Short Story #1

A Dead-Ended Evening

by Morgan Alreth

Copyright 2012 by Morgan Alreth

License Notes
This story is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This story may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this story with another person, please encourage them to come here and download their own copy.
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Joe Martin stepped off the trolley car three blocks from his home and wiped sweat from his forehead. Even though it was near sundown, the heat was smothering. He took a deep breath and started plodding down the uneven sidewalk, dodging splashes from the passing carriages and the occasional motorcar. His family's ancestral home was in the oldest part of town, with narrow cobblestone streets that barely allowed for private vehicles. Public transportation was out of the question once a person left the business district.
For the hundredth time he considered buying a bicycle. After pulling a double shift it was insulting the injury, asking his poor feet to hike all the way from the trolley stop to the house. But how would he carry his lunch bucket, toolbox, hardhat, gloves, and apron? He would have to get a sidecar for the bicycle, too. What he saved in foot pain would be more than made up in leg strain, pedaling the extra weight. Simpler to just walk.
Maybe someday one of his inventions would pay off. Then he could stay home and prop his feet up. He snorted.
Yeah, right. Of course, if you sold that sagging pile of lumber, and quit spending all your money on supplies for your tinkering, you could afford to rent a loft downtown and still not have to work overtime constantly.
Joe paused at the wrought iron gate that guarded his yard, looking at the old house. All his life, and his father's, and his grandfather's before him were spent living here. He glanced at the workshop, a converted carriage house. It might not make him any money, but at least it kept him somewhat sane. It helped fill the empty hours.
He stepped through the gate and latched it behind him, making sure that the crossbar fell into the proper slot to form a crucifix. For the thousandth time Joe wondered whether a Hindu or Jewish night walker would be intimidated by a cross. But it didn't hurt anything to have it, and it helped keep the neighbors approval.
A guardian pentagram was etched into one of the stone gateposts, and a protective sigil from Solomon's Third Key on the other post. Those marks, at least, he had faith in. When the closed gate re-connected the ends of the fence, a ring of cold iron around the yard was re-established. No magic would be cast on his property while it was intact. Not that the fae were likely to venture this far into a human city, and no practitioners of the Art were mad at him. Not that he knew of.
The sun was still half a finger width above the horizon. He sighed in relief, then headed inside to heat some dinner. The bottom of the icebox was sloshing full of water, with the ice block melted away to nothing. But the box itself was still cold enough for last night's stew not to have gone bad. Or he hoped that it hadn't, because he was going to eat it anyway. At least the bread wasn't moldy yet.
After dinner Joe lit the gas under his water heater and headed for his workshop. He figured an hour should be enough time to heat the water for a bath and some dishwashing. Just about what he needed to start the preparations for his latest project. Full darkness had fallen and Joe paused when he stepped outside, letting his eyes adjust. The gas streetlights weren't completely lit, and his end of the block was illuminated only by the dim glow from curtained windows along the street.
He turned a crank by the door several times and flipped a lever, igniting a small arc light on a pole between the house and shop. It wouldn't last long, but it gave him time to reach the shop and light the gas burner under his steam turbine. Five minutes later the steam pressure built up to the point that he could open the valve that drove the piston that turned the crank that started his generator. Artificial sunshine sparked into life all around the property.
Joe paused to look out the doorway with a smile. "I do love electricity."
He was putting the final touches on a new transformer core, and thinking seriously about closing things up, when his cousin Bill sauntered in. The shop was sweltering from the steam turbine, the air was full of dust and sparks from the grinding wheel, and the humming arc lamp overhead put down a glare more harsh than high noon in midsummer. Between the turbine, the grinding, and the lamp Joe didn't even notice his visitor at first.
His cousin grimaced and turned sideways to work his way around the stacks of copper and iron bars stacked in the middle of the floor. He waved to attract attention, then pulled a kerchief out to dust off his pants while giving Joe an aggravated look.
Joe shut off the grinder impatiently. "It's a workshop, Bill," he said. "Not a fancy lawyer's office. If you don't want to get dirty, send a telegram." He picked up the U-shaped piece of iron stock and carried it over to his bench vise.
"I don't expect it to be pristine," Bill muttered, following him across the brick floor. "But would it hurt you to run a broom out here once a year? Or a shovel? What are you making this time?"
Joe asked, "You know anything about how electricity gets sent from one side of the city to another?"
"No." Bill wiped sweat from his face. "How do you stand it out here?"
"Clears the pores, cousin." Joe grinned at him. "Come on, Bill. It's the twenty-first century. People have been using electric lights for fifty years. Surely you studied this in school. About the way electricity flows like water?"
"Some people use that stuff," Bill said. "I'm sticking with gas. I don't trust tame lightning. Besides, too many of my clients practice the Art. The last thing I need is to burn out one of the office's protective wards."
Joe waved a hand. "All right, Luddite. Point is, the way the power company does it is to run all the electricity in one continuous loop. I'm trying to see if it might work better if you flip it back and forth. Alternate the current direction on a regular cycle. I think it might make things more efficient."
"Why?" Bill looked blank and his cousin sighed.
"Never mind. You didn't show up here in that tie and vest just to hang around," Joe said. "Especially after sundown. What do you need?" He started winding copper wire around one side of the iron U.
Bill said. "And you call me a Luddite? The Accords of Mordecai have been in place for over a century. Night time is as safe as daylight now. Yet every evening you pen yourself in behind your iron ring and hang up your signs and wards, just as if it was Europe in the dark ages. They don't even do that in the hinterlands anymore. Wake up, Joe. The world is civilized, now."
"Civilized?" Joe stopped to stare in disbelief. "This from a criminal lawyer?" He snorted. "I've been thinking about running a wire around the top of the fence. Then I could add a smaller generator and charge an electric loop around the barrier, too."
Bill groaned and put his head in his hand. "Don't even think about it. There's no way you could afford to defend yourself against the lawsuits, Joe. Just let one midwife, or one seer, stroll past on her way to visit a client. Suddenly she finds two thirds of her equipment burned out and you end up paying a garnishment for the rest of your life, or in debtor's prison. Even if you sold everything."
"Which is why I haven't done it yet." Joe sighed. "Not until I figure out a way to limit the effect to my own property. So, what do you need? Your drain stopped up again?" He reached for a pair of wire cutters and snipped off the piece he was using.
"I'm here to do my dear kinsman a good turn." Bill offered a broad smile.
"I notice you got between me and the door before you said that," Joe grimaced. "I'm afraid to ask."
"Pessimist," his cousin said. "It's plain you need help. All you ever do is go to work, come home and tinker, then go to bed. You need a social life, Joe."
"I can't argue with that," Joe said. "But the only women I ever see are the secretaries at the factory." He traded the cutters for the pliers again and started winding wire around the other side of the iron.
"Exactly," Bill pounced. "That's why I decided to take pity on you." He gestured theatrically, as if expounding before a jury. "A fine lady at my office, a colleague of mine, has recently separated from her long term beau. Now, a woman like this not going to be available for very long. But this is your lucky week, Joe. I finally managed to talk her into meeting you."
"Not again." Joe froze with the pliers still in his hand. "The last time you fixed me up, I was ready to start a fire in the kitchen and sneak out the restroom window before dessert was served."
"I admit," Bill winced slightly, "Betty can be a bit forceful in expressing her opinions. But she honestly means well."
"The time before that," Joe said, "what was her name? Louise? She insisted on bringing her baby brother along. A more obnoxious snot-nosed son of Satan has never been spawned."
"Never mind." Bill raised a hand. "You owe it to yourself to meet this girl. She's beautiful and intelligent. A redhead," Bill said. "Tall, slim, smart, and stacked."
"I see," Joe gave him a narrow look. "No doubt she has a lovely personality, too."
"Of course, she... why are you looking at me like that?" He put on an innocent face.
"What's the catch, Bill?" Joe asked. "Why are you selling this one so hard?” He snipped off the second winding and carried his tools back to the cabinet. "For that matter, why would a woman who works in a lawyer's office want to go out with a maintenance mechanic?"
"She doesn't just work there," Bill said. "She's an attorney in her own right." He caught Joe's look. "I know. Remarkable, isn't it?"
"A lawyer." Joe chewed his tongue thoughtfully. "And she wants to go out with a maintenance mechanic who works in a factory. Just how ugly is she?" He took the piece of iron out of the bench vise and started toward a shelf.
"Joe." Bill said reproachfully. "That's unworthy of you. Besides, she's quite lovely, as I said. It's just that she's like the rest of us, too busy working to have time to go out and meet people."
"A good-looking, professional woman?" Joe chuckled. "One sight of me and she would run screaming into the night."
"Don't sell yourself short." Bill slapped his shoulder, nearly causing him to drop his project. "Just meet her, all right? What's the harm? You didn't have anything else planned, did you?"
Joe paused and grimaced. "I suppose you have a point." He gave him kinsman a hard look. "I'll give it one more try. If this one turns out to be another disaster, I want your word that you'll stop trying to fix me up. All right?"
Bill held up a hand. "Word of honor. After this, I won't need to. Trust me, this woman is the kind you only meet once in a lifetime."
"Now you really have me nervous," Joe said.
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A week later, on another late afternoon, Joe stepped off a streetcar again. This time he stepped off at the outer edge of the city's entertainment district. The neighborhood he entered was the height of fashion fifty years ago. It had been slowly going to seed for the last generation, but it still hosted several good restaurants and theaters. Not the best ones, there was no way Joe could afford to take a lady to the best ones. But the arrangements he had made were perfectly respectable.
He started toward a large sign, decorated with elaborate calligraphy, which stuck out from the front of a hotel one street down. Halfway along the block he passed the comforting door of a blue collar bar and grill. Joe manfully fought back temptation. At least he could probably get a real beer and a decent sandwich there. But no. He grimaced and ran a finger under his starched collar. It wasn't the woman's fault. She had no doubt showed up in good faith. Sneaking away now would be a filthy trick.
Most of his trouble was the blasted suit. It was new, bought for the occasion, and it had cost him more than he could really afford. But he doubted that showing up in his coveralls would make a good first impression. Joe sighed and tried to adjust his stiff collar again.
"How does Bill live like this?" he muttered. He stopped in front of the garish sign and looked at the double doors in resignation. Then he adjusted his tie and stepped into the lobby with a knot in his belly.
Gas light from a cut glass chandelier splashed rainbows across fancy wallpaper, making him blink after the cloud covered evening outside. Every bit of woodwork was waxed and polished to mirror brightness, and the white marble floor looked fancier than his dinner plates at home. A small jungle of potted plants transformed his trip through the lobby into a safari.
He passed at a front desk the size of an ocean liner, manned by a clerk in a uniform that most admirals would be embarrassed to get buried in. Finally his trek led him down a gaping hallway, carpeted with what looked like mink fur and lined with original paintings. He stepped through a Grecian archway and into a dining room that would have made Magdalene the Great self-conscious.
He paused at the top of a short staircase and looked over the room. Just his luck. There were three redheads, standing out like torches against the bleached tablecloths and gleaming crystal. A careful look from his elevated position showed that one of the redheads wore an engagement ring with a diamond the size of a baseball. The other one looked old enough to be a grandmother. He headed for the third table feeling reasonably confident.
"Miss Lenner?" He smiled. "I'm Joe Mart-." He stopped with his mouth half open and his blood congealing. She had glanced up at his approach, and the inhuman eyes alone were enough. He didn't need the deathly pallor, or the crimson lips to confirm it.
So this is what he was afraid to tell me. If I live through this Bill's a dead man.
"Excuse me." He cleared his throat. "Joe Martin. I presume you are Miss Lenner?" He didn't offer to sit down.
She smiled demurely and told him, "Yes. I am Denise Lenner. Please sit, Mr. Martin. I have been looking forward to meeting you." In the reflected light from the gas fixtures, a spark glowed in the depths of her eyes. His neck hair screamed and tried to flee. "Your cousin spoke eloquently on your behalf. I understand you are an inventor?"
Joe steeled himself and planted his butt across the table, keeping his feet well back. "Only in my spare time." He stole a look at the nearest table and his heart sank. The knives and forks were pewter. "I'm afraid my cousin often talks when a wiser person would keep their mouth shut."
For the prices this place charges, would real silverware be too much to expect?
"Have I offended you, Mr. Martin? So soon?" She looked across the table and made a pout. He dropped his gaze to the table, trying to think of something, anything, that would get him out of there.
"Certainly not, ma'am," he said, with rigid sphincters. "I apologize if I gave that impression." He hesitated. "Honestly, I have never been in a social situation before with someone of your, um, condition." She was wearing strong perfume, but he could detect a faint undertone of decay that made his skin crawl.
Amusement sparkled in those unsettling eyes. "I would never have guessed. Your cousin might have mentioned that I'm a licensed attorney. The Accords are quite strictly enforced, you know. In order for someone of my 'condition' to practice law we have to pass a yearly background check. Perhaps it might help to think of me as a person with exotic allergies."
The waiter came over, dressed like an undertaker. He lit the candle on the table, glanced down his nose at Joe’s suit, sniffed, and offered a menu.
"Of course, please forgive me Miss Lenner. I meant no offense." He looked up at the waiter. "Caesar salad." Then bit his tongue, but it was too late to take it back. Denise ordered a salad as well, without dressing. The guy sneered and strutted off.
"Please, don't let me interfere with ordering anything you like." She made a pretense of sipping her water. "I would hate to think I caused you to go home hungry."
I wouldn't touch that one with a ten foot pole.
"It's fine." He dragged a smile out of the basement. "I had a big lunch." After an awkward moment Joe asked her, "What kind of law do you practice?"
Against all odds, he started to relax. Denise was a charming conversationalist, and quite unselfconscious about being undead.
"I work in the night court, naturally," she said, smiling. "The vast majority of my clients are night folk. Usually nosferatu like myself, along with the occasional ghoul, or shapeshifter. Rarely does a mainstream human feel comfortable using my services, but there have been a few." She pretended to take another sip of water. "I'm really quite gratified at the progress that has been made in the last few decades in providing equal justice for all, no matter what their 'condition' might be."
Joe reflected that he had mentioned his upcoming date at work several times over the last week, so more than one person knew where he was. Bill knew who he was with, and certainly knew what she was. Maybe he could tough it out.
"Enough about me," she said. "I'm interested in hearing about your inventions. You cousin mentioned that you are working on a new way to move electricity around?"
"Er," Joe cleared his throat. "It's merely at the experimental stage right now. If it works out as I am hoping, it might be safer and more efficient. But it won't be anytime soon. Mainly I work on improving existing machines. Like, not long ago I invented a way to move the assembly lines at the factory where I work using much smaller motors. It saved the company a fair amount of money and got me a nice bonus check."
"How fascinating." She leaned forward and propped her chin on one hand. "Clever people like yourself are transforming the world. Almost faster than some of us can keep up with. I have continuously been impressed and amazed, watching how quickly things changed during the last century. "
Joe blinked. "The last... oh. I beg pardon. Please excuse me."
She laughed softly. "It's all right. You needn't be quite so delicate. I'm not going to tell you what my age was when I entered my current... condition. But it was early in the twentieth century. A charming man, really. But we drifted apart. These things happen. We still correspond on occasion."
While Joe ate she casually poked and stirred her bowl, maintaining the fiction of dining together. Joe chewed the last of his food, tasting the garlic in the dressing, and comforted himself by remembering that etiquette did not absolutely require him to use mints. A trace of garlic on his breath might be rude, but a little extra insurance didn't hurt.
They crossed the plaza to watch The Dogtamer's Misery. Joe personally despised the play, but it was the only highbrow entertainment that he knew well enough to discuss intelligently. At least one thing about this date was normal. Sitting next to a lovely woman in a dark theater always made his pulse race. Actually, sitting in the pitch darkness next to this particular woman had his heart pounding like a Gatling gun. But the tickets had cost him two day's pay, and it would take worse than the fear of death to make him waste them.
To his surprise, it didn't turn out badly at all. Denise had a wicked sense of humor, and she forced Joe to constantly choke back laughter by interjecting quietly merciless gems at the most tragic points in the play. Afterward, Joe thought long and hard about his options. Finally he gritted his teeth and followed through on his original intention, suggesting a carriage ride through the park.
Denise put on a rueful expression. "I’m afraid of horses and I don’t get along. You understand, I’m sure. Perhaps a pleasant stroll along the river instead?"
Joe's mouth went dry.
A nice, private walk through a dark patch of woods, late in the evening, arm in arm with a vampire.
He would rather have ambled through a lion pit while wearing a bacon loincloth. Unfortunately, decency left him no excuse for refusing.
The moon was a dim crescent that could barely be made out between rare gaps in the clouds. City lights from both banks drew oily streaks across the flowing ripples of the river. Joe made a point of gallantly offering to take the bank side of the walkway. Within leaping distance of running water.
He wistfully eyed the waist-high stone wall that was the only barrier between him and shimmering freedom. The river was less than a quarter mile across, he could make it to the other side. Except for the water fae, of course. Who were threatening reprisals against any human who dared to stick a toe in the river due to that unfortunate chemical spill last month.
One thing that didn't worry him was getting robbed. Not with Denise hanging onto his arm. The park was nearly deserted anyway. An occasional rustle in the bushes were casually identified by his companion as, "a cat," or, "two youngsters," with a smile. Joe noticed a solitary figure in the distance behind them, but thought nothing of it. It was a warm Friday night. No doubt someone else was out for walk.
They finally approached the far side of the park and took the footpath leading to the nearest cab stand. Joe breathed a silent prayer of devout thanks and offered to escort her home, which got an amused smile in response.
"Silly man." She tapped his nose, gently. "I don't need you to keep watch over me. Really. I'm quite safe, I assure you. Assuming we both find a cab with reasonable dispatch, I will be snug in bed before you are."
They were at the outer fringe of the park when she suddenly stopped and looked around. Her eyebrows narrowed. "What is it?" Joe watched and listened. The night's breeze had settled earlier in the evening. They had exited the park trail on the opposite end from the hotel, adjacent to a quiet residential area. Only a few random insects were advertising themselves.
"I'm not sure." The glow in her eyes flared. "Let's go." Denise headed away from the trees and started quick-stepping along the edge of the park, toward the brighter lights of the business district. He was quite willing to comply. Anything that made her nervous was more than he wanted to tackle. They picked up the pace to a brisk trot for half a block, while she kept looking around and behind them.
"Someone following us? A robber maybe?" Joe reached into his jacket pocket. The flickering gas in the street lamps painted moving shadows on every wall. It was well past midnight, and he was likely to be the only normal human outside at this hour. Every door was closed, every window dark. There were certainly no carriages nor motorcars on the street so late, and the cab stand was still a fair distance off.
"Not a robber." She snapped it out abruptly, with wide eyes. "Not human." She looked back again and started jogging.
Joe took in a deep lungful and sped up to keep pace. "Perhaps one of your... compatriots?"
"No." Her nostrils flared. "Not one of my kind either."
"Do you know what it is or not?" Joe was starting to get a touch exasperated.
"I hope not. Be ready to run for your life."
This did nothing to settle his nerves. Joe swallowed something cold and heavy. "We could find a telephone box and call the police."
"By the time they got here, we would both be dead," she told him. "Or it would disappear and we would look like fools. Keep going."
Something moved across the street. Denise grabbed his arm. "Come on!" They ran to the next intersection and cut down a side street. "There's an herbalist two blocks ahead," she said. "He trades with night folk, and his shop is protected."
Something growled. A huge shadow bounded across the street and stood up in their path. Denise made a shrill sound and dragged Joe backwards into a gap between two buildings. One swift glance was enough to show that it was a cul-de-sac without a rear exit.
Their pursuer sprang forward and landed within arm's reach. Gaslight gleamed on fang and claw.
"No!" Denise sounded almost scandalized. "You have no right to make trouble here. Go away."
The werewolf snarled and Joe pulled out a small glass bottle with a spray pump on top. He worked the trigger several times,  shooting a cloud of mist into the creature’s mouth. The snarl became a gagging yip. The creature pawed at its muzzle while the pair of them backpedaled down the alley.
Denise sighed. "I'm so sorry, Joe. I had no idea that he would go this far."
Joe looked at the werewolf, shaking its head and pawing at its muzzle. "You know this guy?"
"I'm afraid so." She looked embarrassed. "He's my ex-boyfriend."
"Good Lord." Joe whipped back around and unleashed another spray, directly into the oncoming creature's face. The beast yowled and rolled, clawing at its eyes.
"Nicely done," Denise said. She scooted directly behind him. "What is that? Wolfsbane?"
Joe said, "No. I wish it was." He shook the bottle nervously. "I can’t afford the cost of a weapon permit. So I invented this. I took the pure juice of the habanero pepper, concentrated it as much as I could, and mixed it with mothballs and turpentine. It’s rather unpleasant in the eyes and nose."
"I didn't know anything but aconite could affect a lycanthrope. I hope you have enough. That bottle looks distressingly small." She glanced at the sky, then took advantage of the respite to search around and under the trash bins that lined the walls.
"I thought I might get jumped. I never expected to be cornered by a shapeshifter." He glanced over. "What do you mean, he's your ex-boyfriend? He's, a, you know."
"A werewolf. You can say it, Mr. Martin." Denise straightened, looking offended. "I realize that you are not overly broad minded concerning those who swim outside the mainstream. But Harold is a good man." She flickered a worried glance past Joe. "If it weren't for his uncontrollable jealously."
"Harold!?" The beast man snarled and took a swipe at Joe, who ducked back and shot her a look of disbelief. "His name is-" The werewolf lunged. Joe presented him with a mouthful of juice, which was unappreciated. The lycanthrope fell backward, gagging.
"Don't be snide." Denise glared.
"Why isn't he in one of the holding cells in the Lycanthropic Refuge?" Joe wiped a damp palm on his jacket. "He's supposed to be registered, isn't he? The law says that during the full... wait a minute."
It suddenly hit him. "Tonight is a crescent moon. Why is he wearing fur?" Joe eyed the half-vomiting werewolf.
"Well," Denise shifted uncomfortably. "Harold is one of those rare lycanthropes who is not strictly tied to a lunar imperative. Extreme emotional upset can also trigger the change. I fear that our breaking up, followed by seeing me in your company, most likely proved to be too much for his self-control."
"Well, talk to him!" Joe gestured. "Calm him down, will you?" The man beast saw Joe's gesture and made a swipe with its claws in response.
Denise declined to step forward. "I'm afraid that when he gets like this there is no reasoning with him. I'm sorry, Joe. I had no intention of dragging you into our little spat."
"Little spat?" Joe stared in disbelief. "This werebeast is trying to rip me in half, and you call it a little spat?"
"He is not a beast!" Denise seethed with indignation. "He is a sweet and gentle man… most of the time. In his normal condition he wouldn't harm a flea. It's only when he's provoked beyond endurance that this happens."
"Then why, in the name of Pythagoras, did you provoke him?" Joe flinched when the werewolf shook its head and started moving closer. "Nice wolfie. Good wolfie."
The manwolf continued to advance with bared fangs, unimpressed by his diplomacy.
"Look, you don't want us. It's just a little way to the edge of town, with all those wide open corn fields. Bound to be some deer out there... oh shit."
The creature lunged for Joe's arm, hooking the cloth of his sleeve. Joe shoved the spray directly against the werewolf's nose and bore down on the pump button twice. A howling scream split the night and the creature fell backward.
"Mr. Martin! Please! Your language."
"I'm sorry, madam." Joe said between his teeth. He wiped a haggard arm across his brow. "I'm feeling rather provoked myself."
"I suppose it's understandable." She did not look mollified. "Did he scratch you?"
"Just my coat. No skin, thank goodness." He tried to fight the shaking with a weak attempt at humor. "I don't want to grow fur. I was never one for the great outdoors."
She smirked faintly. "I prefer city lights myself." She glanced at the sky and her expression tightened. "The night is aging quickly. I cannot remain here."
"Can't you," Joe floundered. "You know, just climb the wall or something? Lure him away and then outrun him?"
Denise sighed and looked at him. "You have plainly been reading too much popular fiction. Yes, we are stronger and faster than most people. But not that much stronger and faster. Besides, how would I climb a sheer brick wall? I have no claws, nor am I a frog with suckers on my hands and feet."
"Lovely." Joe grabbed the wooden lid off a trash bin and held it in front of himself like a shield. "If you grab one of these we might hit him together and knock him off his feet. Then take off in different directions."
"Both of us?" She looked doubtful. "They aren't silver but he still might be seriously injured. Lycanthropes heal quickly, but there are limits. I don't want to hurt him."
"Of course not." Joe sighed and looked at the werewolf. It was still gagging and thrashing, but also still blocking their escape. "I am open to suggestions."
"Um." Denise pressed her lips together. "I do have a suggestion. Please hear me out."
"By all means." Joe took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"Once the transformation is complete," Denise said, "He will remain in lupine form until sunrise. And a werewolf never leaves its prey."
"Then we seem to have no other option than to try my suggestion." Joe took a firmer grip on his makeshift shield.
"Actually we do," Denise said. She glanced at the werewolf, who was rising up on shaky legs and staggering back in their direction.
Joe ducked behind his makeshift defense and kicked out at the nearest canine leg joint. Something cracked and the werewolf howled.
"Oh, Harold!" The distress in her voice was heart wrenching. Or it would have been, for anyone who was not in the alley with Joe. She looked at him and said coldly, "That was uncalled for, Mr. Martin." 
"Really?" He didn't take his eyes off the werewolf. "It didn't seem to inconvenience him." He pointed. The werewolf's broken knee joint twisted and pushed itself back into the proper shape. In a few breaths, the injury was completely healed.
"It's the principle of the thing," she said. "Harold is not responsible for what he's doing. You are."
"Are you saying that this is somehow my fault?" He glared in disbelief and applied another squirt, then muttered, "This is the last time I step outside after dark without a silver knife. The Accords be damned."
"You are not improving matters by escalating the conflict," she said primly. "Now, back to my suggestion."
"I'm all ears," Joe said, shaking his head.
"I hope and trust that you have no desire to see me burn in the sunlight, despite your misgivings earlier this evening." She gave him a direct look.
"Certainly not, madam," Joe said. "Perish the thought."
She smiled at him approvingly. "I'm also sure that Harold would be devastated if he returned to human form and learned that he had killed someone. Anyone at all, especially me. However, I have a plan that will allow us all to make it out of this undamaged." 
Joe rubbed his tired eyes. "So. What's your plan?"
The spark in her eyes deepened into a glow. "Harold is driven by jealousy. If he thought you were dead, he would probably be satisfied and leave."
"You want me to play possum?" Joe was confused.
"I'm afraid not," she said. "His nose would detect the ruse. And he could hear your breathing. No, I'm afraid we must actually stop your heart and breath for a time."
"WHAT!?"
"Please, calm down Mr. Martin. There is no need to shout."
"I think there's every need," Joe backed away from both of them. "He wants to kill me, now you want to kill me? HELP!"
"No one is within earshot, alas," Denise said. "I already checked. But I have no intention of killing you."
"You don't?" Joe blinked. "How did you plan- oh, no. No. Not going to happen, lady."
She looked distressed. "I regret that you feel so negative about it, but we honestly don’t have any choice." She firmed her chin and took a step toward Joe. "It might take a while for you to regenerate. It depends on how angry he still is. But I will be there for you when you rise. I give you my word."
"I see." Joe took another step back, putting his shoulders against the brickwork. He glanced between her and the werewolf. "You calculate that while your neurotic boyfriend is enjoying dinner, you can make a break for your coffin?"
Her lips tightened. "I don't sleep in a coffin!"
"I most humbly beg your pardon, madam!"
She took another step closer and raised a hand. "I'll make sure that there isn't any pain. Trust me."
"You won't even consider bruising him, but you want to kill me? Um, I don't think so." Joe whipped both arms up and crossed his forearms. Denise pursed her lips and sighed.
"I'm afraid I never was very religious." She glanced at the werewolf, who was shaking off the last shot and trying to stagger back up. "Joe. We don't have much time. Look at me."
Joe shot a blast directly into her face.
"Argh!" Denise recoiled and rubbed her eyes with both hands. "I was going to make it painless! That was uncalled for."
"Uncalled for?" He raised the a dust bin lid, just in time to turn and meet another werewolf charge. The werewolf growled and snapped. At that moment, something inside Joe snapped too. He shot another dose of spray into the creature's face, and knocked the werewolf's skull sideways with the lid. When the beast lunged in response he tripped it into plowing headfirst into a wall. It laid still for a moment, groaning.
"Neatly done." Denise stared and her expression turned speculative. "You are going to be quite impressive after the transition."
Joe kept his lid up. "Give up the idea, lady."
For the first time that night, her face shifted to become something other than human. "I think not, Mr. Martin. I have not survived ninety-three years as a vampire by surrendering to fortune. Nor do I intend to let this night be my last." Her eyes were twin coals of fire. "Come here to me, young man."
Joe found his feet moving despite his most urgent resistance. Denise waited impassively until he stood in front of her. "You might wish to close your eyes," she said. "Many people find this part disconcerting." Her expression softened almost imperceptibly. "It truly won't hurt, Joe. I promise." She reached for his chin.
Joe realized that his legs were his own again. So he let his knees collapse and went straight to the pavement before Denise caught him. On the way down, he fired off a completely disgraceful punch to the back of her knee. She grunted and fell backward, hitting her head on the wooden bin behind her. Hard.
He scrambled to his feet with speed born of rampant terror. The werewolf was in a half crouch, blinking and looking woozy. Joe looked back at Denise, who was no longer regarding him with anything like tender consideration, and tossed the spray flask at her chest. "Here. Maybe you can kiss and make up."
Then he took a leap of desperation and cleared the manwolf's hairy back with a good half an inch to spare. By the time the werewolf overcame its surprise and made a swipe, Joe was halfway to the street and running flat out. He did not even consider looking back.
He made the two block run to the shop that Denise had mentioned in record time. The store was empty when Joe ran in, sweat-soaked and panting, with a torn suit jacket and a wild expression. The herbalist stood up in a hurry and put his hand under the counter, looking wary.
Joe leaned on the counter, gasping, and said, "Please tell me that you sell garlic and wolfsbane. And that you have a telephone."
The police found no trace of Denise or her erstwhile paramour in the alley that Joe directed them to. With the evidence of Joe's torn suit in front of them, they did issue a bulletin to look out for a roaming shapeshifter. Then they offered Joe a ride back home, which he gratefully accepted.
He got no sleep to speak of the rest of the night, and was late to work the next day. He got docked an hour's pay, and had to scramble to catch up on his rounds. When his already shortened lunch hour got interrupted by a call to the factory switchboard he was not in a good mood. Learning his cousin Bill was calling did not improve his disposition. 
"Bill," he said. "If you knew what I was thinking right now, you would be getting ready to hop the next train out of town."
"What happened last night? Denise's neighbor said she came in just before sunrise looking terrible."
"Really?" Joe tightened his lips. "Like death warmed over, no doubt. Listen carefully, Bill. The next time you try to fix me up with a nosferatu, you'll be the one that I come after with a stake. It won't be your heart that I'll hammer it into, either."
"Come on, Joe. It couldn't have been that bad."
"You have no idea," Joe said. "Last night was the date from hell."
><>End<><

Sorry:) I couldn't resist. Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed this story. Reviews are always greatly appreciated.
A Dead-Ended Evening
A Dead-Ended Evening
A Campfire Tale
by Morgan Alreth
Copyright 2012 by Morgan Alreth
Revised and republished 2013
License Notes
This story is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This story may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this story with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
><><><
Joe Martin stepped off the trolley car three blocks from his home and wiped sweat from his forehead. Even though it was near sundown, the heat was smothering. He took a deep breath and started plodding down the uneven sidewalk, dodging splashes from the passing carriages and the occasional motorcar. His family's ancestral home was in the oldest part of town, with narrow cobblestone streets that barely allowed for private vehicles. Public transportation was out of the question once a person left the business district.
For the hundredth time he considered buying a bicycle. After pulling a double shift it was insulting the injury, asking his poor feet to hike all the way from the trolley stop to the house. But how would he carry his lunch bucket, toolbox, hardhat, gloves, and apron? He would have to get a sidecar for the bicycle, too. What he saved in foot pain would be more than made up in leg strain, pedaling the extra weight. Simpler to just walk.
Maybe someday one of his inventions would pay off. Then he could stay home and prop his feet up. He snorted.
Yeah, right. Of course, if you sold that sagging pile of lumber, and quit spending all your money on supplies for your tinkering, you could afford to rent a loft downtown and still not have to work overtime constantly.
Joe paused at the wrought iron gate that guarded his yard, looking at the old house. All his life, and his father's, and his grandfather's before him were spent living here. He glanced at the workshop, a converted carriage house. It might not make him any money, but at least it kept him somewhat sane. It helped fill the empty hours.
He stepped through the gate and latched it behind him, making sure that the crossbar fell into the proper slot to form a crucifix. For the thousandth time Joe wondered whether a Hindu or Jewish night walker would be intimidated by a cross. But it didn't hurt anything to have it, and it helped keep the neighbors approval.
A guardian pentagram was etched into one of the stone gateposts, and a protective sigil from Solomon's Third Key on the other post. Those marks, at least, he had faith in. When the closed gate re-connected the ends of the fence, a ring of cold iron around the yard was re-established. No magic would be cast on his property while it was intact. Not that the fae were likely to venture this far into a human city, and no practitioners of the Art were mad at him. Not that he knew of.
The sun was still half a finger width above the horizon. He sighed in relief, then headed inside to heat some dinner. The bottom of the icebox was sloshing full of water, with the ice block melted away to nothing. But the box itself was still cold enough for last night's stew not to have gone bad. Or he hoped that it hadn't, because he was going to eat it anyway. At least the bread wasn't moldy yet.
After dinner Joe lit the gas under his water heater and headed for his workshop. He figured an hour should be enough time to heat the water for a bath and some dishwashing. Just about what he needed to start the preparations for his latest project. Full darkness had fallen and Joe paused when he stepped outside, letting his eyes adjust. The gas streetlights weren't completely lit, and his end of the block was illuminated only by the dim glow from curtained windows along the street.
He turned a crank by the door several times and flipped a lever, igniting a small arc light on a pole between the house and shop. It wouldn't last long, but it gave him time to reach the shop and light the gas burner under his steam turbine. Five minutes later the steam pressure built up to the point that he could open the valve that drove the piston that turned the crank that started his generator. Artificial sunshine sparked into life all around the property.
Joe paused to look out the doorway with a smile. "I do love electricity."
He was putting the final touches on a new transformer core, and thinking seriously about closing things up, when his cousin Bill sauntered in. The shop was sweltering from the steam turbine, the air was full of dust and sparks from the grinding wheel, and the humming arc lamp overhead put down a glare more harsh than high noon in midsummer. Between the turbine, the grinding, and the lamp Joe didn't even notice his visitor at first.
His cousin grimaced and turned sideways to work his way around the stacks of copper and iron bars stacked in the middle of the floor. He waved to attract attention, then pulled a kerchief out to dust off his pants while giving Joe an aggravated look.
Joe shut off the grinder impatiently. "It's a workshop, Bill," he said. "Not a fancy lawyer's office. If you don't want to get dirty, send a telegram." He picked up the U-shaped piece of iron stock and carried it over to his bench vise.
"I don't expect it to be pristine," Bill muttered, following him across the brick floor. "But would it hurt you to run a broom out here once a year? Or a shovel? What are you making this time?"
Joe asked, "You know anything about how electricity gets sent from one side of the city to another?"
"No." Bill wiped sweat from his face. "How do you stand it out here?"
"Clears the pores, cousin." Joe grinned at him. "Come on, Bill. It's the twenty-first century. People have been using electric lights for fifty years. Surely you studied this in school. About the way electricity flows like water?"
"Some people use that stuff," Bill said. "I'm sticking with gas. I don't trust tame lightning. Besides, too many of my clients practice the Art. The last thing I need is to burn out one of the office's protective wards."
Joe waved a hand. "All right, Luddite. Point is, the way the power company does it is to run all the electricity in one continuous loop. I'm trying to see if it might work better if you flip it back and forth. Alternate the current direction on a regular cycle. I think it might make things more efficient."
"Why?" Bill looked blank and his cousin sighed.
"Never mind. You didn't show up here in that tie and vest just to hang around," Joe said. "Especially after sundown. What do you need?" He started winding copper wire around one side of the iron U.
Bill said. "And you call me a Luddite? The Accords of Mordecai have been in place for over a century. Night time is as safe as daylight now. Yet every evening you pen yourself in behind your iron ring and hang up your signs and wards, just as if it was Europe in the dark ages. They don't even do that in the hinterlands anymore. Wake up, Joe. The world is civilized, now."
"Civilized?" Joe stopped to stare in disbelief. "This from a criminal lawyer?" He snorted. "I've been thinking about running a wire around the top of the fence. Then I could add a smaller generator and charge an electric loop around the barrier, too."
Bill groaned and put his head in his hand. "Don't even think about it. There's no way you could afford to defend yourself against the lawsuits, Joe. Just let one midwife, or one seer, stroll past on her way to visit a client. Suddenly she finds two thirds of her equipment burned out and you end up paying a garnishment for the rest of your life, or in debtor's prison. Even if you sold everything."
"Which is why I haven't done it yet." Joe sighed. "Not until I figure out a way to limit the effect to my own property. So, what do you need? Your drain stopped up again?" He reached for a pair of wire cutters and snipped off the piece he was using.
"I'm here to do my dear kinsman a good turn." Bill offered a broad smile.
"I notice you got between me and the door before you said that," Joe grimaced. "I'm afraid to ask."
"Pessimist," his cousin said. "It's plain you need help. All you ever do is go to work, come home and tinker, then go to bed. You need a social life, Joe."
"I can't argue with that," Joe said. "But the only women I ever see are the secretaries at the factory." He traded the cutters for the pliers again and started winding wire around the other side of the iron.
"Exactly," Bill pounced. "That's why I decided to take pity on you." He gestured theatrically, as if expounding before a jury. "A fine lady at my office, a colleague of mine, has recently separated from her long term beau. Now, a woman like this not going to be available for very long. But this is your lucky week, Joe. I finally managed to talk her into meeting you."
"Not again." Joe froze with the pliers still in his hand. "The last time you fixed me up, I was ready to start a fire in the kitchen and sneak out the restroom window before dessert was served."
"I admit," Bill winced slightly, "Betty can be a bit forceful in expressing her opinions. But she honestly means well."
"The time before that," Joe said, "what was her name? Louise? She insisted on bringing her baby brother along. A more obnoxious snot-nosed son of Satan has never been spawned."
"Never mind." Bill raised a hand. "You owe it to yourself to meet this girl. She's beautiful and intelligent. A redhead," Bill said. "Tall, slim, smart, and stacked."
"I see," Joe gave him a narrow look. "No doubt she has a lovely personality, too."
"Of course, she... why are you looking at me like that?" He put on an innocent face.
"What's the catch, Bill?" Joe asked. "Why are you selling this one so hard?” He snipped off the second winding and carried his tools back to the cabinet. "For that matter, why would a woman who works in a lawyer's office want to go out with a maintenance mechanic?"
"She doesn't just work there," Bill said. "She's an attorney in her own right." He caught Joe's look. "I know. Remarkable, isn't it?"
"A lawyer." Joe chewed his tongue thoughtfully. "And she wants to go out with a maintenance mechanic who works in a factory. Just how ugly is she?" He took the piece of iron out of the bench vise and started toward a shelf.
"Joe." Bill said reproachfully. "That's unworthy of you. Besides, she's quite lovely, as I said. It's just that she's like the rest of us, too busy working to have time to go out and meet people."
"A good-looking, professional woman?" Joe chuckled. "One sight of me and she would run screaming into the night."
"Don't sell yourself short." Bill slapped his shoulder, nearly causing him to drop his project. "Just meet her, all right? What's the harm? You didn't have anything else planned, did you?"
Joe paused and grimaced. "I suppose you have a point." He gave him kinsman a hard look. "I'll give it one more try. If this one turns out to be another disaster, I want your word that you'll stop trying to fix me up. All right?"
Bill held up a hand. "Word of honor. After this, I won't need to. Trust me, this woman is the kind you only meet once in a lifetime."
"Now you really have me nervous," Joe said.
><><><
A week later, on another late afternoon, Joe stepped off a streetcar again. This time he stepped off at the outer edge of the city's entertainment district. The neighborhood he entered was the height of fashion fifty years ago. It had been slowly going to seed for the last generation, but it still hosted several good restaurants and theaters. Not the best ones, there was no way Joe could afford to take a lady to the best ones. But the arrangements he had made were perfectly respectable.
He started toward a large sign, decorated with elaborate calligraphy, which stuck out from the front of a hotel one street down. Halfway along the block he passed the comforting door of a blue collar bar and grill. Joe manfully fought back temptation. At least he could probably get a real beer and a decent sandwich there. But no. He grimaced and ran a finger under his starched collar. It wasn't the woman's fault. She had no doubt showed up in good faith. Sneaking away now would be a filthy trick.
Most of his trouble was the blasted suit. It was new, bought for the occasion, and it had cost him more than he could really afford. But he doubted that showing up in his coveralls would make a good first impression. Joe sighed and tried to adjust his stiff collar again.
"How does Bill live like this?" he muttered. He stopped in front of the garish sign and looked at the double doors in resignation. Then he adjusted his tie and stepped into the lobby with a knot in his belly.
Gas light from a cut glass chandelier splashed rainbows across fancy wallpaper, making him blink after the cloud covered evening outside. Every bit of woodwork was waxed and polished to mirror brightness, and the white marble floor looked fancier than his dinner plates at home. A small jungle of potted plants transformed his trip through the lobby into a safari.
He passed a front desk the size of an ocean liner, manned by a clerk in a uniform that most admirals would be embarrassed to get buried in. Finally his trek led him down a gaping hallway, carpeted with what looked like mink fur and lined with original paintings. He stepped through a Grecian archway and into a dining room that would have made Magdalene the Great self-conscious.
He paused at the top of a short staircase and looked over the room. Just his luck. There were three redheads, standing out like torches against the bleached tablecloths and gleaming crystal. A careful look from his elevated position showed that one of the redheads wore an engagement ring with a diamond the size of a baseball. The other one looked old enough to be a grandmother. He headed for the third table feeling reasonably confident.
"Miss Lenner?" He smiled. "I'm Joe Mart-." He stopped with his mouth half open and his blood congealing. She had glanced up at his approach, and the inhuman eyes alone were enough. He didn't need the deathly pallor, or the crimson lips to confirm it.
So this is what he was afraid to tell me. If I live through this Bill's a dead man.
"Excuse me." He cleared his throat. "Joe Martin. I presume you are Miss Lenner?" He didn't offer to sit down.
She smiled demurely and told him, "Yes. I am Denise Lenner. Please sit, Mr. Martin. I have been looking forward to meeting you." In the reflected light from the gas fixtures, a spark glowed in the depths of her eyes. His neck hair screamed and tried to flee. "Your cousin spoke eloquently on your behalf. I understand you are an inventor?"
Joe steeled himself and planted his butt across the table, keeping his feet well back. "Only in my spare time." He stole a look at the nearest table and his heart sank. The knives and forks were pewter. "I'm afraid my cousin often talks when a wiser person would keep their mouth shut."
For the prices this place charges, would real silverware be too much to expect?
"Have I offended you, Mr. Martin? So soon?" She looked across the table and made a pout. He dropped his gaze to the table, trying to think of something, anything, that would get him out of there.
"Certainly not, ma'am," he said, with rigid sphincters. "I apologize if I gave that impression." He hesitated. "Honestly, I have never been in a social situation before with someone of your, um, condition." She was wearing strong perfume, but he could detect a faint undertone of decay that made his skin crawl.
Amusement sparkled in those unsettling eyes. "I would never have guessed. Your cousin might have mentioned that I'm a licensed attorney. The Accords are quite strictly enforced, you know. In order for someone of my 'condition' to practice law we have to pass a yearly background check. Perhaps it might help to think of me as a person with exotic allergies."
The waiter came over, dressed like an undertaker. He lit the candle on the table, glanced down his nose at Joe’s suit, sniffed, and offered a menu.
"Of course, please forgive me Miss Lenner. I meant no offense." He looked up at the waiter. "Caesar salad." Then bit his tongue, but it was too late to take it back. Denise ordered a salad as well, without dressing. The guy sneered and strutted off.
"Please, don't let me interfere with ordering anything you like." She made a pretense of sipping her water. "I would hate to think I caused you to go home hungry."
I wouldn't touch that one with a ten foot pole.
"It's fine." He dragged a smile out of the basement. "I had a big lunch." After an awkward moment Joe asked her, "What kind of law do you practice?"
Against all odds, he started to relax. Denise was a charming conversationalist, and quite unselfconscious about being undead.
"I work in the night court, naturally," she said, smiling. "The vast majority of my clients are night folk. Usually nosferatu like myself, along with the occasional ghoul, or shapeshifter. Rarely does a mainstream human feel comfortable using my services, but there have been a few." She pretended to take another sip of water. "I'm really quite gratified at the progress that has been made in the last few decades in providing equal justice for all, no matter what their 'condition' might be."
Joe reflected that he had mentioned his upcoming date at work several times over the last week, so more than one person knew where he was. Bill knew who he was with, and certainly knew what she was. Maybe he could tough it out.
"Enough about me," she said. "I'm interested in hearing about your inventions. You cousin mentioned that you are working on a new way to move electricity around?"
"Er," Joe cleared his throat. "It's merely at the experimental stage right now. If it works out as I am hoping, it might be safer and more efficient. But it won't be anytime soon. Mainly I work on improving existing machines. Like, not long ago I invented a way to move the assembly lines at the factory where I work using much smaller motors. It saved the company a fair amount of money and got me a nice bonus check."
"How fascinating." She leaned forward and propped her chin on one hand. "Clever people like yourself are transforming the world. Almost faster than some of us can keep up with. I have continuously been impressed and amazed, watching how quickly things changed during the last century. "
Joe blinked. "The last... oh. I beg pardon. Please excuse me."
She laughed softly. "It's all right. You needn't be quite so delicate. I'm not going to tell you what my age was when I entered my current... condition. But it was early in the twentieth century. A charming man, really. But we drifted apart. These things happen. We still correspond on occasion."
While Joe ate she casually poked and stirred her bowl, maintaining the fiction of dining together. Joe chewed the last of his food, tasting the garlic in the dressing, and comforted himself by remembering that etiquette did not absolutely require him to use mints. A trace of garlic on his breath might be rude, but a little extra insurance didn't hurt.
They crossed the plaza to watch The Dogtamer's Misery. Joe personally despised the play, but it was the only highbrow entertainment that he knew well enough to discuss intelligently. At least one thing about this date was normal. Sitting next to a lovely woman in a dark theater always made his pulse race. Actually, sitting in the pitch darkness next to this particular woman had his heart pounding like a Gatling gun. But the tickets had cost him two day's pay, and it would take worse than the fear of death to make him waste them.
To his surprise, it didn't turn out badly at all. Denise had a wicked sense of humor, and she forced Joe to constantly choke back laughter by interjecting quietly merciless gems at the most tragic points in the play. Afterward, Joe thought long and hard about his options. Finally he gritted his teeth and followed through on his original intention, suggesting a carriage ride through the park.
Denise put on a rueful expression. "I’m afraid of horses and I don’t get along. You understand, I’m sure. Perhaps a pleasant stroll along the river instead?"
Joe's mouth went dry.
A nice, private walk through a dark patch of woods, late in the evening, arm in arm with a vampire.
He would rather have ambled through a lion pit while wearing a bacon loincloth. Unfortunately, decency left him no excuse for refusing.
The moon was a dim crescent that could barely be made out between rare gaps in the clouds. City lights from both banks drew oily streaks across the flowing ripples of the river. Joe made a point of gallantly offering to take the bank side of the walkway. Within leaping distance of running water.
He wistfully eyed the waist-high stone wall that was the only barrier between him and shimmering freedom. The river was less than a quarter mile across, he could make it to the other side. Except for the water fae, of course. Who were threatening reprisals against any human who dared to stick a toe in the river due to that unfortunate chemical spill last month.
One thing that didn't worry him was getting robbed. Not with Denise hanging onto his arm. The park was nearly deserted anyway. An occasional rustle in the bushes were casually identified by his companion as, "a cat," or, "two youngsters," with a smile. Joe noticed a solitary figure in the distance behind them, but thought nothing of it. It was a warm Friday night. No doubt someone else was out for walk.
They finally approached the far side of the park and took the footpath leading to the nearest cab stand. Joe breathed a silent prayer of devout thanks and offered to escort her home, which got an amused smile in response.
"Silly man." She tapped his nose, gently. "I don't need you to keep watch over me. Really. I'm quite safe, I assure you. Assuming we both find a cab with reasonable dispatch, I will be snug in bed before you are."
They were at the outer fringe of the park when she suddenly stopped and looked around. Her eyebrows narrowed. "What is it?" Joe watched and listened. The night's breeze had settled earlier in the evening. They had exited the park trail on the opposite end from the hotel, adjacent to a quiet residential area. Only a few random insects were advertising themselves.
"I'm not sure." The glow in her eyes flared. "Let's go." Denise headed away from the trees and started quick-stepping along the edge of the park, toward the brighter lights of the business district. He was quite willing to comply. Anything that made her nervous was more than he wanted to tackle. They picked up the pace to a brisk trot for half a block, while she kept looking around and behind them.
"Someone following us? A robber maybe?" Joe reached into his jacket pocket. The flickering gas in the street lamps painted moving shadows on every wall. It was well past midnight, and he was likely to be the only normal human outside at this hour. Every door was closed, every window dark. There were certainly no carriages nor motorcars on the street so late, and the cab stand was still a fair distance off.
"Not a robber." She snapped it out abruptly, with wide eyes. "Not human." She looked back again and started jogging.
Joe took in a deep lungful and sped up to keep pace. "Perhaps one of your... compatriots?"
"No." Her nostrils flared. "Not one of my kind either."
"Do you know what it is or not?" Joe was starting to get a touch exasperated.
"I hope not. Be ready to run for your life."
This did nothing to settle his nerves. Joe swallowed something cold and heavy. "We could find a telephone box and call the police."
"By the time they got here, we would both be dead," she told him. "Or it would disappear and we would look like fools. Keep going."
Something moved across the street. Denise grabbed his arm. "Come on!" They ran to the next intersection and cut down a side street. "There's an herbalist two blocks ahead," she said. "He trades with night folk, and his shop is protected."
Something growled. A huge shadow bounded across the street and stood up in their path. Denise made a shrill sound and dragged Joe backwards into a gap between two buildings. One swift glance was enough to show that it was a cul-de-sac without a rear exit.
Their pursuer sprang forward and landed within arm's reach. Gaslight gleamed on fang and claw.
"No!" Denise sounded almost scandalized. "You have no right to make trouble here. Go away."
The werewolf snarled and Joe pulled out a small glass bottle with a spray pump on top. He worked the trigger several times,  shooting a cloud of mist into the creature’s mouth. The snarl became a gagging yip. The creature pawed at its muzzle while the pair of them backpedaled down the alley.
Denise sighed. "I'm so sorry, Joe. I had no idea that he would go this far."
Joe looked at the werewolf, shaking its head and pawing at its muzzle. "You know this guy?"
"I'm afraid so." She looked embarrassed. "He's my ex-boyfriend."
"Good Lord." Joe whipped back around and unleashed another spray, directly into the oncoming creature's face. The beast yowled and rolled, clawing at its eyes.
"Nicely done," Denise said. She scooted directly behind him. "What is that? Wolfsbane?"
Joe said, "No. I wish it was." He shook the bottle nervously. "I can’t afford the cost of a weapon permit. So I invented this. I took the pure juice of the habanero pepper, concentrated it as much as I could, and mixed it with mothballs and turpentine. It’s rather unpleasant in the eyes and nose."
"I didn't know anything but aconite could affect a lycanthrope. I hope you have enough. That bottle looks distressingly small." She glanced at the sky, then took advantage of the respite to search around and under the trash bins that lined the walls.
"I thought I might get jumped. I never expected to be cornered by a shape shifter." He glanced over. "What do you mean, he's your ex-boyfriend? He's, a, you know."
"A werewolf. You can say it, Mr. Martin." Denise straightened, looking offended. "I realize that you are not overly broad minded concerning those who swim outside the mainstream. But Harold is a good man." She flickered a worried glance past Joe. "If it weren't for his uncontrollable jealously."
"Harold!?" The beast man snarled and took a swipe at Joe, who ducked back and shot her a look of disbelief. "His name is-" The werewolf lunged. Joe presented him with a mouthful of juice, which was unappreciated. The lycanthrope fell backward, gagging.
"Don't be snide." Denise glared.
"Why isn't he in one of the holding cells in the Lycanthropic Refuge?" Joe wiped a damp palm on his jacket. "He's supposed to be registered, isn't he? The law says that during the full... wait a minute."
It suddenly hit him. "Tonight is a crescent moon. Why is he wearing fur?" Joe eyed the half-vomiting werewolf.
"Well," Denise shifted uncomfortably. "Harold is one of those rare lycanthropes who is not strictly tied to a lunar imperative. Extreme emotional upset can also trigger the change. I fear that our breaking up, followed by seeing me in your company, most likely proved to be too much for his self-control."
"Well, talk to him!" Joe gestured. "Calm him down, will you?" The man beast saw Joe's gesture and made a swipe with its claws in response.
Denise declined to step forward. "I'm afraid that when he gets like this there is no reasoning with him. I'm sorry, Joe. I had no intention of dragging you into our little spat."
"Little spat?" Joe stared in disbelief. "This werebeast is trying to rip me in half, and you call it a little spat?"
"He is not a beast!" Denise seethed with indignation. "He is a sweet and gentle man… most of the time. In his normal condition he wouldn't harm a flea. It's only when he's provoked beyond endurance that this happens."
"Then why, in the name of Pythagoras, did you provoke him?" Joe flinched when the werewolf shook its head and started moving closer. "Nice wolfie. Good wolfie."
The manwolf continued to advance with bared fangs, unimpressed by his diplomacy.
"Look, you don't want us. It's just a little way to the edge of town, with all those wide open corn fields. Bound to be some deer out there... oh shit."
The creature lunged for Joe's arm, hooking the cloth of his sleeve. Joe shoved the spray directly against the werewolf's nose and bore down on the pump button twice. A howling scream split the night and the creature fell backward.
"Mr. Martin! Please! Your language."
"I'm sorry, madam." Joe said between his teeth. He wiped a haggard arm across his brow. "I'm feeling rather provoked myself."
"I suppose it's understandable." She did not look mollified. "Did he scratch you?"
"Just my coat. No skin, thank goodness." He tried to fight the shaking with a weak attempt at humor. "I don't want to grow fur. I was never one for the great outdoors."
She smirked faintly. "I prefer city lights myself." She glanced at the sky and her expression tightened. "The night is aging quickly. I cannot remain here."
"Can't you," Joe floundered. "You know, just climb the wall or something? Lure him away and then outrun him?"
Denise sighed and looked at him. "You have plainly been reading too much popular fiction. Yes, we are stronger and faster than most people. But not that much stronger and faster. Besides, how would I climb a sheer brick wall? I have no claws, nor am I a frog with suckers on my hands and feet."
"Lovely." Joe grabbed the wooden lid off a trash bin and held it in front of himself like a shield. "If you grab one of these we might hit him together and knock him off his feet. Then take off in different directions."
"Both of us?" She looked doubtful. "They aren't silver but he still might be seriously injured. Lycanthropes heal quickly, but there are limits. I don't want to hurt him."
"Of course not." Joe sighed and looked at the werewolf. It was still gagging and thrashing, but also still blocking their escape. "I am open to suggestions."
"Um." Denise pressed her lips together. "I do have a suggestion. Please hear me out."
"By all means." Joe took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"Once the transformation is complete," Denise said, "He will remain in lupine form until sunrise. And a werewolf never leaves its prey."
"Then we seem to have no other option than to try my suggestion." Joe took a firmer grip on his makeshift shield.
"Actually we do," Denise said. She glanced at the werewolf, who was rising up on shaky legs and staggering back in their direction.
Joe ducked behind his makeshift defense and kicked out at the nearest canine leg joint. Something cracked and the werewolf howled.
"Oh, Harold!" The distress in her voice was heart wrenching. Or it would have been, for anyone who was not in the alley with Joe. She looked at him and said coldly, "That was uncalled for, Mr. Martin." 
"Really?" He didn't take his eyes off the werewolf. "It didn't seem to inconvenience him." He pointed. The werewolf's broken knee joint twisted and pushed itself back into the proper shape. In a few breaths, the injury was completely healed.
"It's the principle of the thing," she said. "Harold is not responsible for what he's doing. You are."
"Are you saying that this is somehow my fault?" He glared in disbelief and applied another squirt, then muttered, "This is the last time I step outside after dark without a silver knife. The Accords be damned."
"You are not improving matters by escalating the conflict," she said primly. "Now, back to my suggestion."
"I'm all ears," Joe said, shaking his head.
"I hope and trust that you have no desire to see me burn in the sunlight, despite your misgivings earlier this evening." She gave him a direct look.
"Certainly not, madam," Joe said. "Perish the thought."
She smiled at him approvingly. "I'm also sure that Harold would be devastated if he returned to human form and learned that he had killed someone. Anyone at all, especially me. However, I have a plan that will allow us all to make it out of this undamaged." 
Joe rubbed his tired eyes. "So. What's your plan?"
The spark in her eyes deepened into a glow. "Harold is driven by jealousy. If he thought you were dead, he would probably be satisfied and leave."
"You want me to play possum?" Joe was confused.
"I'm afraid not," she said. "His nose would detect the ruse. And he could hear your breathing. No, I'm afraid we must actually stop your heart and breath for a time."
"WHAT!?"
"Please, calm down Mr. Martin. There is no need to shout."
"I think there's every need," Joe backed away from both of them. "He wants to kill me, now you want to kill me? HELP!"
"No one is within earshot, alas," Denise said. "I already checked. But I have no intention of killing you."
"You don't?" Joe blinked. "How did you plan- oh, no. No. Not going to happen, lady."
She looked distressed. "I regret that you feel so negative about it, but we honestly don’t have any choice." She firmed her chin and took a step toward Joe. "It might take a while for you to regenerate. It depends on how angry he still is. But I will be there for you when you rise. I give you my word."
"I see." Joe took another step back, putting his shoulders against the brickwork. He glanced between her and the werewolf. "You calculate that while your neurotic boyfriend is enjoying dinner, you can make a break for your coffin?"
Her lips tightened. "I don't sleep in a coffin!"
"I most humbly beg your pardon, madam!"
She took another step closer and raised a hand. "I'll make sure that there isn't any pain. Trust me."
"You won't even consider bruising him, but you want to kill me? Um, I don't think so." Joe whipped both arms up and crossed his forearms. Denise pursed her lips and sighed.
"I'm afraid I never was very religious." She glanced at the werewolf, who was shaking off the last shot and trying to stagger back up. "Joe. We don't have much time. Look at me."
Joe shot a blast directly into her face.
"Argh!" Denise recoiled and rubbed her eyes with both hands. "I was going to make it painless! That was uncalled for."
"Uncalled for?" He raised the a dust bin lid, just in time to turn and meet another werewolf charge. The werewolf growled and snapped. At that moment, something inside Joe snapped too. He shot another dose of spray into the creature's face, and knocked the werewolf's skull sideways with the lid. When the beast lunged in response he tripped it into plowing headfirst into a wall. It laid still for a moment, groaning.
"Neatly done." Denise stared and her expression turned speculative. "You are going to be quite impressive after the transition."
Joe kept his lid up. "Give up the idea, lady."
For the first time that night, her face shifted to become something other than human. "I think not, Mr. Martin. I have not survived ninety-three years as a vampire by surrendering to fortune. Nor do I intend to let this night be my last." Her eyes were twin coals of fire. "Come here to me, young man."
Joe found his feet moving despite his most urgent resistance. Denise waited impassively until he stood in front of her. "You might wish to close your eyes," she said. "Many people find this part disconcerting." Her expression softened almost imperceptibly. "It truly won't hurt, Joe. I promise." She reached for his chin.
Joe realized that his legs were his own again. So he let his knees collapse and went straight to the pavement before Denise caught him. On the way down, he fired off a completely disgraceful punch to the back of her knee. She grunted and fell backward, hitting her head on the wooden bin behind her. Hard.
He scrambled to his feet with speed born of rampant terror. The werewolf was in a half crouch, blinking and looking woozy. Joe looked back at Denise, who was no longer regarding him with anything like tender consideration, and tossed the spray flask at her chest. "Here. Maybe you can kiss and make up."
Then he took a leap of desperation and cleared the manwolf's hairy back with a good half an inch to spare. By the time the werewolf overcame its surprise and made a swipe, Joe was halfway to the street and running flat out. He did not even consider looking back.
He made the two block run to the shop that Denise had mentioned in record time. The store was empty when Joe ran in, sweat-soaked and panting, with a torn suit jacket and a wild expression. The herbalist stood up in a hurry and put his hand under the counter, looking wary.
Joe leaned on the counter, gasping, and said, "Please tell me that you sell garlic and wolfsbane. And that you have a telephone."
The police found no trace of Denise or her erstwhile paramour in the alley that Joe directed them to. With the evidence of Joe's torn suit in front of them, they did issue a bulletin to look out for a roaming shapeshifter. Then they offered Joe a ride back home, which he gratefully accepted.
He got no sleep to speak of the rest of the night, and was late to work the next day. He got docked an hour's pay, and had to scramble to catch up on his rounds. When his already shortened lunch hour got interrupted by a call to the factory switchboard he was not in a good mood. Learning his cousin Bill was calling did not improve his disposition. 
"Bill," he said. "If you knew what I was thinking right now, you would be getting ready to hop the next train out of town."
"What happened last night? Denise's neighbor said she came in just before sunrise looking terrible."
"Really?" Joe tightened his lips. "Like death warmed over, no doubt. Listen carefully, Bill. The next time you try to fix me up with a nosferatu, you'll be the one that I come after with a stake. It won't be your heart that I'll hammer it into, either."
"Come on, Joe. It couldn't have been that bad."
"You have no idea," Joe said. "Last night was the date from hell."
><>End<><
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