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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Cause of Death (Short Story)

     The cold, sterile, stainless steel environment of an autopsy room was quiet save for the sounds of a pen scritching on paper. The word morgue had gone out of style and euphemistically been replaced by something more scientific sounding, but its function had not changed at all. I didn't care. Morgue was fine, it didn't change my job, and frustration rose as I tried to come to terms with the autopsy just performed. The body still lay on the table, all trace evidence had been collected, serology and toxicology reports were pending, but for all that the body had not been opened in the usual way, and an obvious explanation for the death apparent, I couldn't make sense of things.
     "Chief Medical Examiner's report continues," I said into the voice memo. Transcription was so much easier than trying to write my thoughts down as they came. "There's still no reason for why certain internal organs appear, well, desiccated. They are nowhere near the size they should be, but that's not the only odd thing."
     I scrubbed a hand through thinning hair, hair that certainly wouldn't get any thicker if I pulled it all out by the roots in frustration.
     "Okay, let's try this from the top. Victim is male, 5'10", and weighs 190 pounds. Aside from the trauma, he appears in excellent physical condition. Age appears to be late twenties to early thirties. No identification was found to give an exact DOB. A normal Y incision was not possible as the chest cavity had already been opened up by the killer. It appears that severe blunt trauma was used to break the ribs. There's no way to know how many blows it took to shatter the ribs. The sternum and attached ribs were then removed. It appears that a rib on the left side may have been the point at which the process began. The killer evidently grabbed a protruding rib, and tore the flesh open, using the rib like a sardine key. The sternum cartilage shows signs of tearing, but held together while the flesh and musculature were torn off of the body. God only knows how much pain the victim felt.
     "From there it appears that the heart was forcibly extracted, simply torn out from all appearances, but there's only minimal blood within the chest cavity, which should show signs of arterial spray when the heart was removed. Instead, at the scene, there was only a little blood found in the chest cavity, and none of it sprayed.
     "Closer examination revealed that the aorta, as well as the superior and inferior vena cava, had thicker walls than normal. The sample taken for the microscope slide was much more difficult to cut than a normal blood vessel.
     "Microscopic examination revealed that the blood vessel walls were now lined with smooth muscle, which, needless to say, is really weird. I can only guess that this muscle squeezes the blood along the vessels and through the body, instead of relying on the heart to pump it through. If that's the case, it leaves me wondering what the function of the heart had been relegated to."
     I nearly scrubbed a hand through hair again, but stopped, and instead pushed out of the rolling chair, it's ancient, metal casters giving a squeak as I got up.
     "Examination continued as normal to discover the previously mentioned desiccated internal organs. Wait, I didn't mention which ones. The gall bladder and pancreas were much smaller than expected, and seem to be desiccated, whereas the liver was of normal size, but was much heavier than expected. I have no explanation for this. Not even a hypothesis, except what I come to later.
     "When finished with the organs, I proceeded to do examinations of the muscle tissue exposed from the trauma, and from having to finish opening up the body to remove the internal organs. Muscle tissue seemed to be tougher to cut through. Again, I viewed a sample under a slid, and have never seen anything like this. There are at least three times the normal number of muscle fibers as found in normal human muscle tissue, all appearing to be normal sized, but tightly compacted and grouped together with some kind of unidentified tissue web.
     "At this point I began to take seriously the idea that the department's consultant, Matt Allen, might not have been joking or psychotic when it came to his claim that the victim was a vampire.
     To that end, I performed a thorough examination of the victim's mouth, but did not discover anything. No fangs, or anything. On the idea that the canine teeth might actually extend down, something I couldn't test as rigor had already set in, I X-rayed the victim's head."
     I leaned on the desk. None of this made sense. I've studied medical books and human bodies for over twenty years, and none of this makes sense. I snuck a couple of quick glances around, making sure no one was around. Of course no one was around. The late shift had already begun, and Anton was busy in the other lab. Still, I could be called in for a consult. I should call Anton in to consult for me. Wait. Finish the report. Get all my thoughts down first, and then talk to him about it. I want it all documented on my end, first.
     I hit the pause button on the memo recorder, then pulled open a desk drawer, and took a swig from the bottle of Jack I kept in there. I only used it for the really bad cases. Vicious beatings, rape with gratuitous violence, and kids. This was bad in a different way, and the burn of the whiskey felt good. I'd like to down the rest of the bottle, but I carried on.
     "I took the X-ray twice, thinking that the first had caught some kind of weird echo of a tooth on it, ro had some other flaw, but the second one turned out to look the same as the first. The first thing I noticed was that there were no fillings. The man had perfect teeth. I wouldn't have noticed that except for all of the other oddities. The next thing I noticed was that recessed up into the hard palate looked like thin teeth."
     I took another swig of Jack.
     "I used a scalpel to cut away at the palate and reveal the teeth, and discovered muscle tissue as well that would push these teeth down into the mouth."
     I grabbed the bottle of Jack and took a deep pull. "Up until this point," my voice scratched and breathy after the liquor, "I had never considered the possibility of what that detective had said. Clearly, this was something outside of what I've ever experienced. None of my medical experience has ever run into something quite like this. And I've seen quite a bit as a medical examiner. God! I mean, I've seen some pretty fucked up shit in this job. I . . . okay, keep it together. Edit that out later.
     "I continued my exploration of the palate and the sinuses, and found a small bundle of what looked like nerve endings in the same cavity where the recessed teeth were. To track them back to the source would have meant completely cutting open the sinuses or borrowing a nasal speculum, but I did noticed that there was something familiar about the nerves, so I consulted my medical books. I was right. The nerves resemble the olfactory nerves of the sinuses.
     I can only speculate, but I believe that these nerves are indeed the same kind of nerves, and provide exceptional smell capability given its proximity to the mouth. This means that this person would smell food inside the mouth as well as anything outside. There aren't as many nerves, so the smells in the mouth wouldn't override the primary olfactory nerves, but would provide an additional source of scent, possibly for the identification of . . . well, if this is a vampire, food . . . meaning blood."
     I shut the recorder off, and drank the jack so quickly it spilled over my mouth. I didn't even pay attention to the burn, just gave a gasp afterward, and leaned on the counter to catch my breath.
     "Shit. This is insane. I can't believe I'm saying all this. Maybe I should just wipe it out and come back in the morning." I can't. I know what I'm seeing. I know what's there. I've spent hours going over this corpse. It's purely impossible, but here it is, anyway.
     "I can't believe I ever wanted something different to happen in this job. I wanted a puzzle, not a Goddamn impossibility. Maybe I should call that detective. He said he wanted to hear from me. Maybe he knows something about this. He seemed to. Wait a damn minute!"
     I stood up, and ran over to my desk, rummaging through the stack of loose papers, looking for the bound report. This was the report the task force had put out regarding all the recent serial killings.
     I found it, and began flipping through pages. Something in there sparked a memory. Something about the detective and a piece of evidence from one of the bodies. I paged through, skimming as I went, hoping that the right words would pop out at me, and there it was, in the Crime Unit's notes of the fourth body found in an alley south of Meridian St. It was also the first body that the PI had been brought in on.
     "The consultant took the arm of the victim found in the dumpster, still in its evidence bag, and held it outstretched. Shortly thereafter, the extreme tip of the bag began to smoulder, as if on fire, and left a fine, grey ash or dust on the ground. It didn't look like the consultant had applied anything to the bag, and the bag had been sealed with no traces of anything that might be combustible found on it at the scene, so it's unclear what really happened."
     Bodies do not just spontaneously combust at room temperature. Either the PI had to do something to the body within the bag, something to the bag itself, or . . . "Or the body wasn't a normal body."
     There didn't seem to be any reason why this detective would put something on the body or bag, unless he wanted to make business for himself. Was it all just a sham? But the body on my table is not a sham. It's real, and it's bizarre. There's no way he would be able to completely engineer a human body like this. So was it really a vampire? I read on.
     "The consulting detective stated that he had applied only sunlight to the body, and that is what caused the reaction. I find this implausible since we used alternative light sources throughout the known spectrum to no effect on the body, previously."
     Sunlight. "Son of a bitch, sunlight! He warned me at the scene that I had to wrap the bodies up to prevent the sun from hitting them. Why the hell didn't I think of using sunlight on it? If I'm right, I don't need much. I can just take a small sample of skin or bone, and test it out. I can do it right . . . no, it's the middle of the night. I'll do it in the morning. I'll get someone else to verify the experiment, too, just to make sure I'm not losing it. Need to provide documentation.
     "Dammit! Where is my head at. I'm so intent on writing this up and figuring it out I should be taking pictures of it all. I can use the camera on the microscope to get the slides, but I should definitely take pictures of the fangs and nerve endings. Maybe I can use a camera and snake it into his sinuses to see what's going on up there. First things first. The camera. Take pictures of the fangs. I need the macro lens for this, and the light ring."
     I pulled out the digital SLR camera, and rummaged around for the right attachments. I found the macro lens, great for close up shots, and the ring flash which would go onto the lens itself, providing all around light up close. I looked into the lens, but something was wrong. I couldn't seem to focus it in correctly. It wasn't just the fangs and the palate, but the entire body didn't seem to focus. I focused on other things, and snapped a few quick pictures, and they turned out fine. I tried again with the body, but with the same result. I snapped the pictures, anyway, hoping to clean them up with the computer. That was odd.
     I took the lens off and peered into the camera itself to see if there were any dirt smudges or anything to explain it, and then I saw the mirror. SLR. Single lens reflex. The mirror pivoted to shoot light into the camera's sensor or the viewfinder, but not both at the same time. A mirror. Vampires weren't supposed to cast reflections. Could that be it? But weren't they supposed to be invisible in the mirror instead of fuzzy?
     I needed another test. Did I have a small mirror around here? I rummaged around, but couldn't find one. The offices. Surely there would be a small mirror in there somewhere. I ran out of the autopsy room, and into the offices shared by all the medical examiners. They were full desks instead of cubicles, but at the cost of having to share the space. Each of the examiners had drawers on one side of the desk.
     I finally found it in the center drawer of Connor's and Ramirez's shared desk. It had to be Connor's. He was the pretty boy of the group, and the only reason he wanted to get on day shift was so that he had nights free to go clubbing.
     I rushed the mirror back to autopsy, and checked the body's reflection. It looked blurry. I didn't know why I could look at it normally, but that it's reflection was distorted, somehow. It was another small piece of evidence on the road to a conclusion that shouldn't be.
     Nervously, I went back to the voice memo. "In attempting to document the body, I've run across the problem of trying to photograph it. All photographs taken come back blurry and out of focus despite all efforts to prevent this. Combined with the irregularities in the anatomy: the internal organs, musculature, and dentition, this leads me to believe that this person is what is popularly known as a vampire."
     There, I said it. And openly, too.
     "I remember the stomach contents revealed a large amount of blood, but I cannot verify as to whether or not this person has, in the past, ingested blood without further analysis, but I have no problem in declaring that this . . . I don't even know what to call this, person . . . is a different species altogether. There are just too many physical differences to say that this is human. I suppose it's possible that these are all a set of mutations, but genetics is not my background. It seems unlikely that such an evolution would happen all at once."
     I paused the recorder again. What to do now? I finally had enough proof to convince me that this was a vampire, but what of it? Should I call that detective now? What do I do, just tell him I believe? Vampires are real! I should get Anton over here. The fangs, the musculature, and the mirror, that should be enough to convince him. Or would it? I could see it, but I couldn't explain it. There had to be more changes. Samples. I should take tissue samples. Skin, muscle, bone, and organs. I should look at them all. I already had the sample of blood vessel wall with its smooth muscle. I need to look at more of them, and get verification. After that I could bring Anton in. And what about the serology and toxicology reports? Maybe they were done. Belport was a big enough city that those labs were constantly going.
     I went to my desk, and picked up the phone, and dialed the extension.
     "Tox, this is Renaldo."
     "Renaldo, this is Dr. Martin in Autopsy. Have you got the reports for my John Doe yet?"
     "Martin, hold on and let me check. Yyyeah, got it right here. It's already in the system. Soemthing wrong, and you can't access it?"
     "No no." I didn't think of checking for it in the computer. The department had recently gone paperless, and it took getting used to not having a paper copy. I liked reading off a paper copy, but everyone had to go green sometime. "I just didn't look. Thanks."
     "Sure thing, Doc."
     I went over to my computer, and pulled up the department network, quickly zipping through the pages to access the Tox reports. Blood type appeared to be O. Blood alcohol: Negligible. No common toxins found in the blood. Under Miscellaneous it read: "While no toxins were found in the blood stream, there was an abnormality in the red blood cells. It appeared to be a cellular organelle, but none are supposed to be found in red blood cells. It's unknown what this organelle is doing there, but it seems not to have any function. We believe it to be a random mutation. Addendum: The pictures we took are all out of focus. We believe it to be equipment failure. For now we have routed the sample back to the ME, so that he may use his own equipment."
     "Equipment failure and random mutation my ass," I muttered. If the sample had been routed back to me, someone should be making rounds soon to get it back to me. I could go over and get it and save the wait. I was about to go, when I remembered the stomach contents. When I had emptied the stomach, I remembered seeing blood. Not a great deal, but some. From what I remembered of the report at the scene, it was believed that a woman had fled. No one had been able to find her, yet.
     "Stomach Contents: There are far less of the usual stomach digestive fluids than anticipated. No food was found in the stomach, but a measure of blood, 475 ml, was found in the stomach."
     Blood in the stomach. Another notch in the belt for vampire. I left the computer, and began taking samples, and preparing slides. I gathered from all of the organs available, making sure to include skin. I wished I had a retinal camera like optometrists and opthamologists had, curious to see what a vampire's retina was like.
     I had my array of slides, and started where I left off, with the blood vessels. I gathered from both vein and artery in a few different places just to make sure what I saw wasn't just in the Aorta and Superior Vena Cava. I took a section from the cephalic vein and the radial collateral artery near the elbow, sure that they qualified as far enough away, but the same smooth muscle striations I saw in the aorta and Superior Vena Cava were present there as well. I didn't know why, though. It didn't make sense. There was no need for smooth muscle in either the arteries or the veins. The heart was much more efficient at pumping blood than smooth muscle would be. The powerful, even violent contractions of the heart would send blood throughout the cardiovascular system much more quickly, too.
     "Okay, think it out. Talk it out. If there are—wait, wait a second." I turned the recorder back on. "Have examined cephalic vein and radial collateral artery of the right arm. As in the aorta and superior vena cava, I have discovered striations of smooth muscle. As smooth muscle is used in the esophagus and in other areas of the digestive tract to move food, nutrients and waste throughout the body, I can only surmise that the blood vessels do similarly, now. A peristaltic motion in the blood vessels would continuously propel blood through the circulatory system. But why? Surely with the heart there is no need for such a system. Perhaps it is a holdover, a useless system like those found in various species.
     "Maybe, just maybe, it is a redundancy. While the heart would be more efficient, the smooth muscle would allow for redundancy in case something happened to the heart, which, in this case, something clearly did. While it couldn't possibly cope with the heart being ripped out, it might be a way for the body to cope with a heart attack, or similar event.
     "But that's only a guess. What if it's not a redundancy. Why smooth muscle to propel the blood, what is the benefit to that instead of the heart? What would be the effects, first of all? Well, the blood would move more slowly through the body, but not at a rate that would be sufficiently slow enough to matter, and without a way to test there's no way to know just how fast the muscle can move the blood through the body, but what else? If smooth muscle is moving the blood, then the heart remains at rest. No heartbeat, no pulse. For all purposes, the vampire appears dead."
     "Body temp! When I logged this guy in, he was room temperature, but what if they don't regulate body temperature? The blood found was all fresh. Blood would have congealed over the hours it would take for a body to get down to room temperature. But why? It can't be just to appear dead. There's not much of a benefit to appearing dead. If they don't regulate body temperature, then they must be cold-blooded, so what's the upside?"
     I didn't know. I didn't spend much time examining other species, and my general biology days were a long, long time ago. Fortunately, I had the internet, and access to science journals. I didn't need extremely detailed information, though, so I settled on whatever the search engine popped up first, not bothering with the journals. If there was a particular point I wanted to know more about, I'd look into it.
     I skimmed a few web pages, and even went to refining my search terms one or twice to get more specific results. The biggest difference between warm and cold-blooded seemed to be the energy. Warm blooded creatures needed a lot more food and energy in order to maintain a higher consistent body temperature. Immune response benefitted from a higher body temperature, and a few other processes seemed better suited to a warmer body such as motor activity and muscle response, but the cold-blooded metabolism was more efficient. They didn't need to feed as much, sometimes going several days between feedings. In most cases the cold-blooded species was a response to the environment, where the species had access to warmth. That was why snakes and reptiles topped the cold-blooded list. Fish, too, but I wanted to focus on land-based species.
     Okay, so it looks like primarily this is for the metabolism, which makes sense. They wouldn't need to feed as often by having a cold-blooded metabolism. That would allow them to blend in much more easily, and not raise suspicion. Still, if their muscles require warmth, that's a big disadvantage. Unless there's something to compensate. There's already been plenty of oddness in this subject, what if they have some kind of enzyme, or maybe their muscles use different chemical reactions to function. What is it that they get from blood, anyway? Are there even enough nutrients in someone else's blood stream to feed somebody?
     "And why blood?"
     "Blood is the source of life in the body. This goes beyond regular food. There is an energy in it which feeds and sustains us." I didn't recognize the voice behind me, but I jumped, whirled around, and brandished the recorder like it was some kind of weapon. I saw a man of average height and blonde hair down past his ears. He also had the start of a beard, it looked a few days old. He wore a navy polo shirt and black jeans.
     "Who are you?" My voice and hand shook at the same frequency. "This are is off-limits except to authorized personnel."
     "That," he pointed to the slab, "is my master. I want to know what happened to him." I felt hot, almost feverish, and the air seemed oppressive, tight, actually. I felt wrapped tight in a thick blanket, but I could move all right.
     "Well," I set the recorder down behind me on the desk, and walked over to the table, and began walking him through what happened. It was the least I could do for a relative. The boys outside must've buzzed him in, so it had to be okay to walk him through everything.
     I told him about the blunt force trauma and how the sternum and heart were removed, and that no trace of the heart could be found.
     "The heart. Whoever did this knew what he was doing." He said.
     "The private detective said something about that, too."
     "What private detective?"
     "The one consulting on the case. Matt Allen. I've got his number around here, somewhere. He asked me to call him when I finished."
     "Hmmm. Maybe I can use you to reckon the account between us. He has stepped across the line, now."
     I didn't know what he was talking about, but I would be happy to help out. "Anything I can do." I agreed.
     "No. There is still the problem of his protector. I am not ready to move against her, and I might have a better way to strike out at him. What happened to his mouth? Is that part of the same injury?"
     "No. That was me. I discovered those fangs in an X-ray, and excised the teeth. This is so exciting. The science behind this is miraculous. An entirely different, yet outwardly human, species. I can't wait to bring in Anton and write a paper on this."
     "Except, your colleagues will not believe you. They will think you manufactured all of the evidence. Best to just erase it all and move on. Declare nothing unusual with the body, and just go on. Telling people about what you find would cost you your career."
     "Yeah. Yeah, you're right. Thanks for being a good friend."
     "Of course. Why don't you write up a new report while I pay my respects to my master."
     "That makes sense."
     I went over to the desk, and pulled up the form on the computer for the autopsy, and just went with the standard explanation. Blunt-force trauma caused shattered ribs. The ribs and sternum were removed, and then the heart forcibly extracted. I made notations on how the inconsistencies noted by toxicology could be explained by a harmless mutation, and that the failure to document was a result of equipment failure, but as it posed no bearing on the case, it didn't matter.
     "Well, that's all taken care of. What else do I need to do to wrap up this case? Oh, I should probably get rid of the other stuff. If anyone would find it, they'd just think I made it up, anyway."
     "That is a good idea," my friend added.
     I started with all the slides I had prepared, my curiosity saying I should go ahead and look at them , but he was right. No sense in wasting time. I knew what to look for if it ever happened again, and then I might go ahead and come out with what I knew, or I could find someone else who had found this, and collaborate. But for now I needed to just forget about it. I couldn't risk my career on it, after all.
     I finished gathering the slides and other tissues samples, and then went and signed for the blood that Tox had waiting for me. I gathered up everything physical, and put it in a pile on the desk. I added the voice recorder, too. The video of the actual autopsy was pretty normal, procedure wise, so I didn't add it. Some of the organs just had odd weights and appearance, but I didn't have to really provide an explanation for why a guy's gall bladder and pancreas were withered, especially when they wouldn't believe me.
     "Don't forget the computers."
     "Right." I double-checked to make sure that nothing I had discovered appeared in any file. It would be awful if someone found just a little bit, and came to talk to me about it. Much better if I don't have anyone looking over my shoulder and asking weird questions of me.
     "Well, I think that's pretty much all of it. I can't think of anything I missed."
     "Very good. Would you sign this? With the autopsy complete, there's no reason you can't release the body for burial."
     "Sure. That makes sense. The family will want to put this behind them. There you go," I finished signing the release form.
     "Thank you. You know, you seem tired."
     Now that he mentioned it, I was tired. My jaw cracked and I brought the back of my hand to cover my mouth. "Yeah. The night shift is murder."
     "Quite so. And you have trouble sleeping, do you not?"
     "Sometimes, yeah. The job gets to me. You know how it is."
     "Then perhaps you should take a couple of sleeping pills to help you get some rest." He shook out a couple of pills from a bottle into his palm.
     "That's not a bad idea. Thanks. I'll grab some water." I went to the personal fridge and grabbed a bottle of water. I didn't think it a good idea to fill a glass from the sink what with the possibility of contamination. Besides, I liked good, cold water. I came back, and took the pills from his hand, and downed them with a gulp of water.
     "You are going to take the pills, right?" he asked, and I looked down to see the two sleeping pills. Taking them was a good idea. They'd help me sleep through the night.
     "Yeah, of course. Thanks for the pills. Can't hurt, right?" I knocked the pills back, and swallowed some water, downing them.
     "You going to stare at these pills all night?" he said, and I looked down at the pills, a little confused. I could swear I had taken them, but there they were on his palm, and he'd never give me too many, not a stand-up guy like him.
     "Right. Guess I'm just daydreaming right now." I grabbed the pills, placed them in my mouth, and took a long pull at the bottle, the cool water feeling good in my throat.
     "You should really stop daydreaming. My hand is getting tired of holding these for you."
     "Sorry. I appreciate it. I must be more tired than I thought if I'm spacing out like this." I swallowed the two pills, and sipped at the half-full bottle. When had I opened that? It was cold, so it must be pretty fresh from the fridge."
     "You know, these are pretty light pills, maybe you should take a couple more just to make sure they knock you out." He shook out two more pills. Four pills. I don't know. That could be a lot. They didn't look prescription, though, so they'd be pretty week, really.
     "That's over-the-counter stuff, right?"
     "Yep. Pretty harmless, isn't it?"
     "Yeah, for the most part. Four would be okay, especially since I don't have to come in until tomorrow evening." I placed the pills on my tongue, tasting the familiar gelatin coating again before swallowing them down with the water.
     "So, four is okay, you said? Here you go," and he shook two pills out of the bottle.
     "Yeah. Four will be just fine." I swallowed these back, thinking I must have let the first two stay on my tongue a little too long; the gelatin taste was strong.
     "Are you sure you want four? It won't hurt, will it?" He popped two pills into his palm.
     "Four won't do anything. I might be slow or groggy in waking up, but it's fine." I took them and tossed them all the way to the back of my throat to avoid the heavy gelatin taste of the first two.
     "Well, these are my last two, but you're a friend, so I don't mind giving them to you to make sure you get a good night's sleep." He rattled the bottle and passed it over to me. I upended and shook the bottle until the last two pills fell out, then knocked the pills back with the last bit of water in my bottle.
     "You can just toss the bottle for me." He said.
     "Sure thing. I can get rid of my water bottle, too." I tossed both into the blue recycle bin.
     I yawned heavily as I walked back to him. "Man, I'm tired. Maybe I should call a cab or ask someone for a ride home. I don't want to fall asleep at the wheel."
     "No, you don't, but then you don't want to leave your car here. You should take a short nap, then you can leave. Just close your eyes long enough to feel refreshed."
     "Yeah, that sounds good."
     "Here," he pulled out an empty drawer for a body from the fridge. "This should be good for you."
     "Yeah. Hell, we used to pull pranks by laying on these things. Good way to scare a new guy by popping out of a drawer. Just had to make sure that no one sealed the door completely." I climbed onto t cold, sterile metal, and lay down, closing my eyes. My arms felt leaden. I guess the sleeping pills were taking effect already. That was fast. Usually it took half an hour or so, and I had only just taken them. Maybe it was because I had four.
     I felt like I was moving, but I really didn't want to open my eyes. Just too tired. It sounded like the drawer sliding back in, and then the door closing. A moment of panic came through me as I heard the door close, but I couldn't move. The pills were kicking in. I had to open up the door. These vaults were air tight. I didn't want to suffocate, but sleep sounded so good. Just a short nap is what he said, and he was right outside, so he would open up the door for me. He was a good guy, after all.
     I opened the morning paper while my coffee, my wonderful, aromatic, ambrosia coffee percolated in my Benvenuto coffee maker. Toaster waffles warmed themselves in the toaster, and maple syrup and butter stood at attention awaiting my pleasure.
     November first. One of my favorite days of the year. Nothing happened on the first to make me mark it down as special. It was special simply because Halloween was over. This Halloween had been especially bad with what William Thornton had done, but those killings were over, at least. He had already confessed, and I knew a deal was in the works, but I didn't know the specifics yet. I had disposed of his medallion already, and on my end, everything was taken care of. I could enjoy my Friday in relative peace. Go into the office, sift through the pranks, and just enjoy a day when I didn't have to worry about a serial killer. I was sure that something else would catch my attention soon enough.
     My phone rang. Never a good sign at this time of the morning. My stomach sank when I saw Collins listed on the ID. I was tempted to let it go to voice mail.
     "What is it, Collins? I just want to enjoy my coffee and paper in peace before something else crazy happens."
     "There's a problem."
     "Not on my end."
     "Dr. Roy Leonard."
     "The ME for the Fairhaven precinct that picked up the body."
     "Which body?"
     "The one in the alley. William's last one. The one you said was a vampire."
     "That grisly one, with the guy's chest—" I felt my stomach lurch. I didn't like remembering the scene of a guy having his chest ripped apart and heart yanked.
     "That's the one. The ME was found dead. It looks like suicide, but it just doesn't make any sense."
     "What's this got to do with me?"
     "He was the one you asked to do the autopsy on the vampire, wanted him to call you."
     "Yeah. Guess that's not going to happen."
     "These things . . . they can't come back up, can they?"
     I had to think about it. The heart had been removed. I didn't have any first-hand evidence, but from what I knew the heart and head were the vulnerable spots. "Not that I know, not from that kind of injury."
     "Well, the body is gone."
     "What do you mean 'gone'?"
     "I mean there's no trace of it. There's nothing left. No tissue samples, no physical evidence of any kind. There's an autopsy report filled out, but nothing strange noted. There's also a video of the autopsy. The video shows the body as a blur, but that's it."
     I was hoping that after they died, the whole blurriness thing would disappear, but evidently not. "That's normal," I muttered. "You said something was off about the suicide. What?"
     "Well, they found him on a slab in the fridge. They did a quick autopsy and found he had taken somewhere between 15-20 sleeping pills. He had vomited on himself, but looked to be sleeping, otherwise. No note, no nothing, but he did clean up the place, which is consistent with suicide mentality. Problem is, no one could say that Dr. Leonard ever seemed the type. Everything points to suicide, but with the body gone, and what you said the victim was. . . ."
     "You wondered if the vampire did something to him."
     "Yeah," the word came out maple sap slow.
     "Not how you think. Anyone go through there ast night?"
     "Yeah, a John Smith signed in and out, and took a gurney with a body bag on it. Mr. Smith was blurry, so I thought it might be our vic. Guard said he had a signed release form for the body, and Dr. Leonard's signature was on it."
     "Damn," I whispered. My waffles were getting cold, but I had lost my appetite, anyway.
     "What the hell's going on, Allen?"
     "Off the record?"
     "You're always off the record, Allen. Your stuff doesn't play well on the record."
     "The victim has a love or a master or an apprentice. Someone interested in getting him back and keeping vampires a secret."
     "You mean there's some kind of conspiracy going to keep them quiet?"
     "Not a conspiracy, just a general understanding that public knowledge is bad for vampires, so they try and keep it quiet. That's why you don't hear about them, really."
     "And this one waltzed in, set up the doctor's suicide, and then waltzed out with the body and all samples?"
     "I don't think the suicide was a set up, but yeah, that's about it."
     "What do you mean?"
     "You ever watch a vampire movie?"
     "Not recently, but sure."
     "There's a reason why vampires always are portrayed with an ability to charm or control people. They have a way of doing that. He got the doc to commit suicide himself."
     Collins swore. "So, how do we find this guy?"
     "We don't. Let it go."
     "Fuck that, Allen. He waltzed in and killed a doctor, a medical examiner, one of the department. He just doesn't get away with that."
     "There's no way to find him, Collins. The Yellow Pages doesn't have a directory for the supernatural. This one got away. I'll keep an ear out, though, and if I hear anything, I'll let you know. My word."
     "You God-d—"
     "Hey!" I cut him off, "I told you not to say that around me."
     "Fuck Y—"
     I hung up before he could finish the curse.
     My good mood had disappeared. I looked at the waffles sticking out of the toaster, and frowned. Even the coffee didn't sound good, now. A vampire had disposed of a body. No big deal, except my name was associated with this case, and I wondered if I had a bullseye on my back. I still had Nikki's protection, but I didn't want to think about that, either.
     I glanced at the headline on the paper.

Serial Killer Suspect in Custody: Citizens Celebrate with Record Halloween Parties throughout City.

     "Yeah, we can all breathe easier because the threat is gone," the sarcasm was lost on the syrup and butter.
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