Chapter 1 1
While the path of peace and kindness is a worthwhile goal for any vampire, remember to pursue progress, not perfection. At first, just try to kill fewer people.
—Peace, Blood, and Understanding: A Living Guide for Vampires Embracing Pacifism
I liked to think I was too emotionally evolved to get into an altercation at a one-gate airport involving a box of imported succulents and obscene gestures. But clearly, I was wrong.
I’d been having such a good night, too. My window-box rosemary plants were showing signs of flourishing. I’d finally unpacked the last box in my apartment after living there for almost four years. I was on the verge of being able to quit my part-time second job with the Council. And I had a special event scheduled at Specialty Books that night. Life was coming up pretty freaking rosy for Meadow Schwartz.
But I just had to haul my vampiric ass out to the tiny Half-Moon Hollow Municipal Airport, launching myself toward a near-certain karmic shit-storm. I’d been waiting for weeks for that special shipment of Jewels of Opar to get through customs. And I had to admit I was in a rush to get to the box, as I’d been eagerly planning how I might use the Jewels in various products for my shop, Everlasting Health. The succulent was native to Paraguay and prized for its ability to suppress vampire hunger by helping our bodies absorb more from our feedings. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it and begin experimenting with new tea blends. That was the sort of scintillating nightlife I led.
But my plant nerdery, a skill I hadn’t even discovered until years after I was turned, was a source of comfort to me, not to mention income and passion and healing for the… dozens of people that came into my store every week. (It hadn’t quite taken off yet.) Life was good for me in Half-Moon Hollow, better than it had been in years. And offering teas and potions including rare Paraguayan succulents was going to make that life better.
I parked my early-model Prius in front of the airport, in one of ten parking spaces, checking my reflection in the rearview. Yes, despite centuries of thematically convenient hype promoted by humans, vampires have reflections. At the moment, mine showed long, heavy dark hair that was windblown, but not crazy-cat-lady levels. It framed an oval face with large gray eyes and a chin my mother liked to call “recalcitrant” when it suited her. I grabbed a tube of beeswax-based lip gloss out of my shoulder bag and swiped on a coat of Chipper Cherry.
I was not insecure about my looks. Like most vampires, I was attractive enough to draw in the prey meant to feed me. But it didn’t do, as a local business owner in a very small town, to walk into a public place looking like you’d wrestled an angry badger. Human and vampire gossips alike started talking, and the next thing you knew, your potential customers believed you were an unreliable kook with an addiction to spray inhalants and catnip.
Half-Moon Hollow was one of those lovely little towns, nestled in a curve of the Ohio River in the far reaches of western Kentucky, that wasn’t quite rural but certainly wasn’t urban. It had a few chain stores and restaurants and even a Starbucks—yes, just the one—but without losing its small-town charm. The Half-Moon Hollow airport was like the dollhouse version of a travel hub, and I loved it. It had one gate for one morning flight and one evening flight. While the schedule was pretty limited, it took about four minutes to get through security.
I walked through the airport ticketing lobby, home to a complimentary coffee cart and a suspiciously pink display from the local Chamber of Commerce titled “the Hall of Entrepreneurial Courtneys.” A half-dozen evening arrival passengers were waiting patiently for the ticket agents to feed their luggage through the doggy door toward the single baggage carousel.
“Well, hey there, Meadow!” a raspy feminine voice called from the check-in desk. I waved at Hannah Perkins, one of the airport’s two security agents. She was a sweet-faced little thing, so petite that I wondered how she managed to walk around wearing all that security gear without wobbling. But Hannah was the only girl among six brothers, most of whom grew up filming their own MMA matches in their backyard. I wouldn’t mess with her, and I had superstrength.
I’d met Hannah the same way I’d met most of the people I knew in Half-Moon Hollow: through the book club at Specialty Books, a vampire-friendly occult book shop here in town.
“Hey, Hannah!” I called, grinning. “How are you doing?”
“Oh, better than I deserve,” Hannah drawled, lifting a large shipping box onto the ticket counter. It was covered in stickers that read, “Caution—LIVE PLANTS” in both English and Spanish. “We got your package right here. I just need you to sign all these scary customs forms. I filled out as much of it as I could, to save you some time.”
“Aw, thank you.”
She clucked her tongue. “Well, I’d like to say it was purely unselfish, but your handwriting tends to set off what we in the business call ‘bureaucratic red flags’ with the USDA.”
“Fair enough,” I conceded, taking the clipboard full of customs forms she offered. I signed my name about twenty times and handed it back to her. “Have you read the book for the next book club meeting?”
“The zombie-hunting mash-up of Wuthering Heights?” Hannah said. “Yeah, but I don’t think Jane’s gonna appreciate my comments. I did what she said and stuck a little Post-it note on a page every time I had a strong emotional reaction to the book. And all my Post-its say, ‘Kill Zombie Cathy sooner, please.’?”
“Well, all of my Post-it notes say, ‘Kill Zombie Heathcliff faster,’ so we’ll have an interesting back-and-forth,” I said, making her giggle.
“You hated it, too?”
“No, I just really hate Heathcliff,” I told her. “In all forms. Dead or undead. And Cathy. This book has been a problem for me since I was a high school senior. I wrote a twelve-page research paper on how dysfunctional their relationship was, not realizing it was my English teacher’s favorite novel. I almost ended up in summer school.”
Hannah laughed. “Well, we’ll just have to get through the discussion without hurting anybody’s feelings.”
“For the very first time.” I laughed, hefting the box off of the counter.
“You want me to get that out to your car for you, Meadow? It’s pretty heavy,” Hannah’s partner, Denny, called from across the lobby, where he was sweeping before the gate’s closure. Denny was a tall, thin, balding man, and like most of my neighbors, his thick bluegrass accent turned my name into “Medda.”
“No, thanks, Denny!” I called back. “Vampire strength!”
“Oh, right!” Denny laughed, clapping a hand to his shiny forehead. “Sorry, I forget sometimes.”
This was one of the strange dichotomies of living in the Hollow. Although, generally, I didn’t appreciate the sentiment that as a female, I didn’t have the upper-body strength to open my own door, I knew Denny wasn’t trying to be condescending. He was honestly raised to believe that the polite things to do were to open doors for a lady, carry her heavy objects, and stand when she entered a room. Like with a lot of men around town, his actions weren’t directed at me, but centered on honoring his beloved mama.
“It was sweet of you to offer,” I said. “Y’all have a good night!”
“Night!” Denny and Hannah called after me. I carried the unwieldy box to my car, carefully strapping it into the passenger seat. The soft Kentucky spring evening wrapped around me like a cool cotton sheet. The air smelled of warm asphalt and the early-blooming honeysuckle climbing its way up the security fence near the woods at the far end of the lot. I could hear the faint heartbeats of the deer milling around the runway and the droning of newly hatched mosquitoes. I tilted my face toward the endless expanse of sky and thanked the universe for sending me to this place to make my life.
I approached my bright blue “new to me” car. I loved having my own transportation, paid for with my own money, though I rarely drove the thing. I lived close enough to my shop and the local office of the World Council for the Equal Treatment of the Undead that I could walk back and forth to my apartment most nights. But I was looking forward to a nice cruise back to town, blasting the indie femme rock of my youth. I happened to think the Prius’s structural acoustics were perfect for Alanis Morissette.
“Excuse me!” a voice called across the parking lot. “Miss! Hey!”
I turned to see a man standing on the curb in front of the airport exit. Even after what had to be a cramped, uncomfortable flight in that tiny plane, he was handsome, in that perfect, polished GQ fashion that was both intimidating and unapproachable. He had the kind of bone structure that seemed designed to make other people feel like they were made of lumpy oatmeal. His blond hair was artfully tousled, and his skin had that pale, iridescent glow that only the undead could achieve. His navy silk suit was crisply pressed, and his shirt was blinding white, even in the bluish fluorescent light of the streetlamps.
The vampire dragged his smart little black hard-sided suitcase behind him as his long legs crossed the lot in a few strides. It was the perfect size for overhead bin space, and just wide enough to support the laptop bag he’d placed on top of it. I could imagine him spending hours shopping for it on the latest-model smartphone he was waggling at me. “Excuse me, miss, I can’t seem to get the app to work—the cell coverage is nonexistent here. Could you help me out?”
It was just then that the breeze picked up and a hint of his scent wafted toward my sensitive nostrils. While the shiny exterior didn’t lure me in, I was an absolute sucker for olfactory appeal, and this man smelled like dark northern forests and sea wind, of dirty sex and secrets. And my knees’ response to this complex and delicious scent was to turn to jelly so useless, I had to sag against my car for a moment.
And even more infuriating, this aroma didn’t seem to come from some pricey custom-blended cologne. I could tell when a body’s odor had been spritzed or splashed on. This was his natural scent. It was a blessing and a curse, this sense of smell that went way beyond even that of a normal vampire’s superiority. It was essential to my work and my talent, but at the same time, it created these inconvenient feelings of weak-kneed lust and resulted in awkward mental pauses in which I silently stared at someone while my brain processed their pheromones.
And in this case, the subject stared back with a considerable amount of hostility.
I blinked rapidly and shook my head. “I’m sorry?”
“There’s twenty bucks in it for you.” He had a snooty Northern accent, like he’d gone to a boarding school involving striped ties and extensive hazing.
I lifted my brows. “Twenty bucks for what?”
His lantern jaw set in a frustrated line. His dark-brown eyes—the color of bitter coffee long left cold—narrowed at me. “A ride?”
“OK, I have had some forward propositions before, but this one takes the cake,” I muttered.
“What? No!” he exclaimed and surveyed me from head to toe. “Don’t flatter yourself.”
I scoffed. “Please, it’s hardly flattery. I’m awesome.”
“Well, you’re a terrible Uber driver,” he told me, his voice growing stern as he crossed his arms over his chest in a manner that strained that carefully tailored shirt.
I burst out laughing. Because we didn’t have Uber in Half-Moon Hollow. Or GrubHub or Wag or any of those convenience apps supposed to make life in a reasonably sized city easier. Because we simply didn’t have enough tech-savvy residents to support it. People loved shopping retail here, which was why so many small businesses like mine thrived. Ordering pizza online was a stretch for the average Half-Moon Hollow resident. “I’m not an Uber driver at all. I’m just here to pick up a package.”
“What, like drugs?” he said, frowning as his arms dropped to his sides. “I won’t get in your car if you’re carrying drugs.”
“Oh, yeah, it’s totally drugs. I’m clearly a drug dealer,” I said flatly, gesturing down at the kimono-sleeved floral top and jeans I was wearing, even as my temper flared—a hot, acidic sensation I hadn’t felt in years. “Also, I didn’t invite you to go near my car, so this has all worked out quite nicely for the both of us.”
“So you stole this car from some poor driver, who I hope is better at his job than you are?” he snarked, nodding toward my windshield. I glanced toward my car, which was pretty nondescript beyond the “Save the Earth, We’re the Only Planet with Tacos” bumper sticker and the… damn it.
I’d forgotten about that stupid “U” sticker on my windshield.
“No, I bought a used car from an Uber driver in Louisville, and I haven’t been able to get the freaking decal off. I swear, the guy must have stuck the thing on with rubber cement,” I grumbled. “Normally, it’s not an issue, because no one around here uses Uber. They just think I have some strange driver safety restriction they’ve never seen before. I get good parking spaces, though.”
“Do all of your conversations with strangers involve giving them your unsolicited life story?” he asked, smirking at me.
“Do all of your conversations with strangers involve both direct and indirect insults?” I asked, circling my car.
“It depends on the stupidity of those strangers,” he shot back. “I’m guessing in this town, the average is going to be a little higher.”
I pressed my lips together into an exasperated line. He’d insulted my town, my home, and the people in it, and that was not going to stand… but that was old Meadow. New Meadow knew that violence was the useless and infantile expression of a brain that couldn’t create a better alternative. Also, vampires couldn’t be strangled, so it was doubly useless.
“I’m going to need you to step the hell away from my car,” I said, getting into the car.
“Well, how the hell am I supposed to get a cab in this backwater town?” he yelled, so loud I could hear clearly through my closed passenger window. I lowered the window as I rolled soundlessly out of my parking space.
“That is not my problem,” I told him as he jogged along with my car. “You could always walk, if you’re not afraid of messing up those pretty shoes.”
I was not being kind or patient here. It was a seventeen-mile trek to the town proper, because the optimistic town fathers of Half-Moon Hollow had assumed there would be some sort of construction boom when the airport was built in the 1970s. Besides Denny and Hannah’s trucks, the parking lot was empty. The airport car rental office was only open on Fridays as they tended to be the “big arrival” flights before the weekend. And the pay phone dangling from the ancient BellSouth cubicle hadn’t worked in nearly ten years. He wasn’t going to be able to call a cab unless he went back into the quickly closing airport and asked Hannah—who was even less likely to put up with his elitist bullshit than I was. He’d be lucky if he didn’t end up sleeping on the tarmac with the deer.
“Look, I realize that the patchouli has probably soaked into your brain, inhibiting cognitive function, but I need to get into Half-Moon Hollow, and I will make it worth your while. If you would just stop this ridiculous french-fry-oil-powered hippie-mobile and behave like a normal person!”
“Maybe if you’d been remotely polite, I’d have driven you into town for nothing but a smile and a few minutes of sparkling conversation. But since you are so far from sparkling I can’t even think of an adjective rude enough, you’re going to have to put all those city smarts to good use.”
I waggled my fingers as I hit the gas pedal. “Namaste, jackass!”
I drove away apologizing to that nameless, faceless higher power in the universe for my interaction with the corporate tool, but I was also determined not to linger on it for too long. The past was the past. I couldn’t change it. I could only try not to be snarky to strangers in the future. I wouldn’t even think about it again… except for describing it in detail to Jane, because she would find it really funny.
I tried hard to be a good person, but I wasn’t a saint.
Fortunately for me, ’90s lady-rage rock was the perfect balm for nerves frazzled by an overdressed jerk. I sang my jagged little heart out on the drive to my apartment building, where I rented a second-floor, one-bedroom unit located over a small folk art gallery and a florist. The building belonged to Dick Cheney—the vampire, not the former vice president—so my rent was reasonable. And the building always smelled like flowers, which was a plus.
I climbed out of the Prius, hefting the box out of the front seat with ease. I waved at Sammy Palona, my human neighbor, who also happened to work as a barista and sandwich guy at the Council office coffee stand. Sammy was tall and muscular and looked like he should be playing football with a minotaur in a beer commercial, but instead he made the most delicately decorated lattes you’d ever seen. He had his own YouTube channel full of tutorials on making foam art—leaves and hearts and cute little cats. And he smelled of his coffee condiments—honey and cinnamon and sugar.
So he was basically the perfect human man, if you happened to like a Jason Momoa type who smelled like candy. Unfortunately, Sammy and I had mutually friend-zoned each other within minutes of meeting, because it just seemed like crossing too many streams to date your neighbor who also happened to be your coworker.
“Hi, Sammy!” I called as I jogged toward him.
“Hey, Meadow, did you have a good night?” he said, nodding to the box. “Do you need help with that?”
“No, I did not, and no, I do not, but thank you,” I said in a crisp tone that made him bark out a laugh. “And here I am ending the night on a high note, talking to you, so it can’t be all bad. How was work for you?”
He offered me a smile so white and even it should have belonged to a vampire. “Well, the IT department is pushing on some big deadline, and they kept asking me for quadruple-shot lattes.”
“Oh, that is a bad decision in a cup,” I said, shaking my head. “Those IT kids are naturally high-strung anyway.”
“I switched them to decaf after midnight without telling them. It was for the greater good.”
I laid a hand on Sammy’s shoulder, which required me to reach up. “You are a true humanitarian.”
He chin-pointed up the flight of metal stairs that led to my open-plan floor. “I think you got a new neighbor.”
I turned to look upstairs, as if I could spot the newcomer through the closed door. That apartment next to mine had been empty for months. Dick had even tried to offer it furnished, but it had remained unoccupied. Frankly, I kind of liked it that way. It meant that no one complained about my music choices, which could be somewhat heavy on the didgeridoo. (It helped me fall asleep in the mornings.) But I would be neighborly and kind and turn my Australian sleep music down to tolerable levels.
“I will wait until I have had a much better night to introduce myself, because I’m sort of chock-full of ‘lashing out at strangers with the goal of making them cry’ energy.”
Sammy blanched. “Did you really make someone cry?”
“I was provoked.”
He laughed. “I believe it. But just this once.”
“I’m going upstairs. I’ll start fresh tomorrow and hope for better. Good night.”
“Good night!” he called as I jogged up the stairs and unlocked the series of locks on the door. I wasn’t particularly worried about having my fictitious valuables stolen, but Andrea and Dick insisted that all of their undead tenants have considerable security during our vulnerable daylight hours. Dropping the box and my keys on a nearby table, I leaned against the door. I breathed in the scent of the dried lemon peel and cinnamon sticks I kept in an earthenware bowl on that table and knew that I was home.
I loved my little apartment. It certainly wasn’t the nicest place I’d ever lived, but it was mine and mine alone. No one could take it from me or kick me out. No one could tell me that my apple-green walls weren’t acceptable or judge me because my bed was never, ever made. No one could tell me that the little pots of kitchen herbs I grew on the counter were useless—which, technically, they were, since I didn’t eat. I just liked the smell.
I walked to my fridge, the contents of which were no one’s business but my own, and took out a bottle of donor type B to set in the warmer. Though my couch—a comfortable yard sale find I’d recovered in lilac-colored canvas—was inviting, I walked out to my tiny balcony, just big enough for two lawn chairs and a couple of planter boxes. I enjoyed my dinner while looking down at the nonexistent traffic of Millard Street after ten P.M.
I needed that mental space to process my responses to the airport guy. That level of instant antagonism was absolutely not normal for me in interactions with anyone, really. I was willing to make that man weep like a confessional politician. I hadn’t felt that sort of “killer instinct” in years. Was it the overpolished, overtly meticulous exterior? Or the fact that he seemed to embrace everything that drove me nuts about modern life? Or that he so easily disdained the surroundings that gave me so much comfort? It was probably a combination of all three.
Too bad. It was an awfully nice exterior… that smelled even better.
I could still feel that scent moving through my nervous system, woodsy and spicy with a hint of salt and lust. I wanted to wallow, to wrap myself in it and stay there for days. And if he happened to come along with the smell, fine.
No. I took a drink and shook my head at my own shallowness. I would not be swayed by his perfectly even, artistically arranged features. This was a backslide into the old Meadow—who hadn’t even been named Meadow in the first place. She was a spoiled, angry, vengeful girl who did a lot of damage to the people around her. I would not be that person again.
I didn’t have the sort of leeway to indulge in those darker urges anyway. Technically, I was still considered a probationary case with the World Council for the Equal Treatment of the Undead. The Council was a group of ancient vampires elected to govern undead citizens around the globe after an undead tax consultant named Arnie Frink launched vampires into the open by suing his Milwaukee employer for nighttime hours and sun-safe work spaces. Probation was a “special” designation for vampires who had caused trouble when they were newborns. And I had caused a considerable amount of trouble—blood-soaked, “documented by state and federal authorities” trouble.
I was only allowed the freedom I enjoyed because Jane Jameson-Nightengale supervised my case. I could live in an apartment of my choosing and run a business. I received a paycheck for my work with the Council office, as opposed to it being unpaid labor deemed “service hours.” If I stepped out of line, gave in to those aforementioned urges, I would most likely be reassigned to some stricter supervisor, and my situation could get much worse—“living in someone else’s home, under twenty-four-hour surveillance/instruction” worse. And so I would bite back those predatory, ruthless impulses and remain in my cozy apartment and comfortable life.
I couldn’t pay for my fancy cinnamon sticks and Prius charging with “service hours.”