Merry Christmas readers! It’s Christmas Eve here, which is the traditional time in my family to start opening gifts from friends and family. So, as some of you already know, I thought this year I’d give you all a gift in the form of a Christmas story.
A Jacob Rocke Christmas story. That’s right: set in the Unusuals Universe.
Is it weird? Of course it is. And it’s also a bit rough about the edges (it hasn’t seen any formal editing yet, but give me a break, I only finished it Friday). But hey, it’s a free Jacob Rocke story, and that’s a pretty sweet.
Later this’ll make it to More Unusual Events, but for now? Merry Christmas, guys. Enjoy.
The Last Call of Christmas Eve
For most people, sitting in your car alone on Christmas Eve with nothing to do and no place to go would definitely be a low point.
For me though? Business as usual, just like any other day. Well, I thought as another titanic snowflake settled on the windshield of my car, melting slowly before being swept away by another back-and-forth whip of my wipers. Almost like any other. Normally I moved my business south for the winter, away from the cold and snow. Sure, occasionally I’d get the odd job that brought me up where the snows were thick, but most of the time, the particular sort of work I did took me down where the air was temperate and warm, even in the dead of winter. Places like Florida, or Texas. Where the “dead of winter” could, and usually did, take on an entirely different meaning.
Still, I couldn’t always count on pure chance to bring me south, and an assortment of odd jobs over the last month had seen me making my way further and further north. Not that there was anything wrong with that; if there had been a serious problem, I could always turn around and head off in the direction of whatever trouble had started. And in the meantime, there seemed to be a fair number of jobs around. Not all unusual, but enough for me to not have to worry about running dry anytime soon.
Like the one that had brought me to Weyton, Wyoming in the first place. An older woman had contacted me—or rather, the world in general, posting her job online. I’d just happened to be the one to scoop it up. In any case, she’d been fairly certain that her apartment had become haunted by the ghost of a recently deceased pet.
Pretty low-key, really, but she was convinced all the same it was an issue, and she’d offered a good amount for the job. Lacking any other pressing engagements, I’d taken it.
In the end, let’s just say she’d overpaid me. Her apartment had been completely normal. Nothing out of the ordinary. No ghosts of any kind, from specter to banshee.
Her neighbor’s plumbing, however, was pretty backed up, and the source of the odd noises she’d been hearing. A word to her landlord, and with the reassurance that no, the ghost of the family dog wasn’t about to make an appearance in some sort of “Ghost of Christmas Present” fashion, and I’d politely collected my pay and made my exit.
With absolutely nothing else to occupy my time. I sat in the front seat of my battered but serviceable Subaru, watching as more snowflakes drifted down across the windshield, only to slowly melt under the warmth of the car’s heaters or be swept away by the occasional flick of the wipers. Through the glass and snow, I could easily make out the front door of the apartment complex the woman lived in. It was just starting to get dark, streetlight snapping to life here and there, though with how far north I was, that didn’t mean it was quite evening yet. More just late afternoon.
Well … Now what? I frowned as I glanced down at my phone. The screen was up, showing the latest balance in my account, my worried client’s payment having gone through. I’d come out, started my car to warm up, checked the balance as her check cleared and …
That was it. The phone’s screen went dark as I hit the lock button, only to light up once more as I leaned over and plugged it in to the small charger sitting atop the pile of junk in the passenger seat. I played with it for a moment, making sure it wasn’t going to slide off the small pile of notes and old casefiles before setting my hands on the wheel and staring out the windshield once more.
Now what? I hadn’t figured the job was going to take that long, but it had gone by even quicker than I’d expected, and now I was at a loss for what to do. The usual? Hotel room, or maybe an bed and breakfast? Kind of hard to get the latter this close to Christmas though.
The former then. I reached down to put my car in drive, only to freeze as my phone rang. The collection of tones and beeps that made up the ring was one I only used for a single number, and I recognized it instantly. I didn’t hear from it often, but when I did …
The phone was at my cheek in an instant, jangling tones ceasing as I accepted the call. “Hello? This is Rocke.”
“Jacob Rocke?” The voice at the other end of the line didn’t sound familiar. Or better yet, urgent. I let my free hand relax, loosening my grip on the steering wheel.
“Yes,” I said when the man on the other end didn’t speak further. “This is he.”
“Currently in Weyton, Wyoming?”
“Yeah.” I sat up. There was only one reason for them to have checked my location. A job. An official one. “What do you have?”
“Well, nothing too big,” the individual on the other end of the line said. “Let me introduce myself. I’m Alexi Ven. I work for the NSAU.”
“Yeah, I gathered that from the caller ID,” I said, slouching back slightly. Whoever had called me, they weren’t used to making these kind of calls. Not with as unfamiliar as they were acting. Christmas help, maybe. Even employees of the NSAU had to take a break sometime. Some employees, anyway. National security doesn’t go on hold just because of a holiday, sadly.
“Right,” Ven said, his voice coming out quickly. “Well, we’ve got a small situation—nothing serious, at least not yet or that we know of—and you’re the closest, uh, investigator that we have.”
Translation: Something was up, and important enough for the NSAU to want an actual spook taking a look, but not quite important enough to sound any sort of alarm. “Talk to me,” I said, pinning my phone against my shoulder and grabbing a notepad from the pile in the passenger seat just in case I needed to take notes. “Whattaya got?”
“Like I said,” the voice on the other end of the phone said. “It might be nothing. I would understand if you were busy or in the middle of something. After all, it is Christmas Eve.”
“No,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I’m not busy. Just got done with a ghost hunt.”
“Oh! Did you, um …?”
“There was no ghost,” I said quickly. And therefore, no paperwork. “Just some bad pipes and an overactive imagination. A good job for a plumber, but not for me.” Ven laughed, the tone putting it somewhere between actual amusement, and a hesitation that said they were unsure about that amusement.
Either way, if they had a job for me, I’d take it. “So run it by me,” I said, flicking my pen against the pad. “What’s the job.”
“Are you familiar with Rock Hill? It’s a town not too far from Weyton.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head slightly. “But I can drive.”
“Yes, yes.” I could almost see Ven nodding his head as he spoke. “Well, this one’s a bit out-of-the-ordinary—“
I bit my tongue at that. Metaphorically, anyway. What wasn’t out of the “ordinary” coming from the NSAU? It was right in the name: National Security Administration, Unusual Department. Everything to do with unusuals, from street magic to dragons, was their purview.
“—but the individual who called it in was very insistent.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, trying not to sound impatient. “So what’s the job?”
“Well, it’s a parole violation.”
That took me back slightly. Not my usual line of work. “What kind of parole violation?”
“A vampire gone missing,” Ven said. My eyebrows went up. My eye-rolling at Ven’s earlier comments had been way off-base. “We got the call an hour ago. One Josefina Demara.” I guessed at the spelling as I wrote the name down. “Born 1889.”
I let out a whistle. “Centurion.”
“A young one, yes. From Mexico.”
“When was she turned?”
“Ah … 1916.”
I racked my brains. “During World War One?”
“Something to do with it I believe, yes. She was one of the earlier vampires to come forward and register with the US government during the sixties; has a pretty good record.”
“Why the parole? And the call?”
“Something to do with a manslaughter case,” Ven said. “Demara was found innocent, but was put on a restraining watch anyway. Has to call in every twenty-four hours to a local member of law enforcement and stay within the town limits unless otherwise authorized.”
“And she’s skipped town?” It almost wasn’t a question, but I wanted to make sure.
“That’s what the officer told me, yes,” Ven replied.
“How long ago?”
“She called us only—“
I cut him off. “No, how long ago were they put on parole?”
“Oh … I, uh, don’t know. It should be in her file tho—”
“Send it.” I wrote down Demara’s name as well as the dates I’d been given. Mostly just to cement them in my head. “What are we looking at?”
“Well, the officer, a Lieutenant Kravets—that’s with a ‘K,’ not a ‘C’—“ I hastily scrawled across the name I’d just copied down. “—called us about thirty minutes ago saying that they’d left town and were a dangerous threat to anyone. A mass-murderer in the making.”
“Any actual evidence of that?”
“We’ve got no alerts out on her, other than the manslaughter thing. We’ll leave that up to you, of course.”
I nodded. Bad blood maybe, in either sense of the word, hers or hers. “So … track her down, then? See why she skipped town?”
“Yes. Not sure what the payment will be, as it’s an odd combination of—“
“Don’t worry about it. We can figure it out after I have a better idea of what’s going on. Anything else you can give me? An address, anything like that?”
“I’ll send you her whole file,” Ven said. “Thank you again for agreeing to this on such short notice. I know it’s Christmas Eve, but—“
“Not a problem.” There was a beep from my phone, and I pulled it away, checking the icon. An e-mail. In my secure box, not my personal one. Demara’s file. “Got the file. Got a number I can report in to?”
I wrote the number down, told Ven I’d call him as soon as I had something, wished him a merry Christmas, and hung up.
* * *
Rock Hills hadn’t been far at all, even with the snow on the roads. A quick check of my phone had showed it to be the next town over, a distance of only about fifteen to twenty minutes by car, but rather than get underway immediately, I’d taken the time to read through Demara’s file first so I could think about it on the way over.
There wasn’t too much past what Ven had already told me. Born in 1889. Bitten and turned in 1916, during the first World War, though that hadn’t actually been the cause. I’d gotten my years right, but not my wars—Mexico had stayed out of the worldwide war in favor of an internal one, a civil war that had seen them fighting one another for control of the country. And, during that chaos, opportunistic unusuals had taken advantage of things. Or at least, that was what I guessed from the file. Demara had been bitten near the end of the fighting, caught unawares—or so the file said—while at work and woken up a few days later craving blood.
There wasn’t much to the record after that. She’d immigrated to the US several years later, in the wake of the Spanish Flu, which had apparently wiped out her entire family. The US being more friendly to unusuals than most places—though that was giving the word “friendly” a real stretch—and had mostly settled into a basic sort of life. Or “unlife” as some might have called it. The term wasn’t really accurate either way, since vampires were definitely more alive than liches, ghosts, and other forms of undead, but they definitely weren’t regular “alive” folks, either.
The file had been pretty light on details until the sixties. Granted, after the unusual community had finally gone public, there were a lot of reasons and agreements not to dig too deeply into someone’s past in exchange for letting bygones be bygones, so it wasn’t anything to be too concerned with. Just a few scattered addresses and a note that she might have fallen in with the ghouls, a “family” of unusuals involved with minor organized crime, but nothing noteworthy or worth questioning her over.
Post-sixties, her file had mentioned a bit more, details and notes that were interesting. Though it hadn’t expounded on any of it, Josefina Demara had been one of the Volunteers, a collective of scattered unusuals who had let themselves be studied by the US government to help deepen mankind’s understanding of what they were and how they worked. Which, given what little everyone knew and understood at the time had mostly amounted to being poked and prodded while asked questions like “Did this hurt?” followed by lots of concerned humming and writing notes on clipboards. According to rumor, concern about the lack of expertise in the process had been what had spurned the current head of the NSAU to get involved in government in the first place.
A lone truck passed me going the opposite direction, not bothering to turn their brights off as snow swirled around them. I blinked, clearing the streaks from my vision as the road wound around another bend. A glance at my GPS showed that I wasn’t far away, and if I lowered my head slightly, I could see a glow against the clouds that showed I was nearing my destination.
After her release from the Volunteer program, Demara had moved around a bit more, her file naturally getting a bit thicker as time went on. The moving probably had something to do with the fact that she’d lost her job as a nurse after revealing herself to be a vampire. The accustations of a few hospitals against her that she’s been been stealing blood—unproven—probably could account for some of the other details on record, such as how she’d been one of the first unusuals to register with the government. The whole registration process was still a contentious point for a lot of people, I knew, but Demara had dove right into it, likely to “prove” to prospective employers that she could still be trusted.
Either way, judging from the string of rapid moves across the US, it hadn’t worked for a while, though eventually she’d settled into a long-term job at a hospital before quitting and moving to Rock Hill in the mid-nineties. Where she’d stayed until the present day.
Until now, I thought, easing off the gas as I spotted a sharp turn ahead. And her restraining watch.
As Ven had promised, the entire incident had been outlined in the report, from start to finish. The short of it was that Demara had been drinking at a nearby bar when a group of rowdy locals had started making trouble. At least, that was what her account said. According to the prosecuting attorney, she’d begun making disparaging remarks about how thirsty she was, and the crowd had “felt threatened.” Demara, naturally, had said she was minding her own business until they started harassing her. The situation had escalated into a physical altercation, again both parties claiming that the other had started it, and from there, a local had died, Demara’s blow to their chest shattering their ribs and stopping their heart cold.
Granted, from the report, who had been at fault had been pretty clear. Surveillance footage from the bar clearly showed the Demara had been sitting alone with a drink—not blood—when the local party had approached her. And she’d tried to leave when they’d blocked her path and started getting aggressive. The blow that had killed one had been reactionary to them already moving to attack her, several armed with improvised weapons.
Somehow, it hadn’t surprised me to find that a local trial had found her guilty. Only an appeal to a higher court had found her innocent, though with a probationary clause that she be placed under a restrictive watch for several years. Leiutenant Kravets, the officer in charge of her watch and the one who’d called the NSAU to report her disappearance, had been one of the witnesses at her trial, I’d noticed. For the prosecution, not defense. And been quite vocal about her belief that Demara was guilty.
Small towns, I thought. The same thing that makes them great can make them a real problem. Especially if I could see lights from Rock Hill in the distance now, shining through the early snow. There were more homes and houses around me too, growing more frequent with each passing mile and decked out in colorful arrangements of Christmas lights.
I was close enough, now. It was time to give Lieutenant Kravets a call and see what I could learn. I slowed my car down to almost a crawl, punching in the number that had come with the file and listening as the ring filled the cabin of my car.
Someone picked up halfway through the second ring. “Lieutenant Kravets here.” Her voice was flat but quick, like there was someplace she had to be, and answering my call was something she was squeezing in despite barely having the time.
I could work with that.
“Lieutenant Kravets,” I said, taking my time and speaking clearly. “This is Jacob Rocke, NSAU Freelance Investigator. I understand—“ I didn’t get any further.
“Oh, thank goodness you called.” The urgent tone was even more apparent now. “I tried to explain how serious this was to whoever answered my call, but they clearly weren’t taking it seriously at all.”
That got me to roll my eyes. The NSAU took every call seriously. Some of the folks I’d met in their call department were the most serious individuals I’d ever met. Where magic is concerned, the government doesn’t mess around.
“I can assure you the NSAU does take things seriously, lieutenant,” I replied, guiding my car around another bend. “That’s why I’m calling you.”
“Well good.” Clipped and curt. “This needs to be taken care of, and quickly. Will the NSAU be sending someone, or …?” There was an eager cadence to the way she spoke that set off warning bells in my head. “I have officers at the ready, and can have a warrant from the judge in minutes.”
I’ll bet. Is that a warrant for an arrest? Or for forming a lynch mob? I flexed my hands along the steering wheel before replying. “Thankfully lieutenant, that won’t be necessary. I happened to be in Weyton this evening, and I’m already on my way to Rock Hill. You can let your folks go home and celebrate Christmas Even, or go back to patrolling or whatever duty you were pulling them from. The NSAU will handle it from here.” I normally wasn’t quite so overt or name-droppy about my capacities as a spook, but something told me that in this case it would be a good idea.
“But …” The hesitation in Kravet’s voice hinted that my suspicions had been correct. She’d been hoping the NSAU would have gotten back to her with the news that there wasn’t anyone in their employ nearby and to take care of things themselves. Which, I was inclined to believe, would have led to there being one less vampire come Christmas morning.
Kravet’s hesitation didn’t last long, however. “Mr. Rocke, while we’d be grateful to have the NSAU’s assistance with this matter, I must insist that I and the officers under my command be allowed to assist you. This is a rogue vampire, Mr. Rocke, and while you may not be familiar with what they’re capable of—“
That got a rise from me. “I am more than familiar with rogue vampires, lieutenant. I’ve dealt with a fair number in my time, have you?” The question came out with more bite than I intended, but part of me didn’t mind. I took a quick breath. “I’m an NSAU investigator, lieutenant. I’m well-versed and experienced in dealing with all manner of unusuals. Vampires included.” I was nearing the town itself, now, rows of homes and businesses coming into detail. “Let your officers enjoy Christmas Eve. I can handle one vampire.” Though I doubted my version of handle would be similar to theirs. Even if Kravets’ suspicions were spot-on, which I had my doubts about.
Kravets took a moment before replying, no doubt trying to compose themselves and find a way around the hard barrier I’d just dropped in their path. “Mr. Rocke, while I appreciate your willingness to throw yourself in harm’s way, my men and I took an oath to protect this town. The vampire Demara is our responsibility.”
No, she’s not. And that was the catch. Legal matters where unusuals were concerned were always a bit of a murky area, mostly based on who could respond considering the severity of the crime. Had Demara already killed someone, no one would bat an eye if local law enforcement had put her down for good considering her watch status. But simply missing? They were required to contact the NSAU, the government agency responsible for such a thing and give them the option of jurisdiction first.
And we’d taken it. “Miss Demara is an unusual, lieutenant. Registered, no less. And therefore she is under the jurisdiction of the NSAU. As an NSAU investigator, that makes her my responsibility.”
“Then I insist that I—and perhaps a few of my men—be allowed to escort you.” She wasn’t giving up. I smiled, putting as pleasant a tone in my voice as I could.
“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary,” I replied. “If I need help, you’ll be the first person I call—“ After all other options are gone. “—but it likely won’t come to that. Now,” I said, trying to shift the conversation over to something that was more on track. As a bonus, it would only look like I was trying to be as helpful as possible. “You’ve been Demara’s court-appointed watcher. When did you notice that they were missing?”
“Mr. Rocke—can I call you Jacob?” Kravets’ tone had changed, shifting into something that was slightly more sweet. “I don’t think you understand what you’re turning down here. I know this town. If your investigation needed a warrant, say to search Demara’s domicile, or even the address, I could—“
“Lieutenant,” I said, cutting her off and not answering her question. The answer was no anyway. “I have Demara’s address on NSAU file. A file that’s quite lengthy and detailed, from her early life to the specifics of the trial that ended with her restricted watch. And her current address. I have everything I need.” I didn’t mention that the NSAU had a dedicated federal judge on call all hours of the day, in addition to a lot of “freedoms” such as warrantless search. Not freedoms I agreed with all the time, but they did sometimes make the job a lot easier.
“Don’t worry,” I continued. “You’ve done your part in contacting the NSAU. We’ll take things from here. If we do have need of you, we have your number on file.”
“But—?” They weren’t giving up. “What am I supposed to tell my officers? The public? The mayor? That it’s Christmas Eve and there’s a dangerous vampire on the loose?”
“If she’s dangerous, why didn’t you tell us that?” I asked. “I thought she was missing.”
“I … well …” I had her there. “She is missing. She failed to make her call from her home’s landline at the appointed time.”
“How do you know she’s gone and not just out enjoying Christmas Eve?”
“Because she was trying to leave town the other day.”
“Really?” I pulled my car over, parallel parking near what I guessed was the local post office. “And you know this how?”
“I have to approve all out-of-town travel. It’s part of my court-appointed duty.”
And I’ll bet you’re very good at that. I had to say, what I’d learned of Kravets so far didn’t impress me. “What did she want to leave town for?”
“She wouldn’t say.”
I frowned. That was interesting, and the first bit of news I’d had from Kravets that put Demara in a bad light. “She wouldn’t say? Or it just wasn’t important?”
“She refused to tell me, even when I ordered her to.”
“Has she ever asked your approval for travel before?”
“Twice. Once denied, once approved. The denial was because it was for nothing important.”
“And the approval?”
“Some examination at a hospital in Cheyanne. I don’t know what for, but I was told it had to be approved.”
“So you denied her approval for travel, reasons for said travel unstated, and now she’s gone?”
“Yes. Maybe she’s left town, maybe she’s plotting revenge. I don’t know. One of my officers told me they saw her making a large number of purchases in stores over the last few days.”
“It is Christmas Eve,” I countered. “What about the date?”
“The day,” I said, holding back a sigh of annoyance. “What were the days she wanted to travel for?”
“I don’t remember,” Kravets said quickly. Very quickly.
“Could Christmas have had something to do with it?”
I got a cold laugh in response. “Christmas? For a bloodsucker? Who’s she going to see? Her family died centuries ago.”
Usually I can tell when I’ve gotten all the useful information out of someone I’m going to get, but in Kravets’ case it was pretty obvious. “Right,” I said, keeping my voice neutral. “Well, thank you for your time. We’ll let you know what we find.”
“But Jacob, at least come speak with me in per—“
I hung up, no longer interested in dealing with her. If she called back, I wasn’t going to answer. I knew what would happen next. She’d insist on meeting with me in person, probably for one of three reasons, the least harmful of which would be to sway me to her side of things that Demara was already guilty of something.
Which, technically, she was, but it sounded as though the lieutenant hadn’t helped. Her dodge concerning what days Demara had requested to be out of town gave that away.
But then Demara had left anyway. But she hadn’t bothered calling anyone in the NSAU, or even higher up the chain. Assuming she had left, and hadn’t just decided to ignore the call to mess with Kravets out of spite.
Given how on-edge Kravets had felt during the call, though, that didn’t strike me as an intelligent decision. But then again … people didn’t tend to make great decisions when their ire was up. And being cut out of a Christmas trip because the one holding your leash had a grudge could account for that.
Either way, Kravets trying to sway me to her side was the best situation I could hope for. The other two were worse: Kravets either then using my appearance as an excuse to follow me wherever I went and interfere with things—more common than anyone working for the NSAU liked to admit, really—or trying to pin me to the station while her “officers” went out to deal with Demara in my absence.
Granted, the last one was a stretch, but it had happened before.
I picked up my phone once more, car idling while I searched through the file to find Demara’s address. My search yielded an address on the edge of town, as well as a direct route from my current location, and I punched it in, pulling back out onto the street and slowly following the GPS’ directions.
All in all, it looked like a pretty calm Christmas Eve for Rock Hills. Snow was falling lightly, picking up a multitude of colors from the arrays of soft Christmas lights all across buildings. All in all things looked peaceful and quiet. I even passed what looked like a group of carolers as I made my way across town, and only drove past a few other cars, the drivers looking like late employees trying to get home.
Demara’s home looked like any of the others on its block. Well, almost. There were blackout curtains over every window, which made sense considering the sun’s effect on vampires. Other than that, however, it was fairly normal. Two-stories, an attached garage, the whole thing laden with lights, and even a small nativity out front. I parked across the street, glancing at the nearby homes. Most seemed occupied, and I could see people moving around inside, enjoying a Christmas Eve with family or friends.
Cold spilled over me as I stepped out onto the street, warm air rushing out of my car and sucked away into the night. I fought back a shiver and tucked my head tighter against the color of my jacket, hands in my pockets as I made my way across the street. It had been plowed earlier, and the sidewalks shoveled, but the constant snowfall was more dutiful than the local roads department, and several inches had already accumulated atop a slippery crust left from the last pass. I didn’t lose my balance, but I made sure to check my footing carefully as I made my way up to the walkway in front of her home.
That was when the second difference from the homes around it became apparent: The walkway hadn’t been shoveled in hours, perhaps all day. The porchlight was off as well, leaving the doorway in a bit of shadow.
I paused and took a closer look at the front of Demara’s home. Porch light out, but Christmas lights on, I thought. And no imprints on the walk, even shallow ones, that would say anyone’s walked up and down it lately. I moved my eyes to the short driveway in front of the garage. The snow in front of the garage door was disturbed, and there were shallow divots in the fresh snow, leading out into the street.
Coming? Or going? I sauntered over to the driveway, eyeing the pattern of the tracks in the snow. One set of tires had gone straight out, while the second set had overlapped them in a sharp turn. Backing out of the driveway, then, I thought, staring down at the faint marks. Driving in would have left a different pattern, and driving out forwards yet another. And no one’s come back since then. I couldn’t say how recently either, but it did appear that someone had left the house and not come back.
I made my way back to the walkway and then started up it, taking high steps to try and keep as much of snow as possible out of my boots. It worked … for the most part. Something caught my eye as I passed the nativity: A spray of red paint around the necks of the wise-men. It had been mostly cleaned off, but the imprint was still there on the heavy plastic.
I stepped onto the porch, shaking snow from my boots as I passed under the protective cover of the awning, and took a quick look at the front door. It was … a door. Like any other. But there was a doorbell next to it. I poked it and was rewarded with a warm, gentle cascade of chimes from inside.
But no sounds of movement. No cries of “Just a minute!” or rhythm of footsteps heading for the door. Step two, then. I reached out and knocked, the cold biting at my knuckles as they rapped against the wood.
I waited a minute more. Still nothing. Not even after a second knock, another ring, and then a third. The last one I changed to a fast-paced pounding, the kind that tended to make someone’s ear perk up in alarm.
Nothing. The house was as dead as most people thought vampires were. Which they’re not. Not entirely, really.
Which, given my assignment from the NSAU, meant I now had cause to get a better look at things. But first … I gathered myself, took a deep breath, and sent out a pulse.
Six people in the house on the left, two on the right … I thought as my strange magic swept out, resonating with the life around me. A few animals, but in this place … Nothing. Nothing alive or undead. It was all dead or nothing.
The door was locked, but thanks to my job earlier that evening, I had an electric lockpick already in my pocket—a precaution for any job that could take me to an apartment building, and a lesson learned from when time wasn’t on my side. I could do the job without the tool, but it was a lot faster. Moments after inserting it into the lock, there was a soft beep, a green light flashing by my hand to try turning it. I did, and the door unlocked with a soft click.
The tool went back into my pocket, and I unzipped my jacket, putting one hand on my Glock. Just in case. The door opened easily now that it was unlocked, and I stepped into the darkened interior slowly, letting my eyes adjust to the lack of light.
“Hello?” I called out, almost-but-not-quite shutting the door behind me. “Anyone home?”
Nothing. I locked the door behind me and took a few more steps forward, looking for a light switch. “My name is Jacob Rocke. The NSAU sent me to check on you?”
Still nothing. I relaxed my grip slightly but didn’t drop my hand. My probing fingers found a light switch, and a moment later light flooded the small entryway, revealing … nothing. Just an ordinary room, coathooks to my left, stairs and a hall ahead of me, and a large open passage to what looked a lot like a living room on my right. Perfectly ordinary.
“Hello?” I called again, stepping a bit further into the house. I flicked on the lights to the living room next. It was cozy, but not overly so. A computer sat on a desk in one corner, a TV in another. Two walls were devoted to books, as well as a sizeable portion of the coffee table.
I didn’t relax my grip and moved on. The kitchen was small and sparse, which was normal for a vampire. There was plenty of blood in the fridge, mostly pork, but some cow as well, and even one pouch of human blood that was probably intended for Christmas day. A pantry for more ordinary consumables, likely for friends of hers that could eat it. Demara certainly couldn’t eat any of it, even in small portions, without feeling violently ill.
Washroom. Bathroom. Shelves of what looked like belongings. A door to the backyard and one to the garage. I poked my head in. No car, but no signs of distress either.
I checked the upstairs next. It was smaller. Another bathroom. A guestroom. What looked like a small greenhouse—an odd hobby for someone who couldn’t take exposure to the sun without illness or death. More bookshelves. A large bedroom with heated blankets. Contrary to popular folklore, vampires don’t need to sleep in a casket. They do, however, prefer heated sheets or blankets, given that their own bodies no longer generate heat.
Which was probably why I was sweating. The interior temperature was much higher than the one outside. I was starting to wish I’d left my jacket by the door. I gave the master bathroom and closets a cursory look but found nothing out of the ordinary. No signs of struggle or alarm. Foul play at home, it seemed, was off the table. I finally let go of my Glock.
I went back to the living room, since it seemed to be the most “active” room of the house, running over what I knew already to figure out what to look for. Josefina was gone, that much was obvious, and she’d missed her call-in to let Kravets know she was around. And she’d left by car. Nothing appeared out of place, however, and the stock of blood in the fridge said she was planning to return before long.
Granted, that still didn’t solve the problem of where she was, which was what I was there for. But maybe her living room held a few hints.
The computer, the first thing I checked, was password protected. No help there. I put it back to sleep.
Books maybe? I looked over the shelves, but didn’t see much of note. Some bestsellers, a lot of stuff on unusuals, and medical texts. The literature on the coffee table was mostly similar—medical texts—but there were a few books on ancestry and family history mixed in.
The wastebasket next to the computer desk yielded a jackpot, however. Receipts, personal papers, bills … the works. I tipped them out onto the coffee table and went to work, checking the most recent ones first. And as I did … I had to admit that whoever had told Kravets about Demara’s recent spending habits wasn’t wrong.
I spread the receipts out in front of me. She’d dropped hundreds at local department stores in the last week. Spread out over a couple of days, but hundreds nonetheless. And because of the abbreviated codes used to describe each item … I really had no idea what each of them was. Just that some of them were very pricey. I did some quick math, adding sums in my head and weeding out small receipts for things like parking. All told, Demara had dropped almost nine-hundred dollars. Not a small number.
The bills were a little less thrilling save one. Paper slipped against my fingers as I sorted out the ones that were clearly payments for lighting and heating, dropping them back into the trash can. The one that was left, however … Well, it was interesting, to say the least. Thankfully, Demara still must have liked using old-fashioned paper records, since I found an envelope from a bank I assumed was hers underneath.
I’d found a mortgage payment of several thousand dollars for an address in a nearby city. I pulled out my phone and did a quick search. About an hour north, less if I drove fast. A safe house? I wondered. A friend? Still, since she wasn’t here at the moment …
I copied the address into my phone and then stuffed everything back into the can, replacing it by the door. Then I ran another circuit through the house, shutting off each light I’d turned on and making sure everything was exactly as I left it. I’d still tell Demara I’d been in her house if and when I ran into her, but I wasn’t about to trash her place. The entryway light was the last one to go, and I stepped out the front door.
To see a police cruiser waiting for me, red-and-blue lights flashing. I held back a sigh. Great. I should have known the lieutenant wouldn’t give up so easily.
In fact, I guessed that the figure coming up the walk in front of me, wearing a heavy coat, was the lieutenant in question. And from her expression, she didn’t have much interest in a “Silent Night.” She was … fairly average as far as looks went. Granted, most of her was hidden by her heavy coat, so all I could see was her face. Which again, was unhappy.
“You must be Mr. Rocke,” she said, stopping at the base of the steps and giving me a glare that was probably meant to put me in my place.
“That’s me,” I replied. “Lieutenant Kravets, I assume.”
“I am Lieutenant Kravets,” she replied quickly. “How do I know that you’re Jacob Rocke? You did just sneak out of a home owned by an unusual who’s currently at large. Without a warrant for entry, I might add.”
Threats? “Do you want to see my badge?” I asked, stepping forward and noting the way her eyes narrowed. “As far as warrants go, I have a standing jurisdiction to enter a home when there’s due cause. A ‘possibly dangerous’ missing vampire definitely counts.”
She scowled at that. She knew I had her there. “That won’t be necessary,” she said, straightening. “Now, if you’ll just tell me what you found—“
“Get out of my way, lieutenant,” I said, stepping past her and moving down the walk. “I’m busy, and I don’t answer to you.”
She grabbed my shoulder and tried to yank me back. I shrugged, pulling free, and kept moving down the walk. “This is my jurisdiction,” she said, rushing after me. “Don’t you dare walk away from me.” I could see two more officers in the front of the cruiser, both watching me with interested eyes. The lieutenant had driven her own car, then. I spotted it a moment later, parked a few spots down the street, hood still bare in the falling snow.
“Lieutenant Kravets,” I said, stopping and turning as I reached the sidewalk, hands still in my pockets. She skidded on the walk as she came to a stop, almost losing her balance as she nearly ran into me.
“Lieutenant,” I said again as she looked up at me, face flushed from the cold or with anger, I didn’t care. “I don’t report to you. And I’m not under your jurisdiction. I work for the federal government on jobs like this, and where unusuals are concerned, the NSAU calls the shots. You have jurisdiction when and only when the NSAU gives it to you. And at the moment, considering the location and intent behind this conversation, you should realize I’m not about to do that.” Kravets glared up at me, mouth opening and closing soundlessly. Finally, she seemed to find her voice.
“I should arrest you,” she said. Behind me, I heard two doors slam as the cops she’d brought with her got out of their cruiser. I could hear snow crunching beneath their boots as they came up behind me. This was getting ugly, and fast. I played the best card I had.
“Really?” I asked, pulling my phone from my pocket. The steps from behind picked up quickly, then slowed as they saw what I was holding. “On what charge?” I could unlock my phone without even looking, and in seconds I’d opened what I needed to.
“Interfering with an officer of the law,” Kravets said, an angry look on her face as I held the phone to my ear. The steps behind me were very close now. “Assault. Maybe possession of an unlawful weapon. Might not stick, but you’d spend a few evenings behind bars.”
The first ring hadn’t even finished when my gamble paid off, and I hit the speakerphone. “Hello? This is Ven. That you Rocke?” Ven’s voice echoed across the quiet street, and the footsteps behind me stopped dead.
“It is,” I said. “Lieutenant Kravets is here too. She showed up at Demara’s house with a few fellow officers, and they had a question about jurisdiction.” Kravets’ face took on a nasty look, like she was sucking on a lemon but intended to swallow it down anyway.
“Well it’s clear,” Ven said. “The case is yours. She’s handed it off. You’re saying she’s there now?”
“And she and her two fine officers—“ I made sure to put a bit of an emphasis on ‘fine,’ just for Kravets. “—are on speakerphone.” Hopefully Ven knew what the protocol was for a case like this, and what to say.
“Then I would explain in no uncertain terms that the investigation is under the jurisdiction of the NSAU,” Ven said, a bit of the tension leaking out of me as he spoke. “And that any interference on their part would be seen as deliberate and warrant a full investigation by the federal government. As would any difficulties they might pose to you in carrying out your job. I hope that’s clear enough for you, lieutenant?”
“Absolutely,” she said, her voice sounding as though she was chewing ice. Ven’s inference hadn’t been missed. If something had happened to me, the NSAU would not be happy. And while sometimes it could take a while to get things moving where the NSAU was involved, once they did they were as unstoppable as … Well, as any other federal organization that took orders from a dragon.
There’s only two of those, so I guess the comparison isn’t that apt. But the other one is the treasury, and you don’t get in their way.
“Good,” Ven said. Then, to me: “I look forward to your report, Rocke.”
“Thanks,” I said, and ended the call. Kravets looked like she wanted nothing more than to roast me over an open fire like a chestnut. The looks on the two officers she’d brought with her—both standing quite a bit closer to me than I’d realized—said similar.
“Well,” I said, pocketing my phone and noting how one of the officer’s hands darted away from his baton as soon as I turned. “I think that settles that. Merry Christmas, you three.” They stayed in place as I made my way to my car, watching as the red-and-blue lights strobed off the snow around them as I drove away.
* * *
None of Kravets’ officers followed me as I made my way out of town, following my GPS. In fact, no one did. The snow was getting thicker and the roads a little slicker, but I was alone as I left, not a car in sight save one or two I passed heading north.
I did do a little more research on Demara’s trial on my way out though, mostly while waiting at stoplights. I didn’t find anything concrete, but from the wording a few stories, there was enough for me to suspect that Kravets had been related in some manner to the man Demara had killed. Half the town was, the way the news had reported it. Kind of made me amazed she’d stuck around, all things considered. The red paint partially washed from her nativity showed that.
Still it still didn’t explain why she’d vanished. With her home conditions, I could see moving … Unless her leash didn’t allow it. Which could also explain it.
Not a great scenario. And something to leave in my report when I submitted it. Maybe in bold.
My GPS guided me to small city by the name of North Bend, then to a suburb just outside of town. The snow was still falling, the flakes thick and heavy, shining under the yellow streetlights, as I turned onto a small street and my GPS said in a loud clear voice “Your destination is ahead on the left.” I pulled over to the side, coming in right behind a bright red four-door Audi. It was the only other car on the street. I stepped out, once again tucking my coat tight around me … and there she was.
There was a shadowed spot down the street, past the car, where one of the street lights had gone out and hadn’t been replaced yet. And there, standing in the snow, staring at a house across the street that looked suspiciously similar to the one my GPS had been guiding me toward, was a figure wrapped in a heavy coat. They glanced in my direction as I trudged toward them, all but their eyes hidden by a heavy scarf, and then turned back to the house.
The house, I noted, was well lit from inside. I could see a tree inside the front windows, though a small one, and a few small strings of lights on the porch. There was a snowman in the front yard.
“I assume you’re looking for me?” the figure asked as I came closer. Her accent was thick even through clothing.
“That depends,” I said, coming to a stop a few feet away, just enough space to defend myself if needed. With the snow, she’d have a hard time lunging for me without slipping and falling. Though I had a gut feeling that there wasn’t much risk of her moving to harm me. “Are you Josefina Demara?”
She nodded, still staring at the house. “I am. And you are?” She glanced at me again.
“Jacob Rocke. NSAU spook,” I said, pulling my hands from my pockets to show I wasn’t holding a weapon. “The NSAU asked me to track you down.”
“Spell?” she asked, once again looking at the home.
I shook my head. “Just sleuthing. I checked your house first. Found the record of the mortgage payment you made on this place. It was my best bet, so … I came. And don’t worry, I left you place like I found it.”
“I appreciate that,” Demara said quietly. “Kravets goons would not have been so considerate.”
“Yeah, well, you work with as many vampires as I have, you realize that they’re still people.”
Demara nodded but didn’t say anything. Snow was building up on their heavy hood, and I knew it had to be uncomfortable. Imagine how unwelcome cold can feel to you, and now imagine that your body doesn’t generate any heat. You get wet, and your body isn’t going to shiver and try to force it away. You’ll just stay wet. Snow can kill a vampire, and fast.
Hence why so much of my work usually moved south. Winter vampires and other undead usually aren’t very active. It did beg the question of why Demara was standing out in the cold though.
“So,” I said after about a minute. “I have to ask, if only for my report but … What’s this all about?”
Demara was quiet for a moment, but then turned and looked at me. “You can’t hear it,” she said. “But the woman in there, the mother? She’s crying. While her children play in the other room. Two of them. A boy and a girl. Ages six and five.”
I nodded. “Any father?”
“Dead. Or gone. Both, maybe.”
“And why is she crying.”
Demara took a deep breath. “Because … she is happy. Joyful.”
The pieces slipped together in my mind. “Because someone paid her mortgage payment, didn’t they?”
“Yes,” Demarra said. “Someone did.”
“And her kids?” More pieces slipped into place. “They just got a huge Christmas bounty, didn’t they? From the toy sections of hardware stores around Rock Hill.”
“In part,” Demara said. “Once all of them have retired to bed, more will appear by the door for their mother to discover. Gifts from Santa, for both her and her children.”
“You’ve done this before?”
She shook her head. “Never.”
“Then why now? Why this house?”
Demara was silent for a moment before speaking. “Before I tell you, I need to ask you something.”
“Fair enough.” I pulled my jacket tight against myself, warding off the cold. “Go ahead.”
“What do you think of Lieutenant Kravets?”
“Honestly? She’s a prick, at least where you seem concerned. Not a nice thing to say given the season and all, but …” I shrugged. “Thankfully, she’s just smart enough not to be an idiot, which is why I’m here instead of in a cell on trumped-up charges, and she’s not tearing your house apart right now. That I know of anyway. She’s definitely going to be in hot water after I file my report, if she isn’t already.”
Demara nodded slowly, eyes scanning me. “Very well then.” She motioned toward the house with one gloved hand. “They are … my family.”
“Your family?” But her file said … It hit me, and I nodded. “The genealogy books on your table.”
“Yes,” she said. “I grew curious and … It turns out my brother was not quite the saint he claimed he was. He fathered a child during the war. I recently found out, traced her descendants … to here.”
“Pretty lucky, them living so close.”
Demara let out a sudden laugh. “By recently, I mean the last few decades,” she said quickly. “Don’t forget my age, Mr. Rocke. I’ve spent the last two decades slowly getting closer, and then recently … I found her. My only living relative.”
“Does she know about you yet?”
She shook her head. “No … not yet. But once I had her address and had done some looking, I knew I had to help. After all, Christmas should be spent with family and friends. I have the latter, but this … This mattered more.”
“Turned down my request without even reading it. Threw it in the trash before the entire station. That woman can—“ She seemed to catch herself. “I disagree with her strenuously, but I must admit I understand why she loathes me so much. After all, I’m willing to bring the NSAU down on my head just to deliver gifts to see my family, and Jacob was her cousin.”
“The man that you …?”
“I killed him,” Demara said quickly. “You can relax, Mr. Rocke. I won’t dance around the issue. He made to stab me in the heart. I didn’t mean to kill him, but …” Her gloved hands clenched. “What’s done is done, and I cannot bring him back, as much as I regret his passing.”
I nodded. “I’m sorry. I read through the reports. None of it was fair.”
“No,” she agreed. “Least of all to poor Jacob.” She shook her head. “Foolish child. But that’s neither here nor there.” She pulled herself up and turned to look at me. “So then, Mr. Rocke … what now? Arrest?”
I stared at her for a moment. How much do I trust her? “What’s her name?” I asked.
“Your descendent. Or relation or whatever? Grandniece?”
“Rachel. Rachel Calls.”
“Right. Just a moment.” I turned and walked across the street, heading for the small home with its few lights. My knuckles hit the door in a rhythmic rap, and I could hear excited shrieks from inside followed by the sound of feet running from the door. Then a woman’s voice cut over them, and a moment later the door opened.
“Yes?” The woman on the other side of the door had been crying, but she was smiling through the tears, even as she tried to hide them. “Can I help you?”
“Yes, I’m … That’s me.”
“Were you the recipient of an unexpected gift tonight? Maybe a few?”
She frowned at me, somewhat suspicious, but there was a hint of hope beneath it. “Yes …” she said slowly. “Was it you? Do I know you?”
I shook my head. “No,” I said. “I’m just a messenger. Someone wanted to make sure you had a merry Christmas. I was just double-checking that it made it.” I gave her a nod. “Sorry for disturbing you. Good night.”
“Good night,” she said. “But please, tell them thank you.”
“I’ll do my best.”
I turned and walked down the steps, the door closing behind me. I broke right, away from the home, waiting until I was between lights to duck across the street and rejoin Demara.
“Your story checks out,” I said as I drew near. Across the street Rachel was silhouetted in the window, playing with her two kids but occasionally glancing out the glass. She wouldn’t be able to see us in the shadow, however. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s the end of things for me.”
“And I’ll mention that someone other than Kravets should be in charge of your watch,” I added. “See if we can’t get you a less biased officer.”
“Think nothing of it,” I said, shrugging. “Though you should probably go warm up in your car. You can’t ever introduce yourself to them if you freeze out here.”
“My coat is heated,” she replied. “But thank you for your concern.” Her eyes smiled. “Thank you, Mr. Rocke.”
“Call me Jacob,” I said, offering a hand. She took it and shook it. “And have a Merry Christmas.”
“Josefina,” she replied. “You too, Jacob.”
And with that, I turned and walked back to my car, and drove away, leaving her standing in the shadows, probably the warmest she’d felt in years.
* * *
“And …” I said as I hit send on my report. “That … is that.” I sat back, dropping my phone to the seat and staring out the windshield of my car. It was almost nine now, but my report was in. I’d meant to do it in a room at the hotel I was parked in front of, but I’d called Ven to give him my summary and ended up running him over the whole thing. Interestingly enough, he’d been able to confirm that Rachel Calls was in fact a relative of Josefina with a few minutes work, and added it to her file, cementing her story. Hopefully Kravets had a good Christmas, because when it was over her superiors were going to want to have words with her. And theirs with them.
And, unless another job came up, I’d be in town as well, just to keep an eye one things and make sure Demara didn’t face any retaliation. In all likelihood she’d been relocated, but that wasn’t my problem.
My phone beeped, and I glanced down at it to see a new message waiting from me. It was from Hawke Decroux. I brought it up.
It was a picture. Hawke and the woman he’d met in Silver Dreams, Ellera. The nurse. Both were wearing ugly sweaters and standing in front of a tree at a party somewhere, smiling at the camera.
“Merry Christmas!” the message below it read. “I hope you’re having a great one! Come see us sometime!”
The “us” was very telling. Last I’d spoken with Hawke, he’d been considering moving out to Silver Dreams. A glance at Ellera’s hands didn’t show any signs of a ring, but …”
I smiled and slipped the phone into my pocket. I’d message him back as soon as I was inside. I shut the car off, spent a minute grabbing one of my duffels from the backseat, and walked in the front door of the hotel.
Soft Christmas music met my ears even as the warmth of the inside washed over me. The lobby was sparsely populated, with only a dozen or so people in it, at least half of them staff, the others probably guests. One of the employees rushed over to me, setting down a glass of what smelled like cider as she passed the front desk.
“Just one?” she asked, and I nodded. “If you’d like, you’re more than welcome to come back down and join us.” She waved a hand at the group in the lobby. Many of them had gone right back to talking. A table near one wall was covered in food, and there was a Christmas tree up against the wall. “It’s Christmas Eve, after all. Wouldn’t want anyone to be alone that didn’t want to be. That’ll be one-hundred and twenty-five even. Christmas special.”
“Sounds tempting,” I replied, handing her my card. “The party, I mean. Any plans?”
“Carols. Hot chocolate. Adams is going to read ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Or part of it anyway; I’m not sure how long it is. Food.”
“You know what?” I took my card back. “That sounds fun. Let me call a friend and freshen up, but … I’ll be right down.”
“Great!” She smiled, eyes bright and alert as she handed me my room key. “See you in a bit!”
I nodded. “See you in a bit.” With that, I grabbed my bags and headed to my room. It was time to call Hawke, maybe say hi to Ellera. And then come back down and relax with my fellow travelers.
After all … It was Christmas.
Thank you again for all your support readers. Have a wonderful Christmas!
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