The story begins...
That's always how it begins, isn't it?
I can vaguely remember leaving my apartment as a matter of routine, straightening my black tie as I walked down the murky hallway. As though looking sharp was really going to make a big difference in the new job that I was moving into tonight. Something tells me that the higher ups that picked me for this new assignment might have had it out for me from the very beginning. The shoe didn't fit, but the pigs in charge made me wear it anyway. I wish I had a photo of the look on my face when they first revealed to me that vampires were real. Heh...that must have been a Kodak moment and a half. I mean, come on...to this day, I still don't believe it. I keep waiting for the guy with the hidden camera to jump out of the bushes and tell me that I've been had. That good ol' Gus Showalski was a sucker for buying into this crap, even for a second. I have to admit though...if this is a hoax, they certainly have spent a lot of time and money on making it look real.
14 years, I've been on the Chicago police force...conditioned to serve and protect no matter what the consequences. It's funny how something like that for that length of time can give you this automatic sense of duty. I doubt I'd know what to do without it these days. After a couple of years in this business, you begin to scope out people and places that you used to drive by and not even think about giving a double take. You begin to see people as the enemy...and you realize that everybody, from the most innocent toddler to that sweet old pie baking grandmother that lives in the suburban cottage at the end of the block has a wicked streak. Every pair of eyes that you stare into is hiding some kind of secret. And the only thing you can really do is hope and prey that the secret they're guarding isn't the uncontrollable urge to stab you in the heart with the sharpest object in the room. If nothing else, a career like this one teaches you to stay on your toes. Sleep with one eye open. And to never trust anyone within 'murdering' range.
I walked out of my apartment that night, dressed in my freshly pressed, all black, suit, ready for my first shift as a....what did they call it? Oh right....a 'slag hunter'. Heh...these pranksters think of everything. There was already a car waiting for me out front, a new partner inside at the wheel. So much for me being the one to drive. I walked closer, and noticed him roll down the window as he lit up a cigarette. Great...a smoker. I can see myself collecting a nice lung full of second hand tar over the next few weeks. My wife, Martha, is going to make me shower twice just to get the stench off of me before I get into bed. As though I needed to give her another reason to get that big yap of hers going again.
The man waited for me to approach the car, and I opened the door to sit inside. The man didn't say anything at first. Instead, he just puffed away at his cigarette and fiddled with some electronic box that he kept on the dashboard of this all black vehicle. This automobile that might actually be considered 'inconspicuous' if it weren't so clean. A dark black car with tinted windows and the gleam of fresh wax on the surface of its expensive paint job. It's Chicago, the middle of October. It takes a shitload of work to keep the outside and inside of your car this clean during this time of year. And considering that I'm used to riding around in those mangy cracker boxes that we call squad cars for my entire 14 years on the force, this was like a hotel suite in Beverly Hills in comparison. I was impressed, but I didn't let it show on my face. It makes my stubble look all 'rusty' when I smile.
"So...this is your first night, right? I have the honor of breaking your cherry?" The man said, finally breaking the unbearable silence. He blew a puff of smoke out of the open window and leaned back in his seat for another drag. But he never turned his head to look at me. Never once. And he was wearing sunglasses. Who wears sunglasses at night, anyway? Except for blind strangers and teenagers trying to look cool at some after hours party. "Yeah. Day one." I said, and sat back as well. I still think this whole job assignment is a big joke. I mean...Jesus....vampires? Did they really expect me to just believe in that cinematic bullshit? They gave me the story and swore me to secrecy. They were thorough about it too, made me play the waiting game and everything. I thought that maybe I'd get myself some cushy FBI job or something, the way that they were going on about my background checks and all. Instead...they hit me with this 'slag hunter' detail shit, and assign me a partner. All those years on the force, and they throw me a cock and bull story about creatures of the night, lurking in the shadows of Chicago after sunset, and leaving behind a trail of corpses behind that we were supposed to take care of. That's their story, and they, honestly, expected me to buy it. What does that say about me?
"The name is Gordon. Gordon Renquist. Slag hunter detail for a little over six years now." He told me, and then paused while he blew another puff of smoke out of the window. "Let me guess...you're still thinking that this is a joke, aren't you? A high priced prank, played on you by your superior officers as some kind of punishment for any past mistakes you might have made in the field." He said.
"Yeah. Something like that." I replied, playing along. "It's an awful lot to swallow."
"Indeed it is." He said. "Don't worry. I understand the feeling, believe me. I was the exact same way when they first approached me with this assignment. It hardly seems sane, even now. But make no mistake...it's all very real. You may think it's all smoke and mirrors right now, but once you see one of them for yourself, with your own eyes...once you've seen what they can do to a man...you'll never be the same again. I guarantee you that. I just want to make sure that you're not gonna freak out on me when the time comes to face the truth."
"The truth?" I asked.
"That were all being watched, my friend. Sized up. Hunted. Every minute that passes between sunset and sunrise...you, me, your friends, your family, and everyone you've ever loved...is being targeted from the shadows. Spied on to see if they'll be a fat enough meal for one of these hellish things. It'll drive you crazy thinking about it. I just try to keep myself focused on the job, and shut the rest of it out. It helps me to sleep at night." He said. "By the way, if you don't have strong locks on your windows...buy some. It'll help you rest better."
I certainly hope he didn't just expect me to surrender my common sense over to something so laughably strange. If it was a joke, it wasn't even funny. It was a waste of my time, is what it was. Where’s the punchline, already? "I rest just fine. Thanks."
There was a moment of silence, where Gordon took his last long drag off of his cigarette and smiled wickedly to himself. Then he tossed the smoking butt out of the window and rolled it back up, turning to face me for the first time. Those sunglasses were so dark. So very dark. I don't like not being able to see a man's eyes when I talk to him. It makes me nervous to know that they've got their shields up. And it rattled Martha's casserole in my gut when he said, "Thatta boy, Gus. Get all of that Chi-Town tough guy confidence you've got, and smear it all over yourself like bulletproof sunscreen. You're gonna need it. Because when the time comes where we might actually have to face one of these things...most rookies instantly turn to rice pudding and buckle at the knees. If you think I'm making this up, you should see the institution that they had to lock my last partner up in after only three months on the job. A forced medicated vacation far away from his sanity, as well as from the rest of his life. It's not a pretty sight, seeing your partner's mind turned to mashed potatoes right in front of your eyes. But hey, this gig ain't for everybody. And I guess I should be happy that he went looney tunes before I got too attached to him." At long last, Gordon started up the car engine with a slow twist of the key. "I'd tell ya to put on a seatbelt, but what would be the point? For all we know, we might be dying anyway, tonight. It’s in fate’s hands now. So, I’m guessing that we'll just let God decide, huh?" Pleasant conversation. If this guy was any more comforting, I might throw myself off of the highest roof town.
He pulled away from the curb and started driving down the dark and empty streets. Slowly. Not too slow, where it would draw attention to us. But slower than I would drive, that's for sure. There were still some puddles in the street from yesterday's rain, and the streetlamps were nearly a quarter way full with water from the condensation inside. I kept my eyes out of the window for a while, but I didn't want to come off as some old stick in the mud, so I attempted to be somewhat 'social'. "So where are we going?" I asked.
"Here. There. Nowhere in particular." He said. "We're just gonna cruise around a bit for tonight. Let you get a feel for the area we'll be working. Go over a few details from the old slag hunter hand guide."
"A tutorial. Great. Just what I was hoping for." The sarcasm tasted sweet on my tongue as I said it, but the vision of his backhanded grin alone had me beat. It was as if he just couldn't wait to see my outer personality disappear. As though my new assignment was going to suddenly be splashed in my face, a corrosive acid to quickly eat away at my defenses, and reduce me to some kind of stuttering idiot in the face of adversity. I can just see myself now...huddled up in the corner of a dark rubber room and banging my head against the padded wall as I wait for ‘Nurse Ratchet’ to bring me another dose of shiny pills for the evening to help me sleep. Hell, at least I'd beat the check when it came to paying for rent and food, right? "So, are we vampire slayers now, or what?" I asked him.
"Oh no, not hardly. We don't want to hurt them. We don't even want to acknowledge them if we can help it. We are here to protect them." He told me.
"Protect them? Aren’t they the living dead, or whatever? Protect them from what?"
"From themselves, of course. There are a LOT of vampires out there my friend. A LOT. Vampire population increases all the time. Situations were getting worse. By the late 70’s, early 80’s...we had a serious problem on our hands. The ‘Slag Hunter’ protocols had to be put into effect to keep their ravenous appetites under wraps.” Gordon said. “There are more vampires in this city than you can possibly imagine. And considering that they all need to feed every month, preying on the innocent, and sometimes the NOT so innocent, patrons of our fair city...that can leave quite a mess. Our job...is to clean up that mess before anybody else finds it."
"Great. I'm a high priced 'garbage man' for the government. My mama would be proud."
"Joke all you want, Gus...but it has to be done. Quickly, and efficiently. Without witnesses. Without error. We've got a lot to go over before feeding time, you and I."
"Feeding time? Funny, I didn't think a vampire would have to make 'reservations' to bite someone in the neck."
"Feeding time begins a few hours after sunset. They call this the ‘Twilight’ hour. They're just now waking up, you see? Getting themselves together, getting dressed up, making plans. Then...the hunger hits them, and they've gotta go out into the streets to find themselves a donor. That's what they call us. Can you believe that? A friggin' 'donor'. Like...we volunteered to be their midnight snack or something."
"Riiiiight..." I said, looking back out of the window. Like I said...if this was a prank, the higher ups definitely went above and beyond the call of duty when it came to making it look real.
We rode along in silence for a while. No radio, no conversation. No little witty banter between two veteran cops trying to get to know one another. Just silence. It began to grind on my nerves after a spell. And just as I was about to say something, Renquist reached over me and opened the glove compartment. "This is your handbook. I suggest you read through it thoroughly when you get home tonight. Keep it in a safe place where nobody will find it. The agency is very serious about keeping this stuff under lock and key. You can just flip through it for now, get some basics down. A majority of this job is all instinct though. The rest is all vocabulary and technical bullshit that the feds use to talk to you about your 'feelings' once you go to see your therapist."
"What if I don't have a therapist?" I asked.
"Trust me...you've got one. And you'll have to talk to him or her once every few weeks to make sure that you're not over baking yourself on the job. Believe me, you'll have a lot to confess once you've been doing this for a month. Trying to sleep it off won't help. And there isn't enough liquor in the world to drown out the thoughts you’re sure to have in the near future. Soon...you and your appointed therapist are gonna be the best of friends."
"I look forward to it. I could always use more friends." I said, then noticed the large tinted panel of glass behind us. It was thick, cloudy, completely shutting us off from the back seat. "So what's with the barricade?"
"What? The glass? It separates us from the deep freeze."
"I don't suppose you could explain that further."
He smiled a bit in my direction. "It's for the bodies we dispose of. We use one of 'these' to do it..." He pulled a small object out of his coat’s inner pocket. It looked a little bit like a pen without a point. "It emits a small, high powered, laser. Cuts through flesh, muscle, and bone, like warm pasta. We dismember the body into smaller chunks, evaporate the heavy blood traces left behind, and we deposit the pieces into the back seat. It's one big freezer back there. Nothing more. We have a specialized acid dip back at headquarters for whatever we pick up." He told me. "Occasionally, a fed from higher up comes in to do an audit on our findings. They stop us before the acid melt, take note of how much 'business' we did in a night, and uses it to calculate the number of expected casualties on a monthly basis. That number just keeps going up every time he pays a visit. And they think global warming is a threat? Heh..."
"So...there are frozen body parts back there? That's what you're telling me?" I asked.
"Why? Do you wanna see?" He smiled.
I paused for a moment, but decided that I didn’t want to know. "No thanks. I'll take your word for it." I told him. I still didn't see the need to get on my hind legs and call him out on such a ridiculous claim. Besides, if nothing else, his story was unique. I could seriously write a book on something this outlandish. "So, exactly how do we find these...corpses, we're looking for?"
"Ahhh...good question. You're brain is working, I like that." He said, flipping the switch on a small device that was sitting up on the dashboard. "This is a chemical scan of our area, spanning out a few city blocks at a time. The range is somewhat limited, but they're improving on it every day, it seems." He swiveled the screen around to show it to me, and the position of our car on the grid. "You see, when vampires feed...they release a concentrated pheromone that alerts us to their location. It's almost like an instant seduction of the senses for their victims. It pacifies them, and leaves them in a horrific state of uncontrolled bliss while they're basically being eaten alive. So, even while they're panicking and fighting for their very lives, their bodies are falling prey to the pleasures of the scent. That biochemical confusion throws their bodies into an instant state of shock and the vampires are allowed to finish their meal in peace with minimal struggle. This machine is programmed to detect that pheromone release and guide us to where the donors are located. The alerts show up on this meter here. Red for a feeding in progress, yellow for a recent attack, and green for a residual pheromone scent, meaning that the vampire has already departed the scene of the crime and we’re just there to clean up the scraps. We track those chemical releases, and rush in sweep the mess the vampires leave behind under the rug. Got it?"
"Ok, that just sounds disgusting." I said. "Look, I've gone along with this for about as long as I can stand. If you guys are going to jump out and yell ‘surprise’ or whatever, then why don't you just do it and get it over with, ok? I'd much rather be home, enjoying reality, instead of wasting time on this highly advanced game of pattycake."
"Hehehe...it's always the stubborn mind that's always the last to fall. Hold onto that. It'll be a good tool to keep you balanced in the long run, rookie." He said.
"I'm not joking. You guys are wasting your time. I could be working on something much more important right now, you know."
"Oh, I sincerely doubt that, Gus. I doubt that." He said, and just then, a blip appeared on the little screen in front of me. I looked at it as it flashed yellow, directing us to a dark alley just a few blocks West of us. "There we go. Looks like we're starting early tonight." He turned the car to follow the signal, and I was hoping that once we got there the gag would be over with. The faster I get out of these damp, rainy, streets, the better. They wreck havoc with my sinuses.
He sped on over to the spot where the meter told us to go, and he pulled the car over. It was some dark area under a bridge up North. Even the location was cliche. Something right out of a black and white horror flick. My department certainly knows how to carry things too damn far when they want to. I suppose they set up a teddy bear with a camera to catch the look on my face when we stumble across it. I hope they're not expecting a shocker. Facial expressions aren't exactly my cup of tea.
Renquist turned off the headlights. "Are you ready to work?" He asked.
"Whatever. Let’s just do it."
"Listen...once we finish this job, you can go back to playing Mr. Hard Ass, but right now, I need you focused. Got it? Wake up and get yourself together." He said, and reached into the glove compartment. "Here. This is your laser. Keep it away from your face or any other body parts that you’re planning to keep attached to you. And, for Pete's sake, don't point it at me! I had a partner nearly cut my goddamn FOOT off with one of these things. You take the safety off by pressing this button, 'here', then you just point and shoot. Kinda like using your remote control on your TV at home. Ok?"
"Um...sure." I said, looking at the foreign object in my hand.
"Don't waste time making the chunks too small. But don't make them too big either. Approximately 10 to 12 inches long is a good length. Start with the limbs, and then we can break down the torso into squares afterwards." He opened the door to the car, and stepped outside. I was quick to follow, and for the first time since I got this crazy assignment, I found myself feeling a bit anxious. Like something was tugging hard on my curiosity, making me flinch. Then again, maybe it was a leftover chunk of that dry turkey Martha made for dinner yesterday that was doing it. Who knows? I can say one thing, though...whatever it was that they had planned to show me, I hope it was worth the effort it took to get me here. I'd hate to think that they made up this whole elaborate story and didn't have a serious showstopper for a finishing act.
We both walked around the car, and Renquist went forward first. I started to walk beside him, but he stopped me. "What's the deal?" I asked.
"Wait a second. You've always got to check the area first. Then you proceed. Sometimes the little parasites don't leave the body as quickly as we expect them to. The last thing you want is for one of them to pounce on you when you’re least ready for it." He scanned the area, and everything around us fell silent. And then, I heard an old beer can rolling across the pavement. Just as I turned my head, I saw a shadowed figure running away from us. He looked about 16 from the shape of him, and he tore off down that alley like a bat out of hell, disappearing into the shadows. Shit...he was FAST! "Told ya. You've gotta be real careful in this business. If you slip up, you don't want one of those things to catch you." Renquist walked me over to a heap of trash that was set beside an old dumpster, and looked down into the heap. "Ohhhh yeah. He got him. He was a hungry one too. The teeth marks in the neck are really deep. Hmmm...poor bastard. That had to hurt something awful."
I walked over to see this supposed 'corpse' of his, expecting to find a mannequin with the word 'dumbass' written on the forehead in strawberry lipstick. But as I got closer, I noticed a familiar twitch in the leg sticking out of the trash. It wasn't really something that a living person could fake. There was a certain...'finality' to that specific postmortem twitch. I had seen it many times before, usually when arriving at a crime scene. I moved around and saw more of the body laying before me, it seemed to get more and more real the closer I got to it. And then...as I saw the face, I knew that this was no longer a joke. This was a crime. A murder. And I was standing right in the middle of it. "Jesus!" I whispered as I saw the last few squirts of blood jet out of his neck and onto the cold concrete below. "We've gotta call this in! I'll get on the horn, you check for a pulse, and see if..."
"What are you doing, Gus?" He asked me.
"This guy is bleeding to death!"
"Yeah, I kinda noticed that."
"Well...." I asked. "...Aren't you gonna call this into the station?"
"Wake up, buddy boy! We ARE the station! It's our job to take it from here." He said taking out his laser. "Now hurry up and help me cut up the pieces so we can get out of here." I took a step backwards, watching as he took the safety off of his device, and shot a small thin beam of red light at the corpse. There was a sizzling sound, and all at once the air was filled with the smell of burning flesh, mixed with the more common scents of trash and urine under that bridge. I almost didn't want to look, my wife's dinner ready to make a break for it the second I saw something too gross for my stomach to handle. But my curiosity got the better of me, and when I looked up, I saw the laser beam detaching the hand from the body.
It looked so simple. So easy. The beam cut through him with no effort at all, and corderized the wound simultaneously. The corpse’s tremors increased as the last remaining nerve endings tried to feed the sensation of pain to an already dying brain, and I found myself paralyzed by the sight of it.
"Ummm...little help over here? We don't have a whole lotta time." He told me, making another incision into the flesh just above the elbow. "Come on! Quit snoozin'! We’ve got work to do!" I took the device out of my pocket, and clicked the button to take the safety off, still not believing that any of this was even happening. But I kept a firm face, and I pointed that mini stick thing down at the man's other hand....and hit the switch. I watched as the laser instantly sliced right through the tissue, taking only a second longer to cut through the solid bone. And with a slow motion of my hand, I found myself actually sawing off his other hand. The cool, calm, precision of it was so mind-boggling. Especially with Renquist already working on the shoulder. The only thing more disturbing than being a part of this horrific process was the fact that Gordon started talking to me as though he were cutting open a bagel on State Street. "So...you got a wife, Gus? Any kids?"
"Yeah....a wife. And a youngster. He's....uh....he's turning 12 soon."
"Ahhh, 12. Great age. Hard on the parents, but precious to every preteen that's lived through it. Hehehe!" He was smiling. Actually smiling. It was hard to believe that he wasn't affected by this. Ugh...that smell. That rotten, god forsaken, stench. It made your eyes water. "You alright over there, Gus?" I nodded, not wanting to speak for fear that the loss of air would force me to inhale that putrid aroma again. "The smell takes some getting used to, but soon, you won't even notice it. It just takes practice, that's all." He said, now cutting up the legs. "It's all cold meat to me now. Nothing more. I don't even notice it as an actual person anymore. And I consider that a good thing. Cutting off the head is always the hardest part, though. It's creepy. A word to the wise, never look into the victim's eyes when you do it. It'll give you nightmares. Trust me on this."
"What...happened to him?" I asked, still mesmerized, but mechanically doing what he asked me to do, watching the red beam sever the man's ankle from the end of his leg.
"You know what happened to him. He was hunted, he was caught, he was drained dry. End of story." Renquist told me. "Don't tell me you're still holding onto the notion that none of this is real? I mean, you just help me cut the arms and legs off of a freakin' corpse, Gus. It's a little late to sum this whole thing up as part of a precinct hoax, don't ya think?" He smirked. "I told ya it would be freaky to know the truth. I mean, tell me...have you ever actually 'seen' a vampire, face to face?"
"No..." I said softly, watching this body get further reduced to pieces.
"Well, actually, you probably have and just didn't know it. But they're out there. Believe me. They look just like you and me. Damn optrix make them nearly impossible to identify anymore. I've seen some as young as 8 years old take down a full grown man. Trained COPS even! And you can't even hide from them, because they read your thoughts. They start knocking around in your head, and you can't get 'em out. It's guerrilla warfare at its finest, I tell you. All night, every night. They may look all sweet and cute and innocent, but they can be deceptive little bastards when they wanna be." Renquist took the initiative, and began to focus his laser on the man's neck, cutting through the skin and muscle, to detach the head. I had to look away to keep from going mad. "You know, you've gotta be careful out here. I mean, a lot of vampires usually just kill and run off like our friend did tonight. But if you ever catch one with a bloodlust, they could just as easily turn on you too. Bloodlusts makes them crazy. You can’t trust a single one of those fuckers when they starve themselves to that point." He said, and I made the mistake of looking back just as the head came off. It rolled back like a bowling ball, and fell over to the side. "Some of them can be nice. They'll even speak to ya while wiping the blood away from their mouths, watching you do what you do. The experienced ones are used to the hunt. They might be my father's age, but they still look the exact same way they did when they first got bit. You don't have to worry about them too much. They know how the game goes, pretty much, and they won't give you any trouble. It's those younger ones you have to look out for! Those damn kids! The 'halflifes' and the 'newbloods'...they can be extremely dangerous if you're not careful. You've gotta keep an eye on them. They'll take a bite out of you if they're lost in the thirst. And then you're a goner. Even worse, you could accidentally end up as one of them. I doubt that could be much of an improvement from death." He said, and walked back to the car to get a big black garbage bag. "Alright, here ya go, rookie." He tossed me a pair of black gloves.
"What are these for?"
"Well, I don't know about you, but I don't exactly know where this guy has been. It's always a safe bet to use gloves. You never know what you might catch."
My mind wouldn't work right. It was stuck. It suddenly took a vacation from this awful scene and left me here by myself to feed the cats while it was away. That poor man. That poor man.
"We're....we're gonna move him? I mean...the pieces?"
"Well what did ya THINK we were doing here? Cutting him up into smaller pieces for the rats' benefit? Of course we’ve gotta move him." He opened the bag, and started picking up the pieces, one by one. "Give me a hand, will ya?" I think all of my senses were cut off from the actual deed that I was participating in, and I slowly bent over to start picking up the chunks of humanity that we had just left all over the ground. The head was last, and he picked it up by the hair, thoughtlessly tossing it into the black plastic trash bag with the rest of him. "Alright...and now the deep freeze." He opened up the back door of the car, and wisps of ice cold smoke came floating out of it. He really was telling the truth...the back seat really was a freezer. And there were already two other bags inside. Renquist moved around me like a pro, and when he was finished, he closed the back door and peeled off his gloves. "Alright then...piece of cake. Now, on the next one, I'm gonna want you to pick up the pace a little bit, ok? We got lucky this time, because we're under a bridge in a fairly secluded area of Chicago. But sometimes you don't have the luxury of taking your time. We need to get better. More in sync. We've gotta do things quickly and quietly and move out of there without leaving a trace behind. It's important. You get me?" I could hardly move. I could hardly speak. And when he patted me on the shoulder to let me know to get back in the car...my only thought was...
There are going to be more of these tonight?