A Missed Phone Call

Gwen walked out of her gymnastics class late, having stayed behind to help clean up. Looking at her phone, she saw she’d missed two calls, one from her mother, who was probably wondering where she was. The other… it was from an unregistered name, with no call back number, just a series of zeroes filling out the screen. She frowned. Gwen really hated those calls. They were always from salesman pitching some snake oil or another.

Two voicemails.

Shaking her head, Gwen ruffled her hair a little, the cold water from her post-workout shower still lingering in her auburn hair. The shoulder-length curls were getting a little long for her tastes, but she rarely had time to do anything other than go to class and work. Getting a haircut wasn’t high on her list of priorities.

She dialed up her mother as she began her walk home. The city was bright, the setting sun bleeding out of the regal blue above in a mixture of orange and crimson. Walking down the road, she waited for her mom to pick up the phone, her eyes fixed on the cement sidewalk as she went along.

Just like everything else in this neighborhood, the sidewalk was weathered and old. Cracks in the cement had been filled in by scrub grass, the toughest breeds that could survive any condition. She smiled. Sure, her town was past its prime, and sure, the hardworking families who lived here struggled to eke out a living, but her town was genuine. It had a homey feel to it.

“Hello?” a drowsy voice answered on the fifth ring.

Great, Gwen thought, Mom’s been drinking again…

“Hi Mom, it’s just me,” Gwen said. “You called me earlier, what is it you wanted?”

She was so absorbed in everything but watching where she was going that she failed to notice she was no longer alone.

Standing on the curb at the intersection was a man in a trench coat. He had his hands stuffed into the oversized coat and wore thick boots with multiple straps running up his shins. She stared at him openly, amazed that anyone would wear such heavy clothing with the stifling humidity of the past few days. His face was covered by the shade of a wide-brimmed hat and the high collar of his overcoat. He glanced in her direction, then looked away, and then began humming a strange tune.

Gwen could not help but feel creeped out. She inched away from him, a finger pressed to her ear, pantomiming someone trying very hard to find a quieter spot to listen to her phone call.

“Why did I call you?” her mom slurred. “Oh yeah, that’s right! Could you pick up some things at the grocer’s for me on your way home, dear? I just need some more wine.”

“Mom, I’m not picking you up any wine. You sound like you’ve had enough,” Gwen said, shooting a glance at the man. The traffic pole stood between them. Gwen stretched out her arm and jabbed the crosswalk button repeatedly, making sure to keep the rest of her well out of the man’s reach.

“Don’t take that tone of voice with me, young lady, I’ve had a rough week!” Mom said. It was her typical excuse. “You pick me up a bottle of red wine and you’ll be able to have dinner tonight! I’m making the steaks you picked up the other night, and I want something to go with them!”

With that, her mother hung up on her.

The crosswalk lit up. Gwen wasted no time in crossing the street in long strides to put a safe distance between her and the creepy man.

The road broadened as it cut a swathe down the middle of the commercial district. The shops lining the two-lane road she plodded down were simple stores run by simple people; locals, all of them. Gwen glanced into the storefront windows as she passed them by—the meat market, the grocer, the hardware store. The new Wal-Mart was on the far side of town, and nobody in her neighborhood went there. Why bother driving when you could just walk a block or two and pick up what you need from your neighbor?

Just a block or so over was Coffee of Paradise, a small Internet café Gwen and her friends frequented. It was where college students would gather to chat about their professors and whine about their mountains of homework. Or, in Gwen’s case, it was where she sometimes did her work as a teaching assistant for Professor Fox and his colleagues. Next to it was the Warhound, a tavern where the professors usually hung out after five. She was familiar with that place too. That was where Professor Fox most often could be found.

She worked for the Philosophy department. It was a convenient, but stressful, job. Fox was in his mid-seventies and sharp as a whip, if not inconsiderate. His Advanced Logic classes were difficult enough for his students, and all the more vexing for Gwen, because he never left Gwen notes on how she ought to grade his exams. That meant she’d had to puzzle out each question on every exam, every time.

She walked past the Friendly Florals Flower shop where Mr. King was sweeping out dirt onto the street and waved hello. He took a hand off his broom to wave back.

Gwen sighed as she approached the next storefront. Palmer’s Meat Market was a small butcher shop run by an older man who didn’t like college students or young people in general.

“Too damn lazy!” he’d said to her once, when a few students from out of state had walked out after spending fifteen minutes looking through the beer and bottles of hard lemonade in his cooler. “And they think just because they can grow a beard that I won’t card them. They actually get mad when I won’t sell ‘em beer because they’re underage! Can you believe it?”

While he treated her well enough—Gwen, like Palmer, was a local after all—she never liked visiting Palmer’s because of his surly attitude. Still, she didn’t want to start a screaming contest with her mother when she got home, and so she decided on just buying her mother the wine as she’d asked. Besides, this would give Gwen a chance to grab a wine cooler or three for herself to enjoy while working on Professor Phong’s Philosophy of Religion tests that were waiting on her desk back at home.

Crossing through the line of parked cars, she hopped up on the curb and smiled at old Mr. Palmer through the display glass of his shop. A tiny bell jangled as she pushed the door open.

The store was empty—understandably, as it was close to closing time. Mr. Palmer was wrapping up a ham in plastic wrap, his beefy shoulders slumped as he stooped over to his work table.

“Well Gwen, how are you doing?” Mr. Palmer asked, setting the ham down in a glass display counter, where it joined an assortment of cuts. Tall and bulky, Mr. Palmer had a bulldog’s face with a perpetual frown, with jowls that just seemed to add to his overall gruff appearance.

“I’m good Mr. Palmer, just here to pick up some wine,” Gwen said, walking over to the wall of coolers taking along the far end of the store. Cheap beers and flavored wine coolers sat in refrigerated cases. The wine bottles sat on a rack next to them, a wide selection that had evolved from the eclectic tastes of college boys trying to look sophisticated for naïve girls. Looking over her choices, Gwen didn’t even perk her ears when she heard the door jingle again.

“Well hello, sir. How may I help… you?” Mr. Palmer said, sounding put off.

Brisk footfalls came up behind Gwen. Turning, she stared into the bottomless pink eyes of a young man, his skin white like a fresh dusting of snow. She recognized him immediately—it was the man in the trench coat and hat she’d seen earlier. He was staring at Gwen with a smirk, his golden eyebrow and nose studs glimmering in the evening light. At this close distance, Gwen got a better look at him than she had before. She took note of his appearance, in case she’d have to file a police report against him later.

He had seven piercings running up the curl of one ear. Peeking out from beneath the collar of his coat, a swirling tattoo stretched along the length of his neck, curling up and around to the back of his head.

“Can I help you?” Gwen asked somewhat forcefully, and that wiped the smirk from his face. It was hard not to laugh at one of the out-of-state college boys who tried to look tough but just ended up looking goofy.

“Oh,” he said, taken aback, his eyes diverting from her suddenly to dart around at the selection of drinks. He yanked a six-pack of beer from one of the coolers and held it up as if to show her. “No, I just needed… this.”

His voice was low, with an accent she couldn’t place.

He must be here for the state college, Gwen told herself, walking around him awkwardly as he stared at the drinks in his hand. Wonder if Palmer will card him like he does everyone else?

“See you around, I guess,” she said, sidling past him.

Her phone vibrated within her gym bag. She fished it out to see who was calling. The screen read “Mom” and Gwen rolled her eyes, tossing the buzzing phone back in with her dirty clothes. She didn’t want to hear her drunken ramblings again, as she was in the middle of buying the wine, and knew she wouldn’t be able to hold her tongue if she answered.

Mr. Palmer was glaring daggers at the man even as she rang up the bottle of wine for Gwen. He knew she was only twenty, but she came in often enough that he knew who she was really shopping for.

He leaned over the counter and motioned for Gwen to do the same. “You watch yourself around that young man, he’s not from around here,” he whispered.

Gwen smiled. Mr. Palmer, like many of the residents of Alice Grove, didn’t like all the foreign people invading their little town. Sure, they liked outsiders’ money, but they didn’t want their town to grow into another San Antonio or Austin.

The phone buzzed again but Gwen ignored it as she reached into her gym bag and pulled out her wallet, paying for the wine with some spare cash, and waving away the fifty cents Palmer offered as change. She took the Pinot Noir and slipped the bottle into the bag with her wallet. Mr. Palmer looked over at the strange man, who was still reading the ingredients on the beer, and scowled.

“Are you going to buy something or not?” Mr. Palmer finally asked the man as Gwen headed for the exit.

The door chimes jingled as Gwen pushed open the door, the sound seemingly rousing the strange man from a trance. He looked over to Mr. Palmer and said, “No, I don’t think I will. You’re a very rude merchant, you know that?”

“Get out of my shop!” Mr. Palmer shouted.

Gwen double-timed it out of the store and onto the sidewalk. She cut down the alleyway beside the meat market and made her way to the street where the café and bar were at. She wanted to check in with her friends, and maybe chat with a professor or two concerning the upcoming finals.

She froze at the sound of a scream. It had come muffled from behind the wall of the butcher shop, but she could have sworn it sounded like Mr. Palmer. She pressed on, knowing that Mr. Palmer could take care of himself. He was likely throwing the odd man out of his store.

Mr. Palmer aged like a cheap whiskey; he only grew stronger and sourer with age.

Her ears perked to a new sound in the alley.


Someone groaned from behind the meat market’s dumpster, causing Gwen to jump in fright. The voice was barely a whisper, a floating hiss on the evening breeze. Lying against the dumpster in a thick coat and hat was a boy, maybe eight years old. He was clutching his side as though he’d been kicked or stabbed. He was emaciated, with bony wrists and sunken pink eyes, which looked up at her piteously. Gwen knelt beside the boy, reaching out a hand as she clutched her gym bag to her chest.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

The little boy shook his head slowly, eyes never leaving hers, and reached both his hands up as though asking to be carried. Gwen picked the boy up, wrapping her arms around his legs and bottom before rising in one fluid motion.

Years as a gymnast have paid off, I guess, she thought as she bounced the boy off her hip. But then again, he weighs almost nothing! How could a boy as sickly as this go unnoticed?

“Is that better?” she asked, craning her head to examine the little boy’s face. His alabaster skin seemed to glisten from a thin sheen of sweat, and he smelled somewhat earthy, with coppery overtones. His eyes were the oddest shade of pink. Gwen had never seen that before in a person—short of today, of course, when she ran into that weirdo who followed her into the butcher’s shop. She wondered what illness might cause one’s eyes to turn that color—worse, whether it was contagious.

Innocent pale eyes suddenly flooded an angry red as he lunged forward, one hand latching into her hair as if his fingers were talons, open mouth full of saw-like teeth going for her throat. Her scream died the second it was issued, her gym bag falling and hitting the pavement as the little boy climbed up her body, his teeth digging into her neck to get a firm hold as he drank greedily from the wound he’d made over her artery. She pawed at him to shove him off, but he yanked her head back before throwing his body weight forward, sending her falling to her back. She landed hard atop her gym bag and was quickly dragged behind the dumpster. She fought against him, bringing her feet up to his chest to push him away, but that just made him flense her neck with his teeth even more, blood seeping from around the seal he’d formed over his bite mark.

She looked up and noticed several men and women standing around them, all dirty and faded, looking impossibly translucent. Most sported vicious wounds, silver blood streaming down from where the torn off chunks of meat had once been. One, a man with a silver mustache, smiled sadly at her. He looked up and down the alleyway, his eyes going wide.

“He’s headed this way, boss,” the man said.

The boy lifted his mouth from her neck, chewing on the muscle he’d torn away as he looked at the ghosts standing around him.

“No! This one is mine!” the boy growled. “Hold him off, I only need a minute to do this!”

The ghosts glowed a bit brighter, auras of pale blue light surrounding them. Some pulled spectral knives from beneath their garments, one woman lifting a hoop skirt to reveal a razor strapped to her mangled thigh. Judging by the fact they were armed, the people these ghosts once were must have died horrible—and sudden—deaths to still have their weapons with them in the afterlife.

The man in the trench coat and hat turned the corner into the mouth of the alleyway. He was upon them in a blur, lashing out with his hands, hooked fingers tearing through the ghosts’ misty forms. His hands seemed to shred the specters; they took on wounds that bled white smoke into the air. The ghosts howled as they fell back in the face of this vicious assault.

The ghost woman with the razor swung at him. He leapt away and ducked back in, slicing at her with his hands, causing her to shear away into a cloud of vapor that faded with an echoing cry of defeat.

The boy growled, talons sinking into Gwen’s back as he drew her body up against him. “She’s mine, Hassid! You can’t have her!”

As the last ghost exploded into mist, Hassid kicked the boy off Gwen with a savage grunt. The boy let out a petulant cry and rolled down the alley before digging his talons into the pavement to stop and then springing up onto all fours like a cat. His hat had fallen off, revealing stark white spiky hair.

“Go away, Hassid,” the boy hissed, fingernails clacking on the pavement. “She’s half-drained as it is, she’s mine!”

“She is nobody’s!” Hassid said, whipping out a knife from his pocket. The blade was black and irregular, looking like it was made from stone. The boy recoiled at the sight of his weapon.

“I owe her family a debt, and I intend to see it through,” the man said.

“You’ve made a mistake, Hassid!” the boy growled in response. “When Kaiser hears of this, he’ll have your head!”

“Don’t bring Kaiser into this, Cloutus; I’ll pay you back. I’ll hunt with you and lure two young girls over to you so you can drink your fill, to add to your collection. Just leave this one be.”

“And why should I do that?” Cloutus asked, his long, bloody tongue liking his lips. “She tasted normal enough. Nothing special about her.”

“You’re just hungry, but let me have her and I promise we’ll hunt tonight,” Hassid said, holding the knife out. “Just meet me by that café around nine o’clock, all right?”

“Nine… and you’ll help me have any I want?” Cloutus asked, the red receding back from his eyes as he calmed down. His nails grew back into his skin with a sickening crunching noise and he stood up, adjusting his clothes. He flipped his hat into the air with his boot and snagged it before ramming it on his head. “I don’t want you reneging on this later if you have some other slut you want to slum with. I want some sisters to add to my family.”

“Any two, as long as they don’t share blood with her,” Hassid said, pointing down at Gwen’s bleeding form.

Gwen reached up with a weak hand to feel her neck, surprised that the blood was clotted already, though her throat felt like it was missing a few ounces of meat. She could barely breathe, and her back was screaming in agony from the boy’s sharpened claws.

“All right… well, then I’ll see you at nine,” Cloutus said, turning to walk down the alley. He took three steps before vanishing in a swirl of mist.

Hassid knelt next to Gwen and cradled her body in his arms. He placed his lips over the ragged hole in her neck and pushed his bumpy, serpentine tongue into the gash, breaking the scab before sealing his lips over it to prevent further bleeding. Slowly, Gwen felt his tongue begin to throb and pump, a sudden burst of warmth spreading through her neck. Instantly she could breathe better, and reached up to steady herself by gripping his shoulders. She didn’t even pay attention to how sticky they were, she just reveled in the feeling of whatever he was doing, as it was chasing away the pain and refilling her wounded neck with new tissue.

Leaning back, Gwen shuddered in disgust as his tongue, a foot and a half long, swiveled around his mouth to wipe away excess gore before sliding back into his head. Hassid pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped the remaining blood from her neck. Then he put her down and sat next to her.

“What… what happened?” she asked, her voice raspy and dry. She reached up and felt the tender section of her neck that Cloutus had torn open. It felt bruised, and ached with every heartbeat.

Better than what was happening earlier… she thought, looking over at her savior. He was tucking the ruined handkerchief into his pocket, a frown clouding his face.

“You were attacked by a vampire,” Hassid said.

She stared at him in shock until she remembered what the little boy had done before Hassid had intervened.

“Even though I healed you, you’re still weak from blood loss,” he went on. “Here, take these.”

He reached into his pocket and tossed a small bottle to her.

“Iron pills?” she asked, glancing at the label.

“You just lost a lot of blood… B positive, correct?” Hassid asked.

“Yeah, how’d you… know that?”

She put a hand to her temple as her head spun.

He urged her to take two pills, which she did, swallowing them dry. She tried not to think about what had just happened, but knowing that both her attacker and savior dressed the same, had similar features, and possessed unnatural tongues led her to believe that she might not be safe around Hassid. He continued talking as she thought of a way to get away from him.

“I tasted it when I sealed your wound, plus you have a bruise somewhere on you; I can smell the blood from here,” Hassid replied.

“That’s creepy… listen, can you, like, go away? You’re kind of a freak, and I’m covered in bloodstains. I know you didn’t cause them, but if we walk out of the alley like this, then people will say things. This is a small town, despite our local party school, and I know a lot of these people. They’ll talk.”

Hassid smiled. “People are always saying things. Your father said that a few times around me.”

“Dad? You knew him?” Gwen asked, now wishing she hadn’t just told him to leave. Her father had been in her life briefly, leaving for years at a time and returning for a week or two with cash for Mom before disappearing once more, slinking off into the night. She hadn’t seen him in years, and Mom had become grief stricken a year ago, when she got a call saying her father was dead.

“Oh yes, he was a brave man,” Hassid said. “He hunted my kind for nearly six years before one of us got him.”

“But he died in an auto accident,” Gwen said, her memory of the closed casket funeral bringing about dark emotions. “A drunk driver hit him and then drove away.”

“The reason it was said to be a car accident was because of how, um, little there was left of him. No, he picked a fight with a vampire who had a large family.”

“Family?” Gwen’s brow bunched up. “That boy, Cloutus, mentioned he wanted sisters. Was he trying to make me into a vampire?” she asked, still woozy as much from this new information as the blood loss.

Hassid shook his head. “Once we kill a human while feeding on them, their spirit is bound to us. We use them as scouts, guards, and defenders. They’re always with us, and for a vampire like Cloutus, they’re a family to him. He can bend their will to act like the loving parents and siblings he never had.”

Gwen looked at him in horror, the images of the dead men and women that Hassid tore through leaping to her mind. “You mean…”

“Yeah, he was going to make you his sister for eternity.”

“Jesus…” Gwen said, rubbing her neck once more. “I’m lucky you were here to save me then, aren’t I?”

“Not really a coincidence. You’re turning twenty-one soon, correct?” Hassid asked, pink eyes staring at his hands.

“The sixteenth,” Gwen replied hesitantly.

“Right, the sixteenth. And I wanted to warn you that you’ll be up for grabs to any vampire who wants revenge against your father the day that occurs.”

“Why?” she asked, her voice pitched from fear.

“Your father struck a deal with my maker. In exchange for his life, we wouldn’t prey upon you until you could defend yourself. Twenty-one is the age of adulthood for vampires, so that was when we all assumed you could defend yourself. I came here after tracking down your whereabouts.”

“But Cloutus just attacked me…” Gwen said, more than a little confused.

“Cloutus doesn’t honor agreements made by our former master. He died some time ago, and our nest has been in upheaval ever since. When I traveled here, it must have tipped the others off to your location.”

Gwen heard another buzzing and was about to swear at her gym bag where her phone sat, but noted that it was Hassid who had received a message. He pulled his phone from his pocket and swiped his thumb across the screen. He skimmed a text message before putting the phone back into his pocket.

“We have to act fast… there are already more vampires on the hunt for you,” Hassid said, looking askance at Gwen with a slight smile. “You’re a very important girl it would seem.”

“How is that a compliment?” Gwen asked, her vision finally growing steady.

“Vampires love symbolism, and irony as well. Your father hunted my kind for years, and now a bunch of vampires are coming to kill you and make you their slave until they die. They see it as fitting that the daughter of a vampire hunter would serve them in death. Many are now free to do so because my former master, who’d decreed no harm should come to you, is dead.”

“How’d he die?” Gwen asked.

Hassid sighed. “He was betrayed by a follower, who slipped information to a gang of vampire hunters about where the clan rested during the day. They came armed to the teeth and killed many of us, before slaying my master. The remaining few scattered and have only begun to piece together the shattered remains of our once great clan.”

“So, what do we do about the vampires wanting to kill me?”

Standing up, he helped her to her feet before fetching her bag. “I have a proposal that could solve all your problems.”

“What, you’re going to show me how to fight vampires?” Gwen asked, incredulous.

“No, I was going to offer my services to turn you into one of us,” Hassid said before bowing slightly at the waist. “Hassid Al-Abdur, at your service.”

“Turn me? What do you mean turn me?” she asked. “And how are you so pale if you’re Arabic?

“Well,” he chuckled, “most of us just look like this after we are turned, as we keep the blood stored around our hearts. If we want strength or speed, or to change the color of our skin or eyes, we pump blood and voila! Instant change! Makes us very versatile.”

“Prove it,” Gwen said, mind still reeling over the idea of vampires. She needed more than the vision of ghosts and blood-sucking children; she needed more to grasp at.

“God, really? I just pulled a parasitic ten-year-old off you and you need further proof?” he said as his skin flushed, slowly darkening until it was a rich mocha color, his eyes a soulful brown. His clothes even looked a little tight on him, as if he’d bulked up. “Happy? Can I change back?”

“Y-yes…” Gwen said, not knowing what to say.

“Thank you,” Hassid replied, all pigment vanishing from his skin in the blink of an eye, his eyes fading to the pale pink they’d been before.

“How did you do that?” she demanded, looking at Hassid with dumbfounded eyes. Her head spun and this time, her knees nearly gave out.

Hassid stepped forward to catch her, taking the gym bag off her shoulder to help her steady herself. “I told you—vampire. We can do that to blend in with any society we choose. I could look black, white, Native American, Hispanic… it’s all in the blink of an eye for me. Now, my offer stands: let me turn you so that you don’t get your family, and this town, killed by hungry vampires hunting for you.”

“Wait, they’d kill my neighbors?” Gwen asked, alarmed.

“To get to you, yes. They’d drain them bone dry if they couldn’t find you and knew you were here,” Hassid said before raising an index finger. “But, if you vanish into the night and your mother and friends put out searches for you, the vampire community will assume you went underground and leave well enough alone. We’re a patient lot, so we’d just wait for you to make a mistake.”

“What’ll they do once I’ve turned? Will they want to kill me then? Can that even happen?” Gwen asked.

“I don’t know. Vampires loathe killing each other as we consider our undeath something sacred,” Hassid said, letting go of her hand. “I’m offering this to you only because of the way your father protected me from other vampire hunters, for his memory. I know that, should you get caught by one of his rivals, your eternity would be that of endless torture.”

“So, I really have no choice…” Gwen said, looking down at her feet.

“Not if you want Alice Grove to remain safe, no,” Hassid agreed, drawing close to her, his mouth opening wide to reveal jagged teeth.

“Will it—will it hurt? Dying that is,” Gwen asked.

“Only for a moment,” Hassid whispered before he slowly sank his teeth into the side of her neck, his tongue worming its way into the wound as blood splashed the back of his throat. As he drank, he pumped clotted blood into her, blood which quickly began to seep into her muscles and organs.

Gwen blacked out without making a sound, save for one last groan as her breath left her.

* * *

Gwen woke up, her eyes snapping open towards the ceiling. She was lying on a metal slab, like an examination table. Bones popping and muscles screeching as she stretched them, she craned her body up into a sitting position to glance around the room.

Wherever it was she had found herself, it looked an abandoned hospital, the windowless room devoid of light, yet her eyes could make out everything as though she were standing beneath the midday sun. Looking down, she saw her gym bag had been brusquely thrown to the ground next to the metal table she was on. Her veins showed through her pallid, narrow limbs, looking empty and lifeless.

She felt her neck, her shoulder—no pain. In fact, she didn’t feel much of anything, as her entire body was free of ancient aches from old injuries. Hopping down from the table, she crouched over her bag and unzipped it, shoving her dirty clothes aside in search of her phone.

Its battery was nearly dead, and she had sixteen missed calls, with seventeen messages. Bringing the phone to her ear, she pressed the voicemail button and waited as the first voicemail came up. It was her mother, asking for wine. Gwen’s forlorn smile made her ponder whether she would ever be able to see her mom again, now that she was a member of the living dead.

The second message was from the unknown number.

“Gwen? Gwen, I know you won’t believe me, but this is your father,” a gruff voice said.

Gwen’s heart clenched as the voice pierced her memories, bringing up so many thoughts of the man’s voice from when he was alive. He continued speaking in a hushed tone as though he were afraid someone would overhear him.

“Gwen, you’re going to be approached by a man who is not what he seems,” the message continued. “Do not accept anything he offers, do you hear me? I don’t care if he seems like a hero or some kind gentleman—he’s a vampire, sweetie. I know it’s hard to believe, but I’ve been away now for years hunting them. They just recently found out about you, and they’re coming for you.”

“Oh my god,” Gwen said breathlessly, bringing her hand up to her mouth.

“Do not trust anyone you don’t know, even if they appear normal. They can move around during dusk and dawn with ease and aren’t afraid of much, but they do drink blood, and if given the chance, they will turn you to use you against me. I can’t talk long—this phone is about to die and we’re getting ready to hold off another attack, but I’ve warned your mother as well. Goodbye honey, know how sorry I am that I faked my death and that I love you.”

The voicemail ended with a monotone robotic voice asking if she would like to save the message. Gwen dropped the phone into her bag and stood up, turning to head to the door. She hadn’t gone a step when she bumped into Hassid’s chest. Looking up into his shark-like smile, she quivered in fear and hatred. “You lied to me!”

Palms up, Hassid shrugged. “Yes, I did,” he said, his tone venomous. “And now I have the great vampire hunter’s daughter as my thrall. To think: all it cost me was a little time researching where he lived when he was just an average human, and coming here to find you. Not that hard at all really, right Cloutus?”

The boy from earlier shimmered into existence, his skin shifting like a chameleon’s scales, dropping the colors of the wall behind him as he approached and taking on the pallor of a proper vampire. “No, master. It was rather simple. Thank you for letting me feed off her.”

“You’re welcome, my dear boy,” Hassid said, placing a hand on Cloutus’s shoulder. His eyes shifted back over to Gwen. “I figured I’d have a meal myself while you were waiting for our dear sister here.”

“What?” Gwen barked out, her eyes growing wide. She thought back to the yell she’d heard from the meat market, when she assumed that Mr. Palmer was getting violent with Hassid.

“Yes, you could taste the cholesterol flowing in his veins, it was a heavy meal. Isn’t that right Hank?”

Gwen turned and gasped.

Standing behind her—wispy as tissue and pallid as the grave—was Mr. Palmer, most of his neck missing. His eyes were sunken and his bulldog face looked sallow, droopier for having been drained. Gwen hardly recognized the quivering ghost from how shaken he looked.

“That’s right boss…” he said, his voice like a dirge. “I had high cholesterol. Was even on medicine for it.” Mr. Palmer’s voice sounded far away, like he was speaking down a metal pipe. He reached up and scratched at the wound, silver blood oozing from it. “Is there anything I can do to serve?”