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Sex and the Single Vampire

By:Kieiti Makalistier

Chapter One

The message waiting for me at the hotel desk was short and concise: Either you come back from England with bona fide proof of a spiritual entity, or you needn't bother returning to the office. There's no room in UPRA for crackpots and never-beens.

It was signed by my boss, and the head of the western U.S. division of the United Psychical Research Association, Anton Melrose II.

"Well, isn't that just Jim Dandy fine," I muttered to the message as I crumpled it up and tossed it into the appropriate receptacle, situated at the end of the reception desk, wishing as I did that I could Summon up a demon or two, minor ones, just bad enough to scare the bejeepers out of my employer. "I'd pay good money to see him eat his words."

The woman at the desk smiled as she passed me the key to my room. "I'm sorry, Miss Telford; we're not responsible for the quality of the messages. We have to deliver them no matter what they say."

I smiled back, secure behind the sunglasses I wore everywhere. "That's okay; it's just my life falling apart, nothing to worry about. Is there a computer free now, do you know? I'll only need fifteen minutes."

Tina, the receptionist at the St. Aloysius Hotel in jolly old London, checked the log for the two computers kept in a small, dark room for the use of those businesspeople who couldn't live without an Internet connection. "It's all yours."

I gathered up my bag, ignoring the clinking that came from within, and mumbled my thanks as I limped down the short hallway that led to the computer room. One of the two computers was taken up by a skanky-haired young man of about twenty, who raised one pierced eyebrow as I carefully set my bag down next to the chair of the second computer. The clink of glass bottles was loudly evident.

"It's holy water," I told him when his pierced eyebrow rose even higher. "For the ghosts. Nothing drinkable. That is, you could drink it, but I've had it on the best authority that holy water tastes like tap water that's oxidized for a couple of days."

He blinked at me.

"Bland," I explained, then turned my attention to the computer. I waited until he was busy with his own screen before pushing my sunglasses up so I could better see the computer screen, logging quickly into the e-mail account I'd set up for those rare times UPRA had seen fit to send me outside of the Sacramento area (which is to say, twice), just as quickly scanning the six messages collected. "Spam about an herbal product guaranteeing to make my penis grow larger, spam about low mortgage rates, e-mail from Mom, spam about something to do with furry barnyard friends that I'm not even going to open, e-mail from Corrine, and spam asking me if I'm single. Well, it's nice to know I'm missed."

The young man snickered and logged off his computer, pulling up a briefcase that had the name of a major software company embossed on the side. "Do you see lots of ghosts, then?" he asked as he stood and shoved in the chair.

I pushed my sunglasses into their normal position and gave him a little moue of regret. "So many I hardly have a moment to myself. They're very simple-minded, you know. Really no different from a puppy. Just a kind word or two, a little pat on the head, and they follow you around forever."

He stood staring at me for a moment, as if he couldn't decide whether I was serious or not.

I held up both hands to show him there was nothing up my sleeves. "I'm joking. No ghosts to date."

He looked relieved, then managed to twist his relief into a familiar sneer common to all young twenty-somethings. I ignored him as he left, pulling my glasses off as I scanned my mother's e-mail, filing it to be answered later before I clicked on Corrine's.

Allie: This is just a reminder in case you've forgotten—the Dante book signing is at the new Hartwell's store in Covent Garden tomorrow night, 7 p.m. London time. Be there or I'll do something so horrible to you, I legally cannot put it into writing. Hope you're having fun! I don't suppose you took my advice and left the shades at home?

Corrine

P.S.: Don't forget to give Dante the key chain I made him. Be sure to tell him how long it took me to embroider his name into the warding pattern. And don't forget to ward it! I doubt if I will ever live down the embarrassment of the time you handed over an unwarded key chain to Russell Crowe!

"Mmm. What a shame. The C. J. Dante key chain was mysteriously left at home," I told the computer as I logged off and popped my sunglasses back on just in case I ran into anyone in the hallway. For a moment I just sat, exhausted, listening to the sounds of the hotel and the noise outside the window of London on a busy winter afternoon. Anton's message did nothing but add to my exhaustion. I had seen the handwriting on the wall for the last six months—"Produce or else" was his motto, and I was lamentably lacking in the proof department.

"This is it, Allie," I said aloud to the empty room. "Put up or shut up time, and I have to tell you, the job openings for an unproven Summoner are pretty slim."

My voice echoed in the room as I continued to sit and dwell on my grim future. It almost seemed like too much trouble to push myself out of the chair and haul my bag of tricks upstairs to the small corner room that had been allotted to me, but a glance at my watch got me up and heading to the bed that promised a few hours of much-needed blissful nothingness before I had to go off to a haunted inn and hunt ghosts.

The dream started even before I felt myself relax fully into sleep. It was dark, nighttime, the air damp and musty-smelling. I walked through an empty house, its walls stained with mold and age and unsavory things that my mind shied away from identifying, my footsteps echoing loudly as I moved from room to room, searching for something, a place, somewhere I was supposed to be. Small black shapes skittered just beyond my range of vision in every room I entered, faint, soft phantom noises trailing behind me like a wake. Mice, or something more disturbing? I wondered as I let my fingers trail over a dusty banister that led me downstairs into a dark pool of inky blackness. Fearless as I never was in real life, I pushed opened the door at the foot of the stairs and saw a man stretched out on a table.

A man? Even in my dream I modified that word. He was no mortal man; he was a god, a perfect specimen of masculinity created just for my pleasure. Long black hair spilled onto the table, a halo of ebony against the light wood. His eyes were open, dark, but not as dark as his hair, almost mahogany in color, rich with browns and reds and even a bit of gold flaring around the edges of his irises. The long, chiseled lines of his jaw and squared chin were still, as if he were sleeping, but his eyes followed me as I moved into the room. He was naked but for a piece of cloth covering his groin, his body striped with what looked to be hundreds of small cuts, blood dripping slowly from the wounds onto the floor beneath the table.

I approached him, wanting to touch his wounds, wanting to heal them, but his voice caught and held me in a net of immobility when he spoke my name.

"Allegra," he said, his eyes dark with torment. "Help me. You are my only hope."

I reached out to touch him, to push a lock of his hair off his forehead, to reassure him that whatever it was he needed, I would do, that I wouldn't let him suffer any longer. I would send him on to eternal rest. As my fingers touched his heated skin, I woke up, gasping for air, sitting bolt upright in the bed in my hotel room, shivering despite the fact that I had cranked up the heat just before I settled down for my nap.

"What the… Oh, no, now I'm dreaming in the daytime?" I reached for the carafe of water that I keep at my bedside. I've found that while water can't wash away the foul taste night terrors invariably leave in my mouth, keeping hydrated is an important part of limiting the length of my nightly trial.

Faint whispers of the dream stayed with me as I showered, brushed my teeth, and dressed in a pair of black wool pants and white silk blouse. I frowned at myself as I pinned my ordinary brown hair out of my eyes, and applied the minimal makeup needed to appear in public without frightening small children or the elderly. There were dark smudges under my eyes, making my skin look bruised.

"It's going to get a lot worse if I start dreaming during the day, too," I told my reflection. The Allie in the mirror didn't look any too happy at that thought. I knew how she felt—sleep was precious enough; if the only time I had to catch up on what I missed each night was taken from me, I'd be a walking zombie in just a couple of days.

I poked around the hotel room for a bit, tidying up my bag of tricks (the digital voice-activated recorder needed new batteries, a bottle of holy water had come loose from its cocoon of cotton and was banging up against the thermal-imaging video recorder, and the EMF (electromagnetic force) counter was almost out of its leather case, which would have scratched the front of the ion analyzer). I strapped the motion detectors down firmly, double-checked that the infrared nightscope was secure, and replaced the damaged ultrasonic emission detector with the updated version I'd bought that afternoon.

"Too bad none of this stuff seems to really work," I told the bag sadly. It declined to answer me. I plopped down on the floor beside it, glancing at the clock. There was still an hour to go before I had to head out.

"No time like the present, I suppose," I said as I plucked a thick piece of chalk from the bag. "It can't hurt to give it another shot. What's the sense in being put in a haunted hotel room if you don't get to see the ghost?"

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