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Sex and the Single Vampire
By Katie MacAlister
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2004 Marthe Arends
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe message waiting for me at the hotel desk was short and concise: Either you come back from England with bona fide proof of a spiritual entity, or you needn't bother returning to the office. There's no room in UPRA for crackpots and never-beens.
It was signed by my boss, and the head of the western U.S. division of the United Psychical Research Association, Anton Melrose II.
"Well, isn't that just Jim Dandy fine," I muttered to the message as I crumpled it up and tossed it into the appropriate receptacle, situated at the end of the reception desk, wishing as I did that I could Summon up a demon or two, minor ones, just bad enough to scare the bejeepers out of my employer. "I'd pay good money to see him eat his words."
The woman at the desk smiled as she passed me the key to my room. "I'm sorry, Miss Telford; we're not responsible for the quality of the messages. We have to deliver them no matter what they say."
I smiled back, secure behind the sunglasses I wore everywhere. "That's okay; it's just my life falling apart, nothing to worry about. Is there a computer free now, do you know? I'll only need fifteen minutes."
Tina, the receptionist at the St. Aloysius Hotel in jolly old London, checked the log for the twocomputers kept in a small, dark room for the use of those businesspeople who couldn't live without an Internet connection. "It's all yours."
I gathered up my bag, ignoring the clinking that came from within, and mumbled my thanks as I limped down the short hallway that led to the computer room. One of the two computers was taken up by a skanky-haired young man of about twenty, who raised one pierced eyebrow as I carefully set my bag down next to the chair of the second computer. The clink of glass bottles was loudly evident.
"It's holy water," I told him when his pierced eyebrow rose even higher. "For the ghosts. Nothing drinkable. That is, you could drink it, but I've had it on the best authority that holy water tastes like tap water that's oxidized for a couple of days."
He blinked at me.
"Bland," I explained, then turned my attention to the computer. I waited until he was busy with his own screen before pushing my sunglasses up so I could better see the computer screen, logging quickly into the e-mail account I'd set up for those rare times UPRA had seen fit to send me outside of the Sacramento area (which is to say, twice), just as quickly scanning the six messages collected. "Spam about an herbal product guaranteeing to make my penis grow larger, spam about low mortgage rates, e-mail from Mom, spam about something to do with furry barnyard friends that I'm not even going to open, e-mail from Corrine, and spam asking me if I'm single. Well, it's nice to know I'm missed."
The young man snickered and logged off his computer, pulling up a briefcase that had the name of a major software company embossed on the side. "Do you see lots of ghosts, then?" he asked as he stood and shoved in the chair.
I pushed my sunglasses into their normal position and gave him a little moue of regret. "So many I hardly have a moment to myself. They're very simpleminded, you know. Really no different from a puppy. Just a kind word or two, a little pat on the head, and they follow you around forever."
He stood staring at me for a moment, as if he couldn't decide whether I was serious or not.
I held up both hands to show him there was nothing up my sleeves. "I'm joking. No ghosts to date."
He looked relieved, then managed to twist his relief into a familiar sneer common to all young twenty-somethings. I ignored him as he left, pulling my glasses off as I scanned my mother's e-mail, filing it to be answered later before I clicked on Corrine's.
Allie: This is just a reminder in case you've forgotten-the Dante book signing is at the new Hartwell's store in Covent Garden tomorrow night, 7 p.m. London time. Be there or I'll do something so horrible to you, I legally cannot put it into writing.
Hope you're having fun! I don't suppose you took my advice and left the shades at home?
P.S.: Don't forget to give Dante the key chain I made him. Be sure to tell him how long it took me to embroider his name into the warding pattern. And don't forget to ward it! I doubt if I will ever live down the embarrassment of the time you handed over an unwarded key chain to Russell Crowe!
"Mmm. What a shame. The C. J. Dante key chain was mysteriously left at home," I told the computer as I logged off and popped my sunglasses back on just in case I ran into anyone in the hallway. For a moment I just sat, exhausted, listening to the sounds of the hotel and the noise outside the window of London on a busy winter afternoon. Anton's message did nothing but add to my exhaustion. I had seen the handwriting on the wall for the last six months-"Produce or else" was his motto, and I was lamentably lacking in the proof department.
"This is it, Allie," I said aloud to the empty room. "Put up or shut up time, and I have to tell you, the job openings for an unproven Summoner are pretty slim."
My voice echoed in the room as I continued to sit and dwell on my grim future. It almost seemed like too much trouble to push myself out of the chair and haul my bag of tricks upstairs to the small corner room that had been allotted to me, but a glance at my watch got me up and heading to the bed that promised a few hours of much-needed blissful nothingness before I had to go off to a haunted inn and hunt ghosts.
The dream started even before I felt myself relax fully into sleep. It was dark, nighttime, the air damp and musty-smelling. I walked through an empty house, its walls stained with mold and age and unsavory things that my mind shied away from identifying, my footsteps echoing loudly as I moved from room to room, searching for something, a place, somewhere I was supposed to be. Small black shapes skittered just beyond my range of vision in every room I entered, faint, soft phantom noises trailing behind me like a wake. Mice, or something more disturbing? I wondered as I let my fingers trail over a dusty banister that led me downstairs into a dark pool of inky blackness. Fearless as I never was in real life, I pushed opened the door at the foot of the stairs and saw a man stretched out on a table.
A man? Even in my dream I modified that word. He was no mortal man; he was a god, a perfect specimen of masculinity created just for my plea sure. Long black hair spilled onto the table, a halo of ebony against the light wood. His eyes were open, dark, but not as dark as his hair, almost mahogany in color, rich with browns and reds and even a bit of gold flaring around the edges of his irises. The long, chiseled lines of his jaw and squared chin were still, as if he were sleeping, but his eyes followed me as I moved into the room. He was naked but for a piece of cloth covering his groin, his body striped with what looked to be hundreds of small cuts, blood dripping slowly from the wounds onto the floor beneath the table.
I approached him, wanting to touch his wounds, wanting to heal them, but his voice caught and held me in a net of immobility when he spoke my name.
"Allegra," he said, his eyes dark with torment. "Help me. You are my only hope."
I reached out to touch him, to push a lock of his hair off his forehead, to reassure him that what ever it was he needed, I would do, that I wouldn't let him suffer any longer. I would send him on to eternal rest. As my fingers touched his heated skin, I woke up, gasping for air, sitting bolt upright in the bed in my hotel room, shivering despite the fact that I had cranked up the heat just before I settled down for my nap.
"What the ... Oh, no, now I'm dreaming in the daytime?" I reached for the carafe of water that I keep at my bedside. I've found that while water can't wash away the foul taste night terrors invariably leave in my mouth, keeping hydrated is an important part of limiting the length of my nightly trial.
Faint whispers of the dream stayed with me as I showered, brushed my teeth, and dressed in a pair of black wool pants and white silk blouse. I frowned at myself as I pinned my ordinary brown hair out of my eyes, and applied the minimal makeup needed to appear in public without frightening small children or the el der ly. There were dark smudges under my eyes, making my skin look bruised.
"It's going to get a lot worse if I start dreaming during the day, too," I told my reflection. The Allie in the mirror didn't look any too happy at that thought. I knew how she felt-sleep was precious enough; if the only time I had to catch up on what I missed each night was taken from me, I'd be a walking zombie in just a couple of days.
I poked around the hotel room for a bit, tidying up my bag of tricks (the digital voice-activated recorder needed new batteries, a bottle of holy water had come loose from its cocoon of cotton and was banging up against the thermal-imaging video recorder, and the EMF (electromagnetic force) counter was almost out of its leather case, which would have scratched the front of the ion analyzer). I strapped the motion detectors down firmly, double-checked that the infrared nightscope was secure, and replaced the damaged ultrasonic emission detector with the updated version I'd bought that afternoon.
"Too bad none of this stuff seems to really work," I told the bag sadly. It declined to answer me. I plopped down on the floor beside it, glancing at the clock. There was still an hour to go before I had to head out.
"No time like the present, I suppose," I said as I plucked a thick piece of chalk from the bag. "It can't hurt to give it another shot. What's the sense in being put in a haunted hotel room if you don't get to see the ghost?"
Clearing my mind of everything but the vision of an open door, I traced a circle before me using the chalk. The circle would hold the ghost after I Summoned it, until I either Released it to its next existence, or grounded it into the here and now.
That was the theory, anyhow. I hadn't actually ever successfully Summoned a real ghost, although I did have a nasty run-in with a chill wind in a mansion on the Oregon coast that was supposed to be haunted by a timber baron. Still, as Anton was the first to tell me, a draft does not a ghost make, which left me more than a little desperate. My job with UPRA was at stake, and although I knew En gland was just teeming with spiritual activity, thus far the ghosties had chosen to stay away from me.
A bit jadedly I intoned the words traditionally used to Summon ghosts.
"It's not going to work," I told my toes as I finished the invocation. "It never works. I'm going to have to go home without one single successful Summoning under my belt, and that'll be the end of my short and less than brilliant career as a regional Summoner. Stupid En glish ghosts. You'd think the least they could do is to show up for an out-of-town visitor!"
I fingered the vial of dead man's ash that I brought with me just in case. Dead man's ash, for those of you who don't dabble in Summoning, is created by burning tree limbs that have fallen over a grave-there's no actual dead man in it, although I like the colorful name. A witch once told me she'd had great luck using dead man's ash, so I opened the bottle and sprinkled a little of the gray ash out onto my palm, repeated the words of the Summoning as I held it over the circle, then released it with the mental image of a door slowly opening to allow all of the possibilities.
The air within the circle shimmered a little. I squinted at it, waving away bits of ash that were wafting out of the circle and straight toward my nose. Was it just the ash, or was there something forming in the circle?
The air was definitely shimmering, although ever so faintly. I batted at a few more bits of ash that were drifting toward my face and wondered if I should sprinkle more dead man's ash. The air within the circle pearlized, gathering itself as if it wanted to form into something, but couldn't make up its mind just what that was.
I took in a deep breath preparatory to repeating the words of the Summoning, and ended up sneezing out a bit of ash that had made its way into my sensitive nose.
A small, disgruntled-looking three-legged gray-and-white cat stood in the circle, glaring at me with yellow eyes. My jaw hit the floor as I realized I could see right through the cat's hazy body to the bed behind it.
The skin along my arms and back tightened, the hair on my neck standing on end as I realized what I was looking at-a ghost! "I did it! I've Summoned a ghost! Oh, my God, I can't wait to tell them back at the office. You, little kitty, have just saved my job!"
I bounced up and down as I beamed at the cat. "My first ghost, my first real live ghost."
The cat twitched an ear at my voice, and sat down to lick its hindquarters.
"Well, okay, you're not alive, but you're a ghost! A ghost cat! Who'd have thought this room was haunted by a cat? This is so cool!"
I reached into the circle to see if I could feel any sensation around the cat, but it wavered and broke up like a bad TV picture.
"Oh, right, I can't break the circle unless I ground you first." I crawled over to my bag, rooting around in it until I found my notebook. "This is just so amazing! I can't believe I did it! A ghost! Anton is going to be pea green with jealousy. Okay, pussycat, just sit tight there and I'll ground you so you can leave the circle. Let's see ... um ... grounding, grounding ... ah. Here we go."
The procedure to ground a Summoned spirit was pretty straightforward: Summoned beings were, by the very nature of Summoning, bound to the person who called them. Grounding them simply meant that they could not slip off to any other plane of existence without the Summoner first Releasing them.
"The forces of life shine strong within me," I told the cat. It looked unimpressed at my prose and continued to lick its rear end. "The power of death binds you to me. Until death overtakes life, you will heed my command. By my words, you are thus bound."
It was short and simple, not much to it at all, but as I spoke the words and traced protective symbols on my left hand and over my right eye, the figure of the cat slowly solidified until it looked like a translucent gray-scale picture of a cat licking its butt. I reached my hand into the circle, and was delighted to note that the cat's image didn't shimmer in the least. "At least I know the grounding works," I told it as my hand scooped through the cat's middle. Other than a slight tingling of my fingertips, the ghost cat felt like ... well, air. Slightly tingly air.
"Pictures!" I shouted, scrabbling in the bag. I pulled out my digital camera and snapped my fingers a few times until the cat looked at me. Its ears flattened back at the flash, but I got a few shots before it stood up and hobbled off to investigate my shoes. "They are just not going to believe this back home," I mumbled as I looked at the back of the camera at the images I'd just taken. The cat was faint and a bit fuzzy, but clearly visible. I could have hugged it, I was so happy.
I was busy with the ion analyzer when the alarm on the clock went off. "Drat it all! Carlos will be waiting for me." I chewed my lip and looked back at the cat. It had limped over to a chair and curled up on a pillow, turning its back to me as I used every machine I had to record its presence. I wanted to stay and continue recording it, but it had taken me three months' worth of begging and pleading e-mails to arrange for a local representative of the Society for the Investigation of the Paranormal to show me one of the most haunted spots in London. I couldn't cancel.
I got to my feet and collected the lighter version of the dark glasses I wear during the day. A quick look in the mirror confirmed what I had known-my eyes hadn't changed during the miracle of the Summoning. I glanced one more time at the cat, but it was apparently sleeping. According to the rules of Summoning, it shouldn't be able to leave without my Releasing it, but maybe there was an expiration date or something that meant I had only a little time with it.
"Just stay put, kitty, and I'll be back as soon as I possibly can," I told it as I shoved my glasses on and grabbed my purse. The Do Not Disturb sign swung from the door handle as I closed the door and headed downstairs.
The guy slouched over a magazine at the reception desk was the evening clerk; I recognized him from the last couple of nights when I had slunk out of the hotel on my ghost-hunting missions.
"Hi. I'm in room one-fourteen. I'm going out for a bit; will you take any messages for me? Oh, and I left some equipment out, very fragile and expensive equipment, so I don't want anyone going into my room."
"Not a problem," the clerk said without even lifting his eyes from his magazine.
Excerpted from Sex and the Single Vampire by Katie MacAlister Copyright © 2004 by Marthe Arends. Excerpted by permission.
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