Read an Excerpt
“Is this payback?” I said as I jogged alongside a powder blue hearse, wearing a zippered black jumpsuit and Reeboks and panting in the eighty degree heat. “This is payback, right?”
Terry tossed me a pitying look. “Save your breath,” she said. “We’ll talk about it after we pick up our check.”
She was jogging on the passenger side of the hearse and seemed to be having an easier time of it—she looked cool and comfortable and quite the bad–ass in her black wraparound Christian Dior sunglasses.
“Is it because I forced you to wear mascara and laughed at you in a dress?” I said, wiping at the sweaty white makeup on my forehead. “That’s it, isn’t it?”
She pulled down her glasses so I could see her eyes rolling. “Zip it, okay? We’ll talk about it later.”
The two of us were doing our impression of Secret Service agents guarding the presidential limousine. We were there for crowd control, but I suspected we were actually more like window dressing for the motorcade making its way down Main Street in Venice, California. We aren’t trained ﬁghters, we don’t carry weapons, and we aren’t all that imposing physically. An unruly mob could ﬂatten us like bunnies under a bulldozer. But we’d gotten an inﬂated reputation for toughness after thwarting a hijacking a while back (long story), and Terry was all for exploiting it.
The occasion was the Coming Out of the Cofﬁn Parade, a celebration of the vampire in contemporary society. But it was also a publicity stunt for the new Dark Arts Gallery, a collection of businesses that planned to sell clothing, artwork, and furniture to the gothic demographic. Venice has long been a quirky beachside city that is home to artists, bodybuilders, chain–saw jugglers, tarot card readers, gangbangers, street basketballers, punks, hippies, scads of homeless persons, and a few yuppies. Now, with the inﬂux of Anne Rice devotees, you could ofﬁcially add vampires to the list of subcultures thriving here.
“Coming out of the cofﬁn?” I’d said when Terry ﬁrst told me about the job. “Are these gay vampires?”
“Why am I the world’s expert on gay people?”
I just stared at her. “Um, because you’re a ﬂaming lesbo?”
“Why do you straight people always insist on knowing if someone’s gay?”
“Well, the name kind of implies—”
“It’s none of your business what they do in the privacy of their own cofﬁns!”
“Okay…you’re right. I don’t care if they perform same–sex sucks. It’s really unimportant in the scheme of things.”
She gave me a You’re so unenlightened look. “They’re just regular people with a slightly different fashion sense and different preferences in recreational activities.”
“Recreational activities? Oh, of course,” I said, putting a ﬁnger to my cheek. “Let’s see, shall we go boating on Lake Arrowhead today, or go chomp on someone’s jugular? It’s so lovely out, let’s go jugular–chomping!”
Terry explained to me in a tone usually reserved for very small, retarded children that the occasion was for throwing off the yoke of oppression, an opportunity for vampires to come out into the light and assert themselves as an unappreciated and misunderstood minority.
“And what about the light?” I said. “Don’t they disintegrate if they go out in the sun?”
“They’re not real vampires, moron. They’re social vampires.”
“Oh. So what you’re telling me is that vampirism is a ‘lifestyle choice’ now.”
“And we need to be more tolerant of people who make this lifestyle choice.”
“Just like gay people.”
She let out an exasperated sigh. “See, this is exactly why I took the job! You’re so judgmental. You need to be exposed to more diversity, broaden your horizons a little.”
And there you had it. The reason we were working for vampires was that I needed horizon–broadening. I let her bully me into it rather than appear bigoted against an oppressed minority. Now, as I slogged forward in a black microﬁber outﬁt that stuck to me like tar on asphalt, lips and nails painted in matching obsidian, carrying a silver–tipped walking stick to ward off dogs and vampire hunters, I was feeling the tiniest bit silly for getting sucked in (sorry).
The sidewalks were full of summer crowds milling in front of vintage clothing stores, massage parlors, cafés, and neighborhood bars. People dressed for the season, I noted with envy. Sandals and shorts and tank tops, their arms and legs free to breathe.
They turned to watch us pass. Even in jaded, seen–it–all Venice this merited a glance: a motorcade of multicolored hearses trailing black and red bunting with two redheads dressed like refugees from The Matrix jogging next to the lead car. Three giant bodybuilders, also clad in black, ran alongside the next hearses in line.
“Anyhow, I couldn’t turn down an old friend,” Terry said over the hood of the hearse.
An old friend?
I was still reeling from the news that we’d been hired for this gig by Darby Applewhite, the onetime homecoming queen of Burbank High, now reigning as Ephemera, Queen of the Undead. Our former schoolmate was a real ﬁxture on the goth scene, according to Terry—she was lead singer in a band called the Flatlining Femmes. For some reason, Terry had kept this little tidbit from me until this morning when we’d gone to Darby’s house to pick her up in her cofﬁn. I could only guess why.
Did my sister have a secret life? Maybe when I’d been out on dates she’d been transforming herself into Batgirl and ﬂying off in pursuit of forbidden thrills. No one who knew her would put it past her.
“I’m not buying the for–old–times’–sake BS,” I said. “Since when do you care about Darby Applewhite? You hated her in school.”
“Shhh! She’ll hear you.”
“Oh, she’s gonna hear me through the walls of a hearse and the ebony cofﬁn? Does she have supersonic vampire ears? She didn’t in high school. How do you go from being the Princess of Perkiness to the Queen of Darkness, anyway?”
Terry shook her head. “People change, you know. It’s not as if we’re poured into a mold at birth that deﬁnes us our entire lives.”
There was no talking to her when she was in righteous mode. And I had to concentrate on oxygenating myself before I collapsed and was carted away by one of the hearses on parade. The two of us would have it out good when we got home, I promised myself. Yes sir, the red fur would ﬂy tonight.
Anyway, I had my own problems right now. In fact, I was perched on the horns of a real dilemma.
I was interested in two different men. A nice change from my usual state of dateless celibacy—except now I was not only celibate, I was frustrated. I had been that close to ending my dry spell a few weeks ago with a homicide detective named John Boatwright when he’d been called away on business. Only moments later, however, a cute FBI agent named Dwight Franzen happened upon me in my underwear inside a tent on the beach at Malibu (another long story).
I’d sent Franzen back out of the tent in order to get myself dressed. I hardly knew the guy, but I’d had a secret thing for him ever since he’d interviewed us after the hijacking incident. He waited outside the tent until I was decent, then he and I sat on the beach, talking and laughing into the wee hours. He had a nice sense of humor and was totally edible—short blond hair, broken nose, killer body. But he was the straightest of arrows— said no thank you to the champagne and didn’t so much as remove his shoes as we sat on the sand.
Kind of an Eagle Scout. But a dead sexy one.
I could only imagine what Mr. Straight Arrow thought when he’d found me in my bra and panties, guzzling champagne in a tent at midnight. Wild woman out of control. Runs with the wolves. Howls at the moon. Leaves the mattress in shreds.
The truth was somewhat different.
I was a dyed–in–the–wool good girl. Terry had co–opted all the wicked traits before we were out of diapers, and I sometimes think that I became the good twin in order to compensate. I suspected there was a wild woman out of control lurking somewhere deep inside me, but I was too scared to rattle her cage—not sure I wanted to reap the whirlwind.
But Franzen had struck me as so normal and nonthreatening—such a good egg—that I started to get ideas. This was someone I could trust, I thought. Someone who was most likely not a sexual deviant. Someone who might be perfect for taking WWOC out for a test drive.
As we watched the surf crashing in the moonlight I entertained a slow fantasy of peeling off those perfectly pressed pants, slowly unbuttoning the starched shirt, slipping off the spit–shined shoes. Just when I reached the point where I had his FBI badge propped up on the sand and his hands bound at the wrist in agency–issue cuffs, trailing my tongue up the length of his muscled stomach, he suddenly shot to his feet, freaking me out.
Had he read my mind? Was he going to arrest me for having impure thoughts about a government employee?
He looked at his watch and uttered an unprofane curse like Drat! and apologized for having to leave. He had a big surveillance planned the next day, he said—a suspected terrorist cell operating out of an apartment in Van Nuys. I think he only divulged this information as a way of apologizing for bugging out on our moonlit moment.
He swore me to secrecy and promised to call, sealing the promise with a kiss.
I couldn’t detain him; my country was at stake. Couldn’t exhaust him with sexual acrobatics when he needed to be alert, couldn’t send him off with sand in his ears when he needed to listen for massive plots being hatched over his headphones. It would be unpatriotic.
Not to mention slutty. As I indicated earlier, the reason I was in my underwear in the ﬁrst place was that I had been rolling around in the tent with Detective John Boatwright of the Beverly Hills homicide division, just minutes before Franzen arrived.
Franzen fell off the face of the earth after that. I waited for him to call. And I waited. If an Eagle Scout says he’ll call, he’ll crawl over broken glass to do so, right? I told myself that he was prevented by his work. The man was hunting domestic terrorists, for crying out loud! I resolved to be patient.
Boatwright was equally gorgeous, but ten years older and a lot more worldly. Battle scarred, his soul a shade darker. I wouldn’t want to try out WWOC with him. Might be inviting more trouble than I could handle. We’d mauled each other in a couple of frenzied make–out sessions but never got past go. One way or another we were always interrupted.
His phone, my sister.
I’d said I thought we should take it slower, and he’d accepted it like a gentleman. But I could tell he was getting frustrated, and I was slowly losing the battle against my libido. Make no mistake, Boatwright was ﬁne. I just wanted one more date with Franzen so I could make an informed choice.
Now, suddenly, the thought came: Why do I have to choose at all?
There’s no law against sleeping with two men at once, not in this great country. And if Boatwright and I happened to be involved when Franzen came back from the Van Nuys front, then maybe I’d assert my feminine prerogative to do a little comparison shopping.
Maybe you’d be a slut, said a voice in my head.
“I am not a slut!” I yelled.
Terry turned and stared at me, openmouthed. “I wish you’d stop torturing yourself and do the deed with Boatwright,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re coming unglued.”
“When I want your sexual advice I’ll ask for it!” I snapped back.
“Sorry.” She raised her hands in the air. “Just thought it’d be healthier than running around yelling ‘Slut’ at yourself like some spaz with Tourette’s—but hey, you do what you want.”
I hadn’t told Terry about my evening with Franzen. Hadn’t shared the dilemma with her. The less she knew about my horns the better. She’d only ﬁnd some way to complicate matters.
I glanced in the window of the blue hearse and got a thumbs–up from the driver, who was grinning at me like mad.
Must have heard my outburst through the glass. Story of my life, I thought. Born without the ﬁlter that keeps every stray thought from popping out of my mouth.
The driver was one of Darby’s two male roommates, a wraithlike blond of ﬁve feet ﬁve with heavily lined blue eyes, who went by the name of Lucian. Her other roommate, Morgoth, was driving the tiger–striped hearse. He was a chubby little thing with thick black hair in a widow’s peak that he enhanced with shoe polish so that it reached halfway down to his eyes. With Darby they formed the odd trio, sharing a dilapidated wooden house festooned with human skulls, iron torture implements, and body parts ﬂoating in formaldehyde. The place had made my blood curdle even in the bright light of a July morning.
The motorcade slowed to round the corner at Main and Rose. Three blocks to go. No thoughts of sex now. I was only thinking about getting this stupid job over with.
We traveled past run–down craftsman houses, weed–clogged yards, low-cost housing, and the occasional luxury condo that looked like it had gotten lost on its way to Santa Monica. Then our destination came into view, a warehouse that resembled a blue airplane hangar looming over the mixed neighborhood. There was a gaggle of local news types on the curb eager to get a sound bite (sorry) for the nightly broadcast.
I could hear it now: “Would you buy a used hearse from these people? Venice vampires open the Dark Arts Gallery on Jim Morrison’s old stomping grounds.”
The procession came to a stop by the curb. A black satin bow was stretched across the front door of the warehouse for the ribbon–cutting ceremony. Goth groupies began pressing toward the motorcade. Time for crowd control.
“Move back, everybody! Stay clear of the hearse, thank you!” I pointed at a man in a long black cape who was trying to peer inside the car. “You sir, could you move away from the hearse, please?”
I checked in with the crew. “This is Red One to Bruce One,” I said into my walkie–talkie. “Do you copy, Bruce One?”
The black box crackled. “Copy.”
“We’re about to unload the ﬁrst hearse. Keep the crowd back from the vehicles but don’t let them block the cameras. Publicity is the whole point here. Bruce Two, you in place?”
“These people have fangs!” said a panicked falsetto.
“Easy, Bruce,” I said in a calming tone. “They’re here to shop, not to feed.”
We had commandeered a group of actors to help out for the day—cohorts of our friend Lance Manley, who was now a rookie in the Malibu sheriff’s department. These guys weren’t the brightest bulbs in the bug zapper, I’d discovered, and though they were billed as martial arts experts, they turned out to be clueless about bodyguarding. Terry had suggested they imitate an action hero as a Method acting technique, and they all wanted to be Bruce Willis. Not an Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jackie Chan or Vin Diesel in the bunch. When ﬁsts were about to ﬂy over the issue, Terry settled the matter by making them all Bruce for a Day.
“Bruce Three, was that a copy?” I asked.
Crackle. “Back! Back, bloodsuckers!” I heard Bruce Three shouting.
I signaled to Terry that I’d be back and jogged down the line of hearses past the mob that was cheering and howling, demanding an appearance by the vampire queen. Bruce Three was stationed next to a royal purple hearse with a matching cofﬁn inside. My ﬁrst thought on seeing it was that Elizabeth Taylor had given up the ghost, but I was told that the hearse belonged to a famous artist named Viscera Vicious, who was also partial to purple.
On the curb, black–clad arms were ﬂying. A vamp with a bicycle chain looped through one side of his nose, shoulder–length maroon hair, and Freddy Krueger torso rippers attached to his ﬁngers was slashing at Bruce Three. Bruce dodged the spikes, brandishing a large wooden cruciﬁx.
“Back! Back, thou ﬁend of the dark!” Bruce yelled at the vampire.
I guess Bruce had had some classical theater training.
“Hey!” I ran up to the brawlers and jammed my walking stick between them. Steel spikes clanged on the stick and the cruciﬁx slammed into the shaft hard enough to crack wood.
“Way to go, Bruce,” I said. “Crack the cruciﬁx.”
“He was trying to bite me!” Bruce Three was six feet, four inches of bulging muscle, blond hair, and tanning–parlor skin. You wouldn’t think he’d be threatened by the anemic–looking goth who barely came up to his shoulder, but I guess you could say the same thing about me and spiders.
“Both of you…chill!” I said, then turned to the vampire. “Sir, did you attempt to bite my bodyguard?”
“Shyah. Like I want a mouthful of steroids,” the vamp grumbled, then added, “He was waving a cross at us!”
“Bruce, what are you doing with a cruciﬁx?” I scolded him. “That’s so not PC at a vampire gathering. You provoked them!”
Bruce Three looked down at his shoes. “I brought it just in case,” he said petulantly. “You never know with vampires. They can transﬁx you with their eyes and turn you into their sex slave.”
The vampires protested, screeching and brandishing their long nails. With visions of a riot breaking out, I clicked on my walkie–talkie. “Bruce Two, do you copy?”
“Come replace Bruce Three at the purple hearse.”
I grabbed Bruce Three by the arm and dragged him away. His muscled replacement, Bruce Two, jogged by with a snappy little salute. I didn’t think the vamps would give him any trouble. He looked like a slightly shorter version of Shaquille O’Neal.
“These people give me the creeps,” Bruce Three said with a shudder.
“They’re not real vampires, Bruce. You don’t ﬁght them off with cruciﬁxes. That’s a Hollywood myth.”
“What do you ﬁght them with?”
“Nothing!” I said, spouting the party line. “They’re harmless slackers dressed up like Dracula. They’re no different from you or me.”
He gave me a skeptical frown.
“Okay, they’re different,” I conceded. “But they’re not necessarily monsters.”
We arrived at the ﬁrst hearse just as Lucian and Morgoth were unloading Ephemera’s cofﬁn. After that, they would move to the tiger-striped hearse and unload Vlad the Retailer. His name was a pun on Vlad the Impaler, the ﬁfteenth–century Romanian prince who had been the inspiration for the ﬁctional Count Dracula, famous for skewering Ottoman invaders like cocktail shrimps and staking their squirming bodies across the countryside before consuming their blood.
Hence Dracula’s bad rap.
I hadn’t actually met Vlad or Viscera, and neither had I seen the so–called vampire queen when we picked up her cofﬁn this morning. They’d be revealed to me in all their glory at the same time as they were to the audience. After a few words for the camera, Ephemera would move to the front of the gallery and cut the black ribbon, after which the whole crowd would move inside to drink blood red cocktails, which I hoped got their color from grenadine, and to consume ﬁnger foods, which I hoped were not actual digits.
The drivers stood Ephemera’s casket on end and began to unlatch it.
A cutie–pie reporter chirped into a video camera, “We’re here at the culmination of the Coming Out of the Cofﬁn Parade in Venice, where the well–known vampire personality Ephemera will be emerging from her cofﬁn for the grand opening of the new Dark Arts Gallery, catering to those whose tastes run to the macabre…”
The cofﬁn lid swung open on a nightmare vision of Snow White in a poison–apple coma. The big blond hair I remembered from high school was now raven black and hung in raggy shanks down the front of her crimson gown. Her lips were purple; her sun–starved skin like boiled potato. She had a black widow spider tattoo high on her right cheek, eyebrows that were inverted black v’s, and fang caps on her canines that dug into her bottom lip.
It looked like she’d had a makeover in hell.
One of her acolytes blared on a bullhorn, “Ephemera, Queen of the Undead! Awaken to the world of the living! Grace us with your unearthly presence!”
The crowd went insane.
I guessed Darby hadn’t caused this much of a sensation since the regional playoffs, when instead of the regulation underpants she’d worn a red thong under her cheerleading outﬁt. Although she claimed it was an honest wardrobe malfunction (years before Janet Jackson thought she’d coined that phrase), it got Darby’s butt kicked right off the squad. But nothing could keep the Applewhite juggernaut from the homecoming court. She was too popular, too pretty, and too obliging to the football team to be deprived of the honor, and her coronation took place the very same week of her thong disgrace.
Now she had reinvented herself as a vampire goddess. I looked at her standing there in the cofﬁn surrounded by white satin, hands clutching a gleaming set of shears, and thought about how strange life could be. As the noise from the crowd reached a deafening roar, she slowly inclined forward, head nodding as if she were awakening from a deep, blood–drugged sleep.
Then her whole body pitched out of the cofﬁn and she hit the asphalt face–ﬁrst, the shears skittering away on the street.
Someone screamed. A girl in a ripped–up wedding gown fell over in a faint. I charged through the crowd, shoving my way through the vampires to get to Ephemera, who was sprawled ﬂat on her face, arms akimbo, red velvet skirt hiked up over her black ﬁshnet stockings.
“Call 911!” I yelled, kneeling at her side.
Terry whipped out her cell phone, stabbing in the number. “We need an ambulance! The corner of Rose and Fourth!” she yelled at the dispatcher. “Vampire down! I repeat: vampire down!”
The Bruces tried to contain the crowd, pushing the noisy peasant throng back from its fallen queen. I ignored the mayhem breaking out around me and turned Ephemera over onto her back, feeling for a pulse.
Her arm was as cold as lunch meat.
I brushed the hair away from her face and winced when I saw that her nose had been smashed on the street. The makeup lay thick and waxy on her blanched face. I lifted her wrist and the delicate hand ﬂopped like a bag of bird bones.
“What happened?” Terry crouched next to me. “Did she suffocate?”
“I don’t think so. Look at this.”
I pointed to two gaping puncture wounds on her neck. They were several millimeters in diameter, with black edges, surrounded by a painful-looking purple hickey.
Terry took in a sharp breath. “Omigod. She was bitten?”
“She was more than bitten,” I said. “She was sucked dry.”
This queen wasn’t undead.
She was dead dead.