“Okay, O’Grady,” Detective-Lieutenant Sanchez said. “What do you think of this?”
‘This’ was the naked corpse of a girl-child sprawled in a dead-end alley in downtown San Francisco. She lay beside a dumpster overflowing with black plastic garbage bags. Someone had thrown her down on her back, her skinny arms outstretched in the dirt and filth on the concrete. Once she’d had long blonde hair; she still did on one side of her head. On the other, the hair had been cropped off close to the scalp. Her wide-open eyes stared up at the sky. Her swollen lips had parted to reveal that she was missing her two front teeth. Her frail body was white, dead-white, except for the two red punctures on her throat and the dry smears and gobbets of blood down the side of her neck.
“It’s sickening,” I said. “That’s what. Was she sexually assaulted?”
“We don’t know that yet. I’d bet on it, though.” Sanchez shoved his hands into the pockets of his navy blue trousers. “What do you think caused those wounds?”
I played dumb. “An icepick?”
Sanchez glowered at me.
“Out with it,” I said. “Why did you call me into this case?”
“Can’t you guess?”
I knew that he didn’t want to say it aloud. Why waste time playing games? We needed to get this psycho perp off the streets as soon as we could. “Vampires,” I said. “And you think I know something about them.”
He smiled, a tight twitch of his mouth. “Don’t you?”
“A little. They’re mythical, for one thing. Whoever did this must be hoping you’ll go chasing down a totally false trail.”
“I wish I could be sure of that. This is the third case like this on the books in the past three weeks. All children. None older than nine. All of them drained of their blood.”
My stomach twisted in disgust.
“I know it’s crazy, talking about vampires,” Sanchez continued, “but this perp must think he’s one. I don’t know what he’s doing with the blood, but I intend to find out. I was hoping your agency could assist. We need every possible resource to hunt this sick perv down.”
“I’ll have to ask my agency for official clearance, but if I get it, you can count on me. I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”
“Good. Thanks. I realize you have to go through proper channels.”
If you can call my kind of channels ‘proper’, anyway.
My name is Nola O’Grady. I work for a federal agency so secret that not even the CIA knows we exist. If I told you its name, you wouldn’t believe me. Let’s just say that all kinds of extraordinary things, including creatures like vampires, fall under our jurisdiction as we fight against the forces of Chaos. Ordinary citizens may not know it, but such forces exist, and they wage war on civilizations all across the multiverse – including ours.
My partner, Ari Nathan, was standing guard on Mission Street at the alley mouth while we waited with Sanchez for the Forensics team. He turned and called out, “Here they come!”
With the official squad on hand, Ari and I left the crime scene. He’s an Israeli national and an Interpol agent, but he works in a special branch, TWIXT, that handles cases that cross the boundaries between the worlds, or levels as they call them, of the multiverse. As we walked back to the public parking lot at Fifth and Mission, Ari said little at first. He had his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his leather jacket, and the stone-cold rage on his face made the pedestrians we met swing around us in wide arcs.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“This case, of course.” Since Ari learned his English in London, he sounds British. “When we get the sodding bastard who’s doing this –” He took a deep breath. “If you could see your way clear to letting me have ten minutes alone with him, you can arrest what’s left.”
“I understand the feeling, yeah.”
“You told Sanchez that vampires were mythical. Is that true?”
“Yes and no. There are vampires, yes, but they don’t sleep in coffins and turn into bats. That’s the myth part.”
“That I don’t know.” The image of the corpse rose in my mind and made me feel like vomiting. “Something bit that poor child’s throat.”
Ari considered this information in silence while we crossed Mission at the intersection with Sixth. “At times I wonder why I took this job.” His eyes drooped in a fit of martyrdom. “I should have been an insurance adjustor. My father was right.”
I drove Ari and me back to the flat we share, way out in the Sunset District of San Francisco. As soon as we got upstairs, I retreated into the bedroom to contact my handler at the Agency. Even though we’ve worked together for years, I know him only as Y. Considering what I was about to discuss with him, I decided that email, even on our doubly secured website, TranceWeb, presented too much of a security risk. I could visualize the headline if the news got out: “Government Agency Investigates Vampires.” Outraged taxpayers would be the least of our troubles.
I lay down on the bed and went into trance, a light state at first to send out the ‘emergency’ signal to my handler. The familiar images built up fast. It seemed like I was sitting on a chair inside a sphere of pale mist. Opposite me in another chair sat Y, a distinguished looking Japanese-American man with streaks of gray in his dark hair.
“I need your permission to assist on a local police case,” I said.
As I related what I knew, I emphasized that the victims were children.
“Of course you have permission,” Y said. “As soon as you get Sanchez’s files on these murders, send me email with details. We have an expert on Pseudonecrotics available for consultation.”
I broke the trance and called Sanchez to give him the news. In turn, he sent me scans in email of all the material he had on the three child murders. Forensics had confirmed that like the others, the newest victim had been sexually assaulted. A peculiar detail struck me: all three victims had had part of their hair cut off. A seven year old girl, an eight year old boy, and now the eight year old girl we’d seen in the alley had all been reported missing by frantic parents shortly after each disappearance. The police had sent out prompt Amber alerts, but no witnesses had ever come forward. The corpses had turned up three days later in all cases.
“It’s like they disappeared into thin air,” I told Ari.
“More likely underground.” Ari thought for a moment. “Where were they last seen?”
“All three kids lived out in the poorer part of the Ingleside district. Up near City College, y’know? The younger girl disappeared in the zoo. She wandered away from a school trip. The older girl was walking home from school. She lived only two blocks away, and her mother thought it was safe enough. The boy’s a slightly different case. He had a fight with his father and ran out of the house one evening. The dad paused to put on shoes and a jacket, but he followed him right away. Not quite soon enough.”
“I’m glad I’m not that boy’s father.”
“Yeah.” I paused to read more of the scan. “Not a suspect, according to Sanchez.” “No proper leads, I take it.”
“None, except the kids all came from the same neighborhood. The police have doubled their routine patrols out there.”
“Good. They’re sure it’s a man doing this?”
“The evidence makes that clear. It also tells us that the kids were still alive when they were sexually assaulted.”
Ari’s face lost all expression. Since I can read a person’s Subliminal Psychological Profile, I felt his rage: a shower of ice filling the room.
I printed out the scans for Ari to read the details, then turned to the Internet. While I websurfed, Ari turned on the local TV news. Our favorite reporter, Vic Yee, had ferreted out the story and done a feature on public reaction. “Outrage” summed it up. The mayor promised that the police would “keep the heat on.” When I called Sanchez, I found him still at the office.
“I’ve got priority for this case.” Sanchez sounded grimly pleased. “Extra officers, priority at Forensics, anything I want. We’re going to go over the Ingleside district like hunting fleas on a dog, one damn hair at a time.”
“I saw the TV news story earlier. Any tips?”
“The usual flood of them. Jeez, I hope that parents out there are keeping their kids close to home.”
So did I.
Over the next few days, the dragnet tightened. Plainclothes policemen went house to house over in Ingleside. Patrol cars glided through the streets in the entire south-west corner of the city. I ran psychic scans, but they turned up nothing. My lack of success disturbed me for more than the obvious reason. According to the report from the Agency’s Pseudonecrotics expert, a psychotic individual acting out some fantasy from a lurid TV show would have appeared on a scan of the aura field or a general SM:P, that is, a psi search for personnel. A genuine member of the undead would not. When you hover between life and death, you’ve severed your connections with the living while refusing to cross over to join the dead. Very little of you remains visible in either realm, except, of course, the not-quite-a-corpse.
The police failed to find the killer, but they did net a lot of human flotsam and jetsam. They hauled in drug dealers, pimps, petty criminals of all kinds, and now and then, a real catch: a murderer with a warrant out for him, a pair of conmen who didn’t skip town in time, car thieves, and the more brutal type of gang members. Once they thought they’d come close to our perp: a fellow who shot himself rather than come to the door when the police announced their presence. It turned out, though, that he’d been on the run from the FBI for years on terrorism charges, which seemed almost clean compared to the man we wanted.
Civilians took part in the hunt. Neighborhood watches and volunteer posses went on the alert and mounted patrols. The most valuable resource of all, elderly women with time on their hands, kept a lookout from their windows. The reports were sparse and mostly imaginary, formed by movies and TV more than observation – stealthy figures in black cloaks creeping through shadows. Now and then a tip came in about a person who turned yellow and sparkled in sunlight.
“Any self-respecting child would recognize perps like those as vampires right away,” I said. “And run screaming. This guy’s got to be someone who looks friendly or at least no threat.”
Lieutenant Sanchez agreed with me on that. He also told me that the dragnet would be called off in a couple of days.
“If a search like this is going to turn up anything, it usually happens right away,” Sanchez said. “So now, what we’re hoping is he’ll feel safe, like he’s outsmarted us, when we call it off. Eventually he’ll hit the streets again, and we’ll be watching without all this noise.”
“I see, yeah. He must be getting desperate. He needs to feed.”
Sanchez said nothing for so long that I asked him if he was still on the line.
“Sorry.” His voice sounded a little shaky around the edges. “Are you saying that this guy is a real –” He couldn’t quite finish.
“I don’t know.” I chose my words carefully. “But even if he’s just a psycho, he’ll still need to act out his obsession. Really need it. Y’know?”
“Right.” His voice strengthened again. “Too bad about the cloak and the sparkles. They’d make him easy to spot. Oh well, life’s never simple.”
And yet the guy who showed up on my doorstep looked like someone, or something, right out of an old black and white movie. Ari and I had just finished dinner when the doorbell rang. We got up and looked at the laptop we kept near the head of the stairs. The security camera showed a man who appeared elderly and ill.
“Who are you?” Ari said.
Over the tiny speaker, his voice sounded like a scrape of metal on metal. “I have information for the psychic upstairs.”
Maybe I couldn’t find them on the aura field, but one of them had found me.
“Ari,” I said, “let him in.”
Ari drew his Beretta from his shoulder holster – yes, he wore it always, even at home – and went downstairs to street level. When he opened the door, I heard a thin, reedy voice squeal, “Don’t shoot!” and Ari’s answering growl.
I went about two-thirds of the way down the stairs, then paused to gather Qi, a quick tangle of silvery life-force around my left hand. A blast of Qi can overload a person’s mental circuits and stun them. What it would do to a Pseudonecrotic, I didn’t know, but I was willing to bet it would be nothing good.
The man who stepped into the tiny entrance way was dressed normally in black jeans, a maroon turtleneck, a houndstooth sport coat with leather patches at the elbows, but the clothes hung loose on him. He was painfully thin, his face pasty-white, his dark eyes huge and sunk deep under his brow ridges. He had no eyebrows and no hair on the rest of his head, either. When he attempted a smile, I saw pale, puffy gums and a few brown teeth – except for the two shiny-white, abnormally large incisors.
“Implants,” I said. “That explains it.”
“Everyone always wants to know about the fangs.” He tried another smile, but it looked more like a snarl. “Yes, our gums won’t hold onto normal teeth. Might as well buy the best.” His laugh wheezed and whistled in his chest.
“So,” I said, “why are you here?”
“I want the killer caught as badly as you do.” He held up a hand with fingers as thin as twigs. “Let me explain before you throw that stuff at me, will you?”
The ‘stuff’ had to be the swirl of Qi I was holding. Ari cleared his throat and hoisted the Beretta.
“Or that either!” Our visitor took a step back. “Yes, ordinary bullets will dispatch one of us. Forget what you’ve read! A shattered heart or brain will kill anything.”
“Nice to know,” I said. “What do you want in return for the information?”
“Hans Grigory’s death. I want him sent over to the other side as fast as possible, before he harms another child. Yes, I know that sounds unbelievable, just blurted out like this, but we have rules, you know, those of us who are trying to come to terms with our affliction. What he’s done breaks all of them.”
“Oh yes, our bargain with the Devil.” He wheezed and gurgled through another laugh. “Does it sound wonderful to you? Near-immortality? Look at me! Is it wonderful?”
“Uh, no, I’d have to say not.”
His lips drew back from his gums. “Yet, of course, one is afraid to take that final step over, to give up life, such as it is. So we creep on in the shadows and try to keep our harms as small as possible. Grigory has gone mad. Too many of us do.”
It sounded plausible, even true – as far as it went.
“What else?” Ari said. “You could kill this fellow on your own. You’ve got another reason for coming forward.”
Again the bloodless grin. “Very insightful, aren’t you? Yes, we could dispose of him, but no one would know we had. We could leave his corpse on the sidewalk in front of a police station with a note, but would they believe it? We need someone like you, the man of law, and your friend the psychic, to validate the death.”
“I get it,” I said. “So the police will close the case and leave the rest of you alone.”
“Very true, my dear lady!” He made me a stiff little bow. “And the police scour has alarmed more than my kind. I am under a certain – um, pressure – from several powerful figures of – um, criminal bent – to put a stop to the hunt.”
“Or they’ll send the rest of you to permanent Dreamland?”
“Just that. Just that.”
When I tried the sort of psychic scan I would have done on a normal person, it failed to deliver more than a faint whisper of information, a small wisp of human feeling drifting inside the mental white noise generated by the undead. Despair, desperation, a profound fear – or was it grief? Hard to decipher, but because of that shred of humanity, I risked trusting him.
“Okay,” I said. “We’ll help, but I warn you, any treachery, and you’re over the great divide and out.”
“I know.” His voice sounded steady, even calm. His gaze, however, flicked to Ari and the Beretta and back to me. “You may call me Joshua.”
Joshua had a beaten-up old car, painted black “of course,” as he said. “I learned to drive nearly a hundred years ago, though this vehicle is a good bit younger than that. I don’t suppose you’d care to be my passengers?”
“Quite right,” Ari said. “We’ll follow you in our car.”
Through a night thick with fog, Ari drove us through the south-western corner of the city to the Ingleside Terrace district. Near its center lies a peculiarly oval set of streets that follow the plan of a long-gone dog racing track. I used the time to phone Lieutenant Sanchez, so when we arrived at our destination, deep in the middle of those oval streets, he knew where to send the squad cars.
“Give us a few minutes before they start the sirens,” I said. “We’re parking by the giant sundial and proceeding on foot. What? Yeah, I know that a sundial’s a weird place to find a vampire. Very funny. Ha ha.”
I clicked off as Joshua got out of his car and ambled toward ours. We joined him on the sidewalk and stood looking around while he caught his wheezy breath. In the yellow glare of the street lamps, the jagged white gnomon of the sundial loomed like some ancient monument in the middle of a tiny circular park. Well-kept middle class houses, mostly stucco with groomed lawns, stood on the street itself. Each had space around it, a rarity in San Francisco.
“I called the police, you know,” Joshua said. “I told them I heard a child screaming in his house. I have no idea if they investigated or not. The officer I spoke to sounded dismissive.”
“They’ve been flooded with tips,” I said. “Did you really hear a child scream?”
“Yes, though not with my physical ears. It must have been that little girl, the last found. His ever-so-respectable neighbors would never have reported him, him and his poor sick wife!”
It was the kind of neighborhood where an elderly gentleman could live without causing any comment or concern, unless of course he let his house get run down and thus threatened the property values. The sound of a child screaming in the night could be explained away, a bird, a TV show, something, anything but an ugly truth.
“Before we go in,” I said, “tell me something. Did he sexually assault those kids to gather Qi?”
“Qi? If you mean life force, yes.” He shuddered in a way that convinced me he was sincere. “Those poor children!”
Joshua led us to a little white house, almost a cottage, set well back from the curve of the street. A couple of trees shrouded the front bay window. More trees and a hedge stood along the dark walk leading along the side to a tiny entrance porch and the front door. As we followed Joshua through the shadows, Ari drew his Beretta. I gathered Qi. Joshua hummed under his breath, a strange sprung-rhythm chant that rose and fell in quarter tones. Although it had no effect on me, it throbbed with psychic power.
As Joshua climbed the two steps up to the front door, it sprang open. He kept humming, but the rhythm changed, grew faster, more urgent as another man shuffled into the doorway. With bent shoulders, almost hunchbacked, and a long neck like a turtle’s that supported his bald head, he glared at the three of us through thin slits of eyes.
“Hungry, Hans?” Joshua said. “You haven’t been able to hunt this week, have you?”
Hans stepped back and tried to swing the door shut. Joshua flung up his hands and shoved him back so hard that he fell. By the time Hans scrambled, swearing, to his feet, we’d followed Joshua inside.
“You’re under arrest,” Ari said. “I’m an officer from Interpol, acting on the authority of the San Francisco Police. The charges against you are –”
Hans screamed and staggered backward into a room just off the entrance way. We followed.
The horror I felt came from the contrast between the crimes and the utter good taste of the room, a rose-pink and white parlor with a love seat, two chairs in matching floral fabric, an Aubusson-like flowered carpet, a white fireplace. On the loveseat sat a woman with skin as wrinkled as crumpled plastic wrap and nearly as transparent, a ghastly grey-tinged white stretched over her skull. She wore a tangled lump of wig, made out of a long hank of blonde hair, woven into clumps of wiry black curls, and a plait of brown hair that twisted around the lump to hold it all in place.
“Oh my god!” I said before I could stop myself. “From the victims!”
She rose tottering to her feet and snatched something from the endtable next to her: a knife, long and stiletto slim.
“You traitor!” Hans launched himself, snarling, at Joshua with fingernails like claws.
Ari fired. Hans staggered back from the impact and clutched his hands over his chest. A liquid welled from between his fingers, a thin pink dribble. He looked up, surprised, and shook his head once. His knees collapsed, and he pitched forward and fell.
The woman screamed and lunged at us. Before Ari could shoot, I hurled the glistening silver ball of Qi straight at her head. It struck her full in the face and shattered. With a flash of silver light, the Qi spread over her like a veil. As the energy soaked into her flesh, we saw for a few moments how beautiful she must have been when she was young, her lips suddenly full and moist, her blue eyes glowing, her perfect cheekbones just touched with color. Then she staggered and began to drool, to gabble out words that made no sense. The illusion vanished. An old woman looked at us with eyes suffused with blood and tried to raise both hands. Her right hand lifted, but the left hung limp at her side. The knife slipped from her fingers and dropped among the woven flowers.
“For me,” she spat out at last. “He did it for me.”
She took one step and collapsed over her lover’s corpse.
That’s when I heard the police sirens, coming closer and closer through the quiet, cold streets.
Lieutenant Sanchez called me the day after the incident to wrap up a few details.
“I found the officer who shelved that old boy’s tip,” Sanchez said. “Good luck on him getting a promotion any time soon! It’s a damn good thing the informant knew you.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sure is. What’s the medical report on the woman?”
“Massive stroke, just like you thought.”
“It seemed like a logical guess, yeah.” Logical enough – the influx of Qi had broken the fragile blood vessels in her brain, or so the Agency expert on Pseudonecrotics figured.
“No loss to the world, that pair,” Sanchez continued. “Anyway, tell your friend Joshua that there’s reward money, but he needs to come forward and give us some real ID.”
“Oh, he knows. He doesn’t want the money. Give it to charity, he says. He’d like it to go to the local blood bank.”
“I’ll see if we can do that, sure.” Sanchez sounded a little puzzled. “Kind of an odd choice.”
“No. If you knew him, it’d make perfect sense.”