There’s no place like home for the horrordays – unless you’d
prefer a romantic midnight walk through a ghost-infested graveyard . . . or a
sexy vampire of your dreams. The (black) magical season is here – and whether
it’s a solstice séance gone demonically wrong with the incomparable
Kim Harrison, a grossly misshapen Christmas with the remarkable Lynsay Sands,
a blood-chilling-and-spilling New Year’s with the wonderful Marjorie M.
Liu or a super-powered Thanksgiving with the phenomenal Vicki Pettersson, one
thing is for certain: in the able hands of these exceptional dark side explorers,
the holidays are going to be deliciously hellish!
“Beth?” Jill peered down the stairs that disappeared into darkness
and frowned. She’d looked everywhere in the house for her errant niece before
noticing the cracked open door to the basement. Now she stood on the landing,
biting her lip as she peered into the black pit and wondered if her niece could
possibly be down there.
Kyle had obviously forgotten to lock the door. That was unusual in itself,
with all the experimental equipment -- including the molecular destabilizer –
he housed in the basement, he was fanatical about locking it. However, it wasn’t
Still, Jill thought, surely two and a half year old Beth hadn’t
gone down into the dark on her own?
A faint rustle from the stillness below answered the question. Beth was definitely
down there. And shouldn’t be. She could get hurt.
A second rustle made Jill give up her place at the top of the stairs. Flipping
on the light, she started down, calling, “Beth? Honey? You aren’t
supposed to be down here. Come to Aunt Jill. Your breakfast is ready.”
Pausing on the bottom step, Jill waited for some sound to give away the girl’s
location, but there was nothing. Her gaze slid around the room, skating over gleaming
metal surfaces and glass fronted cupboards containing all sorts of scientific
type paraphernalia. She’d never been down here before, but it looked just
like she’d imagined, like every lab she’d ever visited her brother
in at work.
A faint scraping sound drew her gaze to the far corner of the room and Jill
felt her mouth tighten as she peered toward the large glass chamber that took
up the end of the basement. It held the molecular destabilizer Kyle had spent
so much of the last five years rebuilding…And the door into the small glass
room was open.
Alarm rising in her, Jill hurried toward the open door. “Beth? Enough.
You aren’t supposed to be down here. Your mommy and daddy will be mad,”
she said firmly. When she reached the door without receiving an answer, she added
pleadingly, “Come out, honey. Your breakfast is ready.”
The only answer was another rustle, this time from behind the machine. Breathing
out a sigh, Jill approached the front of the destabilizer. It was huge, stretching
from one wall to the other. There was no room to slip between the machine and
the wall to peer behind it. That left crawling under the table set up below the
telescope-like apparatus that the beam shot from. At least Jill thought it was
probably where the beam came from. She was no scientist, but didn’t see
anywhere else it could come from.
She eyed the crawl space under the table, unhappy at the prospect of crawling
under it but seeing no alternative. She had to get Beth back upstairs.
Cursing Kyle for carelessly leaving the door unlocked, Jill started to climb
under the table, pausing when she bumped it and it shifted slightly. Noting it
was on wheels and could move in and out, she straightened and wheeled the table
out of the way to make more room, then crawled into the space to peer behind the
“Beth,” she said with relief. The child was sitting in the narrow
space between the machine and the back wall. Spying Jill, she giggled and clapped
her hands with glee. It was a grand game to the tot.
Jill was less entertained. She was very aware that she was now kneeling directly
under the destabilzer beam, exactly where Beth’s mother, Claire, had been
when a crazy co-worker determined to try the molecular destabilizer on humans
had zapped her. Claire had survived the exposure to the destabilizer, as had Kyle
when he’d run into the beam to pull her out, but now the two of them were
different. They could both shift their shapes, taking on the facial features and
body shape of others. A cool trick to be sure, and one Jill had first thought
she might like herself, but that was before she’d heard Kyle’s fears.
The destabilizer had done what it was meant to, made their molecules unstable
and changeable, but they weren’t sure how unstable and feared the possibility
of the cells collapsing, leaving them to die in a puddle of human slime, or worse
yet, not die, but be alive and aware as a puddle of human slime. That possibility
was enough to kill any desire to be zapped.
That thought in mind, Jill started to lift her head to glance nervously toward
the beam, but instead cried out as pain shot through her skull and everything
Jill moaned and slowly opened her eyes. At first she didn’t know where
she was. She stared at the dim bulb overhead, then blinked and lowered her gaze
as she felt a soft patting on her cheek.
“Beth,” she whispered. The child was seated on the floor beside
her, patting her cheek, a worried look on her little face.
Jill offered her a reassuring smile and then sat up, her gaze sliding around
the glass chamber as she tried to sort out what had happened. She recalled coming
down in search of Beth, crawling under the machine, and then lifting her head
and “bang” unbearable pain had hit her. Obviously she’d slammed
her head into the telescope thing and knocked herself out. Brilliant. She always
had been the clumsy one in the family. .
When Beth made a gurgle of sound, Jill got carefully to her feet. Much to her
relief, while she felt a little weak, she didn’t appear to be suffering
any other side effects from the encounter.
Letting her breath out slowly, she glanced down to her niece, then carefully
bent and picked her up. The action made her woozy, and she stood still for a moment,
hugging the child close until her head cleared again. Once she felt steadier Jill
started across the basement to the stairs. She had just put her foot on the first
step when she heard a car engine and the crunch of tires on gravel.
Pausing, she glanced toward the nearest window at the top of the half-submerged
basement just in time to see the bottom of a blue car moving past the window.
Kyle and Claire were home…And she had a few choice words for her brother
about leaving the basement unlocked. Scowling, Jill carried Beth upstairs and
into the dining room. She set the child in her high chair and was spooning cereal
into her mouth by the time the front door opened and Claire’s laughter drifted
up the hall.
love you too,” Claire was chuckling. “And that’s why we aren’t
getting a motorcycle.”
“Ah, honey. Think how cool it would be to ride down the highway on the
back of a hog, the wind in your hair and--”
“And my maternity top flying over my head,” Claire interrupted
Jill smiled at the suggestion. Claire was more than seven months pregnant with
their second child, very close to giving birth and showing it. Jill had been a
little surprised that they were continuing to have the “date” nights
that gave her the opportunity to babysit her niece, but it seemed the pregnancy
wasn’t cooling their ardor.
“Your coat would hold your maternity top down, and -- Oh, hey Jill,”
Kyle interrupted himself as the couple reached the dining room door.
“Still trying to talk her into getting a motorcycle?” Jill asked
with amusement. Her brother had been trying to talk Claire into getting one when
they left for their “date” the night before.
“Try being the key word,” Claire laughed as she entered the room
and picked up her daughter. Lifting the child high in the air, she blew a raspberry
on her cheek and cuddled her close. “Hello, beautiful. Were you a good girl
for your aunt Jill?”
“She was a very good girl,” Jill assured her, and then turned a
scowl on her brother as she added, “Unlike her father who left the door
to the basement unlocked so that nosy little miss could crawl down there.”
“What?” Kyle’s eyes widened in shock as Claire turned an
alarmed glance his way. “I locked it. I always lock it.”
“Well apparently last night you forgot,” Jill assured him. “I
put Beth in front of the television this morning while I got her cereal and when
I came back she was gone. The door to the basement was open and she’d managed
to get down there.” Jill frowned even as she said the words and then added,
“I don’t know how she got down there on her own. Those stairs are
pretty steep for a two year old. But I found her down behind the molecular destabilizer.”
There was a moment of silence as all three of them peered at Beth and then
Claire turned a concerned gaze his way and Kyle sighed.
“I was sure I locked it,” he said apologetically, then added, “But
we can’t take a chance. I’ll go to the hardware store and get one
of those locks that lock automatically when a door closes. I’ll do it right
after I bring our bags in.”
Claire smiled and reached out to squeeze his hand, then withdrew it quickly
to grab for her daughter as Beth suddenly leaned toward the bowl of cereal on
the table and made disgruntled sounds.
“She’s hungry. Let me finish feeding her,” Jill suggested.
“I’ll do it,” Claire said, setting the child back in her
high chair. “I know you want to get to the shop for that parade this morning.”
“Oh!” Jill’s eyes widened with alarm and she shot to her
feet. She’d forgotten all about the Christmas parade this morning. It was
starting on the street where she had her store and she along with many of the
other storeowners were expected to help with it. How had she forgotten all about
Well, she knew the answer to that. She’d been distracted by the hunt
for Beth and the bang on the head. Sheesh. It was shaping up to be quite a day.
“It’s after ten o’clock and you said you had to be there
by eleven,” Claire reminded her, then gave a laugh and added, “I can’t
believe you forgot. You were so excited that Mr. Handsome Shoes was playing Santa.”
“Mr. Handsome Shoes?” Kyle asked with bewilderment.
“He’s the guy who opened a shoe store next door to Jill’s
clothing store six months ago,” Claire explained. “He’s apparently
very good looking. All the women who work in stores on the street are gaga over
him, but he’s only showing interest in your sister.”
“Are you two dating?” Kyle asked with a frown. “How come
you haven’t mentioned him before? Is there something wrong with the guy?”
“We aren’t dating,” Jill said quickly and then scowled at
him as she added, “And there is nothing wrong with Nick.”
Claire smiled faintly and said, “They aren’t dating officially,
but they do have lunch together every day and have exchanged store keys
in case there are problems.”
“A shoe store owner, huh?” Kyle asked slowly, and then added, “And
you’ve exchanged keys but only eaten lunch together every day? For six months?”
He arched an eyebrow, then pursed his lips and said, “He’s got to
“Kyle!” Claire cried with dismay, but Jill just scowled at her
brother and hurried out of the room, heading for the spare room to collect her
things. Nick, or Mr. Handome Shoes, as Claire called him, couldn’t be gay.
She just wouldn’t believe it. She was already half in love with the man.
He couldn’t be gay. True, he hadn’t asked her out yet, and the two
times she’d found the courage to suggest they go to a movie or dinner, he’d
made excuses as to why he couldn’t, but that didn’t mean he was gay…Did
Jill frowned. She was sure he wasn’t gay, positive she would know it
if he was, but while Nick was always charming and interesting and seemed to enjoy
being with her as much as she enjoyed his company, he’d never taken that
step to move the relationship from friendship to actual dating.
Maybe he was gay. Her shoulders slumped at the possibility. Wouldn’t
it be just her luck to fall for a guy who couldn’t possibly have any interest
in her as anything more than a friend? She didn’t have a great track record
with men lately.
Sighing unhappily, she snatched up her purse and overnight bag and headed out
of the room. If he were gay, then today was going to be a total bust. The only
reason she’d agreed to play Mrs. Claus to his Santa in the Christmas parade
was to spend more time with the man in the hope that he would finally move the
relationship to the next level. It had been Bev’s idea. Bev owned and operated
a hair salon further up the street. She was also the friend she tended to moan
to the most about Nick. Bev seemed to think Nick was just shy.
In charge of the parade preparations, it was Bev who had suggested that seeing
each other away from their stores and actually playing Mrs. Claus to his Mr. might
be just the push Nick needed to get him over his shyness and make him ask her
Ever hopeful, Jill had decided to give it a go. And it seemed to be working.
He hadn’t yet asked her out, but – where on the lunches they were
prim and proper, sharing their thoughts, but careful not to invade each other’s
space – at the meetings for the parade, they’d been much more relaxed,
both of them laughing and joking as they worked at the preparations.
There had also been a good deal of “accidental” touching going
on, hands meeting as they each grabbed for the same item, bodies brushing as they
passed. And the last night she’d been able to work on the preparations Jill
and Nick had been left alone in Bev’s kitchen for several minutes and she
was positive he’d been about to kiss her before Jay, one of the elves, had
entered, interrupting them.
Jill had been disappointed at the interruption, and was hoping today he’d
actually finish what he’d nearly started, claim the kiss and ask her out.
It was their last chance before the parade was over and they went back to their
rushed lunches in the middle of busy work days.
Sending up a quick prayer that Nick asked her out today, Jill started downstairs,
pressing close to the wall as Kyle started up with suitcases in hand.
“Have fun with Mr. Gay Shoes,” he teased as she rushed past.
Jill stuck out her tongue and kept going, pausing only long enough at the dining
room door to wish Claire a good day before rushing out of the house, her knapsack
over one shoulder and purse over the other.
Jill had parked on the street when she’d arrived the night before to
prevent blocking in Claire and Kyle’s car when they went to leave or being
blocked in by it when they returned. Unfortunately, the closest empty parking
spot she’d found had been halfway up the street. Now she hurried up the
sidewalk, her thoughts already on the day ahead and Nick.
Distracted as she was, Jill was nearly at her car before she noticed the man
leaning against the front grill of her little Toyota. Pausing abruptly, she watched
with a frown as the man straightened to face her. He was tall, dark-haired, not
bad looking, but there was something about his mouth and eyes that made him look
hard and cold. She was instantly wary.
“Can I help you?” she asked, her hand tightening on her bags. The
only thing she could think was that it was his house she’d parked in front
of and he didn’t care for her parking there. “Is it about my parking
“Parking here?” he echoed with bewilderment, then seemed to understand.
Flashing a smile that didn’t reach his eyes, he said, “Oh, of course,
you don’t know who I am. I’m John Heathcliffe. I used to work with
Jill stiffened, the hair on the back of her neck suddenly standing on end as
she recognized the name of the crazy co-worker who had zapped Claire with the
“You’ve heard of me,” he said with apparent pleasure.
“What do you want?” she asked, her gaze slipping back the way she’d
“You didn’t think I’d zap you with the destabilizer and then
just leave you alone?” he said with amusement.
Jill jerked her head back around.
“Zap me with the destabilizer?” she echoed blankly, wondering what
on earth was he talking about. He shouldn’t even know about the destabilizer.
No one knew Kyle had rebuilt it in his home. As for zapping her with it, the only
encounter she’d had with it was banging her head as she...
Jill frowned as she suddenly recalled the flash of light that had accompanied
the pain before she’d blacked out. And the pain hadn’t been in one
part of her head as it would have been if she’d bumped it. It had exploded
inside her head and begun to travel down through her body before she’d blacked
“You zapped me?” she asked in a choked voice.
John nodded with a wicked grin that quickly turned bitter. “Did Kyle
really think I’d let him just take the machine away from me? I worked on
the original prototype as long as he did. It’s as much mine as his,”
he proclaimed, taking a step toward her. “Dr. Cohen may have believed that
nonsense about it not working and allowed him to talk him into shutting down the
experiment, but I can’t believe Kyle really thought I was stupid enough
to swallow it.”
“You zapped me with the destabilizer?” Jill repeated faintly.
John nodded, appearing amused by her stunned state, and then announced, “Once
the project was shut down I started to watch Kyle. I saw the materials he brought
into the house and realized he was rebuilding it. Some nights I even watched through
one of the basement windows as he worked.” He smiled with disdain. “Kyle
really should have covered the windows. It was rather silly of him not to. I suppose
he thought it was private enough with the high fence around the property, but
anyone could climb the fence and look in…like I did.”
Jill remained silent, her mind still reeling under the possibility that she’d
been hit by the shape shifter beam. She found herself suddenly doing a silent
self-assessment, checking to see if she felt different. She didn’t. She’d
felt a little weak directly after waking up in the basement, but-- Her thoughts
stopped dead as she realized she’d woken up in the middle of the basement
floor, halfway between the control panel and the machine.
“You pulled me out from under the machine?” she asked uncertainly.
John nodded. “Once I’d estimated you’d been exposed long
enough, I turned it off. You collapsed like a limp noodle.” He shrugged.
“I had to be sure I hadn’t given you too much and accidentally killed
you, but I couldn’t take your pulse all crumpled under the machine as you
Jill stared at him with disbelief. He was standing there admitting that he
hadn’t been at all sure the beam wouldn’t have killed her and he’d
gone ahead and zapped her anyway. Why would he do such a thing?
John said, drawing her attention again. “If you’ll just come with
me, we’ll go to my house and I can start running tests on you.”
“Tests?” she asked with surprise as he approached.
“Yes. Tests. Why else do you think I zapped you? You’re going to
be my guinea pig.”
“Are you nuts?” Jill cried, tugging her arm free of the hard hold
he suddenly had on her wrist. “Stay away from me or I’ll tell my brother.”
Okay, as threats went it was pretty lame, Jill thought as soon as the words
left her mouth, but let it go and merely pushed past him to get to the driver’s
door of her car. Before she could get it unlocked, he was there, grabbing her
by the arm again.
“I said you’re coming with me!” he snarled, trying to pull
Jill didn’t think, she just reacted. Allowing her self-defense classes
to kick in and take over, she struck backward sharply with her elbow, driving
it into his stomach. She then turned and drove her knee sharply into his groin.
John collapsed on the street, groaning in agony, one hand clutching his stomach,
the other cupping his groin.
Leaving him rolling around on the pavement, Jill unlocked the driver’s
door, threw her bags in and leapt inside. She hit the button to lock the doors
the moment the door closed, and then struggled briefly with her keys briefly.
Her hands were shaking and by the time she managed to slide the key in the ignition
and turned on the engine, John was crawling to his feet beside the car.
“Hey!” He lunged for the driver’s door even as she shifted
into drive and hit the gas. He thumped furiously against the side window as she
tore away up the street.
Eyes shifting between the street and the rearview mirror, Jill reached for
her purse. She opened it one handed, felt around until she found her phone and
glanced in the rear view mirror as she pulled it out, only to curse again as she
spotted a black van rushing up the street behind her. She knew it was John.
Mouth tightening, Jill pushed her foot down harder on the gas and raised the
phone in front of her eyes. She needed to call Kyle. She didn’t know what
else to do. Jill was afraid to call the police and bring them into the matter.
She didn’t know how much damage the man could do to Kyle if he blabbed about
the machine in his basement. She should have just pulled into Kyle and Claire’s
driveway and made a run for the house. Unfortunately, the car had been pointing
in the opposite direction. Also, unfortunately, she wouldn’t be calling
her brother for advice. She’d forgotten to recharge her phone again. The
battery was dead.
Cursing, Jill tossed it aside and glanced in the rearview again. The van was
gaining on her. She needed to lose the crazy idiot and either drive back to Claire
and Kyle’s, or find a phone. Calling seemed her safest bet. Jill didn’t
really want to lead trouble back to Claire and Kyle’s door. She didn’t
know just how crazy John Heathcliffe was or what he’d do.
Where to call from was the problem. Jill suspected her house would be high
on John Heathcliffe’s list of places to look. Even if he didn’t already
know where she lived, all he had to do was look in a phonebook to find her address.
He might overlook her shop though, she thought. In fact, he might not even
know about it. He’d said he’d been watching her brother’s house,
not that he’d been following her around. Her store might be a safe place
to go to call Kyle.
Mouth thinning with determination, Jill tightened her hold on the steering
wheel and increased her speed. She then suddenly spun the wheel, taking a sharp
and abrupt right that almost saw her car on two wheels. Managing to maintain control,
she shot up the street, watching the rearview mirror as much as the road ahead.
“Yes,” she breathed with relief when she saw the van shoot past
the end of the street, wheels squealing as he tried to bring the vehicle to a
halt to follow her. Jill was already turning left down another street by the time
he managed to turn around and head up the road she was turning off.
Jill lost sight of him as soon as she turned the corner and her attention was
again divided between the rearview mirror and the road ahead, grateful it wasn’t
a busy area. The last thing she needed was to hit someone in her efforts to escape
When there was still no sign of the van behind her before she turned up the
next street, Jill felt her shoulders relax the smallest bit. But she continued
to drive a little faster than she should and continued to take turns right and
left and right again to be sure she’d lost the man before heading for her
Due to the parade, the streets around her store were all blocked off. The closest
Jill could park was in the lot at the end of the road from where the parade was
to launch. It was blocked to the public today, open only for parade participants
to park. There were several tents set up at one end for everyone to don costumes
and do their make up.
Jill bit her lip as she gazed over the floats and costumed people milling about
as she parked her car. If she hurried to the store, called Kyle and then changed
into her costume, there was really no reason she couldn’t come back and
be a part of the parade as planned. Surely Kyle could handle John, she reasoned.
It wasn’t like there was anything she could do. Besides, she’d committed
herself to the parade and had her costume in her knapsack. She could hardly just
not show up and leave them without a Mrs. Claus. But she had to make that call
first, Jill decided as she got out of the car.
Slipping past the tents without running across anyone she knew, Jill hurried
up the street to her store. She unlocked the door, slid inside and headed straight
for the phone.
A curse slid from her lips when her call was answered by the answering machine.
She listened to her brother’s recorded voice, frowning as she tried to sort
out where Kyle and Claire could be. Kyle had mentioned going to the hardware store,
but surely Claire was still there feeding Beth?
Her gaze slid to the clock on the wall and she frowned as she realized that
while the store was only fifteen minutes from Claire and Kyle’s house, she’d
wasted almost half an hour making sure she’d lost her pursuer. Claire could
very well have finished feeding Beth and made it a threesome for the shopping
trip to the hardware store.
“Kyle,” Jill said when the beep finally sounded. “I need
to talk to you. I--” She paused to worry her lip as she realized he wouldn’t
be able to reach her. Her cell phone was dead and she would be on a parade float,
no where near a phone for the next hour or so. Letting her breath out on a sigh,
she said, “I’ll try calling again later. But it’s important.”
Unsatisfied with the message, Jill hung up and turned to peer out the front
window of the store, stilling when she spotted John Heathcliffe crossing the street
headed straight for the front door of her shop.
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