Twilight of the Howling Dead

Twilight of the Howling Dead

By Martin Ross

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Darryl glared across the dark, packed club, sipping his Shirley Temple. Though it was New Year’s Eve, he preferred to stay sharp. Actually, recent experience had driven home the wisdom of staying sharp.

Not that he couldn’t have used a drink – the percussive persistence of the DJ’s amped-up techno mix was giving him a world-class migraine. Darryl was hungry, too: He’d grabbed a Sabrett dog over near Rockefeller Center a few hours ago, but it did little to slake his real appetite.

And now, this. Of all the bars in all the world, he had to come into this one, he groaned, glaring anew at the athletically built man scanning the dance floor. While Darryl fancied himself a classic romanticist, he had no idea he was plagiarizing Casablanca. He was into contemporary romance – the kind where guys like him finally had a shot.

“You look familiar,” a blonde in a microscopic black dress and gold lame’ fishnet hose called, sidling up to Darryl.

“What?” Darryl shouted.

“I said, you look real familiar.” Heavy Queens accent; not quite Darryl’s speed. “You somebody?”

“Hope so,” he smiled.

“What?”

“I hope I’m somebody,” Darryl repeated with a hint of exasperation.

The blonde frowned momentarily. “No. I mean, are you like a celeb or something? I mean, I just barely got past the door – think it was because I got great tits.”

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The romance of the moment was waning rapidly.

“I got it,” the blonde yelled. “You’re that dude, the one in the movie.”

Darryl sighed.

“Yeah. Blood Dusk. Edgar.”

Darryl growled as the DJ started scratching some Gaga. The blonde moved closer, and the tequila fumes made him reel back a step.

“’Cept he’s more buff than you, an’ your nose is like, bigger. An’ of course, he’s dating that bitch with the show on E. He wouldn’t be hangin’ in some Times Square shithole tonight.”

He contemplated homicide, but then he’d probably be stuck with her forever.

“And, and,” the blonde suddenly giggled. “An’, a’course, you ain’t no vampire.”

Darryl smiled with a glint that, had his new friend been sober, would have chilled her blood. “That skinny puss was no vampire. That movie sucked – he looked like a freaking drag queen with all that eyeliner, and the way he kept whispering shit, I couldn’t even catch half what he was saying. Vampire, my ass.”

“Cause you know,” the blonde jeered.

Darryl drew up, and his lips peeled back. “Yeah, babe. Actually, I do know.”

The bimbo blinked as she stared into his mouth. “The fangs. They oughtta be sharper.”

“They’re not fangs,” Darryl snapped, stalking off to the bar for a refill of sugar water.

**

Jason grinned wolfishly as he watched that geek Darryl try to rattle or seduce the drunk blonde — he wasn’t sure which it was. The music in this rathole sucked, but the comedy was worth the inflated New Year’s Eve minimum.

Surprising the pale little sucker had gotten past the rope. Jason’s date hadn’t, and he’d wished her a happy New Year as she sputtered at the hulk on the door.

Still, it pissed him slightly that Darryl had shown his pallid face here. This was his haunt — no, he thought gleefully, his LAIR. Yeah, his DEN. Jason scanned the jerking undulating bodies, waving glowsticks and rubbing groins — meat on the bone, prey prancing in the…

Shit. Jason had never been out of the city, nor did he watch anything but CNBC, E!, or VH1, so he had no idea where prey hung out. But they were his, for the taking, if he chose. Fortunately for these sheep, it was a half-moon hanging over Times Square tonight — he’d Googled it up last night, and had been prepared to order a pie from Ray’s (one of about 45 Ray’s in the borough) and watch the Spice Channel until the urge passed (well, one particularly urge, anyway).

Jason and Darryl had been buds ever since joining the firm, but their bromance had festered soon after their encounter with the Triplets. It was the eternal battle, one that had waged on for centuries, maybe millennia. Jason had done his research, mainly at the Loew’s Midtown Cineplex, and he knew how it all would end. For now, of course, the battle consisted largely of snarky comments in staff meetings and petty office pranks. Both their work had fallen off, of course — Jason had muffed a key order last week while contemplating how to stuff elephant garlic into Darryl’s day planner, and Darryl’s call volume had dropped precipitously as he plotted revenge and watched his own narrow back.

Meanwhile, Vincent had merely sunken into work-obsessed depression, though in his current state, it was difficult to determine how much of his lifeless demeanor was due to emotional funk. He’d kept himself up well — a ton of product gave Vincent’s lusterless brown hair the appearance of life, and Jason suspected he’d invested most of his disposable cash over the last five months in Clinique. And, of course, losing the desire — indeed, the need — to feed kept Vincent at the phones. The Change had actually helped Vincent’s sales volume, and the talk was he was in for a promotion, as if that mattered any more to the poor schlub. Jason thought more and more in the upper case these days: It helped him put The Change and his Condition into perspective, his Fate into The Greater Scheme of Things.

Jason’d spotted Vince at the bar earlier, sipping morosely at what appeared to be a mojito. Once again, keeping up appearances — booze had absolutely no effect on someone in Vincent’s condition, or so Vince said. A night of New Year’s revelry, even less so. Well, guess the pathetic asshole just needed to get out for the night, Jason shrugged.

And that’s when he spotted her. The cute, brown-eyed blonde edging and bumping her way across the crowded dance floor. Squeezed into a little red dress and wobbling on red stilettos — nice legs, passable bod. But that wasn’t what drew Jason’s attention. She gave off literally waves of fresh meaty goodness, like a lamb wondering too close to the hole in the fence where the hungry things waited. The blonde jumped as she accidently heel-spiked some clean-headed gangsta type, and apologized profusely as the maimed mambo king stood mutely unable to respond. She wasn’t a hot mess; she was just a mess.

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Finally, the sheep in the tiny red wrapper made it to Jason’s side. His salivary glands were already working up to a froth, and he contemplated his approach. But that’s when she took a hard right and wobbled straight to the bar.

And, to Jason’s utter astonishment, Vincent.

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Special Agent Leyla Harrison had never roamed so far outside her comfort zone, and after impaling that poor man on the dance floor, she felt even more frazzled and disoriented. All that thumping, whumping techno music wasn’t helping, and it was as cold as a meat locker in this giant gymnasium of a club.

But getting outside the comfort zone was what tonight was all about. The guys at the Bureau were great and everything, but they could be a little stiff, and most of them had no imagination or adventurous spirit. And the one who had it all was unavailable — his relationship with his partner was no real secret, and, besides, the comptroller’s office had little interaction with the X Division. Leyla’s attempts to get into the field had met either with kindly bemusement or outright intolerance, and she was too straight-arrow to contrive some bogus inquiry about expenses or travel vouchers to get into Fox Mulder’s orbit.

So, three months ago, she’d logged onto eSynergy — America’s No. 4 online relationships site — in search of a kindred soul. Leyla knew full well the risks of dating — there was the Virgil Incanto case, and, of course, Edward Van Blundht. But she believed in her heart of hearts that not all men had to be serial-killing fat-suckers or shape-shifting seducers. There had to be a few good ones out there.

That conviction had led her to “No. 3215” — AKA Vincent, a successful young Wall Street dealer with a love for Asian cuisine and vintage horror films and three Burmese cats (proudly displayed in his online LifeGallery. Vincent had been impressed by Leyla’s slightly embellished career in law enforcement and, after mutual e-clearance, they’d agreed to meet in Manhattan on New Year’s Eve. Leyla had always wanted to meet Dick Clark, and she hoped maybe they could drift over to Times Square to watch the ball drop.

Leyla recognized the trim — nearly gaunt — shoulders and thinning brown hair as she approached the neon-trimmed bar. “Vincent?” she called over the throbbing percussion.

Her e-date jumped, sloshing rum and mint over the acrylic bartop. Leyla smiled and waited for the color to return to his pallid face, and when it didn’t, she settled onto the stool next to him.

“Leyla,” he finally grinned, his eyes brightening with deep hollows. He’d told her he often kept late hours attending to client accounts and following the global markets. He grasped her outstretched hand; the poor guy’s fingers were as cold as ice. They really needed to jack the thermostat in here. “Wow, you’re even prettier than in your profile.”

“Well, I scanned my Bureau ID for that photo, and they don’t really want you to smile too much,” Leyla blushed.

“Well, it’s a very nice picture even for an official ID,” Vincent smiled. His lips were pale and slightly blue — Leyla thought again about asking the manager about that thermostat — but there was something beguiling about his kindly, pallid features. “You want a drink?”

Leyla nodded cheerfully at the puddle on the bar. “That looks good — one of those.”

“Hey, two more mojitos,” Vincent called to a gothish barmaid. She regarded him briefly and began again to jerk her head in rhythm with the DJ’s mix. “They’re pretty busy tonight, New Year’s Eve and all. It may be a while.”

“It’s OK,” Leyla sang. “The night’s young. So you live around here?”

“Few blocks away — my folks had a rent-controlled efficiency they left me. Kind of a tomb, but it’s cheap and I just mainly crash there anyway.”

“Oh, I know what you mean,” Leyla empathized eagerly. “I burn a lot of midnight oil at the Bureau myself. I want to get out into the field, you know, out in the trenches, but they’ve got me chained to a desk. You, now — that must be exciting, working on Wall Street and all.”

“Well, it’s not all Michael Douglas-type stuff, though the pressure can be deadly. And every once in a while, something really interesting happens.” Vincent halted, taking a sip of his mojito dregs and wincing as he encountered a shred of macerated mint.

“See, that’s what I mean,” Leyla bubbled. “I want to find that little spark of adventure out there — the stuff the other agents see every day.”

“Drug cartels, terrorists, serial killers?”

“Well, yeah, of course that would be nice,” she murmured, wistfully. “But I mean real adventure. Take this agent I know — he deals with the most unbelievable cases. There was this time he helped track a giant flukeman in the sewer systems. It was actually some Russian who was mutated by Chernobyl. And of course, there was that golem right here in New York–“

Now, Leyla stopped self-consciously, waiting for Vincent’s vacant stare or frozen smile. Instead, worry was etched into his pallid features.

“Golem? That’s like a zombie, right?”

“Actually, a golem’s an animated anthropomorphic being created entirely from inanimate matter, like mud or clay,” Leyla corrected, tactfully. “A zombies usually a reanimated corpse controlled by somebody else through magic or a combination of psychotropic and metabolic drugs. I don’t really go with the whole George Romero walking dead, radiation theory. Sorry, listen to me babble.”

“No,” Vincent smiled tenderly. “I like to hear you talk. But I thought the zombie thing was like a Caribbean voodoo thing, witch doctors and dead chickens and that shit. Sorry.”

“Oh, that’s OK. I hear worse than that, especially when I ask for a field assignment. Actually, zombie reports began in West Africa, where a lot of Caribbean customs came from. But there’s a whole global cult thing now — there are as many books about zombies as there are about vampires.”

“And werewolves,” Vincent mumbled.

“And werewolves. And there are these organized ‘zombie walks’ — like performance art or social protests. The zombie thing’s huge. It’s the next Blood Dusk saga.”

Vincent pulled the sleeve of his khaki shirt up and laid his hand on the bar. Leyla’s eyes widened, then softened as she smiled shyly and placed her own hand in his.

“Ah, no,” Vincent said. “Higher. Hold my wrist.”

Leyla had been out of the dating scene for awhile, and she cursed her ignorance. She wrapped her freshly manicured fingers around his somewhat bony wrist. It might have been a lamb shank left on the counter to thaw. Leyla’s smile turned upside down, and her grip tightened. Her fingers then migrated along his forearm.

“I hope this doesn’t seem forward or critical or anything,” she finally said. “But it appears you don’t have a pulse.”

Vince looked into her eyes, meaningfully. Leyla recalled their most immediate topic of discussion.

“Oh,” she breathed.

**

“Vince, dude!”

Leyla jumped, still attempting to process the new data her eSynergy date had uploaded. The man who clapped Vincent on the shoulder was thin and somewhat short, with hair gelled and sculpted into a hairstyle known to every adolescent girl who’d ever dreamed of being passionately desanguinated. He was flashily outfitted for the occasion, but he had an unfortunate incisor overbite that made him look like a junior auxiliary vampire.

“Darryl Gruebner,” the newcomer beamed with a spark of malice in his eye, squeezing Leyla’s hand. “You the cyberchick? One of the girls at the firm told me Vince was looking for love on the laptop, and I’m glad to see she meant online dating.”

Leyla sensed Darryl had just dissed his buddy, but she was still reconciling Vincent’s utter lack of vital signs. Darryl grinned.

“Wow, she doesn’t handle her booze well, does she? Except she doesn’t even have any booze. Hey, Babe?”

The gothtender yawned.

“What you having?” Darryl asked, laying a clammy hand on Leyla’s bare shoulder.

“Tequila, straight,” she answered numbly. “A double.”

“Whoa,” Darryl brayed. “You hit the jackpot, Bro.”

“Darryl,” Vincent said through his teeth. “We’re kind of in the middle of something, you know.”

The Dark Purveyor of Alcohol sloshed a glass of tequila before Leyla.

“Well, now you are,” Darryl leered.

“What, we having a staff meeting here?”

Leyla turned to see a blocky blonde with Wolverine sideburns and muscles bulging through his form-fitting shirt. The unibrow matched his ‘do.

“Hi, Jason,” Vincent greeted glumly.

“Jason Wexler,” the brute announced to Leyla. “Me and Count Darryl here work with Vince at the brokerage. Good to see you got out for the night, Vince. Dude needs some sun or moon or whatever — looks like he lives in a crypt.”

Leyla caught a cryptically hostile look from Darryl.

“So what’s your gig, Linda?” Jason asked, crossing beefy forearms.

“Leyla. I’m an agent.”

“Movies?” Darryl asked hopefully. “TV?”

“FBI,” Vincent said pointedly, his theretofore hangdog expression hardening. Whatever he’d said or projected, his “friends” fell mute.

“Cool,” Jason finally ruled, staring at Vince. “Darryl, dude, let’s leave the young folks alone, capisce?”

Darryl nodded vigorously. “Later.”

“Sorry about that,” Vincent muttered as the mismatched pair huddled conspiratorially near the dance floor.

Leyla blinked. “So you’re a zombie?”

The young trader sighed and turned on his stool. “I wasn’t entirely upfront with you. Let me tell you a story, then I’ll tell you why I wanted you to come out tonight.”

**

It was one of those “reward” conferences (Vincent began), one of those freebies the senior partners toss you when they don’t want to cough up a bonus or they promise a presence at the latest industry snorefest, or both. Free five-star food and endless booze and schmoozing with the rich and famous in exchange for six hours of economic analysis and global projections.

This one was at the Trump — stuff about international currency rates and the European exchanges, stuff with virtually no relevance for Darryl or Jason or I. Just take a few notes, collect some Powerpoints, and blow off some steam, the bosses said.

The steam blew in that night at a reception sponsored by the London Stock Exchange, in the form of three Romanian financiers. Three female Romanian financiers. Three six-foot-nothing, ice-blonde Romanians of supermodel proportions. They were interested in mining emerging Eastern European venture capital and mounting a U.S.-based investment portfolio. Yeah, I know it doesn’t make total sense, but by the time they made their big entrance, we were already pretty buzzed, and when they descended on us for details on the workings of the U.S. exchanges, we didn’t ask any questions.

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At some point, we wound up in the Florescu sisters’ suite. At some point, I wound up wedged between Maria Florescu and the hotel bedspread, being ridden like a Six Flags roller coaster. At some point, we woke up in our respective sisters’ suites the next afternoon, being scolded by the Latino housekeeper. The Florescus had departed for their native Romania, and we celebrated an evening of debauchery without consequences or further followup, despite the missing gaps in memory.

Then, things got weird. It started when Darryl’s hangover wouldn’t go away. We’d suspected the triplets had slipped us some “E” or something, but three days after our encounter, Darryl was still wearing sunglasses in the office and flinching every time he walked past a window. He started coming in at night and working from his apartment, and his skin just started getting paler and paler.

And Jason started getting, well, hairier. He didn’t used to have that unibrow, and he’s had to shave several times a day in the office john just to keep his shadow down. And when we’d have lunch on the street or in the park, passing dogs would bark at him while ignoring me. We were still friends then, but when I’d suggest we go out for a drink after work, Jason would look at the sky before either suggesting a bar or making some lame excuse to dash home.

It took me longer to catch on — about three weeks after my liaison with Maria Florescu. I was at my gym down near the exchange when I noticed the heart monitor on my treadmill wasn’t working. The pedometer, all the other gauges were just fine, but I couldn’t get a cardio reading. The manager put me on another machine, but the result was the same.

At the same time, I had this interminable case of the chills — I couldn’t seem to get totally warm no matter how much I layered or cranked the thermostat. I figured I was coming down with something, so I took my temp. The mercury wouldn’t move. I threw away three thermometers before giving up.

But it didn’t fully hit me until the firm upgraded its security system. After all the fallout in the financial market, the bosses decided they need to protect our proprietary data more carefully, so they put in a biometric system. You know, where you put your finger in the groove and your body signature unlocks the door. Except I had no signature. I worked with the security guys for three days before the company gave up and put in a new key card system.

By that time, I’d taken — or tried to take — a full set of vitals on myself. I officially called time of death at 9:32 p.m. on a Wednesday night. It was like something out of a horror story, and that’s when the last piece came together.

I Googled the Florescus, and found out they’d been raised in central Romania, near the Carpathian Mountains. Specifically, Transylvania.

It hit me like a brick wall. Darryl’s aversion to sunlight. Jason’s abnormal hair growth and lunar fascination. My lack of, well, life. The Florescus weren’t looking to satisfy their sexual appetites — they’d been on the hunt. My guess is we were roofied, or maybe they did it with their powers or whatever. And in the process, they’d transformed us. Darryl’d caught a scorching case of vampirism, Jason had been turned into a werewolf, and, apparently, Maria had, if you’ll pardon the pun, sucked the life out of me.

**

“In a way, I was lucky,” Vincent concluded as Leyla’s jaw drooped. “Being anemic, pale, and lifeless allows you to fit right in in the city, especially on the near East Side. I had tried some acting in college, and I developed a knack for makeup. I couldn’t really date this way, you know, so I got more work done. I topped the quarter in volume.

“Darryl and Jason had a harder time of it. Jason couldn’t eat enough to satisfy his metabolism or hunger, and Darryl, well, he started telling me about these really weird urges he was getting. One day in the john, I saw these marks on his arm. At first, I thought he’d starting cutting, you know, out of depression. But then I realized he was just tapping the most socially acceptable vein he could find.”

Leyla placed a hand tentatively on Vincent’s lifeless arm. “You poor things. Oh, I don’t mean things. It took a lot of courage to tell me all this.”

Vincent sighed and looked away. “Not really, Leyla. In fact, I invited you here on false pretenses. I wasn’t looking for love. I was looking for help, and after I read some of your comments on a paranormal discussion forum, I knew you were probably the only person who could understand. And who could do something. Something official.

“See, I think it all finally got the best of Darryl and Jason, that they gave into their newfound impulses.

“Leyla, I think they killed somebody. Maybe somebodies.”

**

By coincidence, at that same moment, the Blonde in the Gold Lame Stockings was chatting about vampires and werewolves and zombies with The Dark Man. Well, not precisely by coincidence — her earlier conversation with the little quasi-fanged wannabe had tickled her little-used imagination, and the handsome man near the DJ stage was like some kind of shadowy presence at tonight’s festivities, garbed from head-to-toe in black and seemingly amused by the whole New Year’s Eve scene.

“Oh, yeah, I love all that shit,” she told The Dark Man, who seemed fascinated by the conversation rather than her quite commendable boobs. “I started reading Anne Rice when I was in junior high — that was during my goth phase, then the Blood Dusk books came out, and I’m hooked all over again. I’ve seen both Blood Dusk and Equinox four times now, and I’m watching Twitter to find out when New Morn is coming out. You know, I met that guy who plays Edgar. Well, I almost met him. They were doing a scene for some Gwyneth Paltrow thing he’s in down in The Village, and I was like 20 feet away from him. If the fucking goon movie security people had just stepped off, I’d have gotten his autograph. I don’t know why, but I just love all that vampire shit.”

The Dark Man smiled, mysteriously, she thought. “Well, the notion of eternal life appeals to all of us, but add a layer of dangerous, disease-free eroticism, and it’s not surprising women — especially young women — are attracted to vampire lore. The idea of a romantic figure shunned by society who offers the gift of immortality through sex? C’mon.”

The Dark Man was very smart — he’d probably been at least through community college. The blonde felt a little tingle of attraction. “My BFF, Cyndie, likes werewolves, says vampires suck. Werewolves? Would you believe? Yish.”

“Maybe your friend prefers the ideal of more primal romance, stripped of all civility and given free reign in feeding its appetites and urges.”

“She is a fucking wild mess,” she conceded. “The thing I can’t understand is this whole zombie shit. Zombie books, zombie games, zombie movies. Please don’t tell me that’s about fucking, too.”

The Dark Man shrugged. “Romero said he made the Living Dead movies to criticize social ills like government ineptitude, bioengineering, slavery, greed, exploitation. Personally, I think the current appeal of zombie lore is rooted in the desire of the powerless to take control, without bureaucratic or societal consequences. To utterly annihilate one’s enemies — what would be more cathartic than actually eating your boss or your ex?”

“Actually, my ex kinda liked–“ she grinned slyly, assessing an opening.

But her opening slammed shut as a piercing, animalistic sound cut through the bad techno-mix and the drunk chatter and the connection she’d begun to feel with The Dark Man. The howling stopped, and the room was momentarily silent. Then someone laughed nervously, the laughter spread through the crowd, and the bodies on the floor once again began to twitch and jerk.

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“That sounded like a fucking WOLF,” the blonde gasped.

**

“It started right after Rachel came to the firm,” Vincent related as Leyla worked on her tequila. “She was straight out of NYU — looked like a cross between Kate Hudson and Jennifer Aniston and had a business sense like a cross between Richard Branson and Michael Douglas in that Wall Street movie. The partners loved her — I suspect one more than the others — and every guy in the office became her coffee slave. Which was great, because I’m usually the guy who has to go on the Starbucks runs.

“ By this time, Rachel was not only out of my league but too organic to be interested in a relationship with an overachieving zombie. Now, Darryl and Jason, they were like totally blown over her, and that’s when it started, When they started embracing their true selves. Their new true selves. That’s when Darryl started cornering the marketing on styling product and Proactiv and Jason started hitting the gym twice a day and binging on whey powder and energy drinks. Darryl got darker, Jason got jockier, and Rachel loved watching them constantly whip ‘em out on the conference table for her. Metaphorically, that is.”

“Oh, I figured,” Leyla nodded. Her shock had given way to dejection and then to a low-grade professional tingle after Vincent raised the possibility of homicide. “So they were like rivals?”

“Just like in that movie Blood Dusk. You know, when Cara has to choose between Edgar the vampire and Gerard the werewolf? Except Rachel was no Cara — more like a wereshark. She played them against each other and played them individually. It was like she was sucking their brains dry. And their accounts. By the end of a month at the firm, she was No. 2 in volume. I was No. 1, and she hated that I was immune to her. Boy, if she’d have only known.” Vincent laughed morosely.

“The guys didn’t realize how Rachel’d played them until a week or so ago, when Darryl was having a drink with the boys at the Omni Plaza Midtown and saw one of the partners and Rachel getting off separate elevators at the same time. Darryl’s no Rhodes scholar, but he could tell they were trying to hard to ignore each other. It wasn’t so much that he and Jason had been cock-blocked by the boss — what must’ve hurt was realizing she’d been after their portfolios rather than their manhood.

“It was two days later she didn’t show up to work. Any of the rest of us, and we could go missing for a week. But Rachel? They practically called out the National Guard. One of the partners — the one who was doing Rachel — sent me to her apartment, but nobody answered. I checked her neighbors, and nobody remembered seeing her — or hearing her stereo, which she played too loud — the night before.

“Then we saw it on the news that night. The cops had found a body in Central Park, practically ripped to shreds. They later put out the body’d been completely dry of blood. Cops figured the woman had been the victim of some Satanic or serial ritual, then half-eaten by feral dogs. Feral dogs, in Central Park? What, runaway yorkies? All they knew was it wasn’t a robbery. Rachel’s purse was by the body, with her cash, cards, and ID.

“The cops were all over the office the next few days, but nobody had a clue but me. I was the only one who knew he had a vampire and a werewolf for coworkers. When they realized Rachel’d conned them both, they must have teamed up to get rid of her. You know what they say. Bros before hos.”

Leyla actually did not know what “they” said, and was about to request clarification when the howling began. She’d shaved her legs assiduously in preparation for her cyberdate, but the hairs at the base of her neck rose.

“Oh, Jesus,” Vincent whispered. The bodies on the dance floor turned as one, seeking the source of the inhuman cries. Then, the howling stopped abruptly, and a few laughs later, the partiers returned to their affairs and would-be affairs.

Vincent then sat bolt-upright, and Leyla followed his gaze to an entry to the right of the DJ. Two figures emerged from the darkened restroom corridor — one diminutive, one hulking. As the pair moved into the strobing lights, she gasped at the deep black shadow on the larger man’s face and the eerie red glint in the eyes of the smaller man. They were headed directly and swiftly toward the bar.

“I shouldn’t have brought you here,” Vincent breathed. “They know. C’mon, Agent, we gotta get outta here.”

**

The alleyway behind the club was illuminated alternately by a few backdoor fixtures and the glow of a few loft windows overhead. Vincent splashed through puddles toward the main street lights as Leyla trailed breathlessly on her precarious heels.

“Vince, dude!” The voice was deep, scolding, and definitely menacing. Leyla glanced back over her shoulder and spotted the two figures advancing from light pool to light pool.

“C’mon, Vince,” the other voice whined. “We can talk this out. Why’d you have to narc us out?”

“Leave her alone, Darryl!” Vincent screamed. “We won’t tell. I promise.”

“What the fuck you talking about, Bro?” the large man demanded. “Go ahead. Tell. You think she’ll believe you? Stay put, Dude; let’s talk.”

Leyla’s heart pounded. She glanced franticly around for help. Figures moved in a few windows — New Yorkers craning to hear what was brewing in the darkness below but straining to stay uninvolved. Leyla then scrambled for her purse and her largely decorative sidearm.

“OK!” Vincent shouted, surprising her. “Let’s talk this out. We’re here by the yellow dumpster. Leyla, relax. I got it.”

Agent Harrison spun to see her erstwhile date displaying her weapon. “I said, just relax, Leyla,” the zombie purred, strangely calm now.

“What’s going on?” Leyla slurred, her body suddenly heavy and immobile. One of his buddies — the vampire or the werewolf, she didn’t know which — sent a glass bottle skittering across the concrete as they closed in.

“I’ll make it quick, I promise,” Vincent murmured with a tinge of regret. In the spare light of the alley, she could see the color returning to his face. Too much color.

“You’re looking a lot better, Vincent,” a new voice called, cheerfully. A man emerged from the street side of the alley — a man clothed in black, from head to toe. The gun in his gloved hand was black, too. “Drop the weapon, Zombie Boy, or you’re a real dead man.”

“Agent Mulder,” Leyla croaked, beginning to feel the night chill creep back into her bare shoulders.

“See, Agent Harrison, bullets might not hurt a real zombie, if there is such a thing,” Fox Mulder grinned, advancing slowly. “But I bet a headshot might do a little damage to a witch. Right, Vince?”

Darryl and Jason had cleared the dumpster, and now they stood, transfixed, watching the drama unfold between their coworker and the two agents.

“Dudes,” Mulder called out. “Welcome to the party. Vincent was about to start your new year out with a couple of homicide charges. Yeah, that’s right. He probably had you believing you’d killed Rachel Krause, hadn’t he?”

Darryl looked at Jason. “That’s bogus, Vince,” the “werewolf” growled.

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“To say the least,” Mulder said. “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, guys, but aside from your apparently immortal wit, you’re not gonna live forever or light up the sky with your name.” He paused, meeting blank stares. “C’mon, Fame. Don’t you kids ever watch anything older than Gossip Girl any more? Leyla, take your gun.”

Agent Harrison complied. “But I saw them, in the club. They were…different.”

“I’m sure it’s an illusion created by Vince, maybe with the help of some pharmaceuticals in your Cabo Wabo. That’s probably how he convinced these two whiz kids they were Count Chocula and Lon Chaney. You were the butt boy at the office, weren’t you, Vince? Always schlepping coffee for these two. Darryl’s reaction to daylight, Jason’s hairy temperament — those were part minor-league sorcery and part chemicals, right? Just like real voodoo.

“The lead on the case — detective I know named Doggett — was suspicious of Darryl and Jason. The two of you had no real alibis, thanks to Vincent making you paranormal outcasts. But Doggett couldn’t square you two daytraders with the savagery of Rachel’s murder, so he called me in. I took one look at you two rejects from a bad CW drama and figured something was rotten in Transylvania. Then I spot you, Vincent, and I have to say, you really overdid it with the undead act. Like you wanted to divert us from the disaffected, powerless zombie to the two predatory alpha dudes.

“So I looked at the firm’s records, and found out Jason and Darryl had been the big dogs in sales ‘til about six months ago, with Vince at a sad No. 3. Then, their figures started dropping as Vince became the rising star. Vince staged this whole vampire-werewolf thing to throw them off their game, and these two brainstems played along nicely.” Mulder turned to Vince. “But you didn’t count on Rachel the Wall Street Vampire. She was cutting in on your newly stolen action. So you decided to kill three birds — that is, kill Rachel and frame your buds for it. You lured her to the park and did the old Dracula Meets The Wolfman on her. My guess is, you put the hex on Darryl and Jason, and they’re missing a few strategic hours the night of the murder. Until now, they probably think they did it.”

“You fucking–” Jason snapped, moving forward.

“Down, boy,” Mulder chided. “Problem is, Vincent’s plot was a little too exotic for the NYPD, so he decided to take things to the next level. He arranged this meet-and-greet with Agent Harrison to plant the seeds of suspicion and put on that little howlfest in the club. You were going to be the next victim of the ”

“Wait — how’d he get Rachel to go to the park?” Leyla interjected. “She wouldn’t give him the time of day.”

“You kidding? Rachel had these two by their short hairs — sorry, Jason. What’s the challenge in that? Now, apathetic, disinterested Vince — that must’ve been too much for her monster ego to bear. He had all the power in the relationship. Which begs the question: You managed all this and you’re hustling stocks on the phone? Seems a little beneath your skill set, Vince.”

Vincent’s eyes flamed. “Yeah, you try to make a living with spells and potions in this economy.”

Darryl coughed. “Soooo, we didn’t do anything wrong?”

Mulder shrugged. “Depends on what state you’re in. You wonder how Vince here conjured up the lovely Florescu sisters? How many cats you got, Vincent?”

It took Leyla a second. “Oh,” she grimaced.

It took Darryl a second longer. Then he threw up on Jason’s Kenneth Coles.

clip_image016

**

“No, she’s fine,” Mulder told Scully as he watched two of New York’s finest deposit the “zombie”-cum-sorcerer in the back of a black-and-white. “Sure, no prob. Oh, yeah, you bet I’ll find a way to make it up for me. Scully? Scully?”

He stared at the dead Droid for a moment, then grinned and slid it into his jacket. Mulder turned and located Agent Harrison at the curb outside the club, peering forlornly down Broadway as partiers stumbled and danced toward Times Square and staccato horns honked out the old year.

Leyla smiled sheepishly as he approached. “Bet you can’t guess what my New Year’s resolution is. I feel so stupid.”

“Aw, c’mon,” Mulder murmured. “Relationships are tough. You know what they say: All the good ones are either married, gay, or wizards. When Scully found out you were about to hit the town with my prime suspect, she insisted I sign on for chaperone duty. So, Agent Harrison, what do you say we hunt down Dick Clark? I heard he’s been sighted around here.

”**

“Hey, great show as always, Dick!” the producer shouted with a triumphant fist pump. “Have a great year!”

“Regards to the family, Steve!” Dick Clark returned with the famous smile that had rocked America and ushered Jan. 1 for decades. It’d been a particularly brisk night in Times Square, and he was looking forward to some nice hot java after the network makeup guy stripped away the blush and powder.

“Table for one, Mr. Clark?” Max invited as the host entered the warm trailer, snapping a fresh bib.

“Terrific job, as usual, Max,” Dick beamed, settling into the canvas director’s chair. “Some of these guys make me look like I’m ready for a noon burial.”

The burly, magenta-haired cosmetician chuckled modestly and reverently clipped the bib into place. “Oh, please. I should look half as good as you when I get to be your—Oopsie, didn’t mean it THAT way.”

“Max, never be ashamed of your age. It’s like Old Blue Eyes said, you gotta stay young at heart.”

“That was Zach Efron’s line?” Max squeaked in mock astonishment. “Just yankin’ you, hon. Now just relax, and I’ll have you on your way in a sec.”

It had been a tiring evening – there were some sound issues around 11:45, and this year’s diva du jour had turned out to be the Diva From Hell – and Dick closed his eyes as the makeup man sponged and gently scraped. But overall, it had been another satisfying night – Dick relished his role as Gatekeeper to the New Year, and hoped to be at it for at least another decade or two.

“Say, Max, did a delivery guy come by during the show?” the TV legend inquired. “He was supposed to drop some deli for the trip home.”

“Gosh, I’m sorry, Mr. Clark – nobody like that. There were a couple of little Miss Somethings got through network security, wanted to see you. I shooed them off.”

“Thanks, Max,” Dick nodded. “Probably young enough to be my granddaughters. Still, it’s kinda sweet.”

“Posh. You are an icon with a Capital I. What do they say, a timeless treasure?”

“You’re supposed to be scraping me off, not piling it on,” Dick jibed.

“Sorry, Mr. Clark. Aging drama queen. There!” Max peered into the facing mirror. “My God, I swear you’re actually looking younger. Well, see you when I see you!”

“Happy New Year, Max,” Dick said, dropping the bib onto the chair and clapping the man on the shoulder.

“May you live to be a thousand,” Max called as the trailer door closed.

Dick looked up into the Broadway marquees, soaked up the raucous sounds of joy and, what – hope? — that would continue into the wee hours. A new decade of a new millennium.

The former Bandstand host swallowed back a slight pang of disappointment. The post-midnight “deli” delivery was as much a New Year’s personal ritual as Auld Lang Syne (performed this year by Dan Fogelberg and Darius Rucker) and the descent of the glittering ball in the Square. The delivery – a standard Carnegie corned beef with Russian dressing, slaw, Kosher dill, and a small vial of iridescent lavender fluid – had been waiting after the show for 20 years now, without fail.

But all traditions fade at some point, Dick sighed — all good things come to an end, ideally with more good things on their tail. Maybe it was time to simply let Nature take its course, he reflected, absently touching a crow’s foot.

Dick nonetheless was concerned about his heretofore-diligent supplier. There had to be others in New York with his particular skills in crafting potions and talismans, and a few phone calls would line up a new contact, but it was puzzling.

Oh, well, Dick thought. “Have a prosperous New Year, Vince,” he murmured, “Wherever you are.”

*******

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