The Vampires Among Us by Beth Noland

From femme fatales to the suave seducers, vampires have come to play on our sympathies, invade our everyday lives, and to a certain extent, play some very prominent roles in some pretty risqué fantasies.

Vampires have become prevalent characters in the 21st century, and lately, we can’t seem to get enough of them. They have always haunted the recesses of literature, and although many may think that Stephanie Meyer “brought the vampire,” vampires reigned supreme long before she put pen to paper.

Anne Rice with The Vampire Chronicles, Linda Lael Miller’s The Black Rose Chronicles, and even some young adult authors from the mid-90s such as Christopher Pike (The Last Vampire series) have all written about vampires successfully. But perhaps the most interesting and common thread between these authors is the humanization of the monster. Of course, we have changed as a society and as a people, so it is no wonder that the vampire has changed too, but the vampire has always been a reflection of the fears and values of the times.

Hundreds of years ago, the vampire was a character that permeated folklore. Although significantly more corpse-like in appearance (and let’s face it, far less attractive with those bloated and decaying looks), it was substantially less choosey with its meal, and more monster than human-shrouded-in-darkness. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century when this dark character was given its modern reputation. John William Polidori’s The Vampyre (written in 1819) was the first piece of prose that gave birth to our current (romantic) idea of the vampire. His main character, Lord Ruthven, came away from the graveyard, donned the attire of an aristocrat, and selected his victims from the upper class. This was the first time that the vampire acquired more human characteristics, making him that much more appealing/appalling to the reader, most likely due in part to the fact that he could so easily hide amongst us.

But there were others, and probably the most notable was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. If you were to ask anyone about the earliest vampire work, more often than not, this would be the answer. Bram Stoker created a world that maintained the monster, but was also romantic and seductive. Dracula preyed on the innocent, but despite that, he was still a poignant character that was more than just his blood lust. He was mysterious, lonely, alluring, yet dark, and most importantly human. Human, not in the sense that he was alive (because, as we all know, he was not), but human in our ability to identify with him on a personal level. Sadness, loneliness–we’ve experienced those things.

Subsequently, it is interesting to delve into the gender stereotypes and the limitations these stereotypes placed on women during Victorian era when the book was written. In a time where even piano legs wore coverings, and chasteness was a highly valued female attribute, it isn’t surprising that Dracula would be written to be both titillating and horrifying.

As societal and cultural values evolved, and we became more interested in sexuality and gender roles, evolutionary science and medical advances, the literary vampire began to take on a different tone. Epic stories such as Marilyn Ross’s Barnabas Collins series (1966-71) Ann Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (1976-2014), Linda Lael Miller’s The Black Rose Chronicles (1993-96), or young adult sensation The Last Vampire by Christopher Pike (1994-2013) spanned an enormous swath of time. The vampire became less of a monster. Instead of just “undead,” now we see words like alabaster, smooth, alluring, chiseled, and beautiful describing appearance. Instead of some horrific being that lurks in the dark, they are now able to come out in the day, or even, like Stephanie Meyer’s vampires, sparkle in the sunlight.

The fact that now they are not only beautiful, but carry the wisdom and experience from hundreds of years, it is no wonder why us mere mortals tend to swoon in their presence. But, perhaps the most interesting thing is, we now see vampires that hate what they are. Thrust into being by dire need or force, and with it so many emotional facets that we identify with, there is no way we cannot sympathize or embrace this new kind of vampire.

In a time where face-to-face interactions are no longer the norm, where information is available at our fingertips, it is not surprising that we have turned our foe into a friend. As a society, we have been exposed to so much–things that once scared people, haunted their nightmares, and shook their beliefs are no longer as shocking as they once were. It now takes more to scare us. We see beheadings on TV, unspeakable atrocities on the internet for all to view, and perhaps even scarier is how many seek these things out as mere entertainment. When we are more inclined to watch those who suffer through the lens of a camera phone, than to offer aid or assistance, it begs the question: are we the monsters?

Love Undying by Katharine Kerr

“Okay, O’Grady,” Detective-Lieutenant Sanchez said. “What do you think of this?”

‘This’ was the naked corpse of a girl-child sprawled in a dead-end alley in downtown San Francisco. She lay beside a dumpster overflowing with black plastic garbage bags. Someone had thrown her down on her back, her skinny arms outstretched in the dirt and filth on the concrete. Once she’d had long blonde hair; she still did on one side of her head. On the other, the hair had been cropped off close to the scalp. Her wide-open eyes stared up at the sky. Her swollen lips had parted to reveal that she was missing her two front teeth. Her frail body was white, dead-white, except for the two red punctures on her throat and the dry smears and gobbets of blood down the side of her neck.

“It’s sickening,” I said. “That’s what. Was she sexually assaulted?”

“We don’t know that yet. I’d bet on it, though.” Sanchez shoved his hands into the pockets of his navy blue trousers. “What do you think caused those wounds?”

I played dumb. “An icepick?”

Sanchez glowered at me.

“Out with it,” I said. “Why did you call me into this case?”

“Can’t you guess?”

I knew that he didn’t want to say it aloud. Why waste time playing games? We needed to get this psycho perp off the streets as soon as we could. “Vampires,” I said. “And you think I know something about them.”

He smiled, a tight twitch of his mouth. “Don’t you?”

“A little. They’re mythical, for one thing. Whoever did this must be hoping you’ll go chasing down a totally false trail.”

“I wish I could be sure of that. This is the third case like this on the books in the past three weeks. All children. None older than nine. All of them drained of their blood.”

My stomach twisted in disgust.

“I know it’s crazy, talking about vampires,” Sanchez continued, “but this perp must think he’s one. I don’t know what he’s doing with the blood, but I intend to find out. I was hoping your agency could assist. We need every possible resource to hunt this sick perv down.”

“I’ll have to ask my agency for official clearance, but if I get it, you can count on me. I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”

“Good. Thanks. I realize you have to go through proper channels.”

If you can call my kind of channels ‘proper’, anyway.

My name is Nola O’Grady. I work for a federal agency so secret that not even the CIA knows we exist. If I told you its name, you wouldn’t believe me. Let’s just say that all kinds of extraordinary things, including creatures like vampires, fall under our jurisdiction as we fight against the forces of Chaos. Ordinary citizens may not know it, but such forces exist, and they wage war on civilizations all across the multiverse – including ours.

My partner, Ari Nathan, was standing guard on Mission Street at the alley mouth while we waited with Sanchez for the Forensics team. He turned and called out, “Here they come!”

With the official squad on hand, Ari and I left the crime scene. He’s an Israeli national and an Interpol agent, but he works in a special branch, TWIXT, that handles cases that cross the boundaries between the worlds, or levels as they call them, of the multiverse. As we walked back to the public parking lot at Fifth and Mission, Ari said little at first. He had his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his leather jacket, and the stone-cold rage on his face made the pedestrians we met swing around us in wide arcs.

“What’s wrong?” I said.

“This case, of course.” Since Ari learned his English in London, he sounds British. “When we get the sodding bastard who’s doing this –” He took a deep breath. “If you could see your way clear to letting me have ten minutes alone with him, you can arrest what’s left.”

“I understand the feeling, yeah.”

“You told Sanchez that vampires were mythical. Is that true?”

“Yes and no. There are vampires, yes, but they don’t sleep in coffins and turn into bats. That’s the myth part.”

“Fangs, though?”

“That I don’t know.” The image of the corpse rose in my mind and made me feel like vomiting. “Something bit that poor child’s throat.”

Ari considered this information in silence while we crossed Mission at the intersection with Sixth. “At times I wonder why I took this job.” His eyes drooped in a fit of martyrdom. “I should have been an insurance adjustor. My father was right.”

I drove Ari and me back to the flat we share, way out in the Sunset District of San Francisco. As soon as we got upstairs, I retreated into the bedroom to contact my handler at the Agency. Even though we’ve worked together for years, I know him only as Y. Considering what I was about to discuss with him, I decided that email, even on our doubly secured website, TranceWeb, presented too much of a security risk. I could visualize the headline if the news got out: “Government Agency Investigates Vampires.” Outraged taxpayers would be the least of our troubles.

I lay down on the bed and went into trance, a light state at first to send out the ‘emergency’ signal to my handler. The familiar images built up fast. It seemed like I was sitting on a chair inside a sphere of pale mist. Opposite me in another chair sat Y, a distinguished looking Japanese-American man with streaks of gray in his dark hair.

“I need your permission to assist on a local police case,” I said.

As I related what I knew, I emphasized that the victims were children.

“Of course you have permission,” Y said. “As soon as you get Sanchez’s files on these murders, send me email with details. We have an expert on Pseudonecrotics available for consultation.”

“On what?”

“The undead.”

I broke the trance and called Sanchez to give him the news. In turn, he sent me scans in email of all the material he had on the three child murders. Forensics had confirmed that like the others, the newest victim had been sexually assaulted. A peculiar detail struck me: all three victims had had part of their hair cut off. A seven year old girl, an eight year old boy, and now the eight year old girl we’d seen in the alley had all been reported missing by frantic parents shortly after each disappearance. The police had sent out prompt Amber alerts, but no witnesses had ever come forward. The corpses had turned up three days later in all cases.

“It’s like they disappeared into thin air,” I told Ari.

“More likely underground.” Ari thought for a moment. “Where were they last seen?”

“All three kids lived out in the poorer part of the Ingleside district. Up near City College, y’know? The younger girl disappeared in the zoo. She wandered away from a school trip. The older girl was walking home from school. She lived only two blocks away, and her mother thought it was safe enough. The boy’s a slightly different case. He had a fight with his father and ran out of the house one evening. The dad paused to put on shoes and a jacket, but he followed him right away. Not quite soon enough.”

“I’m glad I’m not that boy’s father.”

“Yeah.” I paused to read more of the scan. “Not a suspect, according to Sanchez.” “No proper leads, I take it.”

“None, except the kids all came from the same neighborhood. The police have doubled their routine patrols out there.”

“Good. They’re sure it’s a man doing this?”

“The evidence makes that clear. It also tells us that the kids were still alive when they were sexually assaulted.”

Ari’s face lost all expression. Since I can read a person’s Subliminal Psychological Profile, I felt his rage: a shower of ice filling the room.

I printed out the scans for Ari to read the details, then turned to the Internet. While I websurfed, Ari turned on the local TV news. Our favorite reporter, Vic Yee, had ferreted out the story and done a feature on public reaction. “Outrage” summed it up. The mayor promised that the police would “keep the heat on.” When I called Sanchez, I found him still at the office.

“I’ve got priority for this case.” Sanchez sounded grimly pleased. “Extra officers, priority at Forensics, anything I want. We’re going to go over the Ingleside district like hunting fleas on a dog, one damn hair at a time.”

“I saw the TV news story earlier. Any tips?”

“The usual flood of them. Jeez, I hope that parents out there are keeping their kids close to home.”

So did I.

Over the next few days, the dragnet tightened. Plainclothes policemen went house to house over in Ingleside. Patrol cars glided through the streets in the entire south-west corner of the city. I ran psychic scans, but they turned up nothing. My lack of success disturbed me for more than the obvious reason. According to the report from the Agency’s Pseudonecrotics expert, a psychotic individual acting out some fantasy from a lurid TV show would have appeared on a scan of the aura field or a general SM:P, that is, a psi search for personnel. A genuine member of the undead would not. When you hover between life and death, you’ve severed your connections with the living while refusing to cross over to join the dead. Very little of you remains visible in either realm, except, of course, the not-quite-a-corpse.

The police failed to find the killer, but they did net a lot of human flotsam and jetsam. They hauled in drug dealers, pimps, petty criminals of all kinds, and now and then, a real catch: a murderer with a warrant out for him, a pair of conmen who didn’t skip town in time, car thieves, and the more brutal type of gang members. Once they thought they’d come close to our perp: a fellow who shot himself rather than come to the door when the police announced their presence. It turned out, though, that he’d been on the run from the FBI for years on terrorism charges, which seemed almost clean compared to the man we wanted.

Civilians took part in the hunt. Neighborhood watches and volunteer posses went on the alert and mounted patrols. The most valuable resource of all, elderly women with time on their hands, kept a lookout from their windows. The reports were sparse and mostly imaginary, formed by movies and TV more than observation – stealthy figures in black cloaks creeping through shadows. Now and then a tip came in about a person who turned yellow and sparkled in sunlight.

“Any self-respecting child would recognize perps like those as vampires right away,” I said. “And run screaming. This guy’s got to be someone who looks friendly or at least no threat.”

Lieutenant Sanchez agreed with me on that. He also told me that the dragnet would be called off in a couple of days.

“If a search like this is going to turn up anything, it usually happens right away,” Sanchez said. “So now, what we’re hoping is he’ll feel safe, like he’s outsmarted us, when we call it off. Eventually he’ll hit the streets again, and we’ll be watching without all this noise.”

“I see, yeah. He must be getting desperate. He needs to feed.”

Sanchez said nothing for so long that I asked him if he was still on the line.

“Sorry.” His voice sounded a little shaky around the edges. “Are you saying that this guy is a real –” He couldn’t quite finish.

“I don’t know.” I chose my words carefully. “But even if he’s just a psycho, he’ll still need to act out his obsession. Really need it. Y’know?”

“Right.” His voice strengthened again. “Too bad about the cloak and the sparkles. They’d make him easy to spot. Oh well, life’s never simple.”

And yet the guy who showed up on my doorstep looked like someone, or something, right out of an old black and white movie. Ari and I had just finished dinner when the doorbell rang. We got up and looked at the laptop we kept near the head of the stairs. The security camera showed a man who appeared elderly and ill.

“Who are you?” Ari said.

Over the tiny speaker, his voice sounded like a scrape of metal on metal. “I have information for the psychic upstairs.”

Maybe I couldn’t find them on the aura field, but one of them had found me.

“Ari,” I said, “let him in.”

Ari drew his Beretta from his shoulder holster – yes, he wore it always, even at home – and went downstairs to street level. When he opened the door, I heard a thin, reedy voice squeal, “Don’t shoot!” and Ari’s answering growl.

I went about two-thirds of the way down the stairs, then paused to gather Qi, a quick tangle of silvery life-force around my left hand. A blast of Qi can overload a person’s mental circuits and stun them. What it would do to a Pseudonecrotic, I didn’t know, but I was willing to bet it would be nothing good.

The man who stepped into the tiny entrance way was dressed normally in black jeans, a maroon turtleneck, a houndstooth sport coat with leather patches at the elbows, but the clothes hung loose on him. He was painfully thin, his face pasty-white, his dark eyes huge and sunk deep under his brow ridges. He had no eyebrows and no hair on the rest of his head, either. When he attempted a smile, I saw pale, puffy gums and a few brown teeth – except for the two shiny-white, abnormally large incisors.

“Implants,” I said. “That explains it.”

“Everyone always wants to know about the fangs.” He tried another smile, but it looked more like a snarl. “Yes, our gums won’t hold onto normal teeth. Might as well buy the best.” His laugh wheezed and whistled in his chest.

“So,” I said, “why are you here?”

“I want the killer caught as badly as you do.” He held up a hand with fingers as thin as twigs. “Let me explain before you throw that stuff at me, will you?”

The ‘stuff’ had to be the swirl of Qi I was holding. Ari cleared his throat and hoisted the Beretta.

“Or that either!” Our visitor took a step back. “Yes, ordinary bullets will dispatch one of us. Forget what you’ve read! A shattered heart or brain will kill anything.”

“Nice to know,” I said. “What do you want in return for the information?”

“Hans Grigory’s death. I want him sent over to the other side as fast as possible, before he harms another child. Yes, I know that sounds unbelievable, just blurted out like this, but we have rules, you know, those of us who are trying to come to terms with our affliction. What he’s done breaks all of them.”

“Affliction?”

“Oh yes, our bargain with the Devil.” He wheezed and gurgled through another laugh. “Does it sound wonderful to you? Near-immortality? Look at me! Is it wonderful?”

“Uh, no, I’d have to say not.”

His lips drew back from his gums. “Yet, of course, one is afraid to take that final step over, to give up life, such as it is. So we creep on in the shadows and try to keep our harms as small as possible. Grigory has gone mad. Too many of us do.”

It sounded plausible, even true – as far as it went.

“What else?” Ari said. “You could kill this fellow on your own. You’ve got another reason for coming forward.”

Again the bloodless grin. “Very insightful, aren’t you? Yes, we could dispose of him, but no one would know we had. We could leave his corpse on the sidewalk in front of a police station with a note, but would they believe it? We need someone like you, the man of law, and your friend the psychic, to validate the death.”

“I get it,” I said. “So the police will close the case and leave the rest of you alone.”

“Very true, my dear lady!” He made me a stiff little bow. “And the police scour has alarmed more than my kind. I am under a certain – um, pressure – from several powerful figures of – um, criminal bent – to put a stop to the hunt.”

“Or they’ll send the rest of you to permanent Dreamland?”

“Just that. Just that.”

When I tried the sort of psychic scan I would have done on a normal person, it failed to deliver more than a faint whisper of information, a small wisp of human feeling drifting inside the mental white noise generated by the undead. Despair, desperation, a profound fear – or was it grief? Hard to decipher, but because of that shred of humanity, I risked trusting him.

“Okay,” I said. “We’ll help, but I warn you, any treachery, and you’re over the great divide and out.”

“I know.” His voice sounded steady, even calm. His gaze, however, flicked to Ari and the Beretta and back to me. “You may call me Joshua.”

Joshua had a beaten-up old car, painted black “of course,” as he said. “I learned to drive nearly a hundred years ago, though this vehicle is a good bit younger than that. I don’t suppose you’d care to be my passengers?”

“Quite right,” Ari said. “We’ll follow you in our car.”

Through a night thick with fog, Ari drove us through the south-western corner of the city to the Ingleside Terrace district. Near its center lies a peculiarly oval set of streets that follow the plan of a long-gone dog racing track. I used the time to phone Lieutenant Sanchez, so when we arrived at our destination, deep in the middle of those oval streets, he knew where to send the squad cars.

“Give us a few minutes before they start the sirens,” I said. “We’re parking by the giant sundial and proceeding on foot. What? Yeah, I know that a sundial’s a weird place to find a vampire. Very funny. Ha ha.”

I clicked off as Joshua got out of his car and ambled toward ours. We joined him on the sidewalk and stood looking around while he caught his wheezy breath. In the yellow glare of the street lamps, the jagged white gnomon of the sundial loomed like some ancient monument in the middle of a tiny circular park. Well-kept middle class houses, mostly stucco with groomed lawns, stood on the street itself. Each had space around it, a rarity in San Francisco.

“I called the police, you know,” Joshua said. “I told them I heard a child screaming in his house. I have no idea if they investigated or not. The officer I spoke to sounded dismissive.”

“They’ve been flooded with tips,” I said. “Did you really hear a child scream?”

“Yes, though not with my physical ears. It must have been that little girl, the last found. His ever-so-respectable neighbors would never have reported him, him and his poor sick wife!”

It was the kind of neighborhood where an elderly gentleman could live without causing any comment or concern, unless of course he let his house get run down and thus threatened the property values. The sound of a child screaming in the night could be explained away, a bird, a TV show, something, anything but an ugly truth.

“Before we go in,” I said, “tell me something. Did he sexually assault those kids to gather Qi?”

“Qi? If you mean life force, yes.” He shuddered in a way that convinced me he was sincere. “Those poor children!”

Joshua led us to a little white house, almost a cottage, set well back from the curve of the street. A couple of trees shrouded the front bay window. More trees and a hedge stood along the dark walk leading along the side to a tiny entrance porch and the front door. As we followed Joshua through the shadows, Ari drew his Beretta. I gathered Qi. Joshua hummed under his breath, a strange sprung-rhythm chant that rose and fell in quarter tones. Although it had no effect on me, it throbbed with psychic power.

As Joshua climbed the two steps up to the front door, it sprang open. He kept humming, but the rhythm changed, grew faster, more urgent as another man shuffled into the doorway. With bent shoulders, almost hunchbacked, and a long neck like a turtle’s that supported his bald head, he glared at the three of us through thin slits of eyes.

“Hungry, Hans?” Joshua said. “You haven’t been able to hunt this week, have you?”

Hans stepped back and tried to swing the door shut. Joshua flung up his hands and shoved him back so hard that he fell. By the time Hans scrambled, swearing, to his feet, we’d followed Joshua inside.

“You’re under arrest,” Ari said. “I’m an officer from Interpol, acting on the authority of the San Francisco Police. The charges against you are –”

Hans screamed and staggered backward into a room just off the entrance way. We followed.

The horror I felt came from the contrast between the crimes and the utter good taste of the room, a rose-pink and white parlor with a love seat, two chairs in matching floral fabric, an Aubusson-like flowered carpet, a white fireplace. On the loveseat sat a woman with skin as wrinkled as crumpled plastic wrap and nearly as transparent, a ghastly grey-tinged white stretched over her skull. She wore a tangled lump of wig, made out of a long hank of blonde hair, woven into clumps of wiry black curls, and a plait of brown hair that twisted around the lump to hold it all in place.

“Oh my god!” I said before I could stop myself. “From the victims!”

She rose tottering to her feet and snatched something from the endtable next to her: a knife, long and stiletto slim.

“You traitor!” Hans launched himself, snarling, at Joshua with fingernails like claws.

Ari fired. Hans staggered back from the impact and clutched his hands over his chest. A liquid welled from between his fingers, a thin pink dribble. He looked up, surprised, and shook his head once. His knees collapsed, and he pitched forward and fell.

The woman screamed and lunged at us. Before Ari could shoot, I hurled the glistening silver ball of Qi straight at her head. It struck her full in the face and shattered. With a flash of silver light, the Qi spread over her like a veil. As the energy soaked into her flesh, we saw for a few moments how beautiful she must have been when she was young, her lips suddenly full and moist, her blue eyes glowing, her perfect cheekbones just touched with color. Then she staggered and began to drool, to gabble out words that made no sense. The illusion vanished. An old woman looked at us with eyes suffused with blood and tried to raise both hands. Her right hand lifted, but the left hung limp at her side. The knife slipped from her fingers and dropped among the woven flowers.

“For me,” she spat out at last. “He did it for me.”

She took one step and collapsed over her lover’s corpse.

That’s when I heard the police sirens, coming closer and closer through the quiet, cold streets.

#

Lieutenant Sanchez called me the day after the incident to wrap up a few details.

“I found the officer who shelved that old boy’s tip,” Sanchez said. “Good luck on him getting a promotion any time soon! It’s a damn good thing the informant knew you.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Sure is. What’s the medical report on the woman?”

“Massive stroke, just like you thought.”

“It seemed like a logical guess, yeah.” Logical enough – the influx of Qi had broken the fragile blood vessels in her brain, or so the Agency expert on Pseudonecrotics figured.

“No loss to the world, that pair,” Sanchez continued. “Anyway, tell your friend Joshua that there’s reward money, but he needs to come forward and give us some real ID.”

“Oh, he knows. He doesn’t want the money. Give it to charity, he says. He’d like it to go to the local blood bank.”

“I’ll see if we can do that, sure.” Sanchez sounded a little puzzled. “Kind of an odd choice.”

“No. If you knew him, it’d make perfect sense.”

Dead Records Part 2 by Steven Savile and Ryan Reid

Part 1: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/03/dead-records-part-i-by-steven-savile-and-ryan-reid

I awoke some time later in incomplete darkness.

I was in the Jag’s trunk. I could hear the engine, once a proud roar, now more of a reluctant rumble, thanks to my misadventure behind the wheel. I’d obviously done enough damage when I’d hit the Passat to crumple the bodywork, because light filtered in through small cracks in the side of the trunk.

I tested my jaw with my fingertips. It didn’t feel shattered which, considering how hard I’d been hit, was a miracle of biblical proportions. There was, however, a sizable goose egg growing on the back of my head from where it had hit the headrest after the blow. I’m surprised the impact didn’t deploy the airbag.

I wasn’t tied up and did my best to stretch in the cramped quarters.

That probably meant the man in black didn’t think I represented much of a threat.

He was obviously a smart monster.

I did my best to be grateful to be alive. It was 99.9% certain that my assailant was the same guy who’d aced the Fortunate Fridays on Whack-a-Band Wednesday, so he obviously didn’t care about the whole ethics of mass murder or anything so… polite. Which meant this was a retrieval mission. Though why anyone was retrieving me didn’t bear thinking about. The only man I could think of who was powerful enough to pull it off was Yevgeny Dolgov. Sure, I mean, there was a good chance he was a bit miffed with me trying to skip the country, but if his hired help had killed my band, that meant he was the reason I was fleeing. It was all a bit… bad manners?

I mean, he’d just killed my only chance of paying him back.

That’s hardly good business.

I decided then and there that I really didn’t want to know who it was. Here’s a little secret for you, should you ever find yourself locked up in the trunk of a car against your will: every car built after November of 1998 has to have an internal trunk release, to prevent adventurous children and kidnappees like myself from suffocating inside them. All I had to do was wait for the vehicle to stop at a red light and make a break for it. If I got lucky and bounded out of the trunk in a populated area, I might not even have to worry about a foot chase. I found a bright orange handle in a compartment on the side of the trunk that was covered by a plastic fascia.

The next few minutes seemed like an eternity.

The car made a repetitive thumping noise as it drove over various irregularities in the road and seemed to maintain a consistent speed. We went over a set of railway tracks without even slowing and I was nearly bounced into the lid. A long stretch passed where the only sound I heard might have been the horn of a faraway tractor-trailer. It could have been the mating call of some lonely forest dweller, too.

Finally, the car began to slow. After a few sharp turns, it stopped.

I yanked on the trunk release, and when it wouldn’t open quickly enough, shoved the lid of the trunk up with my shoulder. I felt a sharp cramp in my leg as I stood and my foot caught on the lip of the trunk. Instead of gracefully leaping out of the car, I hit the pavement hard, cheek first.

I wasn’t at a red light.

I was in the parking lot of some kind of industrial complex on the outskirts of London. A sign on the three-story stucco building at the center of the lot read “Fast Chem” in large, well-lit letters. A happy little drop of blood, complete with sunglasses, danced alongside it. Its ecstatic expression and huggable arms made me hate it instantly. There were no convenient pedestrians around to save my arse from the beating of a lifetime, either.

A pair of wingtips approached. I felt a hand on my collar, and I was hauled to my feet and then shoved toward a back entrance to the building. I was shoved inside, then kept on being shoved all the way to a cargo elevator. It was a long way down to the level marked “sub” several times in a row before the word “basement”. You and me, we can just skip the formalities and call it hell. Not capital “H” Hell, small “h” hell.

We were separated from what looked like a cleanroom by a large Plexiglas wall. Inside I could see men and women in coveralls, expertly manipulating equipment I might better have been able to describe had my attempt at Pre-Med not gradually turned into a Bachelor of Arts and worked its way down to a diploma as my grades continued to fall one toke, one swig, and one shag at a time.

The man in black knocked on the glass, catching the attention of one of the technicians who, in turn, motioned to a third man that had been observing the proceedings. He came over to the door and stood in what was basically an airlock, like something out of Star Trek, which sprayed down his clean suit with chemicals before admitting him into our room.

When he took off his mask I saw that I had previously guessed right. It was Yevgeny Dolgov.

I took absolutely no pleasure in being right.

Some might have called him a short man, but I prefer to describe him as “compact”. It’s less likely to get me killed, for a start. His head was a tad too big for his body, a fact made more obvious by the fact it was absolutely hairless. We’re talking Playboy-model-pudenda hairless. He was pale, like a nightclub DJ, but polite. You know, that special kind of politeness only a complete psychopath can manage.

“Marcus Reardon! Mr. Dead Records himself! I understand that you were a bit reluctant to come see me today. I’m hurt,” he said, his accent slurring together his words.

“Reluctant? No. Not at all. You know me, Yevgeny, I’ve always got time for my favorite shady underworld godfather. It’s just that I have a very early flight to catch.”

“I hear Ghana can be quite nice at this time of year.”

I nodded mentally. My travel agent was a sonofabitch. “There’s a man in Accra who sings just like Gaga. I thought, you know, teach him to play the electric guitar, and we could have the next big thing on our hands, right?”

Dolgov pulled off his gloves and shrugged his cleanroom suit into the hands of an assistant. He wore an expensive Italian suit underneath, grey with a sky-blue shirt and tie. “We won’t be needing you for a while, Dimitri,” he said to the man in black. He adjusted his tie and indicated that I should walk beside him. Who was I to say no?

“It is a shame about what happened to the Fortunate Fridays,” he said. “It appears they were not that fortunate after all.” He laughed a weird hissing laugh, and I think he expected me to laugh along with him, but I saw nothing funny about their deaths.

“Yeah. Did you know that Edgar Morton, the rhythm guitarist, had just had a child?”

“It will be taken care of,” he said, waving the problem away.

He was like that, any problem could be paid for until it went away.

Elevator doors slid open in front of us and we descended to another “sub”. This one was decorated luxuriously with black leather and white walls. A painting that might have been titled ‘two black cubes fucking on a white sheet’ hung behind a large couch. Two black leather chairs were set perpendicular to the couch, all aimed at a plain white wall. On our way to the couch, we crossed over a glass porthole, flush to the floor, which looked like it opened into a circular staircase lined with wine bottles. There wasn’t a spot of color anywhere, and the compact fluorescents overhead made the contrast even starker. I wondered idly how often Dolgov needed to shampoo his carpets to keep them so immaculate. Even the wine was white.

He picked up a remote control from a glass coffee table, collapsed into a leather recliner, and invited me to do the same. “I understand how tempting this prospect of yours in Ghana must be, especially as things with your current band didn’t work out, but what would you say if I asked you to set aside all that and take a look at another singer?”

There I was expecting him to gut me with a fishhook, and he wanted me to check out some talent? As long as they weren’t a school of fish at the bottom of the Thames, what did I have to lose? Still, it was all a peculiar dance, since Dolgov knew I was making up the part about the singer in Accra. I really had no choice but to do whatever he asked. I had no way of paying him back, and he’d made it clear that running was not an option. “I don’t know, man, I don’t know… Gaga’s hot again. I mean, who doesn’t love a tinfoil-clad freak getting her groove on? It’s very retro. But I might be persuaded, if the singer is talented enough.”

“I think you’ll be impressed.” He tapped a few buttons on his remote and I was startled to see a vertical black line appear on the previously white wall. It grew as the wall retracted into two panels, revealing one of the most impressive entertainment centers I have ever laid eyes on. Two giant speakers stood on either side of a TV the size of my Jetta, and receivers and amps were perfectly arranged in the shelves behind them. There were no wires visible, so either they were expertly set into the wall, or the whole thing was wireless. Several of the system’s components lit up and, as a song began to play, I realized that we must have been surrounded by more hidden speakers. The sound appeared to come from all directions at once, and yet it was so well calibrated to our positions in the room that it was totally immersive.

The song itself was a staticky, unproduced mess. All synthesizers and jangly guitar. But it had a catchy beat. The singer was female and sounded young, but there was something about her I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I felt her voice grab me deep in the pit of my stomach and not let go until she’d finished her piece.

“I’ll take her on,” I said, a little too eagerly.

Dolgov’s eyes lit up. “I’m surprised you didn’t recognize the song, Mr. Reardon.” He tapped another button and the screen flared to life. A heartbreakingly beautiful girl, not more than twenty, blonde hair/blue eyes, the lot, sang into a microphone with the kind of bop reserved exclusively for smarmy pop singers. It was the same song, but so heavily produced as to be almost unrecognizable. The girl, on the other hand, was instantly recognizable. It was Martine, our generation’s answer to Madonna. A pop sensation who could fill a stadium and the front page of a tabloid magazine on the same day. But why would Dolgov play a Martine demo song for me? Surely, she had the money to hire an army of producers who were far more successful than I am.

“Why do I get the feeling this isn’t going to be quite as much a no-brainer as it appears to be?”

Dolgov nodded. “I’m going to show you a few more charts and let you come to your own conclusions.” He thumbed another button and Martine was replaced by a chart that had a few bumps in it with one huge spike near its center. I squinted to read the text accompanying the chart. Interesting. Martine was popular with women up to their thirties, but the bulk of her audience were mainly fourteen to eighteen year olds. However that huge spike consisted of boys on the verge of puberty. Not the traditional demographic, especially for female pop singers. Who am I kidding, she was hot, and pre-pubescent boys are always willing to risk one eye in the name of research.

Dolgov flipped another button on his remote.

The chart was replaced by what could only be dental x-rays that had been crudely photocopied. Handwritten notes in ink on the top right corner indicated several points on the jaw where massive reconstructive work had been done. I was no dentist, but it looked like maybe she’d had her jaw broken, or massive tooth decay. I supposed it made sense that someone who wrote sugary pop songs would have a sweet tooth.

Another button press.

I was looking at a song sheet. Reading music is an entry-level skill in my profession, so I had no problems recognizing that this was the sheet music for the song Martine had sung in the previous video. Except the lyrics here were different. Instead of “capturing the heart of her love”, her first draft had been about eating it.

It wasn’t exactly teen heartthrob stuff… or maybe it was, in a more literal sense.

Suddenly everything clicked into place. “She’s not human, is she?”

“Very perceptive, Mr. Reardon, she is not. Neither is Dimitri, as you probably noticed, but while Dimitri is merely a vampire, Martine is something greater. I believe you’d call her a succubus.”

I didn’t know much Greek mythology, but I’d dabbled in a little light bondage, nothing too kinky, no pain, no blood. Well, not mine anyway. “Sex demon.”

Dolgov smiled. I’m sure the gesture was genuine. It was the kind of smile a shark gave a minnow right before opening its mouth. “Crude, but I suppose that describes her adequately. My point is that Martine has taken a few very deliberate actions to transform herself from something repulsive to a star. But she is merely, as you say, a ‘sex demon’. What if we were to take her model and apply it to a creature who can actually sing? Whose magic itself is bound up in her voice?”

He tapped another button.

The face on the screen was in close up. She was pretty, but in an odd, alien way. Her eyes were sea green, but they were set too far apart. Her neck was inhumanly long, and I thought I could see thin scars on either side of it that reminded me of gills. Taken together she was eye-catching, but I didn’t know if it was because of her beauty or her flaws.

“Well, she’s certainly got a distinctive look,” I said doubtfully. “Can she sing?”

“Of course I can sing,” said the image on the tele. I managed not to jump, but I felt my cheeks go red. I hadn’t realized she could see and hear us.

“She’s a siren, Mr. Reardon. In the days before geosynchronous satellites and GPS on every phone, she might have lured sailors to their deaths with her songs. Two days ago, she expressed an interest in entering the music business and wondered if I could help her, in exchange for performing a few services for me. I told her I knew the right man for the job.”

I hid a sneer. ‘A few services’. Dolgov was trying to set his girlfriend up with a music career. “I’m kind of busy right now,” I said.

“Really?” He raised an eyebrow. “I thought that I’d cleared your schedule. Do I need to clear it further?”

There wasn’t a hint of danger in his voice, and it didn’t even look like he was paying attention to me.

“I’m a hard worker, Mr. Reardon,” said the girl on the tele. “And I can sing. Would you like a demonstration?”

I sighed, defeated. “There’s no need, is there? It looks like you’re my client whether I like it or not.”

Wildalone, by Krassi Zourkova. Reviewed by Stephanie Burgis

Wildalone: A Novel (Wildalone Sagas)
Wildalone, by Krassi Zourkova. Reviewed by Stephanie Burgis. Hardcover (ISBN 0062328026) William Morrow, January 6 2015 – 384 pages. Ebook also available.

Krassi Zourkova’s Wildalone mixes the Bulgarian legend of the samodivi (dangerous, magical women who lure men to their doom, linked to the Greek maenads) with an unusual retelling of the Orpheus myth, set on the campus of Princeton University. Eighteen-year-old heroine Thea Slavin isn’t looking for magic when she travels from Bulgaria to the United States for her freshman year of college. An award-winning pianist, she is supported by a music scholarship and welcomed by the music department with delight, but she hasn’t chosen Princeton for the sake of her musical career. Instead, she’s secretly hoping to discover the truth behind her older sister’s death, which occurred under mysterious circumstances at Princeton fifteen years earlier.

Rational Thea, who only learned of her sister’s existence shortly before her arrival, expects to investigate an ordinary, cold-case murder. However, her sister Elza was passionately obsessed by the folklore of the samodivi and the rites of Dionysus. Following in Elza’s footsteps, Thea soon discovers a dark, magic-infused world hidden within the Ivy League and a pair of mysterious brothers who know more about Elza than she realizes.

Zourkova herself attended Princeton, and the college setting is rich and immersive. Reading about Thea’s life in the dorms, as she is swept into a Princeton-specific whirl of scheduled social events (many of them infused with class issues and old money), is utterly fascinating. The culture clash that Thea faces, as an international student thrown into a new world full of hierarchies she doesn’t understand, is compelling and real, and Thea’s musical life is beautifully described. Throughout the novel, Zourkova uses rich, sensuous language that could be taken by readers as either intoxicating or suffocating, depending on personal preference…but it works perfectly for Thea’s musical obsessions.

The best part of the book, however, is definitely the fantastical element. The mixture of dangerous samodivi and wild Dionysian rites works perfectly in the dark shadows of the Princeton social world as described by Zourkova, and there’s a Gothic, brooding tone to the novel that makes the magic feel very real as Thea is drawn deeper and deeper into the mysteries. Zourkova’s Princeton is a wonderful setting for ancient spirits and forbidden rites.

The only aspect that may not work as well for readers is Thea’s love life, which soon becomes the main focus of the novel. Shortly after her arrival at Princeton, she decides, after two brief sightings, that she has met the love of her life. Afterwards, she thinks that she has met him again, so she allows herself to be swept into a relationship that doesn’t feel as good as she’d expected it to. The explanation swiftly comes when she realizes she’s accidentally started dating the wrong brother, not the man she loves…and from then on, her decision-making becomes increasingly difficult to understand.

Throughout this book, I personally struggled with the question of how much it was fair to blame Zourkova for Thea’s emotional passivity, as she silently yearns for one man, Jake, while continuing to date his arrogant and controlling older brother, Rhys. It would be easier to empathize, as a reader, if she were also attracted to Rhys, or if Rhys were equally compelling in a different way–but she frequently dislikes Rhys’s actions and understands very quickly that she made a mistake in beginning to date him. So, as a reader, I was left baffled by the fact that she never once even considers the idea of breaking up with Rhys (although she often fantasizes about Jake stepping in and “claiming her” from his brother, and worries that Jake is a wimp for not doing so).

The situation (conveyed in emotionally intense first-person narration) is particularly frustrating to follow because Rhys is repugnant in so many ways. At one point he comes close to raping Thea and is only finally persuaded to listen to her refusals when she reveals that she is a virgin…thus giving a reasonable “excuse” to be allowed to refuse sex. Throughout the relationship, he gives off strong warning signals of being a classic abuser, and Thea is warned off him by her friends. However, even as she sighs over his brother, she accepts every new stage Rhys demands in their intense relationship, including hot make-out scenes in front of Jake. Her internal angst over the situation never results in a single positive step on her own behalf.

Of course, college is a particularly fraught time for many young women as they try to figure out what romance really means. Looking back on my own freshman year in college convinced me that it would be unfair to blame Zourkova for the fact that Thea, an eighteen-year-old girl in a foreign country, doesn’t have the confidence to stand up for herself. It would be even more unfair to blame Thea for not possessing a more mature understanding of relationships. Therefore, it can’t be considered implausible that Thea doesn’t take any action based on her emotional needs, even though her extreme passivity does make her a difficult heroine to follow. Still, the mythological aspects of the plot are so intriguing, they outweighed my issues with Thea’s emotional arc for most of the novel.

However, as the book continues, Thea’s emotions begin to veer wildly, without any apparent reason except to move the romantic plot forward. She repeatedly makes statements about her own emotions and desires that left me blinking in confusion as I tried to figure out exactly where those massive emotional shifts had come from. The end of the novel–which sets up a potential sequel–relies on a final series of emotional flip-flops on her part that felt so irrational and unexplained that they left me utterly mystified…and with a depressing feeling that I had lost all faith in the coherence of the story.

The fantasy elements of Wildalone are rich and original, and its setting is compelling. However, the emotional arc of the heroine is so unconvincing that I won’t personally be looking for the sequel.

Waking Up Naked in Strange Places by Julie McGalliard Reviewed By Kristin Luna

Waking Up Naked in Strange Places by Julie McGalliard

Reviewed by Kristin Luna

Hardcover, ISBN: 978-1-5056-6559-8

Per Aspera Press, April 2, 2015 – 256 pages. Available in hardcover and e-book.

When you’re living in a teen novel, everything is bad. Alcohol? Bad. Mean girls at school? Bad. Cults? Bad. Being a werewolf without even knowing it? Bad, bad, bad.

The Book

Self-Abnegation, a  small, red-headed girl, has always lived at New Harmony, a cult in Louisiana. Subjected to regular beatings, solitary confinement, and having her head shaved, at 15, Abnegation decides it’s time to leave.

Abnegation catches a ride with a tattooed, pregnant woman in her twenties named Steph Marchande. Steph gives Abnegation a new name, Abby, and takes her in as an adopted sister, and they travel to Seattle to start a new life. Abby goes to an all-girls school called Saint Sebastian, the same school Steph went to as a girl. She doesn’t have many friends until she punches a guy for touching her boob. Defending herself gives her wicked street cred (as it should). At the same time, Abby finds that, when provoked, she abruptly loses time. When she wakes, she finds herself . . . well, naked and in strange places. As she learns more about herself and the wolf inside of her, Abby also learns that anyone she bites (while she’s in wolf form) becomes just like her.

In order to protect Steph and her new baby, Terry, Abby flees Seattle and returns to the one place she fears, New Harmony, in order to learn the truth and expose the cult for what it is.

McGalliard’s prose are tight and precise, and Abby’s narration reads like a diary. Although the title hints at humor, Waking Up Naked in Strange Places is a teen drama at its core, reminiscent of Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia.

The Author

This is Julie MacGalliard’s first book, although her short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies. She lives in Seattle with her husband and works as a web developer for Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

The Rating

As with all art, there’s a large degree of subjectivity in determining if it’s “good,” or “not good.” The best I can do is provide my thoughts and opinions, and rate this book on an arbitrary scale of candies, the best being cinnamon bears, the worst being candy corn wrapped in circus peanuts. I give Waking Up Naked in Strange Places Necco Wafers. I can understand how some people like Necco Wafers, as they give the sugar rush they promise. Similarly, there were sections in Waking Up Naked in Strange Places that felt a bit like a ride on a wooden roller coaster — a few bumps and whip-lashing transitions, but MacGalliard ultimately delivers on her promise: instead of focusing on the werewolf aspect, McGalliard focuses on Abby’s teenage angst and drama. And for some readers, that’s about as addicting as eating an entire package of Necco Wafers.

The final third of Waking Up Naked in Strange Places is an excellent example of what McGalliard is capable of, and I hope that McGalliard’s next book takes every opportunity to hook its claws into her readers right away.

Interesting fact: Abby is a vegetarian.

Interesting quote: “The flames begin to lick at my sister’s flesh, bringing forth a roasting meat smell that nearly makes me hungry. No, that’s wrong. It makes me feel sick.”

The Wild Swan by Anne Bean

I wish I could remember what it was like before I lost my left arm. Lost is a funny word—it’s not like I misplaced it or anything. It just changed after the swan incident. I have a wing now. Large, white, feathers. When I extend it fully, which takes some pretty serious strain on the lats and pecs to do for more than a few seconds, it reaches nearly six feet from my left shoulder. Folded, it curls around my left side and across my back, with the primary feathers tickling my calves. The top of the wing still sticks out about a foot, even when I have it folded as tightly as possible. Have you tried walking down Broadway with a wing? It ain’t pretty.

At least Frank’s into the wing. He keeps one of my feathers (large, white, soft) on his desk at work. At night, he’ll lay in bed with me, sheltered between my wing and my body, head laid on my chest. The best place in the world, he calls it.

My mother, when she’s had enough cocktails, cries and calls me “my angel Michael,” which you would think means she’s aware that I have a huge damn wing. Usually she, and all six of my big brothers, pretend not to notice it, which is of course the opposite of not making a big deal about it. My brothers seem to forever be throwing pool parties or black tie dinners with narrow seating arrangements, like they can never let me forget that I am different. That I do not fit. I want to scream at them, “Can’t you remember when you had wings?” But we do not talk about the swan incident. Ever. Instead I sit next to my sister, in mutual silence, and she cuts my steak while I fidget with my altered tuxedo—the feathers near my shoulder get caught at the shortened sleeve and pinch. This is family, I suppose.

*

On Tuesday, an invitation comes in the mail. I tear it open with my teeth. It is for my youngest brother Thomas’ wedding. It will be in winter. They will rent out the ice rink in Central Park, the one that’s a pond for toy sailboats in summer. They will be married while skating. His fiancée, Tamsin, is a ballerina—a tiny woman who’s always looked like more of a girl to me, a rotating figure on top of a music box, with about as much personality.

I call up my sister on the computer—her face appears in a window on the screen.

“So did you get this yet?” I wave the invite.

She nods, looks down and off to one side.

“Did Thomas talk to you about being in the wedding party yet?”

She shakes her head.

“Do you think he will?”

She shrugs. She looks distracted. Even by my sister’s standards, she’s not doing too well.

“I think I’ll put Frank in a tux and me in a hot pink sequined tutu, just to piss everyone off.”

She smiles a little, but doesn’t look me in the eye.

“You and I must be the only ones who haven’t had Mother lecture us on our sovereign duty to give her grandbabies. Like adoption hasn’t occurred to her! Who says I don’t want a child?”

Ellie curls her lip in contempt.

“Well, here’s to another round of being the family pariahs! You and me against the world, am I right?”

Ellie looks right at my face. There’s a fierce energy I don’t recognize, and for a second it looks like she’s about to say something. But then she sort of collapses in on herself: shoulders bowed, head down. My sister, I realize, is weeping silently.

“Shit, Ellie. Want me to come over?”

She moves her head in what might have been a nod, without looking up.

“Don’t go anywhere on me. I’ll be right there.”

*

Let me tell you about my family. Seven boys, including me, and one girl. My mother, long since widowed. I never knew my father, although some of the older ones remember him clearly. I’m the youngest boy. My sister, Ellie, the youngest altogether. Ellie doesn’t talk. Like ever. She can, she just doesn’t. I wish I could remember what her voice sounds like, but I haven’t heard it since she was a kid. She’ll be twenty-seven come September and has not, to the best of my knowledge, been on a date in her life. The lack of speaking is probably a major part of that, although I wonder if she’d have sought out anyone’s company, even if she did speak. I wondered for years if she was lesbian, but she won’t tell me and crosses her arms when I broach the subject.

My oldest brother, Jeremy, is the one who mostly throws the dinner parties and black tie affairs. He made it big on Wall Street before the stocks crashed in ’08, and weathered the recession well, a fact which he loves to flaunt whenever possible. I almost joined Occupy just to spite him, but my rehearsal schedule didn’t allow. I act. The wing does set me apart. It also lends itself to limited roles: I’ve been in Angels in America seven damn times, Godspell twice, and once in a particularly experimental production of Death of a Salesman.  Even though I’m a solid decade too young for Willy Lohman, they thought my wing was a great metaphor. Of what, I am not sure.

Jacob, my second brother, is a corporate lawyer. Richard, my third brother, is on the fast track at an ad agency. Apparently I missed the family memo of “get the scummiest job possible.” John, my fourth brother, is a stay-at-home dad who does contract financial work and takes care of the kids while his wife CFOs some agency or other. He’s the one Mother talks about when she wants to seem inclusive of “alternative family structures.” She never talks about me and Frank. Lionel, brother number five, does HR for Saks Fifth Avenue. Thomas, the one with the impending wedding and the only one yet unmarried aside from me and Ellie, is a middle manager. An actual middle manager. I cannot make this shit up.

What gets me is how they walk through life with their heads down, not just failing to notice Ellie’s depression, but how they ignore me. It’s the wing, but it’s also the boyfriend. They’d never admit it, of course. And Lord knows Jeremy likes to trot out how big-hearted he is from having a gay brother at a fundraiser or the opening of some new foundation every few years. He doesn’t call me so often as he uses our association to make himself look good. He invites me to his charity auctions and shit, but being on the mailing list of a thousand is not the same as having a brother.

I wish they remembered what it was like, before. When we were young. When we were swans. What it felt like to fly, really fly, not just knock myself on my can ‘cause I was drunk and flapping my wing seemed like a good idea. We were happy, the seven of us, when we were swans together. We were all beautiful—my brothers didn’t look at me like the odd one out. There was just the lake and us and Ellie.

*

I hop the 6 train up to Ellie’s apartment in the part of the Upper East Side that’s practically the Bronx. She lives alone, and I know she makes a decent salary doing textile design, but she still feels compelled to live in this monastic bullshit studio apartment with austere furnishings: her bed, her loom and spinning wheel, her laptop on the counter to the kitchenette. That’s it. Her building smells like sewer, even inside; I don’t see how she stands it.

I get off the train at 125th. Walking up from the squealing, sweating subway tunnel does nothing to help with the heat—a rush of air, thick with the scent of rotting garbage, pushes me up to street level. I pause for a moment, senses overwhelmed, then walk quickly the few blocks north to Ellie’s place. Her street is covered in scaffolding and construction workers shouting back and forth. I have no idea how she can get work done in her apartment, much less stand to live there.

Sometimes Manhattan construction gets to me. The Village is so protected, with more trees. Here, a fucking concrete sauna. Sometimes I wish I could just fly over it all, see one more time what a sparkling jewel Manhattan really is from the air. I wonder if my brothers remember that, at least. How beautiful the city looked, from up high.

Ellie answers the door without looking at me, just leaves the door open and walks away. I slip off my sandals and venture into her living room. Like most New York living rooms, it’s windowless; this apartment was obviously a large studio that got turned into a small one-bedroom with cunning use of a paper-thin wall that makes the living room and her bedroom just a little too small.

“Jeez, Ellie, can I turn on a light or two?” I ask. The door to her bedroom is closed, and her living room is a dark cave. She shrugs, so I flip on a lamp. She squints at the light. Along the wall by the bedroom is her loom—a big floor loom that weaves tapestry about five feet wide. It’s half full of weaving, something textured in a flat earth tone. It almost looks like—

“Show me your hands,” I demand, sudden anger flaring. My sister shrinks away from me. I walk to the loom, run my hand over the roughest brown fiber. It’s more abrasive than hemp, almost too rough to touch. I smell my fingertips. Sure enough. Nettle.

My shoulders slump. “Still with the nettle? For the love of—Ellie, why?”

Ellie shrinks farther away from me, glaring at the floor in front of her, hands behind her back.

“Girl, why do you torture yourself? None of this is your fault. Never was. You did what you thought was best and saved our sorry asses, much as I seem to be the only one who remembers it worth a damn. I could slap Jeremy for the number of times he takes you and me for granted.”

Ellie is keeping her distance from me, but her lip is starting to tremble. I step back and open my arm and my wing, inviting a hug. After a long moment, she steps into my embrace, fighting back tears.

“You can cry all over me, kiddo, you know that.” I wrap my wing around her back. “Get snot all over this shirt; it’s not Armani or anything. You can soak it for all I care.”

My sister is rocked by a sob. She presses her face into my shirt, which is getting a good damp patch going. I pet her head, like I am calming a distressed animal. After a while, her breath returns to a slow, steady pace, and I find myself staring at her nettle weaving.

“I still have it, you know,” I say. “The shirt. The one you made me.”

She pulls back, startled. “Y-you do?”

The words are out before either of us can process what has happened. Ellie and I stare at each other wide-eyed for a moment, then she claps her hands over her mouth, eyes wide with horror.

“Ellie?” I ask, not trusting my own senses.

She shakes her head violently, eyes brimming with tears.

“Oh, come on. You already saved us. It’s not like you continuing the vow is gonna bring me, like, more back. I’m as back as I’m gonna get! Why can’t you accept that?”

My sister wipes her eyes with the back of her hand, then says softly and clearly, “You don’t know what I’m doing.”

It’s stupid. Somehow I’m surprised at this woman’s voice issuing from my sister’s lips. What was I expecting, a little girl’s voice?

“Okay,” I say, my own voice softening, “What are you doing?”

Ellie doesn’t answer; instead she sits in front of her big loom. She runs the shuttle back and forth a couple of times: clack, clack. The piece on the loom actually looks like it has sleeves, but it’s longer than a shirt. I’m not sure what it is. But why would she be making a nettle shirt, if not to try and fix me?

No matter how stubborn she is, I need some further explanation. I perch on a stool by the little breakfast bar between the kitchen and the living room and fold my wing behind me, cross my arms. Ellie keeps weaving. Clack, clack.

“What kind of woman turns her boys into swans?” she asks, pausing the movement of the shuttle back and forth.

I sigh. “I stopped trying to figure out Mother a long time ago.”

Ellie stands and walks to me. She reaches out, hesitates, then strokes my wing. “I never told you why you have this.”

I open my mouth to reply, but she holds up an index finger and I shut up.

“I had seven years,” she says. “I made six and a half shirts.”

She pauses and I fight the urge to interrupt. I’m not used to being the silent one, but who knows? She might never speak again.

Ellie continues, “It was two years in and I was about to start the third shirt. Mother was being insufferable, and I thought how unfair it would be to make you boys come back to her, to the woman who cursed you. So I stopped. I didn’t collect nettle that spring, and I didn’t spin or weave for six months.”

She strokes one of my feathers. I wait for the count of five, but she remains quiet.

“What made you change your mind?” I ask.

“Realized it wasn’t my call. If I made you stay swans I was no better than Mother. I’ve cleared up a lot of stuff in my head since then. About staying and escaping.”

She turns and sits back at her loom. Clack. Clack.

“Well, I think I’ve done a good enough job escaping or whatever,” I say after a pause.

My sister shoots me a cryptic look, then returns to her weaving.

“It’s good to hear your voice, Ellie. You should talk more.”

Ellie stands. She pads over to the apartment door, and opens it. Then she returns to her weaving without looking at me.

The brush-off stings. “Fine, whatever. I can take a hint.” I walk to the door. “I’ll see you at the wedding.”

*

The fall passes. I have to start wearing heavy coats again, which is not the best for the wing. I either end up crushing the wing under a too-large jacket or wear my expensively tailored peacoat that has a hole for the wing in the back. I hate how much I have to spend on tailoring. But the cold’s coming whether or not I want it to. I let days slip by. I audition. I’m cast in another damn Ionesco play. Every night Frank curls up in the shelter of my wing.

“You sure you want to come to the wedding with me?” I ask him.

He nods. “Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t miss that kind of drama for the world.”

“Wanna take bets on if he asks me to be in the wedding party?”

Frank considers. “Not if, I think. When. I put twenty bucks on a month out.”

I sigh. “You’re right. That’s exactly what he’ll do. God. Sometimes I wish I just didn’t talk to my family.”

Frank turns away from me and sighs. “Not all it’s cracked up to be.”

“Sorry. That was an asshole thing to say.” Frank has devout Baptist parents and a sister somewhere in Ohio, none of whom speak to him.

I curl around him as closely as he’ll let me.

*

Frank’s right on: Three and a half weeks before the wedding, Thomas calls me in a tizzy, begs me to be in the wedding party, apologizes for being last minute. He wants Ellie there, too, of course. As always, I am Ellie’s unofficial spokesperson, and he trusts that I will tell her for him. It’s more humility than I expected from him, so I accept gracefully. I slip twenty dollars in Frank’s back pocket.

Three weeks later, after seemingly endless tux fittings and dress fittings, we are all lined up: all eight of us kids plus five wives and a fiancée. There will be seven attendants each for the bride and groom. We are gathered at the Central Park ice rink, which they have reserved for the damn wedding rehearsal—Lord knows how much that cost, never mind the actual wedding. We’ve all got our skates on and our formalwear and it’s about twenty-five degrees. Good thing the women’s outfits involve big ugly white fur coats, or else someone was going to die of hypothermia before the end of rehearsal. Tamsin, the dancer, the bride, is wearing a three-quarter length flowing red rehearsal gown—she has a white one for the wedding, but she bought into that groom-shall-not-see-bride-in-wedding-dress-early crap. The only part of her actual wedding outfit that she’s rehearsing in is her real white fox-fur stole. Wasn’t the Arctic Fox endangered?

“Ellie,” I hiss and jab my sister’s mass hunched under her fur coat. “Look! There’s an actual head on her stole. It’s macabre.”

Ellie raises her head to look. Her lips tighten ever so slightly, like she’s trying to hold back a smile. As far as I know, she hasn’t spoken since the summer, and I don’t feel like pushing the issue.

“Places, everyone!” The wedding planner clomps onto the ice in her fashionable coat and figure skates that she looks unused to wearing. She is a fat, blonde woman in her forties—she looks like Cinderella might after three kids and a sedentary castle lifestyle.

Obediently, the bride, groom, attendants, Mother, Tamsin’s father and step-mother, and priest skate out toward the center of the ice rink. There’s a crash as one of the bridesmaids—the only one other than Ellie who was obviously not a ballerina, skates over someone’s trailing scarf and slams onto the ice. The ballerina bridesmaids flock around her at once, lifting her up and cooing over her injuries. Her knee is bleeding; she holds her dress up out of the way.

“Don’t get blood on your outfit, Angie!” shouts Tamsin from across the rink.

I skate past and slip Angie a tissue from my suit pocket.

“Thanks,” she says in a low voice.

After dabbing blood and arguing for a few minutes, everyone gets sorted into their places. The seven groomsmen line up stiffly on one side of the rink—Thomas’ best friend from undergrad plus his six brothers. Across from us, the seven bridesmaids line up like an opposing hockey team—Angie, five indistinguishable ballerinas, and Ellie. Angie and Ellie stand at the end of the line, looking out-of-place and defeated.

The wedding planner skates slowly out in front of the group, holding a clipboard. She scrutinizes us and takes a few notes. “Don’t you all look gorgeous,” she says breathily. “Now, I’m just going to move a few of you around.”

She starts to skate forward, comes to a tottering halt, and points at one of the ballerinas with her pen.

“Genevieve, I’ll just have you—”

“I’m Natalie,” interrupts the ballerina. She indicates the bridesmaid next to her, who is also a tall, disturbingly thin blonde with high cheekbones. “That’s Genevieve.”

“Oh yes, of course, what I was going to ask was for you two to switch, so that Natalie is next to the Maid of Honor. Yes, there. Now the line of the composition is smoother.”

I tried to catch Ellie’s eye—we were both at the end of our respective lines—but she was tuned out, staring at the ice in front of her.

“Now…um, Michael.”

I look up. The wedding planner has me in the crosshairs of her pointing pen. “I’d like to have you and Lionel switch places.”

“He’s taller,” I point out. “I’m just thinking of the line of the composition.”

“Let’s just try it, shall we?” the wedding planner says with a tight smile.

“All right,” I say with an equally fake smile. I see what’s going on. The bride’s party is on the right. The groom’s party is on the left. Currently, my wing is the front-most item in the spectacle. I skate around Lionel, who steps sideways to the spot on the ice where I had been.

And then, right before we settle in like good little toy soldiers, I stretch, both my right arm raised to the stent it can be in the stiff tuxedo jacket and my wing, extended out to its full six feet behind the standing group of men. My wing is surprisingly quiet, like an owl’s, so Lionel doesn’t even notice. The wedding planner’s eyes bug out, though. I can see my mother pointedly ignoring me from the watching crowd; she’s scowling, eyes fixed on the wedding planner. About half the bridesmaids notice and are staring. I don’t dare to glance back at Thomas.

“Uh… let’s move on,” the wedding planner says a little too quickly. “So once we have our places after the procession, Father Nathanial will say a few words…”

*

Thomas corners me in the lounge of the hotel, where we’d ventured after the rehearsal for a warm-up drink. The whole group, well over thirty people, has taken over the lounge. The wedding planner is holed up with Tamsin’s father, probably talking money. Mother is off somewhere having a headache. Tamsin is holding court, surrounded by the fluttering ballerinas. I am sitting with Angie and Ellie at the bar, sipping a hot toddy, when Thomas grabs my arm and pulls me aside.

“I don’t want you to pull any of that shit at the actual wedding,” he hisses.

“What?” I say with big doe-eyes. “This?”

I start to raise my wing; Thomas’ jaw tightens and he reaches out, physically pushing my wing back towards my body. I relax my muscles and give him my most derisive look.

“Really?” I say. “Are you that ashamed to have me as a brother?”

“I’m not ashamed of you,” Thomas says. “I just want this wedding to be perfect. Not…weird. It’s for Tamsin.”

“So I’m weird and imperfect, then? Why invite me at all?”

“Look,” says Thomas, “it took a lot of bargaining to get you and Ellie even included in the wedding party. I want you two there, you know that. This is a big deal.”

I can feel the blood rushing to my face. “So having Frank come to the rehearsal, was that an item of bargaining, too? Which is weirder for dear Tamsin, your gay brother, or your deformed brother? Can you only pick one to showcase?”

At this point, I’ve gotten loud, and people are noticing. Tamsin is glaring daggers of ice in our direction, but I’d die of shock if she ever directly confronted us. Most people are sort of staring openmouthed, seeing what theatrics I’ll pull this time, drama queen me. I’m tempted to play into it more, but Ellie stands up from where she’s been sitting watching and walks over to us. She says nothing, just stands in between us and throws an arm around first my shoulder, then Thomas’. She squeezes us both in a one-armed hug. Her fingers stroke my wing, smoothing the feathers.

“Oh, honey,” I say. “Always the peacemaker.” I kiss the top of Ellie’s head.

“Can we just hold it together until the wedding?” asks Thomas in a small, defeated voice. “Just until the wedding’s done.”

“I’m not gonna ruin your special day, Thomas, darling,” I say in my best exasperated drag queen voice. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head.”

*

The day of the wedding creeps up on me, and before I know it I’m line up behind John, standing with my wing feathers fluffed up to keep warm. Swans don’t hang around New York in the winter for a reason.

A crowd of people is assembled on the ice rink in Central Park, lined up on skates in rows, with a few chairs for leering great aunts and the like. Mostly everyone is standing, waiting, little puffs of steam issuing from their mouths. I can barely see Frank’s face, off to one side in the crowd. I wish he were next to me.

String music begins playing, piped in live from the reception area, because even Tamsin’s iron will can’t make bows function properly below freezing. The processional begins: the priest, smiling, waits at the end of the aisle as each pair of skaters glide up the ice. Ellie and Lionel are first, then Angie the not-ballerina and me. My wing is facing her, and she swallows nervously as we being our trek up the ice.

“You think you’re gonna biff it, just grab on the wing, honey. I can take it,” I tell her out of the corner of my mouth. She smiles one of those wish you weren’t gay smiles and we part at the front of the aisle. The whole thing is playing out like ballet—silent prescribed movement. The rest of the siblings. Our mother. Tamsin’s father and step-mother. I find myself imagining how many divorces and remarriages I’ll have to endure from everyone in this line. How many time I’ll be standing tuxedoed while Frank is over somewhere in the crowd. I look over at him, and we lock eyes. He looks sad. We make fun of shit like this all the time, but I’d bet he’s thinking what I’m thinking right now: If we got married, who would come? Who would be there for us?

Finally, in skates Tamsin’s father, with Tamsin on his arm. She glides in like some kind of exotic bird, her dress perfectly billowing out behind her. She looks like something out of Swan Lake, which strikes me as a tad ironic considering. Thomas, waiting next to the priest, looks teary-eyed—more genuine emotion than I’ve seen from him in a long time.

They join hands next to the priest. Tamsin looks like she’s in character: the perfect loving bride. The priest goes into some monologue with Bible passages; I’m not sure if he’s marrying them to each other or to Jesus. Mother is bawling, in the rare display of human emotion she reserves for weddings and funerals. Frank and I smile wistfully at each other from across the rink.

My focus snaps back to the priest as he says, “If anyone knows a reason why these two should not be joined in holy matrimony, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

There is a little moment of indrawn breath, and I swear my brothers are all looking at me, just a glance, to see if I’ll do anything dramatic. But I don’t. And in the silence, a dry, wrecked, rasping sound breaks through the cold air. Everyone looks around, trying to figure out where it’s coming from. Thomas looks panicked; Tamsin looks pissed.

The sound continues, and I realize that it’s actually raspy laughter, and that it’s actually Ellie who is laughing, laughing for the first time in years.

“Do you have something to say, my child?” the priest asks, after most heads have turned in Ellie’s direction.

She clears her throat and takes a tottering step forward on her skates, my sister. Standing up straight, she seems taller than I remember her being. She turns to our brother. “I hope, Thomas, that she’s an escape, not a prison. I wanted to say that. Before I go.”

Tamsin crosses her arms and looks at Thomas. Whatever she sees in his face makes her turn back to Ellie. Ellie is regarding her family, lined up before her.

“This was the pond, you know,” she says. “Where I brought the boys back. So I thought it was appropriate.”

My gut clenches: I’d forgotten that it happened here.

“It was killing me, forever holding my peace,” Ellie says, more to herself than anyone else.

Our mother lets out a strangled cry and jerks forward, but Ellie holds up a hand with such firm authority that it’s like a slap. Mother freezes like an ice sculpture.

Ellie turns and looks at me, and for a moment I see my sister like I remember her from before, smiling back at me through the years. She waves a little goodbye and skates into the middle of the aisle.

With a girlish laugh, my sister lets her white fur coat fall to the ice behind her, exposing her pale shoulders to the winter air. She reaches to her side and unzips the dress, too, letting it pool around her ankles. Underneath, she is wearing a drab brown slip of woven nettle. I realize with a twist in my gut that it was she had been working on in the apartment that day. She bends forward gracefully, and with a single pull she takes the slip off and instead of my naked sister there is a clatter, a pair of empty skates, and a swan, beak black, eyes gold, wings as white as snow. Wings that match my own. With an enormous flap, the swan is flying, up away, higher and higher above Manhattan. I raise my wing in a salute as she flies into the southern sky.

Mother swoons in a half-faint onto Tamsin’s father, but no one’s really paying attention. We’re all watching the sky. I finally lower my wing when the speck that was the swan disappears.

Eyes start to filter back up to Tamsin and Thomas. Tamsin has finally broken character and is staring into middle distance, shocked, unsure. I can’t see Thomas’ face, but his knees buckle and he kneels heavily on the ice. No one is moving to help him, not Jeremy, not Tamsin, not even the priest.

“Really?” I cry out, and skate up to Thomas, offer him my hand. He pulls himself up; he’s shaking. I enfold him in a full wing-plus-arm hug.

“I want you to understand,” he whispers fiercely into my ear. “I remember. Why do you think I chose this place? Why do you think I’m marrying her?”

“What?” I back off and look into my brother’s eyes.

“She’s the closest I can get to flying again,” he says, just loud enough for me to hear.

*

Where does it end?

Tamsin and Thomas do end up getting married, after a serious huddle with the priest and a round of emergency hot toddies. We have the reception. Frank and I dance, and for the first time, I don’t give a shit about kissing him in front of my mother.

*

Where does it end?

I have a ring in my pocket. When I ask him, I’m going to suggest that we elope.

*

Where does it end?

I scan the skies every spring, looking for swans.

Welcome to the April 2015 Issue of Urban Fantasy Magazine

We have another great issue in store for you this month and, as usual, you can pay what you want to read it. Alternatively, please consider subscribing and helping to support us in bringing you fine Urban Fantasy from some of the biggest names in the industry. If you’re reading this on your Kindle or Kobo, you’re already a subscriber and have our heartfelt gratitude.

This month, we have brand new fiction from accomplished fantasy author Katharine Kerr, who is most famous for writing the Deverry Cycle. “Love Undying” is a powerful and gritty short story about the hunt to find vampires who feed on the most vulnerable prey of all.

For our second story, Anne Bean writes “The Wild Swan”, a compelling and unique story about a family wedding where the participants were once swans who now wear human form.

Near the end of the month we’ll have part 2 of Dead Records by Steven Savile and Ryan Reid. Marcus Reardon awakens in the trunk of a car that isn’t his and meets his future client–a woman with entirely too many teeth.

We also have new non-fiction from Beth Noland and book reviews of Wildalone by Krassi Zourkova and Waking Up Naked in Strange Places by Julie McGalliard.

Since we opened the Forums of our website, our monthly Urban Fantasy Book Club, hosted by Melissa Bleier, has been growing at a great clip. Consider dropping by and discussing some of your favorite books.

As usual, if you have any questions, concerns, or suggestions please feel free to drop us a line on our Contact page.

Please enjoy the issue!