Infecteds are mysteriously disappearing after graduation from a group therapy program designed to help them heal. Unable to figure out where these unwanteds have gone, the government enlists the aid of a supremely unlucky vampire named, Harold, to join the group and spy on its founder. As he navigates his way through a maze of nightmares, Harold learns about a black market world of gambling, blood brokering and corporate experimentation.
Read an Excerpt Below:
Flesheaters and Bloodsuckers Anonymous
By HC Hammond
Harold spent a lot of time thinking about blood. Its alluring warmth and coppery flavor were manna, a precious resource, hard to procure, but so, so worth the effort. He spent many hours of his life considering the substance. What drew him to it. How he could get at it. How he could avoid it and why he deserved the torment of that downright, blood-red, dirty, sloppy substance. Mostly at this moment, as he sat in one of many titanium white holding cells in the Columbus police metropolitan complex, he spent time ruminating on how his need for it kept getting him into trouble, more of it lately than usual.
As far as the myth of vampires went, Harold could admit he didn’t measure up. He wasn’t mysterious or menacing or all that sexy. Just about the only things that got him laid were the reputation associated with vampires and the hypnotic ability it afforded him. Even that stopped now that Maria was in the picture.
And now for the first time in nearly eighty years, he’d been caught trying to get a good meal, by the law. Harold could practically smell a future filled with burning flesh.
They threw him in the slammer for charges of attempted murder, it was really only attempting to get a good meal on his thin frame. He doubted the judge would see it that way. Even in this modern, enlightened age, those infected with Human Abeoviridae didn’t get the same fair shake as everyone else. He nibbled on his fingertips as he thought, nipping on each one in turn and sucking on the flesh just enough to draw a drop of blood before moving on to the next.
Vamps didn’t do well in prisons. The guards kept to a diurnal schedule. First day in yard and Harold would turn into so much barbeque. Maria would miss him and weep salty tears over his urn ensconced ashes at a state paid funeral, but he’d still be ubër dead. Dust to dust and ashes to ashes.
Shit, shit, shit. Harold jumped from the bench to pace the room, counting the footsteps heel to toe, one, two, three, and four. His shit seriously hit the fan this time, five, six. No way, he’d be able to go back to his life and no way to survive going to jail, seven, eight, nine. Harold might actually have to skip town and start fresh, ten, eleven, twelve, something he’d avoided all these years, thirteen, fourteen. He didn’t want to leave, fifteen steps to cross the room, no bigger than his bedroom. The vampire turned ninety degrees and started walking. This city was his home, his first home, one of the last connections to, well, before, two, three, four.
He made it a point to be extra careful where he fed, five, when he fed, rotating through random, six, seven, eight, neighborhoods of the city on a regular basis, nine, steering clear of other infected’s territory. Only nine steps before his red flyers bumped the wall, practically claustrophobic in here.
The cops just got lucky, although having Tasers to take him down didn’t hurt either. His chest still stung from the prongs. If he could actually fly, Harold received enough juice to make it to Los Angeles and back.
Everywhere this past year, Harold encountered police cruisers. It took more effort to sneak around at night. He’d been avoiding “eating out” and taking from the blood bank at work, increasing the risk of getting caught fang deep in a pint.
The booking officer’s heavy footsteps, mingled with two others stopped Harold’s fretting. They were coming to take him before a judge, a good time to escape. Have the officers just walk him out the front door with a few soft words. He could get away, but he’d have to keep running. They knew his name now, had his prints and mug shots. They knew he was infected.
A fevered thought screamed, jump them, as the cell door swung open and one cop asked him to step forward. Harold slumped towards them, a vamp with very few options. The booking officer guided him down the hall, one hand on his upper arm, the other gripping a cattle prod. Two distinctly ogrish officers brought up the rear. The police station lay silent with inactivity. Other than him, they were having a slow night. Just his darn well luck, he supposed.
A couple of other cops eyed him from the booking station and a small, Asian woman sat alone on a bench by the entrance. Harold had a very hard time looking away from her. Slowly, her red lips turned upwards in a closed mouth smile. Her eyes were wide and icy, bright green. Despite his predicament, he was glad to head in the opposite direction. Sure were a lot of crazies around here.
They walked down the hall to the courtroom, at least what Harold thought was court. When guard opened the door, it turned out to be nothing more than a well-kept interrogation room. Within sat two men, one squat and large and one tall and thin, suits with their dark grey Tweeds and Gentrys, sunglasses and skinnies.
These two certainly weren’t cops and he doubted they were public defenders. That only left one option, they were with the government.
He wasn’t sure what this meant for him, but he doubted it good.
On the table lay a manila folder. He assumed it was his file or at least about him. The tall one gestured for Harold to sit in the wooden chair opposite. Neither of them bothered asking the guard to take off Harold’s handcuffs. Rather than put up a fuss he sat down with his hands in his lap. They stared at each other, to the point where it began to get awkward.
If this was some tactic designed to break him and get a confession, they were going be here a very, very long time waiting to hear his life story. Of course, he was already a dead man so what were several more crimes on top of the one for which they already snagged him. At least he’d have someone to listen, someone who might give a damn for some small reason about where he came from and why he did it. The tall one introduced himself as Agent Bergstrom and the man next to him as his partner, Agent Potts
“Mr. Blank, Do you know why you’re here?” Agent Bergstrom asked, startling Harold with his soft voice.
“I figured,” said Harold, looking down at his swollen, bitten fingers, “you brought me in because of… ” It was harder than he thought it would be to admit his status. Decades of living with it only increased the shame. “Well, my being a vampire.” There he’d said it. They could do what they liked, but it didn’t change the facts.
“Oh, that little problem,” said Agent Bergstrom with a smile in his voice. “We’ll take care of it for you.”
Harold looked up from the fingers he had been analyzing to try and decide if he could draw any more blood, to gape.
“Beg your pardon?” He asked, “I’m not sure what you mean by that.”
“It means, Mr. Blank, you don’t have to worry about jail, as long as you help us.”
Harold eyed the two men. He’d been expecting an interrogation and now they were dangling the promise of freedom. It might be a game, some trick.
Bergstrom continued, “We’ve watched for someone like you some time now. You just happen to fit the bill. So, we’re arranging to have the charges dismissed in exchange for your cooperation.”
“My cooperation,” Harold might have laughed at the word, but he didn’t quite have the balls. “What can I possibly do for you?”
Agent Potts shifted in his chair, scraping the metal legs across the floor. Harold grabbed one of his ears with his cuffed hands, grimacing at the lack of protection for his other ear.
“Tut, tut,” said Bergstom, “Our new vampire friend’s ears are quite sensitive you know.”
“Huh, how sensitive are they?” Agent Potts asked. He leered at Harold.
Harold kept silent, rubbing his ears to sooth away the sudden bout of tinnitus flaring up in response to that horrible noise. He wished he could think of something suitably caustic to say, but couldn’t come up with anything more than “fuck off” and the man already seemed more interested than Harold preferred.
Harold tensed when the taller man reached forward. Maybe he could put up enough of a struggle to make the pile of ashes representing his dead corpse look suspicious to the cops. No, they would probably sweep him up and pour him in the trash. End of story. Oh, Danny boy.
“We’re not here to frighten you, Mr. Blank.”
It turned out that Bergstrom needed the folded manila envelope from the table. He opened it, pulling out the contents and tossing them in front of Harold without preamble. Harold spread them out with his hand. Surveillance photos of people and creatures he didn’t know. Some normie in a sweater vest dominated the images. Harold picked up a creepy poindexter vibe. Most of those undeads, he couldn’t even identify them by type, but it’s always easy to recognize the physical symptoms, were gaunt weak-looking creatures. It was a misleading term. These people weren’t dead. He wasn’t dead. Each was either born with an affliction from theHuman Abeoviridae family or they contracted it later in life, but they didn’t die. Only the lucky ones died.
One skeletal male with skin stretched across his bones and another Harold could only describe as a giant mottled black and grey slug wearing some sort of collar stood out. For several moments he pondered the images, trying to determine their validity.
Harold sighed, pushing back from the desk. “I don’t know these people.”
This was going to be a very short interrogation. At nearly 107 years, Harold had yet to make a long-term acquaintance with any other vampires, let alone these different people. He’d no clue this many types of infecteds lived in the area and he worked in a hospital, tested for them on a regular basis. The men may not realize it, but they’d just quietly blown his mind.
“We didn’t expect you too,” Agent Bergstrom said, “These are all members of a self-help program called FEBS Anonymous.”
“Flesheaters and Bloodsuckers.”
“Cute,” Harold muttered.
“We didn’t come up with the name,” the tall man said, expressing his first sign of displeasure in this bizarre meeting. He leaned forward to jab a finger at a photo of the poindexter. “He did, Donald Smythe. Created the program to help the infected cure their illnesses and be normal again.”
This time Harold did laugh, “That isn’t possible.”
“Members of the group seem to think otherwise.” Bergstrom turned his attention to arranging the photos on the table according to some internal filing system. “Thing is Harold. We can’t find the graduates of his program to confirm it. The government wants to know more about this program. We would like you to join it and report to us on regular basis. In exchange, we’ll have any charges against you dropped and your true nature will remain your own private business.”
“Hmmm…play spy for the feds. I’m going to have to say no on that.”
Agent Potts grunted at Harold from his chair. Agent Bergstrom's hands stilled in their work.
“This isn’t optional Mr. Blank.”
The hell it wasn’t. Harold’s neck was the most important thing in his life and he sure as heckfire wasn’t about to risk it in spy games, despite the way these two set him on edge. If this really was it, if he really had to … he could slip away faster than anyone in the dead of night. He just needed an opening.
“Why don’t you just ask this Donald character to let you know where these people are? He probably keeps in touch with his graduates.”
Bergstrom removed his sunglasses. Harold did a double take. The man’s eyes were solid black voids, all iris. The agent revealed his teeth. “You think only normies can be agents? You should take us up on this,” He leaned forward to whisper, “It’s not so bad on this side of the table.”
“What…you?” Harold stuttered, glancing at the man’s partner and wondering whether he too harbored a secret under his dark sunglasses.
“I’m an agent with the government,” Bergstrom said. “We’re having a little trouble with Donald. He doesn’t want to reveal the locations of former group members. Claims it interferes with their right to privacy.”
The man put his glasses back on and his completely non-descript but slightly odd look returned. “We can’t make him disappear right now. Donald’s starting to get quite a bit of attention for his program. He’s going on the talk show circuit soon with the ’Get Normal’ routine.”
The agent gestured again with pale, bone-thin fingers towards the photos. “During the course of our standard surveillance of the FEBS self-help group we’ve noticed several discrepancies.”
“Was it the giant slug or the zombies?” Harold muttered. He used the side of his hand to push away a surprisingly up close photograph of a zombie in make-up, lots and lots of pancake on very little flesh, unappetizing. How on earth did they manage to get this close up for surveillance like that? Surely, members of this group would have noticed the smell of normies in the area. Course, these guys weren’t exactly like other people.
“Neither. We’re talking about disappearances,” The agent said. He rearranged some of the photos before Harold. They were all close ups of infecteds he didn’t recognize, hadn’t met before. “These are all recent graduates of the FEBS program. Naturally, we’d like to check up on everyone involved with or who spent time around the group to ensure they aren't returning to a life of bloodshed after graduation.”
“Naturally,” Harold echoed, his eyes still trying to discern discrepancies in the photos which might mark them faked.
“Since these members graduated, we’ve been unable to find them. They no longer inhabit old haunts, left no forwarding address, haven’t been using their old social security numbers or tried to contact family members. They’ve just disappeared.”
Harold looked over the faces, some attractive, some passing for live, others obviously undead. He tried to remember whether he’d seen any of them skirting the darkness where he usually ate. Or God forbid, seen them rolled into the morgue down the hall where he worked. None rang a bell.
It’s possible these people didn’t want to be found again. He tried to think how he would feel about his past if he woke up one morning and suddenly wasn’t a vampire anymore. He might keep that part of himself a secret, especially after all he’d done, the people he’d killed. For a regular guy it’s just murder, what he did, not trying to survive. That was a sobering thought.
He would work his hardest to erase his past, his deeds and anything else he could think of connected to the vampirism. He wouldn’t want to be found by anyone from his past.
Could these people have cloaked themselves so well in new identities that the efforts of government agents didn’t oust them? He didn’t know how far these guys had gone to find these graduates, but he didn’t think they’d be particularly concerned about things like privacy laws.
“Believe me,” Bergstrom said, “I’d do this any other way I could, but we can’t. You’re working for us, whether you want to or not.”
Harold sneered. “I’m not some government flunkie. Who the hell do you think was chasing me down all these years? Now even.” Harold stood up, cuffed hands before him. “Arrest me, charge me, kill me if you like, but I’m not going to spy on anyone.” He swallowed, surprised by his own stupid bravado.
The agents remained sitting, hands slightly folded in front of them, faces expressionless as the Blues Brothers.
“You done?” The shorter one asked him.
The two men grinned from ear-to-ear. They knew as well as he did that he had nothing to back up his attitude. Harold let out a frustrated sigh, plopping back into his chair.
Why on earth didn’t he just steal some blood from the bank tonight instead of going for fresh? It’s a vampire dies young, who tries to sit in the sun, he thought bleakly.
“We know you’re fucked,” Potts paused, “so we’ll make this short.”
“Watch the members, especially those who look to graduate soon. Get close to Donald. Maybe we won’t drag your sorry carcass to some eternally sunny place on charges of attempted murder by bloodletting,” the agent held up a hand to stop Harold’s spitting tirade.
“Damn you,” Harold muttered.
“We get that a lot,” Agent Bergstrom said, “You’ll work with us then?”
“What else can I do?”
“Nothing.” The man smiled at Harold.
Harold shifted in his chair and listened while the agents explained it all to him. He’d go into FEBS as part of a diversion program for those like himself entering the court system. Go before the judge, say you’re sorry and feel so, so guilty. Beg for mercy and take the program when offered. Harold nodded when they looked at him. He’d go along if he had too and say what they wanted, but only to get back on the streets.
Except, should he find out he’d never tell them where those people went to after graduation. They had a right to keep their privacy if it worked and more so if it didn’t. Harold’s own precious fantasy house of cards nearly fell tonight. He could be caught drinking blood at any moment and lose his life, metaphorically and literally. He saw no reason to voluntarily offer up information about other people so they could be slaughtered too. Harold still had the privacy of his own mind and he knew how to keep a secret.
When he walked into the warehouse for the first meeting, Harold laughed at life’s sense of humor. FEBS met within a dry goods warehouse, surrounded by tons and tons of food for which he had no appetite. Held at night, of course, in a large, creepy warehouse made even spookier with the only lights being twenty feet above and other creatures wandering freely through the high-loaded pallets. This did not bode well for the diversion program’s success.
There were werewolves here too, snuffling around the pallets, searching for some doggie biscuits and dried pig’s ears to gnaw on. He’d never seen a person infected with Abeos Lupictus before, unless you counted B-rated horror movies. Curious, Harold wandered over to one.
Patches of fur poked out of his skin and slightly snoutish face. He seemed, trapped almost between a half-man, half-wolfish transformation. The ears twisted and turned of their own volition. He stunk of sweat and something else, shit. It occurred to Harold the wolf man may roll in it on a regular basis. Perhaps to smell of his prey?
He could not imagine where the wolf man found large enough quantities of it to roll in, unless he collected it himself during those other days of the month when he was most fully human. An unpleasant image burst into Harold’s mind of the wolf man taking craps into his bathtub, saving up the foul mixture for times when he believed he needed it the most, those times when he was fully a werewolf. A bad enough practice by itself, Harold didn’t want to think about what the wolf man might do to obtain other people’s crap.
The strong smelling man turned from ripping into the plastic sheeting around a pallet to jump, snapping at Harold. He backed up in a hurry, not wanting to become vampire tartar. Something slithered across his flyers in the darkened alley. Harold clamped down on the small hysterical cry forcing its way up his throat. A sign of fear was a very stupid thing, especially amongst other infecteds, especially when they were hungry. The irony of having these meetings in a large warehouse of food struck him again. Food they could never eat, never digest, never again partake of, even if some of these people had been normal at one point in their lives, they certainly weren’t now.
This is all some terrible joke. Fighting the infection through willpower. The desperation involved.
He wandered further into the warehouse, past moaning things and others which looked mostly normal, except weak and wasting. Many here exhibited those traits. Harold cringed from them, sought out the comfort of the dark and kept moving forward.
He found the meeting area in a cleared space amongst the pallets and assembly lines and silent forklifts. A banner hung against a wall of pallets announcing with words in blood red, someone’s funny sense of humor, the name of the group. Thirty or so metal folding chairs filled up rapidly as flesheating and bloodsucking creatures poured in from the darkened spaces. They pulled the chairs into a lazy circle, not quite round and not quite closed. If Harold weren’t standing there, biting the tip of his thumb with a fang, he might have gone right into group and started pulling the chairs into a more equal and uniform semi-circle. He stifled the urge by biting down harder.
Those jokesters down at the courthouse just wanted to yank his chain. No way, creepy crawlies like him hated themselves enough to waste away for humanity. He knew self-disgust, it gnawed at him the way hunger drew at his belly after a long night. This, this was emotion blown up, transfigured, a stark and pitiful, pointless action.
Give it a chance, Maria cajoled right after picking him up at the courthouse in his 1965 Phantom. The cops impounded it after picking him up and Maria caught the bus downtown to bail it and him out. She was his one phone call and boy did he need someone friendly to talk to after meeting with Agent Bergstrom and Potts. She got to the courtroom in time to hear him pleading with the judge as per orders. Surprising how swift the justice system is when you’re the one in trouble.
Harold should have bitten her in the car. Put an end to both their miseries, killed her, gone to jail and burnt to a crisp during yard time. Oh, but he hadn’t. He sat in good natured astonishment while she brought up all the faults he had and suggested maybe this cloud had a silver lining. He should have told Maria about the feds, but was really surprised how easily she agreed with the court’s ruling. He didn’t know Maria as well as he thought.
He listened to the speech and even, even managed to feel remorse. He apologized for staying out all night and being reckless and not being home much and yes, even eating people. After all, there is something to being discreet. Certainly, Harold had not been discreet. Sure, his victims had shown up on the news a couple of times and okay, the sleep biting. He defended himself there, Maria used to enjoy that sort of thing. Said it tickled.
Suddenly, it was inappropriate. Suddenly, she wanted him to change his ways.
Harold glanced at his phone. What was he doing here? He could skip out of here and go grab a bite to eat in less than fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes and he’d be fang deep and the blood lust would take over and he’d not give a damn about the outcome. Maybe ten minutes, if he hurried. Harold’s stomach growled. Well, it didn’t quite growl. A few years of a liquid diet made some changes. It more whimpered and turned in on itself.
He’d snuck some blood at the hospital for breakfast earlier. How long ago was that? Several hours at least.
The feds said these meetings ran into the early morning. Probably to ensure the greatest possible discretion for those unassuming and misunderstood beings led astray by the popular societal belief they had to live on the flesh and blood of other people, Harold chimed mentally. He sneered at the mission statement for this little club. Come to group. Wean yourself off a blood and flesh diet with the support of others going through the exact same thing. Be normal.
Nearly all the chairs were taken now. A veritable zoo of beings sat in the lazy circle, chatting, staring into space, trying to assume relaxed poses. A man walked into the group carrying a tray of coffee from the deserted snack table. It was the poindexter from the fed’s photos, Donald. Harold’s nostrils told him this guy was a normie, but he had almost no scent. No smell of soap or fabric softener or sweat. Only a very little salt and blood drowning in the surrounding smells of the others at group. His stomach simpered again and Harold leaned closer. Donald wandered around to each of the group members, trying to get them to take of a cup of coffee. Most of the group members actually took him up on the offer, but they didn’t drink, just held the warm cups in their hands. A few even blew on their coffee as if trying to cool it. Some who were clearly zombies boldly took sips from their cups. They smiled with partially rotted jaws at their nearest compatriots. The nearby compatriots pulled away with some disgust.
Harold only had eyes for the lone man, completely at ease in the midst of all these hungry creatures. Extremely normal in a yellow plaid button shirt with pullover knit vest and Dockers, the man even wore horn-rimmed glasses. He took the empty tray to the snack table and went to stand in one of the gaps between chairs. Harold could easily make out what he said.
“I’m glad to welcome you all back for this session of FEBS. We’ve had a few successes. Two of our previous members, Liza and Ricardo have successfully completed their thirteen step program and are now beginning their lives as day dwellers.” A round of clapping sprang up at the man’s words. He smiled and took part in it too, then held up his hands until silence fell on the group, but a loud, wet snort erupted from one of the members.
“Those two better get an SPF 3,000. Can anyone say crispy?” A couple of members laughed, and then quickly muffled it behind their hands.
Donald’s smile dropped as he turned to the speaker, who was to Harold’s amazement a slug, the slug from the fed’s photographs, a giant slug. Holy Toledo.
“Now, now we’re all going to have to be supportive of each other. We want to succeed. Short quips aren’t going to help.”
The slug straightened to its full three feet height and eyed the man with one lone eyestalk. The other had disappeared into its head. “Is that a remark about my height?”
The man gave his little smile again. “Not at all, simply a reminder. It takes an open mind and supportive nature to make the complete transition.”
The slug made a sound deep in its gullet. “Speaking of open,” it swiveled its eye stalks around until they stared directly at Harold. He felt slow crimson embarrassment rise up. “Why doesn’t the new guy come out in the open with the rest of us?”
Most of the rest of the group turned to look in Harold’s direction too.