Many of the contributors to Storytellers Unplugged are using their October slots to post short fiction instead of thoughts on writing. I wanted to do the same, but write very little short fiction, so I didn't have any lying around I could use. Instead, I wrote two new short pieces, both very different in tone and intent, but both horror (only appropriate here in October Country), conceived and written (in first draft) in the same 36 hour period.
One is below. The other will be posted tomorrow at SU, and I'll put a link here when it's up. I hope you enjoy them.
Staking a Claim
Cemeteries, it turned out, were the best places to practice. You could learn your moves, hone your skills, before your opponents had a chance to adjust. They had just scratched their way out of their graves, stiff and unbalanced. Their bodies were still new to them, or new again, like toddlers just figuring out how to walk.
Which, Cassandra found, made them ideal sparring partners. She was still new at this whole deal too. It wasn’t something you could go to school for. You didn’t find a mentor at the local community college. It was a specialized trade, one that was only mastered through lots of trial and hopefully very little error.
How do I get to the graveyard, officer? Practice, girl, practice!
After a couple of nights she had settled an appropriate outfit—black jeans, a ribbed, thick navy turtleneck, a leather jacket zipped up over that. Black Doc Martens. Oh, and a silver crucifix. She didn’t know if it would help, but it couldn’t hurt, and it didn’t weigh much.
Cassandra waited in the dark, leaning against a tombstone on the slope with a good view of the bulk of the cemetery. A cool damp breeze snapped leaves from trees and sent them scuttling across the grass. Hell on her hair, which was tied back in a snug ponytail but still took a beating. Finally, she saw an arm thrust up through the earth.
By the time the guy emerged, dusting himself off and blinking in the moonlight, she was there with a wooden stake in her fist.
She had never seen Buffy, on that TV show, gag at the combined stinks of dead tissue, embalming fluid and freshly churned graveyard dirt. Never catch me making out with one of these bad boys, she thought. In motion, the newly undead guy looked so clumsy Cassandra almost felt bad taking him out. But she was still at trainee status, and needed the workout. She decided to give him a minute to get his bearings, and could almost see the lights coming on in his eyes as he figured out that his status wasn’t as quo as it used to be.
When he showed that he could walk (his gait unsteady, knees locked) she danced around behind him, waving the stake. “Ready to rumble?” she asked. He looked like he’d been in his mid-forties when he died. His hair was short and dark, his skin sallow. Dirt caked beneath his eyes and at the sides of his mouth. He tried to swivel at the waist, to keep an eye on her, but almost lost his balance. He took a couple of steps, caught himself. She danced back the other way. With each passing second his coordination improved. In another few minutes he’d be an actual challenge. She wouldn’t let it go that long.
She wouldn’t even have to do this if it hadn’t been for her grandfather. Besides being a hard gig to train for, it didn’t pay well at all. Sometimes she got a ring off one of them, or on rare occasions, a watch. No one was buried with a wallet full of cash.
Cassandra had put in a dozen years working for her grandfather, knowing that since she was the only living relative, when he finally died she would inherit a bundle. She had earned an MBA, then started at the bottom, as he had, so that she would learn every aspect of the business. As an employer, Granpa Wells was rotten, a slave-driver, demanding excellence but as stingy with praise as he was with salary. She had hated nearly every minute of her employment, looking at it as an investment in her future, when he was gone and she was on easy street.
He had cheated her of that investment. So here she was, battling bloodsuckers in a benighted boneyard.
Finally, the newbie was primed. She feinted toward his heart with the stake. He tried to swat it away, and she blocked his arm with her own, chucked him in the chin with her closed fist, stepped back, spun around, and brought the stake in fast and hard. It penetrated flesh and muscle, shattered bone, found his heart. The guy gave a last, long scream. When she wrenched the stake free his body did what they always did—blew itself out the stake hole, from the inside out, a shower of sparks that guttered and vanished as they cascaded toward the ground, leaving behind only the smell of a dying campfire. She thought maybe they were whisking away into another dimension or something like that, but there wasn’t anyone around who could explain it for sure.
Then Cassandra discovered that she had been playing with this guy when she should have been staying alert. Two more were on the prowl, and they had been out long enough to control their own bodies. They moved like normal people, a little on the sly side, but then they were creeping through a cemetery looking for human blood. They had seen her and hidden behind a couple of tall monuments, and while she watched the newbie burn himself out, they came at her.
Two at once, from different directions. Cassandra allowed herself a flashing grin. This was a first. She lunged toward one, meeting his advance, striking out with the stake. He backed away a couple of steps and she turned to the other, who reached out to grab her with hands already turning clawlike. He got a grip on her leather jacket and threw back his head, baring fangs.
Cassandra slammed the butt end of the stake against the chin, slamming his jaws together. His fangs sliced his lower lip and he gave a weak moan.
“Better see a dentist about that,” she said, remembering that witty chatter seemed to be part of the job description. “Might need a crown.”
Before he could recover from the surprise of the blow, she plunged the stake into his heart. The other reached her just as she yanked it out, and she gave the weapon a twirl, plucked it out of the air with the other hand, and staked him. Two spark-showers lit the night, and Cassandra laughed. “This is almost fun,” she said. “More fun than I ever had working for Granpa Wells, anyway.”
On the way home, she felt good about the night’s work. Three, in the space of a few minutes. And two weren’t fresh ones—not that fresh, anyway. She thought she was getting the hang of the thing.
Time, then, to go after the one she had her sights set on. A person needed to set goals, in life as well as in business. She had one big one, and was just about ready to tackle it.
She could hardly wait. But she had to…at least for a short while.
“Cassandra, hi,” Johnny said. Johnny was her grandfather’s executive assistant, and his desk—bigger than Cassandra’s bed—sat outside the big man’s office. “Sorry, do you have an appointment?”
“I need an appointment to see my own grandfather, Johnny? Since when?”
Johnny offered a nervous smile. He was generally a nervous guy, but anyone sitting so close to Granpa Wells for eight hours a day had a right to be. “Of course not. He’s inside. I’ll just buzz him.”
“That’s okay,” Cassandra said, waving his hand away from the phone. “I’ll let myself in.”
Wells Colton was so rich, Fort Knox came to him for payday bridge loans. So much money, he had often said, could buy anything. Finally he had proved it. His office wasn’t quite the size of a football stadium’s parking lot, but it was nearly as big as the field. His desk, which made Johnny’s look like something from Barbie’s Dream Office, was set about halfway between the door and the floor-to-ceiling windows, shaded now with drawn blinds. He had surrounded himself with beautiful things—fine rugs, paintings by masters of Europe and Asia, ancient and modern sculptures, books bound in rich leathers. It looked more like a museum than someplace to work.
“Granpa Wells,” she said as she entered. “It’s good to see you.”
He rose from behind his desk, putting down a file folder and taking off reading glasses, which he set on top of the folder. “Cassandra, what a lovely surprise.” He studied her as she walked toward him. “You said you were going into an entrepreneurial situation, some sort of start-up. How’s that working out?”
“It’s a living,” Cassandra said. “But I think I’m primed to make a killing.”
“That’s always a good thing,” Granpa Wells said.
“Not for everyone, but it will be for me.” She crossed the huge office. He met her partway, opening his arms for a hug. She had grown up around him; the smell of his cologne and the scratch of his cheek against hers had been two of her girlhood’s most familiar comforts. They still worked today.
“My,” he said as he released her. “You’ve been to the gym. You feel very muscular.”
“I’ve been working out a little,” she admitted. “Anyway, the reason I came….”
“I’ve been wondering.”
She released the catch up her sleeve that let a stake fall into her right hand. She kept it tucked mostly up the sleeve so he couldn’t see it. Not yet. “You cheated me, Granpa Wells. When you were sick, dying…when you should have died, you didn’t.”
He blinked at her, looking confused. “No, I didn’t die. I got better. That’s a problem?”
“The problem is that you didn’t get better. You got bit.”
“Do I have to spell it out? You became a vampire, Granpa Wells. You only saw one way to hang onto your fortune, and that was to live forever.” She let the stake slide out farther. “I waited around a long time for you, but I can’t wait that long.”
“You could, Cassandra.” He opened his mouth, tapped one of his fangs. “I could take care of that.”
“No good,” she said. “I still might not outlast you. Unless—” She moved fast, like the athlete she had been working to become. One second she had the stake firmly in her hand, a buck’s worth of hardwood. The next she had closed the short gap between them and driven it through his two thousand dollar custom-tailored suit.
The look in his eyes as he realized she had beat him? Priceless.
Later, as the campfire smell faded, she sat behind the big desk, flipping through a leather-bound volume from the early 1800s. She had opened the blinds, and the setting sun cast bolts of gold and salmon through the sky outside. Johnny hadn’t known what to say when she buzzed him to ask where her grandfather was. “You said he was inside,” she said, “but when I came in he wasn’t here.”
No corpse, no crime. The courts might move slowly, but the legal documents he had signed, before he’d had the bright idea to find himself a vampire and get himself bitten, would win out.
Cassandra could hang up her stakes, or maybe put them in one of the display cases here in her new office. Working here would be fun, she thought. Now that it was all hers.