Joanna Belcourt climbed the stairs to the attic with the plastic case in her hand. She needed to give it to her sister right away. Vicki had been acting strange ever since that bruise appeared on her neck last weekend, and Jo feared the worst. She didn't care if it made her look like a superstitious little kid. Maybe twelve was too old to worry about this, but she couldn't sit back and do nothing.
She nearly tripped over Ophelia, her gray-striped cat, at the top of the stairs, and heard Vicki talking to someone in her bedroom. Jo knocked.
"Come in," Vicki said.
Jo opened the door.
Vicki was seventeen, and her silky brown hair draped down to her shoulders. She leaned on the windowsill and gazed out into the darkness. "Don't worry," she said, "it's just my sister. She won't bother us."
Jo noticed Vicki's phone on the dresser. "Who are you talking to?"
"Jo, come here." Vicki crooked her finger. Jo crossed the room and saw the tiny spot of fur on the other side of the glass.
"Oh, it's a bat." Jo looked closer. She never had the chance to see a bat this close before. It had bright little beads for eyes, and its wings gathered into thin needles along its arms. From its size and color, it looked like an ordinary evening bat. "How long has it been there?"
"About ten minutes," Vicki said. "Isn't it cute?"
"Cute?" Jo looked up at Vicki. "Are you okay?"
"What's the matter? You love animals."
"Oh, it's amazing. Don't get me wrong. But you should be screaming your head off right now. Like that cockroach last week—remember?" It had dashed across the room while they were watching a movie. Jo caught it with her bare hands and tossed it outside, while Vicki trembled on her bed. "You've been acting strange all week, Vicki." She tilted the case in her hand, felt the beads inside rattle. "Spacing out, wandering out without telling anybody... I'm worried."
"But I'm feeling a lot better." Vicki pointed at her neck, at the pale blue spot along her windpipe. "See? The bruise is almost gone. I'm not as tired anymore. And I haven't spaced out all day."
Vicki glanced down at the bat. "He's just a cute little furball. Let's let him in."
"That's not a good idea," Jo said. "He might be carrying something." She looked into the bat's eyes. They seemed oddly aware for a bat... almost as if it were listening to them. "Sorry, little guy. Not tonight."
Vicki crossed her arms with a huff. "Fine, leave him out in the cold. What you got there?"
"Oh yeah, I wanted you to put this on." Jo snapped open the case, revealing a chain of smooth black beads attached to a silver crucifix. "It's my rosary, the one Gramma gave me."
"The one she got in Rome? Jo, I didn't know you still had that."
Jo pulled it out, letting the crucifix dangle from her fingers. "Well, it may sound a little crazy, but—"
The bat let out a loud screech that startled Vicki and Jo. It jumped off the windowsill and fluttered off into the night.
Jo's mouth hung open as she stared at the empty windowsill, then at the tiny silver crucifix. "I knew it. Vicki, you have to put this on right now."
"You saw what just happened. And that bruise, and the way you've been acting? I think a vampire's after you."
"Jo, come on. A vampire?" Vicki rubbed her neck. "You're overreacting."
"Maybe so. Just...please, wear it to bed. Just tonight. I'd feel safer if you did."
Vicki sighed. "If it'll make you happy." She reached out, but hesitated, her fingers just inches from the rosary.
"Come on," Jo said. "I know we're not exactly the biggest churchgoers, but—"
"Hang on." Vicki stepped over to her dresser, where she pulled something out of her jewelry case, and held it up for Jo. It was another rosary, one Jo always admired, with red beads and small rose petals on the cross around Jesus. She handed the black rosary back to Jo, and lowered the red one around her neck.
Then she shuddered.
She stepped away, holding her hands over her mouth in a look of shock and fear. She stared out at the spot where the bat had been sitting. "Oh my god, Jo. I remember..." She paced to the bed and dropped to her seat.
"Remember? Remember what?"
"I remember... when I was camping Friday... out in the woods, those red eyes. He... pulled me toward them. I couldn't see his face, but he... he..." She tensed up, her hands over her neck, over the bruise. Her skin had turned pale. "Jo, you're right. There is a vampire. He is after me."
Jo felt a sharp chill blow within her. Part of her had hoped she was just being childish, that she was worried over nothing. But now that Vicki said it was true, Jo saw that it wasn't just her own overactive imagination they were dealing with. It was a flesh-and-blood killer.
Vicki held out her arms, and Jo dived into her sister's embrace. "Oh Vicki, don't die. Please don't die."
"Don't worry," Vicki said. "I'll keep the rosary on no matter what."
"What about the vampire? Is there anything else we can do?"
"I don't know. Do we have any garlic?"
"We've got garlic powder. We can sprinkle it on the windows." Jo rushed to the door.
Vicki glanced at the window, then smiled at her little sister. "I love you, Jo."
Jo said, "I love you," back, and nearly tripped over Ophelia again on the way downstairs.
Jo wore her rosary to bed just like Vicki, just to be safe. She prayed a decade of beads as soon as she got up, with Ophelia in her lap. The small brochure Gramma included with it reminded Jo how exactly to use it, though the Our Father and Hail Mary came easily to mind. She took a shower and put the beads back on immediately, to wear under her blouse. After she dressed and brushed her hair, she grabbed Ophelia, then went downstairs to the breakfast table, where Vicki had already started a bowl of cereal.
"You look better," Jo told Vicki. It was true: Vicki's cheeks had more color, her eyes less sag, and she was smiling. Jo set Ophelia down, poured her cat food, and then some Cheerios for herself. Mom was making their lunches, and listening to the morning news on the tiny TV over the stove.
"Thanks, I'm feeling a lot better." Vicki pulled her collar to show Jo the beads underneath. "Everything smells like garlic, though," she muttered.
Jo leaned in toward Vicki so she could whisper. "You think Mr.Vampire's gone?"
"Let's hope so." Vicki tugged at the beads. "But if something like this can scare him off, I should be okay."
A line in the news report caught Jo's attention.
"—of another cat found dead on the street in Terrace. The horrific scene—"
"Mom, turn that off," Jo said. "I can't stand to listen to it."
"I'll turn the volume down," Mom said. She pushed a button on the TV, and the sound faded. "Don't worry, Jo, they'll find whatever's doing it."
"I know, it's just... those poor cats."
"I heard it might be some coyotes that wandered into town," Vicki said. "Ophelia, looks like you're staying inside today."
Ophelia chewed her cat food without looking up.
Jo sighed, and scooped a spoonful of cereal. "Is Dad at work?" He was a physician at the local hospital, and tended to work at odd hours.
"He's asleep. They want him for a double shift this evening, so he's getting all the rest he can. Vicki, if you're feeling better tonight, why don't the three of us go out to a movie together?"
"Sounds good," Vicki said. "Nothing scary, though."
"We'll work it out after school."
The girls finished their breakfast, put on their jackets, and headed out. Vicki took her gym bag with her.
It had rained the day before. Now the rainclouds had blown away, and the sun gave the streets of Terrace, Tennessee, a strong white gleam. The air carried a piercing December chill. Jo walked through the neighborhood with Vicki, and watched the sparrows and robins flutter and the squirrels scampered over the yards. She noticed more crows out this morning along the highway.
The way to school took them through the town square, where there were shops and diners, and through Belcourt Park, which was named after the girls' great-great-great grandfather, Carter Belcourt, who had served a term as mayor. Not much ever happened in Terrace—even the Civil War monument in the park only commemorated a regiment that had been stationed there. No fighting ever took place. The biggest employers were the hospital and a factory that made construction equipment. Jo wondered what would ever bring a vampire to a tiny place like Terrace.
A black sedan drove up as the girls waited for the crosswalk. Through the back window, Jo could see the fiery eyebrows and white mustache of Theodor Feszület. As the owner of the factory, he was one of the most well-known and well-respected senior citizens in town. The next street over was even named in his honor.
The Walk signal came on, and the girls crossed the road. Jo waved at Mr.Feszület and his chauffeur along the way.
"He spoke to my class last week, when we took that field trip to the factory."
"Oh yeah, he speaks at graduation every year. Dad hates him."
"Feszület is on the board at the hospital. Dad hates everybody on the board."
"Oh," Jo said. "That's too bad." She waved again as Mr.Feszület rode off. "I thought he was nice."
Vicki walked Jo to the front of Terrace Middle School, then headed up to the high school. Jo watched her until she blended with the crowd.
The bus rolled up. Heather Carmen hopped out, and ran over to Jo.
"You would not believe the night I had last night."
"Uh oh," Jo said.
"That's just it," Heather said. "I feel like it should be a good thing. My dad stopped drinking."
Jo froze. "No way." Heather's dad had been an alcoholic as long as Jo had known her, and Jo knew it was why Heather never invited anyone over. He was never mean, or rowdy, or anything like that. Just very quiet, and very still.
"Yeah, just stopped cold. Poured all his whiskey in the sink. Then he spent the whole night pacing around the house. It's like all of a sudden he's scared of drinking."
"But that is a good thing, right?"
"I don't know. I mean, it's so sudden and everything. And he's still acting like everything's normal. So's Mom, naturally. And Steve and Petey—" Heather's little brothers— "are too little to tell the difference. Plus... he's still real quiet and sad. Something's getting to him." Heather slapped herself in the forehead. "What am I thinking—how's Vicki?"
"Fine, after she put on one of these." Jo showed her rosary.
"You know, I always forget you're Catholic," Heather said. "So you think there... maybe there really is a vampire?"
"Something's happening." Jo dropped the rosary under her collar. "I need to talk to Lenny, ASAP."
"Yeah?" Heather sighed. "You know he's gonna take it the wrong way."
"I know." Jo opened the door to homeroom, where Lenny Bishop was having a sword fight in the back with Graham Augustine, with ballpoint pens as their weapons. Lenny noticed them come in, and stumbled. Graham took the opening and poked him in the belly.
Poor Lenny. He'd had a crush on Jo all year, and did such a bad job of hiding it. Every time she was around, there were red cheeks, stammered words, furtive glances. She dreaded the day she'd have to break his heart. She hoped she could find the right words.
But today, she needed to talk about vampires. Lenny knew more about them than anyone else in seventh grade; he'd even done a book report before on something about Dracula. Jo and Heather walked up to him. "There you are," Jo said.
"Ah, Jo." He looked at her and Heather for only a second, and sputtered for a moment. "G—Nice to—good morning. H-how's it going?"
"I need your help. I think a vampire's after my sister."
He straightened his back, and murmured to Graham to go ahead and sit down. "Really? Has she seen anything?" He led the girls to his desk.
"Well," Jo said, "her neck's been bruised all weekend, she's sick and tired all the time, and last night I found her talking to a bat through the window."
"And here's the really crazy thing." Jo showed him the rosary. "She snapped out of it when she put one of these on."
"That sounds like a vampire, all right." Lenny stared at the floor, too intimidated to look Jo in the eye. "Ms. Winters said it would be like this."
"Who's she?" Heather said.
"Oh, um, well, she's the lady who wrote Blood on the Thames. Maria Winters. That's the one I read for my report a while back. It's all about how there was a real Count Dracula who sucked people's blood in London in the 1860's."
"Hang on," Heather said. "You're seriously saying Dracula's real?"
"Sort of. And I'm not talking about Vlad the Impaler. This is the Dracula that gave Bram Stoker the idea for his book. He took what actually happened, and combined characters, invented new ones, moved the setting up a few decades. It's kinda like how Psycho did Ed Gein."
"Who's Ed Gein?"Jo said.
"You don't wanna know. But anyway, I've been emailing the author, and today I'm Skyping her, and—"
"Whoa," Heather said. "You mean you've actually been talking to a real author?"
"Uh, well, it's no big deal, really. She's really accessible, and likes sharing her research. It kinda helps that...well, I'm kinda descended from one of Dracula's victims."
"Whoa, really?" Jo said.
"Yeah, she helped inspire Lucy in the novel. I—"
"Ooh, I remember her," Heather said. "Sorry, I read the book over the summer. Didn't mean to interrupt."
Lenny coughed. "But yeah, the girls Dracula attacked always went through the same pattern. They'd get bruises and cuts, they'd get sick, they'd start acting strange. Sounds like exactly what's going on with your sister, Jo."
Jo made a worried groan. "I was afraid of that."
"Did she tell you who it was? Because I have a theory."
"No, she can't remember. What do you think?"
"Remember that old man who talked to us at that field trip last week? Theodor Feszület?"
Jo's eyes spread out in a glare. "Mr.Feszület is no vampire. I just saw him in his car on the way here. The sun was out and everything."
"Okay, one, sunlight doesn't kill vampires. It didn't kill Dracula. Nosferatu invented that. And two, I'm not saying he's a vampire." Lenny pulled the book itself, Blood on the Thames, out of his backpack. "I'm saying he's Dracula."
He opened it to a set of glossy color pages, and pointed at a portrait of an old man with a long, almost beak-like nose, fiery eyebrows, and a white mustache. If the caption didn't say A portrait of the mysterious Count Dracula, by an unknown Székely painter, Jo would have sworn it was Mr. Feszület.
"That is a pretty strong resemblance," Jo said. "But it doesn't mean anything. I've been told I look like Marie Antoinette."
"Just think about it. If he's the vampire, then he could have caused everything from your sister's bruises to that cat eater."
"Cat eater? That's crazy!" Jo thumped her fist on a desk, and bent over Lenny's face. "Why would Mr. Feszület be killing those cats?"
"Jo..." Heather laid a hand on Jo's shoulder. "Lenny, what does this have to do with the cats?"
Lenny turned aside and scratched his head. "Uh, sorry. Didn't mean to upset you." He gulped. "Well... Heather... you've read Dracula. Remember Renfield?"
"Oh, I couldn't stand him," Jo said. She had seen the Gary Oldman Dracula with her sister one night when Mom and Dad were out of town, and she remembered Renfield very well.
"Well, he's based on what happened to London mental patients when the real Dracula arrived. They'd start asking for live animals so they could drink their blood, sorta like vampire practice. They'd catch rats and bugs, and pick up cats whenever they could."
Jo winced, picturing that creepy tall-haired man popping a fly into his mouth like popcorn. The first time she saw that, she gagged, and turned her back to the screen, and asked Vicki to tell her when he was gone. She could handle everything else in that movie, but Renfield was too much!
"Anyway," Lenny said, "the point is, he seemed to have a bad effect on people with mental illnesses. The book goes over all these examples—vagrants and patients and drug addicts, all suddenly craving bugs and animals, even if they never did before. And as soon as Dracula left, they stopped."
"Drug addicts?" Heather said.
"Is there anything we can do?" Jo said.
"I'm not sure. I could ask Ms.Winters when I Skype her later. Maybe she knows a good vampire hunter."
"Let me know what she says."
"Let me know, too," Heather said. "Thanks, Lenny. You sure know a lot."
"Oh, eh-heh... you're welcome."
The bell rang. Jo went to her desk. The thought of some weirdo doing something horrible to some poor animal churned through her mind. She hoped Ophelia was okay.
Heather stopped beside her. "You don't think this has something to do with my dad, do you?"
"Heather, don't worry. He stopped drinking."
"I know, but... You heard Lenny. What if vampires affect drinkers, too?"
"Like, make them want to...?" Jo didn't want to say it... to admit it was possible.
"I'm just saying, what if that's what scared him so much last night?"
Jo made herself grin for Heather. "He just needs to go without it a while. It'll be tough, but he'll be fine."
Heather swayed her head in thought, her brow furrowed. "If you say so."
At the end of the day, Jo met Vicki at the front entrance as they always did. Vicki had her gym bag strapped across her chest. The bruise on her neck had dimmed even further. "Ready to go?" Vicki said.
"Anytime," Jo said, as Heather walked out the door with a blank stare and a grin. "What's up with you?"
"Well, you're not going to believe this." Heather giggled. "Lenny just asked me out."
"Yeah. We're getting ice cream as soon as his mom gets here."
"Um... Huh. Wow. Okay. I thought—"
"Me too. But, you know, I figured, why not?" Heather looked up. "Hey, Vicki. Glad you're doing better."
"Thanks. Have a good time."
"Yeah," Jo said. "Have a good time."
Jo said nothing else until she and Vicki reached the other end of the parking lot. By then she'd pieced it together: the blushing, the glances—they were for Heather from the beginning. But Heather and Jo were always together, so when they saw him, they just assumed...
"How did I get that so wrong?"
"Jealous?" Vicki said, smirking.
"No. Just, I dunno, confused."
"Boys'll do that."
Thick clouds rolled overhead, lit red by the sunset. Jo was at least happy for Heather, and glad Vicki was safe. They crossed through Belcourt Park and decided to stop at the Cherry Street Diner, where Vicki's friend Marcie worked as a server. It would take the pressure off Mom for dinner.
"Hey, good timing," Marcie said when she saw Vicki. "I just started my shift. So, the usual?" For Vicki, that meant a BLT with hot sauce dabbed on the bacon. For Jo, a pasta salad.
"You know it," Vicki said. "We can't hang out too long, though. Mom's taking us to a movie."
"No problem. Hey, I just noticed, your bruise is almost gone."
"Good." Vicki rubbed the spot as Marcie showed them their table.
The sky outside dimmed while they ate. The Christmas lights lining the roof of the courthouse blinked on.
They walked out. The willow oaks along the sidewalk had long since shed their leaves, their branches dry and empty for winter. A young man with glasses and a stubbly beard was calling into one of them. "Here, kitty kitty kitty." He wore a neatly-pressed white suit. The cat bin sat next to him. "Here, kitty."
Jo spotted the cat in one of the branches, and stopped. It was a tiny calico kitten with a big black spot on its eyebrow. The kitten mewed with a sweet little squeak. "Aw, is he stuck?"
"She," the man said. "I was on my way to the vet, when all of a sudden, she started acting funny. I opened the bin and she jumped right out. It's like she's afraid of me all of a sudden."
"Oh, poor thing. My cat hates the vet, too. What's her name?"
"Umm..." The man spaced out for a moment, then shook his head. "Sorry, it's been a long day. It's Scout."
"Like from To Kill A Mockingbird?" Vicki said. "That's my favorite book."
"It's my favorite movie," the man said. "I'm Caleb. It's nice to meet you."
"I'm Joanna. Want me to get her down? I can climb up pretty easy." One of the branches was low enough, and looked sturdy.
"I'd hate you to go out of your way. But then, I'd hate to have to call the fire department over this. I just don't want that cat eater to catch her."
Jo winced, but stood tall and confident. "It's no problem, right, Vicki?"
"I don't see why not." Vicki lowered her gym bag to the ground.
Jo jumped and grabbed the branch, pulled herself up, raised her legs and stepped off the trunk. Scout was sitting on the next branch over, a little higher up. Jo clambered across, and straddled the branch, and inched forward.
"It's okay, Scout," she said. "I'm here to help." She cinched further, reaching out her arm. "Everything's gonna be just fine."
Scout hissed, and swiped her paw. Jo pulled her hand back. "Yeek." She checked and made sure there was no scratch. "It's okay. I'm not gonna hurt you." Soon Scout was within reach. "I almost got her!"
"Great," Caleb said. "I'm glad you came along."
Jo reached forward. "C'mon, Scout. You wanna go inside, don't you? Where it's nice and safe and warm?"
She lowered her hand on Scout's back and rubbed it. Scout seemed to relax, and Jo was able to move her other hand under her belly and pull her off the branch and into her arms. After zipping the kitten into her jacket, she lowered herself down, and dropped to the ground. She handed Scout over.
Caleb cradled her in his arms while she darted her head around. Vicki's bag sat unattended.
"Thank you so much," Caleb said. "How can I ever repay you?"
"I was just glad to help," Jo said, looking up and down the street. "Where'd my sister go?"
"She said she left something inside. Thank you again."
"Sure thing." Jo picked up Vicki's bag. "Later. Bye, Scout!"
She ran back into the diner. She didn't see Vicki anywhere, so she walked up to Marcie, who was keying an order into the register. "Have you seen Vicki?"
"Nope, haven't seen her," Marcie said. "How long has she been gone?"
"Just a few minutes." Jo knew Vicki wouldn't run off. Never without good reason, that's for sure. "I'll give her a call." She took out her phone and selected Vicki.
A pocket in Vicki's bag shook.
Marcie gritted her teeth.
Jo opened it with a rip of Velcro. Vicki's phone rattled inside, playing her marimba ringtone. Jo canceled the call, then noticed another object resting inside the pocket.
She reached in, and pulled out a chain of red beads, with flower petals on the crucifix.
Jo's blood ran cold. This wasn't right. Vicki would never be this careless. She'd promised to keep it on! She knew what would happen if she didn't!
"Oh yeah," Marcie said, "she was wearing that this morning. Must have stashed it in there before Gym. Where'd she get it?"
Jo stuffed the phone back into the pocket. Vicki was a sitting duck out there, all because she forgot to put the rosary back on! Jo had to find her, before something happened—if nothing had already—
A loud, gritty screech echoed down the road. Everyone in the diner heard it, and stared out the door. Just as suddenly as it started, it stopped with a sickening quiet.
It was the unmistakable shriek of a cat.
Jo crept to the door and pulled it open. The jingle struck through the silence, and startled her as she stepped outside.
The streets were empty, even of cars, and the street lights cast an eerie daylight under the dusky sky, through the bare branches. Jo looked over to where she had rescued Scout.
Caleb was there, crouched over a splash of red. He munched and slurped and dug into something in front of him. Jo's stomach began to churn. She didn't see Scout. Scout was okay, right?
Chilled air blew from behind her.
Caleb turned, and noticed her over his shoulder. His beard dripped with the same red as the puddle. He waved, revealing even more on his hands. "Thanks again," he shouted.
Jo wanted so desperately to look away, but her eyes wouldn't leave the puddle. She had to know it wasn't what she thought. Scout was still fine, right? She had to be. Who'd want to hurt a sweet little thing like Scout?
Caleb stood up. Blood had dribbled and smeared and soaked on his suit. Jo could see, in the middle of that red splatter below him, an outstretched paw, and a little snout, its teeth tiny and sharp, frozen in a shriek of agony.
Jo's scream pushed up her throat like steam through a kettle. When she let it out, it seemed to echo through the whole town.
Where was Vicki? She needed Vicki!
Caleb took a step toward her. "What's wrong? Scout had plenty of life to give me. You can have some, too."
Jo dashed back into the diner. Marcie was right behind the door.
"What's going on out there?" Marcie peeked out as Jo dived into a booth. "Sounds like bloody murder—oh Jesus." She pushed the door shut and turned the lock. "Somebody call the police! There's somebody covered with blood right outside!"
Jo could hear Caleb shouting... crying out for...
"Master! Do you have any more? I've done what you wanted, and I'll do more!"
A man seated on the far end of the diner stood up, looked toward the window with worry. "Caleb?"
The entire scene endlessly in Jo's mind, from offering to climb the tree to hearing Scout's cry. She hardly thought why Scout would be so frightened. Then Jo's hand rose up to her mouth. Scout knew. She knew Caleb was trouble. He may have stolen her, or already hurt her.
And Jo handed her right over.
Screams rang from up and down the block. Pedestrians were discovering Caleb, and Scout's remains.
"You have the girl!" Caleb cried. "Please, take me with you."
"Caleb." The man at the table ran across the diner to the window, and slid into the booth beside Jo's. "That's his voice!"
Marcie was on the phone. Some of the other diners were making their own frantic calls.
Caleb slammed his hands flat on the window. Scout's blood smeared over the diner's name. He smiled at the man on the inside. "Hey, Bro."
"God, Caleb, what's happened to you?"
"Guess what, Tom? I'm gonna be immortal."
"Y-you know him?" Jo muttered. Her hands were shaking.
"He's my brother. Caleb, did Feszület make you do this?"
"He made me promises. The animals have life, Tom. If I can prove myself—"
Jo lifted her head. "Feszület?"
Red and blue lights flashed through the window. Jo heard a siren, and shouting.
She leaned over the table, forced herself to see Caleb's bloody face. Police officers were pouring out of their cars, aiming their guns at Caleb, ordering his hands behind his head.
He cooperated. A hard-faced lady cop yanked his arms behind his back, and handcuffed him.
Before they pulled him away from the window, he grinned at Jo.
"Thanks again," he said. "Best meal I've had in ages."
Jo curled up and buried her head under her arms, as Caleb's brother rushed outside.
She pieced together the full story as she listened to Caleb's brother, Tom, answer the officers' questions inside the diner. Caleb Stimson was on his way to the station, and Jo had given her report. Her fingers wouldn't stop shaking, so Marcie dialed her mother for her, and explained through her own tears and horror that Jo had run into the cat eater, and they did not know where Vicki was.
While Tom gave his report, Marcie handed Jo a cup of green tea from the break room.
The way Tom explained it, Caleb had been diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was sixteen. He had actually managed it very well. He kept up with his medications, saw a therapist, went to a support group up on Monteagle. That changed when he got his new job earlier in the year. He skipped doses, and began to fixate on insects.
A month ago, he began eating them.
Tom had never seen anything like it. None of the other members of the support group had, either. Caleb hadn't seen them in three months. He disappeared a week ago, and Tom had been searching for him ever since.
The only explanation Tom could think of was Caleb's job as—
Jo shot out of the booth when she heard the voice, with the deep accent. And she saw him through the door, the old man with the white mustache over his lip, and eyes like a wolf. "I first hired him six months ago. He has always been a good driver, and I never saw any indication of instability. Just now he drove me here so I could meet with an old friend at Whitby Tavern." He pointed at the bar on the far end of the block. "This unfortunate incident happened while I was there."
Tom said, "He only dropped his meds after he started working for you."
"If his duties to me ever distracted from his duties to himself, then I apologize. If you'd like, I can help with his court expenses. We can make sure he gets the care he deserves."
"You made him stop," Jo snapped.
Tom and Feszület turned and stared at her.
Jo stepped out the door. "You let him run loose, didn't you? You used him to distract me and my sister. He killed Scout so you could take her!"
Mr. Feszület jabbed his cane to the ground. "Talk some sense, child."
"Where is she? Where's Vicki?"
"What are you talking about?"
Tom said, "Her sister disappeared when they met Caleb. Do you know anything?"
"I have only met this girl once before. I am an associate of her father's, nothing more." He raised a withered smile to Jo. "You have been through a lot tonight, young lady. Panic and reckless accusations will not find your sister, nor bring back that unfortunate feline."
"Her name was Scout."
Mr. Feszület turned to an officer. "May I go now?"
The officer said, "Sure. We might still need you to come in for the arraignment."
"Very well. A pity none of us could meet under more fortunate circumstances. Mr. Stimson, your brother was a model employee. Young lady, I hope your sister is found safe and sound. Is that her?"
Jo spun around, her heart pounding. And Vicki was there, staggering around the cordoned-off scene of Scout's death. She covered her mouth in disgust, spotted Jo, and sped up her pace. Jo ran to embrace her sister, but stopped after a few steps.
The bruise was back. An inky blue blotch spread up the side of Vicki's neck, with two tiny pinpoint marks within it. "Jo," she said, her voice a weak groan, "what happened?"
Mr. Feszület stepped up and grabbed Jo's shoulder, clutching it tight. His fingers were like dry, empty branches. He bent down to whisper in her ear.
"Never try to stand between me and my prey, child."
Jo locked in place, and turned to look into Mr. Feszület's eyes—his empty, glassy eyes, whose wrinkles never moved to betray any emotion. Yet they still bore the clarity and ferocity of the deadliest wolf.
"Tell whomever you wish," he said. "I'd be interested to see who believes you."
He stood upright, and from the angle Jo saw him, in the light the street lamps dropped on him, she saw a pale spectre, like the devil himself made manifest.
He turned, and smiled, and walked down the sidewalk, past Tom Stimson and past the police, as Jo's mother and father drove up to the curb.
Originally published in A Light in the Dark, 2013.
If you thought a story inspired by Mega Man was dorky, here's a story that was originally inspired by Castlevania: Rondo of Blood. In that game, you play Richter Belmont, your typical buff, whip-wielding vampire hunter trekking through Dracula's castle to fight the legions of the undead. One of the things that makes Rondo unique, though, is that this time, Dracula has hostages—four village maidens, including Richter's
future wifefiancé and her 12-year-old sister, Maria. When you rescue Maria, she becomes a playable character. Her attacks involve birds, cats, turtles, and dragons. This means you can totally go through the game and beat up Count Dracula, Prince of Darkness, with a little girl and her animal friends. So one day, I put on a longplay of this game (it might have been this one), in which the player was using Maria, when I thought, "What if this happened in modern times?" The result draws more from Bram Stoker than Konami, but you get the idea. It's only a step removed from Stephen King's inspiration for 'Salem's Lot. There's your window into the creative process, dear reader. This story is actually a chapter from a novel-in-progress. I'm taking a break right now to work on other stories (and try to get an agent for a somewhat less in-progress novel), but I'll try to get back to it soon. When fellow Talking Time poster Andy Keener called for submissions for a horror anthology (A Light in the Dark, now available on Amazon!), I had just written the chapter in question, and thought I'd clean it up a bit to help it stand on its own a little better. I do have one regret: UPDATE (12/31/16). The vampire's name has been changed in the story to "Feszület."
There are a few family connections here. The girls' dad is loosely based on my late grandfather, and the fictional town of Terrace is based on small towns outside Chattanooga such as Pikeville and Whitwell. Finally, I was myself raised Catholic, and Vicki's rosary is based on my own, which I've had since 2006. Finally, the tree in the story is supposed to be the same one on the cover—it's on a sidewalk here in town, and I took the photo myself. It's referred to as different species in the anthology and the solo release because I had trouble figuring out how to identify it at first. I investigated a bit more thoroughly as I was putting together the ebooks, checking the leaves and the bark, and I'm a lot more confident in how it's identified in the current version of the story. GEEKY REFERENCE ALERT: Maria Winters, the author of Blood on the Thames, is named for Shelley and Erin Winters, from John Allison's Scary Go Round family of webcomics. Go read it. It's very British. Ms. Winters actually joins the plot later on in the novel, so you have that to look forward to. Also, in case it's not clear, I totally made up the idea of Dracula being inspired by a real-life serial killer. Still, it's a fun idea, right?