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     The Care and Feeding of Stray Vampires, p.5

       part  #1 of  Half Moon Hollow Series  by  Molly Harper / Fantasy / Romance & Love
Page 5


Cal seemed mildly annoyed with all the questions. He yawned, something I’d never seen vampires do, and blinked as if he was having trouble keeping his eyes open. “I am sure it was the blood, perhaps something injected into the plastic packet. I wouldn’t have noticed the tampering. And as for allergies, I’m not sure I should reveal my weaknesses to you. ”

“You think I’m going to attack you with Windex?”

He blinked again. “At the moment, I trust you more than the average human. But you might question your decision to let me into your home at some point tomorrow while I’m resting. ”

“You make a relevant but frustrating point. I’m actually questioning my decision as we speak. ” When he tensed, I added, “I figure if I tell you the truth now, you’ll have no reason to drain me over a minor misunderstanding later. I have to ask: Why would someone interfere with your blood, in particular? Why would someone want to hurt you? I mean, some other reason beyond your lack of personal charm or regard for communicative technology. ”

His cheek barely twitched with the effort to frown at me. “That’s classified information, Council business,” he said, slurring the S’s slightly. “I can’t discuss it with you. ”

“Oh, well, I’ll just go right ahead risking my neck without the full picture, then,” I muttered, crossing my arms.

“Full disclosure wasn’t part of our agreement. ”

“The agreement is being amended,” I shot back.

“And why am I not allowed to amend the agreement?” he demanded.

“I suppose ‘Because I said so’ isn’t a sufficient answer?” I asked. When this failed to bring about a response, I rubbed my hand over my eyes. “I brought you into my home. The least you can do is tell me why I made such a stupid decision. And before you insult my trustworthiness again, I might remind you that I have access codes to the homes of nearly every member of the Council. I know who and what they eat. I know when they’re fighting with their spouses, and when they’re having sex with people they’re not supposed to, and when they’re fighting with their spouses because they’re having sex with people they’re not supposed to. And I never breathe a word to a single soul, living or otherwise. It’s safe to say I can be trusted to use discretion. ”

Cal stared at me. I shot my best stern, irritated expression right back, which didn’t seem to faze him in the least. I really needed to work on my stern expressions. Apparently, they only work on teenage girls … or Gigi was just humoring me.

“There has been a series of vampire attacks on humans,” he finally said, his tongue thick and slow. “Sporadic, across the country. Horrific, bloody attacks with no apparent motive, vampires who have shown no previous signs of aggression lashing out at human companions and tearing them apart. The Council is doing its best to keep it quiet, because we don’t want to cause a panic in the human community. As best we can tell, the vampires in question all suffered a form of poisoning. The compound is like steroids for vampires, on an exponential level. It brings out the worst of our aggressive, territorial behaviors while enhancing our strength and lowering our inhibitions. ”

“Why would someone do that?”

“How old are you?” he asked. “Twenty-two, twenty four?”

“I’m twenty-nine,” I grumbled.

“So you’re old enough to remember what it was like following the Great Coming Out. The burnings, the ‘accidents. ’ The all-out lynchings of vampires. While that’s died down over the years, there are still conservative religious groups out there that would like nothing more than to prove to the world what vicious, dangerous animals we are. ”

“How many attacks have there been?”

Cal began to protest. I jabbed a finger toward his face, which he did not seem to appreciate. “If you tell me that’s classified information, I will shove my size-seven shoe up your rear. ”

“Charming,” he muttered. But my off-putting foot-to-rear threats might have been some sort of stimulant, because he seemed to focus more clearly on what I was saying. I would analyze that disturbing development later.

“There have been a dozen attacks over the course of the last two weeks. The first few were written off as random acts of violence by vampires who were too young to control themselves. But then the violence began affecting older vampires. Vampires with no history of harming humans. We went through the trash left at their homes. They all consumed Faux Type O, which in itself wasn’t unusual. It’s the most popular brand of synthetic blood on the market. But in each attack, the affected vampire had consumed Faux Type O that was part of an experimental batch made by Nocturne Beverages. The newer version was supposed to appeal to younger vampire palates, using a new botanical flavoring agent. The flavoring agent was mixed into a batch of product for test marketing, but rather than being set aside, as was intended, the modified batch was distributed along with the original product. ”

“I guess they didn’t learn anything from New Coke. ” I snorted.

Cal’s lips twitched, but he continued, all business. “I traced the supplier that produced the flavoring agent, Blue Moon Additives. Blue Moon submitted preview samples to Nocturne for testing, and they received positive responses from company taste-testers. I reviewed the manufacturer’s safety-testing records. Everything seemed to be in order, until I tried to contact Blue Moon after the attacks. The company simply doesn’t exist outside of paperwork. The address listed in Louisville is a vacant office park. ”

“What was the flavoring agent supposed to taste like?” I asked, curious about what vampires could find appetizing. Cal opened his mouth to answer. I held up a hand like a shield against the potentially icky information. “Never mind. Some things can never be unheard. ”

“Blue Moon is a front, registered by a cleverly constructed dummy corporation. The whole mess has been infuriatingly difficult to sort out. ”

Releasing that torrent of information seemed to exhaust him. He slumped back against the couch and closed his eyes. The slight ruddiness of cheek that the donor blood had given him was fading, leaving a waxy, nearly gray pallor.

“So why come to the Hollow?” I asked.

One brown eye popped open, staring balefully at me. “Because the first attack was here. It was written off as newborn blooklust. The Council managed to cover it up quickly and quietly. I suspect it was an initial test case, so to speak. It seemed a reasonable place to start. ”

“Why wouldn’t you let the Council staff know you’d been poisoned?”

“Because of the circumstances of my own poisoning, I believe it’s possible someone within the Council hierarchy is assisting in this effort. Only someone within the Council office would know why I am here. And only someone within the Council office would have access to the donor blood that was included in my welcome basket. It would be easy to tempt a younger vampire with money. As you know, the lower-level Council bureaucrats are pitifully underpaid. ”

“Shouldn’t people know about this?” I demanded. “Shouldn’t you warn the human authorities, at least?” He opened both eyes, just so he could roll them. I nodded, blushing a little. “Right, discretion, sorry. ”

“We don’t know if the person responsible has plans for poisonings on a broader scale. Since we would like to get through this crisis without the human government instituting an extermination program for my kind, we’re trying to handle this quietly,” he said in a wry tone. “All but a few of the affected bottles of blood have been tracked and recalled. ”

“Which plants were used in the flavoring agent?” I asked, thinking of the botany textbooks I had upstairs. If Cal had access to them, he might be able to—

He chuckled derisively. “Why would I share that information with you?”

Arching my eyebrow, I mentally nixed my impulse to offer to let him go through my bookshelves. Act like a jerk, get cut off from my treasure trove of information on plant life. I had to have some standards. Cletus the slack-jawed vampire could just deal with the consequences.

“Who among the local Council members knows why you’re here?” I asked.

“All of them. ”

“Which doesn’t help us narrow the pool of potential suspects for poisoning your blood,” I conceded. “Is it unusual that the Council left blood in your fridge in the first place? I mean, wasn’t that why you were hiring me?”

“No, I was hiring you to be polite. Ophelia was quite insistent that your services were essential. I was afraid I would offend her if I sent you away. To be honest, I thought your contract was a cover for her monitoring my activities. ”

“By that logic, wouldn’t it make sense that I might be the person who tampered with your blood?” I asked. His eyes narrowed at me. “I really have to learn to shut up. ”

“I know it wasn’t you,” he said grimly. “The blood was delivered as part of a welcome gift basket from the Council yesterday. You haven’t used the access code for my door before today. ”

“My friend Jane says you shouldn’t trust gift baskets around here,” I told him.

“That would have been helpful to know a few days ago,” he mumbled.

“So you’re sort of a vampire PI?” I asked. “Without the office in a semidisreputable part of town or the cheesy mustache?”

The aforementioned unmustachioed lips quirked in response. “In a manner of speaking. You might say my gift is problem solving. If I stay fixed on a problem or a question long enough, I will eventually find a solution. It started in my early days as a human. I’d always been clever with puzzles, games of strategy, battle plans. And now I’m used in investigations into financial indiscretions between vampires and the human business world, finding vampires who have disappeared or died under mysterious circumstances, tracking the human descendants of vampires interested in getting reacquainted with their human families since the Great Coming Out, that sort of thing. ”

He was sprawled back on the couch now, exhausted and drained by my questions. I helped him to his feet and walked him to the cellar door. “So if you’re the problem solver, why can’t you figure out who’s poisoning the vampires?”

He frowned at me, as if I was touching a tender subject. “It’s not an instant-gratification sort of talent. It’s more of an instinct that leads me in the right direction. This time, the problem has a few more twists and turns than I’m used to,” he said, his voice worn and as thin as paper as I helped him downstairs and into the tent. He barely glanced at his “room. ” If he was less than thrilled with my less-than-four-star accommodations, he didn’t say anything. I suspected that he found conversation with me to be circuitous and pointless.

Mainly because he told me that he found conversation with me to be circuitous and pointless. To my face.

3

Your family will not understand your decision to take in a vampire. To avoid awkward conversations, think of excuses to avoid their visiting beforehand. Solid suggestions include: Your house is being fumigated. You have a contagious rash. You are trying to read the North and South trilogy from beginning to end.

—The Care and Feeding of Stray Vampires

I stayed up a good portion of the night, sitting on the couch, clutching my mother’s heirloom silver pie server. Much like with sunlight, vampires are allergic to silver. For them, it’s like touching every caustic, irritating substance in the world all at once, combined with the annoyance of listening to actress-slash-models talk about their “craft. ” It can actually burn the flesh from their bones if they’re exposed to enough of it, which is why the vampire pepper spray I carried was mostly very pure colloidal silver.
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