On our way back inside, I showed Iris the note.
She shrugged off the warning. "You're not going to let this stop you, are you?"
I snorted. "They chose the wrong girls to pick on and the wrong cat to kill. Iris, we've faced down demons and won. A nest of spiderlings can't hold a candle to that kind of fiend." But still, when we returned to the back porch, I couldn't help but glance at the walls, the ceiling, the corners of the room to make sure we weren't being watched.
At precisely four thirty, Menolly woke. She brought Maggie up with her from her lair and sat in the rocking chair playing with the baby while Iris and I filled her in on what had happened. Camille and Morio were still out, but a message on the phone told us they'd be late and not to worry.
"I suppose that leaves you to come to the meeting with me," Menolly said. She didn't say much about the spiders and Cromwell, but I could tell she was taking it all in, listening and thinking as we spoke.
I nodded. "Let me change first. I still have feathers from the turkey stuck to me."
"Turkey?" Menolly asked, darting a look at Iris, who stifled a chuckle.
I arched my back and nodded. "Oh go on and tell her. You're dying to anyway." I left the room, but all the way upstairs, I could hear Iris and Menolly laughing away. No doubt at my expense.
I tossed my dirty clothes into my hamper and decided to take a quick shower. The meeting was at eight. During the spring and summer, they started around eleven P.M. to avoid any chance of sunlight, but during the late winter nights, especially in December when everybody was busy with holiday plans, Vampires Anonymous held their meetings during the early evening to allow their members time enough to ensure their loved ones made it home safe before going out to feed.
By the time I had changed clothes and was back downstairs, Menolly had changed into a long-sleeved sweater and calf-length linen skirt, both in shades of blue green, and a pair of high-heeled brown leather boots. Her burnished braids stood out against the teal, and she'd attempted to put some color into her cheeks, though it wasn't her best look. Even the palest blush stood out like clown makeup against her alabaster skin. I gently reached out and began spit-cleaning her cheeks. She rolled her eyes.
"All right, all right, I get the message. I'll go wash it off," she said.
"The lip gloss looks great, but the blush…"
She plunked Maggie into my arms and took off for the bathroom. When she returned, she looked normal again. I handed Maggie to Iris, and Menolly and I took off for town.
The night was clear and cold, with the temperature dropping rapidly. I zipped up my jacket, but the air rippled around me, the breeze sapping every ounce of warmth from my body. Menolly didn't bother with coats. The weather didn't affect her. Unless it was raining or unless the jacket went with her outfit, she'd given up outerwear.
She insisted on driving, so I hopped in the passenger seat and leaned back against the headrest, thinking about Cromwell the cat, and Zachary, and the Hunters Moon Clan. The last thing I felt like doing was attending a support group for a bunch of vampires. Drinking blood from a Happy Meal on legs seemed only a step or two above sucking out their predigested internal organs, but since Menolly was willingly accepting our support, far be it from me to make waves.
"Okay," I said as she climbed in and buckled her seat belt. "Let's get this show on the road."
She put the car into gear, and we eased out of the driveway onto the road and into the night.
The meeting was in full swing by the time we got there, and my mood started to pick up a little. Most of the vampires who attended Wade's group were doing their best to coexist peacefully with the living. Contrary to their nature, they chose to continue their life—unlife?—in the best way they could.
Some had jobs, a few were married, others continued on with their social lives and volunteer work. Most had been FBHs. And yes, they all drank blood but did their best to be careful, and the lion's share of their meals walked away to live another day, albeit a cup or so low on red octane.
Over the past two months Menolly had worked together with Sassy Branson, a socialite-turned-vamp, to instill a little decorum and tidiness in the patchwork cluster of living dead that came to the meetings. The Goth boys and girls who'd been coming to the meetings covered with grime and dried blood were now clean and tidy, if still attired in their ever-present black.
There were a couple of Microsoft nerds in the group, but now their hair was brushed, and they wore fresh Tshirts. Tad Radcliffe was a cutie with a ponytail down to his ass. He'd brought along his very-much-alive girlfriend, and she looked more nervous than a cat in a dog kennel. The other geek, Albert, was a pudgy young man who reminded me of the Comic Book Guy off The Simpsons, and was constantly bemoaning his bad luck.
He actually had a point, when I thought about it. Never again able to eat his favorite foods—Budweiser, Whoppers, and nachos—neither would he ever be able to shed the beer belly he'd put on before his death and rebirth. Something seemed inherently unfair about the situation. He, too, brought his touchstone with life: his best friend, a gnarly-looking dude wearing a Red Dwarf sweatshirt.
Still others kept to the shadows: a young woman who seemed terribly unsure about what she was doing there, an old-school vamp who liked to terrify his victims and insisted on wearing the full Dracula getup, cape and all, and an arrestingly beautiful woman who looked like a Scandinavian ski bunny. None of them talked much, and all looked either angry or bored, but they came week after week, drawn by the social life they could no longer have in the regular world.
Sassy Branson was always there, too. She air-kissed us the moment we came through the door. "You haven't forgotten about my Christmas party, have you?" she asked, her voice rich and thick and intoxicating.
A chic socialite from Seattle's upper crust, her friends still thought she was alive. She kept to her house in the daytime, cultivating the image of eccentric recluse, and only went out and threw parties at night.
"We have it on our calendar," I said, grinning. "The twenty-second, the night after the solstice, right?" We'd have time to celebrate both her party and Yuletide.
Menolly greeted Sassy with a smile, but even as she exchanged a few words with the older woman, she was scanning the room. I knew who she was looking for. Wade Stevens, the organizer of Vampires Anonymous. He and Menolly had been dating on a casual basis since their first meeting.
She perked up, and I glanced over by the podium. There he stood, hair forever spiky, forever bleached blond. Wade was around five foot ten and solid but trim. He wore glasses—not that he needed them anymore—and was dressed in a pair of tidy jeans, a white tee, and over the top, an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt.
"Uh-oh," she said softly.
"What's wrong?" I glanced around. Everybody seemed to be behaving themselves. There were no fights, no hissing or extended fangs anywhere. Since this was the monthly family-and-friends night, all the vampires—even the Vlad wannabe—were on their best behavior.
"Look over there. Standing beside Wade." She stared. Hard.
I glanced in the direction in which she was looking. Next to Wade stood a woman who was clearly a vampire, but unlike any I'd ever seen. Her hair had been back-combed into a huge, coppery-colored bouffant. She was short and stout and wore a polyester pantsuit. Her handbag was big enough to slam-dunk a mugger with. And Wade had her nose and her eyes.
"Oh great gods, is that his mother?" I asked, unable to tear my eyes away from the pair. "Don't tell me she's—"
"A vampire, too? Yes, she is. I was hoping to avoid meeting her, but I guess she decided it was time to get a look at what Wade's been doing here." Menolly frowned.
Wade seemed a little irritated, too. His usual cheer had taken on a strained quality, and he looked even more pale than usual. But when he glanced up and spotted us, the gloom disappeared, and he waved us over. Menolly let out a long sigh as we maneuvered through the rows of chairs.
"Let's get this over with," she said. "This might just be the deal breaker."
"I'm the one who has to worry that she might bite. What's wrong with you?" I teased her.
"You don't understand," she said. "You've never heard Wade talk about his mother. I can't believe somebody went and turned her into a vampire. I'd like to rip the balls off of whichever idiot did it."
I choked, and she thumped me a good one on my back, but it was too late. Wade's mother heard me coughing and turned our way. Within seconds, she'd reached our side and was rooting through that giant handbag of hers. She finally found what she was looking for—a menthol cough drop—and shoved it my way.
"Here, dearie, you sound like you're catching a cold. Take this—go on, take it!" she insisted as I shook my head. "I have plenty, and you—you're still among the living. If you don't take it, you might end up with pneumonia, and let me tell you, a pretty girl like you doesn't want to take to her sickbed. You don't have our natural protection against disease, you know. Go on, now, it'll soothe your throat. Take it!" As she pressed the cough drop into my hand, she turned to Wade and gave him a little swat on the arm. "Well, don't just stand there. Introduce us."
Wade closed his eyes briefly, as if trying the old I'm asleep and when I open my eyes this will all be over ploy. When he blinked and saw that she was still there, he forced a smile.
"Mother, this is Delilah D'Artigo. And this is her sister Menolly. I told you about Menolly, remember? Girls, this is my mother, Mrs. Belinda Stevens."
Wade's mother looked us up and down as if we were stray cats that her son had dragged home. Especially Menolly. She flashed us a bright smile, but her eyes were cold. Whether her reserve was from her being a vampire or not, I wasn't sure. She held out her hand languidly, almost as though she didn't really want to touch us.
Menolly accepted her hand and shook it with a squeeze that brought a little gasp from Mrs. Stevens. I gave Belinda a nod.
"So nice to meet you, girls." She peered closer. "Wade tells me you're both half-Faerie." The word Faerie came out with a horrendously nasal twang, making it sound like some dread disease. "You have another sister, yes? She's the one who wears the corsets so tight it's a wonder that her boobs don't pop out over the top, am I right?"
Menolly let out a little cough as if she were about to say something, but I jabbed her in the ribs, and she turned her head.
Belinda Stevens walked among the rolls of those most dreaded of all women, both Earthside and in Otherworld, whether you were Fae, a vampire, a Were, or human: the boyfriend's mother.
"Camille is a force unto herself," I said, stepping in. "She's dynamic and vital, and without her, we'd be lost."
Wade edged closer to his mother, tapping her on the elbow. "Pull in your fangs, Mother. These are my friends."
"And Menolly here is more than just a friend, so you say." Belinda arched one eyebrow in a fair imitation of Mr. Spock and transferred her purse to a nearby chair. "So tell me, girls, how long have you been on Earth?"
"We prefer the term Earthside to on Earth. We aren't, after all, aliens from another planet," Menolly said, her words crisp. "Otherworld and Earthside were linked together in the past. Long ago."
"I see," Belinda said. Quite clearly, she didn't. "And so how long have you been Earthside?"
"About seven… maybe eight months." Menolly's eyes were taking on a shine that I didn't like. I'd seen that look before, when she was staring at something that she considered a blight on existence. Trillian, for example, or wine spritzers or cockroaches.
"And how long have you been a vampire, dearie?" Honey would have oozed faster than the saccharine sweetness flowing off the woman's tongue.
Menolly let out a loud sigh. Obviously, Wade had not warned his mother about touchy subjects, or she wouldn't be so nosy. "Twelve Earthside years, Mrs. Stevens. And you? How long ago were you killed and raised?"
Blinking as if surprised to be asked such an intimate question, Belinda shrugged. "Two years now. I'm actually grateful, though. I can watch over my little boy forever," she said, patting Wade on the arm.
He grimaced, and I heard Menolly suck in a deep breath—purely reflex since she didn't need to breathe. I grabbed her by the shoulder, gripping her tightly. She stiffened, then relaxed.
"Isn't that so incredibly sweet?" she said as Wade gave her a hopeless look. Nothing he could do would stop his mother from her appointed task to gather and assimilate personal information.
Belinda paused for a moment, then, "Twelve years? You must have been a young girl when it happened. So little life experience; what a pity."
Menolly snapped then. "Actually, I'm probably almost as old as you were at the time of your death, though I look a damned sight better. I'm the youngest of my sisters, so right now—including the twelve years I've been a vampire—I'm about fifty-five years old, counting by your calendar. Is there anything else you want to know? How many men I've slept with, or maybe my bra size?"
Uh-oh. Wanting out of the way of any resulting fireworks, I edged my way toward Sassy Branson. She liked me. She'd protect me if anything happened. Because I knew there was no way in hell that I could fight my way out of a room of bitchy vampires.
As I took one step too many and ended up in Sassy's lap—she was sitting right behind me—she put her arms around me and pulled me against her to whisper in my ear. "I'm betting that Menolly wishes she could take his mother down and stake her right now. Too bad she can't. At least, not here. Listen, if the going gets rough, you just stay by me, okay?" She let out a shuddering sigh. I realized she could hear the pulse of my blood, and even though I wanted to break away and run, I knew better. I just nodded. Vigorously.