Read an Excerpt
You know how you see someone you love stuck with a job they don’t know how to do? Or maybe they do know how, but they don’t like it, maybe even hate it? And you watch them struggle with a kind of dread because you know if they can’t pull it together you’ll end up offering to help them, even if the job’s over your head? Even if you know you’ll probably suck at it but you can’t just leave your loved one stuck with something awful? Even though you’re pretty sure it might devour your lives?
Yeah, that’s how I ended up working at Walmart the summer my friend Jess and I were eighteen, which was just so stupid. Among other things, neither of us needed the money, and also, Walmart is evil. I knew that long before I became a creature of the darkness. But that’s a whole other story and we come off pretty drunk in it.
Also, it’s why I’m cobitch in charge of Hell.
I’m just too nice, dammit. It’s one of my biggest character flaws.
Fortunately I’ve been able to avoid my cobitch responsibilities for a couple of months now, and I had my brother/son’s—the vampire king’s—new churchgoing activities (he’s on the Historical Preservation Committee and running the cookie exchange, which—I can’t even), my dead dad, the never-ending quest to housebreak Fur and Burr, and the entire household being a slave to Thing One and Thing Two to thank for it. (Off topic, lately I’ve realized we are dangerously close to being outnumbered by babies. Which just . . . yikes.)
All this to say it’s pretty chaotic around here. Our normal is other people’s chaos. Actually, it’s other people’s fever dreams. I was legitimately busy. Which I told myself as often as I could. It’s not like I just lolled around the mansion, talking my sexy husband into role-playing Scarlett and Rhett having passionate, pre-rape foreplay on our sweeping huge staircase. I loved scooping him into my arms and darting up those stairs only to ravish him in our bedroom and talk about how, frankly, my Sinclair, I don’t give a damn.
Lots to do, no time to hang around Hell. Except Hell had shown up in the form of my sister, Laura. Half sister, technically; we had the same dad, but Laura’s mom was Satan, making my little sister the Antichrist. Or the Anti-Antichrist, I guess, since she used to rebel against the devil by being good. Because how else would you do it? How can you outdevil the devil? It’d be like trying to outvapid any one of the Kardashians: no matter how determined and driven you are, no matter how much time you devote to what you suspect is the impossible, it cannot be done.
And I had to give my little sis props: Laura never once tried outdeviling the devil. Instead, she was (and is) a fixture at various local soup kitchens, food banks, church banquets, shelters, and the occasional Democratic fund-raiser.
Plus, there was no need for passive-aggressive maternal rebellion anymore, because I killed Satan (crazy week—don’t get me started). If nothing else, there was no point in rebelling against the devil when you were the devil.
Anyhoo, Laura was here, she wasn’t queer, and I’d better get used to it. Or however that was supposed to go.
“Share,” she said again, tapping her Payless-shod foot on the faded peach-colored carpet. Black flat, rounded toe, made of some horrific plastic/pleather hybrid; I reminded myself that it wasn’t nice to tackle the Antichrist for the purpose of confiscating her shoes and then blowing them up.
Mind you, this was a woman who could literally travel through space and time using only the force of her will, a woman who, it was foretold, would take over the world, and she can’t bring herself to wear footgear that isn’t wretched.
Also, round-toed shoes have creeped me out ever since I read Roald Dahl’s book The Witches. The way Mr. Dahl tells it, witches have to wear round-toed shoes because . . . they have no toes! Their feet just stop at the end of the . . . whatever the bones are just before the toe bones start, that’s where their feet stop. They just stop! Even thinking about it summons my vomit reflex. “We agreed. Sharing, remember?”
Eh? Oh, right. I shook off my case of the creeps and tried to focus. Running Hell. Sharing running Hell. Which was an unfortunate word choice, since I had been an only child for most of my life (my half sister/work buddy/occasional nemesis didn’t pop up on my radar until I hit thirty—an age I’ll be for centuries, so it’s a good thing I never got that tattoo), so “sharing” wasn’t something I’d had much practice with.
“We agreed,” she continued, being as dogged as I was when I tried to talk her into some decent shoes, “we’d run Hell together.”
Agreed? Run it together? Hmm. Didn’t sound like me. I tended to avoid work, not blithely agree to it. Unless I was trying to get back on someone’s good side. Which, given that I’d killed my sister’s mom, was something I would have had to do. Dammit. I probably did agree to share. The things we do in moments of weakness: recycling in a desperate attempt to save the earth, obsessively updating Amazon wish lists, agreeing to run Hell with the Antichrist.
“We agreed”—ah, cripes, she was still going on about this—“it was the least you could do after murdering my mother.”
That irked me, but not for the reason you’d think, which is why many people are (rightly) convinced I’m a bad person. “First off, the least I could do is nothing.” Huge pet peeve of mine, along with people using amongst and towards and synergy, and people mailing Christmas letters instead of cards. And I’m saying that as someone who used to do the letter thing; I actually thought people were genuinely interested in the promotions I didn’t get, the shoes I did, the guys I didn’t marry, the babies I didn’t have. But even my puffy vanity couldn’t keep convincing me people wanted an envelope full of Who Cares, I’ve Got My Own Problems for Christmas, so now I don’t send anything.
Ironic, because I actually have cool (cool = weird/terrifying) stuff to write about now. Well, we picked out our tree—had to go at night, obviously, and then helped ourselves to half a pint of B neg from a would-be Christmas tree thief. BabyJon is learning to walk, his parents are still dead, and I killed the devil. Happy holidays from all of us at Vamp Central! In lieu of gifts, donate blood. Because the Red Cross shouldn’t be able to hog it all, dammit.
“Okay?” I needled. “‘The least I can do,’ by definition, is nothing. Ergo the word least. Ergo the word ergo.”
“Which you’ve been doing! All across the board, nothing but nothing.”
“All right, fair point. It’s just I hate when people say ‘the least I could do’ without acknowledging—”
“Stop talking. Right now.”
“—that the least I could do is nothing.”
“It was really naïve of me to hope you’d stay on track for this.”
“You bet it was. Also, if the shoe fits.”
“That makes no sense.”
“And while we’re on the subject of shoes—”
“—those things on your feet could make it through a nuclear winter, which, believe it or not, is not a selling point. That plastic/pleather doesn’t look like it would ever break down. Cockroaches and those shoes, that’s all that would remain on the poor scorched earth.” The thought was so sad, I had to shake my head. “Also, killing someone in self-defense isn’t murder. Right, Dickie-Bird?” It was handy to have a cop in residence, and this wasn’t the first time I’d had that thought. “Not murder?”
“Justified homicide, yes, it is. Yes, it is.” Detective Nicholas Berry, one of my several thousand roommates, was perched on the peach-colored love seat as he cradled Thing One and cooed to him. We were surrounded by peach, which is why our nickname for the peach-colored parlor was Peach Parlor.
(Sometimes we had no imagination. Of any kind. Peach Parlor, my God.)
It was at the front of the mansion, just off the entryway, and we usually used it to entertain welcome guests and occasionally corner uninvited guests. But Dick and his full-time sweetie, Jessica, had taken into their heads that the color peach soothed their weird babies, and if it was true, those babies were probably going to be the most relaxed and laid-back on the planet because everything . . . couch, wallpaper, love seat, overstuffed chairs . . . peach. One hundred percent peach. All peach, all the time. We’re having a special in the Peach Parlor, and the special is peach.
Meanwhile, the Thing That Sired Lovers of Peach was still cooing at his baby. “Not a jury in the world, no, there isn’t, not a jury in the world and oooh! Look, she’s yawning. Come see, you guys.”
Damn . . . that was Thing Two, then. Dick had knocked up my bestie (which Jessica loves to pronounce “beastie” and which, since she is as sleep deprived as a POW, I let slide) with twins and even though they were fraternal, they looked identical to me. Except for the boy having a penis and the girl not, I mean. They were pale, like Not-Nick, with Jessica’s not-pale features. Same dark eyes (their besotted parents claimed the babies had big pretty eyes but whenever I looked, said eyes were squinched up in a yawn or a yowl or in sleep . . . they could be cross-eyed for all I’d been able to see), same teeny nose, same pointy chin, same weirdly gangly limbs. Yes, I will be the one to make that particular announcement: Thing One and Thing Two were pretty hideous.
“Guys? C’mere, loooook!”
Laura, still standing in her patented “arms akimbo in judgment” pose in the parlor doorway, didn’t move. I didn’t, either. “I’m not crossing the room to watch your kid do something she does at least five dozen times a day.” Yeah, Not-Nick and Jessica were doing that annoying thing parents did, to wit: come see my ordinary kid do ordinary stuff that we totally think is the opposite of ordinary and we’re sure you’ll agree, rinse, repeat. Repeat × 1,000.
“You know how I know I need to get more sleep?” he asked and, since I was pretty sure it was rhetorical, I didn’t reply. Which worked out fine, because after a pause he kept going. “I couldn’t find the babies last night. Jess was asleep, and the babies were asleep, and you guys were out hunting, and I went to look in on them and for a few seconds . . .” The exhausted, slightly dazed smile fell off his face and I saw with a start that he was afraid. Not “what if they don’t get into a good college?” afraid but “I didn’t know what to do and was scared” afraid. “I couldn’t find them. I knew they were in the room—where else would they have been?—but they weren’t there. At least, it seemed like they weren’t. Gave me a hell of a start.”
“You’re right,” I decided. “You need more sleep. Your lazy babies are hogging it all.”
“I don’t think sleep works like that,” he said through a yawn.
Laura was now gazing thoughtfully down at father and daughter. “Maybe we shouldn’t discuss this in front of the baby.”
“Trust me, the baby doesn’t give a shit.” I chortled. “Except, of course—”
“—when she shits! Heh.”
“Scatological humor,” Laura commented, unimpressed. “A mark of true class.”
“I’m full of surprises.” Scatological. Probably something to do with poop, right? Scat = poop, taught to me many years ago by my mom (she hunts; geese, deer, ducks, and wild turkeys are not safe from her). Which wasn’t even true, since I don’t even like poop humor and if I ever did, Family Guy would have killed that part of me long before now. If there had been no Family Guy, South Park would have taken care of the job. But there’s no level I won’t sink to in order to get the Antichrist off her “you promised, and also it’s ‘bring your sister to work’ century” thing. If that meant poop references, I was fully prepared to make them. It was, after cornering my husband and banging him senseless, my number two priority. Ha! Number two. Get it? (It’s possible I need professional help.)
I’d been lucky so far, and I knew it. This place, our St. Paul mansion (dubbed Vamp Central about a day after we moved in), was a madhouse even on good days. Normally I disparaged that. Normally I bitched about it like I was getting paid. I never wanted the queen-of-the-vampires gig, but was slooowly becoming used to it. (Used to it = dead inside.) Or resigned, I guess—that’s probably a better word. And I sure never wanted to live with assorted vampires, werewolves, and babies, but again: resigned. Didn’t want to be married to a vampire, didn’t want to go time traveling. Didn’t want to be haunted, literally haunted, by several ghosts (spirits? shades? life forces? pulse challenged?), including that of my loathed stepmother. Didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t.
And now, when it was too late to fix it and too early to properly mourn my pulse-accompanied lifestyle, I missed the normality of everyday life. Predeath my biggest problems had been not strangling my boss, saving my hard-earned pennies for the new Louboutins, avoiding my stepmother while trying to get my father to pay attention to me (yes, pathetic, and yes, thar be daddy issues ahoy), watching Jessica go through more boyfriends than a cat through cat litter, and trying to vote Republican without feeling like a traitor to every female ever conceived. All those things were a huge pain in my ass back in the day (back in the day = about three years ago), but now that I had to worry about death threats, death attempts, navigating a timeline I screwed, kind-of-sort-of raising my half brother/son, accepting that my mother is (groan, shudder) dating and (argh!) possibly having sex, and now cohosting Hell with my half sister, it seemed like my old life was laughably carefree.
It wasn’t, of course, but that’s how we are about older, smaller problems when faced with newer, awfuler ones: ah, the good old days! Which weren’t so great, and certainly not all the time, but I’m going to pretend they were perfect.
“But that’s enough murder talk around my baby,” Not-Nick continued, reminding me that I was in the middle of a conversation, kind of. “Not a sentence I thought I’d be saying ever,” he added cheerfully. “I was pretty convinced I’d die alone.”
“That’s the spirit, Dick-Not-Nick.”
A word about Nicholas Berry and his annoying name. In the old timeline, we’d known him as Nick. Which made sense, since it was shorter and more efficient and short for Nicholas, his actual name. For some unexplained, illogical, silly-ass reason, when I returned to the changed timeline, he informed me no one ever called him Nick, no one ever called him by his full first name, and furthermore, his nickname was and always had been Dick so I’d better get with the program, and also, we’re out of milk so the next time I’m out and about could I please bring home a gallon of skim?
Outrageous! First of all, skim? That’s white water. That’s all skim milk is: they take out all the wonderful stuff that makes milk taste like milk and replace it with white water and people actually drink that shit. Second, Dick? How? How did his family get Dick from Nicholas? It makes no sense. And nothing against the Dicks and Richards of the world, but I always disliked that one. Call me immature if you like—I’ve earned it many times over—but come on: The word. Is slang. For penis. If he was a woman named Virginia, would he insist we refer to him as Vag? I think not! (God, I hope not.)
Old habits were hard to break, and I had enough trouble remembering people’s actual names, never mind their nicknames both pre- and post-timeline-fuckery. Trouble was, for some silly reason Nick disliked being called Nick and called me on it. A lot. (My vamp queen title never seems to impress or intimidate the people I want it to impress or intimidate.) Which was his prerogative, but I dunno. Seems like his time could be spent on pretty much anything else.
“Sure, she doesn’t understand now,” the Roommate Formerly Known as Nick was saying, “but it’s never too early to get into the habit of watching absolutely everything we say all the time around the babies constantly.”
Oh, goody. “Yeah? Well, let me give you a tip, No-Longer-Nick—”
“God, will you stop with that?” Exhausted, but not too exhausted to glare and correct me. I had to admire that. “You know what year all your favorite shoes came out but can’t remember which four-letter word I prefer being called?”
“—it’s kind of hard to accept your authority on anything when you’re dressed like . . . um . . .”
DadDick was dressed in a stunning ensemble of gray sweatpants (which I suspected had been black about a decade earlier), vomit-stained T-shirt (I assumed it wasn’t his vomit, but here at Casa de los Weirdos you could never be sure), and bare feet. And God, did his toenails need trimming, and don’t get me started on how much his heels were crying out for a pumice stone. The bags under his eyes told the world that he hadn’t slept in a thousand days. The smell coming off him told the world that he hadn’t showered in a thousand days. I didn’t know how it was even possible, but he was barely even cute anymore. The babies had sucked all the cuteness out of him.
“Are you honestly telling me you’ve got no need in your life for an internal censor of any kind?” he argued, pretty coherently for a zombie. (Not a real zombie, of course. That was Marc, one of my other roommates.) “Think of watching what you say around the babies as excellent practice for future vampire queenery.”
“Making the horror that is now my life complete,” I finished.
DadDick rolled his bloodshot eyes. “Don’t talk to me about horror. You got more sleep in one night than I’ve had in a week. Do not talk to me about horror.”
“Fair point,” I conceded. It was. Jessica had told me it wasn’t that the babies didn’t sleep for long; they’d known that was coming. It wasn’t the three a.m. feedings or the multiple daylight naps or the midnight diaper change. It was never knowing, when she or DadDick did get a chance to lie down, if they would get a twenty-minute nap or six blissful uninterrupted hours or something in between. It’s the not knowing that exhausts you, she’d told me. I had listened in horrified fascination; all she needed was a flashlight to shine in her face as she finished her story with, “And the call was coming from inside the crib!”
“Look, we don’t have to talk about this now,” I conceded while trying to make it look like I wasn’t conceding a damned thing. “Let’s wait until the babies are out of earshot.” And maybe puberty. How long could I stretch this out?
Unfortunately, the Antichrist was not only too nice (when she wasn’t killing serial killers, proving an overreaction is not always a bad thing even as she terrified me) but she saw through me too well. Which wasn’t that impressive; it’s not like I was some inexplicable force whose every thought was cloaked in mystery. Laura found me as mysterious as a dartboard.
She pointedly shifted her gaze from the baby and speared me with her blue-eyed gaze. “Do you know how many people die every day?”
“I know it’s more than twenty.”
“About one hundred fifty thousand.”
“At once?” I asked, appalled.
“It works out to about six thousand people an hour.”
“That,” I said, “is a lot. Let me guess where this is going . . .”
“Yes, please. It would be so great if you knew where this was going.”
“. . . at least some of those dead people end up in Hell?”
“At least,” she replied dryly. “The backlog since you murdered my mother—”
“Justified homicide!” I yelped and pointed to DadDick, who was nodding and droopy-eyed. I thought it was cool how the sleepier he got the tighter his grip on the baby, like even his subconscious was devoted to its safety. He could be snoring and still have her cradled safely in his arms. I couldn’t multitask for shit, so I found that impressive. “He said!”
“—has been immense. Black Plague immense.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Immense means gigantic and—”
“Jeez, I’m not that dim.” Polite silence was my response. I decided DadDick’s was because he was dozing and Laura’s was because she could be an immense bitch. Don’t tell me about pots and kettles; I know all about pots and kettles. “I’m not,” I finished, trying hard not to whine.
“Then you get it. How this is an immense problem. And you understand that regardless of whatever nonsense is going on around here, it likely doesn’t trump sorting six thousand souls an hour.”
“I don’t think you can generalize that,” I argued. “What if there was a nuclear bomb in the basement that only I could defuse? That’d be more important. That’d be loads more important.”
Laura closed her eyes and kept them closed. Counting to ten, maybe, or reminding herself that killing her sister/colleague would be bad for workplace morale. Or maybe thinking about investing in a pair of shoes that weren’t horrible; I dunno. I was a vampire, not a telepath. “Is there. A nuclear bomb. In the basement?”
“Not that I know of,” I admitted, “but obviously I need to make checking it a priority.” And anything else I could think of. “Safety first! That’s our new motto.” Which, come to think of it, we should have implemented the minute I woke up on the slab in pageant makeup and horrible shoes. “In fact, you—huh.”
Yikes, the flat “what.” No upward inflection; it’s not so much a query for more information as a statement of being pushed too far. Kevin Spacey set the precedent in L.A. Confidential, the best movie ever based on the worst book ever. And now the Antichrist was picking up the “what” torch; I never should have made her watch it. Though her crush on Exley was super cute (I was a fan of Bud White, because a man who would kick the shit out of a wife beater hits my “isn’t that romantic?” buttons every time). Also, is it me or does the older Guy Pearce get, the more simian he gets? Watch L.A. Confidential and then watch Iron Man 3. Heartthrob to monkey. Weirdweirdweird.
“Nothing, it’s just . . . I think Jessica’s back.” I’d been able to hear the car pulling into the driveway, of course, but the slow, plodding footsteps didn’t sound at all like Jess’s usual springy stride. Sleep deprivation could be an explanation, but I didn’t think . . .
The front door creeeaked open. We should offer to rent out that sound for Halloween.
. . . that explained . . .
Jessica wandered in, not bothering to close the door.
. . . everything.
DadDick stirred on the couch, instinctively tightening his grip on Thing One (or Two . . . the whole problem was that I couldn’t keep them straight), which caused her to let out a small squeak. He absentmindedly soothed her as he rose to his feet. “Hey, babe. You okay?”
“Where’d you go?” I asked, curious. She was acting like she was in a trance or had been mojo’d by a vamp. I knew it wasn’t the latter because it was daylight hours and also, no vampire would fucking dare because I would kill them so much. And who’d want to put her in a trance if it wasn’t vamp related? “Jess? Where were you?”
“Oh, I took the babies to see your mom.” Jessica had a peculiar expression on her face, a combo of impatience and worry and fatigue. Like, I didn’t think I’d have to talk about this, you poor thing, and stop bugging me and boy am I tired. “That’s what it was. Where I was. Yeah.”
“The babies are here,” I couldn’t help pointing out. “Remember? Marc’s watching Other Baby in the kitchen while he . . .” Dissects things, but that was no way to end a sentence around Jess. The world’s biggest hypochondriac isn’t as paranoid about germs as a new mother. “. . . does stuff.” Also, DadDick was holding one of her babies. Five feet from where she was standing. Standing without the babies.
“Yeah, I know.”
“So we didn’t stay long, obviously.”
“You and the babies you didn’t actually bring,” I couldn’t help adding because weirdweirdweird.
“Right!” she finished with a touch of her prebaby snapitude. Then she turned around and walked out. But it wasn’t Jessica’s brisk got-to-get-going-quick pace that she used everywhere. She just sort of . . . wandered off.
Laura shook her head, a resigned expression on her face. “I don’t know what that is, but it’ll be more than enough to keep you occupied for a few days.”
“You think?” I managed to keep the hope out of my tone.
“My point! Whatever it is—she’s on drugs, she’s exhausted, she’s been mojo’d by a nasty vamp, she found out she’s being audited—you’ll seize on it as an excuse to avoid your responsibilities from Hell.” She smiled a little, and who could blame her? Responsibilities from Hell, heh. Maybe the “I’ve got the [fill in the blank] from Hell!” thing will make a comeback now. “All right, yes, I hear it, but it’s true, and you’re slacking.”
“Look, obviously something’s going on,” I began.
Laura’s beautiful face (the Antichrist has never had a pimple) remained unmoved. “Something always, always is.”
“Someone could have attacked her!” Argh, dial back the excitement, Betsy.
“In broad daylight? Without leaving a mark on her?”
“Okay, someone might be . . .” I cast about for what “someone” might do. “They could be blackmailing her!”
“Who would?” Laura asked, displaying a shocking display of callousness when everyone in the house knew being a callous asshat was my job. Nagging and now poaching on my territory! My torments were endless. “She’s a billionaire who lives with murderously protective vampires.”
“She is not!” I snapped back. “The economy has sucked so hard and so long, she’s only a millionaire now.” The vampire thing was harder to argue.
“Like I said. It doesn’t matter what this is. You’ve got your excuse du jour to avoid keeping your word.”
“Boy, you just don’t care about anything but yourself, do you, Laura? I’m sorry to say it, but it’s shocking to see.”
The Antichrist, usually pale as milk, started to blush. It only made her more dazzling, which was just annoying. Tall, slim, with blue eyes and long blond hair (until she lost her temper, then it went red and her eyes poison green), looking better in faded jeans and a Livestrong T-shirt (“Just because Mr. Armstrong cheated doesn’t mean the charity isn’t a worthwhile endeavor,” she says) than I did in my wedding dress . . . I didn’t like being the ugly sister and the mean one.
So I kept up with the nagging, because artless beauty must be punished. “It’s just me-me-me with you these days. Meanwhile my best friend might have gone insane, or she’s being blackmailed or hypnotized or audited, or some awful combination, and I’m going to get to the bottom of it. Because that’s what a good friend does: she pushes her troubles—nay, her responsibilities!—aside and helps. No matter what the cost.” I swept toward the door and pointed toward the foyer. “Good day, madam!”
“Oh, Jesus jumped-up Christ on a crutch,” she muttered, which, for her, was about the most shocking epithet ever uttered. This was a woman who considered shoot over the line, swearwise. “Fine. Let the record show I tried.” She followed my pointy finger and exited with a huff and a glare. I vowed to make it up to her. Just as soon as I broke my other vow and figured out what was wrong with Jessica.
“Okay, great!” I practically cheered. “Let’s get to the bottom of this! Hoo—”
“Don’t cheer; you can be really obnoxious in victory,” DadDick warned.
“I was going to say ‘whoever did this to her will be sorry,’” I managed with hardly any dignity. I managed to keep myself from jumping up and down in sheer glee. Something was wrong with my best friend and she obviously needed my help! Thank God something was wrong with my best friend and she obviously needed my help!
Like I said: bad person. That’s me all over.
“Hey, Jess! Wait up!” Before I could track down wherever she’d wandered to (wandering was also new behavior; Jess did not wander, she favored a “help me or move” stride), I nearly fell over Tina exiting the kitchen. I checked my watch—three o’clock in the afternoon. Sunset was still two hours away (winter, blech), so she was stuck in the mansion for a bit unless she stowed away in Marc’s trunk. But that was a whole other thing, and they only put Operation VampTrunk into action when it was important.
Of course, important—like everything around here—was relative. Important could mean Tina had a five p.m. craving for sorbet-flavored vodka. (Don’t get me started on the vodka. She had her own freezer for the vodka. She didn’t care to share the vodka. I didn’t even like vodka but knowing I couldn’t have it made me crave it like a diabetic craves insulin.) And Marc loved the whole trunk setup; said it made him feel like he was in an action movie. I managed not to point out that, as a zombie, he was definitely in a movie, just not the genre he thought.
So when he got twitchy or cabin-fever-ey, he’d occasionally pretend an errand was more urgent than it was (“We’re down to a half-pint of raspberries, Tina; get in my trunk stat!”—this from a guy who wouldn’t say stat if everyone around him was going into cardiac arrest) so she would climb into the blanket nest he always had ready, then they’d chat or text on their phones while tooling around town doing whatever it was they did . . . and why was I only now realizing that I kind of wanted them to do a buddy movie?
“Majesty,” was how Tina greeted me, which was typical. We’d lived together for years and had saved each other’s lives more than once, and she loved me not for my (symbolic . . . if the queen gig had come with an actual crown I might have been more amenable) crown but for what I had done for Sinclair, the other person she loved more than life (death? undeath?) itself. I know my husband would have been lost without her, not just on a weekly basis but decades before I was born, and I was starting to suspect I’d be lost, too. I’d gone from not knowing what a majordomo was (I’d assumed it had something to do with the military) to wondering how I’d ever gotten along without one.
All that love and devotion and it was still “Majesty” and “My queen” and “O dread majesty” and “Dearest sovereign, if I catch you in my vodka stash just once more, I shall set you on fire, however much it will hurt me to hurt you.”
Very much a stickler for propriety, that was Tina. She was a recovering Southern belle—she’d been turned during the Civil War, or born during the Civil War; I forget which—and maybe that was why. Tact and politeness were as much her style as her habit of dressing up like a dirty old man’s dream. Short plaid miniskirts, crisp white blouses, the occasional demure headband holding back waves of blond hair (which only emphasized her dark-dark eyes), the occasional pair of kitten heels. She usually went for “mouthwatering” and tended to hit the nail without hardly trying. It was my curse in death to be surrounded by women much prettier than I was. If my husband didn’t (almost literally) drool at the sight of me, it could have been awful for my ego. And my ego is the strongest bone in my body. Wait, that isn’t right . . .
“Did Jess come through here?”
She shook her head and, as it was a headband-free day, her pale, pointed face was momentarily obscured by hair. She tossed it back like the Sexiest Cheerleader Ever and replied, “No, but I’m aware she returned just now. Does she require an infant?” I loved how she said that—an infant—as though any random one would do. As though we had a room full of random babies just in case someone needed one. Oh God, what was I saying? That day was probably coming.
“You’d think, because she apparently took the babies to visit my mom but forgot the babies, but no. I don’t know what she requires but I’m going to find out. I swear on my filthy polluted soul that nothing will get in the way of me solving this mystery.” All I needed to do was add a superfluous “Jinkies!” and I’d be Velma in better shoes.
“I also heard Laura Goodman arrive and then depart.” Tina’s expression was carefully neutral in the way only an old vampire could pull off. Here’s a hint: never ever play Statues with an old vamp. “You were, ah, unable to assist her?” The again went unspoken, for which I was grateful.
Because the thing about Tina and also my husband was, their attitude was, “Why wouldn’t you be exploring the hell out of Hell every chance you got? Why wouldn’t you be honing brand-new previously undiscovered power number six? Why would you go out of your way to do anything but that, you silly bim?” That attitude was also, fortunately for them, largely unspoken.
“Laura’s fine; Hell’s fine,” I replied with an impatient gesture. “Place has been there for a billion years but suddenly things are out of control and just crying out for my steadying hand?” I couldn’t even say that without grinning; the whole idea was beyond dumb. “But something’s up. And where’s Sinclair?”
Tina smiled at me. “Outside.”
Her one-word answer told me everything at once: Outside, he’s outside because he can brave the sun now because of you, he’s outside and he’s the happiest he has ever been because of you, he’s outside and I am so, so grateful because of you and would follow you into death, and would you like tea? A smoothie? Not my vodka, but anything else you desire.
“That,” I replied, “was a dumb question.” And bless her sideways, Tina didn’t agree out loud or even nod. Because of course I should have guessed. Outside could be anything and everything, because my husband was almost a century old and most of that time he’d had to hide from the sun the way Republicans had to hide from talking about rape.
Long story short: the devil granted me a wish, and I wished for that before I killed her. And Sinclair was wallowing in it and took every chance to get out of the house. Bringing one of his five cars in for a tune-up? “Of course.” Swinging by the farmers’ market to grab fresh fruit for one of our designated smoothie blenders? “Of course.” (Even though it was winter, and precious little was in season.) Shovel the driveway? “Do we have a shovel and if so, where do we keep it?”
He volunteered to go to the DMV for Jessica, who gently pointed out that the State of Minnesota frowned upon citizens sending proxies to renew their driver’s license. “Are you quite certain?” had been the disappointed reply. “Perhaps they have changed the rule. I had better check, just in case, don’t you think? You need your rest; I will find this out for you.”
“If you really want to help, you could change the babies’—”
“Nothing will prevent me from aiding you in this,” he’d declared, snatching his keys. “I swear it.”
“Please don’t try to bribe anyone in the DMV,” Jess had replied, not even trying to hide the horror. “It doesn’t work. It makes everything all the more awful. I know.” Not that Jess was speaking from personal experience; her dad was a shit of the highest order and did all sorts of unsavory things. He was in Hell now, which was excellent. That wasn’t a guess on my part, by the way. I saw him there. His stupid wife, too.
Eric Sinclair, vampire king and devoted pet owner, former creature of the night and current creature of the day and night, was also a huge fan of alfresco sex. Me, not so much. Sex, yep; my husband was (almost literally) a demon in the sack. Bedroom sex, counter sex, basement sex, attic sex, bathroom sex, hallway sex, even stair sex (argh, my back! this carpet needs to be thicker). But outdoors? In January? Why?
We lived in a mansion people would pay to bang in. (I think it used to be a B&B, even, so people literally have paid to bang in it.) It was like living in Honolulu and then going to Honolulu for vacation: maybe a little pointless. Also: cold. Very, very cold this time of year in St. Paul. Goose bumps on top of goose bumps wasn’t remotely erotic.
So my husband could be scampering in the snow almost anywhere (car wash, DMV, bake sale, winter carnival), doing anything (washing cars, braving state employees, buying brownies, watching a guy chainsaw a likeness of a Dairy Princess from a block of ice), which meant that I was on my own when it came to solving the mystery of Jessica’s weirdness. Well, on my own besides the cop, the zombie, and the other vampire I lived with.
“I imagine she’ll have gone for a nap,” Tina said with a vague expression. Oh, right. We were having a conversation. Luckily my tuned-out expression was the same as my tuned-in one. “And it’s just as well the king was absent for your sister’s visit.”
“Ah . . . yeah. Good point.”
Things were still tense between my husband and my sister. It had only been a few weeks since she’d kidnapped me, then dumped me in Hell and abandoned me with a “sink or swim” mentality. I swam, but she hadn’t known I would.
My husband was many things; incapable of holding a grudge wasn’t one of them. Sometimes it was like he invented grudge holding, except I know for a fact that my stepmother did.
Still, it made for tense get-togethers, which I loathed. “Guess Sinclair hasn’t forgiven Laura for leaving me in Hell,” I commented, because for some reason I felt like saying the obvious out loud.
Tina did that thing where she glanced at me and then glanced away, so quickly it was like she hadn’t moved. “Mm-mm,” was her typically low-key reply. And a couple of years ago it would have fooled me and I would have dropped the subject.
It wasn’t a couple of years ago. “‘Mm-mm,’ what? ‘Mm-mm, something smells delicious; oh, ham steaks, my fave!’? ‘Mm-mm, damn skippy he hasn’t forgiven her and he’s secretly plotting to eat her’? ‘Mm-mm, how can I prevent Betsy from knowing I wasn’t paying attention and have no idea what we’re talking about’?”
Tina thought it over for a few seconds before coming up with, “I never call you Betsy.”
This was as close as I’d ever get to outsmarting her, so I was gonna take that as a win. “Yeah, okay. Good point.”
“If you do not require my assistance at this time . . . ?”
“No, I’m good.”
“Yes indeed,” she said with a small smile.
“You silver-tongued devil.”
“Tina, d’you like it here?”
Her big eyes got bigger and I had a “whoa, where’d that come from?” moment. One of those things I had no idea I was going to say until it was out of my mouth.
“May I ask, Majesty . . . ?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “It’s just everybody’s lives have changed in next to no time. Five years ago I didn’t know you. Five years ago I was still alive and you were off doing whatever it was you did before we crossed paths, and I didn’t know Sinclair. Didn’t know I had a half sister, sure as shit didn’t know she was the Antichrist. Didn’t know I was destined to—”
“Take the throne.”
“—kill the devil.” What did it say about me that I thought of that first? Other than still being in denial about the whole queen-of-the-undead gig.
There was a long pause while I tried to read her face, which was just as much a waste of time as it ever was. Tina could outbluff Daniel Negreanu (Sinclair was a World Series of Poker addict). Her fair face, never terribly expressive, now seemed so still it was like she was playing Statues. Which she could also do really well.
“I don’t,” she said at last.
“You asked if I like it here.”
Oh. Right. I remember now. And shit. I knew she’d tell me the truth, but I’d hoped it was good news.
“Like is woefully inadequate,” she continued. “I love my new life. And not merely for my own sake. I love his new life, too. Five years ago things were dangerous and we trusted no one and we depended only on each other, and my dear friend the king, the boy I loved from birth, pursued empty relationships and cared not if he lived or burned. And now . . . he does care. About many things. I love that. I love you. I love this house. I love your friends. I love our new lives, and I love the new lives your friends have brought into our home. It strikes me . . .” Her gaze went vague as she looked through me. “It strikes me that I can live a very long time and still be pleasantly, continually surprised. I love that, too.”
“Oh.” Hmm. She’d just told me this incredible generous thing and I’d better come up with something a little better than “oh.” “That’s great. I’m . . . that’s really great.”
“Do you have any other questions?”
She nodded and started to turn away from me. “Then I’ll take my leave? Yes?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Well! That was unexpected. And nice. It was almost enough to make me forget why I’d started the conversation in the first place. Which was . . . uh . . .
Jessica! Right. Tina was feeling fluffy and Jessica was up to something. Busy, busy, lots of mysteries to unravel and Hell would wait.
It’s not like it was going anywhere, right?
I shoved the swinging door that led to the kitchen. So far there hadn’t been a hilarious sitcom-type swinging-door face smash, but the year was young. “Jess? You in here? Listen, I’m a little worried about you and because I’m incredibly intuitive I realize something’s wrong and want you to know that whatever it is, you have my full support and attention and, oh, what the hell?”
Marc Spangler, MD, looked up from yet another revolting kitchen experiment. This time he was freezing, dissecting, and refreezing mice. Did you know frozen mice don’t smell like much of anything? They don’t. Probably because they’re so little. Or because of the cold. Was he doing that out of kindness to those of us with enhanced senses in the house, or was the freezing thing specific to his gross kitchen experiment and, dammit, my kitchen! Which was also his kitchen since he lived here, too, but still.
At least I didn’t have to ask where he was getting his test subjects. Since every old house on the face of the earth has mice, this solved two problems at once.
“The kitchen? Again? We eat in here! Well, the others eat, and the vampires drink, and Sinclair and I occasionally have sex in here! Aw, dammit, that was out loud.”
“Ha! Knew it. Jess owes me fifty bucks. Besides, you banned me from the basement.” Marc was blinking at me over a tidy row of teeny corpses. “You said it was like living with Igor . . .”
“It was! Is. No offense,” I added, because there was nothing sadder than a touchy zombie whose feelings were hurt. God, the moping. The angst. Zombie angst . . . would that be zangst? Will that be a thing now?
“. . . knowing I was skulking around down there doing sinister experiments, creating then destroying abominations, tracking dirt . . . which is stupid, by the way. I don’t skulk.”
Of course, knowing that the zombie you lived with was experimenting on dead rodents created a whole new problem. It almost made me yearn for the days when he was skulking
(because he does he does so skulk his denials are big-time bullshit he skulks therefore he is)
in the attic, all hidden and ashamed and furtive, full of zangst. Like Quasimodo if the attic was the Notre-Dame Cathedral, our puppies were the gargoyles, and Quasimodo was a cute dead gay doctor.
“I can obsess over their brains,” my cute dead gay doctor said, indicating the row of teeny fuzzy dead bodies, “or yours.”
“Yeah, we’ve been over this. Theirs, obviously, but couldn’t you be a little less creepy about it?” I let the door swing shut behind me and edged toward the table. Everything was meticulously laid out; I had to give him that. Instruments neatly lined up, shiny-sharp. The sterile field all set up (guess he didn’t want the dead frozen mice to catch an infection). Marc all scrubbed clean and shiny right down to the latex gloves. It was the neatest, sterilest (is that a word?) operating field I’d ever seen. In my kitchen. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
“What?” he asked, defensively. He was wearing a pair of scrubs that had been washed so many times, they were like fuzzy barf-green velvet. He’d cut his black hair super short again (“The Caesar,” he called it, “or the George Clooney, circa . . . anytime, I guess. He really got bogged down with one style, didn’t he?”), which pulled attention to his dark green eyes and pale (even before he died) skin. He was about my height—six feet, give or take—and lanky, and his face was made for smiling; grins took years off him. Not that he would age or anything. No. He’d . . . rot. But only if I wasn’t paying attention, apparently? I was still vague on the details. The horrible, horrible details. I made him a zombie, except it wasn’t me. God, I hated time travel. “Betsy? What?”
Marc, used to me staring vacantly at him while I pondered, got to his feet, neatly dropped the pile o’ fuzzy corpses into the biohazard bag, snapped off his gloves and dumped them, too, tied the bag off, then went to one of the sinks, rooted around beneath, emerged with Clorox wipes, and proceeded to wipe down the table. (I know, probably shouldn’t have fussed so much about the mouse massacre on the table, but come on! Mouse massacre! On the table!) Finished, he disposed of the wipes and crossed the room to go for the freezer. I definitely wanted out of there before I saw what was up for Revolting Kitchen Experiments, Round Two. “This isn’t anything new, you know,” he reminded me.
“You killed yourself less than two months ago,” I retorted. “It’s incredibly new.”
He laughed and I smiled. Marc had a high, cheerful laugh and I loved hearing it. “Point.”
“What . . .” I stared, then tried not to look so terrified. I wasn’t afraid Marc would go all zombie feral in the night and try to suck my brains out of my head with a curly straw (“Don’t be a dumbass, Betsy, a curly straw would take too much time. I’d definitely use a straight one, one of those big fat ones they give you for bubble tea.”), but he definitely had some new, creepy habits in death. Undeath. “What . . . uh . . . are you going to do . . . uh, now?”
He opened the freezer door. Peered inside. Reached in to the shoulder (damn, that freezer was deep) and emerged holding . . . oh God, the horror . . . holding . . . “Check it out.”
A bottle of vodka.
“Oh. Uh, very nice.” I was inwardly rolling my eyes. Tina’s vodka obsession was contagious. Lovely. Too bad her willingness to overlook most of my bad habits and terrible decision-making wasn’t.
“Stop rolling your eyes,” he said impatiently, crossing toward me. “Look.”
I looked. “Stoli Elit,” I read aloud, “Himalayan Edition.” I squinted. “That font looks expensive.”
“It was!” For some reason, he sounded delighted.
“Three thousand bucks?” Good thing Marc had hung on to the thing; I might have dropped it. “Are you kidding?”
“I hid it behind all the corpses,” he continued gleefully. “Genius!”
“Genius,” I acknowledged with a shudder. When? When would roommates saying things like “I hid it behind all the corpses” become commonplace? Was I rooting for the answer to be “never” or “any minute now”?
But he was right; no one—no one—would look for it there. In fact, knowing there was a big weird bottle of incredibly overpriced hooch in there with scads of mice Popsicles made me want to poke through the freezer even less. “But Marc, I mean, it’s none of my business, but you can’t afford this.”
My best friend was rich, and I’d married rich, and my father had made an excellent living before engaging in the Midlife Crisis Jaguar vs. Garbage Truck battle and losing, so money had never been that big a deal, but still. Marc wasn’t rich, had never been rich (air force brat, and unless your dad was, I dunno, King of the Generals, that didn’t make for a cushy lifestyle), and was still hip deep in student loans last time I checked.
Hmm. Did he still have to pay those back? Nobody knew he’d been dead, however briefly. Kind of how some people knew I’d been dead and some people assumed it was some sort of nasty practical joke, and the government was years behind on the paperwork anyway so I just sort of plowed ahead and nobody bugged me about it. But Marc was still a person, according to the government. Social security card, birth certificate, lack of death certificate, tax forms—all that was still good.
But: he’d been dead. He was still dead. It was something to think about.
“Other than a car—which my dad helped me buy—it’s the most expensive thing I’ve ever gotten.”
“Well, as long as you’re happy with it. MGM was out of Grey Goose?”
“No. It’s a present.”
“Oh. Ohhhhh.” I took another look at the long slender brown and gold bottle—and for that price, the gold font should be actual gold. For that price, they should come to your house on command and pour you a shot, then tuck you into bed and read you a story.
Sure, the bottle was pretty, and the vodka was probably top-notch, but booze was smoothies was milk was Shamrock Shakes was tap water was anything but blood. I was thirsty all the time. Only blood helped; only blood quenched any of that raging permanent thirst. That didn’t stop me from binging on liquids all night. I couldn’t get drunk on booze anymore, though. Odd that Marc would drop so much money on something he knew, to me, might as well be ditch water. “That was really nice of you.” If not well thought out. Gah, next time just a gift card for DSW, Marc. “Thanks a lot. I can’t wait to—”
“For Tina, idiot.”
“Oh.” Whew! “Idiot” was a little bitchy, though. Not inaccurate, but still. “Why? What’d she do?”
“Her birthday’s Friday.” He said it without reproach, because he knew me and he knew my Swiss-cheese memory. True friends expect nothing from you. That’s what made them so terrific.
“Get out!” I had to admit, I was intrigued. How did a hundred-and-fifty-year-old vampire celebrate a birthday? The standards (Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park? Water Park of America? Chuck E. Cheese?) were probably out. Midnight bowling, maybe? Midnight golfing? “How old is she?”
He grinned and carefully tucked the bottle away. “I asked, and got the ‘a lady never tells and a gentleman never asks’ speech.”
“And you reminded her you were all the way around the world from being a gentleman?”
“Didn’t have to; she already knew. Anyway, it’s no secret she loves vodka, even if why she loves it is.”