One night. That’s all I got, one lousy night.
Not that the night itself was lousy—no, no, no. That was pretty damn great. In fact, I’d have to say that of all the nights I’ve spent having amazing, mind-blowing sex with supernatural beings, this was the best. Okay, so I only have one other night to compare it with, and that was with a werewolf and not a vampire, and I was drunk on magicked-up booze on a Japanese bullet train, but still.
Maybe I should start over.
They say that office romances are always a bad idea. When your boss is a centuries-old vampire who runs the National Security Agency, and you’re an FBI profiler from a parallel world who was dragged into this reality against her will, they say—well, they don’t say anything, they just roll their eyes and shake their heads and wander away muttering underneath their breath.
Add in the fact that my boss, David Cassius, has what I can only call an endangered species fetish—human beings make up only 1 percent of the population here, the rest being vampires, werewolves, or golems—and that I’m an extremely strong-willed woman who doesn’t want anyone
to take care of her, and you have all the ingredients for a relationship H-bomb.
Did I mention how good the sex was?
But none of that matters, not now.
Because all I got was one lousy night.
* * *
“This is a bad idea,” Charlie mutters.
Since we happen to be waiting for a bomb to go off, I can’t really argue. “You got that right. But what other choice do I have?”
“Lots. You could read a book. Watch a movie. Buy new shoes. Walk in front of a moving bus—”
From behind my closed bedroom door, there’s a hopeful whine from my dog. “Don’t say the W word. You’ll get Galahad all worked up.”
in front of a bus. Leap
from the top of a skyscraper. Throw
yourself in a live volcano—”
“I get the idea. Stop making suggestions and try to be a little supportive, will you?”
He turns and glares at me. When a golem with see-through plastic skin stuffed with three hundred pounds of black sand glares at you, it can be a little unnerving. Fortunately, I’ve built up an immunity over time. “Jace. This is as supportive as I can be while hiding behind someone’s couch.”
“You know, where I come from people hide behind
sandbags when they’re dealing with high explosives. You know, instead of beside them.”
“Where you come from sandbags don’t wear suits made of Italian silk.” He has a point. His jacket is pale green, with just a hint of gold woven into the fabric. Matching fedora with a yellow hatband, of course.
I’m dressed in black sweatpants, sneakers, and a white T-shirt, but hey, it’s my apartment and my day off, so I plan on being comfortable while possibly destroying my apartment. My partner, on the other hand, doesn’t even know the definition of the word casual.
I’d say he was born wearing a three-piece suit, but golems aren’t so much born as manufactured. Charlie may be the most lethal person I’ve ever met, but his fashion sense is just as sharp as his killer instincts.
Needless to say, he’s not thrilled with the prospect of crouching on my unvacuumed-for-three-weeks carpet while risking the possibility of severe wardrobe malfunction or even destruction.
I check my watch again. “Four minutes. I think the fuse must have gone out.”
“I’ll go check.”
“No!” I yank on his arm and pull him back down. Charlie doesn’t take conventional explosives seriously—not because he’s invulnerable, but because of a global spell cast on this world back in the twelfth century. The enchantment is a subtle one; it doesn’t make firearms or bombs impossible to create, it just makes everyone believe both concepts are ridiculous. Nobody’s ever built a gun or a hand grenade or a nuclear weapon on Thropirelem—that’s what I call this place, due to all the thropes, pires, and lems—because people have no faith in the ideas behind them. But then, when you’re dealing with near-indestructible supernatural beings strong enough to pick up cars, your approach to warfare takes a very different direction. Charlie likes to pitch steel-cored silver ball bearings at just under the speed of sound, himself.
I, however, am the exception to the rule. I may not turn into a seven-foot-tall hairy monster, I might not drink blood and avoid sunlight—but that doesn’t mean I’m helpless. I carry my own personal talisman, a heavy chunk of steel known as a Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan. It’s one of the most powerful handguns ever created, and I brought it—and a crate of ammunition—with me when I crossed the dimensional divide to this world. Since then I’ve had the bullets specially modified, the lead replaced with hand-carved teakwood tipped with silver.
But I’ve only got so much gunpowder—and nobody here knows how to make the damn stuff.
I’m no chemist. I’ve tried taking samples to professionals to have it analyzed, but the spell blocks me every time; the lab results get lost or forgotten or thrown away, as if the material involved contains the distilled essence of incompetence. I’ve had more than one tech just stare at me skeptically and tell me he doesn’t have time for pranks.
So I’m trying to make my own.
“You should learn how to use a bow,” Charlie says for the hundredth time. “It’s not hard. I’ll teach you.”
“Sorry, but I still don’t have a supernatural’s strength—the draw on those things is like trying to pull back the anchor chain for an aircraft carrier. I prefer a nice, simple trigger.”
“We can have one custom-made. I know a guy.”
I sigh. “It’s not just strength, it’s speed, okay? A thrope or pire archer can fire arrows so fast their bow basically becomes a semi-automatic weapon. Me, not so much—the first time I try to draw down on a suspect, I’m going to look like a pincushion.”
“I doubt that.”
“Thanks, but I lack your cheery optimism.”
“No, I meant the pincushion thing. A broadhead shaft from a thrope bow would punch right through you. You’d just have a bunch of gaping holes in your body—the pincushion metaphor doesn’t really work.”
“I appreciate your tactful approach to accuracy.”
“Not sure what does, though. A sponge? No … Swiss cheese, maybe?”
All right, so it’s possible that mixing my own gunpowder and testing it by igniting some in my living room wasn’t the most thought-out plan in the world. But I was feeling a little manic, a little paranoid, and more than a little sexually frustrated.
See, Cassius and I had finally had our moment. It was intense and epic and surreal, and since then—all of three days ago—I haven’t spent a lot of time around him. I asked for a little space to process things, and he agreed far too quickly. I used the hours to do a lot of thinking and made a few important decisions, including setting up my own martial arts dojo—a twenty-four-hour whirlwind of renting a space, printing up flyers, driving around town dropping them off, and then hunting down some used equipment—which left me happy and exhausted and itchy to do something else so I wouldn’t have to do any more thinking.
Because I was tired of thinking. I’m a smart person who spends way too much time inside her own head, and there are times when you just have to do
something. “Too much knowledge numbs the will to action,” my old sensei Duane Dunn used to say, and he was right on the money.
Because this was too big to wrap my head around, and the more I tried the more I got snarled by analysis paralysis. A centuries-old vampire was in love with me. I was having an affair with my boss, the director of the NSA. I was trapped on a parallel world full of supernatural beings. Any one of those things was enough to drive a sane person crazy if she spent too much thinking about it, and they were only the most obvious factors in the equation.
So, I gave up trying to understand, and decided to just go with the flow. Adopt, adapt, and improve, as John Cleese once said. Of course, he was playing an inept stickup man who was robbing a lingerie shop at the time, but the principle still holds.
I called Cassius up and told him I wanted us to get together. That night, at my place. I told him to bring his toothbrush, or whatever the pire equivalent was.
Then I decided to blow myself up. Because, you know, my subconscious is a lot better with metaphors than I am.
“It’s not gonna implode,” Charlie says.
“Whatever. How long are we supposed to wait? I got things to do.” He stands up.Whaboom!
When I was a kid, I had a cap gun. You threaded this roll of red paper through it, and when you pulled the trigger the hammer snapped down on one of the little dark dots of gunpowder embedded at regular intervals through the paper, making a satisfying bang!
I, however, being a spirited and inquisitive child, was not
satisfied. So I took a whole roll of caps, placed it on a rock, and hit it with a much bigger hammer.
Did you know it’s possible to hear the first two letters of the word bang
? Yeah, a really loud ba,
followed by a loud ringing where the ng
should be. Went away in a few hours, though I’m lucky I didn’t blow out an eardrum.
This is kind of like that. I don’t go completely deaf this time, though; I can hear all sorts of other noises, like shattering glass and the dull impact of flying objects coming to a sudden stop.
My ears are sure ringing, though. I stand up slowly, and say, “Charlie?”
He turns his head to regard me. He’s not wearing his fedora anymore. The front of his suit is blackened and shredded. I really should have moved that vase out of the way, too, because it’s in about a hundred pieces—most of which are sticking out of Charlie’s chest.
“Um,” I say. “You really shouldn’t have done that.”
being what? Buying this suit—yesterday
? Getting up this morning? Or agreeing to have a partner who’s a brain-damaged pyromaniac in the first place?”
“I was going to go with standing up.”
“What, and ruin a terrific punch line? Otherwise known as a twelve-hundred-dollar suit
“I’ll pay for it, okay? Are you
He looks down at himself, where the neck of the vase is protruding from his belly like a rib with a wily escape plan. He grabs it and yanks it out, causing black sand to avalanche all over the floor. He slaps a hand over the hole and scowls at me. “I’ve been better.”
“I’ll get the duct tape.”
And that was how I spent the evening while waiting for my new lover to finish work and come over for our first full night together.
One amazing, lousy night.
* * *
“Jace,” he whispers.
I roll over, sleepily. He’s lying on his side, propped up on one elbow, one leg bent at the knee. Classic pose for a classic body. I usually think of Cassius’s looks in terms of surfer boy meets CEO, but the only suit he’s wearing at the moment is the one he was born in, and the dim light softens his golden skin to something closer to honey. His blue eyes are a little less vivid, but still striking. Right now the rumor that he was the actual model for Michaelangelo’s David
is a lot easier to believe.
“Mmmm,” I say. That’s me, always a fountain of eloquence first thing in the morning.
“Sorry to wake you. I have to go in to the office.”
“Awready? Whatime zit?”
“Early. Go back to sleep.”
asleep. You woke me up.” That might sound a little cranky, but I say it around a yawn and a smile. Memories of last night are percolating through my brain—and other parts.
“I didn’t want to leave without saying good-bye. Among other things.”
I sit up. “Like what?” I’m not fully awake, but there’s still a note of caution in my voice.
“Like how much last night meant to me.” He says it simply, with no trace of sentimentality. A fact. Direct, honest. Beautiful.
“I … me, too.”
“I know you don’t do well with certain emotions, and I don’t want something as ridiculous as embarrassment to come between us. Plus, we should maintain a certain amount of decorum at the office.”
“I’m not following. Pre-coffee, brain no good.”
He smiles. A knowing smile, the kind that somehow says he’s appreciating me on a whole bunch of levels at once, with affection and wry humor and even a little impatience tempered by acceptance. The kind of smile you get from someone who really understands you—and loves you anyway.
“I’ll keep my sentences short. You know how I feel about you.” A statement, not a question.
I swallow with a suddenly dry mouth. “Yeah.” For a little while during my last case I was actually in
Cassius’s head, and I got to see myself the way he sees me. I have no doubts, none at all, about his feelings for me. It’s my own emotions I’m a little unclear on.
“It’s a lot to get hit with, all at once. I understand that. But if we just ignore it, it’ll become the elephant in the room—we’ll always know it’s there even though we never talk about it.”
“So we need a way to talk about it without
talking about it?”
“I suppose.” He reaches out, puts one cool hand on my hip. “I don’t want to overwhelm you, I don’t want to drive you away … but I won’t deny what you mean to me, either. I—we
have to find a balance.”
I nod. “No L word for now, okay? I mean, I know that you…” I stop. Damn it, why is this so hard? It’s just a simple noun, after all.
No. I have no problem with it as a noun. It’s when it becomes a verb that I start screwing up. Relationship grammar, as diagrammed by Jace Valchek, Professional Word Understander.
“Tell you what, Caligula,” I say. “If you really need to express how you feel about me, let’s be professional about it. We work in the intelligence field, right? So let’s devise a code.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“Well, it’s the L word I have a problem with, and it’s the elephant in the room … so let’s go with that. El words: elevator, elemental, elegant.”
“You want me to say I elevator
I let my hand drift down from his hip. “Oh, I already know that. The question is, can I elevator you
“Going up or down?” he murmurs.
“Oh, hell. Let’s just press all
the buttons and see what happens…”
* * *
And then he disappears.
I don’t hear from him all day. He’s not in his office, and his cell number goes straight to voicemail.
I should make something perfectly clear. I am not a woman who defines herself by her relationship. I’m a stubborn, pushy, sarcastic, opinionated female with a fully functioning brain. I don’t back down, I don’t give up, and I sure as hell don’t base my self-worth on whether or not a guy approves of what I do or who I am.
I will admit to a certain amount of insecurity in the dating area. Not so much in what I think I have to offer; I know my own strengths and weaknesses, and they balance out into a challenging but damn fine package. No, it’s my own judgment I’m suspicious of, largely because of a lying, manipulative fellow FBI agent that once not only persuaded me he was worth dating, but that he was in fact a regular human being and not a sociopath who would betray me and steal my promotion. Yeah. And when you consider that identifying
such people is line one in my job description, it tends to shake my confidence a little.
So despite all the rock-solid evidence to the contrary, I start to second-guess myself about Cassius’s intentions. Was this all a scam? He’s a professional spook, after all, as adept at hiding his true agenda as a giant rabbit is at hiding eggs. Maybe I didn’t really
look into the depths of his soul; maybe I just got past the first few layers, into a cover story that he prepared years ago and planted inside his own head with sorcery.
Sure. Because I’m so irresistible that everything we’ve been through together has just been part of an elaborate scenario designed to get into my pants.
Okay, I may be a damn fine package, but I’m not Helen of freaking Troy. And Cassius isn’t Lucifer, Prince of Lies, either. I give myself a kick in the mental butt and tell myself to grow up. Cassius is an important man in an important job—a job with global significance—and I can’t get all antsy because he decided that putting out a brush fire in the Middle East was more important than returning my call.
That works for the rest of the day … but when the day ends and I go to bed alone, I start worrying again.
* * *
The next day, I get a call from Gretchen Petra, the head of the NSA’s intel analysis unit, asking to see me in her office. Gretch is a good friend, the mother of my godchild, and a whip-smart pire who took her first sip of blood in Victorian England. I walk through her open door and say, “What’s up?”
She looks up from the slim electronic tablet she’s tapping at with one crimson-nailed finger, and smiles. She seems tired, which is a first; usually, she’s as steady and unstoppable as a tank. “Jace. Good to see you. Have a seat—but close the door first, will you?”
I ease the door shut, then sit down on the other side of the large steel slab she calls a desk. There are no windows, just six large flatscreen monitors on the walls that feed her a constant stream of text, video, and data from all over the globe. Even with the overhead lights on, the screens still project enough illumination to give the whole room a subliminal, flickering glow.
“I’ve got some news about David.” Gretch is one of the few people I know who call him by his first name—even I still think of him as Cassius. “He’s on assignment.”
“Assignment? I thought he was the assigner, not the assignee.”
“Yes. Well, this is a … special situation. And, needless to say, a situation that calls for the personal involvement of the director is not one I can divulge details about.”
She’s right, but it still feels like he’s ditching me and getting his secretary to call with a message that he’ll be working late. I push that thought angrily away—not only is Gretch practically family, she’d never tolerate that sort of behavior from Cassius. She’s loyal to a fault, but she also has a backbone that steel would envy.
I nod and force a smile in return. “I get it. In fact, you probably shouldn’t even be telling me this much, right?”
She leans back, brushing behind her ear a strand of blond hair that’s come loose from her normally tidy bun. Yeah, her body language is definitely exhausted; slack shoulders, bad posture. “Probably. But I have no choice; I’m operating under a direct order from Director Cassius himself. He said—and I quote—‘Tell Jace I’m sorry about this but it couldn’t be avoided. Don’t worry, the solution is elementary.’”
The last word makes my smile tremble a little; not sure if it’s trying to run away or metamorphose into a grin. “Direct quote, huh?”
And then Gretch does something I’ve never seen her do before: She yawns
. Not that pires don’t yawn—they sleep, after all—it’s just that Gretch usually seems tireless.
“You okay?” I ask.
She nods. “Just a long night. Anna’s teething.”
I wince. “Ouch.”
“Yes. I’m glad pire fangs can’t pierce pire flesh—but that doesn’t mean they don’t hurt.”
Anna is Gretch’s child. A spell cast here at the end of World War II lets pires have kids, but there’s a catch: Both parents have to age six months for every year their offspring does, until the parents judge that the child is an adult and call a halt to the aging process, locking the whole family back into immortality again. Gretch is a single mom, but Cassius offered to share the time-debt with her after Anna’s father was killed. She’s still as strong and hard to kill as all pires are, but it looks like even her stamina is being tested by a blood-drinking toddler with teeth issues.
“So. Any idea when the bossman will be back?”
“I’m afraid not. It could be days—but it might be weeks. He’s appointed me acting director in his place.”
I frown. Not that I disapprove of his choice—Gretch could run the entire world quite efficiently, given the chance—but because it’s a bad sign. It means …
It means nothing, oh paranoid brain of mine. It doesn’t matter if you’re planning on being gone overnight or for a few months, you leave your best in charge. This is the NSA, not an advertising firm—you don’t just call up a temp agency: Yeah, I’m gonna need someone to fill in for me for a few days. Make sure they have some experience in running a national security agency, maybe a little background in black ops, some international diplomatic credentials … oh, and they have to be proficient in Word.
“Thanks, Gretch. I appreciate the heads-up.” I start to get to my feet.
She waves me back down. “That’s not all. I have other information for you—information that’s considerably more positive.”
“You’re giving me a muzzle for Charlie?”
“Funny, he asked me the same thing about you … no, this concerns an old acquaintance of ours.”
She leans forward, her eyes intent. “Aristotle Stoker.”Now
she’s got my attention.
Aristotle Stoker. Descendant of the infamous Bram, who on Thropirelem gained fame not only for writing Dracula
but also for the Whitechapel Vampire Murders—sometimes carving up prostitutes with a silver-edged blade, sometimes killing them with a wooden crucifix sharpened into a stake. On my world, Stoker never had children; here he did.
And a few generations later, Aristotle was born. He became a legend in the human underground, a killer of pires and thropes as elusive as a shadow and as a lethal as a silver guillotine. He racked up quite the body count before he used an internal political dispute to fake his own death and reinvent himself with an even scarier persona, that of the Impaler. The Impaler leapt from serial killing to mass murder, and hid so efficiently that for years no one knew for sure if he was even a real person or some kind of urban myth. I was the one who uncovered his real identity—well, he revealed it to me, actually—and I was the one who stopped his plan to turn a large percentage of Thropirelem’s supernatural residents into immobile, living mummies.
We’ve run into each other since then. Despite the fact that he was a homicidal lunatic, I had a certain amount of grudging respect for him, at least at first; he was a human being on a planet full of monsters, doing his best to fight back against a status quo that had seen six million of his own kind sacrificed to an Elder God. It was hard not to see him as a heroic revolutionary—until I processed a few of the crime scenes he left behind.
He wasn’t a revolutionary, he was a terrorist. His plan had nothing to do with righting wrongs or seeking freedom; it was about revenge, carried out indiscriminately. What was done to the human race here was horrible, but killing a bunch of innocent civilians decades later isn’t the answer. I’m not sure what the answer is, or if there even is one, but I know Stoker’s approach isn’t going to solve anything.
He can help me
solve something, though.
He can help me get back home.
Copyright © 2012 by DD Barant
DD Barant lives in Vancouver, BC, and loves monsters, chocolate, animals, reading, comics and lying naked on the beach, while hating bullies, narrow-minded people, Sea Urchin Sushi, and gluten. Awful, terrible, gluten.