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The Impossible Possible

The Nightmare
         When the wheezing of the engines died down, the Doctor popped out of the TARDIS and glanced around.  The planet tugged at his heartstrings, before and after, but he didn’t pause for sentiment. He patted the blue wall of the TARDIS, which had looked like blue-painted wood for more than a thousand years. “You know what to do, you sexy thing,” he whispered to her, hoping she heard, remembering the human face she’d worn for a day.
         It was going to take some work, but he had time. Plenty of time, between when he was here last and when he would be here next, all in his own past. He ran a hand over his crisp white curls and considered everything, trying to remember exactly how it had looked. It was important to get it right. “But I suppose where I put things is how I’ll see them, eh?” he asked no one in particular.
         The TARDIS hummed away, altering the area just enough, placing just enough of a part of herself to leave it the way it would be. The way it had to be, when he came here, years ago in the future of the planet with Clara and his old face. The young-old face he’d worn for so very long.
         It was rare he’d ever gotten to Regenerate due to the simple old age of the body he wore.
         “Let’s see. The entrance was here,” he said, drawing it with his fingers on the air. “Gloomy place, lots of terrific ambiance. Clara was terrified.” He grinned and rubbed his hands together, spinning around. His coat opened to show a hint of bright red. “And River. I put your stone, right there. ‘Why would I bury my wife here?’ I asked myself. Clara had never heard your name. I don’t know why I never mentioned you to her before then. Maybe it still hurt too much, I think.” He rubbed his lean cheeks. “I can talk about you now.
         “Now then. Let’s get to work.”
         He didn’t really pause to consider why he was doing what he was doing; it was only important that the past circle back to the present and then to the future, the far-off time when he would come here with Clara and she would save him. Save all of him, to that point. If he wasn’t buried here, and of course he wasn’t, then everything she’d done became worthless.  He couldn’t have that.
         He’d told her, once, that he couldn’t see certain times. While true, he probably should have also told her that there was also the simple truth of time that perhaps things had happened the way they had because he and his companion had been there, and if they didn’t do what they wanted to do when they were there, they WOULD change something if they did nothing. Time. It was tricky that way. He smiled to himself, remembering having that exact argument with Donna Noble. She had been right, darn her.
         The people he traveled with could be annoyingly right far too often.
         The tomb of a Time Lord. The Doctor stood and regarded it for a moment, trying to remember his former life. He’d lived so long with that young face it had branded itself on his memory, his time here in Christmas, on Trenzalore. He’d told tales and whispered secrets and said hello and goodbye to so many people in all the decades and centuries he’d lived here, the one and only time he’d actually settled somewhere.
         The one place he’d actually stayed.
         He stayed to protect it. He’d stayed to defend it. And he’d stayed until his last life had simply worn out. And he’d accepted that it WAS his last life. He was ready, prepared for his tomb. He was going to go out fighting, that was for sure. But she’d come, his impossible girl, just as she had so many times before, just to make sure he wouldn’t die permanently, and given him the gift of another cycle of Regenerations. His Clara.
         She hated him right now, but that happened with these humans. They loved him, they hated him, inconsistent human emotions. As he’d thought once, it was all “humany wumany.”  Delightful, frustrating, confusing, always keeping him guessing and on his toes. He couldn’t let her sacrifice, all of that she’d done, through all of his lifetimes, be worth nothing.
         The Doctor strode around the newly hollowed-out tomb.  This was the difficult part. Somehow he had to be entombed here, the essence of a Time Lord, so Clara could enter it and tamper with his life, all his lives. That had to happen. It couldn’t not happen, he couldn’t let it not happen, any more than he could change the way River had been raised or his own ‘death’ at Lake Silence.
         He paused outside the door again, listening to the TARDIS engines hum. There was a tombstone now, part of the energy that the TARDIS was giving out. It said only “River Song,” because that was the only epithet she needed, that glorious woman who was, is, and would be so much to him. He could almost see her, amazing hair and dancing eyes and wicked smile. “River,” he whispered.
         “I’m here,” she whispered. “I’m always here.”
         “Yes. I can’t imagine I’ll ever let you go.”
         “Someday you might. I should have faded away already. You said so yourself, when you wore another face.”
         “This face misses you.”
         “It’s a good face. It’s seen a great deal, you know.”
         “You always find a way to compliment me, even when you slap me.”
         “I’m not slapping you now, you know,” she whispered in his ear.
         “Have I ever told you how I love you, River Song?”
         “Not enough, Doctor my Doctor.”
         He closed his eyes, remembering her and how her eyes would twinkle with mirth and mischief. He missed her so much he ached inside.
         The TARDIS had completed its work. A replica stood nearby, grim and dark and enormous. The tomb was set, the tombstones around it. All that was left was him. “It’s my turn, is it, Sexy?” he said.
         “What are you doing?”
         He turned to see a young boy, standing at the edge of the graveyard he’d made. “What do you want?” he asked, snappish. He was always snappish with children now, it seemed. It was like his current self had forgotten entirely how to deal with the little monsters.
         “Are you the Doctor?”
         “I might be.”
         “You look different than him. My dad has pictures he drew.”
         “Your dad knows what the Doctor looks like. Why do you think I’m him?”
         “You have the blue box.”
         “You’re smarter than you look.”
         He scrunched up his face and regarded the Doctor critically. “If you were him you’d call me Barnable. You called all of us Barnable.”
         The Doctor looked at the sky. “Yes… Barnable.  And Handles. I remember Handles.”
         “Handles. That was the metal god. He lives in the temple.”
         The Doctor turned his attention back to the boy. “Lives?”
         “Well, he’s there, anyway. They say he speaks once every year. Says ‘patch the telephone device back through the console unit.’  No one knows what it means.”
         “I know what it means.” The Doctor looked over at the TARDIS, humming away. “I haven’t done that yet, Handles.  I do keep meaning to.”
         “They say he was the Doctor’s true friend. It’s just a head. I never saw it talk, anyway.”
         “He stopped talking before I changed, boy,” said the Doctor. “That was the last thing he said to me.”
         “What are you doing?”
         “That was the same question you asked before.”
         “You didn’t answer me then, either.”
         The Doctor looked from the boy to the tomb. “I’m making the future real, and the past possible.”
         The boy pondered that a moment. “Don’t you mean that the other way around?”
         “Go chase yourself.”
         “I can’t do that.”
         “You could if you really tried to. Here.” He took a bag of candy out of his interior coat pockets and handed it to the boy. “Run along now. I have important work to do.”
         The boy opened the white paper and peered at the contents. “Are these real colors?”
         “Real enough. They’re jelly babies. Eat them.”
         “Nothing in the stories said you ever gave out candy before.” The boy glared at the Doctor with a critical expression, before gingerly reaching into the bag and taking out a bright yellow candy. “It tastes like lemon.”
         “Yes, it’s supposed to. Eat it.”  He turned away from the boy and touched the doors of the tomb. This would be encoded to one thing, the only word in the entire universe that could open the door, and only he and River Song would know it. River, her memory, her shade, she would open it for the Great Intelligence, for his previous self and for Clara. She would make it possible, because he’d told her.
         River.
         The Doctor closed his eyes and tried to keep his emotions in check. “Not now, my dear. I’ll think about you later.”  He thought about the word, the one word that no one else in all the universe knew, and he whispered it just loud enough, so Barnable wouldn’t hear. The doors opened.
         He walked into the room. He remembered it from before, when Clara came in and dove without care into his time stream and lived a million lives to save his 13. Silly, humany human. She was as crazy as all of them. And wouldn’t any of them have done it for him? Barbara, Vicki, Jamie, Sarah Jane, Jo, Leela, Nyssa, Adric, Tegan, Peri, Ace, Rose, Martha, Donna? Even Ben, or Ian, or Polly? Victoria, or Harry? Even Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart? All of them, he knew, would have stepped up and walked into that time stream to save his life. There was not one of the humans he had traveled with who would not have given their lives for his, he knew. He owed it not only to Clara, but to all of them.
         The Doctor walked to the middle of the tomb and drew a deep breath. There was only one thing missing from what he remembered, and that was a Time Lord’s essence, the thing that made them a “body” to be entombed. The thing that Clara and his former self had found when they came here with the Great Intelligence. The thing they HAD to find, in order for time to make sense. In order for him to have the lives he had now, and would have in the future.
         “Okay, this is it,” he said, and took out a long, sharp dagger.
         Taking in a deep breath, he set the edge of the knife against his palm and pulled it down. Blood welled up, dark and red. He let it drip to the middle of the circle, watching it pool up. “A Time Lord’s essence. A Time Lord’s blood. A Time Lord’s tomb. All that I was, all that I am. It has to be here. Everything I was before now, all of it. For Clara to get into, to fix, to interfere with. All that timey-wimey-wibbley-wobbley stuff… it all has to be here.” He watched his own blood pool in the center of the tomb. It had to form a time stream, that was the purpose, that was why he shed his blood.
         And then it happened. The time vortex from the beginning of his existence came into being, shooting from the floor to the ceiling, and his tomb was formed.
         “And there I lay,” he whispered, wrapping a cloth around the cut on his hand. “My first thirteen lives, all ready for the Great Intelligence to try and destroy, and for Clara to fix. She won’t know, and I won’t know, it came from the future.”
         From somewhere, he managed a smile.
         “Make sure it doesn’t bleed anymore,” whispered River’s memory in his ear.
         “I miss you,” he heard himself say.
         “I know.”
         “Do you ever think about me?”
         “I think about you every day. I exist because of you.”
         “You exist because you are the most amazing woman who was ever born, my dear, the daughter of the Girl and the Boy Who Waited.”
         “We’ll talk about that someday.”
         “You don’t have a lot of somedays left, my love.”
         “As long as you call me that, I’ll always be here, sweetie.”
         The Doctor smiled at the console of the TARDIS as Christmas, and Trenzalore, disappeared behind him forever.
 

100 Blog Pots #33 - Father's Day

The Nightmare
Well, it's been a while since I last posted, because lately writing has been roughly as easy as doing dental work on myself, but I wanted to do this one for Sunday -- I overshot a few days, but I managed to complete something.

I lost my own father nearly 30 years ago. But Danny has his:

Father’s Day

        Let me tell you about my Dad.
        Dad calls himself ordinary, but he’s not. Not at all. First of all, he chose me. I’m adopted, and I don’t mind who knows it. The reason he calls himself ordinary is because a lot of the family is magickal; real magic, you understand, not illusion or that new-age spiritual stuff, it’s real.
        Me, I’m what they call a sensitive, someone who can “see” and sense magic, and I also see physical auras, and that’s what attracted me to the O’Connor family in the first place. Of my new brothers and sisters, most of them are magickal in some way; Mom is a luck spirit, her parents are both really powerful mages, and all but two of her brothers and sisters likewise.  One of her sisters, my new Aunt Katherine, is so intensely magickal she can’t really deal with the real world. I haven’t met her yet, Mom just told me about her.
        But on Dad’s side of the family the only magic is his great-great uncle, who’s a vampire.  Vampires aren’t born magic, they’re made, so he doesn’t really count. I’m kind of afraid of my new vampire uncle, but everyone assures me he’s like one of the nicest people on the planet. I haven’t really made up my mind yet.
        Still, magic or not, Dad is awesome. He’s the biggest man I’d ever seen in my life, not counting like those massive basketball players on television and such. I mean, I’ve never actually seen them, not really. Dad is tall and has shoulders like a linebacker. He used to be a boxer when he was young and he keeps in really good shape. I know he’s in his fifties now, but I bet no one would guess that.
        But what makes Dad (and, really, Mom, too) truly awesome is they took a chance on me. Who else would have adopted a fifteen-year-old troubled kid when they had six kids of their own already?
        My new family is overall pretty awesome. I went from being a transient foster kid to having six brothers and sisters, living in a big sprawling house in the foothills of the Superstition Mountains in Central Arizona. It’s weird getting used to sharing space with three brothers and two sisters. There’s actually three sisters but Elliana is only a baby and so she really doesn’t get in the way much. Sometimes the housekeeper, Mrs. Rodriguez, brings her kids over, too, when she’s working, so that’s three more, and both Mom and Dad consider them all part of the family, so they’re just like having two more brothers and another sister. Plus, Dad is a sucker for stray cats, so the place is usually teeming with felines. There’s even horses, but they live outside in the stables. Yeah, we have stables.
        Matthew and Blythe are the oldest, right around my age. They’re twins. Then there’s Zachary, he’s gonna be fourteen, then Justin, who’s ten. Erin is just seven. Dad can pick her up with one hand and “flies” her around the house. It makes her giggle like crazy.
        I have to admit I love calling them “Mom” and “Dad.” It wasn’t hard to start, once they told me they were going to adopt me. Actually, when they said that, it made me so happy it’s hard to describe it. I thought I’d never be adopted, of course. My biological mom, she died when I was six and we didn’t have any family, and no one adopts grown up kids, so I just figured I’d be fostered until I was eighteen and then be on my own. But instead when I started school here I met them.
        This was my first real Father’s Day. My biological father was killed in Iraq when the jeep he was riding in drove over an IED. He died six months before I was born. I have a few pictures of him, and know I look like him, red hair and freckled face, but I favor my mother in other ways. I had already fixed it in my mind that the parents I had lost, the father I never knew and the mother I barely remembered, were “mother” and “father.” My new parents, the ones who chose me, were Mom and Dad.
        Dad was working out in his gym, which was the big room over the garage. He was patiently teaching me how to work out properly, spotting me on lifts and showing me how to work with the punching bag. I still couldn’t jump rope like he could, that effortless and steady rhythm he was doing as I came up the steps and went in, carrying my present to him.
        My first Father’s Day present. I really hadn’t been sure what to get for him, since Dad really had everything he could possibly want, and then some. I didn’t even know what all the other kids were getting for him, except for Matthew, since I’d gone with him to pick out the new gym shoes.
        Dad saw me in the mirror as I came in, catching my eye. I smiled at him, and he grinned back. “Hey, kiddo,” he said, barely even breathing hard. He spun the rope several more times and bounced to a slow stop.
        “Happy Father’s Day,” I said, tentatively holding it out to him.
        “I thought everyone was giving me the goods at dinner later,” said Dad, still grinning.
        I nodded, feeling my face heat up. “Yeah, but I… well, this is the first time I’ve ever done this. I wasn’t sure how,” I said, stammering a little.
        Dad chuckled. “Well, thank you, Danny,” he said, putting a huge hand on my head and rumpling my hair. He wiped his face on his towel, throwing it around his neck, then sat down on the nearest weight bench, taking my package in both hands. I held my breath as he carefully peeled the tape on one end, folding the paper back before ruthlessly tearing it the rest of the way.
        I had found it on eBay. It was a poster advertising an afternoon of boxing on August 6, 1990, with the Main Event being between Darren Lopez and Rubin Carbajal. Dad’s fight had been the second ranked bout, between “Marvelous” Matt O'Connor and Teddy Ferguson. This was obviously not the year he’d won the Regional Championship, but it was as close as I’d been able to come. I’d had it professionally framed, but I’d wrapped it myself.
        As soon as he peeled the paper away, he turned the frame so he could see it, and I watched a delighted smile cross his face. “Oh, hell, kiddo, this is awesome,” he said.
        “You like it?”
        “Damned straight I like it. I haven’t seen one of these in years.” He held it up, out in front of his face, still grinning with pleasure. “This is great, Danny. Thank you.” After looking at it a while longer, he leaned it against the bench, rose, and turned to pull me into a warm embrace. “Thanks, kiddo. I’m gonna hang it right there,” he pointed at a blank spot on the wall between two of the windows overlooking the Phoenix Valley beyond.
        “I tried to find the one from ’91, when you won it all,” I said a little apologetically. “But I couldn’t find one in good enough condition to frame.”      
        “That’s all right, Danny. This is great,” he said, hugging me around the shoulders. “And I mean that.”

        I found Mom working in the kitchen, making up Dad’s favorite dish, which was red curry beef. He actually liked almost anything Thai or East Indian, which I’d never tasted before I came here. At first I just tried to like them because Dad did, but now I just loved the food, too, especially when my new great-grandmother, Dad’s grandmother, came to visit. She actually WAS East Indian, and cooked the best food I’d ever tasted in my life.
        The breakfast nook table was set with the second-best dishes, with a pile of presents at Dad’s spot. There was an actual dining room across the hall, but we almost never ate there. “Is that the way we do it?” I asked, looking at the presents. “I gave Dad mine already.”
        “That’s okay, kiddo,” said Mom, turning the heat down on the pot and covering it. She smiled at me and ruffled my hair. The back door opened and Dad came in, carrying a kitten cupped in his big hands, a pair of tiny ears barely visible poking up over his fingers, with Erin coming behind him, bouncing around to try and see the kitten. I had learned almost immediately that Dad was a real sucker for cats. There were at least a dozen living in and around the house, although Mom claimed that only four of them were “official.”
“What is that, babe?” asked Mom, her eyebrows lifting.
      Dad winked at me and closed the distance between him and Mom. Mom and Dad really love each other. More than that, it seems like the world made them for each other. When they get close together, their auras actually merge, Mom’s bright blue and Dad’s warm gold turning a pretty green, all relaxed and serene. I’d never seen anything like that in all my life before, and my new Aunt Liz assures me it’s really unlikely I ever will again. I watched as Dad held out his hands and whispered in Mom’s ear. I knew the kitten wasn’t in any real trouble of being banished from the house, since Mom would give in because she was kind of a soft touch, too.
        “Well, set him down,” said Mom. “We’ll see if Mama Cass likes him well enough to adopt him. The others always follow her lead.”
Dad bent and set the kitten on the floor, where it tottered a moment then started immediately to explore. It wasn’t quite as small as it had appeared in his huge hands, probably a few months old, a sort of fuzzy lilac color with darker face and paws. Its ears perked up as it looked around the kitchen, big blue eyes quickly taking in everything. Mom leaned against Dad’s big chest, and he bent to whisper something to her. She nodded. “Yes, Brutus may stay,” she said.
        “Brutus?” asked Matthew, coming into the room and carefully avoiding stepping on the kitten, who was making a beeline for the small sitting area off the kitchen, where there was a sofa and a television.
        “Well, who have we here?”
        I hadn’t realized Uncle Sean Patrick was here. He unfolded himself from the depths of the sofa, scooping up the kitten in his long hands. I was still nervous around the vampire, no matter how much Dad assured me he wasn’t an evil creature. It was tough to argue with the aura. But I had to admit, all the cats sure liked Sean Patrick. All the books I’d read on vampires said that even good vampires couldn’t get near animals, but Sean Patrick sure could. And Dad loved him, so I tried hard.
        “Just a minute until dinner,” said Mom. “Better find someplace safe for Brutus, there, so you can focus on your loot.”
        I helped Dad rig up a little makeshift pen of boxes and books and chairs to keep the kitten confined, with a bowl of water and food, as well as some toys. There was never any lack of items for a quick cat nursery around this house.
        “Happy Father’s Day!” shouted Zach and Justin in unison, trooping into the kitchen.
        “Thanks, boys!” Dad caught Erin up and swung her at the ceiling, then into her seat at the table, making her laugh.
        “Blythe!” called Mom. Our oldest sister came at a run from the music room with her guitar in hand.
        “Sorry!” she said, dropping into her chair.
        “Dinner first, then presents,” said Mom, shifting the pile to one side. She handed around the big, ornate rice bowl, followed by the curry. I happily heaped food on my plate, but waited until everyone had some before we all dug in.

        Once every plate was clean—except for Erin’s—Mom and Matthew and I picked up all the plates and then slid the pile of packages in front of Dad. “Happy Father’s Day!” we said again, as Dad grinned like a little kid and started opening.
        From Matthew and Blythe came a brand-new paid of running shoes, custom made with Dad’s initials and hunter-green racing stripes. “I wrote you a song, too, Dad,” said Blythe. “We’ll play it later.”
        “You got a date,” replied Dad, beaming at her.
        Zach presented Dad with a set of guitar strings, a new strap, and a package of rockabilly picks. Justin gave him another TARDIS toy with the Third Doctor in the green velvet jacket. Erin chimed in with, “I picked out Brutus!” while pointing at the kitten, who was now sleeping on the pillows in the makeshift pen.
        “Yes, you did. He’s a great present, tot-dot,” said Dad.
        “Of course,” Mom chimed in, rolling her eyes. “Did your daddy take you to the pet store?”
        “No, Mom,” said Erin seriously. “The shelter. Daddy said pick out the best kitten I could.”
        I laughed. I knew then Dad had pretty much picked out and paid for his own present when it came to Erin. But then, she was only seven.
        “What did Danny get you?” asked Justin.
        “Danny’s gift is hanging up in the gym,” Dad replied, smiling at me. “This was a great father’s day, kids.” He opened his big arms and gathered us all close in a warm family hug.
        I guess, in short, my Dad’s the greatest in the world. He’s the guy that chose me when he already had all this, and I became the luckiest guy ever.

100 Blog Posts - #32 -- 2013 Nano Excerpt

The Nightmare
“I’d never heard of this Magic Suppression Agency. And if they’re just suppressing magic in the Middle East, why would they track her all the way here? And why do Cassie and I feel like something really bad is happening?”

“I’ll tell you why,” said Ellison, his voice tinged with anger. “They aren’t out to suppress magic, and they aren’t at all associated with any government. They’re a group of opportunists who use finders to track down magic they want or need and hold them so absorbers can take and focus that magic to increase their own power.”

I remembered with a sudden fury an absorber who, several years ago, had tried to steal the magic from our son Matthew and the spark that dwelt in Cody. It had been a very long time since I had truly lost my temper, that powder keg long tamped down but apparently not gone entirely. For a second I simply saw red, until I felt Cody’s hand squeezing mine tightly.

“Absorbers. I’ve never met one before,” said Bob, musing the information.

“Be glad. I have,” said Ellison. “Years ago. I thought they were gone completely underground. That they’re out doing this means they’ve gotten strong again. I wonder who of my friends they have under their thumbs.” He looked plenty furious, too. “They’ll keep those children alive, at least,” he said, his gaze turning to Cody. “But I’m willing to bet real money that’s why I can’t find Zach. They undoubtedly have a great deal of power keeping themselves shielded.”

“So how do we find him?” Cody mourned, her face turning pale.

“How about the old-fashioned, normal human-Darren-muggle kind of way?” I said, suddenly angry at the magickal world, which proved so useless when it came to finding my son.

100 Blog Posts - #31 -- 2013 Nano Excerpt

The Nightmare
I swam groggily out of a weird dream world that fled instantly before the pain that stabbed into my brain and made my stomach churn with nausea. I could hear someone groaning and it took a few minutes to realize it was me. “Zach?”

Soft voice. Soft hands on my face. What the hell was her name?

“Mom?” I croaked, then tried to open my eyes. “Janey,” I realized, although I couldn’t see anything. The pain was blinding, but it was also pitch dark. I think. There were blossoms of bright light still flashing over my vision, but they were brighter when my eyes were closed.

“Are you all right? You’ve been out a terribly long time,” she fussed, again touching my face. Her hands felt nice.

“My head hurts like someone split it open with a hammer and I think I’m gonna puke, but otherwise, I think I’m okay,” I managed. I swallowed, trying to still the churning in my stomach and wishing I’d eaten something last night after the drinks. Fortunately, it seemed most of the whiskey was gone, but I could feel it, lurking in the back of my belly like a mischievous gremlin, ready to leap out and attack the front as soon as my guard was down. “Urk.” I swallowed again, but my throat was too dry for it to do much good. “Thirsty.”


“There’s nothing to drink.”

“Where are we?” I asked, trying to open my eyes again, which had apparently closed of their own volition at some point while I mentally took stock of myself. Body intact? Check. Wearing pajamas and a t-shirt? Check. Janey. Dark room? Dark something. “What happened?” I finished, because I really couldn’t remember how we’d gotten wherever the hell we were.

Political Thoughts

The Nightmare
          Sean Patrick shoved his shirt tails back into his belt as he went down the hall, struggling with the weird sensation of delicious cheer he always got after sex with Della combined with his embarrassment at the feeling being there in the presence of other people. Cody had turned the television on and her sister was reading the new issue of “True West” that had been laying on the table. Neither of them looked up when he re-entered the room.
          “Sorry about that, ladies, um, I, uh...” he struggled to come up with an excuse.
            “We know, Sean Patrick,” said Cody mildly, without looking at him, “Della jumped your bones the minute she woke up.”
            A very hot blush ran through Sean Patrick and he self-consciously ran his hands through his hair. “Um,” he coughed, unable to look at either woman. He rubbed his hands together and sat down in the nearest armchair, close to his guitar, and avoided the searching stare of Liz Cameron’s unusual eyes. “So, um, Miss Cameron...”
            “You can call me Liz,” she said. “Or if you absolutely must, ‘Ms.’ is preferred.”
            “Um... you married?” he asked, feeling awkward. Their introduction had been cut so short it had taken him a moment to realize he didn’t really know the woman at all.
          She only resembled her younger sister slightly. Their hair was a similar color, but Liz Cameron had a sharp, businesslike manner completely missing from Cody’s casual attitude. Her dark blonde hair was cropped close and smartly styled, her clothing was tailored, her ears had multiple piercings, and every earring she wore appeared to be a precious stone of some kind, including what he was certain was a real cobalt-blue sapphire in the single mismatched dangle that dripped from her right ear. She had fine, if narrow, features, her face dominated by those remarkable eyes, which were focused on him, making him almost unable to think about anything else at all.
            “Nope,” she said. “The states haven't decided I’m allowed that right yet, but I haven’t met the right woman.” Her eyes challenged him to say something, anything, against her sexual preference, but Sean Patrick only smiled.
            “Well, I’m doing what I can,” he said honestly. “I had money on California being the first to wake up and smell the coffee, but Massachusetts surprised me.” He leaned forward and opened the candy dish, taking out a chocolate. He offered the dish to the women. Cody took one, but Liz turned it down.
            “So how did a Texas boy from the Victorian age get behind gay rights?” Liz asked. “Texas is as Red State as red states can get.”
            Sean Patrick snorted. “Texas was always conservative, that’s true, but it was a democratic state when I was a boy, so I was raised a democrat, and I’ll die a democrat. Times changed, but simple truth never does. Gay rights was as easy to get behind as black rights were back in the sixties,” he said seriously, leaning forward as he spoke. “I remember back in ‘62, I got into an argument with one of my nephews over civil rights. He asked me how I could possibly want equal rights for, well, you know the term.”
            “I can get the idea,” said Liz in a dry tone.
          “I pointed out to him that we were part Indian. There were a lot of folks in a lot of places that didn’t think we deserved much, if anything, in the way of rights. Hell, pardon me, our own tribe had been pushed all the way outta Texas. Money and high social standing bought my family special rights from people who wouldn’t have given us the time of day otherwise ‘cause we were half-breeds. If we take away gays’ rights, then why should blacks keep their rights? Or Indians? Or anyone else? It’s that ‘slippery slope’ they’re so worried about, and they’re aimin’ right at it. My niece Tara is gay. It was hard for me to accept, but I remembered my own words and I love her, so.” He spread his hands, palms down, in a gesture of finality. “And that’s how a boy from 1880's Texas embraces gay rights.”
            “Good for you,” said Liz.
            “You live a long time and it gets harder and harder to be intolerant of people, and I never was the intolerant kind to start with.”

100 Blog Posts - #29 - Medical Discussion

The Nightmare
            Sean Patrick knew they were waiting for him, so he drew a deep breath to force himself to move onward. He took out his watch, looked at it, and sighed, finally turning over the engine. Might as well get going before Jeff called him to ask where the hell he was. At least they had attorneys who were willing to have working hours after sundown.
          “Not uncommon, Sean Patrick,” Jeff had told him. “Anyone who thinks attorneys work only nine to five is fooling themselves.”
            He was getting off the elevator when his phone started to sing. “Howdy,” he answered, although he didn’t feel that jovial.
            “Sean Patrick, what can I do for you?” asked Dr. Berman. He had a voice with no discernable accent to it, a voice that had been many places and traveled widely and betrayed nothing about where he’d come from; unlike Sean Patrick, who had never managed to lose his own Texas drawl.
            “The meds aren’t working, Doc,” said Sean Patrick. “I feel like I’m drowning.” He paused, leaning on the wall of the hallway, glad so few people were about this time of the night.
            “Are you getting enough blood?”
            Sean Patrick paused, sucking his teeth.
            “I’ll take that as a no. You do remember how much I stressed the importance of getting enough blood, right?”
            “Yes, I remember,” replied Sean Patrick. “I try, but it’s just not that easy here.”
            “So you say, but I think you could if you really tried. You’re keeping up with the recommended dosage?”
            “Yes, that I’m doing, every day. Usually it works. The last few days, not so much,” replied Sean Patrick.
            “Have you considered what I suggested? Therapy?”
            Sean Patrick’s shoulders slumped. “I don’t suppose you could recommend any good therapists in the Las Vegas area?”
            “Vegas? What about Burbank?”
            “It’s been a very busy year, Doc.”
            “Apparently. All right, I’ll pull the list for the entire Southwest and email you. You can make your choice. As I recall, you have no problem at all with hopping a chartered plane to anywhere.”
            Sean Patrick felt himself blush. Down the hall the office door opened and Liz popped her head out, gestured to him and pointed to her watch. He held up a finger toward her, holding her off as he indicated he was on the phone. Liz rolled her eyes but disappeared back into the office.
            “That’ll be fine, Doc. Thanks so much.”
            “Take care of yourself, Sean Patrick. And I mean it. Feed. Seriously.”

100 Blog Posts - #28 - Thoughts on God

The Nightmare
An excerpt:

"You're Catholic?  After what you said about the church? After what I know about the church? It was the church that suppressed magic and slaughtered magickal creatures."


"It's how I was raised," he said.  He finished his drink and shoved the bowl of crackers to one side.  "I follow the rituals, I say the prayers, I speak to the priest. I can't say I'm one-hundred-percent Catholic anymore, but I believe."

"In what?" asked Daisy.  She had drifted away from her own very loose Presbyterian upbringing years ago, and could barely remember going to church at all, and then only when her grandmother was in town.

"God," said Sean Patrick. "Gods. Creation."

"The world is only six thousand years old?" she said, not bothering to keep the scorn out of her voice.

But he only laughed.  "Look out there, Daisy," he said, waving to the seemingly endless seas beyond the balcony, "Really look.  Now consider the enormity of it, of that sky up there and then beyond it to the land. On that land, all around this world, there are over seven billion people. Seven billion people, Daisy.  How many do you see in front of you right now?"

"One," she said.

"This world is so vast and enormous no one person can comprehend it.  Now consider it's only one world in one tiny solar system in a universe so vast we're barely even a speck on a speck of a speck of dust," he leaned forward, getting intense as he spoke, his large eyes sparkling, "Of course there are gods or a God or something, but when we as humans try to understand or comprehend him or her or it or them, we have to put them into a box, with borders that we can understand. We put God into a book with limits that we as primitive humans could understand and put a date on it but we can't do that because God is infinite. Humans can't understand or grasp infinity, so they try to hide their own limitations behind sheer dogma. They put human limits and human borders around God and can't understand or comprehend the infinity of God.

"They also," he continued after a moment, sitting back and taking a deep breath, "have an inflated opinion of themselves and humanity. They put too much into what equally limited humans wrote in a book about God. Or gods, depending.  Have you ever read a book called American Gods?"

"Of course," she replied.  "Neil Gaiman. It was pretty good."

"It was an amazing story. I've re-read it a couple of times. But the singular theme, that gods don't exist without people, is a staggering idea. Certainly that's been touched on before, maybe dozens of times, but the craft of it was amazing, and the reality of living, breathing gods and how they think and feel and live in this world—I  believe it all, from the benevolence and strength of Ganesh the Remover of Obstacles to the all-powerful God almighty, no matter what he's called. You know, that one God, the God of Abraham, God of Moses, he never said 'Thou shalt have no other gods,' he said 'Thou shalt have no other gods BEFORE ME.' He wasn't saying he was the only god, just that he was the most important one."

"You've put a lot of thought into this."

"I have," he said.  "You want another drink?"

"Sure."
The Nightmare
Ring of Fire
Chapter 2


    “It’s a very nice bar,” Della stammered, still trying to ease her elbow out of the vampire’s strong hand, her mind churning through everything she thought she knew about them. Vampires just did not stand in the spotlight; they hid the shadows. If a vampire owned a business, they didn’t front it, they had minions to do that for them. Wasn’t that accepted knowledge?
    “Thanks. You’re from Ireland?” He sounded casual, even relaxed and polite, but he steered her with grim determination, his fingers hard as stone and nearly as cool through the soft cloth of her blouse.
    “I was born in Ireland, but I grew up in London,” said Della, stammering a little. She had no weapons with her, nothing but... no, she had one stake, the heavy one with the cross-piece that worked in a pinch against young vampires who believed they could be “repelled” by the cross, but it was deep inside her purse, pressed against his side and she couldn’t move her free hand around to it easily. Besides, even if she could, she didn’t dare eliminate him here, in front of everyone. She had no idea how many slaves and fledglings he had surrounding him, not to mention the normal humans. What would they do if they witnessed an apparent murder?
    “I’m part Irish, m’self,” he said, his tone still conversational. He spun the ice and whiskey around in the glass he carried in his free hand. He was walking her steadily across the floor and through the swinging doors, down a back hall to a door on the right. “This is my office. Come on in.”
    He opened the door to display an ordinary office, although, like the rest of the bar, there were no windows. Every piece of artwork was framed in non-reflective glass. There was a turn-of-the-century map of Texas on one wall, and a fairly intricate genealogical chart with the O'Connor family crest emblazoned on it hanging behind the desk. The desk itself was nondescript, with a calendar blotter and general clutter, with a good executive office chair behind it and several straight-backed chairs in front.
    “Very nice,” she said. Now they were alone. Maybe she could do something, provided she could survive the next few minutes. She tensed.
    “Have a seat.” He almost threw her into the room, losing his gentlemanly demeanor. Della spun around, her hand going into her purse. Sean Patrick closed the door behind them and leaned on it. “So. The Hiera Sacra's finally found me.” His voice turned from warm and friendly to cold.
    “I beg your pardon, what's that?” she asked, forcing her eyes wide and innocent.
    He chuckled, but it was mirthless. “This ain't my first rodeo, Miss Kelley. You knew what I am as soon as we touched. I saw your expression. But mostly,” in a heartbeat he was right in front of her, holding her arms in a tight grip and bending his face close to hers, “you look so much like your grandmother.”
    His eyes seemed to burn into her skin as he studied her face, almost drinking her features in, with an expression that was part longing and part dismay.
    Della swallowed hard. She expected at any moment to feel his fangs rip into her neck, so she braced herself. Now Della would be left like her grandmother had been, helplessly under his control for the rest of her life, if he didn’t just kill her outright. If only she could reach her stake, first!
    Abruptly, his hands left her arms and he moved away from her. She yanked the sharpened wooden cross out of her purse, leaping at the door. He was there before her, hand against it so she couldn’t open it. She lifted the cross. He looked at it and laughed. “Now what, you’re clinging to that myth?” he asked, and slipped a finger under his collar, drawing out a thick gold chain from which dangled a St. Christopher medallion. “Your grandmother knew I was Catholic. I know she reported that.”
    Della backed away from him until she bumped the desk. “Of course, I know vampires aren’t really affected by the cross,” she said, her mouth dry. “It’s always better to be safe, just in case. Because all of you are affected by this.” She flipped the cross over to reveal the sharpened end, gripping the upper part of the cross like a dagger hilt. Admiration flashed in his eyes.
    “So you come here lookin’ for me, did you? How did the Order find me?” he asked, one eyebrow arching slightly as he relaxed against the door, his huge eyes sparkling with interest.
    What could she say that would make him let her go? What story could she come up with, flustered as she was with him staring at her? How could the Order have found him after all this time, here, of all places? What would make them believe the missing vampire was a bar owner in Burbank, when the last time they’d heard about him, some seventy years before, he’d been a European globetrotter? She only knew because she’d accidentally stumbled into this bar.
    “You were seen by a local operative,” she lied as quickly as she could. “London agents were called in to verify the sighting.” That sounded good.
    To her annoyance, Sean Patrick barked out a laugh. “Oh, come on, Miss Kelley,” he said, as his eyes flicked down to her cleavage, an expression as human as any man’s. His gaze quickly returned to her face, his cheeks reddening. Vampires could blush? “I saw you out there. You came in here to have a good time and dance. You didn’t expect to find me here at all. That pretty girl I was flirting with from the stage didn’t know I was a vampire, not until I touched your hand.”
    Della jerked her chin up and dared to look back at him. “I am not lying.” He had been flirting with her. She wanted him to. Her stomach twisted.
    “You are lying,” he said, but despite the harsh words, his eyes were merrily twinkling at her, and they crinkled at the corners when he smiled. He wasn’t supposed to be like this. He wasn’t supposed to be adorable. Della frowned.
    “Why did you ask me if you already knew?” she snapped.
    “I wanted to hear what you’d say. It’s okay, though. I’m just as glad to know for sure that it was complete chance.” He considered her for a few moments, then asked in a soft voice, “Tell me. How is your grandmother?”
    “She passed away when I was fifteen,” replied Della, taking several deep breaths to bolster her courage. To her surprise, he turned away from her, his head bowed at her words, as though he’d actually cared about Moira, had thought of her at all as more than merely his thrall! Della snapped, “Because of you, she was taken off field duty and put to work in records keeping. You hypnotized her and tricked her.”
    He turned back to her, his lips tightly pursed, high color in his cheeks. His eyes were pained. “That’s a lie, too. I never tricked her, and I bet she never said I did.”
    “No, she never said that.” Della swallowed and lifted her chin. “As if you actually cared about her!”
    Pain flashed in his eyes, his mouth trembling. “I suppose I can’t blame you for thinking like that. I know the Order did their best to make her feel their way.” His gaze went to the floor and he let out a long sigh. “Miss Kelley, you leave me no little dilemma here.”
    “I won’t let you hypnotize me and control me, vampire,” she said, lifting her chin.
    He looked at her, his expression curious, his eyes easily readable but she didn’t understand what they were saying. If he were a man she’d think he was attracted to her, was moved by her, or wanted her; but he was a vampire. The most he could want from her was her life’s blood. She didn’t understand. Lord, he had beautiful eyes. Damn it!
    “I don’t plan on controlling you, Miss Kelley. I don’t think I can or even know how to actually control anyone. I could force you to understand me through feeding, or I could put you under a hypnotic suggestion to do something I’d like you to do, but I’d really rather you simply like me, naturally. It’s possible, you know.”
    “You’re a vampire,” she said. “A monster.” She tightened her hold on her stake.
    Sean Patrick’s eyes narrowed slightly. “That’s what you folks really think, I know,” he said, his tone bitter. “All vampires have to fit into that narrow little box you have us crammed into. Tell me, Miss Kelley, would you kill me, here and now, even if I haven’t hurt anyone? I’ve made no move to attack you. I haven’t been a perfect gentleman, I’ll admit, but I haven’t hurt you.”
    “That’s what the Order does. Eliminate vampires,” Della said, actually stung by his words. She jerked her chin as she thought of something. “Try and deny that your sire is a cold-blooded killer. She murdered my father’s first wife."
    Sean Patrick’s head snapped up and fire flashed in his dark eyes. "I don't believe it,” he whispered, but there was a fevered look on his face, as though he needed to not believe.
    Della stiffened. “It’s the truth. My father and his first wife were tracking Amanda in Switzerland in 1970. My father closed in on her fledgling and had him trapped when he heard his wife scream. The fledgling and Amanda got away, and my father found his wife with a broken neck.”
    “I don’t believe Amanda did it,” he said, gripping her arms to stare at her face. His breath was oddly warm against her neck as he bent over her, looking at her so intently it was as though he could see right through her. Della turned her face away, not daring to meet his eyes, then twisted to keep her neck away from his fangs. Although she tried to still them, her hands started to shake.
    “Believe it,” she said, daring to look straight at him. “My father told me all about it. It took him years to recover.”
    “Amanda always taught me to feed without killing. I never saw her take a human life.”
    “Maybe you didn’t know her as well as you thought,” snapped Della.
    “I was with her for fifty years. You’d think you’d get to know people in that amount of time.” But he didn’t sound certain. Sean Patrick’s head dropped again, his chin against his chest. “Sit down, Miss Kelley,” he said, letting her go.
    Della glanced at the chair, gripped her stake, and ran at him. Sean Patrick threw his hand up to ward her off, the force of her attack driving the stake through his palm. He let out a sharp hiss as he managed to stop the point just before it reached his chest. His fingers curled around the cross piece, yanking it away from her.
    The vampire burst out with a violent string of cursing as he shoved her back and held his wounded hand close for a moment, then away from himself as dark, almost black, vampire blood began to seep from the hole in his palm, dripping down off the point of the stake to the floor. “God damn it! Pardon, Miss Kelley,” he ground out between his teeth, curtailing his swearing as he grabbed hold of the top of the cross and, letting out a yelp, yanked it out of his hand and threw it across the room.
    “Sean Patrick, are you in here?” the door burst open and the handsome man from the front box office burst in. “You’re missing a hell of a good show... what the fuck?” He saw Sean Patrick’s hand and his eyes flicked around the room as his face turned an ugly red. His gaze dropped to the bloodied stake on the floor and then he spun on Della, slamming the door behind him. He grabbed her by the neck with one powerful hand, lifted her, and shoved her into the filing cabinets. Her head banged painfully on the drawers as his fingers closed on her windpipe, choking her. She gasped, stars dancing before her eyes.
    “Matt, stop it,” shouted Sean Patrick.
    “She tried to kill you!”
    Della clawed at Matt’s hand, kicking his shin with all her strength, but it apparently had no effect, except to make his fingers tighten. Della started to struggle only to breathe, her attempts to free herself turning feeble. Her vision was starting to blur.
    “I mean it, Matthias, let her go. Get yourself under control,” came the vampire’s voice, sharp and stern, through the buzzing in her ears. “Right now!”
    After a second, the grip around her neck loosened. Della gasped in a fresh breath, stumbling away from Matt as far as she could as she panted, drawing air past her aching throat into her starving lungs. She pressed her back against the wall and eyed him warily. He was definitely no vampire, but his brown eyes showed the clear signs of having been fed on, frequently, and she kicked herself for not having seen it when she came into the bar in the first place.
    “You,” he said. “If I’d known what you were up to I wouldn’t have let you in.” His voice was ragged with barely suppressed fury.
    “I didn’t come here looking for a vampire. But I’m always prepared in case I do,” she snapped back, her voice hoarse. She coughed and tried to edge further from her attacker, whose fists twitched upward when she spoke, thick muscles rippling beneath his decorated shirt as he moved toward her again.
    “Matt, let it go,” said Sean Patrick, his tone even but urgent. Della looked at the vampire. He’d grabbed a handful of Kleenex from a box on the desk and was holding it against his wounded palm while he licked blood from the back of his hand like an animal. Della shuddered and looked away, but the malice in Matt’s eyes was far more frightening than seeing the vampire clean his own wounds. “I am serious. Leave her be.” He looked up and fixed on Matt with a stern gaze. “Are you listening to me? Get it under control, young man.”
    There was a tension in the air that Della felt had nothing to do with her. To her surprise, Matt took a step back and let out a long breath, then said, “Yes, sir,” in a respectful manner. He didn’t sound like a slave in thrall to a vampire. He sounded like a young man confronted by his father.
    “Damn it, wood hurts,” said Sean Patrick. His face looked strained. “Pardon me. Now, if we can all behave like gentlemen and ladies?” He looked from one to the other. Della rubbed her neck and looked from Matt to where Sean Patrick had hurled her stake. She saw Matt’s fists clench again. “This is Della Kelley.”
    “Hiera Sacra, or working on her own?” asked Matt. There was a vein starting to throb in his forehead.
    “I belong to the Order,” said Della, her voice rough. “But I didn’t come here on a hunt.”
    “I believe her. Control, son, control.” Sean Patrick moved around his desk. He was really limping now, heavily favoring his left leg. Della frowned slightly.
    “Yes, sir,” repeated Matt, but he sounded a lot less respectful. The muscles in his jaw were jumping as he clenched his teeth. Still, he backed further from Della and leaned on the door, capturing his hands behind his back.
    “Miss Kelley, this is Matthias O’Connor. He’s my great-grand-nephew.”
    Della looked up at the vampire, shocked. Vampires never remained in contact with their human families. The Hiera Sacra often found vampire fledglings simply by following up on missing persons reports. New vampires just disappeared from their human lives, leaving no closure for their families. “Your nephew?” she asked.
    “Yes, my younger brother’s great-grandson,” replied Sean Patrick, wiping his palm clean and looking at it. Della could see the wound was nearly closed, but the hand was darkly bruised, still seeping blood, red streaks creeping up his wrist. Sean Patrick curled it into a fist and tucked it into his jacket pocket as he nodded toward the genealogy on the wall.
    Della closed her mouth, looking from the vampire to Matt O’Connor. That certainly explained the similarity in their dark eyes. Strangely, maybe Moira Kelley hadn’t been as wrong about him as the Order claimed she was. Della tried to remember some of the things her grandmother had written about this vampire, those odd and controversial papers the Order either suppressed or laughed at, papers she really shouldn’t have been allowed to read until she became a senior operative, but she’d found them on her own.
    “So what the hell does she want?” snapped Matt.
    “Watch your language,” said Sean Patrick mildly. “Please excuse him, Miss Kelley.” He leaned against his desk, pain shooting across his features again. “Now then. I was about to say something to you, Miss Kelley, before we kinda got sidetracked. I have a bit of a dilemma here.” He considered her with that sad expression, then he tightened his jaw and blinked several times. “I can’t let you leave here.”
    “What?” Della shoved herself away from the file cabinets, startled into anger. Matt jerked forward, too, fists reappearing. Sean Patrick held up his hand.
    “As an operative it’s your duty to return and report on where you found me, and I’m sorry, I just can’t allow that.”
    Della felt her stomach churn again as her heart jumped into her aching throat. She would die here, and her parents, and Theo, would never know what happened to her. She blinked a few times.
    “Now, don’t get all worked up, honey,” Sean Patrick continued, his tone turning surprisingly gentle. “I’m not going to hurt you any. Shut up, Matt,” he held up one finger toward his nephew, who closed his mouth, which had opened in protest. “We have two ways of approaching this situation as I see it. You can stay here as my guest, and I’ll do my best to make you comfortable. We might get to know one another and you’ll come to see me as something other than a bloodthirsty monster. Maybe you’ll change your mind about me, decide I’m no threat and, having done so, might be able to go back and keep my secret.”
    “Or?” she managed to ask, swallowing.
    “Or you’re my prisoner and your stay will be indefinite,” said Sean Patrick. “I really don’t want to have that happen. Either way, Miss Kelley, you are going to be staying here.” He shoved himself off the desk and walked to where Matt leaned against the door with a vein throbbing in his forehead again. They spoke softly. Della strained to hear. Matt gave Sean Patrick a strange look.
    “I can fix that,” said Matt loudly enough for Della to hear, giving her a fierce look. Della knew instinctively she was in far greater danger from this human man than she was from the vampire. “Listen to me,” he said, his voice cold but polite, "You’re in no danger from Sean Patrick. But you'd better watch out for me. You mess with him, you're inviting a world of hurt."
    Sean Patrick scowled at his nephew, but said nothing.
    Della glared at Matt, determined not to show her fear, but she couldn’t stop trembling. There was no way she could get past him. Matt wasn’t as tall as his vampire uncle, but he was much broader, thick with muscle and as powerful looking as the lion he vaguely resembled.
    “Matt,” said Sean Patrick mildly, “don’t. Miss Kelley, I really would rather you be my guest than my prisoner.”
    “A guest is usually voluntary,” said Della, then her taut nerves snapped and she let out an involuntary shriek as something large and furry landed on the file cabinets next to her head with a loud thump. She turned to see a huge silvery cat regarding her with gigantic blue eyes.
    Matt ignored the cat and snapped at her, “Why can't you people leave him alone? He's done nothing to you.”
    “How can you defend a vampire?” asked Della.
    “So he's a vampire!” Matt shot back. “Who cares?”
    “Vampires are monsters!”
    “You believe everything Hollywood tells you? He's my uncle.”
    “No, he's not! The creature that made him killed your uncle and set loose that thing inside of his body!”
    Matt’s fist snapped up and Della flinched away from a blow that didn’t land. Her own fists clenched, although Matt was at least twice her size. She would fight if she had to. But then Sean Patrick was between them, his expression fierce.
    “Matt, I am dead serious here. You get that temper under control and I mean right this minute. Stand outside, if you would. I’m going to talk to Miss Kelley.”
    Matt ground his jaw, sending the muscles in his cheek twitching again. "I hope to hell you know what you're doing." He opened the door, went out, and closed it hard behind him.
    Sean Patrick reached toward her. Della flinched, but the vampire only gathered the big cat into his arms. To her surprise, the animal settled into his embrace and began to purr loudly. “I understand being a fanatic about something.”
    “I'm not a fanatic,” said Della.
    “Every member of the Hiera Sacra I ever met was, Miss Kelley,” said Sean Patrick. “But you could prove to me you're different. Let’s make it as easy as we can. Maybe some vampires ain’t as bad as you seem to think they are. I'm really not an evil creature of the night. Heck, you might actually like staying with me. I have a nice place, and I’m a good cook.” He smiled, petting his cat.
Della looked up, weighing his words and watching the animal in his arms. She’d never seen a vampire before who could get that close to any animal. Animals were one of the best ways of exposing a vampire.
    “Whether or not I agree, I am your prisoner, as I see it,” she said.
    “If that’s the way you want to view it, honey,” he said. “But I’d sure hate to see it that way myself.”
    “Can you guarantee my safety?” she asked. “You won’t bite me. You won’t feed on me. Or kill me.”
    He actually laughed. “I give you my solemn oath,” he said. He set the cat down on the desk and offered her his unharmed right hand. “And you have my hand on it. I won't feed off you unless you specifically ask me to.”
    “Which I will never do,” she replied, and, hesitating only a moment longer, took his hand in hers. His long, dry fingers curled around her hand again, this time in a firm, businesslike shake.
    “So there we are,” he said. “Now, I have some work I have to do. I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, honey, but I’m going to lock you in here for right now.”
    Della stiffened, fear shooting through her.
    “I’m sorry, Miss Kelley. I won’t be able to keep an eye on you out there.” He reached over his desk and flipped a switch. Music from the main room filled the office. But while he was turning on the intercom, Della ran to the door and had it open before he was there again, shutting it in her face. “Let’s not be difficult, Miss Kelley,” he said. “You shook hands on it.”
    Della opened her mouth and closed it again. Her voice shaking, she said, “You really are going to hold me prisoner.”
    “I really would rather call you my guest,” he replied in a sad voice.
    “But you won’t let me leave,” she said.
    “I can’t, Miss Kelley. I know that’s a strike against me right off the bat, but now that you know about me, I can’t let you go. Not until you know who I am, and I know you won’t betray me. Please take my word that no harm will come to you while you’re under my roof.”
    “What about him?” she asked of Matt, glancing at the door. She’d seen the big man standing out the hall, waiting, in the brief second she’d had the door open.
    “Matt won't hurt you,” said Sean Patrick with a smile. “I promise. You can listen to the music on the intercom and I’ll try to hurry. If you want a drink, let me know and I’ll bring something back for you. What’re you drinking?"
    “What about my things? I have a rental car, a hotel room, all my clothes. I left my credit card at the front, I was running a tab,” she said.
    “Give me your keys and tell me what hotel you’re at, and I’ll have Matt return your car and check you out of the room,” he replied. “I’ll take care of the tab.”
    Della jerked away from him. “No! You can’t! I can’t! This is ridiculous! What if I give you my word I won’t tell on you?”
    Sean Patrick chuckled. “You and I both know you can’t keep a promise like that, Miss Kelley. The Order wouldn’t allow it. Now come. You’ll need clothes, and it won’t do to have the hotel staff report you as missing.” Della looked up at him a moment and started for the door again. She knew Matt was standing out in the hall, but maybe she could get away from them both, somehow, lose them in the crowd and get to the parking lot, her car, and away. “And you don’t want to have to pay for a car you’re not using,” he continued, catching her arm and halting her attempted escape. Della ground her jaw and glared up at him.
    “Let go of me! You’re hurting me.”
    Immediately he let go. “I’m sorry.” Then he frowned. “Hey. Stop that.”
    “Stop what?”
    “Using my good nature against me.” The vampire regarded her with those sad, dark chocolate eyes. “Give me your keys,” he said. “I can force you do it, you know, and I would really rather not.”
    “You’re saying this isn’t by force?” she said.
    “Well, at least this way I can pretend it’s of your own free will,” he replied. He guided her to his desk and sat her down. “Listen to me,” he said, leaning over her, his hands on either arm of the chair, “A good part of me wants to trust you won’t give me away, that I could take your word you wouldn’t and you could walk out of here right now. But another part of me is, quite frankly, terrified of you and your Order.” His eyes took in every part of her face, a hungry expression that made her sink herself more deeply into the leather upholstery. “Until I have good reason to believe you think I’m something more than a monster, you’re going to want me dead.”
    “Vampires are already dead. They are killers of the living. You feed on humans,” she spat at him.
    “Who said I was dead?” asked Sean Patrick, giving her an odd look, his eyebrow quirked up. “I do feed on human blood, but I never killed anyone with my fangs or vampire strength.”
    “That’s an interesting qualification,” said Della, unable to resist pointing out the careful structure of his sentence. “So you are a killer?”
    He blushed again, then coughed. “I shot a man once.” At her shocked look, he continued, “It was 1883 and in a part of Texas my family owned. I wasn't even charged. But bear in mind I was already a vampire, and I chose the straightforward Texas way to deal with a horse thief.” He frowned at her, then shrugged. “That was a different time and a different place.” He pulled away from the chair and walked over to where her stake lay. He reached for some more Kleenex and picked up the bloody cross. “Why do you think I’m dead?” he asked.
    “Vampires are the undead,” replied Della. “That’s common knowledge, even outside of the Order.”
    Sean Patrick grunted, shaking his head as he did so. “Common knowledge the Order created,” he said, straightening up, his movements stiff. “I never have felt dead, even when I was crawling out of a grave. Hell, pardon me, especially not then.”
    “Nonetheless, you are,” she said.
    He chuckled, limping heavily as he came back to the desk. Della watched him curiously. He noticed her expression. “You’re wondering why I’m limping,” he said, tucking the Kleenex-wrapped stake into an inside pocket of his jacket.
    “Uh... yes,” she admitted. “I wouldn’t have thought your hand...”
    “That had nothing to do with it,” he said. “Earlier tonight I was shot.”
    “Shot? With a crossbow?” How powerful was this vampire?
    “No, Miss Kelley,” he chuckled. “With a gun. The victim of a mugging gone wrong. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my wallet on me, and the young man was scared and nervous, so when I didn’t produce any money, he shot me. Five times. In the chest. And it hurts like holy hell, pardon me. Fortunately, most of the bullets passed right through.”
    Della wasn't sure what to say. Vampires weren’t people. She flashed back to some of her own eliminations, thinking about the times she’d been certain she’d seen pain in their faces as they died, and every time she’d worried everyone had assured her it wasn’t real. Vampires couldn’t really feel pain.
    “You going to tell me it’s just my dead flesh having a memory of pain?” he asked, arching one eyebrow as he studied her face.
    “I was considering it,” she admitted.
    “My flesh has a damned good memory, then,” he said with some amount of heat. “Pardon.”
    Della glanced around the office, searching for anything she could use as a weapon. The only sharp pieces of wood in evidence were a number of novelty pencils in a holder on the edge of the desk. She jumped to reach for one, but he was much faster. He was between her and the desk in a heartbeat. He held her wrist firmly, but not in a crushing grip.
    “Let's stop fighting. If you did manage to kill me here you probably won't leave the bar. Bear in mind Matt’s right outside the door, and without me to hold him back, I don’t honestly think you’d stand a chance.” He was simply stating a fact. Della recognized that immediately.
    His eyes held no hint of malice or menace. She feared him, but she realized it was only the fear of her knowledge of him, as a vampire, rather than his actual presence, and in a startling moment of clarity, she realized what she had seen in his clear expressive eyes was stark terror. He was far more afraid of her than she was of him.
    “So what are you going to do with me?” she asked. “My partner is across town. If I don't check in, he'll come looking for me.”
    “Why didn't you bring him with you?” He hadn't let go of her wrist, holding her so she couldn't move away from him. “Does he know where you are?”
    “He knows where I am, of course,” she lied. Why hadn't she left better instructions with Theo? Because of course she hadn't expected him to want to come, anyway.
    Sean Patrick smiled a weary smile. “You're lying to me again, Miss Kelley. Come on, tell me the truth. Let's be frank with one another.”
    “You're very perceptive.”
    He let go of her wrist and leaned on the desk, watching as she backed away. “Not really. You’re just frightened and it shows. So. No one knows where you are. Los Angeles is a very big city.”
    “All right, then,” she said. “What else can I do?”
    Sean Patrick smiled, but his eyes filled with sadness again. “Give me your purse,” he said.
    “No,” she replied.
    “No more arguments, Miss Kelley. You’re going to give me your hotel key and your car keys.”
    Della stared at him. “Suppose I say no?” she asked defiantly.
    “I could very easily take them by force,” he said gently. “But I don’t want to do that to you.”
    “You can’t hypnotize me,” she said, lifting her chin. True, Theo hadn’t finished her lessons in holding off hypnosis, but she knew the mechanics. If she knew it was coming, she wouldn’t fall for it.
    But to her annoyance, he just laughed. “Oh, really?” he said.
    Della blinked. He was no longer leaning on the desk. She whirled around and found him standing just behind her. “While you were under, Miss Kelley, I could have made you give me the information about your hotel, and anything else I wanted you to do. But I didn’t.” He held out his hand. “Please.”
    Della's hands went to her neck as she gasped in horror. She didn’t feel like she’d been fed on, and still deeply distrusted him. Had he fed on her, that distrust would have been mostly negated, replaced by trust and possibly even affection. That was usually how it worked.
    “Don't worry, I didn't,” he said. “I promised.”
    “I know you didn’t,” she said. “Because I still don’t trust you.” Della narrowed her eyes as she studied his face, trying to avoid direct eye contact this time. Her gaze dropped to the front of his black shirt, which was, she saw close up, patterned heavily with matching thread embroidery which gave it its shimmering appearance. “What about my partner?”
    “We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it,” he said.
    “Don’t you mean cross that bridge?” she asked, her eyes coming back to his face. He was grinning now, amused.
    “Probably,” he replied. “Come on, Miss Kelley,” he repeated. “I have work to do.”
    “I’m not stopping you from doing it.”
    “Yes, you are.” With that, he dove forward and snatched her purse out of her hands. Della tried to grab it back, but he easily held it above her head. “Thank you.” He winked and slipped out of the door, closing it hastily behind him before Della could get to it, and she heard the lock click.
    She was locked in a vampire’s office.

    Cody sat at the table after Sean Patrick spirited her new friend away. That had been an electric meeting. Della's expression when Sean Patrick touched her had been strange, though. Cody looked around to see if Matt was still around, and found him standing at the end of the bar, drinking seltzer from a bottle and watching the stage with a slight smile, paying little attention to anything else around him. She found her eyes moving more often to his quiet form than to the active one on stage, and she could watch Matt to her heart’s content with everyone else’s attention elsewhere.
    The show had been going for a while when he looked around. Cody quickly shifted her attention elsewhere, and when she dared to glance again, Matt was heading into the back, heading through the swinging doors with purpose. Cody turned back to the stage and watched for a few minutes, then decided she might as well make some kind of move. Why not? Get shot down early before she was formally working for him, or even get a chance to sit and talk over a late-night coffee or something. Besides, she could plead she was searching for Della, anyway.
    The hallway was empty. Cody paused outside of Matt’s office, but the door was open and it, too, was empty. She continued on down to Sean Patrick’s office, trying to decide what she’d say if she knocked. She was, truthfully, looking for Della. If Sean Patrick was schmoozing Della, though, she certainly didn't want to interrupt. It had been clear Sean Patrick was totally gone on the redheaded Irish girl.
    Cody reached the door and lifted her hand to knock when she heard Sean Patrick shout at Matt, followed by Matt’s voice raised in anger. She froze.
    She didn't really mean to eavesdrop. Cody was the youngest child in a family of six children, and selective "listening in" was almost second nature to her, even when she knew she shouldn't. In a household like she’d grown up in, you learned to keep your ears open if you wanted to know anything at all. Besides, hearing Matt shout, "She tried to kill you!" simply struck her completely still, frozen to the floor. She stopped with her arm raised, listening to the heated conversation on the other side. Occasionally the words, especially Sean Patrick’s reasoned tones, fell too low for her to hear them, but almost everything Matt and Della said came through in all their fiery glory.
    Holy cow. Sean Patrick was a vampire? Well, that sure explained the pictures. Cody put her hand to her neck and considered her interview with him, frowning as she remembered when she’d thought he’d moved, but she hadn't actually seen him move. Maybe he had. Vampires. Vampires. What did she know about vampires? Not a whole lot, other than what was in the movies. The movies rarely got such things right. Not when it came to the world of magic. She knew enough to know vampires were magickal creatures, and maybe as unpredictable as mages themselves.
    Cody backed slowly and carefully away from the door, returning to the main room. It also explained how he’d been working here longer than Matt, and why he was the boss. Shoot, she didn't have any idea how old he was. Well, working for a vampire wouldn't be any worse than her last boss, who had been totally human but still preyed on children.
    The bar was hopping with the loud, awesome honky-tonk music, and Cody accepted the first guy who asked her to dance without even looking at his face. He swung her out onto the dance floor and she followed on automatic. A vampire. She’d never met a vampire before. Holy cow.
    She saw Matt come stalking out of the back, his face red and his hair rumpled. Sean Patrick came behind him, but went to the secondary bar on the far side of the room instead of the main bar, which is where Matt aimed. He took another bottle of seltzer from Carlos and spoke to him. Cody finished the dance and thanked her partner, then circled around the edge of the crowd, over to the secondary bar. She lost sight of Matt’s bright blond hair in the crowd, but she could see the top of Sean Patrick’s head over the others, where he was assisting the bartender. There was a smile on his strained face as he passed longneck bottles to several cowboys, some almost as tall as he was.
    Okay. So he was a vampire, and it sounded like Della was a vampire hunter. So where was Della now? Somehow Cody couldn't believe that he'd killed her and stuck her bloodless body somewhere, not after what she'd heard and not after seeing the look on Matt's face. Hell, from what she’d heard, it sounded a lot like Matt had been a lot closer to doing the killing. And oddly, at the moment, Cody felt she could do the same. Just standing there looking at Sean Patrick she liked him well enough to want to protect him from vampire hunters, and that thought alone confused and irritated her. She barely knew the guy. The really annoying thing was that she'd stopped thinking about making time with a gorgeous man and wasn't even looking for Matt anymore.
    At the moment, what she really needed to do was some serious thinking. She wormed her way close to the bar, where Sean Patrick was leaning heavily on his elbows, looking tired. "I'm gonna head out,” she said.
    He looked sharply at her. "Didn't you go with Matt?"
    Cody shrugged. "Go where?"
    Sean Patrick let out an annoyed sigh. "I needed him to run an errand and told him to take you with him. Apparently, he didn't.” He shrugged. "So we'll see you tomorrow?"
    "Um. Yeah, yeah, I'll be here tomorrow,” she said.
    His tired eyes narrowed slightly as he looked at her, then a ghost of his usual smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. He reached over and patted her hand. "Good. Drive safe.” He pushed himself off the bar and crossed the floor as the last encore played, and Cody watched him disappear beyond the swinging doors before she turned to see the stage lights dim, casting the entire bar into darkness. After a moment, the house lights came up fully and the saddle over the dance floor started sparkling again. The show was over.
    Cody dug her truck keys out of her pocket as she headed into the parking lot, hurrying to where she’d left her battered old Chevy half-ton. She unlocked the door and swung into the cab, pondering to herself as she started it up. The engine coughed slightly and then roared to life, rattling her in a comfortable, familiar manner.
    Nightmare, indeed. Cody wished she hadn't had the rum, but she felt like the shock had boiled all the alcohol out of her system and she was perfectly safe behind the wheel. She drove down into Los Angeles proper and into the drive-thru at the first open McDonald's she saw, where she ordered a jumbo fries and Diet Coke. Thus armed with caffeine and carbs, she headed for home.
The Nightmare
More from award-winning unpublished novel, Ring of Fire:


    Della followed the directions she’d gotten online, aiming for one of the clubs her mother had recommended. The first on the list, the Palomino, had apparently closed some while ago, while the third, a place called The Golden West, was likewise gone. But The Nightmare was still open, and, according to one online review, “still playing the best live music in California, outside of Bakersfield.”
    Well, Bakersfield was certainly off the list, as long as she and her partner, Theo, were assigned to Los Angeles. Last night had been vampire hunting. Tonight was her night off.
    It was entirely unlikely that Theo would actually want to join her, no matter what he’d said as she took off, so it didn’t really matter how far she went to find a place to dance. She’d no doubt be back at the hotel before Theo was, anyway. Such was the life of a vampire hunter. Tonight, Della had decided she wasn’t even going to think about vampires.
    The road curved ahead of her, so she almost missed the large nightclub to her right. There was a signpost bearing a vibrant blue neon horse jumping over the words “The Nightmare,” the words styled to look like a wooden fence.
The wide doors were swung open, leading to a well-lit front area where she could see a box office and dozens of people in cowboy hats and boots milling around. The windows to either side of the doors were filled with neon, advertising American beers as well as “Live! Real Country Music” in lights of all colors. Della had been trying to listen to as much music as she could since her arrival, but sadly, the bulk of what they played on the radio here was nothing like the music she’d grown up listening to or that her mother played now. Della could hear the thumping bass through the open doors and paused to see if she knew the song before joining the queue at the box office.
    Tall cowboys and their dates all seemed to be in jeans, and for a moment she felt overdressed before she noticed a few skirts like hers, worn with everything from t-shirts to tiny baby-doll blouses with spaghetti straps. Although the din was unbelievable, people seemed to be able to converse with each other. She could hear the song better, now, and did recognize it as an old Merle Haggard song. Whoever was singing had a splendid voice. She was eager to pay her cover and get inside to check out the dance floor.
    “Howdy, ma'am,” said the man sitting in the box office as she walked up. He was movie-star handsome, tanned and sun-bleached blond, with a dazzling smile and broad shoulders. Della immediately cast him in her mind as an aspiring actor who was only working here between auditions. He was wearing a fancy blue shirt and his brown eyes twinkled at her as he spoke, his voice melding the California accents she was growing used to and another, strange accent she couldn't place. “Cover's twenty-five tonight.”
    “That much?” She’d come to expect no more than ten at places that even asked for a cover, and she fumbled with her wallet.
“You're not here for the show? I'm afraid cover goes up when it's a big name.” He gestured to the poster in the corner of the office window, displaying a stark, lean face mostly covered by the wide brim of a cowboy hat.
    Della gasped. “Oh, good Lord, I didn’t realize. I was just looking for someplace with live music,” she said, embarrassed. “I'm rather new in town and was honestly just bar-hopping.”
    He laughed. “Well, I'll tell you what,” he said, glancing around. He leaned forward, close to the glass, and mock-whispered, “Since you look like an honest gal, and I don't like to turn anyone away, I'll only charge you our minimum of five. Now, that's just between you and me, understand?” He gave her a sly wink.
    “Can you do that?” Della asked, shaking her head as she started to count out the money. “I don't want you to get into trouble. I certainly can pay it, and my goodness, this should be some show!"
    “I won't get into trouble, honest,” he answered, taking only five dollars and handing her back the rest. “Welcome to the Nightmare. Now, on a more serious note, I see your ID, ma'am?”
    She paused. This was the first place she’d been to in America that even asked, although she knew they were supposed to. She handed over her English driver's license. “I don't have a local one, but I have my passport if you need it,” she said.
The handsome man shook his head. “This’s fine.” He handed back her license and strapped a blue band around her wrist. He winked at her again as Della went into the dim light of the bar.
    It was an enormous room, with a long bar lining most of the left-hand wall and a shorter bar on the right, both crammed with people. A hardwood dance floor was in the middle of the room, ringed by a split-rail fence, with tall bar tables on this side and shorter, regular tables and chairs on the far side, closer to the high-rise stage, set up about five feet or so allowing the entire room a clear view. There were booths on both sides, and doors leading off both to the left and the right. The door on the right was marked with neon signs that said "Restrooms" and "Pool Hall," with arrows pointing directions. Della could see that the rooms to the left were simply small, quieter rooms for private parties.
    Then she focused on the singer. He was tall and quite slim, his glittering white jacket perfectly cut and clearly tailored to his lanky frame. He was playing an acoustic guitar in front of a five-piece band. And could he sing! His voice was like honey, pure liquid gold, and for a moment, Della leaned on the top rail of the fence to listen before going to the bar for a drink, where she ordered Amaretto on the rocks and started a tab before making her way to the short tables close to the stage, where she could really see the lanky singer.
    Oh, he was handsome. Not showy, like the man in the box office, but in a subtle way Della liked. Everything about him was long and elegant. His eloquent fingers danced on the neck of his guitar with an effortless ease that made it look like playing the instrument was simple. His wavy brown hair curled around the collar of his fancy jacket, while he bounced in time to the music on legs that looked longer than she was. He was smiling as he sang, caressing words even as he delivered them flippantly to his eager audience.
    When he finished the song, he spoke into the mike, “Howdy folks. I'd like to welcome y'all to The Nightmare. Who all here likes country music?”
    “We do!” shouted several people around Della. A crowd of women pressed against the stage, watching him in adoration. Della wondered how they managed to enjoy the show, considering some of them barely were eye-level with the singer’s fancy boots.
    The singer grinned. Della liked his smile. There was a very slight cleft in his chin, and silver rings on almost every one of his long fingers. The sparkling jacket was embroidered with wagon wheels and horses. He gave his guitar a swing and started to sing a wild, uptempo version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” The girls clustered at the stage screamed in appreciation.
    As he sang, his eyes swept the audience, and seemed to see everyone despite the lighting. Della saw him smile and wink at one girl, who gave a little shriek, then felt his gaze turn to her. The bright spotlights made it hard to tell what color his eyes were, but she couldn't help but smile back at him, the tip of her tongue caught between her teeth. When he winked at her, she understood why the other girl hadn't been able to hold back her shriek. Della felt hard pressed not to behave like a crazy woman, herself.
Della found an empty seat at a table with a pretty blonde girl who smiled in welcome, nodding when Della asked if she could sit there. "My name's Cody," she introduced herself.
    “I’m Della,” she responded as they shook hands across the table. Cody appeared to be well acquainted with how to both hear and be heard in the bar, and after a few minutes, Della found herself catching on.
    The two chatted between songs as Della watched her sexy singer making the most of his almost otherworldly charm, flirting with every pretty face he picked out of the crowd and chatting in an amiable manner with surprisingly complacent boyfriends.
“Annie, darlin’, where’s my whiskey?” he called at one point between songs.
    “Coming!” one of the waitresses responded. She hustled through the laughing crowd, bearing a highball glass filled with ice and amber liquid. The singer bent down low and took the glass, draining it in two long swallows. He handed the glass back to the waitress. “Uno más, Carlos, por favor,” he said into the mike. “That’s better. Now I can sing a little more, if y’all are willing to keep listening to me.”
    There were cheers. “All right, then,” he went on. “Now I'd like to sing one for that pretty Irish girl there,” he continued, his gaze coming to lock with Della's. She felt herself blush, both embarrassed and flattered by the attention, as several people looked at her. The singer continued, “Well, I don't know for sure she's Irish, but she looks somethin’ like an Irish girl I knew once, and it reminded me of this tune. It’s a favorite around here, anyway.”
    “That’s pretty smart, him guessing where you were from,” said Cody. “I didn’t know he had it in him.” Her words seemed a little disparaging, but it was said with humor, as though she both knew and liked the singer on stage.
    “Do you know him?” Della asked, tapping her feet on the rungs of the stool. She wanted to dance.
    “He owns the place. He's my new boss. I start work here tomorrow,” Cody replied.
    “Congratulations,” Della said, envious of the girl who would be able to come into this wonderful club every night and get paid for it. What was it like, to work in the normal world, and not have to prowl the shadows seeking to vanquish monsters? She’d promised she wouldn’t even think about vampires tonight, so she banished the thought.
    “Thanks!” Cody picked up her drink as Della returned her attention to the stage.
When the song ended, he looked at her again. The waitress named Annie brought him another whiskey on the rocks, which he nursed. “Say, pretty Irish gal, what's your name?” he asked.
    Della’s face flamed once more. “Um, Della,” she called back.
    “Well, good golly, you ARE Irish!” he exclaimed. “Della, eh? Well, that puts me in mind of a song.” They played another tune, but when it ended, he turned back to her.
    “Della what?” he asked while one of the band members switched instruments. Several people were staring at her again.
    “Kelley,” she called back over the crowd. “Della Kelley.”
    Something seemed to flash in his eyes, and his smile faltered. High color flared in his cheeks, and for a fleeting second, he looked stricken. Then it disappeared and he was his cheerful self again, making her wonder if she had imagined it. “All righty, then. This one’s a favorite of mine, I’m pretty sure most of you gals down here know it. I hope y’all will like it, too."
    He started to sing a desperately sad song, one that made all the girls clustered by the bar squeal. When he finished, he turned his back a moment, leaning over the drum set to speak a moment to the drummer, wiping a hand over his eyes, but when he returned to the mike, he was fully composed.
    The music lasted another hour before the singer said, “Well, folks, I'm gonna do y'all one more song and then clear the road for that other tall skinny guy you actually came to see.” The audience laughed. “Once again, welcome to The Nightmare. I'm Sean Patrick O'Connor, and I invite all y’all to stay a little longer.” The audience whooped as the fiddle player took center stage and a swing number started.
    "O'Connor! Why, he’s just as Irish as I am,” she said to Cody.
    “So you got a thing for him, too?” asked Cody, grinning at Della over her drink.
    "You think he has a 'thing' for me?" replied Della, feeling a naughty sense of delight at that thought. She bit her lower lip as she grinned, wondering if she dared to do anything about it. If he continued to flirt, when he came down off the stage, would she follow through? Oh, it was tempting. He was tempting. Della ran her tongue over her lower lip as she shared a grin with her new friend.
    “He’s been eyeing you all night,” said Cody.
    “He’s very handsome,” said Della, leaning on her hand again and twirling the tip of her finger in her drink, the ice cool against her skin.
    “You think?”
    “Heavens, yes,” said Della, letting out a long breath. She was already fantasizing about that easy-smiling mouth and those long-fingered hands.
    “He’s okay, I guess,” said Cody, giving him a critical once-over, one eyebrow raised slightly.
    “Okay? Are you blind, then?” asked Della with a laugh.
    Cody laughed. “No, I just have my own thing going,” she pointed toward the bar. Della glanced over to see that the object of Cody’s affection was the movie star from the box office, now working behind the bar.
    “Oh, him,” she said, grinning. “That’s bit too obvious, don’t you think?”
    “Mmmm,” said Cody, an answering wicked smile on her lips. “Obviously hot, that's what he is.”
    Della shrugged. “Man who looks like that back home would probably be gay,” she said, raising her eyebrows. Cody laughed.
    “No, I know this guy. He’s gay-friendly, but not gay,” she replied.
    The singer finished with a flourish, then handed his guitar to one of the stage hands and hopped lightly off the stage, worming his way through the crowd of women. It was easy to watch him, since he stood easily a head taller than most of them. Della followed his progress across the floor with a weird, possessive jealousy as he shook hands with some, hugged others, and several grabbed him for deep, lingering kisses, none of which he tried even remotely to discourage. What would it be like to kiss that handsome mouth?
    She’d left a fiancé at her hotel. Yet she was sitting there thinking about a liaison with a handsome cowboy she hadn’t even met. Her engagement to Theo had been her father’s idea, not hers. She wanted to be one of the women who was pushing toward the handsome singer, stealing kisses and hugs, but she didn’t have the nerve.
    As she watched, he made his way to the bar and tapped it a couple times with one of the silver rings he wore on his left hand. One of the bartenders glanced over his shoulder, then immediately filled a highball glass with ice and poured a significant amount of Jack Daniels over. The singer picked up the glass and continued on, greeting people as he came. His huge eyes met hers, and he smiled warmly.
    She really liked his smile. His rich, chocolate-brown eyes sparkled with good humor, but there was a ghost of sorrow in his gaze that was both intriguing and enchanting, making her want to somehow erase it with the right words or touch. If only he’d come over here. Good God, what would she do? She wiped her damp hands on her skirt. He kissed every other girl who wanted a kiss, could she be just as bold? She wanted to be. Before she could decide whether to stay or flee, he was at their table.
    "Hi!" Cody said, turning to him with her big, friendly smile.
    "Howdy. Enjoying yourself?" he asked. His pleasant drawl sounded richer close up, not being fed through a microphone. Della wondered what his singing voice sounded like when it wasn’t amplified and backed up by a half-dozen electric instruments.
    "You bet! Thanks again," Cody replied, grinning up at him. He set down his drink to grip her hand in both of his.
    "I’m glad. I hope you enjoy workin' for us here, Miss Cameron. Cody. I’m trying," he said, chuckling. Cody laughed with him, then he turned his attention to Della. Her heart skipped a beat. "And Miss Kelley, is it?" he said. Della felt the effect of his personal charisma like a blow, a hammer wrapped in velvet. He smelled wonderful. "I’m Sean Patrick." As she took his proffered hand, she knew instantly that her erotic fantasies were horribly misplaced.
    His hand in hers was smooth, but it was dry and cool. Despite the exertion of performing under the hot lights of the stage, the pressure of the crowd, and his heavy wool coat, he wasn't perspiring. She couldn’t feel the steady beat of a pulse. Dear God. He was a vampire.
    Della’s mind spun even as she looked up at those marvelous, huge brown eyes. Sean Patrick O’Connor. How could she not have recognized the name? The missing vampire. The vampire who had bitten her grandmother and gotten away. Amanda’s lost fledgling. Her heart started to race. She hadn’t connected that name with this man, this wildly gregarious performer. Vampires weren’t like that. Vampires stayed out of the spotlight, hid from crowds, preyed on humans from the edges of society. Della had never shaken hands with a vampire before. It made the skin on her neck crawl. She jerked away too suddenly, fear and disappointment flooding through her. She forced herself to smile back at him, though, lest he notice her terror.
    "Yes," she replied, almost whispering. She cleared her throat and started to repeat herself, but he seemed to hear her. He reached for her hand once more, taking it in both of his as he had done with Cody. Cool, dry hands, with beautiful long fingers. His grip was firm, but not crushing.
    "It's nice to meet you, Miss Kelley," he said. "Are you enjoyin' yourself tonight?" He leaned close. She felt an almost electric sexual shock at his touch, his nearness. The conflict of her emotions made her feel queasy, and she wished she hadn’t had so many drinks.
    "Very much," she replied. How many of the employees here were his minions, even fledglings? What about Cody? Della hadn’t examined her new friend’s eyes, hadn’t noticed if she’d been enthralled by the vampire. She hadn’t been looking for vampires or vampire thralls. It was her night off, for God’s sake! There weren’t supposed to be vampires! Sean Patrick put his hand under her elbow, taking her arm in a firm grip she couldn't pull away from without making a scene.
    "I'm glad to hear that, Miss Kelley," he said. He stood close, bending slightly, in that intimate way that comes second nature to the denizens of loud music-filled bars. He was even taller than she’d expected him to be, but just as long and lean. He looked younger up close than he had from a distance. She had to force herself to stop looking at his mesmerizing eyes lest he attempt to hypnotize her. So far, he hadn’t even tried, but perhaps in this crowd he didn’t dare. His skin wasn’t as pale as most vampires, a warm café au lait color, but certainly these days there were such things as spray-on tans. “How’d you like to have a little tour?” he asked, smile still wide, as he started to guide her away from the table.
    “I was here for the music, really,” she objected, trying to pull her arm from his grasp. His warm smile didn’t falter, his hand tightening on her elbow. “I’d like to see the show.”
    “It won’t take long,” he said. “Humor me, Miss Kelley.” He almost propelled her through the crowd toward the hallway in the back.

Chapter Two

    John Dillon was a large man, well over six feet tall and as broad as a rugby player. He swaggered when he walked, his long, heavy coat clanking slightly. Theo Delacroix extended his hand to the man and was rewarded with a handshake that threatened to crush his bones. "Howdy," the American said in a deep western accent that bore little relationship to the California-bland tone Theo had gotten used to. "Pleased to meetcha."
    "How do you do?" replied Theo. "I understand you’ve never worked with a partner before."
    “Never found the need,” said Dillon. He looked around the hotel room with passing curiosity, stroking his thick moustache.
“So
. You’ve been trying to get through Erlind’s lines, have you?”
    “Well, of course. Haven’t you? How long have you been assigned to Los Angeles?”
    “I’ve been up to Erlind’s place a couple times,” replied Dillon, looking over the television set. “He’s better guarded than the president.”
    Theo continued, “So you’ve known about his presence and you’ve never bothered to update the Order’s information on him? We thought he was in Europe.”
    “I don’t live and breathe for the Order. You Old World folks never consider the ancient vamps would come out here, but they do. This is my thing, Delacroix,” Dillon finally turned to face Theo, “I don't just wipe vamps out. I study 'em. Talk to 'em, when I can. I like to think I know how they think and why they do the things they do. Do you know why there are so many vamps down here in the sunbelt, for instance? Including old Erlind?”
    “I have often wondered that,” said Theo. He gestured toward the door and Dillon followed him out to the parking lot. Theo started to lead the way to his practical rental sedan, but Dillon grabbed him and steered him toward a colorless, beat-up old pickup truck with a massive dent in the passenger door. “I've always thought young vampires tended to migrate to young cities, while older vampires stayed to the old.”
    “Nope, that’s just what the greybeards at Headquarters like to think,” said Dillon, opening the driver’s side door. “I’ll drive, I know the way around.”
    Theo shrugged and got in on the passenger’s side. The upholstery was as faded as the exterior, although it may once have been blue, and there was a loose spring in the seat that poked him in the leg as he climbed into the cab.
    Dillon continued, “These God-damned concrete city heat islands we build attract vampires like a kitchen sponge attracts germs. It stays warm all night long in the heart of cities like L.A. or Phoenix or Vegas. Add in a generous dose of the Los Angeles 'who gives a fuck what you do' attitude, and it's vampire central. Hang around long enough and you'll find a lot of the ancients here, too, not just the fledges. They like to go back to their old home haunts, of course, the ones who came from Europe, but once they test the waters here, they always come back.”
    “And how long has Erlind been here, do you know?”
    “Hell, far as I can tell, he’s been here since the thirties or earlier,” said Dillon.
    “Really?”
    “Well, that mansion’s been in the same name since then, so either he bought it then under that name, or he killed the guy who used to own it and took over,” replied Dillon.
    He shook a cigarette out of a pack and lit it. Theo accepted one when offered, and the two men smoked in silence as Dillon drove them toward the elegant Bel Air neighborhood where Erlind’s majestic mansion dominated a fifty-acre emerald-green lawn, surrounded by a wall and a hedge which was patrolled by human and vampire security. Theo and Della had run reconnaissance on the front areas here, but hadn’t climbed into the foothills that rose up behind the mansion. It was up one of these narrow, private roads that Dillon dared to turn, carrying them up switchbacks to the rise directly behind the mansion.
    “There it is,” said Dillon. They could now look almost straight down to the vast swimming pool, its underwater light sparkling blue through the screen of dozens of evergreen shade trees. Dillon continued, “He’s bound to be there now. He’s usually in town from August until May. That's when he jets back to Europe and summers there, Monte Carlo, I think.”
    “How in God's name do you know all this?” asked Theo, fascinated. He took his pocket binoculars out and snapped them open, carefully looking out over the mansion’s expansive grounds.        
    “Well, I got chummy with a vamp who was one of Erlind's get, couple months ago. Talkative fellow, especially once I got him chained up. Hot pokers make some vamps damned talkative.”
    Theo stared at Dillon. “Are you saying you torture vampires for information?” he asked, appalled.
    “Of course,” replied Dillon, taking a long drag on his cigarette. “When I want to know something. Dead flesh remembers pain pretty well.” He grinned, his teeth flashing white. “Anyway, I found out Erlind's schedule and general style, and believe me, he doesn't back down from torture, himself. He’s been mighty cruel to his victims, Delacroix.” An angry tone filled the man’s voice, a viciousness that made the skin on Theo’s neck crawl.
    “That is what makes us better than vampires, Mr. Dillon,” said Theo, a little stiffly. Dillon glanced at his rearview mirror and put his truck back into gear.
    “That's what makes you dead unless you're real lucky,” replied Dillon. He lit another cigarette and waved as a police cruiser passed them. “If I'm lucky enough to catch a vamp who might tell me something about other vamps, and he needs persuasion to tell me, I'll use persuasion. This guy'd been made around the turn of the century by Erlind, but since his sire was so old, he was still pretty damned strong. He almost took me with him.” He got back into the truck. He blew smoke out the window as Theo got in. “It's them or us, Delacroix. I thought that was what the Order was all about.”
    “In a sense, I suppose that's true.” It still disturbed Theo to think about actually using torture, even on vampires. For him, a quick clean elimination was the rule.
    “What, you aim for a clean kill every time?” asked Dillon, as though he’d read Theo’s thoughts.
    “I do. As you said, it is dead flesh and only a memory of pain. But torture seems beneath a civilized man, somehow,” replied Theo.
    “Well, I ain't always civilized,” said Dillon, leaning back and resting his arm on the window edge, his grin turning horrifying. Theo managed to keep from shuddering by turning to look out the windshield. “Vampires tend to be secretive, and if I want to know the secrets, I'm going to use extreme measures.”
    “You really ought to share more of your findings with the Order, though,” said Theo. “As soon as Richard gets here, we must let him know.”
    “Fine by me. Best only one of us can do is try to take out his fledges one at a time, but he always makes more.” He blew a smoke ring and watched it hover in front of his face, then said, “He takes care of his get.” He yanked the truck into gear and turned it around. “I have a few ideas. If you want a few quick and easy eliminations tonight, Hollywood Boulevard is the place to go.”
“Really?”
    “Not the crowded areas so much, but there’s a lot of dark corners where vamps like to prey on the lost and unsuspecting,” said Dillon. “I tell ya one place they love, and that’s Disneyland. That’s one reason I live down in Orange.”
    “I would have thought the crowds would repel them.”
    “Nah, even vamps like to have fun once in a while. Never saw or heard of an attack on the grounds, but afterward, in the parking lot and around, it’s a feeding frenzy. People are unsuspecting and unwary when they’re in that area. Oh, look. Vampires.” He pointed, and Theo followed his gaze to see a young couple stumbling along the boulevard, heading for a couple of far too carefully nondescript youngsters. The eyes of one were already glowing.
    Theo was all business in an instant. He nodded once as Dillon parked across the street. The vampires were working in tandem, circling the pair of apparently drunken lovers who seemed to be looking for a semi-private public place to do something daring and stupid. Theo slipped a small hand-held crossbow from under his coat, and Dillon did the same, the two moving swiftly between parked cars and keeping out of the way of the vampires, as well as the human traffic. The victims entered the alley as though they’d planned it themselves and started to make out, dropping a bag emblazoned with some shop or other.
    “Not here!” the girl protested, giggling. She wasn't protesting very hard, and seemed to be assisting rather than hindering her boyfriend's fumbling hands. She froze when one of the vampires deliberately kicked a Dumpster, making a loud bang. “What was that?” Both girl and boy stared down the alley.
    Dillon looked sideways at Theo, who nodded, understanding immediately what Dillon wanted to do. They would shoot together, catching both vamps at once rather than risk one getting away. The second vampire tapped on the boy's shoulder. No movement. “They're out,” the vampire said in a low voice. The first vampire, eyes glowing, appeared slowly out of the darkness.
The crossbows sang in perfect harmony. The first vampire staggered backward against the wall and dissolved rapidly into a grease slick; the second lasted several moments longer, flesh seeming to cling to melting bones as he made a futile attempt to pull the bolt from his own chest. The moment the first vampire was gone, the boy and girl woke, the trance broken.
    “It's nothing,” said the boy, completely missing the second vampire falling soundlessly behind them, “Probably just a cat or something.” They went back to making out, while Dillon and Delacroix walked back to the truck.
    “Not bad, Delacroix,” said Dillon.
    “Thank you,” replied Theo. “Do you anticipate further action this evening?”
    “Probably,” said Dillon, stamping out his last cigarette and crumpling the empty pack. “If you wanna cruise the streets, on foot might be better, but I’d like to park someplace with more light.”
    “That’s fine.”
    “So where’s your partner, Delacroix?” asked Dillon, starting up his truck as Theo tried to avoid the loose spring in the seat.
    “I’m afraid my partner is still quite young. She desperately wanted a night off, and I foolishly promised she could have one. I thought with the discovery of Erlind’s mansion she’d realize we’d have to put it off a little longer, but she was so disappointed I told her to head off without me, and perhaps I could join her later.”
    Dillon snorted. He stopped in front of a convenience store. Theo followed him inside, where Dillon bought a carton of Marlboros and a six pack of watery American beer. There was a small section of imports where there were bottles of Guinness, so Theo picked up two of them. They put their beer into the truck, which Dillon locked despite it being an unlikely target for thieves, and the duo started to walk back the way they’d come, toward the darker areas and the hills.
    “So, you planning on meeting up with your girl?”
    Theo pursed his lips. “I’m afraid I’m not as thrilled with the American music scene as my partner.”
    “Just partners, or more?” asked Dillon.
    “As usual,” replied Theo. “Her father approached me with a semi-formal engagement and all the trappings. I went along, but it’s not like it used to be. Women don’t appreciate being bartered by their fathers in this day and age, and Della certainly doesn’t. I have a feeling we’ll never really make the altar.”
    “One of the reasons I’ve never bothered with a partner,” said Dillon. “Sure, you can get a guy who’s got his head on straight, but some of those old bastards think we’re all just dying to get married and provide the Order with more little operatives.”
    “Well, I think most men just want to be sure their daughters marry within the Order. It’s not easy to find a social life outside without giving away too many secrets,” replied Theo.
    “Being a part of the Order and having a social life ain’t exactly compatible at all, buddy,” said Dillon.
    “Very true. If any of us are to marry and have families at all, it has to be inside. A wife who joins you on the hunt is better than one who waits and worries at home.” Theo sighed. Dillon glanced at him.
    “You had another gal?” asked Dillon.
    “Well, we weren’t together when Della’s father approached me, but I still don’t know why I agreed.” Sometimes that question was all Theo thought about. He’d been in love with Helen Squire, was still honestly in love with her, and it had rapidly become crystal clear that Della wasn’t at all interested in him, although to her credit, she tried. Theo tried as well, but Della was a deeply sensuous young woman. Theo knew he’d failed to satisfy her, even though she never let her disappointment show. Somehow he’d never imagined himself with a woman like Della, whose approach to sex was wild, inventive, and, well, frequently a little terrifying.
    “I work better alone,” said Dillon, taking Theo’s hint and dropping the subject. He opened a fresh pack and lit another cigarette as he scanned the street. “There were more than two vamps, weren’t there?”
    “I thought so, but only two seemed to be in on that kill,” replied Theo.
    “The others must be on their own little hunt,” said Dillon. He paused and seemed to be listening. “I wonder if one of them was the sire, or other fledges. That second vamp was pretty old.”
    “Yes,” said Theo. “But neither of them saw us. Any of their vampire relations won’t know to look for us. Shall we continue?”
    “Yup. Maybe we can turn up some of Erlind’s gang and see if there’s any plans. The old boy doesn’t go out often, but sometimes he likes to take to the streets himself instead of having his meals delivered.”
    “They take living humans?” asked Theo.
    “Hell, yeah,” said Dillon.
    They were rounding the block when Dillon nudged Theo and pointed. Theo followed his gaze and only nodded.
    “Now the fun begins,” Dillon muttered, slipping his hand into his coat.
    One slim vamp, probably no more than eighteen or so when he'd been made, started toward them, wearing a feral smile. Dillon moved toward him, putting on a wide-eyed expression. In a broad accent, he said, “Hey, kid, got a light?” and then let his body go slack. Theo knew at once he’d made the vampire believe he’d been hypnotized.
    The vampire's eyes glowed as he closed in. “Yes, I have a light,” he said. Theo’s hands tightened on his own crossbow, but he didn’t need it.
    “So do I. I lied,” Dillon said, flicking his lighter against the vampire's loose shirt. The vampire fell back with a scream that was cut off as the fire consumed him. It flared up bright for a few moments, then burned the last of the vampire's clothes away after the rest had dissolved. Dillon grinned.
    “Good God, man, that’s hardly a way to keep a low profile,” Theo hissed, dragging Dillon away. There were voices coming toward them. “That must have been seen for miles.”
    “It was a flare and then it was gone. All anyone's gonna find is a spot on the ground,” said Dillon, apparently unconcerned. He was grinning like a madman. “Sometimes, Delacroix,” said Dillon, lighting another cigarette, “It just doesn't seem right to let 'em die that easy. Damn, I feel a whole lot better now.”
The Nightmare
My first completed novel, which won 2nd place in the 2005 Southwest Writers competition --

RING OF FIRE

Chapter One

          Sean Patrick lit a cigarette as he strolled through the parking lot of his bar, The Nightmare. The sun’s rays lingered, piercing through the deep, manmade canyons of the greater Los Angeles area. Above, shades of crimson and gold with fingers of pink clouds reached across the cerulean sky, a matte painting drawn larger than life. This was his favorite time of day.
          He leaned on the shaggy bark of the giant eucalyptus growing by the edge of the parking lot and smoked in silence, savoring the warm evening for a moment before continuing on his walk around the outside of the building, keeping an eye on the property as his customers began to arrive out front. He rounded the back and started up the alley that ran between the bar and the businesses next door, where a figure detached itself from the Dumpsters and lurched forward, raising what looked like a nine millimeter semi-automatic as he growled, “Gimme your wallet!”
      Sean Patrick held his hands out palm first, then slowly slapped at his pockets to show they were empty. “Sorry, son, don't have it on me,” he said, keeping his voice calm and steady. It was true; his wallet was lying on his desk inside. He was wearing his rings and his antique gold watch was in the pocket of his vest, but the boy, shaking with fury, didn't seem to notice the jewelry.
      “I said gimme your wallet!” he raged, shoving the gun at Sean Patrick again, his bloodshot eyes widening with rage.
      “I don't have it with–” Sean Patrick was cut off as the gun fired six times. Five of the bullets slammed through his chest. He flew backward and lay motionless on the gravel.
      Swearing, the boy jerked back, looked hastily around, shoved his gun in his belt, and dropped to his knees to search his victim’s pockets.
      “God damn it, that HURT.” Sean Patrick grabbed the boy's arm, pulling himself into a sitting position. He turned furious, glowing eyes on the boy, who let out a strangled yelp of fear. “This was a brand-new coat, you God-damned stupid som'bitch,” he continued, his temper rising with the pain of the bullets burning through his torso. The mugger tried to pull away, whimpering, but Sean Patrick kept tight hold. “Do you know how much this coat cost?” He struggled to get to his feet, swaying slightly from blood loss.
      The mugger started to jabber nonsensically, his eyes rolling in his head as he struggled to break the vampire’s iron grip on his arm. Sean Patrick growled under his breath, gave the boy a shake to focus him, and stared into the bloodshot eyes. The boy stopped fighting and went limp.
      “Sorry about this, son, but I need to borrow a little of your blood to pay for what you took from me,” he muttered, and pulled the boy close. His fangs broke the sun-browned skin on the boy’s neck, letting the blood flow. As it struck his tongue, he heard footsteps at the open back door.
      Matt was outside first, followed by Carlos. Sean Patrick looked up at them through his long hair, not stopping his feeding, and raised one finger toward them, cautioning them both. The moment Carlos saw him, he whirled around and went back inside. Sean Patrick heard him say, “Nah, just a car backfiring, that's all.”
      “What the hell’s going on?” asked Matt, his voice shaking, his hands clenched into fists.
Sean Patrick lifted his finger again to keep Matt’s questions at bay as he finished feeding, and gently licked the wounds his fangs had left clean. Behind his tongue they closed, until there was nothing remaining but two tiny red dots on the boy’s neck. The boy’s blood tasted mostly of heroin, as well as fear and desperation. It was far from a satisfying feeding, but the fresh human blood helped stave off the pain and the lightheadedness. It also left him somewhat high. “I was just murdered, I suppose,” Sean Patrick said, blinking as the buzz set in. The helped with the pain, too. “At least, the boy was willing to kill me for whatever I had in my pockets. Sad thing is, I woulda been happy to give him a couple bucks if he’d had a little patience. My wallet’s inside.”
      “What do you want me to do with him?” asked Matt, reaching to take hold of the mugger by the neck. Sean Patrick turned the boy’s face to look at him.
      “Listen to me, son,” he said.
      “What?” asked the boy, obedient, although his voice retained an edge.
      “I’m willing to help you, son, but you can’t run off and buy drugs with any money I give you. I’m gonna have Matt take you home. I want you to sleep it off, and try out something new tomorrow. Get help. You understand me?”
      “No. I don’t need help,” objected the boy.
      “You do need help. And I’m not going to let you go roaming around unless you’re ready to admit it.” Sean Patrick let out a long breath, then drew the boy into a deeper trance. “Where do you live?” With a few sharp questions, he got the boy’s name and address. Nodding, Sean Patrick pocketed the gun. “Bring him inside, will ya? I wanna get my wallet.”
      “You’re not going to give him any money, are you?”
      “I am.” He wouldn’t listen to Matt’s objections. He shoved several large bills into the boy’s pocket, saying, “You got this money selling your gun. You’re going to use it to buy food and pay your rent, not drugs. I don’t want you shooting at people any more, understand?”
      “Yes.”
      “Take him home and put him to bed. It’s up to him now to straighten up,” said Sean Patrick to Matt, straightening up. Something ground against bone in his back, making the world recede a moment. “At least he won’t be shooting anyone again anytime soon.” he sighed as he took off his jacket. Three huge holes were torn through the back and dozens of rhinestones were missing. Dark vampire blood soaked the expensive wool, and the elbows and shoulders were scraped by the asphalt where he’d fallen. "Jaime's gonna kill me," he mourned, thinking of his long-suffering and superbly underpaid tailor.
      “This doesn’t look good,” said Matt, looking at Sean Patrick's shirt, front and back. “Looks like five went in, but only three came out.”
      “Yeah,” said Sean Patrick. He shifted his shoulders, wincing again. “One up under my shoulder blade, I think, stopped by the bone, and the other pressed against my spine. I suppose a lesser man would be paralyzed.”
      “A human would be dead,” Matt muttered, examining Sean Patrick’s torso with concern in his brown eyes. “Are you sure you feel okay? You sure you want to perform tonight?”
      “Yeah, don't change anything for me,” said Sean Patrick. “I'll be ready in two shakes. Just let me shower and change.” He pressed his fingers to his forehead, trying to still the shaking in his hands.
      “You need to feed.” said Matt.
      "Yeah, yeah. I have blood," said Sean Patrick. "Get going, now."
      Matt scowled, but he led the hypnotized boy out of Sean Patrick’s office, closing the door behind them. Sean Patrick waited until they were gone before going to the back corner of his office, where he reached up as high as he could to press a small locking mechanism set into the wall. There was a click and a hidden door swung open. Sean Patrick vanished inside, closing the door behind him. It locked firmly into place.
      A carpeted stairway led down into what had been built originally as a wine cellar. Sean Patrick had converted the subterranean rooms into his apartment, with smooth stone walls. The matching western-themed décor took him home to Texas every time he walked in. He dropped the torn and bloodstained jacket on a leather chair that stood at the entrance to his living room and flicked on the large-screen television, then pulled off his shirt and dropped it on the jacket. His chest bore five distinct marks where the bullets had gone in, angry red circles surrounded by wicked-looking dark purple bruises, three of them still seeping dark vampire blood. He strained his neck to look over his shoulder, but couldn’t see his own back. Rubbing his forehead, he went to the bar and took out a bottle of whiskey, then to the refrigerator for blood. He mixed the two in his favorite mug and drank most of it in one gulp before filling the mug again with blood, straight this time, and warming it a bit in the microwave. He was still lightheaded.
      Sean Patrick climbed into the shower, standing in the scalding stream until his skin was red and he could flex his muscles without wincing with every movement.
      He was standing in his living room, wearing fresh jeans and watching the news, when Matt came down the stairs. “God damn it!” Matt exploded.
      “Calm down, son, I’m all right,” said Sean Patrick. “Does the back look as bad as the front?”
      “Turn around,” replied Matt, his voice terse. Sean Patrick complied, showing the bruised chest. “No,” Matt shook his head. “The back’s a whole lot worse.”
      Sean Patrick cracked his neck and rotated his shoulders, grinding his teeth. He looked at his elbows, bruised from hitting the ground. The bruises would fade quickly, but the scars of the bullet holes would remain for some time, especially since he’d had so little fresh blood. “Well, it’ll heal. I’ll call Joe tomorrow.”
      “Are you sure you want to wait that long? Joe might not be the best call on this, anyway. I'm going to call Dr. Berman.”
      “No reason to bother him," said Sean Patrick, shaking his head. "I’ll be all right." He shrugged into a white jacket, heavily embroidered with horses and barbed wire fences.
      “Need anything else?”
      “Are there any applicants tonight?” asked Sean Patrick, combing his fingers through his damp hair. “Is my hair all right?”
      “It’s fine. Yeah, there’s a gal answering the ad,” said Matt.
      “I’ll talk to her,” said Sean Patrick. “Soon as I get upstairs.”
      “All right.” Matt gave a nod and trotted up the steps. Sean Patrick flicked off the television and followed, tugging his lapels into place and straightening his collar.
***  ***  ***

      Cody Cameron waited in the front foyer of The Nightmare Saloon after watching her resume and application vanish into the back with the dark-haired girl who was manning the box office, looking without seeing at the posters hanging on the walls.
She’d wanted to work at the Nightmare for ages, and had almost jumped out of her skin this morning when she’d seen the new “help wanted” listing in the paper. Cody hadn't had a steady bartending job for months now, ever since the bar she used to work at abruptly closed after the indictment of her former boss. She was doing okay with her freelance massages, but honestly, nothing paid like bartending. The tips alone were worth any aggravation, besides, the music here was the best.
      “Miss Cameron?”
      She turned at the deep voice and managed to keep her mouth from dropping open when she saw who it was holding her resume, standing in the swinging doors. “That’s me,” she said as smoothly as she could, despite the way her stomach hopped up and down at the sight of him.
      His name was Matt, he was one of the owners of the bar, he was often in the box office taking the cover money, he was most certainly not married, and that was about all she knew about him. And he was gorgeous. Beyond that, new words for "incredibly yummy” needed to be invented to describe how amazingly handsome Matt was.
      He reached out a hand. “I’m Matt O'Connor. Call me Matt. You've been here before, haven't you?”
      He remembered. “Yes, I've been up here a few times,” she said, taking his hand. Big, strong, square hands, with curls of darker blond on their backs. “It’s a good bar.” Possibly the best bar anywhere, especially now that the Palomino was closed. Cody would probably give her left eye to work here. Probably.
      “Glad you like it. Come on back. My office is this way.” He turned and started through the door, giving her a beautiful view of his world-class ass wrapped in skin-tight Wranglers. “Whew,” she let out a low sound of appreciation under her breath as she followed him.
      Cody had first come the Nightmare about a year ago with her then-roommate Heather and they’d both gone nuts for him; in the time since, Cody had been back several times for the music, the atmosphere, and to stare unabashedly at Matt as he patrolled the dance floor, drinking bottles of flavored seltzer and keeping the peace with an iron fist, playing both owner and bouncer. His hair was sun-bleached blond, his skin dark tanned, with broad shoulders forming a perfect triangle with his slim hips. He had flat abs and nice long legs, the muscled thighs stretching the denim of his jeans tight. Now his hair was darker, like warm honey, and his skin was a little paler. He’d obviously not been out in the sun much recently, but he sure still went to the gym.
Cody knew there was more than a little risk in trying to get a job someplace where she had a crush on the boss, but really, she was just picky enough to want to work someplace where she could stand listening to the music, and the Nightmare never played any of that Nashville-pop-crap she hated so passionately. Maybe she’d never get past anything more than long-distance mooning with Marvelous Matt, but as long as she worked in a bar where people knew who Ray Price was, she was fine with it.
Matt led her through an open door on the right side of a long hallway that seemed to run nearly the entire length of the building and motioned toward one of the several straight-back chairs that stood on the near side of the desk. Cody sat down, looking around curiously. It was a nice office, the walls covered by media posters for the shows they’d had here. There was a rolling bar in the corner with a half-size refrigerator, and a sofa along the far wall.
      “Good resume,” he said. “But you live down in Los Angeles. What brings you up here?”
      “Well, two things,” she said, sitting forward on the chair and leaning on the desk. If he was going to hire her, he had to meet her as she was, and one thing Cody had never been was shy. “First of all, the Nightmare's one of the best real country bars in the entire city, so I don’t really mind the extra drive. Secondly, the last place I applied not only didn't have any Merle Haggard on their jukebox, there was actually a bartender who asked ‘who?’ when I asked him if they had ever had any."
      “Oh, man, that’s scary,” he said. “And they called themselves a country bar?”
      “They had the nerve,” Cody answered. “In terror, I raced away and thanked the Powers That Be when I saw your ad this morning.”
      Matt laughed, bringing out handsome laugh lines around his dark brown eyes and generous mouth. “Well, I like it, Cody, but the final decision rests with Sean Patrick.”
      “The guy who sings?” she asked, somewhat surprised. She hadn't even realized the lanky young house singer would have anything to do with the day-to-day operations of the bar.
      But Matt was nodding. “That's him. It's his bar, he says who works here. I'll go see if he's ready to talk to you yet. Wait here a sec.” He rose, heading out of the office but leaving the door open. Cody looked out into the hallway, then around the room. His desk was cluttered, which Cody always took as a good sign. It meant he actually used it. She'd worked at a lot of different bars, and knew the difference between a real boss and the guy who gave orders and never did anything.
      So why did Sean Patrick get the final word? Cody had seen him several times, knew he performed a regular set on the bar’s stage with the house band, usually opening for a headliner or during open mike night or even on karaoke night. She'd seen him once work behind the bar, but mostly once he finished singing, he only drank a lot, flirted a lot, danced a lot and did little else. Cody pressed her lips together. Sure, Sean Patrick O’Connor had a great singing voice, but he was obviously much younger than Matt and didn't work nearly as hard as Matt did at the bar.
      When Matt finally reappeared, she was looking at the posters on the far wall. AThis was the first night I came here,” she said, tapping the Jesse Dayton flier. “Great show.”
      “Oh, hell, yeah,” he replied enthusiastically.
      The intercom next to the desk buzzed and a voice with a thick Texas accent said, “Any time, Matt.”
Matt reached over and punched the button. “All righty,” he said. “Go on back,” he said to Cody with another drop-dead gorgeous smile. “He’s the last door on the right. If you end up backstage, you went too far.”
      Cody nodded. “Wish me luck,” she said.
      “You'll do fine. He likes pretty girls,” said Matt, shaking her hand again. She managed to keep the compliment from going to her head as she rolled her eyes.
      "I've seen him in action," she said, somewhat more disparagingly than she actually meant to be. She sure knew Sean Patrick was a flirt. She'd seen him make moves on every woman who walked into the Nightmare, and most of them let him. He'd whisked Heather onto the dance floor more than once. It hadn't taken long for him to charm her, that was for sure. Heather had fallen more than half in crush with him before the evening had been up.
      Matt just laughed. "It’s all completely unconscious. That's just the way he is."
      "Come," the voice called when she knocked on the door at the end of the hall.
      Cody tentatively opened the door. "Mr. O'Connor?" she asked, holding out her resume and application as she entered the room. Lord, he really WAS young, with a thin, smooth face that looked as though he’d just shaved, which she guessed he had, since his hair was damp and he smelled like shaving cream. Chocolate scented shaving cream. He had to live really close by to be able to get here still wet from the shower.
      But he smiled as he stood, that super-charming 'ah shucks' grin that made Heather all wobbly-kneed, and reached to take her papers with one hand while he grasped hers with the other, shaking it in a firm grip. He had cool, dry hands, with long fingers. He was wearing a silver Goth-type ring on almost every one of them. "Howdy, welcome to the Nightmare. I’m Sean Patrick O'Connor, and if we hire you, you'll call me Sean Patrick just like everyone else.”
      Cody gave him her best "I need a job" smile. "Both names?" she asked.
      "Mama always called me that, and it’s kinda stuck," he replied. "I doubt I'd answer to ‘Sean’ if someone called me that. Have yourself a seat.” He took her resume and started to read it.
      Cody looked around the office while he read. It was much smaller than Matt’s, with only two straight-back chairs on this side of the desk, with no bar, no fridge, and no sofa. There were a lot of pictures on the walls, so Cody looked them over with cursory interest. They were much like some of the shots out front, Sean Patrick posed with celebrities who had come to the bar or played there. She made a slight face when she saw the one directly opposite her. "Isn't that Garth Brooks?" she asked before thinking, her opinion of the bar slipping slightly. She’d thought they didn't have new country crap here.
      Sean Patrick glanced up. "Yeah, that's him, but that was a long time ago. He was just a good ol' Okie boy playin' good country music, then. That was just before his first album came out and he would still book into little places like this. I will defend his first two discs. He's still a hell of a singer. And when he puts his mind to it, it's a country song." He went back to reading.
      Cody blinked. Just before "Garth Brooks" had been released would mean the picture had been taken at least a decade ago. She looked back at Sean Patrick, who was still reading, his long hair obscuring his features. He looked exactly the same in the picture as he did right now, although his hair was longer now. She looked back at the picture on the wall, and her eyes slid to the picture directly above Garth Brooks. It was Sean Patrick with Merle Haggard. Not the nearly-seventy-year-old Merle she’d seen in concert last year; no, this was the Merle of at least thirty years ago, with the dark hair just barely starting to thin on top and heavy sideburns. Her mouth dropped open and she stared, then turned her eyes back to Sean Patrick just as he looked up.
He was completely unchanged. Either he had the world’s best plastic surgeon or he had to be a mage of some kind. Best to pretend she hadn't noticed, not until she knew his temper better. Some mages, like those in her own family, could be all right with those "in the know" discovering their magickal abilities, but others kept their secrets for reasons of their own and could be unpredictable, if not downright dangerous, when crossed.
      "Well, Miss Cameron, this looks pretty good," he said with another bright smile.
      "Oh, go ahead and call me Cody," she managed, but returned the smile even as she fretted. Sean Patrick nodded.
“I'll get used to that with time, Miss Cameron, once you're settled in with us. You gotta deal with old-fashioned me for a while." He lifted his head to look fully at her, still smiling that warm smile. Cody blinked.
      He seemed to move, but he was still sitting in his chair. She thought for a second that his eyes did something, something weird and wrong, but it was gone now, and she was suddenly a little dizzy. She blinked again.
      "Are you all right?" he asked her, intent, studying her face closely.
      "Um. Fine, I think. I just... it's nothing," she said, blinking a few more times and rubbing her head with her fingertips. She felt weird, off-kilter, a little as though she’d just stood up too suddenly.
      "Here, have a cookie," he said, rising and picking up a plate from his desk, handing it across to her.
      "Thank you," she said, taking one. They were fat, chewy, chocolate-chocolate chip cookies, fresh and homemade. "Wow, these are awesome."
      "Thank you," he said.
      "You made them?" she asked.
      "Yeah, I like to cook," he replied.
      "Wow," Cody repeated. "Well, they're pretty great."
      He smiled again as he sat back down behind his desk, moving as though he had stiff muscles. She wondered if she should volunteer her talent as a masseuse. "Have as many as you'd like," he said, picking up her resume. "I assume you've been looking for a job since the Golden West was closed."
      Cody nodded. "I have. I was getting desperate enough to try for an Applebee’s or something."
      “Well, no need,” he said. “I like you, Matt likes you, you're hired. Okay, let’s go on to serious things. I have to start you at minimum wage."
      Cody's face fell as disappointment washed over her. That wouldn't be enough to make up for the drive up here, what with gas prices continually on the rise. Even with tips. Sean Patrick held up a hand before she could voice a protest.
      "Now, don't worry too much. That's just standard hiring practice here, and it's only for the first month, when we'll review and see how it’s going. Someone with your background should be able to qualify for a nice raise then. But we start everyone at minimum just to make sure, so I can’t make exceptions. You will be getting tips, and we work 'em so everyone can keep all their personal tips, plus we've got a community tip jar on the bar, which is divvied up by the crew every night. Some folks put their personal tips in the community jar, and you're welcome to do either. No one looks askance at you if you keep what you earn on the floor. We're a family here, Miss Cameron, and we all kinda look out for each other. You'll be set up for health benefits right away, as soon as you want to fill out the forms, and you have a choice between two programs. I try to keep that as affordable as I can, but I’m afraid it’s not much better than a standard HMO."
      “I kind of expected that,” Cody admitted. “Golden West didn't have any benefits at all for the last two years.”
      “Wow,” he said, his eyebrows lifting briefly. “I do six-month reviews. End of the year is bonus time, and I like to give an extra Christmas gift, as well. Regular merit increases come in June. I’m not real demanding, but I do ask that folks come to work on time, try and leave their problems at home, and treat the customers right. You'll note that it's okay to date other members of the staff, but all domestic squabbles have to stay at home, too. If you're having a problem with someone out there, take it off the floor and talk to them about it. I trust everyone here to act like adults. Don't come to me or Matt with a gripe unless you can’t work it out with the person you've got a beef with. We're closed Mondays, but you can rotate your hours so you get two days off during the week once in a while. Seniority does rule there, so it's not likely you'll get Sundays or Tuesdays right off. We're also closed on Christmas because I won’t open on that day, but I’m tolerant of other religions so if you need to be off on Yom Kippur or Ramadan, let me know."
      Cody chuckled. "No, Christmas is fine," she said.
      "I don’t usually honor too many requests for time off on New Year's Eve, because we always have a BIG party that night and need a full staff, so be prepared for that. There’s also a major party on Halloween because I love it and it’s fun.” He grinned. “We have weekly and nightly specials, which are always posted on the board in Matt's office. If you need time off, let us know at least a day in advance so we can get your shift covered. If you're sick, call in and stay home. I will send you home if you come in sick, because I don’t want anyone working sick, getting customers sick, and staying sick longer." He tapped her papers into a neat stack and smiled at her. "And that's about all I can think of."
      Cody let out a long breath. “It all sounds fine to me,” she said.
      Sean Patrick reached into the pocket of his vest and opened an old-fashioned gold pocket watch, looking at it a moment. “I don't imagine you want to start up tonight, but you're more than welcome to hang out and get to know us. Watch the show tonight, if you want to. I have to get out on the floor, so I can’t show you around myself, but if you go out to the main office and find Matt, I’m sure he can give you all the specs."
      Cody asked, "His name's O'Connor, too. Is he related?"
      "Yep. He's my cousin," replied Sean Patrick. He reached out a hand and Cody took it again. His grip was firm and strong, but not so powerful it hurt. Cody studied his face as he smiled down at her. "Welcome to the Nightmare."

*** *** ***

      Matt looked up when Cody Cameron came back. "I'm hired," she said cheerfully, opening the door after a swift knock.
      "Terrific," he said, although the weird feeling in his chest made him wonder just how terrific it was. "Have I been elected to do the tour?" he asked.
      "That's you," she replied. She had a cute dimple on her right cheek, flashing at him with every flirtatious grin. Matt gave an inward sigh, shaking himself as he rose to his feet.
      The Nightmare was a large place, but it really didn't take too long to show Cody around, even though he was getting more and more uncomfortable with every step. He wanted her with every fiber of his being and he didn't deserve her and he hated himself for both.
      He tried to think about something else, anything else. She seemed a smart girl, and wondered how long it would be before she was let in on Sean Patrick's secret. With some new employees, it didn't take very long for them to pick it up; others could hang around for months before they figured it out. Some couldn't handle it and had to leave. Some tried worse. Matt hoped Cody wasn't one of those sorts.
      God, she was cute. She was tall, the top of her head level with his shoulders, and she had a strong, healthy, California girl look to her, with swinging long blonde hair and a good tan. She also seemed cheerful and easygoing, easy to talk to. He led her around the back of the stage to the other side of the building, where the kitchens were.
She had the prettiest eyes he’d ever seen in his life.
      “Say, does Sean Patrick really make those cookies?” she asked.
      Matt looked more closely at her. Well, of course Sean Patrick would have fed on her. He needed the blood tonight. Matt managed a grin. “What, you mean the super-sonic chocolate bombs? Yeah, those are his. You think his cookies are good, you ought to taste my sister’s." They walked out and toward the long main bar that dominated the left-hand side of the central room.
"You're surrounded by good bakers?"
      "Yeah," he said, then glanced at his watch. "I'm gonna leave you here with Carlos," he said, trying to ignore the disappointed look that flashed across her face. "He's our head bartender, and he can give you the lowdown on the bar layout. He knows it better than I do, anyway. Carlos, Cody. She starts tomorrow."
      "Hola, chica," said Carlos. "Come on back, I'll show you the ropes."
      "That’s actually about all the Spanish I know,” said Cody with a wide grin, offering her hand. Carlos gripped it, the toothpick between his lips moving to the left as he offered a loose, crooked smile.
      "That’s something else you'll probably pick up around here," said Matt. “Everyone speaks a little Spanish, just in self-defense, so we can understand Carlos and Sean Patrick. You're in capable hands here." Carlos flipped open the bar to let Cody through, so Matt left them and went back to his own office, meeting Sean Patrick coming up the hall.
      "Happy now?" he asked.
      Sean Patrick patted him on the shoulder. "It's time, Matt. You like her, she's got a thing for you, who knows? It might go somewhere."
      "So you hired her because I'm attracted to her?" asked Matt, his temper spiking at the back of his head, making it ache.
      "No, I hired her because she's a damned fine bartender. The rest is just a bonus." Sean Patrick's expression turned sad. "If there's nothing there, you can just let it go. She is qualified, and I think she'll fit in around here. But I don't like seeing you mope around like this, and I'd love to see some of your old spark back."
      Matt sagged. "I'll be all right." It was a lie, and he knew it.