Blood Price (Vicki Nelson #1)

Chapter 4

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"Good God, would you look at old Norman."

"Why?" Roger pulled his head out of his locker and turned around. He could feel his jaw quite literally drop. "'Good God' doesn't quite cover it, my man. I wish Bill were here to see this."

"Where is he?"

Roger shrugged, not taking his eyes from the sartorial splendor of Norman Birdwell. "Beats me. But he'll shit if he misses this."

Norman, conscious of eyes upon him, threw a bit more of a swagger into his walk. The chain hanging from his new black leather jacket chimed softly against the small of his back. He squinted down at the sterling silver toe caps on his authentic style cowboy boots and wondered if maybe he shouldn't have gotten spurs as well. His new black jeans, tighter than he'd ever worn before, made an almost smug shik shik sound as the inseams rubbed together.

He'd shown them. Thought he wasn't cool, did they? Thought he was some kind of a nerd, did they? Well, they'd be thinking differently now. Norman's chin went up. They wanted cool? He'd show them cold. Tonight he was going to ask for a red Porsche. He'd learn to drive later.

"What the hell is that?"

Roger grinned. "Now aren't you glad you weren't any later?" he asked, shoving a friendly elbow into Bill's ribs. "Kinda takes your breath away, doesn't it?"

"If you mean it makes me want to gag, you're close." Bill sagged against his locker and shook his head. "How the hell is he paying for all of that?"

"So go ask him."

"Why not… " Bill straightened and stepped away from his locker just as Norman passed by.

Norman saw him, allowed their eyes to meet for a second, then moved on, chortling silently to himself, "Ha! Snubbed you. Let's see how you like it."

The question of payment dead in his mouth, Bill stood staring until Roger moved up beside him and slugged him in the arm.

"Hey, what's wrong?"

Bill shook his head. "There's something different about Birdwell."

Roger snorted. "Yeah, new threads and an attitude. But underneath he's the same old Norman the Nerd."

"Yeah, I guess you're right." But he wasn't. And it wasn't something Bill could explain. He felt as though he'd reached under the bed and something rotten had squished through his fingers-a normal, everyday action gone horribly awry.

Norman, aware he'd made an impression-Norman, who in a fit of pique had decided he didn't care if a stranger had to die-Norman strutted on.

"Victoria Nelson?"

"Yes?" Vicki peered down at the young woman-girl, really, if she's out of her teens it's by hours only-standing outside her apartment door. "If you're selling something… "

"Victoria Nelson, the Private Investigator?"

Vicki considered it a moment before answering and then said slowly, "Yes… "

"I have a job for you."

The words were delivered with the intensity only the very young can muster and Vicki found herself hiding a smile.

The girl tossed unnaturally brilliant red curls back off her face. "I can pay, if that's what you're worried about."

As the question of money hadn't even begun to cross Vicki's mind, she grunted noncommittally. They locked eyes for a moment-Tinted contacts, I thought so. Well, they go with the hair. -then she added, in much the same noncommittal tone, "Most people call first."

"I thought about it." The shrug was so minimal as to be almost nonexistent and her voice was completely non-apologetic. "I figured the case would be harder to turn down in person."

Vicki found herself holding he door open wider. "I suppose you'd better come in." Work wasn't so scarce she had to take jobs from children, but it wouldn't hurt to hear what the girl had to say. "Another thirty seconds in the hall and Mr. Chin'll be showing up to see what's going on."

"Mr. Chin?"

"The old man who lives downstairs likes to know what's going on, likes to pretend he doesn't speak English."

Sliding past Vicki in the narrow hall, the girl sniffed, obviously disapproving. "Maybe he doesn't speak English," she pointed out.

This time, Vicki didn't bother to hide her smile. "Mr. Chin has been speaking English a lot longer than both of us have been alive. His parents came to Vancouver in the late 1880s. He used to teach high school. He still teaches English as a Second Language at the Chinese Community Center."

Bright green eyes narrowed accusingly and the girl glared up at Vicki. "I don't like being patronized," she said.

Vicki nodded as she closed the door. "Neither do I."      

During the silence that followed, Vicki could almost hear their conversation being replayed, each phrase, each word tested for nuance.

"Oh," the girl said at last. "Sorry." Then her brow unfurrowed and she grinned as she offered a compromise. "I won't do it anymore if you'd don't."

"Deal." Vicki led the way through her tiny living room, pushing her leather recliner back upright as she passed, to her equally tiny office. She'd never actually had a client, or potential client, in the office before and there were a couple of unanticipated problems. "I'll, uh, get another chair from the kitchen."

"It's okay. This is fine." Shrugging out of her coat she settled both herself and it on Vicki's weight bench. "Now, about this job… "

"Not yet." Vicki pulled her own chair out from the desk and sat down. "First, about you. Your name is?"

"Coreen, Coreen Fergus." She continued on the same breath, obviously feeling that her name covered all the necessary details. "And I want you to find that vampire that's been terrorizing the city."

"Right." It was too early on a Monday and the latest death was too close. "Did Michael Celluci put you up to this?"

"Who?"

"Never mind." Shaking her head, Vicki stood. "Look, I don't know who put you up to this but you can go back to them and… "

"Ian Reddick was my … " She frowned, searching for a word that would give the relationship its proper weight. "… lover."

"Ian Reddick," Vicki repeated and sat down again. Ian Reddick, the first victim. The body she'd found mutilated in the Eglinton West subway station.

"I want you to find the thing that killed him."

"Look, Coreen," her voice dropped into the professional "comfort tone" that police officers worldwide had to master, "I recognize how upset you must be, but don't you think that's a job for the authorities?"

"No."

There was something utterly intractable in that "no." Vicki pushed her glasses up her nose and searched for a response while Coreen continued.

"They insist on looking for a man, refusing to acknowledge that the paper might be right; refusing to consider anything outside their narrow little world view."

"Refusing to consider that the killer might actually be a vampire?"

"Right."

"The paper doesn't really believe it's a vampire either, you know."

Coreen tossed her hair back off her face. "So? The facts still fit. The blood is still missing. I bet Ian would have been drained dry if he hadn't been found so quickly."

She doesn't know it was me. Thank God. And again she saw him, his face a clich¨¦d mask of terror above the gaping red wound that was his throat. Gaping red wound … no, more as though the whole front of his throat had been ripped away. Not ripped through, ripped away. That was what had been missing; the incongruity that had been nagging at her for over a week now. Where was the front of Ian Reddick's throat?

"… so will you?"

Vicki slowly surfaced from memory. "Let me get this straight. You want me to find Ian's killer, working under the assumption that it really is a vampire? Bats, coffins, the whole bit."

"Yes."

"And once I've found it, I drive a stake through its heart?"

"Creatures of the night can hardly be brought to trial," Coreen pointed out reasonably but with a martial light in her eye. "Ian must be avenged."

Don't get sad, get even. It was a classic solution to grief and one Vicki didn't altogether disapprove of. "Why me?" she asked.

Coreen sat up straighter. "You were the only female private investigator in the yellow pages."

That, at least, made sense and explained the eerie coincidence of Coreen showing up in the office of the woman who'd found Ian's body. "Out of all the gin joints in all the… " She couldn't remember the rest of the quote but she was beginning to understand how Bogart had felt. "It wouldn't be cheap." What am I cautioning her for? I am not going vampire hunting.

"I can afford the best. Daddy pays me a phenomenal amount of guilt money. He ran off with his executive assistant when I was in junior high."

Vicki shook her head. "Mine ran off with his secretary when I was in sixth grade and I never got a cent out of him. Times change. Was she young and pretty?"

"He," Coreen corrected. "And yes, very pretty. They've opened a new law practice in the Bahamas."

"As I said, times change." Vicki pushed her glasses up her nose and sighed. Vampire hunting. Except it wouldn't have to be that. Just find whoever, or whatever, killed Ian Reddick. Exactly what she'd be doing if she were still on the force. Lord knew they were under-manned and could use the help.

Coreen, who had kept her gaze locked on the older woman's face, smiled triumphantly and dug for her checkbook.

"Michael Celluci, please."

"One moment."

Vicki tapped her nails against the side of the phone as she waited for the call to be put through. Ian Reddick's throat had been missing and Celluci, the arrogant shit, hadn't thought to mention whether it had been found or if the other bodies were in the same condition. She didn't really care at this point if he wasn't speaking to her 'cause she was bloody well going to speak to him.

"Criminal Investigation Bureau, Detective-Sergeant Graham."

"Dave? It's Vicki Nelson. I need to talk to Celluci."

"He's not here right now, Vicki. Can I help?"

From her brief experience with him, Vicki knew Dave to be, if possible, a worse liar than she was. And if he couldn't lie convincingly for important things he certainly couldn't do it just to protect his partner's ass. Trust Celluci to get out before the heat came down. "I need a favor."

"Shoot."

The wording became crucial here. It had to sound like she knew more than she did or Dave might clam up and retreat to the official party line. Although, with luck, the acquired habit of answering her questions could last around the department for years. "The hunk of throat missing from the first body, did anyone ever find it?"

"Nope."

So far so good. "What about the others?"

"Not a sign."

"Not even last night's?"

"Not yet anyway. Why?"

"Just sitting here wondering. Thanks, Dave. Tell your partner from me that he's a tight-lipped horse's ass." She hung up and stared at the far wall. Maybe Celluci had been holding the information back to ensure he had bargaining power in the future. Maybe. Maybe he quite honestly forgot to tell her. Ha! Maybe pigs would fly, but she doubted it.

Right now, she had more important things to consider. Like what kind of creature walked off with six square inches of throat as well as twelve pints of blood?

The subway roared out of Eglinton West toward Lawrence and, with the station momentarily deserted, Vicki strode purposefully for the workman's access at the southern end of the northbound platform. This was now her case and she couldn't stand working with secondhand information. She'd see the alcove where the killer allegedly disappeared for herself.

At the top of the short flight of concrete stairs, she paused, her blood pounding unnaturally loudly in her ears. She had always considered herself immune to foolish superstitions, race memories, and night terrors, but faced with the tunnel, stretching dark and seemingly endless like the lair of some great worm, she was suddenly incapable of taking the final step off the platform. The hair on the back of her neck rose as she remembered how, on the night Ian Reddick had died, she'd been certain that something deadly lingered in the tunnel. The feeling itself hadn't returned, but the memory replayed with enough strength to hold her.

This is ridiculous. Pull yourself together, Nelson. There's nothing down in that tunnel that could hurt you. Her right foot slid forward half a step. The worst thing you're likely to run into is a TTC official and a trespassing charge. Her left foot moved up and passed the right. Good God, you're acting like some stupid teenager in a horror movie. Then she stood on the first step. The second. The third. Then she was on the narrow concrete strip that provided a safe passage along the outside rail.

See. Nothing to it. She wiped suddenly sweaty palms on her coat and dug in her purse for her flashlight, then, with the satisfyingly solid weight of it in her hand, flooded the tunnel with light. She would have preferred not to use it, away from the harsh fluorescents of the station, the tunnel existed more in a surreal twilight than a true darkness, but her night-sight had deteriorated to the point where even twilight had become impenetrable. The anger her condition always caused wiped away the last of the fear.

She rather hoped something was skulking in her path. For starters, she'd feed it the flashlight.

Pushing her glasses up her nose, her gaze locked on the beam of light, Vicki moved carefully along the access path. If the trains were on schedule-and while the TTC wasn't up to Mussolini, it did all right-the next one wouldn't be along for another, she checked the glowing dial of her watch, eight minutes. Plenty of time.

She reached the first workman's alcove with six minutes remaining and sniffed disapprovingly at the evidence of police investigation. "Sure, boys," she muttered, playing the light around the concrete walls, "mess it up for the next person."

The hole Celluci's team had dug was about waist level in the center of the back wall and about eight inches in diameter. Stepping over chips of concrete, Vicki leaned forward for a better look. There was, as Celluci said, nothing but dirt behind the excavation.

"So if he didn't come in here," she frowned, "where did he… " Then she noticed the crack that ran the length of the wall, into and out of the exploratory hole. A closer look brought her nose practically in contact with the concrete. The faint hint of a familiar smell had her digging for her Swiss army knife and carefully scraping the edges of the dark recess.

The flakes on the edge of the stainless steel blade showed red-brown in the flashlight beam. They could have been rust. Vicki touched one to the tip of her tongue. They could have been rust, but they weren't. She had a pretty good idea whose blood she'd found but brushed the remaining flakes into a plastic sandwich bag anyway. Then she squatted and ran the blade up under the crack at the top edge of the hole.

Even as she did it, she wasn't sure why. Most of Ian's blood had been sprayed over the subway station wall. There could not have been enough blood on the killer's clothes to have soaked all the way through a crack in six inches of concrete even if he'd been wearing paper towels and had remained plastered against the wall for the entire night.

When she pulled out the knife, mixed in with dirt and bits of cement, were similar red-brown flakes. These went into another bag and then she quickly repeated the procedure at the bottom edge of the hole with the same results.

The roar of the subway became a welcome, normal kind of terror for the only explanation Vicki could come up with, as the alcove shook and a hundred tons of steel hurtled past, was that whatever killed Ian Reddick had somehow passed through the crack in the concrete wall.

And that was patently ridiculous.

Wasn't it?

As the largest producer and wholesaler of polyester clothing, Sigman's Incorporated didn't exactly run a high security building. Since the murder of Terri Neal in the underground parking lot, they'd tried to tighten things up.

In spite of four and a half pages of new admittance regulations, the guard in the lobby glanced up as Vicki strode past, then went back to his book. In gray corduroy pants, black desert boots, and her navy pea jacket she could have been any one of the hundreds of women who came through the area every day and he was neither expected nor encouraged to stop all of them. She certainly wasn't the press-the guard had grown adept at spotting the ladies and gentlemen of the fifth estate and herding them off to the proper authorities. She didn't look like a cop, and besides, cops always checked in. She looked like she knew where she was going, so the guard decided not to interfere. In his opinion, the world could use a few more people who knew where they were going.

At 2:30 in the afternoon, the underground parking garage was empty of people which explained pretty much exactly why Vicki was there at that time. She stepped off the elevator and frowned up at the whining fluorescent lights. Why the hell don't they have security cameras down here? she wondered as the echoes of her footsteps bounced off the stained concrete walls.

Even without the scuffed and faded chalk marks she could tell where the body had fallen. The surrounding cars had been crammed together, leaving an open area over three spaces wide, as if violent death were somehow contagious.

She found what she'd come looking for tucked almost under an ancient rust and blue sedan. Her lower lip caught between her teeth, she pulled out her knife and knelt beside the crack. The blade slid in its full six inches, but the bottom of the crack was deeper still. The red-brown flakes that came up on the steel had most certainly not dropped off the wreck.

She sat back on her heels and frowned. "I really, really don't like the looks of this."

Fishing a marble from the bottom of her bag, she placed it on one of the remaining chalk marks and gave it a little push. It rolled toward the wall, moving away from the crack at almost a forty-five degree angle. Further experiments produced similar results. Blood, or for that matter anything else, could not have traveled from the body to the crack in any way that might be called natural.

"Not that there's anything even remotely natural about any of this," she muttered, tucking this third sandwich bag of dried blood in beside the others and crawling after her marble.

Rather than go back through the building, she climbed up the steeply graded driveway and out onto St. Clair Avenue West.

"Excuse me?"

The attendant in the booth looked up from his magazine.

Vicki waved a hand back down the drive in the general direction of the underground garage. "Do you know what's under the bottom layer of concrete?"

He looked in the direction she indicated, looked back at her, and repeated, "Under the concrete?"

"Yeah."

"Dirt, lady."

She smiled and eased around the barricade. "Thanks. You've been a great help. I'll show myself out."

The chain link fence protested slightly and sagged forward under Vicki's weight as she peered down into the construction site. It was, at the moment, little more than a huge hole in the ground filled with smaller holes, filled with muddy water. All the machinery appeared to have been removed and work stopped. Whether because of the murder or the weather, Vicki had no way of knowing.

"Well," she shoved her hands down into the pockets of her coat, "there's definitely dirt." If there was any blood, it was beyond finding.

"No problem, Vicki." Rajeet Mohadevan tucked the three sandwich bags into the pocket of her lab coat. "I can run them through before I head home tonight with no one the wiser. Are you going to be around the building?"

"No." Vicki saw the flicker of sympathy across the researcher's face but decided to ignore it. Rajeet was doing her a favor, after all. "If I'm not at home, you can leave a message on the machine."

"Same number?"

"Same number."

Rajeet grinned. "Same message?"

Vicki found herself grinning back. The last time the police lab had called her at home had been in the worst of the fights between her and Celluci. "Different message."

"Pity." Rajeet gave an exaggerated sigh of disappointment as Vicki headed for the door. "I've forgotten a few of the places you told him to stuff his occurrence book." She sketched a salute-a reminder of the old days, when Vicki had been an intense young woman in a uniform- and returned to the report she'd been filling out before the interruption.

Walking down the hall, the familiar white tiles of the corridor wrapping around her like an old friend, Vicki considered heading through the tunnel to headquarters and checking to see if Celluci were at his desk. She could tell him about the cracks, find out if he'd been withholding any more information from her, and… no. Given his mood the last time they'd talked and given that he hadn't called over the weekend, if she showed up now she'd just interfere with his work and that was something neither of them ever did. The work being what it was, the work came first and the cracks were added questions, not answers.

She was out of the building entirely when she realized that the thought of seeing another cop sitting at what had been her desk had not influenced her decision one way or another. Feeling vaguely like she'd betrayed her past, she hunched her shoulders against the late afternoon chill and started for home.

For years Vicki had been promising to buy herself a really good encyclopedia set. For years she'd been putting it off. The set she had, she'd bought at the grocery store for five dollars and ninety-nine cents a volume with every ten dollars worth of groceries. It didn't have a lot to say about vampires.

"Legendary creatures, uh huh, central Europe, Vlad the Impaler, Bram Stoker… " Vicki pushed her glasses up her nose and tried to remember the characteristics of Stoker's Dracula. She'd seen the play years ago and thought she might have read the book in high school-only a lifetime or two back.

"He was stronger, faster, his senses were more acute… " She flicked the points off on her fingertips. "He slept all day, came out at night, and he hung around with a guy who ate flies. And spiders." Making a disgusted face she turned back to the encyclopedia.

The vampire," she read, "was said to be able to turn into bats, wolves, mist, or vapor. " The ability to turn to mist or vapor would explain the cracks, she realized. The victim's blood, being heavier, would precipitate out to coat the narrow passageway. "And a creature that rises from the grave should have no trouble moving through earth." Marking her place with an old phone bill, she heaved herself out of the recliner and turned the television on, suddenly needing sound in the apartment.

"This is crazy," she muttered, opening the book again and reading while she paced. Fantasy and reality were moving just a little too close for comfort, definitely too close for sitting still.

The remainder of the entry listed the various ways of dealing with the creatures, from ash stakes through mustard seed to the crucifix, going on in great detail about staking, beheading, and burning.

Vicki allowed the slender volume to fall closed and raised her head to look out the window. In spite of the street light glowing less than three meters from her apartment, she was very conscious of the darkness pressing against the glass. For a legendary creature, the methods of its destruction seemed to be taken very seriously indeed.

Behind the police barricade, something crouched low over the piece of sidewalk where the fourth body had been found. Although the night could hide no secrets from him and, unlike the others who had searched, he knew what to search for, he found nothing.

"Nothing," Henry murmured to himself as he stood. "And yet there should be something here." A child of his kind might be able to hide its tracks from human hunters but not from kin. He lifted his head and his nostrils flared to check the breeze. A cat-no, two-on hunts of their own, rain that would fall before morning, and…

He frowned, brows drawing down into a deep vee. And what? He knew the smell of death in all its many manifestations and laid over the residue of this morning's slaying was a faint miasma of something older, more foul, almost familiar.

His memories stretched back over four hundred and fifty years. Somewhere in there…

The police car was almost up on him before he saw it and the tiny sun in the heart of the searchlight had begun to glow before he moved.

"Holy shit! Did you see that?"

"See what?" Auxiliary Police Constable Wojtowicz stared out her window at the broad fan of light spilling out from the top of the slowly moving car.

"I don't know." PC Harper leaned forward over the steering wheel and peered past his partner. "I could've sworn I saw a man standing inside the barricades just as I flipped the lighten."

Wojtowicz snorted. "Then we'd still be able to see him. Nobody moves that fast. And besides," she waved a hand at the view out the window, "there's nowhere to hide in that." That included the sidewalk, the barricades, and an expanse of muddy lawn. Although black shadows streamed away from every irregularity, none were large enough to hide a man.

"Think we should get out and look around?"

"You're the boss."

"Well… " Nothing moved amid the stark contrast of light and shadow. Harper shook his head. The night had been making him jumpy lately; exposing nerves and plucking at them. "I guess you're right. There's nothing there."

"Of course I'm right." The car continued down the block and she reached over to shut the searchlight off. "You're just letting all this vampire stuff in the press get to you."

"You don't believe in vampires, do you?"

"Course not." Wojtowicz settled more comfortably into her seat. "Don't tell me you do?"

It was Harper's turn to snort. "I," he told her dryly, "have been audited."

Back on the lawn, one of the shadows lay, face pressed against the dirt, and remembered. The scent was stronger here, mixed a third part with earth and blood, and it brushed away the centuries.

It was London, 1593. Elizabeth was on the throne and had been for some time. He'd been dead for fifty-seven years. He'd been walking back from the theater, having just seen the premiere presentation of Richard the Third. On the whole, he'd enjoyed himself although he had a feeling the playwright had taken a few liberties with the personality of the king.

Out of a refuse-strewn alleyway, a young man had stumbled-thin and disheveled but darkly handsome, very drunk, and, clinging about him like his own personal bit of fog, had been that same smell.

Henry had already fed from a whore behind the theater, but even if he hadn't, he would not have fed from this man. The scent alone was enough to make him wary, the not quite sane glitter in the dark eyes had only added further warning.

"Most humbly, I beg your pardon." His voice, the voice of an educated man, had been slurred almost beyond understanding. "But I have been in Hell this night and am having some small difficulty in returning." He'd giggled then, and executed a shaky bow in Henry's direction. "Christopher Marlowe at your service, milord. Can you spare a few coppers for a drink?"

"Christopher Marlowe," Henry repeated softly into a night more than four hundred years after that unhappy man had died. He rolled onto his back and gazed up at the clouds closing ranks over the stars. Although he had read the play just after its posthumous publication in 1604, he wondered tonight for the first time just how much research Marlowe had done before writing The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus.

"Vicki, it's Rajeet. Sorry to call so late-uh, it's 11:15, Monday night, I guess you've gone to bed-but I figured you'd want to know the results of the tests. You have positive matches with both Ian Reddick and Terri Neal. I don't know what you've found, but I hope it helps."

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