Safe Sex Vampire Style

First published in the 4th anthology of Chesapeake Crimes, entitled She Had It Coming. Copyright, Helen Schwartz

You’re supposed to approach a murder investigation with an open mind. But I found myself with four hundred years of attitude riding on the outcome as Harry and I entered a long, tree-lined drive in Potomac, Maryland, one early afternoon in late March. On the outskirts of Washington, D.C., the Bouchards’ baronial manor held pride of place on its multi-acre lot, flanked on one side by a hotel-sized adobe hacienda and on the other by a colonial only slightly smaller than the White House.

A gaggle of TV broadcast vans already lined the street when we arrived, kept at the property line by a wrought-iron fence and private security guards. TV cameras from three channels filmed us driving in. No hope of our giving any information, but a handsome man driving a red Jaguar convertible with a passenger who could pass for Farrah Fawcett in her prime makes for some nice footage.

The day before, the Washington police had called us in on an unusual complaint. Mrs. Bouchard and her daughter had reported an alleged vampire; now the crime had escalated to murder, and Mrs. Bouchard lay on her back in the rose bushes with a stake through her heart.

When a parent pulls a kid out of school in a fancy Maryland suburb and trots her over to a Washington Metropolitan Police station, you figure the kid is in trouble. How had it come to this?

The D.C. cops thought of Harry and me as their go-to vampire experts ever since we helped solve the murder of a blood-drained corpse. As a step-vampire, I hated this reputation spreading. Sure, vampires are popular on movies and TV, but most people don’t want one in their neighborhood.

So what’s a step-vampire? My mother was pregnant with me when she was turned. During my last months in the womb, I acquired certain vampire traits, though I don’t need to suck blood to survive. I eat vegetarian by choice and hate the taste of dead blood. Living blood is a different story, a treat, and one I’ve learned to indulge in sparingly. I hide my keen senses and speedy bounding. Over the centuries, I’ve learned to change identities to cover my slow aging. Unlike vampires, who always look the same as the day they were turned, I do age, but slowly—one year of physical development per decade. These days I could pass for forty. You do the math. I’m currently using the name Ruth Nobis and working as a private eye.

Harry True, my thirty-seven-year-old boss and boyfriend, knows my history. He doesn’t often tell jokes, but his granite face verges on a smile whenever he says, “I like older women.”

From his expression during the previous day’s interview, I didn’t think he liked Mrs. Bouchard very much. I’d observed the police interview through a two-way mirror. They used the nice interview room: the chairs and table weren’t bolted down and the paint looked fresh, as though Martha Stewart had suggested Banana Chiffon. Like a police tea party, Harry and Detective Benedetti sat on one side of the table, Mrs. Bouchard and her daughter on the other.

“Yeah, a couple of times I saw him turn into a bat?” Ashley Bouchard ended her statement with the raised pitch of a question—standard operating procedure for young women of fourteen. At about five-foot-eight, filling out a B-cup bra, she could pass for seventeen. With a pert nose and occasional pimple clusters, she slouched in her chair as though to disappear, yet wore black lipstick and blue polish on nails bitten to the quick. She tongued her bubble gum into position, sucked a bubble inside her mouth, and popped it.

Benedetti, with years of interviewing experience, had kept his tone neutral and controlled, slowly gaining the girl’s confidence, teasing out her story. “And how would you describe his appearance when he was in human form?”

Ashley raised her blue eyes, shadowed by massive applications of mascara and eyeliner, and explored the ceiling as she answered. “He’s dark. You know, from India? Not black but dark skinned? About five-foot-ten, about sixteen or seventeen. Skinny in a sexy way—jeans and a Grateful Dead T-shirt?” She lowered her eyes. “Really hot.” No question mark this time.

“And when he sucked your neck, he actually broke the skin.” It was a statement, not a question. Benedetti had it all on the police report in front of him.

“Yeah, me and Deepak used to hook up for about a pint’s worth.”

The woman sitting next to Ashley shivered, making the tasteful highlights shimmer in the windswept blonde hairdo suggestive of lunches at country clubs. She looked as if she wanted to smack her daughter—whether for bad grammar or bad taste was unclear. From the way she looked at Benedetti, I suspected why he didn’t want me in the interview room. I’d bet Mrs. B didn’t like females. She felt comfortable with male authority figures.

“Ashley, what would you do on a typical date?” Benedetti was letting the girl provide all the details.

“Do we have to go into all this?” Mrs. Bouchard sat up straighter and crossed her arms over the puckered sleeves of her Prada jacket.

“Yes, ma’am. We need to see if there’s any grounds for a criminal charge.”

And it had to come from Ashley, signed by the mother as guardian.

Ashley draped herself in the chair like someone trying out for the part of a throw rug. Her red jersey top, too tight, ended four inches above her navel, which glittered with a ruby on a small ring piercing her flesh.

“Me and Deepak usually met at the Zoo entrance? Then we’d go into the woods off the road and hook up.” Ashley smirked as she looked sideways at her mother and wriggled lower in her chair.

Mrs. Bouchard squirmed in hers.

Benedetti waited a beat. “And hooking up means …?”

“She made me come here, y’know.” Ashley pouted at Benedetti. “My dad has a mistress and my mom’s just jealous that she’s not getting any.”

Mrs. Bouchard opened her mouth to speak, then thought better of it.

“So hooking up means you had sexual relations?” Benedetti kept his tone matter-of-fact, his voice a monotone.

Ashley started nibbling at her fingers. “Not the way you’re thinking. At first, we’d, y’know, kiss.”

“Same as with other dates?” Benedetti paused. “Or different?”

“Pretty much the same except his teeth were kinda sharp. I had to be careful with my tongue. And then he’d feel me up.”

Benedetti was on the verge of a question when Ashley said, “Yeah, just like the other guys, but he’d put his lips over his teeth when he started sucking my tits.” She paused to bite a hangnail.

Benedetti waited without any visible impatience, writing notes on a pad. Ashley proceeded, describing Deepak’s lack of interest in further downward progress  in comparison to other boyfriends. I kept my eyes on the row of gold studs that outlined the curve of her ears. I feared I was blushing.

“And then he sucked my blood. Here,” she said, pointing to her jugular vein. “The holes have healed, but there’s still a couple of scars.”

Benedetti leaned closer, examined the scars, then added a sentence to his notes.

“Before he hooked up with Shayna Shemesh, he used to do three or four of us each night. We even, you know, wrote up a schedule. Deepak was actually getting a little chubby until he met Shayna.” Ashley’s tone changed from self-satisfied pouting to poisonous malignancy. “I couldn’t believe Deepak was hanging with her. She’s gross, really fat.” She paused for another bite of her thumb until it oozed blood. “And then he stopped hanging with us.”

So Mrs. Bouchard wasn’t the only one not getting any. Jealousy, rather than Benedetti’s interrogation technique, had made the girl talk.

Benedetti flipped his pad shut. “I’ll have your statement typed up, and we’ll ask you and your mother to sign it.”

“I’ve fucked lots of guys,” Ashley added, apparently intent on making her mother squirm some more. “But me and Deepak never did it. When Deepak sucked my blood it was like, like …” She paused to review the ten words in her teen vocabulary. “Awesome. Like, super-sex!” A sly smile crept over Ashley’s face as she stared at the coffee cup trembling in her mother’s hand.

While the aggrieved daughter and mother waited to sign the statement, Benedetti consulted with Harry and me. “So whaddaya think?”

“What’s the charge?” Harry asked.

“Exactly.” Benedetti stroked his upper lip with an index finger and scratched the tip of his bulbous nose. “It’s not statutory rape. It’s not menacing. By breaking the skin, maybe it would be battery if it wasn’t consensual, but where’s the crime?”

I cleared my throat. Both men turned to look at me.

“If what he told Ashley is true,” I said, “this vampire’s never killed anyone. He’s Indian so I’d guess he gets his moral code, including non-violence, from being a Buddhist or maybe a Jain. But he needs blood every day. That puts him in a really tough spot.”

Benedetti coughed. His face impassive, his voice a monotone, he finally spoke. “Maybe I’m missing something, but here’s a kid who can have the vampire version of sex as many times as he wants—giving and gaining super-pleasure, according to Ms. Blue Nails. And he doesn’t go against his moral upbringing because he doesn’t kill anyone. So how is that a tough spot?”

Harry studied the ceiling, as if counting the holes in the acoustical tiles might keep him from smiling.

“In case you hadn’t noticed,” I said, “he’s given up playing the field. He needs blood every day, but he can’t keep taking it from Shayna, the girl he loves, or he’d kill her.”

“Maybe he’s just given up Ashley Bouchard,” Harry said.

Benedetti snorted. “I’m not sure there’s a prosecutable crime here, but do me a favor. Check the situation out and let me know what you think.”

After we left the police station, all it took was a little web-surfing to find Shayna’s address and home and cell phone numbers. Surprise, surprise—the girl lived right next to the Bouchards. As soon as Deepak’s name came up, Shayna agreed to meet us later that afternoon at Walter Pierce Park, near the children’s playground on Adams Mill Road. I wondered why she chose a location in the District until I checked it out on Google maps

Just before 4:30 we parked, and we passed a fenced dog run, a basketball court, and a soccer field in the oddly shaped pocket park before we arrived at the children’s playground. Because the park was on a bluff high above the valley of Rock Creek, most people didn’t realize it bordered on the National Zoo.

Across from the playground, we saw a young woman sitting on a bench, her back to a fenced garden. She was watching schoolchildren play on swings and a jungle gym about twenty feet away. Ashley had led us to believe that Shayna was huge, but the girl was merely pleasingly plump. She wore a blue, down-filled vest over a white blouse and a pleated, plaid skirt. At first I took her for a student at a Catholic girls’ school, but after a silent exchange of questioning glances, she got up and approached us, her vest showing the bulldog mascot of Potomac’s Churchill High School.

She looked the same age as Ashley but about six inches shorter. Her black hair, cut in a Dutch-boy haircut, framed a face enhanced by only a touch of lipstick. Her striking violet eyes, flawless skin, and perfect features, reminded me of a child star from the 1940s.

Harry initiated the conversation. “We’re assisting the police with an investigation into a young man identified as a friend of yours.”

“Are you police officers?” Shayna looked back and forth between us.

“No, but we have some interest in vampires.” I waited for her reaction.

She stumbled backward into the chain-link fence surrounding the garden, grasping the arbor trellis for support.

“I’m part vampire myself,” I said, watching the fear on Shayna’s face give way to an assessing distrust. “My mother was turned into a vampire after she became pregnant with me. That’s why I can walk around in sunlight.”

At a shout from the playground, Shayna turned to watch the children with the practiced eye of a babysitter.

“Someone’s made a complaint against Deepak,” I said to her back. “There’s no evidence he’s dangerous. You can help us make his problem go away.” Shayna turned as if to reply, paused, then held my gaze as I motioned her back onto the bench. She sat, then scooted over so there would be enough room for us.

“What do you need to know?” she asked.

“Tell us about your relationship with Deepak,” I suggested.

“I met Deepak last December when I was volunteering at Zoo Lights,” she began. “You know, the money-raiser for the National Zoo? After the zoo buildings close, visitors pay to walk past animal silhouettes made from lights. I’d heard from the girls in my high school about a sexy Indian guy who hung around the zoo, but when I met Deepak, I never put that rumor together with him. He was really shy and polite. It took him forever to get up the nerve to talk to me.” She grinned. “My job was to stand at the entrance and take tickets,” she explained.

“And?” Harry prodded.

Shayna shrugged. “After school started in January, we began meeting in the evenings at the Potomac Library. It’s open until nine on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.” Her face lit with a desperate sincerity. “Deepak would never hurt anyone. He’s a Jain. That means he hates violence. When he came to the U.S. in 1960 as an exchange student, he wouldn’t even eat meat! But on his way back to India, he got stuck at an airport during a storm. Another guy who seemed to be stranded turned him. Against his will. Deepak never wanted to be a vampire or to hurt anyone.” She sat back, hands folded in her lap, smiling as if recalling something pleasant.

Just as she got to the good stuff, I thought. “So you two have been dating almost four months?”

“We are pledged to each other.” It sounded biblical, not like some current euphemism—going steady, pinned, troth-plighted.

“So you date only him,” I asked.

Shayna nodded. “I give my blood to him of my own free will.”

No mention of any accompanying sexual ecstasy, I noted. “And what does it mean that he is pledged to you?” I continued before Harry could barge in with a tactless question of his own. Harry is devoid of tact.

“He doesn’t see other girls,” she said and blushed.

Harry stood still as a statue, with only his eyes moving from Shayna, then back to me.

“Where does he get the blood he needs, then? If he took it all from you, you’d be dead by now.” I stopped and watched Shayna blush again. “Is that too nosey a question?”

“His friends at the zoo also give blood to him.”

My eyebrows rose in surprise. “You mean the animals?”

Shayna nodded. “He can communicate with them, you know.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a woman in a business suit enter the park and walk purposefully toward the playground. With a nervous glance toward the newcomer, Shayna said, “I have to go now.”

Harry stood up. “Can you tell us where to find Deepak? I have some questions for him.”

“I’ll get back to you.” Shayna hurried to catch up with the woman who had retrieved her child from the playground. They left the park together.

“Sounds a little like Romeo and Juliet,” I commented to Harry. “Star-crossed lovers.” We strolled back toward the Calvert Street exit. “Shayna means ‘beautiful’ in Yiddish, did you know that? And her last name is ‘sun’ in Hebrew. Pity, isn’t it? A vampire can never see the sun without being destroyed.”

We passed the basketball court where the pole and backboard made a shadow like a gallows on the walk as the sun sank low in the sky.

“Right,” Harry said, looking at his watch. “It’s 5:20. Let’s get going.”

“I thought you wanted to meet Deepak.”

“So? We probably won’t hear from Shayna till she gets straightened away on the kid she was babysitting.”

“She wasn’t babysitting,” I said, to Harry’s annoyance. “Didn’t you see the sign about the garden?”

“Yeah. No entry to the community garden area. Park visitors should retrieve any tools they left behind.”

“What’s important is the reason it’s closed. They’re doing archeological research on the site of an old African-American cemetery. Shayna may have wanted us to believe she was babysitting, but I’ll bet she chose that spot to be near where Deepak rests during daylight. This late in the day he was probably already awake and eavesdropping on our conversation, even if he couldn’t move. ” I checked my watch. “The sun sets in about half an hour. If my hunch is right, we won’t have long to wait. C’mon.”

One nice thing about Harry is that he doesn’t mind my being smart about some things and his being smart about others. We’re a good team. I bound after the bad guys to bring them down. He shoots if they’re too far away even for me.

Vampires must lie in decaying soil, I knew, so when Shayna had suggested we meet at the park, I’d checked it out online, looking for nearby cemeteries. Jains don’t have cemeteries, but Deepak had to have learned about those traditional vampire haunts. Or maybe he figured out that graveyards are the only open spaces in cities where people are sparse and leave strangers alone. At any rate, once I learned that the Colored Union Benevolent Association graveyard lay near the park, I knew Shayna had chosen the meeting spot because of its proximity to Deepak.

As the light faded, we made our way back to the bench near the playground and sat down.  I shivered and wrapped my arms around myself, snuggling into my jacket. Even the squirrels were cold, scampering up the oak trees to their nests. As the moon became more visible in the sky, a tall, dark-haired teenager strolled out the arbor entrance of the off-limits garden. He had the regal bearing and classic profile of an Indian prince, but wore fashionable jeans, a vest with an Apple iPhone peeking out of a pocket, and a Grateful Dead sweatshirt.

“Deepak, I presume.” Standing to greet him, I looked into his huge brown eyes, shaded by long, thick eyelashes. “I’m Ruth Nobis. This is Harry True.” I held out my hand. “Shayna Shemesh says you know how to suck blood from a partner but can stop before you kill her. And you’ve never killed anyone.”

He threw his head back and laughed warmly, then reached forward to grasp my hand. I felt an instinctive liking for Deepak until I noticed his long canine teeth, the tips still visible when he smiled. My instinct that he was trustworthy fought with my centuries-old distrust of all vampires.

“I stop feeding when they faint,” he confided. “It takes a lot of self-control, but I do it. Shayna taught me how to cut back the time.” He grinned, baring his teeth unapologetically, as if glad he’d found someone he could talk to about his love for Shayna.

“Interesting,” I said, looking at Harry.

“Excuse me, but I gotta go meet Shayna.” Deepak started backing away. “You understand, right?” Deepak’s solid outline grew blurry around the edges. A mini-whirlwind materialized at his feet and spiraled up his body, turning it from substance to specks.

* * *

The following day, before we had a chance to report back to Benedetti, the Major Crimes squad of nearby Montgomery County summoned us to the murder scene at the Bouchard home.

We pulled around the house and parked next to a four-car garage adjoining the tennis court. Yellow police tape defined the crime scene as a double row of rose bushes separating the Bouchard property from the mini-White House.

A flock of crime scene investigators hovered over the body of Mrs. Bouchard, lying on her back. The chauffeur had discovered the corpse, a wooden stake driven through her chest, as he walked to the garage early that morning. Mr. Bouchard had called the police.

The suit squatting near the body got up as we approached.

My partner extended his hand. “Harry True.” He nodded at me. “Ruth Nobis.”

“Bart Thigden, Montgomery County Major Crimes Squad.” He shook our hands. Thigden was a wiry man with a fifty-year-old face and a forty-year-old body, His cropped hair and ramrod posture suggested prior military experience.

I shuddered as a breeze came up and clouds covered the sun. I inched closer to the body and noticed two puncture wounds, spaced just right for a vampire’s kiss. The wound looked red and raw on the white neck of the victim. I could think of no explanation for the marks other than a fanging by the teenaged vampire we had interviewed at the zoo the previous day.

I’d never felt anything but hatred and revulsion for the vampires I’d tangled with over the centuries: cruel, heartless, ruthless. But if Deepak was telling the truth—and my instincts said he was—he lived by a strict moral code. He had never killed any of his all-too-willing pubescent victims. But Mrs. Bouchard was, what? Forty? Had he killed her by sucking her blood? And if so, why drive a stake through her heart?

As the photographer moved away, I noticed a wide, dreamy smile on Mrs. Bouchard’s face. I nudged Harry. “We’re dealing with a vampire, alright,” I whispered.

Shayna and Deepak were to have met at the library. What had happened between the time the library closed the previous night and when the chauffeur found Mrs. Bouchard’s corpse the following morning? I looked at the estate next door. The mini-White House, where Shayna lived, had a four-car garage and an Olympic-size swimming pool, heated, sending steam drifting up.

High overhead, clouds were massing and turning dark. The crime-scene photographer took a few last pictures in the fading light, then packed up. “Somebody sure fanged her,” Harry mumbled. “If not Deepak, then who?” As we watched, the stocky forensic investigator laid out a body bag. Standing nearby, Detective Thigden ground the palms of his hands into his eye sockets, then pulled both hands back over his close-cropped hair. “Time of death?”

“Rigor has set in, so I figure the murder could’ve happened any time between 7:30 last night and 4:00 this morning.” The forensic investigator stood up. “The small muscles of the face are still rigid. Quite a smile, eh? From the body temp, I’d guess it was some time before midnight. The autopsy may narrow the estimate a little.”

“Cause of death?” I asked.

The forensic investigator stared, his jaw at half mast. “Is there something you think I should look for besides instant death from a lethal stab wound to the heart?” He waved a pudgy finger at the stake.

“Yesterday she brought her daughter into D.C. to swear out a complaint against a vampire and now she has puncture wounds on her neck.”

The forensic investigator drew back and glanced sideways at Thigden, as though to ask whether I was whacko.

“Vampire wannabes go around sucking blood and carrying wooden stakes as standard equipment,” I informed him. “Is there any chance that loss of blood from the jugular could have killed her? That she was staked afterward simply to make it look like the cause of death?”

“Not a chance,” the forensic investigator said. “Whether death is inflicted by a bullet or a stake or a heart attack, once the heart stops, the blood stops flowing. If she died from blood loss at the neck wound, there wouldn’t be much blood around the stake, but the ground under her torso is muddy with it.”

“So someone made the fang marks before stabbing her with the stake,” I suggested.

The forensic investigator nodded.

“The murder weapon came from the garden,” Thigden added. “Used to stake a rose bush.”

So Mrs. Bouchard hadn’t come outside prepared to hunt a vampire. The stake was a weapon of opportunity, not pre-meditation. I turned to Thigden. “Can you lift fingerprints from a wooden surface?” A vampire wouldn’t leave fingerprints, but maybe the test would turn up other suspects.

“We’ll damn well try.”

The wind picked up, and the CSIs hurried to finish. Thigden started walking away from the scene. “What do you make of it?” he asked. “You think the bite marks show a vampire’s involved?”

“Maybe a vampire. Maybe a very effective stage setting—the neck wounds, the weapon connected with vampire lore.”

Thigden nodded thoughtfully.

“Her visit to the police yesterday,” Harry told the older man. “I figure Mrs. B thought vampires were a possibility.”

“Maybe she came out to investigate a prowler,” Thigden said. “Pulled up a stake from the rose garden as a weapon. He fought her off—perhaps including a bite. He got the stake away from her and then brought it down through the heart.”

I gave Harry a skeptical look. “With that smile on her face?”

Thigden looked startled. Murder he could deal with, but not attractive vampires.

“Any other suspects?” I asked. “Yesterday the daughter let drop that the father had a mistress.”

Thigden took a deep breath. “Something’s fishy about the report. The housekeeper said Mr. Bouchard usually leaves the house at 8:30, but he didn’t call 911 until eleven. By the time we got here, his lawyer had arrived and the doctor had just administered a sedative to the daughter. Won’t be able to interview the girl for a while.”

We all stopped at Harry’s Jaguar. “If Bouchard did it,” Harry said, “he would have had an excuse lined up. He wouldn’t have taken two-and-a-half-hours to call the police.”

Thigden shrugged but didn’t disagree. “Could be the father’s protecting the daughter. The housekeeper said the mother and daughter argued last night. Mrs. Bouchard threatened to send Ashley to boarding school in Switzerland with the nuns.” Thigden furrowed his eyebrows. “The girl really swore out a complaint yesterday against a vampire?”

Harry nodded.

Thigden shook his head while we got into the car. “The housekeeper also said the girl was raving about a vampire killing her mother.”

So Ashley claimed to have seen the murder? Was it Deepak? Or did we have another vampire on our hands?

* * *

“Is there any play for us in this investigation?” I asked.

“Depends on who you think killed Mrs. Bouchard.” Harry drove past the TV trucks and turned toward the town of Potomac.

“I hope it’s not Deepak.” I stopped, amazed that my long-standing distrust of vampires had all but disappeared after I’d met one who avoided killing. “Plus I’d like to keep vampires out of the news.”

“And …?” Harry asked, ever a miser with words.

“The fanging didn’t kill Mrs. Bouchard; that sounds like Deepak. Someone stabbed her in the chest; that doesn’t.” I stopped, but Harry waited for more, so I went on. “Even if it’s Deepak, there’s little chance of proving it. I doubt a vampire would leave fingerprints on a wooden stake. And there’s no chance of catching him, anyway. Not with his powers of shape-shifting.”

You can tell a lot about a town by what’s at the crossroads. Bars? Churches? In Potomac, it was real-estate brokers, banks, and strip malls, with a branch of Morgan Stanley for good measure. Harry pulled into the closest mall and parked in front of a French pastry shop.

“The stake through the heart sounds like an attack.” He turned to me. “Ashley? Maybe even Shayna?”

“Yesterday Deepak said he was meeting Shayna at the library. Her probably took her home.”

“So you think after dropping Shayna off, Deepak stopped next door for a tryst with Mrs. Bouchard?”

“Maybe. And Shayna saw and attacked her.”

Harry shook his head. “For jealous rage, my money’s on Ashley. First she loses out to Shayna, and then Deepak gives the vampire’s kiss to her mother? Not likely to improve mother-daughter relations.”

Harry pulled out his cell phone, looked up a number, and punched it in. “Is Shayna home?” He paused. “Gracias.” He pocketed the phone. “She’s still at school.”

“Boy, how cold-blooded would you have to be to kill Mrs. Bouchard and then go to school like nothing happened?” I asked. “Let’s find her at school. See if she knows anything. They let out around two o’clock.”

Harry checked his watch. “It’s almost two now.” He clicked his seatbelt and peeled out of the parking lot, taking the corner on two wheels.

“Turn right. Take Falls Road north,” I shouted as Harry ignored the stop sign. “She’s at Winston Churchill High School. I’ll find it on the GPS.”

Driving with Harry on a road with some spectacular twists felt like something they warn you against trying in car commercials. The sky was darkening ahead of us. The wind was up, and winter-bare trees as tall as telephone poles were bending in the wind.

I navigated Harry to the school just as students started pouring out the double doors of the main entrance of the modern, brick building. The entrance was flanked by two long, multi-story wings, each with a parking lot, alive with motion.

“You check out the student lot.” I jerked my head to the left. “I’ll check the buses. She may take a bus.”

The wind yanked the car door out of my grasp, but I managed to shut it and push through the crowd toward the place where I saw the school buses lined up.

Bingo. Several yards ahead of me was Shayna Shemesh. Among the jeans and cutoffs, her knee-length skirt stood out.

“Shayna!” I called, but I heard no response in the chaos of shouting, high-fiving, laughing, and dancing to the music from a sea of iPod earbuds.

Then the rain began. Students started running, some putting books over their heads, some opening umbrellas. I caught up with Shayna and pulled her aside.

She looked pale, uncertain, wriggling in my grasp.

“Deepak said he was seeing you last night. Did he take you home?” I asked.

“Deepak didn’t kill anyone.”

I’d been naïve to think Shayna might not know about Mrs. Bouchard’s murder. With text messaging and Twitter, even if the news media hadn’t yet broadcast the story, she still would have heard it by now.

“Mrs. Bouchard was alive when he left her. Honest.”

“Did you see what happened?” I asked.

Shayna tore her arm away. “My father’s lawyer says I mustn’t talk to anyone.”

I reached out and pulled down the neck of her pink turtleneck. Two fresh puncture marks stood out where none had been the day before.

She turned and ran toward the line of buses.

Harry beeped from a nearby parking spot. The convertible’s roof was unfolding and stretching over the seats, attracting lots of interest—in the car (from males) and the driver (from females). Harry secured the roof to the front windshield frame, and I weaved my way through the crowd and jumped in.

“What?” Harry put the car in reverse and edged out.

“She’s lawyered up, but she did say Deepak didn’t do it. And—” I paused for dramatic effect. “Shayna has two fresh puncture marks on her neck.”

“So if Deepak fanged Mrs. B, it wasn’t from hunger.”

“You got it.” I clicked my seatbelt. “Shayna will have to talk to the police. Maybe they can get something out of her.”

With a thunderous crack, the skies opened. The windshield wipers beat frantically, a continuous thwack-thwack-thwack, fruitless against the downpour.

We headed for the exit, moving to the head of the bus queue. A dark blue Lincoln, with its hazard lights flashing and trunk open, blocked the exit. A girl dashed out to the car, herding Shayna before her. With her black, spikey hair, Ashley was unmistakable. Did she have a gun? She pushed Shayna into the trunk of the Lincoln, slammed it shut, hopped into the driver’s seat, and floored it, burning rubber as she turned right on Tuckerman Lane.

“I didn’t think Ashley was old enough …”

I never finished the sentence. Harry shifted into super drive, honking to warn more staid drivers to get out of his way. The blue Lincoln streaked ahead of us, doing at least fifty.

The rain came down in sheets, and the windshield wipers went crazy. Harry turned right at Tuckerman, trying to keep the blue Lincoln in sight through the downpour.

Harry shouted as he hunched over the wheel. “Where’s she going?”

“She’s going to kill Shayna! I bet she killed her mother out of jealousy, and now she’s going for a second victim.”

At Falls Road, the blue sedan began fishtailing on the slick pavement, then completed a left turn as the light turned yellow.

Harry followed, leaning on his horn, as the yellow light turned to red. A silver Volvo that had already inched forward in the rain swerved into the driveway of the volunteer fire department to avoid us and blasted his horn for a good ten seconds, its wail fading behind us.

The wipers were slicing across the windshield now at warp speed.

“Looks like she’s heading home,” I yelled. But why would Ashley rush toward home and the police unless she was innocent?

“Maybe.” Harry controlled the occasional skid as we followed the fleeing car south. “What if Deepak killed Mrs. Bouchard and Ashley’s using Shayna to lure him back to the scene?”

Could be, I thought. I had no hard proof of Deepak’s innocence.

An old church with a graveyard marked the intersection at Democracy Boulevard. At the last minute, Ashley turned left, skidded, then regained traction and took off. Harry followed in time to see the blue Lincoln turn right into a suburban maze, a wealthy neighborhood with curbs and stone half-columns as mailboxes. We struggled to keep Ashley in sight. I wondered if she knew the subdivision or was relying on a GPS to avoid turning into a cul-de-sac.

A flash of lightning lit the sky, followed by an almost instantaneous crack of thunder. Just ahead, the trunk of a huge tree split; a tangle of limbs and branches fell in slow motion across the road, just missing the blue Lincoln sedan. Harry swerved left into a driveway to avoid the limbs, then careened over a manicured lawn that would never be the same. We bumped over the curb back onto the road.

Harry super-shifted back up to fourth and we slowly began to gain on Ashley. She took the next right, then an immediate left. Harry followed closely until we hit a speed bump.

I flew off the seat, my head crashing into the canvas roof of the convertible. Good thing I hadn’t been talking or I might have bitten my tongue off. I could feel my teeth rattle in my head.

Harry must have been stunned, too, because the car slowed.

“Keep her in sight!” I yelled.

Harry ramped up the speed, then bore left at a fork in the road.

The rain had let up a bit, though it was still coming down steadily. The road ahead was dark. Had Ashley gone this way?

“She turned off her lights,” Harry said. He drove down Falls Road and stopped where the road ended at MacArthur Boulevard.

“Left takes us into D.C.—in search of Deepak,” I said. “If Ashley’s out to get Shayna, turn right to Great Falls.”

Harry looked at me.

“Go right,” I said.

The Jaguar screeched into the turn, spraying gravel as we hit the unpaved road. We zoomed down the twisting, turning lane and soon came upon a welcome sign to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal park. We hadn’t spotted Ashley, but a broken entry bar at the park entrance showed we were on the right trail.

“Turn left!” The Jag raced into the parking lot. Sure enough, near the walkway leading to the Falls, the abandoned Lincoln sprawled across three parking spaces in the almost empty lot. Ashley was just entering the brush and undergrowth near the walkway that protected the fragile topsoil. She was herding Shayna, whose her hands were now tied behind her.

Harry slowed. I opened my door and jumped out of the car. The rain soaked me in seconds. In huge leaps you see only in dreams and Kung Fu movies, I used my step-vampire powers to bound effortlessly toward the walkway entrance. The sound of rushing water filled the air as the runoff from the rain and winter melt surged into the Potomac River.

Above a raging stream, the walkway crossed a deep ravine. Ashley straddled the wooden rails, struggling to push Shayna up and over, to drop her onto the sharp granite boulders and foaming water below. I slammed into Ashley. She lost her grip on Shayna and swayed out over the railing. Shayna fell to the planks of the walkway, screaming.

Ashley, off-balance, started a backward fall. I grabbed her by the waistband of her jeans and by her left leg and held on.

* * *

The police found fingerprints on the murder weapon – Ashley’s, not Shayna’s. Mr. Bouchard hired a big-name defense lawyer for his daughter. The Shemeshes wouldn’t allow Shayna to give any interviews, though her pictures were all over the evening news when a leak to the press hinted that Mrs. Bouchard had tried to mediate a jealous rivalry between Ashley and Shayna. Nobody mentioned Deepak or a vampire. No interviews with the housekeeper, conveniently visiting her family in Peru.

The TV coverage lasted almost a week, with pictures of Shayna (filmed as she entered school) and Ashley (taken during her arrival at the police station). “Crime of passion! Daughter stakes mother!” screamed the headlines in the National Inquirer.

What with the girl ranting about a teenage vampire and how he made her do it, Ashley’s lawyers were able to postpone her trial while she underwent a psychological evaluation. An eventual plea bargain—manslaughter while temporarily insane—saw Ashley committed to a private mental hospital. About two weeks after his daughter’s sentence was announced, Mr. Bouchard remarried.

By then an agent had signed the beautiful Shayna—much slimmed through unhappiness and fasting—to a movie contract in the name of Rachel Hunnicutt.

We saw Deepak again only once, when Shayna invited us to the premiere of her first film. As the searchlights circled, advertising the location of the gala event, we spotted in the crowd outside the theater the young Indian, pudgy and sorrowful, gazing with longing at his lost love.

# # #

Grant writer, software author, and recovering English professor Helen Schwartz was inspired to a career as a mystery writer when ordered by her condo association to get rid of her cat. She sublimated her desire to kill and started taking courses at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Her short story “On the Sixth Night of Hanukah” appeared in the holiday anthology Dying in a Winter Wonderland (Wolfmont). She is working on a novel series about Ruth Nobis, a four hundred-year-old step-vampire raised by Orthodox Jews, who now runs a bed-and-breakfast on Capitol Hill. She hopes for publication of her first novel, The Wrong Vampire, while she continues work on her second, Not Bloody Likely.