In the end, I made the only reasonable choice, the only one that made sense in that moment. I chose to do absolutely everything I could to make sure that my dad was safe, regardless of other consequences.
“Then where are we going?” I asked the vampire. Part of me was frantically screaming about everything the Crossroads teachers had told me about how Strangers will try anything to ingratiate themselves and appear more human so that they can catch you in a moment of weakness. But quite frankly, I had been in a moment of weakness back at my house, and the vampire had saved me.
And I cared more about my father’s safety than I did about what Crossroads was teaching.
The look the vampire gave me then made it clear that she hadn’t been very certain that I would agree. She arched an eyebrow briefly, then turned and strode to a nearby pick-up truck. “We’ll drive there.”
“That’s Mr. Raphardy’s truck,” I pointed out reflexively, though the thought of my dad on his way to murder someone prompted me to move around the other side anyway. There were times to respect and obey the law, and then there were times when your father was magically mind controlled by some kind of evil little psycho brat to commit murder. As far as I was concerned, the two were mutually exclusive.
“You mean it was his truck” the vampire replied while opening the door. “Now it’s mine.”
That time, I had my staff out of its container and in my hand, pointed at her before she said anything else. “What did you do to Mr. Raphardy?” I demanded flatly, though my voice quivered just a little. Sue me, she was a vampire, and I’d just been attacked, held down, and threatened with torture by some kind of mind-controlling little boy that I happened to have been babysitting all day long. At the moment, the fact that I wasn’t on my knees throwing up in the gutter was pretty damn near miraculous.
Yeah, I wanted to save my father. But if she’d done something to an innocent old man, it kind of spoke toward how much I could trust her not to kick me to the curb the second whatever she was actually after showed itself. I still wasn’t totally ready to just believe that the vampire my senses kept repeatedly screaming ‘danger, danger, danger’ about was actually on my side. Something about that was too easy.
The vampire’s eyes dropped to the staff, then moved up to me. Her hand was still on the door. “This is gonna be an awfully short partnership if you keep pointing weapons at me. Breathe. I didn’t do anything to the guy except buy his truck.” Stepping up into the driver’s side, she leaned over to push open the other door, dangling keys in my direction while jingling them. “For a pretty damn high markup too, by the way. Either he’s racist, sexist or both, because he charged about three times what this piece of shit is worth. Jerk. But I needed something a bit more subtle than my normal ride around this place. Now do you still want to come save your dad, or not?”
I was already getting in the truck before she finished talking, my staff back in its container. Closing the door after me, I buckled up quickly while gesturing down the street. “Okay, okay. Go then, go, go!”
As the truck roared to life and pulled away from the curb, the vampire looked toward me. “Do you need a barf bag? Because I’m pretty sure that Raphardy guy left a baseball cap in the back that you could toss your cookies into. It’s a Phillies hat, so you know, might even improve the value.”
I couldn’t stop staring at her. I’d been right in my first impression. She was definitely half-Asian. The other half I still wasn’t sure about. I was trying to remember what they’d said about vampires so far. It wasn’t much, we hadn’t focused on them yet. All I knew was what I’d ready or chatted with people like the twins about. I knew that some vampires were allergic to the sun, but not all of them. They all drank blood, but the more powerful ones, the ones that tended to be the leaders, were fine in the sunlight.
“Okay, Miyu,” I made my voice as steady as possible. “How did you just happen to show up then? Why are you here? What do you want. What does Ammon want? What the hell is he? Why didn’t I know he was a Stranger? Why did he choose me to come after? What the hell is going on?”
She held a hand up, glancing my way as the truck continued to tear down the street. “First, Miyu?”
I gave a short nod. “Yeah. You know, as in vampire princess? Never mind, what should I call you?”
“My name is Asenath,” she informed me, cranking the wheel to take a sharp turn before accelerating so hard I was thrust back against the seat. “As for the rest of it, I don’t know what he is or what he wants with you exactly. I know he’s obsessed with you and he’s been traveling cross-country to get here, leaving a huge mess behind him. You may have noticed this, but he’s not exactly subtle.”
“Okay, Asenath then. Got it.” I started to nod a little hesitantly, still keeping my eyes on her. “And you’re involved because…? Don’t tell me you were in the neighborhood buying old trucks and just happened to hear the disturbance with your vampire super-hearing. Do you have super-hearing?”
“Yeah,” she confirmed before continuing with a dry voice. “But I can’t fly or outrun a train.” Belatedly, she amended, “Well, maybe for a few seconds on that last one, but the super speed only lasts for short bursts unless I want to get really hungry. And trust me, it’s a bad thing when I get too peckish.”
Blanching at that, I gave a little nod. The thought of a hungry vampire was kind of terrifying, even if she was (at least portraying herself as) on my side. Still, she hadn’t answered the rest, so I waited.
Asenath was silent for a moment, focused as she was on maneuvering the truck around the nearly blind corner and up onto the empty highway at speeds that tempted me to look for Rick Moranis wearing a piece of absurd headgear. “As for the rest of it,” she continued, “I was in the area because I’ve been hunting that psychotic piece of shit. He killed an innocent girl, and her mother asked for my help.”
I blinked at that. “Her mother—wait, what? What do you mean, how do you know this woman?”
“I don’t,” Asenath replied. “I’ve never met her or her daughter. She called and asked for help because she couldn’t go to the police and someone else gave her my number. It’s what I do.”
My mouth opened and then shut as I stared at her. “What, were you cursed by gypsies or something?”
The grin that the female vampire turned on me at that point was feral. “Nah,” she replied. “And there’s no chip in my head prohibiting violence against mortals either, if you were wondering.”
I needed the distraction away from worrying about my dad. So I focused on this one. “I don’t get it. You’re a vampire, a real vampire, but you… help people? As in people call up your phone and hire you to, to fix problems for them?” It sounded absurd when I compared it to what Crossroads was teaching.
Turning her head to lift an eyebrow at me once more, Asenath asked, “You think all humans are totally pacifistic and morally upstanding?” When I shook my head, she continued. “You think all humans are totally evil, violent psychopaths?” Again, I shook my head, and she nodded. “Does that confuse you?”
“No,” I replied slowly. “Some humans are good, some are bad. Mostly it’s just their choice.”
“Then I think you pretty much answered your own question,” Asenath informed me. She paused then before heaving a long sigh “Okay, look. I know what they teach you up there. And sometimes it’s true. There’s plenty of outright evil shit out there. But the problem with making sweeping generalizations is that you miss all the nuance and specifics. Think about it this way, does it make any sense to you that everything that happens to be ‘not human’ is a chaotic evil race bent on dominating all humanity?”
Hesitating, I looked away, squinting at the window beside me before shaking my head. “I guess not.”
She nodded. “That’s because it’s a hell of a lot more complicated. Your people call all of us Strangers. Do you ever wonder why they use that term? It’s because they don’t bother to get to know us. They don’t want to. It’s easier to assume everything that isn’t human is bad, and teach your students to hate and kill on sight.” She lifted a hand off the wheel to gesture. “I understand why they do it.”
Frowning at that, I shook my head. “You do? If, I mean If you’re telling the truth, how can you ‘understand’ them teaching all of us to kill you on sight? It seems… unfair. And wrong.”
“I didn’t say it was fair or right,” Asenath replied. “And I didn’t say I agreed with it. I said I understand why they do it, and I do. It’s like…” She paused, taking a second to gather her thoughts. “Imagine you have a room full of people who all look like normal people. Some are human, others are impostors. Now, not all the impostors are bad. Three quarters are, but about a quarter are just hiding what they are. Now you have these bells that ring every time they get near one of the impostors. It doesn’t tell you anything else. It can’t tell you if they’re good or bad, only that they’re not human. And the second that the bell goes off, the impostor knows they’ve been discovered, and who’s discovered them. If the impostor is good, then everything’s fine. But if they’re bad, they know they’ve just been found out, and the person who caught them is standing right in front of them, in arms reach.”
Turning her attention back to me, the vampire girl continued in a calm voice. “If you were handing these bells out to people that you care about, people that you wanted to stay safe, and sending them out to check everyone in the room, would you tell them about some of the impostors being good and take the risk that they might hesitate when their bell rings, giving an evil impostor time to kill them? Or would you decide to tell them that they were all evil in order to spare the people you care about. Spare them psychologically, protecting them from the guilt of what they’re doing, and spare them physically. If their students think that some of the people they’re killing aren’t evil, they might hesitate at the wrong time. There is no other way for this ‘Stranger Sense’ you’ve got to operate. It tells you I’m not human. That’s it. The people who set up that school of yours decided that it was better if their students didn’t hesitate. Whether they were right to do that or not, it’s what they did. Not out of malice, but to protect their students. They chose not to risk their own people getting killed by hesitating at the wrong time.”
Squirming in my seat as I thought about what she was saying, I started to look at my phone to check the time before cursing. “Damn it, I left my phone back there in my house.”
“We’ve still got seven minutes,” she replied over the sound of the engine roaring as she pressed the pedal to the floor. “And we’re five minutes away from the motel. We’ll get there. Just be ready.”
Trying to focus on anything other than my father, I asked, “You said you were there for Ammon. You’ve found him, but that knife you threw didn’t actually kill him. So now what?”
“Now,” Asenath heaved a long sigh before looking at me as she admitted, “Now I need your help.”
“My help?” I blinked. “What do you need–” Then I got it. “The library. The Heretic library. You’re hoping one of the books they’ve got will have some idea of what Ammon is, and how to kill him.”
“Your people do kind of specialize in killing every kind of non-human on the planet,” she pointed out. “If any group is going to have details on how to wipe that piece of shit out of existence, it’s Heretics.”
“But you can’t go in there, you’ve got no access.” I reasoned. “You can’t even set foot on the island, and if you somehow managed it, every single person there would know what you really were. One glance and they’d all know you were a vampire. So you need someone else, me, to look it up for you.”
She nodded “You want to take this freak down, don’t you? Before he comes after your Dad again.”
Flinching, I swallowed hard. “I want to know why he came after me, why he’s been camped out next door for weeks waiting for me to get home. Why didn’t his power work on me? That is what he was trying to do, right? All that ‘My name is Ammon’ stuff. I thought he was just weird, but he was using his power. That’s his mind control. He kept trying to use it on me but it never worked. And I still want to know why he didn’t set off my Stranger sense, or Seller’s.”
“Seller?” Asenath looked at me, then waved that off. “Never mind, tell me about him later. The point is, I don’t know why it didn’t work. Whatever this kid is, it’s not any kind of Alter that I’ve ever heard of.” Belatedly, she added, “That’s our catch-all term for not-human, by the way. Alter, with an e. As in ‘alternative from human.’ Which, for the record, includes you Heretics.”
I opened my mouth to respond, but we were already turning (or more accurately, sliding) into the parking lot. I saw the large motel stretched out in front of us. “Fuck, how do we find the right room?!” Turning a pleading gaze to the girl, I pressed, “Please, Asenath, save my dad. He can’t be a murderer, please. I’ll help you figure out what Ammon is, I promise. Just save my father.”
She met my gaze. “I would have done it without your promise,” she informed me before leaning in. “Hold still,” the girl instructed as she bent her head close to me and inhaled sharply, sniffing me.
That lasted for a handful of seconds before she shoved her door open, hopped out, and gave another sharp sniff. Cocking her head to the side, Asenath sniffed again before focusing on one end of the motel. She started jogging. “This way. I can wait for you or–”
“Just go!” I called while jumping to the ground. “Leave the doors open, I’ll get there. Don’t worry about me, just stop my dad!”
Without further acknowledgment, Asenath moved. There was a blur of motion, and then all I could see was the open door into the motel that she left if her wake.
I followed at a run, telling myself not to panic. She’d get there in time. She would. She had to. My dad couldn’t be a murderer. He couldn’t be. Please, please, let the vampire girl get there. I didn’t care what Crossroads said about vampires being evil. If she saved my Dad, I’d believe anything.
Sprinting through the open door and into the dingy motel hallway, I spotted a second open door leading into the motel room itself about six rooms down. Without slowing down, I ran straight for it, skidding at the doorway itself before all-but throwing myself inside.
Rose was on the floor with blood around her, and my heart seized up briefly before I realized that the woman was moaning in pain. She was alive. A quick glance confirmed that she’d only been cut on her arm, which she was holding cradled against herself.
My father, meanwhile, was lying in a crumpled heap a few feet away, the knife he had been using haphazardly discarded on the bed.
“Close one,” Asenath informed me. “Sorry, couldn’t stop him from hitting her without taking his arm off completely. But he was aiming for her throat, so be happy he only got the bicep. She should be fine with some stitches. And he’ll be okay when he wakes up. At least I think he will, though you might want to keep him away from her, just in case.”
Before I could respond to that, my father’s phone rang on the nearby table. It was the ringtone he used for me.
“That’s my phone calling him,” I said quietly, looking down at it.
“Ammon,” she replied simply.
I nodded, reaching out to pick the phone up before noticing that it was a video call. Grimacing, I gestured for Asenath to stay where she was before taking it out into the hall and then to the parking lot before I accepting the call once I was sure no one else was around. “You’re too late, Ammon.”
“Hi!” Ammon waved at me cheerfully. He didn’t really look upset to find out I was the one answering my father’s phone. From the background, he wasn’t in our house anymore. The wall pattern looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it before he continued. “That’s okay. You’re the one I wanted to talk to anyway, Flick.” The boy sounded happy.
“Who are you?” I demanded. “Why are you doing this? What do you want from me?”
“Well,” his too-innocent voice replied while the boy made an exaggeratedly thoughtful expression. Then his eyes narrowed at me. “What I want right now is to hurt you. Because you deserve to be punished, Flick. You stole two of my pets from me. That’s bad. You’re bad. Stealing things that belong to other people is wrong. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that? You stole from me, so I’m going to punish you. Then we can talk about other things.”
“My father’s with me, Ammon,” I informed him sharply. “You’re not getting anywhere near him again.”
“Okay.” From the sound of his voice and the uncaring shrug that he gave, the boy wasn’t at all upset by that announcement. “That’s not your punishment anyway. You can have your stinky old father. He’s boring. I only like interesting things. Like this!”
The phone turned, and I finally realized why the wall behind the boy had looked familiar. He was in the sheriff’s office. I could see a dozen deputies, including Scott Utell, the guy that had helped me take down my boss at the theater. They were all standing at attention, like toy soldiers.
“Ammon,” I started slowly. “Whatever you think you’re doing–”
“Shush, I’m busy now,” Ammon lectured. Then he addressed the deputies. “Okay, guys. We’re gonna play a game. My name is Ammon, and you should all go find everybody you can. Go into homes, pull people over, whatever you’ve gotta do.
“And every time you find someone, every single time you see any living person, you shoot them in the head. First person to twenty kills wins! Won’t that be a fun game?”