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The Devil and Leo Persky

Updated: Mar 29

Meet Leo Persky, reporter for the World Weekly News with a nose for supernatural and out-of-this-world news and a penchant for trouble. The Devil and Leo Persky collects six short stories starring Leo (and his mother) and a novella that takes Leo to Hell!


If you enjoy Leo and "Man Bites Dog"there's a link at the end of the story to order signed copies direct from me, or it's available on Amazon in PAPERBACK or EBOOK!

Man Bites Dog

First thing you’ve got to know is, everything we publish is true.

The names may be changed to protect the innocent (or, more likely, to protect against the litigious), but it’s all true. From the boy-bat hybrid found living in a West Virginia coal mine to the Department of Homeland Security using psychics to recruit reincarnated Wild West gunfighters to patrol the border with Mexico.

I’ll never forget the first time I got close to some second undersecretary in the D.O.D. as a newbie reporter, still stringing for World Weekly News from college in Arizona and demanded to know the truth about Area 51. The guy just laughed and said, “Sure, what do you want to know?”

He not only handed me a stack of photographs of the aliens from four different races currently residing as guests at the infamous Nevada military installation, but provided me with images of their spacecraft as well, and offered to set up a guided tour and a meet-and-greet with the aliens, complete with photo op.

Needless to say, I was excited. I called my editor. He told me not to bother. He had “Area 51 shit” running out his ears. “Try and dig up something new, willya?” he said to me, like I was the idiot of the century for wasting his time with a legitimate scoop on the existence of extraterrestrial life.

Turns out, I was.

See, the government had learned a long time ago that the best way to keep a secret was to tell it to everyone.

Building an atomic bomb in a super-duper top military secret project? Make it the stuff of science fiction magazines and comic books and no one will believe it could actually be happening in real life at the same time.

Answer anyone who asks about ETs with absolute, one hundred percent honesty. Hold back nothing.

Know why?

 (And this is the brilliant part, really!)

Because only the nutjobs are ever going to ask in the first place!

Think about it. Unless he’s doing a prime time special during sweeps week, what’re the odds of Lester Holt opening the Nightly News with a hard-hitting investigative piece on ETs and Area 51? Anything out of the realm of the natural, carbon-based, terra-born has been relegated to the lunatic fringe where it can harmlessly percolate amongst the choir with World Trade Center Conspiracy Theories (all false) and the belief that the first shots of man on the moon were produced in a movie studio (true, but not for the reasons you think). They’ve made it so anyone who asks anything about everything from ESP to aliens is a wacko.

Or, as we like to call them at the News, “our readers.”

And if you happen to be of that small, elite group, my byline will not be unfamiliar to you. My name is Strange. Terrence Strange.

If, however, you were a neighbor when I was growing up in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, or a resident and/or transient guest of the Saint Stanislaw Hotel on West 27th Street where I currently reside, you would know me as Leo Persky. What can I tell you? “Persky” apparently lacks the umph and authority you’re going for as an investigative reporter of the weird and the unusual. The strange, if you will. Believe me, at five foot seven, 142 pounds, glasses, and a spreading bald spot that’s got me to wearing a hat, no one ever calls me Strange. “Asshole,” sure. Strange, not so much.

You can call me Leo.

Nightshift editor Rob Berger called me both, as in, “Leo, you asshole, ever hear of answering your phone?”

“Sorry, boss,” I said, dropping into the guest chair in front of his desk. “I was out in Pennsylvania—where there was no sign of Bigfoot to be found, by the way. I actually remembered to bring my cell phone charger with me,” I said, pulling the tangled wad of cord from my trench coat pocket. “See? All I needed was an outlet to plug it in and a cell tower within a hundred miles of me and I would’ve been happy to talk to you.”

“No one’s ever happy talking to me,” he growled. Berger was a big man, handsome, bearded, fit, and, of particular importance to the work of filling pages with news, intimidating.

“That’s because you’re an unpleasant excuse for a human being,” I said. Unfortunately, intimidation only works until you fail to follow through and kill the intimidatee. That I was still upright, mobile, and in possession of all my teeth, limbs, and testicles only proved that Berger was lots of bark, not as much bite. Just bite enough.

“Who ever said I was human?” he muttered, digging through the mess on his desk.

“I’ll issue a retraction immediately.”

“Don’t bother.” He found what he was looking for. A ticket folder. “You won’t be here long enough. What do you know about West Virginia?”

“Uhm, coal mines, hillbillies, moonshine. Did I miss anything?”

“Only the four o’clock Greyhound to Morgantown if you don’t move your ass.”

“Greyhound? Rob--!”

“What?” He glanced up at me from under dark, knitted brows. I suddenly remembered what about him I used to find intimidating.

“I hate you,” I said. I snatched the ticket from him. “So, what’s in West Virginia, except misery, despair and a ten-hour bus ride with the dregs of humanity?”

“We got us a biter,” he said, flipping a file folder my way.

I just stared at him and let the folder bounce off my chest. “First the bus, now vampires. You know I hate freakin’ vampires, man. I mean, the Perskys and vampires have been like the Hatfields and the McCoys for generations and after that thing in Skokie my name’s not exactly at the top of any of their invitation lists.”

Berger smiled. It was the smile of a well-fed carnivore sated on his own kill. “Oh. Was that you?” he said, “It completely slipped my mind.” He licked his lips and his smile widened; he tasted something he liked. My misery.

“Fine,” I snapped. “Great. But keep this in mind, boss man. I get bit, first thing I do is come back here and turn you into one of the undead.”

“What makes you think I’m not already one of them?” His grin was the broadest I had ever seen it, revealing canines that did seem extraordinarily...

“Bite me, Berger,” I said, and was out of my seat and through his door.

“Better hope I don’t!” he shouted and laughed.

I needed a new line of work.

 

The bus ride was everything I dreaded and worse. Long, hot, crowded, smelly, and unsettling. Highway rest stops and fast food. Too much bad coffee in giant-sized containers because God forbid you should go a hundred miles without a four-dollar cup in your mitt. Heartburn. Headache. And cell phones.

That little piece of technology that declared “drop dead!” to whatever shreds of civility were left in the world. It’s like the device forces people to bleat their boring lives out loud for the rest of us to listen in on. I got news for you, Sparky, I wouldn’t give a crap about your life even if it was interesting. Shut up!

But the worst is how it just trampled to death the notion of privacy. All of a sudden, you’re supposed to be instantly accessible to everyone, everywhere, 24/7. Or get screamed at if you’re not.

I’m not.

I get screamed at a lot. I turn off the cell as soon as there’s no one around who might want me to have it on, like bosses, creditors, and ex-wives, and blame my lack of accessibility on bad service or low battery. I usually don’t even carry it, leaving it at home, at a hotel, or in the car. On top of it being intrusive, who needs the NSA, DHS, FBI, AT&T, and the rest of the initials tracking my every move like they do everyone else’s through the phone’s built-in GPS function?

And yet, by time the bus driver wheeled us into the curbside Greyhound station in Morgantown, West Virginia, I would have traded the one screaming baby who plagued us all with six straight hours of shrill, slobbering crying—accompanied by its mothers only attempt to quiet the child, a ceaseless, sibilant “Shhh! Shhh! Shhh!” that quickly became even more annoying than the crying—for a battalion of cell phone users all discussing their relationships with their mothers, spouses, or bosses or trying to impress the rest of us with their big shot business dealings.

I stumbled from the bus, gasping for air, pining for silence, praying for a drink.

The grime-crusted neon of McSweeney’s Tavern winked at me from across the street. The rear end of an ancient air conditioning unit, wheezing, and dripping water the color of tobacco juice onto the sidewalk, stuck out of the façade, under black-painted windows.

Cool, quiet, and alcohol, all in one convenient location.

Is it any wonder I sighed with contentment as I passed through the doorway, moving from bright sunlit streets to standard-issue tavern-dim? I didn’t even bother to let my vision adjust to the gloom or turn my trained journalist’s eye on the details and faces around me. I just stumbled to the bar and said, “The biggest glass of whatever you got on tap.”

I was working on sending a second beer down to rescue the first before I stopped to smell the roses or, in the case of McSweeney’s, the stale beer, tobacco and pine-scented puke. For all I knew it might be the in-spot of Morgantown, but I hoped not. There was a bar, half a dozen booths along the opposite wall, and a scattering of tables in the rear arranged in a semi-circle before the jukebox. I couldn’t see the restrooms, but I was betting if I followed my nose, I’d be able to find them in no time. Seven men, all of them older, all of them looking like they could be Clint Eastwood’s older, craggier brothers, were scattered around the place.

“Yo, chief,” I said, crooking a finger in the direction of the bartender, another of Clint’s relatives.

“Get you another one?” he asked.

“Naw, this one’s still good.” To prove it, I took a good swallow. “I was just wondering if you guys had heard anything about vampires?”

You know those old western movies, where the hero walks into a loud, crowded bar, asks about the bad guy and suddenly the whole joint goes dead quiet? Well, this was just like that, even though no one was making any noise to begin with. It just got quieter somehow, and they were all looking at me like I was the turd in the swimming pool.

“Ain’t no such things,” he said, too quickly, his hand going involuntarily to his neck.

“C’mon, boys,” I said. “It’s just me.”

Clint, Jr. whisked my half-finished beer from in front of me and dumped it in the sink.

“And you were just leavin’,” he said in a ‘make my day’ voice that sent shivers up my spine.

“I’ll take that fresh beer now.”

“You’ll take a hike,” he said, same gruff tone as above.

“Okay, now you’re just making banter,” I said. “Look, I’m a reporter for World Weekly News. We got a couple of tips that there’s been some vampire activity in these parts.”

“Maybe it’s them aliens you’re always writing about,” one of the other Clints quipped to a wave of hearty, manly chuckling.

“No, these guys are sucking blood. Aliens like to conduct anal probes.”

Looking back, I’d say it was the use of “anal” that triggered the violence. At any rate, that’s when they started beating the living crap out of me.

 

There’s an old chestnut I’m always seeing in mystery novels where the P.I. stirs the pot by charging around like a bull in a china shop and, when someone tries to kill him or beats him up to warn him off, he’s happy, figuring it means he’s getting close to cracking the case.

I might’ve been close.

Or maybe, as has been frequently suggested, I’m just an obnoxious asshole most people naturally want to pound on. Either way, I got my a bloody nose, one black eye, a split lip, a couple of ribs that felt like they were rattling around loose in there, plus a swell assortment of bruises, abrasions and contusions. And arrested.

On the upside, my knuckles remained unmarked. I never got in a shot.

I was booked, photographed, fingerprinted, then given ten minutes with a wad of paper towels and a sink to clean myself up before being planted in the interrogation room, i.e., a table and two chairs in the corner of a file room.

Much as I was ready to stereotype him as a small-town hick lawman, Lieutenant Ward Baker of the Morgantown PD was anything but a Sheriff Hogg. He was well-spoken, immaculate in his pressed uniform, and polite. He offered to send me to the hospital if I wanted medical attention (I declined), then listened patiently to my side of the story.

“You said ‘anal probe’ to those guys?” he asked, not bothering to hide his grin.

“Yeah, well, in retrospect...”

“Look, Mr. Persky, you don’t strike me as a naïve man,” he said, the local Appalachian twang still in his voice, but buried like the coal in the nearby mountains under an Eastern education and a few years living someplace else. “You start poking around in this sort of nonsense, you’re not going to make any friends around here.”

“Lieutenant Baker,” I said with a smile that caused me to wince from my split lip. “I’m not really interested in making friends here or anywhere else. I’m funny that way. All I want to do is get my story and get the hell out of Dodge, so let me spell it out:

“You have yet to indicate in any way, shape or form that you think I’m a lunatic or a fool from a fake-news supermarket tabloid looking to shake up some bullshit for the sake of a story. Well, okay, I am, except for the ‘fake news’ part, but unless you happen to know that vampires, Bigfoot and/or aliens are real, your first reaction’s going to be that I’m some crazy conspiracy theory nut. I’m not naïve, you’re right, and I know what people think when they talk to me.

“Take you, for instance. You’re looking me straight in the eye and treating me like I’m a rational human being. Know why? Wait, that’s rhetorical. Because you know I am.

“So, what’d you want to tell me about the vampires?”

Baker leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest, spending the next few moments chewing on the inside of his cheek and looking at me. I didn’t interrupt his revelry.

“By rights,” he said, “I should toss your ass in the can for a few days or boot it out of town.”

“Haven’t you read the Patriot Act? We don’t have any rights left.”

He shook his head and said, “Shit.”

I smiled.

“Shit” always meant they’d caved.

He said, “Come on.”

 

The morgue was in the basement of the hospital Baker had earlier offered to take me to for treatment. It was a big block of a building, up on a hill, about halfway to a bulge in a few miles of road called Grafton, and it stood dark and cold against the evening sky.

Morgue. Basement. Where else? The short of it was, soon me and Baker were standing with the coroner, who doubled as the hospital’s chief pathologist, or vice versa, along with a trio of bodies, covered by nice, clean white sheets in a vestibule outside the doc’s cutting room. His name was Dr. Sanhar Muthupalaniappan, “but you may call me Sandy.” No, I couldn’t. He wasn’t a Sandy. Sandys were happy-go-lucky brown-haired dudes who played tennis and watched golf on TV, not cadaverous beanstalks who looked as though they’d been the subject of one of their own autopsies. I stuck with calling him Dr. Muthupalaniappan.

“We’ve had four cases, all involving exsanguinations via dentally induced puncture wounds,” he said in a pleasant sing-song voice that sounded more Pee Wee Herman than Uncle Fester. “The forensic evidence indicates in each case the bodies were found where they were killed, but the volume of blood in situ did not add up by one third.”

“So someone’s taking the blood,” I said.

“Doesn’t mean they’re drinking it,” Baker said.

“No, of course not. It’s just that no one’s yet invented anything better than teeth to puncture human flesh in order to get to the blood contained therein.”

“Cult killings mimicking vampiric behavior are not out of the realm of possibility,” ol’ Doc Muthupalaniappan interjected with a happy grin.

“Yes, they are, statistically,” Baker corrected. “According to the FBI, there’s never been a documented cult killing in this country.”

I snorted. “You sleep better believing that, my friend.”

Baker stared, pop eyed. “Just because there might be something to this vampire stuff doesn’t mean I’m buying into the rest of that garbage you print.”

“We’re getting off the rails here. The topic’s vampires.”

“Indeed, it is.” He took a step to his left and whipped back the sheet of the nearest gurney. I gave him points for style. “May I present Miss Wanda Olivia McMartin, age twenty-three, time of death he said, glancing at his wristwatch, “two days and little more than eighteen hours ago.”

Like a vampire myself I went straight for the neck, but Muthupalaniappan stopped me, pointing to the south end of the gurney. I indicated her mid-section, then her thighs, getting a negative head shake both times. The young lady had once been attractive enough, but near three days dead from massive blood loss had left her dry and ghostly white. The twin puncture wounds stood out like two pink Good & Plenty (were the pink ones the good or the plenty?) in the middle of a bowl of white ones.

On her ankle.

“What’ve we got here? A sucker with a foot fetish?” I mumbled. I leaned in for a closer look. It took me only a second to know that what I was looking at wasn’t right.

“This isn’t a human bite,” I said to Dr. Muthupalaniappan.

“Of course not. What human would do such a thing? I thought you suspected a vampire.”

“Yeah, but they start as human. They still are, just undead ones who subsist on blood, so fangs aside, the dentations should be human.”

The good doctor grabbed a magnifying glass from an instrument tray and shouldered me aside. He hummed a single atonal note as he poked, probed, and examined the wounds.

“Where were the others bitten?” I said.

“Two neck, one femoral artery, one ankle,” said Dr. Muthupalaniappan. “I assumed there would be some non-human deformation for vampire bites. I have, as you might imagine, scant experience with this manner of homicide. But, if not from a vampire, this is some manner of dog bite.”

Baker looked at me, the poster boy for miserable. “A dog bite?”

“Some manner of, yes,” Muthupalaniappan said, “but the canines are in a strange formation.” He popped a collapsible metal pointer from white lab coat, extended the tip and inserted it into one of the bites. He pressed it in, then marking the depth with his thumbnail, pulled it out. It sounded wet and squishy My stomach fluttered.

“Two inches deep. That is one heck of a dog, yessiree.”

“But it’s not a dog, is it?” Baker said.

“Two-thirds of her blood missing?” I said. “Not a dog.”

 

It takes a fair amount of rationalization and an incredibly open mind to accept that compared to what really goes on in the dark places, your average summer horror blockbuster film is pretty tame stuff.

Lt. Baker was trying, really, he was. He could look at a crime scene and intuit what went down from the evidence. As long as the evidence made sense.

“Sense” being the operative word. The trouble he was having was that I had just come along and changed the definition. I had to hand it to the man, though. He worked his own process and at the end of it all, he got to where he needed to be.

“So, what’s the deal?” he asked, as we sat in his car in the parking lot of the Four Corners Restaurant at the junction of U.S. 50 and 119 in Grafton (population 5,489), birthplace of Mother’s Day, according to the sign at the junction, drinking some of the best coffee I’d ever tasted out of paper cups. Baker was smoking. An ex-smoker myself, I was happy for the semi-pacifying effects of his second-hand smoke.

“It’s vampires,” I said.

He nodded. His eyes didn’t flicker.

“You’re okay with that?”

“No, but I’m willing to believe it.”

My turn to nod.

“So, what’s next? Garlic? Stake through the heart?”

“Sure, you want to get that close. Me, not so much. I’m not exactly on the best of terms with the vampire community.”

He didn’t nod.

“Community.” Silence. “I’m really trying here.”

“You’re doing fine,” I said. “Look, like I said, vampires are just people. Just undead, blood-sucking people who want the same bullshit as us live ones. Friends, lovers, yada yada yada.”

“Yada yada yada?”

“So, they form communities. They give me the willies, all of ‘em, but ninety-five percent of biters are okay. They get their blood without killing, from blood banks or butchers. Or volunteers. They can’t reproduce the old-fashioned way, but you’d be surprised. There’re plenty of people willing to be turned in exchange for providing a few good feedings to a vampire.”

“Okay, now I’m nauseous.”

“Tell me about it. Anyway, like I say, most of them are harmless. It’s the loners you’ve got to worry about. Maybe they were freaks before they got turned, but some of them get off on the chase and the power. They like being blood-sucking killer scumbags.”

“Charming. But I repeat: what’s next?”

“Depends on the biters. Let’s review, shall we?” With me looking on, creepy ol’ Doc Muthupalaniappan had gone back to take another look at the three bodies still on hand. The fourth, actually the first victim, had been a fifteen-year-old named Wally Hudkins. His parents had buried him within days of his death. Still, the autopsy photos were enough to show me that his bite, at least, was inflicted by human jaws. The other three, not. They were animal bites, and three different animals at that, plain and simple.

I said, “The first attack was two weeks ago, and there’s been one every three or four nights since, right?”

“Right. Tonight’s night three since Wanda McMartin. All four attacks were after midnight, all within about half mile of the old schoolhouse hill.

“The sheriff and his two deputies are staking out the area. I’m playing roving back-up and coordinating. These guys don’t get many homicides, so Morgantown usually takes the lead when we’ve got one. Or four.”

“You check out the old schoolhouse?”

“We made sure it was still boarded up tight, yeah.”

“That wasn’t the question.”

“The place’s full of asbestos and god knows what kinds of mold and carcinogens. It’s off-limits until the town can afford to have it taken down properly.”

“Vampires are already dead. They don’t sweat cancer. They don’t sweat, period.”

“Shit,” he said.

I shook my head.

“Shit” also meant they’d realized they better start listening to me.

He handed me his coffee cup and twisted the key in the ignition. “Come on,” he said.

 

We raced down two-lane Blueville Drive and screeched up and down a few dark country roads before finding the one that climbed the hill the back way to the schoolhouse. The front way was by foot and featured, according to my host who had attended said school several decades earlier, ninety-two steps to the top. How quaint. Drive, I said!

It was almost midnight.

Baker got the Grafton sheriff on the radio and filled them in on the situation, just short of the vampire parts. He told them to move in on the schoolhouse but stay out of sight and quiet.

“They got crosses?” I asked.

“Around these parts?” Baker said and keyed the mike again. “Sheriff, you and the boys, keep your crucifixes handy, you copy that?”

“Uh, say again, Ward.”

  “You’re gonna want to have the Lord on hand, Bob, trust me. Just keep it handy and make sure you shove it in the face of anyone comes within spitting distance, got it?”

“Uhm. Roger that, you’re the boss.”

“What’ve you got in the truck?” I asked.

“Spare tire, a jack, can of gas, shotgun, tear gas canisters, roadside flares, emergency kit, couple of blankets, a...”

“Yeah, that’s good.” I looked at my watch. “How close can we get before they see us?”

“Without headlights and in neutral, I can roll us in to fifteen yards, quiet as can please.”

I exhaled, loud and hard. “I hate biters.”

“So I gathered.”

“They’re scary, Baker. No bullshit. If you’re lucky, they kill you. Otherwise, gobble-gobble, you’re one of them.”

“I’ve seen the movies.”

“I’m just warning you, that’s all. Be afraid, be very afraid and be very, very careful.”

Baker smiled. “You’re worried about me.”

“Look, just be careful, okay?”

Baker did something on the steering wheel and our headlights flicked off, plunging us into a deep back country road darkness. “You like me and you’re worried.”

“Jesus,” I said, both to him and about the pitch blackness around us.

“You’ve met vampires?”

“Uh-huh.”

“What about werewolves?”

“Those too,”

“How about the Mummy? Or the Creature from the Black Lagoon?”

“This isn’t Monster Thriller Horror Theater, okay?”

Baker began to slow, peering through the windshield.

“You sure you know where you’re going?”

“Relax, Leo,” he said. “I grew up in Grafton. Been wandering these parts since I was knee-high to a grasshopper.”

“You never were.”

“Swear to god I was,” he said and right around there we ran out of nervous chatter.

He found what he was searching for in the foliage stippled darkness and made a gentle, wide turn into it. It was too dark to see where we were, but I heard branches and leaves whispering along both sides of the car as we bumped along, so I figured it was some overblown footpath. As soon as the nose of the car started to dip, Baker stopped, switched off the ignition, then shifted into neutral. He lifted his foot off the brake, and we began to roll down a gentle incline. Baker eased us down the slope, riding the brake the whole way.

“Used to bring my dates up here,” he said softly.

“Chicks around here dig the whole asbestos scene?”

“It was fine. We used protection.”

For some reason that made me laugh. I tried holding onto that feeling as long as I could.

We bounced onto level ground, and he came to a full stop and shifted into park. “Last stop,” he said. “School’s right beyond the tree line here.”

“Okay, flares, blanket, gasoline,” I said.

“Huh? Oh, Christ. Fire?”

“Fire’s a sure thing. It’s either that or get in close for some stake-work. You volunteering?”

“Not me, man. I spent four years in the marines. Never volunteer.”

“I hope you saw action,” I said.

He threw what I assumed was his badass cop look, totally wasted on me in the dark, and said, “I can take care of myself.”

“Semper fi. I’ll go inside, make sure school is in session, and you’ll wait out here to spark the flames.”

He grabbed my arm. “I’m the cop. I should go in.”

“You’re just saying that to sound all macho and get in my pants, right? What do you do if you run into a vampire?”

I heard him draw a breath to respond, then pause before saying, “Let me sketch you a floor plan...”

 

I walked up to the door and pounded on it. “Yo, wakey-wake! Hello?”

There was no sense trying to bullshit vampires. Undead they might be, but biters had animal-sharp senses of smell and hearing and they were going to smell me long before I got to the door. Especially since I’d splashed some gasoline on my pant legs before making my way around to the front of the old schoolhouse through the woods.

“Hello,” I called. “Anybody home?”

The schoolhouse gave dilapidation a bad name. Its old clapboards, those that chose to still cling to the sagging frame, were dripping long curls of once-white, no doubt lead-tainted, mold-mutated paint. Windows were boarded up, doors were barred, and its bell tower was sitting at a disturbing angle. Big yellow signs pasted to the door and all the boarded windows warned of hazards to be found inside. They didn’t know the half of it.

According to Baker, it was a four-room schoolhouse, two rooms on the east side, two on the west; the common area between served as lunchroom, gymnasium, and auditorium, as needed. Electricity, gas, and water had long been cut off, but that wouldn’t bother a vampire.

The door swung open under my fist.

I’ve seen this movie.

But I went inside anyway. I’d tied a handkerchief over my mouth and nose to minimize the carcinogens I’d be sucking in up with every breath inside the old deathtrap, but it wasn’t enough to block the stench. It smelled like twenty years of mold and rot, topped by six years of rotting flesh, unwashed ass, and animal crap. It was toxic—never mind the asbestos—and it was dark.

And things scurried in the darkness.

Because don’t they freakin’ always!

I’d brought Baker’s big six-cell cop flashlight and was holding it like a club. Just, you know, in case. Now I reluctantly turned it on, to illuminate the source of the scurrying.

Which was a squirrel.

It was just sitting there, in the circle of light, staring at me like the proverbial deer in the clichéd headlights. It didn’t seem to want to do anything but stare, so I started to sweep the room with the light.

More squirrels. I came looking for vampires and I find squirrels. Oh, wait, and some chipmunks. And a few rabbits. And raccoons, cats, dogs, possum...

And bones, stark white, sticking up through what remained of the hides of the stacks of deer, dog, and god only knew what else carcasses stacked and shoved against the north wall.

The animals were everywhere. The larger dogs and raccoons were between me and the door, while dozens more cute, furry little critters with their whiskers and crinkly little noses and blood matting their fur and dripping from little mouths wide with gleaming, razor-sharp fangs encircled me.

“Animal bites,” I whispered.

Then one of the little bastards pushed the door closed behind me.

The squirrels came at me first. I’ve always hated them, nothing but rats with good P.R. I didn’t even want to think about the consequences of getting bitten by a vampire squirrel. I didn’t have time to think, just to scream like a schoolgirl and start swinging my flashlight.

I caught the first one square on the side of the head, sending what little brains it had spraying across the room. I stomped on a second, hearing its ribs snap and crumble under my heel. Others were swatted, batted, stomped, and kicked, and all the time it was all I could do not to turn and just run away in terror. They were mindless and hungry and purely instinctual and everywhere.

I was breathing hard, hyperventilating, pretty near running on instinct myself. I’m no hero. If anything, I’m an avowed coward. Shit like this scares the living hell out of me, although things don’t usually get this ugly. I’m supposed to report stories, not get involved in them, but then I get all caught up in the moment and do something stupid and instead of just observing the insanity, I become a part of it.

I watched in the wildly swinging light as an undead possum’s left eye went flying from its head with a solid shot from the flashlight, but he just kept coming. A scraggly cat with half a tail jumped onto my leg and was clawing at me through my Dockers, trying to get to an artery and bite. I kicked at a salvia dripping standard poodle, snapping its spine while I tried fending off a raccoon with one hand around its throat.

Didn’t matter though.

Plenty more where they came from, dead little eyes watching, snarling, growling, screeching, scampering in place, almost too excited to wait their turn. But they did wait. This group had hunted together before. A lot.

A squirrel started squirming up my pants.

Oh shit oh shit oh shit!

“Baker!” I screamed.

That was our fancy-shmancy signal to light the fire. There were nasties in the house, don’t know if it was all of them, but it was plenty enough for me, and the fire might just distract them long enough for me to break free and get out. Maybe even kill them. If I didn’t, I’d fry with them. Either way, I was meat.

I broke the front legs of a golden retriever that, in life, had probably been a pussycat. Now, frothing blood at his lips, this snarling carnivore kept coming at me, shoving itself along the floor with its hind legs.

Fur and flesh, blood and gore, and I was screaming Baker’s name but wasn’t being rewarded with any answering fire or smoke. Stupid hick asshole cop! All he had to do was throw a goddamned match on the gasoline we’d splashed on the back and side walls before I went inside. What’s that take? Two seconds, tops!

The animals were all over me. It was a miracle I hadn’t taken a bite yet, but it was coming. A German shepherd hurled itself at me and knocked the flashlight from my hand. It went spinning, light and dark dizzyingly across flashes of blood red eyes, dead white teeth and bristling fur. It landed, rotating as in a mad game of spin-the-bottle, and didn’t stop until a foot stomped down next to it.

Not Baker’s foot, though. That would have been too easy. Whoever it was, he grunted, and suddenly, the animals retreated from me, scampering off into the darkness. But not too far. I could hear their claws skittering and jaws snapping, but nothing was breathing. The dead don’t breathe.

“Hey, what the--?” I started to ask, but he said, “Shh!” so I shh’ed. If Doctor Doolittle was leader of the pack, I wanted to stay on his good side. So, I waited while he leaned down slowly, lifting the flashlight and rose, letting the light wash slowly over him.

“Jesus,” I whispered.

“Jesus got no place here,” he said in the voice of a kid. “Just forget all that.”

“Relax,” I said, trying not to let my voice crack as much as the one I’d just heard. “I gave up on it a long time ago. How old are you?”

He didn’t let the light reach his face. But I saw he was holding onto something, a bundle of rags he dragged behind him on the floor.

“Doesn’t matter, right? I’m as old as I’m ever gonna get.”

“You’re a kid.” I took a step forward but was stopped by a growl from the darkness behind me. “Yeah, it sucks, I know. Uh, no pun intended. Look, I want to help. This is, this...Christ, I dunno what this is, but it’s got to stop, kid.”

He rustled in the darkness that still hid his face.

“I know. I, I’m sorry.”

“What’s your name?”

“What difference does it make?”

“Because I don’t want to have to call you ‘hey, you,’ all night.”

He shrugged and his bundle of rags moved and moaned. I focused in on it and it suddenly took shape, becoming Baker.

“I don’t think you got all night,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

It hit me then, who this had to be. Wally Hudkins, fifteen, the only one in the morgue with a human bite.

Who’d then been buried. In his native soil yet.

Yet another good reason a reporter shouldn’t get involved in his stories. He spends all that time running around and not enough putting the pieces together.

“Wally, right?”

He shrugged. “So?” Even undead, a fifteen-year-old can stuff a whole lot of snot and attitude into one lousy syllable. I wanted to smack it right out of him.

“Hey!” I snapped, causing a chorus of growls and snarls to erupt around me. I tried, really tried, to ignore them. “I don’t need your lip, kid.”

“What’re you--?” he took at a step back at my tone. I was supposed to be afraid. Instead, I was acting just like another grown- up asshole.

Baker’s head thudded on the floor, and he moaned again. I couldn’t tell if he was out, dazed, playing possum—a live one only pretending to play dead, I mean—or what. I had to assume I was on my own. Not that I would exactly be my first choice for back-up.

“I’m just a reporter, okay? Terrence Strange, World Weekly News, and I--”

“No shit?” he said and suddenly he sounded less like a monster and more like a teenaged fan. “You’re Terrence Strange?”

“You read the News? Good, so you know I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You’re gonna write a story about me,” Wally said, his voice quivering. “So, my folks and friends and everybody’ll know what I’ve become.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way, kid. We can help you--”

“No, you can’t!” he screamed, and the menagerie howled and screamed with him. The next thing I knew, he whipped the beam of his flashlight at his head. Correction, at what was left of his head, which was about sixty-five percent of it. The top right quadrant of his skull was gone, his eye hanging where his cheek ought to have been, gray matter glistening in the gaping wound and the white of his jaw visible through his torn cheek. Petrification had set in around the wounds.

“He bit me,” Wally raged, and there would have been tears if the dead could cry. “He made me into a monster and said he was sorry doin’ it and ran away and when I woke up, I was buried, and I had to dig my way out for days and days and I was so hungry, but I didn’t wanna hurt no one!

“I, I knew I wanted blood, tried getting it from Mr. Tumley’s cows but he shot me with his twelve-gauge, took off half my head so I ran away, tried getting what I needed from the animals in the woods but then they wouldn’t stay dead and started biting the others...”

He was raging now, swinging Baker around like a rag doll.

“I didn’t mean for nobody to get hurt,” he screamed, a bloody froth spraying everything in its path. He opened and closed his mouth several times and moaned. “I gotta kill you, Mr. Strange. I’m so hungry, all the time. The animal blood, it don’t do it, y’know?”

He opened his hand and let Baker drop.

“Just this once,” he said, and he sounded so sorry as he took the first of three steps that would have brought him to my neck. I stepped back but a solid wall of furry animal flesh blocked any retreat.

“Shit,” Baker said.

And I smiled.

“Shit” also meant that what they were about to do was so thoroughly gross as to be unthinkable, but they were going to do it anyway.

Baker rose behind the kid and with a scream that sounded like a nauseated samurai, he plunged a bright red road flare into Wally Hudkins’ gaping skull, gave it a good twist to make sure it was properly seated, then did whatever the hell you do to ignite the thing.

I’m glad I didn’t have a camera with me because I would have taken the shot and Berger would have printed it and then I’d never get the image of half a human head suddenly erupting with chemical magnesium fire out of my mind.

The brain started to bubble and fizzle almost immediately, and Wally screamed with more surprise than pain, but when he raised his hands to his head and they started burning, something hit him. It might have been pain. Some biters have told me they no longer felt pain. Others, that the agony never stopped.

Either way, Wally’s would be over in a few seconds.

The animals reverted instantly to instinct and as flames from the screaming, wildly gyrating kid flew around, igniting dead, dried carcasses and rotting old timbers, they flew into mindless panic, forgetting all about us.

And me, being an idiot, just stood there, transfixed by Wally Hudkins’ final, macabre undead dance of death. Baker, obviously not a patron of the arts, knew enough to grab me and get us both out the front door, which he slammed behind us, before there was a gigantic, deafening sound like the air exploding and the old schoolhouse became the biggest bonfire Taylor County had ever seen.

The old building was only still standing out of luck and, maybe, some fluke of gravity. The moment the flames hit the roof, the leaning bell tower finished its westward sway and collapsed, and I could have sworn I heard Wally crying and screaming for his mother.

Baker insists I imagined it. Said he didn’t hear a thing.

Whatever.

 

Being on top of a hill in the middle of town, the blaze brought people running fast, but not fast enough to stop a building’s worth of rotten timbers and dried old wallboard and filled with corpses from being reduced to a couple of dumpster’s worth of ashes and charred sticks and bones.

The local cops and fire fighters found only animal remains in what was left. We had decided to keep Wally’s name out of the official report. People could read it in the News; they wouldn’t believe it there, but for his parents’ sake and sanity, we opted to leave him, for the record at least, dead.

What there was of the vampire-puddycats and other critters were too charred to produce any analyzable organic information. Creepy ol’ Doc Muthupalaniappan theorized that just as bird or pig influenza viruses sometimes mutate into a form that can migrate from animals or birds to humans and cause illness, Wally Hudkins was some sort of genetic crossover or gateway. Whatever his body did to whatever it is that passes vampirism from person to person enabled it to leap to animals in a form capable of spreading among the non-human population.

“Imagine,” the doctor whispered in a low, campfire story-telling voice, “assuming vampires do exist, if the spread of this zoological vampirism had not been curbed!”

“But it has,” said Baker. He squinted at me. “Right?”

I shrugged. “How the hell am I supposed to know? I didn’t get to take a head count.”

“Leo, for crying out loud...”

“What do you want from me?”

He stared at me, his eyes wide. “What if there’s more of them out there?”

“Baker, I don’t know. I can give you the names of some experts, have them check it out.”

“How much is that going to cost?”

“Uhm, less than being attacked by a vampire Bambi?”

“Christ, Leo…”

And suddenly, the pending endless, hideous Greyhound Bus ride home was starting to look almost attractive. If my luck held, I’d wind up with two screaming babies.



Leo Persky, by Edd Coutts, from "Shunning the Frumious Bandersnatch" (2013) in HELLFIRE LOUNGE 4: REFLECTIONS OF EVIL

By coincidence my old friend Sgt. Mike Payne in Homicide had caught the Kh’nodb case. Of course, when I say, “old friend,” I might be exaggerating a bit. Not on the old part; Payne's been pounding a beat since the Empire State Building was a three-story walk-up. But calling us friends was pushing it.


“Get outta my face before I gouge your eyes out and use your head for a bowling ball, Persky,” the old bull snarled as he caught sight of me ducking under the yellow police tape blocking the way into the old warehouse that had been converted some years ago into Stacked, a high-end topless nightclub.


“Good to see you too, Payne.”


“What do you want?” he growled, knowing there were too many witnesses around for him to get away with shooting me.


“Hm, you’re a cop, I’m a reporter, and there’s a dead alien inside.” I tapped my chin with a finger. “Can’t imagine what I’d want.”


The grizzled old cop spat on the ground, missing my left shoe by an inch, then looked at me with the deadeye.


“Who said?”


“Who said what?”


“That there’s a dead alien inside.”


“C’mon, Mike.”


“Only the lunatics reading your rag believe in aliens. That’s NYPD policy.”


“Yeah,” I said, “but we know...” but Payne cut me off with, “I only know what I’m told to know. And you’ll know what I’ve been told at the same time I tell the rest of the press.”


The door of the club opened, and a uniformed cop stuck his head out and called his name. Payne turned on his heel and left me standing by myself. I tried once more, calling out his name, but he just raised his hand and waved good-bye. Being a man of few words, he waved just the one finger.


I hovered around the fringes of the crime scene, picking up the small talk from cops and reporters. It was sounding like the official story was going to be that a busboy had been killed in an altercation with an unidentified customer. The police were following up on several leads, the name of the victim was being withheld pending notification of his next of kin, yada yada yada. They would just let the investigation drag on until the mainstream press got bored and forgot about it.

Payne had spread the word among his men to freeze me out, so I did what any self-respecting reporter would do. I went away.


But not far. Just around the block, in fact. The attention was all on the building’s front entrance, but it had originally been a warehouse, and warehouses meant a lot of holes in the perimeter for loading docks and doors. If this had been an actual police investigation, the cops and CSIs would have been crawling all over the place, front to back. They loved to bag and tag stuff and run tests. They could walk in on the murderer as he pulled the trigger in front of a full house in Yankee Stadium and they’d still collect every last cigarette butt at the scene for evidence, just in case.


But the alley behind the warehouse was deserted. Nightlights glowed over the empty loading bays and closed doors. Payne hadn’t even bothered to post a cop there to shoo away snoopers like me.


The doors were heavy duty, faced with steel and secured with chunky industrial hardware and locks. They were stenciled with “No Entry” signs, and what’s more, they were actually locked. But being an ex-smoker, I knew that a sign was no barrier to anyone wanting to grab a cigarette without the hassle of leaving the club and coming back in through the front door.


And, sure enough, I found a puddle of cigarette, cigar, and blunt butts outside a propped open door two-thirds the way along, near the dumpsters.


The door lead into a service corridor, walls painted black and illuminated by a few low wattage fixtures and the red glow of the “Fire Exit” sign over the door. I crept on cat’s feet along the sticky, beer scented carpet, pausing to peer around the bend to check the way ahead. Another black-painted corridor, this one broken by a bathroom and what appeared to be utility closet doors. There was no one in sight, but I could hear voices echoing hollowly in the large empty space beyond this hallway.


By the time I was close enough to make out what the voices were saying, I was also pretty close to the speakers. I recognized Payne’s soothing tones as he barked at his cops, “Yeah, I said all of you. Outside. Now.”


I slipped off my hat and slowly edged my right eye around the doorway. Payne was a dozen feet away, his back to me, standing next to the lifeless Kh’nodb. The late reality star from the stars was half-sprawled on a leatherette banquet seat in the V.I.P. lounge, his big black eyes staring off into nothing and his usually hearty baby blue complexion a sickly gray. His lean seven-foot frame was clad in cargo pants, a pair of Phillip Crepe lace-ups, and a blue checkered flannel shirt open over a black band t-shirt. I couldn’t tell you which band, because most of the logo was gone, having disappeared along with a perfect five-inch circle punched through his chest. And to make matters worse, a third of his big, bulbous head had been cleanly sheared off at a 35-degree angle.


An altercation between a customer and an undocumented alien busboy my pale tuchus!


Payne was watching the cops clear the room, giving me a few minutes to make my observations and pull out my smartphone. While I was fiddling with it, I caught the sounds of a new arrival. Correction. Arrivals. Two of them. I guessed they had arrived through one of the other back doors. I couldn’t risk a look around the doorway, so I set the camera for video, hit “record,” and slid my phone just far enough past the door jamb to give the phone’s lens a clear shot.


“This him?” one of the newcomers said.


Payne didn’t respond. I imagined he was just staring at the guy.


Newcomer number one realized he was a schmuck and cleared his throat, so newcomer number two, a woman, took up the slack. “Witnesses?”


“We’re holding eight eyewitnesses. And three others who tried to give him medical aid. Everybody else started running as soon as the blasting began. Someone got off a few shots, but we haven’t found a gun and don’t know if they hit anything. But the gunfire makes for a good cover story about the busboy.”


“And your men?”


“They’ll keep their mouths shut. I told them it was a national security matter.”


“You may not be wrong, detective. Suspects?”


“Just one. The Von Kleesberg girl. She and Kh’nodb were seen arguing just before the shooting. They lost track of her in the panic, but I’ve got units out looking for her.”


“Did you recover the weapon?” Payne must have replied with a negative shake of his head because the woman said, “Okay, so little Miss Ohio could be packing a Kn’otnerus disintegrator.”


“Unless someone else picked it up in the confusion,” the schmuck said.


“Let’s hope not,” the woman said. “Alright. We’ve got an unmarked van waiting in the loading dock. We’re taking Kh’nodb. And there’s a team en route to scan the club for any abnormalities, so keep everybody out of here until they run their tests.”


“What kind of abnormalities?” Payne said in a voice I would not describe as pleased.


“Radiation. Unknown toxins,” the other guy said. “We don’t know what leaks out when you poke holes in one of these guys.”


“Should we be standing so close?” Payne said.


“Like I said, damned if we know.”


I decided I’d heard enough. Exposure to radiation and alien toxins aside, Stacked would soon be crawling with technicians. I didn’t want to be one of the little germs they scraped up when they got here.

Continued in THE DEVIL AND LEO PERSKY... available by clicking below!


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