To the memory of author Jerry Rodriguez and artist John Berkey
“Felix, drop your pants.”
The last time I heard those words, they were from a topless stripper.
Tonight was different, but the wound on my leg hurt too much for me to protest Mel’s words.
Mel was the acting head of the local nidus, Latin for “nest,” in this case the community of Denver vampires. Tendrils of anxiety writhed from his orange aura, a bright contrast against the gloom of an autumn night. With a greasy gray mane combed back to his shoulders and scraggly white muttonchops, Mel projected none of the glamour associated with Hollywood vampires.
We were on a deserted construction site in Aurora, a suburb east of Denver. Though Aurora’s the second-largest city in Colorado, it’s the Fresno of the Front Range: square mile after square mile of strip malls and cheap rents that run together to create an asphalt grid of nothing.
I rested against the foreman’s trailer, unbuckled my trousers, and slid them to my knees. Smoke and blood trickled from the teeth marks on the inside of my left thigh.
“Smoke?” Mel asked, astonished. “That damn zombie must have left silver fillings when he bit you.”
Silver. No wonder this hurt so much.
Mel’s right index fingernail extended into a talon. “Hold still.”
I gripped the muscle around the wound to distend the punctures. Mel crouched and slid the razor-sharp nail into an opening where the smoke puffed out. A fresh jolt of pain coursed up my spine and out my arms. He flicked his wrist and a tiny piece of smoking goo spun to the dirt.
He spit into his palm and pressed it over the wound. “This is as close to a hand job as you’ll get from me. Doesn’t mean we’re in love or anything. In fact, please don’t call me in the morning.”
I massaged the injured muscle. “How about a card on Valentine’s?” The vampire enzymes in his saliva dulled the pain and accelerated my supernatural healing. By this time tomorrow, all I’d have is another battle scar to add to my collection.
I put weight on the leg and it finally felt like I wouldn’t collapse from the pain. I fastened my trousers and limped to the edge of a hole excavated for the basement of a large building. Concrete slabs formed two sides of the hole but the rest was still packed dirt.
The zombie shambled within the hole where we’d chased it. He-obviously once a man-cradled his head under one arm and used his other to grope along the concrete. His mottled, waxy complexion and the clumps of trash stuck to his grimy clothes made it look like he’d been rotting in a shallow grave for a week.
I had removed the special contacts that masked my tapetum lucidum, the mirror-like retinas at the back of my eyes. The contacts were part of my cover to hide from humans, but wearing them kept me from using night vision or seeing psychic auras.
I didn’t know if zombies had night vision; I had no idea about any of their powers other than they were supposed to be hard as hell to destroy. Tonight I had discovered an important fact: they had no auras, which made them a bitch to track in the dark.
The zombie clawed the dirt wall, climbing up a foot before stumbling backward. He dropped his head. It plopped against the dirt and rolled like a lopsided melon. The animated corpse sank to its knees and crawled along the ground, one arm searching in a wide arc.
The head worked its mouth and turned onto its face, where it used its nose and chin to inch toward the body. I was more disgusted than fascinated. Yes, zombies are undead, as we vampires are. But comparing them to us was like comparing turds to eagles.
The Araneum, the worldwide network of vampires, has one standing order: Destroy all zombies.
We must ruthlessly protect the Great Secret-the existence of the supernatural world-from humans. Their disbelief in the supernatural was what kept us vampires safe.
We’ve seen what humans have done to one another.
Against their growing technical prowess and corporate savagery, what chance did we the undead have? Our best hope for survival was to remain cloaked by superstition and fable.
Zombies have no regard for keeping the Great Secret. They materialize (from where? I don’t know) and begin their rampage for mortal flesh, literally mindless of the consequences. Vampires have been able to disguise zombie attacks as examples of deranged cannibals-Jeffrey Dahmer copycats. But eventually the zombies would make one attack too obvious to hide, and then humans would be on to all of us supernatural creatures. After that, we could only expect the methodical obliteration of the undead.
Therefore, all zombies must be exterminated.
Protecting the Great Secret is what I do for the Araneum. My day job is private detective. My real job is the pro bono work I do as a vampire enforcer.
“This your first zombie?” Mel asked.
“How’d he get the drop on you?”
“I was stupid,” I replied. “After I laid him out with a shovel, I was going through his pockets.”
“Why didn’t you decapitate him?”
“I did. Right after that he shot from the ground, head in hands, and clamped onto me. Don’t let that walking corpse routine fool you, he’s got moves.”
The zombie found his head, picked it up, and stood. Strands of muddy drool hung from the lips and the neck stump. The dull eyes swiveled left and right and fixed upon a wooden surveyor’s stake pounded into the dirt. The zombie approached the stake and yanked it free. He worked the square end of the stake into the raw meat of the neck opening in his torso. Using both hands, he fit his head over the sharp end of the stake. He gave himself a rap on the top of his skull and the head squished tight into the collar of his shirt.
Looking at this repugnant creature was like watching an abscess ooze pus.
Where did the zombie come from?
Who made it?
Mel propped himself against a length of pipe that he’d used to club the zombie. He handed me a wallet. “Your zombie dropped this.”
The wallet looked-and smelled-as if it had been recovered from a Bourbon Street gutter. I opened the wallet and sorted through a Colorado driver’s license, supermarket cards, and a debit card. The money bills and business cards were scraps of wet, dirty pulp.
I read aloud, “Name on the driver’s license is Barrett Chambers. From Morada.” That was in the San Luis Valley, over two hundred miles away. How did he get here?
I slid the wallet and cards into my coat pocket. I brushed my hands across my trousers to wipe away the slime.
The zombie made noises like he was gargling sludge. The smell hit us. Make that sewer sludge.
“This guy doesn’t seem much for conversation,” Mel said. “Wouldn’t do any good to question him.”
A young vampire named Dagger appeared from behind an excavator and walked to the edge of the hole. Mel had brought Dagger because the newbie bloodsucker wanted to prove himself as an undead terror.
Trouble was, Dagger was a high school dropout and a punk. Once undead, he had changed his name from Bartholomew, said it lacked vampiric panache. Must’ve taken him all day to find that word in the dictionary.
Dagger carried a metal garden sprayer. He set the sprayer between his feet. “I filled this with super unleaded. It’s gonna make one hell of a flamethrower.” He waved the sprayer nozzle at the zombie. “Hey, smelly boy, feeling cold dressed in those rags? Let me warm you up.”
The zombie turned toward Dagger. He stopped at the bottom of the wall, raised his arms, and emitted a guttural moan.
Dagger laughed, kicked dirt into the zombie’s face, and aimed the nozzle. Gasoline splattered on the zombie’s head and soaked his clothes. He waved his arms to block the spray.
Dagger took a cigarette from his shirt pocket and set the butt between his lips. He dug a plastic lighter from his pocket and held it to the cigarette.
“I wouldn’t do that,” I warned.
Dagger dismissed me with a fanged sneer. “Hey, I got it, Pops. Anything happens, I got my vampire reflexes.” He bobbed side to side.
I wanted to find the vampire who had turned Dagger and slap her. She hadn’t done our bloodsucking tribe any favors by converting this arrogant dumb ass.
Dagger thumbed the lighter. It sparked and the gas fumes went whoosh. His clothes on fire, Dagger screamed and tripped over the sprayer, tumbling him and the sprayer on top of the zombie. They tangled together, their flailing bodies sandwiching the sprayer. Flames jetted from the pile, followed by a roaring fireball that mushroomed into a column of black smoke.
The heat slapped Mel and me and we were surrounded by the stink of burning compost. We stepped back. Mel covered his sideburns and said, “Awesome. I would’ve paid good money to see this.”
The charred bodies settled in a burning heap.
We experienced vampires have a mandate to protect the newly turned, to protect them against everything except their own stupidity.
“That Dagger,” Mel said, “what a dumbass.”
“At least he took one with him.”
Mel ambled toward the excavator and climbed over the treads to get into the cab. “Gotta make sure the zombie is history.” He fumbled in the cab and tossed a padlock to the ground. A minute later the diesel engine grunted to life. The excavator boom lurched up and jerked left and right.
I hobbled out of the way.
The bucket on the end of the boom swiveled outward until its claws pointed down. The boom dropped and the bucket cleaved the bodies. Mel raised the boom and the bodies fell apart in halves. Smoking embers of flesh and clothes fluttered to the ground. He lifted and dropped the boom again and again, hacking the bodies into smoldering pieces. He yelled out the cab: “Hey, I oughta get a job at Benihana.”
After Mel had chopped Dagger and the zombie into hash, he pulled the boom up and away. He climbed down from the excavator and stood beside me.
The pile of dirt looked like a lumpy mass of rancid bread dough. “Good job, Mel, but we can’t leave evidence.”
“No problem. I’ll make some calls.”
This wasn’t all we had to worry about. “There’s a more pressing issue, I’m afraid.”
“What’s that?” Mel asked.
“Where did this zombie come from?”
I recognized the smells. Ditch water. Smoke. The stink from under my uniform and body armor.
I was back where my private hell had begun.
Four shadows moved cautiously through the evening gloom. They lurked toward me along the bank of the canal. Only I knew they approached annihilation.
I was certain they were insurgents sneaking to attack my soldiers and me. Only later would I discover the gruesome truth. They weren’t insurgents: they were civilians.
A man, two women, and a little girl.
The family I helped slaughter years ago.
I didn’t want to see this again. Once in a lifetime, even an immortal lifetime, was more than enough.
My kundalini noir — that black serpent of energy that animates my form instead of a beating heart-wrestled and beat against my ribs like it wanted to escape.
The Iraqis took timid steps, moving like hunted deer.
I tried to shout a warning but my mouth was dry and breathless.
I tried to jerk my hands up but my arms were cinched down as if in a straitjacket.
I tried to close my eyes and turn away but could not. My eyes were pinned open and my head locked in place, forcing me to watch the despicable horror.
Automatic gunfire burst loud as thunder. Red tracer bullets crisscrossed the air in a red net of death. The Iraqis started to fall even as grenades exploding at their feet made them dance like grotesque marionettes.
Gun sights materialized before me and centered on the smallest of the figures, the little girl.
The recoil of an invisible carbine pushed against my shoulder.
The huge eyes of the little girl bloomed with pain, the irises forever ringed with terror, dark as the night I last saw her alive.
The little girl fell onto her back.
In that moment, the joy and hope was sucked out of my life. Shame bore upon me like the weight of a mountain.
My legs weakened and I collapsed to my knees into a pool of blood spreading from the little girl.
A woman whispered my name and it echoed in the darkness.
Then became louder.
A plume of vapor wafted from the little girl. The plume rose and twisted, creating her ghostly twin. A filmy gown clung to her youthful form. When I first saw her years ago on that terrible night in Iraq, she might have been twelve at most. Now as she hovered in the air, she grew through adolescence, becoming taller, her face longer, her figure ripening from little girl to young woman.
My name echoed even louder. It echoed again and again until the sound reverberated in my skull like the deafening crash of a drum.
My kundalini noir convulsed and dissolved into a thousand spiders that crawled inside my skin as I screamed.
My hands suddenly wrenched free. I clutched my face and balled up into a fetal position.
I sat upright in my coffin. My nerves were raw and electric and my throat hurt. The echo in my head faded as the nightmare receded from my consciousness. I blinked. I was alone in my apartment, surrounded by a smothering quiet.
My kundalini noir grew tight as it sought to keep me centered. I rubbed my face and kneaded my hands. I welcomed back my strength and the mass of my physical body.
Homey smells comforted me, a lingering aroma of incense, a trace of yesterday’s dinner-rib eye with lots of onions and type A-negative-and the dregs of bourbon and vermouth in the glass on the table beside my coffin.
I swung my legs out of the coffin. I slid off the table and lowered myself to the floor. Once upright, I paused for a moment to get my bearings, then proceeded in a bleary shuffle to the bathroom.
I thought that as a supernatural I’d be immune to nightmares, but apparently not.
I’m the legendary undead monster in human form, yet the ghost of this child tormented me like a fever.
Why the girl? What did it mean that she rose as a young woman like a phoenix from her fallen body?
I thought I had paid my cosmic penance. The girl and her family had forgiven me during a hallucination when I was close to a second death. After their blessing, I was complete as a vampire and felt free to drink human blood.
Maybe this was a new bout of post-traumatic stress. A lot of war veterans never get out from under it.
A headache throbbed behind my forehead. I ran the tap, leaned over the sink, and rinsed my face.
Out of habit, I stared into the mirror, and in my place saw what I always did…
I am a soulless immortal with the potential to accumulate wisdom over the centuries. I’m privy to the great mysteries of the universe. So far I’d learned that vampires can be as naïve or as treacherous as humans, and that the corporate vermin who run this planet would sell out their entire race for an extra bump on the bottom line. I’ve barely held my own in those fights and I’ve lost one big one. I failed my friend and fellow vampire, Carmen Arellano, and now she’s a hostage of alien gangsters somewhere deep in outer space.