Sunday, October 16, 2016

AARON SMITH: Excerpt from 100,000 Midnights

Excerpt from
By Aaron smith
Copyright © 2016 Aaron Smith

Chapter One: 100,000 Midnights
I had become a hermit by the time I was twenty-two. Maybe I didn’t even know it had happened, but that’s how it was. I had lived a normal life, I guess, but somehow felt I was living in the wrong era, like I didn’t quite belong where or when I was. Looking back, I suppose I didn’t realize there was a piece missing from my life until she came to find me.
There is nothing outwardly unusual about me. I don’t look or act very anachronistically. I simply enjoy the idea of living in another, earlier time. I wouldn’t necessarily want to be trapped in the past, but I think I’d like to visit it. If time travel ever becomes a reality, I’ll be near the front of the line. Until then, I’ll have to be content to come as close as I can.
There do come times when I feel a great impulse to take one of those steps back in time to a simpler, more sentimental zone of experience. There is a way to capture at least a fraction of the feeling of which I speak. When I feel that need, I go on a little quest. I simply get into my car and begin to drive, and I look for what I like to call the quaint places.
There are places in America that feel as though they are somewhat behind in time. I’m not sure I can describe what makes me feel that way about those places, but it is certainly a combination of appearance and atmosphere.
Diners, that uniquely American sort of restaurant, can be particularly fit to be quaint places, though it takes a certain quality to fit that role. There are two kinds of diner. One is trying to be more, trying to be a modern restaurant. The menu grows, remodels are frequent, and as much as possible is done to increase business and divorce the place from its traditional roots. Those places feel pretentious to me. The other sort of diner can be almost magical in quality.
About an hour’s drive from my apartment is a town called West Mountain. The area is sprawling, ranging far and wide but sparsely populated. Much of it is made up of winding roads that twist between mountains and forests. West Mountain is not a town I visit frequently, but I go there when my need for the past is irresistible.
There is a Price-Perfect supermarket, still in the style of large food stores from at least fifteen years ago. The supermarket is flanked by a number of smaller establishments; a Laundromat, a beauty salon, an accountant’s office. On the opposite end of the shopping center is one of the saddest of all buildings: a closed-down movie theater, old style, with only three screening rooms. The movie house has been closed for at least several years but has never been demolished or converted into anything else. It stands there like a monument to a time when huge multiplexes didn’t exist just outside the boundaries of West Mountain. Nestled between the supermarket side of the town center and the theatre is the Paradise Diner.
It’s a narrow little restaurant, a counter with stools to the right and a handful of booths against the left wall. The wallpaper and lighting has not changed since the early eighties, if not before. The menu has not evolved either; it’s just standard, simple diner fare. There are never more than three people working there at a time, usually one or two waitresses and the cook, who rarely shows himself. Adding to the aura of the Paradise Diner is the fact that the overhead speakers play only some little-known local oldies station, permeating the air with music no older than the fifties, no newer than the mid-eighties. Even an occasional intrusion from the present—a customer’s cell phone conversation, or President Obama’s face on a newspaper that has been left on the countertop—doesn’t damage the sense of having stepped into an earlier era.
I don’t go there often. I fear too many visits might lessen the effect. But on occasions when I really need to cleanse my soul with a bath in the waters of the past, Paradise is an excellent choice.
Summer had recently ended, and the first hints of autumn were humming upon the evening breeze when I felt the past calling out to me. It had been a day of frustration and a lingering headache. I had worked my day job, growing tired of the routine long before my shift had ended. With fifty dollars in my wallet and a full tank of gas, I sped away as the sun was falling into its bed in the west. I drove slowly, no hurry to get where I was going. I exited the highway and took Broken Path Way into the forested hills that wove their way around West Mountain.
A few cars sat in the lot, several people coming and going from the Price-Perfect. The theatre sat in its usual place, windows dark and door chained shut, an empty husk of a place that had once been the site of glowing screens, first kisses concealed in shadows of back row seats, and bits of popcorn spilled among the aisles. The sight of the theatre’s abandoned shell always sent a small spark of sadness rippling through my heart. I put the emotion aside and parked the car across from the Paradise Diner.
I was glad to see that the diner was nearly empty. I didn’t want company, just food and room to breathe and think. I seated myself in the fourth booth and was greeted by the waitress.
“Something to drink, honey?”
I asked for coffee and pretended to scan the menu as she went to pour it. There was no need for me to read the words. I’d just get a burger and fries, well-done as always. Yes, I was hungry, but it wasn’t about the food. It was about the warmth of feeling that there was no change, no progress, and no stress of what would happen tomorrow—only the archetypal diner and the atmosphere of a time when I might have felt like I belonged.
The food arrived and the waitress left me alone. I munched slowly on the burger, alternating with a fry or two. The radio hummed low in the background, and the only other sound was the occasional clatter of pans and plates from the kitchen. I ate and breathed and dreamed a little dream of the past, wishing I could step through a magic door and go back a few decades.
The bell above the door jingled. I turned, expecting a Price-Perfect employee or a local cop. I was wrong. A woman entered, barely more than a girl. She didn’t look much older than nineteen for that first instant, but I quickly felt that there was a quality to her that suggested something more than a teenager. I saw a hint of deep experience, almost jadedness there.
She was stunningly beautiful and timeless too. She looked as if she could have walked into that diner in the forties or in any decade since. Her attire seemed to be the uniform of eternity, acceptable twenty years ago or acceptable twenty years from now. She was dressed almost entirely in black. A leather jacket, light for fall; black jeans, tight but not excessively so; short black boots, into which were tucked the ends of her pants. A red T-shirt showed from under the jacket, the only hint of a brighter color on her body. The body was slim, well-curved, petite in all ways. Her hair, shoulder-length and wavy, was a dark brown shade. Her face was pale, but not unhealthily so. Her facial expression was serious, but there was mischief in there too.
The new arrival sat in the booth two spaces behind me. The waitress walked over and muttered a greeting. Her words were casual, as if the girl was a regular. The waitress placed a glass of water on the table and then went back to her cleaning. I finished my burger and waited, angling my head to try to catch a glimpse of the timeless girl without being too obvious. In the mirrors, I could see only the black edge of her jacket sleeve; the rest of her, including the enchanting face, was out of my line of sight.
The waitress collected my empty plate, refilled my coffee and dropped the check on my table. “No hurry, honey, take your time.” Nobody was waiting to take my place in the booth. I kept my ears perked for anything the girl in the other booth might say or do, but all I could hear was the occasional tap as she put her water glass down after a sip. I thought it odd that the waitress had not yet gone back to take her order.
I sipped my coffee. I didn’t want to get up. I loved the atmosphere of the place, and my enjoyment was now twofold. The food was good, as always, and I was curious about the girl behind me. Her water glass clinked down onto the tabletop once more. I heard her slide out of her seat and walk toward my booth.
She stopped next to me. She radiated a quiet confidence, giving more weight to my impression of her being older, or at least wiser, than she seemed on the surface.
“You’re alone,” she said in a soft voice.
She sat down without invitation, taking the opposite side of the booth. She smiled slightly as she sat. The waitress placed another glass of water on the table in front of my guest. She asked if I wanted more coffee, but my cup was still three quarters full and fairly warm.
I was startled by the situation I had found myself in, but knew I should speak.
“I’m Eric.”
“My name is Siobhan,” she said. The name was uncommon, but I had heard it before.
“Siobhan,” I repeated. “An old Irish name. It’s not heard much now, at least in the U.S.”
“Aye, ’tis so,” she said with a smirk, faking an Irish accent. Perhaps she wasn’t faking it, but resurrecting it. No, that couldn’t be. She was certainly no older than me. How could she have had the time to grow an accent and then lose it for long enough for it to need to be resurrected?
“Are you from Ireland?” I asked.
“I was … once,” she said, “but I left there a very long time ago.”
“You speak older than you are …” I started to say, not sure if I was making sense.
“No,” she corrected me, “I’m older than I look. Much older.”
“How much older?”
“Before we get into that,” Siobhan said, smiling, “what is it that brought you here to this little place tonight, alone and so quiet here in this booth?”
“I come here when I want to feel the past,” I said.
“So,” Siobhan responded, her Irish accent put back in her pocket and her American one again at the forefront. “You like the past; you prefer it to the present year.”
I was amazed that she seemed to understand. She hadn’t tilted her head in a gesture to imply that I was weird, as most people would have done if I’d expressed myself like that.
“Do you think we’ve both found ourselves here coincidentally?” she asked.
“What else could it be?” I asked, unsure of where she was trying to lead me with her words.
She trembled a bit.
“Look to your left,” she said.
I did as she suggested, turning my head and glancing into the mirrors on the wall. I saw what I expected to see: my own face reflected back at me. The image seemed normal for about a second. Then it hit me. Siobhan’s face wasn’t there! Her hands weren’t there! I saw her clothing, and it moved as if it was full of her body, but I could not see any of her! I turned back to her. She was there, looking just as she had looked before.
I reined in my shock and stared at her for a minute before I remembered how to speak. “What is this?” I said as clearly as I could. “A trick or a joke?”
Siobhan laid it all on the line. “It’s no trick, silly. I’m a vampire.”
I tapped on the mirror to make sure there was nothing unusual about it, no illusion or parlor trick. There wasn’t.
“So you live on the blood of people? You sleep all day and stay awake all night and kill people to drink their blood?”
Siobhan laughed a little. “I drink blood, yes. I sleep when the sun is visible, yes. But I do not kill. I haven’t for a long time.”
“The waitress!” I blurted, trying to piece together what was happening. “She didn’t notice that she can’t see you in the mirror. She brought you that water but didn’t ask if you wanted anything else. Does she know what you are?”
“The waitress is inconsequential,” Siobhan said. “She’s average, mediocre, and mundane enough that I can control her perceptions to keep her from realizing. If I chose to, I might be able to do the same to you, but I’ve decided otherwise.”
“So what do you want with me?” I was thirsty for facts, eager to get to the core of what was happening.
“Think about it,” she suggested. “You live your life lonely and in love with the past, and I’m a piece of that past. I’ve been around for a long, long time. And now I find you here and you find me. Do you really still think this is all a coincidence?”
“What’s with the glass of water?” I wanted to understand all aspects of the situation. Siobhan had grown more serious, the smirk had left her face, but I was still unsure of what to think. “I thought vampires only drank blood.”
“And what is blood?” she said, taking another small sip from the glass. “Human blood is made up mostly of water. Think of this as blood-lite.”
I almost laughed, but was stopped by her next words. Her tone turned in a gentle direction, soft and curious, questioning.
“Are you afraid of me?”
“No,” I told her. “Maybe I should be … but my interest is drowning any fear I might feel … and I still don’t know if I believe you.”
Her face changed. There was a soft scraping sound from her mouth, which was closed. When her lips parted, her teeth had elongated into fangs where normal bone and enamel had been an instant before. Tiny daggers shone from between her lips—jagged, keen, and deadly. The fangs remained for only a minute as I stared in fascination, then shrank back into teeth indistinguishable from those of any other young woman.
“Prove to me that you really have no fear of me,” she whispered across the table. “Come outside.”
I stood and tossed some money onto the tabletop, enough to cover the check and a generous tip. I followed Siobhan outside. The breeze was crisp on my face as we exited the Paradise Diner. We walked over to my car. She sat on the hood and motioned for me to sit beside her. I was not afraid, for my fascination with the night’s events had cancelled out any hint of a thought for my own safety.
“Tell me everything,” I said.
“Where should I start?” She seemed suddenly happy. Maybe she was relieved that I seemed to believe what she had told me so far.
“Well, Siobhan,” I said to her, enjoying the sight of her reignited grin, “you said you were older than you look. I can tell now that you’re no teenager. How old are you … really?”
Without hesitation, she answered, straight-faced. “With both phases added together, I’m two hundred and ninety-two years old.”
“Two ninety-two!” I shouted in surprise. “And what do you mean by ‘both phases’?”
“My two different lives combined,” she explained. “I was born … the way you were born … in what the calendar calls the early seventeen hundreds. When I was eighteen years old, I became what I am now … and that was two hundred and seventy-four years ago.”
“Tell me more,” I begged. “I want to know what it’s like to live so long, and what it’s like to be what you are.”
“What it’s like to be a vampire …” She paused for a moment, thinking. “I’ve been this way for so long that it’s difficult to compare my two lives. I have more memories of the later phase, the life of night and hiding and disguise. Still, despite its differences, being a vampire has advantages. My life is indeed a life worth living, which is why I’m here tonight, with you.”
“Siobhan, why are you here with me? You didn’t come here just to let me know that vampires really exist, did you?”
She laughed slyly. “No, I didn’t. I came here because I need something. And no… it’s not your blood, so don’t worry about that. If it were that simple, I’d have taken it as you slept. It’s a bit more complicated than that. I suppose, my friend, you could consider this a job interview.”
My patience was wearing thin. As much as I’d been enjoying the strangeness of the conversation, I wanted the truth. “Just tell me!”
“All right,” she said, and she looked a bit embarrassed. “You seem to believe that I am what I say I am. I need to ask you one more question … and then I promise I’ll tell you exactly why I’m here with you and what it is that I hope you can do for me.”
“Okay.” I nodded. “Then ask.”
“Do you believe in God?”
“No … yes …no… I’m not sure. That could mean so many things. Do I have a particular religion? No. Do I believe the Bible is a historical document? Absolutely not! Do I think there might be some sort of intelligence much higher than man that exerts some kind of control over the universe and that maybe even created us? I suppose it’s possible. But I don’t understand how this relates to us being here and you being a vampire and …”
“Hush,” Siobhan said, putting a pale finger to her lips. “That was the sort of answer I was hoping for, and the kind I expected, since you didn’t try to wave a cross at me or rebuke me or some other such nonsense when I showed you what I am.”
I wasn’t sure exactly what she meant, but I had answered her final question as I’d agreed to. “Now please tell me what this is all about,” I implored her.
“When I became a vampire,” Siobhan began, “it was not an easy thing. It was not my choice, it was not planned. There are those among us who are not so considerate of the rights of humans to live their lives. Some of us drain their prey mercilessly and kill without hesitation. I was attacked, torn open, left for dead. But somehow, by some slim chance, I did not die the death that most mortals meet. I had enough life left in me to survive … and to transform. I became what I am now, a creature of the night … but I was lost and alone; there was no one to guide me or teach me how to deal with what I was. It took me many years and many near disasters to grow used to my new state of being, but I managed.
“Even when I had gained enough confidence to make my way through the night and find ways to survive, I had to learn by hard experience. Then, one night many years after my metamorphosis, I heard rumors of a book, a bible of sorts, written by one of my kind in some forgotten place long ago. It was said that copies and translations of this book could be found if one were lucky enough to know where to look. I eventually succeeded in finding and reading a copy of this book, The Book of Crimson Lore, as it is called. It was then that I learned a bit more of the nature of my kind.
“The transformation of a human into a vampire is only the beginning of a process. The first period in the vampire’s life endows us with one set of abilities and physical functions. For many years this first state of being lasts. Eventually though, another change takes place. When one of us reaches the point of having been a vampire for about one hundred thousand days and nights, give or take a year or two depending on the individual, we reach the border of what is called the Eldering.
“When the Eldering occurs, our minds and bodies have had sufficient experience in the vampiric ways to fully embrace what it is that we are capable of, and our powers increase. We become even more than we were before. It is, I suppose, the point in time at which a vampire grows up!”
As Siobhan was speaking, I had mentally done some calculations. “A hundred-thousand days; that’s your age, give or take,” I observed.
“Yes,” she confirmed. “And that is why I have come to you tonight.”
“Why do I get the feeling this is going to involve more than baking you a birthday cake?”
Her finger went to her lips again, signaling me to shut up and listen. “There are beings in this world that do their best to destroy my kind,” Siobhan continued. “That’s why I asked you the religious question. Some call them angels, for that is what they look like to some who see them. I wanted to be sure you would not judge them by appearances. Let me explain. We don’t know what they really are or where they come from, but these entities ignore us when we are young, but have some way of knowing when one of us is about to reach the Eldering. When that occurs, one of them appears to kill us. Whatever originally created these beings and set them to performing such deeds no longer exists or no longer has control over them, for there is no intelligent strategy to their methods. They never come in greater numbers and never alter their plans to appear before the Eldering is imminent. They are predictable, but quite deadly to the undead.
“We suspect they may have been originally created by some ancient and long-forgotten technology or magic. Now, they are merely robot-like agents of some forgotten cause, perhaps initially made to protect humanity from my kind, but now just automatons with no mind to lead them but their programming. They attack in the day, when a vampire must sleep. They are strong enough to defeat any one of us who has not passed the moment of Eldering and even some of those who have. But, my friend, the interesting thing is that they cannot, by some detail of their programming perhaps, intentionally harm a human mortal!”
It sounded like a big fish story to me, yet I had believed Siobhan up to that point and my instincts were still telling me to trust her, but I had to interrupt. “Okay, fair enough, but even if these things can’t hurt me … if they’re so powerful, how can I hurt them? I’m guessing that’s where this story is leading; you want me, for some reason I still don’t understand, to protect you from these angel-robot things.”
“You can’t destroy it physically,” Siobhan confirmed. “But there is another way. It is possible to convince it to refrain from killing a vampire. It’s been done before, but nobody seems to remember how. Do you understand what I’m saying? I’m asking you to stay with me as I sleep tomorrow and do what you can to communicate with it and try to—to put it in more modern terms—override its programming!”
“But why did you pick me? I’m nobody; just an old man in a young man’s body who would rather be somewhere else in some other decade and feels like a stranger in his own hometown and his own century half the time and hasn’t really ever done a crazy thing like this before! Why choose me? Why do I get drafted to save the damsel in distress?”
Siobhan burst out laughing in a joyous, sarcastic, raucous, piercing cackle. It was irritating and musical all at once. “You just answered your own question! You described yourself … and you’re not so much different than I am. You know what I am, and you don’t fear me or feel disgust when you look at me. You can sympathize, you can care. Something, some instinct inside me, though I don’t understand exactly what it means, tells me that sincerity counts for something when it comes to helping someone who needs it. That’s why. Do you understand what I’m asking? Will you do it? Will you help me?”
Everything I’d been told whirled around in my brain as Siobhan stared at me expectantly. I was afraid, I’m perfectly willing to admit, but I was also fascinated. Her being with me for just a short time, only an hour or a bit more, had revealed things to me that I had never dared think might actually exist. Vampires! Angelic automatons that hunted vampires! I couldn’t just tell her I wouldn’t help, and get in my car and drive away into the night. There was nothing to lose; the thing that would come to kill her couldn’t hurt me, she had promised, though I wasn’t sure if I believed her completely. Even if there was some element of danger, I told myself, what was at stake was the chance to continue the experience that the night in West Mountain had been so far. It was worth the risk.
“I will.” I tried to sound confident.
Siobhan smiled, softly this time, gratefully. “I will pay you for this,” she whispered.
“You don’t have to do that,” I said, laughing a little. “I don’t need money.”
She shook her head. “Not in money, not in cash. I can pay you in something else, something you can appreciate more than most can. I’ll share memories with you. You love the past. Let me show some of it to you. I have two hundred and ninety-two years to tell you about, assuming I’m still alive this time tomorrow night.”
“You will be,” I blurted out without thinking. “I promise.” I had no idea if I could keep that promise.
* * * *
“Where are we going?” I asked as we pulled out of the lot in my car. As soon as I had agreed to her request for help, Siobhan had hopped down from the hood and walked around to the passenger door. I opened the driver side door and let us both in.
“There’s a bookstore on the highway,” Siobhan answered, “a Holmes & Valour store. Do you know it?”
I nodded. Holmes & Valour was the biggest chain of bookstores in the state. The branch of which Siobhan spoke was perhaps twenty minutes from the center of West Mountain. “Why are we going to the bookstore?” I glanced at the dashboard clock. “It’s almost midnight. Stores are closed now.”
“I’ve been working there,” she told me, “and living there. One of Holmes & Valour’s executives is an old acquaintance of mine. He gave me a job there, packing out books overnight. He also provided me with a small room in the basement, out of the way and dark and private. Half of my paycheck goes to me, and the rest goes to paying for the use of the space. It’s unorthodox, but it serves to give me a bit of sanctuary while I’m in this area. Don’t worry about the details; he knows my Eldering is at hand and he knows what I’m doing to try to survive it. I’ll sleep and you’ll just wait inside the store.
“You’ll know when the time comes and when the threat has arrived. Trust me, you’ll know. The employees on the day shift won’t bother you. My friend has created a scenario in which they’ll think you’re some kind of inspector from the corporate offices. They’ll leave you alone and you’ll be free to do what you have to. But try to be discreet, all right?”
We reached the bookstore and I parked. We walked up to the front doors and Siobhan took a set of keys from her jacket pocket. We were inside with the doors locked behind us in a moment. Inside, I looked around. I had been to the store many times, but it was surreal to see it in the middle of the night. Only dim reserve lights were on, barely enough to see where we were going. The rows of shelves with their assortment of books and related merchandise looked odd, covered in shadows as they were. We made our way to the back of the sales floor and entered a doorway marked “Employees Only.”
Behind the door was a staircase that led down to the basement. I tried to follow Siobhan down and stumbled in the complete darkness.
“Sorry,” she said with a chuckle. “I forgot your eyes don’t work here like mine do.” When she had reached the bottom of the steps, I heard the flick of a switch as the stairs were lit and I could see well enough to meet her at the bottom.
She led me to the far end of the basement, past the stacks of boxes. There was a door back there, hidden behind the corridors that had been created by the piles of boxes. Siobhan opened the door and went in. I followed. Inside was a tiny apartment. There was a cot against the wall, big enough for a person of Siobhan’s size to lie comfortably. A heap of clothing lay scattered on the floor along with a handful of books, mostly volumes of photographs. Perhaps she liked to look at pictures of the things she could no longer see in daylight. I did not ask if my guess was correct.
“This is where I sleep,” she said. “It’s Spartan, but adequate.” The way she said that reminded me that she was far older than she looked.
“So what do we do now?”
“You need to sleep,” she told me, but I protested.
“I’m fine.”
“No, trust me, you need to sleep. We have approximately five hours till dawn. Once the sun starts to rise, I’ll have to lock myself in the room and you’ll need to be on guard. You have to get some rest before that.”
“I don’t know if I can fall asleep. I’m a little excited by all this.” I laughed as I said that, appreciating how utterly bizarre my night had turned out to be. “It’s not that I don’t see your point, but I don’t think I can sleep.”
She took a step in my direction. “Do you trust me?”
“Yes,” I told her. “I probably shouldn’t. You’ve already admitted that you prey on people, even if you don’t kill them, but yes … I trust you.”
She reached out and brushed her hand against my cheek. Her fingers were soft and cool. It felt good. “Sleep … my friend …” she purred in a soft, soothing voice. I began to feel in the warmest, most comfortable way. I allowed myself to fall onto the cot, aware to some degree that she was exerting some sort of vampire mind control over me, but perfectly willing to just let it happen. It felt wonderful to slip into unconsciousness.
“I’ll be upstairs working,” I heard her say as I drifted away. The door clicked shut behind her.
The physical world was gone as soon as my eyes closed. The sleep was perfect, without worries, without concern. I began to dream. Strange and spectral things danced across my slumbering mind.
My mind regurgitated the ideas I had associated with vampires before that night, images culled from movies, mostly. I saw Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, and Max Schreck. I saw dark skies with pale moons and large, looming castles and bats and coffins and all the stuff that had attached itself to the idea of blood-drinking creatures in the years after Stoker’s Dracula had made its mark on people’s minds. When my dreaming mind had finished with all the old, I began to dream of Siobhan.
Strangely, I do not recall the details of the portion of my dreams that concerned Siobhan. I have only a vague set of memories of alternating images of beauty and blood, of softness and savagery. It felt like the mechanisms of my mind were struggling to reconcile my perception of her as a potential friend with my intellectual realization that she was the sort of being that survived through predatory practices and fed on the substance that keeps human beings alive. The two ideas seemed contradictory, yet I could not bring myself to fear or loathe what I knew she was.
Eventually, I woke to the sound of the door opening. I sat up to watch Siobhan enter with a cup of coffee in her hand. She gave it to me and I gratefully took a sip.
“It’s perfect. For someone who drinks blood, you make a damn good coffee.”
“Observation is the key,” she said. “I counted the emptied sugar packets and creamers on your table in the diner, so I knew exactly how you take your coffee. It was easy.”
“What time is it?”
“The sun will begin to rise in a few minutes. The store’s first employees will arrive soon too. It’s time for us to change places. You’ll go out into the basement and I’ll lock myself in here and sleep.”
I rose and walked toward the door. Siobhan stopped me by placing a hand on my chest. She smiled. “Thank you … for everything. I’ll see you when I awake safely. Trust your instincts and you’ll do just fine.”
I did not know what to say. This astounding woman, so young and yet so incredibly old, had just placed her safety in my hands. We had only known each other a few hours, but she was willing to rely on me in the most important way, if only for one crucial day. I walked out of the room and shut the door behind me. I heard her lock it from the inside.

Chapter Two: A Stitch in Time
The store’s manager, a man in his late forties with gray temples and thick glasses, was among the first to arrive that morning. He made his way to the basement and greeted me with a handshake. He told me he had confidence that my findings upon inspecting the conditions of his store would be satisfactory. I found it a bit odd that he would see nothing strange about the corporate inspector that I supposedly was being dressed as casually as I was, or being so young. It made me wonder if Siobhan had used her mind influence on the man.
The manager promised to leave me alone and let me do my job in peace and told me that I had free rein to go wherever I wanted in the store. He also promised me free coffee for the duration of my visit. I was happy to hear that, though I had only barely begun to drink the cup Siobhan had given me.
A little while later I ventured up to the main floor of the store. Siobhan had told me that I would know, in some way, when the anticipated danger approached, so I saw no reason to stand outside her door all day.
I walked up the stairs to the ground level and saw the sun shining through the large windows of the storefront. A few employees were moving about the place, setting up the cash registers, opening the coffee area, and straightening up displays of books. I could see the front doors were still locked as the store would not be open for business until nine.
I watched those few employees carefully, but saw nothing to indicate anything suspicious. Most were young, perhaps college students working when there were no classes, or recent graduates working retail until they could find better jobs. I wasted the time until the opening by wandering up and down the aisles and finishing my coffee. Nine o’clock arrived and the manager unlocked the doors. I watched the first few customers enter but realized I could not stand around and inspect every person who came into the building. I would have to trust my instincts and know when it was time. I chose an aisle—the horror section—and pulled a book from the shelf and sat down read for a while. It was a volume of stories by HP Lovecraft, stories filled with the same sense of dread that I felt.
I sat and read for nearly two hours. I finally stood up and got myself another coffee. I took the cup and went out the front doors, needing some air. I walked around the perimeter of the store, just breathing and trying to relax before going back inside. It was noon when I reentered the building.
One o’clock arrived and went, followed by two and then three. I was beginning to wonder if anything was going to happen at all. I returned to the basement to see if things were as I had left them. There was no one visible in the basement; the workers all seemed to be upstairs assisting customers. The door to Siobhan’s little room was still closed. I turned the knob and found it still locked from inside. I began to climb back up the stairs.
I was halfway up the steps when a man entered at the top and descended toward me. That was when I felt a strange sizzling in the air, a sudden knowledge that I was about to come face to face with something that was unlike anything I had ever encountered before. The feeling shook me to the core. I froze on that middle step as the figure above me came closer. As he came into view, I could see that he appeared to be a man of about forty, tall and built like an athlete, dressed in a suit with a white shirt and black tie.
He stopped two steps above me. He opened his mouth.
“Excuse me,” he said. His voice sounded normal enough, deep and low with no strange accent. “I must go down the steps.”
“Sir,” I responded, “this area is for employees only. All of our merchandise is upstairs.”
His voice grew stiff, serious, and officious. “It is imperative that I go below.”
The change in his manner of speaking chilled me. He had shifted his pronunciation to sound almost robotic, pre-programmed, with a hint of otherworldliness. “There is something I must do.”
“Who are you?” I asked him. “What do you need in the basement?” As I spoke those words, I hoped Siobhan’s information had been accurate and that a being such as whatever this man was could not physically harm a human being.
“It does not concern you.” His voice seemed to grow more rote and robotic with each word. I decided to stop pretending I didn’t know what he was after in the basement.
“You’re not going down there,” I said, trying to sound as adamant as possible, despite my nervousness. “I know what you want. You can’t have it.”
“It is the will of God!” the thing shouted, but unconvincingly so, as its voice still sounded like a stiff recording.
“There is no God!” I shouted back at it, recalling Siobhan’s suggestion that such a being’s programming could be overridden somehow, not that I expected that first attempt to work, and it certainly did not. Instead, the thing did what I had hoped it would be incapable of doing: it hit me!
It wasn’t so much a punch as a mighty slap with the palm of its hand. I went flying backwards down the stairs, crashing back-first into a heap of half-empty boxes. The wind was knocked out of me but I scrambled back into a standing position as the thing came bounding down at such a speed that I found myself standing face to chest with it.
The thing stared down at me and I stared up into its cold, calculating eyes. “What the hell was that?” I shouted. “I thought you couldn’t hurt a human being!”
“Your bones are intact … as are your organs, mortal. I cannot kill you or cause damage, but I will prevent you from interference to my objective.” It grabbed me by the shirt and lifted me up off the floor as if I weighed no more than an empty milk carton. It turned the corner and tossed me into the main part of the basement. I hit another stack of boxes, full ones that time, knocking them over and landing in a tangled heap of cardboard and outdated magazines. I struggled to shove the debris aside and get back up. My attacker moved past me with considerable speed and made its way toward the door behind which Siobhan slept.
“Stop!” I shouted, fearing failure, terrified that I was about to lose the strange companion I had found on the weird autumn night that had just passed.
To my surprise, the being in the black suit did stop. He turned and looked at me as I got to my feet and prepared myself for whatever was to happen next.
“Your commands are invalid,” it said coldly. “The objective will be accomplished, the goal will be reached.”
I did the only thing I could think of to do. I asked a simple, direct, single word question. “Why?”
“Because it is the will of God.”
“And how do you know that?” I asked, determined to keep testing the automaton’s resolve.
“I know the will of God through the word of God.”
“But,” I protested, “have you met God, spoken to him, or seen him?”
“I do not have to. The world is as it is and my mission is clear to me.”
“And what would that be?” I asked, trying to stall him from going any closer to the door.
“A being is here whom I must destroy.”
“A being,” I shouted at him. “Do you mean a woman?”
“A woman is a female of the human race. What I seek to destroy is a vampire, a thing that cannot be allowed to exist.”
“And what are you?” I cried out. “You’re not human, are you?”
“I am an angel!”
“Prove it!”
He didn’t hesitate. He puffed out his chest in a confident gesture and threw his head back in a dramatic pose. There was a bright flash of light and a booming sound like a clap of thunder. When the noise and light cleared, I was standing there looking at what really did appear to be an angel. The black suit was gone and in its place was a flowing white robe. The being wore sandals and a robe and wielded a flaming sword.
“I am the angel Michael!” his voice boomed at me. His stiff accent drew the name out as Mee-kay-ell. “Now you will be gone and I shall proceed with this vital matter of evil’s destruction!”
I actually laughed out loud at what I saw and heard. “Are you serious?” I blurted. “A little light and thunder that could have come from any community theatre version of Frankenstein; is that the best you can do? No wonder you have to attack people as they sleep!”
“I do not attack people,” Michael tried to correct me. “I seek out and destroy vampires.”
“And the one you’ve come here to kill is not a person? You’re wrong,” I told him. “She’s as much a person as I am … and more than you’ll ever be. You’re no angel; you’re not even a man! You’re a machine! I don’t know exactly what you are … but no real man with a free mind would come here and try to assassinate a woman while she sleeps!”
“Mortal, I am required to warn you that if you do not cease your attempts at interference, I will have to restrain you while I go about the completion of my task.”
My mind raced. Apparently, Siobhan’s information had been accurate and the thing that called itself Michael was forbidden from injuring me, but it could prevent me from physically interfering with the job it was there to do. Based on the way it had tossed me around like an old rag, I had no doubt it could do so. I had to find an option before it made another move.
I glanced around at the piles of boxes and heaps of books that were strewn about the basement storage area. Books would do no good, and the boxes would be useless as weapons. Then I saw something that sent a chill through me but also gave me an idea and a glimmer of hope that I might have found a way.
I fell into a kneeling position and scooped up the box cutter that had been left on the floor. I pressed the safe end down on the floor, causing the razor-sharp blade to protrude from the casing. I held it up for the so-called angel to see.
“Do not take another step in my direction!” I shouted.
“I will not approach you, mortal,” Michael’s stiff voice told me. “I will proceed with my mission.” He turned toward the door behind which Siobhan slept.
“No!” I roared, waving the open box cutter in the air. “If you go near that door… I’ll use this blade on myself! You’ll be responsible for injury to a human being … and you’ve been forbidden from harming me … haven’t you?”
“Relinquish the weapon, mortal.”
“I will not,” I said, trying not to let my voice shake with the nervousness that increased with every second. “If you move toward the door or toward me, human blood will be spilled because of your actions.”
I wondered what time it was. I had lost track. I had no idea how long it was until dark, when Siobhan would awake.
Michael did not move at all. He stayed where he was, not proceeding in the direction of the door nor moving any closer to me. He simply stared at me, as if his programming had not prepared him for an event like the one I had just instigated. For minute after minute we stayed in that strange stalemate. I began to wonder if minutes had leaked into hours. I stayed in my kneeling position, shifting only as much as I had to in order to keep stiffness and pain from setting in. Michael did not move at all. The box cutter never left my grasp.
The thing that called itself an angel finally did something after what might have been several hours. It spoke.
“The allotted time for my goal is nearing its end, mortal. I will relieve you of your weapon and proceed with my task.”
He moved toward me. I had only a second to make a decision. I was lucky that I had so little time, for a delay would have made me hesitate. With my left hand, I brought the box cutter down, slashing my right wrist open. As the blade struck flesh, the realization of what I had done flashed across my mind and I was terrified, but I could not take it back.
I heard the box cutter hit the floor as it fell from my hand. I felt a surge of pain like nothing I had ever felt before. I felt the warm wetness of my own blood, unleashed by my own actions. I knew I had cut deep and deadly, for I almost immediately began to grow weak and woozy. My head spun. I saw the strange automaton staring down at me. I felt its hands, strangely cold and smooth, like plastic gloves and not real flesh at all, reach down and grab hold of me. I felt myself being lifted. It was then that I must have passed out, for I remember nothing of the time that immediately followed.
* * * *
At first I thought it had all been a dream. I was certain of that for about five seconds.
The terrible throbbing in my arm cancelled out that idea before I could even open my eyes. When I did open them and force my tired body to sit up, I saw the white bandages that covered my forearm. I saw the contents of a hospital room. I was alone. I looked at the window. It was dark outside, but how far into the night was it? What had happened to Siobhan and to Michael? Had my stupid brave gesture of self-mutilation been fruitful, or had I sliced myself open in vain?
I pulled back the blankets, revealing that one of those flimsy gowns was all that covered me. I didn’t let that stop me. I got out of bed, legs a bit shaky from whatever drugs they had pumped into me, but I managed to stand. There was a small closet to one side of the room. I flung it open and smiled as I saw my clothes and shoes there. I dressed quickly, taking care not to bump my arm, which ached and burned.
Glad to be back in my own clothes, I walked out into the hall. I had made it about ten steps, feeling my strength returning as I forced my head to clear, when a man in a doctor’s coat stepped out in front of me.
“Oh no, you don’t …” he said with a sneer. “Those damn guards must be having coffee again, but I’ll wrestle you back into that room myself if I have to. I’m not letting a suicide case walk out of here without a psych evaluation.”
“Suicide,” I said. “No… you’ve got it wrong. It was an accident. Thanks for stitching me up, but I have to go. You can send me a bill; I’m sure you got my address and name and all that out of my wallet. Hey, where’s the guy that brought me in?”
“He left just after he dropped you off. He didn’t say much. Now come on, son. You lost a lot of blood. Get back to bed and you can think about what a stupid thing you did tonight.”
“I’m sorry, Doctor,” I said, “but I really don’t have time for this right now.” I shoved him. I hit him hard enough to knock him off balance and send him slumping against the wall but not hard enough to cause him any serious injury. I knew he’d probably call security or even the police, but I’d have to deal with those consequences later.
At that moment, I had to get back to the bookstore and find out what had happened. I ran down the halls of that hospital as fast as I could after a substantial loss of blood. Luckily, I was on the first floor and managed to find an exit quickly. Once I made it to the parking lot, I knew where I was. It was one of two hospitals in the general area around the Holmes & Valour. I estimated I was about a ten minute drive from the bookstore but, of course, my car had been left behind when Michael had put aside his assassination of Siobhan to save my life.
I ran across the parking lot, ducking between rows of cars, paranoid that someone would come charging out of the hospital and try to drag me back inside. I made it to the main road and scampered across the street to the convenience store that sat closed in the darkness. I breathed a sigh of relief as I spotted a pay phone. I pulled out some change, called information and got the number for a local cab company.
* * * *
“It looks closed, buddy. Are you sure you want to get out here?” the driver asked as he stopped at the Holmes & Valour front doors.
“Yeah, I … umm … work on the night shift,” I told him as I shoved his fare and a tip into his hand. I jumped out and he zoomed away into the night. I ran to the door and began to bang on the window. What would I do if no one answered my knocking? I had already assaulted a doctor. Would I have to add breaking and entering to my offenses for the night? I peered through the windows at the dimly lit interior of the store, waiting and hoping.
Then I saw her. Coming out of the shadows and walking calmly toward the door, Siobhan approached. She looked fine. My heart jumped happily in my chest and I grinned. I watched as her small, pale hand turned the inside lock and pulled the door open. I stepped inside and looked into her eyes.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes. Your arm! I can smell your blood. What happened? Did that thing hurt you? Was I wrong about that?”
“No, you were right. It saved my life. But don’t worry about me. What happened here? Did it come back?”
Siobhan laughed, loud and fierce and joyful. “It came back. It returned and broke down my door just as the night arrived and I woke up.”
“The Eldering,” I asked, “did it happen?”
“It did,” she said. “I don’t know exactly how I’ve changed yet, but I was in no danger from that thing when it confronted me. It’s over. I don’t know what you did or how you got hurt, but you kept it away for long enough. I’m grateful.”
“I’m glad you’re all right,” I admitted.
“Thank you,” Siobhan said as she took hold of my hand, stepping to my left to avoid the injured arm. Her touch felt cool and warm at the same time, a sensation that had been, prior to that moment, unknown to me. I liked it. “Come downstairs,” she said with a soft laugh, “and you can see what one of those angel things looks like on the inside.”
* * *
Today’s giveaway is FIVE ECOPIES of 100,000 MIDNGHTS!!! If you’re into vamps, you’ll want this one!!!  

To enter to WIN: Find today’s post on the Official FB Event page featuring Aaron Smith, and comment, “I WANT TO WIN!” in that post and you just might!!! Good luck!!!

When destiny calls from the darkness, will you embrace the shadows?
At twenty-two, Eric feels older than he is. His fascination with the past makes him something of an eccentric and he spends most of his time alone. But then he meets Siobhan. A nearly three-hundred year old creature of the night, she desperately needs Eric’s help. He comes to her aid, just barely surviving the experience, but soon realizes he can’t go back to living without her.
Together with Siobhan, Eric goes deeper into the strange nighttime world inhabited by vampires both good and evil, towns trapped in bubbles of time, savage beast-men created by crazed scientists, and deadly mechanical angels manufactured by magic to slay the undead.
Side by side with Siobhan and her supernatural allies, Eric must go from being a normal man to becoming a warrior, facing dangers out of humanity’s darkest nightmares and wondering if he has a chance of surviving to see each new dawning of the sun.
Aaron Smith was born in New Jersey in 1977. After years of trying to figure out what to do with his creative energy and trying everything from acting to visual arts to music, he finally settled on writing and hasn't looked back. He was extremely fortunate to have an opportunity for his first published work to feature his all-time favorite fictional character, Sherlock Holmes. Since then, he's written six more Holmes mysteries and a novel(Season of Madness) starring Holmes' friend Dr. John Watson.

Aaron's other work includes many short stories for the Airship 27 line of pulp anthologies, including stories featuring characters like the Black Bat, Dan Fowler:G-Man, Ki-Gor, and others. His two original pulp characters, Hound-Dog Harker and the Red Veil also debuted in Airship 27 books.

Outside the world of new pulp, Aaron has written stories for comic books, science fiction anthologies, detective magazines, flash fiction websites, and young adult anthologies

Smith's vampire novel 100,000 MIDNIGHTS, was released as an e-book by Musa Publishing in 2012, and the sequel, ACROSS THE MIDNIGHT SEA, in August of 2013.

In July of 2013, Smith's lifelong dream of writing a spy novel was realized with the release of NOBODY DIES FOR FREE.

Smith's series of Lovecraftian horror/fantasy short stories, SHADOWS OVER AMERICA, began publication in March of 2015 with its first installment, AN EXODUS OF WORMS.

He can be followed on Twitter as @AaronSmith377

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