Chapters:

Chapter 1

Buffalo, NY. On a Tuesday.

I opened my apartment door at the knock and, without preamble, a cross was shoved into my face. I’d been expecting an emergency delivery of blood from a butcher I kept on call. Instead, I had a short woman wiggling a wooden religious symbol an inch from my nose. Panicking, and not due to the cross, I tried to shut the door. One of the two figures -- this one a tall man holding a shotgun -- jammed his leg into the gap, grunting as I pressed on the door.

The man switched the shotgun to his left hand and pressed his right shoulder against the door, giving it a testing shove. “There are a lot of ways we can do this, Dracula,” he said calmly, “One way or another we’re coming in.” The door didn’t move a centimeter.

The woman spoke up next, equally calm, “We just want to talk.”

I held position for a few moments and considered my options. I wasn’t aware that anyone knew I was a vampire. No one still alive, at least. If these two wanted me dead, they clearly could have done it by now…given the fact that they had just walked up to my door and gotten the drop on me. On the other hand, since one had a cross, they must be at least partially ignorant of what could hurt me. I considered waiting them out.

But that tall guy had called me ‘Dracula.’

Asshole.

I released my weight from the door and Shotgun Man slowly toed it open. I took several steps back into my apartment as they took several steps in. Shotgun Man wasn’t showing a limp, so maybe he was a bit tougher than I thought. Or I was weaker. The Cross-Bearer closed and dead-bolted the door behind her.

The Cross-Bearer stepped in front of Shotgun Man and gracefully took the lead. She smiled wanly as she pocketed the ineffective icon. “Thanks. Sorry for the drama, Mr. Duncan. We need to speak with you.”

I stood my ground and studied her for a moment before relenting with a small shrug.  Cross-Bearer was considerably younger than Shotgun Man and appeared to be willfully projecting an air of calm rather than her earlier menace. She was attractive, but not jarringly so; her sandy blonde hair a stylish bob that verged on demanding to speak to a manager. She had large, greenish eyes and a narrow, pinched nose. She was a non-threatening five-foot-three, but clearly knew how to assert herself.

I crossed the room to my opened bedroom and retrieved the computer chair from behind my desk. I could hear my guild-mates growing restless through the headphones I’d ripped from my ears at the sound of the knock; I had twenty-four of my fellow World of Legends players griping that their main healer had left in the middle of the raid. I rolled my chair toward the kitchen area of my apartment, and then sat. I did not invite my visitors to do the same.

“I’m Agent O’Bannon.” Cross-Bearer said, then tipped her head slightly to the right to indicate her partner, who was holding the shotgun in a two-handed grip diagonally across his chest, “This is Agent Jones. We’re from the agency for the Preservation of Occult Figures.”

Jones smiled thinly, then grabbed one of my kitchen bar stools without taking his eyes from me and deftly slid it over to O’Bannon, who sat without saying thanks to either of us. Jones was tall, gaunt, and severe. His bearing was one of haughty suspicion. His closely cropped, greying hair screamed ‘cop’ and suggested that he was in his fifties. It might’ve been the shotgun influencing my assessment, but I felt waves of menace coming off of him. I decided to continue disliking him.

“May I see some identification, please?” I asked O’Bannon with polite firmness.

“Oh, sure. Sure,” O’Bannon fished in her left inside coat pocket for a moment, no doubt having to evade the cross in there, and withdrew a billfold with her badge and laminated ID card inside. She flipped it open and moved it slightly toward me, apparently unaware that I could see it from a dozen feet further away. It indicated they were from the agency for the ‘Preservation of Occult Figures,’ as she’d said.

“And his?” I asked, indicating Jones with a curt flick of my chin.

“You don’t need to see anything of mine, Lestat,” his smug smile was still in place, hands back firmly on the shotgun. He stood imperious over O’Bannon’s right shoulder. “Coffee’s for closers.”

My brow furrowed, mostly due to him referring to me as yet another fictional vampire, but partially because the complaints coming from my distant headphones were escalating. The DPS was getting very restless and two out of our three Tanks were trying to quiet them. I doubted that either of these agents could hear this, but still wished I’d closed my bedroom door. I figured Jones was trying to keep me off balance to gain some semblance of control. I could play that game too. “So, you guys are from POOF?”

Jones snarled, barely keeping his composure, “PROOF. Don’t be difficult.”

“I guess. I mean, without that ‘figures’ on the end, you would’ve been ‘POO.’ I imagine your bosses were desperate to get wordy.”

“What are you, twelve?” Jones spat, taking a step forward.

O’Bannon was quick to stop any further argument between the two of us. “We’re here to introduce ourselves and to ask a few questions. We’re not going to argue about semantics or get into a fight.” She looked up at Jones.

Jones stepped back, but not without a moment of tell-tale hesitation.

Fiction may be rife with tales of vampires with legendary strength, riches and charm, but I had none of these. And if there were any other vampires out there, I didn’t think they possessed them either. I had above-average strength, my senses were enhanced, and I was impervious to extreme heat and cold but by no means immortal or indestructible. The smirk that crept across Agent Jones’ face told me that he, at least, was well aware of this. In summary, I didn’t feel like I could fight my way out of this confrontation. Jones’ shotgun couldn’t kill me, but it could certainly incapacitate me long enough for the agents to leave me in a bright patch of sunlight. And that, as they say, would be that. Agonizingly so, from what I understood. My eyes remained on Jones.

O’Bannon was still keen to defuse the tension. “PrOOF, as an agency, does not want to harm individuals like yourself, Stephen. May I call you Stephen?”

I didn’t answer.

“We have, however, placed ourselves at the intersection of the natural and supernatural. We do what we can to prevent the two from overlapping. There’s very rarely any advantage to the general public knowing about such phenomena,” O’Bannon continued, “think of us more as gatekeepers. We gather information and use that info for the betterment of those we…engage.”

I shifted my gaze from Jones to O’Bannon. “So, you guys are like the CIA for the supernatural? Do you destabilize haunted houses and install your own life-challenged regimes?”

O’Bannon chuckled, “That’s funny, Stephen. No, think of us more as…almost a clearinghouse for supernatural folks. We keep tabs on those with extreme abilities – yourself included – who, it could be argued, might pose a threat to society. But there’s a lot more to PrOOF than that. We employ and otherwise financially support all manner of ‘different’ beings. Folks who, due to the nature of their…different-ness…might not be able to work, or support themselves in a legitimate manner.”

This peaked my interest. My current financial situation could be best described as ‘hand to mouth,’ although I did have a tiny bit of cash squirrelled away for emergencies. My apartment was incredibly cheap; I did odd jobs for the Super; a stooped old woman now, but a middle-aged immigrant when I met her. In return, I lived in a small, cramped and windowless basement apartment that she wouldn’t be able to rent out otherwise. Free electric, leeched wireless internet – although I did have to buy a wi-fi booster on my own dime – and privacy were all I required. I worked at an area warehouse moving heavy crates from a loading dock into storage for cash under the table once a month. I didn’t pay taxes and didn’t have a credit card. I was safely ‘off the grid,’ as they say nowadays. The biggest expenditure I made in any given year was purchasing a bundle of pre-paid cards for the MMORPG that I played, World of Legends.

Every once in a while, such as today, I contacted a local butcher and asked him to send over any spare pig’s blood he might have. It saved me a trip out to the Niagara County slaughterhouse from which I usually procured my blood. I tried to make that trip as infrequently as possible – it was four hours on buses or fifty dollars in cab fare, to say nothing of dealing with Morty, who the supervisor there. He made used car salesmen look positively docile by comparison. My gaming in WoL encompassed a vast majority of my time. I frowned in O’Bannon’s direction because the complaints coming from my distant headphones were escalating; the DPS was getting very restless and two out of our three Tanks were trying to quiet them. I doubted that either of the agents could hear this, but still wished I’d closed my bedroom door.

Jones apparently decided that he hadn’t poked at me in nearly a minute, “We’re not welfare for monsters, if that’s what you’re thinking, Spike. Again, we just need to ask you a few questions.”

I couldn’t hide my annoyance any longer. “So you force your way into my apartment brandishing crosses – which I couldn’t give less of a shit about, by the way – and fucking shotguns?”

Jones bristled, drumming his fingers once along the pump of the weapon, “Best you leave the heavy lifting to us and just listen, Barnabas,”

I stood up so quickly that my chair tipped over. This caused Jones to take a measured, but not panicked, step back. “Yeah! Barnabas! I get that one. Angel and Edward fucking Cullen too! You done yet, asshat?”

Jones smiled. “I’ll let you know when, Count Chocula,”

O’Bannon rose to her feet in alarm, then, but I had already decided to take the high road. I righted my chair – turning my back on the agents in what I hoped would be taken as a display of temerity – and sat back down. I remained silent and nodded my head at O’Bannon, indicating she should continue her spiel. She sat. In the bedroom, my headphones relayed to my vampire hearing that my guild was threatening to call off the raid because they didn’t ‘have enough fuckin’ heals.’

O’Bannon glanced at Jones in a way that confirmed she was in charge for the moment. He nodded once, almost imperceptibly, and O’Bannon continued. “This hasn’t really been in the news much, but there’s something in Western New York attacking livestock and, occasionally, humans.”

“I don’t watch the news,” I started.

“Yeah, we see that you don’t own a T.V.,” Jones scoffed.

“We’ve done our best to work with local law enforcement to keep these incidents out of the media as much as possible,” O’Bannon continued smoothly, “but they’re starting to lose their patience with the process.”

There was an awkward silence in the room for at least half a minute.

“Okay, I’ll bite,” I said, smirking at my own pun, “what does any of this have to do with me?”

“Fair question,” O’Bannon answered, “there’s a large amount of blood loss occurring in these attacks. We’d be remiss if we didn’t check in on anything that lives on blood. Also, your existence has just very recently been brought to our attention, so we would’ve stopped by under any circumstances. As it stands, we’re able to kill two birds with one stone here.”

I started mentally reviewing the past few weeks, attempting to figure out where I’d slipped up. Morty, at the slaughterhouse, leaped to mind as the only person I’d had anything resembling a conversation with. But even he didn’t know I was a vampire. Then again, the fact that I bought gallons of pig and cow’s blood from him on a regular basis might’ve tipped him off. “Fuck,” I muttered.

“Easy…” Jones put in, taking umbrage at my curse.

 “Again, PrOOF keeps tabs on beings such as yourself. If not for the public’s safety than for your own. If, for example, your supply of blood ran out, we’d rather you came to us instead of resuming hunting and attacking humans.” O’Bannon explained.

Now it was my turn for umbrage. “Whoa, whoa…I haven’t so much as touched a human since probably before you were born, kid,” I directed my jibe at O’Bannon specifically. Jones smirked.

O’Bannon took it in stride, “Think of this – and any future visits – as almost a ‘well-check,’”

“Yeah…so, shotguns and crosses…” I muttered.

“You think the police disarm themselves to check on sexual predators?” Jones spat.

“That’s not really helping me warm up to you, shotgun boy,” I sneered.

“Stephen, can you account for your whereabouts the past few weeks?” O’Bannon wore a look of serious concern, but her tone was soothing.

I looked back and forth between the two of them, incredulous. “Are…are you serious?”

“Deadly,” Jones snarled.

“Yes, Stephen, we would like to rule you out as a suspect in these incidents we’re investigating,” O’Bannon added.

“Well, on any given night, or day, really, for that matter, you can find me right here,” I spread my arms, indicating the confines of the dark apartment, “usually playing World of Legends,”

“So last Thursday evening?” O’Bannon asked.

“Playing World of Legends,” I answered.

“Last Saturday evening?”

World of Legends,” I repeated drily.

O’Bannon pressed, “So, you’re saying that you don’t leave the apartment…ever?”

“No, no. Every Wednesday, around ten a.m., I catch a series of buses to Lackawanna.”

“What’s in Lackawanna?” Jones’ eyes were narrowed.

“The basilica. Big, green church. Sits on the corner,”

“I know what the basilica is, genius,” Jones spat.

“Okay,” O’Bannon interrupted, trying to de-escalate, “so you head weekly to the Our Lady of Victory basilica on public transportation. Would you be willing to share with us why?”

My eyes drilled into O’Bannon’s, “No.”

To his credit, Jones stayed silent.

“Okay,” O’Bannon repeated, “how about your forays up to Ransomville, to the slaughterhouse?”

Fucking Morty. It had to be him who tipped these agents off. “Those aren’t on a set date, usually. I go as needed, as finances allow. I would say about once a month.”

Jones spoke up finally, “When was your last visit?”

I had to stop to think for a few seconds, it’d been so long. “Hmm…before Halloween, I remember because those morons had decorations up. I’ll say mid-October.”

“Okay,” Jones said, apparently satisfied that my answer gelled with what he already knew, “close to a month ago.”

“Give or take, yeah.”

O’Bannon picked up the thread again, “but any other time, you’re here?”

“I mean, yeah, again, for the most part. Every once in a great while I help out Mrs. Kushnirenko – my landlady – with things around here. Maybe once a month I work near the waterfront, in a warehouse. Cash under the table.”

“Okay, and do you have any proof of these activities?” O’Bannon asked.

“No, Agent O’Bannon, not really. I’m pretty sure I’ll never see a tax form from the warehouse. Mrs. Kush won’t talk to strangers, but you’re certainly welcome to try with her. Old school Ukrainian. I could see if there are any locally stored logs on my computer about how often I’m on World of Legends,”

“No sleep, huh?” Jones verged on sarcasm.

“No, man, not really. I get screaming migraines during the day, due to, you know, the sun being up. I’m used to them, but they don’t really make my days relaxing,” my tone, however, was decidedly sarcastic.

“Right,” Jones nodded distractedly, “that’s gotta make those trips to Lackawanna a bitch, eh?”

“Hoodies and sunglasses, dude. Always.”

O’Bannon spread her hands open palmed in a slightly exasperated gesture, “Look, Stephen, something pretty nasty is out there slaughtering stuff at will. The local police took one look at the first scene and got us involved – that’s the kind of damage we’re looking at. It’s pretty brutal. We have some theories about what we’re dealing with. You’re not the only species of being we’re going to have these types of conversations with. There’s no need to be defensive. We know you’re powerful. We didn’t know what your reaction would be to meeting us for the first time; we had to err on the side of caution. Yes, the cross was theatrics – letting you know that we knew what you were without having to say it. Believe it or not, we’ve done this sort of thing before and we were simply following PrOOF procedure.”

It seemed the interrogation was finished. I relaxed a bit and gave O’Bannon my full attention. “Can you tell me what sort of stuff you’re investigating – these slaughters?”

“Whatever is doing this, it first made its presence known down in the Southern Tier, and we’ve tracked the incidents as far north as Akron,” O’Bannon offered, referring to the area on the southern border of New York and Pennsylvania and a small, rural town in the Northeastern corner of Erie County, respectively.

Jones’ tone had relaxed as well, “We have some theories, but we’ll keep those to ourselves for the time being. No offense. Whatever it is, it’s not human. At least not during the attacks. All evidence points toward something…large. In terms of what it’s done…let’s just say that beef and dairy prices are going to rise this Spring. So far the human toll is relatively low; two homes along its path contained a few human casualties.”

“Imagine if a Kodiak bear with a dolphin’s intelligence had an insatiable appetite and opposable thumbs,” O’Bannon added.

“That sounds,” I thought for a moment, conjuring a hairy dolphin with talons at the end of elongated, furry limbs, grinning and giving a Fonzie-esque thumbs up. “Ayyyyyyy.”

“I’m sorry…?” O’Bannon’s brow creased and her lips pursed.

Jones frowned as if he were reading my thoughts.

“Sorry, never mind. I guess all I can say is good luck, and emphasize that this has absolutely nothing to do with me,” I rose from my chair and extended my hand to O’Bannon, which caused her to rise as well.

“Thank you, Stephen. We appreciate your time and your candor. Sorry for the earlier drama. We’ll be in touch at some point in the near future.” O’Bannon shook my hand firmly, “Also?”

I released her hand and took a very small backwards step. She reached into her jacket pocket; the same one she’d deposited the cross into, “Do us a favor and don’t leave town, okay?” she said smoothly, then offered me a business card.

If I breathed, I would’ve been holding my breath during that pause.

Jones was already standing by the door. He unlocked the dead-bolt and held the door open for O’Bannon. Both agents went out without another word to me.

My headphones were silent now. I went to my door and shut it, being careful to throw the dead-bolt and lock the handle as well. I sat in the dark silence of my apartment, alone again at last.

Next Chapter: Chapter 2