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     Undead Sublet

       part  #2. 5 of  Half Moon Hollow Series  by  Molly Harper / Fantasy / Romance & Love
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Page 9


“You do that,” she said. “I’ll catch up to you. ”

As Jolene ducked into AAA Cleaners, I perused the posters for Burley Days hung in various shop windows. “Family Fun” apparently included rides, game, a parade, street performers, and something called the “First-Ever Faux Type O Bloody Bake-Off!” which sounded absolutely disgusting. I would be skipping Burley Days.

I wandered down the street, staring at the old 1930s architecture. In Chicago, these buildings wouldn’t be anything special. The Second City prided itself on preserving anything that had survived the Great Fire, the Depression, and both Richard Daleys. But it was clear that these old banks and general stores were the pride of the Hollow, lovingly restored and newly painted—all except this white and pink two-story building wedged between what were now an antiques shop and a florist. The windows were blocked over with soap, but I could still make out the faded paint reading, “HOWLIN’ HANK’S BBQ, Est. 1968. ”

The white paint flaked off the brick front like falling snow. The door handle was damaged, as if someone had tried to kick it in. Someone had replaced the old faded Realtor sign with a new one: “A Honey of a Deal! Call Sherry Jameson, Hometown Realtors!” with Sherry’s contact information spelled out in bold red print. Another poster for the Bloody Bake-Off had been tacked over a broken pane in the front door but was now hanging loose at the upper right corner, giving me a glimpse inside.

Someone had loved this place once but gave up a long time ago. The maroon pleather booths were cracked and peeling. The napkin dispensers consisted of paper-towel racks mounted against the oak paneling. The tables flanked a stout oak bar/counter. Old neon beer signs still hung on the walls, the tubing broken in places; one particularly ornate Budweiser sign was home to a rather large bird’s nest. I could barely see the kitchen through the dining room, but I could make out a huge brick pit in the middle of the space.

I could see that the dusty tables had been intricately carved with messages. “Marcy Loves Joe Lee, 1976,” or “Petey and Maybelline, First Date, 06/23/81,” or a heart carved around the initials “MH + DW, 1992. ” It was sort of sweet, all of these couples marking their lives together on the tables where they’d shared meals. And I was sad that those people, who most likely still lived in the Hollow, couldn’t come back there to visit their little milestone markers.

I rattled the doorknob, wondering if it counted as breaking and entering if the building was already “broken. ” The knob twisted in my hands, and—

“Kind of sad, isn’t it?”

Jolene’s voice sounded just behind me, making me jump and smack my head against the decorative rack of ribs hanging low over the doorway. “Ow!”

Jolene continued as if I hadn’t just beaned myself with plaster-of-Paris pork. “This place was a Half-Moon Hollow institution until about ten years ago. Hank Fowler died, and his kids just didn’t have the business sense or the flair for the kitchen that their daddy did. They limped along until a couple of years ago. They just couldn’t keep the doors open anymore. I don’t know why they’ve never sold the place. ”

“Too many prospective buyers injured themselves on the low-hanging decorative pig?” I said, rubbing my head. I nodded toward the poster. “OK, explain this Burley Days thing to me. ”

“It’s the highlight of the Hollow social calendar,” Jolene said, feigning distress at my ignorance. “It goes back to when burley tobacco was the big crop around here. Local farmers would bring their harvests to the brokers and get paid on one particular weekend each fall. They’d have money to spend, so vendors and carnies showed up every year to take it. It became a big party. Farmers around here have moved on to soybeans and such, but we’ve kept the tradition alive with funnel cake and ring toss. It’s a hoot. ”

“How does a Bloody Bake-Off figure into this?” I asked, cringing.

Jolene wrinkled her nose. “Jane says that Faux Type O is sponsoring some sort of cook-off, asking people to come up with recipes using synthetic blood. ”

“Why would the company want to do that?” I asked as we ambled back toward the van.

“Newer vampires miss human food,” she said. “They want more variety in their diet. Rather than lose their audience, Faux Type O is lookin’ for ways to incorporate its product into the sort of ‘cravin’ foods’ that new vampires will want. They’re going to put the winning recipes into a cookbook. So if you win, you’re basically selling the rights to the recipe for your prize money.

“They’re hosting the contests all over the country. Ophelia, the head of our local Council office—she’s really scary,” Jolene said. “She has connections at the beverage company, and she’s good at intimidating city officials. She said she wants to, quote, ‘integrate the undead community into the Hollow’s traditions. ’”

“She gets a cut from the company, doesn’t she?” I asked.

“Probably. ”

“Is Jane going to enter?” I asked.

Jolene stopped in her tracks, spluttering and choking, nearly doubled over in laughter. When she finally straightened up and wiped at her eyes, she wheezed out, “Jane’s first few solo attempts at serving coffee at the shop sent people into convulsions. I don’t think she’s willing to do that, even if it means winning twenty-five thousand dollars. ”

Now it was time for me to splutter. “Twenty-five thousand dollars! You’re telling me some vampire could win twenty-five thousand dollars just for making up a recipe?”

“Doesn’t have to be a vampire,” Jolene said, giving me a pointed look. When I scoffed, she cried, “What? You cook all the time. ”

“Yes, for people with pulses and the ability to process solid foods,” I said. “There are some dietary restrictions even I can’t work with. ”

“Fine, leave the vampire judges to deal with Jane’s mama’s Bloody Pot Pie. ” Jolene sighed as we climbed into the minivan. “Jane’s mama seems to think she can force Jane into eating human food again if she just gives her enough pot pies. If she figures out a way to put Faux Type O in a pot pie, I pity those poor volunteers—including Jane. ”

“Why would Jane volunteer for something like that?”

“Like I said, Ophelia is scary,” Jolene said, shrugging. “So, are you ready for tonight?”

“What’s tonight?”

“I’m droppin’ these clothes off, and then you, me, Jane, and Andrea are goin’ out for a girls’ night. Jane hasn’t made any of the plans, so we should be safe. Think you’re up for it?”

I snorted. “I think I’m ready for whatever nightlife Half-Moon Hollow can dish out. ”



I was so not ready.

Girls’ night, apparently, meant The Cellar, where it was “Country-Western Night,” and Jane never paid for drinks, because she’d rescued the owner-bartender during an attempted robbery a few years ago. So we had not only unlimited alcohol but also access to a mechanical bull.

One of the few things I could remember clearly about the evening was being grateful that Sam wasn’t home when I stumbled through the front door around 2:00 A. M. and broke my fall with my face. But according to the pictures Andrea saved to my phone, I had not only ridden the mechanical bull, I’d borrowed a stranger’s cowboy hat to make my experience more authentic. I thought the hat went very nicely with Andrea’s sparkly black tank top. And the western-wear lover’s phone number appeared to be scrawled on my arm, next to “Call me, Cowgirl!”

Oh, well, at least he was cute, according to the picture that showed me returning his hat and giving him a big wet kiss on the cheek.

The rest of the pictures included various shots of Jolene attempting karaoke, Jane hugging Norm, the cuddly bartender whose life she’d saved, and the four of us gathered at the bar, shot glasses in hand, giggling our asses off while Jolene tried to fit all of us into the frame.

At some point, my friends’ husbands dropped by to scrape our inebriated asses off the barroom floor and drive us home. I’d met Zeb before and liked him. Underneath his oily charm, the vampire Dick Cheney was a really sweet guy who clearly loved Andrea and his friends with the ferocity of a pissed-off honey badger. I sort of recalled that the one guy who tried to hit on me in his presence was given the scariest stink-eyed glare this side of a correctional facility. Jane’s Gabriel was more of a mystery, all brooding silence and stiff upper lip, until Jane made some ridiculous joke and he smiled like a man seeing boobs for the first time. But in a really romantic, courtly way.

The final picture was a group shot taken by Norm. Somehow I ended up in the middle of all of those couples without sticking out like the sore single thumb. I looked happy. Not just drunk-giddy or relaxed but genuinely, no-holds-barred happy. I couldn’t remember seeing that expression on my own face since… I couldn’t remember seeing that expression on my face.

Still, it was the deepest night’s (and most of the morning’s) sleep I’d had since I arrived in the Hollow. I rolled onto my back, and the reverberating pain in my head made me instantly regret moving. Zeb, my designated driver, had apparently left a glass of water and some Advil next to my bed when he’d dropped me off. I lifted my head from the pillow, just barely, to look at my alarm clock and saw that I was supposed to be meeting Chef Gamling at the Half-Moon Hollow First Baptist Church in less than an hour. Moving gingerly, I eased up from the bed and reached for the water glass. It only took me three tries to pick it up.

After scrubbing off eau de barroom, I discovered that Sam not only had soaked all of my clean bras and put them in the freezer, but he had also destroyed yet another cheap pot and left it in the sink. After preparing my traditional hangover cure of a bacon, egg, and tomato sandwich, I barely had time to Super Glue Sam’s car keys to the counter before I was due to meet Chef.

The Half-Moon Hollow First Baptist Church was one of those classic brick churches with stained-glass windows. I felt nervous walking through the back entrance of the fellowship, as if God would reject my hungover presence in his house like a faulty kidney. But he let me walk all the way into the industrial-sized kitchen unscathed, so figured I wasn’t his top “smiting” priority.

Chef Gamling was already stationed at the counter, shredding cheddar from a block the size of a football. A gigantic stock pot boiled on the stove, while another pot held a huge batch of green beans with bits of bacon. I could smell ham baking and the cinnamon-spice mix Chef used for his special apple pie recipe.

“Are we catering a party?” I asked.

He turned and leveled a critical gaze at my clean jeans and T-shirt, the sensible shoes and tight ponytail. He tossed an apron at me. “You’ll do. ”

My transition back to Chef’s galley slave was made with alarmingly little force. He had me chopping veggies, straining pasta, making a roux for the basic white sauce he needed. Dealing with hot butter fats was particularly cruel given my hungover state, but I think that was probably the point to Chef’s exercise.

“What exactly are we making?” I asked as he added the shredded cheese to the white sauce.

“Macaroni and cheese,” he said. “Ham. Granny Houston’s famous green beans—a recipe I had to barter a Le Creuset casserole for, thank you—and apple pie. ”

“For what?”

“The church has Saturday-afternoon fellowship meals. Everybody from the community is welcome, whether they pay or not, whether they’re members of the church or not. The pastor thinks it’s important for everybody to gather for a good meal, for no other reason than to spend time together. Usually, they play board games or volleyball, depending on the weather. I think the plan for today is an Uno tournament. ”
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