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TA White

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Late. And I fucking hated being late.

Even if this job hadn’t been reliant on me delivering the goods on time, I’d still be pissed about missing the deadline.

Damn the accident on Fifth. When would people learn texting and driving just don’t mix? The resulting fender bender backed everything up for miles. If I hadn’t been on my bike, there would have been no hope of me making the destination on time.

I leaned forward and pedaled harder. Three years in the military had reinforced the habits of a lifetime. Fifteen minutes early; you’re on time. You’re on time, you’re late. And if you’re late, well, you might as well just start pushing.

These days being late carried worse consequences than muscle failure. That’s why even with my thighs burning in protest and my chest heaving, I stood and pedaled faster.

A right and then a left and I’d be there. I could make it. No reason to tarnish a perfect record.

I veered around a stopped vehicle and narrowly missed an oncoming car before jumping the curb and making the last turn. I braked hard, hopping off at the same time. No doubt I left several drivers in my wake, cursing my existence.

No time to put a lock on the bike. Not my first choice when in the Short North. Though a trendy, upscale destination just outside the Columbus downtown, bikes were still a popular target for kids and vagrants looking to make a quick buck. In high school, my boyfriend and his friends used to come down here and egg cars. Why, was anybody’s guess.

I was rushed for time so I had to pray that my beat up old bike would escape attention. I yanked the seat off the bike. Hopefully, that would delay a would-be thief long enough for me to complete my business.

Adjusting my messenger bag, I checked the name of the store against the one in my notes. Right where I was supposed to be.

Located in an old brick building off High Street, the name ‘Elements’ was etched in silver lettering complete with one of those flourish things at the end. The shop window had an attractive display of a skeleton in a top hat, holding a glass titled ‘Potions’ while sitting on a funky patterned sofa.

The brief ding of a bell announced my arrival as I stepped into a maze of touristy candles, gothic necklaces and other paraphernalia I didn’t recognize. The small aisle was narrow and overgrown with items just waiting to be knocked over. I clasped my bag tightly. It would not be a good idea to break anything in this place.

A witch owned Elements. Getting on her bad side was something I’d prefer to avoid.

I made my way over to the woman next to a cash register. A skull candle sat next to the change tray. It was actually pretty cool. I wondered how it would look in my kitchen.

The girl wore all black and her face was coated in way too much makeup. Her blond hair was plastered to her head and pin-straight with a severe part in the middle. She didn’t look up as I stopped before her.

“Delivery for Miriam,” I said.

The girl flipped another page in her magazine, not acknowledging me. I didn’t have time for this. There was less than a minute to get the package into its owner’s hands.

As the girl turned the next page, my hand darted forward, stopping the page from completing its movement.

Slowly and precisely, I said, “Delivery for Miriam.”

A pair of washed out blue eyes, rimmed in bright blue eyeliner, lifted to mine. With the disdain only the young could summon, she nodded at a door hidden behind a purple curtain embroidered with black and silver beads.

“Thanks.”

I didn’t know why I bothered. The girl had already returned to her magazine.

I moved as quickly as I could, without running, through the store. I’d learned on my first job for Hermes Courier Service that running would not be tolerated. Appearing rushed was a good way to get fired. I needed this job a lot more than it needed me so I was stuck moving at a snail’s pace when every ounce of me screamed for speed.

The curtain led to a staff room complete with fridge, microwave and laminate table. Even with the time constraint I couldn’t help blinking dumbly at the blond seated at the table calmly flipping cards.

Not what I had expected of a store owned by someone belonging to the Coven.

It was even less expected to find the proprietor playing what looked to be Solitaire.

“Miriam?”

“Yes?”

“I have a delivery for you.” I stepped forward and pulled my phone from my pocket.

With a swipe of my fingers, I pulled up the delivery verification app and held the device out to her. She rested her forefinger lightly on the screen until it beeped. Before sliding it back in my pocket, I glanced down to make sure it said confirmed. Even more important, the words still showed green. It meant I’d made it in under deadline. If I hadn’t, it would have turned red, and I’d have been screwed.

“You cut it close,” Miriam said, already turning back to her game.

Pausing in the act of pulling the package out of my bag, I grimaced. No kidding.

“Another minute and I could have solved my ingredient shortage,” Miriam said, eyeing my body with an appraising eye.

Oh. That would have been unfortunate. And probably painful.

I’d never had that as a consequence.

Hermes Courier Service was special. Its owner guaranteed satisfaction of service. Things like merchandise reaching its intended destination in one piece, and more importantly, on time. Failure resulted in a penalty clause kicking in, usually at the client’s discretion. This was normally something simple, like working as unpaid help for a predetermined length of time, but the penalty could be anything the employer wanted. The more expensive the job, the nastier the penalty.

I’d never been late so I hadn’t bothered to inquire about this job’s penalty clause. I may have also been more interested in the money.

“Right,” I eventually said, handing over the small package. It was no bigger than a deck of cards and wrapped in brown paper and tied with red twine.

As always, I had no idea what was in it.

The witch set down her cards and took the package from me. Dressed in jeans and a bright yellow shirt, Miriam was different in almost every way from the girl watching the front counter. Except the color of her hair. Miriam’s makeup was done with a light hand and flattered her large green eyes. If I met her at a bar one evening, I would have assumed she was a young professional only a couple of years out of college with a normal job, something like a graphic designer. Of the two, the girl out front seemed more likely to be a witch.

“Not all of us embrace the human’s depiction of us,” Miriam said.

I shifted back and eyed the witch warily.

Miriam looked up from her game with a sardonic lift of her eyebrow. “I didn’t read your mind, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Since that’s exactly what I was thinking, I didn’t feel much better even with her assurance.

“Your face is surprisingly open for a vampire.”

Crap. That was supposed to be a secret.

“Relax.” Miriam turned back to her game and flipped another card. “I wouldn’t be much of a witch if I couldn’t tell if someone was supernatural or not.”

While slightly more reassuring than the thought of Miriam being a mind reader, it didn’t solve the issue of her knowing I was a vampire. I wasn’t exactly in hiding but I also wasn’t ‘out’.

Miriam didn’t give me time to dwell on what I should do or if I should even do anything. “What news do you bring me, courier?”

I settled down to the second half of my job. That of acting as a verbal news source.

One of the things I’d learned since my involuntary transformation to one of the fanged was that the different species of the supernatural world didn’t play well together. It was kind of like the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s only with many more families.

Information was a prized commodity. My job allowed me to go anywhere as long as there was a package to be delivered. This gave me unique access that Hermes clients were willing to pay for and pay well.

“Another human family was found murdered.”

“I could have learned that from the human media. Tell me something I couldn’t find out for myself.” Miriam stared down at her cards with a frown.

“There’s been talk of a task force being put together.”

Miriam snorted. “There’s always talk. Nothing ever comes from it. Everybody will want to be in charge but nobody will want to donate their people for it.”

“I don’t know. Fear does funny things. They might be willing to set aside differences to get to the bottom of the murders and disappearances.”

Everyone was spooked. I could see it in their eyes, hear it in their voices. The last time I’d seen something similar I’d been in a war zone.

It had started with disappearances at the beginning of summer. Mostly from the smaller enclaves. The ones who weren’t strong or under the protection of someone strong were the first to vanish. A few dryads from the Park of Roses gone in one night. From there the perpetrator moved on to the bigger groups. A sorcerer found smoldering in his bed. A few shifters torn apart like they were ragdolls. Shifters were strong too. Anything that could do that was not something you wanted coming after you.

It wasn’t limited to the supernatural world either. Humans were being slaughtered in their beds. Police were horrified at the grisly remains but helpless to figure out who—or what—was doing it.

The only common thread in all this was that nobody knew anything about what was doing it. Not species, gender, or name. Nothing.

I lifted one shoulder. “If a few more disappear, it might give them incentive to work together.”

Miriam propped her chin on one hand. “You’re so young.”

I mentally snorted. I hadn’t felt young for a long time. Not since I’d come back from war. And not since my entire world view had been readjusted to include things that went bump in the night.

That was rich coming from her. She didn’t look any older than I did.

“How old are you?” Miriam asked.

What could it hurt to humor the client?

“28.”

“And how long have you been a vampire?”

I pretended to think about it. It was mostly for show. I knew exactly how long it had been.

“About two years.”

Miriam turned back to her game. “Once you’ve been part of our world a little longer, you’ll see we never really change. The different species will never successfully work together. Too much bad blood between us.”

Right. I didn’t agree, but it also wasn’t my place to argue with a client.

Miriam waved a hand, dismissing me. “Ask Angela for your payment.”

Guess my job here was done.

Before turning to go, I paused. “If you move the black nine to the red ten, you can clear a spot and move a king there.”

I was through the curtain moments later, stopping only long enough to get my payment from the Goth girl, Angela.

My bike was right where I left it. Missing a seat of course, but that was easily fixed.

Pushing off, I headed home. It was just after midnight and that had been my last job. There’d been fewer deliveries to make than normal. I had hours of free time stretching before me. I’d miss the cash but it was nice to have the rest of the evening to myself.

Being a vampire had its advantages. Long life and near miraculous healing being among them. The hours? Not so much. Only being able to go out at night severely limited my free time. I’d always loved summer but found myself wishing the past few months would fly by. Having less than eight hours of dark to move around had been challenging both personally and professionally.

It’s one of the reasons I worked at Hermes. The owner might be a complete troll but at least he understood my special needs. More than I could say for most potential employers.

With fall firmly upon us, it meant lengthening nights and more time to work and play.

Now that I had a rare night off, I planned to take advantage.

Hm.

What should I do first? Most stores were closed, so that was out. It was a weeknight so my old friends would be firmly asleep. Same with my family. I could go for a bike ride. But I did that most nights, all night. I wanted to do something different. Something I never had time for.

Who was I kidding? There was nothing to do at this time of night. It was kind of sad really. A rare chance down the drain.

Might as well head to the grocery store for my shopping before heading home. Maybe I could watch a few episodes of Firefly on Netflix before dawn.

Yeah. Vampirism was really paying off for me.




The grocery store was mostly empty at this time of night. Only students and the rare frantic parent walked its fluorescent lit aisles. There were maybe five people total in the store, including the stock boy, cashier and me.

I wheeled past the produce aisle and headed for the meat section.

Not all of the myths about vampires were true. Thank God. I could still eat, which considering my life-long love affair with food was a blessing. Never to taste chocolate or the black raspberry ice cream from Graeters? Might as well kill me where I stood.

Food didn’t carry the same nutrients as it had before. Mostly it passed through my system doing nothing to help. Too much of it would make me sick, but in moderation I could still eat some of my favorites as long as I was careful.

The one exception was red meat. I could eat as much of that as my stomach could hold. I think it had to do with the blood and iron content, but I’d never had anyone to ask. All I knew was it hit the spot in a way even black raspberry ice cream couldn’t.

And the rarer the better. Yum. I think I drooled.

Two years ago I’d been returning with my unit from Afghanistan. I was a 25V, a combat camera for those in the civilian world. I, like so many of my fellow soldiers, was eager to hit the town after 362 days locked on a FOB where the closest I got to alcohol was what was in my mouthwash, and the height of entertainment was watching dust storms blow in.

That night was where my life took a serious detour from the path I’d planned for it. My night began like so many other young twenty somethings. I met a stranger. He was cute. I was horny, as fraternization is strictly forbidden while in country and I’ve never been one to break the rules. I’ve always had an irrational fear of jail, and it didn’t really matter if breaking the rules would actually lead to a jail cell. At least back then. Now, most nights I break three laws before midnight.

That’s the only excuse I have for lowering my guard for some strange man when I’m normally extremely cautious. So cautious that friends have accused me of being unreasonably paranoid when it comes to men.

Not that night, though. That night I had to be wild and carefree and in love with being home. The world was my oyster and nothing could touch me. I’d survived a year in a warzone getting shot at, after all. The states were a cake walk after that, right?

Not so much.

It was quick when it happened. I didn’t even see it coming. He’d isolated me from my friends without me even realizing it. Before I knew it, I was held tightly against him and his teeth were in my neck. Then I was discarded like so much trash. Woke up the next night lying on a gurney being wheeled to the morgue. I scared the daylights out of the attendee when I sat up in my body bag.

There were a lot of screams exchanged between the two of us before it was assumed the doctors had made a mistake in pronouncing me dead on arrival.

The authorities were called. My statement was taken and then they called my military chain of command.

Lucky for me, the captain on duty owed me big. Even luckier, he was part of this new world I suddenly found myself in. He’s the one who got me put on profile, allowing me to stay in my room during the day and ultimately processed out of the military. That last one I’m still not too happy about, but it couldn’t be helped. What good is a soldier who’s useless from the time the sun rises to the time it sets?

He even got me the job with Hermes. Not that that’s saying much, but it keeps me from having to move back in with my parents.

I pulled a tub of cottage cheese out of the display case and eyed it with uncertainty. I used to love cottage cheese, but ever since my change it tasted funny.

Shrugging, I put it in my cart. Just because I bought it didn’t mean I had to eat it. People from my old life still stopped by now and then. They’d expect me to have some health food in the fridge. It’s what the old me would have done. I was careful to show them what they wanted. It was safer for everyone that way.

The bottom of my cart barely littered with items, I headed to check out. Being in the grocery store was depressing me tonight. It reminded me of all the things I’d lost. I hated getting maudlin. What’s done was done. Truthfully, most nights being a vampire wasn’t so bad.

My sneakers squeaked against the linoleum as I wheeled my cart over to the cashier, bypassing the self-pay kiosks. The ones at this store tended to go a bit buggy after midnight. Even if they worked perfectly, I would have chosen the cashier. I needed human interaction.

I placed my groceries on the belt and wheeled my cart to the other end. The cashier’s face was bored as he slid each item over the scanner. He was a college kid, his face all sharp angles and so incredibly young.

“That’ll be $21.06.”

I handed him a twenty and a five dollar bill. He took it, hitting the cash button on the register. It beeped but didn’t open.

“What?” The cashier looked slightly more alert now. He hit the button twice more. “Come on. Not again.”

He felt along the register, the boredom now completely gone from his eyes and his motions becoming slightly more frantic when he didn’t immediately find what he was looking for.

“Oh no. No. No. No. My manager will kill me if I’ve lost the key again.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a pair of translucent wings disappear behind one of my plastic bags. Pixies. Great. I’d have to avoid this place for the next few weeks until the little bastards moved on.

Pixies were the magpies of the supernatural world. They tended to appropriate things that interested them only to discard them soon after. A lot of times when humans misplaced things, it was pixies at work. They love mischief and helping someone “lose” an item is right up their alley.

On one of my first jobs, a few managed to stow away in my carrier bag. I was new and still trying to figure this whole world out. I didn’t know to guard against the pests. Hell, I hadn’t even known what they were. They’d made life impossible in my home for nearly two months before they got bored and moved on. More than a year and half later, I still found things they’d hidden in the most random places.

I was not going to chance them hopping a ride again.

Taking pity on the cashier, I pointed to the bags. “Have you checked the bags yet? You may have placed it over there.”

The cashier rounded on me, “The key never moves. It should be right here.”

I held my hands up and motioned for him to calm down. “Hey, just trying to be helpful. Obviously the key has moved. Might as well check the area thoroughly before panicking.”

Rolling his eyes to make it obvious he was just humoring me, he rustled through the bags.

“I don’t see-” His voice trailed off and he held up the key.

He looked at me suspiciously. I shrugged.

He didn’t say anything as he unlocked the drawer and gave me my change.

I smiled and told him to have a nice day as I grabbed my bags and walked out. As soon as I was through the doors, I dumped everything on the ground and shook the bags out. I inspected every item thoroughly before putting them back in the plastic bag.

Groceries taken care of, I headed home. My apartment was a one bedroom walk up located right outside the campus district. I’m about eighty percent sure the rickety wooden staircase leading to the second floor entrance wasn’t up to code.

My place was small, and while the area wasn’t rough it also wasn’t nice. Most of my neighbors were college kids or grad students.

Things went missing around here all the time so I hoisted my bike onto my shoulder and carried it up the stairs. A porch light illuminated the steps, not that I really needed it. Vampirism came with improved night vision. I’d say I had the vision equivalent of a cat if I knew what that equivalent was.

At the top of the landing, I propped the bike against the rail and reached in my mailbox. Pulling a cinnamon spice container out, I shrugged off my bag before emptying its contents on to the wooden landing. I liberally doused everything with the cinnamon and shook it a few times over my bag.

A soft sneeze, and then something darted past me, faster than my eyes could track.

Ha. Served the little bastard right.

Pixies disliked cinnamon. It affected them much like ragweed affected humans only about three times worse. They wouldn’t linger long in an area that contained it.

It was one of the most effective, low cost methods I’d found for warding off pests. Much cheaper than a charm from a witch and just as effective.

Satisfied no other pixies lurked in my items, I dumped everything back into the bag and wheeled the bike inside, propping it inside the entryway.

My kitchen was small, just a fridge, stove and microwave, with barely any counter space. Since food was optional for me, I didn’t really need counter space any more. It only took a few minutes to pack away my groceries.

I grabbed a wine glass out of the cupboard and fished a bottle from the fridge. The dark liquid was mesmerizing as I poured it into my glass. I unconsciously licked my lips, my stomach rumbling. I was already anticipating that first sip.

The blood tasted cool and crisp as it slid down my throat. I could practically feel the tissues soaking up the liquid. In seconds, it was gone.

I set the glass down, licking my lips free of any blood. God, I’d really needed that.

A stray spot of red drew my eye to the counter. I stared at it transfixed. I must have spilled a drop.

My eyes drifted to the clock. 1:07. I didn’t have it in me to walk away from that drop, but I could wait. I had enough discipline for that. Five minutes. If I ever wanted to have full control of myself, I needed to start exercising will power. 

I could do this. No problem.

My finger tapped against the counter anxiously. I let go and crossed my arms in front of me. My eyes never strayed from that drop.

Imagine the worst craving you’ve ever had. You know, the kind you get for that last piece of pizza after a stressful day at work. You’ve been thinking about it all day and remembering how it tasted last night and imagining the hot cheese on your tongue, the springy dough as you bit into it. Now take that craving and magnify it by a factor of about ten. That might give you some idea of what it’s like to crave blood.

I’d be tempted to compare it to how a junky feels staring down their next fix, but I’ve never done drugs so I can’t be too sure of that.

Either way, blood was addicting and damn near impossible to resist. I was determined though. I was getting better at fighting temptation too. When I’d first been brought over, I would have licked that drop away almost as soon as it hit the counter. I also would have licked the entire glass in an attempt to get every speck of the life giving nectar.

These little exercises in self-restraint were torturous but oh so necessary. One day it might even save someone’s life.

And time.

The five minutes were up. I forced myself to use my finger to swipe it up rather than just licking it. My tongue darted out to catch the drop. My eyes closed in bliss. So good.

I recapped the bottle, putting it back in the fridge where it had plenty of company.

Feeling good now that I’d had a top up, I changed into a pair of pink flannel pants and a loose t-shirt before grabbing a bag of chips and settling onto the couch.

What should I watch tonight? I’d just finished a sci-fi show last night and was in the mood for something different. Drama? Nah, I needed something a little more light hearted than that.

I navigated to one of the funnier shows on my list and sat back, prepared to follow Nathan Fillion around as he solved crime while keeping up a running stream of banter with his female costar.

 












Chapter One

Shadow's Messenger