As long as the streetlights kept working it was never truly dark in Santa Monica, but the back alleys were never truly lit either, not even in the middle of the day. Honestly, Knox could hardly tell the difference between day and night here. The backstreets existed in a perpetual middle ground and by now he knew them better than the block he grew up in.
So the punk trying to run away from him didn’t stand a chance. He knew he had him when he turned that corner. This alley was a dead end.
“I don’t wanna shoot you man,” Knox shouted. He was breathing heavy, almost panting, but the gun in his outstretched hand didn’t even tremble. “But I got a job to do and dude, you’re screwing with my shit.”
The figure had stopped running and when he spoke they seemed to have stopped moving altogether, but something wasn’t quite right. Knox knew what a person looked like when they were frozen in their tracks and this wasn’t it. Whoever they were, they weren’t fazed by the fact he had a gun pointed at their back.
“You’re pretty fast, kid,” the figure spoke in a raspy voice. “Figured I’d have lost you by now.”
“No way pal,” Knox said tensely. “I’m on someone’s tail I stay there.”
“Look,” Knox said, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck beginning to stand on end. “I don’t want any trouble with you. But you wiped my mark’s computer and that’s just not cool. Either you give me back those disks I know you’ve got on you or tell me where I can find him.”
“Your mark?” the man asked, still not having turned around. He was standing in the shadows, seemingly looking thoughtfully towards the sky.
“I’m a bounty hunter,” Knox said firmly. That fact usually made people nervous enough. “Look if Torres owes you money or something I’m sure you can work something out with my boss, but all I care about is that he jumped his bail and it’s my job to get him back.”
“You work for Kilpatrick,” the man said. It wasn’t a question, but Knox answered it anyway.
“That’s right,” he said. “He told me to find Torres and since you just trashed his hideout you’re my only lead.”
“And that means you’re on my ‘tail’, right?” the other said in a tone of voice that sounded almost amused.
“Damn straight,” Knox said. “So you better-”
The man turned around and stepped forward. Knox raised his head a little to meet his eyes, but as soon as the figure moved out of the shadows Knox’s blood ran cold. The face he looked into was not human. The bulbous growths on the hairless skull and the coarse, discoloured skin might be the result of some horrible disease, but the red eyes surrounded by tarry black and the mess of sharp teeth between those sneeringly smiling lips were monstrous. For a split second Knox froze, then he fired.
The shot rang out like a crack and the man, or thing, or whatever it was, let out a grunt. The bullet had hit him square in the chest, very probably tearing straight through his heart. But the figure didn’t recoil or fall, didn’t even stagger backwards. Instead, he raised his head, staring straight at Knox with another mocking smile and said:
“Now that’s just rude.”
Knox ran. The key to survival was knowing when the fight, flee or freeze instead of doing it by instinct. He had barely reached the corner he had just come round before he felt a claw-like hand grab him by the shoulder and yank him back. His back collided with a brick wall, smashing his head against it and for a moment the world flickered. Another claw gripped his hand, forcing him to let go of his weapon.
“You got a thick skull, kid,” the monster chuckled.
Against his better judgement, Knox opened his eyes and looked up into the disgusting face.
His wince was answered with another chuckle. “I’m not much to look at I know, but you look a little rough yourself…” The monster gave him an appraising look. “What’d you do after you followed me out of the window, you must have scaled a wall or two.”
Knox didn’t reply. He wasn’t sure he was even capable of speech at this moment. The eyes. The red eyes. He had to repress every single one of his natural instincts to keep himself from fighting and trying to flee. But the claw that had gripped his shoulder was now pressing against his chest just below his throat and the rational part of his brain was very sure that if he tried fighting he wouldn’t survive it. He was absolutely certain this thing could have killed him if it wanted to and it was unclear to him why he was still alive.
“What’s your name, kid?”
He swallowed. “Knox… Harrington.”
The monster grinned. “Well Knox, I’m Bertram Tung and this is your lucky night.”
Knox would beg to differ. “How come,” he managed to force past his lips.
The thing called Bertram smiled. “Because you managed to impress me and I’ve been looking for someone with your kind of skill set for a while now…”
The red eyes were still staring at him and Knox was still terrified, but he was alive and whatever this guy was he hadn’t seriously hurt him yet. Instinct and reason knocked heads with each other and…
“Shit man, if you’re offering me a job you are one messed up recruiter.”
Bertram blinked and let out a surprised laugh. “You’re lucky I appreciate a quick tongue as much as I do quick feet,” he grinned. “And I’m not offering you a job, I’m offering you a life.”
There was suddenly a lump in Knox’s throat.
“You clearly know your way around here,” Bertram said. “But let me open your mind a little further…” And with a firm hand on his shoulder once more he led Knox back into the dead-end alley, towards a partially opened manhole cover.
An hour or two later the kid was still looking like he’d been hit over the head with an anvil. Still, apart from that Bertram had to admit he was taking it rather well. He wasn’t screaming or crying or any of those other messy things humans liked to do. Bertram appreciated that. He was talking however, a lot.
“Aw, man,” Knox groaned, dragging his fingers through his hair. “It’s just too messed up. Vampires and werewolves and ghosts and fucking arcane monster shit…” He looked up at Betram, who was commending himself for his patience, and asked: “But this ghoul stuff…what do you even need one for?”
“I like to keep an eye on things,” Bertram explained. “And not only can I not do that during the day even at night my freedom of movement is...limited.”
He could see the boy's eyes lingering on the more distasteful parts of his face, but Knox didn’t say anything. He was clearly smarter than he looked.
“And someone like you,” Bertram continued. “Would answer my purposes exactly.”
“Purposes, dude, why you gotta be so cryptic about it,” Knox muttered. “What would you want me to do?”
“Whatever I tell you to,” Bertram said sharply.
Knox glanced up at him apprehensively.
Bertram smirked. “You’re acquainted with the underbelly of Santa Monica already, I doubt my assignments will be too much of a shock to your system.” He could hear the kid’s heart beating from all the way across the room. Well, maybe ‘room’ was too generous a statement.
“This place is nasty, man,” Knox sighed looking around the sewer alcove littered with makeshift furniture. “I don’t have to live here if I work for you, do I?”
“You can live wherever you want,” Bertram grimaced. “As long as you come when called.”
“Do you live here?” Knox asked.
“That’s something you don’t need to know,” he grunted. This was only a strategic hideout, nowhere near the Nosferatu warrens. Only trusted, live-in ghouls were taken there. And Knox here met zero of those three qualifications at the moment.
“Okay man, sorry,” Knox muttered. He rubbed at the back of his neck anxiously and glanced up at him like he wanted to say something, but didn’t.
“Ask,” Bertram commanded.
“I… I haven’t got a lot of family, but there’s my grandma down in Santa Ana…” There was a particular sort of fear in Knox’s eyes.
Bertram drew back a little. He liked to think he was pretty good at staying in touch with his humanity, but he had forgotten the feeling that was now displayed on Knox’s face. It was painful to remember it now. “I won’t tell you to break with your family,” he said gruffly. “Only to lie about your new occupation.”
“I don’t see her often,” Knox said hastily. “I just…I send her money when I can.”
“Whatever Kilpatrick paid you I’ll double it,” Bertram said dismissively. “No shortage of money where I’m from.”
Knox’s eyes widened. “Oh- Man, well, okay,” he blurted out.
Bertram smirked. “Does that mean you’re accepting my offer?” he asked.
Knox shifted uncomfortably on the crate he was sitting on. “The ghoul stuff doesn’t sound too bad,” he muttered. “I mean, dude, I’ve been shot at so many times…and you’re saying that wouldn’t hurt me anymore.”
“Not much anyway,” Bertram shrugged. “Unless you go around catching bullets with your head.”
Knox shook his head and stared at his hands for a moment. Then he looked up and Bertram was pretty sure this was the first time he had looked straight into his eyes without the little moment of freezing fear. “If I say no you’ll kill me, right,” Knox said.
“Yes,” Bertram replied evenly.
“Then I’m not gonna say no, man,” Knox said. “Dude, whatever you got to do to make this ghoul thing happen can’t be worse than dying, right?”
“Very practical of you,” Bertram grinned. He was pleased, this kid would be useful and would probably good for a laugh too. As far as he could tell Knox had very few emotional ties to people in this city, which was always better and he seemed to have thrown himself completely into his work because he actually enjoyed it. That meant he’d probably adapt well to what Bertram had in mind for him. He got to his feet.
Knox tried not to look it, but every muscle in his body tensed as soon as he moved towards him.
“One last question,” Bertram said. “Are you clean?” He grimaced at the brief confusion on Knox’s face and added: “Drugs, you take any?”
“Not anymore,” Knox replied nervously. “Messed me up for a while man…”
“Good,” Bertram grinned. “Cause I’ve got something better for you.”
Knox didn’t know what he had expected, but he wasn’t quite prepared for Bertram slitting one of his wrists with his nails and holding it out to him. His first reaction was to gag, but the sound changed to an eager gasp halfway out of his mouth. Knox hardly knew how he leaned towards Bertram instead of recoiling in disgust like he should have, but he did and Betram didn’t seem the least bit surprised when he pressed his mouth against his bleeding wrist. Knox shuddered. But not because of the cold, waxy quality of Bertram’s grey skin or because of the thick, tepid blood that was suddenly filling his mouth. He shuddered because his own body felt cold compared to the glorious warmth that was suddenly washing over him. Bertram hadn’t lied. This was better than any drug he had ever tried. He felt…so unlike himself. Every time he swallowed he felt better, stronger, less tense, less worn down. He felt like he could do anything. If he could feel like this for the rest of his life he’d never-
Bertram put two fingers to his forehead and pushed Knox’s head away. Knox let go of his arm and gasped for air, leaning back against the sewer wall. “Man,” he blurted out. “You are as awesome as you are nasty, shit dude.” He closed his eyes for a moment and when he opened them Bertram was looking at him with an amused expression. “I feel awesome,” Knox said.
“Good,” Bertram smirked. “But don’t forget, I’m your master now, so watch your language.”
“What?” Knox frowned. “You don’t want me to swear or something?”
Bertram pulled a face. “Never mind, stand up.”
Knox obeyed immediately. It felt natural to obey him. He had never felt that way before either. ‘Problems with authority,’ had been a very frequent comment on his report cards as a kid. But this felt right. He wasn’t afraid of Bertram anymore either.
“You seem to be taking to this pretty well,” Bertram observed. “But until you’ve drunk from me three times I can’t really trust you yet, so I’ll bring you back to the surface and suggest you put in your two weeks’ notice.”
“Sure, whatever you want, dude,” Knox nodded. Kilpatrick would probably be upset, but he’d take his word for it if Knox told him it was time for him to move on.
“Master,” Bertram corrected.
“Really, dude?” Knox blurted out. “I mean- It’s kinda dramatic, ya know, but sure, master.”
The corners of Bertram’s mouth pulled like he was going to laugh, but he didn’t. Instead he handed Knox his gun back. Knox took it gratefully. He was fond of this weapon.
“Let’s go,” Bertram said with a jerk of his head.
When they had climbed back out of the sewer Knox was surprised to find himself behind the pawnshop his buddy Trip ran. He had told Bertram he lived near there, but he had not even noticed they were going in that direction. The sewer layout was mystifying.
“I’ll look you up again in a month’s time,” Bertram said. “Try to stay out of trouble until then.”
“I’m still gonna track down Torres,” Knox said. “Master,” he added hastily. “If that’s, ya know, okay?”
Bertram narrowed his eyes for a moment. “Fine, but be quick about it.”
“Yes, master,” Knox muttered. He didn’t want to make Bertram angry, that seemed like the worst thing in the world right now, and not just because he could hurt him…
“Here,” Bertram rasped and he pressed something into Knox’s hand. It was a pager.
“Woah, old school,” Knox said.
“Reliable,” Bertram replied. “If I need you I’ll contact you.” With that he turned around and before Knox had the chance to say or ask anything else, he had disappeared down the manhole and into the sewers again.
For a moment Knox just stood there, listening to the familiar night-time noises of the city. There was no way he could wrap his head around what had just happened to him. Not completely. But what he did know was that he wasn’t scared or even worried, he felt too damn good to feel either of those things. He put the pager in his pocket and went home. He’d check in with Kilpatrick tomorrow. The only troubled thought that crossed his mind was that he had forgotten to ask Bertram why he had been in Torres’s hideout in the first place. And he couldn’t ask him, because he had no way to contact him. Sitting on the couch in his quiet apartment, he took the pager out of his pocket and stared at it for a moment. Knox’s head was usually very full, but right now it was strangely calm and quiet. ‘If I need you I’ll contact you.’ It was a strange feeling, and he was a little weirded out to admit it to himself, but…he hoped that would be soon. Knox shrugged his shoulders. For some reason thinking of Bertram was like thinking of an old friend. One he hadn’t spoken to in a while. Maybe someone from his old neighbourhood… He shrugged again and the uncomfortable feeling vanished as quickly as it had crept up on him. Knox grinned and stretched his arms above his head. He felt great. Better than great. He felt like he could take on the entire world if he had to.