he sound of the receptionist’s phone ringing made Winthrop jump and clutch his faux-leather attaché case closer to his chest. He was a weedy, nervous sort of man. Winthrop wasn’t the best in his field, he knew that. As private investigators went, he was the lowest rung on the ladder—but he was cheap, quick and harmless, and usually he got the job done.
He couldn’t reason this out, though it was hardly unusual. Why would multi-billionaire Lorian Ames, the celebrity, business tycoon who could easily afford any private investigator in this city choose Winthrop to run an investigation for him? It wasn’t as if Ames didn’t have other options.
It was a massive investigation too. Ames asked Winthrop to run background checks on thousands of people, all new to L. A., and wanted to know utterly random things about them, stuff that Winthrop couldn’t wrap his mind around. Then all this massive intel had to be carefully compiled and taken to a top-notch psychologist who drew up these elaborate profiles—it was hands down the weirdest case Winthrop had ever undertaken. He’d been working weeks, night and day, to get everything done in the time frame Ames had ordered. He couldn’t make sense of any of it; everything about the situation was odd, almost as much as Lorian Ames himself.
Ames just appeared on the Los Angeles horizon, out of nowhere it seemed, sporting wealth and iconic status that the celebrity elite would die to get their hands on and no one knew anything about him—or if they did, they were well paid to keep silent. Unmarried with no family or background to speak of –no girlfriend, boyfriend or significant other that anyone could find— the man leapt into the public eye within the last few years yet no one knew where he came from. Still everyone but everyone knew the name.
“Lorian Ames, the man’s a genius. What doesn’t he do?”
Apparently that was true. You couldn’t go anywhere in L.A. without hearing that man’s name, from designer fashion to celebrity prowess. It was everywhere. Definitely he was a self-marketing guru, no question about it.
But he was still ambiguous; a man of more questions than answers.
Fortunately Winthrop wasn’t paid to worry about any of that or ask questions of his own. All he was responsible for was finding the answers Ames wanted, however weird it might be. He’d done that through sweat and toil and many, many sleepless nights. He’d gone above and beyond the call of duty, wanting Ames to be pleased. His reputation wasn’t the best but a word from Lorian Ames could change all that. A word dropped in the ears of the right people could give Winthrop more wealthy, business clientele than he could hope to handle. If he was really lucky and Ames was pleased, a position on Ames’ personal staff could set up him for life.
The receptionist finished her call and smiled at Winthrop, causing his knees to melt. She was attractive, mid-twenties with wide green eyes, hair black as pitch and a luscious figure. She was a little young to be Ames’ secretary, Winthrop thought to himself, then added with a leer, of course she was. If he had that kind of money, he’d be entertaining young beautiful secretaries too. She was wearing a knit top, sleeveless with a high collar, a pencil skirt and heels that showcased her magnificent legs. Her make-up was flawless, her manicure perfect and her well-shaped—well, let’s just say Ames’ probably paid for those too.
“Mr. Ames will see you now,” the woman said politely, interrupting the train of Winthrop’s lurid thoughts. He nodded and rose to his feet as he was led into a spacious office, done in rich, but classy shades of cream, gold and tan. Eclectic art lined the walls, soft classical music hummed from someplace out of view and a wide window behind Ames’ desk must’ve showed off a breathtaking view of the city, but the blinds were tightly drawn. An oriental rug that cost more than Winthrop made in a year stretched lavishly across the hardwood floor and the flawless antiques lined out in tall, glass-front cases had to be worth a small fortune in themselves.
But Winthrop forgot all about that when he laid eyes on the man himself: Lorian Ames.
Arresting was the first word that came to mind. There was something that instantly commanded your attention the moment you laid eyes on him. It was more than his tall stature or his boldly handsome face. His eyes were what drew one’s attention, they were sharp, piercingly so and seemed to be looking straight into the soul.
Upon first glance he appeared in his mid-forties or so, graying hair at the temples, faint lines around the eyes. It took a moment to realize that it was only surface appeal, in fact the more you studied Lorian Ames, the more it became impossible to determine his real age. It eluded one, like a word tingling on the tip of the tongue, yet forgotten before it was spoken. He appeared ageless, frightfully old one moment, youthful the next until you couldn’t remember how he initially struck you.
His eyes were just so clear, so vivid, so undiscernibly captivating. A mesmerizing shade caught betwixt cobalt and aqua, they held one in a trance so deep it made it difficult to resist anything he said. Winthrop found himself no match for those steel-trap eyes and had to be asked thrice to sit.
“Mr. Winthrop,” Ames was brisk, wasting no time on pleasantries, “I presume you’re here because you compiled the information I requested.”
Winthrop nodded shakily. “Y-yessir, Y-yessir,” he stuttered, quickly opening his attaché and shuffling some papers about, “right here, sir.”
“Excellent,” Ames replied with a cold smile that somehow didn’t reach his eyes, “I trust no one found out about our little investigation? You were careful to cover your tracks?”
“Oh, yessir. Yessir, n-no one knows about us, sir. I didn’t tell no one, sir. I kept it real quiet, anonymous sources, unrelated informants, public information, stuff like that. No one could link us together sir.”
“I’m glad to hear it, Mr. Winthrop. You’ve proven to be very resourceful to me.”
Now why didn’t that sound reassuring? It was what he was hoping would happen, wasn’t it? Winthrop tried to grin and piled the dilapidated folders on Ames desk, organizing them as quickly as he could.
Ames glanced over them briefly but Winthrop had a feeling those crystal blues didn’t miss a thing. Then he glanced back at Winthrop, his lip curving just enough to display a dimple in the corner of his mouth.
“Well, well Mr. Winthrop, you are a surprise,” he said dryly, “I wasn’t expecting results this quickly, not with you. Yet I believe you when you say you weren’t followed. You are being truthful with me and that’s a good thing. Very good—for you.”
Just the way he said it conveyed the impression that if he hadn’t believed Winthrop, all kinds of unspeakably horrific consequences would result—for Winthrop that is. Winthrop swallowed hard and stuttered out a reply, which Ames ignored.
Swiftly changing the subject, he moved the files in front of him and began to sort them as he spoke. “Did you discover anything on Project Nomad?”
Winthrop cringed. “N-nothing of c-consequence sir,” he stumbled, afraid to upset the delicate nature of Ames apparent trust in him. But he knew lying to Ames was a far worse option than admitting failure. At least if he only failed, that gave him the distinction having put some effort in.
“I searched everywhere you instructed sir, but this matter was buried deep. The trail is cold sir, fifteen years too cold. Nothing I could unearth gave any clues to its whereabouts. Most of the informants were too frightened to talk or didn’t know anything more than we do already.”
“Did you tell them my price for their full cooperation?”
“Oh yessir. But nobody seems to know anything. Or if they do, they aren’t telling, no matter the price.”
Ames glance flickered up from the pages he was studying and he cocked a blond eyebrow in reply. “Is that so?”
“Yessir. I’m sorry sir. I have a cousin; he works as an enforcer. If you want, I could maybe get him to put the pressure on—if you know what I mean, sir.”
“No,” Ames looked almost bored, “if they won’t talk to you, they won’t talk to him. I suppose it’s because you’re an outsider. I really should have predicted this would happen. But large amounts of money sometimes tends to loosen tongues.”
“An outsider, sir?” Winthrop looked puzzled. Ames smiled—and it wasn’t a pleasant smile. It was ancient, feral. It made Winthrop’s skin crawl.
“Yes,” he tilted his head to one side, “I’m the one that’s sorry, Mr. Winthrop. You’ve been most helpful to me—surprisingly so, as I said before. It almost makes me regret what I’m about to do. But you’re of no further use to me.”
Winthrop felt his blood turn to ice. He leapt to his feet, but Ames made a motion with his right hand and suddenly Winthrop couldn’t lift his feet from the floor.
“Sit,” Ames ordered, voice perfectly calm. As much as Winthrop wanted to run, his legs obeyed for him. Despite his terror, he found himself sitting politely back down in his chair. His mind screamed with urgency, body tense with panic but his will was as compliant as if it had disconnected from his consciousness, subject to the whims of this man.
Ames stood and Winthrop’s mind distractedly noticed the details, as if his subconscious was the only thing active while the rest of him tuned out. Ames wasn’t wearing a business suit as one might expect, dressed all in black. Black turtleneck, black slacks with black belt, even black shiny boots. Yet somehow it suited him. He was tall, taller than Winthrop had thought, and incredibly imposing. The more that Winthrop took him in, the more imposing he became until he seemed to fill the universe, blotting it out until it became nothing but him.
Then he opened his mouth and there were—oh God, were those fangs? His canines were strangely elongated, extending from his upper lip, white and shiny and utterly carnivorous. With all his money, surely he could afford to have those fixed? Unless of course, he was—he was—unless—
No! That’s impossible!
“Oh it’s possible,” Ames spoke laconically though Winthrop hadn’t spoken out loud and found himself incapable of doing so, “and you don’t have family, Winthrop. Currently dodging your ex-wife so you don’t have to pay alimony I hear,” He tsk-ed, wagging an admonishing finger and then chuckled at Winthrop’s wide-eyed look of horror.
“Yes Winthrop, I checked you out before I hired you. I confirmed that no one would miss you if you suddenly—disappeared. That is why you landed a job with me when I could’ve easily picked out any private investigator in the city. Because they’d be missed—and you won’t be.”
His face transformed, becoming monstrous, demonic—hungry. Deep inside himself, Winthrop was screaming and screaming but outwardly only a low, sick whimper emerged. Ames shook his head, his blue eyes becoming lighter, deeper, more intense, silvery—and utterly soulless.
Only minutes passed before it was all over. A brief struggle as the hypnosis wore off, a cry too quickly subdued and a form, cold and lifeless, stumped in a chair as Ames pulled back and wiped his lips.
“Refreshing,” was all he said, then winced, “sort of. Cheap blood,” he made a disgusted sound, “I loathe junk food. But if I must, I must.”
He crossed back around to his desk and regaining his seat, he reached to the phone on his left and dialed a quick number, obviously internal, murmured a word or two about cleanup then disconnected. He began sorting through the file folders on his desk again, opening one from time to time to scan, then dismissing it subsequently.
“I know you’re in here,” he murmured, eyes scanning at a rate far too fast for human capability. “Where are you hiding, my dear? It’s high time this cat and mouse game between us comes to an end.”
He moved another file aside, then froze. Something caught his eye and he picked it up for a better look. It was a photograph of a girl, easily mid-twenties. She was beautiful but that wasn’t what he seemed to be interested in. His gaze stopped on her eyes and went no further. He seemed to recognize something there and whatever it was, it dumbfounded him.
“At last,” he whispered indistinctly. “At long last—you’ve come back to me, my love.”
A soft knock on the door interrupted him and he quickly laid the photo down and then covered it with some other papers.
“Enter,” he commanded.
The receptionist walked in, showing no signs of surprise at either Ames blood-stained fangs or the dead man slumped on the chair across from him. “Good afternoon, Mr. Ames.”
“I have your messages sir. Where would you like me to put them?”
“Give them to Jenkins if you please. I have an urgent matter to attend to.” With that he stood. Veronica smiled sweetly at him.
“As you wish, sir. Would you like some refreshment before you go?” She carefully peeled down her high collar, revealing twin holes scarred in the side of her neck.
“Thank you Veronica but no, I’ve already had lunch. Speaking of which, you’ll let the cleaners in when they get here won’t you?”
“Of course Mr. Ames,” Veronica glanced at the corpse, smirking. “Snacking on the clock are we, Mr. Ames? Tsk, for shame. You really must stop doing that—we’ve had to replace three custodians already. Besides you know junk food doesn’t sit well with your ulcer.”
Ames gave her a repentant look. “I know. I’ve been trying to watch my weight lately but temptation is everywhere,” he patted his flat stomach for emphasis, then reached for his briefcase. “I’ll see you at about three. If any important calls come up, forward them to my cell would you?”
“Yes, Mr. Ames.”
With that, Ames walked out the door of his office and into the lobby. Those who didn’t know him might have wondered why he stopped to retrieve a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses on such a pleasant day.
But, as everyone knew, Lorian Ames was a man full of mysteries.
t was that same sunlight Mick St. John tried to avoid as he ducked into the air-conditioned foyer of the Los Angeles Public Library. Luckily he’d found a baseball cap shoved in the glove compartment of his Mercedes and slipped it on, once he realized he might be under the open sun for awhile. Stepping inside, he pulled off his dark sunglasses and tucked them in his pocket, then tilted back the ball-cap still on his head. If there was one place in sunny L.A. he felt at home, it was the library.
Dark, quiet rooms with no bright light –except from the bay windows, but there was no helping that— no loud noises, people quietly perusing shelves of books, minding their own business. No vampire hunters in here. Oh yeah and the metal detectors at the doors—that tended to cut down on the weaponry.
Vampires could smell one another out even before entering the room—it was the decay that started the moment their biology changed. Mortals couldn’t detect it but vampires could always track other vampires by their scent. And while vampire hearing could catch the heartbeats of a mortal, vampire pulses were stilled and didn’t beat at all. If you knew vampires existed in the world, you could train yourself how to look for the signs of immortality.
Other smells were amplified too, particularly blood. Nothing called to the vampire like the sharp, coppery scent of their lifeline. Vampire hunters were mortal so they blended in. That made them trickier to catch but a clever vampire kept his eyes –and nostrils— open.
Mick walked up to the reference desk, hoping to get pointed in the right direction for his research, when he was suddenly tapped on the shoulder from behind. He turned to meet a pair of owlish eyes behind coke-bottle glasses and a surprisingly attractive smile. It was his librarian neighbor, the one he met in the hall outside his apartment that morning.
She grinned at him and stuck out her hand in his direction.
“Hi,” she said. She was still wearing that drab, gray cardigan crossed with catholic schoolgirl pleated skirt and her matronly appearance hadn’t improved over time.
“I don’t know if you remember me, but we met this morning, outside your place—by place, I mean your apartment of course—least I assume its your apartment ‘cause you were coming out of it and all, so that makes me think its yours, probably, or at least you know someone there I’m guessing—unless of course you were robbing the place, then you probably wouldn’t want me to remember you, so er, I won’t. If you are a robber that is—” she broke off her runaway monologue to shoot him a flustered grin and pat uselessly at her rigid bun, “—but I thought I should say hello, in case we meet again being neighbors, at least I assume we’re neighbors ‘cause—”
“That’s great,” Mick cut her off quickly before she could go around again, “I’m Mick St. John. Yes, it’s my apartment and yes, we’re neighbors. You are?”
“Oh, Cara. Cara Montague,” his over-eager neighbor replied happily. She gripped his hand and yanked it up and down with surprising force for such a skinny little thing.
“I’m so pleased to meet you, that is by pleased I mean of course that I’m happy to meet all my neighbors, not just you specifically, but really it’s a pleasure—no less to meet you than anyone else you understand—”
“Right, I get it,” Mick intervened again. “So uh, Cara—you work here right?”
Cara beamed, her plain face glowing.
“Indeed I do,” she said nodding so vehemently that Mick found himself helplessly nodding along with her, “I love books; I’ve always loved books since I was a little girl. Books are heavenly, they are like tastes of another world. I’ve read tons of books, TONS! The first book I ever read was—”
“Great,” Mick realized it was best not to wait for Cara to stop for breath because pauses only gave her the opportunity to wind up another word explosion. “Guess I’ll see you around later,” he tried to circle her but Cara blocked his path like a determined sparrow.
“I see you were headed for the reference desk,” she commented, not missing the detail that Mick had hoped she would. “Did you need some help finding anything?”
“Well I, uh . . .” Mick frantically darted a glance around to see if there was another library assistant who looked free and available but no one met his searching glance. He pasted a smile on his face reluctantly and tried to resign himself to his fate. “Yes, er, I do but I completely understand if you’re too busy. Completely! I wouldn’t want to, uh, monopolize your time.”
Cara’s face lit up again. “Oh no, I insist,” she said happily, then darted off like an excited squirrel to her computer. Leaning over her desk, she punched a few keys and peered through her glasses at the monitor, her face all puckered and serious.
“Okay, what are you looking for?”
Mick fought the urge to tell her if she kept puckering her face that way it’d stick, “I need reference books on ancient weapons connected with vampire lore and mythology. I, uh, am writing a thesis on it.”
Cara tapped a query, “Hmm—vampire—young adult section, no—no—oh here it is! Oh, I should have remembered ‘cuz I had to reorganize that entire section the other day, it was a mess and it took forever and there was this one book on ancient tombs that—” she caught Mick’s expression and broke off, “—right, sorry. Anyway, follow me.”
She scampered off, leaving Mick with no choice but to follow. Cara chattered his ear off the whole way, pulling big dusty tomes off shelves as she went, and once Mick had a sizable stack he settled into the
It was more of a challenge than it seemed on the surface, researching ancient lore. So little actual information about the vampire community was public record and one had to sift through volumes to sort the fact from the carefully-crafted fiction. Typical vampire myth was bad information, intentionally circulated into the culture until it become gospel through repetition. Vampires as a species bored easily. Agelessness will do that to you and if there’s a resource vampires had in spades, it was time! Deja vu wasn’t just a feeling, it was a constant companion.
One of their favorite amusements involved toying with ‘gullible mortals’—trying to suggest more and more absurd notions and get them worked into popular myth. It led to some very sophisticated drinking games in vampire bars, let alone getting a gold star next to your name and free drinks for all eternity, a prize not quickly discounted when you had a bar tab stretching back to the 1200’s. It took the right ‘suggestable’ mortal and a good vampire salesman—but they had plenty of time to practice. The more legends that circulated about vampires, the better for them. Like with Greek mythology, their goal was to have so many myths contradicting each other that no one got close to the truth.
Sparkly vampires though—oh, Mick was impressed by that one! He hadn’t witnessed when that idea was birthed but he’d have paid cash money to be there because that had to be some spectacular piece of bullshitting on behalf of the vampire who ‘suggested it’ to author Stephanie Meyer! Just how many other vampires present excused themselves and ran from their barstools, frantically holding their bladders and muffling their laughter?
But as a result, that genius tidbit of new vampire myth became common knowledge and spread as prolifically through the newest generation of young adult culture, just as crucifixes, holy water and even GARLIC went before it! Years from now, fresh young mortals would actually believe that vampires—oh here it comes!—SPARKLED!! Hahahahah, yessss!! Suuuure they did! Why not, after all—why shouldn’t an imaginary predator turned away by garlic sparkle in the daylight, huh? What would those adorable mortals think up next? Not only were they delicious—they were delightful as well!
Mick’s personal favorite myth was the ‘we turn into vampire bats and fly around at night’ thing. Transmogrification was not a known vampire skill but—well okay, vampires could-sorta FLY! More accurately they could leap much higher than mortals, up several flights of a building for starters. They were much stronger too, strong enough to rip mortals apart limb-from-limb with their bare hands.
But there was nothing supernatural about that. Those hyper-abilities were due to accelerated muscle strength and changes in body density and—and it was just SCIENCE! Shapeshifting was in a whole different ballpark and Mick wished he could meet the vampire that dreamed it up, all like, ‘well if werewolves can do it . . . why can’t we? Let’s be bats then!’ Some loose association with the species of bat that sucked blood, came out at night and shared their name. Well sure, why not then?
None of these things could Mick explain to Cara, his uninvited librarian research assistant. Telling mortals truths about vampire society was a big no-no, even under life or death circumstances. It made his job more difficult when it was already a challenge identifying for a threat that he wasn’t sure of the specifics on.
Since there were only a few real threats to immortals, it was easy for Mick to rule out the research that didn’t fit the pattern. He kept an eye on his social media too to cross-reference with his findings, but no headlines stood out to him as being particularly vampire-related.
He was young for a vampire –only 85 come November— so Mick didn’t know much of their history but he did scrounge up enough plausible stories to vet through the filter of Josef later. A few weapons that claimed to have heat or ‘fiery’ powers—direct sunlight and fire could definitely kill vamps. A few more drew their power from silver and that too was toxic, even a lethal threat to vampires.
So Mick made some careful notes, spent another fifteen minutes or so thanking Cara for her help and gently dodging her wordy, less-than-subtle hints that she was ‘free for dinner’. He left the library informed but slightly disappointed. Granted, he didn’t expect to solve the case on his first stop but—truthfully he wasn’t sure how deeply he could dig on the human end of the spectrum anyway, given how carefully vampires hid their secrets.
Maybe he needed specialized help? Mick’s mind circled back to an elective college course he’d taken at CalU a few years back, taught by one brilliant, young professor Ariel Quigont, who also held a PhD in mythological studies and had access to CalU’s vast research library. She’d taken to him while he was in her class –calling him her ‘best student’—and Mick was able to salve some of his vampire curiosity as well as getting a feel for what was really public knowledge about their community.
He should give her a call tomorrow and renew their old acquaintance. He could keep her in the dark to his true purposes, but Ariel would make a wonderful partner for this early recon and fact-finding mission.
As Mick stepped back into the busy, crowded Los Angeles street, pulling his hat and sunglasses back on, and weaved his way back to the parking garage where he left his vintage Mercedes, he noted the tiny details on passerby which would escape those not looking for them.
50 vampire hunters gathered across the city, huh? Two hidden factions were jockeying for power of top species—and it better be Mick and Josef who found this weapon first! Otherwise, the vampires as a collective race were all headed –Josef’s words— to hell with their severed heads in the proverbial hand-basket.