The Crown of Thorns

ONE

It was nearly sunset as I pulled up outside the building. It was a four storey red brick affair with boarded up windows and walls decorated with graffiti. All we needed was some cheesy music and a thunderstorm and I could have been walking into a bad horror flick. Only bad horror flicks donít have a taped off section in the front of the building, or a half dozen squad cars, sprinkled with a few unmarked or a couple of ambulances parked around the place. They donít have a sweltering heat that wraps around you like a blanket as soon as you get out of your car. And they certainly donít have me.

I was glad I decided on wearing jeans, a dark tank top with spaghetti straps and my steel capped boots. It was a drastic improvement on the dark uniforms of the police officers. Still, it didnít save me from breaking out in a sweat as I pulled a gym bag out of the trunk of my car and began to head toward the taped off area. There was a strange mixture of onlookers, police, EMTís and plain clothes officers. The onlookers were to be expected. You always get gawkers when thereís police and tape. All we needed was press and the circus was complete. I had ID clipped between my breasts as I had no collar or lapel and anything other than the top I was wearing would have been absolute suicide in this heat. Yeah, thatís the reason. Honest.

I smiled quickly to a uniform by the edge of the tape and he nodded, lifting it up for me to pass through. Ainít it nice to be known?

The front of the building had four concrete steps and a previously boarded up door. Now the boards were broken teeth to a grinning mouth to insanity. At the bottom of those steps was about a half dozen people in crumpled plain clothes engaged in a heated argument. Only, a couple looked like what they were wearing cost more than a copís salary in this city. I was betting the feds were here and since they were arguing, it could only be over one thingójurisdiction.

I stopped a couple of feet from this happy little gathering and dumped my sports bag on the ground. I was just unzipping my bag of goodies as one of the arguing people broke off and looked at me, breaking into a broad, bright smile.

"Liz, you made it," he said wearily. He was around six foot seven, give or take, itís still damn tall in my book, very fit, with unruly dark curls of hair and piercingly blue eyes. Sweat freely rolled down his tanned cheeks and stained his short-sleeved white dress shirt, his tie hung at half mast and the shirt was untucked from a pair of blue slacks. I felt sorry for him, but smiled in return nonetheless.

"Hey Ripley, wouldnít miss this party for the world." I replied. "Howís Casey?"

Detective Sergeant Ripley Palmer nodded, a short bob of his head. "Sheís good, real good."

"Nice to hear." I said as I fished out a belt and buckled that around my waist. The next bit was the fun part, getting out the goodies.

"Who the hell is this?" came an angry growl. The argument had faded away and several detectives were staring at me. The one that had spoken was a man not as tall as Ripley and going soft round the middle. He was in a charcoal grey suit complete with wrinkles and sweat stains, his pale skin slightly red and slick with sweat, his flat grey eyes hard and cold, his short straight blond hair matted to his head.
"Liz, your executioner," I said and stuck out my right hand, holding a machete in my left. The blond ape sneered at me, his eyes fixing on my chest.

"Uh, this is Special Agent Eric Llewellyn," Ripley said, keeping the introduction curt. "Agent Llewellyn, this is Liz Reynolds, our resident hunter. Sheís the one who pointed us to the beasties here tonight."

"Theyíre called breasts, Llewellyn, you have a problem with Ďem?" I asked, looking up at the fed. Thatís a mean feat. I ainít no munchkin at near six feet.

"No, but I want to know what kind of hunter, it doesnít specify and this is a vampire nest," he growled, raising his eyes to my face.

"Well, since you asked so nicely, I donít specify. Iím one of three hunters in the country that go all round. And weíre the only three that have federal badges, so if youíre making life difficult for Detective Palmer here, Iíll make it un-difficult." I said with a sweet smile but in a tone of voice Iíve been told scares kids and adults alike.

"Well itís nice to meet someone that isnít so veiled with threats," Llewellyn growled.

"If you want a veiled threat, go talk to a vampire." I said and turned to by bag, slipping the machete into a loop on the belt. Next came a .9mm Barretta complete with silencer, this went into the holster on my left hip. I already had a six inch switchblade in my pocket but I wasnít about to mention that to the nice federal agent. A nine inch hunting knife that had the highest silver content I could manage went into a thigh sheath on my right leg and last came my favourite toy. A 12 gauge shotgun. Whilst I was carefully loading the shotgun, the argument had reignited. I was happy with that. They could argue all they wanted, I had some killing to do.

"Fuck it, have fun ladies," I muttered and began to talk toward the grinning doorway full of broken wooden teeth.

"Just a minute, Reynolds, you wait," Llewellyn snarled and caught hold of my shoulder, spinning me round to face him. I swallowed the urge to sock him one and keep on going, but I let the desire to hurt him show in my eyes. "You canít go in,"

"If I get struck by lightning as I reach the door, then I canít go in, but right now youíre burning daylight. If itís dark and everyone goes skipping into that slum theyíre all dead." I said quietly. "Now get your hand off of me and donít touch me."

I was getting angry and it must have been showing cause he let go of my shoulder. When I get angry, I donít rant or rave or shout or scream. I remain quiet and polite, but my voice ends up going icy like the Arctic.

"You canít go in alone," he growled at me.

"I go in alone, Llewellyn, less people get killed that way." I told him. I wasnít liking him already. He struck me as a hardass and someone who was going to piss me off no matter what.

"You canít go in there alone, now I donít care if the cops think youíre the second freaking coming, but in my book, you do not go in alone on an execution." he told me with a borderline sneer. I guess he didnít fine me as lovable as the rest of the police. Big boohoo.

"Ripley, can you tall Agent Llewellyn the way I work," I raised my voice a little.

"She works alone," the detective replied.

"Not today sheís not. Iím going in and so are you, Detective, and bring an officer with you," Llewellyn said over his shoulder, but kept glaring at me. I glared back but wondered what the explosion would be like if I jammed the shotgun down his throat and pulled the trigger. It was a comforting thought. I heard Ripley sigh.

"Eldridge," he ordered as he made his way round the glowering FBI agent.

A tall and frightfully young uniform came forward. Hell, he was too damn young to shave by the looks of things.

"You gotta first name, Eldridge? I asked and tore my gaze from Llewellyn.

"Buddy, maíam." the uniform said politely.

"Itís Liz, Buddy, not maíam." I told him with a smile and sighed. "Well, it looks like I canít go in alone, but do I still get to play by my rules?"

"You may," Llewellyn replied gruffly.

"Gee I feel so privileged," I muttered sarcastically before fishing through my bag for a few crucifixes. While I was there I also got out a metal collar. I handed the crosses to the three officers of the law. "Any objections on base of religion?"

There were none.

I fitted the collar round my neck and began to speak. "Right, this is how it goes, Ripley I donít want to have to haul your bony ass out of another burning building so pay attention this time. You three as my shadows unless I say otherwise. You do as I say yesterday cause split seconds matter. You stay at my back and none of you argue with me," I broke off and glared at the FBI agent. "I breathe, you breathe, I sneeze, you hold the Kleenex. By the way, make sure youíre ammo is standard silver issue, if itís regular, itíll do jack. You shoot, you shoot to kill. We are not hauling these nasties down to the station for questioning. Do all this, weíll walk out of here and Iíll by you al a beer. If that doesnít go against your regulations, Llewellyn."

He grunted and hung the crucifix round his neck. "Letís just get going,"

"Fine with me," I said and turned toward the door for the second time.

Inside was as lovely as the outside. It was dim and dark, musty, the floors rotted and boards missing in places, holes in the walls and all decorated with mouldy wall paper and graffiti. Then there was the heat. It was bad enough outside, inside it was so thick, I could have carved it up and handed it out. The air was still and barely any light made it through the boarded windows. Enough do make out things, but not too much more. I stood for a while, letting my eyes adjust. The stench was terrible. The whole floor stank of stale piss, mould, rotting wood and a couple of things most couldnít pinpoint. Those scents were death and vampire. The death had a sickly bitter sweet edge to it, kinda like vomit. Vampires have a stench that goes straight to the nostrils like chlorine or sulphur. They stink of venom. Dogs go nuts over it. Once upon a time dogs were used in hunts, but they only served as the entree to the hunted vampire. Then the animal associations kicked up a fuss over animal rights, so now hunters have to use their own noses. Where the hunter is human, thatís a big disadvantage. A human might pick up on a vampire after being locked in an empty room with one, even then theyíd have to be lucky. Luckily tonight, the hunter in charge wasnít human.

Light sliced across my vision and I held up a hand over my eyes, letting out a wail of pain. "Turn off the goddamn light, youíre screwing with my eyes!"

Mercifully, the light disappeared, though there was a little grumbling. I cautiously lowered my hand to see the police with flashlights, theirs off, Llewellyn had his on but pointed away. I was guessing he was the one who had grumbled.

"No light, Llewellyn, turn it off," I growled at him.

"We canít see then," he hissed.

"Speak for yourself," Ripley muttered.

I fought the urge to grin. "No lights, no talking. I donít want any of them to be early risers and be prepared for us."

I headed for the stairs. They were in worse than bad repair. There were a couple of steps missing, boards rotted and split. They creaked and groaned as I put my weight on them, heading up. I ignored a quiet protest from the FBI agent to search all the floors. There wasnít any need. I knew where the vampires were; the top floor.

How did I know that? Comes with not being human. I specialise in the dead, so it was easy to find three vampires; follow the trail of death.

There was a slight psychic taint going up the stairs leading to a familiar feeling. Like being stuck in a pitch black room and knowing a friend is nearby only you canít talk to each other. You just know that that person is near and they are your friend. Vampires on the other hand, as much as they stink, they feel like someone had let loose something you know is dangerous into that room and taints everything.

There were three vampires, we knew that much. They were taking people off the street, killing them and leaving the meat behind. That meant they were rogues and that they were young and stupid. I say that because only the young ones are contained by darkness, the older ones being able to see a few hours of sunlight either side of noon. That and the older ones never let the bodies be found. Over the last two weeks, this trio had killed over fourteen people. Even the vampires wanted these three gone.

I slowed and came to a stop on the landing to the third floor, letting the others catch up. Sweat was dripping down my skin in this oppressive heat and I was the only one of this quartet wearing anything best suited for the weather. To my surprise, Officer Buddy Eldridge was next on the scene, sweat pouring off his face, his skin red and his breaths loud as he went to catch his breath. He took a deep breath and fell into a fit of coughing.

I swore silently and clamped a hand over his mouth, glaring at him.

"No talking, talk Iíll rip your tongue out, got it?" I whispered to him. He looked at me with wide, watering blue eyes and nodded slightly. I slowly eased my hand away.

"Whatís that smell?" he choked out quietly. I drew in a deep breath and bit my knuckles to stop from coughing.

"Thatís about five or six corpses going ripe in this heat," I told him softly. "Heads or hearts?"

He gave me a funny look. "What?"

"Heads or hearts, pick one," I shrugged as Ripley and Llewellyn came puffing onto the landing.

"Hearts I guess," Buddy murmured. I smiled unpleasantly.

"Hearts it is," I said and pointed to the three of them then drew my finger across my throat. "You talk, you die,"

Ripley nodded. Llewellyn gave me a funny glare. Buddy just looked expectantly at me. I turned and began to creep up the stairs, one creaking, rotting step at a time. The boys make a few choking sounds as the stench of rotting corpse got stronger. Hell, Iíd be doing the same if I were them. I forced myself to breath and to try and pick up in the smell of venom through the rot. The stench of death was like a sickly candy I could roll around in my mouth, it was that strong. I also went with that edgy feeling vampires give me. That was enough to let me know that there was one nearby. I held the shotgun in one hand and gestured behind me for the others to come up and to spread out. This first one was mine. I came out onto the fourth floor and slung the shotgun into a two handed grip, ready to shoot anything that moved. Now I had to block my nose from the eye-watering stench as I moved. There was a broken doorway opposite the stairs and through I stepped. On the floor was a corpse of what used to be a woman. Her waxy, greyish face was frozen in terror as her eyes stared sightless, milky and glassy. Deep red of meat showed the ruins of throat, a piece of white spine glistening slickly. Flies buzzed over the meat. One pallid hand was stuck to the floor by dried black blood. More of the stuff stained the corpseís clothes, especially round the places chunks of flesh had been torn away. Another cadaver lay nearby, a man with equal terror on what was left of his face. Only with him, there were chunks of flesh torn away coupled with clean, sure lines. One of the monsters had a knife.

Moving along a little further, I came across a third corpse. This one was of a young woman with a round, petite face with dark blood smeared over her mouth and making her tattered and grimy clothes stick to a body nowhere near as young or innocent as the face. Her short brown hair had clumps of black blood in it. Despite that, she lay on a grimy mattress serene, peaceful. Asleep.

Vampire.

Now this is where the traditionalists and the amateurs screw up. No, vampires are not strictly well-to-do, well dressed, Eastern Europeans with bad accents, widowsí peaks, tuxedos or dresses and a cape that slept in a coffin. Tell that to a vampire and theyíll laugh. They find it a hilarious stereotype. Canít say that I blame them. If someone with garlands of garlic and a crucifix round their neck, a stake in one hand and a mallet in the other comes round searching for a coffin, it gives the real vampire time to get up and mobile for a nasty surprise on said amateur.

I levelled the shotgun at her chest as her eyes flew open and her mouth gaped wide to reveal red gums, white teeth and elongated upper canines.

We were out of time.

The sun had set.


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part 2


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