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Stephen M. DeBock

Stephen M. DeBock, Author of Morgen









































Stephen DeBock writes on just about any topic but for fun concentrates on sci-fi/fantasy adventure and supernatural fiction.

As a teenager, Steve would entertain (and frighten) the neighborhood children by retelling them stories from E.C. horror comics like The Crypt of Terror. As a middle school teacher, he continued the tradition by reading his students a horror story to initiate the school year. Now retired, he has time to write his own stories.

His first writing success came as a high school senior, when a 25-word essay won him an all-expenses-paid vacation in Alaska. Upon his return he entered the Marines and was chosen to serve in the President’s Honor Guard. Vignettes from that venue have appeared in American Heritage magazine and in various newspapers.

Upon leaving the Corps, Steve worked days, went to college at night, and spent weekends earning a private pilot’s certificate. A flying narrative he wrote was published in AOPA Pilot Online.

During his teaching career, Steve garnered an award by the State of New Jersey for his work in consumer education. He served briefly as a consultant for Consumers Union and contributed to essays in Time magazine, ABC’s World News Tonight, and CNBC.

Having founded and later sold a video rental business, Steve and his wife also sold their home and lived for three years aboard a 42-foot sea-going trawler yacht. An article describing one of their summer cruises was sold to Living Aboard magazine.

Steve has written newsletters for both private and non-profit organizations; a flash fiction story for the children’s magazine Spider; and the text for a coffee-table book on one of America’s most-collected living artists: The Art of H. Hargrove.

He and his wife Joy live in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

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EMAIL Stephen at: stephen.debock@yahoo.com
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                     Short Story Horror, 2013
Congratulations to Stephen for being in the 2013 Preditors and Editors top ten in Horror Short Story Category for The Teatament of Charlie Fairweather.

New Title(s) from Stephen M. DeBock

Morgen by Stephen M. DeBock A Cross to Bare by Stephen M. DeBock The Bridge Between Worlds by Stephen M. DeBock Lucky Break by Stephen M. DeBock The Heart and the Crown by Stephen M. DeBock Catamount by Stephen M. DeBock The Testament of Charlie Fairweather by Stephen M. DeBock Metamorph by Stephen M. DeBock Hemophage by Stephen M. DeBock
Order Metamorph in Print TODAY!
Order The Bridge Between Worlds in Print TODAY!

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Morgen by Stephen M. DeBock








Two months ago, college junior Lori Stark was found dead of unknown causes alongside the Appalachian Trail. Today, the police bring a beautiful girl to the grieving parents’ door. She appears around Lori’s age; is amnesiac from an as yet mysterious trauma; and her only link to her prior life consists of two words: Lori Stark.

Lori’s parents take the girl—whom they’ve named Morgen—into their home and eventually into their hearts. The arrangement is intended to be temporary, until her memory returns. But time and the girl’s near perfect nature draws the parents into her sphere, resulting in Morgen’s blinding them—and binding them—to her dark purpose.

When something seems too good to be true … it is.

                                                                              Excerpt
Word Count: 10300
Pages to Print: 38
File Format: PDF
Price: $3.99
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   From Gathering Leaves

    


   
A Cross to Bare by Stephen M. DeBock










Reporter Lucille Easton’s nose tells her that the full moon murders plaguing the city are the work of a vampire, and thanks to the efforts of the newspaper’s researcher Willi, she learns that the undead do indeed exist.

When Willi herself becomes a victim, Lucille deduces that the vampire is her new boyfriend: he’s the undertaker’s new assistant; he lives in the apartment above the mortuary; and his job guarantees an endless supply of blood.

The reporter plans to stage a seduction of the suspected vampire in his apartment, while hiding a crucifix in her cleavage and a vial of holy water in her purse. She’s already framing in her mind the story she’ll write and the Pulitzer she’ll win. Surely a TV anchor’s slot will follow.

But we know what they say about the best-laid plans . . .

                                                                                   Excerpt
Word Count: 12300
Pages to Print: 44
File Format: PDF
Price: $ 3.99
 
    


   
The Bridge Betweeen Worlds by Stephen M. DeBock












Alden Walker—sport pilot and skydiver—finds himself and his light airplane mysteriously transported into an alien world: a parallel Earth peopled by exotic-looking humans as well as a host of animals that have evolved into human-like form, with human-like powers of thought, but which have retained their appetites for flesh and blood.

Especially human flesh and blood.

Accompanied by a beautiful indigenous woman with a score of her own to settle, Walker must set out upon a covert mission to retrieve a vital element from the creatures who have stolen it, employing his piloting and parachuting skills in combination with her superb swordsmanship. On their quest they will encounter a host of anthropomorphic predators, until they finally reach their goal: a mountain fortress occupied by a coldly calculating race of humanoid vampire bats.

And upon the success or failure of their mission hangs the fate of both their worlds.

                                                                                        Excerpt
Word Count: 50000
Pages to Print:
File Format: PDF
Price: $4.99
 
    


The Bridge Between Worlds by Stephen M. DeBock Order The Bridge Between Worlds (ISBN: 978-1-61950-227-7) today, HERE!
   
   
Lucky Break by Stephen M. DeBock






His fraternity brothers had warned Brian not to surf alone, but the beach is empty, the Pacific is calm as a lake, and this overindulged son of privilege figures a couple hours’ dozing on his board won’t do any harm.

That is, until he wakes up enveloped in fog. Until he feels the sudden swirl of current beneath his board. Until he sees the triangular fin slicing the water, coming straight for him.

And as his guts turn to water, Brian realizes the last thing he’ll ever see will be a cavernous, jagged-toothed tunnel leading straight into hell.


                                                                                                                       Excerpt
Word Count: 3100
Pages to Print: 14
File Format: PDF
Price: $2.99
 
      


   
The Heart and the Crown by Stephen M. DeBock







Whenever the beautiful Princess Mallory so much as bats her eyes, all the knights in the kingdom take notice, but none so much as Sir Nicholas. Thus, when Mallory sweetly asks him to kill a dragon for her, he is eager to do her bidding.

Meanwhile, in the woods far from the castle lives a witch who also has reason to want the dragon killed: a dark purpose known only to her. Every day she sets out on a secret mission, leaving her poor servant girl to clean and cook and keep her hovel in repair.

The dragon, the servant girl, the witch, and the knight are all destined to meet in a battle for their lives, one in which the knight will discover that things are not always as they appear—not even his adored Princess Mallory.

                                                                              Excerpt
Word Count: 8400
Pages to Print: 30
File Format: PDF
Price: $3.99
 
      

   
Catamount by Stephen M. DeBock







Allen Foss, a 22-year-old college senior with a history of tormenting his teachers and pissing off his peers, has found two new targets and marked them for humiliation: goodie-two-shoes classmate Melanie Foster and current professor Diana Darcy, a “cougar” 16 years his senior.

Following Melanie’s downfall and disgrace at a fraternity party, Allen concentrates on getting into Professor Darcy’s good graces—and into her bed. But what he doesn’t know is that the beautiful professor—a Native American Indian, mysteriously abandoned by her tribe while still a baby—has an agenda, and a secret, of her own.

Some cougars, it seems, are not meant to be tamed.

                                                                                       Excerpt
Word Count: 8450
Pages to Print: 32
File Format: PDF
Price: $3.99
 
     


   
The Testament of Charlie Fairweather by Stephen M. DeBock 




Eleven years ago, Texan Charlie Fairweather committed murder most foul: the ax killing of a voodoo priestess deep in a Louisiana swamp. The curse she uttered as she lay dying has plagued him throughout the intervening years, intensifying to such a degree that Charlie knows he must return to the scene of the crime and try to atone for his deed.

Charlie's disappearance has prompted his beautiful young wife to enlist the aid of a private investigator, a man who happens to be a lifelong friend, to find him. The detective, however, has an agenda of his own—an agenda that might be better served if Charlie is never found. Alive.

                                                                         Excerpt
Word Count: 10400
Pages to Print: 36
File Format: PDF
Price: $3.99
 
 
       

   
Metamorph by Stephen M. DeBock











What happens when Beauty becomes the Beast . . . ?

A vampire who has slaked his taste for terror through centuries of history’s darkest eras puts a hold on his covert attacks on America in order to pursue a secret vendetta against a beautiful bi-racial woman who has scorned him.

But the woman has a secret of her own. She is a metamorph, a hybrid shape-shifter with the healing powers of the vampire, the heightened senses and strengths of the werewolf, and the needs that accompany both. Needs that conflict with her strong moral code; needs which compel her to conceal her extra-human identity from the mortal man she has grown to love.

Metamorph combines known history with speculative fiction, a strong female protagonist, and the pitting of a creature of unmitigated evil against a pair of unsuspecting lovers in a complex cat-and-mouse pursuit.

                                                                               Excerpt
Word Count: 96100
Pages to Print: 313
File Format: PDF
Price: $5.99
 
    

Metamorph by Stephen M. DeBock Order Metamorph in Print (ISBN: 978-1-61950-219-2) today, HERE!
   

 
   
   
Hemophage by Stephen M. DeBock















Hemophage (n.): One who subsists on blood; a vampire. Also, strigoi.

Forcibly made strigoi in 1619, Robin Bradford flees his native England for the New World, eventually becoming an American patriot.

During WWII, he promises a dying Marine to give Naomi, the infant daughter he would never meet, a unique memento of her father. Fulfilling that obligation will consume nearly sixty years.

Growing up unaware of Robin and his mission, Naomi is raped by her neighbor Alphonse and bears his son. When baby Joseph turns four, a spiteful Alphonse—himself a newly-made strigoi—turns him. And Joseph subsequently turns his mother.

The boy matures; his baby’s body doesn’t; and he projects his frustrations onto Naomi, who still suffers under Alphonse’s domination.

When Robin finally encounters Naomi, three obstacles threaten their newfound love—Joseph, Alphonse, and a lethal new danger: another strigoi, hiding in plain sight, dedicated to destroying them both.

                                                                             Excerpt
Word Count: 102000
Pages to Print: 342
Price: $ 5.99
 
    

Hemophage by Stephen M. DeBock ORDER THE Hemophage PRINT BOOK TODAY!
   
   
   

Excerpts 
Morgen
It was obvious when Nate answered the bell that the policeman facing him was uncomfortable. The officer’s car was parked at the curb, even though the driveway leading to the single-car garage was vacant. At least the lights weren’t flashing. Flashing lights made Nate’s knees weak.

Standing next to the uniform, and a half step behind, was a young woman. A hooded gray sweatshirt hid her hair, and her head was lowered, as if her shoes fascinated her.

“Good morning, Professor Stark,” mumbled the cop. He was youngish, with blue eyes, apple cheeks, and sandy hair. He looked like he might have just graduated from the academy. “Sorry to disturb you. I know it’s early.”

“Not a problem,” Nate replied. “I’ve been up since five.” He gestured toward his sweats. “Jogging.” He glanced at the cop’s nametag. “Collins. I know you, don’t I?”

“Yes, sir, I was one of your German students about five years ago.”

“Uh . . . huh. I remember. And I’m sure that your knowledge of German makes you invaluable in your job.”

The officer returned the smile. “Not really, but it did help me get a bride.”

“You don’t say.”

The girl might as well have been invisible.

“Right after graduation I decided to backpack through Germany, staying in hostels. Your classes paid off when I got to Berlin.” He grinned. “See, I met a certain Fräulein there . . . and now she’s my schöne Frau.”

“Wunderbar.” Nate glanced at the girl. “I assume this young lady isn’t your bride?” Little Gray Riding Hood, he thought.

The girl tilted up her head. Her eyes, Nate observed, were startlingly green. She wore jeans that were as unkempt as her sweatshirt. The hair that peeked out from her hoodie was dark red.

“No, sir; sorry, got sidetracked there.”

Nate said to the girl, “Have we met, miss? Were you one of my students, too?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered, her eyes not quite making contact with his. Her voice was weak, almost a whimper. Tracks made by dried tears were evident in the smudges on her cheeks.

“Why don’t we go inside?” Nate said. “It’s only September, but already there’s a chill in the air.” He turned and called, “Ellen, company.”

Nate ushered them into a tidy kitchen and bid them sit at a circular table. His wife looked at her guests nervously.

“Is anything wrong?” Two months now, and she still grew apprehensive in the presence of the police.

Nate said no, introduced her to the officer, and then said, “I didn’t get your name, miss.”

The girl’s lips parted, as if she were about to speak. Then she simply shook her head.

“That’s what I need to talk to you about, Professor. She was picked up late last night wandering around the Criterion campus. She didn’t seem to know where she was or what she was doing there. Campus security brought her to the station. It’s like she’s got amnesia or something.”

Nate frowned. “Amnesia? Really?”

Ellen said, “Amnesia? This is beginning to sound like a scene from a penny dreadful.”

Collins continued: “We checked her out as well as we could; there’s no record of her fingerprints on any law enforcement files, which means she has no criminal record. We sent her photo to the missing persons database; again, no joy. Meanwhile, she doesn’t match anyone on the university’s student photo file either.”

Ellen said, “No evidence of physical trauma?”

“We took her to the hospital. The doc said there was no sign of sexual assault.” He looked at the girl, embarrassment in his face. “I’m really sorry to be talking about you like you weren’t here.”

She nodded, but said nothing.
                                                                                                 Back to Morgen 
 
A Cross to Bare
Connie Marx shivered as she stood alone in the moonlight. Spring weather was late in coming this year, and she longed for something warm to cover herself with; but of course that would defeat the purpose of her being here. She needed to display as much of herself as the law allowed, in order to consummate relationships beyond what the law allowed. Business had been slow tonight—make that nonexistent—and Connie needed business, now, in order to transact business of her own later. She wore a long-sleeved blouse to hide the telltale tracks in her arm, but the front of it was unbuttoned enough to show any interested party that she had nothing to hide beneath. Her skirt was hardly wider than the belt that hugged her hips, and her spiked heels made her look taller than her barely five-foot height.

The shadowed alleyway before which she stood gave Connie the creeps. But, she thought with a twist of her mouth, creeps were what she was after. She checked her make-up one more time in her compact mirror. The moonlight was dim enough to conceal the worst of the acne scars, and thick pancake hid the darkness around her eyes. Her lips were blood red, vivid and glossy.

She put the compact back inside her purse and looked around. Where was everybody? Oh, wait, it was Good Friday. Maybe her potential johns were in church, or dyeing Easter eggs with their families. Connie herself had a family, of sorts; in fact, she was carrying on the family trade. At twenty, she had grudgingly taken on the support of both herself and her besotted mother, who at this very moment probably lay in a pool of her own puke, a bottle of cheap vodka on the night stand alongside her stained and sagging mattress. What did Good Friday mean to Connie? She knew it was something about Jesus dying and coming back from the dead, but she’d never gone to Sunday School, never spent one hour inside a church.

Someone was approaching. Connie heard soft footfalls and looked up to see a man, in a dark overcoat, heading her way. The moon was behind him, which meant its light shone directly on her while he was in shadow. She reached into her purse and pulled out a cigarette.

“Excuse me,” she purred, “but would you have a light?”

The man stopped and looked down at her. “Sorry, I don’t smoke,” he said, but he didn’t make any move to continue walking.

Connie replaced the cigarette and smiled. “I’m going to quit,” she said. “Nasty habit anyway.”

“If you were really going to quit, you’d have thrown that thing away rather than putting it back.”

She looked up at the man, batted her eyes. “I am going to quit, I mean it.”

“Oh, I believe you.” He paused. “Tell me, what’s your name, and why are you out all alone this late at night?”

“My name’s Tiffany. What’s yours?”

“Call me John.”

She smiled. “John? Really?”

“Really, like you’re really Tiffany.”

“Got me. My real name’s Candy.”

“Candy. That’s sweet.”

If she got the pun, she gave no sign. “So, let me ask you the same question. What are you doing out all alone? This late at night?”

“I’m . . . looking for someone.”

“Could that someone be me?”

“That could very well be, yes.”

The man spread his coat and dug into his pants pocket. Connie stiffened, then relaxed as he brought out a money clip—not a badge, not a gun, not a knife. He wasn’t a bad looking guy, from what she could see, and his eyes seemed to capture the reflection of a distant street lamp as he glanced from side to side before peeling off some bills.

“This be enough?” he asked.

“For a quickie, right here in the alley.”

“That will be fine. I’m not looking for a long-term relationship.”

She laughed then, took his money, and led him into the alleyway.

“Well,” he said, “where do we begin?”

He was on Connie’s turf now, and her self-assurance took over. “No kissie-kissie stuff, okay? We cut right to the chase.”

“That’s fine with me. I wouldn’t want to smear the paint from those pretty lips. But I do intend to kiss you somewhere else. Would you like that?”

“Oh, honey,” she sighed. “You’ve got me wet already. Feel.” She hiked up her excuse for a skirt. She wasn’t wearing panties, and her wetness came from a light smear of petroleum jelly—a trick she’d learned from her mother.

The man felt, smiled, and Connie saw the glint of moonlight on his perfect teeth. Must’ve had braces as a kid, she thought idly as her body went on autopilot. She murmured, “Ooh, I like it when you touch me there.”

With one hand between her legs, the man slipped the other inside Connie’s blouse. She forced herself to breathe heavily, feigning passion, hoping to get him into her and out quickly. “Yes, oh yes,” she moaned.

The man ran his tongue inside her cleavage, and she felt his teeth brush against her flesh. Connie reached down and fumbled with his belt buckle. He said nothing; instead, both hands parted her blouse all the way and moved up to her armpits. She lost her grip on his buckle as he lifted her into the air and pinned her against the brick wall. They were eyeball-to-eyeball now, and she saw that his pupils were severely dilated. They looked almost vertical, too, like a cat’s. Or maybe a snake’s.
                                                                                                 Back to A Cross to Bare 
The Bridge Between Worlds

PROLOGUE

From the Baltimore Sun:

REPORTER KILLED IN SKYDIVING ACCIDENT

SALISBURY, MD—A skydiving mishap has cost the life of a well-known feature writer for this newspaper. Lynda Murray, 26, perished when her parachute failed to open. She was a veteran of over 100 jumps.

Murray was the correspondent who penned the popular “Girls Do It” feature that appeared monthly in Sunday’s edition of this newspaper. The column chronicled her forays into offbeat and occasionally dangerous hobbies and pursuits, especially those favored mostly by men. Last September, she learned of a parachuting school located at Walker Field, here, and signed up for a jump course. She wrote a full-page article about her experience, complete with freefall photographs, in a subsequent “Girls Do It” column.

Having become enamored of the sport, Murray coupled her love of skydiving with her growing affection for the airport’s owner, Mr. Alden Walker. The two were married last Saturday while enroute to jump altitude in the center’s airplane. Their plan was to be pronounced man and wife during freefall by the Rev. Donald Wilson, a fellow parachutist. They were then to perform aerial maneuvers for the entertainment of their guests on the ground before opening their chutes.

Features editor George Murray (no relation), an invited guest, reports that whereas the parachutes of Walker and the minister deployed normally, “Lynda’s never came out of her pack. All of us could see her struggle to pull the ripcord. When she finally pulled her reserve, it was just too late.” He added, “Lynda was a vital part of our Sun family. She will truly be missed.”

Murray’s parents are deceased and she had no siblings. She is survived by her husband, Alden James Walker. The Hemby Funeral Home, Salisbury, is in charge of arrangements. Rev. Wilson, acting as spokesman, has asked that in lieu of flowers, memorial gifts be made to the donors’ favorite charities in the name of Lynda Murray Walker.

CHAPTER 1

I could tell Gus wanted to smack me—hard—upside the head.

“When are you gonna stop moping around, Numbnuts? Two months and you still won’t get back on the horse that throwed you. Fly a plane. Take a jump. Even better, take a student pilot up, run a jump lesson, earn the company some money for a change.”

I attempted to deflect the sting with a weak stab at humor. “Just so I’m clear on this, Gunny. You’re calling the man who signs your paychecks Numbnuts?”

He tried to look contrite, something he was never able to do. “Oh, I’m sorry; Mister Numbnuts—sir.” He scowled and shook his head, his short gray hair still cut high and tight and flat on top, just as it had been when he was in the Marines. “Come on, Walker, all due respect to Lynda, you’re not the one screwed up. I’ve told you every day, every way I know, and you know I’m right. From now on, convince yourself And do it fast.” He put his hands on his hips, as he used to do when he wanted to intimidate recruits. “I’m carrying your load as well as mine around here, and my sea bag’s gettin’ kinda heavy. Know what I mean?”

I had to admit he was right. I was as useless as teats on a boar hog since what folks euphemistically called the accident. Don Wilson, Nate the jump pilot, Lisa the head instructor, Dennis the chief rigger, all the club members—they knew full well accidents are caused; they don’t just happen. And they were kind enough never to mention the obvious—that I was made a widower after forty-five seconds of married life because of human error, not mechanical. And the human in question wasn’t me.

So here I stood, in the ops building next to the airport parking lot and directly across from the jump school, attempting the impossible: staring down my former drill instructor, now my fixed-base operation’s chief administrator. Gus ran the FBO with the same no-nonsense, by-the-numbers approach he’d used on the grinder at Parris Island. And his calling me Numbnuts was mellow. I can remember from when I was an eighteen-year-old recruit his getting within two inches of my nose, his stogie breath nearly gagging me, screaming all sorts of imprecations and aspersions upon my ancestry. I remember too, his famous threat to the platoon, which he regularly made good on to individuals throughout our boot training: “You little pissant, I’ve decided I’m not going to chew your ass out! No, private! I’m going to chew around your ass, and let it fall out by itself!”

From day one, when my ragged platoon mates and I had to stand on the painted yellow footprints in our first formation, eyes front, thumbs on our trouser seams, heels together, feet at a forty-five-degree angle, Staff Sergeant Bellows (how appropriate the name) and his two junior drill instructors rode us hard, kept reminding us that we weren’t Marines, we wouldn’t make a pimple on a Marine’s ass, we were nothing but a bunch of high school pussies. And they kept reminding us there were: “only two ways to get off my beloved Parris Island—in a Marine Corps uniform or in a pine box.” Most of the recruits both feared and hated their DIs. But I didn’t. Well, I admit to a certain amount of fear. But I had gone in knowing what they had to do.
                                                                                                Back to The Bridge Between Worlds 
 
Lucky Break

“The frat brothers were right,” Brian grumbled as he nosed his red ragtop into the deserted parking lot. “Calm as a lake, and not a wave in sight.” He hesitated a few seconds, contemplating the gray afternoon sky, the gray Pacific, the silence of the salt water as it whispered against the sand. “Oh well,” he said to himself, “won’t hurt to float around for awhile anyway.”

He reached across the console and unbuckled the seat belt that held his surfboard in place—the next time he buckled his own seat belt would be the first time—then opened his door and hopped out. Tucking the board under one arm, Brian walked across the sand, thinking that an afternoon on the ocean would be a reasonable consolation prize for his having phoned the airline too late to get a ticket home on this, the first day of spring break. That’s okay, he thought, the airport’ll be a zoo today anyway, what with every college kid in the area making tracks. One more day won’t make a difference.

Brian had never seen the beach so absolutely empty. He remembered his surfing buddies had warned him never to go into the ocean alone, but all his buddies were headed to their homes today, and besides, the waves were too small to threaten even a popsicle stick, much less a surfboard.

Brrr. It seems the Pacific Ocean never warms up, no matter the season. “Goose bumps on my goose bumps,” he complained, as he forced himself to wade deeper and finally to plunge into the gray-green sea. “At least the air’s warm,” he noted, as he attached the board’s leash to his leg and paddled well away from shore.

Calm couldn’t begin to describe the ocean today, Brian thought later as he lay on his stomach, arms and legs hanging over the sides of the board, his cheek resting against the slick fiberglass. For a few minutes he felt the sun on his back as it tried to burn its way through the clouds, and the warmth helped him drift into daydreams . . .

The dreams were of his palatial home in fashionable Chevy Chase, just outside the D.C. line; the prep school where he’d scraped by, thanks more or less to his father’s handsome endowment; his father’s being a power broker somewhere on K Street in D.C. Exactly what he did didn’t interest Brian in the least.

And of his mother, whose career consisted mostly of golf and tennis lessons, and who ran the most successful—what did she call them, soirees—for candidates for political office. She said once that it didn’t matter which party they belonged to, as long as they raised her own profile. Deep, Mom.

And mostly of his girlfriend, Kaytee (Kim Trang), whose immigrant parents ran a convenience store and spent every dime of profit on her tuition at the prep school where Brian had met her. “What’s the matter,” his father had asked once, “can’t you find a white girl?” Brian explained that she was Vietnamese, and Dad had just shaken his head and said, “Whatever.”

He found it hard to keep his eyes open. The sea was like a giant waterbed.

Brian never knew what had drawn Kaytee to him, but he knew what drew him to her: God, she was gorgeous. Deep brown almond eyes; a smile that could melt glaciers; long, really long black hair that framed her face like it was a painting by that artist, what was his name? Gauguin.
Back to Lucky Break     
 
The Heart and the Crown

Long ages ago, in the islands which would one day be named Britannia, sages told wondrous tales of magic, and of monsters, and of sorcery and darkest witchcraft. But among adults such tales were seen only as stories designed to frighten their children into proper behavior. In truth, the small kingdoms suffered only the occasional band of robbers who preyed upon isolated farms and unwary travelers.

One such band ran rampant for a time in the Kingdom of Evermore, until the king sent forth his bravest knight, Sir Nicholas, to seek out its leader and bring him to justice. That tale would provide a heroic story in its own right, but what followed proves even more memorable—because it gives the truth to the stories the ancients told.

Early one morning, the newly risen sun reflected its golden glow in the silver breastplate of the knight standing in the castle’s courtyard before the king, the queen, and their dark-haired daughter, the Princess Mallory. Gathered behind the knight in the castle courtyard were the other Knights of Evermore, and behind them stood the citizens of the nearby village. From the parapet, trumpets blared a fanfare, and the throng fell silent. The king spread his arms, as if to embrace them all.

“My fellow citizens,” he began, “for the past year your village and the countryside have been plagued by a band of highwaymen. They have stolen from your homes, robbed you on the roads, and even butchered your livestock for no other reason but to keep you living in fear.”

Nicholas lowered his eyes self-consciously, for he knew what the king would say next.

“This bold and brilliant knight,” continued his majesty, “single-handedly found the leader of this band of brigands and brought him to justice. Now the leader and his cutthroat crew are imprisoned in our dungeon, awaiting trial. And we have the honor of awarding Sir Nicholas with the kingdom’s highest honor, the Order of the Cross.”

The knight looked up and found himself staring into the coal-black eyes of Princess Mallory. Her long, raven-colored hair flowed from beneath her headpiece, framing her lovely and delicate face. Her red lips were parted in a smile that seemed directed toward him alone. Such a beautiful young woman, he thought, and but a few years younger than I. However, I must remember that she is a princess and I but a common knight. And so Sir Nicholas put all thoughts of a union with the fair princess out of his mind as as he knelt to receive his award: a golden cross, emblazoned with the crest of the king himself. A thick golden chain was threaded through a loop at its top, and as Nicholas lowered his head, Princess Mallory herself leaned forward and draped it around his neck.

As she did, she whispered in his ear, “I must meet with you privately, Sir Nicholas. Please report to my chambers within the hour.”

#
Shortly after the ceremony had ended and the celebrants had retired to their respective homes, a confused Sir Nicholas stood before the chamber door of Princess Mallory. The guard outside saluted him with his spear and knocked on the door, opening it when the princess called, “Enter.” The knight walked through, and the door closed behind him.

Princess Mallory welcomed Sir Nicholas from a chair near the unshuttered windhole. He bowed, and she extended her hand for him to kiss. “Welcome, brave Sir Nicholas,” she said. Her voice was gentle as a summer’s breeze.

“Your highness,” he replied.

“You are no doubt wondering why I sent for you.”

“I am indeed, my lady.”

Mallory’s eyes narrowed and she spoke softly. “I need you to carry out a mission for me.”

“A mission, Princess?”

“There is evil afoot in the kingdom,” she said.

“Evil, my lady? But the highwaymen are no longer a threat.”

“That is so, Sir Knight. But I’m not talking about highwaymen. I’m referring to—” she lowered her voice to a whisper—“a dragon.”

“A dragon? But—”

She placed two fingers against his lips. “I know, I know. No dragon sightings have been reported for centuries. Some people even refuse to believe they exist at all. But my lady in waiting, who with my blessing spends much of her time outside these castle walls, reports that on the outermost borders of the kingdom many sheep have been slaughtered. Now, we all know dragons love sheep more than almost anything else.”

“So have I heard, Princess.”

“And would this evidence not suggest a dragon is about?”

“One might think so, if one—”

“I need you to kill the beast. And bring me a vial of its yellow blood as proof of your kill.”

The knight nodded his head, but did not lose his frown. “My lady, your wish is my command. But why am I awarded this commission from you, and not from your royal parents?”

Mallory’s smile lost its warmth. “My parents are wonderful rulers,” she said. “But they are growing older, and they are sometimes . . . out of touch . . . with what is going on in the outlying reaches of their realm. As I said, the dragon’s kills have occurred near the border dividing Evermore from Evenmore, and news from there is scant. But the danger lies in the fact that once it has eaten its fill of livestock, the dragon may advance upon the village below and then upon this castle. Were I to tell my parents of my concerns, they would brush them aside as the fears of a child. This I could not bear. So for the sake of our kingdom . . . and for me . . . will you undertake this quest?” She fluttered her eyelashes as she spoke the last.

“I would be honored, my lady,” replied the knight, bowing. When he kissed her hand again, she held it to his lips a bit longer than he might have expected. She looked into his deep blue eyes and smiled as she casually swept a loose lock of his sandy-colored hair behind his ear. His strength and bravery notwithstanding, Nicholas suddenly felt weak at the knees, so totally captivated was he by this beautiful young lady.

A few moments later, Mallory stood by the windhole and watched Sir Nicholas ride away from the castle. “Thus events are set in motion,” she murmured to the empty room.
Back to The Heart and the Crown   
 
Catamount

“Come on, Professor, get real.” Allen Foss proceeded to interrupt the classroom lecture for the nth time. “This supernatural garbage is just . . . bullshit . . . and everyone in this room knows it, they’re just afraid to say you’re wrong.”

The others in the lecture hall looked from him to their instructor, wondering when his constant and unwarranted goading would drive her over the edge.

She merely smiled and gave him that enigmatic look which made her seem as if she were enjoying her own private joke. “Surely, Mr. Foss, we can agree to disagree without being disagreeable?”

“What’s being disagreeable?” he demanded.

The student next to him whispered from the side of his mouth. “Your language, asshole. Your tone of voice. And your butting in without raising your hand like us common folk.”

Professor Darcy gave a nod toward the boy, who looked surprised that she’d heard him. “Mr. Foss, all I ask is that you afford me the same level of respect that I afford you.”

“Whether you deserve it or not,” whispered the girl seated on the other side of him. “And you don’t.”

Allen looked at the floor and then back up, his eyes meeting the teacher’s. “All right, I’ll raise my hand from now on. But come on, you can’t be serious about this shape-shifter sh—crap.”

Diana Darcy raised an eyebrow. “Unless I’m mistaken, this is a class on the influence of superstition on social norms throughout history, is it not? Did you read the syllabus before you signed up, Mr. Foss? And if this course is a complete and utter waste of your time, why ever did you enroll, if I may be so bold?”

“You may be so bold,” he said, not giving an inch. “I need a couple electives before I can graduate, and everybody says you’re an easy A.”

The other seniors shook their heads, or rolled their eyes, or mumbled to themselves. Some did all three. Darcy was a great professor, one of the best. She was the genuine article, a teacher who connected with and cared for her students, engaging them and entertaining them as she enlightened them. Her classes were always full.

But there’s always that ten percent who think themselves oh so sophisticated and look for any opening to challenge the teacher. And Allen Foss was that figurative ten percent all by himself. How Professor Darcy managed to keep her cool the students didn’t know. But the fact that she could, elevated her status among them all the more.

Allen wasn’t done. “I guess I just screwed myself out of that A, didn’t I?”

“I hold no grudges, Mr. Foss.”

He mumbled to himself, “Maybe I could screw myself into an A. She’s hot enough.”

“Now you’re being disrespectful.” Again that amazing sense of hearing, almost supernatural in itself. “And you’ve already broken your word about raising your hand.”

“Yeah,” said the boy next to him. “Just shut your mouth, asshole.”

But Allen still wasn’t done. “Changing the subject, I’m curious. I mean, what are you doing teaching anyway? You’re a good-looking woman, you should be married already and home raising your kids. That’s what my mother was doing when she was forty.”

“Way to make points,” muttered the girl. “She’s thirty-eight. Jeez, what’s wrong with you?”

Allen glanced at the professor’s blouse. “Thirty-eight, yeah, I can believe that.”

“Foss! Shut! Up!” called someone from the back of the hall, and virtually everyone echoed his cry.

“Thank you all,” said the professor. “Mr. Foss, if you’ve anything more to say, whether outrageous or not, you may communicate it during office hours. Now if you’ll excuse me, I intend to sprinkle some of that bovine excrement you mentioned around the room. After all, it makes excellent fertilizer, and perhaps it will nourish these budding minds and help them grow.”

A boy in the back began clapping, loudly and slowly. Seconds later, the others joined in, until Allen Foss stormed from the hall, slamming the door behind him. Everyone breathed again. Some gave each other high fives.

“Now that we’ve weeded the garden,” Dr. Darcy said, “perhaps we can continue.” The class laughed, then grew serious again. “We mentioned earlier that while Germany claims the franchise on werewolves, other cultures report different were-creatures in their midst. India, for example, has were-tigers, Africa has were-leopards and -hyenas, American Indians have were-bears and were-pumas; also, were-jaguars in the southern continent, extending into our own Southwest. Remember, the word were means man, but that’s a generic term. Were-creatures can be either sex. If they exist at all,” she added.

A girl raised her hand. “How about vampires? Did people believe they were, uh, were-bats?”

“Good one. Vampire lore originated in Central Europe and had nothing to do with the bats explorers found much later in the New World. That said, when they discovered the blood-suckers, it was only natural to name them after the vampires from their folklore.” She seemed to think for a moment. “The bats, I’m told, neither knew about nor cared what they were called. Which leads one to wonder about nomenclature, doesn’t it? Does a dog know it’s a dog? Or a cat, a cat? Native American Indians—and I know something about this—simply called themselves the People.”

They nodded as the professor checked her watch. “Why the architect who put the wall clock up front, where you all can count down the class time remaining, instead of in the back of the room where only I can see it, I will never know. See you tomorrow, and make sure you keep up with the reading. You’re big boys and girls now, I shouldn’t have to remind you.”

The room cleared, with some of the students making solicitous comments about her constant harangues from Allen Foss, and the professor returning their remarks with a non-committal nod and a smile. Melanie Foster, the girl who by dint of alphabet was assigned to the seat beside him, approached her and said, “I don’t know how you put up with him. I’d have killed him long ago.”
Back to Catamount
 
The Testament of Charlie Fairweather 

                                                                      Confess

To Whom It May Concern:

My name is Charlie Fairweather Senior, and I write this document under duress. Whoever reads this, please be assured that at heart I’m a God-fearing man, a faithful husband, and a loving father to my sick little boy. But a long, long time ago I did something very, very wrong, and I feel I must atone for it before I die.

And I pray that this confession, for that is what it is, will grant me absolution from my sin . . . if not from the laws of man, then from the judgment of God.

Please know too that I’ve already voiced this same confession, just a couple of weeks ago, to our dear friend, Bob Price. He lost his wife Novaline two years ago to the same pernicious illness that will eventually take Charlie Junior from us.

Like Beatrice and me, Bob and Novaline were high school sweethearts, seniors they were when we came in as freshmen. Let me tell you, Bob found my story hard to believe, his being a pastor and all, but he did not doubt my sincerity one whit. And he gave me his word he’d keep what I’d told him strictly to himself, and that if anything happened to me he would be there to comfort Beatrice. He told me that our support when Novaline died came as one of God’s great blessings in the time of his greatest need.

Now it’s time to tell the story to you, dear reader, whenever you might find it, and whoever you might be.

Or whatever you might be.

The incident I’m committing now to paper happened some eleven years ago:

I was a cocky young buck when I got my discharge from the Navy back in 1961. I’d been stationed at the air base at Pensacola, in the Florida panhandle, where I worked as an aircraft mechanic. My specialty was working on the AT-6 trainers that the aviation cadets used to prang more often than not while they were trying to learn how to shoot landings.

Some of them, once they got a little dry behind the ears, used to try hot-dogging their takeoffs by retracting the gear just as the wheels were about to clear the ground. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. And when it didn’t, there was hell to pay from the flight deck officer, to say nothing about the extra work I’d have to do to fix up the planes’ bellies, retuning or replacing their props, and repairing and realigning the gear doors. And don’t get me started on the -6s we had to fish out of the Bay.

Sure, being stationed at P’cola had its bennies, as in some tuf liberty time at the Florida bars and beaches, but like most swabbies I was counting the days until I’d served up my enlistment and could get myself the hell out.

And now I was heading home to San Marcos, Texas, in my top-of-the-line, candy apple red, 1960 Chevrolet V8 hardtop convertible, the last of the line of big cars GM ever built. I hated the new ’61s, they looked like they were put in the clothes dryer and shrunk. But in my two-tone Impala four-door hardtop, with its white roof and those wing-like fins, I was king of the road, and anybody who knew anything about cars knew it too. (As a side benefit, the ’pala did attract the ladies. But now there was only one lady on my mind, and she was waiting for me in San Marcos.)

It was the middle of a sweltering July. I was in bayou country, somewhere south and west of New Orleans—Terrebonne, I thought the parish was called—and the sun and humidity beating down on it showed a traveler no mercy. The Chevy didn’t have air conditioning; not many cars did in those days. Not only was it expensive as hell to option, but it shot your gas mileage all to hell too. So I had all four windows cranked down and the fan on full, but in spite of that the sweat was pouring off me like a saltwater river.

Adding to my misery, it was getting on dusk, and the mosquitos, so big there they needed a runway to land on, were about to come out in force. I stopped the car alongside the sad excuse for a road so I could crank up the windows, and noticed an old two-pump gas station just ahead. My tank was half full, but you couldn’t always depend on gas being available on these backcountry byways, so I figured I’d fill up just to be on the safe side. After I got the gas, I’d see if the proprietor could steer me to a rest area where I might pull over and stay the night. I was only about halfway home, and I’d been crazy to think I could make all seven hundred miles in one day—especially after getting shitfaced drunk with the guys the night before to celebrate my discharge. My eyes were already playing tricks on me, seeing things that weren’t there, dreaming with my eyes wide open and all.

Nobody came out to fill the tank, so I topped it off myself—swatting the whole time at skeeters that buzzed like AT-6s on takeoff and happened to find the inside of my ears just plain irresistible.

I took my first real look at the store before walking inside. It certainly wasn’t designed to attract customers, that’s for sure. What siding remained was loose and hanging helter-skelter; more tarpaper showed, actually, than boards. Windows flanking the door were covered in dirt and smeared with the yellow and black remains of what looked like squashed flies. The barely pitched roof was so low that it looked like it was laid up without the builder’s having had the luxury of a ladder. The building gave the overall impression that it didn’t actually stand alongside the road; more likely, it seemed to squat there, like it was already starting to sink into the dark and dismal swamp that intruded on the land just behind it. There was no sign of life anywhere; it almost felt like I could just drive away and no one would come out to stop me and ask for payment for the gas.

Thinking back, that’s what I should’ve done. Dear Lord, that’s what I should’ve done. If I had, I wouldn’t be sitting here tonight, pounding on the keys of this old Underwood, preparing for the proverbial ax to fall.
Back to The Testament of Charlie Fairweather 
 
Metamorph

Chapter One
Friday, January 23, 2009
Hyattsville, Maryland

Suri Clarke shivered in the darkness as she carried her shopping bag from the mall to her car. Bitter cold as it was, and with lots of parking spaces since the Christmas exchanges had tapered off, she still parked as far away from the entrance as she could. Her Weight Watchers leader had stressed walking is good exercise, and you should get as much walking in as you can every day. Keep moving, she’d said. Suri even wore a pedometer to keep track of her steps.

And the regimen was working. She had lost ten pounds in twelve weeks, and the increasing amount of give in her clothes was a real motivator. Larry had already commented on how good she looked; as for the kids, well . . . even if she grew another head they probably wouldn’t notice.

One Friday evening a month, Suri drove in to Hyattsville from Olney to shop. Not that there weren’t a plethora of shops mushrooming there, but as a Silver Spring native and a former nurse at Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, she enjoyed revisiting her old haunts—though, truth to tell, they were barely recognizable anymore. What were once Washington, D.C. suburbs were now cities in their own right. Larry had been smart, she reminded herself, to relocate the family while the Montgomery County landscape was as yet unsullied by condos and cookie cutter communities.

The shopping center is showing its age, she thought, as the headlights from the few remaining hard-core shoppers carved through the darkness, leaving the lot virtually deserted. She knew where her own car was, at the end of this row, empty now except for the oversized van blocking her view of it.

She stopped. Oh shit, she thought, pardon my French. Alone, dark parking lot, strange vehicle . . . no way, José, you’re going to do that.

Suri walked back to the mall. From behind the glass double doors, she could see lights being extinguished, but the entry hall remained lit. When she arrived, she saw a middle-aged man inside, approaching with a key. With her free hand, she waved, and he opened the door.

“Help you?” he asked. The man wore dark blue slacks and a lighter blue long-sleeved shirt, creases ironed in police style. A utility belt supported a pouch of some kind, probably a first aid kit, and a flashlight.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” Suri said, “but I wonder if I might ask you to walk me to my car?”

“No problem at all,” he replied and stepped out into the cold.

“Shouldn’t you get your coat? It’s freezing out here,” she said, the cloud of her breath punctuating her point.

“Real men don’t feel the cold,” he joked. “Besides, the jacket’s in my office, and that’s way inside the mall. This won’t take long. Where’s your car?”

She pointed. “On the other side of that white van. It wasn’t there when I parked.”

They began walking. “That’s one of those Sprinters,” the security cop observed. “So tall you can stand up inside it.” He took his flashlight from his belt as they approached, and when they arrived, he shone his light into the passenger’s side window, opposite Suri’s own car in the space beside it. “Looks empty,” he said. “Can’t see farther back, there’s a curtain behind the driver’s seat, and no windows on the side. Back door doesn’t have glass in it either.” He tried the doors and found them locked. Next he turned his light onto Suri’s sedan. “It looks like a commercial van, lots of them around these days. Probably parked here for the night.”

“Does that happen?” Suri asked as she pressed the remote twice. With a blink of the parking lights, her doors unlocked.

“Sometimes you’ll see an empty car parked here. Like when two folks happen to meet inside the mall and decide to go out for a drink together.”

She nodded. “Okay, then.” Turning toward the guard, she thanked him and told him to get back inside where it’s warm.

“Happy to help,” he said as he walked hurriedly back toward the building.

Nice guy, she thought as she opened the rear door and dumped her packages on the seat. Probably retired police or military, picking up some extra bucks . . .

Something clicked behind her, as if a door were being unlocked.

Suri spun around as she saw the side door slide open. A black-clad man leaped out and pushed her against her car, one hand pressed hard against her mouth. A second man followed him and yanked her pocketbook from her shoulder. Then a third man stepped casually from the van. This one carried a pistol.

“Not a word,” the gunman said, his voice deep and gravelly. “Or you die here and now.”

“Oh God, no,” she whispered, and he pressed the pistol to her forehead.

“I said no talking. Do you understand what that means?”

She nodded, hardly daring to move, and he withdrew the pistol but moved its muzzle against her chin, pointing up. He nodded toward the van. “Get in.”

Once inside, Suri whispered, “Please, no. Please don’t hurt me. I have two sons at home.”

One of the other men, silent until now, spoke. “She thinks we’re going to rape her. Relax. Not gonna happen.”

The third slid the door closed. The weak dome light showed them all dressed in dark clothing, two in insulated jackets, their leader in a black wool overcoat that reeked of cigarette smoke. All of them looked to be somewhere in their forties. Not kids, then. Professionals.

The leader emptied Suri’s purse onto the floor. The second man, the one who had pinned her to the car, produced a felt tipped pen and a notebook and handed it to her. “Listen to me, and you won’t get hurt,” the man in the overcoat said as he removed the cash and cards from her wallet. “I want you to write the PIN for your ATM card.” She began to scribble, her hand shaking. “And your social security number. And your email address and password.”

Incongruously, she thought: Not only are they stealing my money, they’re stealing my identity, too. My God, why didn’t we subscribe to LifeLock? She finished writing and handed the notebook to the man who’d given it to her.

The leader, still holding her wallet, looked at her driver’s license. “Suri,” he said, leaning forward so his hawk-billed nose nearly touched hers. “You and I are going to get out of the van, and you are going to climb into your trunk. Tell me you intend to comply.” She nodded. “Good. I will be training this pistol on you the whole time. It’s a Smith and Wesson Bodyguard 380, which probably means nothing to you, but in a nutshell, it’s a semiautomatic with a magazine of six rounds, plus the one already in the chamber. If you attempt something I don’t like, I will press the gun into your coat and fire all seven rounds into your body. The fabric of your coat will muffle the sound of the shots. Please understand I mean what I say.”

She nodded again. Her mouth was dry; she’d been breathing through it. Her throat was frigid. She wondered if her legs still even worked. What if she stumbled getting out of the van? Would he shoot her if she fell down?

“Once you are in the trunk,” the leader said, “my friend here will place a wad of cloth inside your mouth to prevent you from calling for help. Then he will run a length of duct tape across it and around your head. After that, we will take a little drive. If you do exactly as I say, no harm will come to you. Now get out of the van and open your trunk.”

Miraculously, Suri’s legs held up. She unlocked the trunk and climbed inside. The second man shoved the gag into her mouth and wrapped it in place with duct tape. Please let me live, she thought, eyes wide and watery, the tears beginning to crystallize in the cold. She blinked furiously. The man told her to turn over. When she complied, he used a cable tie to link her wrists. Then he had her turn over again, onto her back. When he was satisfied, he backed away, leaving room for their leader. The two accomplices stood just behind him, as if they were a pair of male OR nurses observing over their surgeon’s shoulder. The third man smiled and leaned forward, his face nearing her own.

What is this, she thought. Something isn’t right. She had cooperated, done exactly as commanded, and they had promised she would be unharmed. She saw the glint in the man’s eyes, reflecting the dim illumination of the trunk light. He opened his mouth, and she felt a drop of drool on her neck.

Suri’s eyes nearly bugged out of her head as the leader’s mouth opened wider, his lower jaw extending farther than a human jaw could possibly drop. A pair of needle-sharp fangs swung down from his upper palate, like those of a rattlesnake. She began shaking violently, twisting her head from side to side, struggling with the cable tie that bound her wrists. She screamed, but only a trace mewling escaped around the gag and through the tape. The two acolytes bent down and held her firmly as he lowered his mouth to the side of her neck and pierced it with his fangs.

It didn’t hurt as much as she’d thought it would. It occurred to the nurse in her, irrationally in light of her impending death, that there might be a topical anesthetic in the man’s saliva. He withdrew his mouth to allow the fangs to pivot back and his jaw to return to normal. He lowered his lips to the raw punctures in her neck.

Suri knew there was no point in struggling further, and she closed her eyes and folded her fingers together behind her back, as if in prayer. She felt the blood being sucked from her, as if by an aspirator, heard the repeated gulps of the man’s greedy swallowing, experienced the lethargy of her body’s ebbing vitality.

When the leader had drunk his fill, he applied a strip of duct tape over the wounds. The woman was undoubtedly dead, but he was nothing if not careful, and from inside his coat he drew an instrument that looked like an obscenely elongated icepick, inserted it into her nostril, and drove the point into her brain. He withdrew the pick and applied more tape over her nostrils. No coppery scent of blood would reveal the body in the trunk.

“Nice job,” said one of the man’s companions, and the other agreed. He didn’t bother acknowledging them as he stood. His thoughts were of Suri’s family, now bereft of their beloved wife and mother. He smiled. They would find themselves even worse off than she. After all, death is final; suffering lasts forever.

It felt good to be active again, and autonomous for the first time, after almost fifteen years of anonymity. This operation, a minor opening gambit, would conclude tomorrow, and then he would leave for home. Winter break was almost over, and he needed to be back by Sunday night at the latest.
Back to Metamorph
 
 
 
 
Hemophage

Prologue
Hilton Harrisburg Hotel
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Saturday, March 19, 1994

“So you’re in town for what, a convention? A conference?” The young woman sitting at the bar waited for an answer as she sipped a gin and tonic. Her smile was open and inviting, which indicated to the man that she could be either a high-priced escort or a young woman alone looking for companionship. Whichever, it made no difference to him, and she surely did look fine.

“Neither, lovely lady,” he said. “My colleague and I were at a business conference in New York, and we decided to take a detour on our way back home to Charleston.”

“I could tell when you said hello that you were from the South,” she teased. “You do know that damn and Yankee are two words, right?”

He shook his head and grinned. “Someday you Yankees will learn how to talk right. I’m Bobby Justis, by the way.” He held out his hand and she took it. Her hand was warm, which he wouldn’t have expected, as it had just been wrapped around the icy glass. “And?” he said, waiting. “You are—?”

“Naomi. Just Naomi, no last name, if you please. I know, mysterious and melodramatic, but bear with me for now.” Her chestnut-brown eyes, a perfect match color-wise for her loose, below-the-shoulder-length hair, stared into his watery blue ones over the lip of her glass. “Now answer me this, Bobby Justis. Unless my geography’s way off, Charleston’s a straight run down the coast from New York. What made you take a dogleg to Central Pennsylvania?”

“Well, Miss Naomi, Jason and I are Civil War re-enactors back home, and we’ve decided to come by to pay our respects to the Southern dead.”

“In Harrisburg? The War didn’t actually get this far north, did it?”

“Matter of fact, no. Biggest recruit depot for you Yankees was here, though. Camp Curtin, it was called.” The woman raised her eyebrows, as if to say she hadn’t known that. Bobby continued: “The Confederate forces came close, though, but they were waylaid a bit south of here, a little town called Gettysburg. Maybe you’ve heard of it?”
She picked up on his banter. “Gettysburg. Wasn’t that where President Lincoln kept a summer home?”

He tilted his head and knitted his brow. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, come on, Bobby, your being a Civil War buff and all, you must be aware that the President had an address in Gettysburg?” She winked.

He laughed, perhaps a little too loudly and long, but the woman seemed to appreciate it. She lowered her eyes and lifted them again as she leaned forward and spoke in a confidential tone. “I’m just passing through myself. Traveling with my son. He’s upstairs, sound asleep I assume; the hotel has a sitter keeping him company. And—all right, I don’t want to tell you my last name because I’m running away—not from the police, an abusive husband. I won’t tell you where I’m running from, and I won’t tell you where I’m running to. I hope you can understand, and I’m sorry if you can’t.”

“Don’t be sorry,” said Bobby. “It’s all right.” He thought a moment. “You know, most abused women are afraid to leave their husbands, leastways that’s what I’m told.”

“You’re not wrong. But after the third beating I wised up. Rather than going to the police, which is the same as doing nothing, I contacted . . . someone . . . to make some false ID cards for me. Then one day while my husband was at work I emptied our joint bank accounts, bought a used car, and hit the road.”

“Wow. That’s ballsy. So how old’s your boy?”

She hesitated before answering. “He’s four.”

He ordered another drink for each of them, and after more conversation, during which he took pains to make himself sound empathetic, Bobby placed his hand over Naomi’s as she rested it on the bar. She didn’t draw it away; instead, she looked into his eyes and gave him a slight nod.

“I have to check up on my little man,” she said. “But I’d like to continue our . . . discussion. My suite’s on the top floor. Two bedrooms,” she added. “Why don’t you bring something bubbly for us to drink? Just give me a half hour alone to make sure my boy’s asleep and get freshened up, okay, Bobby?”

****
When the woman opened her door exactly thirty minutes later, Bobby saw she was wearing a hotel bathrobe, open just enough to reveal something filmy and white beneath. Her feet were bare, and her makeup had been skillfully reapplied. Her breath—she stood that close—smelled of peppermint. Bobby’s face was flushed as he walked inside, carrying a bottle and two flutes.

“Champagne, as the lady requested,” he said.
Naomi placed the bottle in a freshly filled ice bucket and whispered, “Be very quiet, my son’s asleep in the other room.”

She took his hand and led him into her bedroom, where she had turned down the covers to expose crisp cotton sheets. “Why don’t you strip down and climb into bed, and while you’re doing that I’ll take care of the bubbly.”

Bobby was fumbling with his tie as she glided out of the room.

****
Lying between the sheets and grinning at the tent he’d formed halfway down, Bobby Justis heard the pop of the cork, and moments later the woman entered carrying two filled flutes. She offered him one and they toasted, draining their glasses. A few moments later, he was unconscious, his tent pole collapsed.

Naomi wiped her flute clean of prints and any DNA traces at the lip. She pulled back the top sheet and considered Bobby’s pudgy body as he lay spread-eagled in the center of the bed. She knelt next to him and lowered her face toward the inside of his thigh.

She opened her mouth. Her lower jaw extended downward, and downward, farther than a normal human jawbone would allow. From the roof of her mouth, a pair of curved fangs swung down, like those of a pit viper, and she pressed them against his flesh. Blood flowed freely into her mouth, and she sucked it in, barely missing a drop. It was blissful, this blood, better than any poor animal’s, better than the drug-addled derelicts she’d sometimes drunk from during her relocation from New Jersey to central Pennsylvania. Naomi drank and drank, growing nearly tipsy on the blood.

She grew aware of company when a tiny hand tapped her on the shoulder.

“Don’t be a pig, Mom,” said a child’s voice. “You’re not the only one dying of thirst here.”

“Sorry,” she said with resignation as she lifted the boy onto the bed. “Don’t take too much, now,” she admonished. “We don’t want to kill him.”

“Duh. Look who’s talking,” he said, looking down at the punctures in Bobby’s thigh. He shook his head at the man’s limp phallus. “When are you going to learn to go for the throat like they do in the movies, or at least the wrist?” he demanded. “It makes me skeeve, sucking so close to a guy’s willie, I told you that how many times.”

“And as I’ve told you before, how many times, over how many years—”

“I know, I know. Too many times, over too many years. Just let me be for awhile.”

The little boy closed his eyes as he lowered his lips to the man’s thigh. He kept them closed as he drank.

****
Next morning, Bobby awoke in the bed, fully dressed except for his shoes, and suffering from a splitting headache. He sat up slowly and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. He noted a few spots of blood on the sheets and wondered if the woman had been having her period. Wait a minute, he thought. What the hell’s going on here? What exactly happened last night?

Looking about, he saw that all trace of the woman’s presence in the room was gone. He stood . . . and nearly fell over. “Whoa, vertigo,” he said. “What’s up with that?” He stumbled shakily into the sitting room and from there to the second bedroom, where the baby would have been. Nothing. “Well, good morning and goodbye,” he muttered, feeling every bit the fool. He shuffled back to the bedroom and put on his shoes, visited the bathroom and splashed water on his face. Then he left, noting the Do Not Disturb sign on the doorknob in the hall.

In the first floor restaurant known as Raspberries, Bobby saw his colleague alone at a table, working on a stack of pancakes. He walked unsteadily toward him and braced himself on the table as he fell into a seat opposite. He shook his head as if to clear it. “Morning, Jason,” he mumbled.

“What happened to you?” Jason asked. “You’re white as a sheet.”

Bobby scratched an itch on the inside of his thigh. “See, I met this woman at the bar last night.”

“Uh huh.”

“Beautiful she was. And long story short, she invited me up to her room.”

“Well, good for you. But you might want to keep your voice down. Some folks at the other tables are looking.”

Others, in fact, were looking, in particular at one slim, very attractive brunette dressed in a long-sleeved light gray blouse and black slacks, who stared with coal-colored eyes over the rim of a coffee cup. When she lowered the mug, a hint of a smile played about her lips. Her companion, a burly Mediterranean type sporting a day’s growth of stubble and greased, slicked back hair, studied Bobby from the corners of his hooded eyes. Appearance-wise, they made an unlikely-looking couple. Beauty and the beast, for sure.

“Oops, sorry.” Bobby leaned forward, bracing himself on his elbows. He shook his head again and blinked his eyes before continuing. “I’m tellin’ you, she was hotter’n my granddaddy’s pit barbecue.”

Jason grinned. “And that’s hot.”

“Thing is, though, nothin’ happened. Leastways I don’t think it did.” He scratched the itch on his thigh and sat back in his chair as the waitress took his order for juice, coffee, three eggs over easy, ham, grits, and a buttered biscuit. Plus a couple aspirin and a tall glass of water. “Thing is,” he said when they were alone again, “last thing I remember we were drinking champagne, and—oh, shit. She drugged me, didn’t she?”

“Checked your wallet lately, young stud?”

“Oh no.” Bobby reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet, and sighed in relief. “Well, my credit cards are all there,” he said with a grin. “Uh. Wait a minute. Wait. A. Minute.”

“What’s up?”

Bobby was staring into the bill compartment. “Son of a bitch.”

“Don’t tell me.”

“I had six hundred-dollar bills in my wallet when we checked in. There’s only one there now.”

Jason chuckled. “Hey, at least she left you something. Damn white of her, you ask me, Bobby boy.”

The water and aspirin arrived, and Bobby gulped the pills down. “My stomach’s empty, my head’s empty, and now my wallet’s empty, too,” he moaned. “I am so screwed.” He paused.

“Jason, after breakfast I’m going back to our room, pack my suitcase, and we’re going to blow this place. I never want to see this damn Yankee town again.”
The dark-haired woman sitting with her swarthy companion nearby paid their bill. They walked out of the room, she sparing a sideways glance at the two men as they left.

****
Declan Mulligan, principal of Hershey High School in nearby Derry Township, arrived in his office early every morning to devote an hour or so of uninterrupted time to reading the Harrisburg Patriot-News. Mulligan was fifty-two, happily married, with two children in college. Refusing to become jaded after two decades in administration, he still genuinely cared for the students in his charge and deeply respected the teachers who guided their learning.

Mulligan sat at his desk, Monday’s newspaper spread before him, and shook his head sadly at the story under the banner headline. Harrisburg, like most cities, had its share of crime, but this one was particularly heinous.

Movement in the hall caught his eye. He looked up to see the new guidance counselor walk down the hall on the way to her office. She glanced in, smiled, and said good morning, as she passed. Mulligan thought highly of the woman. She was not only well credentialed; she was also doubtless the object of many a schoolboy’s adolescent fantasies. He surmised she was one reason so many boys joined the drama club, where she would assist the director—Dr. Mulligan himself—with rehearsals. A single mother, if she couldn’t find a sitter she would often bring her preschool-age son to rehearsals with her. The little boy had an uncanny manner about him that charmed the girls, many of whom said they wished they could take him home with them.

The lady’s attractiveness brought her no preferential treatment from the principal. Their professional relationship was strictly that. As after-school drama club advisors, however, they were more like siblings. There was never a breath of scandal about their friendship, nor was there any reason for one.

Declan Mulligan stood, newspaper in hand, and walked to the counselor’s office. Final rehearsals for The King and I were to commence today after school, and he wanted to confirm that she would be available. She said of course she would.

Then she noticed the headline on the folded newspaper in his hand. “What’s that about?” she asked. He passed her the paper and she spread it out on her desk.

It could have been a scene from a horror film, the article began. But this was worse, because it was real. Jason McElroy and Bobby Justis, both 35, of Charleston, South Carolina, were found murdered yesterday in their room at the Hilton Hotel here. Their throats had been slashed and their bodies drained of blood . . .

The young woman stopped reading. She placed her palms over the article and looked straight ahead, her expression blank. The color began draining from her face.

Mulligan leaned forward and stared into her suddenly vacant eyes. “Good God, Naomi, what is it? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
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