Chapter 1 MONSTER TOWN

Sneak Peek Extract:

MONSTER TOWN by Bruce Golden

 

THE BLOOD OF HIS BLOOD

It was a hard wet rain that beat an ominously staccato rhythm on the roof of my Packard as I drove to the outskirts of the city.  Thunder rumbled overhead like a bowling ball sliding down a corrugated tin roof, and the ferocious whipcracks of lightning sounded as if they were tearing great rents in time and space.

The rain didn’t bother me. Neither did the thunder.  I was sober . . . more or less.  What nagged me was the unknown. Not the unknown that I knew about.  I could deal with that.  It was the obscure unknown, the one that always popped its ugly mug out of a dark shadow with a cackling laugh, that worried me.  Call it a personality quirk, but I could never be completely relaxed if there was a mystery to be solved–even if I knew the answer would presently reveal itself.

What puzzled me this particular evening was what the wealthiest man in town wanted with me. Usually I just took pictures of cheating spouses, or an occasional insurance scammer pretending to be laid-up, but actually water skiing off Catalina. But three hours ago I’d gotten a call from some secretary saying her boss, one Vladimir Prince, would like to speak with me about contracting my services. What the job was she wouldn’t say, asking only that I arrive precisely at seven. I almost said no thanks, as I’d planned on being deep inside a bottle by seven.  Normally I never let my work interfere with my drinking, but the rent was due.

You may or may not know that Vladimir Prince was the owner of several wineries and a couple breweries, along with enough other businesses and real estate holdings to choke a platoon of accountants. However, unless you keep up with the trades, you probably don’t know that Prince feathered his initial nest egg working in the movie business. He was known back then as “Dracula” or “Count Dracula” or “the Dark Prince,” depending on the script. Unlike most horror movie stars, he’d invested wisely.  Which is why he lived out on the very edge of Monster Town, away from the urban blight and general riff raff that infested the main streets.

Of course Monster Town isn’t the way most people picture it. Yes, it had its roots in a time when movie monsters were ostracized by their Hollywood brethren. Instead of fighting to fit in, they let themselves be ghettoized just south of Beverly Hills, into a post-war industrialized area whose industries had gone belly-up.  And it wasn’t just famous freaks of the silver screen that lived there. It was also home to hundreds, hell, thousands of wannabes.  It wasn’t unlike Hollywood in that sense–where every waitress is a star-in-waiting, and every valet has a screenplay he wants you to read.

Yes, Monster Town, for the most part, is populated with the hopeful, the star-struck, the dregs of the Earth who weren’t quite monstrous enough.  Its avenues are peppered with the gimps, the geeks, the freaks who never got their shot at fame and fortune.  Of course some of the more well-known monsters reside there too, though few of them were as smart or successful as Prince.  What they have are their memories, their posters, their faded fame . . . but little fortune.

Casting directors still, on occasion, trolled the streets for a small part here or there, but Tinseltown just wasn’t making monster flicks like they used to.  So, when the celluloid gravy train dried up, monsters had to make a living like anyone.  Now they were fry cooks and teachers and dog catchers and shopkeepers.  Some were hoodlums, others thieves, and a few were even killers.  In other words, Monster Town was really like any other city.

Before I could get to the suburb I was headed for, I had to pass through the ghost town that had been the old factory district.  Most of the companies there had gone out of business years ago, but I saw a few that still showed signs of life.  Whether they were actually making things, or just tearing them down, I had no idea.  I passed the old pump station, and was surprised to see it still pumping away, despite its rusty exterior, diverting water from the L.A. County Waterworks’ main line to Monster Town.  I guess something had to keep the toilets flushing.

Even though I lived in Monster Town, I wasn’t in show business–never had been.  I ended up there by happenstance.  Not really an interesting story.  Now I was just looking for a job to pay my bills and keep me in hooch.  Though I never imagined a job would take me this far from the grime and crime.

Even when I was flush with cash I didn’t get out of town much.  I certainly was never invited to any parties in the ritzy suburban neighborhood I was driving through now.  I belonged here like broccoli belongs on a chocolate sundae.  But the trees and green grass were a nice change from the littered asphalt and cracked and peeling paint I could see from my own digs.

The truth is, it was almost a dreamscape.  Each house I drove past seemed bigger and more ostentatious than the last.  When I finally reached Prince’s place, it was, without a doubt, the biggest one yet.  You couldn’t even call it a house.  It was a full-blown mansion . . . a pearly white summer palace standing iridescent in the rain.

I gave my name at the gate and was granted entry.  The rain slowed to a damp drizzle and the sky cleared just enough to reveal the setting sun.  I didn’t know if it was the still-lingering clouds or the fact I needed another drink, but it felt like an uncertain gloom had settled over the lush countryside.  The only thing I was certain of at that moment, was that I needed new windshield wiper blades.

I pulled into the estate, saw its grounds manicured as carefully as a duchess in waiting.  Guards patrolled the extended property with sentry dogs.  I shuddered just a little.  I didn’t like dogs–not guard dogs, not poodles, not friendly little mutts. I wasn’t afraid of them. I just didn’t like them.  Fortunately there were none close to the house where I was told to park.

I pulled up and got out of the Packard.  I put on my hat and adjusted my trench coat.  Maybe it was just the extravagance of the setting, or the idea I’d be sitting down with the richest man in town, but I noticed the old fedora was getting a bit threadbare.  That made me think about my coat, and the stain on it from that night I couldn’t remember.  Well, he wasn’t hiring me for fashion advice . . . if he really was hiring me.

Prince’s stately manor reeked of intrigue and danger, with its stately columns and interlacing arches rising up like some old southern slave plantation.  I stared up at it and could almost hear a mysterious, forlorn trumpet wailing in the background, backed by a handful of inscrutable violins.

Out front here was actually an open tent designed just for car.  It wasn’t just any vehicle, but a Rolls Royce.  A manservant was busy polishing it, and I noticed the usual female “Spirit of Ecstasy” hood ornament had been replaced with a sterling bat, it’s wings outstretched in an imitation of flight.  It was weird, but definitely appropriate.

Four guys in expensive suits came walking out of the huge double doors before I reached the stairs leading up to the manor’s entrance.  They weren’t monsters and I’d never seen them before. They got into a limo that was waiting for them and drove off.  I trudged up the stairs, breathing harder with each step and thinking a little exercise now and then wouldn’t kill me.  It didn’t help that the rain always made my old wound ache.

Catching my breath I rang the bell.  Faintly I heard something from inside sounding like the summoning of the monks.  It was only seconds before the doors opened.  Standing there was this guy dressed like a cross between an opera singer and a 17th Century general. I recognized him right away from his movie days, when he played Renfield, Dracula’s servant in all those old films.  Apparently some actors couldn’t shake their erstwhile roles.

He stood there for a moment, staring at me with disdain, before saying, “Mr. Slade, I presume.”

“That’s right.  I’m here to see Mr. Prince.”

His bug eyes reminded me of Peter Lorre.  Using them to full advantage, he gave me another look like he might have to disinfect place if he let me in.  Resigned to it, he stepped aside so I could enter.  I caught of whiff of gun oil as I passed him.  He had it hidden well under that costume of his, but I figured he was packing.

“May I take your hat and coat?” he asked in a manner that told me he didn’t really want to touch them.

“No, thanks,” I said. “I’ll keep them.”

It was a grand entryway, wide open and almost high enough for King Kong to stand without slouching. A huge staircase dominated the space, its lacquered railings leading up and around to where they finally vanished from view. The decor was all ivory and chrome–not at all what I expected from the Prince of Darkness.

Renfield directed me to the library, which, with its hundreds of books, looked like any other millionaire’s library–I presumed, having never really been in one. I wondered how many of the books Prince had actually read. My first thought was, probably not many–though if the rumors about his age were true, he just might have had the time to read them all.

“Wait here,” instructed Renfield. “The master will be with you shortly.”

I looked the place over. It was cluttered with wood carvings, little stone statues, and other eccentric doodads. There was a large fireplace with an ebony gargoyle perched on either end of the mantel, a finely crafted antique work desk, and some overstuffed chairs. But what dominated the room was above the mantel. It was a life-sized portrait of Prince himself. From what I remembered, it was a perfect likeness. It featured his aristocratic nose, his close-set black eyes, and that famous stare of his that would have frozen a hot cup of joe.

Nosey sleuth that I was, I wandered over to the desk and looked at the papers scattered there. I was surprised to see a brochure from that new amusement park they’d recently built down in Anaheim–the one I figured was mostly for kids. It didn’t seem like a place Dracula would visit for fun. Yet there was a map of the place and some design schematics I couldn’t quite make out.

I didn’t want to touch anything, so I twisted my head around to get a better look. I was only half-twisted when a voice surprised me.

“I thought I’d come down and get a look at you myself.”

Standing in the doorway was a sleek dame decked out in a simple white satin dress that likely cost more than my Packard did new. She was a looker and, by the way she stood posed there, she knew it. She had dark hair, sophisticated eyes, and pouty lips, but her face was pale . . . almost sickly looking.

Out of reflex, I took off my hat. I don’t think she cared.

“So you’re the private detective.” It wasn’t a question so I didn’t answer. “I thought gumshoes only existed in movies.”

“I’m real enough . . . but it usually takes me a couple of belts to get warmed up.”
She flashed a quick smile and sauntered towards me with sufficient sex appeal to stir a eunuch. When she was close enough for me to smell her perfume, she stopped. She reached out to touch my chest with her finger, as if to be certain I wasn’t an illusion.

I wasn’t sure what she’d try to touch next, but I thought it best to remain professional and not find out. I took hold of the hand she’d stroked me with and gave it a little shake.

“Dirk Slade. Pleased to meet you. Are you Mr. Prince’s daughter?”

She giggled at some private amusement as I released her hand.

“Mr. Prince doesn’t have any daughters . . . that I know of,” she said, staring up at me with a wantonness that was hard to miss.

“I see you’ve greeted our guest, Mina.”

I looked up from her beckoning eyes and saw him. I’d expected him, I knew I’d be meeting with him, but to actually see him in the flesh was a shade unsettling. I mean, how often do you find yourself in the presence of Count Dracula? Even if he was just an old actor, he was still the grand monarch of monsters.

“Now, please,” he said to her with only a slight accent, “I need to speak with Mr. Slade alone.”

She pouted but it was a little girl act that faded quickly to an alluring smile. She waved her fingers at me and walked out.

He waited until she was gone and said, “My son doesn’t approve of my paramour. He thinks she’s too young.”

It’s true she didn’t look half his age–and that’s if he was only as old as he looked.

“However, like many people, I’m a creature of my desires. And I’ve always had an indescribable thing for girls named Mina. She’s not particularly bright, but she pleases me in the ways that matter most.”

I briefly speculated on what those ways were, but realized I probably didn’t have the imagination to do it justice.

He moved towards me then. I say “moved” because he seemed to glide more than walk. He was as smooth as milk on marble and right next me with his hand out before he should have been.

“Vladimir Prince,” he said, taking hold of my hand but not shaking it. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.” He’d let go of my hand and was making his way around his desk before I knew it. “You come highly recommended, Mr. Slade.” His voice was gently commanding, yet reassuring.

“Please, have a seat.” He gestured at the chairs in front of his desk.

“Who recommended me?” I was curious who would vouch for me with a high-roller like Prince.

“Oh, I know many people, Mr. Slade. I have many sources.”

“I’m a fan of yours, as well,” I said. “I’ve seen all your–”

“Please,” he said a bit too loudly, “let’s let the past stay in the past. I’d rather speak about the matter at hand.”

Apparently he didn’t want to talk about his old movies. Maybe the association was bad for business. That was jake with me, so I took a seat.

“What is the matter at hand? I was told you were in need of my services.”

He hesitated and I took the moment to study him more carefully.

He was slender, with short, slicked-back dark hair, and a pasty complexion, not unlike his young squeeze. He wasn’t wearing the cape I half expected, but looked refined in a very expensive, stylishly embroidered smoking jacket. The only thing out-of-place about him were his long fingernails. Whether he sharpened them to a point or they just grew that way, I had no idea.

He still hadn’t answered me, so I reached into my coat pocket. Before I even touched my pack he said, “Please don’t smoke.”

Renfield appeared then, carrying a tray filled with an elaborate bone china tea set and some little biscuits.

“Would you join me in tea?”

The tea really threw me. I found his choice of beverage surprising for a guy whose empire was built on booze. If anything, I expected him to offer me a mug of Impale Ale, or maybe a glass of Vlad’s Sangria.

To be polite, and because I really needed this job–whatever it was–I picked up one of the dainty cups of tea Renfield had poured and took a sip. I was almost afraid my big mitt would crush the little thing.

“Before I tell you why I’ve asked you here today, Mr. Slade, I must be certain I can count on your discretion.”

“I’m as discreet as they come, Mr. Prince. I wouldn’t last long in this business if I wasn’t.”

He sipped his own tea and I watched the shadowed corners of his mouth, hoping for a glimpse of those famous canines of his. I didn’t see them. I did notice his face held this cool, controlled expression that never seemed to change. Not even when he began to tell me why I was there.

“My son has gone missing, Mr. Slade. I want you to find him.”

“How old is he?”

“John is 17.”

“How long’s he been missing?”

“Three weeks now.”

“If you don’t mind my saying, it seems like a long time to wait before trying to find him.”

He got this faraway look in his eyes. “My son has been known to make himself unavailable for days at a time. You might say I was unconcerned I hadn’t heard from him, at least until recently.”

“Why not call the police?”

“I don’t want the police involved. I’m sure you understand.”

I nodded. There could be a dozen reasons why he didn’t want the police in on this. Half of them legitimate.

“Alright, I’ll take the job. I get $100 a day,” I said, doubling my normal fee, “plus expenses.”

He waved his hand as if it were an insignificant detail.

“Any idea where I should start looking for your son?”

“I know he has a school friend at James Whale High named Harold Talbot. I believe young Talbot is on the football team. He might know what happened to John.”

“Is that where your son goes to school?”

“Yes. But he hasn’t attended for at least a month, according to their records.”

“Then he dropped out even before he disappeared.”

“It would seem so.”

“Alright, I’ll start there.”

It had all been very formal. Almost like he’d hired me to pick up his dry cleaning. For a guy whose son was missing, he seemed rather cold . . . stiff. Not that I would have expected a gush of emotion from an old bird like him, but he’d handled the entire transaction like he had a wooden stake up his ass.

“You’ll keep me apprised of your progress?”

“Sure.”

“That’s a recent photo of him,” said Prince, pointing one of his overly long fingernails at a framed photo on his desk.

He was a good-looking kid, slender like his father, with the same dark hair and eyes.

“You can take it with you if you like.”

“Not necessary,” I said. “I’m good with faces. I’ll remember him.”

More likely than not, the kid was playing back seat bingo with some dolly deep in Monster Town, with or without a needle in his arm. I’d roust some bums, ask a few questions, kick in the odd door or two, and probably find the little Prince in a few days . . . though, at a C-note a day, I might not be in any hurry.

Like I said, it wasn’t show business, it was just a job . . . and that was jake with me.

 

 

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