IMAGINE SHOVING A cattle prod up a rhino’s ass, shouting “April fool!”, and hoping the rhino thinks it’s funny. That’s about how much fun it is hunting a vampire.
Personally, I don’t have anything against shroud eaters. They’re just another kind of addict in a city of addicts. Since most of them started out as civilians, the percentage of decent vampires to complete bastards is about the same as regular people. Right now, though, I’m hunting one that’s trying for a Nobel Prize in getting completely up my ass. It isn’t fun work, but it pays the bills.
The vampire’s name is Eleanor Vance. In the Xeroxed passport photo Marshal Wells gave me, she looks like she’s about seventeen. Probably because she is. A pretty blond cheerleader type with big eyes and the kind of smile that got Troy burned to the ground. Bad news for me. Young vampires are all assholes. It’s part of their job description.
I love older vampires. A hundred and fifty, two hundred years old, they’re beautiful. The smart ones mostly stick to the El Hombre Invisible tricks that urban monsters have worked out over centuries. They only feed when they have to. When they’re not hunting, they’re boring, at least to outsiders. They come off like corporate middle management or the guy who runs the corner bodega. What I like best about old bloodsuckers is that when you’ve got one cornered and it knows it’s coffin fodder, they’re like noble cancer patients in TV movies. All they want is to die quietly and with a little dignity. Young vampires, not so much.
The young ones have all grown up watching Slayer videos, Scarface, Halloween, and about a million hours of Japanese anime. They all think they’re Tony Montana with a lightsaber in one hand and a chain saw in the other. Eleanor, tonight’s undead dream date, is a good example. She’s got a homemade flamethrower. I know because when she blasted me back at the parking garage, she fried one of my eyebrows and the left sleeve of my new leather jacket. Ten to one she found the plans on the Web. Why can’t vampires just download porn like normal jailbait?
It’s Sunday, about a quarter to six in the evening. We’re downtown. I follow her along South Hill Street toward Pershing Square. I’m about half a block behind her. Eleanor is wearing long sleeves and carrying an umbrella to keep the sun off. She strolls along happy, like she owns the air and everyone has to pay her royalties whenever they breathe. Only she’s not really relaxed. I can’t read a juicer’s heartbeat or breathing changes because they don’t have them. And she’s too far away to see if her eyes are dilated, but she keeps moving her head. Microscopic twitches left and right. She’s trying to look around without looking around. Hoping to catch my shadow or reflection. Eleanor knows she didn’t kill me back at the garage. Eleanor’s a smart girl. I hate smart dead girls.
At the corner of Third Street, Eleanor shoulder-butts an old lady and what’s probably her grandkid into the street, in front of a flatbed truck carrying a backhoe. The driver slams on the brakes. The old lady is on the ground. Cue the screaming and squealing tires. Cue the sheep who stand around pointing and the Captain Americas who run to help. They pull the old lady and the kid back onto the sidewalk, which is great for them, but it doesn’t do anything for me. Eleanor is gone.
But it’s not hard to find her. Fifty people must have seen her pull the stunt and half of them point as she sprints down Third before cutting right onto Broadway. I take off after her. I’m fast, a hell of a lot faster than the flat-footed civilians trying to chase her down, but I’m not quite as fast as a vampire. Especially one who’s lost her umbrella and wants to get out of the sun before she turns into chicken-fried steak.
She’s gone when I hit Broadway. This part of town isn’t that crowded on Sundays. I have a clear view in both directions. No perky blondes running down the street in flames. It’s mostly stores and office buildings down here, but all the offices and most of the stores are closed. There are a few open doors in the small shops, but Eleanor is too smart to get cornered in one of those little cracker boxes. There’s only one place a smart girl would go.
God said, “Let there be Light, and cheap take-out Chinese,” and the Grand Central Market appeared. The place has been on South Broadway since before the continents divided. Some of the meat they use in the burritos and Szechuan beef is even older. I think I once saw Fred Flintstone’s teeth marks on some barbecued ribs.
Inside, I’m facing down tacos and pizza. There’s a liquor store to my left and ice cream against the far wall. Every spice known to man is mixed with the smell of sweat and cooking meat. Not too much of a crowd at this time of day. Some of the shops and kiosks are already counting up receipts. I don’t see Eleanor down the central walkway or either of the side ones. I start down the middle of the place, cut to the right, and walk by a fish stand. I’m reaching out. Listening, smelling, feeling the movement of the air, trying to pick up any tiny vibrations in the aether. I’m getting better at this kind of hunting. Ambush predator stuff as opposed to my old Tyrannosaurus-with-a-hard-on moves that don’t go down quite as well in the streets of L.A. as they did in the arena.
Subtle hunting, acting like a grown-up, I really miss Hell sometimes.
A tourist dad asks me how they can get back on the freeway to Hollywood from here. I ignore him and he mumbles something about his taxes and how come we don’t have more cops to clear out these drug addicts.
Six months after the New Year’s bash at Avila and I’m still not used to this place, these people. In a lot of ways civilians are worse than Hellions because at least Hellions know they’re miserable sacks of slaughterhouse shit. More and more, I want one of these mortal types to have to face down a vampire, a Jade, or a bat-shit demon elemental. Not a ghost glimpse in the dark, but having to stare straight into a beast’s red meat-grinder eyes hungry for the souls of the terminally clueless.
Be careful what you wish for.
A long orange jet of fire rains from overhead and there’s Eleanor, standing on top of the glass-and-chrome cases at a spice kiosk. The business end of the flamethrower is a little thing, no bigger than a .45 semiauto. A tube runs from the pistol to an Astro Boy backpack, where the gas and propellant are stored.
Eleanor moves her arm in a wide arc, torching produce, signs, and the backs of a few slack-jawed market workers. She’s smiling down at us. Annie Oakley and Charlie Manson’s demon baby, jacked up on that sweet and special prekill adrenaline.
Then she’s down and running with a small bubbling laugh like a naughty six-year-old. I take off after her, running deeper into the market. She’s small and fast and a second later she cuts left, down the far aisle, and doubles back toward Broadway.
I can’t catch her or cut her off, but there’s an empty utility cart by a produce stand. I give it a kick and send it through the empty dining area. Tables and chairs go flying. The cart slams into her legs at the end of the aisle, knocking her through the counter of Grand Central Liquor. Suddenly it’s raining glass and Patrón Silver. Right on cue, people start screaming.
Eleanor is back on her feet a second before I can grab her. She’s not smiling anymore. Her left arm is bent at a funny angle and a chunk of bone the size of a turkey drumstick is sticking out just below her elbow. She has the flamethrower up, but I’m moving flat out. No way I can stop. Instead, I go faster. She pulls the trigger and I’m drowning in fire.
I hit her a millisecond later. I can’t see anything, but I know it’s her because she’s the only thing in the store light enough to fly like that. My vision clears, but even I don’t want to see this. When she pulled the trigger to hose me down, all the liquor on her clothes and the floor went up. Eleanor is an epileptic shadow puppet pirouetting around in a lake of whiskey fire.
Vampires don’t scream like regular humans. I don’t know how they scream at all without lungs, but when they let loose, it’s like a runaway train meets the screech of a million fighting cats. You feel it in your kidneys and bones. Tourists pee and puke at the sound. Fuck ’em. Eleanor still isn’t going down. And the fire is starting to spread. Grease on the grills of nearby food stalls starts going up. A propane tank blows, setting off the sprinkler system. When I look back, Eleanor is sprinting out of the market back onto Broadway, still covered in flames.
Chasing a burning girl down a city street is a lot harder than it sounds. Civilians tend to stop and stare and this turns them into human bowling pins. Slow, whiny bowling pins. You’d think that on some basic animal level they’d want to get the hell out of the way of a burning schoolgirl screaming loud enough to crack store windows and the stupid son of a bitch chasing her. Not that I’m doing this for them. I’m doing it for the money, but they still stand to benefit from it.
When Eleanor runs across Fifth Street she isn’t burning anymore. She’s a black beef-jerky Barbie doll running on charred stick insect legs.
Up ahead, there’s an abandoned wreck of a movie theater called the Roxie. The lobby and marquee areas have been converted into an open-air market. Eleanor blows past the racks of knockoff T-shirts and toxic rubber sandals. Slams straight through the inch-thick plywood screwed over the theater doors where the glass used to be. I follow her inside, but hang back by the smashed door, letting my eyes adjust to the dark.
The na’at would be a smart weapon in a place like this, but I feel like shooting something. Besides, Eleanor won’t know what a na’at is, so it won’t scare her the way I want. I retired Wild Bill’s Navy Colt pistol a while back and replaced it with a Smith & Wesson .460 hunting pistol. The thing is so big and mean it doesn’t even need bullets. I could beat Godzilla to death with it if I stood on a chair. The gun is loaded alternately with massive .460 rounds and shortened .410 shotgun shells, all coated in my special Spiritus Dei, silver, garlic, holy water, and red mercury dipping sauce. It only holds five shots, but it does its job well enough that I’ve never had to reload.
When you’re going in someplace blind, don’t know the layout or what’s waiting inside, a place you know a Lurker likes to hang out, a smart guy will hang back, circle the perimeter, and look for traps and weak points. I’m hot, annoyed, and in a rush, so that’s exactly what I don’t do. Besides, I’m just chasing one dumb little Kentucky fried blonde. She can’t be much trouble now that she’s cornered. Yeah. That’s probably what all those G-men said about Bonnie Parker before they saw the tommy gun.
Inside the theater, it’s a sauna. Burst water pipes in a sealed-up building. I haven’t moved and I’m sweating like a lawyer at the pearly gates. It smells like they invented mildew in here. How the hell did suburban Valley girl Eleanor end up day-squatting here? She didn’t run into the theater by accident. She knew where she was going. By the sound of all the broken beer and wine bottles under my feet, so do a lot of other people. Make that “did,” past tense. The winos are probably what attracted her to the place. Who doesn’t love a free lunch? I have a feeling that there aren’t too many random squatters in here anymore.
Turns out I’m half right.
The squatters aren’t random. They’re vampires. Friends of hers. A guy and a girl.
They jump from the balcony and the guy slams a piece of two-by-four between my shoulders. I go down on my knees in the crunchy glass, but I roll with the blow and come up with the .460 cocked. That’s when Eleanor’s other friends hit me. Two more guys from beneath the seats on either side of the aisle. I grab the smaller one by the throat and toss him into the second. The girl vampire pair hits me from behind and jams a broken bottle into my arm. I drop the gun and it’s too dark to see where it went. I throw an elbow back and feel the side of the girl’s skull crack. She jumps up like a gazelle and stumbles over two rows of seats, screaming. That gives me a second to sprint down the aisle toward the screen and put some distance between Eleanor’s dead friends and me.
That’s where Eleanor has been waiting. Not only is she smart, but she has titanium balls. Even when she was on fire and running through the boarded-up front doors, she never let go of the flamethrower. The other bloodsuckers fall back as she opens up.
The shot back at the market was her just introducing herself. This one is a “fuck you very much and good night” just for me. Eleanor pulls the trigger and doesn’t let up until the gun is empty.
Stabbed and cold-cocked, I’m still not dumb enough to just stand there. I dive to the right, behind a row of seats. Fire wraps around them like it’s reaching for me. I’m getting burned from above and below, steaming like a pork bun in my leather jacket. Even when the flamethrower is empty, the burning seats keep right on cooking me, and the two-by-four shot left me too dizzy to move very fast. I stagger over to the wall and try to run up the aisle, but I’m tripping on the garbage snowdrifts and land face-first in candy wrappers, needles, and malt liquor bottles.
I’ve turned into Buster Keaton and Eleanor and her friends are getting a real kick out of me gimping along on all fours. She’s burned beyond any human recognition, but she’s a juicer and they get over pain pretty quick. I do, too, but I’m not there yet. Not even in the same time zone. I give up and lie down on the sticky-sweet carpet to do what I should have done in the first place.
I press my right hand down into the broken glass and put my weight on it. The jagged bottle shards slice deep into my palm and I keep pushing until I feel glass hit bone. Most hexes don’t need blood to work, but a little of the red stuff is like a nitrous afterburner when you want a hex to come on hard and fast.
Eleanor takes the two-by-four from the boy bloodsucker and thumps it on each seat as she strolls over to me.