Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Tooth and Claw: Three Pair of Eyes, part two

Prologue, Three Pair of Eyes, part one

Friday, July 6th, 2012

                Jim Reynolds sits at his table, morosely pulling at his beer.  It wasn’t… fair?  No, fair isn’t the right word.  Life isn’t fair.  Just?  Nahh, same thing.
                It didn’t make any goddamned sense, fairness and justice be damned.
                He and his fellow Hunters had just started to get a solid trail on this bloodsucker, Cochran.  He’s moving in on a high-schooler, which was depraved even by bloodsucker standards.  They tended to avoid anyone under the quarter-century mark, probably (Jim supposed) because missing minors tend to be a lot more noticeable in the media than full-fledged adults.  Then, on an odd Tuesday, they both fall off the face of the map.  What, did they fuckin’ elope or something?
                He had seen straights get turned before.  Night owls, shut-ins, overnight workers – pickings were easy in Las Vegas, the party never stops and normal people tend not to notice when their mostly-nocturnal friend becomes entirely nocturnal.  Friends are understanding like that.  Loners tend to be missed even less.  Whenever Reynolds and his crew managed to bring down one of those pests, it seemed that three more would spring up in its place.  Hopefully there were other Hunters in the area “raising the stakes,” so to speak.  But if there were, they sure weren’t part of Jim’s Poker club.
                It was pretty rare in Jim’s experience for a vampire to turn a mortal and then just disappear, though.  “Rare,” as in, “never happened once.”  Vampires were territorial to a fault, and while Jim had heard stories of them being driven out by rival clans, that sort of thing only happened out in the sticks.
                Then there was the faked death.  While it wrapped up the girl’s disappearance into a neat little package, the deception was more than obvious to an experienced Hunter like him:  the body wasn’t exsanguinated, the time of death was in the wee hours rather than the early night, and the cause of death was pretty clearly exhaustion rather than anything more immediate.  While mortals could die like that any day of the week, it didn’t make sense for a bloodsucker to go to such lengths to make a kill – there was clearly something else going on.
                So he and Evan had investigated further.  They managed to get a DNA sample out of their visit to the Swains, and unsurprisingly, it didn’t match what Ken had managed to lift from the crime lab.  Then the mother had to go and make the call to DHS, ruining any realistic chance of a follow-up.  That, at least, was somewhat to be expected – Jerry and Keira were an ex-military couple who had gone out of service to start a family, and so it was an inherent risk that Jim and Evan’s act would be found out at some point.  But now the family was closed off as a route to further investigation, and Jim could damn well forget about any attempt at recruiting them.  That bridge was well burned.
                Still, things just weren’t adding up.  It was enough to drive a man to drink.  And so here Jim sat at his favorite haunt, nursing his third or fourth beer and making circles in his head.  Going around in circles wasn’t so bad, he had learned, as long as you noticed a thing or two for making the trip.  He and his crew had cracked more than a few cases by sitting around and shooting the shit until one detail clicked into another and gave them a new lead.
                So what’s the detail, Jim thinks.  Where’s the new lead point to?  He raises his glass to his mouth…
                …and sees his ring:  red.
                Jim’s ring was a fine piece.  It looked for all the world like a mood ring, black at most times with the occasional flash of color.  It was filled with stripes of varying chemicals that reacted sympathetically to the presence of supernatural critters:  tiger’s eye for werewolves, streaked turquoise for mages, fire opal for changelings… and blood agate for vampires.  He sips slowly at his beer, watching as the steady red does not flicker for several seconds.  He lowers his glass and sets his drinking hand down on the table, stroking his chin with his other hand as he casually eyes the jewel.
                A full minute passes.  They’re not just passing through.  They’re here in the building with him.
                Jim leans back in his chair and stretches his arms lazily, taking in the scene with a practiced indifference on his face.  Drinkers at the bar, loose and bubbly.  A group of guys telling stories, presumably winding down after a week of whatever the Hell they do.  A couple out on a date – maybe.  Maybe.  He watches the man, gauges his posture:  open, not predatory in any way.  The woman?  No, she’s just making small talk.  Two women in the corner – wait.
                The white one is clearly a teenager, the black one maybe in her thirties.  Possibly coworkers.  But there’s something vaguely familiar about – no, not vaguely familiar, the white girl’s face just looks vague.  Like it’s hard to make out her features with any clarity.  Jim looks sidelong at the bar, tries to see the teen out of the corner of his eye.  There it is.
                Holy shit.  That’s the Swain girl.
                He risks a closer look:  the black woman has an ashen cast to her, not like she’s got dry skin, but like she hasn’t seen the Sun in days.  Jim looks lazily to his right.  He’s got a few in him, to be sure – but this is his new lead.  This is that odd chance that comes up in every case, and he’s got to make good on it somehow.  Good thing he’s got backup.
                Jim pulls out his smartphone and opens his Facebook app.  He posts a message to the Gravediggers Poker Club:  “Not sure if bluffing or clueless:  pair of hearts loses to a spade flush, right?”  He sets the device to vibrate and leaves it on the table in front of him.  A server brings a pair of burgers to the women.  True to form, the vampire noob makes funny faces at her food at first.  A buzz interrupts his surveillance.
                Ken Wu replied:  “Damn skippy.”
                Jim “Likes” the comment.  Seconds later, Stacy MacIntyre replies:  “Tonight as well as any other night.”  Jim sets his phone down and takes another small sip of beer.  Another push notification sets his phone a-buzzing:  Don Harper has “Liked” Jim’s post.
                Jim finishes his beer slowly over the course of the bloodsuckers’ meal, and orders another one out of courtesy when his server stops by.  Where the fuck is Evan?  Whatever.  Two-to-one odds is still good in Jim’s book.  The women stand to leave after paying their server, and Jim makes a point of busying himself with his smartphone as they pass.
                He posts again to the Poker club page after turning on his GPS function:  “Well, rules is rules.  Hand’s over, time to ante up.  (At PT’s Pub, Las Vegas, NV.)”
                “Little blind,” Stacy replies.
                “Big blind,” Don replies.
                “Call,” Ken replies.
                Still no word from Evan.  Jim makes a five-count after the bloodsuckers leave, then lays a pair of twenties on his table and walks out while sending a text message to Don:  “I think I left my nine-iron in the garage.  Could you grab it before our tee time?”
                The reply comes seconds later:  “Sure thing, man.”
                Jim turns left, heading East down Sahara.  After a few seconds, his ring begins fading to black – he turns around and double-times it to the end of the block.  Bright red again.  Jim’s phone buzzes in his pocket:  a text from Evan reads, “Shit, I was changing my oil.  On my way, man.”  Maybe they’ll makethat flush after all.
                The vampires wind their way through the streets, leaving suburbia and heading through the business district.  Jim hears the squeal of metal on metal as he turns into an alley between a grimy warehouse and a sterilized office building.  Rounding the corner, he sees a fire escape well out of his reach – looking back and forth, there’s no other access to the higher floors of the other buildings.  He glances at the rooftops, and a smile spreads slowly across his face:  the building is only four floors high, well below the neighboring buildings.  The bloodsuckers are trapped like mosquitoes in a net.  He texts Don his location with the accompanying code to pass it on to the others, then paces back and forth along the alleyway, listening to the steady reassuring whoosh of traffic along the street.
                After a few minutes, three of his fellow Hunters join him in the back alley.  Don hands a 9mm pistol to Jim without a word, and Jim jerks his thumb up at the roof.
                “We’ve got ‘em cornered,” he whispers.  “They went up the fire escape, and there’s no way to the other rooftops.”
                “Locked and alarmed?”  Stacy fishes a small leather-bound set of picks and an electronic device from her purse as she speaks.
                “Yeah,” Jim replies, “Unless they got careless.”
                “No problem.”  She looks at the keypad to the right of the door, finds a jack, and fishes out the appropriate cable.  “We’ll be inside in no time.”  Don and Jim grunt their assent; Ken stands silently aside and draws his pistol.  Stacy pushes a few buttons on her PalmPilot, and after a few beeps, the alarm deactivates.  She puts a turning tool into the deadbolt and sets about raking the pins – the bolt slides back within seconds.  “Probably mastered,” she whispers as she opens the squeaking door, “Easy-peasy.”  Jim takes an extra flashlight from Don and whispers,
                “I’ll look out.  I’ve, uhh, had a few.”  The others nod their silent assent.
                Ken heads in first, clicking his flashlight on and checking the corners before sweeping the floor ahead of him.  A pair of forklifts, stacks of pallets, and odd boxes among the conveyor belts cast ominous shadows against the walls – but nothing is moving, and he takes a couple steps into the darkness.  Don and Stacy follow, clicking their flashlights on and deactivating the safeties on their pistols.  Ken stays on the ground floor, sweeping his beam back and forth, while Don and Stacy head to the upper floors.
                Where the fuck is Evan, Jim wonders as metallic footsteps echo from the stairs inside.  Presently, his phone vibrates, and Jim shoves the pistol down the front of his trousers after checking that his safety’s still on.
                “Almost there, don’t start the party without me.”
                “Too late,” Jim types back, “I’m DDing, but everyone else got started pre-gaming.”  Jim pockets his phone and draws his pistol again, glancing back and forth down the alleyway.
                Ken Wu sweeps the beam of his flashlight back and forth along the ground floor, with occasional jerks upward to make sure his fellow Hunters are proceeding safely.  The pair of footsteps make a fourth staccato rhythm, indicating that they’re heading up to the roof.  He turns off his flashlight and lets his eyes adjust to the darkness.  Don examines the roof access door:  just a knob, with a thumb turn on the inside.  He unlocks it and slowly opens the door.  Flashlight beneath his pistol, he makes a quick sweep of the rooftop, widening his search as he steps clear of the doorway.
                A pair of hands snake around the corner faster than Don can react:  one hand pinches his wrists together as a forearm rises beneath his elbows, and then he is thrown head-over-heels as his shoulders are forced forward beyond his center of gravity.  He drops his pistol, tries to recover, but his assailant turns him over on his face and torques his shoulder out of joint in a ruthless arm bar.
                Stacy thumbs off her safety as soon as she sees Don tumble off to the left ahead of her, and raises her pistol just as the second bloodsucker comes into view.  She doesn’t have time to look down the sights, though, as the spry young thing dives at her and tackles her down the stairwell.  Pain, vertigo, then an opalescent flash as her vision goes dark.
                Ken hears a scuffle followed by the ring of metal stairs and rails from above.  He looks among the shadows, ready for a secondary assault, but none comes.
                “Don?  Stacy?”  No answer.   He raises his flashlight straight above himself as he turns it back on, but sees nothing through the grated stairs or above the landing beneath the roof.  “Shit, man, get in here,” he shouts to Jim as he runs for the first staircase, pulling back the hammer of his pistol.
                Jim clicks on his flashlight as he enters the building, thumbing off his safety and jerking back the slide as Ken’s footsteps follow his light up the stairs.  He follows Ken to the second floor, a dozen seconds behind.  Ken races up to the third floor as a metallic clank is followed by a third set of running steps.  Jim casts his beam about frantically, catches a shadow rounding a corner behind a pile of boxes, but is soon forced to focus on the stairs beneath him to keep his footing.  Jim picks up his pace and rises to the third floor as Ken races across the catwalk, following the vampire.  Just as he passes a stairway to the top, a weight slams into him from above, and he screams as he feels three of his ribs crack against the railing.  He drops his pistol, struggles to recover, but his assailant is behind him quicker than he can think, her arm pulling his neck back into a perfect choke hold.
                Ken’s flashlight turns back at him, blinding him, and he hears Ken shout, “Don’t move!”  Time seems to move in slow motion:  two footsteps sound in the darkness, Ken’s flashlight turns a few degrees, and then jerks upward as he is pinned to the catwalk.  A black woman is caught briefly in the beam, her green T-shirt flaring bright in passing as Jim begins to see spots.  Painful seconds later, the flashlight clicks out, and Jim’s vision begins to grow dark.  He loses his sense of time, tries to struggle free, but the choke hold tightens.  A voice sounds faintly in the distance, then another nearer to him, and time passes.  He senses dully that his arms are pulled back, there is a sharp pain in his neck, and everything goes black.

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