Vintage Soul: Preview

Prologue

I realized that the situation had gotten out of control when the ice cream man shot me.

I’m Lucy December, Private Eye. My job isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. I spend a lot of time taking pictures of cheating husbands, looking for stolen money that’s already been spent, and telling parents how sorry I am that their child was kidnapped, but there was nothing any of us could do. The pay is good, but I get my money by feeding off human misery like a leech. The hours are so terrible that I can’t remember the last time I slept at night like a normal person. At the best of times, I get to watch people at their worst – and let me tell you, humans are worse than any storybook monster. But it’s a living. I enjoy a better relationship with the police than most in my profession, and I get to do a little good once in a while. Those few moments make everything worth it.

On the evening before my painful run-in with the ice cream man, a couple had approached me about their daughter. Sarah Darcy, Age Six, had gone missing, disappeared while she had been playing outside. This happens all the time – even if you’re an attentive parent, it only takes one brief moment for the worst thing to happen. They had already called the cops before talking to me, but I had decided to give it just as much priority as if I were all they had. For all we knew, perhaps I was.

The Darcies lived in South San Francisco. The Bay Area being what it was, there was already more than enough crime to go around before you even reached Oakland. Kidnappings weren’t uncommon, and the children children almost never made it home safely. Sarah’s parents had that empty, shattered look of fear and knowledge that the worst has happened, but the tiniest bit of hope that maybe, just maybe everything could still work out. So I told them I would do what I could.

After spending the whole day searching through missing person reports, a pattern began to emerge. Apart from the usual crime and carnage, I noticed an especially strong rash of child disappearances in that general area in a wide circle around the general neighborhood. And it was a lot, more than normal mayhem could account for. But the incidents must have been just far apart to keep people from drawing any conclusions. They had probably started looking for suspicious strangers, but the data seemed to say that whoever was doing it was somebody who belonged there. Someone who regularly took that route around the neighborhood, and whose presence would never raise an eyebrow. Maybe the Post Office had gotten really aggressive, or something.

After staring at a screen so long, I I needed to clear my mind, so I turned on the television. Yeah, I know, don’t judge me. I tuned in to an ad for Ben & Jerry’s, and a light flickered on in my head. Serendipity!

I was on the phone in under a minute, dialing the number for Del Monte Ice Cream – the company that handles ice cream trucks in that half of the city. I listened to the recording and pressed all the necessary buttons to get to a human operator.

“Del Monte Creamery,” the operator answered. “I Scream, You Scream, how may I help you?”

“Yes,” I said. “My kids got some ice cream yesterday, and I think they forgot to pay the man. It’s okay, I know how busy it is, but, uh, I’d like to make it right. I’m really sorry about this.”

“That’s all right, ma’am,” he said. “We at Del Monte hold our team members accountable for individual sales, and do not penalize customers.”

“Well yes, thank you,” I said. “But I’d really like to make it right. I need to know who our guy is, so I can slip him a little something extra for being so nice.”

“Ma’am,” the man answered. “We at Del Monte hold our team members–”

“Yes, yes,” I said. “But I still want to pay him back. It’ll teach my kids a good lesson. Could you please do it just this once? Pretty please?”

There was silence on the other end of the line for a few seconds, but then the rep spoke again. “Tell me your address, ma’am, and I can look it up for you.”

“Oh, thank you!” I gushed as convincingly as I could. I glanced down to the little piece of paper with the family’s address scrawled on it. “I live at 342 Birch Way, South San Francisco – that South is in the address, it’s not just the southern part of town.”

Some more silence, and I could hear the sound of his fingers typing away at a keyboard. “It looks like you have Tommy LaRoux, ma’am. But he should be there tomorrow at three in the afternoon. Would you like me to call and let him know?”

“No, that’s all right, we’ll meet him tomorrow,” I said. “Thank you so much. This means a lot to me! And it’s a good lesson for my kids.”

“Of course, ma’am. Can I help you with anything else?”

“No, thank you. Have a nice day.”

I had a name: Tommy LaRoux. And thus, it was off to the internet! Tommy wasn’t off the grid or anything, but it still took me some time to find him – he lived in Brentwood, about two or three hours northeast of the city, and that was without traffic. Hell, it was almost out of the Bay Area itself! That was a pretty long distance for somebody with an ice cream truck. Obscenely long. Didn’t they usually sell to their own neighborhoods? Or at least close by? But instead, this little fellow paid sixty miles worth of gas and tolls just to trundle around a couple of streets in the suburbs, and his route happened to match several child disappearances in the last year alone. More specifically, twenty-three kids vanished on his route in the last three years. This was wrong and insane. The fact that nobody had really noticed it was also wrong and insane.

The sun went down and I got in my car, driving out of San Francisco and hoping that there was still time to save the girl.. I may have broken the speed limit a little bit.

I found the neighborhood – small and slummy, like the rest of Brentwood – and located LaRoux’s house on the second pass. I didn’t see his truck parked out front, so maybe he was out peddling popsicles or whatever the hell it was that ice cream men did. I parked a few houses away, hid anything that might give me away in my coat pockets, and walked down the sidewalk to his house, making myself look as small and ordinary as possible. That’s the one nice thing about being me – I’m not a big, grizzled pulp hero like Sam Spade or Mike Hammer. I’m not even Nick or Nora Charles. I’m just this tiny little brunette with a pixieish smile. Nobody suspects the short ones.

I pressed the doorbell, and heard it ring. Then I knocked. Waited. Knocked again. After a few minutes, I finally gave up. LaRoux had a welcome mat with a trite message (“Welcome to My Humble Home”), but no spare key stashed underneath it. Did anybody still do that? Anybody who wanted to keep their stuff safe and unstolen? I knelt on the mat and began to quietly and very surreptitiously pick the lock on his front door. Like I said, it was dark, so nobody came around and saw me breaking in. I heard the deadbolt turn, and then worked on the regular door lock for a bit before it gave out, too. I wiped my feet on the doormat, and went inside.

Tommy LaRoux had probably inherited his house from his parents, because there was no way that somebody could have afforded it on an ice cream man’s salary. The place wasn’t huge, but this was the bay area, and ice cream money couldn’t pay for a cardboard box out here. Besides that, there were other signs. The furniture looked a little old and fancy, and there was just enough pink and lace to say “mom,” but not enough to say “still lives here.” And it was messy. Cluttered. Dirty. Maybe if LaRoux turned out to be innocent, I could straighten a few things up for the poor slob. Not that my place wasn’t a disorganized wreck, of course. I am completely innocent.

When I smelled it, it hit me like a hammer. The scent was subtle in the air, but unmistakable. Underneath the sweat and grime was the sweet, sour, metallic scent of blood. I knew it well. It was almost masked by the smell of chocolate coming from the kitchen – innocent or not, at least LaRoux had good taste in food – but the smell was definitely there. So, like that cereal mascot Toucan, I followed my nose down the stairs to the house’s basement. The simple fact that a house in Earthquake Country even had a basement was amazing, to say nothing of the bare-bones way it was organized. Dirt floor, hot water heater, shelves of canned goods, and one of those big chest freezers lying flat against the wall.

Wait, what was a freezer doing there? LaRoux probably kept his spare ice cream in it, but most people kept their freezers in the kitchen, or maybe even the garage. It just didn’t make sense to put it all the way across the house and down a set of stairs from where the truck was parked. I took a few quiet steps across the dirt floor, and noticed how much stronger that scent was in the basement. Blood, sweat, fear, and a little bit of mold. My shoe bumped against something sticking up out of the dirt, and looked down to see that it was a bone sticking out from the dirt, which was uneven all over, like it had been dug up more than a few times. And with that, everything started to look like a bad horror movie. “No,” you shout to the unwitting heroine onscreen. “Don’t go down there!” you cry.

Well, I had a gun. A Bersa .380 Special, in fact. I grabbed it and ran to the freezer. I opened the lid, but really shouldn’t have looked inside. I won’t say exactly what I saw, but you can do the math. I slammed the damn thing shut, bile welling up in my throat – though I didn’t know what from, I hadn’t eaten anything all day. I backed away and covered my mouth, trying not to retch all over Mr. LaRoux’s fancy dirt floor. Which was probably a mass grave. That wasn’t helping.

I almost hit myself in the mouth with my own gun while trying to keep from throwing up, and that brought me back to the real world. Grisly sights had been my stock-in-trade for a very long time, and this wasn’t the worst of them. Welcome to the life of a detective. Real glamorous stuff.

“Okay, Lucy,” I said to myself. “Calm down. You’ve seen worse. York was worse. Remember York?”

I really didn’t need to be reminded of York, but it brought me the rest of the way back to the reality of this basement. How many were buried here? Twenty-three? Twenty-four with Sarah Darcy? I double-checked the load in my handgun, noting the fresh clip, and fumbled in my coat pockets with my free hand until I found my pair of handcuffs. They would have to be enough. Hopefully I wasn’t already too late, and Sarah wasn’t part of the grave.

I turned around to see Tommy LaRoux standing at the foot of the stairs, holding a very familiar-looking six-year-old by the arm. He also had a gun of his own, pressed against the little girl’s temple. How long had he been standing there, watching me flail around and act all queasy?

Tommy was pudgy and boyish – a babyface. Hell, he looked like a kid. He had to be pushing forty, but some people always look youthful. I know I’m one of them. As for the girl, she looked bad. Mussed up, bruised, bloody nose, and I didn’t want to think about anything else that might have happened to her.

“Who are you?” LaRoux asked. Somehow, his voice was squeakier than mine. “How did you get in here?” And then he saw the handcuffs. Or he saw the semi-automatic, either way it wasn’t a good thing. “Did her parents send you? Did they? Did they send you to bully me and shoot me and tie me up?”

Okay, so he was crazy. This did not come as a surprise. I gritted my teeth. He went on before I could have said anything in response, ranting like a small child.

“People always hate me! Why don’t you like me? Why are you so mean?”

“Mean? Who’s mean to you?” I asked in the slow, reasonable tone you’re supposed to use with maniacs. I probably shouldn’t have said anything, because it got him to focus again and remember where he was, shutting any window I had to disarm him. Or shoot him, if I trusted my aim around a squirming kid. The little girl started to cry, her little eyes red and swollen. She had probably been doing a lot of crying since yesterday afternoon. And she had curls. I don’t know why my mind focused on that, but there it was – a little girl with her hair in curls, and this crazy fat man-child was threatening to splatter her brains all over his basement.

“Meanie!” he shouted, and squeezed the gun’s handle hard enough to turn his knuckles white. Thank Heaven his finger wasn’t on the trigger. “You’re just a bully, and you hate me! Well, I love kids! And I love ice cream! I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream!” Sarah started crying in earnest now. The guy was cracked, and the half of what he said that didn’t sound like he came from a toddler was just terrifying. I talked to him again, to make him look at me and maybe forget the little girl.

“And they all screamed, didn’t they?” I asked. His attention began to waver again, and I tried moving my gun hand as slowly as I could manage, out of his sight. He cocked the hammer back on his weapon.

“Drop your gun or I pull the trigger,” he said. “And then it’ll be your fault because you made me do it. You and her parents and all the parents and all the kids who cried!”

All right, he may have been crazy, but he wasn’t a complete idiot. I dropped the pistol and the cuffs, and carefully lifted my hands in the air. If only he could get distracted, or turn the gun on me, or something – anything besides pointing it at the poor little girl.

“You’re mean,” he said. “Go away.” He turned the gun away from Little Sarah. In that brief moment when it wasn’t pointing at either of us, I lunged at him as fast as I could. He shot me three times in the chest.

If you’ve never gotten shot, it’s a little hard to describe. The sensation is different each time – sometimes it hurts like hell, other times it just feels like being punched. On this occasion, I felt blinding pain as the bullets shattered my ribs. One pierced my lung. My head hit the edge of his freezer as I toppled back, landing in a crumpled, bleeding heap on his dirt floor.

LaRoux roughly turned the girl around to face him, and slapped her. She squealed.

“Who sent her?” He screamed into her face. “Who? Was it your mommy and daddy? Did your mommy and daddy send her to bully me?”

“Please…” The girl hadn’t said anything coherent before then. But now she did. And it was only one word. “Please…”

He slapped her again. “Please?” LaRoux yelled, still using that oddly childish tone. “Please What? I’ll make you scream!”

All right. That was enough. I leapt and pounced on Tommy LaRoux from behind, and sank my fangs into his throat.

I’m a vampire. It’s a long story.

He screamed uncontrollably when I bit into his neck, crying out from shock and pain. It would have been heartbreaking if there hadn’t been a freezer full of body parts behind us. I normally don’t bite people, but sometimes you did what you had to. The sickly-sweet taste of his blood washed over my tongue, and my humanity ebbed for a moment, replaced with the desire to drink, tear, and kill.

“No one deserves to scream more than you, Tommy LaRoux,” I said as he struggled. I pulled his arms back in a full nelson and made him drop his gun. So scream.”

When I bit in the second time, I didn’t let go. There were times when my line of work put me in the path of just the right kind of person – ones who were so used to chasing and hurting weak, innocent people that they forgot their place in the grand food chain. I felt less guilt about those types of people.

I held on and drank his lifeblood until his struggles weakened. His screams became choked gurgling. His thrashing turned to spasms. And then stillness. Most police were too reasonable to believe the supernatural, but I tore my fangs roughly enough from his corpse to hide the fang marks, and dropped him face-down onto the dirt floor. My heart pounded with hunger barely sated.

“Well, that’s done,” I said.

And then Tommy LaRoux spoke. I jumped.

“Nothing is done.”

The voice coming from the corpse was not Tommy’s. It sounded less like a whiny psychopath and more like the echo from an open tomb. Soft, but distorted. Wrong. His head turned, and I could see a metallic gold tint to his eyes that was not there before.

“Foolish vampire,” he said. “The forces of Hell are marshaling, and you distract yourself with mere children. Soon blood will be shed with a purpose, and you will know true terror.”

“What the hell?” I asked.

The body fell limp again, the gold left its eyes, and the remaining gas escaped its torn throat with a wet sigh. Tommy LaRoux did not move again. I knew that sometimes madmen could be used as vessels for darker spirits, but this was ridiculous. And cryptic. And unsettling.

The forces of Hell? Children? Terror?

And then Sarah started screaming at the top of her lungs.

Remember Sarah? The six-year-old with curly hair who had just gained a new world of childhood trauma? I backed away toward the freezer, hid my fangs, let my eyes return to normal, and tried to say something nice to her.

“Sarah,” I said.

She was still screaming.

“Sarah, it’s okay.”

She didn’t stop screaming. With lung capacity like that, the girl had an opera career ahead of her.

“Sarah! It’s okay! Your mom and dad sent me. It’s okay, Sarah, I’m not a monster.”

Well, okay, maybe I was. And maybe I wiped some blood off my lips right then. And maybe there were still three glaringly obvious bullet holes in my chest. So I sighed, and knelt to the girl’s eye level, and fumbled in my coat for the picture her parents gave me.

“See?” I tried to moderate my tone more – to sound warmer, more like a babysitter and less like a creature of the night. “Jim and Liz Darcy. Your parents. They asked me to find you and make the bad guy go away.”

She finally stopped screaming, though that may have just been because she needed to breathe. But little Sarah’s eyes were transfixed on the photo, and not on the blood.

“Are you a monster?” she asked. So I lied.

“No, honey,” I said. “But I make monsters go away.” Well, that one was a little closer to the truth. “Come on, Sarah. Let’s get out of here. I’ll take you back to your parents, okay?”

I held out my hand, and let her make the choice. The girl looked afraid, and I didn’t blame her. She had just gone from one nightmare to another. But she looked at that photo, and then at my hand, and I guess she didn’t want to look at the bloated corpse lying in the corner behind me. She took my hand, trembling. I gave it a squeeze.

“Come on,” I said. “Let’s get in my car.”

I let her hold the photo all the way back to her parents’ place. The long commute must have calmed her a little bit, because by the time I pulled onto her street, Sarah spoke again.

“I won’t tell anybody you’re a Dracula, ma’am,” she said.

“Thank you, sweetie.” I smiled – no fangs this time – and pulled into their driveway. As late as it was, the lights were still on. I unlocked the car doors.

“Go ahead,” I told her. “Go see your parents.”

Sarah Darcy got out of my car so fast that it’s amazing she didn’t leave burn marks on the seat. She hit the doorbell with both hands and then pounded on the door, calling for her mom and dad. The front door opened, and two faces – already aged about ten years since yesterday – react first with shock and disbelief, but then with joy. Sheer, unadulterated joy. If losing a child is a parent’s biggest fear, then being reunited has to be the happiest thing possible. They picked her up. They hugged her. They cried. They screamed, though in a good way. Then they did that Happy Family Dance that I haven’t had for myself in almost nine hundred years. Okay, so maybe my job doesn’t only show me the worst things about people.

I closed my eyes for a moment, and I did not wipe away a tear – I just rubbed some dust out of my eyes. I checked my mirrors and was about to put the car in reverse when somebody tapped on the window. I looked, and it was Mom – Mrs. Darcy, sorry. I rolled down the window.

“You brought her back,” she said. “You brought my baby girl back. I… I don’t know what to say, I can’t believe it.”

“All in a day’s work, ma’am,” I said, and hoped that she couldn’t see the bullet holes in my shirt.

“And the monster who took her?” She asked. “What happened? Did the cops get him?”

“He won’t be a problem, ma’am,” I said. And although she probably didn’t figure everything out, she got enough of the picture to know not to ask more. “Though if I were you, I’d invest in some therapy for your little girl. She’s going to need it.”

“Thank you so much, Miss December,” the mother said, finally. “You saved our family. Do you want to come in? We can give you dinner, or something.”

“No thanks,” I said. “I already ate. Honestly, ma’am, I haven’t slept in two days, and I was just going to go home.”

“Well,” she said. “Thank you so much. I hate to ask, but how much do we owe you?”

“I’ll send a bill,” I said, already knowing that I’d discount it a lot. You just can’t charge a crying mom full price. “You guys have a good evening, all right? Stay safe.”

“You, too,” she said to me. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re family. If there’s anything you need, please ask. Thank you!”

I smiled, and then drove off. Overall, the case ended well enough – the kid seemed okay, the bad guy was gone, and I absolutely was not going to dwell on anything creepy or unsettling that any dead bodies had said to me. After all, I’m Lucy December, Private Detective. And I’m also a vampire. I make the monsters go away.

Or at least that’s what I thought.

 

Chapter One

I spent the next day sleeping off my injuries. There is one thing about shooting a vampire that most people don’t realize. Sure, we heal fast, but we’ll also still have a piece of metal lodged somewhere in our bodies. So after I got home, I had to dig the bullets out, including the one in my lung. Then I got a bottle of blood from the fridge, hid under the covers, and whined like a baby for a while.

Being a vampire isn’t all seductive gazes and tragic tears. Vampires still breathe, sleep for a third of the day, and their hearts beat just like a normal humans being’s. We also suck the blood of the living, live forever, and explode if we go inside a church. It’s an odd balance, the appearance of a human but the heart of a monster.

As a vampire, you still have to live in the same world as everybody else, get a job, earn money, and clean the bathroom every couple of days. I have been a vampire for a very long time. I used to be a nice Jewish twelfth-century girl, and sometimes I still like to think of myself like that, but I’ve had to deal with the supernatural night life for over eight hundred years now. That’s a lot of clean bathrooms. I went from marveling in amazement at gunpowder to futzing with my smart phone for hours. Those birds sure are angry.

I am old. I am very old. As a general rule, vampires maintain the same level of mental maturity they had when first turned, but I am still old. And whether you’re an old person or an old monster, you have to keep busy. You can’t just lie around in your castle sucking on maidens, as tempting as it may sound. So I’m a detective. The pay is decent, the hours are great, it provides a challenge, and it gives my conscience a little boost, which is something I could always use.

After spending a little more time recovering and feeling sorry for myself, I went back to work. My office was about a block away from home. Sadly, this means that if I am working there and the sun comes up, I’m pretty much stuck. More than once, I have thought longingly of my dark apartment with its tinted windows and heavy curtains while cooped up in the office. My home had the kind of clutter I liked, but my office was just messy. It was an organization issue, really. I needed a secretary, but it is hard finding somebody who works nights.

The sun had been down for about half an hour by the time I got in, and my answering machine was blinking. Cell phone or not, it’s always good to have a separate work line. I pressed the button and listened.

“Hello? Miss December?” A woman’s voice, anywhere between thirty and fifty years old. “I’d like to set up an appointment for seven-thirty tonight. I’m coming in anyway. My name is Deborah Kirsch. Please, it’s really urgent. They said you’re good at finding missing persons. Please help if you can. I’ll pay you. My number is…”

I wrote down the number and checked the clock – 7:15. I sat behind the desk, organized the paperwork, adjusted my hat, and waited. I’d say that the dame walked into my life, bringing trouble with her, but that’s just noir-speak. A harried, middle-aged mother barged into my office in a panic. I could tell by her eyes that she’d crying, and I already guessed where this was going. The second kidnapping case in as many days.

“Miss December?” she asked. “I’m Debbie Kirsch. Did you get my message?”

I stood to my feet and shook her hand. “I did,” I said. “Nice to meet you. What seems to be the problem, ma’am?”

“It’s my son,” she said. “I think my ex-husband took him.”

I sighed. This situation was not uncommon. “When was the last time you saw him?”

“Friday morning, when he left for school,” she said. “Paul – that’s my ex – was supposed to pick him up and take him home for the weekend, then bring him back yesterday morning. But he hasn’t been back, and won’t answer his phone. Is there anything you can do?”

“All right. May I have a description?” I asked, and then nodded as I listened. This kind of story always went the same way – the jilted husband or wife loves their kids just a little too much, and doesn’t want to share.

She handed me a photo of the two of them – Paul Kirsch and his son Tom. The boy looked about nine, and there was already a pretty good resemblance between father and son. The back of the photo had Paul’s address and phone number.

“Try seeing if you can find Paul,” she said. “But I guess the address won’t help if he’s run away.”

“You never know,” I said. “Sometimes you can find clues anywhere. When you were married, did you both live at this address?”

“What?”

“I’m just curious, did you?”

She nodded. “Yes, we did. Why?”

I shrugged. “I’m just checking. Standard question. Do you have a key, by any chance?”

“No,” she said. “Not anymore. But you can still get in, right? If he’s run away?”

I smiled. “Yeah, I can.” Well, that took care of the invitation problem. Vampires needed to be invited to enter a home, though sometimes it was as simple as looking at a friendly welcome mat. “I’ll check it out tonight.”

“Will you?” She just looked so hopeful. “Thank you! Thank you so much!”

“It’s all in a day’s work, ma’am,” I said, avoiding the obvious pun that it was all in a night’s work.

“Thank you, Miss December.”

“And I would call this in to the police if I were you,” I said. “They issue Amber Alerts pretty quickly if it looks like a child’s been kidnapped.”

“I… all right, ma’am,” she said, and walked out the door.

After Deborah Kirsch left, I waited a little while before going out. San Francisco had as much of a night life as any city – perhaps a little more – but it still took until an hour or two after rush hour ended before traffic became anything approaching reasonable. So I waited, and ate a sandwich from the mini-fridge. My “real” food was something I kept at home away from prying eyes, and even though I technically haven’t needed anything but blood for centuries, nothing beats a good pastrami sandwich. And I was Jewish before pastrami existed, so it’s not a stereotype. Honest.

It gave me a chance to think about the week. Two missing children – kind of unusual, but at least it wasn’t another cheating husband. One thing they don’t tell you about detective work is how boring it is. It isn’t really very exciting, just sleazy and sad. Mostly, your job is to follow people to bars, and then back home, and take pictures of the sordid aftermath. The rest of the time, it’s depressing, bloody, and miserable. On the scale of things a vampire could do, it is a little better than haunting an abandoned castle, but nowhere nearly as exciting as stalking young Romanian virgins.

Not that they were related – LaRoux was a psychopath, but his little trail of destruction had been localized in the same area. This was nowhere near his territory, and the story matched many others that played out all over the world. Sometimes the jilted ex was really a better parent, and tearing their kids from them was sad. Other times, they panicked and it got nasty. Who needs monsters when there are human beings around? People do enough murdering on their own time that it’s easy for a vampire to keep a low profile. And despite what people think, it is not the actions of a few especially twisted individuals or evil men. Good and decent people can be bad enough on their own. It was good and decent people who killed me eight hundred years ago, and very little has changed since. So for all I knew, Paul Kirsch was a perfectly kind and loving father who just got fed up with everything. And maybe his son wanted to stay with him, too. None of that would matter if the worst case scenario happened, if Mr. Kirsch decided that if he couldn’t have Little Tommy, nobody could.

Like I said, great job. And you call me the monster.

When rush hour subsided, I got in my car and drove. My hope was that Paul Kirsch would be home, his boy would be there with him, and maybe he had just forgotten what day it was. But still, I put on my game face and parked in front of the pleasant little town house sandwiched between other pleasant little town houses on the side of a hill. I left my gun in the car before knocking on the door. Concealed-carry license or not, there’s breaking and entering, and there’s breaking and entering while in possession of a weapon. I’m not stupid.

No answer. I knocked again, and waited a few minutes. Finally, I went to pick the lock. Mrs. Kirsch had already taken care of the hardest part. It is true that vampires cannot enter a home without an invitation, but the definition of “invite” is very vague. I got into LaRoux’s place because of his welcome mat. Debbie Kirsch used to live here, and part of her family still resided in the place. She gave me permission, so it worked by the rules. And really, the Kirsches weren’t very secure, not by Bay Area standards. Only two deadbolts. If this were Oakland, they’d have been cleaned out years ago.

The door opened to a quiet house. No people, no family dog, no TV left on to pretend that someone was home. I wiped my feet on the mat and sneaked in side. The trick with invading somebody’s house is to be careful about what you disturb. Only make messes where there are already messes, and put back what you disturb, and likely nobody will know anything is wrong. I checked the bedrooms first, looking for any signs of a quick flight – obviously-missing suitcases, emptied drawers, that sort of thing. What I saw was that the kid’s weekend suitcase was on top of his dresser, still with some clothes in it. The rest were in a pile of dirty laundry in the corner. Good signs. Maybe the two of them were still home. Maybe they were out watching a movie. Lots of people do that in the evening. My options were staying and waiting for them to come back, panic and call the police, or go home and try again later. Maybe at three in the morning. But not until I had combed the house a little further, just in case Kirsch had left a note on the fridge saying, “Abducting child. Be back Wednesday,” or something like that.

My phone rang before I could look around much more. Yeah, I know, I brought my phone on a stealth mission. I’m not always that stupid, all right? Okay, maybe I am. But I usually keep my phone on airplane mode. I checked the number, and it was important.

“Hello?” I asked.

“Miss December, it’s Lt. Ortiz.”

“Hi, Tony,” I said. I knew Ortiz. He was a good guy, and he knew my little secret. He trusted me because his father trusted me – one of the perks about being immortal. Also, he was a cop, and any positive connection to the police is a good thing. Still, I moved out of the Kirsch house to take the call. Even locked their door for them.

“Hi, Lucy,” he said. “Do you have a minute? There’s something I think you should see.”

“Well, I’m kind of on a job,” I said. “But I can be there. Where are you?”

“On Sutter and Geary.”

“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes, okay? Can you hold the fort? Keep any other crimes from happening till I get there?”

“Very funny. We can wait, but don’t be too slow. This one is messy.”

“How messy?”

“Very messy,” he said. “Come over here and you’ll see. Expect your standard consulting fee.”

“Right,” I said. “Thanks.” Contracting me as a police consultant had been a little tricky, since I didn’t officially have a specialty, but I had a couple of connections in the force. And, more importantly, I was in good with the “special” night life. The less that people had to officially acknowledge things that went bump in the night, the better.

The Kirsch case looked pretty simple, but I didn’t like Tony Ortiz’s tone. He as a very direct man: When he said something was messy, he meant it. Messy for Tony usually meant that somebody had gotten dismembered. I got to confirm just how bad it was when I arrived on the scene.

The body was of one Arthur Carey, tax accountant, found dead in his home that morning. There were no signs of a struggle, unless you counted the bloody mess that had formerly been his neck. Aside from the blood covering the floor, the room itself was otherwise untouched. I stuck by Tony Ortiz as the other officers did their duty.

“What happened to his throat?” I asked.

“That’s why we called you,” Tony said. He towered over me, and nobody could guess that of the two of us, I was older – his kids were in college. “We would have guessed an animal attack, but animals don’t climb up into a third-story apartment, attack somebody, and lock the door on the way out. His housekeeper found him today, and she had to use her key to get in.”

I looked at the body again. “Are you wondering who in this fair city might, just maybe bite out somebody’s throat?”

A moment of awkward silence fell. “I didn’t mean it like that,” he said.

“I’m slain.”

“I’m not accusing you.”

“Of course not,” I said. “And I don’t leave that much of a mess. At least not usually.”

“What about your associates?” Ortiz asked, his tone signifying just which ones he meant.

I shook my head. “Not likely. I mean, it’s not impossible, but one of us wouldn’t usually go for the throat unless we meant to feed. And the Council comes down pretty hard on big, public murders like this. But there are hundreds of us, we’re all different, and we can’t discount a rogue. I’ll ask around.”

“Do that,” he said. “Can you think of anything else that might do this?”

I shrugged. “Lots of things. This is San Francisco.”

“I know,” he said.

“I’ll keep an eye out,” I said. “Tony, can I ask you something? Since we’re talking about throats? How did you handle LaRoux?”

“Have you been watching the news?” Tony asked.

I shook my head, so he went on.

“It wasn’t easy. Official word is, he committed suicide by cutting his own throat. They’re still digging bodies out of his basement, and it is sensational enough to cover the bizarre death, but there is a chance that we won’t be able to cover up the fact that someone else killed him.”

“I’m sorry about that,” I said. “He was going to kill her. The little girl. You know I don’t normally do this.”

“I know” he said. “You shouldn’t have done it this time, either.”

“He had a gun to the girl’s head,” I said. “Choices were limited. I’ll have to explain this to the Council, but I’m pretty sure they’ll have my back on it. But we’re talking about Mr. Carey right now. I’ll let you know anything I find.”

“And vice-versa,” he said. “If we find something that you should know.”

I nodded again. People think that forensics is some sort of magic trick where you can lift fingerprints out of thin air and find DNA on everything. But the truth is, you can press your fingers to the wall without leaving any good prints, and DNA testing takes a month but is almost never conclusive. And somehow I didn’t think this was the kind of murderer who left fingerprints.

“I’ll call you when I can,” I said. “Probably tomorrow night. I’ve got another case, and it’s kind of urgent.”

“This isn’t exactly a low priority,” he said. “Let us know what you find.”

I smiled, and shook his hand. “I will. Say hi to Gloria for me, all right?”

Children in danger. Blood shed under mysterious circumstances. I would have been suspicious even if a spirit from Beyond hadn’t tried to warn me the previous night.

San Francisco became a magnet for weirdness sometime in the mid-sixties. When the hippies took over, and the night life also moved in. You name it – vampires, werewolves, demons, and a whole host of things I don’t even have a name for. Creatures of the night held more of a foothold here than anywhere else in the United States. You want proof? You actually need a license to perform necromancy in the city. Seriously, look it up. It’s the law.

I was fairly entrenched in San Francisco’s supernatural side – my doctor was a golem, for crying out loud. And mixed in with the trendy Wiccan and occult shops are places that offer the real thing, schools of magic pulled straight out of your wildest nightmares. Most people never saw the true city hiding underneath its metropolitan façade. And those who did never forgot it. I regularly encountered creatures from legends all over the world, and learning to reconcile their existence with my religion was one of the first things I had to do.

I pulled into a parking lot across from The Front Line. The Front Line wasn’t just any vampire club – it was the club. Lots of people imagine a vampire club like a sort of rave – flashing lights, techno music, and gyrating bodies. Others think of something with a lot more velvet, leather, and a different kind of gyrating. Sure, some places like that exist, but come on. We’re vampires. We have style. The Front Line was a jazz club.

There was no leather in sight. The Front Line was a place of hardwood floors, smoke in the air, spool tables, and the blues. Light poured in through the shuttered windows, the electric lamps simulating long-lost sunlight. Most vampire hangouts were places I hated, homes of debauchery and hedonistic death. This place pandered a little more to the civilized and stylish crowd, in part because of its owner. Cole Spade was a member of the North American Vampire Council, and they had policies about killing. Sure, it didn’t come from a place of charity, but the effect was good enough. Most vampires looked at humans as walking Happy Meals, but if we went around snacking on necks willy-nilly, it would gain way too much attention. Some of us were old enough to remember when vampire hunting was a respectable profession, so there were limits. And since The Front Line was managed by a Council member, he had to keep up appearances. This was where I usually ordered my spare blood, because the bottled stuff was supposedly collected humanely. My conscience felt better for it.

Cole Spade was on stage, as he usually was – the lanky vampire was a blues singer as well as part of the Council. He had a voice like Leonard Cohen and looked like Larry Love. Rob Spragg, that is. This was Cole’s bar and his stage, but even if it wasn’t he could have claimed it and the crowd with a single smoky-voiced melody. Hell, even I fell under his spell the moment his lips went near that microphone.

In fashion, Cole was somewhat of a cowboy. When you got to be this age, you could be whatever you wanted. I have always been surprised that more of us didn’t become firemen or astronauts. Being who he was, Cole Spade often heard a little of all the gossip going around the vampire world. If anybody knew anything about the recent killings, it would be him.

I took my place at the bar, settled on one of the stools, and watched the stage. Most noir heroes have a special relationship with their local bartenders and relied on them as confidantes and for moral support. Me? I could recognize one or two of them, kind of. Certainly not the lady working the counter this time.

“What would you like?” she asked.

“Can I order by blood type?”

“I’ve never heard that one before,” she said. “What would you like, Lucy? We have ordinary drinks, too.”

Damn it. She knew my name. This means we had probably met. Maybe. As I wracked my mind to remember the name, I disguised it with a joke.

“Nothing strong, I’m driving,” I said with a wink.

“I’ve never heard that one before, either.” She sighed. “I’m on the job. Please stop joking and place an order if you want anything.”

“Fine,” I said. “I don’t need any blood right now, so I’ll take a sweet tea. Lots of sugar.”

“Very fancy,” The tender said. “And you don’t recognize me at all, do you?”

I tried. I really tried. Maybe it was the makeup, but I couldn’t tell who she was. She just looked like one of any number of women behind a bar – brunette, buxom, trying too hard for tips.

“I’m really sorry,” I said.

She grinned suddenly. “Awesome! It worked! Lucy, it’s me. Meg.”

And then she changed. Brown hair became red curls, makeup faded, her curves shifted a little, and her face transformed entirely as the glamour wore off.

“Megaera?” I asked.

Megaera nodded. “So now I’ve got a disguise that works on your kind. This is great.” She changed back suddenly, but now that I knew it was her I could see it. Meg was… she was something special. The culture she’s from doesn’t exist anymore outside of the history books. We had been friends off and on for a very long time, and even moved into the Bay Area together. Last I remembered, she ran a debt collection agency or something.

“Meg, what are you doing here?” I asked. “This is a vampire club.”

“Well, duh,” she said. “And I’m practicing my new disguise. Yes, the boss knows about me. He said it was an honor to have someone like me stop by for a while. It’s really good to see you, Lucy! I’ve been wondering when you’d come out here… but you really aren’t here just for a drink, are you? I know you.”

“I just got another case,”I said. “From the police. Have you heard of any strange murders lately?”

“Stranger than usual?” she asked flatly. “Come on, you know what business I’m in.”

“Right,” I rolled my eyes. “They found some guy in his house with his throat torn out. Locked-room mystery, no struggle or anything. His blood wasn’t drunk, and he had to have been killed this morning or last night at the earliest. Does that ring a bell?”

She shook her head. “Nope, not at all. I guess I can look in the list of debts, but you know it isn’t as comprehensive as it used to be.”

Right, Meg’s list. She knew better than Santa who was naughty or nice, or at least she used to. “Maybe,” I said. “Would it be too much trouble?”

Her eyes flashed for a moment, but it was more playful than angry. “It is never too much trouble for me, Lucy dear. I don’t get enough chances to do my real job anymore, even with the agency.”

“Business is slow?”

“No,” she said. “But repossessing someone’s car or calling in a late bail bond just isn’t the same.”

“No, it isn’t,” I agreed. “Not at all.”

“Not at all,” she echoed, and poured me some iced tea. “I’ll check the records for you, Lucy, but don’t expect much. But if it’s in my domain, I’ll catch it.”

“Thanks, Meg,” I said, and lifted my glass. “A toast to old friends.”

“Love ya, babe,” she winked, and turned toward the rest of the customers, now just a nondescript bartender again.

I took a few minutes to drink the tea, and watch the club. And waited. In time Cole finished his performance, and I got up to intercept him. I’m not exactly the Council’s favorite person, but they didn’t hate me, and he and I had always been cool. He gave me a nod and tipped his hat. He had a cowboy hat. Only he could pull off the cowboy jazz singer look with that much style. Of course, he probably wasn’t from the old west – as a vampire, he could have come from anywhere, possibly eastern or northern Europe, or France or England for all I knew. Most of us were good at gaining and losing accents. And wherever he was from, he wasn’t telling.

“Evening, little lady.”

“Hey, Cole,” I said. “Got a minute?”

The elder vampire put his hands in his pockets, and nodded.

“Thanks,” I said. “I wanna know if you know about anything strange that’s been going on lately.”

Cole took off his sunglasses, and gave me a great look at his eyes. Sky-blue. “Now come on, that’s a silly question to ask around me,” he smirked.

“I’ve heard that before,” I said. “Okay, there’s been a murder,” I said. “Locked-Room type. The victim’s name was Arthur Carey. Does that ring any bells?”

He shook his head. “None at all,” Cole said. “Was it a bite?”

“Maybe,” I said. “His throat was torn out. Sometimes we cover up our kills like that, I don’t know.”

“Coulda been a lot of things,” he said. “But don’t you worry, little lady. If it’s one of us, then it ain’t authorized.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Speaking of unauthorized,” he put his shades back on. “I hear there’s one less ice cream truck driving around. Do you know anything about that?”

I took in a deep breath. “Yeah,” I said. “He was going to shoot a kid.”

“Yeah, we figured,” Cole said. “You worry too much about humans. But it ain’t as bad as it could be. We’ll cover for you, but just watch the rampaging if you wanna stay in our good graces.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

He grinned. “Have you met the new gal yet? She’s been waiting to see you.”

“Yeah, about that,” I said. “She’s–”

“I know exactly who she is,” he interrupted. “Just wanted to make sure you did. Your drink’s on the house tonight, little lady. Don’t be a stranger.”

Oh, yeah, baby. Free iced tea. I probably broke his bank that night.

I called up Deborah Kirsch shortly after I left the club.

“Miss December? You have news?”

“Not yet,” I said. “But I checked Paul’s place. It was empty. Didn’t look like they fled, though I can’t tell for sure. I’m going to check again later tonight, when they should be home. I’ll keep you posted.”

“Thank you,” she said. “Just bring back my Tom, please.”

“Will do,” I said, and hung up.

I didn’t go back to my office. I went home to pass some of the time before heading back to the Kirsch’s. Like I said before, my place was a mess. Just not a bad mess. The apartment was decently-sized, but between my books, forensic materials, occult supplies, and random stuff I had picked up over time, it became cluttered. Not that I ever minded – the clutter was something I could deal with. It wasn’t really a mess, it was organized my way. I even had space set aside for a little magical circle if I needed one. And don’t judge me, it’s a vampire thing. If you live long enough, you eventually learn the occult. Just like Grandpa Munster.

I hung up my hat, threw off my coat, unbuckled my belt like a fat middle-aged man, and slouched on my couch. Vampires are very dignified. I turned on the television.

“Today on Biography,” came a neutral-sounding Narrator voice. “We explore the life of King Richard I, better known as Richard the Lionheart. See how he commanded his own army by the time he was sixteen. Watch as we explore his rivalry with the famed Saladin. And journey with us as we ask, ‘Was Robin Hood real?’”

“Robin Hood was a fraud!” I shouted and shut off the TV. Stupid History channel. They should stick to Hitler. I grumbled and started puttering around my apartment, pretending to clean but not fooling anybody. It was stupid, really, something like that setting me off. That was a long time ago. Not just water under the bridge, it was water under the ground.

So I stopped trying to clean and went for the safety-deposit box under my desk. The case that held my heritage was plain, lead-lined, and scratched with a little star. It was always in my thoughts, but I never really opened it unless something was wrong. And why would I? I am not a masochist.

Honestly, I had no real reason to be upset. I had rescued a little girl, there was no indication that the boy was in any real danger, and murders like Arthur Carey’s happened all the time. Maybe it was the documentary, or maybe it was because sometimes you just feel down, but I went ahead and took the key off my chain to unlock the box.

A feeling washed over me – not of love and peace and nostalgia, but pain and discomfort from being so close to objects of faith. The sensation was similar to standing near a hot fire, but it burned deeper. If an object was wielded by a person with faith, the pain was unimaginable. People usually only think of vampires and crosses, but the box didn’t contain a cross. It held three items – a small metal case containing a few scraps of parchment, a leather box containing the same, and an ancient copy of the Torah. I took them. I had even ripped that mezuzah right off the doorpost, feeling pain in my hands through the tattered cloth that had wrapped around them. And sure, I felt it again now, but… it was still somehow comforting. Like a portal to the past. To my husband, my children, my parents – the things I had left behind so long ago. So unimaginably long ago. The passage of time is an amazing and terrible thing. Events that happen long ago can somehow seem so very close, while what you had for breakfast might as well have been in another lifetime. In the grand scheme of things, none of this meant anything – What was it that Solomon had said? That life is meaningless, like “chasing after the wind?” Hell, I couldn’t even keep kosher, not with my dietary requirements. And yet there I was, willfully getting sunburned by my family’s old religion.

After I spent a while feeling sorry for myself, I shut the box and put it back. Then I waited there on the floor until I had recovered from the holy-whammy I had given myself. Well, water underground and all that. I let myself recover, and then lazed around for another hour or two before I decided that it was time to check on Paul Kirsch again. Midnight visits were always something special – if I were a man, I could terrify people out of bed and intimidate them for answers. Bit as a woman, I ended up looking lost, vulnerable, and potentially sexy. It was irritating, but the promise of potential sexytimes was a great way to get people to talk. Though since a kid was involved, I didn’t think that would have been a good idea. I decided to take another approach.

I parked half a block from Kirsch’s house, got out of my car, and then cut one of the tires with my fingernail. I can do that kind of thing, I’m a vampire. The dire deflated with a hiss, I mussed up my hair and rumpled my coat, and then ran up to knock on the door. The idea was simple – look panicked and stupid, desperate for help changing a tire. Women can’t change tires, right? And maybe just check to see if the kid is there. A simple plan, but very effective. And that’s why I was irritated when nobody answered after five straight minutes of hammering.

Well, somebody did. One of the Kirsch’s neighbors poked his head out of his front door and asked, “Keep that down! People are trying to – ma’am, are you okay?”

I deflated. There went the simple plan. Might as well keep up the act, though. “Oh, can you help me? Please?” I asked the neighbor in a mock panic, running across the yard. “I have a flat tire, and I don’t… I don’t know how to change it!”

And so, a Good Samaritan changed my tire for me. Funny, because Samaritans were originally the unclean dregs of society, but this fellow seemed like a pretty nice guy. I gave him a peck on the cheek and promised to call him (I wouldn’t), and went on my way.

So. No sign of Paul or the kid. I can’t say that this didn’t bother me. It probably meant nothing – maybe they just didn’t answer the door at two in the morning – but it just didn’t feel right to me. Unless you’re psychic, a hunch is when your subconscious mind picks up details you don’t actively realize, and starts to piece together a picture based on those details. I’m old. Sometimes I pick up a lot.