"For someone who just orchestrated a murder, you're kind of overreacting.”
Overreacting? In the last twenty-four hours, I'd had to endure virgins, scary vampires, murder, accusation, and humiliation in front of my favorite author. I really didn't think coming home to a quiet apartment was too much to ask for. Instead, I found three interlopers. Three interlopers who were also my friends, mind you, but that didn't change the principle of the matter.
Naturally, none of them understood why I was so upset.
"You're invading my privacy! And I didn't murder anybody. Why does everyone keep thinking that?”
"Because you said yourself you were going to," explained Hugh. The imp sprawled on my love seat, his relaxed posture indicating I might actually be the one in his home. "I heard it from Jerome.”
Across from him, our friend Cody offered me a friendly smile. He was exceptionally young for a vampire and reminded me of the kid brother I'd never had. "Don't worry. He had it coming. We stand by you all the way.”
"But I didn't—”
"Is that our illustrious hostess I hear?" called Peter from the bathroom. A moment later, he appeared in the hallway. "You look pretty snazzy for a criminal mastermind.”
"I'm not— " My words died on my lips as I caught sight of him. For a moment, all thoughts of murder and apartment intrusion blanked out of my mind. "For God's sake, Peter. What happened to your hair?”
He self-consciously ran a hand over the sharp, half-inch spikes covering his head. I couldn't even imagine how much styling product it must have taken to defy the laws of physics like that. Worse, the tips of the spikes were white-blond, standing out boldly against his normally dark hair color. "Someone I work with helped me with it.”
"Someone who hates you?”
Peter scowled. "You are the most uncharming succubus I've ever met.”
"I think the spikes really, um, emphasize the shape of your eyebrows," offered Cody diplomatically. "They just take . . . some getting used to.”
I shook my head. I liked Peter and Cody. They were the only vampires I'd ever been friends with, but that didn't make them any less trying. Between Peter's assorted neuroses and Cody's dogged optimism, I sometimes felt like the straight man—er, woman—on a sitcom.
"A lot of getting used to," I muttered, pulling up a bar-stool from my kitchen.
"You're one to talk," returned Peter. "You and your wings and whip getup.”
My mouth dropped, and I turned an incredulous look on Hugh. He hastily shut the Victoria's Secret catalog he'd been leafing through.
"You said you weren't going to tell! You sealed your lips and everything!”
"I, uh . . . it just sort of slipped out.”
"Did you really have horns?" asked Peter.
"All right, that's it. I want you all out of here now." I pointed at the door. "I've been through enough today without you three adding to it.”
"You haven't even told us about taking the contract out on Duane." Cody's puppy-dog eyes looked at me pleadingly. "We're dying to know.”
"Well, Duane's the one who technically did the dying," pointed out Peter in an undertone.
"Watch the snide comments," warned Hugh. "You might be next.”
I half expected steam to pour from my ears. "For the last time, I did not kill Duane! Jerome believes me, okay?”
Cody looked thoughtful. "But you did threaten him ...”
"Yes. And from what I recall, so have all of you at some time or another. This is just a coincidence. I didn't have anything to do with it, and ..." Something suddenly occurred to me. "Why does everyone keep saying things like 'arranged his death' or 'got someone to murder him'? Why aren't you saying that I did it myself?”
"Wait. . . you just said you didn't.”
Peter rolled his eyes at Cody before facing me, the older vampire's expression turning serious. Of course, "serious" means all sorts of things when paired with a hairstyle like his. "No one's saying you did it because you couldn't have.”
"Especially in those shoes." Hugh nodded toward my heels.
"I appreciate your complete lack of faith in my abilities, but isn't it possible I could have, I don't know, taken him by surprise? Hypothetically, I mean.”
Peter smiled. "It wouldn't have mattered. Lesser immortals can't kill one another." Seeing my astonished look, he added, "How can you not know that? After living as long as you have?”
Teasing laced his words. There had always been an unspoken mystery between Peter and me concerning which of us was the oldest of the mortals-turned-immortals in our little circle. Neither of us would openly admit our age, so we'd never really determined who had the most centuries. One night, after a bottle of tequila, we'd started playing a "Do you remember when ..." sort of game. We'd only gotten back as far as the Industrial Revolution before passing out.
"Because no one's ever tried to kill me. So what, are you saying all those turf wars vampires have are for nothing?”
"Well, not for nothing," he said. "We inflict some pretty terrific damage, believe me. But no, no one ever dies. With all the territory disputes, there'd be very few of us left if we could kill each other.”
I stayed silent, turning this revelation over in my head. "Then how do—" I suddenly remembered what Jerome had told me. "They get killed by vampire hunters.”
"What's the deal with them?" I asked. "Jerome wouldn't elaborate.”
Hugh was equally interested. "You mean like that one girl on TV? The hot blonde?”
"This is going to be a long night." Peter gave us both scathing looks. "You all need some serious Vampires 101. I don't suppose you're going to offer us anything to drink, Georgina?”
I waved an impatient hand toward the kitchen. "Get whatever you want. I want to know about vampire hunters.”
Peter sauntered out of my living room, yelping when he nearly tripped over one of the many stacks of books I had sitting around. I made a mental note to buy a new bookshelf. Scowling, he surveyed my nearly empty refrigerator with disapproval.
"You really need to work on your hosting skills.”
"Now, I keep hearing stories about that other succubus ... the one in Missoula. What's her name again?”
"Donna," offered Hugh.
"Yeah, Donna. She throws great parties, I hear. Gets them catered. Invites everyone.”
"If you guys want to party with all ten people in Montana, then you're welcome to move there. Now stop wasting time.”
Ignoring me, Peter eyed the red carnations I'd bought the other night. I'd put them in a vase near the kitchen sink. "Who sent you flowers?”
"You sent yourself flowers?" asked Cody, his voice quaking with sympathy.
"No, I just bought them. It's not the same. I didn't—look. Why are we talking about this when there's an alleged vampire killer on the loose? Are you two in danger?”
Peter finally opted for water but tossed beers to Hugh and Cody. "Nope.”
"We aren't?" Cody seemed surprised to learn this. His scant years as a vampire practically made him a baby compared to the rest of us. Peter was teaching him "the trade," so to speak.
"Vampire hunters are simply special mortals born with the ability to inflict real damage to vampires. Mortals in general can't touch us, of course. Don't ask me how or why this all works; there's no system as far as I can tell. Most so-called vampire hunters go through life without even realizing they have this talent. The ones who do sometimes decide to make a career out of it. They pop up like this from time to time, picking off the occasional vampire, making a general nuisance of themselves until some enterprising vampire or demon takes them out.”
"'Nuisance'?" asked Cody incredulously. "Even after Duane? Aren't you the least bit worried about this person coming after you? After us?”
"No," said Peter. "I am not.”
I shared Cody's confusion. "Why not?”
"Because this person, whoever he or she is, is a total amateur." Peter glanced over at Hugh and me. "What did Jerome say about Duane's death?”
Deciding I needed a drink myself, I raided my kitchen liquor cabinet and made a vodka gimlet. "He wanted to know if I did it.”
Peter made a dismissive gesture. "No, about how he died.”
Hugh frowned, apparently trying to piece together the logic afoot. "He said that Duane had been found dead—with a stake through his heart.”
"There. You see?”
Peter looked at us expectantly. We all looked back, baffled.
"I don't get it," I finally said.
Peter sighed, again looking utterly put out. "If you are a mortal who has the semidivine ability to kill a vampire, it doesn't fucking matter how you do it. You can use a gun, a knife, a candlestick, or whatever. The stake through the heart thing is hearsay. If a normal mortal does it to a vampire, it won't do a damned thing except really piss the vampire off. We only hear about it when a vampire hunter does it, so it carries some special superstitious lure, when really, it's only like that egg thing on the equinoxes.”
"What?" Hugh looked totally lost.
I rubbed my eyes. "I actually know what he's talking about, as scary as that is to admit. There's this urban myth that eggs balance on their ends during the equinoxes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but the truth is, you'd get the same results any time of the year. People only try it on the equinoxes, however, so that's all anyone notices." I glanced over at Peter. "Your point is that a vampire hunter could kill a vampire in any number of ways, but because the stake gets all the attention, that's what has become the accepted method of. .. 'revocation of immortality.' “
"In people's minds," he corrected. "In reality, it's a pain in the ass to drive a stake through someone's heart. A lot easier to shoot them.”
"And so you think this hunter is an amateur because ..." Cody trailed off, obviously unconvinced by the compelling egg analogy.
"Because any vampire hunter worth his or her snuff knows that and wouldn't use a stake. This person's a total newbie.”
"First," I advised Peter, "don't say 'worth his snuff.' That expression's out-of-style and makes you sound dated. Second, maybe this hunter was just trying to be old-school or something. And even if this person is a 'newbie,' does it really matter since they managed to take out Duane?”
Peter shrugged. "He was an arrogant asshole. Vampires can sense vampire hunters at close range. Combined with this one's inexperience, Duane should have never been taken. He was stupid.”
I opened my mouth to counter this. I would be among the first to agree that Duane had indeed been both arrogant and an asshole, but stupid he was not. Immortals could not live as long as we did and see as many things as we did without gleaning substantial know-how and street smarts. We grew up quickly, so to speak.
Another question moved to the forefront of my reasoning. "Can these hunters hurt other immortals? Or just vampires?”
"Only vampires, as far as I know.”
Something didn't add up here between Peter's comments and Jerome's. I couldn't quite put my finger on what was bothering me exactly, so I kept my misgivings to myself as the others chatted on. The vampire hunter topic soon became passé, once they'd decided—with some disappointment—I hadn't contracted anybody. Cody and Hugh also seemed content to buy Peter's theory that an amateur hunter posed no real threat.
"Be careful, you two," I warned the vampires when they were getting ready to leave. "Newbie or no, Duane is still dead.”
"Yes, Mom," answered Peter disinterestedly, putting on his coat.
I gave Cody a sharp look, and he squirmed a bit. He was easier to manipulate than his mentor. "I'll be careful, Georgina.”
"Call me if anything weird happens.”
He nodded, earning an eye roll from Peter. "Come on," said the older vampire. "Let's get some dinner.”
I had to smile at that. While vampires getting dinner might have frightened most people, I knew better. Peter and Cody both hated hunting human victims. They did it on occasion but rarely killed when they did. Most of their sustenance came from extra-rare butcher shop purchases. Like me, they were half-assing their infernal jobs.
"Hugh," I said sharply as he was about to follow the vampires out. "A word, please.”
The vampires gave Hugh sympathetic looks before leaving. The imp grimaced, closing the door and facing me.
"Hugh, I gave you that key for emergencies—”
"Vampire murder doesn't constitute an emergency?”
"I'm serious! It's bad enough Jerome and Carter can teleport in here without you deciding to open up my home to God and the world.”
"I don't think God was invited tonight.”
"And then, you went and told them about the demon-girl outfit...”
"Oh come on," he protested. "That was too good to keep to myself. Besides, they're our friends. What's it matter?”
"It matters because you said you weren't going to tell," I growled. "What kind of friend are you? Especially after I helped you out last night?”
"Christ, Georgina. I'm sorry. I didn't know you'd take it so personally.”
I ran a hand through my hair. "It's not just that. It's ... I don't know. It's this whole business with Duane. I was thinking about what Jerome told me ...”
Hugh waited, giving me time to gather my thoughts, sensing I was about to unleash something. My mind pondered the night's unfolding as I studied the imp's large shape beside me. He could be as silly as the vampires sometimes; I didn't know if I could speak seriously to him.
"Hugh . . . how do you know if a demon is lying?”
There was a pause, then he emitted a soft laugh, recognizing the old joke. "His lips are moving." We leaned against my counter, and he studied me from his greater height. "Why? Do you think Jerome's lying to us?”
"Yes, I do." Another pause followed.
"Tell me then.”
"Jerome told me to be careful, said I could be mistaken for a vampire.”
"He told me the same thing.”
"But Peter said vampire hunters can't kill us.”
"You ever had a stake driven through your heart? It might not kill you, but I bet you wouldn't like it.”
"Fair enough. But Jerome claimed vampire hunters find other vampires by following their prey. That's bullshit. Cody and Peter are the exception. You know how most vampires are—they don't hang out with other vampires. Following one generally won't lead to another.”
"Yeah, but he said this one was a newbie.”
"Jerome didn't say that. That was Peter's theory based on the stake.”
Hugh gave a conciliatory grunt. "Okay. So what do you think is going on?”
"I don't know. I just know these stories are contradicting each other. And Carter seemed awfully involved, like he was in on some secret with Jerome. Why should Carter even care? His side should technically approve of someone picking off our people.”
"He's an angel. Isn't he supposed to love everyone, even the damned? Especially when said damned are his drinking buddies.”
"I don't know. There's more here than we're being told . .. and Jerome seemed so adamant about me being careful. You too, apparently.”
He stayed quiet a few moments before finally saying, "You're a pretty girl, Georgina.”
I started. So much for serious talk. "Did you drink more than that beer?”
"I forget, though," he continued, ignoring my question, "that you're also a smart one. I work around shallow women so much—suburban housewives wanting smoother skin and bigger breasts—who have no other concerns but their appearances. It's easy to get caught up in the stereotypes and forget that you have a brain in there too, behind your beautiful face. You see things differently than the rest of us—more clearly, I guess. Sort of a bigger picture kind of thinking. Maybe it's your age—no offense.”
"You did drink too much. Besides, I'm not smart enough to figure out what Jerome isn't telling us unless . . . there aren't really succubus or imp hunters out there, are there?”
"Have you ever heard of one?”
"Neither have I. But I have heard of vampire hunters—independent of pop culture." Hugh reached for his cigarettes and changed his mind, remembering I didn't like smoking in my apartment. "I don't think anyone's going to put a stake through us anytime soon, if that's what's bothering you.”
"But you do agree we're being left out of the loop?”
"What else do you expect from Jerome?”
"I think ... I think I'm going to go see Erik.”
"Is he still alive?”
"Last I knew.”
"That's a good idea. He knows more about us than we do.”
"I'll let you know what I find out.”
"Nah. I think I'd rather stay ignorant.”
"Fine. Where are you off to now?”
"I've got to go put in some after-hours time with one of the new secretaries, if you catch my meaning." He grinned, dare I say, impishly. "Twenty years old, with breasts that defy gravity. I should know. I helped install them.”
I couldn't help but laugh, despite the grim atmosphere. Hugh, like the rest of us, had a day job when not furthering the cause of evil and chaos. In his case, the line between occupations was a little thin: he was a plastic surgeon.
"I can't compete with that.”
"Not true. Science can't duplicate your breasts.”
"Praise from a true connoisseur. Have fun.”
"I will. Watch your back, sweetie.”
He gave me a quick kiss on the forehead and left. I stood there, alone at last, staring idly at my door and wondering what all this meant. Jerome's warning probably had been overkill, I decided. As Hugh had said, no one had ever heard of imp or succubus hunters.
Still, I clicked my deadbolt and fastened the chain on my door before going to bed. Immortal I might be, but reckless I was not. Well, at least not when it counted.