Excerpt from Unsympathetic Magic
(DAW Books; August 2010)
I was leaning against the cool bars of my jail cell in the Twenty-Fifth Precinct, exhausted, angry, crazed with worry, and also plagued by a vague feeling that I should start singing the blues... when Detective Connor Lopez entered the detention area.
He flashed his gold shield at the female cop on duty, introduced himself, and said he'd like to talk to me. She grinned and said they'd all been looking forward to his arrival. Then she announced she was taking a coffee break and tactfully left us alone. (Well, "alone" unless you count my only cell mate, who seemed to be sleeping off quite a bender.)
Lopez looked roughly the way you'd expect a guy to look after being hauled out of bed by an urgent summons in the middle of the night. His straight black hair was rumpled, he needed a shave, and there were circles under his blue eyes. He had evidently dressed in a hurry, just grabbing the first items at hand when he'd staggered out of bed: He wore cut-offs, a faded SUNY T-shirt, and flip flops. Oddly, the overall effect of his untidy fatigue made him look younger than his thirty-one years. More like a grad student during exam week than a police officer dragged from his bed to bust me out of stir.
He'd inherited exotic good looks from his Cuban-immigrant father and clear blue eyes from his Irish-American mother. I noticed that his golden-olive skin was darker than usual. Maybe he'd spent some time out at the beach this summer, or maybe he'd been helping his parents with yard work at their home in Nyack, just north of the city, across the Hudson River. Or perhaps he had taken a vacation since the last time I'd seen him. Which had been in May. When he had told me he couldn't date me anymore.
My relationship with Lopez, though short-lived and unconsummated, was complicated. So I had been extremely reluctant to ask him to come to my rescue tonight. By the time I had decided to do it, I was out of other feasible options.
Besides, he had said that if I ever needed his help, I should call him.
And this was certainly an occasion when I needed his help.
Lopez's thick-lashed gaze traveled over me now, taking in the black high-heeled boots, purple fishnet stockings, and embarrassingly short vinyl skirt. When he got to my tight, leopard-patterned top, he lingered on my well-exposed cleavage, which looked noticeably more impressive than usual; one of the things that made this costume so uncomfortable was the push-up bra beneath it.
"Eyes front, soldier," I said irritably.
His gaze shifted to my face, where my make-up was probably making me look like a tubercular raccoon by now.
"Sorry." Lopez gave my overall appearance another quick appraisal, then said, "Are you really that hard up for money?"
"Oh, don't be ridiculous," I snapped.
He smiled wearily. "I take it you got a job?"
He meant an acting job, of course. As a detective in the Organized Crime Control Bureau, as well as a personal acquaintance of mine, he presumably knew that I still waited tables regularly at Bella Stella, which had been my day job in recent months (though it mostly involved working nights). It was a famous restaurant in Little Italy that was owned by a woman with close connections to the Gambello crime family. Lopez had been involved in investigating a Mafia murder that occurred there in May. I had witnessed the hit; and the subsequent strange events surrounding that murder had ultimately led to Lopez breaking up with me—before we'd even really started a relationship.
"Yes, I got a job," I said. "A TV guest spot. One week of work."
Stella Butera, owner of Bella Stella, had given me the whole week off for D30 without any fuss or complaint. Stella was good about letting her singing servers schedule our restaurant work around our professional opportunities, and it was one of the reasons I liked working for her.
"TV, huh?" Lopez tilted his head. "And you're playing—let me guess-a Benedictine nun?"
"Yes. I suppose the outfit gives it away," I said sourly, recalling some of the insulting comments that the arresting officers had made tonight, assuming that I was exactly what I appeared to be.
"Well, I'm glad you got work, Esther. But the sixty-four thousand dollar question is," Lopez said, "why were you wearing your hooker costume and soliciting tricks on Lexington Avenue?"
"I was not soliciting tr-"
"I got a call from the desk sergeant here saying—"
"I told them what I was doing!"
"—that a crack whore who claims to be a friend of mine was stopping cars on Lexington and reaching into the windows to grab the drivers' crotches."
"I was not grabbing crotches!"
In my agitation, my voice got loud. I shushed Lopez, stopped speaking, and glanced over my shoulder to see if I had woken the other resident of my cell, an overweight young black woman who was lying on a bench and snoring loudly. She had been like that ever since I was put in here, and her tough appearance made me very reluctant to risk disturbing her.
Lopez folded his arms across his chest and leaned one well-muscled shoulder against the bars of my holding cell. "One man told the cops that you tried to steal his phone."
"Well, I did do that," I admitted in a subdued voice.
He sighed wearily and ran a hand over his face. "I assume there's a perfectly logical explanation for all this, Esther?"
"I got you out of bed, didn't I?" I said with regret.
"Nah, I was out shooting hoops when my phone rang in the middle of the night."
"I'm really sorry about this."
"What the hell were you doing?" he said.
The mingled exasperation, bewilderment, and concern in his tone were all too familiar to me. It was the essence of why he wouldn't date me: He thought I was crazy and possibly felonious. And although that was completely inaccurate, he nonetheless had some justification for thinking it. Moreover, I had to admit that involvement with me seemed to be bad for him. In order to protect me on previous occasions, he had done things that violated his better judgment, his duty, and his honor—such as concealing evidence in a homicide investigation, lying to his superiors, and filing false reports. Lopez didn't like the choices he had made to shield me, and he was afraid he'd make more of them if we remained involved.
And now I was going to ask him to get the charges against me dropped and expunged. They were bogus charges, of course; but it was still a lot to ask, all things considered.
I said to him, "Look, you're the last person in the world that I wanted to drag into this. And I swear to you, I really tried not to."
"Oh, I'm glad you called. I wouldn't have missed your outfit tonight for the world. But the desk sergeant here must lead a sheltered life." Lopez's gaze dropped to my cleavage again. "You look way too healthy to be a crack whore." After a moment, he met my eyes again and smiled as he added, "But much too obvious to be an escort, of course."
"Perhaps we could discuss my character's position in the hierarchy of the oldest profession after you get me out of here?"
"Ah. Which brings us to the point." There was a little regret in his expression as he said, "If you want me to get you out of this, then your story had better be damn good."
"Why?" My gaze flickered anxiously to the door. The night-shift cops of the Two-Five were somewhere on the other side of it. "Are they going to be difficult?"
"No, I'm going to be difficult, Esther," he said irritably. "You got picked up while playing in traffic in Harlem in the middle of the night, dressed like a hooker and acting like a lunatic. And it's going to take a really good explanation to convince me that arraignment, remand, and a psych evaluation aren't the best things for you."
"What?" I gripped the bars. "No!"
My cell mate grumbled in her sleep and rolled over.
"Shhh," I said to Lopez.
"I'm not the one raising my voice," he pointed out.
"Lopez, you've got to get me out of here," I said desperately. "And you've got to get them to delete any record of my arrest! I don't want it on my record. I don't want a record at all."
"Start talking," he said implacably.
"First thing's first," I said. "Please get them to send a squad car to look for this guy I found tonight. He's severely injured."
"They sent a car, Esther. There's no sign of the man you described."
"What?" I frowned. "That's not possible! Darius was hurt too badly to get up and walk away. The cops must have looked in the wrong place."
"No, they looked in the right place."
"How do you know?"
"The two cops who went over there to check it out, in response to your story, turned on their cherry top—"
"Uh, the red light on the roof."
"And that attracted the attention of a resident who came downstairs to ask if they were looking for the drunk hooker who'd been ringing his doorbell and shouting up at him a little after midnight."
"I wasn't drunk," I said wearily.
"So that sounds like the right place?"
"Yes. But Darius must have crawled into a doorway or something. He couldn't have gone far. The cops just didn't look hard enough."
"They were thorough, Esther," Lopez said patiently.
"They didn't even believe me!"
"No, they didn't," he agreed. "But it's a slow night, and you claimed you saw a man who'd been, er, attacked and maimed, which is serious stuff. So, just in case you're not quite as insane as you seem, they decided to be thorough."
I looked at him suspiciously. "You didn't waltz right in here as soon as you arrived. You talked to the cops out there first, didn't you?"
Shit. While waiting for Lopez to get here, I had planned what to tell him: a version of the night's events that was close to the truth, but a tad more plausible.
He lifted one brow. "A man with a sword? A severed hand? Gargoyles?"
Too late now.
"That's what I saw," I said defensively.
"Sadly, I don't find it hard to believe that's what you think you saw," Lopez said. "Which is why I'm not so sure that getting you out of here is such a good idea."
I tried to control my frustration and focus on the most important thing. "Fine, let's forget about that for a minute. But, please, you've got to get them to find Darius."
"Esther, he's not there," Lopez said firmly.
"Then check the local hospitals. Maybe—"
"He's not at a hospital, either."
"How do you know?"
"We'll talk about that in a minute. For now—"
"For now," he said, "I want you to tell me what happened. As clearly and rationally as you can."
"All right." I took a breath and tried to calm down. "That's fair."
"Glad you think so."
So I started by explaining that a lead actor had fallen ill on the set tonight, which disrupted the shoot.
"Where were you filming?"
"East of Mount Morris Park."
"Did you tell the cops this?"
"I tried, when they were booking me." I shrugged and admitted, "But by then, they seemed so convinced I was crazy, I gave up before long and just asked for my phone call."
"It's not that I don't appreciate you thinking of me when you're locked up for being a demented hooker," he said, "but I'm wondering why you didn't just call the set and ask them to come confirm that you are who you say you are."
"All the phone numbers I need are in my purse, which was stolen before I was arrested. And I'm just a guest performer, so I don't even know most of the people's full names. When the cops let me have a phonebook, the only number I could find was the show's regular production office. And when I called it, all I got was an answering machine. The office staff isn't there at two o'clock in the morning, go figure." I sighed. "Next, I called my agent's cell phone, thinking he could come here and straighten this out. But he didn't answer, either."
I rested my head against the bars for a moment, feeling depressed. "I was supposed to be back on the set hours ago. They've got no idea where I am. I'm in so much trouble." I would be very lucky if the producers didn't fire me.
After a moment of silence, Lopez put his hand on mine and squeezed sympathetically. He knew how important my work was to me.
"What's the show?" he asked, trying to be nice.
"The Dirty Thirty."
He flinched and removed his hand. "I hate that show."
"It's a really good script," I said morosely, still thinking about how I was bound to be fired. And probably banned from all Crime and Punishment sets. "I play a homeless bisexual junkie prostitute being blackmailed for sex and information by a corrupt cop."
"Whatever," Lopez said sourly.
"I mean, that's what I'm playing if I've still got a job now."
"So some actor on a totally fabricated, insulting, bullshit TV show," he said, "got sick on your location shoot. They sent for a doctor, and filming came to a halt. What happened then?"
"Oh. Well..." I continued my story, explaining how I had wound up walking through the neighborhood alone in the dark in my costume, and what had happened next.
Lopez said, "And this guy had a sword?"
"Specifically, a rapier."
"How do you know that?"
"Because I'm an actress. The rapier was a common weapon in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and they're used in the plays of that period."
"Did he threaten you with it?"
"Not really," I said.
"What does 'not really' mean?"
I explained that I had startled the young man, who lowered his sword as soon as he recovered from his surprise. I recounted our conversation, his departure, and what happened next.
"And this is when you saw the gargoyles?"
"Could we not focus on that?" I said irritably. "The important point is that I saw this man being attacked. And maimed." I continued my story.
Lopez soon interrupted to say, "The man was wearing a tuxedo?"
"Yes." Seeing that he was looking at me as if this required an explanation, I said, "What's so strange about that?"
He shrugged. "It just seems a little odd. Never mind. So this man..." Lopez's tone concealed something. I wasn't sure what. "He told you his name was..."
"Darius," I said. "Darius Phelps."
"Yes." Since he just kept looking at me, I asked, "Why?"
"Besides the tux, what did he look like?"
I described Darius.
Lopez lowered black lashes over blue eyes and stood there silently for a few moments. He seemed to be thinking.
Finally, he said, "So you saw him being attacked. Go on."
I described the scene that ensued. And since Lopez already knew I thought the attacking creatures looked like gargoyles, I decided not to waste any time or energy prevaricating about that.
"Wait, you did what?" he said.
Caught up in my description of the struggle with the growling, befanged thing that had stolen my purse, by the way—"And is anyone here doing anything about that? Hah!"–I was taken by surprise when Lopez suddenly slipped his arms through the bars of my cage and slid his hands around my waist.
He drew me as close to his body as the cell bars would allow, rested his forehead against mine, and closed his eyes. "You saw a stranger being attacked on the street at night, and you jumped in to help him?"
"Well, um..." It felt so good to be touched by him. So good to feel the warmth of his skin and the soft tickle of his breath on my cheek. I had tried—with varying degrees of failure—not to think about this since he had broken up with me. And it was the last thing I had expected to experience tonight, given the circumstances.
"Esther, that's... dangerous," he said quietly.
I tried to snuggle closer, frustrated by the iron bars between us. "More dangerous for Darius than for me, as it turned out."
"Listen to me," he said, his hands moving from my waist to my forearms, stroking along my flesh. "I'm very serious about this. When you see something happening—something like that, I mean—it's much better to call nine-one-one than to go diving in like that. Do you understand?"
"Nine-one-one!" I pulled away just enough to meet his gaze.
"Yes." He touched my cheek. "I know you want to help people, but—"
"No, I mean, that's why I ran out to Lexington Avenue and, er, bothered people. Darius was severely injured, and that creature had stolen my phone, which was in my purse. I was trying to find a phone to call for help!"
His expression cleared. "So that's why you were wandering in traffic on Lexington?"
"Yes," I said with relief, realizing it actually sounded sensible this time around, now that I was explaining it with relative calm to someone who didn't think I was a violent crack whore. "No one would stop to help me. Because of the way I'm dressed, of course—but I was so freaked out by what had just happened and so focused on getting help for this guy, I totally forgot about what I look like tonight. So I got desperate. And then the first person I stopped was so abusive, it kind of sent me over the edge. The next driver who stopped wanted me to, um, gratify him—"
"What?" Lopez's spine went stiff.
"I notice that he didn't stick around to complain to the cops," I said. "The next one after that is probably the guy who claimed I was grabbing his crotch."
"You were trying to grab his phone," Lopez guessed.
I nodded. "And I did try to steal the next person's phone—he was actually a pedestrian, not a driver—because I was frantic by then. But then the cops arrived, and, well..." I sighed and let my shoulders sag a little. "I wasn't coherent or courteous, I have to admit."
"And since you looked like a hooker and had no ID..."
"It didn't go well." I shook my head, recalling the ludicrous scene. "Anyhow, then they brought me here and they booked me. And when I was finally allowed to make a phone call..." I shrugged. "After my calls to the Dirty Thirty production office and to Thack didn't get me anywhere—"
"My agent," I said. "Thackeray Shackleton."
"That can't be his real name," Lopez said.
"I have no idea. Anyhow, then I phoned... um..." I stopped awkwardly.
He looked puzzled for a moment, then made an exasperated sound, released his hold on me, and stepped away from the bars of my jail cell. "You called Max," he said in resignation.
"Yes. I called Max." And, I realized irritably, I had no reason to feel awkward about that. Max was a trusted friend who had saved my life. The fact that Lopez mistakenly thought he was demented, dangerous, and probably drugging me was one of the sources of tension between us. But since Lopez wasn't dating me anymore, I owed him no explanations about my friendship with Max. "But Max has only got one phone, and it's in the bookstore, on the main floor. At this time of night, he's probably upstairs and asleep, like everyone else. So he didn't answer." The other possibility was that Max was in the cellar beneath the bookstore, working in his laboratory all night long, as he sometimes did; he wouldn't hear the phone down there, either.
I said, "So, you see, I really did try to avoid dragging you into this. But I didn't know who else to call. And the last time that I saw you..."
"I said I wanted you to call me if you ever needed my help." Lopez sighed and nodded. "And I meant it, Esther. God help me."
"But I don't know your number by heart." I hardly knew any numbers by heart; and I hadn't had occasion to dial Lopez's number in well over two months, after all. "And you're not listed. I knew the cops here could get your phone number, of course. But they wouldn't give it to me."
"So I asked them to call you."
"And that was the icing on the cake. They thought that was hilarious. A cop involved with the crazy hooker in their tank." He smiled wryly. "It's like an episode of The Dirty Thirty."
He waved aside my apology. "Look, all things considered, you did the right thing, calling me tonight."
"Does that mean you're going to get me out of here?" I asked hopefully.
He didn't seem to hear me. He frowned suddenly and murmured, "An episode of The Dirty..." His voice trailed off and he stood there silent and motionless, a faint frown on his face, staring off into space. Thinking again. Piecing together things scattered in his head and making a coherent pattern with them.
After a moment, still frowning slightly at something I couldn't see, he said, "You're sure you told the cops here that you're with the production that's filming near here tonight?"
"Of course I'm sure," I said. "I was trying not to be charged, after all."
"Did you tell them what the production was?"
I thought back. "No, I don't think so. I was more focused on trying to convince them to send help for Darius."
Lopez shook his head and murmured, "But they must have known. It's their precinct. Of course they knew."
"Knew what?" I said.
He looked at me, his gaze clear now. "That the production filming in their precinct tonight is The Dirty Thirty."
I frowned. "So?"
"So that's a strikingly strange story that you're telling, Esther," he said. "A guy with a sword uttering vague warnings. A couple of gargoyles attacking a man in a tuxedo. A severed hand..." He shook his head. "My guess is that you got caught in the middle of an elaborate practical joke."
"And since you were alone in the dark in an unfamiliar neighborhood, your imagination helped it along." He paused before adding, "You do have a vivid imagination."
"But why would anyone play such a gruesome practical joke on me?"
"I doubt it was intended for you. It may not even have been intended for anyone in particular."
"I don't understand. Why would—" I gasped as I realized what he was thinking. "You think cops were playing a joke on The Dirty Thirty tonight? On the crew or cast members?"
"I'd say that it seems more likely than a young man in Harlem hunting man-eating gargoyles with a sword." He shrugged. "Don't underestimate how much cops hate that show."
"I heard there'd been some unpleasant incidents last year, but no one mentioned anything this... creative." I frowned. "So you think the cops who arrested me were part of it?"
"Maybe. Or maybe they just came to the same conclusion after running Darius Phelps' name through the system." He shook his head. "I was pretty thrown by that, but if a prank has occurred to me, it's probably occurred to them, too."
"Thrown by what?"
"You supposedly saw a walking corpse." He looked at me. "A Harlem resident named Darius Phelps, exactly fitting the description you gave, died three weeks ago."
(DAW Books; October 2011)
Lopez was sitting slumped in a stiff-backed chair next to the make-up table. His face was turned away from me, but I could see it clearly reflected in the brightly-lighted mirror that ran the length of the table. His legs were stretched out in front of him, his arms and ankles crossed, his chin resting on his chest. His eyes were closed and his long, dark lashes lay against his cheeks in peaceful repose.
He was... dozing? Here?
He flinched and lifted his head abruptly when Leischneudel, hot on my heels as he unlaced the back of my costume, bumped into my suddenly immobile body, inadvertently smashed his pert nose against the back of my head, and exclaimed, "Ow!"
"Oops!" I said.
Lopez's dazed gaze flew to us as he sat up, blinking in startled surprise. I stepped through the doorway and turned to face Leischneudel, whose hand was clasped over his nose while his eyes watered.
"I'm sorry! I'm so sorry. You should get danger pay for working with me tonight. Is it bleeding?" I said in a rush, more flustered by the sight of Lopez than of my fellow thespian staggering backward in pain (again) because of me. "Come on, Daemon might not be far behind us. Get in here before he sees it." After what had just happened, I wasn't as certain as I used to be that Daemon's appetite for hemoglobin was just an act.
I dragged Leischneudel into my dressing room, slammed the door behind us, and tried to pry his hand away from his face.
"Let me see it," I said, using the firm tone I often found it expedient to employ with him.
He removed his hand and gave a little sniff as he reached for the pocket of his elegant Regency waistcoat.
"It's not bleeding," I said with relief. Unlike a certain D-list celebrity who reveled in his gothic antics (my neck was really smarting, and I knew there'd be a telltale mark there by tomorrow), I had no desire to see my colleagues' blood.
Behind me, I heard Lopez rise to his feet and shove the chair away.
Leischneudel pulled out a neatly folded handkerchief and used it to dab at his eyes. "It's all right. It just really hurt for a second there." He sniffed again and shook his head. "I thought things like this wouldn't happen anymore."
"Things like walking into me?" I said.
"I'm sorry," I said again. "I forgot you were right behind me."
He stuffed his handkerchief back into his pocket, touched his nose tenderly, and said, "I'm fine. It feels better already. And it's a lot easier to get this thing off you when you're standing still, anyhow." He put his hand on my shoulder to turn me slightly as he shifted position to get his hands on the back of my dress again. That's when he saw Lopez.
"Oh!" Leischneudel froze in surprise, his hands on the laces of my gown, as he stared at the strange man in my dressing room.
Taking in the detective's uncharacteristically grubby appearance tonight, I suddenly realized how disreputable Lopez looked. Even intimidating. Particularly to someone who had no idea who he was or what he was doing here.
Come to think of it... "What are you doing here?" I blurted.
"You know him?" Leischneudel asked anxiously.
"We need to talk," Lopez said to me.
"Right away," he said, his gaze riveted on the sheer foundation garment exposed by my half-undone laces. Then his blue eyes shifted coldly to Leischneudel. "Hi."
"Er... hello," the actor replied, obviously wondering why Lopez looked ready to kill him.
My heart pounded with mixed emotions.
I had struggled with my desires but had remained resolute and strong since the last time we'd seen each other, that stormy night in Harlem more than two months ago. Why did Lopez have to come here now and make this even harder for me?
I had missed him so much. Why hadn't he come sooner, damn him?
Wow, he came! He couldn't stay away from me.
Okay, stop, I thought.
Recognizing the awkward silence that was filling the room as I stared in smitten fascination at Lopez while he and Leischneudel eyed each other, I realized that I should make introductions.
I said to Lopez, "This is Leischneudel Drysdale, one of the actors in the show."
Calling on his good manners, Leischneudel released my laces and stepped forward to offer Lopez a courteous handshake.
I said, "Leischneudel, this is—"
"Hector," Lopez said, giving Leischneudel's hand a quick, curt shake. "Hector Sousa. I'm a friend of Esther's."
I gaped at Lopez, stunned by his use of a phony name and having no idea what to say next.
Leischneudel looked down at his hand with a slight frown, rubbing his fingers together as if trying to remove an unpleasant substance.
This caused Lopez to rub his own hand self-consciously down the front of his sweatshirt. "Um, sorry."
Always the gentleman, Leischneudel quickly said, "No, no, not at all." But since the cat was out of the bag, he pulled out his handkerchief again and wiped his hand. I noticed that the white fabric came away darkly smeared, which would make Fiona even crankier than usual.
I glanced at Lopez's hands and noticed that they were rather dirty, as if smeared with crude oil. Like everything else about his appearance this evening, that was unusual for him. While not fastidious, he was generally a clean, tidy guy. Tonight, though, he looked like a street thug. Or, alternately, like a laborer at the end of a long, hard overtime shift.
An NYPD detective assigned to the Organized Crime Control Bureau, Connor Lopez (who didn't look like a "Connor") was in his early thirties, slightly under six feet tall, and lithe and lean, like a soccer player. The youngest of three sons, he had inherited rich blue eyes from his Irish-American mother; and maybe his lush, full lips had been another of her hereditary gifts to him. Otherwise, he (I had always assumed) resembled his Cuban-born father; his straight, shiny hair was coal black, his skin was a burnished golden-olive hue, and his facial features were strong and distinct.
When on duty, he usually wore conservative, budget-conscious suits (I suspected he was a regular customer of Banana Republic). Off-duty, I had mostly seem him dressed like any regular guy trying not to scare off a woman: casual, but not sloppy.
Tonight, though, he was in a hooded gray sweatshirt that had seen better days. There was an odd yellow stain around the bottom hem, a hole in one elbow, dark smudges all over the sleeves, and more smudges on his chest and stomach, as if he'd wiped his dirty hands there a number of times before now. The rounded neckline of a T-shirt was visible above the zipped-up V-neck of the sweatshirt, and I could see, even with this limited view, that the garment was ragged and old. His legs were covered by slightly baggy military khakis—the kind of bile-colored trousers that have lots of pockets and pouches. He wore lace-up work boots that came up to his shins. They looked waterproof, sturdy, and well-made; but like the clothing, they, too, appeared to have been in his life a long time and subjected to hard use.
Lopez looked very tired, and his eyes were bloodshot. He also needed a haircut and a shave. If not for the rolled-up bandana around his head that was holding his hair off his face, it would be hanging in his eyes; and he looked as if he hadn't used a razor in at least three days. The heavy shadow of facial hair made me notice something else: he was unusually pale. The last time I had seen him, in late summer, he'd been tan and sun-kissed. Now he looked rather sallow, as if he hadn't been outdoors in weeks.
Wondering at the changes in him in the months since I had last seen him, a horrible thought struck me. Had he been kicked off the police force—which I felt sure would devastate him—because of me? Or because of what happened that night in Harlem? Did unemployment and depression explain his grubby, unkempt appearance?
I was appalled. I had given up Lopez because I didn't want to ruin his life—along with the far more pressing concern of not wanting to get him killed. Had I ruined his life anyhow?
"What's happened to you?" I asked in despair.
Both men looked startled by my tone.
"Is something wrong?" Leischneudel asked uncertainly.
"He never looks like this," I said, shaking my head.
"No?" Leischneudel said.
"No, of course not," I replied. Lopez normally looked like the sort of man you could bring home to your mother, if your mother weren't Jewish.
"Oh. But it's kind of a good look for him, don't you think?" Leischneudel said generously. "Sort of... the Jersey docks meet the Meatpacking District."
"Maybe when it was a meatpacking area," I said dismissively. "But not now, all trendy nightclubs and gay bars."
"Well, yes, the grime might be a little much for the club scene," Leischneudel conceded. "Even for rough trade."
"You do know I'm standing right here?" Lopez said to us.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" Leischneudel giggled nervously. "Esther and I talk about make-up and costume so much, I guess it's become an unconscious habit. We didn't mean to be rude."
"I'm not in cos..." A faint look of surprise crossed Lopez's face, then he smiled wryly. "That's okay."
"Are you all right?" I asked him. "I mean... you haven't been kicked off—"
"I'm fine. Everything's fine with me. Okay? It's you I'm worried about." Lopez brushed self-consciously at his ratty clothes. "I just didn't have time to clean up before I came here."
"So this look isn't a whole new lifestyle for you?" I said in relief.
"Not exactly. I was in a hurry."
"And you rushed to the theater at three o'clock in the morning from where?" I prodded. "A wildman wilderness camp near an oil refinery?"
He smiled again. "Good guess."
I frowned and started to say, "Lop—"
"I needed to talk to you." He glanced at Leischneudel, then gave me a meaningful look. "It's important. I didn't think it should wait for a shower and a change of wardrobe."
"Why? What's wrong?" Leischneudel asked in concern.
We both looked at him.
"Oh!" Leischneudel giggled nervously again. I thought he was blushing, but the heavy stage make-up made it hard to tell. He started backing toward the door. "That was my cue, wasn't it? Sorry. I'll leave you two alone to talk." He opened the door and backed into the hallway. "Take your time."
"Thanks. We will." The moment the door closed, Lopez said tersely to me, "Why was he taking off your clothes?"
There was a soft knock and the door re-opened. Lopez looked at Leischneudel with an expression of exaggerated patience as the actor stuck his head back into the room.
"Er, Esther. I'll wait for you in my dressing room?"
"Okay," I said.
"You won't leave without me?" Leischneudel prodded, his face briefly twisting into an expression of hunted dread at the prospect of facing the vamparazzi alone tonight.
"Of course not," I said.
As soon as the door closed again, I said to Lopez, "Why did you give him a fake name?"
"Let's get back to my question. Are you sleeping with that guy?"
"With Leischneudel?" I felt like he'd just asked me if I was sleeping with Bambi or Winnie the Pooh. "Of course not."
"Then why were his hands all over you?"
"He was helping me with this costume." I gestured with irritation to the laces on my back. "It's so authentic, I can't get out of it by myself."
Lopez choked on a startled laugh. When I gave him an exasperated look, he tried to stop.
"Sorry." He cleared his throat and said again, "Sorry." Then he ruined his apology by laughing some more.
"Very funny," I said sourly. "You're not the one who has to get into and out of this gown six nights a week."
"Speaking of your costume—"
"No, now we do my question. Why did you use a phony name when I introduced you to Leischneudel?"
He was about to respond when we heard Daemon's voice in the hall right outside my dressing room. "Is she in there? Ah, good!"
"But she's got a visitor, and they don't want..." Leischneudel protested as the door was flung open and banged against the wall. "...to be disturbed."
"What?" Daemon sashayed through the door as he casually shook off Leischneudel's awkward attempt to restrain him. I turned to face Daemon, annoyed by the intrusion. He came to an abrupt halt when he saw Lopez. "Oh! A visitor? Oh." Daemon's glance flicked past me for a moment, then he met my eyes and smirked. I felt a slight draft on my back and realized he could see in the mirror that my gown was half-unlaced. Obviously concluding that he had interrupted my visitor in the middle of undressing me, Daemon now included Lopez in his smirk. "Ohhhh..."
I said to my companion, "Meet Daemon Ravel, the vampire onstage."
"And offstage, too," Daemon added, always quick to present his creature-of-the-night credentials.
Lopez folded his arms across his chest. "I trust you have a good reason for barging into a lady's dressing room without knocking?"
"Ooh!" Daemon grinned lasciviously at me. "You've found a spicy one."
"If whatever you want isn't really, really important," I said to Daemon, "then it'll have to wait until tomorrow."
"And rugged," Daemon added, giving Lopez an appraising look. "But maybe a touch overdone on the gutter-rat theme."
"What do you want?" I asked wearily.
"Just returning your earring, darling." He held up the dangling object up for me to see. I touched my earlobes and realized one earring was indeed missing. Daemon said, "It came off when I bit you."
With my attention divided between playing my role, wanting to gut Daemon for the way he was taking advantage of me onstage, and physical pain as he actually bit and sucked, I hadn't noticed the earring falling off—go figure.
"Thanks. If there's nothing else..." I nodded toward the door as I took the earring from him.
All three men watched me put it on. Then Lopez frowned, came closer, and touched the sore spot on my neck. The skin was tender, and I flinched a little.
"What happened here?" Lopez asked me as he cast a dark glare at the two men.
Realizing he could see it, I turned around and went to look at the hickey in the mirror. Sure enough, the welt wasn't waiting until tomorrow to become visible. It was already mottled and pink, the skin inflamed and irritated, with little dots of purple bruising starting to appear, thanks to Daemon's teeth.
"Goddamn it, Daemon. Do you know how much make-up I'm going to have to put on this tomorrow?" I said. "Not to mention how much it hurts."
"Did I get a little too carried away?" Daemon asked with sultry amusement. "Sorry. You bring out my hunger, Esther."
"He did that to you?" Lopez said to me.
"You bit her?" Leischneudel exclaimed, scandalized. "That's what happened out there tonight? Daemon! You shouldn't really bite her."
"He did that to you in the play?" Lopez said.
I nodded. "And if he does it again, I'm going to castrate him." In the mirror, I met Daemon's gaze with a cold glare.
"Surely you're not going to pretend you didn't enjoy it even a little?" the vampire icon purred. "The audience certainly liked it. And I must admit, so did I."
"Out," said Lopez. "Now."
Daemon said, "It's that warm, pulsing jugular vein right under my mouth that I just can't resist when we're—"
"That's her carotid artery." Lopez shoved Daemon through the door.
"Wait, I knew that," said Daemon, stumbling backwards.
"And if your teeth ever touch it again," Lopez said, "I'll remove them all. Are we clear?"
Daemon staggered into Leischneudel, who was asking if I was all right as Lopez slammed the door in their faces.
"This show is really taking its toll," I grumbled, studying my reflection. "I've got a black eye, too, under all this make-up. One of Daemon's crazed fans attacked me last night."
"Yeah, I heard."
"You heard?" I said in surprise.
"And to think my mom worried that police work would be dangerous," he said dryly. "I guess she should just be glad that none of her sons became actors."
Lopez crossed the room to stand behind me and look at my welt while I studied it in the mirror. "He didn't break the skin. But disinfect it when you get home, anyhow," he said. "I doubt that guy's had all his shots."
"You should have punched him," I said grumpily. "He should punched."
"He should be," Lopez agreed, meeting my eyes in the mirror. "But the cops will make him plenty miserable tonight without my help. And if we can avoid it, I'd rather they didn't know I was here. If I break his nose, well, word might get out."
"The cops?" I turned around to look at him directly, disquieted again. "Are you still a cop?"
"Of course." His surprised expression changed as realization dawned. "Oh. I get it. You thought I'd lost my job and become derelict? Do I really look that bad?" When I nodded, he grinned. It made him look a lot more like his usual self. He gazed over my shoulder, assessing his reflection in the mirror. "I guess I've gotten so used to it, I didn't realize."
"What's going on?" I demanded. "Why do you look so scruffy? Why are you using a phony name? Why can't the cops know you were here tonight? Why... Oh! Oh. Oh, my God." I had seen enough episodes of Crime and Punishment to make an educated guess. "You're working undercover?"
He nodded. "And I shouldn't tell you. So let's not tell anyone else. Understood?"
I had also watched enough episodes of C&P to know that working undercover was dangerous—and being exposed while working undercover was particularly dangerous.
"I won't tell anyone," I assured him. "So you're still a cop. But... in theory, you're not a cop right now?"
"In theory, I'm also not even here right now." He picked up a make-up sponge that was lying on the table, examined it briefly, then took it over to the sink in the corner, where he turned on the water.
I turned to look at my welt again in the mirror, wondering just how much trouble it would be to conceal it for tomorrow's performance.
As Lopez rinsed the sponge under the running tap, he said, "So don't talk to your, um, colleagues here about me. If they ask, just say I'm an old friend and then change the subject. Okay?"
"I don't understand," I said as he returned to my side with the damp sponge and started dabbing gently at the welt on my neck. "If you're not here, then what are you doing here?" I drew in a sharp breath at the feel of the cold water on my tender skin.
"This will be all right," he said soothingly. I felt the warm clasp of his hand on my other shoulder, steadying me. The heat of his body warmed the flesh of my half-naked back as he stood close behind me. "But it'll hurt for a couple of days."
"Does he do this to you eight shows a week?" Lopez asked darkly.
"No. I mean, he likes to push his luck a little." I sighed and half-closed my eyes, guiltily enjoying the touch I had missed. "But tonight he went way out of bounds."
"You're right," he said. "I should have punched him."
I could feel his breath on my neck.
I said, "He was..."
"Was...?" he murmured.
"Was feeling his oats tonight... But most shows, he just... just..."
Lopez heard the breathless distraction in my voice, and our eyes met in the mirror. My chest rose and fell with sudden vigor inside my push-up corset. His gaze drifted down to the low-cut bodice of my gown, and I felt a flush of pleasure warm my whole body as his hands tightened on me—until the pressure of the cold sponge against my welt made me wince, startling him.
"Sorry." He gentled his touch, dabbing tentatively again. "I, uh..."
I think we both remembered in that moment that I had told him we shouldn't see each other any more, and that I hadn't returned his last phone call, the one asking me to meet him so we could talk. At any rate, I felt awkward and self-conscious now, and he didn't look at my cleavage again. After a couple of more cold dabs at my neck, he put down the sponge and said matter-of-factly, "After you disinfect it, maybe put some ice on it for a while."
"Make sure you tell the cops how you got that," he added. "They'll be interested."
"The cops?" I said blankly.
"Yeah. I'd rather they didn't find out I was here, so don't volunteer anything about me."
"The cops?" I repeated.
"But I don't want you to lie to them when they question you. Do you understand? If they ask you about me, tell the truth. Just don't talk about me in front of the other people being questioned. I'll deal with—"
"Whoa! Back up a step. Why are the cops going to question me?"
"It's all right," he said. "You're not under suspicion."
"Murder?" I bleated. "Someone's been murdered?"
Lopez blinked. "Oh. I didn't tell you that part yet, did I?"
"No," I snapped. "You left that part out while giving me first aid advice."
"I'm sorry. I meant to explain this to you in an orderly, unalarming way."
"Why am I going to be alarmed?" I asked suspiciously.
"But I'm a little tired, and this has been kind of a confusing conversation so far, what with Licenoodle—"
"—the Vampire Ravel, your earring, your neckline. Er, I mean, your neck." He repeated with emphasis, "Your neck."
Lopez sighed and ran a dirty hand over his beard-shadowed face. "This is not going the way I intended." He glared at me. "Which is par for the course when I'm with you."
"Who's been murdered?" Fear seized me. "Oh, my God! Not Max?"
"No. Not Max," he said firmly. "This has nothing to do with Max."
"Oh, thank God." I took a steadying breath. "No, I suppose not. I mean, I just spoke to him tonight."
"So you still see him regularly?"
"Yes, of course. But I haven't stopped by his place lately, even though it's near here. The show's been kind of exhausting."
"He's coming to see it tomorrow night."
I looked at him in surprise. Lopez had always disapproved of my friendship with Max.
In response to my expression, he said, "It might not be a... a completely terrible idea if..." He took a breath and concluded with obvious difficulty, "If Max kept on eye on you for a while."
"Really?" I blurted. "Wow. That's a sea change." When he didn't respond, I prodded, "I was... surprised when he told me that you went to him for help when I was missing during the blackout this summer."
"What changed your mind about him?"
"Nothing. But when I suspected you might be trapped with a killer, I was desperate." Lopez avoided my gaze. "I'd have gone to Satan for help, let alone Max."
"That's an absurd compar—"
"And when he and I talked, I realized that, whatever else I may think about him, I could count on him to step in front of a moving train to protect you."
"Well... yes." Actually, although Max and I had become close friends, I knew he would risk his life for most people, not just me. That was his calling—protecting people from Evil.
Realizing the weight of what Lopez had just acknowledged, though, I smiled and said warmly, "So you finally approve of him?"
"No, of course not," he said, spoiling the mood. "I think he probably leads you into trouble a lot more often than he protects you from it."
"That's not tr..." Well, there might be a little truth in that. So I changed the subject by pointing out, "He saved your life that night in Harlem."
"I have a lot of questions about what happened."
"You sound so ungrateful!" I said critically.
"Of course I was grateful. I thanked Max very nicely, and I overlooked a bunch of things I could have arrested him for."
"I also bent over backwards to keep both of your names out of what happened that night."
"Oh?" I had suspected as much, since no cops ever contacted me about it. "Thank you."
"That doesn't mean I don't have questions about whatever did happen. A lot of questions."
"You wouldn't like the answers," I said morosely. Lopez and I had waded through that kind of discussion before. Multiple times. It never went well.
"You're probably right." His shoulders slumped, and he suddenly looked exhausted.
I recalled that it was the middle of the night, I'd just done two shows, and he was so tired he'd dozed off while waiting here for me.
And he'd mentioned murder.
"Why are you here?" I asked. "What's going on?"
"We got off track again, didn't we?" he said wryly. "Sorry. Look, there's something you need to know, and I wanted to... to..." He paused and frowned in distraction as the stentorian echo of Mad Rachel's voice penetrated the closed door of the dressing room.
"You didn't call me after the first show, Eric!" she shrieked. "How can I trust someone who doesn't even call me WHEN HE SAYS HE WILL?"
Lopez stared at the door with a bemused expression as Rachel's voice approached this room. He asked me, "What is that?"
"Mad Rachel," I said wearily. "The other actress in the play."
The door opened and Rachel entered the room, still in make-up and costume, bellowing into her cell phone, "Fuck you, Eric! That is not what you said today!"
"This is unbelievable." Lopez flung himself into a chair, crossed his arms over his chest again, and said to me, "Don't you have any privacy in this place?"
"It's a public theatre," I pointed out. "What were you expecting?"
Rachel paused momentarily in her tirade when she saw Lopez, then said into the phone, "A strange man is in my dressing room. Yes! Right now! Where am I? In my dressing room, Eric."
"I thought," Lopez said to me, "that the 'public' nature of the place would stop at the door of your dressing room. A room where you—you know—undress."
It was a reasonable assumption in the normal world. But in the theatrical world, dressing rooms tend to be pretty public places, and actors lose most of our modesty pretty early in our training. I had worked on any number of shows where actors and actresses all shared a large communal dressing room and had very few physical secrets left after the first few days. I had also worked various venues and gigs where I changed clothes in public rest rooms or utilities closets. When doing Shakespeare in the rain one summer, I had made my changes behind a curtain, so that the audience couldn't see me, but where I was nonetheless in plain view of anyone who happened to be spying on us from the woods behind our set.
"I don't know who he is, Eric." Mad Rachel gestured to Lopez and said to me, "Do you know this guy?"
"Yes. It's fine. He's an old friend of mine." After a pregnant pause, I said to Lopez, "I can't remember your name."
He sighed in exasperation. "Hector Sousa."
"Well, this is my dressing room, too, Esther, and I don't appreciate finding a strange man hanging around in here," Rachel said. "We share this space, you know. You need to be more considerate."
"You shouldn't always be thinking about just yourself," she said primly.
"What?" I'd had enough for one night. This was a bridge too far! "What did you say to me?"
Lopez muttered, "Fire in the hole."
"You have the nerve—the utter unmitigated gall—to lecture me about being considerate?" I snarled. "You shrieking, whiny, loud—"
Lopez slid off his chair, seized my elbow, and started dragging me toward the door. "We're getting sidetracked again."
"You shrill, nagging, noisy—"
"I don't know," Rachel said into her cell phone. "Esther's having a cow about something. Esther Diamond. You know, that actress who they put in my dressing room."
"Your dressing room? Yours? Why you little b—"
Lopez clapped a dirty hand over my mouth, hauled me forcibly out of the dressing room, and dragged me some distance down the hallway. He didn't let go of me until after I stopped struggling.
I was panting hard, my blood heated with rage. He kept his hands on my arms, as if afraid I might bolt.
"Take a deep breath," he said. "And another. That's good. Keep breathing."
"Sorry," I said. "Sorry. I guess I snapped. It was just one thing too many, you know?"
"I get it." After a moment, he asked, "Eric is her husband?"
I shook my head. "Boyfriend."
"Wow. Imagine what the fights will be like when they're married."
I remembered that, as a cop, he sometimes thought of marriage in terms of domestic violence statistics. "You think they'd ever get married?" I said doubtfully.
"Sure. People just like them get married all the time," he said. "Ain't love grand?"
"Okay, I'm better now. Really." I sighed. "She just gets on my last nerve."
"I can see why." He smiled. "But I'll bet people in the very last row can hear every word she utters in the play."
I gave a puff of laughter and nodded.
"Let's just hope she doesn't turn up dead," he said seriously. "If anyone besides me knows how you feel about her, it won't look good."
Recalling what we had been talking about before Mad Rachel interrupted us, I said, "Lopez, you're scaring me. Who has turned up dead? What's going on?"
"Okay, here it is." He paused, then warned me, "This is disturbing stuff."
"Go on." I braced myself.
"The body of Adele Olson was found this afternoon."
"Who?" I said blankly.
"In the, uh, vampire community, she's known as Angeline."
I shook my head. "I don't think I know anyone named Angeline or Adele Olson."
"She's the fan who attacked you outside the theatre last night."
"What?" When he nodded, I said, "Jane's been murdered?"
He frowned. "You knew her as Jane?"
"Huh? Oh. No. I didn't know her at all." I briefly explained about the Janes. "So that's what I call anyone who dresses up like my character."
"Exactly like your character." He looked me over. "Right down to the shoes, earrings, and hair. She didn't have quite the same build as you, and I don't think her face looked anything like yours—then again, I never saw her when she was alive."
"You mean... you've seen her dead?"
"No, I've seen some post-mortem photos."
"Oh." That sounded grisly, too.
He continued, "But despite the differences, to a casual observer, she was pretty much a ringer for you. When you're both in costume, I mean."
Seeing how troubled he looked, I realized why he'd come to the theatre in the wee hours to speak to me, evidently against orders, and without pausing to clean up first. Appalled by what I suspected was on his mind, I said slowly, with great reluctance, "You think... the resemblance... is significant."
"It might have nothing to do with you," he said. "Initial investigation suggests she was a mixed-up girl with dangerous tastes and not much sense."
Recalling the way she had attacked me, I wasn't inclined to argue with that description.
"So maybe she just ran into some fatal trouble last night. But, well, yeah, I'm a little worried," he admitted, "Someone who hung around this theater, who superficially resembled you, and who dressed exactly like you when you're onstage has been murdered." He nodded. "The possible implications... bother me."
I shivered. "This is your attempt not to alarm me?"
"Sorry. This all went much better in my head than it's going in person."
"Ah," I said. "That never happens to me."
He smiled briefly, then got serious again as he said, "There's something else I need to tell you about this. Something... a little weird."
"You're going to hear about it, one way or another. So I'd rather you hear it from me."
"Because you're so good at not alarming me?"
"Okay, if you'd rather learn about it from the tabloids..." Lopez said a little crankily.
"The tabloids?" I repeated with dread.
"The department won't be able to keep this quiet." He gave a disgusted sigh. "That would've been for the best, but too many people already know. If it's not on the internet yet, it will be any minute now."
"What?" I asked anxiously.
"The victim was exsanguinated." He added, as if thinking that I might not be familiar with the term, "Drained of all her blood."
I gaped at him in horrified astonishment. "You mean she was killed by a vampire?"
(DAW Books; November 2012)
While working as a department-store elf, at Fenster & Co. during the Christmas shopping season, Esther Diamond (whose elf name is Dreidel) encounters some strange events in Solsticeland, the store's immersive multicultural seasonal exhibit. A little boy named Jonathan has had a bizarrely terrifying experience in Solsticeland's Enchanted forest, and her friend Satsy aka Saturated Fats (Disappearing Nightly) aka Drag Queen Santa has been terrorized in the freight elevator. But since Jonathan was confused and Satsy was high, Esther isn't yet sure that something supernatural is happening at Fenster's...
We were approaching the peak hours for business, and Solsticeland was packed with people. I had to squeeze through a seething throng of families in the North Pole and then elbow my way through the multitudes of meandering teens and adults in the Enchanted Forest. When I reached my destination, I felt a little disheveled and straightened my elf outfit while waiting for the automated program to start.
Right on time, the tree spoke to me, bidding me good evening. I expressed surprise, with suitably melodramatic elf gestures, at being addressed by a plant. The tree's lumpy face contorted in various animated expressions while it explained to me that I was in the Enchanted Forest now, where anything was possible. Some visitors who were passing this spot paused and stopped to watch the performance. Others joined them as the tree and I progressed through a short scripted routine about Santa's reindeer, mixing up their various names and inviting the children in the crowd to correct us.
After a few minutes of this, the tree suggested we have a merry song, and it launched into a duet with me, accompanied by the music coming through its sound system. We sang It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas, after which we exchanged a little more patter. Then we sang Jingle Bells, It Came Upon A Midnight Clear, and Here Comes Santa Claus.
At the end of that song, I asked for a show of hands. "Who's been to visit Santa already?" Then: "And who's on their way to visit Santa now?" I gave brief instructions for joining the line to see Santa, and then I talked about the other exciting attractions here in Solsticeland, urging all my new friends not to go home without seeing these wonders.
While chattering away, I saw Twinkle trying to make his way through the crowd, somewhat hampered by his accordion. Glancing in the other direction, I noticed a couple of security guards hovering just beyond the gathered crowd. They were speaking with an authoritative-looking woman who seemed to be all business. The guards were an unusual sight on this floor, in my experience, so I wondered if Jonathan's mother had filed a complaint about this morning.
Coming to the end of my spiel about the multicultural exhibits here in Solsticeland, I turned back to my arboreal companion and suggested we give these nice people one last song.
The tree did not respond. It sat there, silent and inert. I wondered if I had unwittingly rushed through my speech and finished too early. I ad-libbed a little, to fill the silence. Still no response from the tree.
"Oh, dear," I said to the crowd. "I think my friend fell asleep while I was talking!"
Some of them chuckled at that. I was wondering by now if the tree's complex mechanism had broken down. If the thing had stopped working, I'd have to wrap up the performance without it. I glanced around and saw that Twinkle was still within sight, the density of the crowd ensuring that his progress remained slow.
I gave the tree an admonishing poke as I said loudly, "If you won't sing another song with me, then I'll just ask my friend Twinkle to play something for me on his accordion!"
And that was when all hell broke loose.
The tree came to sudden, menacing life. Its eyes glowed red, its knobbly face contorted in a snarl, and it growled at me. Startled, I gasped and fell back a step. I heard some of the crowd laughing, as if assuming this was part of the show. The Enchanted Forest was, after all, a deliberately spooky setting where, as the tree had already said, anything could happen.
And that certainly seemed to be true as the tree's glowing eyes focused on me while it whispered in a harsh croak, "Kill... kill... kill you."
I choked out a scream and staggered backward. We were way off script now.
A big, solid tree branch hit me hard from behind, knocking the wind out of me and sending me sprawling forward into the tree's face. The branch was one of the mechanical arms which were programmed to wave and bounce in time to the Christmas carols that the tree sang. It swiftly wrapped around me and held me there, pressed up against the horrifyingly animated trunk, which snickered at me as I was shoved against it.
The blow had stunned me, but I was so frightened that adrenaline flooded my system, working wonders. I quickly regained my senses, took a noisy gulp of air, and started screaming my head off.
This set off a chain reaction of gasping and shrieking among the gathered crowd, who by now realized something was wrong.
The tree's mouth, already stretched in a vicious snarl, sprouted long yellow fangs. I didn't want to find out if they were as sharp as they looked, so I struggled with all my might against the dense synthetic branch that was trying to force me closer to that mouth.
"No, no, noooo!" I was screaming.
"Dreidel!" Twinkle shouted. "Dreidel!"
I heard the mad, musical screech of his accordion as he wrestled his way through the crowd, hollering frantically for maintenance, for help, for security, for someone!
With my arms trapped by the encircling branch, I lifted my feet and braced them against the tree trunk, fighting the mechanical branch's pressure to drag me closer to the snarling, fanged mouth. I was panting hard with fear and effort, struggling for air as the thick, twining branch tightened around me like a python, bruising my arms and squeezing breath from my body.
Some shoppers grabbed frantically at the branch and tugged on it, trying to release me. Another animated branch swooped down and knocked them away, throwing them into the crowd with industrial strength and power. I heard more screaming and, out of the corner of my eye, could see people falling and tumbling.
"Nooo!" My voice was thin and shrill. I was starting to feel lightheaded.
More people approached the tree, trying to help me. Through the blur of my misting vision, as I fought my terrifying captor and gasped for air, I could see elf outfits, reindeer antlers, the bright red of a Santa suit... two Santa suits...
"Esther!" Jeff [Unsympathetic Magic] shouted, bounding toward me.
Pow! A long tree branch whipped through the air like a catapult, knocking Jeff off his feet. He flew backward into Satsy, and the two of them tumbled out of my fading vision.
"Cut the power!" a man shouted.
I heard the ear-piercing squeal of children screaming and the heavy thunder of feet stampeding.
"Cut the power!" the same voice repeated.
A huge man in a parka hurled himself at the tree, screaming, "Yaaaagggh!"
Two snakishly animated branches scooped him up, working in unison, and tossed him aside like a rag doll.
The tree's menacing mouth started drooling, and I recoiled from the foul odor that poured out that orifice now.
"Help!" I croaked, dizzy and weak by now. My bells jangled as I kicked ineffectually at the trunk with my dainty boots.
"Dreidel! I'll save you!" Twinkle cried.
I kept kicking weakly as the encircling branch that was squeezing the life out of me forced me closer to that foul-smelling, drooling, snarling mouth.
"What are you doing?" a man shouted. It was the man who wanted the power cut—as if electricity were the problem here.
"I'm saving her!" Twinkle cried.
Through my swimming vision, I saw the elf wave an ax near my head, and I found the breath to shriek, "No!"
"Give me that!" the same man shouted, his voice starting to sound familiar through the haze of my suffocation and terror...
The tree's animated eyes glowed red while it growled softly to me, "Kill... kill... I want flesh! And blood."
I hoped I would faint before this thing took a bite out of me. I didn't want to be conscious for that.
There was a sudden, powerful reek of sulfur. Black smoke clouded the glowing red eyes; one of the orbs cracked, and pieces of plastic fell to the floor. The drool pouring from the fangs seemed to freeze in mid-motion. The whole tree went rigidly still. Sensing my opportunity, I tried again to free myself. But I was weak, and the python-like branch, though motionless now, wouldn't release me. It was frozen in position, as if it had mechanically seized-up.
Then I heard a loud whack! nearby, like an ax hitting wood—and the oppressive branch dropped me like a hot rock. Startled, I staggered away dizzily, tripped over the synthetic tree roots, and hit the floor with a thud.
As I lay there on my back, panting and staring up at the star-studded Solsticeland sky, I heard footsteps. Then that familiar voice man's said: "Esther?"
I didn't answer. Just lay there. Breathing hard and savoring the feel of air in my lungs.
"Esther." Holding a big wood-handled ax, Detective Connor Lopez of the New York Police Department stood looking down at me. He was breathing fast. "Of course. I should have guessed. I mean, who else could it be?"
"Lopez?" I croaked, looking up at him in bewildered surprise.
"Are you all right?" he asked. "Do you need a medic?"
"Why are you holding an ax over my head?"
He looked at the ax as if surprised to see it in his hands. "Oh. I used it to sever the power cable to that... that thing. What is that thing?"
Still, breathing hard, I gaped at him in amazement. "Wow. The slogan is true. At Christmas, everyone comes to Fenster's."
"Dreidel!" Twinkle was at my side, his accordion still strapped to his torso. It groaned noisily as he sank to his knees. "Are you all right?"
"I thought you were going to behead me," I panted, recalling the sight of Twinkle waving the ax near me.
"No, I was saving you! I was attacking the tree!"
"I didn't mean," I panted, "that I thought you'd behead me on purpose."
"I didn't think so, either," said Lopez, shifting the ax to one hand. "Either way, though, it seemed like a good idea to take it away from him."
"Fuck me," said Candycane. "Twinkle, you could have killed her with that thing!"
Still lying flat, my heart racing in reaction to the attack, I glanced around and saw numerous anxious elf and reindeer faces looking down at me.
"I think that thing could have killed her." Prancer pointed to the tree. (Or maybe it was Dancer. Or Comet. A big, fuzzy, brown sock-puppet with antlers, anyhow.) "What the hell happened?"
"I'd say it was the mother of all mechanical malfunctions," Lopez said in disgust. "Don't they do maintenance around here? Safety checks?"
"No," said several employees in unison.
"For chrissake." Lopez shook his head. "What do they think will happen if they neglect proper maintenance on a thing like that—that... What is that thing, anyhow?"
Jingle's face hovered directly above me. He must have clocked in recently, since I hadn't seen him before.
"Dreidel! Are you okay?" Without waiting for my reply, he turned around and made the general announcement, in a loud voice, "Dreidel is all right!"
I heard a faint—very faint—cheer sweep through the Enchanted Forest in response to this news.
"You're sure you're okay?" Twinkle asked me.
"I'll live." I was profoundly grateful to be able to say those words.
"That was scary," said Jingle. "We nearly lost a good trainee!"
Lopez said, "Okay, everyone please take a step back and give Esther—uh, Dreidel—some room to breathe. Come on—back, everyone."
My co-workers complied. People often complied when Lopez gave orders. Not me, really; but lots of other people.
Born to a Cuban-immigrant father and Irish-American mother, Lopez was in his early thirties, slightly under six feet tall, with a slim, athletic build. He had straight black hair, dark golden-olive skin, and long-lashed blue eyes. The strength in his attractive face kept it from being pretty, despite his full, lush mouth. And although patience was one of his virtues, he wasn't someone you'd want to mess with.
"Where'd that ax come from?" Candycane asked. "We have axes here?"
Jingle said, "There's an emergency station next to the North Pole. This was covered in your training, Candycane. Fire extinguisher, first aid kit, ax, and so on. And getting that ax was good thinking, Twinkle!"
"Actually, I took it from a kid who'd gotten it," Twinkle admitted. "He could barely lift it, but he had the right idea."
"No, stupid idea," the Russian elf said brusquely. She added to Lopez, with grudging approval, "But you were cool-headed. Using ax to cut power. Much more intelligent than whacking tree."
"He's supposed to be cool-headed in a crisis," I said, still breathing hard. "He's a cop."
"A cop?" Twinkle bleated. "A cop?"
"Yeah, I'm a cop. But we're cool about the ax, so calm down." Lopez asked me again, "Esther, are you sure you're all right?" He knelt beside me and put his hand on my wrist. I thought this was an affectionate gesture until I realized he was checking my pulse.
"Yeah, I think I'm okay," I said, pulling away from his hand. I knew my heart was still racing. I didn't see that it would help matters for him to know it, too. "Just really shaken. And... ouch! Bruised."
Well aware, it seemed, of why I had rejected his touch, Lopez firmly put his hand on my wrist again, kneeling beside me in silence while he checked my heart rate. I noticed he was wearing a dark wool coat over a navy blue suit. The formality of his attire made me suspect he was at Fenster's as a detective, not a shopper.
He let go of my wrist, then slipped his hand into mine. Now that was an affectionate gesture. I felt the suddenly-intent gazes of Santa's helpers on us as he said, "I want an EMT to look at you. They should be here any minute."
"When did you have time to phone in an emergency?" I asked.
"Someone else has done it by now." Confirming the suspicion that was forming in my mind, he added, "There are other cops here."
"Because of Jonathan?" I blurted. That kid's mom must have been really mad.
"Who's Jonathan?" he asked.
"A little boy who had a bad scare here this morning."
"Oh. Well, that's not hard to believe." Lopez glanced up at the tree. "But, no, that's not why we're here."
No, of course not, I realized. Lopez was a detective in the Organized Crime Control Bureau. I didn't think anyone was worried that Jonathan had encountered loan sharks or witnessed a professional hit in Solsticeland.
"Cops? There are cops in the building?" bleated Twinkle. "Why?"
Lopez said to him, "When the EMTs get here, ask them to come see Est... Dreidel. Go to the entrance of this place and wait for them. Go now."
Twinkle rose to his feet—assisted by two reindeer, since his accordion made the process awkward. "I won't fail you!"
"Good to know."
As Twinkle departed, I said to Lopez, "I really don't think I need an EMT."
"And I hope you're right. But humor me, okay?" he said as he set down his ax.
"Don't put down that ax!" I shrieked.
The elves and reindeer collectively fell back another step.
Lopez blinked. "Okay. I won't. Stay calm." He picked up the ax again. "I've got it. See?"
"I just mean..." I took a long, deep breath, trying to calm myself. "I mean, don't leave the ax lying around."
I had no doubt that what had just happened was a mystical incident, not a mundane one. And whatever force was animating that tree had dissolved before I heard the ax hit the floor and cut off the electrical power. The overloaded mechanics of the paralyzed tree had relaxed and released me when it was severed from Fenster's system; but it had already been abandoned by whatever Evil had caused it to act with such menacing violence.
I didn't know what had incited the tree to attack, nor why it had stopped attacking. And I didn't know whether—or when—it might attack again. So I was emphatically against leaving a deadly weapon lying around within reach of its long branches.
Jingle said, "That's a good safety tip, Dreidel. I'll go put this ax away in a safe place. You can hand it over to me, officer."
Lopez looked at me to check my reaction to this.
I nodded my assent, adding to Jingle, "Stay away from that tree."
"It can't hurt anyone now," Jingle said soothingly.
"Oh, yes, it can," I said grimly.
Putting this incident together with what Satsy had told me about the freight elevator this morning, I realized that the drag queen was right: There was something at Fenster & Co. that didn't belong here; something evil.
As I started to get up off the floor, I had a feeling I knew what I would see when I looked at the tree.
"Esther," Lopez said, trying gently to prevent me from rising, "I want you to wait until an EMT has had a chance to—"
"I'm fine," I said. "Help me up."
"I really think that..." He blew out his breath on a resigned sigh as I placed a hand on his shoulder to steady myself and rose to my feet. "...you should just ignore whatever I say and act as if absolutely nothing dangerous has just happened to you."
I took a few more deep breaths to steady myself, then cautiously approached the tree. As I had expected—as had been the case with Satsy and the freight elevator—it looked normal now. It was completely dormant, severed from its power source, and one of its eyes was still ruined. But there was otherwise no sign at all of what had just happened. No fangs, no remnants of drool, no odor. Nothing.
I turned around and said to my colleagues, who were all watching me examine the tree, "Did anyone else hear the voice?"
"The voice?" asked the Russian.
"What voice?" asked Lopez, who was also examining the tree now.
"There was a voice saying it would kill me," I said.
"I heard a voice, but I didn't hear that," said Eggnog, the prince of Princeton, giving me a peculiar look.
"What did you hear?" I pounced.
"Well, to be honest, I wasn't paying that much attention to what it said. I was mostly, you know, trying not to get clobbered by a branch," he said. "But I thought it was reciting reindeer names."
"That's eerie," said one of the reindeer.
"No," said Candycane, "that's just part of its programmed patter."
"Did anyone hear it saying it wanted to kill? That it wanted flesh and blood?" I asked impatiently.
The elves and reindeer all looked at each other in perplexity and shook their heads.
"I only heard screaming," said the Russian.
"There was a lot of screaming," a reindeer agreed. "It's all I could hear, too. Well, that and the smack! of branches hitting people."
"I did hear Twinkle shouting that he'd rescue you while he waved that ax around. It was like his dungeons-and-dopes game had finally come to life for him." Candycane pointed to Lopez. "And I heard this guy shouting to cut the power, but I don't know where the power switch is."
Eggnog said, "I don't think that was covered in our training."
I supposed I shouldn't be surprised. The screaming had indeed been loud (especially my own, until I couldn't breathe anymore), and the tree's voice had been soft—intended only for me, the victim, I thought.
"Did anyone see the fangs or the drool?" I asked, ignoring the way Lopez was looking at me now.
"Fangs?" Candycane shook her head.
"Drool?" The Russian made a face. "Who drooled?"
I felt frustrated, but I knew this happened all the time on Crime and Punishment and The Dirty Thirty. Police and prosecutors on C&P shows were always questioning witnesses who all gave them different accounts of an event, none of which tallied with each other or with the physical evidence.
I looked again at the tree and realized that, trapped as I was by a large branch trying to feed me to that drooling, toothy mouth, I had probably masked the tree's face from view for most people. Add in the screaming, the confusion, and the fear, combined with people getting hit by flailing branches...
Lopez put a hand on my arm. "Esther, you're still shaken up. Maybe you should—"
"Did you notice the odor?" I asked him. "A really foul stench."
He sniffed the air. "There's no odor now. And I think it would be a good idea for you to—"
"Did anyone notice the odor?" I asked my colleagues, raising my voice.
Jingle returned from his errand in time to hear this, and he piped up, "Oh, yeah, that smell. Somebody messed his pants, for sure."
"No, that wasn't the smell," I said. "It was more like..."
"Like what?" Lopez asked.
"I don't know. Indescribable. Like nothing I ever smelled before." And I hoped never to smell anything that revolting again. "There was also sulfur, I thought. Did anyone else smell that?"
Eggnog said, "I thought I smelled something burning, maybe. But I wouldn't say sulfur."
"You probably did smell something burning," Lopez said with a glance at the tree. "It's lucky that thing didn't start an electrical fire."
"No one else smelled anything?" I prodded.
"We were a little preoccupied," Candycane pointed out. "Oh! But now that you mention it, I did smell something foul."
"Yes?" I prodded eagerly.
She nodded. "Like, um... mothballs."
"Mothballs?" I repeated, feeling deflated.
"Mothballs," she said with conviction.
"Oh! I think that was me," said Prancer (or whoever). "My costume I mean." He held out one fuzzy arm for Candycane to sniff.
She did so and made a face. "Oh. It was you."
Oh, well. I sighed in resignation. My friend Max had told me any number of times that when confronted with mystical phenomena, most people interpreted the events in terms that made sense to them—such as a massive mechanical malfunction—and ignored that which they could not make sense of within conventional boundaries. And I had by now seen him proved right quite a few times about that.
"Well, I think we've all learned a valuable lesson here," Jingle reflected.
"Oh? And what would that be?" Eggnog asked.
"Training pays off," said Jingle. "The outcome of this incident might have been very different without our training. And I'm sure Dreidel agrees!" He concluded, "Very glad you’re okay, Dreidel. Now I've got to get back to my station. Those toy army tanks won't just sell themselves, you know!"
As Jingle trotted off, I looked after him in bemusement, unable to see any way in which my elf training had helped me survive this brush with arboreal asphyxiation.
And I knew... I had to talk to Max now.