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Booze and Ooze

Booze and Ooze:


A Roman Dalton Yarn.

by Matt Hilton


Based on characters created by Paul D. Brazill


“What ya havin’, Roman?”

Duffy was at his usual place behind his bar, when he’d have been better off stood in a cornfield with a broom shank up his ass scaring away crows. His small black eyes twinkled like a vein of untapped coal. They were the same color as his ‘Just For Men’-dyed quiff; so spidery it sat on his forehead like a dead tarantula. His acne scarred face dimpled around his supposed earnest smile.

“Like you need to ask?”

“Double Dark Valentine?”

“Yeah, with a DV chaser.”

“Rough night?”

“The one behind me or the one ahead?”

“Take your pick.”

He had that right. Last night I’d spent too many hours at his bar. This morning when I woke up I was lying flat on my back, butt naked, my mouth open and tasting like a hobo had squatted in it through the early hours. Also tasted like said hobo hadn’t moved out when he took a dump as part of his morning constitutional.

“Who’d I leave with last night?” I asked.

“You don’t remember? Shit, Roman, you staggered outta here with a hottie on each arm. The Kawczynski Twins!”

“The Kawczynskis? Crap, not those two Latvian midgets from Fat Man Moog’s House of the Bizzarro?”

“What you got against the vertically challenged?” Duffy straightened his back, but his sparse pompadour still sat an inch or so below my eye-line. I sat on a bar stool so he didn’t feel so short. Duffy sloshed amber liquid into a glass. It was a similar shade to the sclera of my eyes when I’d looked in the bathroom mirror this morning.

“I just don’t like to be short changed, man,” I said.

“That’s why you took both of them back to your dive. So you got the best buck for your bucks.”

I held my head in my palms, groaned.

Duffy grinned. When he does that he looks even more like a demented scarecrow. I didn’t look up: I knew he was hitting me with a wide mouthed grin as I got a waft of hot halitosis. Too much sugar in that boy’s diet.

He leaned over the bar and nudged me with my glass of Dark Valentine.

“Here, get that down you. There’s another right on its way.”

“The Kawczynski Twins…crap!” My head felt so heavy it was a struggle to hold it up. I propped an elbow on the bar, wedged my stubbled chin in my palm, took the double shot of DV in the other.

I heard Duffy chuckling. Not a nice sound at the best of times.

“What?”

“Had you going there, didn’t I? Wasn’t the Kawczynskis. It was the Kaczinzkis. Without the double-ya and with an extra zee.”

I shook my head, then downed my drink J R Ewing quick-style. I’d no idea what he was going on about.

“Gimme that other drink, Duffy. I need it.” He sloshed another measure into the glass I held out to him. “Make it a double.”

“Take it easy on that stuff,” he said, “don’t forget about tonight.”

“There’s no full moon…”

“No. That’s not what I meant. You’re working, or did you forget?”

I raised both eyebrows, but couldn’t pull off an innocent look for love nor money. “Duffy, I’ve no recollection of taking home the…uh…the Cack-stinky Twins, let alone taking a job.”

“Cack-stinky? Shit, Roman, don’t you ever listen to what I say?”

“Forget about ’em for a minute,” I said. I had. “What’s this work I agreed to?”

“Good job I’m around to look after your well-being, isn’t it, Roman Dalton?”

Duffy shoved over a slip of paper. Without waiting he turned away, picked up a white stiletto-heeled shoe off the bar top. He studied it as keenly as he usually did the tit-bits of knowledge he gleaned from the stack of National Geographic magazines he kept under the bar counter next to his twin-gauge. He lifted it to his nose, his face crinkling as he took a sniff.

“Kinky,” I said.

He blinked, unashamed. Someone must have been dancing on the bar last night. I was only glad it wasn’t a Doc Marten boot he’d found. Surreptitiously I checked and was glad to note I’d remembered to put both my boots on this morning before staggering here. In the next instant, Duffy turned fluidly and hurled the shoe at the Wurlitzer jukebox. My head had been doing such a stutter-skip-jump since sitting down I hadn’t noticed that Clarence ‘The Frogman’ Henry had kept on repeating “I don’t know why I love you”. The shoe did its work, and the record clicked on. “But I do…woo…ooh…ooh”.

T he Frogman’s warbling sounded too much like the echo I often heard inside my head, so I palmed my hands flat over my ears, staring desolately into my empty glass. I’d be damned if I could recall draining it. A second or so later I shifted my gaze to the stained piece of paper.

It had been torn from a lined notebook. The perforations at the side told me. That’s what made me such a good private eye: even hung over I was still the astute type. Yeah, right.

There were some spider tracks on the paper, but I couldn’t focus on them. I lifted the slip, held it at arm’s length. A cell phone number and a name. “Who the hell’s Bishop?” I wondered aloud.

“He would be the albino dude you were huddled up with in the snug last night.”

“Albino? Like with white skin and all?”

“Bunny eyes. The business.”

“How the fuck could I forget about talking to an albino?”

Duffy drew my gaze to the waste bin under the row of bottles at the back. There were three empty DV bottles poking out the top. God knows how many were buried beneath them. “I didn’t drink them all…”

Duffy stooped to the bin, pulled out two ‘Babycham’ bottles and showed me the evidence: imported stuff, retro as all hell. “The Twins had these,” he said.

“Crap.”

I thought about my booze consumption. I often did.

“Gimme another, will you?”

Give Duffy his due; he’s a damned fine barman. He sloshed, and I sipped this time.

“Albino,” I repeated.

Something was coming back to me.

Red eyes.

Nah, that was just my reflection in the DV.

“Got any change for the payphone?” I asked.

“Where’s your cell?”

“Probably the same place I left my po-lice detective badge,” I said. “These days I don’t have much use for either.”

Duffy fished in his pocket and then scattered some dimes on the counter. He nodded over at the alley that led to the washrooms, where the payphone was pinned to the wall as a reminder of yesteryear. “Knock yourself out, Roman.”

I stood up off the bar stool and staggered towards the phone.

The Frogman changed tunes.

“You always hurt the one you love”, he crooned.

Not true. I’d hurt plenty I despised too.

I wondered who it was that Bunny-eyed Bishop wanted me to hurt.

*

Troy Bishop was the real deal. An honest to God albino; but then he was also something else.

He was so pale he had that ethereal glow to his skin and the pink cast of his eyes looked like bloody holes in his skull face. Think a demonic snowman from a B-movie horror flick and you get the idea. When he opened his mouth his teeth were yellow and tusky, his tongue a grey slug that worked at his palate making his speech more slurred than mine.

After I’d phoned him, found out who he was and where to find him, I’d bummed a lift to his place in the back of Duffy’s reclaimed taxi. Duffy was a good barman, but a crappy chauffer. Twice he ran red lights and once almost knocked an Orthodox Jew from his pedal cycle. Thankfully both swerved at the opportune moment. Duffy lost a wheel trim but miraculously the Jewish guy hung onto his wide-brimmed hat.

“Jesus,” I’d said. “You going Nazi on me?”

“I’ve got a bar to run,” he reminded me. “Haven’t time for carting your drunken ass all over The City.”

He dropped me at the curb of a townhouse in a bad part of town. Then he tore off, leaving tire rubber on the cracked asphalt.

I lifted a hand in thanks but he was already gone. I coughed at the exhaust fumes that hung in the air like a monochrome spectre.

A murmur of conversation brought me around. Eyeing me from the steps of the walk-up townhouse were three youths. They were straggly, unkempt: I was in good company. Since my ‘problem’ metamorphosed it has been a struggle to maintain a decent wardrobe. Two, three times a month my togs get shredded, and I wasn’t on a pay scale to replace them with the best of threads. Duffy said I should invest in a nice Lycra jumpsuit, good and stretchy, but I told him I’m a PI not a freakin’ superhero. So I’d become a regular at the various thrift stores and cheaper-end strip malls where I picked up off the rack sale items. As it was, my raincoat was a size too big, and my chinos a bit baggy around the knees. My Doc Marten boots were my only long-term investment, but I’d had to replace the laces plenty of times. To the three youths I wouldn’t appear an obvious target for robbery, but you never could tell. I looked at them, holding them under my gaze, and they stared back with that ballsy attitude that comes from youth.

“You Dalton?” one of them finally asked. He was skinny, had a turn in one eye. In some cultures a cockeye was a sign of evil. In The City it just meant you looked stupid.

“Who were you expecting?”

“You don’t look like a cop.”

“That’s because I’m not, so you can stop trying to hide that joint behind your back.”

The youth brought out a skinny spliff and took a toke on it. “How’d you know I was smoking?”

I was going to tell him I could smell the pot from a dozen yards away, but I didn’t. “Kinda goes with the territory,” I said as I took a look up the steps to the townhouse. It was dilapidated. Actually, that was too kind a term. It was a dump. Probably the worst dump in a dump of a neighborhood. It was three stories tall, had a peaked roof with dormer window – blacked out my astute Private Dick mind noted - and was painted the color of cow manure. The only other color in evidence was the proliferation of graffiti sprayed on the front door and steps.

The other two youths flanked Squint Eye. One was fat and sweaty, the other skinny and dirty. They muttered something to him, and he waved them down. He did all the talking: The Big Kahuna. Apparently he could talk and smoke at the same time, the joint bobbing and flaring with each exhalation.

“Are you packing?” he said.

With a look up at the blacked-out window, I asked, “Should I be?”

“I have to pat you down before you can see Mister Bishop.”

“Do that,” I told him, “and you’ll have to have one of your pals roll your next joint.”

At his incredulous look, I added, “You want to keep your hands, right?”

“Shit, man! No need to be so aggressive.”

“Nobody’s patting me down. Now, are you going to show me inside or do I just kick the door in?”

Squint Eye took a step back, glancing at each of his friends in turn. I made a noise in my throat, something akin to a growl.

“We have to check that you don’t have certain objects on you.”

“Objects?”

“Icons,” he said.

“What? Like Marilyn Monroe?”

Again the incredulous look. I gave him a lazy smile, the twinkle of an eyetooth.

He told his buddies to hold the fort. God help the Alamo if they were their only hope. Then he went up the steps. I followed, avoiding stepping on the graffiti tags. They weren’t the usual gang symbols. These I recognized as something much more telling: pentacles, pentagrams, black magic seals, and one that said, ‘Punk’s not dead, just rotten’. Go figure.

To be fair, I was surprised that someone with enough cash to hire a PI would live in a dive like Bishop’s house. But then, with his condition, I supposed it was also fair that he’d prefer to hide out in this run down quarter of The City than set himself up in a swanky pad downtown. And before anyone asks: I’m not talking about his albinism.

Squinty Eye unlocked the front door. He made a flourish like a Vegas magician. Maybe he expected applause but opening a door with a key wasn’t that impressive to me.

“You aren’t coming in?” I said.

He used the glowing ember of his spliff to indicate a set of sagging stairs. “All the way to the top.”

“Does Bishop have something against light bulbs?”

“Hurts his eyes,” Squinty Eye said. “He only permits the use of candles.”

I wondered if that was why the youth had a gammy eye: squinting by candlelight.

I went inside, my Airware soles sticking to a threadbare runner carpet. I didn’t like to think about what I was stepping in. The door was pulled to behind me. I was in darkness. Funny enough, a residual effect of my ‘problem’ is a heightened sense of smell, but my eyesight was no better than before, but then a hang over topped up with five measures of DV had left me seeing double. Double the darkness in this instant.

I pulled out my cigarette lighter and snapped it open. A quick roll of the wheel on the flint and I got a stuttering yellow flame going.

The stairwell stank worse than a mattress in a crack whore’s pad. I tried not to breathe but it was difficult to accomplish going up on legs rubbery from a heavy session. I sucked air in at the corners of my mouth, my teeth clamped tight, tongue watering almost as much as my eyes. The lambent flame from my Zippo chased shadows before me like thieving jackdaws fleeing the scene of a crime.

From above came the soft strains of music. I half expected something esoteric, exotic. I got Buddy Holly and the Crickets. ‘Awe-ah-he-ah-helll…’

I frowned. Not because Bishop should enjoy old-school rock ‘n’ roll, but how the hell could Buddy ‘Rave On’ when the volume was so low? Rock ‘n’ roll should be played loud and proud, man.

Reaching the penultimate step I paused, checking either side of the landing with my impromptu torch. The shadows now swayed at the periphery of the luminance like broad shouldered vultures. A shiver went up my spine, ruffling the short hairs on the back of my neck. What the hell was I doing here taking a job like this? Oh, yeah. The money. I’d a big family to support in Jack, Jim and Johnny. That’d be Daniels, Beam and Walker, if you were wondering.

I stepped up onto the landing. The runner carpet had literally run out. I was on bare boards, worn and stained. Much of the stench emanated from them. I held the lighter closer to the boards and saw that they were a rank sticky mess. A reddish brown sludge. For all intents and purposes Bishop’s cleaning habits extended to someone throwing down a bucket of water in his room and letting the water sluice the filth out onto the landing. Gathered in the cracks were bunches of hair like you find stuck in your shower plughole. They weren’t fur balls coughed up by a cat, I was certain.

Was any amount of cash worth treading on that floor? Freakin’ A. Despite what he was, Bishop’s money was as good as anyone else’s.

I rapped on the door.

The music was turned down even further so it was just a tinny burble, sounding like a wasp stuck in a tin can.

“Enter.” Bishop managed to mangle that single word.

I pressed my fingertips to the door and gave it a gentle shove.

Bishop was seated on an old chair, hand-carved by the look of things. In the small room with its peaked ceiling and blacked out dormer window, the two candles he’d lit were ample to illuminate him, as well as cast a baleful glow over me. I blinked.

Not at the light but at the naked man sitting cross-legged before me. With his white skin and lean frame, Bishop looked not unlike a third candle, the way he was perched crookedly on the chair. His hair hung loose, a fringe of gossamer over his eyes. Without looking up, he said, “Ah, Roman Dalton. You came as promised.”

“Just so we’re straight from the get go, when my business card states Private Dick the emphasis is on ‘private’. So no funny business, bub.”

“You are uncomfortable with my state of undress?”

“So long as you keep your legs crossed and your hands in your lap you can dress as you please.”

“I didn’t take you for the homophobic type; in fact I did not think you shared many of the prejudices I see in other men.”

“I’m not homophobic. I have few prejudices. Just wasn’t expecting you sitting there in the buff.”

“My condition makes clothing uncomfortable for me.” He waved the back of a hand to a sideboard across the room. On top of it were many vials and bottles. “I must apply many salves and potions in order to stave off inflammation of my skin. It suits me to sit unclothed in the cool darkness, but if you wish me to put on a robe I’ll gladly do so.”

“So long as you don’t perform an impromptu Riverdance you can do what you want.”

Bishop sniggered to himself. “You are a funny man, Roman.”

Speak for yourself, Bishop, I thought.

I clicked off my Zippo, pushed it into my raincoat.

“Please. Come in and close the door.”

I stepped inside, checking for somewhere clean to set my feet. It was an impossible task. I took a look around. Not much in the way of belongings.

It was almost as if Bishop read my mind. “I have little need of material things,” he said, his thick tongue slurring his esses. “That is not to say that I am not wealthy. Your fee is assured, Dalton.”

“Would rather see the readies, if you don’t mind.”

He waved at the sideboard again. “Top drawer.”

I moved to the cupboard and pulled open the drawer. A stack of Benjamin’s peered back at me. I didn’t take them out.

“You dither,” he said, sounding disappointed. “It is not enough?”

It wasn’t the amount of cash, just that a pang of morality told me that this was blood money. Literally. Despite being down at my heel, was I really so desperate to take a wage from such as Bishop?

“I thought that you of all men would be the last to judge me,” Bishop said.

I quirked a brow at him.

“Let’s not play games, Dalton. You know what I am as assuredly as I know what you are.” He finally lifted his head and his eyes flashed red in the wan light.

“I have my suspicions,” I admitted.

“And you rebel against the notion of working for a Strigoi?”

“If a Strigoi is the same as a vampire then I have to admit I don’t have much love for bloodsuckers.”

“Let him without sin cast the first stone,” Bishop quoted.

“I don’t drink blood.”

“No but you have consumed raw flesh. Where’s the difference?”

I stood there. A sour taste rose in my gorge. But what could I say? He was right. “Not out of choice.”

Bishop placed a hand to his chest. His fingers were long, the tips bulbous and spatula-like. His nails had been bitten to the quick. “You think I had any choice in my condition?”

I offered him a shrug. Maybe he’d been jumped in a dark alley by creatures of the night the way I had, except his sire was a little more suave than the hairy bikers who put the bite on me.

He laughed, a bubbling noise that emanated from his gut. “You thought at first that I was an albino. Understandable when you viewed my pale skin.” Again he touched his chest, and I noted that since entering the room I’d never seen it rise or fall. “But this is not the result of a lack of pigmentation, but due to being bloodless.”

On closer inspection his skin not only looked translucent, it also looked parchment-like, a bit scaly. Dehydrated.

“When was your last drink, Dalton? No. You need not answer. I can smell that it was but a little while ago. You’re an alcoholic, yes?”

“I’m no alcoholic,” I sneered. “I’m a drunk.”

“And a belligerent one at that.” Bishop waved away his remark. “Forgive me. We are not here to cast aspersions. My point is that you rely on the crutch that your cups offer you.”

See-sawing my head, I could only offer a grimace of agreement.

“I too need to drink,” Bishop said, “only my tipple is not bourbon. Are we so unalike?”

“My drinking habit never kills anyone,” I pointed out.

“Only your liver.” Bishop smiled, and I saw that his toothsomeness was all the more prominent because of the number of canines in his mouth. Way too many. No wonder he slurred his words. “There’s a joke I’ve heard tell by drunkards. It goes something like, ‘I have a drink problem. I can’t get enough of it.’”

Hardy-hardy-har. Bishop was proving a right ol’ wheeze. I barely cracked a smile at his wit.

He actually looked embarrassed, and again made the waving motion.

“I’m in a worse position than any of those drunkards,” he said. “I have a drink problem. I can’t get any of it.”

I thought about Squint Eye and his buddies outside. I hadn’t checked their throats for hickeys but I just bet that Bishop had chewed down on them at some time. It was how bloodsuckers made their goons, wasn’t it?

“It’s a bitch having to go cold turkey,” I said.

He indicated the floor.

“As you can tell I’ve attempted to assuage my thirst. Don’t worry, it isn’t human blood. It is the blood of stray dogs and cats, even a pet goat.” He plucked at the dry skin of his abdomen. “As you can tell, I have gained no sustenance from it. It caused nausea and vomiting: yet I have not touched human blood in weeks.”

“A vamp with a conscience,” I said.

He shook his head, corrected me. “A Strigoi with a fear.”

“Fear of what?”

“Dying.”

“I thought your kind was immortal.”

“We enjoy a long life – if you excuse the contradiction coming from a revenant such as I – but only for as long as the blood stock lasts.”

“Big city out there. Lots of human cattle. I shouldn’t have thought it was a problem gaining donors.” I studied his eyes. They were disconcerting, but I had to be honest there was little of the beast in them. “I have my ear to the ground, and haven’t heard about anyone turning up dead with their throats torn out. Now either you’ve been careful in disposing of the bodies or you’re telling the truth. You haven’t been preying on humanity.”

“Once I did,” he admitted. “But I was never greedy. I only took what I needed. And only from the lowlifes and criminals of The City’s underbelly. But lately I have been too fearful to drink from my usual font.”

“That’s twice you’ve admitted to being afraid. What has a Strigoi got to fear – apart from crucifixes and pointy stakes that is?”

“You recall the AIDS pandemic, yes? It did for many of my kind in the eighties and nineties. Can you think of anything more terrible than a hemophiliac wampyr? The AIDS virus made us hemorrhage from every orifice. Eyes, nostrils, ears…”

“And a case of diarrhea from hell, I bet.”

“It was not a nice way to go.”

I tried to picture Count Dracula emptying his bowels and it wasn’t a pretty image.

“So, what? You fear a disease? A virus?”

“I fear something in the blood, yes. But not what you’d suspect. You said you keep your ear close to the ground; have you heard of OOZE?”

“The new party drug?”

Bishop nodded. “Though it’s hardly the same as Poppers or E or even the cocaine wealthier addicts rely on for a good time.”

He was right there. OOZE was an underground drug, and users were the same type who usually injected themselves with horse tranquilizer or household cleaning fluids. They were the self-same people that Bishop once drank from.

“OOZE changes its users. You shall see the signs soon. They are becoming something less than human, and their blood is like poison to my kind. Worse, than that, it is lethal. Think necrotizing venom and you will get a fair idea of what becomes of a Strigoi who sups from an OOZER.” Bishop leaned forward. “I am a reanimated corpse. I do not wish to be a reanimated rotting corpse.”

“The zombies hold the patent on that condition,” I said, but Bishop didn’t appreciate my quip.

He said, “I am but one of many Strigoi who have taken residence in The City. I am not the only one abstaining from drinking. I cannot predict how long it will be until we cannot bear the thirst any longer. I fear more than OOZE, Dalton. I fear that we will turn our cravings to cleaner blood.”

“Do that and you’ll find you have a new problem,” I promised.

“And that is why I sought you out. We’d rather not have you as an enemy. On behalf of my brethren I come to you with a request for help. Stop this drug flowing through the veins of the underworld, give us a source of sustenance once more, or the previously untapped good, innocent people will begin to die.”

*

Pay phones are as rare as chicken teeth in The City. But I finally found one in the back of a 7-Eleven and called Duffy to come collect me. I ignored the looks I got from the pedestrians out on the street while I waited for my taxi. They knew I was an outsider, off my usual patch, and therefore I was to be suspicious of. Funny when they hadn’t taken note of a bloodsucker in their neighborhood.

A couple of Asian tuffs eyed me up. They were Koreans at a guess, judging by their tall builds and oblong heads. Maybe they could see the outline of the wedge of notes making a satisfying bulge in my breast pocket and fancied taking Bishop’s upfront payment from me. I scratched an ear, trailed my hand down and accidently on purpose pulled my collar to one side so that they could see the butt of my revolver poking out from my shoulder holster. The two tough guys decided that easier pickings were to be had elsewhere.

Back in the 7-Eleven I’d checked out the food on offer. It was halal stuff, when I could have just eaten a nice bacon sandwich. I decided to abstain from food, but could as sure as hell have supped a bourbon or three. But I didn’t give in to temptation. I was on the job, and despite my cravings I had to get my head clear. I sucked on a Breath Saver, gagging on the anti-septic flavor, but it was better than the sour taste rising from my gut. I kicked my heels against the curb. Duffy had made it clear he was in no hurry to collect my drunken ass and ferry it back across The City, but I trusted he wouldn’t make me wait too long.

So much for trust.

It was the best part of an hour before his old taxi pulled up alongside me.

“Where to, bub?” he asked.

“Where else?” I said.

“To the bat cave,” he said as I clambered in the back. I hadn’t even got the door shut before he peeled out with a squeal of tires.

“Do you know you look nothing like the dude in this photograph, Mister Patel?” I asked, with a nod to his taxi license/ID. The picture was of a middle-aged Indian, complete with turban and circus ringmaster moustache.

“Whoever checks those things anyway?” he said.

Only astute private eyes, I guessed.

I mentally shrugged. It wasn’t as if Duffy was actually making a living from his unlicensed taxicab: Generally I was his only fare, and it was a free gratis ride. Not that he ever complained, not when most of the take from my private eyeing went behind his bar. It was a fair arrangement.

“Thanks for coming out for me. You didn’t have to close your bar, did you?” I said.

“Nah, Portia is standing in for me.”

“I don’t suppose anyone will tell the difference,” I said.

“If she was a six foot Scandinavian with pneumatic breasts I doubt any of my clientele would notice.” When she isn’t wrestling or cage fighting Portia makes a few extra bucks pulling beers behind Duffy’s bar, or turfing out troublemakers – also known as those who choose to nurse a single drink all day. She’s a stockily built Lesbian with tats, piercings and a black and white skunk hairstyle. But he was right. The punters at Duffy’s didn’t notice much beyond the rim of their beer glasses.

We streaked across town. The lights were in our favor on the return leg, and Duffy only ran one red. This time it was a pizza delivery boy who was almost knocked off his bike, and he swore at us in a language a little less colorful than the Hebrew we’d earlier been scolded in.

This early in the afternoon The City had a different feel to it. Strip joints, tattoo parlors, sex shops and even the bail bondsmen’s offices lost a little of their glitz. Felt a little soulless to be honest. A bit like Troy Bishop in that respect. Or one Roman Dalton if I’d to be honest with myself. Taking cash from a bloodsucker didn’t sit easy with me, especially when it meant I was assisting him in his nefarious vampy ways. But he’d made a fair argument in that if he couldn’t get back to chowing down on lowlifes then he’d have to move up the scale from pondlife-hunter to apex predator. The alternative was waging war on Bishop and his Strigoi brethren (and there were a number of them in The City if Bishop was to be believed) and where was the monetary reward in that?

“What do you know about OOZE, Duffy?”

“Booze I know, OOZE I don’t know much,” Duffy said. “But let me think.” He fiddled with the radio, turned it from a sports channel, through a Radical Christian Evangelist Sermon and found a station playing gutsy Rhythm and Blues. Muddy Waters aptly growled out ‘Got my mojo working…’

“Well,” I asked after he’d had some ruminating time. “Your mojo do its thing?”

“There’s this club over on Hunter and Sixth: hear tell there’s been some crazy shit coming outta there in the past few weeks.”

“How come I haven’t heard anything about it?”

“Like I asked you earlier, Roman: do you ever listen to me?”

“Sure I do. The Cack-Stinky Twins aren’t the midgets from Fat Man Moog’s joint. You told me about the crazy shit that happened on Hunter?”

“Police have been there in numbers the last two weekends. First time it was a good ol’ bar brawl that dragged them away from their doughnuts and coffee. Second time was worse. A fire. Three dead, and other punters running screaming through the streets in a frenzy of terror. Apparently the crazies claimed their drinks had been spiked and they were all part of a collective mass hysteria where bat-winged monstrosities with glowing eyes were swooping them trying to suck out their brains. Some God-bothering preacher who said he had to cleanse the work of the devil allegedly started the fire. He’s still in lock-up. He couldn’t make bail having spent all his church’s tithes on loose women and booze.”

“Just sounds like a regular night in The City,” I said.

“Except when the crazies came down more than half of them claimed to have been approached by some pusher offering OOZE. You know how pushers work, Roman. Sometimes they’ll throw out a freebie or two, or maybe slip a doobie in someone’s drink just to get them hooked. It’s the classic ‘speculate to accumulate’ ploy.”

“Anyone have a clue who the pusher was?”

“People weren’t clear on it – never are when speaking with the cops – but the general consensus was he was a one-eyed Keith Richards look-alike. You know Keith Richards right?”

“The Rolling Stones?”

“One and the same.”

“They were talking about Cyclops Pete,” I said. Cyclops Pete Clegg was one wrinkly-faced mother who wore a leather patch to cover his empty socket. Lost his eye in a game of poker. Not that it was put up as a stake, but when he neglected to pay his debt some Russian mobster had him held down and his eyeball spooned out like the yolk from a soft-boiled egg. Maybe by leaving off his eye patch he thought no one would recognize him.

“Where would I find Cyclops Pete?”

“No idea,” Duffy said. “But I’m sure someone of your prodigious talent won’t have any trouble sniffing him out.”

“OK. I’ll have less of the bloodhound cracks, pally.”

Duffy winked at me in the rear-view.

*

For a one-eyed-Rolling-Stone-look-alike Cyclops Pete proved more elusive than you’d think. See, The City has its fair share of oddball characters and its not as if an eye-patch wearing, leather-faced, bandana-sporting fellow stands out from the crowd. In fact I was beginning to think there was a ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ convention in town the number of false leads I followed. But find him I did.

Duffy wasn’t totally off the mark either when he said I’d sniff him out.

The way it went down was this:

I don’t only change on the full moon.

I change on the cycles of the moon, and it generally pans out to three times per calendar month.

As a man, I followed the rumors of OOZE around The City, hearing frightening things about its effect on users – or OOZERS as they were called. There were unsubstantiated tales of people ‘warping’ under the influence, growing talons and scales and such. I’d heard crazier tales and seen more insane sights since my unwilling enlistment into the otherworldliness of The City occurred.

First time the beast in me surfaced there must have been enough in my residual memory to take me to the Hocus Pocus Club on the corner of Hunter and Sixth Avenue. Due to fire damage it had been closed down, but the shutters were nothing to my claws and I was inside in minutes. The place smelled bad, but not to the mind of a werewolf. Beneath the stench of wet ashes and molten plastic there lingered the pork-roast aroma of the three victims who’d fallen to the flames. Made me salivate, but my urge to feed was overwhelmed by my instinct to seek. I detected in the men’s bathroom a stall where some sticky yellow ooze had solidified on the porcelain cistern – both spared by the fire that had raged through the dancehall and bar. The smell from the OOZE was unnatural, something ascorbic with the underlying hint of decay. Now it wasn’t the only icky stain in the bathroom – it was one of those kinds of clubs – but it was the only one that reeked of the inhuman. Once I had the odor in my nostrils I was off, galloping through the streets of Old City, following the pheremonal trail back to a crack house dive down by the water front.

There was a big bald guy holding a leashed pit-bull terrier standing guard. He was scarred, beefed up and wore a spiked collar. Not the dog, the man. Even in my wolfen state I recognized the collar for what it was. Defense against a Strigoi attack: apparently the OOZE pushers were aware they’d made some powerful enemies. The collar meant nothing to my jaws, not when I could easily tear off his head with my claws.

I left the guard flopping like a fish out of water, but spared the dog. I liked dogs. The pit-bull made itself scarce once I snapped the chain-link leash from around its throat.

Some creatures of the night are stealthy. They creep around, staying to the shadows to avoid detection before springing to the attack. Me: I was all about noise and bluster. I smashed through the doors, howling, and was inside the crack house before anyone could shout “It’s a raid!” It wasn’t a conscious shock and awe tactic, simply the ravening beast in me begging to be let loose, but it worked.

There were five pushers inside. Two OOZERS too. The OOZERS were in the act of dripping piss-yellow goo off their overly long talons into their wide maws. They looked monstrous, but they were the least of my concern. The pushers didn’t use their product, and they had their wits about them. Not to mention weapons.

Still the sudden appearance of a hairy creature sporting fangs and claws in their midst had the effect it normally did. They didn’t think to pull out their guns but did what their terrified minds commanded and tried to flee. I was on them. I’d no pity – man or beast – for the scumbags. They were pushing a drug that poisoned their customers, but worse than that it changed them. It made monsters of the OOZERS and in turn the OOZERS attempted to infect others with the same filth. I clawed and bit and tore, my wild side howling at the liberation.

Three of them were dead before one man thought to pull out his gun.

Pity the hand he reached for it with was already lying on the floor about ten feet away. Before his wet stump bumped against the stock of his pistol, I snapped my jaws onto his skull and crunched. I shook him and his head came off. I spat it out. I had better taste.

Crouching, I stared balefully at the final pusher and watched his single eye widen in horror.

Before I could grab Cyclops Pete the two OOZERS seemed to understand that I’d just been responsible for cutting off their supply route and they turned their anger on me.

For malformed things they could move fast.

They shrieked high-pitched squeals, and sprang at me with claws as keen as mine.

I swatted them to the skanky carpet with disdain. They were only partly turned while I was all monster.

I ground their skulls into the floorboards, allowing their brains to pop out of their ears and nostrils. All the while I watched Cyclops Pete watching me.

He made a noise.

Gaaarrrkkkllleee it sounded like, and he tried to get up from the couch he’d been laying on, having sought protection from the sunken cushions he’d piled around him.

Leaving the OOZERS oozing grey matter I pounced on Cyclops Pete and met him eyes for eye.

In my feral state I couldn’t hit him with a juicy one-liner.

I simply let it be known what would happen to him if he didn’t behave by way of a long, ominous growl that emanated all the way up from my chest and seeped over his face in a cloud of bloody mist and dog breath.

*

Barefoot, I stood in a pair of dead man’s trousers and stained vest like a stand in for the next Bruce Willis movie.

In front of me was Cyclops Pete, spared evisceration but not a few lumps on his head. Not that I’d beat him up or anything, but slung over my shoulder and carried back to my hiding place I hadn’t given him an easy ride. More than once his head had banged against a doorframe or wall, and I’d finally flung him senseless to the deck, unmindful of another egg-sized lump that grew on his forehead. The swelling actually helped his looks, kind of shrink-wrapping the wrinkles in his face. By the time he’d surfaced from the impromptu nap I was Roman Dalton again and he was trussed in a chair.

“Who the hell are you?” was his first waking question. Then, with a fearful scan around the abandoned warehouse I’d brought him to, “Where’s that thing?”

“Back in the dog house for now,” I said. “But unless you start talking I can call him back here. I’m sure he’s ready for some chum after all that exercise.”

“What do you want to know?” he said without pause.

“You push OOZE.” It wasn’t a question but a statement that didn’t require affirmation. “But you’re a street-level hawker at best. Who is behind it?”

“I can’t tell you!”

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Can’t! I’ll be killed.”

“What do you think your future holds for you right here right now?” For emphasis I showed him my gun.

“You’re not going to shoot me.”

“Am I not?” I shot him through his right foot.

Cyclops Pete screamed in agony. Then he screamed for help. No one would hear him this deep inside the old factory. It was why I was happy enough firing my gun without a suppressor.

I aimed my gun at his other foot. “Ready to speak now?”

“Wilhelm Von Richter! Von Richter’s behind it all!”

Von Richter? The name was unfamiliar.

“On the streets he’s known as the Austrian!” Cyclops Pete went on.

Ah, now I knew who he was talking about. I’d heard that the Austrian was some sort of magician who’d recently arrived from Europe toting along some ancient black magic tomes with him. Apparently he owned a very rare copy of a forbidden book called Das Hauptbuch Versteckte Dämonische Namen. I’d heard it mentioned that several rare book collectors had engaged professional thieves in order to acquire the book for them but all of those thieves had suddenly dropped off the planet. So had several of the book collectors. I didn’t read German, but understood the title roughly translated as The Ledger of Hidden Demonic Names. Ledgers usually record numbers, not names, but then black magic and numerology was often interweaved, so what did I know?

“So what is OOZE? Something Von Richer has concocted?”

“I don’t know. Honest. I’m telling the truth.”

Cyclops Pete was too afraid to tell a lie.

“Where do I find the Austrian?”

“Please! Von Richter will kill me if I say.”

“I’ll kill you if you don’t.” When he didn’t seem swayed by my threat, I added, “Or I can always call back your hairy friend. All that blood I just bet he’ll start gnawing on you from the feet up. Imagine what it must be like watching yourself being eaten alive.”

Cyclops Pete had a good imagination.

*

Despite my threats they were all bluff. I knew Cyclops Pete feared the magician and would need a bit more motivation than another gunshot wound to tell all. But his fear of being eaten alive did the trick.

I sought the address he’d supplied during the daylight hours, with Duffy’s taxicab proving good camouflage for a stake out. Duffy didn’t normally accompany me on jobs, and he hadn’t this time either. Portia had stood in at the bar so he could guard Cyclops Pete until my return.

“Don’t worry, I’ll keep a good eye on him,” he’d quipped even as he handed over the keys to his taxi. “Don’t forget to put some gas in the tank.”

Hiding in plain sight is best. Something as familiar as a taxi on the streets of The City was as good as having a Vulcan cloaking device when it came to fooling the guards on Von Richter’s door.

There were two men. Giant Teutonic fellas with square chins and blue eyes. Looked like Dolph Lundgren and his doppelgänger. They would eat me alive for supper, but only in my current guise. But I could feel the tingling in my extremities. Pretty soon the tingling would become a cold fire that swept through me and set my nerves on end. After that things would get really painful. But then it wouldn’t be me who’d to worry about being someone’s supper.

I got out of the taxi, locked the doors and walked across the street. The neighborhood was fancier than the one in which Bishop the Strigoi resided, but then Von Richter could generally pass as a normal human being. His house was large and eerie, all towers and peaks, and befitting a black magician. The house was erected for some 1940s starlet who’d played alongside some of the greats. But then a morphine addiction had stripped her of her looks, and her sanity, and her star had dimmed as quickly as a shooting star. She’d ended up an unmarried, embittered spinster who went crazy and ended her days up in one of the eight bedrooms, swinging from a noose.

I didn’t walk directly to Von Richter’s house. I headed for an alley that ran between two mansion houses a block down. Tall brick walls kept the plebeians from entering the grounds of either house. The boughs of overgrown trees made a canopy overhead. Good place to lurk in the shadows. Good place to wait out the rising moon. I kicked out of my Doc Martens, shucked off my raincoat, suit jacket and shirt. But just in case anyone did wander by before my metamorphosis I kept on my trousers and vest: Die Hard The Return.

Clouds were boiling in the heavens. Big, thick and bulbous they shrouded the moon. Didn’t change a damn thing. The lunar cycle happened whether or not there were clear skies. I felt that familiar burst of white-hot fire in my chest and it flared all the way to the extent of my extremities. I actually growled in delight, welcoming the onset of the beast for a change.

Since those early transformations I had learned to separate some small corner of my consciousness, so that I could view the actions of my beast-self as if through the eyes of an observer. I couldn’t change a damn thing that the wolf did, but these days I could bare witness.

*

The two Aryan giants proved ineffective as guards against the thing of ferocity I became. They were left lying in steaming puddles of their own innards without ever getting off a warning shout. I was inside Von Richter’s home and it took less than a heartbeat to pick up the same ascorbic scent that had led me to Cyclops Pete’s hide out. I sniffed, my muzzle close to the floor as I went on all fours. The residual memory of my cop life urged that I find the laboratory where Von Richter manufactured his drug, but the wolf part ignored it. Instead it took up the scent and instead of heading for the backrooms of the large house, it sought entry to the underground.

Padding on wide splayed feet, claws ticking on hardwood floors, I went forward, and saliva flooded my wide-open mouth with each inhalation. The trail was powerful; many gallons of OOZE had been transported throughout the house, but all from a central location beneath my feet. Momentarily the beast in me clawed at the floor and parquet went sailing. Then a slice of intelligence cut through the red haze and I bounded towards the bottom of a flight of stairs. The stairs led upward to the bedrooms where the Golden Age starlet stretched her neck to breaking point, but the beast in me had no intention of seeking out her ghost. To the left of the stairwell the wall looked unbroken, but there was no stopping me with the scent demanding action. I crashed bodily into the wall, and shattered the concealed doorway. Then I was bounding down a narrow hidden stairwell, deep into the earth.

Who knew when the subterranean vault was built? Maybe in her insanity the suicidal starlet had ordered the cellar scoured out of the bedrock, or perhaps it had been cut much later, the colossal work undertaken in a short span of time through the magic of Von Richter. Maybe it had existed for centuries and the house erected astride it. The wolf neither knew nor cared.

All I understood was that the source of OOZE was at the bottom of those steps and went down.

The stairs opened directly into a large bell-shaped chamber.

There was no lab, but something much stranger. Spread across the floor was dozens of urns, set in a spiral that circled ever to the centre of the room. Men bent to the task of lifting the urns, moving them forward while others carted away those nearest the central point and stacked them on raised platforms.

The stench was horrific and burned the thin membranes of my nostrils and lips. My eyes glossed, causing me to blink as I surveyed the weird goings on. Then my attention was drawn to a figure directing the workers. It was a tall, thin man, with an almost austere cast to his handsome features. The whip in his hand belied his wholesomeness. He cracked it wildly, ushering the activity as he chanted arcane spells ripped from the pages of Das Hauptbuch Versteckte Dämonische Namen. At first my wolfen mind didn’t comprehend what it witnessed. It saw only enemies and prepared to rend and tear.

Then it saw the central figure, chained in iron and suspended from the ceiling, and even the fearless werewolf blanched back a half step.

The creature was huge, twice as big as me, with massive limbs twisted about its body. Its head was inordinately large even on its gargantuan body, wide at the jaw and tapering to a pointed crest at the top. Sharp teeth jutted from a wide lipless maw, in which ragged and serrated teeth glistened wetly. Large lids covered its eyes and it seemed to be in some sort of slumber despite the torture of the chains and whip. Yellow beads of slime oozed from huge pores on its back and flanks.

The men held the urns to the suppurating pores gathering the slime, mindful that they did not step on the arcane symbol marked on the floor beneath it in chalk.

In reflection I later understood that the puss leaking from the creature’s hide was not unlike the poison that beads on the hide of toads or certain tree frogs. The wolfen-Dalton did not know this, but it recognized the excretion as the source of OOZE.

Employing spells from Das Hauptbuch Versteckte Dämonische Namen, Wilhelm Von Richter had called forth a demon from the abyss and having bound the beast in iron and the power of the magical sigil beneath it, was harvesting the poison from its hide. That poison he was feeding to drug addicts, giving them the ultimate high, before their need for more OOZE tied them to him. Not only tied them but bound them: users were changing into hybrid creatures not unlike the beast from which they supped. To what end he was building an army of enslaved demons no one would ever know.

I lunged, emitting an ear-splitting howl.

My appearance had twofold effect. Every half-man in the room turned towards me in surprise, and the lidded-eyes of the demon slid open.

Then I was among the urn carriers. Some still bore the features of men, but some had morphed into lizard-like things with scaly skin and forked tongues. All were monstrous. I spared none of them my raking claws and clamping jaws. Blood gouted, guts spilled, excrement spattered, and men and lizard-men screeched in agony. Some fought back, slipping and sliding in the filth on the floor, which only grew more putrid as urns of OOZE were dropped or shattered during the fight. My fur became a sticky mess. But it did not halt me. I barely halted to cry a victory howl as I tore them limb from limb and scattered their parts to the far walls of the room.

I was living the life.

Doing what a werewolf does best.

My vision was blood red.

Yet still I saw the slim figure of Von Richter wavering like a candle flame before me.

He lifted his whip high then snapped it towards me.

Its silver tip scoured the flesh of my muzzle, causing me to rear back in pain. Smoke rose from my sizzling flesh where the whip had found me.

Von Richter cried out in triumph.

He cracked the whip and this time it was my right shoulder that was left with a burning wound.

He came forward like a lion tamer. I backed away on all fours.

“Hiyaa!” he shouted and cracked the whip again.

Another wound burned on my left foreleg.

“Back you monstrosity!”

Crack!

This time I did howl, but it was in pain as I backed to the cellar wall.

But Von Richter should have remembered that the most dangerous beast is the one that is wounded and cornered.

Roaring I leapt at him, and this time his whip hadn’t the distance to find my hide. I swiped at him with the back of one forelimb, knocking him off his feet.

Von Richter skidded across the blood- and OOZE-slicked floor.

His slide took him directly beneath his prisoner.

His clothing wiped away part of the intricate sigil that bound the beast to this world.

I paused, going down on my haunches, my tongue lolling as I watched.

The giant creature writhed in its bonds, and the iron chains twisted apart, links breaking and sending shards flying in all directions as deadly as bullets. A couple pieces of flying shrapnel hit me, but unlike silver, iron did not do me lasting harm. The demon flopped from its bindings landing on its elongated hind legs, standing astride Von Richer who raised one palm towards it in beseechment. He cried out, shouting in the arcane language of the ledger, calling out its name. “Nyathafargel! I command you…”

Its wide-lipped mouth split into a cavern housing razor-tipped fangs, but I only got a split-second glance before the head dipped down and the teeth crunched into Von Richter’s flesh from one hip to opposite shoulder. The creature reared up, its forelimbs flying high in victory as it shook Von Richter side-to-side like a terrier with a rat in its jaws.

Von Richter thudded to the floor directly in front of me.

At least part of him did.

The rest the creature wolfed down in two great gulps, its eyes rolling back into its skull with each swallow.

It went down on all fours, its heavy head bobbing as it studied me.

Perhaps it recognized another creature of hell.

More likely it saw me as the savior that loosed it from imprisonment.

It merely blinked slowly, then disappeared like dissolving smoke, back to the netherworld from which Von Richter’s spells had called it.

*

Buddy Holly was singing ‘That’ll be the day-hey-hey when I die…’

I was standing in Troy Bishop’s aerie at the very top of his townhouse, the music tinny and flat through his radio-cassette player.

I was Roman Dalton once again, and I was clothed.

Bishop wasn’t.

He was as naked as the first time I saw him, but no longer did he look as scrawny or as pale.

His face was flushed pink, hair a bit darker. His belly was extended and thick purple veins writhed along both arms and legs. His fingers were spatulas as before, but the nails that looked chewed to the wick now extended to sharp tips.

I glanced from the Strigoi to the radio-cassette and wondered if it was the immortal’s sense of humor in choosing that song.

“You did well, Roman Dalton.” Bishop didn’t sound as tongue-tied as before. “You have saved my species from the threat of OOZE and once again given us blood on which we can safely feed.”

“As long as you stick to the criminals and lowlifes as you did before, then that’s our business finished with.”

“I did promise.” He smiled coldly. Lifted a finger to his chest and made the sign of a cross: it didn’t escape my notice that it was long at the top, short at the bottom, a satanic mockery of the crucifix. “Cross my heart, hope to die,” he sneered.

I held out my palm.

“The other half of the fee.”

He flicked a disdainful wave at the sideboard next to his chair. “Take it. Take it all.”

There was another pile of cash as large as the first one I’d taken when first I’d answered the Strigoi’s call. I wedged it in my coat pocket, patted it in satisfaction. I turned to leave, done with looking at him, ready for a drink.

“Dalton.”

I peered round at him.

“What was Von Richter’s purpose for calling forth the demon?” he asked.

I shrugged.

“He was breeding an army poisonous to my kind,” Bishop said.

I knew what Bishop was worried about. Had Von Richter’s motive been to eradicate the Strigoi race? So maybe the sorcerer wasn’t all bad.

“Where’s the book?” Bishop said.

“What book?”

“The sorcerer’s spell book: Das Hauptbuch Versteckte Dämonische Namen.”

“You knew about that then?”

“Yes,” Bishop said, his lips turning up in a smile that showed teeth that had grown to wicked points. “I would like it in my possession.”

“Why?”

“Insurance against someone else attempting to use its power against my kind.”

“You needn’t worry about it,” I said. “I burned Von Richter’s place to the ground so that no one got their hands on the OOZE stockpiled in the basement.” My words were the truth, but then I went for a convincing lie. I’d already got Duffy started on a silent auction with The City’s rare book collectors, and expected a big payday when finally I handed it over. “For good measure I got the flames started with the pages of that musty old book. It’s gone, a pile of cinders now.”

“You burned it?” Bishop reared up, his jaws working furiously. “Sacrilege!”

“I’ll tell you what is sacrilege,” I said, turning and thumbing up the volume to its highest setting on the radio-cassette. “Playing Rock ‘n’ Roll quietly.”

“I should kill you!” Bishop screamed over the top of the music.

“Want to give it a try?” I said and walked out of his room as Buddy hollered ‘That’ll be the day!’


The end.













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