The care and feeding of.., p.4
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       The Care and Feeding of Stray Vampires, p.4

         Part #1 of Half Moon Hollow series by Molly Harper  
Page 4

 

  When the allergy-discrimination argument failed to impress a judge, a sunblock-slathered Arnie lost his composure in court and declared that he was a vampire, with a medical condition that rendered him unable to work during the day, thereby making him subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

  After several lengthy appeals, Arnie won his lawsuit and got a settlement, evening hours, and an interview with Barbara Walters. While initially furious that some schmuck accountant from Milwaukee had destroyed millenniums’ worth of undead mystique, the international vampire community eventually agreed that it was more convenient to live out in the open, anyway. Blood was easier to get when you could just ask someone for it.

  An elected contingent of ancient vampires officially notified the United Nations of their presence and asked the world’s governments to recognize them as legitimate beings. They also asked for special leniency in certain medical, legal, and tax issues that were sure to come up. Apparently, organized financial records are beneath vampires’ notice.

  The first year or so was a pretty dark chapter in human history. When the media did anniversary reports on the Great Coming Out, they tended to leave out the part about mobs of people dragging vampires out into the sunlight or setting them on fire for no reason other than that they existed. The federal government issued mandatory after-dark curfews out of fear that the vampires would retaliate en masse. So the humans found ways to fit all of their raids in before sunset.

  The same international contingent of vampires, who called themselves the World Council for the Equal Treatment of the Undead, appealed to the human governments for help. In exchange for providing certain census information, the Council was allowed to establish smaller, local bodies within regions of each state in every country. The Council was charged with keeping watch over newer vampires to make sure that they were safely acclimated to unlife, settling squabbles within the community, and investigating “accidents” that befell vampires.

  I wasn’t sure if working for the Council made Mr. Calix an authority figure or less trustworthy. While I generally stayed on Ophelia’s good side, I’d been witness to some significantly shady dealings on the Council’s part. The vampire authority believed in “any means necessary” to maintain order, including intimidation, cover-ups, and the occasional disappearance. I tried not to witness anything, because that sometimes led to disappearances. It was a vicious cycle.

  I helped Mr. Calix settle onto the couch with a warmed packet of donor blood, then went downstairs to organize his living space. The basement was pretty tidy, thanks to my postfuneral outburst of boxing and labeling. My parents’ camping equipment was stored neatly in the southwest corner, farthest away from the set of small windows at ground level. Clearing a space among the boxes, I set up the little two-man tent that my dad said was “idiot-proof. ” Inside, I covered the low camping bed with fresh sheets and blankets. An upturned orange plastic dairy crate served as a little nightstand.

  Because vampires are highly sensitive to heat and sunlight, I covered the windows in two layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil and then taped cardboard panels over them. A sunburned vampire was not a pretty sight. Every vamp had a different level of reaction. There was a rumor floating around that it was like a personality test. If a vampire’s skin engulfed quickly, he or she had a passionate nature. A slow, smoldering burn indicated a more controlled character. Personally, I thought it was mean to sit around and look for signals in the smoke while someone was on fire.

  As long as Mr. Calix stayed inside the tent and didn’t mickey around with the window coverings, he would be able to avoid direct sunlight and smoky, fiery death. That was my main selling point, should he gripe about having to sleep between boxes of old yearbooks and an inflatable Santa Claus.

  I made my way up the stairs to find a slightly less gray vampire dozing on my comfy blue sofa. It was utterly bizarre to see a corpse in the room where my family had once held Monopoly tournaments. This was clearly a family room, with its careworn furnishings and cheerful mint-green paint. My dad’s wooden duck decoys “swam” on the mantel. I’d taken down Mom’s framed cross-stitched floral samplers, featuring platitudes about hearth and home, and replaced them with black-and-white photos of our family in better days. There was a shot of preteen Gigi finishing her first 5K with Dad. Mom kneeling among her rosebushes. The four of us playing a particularly violent game of Spoons that nearly derailed Thanksgiving. To usher in a little life, I’d set little arrangements of roses and hydrangeas around the room in square glass vases. This was not your typical crash pad for the undead.

  I sat in the chair opposite the couch, a delicate, brocade-covered wingback my mother had favored when she needed to have serious discussions with us. We called it the Report Card Chair. I tilted my head to the side and studied my charge. Although his feet dangled over the end of the sofa and his head was bent at a weird angle, his face was relaxed. He looked sort of sweet and untroubled … when his mouth was closed.

  The nearly drained blood packet rested precariously against his chest. At that angle, it was in danger of dripping onto my upholstery, so I reached over him to take it away. His eyes snapped open, and he hissed at me, fangs in full play, as his fingers circled my left wrist and squeezed. Even in his weakened state, the crushing force of his grip dropped me to my knees. I braced my feet against the chair legs and tugged frantically as he pulled my arm toward his mouth. I threw all of my weight back, hoping to knock him off balance, but he didn’t budge. Finally, I bopped him on the end of the nose with my other hand, shouting, “No!” in my sternest voice.

  His grip loosened as he stared up at me, dark eyes boring into mine as if there were secret codes scribbled on my corneas. He blinked rapidly as my face came into focus.

  “Did you just slap me on my nose like a mischievous dog?” he asked incredulously as I tried to rub the circulation back into my wrist.

  I nodded, cringing away from him. “I think I did. ”

  His tone was at once menacing and amused. “And am I mistaken, or did you poke me in the eye earlier?”

  “I saw it on Shark Week,” I murmured.

  “What was that?” he asked, although I knew good and well that he could hear me.

  “I saw it on Shark Week,” I repeated in a louder, irritated tone. “The narrator said that if you’re attacked by a shark, you should jab it in the eye, and it might distract the shark long enough to let you go. I figured as another apex predator, it might apply to you, too. ”

  He chuckled, a hoarse noise that rattled in his chest like a cough. “So I went from shark to dog in a matter of hours? That’s a considerable demotion. Do you always apply animal-behavior techniques to interactions with clients?”

  “I try to avoid direct interaction with clients whenever possible, particularly when I’m alone,” I griped, yanking my arm out of his grip. “And I’ve never interacted with a client who shows fang as much as you do. ”

  “You have this way of sneaking up on me. My reflexes are generally better. ”

  “Well, it would appear that you’re not at your best right now,” I conceded. “I think we’ve gotten off to a bad start, what with the violence and the destroyed cell-phone hardware. Can we start over?”

  His face slipped into a shrewd expression. “Does that mean a renegotiation of our financial arrangement?”

  “No. ”

  “Well, I’m willing to try it anyway,” he drawled.

  “Iris Scanlon, pleased to make your acquaintance,” I said, reaching out to shake his hand. A pulse of warmth buzzed along my palm. He squeezed my fingertips in a way that had the nerves along my skin singing and sizzling. It felt like part tickling sexual energy, part organic emergency flare; like my sensible superego was screaming at the dumber, hornier regions of my brain that whatever the id was planning could lead to no good. I pulled my hand away abruptly. His lips twitched, and his eyes narrowed, like a hawk circling a clueless little mouse.

  “Cletus Calix, pleased not to be sprawled out on the floor. ”

  I laughed at an indecent decibel level and clapped my hand over my mouth. “Cletus? As in the slack-jawed yokel?”

  “In my language, it meant ‘illustrious,’ ” he said grumpily.

  I snickered. “Or that you shared a drinkin’ gourd with your eleven brothers, also named Cletus. ”

  He arched one sable eyebrow. “I’m going to assume I would have to originate from this lovely hamlet before I’d find the humor in that. ”

  “Hey, I live in Half-Moon Hollow,” I protested. “And no one in my family is named Cletus. No wonder you insisted on having only your initials on the contracts. ”

  “As opposed to Scanlon, which means ‘scandal’ in the old Irish tongue? There’s a proud lineage. ”

  “Regardless of etymology, I’m calling you Cal. I can’t call you Cletus with a straight face,” I told him, pushing dark, errant hair out of my face. “OK. Now that my panic high seems to be fading, can you explain how we’ve found ourselves in this situation? I had quite a few things on my to-do list this morning. ‘Take in stray, cranky vampire boarder’ was not on that list. ”

  “Cranky? Is my manner not suited to your delicate human sensibilities?”

  “Oh, no, I’ve always wanted an abrasive, sullen creature of the night to call my very own. My self-esteem was getting too high. ” He scowled at me. I gave him the shallow, sugary smile I gave Diandra on the rare occasion our paths crossed. “I have enough of my own sarcasm, Cal. I don’t need yours. ”

  He eyed me for one long, speculative moment. I felt weighed and measured by those deep, dark eyes. And I got the distinct impression that he didn’t like what he saw. Well, screw him and his “illustrious” lineage. I was a Scanlon, damn it. And my lineage was just as noble. I came from a long line of people … who were probably household servants to some very important people.

  I opened my mouth to tell him that he was welcome to leave anytime he could drag his undead butt out the door, but he finally said, “Someone interfered with my blood supply. There was some substance in the blood that made me weak and sick. I knew something was wrong after consuming a relatively small amount. But by that time, I couldn’t stay on my feet. I lay there on the kitchen floor, drifting in and out of consciousness, for most of the day. I didn’t even feel it when you fell on top of me. ”

  “I didn’t fall on top of you, I fell over you. ”

  His lips twitched. And I had this bizarre urge to slap the smirk right off of his face, which wasn’t exactly the best way to establish an amicable business relationship. What was it about this vampire that had me swinging on the mood pendulum so violently? I’d never had trouble behaving professionally around the undead. But something about my new charge made me want to kiss his mouth one minute and punch it the next. Neither of which was a good idea, because either would end up in my being bitten and/or maimed.

  Drawing me out of the internal smacking/kissing debate, Cal said, “You’re very concerned about semantics. Fine, when you fell over me, I didn’t feel it. I only sensed you after you so foolishly stretched your arm over my face. I could feel your pulse beating that delicious tattoo right over my nose. You have a very nice natural aroma. Are you aware of that? Lavender with a hint of iron-rich earth. ”

  “Am I going to have to get a rolled-up newspaper?” I demanded.

  A little dimple appeared at the corner of his mouth. I was amusing him, like a petulant little pet. Fantastic. I rolled my eyes. “Are you sure it was the blood that made you weak? Did you do anything else last night that could have made you sick? Blood eventually expires, right? Do vampires have allergies beyond silver and sunlight? Could you have had a reaction to something in your new house, like a cleaning product or new carpet?”
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