Friday, May 25, 2012

Carne Fresco

Fast food isn't dangerous because it makes you fat, it's dangerous because everyone eats it. Once you walk through the door, you just gotta accept that your chance of running into someone you can't stand goes up. You hate crying kids? There'll be a busload of 'em inside. You hate lawyers? There's a conference in town. You want a nice quiet lunch? That's when a civilian decides to rob Carne Fresco, a burger joint run by vampires.

The kid, dressed in army surplus fatigues and spotless white basketball shoes, is holding a shotgun that's too big for him. His legs shake as he swings it from cashier to cashier, shouting at them.

"Faster! Just dump it, dump it!"

The wampyr behind the counter do as he says, nervous not from the weapon pointed at them, but the fear of having civilian cops poking around their little operation. If the Wampyr Primero had to step in, or heaven forbid, a full-blood vampire take charge? These guys would be lucky to get out of their coffins by the next ice age. If they stay calm and give the kid what he wants, maybe everyone can get out of here alive. Maybe I can finish my cheeseburgers.

"I say we waste him, Angus" says a voice behind me.

That would be the knife tucked into my back sheath, Balance. It's got a big mouth. I'd get rid of it, but there aren't a lot of weapons capable of taking the head off a demon or angel.

"Shut up," I mumble.

"I'm just saying. He looks like the type that would forget the safety's still on."

The barrel of the shotgun swings my way, and I stay very still.

"What'd you say? What? What?" The barrel quivers with each question. Then he looks at the six burgers stacked like a Mayan pyramid at my left, the half-eaten burger in front of me, and a mound of crumpled wrappers to my right.

"Where are your friends?" he says, glancing under the table.

"No friends," I say, "this is all mine."

He laughs like I just said the funniest thing in the world. The gun barrel sketches a quivering circle around my head.

"What, you like training for an eating contest or something?" he says.

I come to Carne Fresco because it's one of the few places I can eat without being gawked at. I contemplate burying Balance in his gullet, and ripping it open to show him what it means to be hypermetabolic. Instead, I shrug.

"Something like that," I say. I decide to leave out that I'll have to eat as much again in three hours, more if I'm hurt.

"Then who were you talking to?" He looks under the table.

"Nobody," I say, "Must have been my cell phone or something."

"Oh yeah? Hand it over."

Crap. I don't really have a cell phone. Most of the shamans, angels, and denizens of the netherworld I know have no use for them. I do have a cell, of course, but I left it at home. I just wanted a quiet dinner.

I start patting my pockets.

"Quit screwing around!" the kid says. He pumps the shotgun, which I imagine was supposed to be a bad-ass move on his part. Instead, one of the shotgun's shells ejects and clatters to the floor. He looks down at it in shock for a second then tries to cover it by rushing toward my booth. The barrel stops inches from my face.

"The phone!" he says. His eyes are almost all white.

Balance starts singing

"Da-da-do-dah, Angus, we can taaake him." It's a fair imitation of a band I heard on the radio the other day. I didn't know my weapon could do impressions.

"Answer it," the kid says.

"All right," I say, "I'm going to move my hands now, is that okay?"

"Do it, just do it! You think I won't shoot?"

If it were a professional behind the trigger I wouldn't mind, but this kid is an amateur, and you can never predict what they'll do. The gun could go off and he wouldn't even realize he had squeezed the trigger. I reach back slowly and grasp Balance by the hilt. I look over the kid's shoulder at the cashiers. One has filled a white paper sack with the money from his till. The other is gathering herself like she’s about to pounce. I shake my head at her, but she just grins as her canines elongate. She knows who I am and she should know better.

The kid glances back just as she leaps the counter. Wampyr are not as fast as full-blood vampires, but faster than your average Olympic medalist. The kid begins to swing the shotgun around though he doesn't have a chance in hell of getting a shot off in time. I pull Balance with my right hand and grab the shotgun barrel with my left. The gun and would-be robber become lever and fulcrum as I leap over the booth. The shotgun shudders and there's a wet crunch. I bring the knife up under the wampyr's throat, stopping her short.

"You know what this is?" I say to her. She shakes her head.

"I'm the thing that's going to slice your head off if you move," Balance says.

"Hold it, I got this under control," I say.

"Guess again, Angus," Balance says. "Look behind you."

The deal at Carne Fresco is like a co-op for wampyr. You work a shift, you get paid in blood. The farms are certified organic, so the prospective wampyr doesn't have to worry about hormones, antibiotics, or other additives in their food. It's safe, organic, and most of all discrete. The place pays for itself by serving the leftovers to non-bloodsuckers. It's a radical concept in the vampire world, but that's what happens when the Old World vamps move into California and meet New Age Captialism. They were even green before green was cool. Me, I just like the burgers. The hormones in McDonald's burgers don't agree with my metabolism.

So in theory, everyone working tonight should be well-fed.

The kid is trying to hold the shotgun in one hand and has the other trying to hold back the blood streaming from his nose. I glance back at the cashier, who is already staring at the kid with a new look. She's hungry.

"Didn't you eat before you came to work?" I say to her. She just licks her lips.

"You had a knife?" The kid says.

"He's a sharp one, all right," Balance says.

It's like I can hear the kid thinking while I'm holding the struggling wampyr by the neck. He's trying to process a talking knife, a woman who suddenly sprouted fangs, and a nose gushing blood.

"Holy shit," the kid says, and racks the shotgun again. I hear the shell hit the floor. The barrel appears in the corner of my eye, and I think it's aimed at my head.

"Man, kid, you are dumb," Balance says. "Who do you think is saving your life here?"

"Cut it out," I say to the knife. The wampyr tries shooting past me, and she chokes a bit as I tighten my grip. "You too," I say to her. Her name tag reads 'Isabel.'

The kid swallows. "She's a …"

"Yup," I say.

"So you're...?"

"No. Human, just like you," I say, which is mostly true.

I call out to the other wampyr. "You got someone that can take her?"

"The manager called in sick today. Isabel's the next dominant."

Meaning that there's no Alpha minding the store to reign in Isabel, and the rest of the staff are powerless against her. Isabel could be feeding from a non-dominant's mother and they wouldn't even clear their throats over it.

"I'm pretty sure that's against code," I say.

"As is not eating before your shift," Balance says.

The other wampyr shrugs. "Sorry." I notice he's sweating. I didn't know wampyr did that. Learn something new every day, I guess. The muscles in my arm start to burn. I wonder how much longer I can hold Isabel. Maybe another two minutes. I turn back to the kid with the shotgun.

"What's your name, kid?" I say.


"Okay, Elliot, listen to me. You need to get the hell out of here before you become this nice young lady's lunch." The girl snarls and I catch a whiff of garlic, proving you can't trust every legend you hear about.

"You broke my nose," says Elliot. The whine in his voice makes me want to give him a few missing teeth too, but I need all my concentration to hold down the girl.

"Elliot, that's the problem. Your face is covered with the one thing Isabel here craves. I need you to back away slowly toward the door."

"What about my money?" Elliot says.

"You should let her eat him on general principles," Balance says.

"Forget the money; you get to live. But only if you do exactly what I say."

"Who are you?"

"Your guardian angel, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the monster in your closet, all wrapped up in a second-hand jacket," Balance says. "Geez, just do as he says, kid!"

"Why don't you just kill it?" Elliot says.

For the same reason you don't shoot a diabetic having a seizure, but I doubt that'd convince him.

"Because if I have to kill her, her friends behind the counter will rip you apart."

He glances at the crew behind the counter in their visors, aprons, and elongating fangs. "Okay," Elliot says, "what do I do?"

My tricep starts cramping up. Isabel paws at my elbow, still gazing at Elliot's bloody face.

"Okay, Elliot, you need to be the Alpha Dog here. Keep eye contact. Back away slowly. Don't for any reason turn your back on her."

I hear him shuffle towards the door. The shotgun rattles in his hands. Then there's a grunt and he falls down. Isabel takes a slice from Balance as she lunges past me. I re-grip on her ankle. There's a flash; a giant explosion goes off next to my ear, and I'm covered in bits of ceiling tile. Giant purple afterimages float in front of me, and it sounds like a bell ringer convention in my ears.

"Oh god, oh god, ohgod ohgod," Elliot says, crab walking away from Isabel's outstretched arm. The blast pockmarked her face, and her lower jaw is partially unhinged. There's a shallow cut from Balance along her carotid artery. Already, the flesh begins to re-knit itself. The cut on her neck does not seal, which is the reason I put up with my damn smart-ass knife. Isabel tries leaping at Elliot, but it brought up short as I yank her back by the ankle.

Elliot racks the shotgun and I’m staring into its barrel. I lunge forward, and snap my arm down. Balance flies from my hand. It does a half-turn and hits the muzzle handle-first. I wrap my arm around Isabel's neck, and we fall to the ground. The gun slews sideways as Elliot pulls the trigger, taking out a plastic flower display and part of a garbage can. I start to reach for the shotgun when someone stabs me in the arm.

Isabel's mouth is latched just above my wrist, her throat working as she slurps away. I try to pull her off by the hair, but it just rips out in bloody clumps and wiggles her fangs in my forearm. Elliot racks the shotgun one more time and presses it to my head.

"You almost killed me," he says.

"I'm still keeping you alive. Run," I say, "before she finishes and has you for dessert."

He stands there with the gun at my head. Spots fill my vision as my blood pressure drops. Isabel's head comes up with a hollow gasp as she releases my arm. A wide stripe of blood covers her chin, neck, and chest. Elliot's eyes go wide, and he drops the shotgun. He runs out of the restaurant, into the night.

Isabel's eyes focus, and she looks around in confusion. Her face and neck have completely healed; her hair is thick and photo-perfect, though her uniform is ruined. She takes in the hole in the ceiling, then glances down at me. She recoils.

"You're a Hunter, aren't you?"

I nod. The room seems to waver.

"And I fed from you?"

"You did."

"Oh," she says, and looks down at her uniform. Her head shakes a little from side to side as if she's constantly saying 'no.' I can understand. On top of everything else, assaulting and feeding from a Hunter is a capital offense. Period. It's the vampire equivalent of blacking out and finding yourself falling from an airplane explosion sans parachute. Into a volcano. On eruption day.

"I'll be dusted, won't I?"

"You came close tonight already." I pointed at Balance. "Recognize that?"

She shuddered. "Yes."

"You could have been beheaded; you weren't. You should have bled out; you didn't. You're still here because you fed from me. Because of that, the idiot you were after got away, and the human cops aren't here right now asking awkward questions. I'd rather just forget about this whole thing."

Her eyebrows shot up. "Really?"

I sat up, and the room spun. I braced myself until it settled down.

"But first, I'm going to need a dozen double-doubles with bacon and three large shakes ­—­­ vanilla." Hypermetabolism was a bitch, but it did have its advantages. With any luck, I'd be able to walk out of here within the hour.

"Of course," Isabella said, "On the house." She scrambled back to the other wampyr. "Twelve quad bypasses with insurance and three large vanillas, guys. Martin, count out the tills, then grab a broom and clean up back there. I'm going to go change."

I crawl over and retrieve Balance.

"A second-hand jacket?" I say as I put the knife away.

"Angus, if a bum found your jacket lying on the street, the only reason he'd pick it up would be to burn it."

I brace myself against a booth and haul myself up; my table and its burger pyramid isn't that far away. With any luck, I can finish them before the next dozen come out. I decide I'll let Isabella and her crew comp me the food, even though I'm sure there's a rule against it. Man, I love bacon.

Image:  Double burger by Luke

1 comment:

  1. Excellent! I love what you did with your characters. Surely the book will be published one day.