Manner of Death

by Nijiiro Sumi (虹色墨)
illustrated by beili

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/246746.html)

Two was suspicious.

Two was often a sign of more bodies that just hadn’t been found: someone buried, someone burned, someone hidden, or someone drowned. Or someone in another jurisdiction, even, someone that hadn’t gone into Alan’s office. They were only just starting to communicate with other networks now, after finding the second body.

The first one had been a prostitute. Female, African-American, 22; height: 5’5″; weight: 147. She’d had bad teeth, gum disease, and fingertips yellowed from smoking cigarettes. She’d also been missing approximately 40% of her blood, despite a lack of blood at the scene. Just her, with a ragged little hole chewed into her forearm, and no blood whatsoever. And no signs of a violent struggle. Her name had been Amanda, but everyone called her Mandy.

Weird. Very weird.

The second one was more alarming: male, Caucasian, 20; height: 5’9″; weight: 162. College student, excellent health, he’d been on his way home from a party when he disappeared, just the day after they found Mandy. A homeless man found him in a dumpster the next morning, in an alleyway between his home and the party. Missing 40% of his blood again, but no blood in or around the dumpster. The hole was in his neck, that time. His name had been Jason.

Alan stepped back from the table and viewed Jason with a critical eye. He liked to think that the guys at the mortuary liked him. Oh hey, this is one of Alan’s bodies, they’d say. See those neat stitches? You can barely even see the ones under the hairline. Alan always does such a good job.

Probably they didn’t even notice. Alan sighed, rolled Jason into the freezer, and turned the lights out.

—–

illustrated by beili

Quincy meowed at him and danced around his feet like he’d never been fed, even though his automatic feeder dispensed a quarter-cup of kibble at 6:15 on the dot every evening, whether Alan was home or not. The kibble wasn’t the point, though. The point was one of the fish-shaped treats from the little ziploc baggie on the top shelf of the corner cupboard in the kitchen, where Quincy couldn’t get to it. The interior of the bag smelled strongly of nutritional yeast; the treats also doubled as vitamins that supposedly kept Quincy’s black-and-white coat shiny and his joints well-lubricated.

“Not that you need it,” Alan told Quincy as he gobbled up his treat with yellow eyes squinched up in catly glee. “You always look great without any effort whatsoever.”

Quincy finished his treat and washed his face with his paw for a little bit before wandering off to the corner to pluck at his scratching post. Alan watched him go, then turned to the business of his own dinner: a leftover grilled chicken breast, kale salad, and a spoonful of quinoa. He ate it alone at the table, with the news on in the background. There wasn’t anything about a vampire serial killer. Not yet, anyway.

After dinner, Alan turned off the TV and washed his dishes. He left the plate and utensils in the drying rack and retired to the armchair with his newest library book: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Quincy, recognizing his cue, leapt up into into Alan’s lap and turned around in two-and-a-half circles, once causing Alan to wince, before settling down into a ball with his paws tucked under his chest. Shortly after that, he began to purr. Alan rubbed his ears and muttered “good cat” before settling down to read.

If Alan Spaulding had to describe himself, he would do it this way: male, Caucasian, 33; height: 6′; weight: 188. Eyes: dark brown; hair: black. No distinguishing marks. Cause of death: natural, most likely, though he (or rather, the presiding examiner, since he’d be dead) wouldn’t be able to determine that without a thorough examination. But Alan didn’t see how it could happen any other way. He led an uneventful life: he arrived at work around 6:30 in the morning and was usually home by 6 pm. He ate well, exercised regularly, and abstained from drugs or alcohol except for the occasional glass of red wine and the even more occasional cup of coffee or tea. On weekends, if he wasn’t working, attending a conference, or performing research, he ran errands, went to the gym and the library, called his parents, and sometimes exchanged long emails with his friends who now lived in other states.

He glanced at the clock: 9:58 pm. Time to get ready for bed. Quincy had, in the mysterious manner of cats, managed to triple his weight while curled up in Alan’s lap. Alan dislodged him onto the floor, got up, stretched, and mounted the stairs to his bedroom. Quincy, with a grumbling yowl, followed.

—–

Something woke Alan in the middle of the night.

Sometimes that thing was Quincy, farting under the covers or stepping on Alan’s spleen while attempting to make himself comfortable, but the cat was curled up neatly on the other pillow, dead to the world. Alan took a deep breath and scrubbed his hand over his face. Was it something about the autopsy he’d performed earlier this day? Had he forgotten a kidney? A spleen? (He’d accidentally forgotten to stitch together the skullcap once–an error he remembered in the middle of the night, much like this, and driven back to rectify. But he’d never forgiven himself.) Or had he forgotten a form?

That was it, he realized; he’d forgotten the goddamn toetag. Christ! Well, technically the toetag was not his duty–it was Kelly’s–but he liked to do it, if he had the time, much in the same way that Alan often preferred to suture the subjects himself. Kelly wouldn’t have known that he hadn’t had time, and now there was possibly a body in the morgue that would go unidentified until Monday. While it was unlikely that anything would happen over the weekend that would cause anyone to notice, it hurts Alan’s professional pride. He clambered out of bed, much to Quincy’s displeasure–“Sorry buddy, I’ll be right back”–and yanked on his jeans and whatever t-shirt he found on the floor and grabbed his glasses off the nightstand. He lumbered down the stairs and to the garage.

The coroners’ office was just a short drive from his condo, a charmingly antiquated building painted pink for some reason since lost to the 70s. A yellow-and-black symbol by the door informed the rare passersby that this was a fallout shelter. Alan parked in the lot around the side and let himself inside.

When he heard movement and noise in the morgue, he assumed it was Nelson or Ed: the graveyard shift. The way they made it sound, they were out half the night, picking up dead kids off of street corners and carrying them out of shattered houses, delivering bad news to dead-eyed mothers and spouses who sometimes cried and sometimes cursed and threw things and sometimes just nodded, as if they weren’t surprised at all. The worst nights, Ed said, was when they didn’t even get to drop off one body before they had to go pick up another a mile or two away.

But it stood to reason that between calls, they must just sit around filling out paperwork, playing cards, or shooting the breeze. And that was why he stuck his head into the morgue and said, “Hey guys. What’ve we got?”

The man who whipped around to stare at Alan, bug-eyed, was a total stranger: male, Caucasian, mid-30s, 5’7″, bearded, between 130-140 lbs. He was dressed in blue jeans, sneakers, and a well-worn brown leather jacket. “Shit,” he said.

“What the fuck?” Alan yelled, even as he looked around for anything he could use as a weapon. At any other time of day there might have been a bone saw, a kitchen knife, a pair of scissors, but it being night-time most of the tools were shut up in their locked cabinets and drawers. Safety first. “Who the fuck are you?”

“Hey, let’s stay cool, I can explain.” The stranger held up his hands, and that was when Alan saw he’d been in the process of wheeling Jason’s body out of the freezer. He knew it was Jason because he didn’t have a toetag.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Alan screamed, his voice going high and strident. Where were Nelson and Ed, anyway? Had this body-napper done something to them? Or were they really out on a call right now? “Stay right where you are, I’m calling the cops–”

“You don’t want to do that,” the other guy warned, hands still up, but now pushed out in front of him as if he was trying to calm a barking dog. He had just the slightest trace of an accent rounding out his words; it could have been European, but it could also have been South American, for all Alan knew.

“Yeah, whatever.” Alan fumbled in his pocket for his cell phone, only to realize he hadn’t brought it with him. He’d thought he was just going to pop into the office for a few minutes. Fuck.

“Forgot your phone, huh?” The other guy actually sounded sympathetic. “I hate it when that happens. And now, of all times.”

“Shut the fuck up.” The land line but it was a good eight or nine feet away. Alan wasn’t sure he could make it over there without the body-thief doing something rash or stupid.

“Look.” The stranger was still holding up his hands. “Let’s just, let’s just calm down and talk about this. I have a perfectly good reason.”

The man didn’t seem to be armed. Alan should have enough time to dial 911 and yell into the receiver even if the stranger tried to kill him with his bare hands. So he made a mad dash, arms outstretched, but he didn’t get one step before the stranger was right there, right in front of him. Alan smacked straight into him, teeth clicking shut, with enough force that it should have bowled them both straight to the ground. Instead, the stranger seized him by the wrist and said, “Okay, you’re just…you’re just going to have to come with me, or something.” He sounded strained and unhappy. “Fuck, I just, I don’t want to hurt you, okay? But if you’re going to call the police or something that’s just going to cause all kinds of complications and I, I just, so you’re going to come with me, and I’ll figure it out.”

He put his hand over Alan’s eyes, and then the world just stopped.

—–

Alan blinked awake without any sense of time having passed, like he’d been under anesthesia. But he was in the passenger seat of a compact car, not a recovery room, and they were on the freeway. Alan weighed his chances if he opened the door and fell out of the car right now. Not very high; they were going more than 60 miles per hour.

“I wouldn’t try it,” said the stranger.

Alan agreed, so he kept his hands where they were. His kidnapper had been diligent enough to buckle him in. “Where are we going?”

“My place, for now.” The stranger was a good driver, careful, kept his hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel, kept his eyes on the road the whole time he was driving. The car itself was a middle-of-the-road Honda Civic that was at least 20 years old, with no power windows; there was one of those old-fashioned cranks you used to roll the window up and down. Probably no power locks, either. It smelled of old car, years of french fries eaten out of the passenger seat and coffee in the cupholder, and also of cigarettes. “Do you have anyone you need to contact? Anyone who’s going to be looking for you?”

No conference this weekend. No research. He’d been planning to call his parents this weekend, go to the library, go to the gym. Cook his meals for the next week. Maybe message a few people on okcupid. Quincy’s feeder was on an automatic timer. “My cat’s going to need his litter changed tomorrow or the day after.”

The other guy nodded, as if he understood the trials of cat ownership, or rather, cat stewardship. Perhaps he did. “Anyone you can call to do that for you?”

Alan swallowed. “My neighbor, maybe, but he’s going to wonder why I had to leave so suddenly. That’s not exactly usual for me.”

The stranger squirmed until he could reach his pocket and pulled out a flip phone. He tossed it to Alan. It looked like one of the prepaid kind that you got from RadioShack, its little black body all scratched and scuffed from being carried in the same pocket as coins and keys. “Tell him your mother got sick or something. Sister. Aunt. Whatever.”

Alan stared at the phone. Its screen was tiny. “I don’t know his number.”

The stranger groaned. “Cellphones! God, nobody remembers a fucking number anymore. Okay, we’ll just…worry about the cat later. Anything else?”

“Well, I’m supposed to be at work on Monday.”

The stranger didn’t reply. Alan swallowed. He looked out the window. Orange lights whipped by, washing everything in pink and red. The walls surrounding the freeway were uniformly washed with ivy, and Alan couldn’t see much beyond them other than the leafy tops of trees. He thought they might be heading east.

“Name’s Joe,” said the other guy, suddenly. “What’s yours?”

“Alan.”

“Nice to meet you, Alan. Can I call you Al?”

“No.”

“Touchy,” said Joe.

They exited the freeway. From the off-ramp Alan could see rows of long, squat buildings with corrugated roofs, laid out in an evenly spaced grid. Alan recognized it as one of the neighborhoods that artists liked to inhabit, warehouses cut up into lofts with concrete floors and exposed brick. The rent was cheap, and there was plenty of studio space. In the daytime he might see a lot more art: weird sculptures cut out of sheet metal, flower planters made out of painted tires, colorful murals of monsters and local historical figures. But it was dark, and everything cast eerie shadows in the lamplight.

Joe parked outside of one of these warehouses now, one that didn’t have any murals on its outside or art in what passed for its scrubby, weedy yard. “Stay in the car for now.”

Someone was standing outside, hood pulled up over his face so that Alan couldn’t make out much besides the orange ember of his cigarette, and his short, fat fingers. He took the cigarette out of his mouth and pointed it at Alan. “Who the fuck is that?”

“He walked in on me.” Joe popped the trunk.

“He–what, so you brought him with you?

“What was I supposed to do?” Joe snapped. “I wasn’t gonna kill him.”

“You could’ve just knocked him out, he wouldn’t have known where you went, Christ, a hundred and fifty years old and you–”

“Shhh!”

Their conversation became more muffled and then faded away entirely as they transported poor Jason, not even wrapped in a sheet or in a body bag, first onto the sidewalk and then into the warehouse itself. They were fortunate rigor mortis had already dissipated, otherwise Joe would never have gotten him into the trunk.

Alan sat alone in the car, heart pounding as Joe was gone for first five seconds, then ten, then fifteen. He could get out of this car right now and run. Run where? Pound on the lowered doors of all the warehouses, hoping someone would hear him? He didn’t have his phone. Could he use a pay phone to dial 911? Did pay phones even still exist? But they’d come looking for him. How long were they going to be gone?

He was still running the scenario through in his head when Joe returned, sans Jason; Hooded Guy was yelling at him, “And you went and left him alone in the car without putting the sleep on him?”

“Well, he’s still here, isn’t he?!” Joe gesticulated first at the car, then at the sky. “God, just give it a rest!”

“And what’re you gonna do with him now?”

Joe put one hand on his forehead. “I don’t know. Take him home?”

The hood tilted back slightly, as if Hooded Guy were rolling his eyes to the heavens. “And feed him and call him Lucky?”

“Shut up.”

Hooded Guy threw up his hands. “It’s your funeral. Just don’t get me involved.”

“You’re already involved.”

“Yeah, beyond that, I mean.” Hooded Guy turned his back on Joe and Alan and waddled back into the warehouse, banging the heavy door shut with a clap like a thunderbolt. Alan jumped.

Joe got back into the car and clipped his seatbelt in with an angry jerk. The angry scowl and the jutting lower lip made him look like nothing so much as a petulant preteen. Alan kept his mouth shut.

—–

Joe flicked a switch by the door, flooding the interior with yellow light. It was…well, you couldn’t have gotten more “bachelor pad” without consulting a movie. Clothes were strewn all over the carpet, open cans and bottles and chip bags littered the coffee table, and all the furniture was dingy and stained and in some places, bursting its seams. Pride of place in the living room was a 48″ plasma TV, with a PS3 perched on the floor next to it. The kitchen looked mostly untouched, except for a sink filled with dirty dishes and a pizza box on the counter. Alan wondered if he could ask to open a window.

“You’ll, uh, you’ll sleep on the couch. For now. Until I figure out, figure out what to do.” Joe went around picking up bottles, stuffing them into one of the empty chip bags. “If that’s okay?” He glanced up at Alan.

Alan scrunched his eyebrows. “You’re kidnapping me, and you’re asking if it’s okay for me to sleep on the couch?”

“Okay, point taken, I’m a terrible kidnapper. You’ll sleep on the couch, then–no, wait, what if you try to escape in the middle of the night? Argh.” Joe pitched the bagful of bottles into the trash can with a crash-tinkle-crash and sat down on the couch, head in his hands. He sank into the cushion what looked like five inches. The springs protested. “I’ve fucked it up.”

Alan sat down gingerly on the edge of the couch, trying not to touch it too much. He thought he could feel the crumbs through his jeans. Beside him, Joe still had his face in his hands. He did seem very young; Alan had originally placed him at between 20 and 30, but he now rather thought that was closer to 20 than 30. But Hooded Guy, back at the warehouse, had said something about being a hundred and fifty years old. Back at the morgue, Joe had crossed the space between them in the blink of an eye, and when Alan had run into him, it had been like running into a concrete wall.

Alan thought about Mandy and Jason, and about the hole chewed into Jason’s neck. The mysterious disappearing blood. He wasn’t a credulous man–no doctor, and certainly no medical examiner could be–but he wasn’t a skeptic, either. If pressed, he would call himself pragmatic. Practical. Realistic.

“You’re a vampire, aren’t you?” Alan said, quietly.

Joe jumped as if Alan had just tasered him. His hands fell away from his face as he gaped at Alan. “How did you know?!”

Alan’s jaw dropped. “You are a vampire? I didn’t–I wasn’t–”

Joe groaned. “Oh my God, and now I’ve said–oldest trick in the book!” He smacked himself in the forehead with the heel of his hand. “Sam would kill me!”

Alan scooted away from Joe until he was up against the arm of the couch, as far as he could get without leaving the couch entirely. “Wait, so you’re–are you really–”

“A vampire?” Joe now sounded a little exasperated. “Yes. Here.”

Before Alan could object, Joe grasped him by the wrist and pressed Alan’s hand clumsily to his neck, pushing it against the general area of his carotid artery. Joe was cold; not icy, precisely, but cold like someone who’d just come in from shoveling snow, only one didn’t get so cold around the neck. Cold like a dead body. And he had no pulse, either.

Alan moved his hand a little, pressed a little harder, searching with his fingers for that familiar pulsation, but it wasn’t there. But Joe was sitting upright, looking at Alan with a clear, steady gaze. But there was no little flare of his nostrils as he breathed in, no rise and fall of his chest. Joe was as still as a statue, and almost as cold. Alan swallowed and let his hand fall, and Joe let go of his wrist.

“Well?” said Joe.

“You’re really dead,” Alan whispered.

“Yes,” said Joe. “I am.”

How did Joe escape decomposition? How did his cells metabolize, if his body had no apparent need for oxygen? Without a functioning circulatory system, how did he not suffer lividity? All the blood should pool in his feet as he walked or stood, else it ought to pool in one side of his body as he slept. Did he need to sleep? Were all the old legends and the Hollywood tropes true? Did he ignite in the sunlight? Did he sleep in the daytime in a coffin filled with earth from his homeland, wherever that was? Was he really a hundred and fifty years old? And what did he want with Jason?

“What did you want with Jason?” Alan asked.

Joe blinked. “Who?”

“The,” Alan swallowed, “the body. The one you took tonight.”

“Oh.” Joe looked a little lost. “That’s a long story.”

Alan peeled himself away from the arm of the couch a little bit. “Tell me.”

—–

The short answer was that Jason was evidence that needed to be disposed of. It had been Joe’s idea, and he admitted that it had probably not been a good one. At least, Sam had given him quite a lengthy lecture, when Joe had called him and said he had a body in the trunk that needed disposal. But Joe had thought that, well, if he could “lose” some of the evidence, that it might throw the police off the trail, and the vampires would be free to do their work, at least for a little while.

Vampires, plural, yes. According to Joe, there were vampires all over the world, and they had assimilated quite well into modern-day society. Gone were the days of predators of the night, calling down wolves and transforming themselves into bats and mist–most of which were powers that they had never possessed in the first place, and which frightened people had assigned to them in their stories that bloated upon each retelling. Vampires were strong and fast, and they had certain powers of hypnosis, which was how Joe had caused Alan to “sleep” and transported him from the morgue to his car. It was also how vampires caused their prey to forget their feedings. They rarely killed anymore; killing people had a tendency to call up mobs with pitchforks and torches, and vampires didn’t have to be killed with a stake to the heart: anyone would die if decapitated, or set on fire, or dismembered.

The watchword–or phrase, rather–then, was this: don’t draw attention. And so from Russia to Brazil, China to Morocco, vampires lived and worked, made investments, purchased homes, drove cars, purchased groceries at the supermarket. They didn’t fear the sun, although very bright sunlight could be unpleasant to them. But many jobs were indoors now, and many vampires gravitated to the poles, where nights were long during the winters, and moved away again when the seasons reversed. Vampires had to move frequently anyhow, once their friends and colleagues began to remark that they never seemed to age.

The system worked. Except for when, occasionally, a vampire began to suffer from what was, as far as they could determine, a sort of vampiric dementia. Such a vampire would start to kill, forgetting the unspoken pact that kept all the vampires safe. They would seek out old friends or family, might become confused by modern technology, and become angrier–and more violent–the more confused and frightened they became.

“And so we’re trying to figure out who it is now.” Joe rubbed the heels of his palm over his face. Any other person by now should have bloodshot eyes red around the rim. Joe looked tired, certainly, but his eyes were still pale. Did vampires bruise? Did they bleed? Dead people didn’t bleed, and Joe didn’t have a pulse–but then, a lot of him defied biology. “It’s looking like it’s someone from out of town. Which makes it harder.” He looked like the exhausted hero of a dystopian action movie, young and grim and covered in dust, but only in a way that made him look more handsome and rugged. Alan swallowed.

“Okay.” Joe heaved himself off the couch and stretched with his arms above his head, his back arching. A cascade of pops accompanied the movement, and Alan found himself thinking about tendons and ligaments and joint fluid gas, and how these things existed and related to one another in an undead body. “God. Okay. We’ll talk more later. Need sleep right now.”

Alan’s yawn cracked his jaw open, but he managed to ask around it, “Do you need to sleep?”

“Huh?” Joe gave him a muddled, scrunched-eyebrow look and scratched the back of his neck. “I…yeah?”

Alan wondered why a dead person might need to sleep and how he felt tired when his body didn’t technically do anything during the day. While sleep and dreaming were not very well understood, the going theory was that it served as a sort of “reset” button for the brain. Joe’s brain clearly was still alive, so it stood to reason that it needed resetting, just as a live person’s did.

Joe reappeared with an ancient, threadbare comforter, polyester batting leaking out of one corner. It was a searing plaid and smelled faintly of animal, and he wadded it up and pitched it so that it landed on Alan’s face. “Make yourself at home. Bathroom’s down the hall on your right.” He made an indistinct gesture. “Help yourself to whatever in the kitchen.” And with that, he shuffled on back to what was presumably the bedroom, feet dragging against the carpet, and shut the door behind him.

Alan sat with the odiferous blanket cradled in his arms. He glanced at the door. He could wait a few minutes–ten would probably be enough, with how tired Joe was. Then Joe would be asleep, and Alan could just leave. Make his way to the street, flag down a passing driver, find a pay phone and dial 911, any number of things.

But…well, Joe would just track him down again. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know where Alan worked.

And what if he didn’t? What if he didn’t come, and Alan just went back to work on Monday as if nothing had happened. He’d field questions about what happened to Jason’s body, and then he’d process whatever poor kids Ed and Nelson had brought in over the weekend, and then he’d go home and feed Quincy and read his book and just…go on with his life. And it wasn’t a bad life–it was a very good life, in many ways. He wasn’t unhappy. But he would never know what happened to the strange, short vampire who was probably the worst kidnapper in the history of kidnappings.

Alan stretched himself out as best as he could on the couch–it was too short for him, but such was the fate of tall men and couches–and covered himself with the smelly, smelly blanket.

—–

Alan woke to a sound like the entire contents of a freezer falling out onto the floor.

“Fuck!”

Alan opened his eyes. One of his legs had fallen off the couch in his sleep, and the blanket had also slipped half off. He propped himself up on his elbows, trying to blink the crust out of his eyelashes, and felt for his glasses on the coffee table. A multicolored blob in the kitchen–Joe, presumably–made crunching sounds. Alan got his glasses on. Joe was shirtless, green plaid pajama pants spilling over his toes, stuffing cardboard cartons back into the freezer. He was all muscle, if that view of his back was any indication: skinny, but wiry, like a boxer.

Joe turned around and crouched again, this time to pick up ice cubes from the floor and pitch them into the sink: ker-plink, ker-plink. “Sorry to wake you. What do you want for breakfast? Or, uh, lunch, whatever. I’ve got eggo waffles, hash browns, breakfast sandwiches, pizza, White Castle…”

What Alan wanted immediately was a piss. He grunted something at Joe that he hoped was polite, stumbled to his feet, and made his way to what he remembered Joe saying was the bathroom. He remembered right, and he tried not to look at anything too closely as he took his piss. He washed his hands afterwards and shook his hands dry rather than touch the grungy towel hanging from the back of the door.

In the kitchen, Joe was toasting a couple of waffles and humming to himself. He still hadn’t put on a shirt, and yes, he was just as fit from the front as he was from the back. Alan tried not to stare, and wondered what exercise routine he used to tone his undead body. Or maybe he’d died like that?

Joe gave him a questioning look. Alan was staring. He cleared his throat. “So do you…you need to eat?”

Joe cocked his head. His hair was unbrushed; that and his large brown eyes made him look like a scruffy, but streetwise sort of dog. He shifted from one foot to the other. “I…I don’t know. I’ve never really tried going without food. I like food.”

Alan crossed the kitchen and opened the fridge. There was literally nothing in it except for a six-pack of Coors with one can missing, a bag of untouched baby carrots, and a bottle of Simply Orange. He shut the fridge again. He was hungry, and all things considered, frozen waffles were not the worst of processed food sins. But that was not the refrigerator or freezer of a man who “loved food,” unless one counted bread with sixteen ingredients to be a food.

“I can heat up some breakfast sandwiches, too,” Joe offered. “Or White Castle.”

Alan managed not to wrinkle his nose only through very great effort. “I’ve never had a White Castle.”

Joe’s jaw dropped. “Okay,” he shouldered past Alan to reach the freezer, “that is changing right now.”

—–

While the sliders heated in the oven, Joe went back in his room to, hopefully, put on a shirt. Alan opened cupboards until he managed to find a jar of Honey Roasted Skippy peanut butter to put on his waffle. Not ideal, but it would at least make it into something approximating an actual breakfast, or as close as one got to breakfast at–he glanced at his watch–two in the afternoon. He found a clean knife in the drainer by the sink.

Joe re-emerged from the bedroom wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirt. He grabbed the other waffle from the toaster and stuffed it halfway into his mouth, then opened another cupboard. He brought down a jar of instant Folgers and two mugs. “Co-hee?” he said around the waffle.

“Sure,” said Alan, who considered instant coffee to be one step above drinking pondwater. He bit his lip and took another resolute bite of his peanut butter waffle when Joe microwaved the water.

“So there’s a meeting today,” Joe said, while their mugs of water spun round and round in the microwave. “Of some of us? Some of us vampires,” he clarified. “To talk about the rogue, what we’ve been able to find out, that kind of thing. I guess you’ll have to come with me, since I can’t just leave you here by yourself,” he added.

Alan shrugged. Joe just kept watching the numbers on the microwave tick down.

“I was kind of surprised to see you were still here,” Joe said. “I mean…I’d kind of forgotten about you, you know, when I woke up this morning. And then I was like, why didn’t he just sneak out in the middle of the night?”

“I thought about it,” Alan admitted.

“You can’t be stupid,” said Joe. “I mean, you’re a doctor. Right?”

“I did go to medical school,” Alan said. “But that doesn’t preclude me from being an idiot.”

The microwave beeped. Joe spooned two heaping spoonfuls of instant coffee crystals into each one and stirred. There was nothing but powdered non-dairy creamer, but Joe had real sugar, thank God. Alan shook in generous amounts of both. He normally he didn’t take anything in his coffee, but instant Folgers needed every bit of help it could get.

“I figured you’d just come after me anyway,” said Alan, after he successfully took a swallow of coffee without grimacing. “If I ran away. Not like you don’t know where I work.”

Joe shook his head and leaned against the counter with his cup of coffee in his hand. He looked a little bit like a magazine model, with one hand in the pocket of his jeans and one bare foot against the bottom row of cabinets. Alan kept picturing him shirtless. It was distracting. “I wouldn’t have. Sam’s right, I shouldn’t have kidnapped you in the first place. Could’ve just knocked you out and ran, and you wouldn’t have known where I went.” He gave a helpless little shrug. “And I clearly don’t know how to be a proper kidnapper, so why go after you? Not like anyone will believe you anyway, if you said you were kidnapped by a vampire.”

Alan wanted to say that he was surprised that Joe hadn’t killed him by now, but really that was no surprise at all. He couldn’t imagine this guy, with his printed t-shirts and bad beer in the fridge, killing anyone in cold blood.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is,” said Joe, “that you could probably, like, go. After White Castle,” he added hastily, “because I can’t believe you’ve never had White Castle. That’s like, a crime.”

Alan laughed a little. “Okay.”

“I’ll take you home,” said Joe. “After the meeting.”

“Okay,” said Alan.

—–

“Are you really a hundred and fifty years old?” Alan asked.

Joe’s eyebrows shot up. “Where did you hear–oh, Sam. You must have heard Sam.” He frowned a little. “I’m a little bit younger. I was born in…1883, I think? I’m not sure. We didn’t keep such good records in my village, and that was a long time ago.”

Joe’s accent had actually thickened a little during this little speech. “Where are you from?” Alan asked.

“Hungary,” said Joe. “A very small village; I don’t even know if it’s there anymore. My brother and me came here on a ship soon after we became vampires.”

Alan chewed absently on his slider, trying to do the math. The sliders were surprisingly tasteless, considering they were chemically formulated to be delicious and had probably been tested on focus groups. But they weren’t the worst thing he’d ever eaten, either. “Wait…did you come through Ellis Island?”

“Yes!” Joe sounded very cheerful and excited about it. “I was József then. József Sivák. I haven’t been József in a long time; everyone calls me Joe now.”

Alan realized his jaw was open. He closed it. “Oh my God. That’s amazing. The–the historical–so–what did you do?”

Everything, it turned out. They lived in New York for a time, working on the docks and in the factories, and then they moved out West and spent some time in San Francisco and Los Angeles. They fled to Canada to escape the first World War, and then returned to the United States as bootleggers. When World War II began, one brother fled back to Canada; the other fled to South America. Joe spoke very good Spanish, not that Alan had any real basis for comparison.

Joe had witnessed the rise of the automobile and the moving picture and the color television and the free speech movement; in his life he had washed dishes, painted signs, worked in a meatpacking factory, drew posters for ad agencies. God, what a life! What a shame it was that the vampires stayed hidden now; what treasure troves of history they were! And how valuable to science; any one of them could provide an incredible body of research. They might hold the key to a cure for cancer, or for the common cold, or for any number of digestive ailments–how did Joe eat and digest food, for instance? Did he still have gut flora? If he ate and drank, he must need to excrete… What did his liver look like? His kidneys?

“So what do you do now?” Alan asked.

“I actually don’t do anything right now.” Joe scratched behind his ear. He looked a little embarrassed about it. “I was doing some construction work before, but I got bored with it and left. There’s not much I haven’t done by now, you know? I’m bored with it all. But I don’t know how to do something different. I’ve been thinking about taking some classes, actually. At the community college.”

Alan nodded.

“What about you?” Joe asked. “How do you like being a coroner?”

“Medical examiner,” Alan replied automatically. “You don’t really want to hear about that, do you? That’s got to be so boring to you.”

“Working with dead bodies is not boring to me,” Joe said with all seriousness, and Alan had to laugh.

“Okay,” said Alan. “There’s not much to tell. My parents were both doctors, and I guess it was sort of expected for me to be a doctor, too. But…well, both my parents were doctors, and I saw how hard it was for them. Being on call, all the funerals, the malpractice suits. It freaked the hell out of me. But I did like science, and medicine, and…I liked the puzzle aspect of medicine, but I didn’t like the whole saving lives thing.” He shrugged. “So this is what happened.”

Joe nodded, as if he had found that deeply fascinating. Alan flushed and looked down at his plate. To his surprise, all the sliders were gone. Joe grinned. “So how did you like White Castle?”

“You know,” said Alan. “That actually wasn’t bad.”

—–

Joe glanced at the clock. “Shit!” He leapt to his feet. “Shit shit shit! The meeting!”

Alan looked at his watch; it was ten minutes ’til five. He did feel a little hoarse from talking, but Jesus, three hours? He’d had worse okcupid dates than this.

Joe sprinted into his bedroom and emerged hopping on one foot while pulling a sock onto the other one. Then he paused, one-legged like flamingo, while he wrenched a sock onto the other foot. “Keys keys keys keys keys,” he muttered; he ran in a small, abortive circle around in the living room, glanced into the kitchen, and dashed back into the bedroom. Alan took his cue to get his shoes back on, and he was waiting patiently by the door when Joe reappeared with a promising jingle.

“Sorry, no time to take you home first,” he panted. “Do you mind coming to the meeting?”

“Uh,” said Alan; it didn’t seem to him as if he really had a choice. “Sure?”

“Great. Let’s go.”

They piled into the old-smelling car. Alan barely had his seatbelt on before Joe sent them careening onto the freeway, steering one-handed while he buckled himself in.

They pulled up outside of a Denny’s, of all places, and Alan abandoned all hope of eating anything resembling a balanced meal today. Joe pulled into a spot in one corner of the parking lot, turned off the engine, and drummed his fingers on his thigh. “Do you want to stay in the car? Or you can, I dunno, walk around… I don’t know how long the meeting’s gonna take. Could be an hour or more.”

Alan weighed the relative merits of sitting in a car in a Denny’s parking lot like a dog or sitting at a table with a bunch of unknown vampires. Walking around would have a certain amount of appeal if he could see more than a gas station, a parking lot, a motel, and another motel in the distance. He thought they might be by the airport.

“I’ll come in with you,” said Alan. “I mean, if that’s okay.”

Joe drummed his fingers against his thigh some more. “It should be okay,” he said. “And if it isn’t, they can bite it. Haha.”

The rest of the vampires (presumably) were already there. There were five of them, occupying a corner table that seated eight. One of them (male, Hispanic, mid-40s, 5’8″, heavyset, beard, scar down the left side of his face, from his eye to the corner of his mouth, wearing a leather jacket) waved Alan and Joe over to two empty chairs. Another one, clad in a shapeless black hoodie with the hood down, must be Sam (male, Caucasian, mid-30s, 5’6″, curly brown hair, glasses). He raised his eyebrows when he saw Alan.

“Who’s this?” asked Leather Jacket. He had both hands resting on the table in front of him; his knuckles were jagged with scars, and dirt crusted underneath his fingernails. “He’s not one of us.”

“This is Alan,” said Joe. “He’s, uh…”

“Hi,” said Alan. “I’m a medical examiner for the county coroner’s office.”

The vampires stared at Alan. Then, almost as one, their gazes slid, questioning, over to Joe.

“I…we don’t need to talk about this right now,” said Joe. “So did anyone figure out who our rogue is?”

“No, I think we do need to talk about this now,” said Leather Jacket. “Is this one of your boyfriends? Were you out mating instead of doing footwork on the rogue?”

Alan’s head whipped around to stare at Joe so fast he thought he might injure himself. Boyfriends?

No,” Joe said through his teeth. “He’s a–it’s a long story–”

“Joe accidentally kidnapped him,” Sam said. He was sitting back in his seat, arms crossed, with the tiniest little smug smirk on his face. “I can’t believe you kept him. Are you planning to turn him or what?”

“No!” Joe’s voice went high and strident. Alan, watching out of the corner of his eye, saw Leather Jacket’s face darken, his brows beetle. He should have stayed in the car.

“It’s Stephen,” one of the other vampires interjected, and the whole table fell silent. She was female, Caucasian, looked to be in her early 30s, 5’4″, curly red hair down to her shoulders. Her expression was fierce. “Look, we can argue about Joe’s boyfriend or whatever later, okay? The important thing is, it’s Stephen. Joe needs to know that.”

“No,” Joe said in a voice just above a whisper. It was cliché, but if Joe hadn’t already been so pale, the blood would have drained from his face. “You’re shitting me. It can’t–”

“We’re sure,” she said. “Fiona saw him at The Crow’s Nest. He said he’d just gotten into town.”

Joe put his elbows on the table and cradled his head in his hands, but he didn’t speak.

“And we’ve checked in with everyone else. It’s not Erebus. Remember we thought it was Erebus?” Male, Caucasian, 6′, thin build, looked and sounded a little like Steve Buscemi. He tapped his finger of one hand nervously against the table.

“So it’s Stephen,” said Redhead.

Joe just stared at the table.

The waitress came by with her pad. “Are you ready to order?”

“I’d like a Grand Slam, please,” said Redhead. “With sausage. Eggs over-easy.”

Leather Jacket ordered a steak and eggs. Sam just wanted another glass of orange juice. Steve Buscemi ordered fried zucchini sticks, while the tiny, willowy young woman next to him with the short, tight black curls whispered that she was fine, thanks. Joe was unresponsive. Alan said he’d like a vegetable omelette, please, and wondered if he was supposed to ask for a separate check.

“You don’t have to be involved in this,” said Leather Jacket, once the waitress was gone. “If it’s Stephen.”

Joe shook all over, like a dog shaking off water, and straightened his back. He lifted his chin. “No, I should be. I. I should.” He tapped his fingers twice against the table and didn’t make eye contact with the others. “But I mean–why? Why him and not me?”

Leather Jacket and Redhead exchanged looks. Redhead was the one to speak. “We don’t really know how this works, Joe. It could be anything. Genetics. Something he, something he ate. Or drank. Or…”

Joe shook his head. “No. I’d–I’d know, wouldn’t I? I’d get the same thing, I’d–”

“He called himself Istvan.”

The speaker was the tiny one down at the very end of the table, who hadn’t spoken so far except to not order any food. Her eyes were very wide and white in her dark face, and though she still spoke in a whisper it carried across the deadened table. “He didn’t recognize me at all. And he was forgetting his English, like. Spoke in Hungarian, sometimes. And he said his name was Istvan.”

Joe bit his lip so hard that a little red gash showed. So vampires did bleed, after all. Sort of.

“You don’t have to be involved,” said Leather Jacket.

Joe’s shoulders slumped. “No, I do.”

—–

They talked plans. Since Stephen–or Istvan, as he was apparently calling himself now–wasn’t part of their conclave, they didn’t know his habits, and their plans were frustratingly limited. Ideally they wanted to be able to catch him before he fed–and killed–again, but that might not be possible. But for tonight, they’d fan out, put out the word, check the usual dark corners and shadowed alleyways, and focus on finding Istvan. No personal business, just Istvan. Did Joe have a number for him? No; Istvan apparently changed his cellphone number a few years ago and hadn’t given Joe the new one.

Alan kept quiet and ate his omelette. He wasn’t sure it was made with real eggs, but at least there was spinach inside. Joe nursed a glass of ice water, a dark red spot on his bottom lip, and didn’t speak except to answer direct questions.

After the meal, they exited into the darkened parking lot and dispersed to their cars, save for Redhead and Fiona, who walked to a nearby bus stop. Joe walked with his head down, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his jeans. They reached the car and got in, and then Joe just sat there for a moment, his hands on his thighs, staring at the steering wheel as if it held the solution. Alan held his breath.

Finally, Joe started the car. “I’ll take you home now,” he said. “Thanks for waiting.”

“No problem,” said Alan.

Joe merged back onto the freeway. Alan let out a quiet breath and looked out the window. It was growing dark; he’d been away from home for almost 24 hours. He’d clean Quincy’s litterbox, first thing, then give him his treat. Maybe two treats, if Quincy was really mad. Then he’d shower and go grocery shopping. Gym and library would have to wait for tomorrow. His whole weekend schedule had been thrown off by this little sojourn.

It took him a minute to realize that they were going the wrong way. “Do you know where you’re going?”

Joe jerked. “No. Shit. I don’t actually know where you live. Did we pass the exit?”

Alan got them turned around, and less than twenty minutes later they were in front of his high-rise apartment building. Alan wanted nothing more than to go upstairs, hug his cat, take a hot shower and pass out in his own bed. And shit, his car was still back at the coroner’s office. But instead he sat in Joe’s car for a moment longer, taking his time unbuckling his seatbelt and not making eye contact with Joe, while the engine idled.

“Are you okay?” said Alan. He winced at how stupid that sounded. “Are you…gonna be okay?”

Joe gave Alan a little half-smile. He still had both hands on the steering wheel. “I’ll be okay, thanks.”

Alan paused with his hand on the door handle. He wanted to ask, but he didn’t think that was appropriate for kidnapping victims. “Do you want to come upstairs?” he said at last. “Meet Quincy?”

At first, he thought Joe was going to say no. He expected Joe to say no. Had he been in Joe’s place, he probably would have said no. But Joe said, “Actually, I could use your bathroom,” and turned off the car.

As soon as Alan opened the door, Quincy shrilly demanded where he’d been all this goddamn time meow meow meow meow meow. Then he realized that Alan wasn’t alone and stood with his mouth slightly open, showing two pointy little fangs, staring up at Joe with his large yellow eyes. Joe laughed and squatted down, which startled Quincy a little; he backed away several feet, then came closer again to sniff at Joe’s outstretched hand.

“He’s very friendly,” said Alan. “You can pet him. Do you want anything to drink?”

Joe was already petting Quincy, who butted his head against Joe’s hand and purred. “Um, no thanks. I’ll just, where’s your bathroom?”

“Down the hall that way, on your left.”

Joe remained at Quincy-level for a minute more before finally getting up and finding the toilet. Quincy came into the kitchen, where Alan was pouring two glasses of sparkling water, and glared reproachfully at him. “Look, I was unavoidably detained,” Alan told him. “And you like him anyway, so don’t give me that.”

Quincy bounded out in front of Joe’s feet as soon as he came out of the bathroom, meowed, and then flopped onto his side, stretching to display his furry belly. Joe laughed. “Oh my God, he’s so cute!” He squatted down and gave Quincy a bellyrub as if Quincy was a dog. Quincy stretched even longer, trying vainly to dig his claws into the hardwood floor, and purred madly.

“He’s a slut,” said Alan. “He’ll love you forever now.” He came out of the kitchen and held out the second glass of water. Joe’s blinked at it, surprised, but took it. He straightened his knees, leaving Quincy on the floor to stare up at them both with hurt and dismay.

“Thanks,” said Joe. He took a sip, his eyes wandering over the rim of the glass to take in the black leather Italian living room set, glass coffee table, 48″ plasma TV with 5.1 surround sound home entertainment center. “Wow, this is a nice place.”

Alan shrugged.

Joe wandered over to look at the DVDs shelved neatly in the entertainment center. “Oh my God, they’re in alphabetical order,” he chuckled. He ran his fingers over the spines. “The Godfather…One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest… Christ, is there anything you own that’s not classy? …Oh hey, The Muppet Movie.”

Quincy, now bored, strolled away to his three-level cat tree. He plucked at the fraying rope wrapped around the bottom and hopped up to the next level, and then disappeared into the little hut in the “trunk.” Joe remained standing by the entertainment center, drinking his water and looking around Alan’s “classy” apartment.

“You live here by yourself?” said Joe.

“Yep.” Alan couldn’t tell if his palm was sweating. He stuck his hand in his pocket and forced himself to join Joe in the living room. “Just me and Quincy.”

“Huh.”

Alan could feel every iota of how awkward this was. But he could also feel how close they were standing, how quiet the apartment was, how thick the tension between them. Was it tension? Or was it just awkwardness? He was always so bad at reading these situations.

“Do you get lonely?” Joe asked.

“Not really,” said Alan. “But, I mean, sometimes, yeah. Do you?”

“Yeah,” said Joe.

Alan took a deep breath, closed the distance, and tilted his head down. He wasn’t used to his partner being so much shorter than him, and the first kiss was clumsy. The second one was better. The third one felt like a kiss, but Joe’s mouth was cold inside. They paused after that one. Alan tried not to breathe all over Joe’s face.

“I don’t.” Joe swallowed, a dry click in his throat. “I don’t, uh. So I, I’m dead.”

“Yeah.” Alan couldn’t erase the feeling of Joe’s cold tongue against his.

“I don’t, my blood doesn’t.” Joe paused and took a deep breath he didn’t need; Alan could feel the rise of his chest. It fascinated him. “My blood doesn’t move. It, uh, it doesn’t.” Joe held his breath and made a vague gesture in a general downwards direction.

Oh. Alan considered this. Joe stared steadily at Alan’s right shoulder. “Do you want–I mean, we don’t have–”

“No, I, if you–” Joe bit his lip. “Do you?” He made eye contact with Alan, finally, and good Lord but he was fine, and looked good shirtless, even if kissing him gave new meaning to the phrase “like kissing a cold fish.” And then Joe reached out and put his hand on the front of Alan’s pants even before Alan gave his answer, and Alan just nodded.

They went into Alan’s room, where Joe laughed and said, “You actually make your bed? Who does that?” and Alan didn’t say anything, just pulled the sheets apart so that they could crawl in. Alan said, “Maybe I should shower first,” and Joe said, “No, don’t worry about it,” and took off his shirt. After that Alan had no choice but to undress himself, all the way down to the skin. Joe was faster, and he lay back on the bed and watched as Alan divested himself of his boxer briefs and dropped them on the floor. He was conscious that he hadn’t showered in over 24 hours.

Alan put his hand on Joe’s soft penis. Joe said, “I don’t,” and Alan said, “I know,” and Joe quieted and let Alan stroke it. It didn’t stiffen under his hand, didn’t twitch with even the slightest bit of interest. “Does it feel good at all?” Alan asked, and Joe replied, “It does,” but he heart didn’t seem to be in it, so Alan put his hand somewhere else.

They kissed again, a little bit. It was less unpleasant now, but still not Alan’s favorite thing. He was glad to move away and touch Joe elsewhere. Joe was cold all over, even under his armpit and in the crease of his groin, and no pulse jumped in his throat or wrist or on the inside of his thigh. His chest didn’t rise and fall with breath, but his nipples did respond under the swipe of Joe’s thumb and then his tongue. How did he experience sensation at all? Did he feel pain? He didn’t smell, either, not the way Alan was sure he must smell in the crevices of his body where the sweat built up: Joe smelled more like paper or wood than anything else. He must not sweat. Bacteria must not occupy the surface of his body. But then how did he eat food? How did he digest, with no gut flora to help? Did he need to excrete? He must excrete.

“God, you’re so warm,” said Joe, arching up against him, and Alan smiled.

Joe’s fingers felt like ice around Alan’s cock, and Alan gasped and jerked to a halt. He gritted his teeth as Joe stroked him, trying to get him hard, but it felt like masturbating with a banana peel. When it became apparent that his hand wasn’t working, Joe scooted down the bed and took Alan’s cock in his mouth.

That was even worse. It was like putting his dick inside a plastic bag filled with cold lotion. Joe’s soft, cold tongue worked against the head of Alan’s cock, swirled around the rim of his glans. His entire penis, soft as it was, fit inside Joe’s mouth. It was everything that normally got him diamond-hard in thirty seconds, but Alan could only shudder. He closed his eyes and thought about Joe, shirtless in the kitchen. Joe’s dopey, self-deprecating smile. His soft accent.

Joe pulled off. “This isn’t working.”

Alan put his arm over his eyes. “I–”

“It’s all right.” Joe put his hand on Alan’s shoulder. His touch was icy. “I know.”

“I really want to,” Alan said.

“I know.”

The mattress dipped. Alan took his arm away from his eyes and saw Joe sitting on the edge of the mattress, his back white against the darkness. “Wait.”

Joe waited, but he didn’t turn around.

“You don’t have to leave,” said Alan. “You can stay for a while. If you want.”

He thought Joe would leave anyway, but Joe came and lay down in the bed beside him. Alan pulled the blankets over them both. Joe’s limbs, tangled against his, were cold, but would warm eventually. Wouldn’t they? Even a pillow in a position like this would eventually absorb the heat trapped under the covers.

Quincy strolled in and joined them, landing with a soft, heavy thump on the foot of the bed. He proceeded to step all over Alan, making him wince, before settling himself in the dip between their bodies. He tucked his paws under his chest and looked satisfied with himself.

“Istvan is my brother,” said Joe.

“Oh,” said Alan.

“But he hasn’t been Istvan in a long time. He’s been Stephen as long as I’ve been Joe.” Joe took a deep breath. “We were very close. All our lives. But I haven’t seen him since I went to South America.” He rolled onto his back and spoke to the ceiling. “I heard about him, from time to time. We met once, by accident, some twenty years ago, in Detroit. He seemed fine then.” He sucked in another deep breath, and it shook when he let it out again. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why.”

Alan had to explain to people, sometimes, how their loved ones had died. Not very often. Ed and Nelson made the visit to explain to family members that their loved one had died; that his or her body now resided in the freezer at the county coroner’s office. But Alan was the one who determined how. He called it a suicide or an accident, natural causes or undetermined. Sometimes people didn’t like his answer.

“I’m sorry,” Alan said.

—–

He must have fallen asleep at some point, because when he woke in the middle of the night to a completely dark room, Joe was gone.

—–

Sunday was Sunday, but Alan’s schedule was off. He cleaned Quincy’s litterbox. He went to the gym, went to the supermarket, cooked his Sunday dinner, making enough to keep him in lunches for a few days. He counted his frozen leftovers and decided he had enough.

No news about the serial killer–no news that there even was a serial killer. Jason was on the news, because Jason was a white kid and a college student, no bad crowd, his death unexpected, still under investigation, no leads, the school had a memorial where they put flowers and pictures and notes. Coverage on the investigation itself was scarce; the police were being tight-lipped. Alan turned off the TV and played with Quincy instead.

—–

Monday was Monday. At least he didn’t have to worry about the missing toe tag anymore. Alan processed two bodies (Kyle, male, 27, Caucasian, 6’2″, 182 lbs, cause of death: accident; Delilah, female, 89, African-American, 5’4″, 137 lbs, cause of death: natural) and caught up on his paperwork. He made sure he didn’t forget anything, and he went home and gave Quincy his treat.

Tuesday was Tuesday. Wednesday was Wednesday. No more bloodless bodies. Nothing out of ordinary on the news. It was like Saturday had never happened.

—–

Then it was Thursday.

Thursday morning, Alan came in and learned there was a John Doe in the freezer, male, early 30s, Caucasian. Ed and Nelson brought him in early this morning. Alan was, for once, not totally behind on his examinations, so he could get to the John Doe that afternoon. Kelly wheeled him out of the freezer, and together, she and Alan broke the seals on the bag. Kelly pulled the sides of the bag open and took photos from all angles, focusing especially on the clothing. Alan was supposed to be taking notes, but he was frozen, clutching the pen so hard that he could feel its plastic body threatening to snap, because that was Joe inside the bag.

The tag said John Doe, but it was Joe. A clean-shaven Joe, with shorter hair, his face smooth and expressionless, eyes closed. Joe, wearing a green t-shirt, brown leather jacket, black jeans, and black and white Vans. Joe, with his hands in plastic bags twist-tied shut. Alan wrote it all down. Joe, dead (redead?) and being wheeled into his examination suite.

Kelly checked Joe’s clothes for evidence: stray hairs, debris, it all went into little plastic bags. Alan made notes on it all and spoke his observations into the tape recorder. Kelly worked efficiently, quietly, the way she always did. They made a good team. Then she took the clothes off: the shirt, the leather jacket, the black jeans and sneakers and tube socks and gray briefs. They all went inside a bag, too.

Then Joe was naked, every part of him soft and vulnerable now that it no longer mattered. It was hard to believe that Alan had been trying not to stare at that bare chest not even a week ago, as they stood together in Joe’s dirty kitchen, discussing the merits or lack thereof of White Castle burgers; that he’d cupped that soft penis in his hand and tried to make it hard; that he’d brushed his fingers and his tongue over those brown nipples. He felt a sudden deep and bewildering grief that their night together had not gone better.

Kelly collected evidence from the surface of the body: more stray hairs, but not much else. Dead without a mark on him. There would be a toxicology report. She cut off the plastic bags around his hands and scraped under his fingernails. Alan took more notes and dictated into the recorder what he was seeing: male, Caucasian, no distinguishing features, no external marks or wounds. Nothing out of the ordinary. She cleaned the body and weighed it (5’7″, 136 lbs), and together she and Alan moved it onto the autopsy table, with the body block wedged beneath it so that the chest was thrust out, arms hanging off to the sides. Easier to make the incisions.

Joe looked strange on the table: bigger, somehow, without his clothes. Younger, without his beard. Alan preferred his men with hair a little long, something he could run his fingers through. Why the shave and trim? Had Joe been trying to disguise himself? Make it so that Stephen didn’t recognize him? Obviously it hadn’t worked, but could vampires kill without leaving a mark?

Kelly came back with the tools. Alan put out his hand. “May I make the first incision?”

“Uh…sure.” Kelly laid the bag of tools open and stepped aside. Alan hadn’t made a Y-incision in years; that was the technican’s job. Alan was the microscope guy, the organs guy, the details guy. But he wanted to be the one to spread Joe’s ribs apart. He wanted to put his hands on Joe’s unbeating heart and lift it out of his body. He wanted to find out what had killed the undead.

The nice thing about being a medical examiner–and one of the reasons Alan was a medical examiner, and not, say, a physician or a radiologist or an oncologist or someone who otherwise attended to people who were still desperately clinging to life–was that it didn’t require much finesse. Which wasn’t to say that Alan didn’t try to bring a certain amount of professionalism to his duties, but it did mean that he didn’t waste department dollars on scalpels and bone cutters when he could get a good set of knives from the restaurant supply store and pruning shears from Home Depot. It wasn’t like anyone was going to die if he nicked the wrong thing. Alan selected a 6-inch chef’s knife and made the first incision, right below the subject’s right collarbone.

The subject gasped and opened his eyes.

Alan dropped the knife, which clattered to the floor and skittered underneath the table. Joe sat up, a red gash on his chest, not bleeding. Kelly was screaming, screaming and screaming, her mouth and her eyes wide open like caves, and Joe whipped around with a great ugly scowl and hissed, “Pofa be!” And then he reached out with one hand and broke her neck, and she dropped lifeless to the floor like a dead rat.

Alan backed up until he felt himself hit the wall, while the one-time deceased swung his legs over the side of the table. “You’re not Joe,” he whispered.

Hol vagyok?” The deceased slid around so that his feet dangled off the edge of the table. He looked to the left and to the right, brows furrowed, and chewed absently on his lower lip. “És miért vagyok meztelen?” His eyes lighted on Alan. His eyes widened and his eyebrows lifted. “Apa?”

“Wh-what, I…” Alan backed up. He could see the phone, it was right there, but he remembered how fast Joe could move, when he wanted to. Kelly lay open-eyed and open-mouthed on the floor with her neck at a sickening angle, the skin twisted and already bruising. “I…you…” He swallowed. His throat was too dry to form words. “Istvan?” He squeaked.

Atyám, te vagy! Ó, Istenem felett, én még nem láttalak ilyen sokáig!” Istvan–it must be Istvan, then–slid off the table onto the floor, his toes curling against the cold tile. “Én még mindig a fiad, bár én vagyok a szörnyeteg most. Meg tudsz nekem bocsátani? Fogsz vigyél vissza?” He took two, then three steps toward Alan and held out his hands in a helpless, pleading gesture.

“I, I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re saying,” Alan gasped out. His back hit the wall. The room was not very large. “I don’t understand…”

Istvan’s face twisted into an almost childlike caricature of rage. “Miért nem beszélsz velem? Mit akarsz ezzel mondani? Én nem értelek!

Alan felt sweat beading on his forehead and the back of his neck. “I don’t–”

Beszélj hozzám!” Istvan roared, his eyes almost closed, and he raised his fist.

Alan squeezed shut his eyes, and because of that he didn’t see what happened next. He did hear a great bang and a clatter, and another howl from Istvan. Then someone grabbed Alan first by the arm, and then by the legs, and Alan felt his feet lift the ground as he was hoisted into a fireman’s carry. He opened his eyes then, but all he got was a faceful of black hoodie as his face banged against someone’s arm. Sam stepped on poor Kelly’s wrist on their way out.

He was a lot faster than his size would belie, but then, vampires appeared to be very fast. Sam halted next to a Jeep, idling by the curb with its keys in the ignition–amazing that it was still there–and dumped Alan facefirst into the passenger seat before hopping into the driver’s side. Alan was still trying to right himself and get his seatbelt on when Sam peeled away from the curb, almost flinging Alan out of the vehicle.

“Where are we going?” Alan gasped. He was still wearing his gloves and mask and all his protective gear.

“Somewhere safe.” Sam stepped on it, and Alan was sick all over himself.

—–

They were able to stop at Alan’s home long enough for Alan to change his clothes, thank God, because he didn’t much look forward to another undetermined amount of time in captivity smelling of bile. He stuffed the dirtied scrubs in the garbage, packed himself a hasty bag, and shoved Quincy into his cat carrier, all while Sam paced up and down the hall just outside his door. When at last Alan emerged with a duffel bag slung over his shoulder and Quincy’s carrier under his arm, Sam said, “Oh my God, does the cat have to come?”

Alan retorted, “Yes” with a tone that brooked no argument. Sam’s jaw slammed shut with a click of his teeth, and he shrugged and marched off down the hallway, back stiff, keys jingling in his hand.

The car ride was spent in silence, Quincy’s carrier on Alan’s lap and his duffel in the back seat. Alan thought he recognized the route to Sam’s mysterious warehouse dwelling.

Sure enough, the Jeep passed a familiar featureless warehouse front and pulled around the corner into a lot in the back, tires crunching over gravel. Sam turned off the engine and hopped out, grabbing Alan’s duffel out of the back. He didn’t say a word to Alan, just hauled open a heavy iron door in the back of the warehouse and went inside. Alan managed to scuttle in just before the door slammed shut behind him.

Alan could tell this was a warehouse only by the high ceilings and the enormous floor-to-ceiling windows in one side, which were hung with thick curtains. The walls were painted white, and a staircase ran up one side to a balcony level that was lined with bookshelves. Globes suspended from the ceiling provided light. The furnishings were all contemporary–not dissimilar to Alan’s own taste, actually–and colorful, geometric rugs added a splash of color here and there on the concrete floor.

Alan’s jaw dropped. He set Quincy’s carrier on the floor. “Wow. Nice place.”

“Thanks,” said Sam. “I designed it myself. Joe!” His voice echoed off the high ceilings. “I ran into your brother, dude!”

“Oh, shit! Shit shit shit.” Joe emerged from somewhere upstairs and clattered down the stairs in his bare feet. “Are you okay? Is everyone okay?”

“Yeah, barely. I knocked him over, grabbed Alan, and got the hell out. He didn’t follow us, at least, I don’t think so.”

“Shit. Fuck.” Joe moved stiffly, holding his side, and a small cut under his eye that looked half-healed. The left side of his face was livid with dark bruises. Alan, with an insane urge to giggle, could identify them as post-mortem bruising. “I’m so sorry, Alan. I.”

“It’s okay,” Alan said, even though it wasn’t okay by any objective standard. But he couldn’t see anything to be gained by getting into an argument now, and actually, he was quite happy to see Joe, even if Joe looked as if he’d gone three rounds with Godzilla and lost, which perhaps he had. Quincy, inside the carrier, let out a shriek of indignation. “Can I let Quincy out?”

“He doesn’t scratch furniture, does he?” Sam asked.

“No, no.” At Sam’s nod, Alan opened the carrier. “He’s going to need a litterbox, though, if we’re going to be here a while.”

“I’ll pick one up,” said Joe. “S’my fault anyway. Heeey, Quincy!”

Quincy dashed up to Joe, meowing, and pranced around Joe’s feet. “He remembers you,” Alan said, and Joe squatted with some difficulty to fondle Quincy’s ears. “Are you okay? What happened?”

“My brother.” Joe said, somehow managing to sound grim even as lowered himself to the floor to better play with Quincy. Quincy threw himself against the concrete in rapture. “So tell me what happened.”

Alan told him about the body on the slab, how he’d thought it was Joe at first, the incision, and then Istvan’s wild, foreign babbling. Joe chewed on his thumbnail and looked very attractive even with blotchy blue-black all down one side of his face. They looked fake, without the inflammation that would normally accompany bruising.

“If only you knew Hungarian,” Joe muttered. He bowed his head and scrubbed both hands through his hair. His accent thickened. “I still don’t know–why? Why me but not him? We’re twins! We’ve always shared everything!”

Sam shrugged from his seat on the couch. Alan had taken a seat in the armchair. Joe was still on the floor, playing absently with Quincy, grabbing his paws and tugging his tail. Quincy made feeble kicks with his hindpaws but otherwise just lay and purred.

Joe made a low, frustrated sound. “I don’t know what to do. I can’t, he’s too strong. He’s.” He stopped with a gulp.

“He’s killed some of the others already,” Sam told Alan without expression. “The rest left town.”

Joe shuddered all over, and Alan wondered who the “others” were. The ones at the table at Denny’s? Leather Jacket, Redhead, Steve Buscemi–were they all dead? And meanwhile, here Sam was, sitting on his designer couch in his self-designed warehouse in the cool artsy district, sipping orange juice with ice cubes in it. Last week, he’d helped Joe dispose of a body, and he’d warned Joe against keeping Alan alive. Alan swallowed.

“I keep telling you, we need to set a trap,” Sam told the huddled heap on the floor. “And for a trap we need bait.”

“What bait?” Joe took his hands from his face in time to see Sam fix Alan with a significant look. “Oh, no. Fuck no. And why would he even–”

“You tell me,” said Sam. “He was the one in there yelling at the guy in Hungarian. He didn’t do that with any of the others he’s killed, has he? Yell at them in Hungarian first. Do you remember anything he said, Al?”

Alan shook his head. “He just kept asking me questions. At least, I think they were questions. They sounded like questions. But I didn’t understand anything.”

“See?” Sam gave Joe a smug look. “I think we’re on to something here.”

Joe’s jaw clenched. “It’s way too dangerous.”

“Um,” said Alan, wondering if he was going to get a say in this at all, but then the pounding on the door started. Quincy hopped to his feet and dashed behind the couch.

Joe stared at the door, lips parted and hand still stretched out where he’d been teasing Quincy. The hammering was slow and rhythmic, but gradually speeding up into an ominous clangor. The door shuddered under each bang. All three men had risen to their feet. Joe jerked his head toward Sam. “I thought you said he didn’t follow you!”

“I said I didn’t think so,” Sam hissed. “This is on you, man. He’s not my brother.”

The banging stopped. The three men froze in the sudden silence. A minute later, Alan envied the ability of his two compatriots to hold their breaths indefinitely, as he was forced to let his out through his nose.

“József!” A muffled voice came through the door. “Tudom, hogy van! Miért nem engedsz be?

Joe swallowed and clambered to his feet. “We’ll, we’ll go out through the front.”

“What, on foot?” Sam sneered. “Your car’s totaled, and my car’s out back!”

Joe’s face twisted. He opened his mouth for a retort, but at that moment the door gave an incredible shrieking sound. It was the metal itself, bending and wheezing as Istvan peeled it open like a can of sardines. His pale, clean-shaven face peered in around the four-inch gap he’d made. Alan could see the cords in his neck bulge as he opened the gap another five inches with a terrific burst of energy. “József!” he spat, foam flecking his lips. “Ez a te hibád vagyok, mint ez! Tettél egy szörnyeteg, és most apám utál!

Apja meghalt!” Joe yelled back. “Meghalt régen! Meg kell, hogy nyugodjon le, és figyelj rám!

Hazudsz! Atya ott melletted!” The door gave one last groan and teetered on one hinge, and Istvan stood framed in the floodlights of the yard outside. Joe’s hands tightened into fists. Alan took a step back and glanced behind him; Sam had disappeared. “Ő áll melletted, amikor nem is bír nézni rám!

Miről–” Joe turned to look at Alan. His mouth fell open. “Oh.”

“What?” Alan was thinking that Sam’s idea had been an excellent one. But Istvan was inside now, still naked and white as he’d been on the autopsy table, a red banner unfurled just below his collarbone. He walked toward them with clenched fists and slow, measured steps. Now that he and Joe were in the same room, Alan wasn’t sure how he’d mistaken one for the other, even without the differences in grooming. There was something gaunt and sorrowful and resentful all at once about Istvan, like a dog that’d been penned up too long in the backyard.

If Alan ran, would Istvan react like any other predator to the sight of fleeing prey? Would Quincy be okay? (Although, let’s face it, Quincy was likely to fare the best in this situation than any of them, though Alan had doubts about Quincy’s ability to hunt, given the way Quincy behaved around spiders. Quincy probably wouldn’t know what to do with a mouse if he caught one.)

“He thinks you’re Father!” Joe hissed out of the side of his mouth. “Please just–play along!”

What?” Alan stared.

Mit akarsz ezzel mondani? Van egy titkos idegen nyelvet?” Istvan demanded, stopping just a foot away from Alan.

Alan raised his hands. “No, no! I just–I don’t understand–”

Ő megöregedett.” Joe spread his hands in a pleading gesture. “Tudod, hogy idős emberek. Ő elfelejti, hogyan kell beszélni.”

Istvan gave Alan a long, searching look, while Alan strightened his spine and tried his best to look fatherly and commanding. “Úgy néz ki jól.

És te is. Gyere közelebb, testvér, hadd nézzelek.” Joe spread his arms wide, a forced and rigid grin on his face. “Ez egy hosszú idő.

Istvan moved only his head. “Azt hiszed, hülye vagyok. Majd megtudja az igazságot, mikor–

Some tension in the moment must have been too great, because a black and white blur darted out from behind the couch and right between Istvan’s legs. Istvan gave a yelp and stumbled back. Alan yelled “Quincy!” and started after the cat, who’d flown out the mangled door, and by the time he took a step Joe already had his arms around Istvan. By the time Alan took another step, there’d been a well-known, familiar crunch of bone. A third step, and Istvan fell to the floor like a sack of flour. Alan didn’t look back, just sprinted out the door yelling, “Quincy! Stop!”

Quincy, having never been outside in his seven years of life, froze as soon as he was eight steps out the door, cowering in the wide expanse of cold, dark world, and Alan was able to just scoop him up in his arms. He went back inside and found Joe kneeling over the body of his brother; he’d not only broken Istvan’s neck, but twisted the head clean off. It must have taken a great deal of strength to separate the cervical spine.

There wasn’t very much blood.

Joe rose to his feet, but his gaze was fixed on the corpse. “Better get this cleaned up before Sam gets back, or he’ll have a fit,” he said.

“I thought Sam was the body disposal guy, though,” said Alan.

“Oh. Yeah.” Joe didn’t move.

Alan stepped around the body, still holding a mostly quiescent Quincy in his arms. He wanted to put a hand on Joe’s shoulder, but he had an armful of cat and didn’t want to put Quincy down in case he tried to run away. “I’m sorry.”

Joe shook his head. “It was necessary.”

“Yeah, but…” Alan shook his head. In his arms, Quincy started to purr. Joe smiled a little and looked at the cat, who squinted his yellow eyes at Joe. He buried his bloody hand in Quincy’s fur, and then all of a sudden Alan found himself–and Quincy–pulled into a suffocating embrace, while Joe heaved great, tearless sobs into his shoulder.

—–

“I suppose it was my fault, really,” Joe said, once it was all over, once Joe had winched Sam’s door back in place as best he could, once Alan and Quincy were safely installed back in his apartment and Quincy had gobbled up his treat. “I was the one who met the man in the woods and let him change me. And then I bullied Istvan into it. After all, we were brothers. I wanted to share everything with him.” He took a deep breath; when he let it out again, it shook. “But when our parents found out, they tried to kill us. Because we were possessed by demons, you see. And that was why we fled to America.” His accent had gone thick again, by the end.

Alan set a steaming mug of tea in front of Joe, teabag still in it, and took a seat next to him on the couch. Well, next to him and Quincy, who had positioned himself pressed up against Joe’s thigh. “I didn’t know he still blamed me,” Joe went on. “He was unhappy, of course, at first…he had been happy in the village. He didn’t want to come to America. But we had fun. For some forty or fifty years, we had a lot of fun.” Joe picked up his teabag and started dunking it in the hot water, his lips set in a thin line. Alan wound the string of his own teabag around the handle of his cup and didn’t say anything. Anything he could think of to say in this moment seemed trivial at best.

“How was your week?” Joe asked, suddenly. He let the teabag fall back into the mug.

“Huh? Oh, it was…fine.” Alan shrugged. “The same, you know. Work. Come home. Eat. Sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat.”

A smile tilted Joe’s mouth to one side. “I missed Quincy a lot.”

“Oh, of course you did.” They both looked down at the cat. Quincy stared into space, paws tucked under his body so that he looked like a loaf.

Alan wrapped his hands around the hot ceramic of his mug and wished it was cool enough to drink. That would give him something to do. “Maybe he didn’t blame you. I mean, he probably did at first, a hundred years ago or whatever. But then he got over it. But since he was suffering from, like, vampire dementia, he was living in the past. The past where he was still angry at you.”

Joe shrugged. “Maybe.” He did not sound convinced.

“I’m sorry,” said Alan. “I really am.”

“Thank you,” said Joe. He lifted the mug of what must surely be still-scaling tea and sipped it without any sign of difficulty. Did he not feel pain?

“I thought it was you,” said Alan. “In the morgue. I didn’t know he was your twin, much less that you were identical.” He cleared his throat. “That was. Kind of traumatizing.”

“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” Joe said, solemnly.

“Yeah, and that was…well, I dunno, it would’ve been okay. Eventually. But I remember thinking, I wish that night had gone better.”

Joe froze. He put his mug down on the coffee table with a sharp click. “Are you proposing–”

“I’m not proposing anything,” Alan said. “I’m just. I’m just saying.”

Joe did not look at Alan. He stared straight ahead–much like Quincy–and drummed the fingers of both hands against his thighs. Finally, he said, “I kidnapped you. I almost got you killed. I, I fucked up your life, man.”

“Yeah,” said Alan. “I know.”

“And you…want to see me again?” Joe said, slowly, peering at Alan as if looking for outward signs of a mental breakdown.

“I think I do,” said Alan, because working day after day in the coroner’s office, processing the bodies of middle-aged heart attack victims and murdered teenagers, coming home and feeding Quincy, no longer seemed enough. It had been at one time, but now he wanted to see Joe in his apartment again, commenting on Alan’s “classy” movie collection and leaving little doodles of Quincy all over his receipts and notepads and the corner of his grocery list. He wanted to make Joe clean Quincy’s litterbox once in awhile, and he wanted to make Joe eat vegetables.

Joe’s lips quirked into a tentative smile. “Okay,” he said. “But only because of Quincy.” He brought his hand down onto Quincy’s head, flattening his ears, and scratched Quincy’s ears.

“Of course,” said Alan. Quincy squinched his eyes shut and began to purr.

—end—

Author’s note: I apologize for the lousy Hungarian.

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