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A Casebook of Scherer and Miller, Investigators of the Paranormal and Supermundane
By Andrez Bergen
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Andrez Bergen
All rights reserved.
A BIT OVER TWO YEARS AGO
"A zombie. I hate zombies."
I leaned back against the barn wall. Job was going to be the death of me. The job, or my partner, Suzie — and I use the term in its loosest sense.
"Actually, I don't think he qualifies as a zombie, per se."
There she was, on tiptoes, right in my ear. Why on earth she had to tag along, I never understood. I operated better alone — her old man knew that. Why couldn't this blonde busybody get the message?
I glanced down. "What?"
"More a relative of Lazarus, you know? The guy that was reanimated by Jesus Christ."
"No, I don't know. Are you going to give me another diatribe in the middle of a scene?"
"Well, I think it's important in our business to be accurate. If we went around claiming succubae were incubae, or silver bullets stopped vampires, well, we wouldn't be in business all that long, y'know?"
"Who pays the bills, Roy?"
I could feel the acid steep in my gut, brewing down there in oak barrels aplenty. "Not now, okay? Timing." Pushed both index fingers in my ears.
It was right then that our new playmate Lazarus rounded the corner, so I unplugged, settled my Smith & Wesson Model 10 in the crook of the guy's neck, and fired off a single shot. Didn't want to waste bullets — no need to be further still in Suzie's clutching debt. The man reeled backwards and lay on the ground, inert.
"Too easy. Lazarus didn't rise twice, did he?"
"Don't think so. Then again, I've never actually read the book, just heard about it."
"You're feeding me second-hand yarns? So much for accuracy." I stepped slowly over to the body. Even in the crap half-light, just before dawn, I could see it was twitching. "Crap. He's not dead."
"Will you stop bringing him into it?"
"All right, all right. What should we do? Do you think we should drive a stake through his heart just in case?"
"He's not Bela Lugosi."
The man groaned there on the ground. Slowly sat up, clutching his throat, and placed a wobbly head between his knees. I considered popping off another round, but decided otherwise. Stood awkwardly with Suzie, waiting.
"You all right, mister?" Suzie finally asked.
"Look what you did to my neck," the man cried out between splayed legs. I was impressed he could still enunciate. Definitely wasn't a zombie. "You ... you bungled it! You and your stupid attempt to kill me!"
Suzie shifted from one runner to another. "Not me," my rock-solid partner assured him.
"Coward," I muttered.
She frowned over the rim of her bookish glasses, but the expression had little room to stand on such a damnably young face. "Haven't you caused enough trouble?"
"That's right, blame me." I blew out loudly. "Look, sorry, but we're here because we got a job to do, a client to make happy."
"Well, now, that wouldn't be very professional, handing out names like speeding tickets. Anyway, this nameless client reported a fiend mutilating his flock. Local police reckoned it was a feral dog or cat, but our client suspected otherwise — and then he spotted someone on two legs. Given it's the middle of the night and you just stuffed your face with some defenseless lamb, we'd be excused for thinking you were the culprit."
The speech was a longer one than I usually made. It exhausted me.
At that, Lazarus cried.
Yes, he bawled. Suzie and I looked at one another. Aside from blubbering there was an ungainly silence. The girl handed him a tissue, but I broke the peace first.
"Well, this is comical. What now?"
"Apologize?" my partner said.
"You could try. I'm not sure I can stand much more of this."
"The devil, you say? I'm not going to apologize — don't you remember why we're here and what this guy just did? What do we tell our client? 'We found your bogeyman, and we shot the bastard, but then he sobbed a lot, we had a change of mind, and kissed and made up'?"
"Well, that's a no-brainer. Who's going to hire people who sympathize with their cases?"
Lazarus held up his hand. "Will you two be quiet? You're giving me a splitting headache — I'm already in enough pain."
"Sorry, I haven't domesticated her yet."
"Fat chance." The girl crossed her arms and looked away.
"Who are you people?"
On cue, like she'd been desperately awaiting an invite, Suzie's body unravelled and she handed him the baby-blue business card. "Scherer and Miller, Investigators of the Paranormal and Supermundane."
Lazarus looked up. Tough to mark his age — late fifties? — before he died. A bloated face that looked to me a lot like dead actor Peter Lorre, but mark that down to late nights with a bottle of rye and American International flicks for company.
"Who's Scherer?" he inquired, in goddamned polite fashion.
"That would be me," I said.
"So you're Miller?"
"Er ... no. That would be — was — my dad. I'm Suzie."
Lazarus leaned over and vomited up a pool of gunk, most of it blood, but I also spotted bits and pieces of sheep.
"You do know raw lamb is prone to parasites?" Suzie admonished him. "Ought to be more careful."
"I'm sorry. I can't help myself," Lazarus bawled. He was blubbering again, a grown ghoul shedding tears. This was ridiculous.
"Well, next time. Just for the record, are you craving brains?"
Suzie pushed frames back up her maddeningly cute button nose, and then conjured up a pad and pencil. "I want to be sure we're dealing here with Lazarus syndrome, or if it's localized zombiefication."
"What the devil does it matter? Ever since I woke up in that awful morgue, somehow alive again, I've been ravenous, craving meat, hungry, desperate, mad —"
Another point-blank thirty-eight special, this time in his left eye, killed that appetite. "My, my, my! Such a lot of guts around town and so few brains."
"Ew," Suzie said.
"Think we can mark down this case as closed."
"Dad would've been more prudent."
"Your old man's dead."
"Even so, wasn't that a bit gung-ho? Maybe we could've helped out the poor man, y'know?"
"We're not in the business of helping these spooks. Count your blessings — at least we didn't have to waste any silverware. C'mon. I'm dying for something to eat."
Who was it that conjured up the dumb expression about there being no rest for the wicked?
I didn't dare ask this of Suzie, since she'd likely put her head down into books or surf online until she had the answer down pat – thence to bore me with the details about Shakespeare or Isaiah or whoever it damn well was.
As a P.I. her dad hadn't the necessary skill to stay above water, but as a concept-man he'd hit pay-dirt, even if the money rolled in posthumously. Who else cottoned on that there were so many ghouls in the world?
So, anyway, it should come as no surprise that, since business was booming, we had another engagement two nights later. Least on this occasion it wasn't a rural gig. No, we had a mansion before us.
We rolled up by taxi since neither Suzie nor I had a license or a boiler to go with said paperwork.
The expansive garden up front was an overgrown affair that hadn't seen a hoe since, I don't know, the turn of the millennium? And the rundown, double-story Edwardian villa would've been quite at ease filling in for Miss Havisham's stomping ground.
We entered via the front door after I picked two locks, but that process was delayed as Suzie insisted upon buzzing the doorbell, and then knocking several times. Once she was sure no manservant or ring-in Renfield was going to answer, I whipped out a hairpin — "Ouch!" she griped, trying to hold her 'do in place — and borrowed her Diner's Club card.
The next hour we spent exploring this Château Videz from top to bottom. All we found were lifeless rooms with discoloured sheeting covering the furniture. The place looked like it hadn't been lived in since that yard got its last manicure. The only unusual addition was this dated ghetto-blaster with a compact-disc collection that included LPs by Michael Jackson and Steely Dan.
So, from the bottom we travelled further still, into a place Suzie wasn't so keen to enter: The cellar. Expecting to find racks of dusty old bottles, we instead came across a dusty coffin made of oak propped on this cement slab in the middle of the large space. The only decoration was an overhead crystal chandelier.
"Why d'you suppose they have a chandelier in the basement?" Suzie said.
"Must've doubled-up as a ballroom."
"How the devil should I know?"
Ignoring her, I approached the wooden casket.
"Holy water ready!" Suzie shouted in that quiet space.
"Shhh." Having raised the lid, I found our man dozing on a velveteen cushion. "Stake," I whispered in my best surgeon's tone. My assistant handed me 'Mr. Pointy'.
Now for the messy part — the part where I usually end up with splinters or a blister from gripping the bugger too hard.
I placed the stake on the chest just so, where the heart's supposed to be. In the early days I used to bring an anatomy diagram to make sure I got it right. You really don't want to get it wrong. These spooks wake up grumpy, and they're likely to take out their crankiness on the nearest bystander — that's right, you with the silly wooden tent peg in your hand.
Having positioned the thing, I lifted up the mallet, prepared to strike, and —
"Wait! Wait a moment!"
— Missed the stake completely. Heard a couple of ribs break instead. Shit.
Suzie stuck her head into my field of vision, between me and the corpse with the busted-up bones. "Are you one hundred percent positive this guy is a vampire?" she asked in that cloying, up-and-down tone of hers that drove me to distraction. It was like conversing with a verbal yoyo.
"Suzie, move. Now. No time for safety checks."
"Well, I don't know, I think we ought to create the time, y'know, just to be sure? Lawsuits and all. We don't want to do this, and then find out after that we nailed the wrong man. Cadaver. Vampire ... er — you know what I mean."
"I do. And I think we can skip the litmus test, thanks to you."
"Really?" The giddy girl actually looked happy. "Why?"
A pair of hands rounded her neck from behind, and started to squeeze — hard. Something I'd dreamed about doing over the past six months. Suzie's glasses fell to the floor as she went in the other direction, up in the air. She was gasping, wheezing, and still trying to talk. God, shut up.
For dramatic effect, fangs lifted her further — which was when Suzie gripped the chandelier.
That's the problem with vampires.
They live so long they get grand notions about themselves, move from holes in the ground into crypts with marble slabs, and on into houses, and then — if they live a few centuries like this boy — migrate up to mansions with crystal chandeliers stuck to the ceiling. In cellars, no less.
The same very thing Suzie was hanging onto now for dear life, frustrating the vampire, since he was still holding her aloft and couldn't exactly lob the girl across the room when she had a half-decent grip on something.
Meanwhile, he looked straight down at me with my stick, a wide-open space between us inviting another go at his heart.
Not such a bright boy, this one. Should've just let the kid go. Instead, he stood there with hands in the air, mouth wide open with surprise. I should've guessed this'd be an easy round — the vampire dressed in duds from the '80s, he still owned CDs, and I could imagine him indulging in moonwalks across dance floors in front of horrified clubbing clientele.
"Roy!" I heard Suzie shout.
Damn — thought the vampire was still arresting vocal cords. "You can hold her tighter," I hissed at the ghoul in a low voice. "Help me out here."
"What?" The vampire looked more confused. Definitely well past any use-by date.
"Roy, when you're ready."
"I don't know, Suze," I said, holding vamp's eyes with mine. "Are we one hundred percent sure bozo qualifies?"
"Actually, I'd say one or two percent above that. But only just."
"What is wrong with you people?" Dracula fumed, and I could see he'd made the prolonged decision to let the girl go. Playtime was over.
I plunged the stake into his stomach first. "That was for fun," I said, as the spook shrieked with pain. I pulled the tool out and stuck it right where the heart was supposed to be, behind a couple of fractured ribs. "And that's for offensive fashion."
There was no exploding, no accelerated decrepitude, not even a decent yodel. The vampire fell backwards into his coffin, holding the stake, and lay there stiff. Cue lacklustre applause. Fall of shabby curtain. Blah, blah.
Suzie was still hanging from the chandelier above me, runners a few inches from my nose.
"Did we win?" she asked.
"Yeah, yeah. Don't we always?"
"You'll catch me?"
I thought hard about that one.
Don't know about you, but I'm not a golfing aficionado. I played once when I was eighteen — Artie suckered me into a game with one of his clients — and it involved a day's rambling in 44-degree heat that left me hospitalized. Sunstroke, the quacks said.
"It's alien," Art's daughter Suzie said now, a decade later. The man'd suckered me with her as well.
This latest grating comment caused me to glance her way across the green. "Alien?"
"Course I'm not certain. No one would be."
"Then why say it?"
"Because 'alien' is quicker and easier than saying 'of unknown, likely extraterrestrial origin, though at this stage I have no evidence to prove same'."
"I know. I'm out of breath." Having crouched down in moist bunker sand, Suzie rotated this small foreign device we'd found, the same dimensions as a Colt 1911 pistol, between her hands. Similar size it may've been, but definitely this didn't look like a .45. "Furthermore, going by the odd technology, I'd say this's been constructed by some new race we've never before encountered."
"As opposed," I muttered, superior in my place standing above her on the green, "to one made by those we have."
Inspecting the gadget the girl might've been, but she also started humming something — I couldn't be sure, but it sounded like the Commodores' 1970s standard 'Three Times a Lady'. And then the words hammered this home — in Suzie's skewed adaptation.
In this early-morning darkness it was easy to scowl without being spotted, a freedom of facial movement I usually avoided. "Anyone tell you, Suze, that you have the dulcet singing tone of two alley cats in a death-fight for dominance?"
"You're just jealous."
"No. I'm not." I jumped down to squat beside her. "So, what's this got to do with the remains of our client?"
'Remains' being overly optimistic language — dead guy was a scattering of ashes, in the shape of a man, over on clean-cut grass.
"Well, Roy, this looks like some kind of weapon. A disintegrator ray, p'raps."
"Oh, you already figured that out?"
"Sweetheart, we could squeeze what's left of our man into an ashtray."
"I guess. Huh."
Suzie removed glasses, pushing back a tuft of hair, and casually pointed E.T.'s thingamajig at yours truly. At least I assumed it was pointed my way — this was a jumble of wires and tubes that better resembled a golden-era homemade ham radio that'd been jumped by a toaster and cut down to clunky pocket-size. She could've had the thing backwards.
"Easy there," I warned. "Prefer to hang onto my head. And I still need yours."
This caused the girl to lower what we assumed to be a weapon, this dopey smile on her mush. "Really? Is that true, Roy?"
Any further pointless admissions were cut off by an incandescent glow that filled the eastern sky, and this wasn't the sun making an early arrival. The source appeared to be a tiny white dot that soared heavenward, trailing sparks.
Without thinking, I'd removed my hat. "And, I'd say, there goes the perp."
"Our chance to meet and greet a new race," sighed Suzie, "gone in a flash."
"Along with the paycheque, and a previously unblemished case record."
"I don't care if they're from this planet or another dimension — émigrés're all the same. You can't trust the bastards." I glanced sidelong at my partner and removed the contraption still pressed between her fingers. "Then again, I s'pose we can hock this thing on eBay."
Suzie looked horrified. "As a weapon?"
"As art, baby, as art. Get a better price."
Excerpted from Small Change by Andrez Bergen. Copyright © 2014 Andrez Bergen. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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