We made it to the lobby without any further embarrassment to myself. The doorman, Josh, greeted Sabrina, and they spoke in hushed tones for a moment. I couldn't quite make out what they were saying, but he was obviously agitated and kept looking over at me as if I had just eaten barbecued baby for dinner.
"You make him nervous," Alex whispered to me. "Your kind make all of them nervous."
The feeling was mutual. Josh seemed fairly nondescript: six feet tall, about a hundred and seventy pounds, short brown hair, hazel eyes, medium complexion, maybe twenty-five years old. He was the kind of person you would forget about two minutes after bumping into him in a crowd, but there was something about him that set my spidey senses tingling.
There was no doubt that Sabrina was calling the shots. "Would you mind if we took your car?" she asked me.
"No problem," I told her. Josh was definitely uncomfortable with the idea, and I realized the man was actually afraid of me. That was something I could use. I tossed Josh the keys. "It's the red Jeep out front," I told him. He caught the keys and I waited for him to tell me where to shove them, but he didn't. Sabrina gave me one of those looks as Josh headed out to get the Jeep. All I could do was shrug.
It only took him a moment to start the Jeep, and I did the security thing again, checking out the front of the building before allowing the girls to exit. I wasn't really sure how much good I'd be if anything went down. I'd had some martial arts training--hell, who hasn't nowadays--but I was only a green belt in Jiu Jitsu. That's far enough along to be cocky, but not too dangerous. I knew all the moves and was pretty lethal...as long as you attacked me real slow.
"You much good behind the wheel?" I asked Josh.
"Yes, sir. I am."
"Good, then you drive." The guy still seemed a little shaken, but what could I do? I had the girls sit in the back with Alex directly behind me. That way if anyone tried to put a bullet in her it would have to go through me first. I guess I should have known that bullets would be the least of my worries, but remember, I was pretty new to this.
I didn't know where the safehouse was, but a few minutes of travel had us downtown and crawling from red light to red light. Things got pretty freaky then. The windows on the Jeep were tinted, but I was pretty sure they could still see in. Or maybe they could sense Alex, or smell her or something.
I'd always thought the downtown core was Twilight Zone enough, what with the hookers and junkies, the skinheads, the punks, the glams, the goths--the usual inner-city populace. Believe me, you haven't seen anything till you've seen it through my eyes. Trolls and trollocs, goblins and gremlins, boggles and bogeymen and demons galore--I guess what I'm trying to say is, they kind of fit right in.
A hooker in a red knit crop top and black miniskirt approached the car in front of us. Nice legs, shame about her face. Her eyes glowed neon red in a mottled, mucus-lathered visage, and her mouth was jammed full of teeth, like a shark’s, more cartilage and bile than bone and enamel.
I looked over at Josh, and he managed a weak grin. "Succubus," he told me. "Suck the life right out of you."
"Just like a real woman," I said. I swear he almost laughed then.
We moved ahead slowly and made it another few blocks when the rear tire blew out.
"Tell me you have a spare," Josh pleaded. Suddenly he didn't seem so afraid of me anymore. What was out there worried him more.
"No problem," I reassured him.
"The moon will be up in another few minutes or so. We don't want to be out here when that happens," Sabrina warned me.
I really didn't like the sound of that. I got out and went around to the back of the Jeep, opened the rear door, and dug out the spare from under the rug. Thank God for full-size spares. Josh joined me and set up the jack while I started to remove the lug nuts. I had most of them off when Josh cleared his throat.
"Sir, I think the jack's seized."
I tried to think of a smart-ass remark, but it was just too depressing. All I could think of was, "Call me James." Hey, if you're going to get sucked down into hell with someone you should at least be on a first-name basis.
I just about had the last lug nut off when a sudden chill forced an involuntary shiver. It seemed all the more relevant seeing as since I had died I hadn't really taken much notice of the weather. I looked up from the curb and saw it leaning up against the building not six feet from me. Vampire.
Forget all that romantic crap you've seen in the movies. Vampires are about as evil as they come. To be totally accurate, vampirism is really more like demonic possession. Demons don't have souls of their own, so they use human hosts. When a vampire turns someone, it brings its victim just to the point of death. That's when the body's hold on the soul is the weakest. The demon then takes possession, animating the human form, usurping the host's life and memories, and forcing the victim's soul into the background.
See, that's the worst part. The demon does all these unspeakable things with your body, and since you never really died in the first place, you're forced to witness it all. Most vampires start by torturing the host's friends and family, often raping siblings or parents. Like I said, evil. Take my word for it, kill a vampire and you're doing someone a big favour. Oh yeah, and they really do live off of human blood.
Don't ask me how I knew it was a vampire; I just knew. This one was male and dressed all in black--big surprise there--black jeans, black boots, a black Calvin Klein pullover, and a long, black leather jacket that reached down to his ankles. His skin was bone-white and looked like polished marble, and he had long copper-red hair tied back in a ponytail. An eerie, hellish green light played about his eyes.
As if that weren't bad enough, he had his posse with him. Something huge stood to his left, about three hundred pounds of grizzle and bone and warts, with two huge tusks jutting upward from its misshapen jaw, and gnarled, razor-sharp talons that reached down past its knees. A troll stood off to his right, and a gremlin squatted just in front of him.
"You take the vampire, sir. I'll take the ogre," Josh spoke from behind me.
Something about his voice struck me as strange, and I snuck a peek at him over my shoulder. Josh wasn't going to have as much trouble with the ogre as I had at first thought. He stood a good seven feet tall and weighed at least three hundred pounds himself, and looked something like a cross between a grizzly bear and the wolfman, with claws and fangs that should make even the ogre think twice. He shrugged, as if he were embarrassed or something, and added, "The gremlin's not a problem, but don't underestimate the troll--they're tough as nails, and mean too."
The vampire lunged first. I suppose the thing was fast. If I had still been alive I doubt I would have even seen it move before it tore out my throat. But I wasn't alive anymore, and as I've said before, being dead definitely had its advantages. Everything slowed, almost as if time had congealed, and the vampire lurched at me in slow motion. Like I said, I'm lethal as long as you attack me real slow.
I stepped forward and to the left, and clotheslined the thing in midleap. His feet came up over his head, and he slammed into the pavement hard. I grabbed him by the throat and dragged him up against the building, but the troll hit me low from behind, raking its talons across the small of my back. I smashed my palm into the vamp's nose, then twisted its head around quickly and almost puked at the sound of the vertebrae snapping. The troll took another swipe at me, but this time I caught the clawed hand and wrenched upward, breaking its wrist. It howled, and I kicked it hard in the head--nothing fancy, almost a punt, really. The troll didn't touch down for twenty yards. I turned back to the vampire, but it had managed to crawl away down the alley. A broken neck won't kill a vamp, but it sure disables 'em for a while.
I turned to help Josh, but he didn’t really need it. He was crouched over the ogre, one knee on its chest while he flayed at its eyes and throat. The ogre panicked, all thoughts of battle replaced by the primal need for survival. All it wanted now was to escape, and it bellowed and roared in an effort to screw up the strength to break free. Josh rolled to the side and allowed the beast to scramble to its feet. It shuffled off down the alley after its master. It wasn’t mercy that had saved the creature; we just couldn’t leave the corpse lying in the street, and we didn’t have the time or the resources to bring it with us.
The troll had recovered by now and stumbled toward us. The gremlin shrieked and howled, leaping and hopping about in a frenzy as it goaded its brethren to attack, but the troll had had enough, and it too disappeared down the alley with the gremlin hot on its heels.
Josh approached me, licking the blood from his paws and smiling, or maybe he was just showing his teeth; it was hard to tell. “I’ll lift the Jeep; you change the tire, James.”
It sounded like a plan, and I sure as hell wasn’t in the mood to argue with a seven-foot bear-wolf-man-whatever. Josh stuck a brown furry paw under the bumper and lifted, and the rear wheel easily cleared the pavement by a good six inches. I got the feeling he could have held the Jeep there all night, especially when he started picking his teeth with the claws on his other hand. I hated to see the kid make a spectacle of himself like that, so I quickly wheeled the flat off and replaced it with the spare. I tightened the lug nuts a bit, and Josh gently let the Jeep down; then I finished up and closed the back gate.
“We’d better get a move on before something else shows--something even nastier,” Josh said. He looked like the old Josh again except where the blood had smeared on his hands and face. “Shapeshifter,” he added, pointing a thumb at himself. That was all the explanation I needed, at least for now.
We got in, Josh pulled away from the curb, and we were on our way again. If Sabrina or Alex were freaked out by what had just happened, they didn’t show it. I guess this kind of thing was commonplace for them.
“You did good, Bumper, though you should see what that sawed-off refugee from a Grimm's fairy tale did to your new shirt." Grandpa was back again.
“To hell with the shirt, Grandpa, I think the little creep carved out a kidney!”
“The back’ll heal, but that shirt’s toast.”
Grandpa faded again just as we rounded a corner and pulled up in front of a set of wrought-iron gates. A long drive wound its way uphill to a gothic manor made of gray cut stone covered in patches of creeping ivy, and complete with towers and gargoyles and stained-glass windows.
“This is the safe house? If I’ve ever seen a place crawling with gollywoggles, that’s it,” I said. Apparently I was thinking out loud again, because Sabrina and Alex broke into hysterics and Josh suddenly found something interesting out the driver's-side window, but I knew he was laughing at me.
“Wait till you see the owner,” Alex piped in, but Sabrina shushed her.
“Quite, you’ll spoil the surprise, dear.”
I guess when you live your life with the constant threat of being devoured by the forces of darkness, you get your kicks where you can.
The gates swung inward, and Josh nudged the Jeep forward and proceeded slowly up the driveway to the main doors. The entrance to the manor was well lit, and I got out of the Jeep first to do the security thing again. A light breeze rustled through the hedges that surrounded the drive. There was a strange odor in the air, something unfamiliar and unpleasant, and it made me antsy--as if I weren't spooked enough already.
I scanned the area carefully but couldn't see anything that might present a danger, so I finally motioned for the girls to get out of the car. I helped Alex out, then Sabrina, and noticed that they seemed uneasy too, which really bothered me because they'd been pretty much unaffected by everything else so far. Josh climbed the rough marble steps to the door, wrinkling his nose at the foul odour. I can only guess that for a shapeshifter the smell had to be particularly raunchy.
He hadn't quite made it to the door when the lawn in front of us erupted in a geyser of dirt and rocks and putrid black fur. I hit the ground wrapped up in a tangle of oddly disjointed and twisted limbs, caught in the glare of several pairs of baleful yellow eyes, while mucus-encrusted fangs slashed at my arms, throat, and face.
Alex screamed, and Sabrina yelled out, "Goblins!" and then Josh was on top of me, a rampaging werebeast peeling the rancid creatures off.
"Get the girls inside," I hissed through clenched teeth as one of the evil-smelling beasts dug a furrow down my sternum with a hooked talon. "Now!" I shouted as Josh hesitated.
Josh howled in rage but spun quickly and scooped the women up against his massive chest and bolted for the door. Time slowed for me again, and I managed to tear one of the goblins from me and get to my feet. Even as quick as I was now, there were just too many of them. They swarmed me, bounding and leaping, rending and tearing like spindly apes gone berserk. I was fighting a losing battle, and I knew it. It was all I could do to stay on my feet, and I knew that if I went down again they'd tear me to shreds. They were doing a pretty good job of that now. I wasn't equipped to deal with these creatures. I had no claws or fangs, and hitting them didn't effect any real damage. They simply rolled with the blows and were right back at me.
I put my back up against the Jeep, cutting down on one avenue of attack, and desperately tried to keep them from my neck and face. Suddenly a goblin to my right squealed in pain and outrage as it was torn bodily from me by a mammoth, shadowy...um, shadow. I know that sounds pretty lame, but that's exactly what it was. It hunched over its victim and crushed the goblin's skull between massive jaws. It walked on all fours--or maybe it was sixes, since its form shifted continuously--and tore into the goblins like a whirlwind with ethereal teeth and claws that left misshapen bodies sprawled everywhere.
I had a little breathing room now and peeled two of the beasts from me, smashing them together and tossing them aside. The goblins apparently weren't up for a fair fight, because they scrambled away into the dark and vanished as quickly as they had appeared.
The shadow licked its paws and sat back on its haunches. At least that's how it seemed. It was difficult to get a good look at the thing. My eyes seemed to almost slide off of it, and I could only really make it out in my peripheral vision--brief glimpses of fierce red eyes and fangs amidst a phantom silhouette.
Josh joined me beside the Jeep; Alex and Sabrina were safely inside the house.
"Do you have a dog?" Josh asked.
"Nope, but I used to. He died about eighteen years ago," I told him while I tried to take inventory of all the cuts, gouges, furrows, and slashes. "Big dopey mutt named Bear. Part Great Dane, part Black Lab and Part Irish Setter."
"I'd say that's him," he said, nodding toward the shadow. "That's what dogs really look like."
I looked more closely at the shadow, or at least tried to. "Bear?"
He kind of bounced a couple of times and did that little shuffle-step dogs do when they're excited.
Josh grinned at me. "You don't really think they sleep all the time, do you? Asleep or awake, dead or alive, it's all the same to a dog."
Bear howled--a long, drawn-out soulful sound--which believe me is a lot more eerie when they're in this form, with deep reverberations and booming echoes and an undercurrent of something wild and dangerous. Then he was gone.
“Where’d he go?”
“Who knows, but not far,” Josh assured me. “They really are man’s best friend, you know.” Josh must have suddenly realized the shape I was in, because his face took on this concerned look and he said, “I think we’d better get you inside.”
I nodded, but first retrieved the shopping bag with the rest of the new clothes I’d purchased. I was going to need them. I have to admit I really did look pretty bad. I don’t think there was an inch of skin on my body that wasn’t torn, tattered, or bruised, and my clothes were shredded. There wasn’t much blood, though. I guess you really don’t have much need for it when you’re dead.