THURSDAY: Heartbeat


Copyright is held by the author.

I HAVE blood on my hands, but I’ve never bitten a child. It’s an awful deed to bite a child, unforgivable. Worse if they live. They’re doomed to a life on the outside.

A morgue is the perfect hiding place for a vampire, and that’s exactly what I’m doing, hiding out as the medical examiner for the coastal county of Santa Felicity, in the town of Santa Andrea. I have an endless supply of blood.

The morning everything changed I delighted in it all: the ridiculous physics of bees and the insanity of squirrels. It was a blue-ribbon sky day. Then my cell buzzed.

“We’ve got a rough one today, Paula.”

Lennon was the coroner’s tech I never deserved. He was witty, only a little squeamish, (the irony was not lost on him) and a wizard at presenting the dead for viewing. He kept the morgue spotless and the records straight.

“The sheriff wants us down behind the library. It’s a child, maybe 11 years old, a girl.” Lennon was about 10 years younger than I was in his estimation. The truth: I was older by a few centuries and some change. He had wavy brown hair that he wore to his shoulders. He reminded me of my son, long dead by now. Lennon didn’t need to know that. He thought I had adult children, which at one point I had. I just never cleared up the time line for him.

I think he wondered how I would react to the death of children. But I responded the way any moral agent would react. Always with regret, sadness and deep despair. Anger too. Each time, the anger.

We drove toward the Santa Andrea mission, down the street lined with California bungalows and centuries old olive trees. We turned right at the old mission fig, and then around the block to the cluster of municipal buildings, the library and a modest rec. center.

The sheriff was waiting. Sally Martinez, a local Santa Andrean, born and raised by the sea, was not a typical sheriff. She had been a nationally ranked surfer as a teenager. She ran for sheriff on the platform that she had been one of THOSE kids, and who better to connect the community with community policing? She’d been right. She worked hand in hand with the director of Community Youth Center, volunteered at the local middle and high schools, and built great connections throughout the county.

Crime Scene had taped off the small patio behind the library. The windows were plastered with the paper cut out eggs and bunnies created by children recently liberated for spring break. The bright paper and cheerful colours posed a garish contrast to the scene laid out beneath the windows. Lennon had been right, the girl was about eleven, her legs thin and her knees had that knobbiness of a preteen. She looked like she was ready for a growth spurt. She was positioned flat on her back, eyes closed, arms straight at her side. All of her clothes were still intact, a relief so far, no preliminary signs of sexual assault.

At first glance, I couldn’t see any injury. No blood, at any rate. I looked to her throat, but no telltale marks of strangulation. Lennon bent down and peered closely at the back of her neck.

“No trauma to the head, so no fall.” He gently rotated her head with his gloved hand. “Look, two marks on the back of her neck. Taser? Drive mode? But I didn’t think a taser could be deadly.”

I got down low, snapped my gloves on and lifted her slightly. Light, so light that I resisted the urge to cradle her, to sing her a final lullaby. Sure enough, there they were. Taser, maybe. Only I suspected they weren’t any normal marks. I’d wait until I could complete a thorough examination, but I was pretty sure she was the victim of another vampire. I shouldn’t jump to conclusions but, damn. I looked at her closely. Was she really dead or had she slipped into the sleep of the near dead? Transition time from human to vampire varied. Hmmm. I couldn’t be sure of anything until I had her on the examination table. I hoped in a perverse way that she really was dead. The few “child” vampires I had met were often sad and seemed a little lost. Some were very angry. I hoped she wouldn’t become one of them. 

“Do you think we’re looking at a homicide here?” Martinez gestured to the girl. “I can’t imagine this was an accident, or natural causes. How long do you need to get back to me on this? A child’s death is hard on everyone.” She lowered her aviators, and gazed at the girl, her serious brown eyes sad.

I liked Sally. Under any other circumstances we might have been friends. But she was very professional, she had to be. She had to fight against every county supervisor’s urge to pat her on the head.

“We can’t even ID her yet. No word on parents. The librarian said she’s not part of the usual activities’ group and doesn’t know her name. But someone’s bound to miss her, right?” Sally frowned.

Indeed. Some parent, mom or dad or both was about to have their world shattered. 

I kept my tone even. “I don’t know, maybe a day. I have a couple of other cases, but they seem pretty straight forward. I’m going to want to eliminate and test, so a bit more time. You’re always welcome to come in for the autopsy, as usual.” I really hoped this time she wouldn’t. This was going to be anything but straightforward.

“I may. This is a strange one. She looks so peaceful, like she’s going to jump up and run over to the park.” Sally sighed with regret as she slipped her aviators back on.

I agreed, the girl looked as if she would sit up and blink at us. But I hoped to whatever gods may be that she would do no such thing. I hate my job on days when death is the more merciful of horrible choices.

Once in the morgue, Lennon and I lifted the girl onto the stainless-steel exam table. I had decided, of course, to make her a priority. I needed to watch her, uninterrupted, to see if she really was dead. I needed to get Lennon out of the exam room for about an hour.

“OK, take some photos of her and then get down to Sheriff Martinez and get that description out. Make sure any identifying marks are clearly visible.”

Lennon looked at me quizzically.

I shook my head in apology. “I know, sorry. I know you know your job. I just hate to see a death without any clear answers. Turns me into a control freak.” My hope was his trip to the Sheriff would give me that sought after hour. “Hey, can you look in the archives for similar deaths? Try going back a few decades if possible.” Extra time. “Also, can you pick up some Danish at Esme’s?”

He nodded and was out the door.

Once Lennon was gone, I looked for a heartbeat. I know it’s old fashioned, but once a victim has been bitten, not killed, all processes in the body slow down to an almost undetectable rate. I hooked her up to the vital signs monitor and waited. Her skin pallor was ashen, as in deadly grey, but that didn’t guarantee death. I needed a good 45 minutes of no vitals. I really hoped there would be none. I know, a terrible wish, but the alternative was so much worse, and then what would I do? Could I really end her? To be a child vampire is a terrible fate.

I was spared from having to make any decisions. I let 50 minutes pass just to be sure, and no vitals. Dead.

By the time Lennon came back I was dictating notes into my phone. I had made a thorough physical description, weight, height, eye colour etc. “Any word on the ID? Any other cases?”

“No, I couldn’t find anything in the archives. It’s strange, no calls to hospitals or frantic parents at the library.” He tapped his pencil on the desk. “We gonna wait? Most parents want visual confirmation.”

“Yep, I think we’ll finish so we have more answers.” I wasn’t looking forward to the grieving parents identifying their girl, but of course Lennon was right. We needed to complete the autopsy and have her presentable before her parents made the ID.

An hour later we had no clear answers. I had sewn her up and we rolled her into her refrigerated drawer. There was paperwork to finish on an earlier case, a question of foul play in a nursing home.

I became a doctor long ago. I found it kept my mind from plunging into despair. That, and I wanted to find out all I could about my then new condition, but as expected, there’s not a large body of scientific research on vampires. Oh, there’s plenty of fiction, but not science, no surprise. Who’s going to offer up their body for research when you can’t die? So, I used myself and a few willing others as subjects. There are so many myths and legends, but here’s what I know to be true from my experience:

Myth one: vampires are averse to garlic.

Tell that to my linguine dinner last night. Yes, occasionally we eat food. I like the taste.

Myth two: vampires are averse to crosses.

Nah. Vampires come in all sorts of religious forms. The cross is symbolic and has no effect on us.

Myth three: Vampires can be killed by a silver bullet.

No. I love silver jewelry; I like its clean look. That and a past lover actually shot me with a silver bullet. He was surprised when I sat back up.

Myth four: Vampires can’t tolerate the sun.

Well, maybe there is a kernel of truth to this one. My eyes are sensitive to the sun. I just buy great sunglasses now, thank goodness for the modern age. There’s no melting or burning. I love to surf. And I live by the ocean. So there. We do have fantastic night vision. I ascribe that to our predatory nature. Most vampires, if they choose to hunt, hunt at night. Kind of like cats.

Myth five: vampires have no reflections in mirrors.

Please. I check myself every morning. Still looking good.

My moral character is not any worse than when I was a mortal. If anything, it’s much deeper, much more consequent. In short, I have seen shit. I had to decide what type of creature I would be. If I could, I would choose badass warrior, but I’m not built that way. So, scientist it is, and I have tried my very best to make the human condition better when I can.

Back to the situation at hand. There are not very many vampires living in Santa Andrea. There are exactly three of us and we know each other. Now, possibly a fourth, unknown. Jacob Lindesfarn: He’s a Holocaust survivor, and appears to be in his 90s. He’s in reality about 300 years old, and has survived any number of catastrophes. He likes to get in there and fight. He says living in Santa Andrea is a bit of a vacation for him. He keeps his head shaved, and stoops over and shuffles. Under his baggy pants and buttoned shirt, he is wiry and as fit as any 30-year-old.

Chinua is the other. He’s an immortal philosopher. He’s the one who challenged me to stop hunting.

He argued, “We have a rare opportunity to do good. We have power, we are obligated to use it.”

He appears as a very fit man in his 50s, skin as lovely as a chestnut, and very graceful in his movements. He’s a 500-year-old sage. He tints his hair gray to give the impression of middle age. We see what we want to see. He teaches history alternately at the high school and at the local community college. His lectures are often informed from personal experience.

None of us hunt.

So, who has attacked this young girl? Maybe a new kid on the block.

I decided I needed to do a little behind the scenes research. I’d push Lennon to look for the parents, and then I’d look for the killer. For now, I marked cause of death as heart failure. Which is true of all death: the end of the heart is the end of life.

And then, two days later, there was another body reported at the park. The very same death pose. This time it was a boy about the same age as the girl, hands on his chest, death pallor, similar mysterious marks, but in his upper arm. He was laid out behind the skate park near the library. He was dead as well, no heartbeat, no life. This confirmed it for me: another vampire among us.

Lennon was not as confident about a second taser death. “They’re extremely rare. Why a second one? Do you think there’s some kind of poisoning going on? Maybe delivered by the prongs?” He was really struggling with this set of circumstances.

“Hmmm, maybe. But I haven’t found traces of poison.” How could I even begin to tell him the truth? I was sure Lennon would run.

The parents of the girl had turned up the afternoon her body had been discovered. They were visiting from out of town. Anna, the girl, had gone to the library with the neighbour’s son.

It’s an unnatural condition to look upon your dead child, a state that defies our nature. It’s the one area of my job I dread, bringing a parent in to make an identification. A parent never gets over the death of a child. The best they can do is simply continue to live, to carry their grief forward. I saw the devastation bloom on the parents’ faces. Until then, there was hope their daughter was alive. I had no answers about cause of death. I needed to find the creature who did this.

It was the same with the boy, Wyatt. He had been riding his bike home from a friend’s house and never made it. He was found within proximity to Anna. I thought our hunter was in the park.

I consulted with the other two, Jacob and Chinua.

“I think we have a new vampire in the region. They must have been transitioned as a child.” This new vampire was looking to make a playmate.

Here Chinua ran his hand over his closely shorn salt and pepper hair. We were sitting on his front porch, the evening ocean breeze keeping us cool. He frowned a little. “Which means somewhere down the line there’s another vampire taking children. Despicable.”

Agreed. But for now, I just needed to find the vampire in Santa Andrea.

I drafted Chinua and Jacob to help me search. Jacob would search online and in the newspaper archives for unsolved deaths of children. Meanwhile, Chinua and I would conduct a stake out. We headed to the park.

Sure enough, about half an hour after we had settled in the shadows, I saw what appeared to be a boy emerge from a copse of trees that lined the boundary of the park. He had an odd gait, not the loose flowing movement of a child, but measured. He appeared to be about 11 or 12, prepubescent. Ah, a tough place to be. I waited until he sat on the bench by the playground. Chinua agreed to stay back in the shadows and watch. I approached as if I were simply on a nightly stroll, but then I took a seat next to him.

“You all right? A bit late for a kid to be out by yourself. Do you have a place to go? A home?” I tried to keep my voice light, but concerned.

He turned his gaze on me, and I knew.

Myth number whatever: Vampire’s eyes don’t change colour before or after drinking blood. You really can’t tell us apart from mortals unless you know what to look for. So here was a boy whose skin was not tanned, out at night and not afraid of a stranger. He also didn’t take a breath. Mortal children are incredibly loud breathers, nose wipers, shifters etc. He did none of this. I knew I was not looking into the eyes of a child. He rarely blinked.

“I’m fine. What are you doing out here? Aren’t you afraid?” His tone was flat.

“No.” I sat in silence, hoping he might say more. We sat for what felt like a long time.

Then he shifted, looking into the darkness. “Do you have any children?”

I wondered if he missed his mother or was fishing for new victims. “I did once, long ago.” I waited.

He took the bait. “What happened to them? You don’t look that old.”

Our feet brushed the boundary of the pool of light shed by the lamppost. “They grew old and died. I watched everyone I loved grow old and die. I wanted to die, but I couldn’t.”

He looked at me with wide eyes and a ferocious concentration.

I leaned toward him a bit, two conspirators in the night. “I think we’re the same, and yet very different.”

I was at a very delicate point. He could bolt into the night and I might never find him again.

“How old are you really?” I waited, turning my gaze back to the darkness of the trees.


“I’m 347 years old this October. My friends who are mortals think I’m just 37.”

He finally nodded in understanding or resignation. “Hmm. I’m only 32, but I was taken when I was 12. I’m still not used to it.”

I released the breath I didn’t need and nodded in sympathy. “The first one hundred years are the hardest. That’s when you shed your mortal life. That’s when I decided to stop hunting.” Out of the corner of my eye I could see that he looked down at his feet.

“I wasn’t hunting.”

I thought, Oh no, not two of them? No.

He went on. “I’m so lonely.”

I felt for him. I guessed he had contrived some way to disappear from his family.

“Tell me what it’s been like for you, it’s not easy for children… vampires.”

He nodded in agreement. “I had to stage my own disappearance; it nearly broke my parents. But there are two other brothers, I’m the middle one.” He paused at the memory. “I just disappeared from their lives. It’s still an open case in San Diego, no leads, nothing. Once in a while I go and check on them. My brothers are men with wives and children. I can hardly stand to see them so happy without me, yet I can’t stay away. I can’t make a new life as an adult, and I can’t pretend to be a child.”

“Do you know who made you?”

He sneered. “Oh, I’m hunting that son of a bitch. I want to destroy him.”

I sat back. Most of us know our makers. They introduce us to the life as a kindness. But there was always ambivalence. This was one reason I’d stopped hunting. But destroy my maker? I’d never felt that strongly.

“Who is he?”

Another snort. “Do you know there’s a tourist market for vampires? There’s an outfit that will take you out hunting, whatever your preferences.”

My skin, glowing in the lamplight, prickled. I’d heard of these “tours.” Vampires, soured on eternity, set out to make new companions, but of course soon grew bored, and often abandoned their targets. I had yet to encounter any self-respecting vampire who used these services.

“My maker simply bit me, marvelled at my youth for one night and a day, told me how grateful I should be to be beautiful for eternity, and then left me to my own devices.”

A cruel transition. But I pressed on.

“But you’ve done the same, or nearly the same, haven’t you?” My words were harsh, but I wanted an answer.

“I’m so lonely. I just need one friend, one like me. But they all die.” His voice trembled. “Most children die. I was one of those rare ones who, well, didn’t die.” He sat up. “How many have you found?”

My slow beating, very immortal heart thudded.

“Two. Two children, a girl and a boy.”

“Oh, there’s a third, earlier tonight. A man. I had hoped he could be a . . .” He couldn’t finish.

“Where? Where is he? Is he dead?” Perversely, again I hoped for death.

“No, I think this time I did it. He, uh, he’s by the mission. Not far from where the girl was. I just chanced upon him; you know. He was looking around, like he was searching for something. He has the loveliest brown hair. Reminds me of Dan, my older brother. I was waiting for a little while here, I couldn’t stand it if he died too.”

I flew from the bench. I can run faster than any human when I want to. I heard Chinua shout from the darkness, yet I ran. I was filled with dread, the dread of being right. I scented the air, a hunter once again. And then I knew. It was Lennon. He was prone in the tree lined boundary of the park, not 100 yards from the library. Oh no… I hoped for death, and yet, Lennon had so much before him, and he was my friend. I didn’t want him to die. I scooped his body up and slung him over my shoulder and sped back to the morgue, grateful the staff was gone for the night. I left the boy/man to Chinua.

Myth number whatever again: Vampires have supernatural strength.

OK, true, not a myth. I don’t know why, but I am about ten times stronger than any mortal I have met. Usually, I try to mask it. Not now. If Lennon woke up, I wanted to be there. If he died, I wanted to be there.

I took him to the morgue, hooked him up to vitals and waited. And there it was, about 45 minutes later. A single, strong thud. A heartbeat. I waited another 45 minutes to be sure. And there it was again. I knew he would open his eyes. I knew he would be . . . what? Confused? Furious? Hungry? All were possibilities. But above all when he woke up, he would be a vampire.

Then, Lennon opened his eyes. What could I say?


1 comment
  1. Wow! Great piece. Held my interest from start to finish. Liked the characters, too.

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