That’s what the Academy instructors call it. When you are clearing a building, corners and doorways are deathtraps. So cops are trained to gradually move around a corner, getting an ever-increasing view (or slice of the pie), while presenting as small a target as possible. Clearing a T is a two-person job. But there was only one of me, and I had to make the best of it.
My leading shoulder was just about on the edge of the right corner, and there was nothing waiting on the left side of the intersection. Uh oh! A slight rush of air from the right was my only warning and then my fight brain took over. The big toothy thing charging from the right should have taken my right arm off at the elbow. Instead, it rushed into empty space as I instinctively flipped over it, my legs pointing toward the ceiling, my head and gun hand pointing down at the shaggy shape below.
Without conscious thought, my finger feathered the trigger, ripping a three-round burst into the skull below me. Viscous red fluid sprayed the white institutional walls and gray floor as the monster slammed headfirst into the wall, crunching through sheet rock and wall studs. It collapsed in a spasming heap, while I landed lightly on my feet.
My attention shifted to the door at the end of the left hallway, which was opening violently. A six-foot humanoid figure with red eyes and two-inch fangs rushed at me from the doorway. Four rounds to the chest, two to the head, sidestep into the first hall to let it rush by, and double tap the back of its head with the left-hand gun. How I can shoot and hit a moving target in the dark with my left hand while looking the opposite direction is as big a mystery to me as anyone. I just can. Of course, the V-squared virus might have something to do with it.
I moved quickly toward the open door, shifting first left, then right to gain some view of what lay on the other side. The echoing gunshots that should have deafened me instead painted a sonar-like picture of the room in my head. Three people occupied space in the room. My mental picture had the doorway coming into the room at a corner, where one of the long walls of the rectangle met a short wall. One person was seated and two were standing close together: one large, one small.
Slowing down wasn’t an appealing option, so instead, I dove through the opening, body horizontal to the ground, guns pointed at the seated figure and the larger of the two on their feet. Sharp flashes of light and concussive waves of sound washed over me. I could feel tiny bits of burning gunpowder touch my skin as their bullets slammed through the air behind me. A four-round burst found the large standing vampire at the same time that two rounds from my left-hand gun hit the sitting vamp in the forehead. Rolling to my feet, my fight brain automatically scanned for threats as I reflexively dropped the smaller model 19 into its left-hand thigh holster, while my right hand ejected the partial mag from the Glock 18. A fresh thirty-three rounder was just seating home in 18s grip when the double doors at the other end of the room slammed open, revealing a nine-foot-tall, shaggy monster. It charged.
Long burst to the chest, short burst to the face, dodge right. The sasquatch slammed into the wall behind me, and I reflexively fired a third burst into the back of its head.
Turning to the small female figure who was the purpose of all my actions to this point, I was just in time to see another flash of light and feel a sharp jolt to my chest. Her face snarling and framed by flaming red hair, she was bringing her silver handgun back on target when a long burst from my gun knocked her off her feet.
Instantly, bright light from high overhead illuminated everything, and a voice like God’s boomed:“You’re dead! And so is your hostage!”
“You’re half right,” I replied to the trio of people sitting two stories up in the bulletproof control room.
“How do you figure?” Steve Sommers asked.
“My vest stopped the round,” I answered, pointing to the red spot on my chest armor where the Simunitions training round had impacted.
“Then why did you kill the girl you were supposed to rescue?” asked the female form leaning over Steve’s shoulder.
“ ‘Cause she was shooting at me! It was obvious she had been Turned!” I answered, angry at the thoroughly frustrating nature of the simulation.
Gina Velásquez’s sharp brown eyes studied me like a scientist with a strange new bug. “Chris, the scenario states that the girl has only been missing for a day. You, yourself, have told us that it takes at least three days for a human to be Turned,” she stated.
“Then why did she attack me?” I asked.
“Easy. She was mind controlled,” Chet Akins, the third of my tormentors, explained.
“What? Where the hell did that come from?”
Now I was really pissed off. The shoot house simulations I had been running were becoming harder and harder to win. My trainers in NYPD’s Special Situation Squad were understandably handicapped by a lack of direct knowledge of the supernatural world—the dark, violent societies of vampires and weres. It’s hard to get good information when the object of your interview is ripping your throat out or using your arm as a toothpick. But when they started to make up stuff, it made me crazy.
“Chris, we have numerous documented cases of humans being…enthralled would be the word, by vampires,” Gina said.
“Well, that’s a new one for me. I’ve never heard of that from any of my vamps,” I said.
“Have you ever asked?” was her calm reply.
“And what the hell’s up with the sasquatch?” I asked, still angry but starting to feel like a bit of a jerk.
Steve and Chet looked at each other, both shrugging as Chet answered, “We found him on eBay. Left over from a B-grade movie, When Bigfoot Attacks.”
Coming down a bit from my combat high, I was becoming more and more uncomfortable with my own actions.
“Well, it’s actually kinda cool,” I allowed.
Sommers was already halfway down the metal ladder that provided the only access to the shoot house control booth. Aikens was waiting impatiently to follow, and Gina was still watching me, her damnably perceptive eyes continuing their cool evaluation.
The Squad’s shoot house was an old Brooklyn warehouse that had been seized by the NYPD after it had been taken in a drug lab raid. I had been along on that raid, as had the entire Special Situation Squad, because the building had housed the laboratory that had manufactured Hance, a potent street drug derived from vampire and demon blood. That raid had been a pivotal point in my relationship with the squad, as well as my introduction to one of my more unique friends. That’s saying something, as I have some extremely unusual friends.
The shoot house was located on the lowest level, three stories underground. The concrete floor had been mostly empty when we had raided it, now it was a veritable maze of movable walls and doors. Separated into three distinct shoot zones, it could host all manner of scenarios involving everything from terrorists to the more exotic supernaturally themed situations like I had just run. Chet, our technical guy, had enlisted the help of his robotics club to build our vampires and werewolves.
“Dude, what the hell have you done to my wolf?” Chet asked.
He was looking down at the bullet-shattered head of his most prized creation.
“Sorry, Chet, but it startled me and I just … reacted,” I said.
He had built the life-size werewolf robot according to my limited knowledge of them. Since the head was chest-high on a human, he had built the skull to absorb kill shots from the front, not through the top. My burst of nine millimeter slugs had exploded intricate mechanisms, spraying red hydraulic fluid all over the place.
“What was that move? We couldn’t quite follow it, and we haven’t reviewed the footage yet,” Steve said.
I explained my twisting, head-down jump over the wolfbot. Steve and Chet looked impressed; Gina, who had joined us on the floor of the shoot house, just watched me, her arms crossed. I knew the signs. She was working up some words for me. Words from Detective Sgt. Velásquez were not usually enjoyable, and the thought of enduring a blistering ream-out contributed to my sour mood.
I grabbed a broom and started sweeping up expended brass while Chet looked over the robots and Steve cataloged the damage to the walls and doors. The only real problem was the wolfbot and the wall it had run into. The other bots had taken slugs in the foam-filled portions of their anatomy that were designed for such abuse. Sensors in the gel recorded damage points from successive hits, and when a proper number was reached, the computer that ran everything would kill the bot.
“Wolffie is down and out,” Chet said. “It’s gonna take a week to fix this mess.”
I sighed. “Chet, I’m really sorry.”
“Yeah, well, me too!”
Chet, with a hand from the brawny Sommers, began loading the heavy robot onto a dolly to transport it to his workshop. I sensed Gina’s approach, although my back was to her.
“Chris, let’s chat a minute.”
Oh boy, here it comes, I thought. Gina is my handler, so to speak, a position assigned to her when the previous Police Commissioner had begun to realize the extent of my abilities. That’s not to say that they knew the real extent of what I could do. Hell, I was still learning that, even seven months after my transformation. But they knew enough.
“Chris, I’m disturbed by your actions. I can’t believe you shot the hostage.”
“Okay, I’ll admit, I probably shouldn’t have capped her, but you gotta understand just how frustrating these things are.”
“Frustrating how?” she asked.
I kept my voice down as I answered. Chet was already mad at me; I didn’t need to insult his handiwork on top of the damage I had done to his wolf.
“There’s no scent, no life sounds, the movements are slow and jerky,” I said. “Even the echoes I get are obviously from non-living objects. It’s hard to make believe it’s real when all my senses tell me it’s not.”
“You can hear the difference in the echoes from a living body to a mannequin?” she asked.
I nodded. My whole echo-sonar ability was a fairly recent development, and I was still adjusting to it.
“Look, if she had been real, I wouldn’t have done that, but it all seemed too game-like to me. Now, I’m going to go from this–” I waved my hand around us, “– to sparring with Tatiana. Not even remotely similar. If the girl was real, even if she had been Turned, I could have taken the gun from her and secured her without much chance of damage to myself.”
Gina knew my abilities as well as any of the squad, better even, and she certainly suspected more, but she looked a little shocked at my confession. “You’re that much faster than a new vampire?” she asked.
“Yeah, at least fast enough,” I answered.
Truth be told, I’m that much faster than a hundred-year-old vamp. I’m nowhere near as fast as Tanya, but I’m head and shoulders above anyone in the New York coven, except maybe Arkady, Tanya’s giant chief of security.
“Is it that useless, then?” she asked.
“No. It’s not useless. It’s good for my shooting. I mean, I can’t go around shooting at real vamps or weres, now can I? It’s also as good as we can get for training the rest of the team,” I said. “Look, you’re right. I shouldn’t have shot the hostage, even if I was taking fire. But these things are just so damned frustrating!”
She pursed her lips as she thought about my words. “Chris, I get what you’re saying about the simulations, but your response still seems excessive. And on top of that, you have been really edgy lately. Quick to blow up, so to speak. People have noticed.”
I was aware of her careful gaze as I reflected on the truth in her statement. I had been running a short fuse lately, and I had absolutely no idea why. She read my own lack of answers on my face. Gina is skilled in reading micro expressions, the result of intensive training in what’s become known as facial coding.
“Look, let’s talk about this some more later. The Inspector is due here in a few moments, hopefully with the new Commissioner in tow. Are you ready for a demonstration?” she asked.
The squad’s leader, Inspector Martin Roma, had been trying for two months to get the new Police Commissioner to learn more about our group. The NYPD Special Situations Squad is off the official org chart, but has been in existence in one form or another for decades. Formed to deal with the unexplainable world of the supernatural, the head of the squad always reports directly to the Commissioner.
When the new mayor had swept into office last November on a platform of social issues, he had fired the old Commissioner and brought in his handpicked replacement.Said replacement hadn’t taken his Department of Homeland Security briefing on things that go bump in the night very seriously. DHS has their own paranormal combat team, and they are responsible for coordinating and educating each of the big city teams. Each new commissioner gets their own dog and pony show (or maybe I should say wolf and bat show) from the feddies. Commissioner Kane hadn’t believed a word of it and thought our squad a waste of money and manpower.
In a way, we were victims of our own success. Crimes that fit a paranormal MO had fallen off drastically, the result of Tanya’s control of the New York Coven and my own recent liaison with the city’s Pack. Even demon activity, my personal area of expertise, had dried up since the events of last Halloween.
I heard Roma’s voice greeting Aikens and Sommers in the stairwell, but it was too faint for Gina to hear. She noticed the tilt of my head as I listened and guessed the reason. “Roma here?” she asked.
“Yeah, but I don’t hear any other voices.”
“Dammit! If we can’t convince Kane how important the squad is, he’ll do something stupid,” she said.
“You mean like shut us down?” I asked.
She didn’t say anything, but her grim look was answer enough.
The stairwell door opened and Inspector Martin Roma stepped out. Lean and athletic, average height, dark hair, neatly trimmed goatee, he alternately reminded me of either a corporate attorney or a college professor, depending on his manner of dress. Today, he was channeling the corporate image with a charcoal Armani suit. He smiled at the two of us, but the lines in his forehead never relaxed.
“No Commissioner Kane, I see.” Gina greeted him.
He shook his head and sighed before answering, “I was really hoping to show him the plastic explosive thing at least. No end of uses to that one,” he said.
The unique ability I was born with, the violet energy I used to banish demons, had undergone almost as many changes during my transformation as my body had. One of the results was a rather nifty ability to change the chemical structure of a compound with nothing but my will. Among other useful applications, it was great for rendering explosives inert (although I had once used it to change Sommers’ sunscreen to pink dye to nice effect). It put a whole new light on bomb defusing, especially since I could do it from a short distance away and no one around me would have any idea of what I had done.
“Well, I’ll just have to keep after him, won’t I? Now, how did the latest simulation go?” he asked.
After a quick glance at me, Gina answered him, “We have some more bugs to work out, and the wolfbot took a really bad hit.”
It seemed that part of Gina’s role as my handler was to shield my personal issues from everyone else. I had no doubt that she kept Roma informed of my mental condition, abilities, and stability, but she steadfastly protected me from undue criticism. As much as she would take me to task over my temper issues, she wasn’t going to embarrass me in front of our boss. I’m pretty sure that Roma was aware of this.
“What manner of abuse did you heap on the poor, defenseless wolf, Gordon?” he asked.
“Um, it wasn’t where I thought it was, and it startled me, Sir,” I answered.
“He jumped over it, upside down, and shot it through the top of its skull,” Gina said.
The Inspector arched one aristocratic eyebrow as he looked from her to me. “If I recall, wolfbot doesn’t have any gel on top of its head,” he said.
I grimaced as I responded, “No sir, it doesn’t. I’m afraid that Chet is not real happy with me at the moment.”
He chuckled as he thought about it. “Oh, don’t let him fool you. Chet is mostly upset that his design has a flaw. I’ll bet you that will be changed when the wolf comes back.”
“I don’t think I’ll take that bet, Sir,” I answered.
He looked at his watch. “Well, since we don’t need you to perform any magic tricks, why don’t you head out early? The sooner you start, the quicker your girl will be done beating you up, right?”
“Thank you for reminding me of the pain that awaits me.”
He laughed. “She only wants you to be prepared to protect yourself.I’m sure she won’t hurt you too badly.”
He obviously had never worked out with Tanya before.
Perhaps this is a good time for some background. It should be apparent from some of my actions and comments that I’m not quite normal. Actually, freak of nature would be a good term to use, except that I don’t think nature has much to do with it. Maybe freak of the supernatural would be better.
But I digress. The short version goes like this: My family was murdered by an axe-wielding stranger when I was eight. I, being a paragon of bravery, hid in the back of my brother’s closet in a quivering mass of fear. That the monster in a man’s body didn’t find me seemed a miracle. But when I was twelve and living with my grandfather, I discovered an ability to banish demons, and learned from the demons that I exorcised that the stranger who murdered my family had been a demon in a body that was empty of a human soul. I call them Hellbourne.
So, I embarked on a life of demon hunting; both the housebound kind that form the basis of all those horror movies that teens love to watch as well as the more dangerous, mobile kind: the Hellbourne (think Jason from Friday the 13th). Eventually, I left the northern New York farm of my childhood (or maybe junior demon hunter-hood is more apt), and moved to the Big Apple to increase my odds. Makes sense: more people, more demons.
I joined the NYPD, mostly because it was the only legal way to carry a gun, and started hunting. A week before my twenty-third birthday, I encountered a demon intent on killing a girl at a nightclub. I saved her, only to discover she was a vampire. Actually, Tatiana Demidova (Tanya to her friends) was more of a vampire princess, being the only known naturally born vampire. Oh, and her birthdate just happened to be the exact same as mine. Halloween….at midnight. Creepy, huh?
We exchanged cell phone numbers, as well as large amounts of blood (well, large amounts of my blood, just a little of hers), and just like that, we were an item. Only, her blood had a pronounced effect on me, physically. I got stronger, faster, healed quicker, and developed acute senses—not to mention a really heavy-duty appetite. My body lost almost all of its fat, something I had little of to begin with, and apparently, my outward appearance changed as well.
Growing up as a demon hunter adds a whole new level of school outcast to the list. In high school, I fell below the audio-visual and math club geeks on the social ladder. My exceptionally strange violet eye color hadn’t helped in the slightest. So I learned to stay unnoticed, under the radar, so to speak.
Tanya’s blood pretty much shot that all to pieces. My skin got darker, like a Native American’s (I’m Scottish, Irish, and some Russian), my cheekbones seemed more pronounced, and my eyes got even freakier, which, all together, somehow made me a lot more noticeable. Women (and some men) stare at me, pretty much wherever I go. Gina says it’s because I’m hot.
Whatever the reason, it makes me nervous. It’s not like I could ever act on their attraction. Okay, that’s a lie, I could, I just wouldn’t. First and foremost, I have Tanya. I never expected to find anyone I could have a life with, but then she dropped into my life. I don’t deserve her, I didn’t dream someone like her would ever choose me, and I would never seek another. But if I did, the women I went out with wouldn’t like the results.They would all be pretty much demon targets. Or, worse: Tanya targets.
So, where was I? Oh yeah. Tanya. Five-foot-five-inches tall, raven hair, sapphire blue eyes, smokin’ hot body. Gorgeous? Too lame. Stunning? Completely inadequate. If she walked, completely dressed, into a Victoria’s Secret lingerie fashion show, all eyes would be on her, even the thong- and bustier-wearing models’. None of which matters much to her. She’s kinda serious much of the time, intent on helping her people. That’s not to say she can’t laugh or enjoy a good joke; she just concentrates on things she deems important.
Like fighting. At age twenty-three, only the two surviving Elders can beat her in close-quarters combat. Barely. Being a natural-born vampire, well, being the natural born vampire, she is as fast and strong as a thousand-year-old vamp. She inherited her mother’s, Galina Demidova, business mind, and is easily able to manage the New York Coven’s sprawling investments and real estate holdings. But the topic she is most serious about is … me.
On a scale of one to ten, I rank about twenty. That’s what Lydia says. Lydia is the young vampire (eighty years old) who is Tanya’s confidant, assistant, de facto sister, and all around Girl Friday. She’s also a major league pain in my ass.
Not that we aren’t good friends. We are. It’s just that she takes major delight in tormenting me. She says a girl has to have a hobby.
But back to Tanya. See, vampires tend to fixate on one mate, and their focus is extremely intense. And once a vampire has decided, by whatever internal reasons they value, on their mate, well, that’s pretty much it. They don’t waiver, stray, or lose focus. Ever. At least, that’s how it’s been explained to me.
I’m not a vampire. Not a were, either. Nope, I’m an altogether new kind of freak. So I keep waiting for Tanya to come to her senses and realize I’m not the one. But that hasn’t happened in the seven months we’ve been together. She’s just as attentive and loving as when I first met her, as well as protective and territorial. Very territorial. Scary territorial.
Copyright John Conroe