Saturday, May 6, 2017

Vampire Ambassador, Part One

The corpse had almost dissolved on the kitchen floor. Except for the clothes—a red vinyl jacket, dusty black jeans, and heavy boots—the body was melting fast. In an hour the vampire would be dust.
The wooden stake sticking out of its back was stained with black blood.
            “The woman who lives here is named Beth Eubanks.” Detective Anita Sharpe read from her phone. “She’s gone. Her son Brandon talks to her every day. When she didn’t answer the phone yesterday, he came over today. He has a key. This is what he found. What do you think, Jurgen?”
            I crossed my arms. We were in a West Rogers Park apartment at 10:30 a.m. Sunlight streamed through the windows, speeding the decomposition process.
This wasn’t as bad as some murder victims I’ve seen—not that many, thank god—but the bare skull and hand weren’t much fun to look at.
“So it’s a vampire, obviously.” The body was probably only a few years old. “Younger, or there’d be more—stuff left behind. Older and there wouldn’t be anything left by now.”
            Yeah, that’s me talking, Tom Jurgen, vampire expert. Private detective. And because of a truce worked out between the Chicago Police Department and the two reigning vampire lords of Chicago—Clifton Page and a female vampire named Anemone—I’m now unofficial ambassador between the forces of light and darkness.
            Not something I’d dreamed about growing up. Mostly I wanted to be Batman.
            I crouched down, keeping my hands far away from the remains. “Why is there a stake?”
            “Yeah, I wondered that too.” Sharpe didn’t miss much. “Most people don’t keep a wooden stick handy to kill vampires in their house.”
            So Beth Eubanks had been expecting a vampire attack? I peered down at what was left of the body. “Somebody should check all the pockets, obviously.”
            Sharpe sniffed. “You know, I have been a cop for a long time, Jurgen.”
            “I meant somebody aside from me.” I stood up. “Where’s the son?”
            “Downtown, filing a report. Missing persons on the mother. This?” She shook her head. “We’re still trying to figure out how to classify vampire killings. When the vamp is the victim, I mean.”
            “And keep it out of the papers.” That still bothered me. I used to be a reporter. Every instinct in my body told me that this was news, that the people of the city had a right to know. But the cops were determined to cover it up for as long as they could. And if I ignored them and went rogue, they could make my life very uncomfortable.
            So I went along with it. Being a private detective had taught me to keep secrets. Besides, they were paying me. Not much, but enough for cat food. If I had a cat.
            I looked around. “How long can you keep this place clean?”
            “It depends on the landlord.” Sharpe shrugged. “I don’t think he’ll be a problem until the rent comes due.”
            “Fine.” I looked down at the dissolving corpse. “I’ll need to talk to the son.”

Brandon Eubanks, 26, had short brown hair, wide glasses and nervous hands. “I just walked in and—what the hell was that, anyway?”
            We sat in a coffee shop near police headquarters—just me and Brandon. Sharpe had paperwork and meetings. Plus, I didn’t want her to intimidate Brandon too much.
            “And that stick of wood?” Brandon shook his head. “Did someone really stab—whoever it was—with that?”
            “We’ll see.” I opened my laptop. “Tell me about your mother.”
            Brandon’s fingers were tense as he lifted his latté. “Well, she’s, uh 58, I think. She lives in Lakeview. She and my dad got divorced 10 years ago. It was . . .” He sighed. “Well, he was abusive. To both of us. That’s why I call my mom every day.”
            “Does she answer?”
            “Up until the day before yesterday, yeah. That’s why I got worried.” He ran a hand over his forehead. “She’s not picking up now. I think she’s got it turned off.”
            “I don’t know!” He wanted to pound the table, but a woman in a wheelchair was watching a movie on her tablet at the table next to us. He leaned down. “Sorry. I’m just scared.”       
I nodded. “What’s your father’s name?” I opened my laptop and tapped the local password.
            “William. Bill. Bill Eubanks. Mom kept the name, for some reason.”
I tapped the local password and entered the name. “Has he threatened her since the divorce?” Ex-partners were always the obvious place to start with every unexplained death. Even a vampire’s.
            Brandon sighed. “There’s a restraining order, for whatever that’s worth.”
            That came up right away. Along with a few other reports. “When was the last time you saw him?”
            He closed his eyes. “About a year ago. He came to my office—I’m in real estate. He was drunk. Said he just wanted to talk to me, but all he did was talk about mom. Eventually he left. Do you think . . .”
Brandon shook his head. “It can’t be him. He’d never wear a coat like that.”
            Red vinyl? He had a point. Probably something from a vampire victim from the 1970s. Or a garbage can. “Where would your mother go if she was in trouble?”
            Brandon sighed. “I already gave a list to the police. Her best friend Kate lives down the hall, but I called her before I went over. There’s Alicia, they went to college together, she lives out in Oak Park. I don’t have her number, but—”
            “Was she seeing anyone?”
            His eyebrows shot up. “Mom? I mean . . .” Then he laughed. “Yeah, she’s my mom. No, I don’t think she’s ever dated anyone since my dad. I would’ve . . . had to get used to it, I guess, but I even told her a few times she ought to think about it. But no, she’s not dating anyone.”
            “All right.” I finished my coffee and closed my laptop. This was just like meeting with a client. “I’ll be in touch.”
            “Uh, are you a cop?” He looked confused.
            I hesitated, “I’m a—consultant. I work with them on cases like, well, this one. The unusual condition of the, uh, body . . .” I gave him my card. “I’m a private detective. Call me if you think of anything else.”
            “All right.” He put the lid on his latté. “I suppose I should try to do some work. If I can.”
            “Oh, one thing?” I didn’t want to go all Lieutenant Columbo on Brandon, but I’d been saving the question. “Can you think of reason why your mother would have kept a wooden stake in her apartment?”
            A magnetic strip above the kitchen sink had held a dozen knives of various lengths. I’d checked for a handgun all over and found nothing.
You don’t usually sharpen a stake unless you’re expecting a vampire.
            “Uh, no.” Brandon seemed confused by the question. “It’s not like she was into Buffy the Vampire Slayer or anything. Maybe the guy brought it with him?”
            That was one possibility. “Maybe. Well, thanks.”

I called Sharpe from my Honda. “Can you email me the list of Beth Eubanks’ friends?”
            “I already did. And yes, we’re looking for the ex-husband.” Once again, Sharpe was letting me know she knew her job better than I did. “
            I couldn’t really blame her. During the crisis that led to me becoming the vampire-human ambassador, she’d volunteered to become a vampire in response to an ultimatum from Anemone, the vampire queen. We’d talked her out of it, and she’d quit the CPD, but Hughes—the police commander in charge of the task force—had talked her back somehow. But she sounded like she was dealing with some serious depression either way—why else would someone sign up for eternal hell, even to live forever?
            And now she was stuck with me. Probably not the bonus she was expecting.
            “Okay, I’ll get right on it.” I hung up and checked my email.

“She was angry.” Beth’s best friend Kate from down the hall sounded angry too on my phone. “I mean, she got nothing from him. He walked out when Brandon was 15, after beating her every other day for years? And she had to move in down the hall with one bedroom and a bathroom that didn’t always have hot water. And pay for college? He didn’t pay for anything. What an asshole.”
            I sat in my apartment listening to her, scanning the list of names and numbers Sharpe had sent me. “Did you ever meet him? Bill Eubanks?”
            “Yeah, I saw him once or twice. In the hall, banging on the door. He looked drunk. What’s going on?” Kate sounded tired. “I saw the cops this morning around her apartment. Who did you say you are?”
            “Tom Jurgen. I’m a—a consultant with the police. So was Beth afraid? Her ex-husband must have been—”
            “She’s just kind of tense, you know? Jerking around at every noise. I asked her once, and she just said she couldn’t ever let her guard down. She had trouble sleeping sometimes. But she’s not scared of Bill. I saw her shout him down the staircase at him one night. She just wants him to leave her alone.”
            I called more of Beth’s friends. Most of them didn’t want to talk to me. One hung up on me. I left messages with the others. The second to last name picked up, set her phone down for two minutes, and then started out with a burp. “Oops. Sorry. You wanted to talk about Beth?”
            Her name was April Potts, and she lived in the Edgewater neighborhood. “Yes. Have you heard from her? Her son is trying to get in touch with her.”
            “Brandon? Or that son of a bitch Bill? I can’t stand him.”
            I was hearing that a lot. “It’s Brandon. Like I said, all I need to know is whether Beth has been in contact with you.”
            “No.” She paused. “Well, yeah. She left this weird message last night on my phone.”
            I leaned forward. “What did she say?”
            “She said, uh . . . ‘I’m tired of it. Nobody calls me . . .’ What was it? Pathetic. That was it. ‘Pathetic.’” April burped again. “Sorry. Long day. Little bit of wine.”
            “I know the feeling.” I was thinking about the beer in in my refrigerator. “How did she sound? What do you think she meant?”
            “She sounded tired. Not like she’d just been to a workout. The message was at 9:30 at night. I got in at 11:00, because—anyway, never mind. I just think she meant . . . I don’t know.”
            I kept my mouth shut. Silence is sometimes the best way to get people to talk. I’d learned that as a reporter.
            “She just said, ‘I’m tired of everyone thinking I’m pathetic.’ And then she said, ‘Things are going to change.’”
            “What does pathetic mean?”
            “I don’t . . . “ I heard a gulp. “We’ve been friends a long time, all right? We took a creative writing class once, and that’s how we met. But—and you can’t say this, okay? Beth doesn’t stand up for herself. All her stories were about girls getting screwed. She is . . . I mean . . .”
            “Kind of pathetic?” I couldn’t help it.
            “I’m trying to build my own life here.” April sighed. “Sorry. It’s not easy. I’m divorced too. And Beth’s good, you know? But it’s hard. I could see she’s trying, but she’s just . . . too nice. She needs to kick her ex-husband in the balls. She needs to get laid. She needs to do something, anything. Just stop being so, so nice.”
            Pathetic. “I think I get it. Thank you.”
            “Oh god! Please don’t tell her I said anything! I mean—” Another gulp. “She’s my friend. I just want her to be okay . . .”
            “It’s all confidential.” I checked April’s name off on my list. “Thanks for your help.”
            “Have her call me, all right? We should get together. Maybe you could come too? You sound cute.”
            One of my editors had described my phone voice as the spawn of Eeyore the donkey and a grating telemarketer. “I’ll ask my girlfriend. Will you call me if you hear from Beth?” I gave her my number and my email address.
            “Oh, sure.” She giggled. “Hope to hear from you.”
            “Same here.” I decided not to tell Rachel that women on the phone were hitting on me.

I took a nap. Being the vampire ambassador kept me up nights. I woke up at 5:30 and started dinner, waiting for sundown when I could call Anemone. Yes, vampires have cell phones. Welcome to the 21st century.
            Two vampires, Anemone and Clifton Page, had carved the city up between them. As promised, they’d stopped the epidemic of vampire attacks in the city with our truce, but they could restart the chaos at any time. I left a message as twilight faded across the sky outside my window.
            Rachel came down at 6:00, while I was stirring chickpeas, turmeric, and onions in a skillet. Rachel is my upstairs neighbor, my girlfriend, a vegetarian, and sometimes an associate on cases that require someone who’s at least somewhat psychic. She’s no vampire fan, but she was relieved I was no longer working directly for the police force against them. She dislikes cops and authority as much as people who eat veal.
            I was turning down the heat when my phone buzzed. Anemone, calling me back.  “Hello, Tom Jurgen.” She laughed. “I was just about to go look for something to drink.”
            Gulp. Anemone liked to hunt early in the evening. “This won’t take long. Do you know anything about—”
            “The vampire killed in West Rogers Park? Of course. What are you doing about it?”
            I moved the skillet off the burner. “Humans have the right to protect themselves from attacks. We agreed on that.”
            “But the human ran away, didn’t she? Vampires have the right to protect themselves too.”
            “We’re trying to find the human, and find out what happened. Do you know who—wait.” I was about to ask about the dead vamp. “What do you know about the human? I never mentioned she was, uh, a she.”
            “Oh, you’re so clever.” Anemone laughed again. “I know a lot. The vampire who was killed? His name was Anthony V. No last name. Probably derived from his human name, but I don’t know that for sure. I do know that he hires out.”
            “Hires out.” I leaned against the counter. “You mean he was a hitman?”
            “Of a sort. He took money and then got blood. Everyone was happy.”
            Except his victims. “So who hired him?”
            “No idea. We all need money. And we all need blood, one way or another. Well, I have to hit the street. Keep me up to date.” She hung up.
            Rachel stood in the kitchen doorway. She’s got red hair and hazelnut eyes. “Are we going to eat soon?”
I grabbed bowls. “Vampires working as assassins. Who knew?”
            She opened the refrigerator door and brought out two beers. “Well, it makes sense. Want to watch ER after dinner?” We were on season four. I was getting jealous of her crush on young George Clooney.
            I spooned dinner into the bowls. “I should call Sharpe.”

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