Chapter 29

Paying Respects

Gilbert Bendetti liked his job, really liked his job. It was a government job, of sorts, so the benefits were good and the work easy. He liked working nights, too, it was quiet and he was usually in the morgue by himself, so he didn't have to feel self-conscious about his weight or his bad skin. He liked playing with computers and the lab equipment, and he liked answering the phone and acting official. Being the night man at the coroner's office would have been a great job even if he didn't get to fuck the dead, but with that, it was heaven.

Tonight Gilbert was bubbling with anticipation. They had wheeled Miss Right in that afternoon and left him explicit instructions not to put her away, but to let her sit out to thaw for the autopsy. Some psycho had put her in a freezer. Sick bastard had put TV dinners under her arms. Now she was curled up on a gurney, teasing him. That cocktail dress, that red hair  -  he could hardly wait.

He checked the log and locked his skin books in the desk drawer, then loosened his lab coat and went down the hall to test her for flexibility. The last time he checked she'd started to get a little flexibility, but he knew that inside she was  -  well  -  frigid, despite the Salisbury-steak gravy dripping from under her arms.

He pushed through the glass door into the holding room and there she was, just as he had left her, her pouty lips beckoning to him, her lovely legs curled up behind her.

"My angel," Gilbert said, "shall I help you with those pesky panty hose?"

He straightened her legs on the gurney and pushed her skirt up. She was still a little chilly, but she was movable. Good, once rigor mortis set in, passion could put you into positions that would challenge a yoga master. Gilbert had thrown his back out more than once.

Her panty hose were sheer black, but except for her right big toe, her feet were dusty. She must have been walking in her stocking feet. Indulging himself in some foreplay, Gilbert had sucked her big toe clean shortly after they brought her in. Foreplay, sorta.

He considered testing her with the meat thermometer, but she was so perfect, he didn't want to mark that lovely body. He reached up under her skirt, grabbed the waistband of her panty hose, and began to work them down.

"Black lace panties, my goodness..." He tried to remember her name, then checked her toe tag. "My goodness, Jody, how did you know I liked black lace?"

He peeled her panty hose off, stopping to loosen the toe tag first, then ran his hands up her thighs after the lace panties.

"And a natural redhead," Gilbert said, dropping the panties on the floor. He stepped back a moment to admire her and slip out of his lab coat. He locked the wheels on the gurney, pulled the TV dinners out from under her arms, and unzipped his pants.

"This is going to be so good. So good." He climbed over the end of the gurney, careful to stay balanced. Nothing ruined the mood more than toppling to the linoleum and bashing your skull.

He licked a path up the inside of her leg.

"Tommy, that tickles," she said.

Gilbert looked up. No, it's my imagination. He returned to his pleasure.

"No, let me shower first," she said. She sat up.

Gilbert pushed himself backward so violently that the gurney went up on its end, dumping Jody on the floor. Gilbert backed away from her holding his chest, his breath refusing to come, bis withering willy waving in front of him.

Jody climbed to her feet. "Who are you?"

Gilbert couldn't talk. He couldn't breathe. It felt as if barbed wire had been looped around his heart and was being yanked by a team of horses. He backed into a rack of drawers, banging his head.

Jody looked around. "How did I get here? Answer me."

Gilbert gasped and fell to his knees.

"Where's Tommy? And where the fuck are my panties?"

Gilbert was shaking his head. He rolled on his side, took two more tortured breaths, and died.

"Hey!" Jody said. "I need some answers here."

Gilbert didn't answer. Jody watched the black aura of his dying fade away, leaving only the residual heat signature of his body.

"Sorry," she said.

She looked around: the gurney, the big file drawers of the dead, the instruments of dissection  -  this sure looked like the morgues in the movies. Something had gone seriously wrong while she slept.

She checked her watch, but it was gone. The wall clock over Gilbert's body read 1 a.m.

Why did I wake up so late? I've got to find Tommy and find out what happened.

She picked up her panties from the floor and wiggled into them. The panty hose she left where they lay, instead looking around for her shoes. She didn't see them. She didn't see her purse anywhere either.

Money. I'm going to need cab fare.

She crouched by Gilbert's body and rifled through his pockets, coming up with thirty dollars and some change. Almost as an afterthought she tucked his exposed member back into his pants and zipped him up.

"I did that for your family, not for you," she said. Then thought, I'm getting worse than Tommy, talking to dead people.

She started toward the door, then stopped and looked at the wall of drawers. The scenario cane over her like a sudden sneeze.

Tommy is probably in one of those drawers. The vampire killed him, and when the coroner came, they thought I was dead too. But why did he spare me? And why did it take so long to wake up? Maybe it was that med student. Maybe when I missed the meeting he told the cops when to find me. But he didn't know how to find me.

She went though the glass doors and down the hall where she stopped at the phone and called the loft. No answer. She dialed the Marina Safeway's number.

"Marina Safeway." She recognized Simon McQueen's drawl.

"Simon, this is Jody. I need to talk to Tommy."

"Who? Who did you say you were?"

"It's Jody. Tommy's girlfriend. I need to speak to him."

Simon was quiet for a moment. When he finally spoke, his voice was an octave lower. "You don't know where Flood is?"

"He's not there?"

"Nope."

"Is he okay?"

"In a manner of speakin', he's okay. What about you? You feelin' all right?"

"Yes, Simon, I'm fine. Where's Tommy?"

"Well, ain't you a wonder. You're sure you feel okay?"

"Yes. Where's Tommy?"

"I can't tell you over the phone. I'll come get you. Where are you?"

"I'm not sure; just a second." Jody ran to the front door. The address was printed on the glass. She went back to the phone and gave Simon an address two blocks away.

"Let me get someone to cover my section. I'll be there in a half hour."

"Thanks, Simon." Jody hung up. What in the hell was going on?

While she waited for Simon to arrive, Jody parried the propositions of two guys in a Mercedes who had mistaken her for a hooker. Not an unreasonable mistake considering she was standing barefoot on a back street in a low-cut cocktail dress on a cold San Francisco night. Finally, when she told them she was an undercover cop, their resolve softened and they drove off hanging their heads.

Simon rounded the corner five minutes later and skidded to a stop in a cloud of smoking rubber and testosterone. He threw the door open for her.

"Get in."

Jody leaped into the passenger seat. Simon seemed a little surprised that she hadn't used the two steps mounted under the door. "You're steppin' high tonight, darlin'," Simon said.

Jody closed the door. "Where's Tommy?"

"Hold your horses, I'll take you to him." Simon put the truck in gear and roared off. "You sure you're feeling all right?"

"Yes, I'm fine. Why couldn't you tell me what happened to Tommy on the phone?"

"Well, he's hiding out. Seems the police want him for some murders."

"The Whiplash murders?"

"Those be the ones." Simon looked at her. "Ain't you cold?"

"Oh, I lost my coat."

"And shoes?"

"Yes, and shoes. Some guys were chasing me." Jody knew she didn't sound very convincing.

They were headed down Market toward the Bay Bridge. Simon grinned and pushed his black Stetson back on his head. "You don't get cold, do you, darlin'?"

"What do you mean?"

Simon hit the electric-lock button; Jody heard the lock go thunk at her side. Simon said, "You don't get hot either, do you? Or sick. Do you get sick?"

Jody hugged the door handle. "What are you getting at, Simon?"

Simon reached inside his jacket and came out with a Colt Python revolver. He pointed it at her and cocked it. "Now I know bullets might not kill you, but I'll bet they hurt like hell. And I put some little wood pegs in the hollow points just in case that does the job."

Jody had no idea what a bullet would do to her and she didn't want to find out. "What do you want, Simon?"

Simon pulled the truck into an alley and switched off the engine. "Couple of things. I don't know which I want first until you answer some questions."

"Whatever you want, Simon. You're Tommy's friend. You don't have to be a hard-ass, just ask."

"That's right sweet of you, darlin'. Now tell me, do you get sick?"

"Everybody gets sick, Simon. I get a cold every now and then."

Simon dug the gun into her ribs. "Don't bullshit me now. I know what you are."

Jody looked closely at Simon for the first time. He was burning up, the heat coming off him in red waves, even in the relative warmth of the truck cab. But below the heat aura she saw something else that she hadn't seen the first night she'd met him. Maybe because she hadn't known what to look for. Under the heat signature Simon was ringed by a thin black corona, as she had seen on other people  -  the death aura, but thinner, as if it was just growing.

She said, "Are you sure you're not just being an asshole again, Simon? Holding up your friend's girlfriend?"

"Don't get slippery on me, Red. I saw you sleeping that day we partied at your house. I touched you. You're cold as a witch's titty. And Flood always complainin' about you sleeping all day. And how he had to have them turtles alive. But I didn't put it all together until the Emperor started screaming about vampires and the cops took Flood away."

"You're nuts, Simon. None of that proves anything. There's no such thing as vampires."

"Oh yeah? Well, you know why they arrested Tommy?"

"No, I didn't know..."

"Because they found you dead in the freezer, that's why. He's in for your murder, missy. I still had some doubts until you called just now. You'll be my first dead piece of ass, not counting the time I choked my chicken over a picture of Marilyn."

Jody was stunned. A wave of panic swept through her, the inner voice shouting, Kill him, hide; kill him, hide. She fought it back. "You're doing this because you want sex?"

"Well, that's part of it. You see, I ain't been well laid for five years  -  since I picked me up this bug. It's kinda hard to get yourself into a good three-toweler when you got the dick of death. I ain't no ass bandit, though. I let some whore from Oakland fix me up with a speedball. Six of us shared the needle."

"You're dying of AIDS?" Jody asked.

"No need to candy-coat it, darlin'. Just come right out and say it."

"Sorry, Simon, but when someone has a gun on me and tells me he's going to rape me, I forget my manners."

"Ain't going to be no rape unless you want it. The other thing is more important."

"Other thing?"

"I want you to change me into a vampire."

"No, you don't, Simon. You don't know what it's like."

"I don't need to know, darlin'. I know I'm going to die if you don't. It ain't just HIV anymore, it's full-blown. I can hardly get my boots on and off from the sores. The doctor's got me on enough pills to choke a horse. Now do it."

Jody felt for him. For all his arrogant cowboy panache, she could tell he was afraid. "I don't know how, Simon. I don't know how I was changed. It just happened."

He dug the barrel of the gun up under her breast and slid across the seat next to her. "You just bite my damn neck. Now do it!"

"That doesn't work. That would just kill you. I don't know how to turn you into a vampire."

Simon took the gun out of her ribs and held it against her thigh. "I'm going to count to three, then I'm going to shoot you in the leg if you don't start turning me. Then I'm going to count to three and shoot you in the other leg. I didn't want to do this, but you got to see."

Jody could see tears welling up in Simon's eyes. He didn't want to do this, but she knew he would. She wondered even if she knew how to turn him if she would do it. "Simon, please, I really don't know how to turn you. Let me go. Maybe I'll find out."

"I don't have the time, darlin'. If I have to trade the daylight for a lifetime of nights, I'll take the nights. I'm counting now. One!"

"Simon, don't. Just wait."

"Two!"

Jody watched a tear roll out of his eye. She felt his body tense and looked down at the gun. The tendons in his hand were tightening. He was going to do it.

"Three!"

Jody shot out her right hand, palm open, and hit Simon under the chin while sweeping the gun away from her leg with her right. The gun went off, sending a bullet through the floorboard. The explosion covered the noise of Simon's neck snapping but she could feel the crunch against her palm. Simon slumped back in the seat, his head thrown back and mouth open as if he were frozen in a laugh. Over the ringing in her ears Jody could hear his last breath squeaking out of his lungs. The black aura around him faded away.

She reached over and straightened his Stetson. "God, Simon, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

Rivera drove. Cavuto sat in the passenger seat smoking and talking on the radio. He keyed the mike. "If anyone sees the Emperor tonight, detain him and call Rivera and Cavuto. He's wanted for questioning but he's not, I repeat not, a suspect. In other words, don't scare him."

Cavuto hung the mike on the dash and said to Rivera, "You really don't think that this is a waste of time?"

"Like I said, Nick, homicide and the coroner are the only ones who know about the blood loss. Our guys wouldn't leak, but even if there was a leak in the coroner's office, I can't imagine anyone telling the Emperor. Whoever did these murders is behaving like a vampire. Maybe he thinks he's a vampire. So to catch him, we have to pretend we're tracking a vampire."

"That's bullshit. We've got enough evidence on the kid to get an indictment right now, and by the time forensics gets done with his apartment we'll have enough for a conviction."

"Yeah," Rivera said, "except for one thing."

Cavuto rolled his eyes. "I know, you don't think he killed anyone."

"And neither do you."

Cavuto chomped his cigar and looked out the car window at a group of winos milling on a corner by a liquor store.

"Do you?" Rivera insisted.

"He knows who did. And if I have to walk his cute little ass right up to the chair to get him to tell, I will."

A call came over the radio. "Go ahead," Cavuto said into the mike.

The dispatcher's voice crackled over the speaker. "Unit ten is holding the Emperor at Mason and Bay. Do you want them to bring him in?"

Cavuto turned to Rivera and raised his eyebrows. "Well?"

"No, tell them we'll be there in five."

Cavuto keyed the mike. "Negative, we're on our way."

Three minutes later Rivera pulled the unmarked Dodge into a red zone behind the cruiser. The two uniformed officers were playing with Lazarus and Bummer, whose armor rattled and clanged as they frisked. The Emperor stood by, his wooden sword still in hand.

Rivera got out of the car first. "Good evening, Your Majesty."

"Give me a fucking break," Cavuto said under his breath as he hoisted his bulk out of the car.

"And a good early morning to you, Inspector." The Emperor bowed. "I see the fiend has us all burning the midnight oil."

Rivera nodded to the uniforms. "We got it, guys, thanks." One of the uniforms was a woman. She shot Rivera a dirty look as she headed for the cruiser.

Rivera turned his attention back to the Emperor. "You've been busy calling in reports of a vampire in the City."

The Emperor frowned. "And I must say, Inspector, I'm a bit disappointed with the lack of promptness of your response."

"Eat me," said Cavuto.

"We've been busy," Rivera said.

"Well, you're here at last." The Emperor waved to Bummer and Lazarus, who were waiting at his heel. "You know the men?"

"We've met," Rivera said with a wave. "Your Majesty, you reported seeing a vampire"  -  Rivera pulled a notebook out of his jacket pocket  -  "three different times over the last month and a half." Rivera took a copy of Tommy's mug shot from his notebook and held it out to the Emperor. "Is this the man you saw?"

"Heavens no. That's my friend C. Thomas Flood, aspiring author. A fine, if confused, lad. I arranged for his employment at the Marina Safeway."

"But he's not the man you reported as being a vampire."

"No. The fiend is older, and has sharp features, of Arab descent, I would guess, if he were not so pale."

Cavuto stepped up and took the picture from Rivera. "You reported the body they found in SOMA, but you said you didn't see anything. Did you see this man anywhere near the scene?"

"The victim was a friend of mine, Charlie. He left his mind in Vietnam, I'm afraid, but a good soul just the same. He had been dead for some time when I found him, though. The fiend left him there to rot."

Cavuto bristled. "But you didn't see this vampire guy at the scene either."

"I have seen him in the financial district, once in Chinatown, and at the marina last night. In fact, that young man gave me sanctuary at the Safeway."

Cavuto's beeper went off. He ignored it. "You saw Flood and this vampire guy together?"

"No, I ran from the wharf when the fiend materialized out of mist."

"I'm outta here," Cavuto said, throwing up his hands. He checked his beeper and went back to the car.

Rivera held his ground. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty, my partner needs to learn some manners. Now, if you can just tell me..."

Cavuto beeped the horn and hung his head out the window. "Rivera, come on. They found another one. Let's go."

"Wait a second." Rivera took a business card out of his wallet and gave it to the Emperor. "Highness, could you call me tomorrow, around noon? I'll come get you wherever you are  -  buy you and the men some lunch."

"Of course, my son."

Cavuto yelled out the car window, "Let's go, this one's fresh."

"Be careful," Rivera said to the Emperor. "Watch your back, okay?"

The Emperor grinned. "Safety first."

Rivera turned and walked to the car. He was still shutting the door as Cavuto pulled away from the curb. Cavuto said, "Another snapped neck. Body's in a pickup off of Market. Uniforms found it five minutes ago."

"Blood loss?"

"They knew enough not to say over the radio. But there's a witness."

"Witness?"

"Homeless guy sleeping in the alley saw a woman leaving the scene. There's an all-points out for a redheaded female in a black cocktail dress."

"You're bullshitting."

Cavuto turned and looked him in the eye. "The Laundromat ninja returns."

"Santa Fucking Maria," Rivera said.

"I love it when you speak Spanish."

The radio crackled again, the dispatcher calling their unit number. Rivera grabbed the mike and keyed it.

"What now?" he said.

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