From the author: It's tough enough being a vampire hunter. It's even tougher when the vampire you hate most in the world shows up begging for her help. This story was first published in FANGS FOR THE MAMMARIES, part of Esther Friesner's series of suburban fantasy humor anthologies.
BAIT AND SWITCH
by Steven Harper Piziks
Vampire Bait folded her arms across her little nubbin breasts and faced me down across the table. “Look, it doesn’t matter how much Daddy paid you. Julian totally loves me. Our love is totally eternal, and we’ll be together forever.”
I shrugged, pulled a wad of bubble wrap from my purse, and popped a few plastic bomblettes. So satisfying. “Hey, I’m on your side, hon.” Pop pop pop. “But like you said, Daddy is calling the shots. Once we finish up, I get a check and you get a Mazda. No strings.” Pop pop pop.
Vampire Bait, whose real name was Aimee or Mimee or Pookee or something, looked longingly at the bubble wrap, but I don’t share. The smell of sweetened coffee swirled around us as the baristas behind the counter tugged at their arcane machines. Customers perused laptops or flipped through newspapers with happy headlines like Missing Child Found Murdered and Suicide Bomber Kills Ten. Outside, the sun had already set on a spring strip mall evening. We sat at a tiny round table near the back of the coffee house, with the counter crowd between us and the front door. Vampire Bait had a double labradoodle with extra muggles, or something like that, and a chocolate muffin the size of a safe deposit box. I had tea. I turned thirty last week, and had noticed the difference in my waistline. Creamy coffee drinks were Out. No gray hair among the brown yet, at least.
When Vampire Bait wasn’t looking, I gooshed my tea with the mega-sized flask of holy water I keep in my purse. “So Julian hangs outside your window and watches you sleep all night long,” I prompted.
“Lots of times he slips into my room, too,” she said. “He’s totally there if I wake up to pee.”
“And he tells you how good you smell?”
“Totally.” Her brown eyes took on a dreamy cast. “He says I’m so beautiful he can barely keep from eating me up. But I let him munch on me a couple times because these leprechauns keep trying to attack my house, and fighting them takes a lot out of Julian, and he says my blood can heal him, but he’s afraid he’ll drink it all once he starts but I trust him so I’ve totally told him to take what he needs and he does and I’m totally cool with that.”
I couldn’t help asking, “How many leprechauns have actually attacked you?”
“None. Julian has totally kept them all away from me.”
“Wow.” Pop pop pop. “Let me know if he has a brother.”
Vampire Bait picked at her muffin. “So tell the truth, Wanda. I thought Daddy was paying you to make me drop Julian. How can you be on my side?”
“Listen, hon, one thing I’ve learned after three years in this business is that nothing can stand in the way of eternal love. It always wins in the end, so I don’t even try.” Another thing I’ve learned after three years in this business is how to lie with a completely straight face. “That’s why I don’t make guarantees to my clients. Like I told your dad, we do one little thing when Julian shows up, and that’s it. You get a new car out of it, and I collect my fee. No strings.”
Bait sipped her labradoodle, leaving a whipped cream mustache. She was suspicious. The trouble was, she was suspicious of the wrong person. She was young, not quite pretty, and had a vampire boyfriend twenty times her age who told her she smelled like Twinkies. Every alarm bell she had should have been screaming ALERT! ALERT! I mean, look at it this way: if a guy from the social security set makes kissy noises at a sixteen-year-old, we rightly whip out a bucket of tar and open a goose feather pillow. But advance his age a couple centuries, mousse his hair into a haystack, and suddenly it’s all cool? Right! So Vampire Bait becomes suspicious of me, and I pretend her boyfreak is the coolest thing since polar ice in order to develop rapport. Ah well. One day she’ll look back on this and shudder. More importantly, she’ll be alive to do so.
I was just extracting a silver-backed hand mirror from my industrial-sized purse when Vampire Bait grabbed my arm. “There he is!” she squeaked.
Into the coffee shop slouched an anemic-looking black-haired guy dressed in chinos and a black leather jacket. He was trying to look like a teenager, but it was clear to my practiced eye that he’d been closer to thirty when some passing vampire had slurped him dry. And if you went for the big-eyed, tousle-haired, lean-bodied, perfect-featured look, yeah--he was gorgeous.
“How old is he?” I asked.
Vampire Bait never took her eyes off him. “He was turned ninety-six years ago on his seventeenth birthday,” she sighed. “It was a totally sad story. He was walking home from visiting his grandpa, who was dying of a totally incurable lung disease, and--”
“Wow, that’s fascinating,” I said before I had to sit through the entire romantic lie. Then I held the mirror so it reflected the coffee shop crowd. Julian scanned the tables, looking for Vampire Bait. “Okay, here’s the deal. All you have to do is look at Julian’s reflection in this mirror.”
“His reflection?” Bait furrowed her brow, and two zits disappeared into the wrinkles. “But vampires don’t have reflections.”
“Actually, that’s not true,” I said. “They just avoid mirrors because some of them are enchanted like this one. It shows people the way they really are. Take a look.”
She did. And all the blood drained from her face. I peeked, too. The coffee shop crowd looked much the same, but standing among them was an ancient, wrinkly man in a leather jacket and chinos. Liver spots dominated his bald skull, and his rheumy eyes bulged over a toothless mouth. A shiny bit of drool slid from slack lips, and his gaze darted hungrily around the shop. Vampire Bait squeaked in horror.
“That’s what I’m kissing?” she blurted out.
Vampire Bait slid under the table. A moment later, her hand appeared, groped for the chocolate muffin, found it, and yanked it out of sight. “Is there a back door to this place?” she whimpered. “I totally have to get out of here.”
I pointed her toward it, covered her while she duck-walked away, and stuffed the mirror back into my purse. Then I caught up my tea and headed for Julian, who had his cell phone out, no doubt so he could text his dinner and ask her whereabouts. I tapped him on the shoulder.
“Hey, Julian,” I said, ignoring the crowd. “I have a message from your girlfriend.”
He turned just in time to catch my tea in his face. I walked away, ignoring the scream of pain. Holy water takes years--and layers--off the complexion.
Later that same evening, I deposited a fat check from Daddy and headed for my office, which is sandwiched between a massage therapist and an upscale bead shop in yet another strip mall. The sign on the glass door says Wanda Silver: For Hire, and that’s it. Although my clientele--worried parents whose kids fall in love with vampires--is rather specific, I stay surprisingly busy. Craig’s List is my best friend, which says more about me than I’d like.
I opened the door, flipped on some lights, and scooped up the mail from its pile on the floor. Bills dominated, of course. Two were of the “we break legs” variety. They were, fittingly, from the hospital where Mom and Eric had gotten their treatments. I sat at my creaky old desk and forced myself to open the envelopes. A depressingly large number of zeroes followed the numbers. What were the odds that a mother and her son would end up with leukemia at the same time? Or that the daughter/sister would get stuck with the bills for three years running because no one had insurance and she was the only one with any kind of job? It was pay up or my mom would lose her house. And my brother Eric . . .
My front door opened, and a vampire edged inside. This one had the more textbook blond hair and green eyes, and his build went for broad-shouldered and tall. He wore a white t-shirt, jeans, and an acid-wash denim jacket that was almost out of style enough to be retro. His face was pale and perfect, of course, and he seemed to be nineteen or twenty. My jaw dropped, but not over his looks.
“You son of a bitch,” I growled from behind my desk. He couldn’t actually enter unless I invited him--that rule is true--so I wasn’t worried he’d get close enough to treat me like a Big Gulp. Still, I rested my thumb lightly on the big red button labeled Sprinkler. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“You have to help me, Wanda,” he said. “Please. I’ll give you anything.”
“Anything?” My thumb quivered on the button. “Really? Can I have the pleasure of dumping a dozen gallons of holy water down your collar and watching you melt? Might I have the orgasmic joy I’ll feel when I cut off your head, fill your mouth with holy wafers, and drive a stake through your heart? Will you give me that?”
Pause. “ . . . no,” the vampire said. “I was thinking more of cash under the table?”
“You’re dead, Lucas. Again.”
He held up his hands. “I’m desperate here. You have to know that. Why else would I come to you?”
“Because you’re an evil creature of the night and you’re trying to trick me like you tricked my brother,” I snapped.
He ignored that remark. “Look, I want to hire you, and I’ll pay ten times your usual fee.”
Okay, here’s the thing--I hated Lucas. For good reason. Loathing for him bubbled inside me like a tar cauldron. But he had my attention.
“My usual fee is twenty-five thousand,” I lied. “You’d owe me a quarter of a million. Cash.” That would clear up just about everything Mom and I owed.
I forced myself not to blink in surprise, then moved my thumb a fraction of an inch away from the panic button. “I’m listening,” I said guardedly. “But you’re the reason I got into my current line of work. Why would you want to hire me?”
Lucas sighed. He was still standing in the doorway, and chilly air wafted inside with the smell of new leaves. “Look, can I come all the way in?”
“No.” I paused, not wanting to ask but having to just the same. “How’s Eric?”
“He’s fine,” Lucas said. “He sends his love.”
“Yeah? So why does he never call? Or even e-mail? That your fault?”
Some heat hit Lucas’s voice. “Listen, I never did anything he didn’t want me to do--”
“--so you made him into an undead monster?” I finished. “You turned him into your eternal boytoy?”
Lucas sighed, an affectation, since I knew he didn’t breathe. “Look, this isn’t going to get us anywhere. Do you want the job or not?”
“My righteous anger says no, no, no, but my bill collectors say yes, yes, yes,” I admitted. “I’m still a little confused. Parents hire me because things like you come across as all cool and romantic and bad-boy sparkly, and they want me to put the kibosh on it before anyone gets slurped to the bloodsucking side of the force. Or maybe just killed. So what could you want me for?”
Lucas sighed again. “There’s this . . . girl. Her name is Marissa Duncan, and she’s convinced she’s in love with me. She follows me everywhere I go. She leaves me black roses. She even writes me letters drawn in blood. I mean, they smell nice, but they’re not my type, right?”
“Button, sprinkler system, holy water,” I said, “if you throw me another pun.”
“One evening I woke up and found her waiting outside my mausoleum. She said she’d been there all day, guarding me. It freaked me out. And she has this uncanny ability to track me while I’m . . . shopping.”
“ ‘Shopping’?” I took out a strip of bubble plastic. Lucas gave it an envious look--apparently even vampires like little bubbles--but I still don’t share.
“If I even look at another human, she swoops down from the shadows and screams that I belong to her. I haven’t drunk a drop in more than a week now, and I’m starving. You wouldn’t believe what I had to go just to sneak down to see you.”
Pop pop pop. “Shop somewhere else. The world is wide.”
“Hey, I have territory. I set one wing outside my boundaries, and I’m pulled into a blood match with another vampire or a werewolf or a banshee or worse.”
“Then suck her dry.” Poppity pop pop. “That’s what your kind do, isn’t it?”
“I would,” he said in a dark voice, “but she came up from New Orleans.”
“Ah. Vampire central.”
“Yeah. The witch doctors down there really know how to deal. She paid big bucks for a juju tattoo that protects her from being harmed by undead. So I can’t kill her. But I can turn her.”
I blinked. “Breaking her neck--that’s harm. But turning her into an undead human mosquito . . . that’s angels and cotton candy.”
“Hey, I didn’t cast the spell. I’m just telling you how it works. And I’m not turning her.” He shuddered. “That’s what she wants. Eternity with me.”
“You already have someone for that,” I said acidly.
“Come on--you’re the only one who can help.” His eyes narrowed. “I know you need the money.”
I set my jaw. I hated that he knew this. Probably as much as he hated having to crawl through my door. Pop pop pop.
“Fine,” I said. “Toss me the full paywad up front, and I’ll take care of her for you. Same rules apply--no timelines, no guarantees.”
“Whatever happened to half now, half when the job is done?” he complained.
“Like I can send a collection agency after a dead guy with fangs,” I scoffed. “Hand it over, bat-boy. Then meet me in the coffeehouse up the block at sunset tomorrow.”
Like so many pieces of vampire bait, Marissa Duncan looked perfectly normal. Early twenties, hair dyed a bad black, brown eyes, a few freckles, shabby black clothes. But across the side of her neck looped an eye-twisting black tattoo the size of my hand--the spell that kept Lucas from killing her. Marissa was more mature than yesterday’s case, but I still hoped to keep this quick. My supply of bubble wrap was almost completely popped out.
“So you’re really a P.I.?” Marissa asked. We were already at the coffee house, my usual meeting place for this kind of thing.
“Yep,” I said. This wasn’t a lie--I have a license and everything. My practice is just a little . . . specialized. I popped some plastic. “Like I said on the phone, I was running a background check on your boyfriend Lucas for an unrelated case, and I learned a few things about him that I thought you might want to know.”
“I already know he’s a Lord of Darkness,” she said, then looked at me, clearly expecting me to weird out. I just shook my head and gooshed my tea with my water flask. Lord of Darkness. Right. Lord of the Chicken Hawks was more like. Marissa seemed disappointed at my mastery of the blasé.
“That’s not what this is about,” I said.
“Well, whatever it is,” Marissa said, “you won’t shock me. He’s a Shadow Lord, and I’m meant to be a Lady. These sheep” --she gestured at the other people in the coffee house-- “don’t know what dances in the dark around them, but I do, and once my lord Lucas wraps me in shadow, I’ll be one with--”
“That’s great.” I extracted the mirror from my purse. “And I wouldn’t think of standing in your way. In fact, I want to help you.”
That gave her pause. “You do?”
“Definitely.” The patter was always similar. Gain the trust with lies, then break it with truth. “There’s way more shadow in the universe than light. Anyone who bothers to stop and think knows that. Most of the sheep don’t think, though, which is what gets them through their dull, daily lives.”
“Exactly!” Marissa said. “That’s so true!”
In that moment, Lucas walked in the front door, blond, handsome, and retro. I held up the mirror so it caught his reflection. In ten seconds, my debts would be paid and Lucas would be out of my life forever. I was already feeling the relief.
“There he is,” I said. “Take a look at him in this.”
She did. A gasp inflated her chest. “Oh. My. God.”
“I know,” I said.
Her eyes stayed glued to the reflection. “This is . . . it’s just . . . ”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry?” she said. “Are you nuts? He’s gorgeous!”
“What?” I snatched the mirror from her and aimed it so I could see Lucas myself. My mouth dried up. Marissa was right. Lucas was stunning. A little silver streaked through the gold over his ears, and laugh lines touched his eyes, but they only added maturity and solidity to what had previously been ethereal boyishness. Shit! My own hormones tried to squirt into overdrive, and I hastily stuffed the mirror into my bag. Marissa was already moving.
“My Dark Lord,” she said huskily, sashaying toward him across the coffee house. “Grant me your gift! I am meant for shadow!”
Lucas shot her a glance of pure terror and fled out the door.
“You suck,” Lucas told me.
“From you, that’s a compliment,” I shot back. We were in my office again, me at my desk, him at the door. “Exactly how old are you?”
“You mean in vampire years or human years?”
I covered my face with my hands. “Just the answer the question.”
“I became a vampire twenty years ago,” he said. “When I was nineteen. If I were alive, I wouldn’t even be forty yet. Why does that matter?”
I wasn’t about to tell him. The fewer vampires who knew about my mirror, the better. “Let’s just say it alters my strategy. And remember, I said no guarantees. I keep your money no matter what.”
Lucas smiled, wider than any human could. His fangs showed, and for the first time I felt a little chill. He frisbeed a manilla envelope across the room to me. “Yeah? Check this out. Wanda.”
I was suddenly scared of him. I didn’t want to open the envelope, but I did. My chilly fingers found a photograph. Mom asleep on her bed, thin gray hair puffed out across the pillow. Her throat had two puncture marks on it. My hands turned to ice, and I couldn’t breathe.
“You bastard,” I whispered, knowing he could hear, even across the room. “How did you get into her house? Mom knows not to invite strangers in.”
“I’m not a stranger. I’m a client looking for you. I can prove it. I can describe your office. I know you pop plastic. And I just need to use the phone for a second.” Lucas blew me a kiss. “Screw the money. Get Marissa off my back or I’ll make your dear, sweet mother into a lady of the night. Two generations of vampires in one family. Think of that when you’re paying the bills, magic Wanda.”
And he was gone before I could reply.
I gave myself thirty seconds of rant and rave time. Lucas would be dead. I mean, more dead. Then I gulped down some holy water from my flask to calm myself. I swear the stuff is more addictive than Red Bull.
Next, I went over to my mother’s house. It’s a crackerbox from the fifties, surrounded by dozens of similar crackerboxes. Eric and I grew up there. The woods behind the subdivision has become a strip mall, and the local graveyard is a lot bigger, but everything else is the same.
The windows were dark, and I let myself in. Mom was asleep in her room, and I knew from experience only a bomb blast would wake her. I used my cell phone as a flashlight to check her. Good color, good breathing. No puncture wounds on her neck--they had apparently healed without even a scab. My stomach clenched in fear and anger all over again.
Out in the living room, I put on a light, sat on the sofa, and thought hard. How could I convince Marissa to leave Lucas alone? Idly I glanced at Mom’s landline phone on the end table. The little screen listed recent calls. My heart jumped. I didn’t recognize the third number, and it set off my P.I. instincts. Breathlessly, I entered it into my cell. I have access to reverse directories that give me addresses for most phone numbers, even unlisteds and cells.
The name on the listing was Eric Silver.
Questions crowded my mind as I drove across the darkened town, following my GPS. Why had Eric called Mom and not me? Why hadn’t Mom told me? Was Eric all right?
Technically Eric was still a Missing Person, a high school senior whose cancer ward bed had turned up empty three years ago. Witnesses had spoken of a blond man who had visited him more than once, always after dark. Mysteriously, the man didn’t appear on any security cameras. The same security cameras didn’t record Eric leaving the building, either. Today, even Mom didn’t know the truth. But I did. It was the reason for my current profession.
I don’t kill vampires. There’s no good reason to. Stake one, and another just takes over the territory. Way easier to foil the bastards when you know who they are, where they hang out, and what their taste in Bait is. Better the enemy you know, blah blah blah. But in Lucas’s case, I would make an exception. If I could figure out how. Lucas wasn’t stupid and had to know I would come after him.
GPS took me to a condo complex. More than half of them were empty, thank you housing crunch and munch. My mind wouldn’t stop moving. Three years since I had seen Eric. Three years since Lucas had made him a vampire. Mom thought he had decided to run off and commit suicide rather than let the cancer take him, and the thought of his body lying unburied somewhere caused her sorrow, though she said she understood what had driven him to it. I knew better because Lucas and Eric had showed up outside my bedroom window and told me not to worry. Then Lucas had called him beautiful and kissed him in a puddle of pale moonlight.
It had been a little much. In ten seconds, my baby brother had gone from terminal cancer patient missing from a hospital to gay vampire in a really long-term relationship. And there was only one person to blame.
I found Eric’s place. My heart pounded, and I was raising my hand to knock when the door whipped open.
“Heard you,” said Eric. “Vampire hearing.”
“Oh.” I couldn’t think of anything better to say. “Hi. You look . . . good.”
He just shrugged. It isn’t fair. Vampires always look good. Eric’s hair had come back in thick and autumn red. His blue eyes were clear and wide, and he had filled out from the wasted skeleton I’d last seen. The right liquid diet could do wonders. It was fantastic to see him. The only things that kept me from hugging him were the two little fangs that peeped from his mouth like baby walrus teeth.
“Why did you call Mom and not me?” I asked around the lump in my throat.
“I didn’t call Mom,” he said. “I chickened out and hung up after one ring. I guess I should have known that would be more than enough for the big-time P.I.”
“Is he here?”
Eric caught my meaning. “No. Lucas bought this place for me. He likes tradition, but a stone slab mattress sucks on so many levels.”
I privately decided that someone with fangs shouldn’t say S that many times. “Can I come in?”
His condo was almost bare, with hardly enough furniture to sit on. I’ve noticed vampires tend to be either sybarites or Spartans. Just my luck my brother would be the latter. A little voice said that it made sense, considering Spartan tastes. I told my little voice to shut the hell up, but it was too late. I imagined him and Lucas here alone, with Lucas sliding his cold, dead hands over my baby brother’s body. It made me sick.
“It’s not much, but it’s home,” Eric said.
“Lucas isn’t here,” I blurted out. “I can get you away if we move fast, move now. Mom, too. Let’s go!”
He stared at me with round eyes. It was a look I remembered from when we were younger and I babysat him. “I . . . can’t do that,” he whispered. “Wanda, you don’t know what--”
The front door banged open and Lucas strode in. “Hey, kids. Catching up on old times?”
Vampire hearing. Eric had known Lucas was coming. Shit. I forced a smile to my face. “Not that old.”
He leaned against a wall and crossed his arms, exuding sly power. “Marissa?”
“She still wants to walk on the dark side,” I said shortly. “Give me another night or two.”
“You hired my sister to get rid of Stalker Queen?” Eric asked. “Whoa. I didn’t know you were that desperate, Luke.”
“I’ve been trying not to worry you.” He slid a possessive arm around Eric’s shoulder as I set my jaw. “I know how upset you get.”
Eric stared morosely down at the floor, and I wanted to snatch my baby brother away from the monster in the room. “Upset. Yeah.”
“Don’t let it bug you. Your big sister and I have it all under control.” Lucas fixed me with a hard look. “Right?”
I stared back. “Absolutely.”
“I was thinking,” he continued softly into Eric’s ear but without taking his eyes off me, “that maybe we should get your mom a Mother’s Day present. Anonymously, of course.”
My stomach clenched. “Don’t trouble yourself.”
“We’ll have to see,” Lucas said. “In any case, Wanda, don’t you have work to do?”
I fled. Was I more angry or afraid? I couldn’t tell, and it was really starting to piss me off. I swigged from my flask like a wino with the trembles and drove back to my office, even though it was almost two in the morning. No way I’d be able to sleep now, and I was used to all-nighters anyway.
I found the front door open, the window broken. Inside was worse. Papers flung around, chairs tipped over. The standard muss-and-toss. Spray-painted on the walls in sloppy red letters was His Dark Gifts Are Mine. Even more impressive was that Marissa Duncan was still spraying on the final E.
“What the great green hell are you doing?” I screeched, royally pissed now.
Marissa yowled like a cat and spun around. The can rolled away in a metallic-smelling cloud. Then she recovered herself. “Stay away from my Dark Lord. I won’t let you steal his gift from me.”
“Quit calling him that. Jesus, you sound like you’re twelve.”
Her face went hard as a gravestone, and her tattoo seemed to undulate in the dim light. “Don’t talk to me that way. I’ve made the sacrifice. I’ve earned my place. He has to grant me the shadow gift.”
The last sentence was cracker-barrel nuts, but my mind was highlighting the paragraph’s main idea in pink neon marker. “Sacrifice? What sacrifice?”
“The blood of a child is required to summon the Dark Lord,” she said fervently. “Even the sheep know that.”
I remembered the headlines I had read in the coffee shop. The letters she had sent to Lucas. Nausea sloshed through my stomach. “You killed a little kid because you thought it would summon Lucas? You filthy, monstrous--”
I was suddenly staring down the barrel of a pistol. “Maybe I’m not monstrous enough,” Marissa said. “Maybe I need another sacrifice to get his attention.”
Guns are amazing. They can send every thought flying from your head like a startled hummingbird or focus you like a magnifying glass on an ant. Lucky for me, I got the magnifying glass. I saw that I’d been stupid. Marissa wasn’t obsessed with Lucas. She was obsessed with power. And that was the key.
“Put the gun down,” I said in a low voice, “and I’ll get your Dark Lord.”
Marissa’s eyes narrowed. “It’s a trick.”
“Nope. What do you think this office is for? I’m his chief minion.”
“Then why has he been trying so hard to get rid of me?”
“Testing your devotion. Look, do you want his kiss or not?”
“His gift,” she corrected.
I tossed my head, though my heart thudded hard enough to shake my shirt. “That’s what the sheep call it. You have a lot to learn.”
That broke her, though the gun never wavered. “Summon him, then. Do you have a dark ritual? Words of power?”
“Speed dial,” I said, and whipped out my cell phone.
Lucas and Eric both arrived within ten minutes. I was forced to smile wide and invite Lucas in. Marissa’s eyes went hot as steamed milk when she saw her Dark Lord, and I forced myself to look properly minionesque amid my ruined office. Marissa and Lucas went through several You!s and My Dark Lords before settling down enough to actually talk. I prayed this would work. Vampires are fast, but they can’t outrace bullets, and Marissa had already killed a child. She wouldn’t hesitate to turn me into chopped cheese.
“This one has earned your kiss, oh Dark One,” I said. “Your humble minion pleads with you to grant it to her.”
Marissa, who was still pointing the pistol at me, exulted. Eric looked startled. Lucas’s jaw dropped far enough to lick his belt buckle. But he recovered quickly. “A word with my . . . minion,” he said, and drew me aside. His hand was cold on my wrist.
“What the hell are you--?”
“Just do it, bat-boy,” I hissed. My fists were clenched, mostly in fear, truth be told. “Trust me.”
“I’m not spending eternity with her,” he hissed back. His fangs were showing now.
“No more talking,” Marissa snapped, and I belatedly realized she was standing at my desk. Little alarm demons jumped up and down inside my head. “Give me the kiss, or she dies.”
“So?” Lucas snarled. “She’s only a minion.”
“Hey!” Eric said.
Before I could interject with my own reaction, Marissa upped the undead ante. “Oh? What about all that holy water above us? I can feel it in the pipes, thanks to my tattoo. And someone kindly labeled this button sprinkler.” Marissa set her finger against it. “Doesn’t take much to figure out what will happen if I give it a push. If can’t have your kiss, Dark Lord, no one can.”
My heart tore in half. I would cheer if Lucas melted into sludge, but I couldn’t watch Eric die again. My little brother swallowed and glanced at the ceiling, fear in his blue eyes, and all the air left the room. Lucas shot Eric a look, and I was forced to admit he seemed . . . concerned. Okay, he brimmed with full-blown distress. But probably more for himself than for Eric.
“Just do it, Lucas!” I said. “Now!”
Marissa made a move as if to push the button. In three strides, Lucas crossed the room and sank his fangs into her tattoo. She stiffened and the pistol fell to the floor, but her other hand never left the sprinkler button, and I had to give her brass points for that. Lucas, who hadn’t eaten in days, gave himself over to feeding. Marissa moaned beneath him. I closed my eyes. Watching another woman’s O-face has never been high on my list of fun times.
I heard a thud and opened my eyes. Marissa’s body lay on the floor, paler than ever. Her mouth was open, and Lucas was holding his wrist over it, a strained look on his face. Blood from an open wound on his skin dripped over Marissa’s tongue.
“Her spell tattoo is making me do this,” he gasped. “And it won’t take long. I hope you know what you’re doing.”
Marissa shuddered, then sat up. Her hair was wild, and her eyes were hungry. Fangs extended in her mouth, and she felt them with her tongue. She looked up at Lucas, then spread her hands before her and stared at them like a kid on pot.
“I feel it,” she growled. “I’m transformed. I’m one with the dark.” She looked at me. “And I hunger.”
Lucas and Eric were both caught flat when she lunged for me. Me, I was ready. Though this meant I just stood there and let her take me. Dark world, here I come.
“Wanda!” Eric shouted, but he couldn’t stop Marissa from sinking her fangs into my neck.
I felt the skin break with a pop louder than any bubble wrap, and it sent me into an paroxysm of both pleasure and pain. I heard sucking sounds as Marissa went to work. I heard feet scuffling as Eric and Lucas dashed forward. And then the screams began.
The pain and pleasure vanished. Eric hauled me upright with strong hands. Marissa writhed on the floor, hands clutching her throat and pain-filled screams wracked my ears. As the three of us watched, she dissolved from the inside out, hissing and bubbling, until there was nothing left but a noisome stain on the carpet. I doubted even a Sham-Wow would absorb it.
Relief, real relief, flooded my veins. I glanced at my office and at my little brother and at Lucas--the thing that had wrecked them both.
“We’re done here,” I said to him. “Get the hell out.”
“How did you do that?” Eric asked in awe.
I slid my flask from my purse and held it up. “I titrate holy water. It gets into the blood. Wanda probably thought it was the pipes. Now get out, Lucas, before I throw some on you.”
Lucas nodded. “I should tell you--the photo was a fake. I was afraid you wouldn’t help me. I’m sorry.”
He started to turn away, but Eric grabbed his arm. “Wait, Lucas. I can’t keep this up. I can’t watch the bad blood between you two. Wanda, you know that he loves--”
“No, he doesn’t,” I exploded. “He can’t! He’s an undead thing. He ate you alive and stole you away from us because he was hungry.”
“Are you talking about Lucas,” Eric said, “or the leukemia?”
That stopped me. I could only stare at my little brother. He wasn’t so little, though. I hadn’t noticed until now.
“When you say Lucas can’t love because he’s an undead thing,” Eric continued softly, “you’re saying the same thing about me. Is that what you believe?”
There was a long, long pause. “Shit,” I managed.
Eric was relentless. “He saved me. I would be cold in a grave now if it weren’t for him. Instead, we’re standing here, having a nice family conversation.”
“Shit,” I said again.
“I think that’s the closest we’re going to get to an apology,” Lucas put in.
“Don’t push it, bat-boy,” I croaked, but the insult was half-hearted.
In the end, I gave Eric a hug. I couldn’t manage one for Lucas, though I did slug him on the shoulder, probably harder than I should have. And two days later, when I had finally finished cleaning up my office, I got a special delivery crate from him. It was a tiny flask of holy water. Surrounded by a three-foot cushion of bubble wrap.
Life is good.