TURN ON. TUNE IN. DROP DEAD.
If you're just joining us, welcome to radio station WVMP, "The Lifeblood of Rock'n'Roll." Con-artist-turned-station-owner Ciara Griffin manages an on-air staff of off-the-wall DJs -- including her new boyfriend Shane McAllister -- who really sink their teeth into the music of their "Life Time" (the era in which they became vampires). It's Ciara's job to keep the undead rocking, the ratings rolling, and the fan base alive -- without missing a beat.
For Halloween, WVMP is throwing a bash sure to raise the dead. They've got cool tunes, hot costumes, killer cocktails -- what could go wrong? Well, for starters, a religious firebrand ranting against the evils of the occult preempts the station's midnight broadcast. Then, when Ciara tracks down the illegal transmission, the broadcast tower is guarded by what appears to be...a canine vampire? And behind it all is a group of self-righteous radicals who think vampires suck (and are willing to stake their lives on it).
Now Ciara must protect the station while struggling with her own murky relationship issues, her best friend's unlikely romance with a fledgling vampire, and the nature of her mysterious anti-holy powers. To make it to New Year's in one piece, she'll need to learn a few new tricks....
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The things I believe in can be counted on one hand even if that hand were two-fifths occupied with, say, smoking a cigarette, or making a bunny for a shadow puppet show, or forming "devil horns" at a heavy metal concert. The things I believe in boil down to three major categories:
1. Rock 'n' roll.
3. A damn good pair of shoes.
Number two came about when one bit me, in the middle of what could nonskankily be called an "intimate encounter." Number three came later, when I gained the identity and thus the possessions of my dead-undead boss Elizabeth Vasser, owner of WVMP, the Lifeblood of Rock 'n' Roll.
I'm two people, but only on paper. In real life, I'm just Ciara Griffin, underpaid marketing manager and not-paid miracle worker for a vampire radio station.
On nights like this, marketing is a miracle in itself.
The Smoking Pig is packed with fans who chose to spend Halloween Eve aka Hell Night, Mischief Night, or Tuesday in a bar with their favorite DJs, the ones who whisk them through time into another era, and into a world where vampires just might exist.
I lean back against the brass bar rail to avoid getting trampled by a couple dressed as Marilyn Monroe and Marilyn Manson. The guy in the Monroe costume can't be more than twenty-one, but he's twisting to a fifty-year-old tune with as much enthusiasm as his grandfather probably did.
Above me, the station's long black banner hangs on one of the rustic pub's long wooden crossbeams. Draped with fake cobwebs, it features our trademark logo, an electric guitar with two bleeding fang marks.
The two Marilyns jostle me again, and I reach up to check the status of my mile- high dark blond ponytail. Wearing a floral blouse and matching "skort" as twenty percent of the Go-Go's (the Belinda Carlisle percent), I'm glad the crowd provides plenty of heat. October in Maryland shows no mercy to beachwear.
"Excuse me," shouts a voice to my left, straining to be heard over Jerry Lee Lewis's slammin' piano.
I peer over rosy-lensed sunglasses at a young man about my age and height midtwenties, five-eightish, with a lanky frame verging on heroin-chic thin.
"The bartender said I should speak to you," he says.
I examine his swooping bleach-blond hair, skinny jeans, and faded Weezer T-shirt. The smudged black guyliner makes his hazel eyes pop out behind a pair of round glasses.
"Billy Idol meets Harry Potter. I like it."
He puts a hand to his ear. "What?"
"Your costume," I shout, my voice already raw after only an hour of partying.
He gives a twitchy frown and shifts the messenger bag slung over his left shoulder. "I'm Jeremy Glaser, a journalism grad student at University of Maryland. I came up to do a story on your station."
Oops. I guess it's not a costume.
Jeremy extends a heavily tattooed arm toward the rear wall of the Smoking Pig, away from the stage and the speakers. "Can we talk?"
I reach back to the bar for my ginger ale. "Interviews by appointment only. Give me your e-mail and "
"It's a freelance assignment for Rolling Stone."
My glass slips, and I spill soda down my arm. "Whoa!" I shake the liquid off my hand and grab a bar napkin. "I mean, wow."
He gestures for me to join him at the back of the Pig. This time I don't hesitate.
We weave through the crowd toward a dark corner, my espadrilles sticking in the booze puddles. I take the opportunity to rein in my galloping ambition and figure out how to play my hand.
Why didn't this guy call ahead? Either he's an imposter (always my first guess, due to my own former occupation), or he's committing journalistic ambush to see if we'll embarrass ourselves.
"So what's the angle?" I ask him over my shoulder.
"The first issue of the New Year will focus on the death of independent radio." He turns to me as we reach the back wall. "You guys are putting up a valiant battle against the inevitable."
"Thanks. I guess." I hand him my business card. "Ciara Griffin, marketing and promotions manager."
"I know who you are." He examines my card in the light of a dancing skeleton lantern, then jots a note under my name. "Keer-ah," he mumbles, noting the correct pronunciation.
I keep my smile sweet. "Could I take a peek at your credentials?"
He pulls a handful of folded paper from his bag's outside pocket. "The one with the letterhead is the assignment from Rolling Stone editorial. The other pages are e-mails discussing the nature of the story."
I angle the paper to the light. "How does a journalism student snag such a major gig?"
"My professor has a connection." He adjusts his glasses with his middle finger. "Also, I can be pushy."
"I like pushy." I hand him back the papers. "In fact, I'd like to buy pushy a drink."
My best friend Lori swoops by with a trayful of empty glasses and "horrors d'oeuvres" plates. I reach out to stop her gently, due to her momentum and the breakable items. She's dressed as another twenty percent of the Go-Go's, a small black Jane Wiedlin wig covering her white-blond hair.
"Hey, Ciara." She sends her words to me but aims her perky smile at Jeremy.
"Lori, I know you're busy, but can you get this gentleman from Rolling Stone" I emphasize the last two words "whatever he'd like to drink? Bill it to the station."
"I can't accept," he says, impervious to her cute. "Conflict of interest."
"Put it on my personal tab," I tell her. "A drink between new friends."
She beams at him. "There's a dollar-a-pint Halloween special on our dark microbrew."
He hesitates. "Do you have any absinthe?"
"Um, I'll check." Lori tries not to laugh as she looks at me. "Another ginger ale?"
Lori winks before walking away. She knows I always stay more sober than my marks.
I take the last sip of my flat soda to wet my drying mouth. Dealing with the press is usually the jurisdiction of my immediate boss, Franklin, the sales and publicity director. Despite great effort, he's never raised the interest of a national publication, much less Rolling Stone. And now they've fallen in our laps, waiting for me to fill them with fascination.
Jeremy crosses his arms and examines me, in a skeptical pose right out of All the President's Men. "So what gave you the idea to start this vampire DJ gimmick?"
"It's not a gimmick. They're really vampires." I offer an ironic smile. "They're each stuck in the time they were 'turned,' which is why they dress and talk like people from back in the day." I point to the stage, where a tall man with slicked-back auburn hair surveys his poodle-skirted, ponytailed groupies through a pair of dark sunglasses. "Spencer, for instance, became a vampire in Memphis in the late fifties. He was around when Sun Records discovered Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, all those guys." He sends the girls a fake-shy smile as he arranges his stack of 45s. "Spencer was there at the birth of rock 'n' roll. You could even say he was one of its midwives."
Jeremy looks at me like I've just recited my grocery list. He hasn't written any of this down. "My research says you came up with this Lifeblood of Rock 'n' Roll thing in a desperate effort to boost ratings."
"It was either that or get bought out by Skywave." I still have corporate-takeover nightmares, where my fanged friends are forced to spin Top 40 hits until they stake themselves in despair. "Something wrong with trying to survive?"
"No, it's genius." He checks out the Lifeblood of Rock 'n' Roll banner. "But how long can it last?"
"Well..." I scratch my nose to cover my wince. Despite our rabid fan base, ratings since the summer have tanked. The public at large is beginning to yawn and look for the Next Big Thing.
It doesn't help that the DJs don't look or act like stereotypical vampires. They wear blue jeans instead of capes. They'd rather guzzle beer, bourbon, and tequila than sip red wine. They don't brood, except about having to record promos for car dealerships and power vacs. They never attend the opera.
And as much as the vampires enjoy their adoring audiences, they want to keep their real nature secret, to avoid the inevitable mass freakout and subsequent stake-fest. Survival is paramount, and without WVMP, our vampires would lose their sun-shielded home under the station. Not to mention their whole reason for "living": the music.
"It can last forever," I tell Jeremy. "Rock 'n' roll will never die. Just like vampires."
A muscle near his eye twitches the classic journalist spare-me-the-spin facial tic.
Lori arrives with our drinks. "Sorry, no absinthe. Hope beer's okay."
"Whatever." Jeremy accepts his drink and hands her two dollars. "Keep the change."
Ignoring his refusal of my generosity, I raise my new glass of ginger ale. "To the music."
He clinks and sips, then nearly spits the experimental dark microbrew back into the glass. There's a reason they sell it for a buck.
He wipes the foam from his mouth with a bar napkin. "I noticed that after the last ratings report you cut your advertising rates by ten percent. Sounds like you're having trouble holding the public's attention and it's hurting your bottom line."
"Every business has its ups and downs."
"But commercial radio is hopeless. How can you compete with downloads and satellite stations?" He raises his multi-studded eyebrows. "What's next, werewolves?"
I ignore the jest. "We'll compete the same way radio stations always have by providing a unique experience and quality entertainment."
Jeremy doesn't record those weasel words. I scan the bar, hoping to see David our general manager, or another DJ anyone who can impress this guy.
The front door opens, and in walks my savior.
"Come on." I beckon Jeremy to follow me. "Meet our star."
The reporter looks past me and his jaw drops, transforming his face from cyni-cool to little-kid glee. "Yeah, yeah. That'd be great."
As I push through the crowd, I glance back to see Jeremy close behind me, frantically flipping the pages of a small notebook.
By the time I get to the door, Shane is surrounded by a gaggle of college girls. Towering over them at six-five, he greets them with an easy grin, but when his gaze rises to meet mine, his pale blue eyes light up with such force, the groupies' smiles turn to scowls.
The women look over their shoulders at me. One is dressed as Courtney Love, in a white baby-doll dress, black combat boots, and smeared mascara presumably to appeal to grunge-boy Shane. As I pass through the gauntlet, she gives me and my costume a glare that could melt Teflon.
I take Shane's hand, then pull him close to speak in his ear. "This guy's from Rolling Stone."
He tilts his chin to look at me, eyes wide but holding a hintof suspicion. "You're kidding."
"I've never lied to you." He's the only one I can say that about. I turn to introduce the reporter. "Jeremy Glaser "
"Shane McAllister," Jeremy says, then reaches forward and pumps Shane's hand hard enough to hurt a mere human. "I love your show. I listened to it back when I went to Sherwood College, in your pre-vampire days. Your indie-grunge mix is so eclectic, and yet you tie it all together seamlessly. It's inspiring."
Shane's reticence melts in the face of the reporter's worship. "Wow. I mean, thanks." He sweeps his tangle of pale brown hair off his face in a self-conscious motion. "I mean, good to meet you."
"Would you consider an interview?"
"Seriously?" Shane smoothes the front of his flannel shirt. "Me?"
"He'll meet you over there in a sec." I look at Jeremy and point to the place where we were just talking. The reporter salutes with his little notebook and hurries to the back of the bar.
Shane squeezes my elbow. "You look cute tonight."
"Always." He sneaks a kiss, and I can't resist stretching it into an unprofessional public display of affection. Finally, with an audible sigh, Shane pulls away and speaks low in my ear. "So what should I tell this guy?"
"He says his angle is the struggle of independent radio, so give him your authenticity spiel and how radio should be all about the music." I hook my pinky into the belt loop of his faded ripped jeans. "You know, the stuff I find so adorable."
"Adorably naive, right." He chuckles, brushing my ear with a breath warm enough to prove he had his fill of, uh, sustenance before the party. "What about the undead issue? The standard 'pretend to be a human pretending to be a vampire' routine?"
"Yes, with lots of wink-winks. Your usual ironic self."
"Got it." He gives my cheek a quick kiss before heading off to join Jeremy.
Bill Riley's "Flying Saucer Rock 'n' Roll" fades out, and Spencer's honey-smooth drawl comes out of the speakers.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we got two hours left till Halloween. Time for me to say good night, but I'm gonna turn it over to my great friend, Mississippi Monroe Jefferson." The crowd whistles and hollers, especially the older members. Spencer continues, "He'll play you some blues that I guarantee'll send a shiver down your spine."
He steps aside and adjusts the microphone down to the level of Monroe, who has appeared in the chair behind him, like in a magic trick. Another cheer. The stage light makes Monroe's suit glow white, setting off his smooth ebony skin and the lustrous scarlet of his acoustic guitar.
Monroe lets loose with a weepingly beautiful version of Robert Johnson's "Me and the Devil Blues." I smile at the choice; the story of his turning is well known by his fans. Like several legendary musicians of his place and time, Monroe supposedly went to the crossroads at midnight to meet with the devil, to trade his soul for the ability to master the blues. A vampire was waiting for him, and the rest is history.
The blues always makes me want to drink, so I head to the bar and signal to Stuart, the owner of the Smoking Pig, who is making a valiant attempt to look like Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran.
He slides a bottle of my favorite beer across the bar. "How's it going with the reporter?"
"Journalists are a lot harder to impress than the general public." I watch him light a cigarette. "Any luck on that smoking ban waiver?"
Stuart shakes his head in disgust. "I sent the state a photo of the sign hanging over our front door. I said, 'If you look closely, you'll notice that under the words "The Smoking Pig" is an illustration of a pig with a cigarette.' They didn't care." He takes a hostile puff. "Fascists."
"So what are you going to do?"
"Set up an outdoor lounge with space heaters. It'll cost a fortune."
"Hey, Ciara," comes a voice at my elbow. Lori sidles close and adjusts the poof of my ponytail. "I remember that guy Jeremy from my History of the Middle East class senior year. Smart, but kinda intense. He said he hoped the Iraq War lasted long enough for him to be an embedded reporter."
"A thrill-seeker, huh?" I watch him in the corner speaking with Shane, scribbling madly in his notebook. Shane maintains a casual posture against the wall, but his supernatural stillness creates a magnetic field that seems to have snagged the journalist. "I don't like it."
"Why not?" she asks me just as Monroe finishes his song to a rush of applause. "Don't you want the publicity?"
"I want fawning puff pieces about how cool it is to be a vampire. I don't want someone to find out the truth."
Lori hurries off to pick up an order as Monroe begins another song. I watch his fingers glide over the strings like a water bug skimming a pond. He makes it look so easy. Shane tried to teach me guitar last month I stopped after two days and ten blisters.
A familiar arm slides over my shoulders. I lean into Shane and crane my neck to look behind him. "Where's the reporter?"
"Interviewing Spencer." His jaw twitches in contemplation. "I think he wants to be bitten."
"Lori said he was weird. Are you sure?"
Shane nods. "A vampire can smell an eager donor a mile away."
"Do I need to forbid you to bite a reporter?"
He slants me a gimme-a-break look. "I'm not that dumb. Anyway, I don't think he thinks I'm really a vampire."
"Because that's insane."
"I think he thinks I'm a wannabe."
Ah yes. In the "real" vampire subculture, some humans believe they need to drink blood to thrive, and there are people lined up to oblige them. Lacking fangs, they use razors or needles to bleed their "donors."
Some of those donors find their way to a real-real vampire, and if they can be trusted to hide the truth, the two form a symbiotic relationship. The donors exchange blood for money or sex or most commonly the masochistic thrill of serving a creature who could rip off their heads.
Not for me. The sensation of being stabbed with a pair of ice picks does nothing for my self-esteem or libido.
At a minute to midnight, my boy takes over the stage from Monroe, who tips his hat to the worshipping crowd on his way out. No one dares to follow. Like Spencer and other older vampires, Monroe's charisma holds an edge of menace that sane people wisely avoid. It's why we ask them to wear sunglasses in public whenever possible.
Shane, on the other hand, exudes humanity, giving his admirers a friendly wave as he moves to the microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen, the time is twelve a.m. It is now. Officially. Halloween."
He hits a switch and a low, hypnotic bass emanates from the speaker the opening moments of Concrete Blonde's "Bloodletting." The patrons writhe and vamp, reveling in the dark magic the music weaves.
Someone calls my name. I turn to see Lori leaning out of the kitchen, holding on to the edge of the swinging door.
"What's up?" I ask as I follow her into the kitchen.
She takes me behind the salad prep area, where an old boom box sits on a shelf. She turns up the volume. Above the clatter of pans and the sizzle of grease, I hear an angry male voice.
" 'not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them,' as Paul told the Ephesians." He lets that sink in. "Don't let the secular media and your children's public school teachers convince you that Halloween is harmless fun. Your tolerance is their greatest weapon in this culture war. Fact: Halloween is a pagan holiday that glorifies darkness and evil and everything God wants us to fight."
I glance past her at the chef/dishwasher, who's searing a pair of burgers on the grill, then at the ceramic white statue of the Virgin Mary above the prep table. "When did Jorge get born again?"
Lori shakes her head. "It's supposed to be WVMP."
"No, it's just mistuned." I twist the grease-encrusted knob, searching for the station. "The antenna probably got knocked."
"I already tried that. I was here when it happened, just now." She points to the wall clock, which reads a minute after midnight. "Regina was giving her usual creepy intro, then suddenly it was this guy."
I tweak the dial again and again, but there's no Regina, no Bauhaus, no Sex Pistols. Just a whole lotta Jesus goin' on.
"I better get David."
The kitchen door sweeps inward, banging into the stainless steel dishwasher. My boss stalks toward us, dressed as Bruce Springsteen circa Born in the U.S.A., cell phone at his ear. As David passes me, I hear a woman's screech from the earpiece.
"I'll call you back." He shuts the phone as he stomps up to the radio, the bandanna around his ripped blue jeans flapping with each step.
"She's not on," I tell him. "It's some guy nutting off about Satan."
David adjusts the knob up and down, only to get another dose of Ranty Man.
He curses under his breath. "Regina said she's flooded with calls."
"It happened exactly at midnight," Lori offers.
"Strange." David stares at the boom box. "It's like another station was just created on the same frequency."
"Isn't that illegal?" I ask him.
"Extremely." He rubs the dark, uneven stubble on his chin, a look he's been working on for a week (and, if I may say, that has been worth the wait). "If it's a pirate operation, the FCC could slap them with a fine and confiscate their equipment, maybe even throw them in jail."
"Then what are we waiting for? Let's report them."
He gives me a patronizing glare, like I've suggested we call up Santa Claus. "Ciara, the FCC doesn't exactly have a twenty-four-hour emergency number. We'll have to file a report during business hours."
"What if it's not pirates?" I gesture to the radio. "It sounds too high-quality to be coming out of someone's basement. What if it's another real station?" My mind sounds the cha-ching! of a cash register. "Can we sue them?"
David turns away, dark brows furrowed. "If it's a real station," he murmurs, "I might be able to find out..." He looks at Lori. "Can I use your boss's computer?"
She points to the back of the kitchen. "There's Stuart's office. Sorry about the mess."
David speaks to me as he strides away. "Call Regina, tell her to get the location of everyone who can't hear us."
I return to the bar, where Shane is onstage and on the phone. He pulls his head away from the phone, as if it's delivering electric shocks.
I weave through the crowd to the edge of the stage, then mouth the word "Regina?" to him. Shane nods. Good thing his eardrums are as immortal as the rest of him.
I signal for him to hand me the phone. He shakes his head but obliges. "Be careful!" he shouts.
I move away from the speakers to hear Regina. Unnecessary. Astronauts on the International Space Station can probably hear her.
"Hey, it's me," I say as calmly as I can. "David says to find out the locations of all the callers who can't hear us."
"Don't you think I thought of that?" Regina's voice is even harsher than usual. "They're everywhere D.C., Sherwood, Baltimore, Harrisburg, every town in between. This isn't some half-assed pirate operation. Someone is fucking with me."
"I doubt it's personal. It's probably just an anti-Halloween demonstration by religious wackos. David says he might find out who it is by looking on the Internet."
There's a long pause before her voice comes back, muted. "Really?"
Regina died in 1987, so her entire experience of the Internet consists of the Matthew Broderick movie War Games. To her, the Web is omnipotent, able to produce tragedies and miracles with a few keywords.
"Go on with the show as if nothing's happened," I tell her, "and we'll be at the station after the bar closes at two."
She gives a tight sigh. "I wish I could figure out how to blame you for this."
I hang up the phone as Jeremy approaches me, notebook in hand. "Everything okay?" he asks.
"Of course. Why?"
"The way you and the station manager were running around, it looks like there's a crisis."
"Nope." I adjust my sunglasses. "No crisis."
"You mean, other than the fact that no one can hear your broadcast?" In response to my stunned look, he holds up his own phone. "My roommate just texted me."
Crap. How many other media outlets have noticed already? How many advertisers have noticed?
He steps closer, a new gleam in his eye. "Let me help you find the pirate."
"I don't think so." That's all we need, for him to snoop around and discover the real truth. "Thanks, anyway." I pat his arm and turn toward the stage.
"This could be a huge story," he says.
I stop. Visions of the station, the logo, maybe even Shane's face on the cover of Rolling Stone form a slide show in my head. Visions of solvency. Visions of survival.
I turn back to Jeremy. "Give us a day to put our own people on it. I'll get you something Thursday morning."
"Through the weekend."
"Good enough." He tucks his notebook back into his pocket. "I'm going to drive back home to College Park and listen myself. I'll call you Thursday."
On my way back to the kitchen, I wing Shane's cell phone toward the stage. He snags it with a deft maneuver.
In Stuart's dim office, I find David leaning close to the monitor, his worried face aglow in the pale white light. He gives me a distracted glance as I pick my way through the piles of papers and stacks of shrink-wrapped Halloween bar napkins.
"Found something odd." David points to the screen. "The FCC keeps a public record of every application. Here's one for a translator construction permit from earlier this month right here in Sherwood."
"A what construction?"
"Translator. It's a two-way antenna that takes a radio signal and transmits it way outside the station's original range. Let's say we wanted to broadcast in Poughkeepsie. We'd build translator stations to relay the signal, and then everyone between here and there could hear us."
"But we couldn't trample on another station's frequency, right?"
"Right. To stay legal, we'd have the translator change our frequency to one that's available in our target area. If we're -94.3 here, we might be 102.1 in Scranton."
I squint at the browser to see what looks like an application from a Family Air Network, Inc. "But these people didn't bother switching."
"No, they bothered." David highlights a box on the application. "They specifically requested our frequency." He crumples his Springsteen headband in his fist and glares up at me. "They're after us."
"They're after me. I knew it!"
Black leather creaking, Regina paces across the small main office of the radio station. As she rants, she stabs the air with a long brown cigarette and shoots hostile glances from her dark brown eyes, outlined in liquid black.
Sitting on either side of my desk, David and I share a glance that mixes relief and confusion. The moment Shane signed on with his Whatever broadcast at 3 a.m., the religious screed ended. Maybe Regina is the target.
Rob Zombie's "Dragula" pounds out of the speaker that sits under the mounted deer head on the opposite wall. I smile, mentally giving Shane points for every time he plays a song that was released after he died. The DJs stuck-in-time phenomenon isn't a gimmick it's a sad fact of unlife.
One of their gig posters hangs on the wall above my desk, displaying the six DJs in the garb and attitude of their "Life Times": Monroe, the 1940s bluesman; Spencer, purveyor of '50s rockabilly; Jim, who brings us the dark, psychedelic side of the '60s; Noah, the dreadlocked reggae dude representing the 1970s; Regina, the '80s punk/Goth chick (and the only one who actually looks like a vampire); and youngest of all, Shane, whose broadcast rounds out the twentieth century with whatever music passes his stringent Generation X authenticity test.
"So they're not going to spend the whole day attacking us." I make an unsuccessful attempt to suppress a yawn. "That's good, right?"
"Good for everyone else." Regina yanks on the silver chain dangling from her belt loop, rolling it over her fingers like rosary beads. "What about me?"
"Maybe it was a one-time thing." David holds up a printout. "Maybe the FCC already shut them down."
Regina scowls at him. "When has any government ever been that efficient?"
"The timing could be a coincidence," I tell her.
"At exactly midnight on Halloween? I don't buy it."
I glance at the clock on the mantel of the bricked-up fireplace next to me, then put my head down on my desk. I have to be back here to work in five hours. Franklin will no doubt want help soothing the tempers of angry advertisers.
David shows Regina the different applications FAN has filed for translators, explaining how this was the only one with a conflicting frequency (ours) and no data on the translator's location. Something's definitely fishy.
I rest my chin on my folded arms. "Have you heard of this Family Action Network?"
David nods. "Religious talk format, some nighttime musical programming. Last year I heard they were going bankrupt, but the FCC's records show them expanding."
Regina sniffs. "Someone funneled them cash, and it sure as shit wasn't pennies from heaven."
The industrial metal riffs segue into the plinky piano notes of Tori Amos's "Happy Phantom."
I drag myself to my feet. "Whether the piracy was on purpose or not, it's over. I'm going home to bed." My feet scuff the rough hardwood floor, because I'm too tired to lift them. I take my jacket off the coat rack, which is currently the hand of a life-size cardboard Elvis.
The song cuts off.
"Like all of Satan's deceptions, the lie of Halloween is subtle." The radio preacher's once raging voice is now soft and cajoling. "It's easy to fool ourselves into believing it doesn't hurt our children..."
David, Regina, and I stare at each other.
The man continues and finally says, "God tells us in Deuteronomy..."
"Oh, no." I put a hand to my forehead. "Here comes the fire thing."
" '...not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft...' "
"How'd you know he was going to say that?" Regina asks me.
"I was bathed in that stuff the first sixteen years of my life."
The man's voice takes on an edge again. " 'For whoever does these things is detestable to the Lord.' " I can almost hear his spittle splash the microphone. "There's no arguing with the word of God, people. Are we making our children walk through the fire?"
The phone rings.
"Studio line," David says.
It goes silent, which means Shane answered it, no doubt hearing the bad news from a listener. We hurry downstairs, through the employee lounge, and through the hallway door next to the lighted on the air sign.
To my right is a corridor leading to the vampires' apartment, blocked by a door that says keep out. In front of me is the studio, which contains an array of equipment turntables, tape decks, CD players some of which dates as far back as the 1940s to maintain "cognitive comfort" for the older DJs.
It also contains one pissed-off vampire.
On the phone, Shane sees us and holds up a finger. He speaks into the receiver, his hand forming a fist on the table and his eyes narrowed to slits.
He punches a switch on his console, slams down the phone, and stalks over to yank open the door.
"What the fuck's going on?" he asks us. "I thought it stopped after Regina's show."
"Now you know how it feels," she says, suddenly calm and smug.
"I don't get it." David rubs the scar on the left side of his neck, which tells me his stress is building to a new level. "Why would they stop for exactly one song?"
They discuss their next steps mostly David and Shane talking Regina out of violent solutions while my mind drifts off, listening to the lilting tune and wondering what it has in common with Regina's music.
Shane's gaze flicks to the console, his DJ's sixth sense kicking in near the end of a song. He moves back to the CD player just as a flash of insight hits me.
"Wait!" I scramble into the studio. "What's your next song?"
"Kate Bush's 'Under Ice.' " He sits and adjusts the microphone. "Why?"
"Switch the order and play the next track with a male singer."
With no time to question, he hurries to reprogram the CD player. The song fades, and he hits a switch. "94.3 WVMP-FM. Coming up on ten after three in the morning. I'm feeling a little lonely on my favorite holiday, so phone in and say hey. The ninth caller gets two tickets to this band's upcoming show at Ram's Head Live."
Ministry's "Everyday Is Halloween" slaps out of the speakers. The synthesized New Wave riffs make my heel tap against the floor, long after I thought I had the energy.
The phone is dead quiet.
David turns to me. "I didn't authorize Ministry tickets."
"That's not the point. Shane wanted to see if our listeners could hear him." The phone doesn't ring, no matter how long we stare at it. "Which they couldn't."
Shane reaches for the transmitter console. "Let's see if your theory worked."
He flips a switch to receive our FM signal, so we can listen to what the world is hearing on our broadcast.
" telling you, this culture war will be fought on the streets of our neighborhoods and "
I frown at the sound of the evangelist's voice. "Okay, so my theory sucked."
"Wait." Shane switches back to his studio feed so we hear the music. "The instrumental intro lasts fifty-eight seconds." He looks at David. "I know from working at stations where they make you talk over the music."
"What's your point?" Regina says.
"There's no singing yet," Shane says, "so our pirates wouldn't know it's a man and not a woman playing unless they recognized the song."
Regina snickers. "And what are the chances of that?"
We wait for the fifty-eight-second mark, for the vocalist to display his gender. When he starts singing, Shane gives it an extra half minute, then flips the transmitter back to the FM broadcast.
It's "Everyday Is Halloween."
"Whoa," Regina breathes. "Fucking pirates left us alone once they heard a man singing."
"But why?" David asks.
"Ciara was right." Shane swivels his chair to look at me. "It's a girl thing."
I drive back to Sherwood, listening to Shane's show. He was pissed about changing his carefully crafted Halloween playlist. Unlike the other DJs, nearly half his collection consists of female artists. He's always going off on how "back in the nineties," women found stardom through singing and songwriting, not custody battles and wardrobe malfunctions.
A police siren blasts over the shriek of the Meat Puppets' "Lake of Fire." I ease the car to the side of the road, hoping I wasn't speeding.
The cop continues past, and I pull back onto the street. On the outskirts of town, I pass the green, sloping Sherwood College campus, where two evenings a week I trudge toward a business degree with a concentration in marketing.
The police car's wail is joined by that of the volunteer fire department. I turn down the radio as I come over the hill to Sherwood's central historic district.
Three blocks past my usual turnoff, a fire engine is maneuvering into the tight space of the main intersection, which was clearly designed in the era when such vehicles were pulled by horses.
I slow down at my street, located in what could generously be called the "modest" part of town. A scattering of folks are hurrying down the sidewalk to witness the most exciting thing to happen to this town since well, since the last time a Main Street business caught fire.
I park the car at the corner near my apartment and follow the crowd. I should at least make sure it's not the Smoking Pig burning down.
My steps slow. Uh-oh.
It is the Smoking Pig burning down.
The bottom floor of the building is engulfed in roaring, licking flames. Clay-colored smoke billows from the front window. My heart lodges in my throat at the thought of Lori inside.
I sprint forward, fighting to keep my feet inside my beach shoes. The emergency vehicles prevent me from getting closer than half a block away.
An ambulance sits to my right, and with relief I notice Stuart sitting on the back bumper, speaking to a cop. A piece of plywood the size of a sandwich board rests against his leg.
I hurry over to him. "Stuart, is everyone okay?" I yell above the sound of rushing water from the fire engine.
"Hey, Ciara," he says in a dazed voice. "I was the only one inside." He gestures to the cop. "I was just telling him, I was in the office doing payroll when all of a sudden I hear car brakes squealing on the street." He puts an oxygen mask to his face and takes a few breaths. "Then there's glass breaking in the bar, like the window shattered. Then an explosion, but not like a grenade. I go out there and the whole place is in flames."
"Someone fire-bombed you?"
"Think so." He wipes sooty sweat from his forehead with the back of his wrist. "No idea why."
I point to the board at his feet. "What's that?"
"Found it on the sidewalk when I ran out the back door. Sitting there like a welcome mat. Figured it'd be evidence."
He turns the sign around. Four words are slathered on the board in crude red paint.
your going to hell
Copyright © 2009 by Jeri Smith-Ready