Bleeder [Blood Magic, Book 1]

What if everything you knew about yourself was a lie?

Mildred "Mills" Millhatten had a good life: close-knit family, fantastic friends, decent grades and even a not-totally-annoying kid brother. You might say it was the best kind of ordinary. Nothing could have prepared her for being taken and cast into a strange, vicious world that she didn't know existed and has little hope of understanding.

As a Bleeder - one whose lifeblood feeds the Nosferatu - her continued survival hangs ever in the balance. The creatures are keeping her alive because they believe her blood has mystical properties. Mills fears what will happen when they realize they are wrong.

If she hopes to survive and discover who she truly is, she needs an ally. She has to befriend the mysterious boy who's been secretly visiting her cell, even though he's destined to become a bloodthirsty monster. Because s


30. The Crimes of Omission


Chapter 28: The Crimes of Omission

Keel could become human?

A whole jumble of thoughts, dreams and hopes tumbled through my head unbidden. Could there really be a future, topside, for us? One completely free of the Nosferatu bloodlust and all the crazy that came with it? We’d never even considered the possibility that Keel’s transition could go the other way too. Like half-vampires being able to walk in daylight, and failure to turn not meaning almost instantaneous death, this was yet another truth mysteriously missing from the Nosferatu tomes and teachings.

I turned to Keel, curious to see how he was handling this revelation, but his hands were shoved deep in his pockets and the mixture of emotions etched on his face was several shades darker than mine. Since he didn’t consider me any more human than he was, it was easy to forget how Keel saw ordinary people, and how willing and eager he’d always been to shed his humanity and become what he was destined to be. This thing between us didn’t change that any more than his obsession with human trinkets changed it. He enjoyed watching the ant farm, but he had no interest in becoming a colony drone. It was all right there in his posture, his eyes: he’d always believed he was meant to transition, to become Nosferatu, to be king. Choosing this would cement a new path for him. If he became human, there would be no going back – ever.

Still, Ephraim was being unnecessarily cruel. How was Keel supposed to make a huge, life-altering choice like that while we stood here waiting? Ephraim was treating Keel’s decision as if it should be no more difficult than flipping a coin.

“Does he have to make up his mind right this second?” I asked.

“The longer he stays in this half-state, the more of a threat he’ll become,” Ephraim said, in that cold, emotionless way of his. He sounded as if he was reciting lines from a textbook, or delivering a particularly dry lecture.

“Still, can’t he have a little bit of time?” I pleaded.

Ephraim was looking at us with that penetrating gaze again. I knew he was trying to figure out the connection between Keel and I, why I would defend him so fiercely and vice versa. He was smart and observant enough to know it had to go beyond honour and what was right, but we’d been careful to obfuscate whatever signs of the bond we could, and there was no way the hard, cold man standing in front of us would ever believe it was love. Even if I was terrible at disguising it.

Meeting Ephraim made me wonder who my mother was even more, and what she’d seen in him and why. Was there ever a time he wasn’t like this? Sadly, she was another mystery, another secret that I needed him for in order to uncover. And I didn’t want to need him for anything.

Yet, by dangling the carrot of Keel’s humanity in front of us, along with the promise of a monster-free life, he’d found a way to own us without having to concede much of anything and certainly without ever having to be nice. Maybe this is why Keel played the politics game so much better than me: he was conditioned to be ready for betrayal, ulterior motives and sabotage, while I was always desperate to hold on to my faith in people’s inherent common decency.

“Twenty-four hours,” Ephraim relented, begrudgingly. From the way he was scanning the crowd, it was clear he wanted to make a hasty departure. “But between now and then, no more blood.” He directed those last three words at Keel, slowing them down so they came out in a blunt, heavy staccato for maximum mental penetration.

“Understood, sir,” Keel said.

Ephraim gave the two of us another withering glance, then shook his head and continued, “There is a safe house not too far from here where you can stay for the night. Once he makes his decision, we will figure out how – and where – to proceed.”

“Can we trust him?” I said to Keel, through the blood bond. He shrugged slightly; he wasn’t sure either. “Do we go with him?” I asked wordlessly. He nodded once. Unless you were watching for the motion, it would have looked like something on the ground had just caught Keel’s eye, but it was all the answer I needed.

“Okay,” I said. “Where’s this safe house?”

“That is not for you to know,” Ephraim said. “But I will take you there.”

I shot Keel a wary, hesitant look, but he gave me another one of those subtle nods. If he was terrified of my father, yet willing to go along with this, why did I have so many reservations? Probably because I didn’t exactly want to be alone with the man when he discovered what I was hiding behind these sunglasses. Of course, Keel should be worried about that too.

Ephraim was so wrapped up in secrecy, and there couldn’t possibly be any more damning evidence of just how many sorcerer secrets I had been sharing with the enemy, or how enrapt with the half-vampire prince I’d become than my irises. We had been avoiding the p-word too. Would admitting his lineage, the fact that he was – or at least had been until very recently – the heir to the Nosferatu throne, change things? From Keel’s careful omissions, I knew he thought it would. Either way, it wasn’t my secret to tell. It wasn’t like there weren’t already more than enough secrets to go around.

“Okay,” I said, but my voice lacked confidence.

Ephraim spun on his heel and started walking; Keel and I trailed behind, just out of earshot.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I whispered.

“No more dangerous than the rest of them.”

“But he might kill you,” I said.

“I’m doing nothing more than what was done to you.”

It took me a moment to figure out what he was talking about. Then it clicked. The way he saw it, he was putting his fate into my father’s hands much as I’d been forced to put mine in his father’s. He wasn’t trying to martyr himself, however; he just wanted me to get my life back, or at least the life he believed I should be leading. I’d told him virtually nothing of my adopted human family back in New York, though there were moments I’d wanted to. Even then, common sense had dictated that Keel could never be a true confidant, not while he was still dividing time with his monstrous side; it was too risky. I didn't want my friends and family to end up being his pawns, any more than I wanted them to be the King’s, which is also why I hadn’t called home yet. I ached to hear Mikey's voice, and Estella's, but I feared it would raise too many unanswerable questions.

“You don’t have to,” I said. Keel didn’t need to pay for his father’s sins like this. It was stupid.

“Yes, I do,” he replied. “Because you won’t go if I won’t. Now, come on.” With that, he quickened his pace and closed the distance between Ephraim and us. Apparently, we were done talking. Keel had been acting a little off ever since the episode on the roof, but it’s not like we’d had much time to deconstruct it yet and, honestly, it hadn’t seemed like Keel wanted to. I figured he was still processing all the bombs that fallen on his world view lately. As someone who’d been there, I knew that sometimes it just took time. And nothing else.

Once I’d caught up, I scanned Keel’s face for some reason to back out of all of this, but he didn’t seem all that fearful anymore, just pensive, lost in thought. Thinking of becoming human? I wondered.

When Ephraim led us to a beige minivan with tinted windows, I almost burst out laughing. There was nothing about that car – nothing – that said “badass sorcerer.” That was probably the point, but it didn’t stop it from being a hideous suburban soccer-mom-mobile with not one iota of cool about it. Keel must’ve sensed I was about to say something smart assed, because he elbowed me sharply in the ribs before I could even open my mouth.

“Play nice,” he whispered, and I elbowed him back.

“You’re not my keeper,” I quipped, half-seriously.

Keel and I climbed into the backseat. He shoved the backpack down onto the floor at his feet. Neither of us, it seemed, was entirely comfortable with the prospect of sitting next to my father, even for what he’d called “a short drive.” Ephraim didn’t climb in right away; instead, he circled around to the back and opened the rear hatch, returning with a pair of long, dark cloths. Blindfolds. A surge of foreboding shot through me.

Keel slunk his hand across the seat, as discretely as possible, until his pinky finger overlapped with mine. I closed my eyes and let the calming energy he was sending wash through me and clear my head. Then I returned with a question: “Is this really necessary?”

“A safe house is safe because only a select few know where it is,” Ephraim said. “You are not among the few.”

“It’s okay,” Keel said, patting my hand reassuringly. “Just go with it.” But it wasn’t, I saw the way Ephraim frowned at us whenever Keel and I talked, whenever he touched me. He was going to go absolutely nuclear when he found out how deep this whole thing went, and I highly doubted being alone in a safe house with him when that happened was the smartest place to be. Still, I kept getting overruled at every turn. It was annoying, and I had no idea why Keel was being so insistent – it was as out of sorts for him as the meek, reverential tone he put on in Ephraim’s presence.

I watched as my father tied the blindfold on Keel none too gently, snarling gobs of his brown hair in the folds of the knot, and I thought, This is it: last chance to run, last chance to call this whole thing off.

The idea of a human Keel was undeniably delicious, but how did we know this wasn’t a trap? Keel had been practically suicidal this morning; what if he still was now? What if he knew exactly what he was walking into and was just going along with it because it saved him a trip back to the compound, and the possibility of being killed by his own father? Better mine than his?

I shuddered, but had no time to linger on that particular slice of darkness, because Ephraim was suddenly on my side of the van with my blindfold. I closed my eyes and removed the sunglasses. I hoped he didn’t notice the very deliberate order I’d done that in. There was a tortuous second or two of waiting before I felt him wrap the warm, slightly stretchy cloth around my head. He was definitely gentler with mine than he’d been with Keel’s. I caught a whiff of sandalwood and pine needles as he leaned towards me; his scent was perhaps the only appealing thing about him. Then he was gone again, his absence immediately punctuated by the loud thunk of my door slamming shut. Phew.

Ephraim got in the front and started the van. “If either of you remove those blindfolds before I give you permission to, I will kill you. Understand?” he said in a no-nonsense tone that sent shivers down my spine.

I nodded my agreement and Keel must have, too,  because no one said anything after that. A few minutes later, once we were on the road, the radio sprung to life with classic rock, 1970s era. Not my first choice, but at least it wasn’t country. Even if it had been, I wouldn’t have dared to get lippy about it.

This was Ephraim’s van, Ephraim's music, and Ephraim's orders. There was little doubt he would make good on his threats if we didn’t follow his instructions to the letter. He may not have been as outright, in-your-face scary as the King, but it was quickly becoming clear that my father was ruthless in his own way. To him, even was expendable: all it would take it was one wrong move, one slip of the cloth. My fears rattled around in my head like rusty chains, but soon the low hum of the engine and the soothing motion of the vehicle threatened to lull me into sleep. Now that there was nothing to do but sit and wait and worry, there was also nothing to keep the wall of exhaustion from crashing down. How long had I been awake? How long had Keel? Longer than me. Too long.

I turned the cap on my head around backwards and leaned against the window. It didn’t take long for the Sandman to claim me.

* * *

I didn’t wake up until the sound of one of the van’s doors slamming shut jarred me back into consciousness.

“You can take off the blindfold now,” Keel said, beside me. “And don’t worry about your eyes; he’s already headed up towards the house.”

I yanked the piece of fabric away from my face and blinked as my eyes adjusted to the partially muted afternoon sun, which would have been a lot brighter if we hadn’t been surrounded by what looked like thick forest. We were parked in front of a modest, well-maintained, white, two-storey farmhouse with matching wraparound porch. If it hadn’t been for the completely unkempt yard – a scraggly tangle of nearly waist-high grass and weeds – the house would have looked like something out of a painting. As it was, it gave the impression of two different properties having been smashed uncomfortably together. Guess no one spent much time outdoors here. Shame. I was sick to death of being inside.

Keel grabbed the backpack, and I slid the sunglasses back onto my face. I wasn’t going to be able to hide my red-ringed eyes much longer, but I was holding out for a good moment, if not an opportune one, to try to explain.

Ephraim was already talking to someone as we approached the front steps. When we arrived at the door, he introduced us to Bruce, a stocky, thirtysomething man with short black hair who was dressed in a pair of stained blue coveralls. He explained that Bruce was the property’s caretaker and maintained the house’s various security systems, and that unless there was a problem of some sort, we’d likely see very little of him during our stay.

It wasn’t Bruce’s presence that threw me off balance as much as the unexpected realization that we had something in common. This man’s eyes were ringed too, only with a familiar shade of brown instead of my unnatural red. I felt an instant, unexplainable kinship with him, and made a mental note to corner him as soon as possible and grill him about it.

The introductions now complete, Bruce tilted his head politely at us and vanished back into the house. Ephraim gave us the rundown of the place verbally, even though he could have just as easily taken us on a walking tour. Guess we also weren’t those kind of guests, either. I tried not to scowl at him.

The basement was Bruce’s domain, he explained. We were not to go down there for any reason. The main floor held the kitchen, laundry room, dining room and sitting room. Upstairs, there were three bedrooms and a study. Cleaning supplies were kept under the sinks in both bathrooms – upper and lower – and we’d be responsible for tidying up after ourselves. Bruce was not a maid. Lastly, Ephraim advised us to stay indoors and out of sight, and that he’d be back tomorrow afternoon for Keel’s decision. He wasn’t going to tell us anything else, it seemed, until Keel determined which team he was playing for.

Made sense, I guess, but it bothered me that my own father had been so quick to label me as one of the other. In some ways I was, but he wasn't even making an effort to get to know me. If he did, he’d figure out that I was still fundamentally a good person – and apparently a halfway decent sorceress. Of course, Keel had a lot to do with both of those things. He could very well be the sole reason I was still as light and as balanced as I was, after all the torture, the feedings, the massacre.

Oh god, what will Ephraim think of the massacre? Does that count as a political incident?

Things should be getting simpler, but they weren’t. Keel and I could die of complications. Literally.

We watched as Ephraim trudged back to his beige beast and drove away, without so much as a wave. Once the vehicle was out of sight, I collapsed into Keel’s chest. My heart sang happily as he wrapped his arms around me.

“Why are we here?” I asked, as I watched a pair of butterflies weave through the tall grass in the yard.

“Because you owe it to yourself to give this a chance, if only for what he could teach you.”

“And what about you?” The way my head was pressed up against his chest, I could hear his heart beating through his ribcage.  “Are you really thinking of becoming human?”

I felt Keel’s muscles tense and my heart sank. He wasn’t taking to the idea at all.

“I don’t know,” he said, his words contradicting what his body had just told me. “But I’m too tired to think about it right now.”

“You didn’t get any sleep in the van?” I said.

“No.  I was watching over you.”

“Oh.” I didn’t ask him why he thought I needed protecting from my own father, because I could think of a half-dozen reasons myself.

“Can we get some sleep now?” he asked. His shoulders were drooping and he looked even paler than normal, if that was possible. “I promise I’ll give you plenty of time to tell me why I should throw everything away in the morning.”

He said it in a lighthearted way, but it didn’t change the meaning. He doesn’t want this. He was just giving me the chance to sleep on that knowledge, to try to understand it. But I did already, and it depressed the hell out of me. Even more so because he was wrong. I wasn’t going to argue with him over this. If his heart was set on following the course he’d been headed on his entire life, who was I to stop that from happening? Love was just one thing. Could it really weigh up against all the things that made up a life?

I could not compete against an entire race, a whole kingdom, a throne – assuming he was able to find a way back into the Nosferatu graces. I couldn’t even compete with the prospect of that.

But I feared the hollowness that would be left by losing him, losing this connection between us. Sure, there were times I loathed the bond and its non-consensual forced intimacy, but I’d miss that core, base level of emotional communication just the same, and I knew that I’d never connect with anyone else on the same level as I did with Keel. Blood and soul. Natural and preternatural.

And what exactly would happen to a full-blooded vampire who walks among men?

I followed Keel into the house, careful to close and lock the front door behind me before heading upstairs. Of the three bedrooms, the smaller two housed twin beds and the other a queen-sized one. Keel entered the latter and tossed the backpack onto a sun-bleached wicker chair in the corner beside the closet, while I hung back, lingering by the beat-up-looking pine dresser near the door.

He’d already begun to pull his T-shirt off, revealing his lower-most abs when he noticed that I hadn’t moved from where I was standing. His shirt slid back over his stomach, robbing me of my view. “Is everything okay?” he asked. “Is there some human etiquette thing I’m missing here?”

“Well,” I said slowly, not knowing quite how to word it. “I’m not sure I’m ready to get undressed and crawl into bed with you.”

Keel looked confused. His expression combined with his messy, dirty hair made him seem younger than he was, closer to my age. “But we slept on my bed back at the compound plenty of times.”

“But clothed, mostly clothed,” I clarified. “And even still, it’s different now.”

My answer only seemed to perplex him further. “How so?” he asked, zipping across the room with Nosferatu speed so that he was right in front of me, cupping my face in his hands a moment later. “Is it because of this?” I felt that now-familiar flow of love leave his palms and seep into me.

“Yes,” I gasped, immediately embarrassed by the breathiness of my voice. I felt in danger of losing myself to the pleasant, remarkably vivid sensation. “That definitely complicates things.”

“What is it?” Keel asked.

The question was so mind-blowingly innocent that I burst into riotous laughter. It was something that should have never had to be asked out loud, and probably never had been until this moment when it was uttered by a half-vampire who’d spent way too much time hanging around a misplaced sorceress.

“Love,” I said, quietly, shyly, mostly under my breath. Half worried he’d deny it.

“What’s it for?”

“What do you think it’s for?” This conversation had become so awkward, so emotionally charged, that I had to turn the questions around on him to keep my cheeks from turning fire-engine red and, even still, I wasn’t entirely sure it was working.

Keel slid my sunglasses off my nose and stared into my eyes, giving my question some honest thought, before coming back with, “When I’m like this, it makes me want to protect you and be close to you and…” His lips dropped to mine, continuing the search that was begun by his eyes. “But what about you?” Keel murmured, between kisses. “If I remember correctly, you said love was the one mystery you weren’t willing to solve with me.”

Now I was definitely blushing. Damn his perfect, photographic memory!

“It’s complicated,” I admitted, though I couldn’t resist kissing him back. I wanted to tell him that if he had been a guy at my school, I’d probably have written his name all over my binders and pencil case by now, but I never knew if such confessions simply gave Nosferatu Keel more ammunition. And if there was a renewed chance of that Keel becoming all-the-time Keel, I didn’t want to do that.

“And that’s why this,” he motioned towards the queen-sized bed, “makes you uncomfortable?”

“Yeah, and that I don’t know what you want. Your Nosferatu life or me,” I told him.

“Is it so wrong to want both? You wanted to escape, but you didn’t want to lose me.” His eyes were serious, but his fingers were tracing the line of my collarbone, threatening to be my undoing.

“No, Keel, it’s not wrong,” I acquiesced. “It’s just impossible. And you know that; that’s why you were so content to die up on that roof this morning.”

Keel’s hand stopped moving. “No. I was willing to die because I can’t keep living like this – in between. It’s unnatural, I know that. I can barely explain it, but I feel it in my bones and in each and every one of my cells. My body must transition, one way or the other.”

“Oh,” I said, as the words “biological imperative” trickled back into my mind.

“Thing is, none of those cells are telling me to become human,” Keel continued, his expression pained. “Yet the Nosferatu pull is growing ever stronger, more constant, just like your father predicted it would. I should have transitioned, and now it’s like my body is attempting to correct the error by forcing me into action. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but it’s the truth.”

Keel abruptly stopped touching me and returned to the backpack. “I’m going downstairs to shower,” he said, as he dug around inside of it. “You can use the bathroom up here.”

I thought our conversation was far from over, but Keel disappeared out the bedroom door before I could stop him. All in all, I felt a little shell-shocked. And very conflicted.

But a shower was not something I was willing to pass up. I stood there in the tub under the jets until the hot water ran cold – just thinking. How far was I willing to let this thing between Keel and I go if it was never going to have any future? It hadn’t been our last morning after all, but depending on what he decided tomorrow, this could be our last night.

I stood in front of the mirror with a white fluffy towel wrapped around my torso and assessed myself. My exotic eyes, my vampiric scarlet letter, stared back, as did my myriad remaining scars. My own personal torture scrapbook. I didn’t feel sexy, I felt lost. This wasn’t how I’d pictured spending my first night away from home with a smokin’ hot guy. In my fantasies, I was always brave, imagining myself gliding out of the bathroom and dropping the towel, offering a wordless invitation. But if I did that here, tonight, what would I be inviting? Keel had already confessed that his bloodlust was getting worse, and if I slept with him wouldn’t that just be tempting fate? Or would he see it as playing dirty, as a scheme to get him to choose human, to choose me?

I changed back into my yoga pants and a red T-shirt I’d grabbed out of the backpack, quickly washing my ratty bra in the sink while trying to convince myself that this wasn’t how I wanted to lose my virginity, even though I was at least half-lying – which didn’t work so well when you did it to yourself. I’d never been as tempted by anyone as I was by Keel, it was as if the whole of me was drawn to him, as if I'd been marked and repurposed to be ever in his orbit, but I worried about what that said about me. How much of it was genuine attraction and how much was influenced by the bond? I shouldn’t want to keep coming back to someone who had such a dark side. Yet, he was out there, just on the other side of the door, and the only place I’d rather him be was even closer. Did that make me sick? Foolish? Some combination thereof?

By the time I stepped back into the bedroom, I’d chickened out entirely, which was okay, because Keel was already in bed sound asleep, his pillow soaking up the moisture from his still-wet hair. I peeked under the sheets before sliding in next to him. He’d crashed in his boxers. I was nowhere near that brave, or comfortable with my lattice-work scars. None of it mattered once my head hit the pillow, though, because I was out cold in seconds.

* * *

When the first sounds of shattering glass cut through my slumber, I dismissed them as a nonsensical part of my dream in progress, even though there were absolutely no windows along the dusky beachfront where, in the dream world, I was walking barefoot. But who truly understood dream logic anyway? It was only when the second wave of tinkling glass reached my ears that I snapped back to full wakefulness with a panicky jolt.

“Keel, someone’s breaking in,” I hissed, shaking his bare shoulder violently.

He was out of bed and zipping up his jeans in a blink. God, I wished I had that talent. I’d never be late for anything again – ever.

I heard another crash downstairs. Our intruder was on the move.

“Nosferatu,” Keel said quietly.

“How do you know?” I whispered, relieved that I’d chosen to pass out in my clothes. There was no way I would have been able to get dressed in the dark with any kind of grace or speed. I’d be stuck confronting our attacker half naked or with stuff on backwards or inside out.

“Can’t smell his blood,” Keel said, “but Bruce is down in the basement. I’m getting a faint read of his.”

“What do we do?” I asked, urgently. Would Bruce understand what he was facing if he reached the vampire before we did, or would our little break-out finally claim its first truly innocent life? How would I explain that to Ephraim? I didn’t even want to ponder it. I just wanted to get downstairs to stop it before it happened.

“Not much we can do, except distract him and then take him out. He’ll be able to smell all of us, and since Bruce is human, he’ll be able to tell our scents apart too. Though yours and his will be the strongest, the most compelling.”

“So let’s use that to our advantage,” I said, though I had no specific ideas as to how. “But let’s get this done.” The longer we stood here waffling on a course of action, the greater the likelihood became of Bruce coming across the Nosferatu before we did.

“Stay close,” Keel directed as he swung the bedroom door open just far enough for us to slip through it.

“You got it, boss,” I said, tiptoeing out into the hallway behind him, then immediately pressing my back against the wall. There was no sense in making myself a walking target for a creature who had much better night vision than I did.

When we reached the staircase, I felt Keel’s hand on my shoulder, stopping me. As we peered around the corner and down the stairs, we saw a shadowy shape slinking along the hallway towards the front foyer. The indistinct, murky grey light made it impossible to make out any details about the intruder. Still, his use of stealth now struck me as kind of hilarious in light of how much noise he’d made during the actual break-in part of the break in.

Keel slid into position at the bannister above the hallway. He motioned with his hands that he was going to jump onto the vampire in an attempt to disorient him, at which point I should rush down the stairs and release a burst of magic.

Before any of that could happen, though, all hell broke loose.

Every light in the house flashed on simultaneously, accompanied by the high-pitched shrieking wail of a siren, which brought both Keel and the mysterious black-clad figure downstairs to their knees, hands clasped firmly over ears. But before the intruder’s kneecaps even hit the hardwood floor, a flannel pajama-clad Bruce burst out of the basement, scythe in hand and neatly separated the Nosferatu’s head – and hands – from the rest of its body. Three arcs of red arterial splatter sprayed out almost to the front door, before dying down to a trickle. It was over in a matter of seconds. Surprise had definitely been the idea, but Bruce had that market totally cornered and then some. I gaped down at him slack-jawed as he leaned back into the basement doorway to silence the alarm.

“Holy shit,” I said, as I started down the stairs. “No wonder you’re in charge of security. That was... awesome.”

Bruce was frowning at the corpse on the floor, but put on a broad grin when he looked up at me. “Working for sorcerers, you have to learn a few tricks,” he said, “unless you don’t plan on surviving for very long.”

“That was a great one,” I told him, but I couldn’t help wondering why the house hadn’t been protected by magic like the cabin in the desert was. Yet Bruce had just proved himself a much more effective deterrent than that fiery, invisible, electro-shock barrier had been. Still... “Why no magic?” I asked.

“Don’t trust the stuff,” he said, bluntly, leaving me gobsmacked.

“Then why do you work for sorcerers?”

“Probably the same reason you run with Nosferatu,” he said, leaning his scythe against the wall and waggling his right hand at our strikingly similar eyes. Crap! With all the commotion I’d forgotten to hide my little tell.

“Maybe,” I offered cryptically, but didn’t volunteer anything more about Keel and me.

A moment later, Keel joined us at the bottom of the stairs and immediately bee-lined to the severed head and began inspecting it. “I know him,” he announced, when he was done. “He’s one of the compound’s best hunter-trackers.”

“Must be,” Bruce agreed. “This is the first vamp that’s found its way here since I took over more than ten years ago. Mostly I dispatch a lot of weres. I’d suggest you were followed, but Mr. Sayre would never allow that to happen, and you did arrive with Mr. Sayre.”

I was waiting to see if Keel would correct Bruce and say “Nosferatu,” but he didn’t. However, just as I was about to ask more about these “weres” Bruce had mentioned, Keel interjected.

“So what happens when this happens?” He nudged the intruder’s lifeless corpse with his bare foot, transferring a tiny bit of blood onto his pale white toes.

“For now, let’s drag him out back,” Bruce said, as if this sort of thing was pretty routine around here. “No telling if there are others still out there, so we’ll wait until daybreak to bury him just to be sure.”

“What if someone finds the corpse?” I asked. It was bad enough that the Nosferatu had discovered a sorcerer safe house. What if we attracted local law enforcement too?

“Don’t worry: vamps decompose real quick,” Bruce said, and I wondered what made him such an expert. “All traces of him will be gone in less than two weeks.”

My disbelief must have been evident, because Keel quickly added, “No, really; it’s true.”

“We’ll need to clean up in here too,” Bruce continued, “though I think the only thing that’s going to get the splatter off the walls is a fresh coat of paint.”

I didn’t doubt it. The formerly pristine white walls looked like a half-finished, monochromatic Jackson Pollock painting.

“And of course, we’ll have Mr. Sayre to answer to when he gets here, which –” Bruce paused and  stepped back to peer through the kitchen doorway at the wall clock above the gas stove, “– will probably be soon. The alarm triggers an alert at his residence as well,” he explained.

Zero hour, it seemed, was upon us. It would be impossible to hang onto any of our secrets after this. I just hoped this hunter-tracker’s blood was the only blood that would be spilled here tonight.

Keel and Bruce got into position at opposite ends of the headless torso and hoisted it up off the floor, carrying it back down the hall that the vampire had entered through, before dumping it in backyard. It was swallowed by a sea of grass that was easily as tall and unruly as the one in the front yard. I trailed behind them, holding the head, which was surprisingly heavy, outstretched in my left hand and the pair of hands in my right, careful not to get any of the still-dripping blood on my clothes. Once outside, I deposited them next to the body, then fled back into the house and its open-concept kitchen to run my hands under scalding hot water for next ten minutes. I’d definitely gotten a lot less squeamish. Before the kidnapping, I would have recoiled at the thought of carrying a severed head anywhere. Now it was just something that had to be done, so I did it – but I still wanted to scrub the pasty, soapy feel of the Nosferatu’s dead skin off of my palms and fingers.

Meanwhile, from the sounds of it, Keel and Bruce were not only busy gathering up the necessary cleaning supplies for the next part of our gruesome chore, but really hitting it off as well. Obviously, I wasn’t the only one who’d been impressed by Bruce’s samurai act.

As I was drying my water-wrinkled hands on the kitschy paisley dishtowel that dangled from the door of the stove, Bruce poked his head into the kitchen. “We’re gonna get started out here, but we could sure use a third set of hands,” he said, tossing a pair of yellow rubber gloves in my direction, suggesting that despite his asking the decision had already been made for me. They bounced off my chest and hit the floor with a dull slapping sound.  “Sorry,” Bruce said, as I bent down to pick them up. “I thought hanging out with vamps, you’d have better reflexes.”

“Not really,” I said, straightening back up.

“So you gonna help or not?”

“I’ll help,” I said. “It’s kind of all our fault anyway.”

Bruce laughed. It was an easy-going, friendly guffaw that was oddly infectious. “Happens more often than you’d think, kid,” he said. “But most of our guests are nowhere near as contrite about it as you two are.”

“Why not?”

“Because they think they’re better than me,” Bruce stated.

I shot him a questioning look. I didn’t understand how anyone could belittle someone who could take out a Nosferatu with such grace and efficiency, while being vastly outpowered in virtually every sense.

“I’m human,” he clarified. “Worse, I’m a human bound to a sorcerer. When they look at me, they don’t see a groundskeeper or a security specialist: all they see is Mr. Sayre’s servant, his bound property, his pet. But you don’t look at me like that. I notice these things, you know. Then, of course, there’s the matter of your own mark. I can’t believe Mr. Sayre let you stay here with that thing. No wonder we have vamps breaking down the doors.”

I must’ve blushed, or betrayed my nervousness in some other outward way, because Bruce back-peddled a moment later. “We don’t have to talk about it,” he said apologetically. “Though I do hope that someday you’ll tell me how you fell for a bloodsucker.”

“How do you –” I asked, but Bruce cut me off.

“Because I know how we get these. I got mine seventeen years ago when Mr. Sayre brought me back from the brink of certain death. And you got yours saving that boy out there.”

“So why do I have the mark and not him?”

“Because when a sorcerer saves the life of another supe, the sorcerer has to wear the mark,” Bruce explained.

“Does it happen often?”

“Almost never,” he said. “It’s punishable by death.”

The kitchen tilted sideways under my feet and my head spun. Holy hell. This can’t be happening.

Keel was trying to save me, but unbeknownst to him, he may have escorted me to my own execution. I grabbed the edge of the granite countertop to steady myself, but Bruce was already at my side, ensuring that I didn’t fall.

“We have to get out of here,” I said, voice wavering, brittle and edged with desperation. Ephraim was going to be here any second. He was going to see. My gut churned and my pulse raced, but none of it did anything to make me feel any less light-headed.

“Are you okay?” Bruce asked, genuinely concerned, and I couldn’t help but feel horrible about bringing all this drama into his life. He seemed like a really cool, chill guy, almost big brotherly, someone I definitely could see myself being friends with – despite the age difference – but I doubted he’d want anything more to do with me or Keel once he bore witness to Ephraim’s wrath.

“Help me get to Keel,” I told him, and he guided me back down the hallway to where Keel was already on his hands and knees scrubbing away at largest of the pools of blood.

When he saw me being propped up by Bruce, he dropped the soapy pink rag he was holding and sprung to his feet.

“What happened?” he said, rushing towards me, his face a perfect mirror of Bruce’s concern.

“We need to –” I started, but just then the front door rattled, then flew open, and Ephraim blew in like a fierce gust of winter wind, hair wild, clothes wrinkled. He’d obviously thrown on the first things he’d seen and rushed to get here.

“What is –” he said, but nothing more came out, even though his lips continued to form words. His eyes were shifting between the half-wiped-up smears on the floor and walls, the blood staining Keel’s stomach and jeans from where the Nosferatu’s neck stump had dribbled on him while he and Bruce had carried the corpse out of the house, and me – or rather, just my scars and my eyes.  His expression was oscillating between anger, disgust and some unidentifiable, soul-destroying thing that made me want to run upstairs and barricade myself in a closet, refusing to ever come out again.

When Ephraim had taken in everything he possibly could from our little tableau, he pinned Keel in his hard, livid glare. “I think you had better tell me just who the hell you are right now,” he said, his voice absolutely arctic.

Yup, we were completely and utterly screwed.

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