EXCERPT: Silver Mask (Vamp Camp 3)



from Chapter One


Des­tiny and fate, the uni­ver­sal forces that drove me to the moment at hand. They are twin con­duits, almost iden­ti­cal until you see them beside each oth­er and they join as an unstop­pable pow­er. They provide the uni­verse with its momen­tum.

My name is Mårten Larsson, vam­pire.

Des­tiny and fate: the rest of the world became a blur as I con­cen­trat­ed on the image at the busi­ness end of my sniper rifle’s tele­pho­to sight. My entire life had led me to this moment. This was the rea­son I was born — des­tiny — but the sit­u­a­tion was not some­thing I had cho­sen. The events select­ed me — fate.

I point­ed my sniper rifle toward the side of a small hill in the desert of Ari­zona near Las Veg­as, Nevada, in the Unit­ed States. A local vam­pire, act­ing as the offi­cial guide for this killing, had told me the rogue vamp would be return­ing to the hill before day­light. I only kill vam­pires who have lost their minds and are killing humans. I only kill those who have com­mit­ted some cap­i­tal offense under vam­pire law. I only exe­cute those who have been able to evade the jus­tice of the local vamps. You have to cre­ate an awful sit­u­a­tion to rate my atten­tion. The locals real­ly want you dead or they wouldn’t pay my fee.

My name is Mårten Larsson, vam­pire and vam­pire killer. My train­ing has been flaw­less, and my aim is always dead­ly. My train­ing and skills were focused on that desert in a ris­ing tor­rent of ugly-ass vam­pire jus­tice in the form of sil­ver shrap­nel. One rogue vam­pire was about to go ka-boom, and my bank account was about to go ka-chink.

Move­ment. I saw it through my tele­pho­to sight. It hap­pened so far off in the dis­tance that you would have seen noth­ing with­out lens­es. It was dark, with only a lit­tle moon­light. No, I can’t use night-vision equip­ment, because vam­pires have no heat sig­na­ture.

Move­ment. My sight is always adjust­ed based on the tra­jec­to­ry infor­ma­tion that Oberon gives me. He and I are a team on this mis­sion. He is my spot­ter, my light, my life, my hus­band. We have been a cou­ple for more than a hun­dred years, and I look for­ward to spend­ing anoth­er thou­sand years with him.

Move­ment. Front-to-back, and that is always a sim­pler shot. If the tar­get is mov­ing left-to-right, I have to cal­cu­late where he or she will be five or six sec­onds after I squeeze the trig­ger.

Relax… dou­ble-check aim… pre­dict… squeeze… squeeze… ah-choooooo!

Skit. Skit. Skit. Some­times Swedish works bet­ter, espe­cial­ly when I don’t care if anybody’s around to under­stand the words.

My name is Mårten Larsson, vam­pire, vam­pire killer — with the most embar­rass­ing frig­gin’ allergies in the whole his­to­ry of the plan­et. Oberon and I are mem­bers of the Obscu­rati. That’s my pre­tend name for our group, which is so secre­tive that just know­ing the real name could get you and me killed. I mean, I could get over you being killed. No offense. But I’m sort of attached to me. The Obscu­rati are the “unseen death” that is feared by rogue vam­pires every­where.

I could feel my Viking blood start­ing to boil. It can some­times get the best of me, so I try to relax and to con­cen­trate.

I’m not sure how to tell you to adjust your sight,” Oberon said using sign lan­guage. “I think you put that round some­where in New Mex­i­co.”

Fuck you,” I sig­naled using the kind of sign lan­guage the whole world knows. No codes: some sign lan­guage is uni­ver­sal.

My sniper rifle is instant­ly ready to fire again because it has a mag­a­zine of ammu­ni­tion. Some snipers use a bolt-action weapon, but I stick to semi-auto­mat­ics because I often have to lay down sev­er­al shots.

The first shot was so far off-tar­get that the doomed vam­pire didn’t know about it.

Relax… dou­ble-check aim… pre­dict… squeeze… pop! Wait for it… wait for it… poof of sand.

Sand. Great. The vam­pire jogged a lit­tle to his left, and I had no way to adjust the bul­let in the air. The wind could have helped a lit­tle, but it decid­ed to gust the wrong way.

Skit. I mean, frig­gin’ skit. My freak­in’ des­tiny tripped over my god­damn fate.

Adjust three dots right,” Oberon signed; he could see the trace that my sec­ond shot made through the air. It didn’t leave a streak of light. Oberon can fol­low the bul­let by watch­ing the air it dis­turbs on its way to the tar­get.

I know the weapon and the sight, and the sight match­es the rifle exact­ly. I need the adjust­ment, not the rifle. The tar­get changed direc­tion, and a wind gust pushed the bul­let the wrong way. May­be I could send out for a bag of stead­ier wind.

And don’t go all smug on me. You try to make this shot. The rogue vamp was head­ing to his lair, a hole on the side of a hill over­look­ing Lake Mead. There was no place to estab­lish a sniper’s nest on the bank. I couldn’t go for a high-angle shot by lev­i­tat­ing because this vamp was also able to fly and would have detect­ed an extra vam­pire in the air.

Direct­ly across the lake was Scan­lon Bay, which would have made the shot sev­er­al kilo­me­ters beyond my range. I can make amaz­ing shots using Oberon’s home­made bul­lets, but I have to be no more than two thou­sand meters from the tar­get or else I miss. My rifle sup­pos­ed­ly can make a longer shot if you fire it up like an artillery can­non, but I don’t even under­stand that kind of shoot­ing. I have learned to cope with my own lim­i­ta­tions, but don’t go spread­ing the word or I won’t be paid as much mon­ey for mis­sions.

One near­by shore put me close enough. It was at my upper per­son­al range, but I could do it. I think I can. I think I can.

The locals had offered to get us on a boat in the lake, but I had told them it wouldn’t be nec­es­sary. Waves in a boat: yeah, that will help me. Now I was in dan­ger of los­ing the tar­get for the day, and that would be bad news for the Obscu­rati. The sniper was out being cocky about his tough-guy rep­u­ta­tion.

The tar­get saw the sec­ond round but wasn’t sure what to do. He knew he was safe on the side of his hill. Nobody could cause him any trou­ble because he had picked his lair as a defen­sive strong­hold. We were too far for him to sense our pres­ence using vamp-dar. We were no big­ger than lit­tle specks on the hori­zon, so there was no chance he could see us. It was hot, but vam­pires don’t sweat, so he couldn’t smell us. Our cov­er remained solid. Our stealth was intact. Only my rep­u­ta­tion was in jeop­ardy.

Skit. Skit. I can make this shot. I’ve done it hun­dreds of times on our tar­get range in Ger­many and in the field.

Oberon has com­put­ers and elec­tron­ic tar­get­ing thingies.

Yeah, I have a super tele­pho­to tele­scop­ic gonzo laser sight on top of my rifle. I have my lover at my side with all his tar­get­ing com­put­er and weath­er giz­mo thingies. But the bul­let is in the air for more than six sec­onds. You try to pre­dict where the tiny spot in your sniper rifle sight will be six sec­onds from now. Do it in the mid­dle of the night with­out much moon­light and with­out any infrared night-vision equip­ment because vam­pires have no heat-sig­na­ture.

Oberon and I get called in to fin­ish off a vam­pire when the locals have run out of things to try. Oberon tells me how to adjust my sight and how to fudge the shot to account for wind direc­tion and the frig­gin’ cur­va­ture of the god­damn earth. That was how far away we were from the vic­tim. I was in a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent state from the tar­get, for cry­ing out loud.

Years ago, I used a PSG sniper rifle. It was state-of-the-art then. I could drop a vam­pire at 800 meters, and that dis­tance made me a very rich vam­pire.

When some­body needs a sniper, they con­tact the vam­pire queen of Europe. Oberon and I live in Bavaria, in south­ern Ger­many, but we have a house in New York City and a whole island in the South Paci­fic. We even own a big jet with vam­pire shield­ing on a big bed­room, so we can fly even when it is day­light.

It’s an empire. For­tu­nate­ly, we have Lon­ny to run the fam­i­ly busi­ness. Lon­ny is a vam­pire and my hus­band and the love of my life.

Yeah, I already said the same thing about Oberon. Lon­ny and Oberon are both my lovers.

It’s com­pli­cat­ed.

I was zero hits for two shots, and I was mov­ing from embar­rassed to real­ly angry. My efforts to stay calm weren’t work­ing. Don’t let my Viking blood boil. Calm. Focus.

My sniper rifle. I miss my PSG, the hard­ware that made me a very rich vam­pire. If I had still been using it, we couldn’t have tak­en the job at the Nevada-Ari­zona bor­der, because that was far out­side the range of a PSG.

My new pop­gun is a Bar­rett M82A1. It uses mon­strous .50-cal­iber BMG ammu­ni­tion, and cal­iber was why I held off chang­ing. Oberon has machin­ery to cus­tom-make ammu­ni­tion. Chang­ing my ammu­ni­tion meant Oberon had to retool every­thing in his work­shop.

Reg­u­lar bul­lets can’t kill a vam­pire.

Excuse me,” you might say to the clerk of a gun store, “I’d like a box of your best vam­pire-killing sil­ver ammo.”

Yeah, right. Oberon makes armor-pierc­ing bul­lets out of deplet­ed ura­ni­um. He has a sup­ply of incen­di­ary ammu­ni­tion to let me set build­ings on fire at a sniper range. My favorite is his cop­per-clad, hol­low-point sil­ver bul­let. It just explodes inside the vam­pire. You can only kill a vam­pire by blow­ing off his head or set­ting him on fire. Sil­ver dis­ables a vam­pire. So if you have a bul­let that explodes with sil­ver inside the vam­pire, there’s not much left for the locals to clean up.

Oberon makes all the muni­tions at his work­shop in south­ern Ger­many, and we had a dead­ly assort­ment of his hand­i­work in the west­ern part of the Unit­ed States. Yes, the Amer­i­can author­i­ties would have all kinds of issues with us bring­ing deplet­ed ura­ni­um and explod­ing sil­ver into the States. I don’t plan on telling them. If they sud­den­ly know, I will know you opened your mouth.

Many snipers prefer a bolt-action weapon, but I like the semi­au­to­mat­ic because I need to lay down whole sheets of bul­lets. A bolt-action is good for sin­gle shots, and it would make me con­cen­trate on that one shot. It doesn’t match my real-world sit­u­a­tion.

The old­er PSG uses stan­dard NATO rounds, and Oberon had been mak­ing that size for years. He had to retool all of his equip­ment. It was Oberon and Lon­ny who final­ly con­vinced me to try the Bar­rett M82A1.

It has an effec­tive range of two thou­sand meters (about 1.2 miles). I mean, holy shit. Can you even imag­ine that kind of shot? Just read­ing the spec­i­fi­ca­tions made me pee all over myself. Almost.

The man­u­fac­tur­er says you can shoot much fur­ther than that, but I don’t see how. I can’t. You can’t tell me that any­body can. I think the man­u­fac­tur­er is a bit opti­mistic in their lit­er­a­ture, but it adds so much more range com­pared to my pre­vi­ous sniper rifles.

The Bar­rett doesn’t even look like a rifle. It is more like a long rod with a trig­ger on the bot­tom and a han­dle on top. They don’t both­er mak­ing some­thing that looks like a reg­u­lar stock. It has a thing to go again­st the shoul­der, but it doesn’t look like it should.

It has a kind of shock absorber that cuts down the kick. I don’t think any­thing short of a bat­tle­ship could sur­vive .50-cal­iber recoils with­out the extra onboard baf­fles. The rifle still has a kick because of Oberon’s spe­cial ammo, but it is man­age­able.

There is a lev­er to pull to load a car­tridge, and I knew I had a seri­ous rifle the first time I tried to pull the lev­er. It takes lots more oom­ph than my pre­vi­ous weapons. I’m stronger than the strongest human, but I have to admit that I noticed the dif­fer­ence. I had to prac­tice pulling the lev­er so I didn’t get into the field and embar­rass myself: “Hon­ey, could you come pull my lev­er?”

A .50-cal­iber car­tridge going into the cham­ber makes an unmis­tak­able sound. You nev­er have to ask if the rifle is load­ed because you just know. Releas­ing the lev­er pro­duces a clank that sounds seri­ous. You might as well be putting a pro­jec­tile into one of those big guns on a bat­tle­ship.

My ears rang for an hour after I first fired the Bar­rett. It takes pow­der to move a shell that is thir­teen mil­lime­ters (a half inch) in diam­e­ter. Pow­der is loud. I had to get some noise-fil­ter head­phones quick­ly. It isn’t that I’m a sis­sy, but vam­pires have ultra-sen­si­tive hear­ing.

I had to prac­tice for months before I was worth a hoot beyond a cou­ple of hun­dred meters. Even today some shots are just dif­fi­cult. I have to know about the var­i­ous wind direc­tions and speeds between me and the tar­get. Grav­i­ty is a fac­tor at the upper end of my effec­tive range. On a short­er shot, grav­i­ty doesn’t get enough time to pull the bul­let. Lis­ten to me: short­er shots. The PSG has a huge range, but it isn’t in the same league as the Bar­rett.

And to make things even more inter­est­ing for me, vam­pires usu­al­ly don’t stay still. At over two thou­sand meters, the bul­let is in the air for five or six sec­onds. I have to pre­dict where the tar­get will be six sec­onds from when I squeeze the trig­ger. It is eas­ier when the vam­pire is walk­ing direct­ly toward me or away from me. When he is mov­ing left to right, that is a ridicu­lous cal­cu­la­tion. If the vam­pire changes tem­po, it becomes an impos­si­ble shot. The job is always a SWAG — not mere­ly a wild-ass guess but a sci­en­tific wild-ass guess.

Oberon invent­ed a dot sys­tem for me to cal­cu­late move­ment. My sight has lit­tle dots in addi­tion to the stan­dard crosshair. Oberon has a tele­scope that has the same dots, so he can help me adjust the sight. I count how far the tar­get moves across the sight in one sec­ond. Then I count the dots to the left or right or up and down for every sec­ond the bul­let will be air­borne.

There’s a rea­son we charge the local vam­pires so much mon­ey. I was a math major in col­lege, but that was back before World War One. I was real­ly good at using a slide rule, but that kind of cal­cu­la­tion is slow enough to let a vam­pire be on a dif­fer­ent con­ti­nent before I know how to aim. For­tu­nate­ly, my hus­band, Oberon, is real­ly good using com­put­ers. He picked up his lat­est, a tablet PC, at a store in South Africa. It is a Sahara and has a touch screen with­out a phys­i­cal key­board, and it has cus­tom soft­ware that he uses to come up with the adjust­ments on my sight. His elec­tron­ic gad­gets all plug into the PC and talk direct­ly to his soft­ware with­out requir­ing any typ­ing or oth­er input. When he has to type some­thing, the Sahara draws a pic­ture of a key­board on the screen, and Oberon touch­es the vir­tu­al keys.

There was a time when he used an iPad, but he got pissed at Apple one too many times. The iPad was always about lim­i­ta­tions. He said it was almost impos­si­ble to get soft­ware to talk to his equip­ment, so he final­ly flew out over the Atlantic Ocean and flung it as high and as hard as he could. Hope­ful­ly his iPad didn’t hit the space sta­tion, the Hub­ble tele­scope, or any of the military’s secret tele­scopes or com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lites on its jour­ney into space. I’m sure it had escape veloc­i­ty.

I thought your iPad was the lat­est thing,” I said.

Yeah, if you want to look cool. The min­ute you try to do some­thing use­ful, you find that it can’t do it. Ugggh. You can’t even run Flash. Every god­damn com­put­er on the plan­et can run Flash, but not if you have an Apple. No Flash… I want about thir­ty min­utes alone with the ass-wipe who thought that was a good idea.”

Inter­galac­tic Vam­pire Fris­bee?” I asked when he returned from his trip to the ocean.

There’s an ‘app’ for that,” Oberon said as he tossed every wid­get and acces­so­ry from Apple into a garbage bag. He was through with that com­pa­ny, and noth­ing Apple could do would ever change that. He even threw out his music play­er. He wasn’t even wor­ried that he might break the stuff when he threw it. I think he tried to break every­thing.

Hand-held phone,” he said as he dug his tele­phone out of a pock­et. “It only works if you put it on a table. Pick up the phone with your hand, and it los­es its sig­nal.”

Crack went the phone when it crashed into the pile of oth­er Apple hard­ware in the bag. Oberon sent the iPad into out­er space, but he kept the rest of the junk. He said he was final­ly ready to try out the Bar­rett for him­self. I had been after him to try the new rifle, but I guess he was wait­ing to have a tar­get that he real­ly want­ed to anni­hi­late.

Note to self: do not piss off the Goth vamp.

Our new field equip­ment uses either Lin­ux or Win­dows. He goes back and forth, but I think he cur­rent­ly has Win­dows load­ed. The Sahara can han­dle both Lin­ux and Win­dows, so Oberon is free to exper­i­ment. His weath­er good­ies can talk direct­ly to his com­put­er with­out any wires, which is way beyond any­thing that the Apple stuff could do. It seems like a sim­ple thing to get hard­ware talk­ing to each oth­er, but I guess I don’t under­stand enough about it.

For the first time, I have to take main­te­nance of the rifle seri­ous­ly. I can’t just pull the rifle out of my bag and start fir­ing. Aim­ing is so crit­i­cal that I have to be a good lit­tle Boy Scout and run a clean­ing rod inside the bar­rel. The tini­est bit of mois­ture inside could move a bul­let by sev­er­al feet down­range. They ship the thing in a water­proof con­tain­er, and I think that I’m sup­posed to cart around this con­tain­er. It isn’t going to hap­pen, but I do know that I have to keep it clean and dry before I set up for a shot.



But I digress.

Back to the job at hand, and this one was begin­ning to annoy me.

You aren’t cold bore now,” Oberon sig­naled.

Bite me,” I sig­naled back. He was try­ing to remind me that the rifle would behave a lit­tle dif­fer­ent­ly because it was warmed by my frig­gin’ wild shots.

Oberon shrugged.

No, bite me,” I sig­naled again, “and then go fuck your­self.” I used all those inter­na­tion­al sig­nals that work in most lan­guages. I fol­lowed it with the kind of cold stare that told him I wasn’t in the mood for antics.

I’m just say­in’,” he whis­pered.

So the vam­pire in Ari­zona thought he was being very clev­er. He was! Not clev­er enough, of course, but he made me earn my pay. This guy was mur­der­ing humans all over the place. He was get­ting noticed by the local law enforce­ment peo­ple, and that is a very bad thing for vam­pires to do. The locals want all the vam­pires in their ter­ri­to­ry to stay invis­i­ble to humans. There are plen­ty of vol­un­tary blood donors, but some vam­pires just go crazy. They break and start ter­ror­iz­ing the natives. May­be they were turned too young, or some­thing snaps as they get old­er.

Teenagers only make good vam­pires in Hol­ly­wood movies. When some­body gets turned before their human brain has set­tled down enough to han­dle the extra stress, it nev­er results in a good turn­ing. The kid ram­pages through the human pop­u­la­tion, respond­ing to an intense hunger for blood. The rest of us can’t do any­thing to teach the child vamp, so we have to kill him. The vamp’s Mak­er usu­al­ly gets killed too. Every vam­pire knows not to turn a child, so there’s no mer­cy for those who break this rule. It is a kind of child abuse.

On the oth­er end is a real­ly old vam­pire who has been fol­low­ing the rules for hun­dreds or thou­sands of years. Nobody knows what caus­es some to snap in their old age, but there is almost always some kind of trau­ma, like the loss of a long-term mate or friend. Some­times the vampire’s mind just gets addled, like a super­nat­u­ral form of Alzheimer’s. The­se are tough jobs because old vam­pires are always pow­er­ful. They have hun­dreds of years of sur­vival train­ing, and they can taste dan­ger long before they see it.

This vamp was just mean. He wasn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly old in vam­pire time, may­be a hun­dred years or so. The guide told us that he had always been pecu­liar and bru­tal, but the locals had been able to keep him con­trolled. Six months ago he got tired of liv­ing with rules and moved out to the desert. The locals had lost sev­er­al vam­pires in their bat­tle with this guy. He would kill any vam­pire or human who got close.

He spent each day buried in the side of a hill in the deserts of Ari­zona. The locals even sent out humans dur­ing the day to try uncov­er­ing him. The rogue vam­pire killed the humans even in the day­light. He must have been burned by the radi­a­tion of the sun, but he could still hold off attacks.

There weren’t any trees to block his view. His hill over­looked Lake Mead, and he had a com­mand­ing view of every­thing.

Across the lake was Scan­lon Bay in the state of Nevada, and that was where we start­ed. The locals had got­ten us a boat to move closer to the vam­pire, but I fig­ured I could make the shot. Lake Mead was a lit­tle nar­row­er at one place. It was an impos­si­ble shot: from Nevada, across the lake, into Ari­zona. Huge dis­tance. To go across Scan­lon Bay would have totaled more than six kilo­me­ters, well out­side my abil­i­ty. In the­o­ry the rifle could make the shot, but I would have to fire it up in the air like a mor­tar. I don’t under­stand how to cal­cu­late those angles. To kill a vam­pire six kilo­me­ters away, I have to know where he will be in sev­en-plus sec­onds, and I have to aim the rifle at Mars or Jupiter. May­be some­day, but just think­ing about what I’d have to do makes my brain hurt.

The vam­pire in Ari­zona thought he was safe. When he got close to his lair, he slowed down. It was like a nice, night­time stroll in the moon­light. He was walk­ing from the lake up to his hole, and there was only the slight­est move­ment right-to-left. It was enough to make me miss on my first shot.

I’m sure he saw the bul­let hit the sand of the desert. It just didn’t reg­is­ter that some­body could be putting a bul­let so close to him in that par­tic­u­lar loca­tion. Jeez, you’d have to be… what? Across Lake Mead?

Impos­si­ble. In fact, the vam­pire turned and sat down on the side of his hill to watch the night sky. I sud­den­ly had all the time I need­ed, and there was noth­ing mov­ing. I didn’t have to use cal­cu­lus or alge­bra or any­thing.

It was about twen­ty sec­onds between shots. I had to wait to see where the first one land­ed, and then I had to recal­cu­late my ticks to the right. I could count a tick for a sec­ond, but the winds were mess­ing up my tra­jec­to­ry. It was more like a third of a tick per sec­ond. There are usu­al­ly land­marks between me and the tar­get that tell me what the wind is doing, but I only had desert and a lake for this one. Nei­ther gave me a hint of any breeze. I knew it was present because I saw what the bul­let did. How do I pre­dict this one?

If I had been an Eng­lish major instead of a math major, I’d be use­less.

May­be I should leave the Bar­rett and launch an attack with one of the assault rifles we car­ry. That’s more fun than a sniper rifle. I like to mix things up. The sniper rifle is like a sci­ence project. It keeps me out of the fight. The only thing we use is my brain and fin­ger — Oberon’s brain too — but we are far removed from the action.

One more round toward this guy, and I am going into assault mode.

Look… slide the safe­ty knob to ver­ti­cal… aim… con­firm the tar­get… pre­dict the wind… tick, tick to the left for the breeze… squeeze… pop! Wait… wait… wait… six sec­onds and noth­ing. No, sev­en sec­onds and there’s a siz­zle way across the lake.

My third shot hit him in the neck. I could tell that there was an explo­sion inside the vam­pire, but it was too far away to hear. May­be my ears were ring­ing from being so close to the rifle. I do need to get some of those sound­proof head­phones. Is there a sniper sup­ply store? There must be. Oberon reads all the trade mag­a­zi­nes, so he’d know.

The explod­ing bul­let blew the vamp’s head into a mil­lion pieces, thanks to the shards of sil­ver shrap­nel.

The locals would do any cleanup of the dead vam­pire, but my new weapon nev­er left much that need­ed to be cleaned. When a vam­pire dies from an explod­ing bul­let, the only thing left is a lit­tle pile of ash­es.

I have a stash of handy-wipes in my bag, and I like to wipe my face and hands after a kill. This time I found that my nose was leak­ing. I sneeze blood. A vam­pire with hay fever is real­ly embar­rass­ing. Yeah, I’m a big tough assas­s­in with blood trick­ling out of my nose.

Oberon and I both wear masks that Lon­ny made for us. They add to our mys­tery, but this time mine was streaked and splat­tered with vam­pire sneezeage (read: blood). I was going to have to do some seri­ous clean­ing back in New York.

Oh, come off it. You try lying down in the state of Nevada and tak­ing aim across an entire lake to take out a skit­tish vamp in the state of Ari­zona.

Okay, smar­ty-pants. Try it with hay fever.

Three shots?” Oberon said.

Bite me,” I fired back using the sound­less com­mu­ni­ca­tion of mind-words. Before the shot, we can’t use mind-words because the tar­get would be able to hear us. We have to main­tain “radio silence.” After the shot, Oberon is free to try and make me feel even worse than I already do.

Love to bite you, dar­ling,” Oberon laughed in my head, “but we prob­a­bly ought to head back to New York. Don’t let that blood on your mask dry.”

I shot him a look as I pulled the safe­ty lev­er on the Bar­rett back to its hor­i­zon­tal posi­tion.

Oberon would gath­er his gear and get our pay­ment. As soon as I saw the vampire’s head explode, I shot up into the air.

I was halfway to my cruis­ing alti­tude when I remem­bered some­thing. I had to turn around to pick up my spent shell cas­ings. They all got dumped into a duf­fel bag. I’d clean the rifle lat­er. Right now I just want­ed to be away from Ari­zona and Nevada and Lake Mead and that awful desert. Fuck the gig and the desert.

For­get some­thing?” Oberon said to me using hand sig­nals. We were learn­ing sign lan­guage to keep all our com­mu­ni­ca­tion between just the two of us.

I held up a shell cas­ing. He nod­ded. Nobody need­ed to have the­se cas­ings with my fin­ger­prints and Oberon’s fin­ger­prints or the marks made by the Bar­rett. We try not to leave fin­ger­prints or DNA, but I am not going to clean up what­ev­er I expelled dur­ing that first sneeze. If any crime scene guys think they can find it, they may have my DNA. Hap­py Yule.

Oberon took his time gath­er­ing his gear and get­ting our pay­ment from the local guide. We nev­er say any­thing to the guide. We just take direc­tion and do the shot, and then Oberon gets the mon­ey. Oberon nev­er has to rush because he is light­ning-fast in the air.

The local guide may also be Obscu­rati or just a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the local vam­pire roy­al or mas­ter. We don’t ask. The guide usu­al­ly doesn’t tell. Some­times we get a chat­ty guide, but Oberon tells him (or her) to stay qui­et.

Do you want to go catch a show while we are so close to Las Veg­as?” Oberon said when he caught up to me in the air. “You know it always helps you calm down.”

The last time we went to a Las Veg­as show, an ush­er decid­ed I would be her spe­cial project for the evening. She had hair spiked in a great fan or Mohawk on steroids, and she picked on me loud­ly until the show began. Her hair was a rain­bow of col­ors that don’t exist in nature, unless her moth­er had an affair with a metal­lic pea­cock. The mutant ush­er made me part of the ambiance of the show. Pick­ing on me was all part of her act.

We had great tick­ets and sat close to the stage. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, this show used lots of fire, and our good seats put me close to the pyrotech­nics. Vam­pires siz­zle and burn eas­i­ly. Oberon had a love­ly time, of course.

To review: I was picked on by the creepy ush­er with weird, grav­i­ty-defy­ing spikes of wild­ly col­ored hair and almost fried by stray embers. Yeah, that always keeps me calm. Sign me up.

I head­ed back to our build­ing in New York. I can blast along at about ten times the speed of sound. Wicked fast, but Oberon is always faster.

Okay, you’re just try­ing to run up the score­board,” I told Oberon using mind-words as he whooshed past me. I don’t even know how to cal­cu­late how fast Oberon can move, but he is one of the fastest vam­pires I’ve ever seen.

Oberon has blue eyes and long black hair that becomes a kind of tail or trac­er as he flash­es across the sky. The duf­fel bag full of his equip­ment stays flat on his back, strain­ing again­st the rush­ing wind. Its straps are pulled taut by the force of his speed. Oberon had an aero­dy­nam­ic bag made just for his flights through the air, because any ordi­nary bag would dis­in­te­grate in the wind and pres­sure, which would be a bad thing when you are haul­ing ammu­ni­tion and com­put­ers.

The mask that Lon­ny made for Oberon fits so per­fect­ly that the wind nev­er knocks it off. Oberon dress­es like a Goth per­son: guy-lin­er, black clothes, and sulk­ing lips with faint traces of lip­stick. He is the most over-sexed per­son I’ve ever known. Oberon is vague­ly effem­i­nate but all top in bed. No oral sex for him. He likes to fuck, and he can do it four or five times a day with­out any trou­ble. Our record is about eight times, just the two of us. We have an open rela­tion­ship, and that real­ly helps keep my ass from feel­ing like worn-out ham­burg­er meat. We’ve been a cou­ple for more than a hun­dred years, and I’ve loved every day of it.

He would prob­a­bly be back in our New York build­ing and in bed with a blood-donor before I crossed over the Mis­sis­sip­pi river. We don’t kill humans. Vam­pires have been com­plete­ly civ­i­lized since the 1500s. If you read about vam­pires being mon­sters, remem­ber you are read­ing fic­tion. Those oth­er authors know about as much about vam­pires as I know about mak­ing ched­dar cheese, which is not very much. We keep a staff of human blood donors. They are most­ly gay men. In return for their blood, we pay for their col­lege edu­ca­tions.

After a blood donor grad­u­ates, we do a vam­pire mind-trick to make them for­get about the very exis­tence of vam­pires. They agree to all this up front or they don’t become a blood donor. We get blood, and they get edu­ca­tion.

They can have all the sex with Oberon they want. When a vam­pire takes blood, it is a real­ly sen­su­al or sex­u­al expe­ri­ence for the human. There is some­thing in our sali­va or bite that cre­ates the most amaz­ing expe­ri­ence for the human.

A few of our blood donors are het­ero­sex­u­al, and that’s okay. I don’t under­stand it. May­be they are just born that way. They just give blood and get edu­cat­ed, and nobody forces them to have sex. We don’t even force any human to be a blood donor on any par­tic­u­lar day. If the human is sick or not in the mood, we go to anoth­er donor. A com­put­er pro­gram makes sure that we rotate through all the blood donors, nev­er tak­ing blood from any­one more than once or twice a week.

The Obscu­rati — the “unseen death” — had anoth­er notch on the score­card. One evil vam­pire was put out of busi­ness, and all the locals in the Lake Mead and Las Veg­as area were hap­py not to have to wor­ry about unwant­ed noto­ri­ety. Humans were safer, and we were exor­bi­tant­ly richer.

This job paid €50,000 (about $65,000), and the Las Veg­as vam­pires were hap­py to pay it. There was no oth­er vam­pire in the world who could have tak­en this guy down. The bad vam­pire would have sensed their pres­ence in plen­ty of time to escape. He couldn’t sense our pres­ence all the way across Lake Mead, and that was his down­fall.

When I was over the Appalachi­an Moun­tains, I felt an updraft and slowed to take in the scenery, doing a few high-alti­tude som­er­saults. Some­times my life seems fun­ny. I grabbed my duf­fel bag and start­ed danc­ing with it, singing, “If my friends could see me… if my friends could see me… if my friends could see me now.”

Hey, can I help you?” came a voice over my left shoul­der.

Crap. Vam­pire secu­ri­ty. There must be some­thing going on down below. When vam­pires need secu­ri­ty, they get mus­cle to lev­i­tate. They cre­ate a kind of bub­ble of blood-thugs.

Crap. Crap. I didn’t even look around but flashed out to the east as fast as I could.

May­be you didn’t hear me, moth­er­fuck­er,” hollered the vam­pire. I just looked east and didn’t acknowl­edge his pres­ence.

No inter­ac­tion should mean that I was just pass­ing through. I was a vam­pire wear­ing a mask and car­ry­ing an over­sized duf­fel bag. I made con­tin­gen­cy plans to unzip my bag and pull out my pis­tol. May­be I ought to just wear the pis­tol dur­ing the cross-coun­try flights. No, that was crazy; this was the first time a vamp had been up at my alti­tude to ques­tion my pas­sage.

Hey, I’m talk­ing to you, shit­head,” he called out as he stopped some­where over Penn­syl­va­nia. The vamp had anger issues and was on that invis­i­ble line where all my but­tons live. Hope­ful­ly he won’t push any of those but­tons, because I don’t want to have to clean up the mess that I know I can cause. I stayed my course through all the hos­tile words.

He grabbed my arm to spin me around, and that was when he noticed that I was wear­ing a mask streaked by blood. He rec­og­nized the mask. I didn’t know my mask was famous, but he def­i­nite­ly knew that the mask meant I was not a vam­pire to be messed with. He might have assumed that all the blood spat­ter was from a fight. I wasn’t going to tell him it was from a sneeze. The mask meant that I was a tough guy or that I was out on a drunk­en Hal­loween jun­ket. I made sure my face didn’t show him any change: no smile, no frown, noth­ing.

I could dash down to the ground and stash the bag if I had to. It might even be fun to mix things up with a local vam­pire. I shoot rogue vam­pires, but I don’t enjoy it. What I real­ly like to do is fight — alley-style with no weapons — and I was will­ing to do that if he insist­ed. I was on busi­ness, so I tried not to get involved in any­thing else.

Excuse me, sir,” he said. He backed off, and I heard him tell some oth­er vam­pire that it was the Obscu­rati, only he used the real name. I didn’t stop to warn him not to do that. He was on his own if there were oth­er Obscu­rati in the area. I did what any vam­pire should expect from any mem­ber of our group: no inter­ac­tion at all. We are the “unseen” enforcers of vam­pire law, and we don’t get chum­my when we are out on a job. It is all busi­ness.

Crap. You nev­er see oth­er vam­pires over Europe. The Unit­ed States has crowd­ed air­space. Sup­pos­ed­ly the air over Chi­na can be a com­plete clus­ter­fuck some­times, but I’m not an expert on any­thing Chi­ne­se. They take care of their own.



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