Willie McCoy had been a jerk before he died. His being dead didn't change that. He sat across from me, wearing a loud plaid sport jacket. The polyester pants were primary Crayola green. His short, black hair was slicked back from a thin, triangular face. He had always reminded me of a bit player in a gangster movie. The kind that sells information, runs errands, and is expendable.
Of course now that Willie was a vampire, the expendable part didn't count anymore. But he was still selling information and running errands. No, death hadn't changed him much. But just in case, I avoided looking directly into his eyes. It was standard policy for dealing with vampires. He was a slime bucket, but now he was an undead slime bucket. It was a new category for me.
We sat in the quiet air-conditioned hush of my office. The powder blue walls, which Bert, my boss, thought would be soothing, made the room feel cold.
"Mind if I smoke?" he asked.
"Yes," I said, "I do."
"Damn, you aren't gonna make this easy, are you?"
I looked directly at him for a moment. His eyes were still brown. He caught me looking, and I looked down at my desk.
Willie laughed, a wheezing snicker of a sound. The laugh hadn't changed. "Geez, I love it. You're afraid of me."
"Not afraid, just cautious."
"You don't have to admit it. I can smell the fear on you, almost like somethin' touching my face, my brain. You're afraid of me, 'cause I'm a vampire."
I shrugged; what could I say? How do you lie to someone who can smell your fear? "Why are you here, Willie?"
"Geez, I wish I had a smoke." The skin began to jump at the corner of his mouth.
"I didn't think vampires had nervous twitches."
His hand went up, almost touched it. He smiled, flashing fangs. "Some things don't change."
I wanted to ask him, what does change? How does it feel to be dead? I knew other vampires, but Willie was the first I had known before and after death. It was a peculiar feeling. "What do you want?"
"Hey, I'm here to give you money. To become a client."
I glanced up at him, avoiding his eyes. His tie tack caught the overhead lights. Real gold. Willie had never had anything like that before. He was doing all right for a dead man. "I raise the dead for a living, no pun intended. Why would a vampire need a zombie raised?"
He shook his head, two quick jerks to either side. "No, no voodoo stuff. I wanna hire you to investigate some murderers."
"I am not a private investigator."
"But you got one of 'em on retainer to your outfit."
I nodded. "You could just hire Ms. Sims directly. You don't have to go through me for that."
Again that jerky head shake. "But she don't know about vampires the way you do."
I sighed. "Can we cut to the chase here, Willie? I have to leave" - I glanced at the wall clock - "in fifteen minutes. I don't like to leave a client waiting alone in a cemetery. They tend to get jumpy."
He laughed. I found the snickery laugh comforting, even with the fangs. Surely vampires should have rich, melodious laughs. "I'll bet they do. I'll just bet they do." His face sobered suddenly, as if a hand had wiped his laughter away.
I felt fear like a jerk in the pit of my stomach. Vampires could change movements like clicking a switch. If he could do that, what else could he do?
"You know about the vampires that are getting wasted over in the District?"
He made it a question, so I answered. "I'm familiar with them." Four vampires had been slaughtered in the new vampire club district. Their hearts had been torn out, their heads cut off.
"You still working with the cops?"
"I am still on retainer with the new task force."
He laughed again. "Yeah, the spook squad. Underbudgeted and undermanned, right."
"You've described most of the police work in this town."
"Maybe, but the cops feel like you do, Anita. What's one more dead vampire? New laws don't change that."
It had only been two years since Addison v. Clark. The court case gave us a revised version of what life was, and what death wasn't. Vampirism was legal in the good of U. S. of A. We were one of the few countries to acknowledge them. The immigration people were having fits trying to keep foreign vampires from immigrating in, well, flocks.
All sorts of questions were being fought out in court. Did heirs have to give back their inheritance? Were you widowed if your spouse became undead? Was it murder to slay a vampire? There was even a movement to give them the vote. Times were a-changing.
I stared at the vampire in front of me and shrugged. Did I really believe what was one more dead vampire? Maybe. "If you believe I feel that way, why come to me at all?"
"Because you're the best at what you do. We need the best."
It was the first time he had said "we." "Who are you working for, Willie?"
He smiled then, a close secretive smile, like he knew something I should know. "Never you mind that. Money's real good. We want somebody who knows the night life to be looking into these murders."
"I've seen the bodies, Willie. I gave my opinions to the police."
"What'd you think?" He leaned forward in the chair, small hands flat on my desk. His fingernails were pale, almost white, bloodless.
"I gave a full report to the police." I stared up at him, almost looking him in the eye.
"Won't even give me that, will ya?"
"I am not at liberty to discuss police business with you."
"I told 'em you wouldn't go for this."
"Go for what? You haven't told me a damn thing."
"We want you to investigate the vampire killings, find out who's, or what's, doing it. We'll pay you three times your normal fee."
I shook my head. That explained why Bert, the greedy son of a gun, had set up this meeting. He knew how I felt about vampires, but my contract forced me to at least meet with any client that had given Bert a retainer. My boss would do anything for money. Problem was he thought I should, too. Bert and I would be having a "talk" very soon.
I stood. "The police are looking into it. I am already giving them all the help I can. In a way I am already working on the case. Save your money."
He sat staring up at me, very still. It was not that lifeless immobility of the long dead, but it was a shadow of it.
Fear ran up in my spine and into my throat. I fought an urge to draw my crucifix out of my shirt and drive him from my office. Somehow throwing a client out using a holy item seemed less than professional. So I just stood there, waiting for him to move.
"Why won't you help us?"
"I have clients to meet, Willie. I'm sorry that I can't help you."
"Won't help, you mean."
I nodded. "Have it your way." I walked around the desk to show him to the door.
He moved with a liquid quickness that Willie had never had, but I saw him move and was one step back from his reaching hand. "I'm not just another pretty face to fall for mind tricks."
"You saw me move."
"I heard you move. You're the new dead, Willie. Vampire or not, you've got a lot to learn."
He was frowning at me, hand still half-extended towards me. "Maybe, but no human could a stepped outta reach like that." He stepped up close to me, plaid jacket nearly brushing against me. Pressed together like that, we were nearly the same height, short. His eyes were on a perfect level with mine. I stared as hard as I could at his shoulder.
It took everything I had not to step back from him. But dammit, undead or not, he was Willie McCoy. I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction.
He said, "You ain't human, any more than I am."
I moved to open the door. I hadn't stepped away from him. I had stepped away to open the door. I tried convincing the sweat along my spine that there was a difference. The cold feeling in my stomach wasn't fooled either.
"I really have to be going now. Thank you for thinking of Animators, Inc." I gave him my best professional smile, empty of meaning as a light bulb, but dazzling.
He paused in the open doorway. "Why won't you work for us? I gotta tell 'em something when I go back."
I wasn't sure, but there was something like fear in his voice. Would he get in trouble for failing? I felt sorry for him and knew it was stupid. He was the undead, for heaven's sake, but he stood looking at me, and he was still Willie, with his funny coats and small nervous hands.
"Tell them, whoever they are, that I don't work for vampires."
"A firm rule?" Again he made it sound like a question.
There was a flash of something on his face, the old Willie peeking through. It was almost pity. "I wish you hadn't said that, Anita. These people don't like anybody telling 'em no."
"I think you've overstayed your welcome. I don't like to be threatened."
"It ain't a threat, Anita. It's the truth." He straightened his tie, fondling the new gold tie tack, squared his thin shoulders and walked out.
I closed the door behind him and leaned against it. My knees felt weak. But there wasn't time for me to sit here and shake. Mrs. Grundick was probably already at the cemetery. She would be standing there with her little black purse and her grown sons, waiting for me to raise her husband from the dead. There was a mystery of two very different wills. It was either years of court costs and arguments, or raise Albert Grundick from the dead and ask.
Everything I needed was in my car, even the chickens. I drew the silver crucifix free of my blouse and let it hang in full view. I have several guns, and I know how to use them. I keep a 9 mm Browning Hi-Power in my desk. The gun weighed a little over two pounds, silver-plated bullets and all. Silver won't kill a vampire, but it can discourage them. It forces them to have to heal the wounds, almost human slow. I wiped my sweaty palms on my skirt and went out.
Craig our night secretary, was typing furiously at the computer keyboard. His eyes widened as I walked over the thick carpeting. Maybe it was the cross swinging on its long chain. Maybe it was the shoulder rig tight across my back, and the gun out in plain sight. He didn't mention either. Smart man.
I put my nice little corduroy jacket over it all. The jacket didn't lie flat over the gun, but that was okay. I doubted the Grundicks and their lawyers would notice.
I had gotten to see the sun rise as I drove home that morning. I hate sunrises. They mean I've overscheduled myself and worked all bloody night. St. Louis has more trees edging its highways than any other city I have driven through. I could almost admit the trees looked nice in the first light of dawn, almost. My apartment always looks depressingly white and cheerful in morning sunlight. The walls are the same vanilla ice cream white as every apartment I've ever seen. The carpeting is a nice shade of grey, preferable to that dog poop brown that is more common.
The apartment is a roomy one-bedroom. I am told it has a nice view of the park next door. You couldn't prove it by me. If I had my choice, there would be no windows. I get by with heavy drapes that turn the brightest day to cool twilight.
I switched the radio on low to drown the small noises of my day-living neighbors. Sleep sucked me under to the soft music of Chopin. A minute later the phone rang.
I lay there for a minute, cursing myself for forgetting to turn on the answering machine. Maybe if I ignored it? Five rings later I gave in. "Hello."
"Oh, I'm sorry. Did I wake you?"
It was a woman I didn't know. If it was a salesperson I was going to become violent. "Who is this?" I blinked at the bedside clock. It was eight. I'd had nearly two hours of sleep. Yippee.
"I'm Monica Vespucci." She said it like it should explain everything. It didn't.
"Yes." I tried to sound helpful, encouraging. I think it came out as a growl.
"Oh, my, uh. I'm the Monica that works with Catherine Maison."
I huddled around the receiver and tried to think. I don't think really well on two hours of sleep. Catherine was a good friend, a name I knew. She had probably mentioned this woman to me, but for the life of me, I couldn't place her. "Sure, Monica, yes. What do you want?" It sounded rude, even to me. "I'm sorry if I don't sound too good. I got off work at six."
"My god, you mean you've only had two hours of sleep. Do you want to shoot me, or what?"
I didn't answer the question. I'm not that rude. "Did you want something, Monica?"
"Sure, yes. I'm throwing a surprise bachelorette party for Catherine. You know she gets married next month."
I nodded, remembered she couldn't see me, and mumbled, "I'm in the wedding."
"Oh, sure, I knew that. Pretty dresses for the bridesmaids, don't you think?"
Actually, the last thing I wanted to spend a hundred and twenty dollars on was a long pink formal with puffy sleeves, but it was Catherine's wedding. "What about the bachelorette party?"
"Oh. I'm rambling, aren't I? And you just desperate for sleep."
I wondered if screaming at her would make her go away any her. Naw, she'd probably cry. "What do you want, please, Monica?"
"Well, I know it's short notice, but everything just sort of slipped up on me. I meant to call you a week ago, but I just never got around to it."
This I believed. "Go on."
"The bachelorette party is tonight. Catherine says you don't drink, so I was wondering if you could be designated driver."
I just lay there for a minute, wondering how mad to get, and if it would do me any good. Maybe if I'd been more awake, I wouldn't have said what I was thinking. "Don't you think this is awfully short notice, since you want me to drive?"
"I know. I'm so sorry. I'm just so scattered lately. Catherine gold me you usually have either Friday or Saturday night off. Is Friday not your night off this week?"
As a matter of fact it was, but I didn't really want to give up my only night off to this airhead on the other end of the phone. "I do have the night off."
"Great! I'll give you directions, and you can pick us up after work. Is that okay?"
It wasn't, but what else could I say. "That's fine."
"Pencil and paper?"
"You said you worked with Catherine, right?" I was actually beginning to remember Monica.
"I know where Catherine works. I don't need directions."
"Oh, how silly of me, of course. Then we'll see you about five. Dress up, but no heels. We may be dancing tonight."
I hate to dance. "Sure, see you then."
"See you tonight."
The phone went dead in my ear. I turned on the answering machine and cuddled back under the sheets. Monica worked with Catherine, that made her a lawyer. That was a frightening thought. Maybe she was one of those people who was only organized at work. Naw.
It occurred to me then, when it was too late, that I could just have refused the invitation. Damn. I was quick today. Oh, well, how bad could it be? Watching strangers get blitzed out of their minds. If I was lucky, maybe someone would throw up in my car.
I had the strangest dreams once I got back to sleep. All about this woman I didn't know, a coconut cream pie, and Willie McCoy's funeral.
Monica Vespucci was wearing a button that said, "Vampires are People, too." It was not a promising beginning to the evening. Her white blouse was silk with a high, flared collar framing a dark, health-club tan. Her hair was short and expertly cut; her makeup perfect.
The button should have tipped me off to what kind of bachelorette party she'd planned. Some days I'm just slow to catch on.
I was wearing black jeans, knee-high boots, and a crimson blouse. My hair was made to order for the outfit, black curling just over the shoulders of the red blouse. The solid, nearly black-brown of my eyes matches the hair. Only the skin stands out, too pale, Germanic against the Latin darkness. A very ex-boyfriend once described me as a little china doll. He meant it as a compliment. I didn't take it that way. There are reasons why I don't date much.
The blouse was long-sleeved to hide the knife sheath on my right wrist and the scars on my left arm. I had left my gun locked in the trunk of my car. I didn't think the bachelorette party would get that out of hand.
"I'm so sorry that I put off planning this to the last minute, Catherine. That's why there's only three of us. Everybody else had plans," Monica said.
"Imagine that, people having plans for Friday night," I said.
Monica stared at me as if trying to decide whether I was joking or not.
Catherine gave me a warning glare. I gave them both my best angelic smile. Monica smiled back. Catherine wasn't fooled.
Monica began dancing down the sidewalk, happy as a drunken clam. She had had only two drinks with dinner. It was a bad sign.
"Be nice," Catherine whispered.
"What did I say?"
"Anita." Her voice sounded like my father's used to sound when I'd stayed out too late.
I sighed. "You're just no fun tonight."
"I plan to be a lot of fun tonight." She stretched her arms skyward. She still wore the crumpled remains of her business suit. The wind blew her long, copper-colored hair. I've never been able to decide if Catherine would be prettier if she cut her hair, so you'd notice the face first, or if the hair was what made her pretty.
"If I have to give up one of my few free nights, then I am going to enjoy myself - immensely," she said.
There was a kind of fierceness to the last word. I stared up at her. "You are not planning to get falling-down drunk, are you?"
"Maybe." She looked smug.
Catherine knew I didn't approve of, or rather, didn't understand drinking. I didn't like having my inhibitions lowered. If I was going to cut loose, I wanted to be in control of just how loose I got.
We had left my car in a parking lot two blocks back. The one with the wrought-iron fence around it. There wasn't much parking down by the river. The narrow brick roads and ancient sidewalks had been designed for horses, not automobiles. The streets had been fresh-washed by a summer thunderstorm that had come and gone while we ate dinner. The first stars glittered overhead, like diamonds trapped in velvet.
Monica yelled, "Hurry up, slowpokes."
Catherine looked at me and grinned. The next thing I knew, she was running towards Monica.
"Oh, for heaven's sake," I muttered. Maybe if I'd had drinks with dinner, I'd have run, too, but I doubted it.
"Don't be an old stick in the mud," Catherine called back.
Stick in the mud? I caught up to them walking. Monica was giggling. Somehow I had known she would be. Catherine and she were leaning against each other laughing. I suspected they might be laughing at me.
Monica calmed enough to fake an ominous stage whisper. "Do you know what lies around this corner?"
As a matter of fact, I did. The last vampire killing had been only four blocks from here. We were in what the vampires called "the District." Humans called it the Riverfront, or Blood Square, depending on if they were being rude or not.
"Guilty Pleasures," I said.
"Oh, pooh, you spoiled the surprise."
"What's Guilty Pleasures?" Catherine asked.
Monica giggled. "Oh, goodie, the surprise isn't spoiled after all." She put her arm through Catherine's. "You are going to love this, I promise you."
Maybe Catherine would; I knew I wouldn't, but I followed them around the corner anyway. The sign was a wonderful swirling neon the color of heart blood. The symbolism was not lost on me.
We went up three broad steps, and there was a vampire standing in front of the propped-open door. He had a black crew cut and small, pale eyes. His massive shoulders threatened to rip the tight black t-shirt he wore. Wasn't pumping iron redundant after you died?
Even standing on the threshold I could hear the busy hum of voices, laughter, music. That rich, murmurous sound of many people in a small space, determined to have a good time.
The vampire stood beside the door, very still. There was still a movement to him, an aliveness, for lack of a better term. He couldn't have been dead more than twenty years, if that. In the dark he looked almost human, even to me. He had fed already tonight. His skin was flushed and healthy. He looked damn near rosy-cheeked. A meal of fresh blood will do that to you.
Monica squeezed his arm. "Ooo, feel that muscle."
He grinned, flashing fangs. Catherine gasped. He grinned wider.
"Buzz here is an old friend, aren't you, Buzz?"
Buzz the vampire? Surely not.
But he nodded. "Go on in, Monica. Your table is waiting."
Table? What kind of clout did Monica have? Guilty Pleasures was one of the hottest clubs in the District, and they did not take reservations.
There was a large sign on the door. "No crosses, crucifixes, or other holy items allowed inside." I read the sign and walked past it. I had no intention of getting rid of my cross.
A rich, melodious voice floated around us. "Anita, how good of of you to come."
The voice belonged to Jean-Claude, club owner and master vampire. He looked like a vampire was supposed to look. Softly curling hair tangled with the high white lace of an antique shirt. Lace spilled over pale, long-fingered hands. The shirt hung open, giving a glimpse of lean bare chest framed by more frothy lace. Most men couldn't have worn a shirt like that. The vampire made it seem utterly masculine.
"You two know each other?" Monica sounded surprised.
"Oh, yes," Jean-Claude said. "Ms. Blake and I have met before."
"I've been helping the police work cases on the Riverfront."
"She is their vampire expert." He made the last word soft and warm and vaguely obscene.
Monica giggled. Catherine was staring at Jean-Claude, eyes wide and innocent. I touched her arm, and she jerked as if waking from a dream. I didn't bother to whisper because I knew he would have heard me anyway. "Important safety tip - never look a vampire in the eye."
She nodded. The first hint of fear showed in her face.
"I would never harm such a lovely young woman." He took Catherine's hand and raised it to his mouth. A mere brush of lips. Catherine blushed.
He kissed Monica's hand as well. He looked at me and laughed. "Do not worry, my little animator. I will not touch you. That would be cheating."
He moved to stand next to me. I stared fixedly at his chest. There was a burn scar almost hidden in the lace. The burn was in the shape of a cross. How many decades ago had someone shoved a cross into his flesh?
"Just as you having a cross would be an unfair advantage."
What could I say? In a way he was right.
It was a shame that it wasn't merely the shape of a cross that hurt a vampire. Jean-Claude would have been in deep shit. Unfortunately, the cross had to be blessed, and backed up by faith. An atheist waving a cross at a vampire was a truly pitiful sight.
He breathed my name like a whisper against my skin. "Anita, what are you thinking?"
The voice was so damn soothing. I wanted to look up and see what face went with such words. Jean-Claude had been intrigued by my partial immunity to him. That and the cross-shaped burn scar on my arm. He found the scar amusing. Every time we met, he did his best to bespell me, and I did my best to ignore him. I had won up until now.
"You never objected to me carrying a cross before."
"You were on police business then; now you are not."
I stared at his chest and wondered if the lace was as soft as it looked; probably not.
"Are you so insecure in your own powers, little animator? Do you believe that all your resistance to me resides in that piece of silver around your neck?"
I didn't believe that, but I knew it helped. Jean-Claude was a self-admitted two hundred and five years old. A vampire gains a lot of power in two centuries. He was suggesting I was a coward. I was not.
I reached up to unfasten the chain. He stepped away from me and turned his back. The cross spilled silver into my hands. A blonde human woman appeared beside me. She handed me a check stub and took the cross. Nice, a holy item check girl.
I felt suddenly underdressed without my cross. I slept and showered in it.
Jean-Claude stepped close again. "You will not resist the show tonight, Anita. Someone will enthrall you."
"No," I said. But it's hard to be tough when you're staring at someone's chest. You really need eye contact to play tough, but that was a no-no.
He laughed. The sound seemed to rub over my skin, like the brush of fur. Warm and feeling ever so slightly of death.
Monica grabbed my arm. "You're going to love this, I promise you."
"Yes," Jean-Claude said. "It will be a night you will never forget."
"Is that a threat?"
He laughed again, that warm awful sound. "This is a place of pleasure, Anita, not violence."
Monica was pulling at my arm. "Hurry, the entertainment's about to begin."
"Entertainment?" Catherine asked
I had to smile. "Welcome to the world's only vampire strip club, Catherine."
"You are joking."
"Scout's honor." I glanced back at the door; I don't know why. Jean-Claude stood utterly still, no sense of anything, as if he were not there at all. Then he moved, one pale hand raised to his lips. He blew me a kiss across the room. The night's entertainment had begun.