Chapter 26

At the End of the Night...

The Emperor worked a wooden match around the end of a Cuban cigar, drawing and checking until the tip glowed like revolution.

"I don't agree with their ideology," said the Emperor, "but we must give the Marxists their due  -  they roll a fine cigar."

Bummer snorted and growled at the cigar, then shook himself violently, spraying the Emperor and Lazarus with a fine wet mist.

The Emperor scratched the Boston terrier behind the ears. "Settle down, little one, you needed a bath. If we vanquish our enemy, it will be through gallantry and courage, not the stench of our persons."

Shortly after sunset a member of the yacht club had given the Emperor the cigar and had invited him to use the club showers. Much to the chagrin of the club custodian, the Emperor shared his shower with Bummer and Lazarus, who left the drain hopelessly clogged with the fluff, stuff, and filth such as heroes are made of. Now they were passing the evening on the same dock on which they had slept, the Emperor savoring his cigar while the troops stood watch.

"Where do we go from here? Must we wait for the fiend to kill again before we pick up the trail?"

Bummer considered the questions, working the words over in his doggy brain looking for a «food» word. Not finding it, he began to lick his balls to remove the annoying odor of deodorant soap. Once he achieved the desired balance (of both his ends smelling roughly the same), he padded around the dock marking the mooring posts against seabound invaders. With the borders of the realm firmly established, he went in search of something dead to roll in to remove the last evidence of the shower. The right smell was near, but it was coming in off the water.

Bummer went toward the smell until he stood at the end of the dock. He saw a small white cloud bubbling out over the gunwale of a yacht moored a hundred yards away. Bummer barked to let the cloud know to stay away.

"Settle down, little one," said the Emperor. Lazarus shook some water out of his ears and joined Bummer at the end of the dock. The cloud was halfway between the yacht and the dock, pulsating and bubbling as it moved across the water toward them. Lazarus lowered his head and growled. Bummer added a high whine to the harmony.

"What is it, men?" the Emperor asked. He put his cigar out on the sole of his shoe and secured the remains in his breast pocket before limping, stiff from sitting, to the end of the dock.

The cloud was almost to the dock. Lazarus bared his teeth and snarled at it. Bummer backed away from the edge of the dock, not sure whether to bolt or stand his ground.

The Emperor looked out over the water and saw the cloud. It was not wispy at the edges, but sharply defined, more like a solid mass of gel than water vapor. "It's just a bit of fog, men, don't..."

He spotted a face forming in the cloud that changed as he watched to the shape of a giant hand, then bubbled into the head of a dog.

"Although weather is not my specialty, I would venture to guess that that is no ordinary fog bank."

The cloud undulated into the shape of a huge viper that reared up, twenty feet over the water, as if preparing to strike. Bummer and Lazarus let go with a fusillade of barking.

"Gents, let us away to the showers. I've left my sword by the sink." The Emperor turned and ran down the dock, Bummer and Lazarus close at his heels. When he reached the clubhouse he turned to see the cloud creeping over the lip of the dock. He stood, watching transfixed, as the cloud began to condense into the solid form of a tall, dark man.

The Animals began drifting into the store around midnight, and to Tommy's delight they all seemed at least as hung over as he was. Drew, tall, gaunt, and deadly earnest, had them sit on the register counters and wait for his medical diagnosis. He walked from man to man, looking at their tongues and the whites of their eyes. Then he walked toward the office and seemed to lose himself in concentration. After a moment he went into the office and came back with the truck manifest.

Drew noted the number of cases, then nodded to himself and removed a bottle of pills from his shirt pocket and handed it to Tommy. "Take one and pass it down. Who drank the tequila?"

Simon, who had pulled his black Stetson over his eyes, raised his hand with a slight moan.

"You take two, Simon. They're Valium number fives."

"Housewife heroin," said Simon.

Drew announced, "Everyone drink a quart of Gatorade, a slug of Pepto, three aspirin, some B vitamins, and two Vivarin."

Barry, the balding scuba diver, said, "I don't trust that over-the-counter stuff."

"I'm not finished," Drew said. From his shirt pocket he pulled an aluminum cigar tube, unscrewed the cap, and tipped it into his hand. A long, yellow paper cone slid out. He held it out to Tommy. It smelled like a cross between a skunk and a eucalyptus cough drop. Tommy raised an eyebrow to Drew. "What is it?"

"Don't worry about it. It's recommended by the Jamaican Medical Association. Anybody got a light?"

Simon pitched his Zippo to Drew, who handed it to Tommy.

Tommy hesitated before lighting the joint and looked at Drew. "This is just pot, right? This isn't some weird designer kill-the-family-with-a-chain-saw-and-choke-to-death-on-your-own-vomit drug, right?"

"Not if used as directed," Drew said.

"Oh. Okay." Tommy sparked the Zippo, lit the joint, and took a deep hit. Holding in the smoke  -  his eyes watering, his face scrunched in gargoyle determination, his limbs contorted as if he had contracted a case of the instant creeping geeks  -  he offered the joint to Lash, the black business major.

There was a thump on the front door, followed by an urgent pounding that rattled the windows. Tommy dropped the joint and coughed, expelling a blast of smoke and spittle in Lash's face. The Animals shouted and turned, not so much startled by the noise, but tortured by the assault on their collective hangover.

Outside the double automatic doors the Emperor pounded on the frame with his wooden sword. The dogs jumped around his feet barking and leaping as if they had treed a raccoon on the roof of the store.

Tommy, still gasping for breath, dug into his pocket for the store keys and made his way to the door. "It's okay. I know him."

"Everybody knows him," Simon said. "Crazy old fuck."

Tommy turned the key and pulled the doors open. The Emperor fell into the store. Bummer and Lazarus leaped over their master and disappeared down an aisle.

The Emperor thrashed around on the floor and Tommy had to step back to keep from having his shins whacked by the wooden sword.

"Calm down," Tommy said. "You're okay."

The Emperor climbed to his feet and grabbed Tommy by the shoulders. "We have to marshal our forces. The monster is at hand. Quickly now!"

Tommy looked back at the Animals and grinned. "He's okay, really." Then, to the Emperor, "Just slow down, okay. Can I get you something to eat?"

"There's no time for that. We must take the battle to him."

Simon called, "Maybe Drew has something to mellow him out." Drew had recovered the joint and was in the process of relighting it.

Tommy closed and locked the door, then took the Emperor by the arm and led him toward the office. "See, Your Majesty, you're inside now. You're safe. Now let's go sit down and see if we can sort this out."

"Locked doors won't stop him. He can take the form of mist and pass through the smallest crack." The Emperor addressed the Animals. "Arm yourself, while there is still time."

"Who?" Asked Lash. "Who's he talking about?"

Tommy cleared his throat. "The Emperor thinks that there's a vampire stalking the City."

"You're shittin' me," Barry said.

"I've just seen him," the Emperor said, "at the marina. He changed from a cloud of vapor to human form as I watched. He's not far behind me, either."

Tommy patted the old man's arm. "Don't be silly, Your Highness. Even if there were vampires, they can't turn into vapor."

"But I saw it."

"Look!" Tommy said. "You saw something else. I know for a fact that vampires can't change into vapor."

"You know that for a fact?" Simon drawled.

Tommy looked at Simon, expecting to see the usual grin, but Simon was waiting for an answer.

Tommy shook his head. "I'm trying to get things under control here, Simon. You want to give me a break?"

"How do you know?" Simon insisted.

"It was in a book I was reading. You remember, Simon, you read that one too."

Simon looked as if he had just been threatened, which he had. "Yeah, right," he said, pushing his Stetson back down over his eyes and leaning back on the register. "Well, you ought to just call the loony-bin boys for your friend there."

"I'll take care of him," Tommy said. "You guys get started on the truck." He opened the office door and nudged the Emperor toward it.

"What about the men?" asked the Emperor.

"They're safe. Come on in and tell me about it."

"But the monster?"

"If he wanted to kill me, I'd be dead already." Tommy shut the office door behind them.

Big hair, Jody thought. Big hair is the way to go with this outfit. After all these years of trying to tame my hair, all I had to do was dress like an upscale hooker and I would have been fine.

She was walking up Geary Street, her fake Gucci bag of free cosmetics still in hand. There was a new club down here somewhere and she needed to dance, or at least show off a little.

A panhandler wearing a cardboard sign that read, "I am Unemployed and Illiterate (a friend wrote this for me)," stopped her and tried to sell her a free weekly newspaper.

Jody said, "I can pick that up anywhere. It's free."

"It is?"

"Yes. They give it away in every store and cafe in town."

"I wondered why they were laying out there for the taking."

Jody was angry with herself for being pulled into this exchange. "It says 'free' right there on the cover."

The bum pointed to the sign hanging around his neck and tried to look tragic. "Maybe you could give me quarter for it anyway."

Jody started to walk away. The bum followed along beside her. "There's a great article on recovery groups on page ten."

She looked at him.

"Someone told me," he said.

Jody stopped. "I'll give you this if you'll leave me alone." She held out the cosmetics bag.

The bum acted as if he had to think about it. He looked her up and down, pausing at her cleavage before looking her in the eye. "Maybe we could work something out. You must be cold in that dress. I could warm you up."

"Normally," Jody said, "if I met a guy who was unemployed and illiterate who hadn't bathed in a couple of weeks, I'd be standing in a puddle with excitement, but I'm sort of in a bad mood tonight, so take this bag and give me the fucking paper before I pop your little head like a zit." She pushed the bag into his chest, knocking him back against the window of a closed camera store.

The bum offered her the paper tentatively and she snatched it from his hand.

He said, "You're a lesbian, aren't you?"

Jody screamed at him: a high, explosive, unintelligible expulsion of pure inhuman frustration  -  a Hendrix high note sampled and sung by a billion suffering souls in Hell's own choir. The window of the camera shop shattered and fell in shards to the sidewalk. The store alarm wailed, paltry in comparison to Jody's scream. The bum covered his ears and ran away.

"Cool," Jody said, more than a bit satisfied with herself. She opened the paper and read as she walked up the street to the club.

Outside the club Jody got in line with a crowd of well-dressed wannabees and resumed reading her paper, enjoying the stares of the men on line in her peripheral vision.

The club was called 753. It seemed to Jody that all of the new, trendy clubs had eschewed names for numbers. Kurt and his broker buddies had been big fans of the number-named clubs, which made for Monday-morning recount conversations that sounded more like equations: "We went to Fourteen Ninety-Two and Ten Sixty-Six, then Jimmy drank ten Seven-Sevens at Nineteen Seventeen, went fifty-one fifty and got eighty-sixed." Normally, that many numbers in succession would have had Kurt diving for his PC to establish trend lines and resistance levels. Jody glazed over at the mention of numbers, which would have made living with the broker a bit of an ordeal even if he hadn't been an asshole.

She thought, I wonder if Kurt will be here. I hope so. I hope he's here with the little well-bred, breastless wonder. Oh, she won't care, but he'll die a thousand jealous deaths.

Then she heard the alarm sounding down the street and thought, Maybe I should learn to channel some of this hostility.

"You, in the LED!" said the doorman.

Jody looked up from her paper.

"Go on in," the doorman said.

As she walked past the other people on line she was careful to avoid eye contact. One single guy reached out and grabbed her arm.

"Say I'm your date," he begged. "I've been waiting for two hours."

"Hi, Kurt," Jody said. "I didn't see you."

Kurt stepped back. "Oh. Oh my God. Jody?"

She smiled. "How's your head?"

He was trying to catch his breath. "Fine. It's fine. You look..."

"Thanks, Kurt. Good to see you again. I'd better get inside."

He clawed the air after her. "Could you say I'm your date?"

She turned and looked at him as if she had found him in the back of the refrigerator with green growing on him.

"I have been chosen, Kurt. You, on the other hand, are an untouchable. I don't think you'd be appropriate for the image I'm trying to project."

As she walked into the club she heard Kurt say to the next guy in line, "She's a lesbian, you know."

Jody thought, Yep, I've got to work on controlling my hostility.

The theme of 753 was Old San Francisco; actually, Old San Francisco burning down, which is largely what Old San Francisco used to do. There was an antique hand-pump fire engine in the middle of the dance floor. Cellophane flames leaped from pseudowindows driven by turbine fans. Nozzles in the ceiling drizzled dry-ice smoke over a crowd of young professionals ar-rhythmically sweating in layers of casual cotton and wool. A flannel-clad grunge rocker here; a tie-dyed and dreadlocked Rastafarian there; some neo-hippies; a sprinkling of black-eyed, white-faced New Wave holdovers  -  looking alienated  -  contemplating the next body part to have pierced; a few harmless suburban homeboys  -  here to bust a move, def and phat, in three-hundred-dollar giant gel-filled, glow-in-the-dark, pneumatic, NBA-endorsed sneakers. The doorman had tried to make a mix, but with fashionable micro-brewery beer going for seven bucks a bottle, the crowd was bound to overbalance to the side of privilege and form a thick yuppie scum. Cocktail waitresses in fireman helmets served reservoirs of imported water and thanked people for not smoking.

Jody slinked onto a barstool and opened her paper to avoid eye contact with a droopy-eyed drunk on the next stool. It didn't work.

" 'Scuse me, I couldn't help noticing that you were sitting down. I'm sitting down too. Small world, huh?"

Jody looked up briefly and smiled. Mistake.

"Can I buy you a drink?" the drunk asked.

"Thanks, I don't drink," she said, thinking, Why did I come here? What did I hope to accomplish?

"It's my hair, isn't it?"

Jody looked at the guy. He was about her age and balding, not quite finished with what looked like a bad hair-transplant job. His scalp looked as if it had been strafed with a machine gun full of plugs. She felt bad for him.

"No, I really don't drink."

"How about a mineral water?"

"Thanks. I don't drink anything."

From the stool behind her a man's voice. "She'll drink this."

She turned to see a glass filled with a thick, red-black liquid being pushed in front of her by a bone-white hand. The index and middle finger seemed a little too short.

"They're still growing back," the vampire said.

Jody recoiled from him so hard she nearly went over backward on her barstool. The vampire caught her arm and steadied her.

"Hey, buddy," said Hair Plugs, "hands off."

The vampire let go of Jody's arm, reached across to put his hand on Hair Plugs's shoulder, and held him fast to his seat. The drunk's eyes went wide. The vampire smiled.

"She'll rip out your throat and drink your blood as you die. Is that what you want?"

Hair Plugs shook his head violently. "No, I already have an ex-wife."

The vampire released him. "Go away."

Hair Plugs slid off the stool and ran off into the crowd on the dance floor. Jody leaped to her feet and started to follow him. The vampire caught her arm and wheeled her around.

"Don't," he said.

Jody caught his wrist and began to squeeze. A human arm would have been reduced to mush. The vampire grinned. Jody locked eyes with him. "Let go."

"Sit," he said.

"Murderer."

The vampire threw his head back and laughed. The bartender, a burly jock type, looked up, then looked away. Just another loud drunk.

"I can take you," Jody said, not really believing it. She wanted to break loose and run.

The vampire, still smiling, said, "It would make an interesting news story, wouldn't it? 'Pale Couple Destroys Club in Domestic Disagreement. Shall we?"

Jody let go of his wrist but stayed locked on his eyes. They were black, showing no iris. "What do you want?"

The vampire broke the stare and shook his head. "Little fledgling, I want your company, of course. Now sit."

Jody climbed back onto the stool and stared into the glass before her.

"That's better. It's almost over, you know. I didn't think you would last this long, but alas, it must come to an end. The game has become a bit too public. You have to break from the cattle now. They don't understand you. You are not one of them anymore. You are their enemy. You know it, don't you? You've known it since your first kill. Even your little pet knows it."

Jody started to shake. "How did you get into the loft to get Tommy's book?"

The vampire grinned again. "One develops certain talents over time. You're still young, you wouldn't understand."

Part of Jody wanted to slam her fist into his face and run, yet another part wanted answers to all the questions that had been running through her mind since the night she was changed.

"Why me? Why did you do this to me?"

The vampire stood up and patted her on the shoulder. "It's almost over. The sadness of having a pet is that they always die on you. At the end of the night, you are alone. You'll know that feeling very soon. Drink up." He turned and walked away.

Jody watched him leave, relieved that he was gone, but at the same time disappointed. There were so many questions.

She picked up the glass, smelled the liquid, and nearly gagged.

The bartender snickered. "I never had an order for a double of straight grenadine before. Can I get you something else?"

"No, I've got to go catch him."

She picked up her paper, got up, ran up the steps and out of the club. She found that if she stayed on the balls of her feet, she could actually run in the high-heeled pumps. Chalk one up for vampire strength, she thought.

She grabbed the doorman by the shoulder and swung him around. "Did you see a thin, pale guy in black just leave?"

"That way." The doorman pointed east on Geary. "He was walking."

"Thanks," Jody tossed over her shoulder as she took to the sidewalk, waiting to break into a run until she was out of sight from the club. She ran a block before taking off the pumps and carrying them. The street was empty; only the buzz of wires and the soft padding of her feet on the sidewalk broke the silence.

She'd run ten blocks when she spotted him, a block away, leaning against a lamppost.

He turned and looked at her as she pulled up.

"So, fledgling, what are you going to do when you catch me?" he asked in a soft voice, knowing she would hear. "Kill me? Break off a signpost and drive it though my heart? Rip my head from my shoulders and play puppet with it while my body flops around on the sidewalk?" The vampire pantomimed flopping, rolled his eyes, and grinned.

Jody said nothing. She didn't know what she was going to do. She hadn't thought about it. "No," she said. "How can I stop you from killing Tommy?"

"They always betray you, you know. It's in their nature."

"What if I leave? Don't tell him where I'm going?"

"He knows we exist. We have to hide, fledgling. Always. Completely."

Jody felt strangely calm. Perhaps it was hearing the "we." Maybe it was talking in a normal voice to someone a block away. Whatever it was, she wasn't afraid, not for herself, anyway. She said, "If we have to hide, why all the killings?"

The vampire laughed again. "Did you ever have a cat bring you a bird it had killed?"

"Why?"

"Presents, fledgling. Now if you are going to kill me, please do. If not, go play with your pet while you can."

He turned and walked away.

"Wait!" Jody called. "Did you pull me through the basement window?"

"No," the vampire said without looking back. "I am not interested in saving you. And if you follow me, you will find out exactly how a vampire can be killed."

Gotcha, asshole, Jody thought. He had saved her.

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