Book two is out and available for order!
It’s out! Or rather, it’s as far out as I can put it. Apparently it will take up to seventy-two hours before Bloody Banquet is actually, really and for real AVAILABLE, but I’ve done my part.
I’m excited. And nervous. And I need to get back to work on book three…
No, not an ‘Annie’ revival, the official release of my second Corpse-Eater Book! Bloody Banquet is currently being reviewed on Create Space, so in twenty four hours I should officially be releasing it out to the world!
Bloody Banquet has been ready to go for a while now, unfortunately I had a little trouble with the cover. Funny story, it turns out that cover art can be downright expensive! Thankfully, I was able to come up with a photograph that a friend filtered for me, and made something that… well, it’s not brilliant or anything, but dammit, it’s good enough!
Now, the bad news is that I don’t know how long it takes between when I okay the book and when it’s actually really and for real available, I think it’s a day or so. I’ll work on that, though, you just get ready to read. Can’t wait to hear what you think!
Man… I used a lot of exclamation marks on this one.
So, a while back I saw a cartoon on Facebook that really stuck with me. It’s been a while, so I may have some of the details wrong, but I remember the gist of it. The title was, ‘the world’s first science fiction stories.’ One of them showed a caveman hitting a rock against another rock, while some other caveman yelled at him: ‘Thag! You Crazy! You destroy us all!’ In the next panel we saw the world splitting in half with a mighty ‘crack’ as Thag did indeed destroy us all. The next cartoon showed a similar scenario, with one caveman trying to start a fire, while another stood behind him shouting. ‘Grog gone mad! He kill us all!’ And in the following panel, well, you guessed it, the world was on fire.
My first reaction was to chuckle because, well, that’s pretty damned funny. But after that I couldn’t help but think about what was being said.
Science fiction, in this scenario, was playing the role of the fear monger. It shied away from any form of progress, or really, any kind of change at all. And it was an accurate depiction of many science fiction stories. Not all, obviously. Star Trek’s attitude towards technology tends towards optimism, and according to some television shows, technology is the solution to most of lives problems.
But there are definitely stories that fall into the framework described in the cartoons. One of the more obvious ones being ‘Jurassic Park.’ An eccentric billionaire figures out how to clone dinosaurs. He is warned of the dangers, but does it anyway, and the world falls apart because of it. Or at least, an island falls apart because of it.
So, is there a divide in science fiction? Fear mongering on one side, and hopeful idealism on the other?
I don’t think that’s the case. Partly because I enjoy the occasional ‘destroyed by their own hubris,’ story, but also because these stories don’t make we want to hide my head in the sand. At least, not forever.
I watched Terminator, and I still want us to start building AIs. I read ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,’ and I still want us to build androids. I read Jurassic Park, and I still want someone to start bringing back extinct species (in fact, I’d very much like to bring back the Dodo bird just to start a fast food franchise).
More than once, I’ve encountered people who treat science fiction as though it were prophetic. Arguments against the creation of artificial intelligence that amount to: ‘didn’t you see terminator? Don’t you know what will happen?’
But that isn’t the message that I take from those stories. To me they exist as reminders that we’re responsible for what happens now. Throughout much of human existence, when bad things happened, they were external forces which happened to us. Attacks by wild animals, natural disasters, what have you. But we have, as a species, reached a sort of puberty, and much of what lies ahead of us is going to be the result of the choices that we make.
In fairness, that’s reading quite a bit into what is, on a very real level, ‘just a story.’ But I think that it is a more valid message than, ‘fear change.’
Any butcher can tell you that different meat taken from the same animal can vary wildly in price. The same carcass, once it has been separated into its appropriate cuts, will be prepared in any number of different ways, for people from any number of different social tiers.
Why? Because human palates are sensitive enough to distinguish between the unique toughness, fat content, and flavor of the well-used muscles in the shoulders and hips, versus the more marbled tissue of, say, the tenderloin. The palate of a ghoul is about a hundred times more sophisticated than that of a human, so when we eat a meal, we can detect a lot more than just how much the muscle worked. We’re not just eating some food; we’re savoring a story.
If I somehow found a way to transcribe the heart I was gnawing on at the moment, I would have my hands on a real tear jerker. The protagonist was a woman who had lived fast and hard, and died young. She was athletic, probably into running or bicycling. She’d gotten into drugs for a while, then gotten clean early in her twenties. She’d contracted a couple of STDs over the years, and I was pretty sure she’d been pregnant once or twice, albeit briefly. Oh, and while she was mostly healthy when it came to her food choices, she had a bit of a weakness for pork.
And she’d spent the last few years of her life as a blood donor to some neckbiters, which had, in due course, brought her to my table.
A story of a life. It was incomplete, of course. There was no way to know if she had preferred reading books or watching movies, and I couldn’t tell how many friends she’d had, or guessed her favorite color. Still, most humans would be shocked at how much I could tell from my meal.
I continued chewing, looking for more telltale flavors in the epic saga of one corpse, while simultaneously cleaning and prepping another dead body for her upcoming funeral.
“Hello? Is anyone here?”
The voice, female and unfamiliar, was too close for comfort. My hearing is much sharper than a human’s, and normally I would have known as soon as anyone entered the building, but with Percy on duty upstairs, I’d assumed it was safe for me to play some music while I worked.
I estimated my uninvited visitor was at the top of the stairs, meaning she’d just passed the closed door with the ’employees only’ sign on it. She was probably about forty-five seconds away from seeing something she couldn’t unsee. And that was assuming she used that slow, half-guilty approach most people have when they find themselves somewhere they’re not supposed to be.
I cursed my incompetent, borderline useless assistant, swallowed the rest of the heart in a single gulp, and threw myself into hiding all the dirty little secrets I currently had lying about my workspace.
It would have been faster and easier to step outside and block her approach, but if she had some reason to want to see the prep room, I wouldn’t be able to rush back in and clean the place up.
First up was the body I wasn’t supposed to have. The neckbiters had dropped two corpses off a few days ago, and since I hadn’t had any reason to rush, I’d been devouring the remains a little each day.
One was tucked away in a drawer and was unlikely to be uncovered by anyone not actively seeking him out.
The other was lying on a gurney, her chest cavity wide open, and most of her organs already consumed. She’d likely gotten involved in the vampire world on an entirely voluntary basis, but there was always a chance that somebody somewhere was looking for her. The last thing I needed was for an interloper to match one of my corpses with a photograph on a milk carton or something they’d seen on TV.
I grabbed the gurney and rushed it into my walk in cooler, careful not to let the entrails spill out.
That reminded me: I whipped my tongue out of my mouth and wiped a few bits of carcass off. Ghouls are not, by our nature, the tidiest of eaters. I raised my hands to my mouth and licked away the telltale stains from my fingers.
Thankfully, my tongue is probably one of the most effective cleaning tools in the world. If I could figure out how to manufacture a synthetic equivalent, I’d start a dishrag company and retire a wealthy man.
What else? I swept a couple of tumors that I had been saving for later into a coffee can and shoved that into the back of a cabinet. The cooler I’d been filling with viscera got closed and kicked out of sight, under my desk.
The footsteps, still hesitant, were almost at the bottom of the staircase. What had I forgotten? I scanned the room and I swore under my breath. I leaped over the gurney that held the body I’d been prepping, landed silently on the cement floor on all fours, then forced myself to stand up straight as I pulled on my pants, shirt, and jacket.
Working nude isn’t typical for me, but I’d spent an inordinate time around humans, recently, which meant an inordinate amount of time standing in that awkward, human stance, speaking like a human, moving like a human. It took its toll, and since I was finally in a place where I could be myself, I’d gone to the extreme in an attempt to, as people say, ‘decompress.’
“Excuse me?” she called out from just outside my door.
I shoved my feet into my sneakers and my tinted glasses up in front of my oversized eyes just as my intruder pushed her way into the room.
“Oh! Oh I’m so sorry!” She held a pile of files up to block her view of the naked body I had been working on.
An eyelash over five feet tall, probably less than a hundred pounds, she had the frazzled hair and mismatched clothes of someone who did far too much work for far too little money.
“What are… you’re not supposed to be down here!” I put an edge of reprimand in my voice as I shut off my blaring music and moved quickly for the door. “This area is for staff only.”
She hesitated for a moment, probably weighing the impropriety of remaining in the room against the importance of her quest. “Oh, yes! Yes, I can see that! And I’m so sorry… I’m looking for a Mr. Walter Keppler?”
I pulled the woman back into the hallway by her elbow, shutting the door firmly behind us.
“Well, you’ve found me, but in the future, I’d recommend calling first.”
“I am sorry about that, I just happened to be in the neighborhood. Um, is there somewhere we could talk?”
I sighed. “Funeral arrangements should be discussed with my assistant, Percy. Frankly, he should have caught you when you came in.”
The fact that Percy hadn’t been doing his job didn’t surprise me much, but it did worry me a little. His pastimes have a way of coming back to bite me in the ass.
“I didn’t see anyone up there. Maybe he was in the bathroom.”
“Anyhow, I didn’t come here about funeral arrangements,” the woman continued. “I really do need to speak to you, Mr. Keppler. It won’t take long.” She glanced at her watch. “I don’t have enough time for it to take long. I’m already late.”
I hesitated, taking a quick sniff as I did. Like most of my kind, I rely more on sounds and smells than on sight.
She smelled of office work and desperation. Plenty of sweat, mostly from long hours, but there were hints of anger sweat, too. And copier ink. There were traces of mold, mildew and asbestos on her, not enough that it represented the majority of her time, but she’d been in some buildings that should have been torn down or renovated years ago.
“What exactly is this regarding, ma’am?”
“Do you know a girl… a young woman, actually, by the name of Patricia Courning?”
I blinked at the woman. A young woman? Was she looking for somebody who’d gone missing? Usually people like that turned up in the city morgue, not a private mortuary. “I don’t think so. Why?”
“I was afraid of that. It seems that you’ve touched her life in some way, and, strange as it may sound, you might just be the only person she trusts.”
It’s rare that I speak without thinking, but this particular statement was simply too farfetched for me to control myself. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
The woman blinked at me.
I cleared my throat. “Sorry, what I mean to say is…” I searched for several seconds but couldn’t think of anything more appropriate. “Let me show you to my office,” I said at last.
The woman allowed me to guide her back up the stairs, juggling her files and an oversized purse.
“Oh, I forgot to introduce myself,” she blurted as we reached the top. “I’m Samantha Neil.” She pulled a business card out of her bag and shoved it at me.
I took the card and glanced at it before shoving it into my pocket. The woman was a social worker. What a social worker wanted from me I couldn’t even begin to guess. What I did know was that I wanted as little as possible to do with anyone remotely attached to the government.
“Uh-huh.” I continued down the hallway and around a corner. Due to the peculiarities of the building which I had converted into a mortuary, my office was not only a floor up from the prep room where I spent most of my time, but on the far end of the building as well.
“Anyway, as I said, I’m here about Patricia.”
“Still don’t know who that is.”
Samantha cleared her throat, hurrying to keep up with me. I’m not especially tall, but I’m a fast walker when I’m in a mood, and having someone burst into my prep room like that put me in a mood.
“Yes, that’s what I’m trying to–”
I held up a hand, stopping her for a moment. We reached the end of the hall and I ushered the woman into my office, a small, dark, cement walled room dominated by filing cabinets and a desk. There was barely enough space for the two of us to sit across from each other. That was fine with me. I didn’t deal with the customers, and I kind of preferred for the people I did meet with to feel a little uncomfortable.
I cleared my throat. “All right. So, some girl….”
Samantha flipped through her files as she spoke. “This is all a little difficult, normally I talk with family members, but Patricia doesn’t seem to have any. Or if she did, her mother managed to sever the ties thoroughly enough that I can’t find them. An interesting woman, her mother. Very abusive. Very controlling.”
A girl with a controlling, abusive mother. A knot formed in my intestines, a premonition that this conversation was about to take an unfortunate turn.
Samantha pulled out a file and opened it, showing me a picture of a teenaged girl with bright blonde hair and a black eye.
“So you do recognize her?”
I did. I’d met her several times, and each time she tried to kill me.
No, that wasn’t accurate. The first few times she’d tried to kill me, but during our final encounter she’d watched her mother try to kill me.
Then she’d watched me bite her mother’s head off. Literally.
“We’ve bumped into each other once or twice.”
“Right.” Samantha hesitated, then sighed. “Look, Mr. Keppler, at any given point in time I have between thirty and forty-five open cases. That’s thirty to forty-five children whose lives have basically gone to shit, if you’ll excuse my candor. I do the best I can, but most of the time I’m using band aids on gangrene.”
“Sorry to hear it.”
She waved off my sentiment. “I’m not asking for sympathy; I just need you to understand that I have to prioritize my time. I’ve got a lot of boys and girls under my supervision who have very real problems, so when I get a seventeen-year-old girl whose mother decided to skip town a few months before her daughter is technically an adult, I’m going to do my best for her, but I’m going to do it as fast as I can.”
Samantha cleared her throat. “Let me break this down: Patricia is going to reach the age of majority in a little more than seven months. When she does, she’s got a small house that’s mostly paid off, her mother’s old car, which probably won’t last too much longer, but is, at least, hers, free and clear, and a bank account that her mother appears to have left behind when she disappeared.”
“Oh.” I furrowed my brow. “I would’ve expected it to be a lot harder for her to inherit everything with her mother having disappeared instead of, say, turning up dead.”
“Usually it is. Thankfully, for all the woman’s failings, she was thorough when she set up her living will. Anyhow, the point is, Patricia is not what I would call a priority case. But I do have certain concerns. Ignoring her massively underwhelming education, the girl hasn’t got the foggiest idea how to live in the real world. She doesn’t know how to cook or clean or balance a checkbook. She’s never had a job or been encouraged to think about a career. She manages to be both amazingly paranoid, and exceptionally gullible.”
“As much as I hate to interrupt, what exactly does all of this have to do with me?”
“A few days ago, Patricia and I had a rather illuminating conversation, and, while there is a limit to how much I can share, the long and short of it is that she’s been used quite a bit in her life. It seems as though every relationship she’s been in has been based on someone getting something out of her. In fact, when pressed, the only person she could name who she didn’t think wanted to get something out of her was you.”
“That’s… interesting.” In point of fact, I had wanted something from her. I’d wanted her to leave me alone, which is basically what I want from everyone.
“That isn’t to say that she likes you, exactly. Apparently, you and her mother had some kind of conflict?”
Samantha stared at me in askance, and I stared back, stone-faced.
“Anyway,” she continued, “Patricia seems to feel that she owes it to her mother to hate you, but it’s a halfhearted hatred at best.”
“Oh, good, she half-hates me. And what, exactly, do you think I can do for this girl who only half-hates me?”
“Essentially, Mr. Keppler, she needs a friend.”
“May I recommend Facebook?”
Samantha forced a pained smile. “Hilarious.”
“Or maybe high school?”
“High school isn’t going well for her at the moment.” Samantha tapped the photo. “You may have noticed the black eye?”
“I was curious about that. As I recall, she was quite capable of handling herself. I wouldn’t have expected her to lose to a few grade school bullies.”
“Actually, that black eye is from when the police picked her up. And I wouldn’t say she lost that fight. The long and short of it is, she isn’t very good at handling conflict. She isn’t skilled at verbal confrontations, but she’s very good at fights. She’s been in high school all of two months and she’s on the verge of being expelled. She would have been expelled except for… complications. And, since I’m being frank anyway, between her social problems and her abysmal grades, I’m guessing that she’s going to drop out first chance she gets.”
“Oh.” I bit my lip, trying to wait the appropriate length of time before diverting the conversation back to its original track. “The point I was trying to make is that a mortuary owner twice her age may not be the best person to set this ‘Patricia’ up on a play date with.” Actually, I was only about ten years older than her, but ghouls tend to age poorly, and most people I met assumed I was in my mid to late thirties. “Aren’t you concerned that I might be a… a… oh, hell, I don’t know, some kind of child molester?”
She grimaced. “The child molesters I worry about aren’t interested in seventeen year olds.”
I raised an eyebrow. She flushed a bright pink. That was probably the kind of thing that a social worker could get in trouble for saying.
“I mean…” she backtracked, obviously flustered, “I told you, you’re the only person she could name who didn’t seem to want something out of her. Maybe it’s all a ploy; maybe you’re looking to take advantage of her by fooling her into thinking you don’t want anything from her. Maybe you’re a very skilled sociopath. It’s impossible to be certain, that’s something I learned early on in this job. I play the odds, and right now I’ve got you on one hand who might be looking to take advantage of her, everyone else she knows from her old life, who apparently did take advantage of her, and on a third hand, all of the new people in her life who she doesn’t get along with at all. Look, as I’ve said, Patricia’s case isn’t my highest priority. I’d like to see things go well for the girl, I really would, but I’ve only got so many hours in the week. Basically, I just wanted to let you know that there’s a girl out there who could use a hand, and you could be that hand. If you decide you’d be willing to help, you have my card, give me a call and I’ll try to set something up. If you don’t, then you don’t. I’ve done my part.”
“I see.” I patted the pocket I’d put her card in. “Well then, I’ll either call you, or I won’t.”
Samantha nodded and stood up, almost bumping into the door as she turned to leave. “It was good meeting you, Mr. Keppler, I’ll show myself out.”
“Right.” I remained seated as I listened to her exit the building and drive away. I had no intention of making that call. I owed the girl nothing, and the fact that she’d seen me in any sort of positive light after our encounters was both incredibly depressing, and strong evidence that she needed to be medicated.
What I did need to deal with was the apparent absence of my assistant.
I headed into the lobby and took a sniff. He’d been gone for at least fifteen minutes, but less than half an hour. I’d noticed his car out front as I’d walked the social worker to my office, so he was probably on the premises.
While I can’t hear everything that goes on in my building, if Percy wanted real privacy, the best place for it was out back, next to the loading bay. Due to the natural geography of the area, the loading dock opened to the building’s basement, which meant that it was in a deeply slanted area out back. An area hidden from view of the passing roadway and with lots of sound-muffling walls. Very convenient when I have to take deliveries of corpses that officially didn’t exist. It also put the thickest wall in the building between me and Percy.
The stairs next to my office led directly down to the loading bay. I hopped down them and headed for the back door.
Percy is kind of like a puppy; if you aren’t looking directly at him, chances are good he’s tearing up the furniture or shitting on the rug. Sadly, it isn’t enough to run into the room yelling whenever he’s done something bad: like a puppy, he’ll whine and hide his face and swear up and down that someone else did it. You have to catch him in the act and rub his face in it.
I pressed my ear up against the back door and listened.
“No, no, I’m not saying that. I’m saying I need a few more days.” There was a pause. “Come on, you know I’m good for it. I’ve always been good for it; you just need to give me a little more time.”
He owed someone money he didn’t have. Not surprising, but more importantly, not my problem. As long as he was shitting outdoors, I was happy.
“No, not my place. Meet me at the stiff-house. Tomorrow.”
My hackles rose, though I wasn’t sure if it was because he’d called my mortuary a ‘stiff-house’ or because he was bringing his problems right to my front door.
“Son of a bitch!”
Somehow Percy managed to hang up his phone and slip it into his pocket before the door slammed open, into the alleyway wall.
“Hey! Walter! Don’t tell me you’re done with that body already?”
He was smiling, but the tension in his jaw told me that he was frightened. He didn’t know exactly how much I’d heard, so he wasn’t sure what, if anything, he needed to confess to.
“No, I’m not done with the body, but I got interrupted by a potential customer who wandered downstairs.” I wasn’t about to let Percy know about a seventeen-year-old girl who needed a friend. I might not give a damn about the girl, but I wasn’t actively looking to destroy what was left of her life.
“Oh. Shit.” Percy took a step and a half away from me. “Sorry, boss. I just stepped out for a minute. I didn’t think anyone would be stopping by.”
“Do you have any idea what that woman almost walked in on? I pay you to deal with the customers, Percy! I pay you a lot more than you’re worth, so that I don’t have to worry about people interrupting me down there!”
He was also supposed to help me on body pickups and keeping the place clean, but he never carried his own weight with those. I turned a blind eye to those failings, as long as he acted as a buffer between me and people.
“Sorry, boss.” Percy began to relax. He figured that if I hadn’t brought up his conversation yet, I hadn’t actually heard it.
“And what exactly were you doing out here, anyway?”
Percy’s left eye twitched; he was about to lie. “I just wanted some fresh air.”
“And the air back here is fresher than the air out front?”
“It’s definitely cooler.”
That much was true. The loading dock got less than five hours of direct sunlight a day.
I briefly considered confronting my assistant with what I knew. He’d just weave together some bullshit story that I couldn’t quite disprove, though. Better to give him enough rope that I could strangle him with it later.
“Fine, whatever. Are you done breathing now?”
“Um, yeah, I’m good.”
Back at home, I made sure to lock the door behind me before I sank into a comfortable crouch and shuffled off to the bedroom to change out of my work clothes.
It had been a long day: one of the bodies needed more repair work than I’d expected, and my coffin supplier was giving me excuses about a shipment that should have come in two days earlier. All of that before I found out that I was going to have to come in on what was supposed to be my day off to see what mischief Percy was getting up to.
But those were all concerns that could wait until tomorrow. Today I had special plans. I glanced at the clock: six twenty-five. Plenty of time. More than enough time. Too much time, really.
I could have watched TV for an hour or so, or maybe read a book, but I was too excited. I headed into the kitchen, pulling a broken crock pot that I’d stolen from a neighbor’s trash can off the top shelf.
A few months back I had gone through what I liked to think of as a ‘long hard weekend,’ and the circumstances of it had significantly depleted my financial reserves. Pretty much all of the money that wasn’t dedicated to rent or utilities was gone. All of it except my rainy-day fund. Eighty-five dollars in ones and fives that I’d tucked away one bill at a time, then completely forgotten about when I needed it most. I would have been stoked if I’d remembered it back when hunters were chasing me, and a bimbo neckbiter was spending all of my money, but it had been even more exciting, a week later, when I remembered it.
The bills made for an impressive stack of cash, even if the total value of it was slightly less than the value of a new tire.
The most important thing about the money, however, was that it was cash. Part of the agreement that I’d made about tonight was that it had to be secret. It wasn’t enough, I’d been informed, that nobody knew, there should be no way for anybody to find out about it. Ever.
I straightened the wad of bills as best I could, secured it with a rubber band, made a quick phone call, and headed to the door.
There were several stops to make before my final destination. If history had taught me anything, it was the value of preparation.
I stopped at the hardware store first. A decent sized roll of plastic was available for twenty-three bucks. I considered buying a gallon of paint, just so the checkout girl would assume I was repainting my house, but that stuff is surprisingly expensive. Instead I bought the cheapest paintbrush I could find. Hopefully the girl would assume I had the paint at home.
Next stop was the butcher shop. He sold the bits and pieces he was supposed to throw away under the table for pocket cash. Neckbiters prefer blood straight from the vein, and human blood over animals, but they could only drop so many bodies before people started paying attention. The older vampires kept stables of willing donors, but the lesser bloodsuckers of any particular household had to supplement the volunteers if they didn’t want to go hungry.
I wasn’t sure how much the butcher actually knew about the supernatural community, but he was definitely human, so odds were good he couldn’t tell me from a neckbiter. And even if somebody did find out I was buying pig’s blood, I reasoned, I could claim that I liked to mix it in to some of my meals. Nobody really knew enough about ghoul eating habits to contradict me.
A quarter gallon of blood set me back five dollars. The price seemed a bit high to me, but it was a seller’s market, and I had no idea where else one would go to buy blood.
Stop number three was the dump. Or rather, right next to the dump. As a rule, people aren’t allowed to just dive in and grab whatever they want, but a business acquaintance of mine had given me the name and number of someone who worked there. That was who I’d called just before I left home. About fifteen yards past the gate to the landfill, I rolled up on a young man pretending to work on the car he’d pulled off the road. He’d positioned the queen size mattress in some tall grass, on the downslope of the hill that the road ran up. I wouldn’t have even seen it if I hadn’t been looking for it.
The thing about mattresses, if you ever have to get rid of one, is that you can’t do anything convenient with them. You can’t donate a mattress, or sell it, at least, not to any organization in Colorado. It’s a health issue, apparently. I don’t know if it’s an actual health concern, or just a perceived risk. Being a ghoul, I don’t have to worry about that kind of thing. The point, though, is that a lot of high quality, barely used mattresses end up getting tossed out because there simply isn’t anything else that can be done with them.
The boy glanced around for prying eyes before tossing the merchandise in the back of my truck, and walking around to my window.
I gave him twenty bucks in ones.
He raised an eyebrow.
“Secondhand mattresses stolen from dumps don’t get bought by people with rolls of twenties in their pockets,” I informed him.
He shrugged, shoved the money into his jeans and hopped into his car.
I made a u-turn and headed back into town.
My last stop was at a flower shop. More specifically, the dumpster behind a flower shop. I’ve never understood why anyone is willing to pay the exorbitant fees that those places charge for what amounts to weeds. Especially dead weeds. I do have a hookup for flowers. When you’re in the funeral business you end up on good terms with certain groups, but the guy I bought through was a notorious gossip and I didn’t want word getting out through him.
I filled a small garbage bag with half wilted flowers, jumped back in my truck, and pulled out.
All told, it had been less than an hour since I stepped out my front door, which left me with over two hours of waiting, but by this point I was almost jittering with excitement. I knew I should head back to my house for a bit, or maybe out to a nearby cemetery, just to calm down, but I couldn’t make myself do it.
So I headed to the motel.
The thirty-three bucks and change I had left turned out to be more than enough. I didn’t spot any security cameras, and the man behind the desk didn’t even look up from the porno mag as he took my money and handed me a key. It occurred to me as I walked to my room that I probably didn’t need to take all of the precautions I was taking; this was the kind of place a serial killer might take a victim if he didn’t want to clean up afterward.
In some motels, the furniture was bolted down to prevent theft, but the owners here had apparently decided that anybody desperate enough to steal their shit could have it. I didn’t want it, but I did want it out of the way, so I stacked everything against one of the walls.
Once I had the center of the room cleared out, I headed back out to the car for my supplies. I covered the floor and walls with plastic. My junkyard mattress went in the middle of the room. I filled the sink with hot water and put the container of blood in to warm up.
As for the flowers, I spent the next half hour pulling the petals off of the stems and covering the bed. I ate the stems. Not that I was hungry, but I am a bit of a nervous eater.
Admittedly, between the plastic on the floor and the lack of sheets on the bed, it wasn’t the most romantic setup in the world, but given what we’d done to the last hotel room we’d stayed in, I thought Sherry would appreciate the practicality of the arrangement.
All that was left was to wait for an hour and a half.
I sighed, mentally berating myself for coming so early. I didn’t even bring a book. I briefly considered watching some tv, but the last thing I’d seen on television that was remotely interesting was a necropsy video done on a rotting whale carcass, and somehow I doubted that this hotel had sprung for that particular viewing package.
I headed into the bathroom and lay down in the tub to try and get some sleep.
When it comes to places to nap, my personal preference is a nest. I like dried leaves, partially eaten carcasses, torn up cloth, twigs, the occasional insect scurrying over my face. Things like that. Barring that, I’ll take a hole in the ground, or an old sarcophagus. If push comes to shove, however, I can also get some decent sleep in a bathtub. Folding myself into a ball, cool hard plastic pressed against me, some dripping water and, best case scenario, something heavy laying over the top, it’s kind of like sleeping in a tomb, which I find soothing.
Of course, I was far too wound up to actually get any sleep.
After about an hour of laying in the tub, smelling the grimy remnants of the hundred or so people who’d used it before, I climbed out and headed to the bedroom to twiddle my thumbs. On the way, I stopped to empty the sink and refill it with hot water.
She’d come soon.
I sunk into a comfortable hunch in the bedroom and waited.
At half an hour late, I assumed she had some unexpected problems to deal with and would be heading my way as fast as she could manage.
At an hour and fifteen minutes, I supposed that she must’ve had an emergency and hadn’t been able to call to tell me.
At the two-hour mark, I realized that she must have completely forgotten me, and the smart thing was to get out of here with what was left of my dignity.
By the time I caught the smell of my lover approaching, three and a half hours after our agreed upon time, I was tempted not to answer her knock at all. I didn’t mind that she didn’t want to be seen with me in public: neckbiter politics being what they were, even the suspicion that she and I were on speaking terms would have been enough to turn her into a social pariah. I didn’t mind that she expected me to drop whatever I was doing and make arrangements to be with her on her schedule.
But she hadn’t even respected me enough to tell me she would be late.
On the other hand, this was the first woman who was willing to have sex with me without money changing hands.
I popped open the door on her first knock, trying to twist my face into a combination of disappointment and anticipation. I doubt I did a very good job of portraying either, but whatever the physical result, the effects were wasted.
Sherry and the woman she was making out with nearly fell into the room.
I had smelled the other woman coming, but I’d assumed she was heading to one of the neighboring rooms.
Sherry guided the other woman over to the bed and the two of the fell into it together, arms wrapped around each other.
“Oh, Gawd,” the woman gasped as Sherry lowered her mouth to nibble on her neck.
I stared at the two women for several, bewildered seconds.
Sherry raised her head long enough to roll her eyes at me. “Shit, Walter, shut the fucking door.”
I blinked at her, then obeyed.
“Is this yer boyfriend?” the girl gasped, looking me over, appraisal in her eyes. “He’s kinda cute.”
That was a lie, but it was a polite lie, which is a kindness I’m not especially used to.
“Uh, thanks,” I managed.
The woman spotted the discomfort on my face and looked away, her mood going from arousal to fear in a matter of seconds. “What the fuck? Why’s everything shrink wrapped?”
“We get a little messy sometimes,” I replied as I grabbed Sherry’s arm. “If you’ll excuse us for a second, my girlfriend and I just need to have a little talk.”
“Wait, but…” Sherry protested as I pulled her into the bathroom. “Dammit, Walter, she’s going to leave.”
“Good.” I slammed the door. “Who the hell is that?”
“What, you’ve never had a three-way before?”
“Of course I haven’t!” In the other room, I heard Sherry’s friend climb to her feet and move towards the door. I lowered my voice to be sure she couldn’t hear what came next. “You know how I make love: she couldn’t survive that.”
“Well, duh.” She rolled her eyes. “I was planning on draining her in a few minutes anyway. I figured, you know, mid-coital meal for me, and you could have what was left. You have no idea how hungry I am.”
The front door opened and slammed shut. Through it I could hear uneven steps moving quickly away.
“Aw, fuck. Now what am I supposed to eat? It isn’t easy to find someone who can disappear without anyone noticing, you know!”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Fucking neckbiters.”
“Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Look, I don’t know if it’s a vampire thing or a sociopath thing, but not everybody gets off on killing someone in the middle of sex.”
“Oh don’t get all puritanical on me! Like you’ve never killed anyone in your life.”
“Sure, I’ve killed people. When I had to. I don’t run around slitting throats just to get my rocks off.”
“No, that’s right, you like them to be dead before you get started.”
“Well, yeah.” I shrugged. “I’m a ghoul.”
“And I’m a vampire.”
She actually had a good point, there. It pissed me off when people got in my face about acting like the scavenger I was. Did I have any right to judge her for being a predator? I didn’t approve of indiscriminate killing, but I’d known from the get-go what she was. I sighed. “Touche.”
“I’m a hungry vampire, actually.”
“I’m just reiterating, since, you know, you let my meal get away.”
“Well, you’re in luck. I actually picked something up for you. Food without the inconvenience of murdering anybody.”
Sherry sighed. “Please tell me you’re not talking about that pig’s blood in the sink.”
“I thought you liked pig’s blood?”
Sherry cursed under her breath. “It’s practically the only thing I’ve had this month. I think that’s what’s making my stomach hurt.”
That took me by surprise. “I thought you were at Aldred’s place, surrounded by willing blood donors and whatnot.”
Aldred, the local province master of the vampire community, had agreed to take Sherry in after her sire was killed. My understanding was that his acceptance of her gave her status equal to that of neckbiters of his own making.
Sherry’s expression darkened. “It isn’t first come first serve, Walter. You don’t just walk up and sink your teeth into one of them. They can only give so much a day, and they all have their favorites. Every human in the place is at Aldred’s beck and call, of course, but after that it’s all about politics and power and relationships.”
I blinked. “Really?”
“Of course. A human in a vampire nest has a limited life span. Ten years, maybe fifteen, before the stress on his body is too much, and that’s assuming somebody doesn’t lose control and just fucking drain them. So you figure, a decade and a half to convince someone to turn you.”
“Right, but only the Masters can turn them.”
Sherry rolled her eyes. “Duh, but not everyone can get significant face time in with their Master. Especially when they’re the new donor. You have to strategize; you have to play the long game and position yourself for advancement. For the humans, it’s all about getting the most out of every drop of blood. Every time they let someone feed off of them, they’re placing a bet on the vampire they’re feeding.”
“And none of them are betting on you?”
She glowered at me. “A ghoul fed newborn whose sire is dead? No. Nobody is betting on me.”
While neckbiters gain strength every time they drink blood, their first two meals are the most important. The first meal, after they’ve been almost completely drained, consists of a fairly sizeable amount of their sire’s blood.
The older and more powerful the sire is, the more powerful the newly made vampire will be when they begin their new life.
After consuming a Master’s blood, the newly made vampire enters a state resembling death, which generally lasts a couple of days. When they wake up, they’re famished, delirious with hunger, and will consume the blood of the first thing that lets them. Barring that, they’ll drain the first thing that can’t fight them off.
This is the waking meal, and it affects them for the rest of their lives. A neckbiter whose waking meal is the blood of a master vampire becomes a master vampire, capable of making new neckbiters.
A waking meal from a lesser vampire, or a human, results in a null. Nulls are the eunuchs of bloodsucking world. They can accomplish great things, gain respect, even lead others, but a null will never be a part of vampire nobility. Only in the most extreme of circumstances are they allowed to act as the head of a nest or coven.
The majority of neckbiters, however, are domestics: the servant class. Their second feeding is typically the blood of an animal. Though they are as immortal as any of their peers, and at least as stuck up when it comes to dealing with anything that isn’t a vampire, there is a distinct limit to how high they can rise in the hierarchy.
To the best of my knowledge, there was no specific place built in for someone whose waking meal came from a ghoul, but given how those leeches treated me, I had a pretty good idea of where they wanted to put her.
“Sorry about that.”
Sherry shook her head and stomped into the bedroom.
Suddenly it occurred to me that I’d just acknowledged guilt, even though the only thing I’d actually done wrong had been to save her life, and that had been several months ago. Worse than that, she still hadn’t apologized for the things she’d clearly done wrong in the last several minutes.
I prepared myself for a fight and moved to follow her. When I entered the room, however, I found her slurping down the pig’s blood as she pulled off the last of her clothes.
She tossed the carton aside, wiping at her lips, spilled blood sliding slowly down her breast, and gave me a come-hither look. “So, are we going to fuck, or what?”
Sometimes you have to let go of the little things.
There are certain words in the English language whose meanings are set in stone. Words that have little to no ambiguity, in most situations. Words like ‘lungs,’ or ‘North,’ or ‘diabetes.’ These words have specific meanings that are not really open for debate.
Other words are a bit more malleable.
For example, ‘writer.’ I remember going to a writing conference and hearing someone say, ‘if you write, then you are a writer.’ In the strictest sense of the word, I suppose that’s true, but I think that it diminishes the relationship between many writers and their work.
I don’t have the right to determine who is or isn’t a writer, obviously, but I do feel comfortable sharing why it is that I call myself a writer.
And it certainly has nothing to do with sales. I’ve got three or four books out in the world, under various names, and in an average month, I sell right about at enough to get myself a coffee. One coffee. Thankfully I don’t drink coffee, so I get to use the money for other things. If finances were all that was involved, I’d have to call myself a farmer, since that’s where the majority of my income comes from.
The amount of time that I invest in my activities might have something to do with it. I do make a point of writing every day… most every day. Five out of seven? Anyhow, the point is, I put in time. But even when I’m working a full time job and can’t put in nearly as much time, I still consider myself a writer.
I figured out what made me think of myself as a writer one day after depositing a check from work. The check wasn’t huge, I’ve never had a job that paid a lot, but it was for a couple hundred bucks. Enough to cover rent and a couple of meals. I deposited the money, I went home, I checked online to see if anything had happened with anything I’d published and… something had.
My heart jumped, my breath caught, and I read a five star review on goodreads.
It was not my first five star review, but it was one of the first ones I’d received from somebody I didn’t know. I don’t think they wrote a review of the book, but they gave me five stars. Somebody liked what I’d written.
The book that I’d sold them made me all of a buck sixty. Unless they bought an electronic copy, in which case it was closer to a buck. According to their goodreads profile, more than half of their reviews were five stars. There was no value to what they’d given me, but I was exhilarated! More than exhilarated, I was ecstatic! I had connected to a reader. I had created something, they had picked it up, and they had ingested a little piece of my mind. And they enjoyed it.
I rode that high all day long.
The money for work would let me live and keep a roof over my head, but my writing made me feel whole.
I believe that everybody has something in their life that keeps them sane. We spend most of our time dealing with things that we must, but we all need something that anchors us and helps us define who we are. Whether it’s religion, family, art, work, study, some activity.
For me, it’s writing. I love it. There are parts of being a writer that are difficult and frustrating. There are times when the words don’t come, and when everything I write seems trite or absurd. There are bad days, of course, but writing is more than just a thing I do, it’s a part of who I am.
That’s what I mean when I say that I’m a writer.
I declare a vendetta! A vendetta on that terrible genius, that ungodly, but brilliant mind who first came up with the idea of a book cover!
Who did this? Who is responsible? Step forward and pay penance for your misdeeds!
I think that all of us are guilty, at one time or another, of perusing a list of images entitled ‘worst book covers of all times,’ or ‘what were these authors thinking?’ I certainly know that I’m guilty. Page after cringe-inducing page of misshapen, but recognizably human figures with terrible teeth and disturbing smiles. Image after image of somebody that we know is supposed to look intimidating and mysterious, but who actually looks kind of bloated and to be carrying some congenital defect that has twisted their visage into something resembling an angry teddybear.
A few seconds staring at it and you cannot imagine trying to read whatever monstrosity inspired this mess.
But how the hell is a broke writer going to come up with a decent cover? That’s not our medium. That’s not our wheelhouse. And yet it’s important, and every book that is printed is judged by potential readers based on two simple criteria: what’s the cover look like? and is the title any good? Sure, we have some control over the title, but that damnedable cover… unless you’re one of those savants who can write AND draw, you’re going to need to dish out good money for a book cover that will draw readers in, instead of sending them screaming for the hills.
I’ve had Bloody Banquet, the sequel to Awfully Appetizing, more or less ready to go for quite some time now. It isn’t perfect, but it’s as good as it’s likely to get until I find or make a nice peer review critique group.
For the past year, give or take, I’ve been sitting on it, hoping that Awfully Appetizing would take off, get me a few new followers, and maybe make enough to pay for the cover of book two.
Unfortunately I just can’t wait any longer. As a friend recently reminded me, I’m supposed to be building a body of work. More books is better, and, if I’m honest about it, I’ve let this absurd ‘wait for success’ distract me from what being an author is all about: writing.
So my objective is clear. I need to publish Bloody Banquet. And soon. By the end of the year, if at all possible.
I’m going to have to go through it one more time, send it out to a couple of beta readers, buy a cover for it, and figure out how to format it so that I can publish it. I have to admit, I’m a little nervous about the whole thing.
But it’s time. It’s definitely time. Hopefully I’ll have book three out early in 2017.
September is going to be my PeNoWriMo. My personal novel writing month. I’ve got a new project in mind. I have an outline written out, I’ve done quite a bit of world building… arguably too much world building, but that’s neither here nor there.
I’m ready to go. I’m looking at doing 70,000 words, so 2,334 words a day.
I’m excited! I’m rearing to go! I need to check back over all my work to make sure I’m not forgetting anything!
Wish me luck, folks.
Warning! This contains swearing, and a couple disturbing but awesome bits that I don’t want to ruin for you. Read forward with caution!
I run. Clouds hide the sliver of moon, leaving the forest pitch black, and I run, reveling in a world of scents and sounds. Naked and nimble.
A gust of wind carries with it the smell of death. Rot. I change course, racing along the edge of a stream. Jagged rocks nip at my hands and feet, but it’s a feeling of pleasure, not pain, like a deep itch finally scratched. My panting becomes laughter and I run faster.
After a few miles the scent becomes strong enough to recognize. A deer. Adult. Male. Dead from disease, and left for the better part of a week. Excited, I leap up the side of the embankment and tear through the brush. I’m close.
I eat regularly and well, but there’s something about this that’s different. A civilized meal might nourish the body, but this nourishes the soul.
As I approach the carcass, I slow. It isn’t the presence of the other scavengers that keeps me from the feast; they know their place in the pecking order, and as I get closer they begin to scatter, until only the most desperate and foolish remain. But there’s another fear out here in the night. Rare though it might be, researchers occasionally set up cameras, observe the nightlife. Especially near food sources, like dead deer.
Circling the body, I test the air for any trace of humanity.
Only when I’m certain that no human has set foot in this part of the woods for over a month do I approach, sending the last of the scavengers running. Whatever is left of the body is for me. Me and the insects, who know no fear.
Most of the meat has been torn away, and the pieces that remain are riddled with maggots and beetles. Just the way I like it. I lean forward, biting into the neck of the carcass, my teeth cutting skin and crushing bone. Larvae squirm in my mouth as I chew, savoring the subtle flavors of death and decay. The smell of it surrounds me.
I move closer still, sinking my hands into the writhing mass, pulling dead flesh to my
mouth a chunk at a time, enjoying the sound of cracking bones and crackling beetles. Maggots pop with each bite, their juices an explosion of flavor.
A gap in the clouds lets in just enough moonlight for me to see the animal’s empty eye sockets staring up at me. I smile.
For a ghoul, the best meals are enjoyed with all five senses.
By the time I’ve eaten my fill, the first whispers of dawn are wrapping around the horizon. I roll away from the remains, my swollen stomach aching from overindulgence. I need to get back to camp while there are still shadows deep enough to hide my nudity. It takes time to scrape open a hole, and more time to fill it, but emptying my bowels alleviates the discomfort, letting me move faster.
The stream cleans away the evidence of my fiendish meal, but it slows me down, and I can hear movement in the campsites surrounding my own. I shouldn’t have let myself get so involved. I should have kept track of the time.
There are only two campsites within sight of my tent. One is filled with college students who spent the night drinking and fucking. Nothing short of a marching band will draw their attention. But the elderly couple in the camper trailer is wide awake and hard at work preparing their breakfast on a small grill.
I stare for a moment, trying to find some path that won’t put me directly in their line of sight. Sadly there is none. I chide myself for my poorly placed tent, and take the only path available.
The couple glances up as I emerge from the brush, then do a double take.
I smile and pretend to shiver as I shake off the water from the stream. “Nothing like skinny dipping in mountain water to wake you up.”
The man looks thoughtful for a moment before responding, “I think I’ll stick to coffee.”
I made a show of cooking some fresh fish for breakfast, even nibbled at it in case anyone was watching, and got rid of what was left as soon as I could. The rest of the morning was spent at the lake, pretending to fish. In truth, I didn’t even have a hook on the line; I was there to enjoy the smells, the constant play of life and death, sex and birth that humans are so oblivious to. That, and I wanted to make sure that I looked like a normal tourist for anyone who might take the time to notice. No one ever did, but it was part of the ritual.
At noon, I started packing and was on the road by one. It was a day earlier than I had intended to leave, but the weather had shifted, bringing with it the warning of woken Wendigo. They were out and about earlier than usual this year. They’d begin their post hibernation hunt soon, and I’d find myself less than welcome.
I’d cut loose more than usual once I realized my trip was going to be shortened. It had been fun, but it left that much less time to slip back into character.
There are only a few major physical discrepancies between ghouls and humans, and most of them aren’t large enough to create a problem. I hide my pale skin, and my unusually long arms and legs in baggy clothing and stunted movements. Tinted glasses hide my oversized eyes. Even without these precautions, I look more like a genetic improbability than a fearfully made predator, as evidenced by the elderly couple’s response to my nudity.
The one physical characteristic that separates me most notably from humanity, however, is among the most difficult to hide.
We ghouls are devourers of the dead, scavengers who can survive in any terrain and consume the remains of any creature. We do so quickly and efficiently, thanks, in no small part, to the unique design of our mouths. Unlike the simple hinge of a human, a ghoul’s lower jaw is composed of four separate bones and about a dozen muscles. Our lips are larger than a human’s, and our skin stretches to accommodate a maw that can wrap around a man’s head. All of that without ever mentioning a tongue so long I can use it to clean behind my ears.
Some of my brethren simply cover the lower half of their face, feigning hideous deformity or unspeakable accident, while others only come out at night or in the deepest part of winter, killing anyone unfortunate enough to stumble across them.
Having been raised by humans, I learned from an early age to maintain control over my muscles. While keeping them tense for the better part of a day can be draining—like being forced to hold both hands in tight fists for hours on end—it allows me to move about in human society in a way that most ghouls never can.
Still, for all my discipline, I can only make myself look human. Not attractively human. The bones and muscles are still there, even if I’m not using them, which lends my features a lumpy, misshapen appearance. I look like the victim of a vicious car accident or a boxer who spent too many years in the ring.
But the hardest part of my disguise, by far, was learning to hold myself properly. Standing up straight for more than an hour at a time makes my back ache. Pretending to rely on visual cues when I’m more inclined to pay attention to sounds and smells is time consuming and frustrating.
And then there’s the talking.
Ghouls are among the more laconic of the supernatural community. We spend most of our time in solitude, and the few creatures of the night that we bump into don’t usually feel the need to engage us in conversation. Those that do tend to have hearing nearly as good as our own, and little desire to draw attention to themselves. Add to that the fact that we have only recently begun ‘playing human,’ and the problem becomes quickly apparent.
A ghoul trying to fit in with mankind has to speak louder than he’s used to, while barely opening his mouth. It’s like learning to shout tongue twisters without moving your lips. It can be done, as any good ventriloquist will tell you, but it takes practice.
Everything about living with humans takes practice. It’s wearying.
My excursions to the wilderness helped ease my frustrations. It was coming back from these brief reprieves that I struggled with.
The trip from the park to my home was the only time that I forced myself to drive with the windows rolled up. Blocking out as much of the smell as I could, with the radio turned up loud enough that I had to watch the road instead of listen to it, I went through my plans for the week. It served to reintroduce me to the trials of false humanity.
“Three bodies to be embalmed, two bodies to be incinerated,” I murmured. “I need to double check my bank account before I write out the checks for this month. If I have anything extra, it should go towards the credit card bill.”
At a bend in the road I caught a whiff of fresh roadkill seeping in through the air conditioner. I swallowed my sudden excess of saliva and concentrated harder. “Seventeen payments before I own my home. Might be able to cut it to sixteen if business picks up. Then I can focus on paying off the mortuary. Mother’s birthday is next week, and I haven’t bought her a gift yet.”
It was a raccoon. It had died within the last hour. Less than a day old was fresher than I normally liked, but raccoons are particularly flavorful.
I gritted my teeth. “I haven’t talked to Simon in a while. I should see how he’s doing. And the truck needs an oil change.”
It took a concerted effort not to stare at the body as I drove past. Within a few seconds the smell started to fade and I was able to relax. Anywhere else, with roads this empty I would have stopped and shoveled the carcass into one of the garbage bags I kept in the back of the truck. Unfortunately, re-integrating into my chosen lifestyle was hard enough after an excursion in the woods without reminding myself of the options I’d foregone.
As if to emphasize the point, a man covered in dust and wearing ragged clothes, stepped out of the woods. He glanced up, his eyes finding me almost instantly. His lips curled back in challenge.
The only other ghoul in a hundred miles, and this was the closest we’d ever come to a conversation.
I didn’t know his name, but I’d seen him before, and I’d smelled him every time I passed this way. He wasn’t as territorial as many of my kind, but he definitely wasn’t thrilled to see me on his road. It was a good thing I hadn’t taken the raccoon. He’d have considered it theft, and might have forced a confrontation.
That was how most of us lived. On the fringes. On the edge of society. About one in a hundred had a home, a car, a job, but even they lived in isolation, in run-down shanties that could only be reached after fifteen minutes on a gravel road. Most still lived in caves, or the crypts of long forgotten graveyards, playing human as rarely and for as short a time as they could.
Among humans or inhumans, it didn’t matter, I was always the freak.
I lowered my gaze and accelerated the truck, acknowledging my trespass.
Let me tell you a secret everybody knows: swallowing your ego sucks monkey balls.
Admitting defeat without a fight, or admitting fault without a reason caused the beast in my belly to howl with frustration. Images of the other ghoul plastered to the hood of my truck flashed through my mind, but the battle my beast longed for would net me nothing, and passion played second fiddle to logic. My mother had taught me that.
About halfway home I was able to switch over to one of my favorite radio stations, and by the time I got to town, I was very nearly in a good mood.
At the first stoplight in town, it occurred to me that since I was a day early, it might not be a bad idea to check in on my business. More to the point, it was about time to check in on Percy. It had been a while since he’d done anything particularly stupid, so he was about due.
Like many funeral homes, we didn’t have a big sign announcing our presence. A modest, faux stone structure stood next to the road, and the sign on the front door confirmed that we were in fact a mortuary.
Death is one of the few businesses that doesn’t get many walk-ins. It’s important to have an eye catching but dignified ad in phone books, and to be on good terms with people in the local hospitals, but you need to be wary of too many frills and banners if you want to maintain an image of dignity and respect.
The parking lot outside of my business rarely has more than two vehicles out front, unless there is a service in progress. As there was no service planned that day, the twelve cars in front of my building told me not everything was as it should be.
The exterior of the building was brick and mortar, though I’d had several of the rooms reinforced with cement, and I’d specifically had the outer walls insulated against sound as much as temperature. It wasn’t enough to keep me from hearing the shouting inside.
I slipped in through the side door and made a beeline for the viewing room.
Two years before, in an effort to keep up with the competition, I’d let Percy talk me into installing a projector television. Mostly, families used it for slide shows of loved ones or old home-movies. A few times we’d had requests for religious montages, and once an elderly woman had left a video farewell for her family and friends.
Percy had, however, found another use for the hardware. About a dozen men filled the room; some pacing, some sitting on the edge of their seats, others leaning forward, clenched fists pumping as they urged on the images of racing horses.
At the front of the room, sitting in front of a drawer full of cash, shouting along with the rest, was my only employee.
I contemplated my options for a moment, then, after a long slow breath, made my way forward, unnoticed by any of the gamblers.
“I’d like to place a wager.”
“You know the rules.” Percy’s eyes remained locked on the screen. “No new bets until–”
He stopped mid-sentence, and turned towards me, his face shifting from an excited red to a terrified shade of white. “Walter.”
“So …” he cleared his throat. “How was your vacation? Relaxing, I hope?”
I scooped up the bills sitting in front of my assistant. “It was surprisingly profitable, actually. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go to my office, count my earnings, maybe get a drink of water. When I come back, you and I are going to have a private conversation.”
“Uh …” Percy cleared his throat again. “Walter, I’ll need some of that to pay off the winners.”
I gritted my teeth and let out a low, soft growl.
What little blood was left in Percy’s face drained.
I turned and strolled out, taking a left at the end of the hallway til I reached my office, the last room on the right.
Though the back room was officially my ‘office,’ it served more as a place to store the paperwork I didn’t want to deal with. Four filing cabinets, each with about a year’s worth of paperwork on top waiting to be filed, filled up about a quarter of the room. The only other furniture consisted of a pair of towering shelves filled with books that I desperately needed to read but couldn’t bring myself to touch, a desk, and a chair. The room was lit by a single, bare light bulb, which produced just enough light to make the shadows seem that much deeper and darker. It reminded me of an old family crypt I used to play in when I was a boy. I set the chair on top of the desk to get it out of the way and sunk into a comfortable crouch, hunching over my knees and staring at a blank wall as I contemplated Percy’s latest offense. I should have caught on after my last vacation, when I came back to a freshly vacuumed building filled with flowers. In retrospect, I realized he’d just been covering up the smell of his unapproved activities. He claimed he was prepping the area for the service the next day, but I’d known Percy long enough to know he’d never go out of his way to make life easy for anyone but himself.
When I first met Percy, he came across like a sleazy used car salesman. My instincts told me that he was comfortable lying, cheating, and stealing to get ahead, and that if I paid him enough money, he’d let me borrow the key to his mother’s house, then help bury her body after.
It wasn’t until I really got to know Percy that I realized I was doing a disservice to used car salesmen. Percy wasn’t just comfortable lying, cheating, and stealing: he preferred it. He wasn’t just the sort of man who would sell someone out for personal gain; he began every relationship trying to figure out how much he could get out of his new ‘friend’ before it became more economically viable to stab them in the back. Percy was slime, and every time he used my name I found myself feeling dirty and a little nauseated.
And this is coming from a creature who is perfectly comfortable sleeping in a hollowed out carcass.
I didn’t like working with the man. Frankly, I didn’t like knowing the man, but I didn’t have an abundance of options, either. Ghouls are low on the supernatural totem pole. Very few creatures are willing to work with us, and almost none are willing to work for us.
Those that are, are either too hideous, or too stupid to be allowed access to customers, and the main reason I needed an employee was to deal with the customers.
That meant I had to rely on humans. And since ‘playing human’ was too taxing for me to pull off for an entire workday, I needed humans who were already ‘in the know,’ and wouldn’t freak out when I went all ghoulish on them. The problem is that the supernatural community is a brutal, unforgiving place, and humans who aren’t willing to accept that disappear quickly and permanently. There are a few out there who are semi-decent, but most of them were recruited into our world by powerful forces who keep the rest of us away from their pets. Someone like me has to choose between psychopaths, madmen, and people like Percy.
I should have gone with a psychopath.
I took a deep, calming breath and sorted through the cash Percy had made. It wasn’t a bad haul, I had to admit. And if I had less to lose from a conflict with the police, I might be tempted to let him continue his illicit little enterprise in exchange for a portion of the proceeds. But as I was in no position to have my life closely examined, there was no way in hell I was letting him commit so much as a parking violation on my property.
I thumbed through the cash one more time before tossing it onto the desk and heading back to the viewing room. I didn’t know how Percy had gotten everyone out, but frankly I didn’t care. What did matter was the mess that his friends had made.
On the bright side, he was doing his best to clean it up.
While Percy could not be trusted to act based on any goodness or decency intrinsic to his nature, my assistant could be trusted to act in his own self-interest, and, thankfully, he was in a position where his self-interests included staying in my good graces. Being a conniving, low life, rat bastard, Percy had managed, several years before, to end up on the wrong side of one of the more powerful members of the local vampire community. I wasn’t clear on the details, only that my assistant had been involved in a scam that had gone south at the worst possible moment, and that his mark had found himself publicly humiliated. The bloodsuckers, being arrogant assholes who saw every non-vampire on the planet as a second class citizen at best, defend their honor with the unforgiving ferocity of an active volcano.
In order to survive, Percy had needed to put himself under the protection of somebody higher up in the vampire hierarchy.
While vampires are arrogant bastards who see my lot as the lowest form of life on the planet, they can also be a practical people when it comes to their own needs. And one of their needs is disposing of bodies. A ghoul with his own funeral home is, to vampires, like a top-of-the-line garbage disposal system, and my services were highly prized. Though nobody deigned to speak to me personally, every vampire for a hundred miles knew better than to make trouble for me.
Well, that wasn’t true. I was freely and openly mocked and harassed away from work, but every vampire for a hundred miles knew better than to interrupt operations at my establishment. Which meant that as long as Percy was under my employ, he had the de facto protection of the biggest baddest neckbiter in the land.
I knew it, Percy knew it, and the old bloodsucker whom he had offended knew it.
Unfortunately for Percy, vampires are patient creatures. Which meant that my assistant couldn’t afford to lose his job. Not even for one night.
“Sorry about that, boss. I just invited a few friends over, and things got a bit out of hand.”
“Tell me, if one of your ‘friends’ gets picked up tomorrow and has to choose between selling you out or doing twenty years, how loyal do you think they’re going to be?”
Percy swallowed, though his fear was likely directed at me, more than the scenario I’d presented. “Good point, boss.”
I shook my head. “So, did you at least prep the bodies for tomorrow?”
My assistant remained silent.
Honestly, I hadn’t expected him to. I always made a list of things for Percy to do while I was on vacation, and I always came back to find the list untouched. I forgave him his inaction based on the assumption that he’d kept out of trouble in my absence. Knowing that he hadn’t stayed out of trouble, however, changed the terrain.
“Dammit, Percy! It isn’t like I ask you to do any real work around here! Hell, most weeks all you have to do is stand out front looking pretty. Prepping bodies is simple, basic shit, but you can’t even do that for me?”
“Sorry doesn’t fucking cut it! Come on.” I turned and headed towards the stairs that led down into my prep room.
“You don’t want me to finish here, first?”
“Oh, you’ll finish with that before you leave. Count on it. But I want to make sure you remember how to prep a body before I go, because you’re going to be prepping all of them for a fucking month.”
“Yes sir,” Percy murmured under his breath as he followed me.
The prep room was the second coldest room in my facility, after the refrigerated storage room connected to it. Normally kept as empty as possible, I had several bodies laid out on tables, waiting to be worked on. I didn’t like having them out like that. Unfortunately my refrigerator was on the fritz, and until I got it fixed I ran the risk of freezing any bodies I left inside. So instead I’d turned the temperature down in the prep room.
As soon as I stepped through the door, I knew something was wrong. Moving as quickly as I could, I grabbed my shocked assistant and tossed him back through the door he’d just entered, closing and locking it before I turned my attention back to the smell that had been waiting for me.
It had originated from one of the corpses. Specifically, one of the two brought in after I left for my vacation.
Moving past the bodies I remembered arranging before I left, I approached the new arrivals. The smell was coming from the smaller of the two. I ripped away the sheet covering her naked body.
At this point, I should pause for an aside.
There are very few ghoul enthusiasts in the world.
I say enthusiast because, if I were to state that there were very few ghoul experts in the world, the rest of the supernatural community would immediately argue that there are no experts on their kind either. The werewolves would point out that there are so many different kinds of shifters that calling someone an expert in all of them would be like saying that an entomologist is an expert in all animal life. Wizards would undoubtedly argue that magic is such an intensive field that the only people who understand what they do well enough to call themselves an expert would be wizards themselves. And, of course, vampires like to think that they’re mysterious and inscrutable.
Thus I say again, there are very few ghoul enthusiasts in the world.
There are a number of reasons why. We’re intensely solitary creatures. Even compared with the supernatural community at large, we’re hermits and loners. I live on the edge of town, work in the back room of a funeral home, rarely talking to more than three or four people in a given week, and I’m probably one of the most sociable of my kind. Then again, it could be that there are so few of us. There are seven in the state of Colorado, making it the densest population in the western hemisphere. Worldwide, there are estimated to be less than three thousand of us. The reason most cited by the supernatural community at large, however, is: who would want to study a ghoul?
Whatever reason you choose, the fact remains that our habits and peculiarities are largely unexplored. Which might explain why so few people have realized that there are no female ghouls.
I’ll repeat that. There are no female ghouls.
The first question that probably comes to mind is, if there are no female ghouls, where do baby ghouls come from? The truth is, you probably don’t want to know.
I wish I didn’t.
The most pleasant way I can think to explain it is to tell the same story my adoptive father told me when he felt I was old enough to know. About thirty five years ago, my father got a contract to care after a large graveyard at the edge of the city. Things had gone smoothly until, one day as he was mowing, he noticed a small spot where the earth appeared to have been turned over. It wasn’t the kind of thing someone walking by would notice, but he’d spent enough time in the area, and was observant enough, that he did. He assumed, at first, that it was the work of some animal, and he set up a few traps and waited. But the traps were never touched, and as he looked closer, he began to notice more and more of these holes. Always next to graves, usually away from the streets.
The holes didn’t look like the kind animals made, so my father, concerned about possible grave robbers, took to visiting the cemetery at night, watching for anything suspicious. But night after night he found nothing. And when he came back the next morning he would find new holes next to graves on the far side from where he had been patrolling.
When he told the story to a friend they directed him to a local woman, a single mother who claimed psychic powers and made a modest living out of her living room reading palms and tarot cards.
She listened to my father’s problem and gave him a foul smelling concoction to mix with his bath water before his next stakeout. Sure enough, that night he caught sight of the miscreant responsible. Though its features and frame bore strong resemblance to a human, it moved like an animal. Stalking through the graveyard, testing the air every couple of steps, the thing found its way to a grave, tunneled in, and, after a few minutes, reappeared, a bit of flesh still hanging from its mouth. It took a moment to refill the hole it had come through, then left.
My father returned to the psychic and told her what he’d found. She made a second potion for him, this one quite a bit more expensive, though not as foul smelling. At her directions he sprinkled it throughout the graveyard. The beast never returned.
I had known that part of the story for most of my life. The part that came next, my father waited to tell me until I was nearly a man.
Several months passed, and my father had begun to date the psychic. They were making plans to move in together. Then one evening, he stayed late to tend to one of the graves, and he heard something strange. An odd, mewling sound that seemed to come from underground.
He ignored it at first, finished what he was doing, and left. But a few days later he found himself in the same part of the cemetery, again late in the evening, and again he heard the sound.
Not certain what to do, he called the psychic. Together they hunted down the source of the noise, the grave of a woman who’d died about a year previous. Waiting until it was dark enough to evade detection, they dug up the grave and found me, playing with one of my mother’s ribs, a few feet away from where I’d gnawed my way out of her.
For the record, we don’t impregnate every corpse we fuck, just the women who are in the right part of their cycle when they die.
I can’t help but wonder if it would affect the female suicide rates, knowing that the younger they are when they die, the more likely their bodies are to suffer defilement at the hands of an inhuman monster. And the more likely they are to become, post mortem, the mother of an abomination.
Maybe I should make up brochures and pass them around college campuses.
Also, for the record, I haven’t screwed any corpses. Not yet, anyhow. Being raised by humans, I’ve adopted some of their codes of behavior. But sex is a violent thing for ghouls. Even if I could find a human willing to sleep with me, I’m not sure I could do it without killing her in the process, or at least horribly maiming her.
So I can’t sleep with living women, I won’t sleep with the dead, there are no females of my species, and the various creatures that go bump in the night think I’m disgusting. If I didn’t live fifteen minutes away from a brothel filled with truly monstrous hookers and catering to supernatural clientele, I’d never get laid.
The corpse which had inspired my violent expulsion of my assistant would have pushed my resolve farther than most. She was beautiful. Five foot five, give or take an inch, with creamy skin and jet black hair. She had full lips, firm breasts, and the body of a dancer. And she was dead. Beautifully dead. Still, and cold, not that odd, awkward warmth of the living, with its constant moving and pulsing. She was beautifully, quietly, dead.
I took all of these details in, but without the enjoyment I would normally have experienced. Any pleasure I might have felt was marred by the scent, the all too familiar scent of vampire.
She was recently turned. Very recently. I could still smell her sweat, and the lingering traces of a recently consumed meal. The undead don’t sweat, and they certainly don’t eat pizza. Unless I missed my guess, this was what the bloodsuckers would call her ‘first sleep.’ It was the rest she took immediately after she’d been turned, as her body changed.
And that was a very bad thing.
I’ve never gone out of my way to learn about vampires. As far as I’m concerned, the only really relevant details about them are their constant sense of self importance and the fact that they regularly find themselves with bodies that they need to dispose of. But we ran in the same circles, so from time to time I found myself stumbling over bits of information.
Newly made vampires wake from their first sleep in a state of madness. They are driven past the edge of sanity by an unspeakable hunger. Sometimes highly prized recruits are allowed to feed from their sire, who can handle the blood loss with little discomfort, but most are given a human to consume. And consume them they did: those feedings are inevitably fatal.
Which raised the possibility that somebody had put this vampire in my establishment with the hope of killing Percy.
The cadaver on the table in front of me stirred, probably reacting to the presence of a living breathing creature. I’d have to deal with her immediately and figure out the who, how and why later.
Her eyes shot open, and the naked girl turned her head in my direction.
“Well fuck,” I muttered.
Vampires claim superiority, not just over humans, over all of us. They claim to be the strongest, the smartest, the longest lived. All of their claims are supported by case studies, but like so many humans, they select their evidence as though they were buying groceries: they find what supports their beliefs, and ignore the shelves of data that contradict it.
The truth is that bloodsuckers become more powerful as they age, and as they claim more victims. That means that while a five century old vampire might be able to rip a human limb from limb, a newly made one is only marginally more powerful than they were before they were turned.
By human standards, her attack was viciously fast, but I caught the girl easily enough, pinning her up against the wall by her wrists. Unfortunately, what she lacked in strength, she made up for in crazy. Her feet slammed against my ribs, a dozen shots in a few brief seconds, and though I held her arms still, she was able to lean forward, snapping her jaw at me, a hair’s breadth from my face.
If vampires actually had fangs, hers would have cut me.
After less than half a minute, I’d had enough. I swung her around, slamming her face first into the wall while I wrapped my arms and legs around her limbs, locking her into immobility.
The naked girl squirmed, screaming so loud I was afraid the other corpses would begin to rise.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” I adjusted until I could pull one arm free without releasing any of her limbs. “Let’s see how hungry you really are.” I unhinged my jaw and used a tooth to make a jagged slit down my wrist, which I pressed to her mouth.
The bloods of other supernatural creatures are considered delicacies in vampire circles, and are often bought and sold like precious commodities. Depending on the rarity of the creature in question, and how flavorful they are considered to be, a vial of the right type of blood can go for a king’s ransom.
Given that rarity and flavor are the two most important factors, and that ghouls are one of the rarest of supernatural creatures, the fact that there is no interest in our blood as a commodity should be adequate to describe its flavor.
If it isn’t, then let me quote one of the few vampires I’ve ever met who actually did sample my blood. ‘It’s like someone mixed raw sewage with tar and added a few dashes of salt and ash.’
The young vampire sucked hard, pulled away, gagging, then leaned in and sucked again.
“Wow. I guess you really are hungry.”
Her body spasmed in what was clearly not pleasure, but she continued to suck at my wound.
It was an oddly intimate moment, pressed against her naked body. I realized suddenly that I was salivating. I fought the urge to sink my teeth into her delicate flesh.
The odd, and somewhat terrifying thing, was that I wasn’t sure if I was hungry or horny.
After a few minutes the girl released her grip on my arm and slumped. Whether she was exhausted, or if my blood was somehow incompatible with her and she had died, I wasn’t certain, but I didn’t see any reason to take a chance. She didn’t so much as twitch when I altered my grip on her and carried her into the walk in refrigerator. I backed out of the room, keeping a cautious eye on her prone form until the door clicked shut.
For obvious reasons, the door was designed so that it could be opened from the inside. I grabbed a cart and wedged it between the refrigerator door and the cabinet where I kept my work tools.
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