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The Light of an Oncoming Train

by Gregory W. Ellis

part 1 of 3

The dead man walking into my office was tall and cadaverously thin, with bloodshot eyes and a widow’s peak of coal-black hair streaked on both sides with gray. He wore Armani. A silver ring set with a blood-red stone adorned the ring finger of his left hand as he extended a business card across my desk. A platinum Rolex glinted from his wrist and gold cufflinks glittered. I could practically smell the money.

I took the business card, read it, and nearly choked up my third scotch. I read the card again, glanced up, then laid the card on my desk.

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked. I checked the window. It was still morning outside. Street traffic rumbled six stories below as the three-hour commute slowly ground people into slavery.

The dead man, excuse me, make that the dead Count, sighed heavily and the scent of decaying meat swept across the three feet separating us across the desk. Once again I nearly lost my scotch, and it was expensive stuff.

He must have seen me recoil because he pulled a tin of breath mints from the pocket of his business suit, opened it, and popped two in his mouth. I caught a glimpse of sharp, very white teeth. He shook his head, those red eyes never seeming to stop staring into mine.

“No, I’m not kidding,” he replied.

I read the information on the card again, somehow managing to break the lock his eyes had on mine.

Vlad II Dracul
Count of the Royal Court of Transylvania
Prince of Wallachia
Order of the Dragon
Knight Protector of Romania

“But you’re not really,” I began. I looked up into those blood-red eyes again and stopped speaking.

“The very same,” he said. “But I assure you, I mean you no harm. I need your help, and I pay very well.”

“Yeah, I bet all that interest on a small fortune has accrued quite a bit over the centuries.”

“The old fortune has long since vanished, the victim of time and history. But I have done quite well in certain other investments over the years, Mr. Dallas.”

That would be me, Quentin Dallas, sometime private investigator, sometime gambler, and all-around nice guy except when I was trying not to piss myself. Like now. A cold wave of fear passed through me and I felt my bowels begin to loosen. The Count’s red eyes seemed like the biggest things in the room. I got the distinct impression I shouldn’t be so cynical with someone who wanted to pay me good money.

It had been a while since my last case and even then the mar— I mean, the customer — had been slow to pay. I was up to my eyeballs in bills and I owed Vinnie the Finn for a marker that had turned out to be something less than a sure thing. Vinnie wasn’t the type to let his bills mount up when he could take the debt out of you in body parts.

Whatever the Count needed from me I could use the money, no doubt about it. He could live out any fantasy he chose as long as his money was green, or maybe even gold, from the looks of his suit and jewelry. After all, there were no such things as vampires, right?

“So, what can I do for you, Mr. Dracul,” I heard myself say before my brain could engage in any foreplay with my common sense.

“I need you to recover several items for me, Mr. Dallas. Several large and valuable items.”

“Not your...” I started to say something stupid.

“Oh, please. No, not my coffins. As if someone of my standing would actually sleep in one of those horrid boxes.” He smiled, revealing those sharply-pointed canines again. “No, while the items are in several crates of about the same size and shape as one you’d ship a coffin in, they are objects of art and of considerable value, in a monetary as well as sentimental sense.”

I reached for a pen and a pad of paper to take notes. “These items were stolen then?”

“Yes, two days ago along with the truck they were being shipped in. A gang of street thugs, known as Los Discipulos del Diablo, appear to have been the culprits.”

The Devil’s Disciples I knew about. I doubt there was anyone even vaguely associated with crime anywhere in the city that did not know of them. They were more than just a gang of street thugs. They were the gang of street thugs, reputedly the most powerful criminal organization in the city. Even the Mexican drug gangs and local cartel outlets steered clear of them or paid them money to let them operate. The Disciples had their hands in every criminal activity anywhere in the city. If it made money from human graft, greed, lust, or need, they had their hands in it. Rumor had it that the members had to promise their souls to the Devil to join up.

I started to reconsider taking the job. Maybe I could hold off Vinnie the Finn for a few more weeks before he sent a few of his boys around to restructure my kneecaps.

The Count pulled out an envelope and laid it on my desk on top of his business card. It bulged with cash. My heart went pitty-pat and my common sense took a vacation.

“That’s ten thousand dollars, Mr. Dallas. There’s another ten thousand when you recover my property.”

Visions of sugar plums danced in my head. Actually, it was a vision of a case of fine scotch, a couple of hookers, and a stack of paid-up bills. I grabbed the envelope before I had a chance to think. What good was thinking anyway? Brains weren’t much good if one couldn’t use one’s legs. I saw light at the end of a long, dark tunnel that had Vinnie the Finn’s leering face in it.

When I looked up from counting greenbacks Count Dracula was gone.

Hey, I never said I couldn’t be bought. Usually my price was much lower.

Stuffing the envelope full of cash in my jacket pocket, I picked up the phone and called Vinnie. After listening to him explain in excruciating detail exactly how he planned to rearrange my physicality I told him I’d drop off his money later in the day.

Vinnie hesitated a moment then told me what would happen if I failed to show up. I listened to him rant for a while then hung up. He was just disappointed that he wasn’t going to get the chance to have me beaten to a bloody sludge.

I dialed my friend Guido next. Guido’s my friend whenever I have money in my hands. Any other time and, if I was being murdered in the street, he’d walk on by whistling a happy little tune as if everything were right in the world. It’s amazing what money can buy sometimes.

And sometimes it’s not. As soon as I mentioned the Devil’s Disciples, Guido balked. I had to sweeten the deal considerably. I started to think maybe that electricity bill didn’t need to be paid so quickly after all. I didn’t need lights all that much. And I could buy a cheaper case of scotch and maybe pick up a hooker over on the east side instead of up along the Avenue. Looks weren’t everything, right? Or teeth?

After arranging to meet up with Guido and his cousin Luciano later I hung up and hit the streets looking for information on where Los Discipulos del Diablo had their headquarters or subsidiary offices.

A couple of my favorite stool... I mean, contacts, and a couple hundred bucks later and I knew about where I needed to go to make contact and arrange to get the Count’s property back. The arrangements themselves would be Guido and Luciano’s end of the negotiations. They’ve been known to be extremely persuasive on occasion. I called Guido and offered to buy him and Luciano lunch.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2010 by Gregory W. Ellis

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