Authors: MaryJanice Davidson
"You can't use science to explain everything," Jessica broke in. "There's probably some mystical shit going on, too."
I laughed. "Mystical shit? Is that a technical term?"
We were shrugging into our coats, shutting off the lights, and heading out a side door as quietly as possible. Marc wasn't scheduled to work tonight, and he didn't feel up to answering awkward questions about the talking dead girl on the exam table.
"I don't know. I've never believed in this stuff. Not ever...shit, I don't even read science fiction. But some of the stuff I've seen at the hospital...as a species, we're incredibly adaptable. We can survive a lot of stuff that would kill just about anything else. Maybe you're a mutation. Maybe a vampire is just another word for--"
"Mutant freak. Very comforting."
"Man oh man, the paper I could write about this," Marc said. "I'd be famous...right before they checked me into the psych ward for a pleasant year of pureed apricots and finger painting."
That gave all of us the giggles. The door slammed behind us and we started walking through the alley toward the street, when all hell broke loose.
I sensed the problem before Jessica and Marc did—those two didn't have a clue until the bitch was on us—but I wasn't fast enough. There was a blur and then a small, dark-haired woman with the bluest eyes I'd ever seen had Marc. She'd locked a forearm across his neck and was bending him back so his throat was at the level of her mouth. Jessica was facedown in the snow—while grabbing Marc, Shorty had shoved her into the wall, knocking her out.
"The infamous Betsy," Shorty purred. She was small, probably about five feet tall. Maybe ninety pounds. And clearly as strong as an ox on steroids. Her face was unremarkable, even plain—average nose, bare bump of a chin, narrow forehead—but her eyes were astonishing and lovely. Large and the color of a spring sky, they were fringed with dark, sooty lashes. Her canines were growing while I watched. "At last we meet." Annoyingly, she did not lisp.
"Friend of yours?" Marc managed. Half of his air was being cut off and he was bent so far back he was staring at the stars. He had to be scared shitless, but his tone was just right: casual, unconcerned. I was very, very proud of him. Frankly, I hadn't known he was brave until just now. "Maybe an old school—glkk!—chum?"
"I've never seen her before. Listen, Tootsie Roll, you want to let go of my friend before I jam a cross up your ass."
She laughed and tightened her grip. Marc gasped, but didn't say anything. She licked the side of his throat and he shuddered while at the same time leaning into her. "Oh-ho, this one's had a taste, yes? No wonder you're keeping him close."
lunch. Go grab your own." I took a casual step forward, and she bit him. Savagely—there was none of my tentativeness or care. She ripped off an inch-wide swath of skin, spit it out, then gulped back the blood like a dog sucked down water on a hot day. Marc screamed.
I did a little screaming of my own. "Stop it!" I was reeling from the suddenness of the confrontation. A minute earlier we were just stepping outside, for God's sake. Even the cemetery meeting hadn't been this alarming. "What do you want?"
She stopped drinking. "You, of course. Your presence is requested by my master."
Her nostrils flared. Blood gleamed on her chin. I actually wanted to lick it off, how's that for sick and disgusting? I could feel my teeth growing, seeming to fill my mouth. I was so embarrassed I couldn't look at Marc. "Is that supposed to be a joke?"
"No! I'm jutht really bad at nameth."
"What's wrong with your voice?"
"Never mind. You were thaying about your mathter...?"
"Nostro desires your company. He told me to use any means to persuade you. Now, I will..."
She faltered a bit. "What?"
"Okay, I'll go with you. We can go right now."
"Oh." She considered for a long moment. Obviously she'd expected more resistance. She released Marc, who just about broke something scrambling away from her. He went immediately to Jessica, knelt, and fumbled at her neck for a pulse. "Very well. Come with me now."
"Marc." My fangs were retracting...thank God. "You find a pulse?"
He looked up at me, shivering from the adrenaline rush. "Yes, I think she's all right—just knocked out."
Congratulations, Short Stuff, maybe you'll live through the next hour. "Okay. Take her to the ER. Get her looked at, and have somebody take a look at your neck. I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault. I'll make up something good. I'll tell the attending we were mugged, or something."
"I'm sorry." I started walking out of the alley. Shorty watched, a look of amused scorn on her nasty little face. "I'll be back later."
"Not necessarily," Short Stuff tittered.
"Shut the fuck up, you cunt." I'd never used the C word before tonight, but she seemed an ideal representation of it. And the shocked look on her face—as if I'd slapped her, which I sort of had, only with a word instead of my hand—was almost worth how awful I felt about what she had done to my friends. And oh, sweetie, you want to watch out if I catch you with your guard down...
But she was a spear-carrier, a soldier. Nostro had sent her to me, had told her to do whatever she could to gain my attendance. His was the hash I had to settle first.
"My master will—"
"Shut the fuck up."
"You cannot speak to—"
"Shut the fuck up."
She leaned forward and her eyes went the color of the sky right before sunset. "You don't wish to fight with
Ooooh, eyes that change color when she's in a snit...now I was
scared. "You bet I do, Tootsie Roll. Bring it, cow! Let's see how you do when you're not hiding behind one of my friends." I must have sounded almost as angry as I felt, because she hesitated. Then she crossed her arms over her chest, doing an admirable impression of someone who hadn't been momentarily frightened, sat back, and stared out the limo window.
Yep, I was back in one of Noseo's limos. It had been waiting at the mouth of the alley like a big black gas-guzzling omen of death. I snapped the antenna off, just for fun, and threw it at Tootsie Roll's head. She ducked—barely. The driver didn't say a word, just held the door for me.
"I am Shanara."
"Shut the fuck up." I fumbled with my pocket—stupid linen trousers, they were going to wrinkle like hell—and tossed her a ten dollar bill. "And go buy yourself a real name."
She let the bill bounce off her nonexistent chest and started tapping her long red fingernails on the armrest. She was starting to get pretty pissed but, interestingly, wasn't doing anything. Did Nostril's edict give her permission to hurt my friends, but not me? Time to find out. "Long red slut nails are so five minutes ago," I informed her. "In fact, it's more like five years ago. Just because you're dead doesn't mean you have to be a fashion eyesore."
dead," she snapped.
"Dead," I said implacably. "When was the last time you had a nice steak? Or even a salad? Shit, even a piece of toast? Dead people don't eat. We don't eat.
, we are dead."
"We have more power than mere mortals can—"
"Blah, blah, blah. So, when did you die? You don't look a day over sixty."
Her flat bosom heaved in indignation. "I became Gloriously Transformed in 1972."
"That explains the nails and the bell bottoms."
"These are in again!" she nearly screamed, pointing to her Gap knockoffs.
"Nope, sorry. They
trendy, but now they're out again." From the front I could hear a curiously muffled sound, almost like someone was strangling on their own laughter.
Shaloser turned and, quick as thought, slammed her palm against the partition separating us from the driver. The glass cracked but didn't break. "Just drive, oaf!"
"Touchy," I commented. "Not much fun kidnapping someone who thinks you're a walking, talking, ugly-clothes-wearing-joke, is it? And by the way, Shamu, if you ever touch one of my friends again, I'll bite off all your fingers and stick them up your nose." I smiled pleasantly. "And that goes for ol' Nostril, too." I was all talk, of course...shit, I was a secretary, not an avenger. An out of work secretary, I might add. I could type like a son of a bitch, but I'd never thrown a punch.
But I could talk. I could yak until Judgment Day, if I had to.
"You'll pay," she said stonily. "You won't be like this by this time tomorrow."
"Bored and pissed off? God, I hope not."
She flinched like I'd poked a fork toward one of her eyes. Odd, very odd. I quickly thought about what I'd just said: bored? Pissed? God?
"God," I said. Another flinch. "Jesus Christ. Lord. 'Our Father, who art in heaven...'"
!" She was practically climbing the door, trying to get away from me. "Don't say it, don't say Those Words!"
"Stop talking in capital letters and I won't."
"What? I don't understand you."
"No one with your footwear," I said with a meaningful glance at her Prada knockoffs, "ever could."
* * * * *
"Are we there yet?"
"Are we there yet?"
"Are we there yet?"
"Are we there yet?"
"Shut up! I had to bring you to him but I should not have to listen to another word out of your mouth! Stop it stop it
"Okay, okay. Say it, don't spray it." I waited a few seconds, then asked brightly, "Are we there yet?"
"Mercifully," she said through gritted fangs, "we are."
"Hey, neat trick, you're all toothy. Why? Hungry?" She probably was. She looked ghastly. Too white, too thin, and sort of haggard. Of course, that could just be the residual effect of being trapped with me in a closed space for thirty minutes. "Don't even think about snacking on
"You wish." The limo came to a smooth stop, the door popped open, and Shanara grabbed my elbow and practically shoved me out of the car. "Come along."
"What, no cemetery?" We were standing outside a gigantic house on Lake Minnetonka. It was three stories, dark green, with four white pillars. It looked like Tara gone bad. All the lights were out, of course. "I thought your boss really went for the stereotypes."
No answer. She just grabbed my elbow again and jerked me along. I could tell she really, really wanted to hurt me. A sensible, intelligent person would use this opportunity to keep quiet and look for escape.
"So, Shanockers, are you this guy's retriever or what? 'I want Betsy, bring me Betsy...fetch!' Is it like that? Or are you just such a loser you don't have a life of your own, so you hang onto this guy's coattails? Hey, watch the suit!" I was wearing a tan linen Anne Klein pantsuit and last year's Helene Arpel flats. I was glad I wasn't more dressed up, or wearing my good Arpels. I'd hate for these assholes to think I was trying to look nice for them.
She was pulling me through the house, which, although dark, seemed well lit to me.
She brought me (well, dragged me) through a set of French doors, which opened to a ballroom. I looked up warily for the disco ball and was relieved not to see one. The room was full of about twenty people, all dressed (natch) in black. The women all wore lipsticks in various shades of red, and the men were all in tuxedos. Ugh! Rented suits! Is there anything more yuck-o?
"Ahhhhhh, Elizabeth." Nostro stood up from a (groan!) throne. An actual throne at the far side of the ballroom. Really ugly, too, all gold-plated and shiny and gauche. At least he wasn't wearing a crown. "Thank you for bringing her, Shanara."
"Your slightest wish is my most urgent command, Master."
I snorted. Sha-na-na shot me a look of purest venom. Which I pointedly ignored. "Listen, why am I here? Why'd you set your dog on me?"
"You left too quickly last time," Nostro said pleasantly. As he got closer I saw he was quite a bit shorter than I was, and balding. He looked like a mean-spirited monk, the kind who tortured mice when the other monks were praying. "I'm very glad you've chosen to return. Now we can complete the ceremony, and you can join my family." He swept his arm around, indicating the others in the room. "They are most anxious to greet you."
"Yeah, they look like they'd be a laugh a minute. Listen, Nostro, I don't appreciate any of this. I didn't choose to come back and you know it. Your knockoff-wearing henchwhore hurt a friend of mine to get me here. And I'm not participating in any ceremony. And I want you to leave me alone."
There were a couple of stifled gasps at this. Nostro looked around slowly, a cobra watching for careless mice, but nobody was making eye contact. They were all staring at the floor.
Nostro turned back to me and forced a smile. His pupils, I noticed for the first time, were rimmed in red. It was quite a bit scarier than the big spooky house, the dumb tux, the throne and the fake courteous mannerisms. That stuff just made me want to laugh. The thing he couldn't help—his creepy, creepy eyes—that was really scary. "I must insist. I require your participation in the ceremony and I will
..." 'Not' was screamed, actually screamed; I jumped. He continued in a perfectly mild voice. "...tolerate you siding with Sinclair."
(Note to self: either being undead drove this guy crazy, or he was crazy first.)
"Sinclair?" I was ready to swoon with relief. "You're worried about me siding with him? Don't sweat it, chief. I wouldn't go near him on a bet. Yuck!"
Nostro blinked slowly like a frog. "You do not wish allegiance with my clan or Sinclair?"
"By jove, I think he's got it! No, I don't want to hang out with any of you. I don't want ceremonies or vamp politics or my friends getting ambushed because someone's really hot to talk to me...I don't want any of it. No offense," I added, seeing his expression darken.
"None taken," he said with completely fake sincerity.
I tried really hard to keep the sarcasm out of my tone as I continued. "I just want to live my death the way I lived my life." I looked around the room, trying to make eye contact with somebody...anybody. "Oh, come on!" I said loudly. "I can't be the only one who feels like this. Don't you guys want to see your friends? Maybe find your old boss and scare the shit out of him? Show your parents you're not taking a dirt nap? Why do we have to huddle together in little undead covens?"
"For protection, for—"