John M. Whalen’s latest novel – Vampire Seige at Rio Muerto – has debuted as the Number 1 pick in Amazon’s Hot New Releases list for Horror/Western, and # 4 in their Kindle top 100 Horror/Western best sellers. A book trailer video and links for purchasing follow this excerpt.
“Hunting monsters is my business.” It’s more than a catch phrase that Monster Hunter Mordecai Slate uses. It’s a way of life—a way that is sorely tested when a wealthy New Mexican ranchero hires him to track down the vampire who ravished his daughter. Don Pedro Sanchez wants Slate to bring him back alive, so he can have the pleasure of driving in the stake himself. Slate travels from Socorro to Las Cruces where he finds his prey, Kord Manion, and comes up with an unusual way to transport him back north. Kord’s brother, Dax, and his gang of vampire outlaws follow in pursuit, half a day behind. During the chase, Slate stops to rescue a girl in trouble and tries to get her out of harm’s way. Their journey leads them to a desert ghost town called Rio Muerto, where Slate will face his greatest challenge in the ultimate battle between good and evil.
In the following excerpt we see how the adventure begins, during the Moon of the Long Nights, in the cemetery on the grounds of the massive Rancho Sanchez in the New Mexico Territory .
The December full moon, the one the Apaches call the Moon of the Long Nights, cast its silvery light down on a small private cemetery hidden in the hills of the Rancho Sanchez, a few miles south of the big hacienda.. A coyote howled somewhere in the distance, and there was the creaking of rusty hinges as the iron gate that barred the entrance swung open. Two men passed through. They hurried along a narrow stone path, moving silently and with the grim determination of men bent on a dark purpose. The man in the lead was big and powerful-looking. He was in his sixties, and he walked with the bold, deliberate stride befitting the man who owned the largest rancho in the New Mexico Territory. The second man was smaller, a little older. His step seemed more tentative, less certain. He carried a black leather bag and his eyes darted about nervously, searching the darkness that surrounded them.
Dark clouds slid over the moon suddenly, as the men followed the path through an orchard of marble headstones. The branches of gnarled walnut trees hovered over the men like the dangling legs of giant black spiders. The big man stopped and glanced up at the darkened moon. It was good, Don Pedro Sanchez thought. It was better, the darkness. Better to do this thing that he and his manservant Eduardo had come to do in the darkness of night.
They continued past the simple stones that marked the graves of the retainers who had served on the Rancho Sanchez faithfully over many years, walked on by the larger marble headstones of the more distant relations of the Sanchez family, and finally came to the big mausoleum where rested the family’s most immediate and revered members. Inside lay the Grand Jefe, Don Felipe Sanchez de Ramirez, Don Pedro’s great grandfather, who had come from Spain and founded the rancho.
The servant took a key from his pocket and unlocked the heavy metal door. He pulled on the brass handle and rusty hinges squeaked and whined as the door swung open. They entered the crypt and Eduardo found a lantern that had been left there by the caretaker. He lit it and Don Pedro took it and raised it up, letting the light reveal the interior of the tomb— the final resting places of not only Don Felipe and his wife, but also Don Felipe’s son and his wife, as well as his grandson and his wife. All lay still and silent in their sarcophagi, lined up behind brass nameplates that ran in two rows, one above the other, along the wall of the Sanchez tomb.
Don Pedro went to the last nameplate in the lower row— the most recent addition. Eduardo took an iron crowbar out of his black bag and handed it to the don. Don Pedro jammed the sharp end into the still-fresh cement and pried the nameplate loose. The plate dropped to the floor with a clang that echoed inside the tomb. They grabbed hold of the end of the casket and pulled it out slowly and placed it carefully on the tomb floor.
The two men stood back and stared down at it. Don Pedro’s eyes traced for a moment the delicate details of the carving on the mahogany lid. The carving was of two angelic cherubs holding garlands of flowers. But his gaze was quickly drawn away from the beauty of the carving to the glint of iron nail heads that lined the circumference of the casket’s lid. A sudden, muffled scream came from inside the coffin accompanied by the sound of a pounding fist. Eduardo shrunk back and made a sign of the cross.
“Is it the thing to do?” he asked in a scared, hushed whisper. “Is it right, patron?”
“I give not a damn what is right or wrong, Eduardo,” Don Pedro said. “I only know what is necessary. I only know what must be done.”
“Will God forgive us, patron?”
“Forgive, Eduardo? I will seek no forgiveness. And even if he were here, God Himself could not stop me.”
The same muffled scream and the pounding came again from inside the coffin.
“You hear, Eduardo?” Don Pedro said. “Do you hear how she suffers?”
There was the sound of fingernails scratching wood, like the sound of an animal trying to claw its way out of a trap.
“Give me the hammer,” the don said.
Eduardo reached into the big leather bag that he had set down on the floor and took out a hammer with a heavy mallet-like head made of iron. Don Pedro took the implement. The servant pulled a wooden stake about three feet long out of the bag. The Don bent over the coffin with the crowbar and inserted the sharp end under the lid and struck the end of it with the hammer. The sound of the hammer striking the pry bar reverberated around the crypt like the tolling of a bell. All movement inside the casket ceased. Don Pedro struck the chisel again and heard the screech and creak of wood as he pried the lid up and the nails loosened. He hit it again and there was a loud cracking sound and the lid flew open.
He stood frozen for a moment at the sight that met his eyes. A young girl, of slender build and once delicate features that might have once been beautiful, lay in the coffin staring up at him. Black circles surrounded her hollow eye sockets, and the whites around the brown irises of her eyes were streaked with numerous red veins. Her complexion was bluish white. Purple lips suddenly opened and revealed two large fangs that gleamed in the lantern light. With the snarl of a wild beast, the girl sprang up. But the Don was quicker. He threw the crow bar away and grabbed the wooden stake from his servant. He lunged at the girl and pressed the stake hard against the middle of her chest. He forced her down on her back, pinned her down and raised the hammer.
Images flashed in his brain as the hammer paused. He saw a baby girl bouncing on his knee, a young girl in her white Confirmation dress walking in the Procession of All Saints, a young woman strolling through the Prado on Sunday mornings in her finest dress. A hundred images flashed, and then with a scream he brought the hammer down. The stake splintered the breast bone and the girl shrieked in agony. Her thin fingers grasped the wooden shaft. He struck it again. Her shrieks rose in intensity. Her legs flailed about, her feet kicking. She looked up at him. The red-rimmed eyes, a moment before filled with rage and hatred, now were full of fear. Her head lay back and her breath came in quick, shallow pants. She gazed at him with abject terror. Her lips quivered and she struggled to speak. Don Pedro leaned closer to hear. Finally, she managed to whisper three faint words.
“Por que, padre?”
“No!” the Don said, his face as hard and unmoving as if it were made of stone. “You are not my daughter. You are some vile thing, a monster. You are not my Theresa.” He stared down at the girl as her eyes rolled back up in her head and her last breath rasped through cracked lips. With an angry, almost bestial growl, Don Pedro threw the hammer away, sending it crashing against the stone wall of the mausoleum.
“He will pay, Theresa,” he snarled. “Kord Manion will pay for what he has done to you. This I promise on your mother’s grave.” He turned to his servant.
“Eduardo,” he said, trying to hold the rage and pain he felt inside, “there is a man I want you to find. He is the only man who can help me. He knows how to deal with filthy creatures like Kord Manion. He will know what to do to achieve my vengeance. Send word. Get him here. I don’t care where you have to look, how far you have to go. Find him.” He slammed the lid down on the coffin. “Find Mordecai Slate and bring him to me!”
“Tickets, please,” the conductor said.
The man in the seat slid his hand out from under the black coat that was draped over his shoulders and handed over the ticket.
“We’ll be getting into Cheyenne in half an hour,” the conductor said. He punched the ticket with the shiny metal device in his hand.
“Who’s in that club car up ahead?” the man asked.
“Noticed them, did ya?” the conductor said. “Four of the meanest men I ever saw. They’re raisin’ all kinds of hell. The women in there with them are scared to death. Told them to hold it down, but they wasn’t in the mood to listen. Figure it best leave them alone until we get to Cheyenne. The law can handle them.”
“When did they get on the train?”
“Back in Laramie,” the conductor said. “They brought those whores with them from the saloon there.”
The conductor studied the man for a moment. All the questions he was asking made him take notice. There was something hard-edged about him. Narrow gray eyes looked up with a sharpness that reminded him of a hawk. His high-cheek boned face, aquiline nose, and black moustache added to his predatory appearance. “Why so many questions?” the conductor asked. “You a lawman?”
“No,” the man said. “But if I were you I wouldn’t go back in that car until we get to Cheyenne.” The conductor nodded and went away. The man put his ticket in a pocket underneath the coat and picked up the black hat from the seat next to him and put it on his head. He got up from the seat and walked to the front of the car, leaving the long black coat draped over his shoulders like a cape. He passed by a dozen or so passengers. Most of them were half asleep. A little boy sat with an elderly woman, playing cards. A woman in a bright blue bonnet looked up and smiled as he passed. Outside the train windows, the rugged Wyoming landscape rolled by. The snowy peaks of the Rockies could be seen at a distance beyond the top of the trees.
The man opened the door at the end of the car and stepped onto the metal walkway outside. The mountain air was cool and crisp. He looked through the dirty glass window of the car door ahead. Two men sat at a table with two of the Laramie whores. At a horseshoe-shaped bar in the back, two men sat with the other two women. The makeup on the women’s faces was smeared and mascara ran from their eyes. They all looked scared.
They didn’t tell him they’d have women with them. It was going to complicate things. J.G. Chester, head of security for the Wyoming Central Railway had laid it out for him. It was the Jackson gang. They’d hit two other trains in the past year. Same method each time. They stopped the train a half hour from the last stop at a place where they’d have a man with horses waiting. They’d go car by car and kill every single passenger all the way to the mail car where the safe and the gold were. When they killed they didn’t necessarily use guns, and they usually left a bloody mess behind. These weren’t ordinary train robbers. Chester told him he had information they’d be stopping the train at Turkey Creek Bend. The man waited as long as he could, hoping they’d let loose of the women. But he never really expected they would. Turkey Creek Bend was only a few minutes away. He couldn’t wait any longer.
He opened the door and walked into the car. It smelled of tobacco smoke and whiskey and stale perfume. Four pairs of dark, feral eyes looked in his direction with surprise and suspicion as he walked through the car slowly. He passed by a silver-haired man in a black vest and white shirt. He had his arm around the shoulders of a young girl with long red hair who stared helplessly up as the man walked by. There were bruises on her bare arms. A black-haired galoot with an acne-scarred face held a blonde on his lap. She had one black eye. The man sat back in his chair and watched the stranger as he walked back to the bar.
The two at the bar eyed him sullenly as he sat on a stool. One of the men had his hand on a whiskey bottle that sat on the bar and his other arm around the woman sitting next to him. He grabbed her by her hair and pulled her head back and jammed the neck of a bottle into her mouth and poured whiskey down her throat. The girl cried out in protest, and spit and choked, as he kept pouring the drink, laughing all the while. Whiskey spilled down over her bright red dress. The thin, pale-faced bartender stood behind the bar, watching nervously.
“Look at that, Bartholomew,” the one with the bottle in his hand said to his companion at the other end of the horseshoe. “You ever see such a sloppy drunk?” He exploded in a fit of hyena-like laughter. The one named Bartholomew guffawed at the show his friend was giving him. The other one suddenly stopped laughing and glared over at the stranger sitting across from him. He slammed the bottle down on the bar, his face twisted into an ugly snarl.
“Whatsamatter, mister?” he said. “Don’t you think that’s funny?”
The man didn’t answer him. Instead he opened the coat draped over his shoulders and lifted a rifle out from under it. He rested it on top of the bar. It was an unusual looking weapon— it appeared to be a Colt 1855 Revolver Rifle—a rifle that had outlived its usefulness by 1888. But there was something different and unusual about it. The cowboy’s eyes narrowed at the sight of it.
“Hey, Bartholomew,” he said. “Look at this.”
Bartholomew grinned. “Well, I’ll be,” he said. “Ain’t seen a gun like that since the war. You know what that is, Jake? That there’s one of them there revolver rifles.”
“Oh, yeah,” Jake said, ogling the gun.
“It don’t have a bolt, or a lever,” Bartholomew said. “It’s got a cylinder that revolves just like a damn pistol.” He leaned forward and peered at it curiously. “But that one’s different. Bigger. And I ain’t never seen one all silver plated like that.” He looked up at the man who owned the gun. “That’s some carbine you’re carryin’ there, mister. Pretty fancy. I reckon you had some work done on it.”
“That’s right,” the man said.
“Heard them guns wasn’t much good,” Bartholomew said, “and Sam Colt gave up on ‘em. The paper cartridges leaked powder and the gun damn near would explode in the shooter’s hands. You find that to be a problem, mister?”
“No,” the man said. He picked the gun up and swung the gate open. Sunlight coming in through the window glinted on the over-sized cylinder. “This one shoots .45s.” He spun the cylinder. “Twelve of ‘em.” He reached up and pulled out one of the shells with two fingers and held it out to show them. “And they’re not made of paper.”
“What then?” the one called Jake said.
“Bet I know,” a voice from behind said. “Silver, ain’t it?”
At the word “silver” all four of the men suddenly stiffened. It was the older man with the white hair and black vest who’d spoken. He was on his feet with his arm around the neck of the young redhead he’d been sitting with. He had a Navy Colt to her temple, and held her out in front of him as a shield.
“Frank Jackson?” the man said, putting the silver shell back into the cylinder.
“That’s right. And judging from that fancy gun of yours, I know who you are.” He turned to the acne-scarred man next to him. “He’s that bounty killer sombitch we been hearing about, Blackie. This here’s none other than Mordecai Slate himself. ” He sneered at Slate. “Got a lot of sand walkin’ in here like this. I’ll give you that. Put that rifle down on the bar and get your hands up or I’ll blow her head off.”
“It’s the end of the line, Jackson,” Slate said. He jerked the rifle slightly and the cylinder swung shut. “I’m here to punch your ticket.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Let the girl go.”
“How about you put that rifle down or I put a hole in her head?”
“Please, mister,” the girl said. “I’m scared. He’ll kill me.”
“Don’t you care what happens to this little chippie, Slate?” Jackson said. He shook his head. “That’s what I heard about you. All you care about is the reward money.” He cocked the hammer, the metallic click unusually loud in the small confines of the club car. “I won’t tell you again. The rifle. Put it down.”
Slate knew he wasn’t bluffing. “All right,” he said. He turned and set the carbine down on top of the bar.
Jackson grinned. “Now the sidearm. Careful. Two fingers.”
Using two fingers, Slate lifted the Colt Peacemaker out of the holster tied to his leg and dropped it on the floor.
“That’s good,” Jackson said. “Real good.”
“Let her go,” Slate said. His hands came down and rested on the silver buckle of his gun belt. If only the girl would move aside a step.
“Sure,” Jackson said. “I’ll let her go.” He pulled the trigger. A chunk of the girl’s head blew away as she fell. Slate pressed the top of the gunbelt buckle with his thumb. A double-barreled Remington derringer popped out of a hidden compartment into the palm of his hand. Jackson turned the gun on him, but Slate’s arm came up and the derringer made a popping sound. Jackson staggered back with a look of surprise. The .41 caliber silver bullet had put a dime size hole in his chest. Slate fired the second round and Jackson took another step back. He dropped his gun and for a moment he just stood there staring at Slate. Then his mouth began to distort into a weird, twisted grimace as blood spurted from his chest. The women screamed. Jackson’s chest heaved suddenly and a weird guttural cry came from deep inside him. Snow white hair bristled out of his head and neck. He shot up suddenly at least a foot taller. His jaw widened with the sickening sound of cracking bone. The front of his face elongated into a snout and long sharp teeth gleamed as he let out a horrendous roar.
Slate’s coat fell from his shoulders as he spun and put the derringer down on top of the bar. He grabbed the rifle, turned, and fired three shots. Jackson rocked back, snarling and spitting. Then something growled closer and Slate turned and saw Jake, now a man-wolf like Jackson, leaping at him over the bar. The girl in the red dress screamed. The bounty hunter squeezed the trigger four times fast. Jake’s nose blew apart. Blood splattered from his chest and he rolled off the top of the bar onto the floor.
Bartholomew leaped up on the bar. He was all grey fur and teeth. The bartender jumped back out of the way. The two women who had been sitting with them squatted in the corner, hugging each other, crying. Four spears of flame shot from the muzzle of the Colt rifle and the wolf-man was blown back against the wall. He started to get up and the Slate shot him once more and turned.
At the other end of the car, Jackson and the one called Blackie were now so tall their heads touched the ceiling. The two beasts stood side by side. Frank Jackson was a snow white wolf standing on two legs covered in blood from the five bullet holes in his chest. Blackie was a towering hulk of ebony fur. Red-rimmed eyes glared. Long yellow fangs drooled saliva on the floor. Slate’s gun was empty. He pulled the spent cylinder out of the rifle, and reached back for a spare that was clipped to the back of his gunbelt. He slapped it into the gun, as Jackson leaped up on the wall and ran at him horizontally along the side of the car. The man-wolf dove and the bounty hunter fanned the rifle. He got off only two shots before Jackson crashed into him. The impact knocked Slate to the floor. He rolled away from Jackson, got to his feet, and swung the butt of his gun down hard on the monster’s skull. He heard bone crack.
With a roar, Blackie charged down the aisle toward him. Slate fired three rounds into his chest. The black haired wolf stopped, and went down on one knee. Slate fired two more into his forehead. Jackson reared up again suddenly from behind. Slate turned and Jackson swung a vicious claw at his head. Slate blocked the blow with his forearm but the impact knocked the carbine out of his hands and sent the bounty hunter crashing against the wall. He fell to the floor half senseless. The beast pounced on him and Slate stared up into red-rimmed eyes and yellow fangs that sought his throat. He grabbed the fur on the creature’s neck and tried to hold him off. Jackson snapped and growled, going for his jugular. Slate held on to him with one hand and reached down with the other to his boot, his fingers grasping cold steel. There was a flash of silver and the long, thin blade of a stiletto plunged into the side of Jackson’s furry neck. Blood gushed and Jackson leaped back with a shrieking howl. He stood up and grabbed the hilt of the stiletto and pulled it out of his neck. He stood that way for a moment, holding the silver blade, and then toppled over onto the floor.
Slate got to his feet. The air in the car was blue with gun smoke and heavy with the coppery smell of blood. The man-wolves were all dead. But as Slate looked on they began to change. Their bestial appearances faded. Fangs, claws, thick coats of fur vanished. To anyone who would have walked in at that moment, it would have appeared that he’d killed four rough-looking cowboys. Slate picked his carbine and six gun up from the floor. The three women stood huddled over the body of the girl that Jackson had killed. He started to go to them, but one of them, the one in the red dress who’s been drenched in whiskey, stopped him.
“Why’d you do it?” she said. Her mouth was twisted in an ugly snarl. “Why’d you have to come in here with that big gun of yours and start shooting? You got Corrie killed. That was her name. Corrie Thompson. Not that it means anything to you.”
“That’s no way to talk,” the bartender said from behind the bar. “If it hadn’t been for this man we’d all be dead. That was the Jackson gang. They’ve pulled two robberies this year. They never leave anyone alive. The railroad put a bounty out on them.”
“So that’s it,” the woman said. “I hope the railroad’s happy now. I hope you’re happy too, Mr. Bounty Hunter. You men with your guns. It’s always the same. You start shooting and it’s always some innocent bystander who pays. What do you care? The railroad’s happy. The gold’s safe and you’ve earned your blood money.”
Slate stood silent. The girl spit at him.
“You make me sick,” she said.
She turned her back to him and went back to the others. Slate stared at her for a moment, an ugly look on his face. Then he wiped the spit off with his sleeve and went over to the bar and sat down.
“Whiskey,” he said.
“Hmmph. Innocent bystanders,” the barkeep said. “They don’t look all that innocent to me. Don’t pay them no nevermind, Mr. Slate.” He poured some whiskey into a glass. “I knowed who you was the minute you walked in. That rifle.” He poured a shot for himself. “I’m mighty glad you’re here, I’ll tell you that.”
He picked up the glass and tossed the whiskey down without saying anything. The barkeep looked over Slate’s shoulder at the blood and gore splattered around the car.
“It’s a war, isn’t it?” he said. “It’s a goddam war.”
When the train pulled into the station in Cheyenne, Slate went over to the railroad manager’s office. He found J. G. Chester, chief of security for the Wyoming Central Railway sitting at his desk.
“What the hell happened, Slate?” Chester said, adjusting the spectacles on his nose. “You let a passenger get killed? Do you realize the publicity the railroad will get?”
“You didn’t tell me they’d have women with them.”
“We didn’t know that was going to happen,” Chester said. “You should have found some way to get them out of there before you started blasting. That’s why we called you in. You’re supposed to be a professional.”
“There wasn’t any way,” Slate said. “I don’t like it any better than you do. I tried to save her but it wasn’t any use. It’s damn lucky all four of the women weren’t killed. Monsters like the Jackson gang don’t think twice about killing innocent victims to save their own skins. They’ll turn the innocent into creatures like themselves, out of pure malevolence; and when they do I have to go after them too. It’s not a pretty business, Mr. Chester. All neat and tidy. At least I saved your gold for you. And isn’t that what your paying me for?”
“I suppose I can’t get too upset,” Chester said, opening a drawer in his desk. “You did save the gold and the lives of the other 46 passengers. Lucky thing for us the dead girl was just some damn whore from Laramie. Nobody’s going to get too upset over that. We’ll survive.”
“That how the railroad sees it?” Slate said. “Just some damn whore?”
“She rendered her services for cash,” Chester said. “Just like you.” He handed Slate $2,000 in bills. “There you are,” he said. “Cash for services rendered, as you requested. The bounty. Five hundred each.”
Slate grabbed the money out of Chester’s hand and glared at him for a tense moment. Then he peeled off some bills and handed them back to him. “See if that girl had a family, and gets buried proper,” he said.
Chester smirked. “Conscience money?”
Slate grabbed the lapel of his jacket and pulled him closer.
“Corrie Thompson,” Slate said. “That was her name. You better see the money gets to the right people.”
“All right,” Chester said. “No need to get tough. I don’t know what makes you so goddam self-righteous anyway. You’re the one got her killed. It’s a wonder you don’t get more innocent people killed. Why don’t you stop being a hypocrite and admit you don’t give a damn about anything except the money you make? That’s all that matters to you.”
Slate felt heat rising in his neck and started to say something. But the railroad security man opened a drawer in his desk and took out an envelope.
“By the way, I almost forgot. This came for you.”
It was a telegram. Slate opened it.
“UNDEAD IN N.M.” it said. “$10,000 BOUNTY. URGENT.”
It was signed Eduardo Duran, C/O Snr. Don Pedro Sanchez, Rancho Sanchez, Socorro, N.M.
“Bad news?” Chester asked.
“No. Good news,” Slate said. “I just got a reason to quit working for this damn railroad.” He folded the telegram and put it back in the envelope.
“What do you mean? You can’t just walk off. What about that trouble up in Casper?”
“My work here is finished,” Slate said. “Forward my mail to Socorro.”
“New Mexico Territory?” Chester said. “Good luck, my friend. Been hearing some bad stories about that part of the country. You might be sorry going down there. Even a man with your professional reputation might have trouble getting out in one piece.” He put a nasty spin on the word professional.
“Maybe,” Slate said, smiling. “But they’ve got one thing in their favor.”
“They pay better down there,” Slate said. His eyes glinted with anger. “And like you said, Mr. Chester, the money’s all that matters.”
“This way, senor, por favor.”
Eduardo opened the heavy oak door and a tall man with a moustache and a hawk-like face entered a large room with wood paneling on the walls. Bookshelves were filled with old, leather-bound books. A fire burned in the large stone fireplace, keeping the room warm against the cold nighttime temperature outside. A big man sat by the fire and looked up from a silver chess board that stood in front of him on a small wooden table. He looked at the man who had entered with a wide, thick-lipped smile.
“Senor Slate,” he said standing up. “Welcome to my hacienda.”
“Gracias,” Slate said.
The don nodded at his servant. “Eduardo, some wine for our guest.” He waved a hand at a chair on the other side of the chess table and held out a gold plate box of cigars. “Hand rolled,” the don said. “Imported from Havana.”
“No thanks,” Slate said. “I prefer this.” He took a Meerschaum pipe out of his pocket and a pouch of tobacco. He glanced down at the silver game board and the delicately carved pieces all in silver. “You play chess,” he said.
“Yes, it is a very stimulating form of– how you say– recreation.”
Eduardo brought a crystal decanter of wine and two glasses on a silver tray. Slate took one of the glasses. Don Pedro took the other. “To your health,” he said.
“And yours,” Slate said. The wine was dry and a bit tart for Slate’s taste. “Bishop takes knight?” he said, glancing down again at the chess board. “If that was your next move, it would be mate in three.”
The don looked down at the board in surprise. “Mierda! So, you also play?”
“Some,” Slate said, filling his pipe. “But never with silver chess pieces.”
“Seguro,” the don said. He took another sip of the wine. “Senor Slate, your name is very well-known to me. It is said you have killed many of what they call the dark creatures of the night. Werewolves, the living dead, how you call, zombies, vampiros. They say that once you start a hunt you always see it through to the end, no matter what. A true professional. I am in need of the services of such a man. You have heard of the trouble we had with vampiros here in Socorro?”
“I hadn’t heard anything about it until I received your wire,” Slate said. He lit the Meerschaum and exhaled a stream of blue smoke. “I was in New Mexico five years ago. There were no Undead in this area then.”
“The vampire gangs appeared here suddenly,” the Don said. “They came at night and raided the villages and the ranchos. They robbed, stole, and killed. Those they don’t kill they turned into monsters like themselves. At first they were small in number, but they are growing. After their raids they hide themselves very well, and for that reason some people refuse to believe they are real– that they are only a myth, a superstition. But to me they are very real.”
“When did the trouble start?”
“About six months ago.” The don tapped ash into a floor standing ashtray made of brass. “Where they came from and where they have gone nobody knows. We managed to get rid of them, but not before there was great loss of life. I myself suffered a great tragedy. My daughter, Theresa–.”
The don stood up, grabbed a poker from a stand in front of the fireplace.
“She was like an angel,” he said. “So pure. Innocent. Until he changed her.” He jabbed at the red hot logs and sparks flew. “Two weeks ago this night I drove a wooden stake into her heart. Theresa! The only joy I have ever known in this life.”
Slate studied the don’s face. It was a worn, hard-looking face, with heavy lines and creases. Thick bags lodged under eyes that were small and pig-like. The mouth was broad and the corners turned down. It was a face that seemed tired of living.
“Perhaps you think I am a monster, to do such a thing?” the don said.
“I have to admit I don’t know many men who could do something like that,” Slate said.
“It had to be done,” the don said. “As painful as it was. I could not bear to see her suffer. I could not bear to see the evil thing she had become.”
“The one who changed her,” Slate said. “He’s the one you want?”
“Kord Manion is his name!” he said, putting the poker down. His eyes blazed with anger. “It was he who did that terrible thing to her. I want you to hunt him down, Senor Slate. I know when you are hired it is to track down the monster and kill him. But I don’t want you to kill this one. I want you to find him and bring him here. Bring him to me alive. I want to be the one who holds the hammer and drives the stake into his heart, just as I did Theresa’s. I want to be the one who cuts off his head and feeds it to the pigs.”
He grabbed the glass of wine from the table with a shaking hand and sat down, as though his inner fury had suddenly made him too weak to stand. He gulped the wine down and stared at Slate as though he were looking through a haze.
“How did your daughter meet this Kord Manion?” Slate asked.
“He was part of the vampiro gang that terrorized this area,” Don Pedro said.
“But I did not know this until later. He is a young man who, how you say, has a way with the muchachas. The gang was led by his older brother, Dax. They ravaged the countryside. Many of the rancheros fled. Theresa and Kord had been meeting in town secretly. I did not know what he was or that he had seduced her and changed her into one of them until after he had gone with the others. If I had known, he would never have lived to ride away.”
“Where is he now?”
“I do not know, senor,” the don said. “He and the others have vanished. I have 100 men with rifles and machetes. We have searched everywhere. That is why I sent for you. It will take a skilled hunter such as yourself to find him.”
“This is a big territory,” Slate said. “It could take some time.”
“I have nothing but time, Senor Slate,” the don said. “I have the biggest rancho in New Mexico. Horses, cattle, riches. I have many things. But they mean nothing to me now. A man can dream and build his own world and suddenly it is gone. My esposa, my wife, died when Theresa was very little. My daughter was everything to me.”
He got up and reached up to the mantle over the fireplace and took down a glass globe that rested there. He turned a key set into the gold base that the globe sat on and a music box began to play. “Los Tres Reyes.” “We Three Kings.” He turned the globe over and Slate saw snowflakes swirling inside it. The don stared at it, as if mesmerized.
“This was her favorite toy,” he said. “See inside, a sleigh with two people. A man and a little girl. Theresa used to say it was the two of us in the sleigh. She loved the snow.”
He set the snow globe back on the mantle.
“And now she is gone,” he said, “and all I have is time, and a hunger for vengeance. Will you take this job, Senor Slate?”
“You said there were seven in the gang. What about them?”
Don Pedro picked up a small silver bell from the table and rang it. The servant, Eduardo came into the room carrying a leather sack. The don opened it and poured its contents onto the chess board. Gold coins spilled out and knocked over several of the silver chess pieces.
“As promised in my telegram,” he said, “I will pay you $10,000 for the capture and delivery of Kord Manion alive. In addition I will pay $1,000 for every member of his gang that you kill. Here is a down payment of $5,000 in gold. You will receive the rest on delivery. You will earn mucho dinero, Senor Slate. Will you take the job?”
Slate reached down and picked up a handful of the gold coins. “It’s an unusual request,” he said. “I’ve never taken one alive. And I’ve never let anyone else do the killing. It’s not a good idea.”
“Vampires are the most vicious creatures on the planet,” Slate said. “They say there are bad men, but there’s no man on Earth as evil as a thing that drinks human blood. Killing one requires a cool head. Vampires use your emotions against you. You’re full of hate, Don Pedro. It could get you in trouble. You’d be better off to let me do it.”
“I cannot help how I feel,” the don said. “It is true I hate this creature more than I have ever hated anyone or anything in my life and I will not rest until I have destroyed him.” He looked up at Slate curiously. “But tell me, Senor Slate?” he said. “You have no emotions? You do not hate the monsters that you hunt?”
Slate’s eyes narrowed. ““Hunting monsters is my business, Don Pedro,” he said. “There’s no room for emotions. Not even hate. I wouldn’t have survived very long, if I hadn’t figured that out a long time ago.”
“I understand, Senor Slate,” the don said. He stood up abruptly. “You are a professional. But Kord Manion must be destroyed for what he did to Theresa. And I must be the one who destroys him. Otherwise we have no business to discuss.”
Slate looked up from the pile of gold with a half smile. “All right, Don Pedro,” he said. “Since you feel so strongly about it, I’ll agree– on one condition. Once I bring him here, I back you up all the way. If he gets the upper hand, if you can’t go through with it for any reason, I’ll finish him.”
“And there’s one more thing. “
“The price will be $15,000.”
“Seguro, Senor Slate,” the don said. “Of course! $15,000 it is. You have made me a very happy man.” He shook Slate’s hand. “If you wish, take some of my caballeros with you. They are good men.”
“No thanks,” Slate said. “I work alone.”
“As you wish,” the don said. He filled their glasses again and raised his in a toast. “To you, Senor Slate,” he smiled. “Vaya con Dios. Happy hunting!”
Slate picked up his glass. “It should be an interesting hunt,” he said.
The don’s smile broadened and Slate saw big white teeth surrounding a single gold tooth in the center. He didn’t know why, but something about that smile, that lone piece of gold gleaming amidst all that ivory, made him uneasy.
Vampire Siege At Rio Muerto Copyright © 2013 by John M. Whalen. All Rights Reserved.
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