It’s a rule.
A blanket hit me from behind, smothering the flames, and I felt strong arms around me, patting out the more stubborn patches around my neck and shoulders. I pushed Talbot away and rubbed at the smoldering remnants of the sun’s wrath the same way a mortal man might dry himself after a shower.
“You could have just turned into a mouse,” Talbot said. “I would have carried you in from the car.”
Talbot’s a mouser. He’d probably tell you that I’m his vampire. A pet of sorts. Mousers are basically cats that can be humans when they feel like it. Talbot has been with me since El Segundo, when the world went crazy and I had to play the hero. He believes I have hidden depths. I think he’s deluded.
I tossed the blanket on the floor and stared up at him. Talbot is bigger than me, over six feet tall, and he has better taste in clothes. He’s almost always wearing a bespoke suit, with well-tailored silks and satins setting off the dark color of his skin, the bright green of his eyes, and his bald head. I, on the other hand, have all my hair and prefer jeans and a T-shirt.
Smoke rose off my T-shirt as I seated myself calmly in a metal folding chair, waiting for my burns to heal.
“I forgot the sun was out,” I said with a shrug.
I’ve never been too good at keeping track of whether it’s day or night outside . . . which may sound funny coming from a person who catches fire if he gets it wrong, but it’s the way I am. When I died (okay, if we’re being picky, I was murdered), it was daytime when I rose as a vampire, so at least it’s not a new development or anything.
I needed to keep it together. This was going to be The Big Day.
With an exasperated sigh, I stopped worrying about having forgotten the sun and decided to blame it on the sunproof glass they have in the back of the squad cars in Void City. One of the perks I get is cop-chauffeur service; I’ll explain why later. If I ride around in a squad car too long, though, I forget why it’s so bright outside.
It was bright inside the warehouse, too. The place was old, but the lights worked well. I closed my eyes, waiting for the last trace of pain to vanish with the burns. My mind doesn’t always work properly. It works better at night, but I still have good days and bad days. I needed today to be a good one. This was it. Day number one of my Big Plan.
When I closed my eyes, my other senses kicked into overdrive on instinct. The sound of heartbeats came first. I’m always aware of them on some level, the heartbeats of those who have them. It’s worse when I’m hungry. I hadn’t fed yet, and there were a lot of heartbeats to hear. Talbot’s heart—a strong steady thumping; Magbidion’s—a fluttering weak sound; and all the cops who were in on at least this portion of my Big Plan . . . their hearts beat in different ways: harder, softer, faster, slower . . . as unique to me as a face or a voice.
After the heartbeats, other sounds came into play. Outside the warehouse, I knew Sal was still sitting in the front seat of the squad car that had driven me here, wearing a portable radio, with one earbud tucked into the collar of his uniform and the other snaked up into his right ear. He and Little Carl have never been able to agree on a station, so he listens to an earbud and Carl listens to silence. Vampire hearing is good enough that I heard Sal’s favorite station as well as he could. Better, even.
I don’t know how the station does it yet, but when the Veil of Scrythax, the mystical artifact that used to prevent mundane citizens from seeing or remembering encounters with the supernatural, got ripped to shreds last year, 100.6 FM (WVCT—Void City Talk Radio) kept broadcasting the same as it always has. Mundane listeners seem to hear Christian or sports talk programming, but the rest of us hear the never-ending jabber of Sly Imp: Void City’s demonic voice of the airwaves. The damned shock jock is distracting enough to make me forget about the sun, although apparently, that doesn’t take much. I’d been thinking about something he said, kind of a tagline of sorts: “In Void City, the vampires run the town, the cops are on the take, and the werewolves have found religion.”
Sly Imp’s voice caught my attention, and I focused in for a moment. If I recognized the background music, Denis Leary’s “Asshole,” correctly, Sly was about to discuss me.
“And what do we think of our new Lord and Master, the great and powerful raging erection that is Eric Courtney?”
“Cue laugh track,” I mumbled. And as if on my cue, the laugh track sounded. Who the hell still uses a laugh track?
“I mean, is it just me, or if our fearless leader is going to fly around in his combat form killing things left, right, and sideways, does he really have to do it with his ‘staff of office’ swinging in the breeze? We know it’s big, pal. You don’t have to wave it around out in the open like that. Save that thrill for the little woman back home. Am I right? Oh, oh, and speaking of the little woman . . .”
I really need to put some pants on the Über vamp. A pair of shorts. Something. The Über vamp is my “big bad combat” mode: all leather wings and ebony claws. Real balls-out vampire badass mojo. Quite literally balls out in my case. I don’t know why I can shape-change into a mouse and back while keeping my clothes, but I always wind up naked when I’m the Über vamp.
I tuned out Sly’s ongoing roast and concentrated on the task at hand. Lord Phillip, the former vampiric ruler of Void City, never had the kind of trouble I was having. Killing him had set loose such a world of shit that I was still dealing with it almost a year later. In my own defense, I hadn’t intended to take over.
Lord Phillip had been a twisted freak, which was fine with me—or would have been, provided he kept out of my way. I’m not the sort of guy who runs around righting wrongs and slaying dragons. But Phil messed with Greta, my daughter. She’s adopted, one hell of a vampire, and can generally take care of herself, but if you mess with her, I’ll kill you, knock your ivory tower down, set it on fire, and slaughter all your friends. It’s a rule.
Unfortunately, the act of following said rule put me in charge.
I don’t like responsibility, but it’s not something I shirk, which is why my singed sorry ass was seated on but not sticking to (thanks to my blue jeans) the aforementioned folding chair, watching Captain Stacey in his office on the other side of town, through the eyes of one of my thralls.
It had been almost a year since I’d knocked down Lord Phil’s Highland Towers and taken over, and this was a part of The Plan I couldn’t put off any longer. Like I said before, I had a plan. If you know me, you know the idea of me with a plan should scare the hell out of you.
Maybe sometimes in the past I’ve been willfully ignorant, but I’m not stupid. Remember that bit about not shirking my duty? Keep it in mind. Step one of The Big Plan involved just that: doing my duty. It also involved Captain Stacey of the VCPD.
Captain Stacey had been in charge of the VCPD since the late sixties. Well, mid- to late sixties. Shortly after my death, let’s say. He surely must have felt safe, protected, sitting there in his office. No mortal man would be a threat to him. His door wasn’t locked. His gun wasn’t even on his desk or at his side. I’m sure a being like him doesn’t feel the need for such things the way a mortal might. As a mouser, like Talbot, Stacey was nigh immortal, incredibly hard to kill, and his morals were, to say the least, mutable and open to negotiation. I mean, mousers basically have the same morals a cat has. Even so, there are good cats and bad cats.
Stacey was a bad cat. The VCPD badge with his name on it meant he was part of the biggest gang in Void City. Every last cop was either crooked or kept under his mystic control by an ages-old deal with the Mages Guild. A thing like Stacey made the perfect public servant for Vampire High Society. For years I had no interest in him at all, even when he was hired to help capture me a few years ago. I’ve been historically willing to ignore all kinds of heinous crap as long as the other denizens of Void City stayed out of my way or were willing to offer a simple apology.
That changed when I walked the Paths of the Dead to get my daughter back. Ever since, I’d been remembering some things. Things I was finding it harder and harder to ignore. Too many things, maybe. As a result, I’d been making plans and recruiting allies.
Through the eyes of one of my newest allies, I watched Captain Stacey sitting at that desk. And I remembered it. It was a classic steel tanker desk. It brought with it flashes of memory: eating lunch with Marilyn, being intimate with her, looking at crime scene photos, drinking with Sal and Little Carl . . . Stacey couldn’t see me, of course, because I was in a warehouse all the way across town.
How could I see him?
Vampires can create a bond with humans, share a little of their power: The human generally does the vampire’s bidding and, in exchange, gets increased longevity and some measure of vampiric resilience and strength. They’re called thralls. As a rule, I don’t like having any because the whole “master” thing makes me uncomfortable.
Now that I have a bunch of them, I’ve been trying to think of them as little helpers. Not just for Santa anymore. Heh. Like it or not, I needed them for the plan to work. And at least they’d all been willing volunteers. While it is possible for a vampire to enslave a human, make a living person into an unwilling thrall, I’ve never done it, nor will I. My ex-buddy Roger did that to Marilyn (the love of my mortal life), and for that reason alone, I’m glad I killed him. And speaking of killing . . .
Refocusing on my own surroundings, I glanced around the warehouse. It was basically empty except for an abandoned set of old metal folding chairs. Magbidion—I guess you could call him my personal mage, another of my little helpers—was leaning against the wall. Talbot took a seat next to me in one of the empty chairs. A two-way radio indicated in glowing red numbers that it was on the right channel.
Talbot coughed. “Well?”
I closed my eyes and checked in with each of my little helpers. “Everything’s ready. Do a quick look around to see if you spot anything?”
“Sure.” Talbot stood, smoothing out his slacks. The sunlight outside made him seem bigger, more imposing, than he actually is. Maybe it was the way it reflected off the ebony skin of his bald head or the way he filled up the space. Could just be that he’s that much bigger than I am.
Magbidion slumped into the vacant chair. His hands were shaky, his long greasy black hair swept back out of his face. He’d been overdoing it for almost a year. It’s hard to keep spells running for long stretches of time, and Mags had been hiding so many of my dirty little secrets for so long, it was no surprise the strain was showing.
At night, I’m not what I used to be . . . and thanks to Magbidion, the number of people who know that can be counted on one hand. He’s hiding my thralls, too. Normally, other vampires can sense them, can tell who’s a thrall and who isn’t. For the time being, all my new thralls are secret. That takes a lot of magic mojo.
“You sure you’re up to this?” I asked him.
“When the demon who owns my soul comes for it, will you really feed him to Talbot?” Eating demons is one of Talbot’s talents. I don’t know how he fits the whole thing inside, but I’ve seen him slurp up a demon twice his size without so much as an untamed burp or excess bowel movement. That’s not a typical mouser trick, though. It seems to be unique to Talbot. Maybe he got it from his mom. I met her in the underworld, a cute little bloodred kitty cat that could probably tear me and a whole army of me’s to shreds. Name’s Sekhmet.
I realized Magbidion was still waiting for my answer. “Yeah. Of course. Demons are assholes.”
“Then I’ll manage,” he said. The tired smile on his face was born of a long time without hope followed by a sudden change that might make everything right again. I was familiar with that feeling. I had it then. I still do. When I’d gone to the underworld, I’d gotten back more than just my daughter. I’d found hope, too.
Talbot leaned back in through the warehouse door. “I’d have the SWAT team and the uniforms pull back another fifty yards, but other than that, you’re good.”
“Even the squad car?”
“Yeah. Stacey knows you’ve been using it, and he’ll wonder why they didn’t call this in.”
I gave those mental orders, listened as the extra yardage piped Sly Imp’s yammering down low enough that I couldn’t really make out the words anymore, then pulled my smartphone out of my jeans pocket. I dialed in Stacey’s desk number and, through the eyes of his deputy, watched him watch it ring. He took a sip of coffee, swallowed slowly, then answered the call on speaker. I hate being on speaker.
“This is Eric.” I looked at Talbot while I spoke, wanting him to give me a look or something if things sounded off. “I need a favor.”
“Been a while since I heard from you, Mr. Courtney.”
I laughed at that. He almost sounded respectful. I guess killing Lord Phil had bought me a little bonus respect in Stacey’s eyes.
“Yeah, well, I haven’t been sloppy lately, but I need you now.”
“I’ll send a few—”
“No. I need you out here,” I cut him off, “and I need it kept quiet. Not a word in any log or a call ahead to the Mages Guild. I can’t even write you a check for it. Everything has to be off the books and under the table.” The Mages Guild had worked hard to fill in the gaps that the Veil of Scrythax didn’t cover or didn’t handle well enough. Now they were handling the whole ball of wax, and the strain on their resources was showing.
“You’ve never asked that before . . .” There was an implied question there.
“Can you do it or not, Stacey?” I grabbed one of the metal folding chairs next to me and hurled it straight down at the concrete floor. It came apart, scarring the concrete, the pieces clattering to the floor.
“Of course I can, Mr. Courtney.” I watched him smile at what he took to be my little display of anger. “With Lord Phillip gone, you’re the boss.”
“Good.” I gave him directions. “Get your ass out here. I already have Magbidion here to help with the cleanup, but I need to walk you through what happened, and then I need some advice.”
“What the hell did you do, Courtney?”
“Get out here and you’ll know,” I said, thumbing the call to an end.
Talbot whistled. “What’s he doing?”
“Disregarding my instructions and heading this way.” Through borrowed eyes, I watched Stacey tell his deputy, one of my newest thralls, that the Mages Guild should be called if he didn’t check back in about half an hour. Stacey walked out into the sunlight, and I watched until he was out of sight.
I clicked on the radio. “Melvin?”
“There’s no Melvin here,” Melvin said testily.
“Half-n-half calling Mother Goose,” I said with a sigh. “Come in, Mother Goose.”
“Half-n-half, this is Mother Goose. Come in.”
“How’s our kitty kat? Over.”
“I’m watching his GPS now. He looks to be heading straight your way. He also called the on-duty mage and reported himself en route to a vampire call. Over.”
“And, just to clarify, you are the on-duty mage, Mother Goose? Over.”
“That I am, Half-n-half. Over.”
“Rockstar asks that you remember the favor. Over.”
“Will do, Half-n-half. Mother Goose over and out.”
“Half-n-half?” Talbot asked with a low, velvety chuckle.
“Ebon Winter’s way of keeping me in my place. Or something.”
“I don’t like that vampire,” Talbot said, more to himself than to me.
“Me, either.” I stood and started stripping down to my jeans and belt. Then I called in the next part of the plan. The large loading doors of the warehouse opened, and thirty men and women dressed in casual clothes entered. The afternoon sun cast additional illumination across a swath of empty warehouse. It had been abandoned for years, and graffiti covered parts of the floor as well as the walls.
“You’re all volunteers,” I said as my claws slid out with a familiar creepy nail-bed crawling sensation. Twinges of pain sprouted in my gums as my fangs came out to play, too. “If you want to back out, do it now. I won’t hold it against any of you. This is dangerous as hell and there’s every chance some of you—maybe all of you—could die. I’ll do my best to make sure that doesn’t happen, but once we get going, it won’t be up to me anymore. Talbot will not step in to stop me.”
Some of them said no. Others simply shook their heads.
“Then let’s make this look good, shall we?”
I charged into their midst, and the blood that flowed was as real as it gets. So was the pain.
By the time Captain Stacey walked in, the sun outside filled the warehouse to the midway point, picking out the mangled bodies strewn from one end of the warehouse to the other, highlighting the remains of a slaughter that caked the concrete with blood, urine, excrement, and fear. Magbidion and Talbot stood off to one side, letting Stacey see the whole thing in one glance. His gaze lingered longest on a body near the west side of the warehouse: a woman named Katherine Marx—Officer Katherine Marx.
Stacey had always been able to control the good cops and compel them to do things they wouldn’t normally do, make them forget what he wanted them to forget. I wasn’t supposed to know it, no one was supposed to know it, but Stacey had been using the same ability that he used to wipe the minds of his subordinates to have his way with Katherine and a few of the other lady cops.
Katherine had been his favorite recently, and she was the granddaughter of a friend of mine, a friend who’d been a cop back when I was alive . . . Thanks to Magbidion’s assistance and the peculiarities of my new nighttime circumstances, I was remembering all kinds of things from those days . . . back when . . . when I’d come home from Korea and Marilyn had convinced me to apply for captain of the VCPD. Katherine wasn’t the only cop in the pile; in fact, they’d all been cops at one time or another, but she was the one who would distract him. You can’t look at a dead lover and feel nothing. Not unless you’re dead inside.
“Some of them are cops,” I said.
Stacey looked up at me blankly, his eyes taking a few seconds to focus. Where Talbot was impressive and smooth, Stacey seemed a petty creature, his belly showing signs of trained muscle going to fat. His eyes, normally cold and emotionless—mercenary—now showed a broken warmth, a wet edge.
“What the fuck happened?” Stacey shouted, discarding the grief and giving in to rage. It was a move I’d made myself many times. It feels good, but it makes you stupid. Stupid was not a part of The Plan. Stacey saw the blood on my hands, coating my bare chest, my jeans, slicking my face like a gruesome moisturizer mask, and then he was in my face, shoving me back. “What the fuck did you do to my cops?”
“Curiosity,” I said. Killed the cat.
“What?” He shoved me again. Hard. Hard enough to knock me back against a row of folding chairs. “What?”
Of course, the word wasn’t meant for him. It was The Signal, a part of The Plan. With Stacey focused on me, Magbidion dropped one of the spells he’d been maintaining, the subtle one that kept the thirty men and women I’d fought (every last one of them another new thrall) from regenerating. He kept the other spells, including the massive one concealing their thralldom, up and running.
“Nobody preys on my cops, asshole!” Stacey transformed. I have to admit that I dig the way mousers change. They get to skip the snap, crackle, and ouch of a werewolf transformation and the aching discomfort of a vampiric one. A slow glow of golden light suffused his skin, flowing over him. As it faded, the man with the paunch was replaced by a seven-foot-tall, massively muscled feline beast with metallic gold claws and fangs, fur in patches of white and orange, and glowing star-sapphire eyes: the all-cat version of a well-done werewolf special effect.
Stacey yowled, swatting me to the ground with one massive paw. My chest sizzled where his claws punctured my skin, but the pain felt nice. The truth is, I deserve to hurt. I’ve killed thousands of humans over the years. I can’t bring myself to feel bad about it, because becoming a vampire was never my decision—Scrythax, the demon with a wacky sense of redemption who created the Courtney Family Curse, is to blame for that. For years I tried to minimize the number of people I killed by running a club and feeding off my employees as much as possible. If animal blood worked for me, that would have been great, but it doesn’t.
“Don’t make me go Über vamp on you, Stacey,” I spat through gritted teeth.
He responded by disemboweling me and hurling me up into the rafters, where I clanged against the ceiling. When I came back down, he was even bigger and more muscular, standing about ten feet tall. His fangs and claws glowed to match his eyes, and I fought to hide my grin. Mousers are different from other supernatural creatures in a whole lot of ways, but one of those differences is stranger than the rest. They exist on more than one plane of existence at once (the physical world, the world of dreams, and something Talbot calls the Akasha), so . . . to kill one, you have to get him all on the same plane with you or be able to affect him on those other planes of reality, too. I glanced over at Talbot. Yep. The way Stacey looked now was his whole being all in one place.
I think he expected me to transform, to become the Über vamp, but this wasn’t my fight. It wasn’t Talbot’s, either. I boxed Stacey’s pointy cat ears as he seized me in his paws, but if I hadn’t started his ears ringing, the gunfire surely would have. The VCPD SWAT team rolled in wearing full supernatural suppression gear and carrying weapons made for taking down monsters. Holy symbols, Elder Signs, and other marks of magical protection bedecked their body armor. Not one of them looked the least bit friendly. And every single one of them was one of my thralls.
The opening volley, twelve shotguns loaded with the VCPD’s specialized flechette rounds (twenty tiny flechettes in one cartridge—fourteen steel, four silver, one hardened wood, and a single gold one), blasted Stacey mercilessly, followed almost immediately by two cops with flamethrowers lighting the dirty bastard up as he turned. The VCPD was usually more concerned with protecting society from knowledge of the supernatural than taking the supernatural on head-to-head, but the previous management had equipped them for any eventuality, and this was their fight. Stacey had made them do unspeakable things, had corrupted everything that police were supposed to be, had raped their minds and some of their bodies . . . and now they all knew it.
“Hard to shift part of yourself elsewhere when you’re pumped full of metal, isn’t it?” I asked as I rose to my feet. Stacey didn’t answer. He’d gone straight into that wounded-animal place mammals go when they’re scared, confused, angry, and in pain.
Mousers are not easy to kill. It’s a messy business. I wasn’t staying for all of it. I had to get cleaned up anyway, because for once I had a bigger plan . . . and if somebody was going to screw it up by letting the cat out of the bag (okay, bad pun), it was not going to be me.
I walked over to where Talbot stood, grimly watching the men and women of the VCPD as they worked with hunting knives and machetes, skinning Stacey alive while others struggled to hold him down. Two officers with spears took turns jabbing him in the spine to keep him mostly paralyzed despite his mystical regenerative properties. Katherine was one of them. She had the slightest twist of a smile on her lips, though her cheeks were wet with tears. Other officers carried in twenty-pound bags of sand and huge bags of salt they must have gotten from a pool supply store. I hoped it would be enough.
“You going to get in trouble over this?” I asked Talbot.
“I didn’t tell you anything Greta hadn’t already figured out, so no.” He frowned. “I can’t share any information gleaned strictly from the Akasha, Eric, but as long as I can demonstrate that you could have reasonably had access to the knowledge yourself, the other mousers won’t be adding any additional time to my exile. That and I hate this son of a bitch.” His frown became a grin as he said the last few words. Talbot doesn’t curse often, and I was willing to bet that “SOB” was a much stronger insult for mousers. “But it’s flattering that you care.”
“You mind taking me to the car?” I turned into a mouse. Talbot tucked me in his breast pocket to protect me from the sun, and off we went. He walked us over to the squad car in which I had arrived and dropped me off in back, then, after a pause for me to change back to normal, Talbot climbed in as well.
“He dead?” Sal asked.
“Yep, or will be soon enough.”
“Wish I could have been in on that.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry. Only room enough for so many.”
“Don’t apologize, boss,” Sal said, the gratitude in his voice making me uncomfortable. “I’m just glad you’re back.”
The gratitude . . . I didn’t know what to do with that or how to react, so I patted the back of his seat and ignored the rest, giving my attention to Talbot.
“You really coming with?” I asked.
“Yes. I want to watch you get haunted. I haven’t seen that yet.” Talbot folded his arms. “Are they here? When will they get here?”
I shook my head. “Sometimes it takes a while. Don’t worry, Talbot, you’ll get to see me tortured soon enough.”
“That’s why I hang around,” Talbot said. “You’re better than a ball of yarn.”
© 2012 Jeremy F. Lewis