PART THREE

So, I would have said that not much could be worse—short of being dead or undead—than those first weeks after the night I went out to the lake and met some vampires up close and personal. I would have said that being paralyzed from the neck down or having an inoperable brain tumor would be worse. Not a lot else. Just shows how limited the human imagination can be.

The first weeks after Con healed the wound on my breast were worse.

It’s funny, because I had thought, living through those first two months after the nights at the lake, that the great crisis was about What I Was or Who I’d Become or What Terrible Thing Was Wrong With Me (and About to Go Wronger) and Why All Was Changed As a Result. But I was still struggling against the idea that all was changed.

Sticking the giggler with the table knife should have shaken me out of this fantasy even if the sucker-sunshade trick hadn’t, but I was too busy being grossed out by the sheer grisliness of the latter experience to have thought much about the philosophical implications. What the little chat with Jesse and Pat had revealed to me had done my head in worse, and the news that the suckers were on to conquer the world within the next century had been worse yet. I felt like a pancake in the hands of a maniac flipper. But when you’re being caromed around your life like a squash ball you haven’t got leeway to think about what happens next. When you’re feeding the second coachload of tourists that day you aren’t thinking about the birthday party for fifty next week. Maybe you should be, but you aren’t. Now is more than enough.

Before the detox night with Con I still thought I could say no somehow, could still stick my head back in the sand. Hey, I wasn’t going to be around in a hundred years—unless maybe I started handling a lot of magic, which I didn’t want to, right? That was exactly what I didn’t want to be doing; magic handling extending your lifespan was a myth anyway—so what did I care?

You can be a really nasty, selfish little jerk when you’re scared enough. I was scared enough.

Of course I had had this apparently permanent leaking wound on my breast, I had had these nightmares, and I had been doing a pretty bad job after all of suppressing thinking about what it all meant, what had happened at the lake. But I was still obstinately trying to pretend I’d only had a piece of very, very bad luck, and the fact of my having survived it wasn’t…irredeemable. My gran had shown me all that transmuting stuff fifteen years ago, and I’d never used it before. Maybe it would be another fifteen years before I used it again. Maybe thirty this time. And one vampire more or less? Who cares?

And the table knife venture was just that the giggler’d been the one who cut me, poisoned me. It was a one-off. There was an answer in there somewhere: it wasn’t me, it wasn’t my warped, screwed-up genetic heritage.

And if I’d delivered the world of one sucker, sort of accidentally having preserved it another one, then my final effect on the vampire population was nil, invisible, void. Which was exactly the profile I’d choose.

I told myself I had always been my father’s daughter. I was facing what had been there all the time.

But I was also facing stuff that hadn’t been there.

Being able to see in the dark sounds great. Never trip over the bathroom threshold on your way for a pee at midnight again, right? But it’s not that simple. Human eyes don’t see in the dark. They don’t have the rods and cones for it or whatever. Therefore you are doing something that isn’t human. It’s not like you’ve awakened a latent talent, like someone who finds out they have a gift for playing jazz piano after a life previously devoted to Bach. That may be odd, but it’s within human scope. Seeing in the dark isn’t. And you know it. That doesn’t mean I know how to explain it; but trust me, you can tell the difference between seeing because there’s enough light and “seeing” because something weird and vampiry is going on in your brain that chooses to pretend to be happening in your eyes because that’s the nearest equivalent. Like if some human had had a poisoned wound healed by some weird reciprocal swap with the phoenix, maybe they’d be able to fly afterward, apparently by flapping their arms.

(Mind you no one has seen the phoenix in over a thousand years, and it has never been inclined to do humans any good turns. Rather the opposite. Very like vampires, I suppose. Except a lot of people think the phoenix is a myth, and not many are stupid enough to think vampires are. I think the phoenix has at least a fifty-fifty chance of being true, because it’s nasty. What this world doesn’t have is the three-wishes, go-to-the-ball-and-meet-your-prince, happily-ever-after kind of magic. We have all the mangling and malevolent kinds. Who invented this system?)

I saw in the dark pretty well. I thought, do I want to see Bo coming?

Oh yeah, and seeing in the dark doesn’t mean when the sun goes down. It also means all the shadows that fall in daylight. This would not be a big issue for a vampire, of course, but it troubled the hell out of me. Even an ordinary table knife throws a shadow—although I didn’t really need any more reminders that table knives would never be ordinary to me again.

It throws your balance off, seeing through shadows. Your depth perception goes wrong, like trying to look through someone else’s glasses. Everything has funny dark-light edges to it, and sometimes those edges have themselves threadlike red edges. You get your new looking-through-bad-spectacles distortion on everything, including your own hands, your own body, the faces and bodies of the people you love and trust. Oh, the one time this goes away is when you look in a mirror. Or it did with me. Just in case I needed reminding that I got it from a vampire. Thanks.

I hated it that I now “saw” more easily in the dark than I did in the light. In the dark it all made sense. I hated this.

I was so clumsy for the first ten days or so that Charlie did another of his drifting-into-the-bakery-and-closing-the-door numbers. Golly, twice in two weeks: I must be a worse pain in the butt than I realized. Damn. He wandered around the bakery for a minute like he was thinking about what to say. I knew better; he figures this stuff out beforehand. When I still lived with him and Mom I used to see him ambling around the house in that fake idle way, figuring out what he was going to say to someone, what they might say back. He thinks of it on the move and he says it on the move. He wandered a lot during the time the city council was trying to upgrade us. The media, who love a good story and truth is noncompulsory, presented Charlie’s as the focus of the neighborhood campaign to stay the way we were: downmarket and crappy. This was not entirely false. That’s when Charlie’s kind of got on the New Arcadia map rather than merely the Old Town map, and one of the results was that Charlie could afford to build my bakery. (I have to say he used to wander a lot when Mom and I were at each other’s throats the worst too. There was some overlap between these two eras. Kenny and Billy are probably scarred for life.)

But having him wandering around again in that way I recognized made me feel bad. I didn’t live with him any more, but I had the impression he didn’t wander as much as he had then: that he’d mostly figured out how to say the sort of things he needed to say as Charlie of Charlie’s.

I suppose a magic-handling baker with an affinity for vampires is kind of an unusual problem for a coffeehouse. Maybe the bitchiness factor was trivial.

“You’ve been having a little trouble lately,” he said, mildly and gently, addressing one of the ovens.

“That oven is working fine,” I said, thinking, if you’re going to me you can just do it.

He turned around. “Sorry. We…Charlie’s has had its rough times, but…having SOFs interested in one of my staff is a new one.”

I refrained from pointing out that our regular SOFs had always sort of jived with me. I had thought because I was the one who wanted to hear their stories, but as it turned out, I now knew, because they remembered my father, even if Charlie—and for that matter Mom and I—didn’t. “Yeah,” I said. “It blows. I’ve been thinking, okay, my dad has always been my dad, but that doesn’t help. I could have gone on not knowing what it meant.”

Charlie hesitated. “Well…I doubt it, Sunshine. If you just kept coffee hot, maybe. But someone who can…” His voice faded. “Have you talked to Sadie about it?”

I shook my head. Have I sawn myself in half with a blunt knife? No.

“You know what Sadie is like—no one better. You inherited her backbone, her doggedness.”

The big difference between my mom and me—besides the fact that she is dead normal and I’m a magic-handling freak—is that she’s the real thing. She may have a slight problem seeing other people’s points of view, but she’s honest about it. She’s a brass-bound bitch because she believes she knows best. I’m a brass-bound bitch because I don’t want anyone getting close enough to find out what a whiny little knot of naked nerve endings I really am. “And her nasty temper,” I said.

Charlie smiled. “She knew your dad pretty well. Do you know she loved him? She really did. Still does, in her secret heart. Oh, she loves me, don’t worry. And we’re happy together—that’s the point. She’s happy running the admin side of Charlie’s.”

And ripping self-important assholes to shreds, I thought. But get under cover if there haven’t been any self-important assholes around lately.

“She was often joyful—euphoric—with your dad, especially at the beginning. But his wasn’t a world she could live in. Mine is.

“My guess is she got out of your dad’s world when she did and took you with her because she knew what you were. I think she knew you were going to be someone pretty unusual. I think she was hoping that what she’s given you—both by being your mom and by raising you in a place like Charlie’s—is going to be enough. Enough ballast. When what your father gave you started coming out.”

I’d already figured out that she hadn’t included him in the Bad Cross Watch, so what I was in Charlie’s version of events didn’t include the possibility of a demon taint. On the whole I thought my version was more plausible than Charlie’s. Possibly because it was more depressing.

I drifted in a very Charlie-like manner over to the stool and sat down. I looked at my hands, which had a funny red-outlined light-dark edge. I thought about bad gene crosses. I put my head in my hands and closed my eyes.

“What do you think, Sunshine?” said Charlie. “Is it going to be enough?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Charlie, I don’t know.”

August was less death-defying than usual in terms of temperature (which among other things meant that I hadn’t had to beg Paulie not to quit) if not in terms of numbers of Earth Trek coachloads, and possibly, because all the heat August hadn’t used had to go somewhere, we went straight into Indian Summer September, do not pass Go, do not collect two thousand blinks. So I got out all my least decent little-bit-of-nothing tank tops and wore them. The scar was visible but the skin was flat and smooth, no puckering, and the white mark itself seemed weirdly old and sort of half-worn-away-looking the way old scars get sometimes.

I was still having trouble with the idea that what had happened that night counted as healing, but whatever it was, it had worked.

I started going home with Mel a lot. He was glad to have me around—glad to stop arguing about my going to another doctor. He didn’t know about Con, of course, but he knew plenty—too much— about recent events. He would know that I needed reassuring without knowing I needed to feel…human.

This is really stupid, but I also discovered that I somehow believed that he was the one human at Charlie’s who might be able to stop me in time if my bad genes suddenly kicked in and I picked up my electric cherry pitter and went for the nearest warm body. That he’d drown me efficiently in a vat of pasta sauce while everyone else was standing around with their mouths open wringing their hands and saying, who are we going to get to cover the bakery on such short notice?

This was at its worst during Monday movie evenings. The Seddon living room had never seemed so small, or so packed with flimsy, vulnerable human bodies. If Mel didn’t feel like going I didn’t go either.

As a romantic fantasy I don’t think it’s going to make it into the top ten—most women pining for the presence of their lovers aren’t worrying about needing their homicidal tendencies foiled—but it did mean I felt a little safer with Mel around.

I probably didn’t believe it at all. I just didn’t want to give him up. He was warm and breathing and had a heartbeat.

Human. Yeah. I hadn’t been willing to go see a specialist human doctor, as Mel had kept asking me to. No. I asked a vampire for help. And took it instantly when he offered it.

Mel must have wondered what happened to the wound on my breast. But he didn’t say anything. He was very good at not saying things. It had only been since the Night of the Table Knife that I’d begun to wonder if his reticence was for my sake or his.

And if it was for his…No. I needed him to be steady, solid, secure. I needed it too badly to pursue that one. Too badly to wonder about the number of live tattoos he had. Even for a motorcycle thug.

Another of the things I’d never thought about was the way when we went home together it was always his home. He’d been inside my apartment a handful of times. If we had an afternoon together we went hiking or went back to his place. If we had an evening together and we decided to go out, we went where he wanted to go because there wasn’t anywhere I wanted to go. I knew his friends. He didn’t know mine. His house wards were set to know me. Mine weren’t set to know him.

I didn’t have friends. I had the coffeehouse. A few librarians—chiefly Aimil, who had been a Charlie’s regular all her life—was as far afield as I went.

It is halfway true that if you are involved in a family coffeehouse you don’t have a life. But only halfway. Mel had a life.

I’ve said before that Mel had been a bit of a hoodlum in his younger days, although nobody seemed to be quite sure how much, or maybe his War service had wiped earlier misdeeds off the record. He wasn’t old now but he’d had time to go wrong and then change his mind. There must have been signs he wasn’t going wrong right, though, even at the time. Some of his tattoos were for pretty strange things. Some of them I didn’t know the purpose of because when I’d asked he’d said “Um” and gone silent.

Anybody who spent a lot of time on or about motorcycles would have a couple of the regulation anti-crushed-by-flying-metal-or-running-into-trees-at-high-speeds wards, either pricked into your skin or on a chain round your neck or a secret pocket in your belt or the soles of your biker boots. He had those. But he also had a seeing-things-clearly charm that I hadn’t recognized when I saw it the first time: okay, a useful thing for someone on the wrong side of the law (or the wrong side of the battle zone) who needs to have his eyes peeled for trouble, but Mel’s wasn’t the conventional block-and-warn ward that most petty crooks used for the purpose.

(You could sometimes half-identify the variety of malfeasant you were dealing with by whether or not you could see that ward. Scammers, of course, kept it well hidden: wouldn’t do to have it dangling on a bracelet or tattooed on your wrist when you popped your cuffs at someone you were trying to schmooze. A couple of Mel’s old gang who had also changed their minds about being professional bad guys had it on the backs of their gonna-punch-you-in-the-nose hands, so the guy who was about to get punched would see it on the fist being held under his nose.)

Anyway. Mel still bought and sold motorcycles. He still drank beer with friends at the Nighthouse or the Jug. Wives and steady girlfriends (very occasionally boyfriends) were expected to show up if they wanted to. (Better yet, we were expected to talk. Of course the women who could talk about ignition mixtures and piston resistance were preferred, but you can’t have everything.) He’d bought a house in what had been Chesterfield but was now called Whiteout, the worst-Wars-hit section of New Arcadia, had it cleared and re-warded, and was slowly doing it over into something even my mother would recognize as habitable (although the motorcycle-refit garage on what had been the ground floor would probably have given her spasms). He loved cooking and Charlie’s but he wasn’t owned by them.

I felt like maybe I should be asking to borrow his survival textbook. Maybe the problem was that the first chapters in it were about running away from home at fourteen and lying about your age, and then being a biker bandit for a few years before deciding that the fact you always seemed to wind up frying the sausages over the fire for everybody was maybe a pointer toward a different way of life with better retirement options, which five years of the Wars had given him plenty of time to consider.

Mel would have understood why I drove out to the lake that night. He probably did understand without my telling him. I would have liked hearing him understand. But I didn’t want to tell him. Because I couldn’t—couldn’t—tell him what happened after.

But you don’t have to talk when you’re making love, and bodies have their own language. Also you don’t have to use your eyes so much. There are other things going on.

Meanwhile I was still reaching the wrong distance to pick up the edges of baking sheets and muffin tins or the handles of spoons, and fumbling them when I managed to grab them at all, and I walked into doors a little too often instead of through them. At least I knew the recipes I used all the time by heart and didn’t have to bother peering at print midmix or identifying the lines on measuring jugs. Nor had I lost my sense of whether a batter or a dough was going together right or not, or what to do if it wasn’t.

I could tell Jesse and Pat about seeing in the dark and let them tell me what to do about it. Or with it. As far as my strange new talents went it beat hell out of Unusual Usages of Table Knives. And maybe if I told them I could bear to tell the people at Charlie’s.

Nobody had to know anything about why I could now see in the dark. Including the dark of the day.

One day when Pat and John came in for hot-out-of-the-oven cinnamon rolls at about six-thirty-two, I tipped them onto a plate myself and took them out while Liz was still yawning over the coffeepot. “You have some free time soon maybe?” I said, trying to sound casual in my turn. They both shifted in their seats, trying not to point like hunting dogs. Not very many people, even at Charlie’s, are at their best at that hour, but it doesn’t pay to be careless. And Mrs. Bialosky was there, pretending to read a newspaper while waiting for one of her confederates to turn up to make a clandestine report. “For you, Sunshine, anything,” said Pat.

“I’m off at two,” I said.

“Come round the shop,” said Pat. “There are two desks in the entry, okay? You go up to the right-hand one and say Pat’s expecting you and they’ll let you straight in.”

I nodded.

There was a young woman at that desk with a nameplate and a sharp uniform and a sharp look like she should have had a rank to go on the nameplate, but what do I know? She hit two buzzers, one that opened the inner door and one that, presumably, warned Pat, because he came walking out to meet me before I’d gone very far down the faceless hallway Mel must have brought me out of the last night of the giggler’s existence on this earth, but it was so characterless I was ready to believe I had crossed one of those distance-folding thresholds and was now on Mars. If so, Pat was there with me. Maybe we’d been on Mars that night too. “What if the wrong person showed up first and said you were expecting them?” I said.

“I told them middling tall, skinny, weird-looking hair because it will have just been let out of being tied up in a scarf for working in a restaurant and you never comb it, wearing a fierce look,” said Pat. “I was pretty safe.”

“Fierce?” I said. I also thought, Skinny?, but I have my pride. The part about my hair is true.

“Yeah. Fierce. Through here,” and he opened a door and shepherded me through. This was, presumably, Pat’s office. The chair behind the desk was empty, but had that pushed-back-someone-just-got-up look. Jesse was sitting on a chair to one side of the desk. “Someone I want you to meet,” Pat said, nodding toward the other person in the room, who stood up out of her chair, and said in a rather stricken voice, “Hi.”

Aimil.

I looked at her and she looked at me. With my funny vision the sockets of her deep eyes and the hollows of her cheeks had a glittering dark periphery. “Okay,” I said, planning not to lose my temper unless it was absolutely necessary. “What are you doing here?”

“Tea?” said Pat blandly.

“Tell me what Aimil is doing here first,” I said.

“Well, we’re in putting-all-our-cards-on-the-table vogue now, aren’t we?” said Pat, still bland. “Since the other night. So it’s time you knew Aimil is one of us.”

“One of you,” I said. “SOF. And here I thought she was a librarian.”

“Undercover SOF,” Jesse said.

“Part time,” added Pat.

“I am a librarian,” said Aimil. “But I’m sometimes a—er—librarian for SOF too.”

I thought about this. I’d known Aimil since I was seven and she was nine. She and her family had had Sunday breakfast at Charlie’s most weeks for years, were already regulars when Mom started working there and then when I started hanging out there. She was one of the faces I recognized at my new school. I’d lost half a year being sick and then Mom crammed the crap out of me the second half of the year so I didn’t lose a grade when I went back to school in the fall. (Yes, I mean crammed. Second grade is freaking hard work when you’re seven or eight.) In hindsight that was the beginning of Charlie’s being my entire life: I didn’t have time to make friends the six months I was being crammed. The only kids I met were kids who came to Charlie’s, not that I got to know many of them because I wasn’t allowed to annoy the customers. But Aimil used to ask for me, so I was allowed to talk to her. She talked to me because she felt sorry for me: I was weedy and undersized and hangdog that half year, and always doing homework. I forget how it started—maybe she saw me sitting at the counter studying, which I was allowed to do when it wasn’t too crowded.

We’d managed to stay friends outside of school although not inside so much; two years is the Grand Canyon when you’re a kid. She’d gone off to library school my junior year and did an internship at the big downtown library the year after I started working full time at Charlie’s and we used to get together to complain about how hard working for a living was. Two years later she got a job at the branch library near Charlie’s. Sometimes she still had Sunday morning breakfast at Charlie’s with her parents.

When did you become SOF—undercover, part time, or hanging upside down on a trapeze?” I said. I did not sound friendly. I did not feel friendly.

“Twenty months ago,” she said quickly.

I relaxed. Slightly. “Okay. So why did you?”

Aimil sighed. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” She glanced at Pat and Jesse. I glanced at Pat and Jesse too. If they looked any more bland and nonconfrontational they were going to dissolve into little puddles of glop.

Aimil looked back at me. “You’re not going to like this,” she said.

“I know,” I said.

“SOF monitors globenet usage for who likes to read up a lot on the Others,” said Aimil. “That’s how they found me. They have a note of everybody who subscribes to the Darkline.” Which included both her and me. In theory any heavy-duty line into the cosworld will let you look up anything you like on the globenet, and the parameters are drawn only by your subscription price and the weight of the line. But in practice it is a little more specific than that. The Darkline is what you are going to choose if what you are chiefly interested in is looking up all the latest the globenet could give you on the Others without going to a Darkshop or the library or some other public hook-in for it.

If I’d ever given a passing real-world thought to anything outside my bakery, I would have known SOF must do stuff like monitor the Darkline. Which would mean they would know I used it. That, with my dad, was easily enough to interest them in me.

If I’d ever given a passing real-world thought to it, which I hadn’t. I’d lived in my own swaddled-up little world. I who had been the star pupil in June Yanovsky’s vampire lit class. But that was the point, really. The Others were still something that happened between the covers of books like Vampire Tales and Other Eerie Matters. SOF shop talk overheard at Charlie’s was just live stories. Dry guys happened, but never to anybody I knew. Vampires were out there, but nowhere near me.

Until recently.

“We’d already found you, of course,” Pat said to me, “because of your dad.”

“Yes,” I said. “You could stop reminding me. Nothing wrong with your dad, is there?” I said to Aimil.

Aimil laughed a little bitterly and bowed her head. As her bangs fell across her forehead they left flickering mahogany bars against her skin. I blinked. “Nothing that I know of. Or with my mom either. That’s why it came as such a shock to them when I had two sets of adult teeth come in, one inside the other. Fortunately my mom has a cousin who’s a dentist. A discreet dentist. And scared to death there might be something wrong with his blood. Also fortunately my second set wasn’t the kind that keeps growing, although they were a funny shape. Once they were out they’ve stayed out. And my mom’s cousin doesn’t have anything to do with our branch of the family any more. But I’m not registered. Remember Azar?”

I was already remembering Azar.

He’d been the year between Aimil and me. My freshman year in high school, he was the only sophomore on the varsity football team. That was before his lower jaw began to drop and widen to hold the spectacular pair of tusks that started to grow at the same time. They took the tusks out, of course, but they couldn’t do much reconstructive surgery on his face till his jaw stopped expanding. After the first surgery his family left town so that he could start school again somewhere they hadn’t known him before. That was after he’d been registered. After our school had taken away all his sports awards because he was a partblood and must have had—ipso facto—an unfair advantage. Which is crap. And he’d been a nice guy. He wasn’t stupid or a bully.

“It’s an interesting situation,” Pat interrupted, “because one of SOF’s official purposes is to find unregistered partbloods, register them, and fine their asses good, if not arrest them and throw them in jail, which happens sometimes too. One of SOF’s unofficial purposes is to find certain kinds of unregistered partbloods, protect them from getting found out, and persuade them to work for us. We really like librarians. They tend to have tidy minds.”

“Librarian partbloods are probably flash easy to find,” said Aimil. “We’ll be the ones who belong to Otherwatch and Beware.” These are the two biggest globenet trawlers for Other ‘fo, exclusive to the Darkline. For a modest extra monthly fee you too can download eleventy jillion gigabytes every week and experience mental overkill paralysis, unless you are a trained member of SOF or a research librarian or a prune-faced academic and have a cyborg overdrive button for taking in ’fo. I didn’t have the overdrive button. Besides, I’d always had a guilty preference for fiction. Since I seemed now to be living fiction, this proved to have been an entirely reasonable choice.

“I spend a few hours every week reading certain threads and— well—following my nose.”

“We contacted her because the filters she’d set up herself on her subscription passwords seemed to bring her a peculiarly high level of source traffic by Others and partbloods, not just about them. So we had her in for a few chats and once she softened up a little…”

“Did someone turn blue for you too?” I said. Aimil smiled. “Yeah.”

“—We found out that that nose of hers often told her when your actual Other had actual fingers on the keyboard, and that has sometimes been very interesting,” said Jesse.

“Especially when she picks up a sucker,” said Pat.

They all saw me freeze. “Hey, kiddo,” said Pat. “That’s kind of the point, you know? Nailing vampires. Remember?”

I nodded stiffly. The rift—or did I mean rifts—in my life were getting deeper and wider all the time. I only just stopped myself from reaching up to touch the thin white scar on my breast. If any of these people had noticed that I’d spent the entire sweltering summer wearing high-necked shirts they hadn’t mentioned it, and they weren’t mentioning that I had suddenly stopped wearing them for a mere autumn burst of pleasantly warm weather either.

“I—I just don’t like talking about vampires,” I said, after a moment. If one-fifth of the world’s wealth—or possibly more—lay in vampire hands, of course there were a lot of them out there with not just basic com gear to handle their bloated bank balances but monster com networks that meant they had probably stopped noticing they weren’t able to go outdoors in daylight. Plenty of human com techies never went out in daylight either. But com networks would include trog lines into the globenet. And some vampires who had them no doubt amused themselves chatting up humans.

I knew this. But those vampires were scary faceless bogeypeople that SOF existed to deal with. What was I doing here in a SOF office?

Partbloods sticking together, I suppose. What if I told them I didn’t know I was one of the lucid ten percent? I shivered.

Did Bo have a line into the globenet? He was a master vampire. Of course he did.

Did Con?

I shivered again. Harder.

“Sunshine, I’m sorry” Aimil said. “I know it doesn’t mean much, but sometimes when I’m tracking some—some thing, even that much contact, through however many miles of trog and ether, it starts to make me sick. I can’t imagine what it must be like for you.”

True.

“Now, about that tea,” said Pat.

“You still haven’t told me why you’re here, like, today, now, this minute, in Pat’s office,” I said to Aimil.

She shook her head. “Serendipity, I guess. I showed up this afternoon to plug in my usual report and Pat brought me in here, said I was about to meet an old friend who was also a new recruit, and maybe I could reassure her that having anything to do with SOF doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to lose your interest in reading fiction and will wake up some morning soon with an overwhelming urge to wear khaki and start a firearm collection.”

Pat, who was wearing navy blue trousers and a white shirt, said, “Hey.”

“Navy blue and white are khaki too,” said Aimil firmly. “But Rae, I didn’t know it was you till you walked through the door.”

“Then why are you saying you’re sorry about what happened to me? What do you know about it?”

Aimil stared at me, visibly puzzled. “What happened—? Since the—the other night all of Old Town knows you were in some kind of trouble with suckers, those two days you went missing last spring— and a lot of us were already wondering. What else could it have been?”

Right. What else could it have been?

“It could have been a rogue demon,” I said obstinately.

Aimil sighed. “Not very likely. A lot of partbloods can spot other partbloods, right? I haven’t got Pat’s gift for that. But a fullblood demon—if you’d been held by rogues, I’d’ve known it. Like cat hair on your shirt. So would whoever from SOF interviewed you have known it. SOF wouldn’t have assigned someone to interview you who wouldn’t have known it.”

“And Jocasta’s good,” said Pat. “Even better than me.”

“Good” wasn’t the adjective I’d’ve chosen for my experience of that interview, but I let it pass.

“So would a lot of other people who come into Charlie’s have known it,” Aimil continued. “Haven’t you noticed—well, like that Mrs. Bialosky hardly lets you out of her sight these days?”

“Mrs. Bialosky is a Were,” I said.

“Yeah. And her sense of smell is real good,” said Pat.

“She’s another undercover SOF, I suppose,” I said.

Pat laughed. “SOF couldn’t hold her,” he said.

She and Yolande should get together, I thought, but I didn’t say it out loud. If SOF had no reason to look into my landlady I wasn’t going to suggest it to them. If Pat thought she was a siddhartha, all the better.

And if they already had looked, I didn’t want to know.

Jesse said gently, “You know there’s such a thing as friends as well as colleagues and neighbors, don’t you?”

I had my mouth open to say, “Sure, and you’d’ve been hanging around Charlie’s watching me with at least four eyes a day if I’d just been some poor mug that got mixed up in something ickily Other, right?” And then I closed it again, because I realized that the answer was yes. They might not have been watching me so intensely, and they might not have been watching me in the hopes that whatever had happened might lead them to something they could use without reference to a continuing and uninterrupted supply of cinnamon rolls, but they would have been watching me. Because that was what SOF was for—in theory the first and most important thing it was for—to keep our citizens safe. And SOF for all its faults took that pretty seriously. I sighed. “So, how about that cup of tea? And then maybe you’ll finally tell me why you wanted me to meet Aimil here.”

Pat spun his combox around so the screen faced Aimil. She sat down and tapped herself in, and the screen cleared to the globenet symbol. I averted my eyes. Since I’d started seeing in the dark I couldn’t look at any comscreen for long, TV, net, personal, GameDeluxe (not my territory, but Kenny had an amazing one), whatever. Brrrr. Vertigo wasn’t in it, although migraine came close. At least I wasn’t wasting subscription fees on Otherwatch and Beware by not having gone near my combox lately.

I could tell, however, watching out of my peripheral vision, that Aimil was calling up lists of mailsaves. She chose a list, hit a button, and mailtext blocks appeared. I felt an almost physical jolt, and reached out to steady myself on the back of her chair.

“Aah,” said Pat, watching me.

What” I said nastily. I don’t like surprises. Especially this kind of surprise, and this was my second since I came through the front door of SOF HQ.

Aimil said, studying the screen, “I save anything that—well, that I guess comes from an Other, right? That feels funny. That’s what these guys pay me for. There are a lot of us doing it—we don’t know who each other are of course but I doubt we’re all librarians—and when some nettag is making a lot of us jumpy, SOF tries to find out more about who’s—or what’s—behind it. Jesse asked me to separate off some tags that are on SOF’s active list that I personally think feel like vampires rather than something else, and…”

“We wondered if any of them might mean something to you, you know, locationally,” said Jesse.

Locationally? I thought irrelevantly. Is this the same English I speak?

“After what happened the other night,” said Jesse. “The way you knew where it was even though it was too far away for you to, er, hear, in the usual way. Or see. What made you jump when Aimil opened her mailsave list?”

I shook my head. “Presumably I’m reacting to what you want me to be reacting to, yes,” I said. “But whether it’s going to be anything but a sensation like putting your finger in an electric socket I don’t know.”

“Try it,” said Jesse.

Aimil stood up from the chair and I sat down, trying to examine myself for signs that my evil gene was waking up. This would be a logical moment for it, I felt, and probably quite a practical one too, from the perspective of lingering final moments of philanthropic sanity. Jesse and Pat would be trained in hand-to-hand, and even amok, and thor as hell with the muscles you get if you bash The Blob into trays of cinnamon rolls every morning, I should be a pushover for a couple of veteran SOF field agents.

The screen glowed at me balefully. I shut my eyes. Nothing was happening. My body went on breathing quietly, waiting for me to ask it to do something. “What do I do?”

“If you hit next,” Aimil said, “you go to the next message.”

I opened my eyes long enough to find the NEXT button. I could look at the keyboard. I glanced at the screen. The words there wriggled. I didn’t like it but it didn’t say “vampire” to me either. I hit NEXT.

More wriggly words. Ugh. Nothing else though. I hit NEXT.

And the next NEXT.

There was an odd building-up of internal pressure that I couldn’t quite put down either to trying to look while not looking at a comscreen that was longing to give me a lightning-bolt-thunder-roll odin-bloody headache or to the knowledge that I was surrounded by SOFs avidly waiting for me to do something. Or that I was waiting to pop into Incredible Hulk mode and try to eat somebody. So I could guess that my shady rapport, affinity, Global Navigational Pinpoint Precision Positioning Device (patent pending), or whatever, was acknowledging the presence of vampires somewhere out there behind the screen, but—so?

Next. Next. Next. I was sweating.

I realized what the pressure was. Expectation. I was getting close.

Close to what?

Next.

HERE.

I snapped my eyes closed and flung myself back in the chair, which rolled several feet away from the desk till it hit the corner of a table pushed against the wall. An unhandily stacked heap of paper spilled off onto the floor with a swoosh.

I got up, shakily, keeping my eyes averted from the screen. I could feel the beating of the HERE. I turned my head back and forth as if I was standing in a field looking for a landmark. No. Not there. I moved round a quarter turn, and waited to reorient the HERE. No. I moved another quarter turn…almost. An eighth turn back. No. An eighth turn forward, then another eighth. Yes. HERE.

I raised an arm. “That way. Now turn whatever it is off, because it’s making me sick.”

Aimil dived for it, and the screen went blank.

I sat down.

“Well, well, well,” said Pat. The satisfaction in his voice made me suddenly very angry, but I felt too tired and sick to tell him so. I closed my eyes.

I opened them again a minute later. Steam from a cup of hot tea was caressing my face. I accepted the cup. Caffeine was my friend. I wasn’t sure if I had any other friends in that room or not.

The Special Other Forces exist to control, defeat, neutralize, or exterminate all Other threat to humans. That was easy and straightforward, and as a human it sounded—had sounded—pretty good to me, although at the same time I’d had a problem with the politics of anything Other denned as bad, which seemed to be the unofficial SOF motto. Now I was learning that in fact SOF was—apparently— full of partbloods, maybe fullbloods, and presumably Weres, and was clandestinely sympathetic to the registry dodgers.

It should have cheered me up. If I was a partblood myself, I was a partblood among partbloods. I should be eager to cooperate with my own little group of SOFs.

Who hated vampires. All vampires. By definition. Who hated and targeted vampires because they believed that vampires were not merely making everybody’s lives more dangerous, but their own lives harder, their lives as good, socially well-adjusted and well-disposed part-demons or demons, as Weres who only needed a night off once a month. If it wasn’t for vampires (so Pat’s theory went) the humans would probably repeal the laws that automatically prevented anyone with Other blood from enjoying full human rights.

The theory was probably right.

Not to mention the less-than-a-hundred-years-before-we-all-go-under-the-dark thing.

It wasn’t only that seeing in the dark creeped me out because it came from a vampire. It was that it made me permanently, relentlessly, continuously conscious of being connected to…vampireness.

I do not know what I have given you tonight. I do not know what you have given me.

I was aware of it standing motionless outdoors at noon on a sunny day. Even the absence of shadow is a kind of shadow. You may not know that but I do. I did now. I wondered if this was anything like the dare-I-say usual realization of partbloodedness: knowing that you are—and are not—human, but angrily, frustratedly believing that this didn’t make you any less of a…

A what, exactly? A human? A person? An individual? A rational creature?

Remind me that you are a rational creature.

I wished I could ask somebody. But nobody was part vampire, it wasn’t possible. Whatever I was, that wasn’t it. Was it. Was it?

Drink your tea, Sunshine, and stop thinking. Thinking is not your strong suit.

There was something else that was bothering me about all this, but I couldn’t get that far yet. I didn’t have to. Where I was was far enough to feel nomad about.

“Feeling better?” said Pat.

“No,” I said.

“Do you know what you were pointing at?”

“No,” I said. I looked up, along the line I had indicated, and thought about which way the SOF building lay and where I thought I was in it. I’d probably been pointing west, something like west. That wasn’t a big help; west was where all the deserted factories were, where the worst of the urban bad spots were. Nobody lived out that way now; as the population slowly began to recover from the Voodoo Wars, rather than trying to reclaim any of that area, new malls and office blocks and housing developments were going up in the south and east and—also avoiding the lake and its bad spots—curling around eventually (avoiding druggie nirvana) up to the north. The reason anybody was trying to salvage Chesterfield was because it was south. In twenty or thirty years we and the next town to the south, Piscataweh, would probably be one big city. Unless we all went under the dark early.

The western end of New Arcadia isn’t entirely deserted; it has some rather murky small businesses scattered around and some clubs the police keep closing down that open again a day or a week later. Sometimes they reopen briefly somewhere else, sometimes they don’t bother to pretend to move. It is the western end of town where gangs of mostly human, mostly teenage boys go to play chicken and look for vampires. It is also a popular area for squatters, although the attrition by death rate is pretty severe. A lot of the murky small businesses that manage to hold on there cater to squatters who can’t afford to pay for housing, but if they want to stay alive have to pay for some warding. There are two kinds of cheap wards: the ones that don’t work, and the ones that mess with what for want of a better phrase I’m going to call black magic. Which gives you the idea. The homeless are better off sleeping in the gutters in Old Town, but I admit that for Old Town’s sake it’s a good thing most of them don’t.

It didn’t take a combox or a kick in the head to tell anyone in New Arcadia that if they were looking for suckers to look west.

“I was pointing west,” I said grudgingly. “Big deal.”

“We don’t know if it’s a big deal yet or not,” said Pat reasonably. “We won’t know till we drive you out there.”

“No,” I said.

“It might be, for example,” Pat continued unfazed, “that it isn’t the west of New Arcadia at all; it could be somewhere a lot farther away—Springfield, Lucknow, Manchester.” Manchester had a rep as a vampire city. “The globenet is the globenet; you never know where a specific piece of cosmail has come from.”

“Unless you’re SOF, and you track it down,” I said.

There was a little silence. Jesse sighed. “It’s not that easy. I mean, tracing something off the net is never easy—”

“There are all those boring laws about privacy,” I said.

“—which even SOF has to make an effort to break,” said Pat.

“—but a lot of the usual rules of, um, physics, don’t work quite the same with Others as with humans,” Jesse continued.

Yeah, I thought. How does a hundred-and-eighty-pound man turn into a ninety-pound wolf? Where does the leftover ninety go? Does he park it in the umbrella stand overnight?

“Geography and vampires is one of the worst. Where they are and where we are often doesn’t seem to, uh, relate.”

Vampire senses are different from human in a number of ways…It is not the distance that is crucial, but the uniformity…. Evidently this worked in both, um, directions. Einstein was wrong. I wondered if it was too late to give my skeggy old physics teacher a bad day.

“So even if we got a good read off a cosmail that we were sure was lobbed by a sucker we still might not know any more than we did before we wasted some of SOF’s tax blinks cracking it. We can use all the help we can get.”

“Which I think I said to you already not long ago,” added Pat. “You might also keep in mind that the guys who don’t want to be found usually have the edge on us guys who want to find them. Even the human ones, and they’re usually easier. Sunshine, give us a break. We’re not trying to ruin your life for fun, you know.”

I stared into the bottom of my mug. Not Jesse or Pat’s fault that I was bound to a vampire. I didn’t think they’d be real open to the idea of making an exception for him. I wasn’t happy about it myself. But I could hardly tell Pat that the reason SOF was so full of covert partbloods now made me feel worse, not better.

I was getting to a pretty bad place if I was beginning to wonder if maybe going bonkers and having to be bagged for my own good might be my best choice.

What if what I had pointed toward was Con?

No. The answer came almost at once. No. What I had pointed toward was something…something in itself sick-making, antithetical to humans. To anything warm and breathing. Betrayal would be a different sort of sick. I was sure.

I was pretty sure.

A human shouldn’t be able to think in terms of betraying a vampire. It didn’t work. Like those nonsense sentences they used to wake you up when you are supposed to be learning a foreign language. I eat the hat of my uncle. I sit upon the cat of my aunt. Depends on the cat of course.

It didn’t work, like being able to see in the dark didn’t work. The bottom of my mug was in shadow. I hadn’t drunk the last swallow because it had a fine dust of tea leaves in it. Even they threw shadows, tiny shadows within the shadow, floating in the shadowy dark liquid. “Okay,” I said.

It might have been Bo I’d found. That I’d felt through the globe-net. That was about as sick-making a thought as I could have. Bo, that Con was supposed to be finding so we could go spoke his wheel before he spoked ours. Again. Permanently.

“Then you’ll come with us?”

I thought about it. There wasn’t much to think. “I have to be back at six,” I said.

“You got it,” said Pat.

It was just Pat and Jesse and me. Aimil went back to the library. When we awkwardly said good-bye, her face was full of bright shadows I couldn’t read. I looked at her, trying to resettle her in my mind as a partblood and a SOF. Did it take that much effort? I didn’t know. It was taking me a lot of effort to be whatever I now was.

While Pat did some shifting-papers-around things and Jesse disappeared for a few minutes I moved over to the sunlight falling through the gray window of Pat’s office. The sunlight felt thin, but it was sunlight. SOF windows were all gray because of the proofglass: proof against bullets, firebombs, kamikaze Weres, glass- and steel-cutting demon talons, spells, charms, almost everything but an armored division with howitzers. Proofglass had only come on the market about ten years ago, just after the Wars, which might have been a little less fatal if it had been invented a few years earlier. All high-risk businesses and the military and most other government departments, plus a lot of paranoids, both the kind with real enemies and the other kind, now had proofglass in their windows and their vehicles. Proofglass upgrader was a popular new career among young magic handlers. You didn’t have to be a magic handler to get hired as an upgrader, but you’d probably live longer.

Nobody had figured out how to make it less gray though. Gray and depressing, like being in jail. Hadn’t they done studies that humans really need sunlight? Not just light. Sunlight. And all humans, not just me. I hoped Charlie’s wasn’t going to have to put in proof-glass.

I hoped I was still human.

Pat drove and put me in the front seat with him. “Can you still feel—whatever?”

I thought about it. Reluctantly. I poked around for that feeling of Here. I found it. It was like finding a dead rat in your living room. A large dead rat. “Yes,” I said.

“West?”

“Yes.”

We drove. Old county buildings quickly became Old Town, which turned almost as quickly into downtown and then rather more slowly into nothing-in-particular town, blocks of slightly shabby houses giving way to blocks of somewhat seedy shops and offices and back again. It wasn’t a big city; we went over the line into what most of us called No Town far too soon. In the first place I didn’t want to go there at all, in the second place I didn’t like being reminded that it was so close. New Arcadia’s only big bad spots are in No Town, which did compel a certain amount of evasive driving. Even a SOF car can only go where there are still roads, and urban bad spots get blocked off fast. But we weren’t going nearly indirectly enough for me.

Here moved out of the back of my mind into the front, like Large Zombie Rat getting up off your living room floor and following you into the kitchen where you realize that it’s bigger and uglier than you thought, and its teeth are longer, and while zombies are really, really stupid, they’re also really, really vicious. They’re also nearly as fast as vampires, and since they don’t just happen, they’re made for a purpose, if one is coming after you, that’s probably its purpose, and you’re in big trouble.

Here was getting worse. It was going to burst out of my skull and dance on the dashboard, and it wouldn’t be anything anyone wanted to watch. “Stop,” I said. Pat stopped. I tried to breathe. Zombie Rat seemed to be sitting on my chest, so I couldn’t. I couldn’t see it any more though—there didn’t seem to be anything left but its little red eyes—no, its huge, drowning, no-color eyes—

“I—can’t—any—more—turn—around,” I think is what I said. I don’t remember. I remember after Pat turned around and started driving back toward Old Town. After what felt like a long time I began breathing again. I was clammy with sweat and my head ached as if pieces of my skull had been broken and the edges were grinding together. But Zombie Rat was gone.

That had been far too much like the bad spot the SOF car hadn’t protected us from, the day Jesse and Pat took me back out to the house on the lake. (Those no-color eyes…both mirror-flat and chasm-deep…if they were eyes…) But we hadn’t tried to drive through a bad spot. And this time it was just me. Pat and Jesse hadn’t noticed anything. Except my little crisis.

I didn’t know if I was angrier at their making me try to do— whatever—or at the fact that I’d failed. I’d been to No Town when I was a teenager. It wasn’t like I had no idea. Any teenager with the slightest pretensions toward being stark, spartan, whatever, which I’m afraid I had had, will probably give it a try if it’s offered, and it will be offered. And No Town is a rite of passage; quite sensible kids go at least once. I’d been there more than once. Some of the clubs were pretty spartan by anyone’s standards. Kenny said (out of Mom’s hearing) this was still true. And it was also still true (Kenny said) that you dared each other to climb farther in, over the rubble around the bad spots, although nobody got very far. But I hadn’t got any less far than anyone else, when I was his age.

So had whatever-it-was moved there since my time, or was I just more sensitive now than I had been? No Town was actually a lot cleaner now than it had been when I was sixteen and seventeen, which was right after the Wars. Having been once captured by vampires, did I now overreact to their presence? If “overreact to vampires” wasn’t a contradiction in terms.

Or was this another horrible, specific one-off, like my having heard the giggler when no one else could?

I didn’t know if I wanted the answer to be yes or no. If it was no, then it might mean my sucker connection was general, which didn’t bear thinking about. But if it was yes, then it meant I was picking up something to do with Bo. Which didn’t bear thinking about.

Unless it was Con. Unless this had been his daylight wards, protecting him, protecting us, in the company of a couple of sucker-hating SOFs.

No. It wasn’t Con. Whatever it was, it wasn’t Con.

Pat drove around into the SOF back lot again. Neither of them had said any word of blame or failure or frustration to me, although I felt I could hear them both thinking. Words like “triangulation.” I didn’t know if they’d marked where I made them turn around. Probably. But neither of them mentioned it. Yet. “I’d take you straight to Charlie’s but I don’t think you want the neighborhood seeing you show up in a SOF car,” Pat said, as offhand as if we’d been buying groceries.

I started to shake my head—unmarked SOF cars were like SOFs out of uniform; you still knew—but changed my mind. “Thanks.” I fumbled for the door handle.

“Do you want to come back in? You look a little…worn. There are a few bedrooms in the back. They’re pretty basic but they have beds and they’re quiet. Or I could run you home.”

This time I did manage to shake my head. Carefully. “No. Thanks. I’m going for a walk. Clear my head.” The last thing I wanted to do was lie down in a small dark room and try to go to sleep. I didn’t want to go home either. There might be a dead rat in the living room.

I got out of the car, lifted my face to the sunlight. It felt like a good fairy’s kiss. Except good fairies don’t exist.

As I walked toward the exit Pat called after me, “Hey. Didn’t you want to tell us something? When you came in.”

I looked at him, at the way the shadows fell across his face. He was leaning on the roof of the car, which was unmarked-cop-car blue. That was probably why the shadows in the hollows of his eyes, his upper lip, his throat, looked blue. “I forget now,” I said. “It’ll come back to me.”

Pat smiled a little: a twitch of the lips. “Sorry, Sunshine.”

* * *

I raised a hand and turned away again. He said softly, “See you.” He could have meant only that he’d see me at Charlie’s, where we’d seen each other for years. But I knew that wasn’t what he meant. I went for a long walk. I spiraled slowly through Old Town, from the outside edge, where SOF headquarters and City Hall lie on the boundary between Old Town and downtown, to the next circle where the area library and the Other Museum and the older city buildings are, through several small parks and down the long green aisle of General Aster’s Way (purple in autumn with michaelmas daisies, some municipal gardener’s idea of a joke), and then into the back streets of Charlie’s neighborhood, where everyone gets lost occasionally, even people who have lived there all their lives, like Charlie and Mary and Kyoko. I was used to getting lost. I didn’t mind. I’d come to something I recognized eventually.

I wandered and thought about the latest thing I didn’t want to think about. There seemed to be so many things I didn’t want to think about lately.

I didn’t want to think about my increasing sense that something had happened to Con.

And that it mattered.

There is no fellowship between humans and vampires. We are fire and water, heads and tails, north and south…day and night.

Maybe I was imagining the bond. Maybe it was a way of dealing with what had happened. Like post-traumatic thingummy.

Con himself said the bond existed, but he could be wrong too. Vampires are deadly, but no one says they’re infallible.

I blinked my treacherous eyes, watching the things in the shadows slither and sparkle. I had plenty to worry about already. I didn’t have to worry about vampires too. One vampire. The last thing I wanted to be doing was worrying about him.

No, the next to last thing. The last thing I wanted was to be bound to him.

I hadn’t thought I had any—did I mean innocence?—to lose, after those two nights on the lake. I didn’t know you could go on finding out you’d had stuff by losing it. This didn’t seem like a very good method to me.

Over two months of being slowly poisoned probably hadn’t been really good for me either. And the nightmares had been bad. But in a way they’d still been pure. I’d made a mistake—a mistake I’d paid dearly for—but it had been a mistake.

A month ago, I’d called on Con. Okay, I was at the end of my tether. But I’d still asked a vampire for help—not Mel, not a human doctor of human medicine. And he’d helped me. The nightmares I’d had since weren’t pure at all.

My thought paused there, teetering on the edge of a precipice, and then fell over.

What if it hadn’t been a mistake, driving out to the lake? What if I’d had to do it—if not that exact thing, then something similar. What if that restlessness I hadn’t been able to name had caused exactly what it was meant to cause?

That question I hadn’t asked Con, out by the lake, is my dad another of your old enemies? Or your old friends?

Between the dark thoughts inside my head and the leaping, glittery shadows my eyes saw, I had to stop. I was at the edge of Oldroy’s Park. I groped my way to a bench and sat down.

I sat there, and stared at the tree opposite me, and the way the rough ridges of its bark seemed to wiggle where they lay in shade. My thoughts were stuck on that night at the lake. I never liked coincidence much, but I hated the sense I was making now.

I watched the wiggling bark. It occurred to me that this was new. I’d been seeing into shadows, but merely what was there, as if there was a rather erratic light on it. This was something else. Which gave me something I could bear to think about, so I thought about it. A few more minutes passed and it seemed to me it was as if I was watching the tree breathing. I found a leaf in shadow, and looked at it for a while; it twinkled, as if with tiny starbursts, but rather than thinking ugh—weird, I kept watching, till there seemed to be a pattern. I thought, it’s as if I’m watching its pores opening and closing. I looked down at my hands. The shadows between the fingers gleamed like a banked fire. The tiny shadows laid by the veins on the backs of them were a tiny, flickering dark green edged with a tinier, even more flickering red. The daylight part of the veins looked as it always did. In the shadow places I could see the blood moving.

I was sitting in sunlight, not shade. I automatically chose sun if there was any sun to be had. I remembered the sun on my back the first morning at the lake, like the arm of a friend. I closed my eyes.

I heard the footsteps but I didn’t expect them to pause.

“Pardon me,” said a voice. “Are you all right?” ;

I opened my eyes. An old woman stood there, a little bent over, leaning on the handle of her two-wheeled shopping cart. “You look—tired,” she said. “Can I fetch you anything? There is a shop on the corner. And it has a pay phone. Can I call someone for you?”

She had a nice face. She would be someone you would be glad to have as a neighbor, or as a regular at the coffeehouse you and your family ran. I looked at the shadows that fell half across her face and saw…I don’t know how…that she was a partblood. And that something about my expression was maybe making her guess I might be going through finding that out about myself. And remembering how hard this was she was going to ask me, a total stranger, if I was all right.

I hauled myself back into the ordinary world, and the vision faded. The shadows that fell across her face reverted to being the usual, disorienting, see-through, funny-edged shadows I’d been seeing for a month. She smiled. “I’m sorry to disturb you. I—er—I thought you might perhaps—er—”

“Want to be disturbed?” I said. “Yes. Isn’t it…silly…how…upsetting…just thinking can be?”

“It’s not silly at all. The insides of our own minds are the scariest things there are.”

Scarier than vampires? I thought. Scarier than an affinity for vampires? Well. That was what she’d said, wasn’t it? What my mind contained was an affinity for vampires.

She was fishing around in her cart and pulled out a package of Fig Carousels and another of Chocolate Pinwheels. I laughed. She smiled at me again. “Which?” she said, holding them out toward me. I hadn’t had a Pinwheel in fifteen years, although the secret recipe for Sunshine’s Killer Zebras was the later result of a three-pack-a-week pre-Charlie’s childhood. I pointed to the Pinwheels. She tore open the packet, sat down, and offered it to me. “Thank you,” I said. She took one too.

We sat in silence for a while, and did away with several more Pinwheels. “Thank you,” I said again.

“Maud,” she said. “I’m Maud. I live—there,” and she pointed to one of the old townhouses that surrounded the little park. “I sit here often, in warm weather. I’ve found it’s a good place for thinking; I like to believe Colonel Oldroy was a pleasant fellow, which is why the disagreeable thoughts seem to fall away if you sit here.”

Colonel Oldroy had been one of those military scientist bozos who spent decades locked up in some huge secret underground maze because whatever they were doing was so superclassified that the existence of a lab to do it in was confidential information. It still wasn’t public knowledge where his lab had been, but Oldroy got the credit, or the blame, for the blood test SOF still used on job applicants. Before Oldroy there was no reliable test for demon partbloods. (Remember that demon is a hodge-podge word. A Were can’t be a partblood; you either are one or you aren’t. Anything else, anything alive that is, may be called a demon, although things like peris and angels will probably protest.) Pretty much the first thing that Oldroy discovered was that he was a partblood. He’d retired before they had a chance to throw him out, and spent the last twenty years of his life breeding roses, and naming them things like Lucifer, Mammon, Beelzebub, and Belphegor. Belphegor, under the less controversial name Pure of Heart, was a big commercial success. Mom had a Pure of Heart in her back yard. Oldroy may not have had a very happy life, but it sounded like he’d had a sense of humor. I wondered if he’d had anything to do with synthesizing the drug that made partbloods piss green or blue-violet but pass his blood test, or with setting up the bootleg mentor system.

“Sometimes you have help,” I said. “Sometimes people come along and offer you Chocolate Pinwheels.”

“Sometimes,” she said.

“I’m Rae,” I said. “Do you know Charlie’s Coffeehouse? It’s about a quarter mile that way,” I said, pointing.

“I don’t get that far very often,” she said.

“Well, some time, if you want to, you might like to try our Killer Zebras. There’s a strong family resemblance…Tell whoever serves you that Sunshine says you can have as many as you can carry away, to bring back to this park and eat. In the sunshine.”

“Are you Sunshine then too?”

I sighed. “Yes. I guess. I’m Sunshine too.”

“Good for you,” she said, and patted my knee.

* * *

I got home that night at about nine-thirty and had a cup of cinnamon and rosehip tea and stared out at the dark and thought. There was at least one good result of my negative epiphany that afternoon in Oldroy Park: there seemed to me suddenly so many worse things that worrying about Con seemed clean and straightforward. He had saved my life, after all. Twice. Never mind the extenuating circumstances. I stood on my little balcony and remembered: I could not come to you if you did not call me, but if you called I had to come.

“Constantine,” I said quietly, into the darkness. “Do you need me? You have to call me if you do. You told me the rules yourself.”

He’d said Bo was after us. And that Bo would make a move soon. I rather thought that “soon” in this instance meant a definition of soon that humans and vampires could agree on. Con should have been back before now to tell me what was going on, what we were going to do. How far he’d got in tracing Bo. He hadn’t.

There was something wrong.

I slept badly that night, but this was getting to be so usual that it was an effort to try to decide if the nightmares I’d had were the kind I should pay attention to or not. I decided that they probably were, but I didn’t know what kind of attention to pay, so I wasn’t going to. I went in to work, turned my brain off, and started making cinnamon rolls, and garlic-rosemary buns for lunch. Then I made brown sugar brownies, Rocky Road Avalanche, Killer Zebras, and a lot of muffins, and then it was ten-thirty and I had the lunch shift free.

I had pulled my apron off and was about to untie my scarf when Mel’s hand stopped me long enough for him to kiss the back of my neck. I shook my hair out and said “Yes” and we went back to his house together and spent some time on the roof. There’s nothing nicer than making love outdoors on a warm sunny day, and this late in the year it felt like getting away with something too.

Mel used to laugh, sometimes, right after he came, in this gentle, surprised way, as if he’d never expected to be this happy, and then he’d kiss me, thoughtfully, and I’d hang on to him and hope that I was reading the signs right. That afternoon was one of those times. He’d wound up on top, which, I admit, I had slightly engineered, since there was a bit of an autumnal breeze snaking around and it was nice and warm under Mel’s body. His breath smelled of coffee and cinnamon. We lay there some time afterward—I loved that butterfly-wings feeling of a hard-on getting unhard inside me—and while we lay there I was all right and the world was all right and everything that might not be all right was on hold. And it was daylight and with my treacherous eyes shut I could just lie there and feel the sunshine on my face.

After a comfortable, rather dreamy lunch he went downstairs to take apart or put together some motorcycle and I went off to the library. I wanted to talk to Aimil.

She looked up from her desk, smiled faintly and said, “I have a break in, uh, forty minutes,” and went back to whatever she was doing.

I had a pass through the NEW shelves where there was a book hysterically titled The Scourge of the Other. It was a good two inches thick. I considered stealing it and putting it through the meat grinder at Charlie’s, but the library would only buy another one and the detritus of ink and binding glue probably wouldn’t do the quality of Charlie’s meatloaf any good. I knew without picking it up that the chapters would have rabble-rousing headings like “The Demon Menace” and “The Curse of the Were.” I wasn’t going to guess what noun was desperate enough for vampires. Four months ago I would have just scowled. Today it gave me a hard-knot-in-pit-of-stomach feeling. It was turning out I had a lot of Other friends. And Con, of course, whatever he was. Con, are you all right?

My tea was already steeping when I went back to the tiny staff kitchen to find Aimil. “So, how did it happen?” I said.

She didn’t bother to ask how did what happen. “I knew about your SOFs at Charlie’s because you told me about them.”

“I told you so you wouldn’t stop speaking to me because I seemed to like some guys who wore khaki and navy blue.”

“That they were SOF was supposed to help?”

“They told the best Other stories.”

“I guess. I could have done without the one…never mind. Anyway, so I recognized them when they came here. One day Pat and Jesse asked if I’d come by the SOF office some day for a chat—I hadn’t realized you could feel surrounded by two people, you know?—and what was I going to say, no? So I said yes. And then they asked me if I’d be interested in doing a little work for SOF and of course I said no, and then they started working around to telling me they weren’t so interested that I was a reference librarian as they were interested in what I was doing with Otherwatch and Beware. They seemed to know what I was doing at home too, and before I totally freaked Pat held his breath and turned blue. I said, what’s to prevent me reporting you? And he said, because you’re another one…I have no idea how they found out.” Aimil stopped, but she didn’t stop like end-of-the-story stop.

“And?” I said.

She sighed. “Rae, I’m sorry. They also said, because you’re a friend of Sunshine’s.”

There was no window in the little library staff kitchen. I wanted sunlight. What had my friendship to do with anything? She’d been working for SOF for almost two years. “And you didn’t tell me.”

Aimil walked over to the door and closed it gently. I didn’t want anyone to hear us either, but my spine started prickling with claustrophobia, or dark-o-phobia anyway. “I’m sorry,” said Aimil. “It’s only been since I’ve been working for them that I’ve started…have been able to start thinking of myself as Other. As a partblood. The best way to pass is to believe in the role, you know? My parents know, of course, but they haven’t made any attempt to find out where it comes from. None of my brothers had anything weird happen to them, and so far as I know they don’t know about me. I haven’t told my family I’m SOF, and I haven’t—hadn’t—told anyone I’m partblood. Who was I going to tell? Why? The only person who would have a right to know is the father of my children, and I’m not going to have children and pass this on. I hope none of my brothers’ kids…well. Because I’d have to tell them then.”

I didn’t say anything right away. “When did you find out?”

“Yeah,” said Aimil. “Right about the time I met you. You looked as lost as I felt. And then it turned out we got along, and…”

“Did everyone but my mother and me assume that who my dad was was public knowledge?”

“It wasn’t quite that bad.”

I looked at her.

She said reluctantly, “It was maybe worse during the Voodoo Wars but by then everyone knew you, and your mom had married Charlie, and Charlie’s family has lived in Old Town forever, and you were normal by context, you know? And then you had two dead-normal little pests for brothers. Nobody ever, ever caught you doing anything weird at school—you seemed just as fascinated as the rest of us when some of the Ngus and Bloodaxes and so on talked about magic handling. I don’t deny that a few people looked at you a little sideways.”

I’d let my tea sit too long, but the bitterness in my mouth seemed appropriate.

“You were into cooking, Rae. And a generation or two ago the Blaises were top dog, sure—”

Were they, I thought. So many things my mother never told me. Although I couldn’t really blame her for my avoiding reading globenet articles that mentioned the Blaises. Could I? I’d wanted to be Rae Seddon.

“You still heard a little about them at the beginning of the Wars…but then it’s like what was left of them disappeared. So maybe you were genuinely normal, you know? Most people say that magic handling runs out in families sooner or later.”

“The SOFs didn’t think so,” I muttered. Disappeared. Bo’s lot brought me a Blaise. And, not just a third cousin who can do card tricks and maybe write a ward sign that almost works, but Onyx Blaise’s daughter.

Onyx Blaise.

Whose mother taught his daughter to transmute. How did the people who were looking at me sideways count those one or two generations? What else could my gran do? Had she done?

Disappeared how?

“And nobody gets more normal than your mom.”

True. I would think about how to thank her for my very well embedded normalcy later. It might be difficult to choose between cyanide and garrotting.

“Can we go outside?” I said.

The sun was behind a cloud but daylight is still better than indoors. “Aimil. I want to ask you a favor.”

“Done.”

“Okay. Thanks. It’s what SOF wants me to do—try and get some location fix on one of your creepy cosmails. But I want to do it somewhere that isn’t behind proofglass.”

“In daylight,” said Aimil. “Okay. We’ll do it at my house. My next afternoon off is Thursday.”

“I’ll find someone to swap with.”

“It’s not only the proofglass, is it? It’s also SOF. You don’t want to do it just because SOF tells you to.”

I nodded. “I know they’re the good guys and everything, but…”

“I know. Once I found out they were watching me I changed the way I do some stuff. They are good guys and I do work for them and I don’t mind—much. But it’s all a little nomad for me. And I still have this silly idea that my life belongs to me.”

There were good reasons Aimil and I were friends.

I went home that night and stood on the balcony again and said to the darkness, “Con, Constantine, are you all right? If you need me, call me to you.”

For a moment I felt…something. Like a twitch against your line when you’re half asleep or thinking about something else. It may be a fish and it may be the current…but it may be a fish. (I’d learned to fish because Mel taught me, not because I longed to impale small invertebrates on barbed hooks and rip hell out of piscine oral cavities and smother fellow oxygen breathers in an alien medium.) The flicker itself made me think I was half asleep or thinking about something else, because I was straining after any sign whatsoever. And it was gone again at once.

Thursday afternoon wasn’t flash ideal but I managed. Paulie was a little too not-sorry to change his single weekly four-thirty-in-the-morning shift for another afternoon that Thursday, and he hadn’t made up the one he’d missed our last thirteen-day week yet either. I’d worry about just how not-sorry he was later. Meanwhile I got up at three a.m. to do a little extra baking like I had a point to make. As I drank the necessary pint-mug of blacker-than-the-pit-of-doom tea to get me going I stood on the balcony again, testing for quivers in the current. All I got was a stronger sense that there was something wrong; but I was good at feeling there was something wrong even when there wasn’t—something I’d inherited from my mother—and there was nothing in this case but my own glangy unease to look at.

There are advantages to driving an old wreck instead of a modern car; wrecks bounce around and jerk at your hands on the wheel and help keep you awake. The charms in the glove compartment were more restless than usual too: I think they were objecting to the driving. By the time I got off work at noon I felt it had been several years since I’d had any sleep, and I had a nap instead of lunch. I brought sandwiches in a bag, and Aimil had a pot of tea waiting for me.

It was another gray day, but Aimil had pulled the combox table around so that the chair backed up against the window, which she had opened. What daylight there was fell on me as I sat there, and there was a little wind that stroked my hair.

“Where do you want to start?” said Aimil. “With the bingo! one from the other day, or do you want to start fresh?”

I hadn’t thought about it. Good beginning. It was so hard to screw myself to do anything, the details got a bit lost…

Who—or what—was I looking for? Con? Or Bo? Since I was doing it alone with Aimil I wasn’t trying to make Pat and Jesse happy. So what was going to make me happy? Define happy.

But if I found something on the other side of the real globe that Pat and Jesse would get all tangled up in negotiations with their local SOF equivalents over, it might get them out of my hair.

Finding Bo wasn’t going to make me happy, but I didn’t want to look for Con with anyone else around, even Aimil. Which left Bo or the Unknown. The Unknown, at the moment, was unknown. Bo, on the other hand, was after me. Bo, then.

“Let’s start with bingo.”

Aimil brought up the file, highlighted the cosmail I wanted, and stepped back. I squinted at the screen. I could see the winking bar of highlighting, and the button was under my finger. I pressed.

It was like hands around my throat, a crushing, splintering weight on my breast; there was also a horrible, horrible pressure against my eyes, my poor dark-dazzled eyes…I was lost in the dark, I no longer knew which way was up and which down, I was vertiginous, I was going to be sick…

No.

I steadied myself. I found an…alignment. Somewhere. Somewhere, reaching in the dark…I was…no, I wasn’t standing. There didn’t seem to be anything to stand on, and I wasn’t sure there was any of me to stand with. If my feet had disappeared, then perhaps it wasn’t surprising that my eyes—no, my sight—had disappeared too. This wasn’t just darkness: this was what came after. This was the beyond-dark. And I could only see in the dark. My eyes were still there—or perhaps they were now my non-eyes—I couldn’t see with them and blinking no longer seemed relevant, but the pressure was there. And why was it so difficult to breathe? Especially since at the same time breathing seemed as irrelevant as blinking. Why did I want to breathe?

Where was I? I was—stretched—along some intangible line; a compass needle. Compass needles don’t mind the dark. Although I doubted I was pointing toward anything like a north that I’d recognize back in the real world. Maybe I’d found where Aimil’s cosmail had come from. But where was here? And was there some clue I could take back with me to the world I knew?

If I could get back there.

I experimented with moving. Moving didn’t seem to be an option. I was too much like nothing, here, in this nonplace, in the beyond-dark. Right, okay, next time I come I’ll organize my question better going in…

Next time, presupposing I get out of this time alive.

I was grateful for the pressure against my eyes, the difficulty breathing; it made me feel I still existed…somehow. Somewhere.

I was a magic handler, a stuff changer, a Blaise by blood, and lately, by practice. Not much practice but growing all the time.

I remembered another sense of alignment, when I had changed my little knife to a key. I reached for that sense. No, I reached for my knife. It shouldn’t have been there, and I had no fingers to feel for it, but I was suddenly aware of it. I couldn’t see it, but I knew that it was a light even in this darkness. And by its invisible light I could…see. See. Feel. Hear. Smell. Live…

I heard a rustle, like leaves in a breeze. And for a moment I stood on four slender furred legs and I could feel and hear and smell as no human could.

And then I was back again, sitting in Aimil’s living room, and her hand was reaching through my powerless fingers and pressing the button. The screen went dark. “That was not good,” she said.

“What—happened?” I was amazed at the sense of my body sitting in the chair, of gravity, of sight (light; twinkly shadows), of fingers on a keyboard, feet against a floor. Vampire senses are different from human in a number of ways. Had I—? What had I—?

The leaves laid sun-dapples on my brown back as I stood at the edge of the woods with the golden field before me. I raised my black nose to the wind, cupped my big ears forward and back to listen.

Yeek. My human fingers closed on my knife. I was still in Aimil’s living room.

“You were gone,” said Aimil. “Not long—ten seconds or so—just long enough for me to take two steps and reach for the button. But your body didn’t have you in it.” She sat down, suddenly, on the floor. “Do you know where you went?” She bowed her head between her knees, and then tipped her face back and looked up at me. “Do you know?”

I shook my head. Experimenting with motion. I remembered the void, the alignment, the other senses—my little knife. My tree. My…doe. I wondered, when she had accepted the death she knew she could not escape, if she knew what her death was for, if that could have made any difference, if that was why she…I touched the knife-bulge in my pocket. It felt no different than it ever had. We sat in daylight; if I took it out it would look like any other pocketknife. The second blade, which I rarely used, would be covered with pocket lint; the first blade, which I used all the time, would need sharpening. Folded up it was about the length of my middle finger, and a little wider and deeper; it was scraped and gouged by years in a series of pockets, sharing cramped quarters with things like loose change and car keys. And it glowed in the dark, even in the beyond-dark of the void. Glowed like a beacon that said, “Hold on. I’ve got you. Here.”

I felt—carefully—after my experience of nowhere, of beyond-dark. Had I brought anything back after all, anything I could use?

Yes. But I didn’t know what it was. It wasn’t anything so straightforward as a direction.

“Not caffeine after that,” said Aimil, still on the floor. “Scotch.” She got up on all fours and reached to the little cabinet next to her sofa. “And don’t even ask me if you want to try again, because the answer is no.”

I looked at her when she gave me a small heavy glass with a finger’s width of dark amber liquid in it, about the color of the thin wooden plates set into the sides of my little knife. “We won’t try it again today,” I said. “But we have to try again.”

“No, we don’t,” she said. “Let SOF figure it out. It’s what they’re for.”

“If they could figure it out they wouldn’t be asking us.”

“The Wars are over,” she said.

“Not exactly,” I said, after a pause. “Didn’t Pat tell you—”

“Yes, he told me we’ll all be under the dark in a hundred years!” she said angrily. “I know!”

I slid down to join her on the floor. I felt like a collection of old creaking hinges. I leaned over and put an arm around her. “I don’t want to know either.”

After a moment she said, “There have been two more dry guys in Old Town this last week. Have you heard about them?”

“Yes.” It had been on the news a few days ago—great stuff to hear when you’re driving alone in the dark—and Charlie and Liz had been talking about it when I brought the first tray of cinnamon rolls out front. They had fallen silent. I pretended I hadn’t heard anything and toppled the first burning-hot roll onto a plate for Mrs. Bialosky. She patted my hand and said, “Don’t you worry, sweetie, it’s not your fault.” Because she was Mrs. Bialosky I almost believed her, but I made the mistake of looking up, into her face, when I smiled at her, and saw the expression in her eyes. Oh. I almost patted her hand back and told her it wasn’t her fault either, but it wouldn’t have done any good. I guess I wasn’t surprised to find out that Mrs. Bialosky wasn’t only about litter and rats and flower beds.

“I wouldn’t have joined SOF just because Pat can turn blue ” Aimil said. “Working in a proofglassed room gives me asthma. Even part-time. Or maybe it’s just all the guys in khaki.”

I went back to Charlie’s for the dinner shift, but Charlie took one look at me and said, “I’ll find someone to cover for you. Go home.”

“I’ll go when you find someone,” I said, and lasted two hours, by which time poor Paulie had agreed to give up the rest of his night off after being there all afternoon. Teach him to be glad to escape the four-thirty-in-the-morning shift. I was home by eight-thirty; it was just full dark. Charlie had sent me home with a bottle of champagne that had a glass and a half left in it: perfect. I stood on my balcony and drank it and looked into the darkness. The darkness danced.

I had had an idea. I didn’t like it much, but I had to try it. I went back indoors and unplugged my combox. It’s never quite dark under the sky, and I didn’t have curtains for the balcony windows. I tucked the box under my arm, ducked into my closet, and closed the door. This was real darkness. There wasn’t a lot of room in there, but I swept a few shoes aside and sat down. Turned the box on, listened to the resentful hum of the battery; it was an old box, and preferred to run off a wire. The screen came up and asked me if I wanted to enter the globenet. I sat there, staring at the glowing lettering. In the darkness, it didn’t flicker at all, it didn’t run away into millions of tiny skittish dwindling dimensions, like looking into a mirror with another one over your shoulder. I read it easily.

I liked it even less that my idea had worked. At least I didn’t have to use a combox at Charlie’s. It would have been difficult to explain why I needed a closet.

I brought the box back out of the closet and plugged it in on my desk. Not that I invited people home very often but I was touchy about looking normal even to myself now that I was behaving more like Onyx Blaise’s daughter. Your combox on a desk is much more normal than your combox in a closet. Could my dad see in the dark? Could any of my dad’s family? I couldn’t remember any of them except my gran: the rest were tall blurry shapes from my earliest childhood. Aimil was right: the Blaises had disappeared during the Wars. But I hadn’t noticed. I had been busy being my mother’s daughter. Even if I wanted to contact them I had no idea how.

I could ask Pat or Jesse. Right after I told them I had a brand-new hotline to Vampire World the new horror theme park. It would blow the Ghoul Attack simulation at the Other Museum clean out of the water. It would make the Dragon Roller Coaster Ride at Monsterworld look like a merry-go-round. Just as soon as we get a few little details worked out, like how you get there. And how you get away again. Meanwhile I still hadn’t told them that I could see in the dark. Would I have told them a few days ago, if Aimil hadn’t been there? It was what I’d gone in to tell them.

I went back to the balcony. I felt for an alignment. I stood at the edge of the void, but I stood in my world, on my ordinary feet, looking at ordinary darkness with my…not quite ordinary eyes.

Constantine. Con, are you there?

This time I was sure I felt that tug on the line streaming in the dark ether—a coherent pinprick of something in the incoherent nothing. But I lost it again.

I was so tired I was having to prop myself against the railing to stay standing up.

So I went indoors and went to bed.

Meanwhile on other fronts I was adapting. I usually hit it right the first time when I reached for the spoon or the flour sack or the oven control. I hadn’t walked into a door in several days.

After the vision had risen like a tide and floated me off my grounding in Oldroy Park, after I’d seen what I’d seen in Maud’s face—whether it was there or not, since I could hardly ask her—when the vision subsided and left me standing on solid earth again, some of the dizziness had subsided too. It was as if the dark was a kind of road map I’d been folding up wrong, and this time I’d got it right, and it would lie flat at last. Although road maps didn’t generally keep unfolding themselves and flapping at you saying Here! Here! Pay attention, you blanker! I thought: it is a road map of sorts. But it was about a country I didn’t know, labeled in a language I didn’t understand. And it didn’t unfold so much as erupt.

I didn’t know if I’d seen what I’d seen in Mrs. Bialosky’s face either, the morning she’d told me not to worry.

So, which did I like better: that my affinity was growing stronger, that it could pull me out of the human world into some dark alien space, or that I was merely going mad and/or had an inoperable brain tumor after all? Did I have a third choice?

I worked pretty well straight through that day and got home in time to have a cup of tea in the garden. Yolande’s niece and her daughters had left after a two-week visit and it was none of my business but I was secretly delighted to have our garden to ourselves again. Yolande came out and joined me. I watched a few late roses do a kind of waltz with their shadows as a mild evening breeze played with them. Then I watched Yolande. I’d always liked watching her: I wished she could bottle that self-possession so I could have some. It was a little like Mel’s, I thought, only without the tattoos. I was feeling tired and mellow and was enjoying this so much it took me a while to realize something strange.

The shadows lay quietly across Yolande’s face.

I snapped out of being mellow and stared at her. She saw me looking and smiled. I jerked my eyes away hastily. What? How? Why? What could I ask her?

Nothing.

I looked at her again. The shadows on her face were quiet, but they went…down a long way. Like looking into the sky.

What did I know about her? She had inherited this house from some distant relative who had also been childless and felt the spinsters of the world needed to stick together. She’d moved here from Cold Harbor when she retired. I didn’t recall she’d ever told me what she retired from. She had that calm strong centeredness I thought of as ex-teacher, ex-clergy, ex-healersister or midwife; I couldn’t imagine her as someone in a power suit navigating a desk with a combox screen the size of a tennis court and a swarm of hot young assistants in an outer office whose haircuts were specially designed to look chic wearing globenet headsets ten hours a day.

I couldn’t ask. If she’d wanted to tell me it would have come up long ago. It probably had nothing to do with what she’d done for a living anyway. It was probably like having freckles or curly hair or transmuting ability: you’re born with it. But things like transmuting ability tend to lead to other choices…“I don’t think you’ve ever told me what you retired from,” I blurted out.

“I was a wardskeeper,” she said easily, as if she was commenting on the pleasantness of the evening, as if my question wasn’t entirely rude.

Wardskeeper.

I wanted to laugh. No wonder her house wards were so good. You didn’t earn that title easily. There were hundreds of licensed wardcrafters, first, second, and third class, for every wardskeeper. The rank of wardskeeper granted an unrestricted authority to design and create any protection against any Others that any client wished to hire you for. Even wardskeepers had specialties: large business, small business, home, personal bodyguard, and the whole murky business of watchering, which ranged from honest protective surveillance to downright spying. But you didn’t get your wardskeeper insignia unless you could make a more than competent stab at all of it.

Wardskeeper. She must then…her own house…but Con…I realized I’d said the first word aloud—I hoped only the first word—because she was answering me.

“No, I’m not your idea of a wardskeeper, am I?” she said. “I was never anyone’s idea. But once I was established, new business came to me by word of mouth, and my prior clients usually had the good sense to warn future clients that they were going to meet a drab little old lady—I have been old and drab since my teens, by the way—who gave the impression of being hardly able to cross the road by herself.” She looked at me, smiling. “I admit that crossing the road alone has never been one of my greater gifts. Cars move much too quickly to suit me, and frequently from unexpected directions. I was always a much better maker of wards.”

I couldn’t think how to ask my next question. I couldn’t even summon up the spare attention to hoot at the idea of Yolande being drab.

“But then,” she went on, almost as if she was reading my mind, “people often are not what one might expect them to be. I would not expect a young, likable, sensible—and sun-worshipping—human woman who works in her family’s restaurant to have a friend who is a vampire.”

Then I could say nothing at all.

“My dear,” Yolande said, “I have now told you almost as much as I know about your private affairs. Yes, there are more wards about this house and garden than you are aware of, and the fact that you haven’t been aware of them is perhaps an indication to me that I have not yet lost my skill. I knew, of course, that a vampire had been visiting, but I also knew that you had not merely invited him in, but that you were under no coercion to do so. A good ward, my dear, will also prevent a forced invitation from achieving its object. And my wards are good ones.

“It took no great effort of intellect to puzzle out some of what happened to you during the two days you were missing last spring, especially not with the reek of vampire on you. Sherlock Holmes—do young people still read him, I wonder?—made the famous statement that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. This is a very useful precept for a maker of wards, and I am not, perhaps, wholly retired. Vampires, as vampires will, caused you harm; but in this case, very unusually, not terminal harm. This one particular vampire therefore can be assumed to have done you some service, and that service created some kind of bond between you. This wild theory, suggestive of someone farther into her dotage than she wishes to believe, has been lately fortified when he returned, not once, but twice.

“I know that your unlikely friend is a vampire, a male vampire, and that there is only the one of him whom you invite across your threshold. This I have found very reassuring, by the way. Had there been more than one, I think my determination to assume the best rather than the worst might have failed. Although I admit I have doubled the wards around my own part of the house…I have nothing to indicate that he is my friend too, you understand, and the human revulsion toward vampires generally is well justified.”

Yolande leaned forward to look into my face. “In the roundabout way of an old lady who perhaps spends too much of her time alone, I am offering you my support, in this impossibly difficult task you have taken on. The natural antipathy between vampires and humans means, I feel, that it is some task; I doubt either you or your friend is enjoying the situation. I don’t suppose your new SOF colleagues know about either the task or the friend, do they?”

I managed to shake my head.

“I am not surprised. I doubt SOF is very…adaptable. Lack of adaptability is the root cause of much trouble in large organizations.”

I thought of Pat turning blue and smiled a little. But only a little. She was right about their attitude toward vampires. She was right about the universal human attitude toward vampires.

“I had not planned to say anything to you. I had at first assumed that whatever happened four months ago was over. But the vampire taint on you remained: that wound in your breast was some vampire’s handiwork, wasn’t it?”

So much for the camouflage provided by high-necked shirts. I nodded.

“And then your friend came, and now there is no wound. The two events are related, are they not?”

I nodded again.

“That is as good a definition of friendship as I need. But…I will no longer call it a taint…the fleck, the fingerprint of the vampire is still upon you. I am afraid the metaphor that occurs to me is of the eater of arsenic. If you eat a very, very little of it, over time you can develop a limited immunity to it. I do not know why you should choose to…immunize yourself like this. Or why he should…My dear, forgive me if I have been a hopeless busybody. But your inevitable and wholly justified dismay, confusion, and preoccupation of four months ago has changed, certainly, but it has not decreased. It has increased—alarmingly so.”

She paused, as if she hoped for an answer, but I could say nothing.

“My dear, there is something else my wards have told me: that your nickname is more than an affectionate joke. I can believe no evil of someone who draws her strength from the light of day. If I can help you, I will.”

The sense of a burden unexpectedly lifted was so profound it made me dizzy, not least that by its lifting I realized how heavy it was. I had assumed—I had known—that there was no one I would be able to tell about my unlikely friend—there was certainly no one I would have risked telling. And now Yolande had told me. There were two of us who knew.

Maybe that meant the task was not impossible after all. Whatever the task was.

Well, wiping Bo out would be a service to all humankind, certainly, whether Con and I survived or not. But offhand I couldn’t see how even having a wardskeeper on our side was going to be useful. Besides, I had a selfish desire to stay alive myself. Bag the future of humanity.

And Con was failing to show up to help me make plans. He was the one who had told me that time was short. The new dry guys in Old Town bore something of the same message.

But there was now another human who knew about Con and me—and hadn’t freaked out. I felt better even if I shouldn’t’ve.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Don’t thank me yet,” said Yolande. “I haven’t done anything yet, except pry into your private affairs. I would not have done so if I had felt I could risk not enquiring into them.”

Well, thank the gods and the angels for nosy landladies. This nosy landlady.

“Is there such a thing as a—an—antiward? Something that attracts?” I said.

Yolande raised her eyebrows.

“My—unlikely friend. He should have come back, and he hasn’t. And I don’t know how to find him.”

“And the binding between you?”

I shook my head. “It isn’t strong enough, or—or it’s like it crosses worlds. And I can’t enter the vampire world.” Or I can, I thought, but I don’t know what to do when I get there. Like how to find anything. Like how to get out again.

“Then perhaps he has not called you.”

Interesting that she should know he had to. “I think he is in trouble. I think he may be in enough trouble that he can’t call me. Or he doesn’t know how. Vampires don’t call humans, do they?”

One eyebrow stayed up as she thought about this. “I see the difficulty.” She sat silent for several minutes and I sat in that silence, half-remembering a thing called peace. I’d forgotten peace in the last four months. It said something about my state of mind that merely sharing the fact of Con’s existence with someone else with a heartbeat made me remember it…in spite of the hard, dreadful knowledge of the existence of Bo.

She stood up and went inside. I gave myself another cup of tea and looked at the roses. Feeling at peace, however fragilely, made it easy to slip into the visionary end of the dark-sight. The rose shadows said that they loved the sun, but that they also loved the dark, where their roots grew through the lightless mystery of the earth. The roses said: You do not have to choose.

My tree said yessssss.

My doe stood at the edge of the forest shadows, looking into the sunlight, her back sun-dappled. You do not have to choose.

I didn’t believe it. Hey, how many hamburger eaters on the planet are haunted by cows?

When Yolande reappeared, her hands were full. “I can make something more connected for you, more like a—a loop in a rope; but here is something you can try straightaway.” Two candles, and a little twist of strong-smelling herbs. “Put the candles on either side of you, and the herbs before and behind you. Light them as well—do you have smudge bowls? Wait a few minutes till the smoke from all mingles. Then seek your friend.”

I waited till full night dark, and then I settled on the floor inside the open balcony door. I lit the candles and the herbs, and stubbed the herbs out again. I waited for the smoke to mingle. It wasn’t exactly a pleasant smell, but it was interesting, and intense. A…drawing sort of smell. It drew me into it.

I closed my eyes. Con, damn you, where are you? I’m sure you’re in trouble. Call me to come to you, you stubborn bastard.

I was back in the vampire space, but the smoke had come with me, wrapped round and round me like an enormously long scarf, streaming behind me into the human world, streaming before me into the vampire beyond-dark. I lay, suspended, in between, but this time I felt neither lost nor sick.

Sunshine, pay attention. I felt neither lost nor sick. It wasn’t the same space. It was some other weird Other void where no human had any business. The big difference was that this one wasn’t trying to kill me. At least not at once. Was this the back way, the little country lane way, after the speed and roar of the superhighway had been too much for me earlier? I still couldn’t read the map.

Pity you couldn’t just take a bus.

I wriggled a little where I lay—there was still the uncanny pressure of alien-space, the difficulty breathing, the blindness, the awkwardness, as if a human body was the wrong vehicle if you wanted to travel here; but it lacked the malevolence of the nowhere I’d been in that afternoon in Aimil’s living room, and the smoke-scarf gave me a little protection, as if against a bitter wind. If I were a car, then I’d rolled my windows up. Okay. Here I was. I practiced breathing. A little time went by, if time went by here. Till the strangeness, this nonmalevolent strangeness, began to feel like…merely the medium I had to work with.

I was a painter who had been handed a dripping glob of clay, a singer who had been handed a clarinet…a baker of bread and cookies who had been handed a vampire.

I bent and turned, seeking the alignment I wanted. There…no. Almost.

There.

And then I heard his voice.

Sunshine.

Once. Only once. My name. There.

The shock of when I hit the exact bearing felt like putting my whole body in an electric socket. Wow. But then I was blazing along that line like an arrow from a burning bow. The smoke was stripped away by the speed of my going, my hair seemed to be peeling off my scalp, and the pressure was increasing…and increasing…I was being stretched—rolled like a ball of dough between palms to make breadsticks, a fluff of sheep’s wool twisted and squeezed to wind round a spindle—thinner and thinner and thinner, a bit of blunt thread crushed between huge fingers, poked painfully through the eye of a needle…

Wham.

I dropped out of the darkness, the void, the Other-space, back into something like somewhere. Back into my body, if I had been out of it.

I fell a little distance, smack, onto something. Something rather chilly, and slightly yielding, but not very, and also curiously…lumpy. I would have slid right off it again.

Except that it wrapped its arms around me, rolled me over so that it was on top of me, pinning me securely with its weight, and buried its fangs in my neck.

I froze. Well, what are you going to do? And all this was happening flickflickflick like the frames of a movie, too fast to react to.

It was dark, black dark, as dark as the void I had so recently traveled, and while I could see in the dark, I didn’t have much practice in this kind of darkness, and also…well there was this other stuff going on, you know? My chief awareness was centered on the feeling of teeth against my neck.

The teeth hadn’t broken the skin. His teeth hadn’t. His hair was in my face. I’d had his hair in my face once before, but he’d been bleeding on me that time. Maybe it was my chance to return the favor? He had said he wouldn’t turn me—that he couldn’t turn me. He’d also said that I could be killed, like any other human. Standard deaths of humans included being dry-guyed.

Maybe vampires didn’t like drop-in visitors. Well, I’d tried to call ahead. Ha ha.

His teeth were still against my neck. Other than that he was motionless. I mean that. Motionless. Like being lain on by a stone. A stone with fangs, of course.

His hair smelled musty, damp. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell—if it reminded me of anything it reminded me of spring water, wet earth and moss on the rocks around it—but it wasn’t his usual vampire smell. Don’t ask me how I knew it was him but I did. Besides the fact that I guess if it had been any other vampire he wouldn’t have hesitated midway through the fang-burying action.

He was cold. Motionless and cold. Cold all the way down the length of him…

There seemed to be a lot of skin contact going on here. I blinked against the dark. I shivered against his body. I felt, then, briefly, his lips against my neck, as they closed over the teeth. His face rested against the curve of my neck, a moment, two moments. Two of my heartbeats. He was growing less cold. I was used—sort of—to the lack of a heartbeat, but I was pretty sure he wasn’t breathing either. What vampires call breathing. The fizziness I’d put my arms around when I’d discovered my car was gone, that day at the lake, that wasn’t there either.

He raised his head. Another of my heartbeats, and another. He shifted his arms, so he was no longer holding me like a garage clamp holds a recalcitrant engine. I turned my head fractionally. I could see the gray gleam of his cheek and jaw in the blackness: my dark vision was adjusting. I felt my eyes trying to see, like when the eye doctor gives you one of those funny lenses to look through and everything is all wrong. It was disconcerting to see in what I knew was darkness like…burial; no, not a good metaphor. But wherever we were, it felt underground, and I didn’t think that was just the darkness.

He raised his head a little farther and turned his head to look at me, and I saw the stagnant-pool color of his eyes change to bright emerald green again. I remembered that the first time I’d seen his eyes, the night at the lake, they had been stagnant-pool-colored; how had I not remembered that transformation? Probably because I hadn’t seen it happen. That had been back in the days when I believed myself to be fully human, and when I couldn’t look into a vampires eyes.

He was also getting warmer. He was now no colder (say) than a hibernating lizard. This was still a little chilly from where I was though.

I felt his chest expand, and his first breath drifted across my face. I remembered being carried back from the lake, leaning against that chest, recognizing breathing, not recognizing any rhythm to it.

He’d taken his weight onto his elbows, so I could breathe more easily.

I remembered thinking, on the long walk in from the lake, that I wouldn’t have been able to match my breathing to his. But he was matching his breathing to mine, now. I also abruptly realized that I was feeling his dick growing long and hard against my leg.

We were both naked.

I knew that vampire body temperature is at least somewhat under voluntary control, like circulation of the blood is. It is, perhaps, a bit variable, especially, perhaps, under stress. He’d gone from dead cold, you should pardon the expression, to what you might call normal human body heat, in about a minute. I’d known—I’d been pretty sure—he was in trouble; that’s why I was here. Perhaps I’d—er— roused him too suddenly. Perhaps he was in what passes in vampire biological science for shock, and his control systems weren’t responding.

That didn’t explain the dick though. It was responding.

He was now suddenly hot, as hot as if he’d been in a kitchen baking cinnamon rolls in August. I already knew vampires could sweat, under certain conditions, like being chained to a wall of a house with sunlight coming in through the windows. He was sweating again now. Some of his sweat fell on me.

I’ve always rather liked sweat. On other occasions when I’ve had a naked, sweating male body up against mine, I’ve tended to feel that it meant he was getting into what was going on. This usually produces a similar enthusiasm in me. Not that there was anything going on…exactly. Yet. Remember how fast and suddenly this was all happening. And if he was in shock so was I. Maybe my brain hadn’t fully come with me in that zap through the void, like my clothes manifestly hadn’t. With a truly masterful erection now pressed against me I turned my head again and licked his sweating shoulder.

What happened next probably lasted about ten seconds. Maybe less.

I don’t think I heard the sound he made; I think I only felt it. He moved his hands again, to tip my face toward him, and kissed me. I can’t say I noticed any fangs. I had the lingering vestige of sense not to try anything clever with my teeth, which with a human lover I would have. But I was nonetheless busy with tongue and hands. I wriggled a little under him. I kissed him back as he tangled his fingers in my hair. I arched up off the floor a trifle to press myself more thoroughly against him. I was undoubtedly making some noises of my own…

I always thought the earth was supposed to move when you arrived, not when you’d only started the journey.

One second I was raising my pelvis to meet him—and believe me, he was there—and the next second he had hurled himself off me and thrown me from him, and I was flying across the floor to fetch up with a bruising whap against the wall. He bounded to his feet and disappeared.

I lay there, considering. Point one: wherever the hell I was (and I hoped this was not too literal a remark), it had a smooth, glassily smooth, stone floor. The wall I had caromed into at a guess was the same material.

Point two: what the hell had happened?

Point three: where did I want to start counting?

I hoped I was going to have the opportunity to tell Yolande that she didn’t have to make me anything special, that the herbs and candles had worked fine. If you wanted to call this fine.

I remembered, with an effort, that when I’d arrived—so to speak—Con had been cold and not breathing. But for all I knew this is merely the vampire equivalent of a nap. Lots of humans are cranky when they’re woken unexpectedly. No. I didn’t think his eyes would go stagnant-pond-colored for a nap. Okay. Maybe I had accomplished my mission—that he’d been in some kind of vampire trouble and I’d got him out of it.

I should have been embarrassed. I should have been paralyzed with embarrassment. I was sitting—no, I was crooked up—naked on a cold stone floor in the dark, having been cannoned off the wall by a…well, a creature…that I had been under the impression I was about to have an intimate encounter with. Maybe I should try to be grateful at having been spared intimacy with the most dangerous of the Others.

Gave a whole new meaning to the phrase under the dark.

I wasn’t grateful. You want to talk cranky, coitus interruptus takes me well beyond cranky. My engorged labia felt like they were pressing on my brain—what there was of my brain—and if I didn’t get to fuck someone, something, now—a vampire would do—I was going to fucking explode. My cunt ached like a bruise.

Beyond cranky, rather fortunately, doesn’t transmute into embarrassment. It transmutes into fury. As my blood pressure began to rearrange itself to a more standard unengorged pattern I was seething. I couldn’t care less that I was also naked and alone in the dark of I had no idea where. Well, I couldn’t care much. Not very much. Really.

It was a large room. Empty—except for me—and the ceiling was so high even my dark-sighted eyes couldn’t make it out. No furniture. No windows. No anything. Funny sort of place for a nap. Or maybe for a solitary siege. But then I wasn’t a vampire.

It was at least as dark as the inside of my closet. So nothing flickered when I looked at it. What there was to look at. Wow, what a bonus. I would try to control my euphoria.

He reappeared. He was wearing what I was beginning to think of as his standard get-up of long loose black shirt and black trousers. No shoes. I couldn’t be sure but I didn’t think I’d ever seen him in shoes. He was carrying something else, which he came close enough to hand over without looking at me. I unfolded it and discovered another long loose black shirt. When I had pulled it over my head it came nearly to my knees. Gods bloody damn it all. I was not in a good mood.

He was still not looking at me. I was still seething.

“I beg your pardon most profoundly,” he said.

“Yeah.” I said. “Nice to see you too.”

He made one of those quick vampire gestures, too rapid for human eyes. My no-longer-quite-human eyes could about follow it: at any rate they registered frustration. Good. That made two of us. Although on second thought, or maybe semi-thought, I doubted he was indicating physical frustration. Uncomfortably I began to be glad of the long black shirt, which probably made me look like death, especially in this light, er, this no-light: black is not my color, any way you hang it. But then looking like death might be very attractive to a vampire. In which case there was even less to explain why…My anger was subsiding. I didn’t want it to subside. I needed the warmth. But he’d thrown me away, hadn’t he? Whatever his dick said, he didn’t want me. Anger was much better than misery. Misery approached. I wrapped my arms around myself and shivered.

Maybe he saw the shiver. “After your—” He paused. “You need food,” he said. “I can’t even feed you.” He glanced down at himself as if perhaps he was expecting a peanut-butter sandwich to be suspended about his person. If he was contemplating opening a vein and offering it to me, the answer was No. If he was contemplating it, he rejected the notion. I wondered what he meant by can’t even feed me.

“I must also thank you for…retrieving me,” he said. Finally he looked at me.

Retrieving? Shiva wept.

“Any time,” I said. “I’m sure I’ll enjoy reviewing my assortment of new scars and recalling how I got them too. The ones from being slammed on my back and landed on like a sack of boulders, and the ones a few seconds later from being thrown across the room into a wall.”

I saw him flinch. One for the human.

“Sunshine,” he said. He made a move toward me, and I flinched away. One for the vampire.

I didn’t mean to say it. I didn’t mean to say anything about it. I was determined not to say anything about it. My voice came out high and strange, and sticky with wretchedness: “Why? I know about having to—invite—one of your kind.” For about six months when you’re thirteen or fourteen it’s every teenage girl’s favorite story: because it’s about finding out that you have power. “Maybe I got the details wrong? Like you need it engraved RSVP—I suppose you prefer the black border to the narrow gold line—delivered to your door at least forty-eight hours before the moment? Maybe you need it printed in blood on—on vellum. And silly me, I couldn’t find your door to deliver it.” My voice was getting higher and higher and squeakier and squeakier. I shut up.

He stood there with his hands loose at his sides, staring at the floor. His hair flopped down over his forehead. I wanted to brush it back so I could see his eyes…I wanted to do nothing of the kind. I would bite my own hand off before I voluntarily touched him again.

“I believe you were inviting more than you knew,” he said at last.

I sighed. “Oh good. Cryptic vampire utterances. My fave. Now you’re going to say something opaque and oracular about the bond between us, aren’t you? That it got me here but let’s not get carried away maybe?”

He moved so quickly I would not have stepped aside in time, but he stopped himself short and did not touch me. But he didn’t stop very short. As it was he was standing so near it was hard not to touch him. I put my hands behind my back like a dieter offered a choice of Bitter Chocolate Death or Meringuamania. “I do not disturb you by choice,” he said. “Can you not believe that?” He made another of those vampire noises: it went something like urrrrrr. “Perhaps you cannot. This—our situation—is not made easier by thousands of years of my kind…disturbing your kind.”

“Disturb is one word for it, I suppose,” I said, nastily. I was still in a bad mood, still unhappy and wanting to cause unhappiness in return. And still half blasted out of my skull by events since I had found out that evening that my landlady knew I was jiving with a vampire. A lot had happened in a short space of time. Not just one particular thing out of a morbidly kinky soap opera.

“I too am disturbed,” he said quietly.

I had my mouth open for my next uncharitable remark and changed my mind. I moved away from him, found the wall, and leaned back against it. I didn’t want to sit on the floor—and have him looming over me—and there wasn’t anything else to lean on. Except him, of course, and that wasn’t an option right now. Disturbance: okay. If I could stop feeling mortally wounded in the ego for a moment I might begin to remember again what was going on here. He was a vampire. I was a human. We weren’t supposed to have any bonds between us, except straightforward generic ones of murderous antagonism and so on. And, speaking of kinky soap opera, no one ever had an affair with a vampire, not even in Blood Lore, which was always getting prosecuted for one thing or another. The reason why, when you were thirteen or fourteen, you outgrew your fascination with the idea that a vampire couldn’t do you unless you let him is that you began to take in the fact that shortly after you’d said, “Come and get me big boy,” you died.

It was illegal to write stories and make movies about sex between vampires and humans. It was, in fact, one of the few mandates the global council really agreed on. The stories and movies got written and made anyway, but if the government caught you at it, they threw your ass in jail. For a long time.

Okay. He probably was disturbed too.

I looked at him, wondering if he was wondering how we’d wound up here, wherever here was. About why we’d been able to create this antithetical bond, and what exactly it consisted of. It probably was a good idea not to make it any more complicated—and intense—than we had to.

A small part of me whispered, “Oh, rats.”

Another small part whispered, “Yeah, well, how come he’s the one who managed to remember?”

Suddenly I was exhausted. “Truce?” I said, still leaning against the wall.

“Truce,” he said.

I was only going to shut my eyes for a moment…

I woke up feeling rather comfortable. I was lying on something soft, but not too soft, and wrapped in something warm and furry. And there was a smell of apples. My stomach roared. I opened my eyes.

No, I didn’t open my eyes, I only thought I had. I was having the most ridiculous dream of my life thus far—and I’d had some pretty ridiculous dreams in my day—something out of Gormenghast or The Castle of Otranto or House of Tombs. I wanted to say to my imagination, oh, come on.

But my stomach was still roaring (I often eat in my dreams, I know you’re not supposed to) and the apples were sitting beside me with a loaf of bread, and a fantastic goblet hilariously in keeping with the general flamboyance of my immediate surroundings, so I sat up and reached for the nearest apple. And saw the silky black sleeve falling back from my arm.

I didn’t hiss as well as he had, the night he discovered the wound in my breast, but I gave it a good shot. I was so used to my eyesight behaving strangely that the flitteriness of the lighting hadn’t at first registered, but it did now: both that there was light, and that it wiggled. There was some heat source behind me; I turned around.

The fireplace, of course, was huge. It was shaped like some monster’s roaring mouth; you could see the monster’s eyes (well, two of them; I chose not to look for more) gleaming above the mantelpiece of its writhing lips (you might not think writhing lips would have any flat spots, but there were candelabra balanced up there, shaped like snakes’ bodies and dismembered human arms); each eye was bigger than my head, and gleamed red, although that may have been the firelight. No, it wasn’t the firelight.

Con, cross-legged on the floor, straight-backed, shirtless, barefoot, his head a little bowed, looked rather as he had the first time I saw him. Only not so bony. He was also less gray, washed in the ruddy firelight. And my heart beat faster when I looked at him for different reasons than it had that first time. He looked up as I turned; our eyes met. I looked away first. I picked up the apple and bit into it. So, maybe he lived near an orchard (how long had I been asleep)? That didn’t explain the bread. I wasn’t going to ask. I wasn’t going to ask about the bottle of wine on the floor next to the little table either (the table was a depressed-looking maiden in a very tight swathe of material with no visible means of support, holding the carrying surface at an implausible angle between her neck and one shoulder. Even more implausible was the angle of her breasts, which I don’t think even cosmetic surgery could achieve), which was a straightforward local chardonnay. I’d have preferred a cup of tea. A glass or two of this on top of everything else that had been happening and I’d be off my chump. But hey, I was already. Off my chump, I mean. I poured some wine gingerly into the goblet. Pity to waste it: he’d already drawn the cork. Ever the polite host. The wine seemed to go a long way down before it hit bottom, like dropping pebbles in a well.

I ate a second apple and had a dubious sip of the wine. (It still tasted like straightforward local chardonnay, even from that histrionic beaker.) The damn goblet tingled in my hand. I really didn’t want to get into some kind of communion with an overdressed tumbler. It was knobbly with what looked like gemstones. Oh please. I ate a third apple and started on the bread. Texture suggested cheating: additional gluten flour, probably, but the taste was not too bad; the baker must have the patience or the sense to let the sponge sit a while and ripen. Maybe I was just very hungry.

“Thank you,” I said.

Con’s shoulders rippled briefly: vampire shrug facsimile, maybe. “It is little enough,” he said.

“How long did I sleep?”

“Four hours. It is four hours till dawn,” he replied.

And Paulie had taken the early shift this morning. (He’d offered.) Okay.

My little excursion through nowheresville must have taken no time at all. One of the standard features of nowheresville, maybe, that made a kind of sense, but you didn’t really expect your very own alarming out-of-this-world experiences to align with the science fiction you’d read as a kid. The science fiction you’d outgrown in favor of Christahel and The Chalice of Death. My eyes wandered involuntarily to the gem-festooned goblet. I had to admit my reading had sort of prepared me for an overheated fantasy like this room. About nowheresville I was on my own.

Con didn’t look as if he’d suffered any ill effects from his coma, or whatever it had been. I wondered what passed for a near-death experience in a vampire? A slightly misplaced stake? He’d been able to go out foraging, anyway: the bread and the apples were both fresh.

“I wouldn’t have expected you to…choose to sit next to a fire,” I said, at random. Sitting next to a fire seemed like the sort of thing only silly, show-offy vampires would do. Like human kids playing chicken in No Town.

He didn’t say anything. Oh, good, we’re playing that game again. I ate another apple.

He raised his head and shook his hair back in an almost human gesture. Almost. “We do not need heat as you do,” he said, and I expertly translated the “we” and “you” into “vampires” and “humans.” “But we may enjoy it.”

Enjoy. I didn’t enjoy thinking about vampires enjoying things. The things they tended to enjoy.

“I enjoy it,” he said, and, surprising me enormously, added, “it is the warmth of life and the heat of death.”

Life as defined by warmth to a chilly vampire? Death by burning, death by the sun? Or the original death of being turned? Maybe he had been harmed by his coma: it was making him introspective. As being bounced off walls appeared to be doing to me.

I took a deep breath. “I—I have had a—a feeling that all was not well with you—for some time,” I said. “I think it began the night you—healed me. But it took me a while to—to figure out that that was what I was picking up. If I was. If you follow me.”

“Yes,” he said.

He didn’t say anything more for the length of time it took me to eat a fourth apple. Hey, they were small. Was it rude to eat, er, food, in front of a vampire? I’d done it before, of course. But if there was a future in congenial vampire-human relations there were grave (so to speak) etiquette questions to be addressed.

“Will you tell me what happened to you?” I said, half irritated at the need (apparently) to drag it out of him, half astonished at my own desire to know. What was this, friendship? Big irony alert. Here we’re both agonizing over this Carthaginian bond business and maybe it’s only that we’re learning to be friends. I could get into fireside sitting as the warmth of life too, probably. Hey, he was still a vampire and I was still a human and there was some other weird stuff, like transmuting and poisoned wounds and nowheresville. Not to mention going out in daylight.

But if we were supposed to be friends, I was going to have to get used to the fact that he wasn’t the chatty type.

He said, musingly, as if he was listening to his own words as he spoke them, “I was more wearied by the effort to heal your wound than I realized at once. I had not, you see, ever attempted anything similar before. As I told you, I had to…invent certain aspects. Guess others. I am not accustomed to not knowing what I am doing.”

One of the advantages of very long life. Lots of time for practice.

“I was careless after I left you. I permitted myself to be preoccupied. I was…sensed. By one of Bo’s gang. I needed to escape, and not to let her trace you through me. Another maneuver I am unaccustomed to is protecting the whereabouts of a human.”

I had the feeling he was saying something more than, “And they weren’t going to get anything out of me other than my name, rank, and serial number.” I wondered what a vampire address book would look like: would it have alignments rather than street numbers? What would an alignment index look like?

Could one vampire steal another vampire’s address book?

“The first one called for assistance, of course; and they were very…persistent, when they caught the trace of you on me as well. I eluded them eventually. It was not easy. I came here. As you found me.”

Naked in a dark empty stone room. Vampire convalescence gone wrong. “You mean you had been like that over a month? You schmuck, why didn’t you call me before?”

He looked up at me, and there was undeniably a faint smile on his face. It looked a little grotesque, but not too bad, considering. Nothing like as awful as his laugh, for example. “It never occurred to me.”

I had said to Yolande: Vampires don’t call humans, do they?

He looked back at the fire. “Even if it had, I do not think I would have done so. It would not have occurred to me that you could assist in any way.”

“You called me. You called my name. Once. I wouldn’t have found you if you hadn’t.”

“I heard you calling me. You asked me to answer you.”

“I called you to call me.”

“Yes. Sunshine, do you wish me to apologize again? I will if you desire it. I could not have rescued myself. I was…too far away. But I heard you, and I could still answer. You came and…brought the rest of me back with you. I am grateful. I thank you. That is not the way I would have chosen to…leave this existence. The balance between us has tipped again.”

“Oh, the hell with the damn balance,” I said. “What I’m thinking is, if you hadn’t needed to protect me, it would have been a lot easier, right? I weaken you, don’t I? Aside from your having got tired already bailing me out that night.” With the blood of a doe.

There were times, like now, when the feel of light and warmth was…different too. Different like seeing in the dark was different—but differently different. Different in a way I knew didn’t come from a vampire. Is this simple nowness of awareness some gift from her?

For a moment there were three of me: there was the human me. There was my tree-self. And my deer-self.

Surely we outnumbered the vampire-self?

“Weakened,” he said thoughtfully. “I think your interpretation of weakness may be distorted. I am physically stronger than any human. I can go without sustenance for longer than any human. But you can derive sustenance from bread and apples, which I cannot. And you can walk under the sun, which I cannot. How do you define weakness?”

I was thinking about my experience of bringing the rest of him back. It was a little difficult not to think about comparative weakness when only one of you could fling the other one across a room and into a wall and you were the one that got flung. Okay, I was not going to pursue that line. I sighed. He had already told me he couldn’t stand against Bo alone. Choosing me as an ally might have made more sense to me if getting calories out of bread and apples and going around in daylight had any discernable relevance to the issue. “Where am I?”

I thought he looked puzzled. Another of those vampire-senses-are-different moments, I suppose. “This is my…home,” he said at last.

“You don’t call it home,” I said, interested.

“No. I might call it my…earth-place, perhaps. I spend my days here. I have done so for many years.”

“Earth-place? Then we are underground?”

“Yes.”

“What about the fireplace?”

He looked at me.

“Doesn’t the smoke say ‘Someone’s here’?”

“The smoke is not detectable in the human world.”

Oh. Vampires would hold a lot more than one-fifth of the global wealth if they patented a really good air filter. The cynical view of the Voodoo Wars is that the Others had done us humans a favor, by killing enough of us off and thus lowering the level of industrial commerce to a point that we hadn’t managed to commit species suicide by pollution yet, which we otherwise might well have. Even if they looked at it this way, which I doubted, this would not have been pure philanthropy. Demons and Weres, whichever side of the alliance they’d been on, need most of the same things we do, and vampires…well. Maybe it depends on your definition of “philanthropy.”

I looked around a little more. The only light was from the fire, and my dark vision was sort of half-confounded by something about this place, maybe just the thundering excess. Still, I could see a lot, and it was all pretty bizarre. The fur I was wrapped up in appeared to be real fur, long and silky, in jagged black and white stripes. I couldn’t think what animal it might be. Something that didn’t exist, perhaps, till a vampire killed it. With the slinky black shirt—and the bruises—I felt like something off the cover of this month’s Bondage and Discipline Exclusive. All I needed was ankle bracelets and a better haircut. The buttons on the back of the sofa I was lying on were tiny gargoyle faces, sticking their tongues out or poking their fingers up their noses. Every now and then they weren’t faces at all, but pairs of buttocks. The sofa itself was some kind of purple plush velvet…except that the shadows it laid were lavender. Well, if I could travel through nowheresville I suppose I shouldn’t protest about shadows that were lighter than their source, or about furs from animals that didn’t exist. My knowledge of natural history in black and white didn’t extend much beyond skunks and zebras anyway. Maybe it did exist, whatever it was. The fur could have been dyed, but somehow this didn’t suit my idea of vampire chic. Actually Con didn’t suit my idea of vampire chic. This hectic Gothic sensibility was a surprise. “Interesting decorating principles,” I said.

He glanced around briefly, as if reminding himself what was there. “My master had a sense of the dramatic.”

I was riveted both by my master and had. As in used to have, as in dead, rather than undead? “Your master?” I said experimentally.

“This is his room.”

Silence fell. Con returned to staring motionlessly at the fire. So much for leading questions. I sighed again.

Con, to my surprise, stirred. “Do you wish to hear about my master?” he said.

“Well, yes,” I said.

There was a pause, while he, what? Organized his thoughts? Decided what to leave out? “He turned me,” he said at last. “I was not…appreciative. But I was apt to his purpose. As there was no going back I agreed to do as he wished.” Another pause, and he added, with one of those more-expressionless-than-expressionless expressions, like his more-than-stillness immobility: “A newly turned vampire is perhaps more vulnerable than you would guess. I was dependent on my master at first, whether I wished it or not, and I…chose to let him teach me what I needed to know to survive. That was many years ago, when this was still the New World.”

Eek, I thought. Three or four hundred years ago, give or take a few decades, and depending on which Old World explorers you are counting from. That can’t be right: if he was that old, he shouldn’t be able to go out in moonlight.

“He wished to rule here, when the Liberty Wars came, at least…unofficially.”

The standard human slang was below ground and above ground. Unofficially would be below ground: being the biggest, nastiest junkyard dog of the dark side. Officially would still be pretty unofficial: control another two-fifths of the world economy, presumably, and make our global council into a bit of window-dressing.

“He might have succeeded, but he had bad luck, and a powerful and bitter enemy with better luck. There were not many of my master’s soldiers left after the Liberty Wars. I was one. Much of my master’s vitality left him with the ruin of his ambition. He turned collector instead. Those of his soldiers that had survived the Wars left or were destroyed, one by one, till only I remained. When my master also was destroyed, I was left alone.”

I was glad of the warmth of the fire. Con’s voice was low and, as ever, dispassionate, and I had no clue whether he’d been, you know, fond of his master in any way, maybe after he’d got over being un-appreciative of having been turned. What purpose had Con been apt for? I was sure I didn’t want to know. Good. One question that probably wouldn’t get answered that I didn’t have to ask. Why had Con stayed when everyone else left? I remembered him saying a month ago: There are different ways of being what we are. His master before the Liberty Wars sounded like your common or garden-variety world-takeover odin vampire thug, and a powerful one at that. So why had Con stayed? Con who didn’t even run a gang now. More questions not to ask for fear he would answer.

But I didn’t have much clue about the working range of vampire emotion. Blood lust. What else? (Other kinds of lust? Maybe it had been…life lust, earlier. No, I wasn’t thinking about that.) Did Con get over being unappreciative by getting over being able to feel appreciative? No—Con had just told me he was grateful for being rescued. But gratitude might be a human concept, applicable merely to a situation that demanded some kind of courtesy, as pragmatically meaningless as thank you. Well, at least he’d, hmm, felt that courtesy was demanded.

And then there was Bo. The inconvenient bond between Con and me that we were trying to, um, strengthen, without, um, intensity, was because of Bo’s threat to both of us. I did not like where this thought was going.

“Your master’s bitter enemy…was it Bo?”

“No. Bo’s master.”

Oh well that made it all better immediately. I stuffed a handful of fur in my mouth to stop myself from whimpering.

Con looked up at me. Perhaps he thought the bread and apples hadn’t been enough and I was still hungry. “I destroyed his master. It’s only Bo now.”

I bit down on the fur. Pardon me, I thought, if I don’t find this information overwhelmingly reassuring. Only Bo. And his gang, which had chained Con up in a house by a lake not too long ago from which he escaped only by a very curious chance. Con might not fall for that one again but no doubt there were other possibilities. Bo could be assumed to be the resourceful kind of evil fiend. Another of those possibilities had almost got Con a month ago, for example. Why didn’t Con want to post an ad in the sucker personals—there had to be hidden vampire zones on the globenet—asking for his old comrades in arms to return for a bit and give him a hand? He could pass out the contents of his master’s old room as reward, since he didn’t seem too interested in them. If those were real gemstones in my absurd goblet, it was probably worth the national debt of a medium-sized country.

Why didn’t he just run a gang, like a normal vampire of his age? Who should have to because he couldn’t go out in moonlight any more.

There were so many questions I didn’t want to know the answers to.

I pulled the fold of fur back out of my mouth again, and tried to smooth it down. Teethmarks, not to mention spit, probably lowered its value. I felt horribly tired, and alone, despite my companion. Especially because of my companion. I picked up the goblet again—it nearly took two hands; two hands would certainly have been easier, I was just resisting the idea of needing two hands—and teetered it toward my mouth. As it had seemed a long time before the wine hit the bottom pouring it in, it seemed rather a while before it touched my lips, tipping it back out. Drinking straight from the bottle, however, didn’t seem like an option. Not in this room. In Con’s room maybe—the empty one with no furniture. And no fire.

I wanted mountains of dough to turn into cinnamon rolls and bread, I wanted an unexpected tour group on a day we’re short of kitchen staff, I wanted a big dinner party to ask for cherry tarts, I wanted to curl up on my balcony with a stack of books and a pot of tea, I wanted Mel’s warm, tattooed arm around me and daylight on my face. I wanted to go home. I wanted my life back.

I had been here before. I had once had all that, and I drove out to the lake one night to get away from it.

“What is this thing, anyway?” I said, heaving the goblet up. I conceded, and used two hands. It could be a loving cup. First prize in vampire league sports. You didn’t fill it with champagne, of course; you cut off the heads of the losing team and poured their blood in. Champagne later maybe when they ran out of the hard stuff.

“It is a Cup of Souls from the ceremony of gathering at Oranhallo.”

What?” I put it down hastily. Just stop asking questions, Sunshine. No wonder it goddam tingled against my goddam hand. Nobody knows where Oranhallo is. Well, nobody who knows is telling the rest of us. It’s not a big issue on the Darkline but it is one of the things that keeps coming up. Among the people who think it exists somewhere you could describe by latitude and longitude, none of the plausible guesses are anywhere near New Arcadia. But there isn’t any consensus on whether it is a geographic place or merely a part of the rite. It is a big magic handlers’ rite, done by clan. The Blaises probably knew how (and where) to do it, but I didn’t. I didn’t know anything about cups of souls or ceremonies of gathering, but I didn’t want to.

“It is one of the few articles in this room that my master was given,” said Con. “Usually there was some constraint involved.”

I bet there was. “Why would a magic-handler clan want to give something like this to a master vampire? Especially a master vampire.”

“It was not freely given,” Con said after another of his pauses. “But it was offered and accepted as payment for a task he had undertaken that was to their mutual benefit. There was some choice about the conclusion to this task. This reward was proposed as persuasion to make one choice instead of another. The Cup carries no taint that might distress you.”

And your gracious dining accessories don’t run to wineglasses from Boutique Central. “Then why does it buzz against my skin?” I said crossly.

“Perhaps because it was the Blaise clan that possessed it,” said Con.

I jumped off the sofa, staggered, bumped into the little table, and heard the goblet crash to the floor as I ran off into the darkness. I didn’t get far; Con’s master had been a very enterprising collector, and I wasn’t up to the weaving and zigzagging to make my way through the spoils. I collided with something that might have been an ottoman almost at once, and hit the floor even harder than the goblet had, although I didn’t spill. Further note on vampire emotions, if any: don’t expect a vampire to understand the turbulence of human family ties—including broken ones—or maybe it’s that vampires don’t get it about cowardice, and how a good sound human reaction to unwelcome news is to try and run away from it.

I picked myself up. More bruises. Oh good. It wasn’t going to be a mere matter of high-necked T-shirts this time; I was going to need an all-over bodysuit plus a bag over my head. I turned around slowly, balancing myself against some great furled spasm of plaster that might have counted, in these surroundings, as an Ionic pillar. Con was standing up, facing me, his back to the fire, haloed by its light. Maybe it was my state of mind, but he suddenly looked far larger and more ominous than he had since before I knew his name. I couldn’t see his face—maybe my dark vision had been further unsettled by my fall—but there was something wrong about his silhouette against the firelight; something wrong about him being surrounded by light at all. I remembered what I had thought that first time, by the lake: predatory. Alien. He wasn’t Con, he was a vampire: inscrutable and deadly.

I made my way back toward the fire. I don’t know if I wanted to reclaim Con as my ally, if not my friend, or if it was that there was no point in running away. I had to pass very close to him to reach the fire; there was only one gap among all the arcane bric-a-brac that would let me through. I knelt on the hearthrug—at least there was a hearthrug, even if the hairy fanged head at one end of it didn’t bear close examination—and held my hands out toward the fire. It felt like a real fire. More important, it smelled like a real fire, and when I leaned too close the smoke made my eyes sting. It spat like a real fire too, and since there was no fireguard a spark fell onto the hearthrug. I glanced down; the hearthrug was unexpectedly unprepossessing, the fur short and brownish and patchy, having had sparks fly into it before. A few new burns wouldn’t ruin its looks because it didn’t have any. I felt hearthrugish. I’d never worried about my looks much; I had always had other things to worry about, like making cinnamon rolls and getting enough sleep. But I was beginning to feel rather too burn-marked. Like I’d been lying too near a fire with no fireguard.

Did I hear him sit down near me? You don’t hear a vampire coming: I knew this by experience. But this wasn’t any vampire; this was Con. I’d already promised to help him, if I could, because I needed his help. No. I hadn’t promised. But it didn’t matter. The bond was there. I hadn’t ratified any contract, I’d woken up one morning to discover fine print and subclauses stamped all over my body. If I wanted a signature, it was the crescent scar on my breast. It meant I heard him coming even when I didn’t hear him coming.

I waited a moment longer before I turned to look at him. Vampire. Dangerous. Unknowable. Seriously creepy. This one’s name was Constantine. We’d met before.

Well.

“What do we do now?” I said.

“I take you home,” said Con.

“Okay, that’s today. What about tonight? Tomorrow?” I said.

“We must find Bo.”

My stomach cramped. Maybe it was just the apples. I also had to learn that shilly-shallying was not a vampire gift. I wondered if I could teach him to say “perhaps” and “not before next week.”

I knew this wasn’t going to be a matter of loading up on apple-tree stakes (or table knives) and knocking on Bo’s front door. “You don’t know where he, uh, lives.”

“No. I had only begun to search, since our meeting by the lake. He is well defended and well garrisoned.”

I glanced up at the invisible ceiling. Given the furnishings the ceiling was probably phenomenal. Or antiphenomenal: like Medusa’s head or the eye of a basilisk. “I hope you are better defended,” I said.

“I hope so too.”

I didn’t like hearing a vampire talk about hope.

“My master specially collected things that defend, or could be turned to defense. He felt that his attempt to win what he desired by aggression had failed, and he wished his subsequent seclusion to be uninterrupted.”

Gargoyles and tchotchkes: the vampire arsenal.

“I have always preferred solitude, and have improved on his arrangements. I have some reason to believe that if I never left this place no one would be able to come to me.”

“You are forgetting the road through nowheresville,” I said. Feelingly.

“I am not forgetting,” he said. “I am assailable by you in a way I am assailable to no one and nothing else.”

Assailable. An interesting choice of adjective. I looked up at him, and he looked down at me. I couldn’t see into the shadows on his face. They remained shadows. They didn’t wiggle or sparkle and they didn’t have red edges. They didn’t go down a long way. They were just shadows. Cute. The only person who still looked normal out of my eyes wasn’t a person and wasn’t normal.

The look between us lengthened. He might not be able to lure me to the same doom he almost had the second night at the lake, but it seemed to me it was still doom I saw in his eyes. I looked away. “Improvements,” I said. “You mean some of this—this—” The phrases that occurred to me were not tactful: this tragic reproduction of William Beckford’s front parlor, or perhaps Ludwig II’s. “You mean some of this, er, stuff is, er, yours?”

“Nothing you may see, no. I do not like tying up my strength in objects. It was an old argument with my master. Physical shape has a certain durability that the less tangible lacks, but I feel it is a brittle durability. He believed otherwise.”

And he’s the one who got skegged, I thought. “Do you know what Bo’s philosophy of, er, defense is?”

Pause. Finally he said: “He puts most of his energies into his gang. This will not help us locate him.”

I sighed. “This is another of those vampire-senses-are-different things, isn’t it?” I supposed I had to tell him what I’d found through the globenet—how I’d first found the bad nowheresville, the beyond-dark human-squishing space, and what else seemed to be in there. If “in” was the right preposition. Out? On? Up? With? After? Over? English has too many prepositions. Did I have to mention SOF?

I didn’t have to tell him anything yet. He didn’t seem to be in a big hurry to get me home. How close, in ordinary human-measured geography, was this earth-place to Yolande’s house? Ally or no ally, I didn’t like the idea of our being neighbors.

“Bo isn’t his real name, is it?” I said. “It sounds like something you’d call a sheepdog.”

“It is short for Beauregard.”

I laughed. I hadn’t known I had a laugh available. A vampire named Beauregard. It was too perfect. And he probably hadn’t got it accidentally from his stepdad who ran a coffeehouse.

“How much time do we have?” I said. “Bo, I mean, not today’s dawn.”

I was beginning to learn when he was thinking and when he was merely thinking about what to say to me, a bumptious human. This time he was thinking.

“I have been out of context since we last met,” he said. Yes, he said context. “I do not know. I will find out.”

“Same time, same place,” I murmured. “Not.”

“I do not understand.”

“We have to meet again, right?” I said. “And I have things to tell you too. I may have a—a kind of line on Bo myself.”

He nodded. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or outraged. Maybe he thought he’d chosen his confederate well. Equal partners with a vampire: an exhilarating concept. Supposing you lived long enough to enjoy the buzz. But I guess “Hey, well done, congratulations, wow” weren’t in common vampire usage. Maybe I could teach him that too, with “probably” and “not before next week.”

“I will come to you, if I may,” he said.

“You would rather I didn’t come here again.” I hadn’t meant to say that either, but it popped out.

A clear trace of surprise showed on his face for about a third of a second. I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t been looking straight at him, but it was there. “You may come here if you wish. I…” He stopped. I could guess what he was thinking. It was the same thing I was thinking. Wasn’t thinking. “Come. I will give you a token.”

He slid easily through the gap in the impedimenta (sorry, this household brought out the worst in my vocabulary; it was like every bad novel and hyperbolic myth I’d ever read crowding round to haunt me in three dimensions) and made off into the dark. I had a sidelong peek at the overturned goblet as I passed it. My dark vision steadied if I kept it on Con’s back, so I did, mostly, resisting the compelling desire to try to figure out what some of the more tortured blacknesses indicated by looking at them directly: hydras with interminable heads; Laocoon with several dozen sons and twice as many serpents; an infestations of trifflds; the entire chariot race from Ben Hur: all frozen in plaster or wood or stone. I hoped. Especially the trifflds.

Con stopped at a cupboard. It had curlicues leaping out of its lid like a forest of satyrs’ horns, and something—things—like satyrs themselves oiling down the edges. It was satyrs. Their hands were its handles. Ugh. Con, his own hand on one of the doors, glanced at me. “Why did the Cup distress you?”

I shrugged. How was I going to explain?

“My question is not an idle one,” he said. “I do not wish to distress you.”

Not till after we’d defeated Mr. Bo Jangles anyway. Oh, Sunshine, give a vampire a break. He probably thinks he’s trying. “I’m not sure I can explain,” I said. “I’m not sure I can explain to me. And vampires aren’t much into family ties, are they?”

“No,” he said.

I already knew vampires aren’t great on irony.

“I…have got into this because of my inheritance on my father’s side. I’m certainly alive to tell about it—so far—on account of that inheritance, right? But—” I looked into his face as I said this, and decided that the standard impassivity was at the soft, understanding end of the range, like marble is a little softer than adamant. “I’m a little twitchy about this bond thing with you, and the idea of—of— a kind of background to it—that your master had dealings with my dad’s family—I don’t like it.” I didn’t want to know that the monster that lived under your bed when you were a kid not only really is there but used to have a few beers with your dad. “And the only training I’ve ever had, if you want to call it training, was a few hours changing flowers into feathers and back with my gran fifteen years ago, and I feel a little…well, exposed. Unready.” I could maybe have said, assailable.

“I see.” Con stared at the ugly door for a moment as if making up his mind, and then opened it. Inside were rows and rows of tiny drawers. I could feel the—well, it wasn’t heat, and it wasn’t a smell, and it wasn’t tiny voices, but it was a little like all three together. There were dozens of things in those drawers and not an inert one in the lot. They were all yelling/secreting/radiating a kind of ME! ME! ME! like the jock kids in school when the coach is choosing teams. I wondered what the cupboard was made of. I didn’t feel like touching it myself and seeing if it might tell me anything. I didn’t like the grins on the faces of the satyrs.

Con opened a drawer and lifted out a thin chain. The other voices/emissions subsided at once, some of them with a distinct grumble (or fart). The chain glimmered in the nonlight—the foxy-colored light of the fire didn’t reach this far—it looked like opal, if there was a way to make flexible connecting loops out of opal. It was humming a kind of thin fey almost-tune; my mind, or my ear, kept trying to turn it into a melody, but it wouldn’t quite go. Con poured it from one palm to the other—it looked fine as cobweb in his big hands—and then held it up again, spreading his fingers so that it hung in a near-circle. The almost-tune began to change. It would catch, like a tiny flaw tripping a recording, making it hesitate and skip; but each time it picked up again the tune had changed. It did this over and over as I listened, as Con held it up; and as I listened the strange, wavering nontune seemed to grow increasingly familiar, as if it were a noise like the purr of a refrigerator or the high faint whine of a TV with the sound turned off. Familiar: comfortable. Safe. I also felt, eerily, that the sound was becoming more familiar because it was somehow trying to become familiar: like the shape of a stranger at the other end of the street becomes your old friend so-and-so as it gets close enough for you to see their face and possibly that ratty old coat they should have thrown out years ago. This sibylline chain was approaching me…and dressing itself up as an old friend.

It knew its job. By the time it drifted off into silence I was reaching for it as if it belonged to me. Which maybe it did. Con dropped it over my hands and it seemed to stroke my skin as it slid down my fingers. I watched it gleaming for a moment—the gleam seemed to have a rhythm, like a heartbeat—and then I dropped it over my head. It disappeared under the collar of the black shirt, but I felt it lying against me, crossing the tips of the scar below my collarbones, resting in a curve over my heart.

“Thank you,” I said, falteringly. I knew a powerful piece of magic when I saw it and hung it round my neck, but I had never heard of anything quite like this…convergence; usually you had to make a terrific effort to match things up even a quarter so well as this. Of course what I didn’t know about magic handling would fill libraries.

Also, “thank you” seemed about as pathetic a response to such a marvel as anyone could make.

“I thought it would be glad to go to you.”

“Er—didn’t you—”

“No. My master was vexed when he discovered the necklet would not work for him nor any of our kind. This cupboard contains some of his other disappointments.”

“There was a bit of a clamor, when you opened the doors,” I said.

“Yes. These are human things, and they have seen no human since they were brought here.” Pause. “They do not love being idle. Some of them are very powerful. I can restrain them, even if I cannot use them. I would offer them to you, if…”

“If there was any indication I wouldn’t make a total botch,” I interrupted, “which there isn’t. To the contrary, if anything.” The question of the existence of my demon taint, never far from the front of my mind these days despite serious competition from vampires and immediate death, resurfaced long enough to register that the “human things” had responded to me as human. Well, if they were comparing me to Con I was a shoo-in. I didn’t know how long they’d been here, but a good guess was long enough to make them desperate. I touched the chain with my finger, and half-thought, half-imagined I heard a faint—the faintest of faint—hums. If I was going to say I’d heard it, I’d say it was a happy hum. But I wasn’t going to say I’d heard it.

“The Cup was my mistake.”

“Allow me to point out that it had been a rather tiring evening already,” I said testily, “before I met the damn…cauldron. And I wasn’t exactly prepared. Nor was I exactly introduced. Even a master handler—which I am not—can be caught off guard.”

“The necklet will allow you to find your way back here,” said Con. “You may, if you wish, investigate these things further, having prepared yourself.”

I laughed a small dry croaking laugh. “That kind of preparation takes decades of apprenticeship. Ruthless, singleminded, hair-raising apprenticeship. It also requires someone to be apprenticed to, which in my case I have not got, besides being at least fifteen years too old to start.” And possibly calamitously partblood.

After a pause, Con said, “I too had to…invent much of my apprenticeship. A master with whom you cannot agree is sometimes worse than no master.”

Then why did you stay? I thought.

“There are few, I think, master handlers, who could have traveled the way you traveled this evening to come here, and lived.”

My capacity for invention is flash hot stark, I thought. Sucker sunshade. Disembodied radar-reconnaissance. Not to mention Bitter Chocolate Death and Killer Zebras. Pity about the rest of me.

“If you will accept advice from me I would suggest you not come that way again, except in direst need.”

“Happy to promise that one,” I said. “But don’t find yourself in direst need again either, okay? Or even plain old bland low-level semi-sub-dire need.”

“Ah. No,” said Con. “I will promise as well. To the extent it is within my mandate.”

He closed the cupboard. I thought, if I do get back here, for my first trick I’m going to transfer all that stuff out of that deeply repulsive cupboard, which I’m sure isn’t making any of it rest any easier. Supposing I can find anything more suitable in this baroque fun-house.

“We must be on our way. Dawn is a bare hour away.”

“An hour?” I said. “You mean you’re—this—is that close to—”

My dismay was hardly flattering, but Con answered with his usual detachment: “Not in human geography. But the fact that you are here at all—by the way you came—and the necklet you now wear—you will be able to walk some of my shorter ways.”

My heart sank. “You just told me not to use nowheresville again.“

Con said, “I cannot travel that road any more than I can walk under the sun. I do not take you that way.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well.”

I don’t know how we came out above ground again, out into the ordinary night, with a little ordinary breeze and a few ordinary bats swooshing about. Bats. How quaint. I noticed they did not come from where we had come from, however. Wherever that was. I don’t seem to recall coming out, like from a tunnel; the wilder, intenser darkness of Con’s earth-place merely thinned and crumbled, and eventually we were walking on rough grass and turf. With bats skating overhead. I was uncomfortably reminded of my perfunctory clothing when the breeze showed a tendency to billow up inside the long black shirt, but I was so grateful to be breathing fresh air—and because I desperately wanted to be home—when Con took my hand I didn’t instantly jerk it away from him again. At least he didn’t offer to carry me. Even though I was barefoot again. It occurred to me that I had a pattern of being inappropriately dressed during my associations with Con.

His shorter way was a little like stepping on stepping stones while the torrent foamed around your feet—in this case the torrent of that conventional reality I was so eager to return to—and threatening at any moment to surge over the edge and sweep you away. I almost certainly would have lost my balance without his hand: you had to look down to see where to put your feet, and reality careering past at Mach hundred and twelve is seriously dizzy-making, plus some of the stepping stones were dangerously slick, disconcertingly like ordinary stones in an ordinary stream, although I didn’t want to think what they were slick with, nor what the equivalent of getting soaking wet might be if I fell off. It was less unnerving than the way I’d gone earlier tonight, as that way was less unnerving than where Aimil’s cosmail had taken me, but it was still unnerving. Very.

I wondered if traveling through nowheresville was part of the You will begin, now, I think, to read those lines ofpower, governance, sorcery, as I can read them, that Con had predicted a month ago. But he’d said read. If this was reading I didn’t want to know about doing.

Then the stones seemed to get bigger and bigger and the torrent slowed and grew calm, and we were at the edge of Yolande’s garden.

I didn’t notice him leave. I don’t remember his dropping my hand. But as I recognized the shape of the house in the near-light of mundane night under the open sky, I realized I was alone.

I remembered as I staggered up the porch steps, trying to avoid the creakiest ones, that I didn’t have the key to my apartment. Again. At this rate I should start keeping a spare under a flowerpot for those nights I found myself doing something strange with Con while barefoot and unsuitably clothed. Maybe it was the necklet, but I put my hand over the keyhole and growled something, I don’t know what, and heard the damn bolt click open. I also heard tiny ward voices chittering at me irritably, but they didn’t try to stop me coming in. I rebolted the door tidily behind me.

I didn’t take his shirt off. I fell onto my bed and was asleep instantly.

I half expected to wake up and find myself lying in a little pile of ashes, when the black vampire shirt disintegrated under the touch of the sun’s rays; I more than half expected to wake up having had long, labyrinthine dream about Con with a background to match—labyrinthine, I mean. No again. (Although I remembered when I’d last woken up in my bed and hoped that what I remembered about something-strange-with-Con had only been an embarrassing dream. It hadn’t been a dream that time either—and the things-that-weren’t-dreams were by this showing getting more embarrassing. (Speaking of patterns I wanted to break soon.) I did wake stiff as a plank from all my new scrapes and bruises, and with a crick in my neck so severe I wasn’t sure I was ever going to get my face facing frontward again. I looked over my shoulder at the little heap of abandoned clothing in front of the still-open balcony door as I stumbled into the bathroom and started running hot water for a bath. I’d been here before too, only last time it was the other vampires that had knocked me around.

Be fair, I thought. I’m in a lot better shape than I was when I got home four and a half months ago.

I didn’t feel like being fair.

For just a moment—for fewer than the ten seconds it had lasted when it happened—I remembered his mouth on mine, his naked body hot and sweating against mine—

No. I put my head under the tap and let the water blast all such thoughts away. My hair needed shampooing anyway.

The shirt, although it needed a wash, still looked pretty glamorous in daylight. Good quality material. Nice drape. Even if black wasn’t my color. Although at the moment a lot of me was dark blue and purple, and it coordinated very well with that. I scowled at the mirror. My own fault for looking. The chain round my neck gleamed in daylight too. It looked more like gold this morning, but if I stirred it with a finger it had a queer iridescent quality not at all like real gold, not that I had much acquaintance with the stuff. I had always favored plastic and rhinestones.

I took the shirt off carefully and put it with the other laundry. Was it natural fibers, I wondered, did it need to be dry-cleaned? I had somehow neglected to ask Con about these crucial details. Borrowing shirts from ordinary guys wasn’t this complicated. For one thing, ordinary-guy shirts usually had washing instruction tags in them. This one didn’t have any tags.

I took my bath and wondered if I was going to make it in to the coffeehouse for the lunch shift.

I wasn’t anything like as bad off as I had been last spring. I was just sulky. I only took one bath. By the time the water had cooled from scalding to merely hot I could almost turn my head again.

I left the rainbow chain round my neck during my bath. I didn’t want to take it off somehow, and I doubted that bubble bath was going to tarnish it. What I did do was introduce it to my other talismans. I hadn’t a clue how to clean up after last night’s magic— none of the words my gran had taught me seemed at all suitable, I felt kind of put off candles and herbs, and I wasn’t in a very thank you mood. But I knew I should be doing something. This was a compromise.

As a solemn rite it wasn’t much: I was cross-legged on the very rucked-up sheets of my bed, and still dripping from the bath, wrapped in an assortment of towels. I had pulled my little knife from the pants pocket of the trousers on the floor, and took the mysterious seal out of the bed-table drawer. I smoothed a bit of pillow and laid them there. Then, gently, I lifted the chain off over my head, and dropped it down around them.

I don’t know what I was expecting. It just seemed like the thing to do. Knife, meet necklace. Seal, meet necklace. Necklace, meet knife and seal. I suspect we are going into some kind of fracas together, and that you are my co-conspirators—you and that underground guy—and I want to make sure you’re all on speaking terms with one another before I ask you to guard my back.

Or something.

It was too late in the year for direct sunlight to touch my pillow at that time of day. So I don’t know what happened. But there was a flash like—well, like a ray of sunshine, but it was some ray: like a golden sword, like a Christian saint’s vision of glory. It landed on my talismans with an almost audible whump, like the king’s grip had slipped and he’d clobbered the knight on the shoulder instead of merely tapping gently and dubbing him Sir Thing.

And the pillow caught fire.

I sat there with steam suddenly boiling off my wet towels, my mouth open, staring. And my brain had gone on vacation without advance warning, because I reached into the fire, closed my hands around my three talismans, gathered them together, and pulled them out of the fire.

The fire went out. The pillow lay there, charred and smoking.

My hands felt a little hot. No big deal. When I opened my hands there were three overlapping red marks on the palms: one long thin almost rectangular oval, for the knife, one smaller shorter fatter oval for the seal, and a scarlet curl over the ball of one thumb, a slightly ragged thread-width stripe, for the chain. None of the objects themselves now felt any more than human-body-temperature warm. None of them looked a trace different than they had a minute before. Before they had been set on fire by persons or forces unknown.

“Oh,” I said. My voice quavered. “Oh my.”

I made it in for the lunch shift all right. I didn’t want to stay home alone with myself. I hung the chain round my neck again, and put the knife and the seal in two separate pockets. I didn’t feel like leaving anything in the bed-table drawer any more. We’d bonded or something—speaking of weird bonds. Our affiliation had been confirmed by setting one pillow on fire. I put the pillow in the trash and the sheets in the washing machine. My sheets had never been so clean as they’d been in the last few months. I hardly got them on again before something else happened and I was feverishly ripping them off and stuffing them in the wash with double amounts of soap and all the “extra” buttons pushed: extra wash, extra rinse, extra water, extra spin, extra protection against things that go bump in the night. Unfortunately I never could find that last button. Some day soon I’d buy another pillow and a new set of pillowcases.

Turned out once I was dressed in long sleeves and a high neck and jeans you didn’t see the bruises much. There was one on my jawline that was going to be visible as soon as I tied my hair back and a gouge down my forearm that I decided I had to put a bandage on even if this made it look worse than it was. Couldn’t be helped. You can’t ooze in a public bakery any more than you can cook anything without rolling your sleeves up first. I’d worry what to tell Mel later.

Paulie was glad to see me. It had been a busy morning, but then it was always a busy morning. “We’re full up with SOFs,” he said. I grunted. I’d seen them on the way in, glancing through the door to the front, having thoughtfully come in the side way for staff only (and hungry derelicts), just in case of things like SOFs. I put a clean apron on and tied my hair up at lightning speed (lightning bolt, golden sword, Mach hundred and twelve), threw a little flour in my face to camouflage the bruise on my jaw, and was up to my elbows in pastry by the time Pat had drifted apparently aimlessly into the bakery. I hadn’t seen him on my way in; he’d been moving pretty fast himself if they’d called him over from HQ. “A word with you on your next break?” he said.

“I’ve only just got here,” I said, smudging flour and butter and confectioner’s sugar together briskly.

“Whenever,” he said, loitering.

“It’ll be a couple of hours,” I said quellingly. I could feel Paulie raising his eyebrows behind my back: Pat was usually a friend with privileges. That had been before I’d found out my loyalties were not merely divided, they had hacked me in two and were disappearing over the horizon in opposite directions.

“Whatever you say, ma’am,” he said, saluting, although not very convincingly. “I don’t suppose there are any cinnamon rolls left?”

“No,” I said.

“Walnut sticky bun?” said Paulie. “Blueberry muffin, pumpkin muffin, orange, carrot and oat muffin, pear gingerbread, honeycake?”

“One of each,” said Pat, and disappeared.

Paulie hadn’t been with us long enough yet to pretend to be impervious to the sincere flattery of people gorging themselves on the stuff you had made. He rubbed his face with a sugary hand to disguise the grin and went off to load up a plate and shout for Mary to take it out front.

I was tempted not to admit when I went on break but I was having to do enough lying just plugging through my days—and nights—and didn’t want to get too used to it. It was like I didn’t want to forget the difference between daylight and nighttime: and both my funny eyes and my funny new life-and-undead style seemed to be prodding me relentlessly in that direction. Not funny.

My sunshine-self. My tree-self. My deer-self. Didn’t we outnumber the dark self? My hands patted the two pockets that contained the knife and the seal, leaving two more smudges on my apron.

I took the apron off and washed my hands and made myself a cup of tea and went out front. Pat had either come back or was still there. Paulie’s piled-up plate two and a half hours ago hadn’t been enough; he was now eating Lemon Lust pastry bars and Killer Zebras. Any normal human ought to have a gut he’d have to carry around on a wheelbarrow, the way he ate. This had crossed my mind once or twice before, being many years acquainted with Pat’s eating habits, but he was SOF, you know? So he got a lot of exercise and had a high metabolism rate. I wondered again what kind of demon he was. If he was a rubberfoot, which came in blue sometimes, he could walk up walls, for example, which must burn a lot of calories. I nodded to him and went out to sit on the wall of Mrs. Bialosky’s flower bed. The sun was shining.

He followed me. “Listen to the news last night?” he said.

I was making it, I thought. I suppressed a shudder. “No.”

“One killed and three missing in No Town,” he said. “The one killed is confirmed sucker.”

“You can’t be sure this soon that the other three are anything but missing,” I said. “Maybe they ran away.”

Pat looked at me.

“They may have run away from something else,” I said, “that had nothing to do with vampires.”

“The moon may be one of Sunshine’s Killer Zebras, but I doubt it,” said Pat. “A lot of people saw these four hanging around together earlier in the evening.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Four is a lot for one night, even in No Town.”

I still didn’t say anything.

“We’d like you to come round this afternoon and have another stroll through a few cosmails,” said Pat.

“I don’t get off till ten tonight.”

“We’ll wait,” Pat said grimly. “There’s one little snag—Aimil doesn’t want to do it. She says you tried it on your own a few days ago and it took you away somewhere. She said she thought you’d died. Now, why would you want to try it on your own, I wonder?”

“Why do you think?” I said, looking at him steadily. The shadows on his face lay plain and clean. I slid a little further into my strange seeing. These shadows had a slightly rough or textured quality I was beginning to guess meant partblood—I’d seen it in Maud’s face first, but Aimil had it too—and in Pat’s case this not-quite-human aspect was distinctly blue. But the shadows said there was no deceit beyond the basic subterfuge of passing for pureblood human. Pat was who he said he was, and believed what he said he believed. “I want to find these guys too,” I said. “And SOF, begging your pardon, makes me nervous.”

Pat sighed and rubbed his head with his hand, making his short SOF-norm hair stand on end. “Look, kiddo, I know all the usual complaints about SOF and I agree with most of them.” He saw me looking at his hair and smiled a little. “So I don’t happen to mind the hair and the uniform, that’s not a crime, is it? But we can protect you better at SOF HQ than you can protect yourself anywhere else. What if what you were tracking had noticed you were searching for it the other day? You think you could have got back out fast enough for it not to follow you home? The fact that Aimil is still alive proves that it didn’t notice. But I think that was dumb luck. Nobody has ever lived a long happy life depending on dumb luck, and depending on any kind of luck is as good as tearing your own throat out when you’re messing with suckers. I don’t care what extra powers you got, Sunshine.”

I swallowed. “Did you say all that to Aimil?”

“You bet I did, babe, and more besides. She is, after all, on our payroll and subject to our rules. You aren’t. Yet, although I’ve thought about it. But SOF doesn’t pay so good and generally we have to blackmail people like you and Aimil, to put it bluntly, not to mention figuring out what the official description of what we wanted you for would be. I could probably tie you up in a big knot of top-secret intelligence bureaucracy—we’ve got powers to compel ordinary citizens in certain circumstances, did you know that? And we could make these the right kind of circumstances, never fear—but it would take too long and I suspect it would make you ornery. We need you too badly to risk pissing you off, if we can get you any other way. By the way, you were planning on coming to us with anything you found on the other end of Aimil’s cosmails, weren’t you? You don’t have any noble, suicidal plans to take these suckers on by yourself, do you? Tell me you are not that stupid.”

I said with perfect honesty, “I have no intention of trying to take these suckers on by myself, no.”

Pat looked at me with a slight frown. “Why doesn’t that sound as reassuring as it should?”

I gazed back at him as innocently as I could.

He sighed. “Never mind. We’ll see you at ten tonight. In fact, I’ll come by myself at closing.”

“I’m not going to sneak out the back way and go home if I’ve told you I’ll come,” I said, annoyed.

“You haven’t actually said you will come,” said Pat calmly, “and I don’t want you walking around by yourself at that hour, in case Bozo gets wise between now and then.”

This was a little too near a little too much of the truth. “Bozo?” I said carefully. “Do you have a name?”

“Have we ever had a name?” said Pat. “You find ‘em and you stake ‘em and then you burn ‘em to be sure. But we’re obviously chasing a master vampire here, and it’s easier if we call him something. Assuming it’s a him, which they usually are. So we’re calling him Bozo. So, are you saying you’ll be waiting for me at ten tonight then?”

“But if Aimil—”

“I’ll tell her you’re coming anyway and we’ve got that cosmail saved and we can do it without her if we have to. She can either come be part of the safety net or sit at home waiting for really bad news and be hauled over the carpet and messily fired later on.”

“What sweethearts you SOFs are,” I said.

There was no humor at all in Pat’s face when he replied: “Yeah. But we’re real devoted to the idea of keeping the live alive. What did you do to your chin—and your arm? Is that from when you fell out of Aimil’s chair?”

“Must be,” I said. “I don’t remember that well.”

* * *

It was a fairly ordinary day at the coffeehouse. We had one crazy wander in off the street who wanted to tell all of us that the end of the world was coming. He had an interesting variant of the standard format: in his reading the moon was going to be moved in front of the sun and kept there to create a permanent eclipse while the creatures of dark took over down here. The moon would be held in place by the something-o-meter invented by the creatures of dark and which they were presently perfecting. He said “creatures of dark,” not “vampires.” I suppose I was in a twitchy mood anyway, but I didn’t like this. There are lots of creatures of the dark, but I would have said that except for vampires none of them is bright enough to invent a something-o-meter. So why didn’t he say vampires? He did say eighteen months, tops, before the eclipse began.

It was a good thing he hadn’t washed in a while and raved like a loony or some of us might have believed him. I told myself his story would make a good novel. It would sure make a better novel than it would a reality. Mel got rid of him. Mel goes all Good Old Boy amiable and eases them out the door, and the thing about it is that when Mel does it, they don’t come back. The only times we’ve ever had to call the cops is when Mel hasn’t been there. Ranting crazies make Charlie nervous. Because this is Old Town we get a fair number of crazies: hell, we feed most of them, out the side door, but not so many of them rant. Charlie can soothe a customer determined to pick a fight when Mel would just throw him out the first time he swore at one of the waitresses, and I’d back Mel against most brawlers, but taking them on their own terms isn’t a good way to avoid calling the cops. Sometimes I think more throwing out would be a good thing—we have enough customers, we don’t need to put up with the flaming assholes—but Charlie’s is Charlie’s because of Charlie, which is probably a good thing too. But Mel is the one who deals with the noisy nutters. If there’s ever a Mel’s it will be racier. And Charlie’s will have to hire a bouncer with a degree in counseling.

This crazy came in during the lull between the late-afternoon muffin-and-scone crowd and the early supper eaters so there weren’t too many people around. Mrs. Bialosky was there, and I didn’t like the way she listened to him either: it seemed to me she was having some of the same thoughts I was. Maybe she was just thinking about full moons. The crazy hadn’t mentioned what was going to happen about the moon’s phases. He must not be a Were himself.

“Hey, a little live entertainment for slack time,” Mel said to me. “This one missed the mark, okay, next time I’ll get jugglers.” I smiled, because he wanted me to, but I noticed he was rubbing one of his tattoos: the hourglass one, that you can’t see which way the sand is running. It’s a charm about not running out of time. He’d been listening to the crazy too.

I couldn’t see into the shadows on Mel’s face. They flickered less than some but the red edges were more dazzling as if to make up for this. I didn’t know if I couldn’t see past the dazzle because I couldn’t couldn’t, or because I didn’t want to. If I didn’t want to, what was it I was afraid I was going to be seeing?

By ten o’clock I was tired, and I wanted to go home and go to bed. I had a lot of sleep to catch up on. The last thing I wanted to do was slope off to SOF HQ and plug into another live socket and fry my brains some more, but when Kyoko came into the bakery to tell me Pat was in front waiting for me, I didn’t duck out the back door—even though I hadn’t promised. I may have given the cinnamon-roll sponge a few more vicious stirs than it needed, but then I threw my apron into the laundry, washed off the worst of the day’s spatters and stains, and went to meet my fate.

I paused briefly under the doorway. A few days ago I’d tacked up a string over the lintel, so I could stuff some of Mom’s charms up there. They balanced on the narrow lintel edge and were kept from pitching over by the string. She hadn’t said anything, but then we’d never discussed the fact that she was coming into the bakery when I wasn’t there (she rarely crossed the threshold when I was) and leaving charms round about. Well, so, the glove compartment was full. Or she was wearing me down. And they wouldn’t last long trying to protect a doorway that had people coming and going through it all the time, but at least they could keep their eyes (so to speak) on me when I was there. And while they still had what in charms passes for eyes.

The funny thing was that I’d begun to feel them there, and kind of didn’t mind. I’ve said that charms usually rub me up the wrong way, like a rash, or a colicky baby living in the spare bedroom whose mom sleeps deeper than you do. And when I stood under the doorway for a moment I felt their—well, their good will, I’m not sure it was any stronger than that—soaking in. I felt like a baba sucking up rum. Or possibly chopped piccalilli vegetables vinegar. I shook my head to make the opalescent chain swish over my skin and patted my pockets.

Pat and I walked over, to my surprise. “I kinda want to know if there’s anyone close enough to make a pass at you,” said Pat. “Hope you got a table knife in your pocket.”

“Very funny,” I said.

“Shouldn’t be necessary,” said Pat, unfazed. “I got a few of ours skulking in the shadows, ready to race to our rescue.”

This was not comforting, not so much because a vampire could have struck in from nowhere and killed us both before any human defender had done any more than take a deep breath and wonder if there was a problem, but because of what SOF didn’t know about my extracurricular activities. I didn’t want SOF watching me that closely. And I didn’t like their spending that kind of expensive human time on me. “You sound like you’re taking this very seriously.”

“You betcha.”

“Why? You haven’t got any proof yet that what Aimil and I are doing is anything but psycho doodling.”

Pat was silent a moment, and then gave a heavy sigh. “You know, Sunshine, you’re a pain to work with. You think too much. Have you read anything about the little black boxes that are supposed to register Other activity? Called tickers.”

“Yeah. They don’t work.”

“Actually they work pretty well. The problem is that there is a larger number of unregistered partbloods in the general pop than anyone wants to talk about—well gosh isn’t that surprising—and the tickers keep getting confused. Or, you know, sabotaged. It’s been a real bad problem in SOF for some reason. Can’t imagine why. There’s ways around this problem, however, once you all know you’re reading off the same page. So we got some tickers that give us pretty good readings, once we figured out how to set ‘em up. And I’ll tell you that a couple we got down in No Town about fused their chips when you did your locating trick for us a few days ago, and they did it again that afternoon when, it turns out, you were committing your felony with Aimil.”

“Felony my ass,” I said.

“Attempting to consort with an enemy alien is a felony, my pretty darling, and all Others are enemy aliens. It’s not one of those rules anyone wants to pursue too close, but it has its uses. And trying to locate ‘em is near enough to trying to consort with ‘em for me. Anyway, we’ve never had readings like these readings. What you’re up to may be psycho doodlings, all right, but they’re great big strong psycho doodlings and we’re beginning to hope you may be the best chance we’ve seen in years and not another one of my over-optimistic bad calls.”

I considered having a nervous breakdown on the spot. I probably could have thrown a good one too, about how I couldn’t take the strain, that my life had crashed and burned those two nights I went missing by the lake and all Pat and SOF were doing now was stamping out the ashes and oh by the way if you have an axe handy I’ll run mad with it now and get it over with since my genes are being slower off the mark than I’ve been expecting since I figured it out two months or whatever ago, and by the way, that was SOF’s doing too, you guys and your sidelong suggestive little chats. While half my brain was considering the nervous breakdown recourse the other half was considering whether maybe I could locate Bo well enough and then let SOF handle it. Con and I wouldn’t have to go within miles (vampire miles or human miles) of No Town. We could sit at home drinking champagne and waiting for the headlines: NEW ARCADIA SOF DIVISION ELIMINATES MAJOR VAMPIRE LAIR AND DESTROYS ITS MASTER. Our correspondent, blah blah blah.

My imagination wanted MOST IMPORTANT STRIKE SINCE VOODOO WARS, but it wouldn’t be. It felt global to me because it was my life on the line.

But it wasn’t going to happen that way. I didn’t even know why, not to be able to explain it. But I could feel it, like you feel a stomachache or a cold coming on, or somebody’s eyes staring a hole in your back. SOF could go in and mess things up for a little while, stake a few young vampires and maybe wreck Bo’s immediate plans. But…maybe this was something else I was learning to see in the shadows. Maybe it was from traveling through nowheresville or walking Con’s short ways last night when I was somewhere else: watching my reality stream by, finding out there are other places with other rules. I was beginning to understand how the connections in the vampire world really aren’t like our human connections in our human world.

I was tethered to Con as absolutely as he had been shackled to the wall of the house beside the lake. And he and Bo had a bond that required one of them to be the cause of the destruction of the other one. I guessed now that this was as natural a situation to a vampire as making cinnamon rolls was to me. I wondered what happened if a vampire involved in one of these lethal pacts did the vampire equivalent of falling under a bus: did the other one, foiled of catharsis, spin off into the void instead? The really nasty void, that is. Which could explain why it was so godsbloodyawful a place to visit.

He could have warned me, I thought. Con could have said something, that second morning by the lake. Would it have occurred to him? No. Besides, what was he going to say? “Die now or later”? That had been the choice all along. And as far as my situation now being the mere sad inevitable result of my being in the wrong place at the wrong time: grow up, Sunshine. Bo would be just a tiny bit irritated with me personally. Having not only escaped but taken his prize prisoner with me. What had kept me alive so far—my scorned and ignored magic-handling talent, my reluctant and harrowing alliance with Con—was also what was causing the bond. Ordinary mortals don’t get bound up in ceremonial duels to the death with master vampires. But ordinary mortals don’t survive introductory vampire encounters either.

I cast back to that second morning at the lake and thought, he did warn me—or remind me. I just didn’t hear it. Why should I? And why should he think I needed warning? “…That we are both gone will mean that something truly extraordinary has happened. And it almost certainly has something to do with youas it does, does it not?— and that therefore something important about you was overlooked. And Bo will like that even less than he would have liked the straightforward escape of an ordinary human prisoner. He will order his folk to follow. We must not make it easy for them.” I was the one who’d assumed the time limitations around Con’s annotations of our predicament.

More recently Con had said, I knew what happened at the lake would not be the end. And it wasn’t like I’d been surprised.

Okay, what if—just as a matter of keeping our position clear here—what if we managed to off Bo now? What new chains of vengeance and retaliation would we have forged instead?

I wanted to laugh, but I didn’t want to come up with a likely story to explain to Pat what I was finding to laugh at. Unless I wanted to make the laughter hysterical, as a lead-in to my nervous breakdown.

But I didn’t. I wanted to find Bo and get on with it. Whatever happened next. Whatever. I would think about whatever if there was a tomorrow to think about it in. Right now today was enough—like getting away from the lake alive had been enough. If Aimil’s cosmail was Bo, and I could trace it, and SOF could offer some protection from being traced back, then I’d risk doing it with SOF. I wanted to find Bo. And hadn’t I just been saying there was a bond between Bo and me as well? Big ugly mega yuck.

What I didn’t want was to get sucked in again and maybe somehow this time pop out on top of Bo. As things I couldn’t bear to think about went, this was very high on the list.

My sunshine-self, my tree-self, my deer-self. Didn’t we outnumber the dark self?

What I had to figure out, fast, was if there was going to be a way I could make a mark, leave a clue, carry some bad-void token away with me that Con and I could follow or interpret better or faster than SOF could. There’d been kind of a lot going on and I hadn’t sorted what I had found—or half found, or begun to find—in Aimil’s living room. If sorting was a possibility. Aimil had been afraid I’d died…

No. I’d figure it out. I had to.

Did the tickers do anything but register activity, could they define it?

They’d pick up Con and me too, when we started going somewhere—wouldn’t they? If. Supposing our rough human-world guesses were right, and what we all wanted was in No Town. But…if SOF was now going to start keeping a closer watch on me, were they going to plant a ticker near Yolande’s house? Oh, gods. Could she disable a SOF ticker?

Aimil, looking subdued, was waiting in Pat’s office, with Jesse and Theo. She got up from her chair and put her arms around me. I hugged her back and we stared at each other a moment. “I guess these guys worked you over so the bruises don’t show,” I said.

“Which is more than can be said for you,” said Aimil, touching my jaw gently.

“I got that doing chin-ups on the top oven,” I said. “Let’s get on with this, can we? I want to go home and go to bed. Four in the morning is already soon.”

Pat’s combox was on, and the saved cosmail winked at us as soon as he touched the screen. Even before plugging in to the live connection it looked evil to me; the flickering print seemed to have a kind of bulgy red edge, so that it looked like tiny scarlet mouths howling behind every letter of every word. “Ready?” said Pat.

I sat down and put my hands on the keyboard, like I was going to do some perfectly ordinary com thing, tap a few keys, see what the headlines were on the Darkline. “Ready,” I said. He pressed the globenet button and the mail went live.

I was almost sucked in after all. Hey, I didn’t know what I was doing. Was there an apprenticeship for this? The globenet hasn’t been around all that long, but magic handlers adapt pretty fast—they have to. If I’d been apprenticed, could I have learned how to trace a cosmail? No. If this was something magic handlers now routinely did, SOF would have a division of magic handlers that did it. And they wouldn’t be all over me like a cheap suit. I was going where no one had gone before. And I wasn’t having a good time.

It was my talismans that held me together, and in this world. I felt them heat up, wow, like zero to a hundred in nothing flat with the throttle all the way open, like a cold inert vampire being brought back to undeadness by a surprise drop-in guest. I guessed there was a red hoop around my neck and over my breast now, and a red oval on each thigh. I hoped they wouldn’t set my clothes on fire, which might be hard to explain as well as embarrassing.

It was pretty excruciating. It was like being dragged forward and hauled backward simultaneously: as if I was living the moment when my divided loyalties ripped me apart and took off with their riven halves. Other-space yawned, and while last night, with Con at the far end of the back-country-lane version, it had merely been remote and unearthly and nowhere I had any business being, tonight it was the bad one again, the shrieking maelstrom. If I went headfirst into this one I wouldn’t come out, except in small messy pieces.

But I was frisking on the boundary of dangerous territory for a purpose. Dimly through the inaudible din, I thought, perhaps this is Bo’s defense system. Okay, if I can find where the defense system is, presumably I can find where what it’s defending is. Or is that too human a logic? I tried to orient myself, carefully, carefully, staying firmly seated on the chair in Pat’s office, feeling my talismans burning their variously shaped holes into my flesh. I wasn’t the compass needle myself this time—that would have been too far in—I was trying to angle for a view so I could see where the compass needle pointed…

There.

And I was flung over backward, with the chair, and landed on the floor so hard the breath was knocked out of me. This was just as well, because Pat’s combox exploded; droplets of superheated flying goo rained down on me as well as tiny fragments of gods-know-what, and larger pieces of plastic housing. There were a few half-muffled shouts of surprise and pain, and then there were a lot of alarm bells ringing. I was still struggling to get some breath back in my lungs when people started arriving. I had thought those were real alarm bells. They were.

What looked like everybody at SOF headquarters poured into Pat’s room, and there were more of them than you’d think for ten-thirty at night. Once I could breathe again I could tell the medic I wasn’t hurt. (There are medics on duty twenty-four-seven at SOF HQ: our tax blinks at work. Well, okay, lots of big corps have medics on duty, but few of them have combat patches. This one did.) My shirt had got a little torn, somehow, and the chain and the mark it made were visible; he gave me some burn cream for the latter, while he muttered something about the weird effects of a combox blowout. Fortunately it didn’t seem to occur to him to suggest that there was something funny about my necklace and I shouldn’t wear it. I didn’t mention the hot spots I could feel on my thighs. I was glad still to have thighs.

Pat had fared the worst; he needed stitches in one shoulder where he was hit by the biggest single chunk of flying combox, and had several inelegant burn marks on his face and one hand, although none of them serious. “Hey, I was an ugly bastard before,” he said. “It’s not gonna ruin my social life.” Even Pat had been rattled, however, because the two guys who rushed in and sat down at the other combox in the room—one of them with a headset he kept muttering into— had been tapping away intently for several minutes before Pat noticed. I had been watching them as I lay on the floor, but I was pretty hazed out myself and hadn’t managed to think about what they might be doing. I had half-noticed Jesse doing an ordinary startled-human stillness thing when those two came in, but I hadn’t registered it. I did register Pat snapping into awareness and then exchanging a hard look with Jesse.

And then the woman came in and the tension level in the room went off the scale. I felt like we were in one of those old-fashioned movie rockets where the Gs of escape velocity crush you into the upholstery. Okay, so my metaphors had taken a wrong turn, but when I first looked at her there were no shadows on her at all: it was as if she was glowing, in great sick-making waves, like a walking nuclear reactor or something, if I had ever seen a nuclear reactor, which I have not. Instant headache. Instant wanting-to-be-out-of-here, wherever here was; hereness seemed to fade under the onslaught of her mere presence.

This had to be the goddess of pain. And I had thought that name was just a joke. Uh-oh.

She snapped a few undertone orders to one of the fellows with the headset; he was obviously not happy, and he shook his head. His partner in crime shrugged and spread his hands. “Your little stunt has just bombed HQ’s entire com system,” she said in a cold clear voice that was worse than any shouting. “What the hell are you doing?”

Pat, almost visibly pulling himself together, said, “I had clearance. Ask Sanchez.”

“You didn’t have clearance to close the regional HQ down, and you obviously didn’t do your homework about safeguards,” said the woman, not a split atom’s worth mollified. “You still haven’t told me what you were trying to do, and Sanchez isn’t here.”

One of the headset guys on the other combox barked something, and she listened to them briefly. When she turned to glare at Pat again he was a little more ready for her. “We were trying to trace an Other cosmail to a land source. We have been working with Aimil, here,” nodding to her, “for some months. This is Rae Seddon, whom we had reason to believe might be able to help us. This is the second time she’s tried to make a connection. As for safeguards, I…” and he ran off into a lot of technical jargon I didn’t understand a syllable of, and didn’t want to. I tuned out.

By this time I was breathing again, although my lungs felt sore. Not nearly as sore as my head, however. My eyeballs felt like they were embedded in glass splinters and my entire skull throbbed. I was now seeing a fat glaring red edge to everything, an erratic fat glaring red edge, sometimes as wide as a pocketknife, sometimes as narrow as an opalescent chain. It didn’t need shadows. It looked like cracks in reality, opening into the chaos I’d seen protecting the way to Bo through nowheresville. I clung to the arms of the re-righted chair I’d been helped into once the medic was done with me.

“Hold still,” he said. He was trying to put stitches in Pat’s shoulder. I didn’t want to look at the goddess of pain again; I knew it was my eyes, but there was something really wrong about her, and whatever it was, it made my headache worse.

I watched a couple of people gathering up pieces of combox. Another person appeared bearing a big bottle of some kind of, presumably, solvent, and was wiping up the littler gel blobs. Somebody else was flipping the bigger blobs into a bucket. I noticed that some of them left marks behind them. Jesse had minor burns on one forearm; Theo and Aimil hadn’t been touched. It could have been a lot worse.

It was a lot worse. It just wasn’t about being burned by combox gel.

My red edges were, I thought, narrowing. Not fast enough.

I didn’t notice the pause in the conversation till I heard my name being repeated. “Rae Seddon,” the goddess was saying. I jerked my eyes up—and flinched: neither my eyes nor my head was ready for sudden movements—and equally unequal to meeting the goddess’ eyes. “I heard about the incident a few weeks ago,” she said, “with the vampire in Old Town.”

I didn’t say anything.

“I’d quite like to have a chat with you myself sometime,” she said.

I still didn’t say anything. I glanced at Pat. He was so poker-faced I knew he was worried. There was a big red halo around his head, and the shadows across his face were so blue I was surprised they weren’t obvious to everyone. I hoped they weren’t.

“I doubt I can help you,” I said, not looking at her. “I think it was an accident.”

“Some power residue from your experience at the lake?” she said. I didn’t like having her so up on my history. I wondered what else she knew. “Yes, I agree that that is the most likely. But it is the first such incident I’m aware of in any of our records”—did this mean she was interested enough to have had research done on it?—“and I would like to know as much about it as possible. SOF is always interested in unusual and unique cases. We have to be.” She smiled. I saw it out of the corner of my eye. It wasn’t that she didn’t mean it, exactly. It was that it was an official lubricant-on-the-sticky-gears-of-community smile. It suited her aura of poisonous gases. A toxic oil slick on the sea of society. I didn’t like the smile. I found Pat’s single-minded commitment to the total annihilation of vampires a little inopportune but I believed he was one of the good guys. I didn’t believe she was.

I didn’t smile back. I tried to look too beat up from what had happened to be able to smile. I wasn’t. What I was was too beat up to make myself smile when I didn’t want to.

“I assume that tonight’s misguided attempt at a connection was also based on some faulty reading of that same residue?”

The tone of her voice could have made cinnamon rolls unroll, cakes fall, and Bitter Chocolate Death melt. I hoped cravenly that she was talking to Pat.

Pat said, “There’s a precedent. Milenkovic—”

“You’ll have to do better than that, Agent Velasquez,” interrupted the goddess. “Milenkovic was a senile old woman.”

Pat took a deep breath. “Ma’am, Milenkovic’s field notes clearly record—”

Jesse was arguing with the guys at the backup combox. I wanted to hear what was going on there but I didn’t want to appear interested in anything while the goddess was still staring at me. I didn’t think she was listening to Pat’s dogged description of poor Milenkovic’s misfortunes. I concentrated on looking stunned and blank. And maybe stupid. I was a marginal high school grad who baked bread for a living. Intellect was not a big feature. Hold that thought. Behind the blank look I was testing the memory of what had happened while I was plugged in. Had I found anything, or had I been repelled before I could make a fix? I wasn’t going to stand up and make a directional cast as I had done the last time in this office, not with the goddess watching. But it felt a little…directional. And I was afraid if I didn’t try it soon I might lose it, if there was anything to lose.

Aimil moved into my line of vision. She was looking at me too, but her look said, Can I help?

I stood up slowly. I felt shaky anyway, but I made myself look shakier yet. Aimil rushed to take my elbow. As I moved, I felt it…

Yes. I’d found something. And I hadn’t lost it yet.

I think Aimil felt the shiver run through me, and she probably guessed why. “Rae’s pretty knocked around,” Aimil said, and I recognized her placate-the-inquisitor voice: one of the area library bosses got that voice, and when she was in residence at Aimil’s branch library Aimil found special projects across town to attend to. “May I take her home?”

“Tell me, Rae,” said the goddess. “Do you think you discovered anything useful this evening?”

“I don’t know,” I said carefully. “It was over pretty suddenly, and now I have a terrific headache.”

“Usually,” said the goddess, “the sooner the interview after the experience, the more information is obtained.”

I tried to look as if I would like to be cooperative. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It was like I was falling into chaos, and then I went over backward in the chair and the combox exploded.”

The goddess’ radar was telling her I was holding something back. With a great effort I raised my eyes again and met hers. There was no way I was going to try to read any shadows on her face: it was as much as I could do to look at her at all. What the hell was this? Some kind of wild personal warding system? I’d never met anything like it.

We stared at each other. She wasn’t my boss—and she wasn’t a vampire—and life with my mother had taught me not to intimidate easily, although this last took some effort, and my head was spinning even worse than…Uh. What? She was trolling me…

This was strictly illegal: a violation of my personal rights, and anything an illegal fishing expedition found was automatically forfeit too, in theory, but once you know something you know it, don’t you? There is a license you can get to do a mind search under certain circumstances but there is a list of prior requirements as long as the global council’s charter—besides that, you need to be a magic handler particularly talented in etherfo interchange—and in practice there are only a few specialist cops and specialist lawyers who get one. And likely some SOFs: but if the goddess had the license, she was misusing it now.

Hey,” I said, and put up my arm, as if to ward off a physical blow. Trolling isn’t an exact science for even the best searcher, and the searchee has to hold still. Big police stations have a mind-search chair as standard equipment, and a medic standing by with a shot of stuff that on the street is called delete, which makes you hold still all right and you may not move real well again for a long time afterward.

I was pretty sure she hadn’t had the chance to pull anything out of me but I sure didn’t like her trying. I also thought I understood why those I disconcertingly found myself thinking of as my gang— Pat and Jesse and Aimil and Theo—looked so jumpy.

“I am so sorry,” she said, not sorry at all. “I am accustomed to assisting recall in our agents. I did it automatically.”

The hell you did, lady, I didn’t say. You were hoping I wouldn’t notice. I did say, “Good night. If I remember anything, I’ll let you know.”

She would have liked to stop me, but perhaps she didn’t quite dare. I had noticed what she’d tried to do, and an accusation of illegal mind search would be embarrassing to SOF even if they denied it convincingly. It occurred to me that she must really, really want anything I could tell her, to have taken the chance. Was she that flash on vampires or was there something else going on? Silly me. Of course there was something else going on. If she was just megahot on vampires, she and Pat would be buddies, and they weren’t.

It also occurred to me that she couldn’t have pulled anything out of me, because if she had, she’d’ve found a way to hold me, and she was letting me go.

I turned very carefully to the door, wanting to get through it before she changed her mind. I also didn’t want to shake my fix loose till I’d had a chance to explore it. I felt it swimming, the way a compass needle swims as you turn the casing.

Aimil clung solicitously to my elbow. “My car’s in back,” she said.

We were halfway down the final corridor when we heard someone running up behind us: Pat. “I’ve left Jesse trying to deal with the goddess,” he said. “Sorry, Sunshine, can you move any faster? I want us all out of here before she thinks of a reason to yank us back in.”

They hustled me along between them. Pat was holding his wounded arm pressed against his body, but his grasp on me was strong enough. Once I was outdoors I felt the fix run through me again. “I have to stop,” I said. Pat didn’t argue, but he glanced over his shoulder.

We stood at the top of the little flight of stairs into the parking lot. I took a deep breath and tried to settle myself, wait for the compass needle to stop waving back and forth. It didn’t want to stop waving back and forth. A void needle will presumably be confused by moving around in ordinary reality, the way an ordinary compass needle will be confused by steel beams and magnetic fields. I hoped there weren’t any steel-beam and magnetic-field equivalents nearby. Settle, I told it. I haven’t lost it, I thought, please don’t tell me I’ve lost it…

“Um,” said Aimil. “I don’t know if this might be of any help to you,” and she pulled a bit of exploded combox from her pocket and offered it to me.

“You darling,” I said. Sympathetic magic is never the best and is usually the crudest, but when you wanted grounding there is nothing better, and any damn fool with a drop of magic-handler blood six generations back can tap it. I held the scrap of plastic in both hands.

This time I didn’t have to turn around. I felt it slamming in over my right shoulder—no, through it—toward my heart. Like a stake into a vampire.

I dropped the bit of combox and threw myself away from its line of flight. The chain round my neck and the knife and seal in my pockets blazed up again—and I seemed to have a friction burn across the front of my right shoulder where the whatever-it-was had grazed me in passing—it felt like someone had taken an electric sander to me.

Pat caught me, or I might have fallen down the steps onto the pavement. “Wow,” he said, and almost dropped me, as if he’d caught hold of something burning; but he was a true SOF, or he had his damsel-rescuing hat on that evening, or he was more worried about me than about the skin of his hands or the stitches in his shoulder. He flinched but his grip tightened.

“Sorry,” I said. “That was a little of what blew the combox.” Aimil shook her head, slowly went to where the bit of broken combox was still rocking on its curved edge where it had landed, bent down even more slowly, and picked it up. Brave woman. But it wasn’t the sort of clue we could afford to leave lying around: everybody knows about sympathetic magic, which would include all the goddess’ spies.

Pat rubbed his hands down the sides of his legs. “Shiva wept,” he said. “Sunshine, you okay?”

“Yeah,” I said. “More or less.” I looked in the direction that the invisible stake had come from. No Town again. I looked back. “Your stitches are bleeding.”

“Did you get anything?”

“No Town. We knew that.”

Pat expelled his breath in an angry sigh. “So we blew out the com system, destroyed a lot of equipment, and got the goddess of pain on our butts, and all we know is that it’s No Town. Bloody hell.”

I glanced at Aimil, who was valiantly not saying “I told you so.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Not your fault, Sunshine. I’m sure we’re on to something with you, we just have to figure out how to use it. Some day we’re going to cruise you around and see if it is No Town at all, and if we can get some kind of angle on it.”

I thought this sounded like trying to find the epicenter while you’re falling into the cracks in the earth, but I didn’t say anything.

“But that’s the long way and I’m impatient. Damn. John’s a com whiz. I should have asked him before. He could take on the goddess’ little waiters; I just thought Sanchez—well. It plays as it plays, and the goddess is going to be watching our every move now.”

“Who is she?” I said.

“The goddess of pain? Sunshine, you’re slipping. She’s second in command here at div HQ, but we keep hoping she’ll get promoted out of regional and out of our hair. Jack Demetrios—he’s the boss— he’s okay.”

I did know that. But I didn’t know how to ask about the goddess’ weird vibes. “Does she have any—er—unconventional personal wards or anything?”

Pat looked at me in that too-alert way I didn’t like. “You mean other than the fact that her walking into a room makes any sane person want to run out of it? You mean she’s got that effect as a switch on her control board? Hey, Sunshine, what are you picking up?”

I shook my head. “Nothing. Too much happened tonight is all.”

“She tried to troll you, didn’t she?”

“Yes,” I said.

“But you blocked her,” said Pat. “Thank the listening gods. I’m glad you blocked her anyway, but I always like seeing the goddess screw up.”

I had some trouble convincing them to let me drive myself home. I had a lot of trouble convincing them. Aimil knows me well enough to know to stop arguing eventually, but I left Pat scowling and furious. But he wasn’t scowling and furious as hard as he should have been. That meant that they already had something planted out at Yolande’s to check up on me. Hell.

The Wreck was in a good mood. We got home at a steady thirty-five mph and it didn’t diesel for more than fifteen seconds after I turned the key off. I fumbled in the side pocket for something to write on and something to write with: all the usual glove compartment things had got crowded out of the glove compartment by charms. I scribbled, Yolande, help. SOF is monitoring here for Other activity. S, and stuck it under her door. I tried to listen for any tickers in the neighborhood but that wasn’t in my job description and I didn’t know what to listen for.

I dragged myself upstairs. I hadn’t cleaned up all that well from last night, so it was easy to fish out a few wax chips from the candles Yolande had given me and dump them into a smudge bowl and light a candle under them. I waited till the chips began to grow soft, and I could smell, faintly, their aroma. Then I closed my eyes and aligned myself…

I didn’t want to go anywhere. I just wanted to leave a message. The chain around my neck began to feel warm. Only a little warm.

Sunshine?…

…Found…

…Tomorrow…

…Beware… SOF here…

It was a good thing my hands knew what to do because the rest of me was barely responsive to automatic pilot the next day, or anyway the gear assembly needed its chain tightened up several links. I got through the morning, the Wreck took me home, I fell asleep several steps from the top of the stairs but my feet carried me the rest of the way into my bedroom and I woke up at three, lying slantways across my unmade bed, my feet hanging over one end, my cheek painfully creased and my bruised jaw made sorer by a wad of bedspread. The sin of untidiness chastised.

“Oh, ow,” I said, rolling over. Bath time. When in doubt, take a bath. My family (especially those of them who remembered clearly what it had been like to share a one-bathroom house with me) every year at Winter Solstice give me enough bubble bath to last me till next Winter Solstice. I wasn’t going to make it this year though. I always got through a lot of bubble bath, but this year was in a category of its own.

When I was dressed I went out onto my balcony to brush my wet hair in the sunlight. Yolande was in the garden, cutting off deadheads. She looked up at the sound of my doors opening. “Good afternoon,” she said. “May I make you a cup of tea?”

“Love it,” I said. “Give me five minutes.”

When I came downstairs her door was open. I closed it behind me and made my way to her kitchen. My apartment was one of the attics; hers was the whole of the ground floor, and it was a big house. I didn’t linger to stare, but I found myself looking around at everything I had seen before with the new idea that any of it might be possible secret wards; and it did seem to me that the shadows lay differently on certain things than on others, and some of those certain things were pretty unexpected. Could that faded, curling postcard that said A Souvenir of Portland leaning drunkenly against a candlestick be anything but a worthy candidate for a housecleaning purge?

Yolande was fitting the tea cozy over the pot when I came in. There were cups on the table. I knew where her cookie plates lived, so I got one down and put my offerings on it: chocolate chip hazelnut, Jamdandies, Cashew Turtles, plus butterscotch brownies and half a dozen muffins. (Fortunately I hadn’t landed on the bakery bag when I fell asleep.) Technically we aren’t supposed to take anything home from the coffeehouse till the end of the day, but I’d like to see anyone try and stop me.

“It is ironic,” she said, “that SOF, our white knights against the darkness, are causing you such bother. But I think I can guarantee they will not notice your friend if he comes again. You will forgive me if I made my obstructions specific again to him only. Were you successful the other night?”

I didn’t mean to laugh, but a sort of yelp escaped me. “Yes. If anything too successful.”

Yolande said, “I’m afraid that is sometimes the inevitable result of the possession of real power. That it is stronger than you are, and not very biddable.”

“I don’t think it’s my so-called power that’s the problem,” I said bleakly. “It’s the trouble it gets me into.”

Yolande pulled my cup toward her, settled the tiny silver sieve over it, and poured. Before I met her I had thought you made tea by throwing a tea bag in a mug and adding hot water. Four years ago I’d convinced Charlie to inaugurate loose tea in individual teapots at Charlie’s. I told him that a coffeehouse that sold champagne by the glass could stretch to loose tea. Our postlunch afternoon crowd had instantly ballooned. Must be more Albion exiles in New Arcadia than we thought. Albion had been hit very badly by the Wars.

“I doubt your interpretation,” said Yolande. “If I may be blunt, I don’t think you’d still be alive if you were a mere pawn.”

“I know this is pathetic of me, but sometimes I think I’d rather be a pawn. Okay, a live pawn.”

Yolande was smiling. She had that inward remembering look. “Responsibility is always a burden,” she said.

“Next you’re going to tell me it doesn’t get any easier.”

“Quite right. But you do grow more accustomed to it.”

“Wardskeepers have this whole rigorous training thing. So you aren’t doing anything—stuff doesn’t happen till you’re ready for it.”

She laughed, and it was a real laugh. “Only in theory. Tell me, what were your first cinnamon rolls like? And didn’t the recipe look simple and pure and beautiful on the page? And the instructions your teacher gave you, before he left you to get on with it, were perfectly clear and covered everything?”

I smiled reminiscently, stirring sugar into my tea. “They were little round bricks. I still don’t know how I did it. They got heavier. They can’t have weighed more than the flour I put into them, you know? But I swear they did. There’s a family myth that Charlie used them in the wall he was building around Mom’s rose garden. I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“The first time I cut a ward sign—cutting a sign is your first big step up from drawing all the basic ones, over and over and over, and you long for it—I managed to wreck the workshop. Fortunately my master believed my talent was going to be worth it. If we all survived my apprenticeship.”

“I blew out the ovens once, but that wasn’t entirely my fault…Okay. Point taken. But I don’t think anyone knows how to travel through nowheresville.”

“Then I hope you are taking good notes, to make teaching your students easier.”

“You are a hard woman,” I said.

She leaned forward and lightly touched the chain around my neck. “That is a potent thing. You have others, I think, but this is new. It has a great sense of darkness around it, and yet it is a clear dark. Like a bit of jewelry in a black velvet case. A gift from your friend, I imagine.”

I nodded, trying not to be unnerved by her perceptiveness.

“My master would be most interested, but he lives on the other side of the country.”

“Your master?” I said, startled out of politeness. “But you’re—”

“Old,” she said composedly. “Yes. Older perhaps than you think. Magic handling has that effect. Surely you know that?”

“I thought it was a fairy tale. Like pots of gold and three wishes.”

“It is not a very reliable effect, and ordinary ward- and spell-crafters won’t notice much difference. But to those of us who soak ourselves deeply in a magical source, it can have profound consequences. This is not a chosen thing, you know. Or it chooses you, not the other way around.”

“I always thought my grandmother looked very young,” I said slowly. “I haven’t seen her since I was ten. When I was in my teens I decided it was just that she had long dark hair and didn’t look like other people’s grandmothers.”

“I never knew your grandmother, although I knew some of the other Blaises at one time. But my guess is that she was much older than you had any idea of.”

“Was,” I said. “None of it got her through the Voodoo Wars. Or my father either.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I don’t know they’re dead. But I can’t believe my gran wouldn’t have let me know…” My voice trailed off. “I…I have been my mother’s family’s kid all my life—even when we were still living with my dad, I think—till four months ago. Almost five months ago. It’s a shock to the system.”

She looked at me thoughtfully. “Consider the possibility that you had to be a certain age to bear it, when it finally came to you.”

“There must have been an easier way.”

She laughed again. “There is always a better way, in hindsight.”

I said, trying to smile, “The cousins I know—my mother’s sisters’ kids—are married by the time they’re my age. The younger ones do stuff like play varsity sports or collect stamps or dollhouse furniture. The two in college, Anne wants to be a marine biologist and William wants to teach primary school. It’s like the Other side doesn’t exist. Even Charlie, who you’d think of anyone would remember, says he’d almost forgotten who my dad was.” I paused. “I don’t even know how my parents met. It doesn’t seem very likely, does it? That Miss Drastically Normal should fall for Mr. All That Creepy Stuff. All I know is that my mom worked at a florist’s before she married my dad.

“What happened to the safety net, you know? If I was going to turn out this way, why didn’t I get apprenticed? Why didn’t my gran leave a codicil in her will asking someone to keep an eye on me? She taught me to transmute. She knew I’d inherited something.”

Yolande didn’t say anything for several minutes while I sat there trying not to be embarrassed for my outburst. “I don’t believe in fate,” she said at last. “But I do believe in…loopholes. I think a lot of what keeps the world going is the result of accidents—happy or otherwise—and taking advantage of these. Perhaps your gran guessed you might be one of those loopholes. Perhaps she left a codicil in her will saying to leave you alone at all costs. What if you’d been apprenticed, and learned that there is no way through nowheresville?”

I couldn’t settle down to read that evening—anything about the Others made me twitchy, anything else was so irrelevant as to be maddening. Child of Phantoms, another favorite comfort-read for over a decade, failed to hold me. Reading was of course a problem with my dark vision getting in the way, but in fact flat black type on a flat white page was easier to deal with than almost anything else. I did pretty well so long as I remembered to keep my head and the page perfectly still; if I didn’t, the print jumped sick-makingly into three dimensions. It was like the advertising about some latest thriller or other: This story is so exciting it will leap off the page at you! For me it did. This is disconcerting when you’re reading Professional Baking Quarterly, which I usually tried to do. It made me feel I had some of the right attitude, and the letters page was always good for a laugh. Mom renewed my subscription every year as a supportive-maternal present. Surprise.

I did shut myself into the closet for half an hour with my combox. I had to screw up my courage to hit the “live” button. But nothing happened except what is supposed to happen. Whew. Perhaps the com cosmos isn’t so homogenous after all. I knew that the official line is that the comcos is entirely a human creation, but then the official human line would be that, wouldn’t it? And if there is a lot of vampire engineering in it, that would help to explain both where a lot of vampire money came from and why every authority on the planet—business, ecosyn, social service, governmental, all of them— is droolingly paranoid about vampires. However, if my combox was still in one piece and the comcos equivalent of the Big Ugly Thing That Ate Schenectady hadn’t burst out of the screen and seized me, there must still be enough human input to the workings of the comcos to keep it…heterogeneous.

So I glanced through my cosmail to make sure I wasn’t missing anything important. The usual globenet come-ons: a ride on the space bus for only a hundred squillion blinks and the soul of your firstborn child. A plastic surgeon who guaranteed to make you look like Princess Helga or your money back. And your face back too? I wondered. Learn spellcasting at home in your spare time, earn zillions, and live forever. I’d always assumed the living forever was out of the same scam as the earning zillions. I wondered how old Yolande was—how old her master was. I doubted it was four hundred years.

I answered a few cosmails. My presence in various Other zones had faded in the last five months. I could have given definite answers to some of the pet topics (Has a human, once captured, ever escaped from a vampire? Have a human and a vampire ever had a conversation on any kind of equal terms? Have a human and a vampire ever had any conversation and parted with the human still alive?—Barring some of the media stuff, although another pet topic was whether any of the vampire interviews were real). I had no desire to do so. But it had only been since my first contact with Other-space that it had occurred to me perhaps it would be a good idea to continue to pretend that Cinnamon—my ether name for seven years—was an ordinary woman who hadn’t had anything surprising happen to her lately.

When I came out of the closet it was barely twilight. I thought sunset was never coming. This might be the first day of my life I’d ever wanted darkness to come sooner. I always wanted daylight to last longer. I had a lot more trouble getting up at four a.m. in winter when it was still going to be dark for hours than in summer when it would be glimmering toward dawn by the time I got to Charlie’s.

I took a cup of chamomile tea out on the balcony and waited, feeling the darkness falling as if it were something landing on my skin.

I heard him coming this time. I don’t know why I thought of it as hearing, when it had nothing to do with my ears. I didn’t see any shadows moving among the other shadows of the garden either, although I knew he was there. But it was more like hearing than it was like anything else, like seeing in the dark is more like seeing than it is like anything else.

“The way here has grown in complexity,” he said.

“Oh—ah?” I said. “Oh. That will be Yolande’s new wards. SOF has set up some tickers and I don’t know what all.”

“Tickers,” said Con.

“You know,” I said. “You must know. SOF uses them—they record any Others that come near them. Tick tick, back at HQ where they’re watching the monitors.”

“I have not had much contact with SOF.”

The Lone Ranger of vampires. Did that make me Tonto? “Whatever. The point is SOF thinks they’re protecting me. So I asked Yolande to disarm any SOF snoopers that would notice you.”

“Yolande.”

“My landlady.”

“You have told her about me?”

I snorted. “She told me. Turns out she’s known all along. And she’s a wardskeeper. She’s real useful to have on your side.”

Con was silent. I felt sympathetic. I wouldn’t have liked the idea that he’d brought a friend into our business either. I was so keyed up that I didn’t think about our disastrous last meeting till I’d already taken his hand, and then it was too late. He came back from wherever he’d been, presumably thinking about having another human foisted on him, and looked at me. His fingers curled around mine. I had a Senssurround Dolby flash of The Ten Seconds That Didn’t Go Anywhere, but I hit the mental censor button and it went poof.

“Listen,” I said, although it was even less like listening than the nonsound of him moving toward me had been like listening. It was strangely easier too, doing it with him, showing him my new road map rather than trying to figure it out myself. He knew the language and the landscape. I had a great idea: next time Pat called me in to SOF for a little more technical mayhem, I’d bring Con. “Hi, I’d like you to meet my helpful vampire friend. Don’t worry, my landlady is a retired—mostly retired—wardskeeper, and she says he’s okay.” Sure. Speaking of having more humans foisted. Pat would take some foisting.

But I stared into Con’s green eyes, and aligned myself, or him, like you might take someone’s shoulders and turn them round so they’re facing the right direction, like you might point at a map once you’ve told your companion, see, it’s those mountains you see right over there…

For a very nasty moment I thought I’d somehow managed to remake the live contact. That we weren’t looking at a map of those mountains, but had been transported there, and the tigers were closing in. I jerked back, but Con’s hand held me, and the jerk was like the click-over of the kaleidoscope, and the colored bits fell into a new arrangement.

It was weirdly something like looking through an aquarium at a lot of fish. The fish were whizzing around like crazy—cannonball fish—but I could see them individually, a little, and they did look like distinct and specific little whizzings-around instead of like chaos. This was interesting, although it didn’t really get me any farther; they were still moving too fast for me to track a pattern or make my way among them. But this wasn’t as sick-making—or as terrifying—to watch or to think about. Presumably this was a good thing. But I remembered the quality of the terror, and wasn’t sure that not being terrified was wise or sane.

What we were looking for was behind the whizzing things. And that was still just as sick-making, just as terrifying. I didn’t like this animated three-dimensional map. Here be dragons. Much worse than any dragon, which are pretty straightforward—and straightforwardly alive—creatures that merely suffer that little character defect about liking to eat human flesh. Here be horrors indescribable. I barely sensed the dreadful loom of it—the differentiation of it from its manic pinball machine guard system—before I was repelled, repulsed, hurled away more violently than Con had thrown me the other night…except it was Con, this time, who caught me.

I was flopped against him, his arm round my waist, my ear pressed to his silent chest. I grabbed at his other arm, steadied myself, balanced again on my own feet, which seemed very small and very far away. “Have I given us away? Con, was that live?” The world still spun. If there had been anything in my stomach but tea (the muffins were a long time ago) it might have come up. As it was, the tea sloshed vindictively a few times and subsided. The chain burned round my throat.

“No,” said Con. “My Sunshine, you must learn moderation. This is not an enemy you can defeat by rushing his front gate.”

I made a little choking noise that might have been third cousin twice removed to a laugh. “I had no intention of anything resembling gate-crashing. I thought I was just looking. Except it wasn’t, um, looking.”

“No,” said Con. I could feel him thinking. “If you were a new—one of us—there are things I could teach you. I do not think I can teach a human these things.”

I sighed. “I believe you. Like seeing in the dark probably doesn’t bother you because you don’t spend a lot of time seeing in the light, right?”

“I am sorry.”

As partners we left a lot to be desired. “Was that him?”

Con’s eyes blazed briefly. Vampire eyes catching sight of their chosen prey. Don’t look. “Yes.”

“Can you—can you track him any better from what I—sort of—showed you?”

Con’s face arranged itself in one of its invisible-to-the-naked-human-eye almost-expressions. I guessed this one was irony. Note: existence of vampire irony. “I am not sure. It is certainly a signal we want to take heed of. How we take heed without jeopardizing ourselves unnecessarily I do not yet know. Remember that was not live, as you put it. It was only your memory—your exegesis—of what you saw.”

I shivered.

“I believe you were in less danger, even last night, than you may fear. What this is is a little like…what are those machines with the strange radiance, which attract insects to their deaths?”

“Zappers? Bug zappers. Bug flies in—zap.”

“You were zapped. The machine does not register the—bug. It merely zaps. I use these zappers also.”

“Vampires don’t use bug zappers?” I said, interested. There’s nothing like an immediate death threat to make you crave a little superficial distraction. I’d observed this phenomenon before. “All that hanging around out of doors after dark you guys do?”

“No.”

“Wrong kind of blood?”

“Vampires do not—er—register on insect radar.”

“Oh.” At last: a really good reason to want to be a vampire. I was one of those people you invite on your picnic or your hiking expedition, because the bugs will all crowd around me and leave everyone else alone.

Sunshine, get a grip. “Um. This isn’t the first time I’ve been…well, let me tell you the rest of it.” I did. “So last night was the third time and the worst. You don’t think he might be using a sort of fancy zapper that says, ‘Hey, boss, this bug keeps coming back’?”

“I think I will ask you not to go near that place again for the time being. Even if this Pat asks you to try.”

“It’s not Pat I’m so worried about,” I said. “It’s the goddess of pain.”

“Ah.” His expressionlessness took an ominous cast.

“Con,” I said nervously.

His gaze came back from wherever it had been and he looked at me. “No,” he said. I didn’t ask what “no” meant. Vampires are a little like burglars, okay? If a bright, determined vampire really wants to get into your house, he’s going to do it, and the best alarm system in the world and the electric moat and the sixteen genetically enhanced Rottweilers and the wards and the charms and the little household godlets blessed by the priests or pontifexes of the religion of your choice, and spellcast by the best sorcerers money can buy, aren’t going to stop him. Or her. You really don’t want to piss a vampire off, because it’s a lot harder having all that plastic surgery and the hemo treatment to change your blood chemistry than it is to sell your house and go live in a small cabin with nothing in it to steal. Also, the hemo treatment not only costs a bomb, occasionally it kills you, although at least two of the global council members have had it done twice that anybody knows about, and are still here.

The usual, which is to say, expensive, drastic options aren’t available to coffeehouse bakers. Having realized that my being alive geared Bo up, Con wasn’t my best choice, he was my only choice.

But the problem with having a nonhuman as your ally was that a nonhuman might not be, you know, very sentimental about the odd human life here and there. Especially not a vampire nonhuman about a human who shows signs of reading the mind of the vampire’s human ally. And fair is fair. I wasn’t very sentimental about vampires as a group either, was I?

“I can say no to the goddess if I have to,” I said, perhaps a little more loudly than necessary.

“I am certain you can, Sunshine,” said Con.

He was gone a moment later. I didn’t exactly see him go, but I didn’t-hear him moving away from me, and didn’t-see the shadow among the other shadows, after he was gone. I didn’t pay a lot of attention, however, because I was preoccupied with the feeling on my mouth, as if he had kissed me before he left.

More horrible grisly marking time, wondering what was going on. Wondering what is going on behind my back, wondering what is about to leap out of the shadows at me. At my worst I could begin wondering if I’d imagined Con. Well, he was the part that didn’t fit the pattern, wasn’t he? Nice, helpful, if somewhat unreassuring-looking, vampire. Puhleez.

There was enough to remind me there was something going on—starting with the scar on my breast and moving through seeing in the dark and the spontaneous combustion of pillows and ending, perhaps with the fact that there didn’t ever not seem to be some SOF or other at Charlie’s now, and that any time I walked in or out of the door whoever-it-was’s eyes fixed themselves on me. For a while I’d made a point of coming in by the side door any time the coffeehouse was open, but I decided this was making a bigger issue of something I couldn’t do anything about, so on days I was feeling hardy I went through the front. Let ‘em stare. It had taken Aimil’s remark to make me notice that Mrs. Bialosky was occupying her table more than usual. But she’d nominated herself as one of my protectors in one very practical way: some mangled version of recent events meant that we still had gapers coming in to check out if I had three heads or spoke in tongues. They didn’t stay long if Mrs. Bialosky rumbled them. Which kindly took the onus off our staff, which if they weren’t getting as tired of my notoriety as I was, had every right to.

But it was all too much, and my overworked and exhausted brain started looking for things to call imaginary. Con was such a perfect choice. I sometimes felt if I could get rid of Con I could be rid of all the rest of it—Bo, my heritage and weird talents, SOF’s suffocating interest, the lot. I knew it wasn’t true. But…

I did have one nice surprise. One afternoon I came out of the bakery and discovered someone unfamiliar sitting at Mrs. Bialosky’s table, and with whom Mrs. B was in deep conversation. I couldn’t resist this, so I slid along behind the counter to get a look without walking up to the table and staring: not that my subterfuge worked, because Mrs. B immediately raised her head and looked back at me. But this made the other person turn to look at what Mrs. B was looking at. She broke into a smile when she saw me: it was Maud. I hadn’t registered till then that there was a large plate on the table between them that presently contained a light sprinkling of crumbs and one single remaining Killer Zebra.

One of these mornings at four-thirty a.m. I was expecting to find a SOF lurking on a street corner too, and the fact that I didn’t see one didn’t convince me there wasn’t one there somewhere. Pat had made an official offer to have me escorted to and from home, which I didn’t let him finish before I refused. Other than that I hadn’t seen much of him: damage control with the goddess, I assumed. I was interested myself that my desire for autonomy was still stronger than my fear of what might or was about to happen. My unfavoritest corner, when I arrived at Charlie’s before dawn, wasn’t the nearest one, where Mandelbaum met the main road, but across the square, at the mouth of one of the littlest and darkest alleys of Old Town. I pretended to fish for my keys and then made a big pantomime fuss about choosing the right one every morning as I scanned for shadows that didn’t lie right. Shadows never lay right in that corner. I always felt watched, these days. It was just a question of watched by whom. Or what.

After I opened the door and went in, I relocked the door behind me before I turned off the alarm system. Used to be I didn’t bother to relock the door. I’d asked Charlie to program an extra few seconds’ delay to the bell so I could. He’d looked at me worriedly, but he’d done it. And he hadn’t asked any questions. He wasn’t going to say the “v” word if I wasn’t.

We don’t have a state-of-the-art alarm system at Charlie’s—we can’t afford it—but this is one of the ways having SOF friends is useful, and we do have some funny little gizmos that tell you if anything has been disturbed. Nothing went on being disturbed, except my mental state.

I was pulling maple cornbread out of the ovens at about eight one morning when Mary came in to say Theo wanted a word. I thought about it. “Okay,” I said. “Time I had a break, I guess.”

Theo sidled in like the reluctant bearer of unwelcome news. My private bakery kettle was beginning to hiss and burble. “Tea?”

He shook his head.

“Cornbread?”

He brightened immediately. I was as bad as Paulie, really, despite how long I’d been doing this. Someone wants to eat my food, they’re automatically my friend. Someone who doesn’t want to eat my food, they automatically aren’t. This is an awkward attitude if you hang out a lot with a vampire.

Theo was an old enough hand in the kitchen—my kitchen anyway—to know to approach something fresh out of the oven with caution. He took the whacked-off still-squodgy-with-baking end of a loaf of maple cornbread gingerly and watched happily as the approximately quarter-pound of butter he put on it melted through. He would lick the plate when he was done. This was one of the advantages of eating out back: table manners weren’t required. I’d been known to lick plates myself. Once when I was teasing Kyoko about him, I mentioned he was a plate-licker. She looked briefly interested “Oh? Maybe he’s human after all.” Then she shook her head. “Nah. He’s SOF.” This was in hindsight a better joke than I’d realized.

“You’d better get it over with,” I said, after he’d finished licking the plate.

He sighed. “Pat would like to see you this afternoon.”

I’d decided in the predawn darkness of the morning after I’d met the goddess what I was going to say the next time Pat wanted to talk to me. “It won’t do him any good. Something burned out the other night. I burned out. I woke up the next morning with a piece missing. It’s still missing.”

He looked surprised, worried, then thoughtful. Then, to my great surprise, hopeful. “He’ll still want to see you.”

“Why are you looking so pleased?”

He hesitated. “The goddess wants to take over. Take you over. She says it’s because Pat destroyed government property, that he’s bungled, that she wants to clean up the mess, that you’re to be sent back where you came from after she’s sure no security has been breached, that it was all glang anyway. But it’s really because she’s pissed off that someone may have thought of something or discovered something before she did. Something that might be important— something she might be able to use.”

“And you think Pat’ll think that merely blowing out the county HQ’s com system on a bad call is better than the goddess finding out maybe it’s a good call?”

“Yeah.”

I thought of her walking-nuclear-reactor aura. “If I wasn’t afraid of the goddess already, I would be now.”

He smiled. It was a rickety sort of smile. “You don’t know half— You don’t want to know half. You want my advice, you stick to suckers. When do you get off today? Pat’ll come by just before.”

“Three,” I said. His eyes were wandering to the muffin racks. There were bran raisin and oatmeal applesauce allspice waiting to go into the cases up front. “Have one for the road,” I said.

“Thanks,” he said. He took two.

Pat drifted in at a few minutes to three. I now knew that it would take a lot to make him look short of sleep, and he looked short of sleep. He looked worse than short of sleep. He raised hollow eyes and said, “Hey, Sunshine.”

“You look like hell,” I said. I was scraping out the last baking tin. Our Albion crowd would have to be really hungry today to get through this lot. And I’d made my special cream-cheese sauce to go with the triple-ginger gingerbread. I’d long felt that gingerbread, while excellent in itself, was still essentially an excuse to eat the sauce, so I’d always made twice as much per portion as the original recipe called for. Then it turned out that some of our customers were even more crazed than I was, so I’d started making three times as much, and we served it in little sauceboats. You got purists occasionally that didn’t want any sauce, but the slack was taken up somehow.

“Thanks,” he said.

“What’s happening?”

He shrugged. His shoulder must be better. Maybe blue-demon blood made you heal fast too. “What Theo told you.”

“You look like you’ve been let out of the dungeon. I thought thumbscrews were passe.”

“The goddess doesn’t need thumbscrews. She just looks at you and you feel your brains melting.”

I thought of the other night. “I believe you.”

“Theo says you’ve lost it.”

“Yeah. I’m safe from the goddess. No brains left to melt.”

“No one is ever safe from the goddess.” The Pat I knew surfaced and he gave me a familiar look: shrewd, humorous, no nonsense. “How lost do you suppose it is?”

I pulled off my apron and untied my hair. “Lost enough for now. If I replace a fuse and the system starts working again, I’ll let you know.”

“Maybe you’re just tired,” said Pat.

“Maybe,” I said amiably.

Pat ran his hand through what there was of his hair. “I don’t like it when you agree with me, Sunshine. It’s not your style. What aren’t you telling me?”

“That I’m relieved not to have to try again,” I said.

I knew he bought it: he sagged, suddenly looking smaller and older. I felt a fierce pang of guilt, but I reminded myself that he believed that the only good vampire was a staked, beheaded, and burned vampire. Briefly and wistfully I considered a scenario where Con and I had a SOF team with us when we…whatever…but I recognized this as a fantasy, like a scenario where the goddess of pain retired from SOF and opened a day care center.

“You look like a man who needs caffeine,” I said. “I’ll grab us something from the counter and meet you outside. Do you want privacy or comfort?” Comfort meant the nice little tables out front, overlooking the square and Mrs. Bialosky’s flower bed, still doing its stuff with chrysanthemums and asters this late in the year.

“Privacy,” he said.

He was sitting at one of the unsteady tables in the grim little courtyard behind the coffeehouse that by never doing anything with we could continue to avoid opening to customers. You got used to the roar of the kitchen fans and Mom had a couple of tough little evergreen shrubs in pots that could survive the cooking fumes. Pat and I didn’t talk about anything much after all. He drank the coffee and engulfed the various buns and other edible objects I’d brought, but absentmindedly, like a refueling procedure. The fact that he didn’t argue with me about trying again, about trying to find out the extent of the burnout—about whether or not there really was a burnout—made me feel more guilty.

Silence fell. Pat stared into nothing. “I’m sorry,” I said.

He looked at me. “I believe you,” he said. He stood up. “I’m not sure I believe the rest of it, but I believe you’re sorry about it.” He paused. “Makes my life easier in some ways.” Another gleam of the normal Pat as he said: “Maybe by the time you’ve decided you’re not burned out any more the goddess will have found someone else to crucify.”

I didn’t say anything. He rubbed both hands through his hair this time, and added, “I didn’t say this. But watch your back, Sunshine.” Then he left.

Mel wandered out a few minutes after Pat had left. I was staring into my teacup. I’d forgotten to bring a sieve out, so there were tea leaves in the bottom of it, but I couldn’t read them. “You look like a woman who needs a good laugh,” he said. “Have you heard the one about the were-pigeon and the streetcleaner?”

“Yes,” I said. “Mel, d’you suppose anyone is exactly who they say they are?”

“Charlie, maybe,” he answered, after a little pause, of surprise or consideration. “Can’t think of anyone else. Hmm.” I watched his hand lift off the table and rub one of his tattoos.

Maybe I should have been thinking about tattoos myself, but there’s a real big drawback to them. Any charm can be turned against you, if you run into the thing it’s supposed to be protecting you from, and the thing is enough stronger than the protection. A powerful enough demon adept or magic handler can overwhelm one too, although that’s serious feud stuff and not common. A tattoo feeds itself on you, so tattoos do tend to be a lot more stable and longer-lived than the ordinary charms you set around and hang up, including the ones you wear next to your skin; but a charm that isn’t living off you can be destroyed a lot more easily if it does go—or is sent—rogue. A rogue tattoo can eat you up. It happens occasionally. Before five months ago I didn’t figure I needed any heavy warding. Now that I did, tattoos were the last thing I was going to try.

“Charlie,” I said. “I can’t think of anyone else either.” Not Mel. Not me.

“Not Mrs. B,” said Mel, smiling. “Sunshine, I don’t like metaphysics unless I’m drunk, it’s only three-thirty in the afternoon, and I’m working tonight. What’s up?”

If Mel had really been trying to pass as a motorcycle hoodlum, his tattoos wouldn’t be as beautiful or as elaborate. Lots of sorcerers go in for a superabundance of tattoos, but they mostly keep them hidden—they’re harder to rogue that way. Hence the long enveloping robe and deep hood technique with inked-up sorcerers when they’re actually handling magic. (For day-to-day, walking-the-dog, doing-the-shopping use, a lot of sorcerers disguise the real shape of their tattoos with cosmetics. Long sleeves and high collars are hot in the summer—and there are favorite sorcerer tattoos that go on your lips and cheeks and forehead too. But—I love this—magic can apparently be a bit perfunctory about certain things in the heat of a transaction. Any tattoo a sorcerer wants working while he or she handles magic can’t be distorted with face paint or pancake foundation because it may turn out to be the apparent figure that performs. Or doesn’t.)

My dad didn’t have any tattoos. That I remembered. But I didn’t remember my dad very well, and not all sorcerers have tattoos.

But sorcerers are sorcerers. Tattooists mostly make their livings punching charms in leather, not live skin, and they’ll try to talk an ordinary member of the public out of it if you already have, say, three magic-bearing tattoos, even little boring ones, and they’ll tell you why. In vivid detail. It isn’t just the rogue possibility: a lot of magic-bearing tattoos can sort of unbalance you. You start not being quite sure where the real-world lines are with a lot of tattoos whispering in your dreams. Of course having lots of magic-bearing tattoos is one way of saying you’re a tough guy—first because the implication is that you need all that charm and ward power, and second because you’re hardy enough to bear the drain and the disorientation.

But there are better ways of showing you are a tough guy than having lots of tattoos, partly because no tattooist who wants to keep his or her license is likely to cooperate, and the ones who don’t have licenses are too likely to make a mess of it. There is only one small secondary quarter-circle’s difference between a ward against drunkenness and another one against eyestrain, for example, and the latter won’t get you home safely with a load on. And that’s one of the common, simple wards, and most of Mel’s tattoos weren’t common or simple. But they were magic bearers, not ornamental. You could smell it, like ozone when a storm is coming. And besides, nobody who had any pretensions to hanging out with a biker gang would dare have ornamental tattoos. Ornies are for wusses.

Mel couldn’t be a sorcerer—sorcery isn’t something you can successfully hide for long—but he did have a lot of tattoos. It was typical of him too that when he had come to talk to Charlie about a job the first time he had his sleeves rolled up above the elbows and his shirt open at the neck, in spite of the fact that it was January and freezing. Although maybe he just had a good take on Charlie, who in his affable, openhearted way, enjoys Charlie’s reputation as a place slightly on the edge.

I said, “Mel, who are you?‘’

Mel picked up both my hands and kissed them. His lips were warm. When he laid them back on the table he didn’t let go. I watched the sunlight twinkle among the fine hairs on the backs of his hands, and the red and gold and black of the tattoos there. Both the hairs and the tattoos had an unusually bright red edge, as if there was firelight on them. Or in them. His hands were warm too. Human temperature. The temperature of the fire of human life. Speaking of metaphysics. “I’m your friend, Sunshine,” he said. “Everything else is just static on the line.”

I wondered if he’d heard what Pat had said. I wondered who had done his tattoos. Maybe what I thought I knew about magic-bearing tattoos was from the same script as the disquisition about how masturbating will make you blind and a cretin. (Even ‘ubis don’t damage your sight.) Maybe I should ask him. But then I’d have to tell him why I wanted to know.

Even if you could successfully hide being a sorcerer, Mel still couldn’t be one. Sorcerers are loners—they don’t do things like get jobs as cooks in coffeehouses, or jive with their old motorcycle gang— occasionally they hang with other sorcerers, but usually for some specific and time-limited purpose. Sorcerers are too paranoid to have ordinary human friends and too competitive to have sorcerer friends. The street version about sorcerers is that they are basically not to be trusted: humans aren’t meant to be that mixed up with magic. Not even magic-handling humans.

Where did sorcerers get their tattoos?

Maybe I didn’t know anything any more.

I drove home thinking about that Watch your back. I was already watching my back, and Pat knew it. Was he warning me to watch my back against SOF? Was a loyal—if partblood—member of SOF warning me that SOF itself was not to be trusted? Okay, lately I’d heard about partbloods needing to stick together for mutual defense, and I’d heard a long time ago about the goddess of pain, and I knew none of our SOFs liked her; but I thought—I assumed—this was only because she was a hardass bitch who was more concerned with her own career path than with making humanity safe from the Others. Was Pat suggesting something more ominous? And if he was, was he suggesting it about one overambitious gorgon with skewed priorities, or about a treacherous vein, you should forgive the term, running through all of SOF?

Gods and angels, wasn’t Bo enough?

At a stoplight I flipped open the glove compartment and looked at the clutter. A few of the charms twitched. Poor Mom. At least she was trying. I realized that I was grateful for the useless tangle, even if it was useless. Because she was doing something. She hadn’t averted her eyes from the fact that I needed help. She merely had no clue how much help, or what kind. Only Con really knew, only he didn’t know, because he wasn’t human, so he didn’t know what he knew. Or something.

When I got home I sat staring at the shadows the leaves from the trees threw on the driveway. They glinted and did strange things with perspective like all shadows did now, but they were beautiful and they didn’t mean anything. They were what happened when light fell on leaves. It wasn’t late summer any more; it was autumn, and the leaves were beginning to turn. A pale yellow one like a big flat blanched almond skittered across the hood of the Wreck.

I opened my knapsack and swept the thatch of charms into it, including one spark plug, quite a lot of string, and a few rubber bands, from back in the days when the glove compartment performed the usual function. I was pretty sure I felt a tiny penetrating buzz when my skin connected with one of the charms, but I had no idea which one. Then I went and knocked on Yolande’s front door.

She opened it almost at once. “Come in,” she said. “I have spoken to my old master.”

I sighed. I followed her in. She took me to a room I had not been in before, next to the kitchen, also overlooking the garden. I knew at once that not many people came here—first because if she wished no one to know that she had been a wardskeeper, or at least to believe she was a retired wardskeeper, this room would give the show away; second because the privateness of it radiated from everything in it, like heat or light. I brushed one hand across my face, as if it was a veil I had difficulty breathing through.

She noticed this and said, “Oh! Pardon,” and lifted something down from over the door we’d come in. The sense of private space invaded lessened—sank—like water. I looked down, bemused. The shadows on the floor were very active.

She laid the thing she had moved down on the desk. I sat in the chair in front of it, I leaned forward, held a hand over it: something beat at my palm. It wasn’t heat any more than my dark vision had to do with my eyes, but it was perhaps related to heat, and it manifested itself a bit like heat against the skin. I moved my hand and looked at the thing. It was a tiny round piece of what looked like stained glass. I could see the leading of it, but I could not see if the fragments made up a picture, or if any of the bits were painted. The shadows swam in it very strangely.

Wardskeeper. It sounded so…solid. Even if you blew up the occasional workshop, at least you knew you were in training, and for what. Your master told you what to do, what to do next.

Yolande, watching my face, said, “I’m sorry, my dear. I know this is one of the last things you want to hear, but I think you are in over your head in exactly what you are best suited to be in over your head in—my grammar grows confused—and you are doing very well.”

She was getting almost as bad as Con. What happened to random chat? I wanted to say, “All I wanted was to bake cinnamon rolls for the rest of my life,” but I knew it wasn’t true, and besides, I was tired of whining. So I didn’t say it. I picked up my knapsack, out of the seething not-wetness still roaming about the floor, and set it on her desk. As I lifted it I had felt the charm-thatch inside it scrambling to stay away from the not-wetness; as I set it down, it seemed to be trying to escape contact with the top of the desk. Well, I thought, I guess at least one of them is live.

Her eyes widened, and then she frowned. “Lift it up again, if you would,” she said. I did, and she took something out of a drawer, and spread it out, and then gestured for me to put the knapsack on it. I did. Whatever was going on subsided.

“What have you brought me to look at?” she said.

I opened the knapsack, but had a sudden reluctance to touch the charms. “Wait,” she said, and brought something else out of another drawer: a pair of wooden tongs. They had symbols scrawled up their flat sides. I groped around, grasped an end of the tangle, and hauled it out. It seemed to have half-unraveled itself: it came out looking like crochet gone very, very wrong. As it came free of the knapsack one end snaked around as if seeking something, and then began climbing up one arm of the tongs. Toward my hand.

Drop it,” said Yolande sharply. I dropped. It landed on the desk; there was a hiss and a bad smell—a really bad smell—and then there was a forlorn little heap of bad crochet work (plus one spark plug) with a torn-out hole in it, edged by a purply brown stain. The stain writhed.

“Ugh,” I said.

“Ugh indeed,” Yolande said mildly. “That was no ward; that was a fetch. Where was it?”

“In the W—in my car,” I said.

“Do you keep your car locked?”

“Not here,” I said, cold needling up my spine.

“No,” she said. “If whatever had placed this had come here, I would have known it.”

“Then it—they—someone—something can get into a locked car,” I said, the coldness continuing to climb. Something, I thought. No, wait—vampires didn’t do fetches. Did they?

“Where do these other items come from?”

“Oh—since I was missing those two days, my mother has taken to buying charms for me. They’re supposed to be wards. It occurred to me to ask you if any of them was, um, live.”

“Have you no wards on your car at all?”

“Only standard issue—the axles, the steering wheel.” Every car manufacturer in the world had a ward sign worked into its logo, and every car company in the world stamped the center of its steering wheels with its logo. “I did have the door locks warded by the guy who sold it to me, but I guess it didn’t work.” I scowled. Oh well. Dave had never claimed to be a ward specialist: he only promised the Wreck would run. “And the car is fifteen years old—they hadn’t invented the alloy yet.” Which enabled car manufacturers to ward almost everything. There was a big difference in used car prices pre-and post-alloy. Some of us, including Mel, Dave, and me, thought that the alloy was the latest vehicular version of those skin creams that guarantee no wrinkles, those diet plans that guarantee a figure like this year’s reigning vidstar in thirty days.

Lately the commercial labs were working on a ward that would dissolve in paint, like salt in water, and make every painted surface warded too. When they got it there would be a huge advertising campaign, but it wouldn’t be that useful really. Like salt water. If you needed to melt some triffids it was great, but there hadn’t been a triffid outbreak in generations. If you had mouth ulcers or a sore throat you were better off with alum or aspirin. If you had vampires the paint on your car might give them a few friction burns, but it wasn’t going to stop them breaking the windscreen and dragging you out.

Your best traveling ward unfortunately was still the motion of traveling itself. I didn’t like it that Yolande wasn’t saying the usual things about the warding power of motion, not to worry, etc., etc. Well: but we’d just proved there was something to worry about. That fetch sure hadn’t been undone by riding around in a car.

Yolande had picked up something that looked a lot like a knitting needle—it even had a tiny hook on the end—and was poking at the mess of crochet. There was one pale blue bead that still had a bit of glimmer to it. “I think some of these were live quite recently,” she said. “I think what they have warded is the usefulness of the fetch, which has worn them out. You don’t have any idea when you acquired it, I don’t suppose? How long have you been stuffing charms into—?”

“The glove compartment,” I said absently. A fetch was usually roughly the shape of the thing to be fetched—something that was trying to find or fetch a person was often a sort of elongated star shape, with a bead or a crystal or a chip at its center for the heart, and smaller beads or crystals or chips for the head, hands, and feet. I was sure I would have noticed my mother giving me a fetch…and besides, she wasn’t that stupid. Eight years with my dad had made her less easy to fool than most ordinary people about anything to do with magic, and she was constitutionally hard to fool about anything anyway.

When had I noticed that the clutter, including eight or a dozen loose charms, in the glove compartment had turned into a matted snarl? I’d opened it—when?—to look at a map. I’d been sitting in the driver’s seat. Several things had plopped out onto the floor. I’d heard them rustling around, the way charms will, and, still looking at my map, I’d groped around on the floor for them. I picked up one or two, but I could still hear the rustling. They were creeping across the floor under the passenger seat, humping themselves over the drive shaft, and one or two of them had made it under the driver’s seat, which was fast moving for charms. I still hadn’t paid a lot of attention. I’d scavenged around under the driver’s seat and pulled out anything that squirmed, and shoved the whole lot back into the glove compartment without looking at any of it.

But if there’d been a fetch under the driver’s seat, then the wards would have mobbed and then tried to disable it.

That had been a day or two or three after I’d taken that inconclusive ride to No Town with Pat and Jesse.

Watch your back, Pat had said.

“SOF,” I said in disbelief. No, in what I wished was disbelief. In a belief that made me feel like I’d been dropped down an elevator shaft into icy water. “Someone in SOF did this to me. In SOF.” And whoever it was wasn’t going to like it at all that it hadn’t worked. No genuinely innocent member of the human public should be able to denature a fetch.

“My dear,” said Yolande. “Large organizations are inevitably corrupt. The more powerful the organization, the more dangerous the corruption. When I was young I wanted to belong to one of the big wardcraft corporations—Zammit, or Drusilla, if I proved skillful enough. Several of my master’s apprentices went to such places, and he was always gloomy and preoccupied for weeks—months—after he’d ‘lost’ one of us. That was always how he’d describe it—that he’d lost Benedict, he’d lost Ancilla. I was lucky; I was a slow learner. By the time I was ready to choose how I would pursue my vocation, I was ready to stay where I was, and go on working with my master. There were only three of us for many years: Chrysogon, Hippolyte, and myself, other than our master, and a few apprentices who came and went.”

Note, I thought, the next time I meet someone with a really strange name, ask them if they’re a wardskeeper.

“It is still better that SOF exist than it not exist. One must also earn a living; there is no equivalent in the SOF world for my master’s small group of wardskeepers.”

She was right there. The Sentinel Guild are pretty sad and the Vindicators are worse.

“The SOF fellow who came here once: he is your friend.”

“Pat,” I said. “Is he?”

“He is not perfect,” she said. “But nor am I. Nor are you. Nor is your dark companion. But yes, he is your friend. He wishes the defeat of the evil of the dark, as do we all.”

Depends, I thought, on what you mean by the evil of the dark. Or maybe by “we.”

“Pat is not only interested in—in what you can do for SOF. Or for his career.”

“Don’t forget my cinnamon rolls, which make strong men weak and strong women run from the bus station in high heels over our cobblestones to get to Charlie’s in time. If you know all that, can you tell me who planted the fetch?”

“No, I’m afraid not. I know about Pat because he sat in one place waiting for you for twenty minutes once, and that place happens to lie under the remit of one of my more ambitious wardings, and it went on taking—er—notes as long as he sat there.”

I doubted I could persuade the goddess to come sit quietly under the oak at the end of Yolande’s drive for twenty minutes.

“I told you I had spoken to my master about you. I also spoke to Chrysogon. We believe we can create something for you but it would be better, stronger, if—”

“You want blood,” I said, resignedly. Most wardcrafters made do with something like a dirty apron, which I was sure was what my mother had been using. A few of the more determined or well-established ones will ask for hair or fingernail clippings. But there’s an enormous black market in things like hair and fingernail clippings and the more you’re likely to want a charm the less safe you’re going to feel passing out bits of yourself. Blood’s the worst. Not only is it blood, which is by far the most powerful bit you can hand over for all sorts of purposes, but any concept that contains “magic” and “blood” together makes the majority of the human population think “vampires” and freak out. This is actually totally stupid, since vampires aren’t interested in teeny wardcrafter vials of blood, and a vampire that wipes out a ward-crafter’s shop isn’t going to jones for you because they’ve had this tiny hit like an ice cream stand flavor-of-the-month sample and cross continents till they’ve found you and had the rest of you. But the paranoia behind the general principle is valid.

“Yes,” said Yolande.

I’d never met a wardskeeper, though, let alone had one do up a personalized ward for me. And as concepts go, one that contains “Yolande” and “black market” is going to disintegrate on contact. So that should be fine, right? Except I have this thing about blood, and Con’s little healing number on me hadn’t helped it.

“Um,” I said.

Yolande was smiling. “You may close your eyes,” she said.

“Okay.”

“If you would hold out your hands palm up, and extend both forefingers, and then I am going to prick the center of your forehead.”

The chain round my neck had begun to warm up before I closed my eyes, and I could feel a gentle warmth against both legs as well. Oh, gods, guys, I said to my talismans, isn’t this way below your dignity? I flinched at the sting in my forehead, but the fingers were easy, even for me.

I touched the warm chain with one hand, and fished in my pocket with the other. “Maybe you can translate something else for me. I found this at the bottom of a crumbly box of old books at a garage sale.”

“Well! How extraordinary. This is a—a Straight Way: very clear and plain. Clean and—old—very untainted for a ward so old. It represents the forces of day, of daylight. The sun itself is at the top, then an animal, then a tree. Interesting—the animal is a deer, I think; usually it is a fierce creature, a lion is the most common. This is not only a deer, it has no antlers, and is therefore perhaps a doe. And then round it, round the edge of the seal, do you see the thin wavy line? That is water. With these things you can resist the forces of darkness, or they cannot defeat you. Of course this is only a ward.”

“The peanut-butter sandwich you throw over your shoulder at the ogre,” I said. “So maybe you’ll make it over the fence if he stops to eat it.”

“But this found you. That is important. The forces of day is not a very uncommon ward, but this is simply and exquisitely done and— it found you. Keep it near you and keep it safe. My heart lifts that this thing found you. It is good news.”

Don’t tell me how much I need some good news, I thought. “When do you think your, um, ward will be ready?”

“Soon. Please—please ask your dark ally to wait till it is ready. It will not be more than a day or two.”

Back to the bad news. Yolande and her wardskeeper friends thought Con and I were going to face Bo that soon. Well, I suppose I thought so too.

Later. Upstairs. The balcony door open; candles burning; I sat cross-legged, hands on knees. I wasn’t going anywhere. I just wanted a word.

How soon.

Not tonight. Not…next night. Then…

No sooner. Yolande…ward…me

It was going to take a lot of work before this alignment business replaced the telephone. But I wouldn’t be around to see it, since it looked like I had two days to live.

And I’d been complaining about waiting.

So, what do you do when you know you have two days to live? Wait a minute, haven’t I been here before? No. I was only pretending, last time. I hadn’t known that I was sure Con would save me, last time, till this time, when I knew he wouldn’t. But I had been here before: I was still finding out I had more stuff to lose by losing it. And I already knew I thought this was a triple Carthaginian hell of a system.

So, where was I? Right. What you do when you know you have two days to live. Not a lot different than if you didn’t know. Six months you could do something with. Two days? Hmph. Eat an entire Bitter Chocolate Death all by yourself. (Actually I bombed on this. Mel had to eat the last slab. A pan of Bitter Chocolate Death isn’t very large, but it is intense.) Reread your favorite novel, the one you only let yourself read any more when you’re sick in bed. I might have enjoyed this more, since I’m never sick, if death didn’t seem like a very bad trade-off. Buy eight dozen roses from the best florist in town—the super expensive ones, the ones that smell like roses rather than merely looking like them—and put them all over your apartment. I bought five dozen red and three dozen white. I have one vase and one iced tea pitcher, which has regularly spent more of its time holding cut flowers than iced tea. After I used these, and the two twinkly-gold-flecked tumblers and two cheap champagne flutes plus the best of my limited and motley collection of water and wine glasses, I emptied out my shampoo bottle—which was tall and rather a nice shape, even if it was plastic—into a jam jar, and put a few in it. I cut most of the rest of them off at the base of the flower and floated them in whatever else I had that would hold water, including the bathtub. I decided this had been one of my better ideas. The last three—two red, one white—I tied together and hung upside down from the rear-view mirror of the Wreck. Better than fuzzy dice.

Take a good long look at everyone you love—everyone local; you’ve only got two days. And don’t tell anybody. You don’t need to be surrounded by a lot of depressed people; you’re already depressed enough for everybody.

Of course in my case I couldn’t tell anybody because either they wouldn’t believe me or they’d try to stop me.

I thought about being rude to Mr. Cagney. It was something I had been longing to do for years, and I somehow managed to be behind the counter on the second morning when he needed someone to complain to. But I looked at his scrunched-up, petulant face and decided, rather regretfully, that I had better things to do with my last morning on earth. So I said “mm-hmm” a few times, refilled his coffee cup (which he changed tack to tell me was cold: okay, I’m not Mary, but it was not cold) and left him to Charlie, who didn’t know it was my last morning on earth, and was hastening over from cranking down the awning to stop me from being rude.

Other things I didn’t do included waste any time trying to find out who’d planted that fetch on me. Yolande did a sweep on the Wreck for me and didn’t find anything but two new wards tucked under the front bumper and a ticker behind the rear license plate. She was quite taken with the wards, saying she was falling behind on research faster than she knew, that they were a whole new design of traveling ward and by far the most effective she’d seen. They had to be SOF too. An example of a large corrupt organization getting it right. She left all of them alone.

I had been hoping to see Pat. I could promise anything he liked for tomorrow or the day after that. But he didn’t show up, as he mostly hadn’t been showing up since the night we blew out HQ. He must be getting his cinnamon roll fix by white bakery bag. In a world where I was less and less sure of anything, I was sure that that jones was real. I was sorry not to have a chance to say good-bye, except of course I wouldn’t have said good-bye. When Mary came into the bakery to ask if there was anything hot out of the oven she didn’t know about to tell Jesse and Theo I said, carelessly, “Oh, I’ll bring it: I’ll try my new whatever-these-are on them.” I liked the idea of inventing a new recipe on my last day on earth, and I’ve always liked to see my guinea pigs’ faces when they first bite down. I said, “So, say hi to Pat for me,” and they both looked at me as if there was a hidden message, which there was, although I doubted they were going to guess it. They were distracted quickly enough by the whatever-these-were: I’d have to do the unthinkable and write out the recipe, so Paulie could have it. And maybe Aimil would come up with a good name. Sunshine’s Eschatology. Hey, my eschatology would have butter, heavy cream, pecans, and three kinds of chocolate in it.

I’d miss feeding my SOFs: they were good eaters.

I’d miss being alive.

I had been due to work through the early-supper split shift but I decided I wanted to see the sun set from my balcony once more so I wheedled Emmy into it. Didn’t want her to lose all her bakery skills just because she’d been made assistant cook next door—Paulie was going to need her. I’d already bent Paulie’s arm into a pretzel till he’d agreed to take the dawn shift tomorrow. The Thursday morning system had broken down so completely I no longer remembered if I owed him some four a.m.s or he owed me some. The confusion was probably good for him. He was about to have to learn to be chief baker real fast.

There were some people it was too difficult to say good-bye to, so I didn’t try. Mom, of course. If I’d made a point of going into the office to say good-bye to her that day, however casually, she’d’ve been calling the cops and the hospital before I got the words out of my mouth. Once a mother, always a mother, and I’d have to have some spectacular reason for breaking the awkward but practical truce that we never spoke to each other unless on specific coffeehouse business. Kenny was bussing tables; we exchanged “Hey”s. I’d never said goodbye to Kenny and this wasn’t the time to start. I had seen Billy for about two-thirds of a second earlier in the afternoon, when he blasted into Charlie’s long enough to fling over his shoulder at the nearest parent the information that he was spending the rest of the day with the equally hyperactive friend accompanying him. He did not acknowledge me; I was part of the family backdrop. What was to acknowledge? My importance lay in the availability of the eight muffins and two-each-from-every-bin-and-four-if-they-were-chocolate cookies they took with them as they blasted out again.

Mary and Kyoko I said “See you” to. I waved to Emmy, who was in the main kitchen looking harassed, but I was beginning to suspect that her harassed look was covering up the fact that she was having a really good time and didn’t quite believe her luck. I always checked out with Charlie, to make sure there weren’t any last-minute gaps I might be able to fill, to make sure our schedules for tomorrow matched. I’d told him about the swap with Paulie; I only said I was tired, and I know I looked it. We didn’t say good-bye either. Our ritual went, “See you tomorrow, Sunshine,” and “Yeah.” I said “Yeah”, as usual. Even on days off he said “See you tomorrow” because even on days off he usually did.

I hadn’t realized that I never said good-bye to anyone about anything.

Mel. He was on break when I left, and he wasn’t jiving with some guy or guys in greasy denim about overhead cam shifts through hot pastrami or meatloaf sandwiches—or for that matter discussing world news with one of our more coherent derelicts. Mel was leaning against the corner of the building drinking coffee and muttering to himself. I knew what he was muttering about: he’d given up smoking ten years ago but he still wanted a cigarette every time he drank coffee, and he drank a lot of coffee. Sometimes his fingers twitched, not from the caffeine jag but from the memory of doing his own roll-ups. This made him drink more coffee. One day he was going to wake up and discover he’d turned into a coffee plantation, and then Charlie’s would have its own fresh home-grown beans even if we had to replace our chief cook. There are worse things to wake up and discover you’ve turned into. A vampire, for example. Although the books say you’ll know it’s coming.

Mel looked up and saw me, and his face eased into his good-old-boy smile. Mel used his charm as deliberately as laying an ace on the table, so you could see exactly what it was. It was one of the good things about him. Whatever he might not be telling you, what he did tell you was the truth. I’m your friend, Sunshine. He still looked like someone who should be wearing greasy denims rather than an apron, although the tattoos confused the issue: greasy denims and a long hooded cloak? Hmm. I wondered if sorcerers ever used food splotches instead of cosmetics.

“Hey Sunshine.”

“Hey.”

“We still on for Friday afternoon?”

I nodded, probably too vigorously, because his smile faded. “Something wrong?”

Nothing that wasn’t wrong the last time you asked me that question, I thought, only it’s got wronger faster than maybe I was expecting. I shook my head, trying to be less vigorous. “No. Thanks.”

He swallowed the last of his coffee, put the mug down on the ground, and came over to me. “Sure?”

“Sure. Yeah.” I put my arms around him, leaned my face against his shoulder (my forehead against the oak tree that was visible beneath the torn-off sleeve of his T-shirt), and sighed. He smelled of food and daylight. I could feel his heart beating. He put his arms around me. “Probably just lingering indigestion from eleven-twelfths of a Bitter Chocolate Death yesterday,” I said. I felt the small kick of his diaphragm as he laughed—he had a sort of furry-chuckle laugh—but he knew me too well. “Try again, Sunshine,” he said. “Do blue whales OD guzzling all that sea water? Your veins run chocolate—finest dark semisweet—not blood.”

Pity it looked red, then. It gave vampires ideas. I didn’t say anything.

“You can tell me about it on Friday, okay?” he said.

I nodded. “Okay.” If I said any more I would probably burst into tears.

I drove home slowly. I thought of going by the library, but decided Aimil came into the “too difficult” category, and she might conceivably make some kind of guess what I was feeling so gloomy about and I didn’t want to take the risk. What a really awful reason not to see someone for the last time. But I was so tired.

I sat in the car again at home and watched the leaves turning. It seemed to me a lot of autumn had happened in the last two days. I thought of the two days out of time I’d had after Con had diagnosed me and before he was supposed to come back and cure me. I’d known I was dying, but it kind of hadn’t mattered. It wasn’t only that I believed Con would find a way to heal me. It was that there wasn’t anything I could do. I didn’t have that luxury this time. I was going to have to go through with it, whatever it was. I’d always scorned the stories where the princesses hung around waiting to be rescued: Sleeping Beauty, spare me. Tell the stupid little wuss to wake up and sort out the wicked fairy herself. I found myself thinking that sleeping through it sounded pretty good after all.

Yolande was looking out for me, and her door was open before I’d climbed out of the Wreck. I walked draggingly up to her. I didn’t even know that it was going to be tonight. I remembered those extra nights I’d waited for Con, with death lying on my breast like a lover. What a long time ago that seemed. I tried to make this a hopeful thought, but it refused to work. It was like trying to blow up a popped balloon. Hello, Death, you again. Just can’t keep away, can you?

Saints and damnation. Mostly damnation.

Yolande drew me into her workroom. There was a little heap of…sunlight on her desk. What? I blinked. It looked like…as if there was a chink in the blind, letting a single ray in to make a pool there: except it wasn’t a pool, it was a heap, and there was no ray of sun. I could feel my eyes fizzing back and forth like a camera’s automatic lens, trying to find the right setting and failing. The heap cast no shadows. It was a small domed hummock of pure golden light.

I had stopped to stare, and Yolande went to her desk and picked it up. It seemed to flow over her hands, slowly, like rivulets of warm honey, or small friendly sleepy snakes. It was, I thought, as it separated itself over her fingers, a latticework of some variety. The filaments met and parted in some kind of pattern, and the filaments themselves seemed to carry a pattern, like scales on a snake’s back. It moved slowly, but it moved; it curled round Yolande’s wrists. My strange sense of it—them—being friendly but half asleep remained. “It will wake up when it touches you,” she said, as if reading my mind. “We had to put it together in great haste, and it’s not yet used to being—manifest.”

She came toward me, stretching the light-net gently between her hands like a cat’s cradle, and—threw it over me.

For a moment I was surrounded by twinkling lights; and then I felt it—them—settling gently against my skin, delicate as snow-flakes, but warm. Bemusedly I held one arm out to watch the process. You know how if you watch, if you concentrate, you can feel when snowflakes land on you, feel the chill of them, almost individually at first, till your face or hand or arm begins to numb with the cold, and then they melt against your skin and disappear. So it was with these tiny lightflakes: I saw them as they floated down, shimmering down, felt them when they touched me, lighter than feathers or gossamer, and over all of me, for clothes were insubstantial to them. But they were not merely warm, a few of them were uncomfortably hot, and left tiny pinprick red marks; and while they dissolved on contact like snowflakes, they appeared to sink through the surface of my skin, leaving nothing behind, no dampness, no stickiness, no shed scales…After they’d all vanished, if I turned my arm sharply back and forth I could just see the webwork of light, like veins, only golden, not blue. I itched faintly, especially where belt and bra straps rubbed.

Yolande let out a long slow breath. I looked at her inquiringly. “I wasn’t sure it was going to work. I told you we had to put this together very quickly.”

“What—is it?”

Yolande paused. “I’m not sure how to explain it to you. It is not a ward, or only indirectly so. It is a form of comehither, but generally only sorcerers ever use anything like it. It—it gathers your strength to you. It taps into the source of your strength, more strongly than you can unaided.

“Most magic handlers have a talent for one thing or another, and it is drawn from one area of this world or another. A foreseer with a principal rapport with trees may see visions in a burl of her favorite wood, for example, rather than in the traditional crystal ball. A sorcerer whose strongest relationship is with water will be much likelier to drown his or her enemy than to meet them in battle, although one with an affinity for metal would forge a sword.”

“Affinity,” I said bitterly. “My affinity is for vampires.”

“No,” said Yolande. “Why do you say that?”

“Pat. SOF. That’s why they want me. Because I’m a m-magic handler”—I could hardly get the phrase out; handling seemed far from the correct term in my case—“with an affinity for vampires.”

Yolande shook her head. “The hierarchies of magic handling are no particular study of mine. But your principal affinity is for sunlight: your element, as it were. It is usually one of the standard four: earth, air, water, fire. Sometimes it is metal, sometimes wood. I have never heard of one for sunlight before, but there are—are tests for these things. Yours is neither fire nor air, but a bit of both, and something else. While I was doing the tests and coming up nowhere, I thought of sunlight because of all the days I have seen you lying in the sun like a cat or a dog—I have only ever seen you truly relaxed like that, lying motionless in sunlight. And you told me once about the year you were ill, when you lived in a basement flat, and how you cured yourself by lying in front or the sunny windows when you moved upstairs. I thought of your nickname—how I myself had relied on your nickname to tell me the real truth about you, after the vampire visited you…

“As for your—let us call it counteraffinity: your counteraffinity may be for vampires. I have never heard of this either, but I do know it is often a magic handler with a principal affinity for water who can cross a desert most easily; a handler with a principal affinity for air who can hold her breath the longest, someone with an affinity for earth who flies most easily. It is the strength of the element in you that makes you more able to resist—and simultaneously embrace— its opposite. You are not consumed by the dark because you are full of light.”

I didn’t feel full of light. I felt full of stomach acid and cold phlegm. I knew about the four elements, of course; I even knew a little about this counteraffinity thing. Magic handlers with a principal fire element never get hired by the fire service; fires tend to be harder to put out with them around. But an Air or a Water is a shoo-in for the Fire Corps because Airs never seem to suffer smoke inhalation and water seems to go farther with a Water. A lot of lives have been saved by the Airs and the Waters in the Fire Corps. I’d never thought of it as having to do with counteraffinities though.

But then I had never thought a lot about magic handling. I had always been too busy being fascinated by stories of the Others.

“I can see in the dark—er—now,” I said, not wanting to get into how it happened, “but it makes me kind of nuts. In the dark it’s okay. But I see in—through—the shadows in daylight too. But I see through them—strangely. I mostly can’t make sense of what I’m seeing.” Or if I can I don’t know if I’m imagining it, to make it make sense. “And most of them wiggle.”

Yolande looked interested. “Perhaps you will tell me more about that some time. I may be able to help.”

Some time, I thought. Yeah. “The shadows on you don’t wiggle though. They just lie there, like all shadows used to.”

“Ah. That will perhaps be the purification process of wardskeeping. If you become a master, as I eventually did, you go through a series of trials that are to make you what you are as intensely as possible. You would not be able to do what a master does without this. I imagine you will see other masters of their craft as you see me.”

I still hadn’t decided if the shadows that fell on Con moved around or not. Dark shadows were different from light shadows. So to speak. If they didn’t, did that make him a master vampire? What is a master vampire? SOF used the term for someone who ran a gang.

I held both arms out and admired the faint twinkly gold, felt the faint prickly itch. I pulled a handful of my hair forward where I could look at it and it too was laced and daubed with gold. Maybe Yolande could sell the process to a hairdresser: bet you didn’t have to touch it up every few weeks.

Pity I wouldn’t be around to demonstrate.

The sun was near setting.

I dropped my arms. “Thank you,” I said. “That is so feeble. But— thank you very much.”

“You’re very welcome, my dear,” said Yolande.

“I must go now, I think.”

“Yes. But I hope you will come back and tell me about it.”

I met her eyes and saw with a shock that she did know. I tried to smile. “I hope I will too.”

I sat just inside the open doors of the balcony, cross-legged, hands on knees. I didn’t bother to try to align, to ask him anything, to tell him anything. He would be here soon enough. He would be here. This time what was doomed to happen wasn’t going to be put off. It would begin tonight. And, probably, end there too.

The sun reddened the autumn colors on the trees. The shadows darkened and lengthened.

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