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Dancing with Death

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'20s P.I. Angel 

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It turns out that when you dethrone the corrupt mayor of New York City, there’s no guarantee his successor won’t be just as bad. And twice as paranoid.

“Damn, what is this, the fifth time I’ve found you crawling out of the river?” said Charles Gunn, one of the guards working the graveyard shift in the Slaughterhouse District.

“Fourth,” I said, accepting the hand he was holding out to me and letting him pull me to my feet. “Thanks for the tip about Finch’s meeting.”

Gunn snorted. “That many holes in you, and you’re thanking me? Can you even make it back to wherever you go when you vanish into the shadows like this?”

“I’ll be fine.”

But no matter what I’d told him, making it back to my building before sunrise was a close call that night. After getting shot in the torso at least half a dozen times and dumped in the Hudson in late autumn, you’d think sunrise would be the least of my worries—but then, you probably think I’m human. Luckily for me, Mayor Finch and his goons had thought so too.

I stepped off the wrought iron elevator into my apartment and pulled the Leica camera out of my sodden overcoat. Modern technology never ceases to amaze me, but I can be a little hard on it. That was the first portable camera I’d ever owned, and I’d managed to ruin it inside of a week. There was a puckered hole right through the casing where one of the bullets had struck it before lodging between two of my ribs, but the film seemed to be intact. As long as the photographs developed, I might still be able to salvage something of the night. But that could wait until after I got all the lead out of me.

Removing the bullets was the work of two agonizing hours. I’d been shot on plenty of other occasions, but that was the first time my assailants had used automatic weapons—the less wonderful side of modern technology. The entry wounds were all on my chest and stomach, so they were easy enough to reach. After depositing the last of the seven bloody lead balls in the dish on my coffee table next to a pair of equally bloody forceps, I sewed up the holes. Then I went to my icebox and pulled out the largest bottle of blood inside. Up until the latter half of the Great War, I’d had to hunt animals to keep myself fed, but for the last decade, I’d been able to get what I really craved, neatly packaged in glass, without so much as seeing the donors, let alone harming them. Sometimes I still hunted animals anyway, just to have something warm to sink my fangs into, but even when it was cold, human blood was always the best.

Once I drained the bottle and could feel my injuries beginning to heal, I took a long shower, the water as hot as it could go. The spray soothed my aching muscles, and I stayed under it until it ran cold. I was lucky that Gunn had been the only one to find me after that shootout. It wouldn’t have taken much more to finish me off. Gunn and I had been friendly ever since one of my more unusual cases had led me to the cattle tunnel under the river, where I’d helped him and his buddies clear out a nest of vampires. His position as a night guard, paired with his surprisingly intricate network of associates on the streets, had made him a useful source of information on more than one case.

After the shower, it was time to develop those photographs. Mayor Finch might be as dirty as Mayor Wilkins had been—which was probably why Wilkins made him Deputy Mayor in the first place—but he’d learned from his boss’s mistakes. He was slippery. I’d been following him for over a month, and last night was the first time I’d caught him doing anything incriminating. He’d gone out to the docks with a small army of guards to meet with known gangsters Tony Papasian and Paul Lenier. The photos might not be solid enough evidence to get him put away, but my contact in the City Council (the wealthy but earnest David Nabbit) was only paying me to provide grounds to impeach him. After that, the police could do the rest.

The Wilkins case had been rough, and I wouldn’t have taken another one regarding a dirty politician if the pay hadn’t been five times my usual rate. My client for the Wilkins case hadn’t been able to pay at all. Being a private investigator isn’t always the best way to make rent and keep the icebox stocked with blood, especially when the majority of my cases are supernatural. Doyle, an Irish half-demon I sometimes get drinks with, calls it my self-imposed penance, and he may be right. I have a lot to atone for. It’s why I didn’t mind taking clients who couldn’t pay. If these photographs developed well, though, I wouldn’t need to worry about money for another few months.

I’d just gotten the last of them hung up to dry and the negatives stored in my safe when I heard the bell ringing on the door of my office upstairs, followed by the click of heeled shoes. So much for my plans to get some shut-eye now that the sun was up. I threw on a shirt and waistcoat over my freshly bandaged bullet wounds, then did the best I could with my hair, not having a reflection to work with.

The woman pacing my outer office—the woman who was about to offer me the case that would change everything—looked like a typical wealthy socialite wearing a plain, inexpensive overcoat in an effort not to look like a typical wealthy socialite. If she really wanted to avoid drawing attention, she should’ve left off the pearl necklace and maybe scuffed up her shoes a little.

“Can I help you, ma’am?” I asked.

She jumped and spun around. Sometimes I forget to make noise when I move, so I end up spooking a lot of people. Just one of the many things that make it impossible to forget I’m not one of them. “Oh, my, you startled me!” she said, gloved hand over her heart. “My name is Joyce Summers. Are you Mr. Angelus, the private investigator?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, suppressing a wince. The name didn’t sit well with me. It was the name of a demon whose favorite pastimes included psychological torture and finding creative new ways to murder people—a name that had struck fear and horror into countless hearts from 1753 to 1898. But thanks to a clan of angry Gypsies, it hadn’t really applied for the last few decades. I just wasn’t sure what to do about that. “What brings you to my office?”

Mrs. Summers wrung her hands and looked nervously around the room. “It’s about my daughter.”

I gestured her towards the inner office, where I sat down behind the desk and she perched on the very edge of the seat in front of it. “What can you tell me about Miss Summers?” I asked, pulling a notebook and drafting pencil out of the desk drawer.

“She left home last month. Here’s a photograph.” She pulled one from her purse—just the right size to tuck between the pages of a journal—and slid it across the desk to me. The subject was a girl in her late teens. Possibly very early twenties. She was beautiful, with smooth skin, light hair framing her face in elegant curls, wide eyes looking boldly into the camera, and mouth twitched up in a secretive smile. Across the bottom, someone—likely Mrs. Summers—had written Elizabeth Anne Summers, 1927 in a curling script. From the moment I saw that photo, I knew I’d be taking this case, even if it turned out to be nothing.

“How long has she been missing?” I asked—though not because I actually thought Miss Summers to be missing. Mrs. Summers was acting as skittish as a vampire in a cathedral, and clients like that didn’t usually like to divulge information. One of the best ways to get it out of them is by asking questions based on false premises.

“She isn’t missing,” Mrs. Summers said quickly. “She’s been working in a bookshop ever since she left, renting one of the apartments above it. I’ve spoken with her employer, a Mr. Giles. He seems confident in her ability to look after herself.”

“And you don’t share that confidence,” I guessed.

“I’m pleased that she’s doing well,” said Mrs. Summers, a frown furrowing her brow. “But this wouldn’t have been my first choice for her. Earlier this year, she turned down a very eligible offer of marriage from a decorated veteran of the Great War, and now she’s abandoned high society to share living quarters with a Jewish girl of no pedigree, under the supervision of a man who felt it appropriate to marry a Gypsy.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Is that what has you worried? The company your daughter keeps now that she’s left home?”

Mrs. Summers’ nostrils flared and she avoided eye contact with me. “No. She’s informed me in no uncertain terms that she’ll hear nothing against the Gileses or that Rosenberg girl, and that she’d sooner completely sever ties with her father and me than leave them.” She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “I’ve come to you because I have reason to believe her life could be in danger.”

“Why not go to the police? Or a P.I. operating out of a more upscale neighborhood than mine?”

She shifted in her chair. “The threat is not of a kind they are equipped to deal with, even if they took it seriously.” She pulled something else out of her purse. A folded sheet of paper. “I’ve been paying a young man to keep an eye on her. This is what he gave me last night when he came to report to me, along with his notice of resignation.” She hesitated, then slid the paper over.

I unfolded it. It was a sketch of what was unmistakably a vampire, fangs and ridged forehead recognizable even though it had been drawn by a none-too-skilled artist. “He told me he saw a few men lurking in the alley next to the bookshop. They had faces like that, and they were talking about how they could get my daughter cornered before the end of the week.”

“And you believed him about these men?” I flipped the sketch around. “Have you ever seen anything like this yourself?”

“That’s why I came to you,” said Mrs. Summers. “The word is that you’re the one to see if the problem is of an...unusual nature. I don’t want to believe it, but how can I risk my daughter’s safety by not at least investigating? My informant seemed genuinely terrified, and why resign when I’d been paying him such a generous amount unless he was telling the truth? Do you think there might be another explanation?”

“I don’t,” I said bluntly. “The ability to believe creatures like this don’t exist is a luxury I haven’t had in a very long time. What I’m wondering is how your informant got close enough to eavesdrop on them and then still made it out alive.”

“Is that surprising?” said Mrs. Summers, apparently confused. Her heart was beating rather quickly, though it had been doing that for most of our appointment so far.

“Impressive,” I said. “Eavesdropping on a gang of vampires isn’t a healthy pastime for humans.” She flinched on the word “vampires” but otherwise made no objection. “It’s probably for the best that he won’t be working for you anymore. I can take it from here.”

“Then you’ll take the case?” she asked, sitting up a little straighter, looking hopeful.

“Certainly. Just tell me where the bookstore is and any other information you think might help me, and I can get started tonight.”

She left fifteen minutes later, once we’d gone over more details about Miss Summers’ situation and, of course, my fee. I sat back in my chair, listening to the fading sounds of Mrs. Summers’ footsteps while mulling over everything she had told me...and a few things she hadn’t. I might not have been in the investigative business for long, but I could tell when someone wasn’t being completely honest with me.

What had caused Elizabeth Anne Summers to leave her parents’ home? Why abandon the life of a wealthy debutante from the Upper East Side to become a shop girl in Hell’s Kitchen? Why would a gang of vampires target her in the first place? Did they just see an appetizing dinner prospect, or was there something else going on? And Mrs. Summers hadn’t told me anything else about the man she’d had following her daughter. I had a feeling this job would turn out to be more complicated than it looked.

I sighed and glanced over at the calendar on my desk, only to feel a jolt in my gut. It was November 1, 1927. I was two hundred years old.