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Authors: Liz Jasper

Underdead (9 page)

BOOK: Underdead
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I inched closer. “What happened to him?”

Gavin looked up at me for a long moment and then rolled the man over.

At first all I could see was the blood. It was everywhere, on his neck, his face, saturating his shirt front. So much blood could only have come from one spot. My hand automatically reached up to touch my own neck as my eyes rested on the dead man’s matching wound.

“Come here,” Gavin instructed, grabbing my arm and pulling me down. I squatted awkwardly next to him, trying not to touch the man on the ground. Gavin’s voice was harsh. “Find his pulse.” When I balked, he repeated, “Find it!”

With shaking fingers, I reached down and touched the man’s wrist. “Nothing.” I spoke in a whisper.

“Is he breathing?”

Gavin’s grip was like iron. I bent closer, listening for any signs. “No. He’s dead.”

Gavin let me go. “Remember that.”

I stood up, stumbling a little in my haste to put some distance between us. Gavin remained where he was, watching me silently, waiting for me to speak.

I swallowed and said shakily, “If this is some sort of weird goth cult—”

“It’s not a cult and you know it,” he said calmly, getting to his feet.

“They’re a bunch of crazy people, then,” I said, taking a step back. I tried not to look at all the blood, but I couldn’t stop staring at the man’s neck. I wished desperately I had never come. I wanted to go home, to forget. Tears slid down my face but I didn’t move to brush them away.

Gavin closed the gap between us in a couple angry strides and ripped the adhesive bandage half-off my neck. “The man who did that to you is perfectly sane, as is the woman who killed this man.”

I shrank under the sudden onslaught. “I don’t understand.”

“Well, figure it out, dammit! It’s not that hard!”

Behind Gavin, the dead man suddenly stood up and lunged for us like something out of a horror movie. It might have been comical if it weren’t so frightening. Before I was done screaming, Gavin had turned, unsheathed his wooden knife and plunged it into the man’s chest. The man blinked and subsided back to the ground.

I opened my mouth to scream again, but no sound came out. Gavin said harshly, “Go home, Jo.”

I stood uncertainly, unable to move, mouth agape, eyes wide with fear.

“Now, Jo. Backup will be here any second. It will be better if you’re not here.”

I got home somehow—I don’t remember driving—and locked the door tightly behind me. I sat huddled on the couch in the dark, waiting.

Chapter Eight

 

Some time later, minutes, hours, I didn’t know, a knock on the door got me up again. I shuffled slowly to the front door on feet that felt like lead. My hand moved automatically to the deadbolt, but I didn’t unlock the door. Instead, I opened the peephole door that I hadn’t used since the day I’d moved in and chuckled over its quaintness. A neat dark head filled the small view area.

“Jo. It’s Detective Gavin Raines.” The voice matched the vision.

Slowly and methodically, as if I were directing my own actions from some remote location, I relatched the tiny, eye-level door, released the deadbolt and let him in. Gavin shut and locked the door behind him and flicked on a light. In silence, he examined my face. Apparently he didn’t like what he saw.

“Aw, hell. C’mon,” he said, and steered me into the kitchen. “Let’s get you something to eat. Sit here.” He pushed me into one of the two chairs at the kitchen table and put water to boil on the stove while he rummaged around the cupboards. He pulled out hot chocolate mix, found the rum under the sink that I kept on hand for splashing into fruit cobblers and quickly and efficiently doctored a mug to his satisfaction. He pushed it toward me. “Drink. All of it.”

It wasn’t very hot and I downed it in a few gulps, like an obedient child.

“Feel better?”

Actually I did. I moved to stand up, but he pushed me back in my chair. “Not yet. You’ll need some food in you or you’re going to fall flat on the floor and I’ve had enough ambulances for one day. Got anything in here to eat?”

“I think I have some hamburger in the fridge.” Ignoring his protest, I stood up again. “Let me do it. I need to do something to keep from—” My voice broke and he stepped aside.

I pulled out a package of hamburger, some condiments and some pre-washed salad mix and put them on the counter. “If you want to make yourself useful, you can cut the tomatoes and make the salad.”

He regarded me closely for a moment and then ripped open the salad bag and dumped the contents into a bowl I’d left in the dish drainer. For a few minutes, we worked in silence. It wasn’t a companionable one. As I formed the hamburger patties and put a pan to heat on the stove, my brain slowly began to function again and I reviewed the events of that evening. And what Gavin had said.

I slapped the hamburgers in the pan and then turned to face Gavin. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I clenched my fists and moved closer. “You knew about those weirdoes and you didn’t even warn me! I could have been next! What’s wrong with you?”

“I did warn you,” he said evenly. “I told you to be careful.”

“Please! You tell someone to ‘be careful’ when they cross the street! When a crazy homicidal maniac takes a shine to them, you do a little more!”

“I did do a little more. I had round-the-clock shifts set up to watch you. Still do, to some degree. But you’re an uncertain factor. I didn’t know which side you were on. I still don’t.”

“What do you mean by that?”

His composure started to break. “Fine. If you won’t say it, I will. Your would-be boyfriend, Will, is a vampire. Not a man pretending to be a vampire, not a member of an extremist Goth cult, the real thing. The local leader. He tried to recruit you. Did you ever wonder why I spent that night on your couch, holding a stake? I didn’t sleep—every second I expected you to come out that door and go for my throat, like tonight’s victim did. But you didn’t.

“Will tried to kill you, but he failed,” Gavin said emphatically. He reached over and this time was successful in ripping off my adhesive bandage. It began to bleed.

I clapped a hand to my neck. “Stop that!”

“Don’t bury your head in the sand and pretend he’s an ordinary killer. Look at yourself! You can’t go out in the sun without risking a third-degree burn, your vision is so damn blurry you could barely read my student ID the morning after he bit you, and you have teeth marks on your neck, marks that won’t heal!” Disgust limned his voice.

He threw a dishtowel on the counter. “You’re practically a vampire already!”

“Well, which is it?” I yelled back, removing my hand and letting the blood slide down my throat. “Am I a vampire, or aren’t I?”

“I don’t know. Neither! Both! Will
failed
. You didn’t succumb, you fought. You didn’t die, you survived. You didn’t become one of them. But you’re not normal. He changed you. You went right to the knife’s edge, but you didn’t tip either way. You tell me what you are!”

When he stopped, silence rang in the kitchen as loudly as his voice had been. We glared at each other for a long moment.

Then I laughed. “Don’t be absurd. Vampires don’t exist. You may be a policeman, but you’re not a ‘normal’ one either—you have a very vivid imagination. The only thing wrong with me is that I’ve caught some sort of bug that gives me vampire-like symptoms. There’s probably even a medical term for it, Vampire Syndrome or Dracula Flu.”

I relaxed back against the counter, calmly wiping away the angry tears that had pooled in my eyes when Gavin had spoken. I got a fresh bandage out of a drawer to stop the bleeding on my neck. “Just listen to yourself! ‘Will is a real vampire and he tried to recruit you!’ Pu-leeze! You watch
way
too much TV, Detective.”

His grey eyes glittered angrily, but he didn’t say anything.

I began to form the rest of the hamburgers into patties for another meal and I went on, mockingly. “And it gets even better. Despite what the doctor says, you know better. I don’t actually have a sun allergy—no, no,
that’s
too far-fetched. The real reason for my skin problems and everything else is that I nearly became a vampire—only the head vampire couldn’t manage to convert me properly, so I’m not quite ‘Undead’. I’m merely, what, ‘Underdead’?”

I began to laugh so hard I had to bend over and clutch my middle. Gavin didn’t respond, said nothing, just watched me. When I was able to stand back up, I shook my head at Gavin’s ridiculousness and went back to making hamburger patties with the leftover meat. Still chuckling, I pulled a small bit of raw hamburger meat off one of the patties, balled it up in my fingers, swished it around it in the pink liquid that had collected on the packaging, and popped it into my mouth, delighting in the flow of raw juices over my tongue.

A second ball of raw meat was on its way to my mouth before I realized what I was doing. Gavin looked away and went to the stove to flip the burgers before they burned. I sat down with a thump.

“I think I’d like mine rare,” I said, and burst into tears.

*

After a mostly quiet dinner, Gavin flipped into professional mode, asking me questions while I made chocolate chip cookies. I’m a bit of a stress baker. That night, I automatically started out with a double batch.

I plunked a plateful by Gavin’s elbow. He helped himself to one in the absent manner of someone used to eating sandwiches out of vending machines while writing reports. He took a bite and stared at it in surprise. “These are good.” He helped himself to another. “Maybe it’s a good thing you’re not dead, after all.”

“Don’t eat all those or you’ll get fat,” I replied nastily.

“Not me.” He patted his flat stomach. “I’m carb loading. I’ve got a biathlon coming up.”

Hearing about something so normal—something I could no longer do—was sobering. I put down the spatula and sat heavily in the chair across from him. “Do you have any more questions for me?” I nodded toward the notebook he’d been writing in.

“No, I think I’m done for now.” He closed the notebook and tucked it in his pocket.

“Well, I have some questions for you.”

Gavin eyed me a little warily as he leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms loosely over his broad chest. “All right.”

I paused to organize my thoughts, but it was hard to pick a single question from the multitude flashing around in my head.

“You said,” I began hesitantly, “that Will is the head—er—vampire, but how do you know that? I thought you hadn’t seen him before tonight.”

“That’s right, I hadn’t. But if you recall, he made his position quite clear. He was training that female tonight—she responded instantly to his command to leave. Vampires live under a very rigid hierarchal system. It’s a necessary counterbalance to the hedonism that drives them. Without clear leadership, they would rampage, killing without restraint.”

“Isn’t that what they want? I mean, wouldn’t it be better for them if there were more vampires?” From what I’d read and seen on TV, vampires were always trying to take over the world.

Gavin nodded in understanding. “You’d think that, but it’s not really how they work. They need two things to survive—fresh blood and secrecy. Every time they kill, they open themselves to persecution. Look at what’s happened here. They’ve been in Long Beach only a few months and have killed only a handful of people, and yet the police are already closing in on them.”

All that matter-of-fact talk of blood and killing made me feel sick. Nonetheless, I pressed on, determined to get the answers I needed. “Are there many of them?”

“I’m not sure, but from what I can tell it seems to be a fairly small group. They may have splintered off a larger one, seeking to establish a new base, or they could be a traveling group.”

“A traveling group? Like gypsies?”

He nodded. “Some groups move continuously from town to town, coming and going before anyone really realizes they’re there.”

“I—” I swallowed. “It never occurred to me that there were so many of them.”

“There are and there aren’t. Many places are just too small and close-knit to support a vampire population, even a traveling one. As I said, secrecy is vital to their survival, and their particular mode of killing invites a lot of scrutiny. Besides, from what I can tell, there’s a difference between feeding off someone and recruiting them. My theory is that the traveling groups exist to recruit new members. After a while, they either return to their original group or take root somewhere new, somewhere with a large population where they can feed without drawing too much attention to themselves. No one really notices or cares if a bunch of vagrants go missing.”

“That’s disgusting! Horrible!” I felt sick. It was like something out of a bad sci-fi movie where aliens come down and start sucking people’s brains out while the oblivious neighbors continue going about their daily lives, taking out the trash and watering the lawn and such.

“Yes, it is.”

The evening’s events replayed in my mind. “I know this seems silly…” I stopped in confusion, but Gavin’s patient regard encouraged me to go on. “Why didn’t that man disappear? Go poof! in a cloud of dust, like they do in the movies.”

I expected him to laugh at me, but he just looked thoughtful. “They do, sometimes. But not always. I think it has something to do with age. The stake to the heart kills the life force. When that’s gone, what’s left is a body that may have been dead minutes or centuries. Without the life force to preserve its condition, the corpse reverts to its real age.”

Eew.

He stood up. “I need to get going. I was expected back at the station a half-hour ago.” He went around my apartment making sure all the windows were locked. “Don’t open them while it’s dark out. And don’t let anyone in.” His eyes held mine. “Be careful.”

Then he left.

I’d rarely felt so alone and so vulnerable. I was suddenly swamped with horrible images from that night, and even more frightening, visions about my future. Cartons of blood instead of milk in the fridge; my cozy apartment replaced by a dark, dank cave; my bed replaced by a coffin; my friends, even my parents, coming after me, en mob, carrying torches and vials of holy water, wearing crosses and garlands of garlic, and brandishing wooden stakes. Moving as if thus pursued, I rushed back into the kitchen, scrabbled around my cabinets for whatever chocolate products I had left and started making an elaborate chocolate mousse cake.

BOOK: Underdead
4.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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