Night Walker, Parts 1 & 2

by Wrestlr

[M/M, vampire, MC, hypno]

Disclaimer: There's sexual vampirism, sodomy, and maybe a few other minor perversions in this. If you don't like that sort of thing, read something else. Everybody in the story is legal age. Parts of this story may be autobiographical, or it might be all fiction--who can say?

Copyright - 2000 by Wrestlr. Permission granted to archive if and only if no fee (including any form of "Adult Verification") is charged to read the file. If anyone pays a cent to anyone to read your site, you can't use this without the express permission of (and payment to) the author. This paragraph must be included as part of any archive.

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Night Walker


I put my drink down on the polished black table. It chimed politely, and a message lit up next to my empty glass: "Want another? Yes/No/New Order".

I touched the spot that said "Yes" and ran my cash card through the slot on the side of the table. Mentally, I deducted another nine dollars from my rapidly dwindling bank balance.

The hotel waiter came over with another glass of iced decaf mocha.

"Sure I can't get you a glass of wine, maybe a beer or something?" he asked, smiling.

"Not just now," I said.

"Clean living, huh?" he said, still smiling. He had wavy black hair, slightly pronounced canines, and brilliant green eyes. Of course, so did half the other kids his age. It was the clone look among the tragically hip this year.

Usually, I hated it.

"Um. Yeah. Sort of," I muttered, grinning stupidly. I have an annoyingly trigger- happy blush reflex. My last lover used to think it was cute.

"Well, my name's Gregor," the waiter said, leaning over, a little too close. "Let me know if there's anything else you need."

We exchanged a glance that went on a little too long to be entirely proper, but stopped half a second before the eye contact lasted too long. Then he left. Well, I'm a sucker for friendly service. I slipped my cash card back into the table and was punching up his tip when I saw her.

Oh, great. Like I needed this kind of trouble.

My client had just walked in through the hotel's big front doors. She was wearing a trenchcoat and dark sunglasses, a look that practically screamed, "Please! I'm trying not to be recognized!" The ensemble was topped off by a huge, floppy hat, which did succeed in covering half her face but was so damn enormous that it called even more attention to her, especially when the revolving door nearly knocked it off her head on the way in. Apparently her mother never taught her how to accessorize for a stakeout in July.

I had chosen my table because it had a clear view of both the main entrance and the elevators, without being too close to either. Damage control time. I stood up and waved to her. The lobby of the DC Hilton is huge, so it took her a few seconds to spot me. When she did, she walked over, briskly.

"How nice to see you, Ms. Church," I lied, keeping my voice bland and conversational. "Why the hell are you here?"

"I would appreciate you not using that word in jest."

"My apologies, ma'am." I had forgotten how uptight Southern Baptists can be about the H-word. "Why the heck are you here?"

She took the seat next to mine. The table chimed and asked if she would like to order. She ignored it.

"I decided to watch," she said.

Ms. Church was in her late thirties, tall for a woman, and always spoke in the confident manner of someone who expects to be taken seriously. Not the sort of woman that anyone would ever call "pretty." Possibly "striking." Maybe even "attractive," if she were smiling at them. But I wouldn't know. She had never smiled at me.

"No," I said firmly.

"No, what?" she asked.

"No, this is not part of the deal. No, you are not going to stay here. No, we are not going to run the risk that he will walk in that door, spot you, and blow our whole operation. Go back to your hotel. I'll bring you a full report and pictures when it's done."

She raised an eyebrow, then responded without bothering to look directly at me. Did she know the effect prolonged eye contact with me can have? No, I decided, she was just giving me attitude.

"I believe," she said icily, "that I am the one paying for your services, Mr. Walker. I will go where I please."

"Then you can go find yourself another detective."

That got her attention. She paused, trying to decide if I was bluffing. I needed the money, badly. She needed me. No breeder PI could handle a case like this one. And no other queer detective would go anywhere near it.

Finally, she spoke. "What's the problem? So I watch for myself. Afraid I might see something that you wouldn't have included in your report?"

Ms. Church had no tact. That was the one thing I liked about her.

"No. But this is not the way these things are done," I explained.

When my partner Jen and I started our investigations firm several months ago, I had drilled three rules into her head. The first was: Never take a client on a stakeout. No matter how much they plead. No matter how quiet they promise to be. No matter how much money they offer. You don't do it. I had broken that rule once, way back in 2019. It had nearly gotten both me and my client killed. Fortunately, I'm not that easy to kill.

We sat there for a second or two, neither of us willing to blink.

"Pictures," she said slowly, "are not good enough."

"Why not?"

"Because they're too easy to fake. Because I have to be sure."

She took off her dark glasses, looking ready to stare me down. It was a contest she was sure to lose. Her eyes were brown. Not brilliant green, not vivid blue, not stunning violet, not lustrous gold. None of the designer colors. Brown. She was the first to look away. When she finally spoke, her voice had lost its assertive bite.

"I don't know how it is with ... your kind," she began, and then stopped. Which kind did she mean? Did she just mean queer, or did she know about my other hunger?

She was staring down at her purse, clutching it as if it was some sort of talisman. I wondered what was so special about it. Had he bought it for her? Or was there something inside? A picture of them together? A love note? It didn't matter. I needed to make her go.

"Joseph and I, we ..." she started, and then trailed off again.

I waited for her to go on, but she never did. I didn't know what to say either, so we sat there in silence. When this was all over, she would go back to her Christian neighborhood in North Georgia, back to the Baptist News Network and Revelations magazine. I would go back to the gay ghetto of Midtown Atlanta, back to hanging out in coffee shops and hunting for my meals in the night-lit bars. The only thing we had in common was that we didn't like each other.

But she was right about one thing: I would never trust a picture on something as important as this. Images are too easy to play with. An overlay here, a deletion there, and voilá, you can make an incriminating photo of anyone. I know more than a few private detectives who have found it cheaper to invest in a good graphics program than in good legwork.

This was all wrong. I should make her leave. Or get up and leave myself. Just get up and walk away from this lousy case and back to my office. I would just have to tell Jen that she'd have to sell her other kidney to pay our bills this month.

Ms. Church doesn't like homosexuals. I'm not much keener on Southern Baptists. But then, my client and I had never pretended to like each other, and I guess even honest hatred is at least an honest connection between two people. I studied her face, trying to figure out what was going on behind her eyes. This would have been easier if I made eye contact with her and held it just a little longer, enough to let me scan her thoughts, but that was a luxury I couldn't risk. I was already distracted enough.

She looked away from me, out into the lobby. Scanning the crowd, she did a momentary double-take, then stared intently at a kid in his early twenties who was hanging out by the glass elevators.

"That's Eric, isn't it?" she said, pointing.

"Yes," I answered, gently taking her outstretched hand and placing it back on the table. I was surprised that she could recognize him. The one time she'd seen Eric had been in my office, a week ago. He'd had curly black hair then, and dark eyes, and beautiful bronze skin. I never did find out what sort of gig that was for; somebody wanting a Mediterranean look, I guess. Greek slave-boy or some such fantasy. In a matter of hours, Eric can transform himself, and the results are always impressive. Now he was back to blond hair and blue eyes, which makes him look even more like a kid. I don't know if those are his real colors or not--he never sticks with the same look more than a couple of weeks--but it was the way he'd looked when I first met him. And blond suits him. Like a collie. Cute and playful and ... Damn it, he was smiling at me again.

I frowned, hoping he would take the hint and buzz off. He didn't. He knew the hunger must be eating at me, and he was teasing me. He had been playing this game with me all afternoon, and it was wearing thin. Thompson, the guy we were going after, was both smart and perceptive, and any little thing might tip him off that he was being set up. So I didn't need my temporary operative making faces at me from across the lobby. Still not making eye contact with Eric, I mouthed the word, "Stop!" The bastard winked at me. Finally, I glared at him, trying to shake him off without drawing more attention to the two of us. Eric feigned a hurt look and went back to watching the glass elevators go up and down. I prayed that no one had been watching our little melodrama.

That matter settled, I turned back to my client. Ms. Church was staring at Eric, her face a mixture of contempt and curiosity.

"You shouldn't look directly at him," I told her. "It calls attention to both of you." The hat gave her some cover, but it was still damned risky having her here. If Thompson spotted her, the whole operation would go up in smoke.

"Why in the world is he wearing that shirt?" she asked, ignoring my advice about staring. Eric was wearing his usual work clothes: ripped jeans and a snug white tank top that showed off the sleek muscles he'd gotten from two years of militia service. The tank top was printed with a disturbingly realistic crucifix. Christ's final agonies, captured in vivid color and full anatomical detail, over the slogan, "And You Think You've Had a Bad Day?"

She continued staring. "Isn't it a bit ..."

"Trust me," I said. "Eric's a pro, and he knows exactly what signals he's sending. The crucifix is part of his advertising."


"Yeah. If he were older, he'd probably wear a rainbow flag or a pink triangle on his tee-shirt. But since most gay men under 23 are Roman Catholic, the kids have all adopted Catholic regalia as a sort of uniform."

"Roman Catholic?" She looked at me skeptically, as if I were making the whole thing up just to test her gullibility. "Why on earth would they be converting to that?"

I was rather surprised that she didn't know. But then, I guess outsiders don't follow demographic trends in the gay community too closely.

"They don't convert," I said. "They're just born that way. It's one of the side effects of the test." She continued to stare at me as if I was out of my mind. Well, at least she wasn't staring at Eric any more.

"Think of it this way," I said. "What will you do if the test comes back saying that your child is gay?"

She looked down at her belly. She wasn't showing yet, and it would be another month before they could do amniocentesis safely. She didn't say anything, but we both knew what would happen if the genetic test came back positive. The Southern Baptist Convention doesn't like abortions. But it really doesn't like homosexuals.

"That's why there haven't been a lot of gay Baptists born in the last twenty-three years," I said. "Or Methodists. Or Mormons. Or Lutherans. You all make a lot of noise about being pro-life, but in a crunch, you make ... 'exceptions.' Not the Catholics, though. You gotta love the Pope--she may be a reactionary old cow, but at least she's consistent."

Ms. Church turned her cold stare back to Eric. I don't know why I kept baiting her like that. I hated the case, but that wasn't her fault. Well, not entirely.

"He's practically a child," she said. "How do you know he's even Joseph's type?"

"I know because I did my job," I said flatly. For the past two weeks I had been shadowing Joseph Thompson, and I knew things about him no straight detective--maybe even no human detective--would have picked up on. I knew which people got that second glance when he passed them in the street. I knew which people he talked to when he shared an elevator ride with them. I even knew which waiters he over-tipped at his favorite restaurants. I'd even managed, once when he was waiting for a traffic light to change so he could cross the street, to make eye contact and get a good read on his surface thoughts.

I had also been into his financial records, and I knew that Thompson was in the habit of withdrawing several hundred dollars in cash every few weeks, usually right before one of his business trips. No one uses cash anymore. Not unless they're trying to hide something. Like hiring a private detective. Or a hustler. I had a feeling that Thompson knew exactly what boys like Eric were for.

I sensed Ms. Church stiffen beside me. Speak of the devil. Thompson had just come through the Hilton's big revolving doors. He was still dressed for his job: tailored jacket, bright tie, expensive shoes. He worked for a Southern Baptist advertising firm, doing PR work for one of their senators. He was 34, a little too attractive, and still not married. I bet the gossip around the office was already becoming a problem.

Of course, I could be wrong about Thompson. Maybe he really was just another thirty-four-year-old who had decided it was time to settle down and start a family. Maybe he was getting married to Ms. Church for all the right reasons. He did trip my gaydar, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything; evangelicals have been known to scramble my sixth sense about men. It's just that they do all the same things as a guy who's trying to pick you up. They stand too close. They smile too much. They look into your eyes with feigned sincerity and pretend to hang on your every word. All setting you up for the sales pitch.

Eric intercepted Thompson while the man was waiting for an elevator. I wasn't close enough to make out their conversation, but Thompson looked at his watch, so I guessed Eric must have asked him the time. I watched Thompson's eyes drift from his watch to Eric's shoes, up Eric's very pleasant physique, and finally come to rest on the saint medallion around Eric's neck. I could tell by Thompson's smile that he knew precisely what it meant.

In adopting the Catholic pantheon of saints, the gay subculture has added a few of its own. There's Saint Marilyn, patron of blondes and the blond-at-heart. Saint Judy, the patron of drag queens and 12-Step programs. Saint Liz, patron of marriage and other hopeless causes. Saint Dolly, patron of big dreams and silicon. Eric was wearing a medallion depicting the Madonna--not the holy virgin, but the like-a-virgin. She who is the patron saint and protector of all sex workers. Or, as Eric likes to consider himself, "pleasure activists."

Beside me, Ms. Church was staring straight at them. Fortunately, Thompson's attention seemed to be completely focused on Eric, with none left over to notice us. I looked at my client. There were a lot of good reasons for her to be anywhere but here right now. Even if Thompson didn't spot her, there was always the risk that she would snap and blow everything. I tried to read her expression. How much of what she was seeing did she understand? The way that Thompson stepped into Eric's space, so close that they were almost touching. The way that Eric laughed a little too hard at some joke of Thompson's, and steadied himself on Thompson's shoulder. Soon, Eric would ask some inane question about the man's family. Ask to see a picture of his sister, or something else that would give Thompson an excuse to pull out his wallet. An excuse to show that he was carrying cash.

My client startled me when she spoke. "Doesn't it bother you to exploit Eric like this?" She had not taken her eyes off of them.

"Eric is a twenty-two-year-old with a public high school education and two years of militia service," I told her. "He's bright, so he taught himself to read, a little at least. What exactly do you expect him to do for a living? Become a journalist? How about a computer programmer? A quantum physicist? Do people even do quantum physics anymore? Eric does what Eric has to. And who's really exploiting Eric anyway? The guy who is willing to pay him $300 an hour for sex, or the guy who'll pay him $9.75 an hour for standing next to a burger-flipping machine?"

I should have stopped there. I didn't. "And if I were in your shoes right now, I would not complain about other people exploiting Eric."

She turned. The look she shot me would have made a cobra curl up and whimper. I admitted defeat and looked away.

Ms. Church had never pretended to like me, but she did need me. For now, at least. My firm has three listings in the videophone directory. There's a number for "Nightwatch Security," which we use to solicit corporate clients. Then there's "Jennifer Gray, licensed psychic detective," which Jen uses to pull in the new-age crowd. Ms. Church had known what skills this particular job required. She had called our third line, the one for "Night Walker, PI--proudly serving the gay and lesbian community."

When I turned back to Ms. Church, she was staring at Eric and Thompson again, staring as if she could control the situation through sheer force of will.

"You don't have to be here," I said quietly. "I will tell you what happens. I have no reason to lie to you."

"No." Her voice was surprisingly soft. "I have to be sure."

Right on schedule, Thompson pulled out his wallet and showed a picture to Eric. I could feel the tension building in my client. Screw the bonus.

I told her, "Forget this. Go home. Ask him for a blood test before the wedding. It's a little embarrassing, but other people have done it."

She turned to me, eyes flashing. For a moment, I thought she was going to scream at me, but she spoke very slowly, picking each word with care. "Mr. Walker, you may not understand this, but I am very much in love with Joseph, and I wouldn't care even if he did test positive for the gay gene. So what if he has the gay gene? We all have a propensity to some form of evil. Our own demon. But not all of us act on it. I don't care what's in Joseph's DNA. I care about what's in his heart. I have to know whether he loves me, or he's just using me."

I knew I shouldn't have said it, but I did. "With men, it's always a little of both."

We looked back in time to see Eric and Thompson get on an elevator together. The doors closed. I watched Mr. Church's expression slowly crumble. Her mouth go slack. Her lips tremble. Her eyes grow damp.

When she snatched up her purse and started for the elevator, I grabbed her arm. She jerked it free, angrily.

"Look," I started, "if you've seen enough, go home. I'll make a full report. You'll have your answer. But if we do this, we do this right. No unresolved questions, no doubts, and no ambiguous situations that he can talk his way out of. And that means we give them a head start. Fifteen minutes. To let things ... develop."

For a moment, I thought she might actually take my advice and leave. Go to the airport. Fly home to Atlanta. Wait for my call. Instead, she gave me an icy "Fine" and flopped back down on her chair.

While she sat there thinking about ... No--skip it. I don't even want to guess at what she was thinking about. I flipped on the throat mike under my tie. I had some final preparations to make.

"Sherman," I said, under my breath.

There was a slight buzz as the speaker in my left ear came to life, and then Sherman's sullen voice.

"Yeah, boss, what is it this time?"

The company that I purchased Sherman from claims that the program is supposed to adapt its word choice and inflection to suit its user. I'm not sure what it says about me, but my particular copy seems to be evolving into an insolent manic-depressive.

I pulled the palm display out of my pocket. "Sherman, pull up the photos that I shot this morning."

"Yeah, boss, whatever you say."

Sherman displayed the first shot: a hotel maid about to clean a room. The angle wasn't right.


Sherman obliged and produced an image I had shot a couple of seconds later. Still not the one I was looking for.


Sherman pulled up a third.

Bingo. I touched a spot on the display and said, "Enlarge on this."

Sherman zeroed in on the maid's pass key. I pulled a piece of cardboard and a hole punch out of my pocket and went to work on a duplicate. I glanced at Ms. Church but she wasn't looking at me. I couldn't read her expression at all. She had put her dark glasses back on, and whatever was going on behind them would stay a mystery to me.

I checked my watch. Five minutes. Upstairs, it would be starting. Eric and Thompson. A first kiss. Eric would taste like that wintergreen gum he's always chewing. Thompson would run his fingers through Eric's curls. Clothed bodies moving against each other.

I had never even seen Thompson until two weeks ago. He had never crossed me. Never wronged me. Never given me any reason to hate him. But I was about to destroy his life. Oh, he would probably get over losing Ms. Church. But his secret would be out. He'd be finished at his job. They'd never let him in a Southern Baptist church again. He'd lose his friends, his family. Maybe he'd be able to start over again. Get a job in a gay firm, move into the gay subculture, build a new life. It might even be good for him, in the long run. But I wasn't giving him the choice.

Eight minutes. Eric would be loosening the man's tie. Thompson would be lifting Eric's tank top up, sliding a hand over the supple, ridged muscles of Eric's stomach. Eric's arms around his waist. Eric's jeans pressed up against Thompson's tailored slacks.

I had not wanted to take this case. When Ms. Church called, I had turned her down. Then I turned her down again. And again. She was relentless. She just kept saying it over and over again: "But I have a right to know." Then she'd told me what Thompson does for a living, and who he does it for. The Reverend Senator Zachariah Stonewall. Just the sort of hellfire-and-damnation-spouting asshole my father would have loved. If my father hadn't been dead for over four hundred years, that is.

Ten minutes. Their clothes would be in piles on the floor, thrown over the backs of chairs, lying on the bed. They would be learning each other's secrets. Does Thompson like to kiss, or to be kissed? Does Eric like to have his ears nibbled on? His neck? His fingers?

I hoped that Thompson was a jerk. I hoped that this woman beside me meant nothing to him, that she was just a convenient bit of camouflage he had acquired so that he could go on working at his wonderful job and fucking his beautiful men. I didn't want it to mean anything more complicated.

But then, I would never know. I would never know what he really felt for her. On bad days, did he think of her and smile? Were there special things he had never told to anyone else in the world but her? Moments they had shared? Did he daydream about the children they would have? Kicking a soccer ball with their daughter? Reading a bedtime story to their son?

Twelve minutes. By now they would know each other's private sounds. The little gasps, or moans, or growls a man makes when he forgets himself in sex. His intimate sounds, as unique as fingerprints. I wonder if the FBI keeps a file of them. They seem to know everything else about us. Well, maybe not about me.

"I have a right to know." She had said that over and over again. And damn it, she was right.

Fifteen minutes. I stood up. Ms. Church grabbed her purse and followed me into an elevator. I pressed the button for the 47th floor. She leaned her face against the glass, watching the world drop away beneath us.

"Have you ever been in love, Mr. Walker?"

Her question, hanging in the elevator air, surprised me. She had not looked up. The trees grew smaller in the distance.

"Yes," I said.

"With Eric?"

I laughed. "Lord, no. Whatever gave you that idea?"

"I've seen the way he acts around you."

Maybe she understood more than I had given her credit for.

"I just pulled him out of a bar fight once"--a minor fib--"and he's been following me around ever since."

"Are you two sleeping together?"

Ah. I could see where this was going now. She was hurt, and looking for some way to get under my skin.

"No. Eric's too ... cheerful. I mean, all the time. It would be like having sex with a cocker spaniel."

She thought about that answer for a while.

"Don't you worry about him?"

"Eric's a smart boy. The militia trained him to fight, and he carries a taser when he works."

"That's not what I meant."

Another elevator passed us going down. A man and a woman, dressed for a party. Our own glass cage raced silently upward.

"You two aren't ... ?"

"No," I said again. Lord, wasn't this elevator ever going to arrive?

For the first time since we got on the elevator, she looked at me. "Why not?"

I almost took the easy way out and said that Eric was too young for me. But that wasn't quite it. The truth was complicated, and I didn't know how to make her understand it. Hell, I couldn't even make Eric understand it. Eric is just too ... innocent? No, that's not right. Eric has slept with more men than Mata Hari. And yet, somehow, he has never managed to fall in love."

And I don't want to be the first. I don't want to be the one who ruins the fantasy for him. I don't want to be the one who can't live up to all his impossible twenty-two-year-old expectations of love.

Eric had once told me that while his body might have racked up the mileage, his heart was still virgin territory. But I don't want a virgin. I want someone who has been through the whole show before. Someone who has been hurt, and stepped on, and had every last illusion shattered. Someone who comes to me cautiously, knowing that falling in love is easy, and staying in love is hard, that passion dies, and most relationships are doomed before they start. Someone I can love as an equal, not as a student.

Someone ... like Ms. Church, actually. Maybe that's why I had taken the case.

The elevator stopped. Our floor. We walked down the hall to 4717. Thompson's room. I got the optic snake out of my pocket, unlooped it, and slid the strand under the door.

"What's that?" asked Ms. Church.

"It's a camera on a fiber-optic cable," I explained as I plugged the free end into my palm display. Then I whispered, "Sherman, record."

She grabbed my wrist. "I told you. With my own eyes. I have to see it with my own eyes."

I glanced into those eyes and wanted to say something, but anything I could say would be stupid. So I just shrugged, and then I glanced down at the image on my palm display anyway: I don't go into a room blind, and I wasn't going in unless I was sure something was going on that Ms. Church needed to see. She was certainly going to get an eyeful. I put the palm display down on the floor and slid my duplicate pass key into the lock. The indicator light flashed from red to green.

The door opened quietly. Well, quietly enough. Eric and Thompson were making more than enough noise to cover our movements. From the doorway, I could see a pair of feet hanging over the edge of the bed: Thompson's. I stepped forward into the room and saw the whole picture. Eric, on his back, a look of ecstasy smeared across his face. Thompson, his back to us, his face buried in Eric's neck, his hips grinding into Eric. I stood there, looking at them, reminding myself that I'm not a jealous person. Looking at Eric's beautiful muscles, tensing and relaxing in time to Thompson's hips. Looking at the expression on Eric's face, how it changed with every twinge of pleasure. How he bites his lip; how he opens his mouth; how he arches his back. I wondered if it was an act, or if he really enjoyed his work this much. If Thompson was really this good.

I must have gawked at Eric a little too long, because when I glanced back at Ms. Church, she already had the gun out.


It was a 9mm. The sort of small gun that would fit in a lady's handbag, but is still capable of punching a nice-sized hole in someone. At the moment, this particular 9mm was about to blow a nice-sized hole in the back of Mr. Thompson. And from the angle she was shooting, it stood a good chance of blowing a nice-sized hole in Eric as well.

I lunged.

The gun went off and then I knocked her arm back. Or maybe I knocked her arm back and then the gun went off. For all my fast-than-human reflexes, my brain wasn't working quite quickly enough to tell which happened first. She hadn't been ready for the gun's recoil, and my shove threw her further off-balance. Ms. Church caught herself on the wall and glared up at me, eyes like cold fire. For once I had no trouble reading her expression. She brought the gun back around toward me.

I caught her full in the jaw with an uppercut. It didn't knock her out, but it did knock her back and took her mind off shooting me for a few seconds. While she was disoriented, I risked a quick glance at the bed. Just in time to see Thompson barreling up at me.

I grabbed his arm and tried to roll him into one of those fancy aikido throws that would have sent him flying across the room and smashing into the wall. You know, it's a real shame that I never had a chance to finish those aikido lessons. I keep meaning to, but something always comes up. Anyway, my feet got tangled and I wound up on my back with a hundred and eighty-odd pounds of fully aroused, naked Southern Baptist on top of me with his hands around my neck. It might have been fun under better circumstances.

"What the hell are you doing here?" he screamed at me, slamming my head into the floor for emphasis.

Even if I'd had a good explanation, I couldn't have said it while he was throttling me. So when he lifted me up for another slam, I settled for a good head-butt to his face. I was rewarded with the satisfying crunch of my forehead impacting his nose. Unfortunately, all it made him do was grunt and start strangling me even harder.

I have got to start charging more for cases like this.

There was no room to throw a punch, and it felt like Thompson was going to rip my head off my shoulders by brute strength. I needed a few seconds of sustained eye contact to establish the mental link, but I wasn't getting those seconds. So I tried to get my hands at his face, but the blood from his nose was dripping into my eyes, and I couldn't see what I was doing. Too bad I'm not the blood-drinking kind, I thought. I'm roughly twice as strong as your average human, but just as I found a grip on what I think was his shoulder, he smashed my head against the floor again, and the world exploded into reds and yellows.

I heard the shot and felt his weight shift. This time my brain was working quickly enough to pick up the small delay between the two events. It even knew what the delay meant. Thompson hadn't been hit; he was only turning to look in the direction of the shot. It wasn't much, but it did give me an opening.

I braced an arm under his ribcage and heaved him up and off of me. I couldn't see anything, and my head felt like a piñata after a birthday party. I scrambled in the opposite direction until I found a wall. Steadying myself against it with one hand, I tried to wipe the blood out of my eyes with the other. Standing up, I saw ...

The Last Supper. I knew it was the Last Supper because it was just like the painting. You know, Leonardo Da Vinci and all. Except Jesus was a kid, and Judas and Matthew were fighting over the bill. And everything had a red tint to it, as if the painting itself was bleeding. Then St. Peter stood up and walked over to me.

Great. There's a loaded gun and at least two crazy people in the room, and my mind has decided to fly south for the winter. Well, crazy or not, I'm not stupid. When I saw St. Peter about to deck me with a hay-maker, I ducked. There was the sound of breaking plaster.

When I looked back, it was Thompson, cursing, his fist stuck in the wall. He screamed at me, something incomprehensible. I grinned back at him. I hit him once in the solar plexus, which took most of the fight out of him. A second blow to the nerve center in the small of his back pretty much stopped his misbehaving. I should have hit him more, just to make sure, but my heart wasn't in it anymore.

Turning to take in the rest of the room, I noticed that Ms. Church seemed to be suffering the after-effects of a taser dart. Eric had relieved her of the 9mm, which must have gone off when he zapped her. Still naked, he looked indecently pleased with himself. "Gee," he said, grinning, "and you complain about my line of work being dangerous."

I ignored him and picked my client up in a fireman's carry. Eric grabbed his clothes in one hand and my optical cable in the other and caught up with us as I was loading Ms. Church into one of the glass elevators. We started down. A couple of floors up from the lobby, I pressed the Emergency Stop button to give her a few more minutes to come around. I could have just carried her through the lobby and out to a cab, but I didn't feel like trying to explain the whole situation to the hotel's concierge.

A group of women in an ascending elevator passed us. A couple of them pointed at Eric and started giggling. He grinned back, flexing his arms in a muscle-man pose.

I frowned at him. "Put your clothes on. And stop flirting." Eric pouted as he got dressed. He has raised pouting into an art form.

"You fucking bastard."

Ah, my client had regained consciousness.

"How nice to see you again, Ms. Church," I said. "I believe our business together has been successfully completed." I handed her the bill. "Payment of the agreed-upon bonus may be wired to this account number or delivered in cash to my place of business no later than--"

She tore up the bill and screamed at me some more. Something generic about damnation and burning in hell.

"People often have that reaction to my fees. Sherman, print another copy of the bill, please."

While my wallet printed out another copy of the document, I held the palm display in front of her. "Before you tear up this copy, you might like to take a look at the video feed from the snake. Sherman, play the last recording."

She stared at the tiny screen, watching as the whole affair played out again. The camera's position wasn't very good, and even with a wide-angle lens it had missed some of the action. Still, there was enough there to warrant a couple of charges of attempted murder. And the whole situation would take a long, long time to explain to her family and friends. She glared at me when I handed her the second bill. But she didn't tear it up.

I started the elevator again, and Eric and I left her in the lobby. On the cab ride to the train station, I called Jen to let her know that the case had been resolved and we'd be able to pay the office rent this month.

A couple of hours later, Eric and I caught the evening train back to Atlanta. My hunger would have to wait until we were safely home.

When we boarded the train, the monitor at the front of the car was turned to the Baptist News Network, playing the Reverend Senator Zachariah Stonewall's weekly talk show. The Reverend Senator was in good form tonight, from the looks of it, winding up some tear about how the Democrats and Republicans were selling out the country to "foreign powers," though he never seemed to get around to specifying just who those were. Stonewall's role on his show is to rant. But even I had to admit he does it well. Stonewall does not whine. Stonewall does not complain. Stonewall orates. I wondered if the Reverend Senator would use this orating tone when he found out that a certain Joseph Thompson of his respectable Southern Baptist PR firm was one of "the enemy," a homosexual.

The Reverend Senator closed with a plea for the viewing audience to call the number on the screen, call now, with their generous donations to support the Christian Alliance Party's Young American Defense Militia program. Cut to scenes of fresh-faced teenagers and young adults camping, reading scripture, learning to shoot. It all looked frighteningly normal, like the Boy Scouts. Well, Boy Scouts with assault rifles and body armor.

Eric sat next to me. On the monitor, the happy campers were using assault weapons to blow apart silhouettes of people with horns and tails. Eric ignored the screen. He settled his head on my shoulder and fell asleep less than five minutes after we left the station. I watched him as the train raced silently through the night, gliding over its single rail, with only the sound of the wind to remind us that we were moving at a hundred and fifty miles an hour. Eric sleeps so easily.

Life is strange. You do all the right things. You expose the villain. You save the damsel in distress. You beat up the bad guy, and you take some knocks doing it. And somehow, when the day is over, you still can't sleep.