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MY STUDIO space felt like a favorite pair of jeans, worn and comfortable, maybe disreputable, but while wearing them I was sure I could conquer the world. Here behind my microphone, monitor and status lights glowing, I was invincible.
"Welcome to The Midnight Hour, the show that isn't afraid of the dark or the creatures who live there. Thanks for joining me this evening. I'm hoping to have a rollicking good time, so let's get going."
Over the years since I'd started working at KNOB after college, and since I'd launched my radio show, we'd replaced the chairs, upgraded equipment, updated screening procedures, and syndicated to almost a hundred markets across the country. Details had changed, but this still felt like home. It would always feel like home, I hoped. We still played CCR's "Bad Moon Rising" as the intro. My sound guy, Matt, still engineered the whole show from his booth. I could see him through the booth window, head bent over the board. A big guy with short black hair and a laid-back attitude, he'd been with me almost from the beginning, as soon as the calls got to be too much for me to handle and we syndicated and suddenly had a mountain of technical issues. The show and I wouldn't have made it this far without him. I should probably tell him that.
"My guest this evening is a regular on the show, my good friend Dr. Elizabeth Shumacher, who heads up the Center for the Study of Paranatural Biology at the NIH, and my go-to guru for cutting-edge science and research on the conditions we know as vampirism and lycanthropy. Welcome back to the show, Dr. Shumacher."
"Thanks, Kitty, I'm happy to be here." Her voice came through my headphones; Dr. Shumacher was doing the interview from an affiliate radio station in Washington, D.C.-very late at her time, which meant I owed her one. On the plus side, I could interview her while in my jeans and T-shirt, sans makeup, hair tied up in a scrunchy. One of the many reasons I loved radio-I didn't have to dress up.
In my chipper radio-host voice I said, "I understand there's some new research indicating that scientists may have learned the origin of vampirism, which in turn may lead to discovering the source of lycanthropy. What can you tell me?"
Shumacher was the consummate scientist, talking evenly and articulately about everything. I'd met her a few times in person; she was a middle-aged woman who embodied calm and confidence. I liked her and was lucky she kept letting me drag her onto the show. We needed people like her to cut through the legends and fear and get to the truth.
"It's far too early to be making sweeping statements about the discovery of anything. But we have some promising leads developing, which ought to point us to some fruitful new lines of inquiry."
"Which is scientist speak for, you're not going to stick your neck out, which is fine, but I'm not going to let you off the hook that easily," I said. "What exactly is this research about?"
"For some time, there's been a popular working hypothesis that vampirism, and perhaps lycanthropy as well, are transmitted through a variation of retroviral infection. Think of it as a kind of nefarious gene therapy. Gene therapy can be used to replace a portion of a patient's faulty, mutated DNA with healthy DNA. Viruses are often used to deliver healthy DNA, since they're naturally designed to attach to human cells, inject their own DNA, and reproduce quickly. Only in the case of vampirism, healthy human DNA is replaced by the DNA markers indicative of vampirism."
I got just enough of what she was talking about to know it was dangerous. But I wanted to understand. It was half the reason I did the show in the first place. The other half came from a vague hope that I might actually be able to help people. Just a few people. I wasn't trying to change the world.
"So vampirism-it's like catching a cold, except instead of just a runny nose, it transforms the host into another state of being entirely?"
"It's a bit more complicated than that," she said, sounding amused. She understood the need to paraphrase for the lowest common denominator audience. I'd read the papers she'd sent me-twice-and had to do some translating of my own. We'd get there. "Most people have antibodies that repel cold viruses-the symptoms of the cold are the result of the body's immune system fighting off the infection. It's my thought that vampirism was never common enough for human beings to develop antibodies to fight against, and so it's able to transform the host DNA without resistance. The next step is to confirm this hypothesis by identifying and isolating the transmitting virus."
"How close are you and your colleagues to doing that?"
"Well..."-and this was where I could tell she was self-editing-"not as close as we'd like. Samples are not all that easy to come by."
I said, "If it's a virus, do you think you might ever be able to develop a vaccine to protect against vampirism or lycanthropy?"
"Really, the transmission of these conditions is so difficult, and the chance of any one person becoming infected is so small, the development of a vaccine probably will never become a priority. I know the focus of many of my colleagues is on treating and potentially curing those already afflicted."
This was getting into very interesting territory indeed. "How close are you and your colleagues to finding a cure?"
A pause, almost too long for radio. The back of my neck itched, wanting to jump in and fill the quiet, but I didn't want to push her. When she finally answered, Shumacher sounded as uncertain as I'd ever heard her. "These are difficult, elusive questions we're dealing with, Kitty. All we can do is keep working and see what we find."
In other words, they didn't have much. They used words like virus because the concept was descriptive and provided a working model. But people like me were called supernatural for a reason. An ineffable part of the problem remained out of reach.
"All right, I'm going to open the line for calls now. If you have a question for Dr. Shumacher or a comment on this discussion, you know what to do."
I already had a dozen calls lined up in the queue. Excellent. Even after years of this, I lived in fear of looking at the monitor one day and seeing it blank, empty. If my audience vanished, the show would be done. This was not that day. At heart, people wanted attention, and if they had to call into my quirky fringe show to get it, so be it.
For the first call, I tried to pick one that sounded sane. Or at least balanced. One with a substantive comment, not too far out there. Sometimes I picked well.
"Hello, Martin from Boston, you're on the air."
"Oh hi, Kitty, thanks for taking my call. Yeah, I have a question for Dr. Shumacher. She said getting samples was hard. So if I'm a vampire and I want to participate-I guess I'm asking if there are any studies I could sign up for, to help out?"
"Dr. Shumacher?" I prompted.
"Yes, a number of researchers are conducting a variety of studies at any given moment, and they're often looking for not just vampire and lycanthrope volunteers, but uninfected humans for experimental controls. It should come as no surprise that these communities are often difficult to reach out to, and that's one of the reasons our options are sometimes limited, so thank you especially for asking. We have a website you can check to find various calls for study volunteers..."
See? I was performing a public service. Contributing to the community. It wasn't all prurient exploitation.
I picked up the thread. "Thanks, Martin, for putting yourself out there for science. I hope others will check out that website. We'll put the link on The Midnight Hour site as well." I looked through the window, and yes, Matt was writing down the reminder, because I would likely forget. I was caught up in the flow of the show, and nothing could stop me. "Next caller, hello, what do you have for me?" This was Nadia from Tucson.
A woman spoke, her voice earnest, searching. "Hello, Kitty, yes-I have a question for both of you, if that's okay."
"It's what we're here for, ask away."
"All this talk of science, it seems like it's missing something. Vampires, werewolves, there's more to them than just curing an illness, isn't there? I guess I want to know where the mystery of it all is. The magic."
I deferred to my guest. "Dr. Shumacher, you want to tackle this one?"
"I'm not sure that 'science' and 'magic' are such distinct categories as people sometimes make them out to be. I try to keep that in mind when I do my own studies, that this is all part of nature, no matter how strange it seems. I'm studying nature."
I added, "I've heard a lot of variations of the saying that magic is just phenomena that science hasn't explained yet."
Shumacher said, "I became a scientist because the natural world fills me with wonder. I think DNA is magical-how does all that information come to be stored in a collection of molecules? How does it come to be expressed? Learning the answers to those questions doesn't make me any less filled with awe."
"Yes, exactly," I said. "I've seen a lot of weird things in my time. Ghosts, channeling, fairies, you name it. It doesn't matter how weird things get, I'm not going to stop asking questions and trying to figure out how things work. Otherwise, we're sitting alone in our dark caves, waiting for something to come along and eat us."
Nadia didn't sound convinced. "Yeah, okay-but what if you never find real answers? What if it really is just magic?"
"As if 'just' is a word you can use with magic. It's 'just,' you know, the universe."
She kept pressing. "Surely there are some questions that will never be answered-why vampires are immortal, why werewolves are controlled by the full moon. It doesn't make any scientific sense."
"And it never will, if we stop asking questions," I said. "Maybe it's magic, yes, but we still need to figure out how magic works, don't we? Moving on, before we get too philosophical, my next call comes from Providence. Hello!"
The caller was male, fast talking, and clearly short on patience. "Kitty, longtime listener and all that. I've been a fan for a long time, but why do you always fall for these so-called scientific explanations? You know it's all a smoke screen, don't you?"
The screener's comment on this call was "opposing viewpoint." I had a feeling what that viewpoint was going to be. Doing the show as long as I had, I'd heard just about everything at least once. But I was always willing to be surprised.
"Oh? A smoke screen? Do tell."
"This isn't about science, or magic, or anything like that. It's about who controls our souls!"
Of course it was. Sometimes I thought I'd be better off if I hung up on these calls. Usually, though, I had way more fun letting them run on. Sure, I liked providing altruistic public service when I could. The rest of the time, I wasn't above ratings-boosting conflict.
"This is a good and evil thing, I assume is what you're getting at."
"You know the stories: vampires and werewolves, lycanthropes, witches, all the rest of it-they're a perversion of God's perfect human form. They're not nature, they're a twisted mockery of nature! Your doctor there said basically the same thing-these monsters rewrite our DNA, DNA made in God's image. How can corrupting that not be a sign of true evil?"
"Because ... I don't feel evil?" It got too easy to point and laugh at these guys. When they didn't make me feel utterly exhausted.
"That's the whole point," the caller from Providence said, and even he sounded tired, like he'd had to explain this one too many times. "You're a pawn. You're being used. Maybe you didn't start out evil, but your DNA, your very being, your soul has been warped. And why? Tell me that? What purpose does it serve? Think about it a minute and you'll realize the answer."
If I wasn't playing dumb, I was at least playing stubborn. "Does there have to be a purpose? Do you know what the purpose of a cold virus is?"
"No?" the guy said, nonplussed.
"Dr. Shumacher?" I asked.
She said, gamely, "Well, the purpose of a cold virus is to make more cold viruses and then to spread. Reproduction. Biologists feel that this is the base purpose of most life on Earth."
"There you go," I said. "It's a function of reproduction. Does it have to be more nefarious than that?"
"Yes!" he exclaimed. "Because this isn't biology, this is about the war in Heaven, and the rebellion of Lucifer, and his entire purpose is twisting God's creation and bending it toward evil! Spreading that evil! When you say this is all science and biology, you're confusing people, turning them from the truth! Vampires, werewolves-you, even!-you're a symptom of original sin! You're being used!"
"You know," I said. "There was a time when I'd say this rant never gets old. But I've changed my mind-this is getting old. You can't call someone evil because of some aspect of their identity they can't control. I'll say it again: being a vampire or a werewolf doesn't make a person evil. Doing evil things makes you evil."
"You're deluded, you're a tool of Lucifer-"
I cut off the call. Because I could. "There's definitely a tool here but it's not me. Dr. Shumacher, do you ever get this kind of response to your work?"
"We have an intern whose entire job is filing the hate mail we get at the center."
Oh. I didn't know that. "That ... do you find that depressing? This antiscience attitude? This outright hatred?"
"I think it highlights the need for education. I don't think people are antiscience-they're scared. They know now that vampires and werewolves exist, but they don't know what to do about it, so it's easy for them to believe the worst. I know you've done your best to get as much information out there as you can, Kitty. But, well, not to throw any kind of shadow on what you've done, you know very well that sometimes backfires. Any hint of conspiracy, people get more scared, not less. And vampires and conspiracy are almost synonymous."
She wasn't the first person to call me on that. Last year I'd stood up before an international conference and declared the existence of Dux Bellorum and the Long Game, a cabal of vampires with a nefarious mission of world-domination. Maybe that hadn't been the most responsible thing to do. But I'd been at a loss-Dux Bellorum was real and I didn't know how else to stop him. Speaking truth into a microphone was the only thing I knew how to do.
Dux Bellorum-Roman-was a vampire, a soldier of the Roman Empire in the first century who had become a vampire and decided to spend his immortality learning arcane lore and building an empire of his own. He'd traveled the world in search of magic and followers, whom he marked with an enchanted coin. I had a handful of the coins, collected from his minions and former minions, scratched and marred and flattened to destroy the magic in them. He had dozens of allies-the Master and Mistress vampires of cities around the world-and through them he exerted control over the entire supernatural world. Maybe even the mortal world as well, and I had begun to suspect that Roman didn't just want to take over the world-he wanted to destroy it. Or at least damage it to such an extent that taking it over would be made easier. All the signs over the last few months indicated that Roman was on the move, that his endgame was in play.
I had evidence that he'd caused Vesuvius to erupt and destroy Pompeii, using a spell called the Manus Herculei. I believed he was preparing to use that spell again. I kept a map in my office with every volcano that had been active in the last thousand years marked with red thumbtacks. There were volcanoes all over the world. We'd never be able to stop him.
I'd been trying to track down Roman for years, ever since he came to Denver and decided I was an obstacle. Therewas a conspiracy, but it wasn't about good and evil and the supernatural; it was about power and egos. The usual stuff. The supernatural didn't fundamentally change people; it just gave them power.
I'd blown all this up in public because I figured the more people were watching for him, who knew about him, the less likely he'd be able to pull off anything terrible. Turned out, a lot of people just stopped taking me seriously. I was just like the crackpots calling into my show.
"I blame Dracula," I said, deflecting the issue entirely, because I had a show to run. "All right, let's take another call. Hello, you're on the air."
An authoritative male voice came on the line and lectured. "I think you're ignoring the real controversy here, which is how the World Health Organization is planning to start incarcerating werewolves in concentration camps to serve as food for vampires, to spare the human population..."
And that was The Midnight Hour.
* * *
MY PHONE rang as I left the KNOB studios. Normally, after-midnight calls would be a cause for worry, except the caller ID said it was Cormac. He usually called at strange hours, so I wouldn't know if this was an emergency until I actually talked to him.
"Hey!" I said brightly, hopped up on postshow adrenaline.
"You going to New Moon tonight?" he said, without any extraneous social preamble. Not his style.
Many times after the show, I'd head to New Moon, the bar and restaurant my husband, Ben, and I owned, to burn off said adrenaline with a drink and company. Sometimes Cormac, Ben's cousin and our friend, joined us. He rarely gave warning ahead of time.
"Yeah," I said. "Ben should already be there."
"I'll meet you there," he said.
"Why? What-" He clicked off without explanation.
Well, that was Cormac, man of mystery. He'd found something, obviously. And now my stomach was churning, wondering what it was and what can of worms it would open.
Copyright © 2015 Carrie Vaughn, LLC