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There are positive points to being suddenly thrust into the ranks of the undead:

You're always young.

You live forever.

And best of all . . . you can hunt down your own killer.

 

 

Join vampire P. I. Jack Fleming on his first big case:
solving his OWN murder!

 

 

He's untouchable,

unstoppable,

and undead.

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ON WRITING 

This excerpt is from the

3-in-1 omnibus shown above containing

Bloodlist

Lifeblood

Bloodcircle

 

All typos on this page are the fault of the scanner operator being short on caffeine.

 

 

 

Legal stuff: The excerpt posted is not released from copyright or under creative commons or any other licensing procedure.  It is not for reproduction elsewhere, including file share sites with the exception of small excerpts for the purpose of linking or commentary and other purposes covered under fair use. 

LINKS to this site and/or page are perfectly okay!

Thank you for respecting this! -- P.N. Elrod

 

Throughout the whole vast, shadowy world of ghosts and demons, there is no figure so terrible, no figure so dreadful and abhorred, yet so dight with such fearful fascination, as the vampire, who is himself neither ghost nor demon, but yet who partakes the dark natures and possesses the mysterious and terrible qualities of both.

--Montague Summers
The Vampire: His Kith and Kin

 

 

From Vampire Files #1:

 

BLOODLIST 

by P.N. Elrod

 

 

 

Chicago, Summer 1936

 

 THE CAR WAS DOING AT LEAST FORTY when the right front fender smashed against my left hip and sent me spinning off the road to flop bonelessly into a mass of thick, windblown grass.

It was a well-engineered accident, involving no small skill on the part of the driver. A body, depending on its size and weight in relation to the speed and position of the car usually does two things: it either goes under the car or bounces over it. Going under, it can get dragged, leaving a lot of bloody physical evidence all over the road and vehicle. If it gets flipped up and over, the driver risks a dented hood and roof or a broken windshield or all three. The professional hit-and-run artist knows how to avoid such risks and will try to clip the target with just the front bumper or fender; that way he has only some scratched paint to touch up or at most a broken headlight to replace.

I had been hit by such an expert. There was minimal pain, though, and that was swiftly receding. The idea my spine had been broken was the first real thought to surface in my cobweb-clogged brain since I woke up on the beach. I'd been groggy then, with only enough stuff working in my head to shakily stand and blink down at my soaked clothes. It never occurred to me to question why I was on a beach and in such a condition, and I was still in a thought-numbing state of shock when I climbed a short, sandy rise and found the road. There was no rational decision on what direction to go in, my legs took me left and walked. When I heard a car motor rumbling up behind me I stuck out a thumb and walked sideways.

The small dot down the road swelled into a dark green Ford with a big lumpy-looking man at the wheel. While still a little distance off, the car slowed abruptly, its headlights raking painfully into my eyes. I shaded them, blinking stupidly as the motor gunned, gears shifted, and the thing shot forward. The driver held a straight course, as though he'd changed his mind about picking up a hitchhiker, then he swerved at the last possible second. If my brain had been running on more than one cylinder, I might have been able to jump away in time.

The landscape stopped spinning and I lay belly-up, staring at an unnaturally brilliant Milky Way a few feet from my nose, wondering what the hell was going on. I tried moving a little, the initial pain of the impact was gone, but I was cautious of broken bones. Everything worked perfectly, though-I'd been incredibly lucky. Twisting onto my stomach, I stared down the road.

The Ford stopped, the motor cut, and the lump behind the wheel was just levering himself out the door.

The only cover for fifty yards was long grass. The beach was just across the road, but this particular stretch was clear of concealing rocks. Except for the car, the only option left was a stand of trees on my side, which was much too far away.

The man was coming up fast and had a gun in one hand.

Anything was better than waiting for it. My feet dug into the ground and I bolted for the trees like a frightened rabbit. He spotted me, changed course, and yelled for me to stop. After hitting me with the car, he couldn't have really expected me to do him any convenient favors.

In an open space a gunshot doesn't sound like a gunshot, not like the ones you hear at the movies. All I heard was a flat, unimpressive crack, then the impact sent me sprawling.

It'd been a lucky hit; we were at a slight angle to one another and the narrow part of my body was toward him. The bullet entered my lower right back, just above the pelvic bone, traced through my vitals and out the front, just above the belt buckle. I doubled up and instinctively tried to hold things in, but there was nothing. The sharp, hot pain was already vanishing and my hands came away clean from what should have been a bloody mess.

My would-be killer trotted up, turned me over, and stopped short as I stared accusingly at his stupefied face. He was puffing hard and looked ready to say something but gulped it back. He quickly leveled the gun with my eyes. The business end looked as big as an open manhole. His finger was ready on the trigger; orders were being sent from his brain to the tiny muscles, telling them to contract. Before they could respond I grabbed the gun and twisted it out of his hand. His finger was caught in the trigger guard, there was a soft pop, and he yelped with surprise and pain as one of the bones snapped.

He fell back, trying to get away, and I seized an ankle, jerked, and pulled him down. His left fist swung up and slammed into my face, but with little effect. I managed a weak, backhanded swat and left him half-stunned. In another second his arms were pinned to the ground and he was utterly unable to break free. It was easy to hold him still even though he was built and muscled like a wrestler and outweighed me by a good eighty pounds. He looked up at my face hovering inches from his own and whimpered.

The man's heart and lungs were thundering in my ears like a train. All my senses were sharp and new and wonderful. I could even smell the blood, an exciting scent when mixed with the sour tang of fear. On his thick, rough neck the skin seemed oddly transparent where the large vein pulsed. First it disturbed, then it tantalized. My mouth sagged open, dry and aching with sudden thirst. I felt drawn to it like a cat to milk.

He gagged and his bladder let go as my lips brushed his throat, then he passed out.

I jerked back, wondering what the hell I was trying to do. Pushing away until I no longer touched him, I lay facedown in the spiky grass, shaking like a fever victim until the thirst faded.

 

   

 

With a hand under each arm, I dragged him backward over the irregular clumps of grass and sand to his car. I felt strong enough to carry him, but didn't relish coming into contact with his wet pants. Fortunately the key was in the ignition, so I was spared a search of his lower pockets. I opened the passenger door and stuffed him inside.

My mind was more or less functioning again and full of questions. Who this stranger was and why he wanted to kill me seemed like good ones to start with, so I picked his coat pocket and went through his wallet.

The driver's license was issued to a Fred Sanderson of Cicero. The name might have been fake; it meant nothing to me, but the town struck a sour note in my general memory. A bare ten years had passed since the Capone gang invaded the place and took over. Big Al was in jail now, gone but not forgotten if Sanderson was any example.

Except for five dollars and the phone number of someone named Elsie, there was nothing informative in the wallet. I unbuckled Sanderson's belt and slipped it from his well-muscled waist. He was heavy, but in solid condition. As I'd thought, the leather strip had been specially constructed to overlap on the inside. Working it open, I took careful count and transferred the five hundred dollars hidden there into my own pants pocket without a single pang of conscience. After what he'd put me through he owed me, and I needed the operating funds.

I looked long and hard at his face. The heavy jaw and thick lips were frustratingly familiar, but nothing clicked in my memory.

It was very bright now, the sky all strange with the sun and stars shining improbably together. It was confusing until I realized it was the moon that was flooding the place with such brilliance. Like ice water, fear spread out in my guts and left me shaking at the edges. The night was too bright, it was wrong, totally wrong.

Distraction. I needed distraction. Where was I?

East of us were tall buildings in the distance. I was still more or less in Chicago. The last thing I recalled was some phone call launching me out of the hotel I'd just checked into. I'd left at mid-afternoon to do something and ended up that night soaking wet on a deserted patch of Lake Michigan shoreline with some crazy trying to kill me. Wonderful.

I felt my head for lumps, found a swelling behind one ear, and smiled with relief. A concussion of some kind; that would account for the initial disorientation, the memory loss, maybe even make my eyes overly sensitive. I'd only imagined the gunshot and had taken care of Sanderson on adrenaline alone.

     Almost as an afterthought I checked my wallet and was surprised to find it in place and intact. I thought I'd been mugged. The papers were out of order and damp, but everything was there, including the money and change left over from the precious twenty I'd used to pay for the hotel room. It was an(' when I returned the wallet to its inside pocket that I noticed my shirt front. saf A big burn hole was in it just over my heart, surrounded by water-diluted accred stains. There was a smaller hole down, next to my belt buckle.         

I tore the shirt open and found an ugly round scar just left of the breast-bone. It was large, but looked freshly healed.

The  lapping of water on the shore sounded loudly in my ears. Far out on the silver lake, the streamlined shape of a rich man's yacht glided slowly east and disappeared behind an intervening point of land. My left hand twitched and clenched. I made it open again. The palm had more than a dozen puckered red circles on it. More scars, and I couldn't think of how I'd acquired them or what might have caused them. At least they didn't hurt. My right hand was also damaged with a narrow pink welt like a neatly healed cut just above the knuckles. It, too, was painless. Cautiously I spread a hand over my heart. It should have been banging away like a trapped bird, but there was nothing, nothing but the scar and still, night-cool flesh.

      I rebuttoned the shirt, not wanting to look or speculate anymore and stared helplessly at the lake. It gave no answers or comfort so I opened the driver's door and slid behind the wheel. I rubbed my face and was surprised at the heaviness of the beard there. Reaching over, I swiveled the rearview mirror around and stared with an icy shock of comprehension at the empty glass.

No.

Please, God, no.

 

   

 

 

Death had come to me that night, unexpected and unfair. Death had changed me, then left, taking with it the memory of that supreme moment we all must face. Eyes shut, I hung on to the steering wheel and vainly tried to adjust emotionally to what had once been a distant and purely intellectual concept. In a way I was more frightened by the idea that someone had wanted to kill me than by the fact that they'd succeeded. It was too much to take in, the best thing was to shut down the feelings for the moment. I'd get used to things soon enough, not that there was much choice about it now. In a larger sense it was what animals and mankind had faced since old Adam found himself outside the garden: adapt or die.

Having died already, there was only one alternative left, even if it was mentally distressing.

For something to do I tied Sanderson's arms behind his back with the belt and used his flowered necktie on his ankles. Rooting around in the glove compartment turned up several road maps, so I was able to make a good guess about our present location and figure out how to get back to my hotel.

It was a tight fit behind the wheel, we were about the same height, but my legs were longer. I didn't bother adjusting the seat, that was always more trouble than it was worth. The starter started, the engine kicked and caught, and I eased it into first. Thirty minutes later I stopped in what looked like a safe, secluded place and cut the motor. We were about a mile from my hotel according to the maps; an easy walk through the sleeping neighborhoods. This was a dead-looking business district, with a few tired stores, some dusty warehouses and empty lots decorated with weeds and broken glass. From the look of things, the Depression hadn't been kind to the place.

Sanderson was awake, but playing possum, the altered rhythm of his heart and lungs betraying his condition. He was either very controlled or too scared to flinch when I plucked his yellow silk handkerchief from his front pocket. I used it to rub my prints from the steering wheel, dashboard and gearshift, and stuffed it back in his pocket. His gun was weighing heavily in his own pocket as I leaned across the seat and gave his cheek a solid pat.

"You can open your eyes now, I know you're awake." My tongue played over teeth which had receded to their normal length. At least I'd be able to talk without lisping. "I said you can open your eyes." I gave him a hard shake.

They popped wide.

"Name?"

"F-Fred Sanderson."

"Sure it is. What are you doing in town, Fred?" "Visiting friends."

"They got a boat?"

He shut up until shaken again. "Yeah, so what?"

"Why'd you run me down?"

"Wha-"

"You heard me, why did you try to kill me?"

The heavy jaw snapped shut again, his eyes rolled toward the door, and he struggled against his bonds. I lost my patience then, and for the first time took a great deal of pleasure hitting a man. I pulled the punches, though. I wanted to persuade, not kill him, and it took surprisingly few blows to soften him up. Despite his tough looks, he had no tolerance for pain.

"Frank Paco-said-I-just a job-" he burbled through a bloody nose.

"He your boss?"

"Yeah." Sniff.

"He wanted me dead? Why?" He coughed messily.

"Why?"

"You wouldn't talk."

I got the handkerchief again and wiped his nose. "Neither are you."

"He wanted the list, you wouldn't tell him where, so he-" He froze. "How did you-it was right in the heart-"

"I got a bulletproof vest. Come on, keep talking."

Sanderson looked anything but convinced. "You know all this." His voice was rising with panic. "Why do you ask, you know all-"  

"What's the boat's name?"

"Elvira."

"What's the list? What's on it?"

"I dunno-honest, I don't. You got it, you know what's-"

"How did I get it?"

"I dunno."

"Answer. "

"It was Benny Galligar. You got it from him. You got it! I dunno nothing, I swear! Just lemme go!" He was all but screaming, and the panic had him rolling around, trying to break free. I tapped him again, did it too hard, and that ended the questioning for the night. Shoving the exasperation to one side, I went over the car again for prints and found it was registered to International Freshwater Transport, Inc. It might not be of much use, but I filed the name away for future reference.

Outside the car, I wiped the handles clean with the bottom of my coat and repeated the action on the passenger side. Sanderson's head was lolled over, leaving his neck taut and vulnerable, with the bloodsmell rising from his body like perfume. I stepped back quickly before something regrettable happened, and hurried down the street.

Sooner or later, God help me, I would have to feed.

 

   

 

The hotel night clerk was half-asleep when I asked for my key.

"That's two-oh-two?" he mumbled, groping for it, but there was no key hanging next to the number. "Hey, you're not Mr. Ross."

"No, I'm Jack Fleming and I want my key."

"Fleming? Oh, yeah, we had to move your things out. Don't worry, I got them right back here."

One thing after another. "Why'd you move them out?"

"Well, you only paid for the one night and when you didn't come back, we couldn't leave the room go empty. There's a convention in town an' we gotta rent the room while there's business. You know how it is."

"Yeah, I know. Can I have my stuff?"

"Sure, no problem." He hauled out a battered suitcase and a smaller, but no less battered case that held the means of my livelihood, a typewriter. I found my clothes intact, if sloppily folded, and my portable seemed to be in working order. While I checked my things, the clerk had woken up and was checking me.

"Been having some trouble?" he asked cautiously. His eyes trailed with open curiosity from my unshaved face to my damp, grubby clothes.

"Something like that." I pulled out another coat from the suitcase, turned my back to the clerk, and changed the old for new.

"Jesus Christ, are you all right? There's a big hole and blood all over your back!"

It was annoying. In sparing the guy the sight of my punctured shirtfront, I'd given him the full benefit of the back, where the bullet that killed me had exited. I buttoned up the fresh coat and tried to bluff it through.

"Hey, you shoulda seen the other guy."

"No kiddin', there's--"

"Yeah, well, don't worry about it," I snapped. "The less you know, the better for both of us, if you know what I mean."

"Yeah, sure." He backed off unhappily. Perhaps as a long-time resident of Chicago he knew exactly what I meant.

"Do I owe any on my bill?"

"Just for one more day, that's all."

"You could have left things alone for another day, couldn't you?"

"Huh?"

"Couldn't you have left my stuff up there for one more day?"

"Mr. Fleming, you were gone--"

The man's tone alerted me. "Gone for how long?"

He looked in his book. "It was right here, you checked in Monday, then left your key with the day clerk-"

"Did I get any phone calls?"

"I dunno, we don't keep records of that. The switchboard girl might know. Anyway, when you didn't come back by checkout time Wednesday, we packed your things up. It's Friday now and we couldn't keep the room not knowing if you were coming back or not, not for no three days we couldn't."

Friday morning.

I paid up and left the hotel on shaking legs.

I wandered around for a couple hours, unhappy and frustrated by the lapse of memory. Perhaps it was the shock of being killed. Some people could block out horrible experiences in that way, and being murdered had to rank pretty high up on the horrible-experience list.

List. Whatever the hell that was.

Benny Galligar. I might have known him from New York.

It was getting brighter, the added light hurt.

The moon was long gone, the stars were fading, and things were brilliant enough right now that if I were still out when the sun came up, my eyeballs would fry in their sockets. I spotted a hand-painted hotel sign at the end of the block and hurried for it.

At the cost of fifty cents, and that was a severe overcharge, I got a monk's cell with a single dirty window overlooking a narrow alley. I locked the door, the lock a piece of bent wire that slipped through a metal eyelet screwed into the frame. The door still sagged open, so I shoved a rickety chair under the knob, but it was even money it'd give away the first time someone breathed on it wrong.

Despite the limited view, the sunlight might still find a chink in the dirt and come in. I thought of sleeping under the bed, but one look at the floor changed my mind. I had joined the ranks of the Undead, but still retained firm ideas about basic sanitation A thin blanket hung over the window dimmed things, but not by much.

I dragged my clothes off, poured water into the washbowl, and splashed my face and neck. Shaving would have to wait till tomorrow, there was no time tonight. It was creepy, anyway, not being able to see my face peering out from the mirror. I examined myself without one. Purple and black bruises were all over my stomach and flanks, with many short rows of small crescent marks that had cut the skin. I could guess they had come from brass knuckles. My wrists were encircled with raw-looking weals, indications I'd been tied down. Large crescents overlay the smaller ones, probably the result of some well-placed kicks.

I'd seen bodies like this before, but only in the morgue when I'd been covering a gang killing. The sight was always sickening. Considering the amount of damage I'd taken, the shot in the heart might have been an act of mercy. The bullet mark was still there, but looked less ugly than before. I felt for the exit hole and found a large rough depression on my back. Both were painless. The small circles on my left palm were still a puzzle, but they were quickly healing as well, the angry red softening to pink.

The sheer violence that had been directed so personally at me was more than enough to leave me emotionally stunned. Why it had happened was a total blank and overwhelmingly disturbing on every level.

I rubbed down with a wet towel and pulled on clean underwear and threw out the old. Of the bullet Sanderson had fired, there was no sign, except for the holes it left in my clothes. For some reason I thought about what my mom once told me concerning underwear and accidents and smiled, then my limbs went all stiff and sluggish. The sun had just come up.

Pulling the pillow and spread from the bed, I walked into the closet and shut the door. I dropped the linen on the floor to foil any light leaks and to put something between me and the dirt, then I dove headfirst into the pillow and didn't come up.

Maybe I expected something like sleep or straight black oblivion, but it wasn't that good. Frozen in place for the day, the body was utterly still, but occasionally it sent a sensory message along to the brain.

Hard floor.

Footsteps somewhere in the building.

Something crawling on the right hand.

The brain noted it all, but wouldn't or couldn't respond. It was busy dreaming.

Water, floating, darkness, pressure, blinding light. Cheap birth symbolism, but the midwife had brass knuckles and a gun. She had Sanderson's grinning face and stood aside so the doctor could aim his own gun and blast me back into the dark forever.

Heat, bad air, clothes soaked with a thousand years of sweat. Voices, yelling, wanting something. Where is it? Where did you put it?

Fighting them, but no control.

Her hair was a dark nest on the pillow, soft and thick in my fingers. Sky-blue eyes flushing deep red as I gave her blood and she gave me heaven on earth in return. Where are you? Where--

--did you put it? Just tell us, we'll let you go.

Liar, I forget. I don't know. I'm dying.

I'd always bring her flowers. She didn't eat candy. She never ate. Our private joke.

Leave me alone, I don't have it, but they kept at me, killing an inch at a time.

Books tumbled open, the words clear and sharp and utterly false. Thousands of books lined up in uneven rows like an army before the uniforms are issued. One thick black book, almost, but not quite true. Her thick dark hair-forget the books, just love her, that's all she really wants. Give her

--the list, where did you put it?

Where did you go? Why did you leave me?

A boat, a big one, but the water still closes over us all, pulling us down into the cold--

--and I've got to move. If I can just move I'll stop dreaming. God, let me sleep or wake, but not this.

No control.

A man screaming.

Falling.

Dying.

No control.

Sunset.

Release.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

  

I pushed the pillow away and forced air into the dormant lungs. The dream dance whirled away into nothing, leaving a cold, stiff, frightened man to deal with the memory. Why hadn't she told me about the dreams? She told me what to do when death-time came, but never mentioned this. Maybe it was just trauma, maybe it would fade eventually, for now there was nothing I could do but try to shrug it off and get dressed.

It was something of a trick to shave without looking, but if I got nicked I never felt it. It'd be interesting when it came time for a haircut, I'd yet to see a barbershop without a mirror.

My other suit was too heavy for the weather, but the heat didn't seem to be bothering me. In a way it was disturbing not to be sweating. I took down the blanket, tossed it on the bed, and cracked the window for the sake of appearance. The spread and pillow joined the blanket, and I shut the door.

My shoes squeaked coming downstairs. The dip in the lake hadn't don them any good. I dropped the useless room key at the front desk and went outside.

The first trash can I found became home for my bullet-ridden blood stained clothes. The labels and laundry marks got thrown into a storm drain farther down the street.

A mercenary street kid charged me a nickel for directions to a distric full of pawnshops. Most of them were closed by now, the ones still open didn't have what I needed. I leaned against a doorway, tired and restless. My senses were painfully sharp, matching my teeth. I pushed the canines back in their sockets with shaking fingers. I'd have to feed soon or drop in m; tracks.

The last open shop looked no more promising than the rest, but the firs thing I saw inside was the big steamer trunk in the middle aisle. It was good three by five feet and solid looking. Except for some travel stickers and dust, it was almost new. My satisfaction was apparent to the sharp-eyed owner and it took ten minutes to haggle the price down to a reasonable level. Once in agreement, money changed hands and I was hauling the trunk out the door.

No cabs were in sight so I was resigned to walking the six blocks back to the hotel. The trunk was awkward with its bulk, but oddly lightweight because of my new strength. I went as quickly as I dared, hoping other pedestrians would be alert enough to get out of the way in time.

"Hey, buddy, c'mere a minute."

Startled at being addressed, I paused, then cursed myself. Just like any hick fresh off the farm, I was about to be mugged. The man in the alley was in deep shadow except where his gun poked out, fat lot of good it did him with my night vision.

"Come on, put down the box and get over here. Now." He waved the gun.

I eased the trunk to the pavement. I was fast enough now to take the guy, but the gun might go off and bring the cops, and I had no desire to risk putting bullet holes in my last suit. Wishing hard I were any place else, I stepped forward.

The man shimmered, went gray, and vanished. So did the alley.

As though from a long distance, I heard his yelp of surprise and the slap of feet as he ran away. That was of minor concern, though; I was having trouble with my senses again. No weight, no form, and just this side of total panic; I could see nothing, but was aware of shapes and sizes close by. I felt the wind pushing me right through the wall of a building, my body oozing between the cracks in the bricks. I shoved away hard and launched myself through the wall of the opposite building, and stumbled to my feet in a ladies' clothing store.

It was great to have feet again and legs and all the other things that usually come with a solid body. I leaned on a table, delighted to have hands again. Reality was just wonderful....

I looked around and wondered how I was supposed to get out.

All in all, dematerialization was tough on the nerves, but a hell of a great way to avoid a mugging.

 

 

   

 

My escape from the dress shop was a reluctant undertaking. Going through the doors the usual way required breaking a lock and perhaps setting off an alarm. At least the place was closed. My sudden appearance out of nowhere might spoil business for the owner though it would have made for an easier exit out a door. I wasn't sure I could repeat the trick. In retrospect it seemed more instinctive than conscious, like trying to swim when thrown into water for the first time. Don't panic and the body would do all the rest.

The third try was successful.

One second I was in the shop, the next, outside with the trunk and making sure my body was all there. Everything was intact, but I was very tired and my throat ached with thirst.

I turned the room light on out of habit, then squeezed the trunk through the door. Between it, the bed, and my belongings, it was beginning to look like a set from a Marx Brothers movie. I sank onto the creaking chair and miserably considered food. There was no way I could cheat around my condition. The mere thought of going out for even the rarest of steaks made me nauseous, but that in turn led to another thought.

Hurrying downstairs, I whistled up a cab. By the time one arrived I was twitching with restlessness. I forced myself to move sedately getting

I in and remembered to sit close to the door to be out of sight of the rearview mirror.

"Where to, mister?"

"The Stockyards," I lisped around my teeth.

 

   

 

We crossed water twice to get there, the opposing natural force pressing me hard into the seat as the cab lurched forward. The pressure was uncomfortable but bearable. The roaring emptiness inside was far worse.

"You all right, mister?" the driver asked as I paid him.

I nodded without speaking and kept my eyes down, not wanting to frighten him. I felt strange and no doubt looked strange. The last time I was this way a man had fainted, and a repetition of the experience would be inconvenient now.

The air was permeated with the smell of blood. There were other smells, but this was the one that cut through them all and gave me a direction to follow.

The place was full of people and noise, train whistles shrieked, cats lowed and bellowed, men shouted and cursed--men were everywhere, including where I wanted to go.

I went in, anyway.

At this point I was challenged only once by a large specimen who, frc the size of his shoulders, looked like he swung the sledgehammers that se the animals on their final journey to the dinner tables. I couldn't understand what he was saying to me, except it was hostile in some way. He was nothing less than an annoying obstacle to walk past, but he stopped me with slab of a hand.

This kind of behavior irritates me at the best of times, but I was now the point of physical pain. I swatted his hand away and snarled something; a mild enough reaction considering how badly I felt. We locked eyes anger for an instant and for the first time I became aware of another human mind.

I told him to leave, and from my brief contact with him knew thought his sudden retreat was his own idea. I wanted to think about this, to examine and test it to make sure it was not just imagination, but something stronger and much more insistent was in charge. All it wanted was end the desperate, empty agony that was turning me inside out. Cle; thought blurred and faded, the body was taking over in order to survive. needed privacy from the interference of others; sought and found it among the more distant cattle pens. It wanted a quiescent victim and chose the lea alarmed animal from the dozen that milled around the enclosure.

Here, too, was a mind; an alien one to my own, with simple dull in pulses I could override. It stood rooted as I approached because I wanted to do so. I drew close and touched one of its big surface veins, nearly sobbing with relief. For what I had to do there was no conscious thought or tl least anticipation of revulsion. This was now normal if I wanted to survive I closed in, intuitively knowing what to do, cutting neatly through the thick flesh with my teeth to open the vein.

Warm and rich with life, it pulsed into my mouth.

 

   

 

No more than a minute passed and I had all I needed. I released the animal physically, mentally, and gratefully. A little blood dribbled from the woun but soon stopped and the cow mingled with others, apparently none t worse for wear. I leaned against a fence rail and wiped my lips clean with handkerchief. The pain and tunnel vision were gone, it was like waking i from the day's bad dreams. I had only to shake off the memory and start functioning again. My first idea was to leave the Stockyards as discreetly possible. My newly-learned vanishing trick might come in handy, but I wait awhile on that one, wanting to get used to the idea.

Prosaically using my old dependable legs, I left the place and found taxi, returned to the hotel, and had it wait. Upstairs, I threw my stuff in tl trunk, carried it down, and checked out. The driver and I managed to s cure the thing to the car. It stuck out the back, but was in no immediate danger of falling into the street.

I hunched down in the backseat and asked to be taken to the same train station that had welcomed me to the city two days ago. Correction, six days ago, but I'd think about the amnesia later, right now I felt like a finalist from a dance marathon. It was not enough to feed and shut out the sunlight, I had to have earth around my body and it would have to be soon. I had to go home.

Once at the station, I booked the trunk on the next train to Cincinnati. By the time a man came for it, I was already inside. To my delight I was able to vanish and reform without trouble and without disturbing the lock or thick leather straps. Gingerly perching on the typewriter case, I braced my arms against the sides and held the suitcase in place with my knees to keep things from rattling too much as I was bumped from one end of the station to the other. Packed in like a living pretzel, the trunk didn't seem nearly so large, but from the grunts and curses outside, the porter disagreed.

The trip, at least at night, was very boring. I initially suffered through a couple bouts of mild claustrophobia, but was far too weary to let the cramped quarters get to me. I kept movement to a minimum, not wanting to alarm the baggage man, but still shifted around, vainly seeking a more comfortable position. It was tempting to get out and take a walk, but I was abnormally tired and unsure of my ability to get back inside again. At least I didn't need air.

The train crawled toward Cincinnati, but the sun came up before we got there, and I was trapped in the dark with senseless memories for the day. It was just as bad as the last dream bout, but faded sooner, and when the train stopped I'd slipped into a semi-aware trance that brought no rest, but did abridge the passage of time. When night came again I was stationary and correctly guessed from the intrusive sounds that the trunk had been unloaded and was waiting to be claimed.

I felt marginally better just being in Cincinnati, and drifted easily from the trunk to reform in a crouch among the other baggage. When no one was looking I slipped out and blended in with the rest of the travelers, keeping my hat pulled low. This was my hometown and I had a lot of friends, the last thing I wanted was to renew old acquaintances. Once outside, I ducked into a cab and gave directions that took us north of town and down a narrow, unlit rural road. The driver got a little nervous after awhile and asked me if I was sure I knew where I was going. I was sure, as sure as an iron filing knows where the magnet is.

I had him stop and asked if he minded waiting.

"Waiting for what? There's nothing out here."

I took out a dollar bill and told him that was his tip, tore it in two, and gave him half. He still looked apprehensive.

"I'll have to keep the meter running."

That was fine. I left the road and walked up an overgrown private lane.

Grandfather's farm was deserted now and the place seemed smaller that I'd remembered. In truth, the land around had shrunk over the years, sol( off a few acres at a time to make the taxes. My father refused to sell th house itself, though, or the immediate acreage, not that there were man buyers these days. Grandfather and Great-Grandfather Fleming and their families were buried here along with a lot of memories. Run down as the place was, I was glad it was still ours.

My parents lived in a smaller, more modern house in the city. Mor treasured her gas stove and indoor plumbing; no one lived out here any more. I looked up at a corner window on the second floor that marked th room I'd been born in. This was my home as I'd never known it before, th house standing on the living earth I needed to survive.

Searching the barn turned up some old feed sacks in good enough condition to use once the dust and field mice had been shaken out. Taking four sacks, I doubled them one inside the other, making two sturdy bags. An other search turned up a ball of twine and a rusty shovel with a broke] handle. It would do. What it lacked in leverage I could make up for ii strength.

The cemetery grounds were still cared for, indicating Dad's occasional presence. I cleared a patch under the big oak tree of leaves and acorn husk; and began shoveling dirt into the bags working over a large area so the miss ing soil would be less noticeable. When the bags were three-quarters full twisted the ends and tied them up tight with the twine.

Despite the hard work I was no longer tired.

A big stone that hadn't been there on my last visit a few years back now marked Grandfather's grave. I went over to touch the cool gray granite The previous wood marker had borne the same deeply chiseled letters that spelled out my own name.

 

In Memory of

JONATHAN RUSSELL FLEMING

1820-1908

 

I was glad no sentimental phrase was carved under the date; nothing would have been appropriate. A man like Grandfather or the family's feelings for him could not have been so neatly summed up.

When I was eight, my puppy died. Like me it had been the runt of a lit ter of seven, and for that reason it was my favorite. With the dreadful practicality to be found on working farms, the body was disposed of in the trash burner. Unable to accept the idea, I hid under the porch all day holding the limp little ball of fur and wishing it back to life again. When the family missed me, I ignored their calls. After all, they'd ignored me and it was only fair.

In the end Mom found me and dragged me out, promising certain doom on my backside as soon as I dropped my britches. Even at that early age I was mulishly stubborn, refusing to participate in my punishment and resisting all efforts to be separated from the puppy. Grandfather interfered.

"Not this time," he told Mom. "I'll take care of him. I'm not as mad as you are." He took my hand and we walked down to the graveyard and sat under the oak tree.

"You shouldn't have hidden out, Jack," he said at length.

"No, sir. But they were going to burn Pete, and I don't want him to go to Hell." I held my breath; it was the first time I'd used a bad word. Incredibly, Grandfather nodded. "I see what you mean. Would you feel better if we buried him proper?"

"Yes, sir, but I don't want him dead."

"Neither do I, but there are a lot of things we can't do anything about, and death is one of them."

"Why?"

The old man considered the question awhile, trying to gear the answer for an eight-year-old mind. "You like summer, don't you?"

 "Yes, sir, no school."

"But if it lasted all the time you might get tired of it, don't you think?"

"I dunno."

"When school comes along in the fall and you get to see all your friends again, aren't you glad of the change?"

"I guess."

"And when winter comes you do different things because of the snow, and that's a nice change, too."

"Yes, sir."

"Well, now-this is the interesting part, Jack-dying is a change, too, just like the seasons. People live in the spring like you and your brothers and sisters, they grow up to a long summer and autumn, like your parents and me, and then sooner or later they die, and that's like winter. It's not a bad thing-it's only a change."

"But don't people go to Heaven?"

"Sure they do, but they have to change, they have to die to get there. Some folks are even glad of the change because it means they'll have no worries and something different to do. When your grandma was dying years ago she was hurting and tired; she was ready for a change. We were sad when she was gone, but we also knew she wasn't hurting anymore. We knew she's gone to Heaven and was happy."

Grandfather's voice had cracked. I was stunned to see tears rolling down his lined face. He pulled out a bandanna and wiped them away.

"Now, I don't know everything, but I'll just bet you Pete was hurting somehow and knew he needed to die, and when he did he didn't hurt no more. He didn't want to make you sad, but he just couldn't help it."

"So he changed?"

"Yes."

"So he's in Heaven?"

"I don't see why not, but it doesn't really matter what happens to his li tle body, it's all the same to him. The part of him that you loved isn't he: no more-he changed. What really matters is that you know about this ar that it's all right to feel sad. It's also good to be happy when you rememb, how he made you happy while he was around."

I thought about it hard while we buried the puppy near the oak tre ringing the small grave with some stones. Halfway through the job I start( crying, and Grampy loaned me his bandanna without a word and went c with the work. When he finished, he looked up at the northern horizon arr took a deep, cleansing breath.

"I think winter is coming," he said, and winked at me. It was only September; I didn't understand. I did the next morning when we found he'd died in his sleep. I was the only one who didn't cry at the funeral.

I couldn't help but think of my own change. "What would you think of me now, Grampy?" I whispered at the stone. I could almost sense the big bones resting in their pine box, patiently waiting for the Second Coming.

I tossed the broken shovel back in the barn and stalked down the lane, the two thirty-pound bags swinging light in my hands.

 

   

 

 

The return trip to Chicago was boring, but easier to get through with the earth packed into the trunk with me. Rested and more confident about vanishing, I spent most of the night sitting on top of the baggage reading a dime magazine. I could almost ignore river crossings, and when daylight came was able to truly sleep, or whatever it was. The dreaming had faded. The presence of the earth even dulled the next night's hunger down to a low-level ache.

It took a good half hour to claim my trunk. The Chicago station was very busy, just as it was when I first arrived. There was a week-old trail to pick up on, but I had a good idea about where to start.

The trunk was laboriously loaded into a cab, and the cab took me to small hotel the driver knew about that was within walking distance of th Stockyards. It was a cut above the fleabag I'd last stayed in. For ten dollar a week I got heavier curtains, a fan that worked, a radio, and a private bate Its proximity to the Yards must have had an effect on the price and the pre,, ence of luxury extras.

Not bothering to unpack or even drop off the key, I left the hotel to get some dinner. My visit this time was more discreet; I knew the lay of the Ian better and trusted my disappearing trick to keep me out of trouble. It wa taking a little practice to get it just right, but I was catching on fast. Learn ing to wiggle my ears as a kid had taken a lot longer.

On the way back, I stopped at a newsstand, bought some local papers a copy of the one I'd worked for in New York, and a street map. The ven dor gave me directions to the nearest Western Union office. The place wa open with two fresh-faced young clerks in command. I filled out a telegram to my parents saying I'd arrived in the Windy City and managed to land a terrific job at an ad agency and they'd advanced me some money for one of my ideas. Along with the message, I sent twenty-five dollars. They'd been having hard times since the Crash, and hardly a payday passed that I didn't mail them five bucks or so to help out, but this time the amount was conspicuously large. They might think I'd turned to bank robbery, which wasn't too far off the mark, but the truth was hardly something I could tell them about.

I went back to the hotel. While the tub was filling I read the headlines and funnies and jotted notes on the rates for the personal columns. Using the hotel stationery, I printed out my usual message, all seven words of it, then shut off the tub taps and went downstairs.

This place actually had a bellboy on duty. He was reading a comic book in an alcove with his wooden chair tilted back on two legs, making more dents in the floor. I asked him if he wanted to make four bits. He put away the book. It took a minute to straighten things out. His usual type of errand for a guest was to either locate a female companion or a bottle of booze or both, neither of which I had much use for at the moment. I gave him the four bits and enough money for him to place my message in all the papers I'd bought. It would run for two weeks. He promised to do it first thing tomorrow. I told him to bring me the receipts in the evening and he'd get another tip.

Upstairs, my room had steamed up slightly from the bath water, so I opened the window and turned on the fan the thoughtful management had bolted to a table. It stirred the air around and felt good against my skin as I stripped.

By now the bruising was nearly gone and the scar over my heart was fast disappearing. My body was making good use of the fresh blood I'd imbibed.

I studied the tub warily before stepping in, grimacing at the flash of apprehension it caused. It was only the free-running stuff I had to worry about, really. Nothing happened when I stepped in and soaped up, it just felt like something ought to. I sank back and thought about the beach ... perhaps with the water around me I could go back ... the stars had been so bright, the lake stretching on forever ... silver and black. Before the peace of the beach there had been crushing darkness ... hard pressure pushing from all sides, weight dragging me down ... smothering pressure, growing worse

I was on my back on the bathroom floor along with a lot of water. The pressure was gone, but my left hand twitched as though electricity were running through it. My body trembled uncontrollably. It lasted a moment more, scaring the hell out of me, then abruptly stopped.

If it brought this kind of reaction, I wasn't so sure now I wanted to remember my death. I dressed, nervously tried to push the incident from my mind, and vowed never to relax in a tub again.

It was past midnight when I stepped out into the humid air and turned right. The address I wanted had been in the phone book and the map said it was on the same side of the Chicago River as my hotel. After spending the last two nights cooped up in a trunk I wanted a long walk. At least it woulc save on cab fare.

Forty minutes later I reached the warehouse offices of International Freshwater Transport, Inc. There was no dark green Ford in the street. didn't know whether to be disappointed or relieved.

The front door was a thick, no-nonsense steel thing. I tried to gc through the metal, but found it to be more dense than building bricks or m3 trunk and couldn't pass until I slid under the thin gap between the door anc threshold. I felt like sand dribbling through the skinny part of an hourglass.

This operation had no budget for extras. The reception office was a small area divided from the warehouse by wood planks nailed to two-byfour framing. There was a steel desk, some broken-in chairs, and a couple file cabinets, suspiciously unlocked. The papers inside were routine and therefore useless.

The desk held the promise of a single locked drawer that I opened with the help of a letter opener. Inside were two ledger books, the last year's and this year's, and a half-full fifth of whiskey. After looking at the books, it became obvious the drawer had been locked because of the whiskey. IFT, Inc. was just what its name suggested: shipments came in, stayed at the warehouse, and then continued to their destinations. Most of the traffic was between the U.S. and Canada, hence "international" in the title. Maybe it looked good on the letterheads. Maybe Sanderson's car was stolen, in which case I was wasting my time.

I flipped through more papers lying on the desktop. Nothing. The blotter on the desk was a giant calendar. It was the last week of the month and covered with old doodles and odd notes. The first Monday was circled in red with an underlined notation. The ink had gotten smeared by something wet, so the specifics were lost, but there was one clear name in the mess.

Mr. Paco. Something or other---Mr. Paco.

Sanderson's boss. At least there was a connection, so I went through all the papers again more carefully, but had to give up. Aside from the single name on the blotter he wasn't mentioned again, but I went through the tried-and-true motions. I noted down names and addresses, anything that might prove useful later on. Taking no chances, I wiped away my fingerprints on the unlikely idea they might call the cops when the broken drawer was discovered. Finished with the office, I checked out the warehouse.

It was big, of course, and despite my now-excellent night vision, gloomy, but that was only an emotional reaction. The actual level of light was more than sufficient. Predictably, it was filled with hundreds of wooden crates, each labeled and neatly stacked. Some were marked as farm equipment, others as spare parts, nothing there was of a perishable nature. I pried open a box and rooted around in the packing material, finding new metal junk that did indeed look like spare parts to something. The operation looked well organized and aboveboard, and nothing, absolutely nothing, was familiar to me.

It was a quarter to four when I got back to my room. I thought I should feel tired, but wasn't, that I should be hungry, but there were no pangs. All the things one usually felt after an extended errand weren't there, and I missed them. I missed being human; even the physical discomforts would have been welcome. I was depressed and couldn't even get drunk to forget it.

My trunk was unlocked.

I stopped being depressed and got scared instead.

The lid flipped up. I was hardly aware of doing it. My eyes vainly tried to focus on something that should have been there but wasn't.

My precious bags of earth were gone.

In their place was a folded piece of hotel paper. I grabbed it up. The paper was covered with cramped, precise handwriting.

 

Dear Sir:

 You do not know me but, as you may gather, I know something o f you. I f you would learn more, meet me at the address below. I shall be there until dawn. You should have no difficulty locating the street, as it serves the Stockyards.

 Hopefully, A Friend

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER  THREE

 

 

WITH great care I refolded the paper, thinking furiously. I knew no one in town, unless I counted Fred Sanderson, and the note sounded too high-tone for his ilk. The writer was certainly aware of my nature since he'd taken my earth. He also had to be crazy. Who else but a complete nut would want to make friends with a vampire?

My map verified the meeting place was indeed only a few blocks from the Stockyards, no more than a ten-minute walk. I made it in four.

Clearly aware it could be some sort of trap, I wavered awhile, torn between curiosity and caution. Grabbing the trunk and running back to Cincinnati was an attractive option, but the identity of my correspondent would remain a mystery, and probably one I couldn't afford. Somewhere down the line I'd been very careless.

Curiosity and the need to recover my earth won out, but I still checked, the area before going in. It was a business district, with small stores at street level and a scattering of offices on the upper floors. Many of them were empty, the rest were struggling hard to reach the prosperity which was supposed to be just around the corner. I circled the entire block of building slowly, making sure there were no surprises trying to hide in the shadow, Except for a few parked cars with cold motors, the place was deserted any asleep.

There was one lit window in the building I wanted, up on the second floor. Blinds were drawn over the glass. I could see nothing from the street

Inside, I climbed the stairs as quietly as possible, but the caution was wasted. Between the old loose board and my shoes, the squeaks were deafening to my ears. At the landing were two doors facing each other wit] opaque glass panels set in them and numbers painted on the glass. The om with light shining on the other side was on the left. I went still and listened in the room beyond a single set of lungs pumped shallowly.

Pressing hard against the wall to present a narrow target, I turned the knob slowly and pushed. The door swung open easily and without a creak. I could hear a heart now and it began beating rapidly. His lungs worked faster to keep pace. Given the circumstances, mine would be, too, if they still worked regularly.

The man's voice was belyingly calm. "I gather you found my note. Good evening to you, sir. Would you care to step into the light so we might better see each other?" He had a very distinct British accent.

I hadn't any better ideas and eased away from the wall. Inside was a small, plain room with a single wooden desk facing the door. The man standing behind it was in his mid-thirties, tall and on the thin side, with a bony face and beaky nose. His sharp gray eyes were fixed on me and gleaming with excitement.

On the floor next to the desk were my two bags of earth. He followed my look and took on an apologetic tone.

"I hope you are not offended by the theatrics, but it was the one thing I could think of that would guarantee your coming here."

I was angry and let it show. He stiffened and clutched at something or his desk. Whatever it was lay under an open newspaper. It was too big foi a handgun and the wrong shape for a rifle. I made myself calm down; he'c gone to considerable trouble and risk to get me here, I'd at least hear him out. A few moments passed with the two of us waiting for the other to make a' move. His breathing evened out and I relaxed my posture.

"You seem to know who I am," I ventured.

"I only know the name you gave on the hotel register. However, I do know what you are."

"And what do you plan to do about it?"

"That depends entirely upon yourself." He gestured with his free hand at a chair near the desk. "Perhaps you would like to make yourself more comfortable, Mr.... tell me, is it really Robinson?"

"Jack will do for now, and I like it out here well enough." I was acutely aware of the man's scrutiny, as if he were expecting something from me.

"Then it is true."

"About what?"

"That you cannot enter a dwelling without an invitation. I occasionally live here, you see."

I was liking the situation less and less. "Just tell me what you want."

"Yes, I see I'm being unfair, but I don't know you and have no reason to trust you."

"I could say the same thing." No invisible force like the want of an invitation was keeping me outside, only natural caution. I first wanted to know what he was hiding under the paper, and it did no harm to have him underestimating my abilities.

"Indeed, but then you are a much more dangerous person than I am if all the stories are true."

Great, the guy really was crazy. "How dangerous are you?"

"To you, at least during the day, I might prove to be very deadly."

He was perfectly right. He knew my hotel and might have means of finding out where I'd go should I decide to bolt for home, or I could walk in .and grab my earth and discover the hard way what he had under the paper.

He watched me thinking it out. "I only said that to keep you here; I'm hoping you'll understand I need not be an enemy."

"What are you, anyway, some kind of-van Helsing?" I nearly said Renfield and changed it only at the last second. He was amused. "So you've read Dracula?"

"Yes, and seen the movie."

"What did you think of it?"

"They could have done worse."

"Was it very accurate?"

"In what way?"

"Concerning yourself, of course."

"I have yet to stalk around in a cape and tuxedo and drool over feminine throats."

"But you do have to drink blood?"

I found that very difficult to acknowledge.

"Why are you so uncomfortable with that concept?"

"Why are you so damned nosy? What do you want?"

"I apologize. I am being frightfully rude to treat you like a lab specimen.

Please don't be offended that I got carried away." The man seemed genuinely sincere.

 I shrugged. "I'm a journalist, I know how it is."

"Thank you. What paper do you work for?"

"I don't. I quit the one I worked for in New York and came here."

"And?"

"And nothing. I've been too busy to look for a job."

"How odd you should need one. I would have thought that over the years you would have accumulated sufficient funds to be very comfortable."

"You haven't quite got the right idea about me."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean I'm still new at this; I'm just four days old."

That made him pause. "You've been a vampire for only four days?"

"Nights, if you want to be accurate."

"How utterly fascinating."

"If you say so."

"Could you tell me how you came to be this way? Were you attacked by a vampire?"

The melodramatic question made me smile. I shook my head. "It's kind of a long story...."

He took the hint. "May I have your word that you won't tear me to pieces if I ask you in?"

"It's not worth much since you don't know me."

He shrugged. "You took a chance coming here. I'll risk it."

A crazy man or a brave one. "You got it. Besides, this is my last good suit. I don't want to ruin it."

If the joke was funny, he didn't laugh. "Very well, Jack, enter freely and of your own will."

"Don't you think that sounds a little corny?"

"It does at that, but does it work?"

I walked in slowly, making a show of it. His heart was going like a hammer, but his face was calm; a frightened man, but good at hiding it. The idea that I was the inspiration for all this fear made me uncomfortable and nervous, so I'd have to put us both at ease. I stuck out my hand.

"Jack Fleming."

He carefully switched hands under the paper and gripped mine briefly. "Charles Escott."

"Glad to meet you."

"Please sit down." He again indicated the chair next to his desk. Good Lord, but we were so polite and formal.

I sat and tried to look harmless. After a moment, he sank into his own chair, his eyes never leaving me. Whatever he expected me to be like, he'd apparently overestimated my ferocity. I hadn't been ferocious in years. Escott's heart slowed down and I breathed a mental sigh of relief.

"It must be obvious that I am intensely curious about you," he said. "I would very much like to hear your story, if you don't mind telling it."

I chewed my lower lip and did my own sizing up of him, look for look and his surroundings. There were two doors: the one I used and another be hind Escott. The walls were bare of any kind of decoration but white paint. The place gave no clue to his personality, the man himself was the only clue. Piercing, intelligent eyes, thin lips, nervous hands; he reminded me of one of my long-ago college professors. His clothes were neat and nondescript; not expensive, not cheap, ordinary and therefore unnoticeable. I'd already figured he'd been following me around. He must have been good at it since I'd been looking over my shoulder all evening.

"Do you plan to shoot me with whatever you have under the paper?"

"Sorry, I'm just naturally cautious." He drew the paper away to reveal a cocked and loaded crossbow.

This time the man knew his stuff. If anything could hurt me, it would be the wooden shaft lying ready in the contraption. I regarded it with some respect. "If it makes you more comfortable, you can keep it, just don't shoot me.

Escott's brows went up, surprised that I had given him such permission. It indicated that I could take the thing away from him if I chose. I was sure I could, but not anxious to force the issue. He took his hand from the trigger, but left the weapon within reach.

Having come to a sort of mutual truce, I felt more like talking.

"It started in New York a couple years ago," I said. "There was a big publicity build for the movie Dracula. It was quite a hit, women fainting in the aisles and that sort of thing. My editor sent me down to interview people who'd seen the show, and write up about how scared they were. It was all pretty predictable stuff, but then I met this girl who thought the whole thing was terribly funny. She was really beautiful. We got to talking about the supernatural. At first I thought she might be into spiritualism or astrology or some other silliness, but she wasn't. She was like a butterfly collector I once knew."

Escott made an expression indicating he needed that one explained.

"He had hundreds of butterflies, he knew all about them, and was willing to learn more, but he never actually wanted to be one. She was like that. She knew a lot, liked to talk, but didn't believe in it for a minute."

"I see. I gather you liked her."

"I fell in love the second I saw her." I left it at that, not knowing if Escott could possibly understand. I drew more air and went on. "We dated, just like a couple of kids, and one night she asked me over to her house. We ate dinner, at least I did. She never ate with me when we were out; I thought she was just kidding me along because of the movie. It was a private joke for us, you know? After dinner we listened to the radio, danced a little ..." My voice was getting thick, I couldn't help it.

"Mr. Fleming, if this is too personal for you, you needn't go on."

I pulled myself together. "Thanks. You get the idea of what it all led up to, going into details-"

"I understand." He sounded as though he really did.

"After that, we were together all the time, at least at night. It was no joke, she really was a vampire, but it didn't seem to matter much. I was total possession of my faculties, too. I did research on the subject, of course and talked to her about it. None of the books I found on vampirism remotely mentioned anything about what we had or felt for each other. They were full of a lot of stories of helpless victims and bloodthirsty attacker kind of sick stuff, really. If you want to get psychological you could call symbolic rape. When you get into the Freudian end of things it really gets weird, but none of that had anything to do with the reality we shared."

"During this relationship did you--was there ever an exchange blood?" He kept his voice carefully neutral.

"Yes," was my brief reply.

"The purpose of this exchange was to eventually make you like her?'

"If it worked."

"Worked?"

"She said it didn't always work or else the world would be hip-deep vampires. Almost everyone is immune to it, you see. I think it's like a very rare disease that some people can't catch it even if they want to."

"You wanted to?"

"For us to always be together, yes, and she did what she could towal that end, but it was never certain. We'd have no way of knowing until the day I died, but at least until then we'd always be together."

"But something happened?"

The words were sticking in my throat. "We had a date. I went to her house to pick her up and she wasn't there. She didn't have a lot of possessions, but a few clothes and toiletries were gone and she left the rest of her stuff like she meant to come back. Later I got a card in the mail. She said she was having some trouble, that some people were after her because of what she was, and to look out for them. She'd come back when it was safe That was five years ago." I left unsaid the weeks of worry, fear, and frustration and the months spent trying to find her. In five years the pain ha not faded and the wound was still raw to touch.

He saw it on my face. "I'm very sorry."

"I think ... maybe they found her." I got up suddenly and paced arour the room, trying to work off the build of emotional energy. My back to him I paused to look through the blinds at the empty street below. "You're the only one I've ever told the whole story to."

"I apologize for forcing the confidence. It shall not be repeated to an one."

I believed him. "Thanks." After a while I got control again and s down. "Life went on, I guess. I finally decided to leave New York. Last Monday I breezed into town, found a flop for the night, got a phone call and walked out. Sometime Thursday night or Friday morning last I woke up dead on a beach just west of the city."

He took a moment to digest it. "Who called you?"

"I don't know, it might be someone named Benny Galligar."

"How did you die?" He made it sound like an ordinary question. "I was shot. Before that I was beaten up badly."

"Who did it? Why?"

"I don't know!"

"You don't-"

"Between Monday afternoon and Friday morning I can't remember damned thing."

"How extraordinary."

"If you say so." Then I finished the rest of my story.

"How utterly extraordinary."

"You're repeating yourself."

"Yours is a fascinating case."

"You sound like a doctor. What are you, anyway? It's your turn to talk."

"Certainly I owe you that. I'm a private agent; people bring me their problems and I try to help them. The vernacular here would be private investigator, but I find that particular label and its attendant connotations can give people the wrong idea about my work."

"You mean you don't do divorces."

He stifled a smile and leaned forward clasping his hands together. "Mr. Fleming, if you have no objections, I'd like very much to help you discover what occurred to you in those missing days-to help you solve your own murder, if you will."

"Well, I don't know-"

"We could be of great help to one another."

"I'm listening."

"For instance, you're a newcomer to the city, but I know it very well. I know the people who run things and the people who control them. Capone may be gone now, but the gangs are still active and they are very powerful. Frank Paco heads one of them. If he had you killed he must have had a very good reason."

He straightened, reaching for the crossbow. I tensed and then relaxed. He'd been looking for a pipe that had gotten shuffled under the paper. "Do you mind?"

"No, go ahead."

"It sometimes helps me to think, mostly it keeps me awake." He tilted the chair back after the pipe was drawing, and stared at the ceiling. I stared at my shoes and thought about getting another pair the next night. These looked like something off a bum, but worse. The pipe smoke gradually added a pungent flavor to the air, but for some reason it made me uncomfortable and I considered pulling the blinds up to improve the air circulation.

He was staring at me with open curiosity, and I was beginning to think it was his favorite expression.

"Excuse me, but are you breathing at all?"

"Only when I talk. I'm afraid it comes with the condition."

"In the winter you shall have to remember to wear a scarf over your mouth or people might notice."

"I hadn't thought of that. Listen, do you mind answering some of my questions?"

"Not at all."

"How did you find me and know what I am?"

"I confess to a lifelong interest in the outre, but never expected to com face-to-face with a living, so to speak, example. I first saw you at the rail way station and was instantly struck by the fact that we physically resemble each other, though of course, you're a bit younger."

"I don't think so. How old do I look?"

"No more than twenty-three or -four."

"But I'm thirty-six," I protested.

"Perhaps it's part of your changed condition. That is very interesting But to continue, I enjoy watching people: I note their mannerisms, walks faces, but I don't like to get caught doing it; that spoils the fun. People dray the wrong conclusions or become offended or both, so I practice covert observation."

"Come again?"

"I don't get caught watching. I follow them, face one direction and loot in another-and I study their reflections in mirrors."

"I didn't notice any mirrors."

"True, but there were several panels of glass available that served jus as well. Even the window on the door of the cab you took was useful. I say` your trunk and the porter, but could not see you. Something as unusual as that could not be ignored, so I followed you in another cab to your hotel. listened as you registered and got your room number and the name you gave. When you came back down and went to the Stockyards I lost you there somehow, but by great luck you turned up again at a newsstand that was on your route home. Then you spent some time at a Western Union office, and when you left I tried to find out the nature of the telegrams you sent. To their credit, the employees were quite reticent, though one did mention you sent money to your mother. Then I had to leave, lest I lose you. set up a vigil at your hotel, intending to call on you during the day to see my suspicions were correct. You left again some time later, so I seized the opportunity to search your room.

"Once inside, I took the liberty of going through your luggage an found those two bags of earth. It gave me quite a turn because up to then was still only half believing what my eyes had told me. Of course, you might have had some other reason for carrying them around, but it would hardy, explain your lack of a reflection. I wanted to meet you and talk, but had to do so without placing myself in unnecessary danger. It would have to b under controllable conditions. My knowledge of vampires is, at present limited to Stoker's book and that film. I had to hope they were correct Leaving you my note, I took your bags to guarantee your coming, and set my defenses."

"Just the crossbow?"

"And the hope that you could not cross the threshold without an invitation."

"That's it?"

He opened the desk drawer and drew out some garlic and a large crucifix. He was puzzled when I didn't flinch away, and his eyes went wide with alarm when I actually picked them up. I wrinkled my nose at the garlic, but then I never did like the stuff. I gave it back to Escott. "You can't win them all."

He fingered the cross with astonishment. "But I thought--"

"Yeah, I did, too, once. Look at it this way: I was basically a decent guy before someone killed me, and I don't feel any different now. Maybe if I were, say, the real Dracula with his life history, I'd twitch if I saw a cross, too. As for the garlic, in the part of Europe where it originated as a weapon against vampires it's a basic cure for just about everything. You got a cold, rheumatism, a headache? Try a little garlic. Troubled by vampires? Use garlic, it can't hurt. It can't help, either. What good is something that smells bad against someone who doesn't have to breathe?"

"That is a good point," he admitted. "Was I at least right about the threshold?"

" 'Fraid not. How do you think I was able to get into the hotel in the first place?"

"Oh."

"How did you get into my room?"

"With the aid of some highly illegal, but very useful lock picks, which also served well for your trunk. I must compliment you on that for a very good idea; a large trunk is certainly less noticeable than a coffin."

"It was the only thing I could think of. Besides, it beats taking a flop in a closet."

"I'm sure a coffin might bar you from the better hotels as well."

I gave him a look. He was joking.

"Why, though? Why get to know me? If you're crazy it doesn't show."

"Thank you, I think."

He shook his head. "I'm not sure if I can explain why. Perhaps I suffer from terminal curiosity. If you'd been a different sort of person from what you are, I don't think I'd have taken the chance I did tonight."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, any man who sends money home to his mother can't be all bad."

"Good grief."

"How did you evade me at the Stockyards?"

"Like this." I vanished, floated through the door, reformed and came back inside. Escott hadn't moved a muscle, but his heart was thumping hard and his eyes had gone a bit glassy.

After a long time, he said, "That was very interesting, not to mention unnerving. Would you mind doing that again?"

I didn't mind a bit, it was good practice. He was still unnerved. When thought I had enough control, I tried a partial disappearance while still sitting in the chair. It was all pure show-off.

"That is absolutely astounding," he said. He looked like a kid with new toy. "I can see right through you. It's like a photographic double exposure. Can you talk while in this state?"

I moved my lips, there was still some air left to form words. After a and my reply became audible. Faint and hollow, I said, "Don't know, haven't tried."

"It seems the more solid you are the better the quality of sound.' stood and reached toward me. "May I?"

"Sure."

I was finding it interesting as well, though it was disturbing to see Escott's hand passing right through my midsection. I was certain I could it, like a tickling within.

"Rather cold," he commented. "And you have a tendency to drift."

"I have to concentrate when it's like this." I relaxed and material completely. "It's draining in a way."

"I should think so. Everything about you vanishes-your clothes and effects, that is-I wonder what your limits are." He held out his pipe. "Would you mind, just once more?"

I didn't. Escott took back the pipe and puffed on it. "Still lit ... I find that interesting."

"Why?

"It means things are unaffected when they go with you. That could prove to be very useful."

I pondered on what he wanted to use it for, disappeared again and came back. "There may be a weight or size limit. I tried to take the chair with me this time and couldn't."

"Perhaps you need more practice. We can research all this thoroughly I'm sure. What you do is certainly not covered by the present laws of physics." Another idea struck him. "Are your teeth--may I examine them?"

I shrugged and opened my mouth. "You're very fortunate; they're perfect." "Erf-ik?"

"You've never had cavities."

"Uh-Ah-aah-"

"What?" He let go.

"But I've had cavities."

"Then you've no fillings."

"You sure? Check the back on this side."

He did and only found unblemished molars. "Your condition is not without its beneficial side effects."

I moaned. "This is getting strange."

"One more look?" He gently pushed back my upper lip and probed the gum area above the canines. "They would seem to be retractable ... and very sharp." He tugged at one. "Extends at a slight outward angle ... mm ... about half an inch longer than the others." He released the tooth, and I felt it slowly slide back. "Extension probably the result of an involuntary reflex occurring when stimulated by hunger pangs. Is that correct?"

"Yeah, they come out when I need them."

"I might like to see that sometime." He fiddled with his pipe.

I found the man's clinical interest, at least on the subject of my dining habits, to be annoying.

Escott continued to poke and cluck to himself, oblivious to my growing irritation. It was like a medical exam, and I never liked medical exams. In the end, I had to take off my coat and shirt so he could see the bullet scars.

"There's hardly any mark in front at all now, but there is a large discoloration on your back . . . very slight, though, and it appears to have shrunk. From your description of the chest wound, I'd say you were shot at close range by a large-caliber bullet, perhaps a dum-dum."

"I took a forty-five semi-auto off Sanderson."

"I'd wonder what you had that was making your coat pocket sag so. It would certainly meet the requirements."

"Here." I dug it out and gave it to him.

"And he shot you that second time without harming you?"

"It hurt and did not improve my suit. I didn't like it at all." I buttoned my shirt.

"I should think not." He looked out the window. "Well, well, it is getting rather late for you, and I'm a bit sleepy myself. Could we continue this discussion tomorrow at your convenience?"

"I'd like that, sure."

"In the meantime, I shall begin inquiries into your case."

"Well, go easy, you can see how rough these boys play. You better keep the gun."

"Very well, at least as evidence."

I picked up my bags of earth. "I'll be by a little after sundown." "That would be perfect. Good night to you, Mr. Fleming."

"Good morning to you, Mr. Escott."

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

NOT much of the night was left. If I rushed it I could pull out and find a other place to stay before the sun caught me. Instead, I walked home, dumped the bags of earth back in the trunk, and got undressed. My instincts about people were fairly sharp by now, and I had a good feeling about the man. The question of whether or not to trust him had only been briefly considered. With something close to fear I realized I was alone, I needed a friend badly.

There was no hunger the next night, so I could skip visiting the Stockyards and go straight to Escott's office. the afterglow of the sunset made my eyes burn, though, and I made a mental note to acquire a pair of dark glasses at the first opportunity.

It was only eight. A fair amount of traffic still cluttered the street at my mind was on sunglasses, so I almost didn't notice the dark green Ford parked in front of Escott's stairway until too late. I approached the sto opening and at the last moment continued past without breaking stride. Two men were at the top just emerging from Escott's door.

I raced around the block to get a good look at them from behind. Peering around the last corner, I was in time to see them stowing a long, heavy bundle of carpeting into the trunk of the Ford. They were red and puffing, their burden seemed overly heavy for its size. The trunk lid slammed down and they dusted their hands off. The one on the left had a bandaged right forefinger. It was Fred Sanderson.

Their backs to me, they opened the doors and got in. Before those doors shut I was making a beeline for the trunk, crouching low. There was no time to try opening it. The engine was kicking over, giving me a face full of exhaust. Not having any better ideas, I vanished and seeped through the crack between the lid and the car's body before they pulled out. I cautiously resumed form again, making sure there was enough room to do so.

I was on my side, crammed uncomfortably against the rug which smelled of dust, grease, and other less pleasant things. It was difficult to hear well over the rumble of the car, but I was sure I detected muted breathing beneath the layers of nap. Reasonably certain it was Escott, I hoped we stop soon before he smothered. Under the present circumstances it was ii possible to unwrap him.

After the first few minutes of the ride I lost all sense of direction and had to fight off motion sickness. We crossed water, and soon the sound of the wheels on the road steadied. There were no more stops and turns, and their speed was steady, so I gathered we were on a highway. This was worrying; if the ride were too long, I'd be stuck somewhere without my earth, but long before this could become a problem the car slowed and made a sharp right turn onto a very bumpy dirt road. We slid to a stop and the motor was cut.

I pressed an ear to the bundle and was reassured by the sound of working lungs, though I didn't think their owner was conscious yet. Outside, crickets and other small creatures made their little noises. Awkwardly close at hand, the two men lurched out of the car. Not wanting to be discovered in such a tactically poor position, I floated from the trunk and reformed where I hoped I wouldn't be seen.

Trees were all around, but too sparse to offer adequate cover. When I turned to face the car I thought the game was up, Sanderson was looking right at me, then his eyes skipped blindly past. He didn't have my night vision. His friend even gave him a flashlight to facilitate their work.

They opened the trunk and with a none-too-gentle wrench, hauled the bundle out, and dropped it on the ground. From their movements, I'd have to interfere soon, but dark or no dark, I didn't want to risk being recognized by Sanderson. I tied a handkerchief cowboy-fashion over my lower face, feeling foolish about the melodramatics, then turned up my coat collar and pulled down my hat.

The men were professionally matter-of-fact about their task. They yanked one end of the rug up and Escott's unconscious body rolled out onto the leaves and dirt.

"You want to do it here?" the other, younger man asked Sanderson.

"Nah, we might get blood all over us takin' him to the river."

"We could carry him in the rug."

"Georgie," came the patient reply, "we would then have to throw it in with him. The boss don't like wasting a good gimmick, he'll want to use the rug again someday, and then where would we be? Come and get the legs."

They grunted and lifted their burden. Before they'd gotten ten feet, I darted in and punched Sanderson for all I was worth. I felt and heard bones give under my fist. The big man's head snapped back, and he shot straight away from me and smashed against a tree.

His partner had little time to react, but he was fast. He dropped Escott's legs and clawing for his gun when I knocked the wind out of him with a gut punch. He doubled over with a whoosh and was made unconscious by a more restrained tap on the head.

I tore my mask away and knelt by Escott, checking him over. There was a swelling behind his left ear and a little blood from a cut lip, but he seemed otherwise uninjured. On a hunch, I searched Georgie and found a whiskey flask. I sniffed to make sure it was drinkable and dribbled a little into Escott's sagging mouth. I was surprised at my enormous relief when he coughed violently and opened his eyes. He was understandably dazed; it took a few more minutes and another swallow before he was up to asking questions.

"Dear me, how ever did we get out here?"

"By way of Fred Sanderson taxi service."

"They caught me like a bloody amateur," he complained, painfully probing his lump. "Did they get you, too?"

"Hardly. I hitched a ride when I saw them load you into the car. Neither of them looked like carpet layers." I indicated the discarded rug. Escott was unsteady, but made a game effort to get to his feet. I helped him.

"I am very much in your debt, Mr. Fleming. I hope that I may somehow-"

"Don't worry about it," I interrupted. "You could have aced me with a hammer and stake anytime today, but you didn't. We're even."

"But, my dear fellow, such an action never occurred to me." Escott was truly shocked.

"But I thought of it. The way I am now I gotta be careful who I trust, but I know you're gonna be square with me. Now before we get all maudlin, let's pack these two mugs in the car and get back home."

I left the flashlight with Escott and got busy manhandling Georgie into the backseat. Having had some practice at it, I removed his tie and secured his hands together behind him, then went back for Sanderson.

Neither of us had to venture very close to know something was seriously wrong. Sanderson's utterly loose posture was enough to alert Escott, who gingerly felt for a pulse. I already knew that to be a futile effort.

Escott turned the body face up into the light and his breath hissed sharply.

I looked quickly away, sickened by what I'd done.

 

   

 

Twenty minutes later we were almost back in Chicago. Sanderson's body was in the trunk, wrapped in the rug. Occasionally Escott would check the backseat to make sure the now-blindfolded Georgie was quiet. I'd been silent, driving carefully to avoid the unwelcome attention of any cop with a quota to fill.

"You've got to understand," I finally said, "this is scaring the hell out of me."

"I do understand. A healthy dose of fear will certainly temper your actions from now on."

"That's not it. I'm afraid of what I've become. What I did back thereI knew what would happen if I hit him like that, and I did it anyway." "Good."

I glanced at him, surprised. His face showed a dour expression that must have matched my own. "Good?"

"Mm. Do you honestly think I harbor any regret or pity for a man who would have been the agent of my death and was by your own guess responsible for yours? Your feeling of guilt is misplaced. Were our positions reversed I should give no more thought to the matter than a soldier does when he must shoot at the enemy."

Half a lifetime ago I had shot at the enemy. I hadn't liked it then, either.

"He would have met his death sooner or later, for such was his life, and then at the hands of someone with far less conscience. If it is any comfort to you, I'm sure he never knew what hit him."

"What is the magic word. What have I become? I'm no longer human."

"That is utter nonsense and for your own good I suggest' you put it from your head as quickly as possible. Do you in all truth really believe the biological changes within you have stripped you of humanity? You still possess your mortal clay, you still have emotional needs. I think you are giving far too much credence to a fictional character created out of the imagination of an actor's manager."

I gave him a sharp look.

"No, I'm no mind reader, but I can follow your line of reasoning. The character Dracula was a monster. He was also a vampire. You are now a vampire, ergo, you are a monster."

"What makes you think I'm not? Maybe I should pull over and strangle the kid in the back."

"If you feel it's necessary, but you won't."

He was right, it'd been a stupid thing to say and said in anger.

"You're feeling guilty, hence this black reaction. Feel guilty if you must, but leave self-pity out of it, for it is the most destructive of all emotions."

"What makes you so smart?"

"I read a lot." He bowed his head in weariness, looking green at the edges.

"You still want to go on after this?" I said, meaning the investigation. "Oh, yes, but not just this moment."

I heard something in the back and checked our prisoner from the mirror. "He's waking up," I whispered.

Escott nodded, tapping his lips with a finger. We kept silent for the rest of the trip while Georgie played possum in the backseat.

 

   

 

Following gestured directions, I negotiated the streets and pulled into a no-parking zone. We rubbed the interior down for fingerprints, got out,

and Escott lifted the hood. He fiddled briefly with something as I kept a nervous lookout. We both jumped as the street was filled with the earsplitting blare of the car's horn. Escott dropped the hood, swiped at it with his handkerchief, then grabbed my arm, and we hustled out of sight around a corner.

"What was that for?" I asked as we left the area.

"There's a police station not a hundred feet from the car. Once that horn gets their attention they can take Georgie in at least for disturbing the peace. After they find Sanderson they can become more creative in their charges."

"Why didn't you want to question Georgie about this?"

"He wouldn't have known anything useful. I'm already certain Paco ordered my untimely demise because I was clumsy somewhere in my investigations. I did quite a lot of poking around today and he must have got the wind up, and can only expect more of the same until one or the other of us has been eliminated."

"You're pretty cool about it."

"Only because my head hurts too much at the moment for me to be overly concerned about the future."

"You can't go back to your office, they might be watching."

"I have other places to ... uh ... lay low for the time being. However I do have to return to my office to fetch some paperwork; it's too important

to leave. I'd be most obliged if you accompanied me. I don't feel well at all.

"Be glad to, but what if some of Paco's men are there?"

"I'm inclined to think only Sanderson and Georgie were involved with this job, but we won't know until we get there, which we won't do unless we find a cab."

Taking the hint, I left Escott resting on a bench outside a barbersho and went looking, turned up a cab near a hotel, and returned to pick hir up. He gave directions and paid the driver off some two blocks away fror our goal. We walked the rest of the way, eyes peeled, and turned onto th street that ran behind his office. He approached the door of a modest to bacco shop, produced a key, and went in, motioning me to follow. It wa full of crowded shelves and fragrant smells, the second floor was devoted tc storage and full of dusty crates. Escott pulled one away from the back wall and made something go click. A three-foot-tall section fitted between th wall studs popped open like a door. Two inches beyond this opening was another apparent wall. He put his ear to it and listened.

I made a reassuring gesture, then realized he couldn't see it for we wer in almost total darkness. "There's no one on the other side or I'd hear them," I murmured.

"Oh," he said. He pushed on the wall, opening another narrow door and eased himself through. I followed. We were standing in a small washroom, but only for a moment. Escott went on to the room beyond.

I correctly guessed it to be Escott's living quarters behind the office. Except for a radio acting as a nightstand next to an army cot and the window blinds, the place was depressingly bare; even a hotel room had more personality. I found myself fidgeting as Escott moved smoothly around in the semi-darkness. He pulled a suitcase from under the cot, opened a tiny close and was busily packing.

"You dropped a sock," I observed.

"On purpose. Should they send anyone here later I want them to draw the conclusion that I've departed in a great hurry, which is what I am no doubt doing. Besides, it was developing a hole."

He went to the office. His desk had been searched. He paused and grimaced at the mess, then stopped and grabbed up some scattered papers. "I'll have to sort this lot out later," he muttered. The crossbow was still on the desk; he picked it up and took it back to the bedroom. I wondered what his attackers had thought of it.

"This will hardly fit in my bag, I'll have to leave it in the tobacco shop for the time being. It is a bit too conspicuous to carry right now."

"How did you happen to have it in the first place?"

"It's a working prop left over from my acting days. I made it for a small part I had in the Scottish Play."

"The what?"

"Macbeth," he said sotto voce. "As a weapon these days it is a little bulky, but it is powerful, lethal, and silent. I have smaller ones, but thought you might be more impressed with something large."

"You thought right."

"Then you're certain wood can harm you?"

"The lady I knew in New York mentioned it."

"Ah." Escott returned to the washroom and shoved the suitcase through the doors, along with the crossbow. He paused at the medicine cabinet, dropped some shaving items into his pockets, and then, to my puzzlement, tugged at the frame of the cabinet itself. It swung out, revealing a flat metal box standing on edge in the space behind. He opened it, making sure the papers inside were still intact before taking them away.

"Who did your carpentry?"

"Oh, I did it all myself," he said with some pride. "I love this sort of thing, don't you?"

As Escott locked the tobacco shop door, I asked, "Do you own this place?"

"Half of it. The other owner actually runs it. I help him financially through these hard times and he helps me by maintaining a good hiding place and, if necessary, escape route with twenty-four-hour access and egress."

"Are you rich?"

"Sometimes." He swayed a little. "Sorry, that bash on the head is making itself felt."

"Lemme take your bag."

"Only if you insist."

"Where to now?"

"I'm not sure. Not knowing just where I slipped up on my investigations, I can't be certain which of my other places would be safe."

"Then stay away from them and get a hotel."

"Mr. Fleming, I don't think you have grasped the tremendous influence the gangs have on this city. If I show my face at the wrong hostel I am very likely to get it blown off, putting to naught your efforts tonight on my behalf. Within hours, if not already, Paco and his men are going to know of my miraculous escape and be looking for me. It's very bad for their image when someone thwarts them, you see."

"Then you'll leave town?"

"I'm ... not sure." Beads of sweat had popped out on his forehead and his face was gray. He was having some kind of delayed reaction. I caught his arm to support him.

"Hey, you're really sick. Come on, we'll sneak you up the backstairs of my hotel, you can flop there."

"But I really shouldn't-"

"You can't think in the shape you're in now. You'll be safe enough there under my name."

He protested mildly once more, but now and then everybody needs a keeper. I appointed myself his and dragged him off.

 

   

 

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Copyright 2010 , 2003, 1990 P.N. Elrod All Rights Reserved. Originally published by Ace Science Fiction 1990.