To the memory of Jad Duwaik
Special thanks to the wonderful people at HarperCollins and especially my publisher, Rene Alegria, my editor, Diana Gill, her assistant, Will Hinton, and my publicist, Michelle Dominguez. There's no mention big enough for PMA Literary and Film Management, Inc. and my agent, Scott Hoffman, now at Folio Literary Management, LLC. I'm grateful for the support given to me by booksellers across the country. Writing about corpses involved special research, and thanks to Lt. Ed Winter at the Department of Coroner, County of Los Angeles, for giving me the short tour. The burdens of my travels were eased by the many people who welcomed me into their homes: Rebecca Hulem, Bob Hadaya, Joni Mulder, David Lacy, and Joe Flynn. To Erika Paterson for her advice, friendship, and the occasional dance lessons. I got a lot of wonderful props from those rabble-rousers at La Bloga: Manuel Ramos, Dan Olivas, Rudy G., Michael Sedano, and Gina Ruiz. A big smile for that special vampire writer, Marta Acosta, who contacted me out of the blue and dragged me into her blogosphere. My critique group who kept after me until I got things right: Heidi Kuhn, Jeanne Stein, Sandy Meckstroth, Margie and Tom Lawson, Jeff Shelby, Jim Cole, Kevin Tracy, and Sue Viders. To mi gente at El Centro Su Teatro: Tony Garcia, Tanya Mote, and Mica for pushing the Chicano vampire bandwagon. I still look for inspiration from my friends in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and my fellow scribes at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop: Andrea Dupree, Mike Henry, William Henderson, Shari Caudron, Eric Olson, and Amanda Rea. Then there is that malicious bunch in the Mystery Writers of America: Gwen Shuster-Haynes, R.T. Lawton, Chris Goff, and Bonnie Ramthum (who gave me a bottle of vampire wine). Zooming in at low orbit is the creative and hard-charging bunch of the DogmataDenver team: Russ Wright, Tadd Moskal, David Menard, Jennifer Mosquera, Eric Matelski, and Amy, his smarty-pants wife. Finally, to my sister Sylvia and her partner Janet, my brother Armando, my sons Alex and Emil, my aunt Angelica, and my uncle Sam and tia Alma.
"It's about murder," said Katz Meow.
Murder? I had trouble accepting the premise from such pillowy and succulent red lips.
I gave Katz the vampire once-over. A quick study of her eyes, the portals to a human's consciousness. Mascara clumped her eyelashes, making them seem like ragged penumbras around the shiny blue marbles of her irises. Her high-boned cheeks were round and perfect.
My gaze dropped to her neck, and I studied the hollows between the tendons of her throat, marking the choicest spot to sink my fangs and tap her jugular.
Should I fang her, there could be one of three outcomes.
If I only sucked her blood, I could modulate which of the enzymes in my saliva flowed back through the punctures. These enzymes deepened vampire hypnosis and could induce permanent amnesia, and make her swoon with orgasmic pleasure or writhe in searing pain.
If I sucked too much blood, I would kill her.
Or should our blood commingle after the fanging-especially through an open-mouth kiss as was done to me years ago-then she'd be damned to walk the earth as a vampire.
The low collar of her dress arced like a smile across her voluptuous cleavage. My eyes went back to hers, lingering for an instant in fleeting lust.
Morning sunlight illuminated my office.
Sunblock and makeup covered my translucent complexion. Katz didn't know I was a vampire. Humans couldn't know. They must never know. Superstition and skepticism protect us, the undead. The moment humans discovered we exist, they would hunt us down. Those vampires the humans didn't exterminate would be imprisoned and dissected. I had to be careful what cases I accepted as an undead private detective.
Katz fidgeted in the leather chair facing my desk, as if she sensed my wariness.
"Whose murder?" I asked.
Katz wrung her hands, the manicured white-tipped fingernails crisscrossing. "My friend Roxy Bronze."
"Never heard of her."
Katz reached into the large Gucci handbag-real or knockoff-resting by her ankle. Gold bracelets jangled from her wrist as she offered me a plastic DVD case.
The cover of the DVD showed Katz and a statuesque brunette, holding each other by the waist. Both wore matching black bikini bottoms and bolero vests, and stood on clear plastic stiletto slut pumps. They had wanton grins as lurid as what the DVD title blared in fluorescent green letters: SUPER-VIXEN SKANK FEST, VOLUME EIGHT. Printed across their respective muscular thighs were their names: KATZ MEOW and ROXY BRONZE.
Katz brushed a tangle of blond hair from her forehead and looked away. She tapped one of her wooden-soled clogs against the oak floor.
The reverse side of the DVD case was a collage of Ms. Meow and Ms. Bronze in what looked like a high-impact version of the Kama Sutra as they played together, with other women and sex toys, and an assortment of men with amazingly large penises.
I flipped the DVD over and examined the cover again. My gaze traced across Roxy Bronze's face. The narrow bridge of her nose, the pronounced dimples in her cheeks, a chin tapering to a neat point-this last detail emphasized the elongated outline of her face. Her smile curved up in a pronounced U, exposing a neat row of porcelain white teeth.
Roxy looked familiar. But from where? Maybe I had seen her picture somewhere else.
I handed the DVD to Katz.
Katz took the case and dropped it into her bag.
My mind held the images of Katz and Roxy screwing like farm animals. "You're a…"
She finished the sentence for me. "An erotic film actress."
Fancy way of saying she nuzzled crotches for a living. When receiving new clients, I was tempted to read their auras, since they betrayed much about what humans think. Auras were more expressive than facial gestures. But special contacts covered my eyes, hiding the tapetum lucidum-the mirrorlike retinas vampires share with other nocturnal predators-so I was out of luck. The contacts allowed me to appear human, though at the cost of diminishing my night vision and losing my ability to read auras and hypnotize prey at will.
"You live in L.A.?" I asked. We were in my Denver office, a long way from California.
"Yes, the Valley."
Katz smirked. "San Fernando."
Of course. The San Fernando Valley was to porn what Maine was to lobster fishing. "Katz Meow is your stage name, I take it."
"And your real name?"
"Katz Meow is my real name."
"Where were you born? A pet store?"
She sighed and said, "My real name is Wilma Pettigrew. I'm originally from Shelbyville, Indiana."
I didn't blame her for changing names. Katz Meow conjured silk lingerie and Porsches. Wilma Pettigrew, gingham aprons and Buicks. "Ms. Pettigrew, where did-"
"Please, Felix," she interrupted, "Mr. Gomez, I mean, don't call me Ms. Pettigrew. I hate that name." Her voice took on a flat, nasal quality, as if the mention of Wilma Pettigrew took her from Southern California and back to her midwestern neighborhood. "I'm Katz. Katz Meow. Ms. Meow. But never Wilma Pettigrew."
I acknowledged her request with a nod. "Very well… Ms. Meow, where did this murder take place?"
"L.A.," she said. "Hollywood, to be specific."
"And you've come to Denver. You couldn't find someone out there willing to take the case?"
Katz held her gaze on me.
"Or that you trusted?"
"It's both," she replied.
"What about the police? There had to be an investigation."
"There were cops and paperwork, a real dog and pony show. They said it was probably a holdup gone bad, claiming Roxy was at the wrong place at the wrong time. But I know their story was a sham."
"What makes you sure?"
Katz's voice sharpened. "Roxy had enemies. Powerful enemies."
What kind of enemies could a porn star have? A jealous lover? Drug dealer? A mobster pimp? Any one of these was an easy mark for the police or a young district attorney eager to add a scalp to their trophy belt. Perhaps the problem was that Katz couldn't let go of the tragedy.
Katz kept quiet. Her radiance faded and she looked like a plucked flower starting to wilt.
I perused my notes scrawled on the desk blotter calendar. This month I had the usual: cheating spouses, embezzlement, insurance and workers' comp frauds. Every assignment was in the bag. I needed time alone with the offending parties to zap them with vampire hypnosis and pry out the necessary info. With that knowledge I'd slap together incriminating evidence. Cases closed. Checks in the mail.
Now Katz comes with her tales of a murder conspiracy. I thought of the porn business as attracting the addle-brained. A bunch of neurotics who accumulated problems the same way a dog's hairy ass collected burrs. Maybe Katz needed counseling, rather than my services.
"Ms. Meow, this is the way I see it. You've lost a close friend under random and tragic circumstances. Perhaps, instead of me, you should seek another kind of professional help…"
Katz jerked upright. "What are you getting at? That I need therapy? Well, I don't." Her complexion had been peaches and cream; now it was red as sunburn. She lifted an envelope from her handbag. "What I need is for you to find out who murdered Roxy and why." The tone in her voice became tough like gristle.
I took the envelope.
What did this involve? Murder. Pornography. And all the twisted threads that bound them. Suppose Katz had a legitimate case? "If I agree to help, I'd have to go to California. This investigation would be expensive."
Katz's eyes narrowed, as if my comment insulted her.
I opened the envelope. Inside was a cashier's check for $100,000. I felt my eyebrows rise.
"I see you made this out to me. How were you so sure that I'd take the case?"
"I knew you had to."
She replied with such naive confidence that I stifled a laugh. A hundred thousand bones was a lot of money but not enough to buy me. I waved the check. "Is this your money?"
Katz had come a long way to ask for help, and I needed a moment as I considered her case. I swiveled my chair around and looked out the window.
A pickup truck pulled up to the burrito stand across the street. My office was at the corner of Tennyson and Forty-fourth in northwest Denver, on the second floor above the entrance to the Oriental Theater. The neon sign of the theater, a gigantic phallus with letters spelling ORIENTAL down its length, was fixed outside my window. At night, the sign swamped my office with a fiery orange glow.
This murder case was an opportunity far beyond snagging cheating spouses or insurance chiselers. I ticked over my reservations. Travel to California. Unfamiliar territory. Dealing with humans I didn't know. The money was tempting, but I didn't need it. I didn't want the challenge-I had nothing to prove to anyone. I couldn't think of a reason to take the case.
I swiveled back and faced Katz. "Why me?"
"You won't believe this, but it's true." Katz glanced over one shoulder to the closed door of my office. She leaned over the edge of my desk, and her eyes filled with sincerity. "It's because Roxy's murder involves vampires."
Her words smacked me with the force of a pool cue in a bar fight. How would a human like her know about vampires?
Within my belly, my kundalini noir-that black serpent of energy that animates the undead-thrashed in alarm. My fingertips buzzed to signal danger.
Katz Meow couldn't be allowed to live with this knowledge. I would hypnotize her to glean what she knew about vampires. Then I would kill her. I had no other choice.
I dropped my hands behind the desk to hide my extending talons. My growing fangs nudged against the inside of my lip.
"You look like you're coming unglued." Katz gave a short, nervous laugh. "I'm not crazy."
I let my fangs retract. "Then you don't believe in vampires?"
"Why did you bring them up?"
"Because someone told me Roxy's murder is connected to a deal between people and vampires."
What kind of a deal? My kundalini noir writhed in distress. "Someone who?"
"Give me a name."
Katz crossed her arms. "I came here thinking I was going nuts for even pretending to believe in vampires. I mention the word, and you go ballistic."
She was right. I had lost my cool. My talons withdrew and I placed my hands on the desk. "You mention murder. Next you bring up vampires. I was about to throw you out."
"But you haven't," Katz replied.
"Rebecca Dwelling," she said.
"That's my friend who told me about vampires."
"Why would Rebecca Dwelling think she's run into vampires?" I scribbled the name on my blotter.
"She works at a club where she claims vampires mingle with people," Katz said. "It's a secret place like an SM dungeon. Visitors offer gifts and their blood to vampires. Sounds sick, I know. The people hope that if the vampires find them worthy, they'll be transformed into vampires as a reward."
My senses went back into full alert. What Katz described were chalices, humans who willingly gave themselves to vampires in the perverse hope of becoming vampires themselves. Chalices were the only humans allowed to live with knowledge of the undead, a secret they only dared reveal under the penalty of a swift and gruesome death. Their vampire masters had the responsibility of enforcing this pact, and their failure to do so demanded an immediate execution of both chalice and vampire. Had the secrets of the supernatural world been compromised?
"Do you believe this?" I asked.
"And you don't?"
"Believe in vampires?" Katz chuckled. "Give me a break, Felix. I quit believing in the supernatural, fairy tales, Bible stories, all that crap, after my Sunday school teacher molested me."
"Sorry to hear that."
"That I don't believe?"
"No, the other part. About your Sunday school teacher."
Katz shrugged. "It happened and I moved on. What concerns me are the people who murdered Roxy."
"Would these be the powerful enemies you mentioned?"
"Read for yourself." Katz produced a thick bundle of papers from her handbag. She laid the papers on my desk.
I took the bundle and removed the rubber band. The papers were copies of newspaper clippings and printouts from numerous Web sites. SMUT LADY WINS BATTLE AGAINST PORN COMPANY. QUEEN OF RAUNCH TESTIFIES AGAINST DEVELOPERS. PORN STAR FOUND DEAD IN ALLEY.
"Give me a rundown of these powerful enemies."
"Cragnow Vissoom is the president of the video company Roxy was contracted to."
"What was his problem with her?"
"Roxy had bought out her contract and wanted to start her own company. Cragnow was afraid she'd take his best people."
"Such as you?"
"Me and other girls."
Katz rolled her eyes. "It would make Cragnow look like a real chump. What kind of a boss can't control his talent, especially in the skin trade? Plus Roxy made him rich. Before she hired on, Gomorrah Video was small potatoes. Thanks to her, Cragnow became number one in triple X sales and rentals."
People had been murdered for less. That was one suspect.
"And the rest of the enemies?"