BITING IN PLAIN SIGHT
For my son.
Thanks to my editor, Cindy Hwang, for asking me. Thanks also to Laurell K. Hamilton, who so kindly shared a book signing (not to mention, two anthologies and counting!) with me. Thanks are also due to Patrice Michelle for a great title and, as always, thanks to my family for their support, blah-blah-blah, why are you reading this when you could be reading the story? Not that I mind. In fact, I appreciate it… I didn't think
anyone read these things. So thanks. But seriously. You should check out the story.
There is a town called Embarrass, Minnesota, but it's not as close to Babbitt Lake as I made it seem. However, vampires love the water and have been known to buy houseboats and even cruise ships.
THE town knew Sophie Tourneau was a creature of the night, but they were careful not to ask too many questions. Even the town gossips, who would rather speculate than eat, were careful to restrain themselves.
Embarrass, Minnesota, knew several things and, most important, knew there were some things best left unsaid. The town knew, for example, that Sophie Tourneau (called "Dr. Sophie" by everyone since time out of mind) had come to live among them sometime in the middle of the last century. Some of the old-timers were sure she had come in the spring of 1965; others swore up and down that she hadn't shown her pretty face until 1967.
They knew she lived in a houseboat down on Babbitt Lake, puttering to various islands on her days off, and her houseboat, The Hymenoptera,
whatever the heck that meant, was often tied up on one of Babbitt's many sand beaches. They knew she carried a cell phone and would instantly return to land to tend to her work if called.
They knew she was short, about five feet, two inches tall, and sweetly rounded in all the right places. They knew her hair was as black as blacktop and as straight as the path to hell, and that her eyes were a soft, velvety brown. They knew she was pale, and never had a tan, or even a sunburn, not even on the hottest nights. She didn't get sweaty on the hottest nights, either.
And they knew, argue about her year of coming until they were blue, that she had been among them for at least four decades, and had not aged a day in all that time. Dr. Sophie still looked twenty-five years old. Children who had been in kindergarten the year she came were now grown, with children, and in some cases grandchildren, of their own. They were covering their gray or letting it all hang out, while Dr. Sophie still got carded if she tried to buy wine in the Cities.
Oh, and the town knew one more thing… she was extraordinary with animals. In a fanning community like Embarrass, that counted for a lot. There wasn't a dog with hay fever, a cow with mastitis, a cat with
distemper, a horse with twins, that Dr. Sophie couldn't manage, couldn't gentle down and help.
Of course, she couldn't help all of them. But she helped a damn goodly
number of them. They never bit her, never fought. The town knew if you took your kid's puppy to Dr. Sophie, you were likely to be able to put off the old "Scooter went to live on a farm with lots of other dogs" speech, often for years.
There were, of course, theories. Most of them were advanced by each generation's crop of little boys. There were the usual dares, but they fell flat when Dr. Sophie caught them sneaking up to her houseboat (she always caught them; the woman had eyes in the back of her head and the ears of a bobcat) and invited them aboard for cookies. The children always came back, and with stories no more fantastic than, "She served us chocolate chip."
But children did not disappear. Dr. Sophie was never spotted baying at the moon in the nude. She would come out at any time of the night, any night, to tend to an ailing animal, be it wild fox or prize bull. There were no cryptic messages left in blood, anywhere. If she didn't keep daylight hours, well, that's what they had Dr. Hayward for. If she didn't go to church, well, who could blame her? In Embarrass you had your choice: you could be a Presbyterian or a lapsed Presbyterian. Plenty of people—
well, some people—didn't go to church. And if she wasn't a regular goer, she always contributed to the fund-raisers or made baked goods when the occasion called for it.
Of course, there was something wrong about Dr. Sophie. No question. A beautiful, exotic woman who, even after all this time retained a slight French accent, a beautiful woman who did not age, who picked some tinpot little town to live in… or hide in. That was wrong. She was wrong.
But nobody asked questions. Nobody showed up with pitchforks. She was the best veterinarian in the tri-state area; maybe even the country. Wrong or not, vampire or witch or gypsy queen or whatever she was, nobody wanted her to leave.
One person in particular.
"DR. Sophie?" An urgent rap on the screen door of her houseboat. She recognized the voice. Thomas "Don't-call-me-Tommy" Carlson, the mechanic's son. "Dr. Sophie, can I come in?"
"Come on in, Thomas." She was checking her bag, having a good idea what the problem was. "Is Misty having trouble?"
In the manner of eight-year-old boys, Thomas slammed the screen door aside and jumped into the boat before it could rebound closed. The sound was not unlike rocks rolling across a parking lot. "She can't get started, doc. She tries and tries, and she's licking herself, like, all the time down there, yuck! But the kittens won't come."
"We'd better go give her a hand, then," Sophie replied. "Lead the way."
She followed the boy silently; the mechanic's family lived on an old farm just down the road; it was a brisk ten-minute walk. She wondered idly why he hadn't called her cell phone and saved himself a trip, then she remembered the indefatigable energy of children. She hadn't realized how lost in thought she was until the child spoke again. "You're missing Ed, are'ncha?"
"Well, he was old," Thomas said in a tone that was both heartless and comforting.
"You," Sophie said, smiling. "You think you'll be eight forever."
The truth was, she missed Ed dreadfully. She had known him since she was a child in Paris, and after she had been turned, he had come with her to America. She had bought him, a former banker trapped in the city his entire life, the home of his dreams; an enormous farm and all the livestock he could play with. In return, he had let her feed whenever she wished. Theirs was a comfortable relationship, one based on mutual need and friendship. She supposed he had been her sheep, but she despised that vampiric term. It denoted a relationship that was not equal, when, in fact, Ed called the shots. If anything, she had been his sheep.
But she had been foolish to overlook the inevitable… that he would age and, someday, die. She had assumed her friend would be eternal, like her.
And now, she missed him dreadfully.
At the end, though she had begged, he had refused to let her turn him. "Yeah," he'd croaked derisively, "this country needs an eighty-six-year-old vampire like I need another plate in my head. You think I want
arthritis in my knees for all eternity? Don't you touch me, young lady. You're not too big to spank." His raspy voice had softened as he looked into her dark eyes, took in her unlined face. He went on in French, their mother tongue. "You would not be doing it for me, anyway, yes? You're just afraid to be alone. As old as you are, it's time to learn. So don't touch me. Let me go, Sophie."
So she had acceded to his wish, and oh how bitter it was to watch him die, to see him buried in the cold earth. Worse than the steadily rising hunger was an even more basic need: she missed her friend.
Thomas, she noticed, was looking at her sideways. "Some of the guys were wondering."
"Some of the guys are always wondering."
"Yeah, but. Now that Ed's dead. You know, we… they… were wondering if you were staying."
"This is my home now," she replied quietly. "It's been my home for… for a long time."
"Yeah, that's what we think, too," the child replied comfortably. "My dad says he was a kid when… I mean, we're glad you're staying."
She glanced at the back of Thomas's neck, tan and healthy and as wide as two pork loins placed side by side. Then she jerked her gaze elsewhere. That was no way to be thinking. She would not throw away everything she had made… The town was curious, but a third-grader was out in the
dark with her, and no one would question it, question him. Ed would be furious if she put that in jeopardy, and he would be right.
But she was a realist, and Ed's death had presented special problems.
She sighed. She was old enough so it wasn't a matter of urgency… yet. Meanwhile, there was Thomas's cat. The work, the animals, the country, the people, those were always there, and worth staying for.
LIAM Thompson looked out his window and saw Sophie and the mechanic's kid hurry by on the dirt road just outside his farm. Kid's preggo cat must be having a hard time. Or the dog ate something out of the trash again.
Well, all right. That meant she'd probably go back to the office after she fixed whatever pet was sick. Sophie kept late hours, to put it mildly.
Liam looked around, but all the house cats were annoyingly healthy. So was his dog, Gladiator. The blue-eyed pup looked up at him as Liam prowled the house searching for sickness, his long tail making muted thumps on the hardwood floor.
"Well, shit," Liam said in his deep radio announcer's voice (not that he talked on the radio, but everyone in town told him he could). He went outside and checked the barn. No, all the barn cats looked perky, too, dammit. Cripes, how hard was it to get a sick cat when a guy needed one?
What was that?! One of the barn cats sneezed. Excellent! Could be a cold. Or pneumonia. Or cat flu. Or rabies.
He scooped up the startled animal and hurried out of the barn.
WHEN Sophie returned to her office, she wasn't surprised to see Liam Thompson waiting for her with what appeared to be a perfectly healthy cat. The cat's ears were back and she looked resigned, as did all Liam's pets when dragged to her examining room.
"What is it, Liam?" she asked, smiling. "Distemper? Swine flu? Mad cat disease?"
"She's been sneezing and sneezing," Liam told her. He was a fine-looking man, about six feet tall, with prematurely gray hair cut to Army regulation shortness and eyes the exact color of the faded blue jeans he wore. He appeared to have laugh lines, except no one in town could recall hearing him laugh, and his mouth was firm, his nose long and straight. His tan work shirt was rolled to the elbows, and, as always, he gave off the delightful scent of cotton and soap. She vastly enjoyed his company, even though he wasn't much of a talker. That was all right. Neither was she.
"Well, bring her in," Sophie said. "Let's take a look." It would be, she knew, a rather large waste of her time. Liam's pets were hardly ever sick; she suspected he was a hypochondriac on their behalf. Still, it warmed her to see a man so concerned about animals. The few times one of his cats had been genuinely ill, she had caught it in plenty of time. The only thing Liam Thompson's cats ever died of was old age.
"So…" Liam said.
"Yes," Sophie replied. She quickly examined the cat, a pretty little mouse-colored shorthair, felis domestica, and found her to be in sound
"Well, you're going to have kittens again."
"Great," he said. "I guess you'll be around when her time comes, then."
"I guess I will." Liam always insisted she attend when his cats birthed. It wasn't necessary, because one of the many things a cat could do well was have kittens, but he seemed to appreciate her presence. He always paid his bills promptly, too. He even paid them in person; he did not trust the mail.
"You know the drill," she said. "I guess I will see you in about thirty days."
"Yeah," he replied, and scooped up the cat, and left.
"Good night," she called after him, and he waved a blocky hand back in reply.
HE had to lean against the door of his truck for a minute before putting the cat inside and climbing in. God! God! God! She got prettier every time he saw her. Well, that wasn't true; she looked exactly the same every time he saw her. Which was utterly, totally, completely beautiful.
Those velvety brown eyes! Those soft, red lips! Even the way she talked charmed the shit out of him. "You know zee drill." And the way she said his name: "LEE-um." Well, okay, everybody pronounced it like that, but Sophie gave it a special accented spin. He had been waiting twenty years—since he had become a legal adult—to declare his
intentions, but he was as tongue-tied around her at thirty-eight as he had been when he was fifteen.
The thirty days stretched ahead of him like an endless tunnel.
He started the pickup and smiled down at the cat, which was busily grooming herself. "Good work," he told her. "Thanks for getting knocked up."
The cat, naturally, ignored him.
THIRTY DAYS LATER…
"THAT makes four," Sophie said. "And now I think she's done." Smiling, she looked down at the blind, squealing creatures. They were various shades of white, gray, and brown, all pink noses and gaping maws and wee claws, clambering all over each other in search of food. "And your cat… er… ?"
Sophie didn't miss a beat. Liam gave all his cats odd, thought-up-at-the-last-second names. "Fred seems fine. Call me, of course, if she seems to have any trouble."
"Yeah." Liam took a deep breath. "Would you… d'you want to come into the house? For something to drink?"
Sophie nearly winced. Although the blood and various mess of Fred's birthing hadn't tempted her, the way the pulse was beating quickly at Liam's throat—almost as if he were nervous—did. She had to, had to find
a solution to this problem. Driving down to the Cities and preying on various muggers and panhandlers simply would not do. For one thing, her car couldn't take the extra mileage. She knew she should have bought a Ford.
"I guess you don't," Liam said, incorrectly reading her long silence.
"Oh. Oh! No, I would like to have a drink. Very much." Very, very, very, very, very much. "Please, lead the way."
She followed him inside the neatly kept farmhouse and stood admiring the large kitchen, done in blue and white, and smelling like bread. It reminded her of some of the country houses back home. Liam wasn't a farmer, though he lived on a farm. He had inherited the place, along with quite a bit of money, from his father, who had invented pocket calendars.
"Lemmee see," Liam said, bending into the open refrigerator. "I've got milk… two percent, whole, and skim. Diet Coke. Regular Pepsi. Lemonade. Cherry Kool-Aid. Ginger ale. Orange juice. Grape juice. Oh, and I can make chocolate milk," he added, straightening and showing her the bottle of Hershey's syrup. "If you want."
Her eyebrows arched in surprise… she'd expected water, or maybe a beer. He saw her expression and said, "I know you like to drink."
He had no idea, the silly man. But she had to smile. She supposed if a person only accepted drinks, and never food, over a period of four decades, a reputation was built. "I would love some orange juice," she said. "Low pulp, yes?"
While he busied himself getting glasses, she wandered around the kitchen, finally thumbing the on button for the small television in the corner. She supposed it was rude, but the heavy silence in the kitchen was beginning to make her nervous. The local news had just started. That would give them something to talk about, thank goodness. "I wonder if we'll find out when there'll be an end to this vile cold snap," she mused aloud.
"So, um, you going to the meeting next week?"
"No," she replied, scratching his husky, Gladiator, between the ears. Gladiator was a less-than-admirable guard dog, getting up briefly to smell her skirt when she entered, then flopping down on the rug with a groan and going back to sleep. "I must work." In truth, the meeting was being held at the church. So, naturally, she couldn't attend. Too bad. She had plenty to say on the issue of tearing down the schoolhouse that had been on the edge of town for over a hundred years. So there were some rats? The thing was a historical monument! Americans. They only wanted what was new.
"Oh. That's too bad. Because I thought that we… um… I… you know, the meeting… if you needed a ride or whatever… Here's your juice."
She took the glass and sipped, and smiled at him. He didn't smile back, merely gulped his own juice thirstily.
He was nervous. She couldn't imagine why. She'd known him almost his entire life. He'd grown into a fine man, too. Tall… strong… responsible… if he was teased about being the quietest man in the state, what did she care? He was a good man. He took excellent care of his pets. As she got older, she realized the simple things really were the most important.
"It was kind of you to invite me inside," she said. And it was. Although she had been accepted by the townspeople years ago, she rarely received social invitations of any kind. She was sure that, deep down, the population of Embarrass, Minnesota, knew exactly what she was.
Accepting a vampire on her own terms and allowing her to take care of the pets and livestock was one thing. Inviting a creature of the night into your own home where you lived and slept and were vulnerable all the time was something else.
"I've, uh, been wanting… I mean, it's no big deal. You know, since you came out. To take care of Fred and all. It's, you know, the least I could do." He stared longingly at the bottle of vodka perched on top of the refrigerator. She wanted to suggest he pour himself a stiff shot, but felt that would be inappropriate.
"… the fourth such suicide in five months," the announcer said, and she jerked her head around. "Officials maintain that the deaths were self-inflicted, but the parents of the girls, particularly the latest victim, are not so sure."
Cut to a bereaved father, his eyes rimmed in red, wearing a yellow shirt that was jarringly bright for the circumstances. "Shawna would never have done something like that," he said hoarsely. "She was so happy. She was staring at the U of M next month. Friends… she had friends. She was popular, really popular. And… and she even had a new boyfriend. She never would have killed herself."
Cut back to the news announcer, who had been so heavily BOTOXed it was difficult for her to maintain the expression of vague sympathy. "Regardless, tonight in Babbitt, Minnesota, a town mourns."
Sophie set her empty glass down so hard, it broke on the table. Liam jumped, and Gladiator woke up. "I have to go," she said abruptly. "Thank you for the juice. I must…" She fumbled in her bag for her cell phone, and quickly punched in Dr. Hayward's number.
"What's the matter?" Liam asked, staring at the broken glass. "Are you okay?"
"I'm—yes, Matt? It's Sophie. I'm sorry to bother you this late, but I must leave… yes, right now. Tonight… yes. It's a… family matter… don't laugh, I'm quite serious. Yes… yes, if you please… no, I have no idea. I beg your pardon… yes, I appreciate that, Matt. Good night."
She punched the off button and dropped it in her purse, and turned to go. To her surprise, Liam's hand closed over her arm, just above the elbow. "What's going on?"