I heard Marcy yip and leggo the dress she’d had a death-grip on, which was so unlike her that I almost flashed fang at the presumed threat. Or maybe not almost, from the speed at which the girl eying my blouse drew back from me and found somewhere else to be.
I tucked it inside my blouse and kept on going. I’d legitimately meant to pay for it, but a crazy, glowy-eyed girl trumped the ten bucks they’d get out of me for their end-of-season sale.
A gang of teens, laughing, slapping and jumping on each other, came out of a store to my left, passing between me and the slasher. By the time I fought my way through them, she was gone. Vanished. Like into thin air…or one of the other shops open late to pull in seasonal shoppers.
She could, literally, be anywhere.
I stood there trying to decide what to do. It was either go back to meet Marcy at the Bombshell Boutique and try to explain to security why I’d rushed off with their merchandise. Or stake out the surrounding stores and hope to catch Slasher-girl coming out again. I decided on the latter. I didn’t know why I was so caught up in this, really. As Marcy’d said, we were off the clock. This was down-time from our super-spy gig, using our stealthy vamp powers for good. Only….well, maybe it had infected me somehow. Maybe it was that this brunette brute had interfered with the most sacred of all rituals—shopping. Or maybe it was the cool, glowy eyes….
Or maybe, said a little voice in my head, Bobby’s been getting a little too much of the spotlight lately, and you want to show that you can solve a problem all by your lonesome.
Nah, that couldn’t be it. My boyfri—boy toy, Bobby, was a mega-hottie with epic powers, it was true , but I wasn’t exactly a slouch. I had the regular vampire enhancements of speed, upgraded senses, eternal youth and immortality. Sure, my superpower had yet to make an appearance, but then, I always had been fashionably late…. Anyway, this was a mall-mauling. I was totally in my element.
I continued scanning the mall. Still no sign of Slasher-girl. My phone vibrated in my pocket, and I pulled it out to see a text from Marcy:
Meet us in the food ct. C U soon.
Only I was not showing up empty-handed. She’d gotten her quarry. I could do no less. Not that I was competitive or anything.
While I had my smart phone out, I clicked on the browser, looked up again to make sure no wild-maned woman was on the prowl, and keyed in a search for the phases of the moon. I wasn’t the geek-boy genius that Bobby was, but to me, growling, glowy amber eyes and razor-sharp nails equaled werewolf…or some kind of shifter anyway. I’d never actually encountered one, but as a supernat myself, I could hardly rule them out.
The search results put the kibosh on that theory. Tonight was a new moon, meaning that if the moon was visible at all, it would only be the tiniest sliver in the sky. If legend had it right, a were’s animal instincts should be all but buried at such a time, certainly not popping out in public like a Buddha-belly over too-tight jeans.
Okay, so that left…what?
I could call in to Spook Central and ask, but that would be cheating. Plus, they’d want to know why I wanted to know. Next thing, we’d probably have a whole team swarming the place and Marcy and I could kiss shoe shopping good-bye. Oh, heck no. We’d earned this.
I looked up again just in time to see Slasher-girl come out of an accessory store. I almost didn’t recognize her. She had her hair tamed in a black scrunchy and a backwards black baseball cap pulled low over it. Plus, she was walking away from me. But she still wore the same black sweater as before and had the same walk—the gliding, feral, you’ll-get-out-of-my-way-and-thank-me-for-it saunter.
She was headed for the food court.
On our way, I texted Marcy as I walked. Because, hey, I was seventeen and talented. Keep your eyes out.
Marcy greeted me with a flashy wave as I approached, and I nodded to her, tipped my head toward my stalkee, and waited until I saw Slasher-girl pop up on her visual radar before I veered off and sat down. We had company—the girl who’d been mauled back at the boutique. She was quietly pretty, with big doe eyes and pale-pink lipstick she’d nearly chewed clean off.
“Gia,” Marcy said, remembering never to use real names, “this is Cindy. Cindy, Gia.”
Cindy smiled shyly and held out a hand to shake. There was a small brown paper bag dangling from it, string handles wrapping the wrist like cuffs. The bag smacked up against my hand as I shook.
“Uh, sorry,” she said, “I guess I forgot to unload.”
She sipped a shake—strawberry, raspberry…something red that matched her blush. Aw, she was cute. Shy. I remembered shy. I think I might have been two and making eyes at a toddler twice my age with the dreamiest blue eyes…. Hmm, considering Bobby had those same baby blues, maybe I hadn’t come all that far.
“Understandable,” I said. “I mean, you have there the spoils of war. Wear ’em proudly.”
“I guess,” she answered, as if a little embarrassed that she’d been aggressive enough to win the shawl. Like that was a bad thing.
I looked over at the wild woman’s table. She’d joined two guys who looked to be about college age. She flashed teeth at them—perfectly normal, toothpaste model white teeth—and they seemed fascinated.
“What do you think is up with her?” Cindy asked, following my gaze.
“Drugs?” I ventured.
“Can those make your eyes…uh, never mind. Probably my imagination. Forget I said anything.”
Marcy and I exchanged a look. I noticed she had a bag beside her as well. Bigger than a breadbox. I wondered if she and her new blonde BFF had done some shoe shopping without me. The thought nearly inspired a growl all my own.
“Well,” Marcy said, slowly, “we can find out.”
Knowing how boy-crazy Marcy could be, I wondered if she’d have made the same offer had the wild-woman been alone. But since it meshed with my motives, I didn’t complain. Plus, I was the teeniest bit worried the college guys didn’t know what they were getting into. Now that I could see the girl face on, I realized she wasn’t any older than they were, though she had the kind of grace that made her seem so. Maybe they all knew each other. Maybe they were friends or relatives or…whatever. But that didn’t make them safe from her, as I knew too well. I mean, my now-ex-boyfriend had been the one to make me dead. Undead could be laid at Bobby’s door.
Marcy stood, and Cindy grabbed her hand to pull her down. “Oh no,” she protested. “Don’t cause any trouble on my account. It barely hurts anymore.”
Sure, it was all fun and games until the next full moon.
I stood as well and patted Cindy’s hand away. “Don’t worry. We won’t cause trouble. We’re just firm believers in the bad things happen because good people let them school of thought. So, we don’t let them. Right, Marcy?”
“Oh, um, okay.” Cindy withdrew her hand and took another sip of her shake, like she needed something to do to stay calm.
“If things get crazy, you just head home,” Marcy told her. “I’ll call you later to let you know how it went.”
Either Marcy really was in the market for a new BFF or she was thinking ahead. It’d be way easier to track Cindy down and check up on her later if we had her phone number. Even if the werewolf thing seemed unlikely, we’d want to be certain she wasn’t going otherly fanged and feral.
Cindy looked even less sure about things at the suggestion that they might go wrong, but she nodded.
“How do you want to play this?” I asked quietly as we turned away.
“Simply Simon?” she whispered.
I grinned. “Go for it.”
The heck with the Fed strategists, they could teach entire courses on our playbook.
Marcy always had a sway to her hips, but the extra effort she put in now could make a man seasick. The blonde guy noticed her first. He was tall and had a few inches on his friend, who stood in dark contrast to him. The blonde had a windblown, Bieberesque hairstyle that half obscured his eyes, but what I could see of his face was nice—lips present but not full enough to be girly, decent cheekbones. It was the cleft in his chin that made his face particularly intriguing. The darker boy’s collar-length hair was almost as black as mine. His gaze snapped to Marcy as she got within range, but she was totally focused on his friend, who looked like he might actually start to drool. That nice, strong jaw had dropped into the textbook gobsmacked position. I wondered if it was all Marcy, or if she’d put a little vamp mesmerism into her gaze.
The dark-haired guy seemed to shake off the fascination when the wild woman started a low growl. He looked around, caught my eye, and gave me a fairly stunning sheepish grin, as though he knew he’d been caught gawking.
I gave him a sexy smile back and turned to keep an eye on Marcy, just as she grabbed blondie by his Bieber-hair and planted the mack-daddy of all kisses square on his lips. His eyes went wide, and then closed altogether, and his arms came up around her like there was no other choice.
The kiss cut off right as, I suspect, the Slasher-girl would have sprung. I kept her in my peripheral vision, but didn’t let on by so much as a look that our presence had anything to do with her. I wondered what Cindy made of our performance.
“Simon,” Marcy breathed, keeping close and resting her head on Blondie’s chest. “I’ve missed you.”
“Uh, sorry,” Blondie said, sounding really, truly, heartbreakingly sincere about it, “actually, it’s Pippin. Pip for short.”
His friend leaned over to him and stage-whispered, “Damn, man, just be Simon. Be whoever she wants you to be.”
Marcy let her eyes go cartoonishly large and stumbled back, staring up at Blondie. “But—” She stopped and studied him. “But you look so much alike, you could be twins.” She touched her lips. “I should have known. You’re a much better kisser.”
Oh, she was good. I turned to the dreamy, dark-haired boy. “Sorry about my friend. I think she’s riding some kind of smoothie sugar high.”
He took my hand and held onto it, looking intensely into my eyes. His were a deep brown, shot with flecks of gold. Gorgeous. “I’m Enzo,” he said, “and this is Jess.”
I recovered my hand from his to offer it to Slasher-girl, who eyed it like rancid meat, but finally deigned to shake. Her skin was bone dry, almost scaly, and her nails were not just over-long, but cracked and discolored. If ever anyone was in need of an emergency mani-pedi…. Aside from that, she was very pretty, in that athletic sort of way, which was to say toned, but understated on the curves. Her abundance of hair, now tied back, was a glossy chestnut, and her eyes, sure enough, were amber. Unique. I’d never met anyone with eyes like that. Her chin was pointed and her lips were pinched with suspicion, which surprised me, because I thought we’d played things quite well. Maybe she recognized us from the store.
“Gia,” I told them, “and my nearsighted friend here is Macy. So nice to meet you. I’d better get some protein into my girl here or it won’t be pretty when she crashes from the sugar high. Uh, want to join us?” I aimed the question at Enzo, fairly sure what the answer would be if I asked Slasher-girl. If I had these two hunks all to myself, I knew what I’d say.
“Actually,” Enzo said regretfully, “we were just headed back to campus. Pip’s got some studying to do, and—”
“I have to be back in the lab,” Jess cut in.
“Changed my mind,” Pip was quick to say, “I’m not going to get any studying done at this hour.” He turned to Marcy. “We have to walk Jess back, but, uh, why don’t you two join us? We can buy you a late dinner. The Lion’s Den is still open.”
“Let’s go!” Marcy said, slipping her arm through Pip’s and cuddling close.
Jess didn’t look any too happy about things, but she didn’t say a word as she rose to leave. I wondered about her relationship with the two guys. Friends? Hopefuls? Three people who happened to be traveling in the same direction?
“So,” I heard Pip say as we headed out, “who’s Simon?”
“Simon who?” Marcy asked back, batting her lashes up at him. She flashed Cindy a wink over her shoulder, and we were off.
I didn’t know the (probably dry) history on Garnett University, but clearly it had money. Big, grey, rough-cut stone blocks formed the bulk of it, with decorative moldings here and there, gargoyles at the corners…. The wooden accents, like doors and window frames, all gleamed the white of sand-scoured bone. The grounds were manicured, tidy, immaculate. It practically screamed “Academia,” which was enough to send me running for Spook Central, not exactly my favorite place on earth. It was almost like all the college’s external trapping were meant to reflect the well-ordered minds expected inside. It practically cried out for a rave. Or toilet-papering.
“I’m headed for Crane Hall,” Jess said as soon as we’d hit the hallowed grounds. “Enzo, you want to walk me over?” She tried to bat her lashes, but wasn’t nearly as successful at it as Marcy.
“Against the rules,” Enzo said. “It has to be both of us or none at all. We’ll all walk you.”
Jess looked heartily irritated at that idea. “Never mind then. It’s only a hundred feet away. No need for you all to come and then double-back for the student union.”
Enzo started to protest, but she cut him off. “If it makes you feel better, you can watch me until I get inside.”
A second silent communication passed between the guys, and finally Pip nodded. “Okay, we’ll keep an eye on you all the way over.”
“Thanks, guys,” she said, leaning in to give Enzo a kiss on the cheek.
She was tall enough that she didn’t even have to stand on tiptoes, like I would have to do. I could swear she lingered on Enzo’s neck, as if breathing him in. I knew the move. Been there, bitten that. It was enough to make me wonder what he smelled like. Heat and spice, I’d bet. He had that look about him, and suddenly I wanted to taste. Shopping did tend to make a girl peckish.
She didn’t linger nearly as long over Pip, but I still saw Marcy bristle.
As the guys watched Jess walk across the quad, Marcy leaned in to Pip and asked, “What’s that all about? What rules?”
Pip shook his hair out of his eyes and looked down at her. “It’s a campus thing. We’re part of a volunteer group providing escorts after dark. Rules are, there have to be two of us on every job, so no one can take advantage of the situation. See, there’ve been some—ah—attacks on campus. Not to scare you or anything.”
“Nothing to worry about,” Enzo said, wrapping an arm around my shoulders as if I’d given some sign of fear. “We’ll protect you.”
One mystery solved. The boys were part of the college’s phone-a-friend for lonely singles after dark. Seemed like a great way to meet girls…or guys.
I used Enzo’s move to snuggle in close enough for a deep breath, inhaling his masculine scent. Yes, it was spice, but woodsier than I’d expected. He smelled like pine and cedar and…other things you might step on or brush up against in a forest. The sweetness of sap, for instance, with the tartness of sweat, pheromones and…sage? In a word, totally bitable.
Focus, I told myself. The sooner we finish the mission, the sooner we get back to important things, like the mall.
“So, what kind of lab is she off to?” I asked, looking up at Enzo through my long lashes. “She’s got a mad scientist kind of vibe cooking, don’t you think?”
Enzo laughed. “Well, she is a psych major. They’re all a little nuts to begin with.”
“Hey!” Pip said, punching his buddy in the shoulder. “I resemble that remark.”
Marcy squeezed Pip’s arm, stealing focus back to herself. “I’ve never been to a psychology lab. What on earth do you do?”
Pip squeezed back. “Operant conditioning, that kind of thing. Run rats through mazes, see how they respond to positive and negative stimuli.”
Brainstorm! Maybe Jess had been bitten by a radioactive lab rat. I could see it now—ba-da-da-da ba-da-da-da Ratgirl. Except she struck me as more the super-villain type.
“Ooh,” Marcy squealed, right on cue. “I want to see.”
“But I thought we were going to get dinner,” Enzo protested, “hang out.”
“We will,” I promised, giving him a little nip, fangs sheathed. Oh, he smelled good. “But Marcy’s got a thing for rats. You’ll never divert her now.”
She shot me a dirty look. “I don’t have a thing for rats. I’m just curious. Come on, I want to see—”
She grabbed Pip’s hand and started pulling him in the direction Jess had gone. He let himself be led, a bemused smile on his face.
With a sigh, Enzo tightened his arm around me and we followed.
“What about you? You have a thing for rats?” he asked.
“No, but I have a thing for dark, nearly deserted buildings. Much more intimate than a noisy student union, don’t you think?”
He looked down at me—and it was a long way down, since I barely topped five feet even in my spiky-heeled boots. “Oh, definitely.”
“So, what’s your major?” I asked, because that was what you did with college guys.
There it was. I always got the geeks. The hot geeks anyway. A girl could do worse.
“Cool,” I answered.
Pip led us inside, using a key card on the outer door for access. “It’s the only way in after hours,” he explained to Marcy.
She oohed, as seemed to be expected.
Inside Crane Hall it was as quiet as the grave—and I ought to know. The tan-ish halls with their highly polished faux marble floors were dimly lit by low recessed lights. I imagined they were turned up during class hours. I hoped so anyway. The lighting was fine for vamp-o-vision, but ordinary students would be tripping over their own feet. Halfway down the hall was a set of stairs that we took down to another dimly lit area with bunches of doors, almost all shut tight, light spilling out of only one large section off to the right.
“The sleep labs are here too,” Pip explained. “Yup—psych lab, the most happening place to be after dark.”
“I can’t believe you actually punched me for calling you weird. You’ve just made my point,” Enzo said.
Pip went to sock him again, and Enzo dodged, taking me with him. Because, apparently, we were one unit now, attached at the hip. Yeah, that was so not going to play for any spying to come.
“Um, Pip,” I piped up, “where’s the little girl’s room?”
“Down the hall.” He pointed. “Third door on the left.”
“Thanks. I’ll catch up to you guys in a minute. Go on without me.”
“Want me to come with?” Marcy asked.
“No, I’ll only be a minute. You go on ahead.”
Keep them distracted, I wanted to say. But unlike my boy Bobby, she couldn’t read minds, so I had to put it all into a look and hope she got it.
Marcy slid over toward Enzo and grabbed his arm as well. “Hey, two hot guys, no waiting. Take your time.”
I grinned. I’d take BFP over ESP any day of the week.
I gave Enzo a wink. “Don’t let her run off with you.”
“I make no promises. Hurry back.”
Oh, I liked him. Too bad I was taken.
I did slip inside the ladies room, just in case they were watching, but stopped cold in the midst of reaching for the light. I wasn’t alone.
“Stupid girls. Stupid side-effects. Can’t be normal, oh no,” someone was muttering.
Like me, my eyes were already well-adjusted, but even so, I couldn’t see where the voice was coming from. One of the stalls, I guessed, since there wasn’t anywhere else to hide. The who was a no-brainer.
The door shut behind me with a thunk and the muttering cut off mid-sentence.
A bark sounded from the stall. A bark. Definitely ruled out werewolves then. Were-fox? Rottweiler? I hoped not the latter. They scared the life out of me. My girlfriend Suzanne’d had one that had gone after her little brother. He still had the scars.
“Who’s there?” she asked.
“Jess? It’s me, Gia.”
Just that quickly, she exploded out of the stall, flashing teeth and hands curved like claws. I flipped the switch I’d been reaching for to ruin her night vision and lashed out with a snap kick as she flinched from the light. My pointy-toed boot caught her right under the chin. She went down like the prices at midnight madness. I expected her to stay there. Any normal person would have, so she caught me by surprise when she exploded up off the floor and tackled my legs. I lost my balance and started to go down.
A sink broke my fall—or rather my head, disrupting any thoughts I might have of retaliation. The second blow, when my head hit the tile floor, nearly blacked me out. My vision shut down like the shutter closing on a camera, and when it opened up again, Jess was crouched on top of me.
Something dripped on my face, and I realized it was saliva. Gross. I flailed weakly from side to side, trying to shake her off, but it just made my head swim and my vision threaten to give out again. I wouldn’t have put her weight above one-thirty/one thirty-five, but she felt like she weighed a ton at that moment. I’ll admit it…I started to panic. Just a little. On the inside.
What came out was, “Mind getting off me? You’re not really my type.”
She snarled and slashed a hand across my face, taking some of my flesh away with it. I hissed at the pain. If I weren’t undead, I’d have worried about the scars. But if I lived through this, they’d heal. In the meantime, I was pissed. Feel my kittenish wrath.
“But Enzo is your type, isn’t he? Well, newsflash, bimbette, he’s mine. Or he will be.”
“Um, does he know that?”
She snapped her teeth at me, and I could see her oversized canines. Maybe not vamp-pronounced—I mean, mine were bigger than hers—but not your average, everyday teeth, either.
“What are you?” I asked.
“Human, stupid. So what if my experiment had a few side-effects? All the worse for you.”
She lifted my head and slammed it back against the tile, just as my vision was righting itself and strength was returning to my limbs. Everything went gray and distant again.
“The question is, what to do with you. You can’t just disappear, I suppose.”
I tried to think. Answers, questions, and probably the meaning of life swam just out of my reach, darting like fish away from my grasping…hands? Thoughts? What color was a thought? Ooh, pretty….
The bathroom spiraled around me like a kaleidoscope image—all fragmented, but no big picture. An eye here, shaggy hair there, the glare of the overhead light, a red smear of blood on the sink above me. Mine?
Jess pushed off me, and the pain scattered even those images. My stomach was going to revolt, and since all I’d taken in was blood earlier in the night….
I fought down the nausea, fought to focus. Think think think. It threatened to explode my head.
“Do you know what I went through for that boy?” Jess was asking, pacing now. I hoped she didn’t want an answer, because I didn’t think I could speak. “What I put myself through—exposure therapy, drugs to open me up, more to calm me down again. All because I love him and he loves that stupid dog.”
If there was sense there, I couldn’t figure it. And, really, monologuing to someone with a concussion? Safe enough, I guessed, but satisfying?
“I suppose you like dogs. I suppose you’d have no trouble knocking on his door, playing nice, staying over.” She was working herself up. I expected to see her frothing at the mouth any second.
But now that she was off of them, blood flow was returning to my limbs. As soon as I could see straight, she was done for.
Jess glared down at me and cocked a foot back for a blow. My vision tunneled to it. I followed the foot. If I could only see in fragments, I’d try to focus on the moving target.
“Stupid, man-stealing bimbo!”
She let the foot fly, and I summoned all my strength to grab it and twist. She went down with a cry, but then I was on her. My vision blacked again, and I couldn’t see. She’d buck me off in no time if I couldn’t get control.
The bathroom door burst open behind me, and Marcy spilled in with a cry and quickly got a hold on Jess. At least, I assumed so, because she stopped struggling.
When the room resolved into one not-so-pretty picture, Marcy was holding Jess immobile, and staring over my shoulder. I looked back, risking more disorientation at the movement, to see the guys standing there stunned, Pip holding the door propped open with one hip.
“When you didn’t come back, we came to check on you,” Marcy explained.
“Think I found your campus terror,” I said, then quickly staggered for a stall as the threatened nausea finally decided to have its way with me.
Behind me, I heard Marcy say, “Take her. Call campus security.” Then the stall door opened behind me, and Marcy was there holding my hair while I prayed to the porcelain god.
Later—after the clean-up and the questions and disappearing before the regular police showed up to take over from campus security, wanting to see IDs that said Gia and Macy—Marcy and I walked arm-in-arm back to where we’d left our Federal issue vehicle. Back to the mall.
“So she did all that for a guy?” Marcy asked.
“A really cute guy,” I agreed. “I guess the combination of drugs she was using added to the bombardment of dog images made her highly suggestible, even a little psychotic.”
“Or maybe she started out that way,” Marcy said.
I shrugged. It hurt, but it was mild compared to earlier. Another few pints to add to the blood Marcy’d donated me and I’d be right as rain, whatever the heck that meant.
“At least Cindy won’t be sporting doggie breath once a month,” I answered.
“Thank heavens. I mean, real fur is so not socially conscious.”
“I think you get a pass if you grow your own.”
I felt my head and winced. All in one piece, all of it still tender.
“You sure you’re okay?” Marcy asked.
“More or less. I guess more shopping is out of the question?”
She eyed me critically. “Yeah, I’m not sure blood-stains really go with that shirt.”
I would have to have worn white.
“Sigh. Some other time then.”
Marcy glanced at the brown paper bag swinging from the arm not half-holding me up. “Oh, I wouldn’t be too disappointed. I bought you a prezzie earlier.”
“But it’s not even my birthday.”
“Since when do strappy red sandals need a reason?”
I hugged her, grin splitting my whole face, cracking the caked-on-blood. “Best BFF evar!” I proclaimed.