Herrick now on Smashwords!

The ninth Vampire Morsel, Herrick, is now available as a free read on Smashwords.com.

Short Story. Not for children. Part of a collection called Vampire Morsels about vampires from the Amaranthine universe. Takes place during Shades of Gray (the full length novel also by Joleene Naylor). Herrick’s unrequited love for the mortal Caroline has left him on the fence. Should he take his friend’s advice and reveal the truth to her? When tragedy strikes, his mind is made up for him.

It’s still pending approval for the extended distribution, but once it is approved it will filter through to Barnes & Noble, Kobo, etc.  Oddly, Elsa is STILL pending review, too. 

Jesslynn will be next up on Smashwords, I need to have it proof read and get the cover done, and I am hopefully going to write Nirel this week. I know, promises, promises.

Vampire Morsels: Jesslynn

As I prepped my notes for work on Ties of Blood, I noticed that I have a lot of side characters who, for one reason or another, don’t get any “me” time.  so, I’ve decided to remedy that in a collection of short stories called…

Jesslynn

(You can find Jesslynn in Shades of Gray. Her story takes place on a plantation in Virginia in January, 1820)

Jesslynn peered through the window. Outside, the world was still and silent like an empty room. Snowflakes dropped from the sky and the dawn’s feeble beams tried to slice through the mantle of clouds.

By contrast, morning was well under way inside. Warm smells drifted from the kitchen where the slaves had already been at work for two hours. Breakfast would be ready soon and Jesslynn turned her thoughts to her family; or what was left of it.

A baby’s wail broke through the house, shrill and unhealthy. The sound tore at her heart and she closed her eyes against despair. She could hear Nan’s quick steps as she hurried to fetch the child and bring him down. Jesslynn straightened her spine and readied her face. The fruit of her womb might be weak, but she was strong.

A dark, wrinkled woman appeared with a squirming bundle in her arms. Without a word, Jesslynn took the baby and dismissed the slave. She turned dark eyes on her son and cooed to him softly.  His small face was screwed up in misery but instead of bright red, his skin was pale like linen. Her chest tightened. She had seen that color before. It was the color of death.

Her eyes stole to the window and the family cemetery beyond. There were eight markers. The newest belonged to her mother-in-law, dead six months and good riddance. Next to her was Oren’s father, Jesslynn’s father-in-law. He’d been dead before she ever married into the family.  It was the other stones that caused her heart to skip. They belonged her children. Though she’d born eight, only two survived infancy; Alexander, who would be five in June, and Tristan, the baby in her arms. At six months it was uncertain whether he would live to see his first birthday.

She looked from the stones to the naked vine that wound around the cemetery’s fence; roses that her husband and their neighbor, Jorick Smit, had planted. When she thought of Jorick, she shivered. They’d planted those flowers in the dark. At first she’d thought it some old world superstition, but then she’d taken stock of him and paid attention. Her conclusion was drawn quickly; he was touched by demons. Demons that kept him from aging, growing weak, getting sick.

She looked down at the child in her arms and made up her mind.

Her husband stood in the snow, bundled up against the January wind. Strands of tawny blonde hair escaped his ponytail to blow in his face. He stared at her. A mixture of horror and disbelief shown in his amber eyes.

“What you say is…” he broke off and shook his head.

“Is what? A sin? I am tired of righteousness if the bones of our children is all it rewards us with.”

“No. Impossible. I’ve told you before that it is your overwrought imagination. Jorick is not an agent of demons, nor a warlock, nor a wizard. He is as human as you or I.”

“Have you ever seen him in the sunlight?”

“Perhaps. I don’t remember.”

She narrowed her eyes shrewdly. “No, you haven’t, and neither have I. Neither have his slaves, or anyone else you care to name. I’ve asked them, Oren. You must go now, before the sun can set, and catch him up. Reveal the truth of his secret deeds, for honest people don’t hide their deeds, as he does. The mark of the devil is on him. I feel in my heart that he is not human. You see that he does not age nor grow weak, nor sicken? He remains unchanged – not his hair, not his face, though it has been six years since he took the plantation from his uncle – if uncle the man was to him!”

“There are others who don’t sicken. Perhaps Jorick is blessed with a strong constitution?”

“No! You know as well as I! You have remarked on it before. You try always to pass it off as some casual observation, made in jest, though we know that is a falsehood, for you can sense the truth of the matter. It’s in his eyes, in the way his skin seems to gleam, in the way he moves and the way he talks; how he never opens his mouth all the way, as if he is afraid some secret will leak out. Don’t deny these proofs, my husband! You know them to be true!”

Oren’s shoulders sagged. “Yes,” he said softly. “You are right. There has always been something about him. But to suggest that he has a pact with the devil?” Oren closed his eyes against the idea. “If you are right and I catch him in some secret rite, then what?”

“You must demand he share the secret!” She broke off from adding “before it’s too late”, though it was on her face.

“What if he refuses?”

She caught Oren’s hands and gazed hard into his eyes. “Then you must make him!”

“How?”

“Must I think of everything?” She threw his hands away and turned her back on him to stare at the small, snowy cemetery.  When she spoke again, her voice was calm, but not warm. “You owe this to your children and their future, Oren. You will find a way. You will make Jorick share this gift and you will bring it to us.”

“Yes, Jesslynn.”

Though his words were what she wanted to hear, his uncomfortable tone was not. “You’d better.” When he made no reply she turned back to him. After glancing both ways to be sure they were unobserved, she brushed a quick kiss across his cheek. “Go now. The overseer can handle the slaves. Safe journey, my husband.”

It was early afternoon when Oren left. By dinner he had not returned. Jesslynn hid her fears behind a mask of stern indifference, though she couldn’t feign an appetite. Oren’s sister Torina sat at the far end of the table. As she ate, she chattered about the plans for her new dress. When no one answered her, she eventually fell into a pouty silence.

Alexander finished his meal and folded his hands primly in his lap. “Mother, where has Father gone?”

She fought to keep the apprehension from her voice. “To call on Mr. Smit.”

Torina cooed delightedly. “Will Mr. Smit be joining us this evening?”

Jesslynn cringed inside. Torina was as vapid and useless as her mother had been. “I can’t say.”

“I do hope so!” Torina patted her hair and bent to examine her reflection in a silver server. “I’m quite taken with him.”

“I’m sure.” The words were out before Jesslynn could stop them, but they made little difference. Torina had been in and out of six engagements. Perhaps Jorick Smit would be next. If they were lucky, Torina would actually make it to the altar this time.

Alexander looked at his empty plate. “May I be excused, Mother?”

“Yes. Go to your room and study your French lesson. You have yet to give me a sentence for the day.”

The small boy looked on the point of arguing, but wisely snapped his mouth shut. With an exaggerated sigh, he climbed off the chair and scampered out of the room.

Torina blotted her lips with a napkin and dropped it on the table. “You’re too strict with him sometimes, and others too lenient.” Her nose wrinkled. “Children are such a bothersome trial. I can not understand why you and my brother insist on having them one after another.”

Jesslynn’s face went hard.  “I imagine you would feel that way as you have no prospects for a husband or a home of your own with which to birth a child in.”

Torina’s eyes flamed, but her voice was honey, “You have misheard, dear sister. The trouble is that the prospects are too numerous. But that is bound to happen to a woman who has been blessed with the beauty and temperament to attract men.” She looked suddenly sorrowful. “Oh! I must apologize. Of course you would know nothing about the trials and tribulations of beauty and warmth. I imagine that’s why you accepted the first hand that was offered to you.”

Jesslynn ground her teeth. “Better to take the first than to grow old a spinster.”

Torina batted her eyes. “Perhaps that was a concern for you. However, it’s something I doubt I need to fear.” She swept up from the table in a swish of long skirts. “When Oren returns, tell him I’d like to speak with him about some important matters.” Then she disappeared from the room.

Jesslynn glared after her. When Oren returned, Torina would be the last person he’d see!

Only he didn’t return. Not that night, or the next morning. The day dragged past, cold and grey, and still there was no sign of him. As the sun set, Jesslynn’s uneasiness turned to fear, and she sent a rider to fetch her brother.

She met him at the door. Fabian shook the snow from his boots and studied her. “What is so urgent that I must be called away from my dinner?”

“It’s Oren.” She laid a hand to his elbow and steered him towards the parlor. “Come, I’ll tell you everything.”

They stood in front of the fireplace and the story tumbled out in hushed tones. When it was over, Fabian sulked. “You believe that Jorick Smit is an agent of the devil, and yet you expect me to go to his house, alone, and seek out your husband? If he caught Jorick in some unholy ritual then no doubt he is dead.”

Dead.

The word was one she’d imagined before; heavy and dark it dropped like lead through her thoughts.  She tried to ignore it. “Do you expect me to go? A woman, traveling alone in the dark?”

“You could send a slave?”

“And have them learn the secret?” She grabbed his hands. “Do this for me, Fabian, and if he has been successful I will share with you! Think of it, to never grow sick or frail!”

Fabian whined, “What if Jorick has killed him? Would you loose a husband and a brother both?”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Then be smarter than Oren. Be quicker and quieter! Go and look, only. If you do not see him, return to me and we will discover some plan together.”

Fabian argued for half an hour more, then gave in. Jesslynn watched him go, and paced the floor while he was gone. When he returned, she ran to the door, to find him alone.

“Well?”

Fabian pulled off his winter gear, scowling. “The slaves said that Oren and Mr. Smit left just after dark and have not yet returned. They say that your husband was alive and well when last they saw him, though Jorick was unusually grim and severe.”

Jesslynn clutched his arm. “Perhaps he has taken him to see the source of his secret?”

“Perhaps.” Fabian shook her off. “And now that I have run your errand I’m hungry. You took me from my meal, so I expect you to provide me with another one.”

“Yes, yes,” she gestured him towards the kitchen, her thoughts elsewhere.

Despite the word of the slaves, Oren did not return. Fabian ate and drank. At midnight he helped himself to the guest bedroom. It was three days later when he finally went home, and Oren was still missing. Jesslynn sent messengers with questions. The slaves said the same thing: Jorick and Oren had gone but not returned.

She feared the worst.

After one week she forced her brother to accompany her. After sunset, they ventured to the Smit plantation. The dark young woman who answered the door tried to keep them out. Jesslynn barged past her. With Fabian at her heels, she swept from room to room, but found only shadows. The beds were untouched, and the drawing room was cold.

The slave woman followed their inspection, wringing her hands and begging them to hurry and go. “If the master comes back he won’t be pleased!”

They were in the master bedroom when Jesslynn spun on her heel to face her, “When will he be back? Tonight?”

The fear in the young woman’s eyes doubled and she looked away. “I don’t rightly know, Ma’am. Maybe tonight, maybe a month. The Master is often away on errands.”

“What errands?”

The slave woman took a step back, her hands twisting in her apron. Different fears warred on her face, and her voice dropped low, “He ain’t right, Mistress. He ain’t… he ain’t right. You best to go ‘for he comes back. He has an awful mean temper. He don’t like no one to peer into his business, Ma’am.”

“I do not fear him.” She swept her eyes around the room; from the heavy wardrobe to the four poster bed hung in garish, red curtains. “What errands does he leave on?”

“I don’t know, Ma’am. He gets a letter, then most times he orders the horse to be made ready and he and the messenger go. No warnin’.”

“What do these letters say?”

The woman’s eyes got bigger. “I don’t rightly know, Ma’am. I can’t read, and even if I could he burns them.”

Jesslynn grunted in dissatisfaction. “And did he receive such a letter this time?”

“No, ma’am. Not this time. Like I told the Master there,” she nodded to Fabian. “Master Cotterill came and they spent the night locked away. The next night they left as soon as it was dark and they ain’t been back since.” Her voice turned pleading. “Please, Ma’am. Please go home quick. Go home and forget what I told you.”

“I told you,” Fabian said peevishly. “This was a wasted trip.”

Jesslynn stepped close to the slave, her eyes narrowed and her voice hard to cover her own fear. “The moment they return you are to send a messenger to me, do you understand? No matter the time of day or night. Otherwise, I will be forced to mention that you’ve gossiped about your master’s business behind his back. As he values his privacy, I’m sure he will be most grieved to hear of it!”

The woman squealed.  Jesslynn grabbed up her skirts and swirled from the room with the command, “Come, Fabian.”

Fabian helped her into the carriage and then climbed in next to her. At a word, the driver took up the reigns with a “Yawh.”

Fabian seemed amused. “Will you really betray her to Mr. Smit and his temper, I wonder?”

“Perhaps.” Jesslynn stared at nothing, her expression cold. I am strong. I am fierce. I am resolute. I am strong.

“Really? How unlike you. You’re too soft with your own and I can’t imagine you jeopardizing another’s.”

She dismissed his concern. “Mr. Smit is softer. A fearful slave would never have spoken to us unless spoken to, and certainly would not have betrayed such confidences.”

Fabian leaned back in the seat. “Or perhaps he’s crueler and she’s more afraid of him and what he might do if he knows you’ve been there. She may have told you so that you’d leave before he arrived and found you in his chambers.” A wry smile twisted his lips. “I can’t imagine that your husband would appreciate such a visit, either.”

“Then he should have come home!” The veneer slipped away and her terrors shown on her face. “What if he never returns? What will I do?”

Fabian shrugged. “Remarry. You’d be a wealthy widow. Mr. Smit is unwed-”

The slap was loud. Fabian put a hand to his stinging cheek and scowled.

“Don’t ever suggest such a filthy thing, again. If Oren is gone, it is his doing. I would no more marry the instrument of my husband’s destruction than I would throw my child to wolves! I am not Torina! I do not hand my affection to the highest bidder!”

Fabian smirked and relaxed back into the seat. “She only does so for a short while, usually an hour at a time.”

She should have slapped him again for his crude remark. Instead, she grunted her agreement.

“Is Father coming home?”

Jesslynn caught her breath and tucked the blanket under Alexander’s chin. “Of course. I told you, he and Mr. Smit have gone to Charleston on business. They’ll be home soon.” She pressed a kiss to her son’s cheek and inhaled his sweet, innocent scent. How much longer can I continue this charade?

She closed the door and found Torina in the hallway, frivolously dressed in her new skirt and matching shirt waist.  “You expect us to believe that story?”

“Yes.” Jesslynn answered coldly and made to move past her. Torina caught her arm and held her back.

“He always tells me when he’s going somewhere and asks if I want him to bring anything back. He wouldn’t go without speaking to me first and telling me goodbye. Why would this time be any different?”

Jesslynn jerked away and glared, her lip curled in fury. “How should I know! Perhaps because you’re his sister and not his wife! Now get out of my way!”

Shocked, Torina stepped back, and Jesslynn stormed by her, anger pulsing in her veins. She’d had enough of her, of Fabian, of all of them!

She changed into her night dress and shut herself in her room, Tristan in the bed next to her. She picked up her embroidery and worked without really seeing it. Inside, her mind clicked away, making plans. If Jorick returned without Oren she would confront him. She would take Fabian and five of the most able bodied field slaves. She’d demand answers, and she would get them!

Tristan cried; a soft, mewling whimper. She scooped him up and cradled him close to her. He was so pale and so weak. She tried to nurse him, but he refused to drink, only made those soft, sickening noises. She clutched him tightly. “Damn it! Where are you Oren? Why haven’t you come home? Why haven’t you brought the secret? Where are you?”

The dog barked. She stood and crossed to the window. Torina stood before the porch in the arms of a man. Jesslynn couldn’t see his face and she didn’t want to. She made a noise of disgust and moved back to the bed. We will never be free of the harlot!

She heard a raised voice; the man. She glanced towards the window, but from her vantage point she could only see darkness. It’s no matter. Let them fight.

And then Torina screamed.

Jesslynn laid Tristan aside and hurried back to the window. She drew aside the curtain to see Torina struggling with-

No.

She dropped the curtain and stepped back. She didn’t want to know who he was. Let him do as he pleased with her. It was something she gave away for free to other men. Let this man take his share, too. Let her scream. Let her lay in the cold, bruising grass and know misery for once in her selfish, pampered, spoiled life. Let her suffer.

Jesslynn climbed back into bed and pulled her baby to her. Torina screamed again and again and Jesslynn closed her eyes tightly against the sound. Tristan cried for her, though Jesslynn shooshed and soothed him.

A door banged. Feet ran across the floor. The house slaves were awake. She heard the front door open and she heard Nan cry, “Lordy! What have you done? What-” her words were choked off in a terrified cry.

Jesslynn squeezed her eyelids tighter. Where was Oren? He was the Master of the house! He should handle this! He should – but he was gone. Gone and useless! And what use was he when he was there? He was a body, at least. A body who could stand at the door with a rifle.  Now someone else must hold the rifle and she must stand behind them.

She tucked the blankets into a hurried nest, lest Tristan roll away, and dressed quickly.  There were more footsteps, scurrying, hurrying, running to the scene in the front of the house. She could see light flare; a torch. One of the slaves shouted, and then the gun went off.

Tristan wailed and Alexander was suddenly there, his eyes wide in his terrified face. “What is it?”

She pulled him into a hug and squeezed him tight. Her son. Her only son that would survive.  Reluctantly, she released him. “I don’t know yet. Stay here with your brother and stay quiet.”

He nodded, and she took a last look at them before she hurried out the door.

The house was dark, and she had no candle. She stubbed her toe on a heavy sideboard and banged her knee into a low stool. There was no time to stop. She could hear someone shouting outside. She could hear Torina screaming again.

Two of the kitchen girls stood on the porch in their nightdresses, their eyes wide and their terrified fingers pointing away into the shadows near the carriage house. One of them held a torch. The flickering flame threw harsh, stark shadows. Henry stood on the bottom step, the rifle to his shoulder. The barrel shook in time with his hands.  At his feet, red against the snow, was a splash of blood.  It trailed away into the darkness, mingled with drag marks, disappearing towards the carriage house.

Jesslynn made the sign of the cross. The devil had come for Torina at last. For one wild moment she thought again to leave her, but there had been Nan. The slave woman had been good to her and to her children. She didn’t deserve to suffer for Torina’s sins.

“What are you waiting for?” Jesslynn demanded. She grabbed the torch from the trembling slave and marched forward. The women wailed, and Henry hurried after her, the gun up.

The night was cold. The stars were tiny and brittle, like bits of broken glass.  The snow was frosted over and crunched under her feet. The heavy silence was broken by soft, guttural noises and something that sounded wet and sloppy. The doors of the carriage house were open and the closer Jesslynn drew, the louder it grew.

And then she saw it.

A man lay near the doors, his body broken and crumpled. It was Torina’s lover. Blood stained the snow around him. Just inside the carriage house crouched Torina. Her hair had fallen around her face like a shower of flames. Her dress was torn and bloody. A gaping wound on her neck bled freely. More horrifying, she held an unconscious Nan in her arms. Her mouth was fastened around the old woman’s neck. The torchlight shone in her green eyes and Jesslynn bit back a scream at what she saw there; lust, hunger and madness.

“Do not enter!”

It was Oren.

She pulled to a stop, the torch held high. Slowly, Oren stepped from inside the shadowy building. He was dressed as she’d last seen him, only without his coat or hat. His long blonde hair flapped free in the wind. Blood ran down his chin and stained his shirt and hands.

“God save us!” Jesslynn made the sign of the cross and moved back. Oren stared at her, the expression on his face a mixture of sorrow and fear.  He took a step towards her and she backed away.  The torch shook in her hands and slipped from her fingers. The flame burned for a minute, throwing long, black shadows, and then it sputtered and died.

She ran.

She heard the gun go off behind her, but she didn’t stop. The two girls were still on the porch. She’d nearly reached them when he called to her, “Jesslynn.”

The girl’s shocked expressions made her stop. She looked over her shoulder and then looked away quickly. His face was clean and his shirt was gone. He stood half naked in the snow, his tawny hair whipping around his face.

“Go inside,” she ordered the girls. “Alexander and Tristan are in the master bedroom. Go to them and stay until I come for you.”

They babbled incoherently and fled into the safety of the house. She could hear Oren’s footsteps crunching through the snow, moving towards her. She couldn’t bring herself to face him.

At last he stood behind her. She could feel him there, so close that his hot breath warmed the back of her neck. The proximity tightened her spine and her shoulders like a fist. She couldn’t move.

“Jesslynn.” Her name was more a breath than a word. Softly, he touched her cheek. His warm fingers trailed down her neck to her shoulder and she shivered. “You wanted the gift, Jesslynn, and I’ve brought it.” His voice turned brittle. “Look at me, wife.  This is what you wanted. Look at it.”

Almost against her will she turned and stared into his face. It was different. He was different. His golden eyes seemed to glitter with an intensity they’d never held before and when he opened his mouth she saw the fangs.

“God preserve us!” She fell back. “What have you done? What have you become? What have you done?”

He closed the gap between them and cradled her face in his hand, forcing her to look at him. “I did as you asked. You wanted his secret and here it is. Do you still want it?”

A twig snapped. She looked over his shoulder to see Torina hovering in the shadows. She wiped the blood from her face with a gory hand and swayed on her feet.  A maniacal smile spread over her face and long, shiny fangs glittered in her mouth.

Whether gift or curse, he had given it to his sister first.

In that moment she hated Torina more than she had ever hated anyone.

“You shared it with her?”

There was regret in his voice. “I had no choice. I – I couldn’t stop. The man – his blood. I hurried to come home to you. I did not drink first. She did not know me. She screamed. I – I did not mean to bite her. But then…  I couldn’t let her die. She is my sister. There was no choice.”

No choice. No choice but to save his sister. She buried her fears behind her fury. “Will it save our son?”

Oren hesitated. “Yes. But Jorick said we must not use it on the children, not until they’re grown. Once they drink they will never age, never grow.”

“Never die?”

He nodded uncertainly and she focused again on Torina. The redhead stumbled backwards and fell to the ground on her knees. Her eyes squeezed shut and she held herself as if trying to stop her insides from spilling out into the snow. A high, horrible sound issued from her lips.

“It is the change,” he said softly. “There is pain. It comes and goes, then disappears in a day.”

Torina threw her head back and howled. She fell onto her back and writhed, her arms around her mid section. Her bloody hands left red, wet spots on her new dress. Blood. Pain. The mark of the devil.

And then she pictured Tristan.

“Yes,” she whispered, her voice almost inaudible. “Yes. Give it to me.”

Oren crushed her to him. She could feel his heart pounding against her, the warmth of his hard body, the texture of his hands as he pulled her head to one side, exposing her throat.  He brought his lips to her neck. His breath was hot. He hovered, lips brushing her skin, and then, he bit.

Jesslynn held back a scream. She would not howl like Torina. She would not draw attention.

I am strong. I am fierce. I am resolute.

I will save my children.

Like me, they will be strong.

Forever.

************

You can also find the whole crew in the short story Alexander.

Vampire Morsels: Herrick

As I prepped my notes for work on Ties of Blood, I noticed that I have a lot of side characters who, for one reason or another, don’t get any “me” time.  so, I’ve decided to remedy that in a collection of short stories called…

Herrick

(You can’t really find Herrick anywhere. He existed as a character in an early draft of Legacy of Ghosts – originally he accompanied Kariss to Jorick’s house – but he got cut in a revision and is no more than a name in Legacy of Ghosts and Ties of Blood, which is a shame because he is an interesting guy. This story takes place during Shades of Gray. If you’ve read the book you may recognize the timing.)

Thunder rumbled in the distance. Herrick could smell the coming rain on the breeze, and so could Caroline. She held her hand out to check for stray drops before she pulled the door shut.  The dog strained at the leash, anxious for its nightly walk. It didn’t care if there was rain or not.

“Okay, okay.” She took a few steps and the dog leapt ahead, his tail wagging and his tongue lolling to one side with enthusiasm.

Herrick stepped back deeper into the shadows, not that she could see him with her mortal eyes. She stopped at the quiet street corner and looked both ways, a habit she’d held onto from childhood, then she plunged forward again. He waited until she was halfway down the street before he followed. He didn’t want to get too close.

Not yet.

He crept silently from shadow to shadow as she shuffled along at an uneven pace, her eyes on the dog in front of her. He wondered what she was thinking about. Her friends? Her family? Her ex-boyfriend? Was she happy? Sad? Worried? He wished he could crawl inside her head and make himself comfortable, if only for a few minutes. But vampirism hadn’t given him those gifts.

Vampire.

It was a too familiar word, but it still held old terrors, ingrained from his childhood. He could hear his grandmother muttering prayers against the demons. He could see her terrified eyes, the way she made the sign of the cross with her withered hands. It was well that she hadn’t lived to see her grandson join them, so long ago.

The clouds drifted over the moon and the world was suddenly shrouded in shadows. Herrick didn’t mind. Sometimes, he thought he could see better without the light. Caroline couldn’t. Her eyes darted around as if, in the dark, she was suddenly conscious of his presence. He wondered if she could really feel him watching. Waiting. Wanting.

“Come on, boy.” Her voice was too loud. The dog didn’t notice, and turned back for the house with the same enthusiasm he’d left with.  She picked up her pace, her shuffling, random steps suddenly a steady rhythm on the pavement as she hurried towards her perceived safety. The closer she got the faster she moved and for a moment she passed him, only a few feet away. It was a distance he could have closed without effort, but he didn’t.

Not yet.

A rain drop fell. And then another.  And another. It pit-patted on the last of the tree leaves and the bugs in the branches sang to the beat. Thunder rolled across the sky, like tympani drums. The symphony of the storm only hurried her steps and by the time she reached the house she was in a run.

She fumbled with the door, her eyes on everything but it. Finally, it opened and she shoved the dog inside and followed quickly. The door slammed and the lock clicked. Herrick could hear it; the faint metallic sound that meant she was safe – or thought she was safe.

The thunder sounded, an echo of the door that shut him out. He walked silently until he stood under the tree across from her house. He leaned on it and watched. Light flickered in the window; the television. He could see her silhouette as she dropped onto the couch and pulled a blanket over her.

“Back here again?”

Herrick turned towards the voice. At first there was only the glowing cherry of a cigarette, and then a bald vampire came into view.  He walked casually towards Herrick and stopped next to him. “You know it’s fucking raining out here, right?”

“As a matter of fact, Micah, I noticed.” Herrick turned back towards the house and fought the desire to sigh deeply.

Micah followed his gaze. “This is stupid. You drive forty-five minutes for this every night. Why don’t you just go knock on the door? What’s the worst that could happen? She probably remembers you.”

There was no mirth in Herrick’s laughter. “And how do I explain that I haven’t changed in the last twenty years? How do I explain my very presence here?”

Micah took a puff from his soggy cigarette, then dropped it to the ground and stomped it out. “You could just tell her the truth, man.”

“What? That I’m her great-great-great-what’s it and I’ve been keeping an eye on her all these years? That should go over well.”

“How many greats are there? You sure it’s distant enough for all this pining shit you do?”

Herrick ground his teeth together. “Yes. It’s distant enough. Don’t you have somewhere to be?”

“Yep. “ He clapped his hand on Herrick’s back. “I’m here, savin’ your ass from the miserable black hole you seem to wanna live in. Though, I guess I can kinda see it. You meddled when she was a kid, so it was like custom raising your future girlfriend. You shoulda got her some ‘vampires are your friends’ picture books or something. Woulda made things easier. ”

Herrick glared at him from under soggy blonde bangs. “You make it sound cheap, sick even.”

“Ah, I’m just kiddin’ ya. I don’t give a damn who ya wanna chase after. She’s got a nice ass.”

“Watch your mouth!”

“Sorry, man.” He held up an appeasing hand, then grinned. “She does, though.”

“Whether she does or not isn’t for you to notice.” Herrick gave the house a final look, then turned back to his friend. “Since you refuse to leave me in peace, might I suggest we go somewhere that’s a bit dryer?”

Micah’s grin grew. “Now you’re talkin’! I got some laundry to do, then what do you say we hit a bar or somethin’?”

Laundry. How lovely.

It was nearly nine P.M. when they walked into the all night Laundromat. Despite the time, a woman and three children sat in the far corner. She talked on her cellphone, and waved around her free hand to punctuate her words.

Herrick chose a plastic chair on the other side of the room and flipped absently through the stack of old magazines. Micah dumped his bundle of clothes into a nearby washer.

The washer started and he flopped into the chair next to Herrick, his eyes on the woman and her tiny denim shorts. “Take a look at that.”

“I see her,” Herrick answered stiffly.  “Perhaps if she had more clothing on.”

“More?” Micah chortled. “I think you mean less.” He gave his friend a once over. “Never mind. I’m talking to a guy in a cape.”

“It isn’t a cape. It’s a cloak. And it’s comfortable. You should try one.”

“No thanks. Not really into the whole medieval look.” Micah snickered and then turned serious for a moment.  “So you’re really gonna go join what’s his name’s war?”

“Oren? Perhaps.” Herrick stared into space and stroked his blonde beard thoughtfully. “Benjamin and Des are already helping them.”

Micah crossed his arms over his chest and slouched down in his seat, his legs kicked out in front of him. “You gotta ask yourself, is this really our problem? I mean, fuck, I don’t even know who the guy is they’re fuckin’ fighting.”

“His name is Claudius. I don’t know if you’ve met him. He looks all of sixteen with a chip on his shoulder and a ruffled shirt.”

“Not ringing a bell.”

Herrick waved it away as unimportant and they fell into silence. Micah’s attention stayed on the woman in the too-short shorts. Eventually, she looked up and caught his eyes. An unspoken communication seemed to pass between them, and she stood and stretched languidly. “Stay out of trouble. Mommy’s gonna go have a cigarette around back.” With one more meaningful glance at Micah, she strolled out the door, her hips swaying.

Micah was on his feet. He dumped a handful of quarters on the nearest table. “Toss ‘em in the dryer when they’re done.” Then he, too, disappeared.

“Of course, I don’t mind.”

No one was close enough to hear the comment, and no one cared, anyway. Herrick sighed and his thoughts turned to Caroline. She was probably still watching TV. It would be another hour before she crawled into bed, alone. Perhaps Micah was right. Perhaps he should knock on her door and confront her with the truth.

Then she can scream and reject me outright.

 So much better.

He wasn’t sure when it had happened. One day she was a little girl and he was her neighbor. He’d never thought anything impure, or even romantic about her. She was just another in the long line of descendants that he kept an eye on. Sentimentality held over from his mortal days, perhaps. Or guilt. He hadn’t shared the gift of the vampire with his brother. Too late did he regret it, so now it was his duty to see that his line didn’t end. The closest he could give him to immortality.

Caroline left for college; a flush faced child with blonde curls. He couldn’t remain the unchanging neighbor forever, and so he’d disappeared, too, though returned now and again to make sure they were all right. It was four years before he saw Caroline again. Instead of a shy child she was a woman with stormy eyes and a temperament to match.  He hadn’t even realized it was her at first, and by the time he did it was too late. Though she didn’t know it, she owned him.

The washer stopped. He jerked from his thoughts, gathered Micah’s wet clothes and stuffed them into the nearest dryer. The quarters clinked noisily, their echo giving more import to their existence than usual. Like the echo of the door.

“Are you a Jedi?”

Herrick looked down and found one of the children staring up at him. The boy’s eyes were large and his hair was thick and curly. In another life he’d have been painted as a cherub. “What?”

“Are you a Jedi?” the child repeated. “You look like one.”

Out of touch, Herrick had no idea what a Jedi was, or if he resembled one. The reverence in the child’s eyes made it clear it was something splendid so he went along. “Yes. Well spotted.”

“I knew it!” The child was suddenly animated. “Where’s your light saber? Can I see it?”

Herrick was spared having to answer when a dark skinned vampire with short cropped hair skidded through the doorway. He lifted his sunglasses and his eyes snapped to Herrick. “We got trouble at Benjamin’s!” Then he turned and ran out the door again.

The boy’s excitement seemed to grow. “Is he a Jedi, too?”

“Yeah, sure.” Herrick dumped the extra quarters in the child’s surprised hands. “When your mother returns, tell her crude, tattooed friend that I’ve gone to Benjamin’s.” He stopped himself from adding “if”. Micah wasn’t callous enough to drain the woman’s life when she had children so close by.

Benjamin’s motel was at the far end of town, not that it was much of a town. Herrick had come there following Caroline’s family; she was barely a baby then. He’d been more than a little surprised to find a local concentration of his own kind. Perhaps they unconsciously drew together, even while their conscious mind cried for solitude.

The shabby little town was perfect for vampires, though. The main attraction was Benjamin’s vampire friendly motel, with its bank of windowless rooms in the back and Benjamin himself. Herrick didn’t know how many vampires he’d helped over the years, many of them fledglings whose masters had left them to stand on their own. That and the food was easy. The town was small enough that wildlife was available on the fringes, while the highway brought in just enough visitors to keep the locals safe from those who preferred more human food and, should something go amiss, the cops were slow.

Or they were normally.

All three cars were already parked at the Rookway Inn, lights flashing red and blue against the night sky. Herrick found Des standing a block down under a dark tree. “What’s going on?”

Des’s face was hard and furious. “They killed Benjamin.”

Herrick choked on his response. Who? Why? How?

Though the questions remained unasked, Des answered anyway. “It was that fucker Claudius’ goons. It had to be! Jorick found Benjamin in the office mangled and drained. He barely got the body out of the way before the fucking cops showed up.”

Herrick put a hand to his head. “Who called them?”

“Someone else in the motel? I don’t know! Fuck!”

Herrick’s eyes turned to the motel and then back to his friend. He tried to think rationally. “Why would it be Claudius?”

“Because Arowenia and Jorick’s human are both missing. Who else would take them?”

“Jorick has a human?” That was almost as shocking as the other news.

“Apparently. I don’t know! Ask Oren about it! They’re trying and get ahold of Elsa and see if she knows where they’ve been taken.”

It was too much information, too fast. “I thought Elsa refused to help them anymore?”

“I don’t know!” Des shouted. “Fuck!”

Micah was suddenly there. He skidded to a stop, a cigarette in his hand. “What in the hell is going on?”

Herrick took the helm. “Benjamin’s been killed. Arowenia and Jorick’s human are missing.”

Micah’s eyes bulged. “What the fuck? Benjamin? No, not- but- “ He took a  step backwards.  “Who killed him? Was it that bastard Jorick? I know who he is, he’s that Executioner-”

“Was,” Herrick interrupted. “Long before you were born. And no, they think it was Claudius’ underlings.”

“Claudius. The dude with the chip and the ruffles?”

Des’s hands compressed to tight fists. “That’s him.”

“Then we fuckin’ kill Claudius!” Micah grabbed Herrick’s arm and started to pull him away. He stopped when the other vampire resisted. “What the fuck are you waiting for?”

Herrick cleared his throat loudly. “Claudius is much older than you and there are things to do here.”

“Like what?”

Herrick turned to Des. “Where is the body?”

“My house. I didn’t know what else to do with it.”

Herrick gave a satisfied nod. “Good. Come, then. We’ll see to this first, then we can worry about what steps to take.”

Micah’s eyes bulged. “Are you serious? They just fucking killed Benjamin and you’re worried about – what? burying him? That can wait until tomorrow! Tonight we get blood!”

“Claudius’ blood will keep until tomorrow. Besides, no one knows where he is. He has several dens. Do you plan to visit them all? That would take days at best. If they’ve taken Jorick’s human, then Jorick will no doubt be on the hunt already. Let him do the legwork.”

Des nodded. “Yeah, though he’s wasting his time. His human is dead. The whole place reeks of blood, but there isn’t any to be seen. Obviously they drained her and took the body as a trophy for Claudius.”

Herrick turned suddenly thoughtful. “Jorick and Claudius would be an interesting match. They’re very close in age. I can only imagine Jorick’s fury if he cares at all for the human.”

Micah exploded, “I can’t believe we’re having this fucking conversation! Who gives a shit about the human? They killed Benjamin!”

“Yes, Micah, we know.” Herrick glanced towards the police cars. “I suggest we go before they notice us loitering. I don’t really want to be questioned.”

Herrick washed his hands. The water was red. It swirled around the sink and down the drain. He finished and stared in the mirror. His face looked young, frozen forever in his early twenties, but his eyes were old. Too old.

Des and Micah waited in the backyard, their hands in their pockets and their eyes on the frosty ground. It hadn’t rained here and the autumn leaves had been raked in crisp piles to create a bare patch of grass.  They’d dig a trench, like a miniature moat. It was only a few inches deep but nearly eight inches wide. Instead of a castle, the miniature trench surrounded Benjamin, who looked as presentable as Herrick could manage.  His face was torn and the side of his neck was ripped out, but the clotted gore had been neatly cleaned away and a scarf had gone a long way towards hiding his hurts.

“He looks…. Nice.” Des suggested without really looking.

“Yeah, whatever.” Micah scuffed his feet in the leaves. “So now what?”

“Now would be a good time to remember him.” Herrick looked to the east. The sun will rise soon. “Who would like to start?”

“I will.” Micah took a step forward. “Benjamin was an okay guy, though he was kinda gross with his whisky and shit, and those sons of bitches who killed him are gonna fucking pay.”

Herrick rolled his eyes impatiently. “That isn’t exactly what I had in mind. Des, do you have something more appropriate?”

“Um, yeah. Benjamin was a good guy. Been awhile since we had one of the old poker nights. I’ve been thinking we needed to do it again soon, but I guess we won’t get to now. I’ve been too busy with all this shit with Oren. I thought we had forever, you know?”

Before he could continue his cellphone rang; the dance rhythm seemed out of place with the solemn occasion. Des answered it quickly, nodded and then hung up. “That was Oren. Elsa won’t help them, so we’re trying alternate routes for information. I need to run if I’m going to meet up with them before sunrise. You guys can sleep here if you want after… you know.” He motioned to Benjamin’s prone form.

Micah looked suddenly hopeful. “You going to kill that bastard Claudius?”

“Not tonight, it’s just a meeting. Oren loves that crap.” Des checked his watch. “I have to go. Sorry.”

Herrick threw his hands up. “Of course, go. Micah and I will finish this.”

“Sorry,” Des repeated and then hurried towards the street and his car.

Herrick took a deep calming breath and looked towards the horizon again. Des was right, they had very little time. The sun would rise soon and cleanse the world.

“You gonna say something?”

Herrick looked at Micah in surprise.  “Yes, I suppose I should.” He let his eyes settle on the dead body and tried to remember the old funeral rites, but they were lost to time. He barely remembered his birth language anymore.

He cleared his throat, as though it would make a speech easier. “Benjamin was an interesting man, to say the least. And though I didn’t expect to be here, I would not say it was because he lacked bravery. He was brave, but he was the kind of brave that stays behind and tends the house while the warriors go to battle.  He was dependable and reliable and though his words were gruff, I believe his heart was soft. He will be greatly missed, not only for the help he has provided to many over the last twenty or thirty years, offering them shelter, help and acceptance, but also as a recognizable figure around town.” A strange smile made Herrick’s eyes crinkle. “Even the mortals were beginning to notice he hadn’t changed.  He had become a fixture, and there will be a Benjamin shaped hole in the world now that he is gone.”

Micah lit a cigarette and puffed on it. It was several minutes before he spoke, and when he did, his voice was thick, “That was beautiful, man.”

“Thank you.” Herrick’s eyes skipped to the horizon again. A gold line appeared, like a crack between heaven and earth opening to take Benjamin home, “We had best go indoors, now.”

Micah nodded and grabbed the nearby shovel. He held it up, then dropped it again. “Fuck it, Des can get it.”

They watched through the window of the back bedroom as the sun crested the hill and the first rays spread across the cold grass. They backed away quickly, but not before Herrick saw the smallest of flames licking at Benjamin’s ugly Hawaiian shirt. He said a quick prayer, though he wasn’t sure to who, and asked that someone, somewhere take Benjamin into their everlasting care. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, reclaimed by the sun they had long ago abandoned.

They hurried through house and clunked down the stairs to the finished basement and Des’s bedroom.  Without feeling, Herrick pointed to the bed. “You can have it. The floor is fine for me.”

“I’m not gonna argue.” Micah flashed him a fanged grin and peeled off his motorcycle boots.

Herrick found some extra pillows and made himself comfortable. When he closed his eyes he saw Benjamin’s lifeless body, the first rays of the sun gleaming golden on his pale skin. The image disappeared and suddenly he saw Caroline again.  Tonight showed how fragile life was – even immortal life. He thought of Micah’s advice, “Why don’t you just go knock on the door? What’s the worst that could happen?”

Maybe he should. What was the worst that could happen?

In his mind he suddenly heard Des, his voice offhanded and matter of fact, “His human is dead.”

“What’s the worst that could happen?”

 “His Human is dead.”

No, now was not the time to talk to Caroline. Maybe when the fight was behind him, but not now.

Not yet.

  • Tales of the Executioners

    Short stories from the world of Amaranthine; a universe of blood and darkness where vampires don't sparkle and night is eternal. Each is about a member of the Executioners squad; the special vampire "police" force. Members both past and present share stories of assignments, origins, and more.

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    Joleene Naylor

    An independent author, freelance artist, and photographer for fun who loves anime, music, and writing. Check out my vampire series Amaranthine at http://JoleeneNaylor.com or drop me a line at Joleene@JoleeneNaylor.com

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