Blood Price (Vicki Nelson #1)

Chapter 8

chapter
Chapter

Norman glanced around the Cock and Bull and frowned. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, the nights he'd set aside for seriously trying to pick up chicks, he arrived early to be sure of getting a table. So far, this had meant by 9:30 or 10:00, someone would have to share with him. Tonight, the Thursday before the long Easter weekend, the student pub was so empty it looked as if he'd have no company all night.

It isn't cool to go home for Easter, he thought smugly, running a finger up and down the condensation on his glass of diet ginger ale. His parents had been disappointed, but he'd been adamant. The really cool guys hung out around the university all weekend and Norman Birdwell was now really cool.

He sighed. They didn't, however, apparently hang out at the Cock and Bull. He'd have given up and gone home long ago except for the redhead who held court at the table in the corner. She was absolutely beautiful, everything Norman had ever wanted in a woman, and he had long adored her from across the room in their Comparative Religions class. She wasn't very tall, but her flaming hair gave her a presence and inches in other areas made up for her lack of height. Norman could imagine ripping off her shirt and just gazing at the softly mounded flesh beneath. She'd smile at him in rapt adoration and he'd gently reach out to touch. His imagination wasn't up to much beyond that, so he replayed the scene over and over as he stared across the room.

A beer or two later and voices at the corner table began to rise.

"But I'm telling you there's evidence," the redhead exclaimed, "for the killer being a creature of the night."

"Get real, Coreen!"

Her name was Coreen! Norman's heart picked up an irregular rhythm and he leaned forward, straining to hear more clearly.

"What about the missing blood?" Coreen demanded. "Every victim sucked dry."

"A psycho," snorted one of her companions.

"A giant leech," suggested another. "A giant leech that slimes along the streets of the city until it finds a victim and then… SLURP!" He sucked back a beer, suiting the action to the word. The group at the table groaned and buried him in thrown napkins and then Coreen's voice rose over the babble.

"I'm telling you there was nothing natural about these deaths!"

"Nothing natural about giant leeches either," muttered a tall, blonde woman in a bright pink flannel shirt.

Coreen turned on her. "You know what I mean, Janet. And I'm not the only person who thinks so either!"

"You're talking about the stories in the newspapers? Vampire stalks city and all that?" Janet sighed expansively and shook her head. "Coreen, they don't believe that bullshit, they're just trying to sell papers."

"It isn't bullshit!" Coreen insisted, slamming her empty mug down on the table. "Ian was killed by a vampire!" Her mouth thinned into an obstinate line and the others at the table exchanged speaking glances. One by one, they made excuses and drifted away.

Coreen didn't even look up as Norman sat down in Janet's recently vacated chair. She was thinking of how foolish all her so-called friends would look when her private investigator found the vampire and destroyed him. They'd soon stop laughing at her then.

Norman, after taking a few moments to work out the best things to say, tried a tentative, "Hi." The icy stare he received in response discouraged him a little, but he swallowed and went on. He might never get another chance like this. "I just, uh, wanted you to know that, uh, I believe you."

"Believe what?" The question was only slightly less icy than the stare.

"Believe, well, you. About the vampires." Norman lowered his voice. "And stuff."

The way he said "and stuff" sent chills down Coreen's back. She took a closer look and thought she might vaguely remember him from one of her classes, although she couldn't place which one. Nor could she be sure if her lack of clear memory had more to do with him or with the pitcher of beer she'd just finished.

"I know," he continued, glancing around to be sure that no one would overhear, "that there's more to the world than most people think. And I know what it's like to be laughed at." He ground out the last words with such feeling that she had to believe them and believing them, to believe the rest.

"It doesn't matter what we know." She poked him in the chest with a fingernail only a slightly less brilliant red than her hair. "We can't prove anything."

"I can. I've got completely incontestable proof in my apartment." He grinned at her look of surprise and nodded, adding emphasis. And the best part of it is, he thought, almost rubbing his hands in anticipation, it isn't a line. I do have the proof and when I show her, she'll fall into my arms and…. Once again, his imagination balked but he didn't care that fantasy failed him; soon he'd have the reality.

"You can help me prove that a vampire murdered Ian?" The brilliant green eyes blazed and Norman, transfixed, found himself stammering.

"V-vampire… " Caught up in the proof he could offer her, he'd forgotten she expected vampires.

Coreen took the repetition as an affirmation. "Good." She practically dragged him to his feet and then out of the Cock and Bull. She wasn't very big, Norman discovered, but she was pretty strong. "We'll take my car. It's out in the lot."

Her headlong charge slowed a little as they reached the doors and stopped completely by the row of pay phones. She frowned and came to a sudden decision.

"You got a quarter?"

Norman dug one out of his pocket and handed it over. He wanted to give her the world; what was twenty-five cents? As Coreen dialed, he inched toward her until by the time she started to speak he stood close enough to hear perfectly.

"Hi, it's Coreen Fergus. Oh, I'm sorry, were you asleep?" She twisted to look at her watch. "Yeah, I guess. But you've gotta hear this. Of course, it's about the vampire. Why else would I call you? Look, I met a guy who says he had incontestable proof… in his apartment…. Give me a break. You're my detective, not my mother." The receiver missed being slammed back onto its cradle by the narrowest of margins.

"Some people," she muttered, "are just so bitchy when you wake them up. Come on." She gave him a little push in the direction of the parking lot. "Ian's death will be avenged even if I have to do it all myself."

Norman, suddenly realizing that he and not the vampire Coreen seemed fixated on had been in some small part responsible for Ian's death, wondered what he should do next. Nothing, he decided, hurriedly buckling his seat beat as Coreen pulled out with a squeal of rubber. She's coming to my apartment, that's the main thing. Once she's there, I can handle the rest. His chest puffed out as he thought of what he'd achieved. When I show her, she'll be so impressed she'll forget about the vampire and Ian both.

Norman's apartment was in a cluster of identical high rises perched on the flatland west of York University and completely out of sync with their surroundings. He pointed out the visitors' parking and with one eye on the York Regional Police car that had been following her for the last quarter mile Coreen pulled into the first empty spot and shut the motor off. The police car kept going and Coreen, well aware she shouldn't have been driving at all after sharing three pitchers of beer, heaved a sigh of relief.

While Norman fumbled with his keys, she stared through the glass doors at the beige and brown lobby and wondered how he could tell he was in the right building.

In the elevator, she drummed her fingers against the stainless steel wall. If she hadn't been feeling so sorry for herself back in the pub that her mind had been on hold, she'd have never gone anywhere with Norman Birdwell. She'd realized who he was the moment she saw him under the bright lights in the parking lot. If York University had a definitive geek, he was it.

Except… She frowned, remembering. Except he'd really sounded like he knew something, and for Ian's sake she had to follow every lead. Maybe there was more to him than met the eye. She glanced at Norman, who was smiling at her in a way she didn't like, and realized suddenly where he fit in. He was the vampire's Renfield! The human servant who not only eased his master's way in the modern world but who, on occasion, procured…

Her hand went to her throat and the tiny gold crucifix her grandfather had given her at her first communion. If Norman "the geek" Birdwell thought he was procuring her as a late night snack for his undead master, he was in for a bit of a surprise. She patted her purse and the comforting bulge of a squirt gun filled with holy water. She wasn't afraid to use it either and she'd seen enough vampire movies to know what the effect would be. Holy water wouldn't affect Norman, of course, but then Norman wasn't much of a threat.

"When I started this, I wanted to change to the fourteenth floor," Norman told her, managing to get his keys in the lock in spite of his trembling hands. I'm actually bringing a girl back to my apartment! "Because the fourteenth floor is really the thirteenth, but they didn't have any empties so I'm still on nine."

"There's a lot of psychic significance in the number nine," Coreen muttered, pushing past him into the apartment. The entrance way, with its coat closet and plastic mat, opened into one big room that didn't appear to contain a coffin. An old sofa, covered in a handmade afghan, was pushed up against one wall and a blue, metal trunk served as a coffee table. Tucked over in a corner, by the door that led to the balcony, was a square plastic fan and a tiny desk buried beneath computer equipment. At the other end of the room, stove, fridge, and sink made a half turn around a chrome and vinyl table with two matching chairs.

Coreen's nose wrinkled. The whole place looked spotless but there was a distinctly funny smell. Then she noticed that every available flat surface held at least one solid air freshener; little plastic mushrooms, shells, and fake crystal candy dishes. The combined effect was somewhat overpowering.

"Can I take your coat?" He had to raise his voice to be heard over the noise of the stereo in the apartment upstairs.

'No." She sneezed and dug a tissue out of her pocket. "Do you have a bathroom?" All the beer seemed to have suddenly passed through her system.

"Oh, yes." He opened a door that led to both a walk-in closet and the bathroom. "In here."

She's freshening up! he thought, almost dancing as he neatly hung up his own coat. There's a girl in my bathroom and she's freshening up! He cleaned the apartment every Thursday just in case this happened. And now it had. Wiping damp palms against his thighs, he wondered if he should get out the chips and dip. No, he decided, trying to settle himself in a nonchalant position on the sofa, that would be for later. For after.

Coming out of the bathroom, Coreen had a look around the huge closet. Still no coffin; it looked like she was safe. Norman's clothes were hung neatly by type, shirts together, pants together, a gray polyester suit hanging in solitary splendor. His shoes, a pair of brown loafers and a pair of spotless sneakers, were lined up toes to the wall. Although she didn't quite have the nerve to check his dresser drawers, Coreen figured Norman as the type who'd fold his underwear. Tucked into one corner, looking very out of place, was a hibachi perched across the top of a plastic milk crate. She would have investigated the contents of the crate except the smell behind the smell of plastic roses seemed to originate from that corner and, mixed with the beer, it made her feel a little ill.

Probably some lab project he's working on at home. Her mind produced a vision of Norman in a long white coat attaching wires to the electrodes in the neck of his latest creation and she had to stifle a giggle as she came out into the main room.

She didn't like the look that crossed Norman's face as she perched on the other end of the couch and she began to think she'd made a big mistake coming up here. "Well?" she demanded. "You said you had something to show me, something that would prove the existence of the vampire to the rest of the world." If he wasn't Renfield, she had no idea what he was up to.

Norman frowned. Had he said that? He didn't think he'd said that. "I, I, uh, do have something to show you, but it's not exactly a vampire."

Coreen snorted and stood, heading for the door. "Yeah, I bet." Something to show her indeed. If he showed it to her, she'd cut it off.

"No, really." Norman stood as well, tottering a little on the heels of his cowboy boots. "What I can show you will prove that supernatural forces are at work in this city. It can't be a very big step from that to vampires. Can it?"

"No." In spite of the whiny tone, he really did sound like he knew what he was talking about. "I suppose not."

"So won't you sit down again?"

He took a step toward her and she took three steps back. "No. Thanks. I'll stand." She could feel her grip on her temper slipping. "What do you have to show me?"

Norman drew himself up proudly and, after a little fumbling, managed to slip his thumbs behind his belt loops. This would impress her. "I can call up demons."

"Demons?"

He nodded. She'd be his now and forget all about her dead boyfriend and her stupid vampire theory.

Coreen added a conical hat with stars and a magic wand to her earlier vision of Norman and the monster and this time couldn't stop the giggle from escaping. Nerves, as much as anything, prompted the reaction for despite his reputation she almost believed he spoke the truth and was ready to be convinced.

Norman had no way of knowing that.

She's laughing at me. How dare she laugh at me after I was the only one who didn't laugh at her. How dare she! Incoherent with hurt and anger, Norman dove forward and grabbed Coreen's shoulders, thrusting his mouth at hers with enough force to split his upper lip against her teeth. He didn't even feel that small pain as he began to grind his body, from mouth to hips, down the soft yielding length of her. He'd teach her not to laugh at him!

The next pain forced the breath out of him and sent him staggering backward making small mewling sounds. Tripping on the edge of the trunk, he sat, clutching his crotch and watching the world turn red, and orange, and black.

Coreen jabbed at the elevator button for the lobby, berating herself for being so stupid. "Calling up demons, yeah, right," she snarled, kicking at the stainless steel wall. "And I almost believed him. It was just another pickup line." Except that, just for a moment, as he grabbed her, his face had twisted and for that moment she'd been truly afraid. He almost hadn't looked human. And then the attack became something she had long ago learned to deal with and the moment passed.

"Men are such bastards," she informed the elderly, and somewhat surprised, East Indian gentleman waiting at the ground floor.

At the door, she discovered that one of her new red leather gloves had fallen out of her jacket pocket during the scuffle and was still in Norman's apartment. "Great, just great." She considered going back for it-she knew she could take Norman in a fight-but decided against it. If she got the opportunity to close her hands around his scrawny neck, she'd probably strangle him.

Shoulders hunched against the wind, she stomped out to her car and soothed her lacerated feelings by burning rubber the length of the parking lot.

As the pain receded, the anger grew.

She laughed at me. I shared the secret of the century with some stupid girl who believes in vampires, and she laughed at me. Carefully, not certain his legs would hold him, Norman stood. Everyone always laughed at me. Last one chosen to play baseball. Never wearing quite the same clothes as the other kids. They even laughed when I got perfect marks on tests. He'd stopped telling them all about it eventually; about the A plus papers, about the projects used as study aids by the teachers, about winning the science fair three years in a row, about reading War and Peace over the weekend. They weren't interested in his triumphs. They always laughed.

Just like she laughed.

The anger burned away the last of the pain.

Knees carefully apart, Norman shoved the trunk up against the wall, then grabbed the afghan off the sofa and hung it on the half dozen hooks he'd put over the apartment door. The heavy wool would trap most of the odors before they could reach the hall. For the rest, he opened the balcony door about two inches and used one of the mushroom shaped air fresheners to keep it from slamming closed. Ignoring the sudden stream of cold air and the increase in noise from above, he pushed the fan up tight against the crack and turned it on.

Then he went into the closet for the hibachi and the plastic milk crate.

The tiny barbecue he set up as close as he could to the fan. He built a pyramid of three charcoal briquets, soaked them in starter fluid and dropped in a match. The fan and the high winds around the building took care of almost all of the smoke and, as he'd disconnected his smoke detector and the four that covered the ninth floor hallway, he didn't worry about the small amount of smoke that remained. He let the fire burn down while he got out the colored chalks to draw the pentagram.

No-wax tile flooring doesn't hold chalk well, so Norman actually used chalk pastels. It didn't seem to make a difference. At each of the five corners of the pentagram, he set two candles; a black one nine inches high, and a red one six inches high. He'd had to cut them both down from twelves and eights and had discovered that a few of the blacks were actually dark purple. That hadn't seemed to matter either.

Candles lit, he knelt before the now glowing coals and began the steps to call the demon.

He'd bought six inches of the eighteen karat gold chain at a store in Chinatown. With a pair of nail scissors, he clipped off three or four links and let them fall into the glowing red heart of the charcoal briquettes. Norman knew that the hibachi couldn't possibly deliver enough heat to melt even that little bit of gold but, although he sifted the remaining ash every time, there was never an answering gleam of metal.

The frankincense came from a trendy food store on Bloor Street West. He had no idea what other people used the bright orange flakes for-he couldn't imagine eating them although he supposed they might be a spice. The half handful he threw on the heat ignited slowly, creating a thick, pungent smoke that the fen almost managed to deal with.

Coughing and rubbing the back of one hand across watering eyes, he reached for the last ingredient. The myrrh had come from a shop specializing in essence oils and the creation of personal, signature perfumes. Ounce for ounce it had been more expensive than the gold. Carefully, using the plastic measuring set his mother had given him when he moved out, he dribbled an eighth of a teaspoon over the coals.

The heavy scent of the frankincense grew heavier still and the air in the apartment picked up a bitter taste that coated the inside of Norman's mouth and nose. The first night he'd tried this, he'd almost stopped with the myrrh, had almost been unable to get past the weight of history that came with it. For centuries myrrh had been used to treat the dead, and all those centuries of death were released every time the oil poured over the coals. By the second time, he could shrug aside the dead with the knowledge of worse to come. By this, the seventh calling, it no longer distracted him from the task at hand.

The sterile pins, identical to the ones the Red Cross used to take the initial drops of blood from donors, he'd bought at a surgical supply house. Usually he hated this part, but tonight the anger drew him through it without pause. The small pain spread down from his fingertip until it joined the throbbing between his legs and the sudden sexual tension almost threw him out of the ritual.

His breathing ragged, he somehow managed to maintain control.

Three drops of blood onto the coals and as each drop fell, a word of calling.

The words he'd found in one of the texts used in his Comparative Religions class. He'd created the ritual himself, made it up out of equal parts research and common sense. Anyone could do it, he thought smugly. But only I have.

The air over the center of the pentagram shivered and changed as though something were forcing it aside from within. Norman stood and waited, scowling, as the smell of the burning spices gave way to a fetid odor of rot and the beat of his neighbor's stereo gave way to a sound that throbbed inaudibly in brain and bone.

The demon, when it came, was man-sized and vaguely man-shaped and all the more hideous for the slight resemblance.

Norman, breathing shallowly through his mouth, stepped to the edge of the pentagram. "I have called you," he declared. "I am your master."

The demon inclined its head and its features shifted with the movement as if it had no skull beneath the moist covering of skin. "You are master," it agreed, although the fleshy hole of a mouth didn't adapt its constant motion to utter the words.

"You must do as I command."

The huge and lidless yellow eyes scanned the perimeters of its prison. "Yes," it admitted at last.

"Someone laughed at me tonight. I don't want her to ever laugh at me again."

The demon waited silently, awaiting further instruction, its color changing from muddy-black to greenish-brown and back again.

"Kill her!" There, he'd said it. He clenched his hands to stop their trembling. He felt ten feet tall, invincible. He'd taken charge at last and accepted the power that was his by right! The throbbing grew more powerful until his whole body vibrated with it.

"Kill who?" the demon asked.

The mildly amused tone dragged him back to earth, shaking with fury. "DON'T LAUGH AT ME!" He stepped forward and, remembering just in time, twisted his foot at an awkward angle to avoid crossing the pentagram.

The demon's answering lunge brought them almost nose to nose.

"Hah!" Norman spat the word forward even as he retreated back. "You're just like them! You think you're so great and you think I'm shit! Well, just remember you're in there and I'm out here. I called you! I control you! I AM THE MASTER!"

Unmoved by the stream of vitriol, the demon settled back in the center of the pentagram. "You are master," it said placidly. "Kill who?"

The amusement remained in the creature's voice, driving Norman almost incoherent with anger. Through the red haze, he realized that screaming Kill Coreen! at the demon would accomplish nothing. He had to think. How to find one person in a city of over three million? He stomped to the far wall and back, caught the heel of his right boot and almost fell. When,-after much tottering, he'd regained his balance, he bent and picked up the bit of scarlet leather that had nearly brought him down

"Here!"

The demon speared the glove out of the air with a six inch talon, the loose folds of skin hanging between its arm and body snapping taut with the motion.

Norman smiled. "Find the glove that matches this one and kill the person who has it. Don't let anyone else see you. Return to the pentagram when you've finished."

The odor of decay lingered in the air after the demon had disappeared, a disgusting aftereffect that only time would remove. Sucking the finger he'd pricked, Norman strutted to the window and looked out at the night.

"No one," he vowed, "is ever going to laugh at me again." No more toys, no more clothes, no more computers; he'd taken up his power tonight and when the demon returned, well-fed on Coreen's blood, he'd send it out after a symbol of that power. Something the world would be forced to respect.

The throbbing beat grew more powerful and Norman rubbed against the windowsill, hips jerking to its rhythm.

Still seething, Coreen pulled into the MacDonald's parking lot. Norman Birdwell. She couldn't believe she'd even spoken to Norman Birdwell let alone gone back to his apartment with him. He'd sounded so damned believable back in the pub. She shook her head at her own credulity. Of course, she hadn't realized who he was back at the pub, but still…

"I hope you appreciate this, Ian," she said to the night, slamming the car door and locking it. "When I vowed to find your killer, I never counted on having to deal with geek lust." It had gotten colder and she'd reached in her pocket for her gloves before she remembered that she now possessed only glove, singular. Grinding her teeth, she headed inside. Some moods only a large order of fries could deal with.

On her way to the counter, she spotted a familiar face and detoured.

"Hey, Janet. I thought you were all going over to Alison's?"

Janet looked up and shook her head. "Long story," she muttered around a mouthful of burger.

Coreen snorted and tossed her remaining glove down on top of the junk piled on a neighboring seat. Under the fluorescents it looked almost obscenely bright. "Yeah? Well, I've got a longer one. Don't go away."

Sometime later, Janet was staring at Coreen in astonishment, an apple pie poised forgotten halfway to her open mouth.

"… so I kneed him in the balls and split." She took a long swallow of diet cola. "And I bet I'm never going to see my other glove again either," she added sadly.

Janet closed her mouth with an audible snap. "Norman Birdwell?" she sputtered.

"Yeah, I know." Coreen sighed. She should never have told Janet. Thank God they were heading into a long weekend; it might slow the spread of the story. "Like majorly stupid. It must've been the beer."

"There isn't enough beer in the world-no, in the universe-to make me go anywhere with that creep," Janet declared, rolling her eyes.

Coreen mashed the onions she'd scraped off her burger into a pureed mess "He said he knew something about the creature that killed Ian," she muttered sheepishly. She really shouldn't have told Janet. What could she have been thinking of?

"Right," Janet snorted, "another fearless vampire hunter and you fell for it."

Coreen's eyes narrowed. "Don't make fun of it."

"Fun of it? You're just as likely to find Norman's demon killed Ian as some stupid vampire." She knew the words were a mistake the moment they left her mouth, but by then it was too late.

"Vampires have been documented historically and all the facts fit… "

Twenty-three minutes later-Janet had been timing the lecture with barely concealed glances at her watch- Coreen stopped suddenly and stood. "I have to go to the bathroom," she said; wait for me. I'll be right back."

"Not bloody likely," Janet muttered the second Coreen disappeared down the stairs to the basement. Digging her gear free of the pile, she headed for the door, shrugging into her jacket as she went. She liked Coreen, but if she heard one more word about vampires she was going to bite somebody herself. Any vampire Coreen ran into was going to be able to claim self-defense.

At the door, she discovered she'd picked up Coreen's remaining red glove. Damn! I take it back and it's more of the Count Dracula power hour. She stood there for a moment, slapping the leather fingers into her palm, torn between doing the right thing and running to save her sanity.

Sanity won.

As the bright lighting turned the top of Coreen's ascending head to flame, Janet shoved the glove into her pocket, spun on her heel, and escaped into the night. If I run, she thought and matched the action to it, I could be clear of the parking lot lights before Coreen looks out the window. In the darkness beyond, she'd be safe.

It came up through the ground. It Deferred to travel that way, for then it need waste no energy on remaining unseen. And until it fed, it had little energy to waste. It sensed the prey above it, but it waited, following, until no other lives could be felt.

Then it emerged.

The urge to kill was strong, nearly overpowering. It had been so commanded by its "master" and its nature called it to feed. Only fear of what failure would bring managed to deflect the killing stroke that instinct had begun so that it struck bone and not soft tissue.

The prey cried out and crumpled, silent now but still alive.

It longed to lap at the warm blood that filled the night with the scent of food but it knew that feeding, once begun, could not be stopped and that this was not the place marked for death. Gathering the prey up, it turned its face to the wind and began to run, using all three of its free limbs. It could not take the prey to the earth, nor could it take to the sky with so heavy a burden. It must trust to speed to keep it unseen.

The prey would die. It would obey its "master" in that, but it would obey an older master as well and the prey would die in the pattern.

Unnoticed, the crushed red glove lay just beyond the edge of the parking lot lights. Beside it was a splash of darker red, already freezing.


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