Like most people who own their own businesses, I work long hours that start early in the morning. So when someone calls me in the middle of the night, they'd better be dying.
"Hello, Mercy," said Stefan's amiable voice in my ear. "I wonder if you could do me a favor."
Stefan had done his dying a long time ago, so I saw no reason to be nice. "I answered the phone at"-I peered blearily at the red numbers on my bedside clock-" three o'clock in the morning."
Okay, that's not exactly what I said. I may have added a few of those words a mechanic picks up to use at recalcitrant bolts and alternators that land on her toes.
"I suppose you could go for a second favor," I continued, "but I'd prefer you hang up and call me back at a more civilized hour."
He laughed. Maybe he thought I was trying to be funny. "I have a job to do, and I believe your particular talents would be a great asset in assuring the success of the venture."
Old creatures, at least in my experience, like to be a little vague when they're asking you to do something. I'm a businesswoman, and I believe in getting to the specifics as quickly as possible.
"At three in the morning you need a mechanic?"
"I'm a vampire, Mercedes," he said gently. "Three in the morning is still prime time. But I don't need a mechanic, I need you. You owe me a favor."
He was right, darn him. He'd helped me when the local Alpha werewolf's daughter was kidnapped. He had warned me that he'd be collecting in return.
I yawned and sat up, giving up all hope of going back to sleep. "All right. What am I doing for you?"
"I'm supposed to be delivering a message to a vampire who is here without my mistress's permission," he said, getting to the point. "I need a witness he won't notice."
He hung up without getting an answer, or even telling me when he was coming to pick me up. It would serve him right if I just went back to sleep.
Muttering to myself, I threw on clothing: jeans, yesterday's T-shirt complete with mustard stain, and two socks with only one hole between them. Once I was more or less dressed, I shuffled off to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of cranberry juice.
It was a full moon, and my roommate, the werewolf, was out running with the local pack, so I didn't have to explain to him why I was going out with Stefan. Which was just as well.
Samuel wasn't a bad roommate as such things go, but he had a tendency to get possessive and dictatorial. Not that I let him get away with it, but arguing with werewolves requires a certain subtlety I was lacking at-I checked my wristwatch-3:15 in the morning.
For all that I was raised by them, I'm not a werewolf, not a were - anything. I'm not a servant of the moon's phases, and in the coyote shape that is my second form, I look like any other canis latrans: I have the buckshot scars on my backside to prove it.
Werewolves cannot be mistaken for wolves: weres are much bigger than their non-preternatural counterparts-and a lot scarier.
What I am is a walker, though I'm sure there once was another name for it-an Indian name lost when the Europeans devoured the New World. Maybe my father could have told me what it was if he hadn't died in a car wreck before he knew my mother was pregnant. So all I know is what the werewolves could tell me, which wasn't much.
The "walker" comes from the Skinwalkers of the Southwest Indian tribes, but I have less in common with a Skin-walker, at least from what I've read, than I do with the werewolves. I don't do magic, I don't need a coyote skin to change shape-and I'm not evil.
I sipped my juice and looked out of the kitchen window. I couldn't see the moon herself, just her silver light that touched the nighttime landscape. Thoughts of evil seemed somehow appropriate while I waited for the vampire to come for me. If nothing else, it would keep me from falling asleep: fear has that effect on me. I'm afraid of evil.
In our modern world, even the word seems... old fashioned. When it comes out of hiding briefly in a Charles Manson or a Jeffrey Dahmer, we try to explain it away with drug abuse, an unhappy childhood, or mental illness.
Americans in particular are oddly innocent in their faith that science holds explanations for everything. When the werewolves finally admitted what they were to the public several months ago, the scientists immediately started looking for a virus or bacteria that could cause the Change-magic being something their laboratories and computers can't explain. Last I'd heard Johns Hopkins had a whole team devoted to the issue. Doubtless they'd find something, too, but I'm betting they'll never be able to explain how a 180-pound man turns into a 250-pound werewolf. Science doesn't allow for magic any more than it allows for evil.
The devout belief that the world is explainable is both a terrible vulnerability and a stout shield. Evil prefers it when people don't believe. Vampires, as a not-random example, seldom go out and kill people in the street. When they go hunting, they find someone who won't be missed and bring them home where they are tended and kept comfortable-like a cow in a feedlot.
Under the rule of science, there are no witch burnings allowed, no water trials or public lynchings. In return, the average law-abiding, solid, citizen has little to worry about from the things that go bump in the night. Sometimes I wish I were an average citizen.
Average citizens don't get visited by vampires.
Nor do they worry about a pack of werewolves-at least not quite the same way as I was.
Coming out in public was a bold step for the werewolves; one that could easily backfire. Staring out at the moonlit night, I fretted about what would happen if people began to be afraid again. Werewolves aren't evil, but they aren't exactly the peaceful, law-abiding heroes that they're trying to represent themselves as either.
Someone tapped on my front door.
Vampires are evil. I knew that-but Stefan was more than just a vampire. Sometimes 1 was pretty sure he was my friend. So I wasn't really afraid until I opened the door and saw what waited on my porch.
The vampire's dark hair was slicked back, leaving his skin very pale in the moon's light. Dressed in black from head to heels, he ought to have looked like a refugee from a bad Dracula movie, but somehow the whole outfit, from black leather duster to silk gloves, looked more authentic on Stefan than his usual bright-colored T-shirt and grubby jeans. As if he'd removed a costume, rather than put one on.
He looked like someone who could kill as easily as I could change a tire, with as little thought or remorse.
Then his mobile brows climbed his forehead-and he was suddenly the same vampire who'd painted his old VW bus to look like Scooby's Mystery Machine.
"You don't look happy to see me," he said with a quick grin that didn't show his fangs. In the dark, his eyes looked more black than brown-but then so did mine.
"Come in." I backed away from the door so he could; then, because he'd scared me I added snappishly, "If you want welcoming, try stopping by at a decent hour."
He hesitated on the threshold, smiled at me, and said, "By your invitation." Then he stepped inside my house.
"That threshold thing really works?" I asked.
His smile widened again, this time I saw a glint of white. "Not after you've invited me in."
He walked past me and into the living room and then turned like a model on a runway. The folds of his duster spread out with his turn in an effect nearly cape-like.
"So how do you like me a la Nosferatu?"
I sighed and admitted it. "Scared me. I thought you eschewed all things gothic." I'd seldom seen him in anything other than jeans and T-shirts.
His smile widened even more. "Usually I do. But the Dracula look does have its place. Oddly enough, used sparingly, it scares other vampires almost as well as it does the odd coyote-girl. Don't worry, I have a bit of costuming for you, too."
He reached under his coat and pulled out a silver-studded leather harness.
I stared at it a moment. "Going to an S&M strip club are you? I didn't realize there was anything like that around here." There wasn't, not to my knowledge. Eastern Washington is more prudish than Seattle or Portland.
He laughed. "Not tonight, sweetheart. This is for your other self." He shook the straps out so I could see that it was a dog harness.
I took it from him. It was good leather, soft and flexible with so much silver that it looked like jewelry. If I'd been strictly human, no doubt I'd have been taken aback at wearing such a thing. But when you spend a good part of your time running around as a coyote, collars and the like are pretty useful.
The Marrok, the leader of the North American werewolves, insists that all of the wolves wear a collar when they run in the cities, with tags that identify them as someone's pet. He also insists the names on the tags be something innocuous like Fred or Spot, no Killers or Fangs. It's safer that way-both for the werewolves and the law-enforcement people who might encounter them. Needless to say, it's as popular with the werewolves as the helmet law was with the motorcyclists when it first went into effect. Not that any of them would dream of disobeying the Marrok.
Not being a werewolf, I'm exempt from the Marrok's rules. On the other hand, I don't like running unnecessary risks either. I had a collar in my kitchen junk drawer-but it wasn't made of nifty black leather.
"So I'm part of your costume?" I asked.
"Let's just say that I think this vampire might need more intimidation than most," he answered lightly, though something in his eyes made me think there was something more going on.
Medea wandered out from wherever she'd been sleeping. Probably Samuel's bed. Purring furiously, she wound her small self around Stefan's left leg and then rubbed her face against his boot to mark him as hers.
"Cats and ghosts don't like vampires," Stefan said staring down at her.
" Medea likes anything that might feed or pet her," I told him. "She's not picky."
He bent down and scooped her up. Being picked up isn't Medea's favorite thing, so she yowled at him several times before going back to purring as she sank her claws into his expensive leather sleeve.
"You aren't cashing in your favor just to appear more intimidating," I said, looking up from the soft leather harness to meet his eyes. Unwise with vampires, he himself had told me so, but all I saw was opaque darkness. "You said you wanted a witness. A witness to what?"
"No, I don't need you in order to appear intimidating," Stefan agreed softly after I'd stared at him for a few seconds. "But he'll think intimidation is why I have a coyote on my leash." He hesitated, and then shrugged. "This vampire has been through here before, and I think that he managed to deceive one of our young ones. Because of what you are, you are immune to many vampiric powers, especially if the vampire in question doesn't know what you are. Thinking you a coyote, he's probably not going to waste his magic on you at all. It is unlikely, but he might manage to deceive me as well as he did Daniel. I don't think he'll be able to deceive you."
I'd just learned that little tidbit about being resistant to vampiric magic. It wasn't particularly useful for me since a vampire is strong enough to break my neck with the same effort I'd put into snapping a piece of celery.
"He won't hurt you," Stefan said when I was silent for too long. "I give you my word of honor."
I didn't know how old Stefan was, but he used that phrase like a man who meant it. Sometimes he made it hard to remember that vampires are evil. It didn't really matter, though. I owed him.
"All right," I said.
Looking down at the harness I thought about getting my own collar instead. I could change shape while wearing a collar-my neck wasn't any bigger around as a human than as a coyote. The harness, suitable for a thirty-pound coyote, would be too tight for me to regain human form while I wore it. The advantage of the harness though, was that I wouldn't be attached to Stefan by my neck.
My collar was bright purple with pink flowers embroidered on it. Not very Nosferatu.
I handed the harness to Stefan. "You'll have to put it on me after I change," I told him. "I'll be right back."
I changed shape in my bedroom because I had to take off my clothes to do it. I'm not really all that modest, a shapeshifter gets over that pretty fast, but I try not to get na**d in front of someone who might misread my casual nudity for casualness in other areas.
Although Stefan had at least three cars that I knew of, he had apparently taken a "faster way," as he put it, to my house, so we got in my Rabbit to travel to his meeting.
For a few minutes, I wasn't certain he was going to be able to get it started. The old diesel didn't like getting up this early in the morning any more than I did. Stefan muttered a few Italian oaths under his breath, and at last it caught and we were off.
Never ride in a car with a vampire who is in a hurry. I didn't know my Rabbit could peel out like that. We turned onto the highway with the rpms redlined; the car stayed on all four wheels, but only just.
The Rabbit actually seemed to like the drive better than I did; the engine roughness I'd been trying for years to get rid of smoothed out and it purred. I closed my eyes and hoped the wheels stayed on.
When Stefan took us over the river on the cable bridge that dropped us off in the middle of Paseo he was driving forty miles an hour over the speed limit. Not slowing noticeably, he crossed through the heart of the industrial area to a cluster of hotels that sprang up on the far edge of town near the on-ramp to the highway that headed out toward Spokane and other points north. By some miracle-probably aided by the early hour-we weren't picked up for speeding.