“The Exclusive” originally appeared in the webzine Rage Machine in March 1999. It was voted the winner of the “Chucks Award” by the readers of Rage Machine. The award was a small statue with big feet, and I kept it on my desk until the cat knocked it over and broke it. Bad, bad cat.
A newspaper flopped onto Nick Greeley’s desk. He looked up at Art, his boss, who had thrown it there. “What’d you say?”
“You heard me,” Art said. “Take a look.”
Nick examined the paper, a slim rag from a nowhere town up the highway. “What the hell are you doing with this? There’s nothing up there but cows and rednecks cornholing each other.”
“My wife’s from there,” Art said after a moment. “She likes to keep up on hometown events. Now are you gonna look at the fucking picture, or do you wanna maybe step into my office and get a taste of cornholing first-hand?”
“Sorry.” Nick skimmed the column Art had redlined. It was a review of a play being put on by some amateur theater group; it had nothing at all to do with Anne Mowry, a starlet who’d been on the rise a few years back. She was set to be the next Marilyn Monroe, the entertainment buzz had said, until she pulled a Garbo and dropped out of sight.
Nick looked at the audience shot. Big deal. Bunch of rednecks. Nobody worth a second look. Unless … he tapped the grainy image of a woman in the third row. “Make the hair blonde, take off the hat and the glasses, and it could be her. But what the hell is she doing going to a play in Podunkville?”
“I don’t know,” Art said. “Why don’t you go find out?”
Shooting north on I-87, Nick contemplated what little he knew about Anne Mowry. She had dropped from the Hollywood scene not long after she’d wrapped a noir flick called Dark Ambition, one of those movies where everything important happened at night. She had played Jennifer LaRue, a chain-smoking femme fatale who brought down a politico’s empire. The role would’ve made her a star, but the day the film opened, she called a press conference to say she was retiring. No reasons given; no questions answered.
Then she vanished. No trace of her for over a year; until now. If that really was her sitting in the audience.
He got off the interstate just past midnight and arrived at his destination a half-hour later. He booked a room at the first motel he came to.
The next morning, he headed for the playhouse.
The place stood among other weather-beaten buildings in what passed for downtown, its fading façade chipped and cracked. The second-floor windows were boarded up and scorched around the edges. An aging marquee advertised their current offering, Death of a Salesman, running at seven.
A hundred dollar bill got him into the box office for a look at the records. He went through the names and addresses of people who had bought tickets in advance, figuring Anne Mowry wouldn’t be the type to take her chances at the door. Her name didn’t appear on the list, but “Jennifer LaRue” did.
Nick called the box office clerk over. “Do you recognize this name?” he said.
The girl squinted at the book. Obviously she needed but did not wear corrective lenses. “Uh-huh,” she said.
“She come to plays here a lot?”
“She always sit in the general admission seats?”
“No, she’s got a box, but we had a fire on the second floor and it’s closed right now.”
That made sense. It had bothered Nick that Anne Mowry was down amongst the rabble, but if she’d been unexpectedly forced out of her private balcony that would explain it. “She ever bring anybody?”
“Some guy used to come once in a while. I haven’t seen him in a long time.”
Nick showed her an old tabloid shot of Anne and her husband, the rarely-photographed Diego Sanchez. “This them?” he said.
Another squint. “Yeah, that’s them.” Pause. “Is she some kinda celebrity?”
“Used to be. You never recognized her?”
The girl shrugged. “Don’t get to the movies much. Besides, she never takes that hat off. Who is she?”
“I’ll tell you later.” He reached into his pocket and gave her another fifty of Art’s dollars. “Meantime, I’d hate for anybody to find out I was here, like the local paper and most especially Ms. LaRue. Okay?”
“Uh-huh,” she said.
“Super. Say, you got another stick of gum?”
“Yeah.” She gave one to him.
“Thanks.” He popped it into his mouth. Spearmint. “I’m trying to quit smoking.”
“Yeah? Me too. Save your lungs, right?”
“Nah,” Nick said. “When you smoke, sometimes they smell you coming.”
Nick got himself a county map with street numbers on it and quickly located Anne’s house. He took it back to his motel and checked it against the USGS book he’d brought, getting an idea of the terrain. Looked like she had a pretty good-sized ravine cutting into her property from the rear.
Nick followed the county map to a crappy little dirt road marked Seasonal Limited-Use Highway. This marvel of engineering bumped and twisted along the bottom of the ridge where Anne Mowry lived. He stopped when he came to a huge washout with a muddy creek at the bottom. He could see broken wooden pilings half-submerged in the water. A sign nearby said, unnecessarily, Bridge Out.
Nick parked at the side of the road. He got out and took one of his cameras from the trunk, then pushed into the woods, following the stream. Midsummer had the growth thick and verdant. Earthen slopes quickly rose to either side, leaving him walking on a creek bed of grey shale, slickened by moss and algae.
As he climbed, Nick found himself set upon by hordes of tiny vicious flies that landed, bit, and took off again. The nips stung sharply, and they bled like sons-of-bitches. The bugs attacked in swarms, seemingly unfazed by the insect repellent he’d used. Goddamn things were bad as guard dogs.
Squirming and scratching, he pushed on.
Soon he came to a chain link wall, taller than him, totally blocking the ravine. A big orange Private Property sign hung from it. Nick flipped his camera around to his back and started climbing. As he scrambled over the top, twists of wire ripped through the palm of his left hand. He inspected the injury after coming down the other side. He’d gouged out a dime-sized bite of flesh that now hung by a flap of skin. He re-seated the meat and continued up the ravine, his wounded hand shoved into right armpit. At least it distracted him from the insect bites.
The gully grew shallower; the trees thinned out, wild growth giving way to cultivated poplars and blackberry bushes heavy with fruit. The ravine ended at a wall of grassy sod, from which two concrete pipes protruded like shotgun barrels. The top one was sealed with an iron lid, while the bottom one was blocked by iron bars. Water poured from the lower culvert, dropping ten feet to a splash pool before flowing down the hill.
Nick scrambled up the slope and crouched behind the brambles. Through the trees he could see a big backyard. The grass was neat and trim as a putting green. He swept the yard with his lens, looking for something picture-worthy. He stopped at a small cabana next to a sapphire-blue pool. Looked like there was someone inside. He kept the camera focused on the door and was soon rewarded by the emergence of a woman. Her hair was black instead of blonde, but it was dyed; he could tell because it didn’t match the other patch of hair farther down. There were a few other, minor changes, too; the lips were different, and the nose, and the cheekbones. Nothing that couldn’t be explained by surgery.
It was Anne Mowry, stark naked. Art would flip.
He took six shots in quick succession as she went to the pool and dove in, and a few more as she obligingly did the backstroke. But now that he’d stopped moving, those goddamn flies were all over him. He waited until Anne was swimming the other away before going nuts at them, swatting and slapping. That got his left hand bleeding again, leaving big bloody droplets on Anne Mowry’s blackberry bushes, so he shoved it back into his right armpit and squeezed hard.
“Is someone there?”
After her first movie, Anne had been dubbed the Voice, because her smoky tone could make a weather report sound erotic. She still had the knack; normally that question would’ve sent Nick bolting down the hill, but coming from her it pinned him where he was like a lawn dart through the skull. She had swum over to the side of the pool nearest him and was hanging onto the edge, looking his way.
Anne cocked her head, then climbed out of the pool. Water cascaded off her body as she took a few steps forward. “Who’s there?” she said. “Come out where I can see you.”
Like a dope, Nick stood up and pushed through the brambles, emerging to stand not five feet away from Anne Mowry’s tan, taut, glistening body. She looked him over, then said: “What’s your name?”
“Greeley. Nick Greeley.”
“Who do you work for?”
“Art Gladstone at The Bulb.” Jesus, why was he handing out this information?
“A tabloid. I might’ve known.” She held out her hand. “Give me the camera.”
Nick obligingly handed over his multi-thousand dollar Nikon, unable to refuse the Voice, as if she had hypnotized him. Anne eyed the camera like it had worms spilling out of it, then dropped it so that it dangled by the strap from her hand. “Well, Nick Greeley,” she said, “You know what I’m going to do with you?”
“Uh, have me arrested?” he said. God, he sounded thick! What was wrong with him?
Half her mouth turned up in a grin.
“You wish,” she said, and whacked him in the side of the head with the camera.
Nick woke up someplace dark and damp. The air was moist and thick and foul and didn’t do anything to make his throbbing headache better. Somewhere nearby water gurgled noisily. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his penlight. He clicked it on and played it around his surroundings. He was in a concrete tube full of debris: old leaves, sticks, mud. Storm sewer, he thought. Anne Mowry had dragged him off and dropped him in a storm sewer that stunk like a butcher shop with a malfunctioning cooler.
He reached up and felt the side of his head. Blood had dried to a gummy residue on his cheek and temple. Christ, she could’ve killed him. When he got out of here, he was going to file assault charges against her naked ass, that was for sure.
His flashlight beam landed on someone’s bare foot.
Nick froze, then slowly played the light up the hairy naked leg, thigh, torso, neck, head. It was a man, not breathing, lying face-down in the sand. Nick stuck the penlight between his teeth and dug his tiny waterproof point-and-shoot out of the hidden pocket inside his shirt. He took a few shots of the body, then crept up to it and felt for a pulse. Nothing. He grasped its hair, and turned its head to get a look at its face.
Anne Mowry’s husband, Diego Sanchez, who hadn’t been to the playhouse in a while.
Nick raised his little camera and took another shot, then tucked it away in his secret pocket.
When he looked back at Diego, the dead man’s eyes were open. He froze as Diego leaned forward and dragged a thick, rough tongue up the side of his head, where the blood was. Unnerved, Nick let go and scrambled away from him.
Diego sat up and stretched like a man awakening from a night’s sleep. He yawned languidly, showing a mouth full of teeth sharp as rose thorns, then locked eyes with Nick and began slowly crawling forward.
His guts twisting with the certainty that he had to escape, Nick turned and fled down the sloping storm sewer. His palm opened up again, leaving bloody handprints on the concrete walls. His teeth still clenched the penlight and when he looked over his shoulder, he saw that Diego had stopped and was licking up one of the bloodstains. Nick left them deliberately after that, repeatedly grinding his wound into the rough cement, ignoring the agony it sent up his arm.
He looked back again. Diego was right behind him, flying forward, hands outstretched. Nick cried out; the penlight fell spinning from his mouth through a rectangular hole in the floor. Nick tumbled after it, fell a few feet down a shaft, and landed in a torrent that pushed him several yards before he could check himself. Not far ahead he saw a pale flicker, and unthinkingly he scuttled toward the light.
He forgot the iron bars until he smacked into them.
He could see the ravine beyond the barrier, twilight-grey in the moonlight. Cursing, he grabbed the bars and pulled. Futile. He looked up the throat of the sewer and saw two flickering points of light in the darkness. He had lost the penlight, but didn’t need it to tell him what he was looking at: the eyes of Diego Sanchez. A second later they vanished back into the ceiling.
Behind him, the Voice said: “Turn around and go back to Diego.”
His head snapped around. Anne Mowry clung to the bars, hanging there, looking at him narrowly. “Go back to Diego,” she said again.
“No!” Nick turned and fought his way up the pipe, the roar of the water drowning her out. The moonlight faded as he approached the shaft in the ceiling. Diego could be up there, hanging by his toes from the lip, dangling down to grab him. He hesitated, then decided to chance it rather than be trapped in the length of pipe. Water coursed over him as he pushed forward, forward, passed under the shaft. He could feel a breeze from it; or was it a breath?
A burst of adrenaline sent him surging past the shaft. The pipe curved to the left for some distance, then opened up into a moonlit subterranean box. Nick located a ledge alongside the stream and clambered out of the water. Shivering, he flattened himself against the wall and tried to catch his breath.
As his eyes adjusted, he saw that the moonlight shone through a sewer grate overhead, illuminating the chamber in stark grey light. Water thundered out of a brick-lined opening to his right, fell four or five feet into a basin, and rushed past to exit through the culvert to his left. Opposite him another pipe mouth gaped, this one several feet off the floor, dry and dark. Across the stream, corroded rungs set into the mossy wall rose to the grate, offering the tantalizing promise of escape.
Before Nick mustered the strength to move toward the ladder, Diego slid out of the dry pipe mouth and stood, facing him across the channel. His features glowed, as if he, not the moonlight, lit this place.
Movement from the grate. Nick looked up. Anne Mowry had arrived; he could see her pallid face staring down at him. Diego smiled, showing razor teeth. “Here we all are,” he said. His voice was soft but it cut through the roaring water like a scream in the night. “The eternal triangle: celebrity, reporter, enigma.”
“What are you?” Nick had to shout to hear himself.
“Me? I am nothing; I am dirt, I am vapor, I am hunger. I am everything; I am the wizard behind the curtain and the monster under the bed. To you, I am as a god.”
“Yeah? Then why do you live in the sewer?”
Diego chuckled. “While I sleep, the blood of little men such as you churns within me. Could you not smell it? Certainly it would be improper for the lovely Anne’s home to bear the stench of a slaughterhouse.”
“He’s too stupid to understand all this,” Anne Mowry cried from the grate. “Tell him, tell him who I used to be. I want him to know he had a brush with one of the great ones!”
Diego smiled at her indulgently. “My dear Anne guards me well. I give her long life and a little power of her own, but that is not enough for her.” He raised his hands and looked up as if in worship. “She must be a star. And so, every few years, I let her go back to the cinema for a little while. She stayed too long once, became too famous, too well-established. To get her back, I had to kill her.”
“Tell him!” Anne screeched. “I was Marilyn Monroe!”
Her shriek faded, leaving the roar of water as the only sound. Then Diego laughed, and a cloud of tiny black flies swarmed out of the tunnel behind him, enveloping Nick. They landed and bit and streamed back to Diego. He gulped at them like a fish, his throat bulging as he swallowed.
Flailing at the insects, trying to escape their gnawing bites, Nick stumbled into the water that gushed into the subterranean chamber. It swept away the flies, nearly knocking him over in the process. He braced his feet against the edge of the basin to keep from falling. His heart hammered against his ribs; despite the chilly water, he felt flush and feverish.
The sound of metal grinding on metal insinuated itself through the splashing torrent. Looking up, he saw that Anne Mowry was lifting the sewer grate with one hand. She must be horribly strong. She could tear him to pieces.
Diego hung back, half-hidden in a cloud of insects, watching Anne with those flickery eyes. He wouldn’t come near the water.
Anne started climbing down the ladder. She wasn’t afraid of the water. She was going to reach into it, grab him, and haul him right out for her master.
Diego was afraid of the water. Maybe it would hurt him somehow.
One chance, then.
Praying that even a vampire could be caught off-guard, Nick scrambled out of the basin, grabbed Diego in a bear hug, and pulled him toward the channel. After a momentary lack of response Diego began fighting him, breaking his grip with a strength that nearly snapped Nick’s bones; but he was too late. Gravity had them.
They fell into the culvert.
The stream swept them both away. Nick no longer had the wherewithal to check himself and he slammed into the iron bars at the end of the sewer, his face submerged, filthy water in his nose and mouth. He hauled himself to surface, coughing, trying to catch his breath—
Bony hands clutched Nick’s face, wrenched his head around. Diego. The water seemed to have eaten through him like acid, leaving him skeletal and ragged, though light still burned in his eyes and his spiky teeth still glistened in his mouth.
“Bastard!” Diego’s voice had gone all hoarse and raspy. He leaned forward and sank his teeth into Nick’s neck, but then the man seemed to dissolve into mush and he was gone, swept away like so much foam.
Nick struggled against the current, climbing back up the sewer to the shaft. He reached up, felt around, found the bottom rung of a ladder. He hauled himself up, one rung at a time, resting between; he finally emerged into the upper tunnel and collapsed there, gasping.
Some time later—he didn’t know how long, exactly—he heard soft scratchy noises approaching, and a faint, weak voice: “Diego? Diego?”
Anne Mowry. Marilyn Monroe. Whoever.
“Diego’s dead,” Nick said.
There was a momentary silence, then a sob, a sigh. “Look at me,” she said. She didn’t speak so much as cough, words coming out as sticky, bubbly gurgles. “I’m old! I’m weak! I’m falling apart!”
Nick rubbed his neck. The bite marks had formed a ridge of hard little nodules. They were cold to the touch. He wondered if it was true that killing the vampire that bit you kept you from becoming one.
“Look at me!” Anne cried. “How am I going to be famous now?”
Nick dug out his little waterproof camera, turned it on, aimed it up the tunnel.
“Smile,” he said.