Main Bring on the Night

Bring on the Night

Categories: Fiction
Year: 2010
Language: english
ISBN 13: 9781439163481
Series: WVMP Radio 3
File: EPUB, 354 KB
Download (epub, 354 KB)
 
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Brisingr

Year: 2010
Language: english
File: EPUB, 1.32 MB
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Bring It On

Year: 2009
Language: english
File: EPUB, 327 KB
    
      JERI SMITH-READY

      
        “… is one of my very favorite reads!”
      

      —P. C. Cast, New York Times bestselling author of the 
House of Night series

      
        
          Bad to the Bone
        
      

      
        Nominated for the Pearl Award
      

      “Smith-Ready pours plenty of fun into her charming, fang-in-cheek urban fantasy.”

      —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

      “Offbeat and hugely entertaining.”

      —Romantic Times

      “Believable, captivating characters abound.… By turns funny, sexy, and gripping.”

      —Library Journal

      “An entertaining, fast-paced, toothsome tale wrapped around an eclectic playlist of six decades’ worth of hot music.”

      —The Green Man Review

      “Equivalent to the best hot chocolate you have ever tasted.…”

      —Para Normal Romance (A Top Pick)

      “Bad to the Bone’s action-packed plot, realistic characters, original vampire mythology, sinister secret societies, and shadowy government organizations make it a great read for both vampire fiction and urban fantasy fans.”

      —Love Vampires

      “A solid and fast-moving tale.”

      —Darque Reviews

      “Filled with edge-of-your-seat suspense, hot love scenes, and plot twists that you never see coming. Jeri Smith-Ready has scored another hit.”

      —Bitten by Books

      
        
          Wicked Game
        
      

      
        Winner of the PRISM Award
        

        A nominee for the American Library Association Alex Award
      

      “An addictive page-turner revving with red-hot sex, truly cool vampires, and rock ’n’ roll soul.”

      —Kresley Cole, #1 New York Times bestselling author of
Pleasure of a Dark Prince

      “Smith-Ready’s musical references are spot-on, as is her take on corporate radio’s creeping hegemony. Add in the irrepressible Ciara, who grew up in a family of grifters, and the results rock.”

      —Publishers Weekly

      “A colorful premise and engaging characters… a fun read.”

      —Library Journal

      “Just when I think the vampire genre must be exhausted, just when I think if I read another clone I’ll quit writing vampires myself, I read a book that refreshed my flagging interest. Jeri Smith-Ready’s Wicked Game was consistently surprising and original… I highly recommend it.”

      —A “Book of the Week” pick by #1 New York Times bestselling
author Charlaine Harris at charlaineharris.com

      “This truly clever take on vampires is fresh and original.”

      —Romantic Times

      “Jeri Smith-Ready has created a set of strikingly original, fascinating characters, rich with as much style and rhythm as the music her vampires love. Lyrical and uncompromising, Wicked Game is a winner I’ll be reading again.”

      —Rachel Caine, bestselling author of Thin Air

      “Wicked Game is clever, funny, creative, and way too much fun.…A sure-fire winner.”

      —The Green Man Review

      “A wicked delight.…Urban fantasy that makes an irresistible playlist and an irresistible read.”

      —C. E. Murphy, bestselling author of Urban Shaman

      “Sharp and smart and definitely not flavor of the month, Wicked Game is wicked good.”

      —Laura Anne Gilman, bestselling author of Flesh and Fire

      “Jeri Smith-Ready’s vampire volume Wicked Game will make your corpuscles coagulate with corpulent incredulity. It’s for young bloods and old jugulars alike. Whether you devour it on Sunday Bloody Sunday or just before Dinner with Drac, simply turn off the fifty-inch plasma, lay back, and ‘Let It Bleed.’”

      —Weasel, WTGB 94.7 The Globe, Washington, DC

      “Original and unique… a fantastically good read.”

      —Love Vampires (Pick of the Month and
one of 2008’s Best Vampire Books)

      “An imaginative tale that adds new dimension and limitations on the otherwise long-lived lives of vampires.”

      —Darque Reviews

      “A unique and lyrically entertaining story.… Excellent dialogue, skillfully crafted characters, and unique plot.”

      —Romance Reviews Today

      

      

    

  

DON’T
MISS THE SEXY BEGINNING TO CIARA’S TALE.…
Wicked Game
Bad to the Bone
Available from Pocket Books






The sale this book without its cover is unauthorized. If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that it was reported to the publisher as “unsold and destoryed.” Neither the author nor the publisher has received payment for sale of this “stripped book.”
	
	Pocket Books A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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New York, NY 10020
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2010 by Jeri Smith-Ready
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book 
or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Pocket Books Subsidiary Rights Department, 
1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
First Pocket Books paperback edition August 2010
POCKET and colophon are registered trademarks of 
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Cover illustration by Don Sipley
Manufactured in the United States of America
10    9    8    7    6    5    4    3    2    1
ISBN 978-1-4391-6348-1
ISBN 978-1-4391-6349-8 (ebook)





To my husband, Christian, who means more to me
than the rest of the world put together




ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Thanks as always to my family and friends, who continue to wait patiently for me not to be on deadline. Thanks to my beta readers—Patrice Michelle, Cecilia Ready, Rob Staeger, and Rob Usdin—for their honesty and sharp eyes. It’s a foolish author who works alone.
A hundred and fifty (and counting) thank-yous to the WVMP Street Team, for their phenomenal support and enthusiasm.
Thanks to the hardworking folks at Pocket Books who brought Bring on the Night to life: Louise Burke, Erica Feldon, Don Sipley, Martha Schwartz, Renee Huff, Nancy Inglis, and Lisa Litwack.
Thanks to my brilliant editor, Jennifer Heddle, for keeping Ciara and her friends “alive” and well for more adventures, and to my agent, Ginger Clark, who is a rock star to her clients for a million damn good reasons. They deserve the best toffee and chocolate, respectively, the world has to offer.
Most of all, thanks to my husband, Christian Ready, for his love and patience and for getting me Subway when I’m on deadline. I don’t need much, but I need him.





By the sad silence which 
eternal reigns
O’er all the waste of these wide-stretching plains;
Let me again Eurydice 
receive,
Let Fate her quick-spun thread of life re-weave.
—Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book X





PLAYLIST
“Looking After No. 1,” Boomtown Rats
“Orange Crush,” R.E.M.
“Bring on the Night,” The Police
“See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” Dream Syndicate
“Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” The Ramones
“Here Comes Your Man,” Pixies
“Clocks,” Coldplay
“I’m an Asshole,” Dennis Leary
“I Know I’ll See You,” A Place to Bury Strangers
“Goo Goo Muck,” The Cramps
“When Doves Cry,” Prince and the Revolution
“Bad Romance,” Lady Gaga
“Sweet Dreams,” Marilyn Manson
“Keep on the Sunny Side,” The Carter Family
“6’1",” Liz Phair
“Otherside,” Red Hot Chili Peppers
“Ripple,” Grateful Dead
“Ciara,” Luka Bloom
“Symphony number 7 (second movement),” Ludwig van Beethoven
“It’s a Sunshine Day,” The Brady Bunch
“Endless Sleep,” Jody Reynolds
“Watusi Zombie,” Jan Davis
“No, No, No,” Dawn Penn
“Just Walkin’ in the Rain,” The Prisonaires
“Until the End of the World,” U2
“Bitter Sweet Symphony,” The Verve




1
My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)
I’m okay now.
Just so you know.
I mean, just so I know.
Not that I wonder.
(deep breath)




2
Welcome to Paradise
I could smell my own fear, bitter and tangy as an overripe orange. I crept down the night-shrouded alley and wished for eyes in the back of my head. Even eyes on the sides of my head would’ve helped, though that would’ve required some strategic barrette placement.
Adrenaline spiked my senses. My eyes caught faint flaps of newspaper shreds tossed by the chill evening breeze. My ears filtered every scratch of twig and creak of plywood, singling them out from the background roar of the distant highway. My feet felt each pebble of industrial-grade gravel through the soles of my boots as I slunk toward the dark warehouse.
Beyond it lay freedom.
I’d been in the clutches of more than one vampire, so I knew what it was like to be prey. But I’d never been hunted. Never had a chance to escape, to match wits with my predator. To fight back.
At the end of the alley I passed an overstuffed Dumpster, where the odor of cat piss snagged my attention. I wrinkled my nose and glanced at the bin. The lid was clamped on a discarded pizza box, pinching it open to reveal a leftover slice inside.
My feet stopped, as if the brilliant (or possibly stupid) idea had passed through my toes on the way to my brain.
I opened the Dumpster, trying not to creak the rusty hinges. The grease-splattered pizza box slid off a stack of bulging, green-black trash bags. I trapped it against my leg to keep it from hitting the ground.
Before I could reconsider, I flipped up the cardboard top (“Enjoy your delicious moments!”) and grabbed the remaining slice, grateful to be wearing gloves. I held it up to the moonlight leaking in between the charred brick buildings.
Jackpot: white pizza. Gooey splotches of ricotta oozed over a smooth layer of mozzarella. The whole affair was slathered in garlicky olive oil, with no tomato sauce to dilute the scent.
Holding my breath, I smeared the pizza slice over my throat and face, trying to convince myself the green stuff was oregano. I repeated the process on my arms, then my torso, keeping nervous ears and eyes out for an approaching attack.
Reeking like a frat house, I scurried to the warehouse door. It was ajar just far enough for me to slide inside without touching the frame.
The vampire was waiting.
I didn’t see or hear him, just sensed him deep in my frightened little soul, the way a rabbit senses a fox. But unlike a rabbit, I couldn’t outrun my hunter.
The door behind me slammed shut, its clang echoing through the hangar-size warehouse. Above my head, the red Exit sign flickered, then dimmed.
I will not flee. I will not scream. Such panic could trigger the killer instincts of even the most serene vampire.
Cold sweat coated my skin, thickening my garlic aura. I stretched my fingers and willed them away from the sharp wooden stake in my hip holster. Cooperation before coercion, I chanted in my head like a mantra. Cooperation before coercion.
Something shifted on the far side of the warehouse. Something big.
The vampire shot forward in a dim blur, his long leather coat fanning out behind him, making him look like a linebacker with wings.
I stood my ground. (Or by some accounts, I froze like a deer in the proverbial headlights, but who’s to quibble?) Before I could blink, he was almost upon me. My hands came up to defend my throat.
Then the bloodsucking behemoth slid to a stop. His nose crinkled. “What the—?”
“Hiyah!” A figure in black dropped between us, feet and fists blurring. Bone cracked against bone.
The vampire grunted and lurched back, then wiped his face and reset his stance. His attacker shrieked again, her black ponytail dancing behind her as she hand-springed into a double kick to his face.
He blocked her next blows easily. I sidled around them, waiting for her to distract him enough for me to escape.
Finally the vampire dropped his arms. “Okay, time out.”
The girl leaped forward and stabbed his chest with her wooden stake. He gaped at it protruding from his shirt.
“I did it!” she gasped. “You’re dead.”
His thick brown hand flashed to her neck. “After you, sweetheart.”
He drove her backward, her heels slipping on the concrete, until she slammed into the crate. She gurgled and squeaked, clawing at his wrist. Her eyes popped wide as her error no doubt dawned on her. Vampires don’t die until you pull out the stake.
Which I swear I was about to do when the whistle blew.
Sergeant Kaplan stepped out from behind another crate, scribbling on her clipboard. Her slicked-back gray-blond hair glittered in the faint ceiling light.
“Recruit!” She stalked toward my partner Tina as the vampire released her. “What’s the first precept of the Control?”
Tina massaged the front of her throat and coughed out her response. “Cooperation before coercion. But he was—”
“Were you asleep the day we taught defensive maneuvers?”
“I was defending her!” She pointed at me. “He was about to attack.”
“Captain Fox was clearly slowing down. Your blows were sufficient to stop him, but the staking was overkill.”
“Overkill without the kill.” The hulking vampire yanked out the stake and tossed it at Tina’s feet. Then Captain Fox unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a thick flak jacket. The first two-inch layer was penetrable, to simulate a real staking. A red oval was drawn on the dark gray vest, indicating the location of his heart. Tina’s stake hole lay outside the oval. Swing and a miss.
In real life, she’d be dead. If I’d tried to pull out the stake to finish the kill, I’d be dead. But if I’d run while he was taking a victory sip, I’d probably have survived.
I was mentally filing this information when the sergeant turned to me. “Griffin.” Kaplan scrunched up her face. “Good God, what’s that smell?”
I offered my wrist to her nose. “This new Italian fragrance, all the rage in Milan.”
Kaplan took a swift step back. “That’s why Captain Fox slowed down as he approached you.” She gave me a begrudging nod. “Good thinking.”
Tina shook her finger at me as she spoke to the sergeant. “Agent Griffin didn’t have her stake deployed.”
“She’s not an agent yet, recruit, and neither are you.” Kaplan turned her ego-piercing gaze on me. “Why was your stake in its holster?”
I straightened my posture to answer, banishing all remnants of smirk. A little piece of me died every time I gave in to the quasi-military bullshit. But if I didn’t fulfill my duties, they could take away a much bigger piece of me, the piece that made life complete.
“Sergeant,” I said, “a direct threat can provoke an otherwise harmless vampire to attack. I lack the fighting skills to defeat him, so if we engaged in combat, I’d be killed. I therefore concluded that the best strategy would be to deter an attempt to drink my blood.” I glanced at her. “Hence the pizza wipe.”
“And if that strategy had failed?”
I paused. “Offer him a bib and a straw?”
“Yoosie lover,” Tina hissed.
Captain Fox sent her a look that would freeze an open flame. I tried not to laugh at Tina’s bureau slang for vampire. “UCE,” pronounced “yoosie,” stood for undead corporeal entity. She’d never used the slur when she and Captain Fox were secretly sleeping together, back before she joined the Control and he broke up with her, per agency rules.
“No one asked your opinion,” Kaplan growled at Tina, then spoke to me again. “Your flippancy is not appreciated.”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. After three and a half weeks of orientation with the Control (shorthand for the International Agency for the Control and Management of Undead Corporeal Entities), I had failed to give it a sense of humor.
“Furthermore,” Kaplan continued speaking to me, “you abandoned your partner in the middle of a fight.”
“I was just about to step in and—”
“Step in? He would’ve killed her before you could ‘step in.’ You must act without thinking. Defending your fellow agents must be a reflex, not a decision.”
Tina and I exchanged a look, and I knew she’d never risk her ass for me unless she knew she’d get a medal. All the trust-building teamwork exercises in the world couldn’t overcome the fact that she hated what I was—and what I wasn’t.
“However,” Kaplan continued, “you’re right about one thing. Losing a bit of blood is better than losing your life.” As Tina began to voice her disapproval, Kaplan cut her off. “Do you have a problem with our mission?”
That shut Tina up. For centuries, the Control had been little more than a band of vampire hunters, bent on extinguishing the undead. But since 1897 (according to the IACMUCE field manual), the agency’s mission has been to balance the safety and well-being of humans and vampires.
By this point I’d realized that the Control’s unofficial motto was “Whatever it takes.” I admired their pragmatism—when it wasn’t screwing over me or my loved ones.
Tina bowed her head, the corners of her mouth all twitchy tight. “I’m sorry for my mistake, Sergeant.”
“Don’t be sorry for your mistakes. You’re here to learn.” Kaplan closed her clipboard with a loud clack. “Be sorry for your pride.”
A muscle in Tina’s jaw jumped. “Yes, Sergeant.”
“And you”—Kaplan pointed her pen at me—“take a shower.”
I walked back to my dorm across the central commons of the Control’s regional headquarters. The grass, which during the day mixed winter browns with spring greens, glowed in shades of gray in the moonlight.
The vampire Control agent Elijah, aka Captain Fox, strolled ten feet to my right, upwind. One of his strides equaled two of mine, so I had to hustle to keep up.
“Good thinking,” he rumbled, “with the pizza.”
“Next best thing to bug spray.”
Garlic has no special powers, but a vampire’s acute sense of smell means that any strong scent turns them off—chemical products being the worst.
“It wouldn’t have stopped me if I was really thirsty.” Elijah checked the buttons of his black uniform shirt. “But people like you already know that.”
“People like me?”
“Yoosie lovers,” he said with a scoff. “As your partner calls you.”
If he thought Tina wouldn’t tell anyone about their affair, he was naïve to the oversharing ways of women. While Tina and I weren’t exactly buds, we’d hung out on occasion, since she was one of my best friend Lori’s bridesmaids. As the maid of honor, I felt it my diplomatic duty to offer to be Tina’s orientation roommate and training partner, though I knew we weren’t exactly a match made in heaven. More like a match made in sitcoms.
Sure enough, the better we knew each other, the worse we got along. Between Tina’s breakup with Elijah and her discovery that I pretty much believed in nothing, she’d been hell to live and work with.
“Not that it’s any of your business,” I told Elijah, “but I’m not my boyfriend’s donor. I’m my boyfriend’s girlfriend.”
He angled a glance at me, the whites of his eyes flashing under his black cap. “Really?”
“Really.”
“Huh.” He turned down the path for the vampires’ quarters. “Poor guy,” I heard him mutter under his breath.
I watched him go, marveling at the grace and precision of his step despite his enormous bulk. Other than that brief fling with Tina, Elijah tended to keep a respectful distance from humans, no matter how they smelled. His size and strength meant he didn’t need fangs to intimidate. He didn’t just look like a linebacker—he’d actually been one for the Cleveland Browns before he was vamped in the late seventies.
I jogged the rest of the way to my dorm room so I could catch the aforementioned poor guy’s show.
A clock radio sat on the nightstand between the twin beds. I switched it on to hear the closing strains of the Boomtown Rats’ “Looking After No. 1.” As usual, Regina’s Goth/punk Drastic Plastic show was running over into her progeny Shane’s midnight hour. I peeled off my dull black training jacket as the music faded.
“Happy Saturday, my friends.” Shane’s voice crawled out of the little speaker, so deep and soothing my knees turned to jelly. I sank onto the bed, forgetting my own reek. “It’s two minutes past midnight here at 94.3 FM WVMP, the Lifeblood of Rock ’n’ Roll. We’ve got forty-six degrees here in Sherwood, fifty in Baltimore, and fifty-two in Washington, with clear skies all over the map.”
The mountains between the Control’s regional headquarters and our hometown of Sherwood weakened the station’s signal, but I still felt like he was speaking straight to me.
“The Easter Bunny has left the South Pole and will be heading your way in twenty-four hours—so, kids, behave yourselves. This next one goes out to all the secret agents. Give me a call and tell me a secret.”
I was dialing his cell number before the opening bars of R.E.M.’s “Orange Crush” were even finished.
He picked up after the first ring. “Come home. Now.”
“What’s wrong?”
“Nothing in particular. Everything in general.” He let out a long sigh, and I could picture him leaning back in his chair and propping his feet on the studio table. “I miss you, Ciara.”
After almost three years, I still got that zing across the back of my shoulders every time Shane said my name. Like it was created to be uttered by him, perfectly pronounced (KEER-ahh) with just the right amount of breath.
“I miss you, too, but the month is almost up. Besides, the way I smell, you’re better off missing me.” I described the unclassified parts of my latest training session.
“Sounds like you got high marks,” he said.
“I ace strategic thinking.” I massaged my shoulder, sore from yesterday’s push-up marathon. “But I suck at teamwork and martial arts. I barely passed my tae kwon do final. On the plus side, I learned the Korean word for ‘doofus.’”
His laughter came low and rich, making me twist the blanket with the desire to hear it in person. Preferably naked.
“How’s Dexter?” I asked him.
“Same as usual. Cold and furry.”
I missed my dog almost more than I missed my boyfriend. At least I could talk to Shane on the phone or get his messages. Dexter’s vampirism—developed years ago in a Control laboratory—made him smarter than the average pooch, but he wasn’t big on texting.
“He’ll be psyched to see you Sunday night,” Shane added. “You’d better wear a life jacket so you don’t drown in drool.”
I laughed at the image, to ease the stab of homesickness in my chest. “I can’t wait to sleep in our bed again. And not sleep in it.” When he didn’t answer after a few moments, I prompted him. “Get it? Not sleep? In a bed? Hubba-hubba?”
“Sorry.” His voice hushed. “Jim just walked by the studio.”
“How did he look?”
“Bloody.”
I rubbed my temple, where a headache the size and shape of a certain hippie vampire was forming. “What if a cop had seen him driving back from his donor’s like that?”
“We’ve pointed that out, but he won’t listen.”
“If he doesn’t knock it off, we’ll have to get him some help.”
Shane snorted. “Spoken like a true Control agent.”
“Jim isn’t just risking himself—his recklessness could blow everyone’s cover and show the world that vampires exist. That means the end of all of you, and the station, too.”
“I know.” He let out a long sigh. “We’ll try again. But Jim’s not the best candidate for an intervention. It’s more likely to drive him over the edge.”
A key turned in the lock. Tina shoved open the door, banging it against the wall. Her face crumpled in disgust when she saw me. “You still haven’t showered?”
I angled my shoulder away from her. “Shane, I gotta go wash up. See you soon.”
“I’ll wake you when I get home from work,” he said, his voice rich with promise. “After three.”
“Please do,” I said after a long moment, when I could scrub my voice of all tension and speak of April 5 as if it were just another Monday. As if it were just the beginning of another work week.
As if it weren’t the fifteenth anniversary of the death and resurrection of Shane McAllister.
After showering, I returned to my room to find Tina sitting up in bed, writing on a legal pad. Her heavy dark brows pinched together, and her lips folded under her teeth so hard I expected them to bleed.
I collapsed in bed with one of the textbooks for my History of Eastern Europe class, my last course at Sherwood College before graduation. My professor had let me off for Control orientation, and here I was repaying him by falling way behind in assigned reading.
Unfortunately, the rhythmic scratching of Tina’s pen soon lulled me into drowsiness.
Just as I was falling asleep, she slapped down her notepad. “Goddamn fucking precepts.”
When she left the room to go to the bathroom, I crept over to her bed and looked at the legal pad. So far she had written in long hand, “Cooperation before coercion” one hundred and seventy-three times. The repetitions grew shakier as they continued.
“Ouch,” I muttered. “Not just old-school punishment. Grade school.”
I took a small towel into the bathroom and soaked it at the faucet, avoiding Tina’s glare in the mirror. She was using her left hand to brush her teeth, her right hand no doubt sore from scribbling.
In our dorm floor’s kitchenette, I heated the towel in the tiny microwave. When I got back to our room, Tina was sitting on the bed again, listening to her MP3 player and gritting her teeth as she wrote. I held out the steaming towel.
She glared at me through a pair of taped-frame glasses, which she’d put on after taking out her contacts. “What the hell is that?”
“For your hand. Moist heat’ll help the ache.”
“What’s the catch?”
“The catch is you have to pull that six-foot stake out of your ass and be a real person to me. Or neither of us will pass orientation.”
Tina’s mouth tightened, but she lowered her gaze to her legal pad. “I can’t stop writing. Kaplan wants a thousand reps of this by 0600.”
“Your fingers will fall off. Give it to me.”
Another stunned look, but she shook her head. “It has to be in my handwriting.”
“Not a problem.”
Tina bit her lip, then traded me the pad and pen for the towel. “Thank you,” she whispered. She placed the towel on the inside of her wrist and let out a groan of relief. “I’m not used to writing by hand. Haven’t done it since sixth grade.”
I wrote Cooperation before coercion in Slot 207 in a passable forgery of her handwriting.
She looked at the page with awe. “Where’d you learn to do that?”
“Parents taught me.” I sat on my bed and kept writing. “They were professional fakers.”
“Wow.” She took out her earbuds. “Are they in jail?”
“Yep.” Two out of three of them, I thought but didn’t add out loud. I was hoping that a little openness on my part would thaw the chill between us, but as a rule I preferred to keep my personal details—both past and present—locked safely away.
“It makes sense now.” Tina shifted her hand on the towel. “The way you are, I mean. Smart and jaded and… you know.”
“Selfish?”
“Self-preservative.”
We shared a laugh. I let my posture relax, relieved my gamble had paid off in goodwill.
Tina’s humor faded, however, when she saw my Romanian history book.
“Why are you reading that?” she snapped.
I ordered my hackles to stay down, hoping to restore the brief harmony. “It’s for school,” I said, resisting the urge to add, not everything is about you. “Hey, since you’re sort of Romanian, can you suggest a good paper topic?”
“I suggest you pick another country. You don’t want to mess with my people.”
“I’m not messing, I’m just researching.”
“I mean it, Ciara. Blood is in our blood.”
The way she uttered those words sent a chill down my back, which was probably her intended effect.
“It was crazy when I left.” She winced as she flexed her hand. “My parents got me from an orphanage in Bucharest when I was five, right after the revolution.”
“I didn’t realize.” Since she’d told me her parents here in the states were Romanian, I’d assumed they were her original mom and dad. “Your birth parents died?”
“Maybe by now they have.” She tugged her black bangs to veil her eyes. “My father got taken away. Maybe he was a Communist. My mom couldn’t afford to keep all her kids, so she dumped me and my little brother at two different orphanages. I think she got money for us.”
I didn’t know what to say. My biological mom couldn’t take care of me either, but at least I’d ended up with my dad and the woman I’d thought was my mother for the first twenty-four of my twenty-six years before I found out the truth. “I’m really sorry.”
Tina shrugged as she moved the hot towel atop her wrist. “She had to survive. And it was for the best.” Her posture straightened into her usual haughtiness. “My adoptive parents picked me out of two hundred kids. You know why?”
The sharp look in her eyes told me there was definitely a right and wrong answer, so I just shook my head.
“They could tell I had magic.”
“Huh.” I’d perfected the noncommittal grunt through years of discussing Lori’s fruitless ghost hunting with the Sherwood Paranormal Investigative Team (SPIT), of which Tina was the treasurer.
“I know you don’t believe in that stuff,” Tina said, “but that doesn’t make it not true. I’ve spoken to the dead.”
“I speak to the dead every day. They’re called vampires.”
“Not undead. Dead dead.”
“Do they talk back?”
Her gaze faltered, and she adjusted her glasses. “Not yet.”
“Then how do you know they hear you?”
“It’s in my blood.” Her voice turned urgent. “My father—the one who adopted me—said that he could tell I was of noble Romanian heritage like him. He says there’s more magic in the Carpathian Mountains than in the rest of the world put together.”
“Ah.” I went back to copying sentences, the politest response I could think of.
“Daddy would know. He’s psychic.” She rushed out the words as if their speed could overtake my skepticism. “Plus he and my mom are both high-level necromancers.”
“Uh-huh.” I wrote faster.
“And he’s in charge of the Immanence Corps.”
As I looked up, Tina gasped and clamped her hand over her mouth. I remembered a shaded triangle on the far edge of the Control organizational chart. “What is the Immanence Corps? None of the Control people will talk about it with recruits.”
“Nothing,” she said, but her hand muffled her voice, so it came out “Mumfig.”
I suspected her slipup had been intentional, so I turned back to the legal pad and approached the question at an oblique angle, feigning ignorance. “What exactly does a necromancer do? Is it like the mediums on TV?”
She lowered her hand and took a deep breath, as if she’d been suffocating herself. “They communicate with the restless spirits of the dead.”
“Let me guess: they’re all restless.” Or at least the ones with relatives who have more cents than sense.
“Actually, no. If a spirit’s at peace, it takes a lot more skill to raise it and a lot more work. Besides, it goes against a necromancer’s ethics to disturb those who’ve fully passed on.”
I wanted to change the subject, but I wanted even more to find out about this Immanence Corps. Holding my metaphorical nose, I kept digging. “Do they do séances?”
“Sometimes, but most of the ritual is just for show.”
“The show is everything. My parents used to be ‘faith healers.’” I mimed the obligatory air quotes. “They would sing and pray and work the crowd into a money-giving frenzy.”
“Did they really heal people?”
“They faked it. Some of the folks were shills we paid to pretend they couldn’t walk or see. I could’ve won an Oscar for my cute-crippled-kid act.”
Tina stretched the fingers of her right hand, not wincing this time. “What about the regular people, the ones who weren’t hired?”
“They felt better after my father touched them, but—”
“So they were healed.”
“They were gullible. In the heat of the moment, people will believe anything that gives them hope. I’m sure once we left town, the pain and suffering came right back. Along with much lighter bank accounts.”
Tina groaned. “Why won’t you see?” She snatched the legal pad out of my hands. “Belief is a powerful force, Ciara. Just because your crooked parents made money off it doesn’t mean it’s not real.” She plopped back on her bed, creaking the mattress, and reinserted her earbuds before scrawling out the next Cooperation before coercion.
I wanted to tell her that disbelief was just as powerful as belief. Thanks to my soul-deep skepticism (with a little genetics thrown in), one taste of my blood could heal vampires’ holy-water burns or release them from traps sprung by religious artifacts. For the last two and a half years, I’d been donating blood samples to the Control so they could study this odd trait I’d inherited—in the most potent form ever seen—from my Irish Traveller ancestors. The agency hadn’t shared any of their conclusions with me, but my con artist father said the strength of the anti-holiness lay in my capacity to create my own reality—and not buy into those that were fed to me.
Which meant that if I ever believed in anything, I’d lose my abilities.
I often wished I was normal, so I wouldn’t have to worry about becoming some crazy vampire’s personal pharmacy. When I first started giving my blood to the Control, it was only to buy my double-crossing father some leniency. Then it was part of a deal—which included this year of service—to let Shane visit his human family, a privilege forbidden to nearly all vampires.
But I’d started to realize it wasn’t just about me. It was about a world on the edge of another Dark Age, with superstition feeding the fires of hatred, and belief taking the place of thought. I couldn’t stop nutcases from blowing up planes or shooting physicians, but maybe I could help answer a few questions about the nature of good and evil.
Because against the armies of zealots, the rational world needed more than convincing arguments. It needed its own magic.




3
Kryptonite
Sunday morning I sat on the non-colonel side of Lieutenant Colonel Winston Lanham’s wide oak desk, waiting for my assignment. I counted the awards lined up along the wall and tried to convince myself that I didn’t care where they put me. I could survive anything for a year.
Obviously they wouldn’t assign me to Enforcement—I wasn’t much for kicking ass, at least not with my muscles, which still ached from my final physical assessment test.
The Anonymity Division? Possibly, given my con artist expertise in forgeries. Maybe I’d get a job creating and arranging new identities for aging vampires.
My fiercest wish was to work for the Contemporary Awareness Division. Predominantly an internal branch, CAD had been created to counteract temporal adhesion, the tendency of vampires to remain stuck in the eras in which they were turned. CAD taught vampire Control agents how to live in the present—how to speak, dress, and act like twenty-first-century humans. Every Control vamp was required to report for regular CAD sessions and attend an annual two-week cultural immersion seminar.
I was musing on how I could wrangle funds to share CAD resources with non-Control vamps, when Colonel Lanham entered.
Instinctively I stood at attention, though as a contractor I didn’t have to observe military customs and courtesies. Lanham exuded a mixture of hard-ass authority and cool competence that even I had to respect.
He was still wearing the ceremonial dress blacks from our graduation ceremony, a double-breasted uniform with a column of brilliant brass buttons. An array of medals on his chest reflected the recessed ceiling lights, as did his closely shaven head.
He nodded as he strode behind the desk. “Ms. Griffin.”
“Sir.” I sat when he did, resisting the urge to clear my throat.
He set down a hard black leather briefcase. “Congratulations on completing Indoc.”
I grimaced at the official name for the Control’s orientation program: Indoc, short for Indoctrination. “Thank you, sir.”
His thumbs flashed over the combination locks, then snapped them open simultaneously. “My apologies for the delay.” He pulled out a multicolored stack of file folders. “I needed one last high-level signature for your assignment. I think you’ll agree this is worth the wait.”
Lanham extracted a thick indigo file—the only one of its hue. He returned the other files to his briefcase, which he snapped shut and locked. Despite the efficiency of his movements, the colonel seemed to be dragging out the moment to torture me.
“The Immanence Corps is an elite special operations force within the Control.” Lanham rested his hands atop the file. “Its composition is roughly half vampire, half human, but every IC human possesses paranormal abilities.”
My heart slammed my breastbone. “What exactly is an ‘immanence’?”
“The word has a variety of meanings. Theologically, it signifies the divine presence in our world. Among pagans, it refers to an event that occurs in the mind.” His steel blue eyes studied my face, as though he were expecting a reaction. “But by its purest definition, it means ‘inherent.’ IC agents are born with their powers.”
“I don’t have any powers. I just have funky blood.”
“We both know it’s more than that.” Lanham tapped his pen against his briefcase. “Though we’re a secular agency, many of our weapons depend upon the faith of those who wield them. Others, such as holy water, are intrinsically powerful.”
“And those are the ones I can neutralize.”
He gave an almost imperceptible nod. “The Control would like to know which principle applies to the abilities of IC agents.”
“That makes sense.”
We sat there for a few moments, blinking at each other, before I grasped the connection. “Wait, wait, wait. You want to use me to experiment on my fellow agents? What am I, a chemical in a test tube?”
He shook his head calmly. “I assure you—“
“It’s not enough just to study my blood. Now you want to throw me into a pool of alleged paranormals and see if I neutralize them just by hanging out?” I fought to keep the anger out of my voice. “When you recruited me, you said you wanted my brains and talent. But you just want to study my freakiness.”
Lanham’s face remained impassive. “You have a unique quality. You should share it with those who can best help you deploy it.”
My spine chilled at the word “share.” “If I join the Immanence Corps, I’ll have to tell my colleagues why I’m qualified.” I could see us all sitting in a circle on Day One: Hi, my name is Ciara, and my magic is really anti-magic. Please don’t bite and/or kill me.
“Not to worry.” Lanham leaned back in his chair, spreading his hands. “Immanence agents maintain absolute secrecy regarding one another’s powers. You’re not the only one whose abilities could be used for nefarious purposes by vampires or humans.”
“Do I have a choice in assignment?”
“There’s always a choice. But not if you want to maintain our agreement.”
Two and a half years ago I’d signed a contract to join the Control after I finished college. In return, the agency would allow Shane to maintain contact with his human mom and sister in Ohio.
“So I join the Immanence Corps or you cut Shane off from his family.”
Lanham tilted his chin down. “And since his family knows where to find him, the only option would be relocation.”
My chest tightened. “You’d make him move? Away from me? Away from the job that saved his life?”
“I’m afraid we’d have no choice.”
“There’s always a choice.” I repeated his words as a wave of heat rose from my neck. “You choose coercion.”
“As a last resort.” His fingers tapped the ends of the chair arms. “After we attempt cooperation.”
“Your cooperation is coercion.”
“Listen!” The colonel lunged forward to loom over me. “I’ve bent over so far backward for you, I could kick myself in the forehead.” Fingers near my face, he counted off. “One measly year of obligation, no travel, no boot camp, and a starting salary thirty percent higher than average. So stop your bitching, or your boyfriend will find himself in Nome, Alaska, just in time for a long summer of midnight suns.”
My mouth creaked open. I’d never seen Lanham’s cool turn hot. Clearly he’d been saving it for this moment.
“Sign here.” He shoved an embossed indigo binder across the desk and slapped it open to reveal a letter of appointment to the Immanence Corps.
I took it. I read it. I signed it.
Only one other car remained in the visitors’ parking lot when I left. Colonel Lanham had made me his last assignment, probably because he knew I’d cause the biggest headache.
A woman with a dark ponytail sat behind the wheel of a silver BMW. Her face was in her hands, and her shoulders shook in a total bodyquake.
Tina.
I schlepped my bags over to her car and knocked on the window. She jumped, startled, and in the next moment a stake was pointed at me through the glass. Not exactly terrifying, but I admired her reflexes.
Tina grimaced and rolled down her window.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her.
“They gave me Enforcement!” She shook a red binder at me and let loose another flood of tears.
“But that’s great, isn’t it? You’re perfect for that.” I hoped they could train some restraint into her.
“I wanted to be Immanence!” She wiped away a nostril bubble. “My mom and dad’ll be so embarrassed.”
“Maybe you can transfer later.”
“It’s no use. The Control can’t see my magic, no matter how hard I try.” She rummaged through her bag. “Maybe they’re right. Maybe I am mundane.”
“No, I’m sure you’ve got… something.” I winced at the weakness of my reassurance.
“Don’t patronize me.” She dug harder in her purse.
I realized what she was looking for. I opened my messenger bag and reached into the inside pocket for my travel pack of tissues.
“Here.” I held out the tissues. Her eyes went wide with horror.
She pointed at my bag and whispered. “You… of all people.”
I looked down to see the edge of the indigo binder peeking from my bag.
“You don’t even believe!” she said.
I stepped back, in case she decided to take out her rage on my face. “You think I’m happy? I had no more choice than you did. I tried to get out of it.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you had a paranormal ability?”
“Because it’s a secret.” I fumbled for a way to explain. “They’ve never made a TV show out of what I can do.”
“Coward! How can you be so selfish? You were created special. The least you can do is use your God-given talents to help people.”
Tina turned the key in her ignition. The engine screeched, having already been idling.
“Damn it!” she shrieked. As she drove away, she pounded her steering wheel with both fists.
I felt sorry for any vampire on the eventual receiving end of Tina’s rage, but mostly I felt sorry for Tina.
As I walked to my car, I thought of my own parents—the woman who gave birth to me, as well as my father and the lady I thought of as my real mom. I wondered what they’d imagined their little girl would become. A ballerina? A business owner? A bullshit artist like them?
Living “in sin” with a vampire boyfriend and joining a paranormal paramilitary organization probably didn’t make their wish list. But at least they’d let me have my own dreams. Tina could only dream of having her own dreams.
I watched her car disappear between the ivy-draped wire gates. “Good luck,” I whispered.




4
How Many More Years
Night had fallen when I arrived at my apartment in downtown Sherwood. Since it was a holiday, the small town’s historic district was nearly empty, so I found a parking spot in front of my building.
The place I’d shared with Shane for more than two years was a three-bedroom furnished basement apartment beneath a law office. It was more room than we needed, but it had two nonnegotiable features: it allowed pets, and it was dark.
Even indirect sunlight could burn a vampire’s body, which was why they went underground at “civilian twilight”—roughly half an hour before sunrise and after sunset—when the sun was safely below the horizon. Not even my blood could heal a sunlight burn, since flashing out of existence in a burst of flames is an irreversible process.
I lugged my bags down the outside entry stairs, leaning against the wrought iron railing to keep my balance. The door jerked open.
“Ciara!”
Lori threw a strangling hug around my neck, yanking me close to her petite frame. The warm smell of cinnamon wafted out of the apartment.
Dexter shoved past her to circle my legs, panting and woofing. I grabbed his collar before he could run into the street. Despite his steady diet of doggie blood-bank leftovers, his instincts told him to hunt fresh pooches, such as the neighbor’s shih tzu.
“I’ve been going crazy without you.” Lori shut the door behind us and followed me into my living room.
“Something new with the wedding?” I asked as I slumped my exhausted body onto the sofa. Lori and I had been talking on the phone every night, and she’d kept me apprised of every detail, right down to the “Love Rocks” wedding favor boxes.
“David wants to elope.”
I tried to ask “Why?” but Dexter had crawled all one hundred twenty pounds of undead beast into my lap. It gave me time to wonder if this was part of David’s plan for Honeymoon Part Two—after a week in the Bahamas, he was surprising Lori with five days in Greece instead of coming home. He hadn’t mentioned an elopement threat to me.
Lori explained. “He’s afraid one of my relatives will find out the DJs are really vampires.”
I held Dexter’s big black square head and ruffled the short fur and baggy jowls. “David’s spent his whole life in secret situations.” David and his father had both been Control agents, and even after David’s discharge, he had formed a vampire radio station with his ex-fiancee, Elizabeth Vasser. “Privacy is very important to him.” I tilted up my face so Dexter could lick my chin instead of my mouth. “Yesh, it is,” I added in a baby talk tone to the dog.
“I offered a compromise.” Lori sat in Shane’s favorite tattered green armchair, curling her legs under her. “I said we could just not invite the DJs.”
I gaped at her over Dexter’s head.
She bit her lip. “David gave me that same look. Shane can still come, since he’s the best man. Besides, he’s so young, it’s easy for him to pass.”
“Lori, the DJs are David’s only friends, besides you and me.”
“I know.” She twisted a long lock of white-blond hair around her finger. “If they don’t come, his side of the aisle will be almost empty.”
“Besides, you can’t change the guest list less than two weeks before the wedding. It’s a rule.” At least, I thought it was. “Stop stressing. Weddings are never as bad as the bride expects.”
“How would you know? You’ve never even been to a wedding.”
True. One of the side effects of living as a con artist and then a vampire wrangler was that I had few normal friends who did normal things like get married, or work during the day.
“But I’ve read all about them.” I swept my hand toward the neat stack of inch-thick bridal magazines on the end table. Lori’s narrowed eyes told me she’d noticed that their pages were uncreased and their spines unbroken. “Look, I’ll talk to David, do some shuttle diplomacy.”
“Thank you.” She came over and hugged my head, the only part not smothered by Dexter. “I’m sorry I’ve become such a freak.” She pranced off to the kitchen, her bridal bipolar state shifting back to manic. “David and I made cinnamon rolls for Easter brunch. We can eat the extras and have Irish coffees while you tell me about your Control assignment.”
“It’s classified.” I felt an actual pain in my gut at keeping a secret from Lori.
“That’s so exciting!” She poured coffee into a pair of glass mugs. “Ciara Griffin, secret agent.”
“I’d rather be a marketing director for a radio station, or a college student. Oh wait, I’m those things, too.”
“Not for long.” She added whiskey to the glasses. “We’ll throw you the biggest graduation party the academic world has ever seen.”
“Proportional to my matriculation time.” Lori and I had started at Sherwood College almost nine years ago, but she’d graduated in the standard four years.
“Speaking of graduating, Tina called me. She’s livid over her assignment. She couldn’t tell me which division she’d hoped for, said it was classified.” Lori set the whiskey bottle down with a clonk. “Oh my God, you got the assignment she wanted?”
The phone rang, saving me from an ethical dilemma. I shoved Dexter off my lap and got up to check the caller ID. A number in northeast Ohio: Shane’s mom.
“Happy Easter, Mrs. McAllister!”
“Happy Easter, dear.” Her voice was warmer than my sweater. “And please call me Mom.”
I already had two of those and had dutifully placed my holiday calls to them on the way home, but what the hell. “Okay. Mom.”
I saw that Shane had left me a note on the refrigerator, as usual. His missives generally combined an affectionate sentiment with detailed instructions on how to stack the Tupperware containers or which angle the coffeemaker and toaster should be aligned. Obsessive-compulsive behavior is one of the quirkier aspects of vampirism.
I scanned the note as Mrs. McAllister told me about their Easter dinner. Shane’s words made heat spread from the base of my spine out to the tips of my fingers and toes. The note was detailed, all right, but the only instructions were for me to be naked in bed when he got home.
“Ciara? Are you there?”
“Oh! Yes.” I shoved the note in my pocket, my cheeks flaming. “What were you asking?”
“How was orientation?” Shane’s mother and sister knew all about the Control, seeing as how the agency, along with me and the DJs, had saved their lives a few years ago.
“It was an adventure. I’m lucky to be in one piece.”
“I’ve said it before, but I can’t thank you enough.” Her voice became muted. “If it weren’t for your sacrifice, I’d never see my son again.”
“It’s no sacrifice. The pay is great.” Besides, you’re not the only one who would lose him.
“Should I call him tomorrow evening, for, you know…”
“He’d like that. But make it early. The DJs are throwing him a wake.” I opened the refrigerator to get the water pitcher, which Shane had placed up front so I wouldn’t have to reach past his emergency rations of human blood.
“How nice, I guess,” she said, then cleared her throat. “Do you happen to know if he made it to Mass today?”
“You know he can’t risk it. What if they sprinkle the crowd with holy water?” I retrieved a glass from the cabinet, noticing how perfectly they lined up. “Plus, it makes him sad.”
“There’s nothing wrong with sadness. I learned that in therapy after Shane’s father passed away.” Mrs. McAllister paused. “We shouldn’t hide from real feelings. Life’s too short, even for a vampire.”
I poured myself a glass of water, unsure how to respond. I was a big fan of all the denials and self-deceptions that helped us get through the day with our sanity intact.
A beeping noise went off in the background. “Ooh, the tea is done,” Shane’s mom said. “I better go put out the pies. Dessert was late tonight because Jesse had to pick up his girlfriend from her dad’s house in Canton.”
“Is this the cheerleader girlfriend or the one who plays bass in his band?”
“This week it’s the cheerleader. The other one, they’re just friends.”
Friends with benefits, no doubt. I wondered if Shane had been as popular and confident when he was seventeen as his older nephew was. I had a feeling he’d been shy like Jesse’s little brother, Ryan.
After I hung up with Mrs. McAllister, I carried my cinnamon roll and Irish coffee into the living room to join Lori, who was staring at the engagement photo she carried in her wallet.
“Don’t worry, you and David will grow old together.” I licked the melted whipped cream off the top of my mug. “And you’ll get disgustingly cuter with each passing year.”
Her smile turned dreamy as she stared out the front window—or she would have, had it not been covered in blackout curtains. Then she ripped her gaze back to mine. “What about you?”
“I’ll get cuter, too. It’s what I do.”
She blew on her coffee, which lacked whipped cream so she could fit into her wedding dress. “What about the future?”
“I don’t think about the future,” I said, and at the time it was true. “Or the past, for that matter.”
“You and Shane can’t go on forever like this. I see it in his eyes when he looks at you.” She curled her hands around her mug. “He wants you to belong to him.”
I laughed at her melodrama. “I do belong to him.”
“Not officially.”
“That’s what’s so great about it.”
She lifted her cinnamon roll as if to lob it at my head. “How can you be so casual about true love?”
“I’m not casual, just realistic. Unlike him, I won’t stay young forever.”
“You really think he cares about that?”
“I care.” I stirred the whipped cream to melt it into the steaming coffee. “Jeremy once said I’m with Shane because it doesn’t threaten my independence, because one day we’ll break up and I can blame it all on the human-vampire thing, not on my own inability to commit or be a good girlfriend.”
“Let me guess: Jeremy’s solution is for you to become a vampire.”
“Pretty much.” We shared a smirk at the expense of our morbid friend, the sole human DJ at WVMP. “That’s his solution for everything, including static cling.”
“But he might have a point. Not about you becoming a vampire but about your commitment phobia.”
“He might.” I sipped the Irish coffee, hoping its warmth would soothe my apprehension. “I never want to break up with Shane. But I couldn’t stand losing him for normal reasons—because of something I did or because I wasn’t good enough. So I know that eventually I’ll start making a bigger deal about how different we are, until one day it’s true, and we’ll have proven that a vampire and a human can’t go the distance together.”
“If any human and vampire could, it would be you and Shane. If you ask me, it’s better to have a few years or decades with someone who rocks your world than a whole lifetime with someone who makes you yawn.” She studied my face. “What if he headed you off at the pass?”
“By breaking up with me?” Just uttering the thought made my voice squeak.
“By proposing.”
I closed my eyes and imagined the moment. He’d come up with something clever and charming and sexy, like the hero of a romantic comedy movie. He’d be almost impossible to resist.
“I’d say no,” I told her.
Maybe he’d ask again and again, and I’d say no again and again, and eventually he would give up.
And then the end would begin. He’d leave home earlier in the evening, start sleeping at the station. I’d be relieved to wake up alone.
Then, one night, he would leave for good. It would hurt him too much to know I couldn’t give him forever.
Just imagining it made my lungs ache. But the alternative—marrying him, growing old, and finally dying while he stayed young—stopped my breath altogether.
In the battle over my state of consciousness, the whiskey kicked the coffee’s ass, and I was asleep by eleven o’clock. I barely had the presence of mind to take off my clothes before crawling under the covers.
I didn’t know Shane was there until he slipped his arms around my waist and buried his face in the back of my neck. The soft scrape of his cotton shirt against my skin said he couldn’t wait to hold me, not even long enough to undress.
I twined my fingers with his and kept my voice sleepy, as if my words were a reflex, which they never were. “I love you.”
He sighed, deep and soft. I tightened my grip on his hand and tried not to picture him as he was fifteen years ago this moment, lying dead in his maker Regina’s arms.
His next breath was nothing but my name. I turned to face him. In the dim glow of the nightlight, I could see the mix of joy and agony in his pale blue eyes. They were dry but crinkled and a little swollen around the edges, as if he had a head cold.
Though I longed to do much, much, much more, I simply kissed him softly on the tip of his perfect nose, then on his lips. I stroked the sharp angles of his cheek and jaw with the tips of my fingers, then slid my hand into the light brown hair that grazed his neck.
“Welcome home,” I said.
He kissed me then, as gently as I had kissed him, but with lips parted, his tongue beckoning. The sudden wet contact shot a bolt of desire down my spine, pooling liquid heat in my core.
Despite our month-long separation, we didn’t crash together in a desperate, grabby lustfest. We touched like we were sculpting glass in our bare hands, as if pieces of us would break off if we grasped too hard.
When his clothes were gone, he guided my leg over his hip and entered me. We lay side by side, facing each other, kissing deeper, saying nothing. I crested slowly, building higher and higher over what seemed like hours. Then suddenly I was clutching Shane’s shoulder, my nails sinking deep into his skin to hold myself together.
He groaned against my neck and pressed his mouth hard to my flesh. Through his lips I felt his fangs and knew that part of him wanted to pierce me, taste my blood at its sweetest, at the height of my ecstasy.
But that would have made me something more and less than his beloved. We wanted to dwell in the fragile, human bliss we’d created.
So he just held my body tight to his as he came. Pulsing deep inside me, breathing warm against my skin, he had as much life as I’d ever need.




5
Destination Unknown
In a sure sign of the universe’s cruelty, I had to go to work later that morning. I hated leaving Shane alone on his death-iversary, but at least Dexter would be there to cheer him up with random acts of laziness.
I dragged myself up the rickety stairs of the tiny station building and knocked on the front door. It unlocked and opened only from the inside, to prevent vampire flameouts.
The knob turned and the door popped open, sticking to the frame due to the foggy day’s humidity. At that moment, I happened to be in the middle of a wide, uncovered yawn.
“Oh, that’s attractive.” Franklin, the sales director, waved me into the office. “Come inside before flies lay eggs under your tongue.”
“Welcome home to you, too,” I told him as I pushed past.
“I never left,” he snapped.
“Maybe you should consider it.”
“Love to, but then I’d miss all the free pie.”
“What free—” I stopped as I approached my desk in the small, open main office area. On the surface sat a pie with a crumb topping and what looked like a homemade crust.
I looked back at Franklin. “Did you—”
“Don’t get excited.” He opened the credenza next to the bricked-up fireplace and pulled out a stack of paper plates and napkins with some plastic utensils. “Aaron hates rhubarb, so I used you as an excuse to make an extra pie for Easter.”
I poked my finger through the crust. Apples, too. My all-time favorite. “Is that a candied walnut topping?”
“I used whatever was lying around the house.” He slapped the plates, napkins, and utensils on my desk. “Candied walnuts, the crumbs at the bottom of the dog biscuit box…”
I grabbed a plastic knife and sliced the pie. “You are the worst coworker ever.”
“You’re the worst coworker in two or three evers,” he said as he took the first piece.
It was as close as we’d ever come to saying “I missed you.”
David’s raised voice came from behind his office door, which was shut but so thin it might as well have been open.
“Mom, we’re not really eloping. I would never do that to you.” A pause. “No, I promise I’ll talk Lori out of it.”
I decided to save his butt, though after that fib, I was more interested in kicking it. I dialed an interior extension so his phone would ring.
“Mom, I gotta take this call,” he said. “Love you. Bye.” He picked up the other line. “Agent Griffin, I presume.”
“Got a minute for Control talk? Or an hour or a day?”
“Yep. Bring pie.”
I was cutting David a slice when he opened his office door. He stopped at the threshold, where his sharp green eyes examined my frame. “Did you get taller?”
I hid a smile, secretly proud of my unprecedented level of physical fitness. “They stretched me on the rack until I told them where I hid Dracula’s bones.” I hooked my pinky through the loop of my thermos and carried our pie slices into his office.
David shut the door behind us and moved quickly out of my personal space to the other side of his desk. The minuscule general manager’s office was lined with shelves of music books and filing cabinets of supernatural facts. As a result, it contained approximately five square feet of floor space.
He sat in his chair and straightened his sport coat. “How was Indoc?”
“It’s all against my nature.” I passed him his slice of pie. “Taking orders, working on a team—not to mention learning how to kill vampires.” I poured myself a pre-sugared cup of coffee from my thermos. “But Lanham said I either did what they wanted or Shane would spend the rest of his unlife north of the Arctic Circle.”
David let out a heavy sigh and picked up his fork. “They drive a hard bargain. But remember, the colonel’s done a lot for you. A lot for us. He looked the other way while you were pretending to be Elizabeth so we could keep the station.”
“I know,” I said, in a junior-high sullen voice. After the station owner, Elizabeth, had died for good, I’d “borrowed” her identity to keep the station from being liquidated. Lanham and the Control had looked the other way.
“So where did they assign you?”
I hesitated. David knew about my “anti-holy” power, so my future work wouldn’t be a secret to him. And he’d been close to the Control—when he wasn’t actually in it—all his life. Maybe he could teach me how to keep my commanders happy without compromising my few moral principles.
“Something called the Immanence Corps.”
His fork halted on the way to his mouth. The morsel of pie tumbled back to the plate.
“You’re fucking kidding me.”
I blinked. Unlike the rest of us, David rarely used profanity. It was sort of adorable. It also let us know when he was really upset.
“Why would I kid about that?”
“I was afraid this would—” He slammed down his fork, flipping a shower of candied walnuts against his shirt. “What are they thinking?”
“I don’t know. What are you thinking? What’s wrong with the Immanence Corps, besides being a band of freaks?”
“They killed my father.”
The pie’s crumb topping turned to sawdust in my mouth. “He was assassinated?”
“Not directly.” David set his elbows on the desk and rubbed his eyes, which had grown tight with tension. “More like driven to his death.”
“I thought he was an enforcement agent like you were.”
“He started out that way.” David sank back into his squeaky office chair and rolled his palms over the curves of its arms. “When I was really young, I didn’t know what he did for a living. But I knew he was happy.” His expression softened as his gaze turned distant. “Sometimes he would dance with my mom even when there was no music playing.”
I stabbed another bite of pie. “So what happened?”
“He got promoted into management. His command experience snagged him a high-level directorship.”
“Of the Immanence Corps?”
“No. Internal Affairs.”
I frowned around my fork. “Rat Patrol? That sounds like punishment, not promotion.”
David lifted an eyebrow in assent. “So we settled down here. I started high school, and he started—” He drew a heavy hand through his dark brown hair. “The only word that fits is ‘fading.’ Like old vampires when the modern world becomes too much for them? My dad withdrew from us. He smoked and drank more than ever. Over the next seven years, Mom and I watched that job kill him.”
Though my brain burned with a million questions, I forced myself to slow down and empathize. “I’m sorry. That must’ve been really rough.”
He nodded, then seemed to go far away. I sensed he wasn’t going to say more without prompting.
“But what’s that got to do with the Immanence Corps?”
“He was investigating them when he began his…” David searched for the right word. “Descent.”
“How do you know? Aren’t those cases classified?”
“He made notes. I found them after he died.”
His glance shot to the lowest drawer in his filing cabinet—the one that was always locked. I interpreted this as a hint that the notes were in there for the stealing. If I asked to see them, he’d say no, since that would be against Control rules. Then I’d be officially disobeying him by reading them. This way, we could both pretend he had scruples.
“I’ll keep your warning in mind,” I told David, “but I don’t have a choice. And maybe things have changed. Maybe new management trends have made the IC more soul friendly. That was what, thirty years ago?”
His eyes narrowed. “Fifteen. I’m only thirty-five.”
Ah, a chance to change the subject. “That’s a long time for your poor mother to wait for her only child’s marriage. The least you can do is give her a real wedding to cry at.”
He opened his mouth, then closed it. “Lori told you I wanted to elope?”
“She tells me everything. It’s a best friend rule.”
“I thought I was her best friend.”
“Girls can have more than one. That’s another rule.”
“Wait—she tells you everything?”
“As much as I can stomach.” I stood, balancing the pie plate on top of my thermos lid. “I have a month’s worth of trivial e-mail to read, so I really should—”
“Go. Yes.” David shuffled random papers over his desk, avoiding my eyes. “I have, uh, things. To do.”
I shut the door on my way out, satisfied. His mind had traveled far away from the Immanence Corps.
I wish I could’ve said the same for mine.
Before class that night, I went to the history department to meet my professor, who also happened to be Franklin’s long-term boyfriend. In any normal universe, the younger and infinitely cuter Aaron Green would be way out of my coworker’s league. But a normal universe wouldn’t contain vampire DJs.
When I knocked on Aaron’s open door, he looked up from his notes, holding the rim of an empty Styrofoam cup in his mouth. “Hey, Ciara,” came his muffled voice. He lowered the cup and gave me a distracted smile. “Welcome home.”
“It’s good to be back in the real world. Thanks for hating rhubarb so Franklin could bring me pie.”
“I don’t hate rhubarb.” Aaron picked up our latest textbook and placed it in his open briefcase. “He made that pie because he missed you.”
“Then I should go away more often, and Franklin would probably be the first person to agree with that.”
A corner of Aaron’s mouth twitched in response. His gaze traveled around the perimeter of his desk. “What was I…” He scratched the back of his head, tugging the soft waves of sable hair. “I needed something else for tonight’s class.”
He didn’t normally fit the absentminded professor stereotype. “You okay?” I asked him. “Still jet-lagged?”
“No, it’s been a week since I got back from Debrecen.” Aaron’s fingers trickled over the surface of his desk before reaching a stack of papers held together with an alligator clip. “Ah. Here.”
Now that I had his full attention, I said, “Can I talk to you about my term paper on the way to class?”
“Sure.” He shrugged on his dark brown leather jacket. “Did you plan to pick a topic before the end of the semester?”
“Ha-ha. Yes, I decided on the Legion of the Archangel Michael. The Romanian Iron Guard?”
“Oh, dear.” He motioned for me to precede him out of his office. “You know, just because I’m Jewish doesn’t mean you get extra points for Holocaust topics.”
“That’s not why I picked it.” I kept pace with him down the polished floors of Craddock Hall, passing under a hand-painted banner supporting the Sherwood men’s lacrosse team (Division III defending champions—go Bog Turtles!). “I picked it because out of all the fascist groups, the legion was the only one that used religion as the major motivator.”
He lifted his chin. “Ah, so this is part of your crusade, so to speak, to demonstrate the evils of faith.”
I ignored his jibe. “You know what was so fascinating about them? They didn’t believe they’d find salvation through slaughter. They didn’t think there’d be thirty virgins waiting for them in heaven, or that they’d be canonized for destroying the enemy.” As we descended the marble steps outside the building, I pulled up my hood against the evening breeze. “They knew that the murders they committed were a sin, and they accepted their damnation. In their minds, they were sacrificing their souls for the sake of the fatherland. Isn’t that wild?”
A grunt was his only response, so I continued. “Usually people like that rationalize their evil—they convince themselves it’s what God wants. These fanatics were completely unapologetic.”
As we crossed the grassy commons, Aaron looked to the right, into the dark woods surrounding the western edge of Sherwood College’s campus.
I continued my well-rehearsed pitch. “Most religions are all about the next world. Not your religion, of course. But Christians, Muslims, Buddhists—their earthly lives are less important than the afterlife. So for the legionnaires to sacrifice eternal salvation, their patriotism must have verged on insanity.”
Aaron craned his neck, still looking back into the woods.
To see if he was paying attention, I added, “Unless they thought they were already damned. Or that they were immortal.”
No response. Aaron’s face seemed unusually shadowed.
Wondering how long it would take him to notice, I riffed into the ridiculous. “Did you know they drank blood in their initiations? And hey, Romania. So put it all together, and what do you get? Vampires.”
A few seconds later, Aaron finally turned his head to look at me. “Wait. What?”
“Or maybe they just used the vamps as hit men.”
He stopped. “Are we still talking about the Iron Guard?”
“I don’t know. Are we?” I gave him a playful smirk.
Aaron shook his head. “Sorry, it’s been the weirdest day of my life, which is saying a lot.” He tugged me off the path so the other students could hurry by. “This morning after my workout I was on the way to Craddock Hall. You know that path through the woods that leads from the gym?”
I nodded, though I’d never voluntarily gone near any venue of structured exercise.
“I was about halfway there” —he pointed toward the line of trees to our right— “when suddenly I caught this hideous smell, like scorched meat. It got so bad I almost turned back.” He lowered his voice. “That’s when I saw the body.”
My gut tightened. “A human body?”
“Human shaped, what was left of it. The whole corpse was burned head to foot. No clothes, no hair, no shoes.”
“Just a skeleton?”
“I wish.” He rubbed the side of his nose. “Its flesh was—it was welded to the bones.”
“How horrible.”
“I say its flesh because I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman.” He dropped his hand from his face. “Whoever it was, they died screaming.”
I remembered something I’d read in the paper. “Maybe they were murdered and then burned. Like in a gang killing? Maybe the fire stretched the face so it looked like it was screaming.”
He stared at me for a moment. “I guess hanging out with vampires, you’ve seen a lot.”
“Unfortunately.” Too much of it had involved fire.
“But gangs, here in Sherwood?” Aaron spread his arms.
“The high schools have a major heroin problem. The kids usually go into Baltimore for the drugs, but maybe the dealers are coming out here now and fighting for territory. What did the cops say?”
“Not much. One of them threw up. They took my statement and let me go.” He brushed his hand over his chest. “I had to shower again and change my clothes to get the smell out. But I swear it’s still in my nostrils.” He checked his watch. “And now that I’m done grossing you out, it’s time for class.”
We headed into the building without another word. I thought of a time years ago when our little world had gone up in flames and Lori’s undead boyfriend Travis had been consumed.
And unlike that corpse in the woods, when vampires burn, nothing is left—no bones, no flesh, no skin. No ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Nothing but nothing.




6
What Is and What Should Never Be
Shane’s “wake” was just starting as he and I arrived at the station that night. Five vampire DJs (all but Monroe, who was on the air and avoided social gatherings, anyway) had gathered in the basement lounge. Cigarette smoke hovered thick, making the ceiling look like an overcast sky.
His maker Regina was slow dancing with Noah to the Police song blasting over the boom box—one of the crossover tunes between Regina’s punk and Noah’s reggae. Their relationship was off and on (mostly off, due to Noah’s being a generally decent guy). I needed a baseball-style box score to keep up with their breakups and reconciliations.
Leaning her head on his shoulder, Regina twisted one of the dreadlocks cascading down his back, her ebony-lined eyes closed in contentment. Noah’s eyes were open, probably so he could avoid stepping on the rug seams.
Fifties rockabilly DJ Spencer stood at the card table, which had been shoved to the wall to make room for dancing. The refreshments were all liquid, other than a bowl of crumbled tortilla chips and a store-bought ranch dip. Spencer shifted the bottles, arranging them in a configuration only he understood. As the oldest WVMP vampire (next to Monroe), his compulsions were the strongest. Most of his brain was stuck in 1959, like the ducktail in his dark red hair.
Jim stood alone in the corner, watching the rest of us. Tonight he wore traditional hippie garb—tie-dyed shirt and flowing white bell bottoms—instead of his usual Jim-Morrison-reanimated outfit of leather pants and black shirt open to the navel.
But what Shane had told me on the phone last week was spot-on. Despite his peace-and-love getup, Jim looked less balanced than ever. His gaze shifted between me and Jeremy—the only humans in the room—as if we were the two tastiest-looking entrées on a buffet, and he was deciding which to sample first.
There was a time when Jeremy would’ve jumped on the plate and handed Jim the fork. He’d been enthralled with the hippie vampire since the moment they met. But over the last six months, their relationship had cooled. Now it was positively subzero.
Jim sauntered over to where Jeremy was setting up his laptop on top of our new LCD projector. He slowly brushed back the bleached blond hair that swooped over Jeremy’s face.
To Jeremy’s credit, he didn’t flinch or spook, knowing that sudden moves can make a vampire pounce. He simply pretended Jim wasn’t there, even when the vampire’s hand traveled down his back, over the belt loops of his black skinny jeans, then up under his vintage Jawbreaker T-shirt. (Jeremy’s classic emo garb, along with his black guyliner, fit his radio show, which featured the music of the recently deceased decade.)
“Look at me,” Jim said to him.
“I’m busy.”
“Look. At. Me.”
Regina stopped dancing and turned to watch them, her nostrils twitching with worry. Noah kept his hands on her shoulders to hold her back. Jim was not only volatile but stronger than anyone else in the room, due to his age.
Stronger than anyone except Spencer, that is. But the older DJ was captivated by the task of pouring drinks. He squatted to bring his eyes level with the six glasses, making sure they contained an even amount of whiskey. Spencer frowned at the glass on the right, then used a set of tongs to add another ice cube.
“What’s your hang-up, man?” Jim asked Jeremy. “I said I was sorry.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“I’m sorry. There, I said it.”
“You don’t even know what you’re sorry for.” Jeremy was fighting to keep his voice down, though the battle for privacy was long lost.
Jim made no effort to lower the volume. “I’ll make it up to you. What do you want? Dinner? Drugs?”
“Nothing.”
“Nothing? That’s not fair, when you give me so much.” He grabbed Jeremy by the back of the neck and lifted him up on his toes. Then he pressed his mouth to Jeremy’s throat.
We all gasped, and Regina stepped toward them. “Jim, knock it off!”
Feeding on Humans Rule Number One: always bite below the heart. If Jim sank his fangs into Jeremy’s neck while he was standing up, it could cause an air embolism that could instantly kill him.
“It’s just a game we play,” he growled, as Jeremy’s eyes flashed with fear. “Mind your own business. He’s my donor.”
“He’s my donor, too,” Regina said.
“Not anymore.” He put a possessive arm around Jeremy’s waist. “I don’t want to share.”
I looked at Spencer, who was dribbling a few more drops of whiskey into the left-hand glass.
“Jim, take it easy,” Shane said. “We know you don’t want to hurt anybody.” His grip on my hand belied the calm in his voice. “That would defeat the purpose, right?”
Jim’s eyes turned to dark slits. “Depends which purpose you’re talking about.”
“Donor loyalty. You keep messing with Jeremy’s head, he might cut you off.”
Jim turned back to Jeremy. “Is that true? You’ll cut me off? Try it, and I’ll cut you off.” He drew his finger across Jeremy’s throat. “I’ve done it before, and I’ll—”
Spencer moved, his dress shirt a white blur. He grabbed Jim and pinned him face-first against the wall.
“Never. Threaten. A donor.” Spencer’s voice was low and even. “Hear me?”
Jim struggled in his grip, with as much success as a bug in a Venus flytrap. Jeremy stood next to the projector, rubbing his neck and breathing hard.
“I asked”—Spencer slammed Jim’s forehead into the wall—“if you heard me. But I missed your answer. Maybe I’m goin’ deaf.”
“I heard you,” Jim choked out. “I wasn’t threatening—”
Slam! The wood paneling buckled under the impact of Jim’s head.
“Okay, I was threatening him and I’ll never do it again. Swear! Now let me go.”
Spencer shoved Jim’s knees into the floor, so hard the foundation seemed to shake. “How about you blow out of here, son. Take the night off.”
Jim sprang to his feet, swaying. “I’m not your son. And this party is Dullsville, anyway.” He stumbled for the door, snapping his fingers at Jeremy. “I’ll wait for you in the car.”
When he was gone, we let out a collective sigh of relief. Spencer went back to the table, then handed out the drinks he’d poured. I noticed there hadn’t been enough glasses to include Jim if he’d stayed.
“You are not going with him, I hope?” Noah asked Jeremy.
“No way.” He gave Regina a pleading look through his round, black-rimmed glasses. “Hey, if you turned me into a vampire, I could fight him off.”
“No, you couldn’t,” she said. “He’d still have ten times your strength. And then you couldn’t escape him during the day.”
He made a noise like a little kid. “I turn twenty-seven next month. It’d be perfect timing.”
The DJs were each twenty-seven when they were turned. We play up that fact to the public, comparing our jocks to the Club of 27, the long list of rock stars who left this world at that mythical age.
“You don’t want to die on your birthday,” I told Jeremy. “People will look at your tombstone and think it’s a typo.”
“Shut up,” he snapped.
Regina patted Jeremy’s cheek. “We’ve had this talk before, yeah?”
“Yeah.” He glanced at Shane. “Guess I have to threaten suicide to get you to save me.”
Her fingers tightened on his jaw, but her voice stayed sweet. “We’ll discuss it later. Over a drink?” Her gaze on his neck told me what kind of drink she meant.
“Maybe.” He pulled out of her grip, only because she let him. “Maybe not.” He stalked out of the room toward the back hallway. He didn’t take his coat, so he was probably just headed to the bathroom in as drama queeny a fashion as possible.
“What a child.” Regina yanked a packet of cigarettes from her spike-heeled police boots. “He only thinks about himself. Not one fucking thought for what it would do to me.” She lit the cigarette and sucked in a harsh puff.
“He doesn’t understand what you’ve been through.” Shane rubbed her shoulder, avoiding the long prongs of her studded leather collar.
Her face softened, and she almost leaned against him for support before straightening up and turning away.
If I didn’t know her progenies’ history, I’d think her momentary vulnerability was an act. The first was Shane, who made her the weapon of choice in his final suicide attempt; at the last moment she changed her mind and brought him back from death with her own blood. Later she turned a female friend to protect her from an abusive fiancé. That had ended in tragedy and almost got Regina, me, and several others killed by the vengeful aforementioned dickhead.
David and Lori entered the lounge from the back door, each carrying two stacks of clear plastic food containers.
“Leftovers from our meeting with the wedding caterer.” David set the food on the end of the card table.
“You’re a godsend.” I opened a dish of pasta-peanut salad. “Vampires suck at snacks. I think that ranch dip expired when Spencer was still human.”
“Hi, Shane.” Lori sent him a cheek-puffing, trying-too-hard smile. “Happy, um. You know.”
“Thanks.” He leaned over to kiss her cheek. “And thanks for feeding my girlfriend.”
She nodded solemnly. “Ciara maintenance is my most important job.”
“Funny, mine, too.”
A loud double clap snapped the stuffy air. “Ladies and gentlemen—” Regina gestured toward Jeremy, who had gotten over his snit and was now manning the projector—“time to honor our boy before his big day ends.” She squeezed Shane’s arm and smiled at his inscrutable face. “Glad you made it through another year alive.”
Someone switched off the ancient halogen lamp in the corner as the projection screen slowly faded up on a photo of Shane.
He was alive, but not. His eyes were more sunken than in his worst blood hunger. With gaunt cheeks and sallow skin, he looked ten years older than he did as we stood there.
But sunlight glinted off his light brown hair, something I’d never seen in real life. And never would.
Canned applause sounded as glittery red block letters scrolled across the bottom of the screen: THIS IS YOUR UNLIFE. The non-Shane vampires and David laughed.
“I don’t get it,” Lori whispered.
“It was a TV show back in the old days,” David told us. “This Is Your Life.”
A song played, a cover of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” but not the Bob Dylan version I knew. A new photo showed Shane in a tux, standing at a sound board. Tiny lights like those of a disco ball played over his face.
The photo slid to the left; on the right half of the screen, a video appeared, of Regina at her vampiest.
“Welcome. This is my tribute to the guy who means more to me than the rest of the world put together. Shane McAllister.”
She raised her fists, and the room broke into whistles and catcalls. The real-life Regina hugged Shane around the waist in a way that once would have made me burn with jealousy, before I (sort of) came to understand the maker-progeny bond.
On the screen, Regina pointed her thumb to her right, toward the picture. “That was you the night we met. Not as happy as you looked.”
I felt Shane tense beside me. “She wouldn’t…”
The next photo shifted to the center, dark, and slowly came up in light. Shane sat at a table, writing on a piece of paper, balled-up pages scattered around him, his hand crumpling his hair and his eyes filled with agony.
“That stupid note,” he said under his breath. I realized this was the last picture taken of him alive.
“Turn it off,” he told Regina.
Her fingers dug into his arm. “Just watch the whole thing before you judge.”
“Jeremy, turn it off, or I’ll put your laptop through the wall.”
Jeremy shrugged. “It’s station property, not mine.”
Shane heaved a tight sigh and crossed his arms, his face a study in silent simmering.
The photo faded, and the song crescendoed in the last verse. The black screen held nothing but a white caption: THE FOLLOWING NIGHT.
We gasped at the transformation. Shane wore the same clothes as in the previous shot, but his gaze had sharpened to an animal stare. His muscles now bulged his T-shirt in smooth lines. His body was no longer an enemy.
The photo shifted to the left again, and Regina’s face reappeared.
“Foxy dude, huh?” She blew on her nails and rubbed them against her collar. “But things didn’t go so well, and you ended up here.”
A long, squat brick building appeared—a Control nursing home, where vampires go when their frozen minds can no longer handle this world. A place where they can live out their many years in “peace.”
Peace for humans, that is. A confused vampire is an unstable vampire, a danger to the living. I wondered how long before Jim would end up in Control custody, assuming he let them take him alive.
Some nursing homes had rehab units for infant vampires who had trouble accepting their new “life.” They’d be trapped there on suicide watch until deemed sufficiently stable. Shane had spent months in one.
The onscreen Regina continued. “But then came our savior.”
A photo of David replaced the building. Unlike vampires, we humans age a lot in ten years.
Lori whistled. “Wow, David, you were hot!”
“Gee, thanks for the past tense.” He ran a self-conscious hand over his stomach.
“You look better now,” I told him. David gave me a grateful smile, which wasn’t worth Lori’s jealous glare. I had so little experience with truth telling, sometimes I let it out at inappropriate times.
“Enough of that guy,” Regina continued in a voice-over. “Once we came here to WVMP, Shane’s popularity skyrocketed, as demonstrated by this montage.”
A series of photos flashed on the screen, all of beautiful young women. Shane shifted his weight uncomfortably, and I could’ve sworn he was blushing, but that could’ve just been the red light of the exit sign.
As the hot-chick montage continued, I asked him, “Are those all vampires?”
“Um, mostly. Well, not that one. Or that one. That one’s a vampire.”
“And they were your girlfriends?”
“Uh.” He rubbed the back of his ear. “Not exactly. A couple of them.” He looked at Regina. “Where’d you get all these pictures?”
“Various places.” She tugged his shirt. “I can get you copies.”
“No.” He glanced at me, then at the screen. “When does this stop?”
She signaled to Jeremy, who hit a key to advance to a blank screen. “In keeping with This Is Your Life’s format, we have a special blast-from-the-past guest.”
The music changed to a Ramones tune I couldn’t place (they all sounded the same to me, frankly).
“No,” Shane said. “No way.”
A disembodied female voice said, “June 1998. Midnight. A Denny’s outside Hagerstown. We were fattening up our donors before the feast. The moment our eyes met over our humans’ Grand Slam breakfasts, we knew.”
“Sheena,” he whispered, just as the Ramones started to sing about the eponymous punk rocker.
“Sadly,” Regina said, “Sheena was not a punk rocker, and to this day is still the dippy hippie we all know and love.”
A tall, pale woman glided out of the hallway’s shadows. Her hair cascaded past her waist in blood-red ringlets. Beside me, Lori let out a squeak.
“Shane!” The vampire was in his arms in a flash, straddling his waist with her gypsy-skirted legs. She planted a hard, tonguey kiss on his resistant lips.
With a heroic effort, he extracted himself from her embrace. “I can’t believe it’s you.” Over her head he staked Regina through the heart with his eyes.
“Remember my VW microbus?” Sheena dragged her nails down his chest. “How many donors did we do in that little pink sweetheart?”
“Wow. I’d forgotten all about, uh…”
“Althea. Her name was Althea, after the Grateful Dead song.” Sheena pouted. “Her carburetor gave out last year. Now I drive a 1970 Chevelle named Bertha.” She grabbed his hand. “She’s so cherry. You want to see?”
“No. Thanks.” He pulled his hand away and put his arm around me. “Sheena, this is Ciara.”
She gave my body an appreciative once-over. “Yummy. Is she your new favorite donor?”
“She’s my girlfriend.”
“His live-in girlfriend,” Lori added.
“But… you’re human,” Sheena informed me.
“And loving it,” I said with a smile. I would not let her get to me. Shane was mine now. Besides, this girl didn’t have nearly the, uh… well, okay, she had everything I had, and more. Possibly I was a better speller.
Jeremy saved me by switching to the next tune. Regina looked startled, then said, “Okay, next guest! It turns out, Shane didn’t spend all his time spinning records and shagging babes. He saved lives.”
Shane reflected my bewilderment, until the man’s voice came over the ceiling speaker. “When I called the suicide hotline that night, I thought I didn’t want help. I thought I just wanted some company while I checked out, you know?”
“Whoa.” Shane put a hand to his head. “Luis?”
“But you talked me down, man. I mean, literally talked me down off that roof. I can never repay you, hermano.”
A man in his forties with close-cropped black hair stepped from the hallway. This time, Shane leaped forward to greet his guest. They shared a giant, backslapping embrace.
“Come here, I want you to meet my girlfriend.” Shane dragged Luis over and introduced us.
Luis pointed at Shane. “This guy risked his life to save me, and I didn’t even know it.”
“What do you mean?” I asked him.
“I swore if Shane called the cops, I would jump. So he found where I was, got up on the roof with me, and we talked.” He shook his head at Shane. “Almost until sunrise.”
I stared at the man I thought I knew. “You never told me you worked a suicide hotline.”
Shane looked away. “Then you would’ve asked why I stopped. Besides, what I did for Luis was totally against protocol. We weren’t supposed to contact clients.” He turned to Luis. “So how are you?”
As the guys caught up on the last five years, Sheena took my arm and steered me into a corner, her ankle bracelets jangling with every step.
“Is this for real?” Her sharp voice nearly sliced my eardrum. “You and Shane are serious? How serious?”
“We have an apartment. And a dog.”
“Wowsers.” She chewed her lip. “So I probably can’t borrow him for the night.”
“You’d have to kill me first.” I immediately wished I hadn’t said that.
Sheena examined me some more, hands on her hips, then peered around the lounge. “Where’s Jim? I saw his car outside. I used to love that Janis. Now there was a carburetor.”
“I think he’s actually sitting in Janis right now. Why don’t you two go for a ride? I think you’re just what he needs.”
“Cool!” Her green eyes practically glowed. “If I’m not back in twenty, tell Shane I said happy death day, okeydokey?” She took a lock of my hair and sniffed it hard.
“Okey.” I leaned away from her. “Dokey. Bye.”
“Hmm, I like it.” She yanked out a strand. My teeth rattled from the pain, but I held back a cry.
When she was gone, Lori handed me a glass of wine. “Can I make a BFF request? No matter which milestone birthday I reach, you will never do this for me.”
I held out my hand. “Mutual request.” We shook on it.
At midnight Shane returned to me and whispered, “We have to be somewhere soon.”
“We definitely do.” I thought he meant bed, and I was glad to go. Watching Sheena’s and Luis’s testimonies made me realize, for completely different reasons, how lucky I was to have Shane.
The others were watching the closing chapters of his Unlife So Far when we snuck out. But as I closed the door, I saw David cast his gaze our way, then lift it toward the ceiling in the direction of his office.
Shane took the stairs three at a time. “Now for the real celebration.” He tugged me toward the front door.
“First, I need you to work your magic for me.” I led him into David’s office.
He wrapped his hands around my waist. “Hmm, we’ve never done it on his desk.”
“Your other magic.” I pointed at the filing cabinet’s bottom drawer.
“I don’t have my lock-picking tools.”
“You can’t use a paper clip?”
Shane tweaked my nose. “You watch too many movies, but I’ll try.” He knelt before the bottom drawer, thumbed the switch, and pulled the handle. The drawer slid out with a squeak. “Ooh, magic.”
David had left it unlocked. Ha—I knew he wanted me to read this stuff.
Halfway back—protruding above the other folders, no less—was a file labeled “Immanence Corps.” He might as well have left it on my desk.
“What is that?” Shane whispered.
I tucked the folder under my arm and slid the drawer shut. “Hopefully not my future.”




7
Sign Your Name
“Where are we going?” I asked Shane when I noticed our car speeding out of town instead of toward our apartment. I’d been trying to read the contents of the IC folder by the light of my cell phone screen, but it was making me carsick.
“We’re going away. Take a nap.” He softened the volume on Monroe’s current song, a peppy little Asie Payton number called “Back to the Bridge.”
“Away where?”
“Don’t question.”
“You know that’s impossible.”
He glanced at me, his face tense in the blue glow of the dashboard. “I can be stubborn a lot longer than you can be curious.”
Outmatched, I frowned and looked out the window into pure black. We were heading due west, toward the mountains. Toward nothing.
As I drifted into a doze, the darkness gave way to a bright afternoon sun shining on a grassy field. I recognized it as Sherwood College’s football stadium, where the Baltimore Ravens had their summer training camp.
In front of me stood a row of tackle dummies. To the left and right, my Control cohorts were doing jumping jacks with stakes in their hands. I held one, too, but kept my feet on the ground and my sights on the dummies. Each had a red heart painted on its chest.
A whistle blew. My fellow agents and I assumed fighting stances. My muscles moved with such natural grace, I knew it must be a dream.
The tackle dummies morphed into human forms as they lumbered toward us on mechanical tracks. I struck.
The dummy lurched back and my blow fell short. While I was off balance, it surged again and knocked me down. I held onto the stake, jamming my finger against the wood when my hands broke my fall.
The dummy paused, then clickety-clacked forward, shuddering on its track. This time I feigned injury until it was almost upon me. Then I rolled to my feet and slammed the stake deep into its heart.
I screamed without sound. Not its heart. His heart.
The last thing I saw was the sun shining on Shane’s hair. The last thing I heard was his sigh of relief as he pulled out the stake.
I woke when the car stopped. Rubbing my face, I peered through the windshield at a wide rustic porch lit by a warm yellow lamp near the door. In the gleam of Shane’s headlights, a blue-and-white sign read INTO THE NIGHT BED
AND BREAKFAST.
I got out of the car and gaped at the A-frame log cabin, its windows lit with electric candles. Woods surrounded us, and a chorus of spring peepers swelled from what must have been a nearby creek.
Shane collected our bag—which he had packed without my knowledge—and his guitar case from the trunk. I followed him up the wooden stairs to the front door. A pale blue porch swing rocked in the breeze.
The door opened to reveal a couple in their mid-thirties. Both short and lean, they beamed at us with no trace of sleepiness.
“You must be Shane!” the woman said.
“Brenda?” he replied as he shook her hand.
“No, I’m Brenda,” the man behind her said with a laugh. “She’s Mel. People make that mistake all the time.”
I was so disoriented by the late/early hour and these people’s chilling normalcy that for a moment I almost called him Brenda.
We walked through a short hallway into a kitchen with a center island. Beyond the kitchen, the house opened onto an enormous yet cozy living room. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all polished wood, with long thick crossbeams extending the length of the room. A woven tapestry showing wolves on a pine-strewn snowscape hung from the brick fireplace façade that extended to the high ceiling.
“Is this place for sale?” I asked Brenda.
She laughed. “I think it might be a little bright for your man’s tastes. You two will be staying downstairs, of course.” Brenda beckoned us to follow her.
Mel spoke up. “There’s a fruit and cheese plate to go with the champagne. Figured you might be hungry.”
“Champagne?” I looked at Shane, then at the proprietors.
Brenda held up her hands. “Don’t ask us what it’s for.”
Shane gestured for me to precede him. A muscle twitched in his jaw as I passed.
At the bottom of the stairs, Brenda opened a door, then handed me a skeleton key. “This is the only copy, for security reasons, so don’t lose it.”
I nodded as I pocketed the key and followed her through a short passageway to a second door. A single key meant that no one could come in during the day, letting in sunlight that would fry Shane and ruin our—
Wow.
The bedroom beyond the second door took up almost the entire level. The ceiling featured long wooden beams amid swirling white plaster. A small fireplace held a virtual fire, safe for vampires.
To the left, a set of double doors opened into a large bathroom, where I could see a Jacuzzi tub big enough for a baseball team. My skin tingled at the sight.
On the right lay a king-size four-poster covered in a plush red comforter. Soft light suffused the entire room.
It was perfect. I couldn’t wait for them to get the hell out.
“If this is suitable,” Mel said, “we’ll just leave you alone.”
“We don’t want to keep you up.” I hoped the ceiling was soundproof.
“You won’t,” Brenda said. “The ceiling is soundproof.”
With a final good night, Mel and Brenda made themselves scarce.
I went to the bed and grasped one of the posts. “Very sturdy. I hope you brought the handcuffs.”
Without responding, Shane pulled his classical guitar from its case, then sat in the corner armchair and began to tune it.
“This is so cool—a vampire-friendly B and B!” I bopped over and gave him a quick kiss. “Talk about a niche market.”
“Yeah. Let me focus for a second, okay?”
I pressed my lips together and piled a small plate with fruit, cheese, and slices of baguette, while behind me Shane tuned and fretted. Finally he took a pair of deep, slow breaths, muttering to himself in words I couldn’t decipher.
“Come sit down,” he said finally.
I moved to the brown-silk-upholstered ottoman in front of his chair, pulled it back a few feet to give him room, and sat with my plate upon my knees.
Fingers poised above the strings, he looked at me for a long moment. “I wrote this for you.”
My heart halted, then sped up. He’d never written a song for me—never written a song, period. One effect of a vampire’s temporal adhesion was difficulty learning new things, whether it was how to surf the Internet or how to love contemporary music. Shane’s relative youth and his involvement with me helped him overcome the natural vampire stickiness, and while he wasn’t exactly downloading the latest Kings of Leon tracks, he’d at least started playing music from the twenty-first century.
But concocting something new out of his own head and heart? Vampires didn’t do that. Creation was an act of the living.
My food forgotten, I watched him play. I never tired of seeing his hands travel over the fretboard and the strings, imagining and remembering how they felt on my skin. He used no pick, only his nails and fingertips, stroking and coaxing beauty into existence.
When he started to sing, I closed my eyes.
First he sang of the past—our disastrous first encounter that almost ended in my death; our hands-off, one-hundred-percent-platonic first real date; and the first nigh