All right, let me just start by saying that I don’t drink or do drugs. Ever. I suppose nowadays that statement alone is enough to label me peculiar, or a liar, or both, but it’s true. If you have any trouble getting your mind around that, then you might as well stop listening right now, because it only gets worse.

Is this thing on? The little needle's jumping around in the green, so I guess it is. Okay, where do I begin?

First off, I am not a vampire. I freaking hate vampires, always whining about how they’ll never see another sunset. I've got a friend who's been blind since birth and he's never seen a goddamn thing, so don't whine to me about no freaking sunsets. And I'm not a shapeshifter either, though most of them aren’t half-bad, just a little irresponsible. No, basically what I am is someone who was just too damn ornery--or stupid, depending on who you ask--to die. Have I lost you yet? Cool, then listen up.

Everything hit the fan about three weeks ago. I was just loading some groceries into my trunk after a little late-night shopping at the 7-11, when I heard this woman scream. I probably should have minded my own business, but I think you'll figure out that I rarely do if you listen to enough of this little tale. Besides, my mom just didn't bring me up that way.

Anyway, there was this white guy off to my left--a real white-trash-looking creep--and he was roughing up this preppie-looking black girl. The both of them were partially hidden behind a rusted-out black Ford Bronco. He had her pinned against it, and I could tell he was going to hit her--again.

I sauntered over to their side of the truck--well, it looked like a saunter, but I can move pretty quickly without it looking like I am--and caught the creep by the shoulder. The girl's eyes widened as I slammed him face-first up against the Ford, then yanked him back and sent him sprawling to the pavement. She seemed to be okay, just a little bruising on her cheek where he'd hit her, so I turned my attention back to the creep.

Now I'm not much to look at--I'm only about five foot seven--but I'm really broad shouldered, and my friends say I've got this evil-looking mug, especially when I'm pissed. Apparently I looked nasty enough that the creep figured he couldn't handle me without the .45 he whipped out from inside his vest. He scrambled away from me a bit until he figured it was safe enough to get to his feet, then covered me with the gun, holding it out at that ninety-degree angle that always looks so cool in the movies. It just proved to me that he didn't know what he was doing.

That should have scared me. There's nothing worse than a weapon in the hands of someone who doesn't know what they're doing, but think they do. People get shot that way. I did. The only thing worse than people like him is people like me. You know, someone who doesn't know enough to be scared and shut their mouth when there's a gun pointed at their head.

The creep was tall and lanky, mostly bone, and wore faded denims, cowboy boots, a Marilyn Manson T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off, and the black leather vest. It looked like someone had tried to tattoo a rebel flag on his left deltoid with an Etch A Sketch. "Ya shoulda just minded yer own business, dude. Me and the piece were right in the middle ‘a negotiations."

I looked over at the girl still huddled against the Ford. I don't know why, but I just knew she wasn't a working girl. There was this innocence about her--yeah, I know, it sounds cliché, but you had to see her to know what I'm talking about. I mean, some of these girls, they act all innocent--it's part of the allure--but this one wasn't faking it. I wasn't about to leave her to this creep.

"Listen you anorexic rat bastard, why don't you leave us alone and go get a sandwich or something? I'm sure there must be a KKKFC open somewhere."

He grinned then, all teeth and cheekbones, and that's when I noticed his eyes. The pupils were dilated, and I knew he was strung out on something. For a second there I was worried, but the puke didn't give me time to get really scared.

"Why don't you just fuckin’ die," he said, and pulled the trigger.

It's funny. The girl screamed. I heard the bang, much louder than it should have been, almost like a howitzer. I saw the flash, and the smoke. I even saw the shell casing eject. I never saw the bullet. I'm not even sure I really felt it. All I remember is thinking, "That scrawny bastard shot me!"

The round caught me clean, dead center of the chest. The impact slammed me back into the Bronco. My head snapped forward so that my chin touched my breastbone, and I glared up at the shooter through hooded eyes. I staggered forward a step, then shook my head roughly from side to side. The creep stepped back, bumped a light post, and let go another wild shot that didn't come anywhere near me. All I wanted to do was get my hands around his scruffy neck. It never occurred to me that I was supposed to be dead. I reached out for him and he pumped off another couple of rounds, but by now he was totally unnerved and he threw the .45 at me and turned and hightailed it out of there.

I turned to the girl, but she'd passed out. Well, I could hardly blame her. I stepped over to the Bronco, leaned my back up against it, and slid down into a sitting position with my legs straight out in front of me. The front of my shirt was soaked with blood, but I undid the first couple of buttons and opened it up anyway. Call me a masochist. I'm not going to lie and say the hole was big enough to see through, but it was big, and there wasn't anywhere near enough blood.

Maybe it's just the shock, I thought. You know how sometimes they say you don't feel something right away because of the excitement and the stress and all. But who was I kidding--a hole that big? I tried to take my pulse. I do it all the time when I'm jogging, but this time? Zilch, zero, nada.

That's when I saw the troll. At least I think it was a troll; it could have been a gremlin, or a boggle, or even a goblin. I'm not really up on that sort of thing, but I'm learning.

"Hey pal, got a light?" he says. He was standing maybe three feet away from me--all eyes and teeth.

Now, what I was thinking was, Holy fuck, a troll! but what I said was, "Sure." I'm Canadian. We're polite, eh.

I fumbled in my jacket pocket for my lighter. I don't smoke, but it was a present from an old girlfriend, and you never know when one is going to come in handy. Like then, for instance.

He took the lighter and blinked at me with those enormous, forest-green eyes that took up the whole top two-thirds of his face, then pulled a fat, smelly cigar out of the patchwork jacket he wore. He crammed the cigar into this huge slit of a mouth that accounted for the last third of his mug, and puffed until he had the thing lit.

"Thanks," he said in a rough, gravelly voice that sounded like he'd smoked one too many stogies. He scratched at this absurd caricature of a nose--long, twisted, and pointy, like a carrot--with a four-fingered claw. Actually it was three fingers and a thumb, and it was gray and scaly like the rest of him.

He nodded toward the still-unconscious girl. "I see you've bagged yourself an Innocent. You gonna eat her now or later?"

"Umm, later," I decided.

He nodded knowingly. Even though I was seated with my back against the Bronco, the top of his melon-shaped head was about even with mine. He took another drag off the cigar, twitched his pointed ears, and said, "Don't wait too long. When they look like that they don't stay Innocent for long."

I agreed. I mean, he ought to know, right?

"Well, gotta go," he said. He must have figured I wasn't going to offer him any. "Sun'll be up in three or four more hours. Gotta get myself under a bridge before then.” With that he hobbled off, a kind of skip-hop with his two gnarled feet and then the knuckles of his right claw. "Just me and the homeless folks," he called back over his shoulder.

Maybe I was in shock. Let's face it, I was handling all this weird shit pretty well if I do say so myself--especially for a guy who doesn't do drugs. The girl stirred off to my left, and I figured, dead or not I'd better get my act together for her sake. I heard sirens off in the distance. The geek that worked the counter at the 7-11 must have heard the shots and called the cops. Great, just what I needed.

I got to my feet, took my jacket off, then my shirt. I balled the shirt up and wiped the blood--my blood--off the fender of the Bronco. It must have been spray from the exit wound. Next I wiped the blood from my chest, then tore a few strips from my shirt and wadded it into the little crater there. I scrambled over to my car, tossed the bloody clothing into the trunk, and slammed it shut. Luckily I had my gym bag in the backseat, and I found a heavy fleece sweater in the bag and pulled it on. By the time I got back to the girl she was just coming around. I made out flashing red and blue lights in the distance. The cops would be here any minute.

She moaned a bit and I helped her to sit up, but advised her against standing. "You okay?" I asked her.

"Yes, thank you, sir."

Innocent, and polite. "Please, call me James," I said, and she smiled hesitantly. "The cops are on their way. Everything's going to be fine."

She was young, a lot younger than I had first thought. Her body said twenties, but she couldn't have been more than sixteen or so. She was black, or is it African American now? Her skin was a light brown, and her dark hair was straight and shoulder length. She had great cheekbones; full, pouty lips; and big blue eyes that gave her this real exotic look. She wore khaki pants, Dockers shoes, and a red tank top, and with her long legs, tiny waist, and huge...well, like I mentioned before, her body said twenties.

"I thought he shot you, mister."

"Nah, he missed," I lied. She was confused, and had been banged up pretty good, so like most people she was more than willing to latch onto the first plausible explanation. The cop car squealed into the parking lot right about then.

We gave our statements to the police. The geek inside the 7-11 never stepped outside once; the cops had to go inside to talk to him.

Between Alex (the girl's name, short for Alexandria) and me, we gave a pretty fair description of the shooter. The cops retrieved the .45 from where it had slid underneath the Bronco, and assured us they'd be able to get a good set of prints off of it. A lowlife like that, they said, just had to be in the system.

We both agreed to do the police lineup thing if the need arose, or the sketch artist thing, and that seemed to make the cops real happy, so they took our names and offered Alex a ride home. I figured that would be the last I'd see of her. Boy was I wrong.

I got into my car, a red Jeep Grand Cherokee for those of you who are into descriptions, and sat there behind the wheel for a couple of minutes to try and make sense of everything. The cop came over and asked if I was okay, which I thought was kind of nice of her, but I said I was fine, started the Jeep, and drove home. I only live a couple of blocks from the convenience store, which is why I had stopped there in the first place, and pulled into my driveway after a short jaunt.

I was just turning the key in the front door when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Still being jittery as hell, I spun quickly, but there was no one or nothing there. Normally I'd figure I was just imagining things, but after what I'd been through tonight I wasn't so sure. Suffice it to say I got into the house posthaste and locked the door behind me. Now that I think about it, though, I don't know why I was so worried. I was already dead; what else could happen to me?

I have a nice place: cathedral ceilings, walk-in closets, two fireplaces, four bedrooms, a Jacuzzi--but not a lot of furniture, mostly because there's not a lot of people. Just me. I hold down a midlevel management job and the pay's pretty good. I date occasionally, usually women my married friends set me up with, but never anything serious. Not since Alison. I know. It's not exactly where I saw myself either.

I went straight to the bathroom and stripped off my clothes, then dumped them in the hamper. That's right, guys, when you're the only one around you learn to pick up after yourself. I still leave the toilet seat up, though.

I stared into the vanity mirror over the sink. The crater was still there, midchest, raw, red, and gaping. I turned around. Sure enough, the exit wound was bigger. I decided what I really needed was a shower, so I covered the holes up with antiseptic bandages, not because I was worried about infection, but because I didn't want them filling up with water. I'd only been in the shower a couple of minutes when I heard him.

"Hey, Bumper. How's it going?"

I slid aside the glass doors. "Not bad, Grandpa. And you?” He looked pretty good in his tan polyester slacks, gray wool pullover, and black and brown suspenders--considering he'd been dead seven years now.

I know, most men would have been freaked enough to at least drop the soap (something heterosexual males are trained to avoid at all costs), but to tell you the truth, I was kind of enjoying all the weirdness. I mean, I've been waiting for shit like this to happen all my life. I blame it on all the episodes of Twilight Zone and the Munsters I watched as a kid.

Grandpa laughed that full, hearty belly laugh I remembered so fondly, and pushed up on the heavy, black-framed bifocals he was always misplacing. "You always were a cool one, Bumper."

Bumper had been his pet name for me, something he'd called me since I was a toddler, for obvious reasons.

"Why don't you come out here and give your old dead grandpa a hug."

I figured, what the hey, and wrapped the towel around myself, then stepped completely through him and smacked my head on the opposite wall.

Grandpa laughed again. "Sorry, Bumper, I keep forgetting I'm dead-dead, and not just dead, like you."

I found my blue terrycloth robe behind the bathroom door and put it on as I headed into the bedroom. "Now that you mention it, Grandpa, what the hell is going on here?"

He waited until I'd perched myself on the edge of my bed (a big old mahogany sleigh bed for you nosy types), then said, "You died tonight, Bumper. It just didn't take."

Apparently the look on my face told him he'd done a lousy job of clearing things up for me. "Look, when most people die they move on to this higher plane of existence. You know, go into the light and all that crap. Not only did you decide to stick around, but you refused to leave your body."

I lay back on the bed. All this stuff was giving me a headache. "If you've moved on, what are you doing here?" I asked him.

"I'm not here, actually. This is just a reflection of my life essence. In reality, I'm pretty much everywhere and nowhere all at the same time, except time is rather irrelevant."

I sat up again. "Thanks for clearing that up, Grandpa."

He tilted his head and looked at me in that funny way he used to. "It gets worse."

"You mean like the troll?"

That seemed to worry him a bit. "Saw one, did you? That's even sooner than I thought. Trolls, gremlins, vampires..." I guess I looked skeptical. "That's right, I said vampires. You're living in both realities now, Bumper. You're one of them." He actually made that dopey quotations sign with his fingers when he said "them."

"Couldn't they see me before?"

"Sure," he said. "But now they've actually taken notice of you. Which reminds me, you'd better get over there and look after that little girl you rescued tonight. She's an Innocent, and they feed on Innocents."

"What do you want me to do about it?"

Grandpa grinned then. "Protect her, Bumper. Now's your chance to be a cop, just like your old man and me.” Grandpa neglected to mention that at least he got to retire. Dad had died on the job.

"So how long do I have to protect her for?"

"Who knows? Looking like that, they don't usually stay Innocent for long, though."

"So I heard," I told him as he started to fade out.

His voice seemed to come at me from someplace a long ways off. "Just so you know, Innocence has nothing to do with virginity. She could be one of those that stay Innocent all their lives."

That's comforting, I thought.

"Besides, what else have you got to do?" Grandpa asked. "You're going to be dead for a very long time."

I lay back on my bed and tried to get some rest then. You'd think with all the crap Grandpa had said, he'd have told me I'd never sleep again.






Chapter Two