Everything strikes me as funny nowadays. I know it's not right and some sort of post-traumatic stress thing but dang, it's what I feel. Right off the bat I knew that my sense of humor would not be appreciated after everything went to hell in a hand basket. So I found myself biting my tongue and trying to keep my cool when in groups of two or more folks. Damned if they didn't all find doom and gloom acceptable. Acceptable -- they thought the world falling apart was exactly what everyone deserved and earned with the past few gazillion years of Sodom and Gomorra types of entertainment and bad 'lifestyles' and lifestyle choices. The backlash seemed to be what was expected and earned. I didn't agree with the status quo and thus found myself in the awkward position of knowing too much about stuff and not able to share.
Here's the joke -- the world fell apart and yet the other world is just as sound and deadly as ever. Yep, that's what I get for being a bounty hunter. Not like the bail bondsmen who took care of the riff raff who tried to run out on their court dates and legal obligations. No, I was more along the lines of a specialist. Yeah, that's the best way of putting it.
My specialty was bagging, tagging and removing those creatures that came across from the other world into ours and got in serious trouble. The underworld council allowed the good ones to stay but if the bad elements made for problems or caused deaths, sudden major blood loss due to fangs and what have ya or just the straight out dismemberments to hit critical mass amongst plain-Jane, average humans, I was called in to snag the strays and toss them to the council for punishment and relocation.
Yeah, council actually referred to it as relocation -- from what I knew it was the sort of relocation kinda like the mob, ya know, where suddenly the local construction jobs needed a few bags less of concrete to fill the parking lot or bridge overpass up top in the world -- or at least what was left of the world. Since everything went wickedly wild there actually was construction still going on in parts of town -- they didn't fall off the face of the earth -- but that was something I didn't ask about either. No clue who was paying the freight but I did have my ideas. So, for me, when the rest of the known world fell apart none of that changed. There still was leakage from one universe to another. If anything, my job was nearly the same. The only exception was I now had to hop around the broken humans in the post-apocalyptic world. My job was a charm, without any fairy dust or magic enchantments to make it all pretty.
"Rebecca!" An excited voice shouted to me from the bushes. I shuddered, knowing it was one of the underworld council's emissaries.
Turning I saw Charles looking ever so dapper on the edge of the pathway.
"Chuck, what's up?" He worked my last nerve as a rule. He was a total suck up. Thus it was my duty to smack him down like the pond scum he was with force. He wasn't really pond scum -- pond scum was actually pretty cool in comparison.
"The Council has a missive for you." Yes, he talked like that. I could hear the capital letters when he spoke. I wanted to just go back to my current flop and sleep. It wasn't to be.
"Verbal or on parchment?" I wasn't kidding. I had received some awesome calligraphy inked commands over the years. The other universe had a formality that this world was sadly lacking. Flip-flops and tank tops weren't part of their make up, yet. With all the creatures going back and forth I knew eventually this tattered land would corrupt them.
"Verbal." His tone was snippy and he stood a scant foot from me.
Charles was not human. I wasn't exactly sure what he was but definitely from the other world. His skin was a pale green and his eyes a sleet gray. The creature wasn't more than four feet tall. His hair was dull and listless, nearly copper shaded. Oh, and he had sharp teeth. Not like one or two but the whole set of what seemed to be fifty or so teeth. Shark-like in a way. I never asked to look inside his mouth to see if they replaced themselves. The overall combination was creepy as all get out. I know I'd seen tidbits from his previous meals and the debris wasn't readily recognizable so I didn't accept any meal invites from him. Yeah, he'd asked me out a few times thinking that we were such close associates I'd have some soft spot for him.
"Spill it, Chuck." I wasn't up for dancing.
Last night down in the sewers had stretched me to my personal limits. The dawn had crested but even with the promise of a new day I wasn't up for games with old Chuckie -- I was beyond worn out. He was wearing a charcoal and off-black pinstriped three piece suit that he'd coupled with a cream silk shirt and I could see the gold glint of a watch fob to his vest. Standing near him I felt like the insides of a chamber pot three days old. Besides, I mean like, who knew ogres liked to muck around in sewers so much? My experiences had them usually in the mountains and up under bridges not underground knee deep in raw sewage and bits of unidentifiable flotsam. They had been dining on the homeless beneath the city who'd been living in the sewers and drainage runoff areas. My job had been to grab them for the council without inflicting any noticeable injuries for due process. That had taken some work since ogres didn't like to be taken captive, much less by a woman. I had just got back to the streets an hour ago after kicking the three ogres over to the council and needed to find a bath at the very least.
He shot his cuffs, making sure he let the dawn light catch the mother of pearl and gold cufflinks at his wrists. Once he caught my eye he nodded. I was supposed to recognize how serious the emissary was. I was less than impressed but then I'd been working with Charles for over five years now and I'd seen more of his underside than I'd ever admit. Some things are most definitely best left to my nightmares.
"There is a rogue vampire feasting on young virgins." He said solemnly.
I began to laugh.
"You have to be kidding me! Where the hell is this vampire finding them here? We are like in California!" I doubled over laughing hard.
Charles looked insulted then said, "Excuse me, but there are some good girls here. And this vampire calls himself Count Johnny."
I did a mental jump and said, "The vampire is an Ed Wood fan? You have to be kidding me. He thinks he's who? Like Johnny Depp?"
My brain really was wired funny even before the 'end of the world'. I knew that Johnny Depp had played the director, Ed Wood, in a movie a decade or two ago and that Ed Wood was big into making really bad movies and that he'd had Bela Lugosi in one of his infamous movies. Thus I knew exactly who the vampire was playing. Bela Lugosi ala Johnny Depp's interpretation.
"Please tell me is this 'Count Johnny' wearing a black silk cape with red lining?" I had to ask adding, "And does he have slick backed black hair and a killer gaze?"
"Yes, according to what I have been told." Charles looked confused.
"How did you know that's where the vampire got his name? And what he looks like?" He asked finally curious about something beyond his misaligned nose.
"It's my talent." I grinned. This ought to be good. I could see my knowing something he didn't was driving his kiss-ass brain nuts.
He tried for a casual disinterest by saying, "Well, whatever." He pretended he was a Californian but I damn well knew he hadn't been spawned anywhere in California. And near as I knew there wasn't a parallel California on the other side. He dictated, "You need to either stake the vampire or give him to the council before the next dawn. He has gotten too bold." With that good old Chuck slunk back into the greenery. I was happy he hadn't hit on me again. My stench and rancid clothes must have put him off; at least that was what I hoped. With Charles I didn't ever ask such questions.
Lovely. I was on my own again. Taking a breath, I coughed at my odor. I was weary, but knew despite the fact the sun had just risen I had to get moving. I went down the path and made it to my current home. I took ten minutes to suck down a cold cup of tea and change my wardrobe. The clothes I'd been wearing I tossed into a burn bag. I'd send the bag with the next drop off so the council could dispose of the DNA and ogre tidbits that were spattered all over my clothing. That was one of the good things about being connected to the underworld's council: I did get some perks. Besides disposal of clothing, I also got treats like tins of decent teas and other foods lacking for the most part. I didn't bother to wash off the dirt from my earlier excursion under the city but quenched my thirst and grabbed a few stakes. Time was of the essence when it came to the council's commands. They meant what they said that I had to have staked the vampire by tomorrow's dawn or drop off to them. Either way vampires were a pain in more than the neck.
Once outside, I sighed. It wasn't anywhere near dusk so any vampires wandering the wasteland would be nasty old vampires that weren't given to easily curl up and die. But I didn't think the current vampire under capture or staking orders was an old timer, which meant it was going to take some research and work. I wasn't happy to be wandering around trying to sense the creature; older vampires had strength and definition and I was usually able to find them fairly easily. The newer ones were not as noticeable to my senses and took more work than I liked. But orders tended to be orders and I knew that I was being watched from the other world by remote viewing. No need to piss off those with real power.
The days were busier on the rubble lined streets than the nights. During the nighttime most normal humans dove for cover and didn't bother showing back outside until dawn. Since it was a bit after daybreak I was forced to nod and pretend civility to the folks wandering the streets. It was totally creepy. Wandering by shell-shocked humans pretending they didn't notice the abandoned car frames -- most things had long been stripped off. I did notice that there was a CD on the ground near one car. Seeing the title I understood while it wasn't even being used for skeet shooting. After all who'd want the 'best' of Milli Vanilli?
One broken man tried to pull me into his torn up shop. The tattered signs in the front of his store seemed to indicate he used to sell computers and computer repair services. He was dressed in torn black Dockers and a threadbare button down dress shirt that once was light blue or gray. He'd attempted to keep a clean-shaven face but I could see patches of hairs missed along his neck and cheeks. His dark hair was slicked over a balding pate in an awkward attempt to disguise the skin. His eyes were dark and shadowed by the life ruined. His intensity of speech was riddled with desperation laced heavily with fear. He was currently selling his interpretation of why he didn't get saved. His babbling was about how the End of Times wasn't here yet and since he wasn't snatched up with the Rapture he needed to convert those of us still stateside to make sure he got a seat on the crazy express to wherever. His visions of Rapture included reuniting with his fifth grade teacher and something obscene with jello.
I tugged my arm free without harming the innocent, crazy man. It wasn't easy. Maniacs tended to have iron grips and he was no exception. I saw a few people milling about inside his transformed storefront. But then he did have a fire going ... I think he was using an Apple computer as the fodder but I didn't get close enough to read the icon on the side. The smell was burnt plastic and hopes.
Continuing on down the street I watched a few children fight over a bit of meat. From the smell it wasn't cow, chicken or even horse. Some things are best left unknown but I could hear a stray dog barking in the distance and knew that would soon be on the menu. The decay of humanity wasn't pretty. The kids were vicious and quick since everything they knew had disappeared since their childhood. The basics of survival took over for those who remained.
At best, I had a good four or five hours before Count Johnny would even wake. Nights fell sooner than the calendar indicated possible. It was technically summer but night fell hours sooner than it had before and it had snowed eerily just a month ago. Weather and time both seemed to have been jumbled when the world fell. I decided to look up the vampire's victims and see if I could find his favorite hunting ground.
It took me about an hour to make it to Mackey's house. From the outside it didn't appear out of place on the street. Trees that had overgrown their yards pushed roots up causing the concrete and driveways to shift and lift. No paint had been applied in at least a dozen years -- it wasn't like folks tended to their yards anymore much less the fine-tuning of painting and repairs. The source of light in the evenings would be candles, if anything, since that alerted strangers that there was someone alive inside. I went around to the backyard and pushed a button hidden beneath a fake rock. Mackey had security in place despite the dilapidated appearance of his home. The brush in the yard was overgrown and treacherous. Brambles and thorny roses filled most of the available space. It was a nice deterrent for the nosy and unscrupulous. I hadn't seen any neighbors watching but then Mackey and I'd been friends for a dozen or so years so my visiting wasn't unusual. He'd helped me pry and snoop for the underworld council well into more than one late night and early morning. He'd told the neighbors back then that I was his cousin.
He was my go-to computer hacker. Even with the end of the world there still were some tech boys out there doing their magic. I never asked the council if they had shared their skills and given up items from the other universe but I had my suspicions. The back entrance was a deceptive looking wooden door with a broken doorknob and peeling paint. Scuff marks in the middle looked like someone had kicked in the door at some point and removed anything of value. The door was made of steel. His house wasn't constructed of mere plaster and wood but steel and concrete covered by the fake decor. The windows were dark from the outside but he used heavy blackout drapes on the inside and could run florescent lights undetected if he desired. Today he just let a bit of light inside by adjusting the drapes and window blinds. Still, there was more than enough light to work.
"Rebecca, baby! How the hell are you?" Mackey used to be a corporate raider before the known universe fell off and I had only known him as a hacker on the side. I never gave him a dime to invest for me and when all the markets crashed I avoided talking about it. He was still bitter about what he lost.
Mackey was still a good man to know. He had a few years on the normal hackers but he made up for it with the ability to cut through the BS in half the time and didn't try to impress me with his abilities. Add in that I was able to give him gemstones in payment for all his work -- which surprisingly enough were still as valuable after everything fell apart -- we were easily able to come to a meeting of minds when it came to business. Since the normal nine to five grind with cappuccinos and teleconferences were gone it was easier to trade or barter services. The almighty dollar didn't exist as far as merchants were concerned. Also the gems came from the council as payment for my work at times. I didn't have any need for bright and shiny objects so I regifted as quickly as needed.
"I am between a rock and a fanged boy. I need some info on the recent local deaths of young virgins with bite marks." I said it without any effort. Mackey was aware of what I did. Also I appreciated that he didn't ask me where I'd been. It was pretty obvious from my stench that I hadn't been anywhere fun. He pretended it was a normal request but I could see the trace of fear running over his face. I figured the council had threatened him recently. They knew that he knew too much by their rigid standards. He wasn't exactly part of their culture or under their thumb like I was so his leash was shorter than mine.
"Okay, then. And I don't think they list the victims noting virginity or non-virginity status on police reports. But I can check about puncture marks on victims in the reports if you give me a few minutes." He sketched me a slight smile and went to one of his ham radios and began to dial up information. It took him a few minutes to find anyone out there to help. The city had been pulled taut with the crime waves and when cops and politicians didn't collect a paycheck there were some that didn't show up for work. And some of those who did remain were corrupt while others needed to be bribed to give information to the 'general public'. He began to network through his various ham operator buddies connected with the police to get the low down on what had been going on around town. Once he'd got some information that seemed to fit he went to an old Apple computer and started keying like mad. I flashed back to the odd shopkeeper who tried to pull me into his universe. Mackey took nearly an hour to get me the facts.
There had been five young women killed in the past week. All had been snatched and drained of most of their blood. The police took pictures, DNA samplings and then torched the bodies. Cremation was automatically done within twenty-four hours since the pandemics of 2012. The women had been out with friends -- basically a euphemism for prowling for boys, drugs or liquor -- in whichever order worked. There wasn't much interest in finding the perpetrator since there were more gruesome murderers running around town. Yep, a few fang-drained women might be odd but didn't stack up well against the snipers and arsonists plying their trade up and down the coast nightly.
Ever since the total madness had started three years ago there had been a major shift in the moral compasses of the survivors. Granted some of the humans weren't exactly survivors, but shell-shocked remnants meandering until they were killed or simply fell down and gave up -- nevertheless a new breed of predator took over the city. Scores were settled quickly -- if possible -- if not, hired out. Sniper attacks followed closely by the prey's house, shack or tent torched, spelling out for those living near that there was a feud. And it was war on for the participants. Anything that used to be some daily infraction of the old world order could and would now be perceived in a different light. Invasions of another person's personal space, thoughts or desires could and would mean horrific death. Lovely, no?
Any wonder why some blood-drained virgins weren't attracting any sort of notice?
Vampires weren't some exclusive club of carefully chosen creatures that had a set of values, specific qualities or good lineage. Any fang banger had the potential to become a vamp. That didn't do much for the council -- the great Masters who supposedly guided the 'elite' in the underworld. The council from the other universe had slain all the troublemakers of all varieties whenever they encountered them both there and here. They weren't given to allowing for mistakes. Which was probably why Mackey was a bit nervous. I know that he edged closer to the other side than this one when he helped me. And since the apocalypse, as it was termed, I think he was looking for a way to cross over. Crossing over wasn't exactly something the council wanted, much less encouraged, unless it was along the lines of me tossing back something from here that had broken a rule or slain a human without the proper documentation. But Mackey wasn't deterred. He'd tried to ask me questions over the years about when and where I had entered but I always smiled and didn't answer.
What I didn't tell Mackey was how I came to the council's attention. It was at birth. I was a first generation import via my mom. Yes, my mom came over to this universe when she'd first found out she was pregnant. Her claim to fame in the other universe was as what the council calls a world watcher. She'd sat in some fancy room and spied on this world to see if any of the council's rules for immigrants were being broken.
She never told me who my father was, or what type of creature. All I knew was my mother was very fair skinned and had dark hair that flowed like water to her waist when it was unbraided. She kept it braided whenever she went out and dressed plainly as if she was trying to avoid notice. Late at night when I was a little girl I'd quietly creep out of my bed and go sneak peeks at her when she slept. When she was sound asleep she glowed lightly and physically looked different.
My world changed just after I'd turned ten. She was slain by a random robbery or at least that was how the newspaper reported it. I'd always had my doubts, and the days and nights following her murder did nothing to diminish those dark thoughts.
Literally right after I was told of my mother's death, I got my first visit from the council. Three darkly clad creatures, two men and one woman, appeared on my doorstep. I was a latch key kid back then. The cops who'd come to tell me about my mom's murder were back in my mom's room trying to find an address book. They didn't want to turn me over to Child Protective Services, but weren't having any success in finding any of my family. The mysterious strangers quickly claimed that they were my mom's cousins. The cops left me in their care. It was then that they informed me that I wasn't going to be forced to go back 'home' and if I wished to stay in the universe that I'd known as my home I would be under their care. Their 'care' was a crash training course in recognizing those walking amidst humans that weren't, and how to disarm, dismember and detain in any and all as ordered and as needed to 'assist' the council. Played hell with my teen years but I'd followed the orders. I had not wanted to give up the home I'd known, so they moved the caretakers into my mother's humble home. Any day I could walk into a meeting in the living room with creatures most folks thought were science fantasy creatures or stuff from which nightmares were woven.
I never told Mackey any of my history, but he'd clued in quickly that I wasn't 'normal'. I didn't let it crush my feelings coming from a computer nerd and corporate raider. From everything I knew, his concepts of normal weren't exactly mainstream. Mackey cleared his throat and it dawned on me that I'd been spacing out while he did his research.
"Okay, now print me a map with the locations of the bodies highlighted and where the ladies lived and were last seen." He stared at me saying, "You want me to use real paper or recycled?"
I stared back and didn't say a word. With the gems I gave him he had the luxury of being able to afford real unused paper. Paper was a surprisingly hot commodity. The recycled paper tended to be sheets of paper that had been used on at least one side but at times both sides would be filled. I waited while Mackey printed out the map of the city with the desired markings. There wasn't anything on the other side. I tossed him a sapphire and said, "See, now was that so difficult?"
He shook his head but still looked pensive.
"What's wrong?" I didn't really want to know, but didn't see how I could leave him looking like that.
"Rebecca, things have become odd lately." He finally said. He was aware that the council spied on humanity, but felt his safety measures kept him out of their line of vision. I didn't know how to tell him he was wrong without getting myself in trouble.
Laughing, "Mackey, they've been odd as long as I can remember."
That brightened him up and he nodded. Whatever else he wanted to say he kept to himself. I nodded and headed for the reinforced door. He unlocked the door after looking out for any unwanted visitors.
"You need anything else just come back." He didn't like to say goodbye. We all had our kinks and that was one of his.
Continued next week ...