The care and feeding of.., p.3
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       The Care and Feeding of Stray Vampires, p.3

         Part #1 of Half Moon Hollow series by Molly Harper  
Page 3


  “What the hell is the matter with you?” I seethed.

  “I said you couldn’t call anyone. ” He wheezed, as the effort to bat my phone into shrapnel had apparently cost him some energy.

  “I was calling my sister to let her know not to come home tonight,” I said. “There’s no way in hell I’m letting her walk through the door unless I know you’re … house-trained. ” He snarled at that, pulling his lip back from sharp white teeth, but he remained quiet. I supposed that expecting an apology for the pulverized phone was futile, so I continued. “You’re replacing that phone, by the way. And if I didn’t have backup assistance to replace all of my contacts, I would leave your butt here on the kitchen floor, to hell with you and the Council. ”

  “You’re that attached to your phone?”

  “It’s the most dependable relationship I have. ”

  If he’d made a joke about the vibrate feature, I would have walked out the door with a clean conscience. Unfortunately, he drew his own phone out of his pocket and handed it to me without comment, which took that option off the table.

  Shunted to Gigi’s voicemail, I told her to ask if she could stay at her friend Sammi Jo’s house for the night and to call me before she came home. Behind me, Mr. Calix sat leaning against the cupboards, drinking the last bottle of clean synthetic blood.

  I turned, crouching in front of him so we were at eye level. He didn’t seem to like that, his big, honeyed-chocolate eyes pinning me as I hovered outside of striking distance. I squared my shoulders and tried to force as much authority into my voice as I could muster. “Here are my rules. I will set up a comfortable, light-tight place for you in my root cellar. I will stock bottled blood and whatever you need at my home. You will not be welcome in any of the living spaces above the first floor. I will not be feeding you any of my blood. Ever. And neither will my sister. In fact, if my sister is in the house, you are not allowed to be in the same room with her alone. The minute your week is up, you are out. ”

  “You’re making an awful lot of rules, human. ”

  I smiled sweetly. “I’m not the one stranded half-naked on a cold tile floor, vampire. ”

  “Get me up and out of here before the sun sets,” he grumbled.

  “Like I want to be here after dark,” I retorted, standing so that I could pull him to his feet.

  He shook his head when I held out my hands. “First, you need to clean up the blood. ”

  I cocked my fists on my hips. “I think you’ll find, if you look at your contract on the counter, that I am not a maid service. ”

  Mr. Calix closed his eyes, as if he was praying to some fanged deity for patience. “If someone comes to my house, I don’t want them to think they’ve gotten to me. I don’t want them to know I’m weakened, unprotected. So, we make it look like I got a sudden whim to go out of town. People who do that generally don’t leave large puddles of blood on the floor. ”

  “Fine. ” I huffed, grabbing a new sponge from the drawer beside the sink. I wiped down the floor while Mr. Calix struggled into a faded black Rolling Stones T-shirt. After watching him unsuccessfully attempt to pull the right sleeve over his arm three times, I helped him settle it over his shoulders. It left us in an awkward position, him partially leaning against me, his face inches from mine as I supported his weight with palms pressed against his chest. I found myself staring at his mouth. His top lip was just the tiniest bit heavier and rounder than the bottom, given his mouth a bit of a bee-stung appearance. His lips looked soft, although I could see the barely concealed razor-sharp fangs lurking behind them. My hands curved around his pectorals, cradling rather than pushing him away. I bit my own lips to prevent a strange little sigh from escaping.

  This was not a good beginning.

  Five minutes in his employ, and I was already struggling with the very valid, sensible reasons for keeping my client at a professional, fully clothed distance. My eyes flicked up to his and saw wary calculation reflected back at me. I pushed up, helping him settle more firmly on his feet, and the spell was broken. The moment I moved away, I was able to breathe a little easier and remember all of those very valid, sensible reasons, which included:

  1. Humans who slept with vampires sometimes ended up missing or worse.

  2. Three months of carefully considered celibacy was not something to be thrown away on pretty lips that happened to be attached to a client.

  3. After working with the vampire community for years without incident, I didn’t want to develop the reputation of being an easy mark for horny male vampires.

  4. The phrase “sex with the guy who sleeps in our basement” is not used by most responsible parental figures.

  “Look under the sink,” he said, nodding toward the cabinet in question. Where most people stored their garbage bags and empty grocery sacks, Mr. Calix had stored a canvas duffel bag and a carrying case for the laptop in the living room. I unzipped the duffel to find an emergency stash of clothes and toiletries. Oddly, this level of preparation warmed my heart. I did not want to top this strange day off by searching around in a vampire’s underwear drawer. Nothing good could come of that.

  By the time I turned around, Mr. Calix was standing on his own two feet, albeit leaning against a counter. Even weakened, at his full height he cut an imposing figure. He loomed a good foot taller than me, his frame solidly built. And I didn’t think he got those muscles from painting or baking during his human years. Mr. Calix was someone who charged and fought until his last remaining enemy was destroyed … like my poor phone.

  I had a sudden sense of foreboding. How smart was it to take an unstable, phone-crushing vampire home with me? I didn’t know anything about this guy beyond his last name, address, and credit history. Sure, he was referred to me by Ophelia, but she was the type who would probably find trapping a human in an enclosed space with a vampiric sex offender rather droll.

  I should just call Ophelia, I told myself. I should tell her about her poisoned consultant, go the hell home, and pillage the bag of York Peppermint Patties hidden in my freezer.

  Just as I was flipping through Mr. Calix’s contacts to do exactly that, he pulled open what most people would have used as their utensil drawer and began carefully counting out cash into small, banded stacks. I could see a wealth of green still in the drawer as he snapped it shut.

  “Ten thousand dollars,” he said, nudging the neatly stacked bills toward me. “Consider it a good-faith down payment. If I survive the week, you’ll get the full amount. ”

  My hands shook a little as my fingertips brushed the precious green paper. I had never seen so much cash in one place before. This couldn’t be real. This amount of cash shouldn’t just fall into my hands so easily. This couldn’t be a good idea. But the money ended up in my hand somehow and was safely zipped into my purse. And that seemed like the point of no return, in terms of negotiating.

  “You keep that kind of cash in your knife drawer?” I asked. “I think I know why someone poisoned you. ”

  “The person who poisoned me didn’t have use for my money,” he said dryly. “Just so you know, I’ll be changing the security code on the way out. I would hate for you to be tempted to come back and clean me out while I’m sleeping. ”

  “I ask you, where’s the trust?”

  “Tucked safely into your purse,” he retorted.

  I took a moving blanket from a heap in the living room and tossed it over his head. He slipped into some shoes, and we carefully exited the house. He used his vampire speed to reset the code so that even if I’d been tempted, I couldn’t follow it, and we moved swiftly toward my car. Just dusk, there was no one outside in the neighborhood yet, so I was able to load him calmly into the back of the van without so much as a wisp of smoke rising off his skin.

  With my client snugly situated under a blanket, I stopped on the way home to pop into a local blood bank where the staff knew me and told them that I was filling
an order from Mr. Rychek. Knowing the way he stress-fed when Diandra came into town, they didn’t question the extra units of O positive and fresh plasma that I withdrew.

  The sun was just setting as I turned into my own driveway. I was relieved to see my house, even if I was technically bringing a monster into it. My place was nothing special, a rambling old farmhouse that my parents had purchased just after they married. The original owners had added rooms here and there over the generations. The effect was like several cracker boxes stacked against one another and then covered with cream-colored aluminum siding. But the trim was covered with a fresh coat of robin’s-egg blue, and the gutters were new.

  I didn’t have as much time to maintain my flower beds as I’d like, so I tried to give them a low-maintenance, wild fairy-cottage look, with fluffy white spikes of crepe myrtle and low-lying purple and golden clouds of shrub verbena. Creeping carpets of periwinkle phlox spilled over the stone circles that contained the beds. I liked the way their color contrasted against the lush basketball-sized purple-blue clusters of the hydrangea bushes.

  I knew every plant, every bloom, because I tended them with my own hands. I could mentally catalogue them by genus and phylum, but I chose not to. This was one area where my botany professors and I didn’t agree. I didn’t like calling plants by their Latin names. Yes, it was more appropriate in an academic setting, but it was so impersonal. Plants had personalities. Referring to happy, open sunflowers as “helianthus” was like calling them by the ugly middle names they only listed on their tax forms. If plants paid taxes, that is.

  Despite the use of a wide-brimmed straw hat, my skin was brown and slightly freckled from the hours I spent weeding, watering, and warding off pests. My hands were callused, and my nails were nonexistent. Some days, all I wanted to do was collapse on the couch after work rather than break out the aphid spray, but I could no more neglect my plants than I could leave Gigi “Appliance Killer” Scanlon to cook for herself. Like Gigi, they’d been left to me, and I took care of them.

  I caught Mr. Calix looking at the house over my shoulder as I helped him out of the van. The expression on his handsome face screamed “not impressed. ” He cleared his throat and managed, “It’s …”

  I gave him an arch look. “Yes?”

  “Quaint. Very homey. ”

  “Because it is a home, my family’s home,” I reminded him. “Which I am bringing you into. ”

  “I understand,” he said, gritting his teeth a bit as we negotiated the front steps. I wasn’t sure why he seemed so pained. I was pretty sure that I was bearing more of his weight than he was. And negotiating a locked front door while attempting to prop up a slumping vampire is quite the feat of concentration.

  Contrary to those talented storytellers’ theories, vampires can, in fact, enter your home without an invitation. In general, they don’t, because they consider it rude. There were a lot of little myths that the humans had to let go of once vampires came out of the coffin—crosses, holy water, guys with cute English accents who wandered around in long black coats being all adorably evil.

  Sigh. Oh, Spike.

  Believe it or not, this whole public vampirism thing was started by an out-of-control undead accountant. In 1999, a newly turned Milwaukee tax consultant named Arnie Frink requested evening hours so he could continue his job at the firm of Jacobi, Meyers, and Leptz. But the human-resources rep, as ignorant as the rest of the world about the existence of the undead at the time, insisted that Arnie keep banker’s hours because of security concerns. Because God forbid anyone should be able to use unsupervised night hours to make unlimited copies.

  Arnie countered with a diagnosis of porphyria, a painful allergy to sunlight, but the evil HR rep could not be moved. So Arnie responded just like any typical wronged American.

  He sued the absolute hell out of them.
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