Paradigms Lost

Jason Wood was used to working with the police, as an expert in data retrieval, image analysis, and system security. It was a comfortable, usually safe, and thoroughly rational and scientific existence.

But then an informant showed up dead on his doorstep, a photograph didn’t show someone who’d been in the viewfinder when the picture was taken, and Jason’s logical, sensible world was suddenly turned upside-down.

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Jason Wood was used to working with the police, as an expert in data retrieval, image analysis, and system security. It was a comfortable, usually safe, and thoroughly rational and scientific existence.

But then an informant showed up dead on his doorstep, a photograph didn’t show someone who’d been in the viewfinder when the picture was taken, and Jason’s logical, sensible world was suddenly turned upside-down.

Against things that violate the very reality he thought he understood, Jason has only three weapons: his best friend and would-be mage Sylvie, his talent for seeing patterns… and his ability to think beyond the pattern and see a solution that no one else imagined.

Against the darkness of the unknown, the greatest weapon is the light of reason.

Chapter 1: Dead Man Knocking

I clicked on the JAPES icon. A second picture appeared on the Lumiere RAN-7X workstation screen next to the digitized original, said original being a pretty blurry picture of two men exchanging something. At first the two pictures looked identical, as always, but then rippling changes started: colors brightening and darkening, objects becoming so sharp as to look almost animated, a dozen things at once. I controlled the process with a mouse, pointing and clicking to denote key items that would help JAPES  to interpret the meaning in the image and bring out details.

Fortunately, I had a lot of pictures of the same area – and same individuals – from the same batch of photos Lieutenant Klein had given me, which provided me with a lot of material for enhancing and interpreting what was in this photo. JAPES, which stood for Jason’s Automatic Photo Enhancing System, was the whimsical name I’d given to my own specialized image analysis and processing suite which combined multiple standard (and not so standard)photographic enhancement techniques into a single complex operation controlled partly by me and partly by a learning expert system.

I stiffened; suddenly I was overwhelmed by the sense that I was being watched. Some people say they get that feeling a lot when they’re alone; since I live alone, and work in the same building I live in, I’ve never been prone to that problem. But this time the feeling was so strong that I turned suddenly to the plate-glass window that was the front of Wood’s Information Service.

For just an instant – that split-second between turning and my eyes focusing – I thought I saw something: a very tall figure in the mists of evening, dressed in what seemed – in that vague glimpse – to be robes or a longcoat of some sort, with a peculiar wide-swept hat like nothing I’d ever seen. Long white hair trailed off below the hat, and the figure was leaning on or holding some kind of a staff.

But when I focused, I could see there was nothing there at all; just mist and the cotton-fog glow of a streetlamp beyond. I stared out for several minutes, then shrugged. What the hell, brain? I thought to myself. Not even seeing things that make sense.

The delay had, at least, allowed JAPES to complete its work. The computer-enhanced version was crisp as a posed photo; except that I don’t think either the Assemblyman or the coke dealer had intended a pose. Yeah, that ought to give Elias Klein another nail to put in the crooks’ coffins. I glanced at my watch: eight-twenty. Time enough to digitize and enhance one more photo before Sylvie came over. I decided to do the last of Lieutenant Klein’s; drug cases make me nervous, you never know what might happen. Come to think of it, I realized, that’s probably why I had that weird feeling; I’m twitchy over this one.

So let’s get back to it. I inserted the negative into the enlarger/digitizer, popped into the kitchen for a cream soda, sat down and picked up my book. After seventeen minutes the computer pinged; for this kind of work, I have to scan at the best possible resolution, and that takes time. I checked to make sure the scan went okay, then coded in the parameters, set JAPES going, and went back to Phantoms. Great yarn.

After the automatic functions were done, I started in on what I really get paid for here at Wood’s Information Service (“Need info? Knock on Wood!”): the ability to find the best “finishing touches” that make enhancement still an art rather than a science.

A distant scraping sound came from the back door, and then a faint clank. I checked the time again; nine-twenty-five, still too early; Sylvie’s occult shop, the Silver Stake, always closed at precisely nine-thirty, and besides, Syl would just ring the bell or walk in from the front. “Lewis?” I called out.

Lewis was what social workers might call a displaced person, others called a bum, and I called a contact. Lewis sometimes did scutwork for me—as long as he was sober he was a good worker. Unfortunately when he was drunk he was a belligerent nuisance, and at six foot seven a belligerent Lewis was an ugly sight. Since it was the first Friday of the month, he was probably drunk.

But I didn’t hear an answer, neither voice nor the funny ringing knock that the chains on his jacket cuffs made. Instead I heard another clank and then a muffled thud. At that point the computer pinged again, having just finished my last instructions. I checked the final version—it looked pretty good, another pose of the Assemblyman alone with his hand partly extended—then downloaded all the data onto two disks for the Lieutenant. I sealed them in an envelope with the original negatives, dropped the envelope into the safe, swung it shut, pulled the wall panel down and locked it. Then I stepped out and turned towards the backdoor, grabbing my book as I left. Just then the front doorbell rang.

It was Sylvie, of course. “Hi, Jason!” she said, bouncing through the door. “Look at these, we just got the shipment in today! Aren’t they great?” She dangled some crystal and silver earrings in front of me, continuing, “They’re genuine Brazil crystal and the settings were handmade; the lady who makes them says she gets her directions from an Aztec she channels—”

There was a tremendous bang from the rear and the windows shivered. “What the hell was that?” Sylvie demanded. “Sounded like a cannon!”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “But it wasn’t a gun. Something hit the building.” I thought of the photos I was enhancing. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had decided to erase the evidence before I finished improving it. I yanked open the righthand drawer of the front desk, pulled out my .45, snicked the safety off.

“You’re that worried, Jason?”

“Could be bad, Syl; working for cops has its drawbacks.”

She nodded, her face serious now. To other people she comes across as a New Age bimbo, or a gypsy with long black hair and colored handkerchief clothes. I know better. She reached into her purse, yanked out a small .32 automatic, pulled the slide once. I heard a round chamber itself. “Ready.”

One of the things I always liked about Syl; she wasn’t afraid of much and ready to deal with anything.

She started towards the back. “Let’s go.”

I cut in front of her. “You cover me.”

I approached the door carefully, swinging to the hinge side. It opened inward, which could be trouble if someone slammed it open; I took a piece of pipe that I keep around and put it on the floor in the path of the door, so it would act as an impromptu doorstop. Then I yanked the bolt and turned the handle.

I felt a slight pressure, but not anything like something trying to force the door. Sylvie had lined up opposite me. She glanced at me and I nodded. I let the door start to open, then let go and stood aside.

The metal fire door swung open and Lewis flopped down in front of us. Sylvie gasped and I grunted. Drunk like I thought. I reached out for him. That’s when he finished his roll onto his back.

His eyes stared up, glassy and unseeing. There was no doubt in my mind that he was very dead.

I stepped over the body, to stand just inside the doorway, and peered up and down the alley. To the right I saw nothing but rolling fog — God must be playing director with mood machines tonight — but to the left there was a tall, angular figure, silhouetted by a streetlamp. Pressing myself up against the doorframe in case bullets answered me, I called out, “Hey! You up there! We could use some help here!”

The figure neither answered nor came closer. He moved so fast that he just seemed to melt silently into the surrounding fog. It’s a night for seeing men who aren’t there, I guess. I watched for a few seconds, but saw nothing else. I turned back to Lewis.

Fortunately, there wasn’t any blood. I hate blood. “Aw Christ …” I muttered. I knelt and gingerly touched the body. The weather was cool for a spring evening, but the body was still warm. Dammit. Lewis was probably dying all the time I was reading Phantoms.

“Jason, I have a bad feeling about this.” Sylvie said quietly.

“No kidding!” I snapped. Then I grinned faintly. “Sorry, Syl. No call for sarcasm. But you’re right, this is one heck of a mess.”

She shook her head. “I don’t mean it that way, Jason. The vibes are all wrong. There’s something… unnatural about this.”

That stopped me cold. Over the years I’ve come to rely on Sylvie’s “feelings”; I don’t really believe in ESP and all that crap, but…  she has a hell of an intuition that’s saved my job and my life on occasion. “Oh. Well, we’ll see about it. Now I’d better call the cops; we’re going to be answering questions for a while.”

Normally I might have asked her more about what she meant; but something about the way she’d said “unnatural” bothered me. I zipped back to the office and grabbed up my phone; obviously I had the local police station on speed-dial, given that I worked with them a lot. The sergeant on duty assured me that someone would be along shortly. I was just hanging up when I heard a muffled scream.

I had the gun out again and was around the corner instantly. Sylvie was kneeling over the body, one hand on Lewis’ coat, the other over her mouth. “What’s wrong? Jesus, Syl, you scared the daylights out of me! And what the hell are you doing even near the body? You know what –”

She pointed a finger. “Explain that, mister information man.”

I looked.

On the side of Lewis’ neck, where the coat collar had covered, were two red marks. Small red dots, right over the carotid artery.

Two puncture marks.

“So he got bit by a couple mosquitoes. Big deal. There are two very happy bugs flying high tonight.”

Sylvie gave me a look she usually reserves for those who tell her that crystals are only good for radios and jewelry. “That is not what I meant, and you know that perfectly well. This man was obviously assaulted by a nosferatu.”

“Say what? Sounds like a Mexican pastry.”

“Jason, you are being deliberately obtuse. With all the darn horror novels you read, you know what nosferatu means.”

I nodded and sighed. “Okay, yeah. Nosferatu. The Undead. A vampire. Gimme a break, Syl. I may read the novels but I don’t live them. I think you’ve been reading too much of your woo-woo book stock lately.”

“And I think that you are doing what you always laugh at the characters in your books for doing: refusing to see the obvious.”

I opened my mouth to answer, but at that moment the wail of sirens interrupted, which was something of a relief. That’s the craziest discussion I’ve ever been in and maybe we can just forget she started it. Red and blue lights flashed at the alleyway—jeez, it must be a quiet night out there. Besides the locals, I saw two New York State Troopers; they must’ve been cruising the I-90 spur from Albany and heard about Lewis over the radio. I felt more comfortable as I spotted a familiar figure in the unmistakable uniform of the Morgantown PD coming forward.

Lieutenant Renee Reisman knelt and did a cursory once-over, her brown hair brushing her shoulders. “Either of you touch anything?” she asked.

I was glad it was Renee. We’d gone to school together and that made things a little easier. “I touched his face, just to check if he was still warm, which he was. Sylvie moved his collar a bit to see if he’d had his throat cut or something. Other than that, the only thing I did was open the door; he was leaning up against the door and fell in.”

“Okay.” She was one of the more modern types; instead of scribbling it all down in a notebook, a little voice-activated recorder was noting every word. “You’re both going to have to come down and make some statements.”

“I know the routine, Renee. Oh, and I know you’ll need to keep the door open a while during the picture taking and all; here’s the key. Lock up when you’re done.”

I told the sergeant we’d be taking my car; he pulled the PD cruiser out and waited while I started up Mjolnir. It was true enough that I could afford a better car than a Dodge Dart, even a silver-and-black one, but I kinda like a car that doesn’t crumple from a light breeze… and it wasn’t as though Mjolnir was exactly a factory-standard car, either.

Sylvie’s statement didn’t take that long; apparently she chose not to expound on her theory to the cops, which proved she had more common sense than most people. Mine took a couple hours since I had to explain about Lewis and why he might choose to die somewhere in my vicinity. A few years back I’d been in the area when two drug kingpins happened to get wiped. Then Elias got me involved in another case and a potential lead fell out a closed window. I was nearby. Cops don’t like it when one person keeps turning up around bodies.

It was one-thirty when we finally got out. I took a left at Chisolm Street and pulled into Denny’s. Sylvie was oddly quiet the whole time. Except for ordering, she didn’t say anything until we were already eating. “Jason. We have to talk.”

“Okay. Shoot.”

“I know that you don’t believe in…  a lot of the Powers. But you have to admit that my predictions and senses have proven useful before.”

“I can’t argue with that, Syl. But those were… ordinary occasions.” Admittedly, ordinary occasions where she gave me a warning in time to save my life, when I saw no way she could have known what was going to happen… “But now you’re talking about the late-night horror movies suddenly doing a walk-on in real life.”

She nodded. “Maybe you can’t feel it, Jase, but I am a true sensitive. I felt the Powers in the air about that poor man’s body. And that noise, Jason. Big as Lewis was, even he wouldn’t make that kind of noise just falling against the door. Something threw him, Jason, threw him hard enough to shake the windows.”

I nodded unwillingly. I’d already thought of that; honestly, I didn’t think Lewis could have made that kind of impact even if he’d been trying to batter the door down.

“Jase, it’s about time you faced the fact that there are some things that you are not going to find classified on a database somewhere, comfortably cross-indexed and referenced. But I’m not going to argue about it, not now. Just do me a favor and check into it, okay?”

I sighed. “Okay, I’ll nose around and see what I can find out. No offense, but I hope this time your feelings are haywire.”

Her blue eyes looked levelly into mine. “Believe me, Jason, I hope so too.”

Chapter 2: Picture Imperfect

I got back to Wood’s Information Service at 2:45. The cops were gone but one of those wide yellow tapes was around the entire area. Damn.

I went to the pay phone on the corner (lucky there still are any… pretty soon I’ll have to get a cell phone myself), dialed the station, asked for Lieutenant Reisman. I was in luck. She was still in. “Reisman here. What is it, Jason?”

“You know, I happen to live in my place of business. Do you have to block off the entire building?”

“Sorry,” she said. “Hold on a minute.”

It was actually five minutes. “Okay, here’s the deal. You can go in, but only use the front entrance and stay out of that back hallway.”

“But I store a lot of stuff there.”

“Sorry, that’s the breaks. Tell your informants to die elsewhere from now on. Anything else?”

“Yeah. This thing has Sylvie really spooked. She’s really nervous about this, and being in the business she is, it gives her weird ideas.”

“So what can I do?”

“Just give me a call when the ME report comes through. If there’s nothing really odd on it, it’ll make things much easier.”

She was quiet for a moment. “Look, Jason, medical examiner reports aren’t supposed to be public knowledge, first off. But second, just what do you mean by ‘odd’?”

I grinned, though she couldn’t tell. “Believe me, Lieutenant, you’ll know if you see it.”

“Huh.” She knew I was being deliberately evasive, but she knew I probably had a reason. She’d push later if events warranted. “All right, Jason, here’s what I’ll do. If the ME’s report is what I consider normal, which includes normal assaults, heart attacks, and so on, I’ll call you and tell you just that, ‘normal.’ If I see something I consider odd, I’ll let you know.”

“Thanks, Renee. I owe you one.”

“You got that straight. Good night.”

I went back to my building and up to my bedroom. I was drifting off to sleep when I suddenly sat bolt upright, wide awake.

The figure I had seen in the alley, backlighted by a streetlamp. I had thought it just moved away too fast to follow in the fog. But the Tamara’s Tanning neon sign had been on its left, and the lit sign for WKIL radio on its right. One or the other should have flickered as it passed across them.

Both had stayed shining steadily. But that was impossible.

It was a long time before I finally got to sleep.

I got up at twelve-thirty; that yellow tape would keep away the customers who might drop by, and as a consultant I keep irregular hours anyway. I was just sitting down with my ham sandwich breakfast when the phone rang. “Wood’s Information Service, Jason Wood speaking.”

“This is Lieutenant Reisman, Wood. I’ve just read the ME report.”

“And?”

“And I would like to know what your girlfriend thinks is going on here, Mr. Wood.”

“Syl’s not my girlfriend.” Not exactly, anyway, I thought. “What did the ME find?”

“It’s what he didn’t find that’s the problem.” Renee’s voice was tinged with uncertainty. “Your friend Lewis wasn’t in great shape—cirrhosis, bronchitis, and so on, and various minor malnutrition things—but none of those killed him. He’d also suffered several bruises, someone grabbed him with great force, and after death the body was thrown into your door. But death was not due to violence of the standard sort.”

“Well, what did kill him then?”

“The ME can’t yet say how it happened,” the Lieutenant said quietly, “but the cause of death was blood loss.” She took a breath and finished. “There wasn’t a drop of blood left in his body.”

I made a mental note that I owed Syl a big apology. “Not a drop, huh?”

“Well, technically speaking, that’s not true. The ME told me that it’s physically impossible to get all the blood out of a corpse. But it was as bloodless as if someone had slit his throat with a razor and then hung him up to drain. The thing that’s really bothering the ME is that the man had no wounds that account for the blood loss. He’ll have the detailed autopsy done in a few days, but from what he said I doubt he’s going to find anything.”

“You’re probably right. Well, thanks, Renee.”

“Hold on just one minute, mister! You at least owe me an explanation.”

“Do you really want one?”

She was silent for a minute. Then, “Yeah. Yeah, I do. Because there’s one other thing that I haven’t told you yet.”

I waited.

After a few moments, she said, “All right, here it is. This body is not the first we’ve found in this condition. The others all had wounds that could explain the loss… but the ME told me privately that there were certain indications that made him think that they were inflicted after death.”

“Okay, Lieutenant, but you are not going to like it.”

“I don’t like it now, Wood. Let me have it.”

“Sylvie thinks we are dealing with a vampire.”

There was a long silence. “Would you repeat that?”

“A vampire. As in Dracula.”

Another silence. “Yeah. And damned if I don’t half believe it, either. I must be getting gullible. But no way can I take this to my supervisor. He’s the most closed-minded son of a bitch who ever wore blue.”

I laughed. “I don’t expect you to do anything about it. Just keep an eye out. I’m going to start some research of my own. If we are dealing with something…” I trailed off, paused, then force myself to say it, “… paranormal, I doubt that normal approaches will work.”

“God, listen to us. Vampires? I’ll call you later, Jason. This is too weird for me to handle right now.”

I cradled the receiver. I couldn’t blame her for needing time to sort it all out. Hell, I was stunned that she accepted it as much as she did. Somewhere in the back of her mind she must already have decided that something was very wrong about those other deaths.

All right. Let’s get to work, Jason.

I went upstairs into my library, started pulling down books – folklore references I’d collected over the years, mostly, including Vampires: A World Survey, which was the closest thing to a scholarly compendium on the subject I’d ever found. Most of these things came from my information addiction overlapping with my fiction reading; I couldn’t resist trying to fact-check even my horror novels. Bad facts didn’t stop me from reading them, of course, but I liked to know what was real and was wasn’t.

I sat down at my workstation, started keying in information from each book. The World Survey emphasized what I’d already known: the vampire myth existed in some form in almost every corner of the world – from South America to Japan, from China to Europe. The abilities and weaknesses of the creatures, of course, varied wildly, from the original shambling zombie-like corpses of Eastern Europe to China and Japan’s strange “hopping vampires” to…

I glanced back up at the shelves and wondered if I should include anything from the fictional side. Yes, at first glance that sounded stupid, but if I was going to assume there were such things as…  vampires,  there was the possibility that one or more books had been written by people who knew they existed and something of what they were like.

And… again if I was right… they’d already apparently shown two of the characteristics often attributed to fictional vampires: superhuman strength and the ability to disappear or turn into mist.

I sighed, got back up, and picked out a selection of vampire novels – the original Dracula, Yarbro’s Saint Germain books, Rice’s Lestat, a few others that covered a range of tastes. I’ll extract the key points as possibilities and put them in with a low but significant weight.

After three hours, my neck and arms started getting really cramped. I broke for a late lunch or maybe dinner, headed back towards the computer just as the phone rang.

“Wood’s Information Ser—”

“Hello, Wood.”

I knew that gravel-scraping voice, even though it usually didn’t call before the night shift. Then I looked at the clock and realized it was the night shift by now. That’s what you get for sleeping until after noon. “Hi, Elias. I’ve got your photos done.”

“Anything good?”

“Let’s just say that I’ll be real surprised if we aren’t electing a new Assemblyman soon.”

He laughed, a quick explosive chortle. “With an attitude like that, I don’t see you getting on jury duty, that’s for sure. Listen, I’ll be over to pick ’em up soon. ‘Bout an hour and a half good?”

“Sure thing, Elias.”

I needed a little break from bloodsucking freaks anyway. I pulled the envelope from the safe, rechecking the pictures on disk against the negatives. By the time my recheck was done, Elias was there. “Hey there, Jase,” he said, ducking slightly as he entered. He really didn’t have to—the doorway’s seven feet high and he’s six foot six—but it was a habit he had. Add a gangly frame, a sharp-edged nose, black hair, black eyes, and a slight stoop; Elias Klein always reminded me of a youthful buzzard. He came into my office to get a quick look. He liked them all, until we got to the last one.

“Nice joke, Jason.”

“What do you mean, joke? It looks pretty good to me.”

“Oh, sure, Assemblyman Connors looks just lovely. But without Verne Domingo to complete the picture it’s nothing but a publicity shot.”

I pointed to the next to last. “What about that one? They’re swapping right there, what more could you ask for?”

“That’s just a second-string doper, Jason! Domingo’s the big man, the guy we’ve been after for the whole time I’ve been on this case, and that is the photo that should show him.”

I shrugged. “Too bad. Next time make sure he’s in the picture.”

“Don’t give me that, Wood! I know he was in that shot, I was the one looking through the viewfinder.”

I handed him the negative. “Look for yourself.”

He stared at it. “What the hell?” Then he swung towards me. “Wood, you’d better not be dicking around with the evidence! I’ve been on this for eight damn months, and if you’re—”

“Oh, cut the tough cop act, Elias. You know damn well that I only play jokes, I don’t really mess with my clients’ stuff. If I did, would the city PD be paying me ten grand a year? That negative is the one you gave me and it’s in the same shape as it was when it got here.”

“But that’s impossible.” Elias glared at the negative as though a hard stare would make the missing figure materialize. “If you look through the viewfinder of an SLR, what you see is what you get. Besides, dammit, look at your own enhancement. He’s got his mouth half open, saying something, and he’s about to shake hands. Then look at that angle. Do you put your hand out twenty feet from the guy you’re going to shake with?”

“Nope.” I was mystified now. Then a quote spun across my mind: “This time there could be no error, for the man was close to me, and I could see him over my shoulder. But there was no reflection of him in my mirror!”

I took the negative and stared at it again. “You’re right, Elias. Mr. Domingo should have been in this picture. That leaves only one explanation.”

He looked at me. “And that is… ?”

“That you are dealing with someone whose image doesn’t appear on film.”

Elias didn’t like that at all, but he had to admit that I had no motive to screw around with the negatives. “So what’re you saying? He’s got some kind of Star Trek cloaking device that wipes his image off film? I won’t swallow it.”

“Trust me, Elias, you don’t want to know what I think. Since this negative is worthless as is, mind if I keep it? Maybe there’s some kind of latent image I could bring up.”

“Dammit, Jason! Tell me what is—” He broke off, having caught sight of the pile of books and papers on the desk.

He looked at them. He picked them up, examined them. Looked at me. “And Reisman said …” he began, then stopped. He glanced at the negative again. Back at me. A long pause. “You’re right.” he said finally. “I don’t want to know. Keep the negative.” He grabbed his hat and sunglasses, left quickly.

I went back to typing.

The phone rang again.

“Hello, Jason,” said Sylvie. “What have you heard?”

“Enough. I apologize for doubting you, Sylvie. We’ve either got ourselves a real honest-to-God vampire here, or someone who is doing his level best to fake it. And with the technical problems of faking some of this, I’d rather believe in a vampire than in a faker.” I glanced down. “And I think I’ve found our bloodsucker, too.” I gave her a quick rundown on Klein’s negative.

“But, Jason, isn’t that an incredible coincidence?”

“I thought so myself, at first. But I’ve been thinking, and it isn’t as far out as it first seems. In most legit businesses you have to do business in daylight hours at some point. Maybe a vampire can live in a musty coffin underground all the time, but I’ll bet they sure don’t want to. They want all the creature comforts they can enjoy and that means money. So they’ll just naturally gravitate to the ‘shady’ side of commerce, pardon the pun. And with their natural advantages, it isn’t surprising at all that one might be high up on the ladder.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way. But drug deals happen in the day, too.”

“But if you’ve got muscle to back you up you can get away with a lot of odd quirks. Avoiding sunlight might be possible.” I nodded to myself. “And Lewis acted as an informant to me; might have done so to the police, or – more likely – he’d tell me and expect I’d get it to them. So if Lewis had seen something and come to tell me…”

“Oh, the poor man,” Syl said softly. “But you’re right, it does make sense. And, by the way, apology accepted. I’ve been calling around and getting my better occult acquaintances on the alert. They’ll see what they can find.”

“Good.” Privately, I didn’t expect much from Sylvie’s pals. Sylvie herself might have something, but most of the people who visited the Silver Stake were your typical muddled New-Age escapists who confused Tolkien and Star Wars with real life. “I’m working on something here that might help. Stop by after you’re done, okay?”

“Sure thing, Jason. Just promise me no more bodies, huh?”

“I make no guarantees. Bodies never consult me before arriving. See you.”

“Bye.”

It was ten o’clock by the time I finished. Then I put WISDOM to work. Wood’s Information Service Database Online Manager can analyze information using many different statistical methods and a lot of other heuristics. WISDOM was instructed to examine the information on all different kinds of vampires to construct the most likely abilities that an actual vampire might be expected to possess. It took WISDOM only a few minutes to do its calculations. I sat down and read. It was grim reading.

Chapter 3: Contingency Planning

“What in the world are you doing?” Sylvie asked.

I put down the loading kit. “Preparing. I figure that if I’m going to deal with a vampire, I’d better have something other than conventional ammo.”

She picked up a cartridge. “Silver? I thought I read somewhere that you actually couldn’t make silver bullets; something about balance?”

“I heard that too, but it’s a silly statement on the face of it. Lead’s softer and just as heavy, and they’ve been making bullets from lead as long as they’ve been making guns. Yes, you have to make a few adjustments, but nothing prevents a silver bullet from working as a bullet.” I checked the fit of another bullet. “Not that I expect those to be of much use. WISDOM only gave a twenty-five-percent chance of a vulnerability to silver. That seems more of a werewolf thing.”

She examined the other kinds of ammo. “Well, I’ll say this for you, you have one heck of an assortment.” She reached into her purse, pulled out a small wooden box. “Here, Jason.”

“What’s this?” I opened the box. On a slender silver chain was a crystal-headed hammer, handle wrapped in miniature leather thongs, the head an angle-faced box. “It’s gorgeous, Syl! Thank you!”

“I remembered how much you like the Norse pantheon—you even named your car after Thor’s hammer—and if you look real closely on the hammer head, you’ll see Mjölnir engraved there in Nordic runes.”

I squinted closely at it, and I could just make out the spiderweb-thin runic lines. “It’s really beautiful, Sylvie. But why now?”

“I was actually saving it for your birthday next month, but with this vampire thing going on, I decided it was best I give it to you now.” She saw my puzzlement. “It’s not just a piece of jewelry, Jason. I made it especially to be a focus, a protection against evil, for you.”

“But you know I don’t really believe in that stuff.”

She gave a lopsided smile. “Jason Wood, how in the world can you believe in vampires and sneer at crystals and spirits?”

“Touché.” I slipped the chain over my neck. It felt cool against my skin. The three-inch-long hammer made a slight bulge below my collar. “This could look a little strange. I don’t wear jewelry often. I think I’ll put it on the wall. Or on Mjolnir’s rearview mirror.”

“No, Jason.” Sylvie had her “feeling” face on again. “Wear it. Even if you don’t believe, it will make me feel better if you keep it on you.”

I wasn’t about to test her accuracy now. I was about eighty-five percent convinced we were dealing with some kind of creature that might as well be called a vampire, and a hundred percent convinced that Syl had some way of knowing things she shouldn’t. “Okay.”

“Now what else has your machine come up with?”

“Nothing good. The problem is that there are so many versions of the vampire legend in myth and fiction that the best I can do is estimate probabilities. Problem with that is that even a low-probability thing could turn out to be real.” I picked up a printout. “But I can’t prepare for everything. So I’ve constructed a ‘theoretical vampire’ using all the probabilities that showed a greater than eighty-percent likelihood.” I started reading. “Strength, somewhere between five and twenty times normal human, with a heavy bias towards the high end of that range; he – or she, let’s be equal-opportunity with our monsters – can probably tip over a minivan like I can a loaded shopping cart and leap small garages in a single bound. Invulnerable to ordinary weapons. What can hurt it is a nice question; Only one thing cleared the probability threshold – fire – with a bunch more clustered at between twenty-five and thirty percent: the movie standbys of sunlight and a wooden stake, running water, holy symbols or weapons as a general class, some sort of symbolic material like rice or salt, and so on. Does not show up on mirrors; after that photo I think we can take that as proven.”

“Maybe he just doesn’t show on film?”

“The legend started long before there was film. Stands to reason the mirror business had something behind it. Okay, where was I? Shapeshifting. This might have started as a blending of the werewolf and vampire legends, but most are pretty emphatic that vampires can either change shape or make you think they look different than they are. Plus what I saw the other night pretty much convinces me our target can either go invisible or turn into mist. Changes those bitten into others of its kind, that’s how they reproduce.”

Sylvie shook her head. “No, Jason, that’s silly. If getting bitten made vampires, we’d be up to our earlobes in bloodsuckers in nothing flat.”

“So I simplified it. Some kind of additional condition has to be met – maybe exchanging blood, maybe some kind of a ritual. As an aside, if that happens, there is a fair chance that the new vampire is controlled by the old one. And speaking of age, the legends also tend to emphasize that the older the suckers get the tougher they are.”

“Anything else?”

“Yep. They tend to be inactive in the daytime, and may have psychokinetic abilities. One other interesting note: many legends state that a vampire, or similar spirits, cannot enter a personal dwelling—house, apartment, whatever—without the permission of a legitimate resident therein. However, once given, the permission is damned hard to revoke. Some of the legends have the idea that there is a particular location the vampire must return to, or carry with them, that old ‘home earth’ requirement.” I put the printout down. “That’s about it. Lower down on the list you get some really odd stuff.”

Sylvie sat in frowning thought for a few minutes. “So fire is the best bet?”

I waved a hand from side to side. “It’s chancy. How you’re going to set him on fire without getting killed isn’t very clear to me. The problem is that while it’s pretty likely that the vampire is somewhat vulnerable to sunlight – most of them do not walk the day, and I have to assume there’s a reason for that – the degree of vulnerability is highly variable. If they’re vulnerable at all, any vampire would die if you could stick it out on a Miami beach thirty minutes from shade, but if it’s not just an instant kill, in the first twenty minutes it could do a lot of damage to anyone in the area. Several of the legends emphasize that an old and powerful vampire becomes more and more able to resist their normal vulnerabilities. Besides, I doubt he’d answer an invitation to a beach party.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“See if I can get a handle on him somehow, so he has to come to me. And I think this negative is the key.”

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