Are creatures of the night and all manner of extramundane beings drawn to certain locations in the natural world? In the Midwestern village of Beth-Hill located in southern Ohio, the population is made up of its fair share of common citizens…and much more than its share of supernatural residents. Take a walk on the wild side in this unusual place where imagination meets reality.
Karen Montgomery was an ordinary woman until she stumbled into the extraordinary… A bargain with elves worth its weight in gold. A plague of sinister ladybugs. Rogue vampire hunters, including one who tries to turn over a new leaf–with disastrous consequences. A ghostly huntsman of the Wild Hunt wishing for redemption. Karen’s life will never be the same again.
An innocent attempt to rid the library of a plague of ladybugs turns sinister when a rogue vampire hunter gets the contract for pest control.
Ivy Bedinghaus, who works for Karen as a night clerk–along with all the vampires in Beth-Hill–are in danger, and their only hope for survival is with the help of Karen, a member of the Wild Hunt, and Russell Moore, a reformed vampire hunter.
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GENRE: Fantasy Word count: 26, 188
Southern Ohio doesn’t just get plagues of locusts every seventeen years. We get plagues of ladybugs. Not the kindly ladybugs of folklore, or the ones that eat aphids, either. Ours are imported Asian ladybugs that bite, stink when you squish them, and like to fly into whatever you’re drinking, right before you raise your glass to your lips.
The only consolation I have is that they flick quite nicely and tend to bounce off the walls if they don’t realize what’s happening and fly away first.
Not that I’m writing a dissertation on ladybugs, but I had just scored a goal with ladybug #17 when the director opened my office door with a sealed envelope in one hand.
“Karen?” She stared at the notepaper goal I’d taped to the wall opposite my desk and raised an eyebrow. “They are annoying little irritants, aren’t they?”
I straightened in my chair. “They’re everywhere! In the books, in my tea, on the windows–” I had brushed them out of my hair that morning, and shaken them out of my clothes.
“Well, hopefully we’ll be rid of some of them soon,” the director said, handing me the envelope. “The board has accepted a bid from one of the local exterminators to treat all the library branches. I want you to make the arrangements and work it out with the staff. It should probably be done when the library is closed, so you might have to work overtime.”
That sounded easy enough, and I certainly didn’t mind the extra money. I tore open the envelope and glanced at the name that appeared on the letterhead of the bid. “The Gentle Touch“? It sounded more like a massage parlor than an exterminator. “‘A natural, safe solution to pest control’?”
“They’re new in the area, I gather,” the director said. “If you have any problems, let me know.” She vanished from my doorway before I could reply.
I took a closer look at their bid. From what I remembered of the other bids, The Gentle Touch was cheapest, which practically assured them the job since the library board did not like to spend money on anything not having to do with libraries. Pest control did not count.
Unlike the other bids, however, The Gentle Touch had a few caveats. They required a minimum of six hours–starting at midnight–alone in each building, with all staff gone from the premises. No one was to set foot inside the building for six more hours after that. All food and drink had to be removed from the building before treatment, which didn’t bode well for their claim of a ‘natural, safe solution to pest control’.
I picked up my phone and dialed the number on the letterhead.
“The Gentle Touch. How may I help you?” The voice on the other end had a distinct Southern origin, breathy and feminine.
I identified myself and explained that the library had accepted their bid for pest removal. “I have a few questions, though, before we schedule a date and time.”
“So do we.” I heard a tapping sound on the line. “Do you have a personal fax machine, ma’am?”
“I have an electronic fax number that goes right to my computer,” I said, a bit put off by her tone. “Do you–”
I had intended to say ‘need the number’, but my computer informed me that I had new mail before I could finish my sentence. I double clicked on the new message and silently started to read the instructions for completing the attached form.
“If you fill out the form and email it back, we’ll contact you with an appointment date and time,” the lady said. “I’m Darla Manning. If you have any other questions, just call back and ask for me.”
“How did you get my number?” I asked. “It’s supposed to be private.”
Darla’s laugh was more of a giggle. “We have our ways. Thank you for choosing The Gentle Touch!”
Before I could inquire about prior customers of The Gentle Touch or question their caveats, Darla hung up.
I stared at the phone for a moment, then pressed redial.
“The Gentle Touch, how may I help you?”
It sounded like Darla’s voice, right down to the twang. “Is this Darla Manning?”
“No, I’m sorry, ma’am. How may I help you?”
“Can I speak to Darla Manning?”
“No, I’m sorry, ma’am. Darla is unavailable at the moment. May I help you?”
Again, I explained who I was and why I was calling. “I have a couple of questions before I fill out your form. I had intended to ask Darla, but we got disconnected.” The least I could do was give her the benefit of my doubt.
More tapping. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but Darla is your Personal Account Representative. She will have to answer all of your questions. Please fill out our informational form and I’ll transfer you to her voicemail.” A click. A beep. Another click.
“Wait!” Too late. I listened to the dial tone with growing frustration as a ladybug crawled across my computer screen. Normally, I gave customer service representatives a break, because I knew how horrible it was to be on the receiving end of an irate customer’s phone call. I tried to be extra nice, and complimented those businesses whose employees treated me courteously.
But the advent of complicated computer-generated menus and automated systems succeeded only in driving my blood pressure to the boiling point. When I called a company, I wanted to speak to a person who would answer all my questions, not hang up on me twice.
I crumpled the bid in my hand and contemplated calling them back. Would it really help to fill out their form? I double-clicked on the attachment, waited until my virus scan declared it to be clean, and watched as a page of questions appeared on my screen.
Thank you for choosing The Gentle Touch as your pest removal source. Please complete the following questionnaire and return it to your personal Account Representative as soon as possible to expedite your claim.
- Please describe, in detail, the nature of your infestation problem.
Well, that was easy. I typed in ‘ladybugs’ and the screen refreshed.
- Have you or anyone else had an allergic reaction to the pest in question? (Common symptoms include: loss of appetite, loss of blood, lethargy, sun sensitivity)
Were people actually allergic to ladybugs? I flicked one off my keyboard as I typed in ‘no’ and watched the screen refresh again.
- How many people are employed by your organization?
I had to think about that one. The library system had three branches, plus the main branch in Amington. Counting the part-time staff (who should be counted, after all, but often weren’t) the library system had fifty-two employees.
- Do any of these employees have unusual habits and/or hobbies?
What did that have to do with pest control? And how was I supposed to know? I guess it was entirely possible that Penny was a drag racing champion on the side, but I had my doubts. I typed in ‘not that I know of’.
- Are you certain?
I couldn’t lie. I typed in ‘no’ again.
- Would you say it is possible that one or more of your employees have very unique dietary restrictions?
This questionnaire was beginning to make The Gentle Touch sound less and less like a pest control company. The line of questions seemed innocent enough, but what were they aiming at? Did they think one of the employees was responsible for the ladybug infestation? But again, being totally honest, I typed in ‘yes’, because Ivy had very special dietary restrictions. Vampires usually did.
- Do any of your employees have unusual allergic reactions to various everyday items? (Common examples include: metal allergies, sunlight, certain woods, and certain herbs)
Metal allergies? Sunlight? I thought of Ivy again. What kind of pest control company was The Gentle Touch? I picked up the phone and hit redial.
“The Gentle Touch, how may I help you?”
Another Darla clone.
“I need to speak with Darla Manning, please.” Question #8 read: Have any of your employees ever disappeared under mysterious circumstances?
“I’m sorry, ma’am. Darla is away from her desk. Please hold and I’ll transfer you to her–”
This time, I managed to interrupt her before she transferred me. “I’ll hold. I’ve already been disconnected twice.” Question #9 read: Do any of your employees take sick days or personal time during every full moon?
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but company policy forbids–”
I straightened up in my chair. “I’ll hold. Darla is supposed to be my personal Account Representative, and if I don’t get some answers soon, I’ll take the library’s business elsewhere!”
Question #10: Would you consider yourself a religious person?
The Darla clone sighed. “Please hold. Your personal Account Representative will be with you shortly.”
Another beep, but canned music blared out of the receiver instead of a dial tone this time. A dubious improvement.
I spent my time on hold browsing the rest of the questions. They ranged in focus from ‘When was the last time you visited a graveyard?’ to ‘Have you ever had any experiences you could not explain?’
None of the questions had anything to do with pest control. At least not the kind of pests exterminators were usually concerned about.
“The Gentle Touch, this is Darla speaking. How may I help you?”
To my ear, it sounded like the same voice as before, but what did I know?
“Darla, this is Karen Montgomery from the library.” I waited for her to say something, but I heard only that infernal tapping on the other end. “I’m in the middle of filling out your questionnaire, and I have a few questions.”
More taps. “Yes, I see. Although question number seven should be self-explanatory. There are examples–”
Before she could start in on the examples or hang up on me again, I asked, “What do these questions have to do with getting rid of the ladybugs that are plaguing the library?” A second later, I realized that she somehow knew which question I had stopped at. “And how do you know I was on question seven?”
“We like to cover all the bases,” Darla said. “And we have very good technology at The Gentle Touch.”
I could hear her smirk through the receiver. “I see.” Was it good technology or some sort of virus the scans wouldn’t pick up on? How could they see my replies–in real time? “The library has a ladybug problem,” I said firmly. “That’s all. Nothing more, nothing less. I’m not going to fill out the rest of your questionnaire.”
“Then we’ll just have to work with the information you’ve already provided,” Darla’s voice dripped with scorn. “I’ve already dispatched an exterminator to evaluate your situation. He should be arriving shortly.”
“What if I can’t meet with him now?” I asked, irritated by her high-handedness. “I’m a busy person.”
“He’ll need to see the sites to evaluate which approach will be best,” Darla said. “I advise you make time to meet with him, Ms. Montgomery. Good day.”
Another dial tone. I growled and slammed down the phone.
Almost immediately, Penny buzzed the intercom. “Ms. Montgomery?”
“Yes?” I closed out of the questionnaire without saving it–not that it mattered, since they already had the information–and exited out of my email client. Then, just to be on the safe side, I disconnected from the Internet.
“There’s a man here to see you,” Penny said. “He says he’s from the exterminator?” Her voice sounded a bit–strained.
Already? I glared at my phone and thought about telling him to come back later, but a job was a job and I had one to finish. “I’ll be right out.”
At least I couldn’t fault them on their promptness.
When I saw the man lounging in one of the waiting room chairs–No. When I saw the drop-dead gorgeous off-the-cover-of-a-steamy-bodice-ripper male model lounging in one of the waiting room chairs, my mind momentarily went blank. I think my heart might have skipped a beat or two.
He was every girl’s fantasy of a hot date. Masculinity at its finest.
If you were into that sort of thing, of course. I glanced at Penny, whose worshipful gaze bordered on obscene. She absently fanned herself with a copy of the library newsletter while ignoring the ringing phone.
The phone brought me back down to earth. I walked over to Mr. ‘Gentle Touch’ (and boy did that raise some images in my mind) and held out my hand.
“I’m Karen Montgomery, the Assistant Director. You’re The Gentle Touch representative?”
He stood in one smooth movement and clasped my hand in his. For a moment, I thought he would bow. “Andre Dunfaddin, at your service.” A lock of thick brown hair (with golden highlights, of course) fell over his eyes.
I resisted the urge to reach up and brush it away. Behind me, Penny sighed in joyous rapture.
“Mr. Dunfaddin, we can talk about your–services in my office.” I had to wrench my mind out of the gutter. “The library has been cursed with a plague of ladybugs.”
All I had to do was gesture to the nearest window to illustrate my point. There were at least twenty buzzing around the windowpanes, and more clustered on the windowsill.
“Please, call me Andre,” he said as Penny sighed again. “I think we’ll be able to take care of your–concerns.” He met my gaze and smiled slowly, showing even, white teeth. “You will be pleased with our–services.”
“I hope so,” I said as my mind struggled to regain its dignity. “Please follow me.”
I led him to an empty conference room after realizing that my office was a mess. “I have some questions my ‘Account Representative’ hasn’t been able to answer.”
Andre held up one hand. “Say no more. And please accept my apologies for our heinous Customer Service Representatives.” He smiled and took my hand. “Good help is so hard to find these days.”
“Yes, it is,” I said. “I should have complained to a supervisor, I guess, but I was a bit tired of getting the runaround.” A large part of me wanted to pull my hand away, but the traitorous part of me that still went gaga over movie stars never wanted to wash my hand again.
“I should be able to answer all of your questions,” Andre said, and led me to a chair. “Please, sit down. Any infestation can cause a lot of stress.” He sat across from me and leaned forward, a picture of perfect interest. “What kinds of questions do you have?”
“The questionnaire Darla wanted me to fill out had questions on it that I feel are inappropriate,” I explained before my mind melted again. “The library’s ladybug problem has nothing to do with whether or not I have employees who have special dietary restrictions.” I tried to laugh. “From reading it, it almost sounds like you’re intending to exterminate vampires instead of ladybugs.”
He didn’t laugh. In fact, his facial expression did not change.
“And everyone knows that vampires are myths,” I managed to say. “I mean, what’s next? Werewolves? Fairies?”
“‘There are more things in heaven and earth,'” Andre said, quoting the Bard. He shrugged. “Darla gave you the wrong questionnaire. Obviously she didn’t understand the nature of your infestation.”
What was so difficult about understanding a plague of ladybugs? And if I had received the wrong questionnaire, in what circumstances would it be the right questionnaire?
On the tail end of that thought was a question: If The Gentle Touch exterminated vampires as well as ladybugs and whatever else exterminators exterminated, should I warn Ivy of their presence?
Andre pushed back his chair and rubbed his hands together. “We can take care of the ladybugs, Ms. Montgomery. I’ll just need to walk around a bit, but I really don’t see that it will be a problem. We should have them cleared up by the end of the week.”
“The end of this week?” I asked.
“The end of this week,” Andre agreed. “And I know you’re a busy person, so why don’t I walk around on my own? I promise I won’t disturb your patrons.”
This time, he took my hand, bowed, and kissed it. Then he walked out of the conference room, leaving me dazed and blinking in his wake.
It took me more than a moment to recover my senses. I drifted back to my office and in a daze, opened my email client and double-clicked on Darla’s attachment again. This time, the questionnaire was only five questions long, and every question had something to do with ladybugs.
Perhaps it had been a glitch in their system. Perhaps Darla had sent me the wrong questionnaire.
But what about the other one? I had no proof that there had ever been another one, much less one that seemed to be leaning towards the extermination of vampires. If I called the Council and told them about it, they would investigate, but I had my doubts they would find anything. The Gentle Touch had covered their tracks.
I made sure my office door was closed, and dialed Ivy’s number. It would make me feel better to warn her, even if I’d hallucinated the contents of the original questionnaire.
According to Ivy, vampires didn’t have to sleep at all, but most of them elected to sleep during the day when they couldn’t do much else. We’d worked out a system to make things easier for both of us, and she was on duty from two until ten p.m., Monday through Friday.
Which meant she should have been working, but she wasn’t answering her phone.
On the off chance I had dialed the wrong number, I hung up and tried again. Still no answer. And no answering machine, either. Since she’d always answered during her work hours before, I’d never asked if she had one.
The little niggling sense of unease I’d felt while reading the questionnaire stirred in the back of my mind. What if The Gentle Touch did exterminate vampires? What if they’d exterminated Ivy?
It was distressingly easy to kill a vampire. I’d found that out through my research and Ivy had trusted me enough to tell me which legends were true and which could be discarded. Sunlight was the easiest way. A stake through the heart would do the job as well. Silver worked just as well on vampires as it did on werewolves, and almost all supernatural creatures were allergic in one way or another to garlic.
But Ivy had survived for sixty-some years–fifty of those as a vampire–without being killed. I hated to think she might be in danger now. Or dead.
It only took me a moment to find her updated personnel file. One of my caveats for hiring her back in the new position was that I have her real address. She lived in an apartment complex on the other side of Beth-Hill, within walking distance to the library.
I tried her number again. Still no answer. She had been working on a spreadsheet for me pertaining to the circulation of various genres in the library system. I’d spoken to her the night before and nothing seemed amiss.
Where was she now?
I would have made up an excuse to drive to Beth-Hill, but Andre Dunfaddin was still on the premises and I didn’t want him prowling around without my supervision, such as it was. And taking him with me was out if I wanted to check on Ivy.
I was beginning to doubt that The Gentle Touch had anything to do with exterminating ladybugs and everything to do with exterminating vampires.
Someone knocked on my office door. Before I could answer it, Penny poked her head in.
“Ivy’s on line two,” she said. “She says it’s important.”
I did not miss the significance of her presence. Instead of buzzing me on the intercom, she’d come to see for herself if Andre was still in my office.
I picked up the phone as she closed the door again. “Ivy! I’ve been trying to call you!”
“Ms. Montgomery?” She spoke in a whisper, as if she didn’t want someone else to hear. “I’m not going to be able to come in to work today. I’ve had a–a death in my family.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said automatically while my mind raced to find a double meaning to her words. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Charlie knows,” Ivy said.
Charlie, meaning the ghost of Charles Daulton, the founder of the library. I’d met him only once, right before I discovered I was the great-great-great-great granddaughter of an elf and his human lover.
He haunted the rare book room where his portrait hung on the wall.
“What does Charlie know, Ivy?” My voice had dropped to a whisper to match hers.
“I have to go,” Ivy said, and I heard a voice behind her, too muffled for me to make out any words. “But I’ll be back. I won’t let them drive me away.”
She hung up before I had a chance to ask her who wanted to drive her away, but I thought I already knew.
Vampire hunters were outside of my realm of knowledge. My only contact with them had been in fiction, namely Dracula, and I wasn’t certain that truly counted. If the vampires had adapted to modern life, then it made sense that the vampire hunters would similarly adapt. And branch out. Slayers of vampires and ladybugs. Oh my.
I shivered, for once glad to be human.
“Ms. Montgomery?” Andre’s voice sent a thrill of something through my body, even muffled by the door. “I think I’ve seen enough here.”
I stumbled past my desk and opened the door. “You have?” Had he somehow determined the library had an employee who was a vampire?
He held a clipboard in his hand and a pen in the other. Before he tucked the clipboard under his arm, I noticed a detailed drawing of the library, with all exits, entrances, and windows marked. He’d scribbled notes in the margins, but his handwriting was too cramped for me to read.
“Since this is the main branch, I think my team should concentrate on it first,” Andre said, oozing sexy competence. “I’ll view the other sites tomorrow, but I don’t see why we can’t have this one finished tonight.”
“Tonight?” My voice squeaked. “That soon?”
“Unless you’d rather postpone?” Andre raised one eyebrow, as if he didn’t quite believe I’d consider doing such a thing. “The sooner the better, in my professional opinion. Left unchecked, an infestation can cost quite a bit of money in the long run.”
His professional opinion? Now he was starting to sound like Darla.
“Tomorrow night would be better for my schedule, since I have to let you in the building and be here to lock up when you’re finished,” I said, only stalling because I wanted to talk to Charlie first. “Will that be sufficient?”
“As long as I can visit your other branches before tomorrow night,” Andre said. “And I can be here first thing in the morning.”
Did I detect a hint of irritation in his gaze? Or had his charm worn thin that quickly?
“That will be fine,” I said, hoping I could get some answers before they arrived. “Thank you for coming. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I’ll let myself out,” Andre said, favoring me with another smile, but this one barely registered. He frowned at my cluttered office. “I know you’re a busy person.”
“Thanks again,” I said, and watched as he sauntered down the hall towards Penny’s desk.
I have to admit he did have a nice ass.
As soon as he left, I grabbed my purse and hurried to my car with the polite fiction that I was taking a late lunch. I could have waited until nightfall and asked Charlie what he knew about Ivy’s disappearance, but I wanted to make sure The Gentle Touch hadn’t discovered her existence and forced her to make that phone call.
I didn’t realize I had no way to get into her apartment until I pulled into the parking lot. And if she wasn’t home, my chances of finding her were next to nil. I kept out of my employees’ private lives. I didn’t ask the director what she did on her weekends. (What did dragons do on their weekends anyway?) I didn’t pry. Every once in a while, Ivy and I would discuss the latest movie we’d seen, but that was the extent of our interaction with each other.
For all I knew, she had a live-in boyfriend (or girlfriend, for that matter.)
Apartment #3 was up one flight of stairs and down a dark little hallway that kept Ivy’s front door in gloom. I knocked, waited, and turned my attention to the rest of the complex. Did Ivy’s neighbors know a vampire lived among them? Were there other vampires living here?
As apartment complexes go, this one wasn’t half-bad. It showed obvious signs of wear, but also signs of sprucing up, as if the landlord–or someone–was concerned by its appearance. The landscaping had been trimmed recently, the mulch looked new, and the few clumps of flowers that brightened the monotony of hostas and evergreens were blooming their little hearts out.
I heard the door open behind me. “Ms. Montgomery?