3LBE #12
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Contract Work

by David J. Wright

 

James Walker had been with McMillan-Gentry for seven weeks of his four month contract when he first scented the vampire. He was in the Communications department at the time, on his stomach and under the desk of Pam the secretary, fiddling with the parallel cable of a workhorse printer inherited from Marketing.

“All set down there?” Pam the secretary asked.

“Yep, yep, yep, give me a second,” James said. Seating the cables properly always tested his patience, especially when the user hung over him, asking questions, offering advice, pressing buttons.

“I just tried to print, but nothing happened,” Pam the secretary said. “Are you sure you’re doing it right?”

James had just gotten the cable in, just screwed it down into place (it was those screws that were the real problem, popping out when you least expected them), when his radar zinged and he jerked his head up and rapped it hard under the desk. “Ow, shit!” he hissed, snatching a hand to the bump, rubbing it and trying to bite back all the delirious profanity lurking somewhere down his throat.

“Are you all right?” Pam the secretary asked. She rolled backward in her chair and peered under the desk. “What happened?”

“Nothing, I'm fine,” James said, scooting out after her, still rubbing his head. “Your printer should be all right now, give it a try.” James was speaking automatically, giving the standard line as he glanced about the department. Who had just come in? Who had just walked by? What had set off his sense?

“Are you sure you’re all right?” Pam the secretary asked. Her face was long and narrow, pale, and usually pretty hard, but there seemed to be actual concern peeking out through her eyes.

“I'm fine, I'm fine,” James said, giving one last vigorous rub to the lump. “Hazard of the work I do.” He pointed in the general direction of her computer. “You let me know if anything goes wrong, but your new printer should work like a dream.”

“And Gregory will be able to print to it? He said that’s what he wanted to do.”

“Oh,” James said, glancing toward the office of the department manager, most of his attention still hunting about for the source of that zing. “I don’t know about that. He uses a Mac, doesn’t he? We can share the printer, but I was only here to hook you up.” James thought a moment, and said, “Why don’t you give Jackie a call, let him know what you want, and he’ll get someone here to set up Mr. Genereaux. Okay?”

Pam the secretary smiled, and her teeth were startlingly white. “Thanks, Jimmy.”

“James,” he said. “Trust me, these aren’t good times.”

• • •

warmBodies, the contracting agency that hired out James, offered all the services of an IT temporary employment company: capable and competent employees, skilled in the latest technologies, they’ll come in early, they’ll stay late, blah blah blah. Their rates were competitive without being suspicious, and their front was rock solid. Nobody would or could guess the business they were actually in.

Vampire hunting.

It wasn’t exactly the sort of specialization that could be advertised, so they relied on word of mouth in the board rooms, in the executive jets, on the back nine, over $300 meals. One CEO would hand another CEO a card with two numbers on it, the first a toll-free telephone number and the second a very long series of digits. The first CEO would say, “I had the same sort of problem, a few months back. Call these people from your office phone, enter that code, do what they tell you.” Of course there would be no discussion of vampires. Vampires don’t exist.

Perhaps a few days would go by, and that second CEO would finally place the call, but maybe he'd do it from his home phone, or his mobile phone, or a payphone. He would hear three rings, a few switching of exchanges, then a disconnect. Maybe he'd try again. Maybe he'd try a few times.

Finally, he would obey the full instructions. One morning, he would tell his administrative assistant he isn’t to be disturbed, he would close and lock his office door, he would dial the phone number, wait for the three rings, listen to the switches, then a connection. He would wait a few moments, then laboriously punch in that series of digits.

There would be one more ring, a delay, and then an automated female voice would say, “Thank you for calling warmBodies VHL, a subsidiary of warmBodies, Incorporated, your complete solution to all your staffing needs. At the sound of the tone, please state your name, company name, and complete business address. Please press the pound key when you are finished.”

After an understandable pause, the CEO gives the requested information and presses the pound key. “Thank you. Now please answer a few questions. When you are finished with each question, please press the pound key.

“Question number one: From whom did you receive the phone number and access code?

“Question number two: What sort of problem or problems are you facing that you believe warmBodies VHL can solve?

“Question number three: Do you know the source of this problem? If so, who or what is the source?

“Question number four: Is there any other information we will need to proceed?”

After the last question, there is another delay, and then the voice says, “Thank you very much for your participation. We are processing your application now and will be in touch with you shortly. If your application is approved, you will receive a card in the mail with a second phone number and a second access number. From your work phone, you must dial this second phone number and enter this second access number to activate the job. Again, thank you for calling warmBodies VHL and we hope that you have a pleasant day.”

Voice recognition software parsed the answers to the above questions, stripping out the uhs, ums, and ahs, and converted them into an electronic file. The system then added the file to a job queue, awaiting approval and activation. warmBodies would conduct a background check of the caller, verifying the information provided, and then, if appropriate, it would activate the job. Once the job was activated, the system assigned it to a warmBodies associate, and the job was, in every sense, executed. Four months was usually more than enough time to execute a contract.

• • •

Back in the Hole, James was examining the big board for another job near Communications while Patrick listened to his MP3 player and Jackie pointedly ignored the ringing phone, paging up and paging down through an internet traffic report on his screen.

“Jesus,” Jackie said, “Don’t these dipshits know we run through a proxy server? You spend the day at sex sites, somebody’s gonna find out. Oh Christ, look at this, littlevixens.com. Anybody wanna guess who was scoping it?”

Jackie was a big guy, like a bear with thick ginger hair and a thick ginger beard, and he ruled McMillan-Gentry’s MIS with absolute authority. When he came into power three years ago, he did three things right away: one, he fired all the permanent staff and started a rotation of contract workers; two, he made it clear to the purse holders (“CFO, CIO, CEO, they ain’t nothin' but a dollar sign to me,” says Jackie) that money was no object; three, he made it clear to the staff at large that if you pissed him off, you might as well put in for a vacation because your computer wasn’t going to function any time soon.

The Hole was a four-room space, an entry guarded by a code panel, a narrow length with computers along one wall, Jackie’s stall-sized office, and a square with a couch, recliner, coffee maker, and microwave. The server room, called the Bridge, was down the hall, also locked by a code panel.

Jackie turned from his monitor, examined the board briefly, then said, “Patrick, get off your ass and get over to Accounting. Tracie’s got an e-mail problem.”

Patrick sat immobile for a few moments, always a dangerous response to one of Jackie’s commands, then popped out both ear buds with a jerk on the MP3 player. “Why me? I was just in Accounting yesterday.”

“Two reasons. One, they like you there, which is why they keep screwing up their computers, just to get some Patrick time. And two, if you don't, I'm gonna come over there and feed you that little toy. Now move.”

Patrick did, but slowly. He was also a big guy, but big like a linebacker, a whole lot of muscle, with a Frankenstein monster’s kind of head and wide-set eyes. “Where’s Spic today? I thought he was supposed to be in?”

Spic was another in their little group, just two weeks on a four month contract, short, skinny, bony, huge bug-eyed glasses, and not even remotely Hispanic. He was a bit of a clean freak, therefore, Spic-n-Span.

“Dentist,” Jackie said, then pointed. “Leave the player. What music you got on it?”

Patrick was winding the earbud cord around the body of the MP3 player. “Uh, Toxxsick Piece, a couple from Meat Wagon, Bloodgasm, things like that.”

“Jesus, are those bands? If I just happen to flush that down the toilet, you can’t really blame me.”

James had been watching the exchange, waiting for a moment to cut in, and seeing one was not likely to come, said, “Jackie, I see up here that Patch is still having trouble with his home access. Want me to take a look at that?”

“You in busy bee mode today? You’ve already pulled three jobs this morning.” Jackie looked over at Patrick and frowned. “You waiting for a hug? Get moving.”

And with a weight-of-the-world sigh, Patrick left. “Don’t touch my player,” he called just before the heavy door closed behind him.

“What a jerk off. I'm glad he’s almost done here. Now James, what were you saying?”

“Patch. In Sales. he’s having trouble with his VPN. I could — ”

“No, you can’t do nothing. he’s on the road today. On the road all week. Why don’t you grab some couch and take it easy for while?”

James looked back at the board. “Keeping busy makes the day go faster.” He didn’t add that Sales is right next to Communications, that he needed to get back in that neighborhood if he wanted to stay on the vampire’s track. The first sniff was a teaser, and very easy to lose if you didn’t stay on it.

“Well, shit, if you want to work yourself stupid, that’s all you. How about going down to the warehouse, swapping out all their keyboards? That’ll fill your day. They’ve been wanting that for about a month now.”

The warehouse was no good, of course. That was basement work, about as far from Communications as you could get and still stay in the building.

“Here’s one, a little more interesting than keyboards,” James said. “Mitch in International, he’s got that laptop thing going. You said the only fix is probably going to be reformat it. Let me do that.”

Jackie considered. “You sure? Guy’s a bit of a prick.”

“Aren’t they all?” James said. International was next to Sales, and that’s as close as he was going to get.

“All right then. Go nuts. And when you come back, bring me a soda. Orange.”

• • •

James had worked for warmBodies for nearly twenty-two months when the McMillan-Gentry contract came up. He had just gotten off a tough job in Melbourne — the vampire had scenting him scenting it, caught him by surprise in the parking garage — and James had planned on putting in for a few weeks vacation, but like his buddy Cowls said, “No rest for the righteous.” That was Cowls’s take on their work, a righteous calling, a holy crusade, eliminate the evil, destroy the abominations.

James didn’t know about all that, he was in it because the money was good and the work was consistently interesting.

Just a couple weeks out of a tech school, hardware, software, and network certified, James found that the bottom had fallen out of technology and there wasn’t any work to be found, anywhere. He freelanced for a while, consulting at a travel agency and a medical office, but kept his resumes flying the whole time, mostly because he was making a few dollars more than minimum wage and what he was doing — installing and configuring software, running some QA on stuff that was barely beta, designing databases — made his brain want to crawl out of his ears.

A friend put him on to the warmBodies listing, and he almost passed it up because it looked like a thousand others he had tried, “technology contracting company seeks skilled professionals for engaging opportunity in today’s IT market,” and because there was no hourly rate listed. When they didn’t list a rate, it was because they were too embarrassed to talk about it.

He finally did send a résumé, and got a call back that night at 11:30, from some eager guy named Misha who wanted to see James the next morning, “say around seven in the morning, right around there, is that okay for you, that’s not too early is it?”

“No, I guess not,” James had said, wondering when the last time he had gotten up for a seven o'clock appointment was. Not since high school probably. Were these guys serious?

They were.

Wearing his interview suit and holding his matching briefcase, both located and purchased by his older brother the lawyer, James arrived at the warmBodies office at 6:57 the next morning. The building wasn’t much to look at, a cinderblock painted sterile white, the bulk of it appearing to have no windows at all, though the entry, facing the cracked and crumbling parking lot, was all done in high vaulted glass. Sliding doors hushed open as he approached and hushed shut behind, and the foyer was high-ceilinged, with many potted plants, broad white couches and easy chairs, and free form coffee tables that didn’t bear a single magazine.

James walked to the reception desk, a long white swooping thing, a phone with a thousand buttons on the left and an ultra-modern, flat screen, multi-gigahertz, does everything but make the coffee computer on the right. Behind it sat a grandmotherly woman, prodding at her keyboard and frowning grievously. Permanent lines of befuddlement were carved into her forehead.

“Uh, hello?” James said.

The woman held up one knotty finger, prodded her computer a few more times, then sighed and turned to him. “Yes, dear, what is it?”

“My name is James Walker, I have an appointment with— uh, a guy named Misha. He called me last night.”

The woman now frowned at James, turned to her phone and began pressing buttons on it. After a moment, a voice said, “Human Resources.”

“Yes, hello,” said the woman, leaning down very close to her phone. “This is Lydia.”

“Hello, Lydia,” said the phone voice. “What can I do for you?”

Lydia spared a glance in James’s direction, not wanting to move too far from the phone. “There is a gentleman here who says he has an appointment with Mr. Taroskov.”

“Is that James Walker?” the phone voice asked.

Lydia gave James another glance, and shrugged. “Are you?” the shrug said.

James nodded. “Yes I am,” he said in the direction of the phone.

“Excellent,” the phone voice said. “I’ll be right out. Thank you, Lydia.”

“Thank you,” Lydia said, then pressed a few more buttons on the phone, getting a dial tone, a busy signal, and then finally silence.

“Annzie will be right out,” Lydia said. “Would you please have a seat?”

James discovered that the white couch, while moderately attractive to look at, was like sitting on a dead walrus, hard and unyielding. He shifted around a bit until he discovered that there was no comfortable position. He rocked for a while, thumbed through his briefcase for lack of anything better to do, read and re-read his resume, looked around the foyer at not very much at all.

Finally, there was a buzz from the door behind the reception desk, and a tall woman, blonde, stunning, and skeletal, pushed through it and then pushed it shut behind her. James heard the door wheeze pneumatically on its open and close.

The woman strode over, her movements as assured and precise as a supermodel's, extended a perfect hand to his and shook briskly. “James? Hello, my name is Annette Bouchard, I'm the director of Human Resources at warmBodies.”

“Hello,” James said.

“Did you have any trouble finding us?” she asked, looking him up and down, from his shined black shoes to the part in his hair.

“Uh, no. I’ve actually passed this building a bunch of times before. I saw the sign and always thought it was some kind of tanning salon.”

Annette made a tinkling little laugh that lifted goose bumps on James’s skin. “Very good,” she said. “Now, if you’ll just follow me.” She gestured to a door on James’s right.

Through the door, James was led down a bland corridor with bland offices on either side, and it felt like there was a lot of activity all around them, though not a whole lot of noise. James could have been creeping around inside a termite nest, busy but nearly silent, just the crackle-crackle-click of pale and frantic insects doing their endless work.

“Here we are,” Annette said, leading James into a tiny cell of a room. “Please, sit down.”

Inside the cell was an elderly card table, its surface peeling in spots, its legs covered with errant magic marker swipes and splotches of rust, its stability questionable, and pulled up to the table was a torture house wooden chair, square, hard, solid but no doubt creaky at the slightest movement. Resting on top of the table was a couple sheets of paper with a pen and a silver-shiny PDA.

James sat, and the chair creaked angrily.

“Fill out the job application, it’s pretty standard, and when you’re finished with that, there’s a test on the PDA that we want you to take. Nothing too awful, just do your best. I’ll be back in about a half hour.”

With that, she pulled the door shut, and James was alone.

The room was cold, and overhead was some massive mechanical unit chugging and whirring and buzzing, pouring out chilly air directly onto James’s head. He pulled the papers toward himself, and discovered that the application was exactly the same as a dozen others he'd seen during his search.

He had to dig out a résumé for some of the data, the address of the job he worked in Boston, his GPA when he graduated from the tech school, but it was all easy enough, and he had it finished in about ten minutes. James futzed with the application a while longer though, checking over his answers, looking for the uncrossed T’s or the undotted I's, delaying the inevitable, knowing eventually he'd have to slide the PDA over and find out what it was all about.

How much time had passed? Now he wasn’t sure. Okay, enough screwing around, let’s get this over with.

He picked up the PDA and flipped it open, powered it on and extracted the stylus from the back. It was a nice one, gorgeous lines on it and the screen resolution was razor sharp and full-color, as good as any of the full-sized monitors he'd used. A script on the side identified it as an IntraVertigo, though James wasn’t sure if this was a make or a model. He'd never heard of it.

The screen flashed an animated welcome, then faded, then displayed at the top what looked like a single playing card, face down, and at the bottom a series of symbols, circle, semi-circle, triangle, square, star.

James was at a loss.

He clicked the stylus on the playing card and nothing happened. He clicked on the circle symbol, the card flipped over revealing a triangle, and a message appeared beside the card that said, “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!”

The screen cleared, displayed another playing card, and now the symbols were circle, triangle, wavy lines, rectangle, oval.

James looked around the room. “What is this?” he asked, but nobody answered. He looked up at the mechanical unit above him, but all it did was clunk and shudder and gush out more cold air.

He clicked on the triangle, the card flipped over and showed a rectangle, “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!’, and the screen reset again.

“Dammit,” James said. Despite not knowing what was going on, he was pretty sure it wasn’t going well.

Another card, click, “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!”

Another card, click, “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!”

“Come on!” James said, thumping his fist on the table, which rocked dangerously. “What am I supposed to do?”

Now two cards appeared, and in the upper right hand corner of the screen, there was a number counting down from thirty.

“Oh, excellent, now I'm being timed?” James groaned.

23— 22— 21—

He clicked the wavy lines and nothing happened.

19— 18— 17—

“What?” He clicked the wavy lines again and nothing happened. He clicked the circle and nothing happened.

13— 12— 11—

“Come on!” He clicked all the symbols at the bottom, one after another, randomly, and nothing continued to happen.

7— 6— 5—

“Wait, wait, wait,” James said, leaning forward, getting an idea. He clicked the card on the left and it shaded as though selected.

“Yes!” he said triumphantly.

He clicked the wavy lines, then clicked the second card and clicked the circle.

“Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!”

“Dammit!” James threw his arms up in frustration.

He looked back at the screen and saw four cards, and now the counter was starting on ten.

10— 9— 8—

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” James said. “Hell with it.”

He started clicking, selecting cards, then selecting symbols, he didn’t care what he was hitting now. He prodded the stylus into the screen, select, click, select, click, select, click. A humorless smile showed his teeth, and he figured that if he was going to mess this up, he'd do it in a huge way.

Select, click, select, click, select, click.

It wasn’t until there were ten cards laid out across the top of the screen, and symbols that constantly shifted on the bottom, and a timer that started at three, that James realized he hadn’t seen the message “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” in quite a while.

He was getting them all right.

• • •

Six weeks after his first scent of the McMillan-Gentry vampire, and James still wasn’t any closer. He'd gotten the scent twice more, just sudden little flares, once while he was in Engineering, then again as he was paying for his lunch in the cafeteria. He had sniffed about both times, trying to determine who might have been in all three places, but the suddenness of the scents, those abrupt zings, they suggested a peripheral trail, that the vampire wasn’t actually there, but had instead made contact with somebody who was. Second- or third-hand scents, it was enough to drive him crazy.

He tracked all over this building, he kept on the move constantly, and he still hadn’t gotten a direct scent in three months. There was all the evidence that a vampire was in play here, and that its preferred territory was upstairs in the offices. Downstairs in the warehouse, in shipping, on the assembly floor, there were indications of vampire activity — somebody forgot how to start up her computer, somebody forgot how to get into the inventory app, somebody forgot how to run a forklift — but these were minor, and could even be dangerous and distracting coincidences.

It was upstairs where the activity was rampant, where the board would fill with entries like, “Can’t get e-mail” or “Can’t use phone’s HOLD” or “Mouse isn’t working” or “Can’t close word processor.” These were the simple problems (Jackie kept them on the board under the heading SFB), and the perpetrators, the victims, were regular visitors to the board. This meant they must be getting repeated exposure to the vampire.

So where the hell was it?

James was back in Communications now, restarting Karen’s computer. He got up so she could sit down, and said, “You should be all set now, that error shouldn’t come up anymore.”

“Any idea what it was?” Karen asked. She was a striking woman with dark hair and an easy smile, one of James’s favorites at McMillan-Gentry. Her office was right alongside Gregory Genereaux's, though James never really got a clear idea what it was she did.

“I could tell you that the soft modem previously installed on your computer was incorrectly uninstalled, leaving behind calls to .VXD files that aren’t there anymore, but it’s just easier to say that your gremlin needed feeding.”

“I figured it was the gremlin,” Karen said, grinning. She looked through her office window and raised her hand in a wave. “Oh, it’s Tucker. I didn’t know he was coming today.”

An older man, heavy-set, with white hair that was thinning but still curly, and a roguish white goatee that looked vaguely like Colonel Sanders, was chatting and laughing with Pam the secretary, telling an elaborate story that required a lot of hand gestures.

“Do you know Tucker? Have you met him?” Karen was asking, but James didn’t hear. “He used to work here, a year or so back, and he still stops in. Made a ton of money in the stock market, back when it exploded. I think he’s taking Gregory and Norman out to lunch.”

James was staring at the white-haired man, and asked in a voice from a thousand miles away, “Tucker?”

“Yes, that’s right, Tucker Wayne. Do you know him?”

Tucker chucked Pam on the shoulder with affection, then swung gleaming eyes toward Karen and James, and called, “Karen, my little blossom, will you be joining us for lunch?”

don’t let rain get you down anyway don’t —

Tucker swept into Karen’s office, offering a shallow bow and a brilliant smile. “How are you, my love? Ready to leave all this behind and run away with me?”

— down anyway don’t let a flat wreck your happy —

Karen rose and took his hand. “Tucker, you know you’re too much man for me.”

— your happy little day don’t let a frown chase —

Tucker gently kissed her hand. “But the fun we'd have while it lasted.” He turned his attention to James. “And who’s this?”

— chase all your joy away don’t miss the silver in that —

James shook Tucker’s hand, and was surprised how rough they felt, how well used and strong. “Hey,” James said softly.

— silver in that rainy thunderhead have a grin —

“This is James,” Karen said. “James, this is Tucker Wayne.”

“How are you?” James asked. His lips felt numb.

— have a grin sing a song and eat some lunney bread —

Tucker inclined his head, and his grin faded. “I'm quite well, thank you.”

— lunney bread lunney bread delicious lunney bread —

Abruptly, Tucker stepped away from James and said, “Can’t stand about gabbing all day, can I? We have hungry fellows to feed, I can hear their bellies growling from here. Sure you can’t join us, sweetheart?”

“I suppose I can't,” Karen said.

— can’t get enough of that delicious lunney bread —

“Such a pity, my heart weeps,” Tucker said. “Wonderful meeting you, James. I must keep an eye open for you the next time.”

“Yes,” James said.

— lunney bread lunney bread it’s time for lunney bread —

Gregory Genereaux, swimmer-build and frosted temples, exited his office and clapped Tucker on the back then. “What’s a man got to do to get your attention?”

“I thought you were on the phone, sir,” Tucker said deferentially. “Are we ready?”

— gotta get me some of that delicious lunney bread —

“Just about,” Gregory said. “We can catch Norman on our way out. Karen, keep an ear on my phone. I'm waiting for François to call.”

“Of course,” Karen said.

James watched the two men leave, talking amicably, Tucker sending hellos in every direction as they made their way down through the different departments. He also saw it when, just before disappearing around a corner, Tucker looked back in his direction, into his eyes.

And for that moment, Tucker’s smile was gone.

• • •

walkerDuDeBFG: Problem.

madrussian1076: tell me

walkerDuDeBFG: I think she knows. Can’t ask her out now.

madrussian1076: for real

walkerDuDeBFG: Defintely.

madrussian1076: what do u wanna do

walkerDuDeBFG: I dont wan to go thru this again. Melborne was bad!

madrussian1076: i know i know

walkerDuDeBFG: So?

madrussian1076: wait 1

[pause]

madrussian1076: can u ask her now

walkerDuDeBFG: I just told you I can't.

madrussian1076: no i mean right now, just ask her

walkerDuDeBFG: she’s at lunch, maybe coming back in an hour.

madrussian1076: k

walkerDuDeBFG: I don’t know if she is. Maybe she won't.

madrussian1076: try it

walkerDuDeBFG: People are gonna see me ask. Might be embarrassing.

madrussian1076: ur coverd just ask her

[pause]

walkerDuDeBFG: Gotcha.

madrussian1076: later

• • •

James pushed a large gray cart covered with the guts of three disassembled computers through the hallways of McMillan-Gentry. His backpack hung from one shoulder, and his radar was lit up and buzzing. His path, perfectly aimless but apparently purposeful, took him all over the building, upstairs and downstairs, through all the departments, past every office. Everyone who saw him would assume he was on some job, and if they saw him a second time, or a third time, they might assume he was loafing, making money without doing work.

Just so long as they didn’t suspect that he was hunting.

There was no reason to believe that the vampire would come back into the building after lunch, especially if it had caught wind of James. It might run, and that would be bad, or it might start tracking James, and that would be much worse. The one in Melbourne very nearly had gotten him, lashed out from behind a car and ripped away about two years before James could put it down, two years that he'd never get back. He'd heard the stories at warmBodies of the hunters caught looking, who'd been stripped clean and left as drooling idiots, but it’s hard to count blessings when you realize that your eleventh and nineteenth years are gone, absent, erased. Like they'd never existed.

Zing!

The vampire had just entered the building.

James shoved the cart away from himself, and it rolled in a slow arc and thumped to a stop against a half-partition. Turning on a heel, dipping his shoulder so his backpack slid down into his hand, he hurried in the direction of the Communications department. As he moved, he unzipped the backpack and rooted inside it, getting his hand on the item inside, and he began singing, out loud this time, “Don’t let rain get you down anyway, don’t let a flat wreck your happy little day—”

Pam the secretary was standing up behind her desk, paging through a handful of faxes, and she smiled as James entered the department. “Hello there, are you ba — OH MY GOD!”

“Don’t miss the silver in that rainy thunderhead,” James sang at her.

Gregory was leaning in his office doorway, talking with Tucker and Karen, his arms folded on his chest, his body as straight and thin as a backslash. He was a good looking man, in excellent shape, and James suspected he was a runner, probably one of those lunatics in spandex who went a dozen miles voluntarily, and not for a conceivable reason, like being chased by a rabid dog.

At Pam’s cry, Gregory’s head jerked, and he saw James, and what James was holding. “Jesus Christ!” he shouted. “Gun! Gun! Get down!”

The gun was a small one, a snub-nosed .38 loaded with bullets whose heads had been grooved deep with a razor blade. When they struck, the bullets would tumble apart, tearing monstrous holes. Cowls called the bullets “vamp-stoppers,” one shot, one kill.

“Eat some Lunney bread. Lunney bread, Lunney bread, delicious Lunney bread,” James sang as he fired.

Tucker the vampire was fast and cunning. Instead of diving to the floor, instead of trying to run, it locked its hands around Karen’s wrists and spun her around into the line of fire. The first two shots ripped open her head and back, splashing gouts of blood over the vampire, over Gregory, across the wall behind.

Then Tucker attacked, clawing outward at James, sniffing for his mind, for the soft meat there and the luscious thought inside. All the vampire got was “Gotta get me some of that delicious Lunney bread,” and it roared in frustration.

James, the commercial jingle gone now, started in on a Peebee Loner song, “You don’t know what you want but you sure ain’t gonna get it in me, I am the one you always want you sure ain’t gonna set me free,” and he fired again and again and again, and these found their target, the vampire’s thigh and gut and throat.

Tucker squealed, a terrible sound, clawed out one more time and stole away the Peebee song, and then the vampire slid down the wall behind it, leaving a smear of gore.

Gregory launched himself, hitting James squarely on the chest and knocking him backwards. The two fell in a heap, and Gregory punched James twice in the face, crushing his nose and loosening a tooth, and then swiped the pistol from James’s hand.

“What did you do?” Gregory screamed in James’s bloody face. “What the fuck did you do?!”

James was humming now, a tuneless noise, since he couldn’t remember any songs.

• • •

James sat in the back of a police cruiser, his hands in handcuffs, his nose aching and clotted. He breathed through his mouth, which made his tooth hurt.

A short distance away, a group of police officers, some of them uniformed, some not, took statements from Gregory, Pam, Jackie, some others that James didn’t recognize. An ambulance had just left, its lights turning but its siren silent, and its cargo sealed in plastic. James saw the McMillan-Gentry employees sneaking looks in his direction, but whenever someone realized he was looking back, they'd glance away quickly, guiltily.

Two of the uniformed policed officers broke from the rest of the group and walked over, climbed into the cruiser.

“Messy,” the driver said, looking up into the rear view mirror. He met James’s eyes.

“I told you it would be, Misha,” James said.

“Yes, you did,” Misha said. “You’re going to have to disappear for a while. You know that, right?”

James looked out the window. “I figured. I’ve been wanting to take a vacation anyway.”

David J. Wright has always been fascinated with, and continually confounded by, the craft of storytelling. It’s not necessarily those Important Works that light him up, but the really good stories, the ones that draw the reader in, hold the reader captive, won’t let go until the story is done. These are stories that work best out loud, maybe around a campfire, and the audience is right there with the teller, laughing and cringing in all the right places, snatching looks over shoulders to make sure nothing is looming up out of the darkness. Oh yeah, that’s the stuff.


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ISSUE #12

Winter 2003

FICTION

ART