Book: Led Astray: The Best of Kelley Armstrong

Previous: A Haunted House of Her Own
Next: The Screams of Dragons

An Otherworld Universe Story

“I’m being stalked.”

Rudy, the bartender, stopped scowling at a nearly empty bottle of rye and peered around the dimly lit room.

“No, I wasn’t followed inside,” I said.

“Good, then get out before you are. I don’t need that kind of trouble, Zoe.”

I looked around at the patrons, most sitting alone at their tables, most passed out, most drooling.

“Looks to me like that’s exactly the kind of trouble you need. Short of a fire, that’s the only way you’re getting those chairs back.”

“The only chairs I want back are those ones.” He hooked his thumb at a trio of college boys in the corner.

“Oh, but they’re cute,” I said. “Clean, well-groomed . . . and totally ruining the ambiance you work so hard to provide. Maybe I can sic my stalker on them.”

“Don’t even think about it.”

“Oh, please. Why do you think I ducked in here? Anyone with the taste to stalk me is not going to set foot past the door.”

He pointed to the exit. I leaned over the counter and snagged a beer bottle.

“Down payment on the job,” I said, nodding to the boys. “Supernaturals?”

He rolled his eyes, as if to say, “What else?” True, Miller’s didn’t attract a lot of humans, but every so often one managed to find the place, though they usually didn’t make it past the first glance inside.

I strolled toward the boys, who were checking me out, whispering like twelve-year-olds. I sat down at the next table. It took all of five seconds for one to slide into the chair beside mine.

“Haven’t I seen you on campus?” he asked.

It was possible. I took courses now and then at the University of Toronto. But I shook my head. “I went to school overseas.” I sipped my beer. “Little place outside Sendai, Japan. Class of 1878.”

He blinked, then found a laugh. “Is that your way of saying you’re too old for me?”

“Definitely too old.” I smiled, fangs extending.

He fell back, chair toppling as he scrambled out of it.

I stood and extended my hand. “Zoe Takano.”

“You’re—you’re—”

“Lonely. And hungry. Think you can help?”

As the kid and his friends made for the exit, one of the regulars lifted his head from the bar, bleary eyes peering at me.

“Running from Zoe?” he said. “Those boys must be new in town.”

I flipped him off, took my beer to the bar and settled in.

“How about you try that with your stalker instead of hiding out here?” Rudy said.

“That could lead to a confrontation. Better to ignore the problem and hope it resolves itself.”

He snorted and shook his head.

The problem did not resolve itself. Which was fine—I was in the mood for some excitement anyway. It was only the confrontation part I preferred to avoid. Confrontations mean fights. Fights mean releasing a part of me that I’m really happier keeping leashed and muzzled. So I avoid temptation, and if that means getting a reputation as a coward, I’m okay with that.

When I got out of Miller’s, my stalker was waiting. Not surprising, really. We’d been playing this game for almost two weeks.

As I set out, I sharpened my sixth sense, trying to rely on that instead of listening for the sounds of pursuit. I could sense a living being behind me, that faint pulse of awareness that tells me food is nearby. It would be stronger if I was hungry, but this was better practice.

Miller’s exits into an alley—appropriately—so I stuck to the alleys for as long as I could. Eventually, though, they came to an end and I stepped onto the sidewalk. Gravel crunched behind me, booted feet stopping short. I smiled.

I cut across the street and merged with a crowd of college kids heading to a bar. I merge well; even chatted with a cute blond girl for a half block, and she chatted back, presuming I was part of the group. Then, as we passed a Thai takeout, I excused myself and ducked inside. I zipped through, smiling at the counter guy, ignoring him when he yelled that the washrooms were for paying customers only, and went straight out the back door.

I’d pulled this routine twice before—blend with a crowd and cut through a shop—and my opponent hadn’t caught on yet, which was really rather frustrating. This time, though, as I crept out the back door, a shadow stretched from a side alley. I let the door slam behind me. The shadow jerked back. So the pupil was capable of learning. Excellent. Time for the next lesson.

I scampered along the back alley. Around the next corner. Down a delivery lane. Behind a dumpster.

Footsteps splashed through a puddle I’d avoided. Muttered curses, cut short. Then silence. I closed my eyes, concentrating on picking up that pulse of life. And there it was, coming closer, closer, passing the bin. Stopping. Realizing the prey must have ducked behind this garbage bin. Gold star.

A too-deliberate pair of boot squeaks headed left, so I ran left. Sure enough, my opponent was circling right. I grabbed the side of the Dumpster and swung onto the closed lid.

“Looking for me?” I said, grinning down.

Hands gripped the top edge, then yanked back, as if expecting me to stomp them. That would hardly be sporting. I backed up, took a running leap and grabbed the fire escape overhead. A perfect gymnast’s swing and I was on it. A minute later, I was swinging again, this time onto the roof. I took off across it without a backward glance. Then I sat on the other side to wait.

I waited. And I waited some more. Finally, I sighed, got to my feet, made my way across the roof, leapt onto the next and began the journey home.

I was peering over the end of a rooftop into a penthouse apartment, eyeing a particularly fine example of an Edo-period sake bottle, when I sensed someone below. I glimpsed a familiar figure in the alley. Hmmm. Lacking experience, but not tenacity. I could work with this.

I leapt onto the next, lower rooftop. Then I saw a second figure in the alley with my stalker. Backup? I took a closer look. Nope, definitely not. We had a teenage girl and a twenty-something guy, and they were definitely not together, given that the guy was sticking to the shadows, creeping along behind the girl.

The girl continued to walk, oblivious. When she paused to adjust her backpack, he started to swoop in. Her head jerked up, as if she’d heard something. He ducked into a doorway.

Yes, you heard footsteps in a dark alley. Time to move your cute little ass and maybe, in future, reconsider the wisdom of strolling through alleys at all.

She peered behind her, then shrugged and continued on. The man waited until she rounded the next corner and slid from his spot. When he reached the corner and peeked around it, I dropped from the fire escape and landed behind him.

He wheeled. He blinked. Then he smiled.

“Thought that might work,” I said. “Forget the little girl. I’m much more fun.”

He whipped out a knife. I slammed my fist into his forearm, smacking it against the brick wall. Reflexively his hand opened, dropping the knife. He dove for it. I kicked it, then I kicked him. My foot caught him under the jaw. He went up. I kicked again. He went down.

I leapt onto his back, pinning him. “Well, that was fast. Kind of embarrassing, huh? I think you need to work out more.”

He tried to buck me off. I sank my fangs into the back of his neck and held on as he got to his feet. He swung backward toward the wall, planning to crush me, I’m sure, but my saliva kicked in before he made it two steps. He teetered, then crashed to the pavement, unconscious.

I knelt to feed. I wasn’t particularly hungry, but only a fool turns down a free meal, and maybe waking up with the mother of all hangovers would teach this guy a stalking lesson he wouldn’t soon forget.

“Die, vampire!”

I spun as the teenage girl raced toward me, wooden stake on a collision course with my heart. I grabbed the stake and yanked it up, flipping the girl onto her back.

“That’s really rude,” I said. “I just saved your ass from a scumbag rapist. Is this how you repay me? Almost ruin my favorite shirt?”

She leapt to her feet and sent the stake on a return trip to my chest. Again, I stopped it. I could have pointed out that it really wouldn’t do anything more than damage my shirt—vampires only die by beheading—but I thought it best not to give her any ideas.

She ran at me again. I almost tripped over the unconscious man’s arm. As I tugged him out of the way, she rushed me. I grabbed the stake and threw it aside.

She lifted her hands. Her fingertips lit up, glowing red.

“Ah, fire half-demon,” I said. “Igneus, Aduro or Exustio?”

“I won’t let you kill him.”

“You don’t know a lot about vampires, do you? Or about being a vampire hunter. First, you really need to work on your dialogue.”

“Don’t talk to me, bloodsucker.”

“Bloodsucker? What’s next? Queen of Darkness? Spawn of Satan? You’re running about twenty years behind, sweetie. Where’s the clever quip? The snappy repartee?”

She snarled and charged, her burning fingers outstretched. I sidestepped and winced as she stumbled over the fallen man.

“See, that’s why I moved him.”

She spun and came at me again. I grabbed her hand. Her burning fingers sizzled into my skin.

“Fire is useless against a vampire, as you see,” I said. “So your special power doesn’t do you any good, which means you’re going to have to work on your other skills. I’d suggest gymnastics, aikido and maybe ninjitsu, though it’s hard to find proper ninjitsu outside Japan these days.”

She wrenched free and backed up, scowling. “You’re mocking me.”

“No, I’m helping you. First piece of advice? Next time, don’t telegraph your attack.”

“Telegraph?”

“Yelling, ‘Die, vampire’ as you attack from behind may add a nice—if outdated—touch, but it gives you away. Next time, just run and stab. Got it?”

She stared at me. I retrieved her stake and handed it over. Then I started walking away.

“Second piece of advice?” I called back. “Stay out of alleys at night. There are a lot worse things than me out here.”

I spun and grabbed the stake just as she was about to stab me in the back.

I smiled. “Much better. Now get on home. It’s a school night.”

Keeping the stake, I kicked her feet out from under her, then took off. She tried to follow, of course. Tenacious, as I said. But a quick flip onto another fire escape and through an open window left her behind.

I made my way up to the rooftops and headed home, rather pleased with myself. We’d come quite a ways in our two weeks together, and now, having finally made face-to-face contact, I was sure we could speed up the learning curve.

The girl was misguided, but I blamed popular culture for that. She’d eventually learn I wasn’t the worst monster out there, and there were others far more deserving of her enthusiasm.

Even if she chose not to pursue such a profession, the supernatural world is a dangerous place for all of us. Self-defense skills are a must, and if I could help her with that, I would. It’s the responsibility of everyone to prepare our youth for the future. I was happy to do my part.

Previous: A Haunted House of Her Own
Next: The Screams of Dragons