Not every modern career girl can have her rented house blown away by a jealous weather witch in Kansas one week and end up in the post-Millennium Las Vegas sleeping in an Enchanted Cottage the next.
But, as Disney says: fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you, and it had happened to me, Delilah Street, forever orphan and ex-WTCH-TV reporter.
The Enchanted Cottage is a charming little place from the 1945 film of that name. Robert Young played a pilot disfigured in World War II and Dorothy McGuire portrayed a plain shy spinster. They find sanctuary and happily-ever-after love in a cottage just like mine.
But this is not the 1940s and films are no longer made in black and white-unless the director is trying to be retro or pretentious or both. And nobody knows who Robert Young and Dorothy McGuire were except film buffs like me and my new boss, Hector Nightwine, producer of the internationally franchised CSI V forensic TV shows.
For a number of reasons, my life in the Las Vegas of 2013 isn't worth a five-dollar chip from Cesar Cicereau's Gehenna Hotel and Casino. Fortunately, though, I'm worth a lot to Hector. So, here I am in a pseudo-quaint cottage on the grounds of Nightwine's Fort-Knox-secure Sunset Road estate, surrounded by Hobbity English charm mixed with high-tech convenience. I am tucked under an eiderdown comforter in a high four-poster bed with gargoyles carved onto the posts while a Jacuzzi tub in the adjoining bathroom softly gurgles me to sleep.
Surely none of my half-vampire bullyboy nightmares will come home to roost in this place. It's as safe as fairy tales and Nightwine's state-of-the-art security technology can make it.
Even so, I was not quite sleeping, just snuggling into the thousand-thread-count sheets, when I heard a scratching at my second-story casement windows.
Fruit trees and blossom-bearing vines grow around my Enchanted Cottage as thick as Sleeping Beauty's thorny forest. A stray vine was probably blowing against the window glass. I opened my eyes to stare up at the peaked white-plaster ceiling. A small shifting shadow danced there in rhythm with the exterior scratching.
Had a cat climbed the vines and was now trying to get in?
I was warmer than a toasted English muffin from my formerly cold feet to the top of my brunet head. This may be Las Vegas, but I'm cold-natured. My feet and hands never seem to get warm enough at night. Now, though, they finally were.
So I didn't want to get up.
From the stairs came the faint whiff of dinner's garlic chicken. I seldom saw the kitchen witch who came with the property, along with the yard troll and the garden pixies and who knew what else, but she could bake fragrant loaves of crusty bread in the wood stove as readily as she could nuke a frozen Weight Watchers entree in the microwave.
I wasn't crazy about the garlic odor from that night's homemade dish, but I was comforted to hear my awesomely large wolfhound-wolf-cross dog wheezing in sleep from one of the downstairs rooms. This was not one of Quicksilver's frequent solo nights out on the town that never shuts down. I figure adopting him doesn't give me a lock on his nocturnal need to patrol and rock and roll with his kind.
I wriggled deeper into the warm covers, but the insinuating snare-drum rhythm of that exterior scratching kept me from sliding into sleep. It could be a kitten caught up a tree, clinging there, helpless...
Forcing myself to sit up, I shivered at an inrush of air-conditioned air and put my bare feet to the icy wooden floor. My sleep-T hem snarled in the covers as I got out of bed, almost tripping me. I moved toward the pair of windows.
A Rorschach blot of black was indeed pressed to the window glass. It was as big as my spread hand, with four clinging limbs and a bigger head. It looked like a starfish shadow.
I stumbled nearer and squinted to make it out in the dark. Surely, a young kitten-but why wasn't it mewing up a storm as cats do when trapped up so high? Only when a squeal revealed rows of tiny fangs did I realize that my visitor was a bat.
Naturally, I squealed a bit too.
Mind you, I'm a former TV news reporter, an intrepid investigator of rural phenomena like cattle mutilations. One midsummer night's window-clinging bat shouldn't set me screeching.
I reminded myself that bats were enormously useful consumers of insects and other pests and returned to bed, shuddering as my floor-cooled feet found the sheets already chilly. Even the slim silver chain on my wrist felt icy.
I snuggled stomach-down, curled up, and waited for sleep to find me.
Then I heard the rustling. And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain thrilled me, filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before...
Damn! Why was my subconscious quoting Edgar Allan- Poe's "The Raven?"
Maybe because the rustling sounded like curtains and there weren't any curtains on my dormer windows. Or maybe because the rustling sounded like a big bird's wings...
'Tis the wind and nothing morel
If that mantra had worked for Poe's uneasy scholar it would work for me. I pulled the covers farther over my head.
The raven-size wing rustling increased to a California condor-size woosh, with a wingspread of, say, ten freaking feet. Only an idiot would ignore that kind of indoor tempest. This was no little lost bat or even a misplaced sparrow.
I sat up, turning the covers half down, and faced the windows. "All right!" I challenged the night.
Not all right, baby girl, whispered my internal invisible friend since childhood, Irma. We are getting called on by more than Big Bird. We're not on Sesame Street anymore, Delilah.
No. The room's temperature had dropped to meat-freezer cold and I was instantly afraid I was the meat. Post-Millennium Las Vegas teemed with things that went bump, stump, hump and slurp in the night.
I was appalled to see that the small shadow from the windowpane had moved inside to become a pillar of darkness draped in black, severe and funereal. I was almost getting used to seeing apparitions in the tall hall mirror, but not in thin air. Slowly, the head of the entity moved, lifted and the cloaked sides spread their wings.
Awe mated with my fear, and both held me frozen. A pale white face came into partial focus. Only cruel, slanting dark eyebrows and a gray grinning mouth were fully visible.
The black fell back, revealing an ash-gray satin lining framing a man's black evening suit of elegant antique cut. The vintage clothing collector in me couldn't help but admire the tailoring even as goose bumps ran races up and down my arms. The figure had no color at all, not even red around the eye whites.
Then I recognized my visitor from his many collectible photographs and posters.
I was beholding the most commercially potent incarnation of Dracula of all time: 1932's Bela Lugosi, slithering onscreen with Eastern Euro-trash swagger and Art Deco decadence. I recalled a few pre-adolescent longings to someday meet a classic vampire: suave, smooth and deliriously sinister. I hankered for any one of a dozen pop culture reinventions of the father of all vampires as a sex symbol. Bela Lugosi had a certain predatory hunger, but he wasn't the hunky anti-hero women would willingly welcome, swooning for his seductive suction action.
Lugosi was nasty. Not as nasty as the ancient devouring vamp in Bram Stoker's novel, but far from the lounge lizard, oral-sex fiend Frank Langella's portrayal had made women go crazy over a few decades back. Why do women always go for the bad boys? I sure hadn't liked the variety I fought off in the group homes.
I could think clearly, but sat paralyzed-just like all those passive silver-screen victims-my fingers curled into the sheets. At least this wasn't a debased half-vamp from the group homes. He was the reel thing, although not a Gollum-gaunt creature of the night like Nosferatu from the days of silent films. That scrawny, long-clawed leech and lech was all too reminiscent of the real-life crackpot Howard Hughes in his current undead state to conjure.
No, Bela Lugosi's slo-mo sinister diction may seem hokey today, but in person, gliding to your bedside, he was mesmerizing. He leaned in and down, showed only the tips of his pointed canine teeth, and lowered his gaze to drink in the sight of my bare neck.
By now my silver chain bracelet had subtly shimmied up my arm. Even as he ogled my throat, it looped itself into a solid wide dog collar around my neck, blocking all ports of entry.
"Bah," Dracula said, recoiling. "Cheesy silver trinket! I only wanted to take a tiny symbolic taste."
"Bad taste is never symbolic," I said, my fingers tracing the smooth, defensive form my silver familiar had taken. It never failed to surprise-and defend-me.
"My master wants you."
"Isn't that Renfield's line?" I didn't mean to be a smart-mouth; I was just surprised that Dracula would admit to a master. He was "the Master."
"Renfield's words may, regrettably, live on, but the bug-eater ended with that blasted film. The message I bear remains: You must come with me."
"Now?" I couldn't believe I was asking that question, like I might consider it some other day.
"No. Never," I corrected myself. "We know all about you these days. You can't reverse your surname and pretend to be some Transylvanian nobleman, 'Count Alucard'! This is not sleepy old England between the World Wars of the last century. This is post-Millennium Revelation America. We're all on to you."
"Perhaps, Miss Street, but you have tried to trick my master. He's had time to discover your name and profession. He could choose to crush you like one of that pathetic Renfield's bugs. Instead, he is magnanimous. He wishes to employ you. You call yourself a paranormal investigator, do you not?"
"Barely. I just phoned the Yellow Pages today to order the ad. It'll take ages to show up. How would your master, whoever he is, know that?"
"We... he knows many things through many means."
"And how'd you know where to find me?"
"All my kind know Hector Nightwine and his Sunset Road estate. You are becoming known as his creature," Dracula announced with loathing.
"His part-time private investigator! I'm nobody's creature. What have you got against Hector?" I was puzzled, because Nightwine was a known admirer of CinSims.
"He has leased all three of my brides." Dracula positively hissed the last word through his fangs. "I am denied all... access."
I had to admit that the trio of willowy train-dragging thirties femmes fatales made a pretty good girl back-up group for Drac. They were the only vampire chick role models I aspired to. I made the height requirement, being five-eight flat-footed, but not the weight one. Lean and hungry (i.e., anorexic) is definitely not my look. I'm a substantial girl, more hourglass than swizzle stick. Still, it'd be fun to slink around in fangs and furbelows.
"Enough chitchat. Come with me." He extended a graceful gray hand.
Well, adolescent me had wanted to meet a gentleman vampire of the old school and now here I had one.
Don't go, Irma urged. You don't know where that walking corpse has been.
"Do not be afraid," Dracula said in slow formal tones, noting my hesitancy. "These days I only drink from those who pay for the privilege. I am the resident attraction at the Love in Vein Social Club."
"Then what are you doing here tonight?"
"My master occasionally needs me mobile. The night has always been mine. Sometimes what he wants from me is what I also want for myself... a beautiful but shaken young woman, a midnight mission, an opportunity to stretch my wings and my reach, as of old. To be powerful. To be irresistible. You will come with me, Miss Delilah Street, because you must."
He leaned nearer. I inhaled the stale scent of cigar smoke and raw meat and old blood. Then he withdrew. I wondered if the chicken garlic on my breath was slapping him in the undead kisser. Good! But I had a feeling this was an offer I shouldn't refuse.
"Not so fast," I told him. "Not in this outfit do I go anywhere. Turn your back while I change clothes if you want me to go with you."
No! Irma was kicking up an internal storm. You don't know where and you don't know who. You can't go.
Irma was my alter ego, the psychological crutch of a lonely kid, I figured, but she could get bossy. I didn't feel the need to heed her at the moment. The King Vampire in this town had called on me for help, no matter how rudely he had put it or how seedy his operation. I had to live up to my new business card: Delilah Street, P.I.
What kind of paranormal investigator would flinch from a CinSim vampire? Underneath all the props and persona, even Dracula was just an animated zombie these days. A lot of classic horror film creatures had been resurrected by the Immortality Mob to entertain the tourists. At least Mothra hadn't been sent to pick me up.
I thought about Quicksilver asleep below as I pulled a black knit turtleneck down over my black yoga pants. Old Drac must have some spell to put animals asleep, even big supernaturally strong wolfhound-wolf crossbreeds. Otherwise, he'd be at the vampire's throat.
I thrust my feet into a pair of black cowboy boot mules and grabbed the slim Baggalini uptown messenger bag I'd found so handy during my incarnation as a TV reporter. I slung it across my body and stuffed my cell phone. ID and some cash inside so my hands would be free in an emergency. Unfortunately, it had no space for wooden stakes or garlic garlands. But if someone found my body, I'd at least have a chance to be properly identified.
Of course, if I wound up dead, I hoped somebody would make sure I wasn't resurrected-even if my future as a Lilith stand-in was worth a fortune.
Couldn't count on Hector Nightwine for the job; he had an addictive profit motive. I'd need my new beau, Ric Montoya, to make sure I was dead and buried and kept that way. Ric had his unusual ways with the dead, but our relationship is anything but lifeless.
Bela was waiting, polite, his caped back to me, bare gray hand still extended. The other wore a white glove.