This story takes place 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 lounged against the bar. He looked like an old, somewhat burly hippie – like if George Carlin had started hitting the gym. Cole Spade, who owned the establishment, stood back and held a drink in his hand as he watched the conversation. Crystal, a vampire roughly as old as recorded history, swung her feet girlishly from a chair that was too high for her. She had been turned as a child, and would always be small. Not that it stopped her from being absolutely terrifying when she felt like it.
Vampires governed by committee. Three of the thirteen members of the North American Vampire Council happened to live in San Francisco, and that provided me with a lot of work. Was there a rogue who needed to be brought to justice? Accusations against our community? They had a detective on their payroll.
“I know,” Gibson said. “I just wanted to say that.”
“Get a job, hippie,” Cole chuckled, and winked at me. He wore shades, so I had to assume the winking part.
“It’s a cover job,” Crystal stated with as much flat seriousness as only a child vampire could maintain. Shutting off her emotions was how she got around issues caused by her age. “We need you to investigate something for us.”
“Okay, a cover job,” I nodded. “What do you need me to do?”
“We told you, you need to get a real 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, but this is urgent.”
“Busy is an understatement,” I said.
“Understandable. How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Honestly? Kind of like shit,” I answered Crystal as Cole handed me a drink.
“Well, that’s just normal, Little Lady,” Cole joked. “But what we mean to ask is, are you still feelin’ sick?”
Little lady. I knew it was a short joke, but it was kind of endearing. Appreciated their concern, too – it had been a few weeks since the Caacrinolaas case, but it still felt fresh. A major demon had carved his name in blood in the city, and I was the one who had to fight it. Somewhere in the chaos I had bitten the demon, and his blood had done something awful to me. It was weird, I had forgotten what it felt like to be under the weather, so I didn’t know if this was serious or I was just being a big baby.
“I’m still a little queasy,” I answered. “But I should be fine for the job. What’s going on?”
“I already told you. Unauthorized biting in the city.” Crystal repeated.
Vampire feeding was regulated. It wasn’t that vampires were good people as much as we didn’t want to attract attention, but it was technically “illegal” to bite innocents. Sort of. There was paperwork. And a lot of leeway. But the overall effect was good for society. Kind of.
“How bad is it?” I asked.
“Twenty reported cases, enough for mortal hospitals to call it an anemia ‘epidemic,’” she said. “Add to that five more deaths, three turnings, and twelve disappearances that we think are related.”
Forty in a month. Even starving vampires didn’t drink that much.
“So it’s more than one culprit,” I said.
“Likely,” Crystal nodded.
“We think orloks are involved,” Gibson said.
“Orloks?” I asked. “Then why haven’t I heard about it? They’re not exactly subtle, you know?”
Sometimes vampire turning went bad, and that’s where orloks came from. Twisted, mutated, and feral, they were virtually incapable of blending in with other vampires, much less the mortal world. Orloks were everything that we feared as a people. We used to exterminate them – and many vampires still did. Our modern policy here in the United States was more about preservation and rehabilitation. We kept them isolated in safe houses, and once in a while an orlok managed to re-learn enough humanity to function in society.
“Just before the attacks, most of our known orloks disappeared,” Crystal said. “We have lost more since.”
“Wait, how do you lose orloks?” I asked. “They’re not that small. It’s not like car keys.”
“Hush,” Gibson said. “Know your place and listen.”
“No, really,” I said. “This stuff has been going on for weeks, and you never bothered to tell me? When an orlok gets loose, it usually goes mad-biting all over the place, but for some reason this blood spree has been quiet enough to stay under the radar. So I have a few questions.”
“Fine. Then ask them.”
“Well,” I started. “Huh. It’s more of a general question thing. Like, please explain more. There are living witnesses, right? What do they have to say?”
“No memory of the attack,” Crystal said. “Just an appointment at an office on the fifth floor of the Flood Building, and nothing after.”
“Okay, so we check the businesses on the fifth floor, find Monsters Inc., and that’s probably our culprit. Maybe they even have a union.”
“There are over thirty tenants on the fifth floor,” Crystal said.
“Oh,” I said. “Okay, so we’ve got to narrow it down a little. Gotcha. So what do you want me to do?”
That’s when Cole started laughing to himself. “We’ve been joking about it all night,” he said. “Get a job.”
I sighed. “It was only funny the first time you made the joke,” I said. “Okay, okay, I get it, I need a cover job to infiltrate the building. Do we have a dummy company set up in there or something?”
“No,” Crystal said. “We’re not renting space in the Flood Building. It’s too expensive. You also wouldn’t be able to make it past building security as a visitor, hence the need for work – but we’ve found a company on the fifth floor that’s hiring right now.”
“But you don’t own the business?” I asked.
“We own a temp agency,” she said. “They’ll employ whomever we send.”
“You’re a temp now,” Cole added. “You look like you’re young an unemployed, so it’ll work just fine.”
“I do not!” I protested.
“It’s a believable cover story,” Crystal said. “Neuland 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 Neuland 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 as Lucy Berends, and investigate during any breaks they give you. Be careful, 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.
So, if I had to pretend to be a twenty-something kid looking for work, then what should I wear? Were hipsters still in style? Could I pretend to be a hipster? Were hipsters middle-aged yet?
A scarf. Hipsters wore scarves, right? Of course they did. They dressed like it was always winter. So I needed a scarf. I rummaged through mine. Would a hundred-year-old cashmere scarf count as vintage? Maybe a little too much? But I also 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 for different reasons.
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, which belonged to the same ex.
Great, now 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. It was the rest of the world who had fallen out of style.
Jeans. Hipsters wore blue jeans. Back in the 1950s, I had thought that jeans were a passing fad. Not one of my brightest moments, really. 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. I took my car down to the Flood Building, and found a garage with overnight parking nearby.
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 triangular building cut into Market Square like a wedge, nestled between the mall, BART station, and cable car turnaround. The five-story mall connected directly to the Powell Street BART station, which opened up in front of the Flood Building, leaving a large segment of sidewalk as a free speech zone. On any given day, you could see a combination of street musicians, protestors and Jehovah’s Witnesses jockeying for attention and time.
The intersection 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 plot of land into a major place of power. In fact, a major demon had used the city’s ley lines just a few weeks ago, even performing a blood sacrifice inside the mall to corrupt the part of the city’s magical pentagram. The ley lines hadn’t fully recovered from Caacrinolaas’s rituals yet, but they were mending.
I could still feel a hint of Caacrinolaas’s oppressive darkness when I arrived at Market and Powell, but it was fading, easily overshadowed by the general crowded hustle and bustle of people going about their business. The BART trains ran until half past midnight, and the Market Street Square was still packed with people long after the sun went down. Residents, tourists, proselytizers – they’d be gone soon enough, but right now it was still business hours.
I took a moment to breathe in the cool, crisp night air and enjoy the vibrant life of the city. The actual entrance to the Flood Building was almost hidden between retail stores on the ground floor, but grandiose in its own way. I passed through the stone archway and the double glass doors into the building’s marble-lined lobby. A display case stood to my right, filled with photos of the Flood building’s construction, pieces of its original facade, and the Maltese Falcon. Yeah, seriously. The place was classy like that.
I walked up to the security desk and signed in.
“Good evening, Ms. Baron,” the security guard said to me. Dammit, five minutes into working undercover and I had already misspelled my name. All right, then. Lucy Baron it was.
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 paneled with identical frosted glass. Office sizes 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? Something about muppets? According to the internet and my phone, it was apparently some sort of massage therapy involving energy fields or pressure points or something like that. I made a mental note to investigate the pseudomedical quackery first.
Speaking of pseudomedical quackery, next to the rolfing clinic was the office of Dr. F. Murnau, Hypnotherapist. The lights were on, too – maybe I’d check it out before the rolfers. I had a feeling that at least half of this floor would be like that. Hypnotherapy, rolfing – what else? Acupuncture? Aromatherapy? Past-life regression?
The Neuland office was opposite the elevators, and took up about twice as much space as the hypnotherapy clinic. As late as it was, I could hear the telltale sounds of a busy, hectic workplace just behind. I thought for a moment about how little I knew about how modern offices actually worked. I had been a vampire for so long that the mortal nine-to-five workday was completely lost on me. To be honest, my only real context for modern workplace life had been that sitcom. I’d probably be fine as long as I followed everybody’s lead.
I was greeted at the door by a middle-aged man wearing the same outfit as myself. Skinny jeans, maroon peacoat, knit cap – even the glasses matched. So I guess I had made the right decision getting dressed that morning.
“Hey, you must be the new girl,” he said, and offered his hand. “I’m Rob Neuland, CFO of Neuland Data Imaging. You’re from Supreme Staffing?”
“Supreme?” I asked. Oh, wait. Right. The fake temp agency. “Yeah, I’m Lucy Baron.”
“Great to meet you, Ms. Barnen,” Neuland said as he led me inside. “You’re right on time, though you should probably be earlier in the future. You know how it is in this business. If you’re on-time, you’re late.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, fairly surprised by the level of activity in the office. It was half-past nine at night, but nothing going on reflected the late hour. A bunch of people operating on the same circadian rhythm as my vampire self? I could get used to this.
“You came at the perfect time. We’ve got a big project due next week and we’re all putting in extra hours,” Neuland said. “Your resume says that you do database management, is that right?”
“Uh,” I said. Okay, it made sense that the Council would have sent a resume in. They could have told me about it, though.
“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 who was whom. 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’ll be reporting to.”
I waited to be introduced to the IT manager. It didn’t happen.
“Wait, I almost forgot,” Neuland said. “Here’s Alex, our CEO. Alex, meet Lucy Barn.”
They were clearly brothers. Alex Neuland’s fashion sense was more business casual than Rob’s, though I couldn’t help but notice the dragon tattoos not quite hidden by his shirtsleeves.
“It’s good to meet you,” Alexander Neuland 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 Neuland led me away from the CEO. There was still no sign of the IT manager, but he seemed more than enthusiastic to fill in.
“We use a B-tree longvarbinary SQL system set with implicit locking,” he said, ushering me to an unoccupied computer desk. “Operated through a proprietary Mac software tailored to our own system. You know how to use a Mac, right?”
“Sure,” I said. I had no clue what he was saying about a bee tree varbinary squirrel system or whatever, but I did own a computer at home.
“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 continued to explain. “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 a couple of the words he used.
“Feel free to take the snacks or drinks in the fridge as you work,” Neuland 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. “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 in one day, we won’t blame you.”
Wow, that wasn’t blatant at all. I didn’t comment.
“Anyway,” he said, opening a few programs. “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.
“No, 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 similar. This was going to be all right. I could do this. I could do a lot of things. I had fought demons. I could operate a mac.
The program that they had me working on remined me a little of Facebook, and I could handle that. I spent a few minutes fumbling around and trying to figure out what I was doing before I began to get a grasp of just how much personal information people gave up without realizing it. It was all about potential customers – names and e-mail addresses 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. Privacy.
Browsing history and media preferences. That’s what Neuland 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.
Two of the names on the list were vampires. It wasn’t the thick curtains or the tinted car windows, it was the fact that I knew them by name. They went into a folder. I found a couple of members of the local werewolf community, and grouped them, as well. Witches were easy to spot, as well – spellcraft reagents were obvious if you knew what to look for. I even found Jonathan and Kelly Thompson, who had been the cultists behind the demon Caacrinolaas’s rampage a few weeks ago. They had been torn to pieces for their trouble. I sorted them in with other occultists, and left their deaths for the company to find out.
I found Cole Spade from the Council, too, and learned exactly where he ordered 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 Neulands could make the connection if they saw it and felt suspicious, but to be honest, chances were they’d never see my entry. I sorted myself in the same folder as the other vampires and idly wondered what kinds of spam were heading my way because of it.
And there was Megaera. Meg, Meg, Meg. Good old Meg. I put her in every category possible. If I was going to get spammed for this, then she’d get it worse. 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. After a while it began to feel 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. Therefore, it was snack time. I got up, rubbed at my eyes, and sneaked over to the drink fridge and snack cabinet. Sure, vampires needed blood to survive, but food was fantastic. 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 supposedly a healthy chocolate substitute because it 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. I remembered the days of serfdom and indentured servitude, but even the peasants had time off for their families. Somehow this seemed worse.
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 Neuland 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 Neulands 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 Neuland 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 Neuland 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,” Neuland 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. Odd, I didn’t think I sounded stressed. “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. Really popular nowadays.”
“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? Was I leaving Ms. Shuu to be devoured by orloks? Would an attack right now be too obvious with all the workers running 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 was very boring most of the time, 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 sales tracking 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 Neulands drive us hard, but they’re really good people.”
“Yeah?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, they’re the best bosses ‘ve ever had,” he said. “But it’s crunch time. 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 also got like three jobs to do. 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. Too close together to be canine teeth. Incisors, just like orlok fangs.
Knowing the face of a victim changes things. Halfheartedly 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 make an educated guess.
Were the Neulands complicit? Or were they duped, just like everybody else? And was Breddar a real name? Maybe it was Norse?
“Here’s another list,” Rob Neuland 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.”
“Well, no time like the present, right?” I asked as I looked at the list. How long did they expect to have me here? A month?
Neuland 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 Neuland 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 Neuland’s company 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 Neuland brothers?
Well, no, that was a stupid idea. Five seconds on Google showed both Neulands on a sunny beach. Not everything had to have shocking twists and turns, sometimes it really was the obvious suspect.
I knocked on the door. It opened, revealing a middle-aged, thin-faced man with a goatee. He in no way resembled an orlok – instead of being a ravening, feral monster, he wore a sweater vest. Absolutely nothing stood out about him, unlike the Neulands, 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 Neuland 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 hasn’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. He had height and reach on me, but I probably had experience. There were ways to do this, I just had to be smart and careful.
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 early. 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 in the garage next door, correct?”
“If you don’t mind waiting, 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 before I started searching the office.
What was I looking for? Jars of blood? A coffin? Books filled with dark magic? Instead 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 joke.
“Dammit,” I muttered. Maybe I was barking up the wrong tree after all. I mean, had I really investigated the Neuland 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 was blank, without a door – usually when an office took up more than one space, it kept the doors. I wondered what the chances were of this being his neighbor’s extension.
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 the shelves, all labeled. This went beyond mere vampire feeding – 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. Like a lot of things stuffed into one small package. I stepped away from the coffin in case it had any more surprises in store.
“I was waiting for the Council to send their lap dog after me,” Dr. Murnau said from the doorway. “I knew you on sight, Lucy December. 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 explain it to the landlord?”
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. Did I say goofy? It was kind of fascinating, really. I looked at it a bit closer.
“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. Like discuss the issue.
“Have a seat,” he said. “You can sit on the coffin.”
Okay, sure. 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 siphoning 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 as 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 Murnau.
“All right, so you’re stealing the bad stuff left over from Caacrinolaas’s summoning,” I said. “Get to the point. 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. An entire army of our feral, degenerate cousins 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 tomorrow night.”
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. Up until that point Murnau had been easily ordering me around under the influence of that medallion of his, but now? He just told me to commit suicide. That was a step too far. Hell of a time to snap out of it, though, what with the orloks turning their attention on me and everything. 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 no matter what I did, so it was time to be creative.
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 transformed as well and flew up to ram him again. He shifted into his human form and grabbed me, so I did the same to break out of his grasp, 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 all the shapeshifting left on my body and mind, which left myself open to a left hook from Murnau. I staggered back, but grabbed his arm and kicked at his ankle to trip him. He stumbled forward, clotheslining me in the throat in an attempt 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 as I 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 with just as much dignity as the situation demanded.
“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? Hiding them away in squalid ‘safe houses?’ Trying to forget about them? Exterminating them like rats? 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.
“They’re going to go berserk!”
One of the orloks pointed at of us and hissed. “You enslaved us,” 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 and ascended into the cool night air above the Flood Building, trying to put as much distance as I could between myself and the swarm. A chorus of shrieks behind me let me know that I had been spotted, and I glanced down in time to see a hundred ravenous bats tearing through the air after me. I knew that there was no way I could outrun them all, so my only chance lay in outmaneuvering them. They ere wrapped up in herd mentality, chasing me like a swarm even without Murnau’s hypnotism to control them, which gave me a chance. I dropped my altitude and fell outside of the Flood building toward the street as the orlok bats continued to stream up into the sky behind me. I extended my wings as I dove, turning the fall into an angular glide, and aimed for the BART entrance. The streets were mostly empty this late at night, but I didn’t want to risk anybody else. Luckily, the orlok swarm focused on me, ignoring anybody else as they chased me down. The few people out there reacted appropriately to the huge swarm of bats suddenly rampaging in the streets. Screams, running, a few people recording it on their phones – but they were safe for now. I focused on luring the bats further from the surface, leading them underground to the closed station, hoping that it was empty.
I ignored the mall entrance and 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, and I spotted a few homeless people cowering in the shadows, trying to stay out of the way of this sudden bat swarm.
I squeezed through the chain links and blew past the turnstiles, flying for the next escalator leading down 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 after me, single-minded in their rage.
I finally 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 there first and lead them on a long chase, tire them out. Wear out their fury somehow. I could hear their cacophonous leather wings behind me as they filled the tunnels, the din echoing across the walls like a flood, closer and closer as we flew into the tunnel. A hundred orloks all chasing me, and they were gaining.
The mob’s sonar squeaks began to overwhelm my senses, ruining my sense of direction. 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. My lead was gone now, it was a matter of seconds before they tore me apart like they did to Murnau. And then what? Would they return from the tunnel and swarm the surface?
Bright light flooded my vision, accompanied by a deafening, echoing roar. It was over now. 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 and flattened myself between the rails as the subway car rocketed over and past me, crashing into the swarm of vampire bats. Some of the orloks got out of the way, but others weren’t so lucky. Splattered directly, clipped and sent crashing into he walls, or crushed against the tracks, it was a massacre. I clung as hard as I could to my safe spot, feeling the wind as the train car passed within inches of my tiny batty form. Why was a train running this late? I had no clue, but I was grateful enough.
The train’s brakes screeched as it slowed far more abruptly than it was supposed to, the brakes locking. 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, 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 to project her voice.
“Orloks,” she announced, speaking with an authoritative tone that kings and queens could only hope to learn. “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 car;;s doorway. “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 down there?”
“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. “Where is he now?”
“The orloks tore him up,” I said. “It’s over.”
I thought about how Murnau had told me to run before getting the orlok mob’s attention. A brief moment of decency – maybe not enough to make up for everything else, but it was something. In the meantime, Crystal had subdued the remaining orloks, who had begun transforming back into their regular shapes to line up in front of her. She didn’t need hypnotism or a magic stone to convince others to obey.
“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 train. Why were you driving one, anyway? How did you get a train? Can I have a train?”
He chuckled. “You liked that, did ya? Gibson gets the credit for that little stunt.”
“Okay, so what was the – never mind,” I shook my head. “Anyway, the culprit was 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 helpfully 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 Neuland 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.”