If you are interested in blogging or want to promote your book next year, please contact E. B. Davis at writerswhokill@gmail.com

Our March author interviews: Karen Pullen (3/1), Lowcountry Crime authors: Tina Whittle, Polly Iyer, Jonathan M. Bryant, and James M. Jackson (3/8), Annette Dashofy (3/15), Maddie Day (3/22) and Barb Ross (3/29).

Saturday Guest Bloggers in March: Maris Soule (3/4), and Virginia Mackey (3/11). WWK Saturday bloggers write on 3/18--Margaret S. Hamilton and on 3/25--Kait Carson.

Julie Tollefson won the Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter's Holton Award for best unpublished manuscript (member category) for her work in progress, In The Shadows. Big news for a new year. Congratulations, Julie.

Congratulations to our writers for the following publications:

Warren Bull's new Lincoln mystery, Abraham Lincoln In Court & Campaign has been released. Look for the Kindle version on February 3.

Shari Randall's "Pets" will be included in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies anthology, which will be published in 2018. In the same anthology "Rasputin," KM Rockwood's short story, will also be published.

Margaret S. Hamilton's short story, "Once a Kappa" was published as a finalist in the Southern Writer's Magazine annual short story contest issue. Mysterical-E published her "Double Crust Corpse" in the Fall 2016 issue. "Baby Killer" will appear in the 2017 solar eclipse anthology Day of the Dark to be published this summer prior to the eclipse in August.

Linda Rodriquez has two pending book publications. Plotting the Character-Driven Novel will be released by Scapegoat Press on November 29th. Every Family Doubt, the fourth Skeet Bannion mystery, is scheduled for release on June, 13, 2017. Look for E. B. Davis's interview with Linda here in June!

Cross Genre Publications anthology, Hidden Youth, will contain Warren Bull's "The Girl, The Devil, and The Coal Mine." The anthology will be released in late November 2016. The We've Been Trumped anthology released by Dark House Press on September 28th contains Warren Bull's "The Wall" short story and KM Rockwood's "A Phone Call to the White House." KM writes under the name Pat Anne Sirs for this volume.

James M. Jackson's 4th book in the Seamus McCree series, Doubtful Relations, is now available. His novella "Low Tide at Tybee" appears February 7 as part of Lowcountry Crimes: Four Novellas, which is available for pre-order.

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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Pam vs. The Demon by E. B. Davis


Flapping her wings in time with a Christmas carol she hummed, Pam, the Sprite of Pamlico Sound, flew along the shoreline of Hatteras Island. Cheery seasonal lights on houses glowed from below. It was only three p.m., but the island was wrapped in a cozy blanket of fog, prompting many residents to turn on their lights early. Sugary smells emanated from the snug beach houses, cabins, and cottages below and wafted on the air currents. Pam’s stomach rumbled.

 A few cookies and a shot of whisky would suit her needs well. She licked her lips, thinking of the snack. Which cookies would best complement her beverage? Gingerbread men, sand tarts, jam thumbprints? No matter. She’d stop by Dare County Deputy Sheriff Sue’s house. Last year when Pam had completed her missions, Sue had seemed a bit miffed. Couldn’t be helped, and Pam had fulfilled Sue’s wishes . After a year, she would have forgotten, and if not—she could just get over it already.

Rounding the bend in the island at Buxton, Pam continued south to Frisco, heading toward Sue’s Sound-side house. As she neared Frisco, a sulphurous odor assaulted her nose. Her demon meter shot up and along with it, a foreboding sensation, the antithesis of a Merry Christmas greeting. What nerve! A demon encroaching on her territory wouldn’t do, especially at this time of year.

Homing in on the demon took her to a shop in Frisco. Pam peered in the window. Two children, tween girls, peeked around the aisle at the clerk manning the cash register. Through an open doorway to the stockroom, the demon upset boxes, which crashed to the floor. The clerk jerked in surprise and rushed to the source of the noise. As the clerk disappeared, one of the girls slipped earrings into her pocket. The other girl took a bracelet and necklace off a stand and slipped them into her hoodie.

Pam shook her head. Damn demons—their goal of tempting and abetting humans into doing wrong seemed cowardly—like terrorist bombers sneaking up on unsuspecting innocents. Weenies. Demons made her mad. She put her hands on her hips. A scowl formed on her face. Assessing the situation only took a second. Sue and Woody, another Deputy Sheriff and Sue’s boyfriend, were in the store, too. The scowl on her face turned into a smile, and the trouble she’d cause the demon put a glint in her eyes. She flew into the stockroom.

On the desk, a pen lay. Pam threw it to the back of the stockroom, making a clatter when it hit a metal shelf. The clerk followed the sound—again.

The demon hovered along the stockroom ceiling, glaring down at her. “What are you supposed to be?”

“Your worst nightmare, Goth-boy.” Pam felt a zing of light zip through her arms and legs, increasing her quickness and sharpening her wits. Like exercise, do-gooding increased her power.

“You must be joking. You’re nothing but a gnat I could swat in a second.”

“I’m a spirit. Killing me isn’t possible. Like I said, I’m your worst nightmare so you may as well leave Hatteras Island now.”

The demon laughed, an unpleasant sound, which caused Pam to grit her teeth. “Being a do-gooder doesn’t have any power that can stop me,” the demon said.

If he didn’t know of sprites and the falseness of that statement, he must not be a very mature demon. Pam assessed his goth attire, black paint mask on his pockmarked face, and tats. She looked into his eyes, determining his path to demonhood. Her breath caught in her throat as she saw the past in the windows of his soul. A young girl dragged away from a 1990s concert—raped, murdered. The cops and the state of North Carolina had done their jobs—arrest and conviction. Too bad violent prison inmates killed him, whooshing him straight to hell. He’d never repented.

Pam released the tension in her shoulders and sorrow in her heart. Her countenance hardened. “Go to any Korn concerts lately?”

The demon’s eyes enlarged. He swallowed as if suffering from a dry mouth. “How did you know?”

“Underestimate me, did you?” Pam flew in a circle. The demon’s eyes followed her movement, but then he dismissed her. His mistake.

“I know what you’re doing, and it won’t work.” The demon expanded and pumped up his sagging muscles. The tat on his arm of a snake wrapped around a pitchfork pulsed. The snake’s tongue wagged at her obscenely.  

Revolted, Pam asked, “Whatever do you mean?” The carol, What Child Is This, came to mind.  Pam hummed its melody. 

“I asked you a question. What are you? Your belted trench coat makes you look like a sack of potatoes. Booties? You should know better. You’re no babe.”

“Oh dear. Do you really think insults will deter me? My fellow sprites of Albemarle and Currituck Sounds voted me “Best Dressed Sprite of 2016.” Pam preened, fluffing her wings and straightening the belt of her sequined trench coat.

Goth-boy raised one eyebrow. “Cut the crap. Those kids are going on the downward spiral to evil. Got to start them young. We need some fresh blood.”

“Pick on someone your own size.”

“Like you, pipsqueak?” The demon looked through the stockroom wall to the kids. “Hurricane Matthew took what little their parents had and turned their possessions into moldy trash. They deserve to take a bit back. Stealing what should be theirs.”

Listening to a demon rationalize was a waste of time. Rules were rules. Pam wondered if the demon engaged in games. Was he a player? Many demons were. “I bet you those kids won’t steal that jewelry, and if I win, you’ll leave this island without tempting anyone else.”

“And if you lose and I win?”

“You can stay on Hatteras and tempt people all you want. But don’t think inducing sin will win those youngsters’ souls. If they repent, they’ll still be safe.”

“If they die before they repent, they’re mine.” The stench of the demon intensified. His condemned soul ballooned to menacing dimensions. He towered over her.
 
Pam doubted a first offense of shoplifting would damn the girls, but she wasn’t about to get into a theological argument with a demon. In mid air, Pam widened her stance, squared her hips, and faced the demon like an old western gunslinger. She pulled her fairy wand from her coat, twirled it in her fingers, and pointed it in the demon’s face.  “You’re on, dude.”   

***

Sue stopped searching through the video games, looking for a present for Jared, her son. Something had alerted her senses. Had she seen something out of the corner of her eyes or was it a sound? Her memories of a year ago came to mind. She shook her head. Couldn’t be. Shouldn’t have been. The crazy memory—if it were a memory—still confounded her.

Woody walked toward her. Hunting presents for his daughter, Cindy, he had shopped in a different aisle. “You okay?”

Sue chomped on the last of the candy cane and turned to him. “Did you see a flash of light? Hear a high-pitched zing?”

Woody lifted one eyebrow. “Nope, but I saw two girls lift some jewelry into their pockets.” He shook
his head, making the adorable blond curls quiver around his wind and sun burnt surfer face. If he didn’t use the lotion Sue had bought him, he’d start looking like a Shar Pei.

“Shoplifting?” Sue’s shoulders slumped. Bad news.

“Yeah—I think they’re from the village. Two girls, at the end of the next aisle.”

Hurricane Matthew had hit Hatteras Village hard. Sue knew the timing of the October storm hadn’t allow enough time for people to recover before the holiday season. Families didn’t have money for gifts. They struggled to replace roofs on their homes, insulate their walls, and rebuy the basic necessities of living—like beds, refrigerators, and stoves. A deluge of two-feet high water had flooded the village. FEMA money hadn’t covered the losses. There were deductibles, shifty insurance agents, who closed claims too fast before all the bills from contractors were submitted enabling them to get their commissions, and limits on the payoffs.

Sue let out a sigh. Dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, Woody and she weren’t in uniform, but that wouldn’t stop Sue from giving the girls a good lecture. She started toward the next aisle.

“Wait a minute, Sue,” Woody said, putting his hand on her shoulder. “Is intervening the right thing to do?”

“You want them to get in trouble, have a juvenile arrest record?”

“Of course, not. But if it’s their first offense, the judge would give them a good talking to, scare them, and put them on the right path.”

“Tough love?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know. What if they were Jared and Cindy? I never know when as a parent to be hard or soft, and if I correct too much, Jared stops listening. Whatever I say goes in one ear and out the other. There’s no way to know what tactic to take.”

“I know. But at middle-school age, I wonder if our letting them off the hook will impress them.”

“Maybe not, but as a parent, I’d hope someone would give my kid a break.”

Woody smiled and planted a kiss on her lips. “You’re a softy. Okay—if they don’t stop—they’ll get caught again and learn the hard way. Just in case they bolt, I’m going outside and waiting by the door.”

Sue watched Woody leave the store and then strolled around the corner of the next aisle. The girls looked at her and turned away. Sue approached them. “Girls, I’m a Deputy Sheriff, and I know you shoplifted some jewelry. Put it back—“

“Run,” the taller girl said, before Sue could grab them.

The girls ran to the front door. Sue followed. The shop door opened. Woody dove inside pushing the girls back into the store. He landed on top of them. Sue thought Woody’s dive was over-the-top.

An abrupt crack of wood and glass sounded behind the trio sprawled on the floor. Glass and splinters flew into the store. A car’s back bumper appeared in the door opening.

“What the hell?” Sue said to no one, looking at the carnage. The clerk ran from the open stockroom toward the wreckage.
                                                                                                       
From Sue’s vantage of the stockroom, Pam, Sue’s sort-of fairy godmother, was beating some blackened beast about the head with her wand. Sue looked away in disbelief, but the demolition of the front door didn’t restore normality.

A woman appeared, perching on the trunk of the car, and peered into the store. “I’m so sorry.” Her mouth dropped open when she saw Woody get up from the floor and offer assistance to the two girls. “Oh my God, is anyone hurt?”

Back on their feet, the girls appeared unharmed. Sue addressed the girls. “Are you two okay?”

“Yes ma’am,” they replied in unison.

Sue spoke to the woman, “Everyone seems okay. We’re Dare County Sheriffs, Ma’am.” Sue gestured to Woody. “What happened?”

The woman waved her arms. “I don’t really understand. I was backing out of a parking space, and the car accelerated. I pressed the brakes, but the pedal slammed to the floor. I just had the car inspected. They were fine.” She seemed to experience her own disbelief. 

“We’ll make a report and file it with our office. It will be available tomorrow if you need it for your insurance company,” Sue said. “Woody, get her info.”

Sue turned toward the girls, who were looking at the car blocking their escape. “You two—back here,” Sue said using her strict-mom voice and pointed to the back of the store. When they were alone, Sue said, “Do you know how lucky you are? If you had gotten out the door of the store, not only would I have been forced to charge you with shoplifting, but you also could have been killed or injured by the car. I’m still tempted to bust you, but if you put the jewelry back, I might not remember the incident.”

The girls walked to the jewelry aisle. Sue followed them to ensure the jewelry’s return. The shorter girl looked up at Sue. “We’re sorry. We just wanted something nice for our mothers for Christmas, and we don’t have any money.”

“You can always work to get the money.”

“We were working after school cleaning up at a restaurant, but it closed. Flood damage,” she shrugged her shoulders, “you know.” Continuing, the girl held up her hands. “We’re not old enough to drive, and most of the other shops in the village are closed now, too.”

“I noticed all the jewelry you stole was made of sea glass.”

“Mom loves it,” the taller girl said.

“I happen to know someone who makes sea-glass jewelry. Would you like to make some to give to
your moms?” Sue held out her wrist showing the girls the sea-glass bracelet Woody had made for her from the shards of green and pink depression-ware glass plates that had belonged to her grandmother. At the time, she felt awful, like breaking a memory of her grandmother, but wearing the memory made her smile.

“Wow, that’s really nice. The colors make it look Christmasy,” the shorter one said. “Yeah—we’d love to know how to make jewelry. That would be fun.”

“Sunday?”

“Yes, we have all afternoon,” the shorter one said.

“Okay, it’s a date then. I’ll get your addresses, arrange with your parents for you to attend a private class,” Sue winked, “and pick you up.”

The girls were all smiles and excitement.

***
  
Woody’s lesson had gone well. The girls showed a flair for design. While Woody taught, Sue had baked cookies with Jared and Cindy. After completing bracelets and eating cookies, Woody promised to drive the girls home. The girls thanked Sue before they left.

“Wish I could stay,” Woody said, kissing Sue goodnight at her door.

“Wish you had a babysitter for both kids, and we could have a night to ourselves.” Sue waved goodbye to them from the door.

With Jared in bed and the house quiet, Sue walked out to the dock overlooking Pamlico Sound. She
sat down to enjoy the cool evening while sipping an Irish Coffee, which she stirred with a candy cane. She had just licked the spirited coffee off the candy cane when a zap of light crossed the sky and squiggled toward her. “Oh no,” Sue said aloud and put her head in her hands.

“For Heaven’s sake, Sue. Every time I see you, it seems as if you’re in the depths of despair. What’s wrong now?”

Sue looked at the fairy and rolled her eyes. The fairy’s presence made her question her sanity. “Nothing, except I’d like an explanation for what happened at the shop.”

“I’ll tell you, but first, is that Irish Coffee you’re drinking?” Pam said, raising her eyebrows.

Sue got up. “With a cut straw, like last year?”

“Of course, and if you have a miniature candy cane and some cookies that would go well, too.” Pam smiled, folded her wings, and sat down ready to be waited on and pampered.

Sue shook her head and disappeared into the house, reappearing a few minutes later carrying the fairy treats on a small green depression-ware glass plate. Jam thumbprint crumbles, bits of gingerbread men, and red sugar-sprinkled sand tart pieces were arranged next to a small chocolate cup, meant for liqueurs, filled with Irish Coffee, a miniature candy cane, and a cut straw.

“Thank you. You know how to make a gal feel welcome. I knew we’d be the best of friends.” Pam popped some cookie bits in her mouth and took a swig of coffee.

Sue wallowed back a groan. “You’ll have to drink that fast before the chocolate melts.”

“No problem, and then I get to eat the cup. What fun!”

“The shop,” Sue reminded Pam, who dipped the candy cane in her coffee and licked.

“Yes, just a pesky demon.”

“A demon—that was that dark thing I saw you beating in the stockroom?”

“Yep. He tempted the girls to steal the jewelry and gave them the opportunity by creating a diversion to get rid of the clerk. After they stole and evaded you, he tried to kill them by tampering with that woman’s brakes.”

Sue’s jaw dropped. “Could he have done that?”

Pam waved her arms. “Not to worry—he’s off Hatteras Island now.” She laughed. “I wish I could see his reception in Hell when he comes back with fairy dust all over him.” Pam wiped some crumbs off her chin. “Oh, I heard your wishes and made arrangements, but I need to dress you. Woody will be so appreciative.”

An internal alarm went off in Sue’s head. “What are you talking about?”

Pam whipped her wand from her coat. “Better than a Christmas box, now you look like Megan Fox.”

“No!” Sue closed her eyes and hung her head. She knew when she opened her eyes she be wearing a black stretch lace bustier with black leggings, the most revealing outfit she’d ever worn. “Pam, you have to stop this.”

“Stop trying to put some romance in your life? Are you kidding? Besides—I’m just fulfilling your wish. I’ll transport Jared over to Woody’s house and go supervise the babysitter—after I finish my snack.” Pam tilted the chocolate cup, finished her coffee, and bit into the warmed chocolate. “Delish!”

“Why do you have to supervise the babysitter? Who did you get?”

“Short notice, but he’ll do fine.”

“Who?”

“Buck.”

“Buck, the deer buck you changed into a human last year?”

“He got acclimated twice as fast this year. But I do need some Chex Mix. Not to worry, I’ll pick up some on the way.” Pam twitched her wings. “Woody’s here, dear. Got to go.” Pam flew off into the night.

Sue stood up and wobble-walked on the high black wedges into the house. She peeked into Jared’s room. Sure enough, the bed was empty. The doorbell rang. Sue opened the door. Woody wore a black tux—she’d never seen him look so handsome. He pawed at his clothes. “I’m confused but happy.” He looked at her outfit and grinned.

“Don’t think about it. It will make your head hurt. You found a babysitter?”

“My sister dropped by, and then this guy showed up. My sister thought he was a friend of mine. I thought he was a friend of hers. He said he knew you and was there to babysit for us. When I left, my sister and he were watching TV and eating snacks.”

“I’m sure she’ll have an interesting evening with Buck.” Woody held out his arms and Sue walked into them.

“Wishes can come true, especially at Christmas,” Woody said. He wouldn’t tell Sue about his other wish concerning a little black box with a ring inside until later. He patted his pocket to make sure it was there. He’d also wished she’d say, “Yes!”

                                                     


The End



   



 

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Perchance



by Paula Gail Benson

To sleep, perchance to Dream; Ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause.
From William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

             Her name was Ember, but she wondered if any spark or flame remained inside her. She had no recollection if she had been called Ember in life, or if it came after. From the time before she became the queen's retainer, she remembered only a few mileposts.
            She had served the queen since before the historical Christmas events occurred. But as she faced the holidays approach this year, she contemplated only one wish: she wondered what it would be like to cease to exist. She could eagerly submerse herself in death or nonexistence if it meant rest, but not if it led to an eternity of unrelenting mental processes. She had spent a million lifetimes doing that. No wonder when she heard Christmas greetings, her thoughts, like Scrooges, turned to holly stakes through hearts and cannibals’ puddings.
              Centuries before, when selling family members into servitude to relieve debt was commonplace, Ember was sold to the queen. At that time, she considered herself lucky until she discovered that: (1) the queen ruled the undead, (2) the indenture would exceed any number of human lifetimes, and (3) Ember’s own eternal existence would be an unsleeping devotion to accomplishing tasks for her mistress.
            Ember felt no joy in her position, although it provided consistency, relative stability, and a measure of immortality for less than the price of becoming a full-fledged vampire. She didn’t fear the threat of having the blood sucked out of her. The heavy round talisman of immunity given to her during the binding spell when she became a retainer and always worn around her neck protected her, but there were worse things than succumbing to the bite of the undead. There was the extended and unending boredom of being responsible for the monotonous small duties while the undead slept, restoring their strength, and while they roamed, seeking their prey.
            At times, Ember daydreamed of sleep, but the binding spell precluded her from losing herself in the sensation of true rest. So, without the luxury of unthinking zombie-ism, she persevered.
            For a spell-induced perpetual servant like Ember, Christmas was no different than any other day. Her latest responsibility was to build up the constitution of the queen’s newest consort, a short, squat, lackluster, new-made vampire who the queen viewed as her “bloody good trifle saved for the end of a Christmas evening of debauchery.”
            Ember didn’t want to know the full implications of that phrase. She understood that vampires drew sexual gratification not only from creating new vampires, but also from, well, consorting with them. Ember heard the queen explain that drinking from her own creation could be either a very powerful or disappointing experience. Ember didn’t want to face the queen’s disappointment. She did as she was bid, even though why the queen had chosen this latest scrawny, puny consort was beyond Ember’s understanding.     
            To strengthen and sweeten the consort, whose name was Tim, as in Tiny, Ember told him to get in the queen’s ancient black van that resembled a paddy wagon and then took him to a blood bank. Posing as couriers, they requested the specific blood units Tim would consume to build his stamina and distinctive taste. The blood bank’s Christmas Eve night supervisor was a spacey blonde with a name plate on her white coat that said “Sharlayne.” She remained focused on her phone conversation even as she reached for their paperwork.
            “Uh huh,” Sharlayne said into the receiver while she fingered their phony credentials. “Well, I know I’m going to have to shoot him. I don’t want to get any closer to him than I have to so I bought one of those huge revolvers that packs a big wallop. I can fire as many shots as I need to bring him down in the alley. Nobody will hear. The place is deserted on Christmas morning. What I need to know is how you recommend I dispose of the body so I won’t get caught.”
            Ember knew humans generally didn’t plan murders where they could be overheard. If she hadn’t been so concerned about getting Tim spiced up for the queen, she might have enjoyed listening to an alternative to some cloyingly sentimental Christmas dialogue. But, Ember was in a hurry, so she fumed at having to wait for Sharlayne’s attention, not that she had anything else to do.
            Tim seemed riveted by Sharlayne. He watched intently as Sharlayne curled a strand of blond hair around her finger.
            Now that Ember thought about it, she realized that Tim showed an affinity for people and their problems that Ember had rarely witnessed. He could look deep into a person’s eyes as if he were reading thoughts. Yet, instead of being disconcerting, Tim’s piercing stare brought a sense of comfort and reassurance. Before they left for the blood bank, his gaze had reduced the queen’s fit of fury to a quiet murmuring discontent.
            Even Ember had come under his scrutiny once. All he did was to ask how she was feeling. (He knew better than to ask if she had slept.) But, no one had questioned in centuries if she felt well or ill. Instead of rebuffing his intrusion, she found herself lingering in the sense of warmth enveloping her. His concern had been a tiny pin prick of contentment that punctured epochs of indifference.
            Could he be trying to make a connection with Sharlayne, Ember wondered. If so, how could Sharlayne ignore his effort and continue babbling?
            “Yeah. Now go slow so I can write these down. Vertical instead of horizontal burial makes grave less obvious. Okay, next? Slice off head and appendages for separate disposal to make harder to identify victim. That’s good. What else? No, I’m not squeamish about anything. This guy deserves any disgusting thing I can do to his dead body. Put it in a barrel full of lye and dump it in a swamp? Okay. Where do I get the barrel and lye, and do you recommend a particular swamp?”
            Ember had seen ditsiness through the ages, but this blond bimbo took it to new heights. “Excuse me?”
            Lifting an index finger to indicate pause, Sharlayne said, “Be with you in a minute, I promise,” then returned to her conversation and note taking. Finally, she thanked the person for the information and put the receiver down.
            “Sorry.” Sharlayne turned one of those mega-watt runway smiles. “Boyfriend trouble, you know.”
            Ember didn’t, but gave a curt nod.
            “Now, how can I help you?” Sharlayne’s smile beamed toward Ember, then Tim, then back.
            “We’re here to pick up a blood requisition,” Ember told her.
            “Okay. Let me just see if your paperwork’s in order.”
            “You have it. We handed it to you.”
            “Oh, so I do.” Sharlayne laughed. Her eyes flicked to Tim and lingered on his face for a second before turning to the fake papers.
            Fingering the talisman that hung from her neck, Ember watched Sharlayne. She was ready to cast a compliance spell, but one wasn’t needed.
            “Everything seems to be okey dokey. Let me just get the units you’ll need.”
            “Thanks. We’re in somewhat of a hurry.”
            “Sure.” The phone rang and Sharlayne answered. Immediately, her face became tense and angry. “I can’t talk to you now. I told you. I’ll be busy until the morning when I get off. I’ll meet you then. Come to the alley. I’ll buzz you in. Bye.” She hung up the phone and stood looking at it. “You bastard,” she said. “You deserve to die.”
            “Miss?”
            “Yeah. I’ll be right back with your order.”
            Tim had taken on a hang-dog expression while listening to Sharlayne’s telephone conversations. As soon as Sharlayne left to get the blood units, he asked Ember, “That’s sad, isn’t it?”
            His question made Ember realize she would have to get him to adjust his attitude as well as his stamina. Unless the queen was going through some anciently latent mothering phase or a really ugly feed-off-torturing-your-victim fixation, she would quickly tire of his wimpy behavior.
            “It’s not our business. You need to concentrate on bulking up. No need to buy trouble.”
            “But, if she’s caught by the authorities, her life will be ruined. Surely there’s some way to help her. For Christmas.”
            Again, this preoccupation with Christmas sentiment. Another habit from which Ember would have to wean Tim so he could remain focused on pleasing the queen.
            “What makes you think the victim deserves to die?”
            “I’m still close to life. I understand desperation. This woman wouldn’t be resorting to these measures if she had any other options.”
            Thinking it over, Ember considered whether Tim should feast on Sharlayne for his blood supply, then leave her to wreak the vengeance only a vampire could on the boyfriend. But, if that happened, the queen would be jealous of her consort paying attention to another female before he served as her Christmas confection.
            Another option was to let Tim feed on the boyfriend. Again, not good, because an infusion of tainted blood could be detrimental to Tim in his weakened state, and the problem boyfriend sounded as if he was teaming with sour, unsavory plasma. When the queen sank her teeth into Tim, she could tell if he had supped on living instead of stored blood. Ember didn’t want to have to face the queen’s rage over Tim’s leaving a possibly vinegary taste in her mouth.
            No. The better course was for Ember to take matters into her own hands. She accepted the supplies from Sharlayne, and nodded when Sharlayne wished them a Merry Christmas. She led the way back to the truck and motioned for Tim to take a seat and sip his blood units through a straw, like a child with a series of sanguine lunch box drinks. While he did that, she thought, going through different scenarios until she figured out what they should do.
            “You’re thinking of a way to help her, aren’t you?” Tim asked, wiping away a drop of blood that slipped from the corner of his mouth.
            “Don’t waste your nourishment. You’re going to need every ounce to be a match for the queen tonight.”
            “How will you help Sharlayne?”
            The way he said her name, Ember could almost imagine Tim had known Sharlayne before tonight. “By following the easiest course. We’ll wait in the truck until the boyfriend shows, then drive over him. Sharlayne can report it as a hit-and-run accident, and we’ll have time before daylight to get you home and tucked into bed.” She thought it better not to mention so he could rest up for his night as the queen’s Christmas gift to herself.
            “You’re really a thoughtful person, Ember,” Tim said. “Don’t you wish you were free of the queen?”
            For a moment, Ember felt a surge of pleasure at his compliment. Then she remembered being sold into servitude, spending all the centuries in service, and having no recollection of any lifetime before, except a longing for one thing.
            “All I wish for is sleep. Contented, uninterrupted, wake-only-when-rested sleep. Now, pull the cape around you,” Ember admonished him. “It won’t do for first light to hit you and turn you into a pile of ash.”
            They heard a car door slam and looked out to find the boyfriend approaching. Ember turned on the engine and put the truck in gear, aiming for the hulking young man.
            He showed no fear in seeing the vehicle coming toward him and actually grappled with the grillwork and fender before going down. After being run over, he struggled to rise. Seeing that he still moved, Tim jumped out of the truck and lunged toward him.
            “The dawn, you’ve forgotten the dawn,” Ember gasped as she tried to push open her locked door.
            Tim’s cape unfurled as he rushed his hapless victim. For the first time, Tim looked like a true vampire. The queen might have appreciated the transformation, but not what happened next. Just as Tim sunk his gleaming fangs into the boyfriend’s neck, the sun shone over the horizon.
            Tim threw his head back as if the sun had jolted him. For a moment, he seemed stunned. Then, the lips around the blood dripping fangs relaxed into a beatific, peaceful smile, just before he crumbled into dust.
            “No,” Ember cried, as she stepped out of the truck into the alley. She didn’t know if her wail was more for Tim’s loss or her own misfortune.
            How could he do this to his queen, she agonizingly wondered. How could he do it to her after she had complied with all his requests?
            Ember looked in disgust at the mess she would have to clean up. This is what came of Christmas kindness. It backfired on you, leaving you holding the bag, taking the blame, suffering the punishment for another’s altruism.
            Well, it was done now. She’d have to deal with it, explain it to the queen, and take the consequences.
            Suddenly, she saw Sharlayne coming out of the blood bank door into the alley. Great. Another complication to resolve. Ember reached for her talisman, expecting to use a forgetfulness spell.
            “Wait,” Sharlayne said, this time holding up a hand instead of an index finger. The ditsiness was gone. She walked with assurance. Ember recognized Sharlayne as a transformed woman of purpose, and wondered about the decorative box Sharlayne clutched to her side with the hand that wasn’t raised.
            “Tim was my kinsman,” Sharlayne explained. “He and I always had a way of connecting that went beyond words. Our parents used to accuse us of being able to read each other’s minds.”
            Ember felt vindicated, yet annoyed. She had suspected Tim and Sharlayne were able to communicate. If she hadn’t been so preoccupied with the Queen’s errands, she would have acted upon it and prevented this mess. “I thought you could.”
            Sharlayne hesitated before conceding, “Well, it had its uses. Tim became an accountant with a small company. When he questioned unorthodox spending practices, he was beaten to a pulp by the company president’s henchman, this thug,” she pointed at the presumed boyfriend, “who left him for dead in an alley, not unlike this one. There, your mistress found him, and claimed him as her own.
            “When he learned he would be brought to the blood bank, he sent word to me. I work for the hospital system and convinced a co-worker to let me take his Christmas Eve shift. Already that brute had tried to blackmail my family, so it was easy for me to lure him into this alley for a payoff.”
            Still fingering the talisman, Ember said, “You’ve gone to a lot of trouble. What do you want?”
            “Only my kinsman’s ashes. I’ll explain to my family he was killed in an accident. We can bury him among our own.”
            Sharlayne’s eyes looked into Ember’s as Tim’s had--sad, yet knowing--sending a silent invitation for Ember to rejoin humanity, if just for a few moments. Sharlayne’s words triggered a memory in Ember. Hadn’t she had kinsmen once? What had happened to her family? She lost track when she fled to America centuries ago. With the queen.
            “What about revenge?” Ember asked.
            “I have plans for the president of the company where Tim worked,” Sharlayne said, her lips curving into a smile that mimicked Tim’s dying countenance. “But, I have no quarrel with your mistress. She simply took advantage of a situation.”
            Watching for Ember’s reaction, Sharlayne paused. When there was none, Sharlayne continued, “Perhaps you also may take advantage of a situation. Tim wanted it to help you, too. That was the last thought he sent to me.”
            Ember’s mind had been reeling with all the details she would have handle to take care the incident. Now, Sharlayne’s words brought a sudden and pervasive calm to Ember’s senses. What was done had been done. The only reasonable response was to benefit from what had happened.
            “You take the ashes. I’ll dispose of the body,” she told Sharlayne.
            “Thank you,” Sharlayne said as she stooped to brush the ashes into the decorative box. “And Merry Christmas.”
            If Ember had to hear those words one more time, she might scream in frustration. Such a waste of words and breath, she thought as she hauled the body into the back of the truck.
            Yet, she supposed that was part of the charm of the story. The savior comes in the way he is most needed. Not as an all-powerful ruler, but a humble child who has to use all his resources to face the difficulties life imposed.
            Not unlike Tim. Not unlike herself.
            On the drive back to the queen’s secluded mansion, early Christmas morning, Ember considered her options. The queen would be displeased with losing her “bloody good trifle,” but she might find the presumed boyfriend an adequate substitute morsel.
            A few hours earlier, that result might had suited Ember, even if it required that she return to the endless, monotonous servitude she had been experiencing for so long. But, she wasn’t the old, sparkless Ember.
            She thought of the moment when Tim pounced on his victim. Did she have that kind of bravery? Could she tell the Queen she had lost Tim, face down the Queen’s wrath, and--this was the prospect that Ember found so irresistible--defiantly remove the talisman to provoke the Queen to break the binding spell?
            While at a stop sign, Ember saw a robed father wearily trudging to the end of the driveway for the morning paper. Ember nodded. The father waved and said, “Up all night. What we won’t do to make a good Christmas for our children. At least I’ll get to sleep tonight.”
            “Indeed,” Ember replied before she drove forward.
            For the first time in centuries, Ember’s body filled with relief and glee, a true lightening of the burden of continual vigilant servitude, a possibility for sleep. She could see Tim’s probing eyes in her mind and had the feeling he was smiling at her.
            Maybe this year, Ember had received a Christmas present after all. Thank you, Tim, she thought.

THE END