, these last two months. I have got used to that too. I have told myself it is just part of—having had what happened, happen. You do not get over something like that quickly. I had told myself that was all it was. I had almost believed it. I
Poisoned. Weakening me. Killing me is what he meant. Note that vampires can also be tactful.
All those hours in the sunlight, baking the thing, the hostile presence on my body. I’d known it was hostile, although I hadn’t admitted it. I hadn’t taken the next step of thinking “poisoned.” Sunlight was my element; and so I turned to sunlight. And sunlight was the only thing that did any good, and it didn’t do enough. Because the wound was poisoned. That was out of some story where there would be an oracle priestess somewhere: the poisoned wound that did not heal. I’d already been wondering how I was going to get through the winter, when I couldn’t lie outdoors and bake some hours every week. Been learning not to think about wondering how I was going to get through the winter.
He was silent, waiting for me to finish thinking. I looked at him: glint of green eyes in the moonlight. Don’t look in their eyes, I thought. Tiredly.
This would have been a nasty shock to him too, of course. Finding out his ally is a goner.
I was too tired to look at him. I was too tired for almost anything. Sometimes it is better not to know. Sometimes when you do know you just fold up.
“Sunshine. I know a little about poisons. This is not something your human doctors can distill an antidote for.”
This was even better than his repeating that neither of us had any chance against Bo. By dying I was going to ruin his chances too. It’s funny: I was actually sorry about this. Maybe I was a little delirious. Maybe too much had been happening lately. Maybe I was just very, very short of sleep.
“There is something that can be done. Can be tried.” Pause. “It is not easy.”
Oh, big surprise. Something wasn’t going to be easy. I tried to rouse myself, to react. I failed.
“But can you trust me?”
More happy news. Not just
Can you trust me, he said. Not
What have I got to lose?
What if his something is something I can’t bear? There are all sorts of things I can’t bear. I’m not brave to begin with, I’m very, very tired, I’m spongy with post-traumatic what have you, and I very nearly can’t bear what I did last night with a table knife. And I may be a homicidal maniac.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes. I think so.”
He didn’t exhale a long breath, as a human might have done, but he went motionless instead. It was a different kind of motionlessness than not moving. Having said yes I felt better. Less tired. Evidently still delirious, however, because I bent toward him, touched the back of his hand. “Okay?” I said.
A little silence.
“Okay,” he said. I had the sudden irreverent notion that he’d never said “okay” before. Spend time with humans and have all kinds of unusual experiences. Laughter. Slang.
“It will not be tomorrow night,” he said. “Perhaps the night after.”
“Okay,” I said. “See you.”
“Sleep well,” he said.
“Oh, sure, absolutely,” I said, trying for irony, but he was already gone.
I left the window full open. I wanted as much of the fresh night air in the room with me as possible. There was a tiny chiming from one of the window charms. It was a curiously serene and hopeful noise.
I must have looked pretty rough that morning too. It occurred to me that everybody at the coffeehouse was treating me like an invalid while trying to pretend they weren’t treating me like an invalid. I wanted to tell them that they were right, I was an invalid, that mark on my breast that only Mel knew was still there was poisoned, and I was dying. I didn’t say any of this. I said I was still short of sleep.
Paulie turned up an hour before time that morning saying he didn’t have anything better to do, but I was pretty sure Mom had called him and asked if he could come in early. I think Mom had figured out that the charms she was giving me were going somewhere like into the Wreck’s glove compartment, so she had begun stashing them around the bakery where maybe I wouldn’t find them but they could still do me some good. Since my unwelcome speculations about dark family secrets the other night in Jesse’s office I had begun to wonder what all Mom’s charms were for, exactly. She’s always been something of a charm freak; I’d put it down to eight years in my dad’s world. I found two new ones that morning: a little curled-up animal of some sort with its paws over its eyes and a red bead where its navel should have been, and a shiny white disc that rainbows ran across if you held it up against the light. I left them where I found them. Maybe I should let them try to defend against whatever they could. I had some fellow-feeling for the small curled-up creature with its hands over its face, even if the red alien parasite was lower down on it than it was on me. Charms are often noisy, which is another reason I don’t like them much, but you aren’t going to hear extraneous buzzing and burbling above the general din at Charlie’s. Especially on shifts when I had to spend some time in the company of a genially humming apprentice.
Mel was working that afternoon but Aimil had the day off from the library. She wandered back into the bakery with a cup of coffee toward the end of my stint, said she’d just found out about an old-books-and-junk sale in Redtree, which was one of the little towns between us and the next big city to the south, she was going to go, and did I want to come along? I should probably have gone home and taken a nap, but I didn’t want to. So I said yes. A nice little outing for the doomed. Furthermore Aimil talked about library politics the whole way there and didn’t once mention nocturnal neighborhood excitements. So by the time we arrived at the village square in Redtree I was in the mood.
Ordinarily I love this kind of thing without any effort. Someone who does coffeehouse baking for a living doesn’t have huge amounts of disposable income, but the point about books-and-junk sales is that you never know what you may find for hilariously cheap. There are fewer people since the Wars than there had been before, and less money (don’t ask me how this works: you’d think if there were fewer people there would be more money to go around), so there is a lot less motive for dealers to discover specialist markets for old, beat-up, weird, or obscure-looking and possibly Other-related stuff. Plus a lot of people don’t want to think about old, beat-up, weird, obscure-looking, and possibly Other-related stuff because it reminds them of the Wars, or what life had been like before the Wars, i.e., better. The result is that a lot of very interesting nonjunk gets heaved into the nearest box for the next garage sale.
Furthermore, almost nobody wants to read the gormless old fiction about the Others which is my fave. I picked up a copy of
I was feeling pretty good. In spite of last night. Or in an even funnier way, because of it. It was like I had two days out of time. Everything was on hold until…either the vampire-something worked, or it didn’t. Jesse and Theo had been at a table under the awning when Aimil and I left Charlie’s, and I’d nodded and kept going. I hoped nothing had come up they wanted to talk to me about. Nothing was allowed to come up for the next two days. I was on vacation in my own mind, cinnamon rolls at four a.m. or not.
It must have been Paulie’s influence, but I was positively humming a tune—an old folk song about keeping a vampire talking till sunrise: not one of your brighter vampires—while I burrowed through a big sagging cardboard box of junk. Chipped china teacups. Dented tin trays. Small splintery wooden boxes with lids that no longer closed. A bottle opener shaped like a dragon with an extremely undershot lower jaw and pink glass eyes.
At the bottom, when I touched it, it fizzled right through me, like I’d put my arm in a cappuccino machine. I knew it had to be some kind of ward—nonwarding charms are kind of
I didn’t recognize the style or the design. It was an oval, not quite the length of the palm of my hand, with a slightly raised edge, the whole of it thick and heavy, like an old coin, before the mints got mean and started stamping out pennies that sometimes bent if you dropped them edgewise on a hard floor. It was silver, I thought, or plate; it was so tarnished I couldn’t make out clearly what was on it, except that something was. Three somethings: one each on top, middle, and bottom, rather like an old Egyptian glyph. The only thing I could say for sure was that they weren’t any of the standard Other-preventive sigils I knew of, nor the all-purpose circle-star-and-cross one.
The most interesting thing was that it was live. Very live. Wards aren’t necessarily as master-specific as most charms, and if they aren’t actively in use they can molder quietly for a long time and still be capable of being wakened and doing some warding; but even one that’s been tuned to you specifically shouldn’t leap avidly out at you and wag its tail like a dog wanting to go for a walk.
I could have put it back. I could have taken it to someone in charge and said “You’ve made a mistake. This one still works.” But I didn’t. It seemed to like lying there in my hand. Don’t be ridiculous, I thought. It’s not responding to me personally.
As a soldier in the dented-tin-tray army they shouldn’t be expecting real money for it, but that could only be because they hadn’t noticed it was live. It was still worth a try. I took the two books and the tarnished ward to the suspicious-looking character at the card table with the rusty money box, who snatched them out of my hands as if he knew I was trying something on. But he was so preoccupied with whether or not he should sell me
What was more interesting was that he’d touched the glyph and hadn’t said “Wow! That was like putting my hand in a cappuccino machine!”
Aimil had been watching my performance with a straight face. “Well done,” she said, when we got back to the car. “
She didn’t say anything about a feeling like having her funny bone hit with a hammer. “Hmm. It’s quite—appealing, isn’t it? Even all blackened like this.”
“Appealing”? Maybe it had decided that making people’s hair stand on end wasn’t such a good way of making friends and influencing people. “Can you figure out any of what’s on it?”
She frowned, turning it this way and that in the light. “No clue. Maybe after you get it polished.”
Dessert shift that night was notable only for the number of people who wanted cherry tarts. They were catching on. Rats. I didn’t really like little electrical gadgets—most of the other so-called home bakeries in town used kneading
Well, the cherry season doesn’t last long around here; I’d be back to apple pie before Billy’d had time to miss doing the peeling. (Unless I found some other source of cheap child labor I might have to get an electric
When I got home I fished last night’s sheets and nightgown out of the tub where they’d been soaking the bloodstains out (just like the Death of Marat without Marat), hauled them downstairs, and stuffed them in the washing machine. If Yolande had noticed the amount of laundry I’d been doing in the last two months she never said anything.
It was weirdly heavy for plate. And doesn’t plate tend to look platy when you’ve shined it up? Maybe I only knew cheap plate. Even so.
The symbol at the top was round, with snaky and spiky lines woven through it. The symbol at the bottom was narrow at the base and fat at the top. The one in the middle…might conceivably have four legs, which would presumably make it some kind of animal. Right. Two squiggles and an unknown animal.
The top squiggle
And if it was solid silver—even if the round squiggle wasn’t the sun and the fat-on-the-top squiggle wasn’t a tree—it was still a shoo-in as an anti-Other ward. None of the Others liked silver.
Whatever it was, looking at it made my spirits lift. For someone under two death threats—plus, I suppose, the incompatible threats of Pat and Jesse’s idea of what my future should include, supposing I had a future, because, if I did, I would spend it incarcerated in a small padded room—this was good enough. I put it in the drawer in the little table next to my bed. I slept that night, you should forgive the term, the sleep of the dead.
So when the alarm went off I was almost ready to get up. The prospect of the night to come started to creep up on me almost immediately, but there were distractions: Mr. Cagney complained that his roll didn’t have enough cinnamon filling at seven a.m., Paulie called at seven-fifteen with a head cold, and Kenny dropped a tray of dirty plates at seven-thirty. He’d been doing better since Mel’d had his word, but he’d decided he’d rather do the early hours than the late ones, and this was only going to work if he got home sooner to do his homework sooner to get to bed sooner. Not my problem. Except in terms of Liz spending time helping to clean the floor instead of unloading cookie trays and muffin tins for me.
Pat came in about midmorning and penetrated my floury lair. “Thought you’d like to know—the girl from the other night. She’s come round. She doesn’t remember a thing from the time the sucker spoke to her to waking up in the hospital the next morning. She doesn’t remember the guy
But it was one of those days when the coffeehouse schedule breaks down, and Charlie and Mel and Mom and I held the pieces together with our teeth. We always have at least one of these days during a seven-day (or thirteen-day, depending on how you’re counting) week. Not to mention the prospect of getting up at three-forty-five on Thursday. During a thirteen-day week. My sense of occult oppression tightened anyway, but it had its work cut out for it. I had forty-five minutes off from ten-forty-five to eleven-thirty, between the usual morning baking and the beginning of the lunch rush, and almost an hour off at three-thirty, while a skeleton staff got us through the late-afternoon muffin and scone crowd, before the more gradual dinner swell began—plus two or three tea with elective aspirin breaks. I went home at nine. Anyone who wanted dessert after that could have ginger pound cake or Indian pudding or Chocoholia. It wasn’t a night for individual fruit tarts.
Fortunately I was tired enough to sleep. Before I’d found out I was going to be working all day I had thought I wouldn’t sleep at all; by the time I got home I knew I’d sleep, but assumed I’d get a couple of hours and be awake by midnight, waiting for something to happen.
I’d spent some time considering what I should, you know, wear. This vampire in the bedroom thing was a trifle more intensively perturbing than this vampire around at all thing. Even if the discon-certingness was only happening in my mind. There was a corollary to the story about male suckers being able to keep it up indefinitely: that you had to, er, invite them over that threshold first too. But if they could seduce you into
I reminded myself that the sound of his laughter made me want to throw up, and that in sunlight he looked…well, dead. Let’s get real here. I couldn’t possibly be
I involuntarily remembered that sense of
Never mind. Let’s leave it that vampires infesting your private spaces are daunting, and one of the ways to stiffen—er—boost morale is to wear carefully-selected-for-the-occasion morale-boosting clothing.
I went to bed wearing my oldest, most faded flannel shirt, the bra that had looked all right in the catalog but was obviously an escapee from a downmarket nursing home when it arrived, white cotton panties that had had pansies on them about seven hundred washings ago and were now a kind of mottled gray, and the jeans I usually wore for housecleaning or raking Yolande’s garden because they were too shabby for work even if I never came out of the bakery. Food inspector arrest-on-sight jeans. Oh, and fuzzy green plaid socks. It was a cool night for summer. Relatively. I lay down on top of the bedspread.
And slept through till the alarm at three-forty-five. He hadn’t come.
That was not one of my better days at work. I snarled at everyone who spoke to me, and snarled worse when no one snarled back. Mel, who would have, wasn’t there. Mom, fortunately, didn’t have time to get into a furious argument with me, so we shot a few salvos over each other’s bows, and retired to our separate harbors.
We did try to stay out of each other’s way but it wasn’t like Mom to avoid a good blazing row with her daughter when one was
“I’m not a goddam invalid!” I howled at Charlie. “I don’t need to be treated with gloves and—and bedpans! Will you please tell me I’m being a miserable bitch and you’d like to upend a garbage bin over my head!”
There was a pause. ‘Well, the idea had crossed my mind,“ said Charlie.
I stood there, buttery fists clenched, breathing hard. “Thank you,” I said.
“Anything you want to talk about?” Charlie said in his best offhand manner.
I thought about it. Charlie ambled over and closed the bakery door. Doors don’t get closed much at the coffeehouse, so when one is, you’d better not open it for anything less than a coachload of tourists who didn’t book ahead, have forty-five minutes for lunch before they meet their guide at the Other Museum, which is a fifteen-minute coach ride away (it’s only seven minutes on foot, but try to convince a coachload of tourists of that), they all want burgers and fries and won’t look at the menu, we’re not heavily into burgers so our grill is kind of small, and we don’t do fries at all, except on special, when they’re not what burger eaters would call fries anyway.
This really happened once, and by the time Mom got through with that tour company the president was on his knees, offering her conciliatory free luxury cruises for two in the Caribbean, or at least all future meal bookings of his tour groups when they came to New Arcadia, made
This is not what the city council had in mind when they were drooling over the prospect of seeing New Arcadia on the new post-Wars map, but the Other Museum is why coachloads of the kind of tourists who sign up with a company called Earth Trek now come to New Arcadia. The public exhibits are still lowest common denominator, but there are more of them than there used to be, and the Ghoul Attack simulation is supposed to be especially good: yuck-o, I say. We do also have a few more prune-faced academics on teeny stipends renting rooms in Old Town, but it’s nowhere as bad as I’d feared. The proles win again. Ha.
Charlie ambled back from closing the door and sat on the stool in the corner. It wasn’t so hot a day that we were going to die of being in the bakery with the ovens on and the door closed tor at least ten minutes.
“Because of the other night,” I said, “the SOF guys want me to be a kind of—unofficial SOF guy.”
Charlie said carefully, “I didn’t think a table knife was…usual.”
I sighed. “What did you think, when you followed me out there that night? Just that I’d lost my mind?”
Charlie considered this before he answered. “I thought something had snapped, yes. I didn’t think it was your mind…But I didn’t have much time to think. By the time I got there it was all over. And I guess I realized then that I’d, we’d, had the wrong end of the…table knife all along.”
“Since I disappeared for a couple of days.”
“Yeah. It had to be the Others, one way or another. Sorry. It just…the way you were… you didn’t want to talk to any cops, but you
I hadn’t thought it was that noticeable.
“You were okay with the rest of us at Charlie’s, us humans, not just us, strangers too. Nervy—like something really bad had happened, which we already knew—but okay. Anyone, you know, pretty human.”
Except TV reporters. If they were human.
“It wasn’t Weres, because you were here on full-moon nights like usual, after. And they don’t usually go around biting people except
And however fidgety and whimsical I’d felt, I wouldn’t have driven out to the lake alone on a full-moon night. There
“And—sorry—since you didn’t have any visible pieces missing it couldn’t be zombies or ghouls.”
I was the Other expert at Charlie’s. Most of the staff didn’t want to know, like most of the human population didn’t want to know, and our SOFs were just customers who wore too much khaki. Mel said stories about the Others made his tattoos restless.
“Sadie and I thought it must be some kind of demon. Sadie well, Sadie talked to a couple of those specialist shrinks you wouldn’t talk to, and they said this stuff can be as traumatic as it gets, and to leave you alone about it if you didn’t want to talk.”
I wished that was the only reason for the charms and the uncharacteristic reserve. Maybe it was. Or maybe I could
Charlie shook his head. “I’d nearly forgotten about your dad myself, till the other night. It had never seriously occurred to me that what happened to you had anything to do with vampires. Uh—people don’t get away from vampires. Any more than people get rid of vampires with table knives.”
Even Charlie knew that much. “Yeah. That’s what the SOFs say too.”
Charlie was silent a minute. I was thinking, if Charlie had forgotten about my dad then he must not be a part of the Bad Cross Watch. My mother had never told him about Great-Great-Aunt Margaret, who had a limp because her left foot was short, horny, and cloven. Or whoever Great-Aunt Margaret had been and whatever demon mark they’d had. I mean Mom was keeping her fears to herself. I told you she was brave: she’d let her parents cut her off to marry my dad, she’d taken on the Blaises singlehanded when she left him. Any sensible woman who was not Attila the Hun in a previous existence would have been more than justified in leaving me behind for my dad’s family to cope with. And they would have: if I had gone bad they might have denied I was theirs, but they’d have
Some demons are
Charlie said: “What do you want to do?”
“Go on making cinnamon rolls,” I said instantly.
Charlie smiled faintly. “That’s what I want to hear, of course—”
“Yes,” said Charlie. “Yes. You make the best cinnamon rolls, probably in the history of the world. Never mind all the rest of it. We pay taxes for SOF to take care of the Others. We need
I looked at him. He’d have every right to fire my ass—humans don’t like weird magic handlers on the cooking staff of their restaurants. But I was a member of this family, this clan, a member of the bizarre community that was Charlie’s. A key member even. I
And to stay alive.
Charlie’s Coffeehouse: Old Town’s peculiar little beacon in the encroaching darkness.
An interesting perspective on current events.
“That’s all right then,” I said.
“Good.” Charlie opened the door again and ambled out.
I went to bed wearing jeans and a flannel shirt again that night. I woke at midnight and stumbled into the bathroom for a pee, tripping over the sill on the way. I went back to bed and fell asleep again immediately. The alarm went off at three-forty-five.
He hadn’t come.
The sense of outrage of the day before—the absurd sense of having been stood up like a teenager on her way to the prom—was gone, as if it were a candle flame that had been blown out. I was worried.
The fact that the wound on my breast, for the past four days, since he’d told me it was poisoned, was burning like the ‘fo had set a match to my skin, was almost by the way. It was as if now that I had the diagnosis I didn’t care what the diagnosis was: knowing was enough. For a few days. It was seeping so badly I not only had to keep it bandaged, I had to change the gauze pad at least once a day. I didn’t care. I did it and didn’t think about it. The heavy, permanent sense of tiredness made this easier than it might have been if I’d been sharp and alert. The only problem was finding places to put the adhesive tape that weren’t already sore from having adhesive tape there too often already. I could have bought the surgical tape that doesn’t take your skin off with it, but that would have been admitting there was a problem. I wasn’t admitting anything. So the area around the slash looked peeled.
The thing that really wasn’t all right was that he’d said he’d be back, and he wasn’t.
Things are getting
But if he’d said he’d be back, he’d be back. I was sure. And he wasn’t.
I had the rest of the day off after I finished the morning baking. Paulie, still hoarse but no longer sneezing, came in and started on Lemon Lechery and marbled brown sugar cake, and I went home to comb every globenet account I could find on vampire activity. Because of my peculiar hobby I paid for a line into the cosworld better than most home users bothered with, so I didn’t have to go to the library every time I wanted the hottest new reportage on the Others. If there was anything to find I should be able to find it. When some big vampire feud came to a head there was usually more than enough mayhem to alert even the dimmest of the news media. And maybe this was only a tiny, local feud, but our media aren’t among the dimmest. I couldn’t believe that, this time, knowing what he knew, he wouldn’t sell himself dearly, if Bo had caught him again.
If, that is, he hadn’t come back because he’d been prevented. If I hadn’t been stood up like a teenager going to the prom with a known loser. One might almost say a deadbeat. Ha ha.
I couldn’t find anything. After I looked through all the local stuff I started on the national, and then the international. The nearest report of anything like what I thought I might be looking for was happening in Macedonia. I didn’t think it would happen in Macedonia.
I wanted to start looking up glyphs, to see if I could translate mine, but I couldn’t make myself be interested enough. I cleaned the apartment instead. I rearranged the piles of books to be read immediately.
By evening I was exhausted and slightly queasy.
I had an egg-and-Romaine sandwich on two slabs of my pumpernickel bread at six, and went to bed at seven. I gave up. I wore the nightgown I’d been wearing four nights ago, and got between the sheets. I had a little trouble going to sleep, but it was as if my thoughts were spinning so fast—or maybe it was effect of the poison winning at last—eventually I got dizzy and fell over into unconsciousness.
When I woke up three hours later he was there. Darkness, sitting in my bedroom chair. Darkness, I noticed, barefoot. I couldn’t remember if he’d been barefoot the other night or not.
I sat up. I was too sleepy and too relieved not tell the truth. “I’ve been worrying about you.”
I’d figured out last time that vampires don’t move when they’re startled, they go stiller. He did that different-kind-of-stillness thing.
“You know,” I said. “Concern. Unease. Anxiety. You said you’d come back two nights ago. You didn’t. There’s this little threat of annihilation going on too, you know? I thought maybe you’d got into trouble.”
“The preparations took longer than I anticipated,” he said. “That is all. Nothing to…worry you.”
“Nothing to worry me,” I said, warming to my theme. “Sure. The annihilation threat includes me and I’m wearing a poisoned wound that is slowly killing me. I wouldn’t dream of worrying about anything.”
“Good,” he said. “Worry is useless.”
He stood up. I tried not to clutch the bedclothes into a knot. He pulled his shirt off and dropped it on the floor.
He sat on the edge of my bed again. He had one leg folded under him and the other foot still on the floor, sitting to face me cringing into the headboard. I thought, okay, okay, he still has one foot on the floor. And he only took his
“Do you still have the knife you transmuted?” he said. “That would be the best.”
“Show me,” he said. A human might have said, what’s your problem? So where is it? He just said, show me.
I opened the bedside table drawer. When my jeans went in the wash, the contents of my pockets went in there. The knife was there. It was lying next to the glyph as if they were getting to know each other.
The light was visible at once in the darkness. I picked the knife up and cradled it in my hand: a tiny, clement sun that happened to look like a pocketknife. In ordinary daylight or good strong electric light it still looked like a pocketknife. I held it out toward him.
“This has been—since that night?”
“Yes. It happened—do you remember, right at the end, I transmuted it again, into the key to my door?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s when it happened. It had been something-in-the-dark-colored when I pulled it out. I don’t…it was something to do with making the change at night, I think. I think I’m not supposed to be able to do stuff after dark. But I did do it. I felt something…crack. Snap. In me. And since then it’s been like this. I shifted it back to a knife the next day—didn’t notice till evening what had happened. I thought it would fade after a while, but it hasn’t.”
I hadn’t told anyone, shown anyone. It was very odd, finally having someone to tell. I hadn’t wanted to tell anyone at the coffeehouse, any of the SOFs. When I spent the night with Mel, I was careful to keep my knife in its pocket. I was still trying to be Rae Seddon, coffeehouse baker, in that life. Even after I’d exposed my little secret that it had been vampires at the lake—that I was a magic handler and a transmuter—I still hadn’t wanted to tell anyone about my knife. The only person, you should forgive the term, left to tell was him. The vampire. The vampire I had now agreed to ally myself with in the hopes of winning against a common enemy.
It was a relief, telling someone.
I wondered what else an unknown
He looked at it, but made no attempt to touch it. “That helps to explain. One of the reasons it has taken this extra time for me to come to you is that it has puzzled me you are not weaker, having borne what you bear two months already. I have been seeking an explanation. It could be crucial to our effort tonight.” He paused. When he went on, his voice had dropped half an octave or so, and it wasn’t easy to hear to begin with because of the weird rough half-echo and the tonelessness. “What you show me is a judgment on my arrogance; it did not occur to me to ask you for information. I have much to learn about working with anyone, for all that I believed I had thought through what I said to you last time. I ask pardon.”
I gaped at him. “Oh
At least he didn’t laugh.
“Very well. We shall learn together.”
“Speaking of learning,” I said. “I take it you have learned what to do about this,” and I gestured toward my breast. “Since you’re here.”
“I have learned what will work, if anything will.”
“And what if it doesn’t work?”
“Then both of us end our existence tonight,” he said in that impassive we’re-chained-to-the-wall-and-the-bad-guys-are-coming voice I remembered too well.
Oh gee. Don’t pull your punches like that. I can take the truth, really I can. I said something like, “Unnngh.”
“I believe it will work.”
“I’m delighted to hear it.”
“Your wound is worse.”
“Oh well. No biggie.” I was a trifle preoccupied with his little revelation about our joint even-more-immediate-than-Bo impending doom. He’d
“Will you remove the bandage?”
Or you will? I thought nervously. I unbuttoned the top two buttons of my nightgown again and peeled the gauze away.
“Er—I don’t suppose you want to tell me what you’re going to do?”
Badly phrased question.
“No,” he said.
“If you would take your knife, and open the blade.”
My heart, having tried to accustom itself to
“I would prefer not to touch your knife, it will burn me. And it is better if you cut me yourself.”
“Yes. As you are cut. Here.” And he touched the place below his collarbones. A lot less bony on him, it occurred to me. I hadn’t registered it before, but he was a lot more filled-out-looking generally than he had been when we first made acquaintance.
When he was half-starved and all. I hadn’t seen him with his shirt off four nights ago. Well.
I could have sat there quite a while thinking ridiculous thoughts—anything was better than thinking about the prospective hacking and hewing: a two-and-a-half-inch blade is plenty big enough to do more damage than I wanted to be around for—but he said patiently, “Open the blade.”
The knife seemed much heavier in my hand than usual, and the blade more reluctant to unfold. I snapped it open and the blade flared silver fire.
“You said it would
“And so it will. I would appreciate it if you made the cut quickly.”
“I can’t,” I said, panicky. “I can’t—cut you—at
“Very well,” he said. “Please set the tip of it, here,” and he touched a spot below his right collarbone.
I sat there, frozen and staring. I even raised my eyes and looked into his: green as grass, as my grandmother’s ring, as my plaid socks from last night. He looked steadily back. I could feel my own blood— my poisoned blood—seeping slowly down my breast, staining my nightgown, dripping on the sheet.
He reached out, and gently closed his own hand around mine holding the knife. He drew hand and knife toward him, set the point where he had indicated. I
The slash he had made was deeper, and the blood raged out.
I was—whimpering, or moaning: “Oh no, oh
“Good,” he said. He took my bloody hands and turned them back toward me, wiped them down the front of my poor once-white nightgown, firmly, against the contours of my body; pulled my hands toward him again, smeared them across his chest, and back to press them against me: repeated this till my nightgown
I was weeping.
“Hush,” he said. “Hush.”
“I don’t understand,” I said, weeping. “I don’t understand. This cannot be—healing.”
“It can,” he said. “It is. All is well. Lie back. Lie down,” he said. “You will sleep soon now.”
I lay down, bumping my head against the headboard. My tears ran down my temples and into my hair. The smell of blood was thick and heavy and nauseating. I saw him leaning, looming over me, felt him lie down upon me, gently, so gently, till our bleeding skins met with one thin sodden layer of cotton partially between: till the new wound in him pressed down against the old wound in me. His hair brushed my face as he bowed his head; his breath stirred my hair.
“Constantine,” I cried, “are you
“No,” he said. “I would not. And this is not that.”
“Do not talk. Not now. Later. We can talk later.”
“But—but—I am so frightened,” I pleaded.
In the moonlight I could see his silhouette clearly. He raised his head away from me, arching his neck backward so our bodies remained touching. I saw him rip, quickly, neatly, his upper lip with his lower teeth, his lower lip and tongue with his upper. He bent his head to me again, and when he stopped my mouth with his, his blood ran across my tongue and down my throat.
It was still dark when I woke. I had turned on my side—I always sleep curled up on one side or the other—but this time I was facing the room. My first thought was that I had had a terrible dream.
I was alone in the bed. I looked down, along my body. Gingerly I touched my white nightgown. It had been a dream. I had imagined it. I had imagined all of it. Although my nightgown felt curiously—
I had imagined it.
I knew he was sitting in the chair. After four nights he had returned after all. I couldn’t bear to look at him—not yet—not while the dream was so heavy on me—so shamefully heavy. What a horrible thing to dream. Even about a vampire. At least he wouldn’t know that I’d dreamed—at least he wouldn’t know. I didn’t have to tell him. I sat up, and as I sat up, I felt a small heavy something fall to a different position on top of the bedclothes.
My small shining knife. The blade still open.
I looked at him. Although the chair was in shadow I saw him with strange clarity: the mushroomy-gray skin, the impassive face, the green eyes, black hair. I
It occurred to me that he wasn’t wearing his shirt.
I had climbed out of bed and taken the two steps to the chair and laid my hands on his unmarked chest before I had a chance to think—before I had a chance to tell myself not to—laid my hands as I had laid them—an hour ago? A week? A century?—with the blood welling out, sluicing out, from the cut I had made with my knife. I touched his mouth, his untorn lips.
“Poor Sunshine,” he said, under my fingers. “I told you it would not be easy. I did not think how difficult the manner of it would be for you.”
“It—it happened, then?” I said. My knees suddenly wouldn’t hold me, and I sank down beside his chair. I leaned my forehead against the arm of it. “What I remember…I thought it must be a bad dream. A…shameful dream.”
“Shameful?” he said. He bent over me, took my shoulders so I had to sit up, away from the support of the chair. The top two buttons of my nightgown were still undone, and the edges fell open as I moved. He put one hand on my breast just below the collarbones, so that it covered the width of my old wound. He left his hand there for two of my breaths, took it away again, held it, palm up, as if he might be catching my tears; but I was dry-eyed.
“You are healed,” he said. “There is no shame in healing.”
I looked down, touched the place he had touched. The skin was clear and smooth: I could see it plainly. I could see plainly too, a thin pale scar, where the wound had been, but this was a real scar. The wound was gone, and would not reopen.
“The blood,” I said. “All the blood.”
“It was clean blood,” he said. “It was for you.”
I was remembering the real dream I had had after I slept—the blood dream. Daylight, sunshine, grass, trees, flowers, the warmth of life, gladness to be alive…
Gladness to be alive. Gladness was the wrong word. It was much simpler than that, more direct. There was no translation of sensation into a
On four legs. This life I dreamed—this life I borrowed—this life I knew so strangely from the inside—this life, I abruptly knew, that had been taken for me—it was no human life. I was remembering life as some creature—she, I knew her as she; I knew her as a grass-eater, a scenter of the breeze, and a listener with wide ears; I felt her long lithe muscles, rough brown fur, smelled the sweet gamy smell of her; I knew her as a runner and a leaper and a hider in dappled shadow. A deer.
I searched for the horror of her death, for the fear and the pain, the helpless awareness of coming final darkness. I remembered waking up, sick and dazed but with a kind of drugged tranquillity, after Bo’s lieutenant had used the Breath on me. I looked for some equivalent in my doe’s last minutes. I could not find it.
“The doe,” I said.
“Yes. It would not have been right for you to remember the last day of a human woman.”
There was a laugh that stuck in my throat. “No,” I said soberly. “It would not have been right for me.” I sagged forward again, but this time I was leaning against his leg, my cheek just above his knee. “How did she die?” I said dreamily, resting against the leg of the vampire who had cured my poisoned wound with the death of a doe.
“How?” he repeated. There was a long pause while I remembered the wild grass against my slender legs, the way my four hoofs dug into the ground as they took my weight as I ran, how much more fleetly and steadily I ran on four two-toed hoofs than I would ever run on two queerly inflexible platterlike feet and thick clumsy legs.
He said: “There are many myths about my kind. It is not true that we cannot feed unless we torment first. She died as any good hunter kills his prey: with one clean stroke.”
“But…” I said, groping for the answer I wanted. Needed. “You told me—long ago. By the lake. You have to ask. You can take no…blood that is not offered. She has to have said ‘yes.’ ”
After a little while he said: “Animals do not draw the distinction between life and death that humans do. If an animal is caught, by age, by illness, by some creature stronger than it, and cannot escape, it accepts death.” A longer pause. “Also…my kind were all once human. There perhaps can be no truly clean death between one of your kind and one of mine.”
I thought: If that is true, then it works both ways. The death of the giggler at my hands is no cleaner than the death he was offering that girl. I shivered. I felt Constantine’s hand on the back of my neck.
“I told you last time that Bo and I chose different ways of being what we are. You magic handlers know you risk, with every sending, the recoil. Bo is burdened by many years of the recoil of the torment that provides the savor to his meals. The savor is real—yes, I too have tasted it—but it is not worth the price.”
I was looking across the room, at a corner near the ceiling, where one of the occupied cobwebs hung. I could see the tiny dot that was the folded-up spider at the center.
I raised my head and turned round, knelt up, put my hands on his knees, stared into his face, into his eyes. I had looked full into his eyes briefly last night, while I held the knife, before he had taken from me the action I could not perform. I stared at him now, minute after minute, night flowing past us as morning had done by the lake, two months and a lifetime ago, when I told him I would take him with me, through the daylight, out of the trap we shared. “You used the blood of a doe, to spare me the death of a human. You said you would not—were not—turning me. Why are you not telling me not to look in your eyes?”
“I have not turned you,” he replied. “In three hours, when the sun rises, you will find that sunshine is your element, as it always has been. I do not think you can be turned. You can be killed, as any human can be, as the poison Bo set in your flesh would at last have killed you, but I believe you cannot be turned.
“There is nothing I can do to you with my gaze, any more, whether I wish it or not. I was not able…to give you the doe’s clean blood cleanly. I caught and carried her blood for you, for tonight’s necessary rite, but I am not a clean vessel. Sunshine, we are on territory neither of us knows. We are bound now, you to me as I already was to you, for I have saved your life tonight as you saved my existence two months ago.”
“I think the honors were about even, two months ago,” I said, struggling. He picked my hands up off his knees, held them between his hands.
“That-which-binds did not judge so; the scales did not rest in balance. You will begin, now, I think, to read those lines of…power, governance, sorcery, as I can read them. By what has happened between us tonight. Onyx Blaise’s daughter—the daughter who did what you did, that second morning by the lake—always held that capacity. Now you must learn to use it. That-which-binds reckons I have been bound to you by what happened two months ago. I could not come to you if you did not call me, but if you called I had to come. You are now bound to me as well. I did not do this deliberately; to save your life, it was the only choice I had, and I was
“When I came to you four nights ago, I had no knowledge of the wound you still carried. I was thinking only of how I could convince you—to go into battle with me. That I should succeed did not seem likely, though you were calling to ask me for help. I came here that night thinking how I might give you—anything I could give you—to help you in that battle, if you agreed. It would have required some greater tie between us, but nothing like…
“I do not know what I have given you tonight.” Another silence. He added, “I do not know what you have given me.”
Another, longer silence.
“Well,” I said, shakily, clinging to his hands holding mine, “I think I can see in the dark.”