I finally found the murderer, and he was a lulu.
It had taken me months of freelance work to track down the guy who killed my partner, and if the truth be known, I broke more than a few laws doing the job. But I didnít give a damn. As far as I could tell, the sick bastard had slaughtered over forty people across a dozen states. Each done the same way he killed Bill Smithers, my partner in Chicago, slit their throats and drained the blood like he was a freaking vampire or something.
The castle was up on the old New York Palisades, deserted for years. I hid my car in the bushes, so nobody could spot the out of state plates. The lock on the front door was good, an expensive French model. Took me almost ten minutes to get through. Inside, the place was surprisingly clean, some of the rooms even carpeted. Not the usual thing for an undead. But playing on the Count Dracula routine, I checked in the basement.
The place was huge, large enough to land a plane, with a high vaulted ceiling and granite-block walls. The cellar more resembled an underground warehouse than a castle basement. In a corner was a big-screen TV and a brace of DVD players. Overflowing bookcases lined the walls and in the middle of the place, on a marble pedestal, was a large stainless steel coffin, with US Army Claymore mines wired to the outside. Yikes. Ever so carefully, I snipped away the wires on the anti-personnel charges. At last, all those years watching the Discovery channel finally paid off.
The lid was secured from the inside, so I used a keywire gun on the lock. It was a lazy locksmithís best friend. A simple twist and the coffin opened on silent hinges. So much for stereotypes. With my Magnum in hand, I was surprised to find it empty. As I bitterly cursed, a chuckle sounded from behind, I turned and there the bastard stood.
He resembled a computer hacker with that deathly pale skin and weird eyes. Bill Gates on crack. But he was sporting a natty Armani suit that was worth more than I had ever made, woven Italian shoes with tiny tassels, and a gold Rolex watch. What, no caviar-scented cell phone?
A cop would have arrested him and sent the kook to a lunatic asylum. But I wasnít planning on reading this guy his rights. As far as I was concerned, he didnít have any. Not an animal like him.
The murderer came at me with arms extended, as if greeting a long lost relative. His mouth full of those phony vampire teeth you can buy at any novelty store. Pitiful. I didnít have to draw my .357 Magnum. It was already in my hand. Without a qualm, I gunned the freak down, the thundering retorts of the Smith and Wesson echoing around the cellar. But he kept coming, as if my copper-jacketed hollow points had no effect. Must have been wearing a bulletproof vest.
We went hand-to-hand and he had me in a second. Loonies are always strong. Adrenaline, or something. Maybe he was on PCP. The Count dragged me kicking across the basement and chained me to the stone wall. The chains felt oiled and were spotted with red flakes. I had a bad feeling Nut Boy had used these often.
Chuckling, he went away and soon came back with two women. A blonde and a redhead. Real hot numbers wearing skimpy denim shorts, sleeveless T-shirts and also sporting those phony teeth. That was when I went cold. I sure hoped whatever they had wasnít a contagious disease. Death was infinitely preferable to insanity.
They gathered around and made the expected remarks on how tasty and juicy I looked. I invented a few curses, which they took in stride. Then the Count waved the women on and they came at me with hands raised, their fingernails glistened like steel. Probably razorblades glued underneath.
This was no time for finesse, so as they got close, I kicked the blonde in the left breast. She didnít bat an eye. That was impossible. There was no way a bra, much less a Kevlar vest, could be hidden under her T-shirt. Kicking a woman in the breast is like kicking a guy in the balls. Blondie should have dropped big time.
Smiling, Red grabbed my hair and twisted my head about as if I was a child. Then she opened her mouth wide, exposing every inch on those long white fangs. They actually looked like her own teeth. Thatís when I realized the freaks were really going to drink my blood. I had faced death lots of times in Nam as kid. In the back alleys of Chicago, too. But there was a big difference between a bullet in the chest, or a knife in the stomach, and having a trio of drugged out wackos suck me dry like a free cherry soda. That was no way for a nice PI to die.
My brain was whirling with escape plans, none of them worth a damn, when the door in the corner slammed open and in strode a SWAT team.
Or at least thatís what they resembled. There were three of them, two men and a woman. All were dressed in camouflage outfits, with backpacks, satchels and dozens of weapons hanging off them. One guy was tall and skinny, like he hadnít had a good meal since his last birthday. The woman was kinda short, slim and muscular-looking in a nice way. The other guy was downright fat. But he had a genuine shit-eating grin on his face as he worked the bolt on the huge M60 machine gun in his hands. I could tell this was a man who enjoyed his work.
My three freaks spun about at the sound, and hissed louder than steam radiators. Geez, they were really putting in overtime on the old vampire act.
As two of the SWAT guys separated, Skinny pulled out of his shoulder bag a melon-sized crystal ball and smashed it on the floor. Instantly every door and window was covered with stonework sealing us in. In spite of the situation, I dropped my jaw. Impossible. Yet I had just seen it happen. Maybe the ball was actually some sort of electrical device, an EMP bomb maybe, whose command signal pulse triggered the control mechanism for hidden sliding panels. It sounded lame, but what the hell could have happened? Magic? At this point, I began to wonder if they were really a rescue squad, or merely more loonies in on the fun.
The vampires advanced slavering and growling. Red came at Fat Boy, and he let her have a full burst at point blank range. The heavy-duty combat rounds blew holes in her the size of Montana. She burst into flames and dropped to the ground, still screaming and trying to get at the lard bucket.
One tough bitch. Incendiary bullets? I wondered.
That was when I realized that the sphere must have contained BZ, military hallucinogenic gas, because everything started to get real funky.
The other two vampire types flapped their arms and turned into freaking bats! No smoke, no special effects. And not dinky little zoo bats, but great big mothers who soared into the air and began circling around the room as if this was Wild Kingdom and I was Marlin Perkins.
Suddenly, Chubby moved in front of me, his machine gun spraying hot lead protection. At least that was no hallucination. I felt the stinging blast of the blow-back gas, and a red-hot shell casing bounced off my hand burning the flesh.
The short lady jumped up on the coffin and, reaching behind her, pulled out a long curved sword so highly polished that the blade seemed to ripple with rainbows. Flipping it over, she knelt and buried the sword to the hilt into the rectangular box.
Big deal, I thought. But Batguy didnít care for the idea a bit. Rearing backwards, he opened his jaw and vomited a lance of fire at the swordswoman. She ducked, but it wasnít necessary. A river of ice launched from the cupped hands of Skinny and the two streams hit in midair with a deafening thunderclap worse than an overload at a rock concert.
As I shook the ringing from my ears, I suddenly noticed that Batgirl was gone. I couldnít see her anyplace, but a weird patch of fog was drifting towards Mandrake over by where the door used to be. I shouted a warning on impulse.
However, the coffin was in the line of fire for Rambo and Ninja Girl was dancing with Igor the human hang glider, so Mr. Wizard was alone on this one.
Muttering something, in Latin I guess, he threw a fistful of sparkle dust at the cloud with no effect. What a surprise there. The cloud advanced. Quickly he pulled out a cross and a water pistol, and started chasing the cloud around, shooting streams of water at it. This is where I lost my tenuous hold on reality and started laughing. Chubby gave me a quizzical glance over his shoulder as he yanked a fresh belt of ammunition out of his shoulder bag and shoved it into the breech of his weapon.
"You okay?" he asked in a husky voice.
"Shit, no," I replied. "Must have hit my head on an overhang somewhere and Iím having one hell of a dream."
He seemed to accept that and dashed off. I kept laughing.
The two men managed to corner the cloud and let her have it. There was fire and water and lightning and screaming and explosions and gunshots. In the middle of all this, the cloud turned into a wolf, a giant rat, a bear, a beautiful nude blonde, a nightmarish thing with tentacles and finally a lump of oozing flesh. Then they set the mess on fire by sprinkling it with communion wafers.
It may have been nothing but a drug-induced illusion, but I rattled my chains at the victory and shouted wa-hoo, even though I donít like fantasy. If I had caught this show on cable, I would have turned to another channel. I prefer a good mystery, with plenty of conflicting clues and a hot seduction or two, that kind of stuff. But magic? I believe in hard facts, science, human dignity, cold beer and the Chicago Bears. Not mumbo-jumbo voodoo gumbo. Thatís crazy. Or at least it seemed crazy until tonight.
Meanwhile, Shorty had gotten into a bad way. She was flat against the wall with the Count moving in for the kill. A flurry of sword thrusts to his head missed, but instead of attacking, the nut just stood there and stared at her. His eyes started to glow a bright red. Hesitantly she began to lower her sword when an arrow took the ugly thing right in the ass. Where the arrow came from I have no idea.
He grabbed his butt and howled in pain. Coming awake, she charged forward, her sword slashing off a wing. Snarling, the bat raked her chest with his claws, the front of her uniform ripping away to expose molded body armor. Nice. These guys were definitely government.
From the sidelines, Chubby angled the M60 so he wouldnít shoot the woman. The big machine gun stuttered away, Lardo riding the weapon like a professional, spent shells forming a glittering golden arc in the air.
A net materialized above the one-armed bat and dropped onto him. But the Count ripped it apart without even trying. Across the room, Skinny cursed and started digging about in his shoulder pouch. I realized he was the source of the magic stunts.
In yammering fury, the machine gun finally blew away chunks of the Countís skull. The rainbow sword flashed and a clawed leg fell to the floor. That should have killed anybody, but the Count shimmered like bad TV reception and was a man again. Whole and undamaged. Instantly the three closed in as if this was what they had been waiting for. Now I was cheering them on wholeheartedly. Hallucination or not, the sonofabitch had killed my partner and I wanted him dead.
Laughing confidently, the Count unexpectedly doubled in size. His clothes too. A neat trick that. But the woman leapt into the air and thrust her rainbow sword straight through the guyís chest, as Skinny threw what resembled a wooden dagger into his throat and Chubby shoved a grenade down his pants. Then everybody but me took cover as the big guy fell face forward onto the stone floor and thunderously exploded.
In the enclosed space, the blast was so loud I couldnít hear it at first. Then sound painfully returned and the shock wave smacked me flat. Acrid smoke tore at my lungs. The ground quaked. The building shook. A rush of heat cooked me to the bone. The ceiling cracked, chunks of stone falling everywhere. I abruptly understood that this was no illusion and braced myself for death.
A short eternity later the rumbling world finally settled back into place. There was no sign of the Count except for a few smoking bones, and a melted cell phone. For the first time in three months I allowed myself to relax and said goodbye to my partner. We got him, buddy. We got him.
Rising from the rubble, Shorty, Chubby and Skinny dusted themselves off and came over carefully picking their way through the charred wreckage.
"Iím glad you survived, Mr. Alvarez," the skinny fellow said, offering me a canteen. "We have been following you since OíHare Airport, Chicago."
I gagged on the water. "Huh?" I asked brilliantly.
"As you seemed to be tracking the vampires much better than we ever had, I saw no reason to interfere with your progress until some intervention was needed. Actually a most impressive job, considering your lack of formal training."
My thanks consisted mostly of four-letter words.
Unperturbed, he opened a leather wallet, showing me a badge and ID card. "FBI," he announced. "Special Agent Richard Anderson, on permanent assignment to Bureau 13. This is George Renault and Mindy Jennings."
So, they were feds. "Bureau 13?" I asked.
Wearily, George rested the stock of his machine gun on the floor. "Weíre a covert division of the Justice Department."
Covert my ass. But not entirely stupid, I was getting the general idea. "And you handle criminals like these guys," I said, jerking a thumb at the smoking corpses.
"Yep," Mindy said calmly, wiping her sword off with a bit of cloth before sheathing the rainbow blade. "But believe it or not, our biggest problem is personnel. Just canít find enough trained people who wonít faint when facing vampire bank robbers, werewolf motorcycle gangs or toxic waste mutant assassins."
They waited. The next move was mine. Oh, what the hell. A short life, but a merry one.
"Okay, deal me in," I sighed.
Smiling, Richard flipped open another commission booklet. The ID card inside this had my driverís license picture and read: "Special Agent Edwardo Alvarez, FBI". It was dated two months ago.
Smooth. I was going to like these guys. However, there was still one very important question that had to be answered immediately.
"Can I get down now?" I asked, rattling my chains.