EXCERPT: Vampire Moon
A Vampire for Hire Novel
I was alone in my hotel room, with the thick curtain tightly drawn, and watching Judge Judy publicly humiliate this loser slumlord when my cell phone vibrated. I rooted through a small mound of Kleenex’s on my nightstand until I found my cell. I looked down at an unknown number. I briefly debated ignoring the call. After all, Judge Judy nearly had this jerk in tears—and I just love it when she reduces jerks to tears—but I figured this might be a job, and I needed all the work I could get. After all, this hotel room didn’t pay for itself.
I muted Judge Judy’s magnificent rant and flipped open the cell. “Moon Agency.”
“Is this the Moon Agency?” asked a male voice.
“Would be a hell of a coincidence otherwise.”
There was a long pause. On the other end of the line, I could hear the caller breathing deeply, probably through his open mouth. His voice had sounded nasally. If I had to guess, I would guess he had been crying.
“Are you, you know, a detective or something?”
“Or something,” I said. “How can I help you?”
He paused again. I sensed I was about to lose him, and I knew why. He had been expecting a man. Sadly, I was used to this sort of bias in this business. In reality, most women make better detectives. I waited.
“You any good?”
“Good enough to know you have been crying,” I said. I looked at the balled up tissues next to my night stand. “And if I had to guess, I would say there’s about a half dozen used Keenixes next to you.”
I heard a sound on his end. It was a snort of sort. “You’re good.”
“It’s why I get paid the big bucks. I have a list of references, if you want them.”
“Maybe,” he said. More wet breathing. I heard a rustling sound, wiping his nose, no doubt. “Look, I just need help. I don’t know who else to turn to.”
“What kind of help?”
“Better if we don’t talk about it over the phone.”
“Are you in Orange County?” I asked.
“I’ll meet you in an hour at The Block in Orange. The world’s third biggest Starbucks is there.”
“Actually, I was using hyperbole. But it’s pretty damn big.”
He made another snorting sound over the phone and I could almost hear him grin. “Okay,” he said, “I’ll meet you at what may or may not be the world’s third biggest Starbucks.”
Whoever he was, I liked him already. I told him to look for the dark-haired girl in the wide-brimmed sunhat.
“I like to look fashionable. My goal is to block out the sun for anyone standing within three feet of me.”
He laughed. I noticed his was a hollow laugh. Empty. There was a great sadness in him. And it had to do with someone he had lost. My sixth sense was getting stronger, true, but it didn’t take a psychic to figure this one out.
“Well, we all need goals,” he said. “I’ll look for the dark-haired girl in the wide-brimmed sunhat causing her own solar eclipse.”
This time I grinned. “Well, moons and eclipses do go hand-in-hand.”
He gave me his name, which was Stuart, and I verified his cell number should he fail to find the world’s third biggest Starbucks and the giant sunhat shading half of Orange County.
Yes, more hyperbole.
We agreed on a time and hung up. I unmuted the TV just as Judge Judy finished publicly dismembering the slum lord. The verdict: he owed his ex-tenant her full deposit.
Yea, for the little people!
I didn’t want to get out of bed. In fact, I didn’t want to move. The afternoon wasn’t optimum time for me. By all rights I should have been sound asleep at this hour, but I had long ago gotten used to getting up at this hour and picking the kids up at school.
Except now I had been banned from picking the kids up at school.
The ban went into place two weeks ago. The monster in me was probably grateful to finally get to sleep in until sunset. But the mommy in me was heart broken.
And the mommy in me won out in the end.
Prior to a few weeks ago, I used to have to set an alarm clock to wake up on time. An alarm clock turned to its loudest setting and placed as near to my ear as possible.
Now I woke up on my own, at 3:00 p.m., every day. Like clock work.
Up at 3:00 p.m. with no where to go.
And that’s usually when I started crying. Not a great way to start your day—or night, in my case.
I wallowed in some more self-pity before finally forcing myself out of bed and into the bathroom. Once there, I proceeded to apply copious amounts of the strongest sunscreen on the market to my face and hands.
Once done, I grabbed my purse, keys and sunhat and headed for the door. And while I waited for the elevator, I wondered what my kids were up to. I checked the time on my cell phone. They would be home by now with Danny’s mom, who watched them every day. No doubt they were doing homework, or fighting over the TV, or fighting over the video games. Or just fighting. I sighed heavily. I even missed their fights.
I would call them tonight, as I did every night at 7 p.m., which was my nightly phone privilege with them. I would tell them I loved them and missed them. They would tell me the same thing. They would tell me about their day, and I would ask what they did during school, and about the time Anthony would launch into another long-winded tale, Danny, my ex-husband listening on the other end of the line, would jump in and tell me my ten minutes were up and to tell the kids to say goodbye. Once we said goodbye, Danny would abruptly hang the phone up for them.
And I wouldn’t hear from them for another 23 hours and 50 minutes. I used to have twenty minutes with them, and then fifteen. And now ten.
I was going to need more Kleenexes.
I was waiting for Stuart under a wide green awning, sitting as deep in the shade as possible, as the sun was mercifully beginning to set behind the shining dome of the nearby cineplex.
The Block in Orange is a hip and happening outdoor mall that seemed to appeal mostly to groups of fifteen-year-old girls who spent most of their time doubled over with laughter. Looking at the girls, I was reminded of my daughter. These days, she didn’t spend much time doubled over in laughter. These days, she seemed to be sinking deeper into a depression.
Nine-years-old is too young for a depression.
Suddenly depressed myself, I spotted a man coming around a corner, moving determinedly. He scanned the busy Starbucks crowd, spotted me, and then moved my way. Speaking of shiny domes, the man was completely bald and apparently proud of it. As he got closer, I noted his slacks and tee shirt were badly wrinkled. A thin film of sweat glistened off his head. He wore a cell phone clipped at his hip that looked like it was from the late nineties.
“Samantha Moon?” he asked.
“What an amazing guess,” I said.
He looked at my hat.
He said, “Not as amazing as you think. It’s hard to miss that thing.”
I usually avoid shaking hands. People tend to recoil when they touch my cold flesh. But Stuart held out his and I reluctantly shook it. Although he flinched slightly, he didn’t make an issue out of it, which I was grateful for. As we shook, I also got a strong psychic hit from him. Something bad had happened to him. No. Something bad had happened to someone close to him. And recently. I looked at his other hand. He was wearing a wedding band.
Something bad happened to his wife.
“Would you like a coffee?” I asked. “Since we’re at the third biggest Starbucks in the world.”
He looked around us. His bald head shimmered in the sun.
“You weren’t kidding. A place this big, you’d think the coffee was damned good.”
“Not just good,” I corrected. “This is Starbucks. Their coffee is magical.”
“It sure as hell can make five bucks disappear. Seven bucks if you get all that foo-foo crap.”
“You know, whipped cream and syrup and something called java chips.”
“Oh, the yummy foo-foo crap.”
He grinned and sat opposite me. He was a small man and slender. His bald head was oddly appealing to me. It was perfectly proportioned. No deep ridges or odd grooves. The skin was lightly tan and even. I thought I might just be looking at the world’s most perfect bald head. I wanted to touch it. Bad.
He pointed to my hat.
“So do you always wear such a big hat?” he asked.
I generally deflect personal questions, especially any questions that relate to my...condition.
I said, “It helps with my phone reception.”
He looked at me blankly for a second or two, then broke into a smile. “Ah, it looks like a satellite dish, I get it. Funny.”
I asked if he wanted some magical coffee and he declined, claiming it was too late in the day to drink coffee. I used that as my excuse, too, although it was only a half-truth. Six years ago, it would have been too late in the day for coffee, but now coffee only made me sick.
“So tell me about your wife,” I said. “It’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
He sat back and crossed his arms over his chest. His eyes narrowed. His pupils shrank.
“Yes, but how did you know about my wife?” he asked.
He studied me some more, then finally shrugged. He sat forward again and rested his small hands loosely on the table in front of him.
“My wife was killed about a month ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“So am I,” he said.
He told me about it. She had died in a local plane crash. She, and nine others. The plane had flown into the side of the San Bernardino mountains not too far from here. No survivors. I recalled reading about it on the internet, but the story had not been followed up on in the news, and I had no idea why the plane crashed or where the investigators were in their investigation. It had been a big story that turned quickly into a non-story. I smelled a cover-up.
I don’t think I had ever known anyone who had lost someone in a plane crash. I recalled Stuart’s words from a few minutes earlier: She was killed. Not: She was in an accident.
“I’m sorry,” I said again when he was finished.
He nodded. Talking about his wife dying in a plane crash had sombered him. Had I known him a little better, I would have reached out and took his hand. As it was, all I could offer were some sympathetic noises and the occasional sorry. Both seemed inadequate.
We were silent for a few more seconds, and when the time seemed appropriate, I said, “You don’t think the crash was an accident.”
“You think someone killed her.”
“I know someone killed her. She was murdered. And so was everyone else on board.”
* * *
An elderly couple sat next to us with their books of crossword and sudoko puzzles. Both sipped quietly from tall cups of coffee. In Starbucks speak, tall cups were, of course, small cups.
I studied Stuart. I wasn’t sure what to think about him. My sixth sense didn’t know what to make of him either. He seemed sane enough, although terribly grief-stricken. The grief-stricken part was the part that worried me. Grief-stricken always trumped sane.
With the elderly couple nearby, Stuart and I automatically lowered our voices and moved a little closer.
I asked, “Why do you think she was murdered?”
“She had received multiple death threats prior to the plane, she and everyone else on board.”
Okay, sanity was gaining. But I had questions. Serious questions.
“Why would someone threaten your wife’s life, and the others on board?”
“They were going to testify in court. She, and five or six other witnesses.”
Stuart unconsciously reached for something that wasn’t there. As it was, his fingers closed on empty air. I suspected I knew what they were reaching for: something alcoholic and strong. Unfortunately, we were at a Starbucks, and as far as I knew, they didn’t serve any whiskeyaccinos. At least not yet.
“At the time of the crash, she was with the other witnesses?”
“Yes,” he said. “They were being flown to a safe house at the Marine base in Camp Pendleton. At the time, of course, I hadn’t known where the government was flying her to. I do now.”
“Who was she going to testify against?”
Stuart looked at me hesitantly. I sensed I knew the source of his hesitancy. He was about to involve me in something extremely dangerous. He wasn’t sure if he should. Here I was, a cute gal wearing an urban sombrero, and no doubt he didn’t want to put me in harm’s way.
“You can tell me,” I said. “I’m a helluva secret keeper.”
He shook his head.
“Maybe I should just let this go,” he said.
“Maybe,” I said. “But I’m a big girl.”
“These people are extremely dangerous and, as you can see, can strike anywhere.”
“You caught the ‘big girl’ part, right?”
“It’s going to take more than being a big girl, Samantha. It’s going to take an army, I’m afraid.”
“Call me Sam. And there’s very little that I fear.”
He squinted, studying me, and as he did so his perfect bald head caught some of the setting sun. There’s beauty everywhere, I thought, even in baldness.
“You’re really not afraid, are you?” he asked.
“You should be.”
“I’m afraid of a lot of things, but men with big guns aren’t one of them. My kids’ math homework, well, that’s another story.”
“Fine,” he said. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
He looked at me some more. He didn’t know what to do with his empty hand. It opened and closed randomly. No doubt he was used to holding his wife’s hand. Now, I suspected, her hand had been replaced by a crystal tumbler of the hard stuff.
“She was going to testify against Jerry Blum.”
I nodded. I knew the name, especially since I had once been a federal agent. Jerry Blum had single-handedly built an enormous criminal empire that stretched down into Mexico and as far up as Canada, which was no surprise since he was, of all things, Canadian. These days he worked hard to bring drugs to the streets and schools of Orange County. Six years ago, he had dabbled in home loan scams, which had been my specialty. He had an uncanny knack of distancing himself from anything illegal, and an even more uncanny knack to avoid prosecution, which is why my department never caught him.
Last I heard, he had been standing trial for a bizarre crime outside a nightclub in Seal Beach, California, where Jerry Blum had uncharacteristically lost his cool and popped someone with a handgun. Yes, witnesses were everywhere.
I asked Stuart about this, and he confirmed that his wife had indeed been one of the witness. She had seen the whole thing, along with five others. She had agreed to testify to what she saw, thus putting her life in mortal danger.
I tapped my longish fingernail on the green plastic table. My fingernails tended to come to a point these days, but most people seemed not to notice, and if they did, they didn’t say anything about it. Maybe they were scared of the weird woman with pointed fingernails.
I said, “Why do you think Jerry Blum was involved in your wife’s plane crash?”
“Because as of today he is a free man. No witnesses, and thus no case. It’s been ruled self-defense.”
“But we’re talking about a plane crash, and if the plane was headed to a military base, then we’re probably talking about a military aircraft.”
“I know I sound crazy, but look at the facts. Jerry Blum has a history of silencing witnesses. This case was no different. Just a little more extravagant. Witnesses silenced, and Blum’s a free man.”
I continued tapping. People just didn’t take down military aircrafts. Even powerful people. But the circumstantial evidence was compelling.
Whoops! I was tapping too hard. Digging a hole in the plastic. Whoops. A vampiric woodpecker.
I asked, “So what have federal investigators determined to be the cause of the crash?”
“No clue,” said Stuart. “The investigation is still ongoing. Every agency on earth is involved since. I’ve been personally interviewed by the FBI, military investigators and the FAA.”
“No clue,” he said again. “But I think it’s because they suspect foul play.”
I nodded but didn’t tap.
Stuart added, “But he killed her, Sam. I know it, and I want you to help me prove it. So what do you say?”
I thought about it. Going after a crime lord was a big deal. I would have to be careful. I didn’t want to jeopardize my family or Stuart. Myself I wasn’t too worried about.
I nodded and he smiled, relieved. We discussed my retainer fee. We discussed, in fact, a rather sizable retainer fee, since this was going to take a lot of time and energy. He agreed to my price without blinking and I gave him my Paypal address, where he would deposit my money. I told him I would begin once the funds had been confirmed. He understood.
We shook hands again, and once again he barely flinched at my icy grip. And as he walked away, with the setting sun gleaming off his shining dome, all I wanted to do was run my fingers over his perfect bald head.
I needed to get a life.
A half hour later, I was sitting in a McDonald’s parking lot and waiting for 7:00 p.m. to roll around.
I had already concluded that traffic was too heavy for me to get back to my hotel in time to call my kids, and so I decided to wait it out here, just off the freeway, with a view of the golden arches and the smell of French fries heavy in the air.
My stomach growled. I think my stomach had short-term memory loss. French fries were no longer on the menu.
The sun was about to set. For me, that’s a good thing. The western sky was ablaze in fiery oranges and reds and yellows, a beautiful reminder of the sheer amount of smog in southern California.
I checked the clock on the dash: 6:55.
My husband Danny made the rules. We had no official agreement regarding who could see the kids when. It was an arrangement he set up outside of the courts, because in this case he was judge, jury and executioner. A month or so ago he threatened to expose me for who I am, claiming he had evidence, and that if I fought him I would never see the kids again. Danny was proving to be far more ruthless than I ever imagined. Gone was the gentle husband I had known, replaced by something close to a monster of his own.
Not the undead kind. Just the uncaring kind.
For now, as hard as it was not seeing my kids, I played by his rules, biding my time.
I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel. A small wind made its way through my open window, now bringing with it the scent of cooking beef. Maybe some McNuggets, too. I sniffed again. And fries, always the fries.
I looked at my watch. Three minutes to go. If I called early, Danny wouldn’t answer. If I called late, then tough shit, 7:10 was my cut-off no matter what time I called. And if I called past 7:10, he wouldn’t pick up. Again, shit out of luck. The calling too late thing had only happened once, when I was in a client meeting. I vowed it wouldn’t happen again, clients be damned.
Two minutes to go. I treasured every second I had with my kids, and I hated Danny for doing this to me. How could he turn on me like this?
Easy, I thought. He’s afraid of you. And when people are afraid they do evil, hurtful things.
One minute. I rolled up my window. I wanted to be able to hear my kids. I didn’t want some damn Harley coming by and drowning out little Anthony’s comically high-pitched voice, or Tammy’s too-serious recounting of that day’s school lessons.
Thirty seconds. I had my finger over the cell phone’s send button, Danny’s home number—my old home number—already selected from my contact list and ready to go.
Ten seconds. Outside, somewhere beyond the nearby freeway’s arching overpass, the sun was beginning to set and I was beginning to feel good. Damn good. In fact, within minutes I was about to feel stronger than I had any right to feel.
And I was about to talk to my kids, too. A smile that I hadn’t felt all day touched my lips.
At 7:00 p.m. on the nose, I pushed the send button. The phone rang once and Danny picked up immediately.
“The kids aren’t here,” he said immediately in his customary monotone.
“They’re with Nancy getting some ice cream.”
Nancy was, of course, the home-wrecker. His secretary fling that had become more than a fling. The name of that witch alone nearly sent me into a psychotic rage.
“They’re with her?”
“Yes. They like her. We all do.”
“When will they be back?”
“I don’t know, and that’s none of your concern.”
“So when can I call back?”
“You can call back tomorrow at seven.”
“That’s bullshit, Danny. This was my time with—”
“Tomorrow,” he said, and hung up.