Detective Charlie Vimont shook his head. “Takes a special kind of twisted mind wants to turn himself into the undead,” he said.
Cricket songs filled the night air. Frogs croaked from the pond in the center of the little park. Under less tragic circumstances Detective Travis Hade would have considered it a relaxing environment. He took off his coat and knelt beside the woman. He removed the foreign objects, laid her on the ground, and draped the coat over her. Detective Coleson had already been sent to fetch the undertaker. Storm clouds rolled over the stars. A light drizzle fell, signaling the tightening grip of spring. Droplets of the victim’s blood mingled with the fresh water- a useless trail showing where she had been snatched from but offering no clues to her attacker’s present location.
They set off to search the streets which connected rows of upscale homes to the park.
“Vampires,” grumbled Vimont.
Travis adjusted his glasses. He scanned the shadows for movement. Nothing.
Vimont pointed his thumb at a candlelit window on the second story of a house surrounded by a dainty white painted fence. “You suppose the chief only put us out here in case one of the fancies happens to look out the window?” he said.
It occurred to Travis that he was more likely to spot the vampire before it found him if he had a quieter partner. “Sure,” he said, hoping Vimont wouldn’t feel the need to work himself up into another of his rants on wasted manpower.
“Of course he did,” said Vimont. “Why wait until the expert gets here to handle it? The moment a vampire shows up all other criminals take off on vacation. Everyone knows that!”
The rain picked up. Travis strained his ears and squinted at shadows. Nothing.
By the time Travis tromped home the first hints of pink were peeking between the clouds. The house he and his wife Ellie lived in was perhaps almost half the size of the houses in the neighborhood he had spent all night searching. For the couple there were no neighborhood parks, massive backyard gardens, or second story balconies from which to view the city.
There were also no vampire attacks. The killer selected all his victims from wealthy neighborhoods, like a gourmet returning to the finest restaurant in town.
Travis crept in the bedroom and changed into dry clothes without waking up Ellie.
There was a bowl of cold chicken soup on the table. A crust of congealed fat coated it like ice on a winter pond. Travis broke through it with his spoon in search of something more appetizing under the surface.
An urgent scratching sounded at the kitchen window.
Inspiration flashed across Travis’ mind. Perhaps the best way to eliminate an unusual threat was with an even stranger solution. He fished out two pieces of chicken and went to open the window.
Yerv the desert ghoul leapt onto the windowsill and perched like a soggy bird. He shook himself. His ears flapped against his head and droplets of water flew across the kitchen. He bowed his head at Travis. “I thought you would never return to enjoy the lovely smelling food your mate left for you,” he said.
Travis tossed him a chunk of chicken. “My hours have been extended until further notice,” he said. “Where is Zai? Is she all right?”
He met the couple a few months ago when they came to the Nonhuman Complaints Department for assistance in settling a dispute with a neighbor. Convinced he was the only friendly human in town, they usually popped up every week or two to see if he was overwhelmed with any food they could take care of for him. He had made it a personal project to try to coax as much information as possible from them on the secretive workings of Mountark City.
Yerv pulled a purse from a pocket in his rags. The straps had broken off. It had a floral pattern, perhaps at one time pink and white, now more dirt brown and slightly lighter dirt brown. He dropped the chicken into it. “She is doing very well Mr. Travis,” he said, smiling. “A thousand blessings to you for asking. Her belly has gotten so large, she can barely squeeze through the tunnel. I said to her, ‘No more leaving the den until you can outrun those werewolves again,’ and so she stays. She needs much food now. I am giving her all the food I find.”
Travis tossed him the other piece of chicken. “Congratulations,” he said. “That’s something really special, starting a family. Ellie and me, we… well, you know how it is.”
Yerv stashed the other piece of chicken in his purse. He lowered his eyes and folded his ears against his head. “You are good humans,” he said. “Someday The Shaper is sure to see the balance you bring into the world and reward you.”
According to ghoul mythology The Shaper made the world from the carcass of a great lion. He created The People to organize scavenging animals to clean the bones so they could be used for building material. Travis wasn’t sure he wanted to know what reward he could expect from such a deity. “Thanks,” he said.
He sat at the table again and poked at his soup. It jiggled. From the corner of his eye he saw Yerv lean forward, nose twitching like mad. He tapped the bowl. “You want a few more pieces?” he said.
Yerv held the purse out. “Not for me,” he said. “For Zai.” His ears drooped and his eyes grew large and wet. “She is very fond of chicken.”
Travis quickly looked away. If he stared into those eyes any longer he might be compelled to send the poor creature home with the entire contents of his pantry. He picked up his bowl and tilted it over the eager receptacle. The soup fell into the purse with a wet splooorp.
Yerv beamed. “May a thousand blessings return your generosity!” he said.
“Actually,” Travis said, “I have an idea about how you could make one of those blessings come true. And not just for me, for the whole city, your people and mine.”
Yerv tilted his head. “How is that possible,” he said.
“Are you aware of our current vampire problem?”
“What is a vampire?”
“They’re powerful sorcerers who put a curse on themselves to cheat death. When they die their body comes back to life at night and sustains itself by drinking blood. We found the first victim two weeks ago. There’s a professional over in Cupicia who knows how to hunt them, but the roads are always bad this time of year. No telling when the messenger will be back with him.”
Yerv licked his nose and flattened his ears. “We know of the hunting corpse,” he said. “We rarely cross its trail, but when we find it we go the other way.”
Travis nodded. “You can smell it?” he said.
“Oh yes, like dry meat and lion sweat,” Yerv said. He cocked his head. “You cannot?”
“No,” Travis said. “We’ve been searching for days, and he just keeps slipping by and killing more people. Could you help us stop him? It would be a great chance to show the people that you can contribute to the community. If we can get enough people on your side they may let me change the laws to offer you more protection.”
Yerv lowered his eyes and picked at a flake of paint with his claw. “That is… not how we do things,” he said. “The world is full of predators. It is not wise to fight them. You must learn to give them their space and take yours where you can.”
“I’ll give you more food. Everything you need for you and Zai and the baby.”
Yerv’s ears pricked a bit, but he did not lift his eyes. “I cannot do it,” he said. “It is too dangerous. I am all Zai has.”
Travis grinned. “There’s no danger,” he said. “He may be a hell of a bully, but he’s got a huge weakness. He’s defenseless during the day. Every day we’re out there tearing the city apart looking for his hiding spot. All you have to do is lead us to him and we’ll take care of the rest.”
Yerv lifted his head and raised his ears. “How do you kill it?” he said.
“It’s pretty simple. All you have to do is make sure he doesn’t have a functional body to reanimate when night falls. We’ll take him someplace where the smell won’t bother anybody and burn him.”
Yerv lowered his eyes, tapped one hand on the windowsill, and nibbled a claw. He was silent for a few minutes. Finally he met Travis’ eyes again and smiled. “I understand,” he said. “We will take care of this. When I bring you proof you will give me chickens for Zai?”
“Well, yes, but first we have to-”
Yerv leapt from the window, landed on all fours, and vanished into the dawn.
“-plan where we want to meet and start looking together. Or not.”
Vlashi the Undying was delighted with his new stomping grounds. Mountark was a city of contradictions. The women, the buildings, the parks- so beautiful. Conversely, it had the most hideous population of stray dogs he had ever seen. They appeared to be partly bald, and yet also covered in matted fur which resembled dirty rags. They popped up here and there, in the distance. Watching. Staring at him with large glowing eyes. He sneered and waved his bony hands at them when he couldn’t bear it any longer.
Yerv was impressed with the hunting corpse’s choice of den. It was no wonder the humans never found it. The hole under the enormous human den was no larger than the width of a human’s head. Spring grass grew alongside the den wall, offering further camouflage. The dirt was moist and crumbly. His claws raked through it like sand.
Three others crowded around the hole, clawing at the earth and occasionally each other. Several more waited beyond the spray-back zone, ears pricked and nostrils quivering. Someone’s claws scraped against a shoe.
Yerv had avoided the addictive lure of graveyards and the dangers they offered, so he was unprepared for the frenzy that ensued. There was something about human meat that could make an otherwise cautious ghoul begin to act a little stupid. Scraps of cloth were tossed into the early morning breeze. A shoe hit him between the eyes. He tried to push his way in and someone snapped at him. He licked his nose and tasted blood. He decided he wasn’t in the mood to accept that.
He screeched his frustration at an older ghoul and battered him aside with his shoulder. Someone else tried to move into the free spot and Yerv punched him square in the soft tip of his muzzle. The intruder let out an ear-piercing yelp. He dove in before it was too late.
The meat was dry, chewy, and more delicious than anything he had ever tasted. He wished Zai could be here to enjoy this with him. He fought his temptation to eat everything he pulled away so that something would make it back to her.
A brittle scream pricked ears and turned heads. No one had noticed the old woman come around the corner from the front of the house. She was dressed in a lacy white nightgown and held a little rusty gun in her shaky hands. She aimed it at the hungry hoard and made strange little human noises.
A female next to Yerv had just broken away with her hard-won prize of a skeletonized arm. She and the human locked eyes. She trembled and the limb plopped from her jaw onto the lawn. The old woman fainted.
“Is it dead?” a young male asked.
Yerv pried an arm bone loose and approached slowly. He poked the woman’s chest with it. She made a tiny moan. He frowned. “No,” he said.
He turned his back on her and assessed the scene. Not much remained of the feast. An old male lay on his belly a few paces from the pile of greasy bones, gnawing on the last thing he needed to collect before he left. Yerv straightened to full height, flattened his ears against his skull, and strode toward him. The elder slunk away without any resistance.
It was over in a few minutes. Vlashi the Undying was carried to his final resting place in holes all over Mountark City.
Charlie drew his gun and aimed at the pair of elliptical glowing eyes which emerged from the shadows. He cursed under his breath. The department was too cheap to issue silver bullets outside of emergency situations. You could kill a werewolf without them, but keeping yourself intact through such an encounter was another story.
Hade grabbed his wrist with surprising force for someone who looked like he never should have set foot on the other side of a desk. “What are you doing?” he shouted.
Charlie tried to wrestle his arm free. “Get off me!” he growled. “Do you want that wag to think we came here to offer ourselves up for supper?”
“It’s not a werewolf,” Hade said. His voice slowed to a tone that sounded suspiciously like the one Charlie remembered using on his half-deaf grandfather. “Werewolves have round pupils. Also, you don’t usually have to point down to aim at them.”
Charlie lowered his gun, but kept a suspicious eye on his partner.
Hade approached the eyes and crouched before the creature. “Sorry about that,” he said. “You don’t have to help right now. I told you we needed to do it in the daytime, remember?”
There was a rustling sound, but it was too dark for Charlie to make out what was happening.
Hade drew in a sharp breath. “Ohh… kaay,” he said. “Thank you. Thank you very much. I… guess that’s it then.”
The eyes vanished.
Hade returned with something grasped in both hands. The dull, sticky surface of a human skull reflected the distant light of a streetlamp. It had fangs, elongated like a werewolf’s but with a strangely flattened shape. Hade’s face bore a triumphant grimace. “Guess who we get to stop looking for?” he said.