Part 4

You really can’t spend a whole lot of time investigating the paranormal and the occult before you start crossing paths with a whole sordid web of fringe spiritualism and wacko cults. I mean, guys worshipping flying saucers hidden in comets is only the tip of the iceberg.

In terms of threat level, these groups range all the way from the benign to the merely self-destructive to the downright pathological and dangerous. And all of them think they know the secret to the universe. They don’t. I’ve been closer to it than any of them, and I still don’t know what it is.

But some of them do know the secrets of this city and its paranormal underbelly.

Brother John was the guy I usually went to first on this sort of thing. He’s certifiable, but he’s not into racial purity, jihads, human sacrifices, or raising the archdemon-of-the-month, so I can deal with him without feeling like I want to take a bath afterwards.

I found him at the Hand of Light mission in Hell’s Kitchen, getting ready for one of his daily services. These services were notable primarily for the remarkable depth of revelatory experience afforded by the pharmacy of psychoactive drugs routinely dispensed at Hand of Light.

The Hand of Light mission is one of those old, storefront places that was in the bad part of town since before everywhere became the bad part of town. It had changed over the years, gradually metamorphosing through various denominations into its current incarnation, but its location had stayed the same, tucked away amid the shadows and vagrants of a part of New York most people just wanted to forget about.

At the Hand of Light, you could step out of the driving rain and dehumanizing hopelessness and get a hot bowl of soup. All you had to do was be willing to listen. And if you really listened, you found out that you weren’t living in filth on the streets because you were a drunk or an addict or because there were no jobs for you, or because the politicians couldn’t give a rat’s ass about you if you weren’t a registered voter and taxpayer. No, you learned that you were the victim of evil forces beyond man’s control. You learned to be resigned to your fate as the will of some higher power.

I’ve never bought into that line. I’m all for blaming the supernatural crowd when they deserve it, but I’m not going to let mankind off the hook when they have it coming, either. And as for being resigned to my fate, well if I did that, I’d have been dead a long, long time ago. I’ll not go gently into that night. Not a chance in Hell. Count on it.

The El hummed and clattered three stories above me as I secured my car and started across the rain-slicked street to the mission. The intra-city elevated railway didn’t stop in this part of town anymore — the stations were all closed down years ago — but it had to go through it to get from point A to point B. Hell’s Kitchen had become a ride-through tourist attraction of human misery.

The black maw of one of the old subway entrances loomed to my left, a relic from before the sea levels rose and before the eastern seaboard quake of thirty years ago had turned the tunnels into an abandoned, geologically unstable maze inhabited only by the forgotten and the lost — both human and otherwise. The El had replaced the subway, staying loftily above the dirt and loneliness that had sucked the life from this street-level world.

“Afternoon, Miss Summers,” said a lean, leathery man from behind the chow line as I entered the Hand of Light. “You lookin’ for the Rev, he’s upstairs getting hisself ready for the four o’clock.”

“Thanks, Phil. How’s it hanging these days?”

Phil shrugged his bony shoulders as he ladled a quantity of thin soup into the bowl of a man who looked as if he had simply turned off his senses and retreated into some private world that was more hospitable to him.

“You know,” he said. “Same old same old. City don’t never get no better.”

“Yeah, kinda noticed that myself. Catch you around,” I said as I headed for the narrow, litter-strewn stairs that led up to the mission’s ‘chapel’.

Brother (or Reverend) John was sitting lotus position under the amorphous, cherry glow of a vintage lava lamp, his tie-dyed sunburst of a shirt and his short gray beard taking on odd, shifting, crimson hues in the lamp’s light.

He was preparing for his four o’clock service by inhaling spirituality out of a large bong. For Brother John, piety and expanded consciousness tended to be inextricably linked with chemistry and controlled substances.

“Hey, it’s the Slayer,” said Brother John dreamily, his half-lidded blue eyes coming to rest on me only with great concentration on the Reverend’s part. He held out the bong to me. “Want a hit, B.S.?”

“I’ll pass, thanks,” I said, letting slide his deliberate use of initials that he knew bugged the hell out of me. What were you thinking, Mom?

“You’re just not in tune with the cosmic consciousness, Buff,” he said, shaking his head and drowning his sorrow in another hit of narcotic smoke.

“Communing with the cosmic consciousness has never been a problem for me. I commune with it more than I’d like, and it usually ends up worse off for the encounter.”

“Bad karma you’re racking up, killing the universal powers all the time like that.”

“Not here for the chakra cleansing, John. Got something I need to know.”

“Always the same with you, B.S. Always looking for something. Lucky for you I’m always in such a good mood.”

“That’s why I always try to catch you just before a service.”

I took the card from my pocket and handed it to him. He fished a pair of round, wire-framed spectacles from his shirt pocket and squinted at the symbol. He had a little trouble focusing.

“Whoa. Heavy.”

You have to understand that Brother John learned to talk from old Cheech and Chong movies.

“Heavy. In what way?” I asked.

“The Shadow Cartel, man. Real ur-conspiracy stuff, Buff. Like the Gemstone Files or the Freemasons, except this is the real deal. We’re talking major league paranoia stuff here, man. What’s this about?”

“Someone’s ensouling vampires, enough of them that everyone from the Slayer units on up the food chain is getting very, very nervous.”

“Whoa. Heavy.”

“Yeah, I got that part of the analysis.”

“Delusional shit, man, someone bringing vamps over.”

“If it is this Shadow Cartel, how do I plug into them?” I asked.

“You don’t. These guys are the movers and shakers, B.S. The Illuminati. You and me don’t rate. Just the big fish.”

“Big fish. How big?”

“Hypothetically speaking, we might be talking on the order of Javier Menendez, ’Kezo Nakamura, or Elliot Lothair among others, but I’m not saying nothing about that. Very carefully not saying nothing, if you get my drift,” said Brother John.

Common denominator there? He was talking about three of the ten or fifteen most powerful people in the world.

I took the card back and winked at him. “Thanks, John. Be seeing you around.”

“Yeah, lucky me,” he said as I turned and headed back down into the soup kitchen.

I stepped from the mission into the street, its late afternoon shadows plunging the dismal alleys into a gloomy twilight, and as I started for my car I nearly got killed by a vampire.

*                              *                              *

I never sensed him. I used to be able to, even if the ensouled ones were a tougher read. But with all the damn genetic and magical tweaks — U.V. resistance, immunity to holy water and holy symbols, the whole post-modern vampire package — it was getting damn near impossible.

He came at me with a pipe and I very nearly ended up with my minimal brains splattered against the old, grime-and-graffiti stained brick of the Hand of Light mission.

Fortunately for me, the old Slayer reflexes are still a part of who I am, and I dodged just in time. The breeze from the pipe ruffled my hair as the weapon passed within a centimeter of my skull. The pipe hit the wall hard, ruining the vamp’s momentum and timing and giving me an opening.

I had no time to go for my service pistol with its enchanted, demon-killing rounds, so this was going to have to be one of my old fashioned bare-knuckled fights. Didn’t bother me at all. I have a fondness for the classics.

He was a big vamp, six-six and built like a linebacker. Fortunately, he moved like one, too. I shattered his kneecap with a sharp snap kick, and as he went down I followed it with a knee to his chin. I felt the fragile bone crack as the mandible was wrenched from its joints. Damn. No way he would be talking now. Vamp regeneration was a great thing, but it couldn’t reset a dislocated jaw without a little help.

I don’t usually fool around with these guys anymore. I’ll leave the quips for the end of the fight, when they’re less likely to get me killed from inattention.

“I don’t remember calling for a plumber,” I said.

Yeah, it was a lame one. I used up all my best material a long time ago.

I drew my service automatic and blew a large piece of his head off. He disintegrated into fine mist of ash that settled among his singed clothing.

Vampires pack a lot of metaphysical energy. That’s how they can be virtually immortal and how they can regenerate so fast. Unfortunately for them, when that energy gets released all at once, it results in a glorious exothermic reaction that turns them into a less than glorious pile of dust.

Makes forensics work on vampire cases a real bitch, but it does make for a lot less paperwork.

I rummaged through his clothes, not really expecting to find anything but going through the motions just the same. Force of habit. You’re a cop and a P.I. long enough, it just gets to be routine.

This time, though, I really did find something. A wallet. I know what you’re thinking: what would a vampire be doing with a wallet?

Simple. Vampires live in the world. They buy clothes, music, hemosynth, even alcohol. The smartest of them move in the world of high finance and organized crime. The less astute are petty criminals, thieves and thugs. A perfect reflection, in a soulless sort of way, of our own human society.

This vampire wasn’t very high up in the undead food chain, genetic U.V. resistance enhancements or no. His wallet contained nothing more than a few stolen debit cards, a driver’s license (they get pulled over now and again, too), and a slip of paper with an address penciled on it. I knew the place, an old apartment building just on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge. I used to know someone there. They’re dead now, dead a long time.

The address was a clue. We P.I.s are big on that sort of thing. We’re also big on the notion that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

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