Chapter 22

A Nod to the Queen of the Damned

It only took five minutes to convince the police that Tommy had been at work all night and had seen nothing. Simon had done most of the talking. Tommy was so shocked to see his book in the cop's hand that he couldn't find the answers to even the simplest questions. He was, however, able to convince the cop that his shocked state came from a body having been found outside his apartment. Sometimes it paid to play on the "I just fell off the turnip truck from Indiana" image.

They hauled the turtles up the steps and set the crates on the floor in the kitchen area.

"Where's the little woman?" Simon asked, eyeing the huge chest freezer.

"Probably still sleeping," Tommy said. "Grab yourself a beer out of the fridge. I'll check on her."

Tommy palmed open the bedroom door, then slipped through and closed it behind him. He thought, I've got to keep Simon out of here. He's going to want Jody to get up and...

The bed was empty.

Tommy ran to the bathroom and looked in the tub, thinking that Jody might have been caught there at sunrise, but except for a rust ring, the tub was empty. He looked under the bed, found nothing but an old sock, then tore open the closet door and pushed the hanging clothes aside. Panic rose in his throat and came out in a scream of "No!"

"You okay in there?" Simon said from the kitchen.

"She's not here!"

Simon opened the door. "You got a nice crib here, Flood. You inherit some money or something?" Simon said. Then he spotted the panic on Tommy's face. "What's the matter?"

"She's not here."

"So, she probably went out early to get a doughnut or something."

"She can't go out during the day," Tommy said before he realized what he was saying. "I mean, she never goes out early."

"Don't sweat it. I thought you were going to teach me to read. Let's drink some beers and read some fucking books, okay?"

"No, I have to go look for her. She could be out in the sun..."

"Chill, Flood. She's fine. The worst that could happen is she's out with another guy. You might be a free man." Simon picked up a book from the stack by the bed. "Let's read this one. What's this one?"

Tommy wasn't listening. He was seeing Jody's burned body lying in a gutter somewhere. How could she let it happen? Didn't she check the almanac? He had to look for her. But where? You can't search a city the size of San Francisco.

Simon threw the book back on the stack and headed out of the bedroom, "Okay then, Slick, I'm out of here. Thanks for the beer."

"Okay," Tommy said. Then the idea of spending the day alone, waiting, threw him into another wave of panic. "No, Simon! Wait. We'll read."

"That one on the top of the stack," Simon said. "What's that one?"

Tommy picked it up. "The Vampire Lestat, by Anne Rice. I hear it's good."

"Then grab a beer and let's get literate."

Rivera, bleary-eyed and looking as if he had slept in his suit, sat at his desk looking over his notes. No matter how he shuffled them, they didn't make sense, didn't show a pattern. The only link between the victims was the way they had died: no motive. They wouldn't get the autopsy report for another twelve hours, but there was no doubt that the same person had done the killings.

Nick Cavuto came through the squad room door carrying a box of doughnuts and a copy of the San Francisco Examiner. "They fucking named him. The Examiner is calling him the Whiplash Killer. Once they name the killer, our problems double. You got anything?"

Rivera waved to the notes spread over his desk and shrugged. "I'm out of it, Nick. I can't even read my own writing. You take a look."

Cavuto took a maple stick from the box and sat down across from Rivera. He grabbed a handful of papers and began leafing through them, then stopped and flipped back. He looked up. "You talked to this Flood kid this morning, right?"

Rivera was looking at the doughnuts. His stomach lurched at the thought of eating one. "Yeah, he lives across the street from where we found the body. He works at the Marina Safeway  -  was working at the time of the murder."

Cavuto raised an eyebrow. "The kid was staying at the motel where we found the old lady."

"You're kidding."

Cavuto held out the notes for Rivera to read. "List of guests. A uniform talked to the kid, said he was at work, but no one confirmed it."

Rivera looked up apologetically. "I can't believe I missed that. The kid was a little squirrelly when I talked to him. His friend did most of the talking."

Cavuto gathered up the papers. "Go home. Shower and sleep. I'll call the manager of the Safeway and make sure the kid was working at the time of the murders. We'll go there tonight and talk to the kid."

"Okay, then let's ask him how he's getting the blood out of the bodies."

Tommy had spent two hours trying to explain the difference between vowels and consonants to Simon before he gave up and sent the cowboy home to wax his truck and watch "Sesame Street." Maybe Simon wasn't meant to read. Maybe he was meant to be all instinct and no intelligence. In a way, Tommy admired him. Simon didn't worry, he took things at face value as they happened. Simon was like the strong, free and easy Cassady to Tommy's introspective, overanalytical Kerouac. Maybe he would put Simon in his story of the little girl growing up in the South. The story he would be working on if he weren't worrying about Jody.

He sat all day on the couch, reading The Vampire Lestat until he couldn't concentrate anymore, then he paced the apartment, checking his watch and railing to Peary, who listened patiently from the freezer.

"You know, Peary, it's inconsiderate of her not to leave me a note. I don't have any idea what she does while I'm at work. She could be having a dozen affairs and I wouldn't even know."

He checked the almanac eight times for the time the sun would set.

"I know, I know, until I met Jody, nothing really ever happened to me. That's why I came here, right? Okay, I'm being unfair, but maybe I'd be better off with a normal woman. Jody just doesn't understand that I'm not like other guys. That I'm special. I'm a writer. I can't handle stress as well as other guys  -  I take it personal."

Tommy heated up a frozen dinner and left the freezer lid open so Peary could hear him better.

"I have to look to the future, you know. When I'm a famous writer I'm going to have to go on book tours. She can't go with me. What can I say, 'No, I'm sorry, but I can't go. If I go away my wife will starve to death'?"

He paced around the turtles, who were struggling in their crates. One of them raised his spiny head and considered Tommy.

"I know how you guys feel. Just waiting for someone to eat you. You think I don't know how that feels?"

When he could no longer look them in the eye, he carried the turtles into the bathroom, then returned to the living room and tried to get through a few more chapters of The Vampire Lestat.

"This is wrong," he said to Peary. "It says that vampires don't have sex after they are turned. Of course it only talks about male vampires. What if she's been faking? You know, she could be frigid except for when she drinks my blood."

He was working himself into a frenzy of sexual insecurity  -  something that felt familiar and almost comfortable  -  when the phone rang. He yanked it off the cradle.

"Hello."

A woman's voice, surprised but trying to not to show it, said, "Hello. I'd like to speak to Jody, please."

"She's not here," Tommy said. "She's at work," he added quickly.

"I called her at work and they said she left her job over a month ago."

"Uh, she has a new job. I don't know the number."

"Well, whoever you are," the woman said, losing the pretense of politeness, "would you tell her that she still has a mother. And tell her that it is common courtesy to tell your mother when you change your phone number. And tell her that I need to know what she is going to do for the holidays."

"I'll tell her," Tommy said.

"Are you the stockbroker? What was it... Kurt?"

"No, I'm Tommy."

"Well, it's only two weeks until Christmas, Tommy, so if you're still around, we'll be meeting."

"I'll look forward to it," Tommy said. Like I look forward to a root canal, he thought.

Jody's mom hung up. Tommy put down the phone and checked his watch. Only an hour to sunset. "She's alive," he said to Peary, "I'm sure of it. If she survived her mother, she can survive anything."

She heard steam rushing through pipes, rats scurrying in shredded paper, the spinnerets of spiders weaving webs, the footsteps of a heavy man, and the padding and panting of dogs. She opened her eyes and looked around. She was on her back on the basement floor, alone. Cardboard boxes were scattered about the room. Moonlight and sounds of movement spilled through the broken window.

She got up and stepped up on a crate to look out the window. She was met by a yap and a snort and the growling countenance of a bug-eyed dog with a pan strapped to his head.

"Ack!" She wiped the slime from her cheek.

The Emperor fell to his knees and reached through the window. "Oh goodness, are you all right, dear?"

"Yes, I'm fine. I'm fine."

"Are you injured? Shall I call the police?"

"No, thank you. Could you give me a hand?" She would have leaped through the window, but it wasn't a good idea in front of the Emperor. She took his hand and let him pull her through the window.

Once on her feet in the alley, she dusted off her jeans. Bummer had fallen into a yapping fit. The Emperor picked up the little dog and stuffed him into his oversized coat pocket.

"I must apologize for Bummer's behavior. There's no excuse for it, really, but he is a victim of inbreeding. Being royalty myself, I make allowances. If it's any consolation, it was only on Bummer's insistence that we ventured down this alley and found you."

"Well, thanks," Jody said. "I don't know exactly what happened."

"Check your valuables, dear. You've obviously been accosted by some ne'er-do-well. Perhaps we should find you some medical attention."

"No, I'm just a little shaken up. I just need to get home."

"Then please allow me and my men to escort you to your door."

"No, that's okay. My loft is just at the end of the alley."

The Emperor held up his finger to caution her. "Please, my dear. Safety first."

Jody shrugged. "Well, all right. Thanks." Bummer was squirming and snorting inside the Emperor's buttoned pocket like  -  well, like a pocketful of dog. "Can he breathe in there?"

"Bummer will be fine. He's just a bit overexcited since we've gone to war. His first time in the field, you know."

Jody eyed the Emperor's cruelly pointed wooden sword. "How goes the battle?"

"I believe we are closing in on the forces of evil. The fiend will be vanquished and victory will soon be ours."

"That's nice," Jody said.

When Tommy heard her coming up the stairs he threw his book across the room, ran to the loft door, and yanked it open. Jody was standing on the landing.

"Hi," she said.

Tommy was torn between taking her in his arms and pushing her down the steps. He just stood there. "Hi," he said.

Jody kissed him on the cheek and walked passed him into the loft. Tommy stood there, trying to figure out how to react. "Are you okay?" Once he was sure she wasn't hurt, he'd tear into her for staying out all day.

She fell onto the futon like a bag of rags. "I had a really bad night."

"Where were you?"

"I was in a basement, about half a block from here. I would have called, but I was dead."

"That's not funny. I was worried. They found a body out front last night."

"I know, I saw the cops all over the place outside, just before dawn. That's why I couldn't get back."

"The cops had my copy of On the Road in an evidence bag. I think I'm in trouble."

"Was your name in it?"

"No, but obviously my fingerprints were all over it. How did it get there?"

"The vampire put it there, Tommy."

"How did he get it? It was here in the loft."

"I don't know. He's trying to freak us out. He's leaving the bodies near us so the police will connect us to the killings. He doesn't have to leave bodies at all, Tommy. He's killing these people in a way that leaves evidence."

"What do you mean, he doesn't have to leave bodies at all?"

"Tommy, come here. Sit down. I have to tell you something."

"I don't like the tone of your voice. This is bad news, isn't it? This is the big letdown, isn't it? You were with another guy last night."

"Sit down and shut up, please."

Tommy sat and she told him. Told him about the killing, about the body turning to dust, and about being dragged into the basement.

When she had finished, Tommy sat for a moment looking at her, then moved away from her on the futon. "You took the guy's money?"

"It seemed wrong to throw it away."

"And killing him didn't seem wrong?"

"No, it didn't. I can't explain it. It felt like I was supposed to."

"If you were hungry you should have told me. I don't mind, really."

"It wasn't like that, Tommy. Look, I don't know how to file this  -  emotionally, I mean. I don't feel like I killed someone. The point I'm trying to make is that the body crumbled to dust. There was no body. The people the vampire is killing aren't dying from his bite. He's breaking their necks before they die. He's doing all this on purpose to scare me. I'm afraid he might hurt you to get at me. I've suspected it for a long time, but I didn't want to say anything to you. If you want to leave, I'll understand."

"I didn't say anything about leaving. I don't know what to do. How would you feel if I told you I had killed someone?"

"It would depend. This guy wanted to die. He was in pain. He was going to die anyway."

"Do you want me to leave?"

"Of course not. But I need you to try and understand."

"I am trying. That's all I've been doing. Why do you think I've been doing all these experiments? You act like this is easy for me. I've been a mess all day worrying about you and you're in a basement a few steps away. What about that? Who dragged you into the basement?"

"I don't know."

"Whoever it was saved your life. Was it the vampire?"

"I said, I don't know."

Tommy went across the room and pick up the paperback of The Vampire Lestat. "This guy, Lestat, he can tell when there's another vampire around. He can sense it. Can't you sense it?"

"Right, and that's why we have a dead guy in the freezer. No, I can't sense it."

Tommy held up the book. "There's a whole history of the vampire race in here. I think this Anne Rice knows a real vampire or something."

"That's what you thought about Bram Stoker, too. And I spent an hour standing on a chair trying to turn into a bat."

"No, this is different. Lestat isn't evil, he likes humans. He only kills murderers that are without remorse. He knows when there are other vampires around. Lestat can fly."

Jody jumped up and ripped the book out of his hand. "And Anne Rice can write, Tommy, but I'm not throwing that in your face."

"You don't have to get personal."

"Look, Tommy, maybe there's some truth in one of these books that you're reading, but how do we know which one? Huh? Nobody gave me a fucking owner's manual when I got these fangs. I'm doing the best that I can."

Tommy looked away from her, then at his shoes. "You're right, I'm sorry. I'm confused and I'm a little scared. I don't know what I'm doing either. Hell, Jody, you might have AIDS now, we don't know."

"I don't have AIDS. I know I don't."

"How do you know? It's not like we can send you down to the clinic to test you or anything."

"I know it, Tommy. I could feel it if I did. Except for sunlight and food, I'm not even allergic to anything anymore. Hand lotions and soaps I couldn't get near before without breaking into a rash don't affect me. I've done a few experiments of my own. My body won't let anything hurt me. I'm safe. Besides..." Jody paused and grinned, waiting for him to ask.

"Besides what?"

"He was wearing a condom."

Tommy resumed staring at his shoes, said nothing, then looked up at her and laughed. "That's incredibly sick, Jody."

She nodded and laughed.

"I love you," he said, moving to her and taking her in his arms.

"Me too," she said, hugging him back.

"That's really sick, you know that?"

"Yep," she said. "Tommy, I don't want to break this beautiful moment, but I have to take a shower." She kissed him and pushed him away gently, then headed into the bathroom.

"Uh, Jody," he called after her, "I got a present for you in Chinatown today."

There's an explanation for this, she thought, standing in the bathroom, looking at the turtles. There is a perfectly good reason why there are two huge snapping turtles in my tub.

"Do you like them?" Tommy was standing in the doorway behind her.

"These are for me, then?" She tried to smile. She really did.

"Yeah, Simon helped me get them home. I didn't think I could carry them on the bus. Aren't they great?"

Jody looked in the tub again. The turtles were trying to crawl on top of each other. Their claws screeched on the porcelain when they moved.

"I don't know what to say," Jody said.

"I thought that we could feed them fish and stuff, and you'd have a blood supply right here at home. Besides me, I mean."

She turned and regarded Tommy. Yes, he was serious. He was really serious. "You haven't..."

"Their names are Scott and Zelda. Zelda is missing a toe on her back foot. That's how you tell them apart. Do you like them? You seem a little reticent."

A little, she thought. You couldn't have brought me flowers or jewelry, like most guys. You had to say it with reptiles. "I don't suppose there's any chance that you saved the receipt?"

Tommy's face avalanched into disappointment. "You don't like them."

"No, they're fine. But, I really wanted to take a shower. I'm not sure I want to be naked in front of them."

"Oh," Tommy said, brightening. "I'll take them into the living room."

He pulled a towel off the rod and began maneuvering over the tub, trying to get a drop on Zelda. "You have to be careful; they can take off a finger in those jaws."

"I see," Jody said. But she didn't see at all. The idea of biting one of the spiny creatures in the tub gave her an industrial-size case of the creeps.

Tommy lunged and came up with Zelda, wrapped in swaddling clothes and snapping at his face. "She hates being picked up." Zelda's claws tore at the towel and Tommy's shirt as she attempted to swim through midair. He set the turtle on her back on the bathroom floor and readied the towel to lunge into the tub for Scott. "Lestat can call animals to him when he's hungry. Maybe you can train them."

"Stop it with the Lestat stuff, Tommy. I'm not sucking turtles."

He turned to her and slipped, falling into the tub. Scott snapped, barely missing Tommy's arm, and latched on to the sleeve of his denim shirt. "I'm okay. I'm okay. He didn't get me."

Jody pulled him from the tub. Scott was still attached to his sleeve and was determined not to let go.

Turtles hate heights. They don't even like being a few feet off the ground. It's the main reason they have resisted evolution for so long  -  fear of heights. Turtle thinking goes thus: Sure, first our scales turn into feathers and the next thing you know we're flying and chirping and perching on trees. We've seen it happen. Thanks, but we're staying right here in the mud where we belong. You're not going to see us flying full-tilt boogie into a sliding glass door.

Scott was not letting go of the sleeve, not as long as Tommy was standing. "Help me," Tommy said. "Pry him off."

Jody looked for a place on the turtle to grab  -  reached out and pulled back several times. "I don't want to touch him."

The phone rang.

"I'll get it," Jody said, running out of the bathroom.

Tommy dragged Scott to the doorway, keeping his feet safely away from Zelda's jaws. "I forgot to tell you..."

"Hello," Jody said into the phone. "Oh, hi, Mom."
    
 

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