My name is Sophia Daniels, and I still haven't forgiven my parents.

I realize that they gave me life, and that it's un-Christian to harbor a grudge, but it's hard for me to excuse what they did to me when they wrote that down on the birth certificate. They're both college educated, upper-class people, after all; surely when they'd chosen to saddle me with the middle name "Theresa", one of them would have realized that my initials would be "STD", and foreseen the abuse and torment I'd suffer throughout grade school for it. What was worse, they'd been sure to inform me, over and over from when I was old enough to talk, that I was named for my great-grandmother, a woman who was spoken of as a saint while living and whose memory was only burnished after her passing; if I ever tried to change it, the guilt would kill me, if they didn't outright.

I realize, of course, that I could change either my given or surname, but they would be nearly as disappointed if I dropped my family name without first getting married, and I like the name "Sophia". It means "wisdom", a quality I could never hope to have too much of; besides, I thought it was pretty.

And so, saddled as I was by my tragic birthright, is it any wonder I grew up to take a job ruining people's lives?

Not that I had meant to, of course; when my partner, Nikita Taylor, and I had started a private investigations firm, we had been hopelessly naive, seduced by prime time dramas and classic detective films. But by the time we had put in the effort it took to get our fledgling enterprise off the ground, we had become all too familiar with the "noir" in film noir.

While we'd been expecting to solve crimes, jail killers, and generally make the world a better place, we instead found ourselves investigating petty crimes and misdemeanors; the bulk of our cases consisted of us spying on people who were under litigation, suspected of insurance fraud, or worst of all, married individuals who had earned the distrust of their spouses. Case in point: we had spent the last two weeks shadowing one Jordan Roberts, at the behest of his wife, Alicia. She had grown to suspect he was committing adultery, and she had been correct; Nikita had caught him in the act at a motel in a seedy neighborhood of Los Angeles just the day before, enjoying the attentions of an exotic dancer and sometimes prostitute, and taken the Polaroids to prove it. What Alicia couldn't have guessed was that the person her husband had been meeting with was a well tanned, well toned gentleman by the name of Gabriel.

And when she came in tomorrow morning, I would be responsible for telling her this, and presenting her with a dossier complete with photographs, before looking her in the eye and handing her our bill. It wasn't a task I looked forward to; I would be giving her the information that would in all certainty end her marriage, and console her afterwards. The best case scenario involved a lot of hand-holding and the use of most of the fresh box of tissues we had set in place for such confrontations; the worst, her breaking down in hysterics and assaulting me. While I didn't think Alicia seemed like the type to do such a thing, neither had the first -and thankfully, only- woman to do so. It could have went a lot worse for me if I hadn't taken two years of Aikido, but it hadn't been very pleasant regardless.

But despite the risks, it was only fair that the job fall to me, since Niki had been on shadowing Jordan when he met with his friend. The stakeouts were the more dangerous jobs by a wide margin; in our first year running the firm, we had both been spit on, screamed at, and had various objects hurled at us while we'd been on stakeout. Nikita had even been shot at, by yet another cheating husband who'd been carrying a .32 caliber revolver. None of the bullets had even grazed her, the guy's aim being impaired by the heavy drinking he'd done that evening. But I had been terrified on Niki's behalf.

While I hadn't been shot at (yet) I had gotten hurt pretty badly in my first year on the job; I had been monitoring a man (who was drawing Worker's Comp for a back injury) at his weekly tennis game, when he caught me in the act of photographing him. He had gone berserk, attacking me when I made the mistake of turning my back on him. It would have been a lot worse if a courageous bystander hadn't pulled him off me and called the police, but it was bad enough; he'd broken one of my ribs, and hit me in the face pretty hard a few times. The doctors at the ER told me I was very lucky that I didn't lose the use of my right eye, which had frightened me badly; it had scared Nikita worse. She had been out of town visiting family when it happened, and blamed herself for not being there for me, even talking about dissolving the firm. But somehow, after both our worst experiences, she and I had banded together, and the Taylor-Daniels agency had pulled through. We had also both enrolled in self defense classes.

But the memory of our success over hard times did nothing to brighten my spirits, and I collapsed on top of my desk in frustration, pushing aside the stack of accounts I had been juggling; bills for our phone line, our internet connection, and the rental of our little office at the rear of a building on the outskirts of west L.A.. Balancing our checkbook had always fallen to me, while the tech-savvy Niki had always been responsible for doing anything on the computer more involved than checking e-mail. The accounting really did need to be done immediately, but I was exhausted, and disheartened in the face of what I'd have to do tomorrow. Laying my head on my crossed arms, I groaned, looking ahead to the next day's scene.

"Poor little Sophie," my partner and best friend said from behind me, as she rolled her office chair over and reached out to place an ebony hand on either of my shoulders. Nikita Taylor was a strong, self assured woman, who had come from one of the worse neighborhoods of South Central L.A. to co-found her own business, never tolerating any disrespect directed at her for being a woman, or an African American. Truth be told, she would have berated me mercilessly at hearing me describe her with such politically correct lingo; in her own words, she was Black and Beautiful, and I certainly couldn't disagree with her on the last count. Three inches taller than me at 5'9", Niki was statuesque and athletic, with a penchant for wearing her hair in immaculate cornrows and a wardrobe full of vivid solid colors that complemented her features. "You look like you're about done for the night," she continued, as she began expertly massaging my neck and back with strong, measured motions.

The tension began leaving my muscles, and the prospect of calling it a day looked so inviting; but... "No; I couldn't leave off now. I'm not halfway done with these bills yet, and most of them are due tomorrow," I protested, feeling sorry for myself. It's a bad habit of mine, and I usually force myself to stop when I find myself doing it, but at that moment I couldn't muster up the willpower; faced with breaking the news to Alicia Roberts the next day, I felt drained and disillusioned. Never mind that Niki and I had finally gotten our firm out of the red after years of blood, sweat, and toil; never mind that I was living my childhood dream, tarnished as the reality had turned out to be. I felt bad, and I half wanted Nike to tempt me into knocking off early.

Behind me, she was more than happy to oblige; "Screw the bills," she said enticingly, bearing down harder on my knotted muscles. "You can wrap those up tomorrow and get them to the bank before they close. Why don't you let me take you bar-hopping tonight, and let off some steam?" she suggested, her voice cajoling. "We can have some fun; I promise, we'll stay away from the gay bars."

Niki enjoys the company of other women, and her preference is as firmly established as mine for men. Despite our differing sexualities, there had never been an issue between us in that respect; she had made a single, considerate proposition to me years before, and took it gracefully when I explained that my interests lay in different directions. She'd never raised the possibility again, and I didn't feel the least uncomfortable enjoying a backrub from her; I trusted her completely, and had never had a reason to do anything else.

But despite that, I couldn't take her up on her offer. "I'd love to, but I can't. I promised my sister I'd meet her tonight," I explained.

"Oh," Niki exclaimed in a small voice, her hands freezing on my shoulders. "I guess you can't bail out of an obligation like that," she said slowly; despite the pains she took to conceal it, I could hear the doubt in her voice.

I tensed, feeling the old anger well up as we approached the single bone of contention between the two of us. I felt an urge to tell her that I didn't see visiting my only sister as any obligation, but held it in out of a desire to keep the peace. I was willing to let it go.

Niki picked up on my mood, and was quiet for a while as I calmed down. She knew her discomfort about my sister hurt my feelings, and had the foresight not to say anything else on the subject. "But I meant it, Sophie," she said after a bit. "It's been a long day, and tomorrow isn't really looking up right now. We're both stretched to the breaking point; we should get out of here before we snap. Let's pack it in; you can go see Vanessa, and we'll save the girl's night out for another time, ok?" Both of us knew her coming with me wasn't a possibility, and neither one of us wanted to say it. It would only start an argument.

"Are you sure, Niki?" I asked, trying not to sound too hopeful. Between the two of us, we split the duties of running the firm 50/50, but the zeal and tenacity she attacked her work with sometimes made me feel like I wasn't doing my part. I didn't want to think that I was taking advantage of her for a free ride.

"Yes, I'm sure already," she told me. "Don't even try to argue with me; I know how it would end, remember?" I thought she was probably right.

"Fine," I assenting, flashing her a grateful smile. I really was tired, and I appreciated her giving me a pass. And besides... I really was looking forward to seeing my big sister. My work had kept me from dropping by for a long time, after all; and while Vanessa would never admit it, she got lonely easily, in recent months.

With the day done and the peace between us restored, we made comfortable small talk as we tidied up around our desks and locked up our office. We were fine as we walked out of the building, but Niki paused before we parted ways to our separate cars, and the moment got tense again.

"Have fun tonight, Sophie. I'll see you tomorrow, ok?" We had been friends long enough to communicate without words, and I knew without her saying it that she wanted to tell me to be careful; she knew without having to be told that I wouldn't forgive her if she had said it. She was my partner and my best friend, but her unease about Vanessa hurt my feelings. Above that, it made me feel disappointed. Nikita knew about bigotry first hand, having faced more than enough of it on account of her race and her sexuality; that she was unable to accept my sister's condition struck me as hypocrisy on her part, and wounded the confidence I felt in her...

But there was no point in dwelling on that. I assured her that I'd see her the next morning as I gave her a parting hug, and went to get into my compact car and pull out of the lot. The troubles in the past were in the past, and the ones in the future would wait for me there. For the moment, I had an appointment to keep.

Vanessa's condo was in a posh neighborhood, located along a lakefront. The lake in question was man-made, actually, but that didn't detract from the cost of buying property there in any way you'd notice; while it wasn't Beverly Hills, and there were no A list celebrities next door to her, the price of admission still put a condo there well beyond anything I was likely to reach in my lifetime. Not that it was an issue for my sister; years ago, she had hit the jackpot.


Vanessa had won the California lottery when she was twenty-one, and I was sixteen. It was the kind of stroke of luck that they feature talk shows about; several agents from them had actually tried to book her, but she had declined politely to all of them. She had won on the first ticket she had ever bought, and hadn't even intended to buy that. As she put it, "I needed to break a twenty, and the clerk at the gas station I stopped at insisted I buy something; I just didn't feel like getting a pack of gum." Imagine her surprise when she glanced at the newspaper two days later and realized she was thirty million dollars richer; imagine my delight when she bought me my first car, the then new BMW I still drove and cherished.

As I parked my beloved car and set the alarm, I paused to grab the coat I had left on the passenger seat in advance. While the day's heat hadn't called for it, I had brought it specifically for this visit; I knew from experience that Vanessa keeps her air conditioning cranked to the maximum levels, and while the cold didn't bother her, I would need the jacket inside. I approached the door, and before I had gotten within six feet of the buzzer, it had opened and my sibling stepped out to greet me; it would have startled me, if I hadn't gotten used to it a long time ago.

"Baby sister!" Vanessa yelled, obviously overjoyed to see me as she moved to give me a hug. "I thought I heard your engine," she said, as she embraced me. Her arms were only the slightest pressure around my trunk; she hugged me as if my bones were made of hollow glass. I returned her grasp with no such caution, squeezing her nearly as hard as I could. There wasn't much chance that I could manage to hurt her, even if I had been trying. As I did, I idly reflected on what she hadn't told me; while she had most likely recognized the sound of my car, she didn't mention that she had probably also heard my heartbeat.

She had tried to shelter me from little details like that ever since she'd become a vampire.

"Hey there, Nessie," I told her happily, calling her by the childhood nick-name I'd had for her, when I was too little to pronounce her name correctly. "You look fantastic," I added, immediately feeling stupid for saying it. True as it was, she looked the same as she had when I'd seen her last. The same as she had when she was 25. The same as she would until the end of time. While our features resembled one another's enough to obviously mark us as siblings, Vanessa was an inch taller than me, with a fuller figure and darker complexion than I possessed; she had inherited more of the Italian features from our mother's side of the family, and showcased them to good effect. I had always envied her black, naturally curly hair, which flowed down her back in gorgeous ringlets, in contrast to my own drab brown locks; she was also a natural D cup, a bra size bigger than me, and the bright red strapless dress she wore accentuated both her coloring and her figure. Beside her gown, I thought that my comfortable jeans and sensible blouse made me look like a boy, but I wasn't jealous. I told myself that several times, until I was nearly convinced of the fact.

"Thanks, Sophie," she said easily, backing up to let me into her foyer. "You look great, too. The short hair works for you." I'd gotten it cut to just below my neck on a whim a few weeks ago, mainly so I'd have less to do with it, but I kept getting compliments on it. "I wish I could try it," she said wistfully, but of course she couldn't. If she got her hair cut and it didn't work for her, it would never grow back, after all. It was a good thing she had always preferred to keep her nails trimmed short, since they wouldn't be getting any longer, either. And besides, that's what artificial ones were for.

"Don't even think about it," I told her, as I followed her up the stairs; she had always been impulsive, after all. Her living quarters were all on the second floor, the first being devoted to the utility room, a storage closet, and a sun deck that she would never again be able to use for that purpose. As I followed her, I reflected on what would happen if I tried to climb stairs in the dress she was wearing; I would be lucky if I landed myself in the hospital instead of the morgue... But my sister seemed to positively glide up the steep grade. More than her eternal youth, I envied her the grace and agility that she had gained when she "converted"; the fact that I had been "the clumsy one", even when we were both kids, almost failed to occur to me. "I would kill to have your hair, Nessie," I assured her, following her into her parlor.

The room was sparsely decorated, mostly in contrasting black and white. The effect should have been severe, but instead it only seemed pristine. The walls were papered in a pattern that replicated the shoji screen walls in a traditional Japanese home, and the lacquered black furniture matched; they would have been scratched beyond recognition after a week in my apartment, but Vanessa keeps them buffed to a mirrored gloss. The light, earth-toned carpet softened their effect. So did Vanessa's books.

Nessie is a die-hard bibliophile; two shelves were nearly collapsing under the weight of her library, and I knew that there were even more in the guest bedroom. Everyone from Tolkien to Tolstoy was represented in her collection, although her personal favorite authoress is Danielle Steel; she calls her novels a guilty pleasure, and I'm inclined to agree with her... But I wasn't about to argue literature with my sister. I'd lose, and lose badly. When we were kids, she once told me her dearest wish was to be able to live long enough to read all of the books she wanted to. I hoped that one day that memory would stop making me sad...

"You're so sweet, Sophie," she said, bringing me back to the present. "Find somewhere to sit down; I picked up a French Silk pie for us, and I made you your favorite drink." She went to her kitchen, weaving past even more books, piled in waist-high stacks on her floor. Barely pausing on her way, she reached out to flick on her CD player, and the strains of a string quartet began flowing out of the speakers. Was I imagining it, or was the record playing a string tribute to Black Sabbath...? Nah; probably not.

"Yummy," I told my sister. Usually, I'm not a big drinker. The only thing I'll touch is a Southern Comfort and Seven Up, and then only if Vanessa had made it. She always added something to it that made it really good, and refused to tell me what it was. She had said it was so I would always have to come to her to get it; when she'd said it, she had been joking... But she had also still had a pulse at the time. Since my sister had become one of the "cardio-actively challenged", it seemed like I never got to see her anymore. I could only visit at night after all, and first college, then the obligations of the detective firm had kept me on a day schedule...

But I pushed those thoughts down, as I cleared away (still more) books to take a seat on Vanessa's couch. She came back in to bring me my drink, and a massive piece of pie. Vanessa had always been the kind of woman who didn't understand that "too" and "thin" didn't have a place in the same sentence, and encouraged me to eat more. With her build and metabolism, she had been able to get away with it, but I would have ballooned up like a whale if I'd ever tried to eat like she did... or had. As it was, I'd have to remember to take a few laps in the municipal pool for even looking at the piece of pie she handed me.

"Tell me all about your day," she told me, sitting down with her own piece and a glass of wine. I did, venting to her about the Roberts' case, wanting her to console me. Nessie had always been the shoulder I went to cry on, and humored my self-pity better than I did myself; she assured me that the situation was just awful, and made me feel a lot better. The drink and the pie didn't hurt, either, calories be damned. I ate it as we discussed the Roberts, and Vanessa nibbled at her own across from me. My sister can eat solid food, but her body can't derive any nutrition from it anymore; it would be like if I tried to survive on water. The only reason she could have for doing it was because she knew that eating in front of her made me uncomfortable if she didn't join in. That, and the fact that her taste buds still worked fine, and the rich chocolate pie was very good...

So I told her about my day, but I stumbled as I got to my near-fight with Niki. Nessie knew that my partner wasn't comfortable with her condition, but I didn't want to remind her; she tries to hide it, but Vanessa was sensitive about it. It would be even worse, coming from Nikita. My big sister knew how much I admired her, for one thing, but there was more to it than that. What my partner didn't know was that my sister had given me the money that I had used to invest in my half of the firm's start-up costs; Vanessa had offered me a chance to go to Europe with her after I had graduated college, and when I had told her that I wanted to pursue my dream of being a private investigator, she'd "loaned" me the money to get started with no expectation that I'd ever pay her back. For some reason even I didn't know, I'd never told Nikita. If Vanessa ever found out that, she might interpret it as meaning I was ashamed of her, and I didn't want that to happen. I never wanted to hurt my older sister that way...

"Sophie?" she asked, sensing I was holding something back. She had always been able to read me like a barometer, and had only gotten better at it since she'd changed. "Is there something wrong?" she asked me, worried.

""Wrong?" I countered, knowing it wouldn't work and trying anyway." Why do you ask?"

Vanessa looked at me appraisingly for a moment. "Because you're my sister, and I know. Besides, your pulse just sped up, your pupils are dilating, and your palms are sweating." I didn't even know how she could tell that. "What are you holding back?"

"It's nothing." I tried to inject as much sincerity into my voice as I could, but I could hear the hesitation in my tone. Damn. That meant she definitely could. "Nothing important," I amended, hoping the half-truth would settle her down.

She only looked at me in response. And I mean only; without the need to take in air to push past her vocal chords, she didn't breathe, and without the need to keep her eyes moist, she didn't blink. She only sat perfectly still, staring at me. I began to fidget; I hated to see Vanessa like that, without the little tics and gestures that gave her the illusion of life, and she usually didn't show me herself in that state. The fact that she did now showed how worried she really was.

Finally, she moved; slumping forward, she closed her eyes, as the tension left her body. "If you say so," she told me, strained. "I'll believe you, sis. But I worry about you." I opened my mouth to protest, but before I got a word out she was on the other side of the room. Thinking back, I could reconstruct the sequence of her motions in my mind, but at the time I'd barely perceived a flicker of movement. That was another bad sign; Vanessa consciously slows herself down to human levels, and only lets that control slip when she's agitated.

"Your job is dangerous," she continued, walking a tight line along the far wall. "You don't have any idea how scared I was when that guy hurt you. What I wanted to do to him..." she snarled, before seeming to shake herself out of it. "If you were in any trouble you'd tell me, wouldn't you? You can trust me, Sophie. You always can..."

"I know that." I'd gotten up, and made my way past the book piles to take one of her hands. "You're my sister; I know I can always count on you, Nessie. I always have."

That was the Gospel Truth, and Vanessa could hear it; after a moment, she carefully tightened her grip on my hand, and leaned forward to give me another hug. "Thank you, baby sister," she told me, her voice breaking.

Our parents hadn't taken the change in my sister's life well. There was nothing malicious about it on their part; they simply weren't able to accept what Nessie had become. In their minds, one of their daughters was dead. I was the only one Vanessa had left, and she needed me to be there for her.

"Hey, it's alright, sis." Neither of us felt comfortable talking about such matters in the open, and we didn't usually need to. With the crisis averted, I wanted to get the conversation away from the subject. "Look, if I was in any trouble, you would be the first person I turned to. You know that. But I'm fine." Assuring her of this, I pulled away and went to lead her back to her seat. "Besides; you haven't even told me anything about your day- your week, even. Come sit back down, and tell me about it.

Vanessa still hesitated, but didn't protest anymore. Sitting back down, she began telling me about what she'd done recently. It took her a bit to get into it, but soon she'd gotten caught up in describing the latest John Grisham novel she'd read, which had clearly been the highlight of her week. She started going into the plot in way too much detail, and as she did, I reflected on just how like her that was...

My sister had been twenty-five, when she'd started getting the headaches. At first, she'd ignored them, but when her vision had started to go blurry at times, making it difficult to make out the text on the pages of her books, she'd returned from her vacation in Jamaica to see a doctor. When the CAT scans came back, the news wasn't good; it was a tumor, too far gone to be operated on. The specialist had given her six months to live.

She'd lasted three; three months of going everywhere she could want to go, eating anything she wanted to eat... and of course, working on the tan that she'd never be able to develop again. After that, when her vision began giving her trouble again, she knew it was time. Acting with more courage than I was sure I could, she'd let herself be turned.

It wasn't an easy decision, and it wasn't an easy process. With all the willing converts who wanted the power and mystique that came with the vampire lifestyle, older non-livings had become very selective about who they took in. After you got accepted, there was still the problem of discrimination. All vampires had been excommunicated and consigned to hell by a Papal Bull, which had prompted my parents and me to convert to the Unitarian Church. Vampires were also the new favored targets of hate groups across the board, and several bills had been raised in Congress that would have stripped all deceased Americans of their rights as citizens, which would have made them open game for any bounty hunter or sadist who wanted to try for their heads; while all such proposals had been voted down, it had been by margins narrow enough to make me sweat.

But my sister had made her decision, and I was only grateful that I still had her. I love Vanessa. No matter what she did or what she became, she was still my only sister, and she always would be. Always.

I had that thought on my mind, as I drifted off to sleep.

Well, there was "Sophia Daniels and the Gospel of the Night", third entry in the three-way challenge of doom, submitted for your approval or lack thereof. I realize I've probably taken enough of my reader's time (and that was singular for a reason, mind) between the wordy introduction and the length of the actual story, but before you review, I'd ask a bit more for me to elucidate on the strong and weak points, as I perceive them, of this story.

Pro: What I really like about this, and the reason I wrote it in the first place, is that it lets me blow off steam from writing "Strange and Senseless Wars". Vampires in the "Kincaid" universe, you see, are pretty basic; no flying, no hypnosis, just machines that eat people. I wanted to do something more along the lines of Harris and Hamelton, where they were more powerful, and known openly to the public. Really, I would like at some point to do a vampire piece that implements the parameters for the vampire used by Thomas Peckett Prest in Varney the Vampire, but I wasn't able to work it into this one, and I'll probably never get around to. As I may have mentioned, I don't really like vampires.

Cons: Sweet Free-Basing Jesus, where to begin? Maybe with my characterization of Nikita "Mary Sue" Taylor. Seriously, go back and re-read my description of her. I might as well have put "I hold liberal sensibilities" in parenthesis next to it. It would take a lot of work to mold her into a well-rounded, three dimensional character from that point, as well as talent I don't know that I have.

It just keeps going from there; the first person viewpoint is giving me problems I didn't encounter in "SaSW". For one thing, the story seems overly grim and angsty to me. While writing from the perspective of Andrew Kincaid, I can leaven subject matter like that with his wry humor, but I really don't envision Sophia as that kind of character. I've revised and revised this, and it still seems like there should be AFI playing as a soundtrack to it.

I'm concerned about some of the exposition I used; I tried to work down all the expository lumps, integrating them into narration of the story's events, but I'm still worried about info-dumping. I also have never been to Los Angeles and know nothing of the business of private investigating, so any specifics I give regarding either will need to be cut from whole cloth. And worst of all, I have only the vaguest idea of where this story is heading.

Sigh You know what would have been a great aid to me in things like that? If I had only encountered Stop The Press, the newsletter of advice on writing fiction run by Burnt Bread and staffed by some of Fictionpress's elite, before I wrote this. Sadly, the story was finished before I had the opportunity to get any pointers from it; don't make the same mistake I did. Check it out today. It might just save a baby's life; what, do you hate babies?

But anyway, the idea of this contest is not to judge what I like, but what you, the reader, likes. Drop me a review, and tell me if you want to see this continued, or if I should bury this and kill all who have read it. Although you may want to think very carefully about all the ramifications if you give me advice like that...