Book: Led Astray: The Best of Kelley Armstrong

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An Otherworld Universe Story

Everyone started laughing when I walked into Miller’s bar. Never a good way to start an evening out.

Randy waved for me to ignore them and join him at his table. He had my beer waiting. There would be a list of supplies he needed me to steal, too, but that wouldn’t come out until later in the evening. Don’t ask me where he learned such good manners. Certainly not from his half-brother, Rudy, who was snickering and whispering behind the bar.

“Ignore them, Zoe,” Randy said, popping the top from my bottle.

“What’s going on?”

“You don’t want to know.”

Whatever it was, it was bringing a much needed air of liveliness to the place. Miller’s might not be the worst dive in Toronto, but don’t tell Rudy or he might decide he can skip the monthly cleaning.

It isn’t even a bar really, just a dark cave of a room off an alley, with a Miller’s Beer sign in the window. The sign used to flash, until Rudy realized it was attracting patrons and unplugged it.

There’s no rule against outsiders, but the ambiance stops them better than a three-hundred-pound bouncer. It’s a racially-segregated club. Sorcerers, half-demons, witches and necromancers are all welcome. As for vampires, only one is allowed. I’d feel a lot more special about that if I wasn’t the only vampire in town.

“How’s the clinic going?” I asked.

Randy made a face, which meant “the usual.” Chronically under-funded and in danger of closing, which is why I stole medical supplies for him.

“I had an interesting case today,” he began. “This guy—”

“Hey, Zoe!” Rudy called. “Come here. Got something to show you.”

“Don’t do it,” Randy murmured.

I walked over to the bar, reached across and snagged a beer bottle from the ice.

“Uh-uh,” Rudy said. “You haven’t paid for your first one yet.”

“And I don’t plan to pay for this one either. So what’s up?”

The guy on the stool beside me leaned over. I resisted the urge to lean back. One advantage to not breathing? You don’t need to smell anything you don’t want to. As for the guy’s name, it was either Dennis or Mo. I’d known them both for years. Still can’t tell them apart. Both on the far side of sixty. Both missing half their teeth. Both half-demons. Or so they claimed. I’ve never seen them demonstrate any powers beyond the ability to sleep on rotting bar-stools.

For simplicity, I usually call them both Dennis. Neither complains. Most times, they’re past the stage of remembering their names anyway.

“You are not a real vampire,” Dennis said.

I sighed. “This again? Fine. In the morning, I’ll go drain the blood of a few virgins, okay?”

“Real vampires don’t go out in the morning.”

“Hey, I agreed to the slaughter of innocents. Don’t push it. And don’t ask me to pretend I can’t see my reflection in a mirror, either, or I’ll never look good enough to get those virgins back to my place.”

“Can you sparkle?” someone across the room called. “I hear that’s what real vampires do these days.”

“Oh, I can sparkle. Just not for you.”

A round of laugher. I headed back to our table.

“We got confirmation, you know,” Rudy called after me.

I turned. “Confirmation of what?”

“That you’re not a real vampire.” He picked up a folded newspaper from the bar. “You aren’t on the list.”

I returned and took the paper from the bar. Two papers, actually. The first was the Toronto Sun, our daily tabloid. The other was an underground rag.

I read the Sun headline. Researcher Claims Twenty-Four Vampires Living in Toronto.

“Cool,” I said. “Add me and we can field our own baseball team.”

I skimmed the article. The researcher was an anthropologist who specialized in vampire lore—its origins and its connection to modern life. He’d compiled a list of people suffering from porphyria and deemed them “real vampires.” The underground paper had reportedly found and printed his list as twenty-four vampires living in Toronto.

“It’s a known medical condition,” I said. “You need to drink blood and you have an aversion to sunlight, which means, when it comes to ‘real’ vampires, it’s only half-right.”

“Or maybe you’re half-wrong,” Dennis said.

“No, Zoe’s all sorts of wrong,” Rudy said. “Which is why she isn’t on the list. Meaning she’s not a real vampire. Meaning I win a whole lotta bets.”

I flipped him the finger and took the Sun back to our table to finish the article.

“Hey, look, the guy’s giving a lecture tomorrow at U of T,” I said.

“Don’t even think of going, Zoe,” Randy said.

“Why would I do that? To mock the guy when he doesn’t recognize a real vampire? That would be very immature.”

I ripped out the article and pocketed it. Randy sighed again.

I took Brittany the Vampire Slayer to the lecture. At seventeen, she’s waffling about post-secondary education, so I’m trying to convince her that university is not as boring as she thinks. And that vampire hunting really isn’t a viable career goal. There are only about a dozen of us in North America. In five years, she’d have slaughtered the lot, and then what?

“I am not a vampire hunter,” she grumbled as she trudged along beside me. “And why can’t we take the subway?”

“Because walking is good exercise. A vampire hunter must be in excellent physical—”

“I’m not—”

“But you were. Remember how we met? You running at me with your garden stake, yelling, ‘Die, bloodsucker.’”

She reddened. “That was last year, okay? I don’t know why you have to keep bringing it up.”

“Because it was adorable. And Brittany the Vampire Slayer rolls off the tongue much better than Brittany the Former-Vampire-Slayer-Who-Now-Just-Wants-to-Hunt-Bad-Guys-in-General.”

“Not ‘in general.’ Not ‘bad guys’ either. That sounds so lame. I’m going to join the interracial council and hunt supernaturals who misuse their powers.”

“See, now that’s what I mean about redefining goals. That’s very specific and feasible. However, working for the council is a volunteer position. You need to plan for a long-term, satisfying career.”

“I could work with you. Become a thief.”

“The income stream is too erratic. But if you’d find that sort of work satisfying, we could look at something in the financial sector. For starters, though, you’re going to attend public lectures with me, get a feel for a university education.”

“And for each lecture, I get one shopping trip.”

“That was the deal.”

When I met Brittany, she had little appreciation for the finer things in life, like clothing. In a year, I’ve weaned her out of her track pants, sneakers and hoodies. I’m very proud of that. Of course, I’m also proud of the advances she’s made in stalking and fighting, under my direction, but I believe that just because a girl can kick ass doesn’t mean she shouldn’t look good doing it.

The lecture was very educational. I say that with scarcely a drop of sarcasm. I’m always fascinated by vampire lore. It’s like when I was a young girl in Imperial Japan and my grandfather would recount our family’s storied past, as samurais and shoguns, and while we knew less than half of it was true, it was enthralling nonetheless. Vampire folklore is the same—thrilling, vaguely accurate accounts of my race’s history.

Dr. Adair himself was far less interesting, as such people usually are. A round little man with a shock of white hair, his saving grace as a speaker was his passion for his subject. Even Brittany stopped squirming after a few minutes. By the end, she was so enrapt that as others rose to leave, she still sat there, leaning forward, hoping for more.

“That was actually interesting,” she said as we pulled on our leather jackets. “Like history and mythology and science all mixed together.”

“If you enjoyed it, I could introduce you to an anthropologist,” I said. “He’s a werewolf.”

“Oh?” A slight arch of the brows, a blasé gesture that I’d learned, in teen body language, marked genuine interest. Brittany had never met a werewolf. They were almost as rare as vampires, and there were none living in Toronto.

“His mate’s a delegate on the interracial council.”

I got a “Seriously?” and a genuine grin for that. I was going to have to remember to name-drop more often. As we walked out, she checked her school calendar, to see when we might be able to squeeze in a werewolf visit. I didn’t mention that her parents might not let her go off to New York State with me. She wouldn’t ask; they wouldn’t care.

“Miss?” called a voice as we crossed the front of the room. “Miss?”

I turned to see Dr. Adair waving me back.

“Uh-oh,” Brittany whispered. “He’s made you, Zoe. You’re in trouble now.”

I rolled my eyes, but I’ll admit to a spark of concern as I walked to the podium.

“Do you know a good place to get a drink?” he asked

“Drink?”

“Oh.” He flushed and looked from me to Brittany. “I’m sorry. I thought you were old enough. My mistake.”

“Believe me, I’m old enough.”

I glanced at the crowd of people streaming out. Seemed odd to single me out. I certainly didn’t look like an alcoholic. Just your typical college-age girl. Maybe that’s why he was asking—horny old guy hoping to hook up with a fan. Or maybe he really did know something and by drink he meant my kind of beverage. The red stuff.

“What sort of . . . bar are you looking for?” I asked.

He leaned over and lowered his voice. “Not one most of these folks would frequent.”

I glanced at the attendees again. Lots of Goths and vampire wannabes.

“Ah,” I said.

“Yes. You looked . . . normal.”

Brittany choked on a laugh.

I gave him directions to a neighborhood pub that profs frequented. As I wrote it down for him, a girl in a leather corset and black lipstick started sighing impatiently.

When Brittany and I finally left, Goth Girl muttered, “Finally. Fucking mundanes. Aren’t you missing American Idol?”

“Aren’t you missing the muzzle to go with that dog collar?” Brittany shot back. “Better yet, do us all a favor and get one that covers your whole face.”

I took her by the arm and steered her out as Goth Girl shouted profanities.

“Did you hear what she called us?” Brittany said. “Mundanes. Do you know what that means?”

“People who are not members of her subculture. Which we are not. Unless you want to be part of a group that thinks fishnets go with army boots.”

“She’s not going to leave that poor guy alone, you know,” she said, as Goth Girl tagged along after Adair. “She’ll be onto him like a leech for the rest of the night. We can’t let that happen.”

“Yes, I believe we could.”

“We shouldn’t. It’s wrong.”

I shook my head. “All right. We’ll follow them as a stalking lesson. But no fighting. If she won’t leave, I’ll cut in and distract her, and you’ll lead him away.”

Brittany sighed. “You know, for a vampire, Zoe, you can be killer dull.”

“So I’ve been told.”

As we stalked Adair and Goth Girl, I pondered the political correctness of my label. Did they still refer to themselves as Goths? That seemed very 1985. I was sure the terminology had changed. I’d have to check up on that. If you’re going to blithely slap labels on people, you should at least know the right one. For now, Goth Girl she was.

She wasn’t pestering Dr. Adair overly much. Just walking with him, asking him questions, which he seemed happy enough to answer. There’s a certain ego appeal to having someone hanging on your every word. It didn’t hurt that—once you got past the bad dye job and worse fashion sense—the girl was actually cute. Not my type—I prefer blond hair and pink lipstick—but I couldn’t blame Dr. Adair for enjoying her company. I had a feeling she’d be joining him for that drink. Maybe more. Whatever the end result, Brittany was getting a hunting lesson, and that was always worthwhile.

Goth Girl and Dr. Adair were heading for the parking building, where he said he needed to drop off his bag. The girl suggested a short cut, in a way that had him trotting after her.

I tugged the back of Brittany’s jacket. “You’re too young for that kind of lesson.”

“I’m seventeen, Zoe. I know all about sex.”

“Sex, yes. Screwing behind buildings with strangers, no.”

“I’ll stop watching when clothing starts coming off.”

Considering Goth Girl was wearing a mini-skirt, the removal of clothing would not be necessary. But before I could say so, Brittany took off, creeping along as Goth Girl and Dr. Adair cut between two buildings.

“Can I ask you a question about the list?” Goth Girl’s voice drifted back.

“Of course.”

“Why didn’t I get on it?”

“Hmm?”

“I sent you my qualifications. You rejected me.”

“It’s not a rejection, my dear. There are very strict criteria for the list. While there are thousands of adherents to the basic tenants of vampirism—avoiding the sun and drinking blood—the list only contains those who are medically—”

“I sent you a doctor’s note.”

“And I’m sure I attempted to verify it. Having met you, though, I’m happy to review—”

“I want on that list, Doctor. I’m a vampire. And I can prove it.”

A shriek from Adair. Brittany was already running. I raced after her.

Goth Girl had Adair up against the wall and was going for his jugular with her fangs. Fangs that flashed silver in the moonlight.

Brittany charged and hit her in the side. Goth Girl went flying. She hit the ground and lay there, in a huddle, whimpering. I motioned for Brittany to watch her as I helped Adair to his feet. He’d slid to the ground when the girl released him and was sitting there, staring in shock. As I bent over him, Brittany turned her back on the girl. Before I could say anything, the girl yanked out a weapon from her boot. A knife.

Goth Girl leapt at Brittany. I shoved my protégé aside and told her to get Adair out of here. I kicked Goth Girl’s feet from under her. She stumbled, but didn’t go down. When she spun, knife out, she nearly nicked Adair. That got him moving. Got Brittany moving, too, hustling him to open ground.

Goth Girl ran at me. I waited until the last second before spinning out of the way. My jacket caught on the tip of her blade. Put a nice hole in the leather. I stopped playing then, and took her down with a high kick to the chin. Another kick sent the knife flying.

When she fell, I dropped onto her and pinned her. She snarled and thrashed and tried to bite me with a set of really awkward silver teeth.

“I hope you didn’t pay much for those,” I said.

“It’s not fair,” she howled. “I belong on that list.”

“Yeah? Well, so do I.” I curled back my lip and let my fangs extend. “And I’ve got a lot more right to be there than you.”

I didn’t hurt the girl. No reason to. I wasn’t hungry. I gave her a stern warning about curses and revenge and the incredible psychic powers that would tell me if she spoke of this to anyone or contacted Adair again. Total bullshit, but if you’re crazy enough to believe in vampires, you’re crazy enough to believe that crap, too.

She ran off after that. Probably to change her panties. The smell was . . . not good. And suggested she’d had enough of unholy bloodsuckers to last her a lifetime.

Next I found Brittany with Adair and gave him a stern warning, too. If he was going to work in this field, he really needed to be more careful about following people into dark alleys. A can of pepper spray might be wise, too.

“Y-you’re right,” he said, as he rose unsteadily from the bench. He looked around, blinking. “Now I really need that drink. Do you know anyplace quiet? Out of the way? Where I won’t bump into anyone like . . .” He shuddered. “That?”

“I know just the place,” I said as I took his arm, Brittany falling in step beside me. “It’s called Miller’s . . .”

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