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Gone in a Flash


I clicked on the JAPES icon. A second picture appeared on the RAN-7X workstation screen next to the digitized original, said original being a pretty blurry picture of two men exchanging something. At first the two pictures looked identical, as always, but then rippling changes started: colors brightening and darkening, objects becoming so sharp as to look almost animated, a dozen things at once. I controlled the process with a mouse, pointing and clicking in places that were either doing very well or very poorly. JAPES (Jason's Automatic Photo Enhancing System) was a specialized plug-in program module I'd designed, which combined many of the standard photographic enhancement techniques into a single complex operation controlled partly by me and partly by a learning expert system.

The computer-enhanced version, on the other hand, was crisp as a posed photo; except that I don't think either the Assemblyman or the coke dealer had intended a pose. Yeah, that ought to give Elias Klein another nail to put in the crooks' coffins. I glanced at my watch: eight-twenty. Time enough to enhance one more photo before Sylvie came over. I decided to do the last of Lieutenant Klein's; drug cases make me nervous, you never know what might happen.

I inserted the negative into the enlarger/digitizer, popped into the kitchen for a cream soda, sat down and picked up my book. After seventeen minutes the computer pinged; for this kind of work, I have to scan at the best possible resolution. I checked to make sure the scan went okay, then coded in the parameters and set JAPES going, then went back to Phantoms. Great yarn. After the automatic functions were done, I started in on what I really get paid for here at Wood's Information Service ("Need info? Knock on Wood!"): the ability to find the best "finishing touches" that make enhancement still an art rather than a science.

A faint scraping sound came from the back door, and then a faint clank. I checked the time again; nine-twenty-five, still too early; Sylvie's occult shop, the Silver Stake, always closed at precisely nine-thirty. "Lewis?" I called out.

Lewis was what social workers might call a displaced person, others called a bum, and I called a contact. Lewis sometimes did scutwork for me—as long as he was sober he was a good worker. Unfortunately when he was drunk he was a belligerent nuisance, and at six foot seven a belligerent Lewis was an ugly sight. Since it was the first Friday of the month, he was probably drunk.

But I didn't hear an answer, neither voice nor the funny ringing knock that the chains on his jacket cuffs made. Instead I heard another clank and then a muffled thud. At that point the computer pinged again, having just finished my last instructions. I checked the final version—it looked pretty good, another pose of the Assemblyman alone with his hand partly extended—then downloaded all the data onto two disks for the Lieutenant. I sealed them in an envelope with the original negatives, dropped the envelope into the safe, swung it shut, pulled the wall panel down and locked it. Then I stepped out and turned towards the backdoor, grabbing my book as I left. Just then the front doorbell rang.

It was Sylvie, of course. "Hi, Jason!" she said, bouncing through the door. "Look at these, we just got the shipment in today! Aren't they great?" She dangled some crystal and silver earrings in front of me, continuing, "They're genuine Brazil crystal and the settings were handmade; the lady who makes them says she gets her directions from an Aztec she channels—"

There was a tremendous bang from the rear and the windows shivered. "What the hell was that?" Sylvie demanded. "Sounded like a cannon!"

"I don't know," I answered. "But it wasn't a gun. Something hit the building." I thought of the photos I was enhancing. It wouldn't be the first time someone had decided to erase the evidence before I finished improving it. I yanked open the righthand drawer of the front desk, pulled out my .45, snicked the safety off.

"You're that worried, Jason?"

"Could be bad, Syl; working for cops has its drawbacks."

She nodded, her face serious now. To other people she comes across as a New Age bimbo, or a gypsy with long black hair and colored handkerchief clothes. I know better. She reached into her purse, yanked out a small .32 automatic, pulled the slide once. I heard a round chamber itself. "Ready."

I raised an eyebrow, Spocklike. "Why the gun?"

"This may be a fairly nice neighborhood, Jason, but some of the places I go aren't. And you get a lot of wierdos in the occult business." She started towards the back. "Let's go."

I cut in front of her. "You cover me."

I approached the door carefully, swinging to the hinge side. It opened inward, which could be trouble if someone slammed it open; I took the piece of pipe that I keep around and put it on the floor in the path of the door. Then I yanked the bolt and turned the handle.

I felt a slight pressure, but not anything like something trying to force the door. Sylvie had lined up opposite me. She glanced at me and I nodded. I let the door start to open, then let go and stood aside.

The metal fire door swung open and Lewis flopped down in front of us. Sylvie gasped and I grunted. Drunk like I thought. I reached out for him. That's when he finished his roll onto his back.

His eyes stared up, glassy and unseeing. There was no doubt in my mind that he was very dead.

I stepped over the body, to stand just inside the doorway. I peered up and down the alley. To the right I saw nothing but fog—God must be playing director with mood machines tonight—but to the left there was a tall, angular figure, silhouetted by a streetlamp. Pressing myself up against the doorframe in case bullets answered me, I called out, "Hey! You up there! We could use some help here!"

The figure neither answered nor came closer. He moved so fast that he just seemed to melt silently into the surrounding fog. I watched for a few seconds, but saw nothing else. I turned back to Lewis.

Fortunately, there wasn't any blood. I hate blood. "Aw Christ . . ." I muttered. I knelt and gingerly touched the body. It was cool for a spring evening, but the body was still warm. Shit. Lewis was probably dying all the time I was reading Phantoms. 

"Jason, I have a bad feeling about this." Sylvie said quietly.

"No kidding!" I snapped. Then I grinned faintly. "Sorry, Syl. No call for sarcasm. But you're right, this is one heck of a mess."

She shook her head. "I don't mean it that way, Jason. The vibes are all wrong. There's something . . . unnatural about this."

That stopped me. Over the years I've come to rely on Sylvie's "feelings"; I don't really believe in ESP and all that crap, but she has a hell of an intuition that's saved my job and my life on occasion. "Oh. Well, we'll see about it. Now I'd better call the cops; we're going to be answering questions for a while."

Normally I might have asked her more about what she meant; but something about the way she'd said "unnatural" bothered me.

* * *

The sergeant on duty assured me that someone would be along shortly. I was just hanging up when I heard a muffled scream.

I had the gun out again and was around the corner instantly. Sylvie was kneeling over the body, one hand on Lewis' coat, the other over her mouth. "What's wrong? Jesus, Syl, you scared the daylights out of me!"

She pointed a finger. "Explain that, mister information man."

I looked.

On the side of Lewis' neck, where the coat collar had covered, were two red marks. Small red dots, right over the carotid artery.

Two puncture marks.

"So he got bit by a couple mosquitoes. Big deal. There are two very happy bugs flying high tonight."

Sylvie gave me a look she usually reserves for those who tell her that crystals are only good for radios and jewelry. "That is not what I meant, and you know that perfectly well. This man was obviously assaulted by a nosferatu."

"Say what? Sounds like a Mexican pastry."

"Jason, you are being deliberately obtuse. With all the darn horror novels you read, you know what nosferatu means."

I nodded and sighed. "Okay, yeah. Nosferatu. The Undead. A vampire. Gimme a break, Syl. I may read the novels but I don't live them. I think you've been reading too much Shirley MacLaine lately."

"And I think that you are doing what you always laugh at the characters in your books for doing: refusing to see the obvious."

I opened my mouth to answer, but at that moment the wail of sirens became obvious. Red and blue lights flashed at the alleyway—jeez, it must be a quiet night out there. Besides the locals, I saw two New York State Troopers; they must've been cruising the I-90 spur from Albany and heard about Lewis over the radio. I felt more comfortable as I spotted a familiar figure in the unmistakable uniform of the Morgantown PD coming forward.

Lieutenant Renee Reisman knelt and did a cursory once-over, her brown hair brushing her shoulders. "Either of you touch anything?" she asked.

I was glad it was Renee. We'd gone to school together and that made things a little easier. "I touched his face, just to check if he was still warm, which he was. Sylvie moved his collar a bit to see if he'd had his throat cut or something. Other than that, the only thing I did was open the door; he was leaning up against the door and fell in."

"Okay." She was one of the more modern types; instead of scribbling it all down in a notebook, a little voice-activated recorder was noting every word. "You're both going to have to come down and make some statements."

"I know the routine, Renee. Oh, and I know you'll need to keep the door open a while during the picture taking and all; here's the key. Lock up when you're done."

I told the sergeant we'd be taking my car; he pulled the PD cruiser out and waited while I started up Mjolnir. It was true enough that I could afford a better car than a Dodge Dart, even a silver-and-black one, but I kinda like a car that doesn't crumple from a light breeze . . . and it wasn't as though Mjolnir was exactly a factory-standard car, either. But that's not important here.

Sylvie's statement didn't take that long. Mine took a couple hours since I had to explain about Lewis and why he might choose to die somewhere in my vicinity. A few years back I'd been in the area when two drug kingpins happened to get wiped. Then Elias got me involved in another case and a potential lead fell out a closed window. I was nearby. Cops don't like it when one person keeps turning up around bodies.

It was one-thirty when we finally got out. I took a left at Chisolm Street and pulled into Denny's. Sylvie was oddly quiet the whole time. Except for ordering, she didn't say anything until we were already eating. "Jason. We have to talk."

"Okay. Shoot."

"I know that you don't believe in a lot of the Powers. But you have to admit that my predictions and senses have proven useful before."

"I can't argue with that, Syl. But those were . . . ordinary occasions. Now you're talking about the late-night horror movies suddenly doing a walk-on in real life."

She nodded. "Maybe you can't feel it, Jase, but I am a true sensitive. I felt the Powers in the air about that poor man's body. And that noise, Jason. Big as Lewis was, even he wouldn't make that kind of noise just falling against the door. Something threw him, Jason, threw him hard enough to shake the windows." I nodded unwillingly. "Jase, it's about time you faced the fact that there are some things that you are not going to find classified on a database somewhere, comfortably cross-indexed and referenced. But I'm not going to argue about it. Just do me a favor and check into it, okay?"

I sighed. "Okay, I'll nose around and see what I can find out. No offense, but I hope this time your feelings are haywire."

Her blue eyes looked levelly into mine. "Believe me, Jason, I hope so too."





I got back to WIS at 2:45. The cops were gone but one of those wide yellow tapes was around the entire area. Damn.

I went to the pay phone on the corner, dialed the station, asked for Lieutenant Reisman. I was in luck. She was still in. "Reisman here. What is it, Jason?"

"You know, I happen to live in my place of business. Do you have to block off the entire building?"

"Sorry," she said. "Hold on a minute."

It was actually five minutes. "Okay, here's the deal. You can go in, but only use the front entrance and stay out of that back hallway."

"But I store a lot of stuff there."

"Sorry, that's the breaks. Tell your informants to die elsewhere from now on. Anything else?"

"Yeah. This thing has Sylvie really spooked. She's really nervous about this, and being in the business she is, it gives her weird ideas."

"So what can I do?"

"Just give me a call when the ME report comes through. If there's nothing really odd on it, it'll make things much easier."

She was quiet for a moment. "Look, Jason, medical examiner reports aren't supposed to be public knowledge, first off. But second, just what do you mean by 'odd'?"

I grinned, though she couldn't tell. "Believe me, Lieutenant, you'll know if you see it."

"Huh." She knew I was being deliberately evasive, but she knew I probably had a reason. She'd push later if events warranted. "All right, Jason, here's what I'll do. If the ME's report is what I consider normal, which includes normal assaults, heart attacks, and so on, I'll call you and tell you just that, 'normal'. If I see something I consider odd, I'll let you know."

"Thanks, Renee. I owe you one."

"You got that straight. Good night."

I went back to my building and up to my bedroom. I was drifting off to sleep when I suddenly sat bolt upright, wide awake.

The figure I had seen in the alley, backlighted by a streetlamp. I had thought it just moved away too fast to follow in the fog. But the Tamara's Tanning neon sign had been on its left, and the lit sign for WKIL radio on its right. One or the other should have flickered as it passed across them.

Both had stayed shining steadily. But that was impossible.

It was a long time before I finally got to sleep.

I got up at twelve-thirty; that yellow tape would keep away the customers who might drop by, and as a consultant I keep irregular hours anyway. I was just sitting down with my ham sandwich breakfast when the phone rang. "Wood's Information Service, Jason Wood speaking."

"This is Lieutenant Reisman, Wood. I've just read the ME report."


"And I would like to know what your girlfriend thinks is going on here, Mr. Wood."

"Syl's not my girlfriend." Not exactly, anyway, I thought. "What did the ME find?"

"It's what he didn't find that's the problem." Renee's voice was tinged with uncertainty. "Your friend Lewis wasn't in great shape—cirrhosis, bronchitis, and so on, and various malnutrition things—but none of those killed him. He'd also suffered several bruises, someone grabbed him with great force, and after death the body was thrown into your door. But death was not due to violence of the standard sort."

"Well, what did kill him then?"

"The ME can't yet say how it happened," the Lieutenant said quietly, "but the cause of death was blood loss." She took a breath and finished.

"There wasn't a drop of blood left in his body."

I made a mental note that I owed Syl a big apology. "Not a drop, huh?"

"Well, technically speaking, that's not true. The ME told me that it's physically impossible to get all the blood out of a corpse. But it was as bloodless as if someone had slit his throat with a razor. The thing that's really bothering him is that the man had no wounds that account for the blood loss. He'll have the detailed autopsy done in a few days, but from what he said I doubt he's going to find anything."

"You're probably right. Well, thanks, Renee."

"Hold on just one minute, mister! You at least owe me an explanation."

"Do you really want one?"

She was silent for a minute. Then, "Yeah. Yeah, I do. Because there's one other thing that I haven't told you yet."

I waited.

After a few moments, she said, "All right, here it is. This body is not the first we've found in this condition. The others all had wounds that could explain the loss . . . but the ME told me privately that there were certain indications that made him think that they were inflicted after death."

"Okay, Lieutenant, but you are not going to like it."

"I don't like it now, Wood. Let me have it."

"Sylvie thinks we are dealing with a vampire."

There was a long silence. "Would you repeat that?"

"A vampire. As in Dracula."

Another silence. "Yeah. And damned if I don't half believe it, either. I must be getting gullible. But no way can I take this to my supervisor. He's the most closed-minded son of a bitch who ever wore blue."

I laughed. "I don't expect you to do anything about it. Just keep an eye out. I'm going to start some research of my own. If we are dealing with something paranormal, I doubt that normal approaches will work."

"God, listen to me. A cop dealing with vampires? I'll call you later, Jason. This is too weird for me to handle right now."

I cradled the receiver. I couldn't blame her for needing time to sort it all out. Hell, I was stunned that she accepted it as much as she did. Somewhere in the back of her mind she must already have decided that something was very wrong about those other deaths.

I went upstairs into my library, started pulling down books: Dracula, 'Salem's Lot, The Vampire Lestat, The Saint-Germain Chronicles, and various folklore reference works I'd picked up over the years; I like checking the accuracy of legendary "facts" used in my favorite books. I reconsidered and put back The Vampire Tapestry; a vampire that was little more than a human with an indefinitely long lifespan wouldn't be a big problem; one bullet would stop him.

I sat down at my workstation, started keying in information from each book. I hesitated at first at including fictional information; I mean, what good will someone else's imagination do me? But then I thought of two important points. First, the prevalence of the vampire legend. In some form, it is found around the entire globe; there are vampire myths in Europe, South America, China, and in almost every other major culture past and present. I couldn't discount some kind of Jungian "collective unconscious" that these writers tapped into. Second, and more important, was the possibility that one of these writers was writing from experience.

After three hours, my neck and arms started getting really cramped. I broke for a late lunch, headed back towards the computer just as the phone rang.

"Wood's Information Ser—"

"Hello, Wood."

I knew that gravel-scraping voice, even though it usually didn't call before the night shift. "Hi, Elias. I've got your photos done."

"Anything good?"

"Let's just say that I'll be real surprised if we aren't electing a new Assemblyman soon."

He laughed, a quick explosive chortle. "With an attitude like that, I don't see you getting on jury duty, that's for sure. Listen, I'll be over to pick 'em up soon. 'Bout an hour and a half good?"

"Sure thing, Elias."

I needed a little break from bloodsucking freaks anyway. I pulled the envelope from the safe, rechecking the pictures on disk against the negatives. By the time my recheck was done, dusk and Elias were here. "Hey there, Jase," he said, ducking slightly as he entered. He really didn't have to—the doorway's seven feet high and he's six foot six—but it was a habit he had. Add a gangly frame, a sharp-edged nose, black hair, black eyes, and a slight stoop; Elias Klein always reminded me of a youthful buzzard. He came into my office to get a quick look. He liked them all, until we got to the last one.

"Nice joke, Jason."

"What do you mean, joke? It looks pretty good to me."

"Oh, sure, Assemblyman Connors looks just lovely. But without Verne Domingo to complete the picture it's nothing but a publicity shot."

I pointed to the next to last. "What about that one? They're swapping right there, what more could you ask for?"

"That's just a second-string doper, Jason! Domingo's the big man, and that is the photo that should show him."

I shrugged. "Too bad. Next time make sure he's in the picture."

"Don't give me that, Wood! I know he was in that shot, I was the one looking through the viewfinder."

I handed him the negative. "Look for yourself."

He stared at it. "What the hell?" Then he swung towards me. "Wood, you'd better not be dicking around with the evidence! I've been on this for eight fucking months, and if you're—"

"Oh, cut the tough cop act, Elias. Kojak you ain't. You know damn well that I only play jokes, I don't really mess with my clients' stuff. If I did, would the city PD be paying me ten grand a year? That negative is the one you gave me and it's in the same shape as it was when it got here."

"But that's impossible." Elias glared at the negative as though a hard stare would make the missing figure materialize. "If you look through the viewfinder of an SLR, what you see is what you get. Besides, dammit, look at your own enhancement. He's got his mouth half open, saying something, and he's about to shake hands. Then look at that angle. Do you put your hand out twenty feet from the guy you're going to shake with?"

"Nope." I was mystified now. Then a quote spun across my mind: "This time there could be no error, for the man was close to me, and I could see him over my shoulder. But there was no reflection of him in my mirror!"

I took the negative and stared at it again. "You're right, Elias. Mr. Domingo should have been in this picture. That leaves only one explanation."

He looked at me. "And that is . . . ?"

"That you are dealing with someone whose image doesn't appear on films."

Elias didn't like that at all, but he had to admit that I had no motive to screw around with the negatives. "So what are you suggesting? He has some kind of Star Trek cloaking device that wipes his image off film? I won't swallow it."

"Trust me, Elias, you don't want to know what I think. Since this negative is worthless as is, mind if I keep it? Maybe there's some kind of latent image I could bring up."

"Dammit, Jason! Tell me what is—" He broke off, having caught sight of the pile of books and papers on the desk.

He looked at them. He picked them up, examined them. Looked at me. "And Reisman said . . ." he began, then stopped. He glanced at the negative again. Back at me. A long pause. "You're right." he said finally. "I don't want to know. Keep the negative." He grabbed his hat and sunglasses, left quickly.

I went back to typing.

The phone rang again.

"Hello, Jason," said Sylvie. "What have you heard?"

"Enough. I apologize for doubting you, Sylvie. We've either got ourselves a real honest-to-God vampire here, or someone who is doing his level best to fake it. And with the technical problems of faking some of this, I'd rather believe in a vampire than in a faker." I glanced down. "And I think I've found our bloodsucker, too." I gave her a quick rundown on Klein's negative.

"But, Jason, isn't that an incredible coincidence?"

"I thought so myself, at first. But I've been thinking, and it isn't as far out as it first seems. In most legit businesses you have to do business in daylight hours at some point. Maybe a vampire can live in a musty coffin underground all the time, but I'll bet they sure don't want to. They want all the creature comforts they can enjoy and that means money. So they'll just naturally gravitate to the 'shady' side of commerce, pardon the pun. And with their natural advantages, it isn't surprising at all that one might be high up on the ladder."

"I hadn't thought of it that way. But drug deals happen in the day, too."

"But if you've got muscle to back you up you can get away with a lot of odd quirks. Avoiding sunlight might be possible."

"True. And, by the way, apology accepted. I've been calling around and getting my better occult acquaintances on the alert. They'll see what they can find."

"Good." Privately, I didn't expect much from Sylvie's pals. Sylvie herself might have something, but most of the people who visited the Silver Stake were your typical muddled New-Age escapists who confused Tolkien and Shirley MacLaine with real life. "I'm working on something here that might help. Stop by after you're done, okay?"

"Sure thing, Jason. Just promise me no more bodies, huh?"

"I make no guarantees. Bodies never consult me before arriving. See you."


It was eight-ten by the time I finished. Then I put WISDOM to work. Wood's Information Service Database Online Manager can analyze information using many different methods. WISDOM was instructed to examine the information on all different kinds of vampires to construct the most likely abilities that an actual vampire might be expected to possess. It took WISDOM only a few minutes to do its calculations. I sat down and read. It was grim reading.





"What in the world are you doing?" Sylvie asked.

I put down the loading kit. "Preparing. I figure that if I'm going to deal with a vampire, I'd better have something other than conventional ammo."

She picked up a cartridge. "Silver? I thought I read somewhere that you actually couldn't make silver bullets; something about balance?"

"I heard that too, but it's a silly statement on the face of it. Lead's softer and just as heavy, and they've been making bullets from lead as long as they've been making guns." I checked the fit of another bullet. "Not that I expect those to be of much use. WISDOM only gave a twenty-five-percent chance of a vulnerability to silver. That seems more of a werewolf thing."

She examined the other kinds of ammo. "Well, I'll say this for you, you have one heck of an assortment." She reached into her purse, pulled out a small wooden box. "Here, Jason."

"What's this?" I opened the box. On a slender silver chain was a crystal-headed hammer, handle wrapped in miniature leather thongs, the head an angle-faced box. "It's gorgeous, Syl! Thank you!"

"I remembered how much you like the Norse pantheon—you even named your car after Thor's hammer—and if you look real closely on the hammer head, you'll see Mjolnir engraved there in Nordic runes."

I squinted closely at it, and I could just make out the spiderweb-thin runic lines. "It's really beautiful, Sylvie. But why now?"

"I was actually saving it for your birthday next month, but with this vampire thing going on, I decided it was best I give it to you now." She saw my puzzlement. "It's not just a piece of jewelry, Jason. I made it especially to be a focus, a protection against evil, for you."

"But you know I don't really believe in that stuff."

She gave a lopsided smile. "Jason Wood, how in the world can you believe in vampires and sneer at crystals and spirits?"

"Touché." I slipped the chain over my neck. It felt cool against my skin. The three-inch-long hammer made a slight bulge below my collar. "This could look a little strange. I don't wear jewelry often. I think I'll put it on the wall. Or on Mjolnir's rearview mirror."

"No, Jason." Sylvie had her "feeling" face on again. "Wear it. Even if you don't believe, it will make me feel better if you keep it on you."

I wasn't about to test her accuracy after the last time. "Okay."

"Now what else has your machine come up with?"

"Nothing good. The problem is that there are so many versions of the vampire legend in myth and fiction that the best I can do is estimate probabilities. Problem with that is that even a low-probability thing could turn out to be real." I picked up a printout. "But I can't prepare for everything. So I've constructed a 'theoretical vampire' using all the probabilities that showed a greater than eighty-percent likelihood." I started reading. "Strength, somewhere between five and twenty times normal human, with a heavy bias towards the high end of that range; he can probably tip over a station wagon like I can a loaded shopping cart and leap small garages in a single bound. Invulnerable to ordinary weapons. What can hurt it is a nice question; only two probables showed up, sunlight and a wooden stake, although three more, running water, holy symbols, and fire, were just below the threshold. Does not show up on mirrors; after that photo I think we can take that as proven."

"Maybe he just doesn't show on film?"

"The legend started long before there was film. Stands to reason the mirror business had something behind it. Okay, where was I? Shapeshifting. This might have started as a blending of the werewolf and vampire legends, but most are pretty emphatic that at the very least the vampire can assume a noncorporeal form, like a cloud of gas. Changes those bitten into others of its kind, that's how they reproduce."

Sylvie shook her head. "No, Jason, that's silly. If getting bitten made vampires, we'd be up to our earlobes in bloodsuckers in nothing flat."

"So I simplified it. Actually, the transformation requires a full exchange of blood; the victim has to both have some of his taken and drink some of the vampire's. As an aside, if that happens, there is a fair chance that the new vampire is controlled by the old one. And speaking of age, the legends also tend to emphasize that the older the suckers get the tougher they are."

"Anything else?"

"Yep. They have a special attachment to the earth, particularly their 'home earth'—ground of the area in which they were first buried. They tend to be inactive in the daytime, and may have psychokinetic abilities. One other interesting note: many legends state that a vampire cannot enter a personal dwelling—house, apartment, whatever—without the permission of a legitimate resident therein. However, once given, the permission is damned hard to revoke." I put the printout down. "That's about it. Lower down on the list you get some really odd stuff—you should see the Chinese 'hopping vampire' subtype."

Sylvie sat in frowning thought for a few minutes. "So sunlight is the best bet?"

I waved a hand from side to side. "It's chancy. The problem is that while it's virtually certain that the vampire is somewhat vulnerable to sunlight, the degree of vulnerability is highly variable. Just about any vampire would die if you could stick it out on a beach thirty minutes from shade, but in the first twenty minutes it could do a lot of damage to anyone in the area. Several of the legends emphasize that an old and powerful vampire can even rise and walk about in daylight as long as they wear clothing that covers most of the skin and don't stay out overlong. Besides, I doubt he'd answer an invitation to a beach party."

"So what are you going to do?"

"See if I can get a handle on him somehow, so he has to come to me. And I think this negative is the key."




Two hours later, I wasn't so sure. "Funny, Jason . . . that picture looks the same."

"Oh, very funny, Syl." I stared at the screen, willing a faint outline to appear.

"Sorry, Jason. But this is not exactly the most exciting date I've ever been on."

"I'd have thought last night would have been all the excitement you could handle. Besides, we are not dating."

"Oh? So you kiss your male friends good night too?"

"Okay, then I won't do that any more." I pounded another set of instructions into the machine, a little harder than was really wise. Syl always rattles me when she gets on that subject.

"Oh, honestly, Jason! Don't sulk like that. I didn't mean to pressure you. It just strikes me funny."

"What strikes you funny?"

"You, Jason. You can face down an angry policeman, send crooks to jail, run a business, and you're calmly trying to track down a vampire . . . and you just fall apart whenever a woman smiles at you."

"I do not fall apart!" With dismay I watched the entire background turn a pale lavender. Hurriedly I undid my mistake. "I just . . . don't want to get involved. I don't have time. Besides, we are off the subject here." I ignored her tolerant smile.

"So what are you doing now?"

I turned back to the screen, then shrugged. "Nothing, actually. I've tried everything and it's no use. Either he simply does not show on any wavelengths or else, more likely, this film just has no sensitivity at all in any non-visible spectra. I can't bring up something that the film doesn't have on it." I slumped back, depressed. I really hate losing.

"Well, then, why not work with what has to be there?"

I looked at her. She looked serious, but there were little smile wrinkles around her eyes. "What exactly do you mean?"

"Well, this vampire's solid, isn't he? I mean, you don't shake hands with a ghost."

"Right. So?"

She pointed to the area in front of Connors. "He's standing right there somewhere. So his feet must—"

"—be on the ground there . . . and he'll be leaving footprints! Syl, you are a genius! And I am an idiot!" I selected the area in front of Connors that his invisible opposite should be in, started to enlarge it.

A few stages of enhancements passed. Then I smiled and sat back.

On screen, in the gravel of the pathway, were the unmistakable outlines of two shoes. A sprig of grass was caught underneath one shoe, showing an impossible half-flat, half-arched outline. "Syl, I could kiss you!"

"I'll bet you say that to all the guys." She looked pleased, though.

I saved the data and hid the disk away. "For that, I'll buy you dinner."





I tried to call Elias the next morning, but they told me he was back on his usual night shift. The police removed the yellow tape that day, and I found myself busy with regular customers until six-thirty; two major research literature searches for a couple of professors at RPI, a prior-art and patent survey for a local engineering firm, and a few simple source searches for a few well-heeled students who'd rather pay me than spend hours in the library. Sometimes I wonder if I'm doing people like that a service, but what the heck, they'll pay for it one way or another. At seven I locked up and called Elias again. He was in this time.

He protested at first, but eventually gave me what I asked for: Verne Domingo's phone number. As I hung up, it occurred to me that Elias had actually not fought very hard. According to regulations, it was illegal for him to hand out that information, so he had to have wanted me to get it. I remembered him looking at the books yesterday. Maybe he just didn't want to get directly caught in the weird.

I punched in the number. After a few rings, it was answered. Yes, Mr. Domingo was in. No, he could not come to the phone. No, there would be no exceptions. Would I care to leave a message?

"Yes. Tell Mr. Domingo that I have a photograph that he is not in."

The unctuous voice on the other end was puzzled. "Excuse me? Don't you mean one that he is in?"

"I mean exactly what I say. Tell him that I have a picture that he is not in. I will call back in one half hour." I hung up.

I pulled out several "blackboxes" from their hiding place behind some equipment. I knew that, if these guys were well equipped and had half a brain between them, they'd slap a lock-and-trace on my call right away. My little blackboxes, though, would send them on a merry chase around Ma Bell. I hadn't lost my old hacker's paranoia.

Precisely thirty minutes later, I called back. A different voice answered. "Verne Domingo speaking."

"Ah. You got my message."

"Yes. I'm wondering what it means."

I felt a faint tinge of uncertainty. Could I be wrong? I dismissed it, though. The photo was unmistakable evidence. He was playing it cool. I looked at an indicator; there were more than two people on this line. "Are you sure you want me to talk about it with all those others listening?"

There was a fractional pause, then a chuckle. It was a warm, rich sound. "Very good, young man. I suppose there is no harm in talking to you privately. The rest of you, off the line."

The indicator showed four people dropping off. "All right, young man . . . what should I call you?"

"Call me . . . um, John Van Helsing."

That got a real pause. "Interesting. Go on. Tell me about this picture."

"I have a photograph that could place you in a very difficult position. A photo of you involved in a felony."

"You said that I was not in the photo."

"Indeed. Your accomplice is, but even though you should undoubtedly be in the photograph, there is no trace of your image."

He chuckled again. "Obviously the photographer made a mistake."

"Not in this case, Mr. Domingo. You see, even though you do not appear, your physical presence left definite traces, which modern technology could define and discover. I think that you would find life even more difficult if this photo were publicized than if you simply went to jail."

I heard no humor in his voice now. "I despise cliches, Mr. . . . Van Helsing. But to put it bluntly, you are playing a very dangerous game. You sound like a young and perhaps impulsive person. Take my advice and stop now. I am impressed by your initiative and resources . . . not the least of which is your ability to nullify my tracer. But if you do not stop this now, I will have no choice but to stop you myself."

That response confirmed everything. If he hadn't been a vampire, he would have dismissed me as a nut. "Sorry, Mr. Domingo. It can't be dropped. This is a matter of life and death. Several deaths. I'll be in touch."

I hung up the phone immediately.

Now I had to figure out what to do. I'd verified my guess. Domingo was the vampire, no doubt about it. Now what? I couldn't just march up to him some night and hammer a stake through his heart. Never mind the technical difficulties like bodyguards and the fact that he'd probably be less than cooperative; I'd probably be arrested for Murder One and put away. But aside from just killing him, what other choices were there? Lieutenant Reisman would believe me, and maybe Elias Klein if I pushed him. But try getting a warrant out for a murderer with no witnesses except a photo that doesn't show him and some wild-eyed guesses.

I decided to sleep on it. Sometimes the subconscious works out solutions once you stop consciously worrying at it. I had dinner, watched Predator on HBO, and finished reading Phantoms before I turned in.

I woke up suddenly. I glanced at the clock; it was 3:30. What had awakened me?

Then I heard it again. A creak of floorboards. Right outside my bedroom door.

I started to ease over towards the nightstand; I keep my gun in that drawer at night.

The bedsprings creaked.

The door slammed open, and three black figures charged in. I lunged for the nightstand, got the drawer halfway open, but one of them smacked my wrist with the butt of a small submachine gun. "Hold it there, asshole. Move and you are history."

I used to think Uzis looked silly on television, like a gun that lost its butt and stock. There was nothing funny about the ugly black snout with the nine-millimeter hole ready to make a matching hole in my head. My voice was hoarse and my heart hammered against my ribs. "Okay! Okay, I am not moving! What do you want?"

"It's not what we want. Mr. Domingo wants to talk to you. Now."

After a nasty frisking, I was dragged out to a large car. My captors made it clear I was to sit down and shut up. The ride was fast and silent. We pulled up in front of a very large house, fenced and guarded. The three hustled me out and into the hallway. They handed me over to a more polished butler, with a kindly admonishment that if I caused any trouble one of them would come back and castrate me.

I was brought into a library that looked like Alistair Cooke should be sitting in it for the next episode of Masterpiece Theatre. I sat down in one of the chairs to wait. I'm glad it was a cool night; if it had been hot I would have been buck naked and my captors had shown no inclination to let me change clothes. As it was, a red-and-blue running suit looked pretty silly.

Of course, I supposed that what I looked like was probably the least of my problems. But if I didn't think about inane topics like this, I'd probably be screaming.

I hadn't even heard the door open again, but a voice suddenly spoke to me. "Good evening, Mr. Wood. Welcome to my house."

I guess I was jumpier than I thought. I leapt out of the chair and whirled. "Jesus!" He smiled slightly as I did a double-take. "Son of a . . . you even look like a vampire!"

He did, too. Not the walking-corpse kind; he looked like a taller Frank Langella. "Fortunate casting on their part, I assure you." He smiled again, and this time I noticed pointed teeth. Two fangs. It suddenly seemed very cold here. "Sit down, please." He rang a bell; the door opened almost instantly, framing the silver-haired butler who'd guided me upstairs. "Morgan, bring a suit of clothes for my guest here." He rattled off my measurements in a lightning-fast stream. "And send up some hors d'oeuvres; I have yet to meet a young bachelor who isn't hungry at all hours."

What in hell was going on? I expected to be taken out back and shot. Now he's treating me like a visiting dignitary? This is very weird. "How in the world did you find me?" I asked once the butler left.

He shook his head, looking amused. "Mr. Wood, you are indeed a very clever man. But you are, I am afraid, not an expert in espionage or covert operations. Certainly you left no direct clues, but consider! From my conversation with you, I knew the following: you were a young man; you were in possession of a photo which, from your description, could only have been obtained from a covert surveillance camera; you were certainly not the police; you had considered possibilities that most people would dismiss offhand; you had either access to or actually possessed abilities to process the images on that film.

"In short, then, I had to look for a young man who was on close terms with the police, who worked with computer-enhancements or had access to them, who had an open mind, and, from the tone of your voice, who had had at least one death recently that he was personally concerned with. I think you will admit that the field of choices becomes very narrow."

I flushed. I had been a cocky moron. I had set myself up.

The clothes and food arrived; he directed me to a small alcove to change. I came out feeling almost human again and I was actually hungry. "So what are you going to do with me? I presume that if you intended to kill me you'd already have done so."

"I do not kill unless in self-defense, Mr. Wood. You are entirely mistaken in your impression of me. I have killed no one since I arrived here three years ago."

The last thing I expected here was denial. "Entirely mistaken? Are you saying you are not a drug dealer?"

He winced. "I dislike that term. I am a supplier of substances which your government terms illegal, yes."

"Then you've killed hundreds by proxy. That's even worse."

He glanced at me; his expression was mild, but his eyes seemed to flame momentarily. "Do not seek to judge me, young man. What your culture calls illegal is its business, but I do not acknowledge its sovereignty over me or others. I was long before the United States was even a possibility, and I will be long after it has gone. If members of your population choose my wares, that is their affair. I do not sell to children, nor do I sell to those who do. Adults make their own choices of salvation and damnation. I supply the means to make that particular choice. I live in comfort on the free choices of these people."

"Once they're addicted, it isn't much of a free choice! And some of them—many of them—turn to drugs because of their dead-end lives."

He flicked a hand in a negation, red light flashing from a ruby ring on his finger. "Mr. Wood, I did not bring you here to discuss my business affairs. But I will say that I target my wares to those who can afford them. They have both the choice and the resources to make or unmake the choice. I take no responsibility for the idiocy of others." He held up the hand as I started to answer. "No, that is enough, Mr. Wood. You are a well-meaning young man, and I would enjoy talking with you on other subjects. But this discussion is closed.

"To the point, Mr. Wood. I presume that you believe that I killed your . . . friend, this Lewis. Would you tell me why I might do such a thing?"

Could he be that dense? "Obviously you were hungry."

He nodded. "I see. And can you think of any other reasons?"

"Lewis was one of my contacts. Maybe he knew something about you or your operation."

He began to smile, then he laughed. It was as warm and rich as the chuckle, ringing like a deep bell. "Come with me, Jason."

He led me out of the library, down a hall, and into his own chambers. He pointed at a cabinet. "Open that."

I pulled on the handles. The rosewood opened, to reveal a large refrigerator. Inside were dozens of bottles filled with red liquid.

"I can obtain blood legitimately from several sources, Jason. It can be expensive, but I have millions. I can even warm it to the proper temperature. I can eat normal food, though I derive no nourishment from it, and it gives me what a mortal would call cramps; but thus I can maintain a masquerade."

I was stunned. I had missed all this totally. How could I be so stupid? "But what if Lewis knew something? You—"

"Really, Mr. Wood, you can't think that I would personally kill him? I have thugs for that, thugs who use bullets like anyone else, or who strangle with generic wire. What earthly reason would I have to kill someone in a fashion so bizarre as to draw just this sort of attention?" He led the way back to the library. "You are a reasonable man, Jason. Unless you believe me so insane that I have lost any semblance of rationality, then you cannot believe I am responsible for these terrible killings."

I nodded. How could I argue? I should have seen all this stuff without ever having to have it rammed down my throat. "Then what you are saying is that there is another vampire in the city?"

"I see no alternative."

"Shit!" I saw a scandalized raise of an eyebrow. "Sorry. But this puts me back to square one. Now I'll have to sort him out from a hundred and fifty thousand people in the area."

"I may be able to help you."

He sure had my attention. "How?"

He leaned back in his chair. "Normally I do not get involved in squabbles between my other brethren and you mortals. If they are stupid enough to be discovered, they deserve the fate that you weaker but numerous mortals will inevitably dispense. But in this case, this one's actions have almost led to me suffering that fate. So I will tell you something very useful." He reached out, pulled out a drawer, and dropped an envelope on the desk.

I opened it; the negative was inside. "How . . ." I began, then thought a moment. "Never mind."

Verne Domingo pointed to the photo. "That is the key, you see. Not in the way you thought, of course. It is the fact of its existence."

"How do you mean?"

"I have been well aware of my effect, or lack thereof, on photographic film for many years. Therefore, I do not permit myself to be photographed. Moreover, I am always aware of all mortals in my vicinity. If I concentrate—and I always do when outside—I know who is about me, within a large radius." He shifted his gaze to me. "The only beings I cannot sense—and thus the only beings who could photograph me without my knowledge—are my own kind."

My appetite vanished and my stomach seemed to knot. Who had taken the picture? Who liked night shifts? Who had argued with me until I realized I had a photo of a vampire? Who had handed over a phone number and practically pushed me toward Verne Domingo?

Lieutenant Elias Klein.  

The dark-skinned hand came down on mine, effortlessly forced the telephone receiver back to its cradle. "No calls, Mr. Wood, please."

"I have to at least let Sylvie know I'm all right."

"You do not have to do anything of the kind."


"Will you listen to yourself! Think, mortal, use that mind of yours! Why are you here?"

That was a silly question. "Because three thugs with Uzis dragged me out of my bedroom and brought me here."

He closed his eyes and drew a breath. "That is a simplistic answer, Mr. Wood. It is nearing dawn and I am tired. Now please think about your situation."

Okay, what did he mean? I thought about it, piecing together causes, effects, Klein . . . "I'm here because Klein wanted you to come after me; he wanted me out of the way."

Domingo opened his eyes and smiled. "Light begins to dawn. So what will happen if you call?"

"Sylvie wouldn't tell."

"Perhaps not; I lack the pleasure of the young lady's acquaintance, so I am ill-equipped to judge. However, she would very likely not show an appropriate level of worry. Why should you risk your present position when her authentic emotions can serve a better purpose?"

Finally the idea clicked. God I am slow sometimes. "You mean, let Klein think you got me . . . that I'm dead or removed."


"But then what? I can't prove a thing against him without coming back out, and even then I'd have to expose you, and I assume you wouldn't . . . no, you wouldn't."

Domingo drained a wineglass of red liquid; I tried not to watch, but it had a horrid fascination about it. He set the glass down and looked at me. "I shall have to help you, Mr. Wood. There are certain things—'loose ends,' as you would say—which Elias must clear up in order to secure his position. One is this negative. He must find it and destroy it; he can ill afford to let evidence of vampires remain. I am, of course, another."

"Loose ends . . . Sylvie!"

He nodded slowly. "Yes, she is certainly one. She knows far too much for him to be safe, and moreover she believes . . . and has psychic resources as well."

I started to stand, then looked at him suspiciously. "How do you know that Syl's . . . psychic? I didn't think you even knew her!"

Domingo chuckled slightly. "Personally I do not. However, it is in my best interests to determine what people of Talent exist in my vicinity, and it was not long at all before my people had compiled a considerable dossier on the young lady. Your own reaction, skeptic though you are, merely confirms my impression; she is one of the few who truly possesses what she claims to have."

This time I did stand, and started for the door. "Then I have to go! Her safety's more important than mine or even nailing Elias."

Without so much as a flicker, Verne Domingo suddenly stood between me and the door. "Not more important to me, young man. This Elias has dared to use me—me—as a pawn in his games." For a moment I saw, not a vampire of the modern world, but a man of a far more ancient time, a lord whose honor had suffered a mortal insult. "He will regret that."

"I don't give a damn about your stupid ego, Domingo! He could be going after Syl this minute!"

He spread his hands, yielding a point. "Well spoken; if I do not respect your reasons, I cannot expect you to respect mine. But he will make no move until tomorrow night; or rather, tonight, since we are well into the morning. He must have the police—probably through your young lady—discover that you have been taken. He believes me ruthless and willing to kill to protect myself, and will assume you dead. Only tonight will he search your quarters and deal with your Sylvia."

An idea occurred to me. "Is it true that vampires cannot enter a dwelling unbidden?"

He hesitated a moment. "Yes. It is true."

"Then Syl should be safe if she stays home."

"Indeed? Elias Klein, respected lieutenant of police, friend of yours, shows up on her doorstep with news of you; do you truly believe she would have him stay on the porch?"

I shook my head reluctantly. "I guess not."

"I guess not as well! No, there is only one way to handle Mr. Elias Klein, and this is the way it shall be done . . ."





I ejected the clip from the .45, checked it, returned it to the gun.

"Believe me, Mr. Wood. I have no reason to tamper with your weapon. Your captors were instructed to bring any weapons they might find; not to interfere with them."

I clicked the safety off. "It isn't that; it's just always wise to recheck your weapon before you might need it."

"Indeed." Verne Domingo touched my arm suddenly, and pointed.

From our concealment to one side of Tamara's Tanning, I saw the tall, angular figure of Elias Klein emerge from the Silver Stake. There was no mistaking the long black hair of the person with him. "Sylvie! He's got her!"

Domingo's hand almost crushed my bicep. "Wait! Can you not see that she is leading him? Obviously he has not yet revealed himself to her; she is probably trying to aid him. When they enter your office, then will be your time."

"My time? What about you?"

"I have done all I intend to. If you fail, then I may have to act more directly. I prefer, however, to let you finish the job at hand."

I glared at him, but he simply gazed back with expressionless eyes. "Are you sure he can't sense me?"

"Quite. Any vampire can cloak a limited number of mortals from the senses of other vampires; undoubtedly our friend Klein used that to conceal whatever partners he worked with. Mr. Klein will not notice you until he actually sees you. At that point, my protection will be gone." He glanced outward. "They have entered. Good luck, Jason Wood."

I gave his hand a quick shake. "I wouldn't say it's been fun . . . but it has been interesting."

Carefully, I started for my front door. I slipped inside and walked with great care along one side of the hallway. As I approached my office, I heard Klein's voice.

"Where else? Think, Sylvie! That negative may be the only thing keeping Jason alive now!"

Sylvie's voice trembled faintly. "I don't know, Elias—wait. He kept data disks in a safe, over there behind the wall panels."

Footsteps as they went from the upstairs towards my workstation; then a rattle as the panel was pushed open. I peeked around the corner from the den.

Sylvie was standing behind Elias, who was bent down over the small safe. "Sylvie, do you know the combination?"

"I don't know if I should tell you that."

He turned towards her; I ducked back just in time. "Sylvie, please! Domingo knows that negative is the only hard evidence we have! Without it we don't have a thing to bargain with."

She sighed. "All right. It's 31-41-59."

He snickered a bit. "Of course. Pi." I heard him turn back to the safe.

My only chance. As quietly as I could, I stepped through the door and snaked an arm around Sylvie, clapping my hand over her mouth and nose so she couldn't make a sound. Then, as Elias was swinging the safe door open, I yanked Sylvie's head towards me enough so she could see me. Her eyes widened, then narrowed when I put a finger to my lips. I could see her glance towards Klein as I let go. One nod told me she'd figured out the situation. She slowly started back out the door.

"Sylvie, it's not there! Where else—you?!" As Elias turned, he caught sight of me. I'd never seen someone's jaw literally drop before. He stood there for several seconds, just staring.

"Hello, Elias." I raised the gun.

"Wood? Wood, what the hell are you doing? How did you get away from Domingo? We were worried to death about you!" He started forward.

I gestured with the gun; he stopped. "No, I don't think you were worried at all, Elias. You were sure that after I called Domingo he'd cancel my ticket for you. Save you the trouble."

"What are you talking about?"

"Don't try it, Elias; I can see you thinking about moving. It must've been a shock to you when you came in and saw all those vampire books on my desk. You knew right then that I was closing in on you. You saw one chance to send me off on a one-way chase after the wrong guy; that negative. All you had to do was call my attention to it; you could rely on me to imagine the rest." I shook my head. "Even then, you almost blew it entirely by pointing out that SLR—Single Lens Reflex—cameras show exactly what's in the picture. You see, SLRs use mirrors to send that image to the viewfinder. I knew that, but with everything else I didn't think of it at the time. Anyone taking snapshots of a vampire through an SLR would've known something was funny . . . if, of course, he wasn't a vampire himself. I dunno if you even realized you'd made a mistake there, but whether you did or didn't the whole thing was fantastic control on your part; you must've noticed the books as soon as you came in, and you never gave a sign. And your shock at seeing them—only after you'd made sure I knew the significance of the photo—oh, that was perfect. But Domingo wasn't the ruthless guy you thought he was." I clicked the safety twice, so he knew it was ready to fire. "There's only one thing that puzzles me, Elias."

He dropped the pretense. "What, Jason?"

"Why? I mean, does it have to be human blood? And do you have to kill?"

His hands twitched aimlessly. "Human blood has . . . more of a kick to it, I guess. And when they die, you get this incredible rush, a feeling of such power . . ." He'd been looking at his hands. When he raised his face, my guts turned to ice. Deep in his eyes was a hellish red glow. And as he spoke, I saw lengthening fangs. "Besides," he continued, and now his voice had an edge of hysteria, "besides, they had to die. They saw me, you see. And it wasn't as if they were anyone important."

"Not anyone . . . Elias, they were human beings!"

"You always did take the liberal view, Jason." His face was distorting, somehow shifting before my eyes. "I really liked you, Jason . . . But now you have to die too." He smiled, and there was very little of the old Elias in that deadly smile.

"Don't, Elias. I don't want to kill you."

He started forward slowly. "Let's not pretend, Jason. You can't arrest me, and I need blood."

I backed away, trying to make myself pull the trigger. But, Jesus, Elias was my friend! "Stop, Elias! For God's sake, you're addicted, that's what you're talking about! There's therapy for addicts."

He laughed. "That's funny, Jason. Should I go to AA? 'Hello, my name is Elias, and I'm a vampire?' " He shook his head. "I didn't want to kill you, but I have no choice. Neither have you. It's a shame that you can't do anything about it." He was barely human now, a Hollywood vampire straight out of Fright Night. "Good-bye, Jason." He rose straight off the floor, a nightmare of fangs and talons.

My finger spasmed on the trigger.

There was a roar of thunder.

Elias was hit in mid-descent. The force of the round, as it mushroomed within him, hurled him back over my desk. He rose, only a scorched bullet hole in his suit showing he'd been hit.

"So much for silver," I said as I sprinted out the door. I almost bowled Sylvie over as she came running back. "Go, Syl, Go!" I heard jarring footsteps behind me, whirled and fired the second bullet.

The bullet caught him square in the chest; Elias' scream shook the windows as white flame exploded from the incendiary bullet.

"Wood! You bastard! That hurt!" As I backpedaled away, I could see the burns healing. "I think I'll break a few things before I kill you!" He ducked away before I could get another clear bead on him.

"Shit. Anne Rice failed me too. I should have known better than to trust a book with a punk vampire." I glanced around nervously. If I were a vampire, where would I come from next . . . ?

I whirled, in time to see Elias coming through the wall like a ghost. I leapt through the doorway to the kitchen, but Elias' hand caught me just as I reached the side door. "Gotcha!"

I tried to pull away, but I might as well have been pushing on a vault door. He bent his head toward my neck. I screamed.

Then it was Elias who screamed, a yell of utter shock and agony. I fell to the floor and rolled heavily away, looked up.

Sylvie stood there, holding a large ankh before her. "Back, Undead! By the power of Earth and Life, back!"

The incantation sounded silly; Elias obviously saw no humor in it. As he turned away, trying to get around the looped cross, I saw a black imprint on his back where the ankh had hit him. I raised the .45, fired the third bullet.

The heavy shell hit him like a sledgehammer, spinning him completely around, smashing him into the stove. He put a hand to his chest, where a red stain was beginning to spread. His expression was utter disbelief. Then he fell facedown.

"What did you hit him with?"

I looked down at the body. "A wooden bullet. Thank you, Fred Saberhagen."

"Who's he?"

"He wrote The Holmes-Dracula File; that's where I got the idea." I holstered the gun and started out of the kitchen—I didn't want to look at the body while I tried to figure out what I was going to say to the cops.

Elias' hand shot out and grabbed my ankle.

I felt myself lifted like a toy, smashed into Syl, sending her ankh flying. Then there was a crash and I felt slivers of glass cut me as I was hurled out of the window. I remember thinking vaguely that I'd gotten the genre wrong. It wasn't a mystery novel; it was Friday the 13th, where the psycho never dies.

I landed badly, barely rolling. I heard the gun skid out of the holster. I scrabbled after it; but then a leather-skinned hand closed clawed fingers around it. "You almost had me, Jason," said the thing that had been Elias Klein. "Too bad you missed the heart. It still might have worked, but you must've used an awfully tough wood; most of the bullet went right on through." He squeezed. The barrel of my gun bent.

I got up and ran.

I didn't get twenty feet.

Talons ripped my shirt; he pitched me the rest of the way across the street and through a storefront. A shard of glass ripped my arm, and my ankle smashed into the edge of the window. I looked up, seeing Elias approach me, the inverted neon letters above lending a hellish cast to his distorted features.

Neon letters?

I scrambled away from the window, limped towards the back of the store, grabbed the doorknob, ducked inside.

It was a tiny room with no other exit. I was trapped. The door opened. "A dead end. How appropriate." Elias smiled. No reluctance now, he was happy to kill.

I tried to duck past him; his hands lashed out like whips, lifted me clear of the ground. He turned while holding me. "Trying to get out the door?" He shoved me through the doorway, pulled me back. "It's over, Wood . . . and I am hungry." He bent his head again.

Suddenly the crystal hammer went warm against my chest. Elias cursed and dropped me. "Damn that bitch! She made that, didn't she?"

I didn't answer. I hurled myself towards the switch by the door.

Elias caught me with one hand. But I swung my body and kicked the switch up.

The tanning booth blazed to life, uncountable rows of sunlamps flooding the air with concentrated sunshine. Elias shrieked, dropped me, threw his arms across his face. "Shut it off! Oh, God, shut it off!"

I took a limping step back.

"Please, Jason, please!" Elias stumbled blindly towards me.

I swung my right fist as hard as I could.

He was off balance already. He fell backward onto the tanning bed. "Oh God oh God I'm burning alive Jason please!!"

Blisters popped across his flesh. There was a stench like burning meat. I felt my stomach convulse, turned away.

"Oh I'm sorry I'm sorry oh just help me Jason!"

"I'm sorry too, Elias," I choked out. I put my hands over my ears but I couldn't drown out the sound of frying fat.

"HELP MEEEeeeee . . ."

Slowly I uncovered my ears. Then I opened my eyes and turned around.

On the tanning pallet lay a blackened, scorched mummy, mouth gaping wide, revealing the razor-sharp fangs. One hand was frozen above the clouded eyes, clawing the air in a vain attempt to fend off the radiance, blistered skin drawn tight over the bone. As I watched, the skin began to peel away and turn to oily smoke.

I was violently sick.




"So what are the police going to do about this?" asked Sylvie.

It was the next evening. I was lying on my bed with my left ankle's cast propped on a pillow. "I was lucky. It was Renee Reisman who got there first. Between us and the ME we faked up a story that should hold."

"So what's the official line?"

"Klein was running a sideline of drugs and protection and was going to set Domingo up to take the fall. The victims like Lewis were connections who knew too much. When I was called in, I got suspicious. Klein decided I had to be removed too, came after me. In the fight, we ended up in the salon, where he swung his gun into one of the lights and electrocuted the shit out of himself."

Sylvie looked at me like I was crazy. "Are you nuts? No one will swallow that yarn for a second! One look at that body and any layman would know there was something fishy . . . once he stopped tossing his cookies."

"First, no one is going to see that body. Second, most of that department are hard-nosed realists. They don't want to believe in vampires and are not going to reopen the case if that is the direction the investigation will take them."

"Is that all?"

"Nope, there is one more thing." I nodded my head in the direction of the door.

Verne Domingo stepped into the room.

Sylvie's eyes widened.

"Greetings, Ms. Stake. Thank you for inviting me into your home, Jason."

I shrugged. "I figured I should return your favor."

"I am the final reason the ruse will work, Ms. Stake . . . or can I call you Sylvia?"

"Uh . . . Call me Sylvie." She looked at me. "Jason, are you sure this is safe?"

"Syl, if Mr. Domingo wants my ass, he doesn't have to do it himself."

"Exactly, Mr. Wood."

"So just exactly what are you doing to make this silly story work?"

"Vampires have many talents, Sylvie. One of them is a degree of mental control. I have exerted this ability so as to make the involved people believe the story as presented."

"You hypnotized them?"

"Something a bit more reliable, Sylvie. It is obviously in my interest to make this story work, as you put it." He bowed to me. "An excellent bit of work last night, Mr. Wood. Congratulations." With that, he simply . . . faded . . . away.

It was several seconds before we stopped staring. "Wow," Sylvie said finally.

"Yeah." I agreed. I blushed a little. "Uh, Syl . . . I didn't say thanks. You saved my life twice last night. First with that crazy stunt with the ankh, then with the hammer charm." I pulled it out and looked at it. "These things are only supposed to work with faith. I don't have much of that. Yours must have been enough for us both."

She flushed to the roots of her hair. "Don't sell yourself short, Jason. It was made for you; any strength it showed came equally from your own spirit."

We sat in silence for a few minutes.

Sylvie suddenly gave a little exclamation and snapped open her purse. "Oh, Jason, I have something to show you." She handed me a slip of paper.

"What's this?" I asked as I took it.

"It's a little ad I placed today in several of the paranormal journals. Just read it."

I looked. Then I burst out laughing.

The ad said:



Problem the authorities won't believe?  

Vampire Hunters 


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