The Last of the Red Hot VampiresKatie MacAlister
"Oh, look, a crop circle. Let's stop and see if we will be abducted by aliens. "
"Why on earth would you want to be abducted by aliens? From what I hear, they're all about strange implants and anal probes. Neither is my idea of fun. "
Sarah glared at me as we whipped past a sign noting that tours of a local farm famous for its crop circle were available for a modest fee. "You have the soul of a nihilist. "
"On the contrary; I don't believe in either assassination or terrorism. Is this the turn we need?"
A map rustled next to me as my friend consulted the driving directions we'd received from a local travel company. "I don't think so. The directions say the town is called Newton Poppleford. There should be a bridge we go across. And you know full well that's not the sort of nihilism I meant. "
"Ah. Newton Poppleford is another kilometer," I answered, nodding to a small sign partially hidden by a dense shrub. "So you're saying I have the soul of a disbeliever?"
"Yes, I am. It's all that science stuff you do. "
I couldn't help but smile at Sarah's comment. "You make it sound like being a physicist is tantamount to being a crack addict. "
"It's not quite that bad, but it's definitely rotting your mind. "
"Oh, come on, that's being a bit extreme. " I avoided a startled rabbit in the narrow country road, and spotted a humpbacked stone bridge in the distance. No doubt that was the exit we needed to get to the tiny little village that was Sarah's destination.
"Not in the least. Just look at how your precious skepticism has ruined the trip so far. First, there was the ghost walk in London. "
"At which, I feel obligated to point out, no actual ghosts were present. "
A look filled with suspicion was leveled at me. "We had you and your doubting Thomas attitude to thank for that, no doubt. "
"Hey, all I ask is that people who insist someplace is haunted show me a ghost. Just one, just one little, itty-bitty ghost. That tour guide couldn't produce so much as a spectral hand, let alone a whole ghost. I don't think it's expecting too much for people to back up their claims with empirical proof. "
"Ghosts aren't like you and me! They don't like to materialize around non-believers. All that negative energy is bad for them. So if they don't show up around you, you have no one but yourself to blame. "
I would have rolled my eyes at that ridiculous statement, but I was negotiating the crossing of an old, narrow stone bridge, and decided safety was more important than expressing my opinion. "Is that the inn?"
Sarah peered out the window at a rustic pub. "No, ours is the Tattered Stote. That's the Indignant Widow. Top of the hill, the instructions say. "
"OK. Cute village. I didn't know people here still had thatched roofs. "
"Then there was the mystery tour in Edinburgh. I was never so mortified as when you told the tour guide that the spirit facilitators were lame. "
"I didn't say lame: I said ineffective and inadvertently comical rather than frightening. Their idea of ghostly attire looked pretty off-the-rack to me. At best it was from a theater company. And besides, the man said he wanted feedback on the quality of the tour. I simply gave him my opinion. "
"Everyone else thought it was very scary when one of the body snatchers' victims leaped up off the table! I came damn close to wetting my pants at that, and all you did was laugh!"
"Of course I laughed. Only the very gullible would have been frightened in that situation. For one thing, we were on a mystery tour that promised thrills and chills. For another, it wasn't in the least bit realistic. Dead bodies do not spontaneously resurrect themselves, let along shriek with abandon as they lurch after tourists. "
"Do not speak the word 'spontaneous' to me again," Sarah warned with a potent look. "I doubt I will ever recover from the memory of you lecturing the curator of the Museum of the Odd about why spontaneous combustion of individuals was due wholly to people smoking cigarettes. "
"Documented cases have proven that people who supposedly combusted by some mysterious force were all smokers and prone to falling asleep in chairs and beds - "
"Speak not to me of your rationalities, O ye skeptic," Sarah said, holding up a hand.
"But that's why you brought me along on this trip - to keep your feet on the ground," I pointed out as we drove slowly through the small village, avoiding dogs, geese, and the village inhabitants who had a disconcerting habit of stopping and staring as we drove past.
"I brought you on my research trip because Anthony refused to leave his bird-watching group for what he called 'yet another excuse to spend money in foreign countries,' and also because I thought exposure to real psychic phenomenon would do you good. You're too hidebound, Portia. "
"You are so set on demanding proof of anything before you believe in it, you're positively rigid. "
"Right. So understanding the building blocks of our universe is hidebound, not just healthy curiosity. "
"But most of all, you're going to be forty soon. You need a man. "
I couldn't help but laugh at that. "You're a romance writer, Sarah. You want everyone to be madly in love with someone else, but it's just not practical for me. I was married to Thomas for three years and gave it the best shot I could, but things didn't work out. I think I'm just one of those women who is comfortable going through life without a permanent partner. At least of the human, male kind. I would like a cat. . . "
Her blue eyes considered me carefully as I drove slowly up a long hill. "Well, I agree with you about the Thomas Affair. I didn't think anyone could be more analytical than you, but he was positively androidlike. "
"Honestly, I'm perfectly happy as I am now. I have male friends. There's a researcher at a local software company with whom I get together occasionally. "
"Geek boy. "
"And I've gone out a couple of times with the vet who lives next door to me. "
"In the brown house? I thought those were Wiccans?"
"No, other side, the yellow one. "
Sarah wrinkled her nose. "Ah, him. Nice enough personality, but ugly as sin. "
"Looks aren't everything, O ye of the blond hair and blue eyes. Some of us have to make do with more mundane appearances. But just to point out I appreciate eye candy as much as the next girl, there's Derek. "
"Fireman. We bumped carts at the grocery store. There was a line of women following him around the store. "
I flashed her a grin. "Oh, yes. We had coffee. He is a bit intense, but so easy on the eyes. "
"Hmm. " She looked thoughtful as we crested the hill. "But none of them really knock your socks off! What you need is a handsome, dashing foreign man to sweep you off your feet. "
"Who says I want to be swept up?"
"Oh, come now, every woman wants to be swept up in love! Every man, too! I mean, who doesn't want to be loved? Not even you want to spend the rest of your life in loneliness. "
"Of course I don't, and I want to be loved just as much as the next person, but I don't intend to be swept up on the sorts of grand passions you write about. Love is simply body chemistry, in the end. People are compatible because their particular physical makeup jibes with someone else's. Pheromones trigger sexual excitement, endorphins generate pleasure from the contact, and voila! You've got love. "
Sarah's mouth hung open a little as she gawked at me. "I cannot believe I'm hearing this! You think love is just a. . . a chemical reaction?"
"Of course. That explains why people fall out of love. The initial chemical reactions fail, leaving the relationship cold. Why else do you think the divorce rate is so high?"r />
"You're insane, you know that?"
I smiled as I turned to the left. "Why, because I popped your romantic bubble about being swept off my feet? Ah, here it is - the Tattered Stoat. One authentic English pub with rooms to let above the bar, milady. Watch out for the ducks when you get out. They seem to be interested in us. "
"You've gone too far this time," Sarah said slowly, getting out of the car carefully so as to avoid the small herd of ducks that descended upon us from a nearby soggy field.
I stopped in the process of pulling our luggage out of the trunk. Sarah sounded offended, and although I spent just as much time trying to point out rational explanations for things she insisted were unexplainable, I wouldn't for the world want to hurt her feelings. Sarah might insist on believing in the unbelievable, but she was still my oldest friend, and I valued her company. "I'm sorry if I stepped on your toes, Sarah. I know you truly do believe all those romances you write - "
"No, it's not your unwillingness to fall in love that I'm talking about. " She waved an expressive hand, her face serious as I set her bags down next to her. "No, I take it back, that's part of it. "
"It's part of what?"
"Your lack of faith. "
The muscles in my back stiffened. I grabbed my two bags from the trunk, locked it, and tucked the keys away before looking at her. "You know what my family was like. I can't believe anyone who knows what I went through would chastise me for rejecting religion. "
"No one would blame you in the least, certainly not me," she said gently, a genuine look of contrition filling her eyes as she put her hand on my arm and gave it a little squeeze. "I'm not talking about religious faith, Portia. I'm talking about faith in general, in the ability to believe in something that has no tangible form or substance, something that is, but which you can't hold in your hands. "
I took a deep breath, willing my muscles to relax. "Sarah, sweetie, I know you mean well, but I'm a physicist. My whole career is focused around understanding the elements that make up our world. To expect me to believe in something that has no proof of its existence is. . . well, it's impossible. "
"What about those little tiny things?" she asked, grabbing her bags and following me to the pub's entrance.
"Little tiny things?"
"You know, those little atom things that no one can see, but which you all know are there? The ones with the Star Trek name. "
I frowned down at the top of her head (Sarah, in addition to being petite despite the birth of three children, was also a good six inches shorter than me) as I opened the door to the pub. "You mean quarks?"
"That's it. You said that scientists believed in quarks a long time before they ever saw them. "
"Yes, but they saw proof of them in particle accelerators. The detectors inside the accelerators recorded tracks of the products generated by the particle collisions. "
Her eyes narrowed as she marched past me into the inn. "Now you're doing that physics-speak thing that makes my brain hurt. "
I smiled and followed her in. "OK, then, here's a layman's explanation: We knew quarks existed because they left us proof by way of particle footprints. That tangible proof of their existence was enough to convince even the most skeptical of scientists that they were real. "
"But before those fancy particle accelerators, no one had proof, right?"
"Yes, but calculations showed that they had to exist to make sense - "
Sarah stopped in the doorway to a wood-paneled room. A woman at the bar who was serving a customer called that she'd be right with us. Sarah nodded and turned back to me. "That's not the point. They believed in something of which they had no proof. They had faith, Portia. They had faith that something they couldn't see or touch or weigh existed. And that's the sort of faith that is lacking in you. You're so caught up in explaining away everything, you don't allow any magic into your life. "
"There is no real magic, Sarah, only illusion," I said, shaking my head at her.
"Oh, my dear, you are so wrong. There is magic everywhere around you, only you're too blind to see it. " A little twinkle softened the look in her eye. "You know, I've half a mind to. . . hmm. "
I raised my eyebrows and forbore to bite at the "half a mind" bait she had dangled so temptingly in front of me. Instead, I reminded myself that I was her guest on this three-week trip to England, Scotland, and Wales (classified, for tax purposes, as a research assistant), and as such, I could keep at least a few of my opinions to myself.
It wasn't until a half hour later, after we'd taken possession of the two rooms the pub boasted for visitors, that Sarah continued the thought she'd started earlier.
"Your room is nicer than mine," she announced after admiring the view of grassy pastureland outside my windows. Sheep and cows dotted the landscape, the few trees set as windbreaks waving gently in the early summer breeze.
"I told you to take it, but you liked the other room better. "
"It has much calmer feng shui," she said, turning back to me. "And speaking of that, I have decided we're going to have a bet. "
"We are? Is there a casino around here? You know I suck at card games. "
"Not that kind of a bet. We're going to have one between us. A wager. "
"Oh?" I leaned back against the headboard as Sarah plumped herself down in the room's only chair. "About what?"
"I am going to bet you that, before the end of this trip, you will see something that you can't explain. "
"Something like. . . quarks?" I asked, thinking back to our earlier conversation.
"No, you believe in those. I mean something you don't believe in, like spirits and UFOs and faeries. I will bet you that before the end of our trip, you will encounter something that can't be explained away as a hot air balloon, or settling house, or any of those other unimaginative excuses people like you come up with to explain the inexplicable. "
I sat up a little straighter on the bed. There's nothing I loved like an intellectual challenge. "Well now, that's an interesting thought. But it's hardly fair for you to throw something like that at me without allowing the inverse. "
"Inverse?" She frowned for a moment. "What do you mean?"
"You can't take me to a haunted house, and when I point out that the plumbing is archaic and responsible for making the suggested poltergeist knockings, refuse to allow that as a valid explanation. You have to be open to rational deductions as to the source of your mystical events. "
She bristled slightly. "I am the most open person I know!"
"Yes, you are; too open. You're much more willing to believe in something paranormal than normal. "
"Oh," she said, glaring at me. "That's it! Put your money where your mouth is!"
"A bet, you mean? I'm perfectly willing, not that I have much money, but what I have I will happily use to back myself. "
She got to her feet. I stood up in front of her.
"Then we're agreed. We will have a bet as to who can prove" - I raised my eyebrows - "or disprove a paranormal being or event. " She thought for a moment. "Beyond a shadow of a doubt. "
"Beyond reasonable doubt," I agreed, and we shook hands. "You know, I'm skeptical even without a bet. "
"Yes, I know you're perfectly happy trying to rain on my mystical parade. But this adds just a smidgen of spice to it, don't you think? A little friendly competition?"
"Mmhmm. How much is the bet for?"
"Oh, we're not betting for money," she said, waving away such a mundane thought. "This is our honor we're betting, here. Honor, and the right to say 'I told you so' to the other person. "
I laughed at that. "Sounds good to me. For every haunted house we visit, for every psychic you take me to see, for every crackpot who claims he has crop circles, I'll show you the truth behind the paranormal facade. "
Her smile lit up her eyes as she opened the door to the tiny hallway. "We can start this afternoon. This area is a hotbed of paranormal activity, but most well known is the faery ring just outside of town. Get you
r faery-hunting clothes on, Portia. The game is afoot!"