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Copyright 2015 Michelle Scott

Stagecraft Copyright © 2015 by Michelle Scott

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the

author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living

or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

First Edition • January 2015

Chapter One

Tonight’s dinner theater played to a packed house. One hundred ninety-eight guests were human. The other two were vampires.

Most humans wouldn’t recognize a vamp even if they bumped into one because vampires were experts at hiding in plain sight. I, however, always sussed them out. It was their unearthly vibe; an unpleasant shiver that, even across a crowded room, electrified my nerves. My boyfriend, Isaiah, and his best friend Perry agreed: once you’d been bitten by a vampire, their presence would trouble your blood forever.

The past four months had been blessedly vampire-free, and I wasn’t happy to see them again. The pair sat together at a back, corner table near the kitchen doorway. One was tall and thin with a hawkish nose, and the other was short and pudgy with a round face like a pie. Both were male. The tall vamp looked a bit dated in his three-piece suit and wide tie. The other wore a brightly-colored madras jacket and loafers. I didn’t recognize either one of them, but then again, I didn’t know every vampire in the local grieve.

One of the other actresses nudged me and hissed, “Cassie, get going!” I’d almost missed my cue. Hurriedly, I swept onstage with the other five actresses. Together, we played bridesmaids in a dinner theater piece called Wedding Party! Our costumes were hideous, ruffled, turquoise dresses paired with silver heels so tall they added five inches to my height. Tall was kind of nice since I hate being short, but I constantly worried about twisting an ankle during the bridesmaids’ song and dance number.

Wedding Party! was an interactive, musical crossbreed of Bridezillas and The Sopranos. I liked to think I got the part because I was a good singer and an even better actress. But more likely, it was because the olive complexion and black hair I’d inherited from my Greek father and Lebanese mother made me look Italian.

Grinning widely and clutching a small bouquet of silk flowers, I twirled after the other bridesmaids and into the dining room, which had been decorated with a wedding theme. There were strings of fairy lights, red and white linens, and table centerpieces made with lighted candles stuck in empty Chianti bottles.

The ‘wedding guests’ – as the audience was referred to – clapped in time to the jaunty music and ignored the waiters who scurried from table to table, clearing away salad plates, refilling breadstick baskets, and serving lasagna. Amid the lively atmosphere, only the two vamps remained still. They faced each other like marble bookends with their untouched food and wine in-between.

The bride put a wrist to her forehead and whined her line about wedding stress, the cue for the bridesmaids’ big number. This was the moment when each of us selected a male guest from the audience and escorted, sometimes dragged, him onto the stage to dance. Bridesmaids number 1 and 3 always went for the young, hot guys, even though we were repeatedly warned not to choose men based on their looks. I aimed for the jovial, grandfatherly types who, on the whole, were good sports and knew how to have fun.

Ignoring the vampires, I grabbed the hand of a heavy, balding man who had been enthusiastically clapping and singing to the music. He was so excited to be picked that he accidentally upended his wine all over my costume. Terrific. Well at least it was nice to have an enthusiastic partner for once. Audience members who got into the spirit of things made my job much easier.

Halfway to the stage, the song was interrupted with a loud bang. The audience gasped. I jumped and tightened my grip on my partner’s hand. My stomach clenched when the unmistakable smell of burned vampire reached me. As I swung my partner around for a better look at the back table, a second pop burst from the same corner. This time, I saw a black cloud of vampire ash billow up.

At the second explosion, the audience clapped as if it was all a part of the show. The actors probably thought it was a kitchen mishap and carried on without interruption. Only I knew the truth: a pair of vampires had been murdered.

After the show, as I was changing into my street clothes, bridesmaid number 2 grabbed my elbow. “Did you hear those bangs during our number? I nearly screamed.”

Laura Bigelow, the woman who played the bride, joined us. “It was probably just another dinner disaster.” Now that she was out of her costume – a fluffy cloud of a wedding dress and a wig of elaborately-coiffed, jet-black hair – Laura looked skinny. Almost scrawny. “Remember the breadstick fiasco last week? I swear the dining room still smells like smoke.”

Although my insides jittered at the thought of the killings, I managed a smile. “I’m sure that’s it,” I said. “Nothing to worry about.”

“One of these days, this place is going to set itself on fire,” the bridesmaid muttered before walking away.

When the bridesmaid was out of hearing range, Laura giggled behind her hand. “Did that explosion scare you? I nearly knocked the wig off my head when I jumped.” Then she noticed the wine stain on my costume. “Oh no! What happened?”

“My dance partner accidentally dumped wine on me,” I explained, putting the dress into a plastic garment bag. I would have to take it to the cleaners right away.

“Do you think you can get that out?”

“I certainly hope so.” I didn’t want to have to pay for the costume if it was permanently damaged.

Laura gathered her things and walked me to the door. “You want to join me and Xi? We’re going to the casino.” She gave a little sigh. “Again.”

“Maybe some other time.” Not only did I not want to waste money gambling, I really needed to find out more about the double murder.

“Well how about Tuesday night? Raging Fools is playing at the Ark, and I don’t want to go by myself. I’ll get tickets for you and Isaiah. And even for your adorable roommate and his boyfriend.”

I was curious if Xi’s band was half as good as his bragging indicated. And having Isaiah and Andrew there would make the event tolerable. “Okay,” I agreed.

She grinned. “Terrific! It will be so much fun!”

More fun that hunting vampires. Less fun than a night home alone with Isaiah. Everything was relative.

Just like every night, Xi – whose name sounded like the last letter of the alphabet – had parked himself outside the dressing room. He was a lanky guy with thick glasses, a scrubby beard, and a buzz cut. He nodded hello to me then said, “Hey Laura bird, ready to fly?”

Laura giggled and linked her arm through his. Then, with a wave to me, they left the building.

Although I wanted to leave as well, I forced myself back into the dining room where the tables were being bussed. I didn’t believe the pair of vampires had come to the theater by random chance. Maybe they had shown up to do Hedda’s business, or maybe they’d been coming after me! After all, my history with them wasn’t so good. In any event, I was determined to check it out before going home.

The vampires’ dishes had been cleared away, but a waiter frantically scrubbed the tabletop, trying to remove the greasy, black scum clinging to its surface. My breath caught as my lingering doubts fell away. Only residue from a dead vampire left that kind of mess.

Despite the waiter’s efforts, the table refused to come clean. “Try baby wipes,” I suggested.

He threw down his rag in disgust. “Where am I supposed to get baby wipes?”

I dug in my purse for a mini-pack of wipes. Alongside silver crucifixes and wooden stakes, baby wipes were an indispensable part of a vampire hunter’s toolkit. “Did you see the guys who were sitting here?” I asked, handing the waiter a wipe.

He accepted it with a grunt of thanks and resumed scrubbing. Sure enough, the greasy residue wiped off. “Yeah, I saw them, and if I see them again, I’m kicking their asses. Look at the mess they left me!” He pointed to the wall where spatters of candle wax had adhered to the wall paper. “They broke the damn wine bottle too, and didn’t even leave me a tip!”

I pressed on like I was Nancy Drew. “Do you know what time they left?”

The waiter tossed the dirty wipe into the trash. “Nope.”

I followed him to the next table. “Was anyone else sitting with them? Or talking to them?”

The waiter looked me over. “You’re one of the bridesmaids, right?” When I nodded, he said, “I’ve got a joint in my car. If you give me a few minutes, we can talk all night if you want.”

At his suggestive wink, my eyes narrowed. “My boyfriend’s expecting me soon.” And he’d tie your neck in a knot if he knew what you were suggesting, I thought.

“Figures.” He dumped the dirty dishes from the next table into a plastic bin. “No, I didn’t see anyone else near them. Just the two guys. They came in, I served them, and that’s it.”

For a moment I wondered if the waiter was the killer. But no, that was impossible. If he’d vaporized two vampires, he’d be running for his life, not sticking around to bus tables. So who else would have had the guts and knowledge to pull off such a crime?

To my knowledge, only four vampire slayers lived in the city. Besides me, there was my friend Andrew, but he was busy attending his evening cooking classes. Isaiah and Perry were hosting a Magic card tournament at their comic store. In any case, none of us would have attacked a pair of vampires in a crowded restaurant, and none of us would have ever gone after a member of Hedda Widderstrom’s grieve. That would be suicidal.

A final look around turned up nothing, so I slung my purse over my shoulder, grabbed my dirty costume, and headed to the parking lot.

It was time to find my favorite vampire hunter.

As expected, Isaiah was at Holy Comics, the comic book store that occupied the former sanctuary of an old, Gothic-style church. Even this late at night, it came as no surprise that he was hard at work on the killing floor. Only, from the way he glowered, it appeared that he was the one getting slaughtered.

Since rogue vampires no longer stalked the city, Perry and Isaiah had been devoting more time into building up their comic store business. To draw in customers, they’d begun hosting monthly tournaments for the card game, Magic. Once every week, they wedged a dozen card tables into the back of the store so that avid fans of the game could play one another for a shot at the title of Magic Master. Isaiah organized the events and drew up the rules. Perry’s contribution was publicity. He was the one who had renamed the chancel area the ‘killing floor.’

Isaiah had protested, saying the name was sacrilegious, but Perry disagreed. “Think of it,” he argued. “The chancel used to house the altar. And the altar was where the sacrifices were made – either symbolically or literally. Depending on your particular viewpoint.”

“I still don’t like it,” Isaiah had grumbled. “This church might not hold worship services anymore, but it’s still holy ground.”

Even so, Isaiah’s aversion to the term ‘killing floor’ didn’t keep him from playing in the monthly tournaments. In fact, he threw himself into the thick of it, competing for up to two hours at a stretch.

At this time of night, all the other players had packed up and left, but my favorite vampire hunter still sat across the table from a high school kid – a Holy Comics regular. Derrick was whip thin, pale as skim milk, and angular – all knees and elbows beneath his jeans and Mine Craft T-shirt. In contrast, Isaiah’s skin was dark as midnight, and he was built as solidly as an oak tree. Even sitting, he towered over Derrick.

Isaiah wore his dreadlocks pulled away from his face, exposing his unshaven jaw and a silver earring. He hunched in his chair, deep in thought, frowning and tugging his luscious lower lip in concentration.

Four months into our relationship, and Isaiah’s amber eyes still made my heart go melty. But instead of kissing my hero and disrupting his concentration, I joined Perry at the cash register where he squatted near the floor, his pudgy belly resting on his knees as he fussed with something beneath the counter.

“How long has this game been going on?” I glanced at my watch. It was nearly eleven o’clock.

“Over two hours.” Perry grunted and hauled himself to his feet. He raised his voice. “And I’d really like to go home now!”

“So leave,” Isaiah growled. His deep voice vibrated across the room. “I’ll lock up the store.”

Magic was an intricate game. In fact, it was so complex that Perry and Isaiah hired a Magic expert to officiate at the tournaments. Right now, the official was half asleep in an overstuffed armchair Isaiah had dragged up from the church basement.

“Hurry up and lose already,” Perry said. “You’re ineligible for the prize, remember?” The prize was a twenty-dollar gift certificate for Holy Comics.

Isaiah, who hated giving up on anything, remained glued to his seat. His hand hovered, as if to make a move. Derrick tensed, ready for whatever Isaiah was about to throw down. At the last minute, however, Isaiah dropped his hand and went back to thinking.

Perry gave a miserable groan. To cheer him up, I held out a paper bag that I’d pilfered from the Wedding Party! kitchen. “Look! Breadsticks!”

Instead of eagerly plunging his hand into the bag, Perry drew back in horror. “Get those things out of here!”

“You’re not on a diet are you?” I resisted poking his Pillsbury Dough Boy tummy.

“Please,” he scoffed. “Diet is a four-letter word. No, we have a new store policy.” He pointed to a sign taped to the wall: Absolutely NO Food or Drinks Allowed. Then he lowered his voice to a whisper. “We’ve got mice.”

I clapped my hand over my mouth. My sister ran her catering business out of the church basement kitchen. If she knew there were mice in the building, she’d have a fit. Something like that could revoke her food-handling license. “Elena would die if she knew.”

“Elena?! What about us? Do you know how fast a mouse can chew through a comic book? Our entire stock is at risk. Yesterday, I found a carton of Spidey comics with a gnawed corner. Thank God the little monster didn’t get any further than the box.” He extracted a mouse trap from a paper bag that had been sitting on the counter, and waved it at me. “I have a zero-tolerance policy for mice!”

“You can’t kill them!” I protested. As a kid, I’d owned a gerbil, and I couldn’t bear to think of Tinkerbell’s close cousins being slaughtered.

“It’s either them or the comics, so guess which one I’m choosing.”

My reply was interrupted by a sudden flurry of activity on the killing floor. Isaiah played a card, and Derrick slapped down another one with a crow of victory. Isaiah, frowning, retaliated with another play of his own. They spoke in rapid-fire Magic speak. Making sense of the conversation was impossible.

When the kid trumped Isaiah’s second play with another one of his own, Isaiah threw his cards down in disgust. To anyone who didn’t know him, this would have been a clue to run away. But Derrick had hung around the store long enough to know that Isaiah wasn’t half as menacing as he seemed.

Sure enough, Isaiah’s glower turned into a smile. He shook Derrick’s hand. “Good game.”

Derrick accepted his victory with grace. “Just add the prize money to my store account,” he told Perry as he packed up his cards. Then he glanced sheepishly at Isaiah. “You can keep the Berserk card if you want.”

“It’s yours. You won it fair and square.” Isaiah pushed the card towards the teen who eagerly put it into his box.

“You put your Berserk card up against Derrick?” Perry asked, shocked. “Kid, I’m adding you to our wall of fame, and sticking Isaiah on the sucker list.”

Isaiah glowered, but Derrick lit up like a pinball machine. “Thanks!” A honk from the parking lot sent him streaking towards the door. “My mom’s here. Gotta go.”

Perry smirked. “How much did that Berserk set you back?”

“Don’t ask,” Isaiah muttered. He flexed his lame leg, which must have tightened up after so much sitting. “I should have had him, but I just couldn’t lay enough manna to reach my heavy hitters.” I knew next to nothing about the rules, but I did know that players in the tournament often put up their own cards as bets in the game. Losing that card probably cost Isaiah fifty bucks or more.

“Don’t worry. He’ll spend more than that in your store by next week,” I said.

Now that the game was over, Isaiah finally realized that I was in the room. The glum look left his eyes. “I thought you were working.” He pulled me into his arms and kissed me. “Tonight must be my lucky night after all.”

Too bad I couldn’t agree with him on that. The vampire story was on my tongue, but I didn’t dare spill it yet. Not with the Magic official dozing in the chair.

Sensing something was up, Isaiah released me. “Hey, Telly,” he shouted to the sleeping man.

The official snorted and jerked awake. “What?”

“Game’s over,” Perry said. “See you next month.”

Telly yawned and stretched before putting his loafers back on. I shifted from one foot to the other, itching with the need to get my story out. By the time the official had put on his jacket, accepted the pay envelope from Perry, and slowly made his way out the door, I was close to exploding.

“Well?” Isaiah asked the minute the three of us were alone.

After a deep breath, I told them about what had transpired at the show. Perry rubbed his chin while he listened, and Isaiah tugged at his lower lip.

When I finished, Perry glanced at Isaiah. “What do you think?”

Isaiah used to be Hedda’s enforcer, taking out the rogue vampires who had once prowled the streets of Detroit. But since the rogue vamp epidemic had ended, he’d steered clear of Hedda and her grieve.

Isaiah frowned thoughtfully. “Did those vamps at the show seem to be getting along?”

“They didn’t look happy, but they weren’t snarling at each other,” I said.

“Sounds like vampire friendship to me,” Perry said. “Okay, so who has the nerve to take out vampires so publicly?”

“Maybe there’s a new vampire hunter in town,” I joked.

Isaiah’s eyebrows rose as he considered the implications, but Perry shook his head. “Anyone crazy enough to murder a pair of vampires in public would be hunted down and drained before he could clean his weapons.”

True. Hedda was pretty reasonable for a vampire, but she had zero tolerance for any human hunting down the members of her grieve. I shifted from one foot to the other. Even thinking about the ugly possibilities of Hedda’s revenge made me nervous.

“No, it couldn’t have been a human. But vampires don’t kill their own kind,” Isaiah mused. The cardinal rule – in fact, the only rule – among vampires was that they could not kill other vampires. Lawbreakers were severely punished.

“Think Hedda will tell us?” I wondered.

Perry snorted. “No. In fact, if we ask, she’d probably deny that anything happened.”

“But I was there. I saw the whole thing. Well, most of it anyway.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Perry said. “This is vampire business, and they won’t let us in on it.”

“Maybe I’ll try to have a word with her,” Isaiah said. He once again tugged his lower lip thoughtfully.

Wanting to put those luscious lips of his to better use, I said goodbye to Perry and asked Isaiah to walk me to my car for a goodnight kiss before I left.

Chapter Two

Although it was nearly midnight by the time I got home, I wasn’t surprised to see my next-door neighbor walking her twin yorkies up the sidewalk. Mrs. Trotter suffered from insomnia, something she mentioned every time she and I met at night. With her pink track suits and terrycloth headbands, she was a neighborhood fixture. She’d moved into her house long before my family had and had stayed long after my parents had retired to Florida.

“Cassandra!” Mrs. Trotter chirped when she came within earshot. “It’s good to see you again.”

I hadn’t been away; she had. She hated Michigan winters and spent the cold months in Arizona with her sister. I always knew spring had arrived when I saw her walking her dogs.

“Hello, Mrs. Trotter.” When I turned eighteen, she had told me to call her Beatrice, but I would always think of her as Mrs. Trotter. “How are the little guys?” I bent down to scratch the dogs’ ears. Over the years, she’d owned two different sets of Yorkshire terriers, and I could never remember the names.

She beamed brighter than the lamppost at the end of the driveway. “Teeter has developed an allergy to his dog food, but Totter is doing just fine.”

Teeter and Totter Trotter. I smothered a snicker.

“My dear, you’ve become famous while I’ve been away!” She said this as if I’d purposely done it to annoy her. “A director, no less!”

It was true. I’d gained some notice when directing my vampire friend’s play, 6 Voices Speaking at the Same Time. The show had enjoyed a solid run of twelve weeks before audiences dwindled. I’d shut it down, but sold limited rights to a director in Toledo where it was currently being performed. The play was once again getting rave reviews.

“I’m done being famous for a while.” I tried not to sound as rueful as I felt. Getting back on stage was wonderful – I’d never wanted to be a director. But Wedding Party! wasn’t the real foot in the door I needed. My acting ‘career’ was still a pipe dream. For now.

“I need a favor.” Mrs. Trotter handed me the dogs’ leashes, and dug into the fanny pack she always wore on her walks. “My friend was raving over your show, and when I told her that you were my neighbor, she made me promise to get your autograph.”

I couldn’t hide my grin. Talk about flattering! Not once in my acting career had I ever been asked for an autograph. I happily handed back the leashes and accepted the pen and paper. The pen was an old fashioned fountain pen with a sharp metal tip. Not the kind of thing you saw often these days. Still, this was Mrs. Trotter. The very same woman who dressed the stone goose on her porch in different outfits to match the holidays.

I got ready to sign, but the lamppost blinked out, throwing us into the dark. Behind me was only a sliver of moonlight, and I held the paper close to my eyes in order to see what I was doing.

“Very good,” Mrs. Trotter said. “Now go ahead and sign…” she held up her hand, then suddenly sliced it downward, “…NOW!”

What was this? A race? Still, I was too pleased to care.

The paper was thick, and the ink from the fountain pen soaked into it. I started with a flourish, but after a few strokes, my arm grew heavy, as if stirring a stiff cake batter rather than signing my autograph. After finishing my first name, my wrist ached, and I wondered if I’d sustained carpal tunnel damage from the marathon video game tournament my roommate Andrew and I had enjoyed a few days before.

“Keep writing!” Mrs. Trotter insisted.

I obliged. I owed a lot to the woman who could, with a phone call, reach my parents to tell them that I didn’t mow the lawn until the grass was so long that seedpods formed at the tips.

The more I wrote, the harder it became. By the time I reached the ‘e’ in Jaber, I wasn’t sure if I could finish. At the final ‘r’, the pen was suddenly as hot as a curling iron. I dropped it with a cry and clutched my burned hand. My head spun, dizziness knocking me a step backwards.

A heartbeat later, everything returned to normal. My head cleared, and my hand no longer throbbed. My wrist and arm were pain free. Even the lamppost had turned back on. I flexed my fingers wondering what had just happened.

Mrs. Trotter picked up the pen as if nothing was amiss. “Thank you so much, Cassandra! You have no idea how much this means.” She handed me the leashes again as she carefully folded the paper and placed it back into her fanny pack. She patted my arm with one wrinkled hand. “You’ve always been such a dear. And here you are: all grown up and directing plays.”

“No problem.” I flexed my hand again.

With a quiet whistle to her dogs, Mrs. Trotter walked away, leaving me to wonder if I really had imagined the strangeness.

Despite the late hour, Andrew and his boyfriend Blake, were still awake. Since the June evening was warm, the windows were open, and their voices carried out onto the porch.

“Oh, no you didn’t! You bitch!” Blake shouted.

“Like you didn’t see it coming,” Andrew cried.

“It’s disgusting! That’s what it is.”

Knowing what to expect, I ducked when I walked into the house. Sure enough, several small missiles flew around the room, striking my head and body. The living room floor was littered with debris. Popcorn.

Drew and Blake cuddled on the couch. They made a cute couple. With his carefully tousled hair and chiseled face, Andrew had a model’s grace and beauty. Blake, on the other hand, sported bright blue eyes, strawberry blond hair, and a smattering of freckles which gave him an adorable boy-next-door look.

Andrew cradled a giant bowl of popcorn in his lap. An old rerun of Big Brother played on TV. Every time Amanda’s face appeared, the boys booed and threw popcorn at her.

Since Andrew and I had been friends for over four years before he’d moved in with me, you’d think I’d know all of his oddities and bad habits. Wrong. For example, I discovered that he always left the toilet seat up no matter how much I pleaded or yelled. Unlike me, he wasn’t terrified of spiders, but after he squashed them, he grew squeamish, and I was the one who had to clean the ooze from the walls. And when Andrew was bored or irritable, he’d make a batch of popcorn, turn on the TV, and fling kernels at the things he hated. Usually it was sports teams like the Lakers or everyone on Fox News. Tonight, it was Amanda Zuckerman on Big Brother.

“Most guys watch sports,” I said.

“Basketball is done for the year, and the Tigers didn’t have a game tonight,” Blake said.

That explained why Isaiah had been so intent on the Magic tournament. The only thing that would keep him away from Holy Comics was a Tiger’s game. Well, that and me dressed in the black lace and satin baby-doll slip I’d bought from Victoria’s Secret.

“You’re home late.” Andrew said.

“You’re up late,” I said. “I thought you had school tomorrow.”

“I do. Don’t be such a know-it-all bitch, Amanda!” He tossed a piece of popcorn at the TV. It bounced off the screen and landed on the carpet.

I sat next to Drew and helped myself to a handful of popcorn.

“Sorry about the mess, Cassie,” Blake said. He scooted off the couch and began picking up the popcorn. He’d been dating Andrew exclusively for over three months, but he still acted like a guest in our house.

“It’s fine. Really.” By now, I was used to popcorn on the floor. It was one of Andrew’s quirks that I found funny instead of annoying.

“I’ll vacuum it in the morning.” Andrew glanced at his watch. “It’s time!” Quickly, he changed the channel.

“Time for what?” I asked.

“Blake’s commercial. Shhh. It’s starting.”

The TV showed a commercial for Ed Nixon Dodge, a used car dealership. Portly Ed Nixon wore a pink tutu and carried an enormous silver wand which he used to, “magically reduce prices on hundreds of cars and trucks.”

“Nice camera work,” Andrew said when it ended.

“Thank you very much.” Blake gave a mocking bow. “Ed Nixon is a new customer,” he explained to me. Blake ran his own video production business and generally produced training films and tradeshow videos. I’d never seen one of his commercials before.

“Ed Nixon never looked better,” I said.

Blake grinned. “I’ll be sure to tell him that.” He stood up. “I’d better get going. I’ve got an early shoot tomorrow.”

“How about lunch?” Andrew asked. “I’ve got class, but I’ll be home by one.”

“You can help me paint my room!” I said. I was in the process of redecorating my bedroom which hadn’t seen a lick of change since I’d turned fourteen.

Blake laughed. “Lunch sounds good, but I’ll have to pass on the painting until the weekend.” Blake kissed Andrew and threw me a wave as he left.

Andrew set the popcorn aside and shut off the TV. I turned sideways on the couch, presenting my back to Andrew. “Neck rub?” I asked hopefully.

He pelted me with several pieces of popcorn, but finally gave in. I sighed, blissful. He gave the best neck rubs.

“Tough night at work?” he asked.

“You won’t believe this! Two vampires were staked while the show was going on.”

He paused mid-massage. “You’re kidding me.”

“No, it’s true. One was from Hedda’s grieve, but the other was a stranger.” I explained about the small explosions and the smell of charred vampire. I started to describe the wax on the wall and the broken Chianti bottle, but Andrew stood and began pacing.

“It’s okay, Drew. I’m fine.” I should have known better than to dramatize the event. Andrew’s soul had been drained to the dregs only a few months before, and while he was recovering nicely, talk of vampires still upset him.

He touched the side of his neck. “I’ve been having nightmares again. Blake says I’ve been thrashing in my sleep.”

“You haven’t told him your story yet?”

“How can I?” Andrew resumed his seat. “Blake is Mr. Normal. He folds all of his socks in neat, little rows and thinks that going out for curry is an adventure. How can I tell someone like that about vampires?” He whispered the last word. “He’d never believe me.”

“He’d listen because he cares about you,” I argued. “Besides, it would be an easy thing to prove. Just take him down to Mercury Hall and introduce him to Hedda.”

“I’d never put him in that kind of danger.” Andrew’s expression went from worried to sad. “I like this guy, Cassie. In fact, I’m pretty sure I love him. But I’m afraid that this secret will get in the way of us.”

“It won’t. You’ll find the right time to tell him. You’ve got to trust him. Besides, you’ll feel better once he knows.”

“You’re right,” Andrew said firmly. “The sooner I tell him, the better. In fact, I’ll tell him tomorrow at lunch.”

“Good for you!” The Andrew I’d first met would have never confronted a challenge like this, and it was nice to know he’d gained the confidence to do what he needed to.

I helped Andrew pick up the rest of the popcorn, then headed off to bed.


At the sound of my name, I jerked awake and clutched the sheet to my chest. My eyes darted from one corner of my darkened bedroom to the other, hunting for shadows that moved. A scratching on the screen sent me scrambling for the crucifix on my nightstand. Unfortunately, sleep had dulled my reflexes. Instead of grabbing the silver cross, I knocked over my glass of water.

“Cassandra. I didn’t mean to alarm you.” Hedda Widderstrom’s voice floated from below my window.

I pressed my hand to my racing heart, letting the adrenaline ebb. “Meet me on the porch,” I said and threw on a robe. Maneuvering around a pile of decorating magazines, I crept outside, shivering in the cool air. It was quiet; even the crickets had fallen silent.

Hedda sat on the porch swing as if it were a throne, her chin raised, her shoulders back, and her spine straight. Both she and the swing were perfectly still. Her regal air was intimidating, and I had to remind myself that this was Hedda Widderstrom. She, of all vampires, wouldn’t hurt me. Still, I approached with caution.

“You don’t want to invite me in?” There was a hint of reproach in her voice. “I thought we were friends.”

The words ‘friend’ and ‘vampire’ went together as well as ‘tame tiger.’ Yes, Hedda and I were on amicable terms, and she had once invited me into her home, but underneath it all she needed human blood and souls to survive. Still, to save face, I said, “I would, but the place is a mess.”

She didn’t reply. My lame excuse didn’t fool her a bit.

After a moment, she said, “I’m sorry to get you up, but Isaiah was too sound asleep to wake. Even when I shook him, he only grunted and rolled over.”

I laughed. “I’m not surprised. Isaiah sleeps like the – ” Wait! What? Did she just say that she’d been in Isaiah’s bedroom?! That meant he’d invited her into his apartment. I wrapped my arms around myself. Trusting vampires was one thing, but allowing them into your home? Huh-uh. No way. Tomorrow, I’d be having a word or two with him about the stupidity of allowing a vampire into your bedroom.

Fortunately, Hedda took my abrupt pause a different way. She chuckled. “He sleeps like the dead. Yes, we have that in common.”

Yawning, I sat next to her. She was cooler than the surrounding night. I pushed my toe against the cement porch to move the swing back and forth. The squeak of the chains was exceptionally loud in the dark night. “You found out what happened at Wedding Party! didn’t you?” I couldn’t think of any other reason for her visit.

“I knew even before Isaiah told me.” She gave a very human-sounding sigh. “I share a link with every member of my grieve, and when one of them dies, I know it immediately.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Not many humans would consider the death of two vampires a tragedy.” A bitter breeze blew through her words.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t, but I knew Hedda and the members of her grieve well enough to understand that I had to count my blessings. The vampires from other grieves were less civilized, more cruel, and – more importantly – more bloodthirsty than she. Plus, Hedda insisted that every member of her grieve hold to her standard of not feeding from a human without his or her permission. Rule breakers were harshly punished.

“It’s the senselessness of this attack that bothers me the most,” Hedda continued. “I have no idea why anyone would want to harm Clayborn. He was a gentle spirit, and we’ll all miss him. He was barely seventy years old. It’s especially tragic when the young ones die.”

“What about the other vampire?” I asked. “Who was he?”

“An out of town guest,” Hedda said. “No one with enemies in this area. No, none of this makes sense.” She paused. “You were working tonight, weren’t you?”

“Yes, but how did you know?” I drew back. “Wait. You don’t own that theater, do you?” Since vampires had no souls of their own, they lacked creativity. Instead of producing art, Hedda supported it. But as far as I knew, she didn’t own the theater staging Wedding Party! which was one of the reasons I’d auditioned there in the first place.

“No, I don’t own it, but I’m acquainted with the general manager.”

“How acquainted?” I asked cautiously.

Hedda shrugged. “I’ve done a few favors for him.”

This could only mean that the owner had offered Hedda part of his soul for the chance to own his own dinner theater. This type of exchange of favors was how Hedda’s grieve earned their right to feed. They traded favors for blood and shine, the vampire word for soul. Some humans traded only once, but blood partners went for a more permanent arrangement. Neither was a good deal. Giving away your soul, even a fraction of it, wasn’t worth the small bit of success you received in return.

“Cassie, is there anything – anything at all – that you can tell me about what happened tonight? Did anyone visit their table?”

“Other than the waiter, not as far as I know.”

“Was anything left behind?”

“No. Just a broken Chianti bottle.” Vampires’ quick-flash deaths always immolated their clothing. “I wish I had more information to give you.” I shrugged.

“I do too, but I appreciate your speaking with me.” She patted my arm.

I struggled not to wince at the feel of her cold, heavy hand. “Do you have any idea who might have done it?”

“Nothing concrete.”

Even if she did know something, she’d never share the information with me. I tried a different tack. “Could there be a new vampire hunter in town?”

“A human would never have gotten the drop on two vampires,” Hedda scoffed.

And a vampire couldn’t kill another of its kind.

“Still,” I pressed, “if a vampire didn’t think he’d get caught, or if he had a serious grudge against you, he might try it. I mean, what if it’s one of the Peabodys?”

Hedda bolted from her seat, her abrupt motion so smooth the swing didn’t even sway. She paced from one end of the porch to the other, as silent as the breeze. “I appreciate your concern, Cassandra, but this is my affair and I will handle it.”

Her voice remained calm, but the pacing gave her away. I’d struck close to her suspicions. She’d become an enemy of her maker, the powerful Bertrand Peabody from New York. He’d stolen Hedda’s grieve away from her, but she’d taken it back by force and humiliated him in the process. No doubt, he was still plotting revenge, and no vampire decree would stop him from trying to exact it.

“What if the Peabodys are sending you some kind of message?” I asked.

“After Victor’s death, the Peabodys combined with the Stuyvesants,” she said softly. “It’s Bertrand Stuyvesant now.”

“What?!” Two powerful vampire houses joined together?! I thought my heart would stop.

“But you needed worry, Cassandra.” Her eyes blazed red. “These attacks will not go unpunished.”

My stomach shriveled. I drew my knees up against my chest and hugged them. “That sounds like a declaration of war.”

War? No, Cassandra. I’m talking about justice. I’ve been working hard to build alliances, not break them. And the more allies I have, the more likely Bertrand and his grieve will leave me in peace. But I appreciate your concern.” She once more patted my arm.

This time, her cold touch warmed my heart. I didn’t trust Hedda enough to give her access to my home, but I did value her friendship. Whatever that word meant for a vampire.

I returned to the house deeply troubled. Hedda might claim she wouldn’t start a war, but she’d do anything to protect her grieve. Maybe it was time to move in with my parents down in Florida. No doubt Disney World could use another Princess Jasmine.

I needed to calm myself down. When I was a kid, my stuffed cat, my Princess Meowmeow, always soothed me. Nowadays, it was a small piece of stamped brass that had come from Hedda’s old theater, The Bleak Street.

I fished the brass tag out of my purse and stood at the kitchen sink. For some reason, the power in the little bit of metal always worked better there. Rubbing the brass between my fingers, I closed my eyes and thought about the Bleak Street: its creaky wooden floors, flaking paint, and best of all, the wooden stage and heavy velvet curtains. This mental exercise never failed to calm me down and brighten my mood. Years of appreciative audiences had given energy to the theater, and that energy had been magically transferred to the objects within the building. If I focused hard, I could tap into that stored energy and use it to bolster my qi – my life force.

I forced my breathing to slow as I stroked the brass. Very soon, I began drawing in its power. It started with a warmth in my toes and fingers that spread past my wrists and ankles and finally, to my shoulders and back. My jaw and neck muscles loosened. Holding the theater talisman worked better than yoga. The only downside was that my ability to recover my shine made me especially attractive to vampires whose favorite meal was the very first bite of a human’s soul.

When the warmth of the brass receded, I opened my eyes. My mind was calmer, but unfortunately, the fear of a vampire feud still ruled my thoughts. Hedda never acted concerned unless there was a good reason, and she’d been plenty troubled tonight.

Chapter Three

The thought of a vampire grudge match drove me straight into Isaiah’s arms the next morning. Not for a comforting hug, but for a headlock and a wrist-hold that brought me to my knees on the practice mat. But only for a minute. I twisted and squirmed my way free then rose, panting, to face him again. Without warning I launched myself, aiming low to knock him off balance. He caught me around the waist and held me upside down while I swore and pounded his leg. “Let me go!”

He obliged, dropping me on my head. I tucked and rolled as I’d practiced a hundred times before. Instead of getting up, however, I remained in fetal position.

After a moment of silence, Isaiah said, “Cassie?”

My eyes remained squeezed shut, but I felt the mat compress as he walked towards me. “Cassandra? Are you okay?” I loved the concern in his voice. Not just because it meant he cared, but because he was falling for my ruse. “Cassie?”

The moment he leaned over me, I bolted upright and grabbed double handfuls of his dreads. In a real fight, I would have driven my head into his nose. Instead, I tapped it to show what I could have done if I’d wanted.

“Cheater,” he rumbled. Then, with a move so swift it left me breathless, he flipped me onto my stomach and straddled me.

My weekly sessions in Isaiah’s basement dojo had not only improved my agility and strength, they’d also done wonders for my muffin top and flabby thighs. I would never be a twiggy model – Mother Nature had gifted me with curves – but I had dropped two dress sizes.

Yet, even with Isaiah’s bum leg, I was no match for him. His weight and height made him a formidable opponent. My strengths were agility, speed, fearlessness, and the ability to surprise: all good weapons against the shambling, zombie-like rogue vampires. Even so, I didn’t stand a chance in a fair fight, so I cheated. I jabbed my fingers at his eyes, bit him, pulled on his dreadlocks – whatever it took to free myself and gain an advantage. Luckily, he took my dirty tricks with good grace.

When I tapped twice to signal that I gave up, he let me go. We retreated to opposite corners of the mat, both of us sweating after the long work out. But I wasn’t ready to give up. Not yet. Hedda claimed that she wanted peace, but I only half believed her. Vampires were volatile creatures, and fiercely protective of their grieves. Hedda would start a war with the Stuyvesants if she felt it was necessary.

Isaiah mopped sweat from his forehead. “So Hedda claims to have no idea who the slayer is?”

“No. Only that he or she is not human.”

“Stands to reason,” Isaiah said.

“And she swears that Clayborn was a gentle soul.”

Isaiah snorted. “I’m sure he was a saint.”

“Maybe he was a saint and it was the other vampire who’d pissed someone off.”

Without warning, Isaiah lunged. I spun away. Before I could attack, however, he grabbed me from behind. I countered with a backwards thrust of my elbow, catching him in the jaw. He grunted, surprised, and relaxed a tiny bit, allowing me to grab his ear and twist. Unfortunately, it was the ear with the silver earring, and I felt metal strain against cartilage.

“Damn, girl!” He squeezed my wrist hard, making me let go. Before I could apologize, he’d pinned me face-down on the mat, a knee pressed firmly on my back.

This time, there was no tapping the mat. I wasn’t about to give up twice in five minutes. I attempted to wriggle free, but he locked his hands over my arms, pinning them. He wasn’t cutting me any slack this morning.

I waited until Isaiah loosened his hold, then sprang forward, rolled, and kicked with all my might. One foot missed, but the other caught him squarely in the chest. He gasped. When I returned for another attack, he crushed me in his arms. “Cassie. Relax. This is practice, remember? I’m not really a vampire.”

He was right; I was worked up. I relaxed, bit by bit, and laid my head against his shoulder.

“Are we done sparring?” he asked gently.

I nodded. “Promise.”

“You don’t have to worry. The vamps aren’t at war.”

“Not yet anyway.” The queasy, stomach twisting hadn’t quite left me. I couldn’t even eat a bite of the perfect omelet Andrew had fixed me. In fact, the more I tried not to think of a vampire war, the more the worries crept in. I hated not feeling safe in my own city. My own home. Even returning to Wedding Party! concerned me.

Isaiah held me tighter. “I won’t let anything happen to you. You know that, right?”

“I’m worried about you, too! Last night, Hedda told me she was in your apartment!”

He let go, surprised. “She was?”

“She was watching you sleep! What on earth made you invite her into your home?”

His eyes widened before his expression locked down. “She’s a friend, Cassie. A good one.”

It was an old argument, one we’d rehashed many times. Isaiah knew how I mistrusted vampires, but he cared for Hedda because Hedda had once loved and protected his sister. Never mind that Hedda had been the one to turn Marcella into a vampire in the first place.

I started to argue more, but Isaiah walked off the mat, and grabbed a clean towel from the pile near the bathroom. After wiping his face, he said, “I trust her. She wouldn’t hurt me.”

I took a towel for myself. “Are you willing to bet your life on that?”

He considered this. “If she did try anything, I could fight her off.” He flexed his biceps.

I rolled my eyes. “Just promise me that if the vampires go to war, you’ll stay out of it.”

He sat on the weight bench. “If there is a war, I’m fighting on Hedda’s side. I don’t want anyone taking over Hedda’s grieve, especially not Stuyvesant. Can you imagine what would happen if he did? The entire city would be at risk.”

I hated to admit it, but he was right. Unlike Hedda, Bertrand Stuyvesant cared nothing for humans and would feed from anyone he chose – willing or unwilling.

I looked into Isaiah’s soulful, amber eyes. Those eyes had captured my heart the first time I’d seen him, and they still pulled on my heartstrings every time they met mine. I laced my fingers through his. He squeezed my hand and drew me in for a kiss. “Don’t worry,” he said when he broke it off. “I’m sure Hedda has everything under control.”

We took turns showering, and then climbed the stairs up to Holy Comics on the first floor. “What are you doing after work tonight?” I asked.

“We’ve got a doubleheader against the Rittman Realty Renegades.” In his free time, Isaiah volunteered for the city baseball youth league. His team of high school kids, the Hackman Family Dentistry Destroyers, was six and two which put them in second place in their division.

“I still say you should name your team the Cavity Fighters.”

Isaiah laughed and put his arm around me.

Upstairs, Perry crouched on the floor and poked a broomstick underneath a bookcase. “Get out here! I know you’re in there!”

“Another mouse?” I asked.

Perry tossed the broomstick aside in disgust and stood. His pants were dusty and his face a bright red. “Yes! The little bastard stole the peanut butter from the trap, but didn’t get caught. And look at this!” He marched over to a box lying on the counter and removed a stack of comics. In the center of each one was a neatly chewed, mouse-sized hole. “It’s been snacking on Spidey, too.”

Now Isaiah looked concerned. “Maybe we should call an exterminator.”

I tried to keep from laughing, but a few snickers escaped. Both men shot me a savage look.

“Sorry, but you two were the dynamic duo who took out every rogue vampire in the entire city of Detroit, but now you’re stymied over a little mouse. It’s just ironic, that’s all.”

Isaiah’s lips quirked up, and he kissed me good-bye while Perry continued to curse over the loss of his Spiderman comics.

Self-defense practice was one way to prepare for a possible vampire war. Another was amassing ammunition. Not just the crosses, holy water bombs, and ash-wood stakes that Isaiah and Perry carried, but something uniquely my own.

My favorite weapon was a silver amulet that Andrew had given me. Unfortunately, it had seen plenty of action and suffered a lot of wear and tear. What used to be a lovely Coptic cross with an amethyst now looked like a piece of garage sale junk. The clasp was broken, and no amount of polishing removed the oxidation. If anyone else had given me the necklace, I might have tossed it out, but this had come from Andrew.

Hoping the store that had sold it to Andrew could fix it, I made the drive to Ann Arbor. Luckily, most of the University of Michigan students had gone home for the summer, and the small, tightly-packed city was empty enough for me to find a parking spot on the street in front of Wycks and Stycks.

The tiny store smelled of sandalwood incense. A meditation fountain trickled by the doorway, and ambient music played over hidden speakers. A fat, orange cat lounged on the counter next to the cash register.

A block-faced man with a bald spot pushed his way through a beaded curtain. “Can I help you?”

I showed him my poor necklace. “My friend bought this for me, but it’s been through the wringer. Can you fix it?”

He held it up to his eyes, examining it closely. Not satisfied, he pulled a pair of reading glasses from his pocket to study the cross even more carefully. “What happened?”

Time to put my acting skills to use. “I have no idea. I loaned it to a friend of mine, and when she gave it back to me a month later, it looked like this.” I added just enough bitterness to make the lie convincing. “I’ve tried polishing it. I bought some special cleaner, too.” These weren’t lies. I’d tried every trick that Google had suggested, but nothing had worked.

“Hmmm.” He turned the charm over. “You can always get a new one.”

“I know, but this one has sentimental value.”

Finally, he shook his head. “That’s not ordinary oxidation. You’ve got something bonded right to the silver. Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do.”

The vampires’ ashes must have done something to the amulet. Still, I was curious how he had arrived at his conclusion so quickly. “What do you think happened to it?” I asked.

He didn’t blink, but his eyes shied away from mine for just a second. Knowledge lurked behind his polite smile. I dropped a little hint. “Maybe my friend ran into a vampire or something.”

He didn’t take the bait. “Maybe. How about if we do an exchange. I’ll give you a fifteen percent discount if you trade in this necklace for another.”

I couldn’t part with Andrew’s gift no matter how useless it was. “That’s okay. I’ll just buy another one,” I said.

“How about if you give me the necklace, and I give you a twenty-percent discount on your purchase?” When I shook my head again, he said, “Thirty? I hate to see a customer disappointed.”

“I’m not disappointed,” I assured him. “This one was just given to me by my best friend.” I held out my hand, worried that he might not surrender it.

Seeing my determination, he reluctantly gave it back. “Okay, I understand.”

I wandered over to a display case of jewelry at the back of the store and tried to decide what would make a nice substitute. I didn’t see anything identical to Andrew’s gift but still, there were many lovely pieces. True, the necklace was going to be a weapon against vampires, but that didn’t mean that it couldn’t be a pretty weapon.

As I was browsing, the bell over the door jingled. To my surprise, Laura’s boyfriend Xi walked in, carrying a stack of papers under his arm. The cat raised its orange head and hissed, but Xi ignored it and went right up to the counter. “A pound of kala loon,” he told the clerk, “and this time make sure your thumb doesn’t land on the scale. My aunt said you cheated her out of three ounces last time.”

“You know that’s not true,” the clerk protested. He turned to a row of canisters behind the counter and filled a plastic bag with what looked like black sand.

“I know she was pissed. She hates wasting money.”

“Is that why she was riding your ass the last time you two were in here together? She sure had a lot to say about you losing money at blackjack.”

“I remember,” Xi said tightly.

“Hello, Xi,” I said, walking up.

Xi’s eyebrows nearly jumped off his forehead and a flush rose up from his neck. “Hey Cassie. I never imagined seeing you in a place like this.”

“You make it sound like a porn shop,” I said.

He adjusted his glasses. “It’s a long hike from Detroit, that’s all.”

“It is for you, too.”

“I’m here posting flyers.” He showed me one of the papers from the stack. It announced that his band, Raging Fools, was playing at The Ark. “Laura said you’re coming to see us,” he said, handing me a leaflet. “You’ll love our music. Trust me. We don’t play any of that dubstep crap.”

I smothered a sarcastic reply since I happened to like dubstep, but I tucked the flyer into my purse. “So you came here to hand out flyers and buy…whatever that stuff is.” I nodded at the bag the clerk held.

“Black salt,” Xi said. “My aunt likes it for her, uh…”

“Eggless egg salad sandwiches,” the clerk offered.

Xi brightened. “Right. She’s a vegan, and the sulfur flavor of the salt makes the sandwiches taste better.”

Eggless egg salad sandwiches? I wondered if Andrew the foodie had ever heard of such a thing.

“What about you?” he asked. “What brings you to maize and blue territory?”

“A necklace,” I said, showing him. “I broke my old one and needed something to replace it.”

“Are you sure you don’t want that discount?” the clerk asked as he rang up my purchase. “I’ll go up to forty percent.”

“He wants my old necklace,” I told Xi when he raised a questioning eyebrow. “And no thanks,” I told the clerk. Why didn’t some people realize that ‘no’ was the end of a conversation and not the start of it?

I slung my purse over my shoulder, and left Xi and the clerk to haggle over the weight of the black salt.

As I turned to go, the cat suddenly leapt from the counter and onto my back, ricocheting off with enough force to make me stumble. I dropped my purse, and my belongings scattered. The cat zipped after the change rolling across the floor. A tin of Altoids hit the counter and burst open. My wallet slid under the counter, and my keys ended up somewhere near the meditation fountain.

“Reiki!” the man behind the counter scolded. “Shame on you! Are you okay?” he asked me.

“Fine,” I said, annoyed. I quickly gathered my things and shoved them back into my purse.

“How about you give the lady her necklace back, Dave?” Xi said.

The clerk’s face reddened. “I don’t have it!”

“No, but that fat-assed cat of yours does.” Xi pointed to the top of a low book case where the cat sat, regally washing its paw. Next to the cat was my old necklace.

The clerk hustled over to the cat and grabbed the necklace. “Reiki! Bad boy!” The cat slitted his eyes and leaped aside. With a hiss at Xi, he darted off behind the beaded curtain.

“Sure you don’t want to sell it?” the clerk asked, closing his fist around the cross.

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