Story

Hurts' Christmas Present (Part 3)

Hurts' Christmas Present,Alan Zacher

The song “Rudolf, The Red-Nose Reindeer” was being sung by Gene Audrey on the radio as Hurts drove back to his office. Amanda was humming along to it.

“Mr. Hurts,” Amanda said.

“That’s my name,” Hurts replied, feeling good. “Don’t wear it out.”

“May we stop at a grocery store?”

“A grocery store?!” Hurts cried. “What for?”

“I’m a real good cook, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda said. “You can ask my mom. Would you like for me to cook you a nutritious, home-cooked meal tonight?”

“Don’t you want to eat at a restaurant?” Hurts said.

“Oh, no, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda replied. “A home-cooked meal is always better than a meal at a restaurant.”

“You want to cook me supper?” Hurts said.

“Yes,” Amanda replied.

“All right,” Hurts said, shaking his head. “If that’s what you want.”

****

Hurts had forgotten why he hadn’t been in a grocery store in years—because he hated it. He hated everything about being in a grocery store. He hated pushing the cart; he hated being bumped into by other shoppers; he hated seeing and hearing crying babies, but most of all, he hated how long they were in there and how much Amanda wanted: “Let’s get milk and instant oatmeal, Mr. Hurts … Oh, we need this, Mr. Hurts … Let’s get fresh fruit, Mr. Hurts … We need peanut oil, Mr. Hurts … Oh, we really need this, Mr. Hurts … Do you like chicken, Mr. Hurts? …..” By the time that they had checkout, they had four bags of groceries, and the bill came to seventy-two dollars.

“My God, Amanda,” Hurts said getting into the car. “All of that stuff back there,” he said, throwing back his thumb at the back seat where the grocery bags sat, “cost me seventy-two dollars.”

“Why don’t you take it out of the reward money?” she said.

“You don’t even know if there’s going to be any reward money,” he replied, starting the engine.

“Sorry, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda said.

Hurts shifted the car into Drive and drove out of the parking lot.

****

When Hurts got within six blocks from his office, Amanda shouted: “Stop, Mr. Hurts! Pull over. Stop, Mr. Hurts!” Hurts did.

“What’s wrong, Amanda?” Hurts said. Amanda was looking out the window on her side. Hurts looked above her and saw nothing out of the ordinary. All he saw was a lot in which Christmas tree were being sold.

Amanda turned to Hurts and said: “Mr. Hurts, may we buy a Christmas tree?”

“Are you out of your mind,” he barked at Amanda. “Why on earth would I want a Christmas tree?”

“Its Christmas time, Mr. Hurts,” she replied. “Your office is so gloomy. Can’t we buy a tree? It doesn’t have to be a large tree like we have at home. It can be a little tree—a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Please. You can take it out of the reward—“

“Don’t even say it, Amanda,” Hurts warned her. “You’re aggravating, Amanda. Just plain aggravating.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda said, lowing her head.

“All right,” Hurts said, surrendering. “C’mon, let’s go.”

They bought a tree that was a bit smaller than Amanda, and she also talked Hurts into buying a stand and a set of lights. With the back hatch of his car opened, Hurts set the tree down on an old blue blanket that he always kept back there to set his fishing gear on when he went camping.

“Smell that pine scent, Mr. Hurts?” Amanda said as Hurts started the car, waving her hand in front of her nose like a chef does when wanting to revel in the aroma of the cooking food.

“I can’t smell anything else in here,” Hurts said. “It’s sickening.” It was getting dark, and Hurts wondered if it would snow tonight.

****

Two blocks away from his office, Hurts spotted something in the rearview mirror that gave him pause. Three cars behind him was a new, black Mercedes. Hurts kept a watchful eye on it. When he came to the building that housed his office, he kept driving.

“Hey, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda cried. “You passed up your office.” Amanda saw Hurts look in the rearview mirror again. She raised herself up a bit and began to turn to look out the rear of the car.

“Don’t look back there,” Hurts stated. “Sit back down and keep looking straight ahead.”

“Are we in trouble, Mr. Hurts?” Amanda said, with a sound of fear escaping from her voice.

“Nothing that I can’t handle,” Hurts replied, calmly. “This is the fun part of the job,” he added, and then winked at Amanda. “Place your hands down at your sides and brace yourself. This ride is about to get bumpy.”

With Brenda Lee singing Rockin’ around the Christmas tree… on the radio, Hurts floored the accelerator. The engine kicked into high gear, and the sudden centrifugal force pushed Hurts and Amanda back against the back of the deep, black, leather seat. Hurts was coming up fast on the car ahead of him. He laid on his horn, swerved into the opposite lane, crossing the two yellow lines, sped pass the car, and then swerved back into the proper lane.

“Slow down, Mr. Hurts!” Amanda shouted. Hurts looked in the rearview mirror again. “Slow down, Mr. Hurts!” Amanda shouted again. “You’re going to get us killed!”

The light at the intersection ahead was red. There weren’t any cars coming. Hurts laid on his horn again and sped through. Hurts looked back in the rearview mirror again. At the next street, Hurts turned on his blinker and made a sharp left turn. Hurts then slowed down.

“Did you lose them, Mr. Hurts?” Amanda said, anxiously and hopefully.

“I don’t want to lose him,” Hurts replied. “I just want to put enough distance between him and us so that I can meet him on my terms and not his.”

They were in an old, rundown neighborhood. As they drove, Hurts kept looking out of the windows for something. “That will do,” he said, spotting something on Amanda’s side of the car. Hurts pulled over to the curb and came to a sudden halt. About five-car-lengths behind from where Hurts had parked his car was an old, abandoned, two-story, red-brick house. Throwing the car door open, Hurts shot out of it and ran to the back of the car. Amanda heard the hatch being opened. Within seconds, Hurts stood at the door with that old, blue blanket in his hand.

Handing Amanda his cell-phone, Hurts said: “I want you to get on the floor under the dashboard. If I’m not back in twenty minutes, you call 911. You tell them that a man is after you.”

“But I can’t do that—“

“No buts, Amanda,” Hurts said, hurriedly. “You do what I tell you to do. C’mon, get on the floor.” She quickly unbuckled herself and got on the floor. Hurts threw the blanket on top of her, hit the lock button on the door panel, slammed the door shut and dashed away.

****

The entrance to the abandoned house was an old wooden door with a padlock. Taking five steps back, and turning his right shoulder to the door, Hurts charged. On impact, the padlock broke away from the door-frame and the door burst open.

Hurts was standing in the foyer of the house. To his left was an old, wooden staircase that went to the second floor. To his right was a spacious living-room. In front of him, about ten feet away, was a wall; to the left of the wall was an arched hallway. Hurts walked to the wall, turned around and leaned up against it. He fished around in his topcoat pockets for his mini-flashlight. When he found it, he clicked it on, and began flashing it towards the front door. As he did this, he unbuttoned his topcoat.

Three minutes later, a tall man, about the same height as Hurts, five-feet, ten-inches tall, stood just inside of the front door. He weighed much less than Hurts did, though. He was expensively dressed. He wore a full-length,  camel topcoat and brown leather gloves. His suit was pin-striped, dark-brown, with a plain brown tie, but made from silk. He was about the same age as Mr. Williams, and his hair was black with graying temples. He had a chiseled face that matched the sternness of his black eyes.

Hurts had been a cop for thirties years, and he knew a criminal when he saw one, and he told himself that this guy wasn’t any criminal—at least not an ordinary one. As with Mr. Williams, Hurts told himself that this guy had an air to him of culture and sophistication, and Hurts thought that he knew him, or had seen him somewhere before.

He had covered his eyes with his hand when Hurts had first flashed a beam of light on him. When he lowered his arm he said in a deep, determined voice: “What is your business with Theodore-Mr. Williams?” He sniffed the air, and then said: “Where’s the—“

“Oh, no, no, no,” Hurts said, clicking the mini-flashlight off and returning it to his topcoat pocket. “I’m the one with the weapon here,” Hurts said, and he reached into his suit-coat with his right hand and withdrew his .9mm semi-automatic pistol.

“See,” he said, pointing it at him. “Here’s the deal,” he continued. “I’ll ask the questions, and you will—“ Within a second, the man was on top of Hurts. He had his right hand around Hurts’ throat, and his left hand had a lock-grip on Hurts' wrist. The man gave one flick of his left wrist, and Hurts’ weapon flew out of his hand. It hit the hardwood floor below with a metallic thud.

The room was dark. The only light now came from the moon shining through the two large windows in the living-room. Hurts had trouble seeing, but he knew that the man had changed, physically. He seemed taller, and his shoulders and chest protruded out massively. His forehead and eyebrows protruded out as well. Breathing heavily, cold, visible air streaming out of his enlarged nostrils, he hissed and roared at Hurts like a savage animal in want, in need, of food. His mouth was wide open, and from his cavernous mouth came down two, long, white fangs, with saliva dripping from the sharp, pointy ends of them.

What frighten Hurts the most about all of this were the man’s eyes. They were two balls of fiery redness, and in that darkness, they seemed to have come straight from hell. He withdrew his long, finger-nailed hand from Hurts’ throat, and then planted it on the top of Hurts’ head. Turning Hurts’ head to the left side and tilting it a bit, he raise his head back and was about to plunge those two fangs down hard into Hurts’ neck, when he heard from behind him, seeming to be coming up from the floor: “Excuse me, Mr. Campball.”

It was Amanda. She was standing there with her arms behind her back.

From instinct, the man spun around and roared at her. She screamed and quickly stepped back in frozen silence. The man grabbed Hurts by the lapels of his topcoat. He had his face turned to one side. He closed his eyes, and within seconds, he was human again. He just stood there. Hurts could see that he was in deep thought. His mind was racing. It was as if he were struggling with himself to make up his mind about something that he should or shouldn’t do.
“No!” he screamed, and he tossed Hurts to across the room and ran out the door.

Hurts had landed on the dusty floor on his back, his head almost touching the bottom step of the staircase. “Oooooh, my back,” Hurts moaned, writhing in pain. “My back.”

Amanda rushed to him and knelt down. Placing her gloved hands on his chest, she said: “I’ll call an ambulance, Mr. Hurts.”

“No, no,” Hurts replied. “I’m all right. He just knocked the wind out of me.” Hurts could feel that Amanda had something in one of her hands. At first, Hurts thought that it must be his cell-phone, but after looking down at her hands, he saw that it wasn’t. He said: “Pepper-spray, Amanda? You were going to spray him with pepper-spray? Didn’t you see what he is?”

“I sure did, Mr. Hurts,” she replied. “I nearly peed in my pants.”

“I thought I told you to stay in the car,” Hurts stated. “When I tell you to do something, you … Amanda, what did you call him?”

“That’s what I wanted to tell you, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda said, excitedly. “I didn’t think he’d hurt me. I know him, Mr. Hurts. That’s Mr. Campball.”

“Where have I heard that name before?” Hurts said, thinking.

“He works with my mom, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda said. “He’s like Mr. Williams. He’s-he’s—“

“You mean he’s a board-member?” Hurts said.

“Yes, that’s it, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda replied, jubilant. “He’s a board-member.”

“I knew that I had seen that guy before,” Hurts said. “I saw him in a picture in Williams’ office.”

Hurts rolled over onto his stomach. Raising himself up on his hands and knees, he crawled to the staircase. Gripping two of the spindles in his hands, he raised himself up. He turned himself around and leaned heavily against the railing of the staircase. He was in pain and exhausted.

“Mr. Hurts,” Amanda said. “You want me to get your gun-your pistol for you?”

Realizing that he would have much trouble retrieving it, Hurts said: “Yes—but you listen to what I say. Pick the weapon up by its handle, keeping you fingers away from the trigger. Keep it pointed down and away from your body. You got that?”

“Yes, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda said. She did as Hurts told her and brought him his pistol.

After holstering his weapon, Hurts took a step forward, but stumbled. He leaned back against the railing of the staircase. Hurts removed his mini-flashlight from his topcoat pocket again and began shooting beams of light throughout the house. In the southeast corner of the living-room, he spotted an old, worn-out broom. “You see that broom, Amanda?” Hurts said, still shining a bean of light on it.

“Yes, Mr. Hurts.” Amanda replied.

“Go get it for me,” he said. She did.

Using the stick end of the broom as a cane, Hurts began hobbling across the floor to the front door.

“Vampires, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda cried excitedly, walking along side of him. “Wow! I can’t wait to tell Mom.”  

“I don’t think that that’s a good idea, Amanda—at least not for now,” Hurts said. “She might think that you’ve gone nuts, and demand that I take you to Family Services, immediately.”

“How many vampires have you fought before, Mr. Hurts?” Amanda asked.

“That was my first,” Hurts replied, “but my partner, Tom, has had a couple of encounters with ….”

****

Back at the office, Hurts lay down heavily on the couch.

“You rest here, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda said, bringing the blanket up to his shoulders. “I’ll get the Christmas tree and the groceries.”

“You can’t carry that stuff up here, Amanda,” Hurts said. “Just leave it all down there in the car, and I’ll get it in a little while.”

“Yes, I can, Mr. Hurts,” she said. “You’ll see. I’ll drag it all up here.”

Hurts placed his right arm over his closed eyes.

“Mr. Hurts,” Amanda said.

“Yeah?” Hurts said.

“Do you think Mr. Campball is down there?” she said, a trace of fear in her voice.

“I don’t think so, Amanda,” Hurts replied. “Even if he is, he seemed to be more afraid of you than you were of him.”

****

True to her word, Amanda emptied the car of the tree and groceries and bought them all up to the office. She dragged the Christmas tree by its pointed top and set it against the front of Tom’s old desk. It took her four trips back and forth, but she carried up all four bags of groceries and set them on the dinning-room table.

Removing the tree stand and the set of lights from their bags, she scooted a chair from the table to the south side of Tom’s desk. She used the chair to get up onto the desk. After moving the TV she placed the tree stand in the middle of the desk and then dragged the Christmas tree up and placed the bottom part into the stand, then she fastened it tight to the tree.

She removed the set of lights from the box, attached the female end of it to the pointy top of the tree, and she began circling the outer edge of the desk, feeding the strand of lights to the tree lower and lower. When she was done, she got off the desk and plugged them in. The tree sparkled beautifully with tiny lights. Amanda was pretty pleased with the result.

She then walked over to the west end of the dresser and turned on the radio and began switching stations until she found one that was playing Christmas music: A very young Michael Jackson was singing “I saw Mamma kissing Santa Claus.”

“Turn it down, Amanda,” Hurts said, his arm still over his closed eyes.

“Mr. Hurts,” Amanda said, anxiously and excitedly. “Look at the tree, Mr. Hurts. Look at it.”

He didn’t want to, but he did. Hurts opened his eyes, removed his arm from his face, turned his head and glanced at the tree.

“Isn’t it beautiful, Mr. Hurts?”

Hurts was shocked. Amanda had been right, he told himself. It did brighten up the gloomy room. “It is beautiful, Amanda,” Hurts said. “You did a great job there.”

“Thank you, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda replied, pleased and grateful that Hurts liked it. “You keep resting, Mr. Hurts, and I’ll begin cooking supper.”

Hurts turned his head, closed his eyes again and brought his arm back up to his eyes.

“Mr. Hurts,” Amanda said.

“Yes?” Hurts replied.

“Do you have pots and pans?—and bowels and plates?

“It’s all in the top two drawers of the dresser,” he replied.

****

Standing on a chair in front of the hotplate, Amanda cooked their dinner. Hurts told himself that Amanda had also been right about telling him that she was a good cook. The meal was delicious. They both had a salad, with sliced tomatoes and carrots in it. She had cooked two large, boneless and skinless, chicken breasts in peanut oil. She sliced a huge Yukon potato in half and cooked them in peanut oil as well. The meal was served with two vegetables—white asparagus and broccoli. For dessert, Amanda prepared fresh blueberries with whipped cream.

Although Hurts’ whole body still hurt, especially his back, he did feel better. As with most children of Amanda’s age, she was fascinated with the concept of vampires. As they ate, she asked Hurts to tell her all that he knew about vampires. Hurts told her much of what he could remember about what Tom had told him. Then he told her about how he had killed a demon that whispered into its victim’s ear, driving that person to commit suicide or to murder other people.

Then he told her how he and Tom had fought leprechauns—that they had had a case in which a young couple had stolen their gold and the leprechauns wanted it back. He told her what mean little devils leprechauns are. Amanda laughed and said: “Now you’re just telling me stories, Mr. Hurts.”

“Oh, so you believe in vampires now that you have seen one,” Hurts said. “You believed me when I told you that I had killed a demon, but when I tell you about fighting leprechauns, you think that I’m telling you a story.”

“That’s pretty hard to believe, Mr. Hurts,” she said, refilling her coffee-mug with milk from a one-gallon plastic container.

Hurts became silent, thinking.

“You want some more coffee, Mr. Hurts?” Amanda asked.

“What?” Hurts said, as if coming out of a trance. “Oh, yes, thank you, Amanda,” he said.

When Amanda returned to the table, she carefully set his coffee-mug down on the table next to his empty plate, and said: “Are you thinking about the case, Mr. Hurts?”
 
“A good detective goes by more than just brains and observation,” Hurts said. “He goes by his gut feeling, too, and my gut is screaming at me that there is more going on here than just with your mother … What am I missing here? … OK, let’s go over it. Fact, Campball is a vampire. Fact, Campball is a board-member. Fact, Williams is a board-member. Fact, twenty millions dollars was stolen. Fact, it was all done on Cogwell’s computer … Wait a minute here,” Hurts said, thinking. “There’s something wrong with that.”

“What, Mr. Hurts?” Amanda said.

“When you grow up, Amanda,” Hurts said, “you’re going to learn that people are creatures of habit. They keep doing the same things that they get used to doing. So this ‘behooves’ me to ask: Why did your mother use old prune-face Cogwell’s computer to steal the money and not her own computer?”

“Because my mom didn’t do it, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda stated, adamantly. “That’s why.”

“Just humor me here, will you,” Hurts said. “I’m thinking out loud … Go get my ashtray.”

“You’re not going to smoke at the supper-table, are you, Mr. Hurts?”

“Do it,” Hurts ordered. Amanda did as she was told.

After lighting a cigarette and taking a long drag on it, Hurts said: “All of that money was stolen on Cogwell’s computer to make it appear that your mother was trying to frame Cogwell, but to me, that was over-kill. It would be more believable for me if whoever did this would have used your mother’s computer. That person had your mother’s password—and who can get an employee’s password? A boss—and who can get a duplicate employee’s employment-card? A boss—and who’s the boss of the accounting department at International Investments, Inc.?”

“Ms. Cogwell is, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda answered.

“Bingo,” Hurts replied, shooting Amanda with his index-finger and thumb.

“Woo-who,” Amanda cried, raising her arms and hands over her head. “You solved it, Mr. Hurts.”

“No, no, Amanda,” Hurts said. “Cogwell’s a player in all of this,--a big player—but she’s no thief. There’s something going on here that’s bigger than all of this. Hell-heck, I’m beginning to believe that there never was any money stolen. That was all smoke and mirrors to hide what’s really going on here. But what could that be? What I’m I missing?” Hurts became silent again, deep in thought.

“How many vampires do you think there are in St. Louis, Mr. Hurts?” Amanda asked, popping the last blueberry from her plate into her mouth.

“What?” Hurts replied. “Oh—well, Tom told me that it wasn’t an overly large number, but that it wasn’t an overly small number, either. I guess it could be—“

“Like a community?” she said.

“Yeah,” Hurts replied. “I guess a community … a community … a community,” Hurts kept repeating and thinking, “a community … the community … No, could that be it? … Could that be it? … Yes, it could be it! Amanda, listen to me!” Hurts shouted, pounding the table with the palm of his closed fist. He hit it so hard with his fist that the plates, coffee-mugs and utensils rattled.

“Listen to me, Amanda,” he repeated. “Tom told me that all vampires are required to belong to something called ‘The Community.’ There are chapters of the Community throughout the world. The Community does many things. It protects their secret; when a human becomes a vampire, it gives that person a new identity;--social security card, a birth certificate, money to start over in a different state or a different country—when a vampire kills a human, the Community gets rid of the body and on and on. Now, Tom also told me that the Community is governed by elders. These elders are the oldest and the most powerful of their kind … Can you work a computer?” he then said to Amanda.

“Sure I can, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda replied. “We have a computer at home. Don’t tell Mom, but I peeked at my Christmas presents again. Mom got me a laptop computer, a medical dictionary and—and I don’t know what she was thinking—but she got me—

“Did I ask you about your Christmas presents?” Hurts said. “C’mon, get on my computer.” Amanda did as she was told. “Let me know when you’re ready,” Hurts said as he got up and positioned the chair so that he could see Amanda.

“Ready, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda said.

“Go to International Investments’ website,” Hurts said. “Then go to the bios of the board-members.” A few moments later, Amanda said: “Got it, Mr. Hurts.”

“Are any of them from St. Louis?” he asked.

“No,” Amanda answered a few moments later. “They’re all from different states.”

“Who has been there the longest?” Hurts then asked.

“All of them came here about the same time, Mr. Hurts,” Amanda said. “They all came here about eighteen years ago.”

“OK,” Hurts said. “Now I want you to look up the website of the Drake Hotel in New York City.”

“Got it, Mr. Hurts.”

“Is there a phone number?” Hurts asked.

“Yes,” she replied.

“Write it down, and then call that number,” he said.

Amanda scooted the chair back to Hurts’ desk and dialed the number on the old, black phone that was on top of Hurts’ desk. Hurts told her to ask for the front-desk, and then to ask to speak with a Mr. Fredrick Silvers. Amanda did. She told Hurts that the man said that Mr. Silvers wasn’t registered as being there.

“Ask him if he knows Mr. Silvers,” Hurts said. Amanda did and she told Hurts that the man said that he did.

“Ask him when did Silvers last stay there,” Hurts said. She did. She then told Hurts that he had stayed there in June of this year. “Hang up,” Hurts told her. “Bingo,” Hurts said, shooting Amanda with his index-finger and thumb.

“We just caught Williams in a lie. That’s strike two for them.”

“Woo-who,” Amanda cheered, raising her arms and hands above her head.

This whole thing has nothing to do with your mother,” Hurts said, slicing the air with his hand, “but everything to do with vampires—from old frog-face Cogwell, to Campball, to Williams’ secretary to Williams himself. Tomorrow morning,” Hurts continued, “we’re paying another visit to International Investments and by damn-dang, I’m going to get to the bottom of all of this.”

“Woo-who,” Amanda cheered again.

****
    
At twelve-to-eleven the next morning, Hurts, feeling much better, and Amanda stood at the elevators in the spacious lobby of the Wainwright Building. Hurts was dressed in the last of his three, thread-worn, old suits, his black suit and topcoat. Amanda was dressed in a white blouse and jeans, under all of her winter clothes, of course. Hurts wasn’t frighten of Mr. Campball, but he didn’t want to have a confrontation with him just yet. So they went straight to Mr. Williams’ office.
As Hurts had done two days before, he told Amanda to sit on the sofa and then he asked Mr. Williams’ secretary if he could speak with Mr. Williams. The door to his office was closed, and the receptionist phoned him. Hurts had a whole new outlook on the receptionist, whom he had thought to be plain-looking, now that he knew what she truly was. He wanted to playfully taunt her.  

A few seconds later, the door to Mr. Williams’ office opened and he said: “Come in, Mr. Hurts.” Although he was smartly dressed in a light-gray suit, he looked worn, as if he was suffering under the weight of a heavy burden.

“Please, be seated, Mr. Hurts,” he said, walking behind his desk and then sitting down.

“Thank you for seeing me on such short notice,” Hurts said as he sat down in the same chair that he had two days before.

“My pleasure,” Mr. Williams replied, interlacing his fingers together and resting his elbows on the arms of his chair. “How may I help you?”

“Well, Mr. Williams,” Hurts began, “you’re a man of the world,—educated, cultured, sophisticated—and I’m a man of the streets, but I’ve been around the block. Why don’t we put our cards on the table here, and talk about what’s really going on here.”

“What ever do you mean, Mr. Hurts?” he replied.

“Awww, C’mon, Williams,” Hurts stated. “Let’s talk about vampires and the Community.”

“I haven’t the slightest idea of what you’re talking about, Mr. Hurts,” he said.

“You don’t?” Hurts replied, rising from the chair. Unbuttoning his suit-coat, Hurts turned around and walked to the closed door. He reached into the left side of his suit-coat and drew his .9mm semi-automatic pistol. He spun around and pointed it at Mr. Williams. “You’re a vampire, Williams, and you’re an elder of the Community.”

“Have you lost your mind, Mr. Hurts?” he said, calmly. “Put that weapon away.”

“So you’re not a vampire?” Hurts said.

“Don’t be absurd,” Mr. Williams replied.

“Well, let’s find out,” Hurts said. “I’m going to give you to the count of three to take this weapon away from me. If you don’t, I’m going to shoot you right between the eyes. You best believe me, Williams,” Hurts said. “I’ll do it.”

Hurts paused for a second, and then said: “One.” Mr. Williams didn’t move. “Two,” Hurts said; Mr. Williams still didn’t move. “OK,” Hurts said. “Have it your way. Three.” Zoom. Mr. Williams didn’t change as Mr. Campball had the night before, but before Hurts could pull the trigger, Mr. Williams had the hand of Hurts’ that held the weapon, high in the air. Hurts had proved his point. Smiling, he said: “That’s strike three.”

“What does that mean, Mr. Hurts?” Mr. Williams asked.

“Nothing,” Hurts replied.

“You’re an intelligent man, Mr. Hurts,” Mr. Williams said, returning to his desk.

“I get the job done,” Hurts replied, sitting back down. “There never was any money stolen, was there,” Hurts said.

“No,” he replied.

“Amanda’s mother had nothing to do with any of this, right?” Hurts said. “She was, as the saying goes, in the wrong place and the wrong time. It could have been anyone in the accounting department.”

“You are correct, Mr. Hurts,” Mr. Williams replied.

“What’s Cogwell’s involvement in all of this?” Hurts said. “She was the woman in the video footage.”

“Ms. Cogwell was merely following the instructions of my fellow associate and board-member,” Mr. Williams said, looking towards the picture on the wall of the men standing in a line, “Mr. Campball. I lied to you the other day when I said it was Mr. Silvers who called the police pretending to be me. It was Mr. Campball who did that.”

“Is that Mr. Silvers here?” Hurts asked. “I know he’s not in New York.”

“No,” Mr. Williams replied. “Sadly, dear Fredrick,” he said, looking up at the picture again, “along with Mr. Thomas, is dead. Mr. Thomas is to the right of Fredrick in that picture. He looked the youngest of us all, and he was the youngest of us. He was only one-hundred-and-sixty-years-old.”
 
“They’re both dead?” Hurts said.

“Yes,” he replied.

“What’s going on here, Williams?” Hurts said.

“I’m at war, Mr. Hurt,” he replied.

“War?”

“Over the course of this past year,” Mr. Williams began, “a rift has occurred amongst my fellow board-members. Some of them believed that this organization was growing too large, and that we were jeopardizing the secret of our existence. I and Fredrick attempted to explain to them that we had all chosen St. Louis for our Midwest Chapter for this very reason. This is St. Louis. It’s not Paris or London—or even Chicago. St. Louis is still a small city."

"We discussed all the good this organization is doing for our kind as well as your kind—all of the money we give to other chapters; all of the money we donate to charities and all of the civic organizations in which we assist. Sadly, the rift only became wider and wider amongst us, and it became more heated. Sides were chosen. Dear Fredrick, young Mr. Thomas and I chose to continue with the growth of the organization. Mr. Campball, Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Graves opposed any further growth and vowed to stop us. What happened here Monday was their attempt to quell us into submission—to illustrate to us how easily we could be exposed. We did not submit.”

“So how did those two guys die?” Hurts asked.

“Even vampires live by rules and codes of ethics, Mr. Hurts,” he said. “Two weeks ago, we were given the option of doing battle one-on-one to resolve this matter. We declined, telling them that it hadn’t come to that yet, that we could still resolve this matter equitably. That was a grave mistake on our part. For the lack of a more appropriate term, they ‘cornered’ young Mr. Thomas on Monday night and demanded battle. He fought them—one at a time, and was destroyed. The same happened to dear Fredrick on Tuesday evening. The war is lost, Mr. Hurts,” he said, with much sadness. “I could defeat one of them, perhaps even two, but not three.”

“So you’re just waiting around for them to kill you?” Hurts said.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Here’s what you need to do, Williams,” Hurts said. “You need to hire me. I get three thousand dollars a day plus expenses—and that starts immediately. And if I succeed, I’ll expect a big bonus from you. Is it a deal?”

“You do realize how dangerous this shall be, Mr. Hurts?”

“You play by too many rules, William,” Hurts said. “My drunken old man didn’t teach me much, but one thing he did teach me was that some rules just beg to be broken. Deal?” Hurts said, extending his hand across the desk.

“Deal, Mr. Hurts,” he replied and took Hurts’ hand.

“Write this address down that I’m going to give you, and you tell your pals to be there at eight o’clock tonight to do battle, but you come at seven. Wear clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty.”

As Hurts passed-by the receptionists’ desk, he said to her, lying: “You know, for a vampire, you’re pretty good-lookin’ … C’mon, Kid,” he said to Amanda. “We got a lot of work to do.”

****