Twilight Cowboy

As a single woman of a certain age, having found myself left upon life’s shelf with the other curios and knick-knacks, I never thought I’d find love. Locked away on the outskirts of suburbia, peripheral to the city and peripheral to life, I had resigned myself to living out my days with metronomic monotony. I was so resigned to my fate that I entirely failed to notice the precise moment my life changed forever.

It was 8:46 pm on an ordinary day in an ordinary suburb in an ordinary city. I was an ordinary-ish woman in my late twenties, cooped up in an ordinary house, watching an ordinary television show about ordinary people who had presumably consumed too many calories and as a result were being harangued to the point of death by hyper-fit personal trainers who seem to despise them. You could substitute ‘ordinary’ with ‘boring’ if you like. I quite often did. The sun had begun to set around eight o’clock that day, giving way to dusk. As the day faded, the light from the television became brighter. The panting, sweating, moaning figures on screen were magnified by their relative brightness as they began scrawling one another’s names on pieces of paper to be displayed on ironically empty plates.

A faint bell rang in the distance, interrupting the delicious portrayal of pedestrian backstabbing and betrayal. Mother was ready for a cup of tea. Mother had seven cups of tea every day. The first one at six o’clock in the morning when she woke, the second at ten o’clock with the mid-day news, the third at twelve o’clock along with cucumber sandwiches which passed for lunch, the fourth at two o’clock before her nap, the fifth at four o’clock when she woke up, the sixth at six o’clock after dinner, and the seventh at eight o’clock just before she complained about not being able to sleep. I lived my life by the tea schedule, along with other similarly dreary markers of time.

Having conveyed myself to the kitchen, I put the kettle on for mother’s eight o’clock tea. We were the only people on our street with an electric kettle, I was almost sure of it. We didn’t get many visitors, but those we did get often stared at the jug, as mother called it, as if it were something outlandish and strange.

British expats, we had made our home in Small City, Texas. We’d moved when I was fifteen, old enough to keep traces of my accent and to remember what England was like. We didn’t speak of England. We thought of it often, but we never spoke of it. Old Glory fluttered out the front of our home, we had turkey at Thanksgiving and we were always ready with candy when Halloween came around each year. We were as American as apple pie, or so we liked to think.

In the middle of my preparations for making mother’s tea, the doorbell rang. I frowned to myself, irritated at the interruption. The doorbell rang again. Sighing at the social inconvenience, I wiped my hands on a tea towel and went to see who was there. I caught sight of myself in the hall mirror on the way past. I looked tidy enough, my blonde curls sitting neatly about my head. I kept them relatively short so as not to end up looking like a sheep. The rest of my face looked well enough. I had a bit of color about my cheeks, mostly from doing the dishes, but it looked nice against the hazel green of my eyes. I didn’t know if I was pretty, but my face was serviceable enough, as was the rest of my body. All curves and roundy parts and the occasional bit of muscle. I was dressed in my usual attire, pastel pink cardigan and a floral blouse over a long plain skirt. I liked to dress modestly. It was easier than not dressing modestly. Not dressing modestly required all sorts of knowledge and attention to fashion and other things I didn’t have time for.

I reached the door and discovered a man looming out of the shadows, looking like the villain in every single television special reconstruction. He was tall, well, taller than me anyway, which wasn’t necessarily a difficult thing to achieve. I kept the security chain on the door and spoke through the crack.

“Yes?”

“Hello,” he said. “Is the lady of the house home?” He had a pleasant voice. One of those voices that you’re inclined to trust.

“The lady of the house is waiting for her tea.”

“Perhaps she could come to the door?”

“She hasn’t left her room for two years, except to yell at the man of the house,” I said with more candor than was strictly appropriate for the situation. He had kind eyes, light brown, the sort that drew you in and made you feel as though you were important. “I’m the acting lady of the house, I guess.”

“I’m selling encyclopedias.”

“No you’re not.” The words ejected themselves from my mouth.

“I’m not?”

“Nobody has sold an encyclopedia for at least ten years.”

“I didn’t say I was a successful encyclopedia salesman.” He chuckled at his own joke. I was glad that someone was having a good time.

“Okay, well, I have the Wikipedia, so, I don’t think I’ll be buying any encyclopedias.” I felt guilty turning him away, but he didn’t seem to mind. His eyes sparkled with warmth and good humor. In spite of the fact that it was cold, wet and somewhat blustery, he seemed to be enjoying himself.

Back in the kitchen the kettle whistled its jolly tune, letting me know it was finished with the boiling process.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” The question tumbled out of my mouth, propelled by propriety coded into my DNA. Offering people cups of tea was as natural to me as breathing.

“That is very kind of you,” he said. “Shall I come in then?”

“Yes, come in.”

The wind grew stronger. A powerful gust took the door out of my hand and sent it slamming against the door stop. The encyclopedia salesman loomed across the threshold. The rain made his dark hair stick to his face, which in the light of the hall I now saw to be uncommonly pale.

“Iron supplements,” I said. “That’s what you need.”

“My diet is very high in iron,” he said, closing the door behind him. He was taller than he’d seemed when he was standing below the front steps. Inside the house, he filled practically the whole hall. He had to bow his head so as not to brain himself on the lampshade.

His face was quite gaunt, so much so that the swinging of the light cast shadows in the hollows of his cheeks. I stared at him for long moments, wondering if he was handsome or not. Perhaps not in a traditional sense, but I had the feeling he could have modeled for high fashion. He had that ‘unique’ look about him. High cheekbones. Wide eyes. A straight nose. All the right features, arranged in a way that drew your gaze and wouldn’t let it go.

The ringing of a bell in the upstairs apartment made me forget about the encyclopedia salesman for a moment. Mother was ready for her tea. Mother was ready for her tea and her tea was going to be late. I shuffled off into the kitchen at high speed and sloshed water into her teacup. It immediately turned tannin brown. Two dollops of milk, a teaspoon of sugar and a shortbread cookie and it was ready.

“Excuse me a moment,” I said to my encyclopedia salesman. “I’ll just take this up to mother. Won’t be more than a few minutes.”

“Take your time,” he smiled, giving me leave to go about my duties. I had a brief flash of being a serving girl in a grand house, being dismissed by master to take a tray to the lady of the house. A smile rose to my lips as I carried the tray up the stairs to mother’s room.

Mother sat in bed, her hands crossed in her lap. She was a very thin woman with a big puff of white hair surrounding her head like a halo. Time had wicked away all the flesh and fat from her face, leaving skin to sag about her chin and neck. Her eyes peered out at me through the white fray, concern written plainly in their gaze.

“What’s going on down there?” Mother asked in her tremulously frail voice. “I thought you were dead.”

“You did not think I was dead, mother.”

I placed the tea down at her bedside and helped her prop herself up on her pillows. The game show with the oversized spinny wheel was about to come on, so she didn’t have time to embark on a full-sailed guilt voyage. The moment the theme music came on, she forgot about my alleged death and turned her focus to the man with the megawatt smile.

“There’s a man downstairs,” I explained. “Wants to sell us some encyclopedias.”

“It’s a cold night for going door to door.” Mother sipped her tea. “You take care of him.”

It wasn’t a cold night at all, but mother had always felt a chill. Age had not helped that. Even on a summer’s evening she wrapped herself up in gowns and blankets and kept a space heater running.

“Don’t worry, I will.”

I smoothed my hands on my skirt and went back downstairs. The man was waiting where I’d left him. He looked slick and smart and charming. In another time, in another place, we might have been able to go on a date, or something like it.

“Where are your encyclopedias then?”

He produced a tablet PC. “Oh, I show them online.”

I smiled. “You’re not selling encyclopedias at all, are you?”

“You caught me.” He sat back in what had been my father’s favorite chair, and beamed broadly. I should have been terrified. I should have called the police. But that wasn’t the way I dealt with that sort of thing.

“What do you want?” I perched on the corner of the sofa.

He fixed me with a magnetic stare. “Let’s not talk about what I want. Let’s talk about what you want.”

“What I want?” I feigned confusion.

“You live here with your elderly parents. You don’t work…”

He’d spent a good amount of time watching me, that much was obvious. “Who are you?”

“A friend.”

“You’re not a friend,” I said. “I know all of my friends, and would recognize them if they tried to sell me imaginary encyclopedias. Excuse me.”

He excused me yet again, clearly in no hurry. I went to the kitchen and re-boiled the kettle. The evening was taking its own course, but that was no reason to forget a guest’s tea.

The salesman was still sitting in father’s chair when I emerged, cup in hand.

“Do you take sugar?”

“I do not,” he said. “I do not actually take tea either, I’m afraid.”

“Then I shall take it.” I sipped the tea, finding it a little cool for my tastes. Then I sat down across from the man and waited to see what was going to happen next.

“My name is Mark.” He volunteered the unlikely name, a further attempt at building rapport. He was beginning to look a little perplexed. I imagined that ordinarily he would have found it much easier to earn someone’s trust.

“Is that a lie too?”

“Yes,” he admitted with a shameful smile. “My name is Paul.”

“Is it?”

“It is close enough. It is easier to say than my real name.”

“So you’re foreign. You don’t sound foreign.”

“Not so much foreign as old.”

“Old enough to think that selling encyclopedias is a cover for going door to door for nefarious purposes,” I agreed.

“Who said my purposes were nefarious?”

“A mysterious stranger has come to my door under false pretenses. Surely nothing good can come of this.”

Paul chuckled, darkly of course. “Do you know why you are not afraid?”

“I have some idea.”

“I’ve been watching you for some time,” he said casually. “You must be bored out of your mind, living in this little world, barely stepping outside your front door except for the walk to the shops. I can change that. I can give you powers beyond your wildest dreams.”

“Hm.” I sipped my tea. “No, thank you.”

“No?” His expression drew closed. “Then there is one other option available to you. The yawning grave.”

“Not so much an option as an inevitability,” I said, sipping my tea.

“Not for one such as I,” he declared proudly. “I shall live forever. I am…” he paused dramatically, then flashed long canines. “Vampire.”

He sat and waited for the screaming and begging to start. It didn’t, of course. I’d known he was a vampire from the moment I opened the door. He couldn’t have been more obvious if the word ‘VAMPIRE’ was tattooed across his forehead.

“I am going to drink you dry.”

As threats went, it was a fairly nasty one. Some vampires at least tried to be nice about drinking one’s blood. Some of them went so far as to ask one’s permission before they fed. Those were the ones who occasionally lived to tell the tale – as far as any vampire could be described as ‘living’. But this one had no intention of being nice. This one fed on fear almost as much as blood. And he was getting annoyed at my lack of reaction.

I yawned, covering my mouth with my hand, as is polite. The vampire took the simple expression of fatigue as an insult. With a wretched cry he flew toward me, fangs extended, arms outreached. He moved faster than seemed possible – but his landing was not a soft one. Instead of landing against my bosom and piercing my neck, he found himself crushed against a silver tipped wooden stake. I was rewarded with a look of confusion and agony on his face for a split second before he cascaded into ash.

In the aftermath of the attack I used my trusty hand-vac to vacuum the ashes up. I subsequently tossed them in the bin. It was not so much a yawning grave that had awaited the vampire, more a landfill.

Oh well.

Mother was ringing her bell again. I suspected she was ready for another cup of tea, so I put the water back on. A watched kettle never boils. Nor does one that is being accompanied by the tinny clanging of a ringing demand. The sound was distant, but none the less irritating. I only steeped the tea bag for two minutes instead of the usual three as a result. If mother wanted full-strength tea, she would have to learn to be a little more patient.

Mother scowled at me as I carried the tea in, set it down next to her and cleared the empty cup away.

“What kept you this time?” She asked the question once she’d taken three good sips.

“Oh, just a vampire.”

She glanced at me. “Did you get him, dear?”

“Yes mother, I got him.”

“Good.”

Her eyes drifted back to the television. I was excused.

I made my way back downstairs, feeling a little fatigued. No matter how many times one is forced to slay a vampire, one never quite becomes accustomed to it. I should know. I’ve been slaying vampires all my life. It’s something of a familial curse, to attract vampires. The curse was originally put on my great-great-great-great-grandmother because she refused to give a witch a discount on her garlic. A marketplace dispute had turned into a three hundred year blight on our family and lead to our being relentlessly pursued by the undead. Vampires were the most common visitors, but you did get the occasional zombie. The fact that we’d managed to create several generations since the placing of the curse was a testimony to the courage of the men who were prepared to marry into our bloodline. Most men ran a million miles when they realized the woman they were trying to bed was essentially a death trap. Only the women carried the curse, but men inevitably became collateral damage where vampires were concerned.

I was musing on the nature of life and the inevitable transformation to dust when the door bell tinkled for the second time that evening. They were being persistent. I sighed and slipped another stake into the holster at my hip. It was easily withdrawn through the hole in the pocket of my skirt. If that failed, there was another retractable spring loaded stake attached to the underside of my forearms, hidden by my bulky cardigan. And if that failed, there were smaller, but no less potentially deadly stakes strapped to my lower legs.

When I opened the door, I was surprised to see a man standing at the door. A human man. An actual man, about my age. Perhaps a little older. He could have been a contemporary. We could have gone to school together. I was fairly certain we hadn’t, for there was no way I would have forgotten a face like his. It was hard, but friendly. Very masculine with a square jaw and strong cheekbones. He looked like he’d stepped out of a catalog.

“’Scuse me Ma’am.” He spoke with a country drawl whilst flashing a badge too quick for me to see it. “I’m a sheriff with AVC,” he explained. “And I reckon there’s a fellow on the loose around here. Dangerous type.”

“He’s in the bin.” It was a confession I probably shouldn’t have made. I should have said that I’d never seen a vampire, that I didn’t believe in them. There were still plenty of people about who didn’t believe that vampires existed at all. This in spite of legislation being passed to protect them.

Blue eyes widened at me. “He’s in the bin… you mean, the trash?”

“Yeah, he… fell apart.”

“You staked a vampire?” The critical stare swept up and down my body. His gaze was incredulous.

“I did.”

He leaned down, putting his hands on his thighs as he stared into my eyes. “You don’t look glamored.”

“I’m not.”

He straightened again, returning to his tall, dark and handsome self. “Mind showing me the ashes, little lady?”

“Why?”

“Best to confirm the kill.”

“I’m not affiliated with the agency.” Best to get that admission out of the way quickly. The AVC was a government department that issued permits for vampire hunting. We’d never bothered to get one. We’d been staking vamps for generations in our family. Getting a permit to keep doing what we’d always done seemed unnecessary at best.

“All the more reason to confirm the kill, then,” he said. “We have to keep the records up to date.”

“You don’t look like the record keeping type.” He didn’t. He looked like the hard riding, cow lassoing, man of the land type. His hands were large and roughened from work. His boots had been shined recently, but there was a fresh coat of dust coating the leather that said he made proper use of them.

“I’m very, very thorough. And the paperwork is important.”

We stood there at the door, looking at one another. There was a nice veneer of politeness to the encounter that saved it from being confrontational, but I got the impression that this man might actually be more of a problem than the vampire that had proceeded him.

***

Annie Ring is an almost thirty year old virgin, a quiet homebody with a penchant for pastels and knitted cardigans who spends most of her time looking after her aged parents. Her world is as small and plain as she imagines herself to be. But Annie isn’t as boring as she’s convinced herself she is. She has a secret talent, one she can never share with the world at large. Annie Ring is an adept slayer of vampires. It’s a talent born of necessity, for her family is languishing under a curse that makes them the target of repeated attacks.

Our heroine’s life is forever disrupted when Sheriff Kaine Scoresby of AVC, a federal agency for the protection and control of the undead, shows up on her doorstep asking questions about missing vampires. Kaine is handsome. Kaine is persistent. Kaine is devastatingly old fashioned, especially when it comes to protecting damsels who insist they wouldn’t be in distress if only they were allowed to go stake something. Keeping Annie in line turns out to be more difficult than Kaine expected, but he and his firm hand prove to be more than equal to the task, much to Annie’s alternating delight and dismay.

Unfortunately for the would-be lovers, Kaine Scoresby isn’t the only one who is starting to pay attention to her. There are other, powerful, deadly, vicious entities who have her and her family in their sights. When the local vampire lord decides to exact revenge, Kaine and Annie find themselves fighting for their love – and their lives.

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