Excerpt: Dance in the Dark
I think my life was pretty normal, right up until the ripe old age of nine. That year, I decided it would be ‘totally wicked awesome’ to have a Halloween party for my birthday.
Until a bunch of jackass teenagers in the neighborhood decided to crash the party in scary costumes and guarantee my friends needed therapy for the next several years. Plus, all my friends blamed me, and we stopped being friends. Given more time than I wound up having, things would have eventually eased, I like to think.
Then again, one kid was scared so bad, he fled into the street and, we thought, home. He never showed up there, though, and no one ever saw him again.
Looking back, I think at least half those ‘teenagers’ were real abnormals. Real monsters, if you like. Some of them can be monsters. Some of them thrive on it.
About a week after the party that ruined my life, something else came along to show me I had no idea what it looked like to really see my world end. It was a vampire, straight out of the horror movies. I know now that something was wrong with her—what they call blood-crazy. It happens to vampires occasionally, the way other insanity problems happen in normals. Every race has its dirty, shameful little secrets. This one got loose and killed several people in my neighborhood that night.
This included my parents. I was next on the list, but another vampire came along and killed her. He was beautiful, and I did not realize at first he was just another one of her. All vampires are beautiful, it is how they hunt. I was confused, hurt, grief-stricken, definitely in shock, and he was my lifeline.
Two weeks later, my rescuer adopted me. My oh so noble protector, taking me into his home out of remorse and duty. So began my life in the household of the Dracula Ontoniel Desrosiers, and in the supernatural world.
Of course, life still had one more hell in store for me. Ten minutes after arriving in my new home, I fell madly in love. Quite the thing to do under the circumstances, but I could not help it. Naturally, I fell for the most unreachable person in existence—my new brother, the Alucard Elam Desrosiers. When we met, I was nine, he was eighty-nine. I was permitted to call him Elam, eventually. I called him Ellie when I wanted to annoy him.
So, in less than a month’s time, I lost my friends, lost my parents, was adopted by a vampire, and fell in love with a vampire. That seems to meet anyone’s quota for weird in one lifetime, but I was far from done.
All I ever wanted, from the night of that terrible party, was my normal life back. Once brought into the abnormal world, however, there is very rarely any going back. But, growing up a plain, ordinary human in a household of beautiful, powerful vampires teaches you pretty quick to get used to wanting a lot of things you will never have.
I was nine when my parents died, but I remember precious little of them. Easier to forget, perhaps, in order for my nine year old self to cope with it all. I do remember something my mother used to say, though, and it stuck with me. She said it a lot, when I tried to back out of something at the last minute, overwhelmed by fear. She said, ‘you’ve made it to the ball, so you may as well dance.’
~from the journal of Johnnie Goodnight
Case 001: The Devil in Glass Slippers
Johnnie straightened his black and silver tie, thumb sliding over the rose-shaped tie pin made of diamonds set in silver. The suit was tailored and the equal, if not the superior, to that of any snob in the room. Already a few cast inquisitive, nose-up glances his way, sensing a normal amongst their powerful, abnormal throng. But they could not dismiss him entirely, not when he had clearly been invited, since there was no other way to get into Jesse Adelardi’s parties.
He might be a normal, but in every other way he fit the part, right down to his costly clothes. His suit was a smoother black than his ink-dark hair, which was razored so the ends fell in jagged wisps around his face. His eyes were a dark charcoal gray, hard as he looked at the man beside him. “So, now are you going to tell me why you insisted I come? You know I hate costume parties.”
“Masques,” Rostislav corrected, smoothing his own playboy fine hair. If Johnnie was a shadow, Rostislav was sunshine.
If Johnnie strove to be a good little human, Rostislav was an abnormal troublemaker born.
“They’re called masques,” Rostislav said again for emphasis.
Johnnie shrugged. “A rose by any other name would still be just as annoying.”
Rostislav slid him an amused look, gold eyes glinting. “The Ice Queen annoying you again?”
“As though he ever does anything else,” Johnnie replied with a slight grimace that was quickly smoothed away again. “I really do not feel like discussing him right now. Tell me why you dragged me here, or I am leaving.”
Rostislav sighed at him, long and pointedly. “We are here to find a pair of shoes.”
“I am leaving,” Johnnie replied, and turning sharply on his heel, strode from the balcony where they had been watching the ball down below, out into the lobby of the casino where the party was being hosted. It was a beautiful building; his father came here often to conduct business or simply spend time with friends. The Last Star, it was called. It had the finest ocean view around, for those who could afford the rooms where that view might be obtained.
Generally, Johnnie loved being here. Tonight, he wanted no part of it. Masques creeped him out. Maybe he should learn to let go of childhood trauma … but, no, he really did not feel like it. Anyway, the worst part about costumes was the not knowing. He did not see the fun in that. People were hard enough to understand, and abnormals harder still, without the additional challenge.
“Wait, wait, wait—” Rostislav grabbed his arm and yanked him to a halt. “Come on, Johnnie. Don’t stomp off in one of your hissy fits.”
Johnnie ignored that. “I am not going to dig you out of whatever mess you have gotten yourself into this time, Rostiya. Do it yourself.”
“Please?” Rostislav said, golden eyes pleading. “It’s not what you think. I didn’t start this mess.”
“Start from the beginning,” Johnnie said. “Tell me everything, and if you leave anything out, I am leaving and will ignore you for a very long time.”
Rostislav winced, knowing it was no bluff. “All right, all right. I was asked to consult on some old junk.”
Old junk being Rostislav’s rather flippant term for magical artifacts. The abnormal world was rife with magic-imbued objects that were never properly cared for or deactivated. Many were harmless, but too many were not. Rostislav, a witch of no small ability, consulted on the various objects people found and helped to render them harmless, or least find the person who could render them harmless.
“In with the mess was a pair of shoes. Dancing shoes, made of glass.”
“Cinderella slippers?” Johnnie asked, immediately intrigued despite himself.
History was rife with ways for abnormals to hide themselves amongst humans and from each other. To save energy, many abnormals put spells into clothing, jewelry, or the like, that cast an illusion—a glamour—over the wearer.
Old legend held that a particularly powerful abnormal—no one knew what kind—had placed her spell in a pair of slippers made of glass. Ostentatious and stupid, but abnormals excelled at nothing so much as showing off while hiding in plain sight.
“So we are looking for missing glamour shoes?” he asked. “They should not be too much of a problem.”
“They aren’t just glamour shoes, unfortunately,” Rostislav replied. “Examining them revealed they were actually holding a demon. I put them in a spell cage while we went to lunch. When we came back, the shoes were gone.”
“Wonderful,” Johnnie said, and returned to the balcony, staring down at the people below, lips pursed in thought. “So somewhere down there, a demon is wreaking havoc with some Cinderella.” He looked at Rostislav. “I do not see why this concerns me. You are the witch. Find it, fix it.”
“I can’t find them,” Rostislav, blowing out a frustrated breath. “I’ve tried. I finally told Jesse—”
“Jesse?” Johnnie demanded. “You are helping Jesse Adelardi?”
Rostislav glared at him. “Yes,” he hissed. “Business is business, and I don’t want you to fucking lecture me. The shoes are what matter, and right now I need your help, all right? I didn’t get to investigate closely what the demon had to do, to break free of the shoes. All I know is that they are Cinderella slippers, and this is Jesse’s ball, so we need to find them soon.”
“Let us hope,” Johnnie said, “that we figure out which tradition was used by the sorcerer who put a demon in a pair of slippers.” He looked out over the crowd again, and murmured softly, “Shake and quiver, little tree, throw gold and silver down to me.”
“So does this mean you’ll help me? I told Jesse that I knew a clever little detective.”
Johnnie rolled his eyes. “I am no detective. Finding the odd missing object and such for people does not a detective make.”
“Whatever. Let’s find the slippers. It’s entirely possible they’re not even here.”
“No,” Johnnie said, eyes still on the crowd. “A demon in Cinderella slippers would find no better place to be than a costume ball. So let us go find Cinderella, and hope we do it before the stroke of midnight.” He glanced back at Rostislav, and sneered at the gold half-mask Rostislav was sliding into place.
“Didn’t you bring a mask, Johnnie?”
“I do not wear masks,” Johnnie replied. “You know that.”
“Yeah, yeah. You really need to learn to mellow.”
Johnnie ignored him, and turned away, sliding into the role of finder that he seemed to have acquired over the years. He looked over the crowds of people again, murmuring softly to himself again as he caught sight of a woman with a particularly extravagant coiffure. “Riddle me, riddle me, what is that; over the head, and under the hat?”
Rostislav frowned at him. “What?”
“Nothing,” Johnnie replied. “Just nonsense. Make yourself useful witch, and see if you cannot pick out bits of Cinderella style spell work. I doubt we can detect the demon itself, but the spells and effects employed with Cinderella slippers are more or less rote. Hunt them out, or at least try.”
“Oh, yeah.” Rostislav made a face. “Because illusions, love spells, and enchantments are so bloody uncommon at a bloody masque.”
Johnnie regarded him coolly.
“All right, all right,” Rostislav replied, throwing up his hands. “What are you going to do?”
“Examine shoes,” Johnnie replied, striving to keep his voice even and unaffected, and not let out the bitterness that always came with the knowledge that he had no abnormal abilities to draw upon. He was the quintessential ugly duckling, and heaven and hell forbid anyone let him forget it. This costume party was going to be a nightmare—already he could see the looks, feel the curiosity. Some knew him, and would tell those who did not. Others would simply figure it out for themselves. Everyone wondered why his father had adopted him. Nearly all pitied him. Many regarded him as potentially amusing. All looked down on him. “Shoes and people.”
He pointedly dropped his gaze to Rostislav’s shoes, which were as perfect and golden as the rest of the man and ensemble. He should probably know Rostislav’s costume, but he really did not care. The sooner he found the slippers, the sooner he could go home.
Not that he was in any hurry to go home, really, he thought with a stifled sigh. What waited for him there, but another fight with Elam? Home was seldom a welcoming place at the best of times, and worse still when the Ice Queen was in a foul mood and eager to take it out on his unwanted brother.
Gods above, he wished the day would come when he stopped hoping for Elam to return just some of what Johnnie felt for him.
Shoving the thoughts away, focusing on the task at hand, he watched as Rostislav descended the grand staircase and rapidly vanished into the throng below.
Johnnie stifled another sigh, then finally descended the stairs himself. Immediately the press and crush of people began to irritate him. The stench of sweat, perfume, smoke, and the underlying bitterness of too much magic in too small a space began to give him a headache, and he fought his way through it until he at last found a bit of free space near the main bar.
He skimmed the crowd, looking absently at shoes where he was able, but mostly looking for possible Cinderellas or the ‘prince.’
As it was Jesse Adelardi hosting this event, he should be the ‘prince’ for which the demon would have to seek, to fulfill the Cinderella strictures.
It was an ever raging debate, which had come first—the slippers or the tale. Most held the tale had come first, and many an abnormal had been inspired. Others held that the slippers had come first: that once upon a time, an abnormal had placed a spell or trapped a demon within a pair of slippers, in order to win her prince and obtain freedom from an evil stepmother.
Johnnie had always thought that was close, but did not believe it had played out quite that way. The various mothers, that was the key. A dead mother, a stepmother, and then the ‘fairy’ godmother, which in some versions was simply the spirit of the ‘good’ mother.
The closest he ever came to being a true abnormal was by studying them incessantly. The only thing he excelled at more than finding things was knowing things. Reading, research, talking to those who would indulge him …
His private theory in regards to the Cinderella slippers was that it had never been Cinderella herself who obtained the slippers through positive means. Far more likely, he thought, that some girl’s over-ambitious mother had plotted to see that her plainest, most lackluster daughter landed a successful marriage. Possibly her only daughter, or perhaps her youngest, but whatever—she could not or would not be what her mother wanted.
So, bring in magic. A mother who placed a spell or spells in … a new pair of slippers? A favored pair? And suddenly her daughter was far from plain, far from ordinary. Attract the prince, ensnare him, and the deed is done. A glamour, a love spell, tied together just so, and there you have a happily ever after. Such things had been done since the beginning of time.
“Master Desrosiers,” said a cool voice.
Johnnie nodded at the vampire, acknowledging and then dismissing him. He did the same as several others greeted him. He was not here to socialize, and they were only investigating a curious specimen. Turning away from the crowd, he glanced at the bar for a potential place to sit for a bit.
Oddly, the bar was occupied by only the bartender and four other guests. Two of the guests wore masks, and two did not. One of the masked was a sharp looking figure in green, and Johnnie sensed he should know the costume, but he did not. The other masked figure was some sort of yellow bird.
Of the two unmasked, one was a beautiful woman dressed mostly in diamonds. The other was a plain-looking man dressed in simple black, with nothing to cut or soften the severity of it.
Johnnie passed his eyes over each—the two masked figures avoided his gaze, the woman met it and immediately dropped her gaze, and the plain looking man met it, smiling politely before returning to his drink.
No Cinderella candidates here, then. They lacked … something, though as usual he could not put a finger upon what was off. He simply knew they were not right. Well, beauty obviously. The point of Cinderella was that ‘she’ would be the most beautiful at the ball. The woman in diamonds was stunning, but there were others more stunning. The plain man, obviously not. The two masked figures were not remarkable enough of costume to fit.
Approaching the bar, he sat between the two unmasked figures, a barstool of space on either side. “Vodka rocks,” he told the bartender.
The bartender nodded and turned to pour the requested drink, and Johnnie turned slightly so that he could look out over the crowd again, carefully maintaining an air of boredom. He was looking now solely for Adelardi—if he could find the prince, Cinderella would present eventually. It was only just past nine; Cinderella would not make herself known to the prince before ten.
Where was Adelardi? He should be around and highly visible, even in costume. This was his fete, so where was he? It occurred to him then, he had never asked Rostislav the purpose of this party. Odd Rostislav had neglected to mention it, but perhaps he had simply forgotten.
Not his annual charity ball, it was the wrong time of year. Not a holiday, though that would have fit a costume ball. Birthday? The ball did not seem to fit that, though. It was possible, but he did not think that was it. He turned to the diamond-encrusted woman. “I beg your pardon, do you know the reason for this fete? I am afraid a friend brought me, but he did not tell me the purpose.”
The woman shrugged, and turned slightly away from him.
Johnnie lifted a brow at that, but said nothing.
Before he could turn and ask the man on his other side, the very one he sought suddenly appeared. “Master Desrosiers,” Jesse said with a smirk. “I am honored you deigned to attend my little fete. You look quite stunning, as always. I shouldn’t doubt more than a few here would love whatever taste you were willing to give.”
Johnnie ignored him. He did not deign to respond to insults, especially such unclever ones.
Jesse laughed softly. “Johnnie, Johnnie, as cold and beautiful as any vampire, but it took you only twenty-six years. Dance with me.”
Finishing his drink, Johnnie placed his hand in Jesse’s and followed him to the crowded dance floor. Immediately people moved to give them plenty of room, and Johnnie felt the prickle of eyes upon him, the heat of jealousy and the cold of contempt.
More than a few vampires disapproved of the way a Dracula had not only taken in a human, but worse, adopted him. Humans were prey, not kin. The only thing worse would be if he and some vampire dared to take up together.
Thinking that of course led to thoughts of his brother, but Johnnie stubbornly ignored them. He focused, instead, on Jesse Adelardi. Not a Dracula, but wealthy and powerful enough in his own right that he was counted high amongst the elite. There were always rumors floating around about he was set to marry this daughter or that, and be made an Alucard, eventually to take up Dracula.
So far, none of those rumors had come to pass, and of course the lack of marriage always created further rumors.
Jesse was, of course, heartbreakingly beautiful. His was a handsome beauty, rather than Elam’s more androgynous features. His hair and eyes were a deep, soft gold, set in flawless, sun-kissed skin. It was little wonder that he could get Rostislav to do whatever he asked. Johnnie had tried to tell Rostislav a thousand times the futility of being a human and loving a vampire, but they had always had stubbornness in common.
“I suspected you were the help that Rostislav mentioned,” Jesse said, smoothly leading the dancing, hand warm where it curled around Johnnie’s hip. How many people, over the hundreds of years of Jesse’s life, had fallen victim to his warmth and charm and beauty? “I do thank you for coming,” Jesse continued.
Johnnie ignored the thanks, and simply asked, “He neglected to mention the purpose of your masque.”
“Oh?” Jesse asked. “It’s the 100th anniversary of my hotel. I’ve never managed to stay so long in one place; it’s quite exciting for me. The day it opened, I threw a masque.” He pulled Johnnie closer, turning them neatly, moving gracefully across the dance floor. Beautiful, so close to perfection, but Johnnie remained unmoved. He possessed no special ability to resist vampires—he simply had grown up with them, amongst them, and the lure of that wicked beauty had lost its shine along the way. “Naturally, another masque was the only suitable option.”
“Of course,” Johnnie said, turning his head, following a pair of handsome blue high-heeled slippers. No. He turned back to Jesse. “You are careless.”
“It was not my spell cage which failed,” Jesse replied.
“Mm,” Johnnie murmured. “But you did possess a pair of Cinderella shoes. You are no necromancer, but neither are you a fool.” He pulled away as the dance ended, and sketched a half-bow that was only just barely polite.
Jesse’s mouth quirked in amusement, but he said only, “Thank you for the dance, Master Desrosiers.”
“My lord,” Johnnie murmured in reply, then left him, moving through the ballroom, surreptitiously examining shoes. After half an hour, he decided to try something else. He searched around for Rostislav—and paused, frowning, as he finally saw Rostislav tucked into a discreet, shadowy corner with Jesse. What they were doing, he could not determine.
But he could guess.
He turned away in anger and contempt—and jealousy. Vampires never took humans as lovers; it was beneath them to have truly amorous relations with their food. If Jesse was doing anything, he was toying with Rostislav, and Rostislav knew that.
But Rostislav had always loved Jesse, the same way that Johnnie had always loved Elam. Stupid, to fall for vampires, but they had fallen all the same.
Rostislav was apparently wearing the mask of a fool for the ball, Johnnie noted as he glanced toward that dark corner again. He watched them a moment, quoting softly to himself, “So true a fool is love, that in your will, Though you do anything, he thinks no ill.” Turning away again, he climbed the stairs he had earlier descended.
Away from the crowds, standing in a dimly lit hallway, he weighed his options. He should have had Jesse or Rostislav give him access to the spell cage in which they had tried to bind the shoes. Going back down into the crush below was not worth it, however. Not when he likely had other means to try first.
Moving to the lobby, he pressed the button on Jesse’s private elevator. Though he possessed only ordinary senses and laid no claim to special abilities, one could not live his entire life amongst abnormals without some effect. He could almost always feel magic, unless it was very slight or too subtly cast. He could also smell it, when it as strong enough or, like downstairs, there was simply a great deal of it.
He felt it now, like a prickle across his skin, as he stepped into the elevator. Glancing at the control panel, he immediately saw where a special key was required to access the very top floors. Jesse’s rooms, he knew, occupied the top three floors of the hotel.
The thing about the more powerful abnormals, Johnnie had learned over the years, was that they stopped worrying about normals. Instinct drove most normals to avoid abnormals like Jesse Adelardi. Over time, Jesse and his ilk, Johnnie’s family included, become accustomed to being avoided. They largely ceased to notice normals.
As a result of this, they seldom bothered to incorporate wards against normals in their many and varied defensive spells. All the wards and spells blocked all levels of magic and mischief—except good, old-fashioned normal mischief.
Reaching into an inner pocket of his jacket, he extracted a suitable lock-pick and made quick work of the penthouse access. Tucking the lock-pick away again, he pushed the button and leaned against the back wall as he rode to the topmost floors with a slight sneer on his face.