2,596
22.12.2018

THREE

All sheds smell the same. Even though I hadn't been in all sheds, I had confidence making that claim. Dirt and paint, and grass cuttings and mouse poop. Once out in the getting-deep-in-a-hurry twilight typical of late fall in Minnesota, I circled around to the backyard and into the shed, then set my bag o' cat on the dirt floor to begin poking around.

The shed was as creaky and old as the mansion, which had been built in 1860 or 1720 or 1410 or something like that. And I figured the last time the shed had been cleaned was while Lincoln was still walking around on the planet.

Also, like all sheds, it was magical in that once you got inside the thing, it seemed much, much bigger. It's like a ballroom in here! A filthy ballroom that smelled like mouse poop and had a dirt floor. I couldn't tell if this chore was more annoying due to enhanced vampiric senses, or because I was an indifferent homeowner. There was probably another reason it was annoying, too … right! My cat was dead.

I found a shovel-sized piece of rust, grabbed the pillowcase, and went to the far backyard. Though I had zero interest in doing my chores, I couldn't fault the mansion for its size and beauty, and I liked that the yard was huge, not one of the postage-stamp ones … a good trick in a city the size of St. Paul.

I walked toward a couple of the big old oak trees in the left corner … they were naked now, but in the summer and fall they were pretty great. If Giselle had ever expressed a desire to be buried (by me), I liked to think she'd have asked for this corner.

It had been a mild fall, and there were only a couple of inches of snow, but the ground was frozen. Normally it'd be a bitch to dig, but I had confidence in my weird undead strength. There were a few upsides to being the queen of all vampires.

(I was almost getting to the point where I could think of myself with that title and not go into gales of amazed laughter. Give me another seventy or eighty years, and I might be able to pull it off with my puh-puh-puh-poker face.)

Me being me, I tended to focus more on the downside. Stupid strength of the damned was on the list along with stupid superhearing and stupid keen sense of smell. Also me being me, the downside list was much, much longer. And as the shovel slid through frozen dirt like a smoothie blade through a raspberry, another one came to me. One I'd stupidly discounted when I took on my duties as the undertaker of the dead cat who'd gotten me killed and then inconveniently died on our stairs. The dogs. They were a huuuuge downside.

And here they came, thundering toward me in a slobbering charge.

FOUR

Several neighborhood dogs (I'd guess maybe eight thousand) were sprinting and yowling in my direction. It could have been a terrifying sight and, for many poor dumb stupid slobs, would have been. But I, Elizabeth Taylor, courageous vampire queen, knew they were no match for my awesomeness, and thus I showed no fear and no hesitation. Firmly grasping the handle of the shovel-sized piece of rust, I bravely faced the oncoming charge of my fur-covered drooling nemeses…

Well, no. Dropped the shovel and ran like hell for the back door is what I did, with the hounds of heck slobbering at my heels. I was not a dog person. I wasn't a cat person, either. I was a Betsy person. And believe me: taking care of myself-feeding and clothing myself and putting a roof over my head, and keeping myself from being killed (again) and out of divorce court-was enough of a challenge without throwing domestic animals into the mix. Or wild ones, even.

Stupid Book of the Dead, with its stupid predictions and the way it stupidly drives people who read it insane which is so stupid, and warning me that stupid dogs will constantly want to drool on me 'cuz I'm soooo speshul.

How fast could dumb drooley dogs run, anyway? I was superhuman, dammit, I shouldn't even be worried about how this race would end. Let's see, like the movie said, "The fugitive has been on the run for ninety minutes … average foot speed over uneven ground barring injuries is four miles an hour. That gives us a radius of six miles." Just when I forgot what a radius was and how to calculate it, movies saved me again.

"What I want from each and every one of you…" Am I the only one who thought Deputy Gerard must be the biggest pain-in-the-ass boss ever? Come on: think me up a donut with sprinkles? Really? Bet he gooses the office staff at the U.S. Marshall's office, too. "… is a hard target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse, and dog-"

Right, dogs, that's what I should be focused on. Bleah, I could smell them. I didn't dare risk a glance, but my nose risked a glance, and it was awful. Horrible, horrible enhanced vampire senses! Wet fur and dog spit and-was that…? It was! Poop!

I lunged for the front porch (didn't bother with the back door, which was small and always locked; it'd slow me down before saving me), made a clutch for the big heavy door knocker, then skidded right past the front door, slamming into the three-foot-high wooden post partition. And I did it so hard, my feet shot through the wood and I found myself up to my shins in splinters. Ow! Ow! God damn it! I wrestled free of the porch's hungry grip, creating a shower of wood splinters that pattered all around me. This wasn't over, porch! Time for round two! See you in hell, porch!

"Open up! Dog emergency! Level nine!" Wait. There were a lot of them. It might be a level ten.

I managed to scramble to my feet and lurch toward the door, but falling ass over teakettle had cost me seconds, thus I was engulfed.

"Nnnnnnn! Geh! Geh off! Off! Gehhh!" I howled and pounded on the door, which was the size of a walk-in freezer door and about as strong. And why was I pounding on it? Who'd locked it behind me, anyway? We let bad guys walk in with guns every second Wednesday, we printed our address in national newsletters, werewolves routinely dropped by and tried to kill us, psychos routinely dropped by and tried to kill us, the friggin' Antichrist had her own set of keys to our home (and she always apologized from outside before she used them, because the Antichrist routinely channeled Miss Manners), but now, now my roomies were all security-conscious? I bet it was Jessica, that gestating bitch. "Let me in! You guys! C'mon, open up! I was just burying the stupid cat, I didn't think I needed my keys!"

A deeply amused, laugh-choked voice drifted from the dog-free side: "What … is … the password?"

"You fucker, open this door!"

"That," the king of the vampires replied, "was last week's password."

"Sinclair!"

"Also incorrect."

"You shit! You think there won't be giant payback for this? There will be major giant payback, asshat! Enjoy sleeping on the couch for the next five decades." I risked a glance over my shoulder, not letting up the hammering. They were everywhere! They were going to get drool and fur all over my shoes! Then they would poop, which also would get all over my shoes! I was living one of my worst nightmares, though usually in that dream I was naked, except for shoes I knew were goners, like how you know terrible things in your dreams. Things that are all the more horrifying because you also know, in your dream, that you can't stop it. Nothing can stop it. Poop everywhere. Poop-smeared Prada. Everywhere. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

"You realize you're not in any actual danger, darling."

"Sez you, butt monkey! Open! This! Door! That's a royal command, buddy, from your queen. Who is allowed to give royal commands and also allowed to kill you and eat you if you disobey, and I don't mean that in a sexy way, either!"

The door opened so quickly I fell into our entryway, shrieking all the way down. "Die! Die! Die! D-oh. I'm inside now."

Sinclair shut the door, and I heard the thud-thud of a couple of the dogs not being able to stop in time and running into the door. Heh. Stupid dogs. "Why didn't I try the royal-command thing first?" I groaned from my splayed position on the floor.

My ferociously handsome, smart, hot, evil husband was looking down at me from his six-foot-plus height, faultlessly dressed in a navy blue Hugo Boss suit, a crisp pale blue dress shirt, and the tie Marc

(O God. Marc.)

had given him as a gag gift: it had a navy background and the standard physician's eye chart in white. "Read the second line from the bottom" … like that. "Because, my heart, you so rarely think of yourself as our queen."

"Huh?" The tie had surprised me; I wasn't the only one missing Marc, and should try harder to keep that in mind. "Oh, right, why I should've tried the command thing first."

"Yes indeed, my own. You should have."

"Really, Sink Lair?" I rolled over and glared at him. "Are you really gonna compound your gross evil errors by lecturing me into a boredom coma and then not helping me up?"

"Oh, never." He smiled and stuck out his hand. "As your subject and your husband and your cosovereign-"

"How can you be my subject and my cosovereign?"

"-lecturing you is my prerogative, and only mine. Unless, of course, you count your dear mother. Or Jessica. Or-"

"Please make it stop," I begged no one in particular. I grabbed his outstretched hand and used it to haul myself to my feet. It might have been how Jack felt climbing the beanstalk. Sinclair was really tall. Climbing him to the top took forever. "And in case you didn't hear all my yelling-"

"All of St. Paul heard it, darling."

"I hate you, you treacherous jerk."

"Ah, but I love you, my dearest queen."

"You should save time," I threatened, "and make up one of the sofas now as opposed to waiting until dawn."

"How is it outside?" he asked, a rare look on his face. It took me a second to place it. Nostalgic? No. Wistful. Yeah, that was it. Sinclair had grown up on a farm some fifteen decades ago (or however long ago he'd lived before he'd died, I could never remember), and missed sunshine like I missed a new spring collection the autumn before. "Is it very cold?"

"Sure, but I'm always cold." I instantly forgave him his asshat-ery. I tried not to take for granted the things I could do that no other vampire could, but I messed it up sometimes. Sure, I was constantly bitching to myself the whole time I was looking for shovels and racing away from a canine lynch mob, but at least I could go out. At least I could stand in a backyard during the day and ponder which tree to inter my cat beneath. At least I could be snuck up on by sneaky dumb dogs in broad daylight. At least I could feel the sun on my face and not burst into flames.

Sinclair, though … my husband was the strongest vampire I knew (also the sexiest, and most irritating), but he couldn't do any of those things.

I'm not sure what you're up to, God, but some of it seems pretty mean. Why don't you lay off for a while?

I still prayed. Sure I did.

I just wasn't sure anyone was listening anymore.

FIVE

After sulking for three hours and twenty minutes, I decided Sink Lair should bang me. Because I realized that five minutes into my 3.20 sulk I was probably punishing myself more. So I begrudgingly accepted his apology, then let him fuck my brains loose.

That oughta learn him.

"Ummmm," the vampire said sometime later.

"Yeah, what you said. Ummm, I agree. One of these days we're gonna really hurt each other. Or break the bed again. Or not be paying attention and break the window again, and then fall out of the window. Again. Thank goodness the sun was down." I shuddered … Jessica had had a complete hormonal meltdown over the broken window, claiming that The Belly That Ate the World would one day be playing in the yard, and she wouldn't stand for him toddling over broken glass. No one dared argue, or point out that of course by then we'd have the glass cleaned up … no. Nope. We'd all fled, my husband leading the charge. Wise man. We were the king and queen of the undead, and we were scared to death of a skinny woman who was maybe 101 pounds dripping wet … when she wasn't gestating, anyway.

"You're still chilled." He propped himself up on an elbow and stroked my back. I'd sort of passed out facedown right around the time my third orgasm raced through my limbs. Chilled? Numb? Satiated? Freaked? Still smelling dog? Yeah.

"I forgot. Or never noticed." It could be either … since I'd died the first time, I was always cold. It was impossible to look sexy in wool knee socks, by the way. Scarlett Johansson could not look sexy in my navy and red striped wool socks. Which was all I was wearing right now. Sinclair bitched, to no avail. I would tolerate all kinds of nonsense, except having freezing cold feet during sex. "You did a good job trying to warm me up."

His knuckles were stroking my spine. "Yes indeed. It was kind of you to cut your sul-"

"Careful," I warned. "One of the parlors can still be turned into your permanent sleeping residence at half a moment's notice."

"-ah-your quiet time. Kind of you to cut it short by…" He squinted at his watch, the only thing he was wearing. "Two hours! What can I say, my own, but that I feel blessed."

"Blessed. Sated. You say toe-mah-toe, I say drop dead." I yawned into the pillow. "Stupid dogs."

"Why were you out there at all?"

"Jess didn't tell you? Giselle died."

"Ah…"

"My cat."

"Oh?" Sinclair hadn't had much use for my antisocial (even for a cat) cat. She, natch, hadn't much use for my dead husband. I doubt they'd even crossed paths in this place more than half a dozen times. "I'm … sorry?"

"Yeah, I'll take that. She was a pet, if not a terribly beloved one."

"Ah, but if memory serves, she is responsible for your journey from your world to mine."

"Well … yeah. Except…" I thought about it for a minute. I'd been thinking about it, for a lot longer. Meanwhile, Sinclair was still stroking up and down my back, which was-there was no other word-delicious. "If I was supposed to be the vampire queen, if the Book of the Dead saw all this coming, I would have died, anyway, right around then-around my thirtieth birthday. Right? Because I was able to come back … the way I came back … you know, able to be in sunlight and not a total savage when it came to drinking blood…"

"Not a total savage," he teased.

"The Fiends had already nibbled on me outside Khan's-the Mongolian barbecue place on 494. They'd-infected me, I guess? So I would have died somehow right around then. Right? If I hadn't tried to go after the cat in a snowstorm, I would have slipped while crossing against the light, or fallen down the stairs looking for the TV Guide and broken my neck, or gone off the road and frozen to death in a snowbank on the way to the Mall of America … right?"

"I imagine." Sinclair looked a little appalled at how I'd reeled off all sorts of dumb ways to die. "Yes."

"So no matter how it was gonna happen, it was gonna happen."

"Yes."

"So what chance do any of us have," I griped, "if it's all ordained? Except it's not. Because Marc's dead … and not vampire dead. Dead dead. And it's all a mess, and I don't know how to fix any of it."

"My own, you must give yourself more credit. What Marc did, he did on his own. He chose it. And as wretched as it is to be in this house without him-"

Wretched? Wow. I knew my husband had liked Marc well enough, but was still surprised at the hole the big idiot left when he OD'd.

"-we must respect his choice. I know you wish to fix it, but perhaps this is the event you must leave alone. You have inadvertently changed the timeline once, and we have no real concept of what damage has or has not been done. I tell you in all truth, my queen, I fear what havoc you may wreak when you really set your mind to such things."

"Anything sounds bad when you say it … say it like that." I tried a smile and burst into tears instead, startling both of us.

"My dearest, my own queen, please don't." Sinclair hated it when I cried. For someone who tolerated multiple tragedies in life, and tons more after life, for someone who could take a bullet to the heart and come away from it only mildly irked, my husband went to pieces when I cried. He tended to have the Fred Flintstone reaction: "Who made ya cry? I'll murder him in the head!" Sort of comforting and Neanderthal at the same time.

"I'm sorry," I said, sobbing harder. "I didn't know I was going to do this. Stupid cat! Stupid dogs!"

"I am sure your shoes are fine," he soothed. "I let you in before the neighborhood pack could defile them."

"It's not that." For once in my life, I didn't give a tin shit about my shoes.

"I know," he replied sadly. "A poor attempt to distract you. You must not do this to yourself, Elizabeth. Marc made his own choice. No one blames you."

Wrong. I blamed me.

"I don't know what to do. I want to fix it-but like you said, what if things get more fucked up? But I don't like lying around like a coward, hoping things will just work themselves out. Because they don't, Sinclair. They get worked out, y'know?"

"Yes."

So I bitched and griped and cried, and my husband held me and soothed me, and the whole time I was thinking, thinking, thinking.

I wasn't queen by accident. Some of this shit was supposed to happen. Just like some of it wasn't supposed to happen. And letting Marc stay OD'd was at the top of my "not supposed to happen" list. He had killed himself to save himself … he had OD'd so he wouldn't end up the Marc Thing, so he wouldn't be an insane vampire five centuries down the line.

Okay, fine. So: figure out how to bring him back … and never, ever turn him into a vampire. Why did we think one thing precluded the other? Him not being dead only meant exactly that: he wasn't dead. It didn't promise he'd end up the Marc Thing. Besides, that had been in the old timeline. Which I'd changed, as my husband pointed out, without even trying.

So: what could I do when I did try?

Time to find out. Past time, frankly.