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Esther Friesner


“Your next client is waiting,” said Toodles. “She tried to bite me.”

“Hmm?” Mrs. Vera Knight, matchmaker extraordinaire in quite a few senses of the adjective, looked up from her morning must-haves—black coffee, an apricot danish, and the gossip column—to regard her secretary with that absent-minded, somewhat dismissive look that had driven her late husband Gerald to drink. “Well, darling, remember what I told you: if they bite, bite them back, otherwise they’ll never learn. And what do we always say about clients who never learn?”

“Like I care,” said Toodles, grooming his whiskers vigorously. Though his words were filled with indignation as hot and strong as his employer’s morning cup of get-up-and-go, he could not hide the fact that his recent experience had jangled his nerves. He was, after all, just a hamster. More or less.

Mrs. Knight tsk-tsked, though merely for form’s sake. She’d had Toodles on staff for a year and she’d never employed a better secretary/receptionist/rodent-of-all-work. Albeit the small, furry creature was useless at any task requiring muscle, once you put a SmartStik in his plastic runabout ball, the little fellow was all over what remained of the Internet in jig time. Any touchscreen, especially the teensy one provided on the SmartStik, was the hamster’s bitch. It often amazed his employer to think of how badly humanity had underestimated the capabilities of Mesocricetus auratus over the centuries, and that it had taken the horrors of the Shift to open their collective eyes.

“Now, Toodles, let’s not be like that,” said Mrs. Knight. She broke off a fragment of danish and bent over to pick up the hamster ball. Holding the succulent crumb where Toodles could not fail to see it, she coaxed: “What do we say about clients that won’t learn?”

“That it’s up to us to teach them a lesson,” Toodles recited obediently, enraptured by the promise of moist, flaky, jam-topped recompense for being a good scholar.

“That’s correct.” Mrs. Knight unscrewed the top of the plastic sphere and gave the hamster his reward. He promptly stuffed it into his starboard cheek pouch and looked at her expectantly, eyes glowing red with greed. She wagged an admonitory finger at him. “No, no, darling. No more until we take care of our client. Mustn’t keep the undead waiting.”

The hamster’s nonexistent shoulders slumped. “Why not?” he grumbled. “They’re not going anywhere.”

“They could go to another agency,” Mrs. Knight reminded him. “And that would be simply dreadful.”

“You sure about that?”

“About them taking their business elsewhere? My sweet, it’s a basic rule of business that if you don’t give the customer what he wants, he will—”

“Nah, I mean the part about this one being undead. She doesn’t look it, and I can usually tell. You got confirmation?”

A momentary sour expression flitted across Mrs. Knight’s countenance. “When you reported that she tried to bite you, I simply jumped to the obvious conclusion.”

“Oh. Well, uh, I kinda sorta mighta been making more out of it than there was. I mean, she did pick me up and hold me real close to her mouth—a little too close for my taste. Maybe she was just trying to make sure I got her name right when I checked her in, but she didn’t wanna raise her voice to do it. That, or maybe something else, I dunno. I was the one who yelled ‘Put me down!’ But I did it in a totally professional way, I swear!” The hamster gave his employer a look that was at once apologetic and so adorable that forgiveness was assured. “You know I’ve got comfort zone issues. It goes with being this size and this, um, edible.”

“Edible?” Mrs. Knight was amused. “Dear Toodles, you forget that I know you. How can you still say that with a straight face?”

The hamster looked aggrieved. “Hey, once you’re born prey, it don’t go away!”

“Ah yes, quite right. How insensitive of me. I beg your pardon.” She closed the hamster ball and set it back on the floor. “Now go see our caller in, and if she tries to bite you again, you know what to do.”

“Yeah, but not how to do it,” Toodles replied, knocking one hairy pink paw on the curved plastic wall enclosing him. “Darned if I know how you expect me to bite anyone when I’m sealed in this thing.”


“I wouldn’t say ‘expect’ is the proper word to describe your situation, precious. On the other hand, since you are in there, how can anyone manage to bite you?” The boss-lady’s riposte was accompanied by an impish twinkle in her eyes. “Which makes me wonder whether sometimes—only sometimes, mind you—you complain about our clients’ behavior for the sheer joy of hearing yourself complain.”

An abashed hamster is a dismal sight. Toodles’ whiskers drooped. “That transparent, am I?” he asked.

“Almost as much as your runabout ball,” Mrs. Knight replied. “But I don’t mind; I couldn’t do without you for a moment. I hope you know that.” Her affectionate words made the hamster perk up. He rolled out of the office at a brisk pace to fulfill his given task.

Left to herself briefly, Mrs. Knight prepared to greet the new client. According to the memo Toodles had entered on her e-genda, the person in question was Hortense Ingram. The antique charm of that name was endearing, but Mrs. Knight did wish she had more than that to go on before meeting the woman. When Toodles had first made the appointment, she’d asked him why there was no additional information about Miss Ingram included. The hamster had replied that the client declined to give any personal data besides her name, address, credit rating, and TagMe URL. Mrs.Knight had duly looked up said TagMe page, only to find it contained no images of its hostess and a scant handful of posts in which Miss Ingram revealed little beyond the fact that she liked reading F. Scott Fitzgerald novels and owned his skull.

“My goodness, that tells me absolutely nothing special about her!” Mrs. Knight had exclaimed in frustration. “Well, nothing except that she knows where to shop. I suppose I shall just have to wait and see.”

Now the wait was over. In the last few instants before Toodles ushered in Miss Ingram, Mrs. Knight cudgeled her brain mightily in an effort to deduce any shred of factoid concerning the young woman. Her years of experience had taught her that the more she knew about a person before sitting down to do business, the more likely she would be to have the advantage during negotiations. Such knowledge was also a wonderful time-saver when reviewing her backlog of Availables (as she liked to think of them) allowing her to winnow out extraneous or inappropriate creatures before presenting the client with a nicely streamlined list of Possibles. Clever shortcuts like these continued to secure her reputation for astoundingly prompt customer service and satisfaction.

It also meant she was able to get clients the hell out of her office as fast as ever she could, and preferably faster than that. This was not done for their accommodation, but for her own. Despite her chosen field, Mrs. Knight truly could not stand to deal with most of her clients face-to-face for any appreciable length of time. It creeped her out beyond all bearing, and after interviewing some of them, she found herself unable to stomach more than weak tea and unbuttered toast for several days.

She glanced out of her office window as if some molecule of a sliver of a hint concerning Miss Ingram’s nature might be found in the vulture’s-eye view of smoldering buildings and ravaged corpses below. There had been a full moon the previous evening and to judge by the evidence still seeping in the gutters, the local lycanthropes had been making rather merry.

Mrs. Knight glowered at the sunlight. Brightly though it blazed, it did not mean she could discount Dracula from Miss Ingram’s potential kin. The world-wide disaster known as the Shift had not only thrust unwanted waves of supernatural beings back into the waking world—including, but not limited to, vampires, werewolves, animate mummies, zombies, and the occasional pooka—it had also managed to change the rules that formerly governed membership in their numbers and limited their range for wreaking havoc. Oh, you could still kill most of them with a judicious application of the Li’l Marvel Pocket Flame-Thrower, but things like sunlight, religious symbols, garlic, the poetry of Gertrude Stein, and silver bullets were now mere ploys for bringing them up short without doing the fatal trick. Thus Miss Ingram’s ability to walk abroad before sundown meant zip.

“Drat,” Mrs. Knight muttered. “It would be so much simpler if she were a vampire. I know how to deal with vampires. Vampires are dead easy, but she might be any of those other awful…things. Tsk, what a goose I am: I should have asked Toodles what Miss Ingram looks like instead of wasting time on a Teaching Moment. I’m a featherheaded fooooo—You must be Hortense!” Mrs. Knight’s session of self-berating snapped off short as she sprang forward to greet the tall, raven-haired, plain-looking young lady whom Toodles had just ushered in.

“Anyone want a coffee?” the hamster asked. Then he gave a high-pitched chittering sound that was second cousin twice removed to human laughter. “Yeah, just kidding. Like I could figure out how to work the espresso machine!” He trundled out of the inner sanctum, the electric eye of the door allowing him free passage.

Toodles’ exit left Mrs. Knight and Miss Ingram to themselves. For the space of a few breaths, the two women stood taking stock of each other. Mrs. Knight’s first checkpoint was, of course, to determine if Miss Ingram were breathing. That alone would reveal much. As she peered at the younger female, she noted with guarded pleasure that the front of Miss Ingram’s pastel pink blouse rose and fell with comforting regularity. It was also spotlessly clean, with not even a whiff of grave mold wafting from the primly ironed fabric.

So: definitely not a zombie, Mrs. Knight reflected. Not even the best-preserved of them ever succeeds in covering up the smell. And breath is evidence that she’s not a mummy either…I think. There was that one fellow—Ra-ankh-whozis-Meriptah-something—who scooped his lungs out of their canopic jar and popped them back into his chest before he came to see me, but he was the exception to the rule. The rest of that lot aren’t so intent on making a good first impression. Vampire? Oh, please, can she be a vampire? She considered Miss Ingram’s complexion, which was certainly pale enough. On the other hand, some people were simply pallid creatures by nature, thanks to hailing from Minnesota. Heavens, I wish I could remember if vampires do breathe, whether they need to or not. No telling if she’s a werewolf without the moon being up.…Well, at least I’ve got something to work with, moving forward.

It should be noted that the foregoing inner monologue transpired in a matter of seconds, and not too many of them. In fact, Mrs. Knight’s ruminations began just as Miss Ingram’s lips parted and ended well before the younger woman said, “Thank you for agreeing to take me on as a client. I’ve heard so many good things about your work.”

“Bless you, dear child—That is, if it’s culturally acceptable to you and your kind to receive blessings as something other than a hostile gesture? I’ve learned that some of the more orthodox among certain groups dislike the implication of holy water even if the actual substance no longer harms them.”

Miss Ingram has a very pretty, self-effacing smile. “It doesn’t bother me. I just want to do business with you.”

“‘Business’?” Mrs. Knight echoed. “Oh goodness, not the B-word!” Her bizarrely girlish laughter was a source of irritation to anyone compelled to listen to its trills and tremolos. Miss Ingram’s smile stiffened noticeably under the onslaught. “We here at A Beautiful Pair don’t think of ourselves as either a business or—perish the thought—a company, but as the means to provide company for those who seek it. Do have a seat.” She waved her new client toward the chintz-covered settee facing the desk. “Unless you’d prefer—?” She indicated an extra-large, fleece-lined doggie bed to one side of the small sofa. “Some of our clients prefer it even in the daytime when it’s, you know—” She dropped her voice discreetly. “—that time of the month.”

“That’s very kind of you, Mrs. Knight, but the moon has no effect on me,” Miss Ingram replied, lowering her eyes modestly as she sat down.

Mrs. Knight took a place behind her desk, although she remained standing, a stratagem to establish dominance. She had learned that if you stayed on your feet and loomed over the client, you retained a certain advantage. It was a clever use of body language that put the high in social hierarchy.

It was also quite handy if a client decided that the plump and juicy Mrs. Knight might make a better snack than a matchmaker. The settee was rump-sprung and was kept that way. By the time any creature managed to haul its ravening butt out of the Cushion Pit of Doom, the already-mobile Mrs. Knight had dived into her deepest desk drawer and had the office flamethrower primed, aimed, and ready.

“Ah, just as I suspected. You are not that sort of a shape-shifter. All to the good, as I’m afraid we do not have a particularly large inventory of suitable young werewolves at the moment.”

“Werewolves!” Miss Ingram’s eyebrow rose, as did a hot flush of color in her cheeks. “Oh, but I could never socialize with a werewolf.”

“Strict parents?” The owner-manager of A Beautiful Pair leaned closer, using body language v. 2.0 to express sympathy and to try to establish a bond, even if it was about as genuine as a politician’s smile. Dominance was fine as far as it went, for a first step, but it was always easier to raise prices when the clients believed they were working with you, not being served by you.

Miss Ingram looked away, pained. “My parents died in the first days of the Shift.”

“How sad for you. Zombies?” It was usually zombies.

The young woman shook her head.

“Werewolves, perchance?” That would explain Miss Ingram’s aversion, but Mrs. Knight observed only a second shake of the client’s head, much to her consternation. She did not care for mysteries; they made her short-tempered, which was a handicap in her line of work. It did not do to snap testily at one’s figurative bread-and-butter: “Then what the hell did kill them, you ninny?” It was only by main force that she bit back those very words.

Despite Mrs. Knight’s self-control, Miss Ingram reacted as if the exasperated question had been asked outright: “They died of broken hearts.”

The matchmaker gave her a quizzical look. “Indeed? It’s not the sort of thing one hears of often, except in novels.”

“I spoke literally. A stake pounded through your chest will do that.”

Mrs. Knight gasped. “So your parents were—?”

“Vampires, yes. They were ‘turned’ within the first forty-eight hours of the Shift and laid to their truly eternal rest a scant ninety minutes thereafter.” A curiously flat quality stole into the younger woman’s voice. “I would have done it immediately, but I had to get my little brother to safety and then I needed to get the right tools for the job and then—”

You killed your parents?” Mrs. Knight could feel the pulse fluttering in her throat. She had to steady herself by resting both hands on the desktop.

“Someone had to do it.”

Just when I thought there was nothing left to shock me. Mrs. Knight struggled to keep her expression both bland and sympathetic. It must have seemed like a horrible necessity at the time, but if she were any colder about their deaths, I’d take her for the vampire. She gave a small mental shudder and hastened to yank the conversation back to less queasy-making matters.

“Well, my dear, there’s no need to dredge up painful memories of the past,” she chirped. “We are, after all, in the business of creating joyful memories of the future!”

Memories of the future? The words made so little sense that Mrs. Knight took herself aback the moment after she uttered them. Miss Ingram, on the other hand, seemed perfectly willing to accept them without question. That’s the way of it, I suppose, Mrs. Knight mused. The possibility of Romance has always been able to hip-check Logic clean off the track and into the cheap seats in the grand Roller Derby of Life, especially in these desolate times. This girl comes off a weensy bit cold-blooded, but I’ve dealt with worse. It might actually be a point in her favor for some potential matches. That darling finny creature from the Bla—that is, my one Ichthyo-American client has been waiting for me to find him that special someone for ages! Maybe all she needs is love. Love, and a wet-suit.

“Have you any preferences as to the sort of match you are seeking?” she forged onward. “We have already determined that werewolves are off the table—and the rest of the furniture, ha, ha!—and no doubt vampires as well, given your, ahhh, family background, but what of the other options? Alive? Dead? Fur? Fangs? Scales? Republicans? Democrats? Survivalists? Free Brains Party? Oh, and gender, education, income, social standing and eye color, of course! All the most important factors. Speak your mind and A Beautiful Pair will find just the thing you’re looking for.”

“With the emphasis on ‘thing,’ no doubt,” said Miss Ingram, as she hiked up her skirt to reveal the revolver strapped to her right thigh. Her eyes narrowed to burning slits as she swiftly drew the weapon, aimed it at Mrs. Knight’s chest, and added: “What I’m looking for is revenge.”

Mrs.Knight prided herself on maintaining a certain level of aplomb. It was one of the necessities of her vocation. Panic was a shortcut to an early grave, whereas a cool head—and an attendant level of preparation for untoward eventualities—was the key to survival. Early on in her career she had taken all of the wisest precautions against any of her clients suddenly attempting to transform her from a matchmaker into a meal. There was a cleverly concealed system of voice-activated spray pipes and hatches embedded in her office ceiling. All of these stood ready to release a suitable dose of holy water, garlic, wolfsbane, tanna leaves, and Uncle Gladwin’s Patented Tofu-for-Brains Zombie Kibble. None of these provisions had the power to destroy, thanks to the Shift, but their effect was just enough to give pause to the most obstreperous client. It also bought Mrs. Knight sufficient time to deploy the aforementioned office flamethrower.

The only difficulty was, none of these measures would work on an ordinary human being. Yes, the flamethrower would do the trick, but no matter how fast she made a grab for it, a bullet would be faster.

She had only one option remaining, but it would require caution to implement it without touching off Miss Ingram’s trigger finger. The first step was resorting to every real lady’s best defense, the ancient British martial art of How dare you-fu. With a voice wintry enough to give a yeti frostbite, the cornered matchmaker pulled back her shoulders and declaimed: “Miss Ingram, have you taken leave of your senses? Revenge? On what grounds? We have only just met! If this is your way of attempting to re-negotiate my fee—”

“No, you vile procuress,” the younger woman replied evenly. “It’s my way of re-negotiating your ability to breathe.”

“‘Procuress’? Such language! Surely you were raised better than this.” Softening her tone a bit, she added: “Obviously you have mistaken me for someone else, someone against whom you have a legitimate grudge. The Shift has turned these into dark and lonely days for us all, and the search for love can prove as elusive as a greased eel. We all crave companionship, but now lack the security to seek it on our own. A Beautiful Pair is not the only matchmaking establishment that has sprung up to fulfill this need. Alas, too many of our competitors are fraudulent enterprises run by unscrupulous creatures. Some even have the gall to usurp the names of reputable romance enablement facilities in order to bilk innocents like you. If I had a nickel for every take-down notice I posted against websites that appropriated my agency’s good name—”

“—you’d have a nice down-payment on your coffin,” Miss Ingram said dryly. “I have made no mistake: you are the very person responsible for my woes.”

“This is madness! Have you heard nothing I’ve said?” Slowly, by a series of hairsbreadths, Mrs. Knight edged one hand toward the edge of her desk, all the while attempting to keep Miss Ingram’s attention focused on her operatically irate words. She could not seize the flame-thrower, but if luck were with her she might be able to hit a silent alarm button under the rim, in a place where other people might stow used chewing gum.

One press of that button and a light would flash in the outer office alerting Toodles to the fact that something was amiss beyond his employer’s ability to handle. The gallant hamster would then use his SmartStik to contact the authorities and if they arrived quickly enough, all would be well.

At least that was the theory. The reality was that though Toodles had been thoroughly briefed as to the emergency procedure, thus far in their association Mrs. Knight had never needed to push the alarm. Would the untried hamster rise to the occasion? He might.

Ah, well! A subjunctive rescue still beats an indicative death, Mrs. Knight thought, philosophically. Her finger touched the button. It was not an easily triggered device—a deliberate feature to reduce the embarrassment of a false alarm. In order to conceal the convulsive force necessary to push it, Mrs.Knight lunged slightly forward as she shouted, “How can you think I am to blame for your parents’ deaths when you were the one who—!”

With a wordless exclamation of rage, Miss Ingram launched herself from the settee. She was across the room before Mrs. Knight could blink. A backhanded blow with the gun sent the older woman crashing to the floor. As the matchmaker huddled there, shaking and sobbing, Miss Ingram shouted down at her: “You’re to blame for worse than that; you and all the other godless go-betweens! Do you moneygrubbing vermin see the havoc surrounding us? The destruction? The Shift-summoned monsters that make our lives a misery? Honest people spend their days trying to eradicate the fiends, but you—? You spend yours finding them mates! Spouses! Prom dates! Less than four months ago, my baby brother came to this very office, and what did you do?”

“M-me—?” Mrs. Knight cupped the side of her face, trying to get the words out. “I never—never had a client named—named Ingram until you.”

“It’s a false name, you stupid hag! I didn’t want you suspecting anything, though if I’d given my real last name you’d probably think I was coming to thank you for the wonderful work you did for Nigel. A wonderful death sentence! How could you? How could you take a normal, healthy young man and throw him into the clutches of a blood-sucking ghoul?”

“You mean I—I introduced him to a—?”

“To a vampire, damn you both! A vampire who didn’t have the basic decency to wait until the third date to turn him, that haemophagic slut! ‘Suck at first sight,’ Nigel called it when he told me about his hellish union. He was smiling when he said it. Fangs and all, smiling!”

“So he—he was happy.” Mrs.Knight blinked. Even though her life was in imminent peril, her Inner Entrepreneur couldn’t help but preen a bit at the thought of another satisfied customer.

“Ecstatic,” Miss Ingram replied bitterly. “He even had the blind gall to suggest that I might ‘cheer up’ if I consulted you as well.” Her gaze hardened. “As you can see, I’m taking his advice. Your death will cheer me up immensely. This post-Shift world has become a swamp of horrors. I can’t drain it, but at least I can remove the human pond scum crawling over its surface. That’s why as soon as I’ve done away with you, I shall hunt down and destroy every other matchmaker I can find. I only regret that these uncertain times compel us to eat dessert first, or else I would have saved your demise for last, the chocolate-covered cherry atop the seven-layer cake of glorious retribution!”

“Wait, chocolate-covered pond scum? Shift cake? What?” Mrs. Knight’s head was spinning. Dying was bad enough, but dying in a state of mortal bewilderment was adding insult to inhumation. Latching onto the desk, she pulled herself off the floor and clawed her way back to dignity. “I refuse to be shot over a misapprehension. It is our policy never to force anyone into a match. We leave that to mothers and other amateurs. At A Beautiful Pair, we give our clients what they want. If your brother was paired with a vampire, that was what he came here seeking, so if he is alive—for certain applications of the term—and by his own admission happy, what the blazes do you have to avenge?”

“My guilt, you miserable pimp!” Miss Ingram bellowed. “The burden my soul has carried ever since I was forced to destroy my parents! The Shift made their lives meaningless, but you made their deaths meaningless, too! With every blow of the mallet, I told myself I was freeing them from an unnatural existence as shunned, hated fiends. How can I sleep at night now, knowing they could have been accepted, beloved fiends thanks to people like you? Why did you have to pair their only son with the very sort of creature that killed them?”

A rather uncharitable response (“That would be you.”) danced on the tip of Mrs. Knight’s tongue. Before she could voice it, the office door slid open and Toodles rolled in.

“Hey, boss, was that you testing the alarm or—?” His beady eyes darted to the gun in Miss Ingram’s hand. “Uh-oh.” His tiny paws scrambled for the SmartStik. Too late! Miss Ingram pounced on the hamster’s runabout ball, scooped it up, and shook it like a snowglobe.

“Stop!” Mrs. Knight cried, all care for her own safety forgotten. “Leave Toodles alone! He’s done nothing!”

“‘Toodles’?” Miss Ingram paused and gave the matchmaker a speculative look. “That’s a strange thing to call yet another Shift-born abomination. It almost sounds like the sort of name you’d give a pet: a dear, sweet, cherished pet.” She bared her teeth in an unnerving parody of a smile. “One would almost think that this little rodent is special to you.”

“More special than you know,” Mrs. Knight replied. “Put him down.”

“Oh, I intend to do just that,” said Miss Ingram with a wicked laugh. She raised the plastic ball high and slammed it to the floor. It cracked like an egg on impact. Toodles’ furry body went flying.

And kept on flying. The tiny bat wings helped. They sprouted from his back in a puff of sulfurous smoke and fluttered madly, lifting the hamster in a wildly looping flight path that brought him in for a two-point landing on Miss Ingram’s neck. Said two points being the adorably cute pair of fangs that he buried in her carotid artery, as the office instantly became one big, sanguinary Splash Zone.

When it was all over, Mrs. Knight surveyed the mess and sighed. “Oh, Toodles, whatever am I going to do with you?”

“Sorry,” Toodles mumbled between furious bouts of grooming the blood from his whiskers. “Didn’t know it was gonna go all splorty like that.”

“It’s all right, darling, but do try to be more discriminating about your feeding site next time. When I replace your runabout ball and get you a new SmartStik it’s going to include an e-book on human anatomy. Do promise me you’ll read it.”

The hamster looked up sharply. “Do I hafta? I mean, I’m gonna have my paws full, what with getting the cleaning service in here, and my regular workload, and on top of it all, I’ve gotta show that one the ropes as soon as she’s ready.”

He gestured at Miss Ingram’s cadaver. The would-be avenger’s earthly shell was not resting in peace. Rather, the body was shuddering like a badly tuned motor, racked by a series of rapid-fire changes. Even as Toodles spoke, the corpse swiftly crumpled in on itself, dwindling and reshaping at an alarming rate like some demonic piece of origami.

Perhaps the process was not so alarming as all that, at least as far as Mrs. Knight was concerned. She regarded the advancing metamorphosis with a blasé eye as she said, “Yes, fine, I know all that. But do read the book eventually, dear Toodles. Never neglect your education. Just think, if Miss Ingram had studied the Shift’s effects rather than loathing them, she might have realized that vampirism is the second most common side-effect of the Shift in the lower mammals, libertarianism being the first.”

“Hey! I’d rather be exposed to, you know, the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those, like, attending too small a degree of it, okay?” the hamster protested.

A groan from what remained of Miss Ingram cut off any further philosophical exchange. Uncurling her small, golden-furred body, the recently deceased young woman sat up unsteadily. Swaying a bit, her crimson eyes grew wide as she stared at the delicate pink paws that had replaced her hands. A fragment of the screen from Toodles’ shattered SmartStik provided just enough of a reflective surface for her to catch a glimpse of her new self. Her whiskers flared and her jaw dropped simultaneously.

“I’m a hamster?” she shrieked.

“A vampire hamster,” Toodles cheerfully clarified. “Hubba-hubba!”

“But—but—but how—?”

“Shall we tell her?” Mrs. Knight asked Toodles archly.

“She tried to kill you and me both. She deserves it,” he replied.

And so in perfect synchrony and without one iota of mercy, matchmaker and Mesocricetus auratus together said:

“Shift happens.”

Nebula Award winner Esther Friesner is the author of over 40 novels and almost 200 short stories. Educated at Vassar College and Yale University, where she received a Ph.D., she is also a poet, a playwright, and the editor of several anthologies. The best known of these is the Chicks in Chainmail series that she created and edits for Baen Books. The sixth book, Chicks and Balances, appeared in July 2015. Deception’s Pawn, the latest title in her popular Princesses of Myth series of Young Adult novels from Random House, was published in April 2015.

Esther is married, a mother of two, grandmother of one, harbors cats, and lives in Connecticut.

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