Ian sighed as he pulled up to the scene. Layla was already there, snapping away with her camera. Ian had no idea how she’d got there so fast. He’d only just got the call five minutes ago, and she didn’t even have a car.
There had been another killing, and it was obviously a vampiric one. It was the third one that month, in the same section of the city. This one was found in front of the local shopping club, which, if Ian’s calculations were correct, was at the center of where the killings had been taking place. The body, apparently one of the managers come early, lay on the ground by the front door, the key clutched in a stiff fist. He had been drained almost completely of blood, just a beaded drop where the puncture wounds on the victim’s neck signified the nature of the killer. The Curse had not yet begun to act; the coroner declared the body dead for only an hour, and the sun was just thirty minutes in the sky. Ian slammed the car door shut and joined his partner.
Layla held a certain intrigue, and that was probably the reason Ian put up with her. She was self-centered and beautiful. And if that weren’t a bad enough combination, she knew how attractive she was and used her looks to her advantage. She had a naturally dark complexion and long brown hair that draped over her back and shoulders like a cape. But despite her faults, Layla was good at her job. More often than not, her photos said more about the story than Ian’s reporting ever could.
Layla’s frustrated cry pulled Ian out of his thoughts. He looked up to find Dirkeson leaning over the body, blocking the shot of the puncture wounds he assumed Layla was trying to take.
Dirkeson was the detective handling the journalists on this case. Ian had no beef with the guy, but Layla despised him. Ian supposed she was within her rights not to like him. He was the most interfering cop they’d dealt with. Ian understood. The vampire story was sensitive. They didn’t want people panicking because they thought the Curse was loose again. But this story was important to Layla.
Ian touched her elbow and led her over to the other side of the body. Fewer people milled around, and the new spot kept her out of the way. “Better shot over here,” he murmured.
“I had a better angle on the wounds.” Layla pouted, but raised her camera anyway.
Ian narrowed his eyes. “Why do you have to have a shot of the wounds?”
Layla didn’t answer, but he recognized the gleam in her eye. “Layla,” he warned. “There’s a reason no one’s been able to do it before. It’s impossible.”
“Not if I’m fast enough.”
Everyone knew the stories about vampires. There weren’t very many of them left now that the Curse was back under control, but it was a well-known fact that vampires didn’t have reflections, and therefore couldn’t be caught on a regular camera. It had something to do with the fact that vamps were undead. They weren’t really a part of the living world, and visible light did not reflect normally off of them. Ian didn’t fully understand the science of it. It’s not like vampires weren’t visible to the naked eye; they both had seen one, at a research facility once where Layla successfully caught it on an expensive IR camera. Ian remembered. The vamp had escaped and Cursed a few scientists, which was why they were at the facility in the first place. It never showed up on the security cameras, but after it was captured it showed up fine on the infra-red.
Ian thought that incident would have satisfied her desire to catch a vampire on film, but the next time he saw her, she’d installed an infra-red filter on the camera she normally carried around. Later, she told him that what she really wanted was to catch one in the wild. Apparently her great-grandfather had been a part of the group of survivors that discovered the new manifestation of the Curse at the beginning of the last plague, dubbed vampires for their tendency to suck blood instead of tear flesh and because they were nocturnal. Ian wasn’t entirely sure about the truth of that story, but it seemed to be what motivated her.
“I’m going to go see if anyone wants to answer a few questions,” Ian said, catching sight of a few paranormal exterminators huddled in a corner. He grasped Layla’s shoulder briefly – a signal for her to do her job and behave herself – and wandered off toward them. Ian doubted Dirkeson would let them say much, but he was good at getting information out of people.
Sure enough, as he neared the exterminators, Dirkeson showed up. The only information he got directly was confirmation that it was a vampire attack, and the victim’s name. Dirkeson shooed him away before he could ask what was really on his mind: What were they going to do about it?
As Ian walked away, he heard Dirkeson mention a plan. That sounded promising, so he stopped and flipped his notepad open, as if jotting down an interesting detail.
“What’s the plan for tonight?” Ian heard Dirkeson ask. The way his voice was pitched, Ian imagined he was trying to be quiet, but the detective’s voice carried easily, even with his back turned.
“Well, the vampire won’t leave its nest until after sunset,” one exterminator said. “And according to our calculations, that will be at around eight fifteen.”
“We think the vampire’s made its nest somewhere in or around the stock room,” another added. “Maybe in the vents or a shaded spot by the loading dock.”
“And what if it leaves before we can catch it?” Dirkeson demanded.
One of the exterminators made a sound as if to answer, but then cut himself off. Ian scribbled in his pad with an exaggerated flourish and walked away. He’d stayed too long. He could feel Dirkeson’s suspicious eyes on him, but he shrugged it off as if he hadn’t been eavesdropping.
While Ian was listening in, the coroner had packed up the body and driven it away to be burned, leaving Layla with nothing to do but stare at the screen on her camera. Ian came up to stand behind her, looking over her shoulder at her work. He was impressed. The picture she was currently on was a close up of the victim’s face. The pale skin stretched over the bones like leather, frozen in a terrified snarl. Ian doubted their editor would let them put that in the paper, but it was a good photo. It made chills shiver down his spine.
As if sensing there was someone behind her, Layla tilted her head upward. She gave him a sultry smile and shimmied her shoulders a bit, drawing his attention from the camera to her chest. “Like what you see?”
“Yes, actually.” Ian plucked the camera from her hands, ignoring her flirting. When he first started working with Layla he was a little embarrassed by it. Now, he was used to it. He scrolled through Layla’s work, then handed the camera back when he returned to the face.
“So, did you get them to say anything?” Layla started to head toward Ian’s car. Figures she’d expect a ride, Ian thought.
“Not to me,” Ian said with an abrupt shake of his head, following behind and fishing the keys out of his pocket. “But I overheard them talking to the cops.”
“Well?” Layla demanded. “What did they say?”
Ian recounted what he’d heard as he unlocked the door. When he was finished, a strange light shone in Layla’s eyes.
“A stake out then,” she mused. She put her camera back in its protective case, wearing a thoughtful expression, but Ian didn’t realize his mistake until she said, with no uncertainty, “We’re going.”
“Layla,” Ian said, running a hand through his hair, “I don’t think they’ll let us hang around. It’s too dangerous.”
“No.” Ian tried to be stern, but he could tell by the look on Layla’s face he was going to lose this one. “It’s too dangerous. I don’t care how badly you want to catch a vampire. It’s impossible, dangerous, and we’re not going.”
“But we’ll be famous!” Layla insisted. “Think of all the awards!”
Ian shook his head, scowling. “I’d rather die an anonymous nobody than end up some undead corpse’s dinner.”
“Fine!” Layla snapped. “You stay at home, safe in your bed. I’ll go out and make a name for myself.”
“You’re gonna get yourself killed,” Ian warned. He immediately regretted it. A slow smile spread over Layla’s lips, and Ian braced himself for what she would say next.
“Not if someone comes to protect me.”
God damn it. “Fine,” he surrendered. “But you owe me. Big time.”
Ian opened the door and made to slide into the driver’s seat, but a large hand clapped him on the shoulder. He grimaced and turned around. It was Dirkeson. His wide face twisted in a thoughtful frown that bordered on disapproval.
“What exactly does she owe you, and for what?” The question was directed at him, but Dirkeson’s gaze was on a point somewhere beyond him. Ian turned to look back, and sure enough Layla was giving the detective an innocent smile that wasn’t entirely innocent.
“Nothing important,” Ian said. He reached down and pressed the button that unlocked the passenger door. Layla slid down into the seat, away from Dirkeson’s gaze. “She wants to go to the diner for breakfast, but she always orders the most expensive thing on the menu and then makes me pay.” He folded himself into his own seat and started the engine.
Dirkeson stepped away and crossed his arms over his chest. Ian reached out and pulled the door shut, sighing with both relief and dread. Dirkeson didn’t guess what they were up to. His plan for the night needed to be flawless then, if the cops weren’t going to be prepared for them. As he shifted gears, Dirkeson tapped at the window. “I’d better not see you two snooping around here tonight,” Dirkeson said in a low voice.
Well, maybe he did know. But Ian knew the threat of getting caught wouldn’t daunt Layla. She’d only take it as a challenge, and more incentive to actually go through with the idea. He glanced at Layla as he drove away, and sure enough she was smirking at him.
“So, shall we plot over breakfast?”
Ian groaned. “Dirkeson’s gonna be pissed,” he muttered, but he didn’t argue any more.
Ian picked Layla up from her house at seven thirty. The club closed in thirty minutes, so they had a little time to go over the plan. They both made sure to wear dark clothing, thinking it would at least hide them from the cops. Ian had no idea what could ward off a vampire, but he knew in the old myths that garlic tended to do the trick. Before he left, he’d spritzed himself with some garlic powder and put the jar into his bag of supplies.
Layla wrinkled her nose when she slid into the passenger seat. “Do you smell garlic?”
“It’s supposed to prevent vampires from attacking.”
Ian felt Layla staring at him, but kept his eyes on the road. “Yeah,” Layla said, “but that’s just a myth. They’re not supposed to enter dwellings without an invitation, but look where this one’s made its nest.”
“It’s a store, not a dwelling,” Ian retorted. “There’s a difference.”
“Whatever you say.”
Ian parked the car a block from the store. They walked the rest of the way. By the time they made it, darkness had already fallen. They both were anxious, but for different reasons.
“I better not have missed my chance,” Layla grumbled, “because you were being too careful.”
Ian was personally more worried that the paranormal exterminators didn’t catch the vampire and it was on the loose, but he chose not to respond to that. Instead, he headed around to the back of the store, to the loading dock where he could already hear low voices.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
Ian winced at the volume of Layla’s demand. He hoped the cops didn’t hear that. “Around to the loading dock,” he hissed back. He waited until she caught up before continuing. “You know, where they’re actually staying to watch?”
Thankfully, Layla was quiet as they walked the rest of the length of the store. As they neared the source of the voices, they pressed closer to the wall. When Ian caught sight of a squad car, parked just beyond the corner with the lights off, Ian stopped and listened.
“By now the vampire’s already left,” he heard someone say. He felt Layla pump her fist in excitement, but he couldn’t bring himself to share her enthusiasm.
“Then what do we do now?” That one sounded like Dirkeson.
“Not much to do, except wait until it comes back in the morning.”
There was a momentary silence, but the next voice sounded furious. “And what if it kills again?” the voice demanded. It wasn’t Dirkeson, but it had to have been another cop. “You said this would work!”
“Well, there’s a possibility it found another way out,” the exterminator answered. “But it shouldn’t kill anyone tonight. You sent out that notice, right? The one telling everyone to stay away.”
“Yes,” Dirkeson answered. “But there are those who take it more as a personal challenge than a warning.”
“How will we know the vampire’s returned?” the other cop asked. “If it found another way out, then it must be able to find another way in.”
“We’ll set up IR cameras around the building,” the exterminator said, and at that Ian decided it was time to go.
“Now what?” Layla demanded.
“Well,” Ian said, “we can always go home and interview Dirkeson and the exterminators about it tomorrow.” It was a futile suggestion and he knew it, but he said it anyway. Maybe he hoped Layla would give in to reason, he didn’t know. But he wasn’t surprised when Layla shook her head emphatically. “Or, we could find a way to watch without them seeing us.”
“How are we going to do that? They’re setting cameras up.”
“Easy.” Ian patted the bag hanging from his shoulders. “We’ll just go through the store.”
The front doors were automatic, operated by a motion sensor overlooking the entrance. Usually, they were open all the time due to a constant stream of shoppers coming in and out, and the greeters hanging around nearby. At night, however, they were turned off, and no matter how hard Layla waved her hand in front of it, the doors stayed firmly shut.
“It’s locked.” She pouted at Ian, as if expecting him to do something about it. Fortunately for her, he’d come prepared.
“What else did you expect?” Ian rummaged through his bag until his fingers closed around a pair of something long, metal, and slender. “It’s closed. No one’s supposed to be here right now, so there’s no reason for the doors to be open.” He pulled the lock picks out of his bag, pushed Layla aside and picked the lock on the doors.
“The doors still aren’t open,” Layla complained.
“Patience,” Ian muttered. He wedged his fingers in between the doors, grunting in pain as they tried to smash them, and pulled the right door open far enough to let the two of them inside. “Go,” he gasped, and Layla slipped through under his arms. He followed, letting the door slide shut behind him.
In the empty shopping club, it sounded like a slam. The sound echoed off the high ceiling and the walls, and they instinctively ducked behind a corner. Ian peered around the dimly lit store.
The shelves loomed overhead, their contents dark shapes glaring at the journalists. They took a cautious step forward, but no vampires swarmed, and no armed cops rushed at them. Ian cracked a glow-stick, revealing them to be in the electronics section. Their reflections glowed eerily on blank TV screens as they started walking.
“So where did you learn how to do that?” Layla asked.
“What, pick locks?” Ian said. “I used to do crap like that all the time when I was a kid.”
“Oh,” Layla nearly moaned. “A bad boy. I like.”
They wandered around the store for what seemed like hours. According to Ian’s wristwatch, it was only a few minutes. They only had the light of Ian’s glow-stick to go by, so it was slow, making their way to the stock room. Several times Layla, proving she wasn’t near as graceful as she looked, bumped into shelves. Bulky boxes cascaded onto the ground, and each time the pair ran off, leaving the mess. It was an absurd feeling, but the place was creepy and gave the impression that they were being followed.
When they reached the dairy section near the back, where the door to the stock room was, Ian was starting to think it wasn’t just a weird effect of a creepy place that made him paranoid. If he listened closely, he could hear an extra set of footsteps over the echo. He took Layla’s elbow, trying to hurry her along, but it was too late.
A heavy hand fell on his shoulder.
“What are you doing in here?” a familiar voice seethed. Dirkeson. The detective whirled them around and gave them a furious look. “Well?”
Ian gave Layla a silencing look, and hoped she’d take the hint and let him do the talking. “We were given permission to get as much information we could about the vampire case.” He jutted his jaw out in a show of determination, but inside he hoped his fine wouldn’t be too much. Even better, that the editor would pay it. “If you had told us in the first place, we wouldn’t have had to break in.”
“There was a reason you idiots weren’t invited here tonight,” Dirkeson said. “It’s too dangerous.”
“Well, we’re already here,” Layla said. Ian gritted his teeth. “You wouldn’t make us leave now, after we’ve done all this work, would you?”
“Yes, actually, I would.” Dirkeson frowned. “I could actually arrest you, as a matter of fact. For interfering with an investigation. You’re lucky I’m only giving you a fine and escorting you off the premises.”
“You’re really making us leave?” Layla squealed, and Ian was surprised to hear a note of panic in her voice. “What about the vampire?”
“Drive until you leave this part of the city and don’t stop,” was the only advice Dirkeson offered as he guided them toward the front of the store.
“We parked a block from here,” Ian said, thinking he had an idea of where Layla was going with this. She would have been delighted to run across the vampire out in the dark, he was sure. “Surely you wouldn’t make us walk all that way with a vampire on the loose?”
Dirkeson raised his eyebrows. “Would you rather I take you into custody?”
Ian had to hold back a snort of laughter as Layla nodded, her eyes wide. “Oh, yes, please!” she exclaimed. “Who knows what could happen to us alone out there.”
Now she was just laying it on thick. But it seemed to be working. Dirkeson rolled his eyes and grabbed a pair of handcuffs from his belt. “Fine.” He wheeled Ian around and pulled his arms behind his back. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”
Ian knew the whole spiel. He sat back and let Dirkeson cuff him. Then it was Layla’s turn. The cuffs were a little loose on her wrists, Ian noticed, but Dirkeson tightened them as far as they would go.
Dirkeson led them through the freezers, toward the back wall. Ian and Layla had almost made it by the time they were caught. Dirkeson took them down one aisle then turned left along the wall, and then stopped at a large swinging door. The sign above it read “Employees Only” in the dim light. Dirkeson casually held it open for Layla and Ian.
Rows of stacked crates greeted them. As Dirkeson nudged them along, Ian understood how a vampire could hide in there without anyone noticing. He was amazed Dirkeson knew where he was going. They had to turn so many times Ian quickly lost his sense of direction in the dark.
After a few minutes they found themselves outside on the loading dock. Clouds had blown over the moon, making it almost as dark as it was in the store. More cop cars were parked along the wall, the lights turned off like the one Ian had seen earlier. Two paranormal exterminators sat at a table covered in wires and computer screens, arguing with another detective.
“I told you,” one of the exterminators said, “leaving the bag of rice won’t do much. You’re thinking of mythological vampires, not real ones. Besides, even if that were true, there’s more stuff to count in the store.”
Dirkeson herded the journalists to an unoccupied corner, waving off his partner’s inquisitive look. “You two stay here, where you can’t get into trouble.”
This time what felt like hours actually was hours. There wasn’t much to do while they waited for dawn and the vampire’s arrival, and there was even less to do while Ian’s hands were cuffed. He talked a little with the paranormal exterminators and learned more than he cared to about the Curse, but without the use of his pad he doubted he’d remember any of it. Layla fidgeted beside him, but he sat back and relaxed, thinking he might as well make the best of the situation and get some sleep. He leaned back and closed his eyes.
It was around four when Ian jerked awake. Everyone was still and alert, even Layla. Ian shuddered at the sound that woke him. It was a howl, like a wolf’s, but more… The only word Ian could think to describe it was human.
The paranormal exterminators monitored the cameras and the cops pulled their weapons. Layla stepped forward and Ian realized something. Her hands were free. Ian would have asked her to do something about his cuffs, but the silence was thick and he didn’t want his voice to carry.
They waited for a few moments, but nothing happened.
“Where the hell is it?” Dirkeson demanded.
“We don’t know,” one of the exterminators said. “We’re not picking it up on the IR cameras.”
“Then it must be somewhere around here.”
Ian was about to ask Layla to help with his cuffs, cops be damned, when suddenly she pointed toward the squad cars. “There!”
Flashlight beams flitted around the area, finally converging on one spot near the tire of the nearest car. The vampire’s pupils contracted, pale yellow eyes regarding the living people hungrily. Its mummified flesh was mottled grayish-yellow, and only a few wisps of hair clung to its head. Ian was repulsed by it, and wished the cops would hurry up and shoot it, but Layla took another step forward. “Lay,” he warned, but she ignored him. She lifted her camera.
The sudden click of the shutter roused the vampire from its immobility better than all the flashlights could. It blinked owlishly at her and turned to stare at the journalists.
Dirkeson cursed, but before anyone could do anything, the vampire pounced. Ian leaped out of the way, landing face first on the pavement, as shots rang out. He quickly rolled to a seated position and managed to get on his feet, to see the cops running into the stock room.
Ignoring the exterminators’ call to halt, Ian stumbled after them into the darkness. He no longer had his glow-stick, and even if he did, he couldn’t get to it anyway. He was blind, forced to rely on his ears to find Layla.
The problem with that was he could barely hear anything over the sound of his blood rushing, and his own harsh breath sounded like a vampire’s snarl. His mouth tasted of blood, and every time he ran into a crate, more welled up.
He turned a corner and a bright light passed over his eyes. He grunted, spitting blood, and would have raised his hands to block it but they were still bound.
“God damn it, I could have shot you!” Dirkeson lowered the light and grabbed Ian’s sore shoulders. “Do you have a listening problem, or just a problem with authority?” Dirkeson didn’t give him a chance to answer, or even to remind him to be quiet. “I’m tired of seeing you in places I’ve specifically told you not to go!”
Something crashed beyond the wall of crates they were following. Then, Layla’s voice calling Ian’s name. She sounded further back than the crash did. Ian glanced at Dirkeson, and they both sprinted toward the sound.
By the time they made it to the other side, the vampire was already crouched over her, slurping greedily at her neck. Dirkeson raised his flashlight and his gun and fired.
The vampire skidded across the ground, screaming and clutching its head. Its blood-soaked lips pulled back, revealing sharpened yellow teeth. Dirkeson adjusted his aim and fired again. The vampire gave one last howl before going still.
“That didn’t kill it.” Dirkeson heaved a relieved sigh. He holstered his gun and got on his radio. “Vampire has been incapacitated.” But as Dirkeson gave their location, Ian could barely hear over the rushing in his ears. His eyes were pinned on Layla’s body, even after the paranormal exterminators joined them.
“Somebody take that thing out to be burned.” Dirkeson pointed at the still vampire, and the exterminators scurried to the task. The other detective stood next to Ian, as Dirkeson passed the flashlight over Layla’s face.
“Christ,” he breathed.
Her face was pale, almost all the blood in her body drained, just a beaded drop near the puncture wounds on her neck. Her camera was lying a few feet from the body, screen pointed down. Without a word, Ian gently flipped it over with his foot. The last picture she’d taken was still up.
It was of the vampire. Its sunken eyes gleamed in its skull, its mummified mouth stretched wide in a hungry snarl, fangs elongated and ready to pierce flesh.
Layla caught her vampire after all.