I used to work in the Flood Building. I’ve also worked for tech companies. The people I worked for are fantastic individuals, all of them, and I wish them luck. I don’t include people I know in my writing, so don’t worry, guys, I’m not mocking you. But this story just seemed like a good fit, and the Flood Building really is that cool. It’s got a Maltese Falcon, and everything.
This story takes place immediately after Blood Hound.
“Get a job.”
“But I already have a job,” I said to three of the most powerful vampires in the world.
Gibson, who looked like an old, somewhat burly hippie, lounged against the bar. Cole Spade, who owned the establishment, stood back, holding his own drink in his hand. Blues singer, bar owner, High Council member. He kind of had it all. And Crystal, a vampire roughly as old as recorded history, swung her legs girlishly from a chair that was too high for her. Because she was ten years old. Would always be ten. Not that it stopped her from being absolutely terrifying when she felt like it.
Like everything else in the world, vampires lived in a bureaucracy. The United States was run by the somewhat mistitled North American Vampire Council (sucks to be Canada or Mexico), and three of its thirteen members lived near me. Sometimes they had work for me. They usually met in The Front Line – San Francisco’s best vampire bar. The owner was a council member, after all. Sometimes in the offices in the back, sometimes at the bar itself. Being the bosses of everything had advantages.
“We know,” Gibson said. “I just wanted to say that.”
“Get a job, hippie,” Cole chuckled, and winked at me. He wore shades, so I assumed that last part.
“It’s a cover job,” Crystal broke through the joking, her tone cold, almost emotionless – vampires retain a lot of who they were at their time of turning, and she resisted childlike immaturity by shutting down her emotions. You got used to the creepy child bit after a while. “We need you to investigate something for us.”
“Okay,” I sighed. “What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to get a job,” Gibson chuckled again.
Lucy December: vampire, detective, butt of really lame jokes.
“There has been a spate of unauthorized biting in the city over the last three weeks,” Crystal said. “We believe we have traced the source to a business in the Flood Building. We understand how busy you’ve been.”
“Busy is an understatement,” I said.
“Yes, how are you feeling?” she asked.
Cole handed me a drink, and I took it in hand. “Honestly? Kind of like shit,” I said, and downed it.
“Like she said,” Cole said. “We understand that, little lady. You still feelin’ sick?”
Little lady. I knew it was a height joke, but I was kind of endearing that he had a pet name for me. And I appreciated the concern. It had been nearly two weeks, but it still felt like only yesterday – a major demon had carved his name in blood in this city, and I was the one drafted to fight it. I hadn’t been thinking clearly when I bit him – I hadn’t known that demon blood could make a vampire sick, but my body had been having a fun time adjusting since.
I shrugged. “A little queasy,” I said. “But I should be fine for the job. What’s going on?”
“As I said, unauthorized bite attacks,” Crystal repeated.
That was another thing – one of the major jobs of the Council was keeping a handle on vampire feeding. It wasn’t out of charity, it was a matter of practicality. Yeah, we were strong, but there weren’t that many of us, and we had a lot of weaknesses. There was plenty of blood available – I had never seen the factory or farm or refinery or whatever it was, but it was very easy to order bottles of fresh blood, supposedly humanely collected, and live on that. For attacks – whether minor bites, actual killing, or converting a mortal – there was paperwork. Quotas. Think hunting licenses, and you’d be in the right neighborhood.
“How bad is it?” I asked.
“Mortal hospitals are reporting it as an anemia epidemic,” she said. “With twenty reported cases. This figure does not count five deaths and three turnings, nor does it take into account the twelve disappearances that we can confidently link to the same incident.”
Forty in a month. Even a starving vampire would be hard-pressed to drink that much.
“So it’s more than one,” I said.
“Likely,” Crystal nodded.
“We think Orloks are involved,” Gibson said.
“Orloks?” I asked. “How do you figure? Last I remember, Orloks aren’t exactly subtle or easy to hide, and you just told me that this is going on inside a public landmark.”
Gibson shrugged. “Well, since you’re such an expert, why don’t you tell us?”
I didn’t respond to the rebuke. Orloks came from a mutated strain of vampirism, caused when the curse corrupted itself by accident. They were colloquially named after their most famous member, one of the few to retain enough mental faculties to live more-or-less normally. The curse twisted their physical bodies , and as a general rule Orloks were skinny, feral, and ratlike in appearance. Their features were narrow and pointed, even in the ears, and their fangs came from their front teeth rather than the canines. Most of them were hairless, and the mutation affected their minds. Orloks were uncontrollably bloodthirsty, and most vampire governing bodies, Council included, kept them under care and supervision in safe houses. There were occasional movements to declare them a loss and exterminate them, but they never gained enough traction against the bleeding hearts who pitied them. My own experiences with Orloks had been very limited, and unpleasant.
“A large portion of the city’s Orloks vanished from our care shortly before the attacks,” Crystal said. “And more have disappeared since.”
“So, it’s been happening for weeks,” I said, filling in the blank. “And without a corresponding increase in violence, right? Normally, you’d expect a loose Orlok to start mad-biting everybody in sight until you found it, but nothing’s been happening.”
“Nothing aside from the stuff you told me, I mean,” I said. “Anything else? Have any of the surviving witnesses said anything concrete?”
“No,” Crystal shook her head. “None of the survivors recall anything beyond an an appointment in the fifth floor of the Flood Building.”
“Fifth floor?” I asked. “That should make it easier to find out who’s doing this, right? Just look for the office staffed by bloodthirsty monsters. They’ve probably got a union.”
“The fifth floor has over thirty tenants,” Crystal said. “And none of them are staffed by ‘bloodthirsty monsters.’”
“Oh,” I said. “Okay, so we’ve got to narrow it down a little further. What now?”
She looked over her shoulder, to Cole. He chuckled, and shot me a grin.
“Oh, you’re gonna love this, Little Lady,” he said. “Get a job, hippie.”
I sighed. “The joke stopped being funny a half hour ago,” I said.
“Get a job.”
“Yes, I get it, a cover job,” I rolled my eyes. “Can we move on? I’m guessing it’s a dummy company, right?”
“No,” Crystal said. “We don’t have anybody inside the Flood Building. The building is fully-staffed with security, and keeps track of visitors. However, we’ve found one business on the same floor which is currently hiring.”
“But you don’t own the business?” I asked.
“We own a temp agency,” she said. “They will employ whomever we send.”
“Oh, that makes sense,” I nodded. “Okay, so you need me to pretend to work at a place, but really investigate the entire floor.”
“We’re glad you understand this simple concept,” Gibson said.
“Yeah, well, you guys kind of rabbit-trailed with the jokes,” I said. “All right, then. What are the details? What do we have to go on?”
“Neusum is a directed marketing startup,” Crystal said. “Looking for temps with data entry and database management experience to help handle a recent influx of clients. Because they’re a software firm, they keep long hours, allowing you to work at night. Is this clear?”
“Crystal clear, Crystal,” I said. “So, when do you want me to start?”
“Tomorrow night,” she said. “You will check into Neusum and begin working your shift at nine in the evening, working until five-thirty in the morning.”
I nodded. Sunrise would be at seven-thirty, giving me plenty of time to get someplace safe.
“Here’s who you’ll be,” Cole reached across the bar, handing me an envelope. “Fake ID and everything. We let you keep your first name ’cause you’d probably mess up under a different one.”
I opened the envelope and saw a picture of myself with glasses photoshopped on. Lucille Berends.
“But my name’s not Lucille,” I said.
Crystal rolled her eyes. “It’s close enough, Lucia,” she said. “Go there, maintain your cover, and investigate during any breaks they give you. Be careful and remain undetected, and contact us with everything you find.”
“All right,” I nodded, and stood. “I’ll call if there’s an emergency.”
“We won’t be far,” Cole said. “Good luck, Little Lady.”
It was only after I had left that I realized I had forgotten to ask them what the job was.
I spent the next day turning myself into a hipster. Despite appearances, hipsters have a fairly defined style. Sure, if I were a man, I could grow out a scuzzy beard and tie a man bun, and get away with it, but sadly, I had been born with two X chromosomes.
A scarf. Hipsters wore scarves, right? Of course they did. Hipsters always dressed like half of their bodies were buried in snow. So I needed a scarf. I rummaged through mine. Would a hundred-year-old cashmere scarf count as vintage? I had kept it from moths. I had a purple wool scarf an ex had given me, a practicing Jew, for Christmas. There was also a red silk scarf from the same ex, but that was different.
Or maybe the Harry Potter one. But that wasn’t my fault. I absolutely did not own all the books. I was Ravenclaw.
I opted for the purple scarf. Might as well make that holiday useful somehow. Okay, scarf, glasses, and a hat. I couldn’t wear my stylish detective fedora, not in this disguise, so I went for a purple knit cap.
“Why do I have so many purple things?” I asked myself as I selected a vaguely purple wool coat, belonging to the same ex.
Great, I looked like the Joker.
I swapped the purple coat for a maroon peacoat, and then stopped to marvel at how many coats and jackets I owned that I never wore. Was I such a slave to the trench coat-and-fedora look that I had pigeonholed myself? Nah, it was cool. I was cool. I couldn’t be out of touch.
Jeans. Hipsters wore blue jeans. I had thought they were a passing fad back in the 1950s, and look where that assumption got me. I still spent a lot of time in skirts, but this was definitely a jeans assignment.
Okay. Skinny jeans, maroon peacoat, a purple scarf, a knit cap, and glasses. The ensemble was assembled.
“I look like I’ve lost my mind,” I said as I stepped outside, dressed like that, into warm California weather.
The Flood Building, named for James C. Flood, was one of the three oldest buildings in San Francisco. It had stood tall long after earthquakes and fires laid the rest of the city low. The building cut into Market Square like a gigantic wedge, a triangular building wrapped around a bare courtyard, nestled between the mall, BART station, and cable car turnaround. All of this combined to make the intersection of Market and Powell Street into one of the city’s best tourist stops. The five-story mall connected directly to the Powell Street BART station, which opened up in front of the Flood Building. A large swath of sidewalk was designated as a free speech zone, and thus you could see any combination of street musicians and Jehovah’s Witnesses on a given evening.
It was also the center of San Francisco’s largest ley line pattern, the conflux of lines that formed a perfect pentagram over most of the city. Nobody knew why it was there, or if it was just a coincidence, but it made that tiny swath of land into a place of power. Just a couple of weeks ago, a major demon had used the city’s ley lines to power his own summoning, and he had performed one of the major blood sacrifices inside the mall, corrupting the part of the pentagram that crossed through it.
The ley lines hadn’t recovered from the ritual yet, though they were on the mend. I could still feel a hint of the oppressive darkness that had hung over the city only two weeks ago, but it was quickly crowded out by the hustle and bustle of people surrounding me. The subway ran until half past midnight, and thus the Market Street Square was sill packed with residents, tourists, and proselytizers even after the sun went down. More of the homeless population had retreated into the BART station as the sun went down, though their presence was still felt.
I took a moment to breathe in the cool, crisp night air, and marvel at the living city around me, before I approached. The Flood Building’s ground floor was home to several retail establishments, but there was an entrance into the building proper in the side. I passed through the stone archway and the double glass doors, and stepped into the marble-lined lobby. A display case stood to my right, filled with photos of the building’s construction, pieces of its original facade, and the Maltese Falcon. Well, one of three or four props from the movie, that is. Still, the place was classy, there was no denying that.
I walked up to the security desk and signed in.
“Good evening, Ms. Baron,” the security guard said to me. I opened my mouth to correct him, but then saw that I had signed my name as Lucy Baron. Well, dammit. At least I hadn’t messed up my first name.
I took the elevator to the fifth floor, and began navigating toward the correct office. The hallways were lined with floor-to-ceiling marble, the doors identical frosted glass. Office sized vary, though it was obvious who took up one, two, or even three spaces. I opened up my senses and moved carefully, trying to see if I could feel anything out of the ordinary. I passed the office of a mail-order foreign language institute and two financial companies before I reached a row of therapists. I counted three counselors, two psychiatrists, one hypnotherapist, and a Rolfing clinic.
Wait, what the hell was Rolfing? I took out my phone and looked it up. Apparently, it was some sort of deep-tissue massage meant to align the human body with energy fields. It was pioneered by a Dr. Ida Rolf.
“Huh,” I said. “So it’s not about the Muppets, after all.”
I got a strange feeling as I passed by the office of Dr. F. Murnau, Hypnotherapist. This wouldn’t be unheard of, as hypnosis edged dangerously close to magic at times. But still, it gave me slightly more to work on – a hint of a hunch. There were also lights on inside, unlike most of the other offices, which gave me pause. I took note of the office number, and how it took up three doors’ worth of space, and went on.
Neusum’s offices took up about five windows’ worth of space, and were situated on the other side of the elevators. I had walked around the entire building to find them. I could hear the hustle and bustle of a busy office as I approached the front door, and knocked.
The man who answered was somewhere in his fifties, and wearing my outfit. Same knit cap and all. Dammit, had I cross-dressed by accident?
“Hey, you must be the new girl,” he said, and offered his hand. “I’m Rob Neusum, CFO of Neusum Data Imaging. You’re from Supreme?”
“Supreme?” I asked. Oh, wait. Right. The fake temp agency. “Yeah, I’m Lucy Baron.”
“Great to meet you, Ms. Barnen,” Neusum said, and led me inside. “You’re right on time, though you should probably be earlier in the future. You know how it is, if you’re on-time you’re late.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, immediately overwhelmed by the level of activity going on at nine-thirty at night. I’d been a vampire so long that I only had a cerebral picture of the modern office – most closed down early, or employed a diminished staff at night, but this one seemed to be running full-steam.
“You came at the perfect time. We’ve got a big project due next week,” Neusum said. “So we’re all putting in a few more hours. Your resume says that you do database management?”
“Uh,” I said.
“That’s great,” he led me past a small bank of workers. “Lucy – can I call you Lucy? Lucy, meet Ryan, Brennan, Daggs, Mei-Lin, and Taryn.”
“Hi,” I said, having no idea which was which. Well, I could guess at Mei-Lin and Taryn through process of elimination.
“This is Michel Hemmaland, our creative director.”
I shook the hand of an extremely German man with a French first name.
“This is Aya Shuu, our HR manager.”
“Hi,” I said.
“And this is Breddar Ozwill, our lead Account Executive.”
I wasn’t sure if that was a real name, but I shook his hand, anyway.
“Well, now you’ve met everybody you need to, except for our IT manager, who you really should meet, since you’ll be working under her.”
I waited to be introduced to the IT manager. It didn’t happen.
“So, that’s everybody,” Neusum said. “Oh, wait, there’s Alex, our CEO. Alex, meet Lucy Barn.”
They were clearly brothers. The CEO’s sense of style was more classical, though I couldn’t help but notice the dragon tattoos not quite hidden by his suit sleeves.
“It’s good to meet you,” Alexander Neusum said, and shook my hand. “You came at the perfect time. We’ve got a big project due next week.”
“Thanks,” I said, vaguely remembering that exact phrase from two minutes ago. “Yeah, something in your database, right?”
He chuckled. “That’s really funny, Lily,” he said. “Go get her settled in, Rob.”
Rob Neusum led me away from the CEO.
“We use a B-tree longvarbinary SQL system set with implicit locking,” he said, ushering me to an unoccupied computer desk. “We use a proprietary Mac software tailored to our own system. You know how to use a Mac, right?”
“Sure,” I said. I had no clue, but I did have a computer at home, and the operating system sounded much less daunting than a bee tree varbinary squirrel system, or whatever he was talking about.
“We just got a new dataset from Marketsec two days ago, and it needs to be organized in time for Datatransfer Expo next week,” he said. “So we need you to sort these names based on browsing history and media preferences to utilize the list in directed marketing.”
“Okay,” I said, actually understanding that.
“Feel free to use the snacks or drinks in the fridge,” Neusum pulled out the chair for me, and I took off my coat, draped it over the chair, and settled in.
“Thanks,” I smiled.
He reached over me and logged into the computer. “Now, state law says that we must provide you with an unpaid lunch break for every four hours of uninterrupted work. Now, we can’t deny you a lunch break, but if you really feel you need to work longer to get everything done, we won’t blame you.”
Wow, that wasn’t blatant at all. I kept my mouth shut, and smiled.
“Anyway,” he said, opening a few programs. I tried to take it all in. “We’re a startup, so we work really hard. We’re totally grateful for your help, so feel free to ask if you need anything!”
“Thanks,” I said, and tried to think of another syllable to add. None came.
“Thank you for helping us,” Rob Neuman said, and left me alone with the computer.
As I said, I owned a computer, so I knew how a few things worked. I could search on the internet and check my e-mail. My finances were in an Excel sheet. I could write a letter. This couldn’t be too hard, right?
The mouse had only one button. Why did it have only one button? How was I going to right-click with only one button? Was this Sheol?
I took a deep breath, and tried again. I remembered hearing about shift+click somewhere, and soon I was reasonably up to speed. The differences were mostly cosmetic, like driving a new car. Sure, the gear shift might work differently, and the headlight switch might be on the other side, but the functionality was the same. I’ve fought demons. I could do this.
Soon, I was able to focus on the program at hand. It looked a little like Facebook. I could handle that a little. I spent a few minutes fumbling around, trying to figure out what I was doing. I began to get a grasp of just how much personal information people gave up in the name of convenience. Not that we’d ever change, of course, but I’m sure there’s a philosophical principle in there somewhere.
I began to fiddle with the program again, finding my way around it. People’s names and e-mail addresses were tied to social media accounts, which were then connected to various merchant sites. And from there I could access search data, presented as a raw paragraph of words.
Yeah, like I said. Lots of privacy sacrificed.
Browsing history and media preferences. That’s what Neusum had said he wanted. I knew he probably had a specific system in mind, but I didn’t know what it was, and asking would betray my ignorance. Well, I could figure out buying trends on my own, thank you very much.
Okay, those two people were vampires. It wasn’t the thick curtains or the tinted car windows, it was the fact that I knew them. They went into a folder. I found a couple of members of the local werewolf commune, and grouped them, as well. Witches were easy to spot even if I didn’t know them – spellcraft reagents were obvious if you knew what to look for. I even found Jonathan and Kelly Thompson, who had been dead for two weeks. They were the ones summoning that demon, and had gotten torn to pieces for their trouble. Eh, might as well let the company find that out on their own. I sorted them in with the other occultists.
I found Cole Spade from the Council, too, and learned exactly where he got his bar furniture. Nice one, there. On a whim, I searched for my own name, and found my account, with the random things I had bought online. The entry used my Facebook picture. I supposed that the Neusums could make the connection if they saw it and felt suspicious, but to be honest, that was probably paranoid. I sorted myself in the vampire category, and idly wondered what kinds of spam were heading my way because of it.
And there was Meg. Meg, Meg, Meg. Good old Meg. I put her in every category possible. If I was going to be spammed, then she could get double. I loved her so much.
There were plenty of ordinary mortals, too. I tried to think up basic demographic categories for them that didn’t look racist, sexist, or ageist, and ended up sorting them by buying habits. This was when it started getting rote and repetitive, and my eyes began to blur before long. What did they need this for? A client advertising firm? Didn’t he mention some sort of conference?
Bah, I needed food to help focus my mind. It was snack time. I got up, rubbed at my eyes, and sneaked over to the drink fridge and snack cabinet even though I knew I was welcome. Old habits, and all. Vampires needed blood to survive, but ordinary food had a huge place in our lives, too. We functioned better with a well-rounded diet.
Holy hell, there was so much kale in here. Kale chips, kale bars, dried kale, kale in a bag, and sweetened kale candy, which looked like an abomination. I saw what looked like chocolate, which on closer examination was carob, instead. Carob was viewed as a healthy chocolate substitute because they shared the same basic color, consistency, and texture. Of course, the same could be said for dirt.
The drink fridge was fully-stocked with kombucha, iced tea with new-agey names, and energy drinks. So, I had a choice between bottled fungus, reincarnated tea, and straight-up poison.
Breddar Ozwill stepped up and reached past me, taking two energy drinks.
“Isn’t that a bit much?” I asked.
“I haven’t gone home in three days,” he said. “Startup, right?”
I gave a slow nod. “Yeah, you do what you have to,” I said, and watched him zombie-shuffle back to his desk. Employment had changed since I was a mortal. I remembered the days of indentured servitude. Now, people just worked endlessly under the impossible weight of crippling debt.
Okay, back to the snacks. There was a pack of almonds hiding in the back, and I opted for one of the iced teas. Maybe it was due to supernatural hearing, or maybe I was just a good listener, but I could overhear some of the chatter about me.
“She seems quiet,” Rob Neusum said.
“Yeah, and she’s already taking a break,” his brother said. “I dunno, man. Temps.”
“We should’ve asked for more. This is a three-man job.”
“Yeah, but do you want to pay three salaries?”
I returned to my desk. A three-person job, eh? Well, I’d show them. I would categorize the whole list! Sort all the things! Be the best database varbinarist ever!
Oh, wait. I was here to catch a vampire murderer. Ha-ha, my bad. I still wanted to do a good job for its own sake, though. I took a moment to better observe my surroundings. There was nothing supernatural in this office. Not even a hint. The Neusums were clean. Maybe Breddar was a real name, too.
“Hey, boss,” someone said at the edge of my hearing. “Gonna take my appointment now.”
Appointment? In the middle of the night? I listened while still trying to look like I was working.
“Of course,” Rob Neusum said. “Healthy mind, healthy body. Take a break.”
I craned my neck and saw Aya Shuu from HR leave through the front door. I hadn’t been inside his office for long, but Neusum didn’t seem like the type to just hand people breaks whenever they needed them.
“Appointment?” I asked, looking back at my screen so it seemed casual. “At this hour of the night?”
“One of the doctors here lets us take de-stressing sessions while we work here,” Neusum said, approaching. “I think it’s really good for everybody. Healthy mind, healthy body.”
That phrase seemed wrong. Robotic, somehow.
“Cool,” I said, biting my lip to keep from looking suspicious.
“How’s the project coming along?” he asked.
“It’s coming,” I said. “I mean going. It’s working. I’m working on it. All good.”
He frowned. “You sound stressed, maybe we should get you a session, too.”
“I’ll take it during lunch,” I said. “No need to take extra time, right?”
“Healthy mind, healthy body,” he said.
“Totally,” I smiled.
“Does that folder say ‘vampires?’” he asked.
“Must be a typo,” I said. “Should read vampire fiction. People buy a lot of it.”
“Huh,” he half-nodded. “Oh, okay. That’s good info, but we’re mainly looking at software and multimedia sales, so please try to keep it in that range in the future.”
“I will,” I said. “Thanks again!”
I buckled down into the fake job, already plotting my move. Was an “appointment” safe, or would it blow my cover? It was an insanely good lead, though, and I felt worried for Shuu in the back of my mind. Was I leaving her to be devoured by Orloks, or would it be too obvious with an entire office around?
I counted the time until my lunch break. Those four hours slowed to a crawl, calculated in the endless list of names and search terms. I also came to an epiphany. Detective work could be very boring at times – most cases were pretty mundane, and a fair number of them never went anywhere. But even at its worst, it was more interesting than this. Maybe it was because I predated computers by the better part of a millennium, but the world of software wasn’t for me.
Breddar Ozwill came by a few more times, making small talk. He probably wouldn’t have flirted so much if he knew I had fangs, but such was life. Still, I appreciated the attention, and managed to grab a few pointers about how their database program worked.
“Looks like you’ve got it down,” he said. “Just remember to categorize by… wait, does that folder say ‘werewolves?’”
“Must be a typo,” I said. “So, hey, got a question for you. Your boss said something about free therapy in this building?”
“Yeah,” Breddar scratched his beard, which was somewhere between hipster, hobo, and John Calvin. “It helps us work longer hours without falling apart. The Neusums drive us hard, but they’re really good people.”
“Yeah?” I asked, and let him go on.
“This is crunch time,” he said. “So I know it’s crazy, but it’s not normal. We’ve all got like three jobs to do, so you’re a lifesaver. Wait, what does that folder say?”
“Could you help me pick the right categories?” I asked. “I don’t even know your company all that well yet.”
“Yeah, I think I can help you,” he said. “Except I’ve got like three jobs. Here, lemme write a few pointers down for you.”
“Thank you so much,” I said. “So… therapy? Really?”
“Yeah, it’s the hypnotherapist a few doors down,” he said. “I mean, Rob first tried to talk to the massage people next door, but they were weirdos.”
“Rolfing?” I asked.
“I know, what the hell is Rolfing, right?” he asked as he scribbled down a few search categories. “It sounds like something bad. You know, ‘Stop Rolfing in there. No Rolfing at work.’ Right?”
I chuckled. “Right. So it’s the hypnotist guy? Not the Rolfer?”
“Yeah,” Breddar nodded. “You know, I never believed in hypnotism, but the guy in there is really good at helping you relax. You should go. You’ll feel like a new woman.”
“I think I’ll try it,” I said, and patted him on the shoulder. “Thank you so much, Breddar. You’re awesome.”
He blushed. “Thanks, Lucy. And thanks for all the work.”
He turned around, and I saw the bite marks in the side of his neck, almost hidden by his beard. Tiny, and too close together to match canine teeth. But Orlok fangs came from their incisors.
Knowing the face of a victim changes things. Lightheartedly flirting with one even more so. The hypnotherapist hadn’t covered his tracks all that well, unless he was a patsy for somebody else. But either way, I owed him a visit during my midnight lunch.
I waited until one in the morning, four hours into my shift. The time had slowed even more after talking to Breddar, though I felt a sense of relief when I saw Aya Shuu return. I couldn’t get close enough to check her for bites, but I could guess.
Were the Neusums complicit? Or were they duped, just like everybody else? And was Breddar a real name? Maybe it was Norse?
“Here’s another list,” Rob Neusum said, dropping a thick stack of paper onto my desk. “Sorry that it’s a printout, but we need it entered into our system ASAP. Can you do that? It’s just data entry.”
I looked at the list, and the tiny font on each page. How long did they expect to have me here? A month? “Well, no time like the present, right?” I asked.
Neusum smiled. “That’s the spirit! You’re doing great.”
“Thanks,” I said, and saw the hint of a bite mark under his collar. “Hey, I think I’ll take my lunch now, if that’s okay with you. I need a minute to clear my head if I’m switching tasks.”
“Go for it,” he said. “There’s a cafe still open next to the parking garage.”
“That sounds great,” I said, and stood up. “I think I’ll stop by the hypnotism guy, too. Breddar really talked him up.”
He smiled. “Tell him I sent you, and he’ll treat you for free,” he said. “And yeah, Breddar’s a treasure. He works really hard.”
“He’s a great guy,” I said, and began to exit the noisy Neusum office. The silence of the hall was almost deafening in contrast. I had been at my cover job for four hours – when I had arrived, most of the businesses in the Flood building were closed for the evening, but a few holdouts were still running. Now? It was just Neusum. And F. Murnau, hypnotherapist.
I looked at Murnau’s name on the frosted glass door, backlit by the office lights inside. I did not feel anything out of the ordinary, but I was still outside. As I stood there, I began to think. What if it wasn’t the hypnotherapist? What if this was all part of an ingenious scheme, and he had been framed by the true masterminds, the Neusum brothers?
Well, no, that was a stupid idea. Five seconds on Google showed both Neusums on a sunny beach. Besides that, the Council had dealt with the company directly. Not everything had to have shocking twists and turns.
I knocked on the door. It opened, revealing a middle-aged, thin-faced man with a goatee. A few of his features were reminiscent of an Orlok, but the resemblance was minor – instead of being a ravening, feral monster, he wore a sweater vest. Absolutely nothing stood out about him, unlike the Neusums, with Rob’s sorta-trendy fashion and Alex’s tattoos. He wore a thin gold chain around his neck, barely visible under his shirt collar, but that was nothing.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“Hi, Doctor Murnau?” I asked, offering my biggest vapid smile. “I’m from Neusum next door. The boss said you’re offering free relaxation therapy, and wow, you’re open late!”
“I would make a joke about curing insomnia,” he said. “But that would be unprofessional. I’m not doing it for free, your company is providing the service, and I don’t mind helping during this difficult period. May I have your name, miss?”
“Lucy Berends,” I said, getting the name right this time. “I’m a temp.”
“Of course,” Murnau said, and stepped aside. His office was a single, just large enough to cover one of the windowed doors. “I hope you don’t mind waiting outside while I finish with a patient.”
Taryn last-name-I-did-not-know was already inside, and I smelled her blood in the air. Faint, distant – she hadn’t lost much, but there was no denying what had happened.
“Oh, I don’t mind at all,” I said, giving him a smile. “And thank you so much, sir. This’ll really help things!”
“Of course,” he grinned, and went back inside.
I was unarmed, but I couldn’t assume that the same applied to him. I’d need to hit him hard and fast, before he had a chance to retaliate. It was very hard to fight a vampire without wood, or silver, or fire, or something holy, but it could be done – we usually just pummeled each other until one got enough of an advantage to bite or bleed the other into submission. Ratlike or not, he was bigger than I was by a fair deal, too. There were ways to do this, I just had to be smart.
The door opened again, and Murnau led Taryn from his office. She was staggering.
“Are you feeling all right?” he asked, carefully supporting her with his arm.
“Taryn, are you okay?” I echoed.
“I’m okay, just a little dizzy,” she said. “I think I need to go home… tell Rob for me, please?”
“Of course,” I stepped forward, ready to support her if she stumbled.
“I’ll lead you to your car,” Murnau said. “You’re parked next door, correct?”
“Wait here a moment,” he said to me. “I’ll only be a few minutes. Then we can begin.”
“I can wait,” I said, and took a seat in one of the two chairs opposite his desk. You know, like a waiting room.
He nodded, lead Taryn away, and holy hell, he actually left me alone in his office. This was like handing me an investigation on a silver platter. I waited until I heard them get into the elevator, and started searching the office.
What was I looking for? Jars of blood? A coffin? Books filled with dark magic? I found a coffee cup, a pencil holder that said ‘You don’t have to be crazy to work here,” and books on hypnotic therapy. You know, I tried to study the subject once, but it put me to sleep. Ha, ha, I kid.
“Dammit,” I muttered. Maybe I was barking up the wrong tree after all. I mean, had I really investigated the Neusum brothers all that closely? Alex sure looked suspicious. I needed to backtrack and get a better perspective on this. Hell, for all I knew, the security guard was the one behind it all.
I backed out of Murnau’s office, considering my options, and then I noticed something. The window next to his office was unmarked, and lacked a door – usually when an office took up more than one space, it kept the doors in place. I wondered what the chances were of this being his neighbor’s extension instead of his.
I stepped back inside his office, well aware of the ticking clock. How much time did I have until Murnau returned? Taryn was walking slowly, so five, maybe ten minutes if her car was hard to find? The bookcase would have served as a great way to disguise a door, but it was on the wrong side. The adjoining wall was only adorned with Murnau’s diplomas. I ran my hands across it feeling for a seam.
I felt the presence of dark magic immediately, so well-disguised that I had to be virtually on top of it to detect it. There was a common feeling when in the presence of supernatural evil. Most mortals shrugged it off, but still avoided places that made them feel that way. May humans never realized how their lives were protected by the heebie-jeebies. As for me, I was used to it.
I found the seam soon after, and the door opened with a gentle, albeit precise, push. I slipped inside to a darkened room lit only by a window opening into the building’s courtyard. The room was lined with shelves containing books of dark magic and jars of blood. A large coffin rested in the center of the room.
Oh, come on, Seriously? That was meant to be a joke!
Jars of blood on she shelves, all labeled. This went beyond drinking – he had been writing victims’ names. You can do a lot with somebody’s blood, if you have access to the right kinds of spells. And from the looks of it, Murnau owned half of the building’s population. That feeling of unease only increased, enhanced by the black magic in the air. I decided to take what I knew back to the Council, and sic them on Murnau. I was not equipped to deal with something like this.
The coffin rattled, and I jumped. I gave it a closer look. A heavy padlock held it shut. It shook again, a rustling, scraping noise. That didn’t sound human. It sounded… numerous? That was the best word for it. I stepped away from the coffin in case it had any more surprises for me.
“I was waiting for the Council to send their lap dog after me,” Dr. Murnau said from the doorway. “When I saw you, Lucy December, I knew. And now you’re trapped.”
“Yeah, you’ve certainly got me cornered in your crazy room of bloody death,” I said. “Was this kind of thing on the leasing agreement? Like, how do you tell the landlord about it?”
He completely ignored my joke, and fished out his necklace from under his sweater vest. He held up a disk-shaped pendant, a red gem enclosed in a gold setting. It looked really gaudy – no wonder he kept it hidden. But that red gem felt familiar for some reason. I stared at it for a moment, trying to figure it out.
“You know, it’s funny,” he said. “I use this in my ordinary practice, but my patients never learn just what a bloodstone can really do.”
“Wow, that’s garish,” I said, looking around the room for something I could use as a weapon. “Where did you get that? The seventies?”
I focused on the jars of blood. Maybe I could smash one of those over his head, if I could get past him. I glanced again at Murnau and his really goofy necklace.
“Stop joking,” he said. “Why don’t we discuss this for a moment?”
Well, he was right, my jokes weren’t that funny. I might as well shut up, and think of something more constructive to do.
“Have a seat,” he said. “You can sit on the coffin.”
Well, I might as well. It wasn’t like I was going anywhere at the moment.
“Why don’t you tell me what the Council knows?” he asked. “Obviously it was enough to send you after me.”
“They found your trail of victims,” I said. “You’ve been sloppy all month.”
“I was in a hurry,” he said, a smile touching his lips. “When those foolish demoniacs began to mess with the ley lines that cross over this city, I needed to act fast. I spent the first few weeks building off the excess energy from their rituals until you found them and stopped them.”
The coffin trembled again. Wait, why was I sitting on it?
“Luckily, there’s still enough residual corruption to fuel my project,” Murnau said, and knelt close to me. I leaned back a little, out of his way. He opened the padlock, and then stepped aside. “But you can feel it, can’t you? Darkness hangs over this city in a beautiful miasma. And I know how to harness it. You can stand up, now.”
Yeah, why the hell was I sitting on the creepy coffin of doom? I stood up, and took a step away from it, toward him.
“Get to the point,” I said. “So you’re stealing the bad stuff left over from Caacrinolaas’s summoning. What are you doing with it?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Murnau asked. “Control.”
The coffin exploded open, a swarm of bats billowing into the room like a storm cloud. They filled the air and crowded around me, nearly knocking me over from their sheer force of number. Some of them landed against the walls and corners of the room, changing shape as they landed.
Orloks. Our pale, feral, degenerate cousins, a small army of which had apparently been packed into that coffin like sardines. They surrounded me in the room, a hundred sets of eyes staring directly at me.
“You’re going to stand there, and they are going to devour you,” he said. “I’ll mail your bones back to the Front Line, if you want.”
The problem with hypnotism is, you couldn’t get somebody to do something they really, really did not want to do. And I didn’t want to die. I realized how much he had been ordering me around with that medallion just as the Orloks began to turn their attention on me. Hell of a time to snap out of it. Murnau stood back, framed against the window, grinning in his victory. I had one second, maybe two before they would swarm me like winged piranhas. This night was going to suck.
I launched myself at Murnau in a jumping spear tackle, catching him in the waist with my whole body. I was able to see the surprise on his face just before we both went out the window. Glass shattered around us, and we fell into the open air above the Flood Building’s courtyard.
Murnau turned into a bat, and began to slip out of my grasp. I turned into a bat as well, and flew up to ram him again. He transformed into his human form and grabbed me, so I did the same and wrapped my arms around his waist as we resumed our fall. He twisted and pushed me underneath him as we fell, and I changed into a bat again to escape the impact. He turned one more time and tried to break away, but I wrapped my batty little wings around Murnau, and we both fell to the ground.
We landed with a tiny thud and a squeak, because that’s what bats do when they fall.
I changed back to human form, dizzy from the strain the shapeshifting left on my body, and left myself open to a left hook from Murnau. I staggered, but grabbed his arm and kicked at his ankle to trip him. He stumbled forward, clotheslining me in the throat to steady himself. I elbowed him in the gut and he fell on top of me, ramming his knee into my ribs before rolling off of me. I laid on the ground for a second, looking up. The swarm of Orlok bats had already begun to stream out from the broken window.
“Shit,” I said, and scrambled to my feet.
“Well?” Murnau asked, facing me. He cracked his knuckles. “I’m afraid you don’t have much time, Miss December. If you want to try anything, you’d better do it now.”
I looked at the bats again, and then charged him. He sidestepped and grabbed me, his arm wrapping around my neck in a front headlock. I struggled to keep my feet planted, and blindly swung at him.
“Come on, you’re about to die. Show some dignity,” he said.
“Nnnnngggg!” I said.
“It’s over,” Murnau said, holding tightly onto me. “And not just for you, it’s over for the whole regime. Did you really think you could oppress Orloks for so long and get away with it? I’ve united them with the bloodstone, and now I have a hundred under my command, and the legion is only going to grow. The world is changing, and people like you who refuse to change will be eaten. Even the stars have aligned, don’t you feel it?”
“The stars?” I asked. “But what about the Northern Lights?”
“Huh?” he asked.
I wrapped my arms around Murnau’s waist and flipped back into a Northern Lights suplex, slamming him headfirst onto the pavement. His neck broke against the brick, stunning him until his vampire body could heal the damage. I kept my back arched, pinning Murnau until I could snatch the bloodstone pendant from around his neck, snapping the thin chain as I yanked it away.
Murnau twisted his neck back into place and scrambled to his feet just as I slammed the medallion as hard as I could against the ground. The fragile gem shattered like glass against the concrete, and the magic broke with it, the sound echoing through the courtyard like thunder.
Murnau looked at me. “What did you do?” he asked. “Do you realize what you’ve just done?”
“Yeah, I broke your hypno-thingie,” I said, tossing the ruined amulet aside.
“Yes, you broke my ‘hypno-thingie,’” he said, and pointed upward. I looked. The Orlok bats swarmed after us, spreading to block out the night sky.
“Well, crap,” I said.
Orloks landed around us, changing out of their bat forms. Some crawled down the walls like spiders. Others still swarmed above in the air. We would have been trapped even if the courtyard hadn’t already been enclosed.
“Run,” Murnau said quietly.
“What?” I asked.
One of the Orloks pointed at of us and hissed. “Enslaved,” it said.
“Well?” Murnau stepped forward, pointing back at them. “So what? I led all of you. I gave you a purpose. When united, you can do anything, and I proved it to you with the bloodstone. So follow me, and we can rule! The world is yours. Forget the Council. To hell with the Council!”
“To hell with you!” the Orlok shrieked, and they leaped from the walls at him.
Murnau went down in a bloody mob of claws and fangs, and I decided to take my chance before they noticed me. I turned into a bat and flapped as hard as I could, flying straight up into the air. I passed through the cloud of transformed Orloks, nearly overwhelmed by their sickly, sour stench.
Finally, I broke through the swarm, ascending into the cool night air above the Flood Building. A chorus of shrieks behind me let me know that I had been spotted, and I ventured a glance down in time to see a hundred ravenous bats tearing through the air, after me. There was no way I could outrun them all. At least one of them had to be a faster flier than I, with odds on maybe a third or more. But I could outmaneuver them. They were moving in unison, acting like a hive mind even without Murnau’s hypnotism to control them. I dropped my altitude immediately, falling outside of the Flood building as the Orlok bats continued to stream up into the sky. I extended my wings as I dove, turning the fall into an angular glide, and aimed for the BART entrance.
The streets were mostly silent this late, and even the tourists were absent as I tore past the empty cable car platform. I dropped down with the BART escalator, curving around the mobile coffee shop at its base and toward the station entrance. It was shuttered by a chain gate, just like the Starbucks and the mall entrance. A few homeless people sat or laid in out of the way corners, nearly hidden by the darkness inside.
I squeezed through the chain links, and blew past the turnstiles, aiming for the escalator leading into the subway tunnels, themselves. I heard the mob of bats crash into the gate and rattle it, squeaking in a cacophony as they pushed through. I heard shouts from the few people in the station, followed by the sounds of running feet. The Orloks hadn’t noticed the homeless people, or didn’t care. This was good, I didn’t want any more bodies on my conscience.
I reached the platform, and flew into the train tunnel. With any luck, I could lose some or more of the bats with each branch in the tracks or station interchange. I just had to beat them to it, somehow. I could hear their cacophonous leather wings behind me as they filled the tunnels, the din echoing across the walls like a flood.
Holy shit, they were gaining. I had to go faster. A hundred Orloks, all chasing me. At least they hadn’t scattered and begun to wreak havoc. But still, painful bloody death was not on my list of hobbies.
Ordinary bats used sonar. So did vampire bats. The squeaks of the mob slammed into me like a freight train, overwhelming my senses until even my batty vision was ruined. I flew blindly, feeling my flight path wobble, trying to keep up my speed as much as I could. I scraped against the side of the tunnel and nearly dropped, only catching myself at the last moment. I lost most of my lead, and the swarm was almost on me.
I tried to shut out the assault on my hearing and sonar, and only use my vision to navigate. Bright light flooded my vision, accompanied by a deafening roar. Now it was over, as I lost all my momentum. In a way, the sensory overload was a blessing. I probably wouldn’t feel as much pain when the Orloks tore me apart, bearing down upon me like a…
…Like a train!
I dropped to the tracks, flattening myself between the rails as the subway car rocketed past, crashing into the swarm of vampire bats. Some of the Orloks got out of the way. Others were hit head-on, clipped and sent crashing into the walls, or crushed against the railing. I clung as hard as I could to the underside of the tracks, feeling the wind as the train car passed within inches. They weren’t supposed to be running this late, dammit! Or so fast, this close to a station.
The train’s brakes screeched as it slowed far more abruptly than it was meant to. I stayed down as it passed, clinging to the track until the deafening noise finally subsided and the train finally came to a stop in the middle of the tunnel. The air was filled with the stench of Orlok blood, the tracks and walls splattered with gore.
The survivors clung to the walls and ceiling of the tunnel, out of the train car’s reach. They made no move to attack or swarm now, likely cowed by the sudden devastation. One of the side doors opened on the subway car, and the three local Council Members came out.
“Well, whaddaya know,” Cole said. “Turns out it was Orloks after all. Crystal?”
The little girl stepped in front of him, and cupped her hands around her mouth.
“Orloks,” she announced. “You are hereby ordered, under Section 2a of the Charter on Orlok Treatment and Status, to cease hostilities or suffer consequences. While we recognize the ordeal you have been through, we do not condone further bloodshed. Surrender peaceably, and you will be moved into safe houses for your own personal welfare.”
“And Lucy,” Gibson said, leaning against the doorjamb of the car. “Get your ass up here now.”
I turned back into human form, on my hands and knees on the train tracks, mindful of the third rail. It took me a second to overcome the vertigo. “What took you so long?” I asked.
“We said we’d be nearby, Little Lady,” Cole said. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said, slowly staggering to my feet. “The culprit was channeling energy from the city’s ley lines and using a bloodstone to hypnotize Orloks into his own personal army.”
“And then?” Cole asked.
“He’s dealt with,” I said. “It’s over.” I thought about how Murnau had told me to run and taken their attention first. It was a nice gesture, considering all the horrible things he had been planning to do. I gave a sideways glance to Crystal, who seemed to have cowed the remaining vampires. They had begun transforming back into their regular shapes, and lined up in front of her. Cowed and obedient without hypnotism. Such was the power of a carrot and a stick.
“You sure you’re okay?” Cole approached, offering me an arm. I clung to it until I stopped swaying on my feet.
“Yeah,” I said. “Just need a second to catch my breath. You guys almost ran me over with a subway car.”
He chuckled. “You liked that, did ya? Gibson gets the credit for that little stunt.”
“Yeah, good job,” I said. “Anyway, it was Dr. Murnau, the hypnotherapist. He had a secret occult room of crazy in his office. Feel free to raid it or whatever, I’m done.”
Cole brushed some of the dust off my coat. “Headin’ home, Little Lady?”
“Hell, no,” I said. “I’m going back in there. I’ve only got like five minutes left on my lunch break, and Rob Neusum is counting on me! It’s crunch time, Cole, and they’re a startup. You know how it is.”
“Besides,” I said. “You’re the one who told me to get a job.”