It’s a hell of a thing, to watch a man die.
Not least with a wooden stake sticking out of his chest.
He lay there on the linoleum taking sharp, shallow inhales, blood trickling from the corners of his mouth. At regular intervals he let loose with an awful, hacking cough that sent bits of bloody sputum flying from his lips.
I lit a cigarette.
“Fools rush in,” I whispered. “Where wise men never go. But wise men never fall in love. So how are they to know?”
No sooner did I finish then he coughed again. This time in a staccato rhythm that sounded remarkably like an attempt to communicate.
The client promised me five hundred dollars plus expenses to find the man who killed her sister.
She knew to come to me because her sister died ex-sanguinated with her throat torn out.
Her hair was scarlet, her lips fire-engine red. She had fair skin and stood snuggled up inside a fur coat like an Arctic vixen. Underneath she wore a black dress on account of being in mourning. Her eyes were hidden behind sunglasses with big, square lenses and thick frames, as if she rinsed her mouth with gimlets each morning and had made an enemy of sunlight over it.
She appeared as a starlet who was just now passing out of her prime: a tall glass of youthful beauty and hard life lessons.
She passed me a set of glossy crime scene photos and her card. The name Lucy Lamour ran across the top in looping script. I pocketed the card – didn’t bother asking how she’d gotten the glamor shots. “How did you find me?”
She shook her head. Loose red curls bounced affably. “SPECTER.”
“You must be desperate.”
“I suspect you’re about the only person who wouldn’t think I’m crazy.”
“I suspect you’re right.”
I offered her a cigarette and she accepted. After we lit up she laid out the facts.
Sis was the kind of gal who liked to dress up fancy and meet dark, handsome strangers in cheap hotels. The kind of hotels where the silverware’s always got a thin film of grease on it and half the letters in the vacancy sign are burned out on account of it always running. Drove their mother to an early grave, Lucy claimed.
I assumed she (the mother) had stayed there.
A month back a hotel maid found Lucy’s sister stone dead and stark naked atop a stripped bed, her throat ripped up like a wolf had been at it. The maid spent the morning hysterical, roaming the corridors and accosting guests in her native tongue until a travelling salesman who sometimes bought dope in Tijuana had the good sense to call the cops.
“The police said it was a crazy person,” Lucy explained, “because of the way he’d been at her. They said they’d never find him because of the way she lived.”
“They’re half right.”
“Will you help me?” There was a note of desperation in her voice, perhaps a hair too sharp to be completely genuine.
I folded my hands in my lap. “Mind taking your glasses off, Lucy?”
She slipped them off her face and set them on the desk. The eyes underneath were a healthy, vital blue.
On account of the fact she didn’t explode I took the case.
People wonder how I got into this line of work.
My Pop was a mean drunk with a bad habit of whaling on my mother. Me too, once she collapsed.
One night loaded on Wild Turkey he shot my mother through the throat with a .25 automatic. Would have been the end of me, too, except he was dead drunk and ten feet away when he pulled the trigger. Instead of piercing my brain the bullet looped around my skull and went out pretty much the same hole it went in. “Halo pattern,” the doctors call it. A one in a million shot. That’s Pop for you. For his trouble he earned himself a one-way trip on Old Sparky. That they didn’t let me watch is the one true regret of my life.
Ever since the work’s come pretty natural, seeing things that go bump in the night and all.
A lot of vamps think they’re smart on account of their age.
The truth is most are liable to give themselves away with an outmoded fashion sense. It ends up you never really see much of the smart ones. They only come out to snack. Consequently most fall rather short of well-socialized.
So it is with Lothar.
I waited for him two hours on the crumbling headstone across from his grave, marked with a gothic cross worn round at the edges.
I occupied myself smoking, depositing the butts in a neat pile at my feet. Some might call that “desecration.” But they’re assuming the dead want to rest in peace.
It was just shy of four when Lothar came creeping back through the rows of headstones.
He’s more Max Schreck than Bela Lugosi. Tall, thin and ugly. He’d gone bald about a century ago, but still sported tufts of long, white hair along the sides of his head. His fingernails had turned to claws about fifty years ago. He wore a moth-eaten burial suit with an upturned collar.
A pair of dulled, yellowed fangs poked out from beneath his lips. Blood trickled down his chin.
“What’s the rumpus, Lothar?”
The vamp laced his claws together.
He shrugged. “Virgin. Too sveet.”
“Blonde or brunette?”
Lothar licked his bloody lips. He’s partial to blondes. Something to do with his Germanic upbringing. He left the Old Country years ago on account of some political trouble. Said he followed in the footsteps of Fritz Lang. Even claimed to have met Lang once. According to Lothar they talked about a cigarette girl’s legs, then briefly the subtext of THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE.
“I’m sure you’re eager for a good day’s sleep,” I said, “so I’ll cut straight to it. I’m working a case for a sweet looking redhead. Think Rita Hayworth coming off a bender. As you can imagine she’s not the kind of woman I’d like to disappoint. Any of your pals get carried away lately?”
Lothar shook his head.
“New guys learning the ropes?”
He thought for a moment. “Sqveaky.”
“How do you go and get a name like that?”
“Mayhap he developed a taste for raw strawberry blonde?”
“I vould not know. I avoid ze young.”
I couldn’t blame him.
Lothar was all right, for a vamp. He helped me out of a jam a few years back. More importantly he ate in moderation. The way an old hand like Lothar figured it the less corpses with holes in their necks the better. Particularly for vamps, which had a tendency to get dug up and beheaded when public outrage escalated. He preferred to leave his victims alive, and detested those who got carried away.
Hence his willingness to pass a little sanguinary wisdom my way on occasion.
“Whereabouts does Squeaky flop?” I asked.
He told me.
It’s a myth that they all sleep in coffins.
Lothar did on account of his aristocratic sensibilities. But most freshly-made vamps are content to hang upside down in a closet. Squeaky hung his cape in a tiny, unfurnished studio. The building was something of a charnal house. On the ground floor a neon sign advertised rooms for rent. The second “o” was out. Sometimes I think the staff breaks them on purpose. For atmosphere.
I came by in the early evening when I was pretty sure he’d be out, snacking on rodents or redheads. Whichever hit the spot.
I wasn’t angling for a confrontation just yet. I’d settle for a glimpse of how he lived.
A crusty old geezer manned the front desk. He didn’t say boo to me. Here they let you do what you like. Any way else would be bad for business. Which made it the perfect place for a novice like Squeaky to flop.
I jimmied the lock on his door without any trouble.
It was a small, unfurnished room that stank of tobacco and cheap perfume. The lack of furnishings were the tell-tale sign of a newly-made vamp. A little older and they turned into bon vivants, collecting piles of antique furniture and bad art.
But for whatever reason most new guys preferred the closet.
A misshapen, roughly-circular stain sat in the center of Squeaky’s.
Messy eater. Another tell-tale sign of a newbie.
I left a card on his bloodstain. Figured maybe he’d come calling.
Where interspecies relations are concerned Noir’s the best game in town. A seedy little parlor drenched in harsh, red light that belonged on a submarine somewhere. A place where dolls who liked playing damsel in distress met guys who enjoyed chomping down on lithe, fair-skinned necks. The madame was a fat, unpleasant woman showing far too much skin. Aside from weight her defining feature was a birth mark the color and shape of a gunshot wound.
It sat square in the middle of her left cheek and I could hardly take my eyes off it.
“You look like a cop,” the madame said.
“I hate cops,” I answered. Which was the truth.
“What’s your pleasure then?”
I passed her the photo Lucy gave me. “Ex-wife. Skipped out on me and the baby. A little birdie told me she’s into the rough stuff now.”
The fat madame looked at the picture and frowned. “You’re sure you’re not a cop?”
“Sure as can be.”
The madam squinted hard at the photo. She held it out. Studied it at arm’s length. “To be honest I can’t tell which it is.”
“Lucy or Linda I mean. They’re so much alike. They could be sisters.”
I reached for a cigarette. “Sisters, eh?”
The fat lady looked up. “You’re sure you’re not a cop?”
I drove to the address on Lucy’s card.
It was a small apartment on the top floor of a low building. The front door stood unlocked, open a crack.
Her place was small but well-furnished. Leather chairs and a lot of dark wood. I found her in bed with the covers thrown over her.
Underneath she was naked. Not to mention dead.
Her hair lay across her face like tiny ribbons. Her lipstick was still moist. It had smeared from the right corner of her mouth back across her cheek.
He bled her out, just like her sister. Her throat was torn out and her bedsheets soaked through.
I sat down on the edge of the bed. Lit a cigarette. “I’d like to think you didn’t deserve this,” I said. But in a drawer buried beneath a pile of lingerie I found a check for five thousand dollars. An insurance payout for a policy on Linda Lamour, made payable to Lucy.
I set it on the bed beside her corpse. “You deserved it all right.”
A time-honored scam. Squeaky charmed Linda and killed her. Lucy collected.
A smooth hustle, considering it’d take a cryptozoologist to track down the killer.
Lucy’s mistake was greed. Rather than split the payoff and ride into the moonlight together she preferred to play for all the marbles. All she needed was a chump happy to sit up nights for five hundred dollars, plus expenses.
And as luck would have it SPECTER magazine was just the place to look.
There was only one thing left to do.
I went back to Squeaky’s pad the same time as the first. Again I jimmied the lock. Again I checked the closet. The bloodstain was still there on the floor. My card was not.
I waited inside with the door shut, clutching a 12-inch length of birch sharpened to a point.
It was hours before he came back. While I waited I thought about redheads. How they never get ink like blondes or brunettes. I dozed off and ended up dreaming about Lucy and Linda feeding on either side my neck, soft scarlet curls kissing my cheeks as they ate.
A noise snapped me out of it.
All of a sudden there was Squeaky standing in front of me, and before I even really thought about it there was the stake sticking out of his chest, a dark stain spreading across his shirt.
He had straight black hair that ran the length of his face. Pale blue eyes. Soft features, like a porcelain doll. He wore a black peacoat over a white collared shirt and dark slacks. A sad, sad creature.
He frowned, looked down at the stake and took a step back.
I moved forward.
Squeaky shuffled back, back and back and right and right as I advanced. Blood bubbled at his lips and who knew if it was his. Finally he backed all the way into his barren, unfurnished kitchen and collapsed in a heap.
Already I felt like all kinds of hell.
“Never trust a redhead,” I said, recalling that imagined sensation of soft, scarlet hair kissing the skin along my throat. Was Squeaky thinking the same?
I pulled the blinds, picked up my hat and set it on my head. Grabbed my coat off the chair and slung it over my back. Straightened my tie.
“Enjoy the view,” I said, not meaning it cruelly.
Vamps have a weird thing about the sun. Most of them kind of miss it, and I suspect a psychiatrist would have a lot to say on the subject. ‘Specially if he were billing by the hour. For Squeaky it was the least I could do.
I tossed my cigarette in the sink.
“See you on the other side, kid.”
I left and didn’t look back.
(I found this going through some old files on my PC. I like it but to me it reads more like a writing exercise than anything. That’s why I never submitted it. Still, I had a lot of fun writing this story. Maybe some day I will self-pub it at the .99 cent price point. For now here it is for free.)