Colfax Avenue, in downtown Denver, is a garish slash of bars, strip joints, sleazy bookstores, and prostitutes. But the side streets are gloomy, with street lights providing only token resistance to the night. Quigley moved along one of those streets. The dark seemed thick, as if transformed into something palpable, an impediment to movement. He moved silently, skirting pools of feeble illumination, his big body sliding into deep shadows where his dark clothing made him almost invisible. Casual observers could not be sure if they had seen him or caught perhaps a flutter of paper out of the corners of their eyes.
His breathing was hoarse, almost labored. His heart pounded. What the hell am I doing here? Marcy, damn her! And Kitty! Listening for any sound that broke the background of city noise, he continued forward. Goddamn, goddamn. Into his brain, unwelcome, flashed one of their bodies, mini-skirt up around her waist, arms and legs sprawled in mindless disarray, what looked like a red bib on her chest, but it wasn't a red bib at all but blood, her face drawn back in a grotesque grin of terror, a scream that must have bubbled through her slashed throat, gasping, gasping for life and .... CUT IT OUT! he screamed at himself.
He stood frozen in a shadow. His face, with prominent cheekbones, hatchet nose, and scars of street battles, twisted at the remembered ugliness. It had happened to three of the working girls, and the cops showed little interest. Oh sure, they wanted the arrest, but only because you can never tell when a psycho will start attacking citizens.... Marcy, how the hell did you become a private detective? He was her protection while her body was the bait....
A week earlier, at four o'clock in the morning, intense rappings had knocked him out of his sleep, propelled him, disheveled, into the converted sitting room office where Marcy had already snatched the .32 out of her desk drawer. She put her finger to her lips and shook her head. The heavy knocking continued. A woman's voice, muffled by the door, said, "I know you're in there, open up, goddam it!"
Quigley put his back against the wall near the door-frame. Marcy held the gun behind her and opened the door with her left hand.
A tall black woman stood there, her glossy hair architectured into fantastic whirls, but the structure seemed crushed out of shape, as if she had slept on it. Her face was round, almost moon-shaped, with mascara-blotched eyes and a smear of bright red lipstick over her mouth She wore a mini-skirt so short that the bottom swell of her buttocks protruded, and her halter top barely continued her huge breasts. She smelled of tired perfume and old sweat.
"Titty-Kitty!" Marcy said, at first hesitating, then rushing forward to embrace her.
The black woman struggled out of her grasp and glared. "Don't you treat me like no long-lost sister what owes you money. Ain't you gonna invite me in to your classy office?" she sneered. "Or is your old friends too bottom-class for you now, lady private detective who used to be a ho before she got uppity and forgot she be the original Lady Wham-Bam." She brushed past Marcy into the office. "Hmph, a used desk, coupla chairs, and cheap pictures on the walls. Hey, Wham-Bam, I remember a posh apartment and...."
"What the hell are you doing here, you damn bitch?" Quigley snarled.
Irritation contorted Kitty's face when she turned. "Goddamn, ain't that Quigley? I don't care if he got a haircut and shaved his beard so he don't look like no bear, that's Quigley, Aldivar's man. You got business with him? I'm outta here."
She moved toward the door, but Marcy stood in her way.
"Take it easy, Kitty, he's different now. He doesn't break legs for Aldivar any more. He works for me." Her tone became sharper. "Sit down, for God's sake, and tell me what you're doing here so goddamned early."
Kitty hesitated, then sank tentatively in one of the chairs. Marcy sat behind the desk and slipped her weapon into the drawer, but Quigley remained where he was.
"OK, so talk." Marcy said.
Her legs thrust forward, Kitty sprawled, indifferent to how much of her body she exposed.
"God, I'm so tired. Fifteen tricks tonight." She smiled. "Oh, they loves my jugs them white mens, I got what their mommas never dreamed of." Her face hardened. "Some son-of-a-bitch is killing the girls." Her voice became raspy and low. "He grabs them onto a side street and cuts their throats."
"Yeah, I heard about that," Quigley said. "Is he some sort of psycho or is it that the girls don't want to pay somebody off? Why come here with your problems? Go to Aldivar, he's your pimp."
"Aldivar ain't worth shit. He figures they is enough girls around he don't miss no action, so kick 'em to the curb. As long as he gets his, he don't care." Kitty turned back to Marcy. "Honey, you was always my ace-boon-coon, you know? And I need your help because...." As her voice dropped into a mumble, her expression changed. Its earlier indignation shifted into a kind of shamefaced fear. "Maybe I shouldn't tell you what I really think, you'll think my brain is gone mushy." She started to heave her body out of the chair.
Marcy stared. "Kitty, what the hell has happened to you? Where's the tough broad that told Aldivar he only gets a third of your take and if he don't like it he can play the five fingered game?"
Kitty said, "Marcy, honey, you don't know what this is. My grandma from the South told me."
Quigley and Marcy looked uncomprehendingly at her. "What are you talking about?" Quigley said. "It's only some whacko. Carry some heat, that's all you got to do."
"That's as much as you know. Kinky Clara, you know, the one what liked it in the ass, figured she could blow the SOB away. Yeah. She shot her whole clip, fifteen bullets, and don't tell me she had lousy aim 'cause he had to get real close and she couldn't miss." For a moment Kitty stared vacantly at nothing. "All right, you got to understand what you'll be up against." She hesitated, then forcing the words against a reluctant throat, whispered, "It's a vampire."
Quigley's laughter cut through the momentary silence that followed her pronouncement. "A vampire? What have you been smoking? Marcy, this has been entertaining, but I got some sleep to catch up on." With a dismissive wave, he moved toward the bedroom door.
"Wait a minute, Quig." Marcy's voice cut through his reluctance. "It isn't a vampire, but somebody out there is doing something ugly to my old friends." She turned to Kitty. "Honey, I know you're scared, but don't start bringing crazy shit into this."
"Don't tell me what I know or don't know," Kitty snapped. "My grandma from the South used to tell us about vampires, not those damned European dudes with their hair slicked back, sexy kisses and pointy bites, but the good old American kind what slashes a woman's throat and laps up her blood."
Kitty shuddered. Marcy and Quigley stared in dismay.
"Oh, I knows you think I's crazy, but I seen the damned thing bent over Kinky Clara lapping away... and you know what? He was wearing one of those capes, and he just smiled at me." Kitty's voice dropped. "I could see the blood smeared all over his mouth, dripping down his chin. He said, "Are you next?" Then he disappeared. "Oh, God," she moaned, "I's just a poor working girl... who'd want to cut me and drink my blood?"
Her face had turned a mottled gray. She shook herself, then stood. In a tired voice, she said, "The girls want to hire you to do something about this. We don't care what. Hell, if you can't do any better, send him to a white part of town, they's got thin blood but they's a lot of them." She paused, then said, "Ah, that ain't right. Just kill him, whatever he is." She marched out of the office.
Quigley avoided Marcy's eyes. "Not me," he said. "I don't want to go after some crazy guy with a knife who drinks blood. If he ain't a vampire, I don't know what the hell he is, but count me out."
He turned and left, but felt an uncomfortable shift as if he had violated some basic rule that he could hardly articulate. Ever since Madame Celeste had told him his dying mother had cursed him to be good, he had struggled to prove her wrong. Inexorably, he found himself doing decent things... but this was preposterous. To go against a mad killer, maybe a vampire, went beyond the demands of decency. The hell with Marcy and the damned job she had given him.
He wanted to go to the pool hall, but knew it would not open until noon. Where the hell am I going in such a damned hurry? He forced himself to slow down, then found himself almost rushing along Colfax Avenue as if trying to get someplace before it was too late. In the morning sunlight, the street looked like the aftermath of a boozer's party, with trash scattered everywhere, and empty wine bottles, and booze bottles, and beer bottles, and stuperous winos, in their tattered clothing slumped in deserted doorways. His mother's face, grim, condemning face flickered through his consciousness. Madame Celeste's mad laughter seemed to float just at the edge of awareness. It was as if they were pushing him, rushing him... and he found the body in an alley. He was familiar with knife wounds that bled and could be staunched. This was different. The thick, red pool of blood that surrounded her body seemed more than a body could contain.
Marcy cruised Colfax in her old hooker outfit, a crimson dress slashed up both sides of her hips, scooped low with no bra, and an orange wig. Quigley's job was to lurk in the shadows and rescue her if the vampire, or whatever he was, should choose her and cut him down.
The night wore on. Fewer men drove by looking for hot flesh and fake love. Only the hungriest whores still patrolled their beats, running up to cars stopped at red lights and inviting the drivers to have a good time, hoping for a BMW or Cadillac, or Mercedes, but getting only beat up Fords and Chevrolets.
It's time to close shop for tonight, Quigley thought. Just a damned wild goose chase.
Then, up ahead where he thought Marcy had gone, he heard a scuffle and a muffled scream. In terror he ran toward the sound, into an alley, heard scraping and twisting as if someone were being dragged deeper into the dark. His eyes, already adjusted to the night, saw two struggling figures.
"Let her go, you motherfucker!" he shouted, and charged forward. The two figures separated, the smaller sagging to the pavement. The larger turned and ran deeper into the alley, his feet crunching against the gritty pavement. I've got you, you bastard, there ain't no way out of here. You're toast.
Suddenly, everything was silent.
Quigley ran forward to the end of the alley, found the high fence that should have precluded any escape. There was no sound of running. The silence seemed dreadful to him. If the vampire, improbably, had gotten over the fence, there had been no thump, no footsteps fading into the night. For a flicker of a moment he thought about scaling the barrier, but remembered Marcy. He ran back to the fallen woman, saw it was not her but another whore, blood pouring out of a gash in her throat.
She gurgled as if trying to speak. The rush of blood slowed. Her eyes glazed.
Later Quigley and Marcy held each other for warmth against the cold fear that suffused their bodies.
"I tell you, he couldn't have gotten away. I was right behind him and then I came to the fence and he was gone." Quigley shuddered. "Marcy, what are we up against?"
She held him close. "It's gotta be a man. There isn't any such thing as a vampire. He was scared and got over the fence, and you could have done that too, but you came back to help her." She kissed him. "You're a good man."
"Damn it," he half shouted, "don't say such things about me, you know I don't like it! I'm just a guy and I'm scared... but I don't like what he's doing to the girls. Yeah, they ain't much, just street whores, but they don't have to die like that. Marcy, I'm going to get the bastard, but you can't be no part of this. It's me and him and I don't want you getting hurt."
"No," she said. "They're my friends too, and I don't like what's happening to them either. And it's my job so don't give me any crap about not being part of this. If I have to turn a trick or two, what the hell." He scowled. She added, "And don't you start to get sentimental on me, it's just business."
They roamed the night. Another girl had her throat cut, but no one except regular johns came close to Marcy. The city was in an uproar, but virtuous women felt safe. Only whores were being killed. Quigley wanted to leave, to say the hell with all of them, and live a simpler life in which all he had to do was follow Aldivar's orders and not worry about doing the right thing. But his visit to that damned Madame Celeste had changed all that. Damn her, if she was so goddamned smart she ought to be able to figure this one out.
Fear kept him away until another girl was killed, and reluctantly he returned to Madame Celeste. Cursing to himself, he moved toward her ramshackle house with its faded sign hanging from a post. A slight wind made it sway, producing an ugly grating sound. Why doesn't she do something about that damned noise?
He knocked on her door. It squealed open. The woman, if anything grayer and more wrinkled than before, looked at him with scorn. Her false eyelashes and rouge dominated her face, and for an instant Quigley thought she was younger than he remembered. A trick of the damned light.
"So, you have returned?" Her voice had a hoarse, raspy quality. Part of Quigley thought: Just like her damned sign. "When you were here before you seemed not pleased with my efforts." She essayed a smile that did not reach her eyes. "I see that you have changed. You walk straighter and you dress like a normal man. Yes, a mother's curse is the most powerful of all. And you are starting to like it, aren't you?"
"Damn you," Quigley said, and almost turned to go, but the urgency of the deaths forced him to stay.
"Don't say anything," Madame Celeste commanded, "I know why you are here."
"Bullshit," he exploded, "no one knows I'm here, even Marcy. You're trying to run a game on me. Not this time."
Celeste laughed. "Foolish man, examine my sign, then come in." She turned and walked into the gloom of the building, leaving the door open.
Quigley read: "Madame Celeste Knows All & Tells All." Pure crap, he thought, just like her get-up and just like her style. Again he thought to leave, but the damned image of his frowning mother gave him pause--and the thought of the murdered women dissolved his reluctance.
He found Madame Celeste seated in the dark room with just a small candle to give faint illumination, the same damned room where she told him about his mother's curse, how he would have to do nothing but good so that they would meet in heaven. "OK, I'm here. You say you know why, so tell me and tell me how to get the bastard so I can sleep again."
Madame Celeste grimaced, then seemed to collapse into herself. Her voice became weak and trembly. "The monster you seek floats between heaven and hell, deranged and cruel, not himself, yet truly himself. He seeks some minuscule truth about the meaning of life and cannot find it, so despairs."
Quigley squirmed in his chair. Her words meant nothing to him, but their tone filled him with dread. "Old lady, I'm outta here unless you tell me how to find him." Part of him hoped she would remain silent so he could leave.
She laughed, raucously, without humor. "When you search for him, turn around when the dog barks, and he will be there, but... you may wish otherwise. Begone. You may pay me at your leisure... if there is anything left of you." The dim candle flickered out.
"There are a million dogs in the goddamned city," Quigley roared. "What kind of help is that?" He fumbled to the door and ran.
Running? What the hell is going on? Where am I going? What's the rush? Slow down, he commanded himself, but his legs thrust him forward down the streets, abruptly spun him around corners, dashed him through traffic. Shouts of rage from passersby whose space was violated by his mindless run faded as he rushed away from them. Where am I going?
As he ran he felt a kind of exuberance, as if something inside him, crusted over and forgotten, was emerging. Where before he felt fear, he now felt.... Reluctance dissolved in the heat of his desire to stop the vampire. In the face of his running, his strength increased.
He ran into the night, down Colfax Avenue with its cheap neon signs advertising, GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS, and the bookstores with giant XXXs on their fronts to warn the unwary and invite the seekers of erotic fantasies. A woman's voice called, "Quigley, where are you going?" Hands reached out. He dimly heard, "Can you spare a quarter?" and other such pleas, but he kept running, thought he heard running behind him, then suddenly turned into a side street, ran halfway down, stopped and uncertainly retraced his steps--then stood listening, listening, to the soft wind rustle old newspapers, the distant mumble of traffic, a cat's scream of passion, a dog's bark behind him. A dog's bark? He turned and looked into a dark alley. He did not see the woman turn into the street.
He thought, I don't want to go in there, but at the same time his legs moved him forward into the deeper shadows. What am I doing? If that bastard is in there I've had it. She said he's between heaven and hell; this is no place for Mrs. Quigley's kid to try to find redemption.
"Yes, come closer," a deep voice rumbled in a corner of the darkness. A drawling voice from the deep south, a Gone with the Wind kind of voice. Quigley remembered Titty-Kitty talking about her grandmother and Southern vampires. He screamed at himself to run, but his insanely courageous legs inched himself still closer.
The voice continued: "You have been trying to find me, and now you have succeeded. If you have thought it discourteous of me to try to avoid you, now I make amends. Let me embrace you like a long-lost brother and then you'll forget all about this nonsense."
A light in the window of one of the adjoining houses went on, illuminating the creature. His face was pure white, with deep sad eyes and thin black eyebrows that seemed charred across his forehead. His lips were full and red with a gentle twist to them. His black hair, parted in the middle, hung to his shoulders. A cloak, darker than the shadow, concealed the rest of him. Except for his face, he was an amorphous blur.
Even Quigley's legs could not propel him farther, but he could not force himself back. The vampire moved toward him as if floating. Then an arm thrust out from under the cloak and raised high. Something flashed in his hand.
Don't let him do this cut through Quigley's frozen mind. Stop him. Fight him. Was it Madame Celeste's voice, his mother's, or his own? He could not tell, but fists raised, he mechanically stepped forward to meet the creature's slow advance.
"So you come eagerly for our embrace? Not many have the courage for that. Sir, I salute you, but now for the end of the charade." He started a lunge toward Quigley, but stopped at a scream of rage, a woman's scream filled with loathing and hatred. It was Marcy.
"Get out of here." Quigley's constricted throat could only rasp the words.
"No, no, my dear," the creature almost crooned. "You are the other one who has sought and now found." He brushed past Quigley toward Marcy. "You are for me first, then your friend who is so frozen with fear. Oh, this is a bountiful night. The blood of love will dissolve my sorrow." He paused. "You do not run? Ah, love makes heroes of us all." He moved forward again.
There were three sharp cracks, then a fourth and a fifth, each accompanied by a brief finger of flame from Marcy's pistol.
He staggered, then continued toward her. "Have you not heard that I am immortal?" The creature laughed and grabbed Marcy with his left arm, his right arm crooked to slash at her throat. A gleam of light caught his weapon, a straight razor. He pressed her closer. More shots fired into his chest. He laughed again. "And now for the denouement."
At the shots, Quigley came together, his legs, his body, his mind united in common purpose. He ran at the creature, wrapped both arms around him and spun him away from Marcy. The vampire flailed at Quigley with the razor as he staggered to his knees. "Marcy, run," shouted Quigley.
"Shall it be you first, then, after all?" The creature hissed and launched himself.
But Quigley was faster. "Maybe you'll kill me, but you're gonna know pain first." He shifted to his left and smashed his enemy in the gut. It was like hitting a tree. The vampire halted a brief moment, laughed, came forward again. Quigley also laughed, hit the creature in the head, once, twice, then again. The razor clattered to the pavement. Staggering backwards vampire covered his face with his hands. Blood trickled through his fingers. Quigley leaped at him, hammered him, reveled in the blood pouring out of nose and mouth, the broken jaw, the pure panic that defined the creature's face.
Then the vampire was down, whimpering, crying, "No more, oh God, please, no more!"
Marcy stumbled to Quigley, leaned on him while her body shuddered its fear.
"But--but I shot him." Gasping made her speech ragged. "I sh-shot him, why isn't he dead?" She hung on to him. "We've got to get away from him, he's the devil!"
"Naw," Quigley responded, "he's human. Crazy, maybe, but human. Let me show you something."
Bending over his bleeding enemy, he pulled open the cloak. There was a heavy jacket, quilted, with no buttons down the front, like a thick vest put on backwards. "See, that's why he couldn't be shot. The bastard protected himself. When I hit him I figured it out. No vampire needs a bulletproof vest, so that was the end of it... hey, who's there?"
Titty-Kitty and some of the other girls had gathered at the entrance to the alley. Quigley and Marcy slowly walked toward them.
"He's yours, girls," Quigley said. "Whatever you do with him is OK with us." Marcy nodded.
The woman gathered around the beaten man. "I say we cut his balls off and sew them in his mouth," one of them said. "No, let's stomp him flat," another said. "Burn him," hissed another. "Let's get some gasoline and torch him, he don't deserve no better."
Kitty glared at the whimpering killer. Blood and tears on his face mixed, blurring his features. She raised her hand as if to strike him, to start the process by which the girls would slaughter him. But then her harsh expression gradually softened. "Nah, he's trash, and all, but that ain't the way to go." She spit in his face. "We'se whores, but we ain't like him. Somebody call the police."
"Goddamit, Kitty," one of the girls said, "we gotta do something to him."
"Naw," she replied, "there ain't no benefit to that. He's just a crazy sick guy what's got to be in the hospital." She grinned. "And we owe Marcy a lot of money so we better get back to work."
Later, in bed with Marcy's head on his shoulder, Quigley said, "The only thing I can't figure is how he disappeared that night. I had him trapped and he was gone. There should have been at least some sounds of him running." He yawned. "God, I wish I knew."
"It doesn't make any difference," Marcy said, "does it? He was only a man." Then, in a softer, more timorous tone, she said, "And you were wonderful."
At these unfamiliar words, Quigley stiffened. For a moment the old impulse to snarl almost resurrected itself, then faded. He dozed off with his mother's smiling face glowing in his brain.
Bertram Benmeyer is a retired clinical psychologist who has taken up writing in the last few years. He has published more than 20 short stories and articles and is currently working on a science fiction novel. He enjoys listening to jazz, blues, classical, and other music.