VAMPIRE FOR HIRE
Raylene Pendle (AKA Cheshire Red), a vampire and world-renowned thief, doesn’t usually hang with her own kind. She’s too busy stealing priceless art and rare jewels. But when the infuriatingly charming Ian Stott asks for help, Raylene finds him impossible to resistâ even though Ian doesn’t want precious artifacts. He wants her to retrieve missing government filesâ documents that deal with the secret biological experiments that left Ian blind. What Raylene doesn’t bargain for is a case that takes her from the wilds of Minneapolis to the mean streets of Atlanta. And with a psychotic, power-hungry scientist on her trail, a kick-ass drag queen on her side, and Men in Black popping up at the most inconvenient moments, the case proves to be one hell of a ride.
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Cherie Priest is the author of more than a dozen adult science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels, including BONESHAKER, which won the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. She lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and can be found online at www.cheriepriest.com and @cmpriest.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
You wouldn't believe some of the weird shit people pay me to steal.
Old things, new things. Expensive things, rare things, gross things.
Lately it's been naughty things.
We've all heard stories about people who regret their tattoos. But I'd rather spend eternity with Tweety Bird inked on my ass than knowing there's a hide-the-cucumber short film out there with my name on it, and my bank account tells me I'm not alone. I've done three pilfer-the-porno cases in the last eight months, and I've got another one on deck.
But I think I'm going to tell that fourth case to go to hell. Maybe I'll quit doing them altogether. They make me feel like an ambulance chaser, or one of those private dicks who earns a living by spying on cheating spouses, and that's no fun. Profitable, yes, but there's no dignity in it, and I don't need the money that badly.
In fact, I don't need the money at all. I've been at this gig for nearly a century, and in that time I've stored up quite a healthy little nest egg.
I suppose this begs the question of why I'd even bother with loathsome cases, if all I'm going to do is bitch about them. It can't be mere boredom, can it? Mere boredom cannot explain why I willingly breached the bedroom of a fifty-year-old man with a penchant for stuffed animals in Star Trek uniforms.
Perhaps I need to do some soul searching on this one.
But I say all that to simply say this: I was ready for a different kind of case. I would even go so far as to say I was eager for a different kind of case, but if you haven't heard the old adage about being careful what you wish for, and you'd like a cautionary fable based upon that finger-wagging premise, well then. Keep reading.
Have I got a doozy for you.
It began with a card I received in the mail. A simple card doesn't sound so strange, but the extenuating circumstances were these: (1) The card arrived at my home address; (2) it was addressed to me, personally, by name; and (3) I didn't recognize the handwriting. I can count on one hand the number of people who might send me a note at home, and I've known each of those folks for decades. This was somebody new. And instinct and experience told me that this was Not A Good Thing.
The envelope also lacked a postmark, which was a neat trick considering the locked residential boxes downstairs. So it wasn't marked in any way, and it didn't smell like anything, either. I held it under my nose and closed my eyes, and I caught a whiff of leather--from a glove? the mail carrier's bag?--and printer ink, and the rubbery taste of a moistening sponge.
What kind of prissy bitch won't lick an envelope?
That's easy. Another vampire.
Under the filthiest, most nonbathing of circumstances we don't leave much body odor, and what we do manufacture we prefer to minimize.
That extra bit of precaution told me plenty, even before I read the card. It told me that this came from someone who didn't want to be chased or traced. Somebody was trying to keep all the balls in his court, or all the cards in his hand--however you preferred to look at it.
I wasn't sure how I knew my mystery correspondent was a man, but I was right. The message within was typed in italics, as if I ought to whisper should I read it aloud. It said,
Dear Ms. Pendle,
I wish to speak with you about a business matter of utmost confidentiality and great personal significance. I have very deep pockets and I require complete discretion. Please contact me at the phone number below.
Thank you for your time,
And he signed it with a drop of blood, just in case I was too dense to gather the nature of my potential client. The blood smelled sweet and a smidgen sour--not like the Asian sauce, but more like the candy. It's subtly different from the blood of a living person--both more appealing and less so. It's tough to describe.
We're dead, sort of. Everything smells and tastes different.
A few things look different, too. My pupils are permanently dilated, so although my eyes once were brown, now they're black. I'm as white as a compact fluorescent bulb, which you might expect from a woman who avoids the sun to the best of her ability, and my teeth . . . well, I try not to show them when I smile.
They're not all incriminatingly pointy, don't get me wrong. When I yawn I'm not flashing a row of shark's choppers, but my canines are decidedly pokey. Thank God they don't hang down as long as they once did. (I know a guy. He filed them for me.) These days they may be short, but they're still sharp enough to puncture an oil can, and that's how I like it.
My hair is more or less the same as it always was, a shade of black that doesn't require any further descriptors. It's short because--and I tell you this at the risk of dating myself--it was cut in a flapper style when I was still alive. It used to bother me that it won't grow any longer now that I'm post-viable, but I've convinced myself that it's just as well. It helps reinforce that whole "sexual ambiguity" thing.
Did I mention that already?
No? Well, it's easy to sum up. I'm on three Most Wanted lists internationally . . . and on every single one I'm listed as a man known only as "Cheshire Red." I'm not sure how this happened, or why.
I'm tallish for a woman, or shortish for a man. I'm slender, with breasts that are small enough to go unremarked. In the dark, at a glance, on a grainy security camera, I could pass for a young man. And far be it from me to argue with the feebs. If they want to keep on the lookout for a dude, so much the better for my career path and continued operation.
The number at the bottom of his summons wasn't local, and I didn't recognize the area code. Call me paranoid, but I had some reservations about dialing it up. I considered jaunting down to the nearest gas station and using the pay phone. Then I remembered that the bastard already knew where I lived, and I'd just be closing the barn door after the horse had run off. Hell, I was lucky he hadn't shown up on my doorstep.
Come to think of it, I wondered why he hadn't.
I wondered if he was watching me. I wondered if . . .
Okay. You would be right to call me paranoid, obviously, yes. But you don't survive as long as I have by being sloppy and easily accessible. That's a recipe for disaster. I'm much happier when I feel invisible.
I fondled the card between two fingers and tried to talk myself out of my phobic spiral.
He'd given me a name. Was it his real name? There was no telling. But he'd signed it properly, although I noted after looking again at the envelope, the signature didn't match the chicken-scratch scrawl of the address. The signature was large and smooth, and easy to read. My address would've been more legible if it'd been composed in pickup sticks.
Okay, so he knew where I lived, but he was respecting my space. Apparently. Again I had an irritating flash of nervousness, wondering if he was right outside--or across the street, or downstairs, or hiding in a closet.
Because I couldn't stop myself, I rushed to the hall closet and flung it open to make sure. Packed with shades of brown, black, and gray as usual, it was devoid of any two-legged lurkers. For about five seconds, I was relieved. Then I scanned the rest of the room with renewed frantic suspicion.
I grabbed a big black knife--my personal favorite, a carbon steel jobbie nearly a foot long--and I kicked in my own bathroom door. Empty. And now it also had a cracked tile on the wall where the knob had knocked it. Fantastic.
Too crazy to stop once I got myself started, I ran to the bedroom and checked that closet as well. More brown, black, and gray. No intruders.
Into the kitchen I burst. The walk-in pantry was secure.
The spare bedroom, of course! But it was likewise bereft of uninvited guests, as a mad crashing investigation shortly revealed.
Having exhausted my innate store of neurotic lunacy, I felt like an idiot. I really should've just called the number in the first place. I sat down on the arm of the couch, fished my phone out of my bag, took a deep breath, and dialed.
The phone at the other end only rang once before it was answered.
"Hello, Ms. Pendle," said a smooth, low voice.
"Hello, Mr. Stott." I tried to keep it dry and droll. No sense in letting him know he'd rattled me.
"Please, call me Ian. I thank you for responding to my message. I realize you're a busy woman, and I am certain that your time is valuable, but I wish to state up front that I'm prepared to pay you handsomely for it."
I listened hard and tried to get a good handle on the speaker. Another vampire, definitely. I'd known that much already, but hearing the preternatural, almost musical timbre in his words would've cinched it, regardless. He was well educated and calm, and American.
"That's what you implied in your note, yes," I said. "But as much as I love the money-is-no-object school of business, I still need to know what you're after before I can name a price."
"That's quite reasonable, and I'm happy to accommodate you. However, I am reluctant to discuss such a thing over the phone." Hmm. A dash of technophobia? He might be older than he sounded.
"Okay. You want to meet up? I can make that happen."
"You'll want someplace public, I expect. Bright lights, people milling about." He didn't have much of an accent, and I couldn't place what I detected. Not southern, not urban northern, not midwestern. He could've been a TV anchor if he hadn't been speaking so softly.
"This isn't a blind date, Ian. I don't need a room full of witnesses and a girlfriend who knows the get-me-outta-here safe word. There's a wine bar down on Third Street called Vina. It's dark and quiet, and it's often busy but it's never conspicuously crowded. Two primary entrances, easy to escape if necessary, easy to hide out in the open. Will that work for you?"
I heard a smile in his voice when he echoed, "A blind date. Funny you should put it that way." Then he said, "Yes, that's fine with me. Is tonight too soon?"
"Tonight is never too soon. Can you meet me there in an hour?" I checked my watch and noted that it wasn't quite eight PM. "Wait. Let's make it two hours. The bar doesn't close until two in the morning, so we'll have plenty of time to chat."
"Very well," he said. "I'll see you then, Ms. Pendle." And he hung up.
I hadn't bothered to tell him he could call me Raylene. As a freelance contractor I like to keep things stuffy on my end. I get little enough respect as it is, since I'm not affiliated with any of the major Houses--either here in town, or anywhere else.
Vampires tend to be pack animals out of social convenience. They coagulate around one particularly old, strong, or charismatic figure and entrench themselves in legitimate enterprises in much the same way the Mafia does. More often than not, this works for them. They mostly get left alone, and when they don't, they're tough enough as a group to smack down any external threats.
But external threats are few and far between, and usually they come from other vampires. Did I say that we were social creatures? I might have misspoken. It's a love-hate thing, the way we get along with one another. It's just as well there are so few of us anymore.
I could've made it down to Vina in an hour, but I didn't feel like rushing.
I felt like changing clothes, freshening up, checking my email, maybe playing a game of Internet Scrabble, and then wandering down to Third Street at my leisure.
There was method to my madness.
For one thing, it's important to always project the appearance of control. We would operate on my terms--when I want, where I want. I always try to establish this right out of the gate, because it gets clients accustomed to the idea that I'll be calling the shots. They pay me to achieve an objective. How I achieve that objective is up to my own discretion and no one else's, and I will accept no restrictions. This is not to say that I'm a rabid berserker off the leash or anything. That's bad for business and bad for the low-key, invisible vibe I struggle to maintain.
But I am the queen of situational ethics.
And for another thing, Stott had thrown me more than I would've cared to admit, and I needed to calm myself down. I wanted to meet him after a bath and maybe an adult beverage.
I'm not Dracula and I do drink . . . wine. In fact I rather enjoy it, though more than a glass at a time makes me woozy. Blame it on a semi-dead metabolism or anything else you like, but I don't process alcohol well or quickly. I've never met a vampire who does. Therefore, I kept it light--just a few sips of something out of a box. It was enough to settle my nerves, but not enough to slow me down.
I dressed, but I didn't dress up. It attracts too much attention.
I wore three shades of gray with black accents--boots, bag, et cetera. I ran a hand through my hair and called it "done." I closed my wee, lightweight laptop and stuck it into my bag. I picked up my keys and stuffed them into my pocket. And I left the condo, locking it behind me. The locking part took a full minute. I like locks, and I have some good ones.
Down in the parking garage under the building I keep a blue-gray Thunderbird. It's not the newest model, but it's not old enough to count as a classic--and it's got more miles on it than you'd guess. I could afford a better car, sure, but I like the way this one drives and no one ever looks at it twice. Only this time I left it in its assigned space. Traffic would be a bitch, parking would be worse, and I could make it to my destination in thirty minutes if I kept up a steady pace. It was all downhill, anyway.
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