Tall, Dark and Slayer
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The tampon fiasco should have warned me that things were–pardon the expression–headed south.
Not my tampons. No, sir. For twenty years, I’d been more or less loyal to the brand I’d first purchased in a Sunoco ladies room the year I’d turned thirteen.
The tampons in question–Napa Valley No-Fuss, No-Muss, Self-Absorbing Tampons–were distributed by my company, Vamp-Aid, to my ladies–the vamps. Women vampires. Despite what has been touted in popular culture, ninety-nine point nine percent of vampires are women.
It’s a hormone thing.
Vamps aren’t immortal, don’t incinerate in sunlight and have no trouble seeing themselves in mirrors. Instead, they suffer from a genetic condition that causes a hunger for blood. And chocolate. Both of which I sold to them.
But back to the tampon problem.
If true terror exists, it’s during a full moon in New York City, when hundreds of cycles coincide and no-fuss, no-muss tampons start fussing and mussing. And Vamp-Aid is the sole, Greater New York distributor.
I ground out my seventeenth cigarette of the day in the overflowing ashtray on my WWII-era, gun-gray steel desk and glanced at my watch. Seven-thirty p.m. Plenty of time for the L.A. branch of the U.S. Vampire Control Division to be in the office. So why didn’t they answer the phone?
“This is not funny, Rudy,” I muttered, ignoring the flashing phone lights and the angry pings of incoming e-mails from my clients. I’d clashed many times with Rudy Tolliver, primo slimeball purchasing agent. He’d done this on purpose just to shave a few nickels off his cost. If three-thousand miles hadn’t separated us, I would have gladly wrung his scrawny, lying neck. I sure as hell would not let a little setback like this ruin Vamp-Aid. I’d worked too long to create a stable, profitable business. It was my home, more so than my apartment in Brooklyn, and I’d fight tooth and nail to protect it.
Someone picked up in the vicinity of the twelfth ring. “U.S.V.C.D., Myrtle Holloway. May I help you?”
I groaned. Fertile Myrtle, so called because she was perpetually pregnant, must be on her eighth or ninth kid by now, I couldn’t remember which. She was clueless as a dodo bird, but where better to put her than an obscure, secret government agency?
“Myrtle, it’s Betty Banks. Get Rudy on.” Why couldn’t she be on maternity leave? I really didn’t want to hear what darling Tommy, or Sally or whatever See-Dick-Run names she’d used, had accomplished in soccer/music/dance/vomit competitions.
“Betty, dear, how are you?” The saccharin sweetness in her voice reminded me that we’d run out of Splenda, and I’d had to drink my now cold coffee black.
“Never mind me. Put that lying, weasily bastard on the phone.” I fished out another cigarette, number eighteen, and tapped it on the desk. How was I supposed to quit at this rate?
The phone clicked and some awful Barry Manilow tune blared. Two clicks later and Rudy’s gruff, never-pleasant voice cut off Barry in mid-verse.
Never known for my tact, I plunged ahead. “Rudy, you horse’s ass, what’s the idea of sending me defective tampons?”
“Now, doll,” he began. He’d heard my diatribe before and could usually outwait my temper with a continual stream of platitudes.
I wasn’t buying. “I’m not your doll. Rudy, all hell’s breaking loose. Get me the right stuff. Pronto, Tonto.”
He chuckled. Somewhat evilly, I might add. “Nice one, toots.”
My grip tightened on the receiver. “I’m not your toots. Send the Class A tampons by Fed-Ex and take back the Class D-for-defective ones p.d.q., and no restocking fees like you tried to pull last month. I’m not paying for bad merchandise.”
Napa Valley No-Fuss, No-Muss, Self-Absorbing Tampons were invented by a brilliant feminine products engineer who should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Once used, the tampons are dropped into a special, tastefully decorated bag. Chemicals inside react to the higher than normal iron content of the vamps’ blood and poof! No muss. No fuss. A little red dust sealed in an unbreakable pouch. No temptations for my vamps. Yes, temptation. They are vampires, after all, and–well, I’d rather not think about that side of their bloodlust.
Rudy chuckled again, clearly in a boys-will-be-boys and vamps-will-be-dames kind of way. “So there was a slight mix-up and some of the sticks got coated with the wrong stuff. You’d think you gals would want a few jollies in your life.”
Red haze enveloped me, and it wasn’t from the burning embers of my cigarette butt. “Jollies! Damn it, they’re not supposed to implode while in use. What do you think they are? Vibrators?”
“Babe,” he said, drawing on something. A joint? A hookah? “That’s the thanks I get. And after I made you the exclusive, East Coast distributor of Heat-N-Go artificial blood?”
“Neither here nor there, Rudes.” His point stung. Individual servings of Heat-N-Go had single-handedly saved me from bankruptcy a few years back. “Fix it. Now. And don’t call me babe.”
My growl must have intimidated him. He sighed, grunted, actually. “All right. Give me a day or two. For you, O, anything.”
He clicked off, leaving me fuming. O! How the hell had he learned the nickname the vamps had given me?
Ten years earlier, when I’d started Vamp-Aid, my clientele had warped my name–Betty Banks–to Blood Banks (hardee-har-har) to BB, then to 2B. Naturally, that led to Hamlet and from there to Ophelia. Hence, my current handle of “O”. I was happy they didn’t choose to call me Gertrude or Desdemona. “O” has its problems, but so far–knock a wooden stake–nobody has called me “Big O” or deteriorated into any colorful euphemisms for female genitalia. It was only a matter of time.
I ground out my cigarette, number eighteen, and composed a short, apologetic email to my clients placing all the blame squarely on U.S.V.C.D. They may supply me with most of my stuff, but that didn’t mean I had to cover for them. Bastards.
I resisted another cigarette, hard liquor and any recreational drugs over the next few hours as I put out fires left and right. The only thing crankier than a tamponless vamp is a PMSing one or a ravenous one. For the most part, PMS happened last week, and Heat-N-Go took care of the hunger problems. I diffused most of the vamps’ tampon anger by offering ten-percent off their next order, vowing to subtly nudge up the prices in a month or so for those who’d complained. Hey, business was business and I liked the rent paid.
Besides, I didn’t have a lot of scruples, thanks to premier con man Al Banks, the paternal half of my immediate family tree. My mother, Maria, from whom I’d inherited my long black hair, brown eyes and olive complexion, had pulled her own con by dying soon after my birth. Al had been stuck with me, and I’d been raised on the great American road. There aren’t too many ethics lessons taught in the booths of truck stops.
Around eleven o’clock, the hue, if not the cry, had died down. Thoughts of a hot, cheesy pepperoni pizza tempted me to close shop for an hour. As a night owl, I figured eleven seemed a good time to break for lunch.
I’d snapped on my answering machine and had reached for my jacket to ward off the mid-October chill when my cell rang. Not a lot of people have my personal number. I checked caller ID and debated answering. Jeremy Nolan. Hunger beckoned, but he was my number one delivery guy. I’d talked to him hours earlier about the tampon fiasco, so he must have another crisis on his hands.
“Jer, what’s up?” I checked to make sure I had cigarettes in my pocket. A shriek from the cell stilled my hand. “Jer?” The skin at the back of my neck tingled. Hell, my whole scalp tingled.
A strangled cry answered me.
“Jeremy? Where are you?” I grabbed my keys and ran for the stairs and the parking lot one floor below.
“Ellen…” The rest was lost in more shrieks. A woman screamed obscenities.
My mind skipped over the schedule I’d given him yesterday. Ellen Wagner. Good God, I’d sent him to Hormone Central. Ellen Wagner was one of the looniest of the vamps, a psycho capable of ripping us Normals into ticker-tape confetti.
“Abort, abort.” I took the stairs two at a time. “Jeremy, get the hell out of there.”
“The bitch is crazy,” he yelled.
It was the last thing he said to me.
I threw myself on my Victory motorcycle and hit the street at a dead run. The echoes of Jeremy’s screams of agony sliced into my nerves like a Japanese Ginsu knife. I knew I wouldn’t find him alive. Ellen had caused problems in the past. He didn’t stand a chance.
It broke my heart. Damn, just Friday, he’d volunteered to work extra hours. I’d sent him home. It was his sixth month anniversary with his girlfriend, and I wanted him to be with her rather than help me. I should have warned him about Ellen.
Choking back tears, I tried to call Vince Tagliani. He was a cop and an ex-boyfriend. A dangerous combination–guns and anger, but our breakups never lasted long. I always went back to him then promptly broke it off when he started talking kids and white-picket fences.
He didn’t answer. I stopped trying. He couldn’t do anything but mop up the mess. Ellen would disappear for a few months, and the cops would conveniently forget about the crime during her absence. When vamps go rogue, they usually do the boroughs a favor and take out the unseemly side of society.
The investigation might be different for Jeremy. He was a good kid from a decent family. His death would be listed as something else, of course. A hit and run. Gang violence. Vampires are thought of as myths by the vast majority of the population, and the government liked to keep mass panic to a minimum so official recognition doesn’t exist. Maybe the cops would seek out Ellen and administer their own brand of vigilante justice. Maybe not.
It had rained earlier, and the air smelled like wet leaves, wet garbage and New York funk. The bike hit something dead in the street, and I fought to right it. The Victory was too big for just anybody, but I’d inherited Al’s lanky frame and stood at five-ten without heels. I pulled into the tony Upper West Side address, stopped the Victory and stowed it next to Jeremy’s blue BMX. The door to the building was unlocked. Ellen still might be lurking around.
Time to call in the big boys again. I didn’t feel super brave.
Vince answered on the third ring. “Babe.”
In one word, I heard forgiveness for our last fight, his hope I’d add multiple babies to his gigantic, Italian family and the smoky thread of whiskey he’d probably been drinking. I shoved aside totally inappropriate thoughts of hot, monkey sex and concentrated on the danger at hand.
“Vince, I’ve got a rogue vamp on my hands. I think she killed Jeremy.” My voice broke a little. The reality of Vince’s fate wrapped another layer of lead around the cold lump of my heart. Damn it, the kid didn’t deserve this.
“Betty? Where the hell are you?”
I could imagine him bolting to his feet, his free hand searching his pants pocket for the key to the lockbox where he kept his gun. He’d automatically note the time and fumble for his shoes, the first thing he always took off when he came home. They’d be in the hallway with three other pair. I gave him the address, knowing backup would be there within minutes. Cops like a good vamp hunt to break the monotony of rapists, arsonists, and gang members slicing themselves into sushi.
“Betty, don’t do anything stupid,” he warned.
My hackles rose at his assumption of fragility on my part. “Tagliani, she took out Jeremy. You think I’m going to knit tea cozies waiting for you guys to show up?”
The bulb to the streetlight was dark. Fried or shot out? Firearms didn’t seem like Ellen’s weapon of choice.
“I’ll have guys there in three minutes. Stay where you are!” I could hear the veins in his forehead popping.
“Yeah, yeah.” Before he could say more, I snapped the cell shut and pulled out my Walther handgun. Let the bitch try to bite me with a 9 mm up her nose.
I disengaged the safety and sidled up to the building. For the scene of a potential violent crime, the place was, forgive the pun, dead. Of course, the rain pretty much kept everyone inside, but I didn’t expect to see any potential witnesses hanging around. I toed the door open with my green Sketchers and let it swing on appropriately squeaky hinges. When no one jumped out at me brandishing a knife, I peeked around the corner.
Nada. Zilch. Disappointment filled me. Not that I wanted to see Jeremy’s carved up corpse anytime soon, but it meant I’d have to go deeper into the bowels of the building. Bowels weren’t my forte. I’d rather hang around in the larynx region. Tongue, even. Someplace close to the appropriate exit.
The impending police raid gave me false confidence and pushed me forward. If I had any sense, I’d hang back and wait for them, but I’d never let sense interfere with justice. I wanted Ellen. She lived at the end of the hall on the second floor. I’d delivered to her once before and knew the layout.
Taking the elevator felt like a not very cloak-and-dagger way to approach a murder scene, so I headed up the stairs. A perfect place to be ambushed, but I believed all the bad karma had been directed Jeremy’s way. The smell of death hit me even before I opened the stairway door. There’s nothing like the stench of entrails and extenuation to clear one’s sinuses. I’m glad I didn’t have the pizza, after all.
All hopes of not running into Ellen vanished as I heard her muttering the closer I edged toward her place. Great. I didn’t relish a showdown at the O.K. Corral. Personally, I’d rather shoot her in the back and exit, stage right. Not very moral of me, but then again, she’d probably turned my assistant into Jeremy jerky.
The muttering grew louder, and I started to make out individual words. Things like “meat eater” and “bloodlust” and “organic.” I didn’t understand the last, unless she’d gone psycho hippie on me, and I didn’t want to know about the first. Filleting Jeremy smacked wrong on so many levels.
His left arm stretched into the hallway. A line of razor cuts marched from elbow to wrist. She couldn’t have got much blood from him dead, so a certain amount of torture must have taken place.
Briefly, I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer. I hadn’t grown up with formal religion, but Abuela Vasquez’s Catholic rumblings had rubbed off on me during the three years I’d lived with her. I didn’t buy into the Jesus-as-savior package, but I knew Jeremy had, and it was his soul I prayed for.
Ellen’s mutterings changed to unintelligible chanting. I checked my gun and moved in. A deep, fortifying breath later, I stepped over Jeremy’s body and entered her apartment.
She looked up. In the few times I’d met her, Ellen had reminded me of Glenn Close. Short, blondish hair, a square jaw and piercing blue eyes. The bloodlust had turned her into Cruella DeVampire. Stark-raving bonkers. A prerequisite to murder, but the transformation shocked me. Skunk-streaked hair. Maniacal smile drenched in blood red lipstick. Literally. Insane eyes. Oh, and the black leather bustier, garters, fishnet stockings and six-inch heels.
Cruella DeVampire goes Dominatrix.
“The Fashion Police need to be called,” I said, ignoring the leash that led from her hand to Jeremy’s neck. “You’d look better in pastels.”
She smiled. I would have preferred a growl or swearing. Smiles can be so deceiving. “Betty,” she said in a soft purr, her eyes measuring me. Not for a sauté pan, I hoped.
“Ellen.” I echoed her tone. “Honey, have you been taking your meds?”
The smile closed, thankfully hiding pieces of Jeremy stuck in her teeth. I’d tried not to notice the long cut on him from neck to navel and the ensuing spillage. Damn, but he’d been a good kid. Ellen wiped off an eight-inch knife on her bustier, which didn’t absorb too well. The blood dripped down into a large, spreading pool on the floor.
“You look like my type, AB positive.” The blade slapped each side of her left breast as if she was a human knife-sharpener. If she didn’t watch out, she’d slice off something important.
I kept the Walther ready. I should have shot her, but justice has those pesky scales, and I wanted an explanation.
“Honey, you don’t want my blood,” I told her. “It’s tainted. Cigarettes, you know. It’d be like sucking on an ashtray.”
“Oh.” She frowned. “Then I’ll have to kill you.”
She raised the knife.
The gun misfired.
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