"Die, bloodsucking hellspawn!"
My eyes flashed open and I saw the stake descending. Whoever was holding it was probably moving pretty fast, but to me it seemed like slow motion. I grabbed the wrist holding the stake and tugged.
The woman flew over my head and sailed across the room. She could have been hurt, but she landed on the futon mattress which she must have dragged in while I was sleeping the sleep of the sated animal.
"Dammit, Jessica!" I cried when I saw her.
She crouched on the mattress, almost giggling. "And now," she boomed, her voice artificially deep, "the bloodsucking fiend rises from her grave to mete out harsh punishment to the mere mortal who dared try to end her unnatural life!"
"What the hell is wrong with you?"
Jessica bounced up from the mattress, grinning. "That's the only thing you've got to worry about now, kiddo. Where there be vampires, there be vampire hunters. They don't know you're one of the good guys. I figured we could do some drills." For the first time, I noticed she was wearing jeans, a heavy sweatshirt, kneepads, elbow pads, and a biker's helmet. She looked like a black armadillo. "You know, get your anti-stake reflexes really humming."
"Coffee," I groaned, staggering toward the bathroom. I was perfectly awake-and I certainly didn't need to pee-but I was determined to maintain some sort of routine. "And get lost!"
"No way. Now that you're back from the dead, I'm doing everything I can to keep you from biting the big one again. For example, Liz, are you prepared to deal with THIS?" She yowled that last as she leaped toward my back, swinging that damned stake. I had plenty of time to sidestep her, and she hit the wall like a bug and bounced off, landing on her padded knees in front of my dresser. "Ooooh, nice!" she said approvingly. "You didn't even turn around. We'll add super hearing to the list."
"Please go away," I begged. "I plan to stay inside and wallow in guilt all day. Night, I mean."
"Why?" I couldn't tell her about Nick. I was too embarrassed. Plus, she'd whip out the Sex Calendar and update it on the spot. As a goad to improving the frequency of my naked indoor games, she had started to keep track. The pitiful number I racked up in 2001 was especially humiliating. "Because I'm now an unnatural creature, that's why. Buzz off."
"No way! We're going to fight crime tonight."
"We are, huh?" Actually, that was not such a bad idea. I could do with a little atonement after last night.
"Yup. Also, you're kind of clammy. I tried to take your pulse when I got here, and your wrist is chilly. I know! Let's take your temperature."
I shuddered at the thought. Was I room temperature? Cold-blooded like a snake? Ugh. "Let's not."
I found out Miss Stabs-A-Lot had been busy while I was resting (it was too deep, dreamless and, let's face it, deathlike, to call it sleeping). She'd set up my computer to download all the pertinent news stories of the day, so when I ...
...got up I'd see what had been happening in the world during the day. She'd also bought my house.
"My house," I said slowly.
"Hey, it was going on the market at the end of the month. You're dead, remember? You don't live here anymore, and since you still had eleven years to go on your mortgage, the bank was kind of interested in getting it back." She handed me a thick sheaf of papers. "It's all taken care of."
I stared blankly at the paperwork. "Jess...I don't know what to say. This was so thoughtful...and smart. I hadn't even started thinking about stuff like my house and car-"
"Which I also bought," she added helpfully.
"So quickly? I haven't even been dead a week. How could you do all this stuff in a day?"
"It helps to be ridiculously wealthy," she said modestly. "Also, I started the stuff the day you died. It-it gave me something to do. Besides, I didn't want Mrs. Taylor doing something rotten with your things. Figured I'd legally own it all, have plenty of time to sort through everything, then put it back on the market once everything was-you know-settled."
I shook my head. "No wonder you kicked my ass on the SATs. Okay, well, I suppose I can make my house and car payments to you instead of the bank-"
"Uh-oh, no way."
"-you can't just spend all that money-"
"You're dead, I can't heeeeeeeeear youuuuuuu..."
"-and not get anything ba-"
"La la la la la la la la la!" Her hands were clapped over her ears and her eyes were squeezed shut.
I kicked her ankle, very very gently. "Fine, fine, fine!"
She opened her eyes and smiled at me, then bent and rubbed her ankle. "Good. And ouch! Besides, it's not a gift. You're not going to have much income coming in for a while, but you'll be ambushing bad guys at night-"
"I haven't decided what I'm going to be doing at night."
"--so it evens out," she finished with trademark stubbornness. "You shouldn't have to worry about house payments on top of everything else."
"Well...thanks. I really don't know what to say. You're too good."
I knew I should have fought her more for form's sake, but the fact was, Jessica could have paid off the homes of everyone we went to high school with, and still have about a billion dollars left over. It was stupid to protest when she had the bucks and the inclination. But I'd find a non-monetary way to make it up to her.
I shoved the thought away, horrified, and told myself it wouldn't work: Jessica was a woman, and had no interest in seeing what color underpants I had on.
"What? Cracking up already? Heck, it's only 7:30. Way too early for hysterics." My phone started ringing. "I'll get it, dead girl...we better figure out the phones, too."
A minute later, I was dressed and Jessica trotted back into my bedroom. "Your mom says howdy and to be careful fighting crime. Man, she's cool! If I came back from the dead, my mom'd still be in a rubber room. How'd it go last night?"
"I didn't do anything!"
"Huh? To your mom? I should hope not."
"Oh. Right. Uh-she was incredibly cool about it. Very 'oh, you're a vampire, that's nice, dear, watch out for holy water'...like that. She was really really happy to see me, and beyond that, didn't give a fig for the details."
"That's how I feel, too. Plus, I can't help it, I think it's so neat."
"Please. You sound like a cheerleader."
"Well, I was one. Also, breakfast is served." She held out a glass. One whiff and I knew it wasn't brimming with V-8. There was a green leaf stuck artfully to the side of the glass, which had been chilled, and its rim had been dipped in coarse salt. "It's O negative...the universal drink."
"You have garnished my glass of blood," I observed, "with basil and margarita salt."
"Sure. This is no drive-thru McDonald's blood. This is Aquavit blood. Manny's Steak House blood!"
"Seriously. Where'd you get it?"
"I'll never tell. But we should set up a mini-bank or something for you here, so you don't have to prowl alleys looking for a fix. I've got a guy working on that right now. He thinks I'm an eccentric heiress who's setting up her own blood storage in case of a national shortage." She tittered. "He's right, of course. Cheers!"
I took the glass with all the enthusiasm I'd have shown if she was offering me a glass of pureed rattlesnake. The smell was making my head swim, and not in a good way. While Jess looked on, big-eyed, I took a tentative sip. It was like drinking a dead battery, fallen leaves, a candle that had burned down to nothing. That's what it tasted like: nothing. And that's what it was doing for me, too. I was just as thirsty as I was when I woke up ten minutes ago.
I handed the glass back, shaking my head. "Nope. It's got to be live."
Her face fell. "Nuts. So much for that plan. You really can't-uh-get nutrients out of it, or whatever? Metabolize it?"
"It's like gulping down a vitamin and saying that's supper. You'd starve to death pretty quick. But thanks for going to all the trouble," I added, because she looked so crestfallen. I had to admit I was pretty disappointed myself. Now I'd have to hunt. I thought of Nick. Give him a call, why don't you? He'll be here in a heartbeat. Then I made the thought go away, fast.
The phone rang again, but I put up a hand to stop Jess from bounding back into the other room. "I'll get it. It's probably my dad, anyway. He's had a day to get over the shock." I walked into my living room, and saw that Jessica had thoughtfully unpacked the boxes and put my things back. She was an exhausting pal, and I was damned lucky to have her on my side. I would do well to keep that in mind. "Hello?"
"Is this Elizabeth Taylor?"
"Yes. And don't joke about my name; I've heard them all."
"Elizabeth Taylor of one-two-one-five Ramsey Street?"
I yawned, and covertly felt my teeth. Nope; fangless. "Yes, and I'm perfectly satisfied with my long distance service. Thanks anyway."
"Why," the voice-male, sounded like he was in his early 20's-demanded, "are you answering the phone?"
"Because it rang, dope. Now, I'm really very busy, so if-"
"But you're dead!"
I paused. How best to handle this? Who was this guy? Visa? The utilities company? "Don't believe everything you read," I said finally. "Also, the checks are in the mail, but since I just got laid off I'd like to make payment arrangements-"
"You're a vampire and you're in your own house answering your phone?!? Get out of there!"
I nearly dropped the phone. "A) How did you know that, and b) fat chance! Plus, the mortgage is paid off. I'm not going anywhere. Nighty-night."
I hung up, but almost immediately the phone rang again. If a phone could ring angrily, mine was. Or maybe I was just picking up the emotions of the person on the other end. Either way, the phone practically jumped into my hand. "Hello?"
"Why are you answering your phone?"
"Because it keeps ringing!" Why why why didn't I get caller I.D. when I had the chance? "Now stop bugging me."
"Wait! Don't hang up!"
Like I would. Could this be another vampire? Even if he wasn't, he knew I was. Maybe he could tell me what's been going on, give me some pointers. Anything was better than spending the next ten years finding things out the hard way. "Well," I said coyly, "I'm very busy."
"Look: come to the downtown Barnes and Noble...you know where that is?"
"Sure." Hard not to; it took up an entire city block.
"After you feed, meet me in the cookbook section..."
"That's mean!" I protested.
"Okay, fine, the humor section."
"That's not much better," I grumbled. "And I don't have to feed. I'll just go right now."
A long pause, so long I thought he'd hung up, when he practically whispered, "You don't need to feed? Have you had time this evening?"
"It's no big deal. I can go a few days. What do you look like? How about a codeword? Or a super duper secret undead handshake we can use?"
"Don't bother," he said, and he sounded incredibly rattled. "I know what you look like, Taylor. See you in an hour." Click.
"Ooooh, now that sounds ominous." I hung up. Convincing Jessica I needed to meet a mysterious someone who knew I was dead-alone-wasn't going to be easy. Best to get it over with.