October 24th, 2018, Past Sunset, a gas station on the edge of San Bernardino, California, USA – Over a Year Later
The call came in at after breakfast about the murdered woman found on the beach. Red was behind the wheel before noon. Eight long hours later and they were barely in LA County.
Red hefted up the beige reusable shopping bag on her jean-covered hip, rattling the six pack inside. The convenience store door dinged behind her. Vic should be grateful for this beer run, she grumbled to herself, after she drove most of the way from Reno.
The clerk almost didn’t accept the twenty she had laid on the counter. The bloody thumbprint on the bill had made the Latino man cross himself and say a small prayer.
Red had frowned when she realized that she understood his words. That was a new one to tell Vic. Red didn’t know her own name, who she was, or where she came from, but apparently, she could understand Spanish. Another quirk of her supernatural amnesia.
Her boot crushed broken glass as she walked across the parking lot of what looked like the loneliest gas station in the inland empire. The last glow of the sun faded, casting smoggy shadow over the San Bernardino foothills. Heat radiated from the ground. Dirt lots of dead scrub brush on either side. A light pole painted an orange circle on the pavement. Coyotes howled in the distance.
Stopping by the black creeper van, with side and back windows spray painted, Red paused to look at the balding right front tire and put the beer on the stubby hood. Car maintenance wasn’t one of her lost skills, but she was quick with mechanics. It didn’t take her long to figure out how to fix minor issues with the van. It was what Vic appreciated the most about her, but they couldn’t keep patching the tire. The Millennium Falcon, the van also affectionately known as the Falcon, needed a new one soon.
She noticed the blur out of the corner of her eye and pulled a stake out of her pocket. “I see you. Neon isn’t that stealthy.”
The vampire stopped short from a run that would have put an Olympic athlete to shame, skateboard under his arm. He crossed his arms over his neon orange tank top. His sun streaked mop of blond hair would be the envy of any surfer. “No bagging on the duds.”
Heartbeat picking up, Red lifted her eyebrows and squeezed the stake. She summoned up her magic from the well of energy centered over her root chakra. It was as reliable as an old beater car, prone to stalling, but it still felt familiar like an old jacket. It had taken months for her to even float a pencil. She wouldn’t call herself a witch just yet. She had been practicing with the four elements but only Air ever answered her call. “Do you have a soul?”
“Fuck no.” The skateboarder said. “Do I look like a loser?”
Red shrugged. “You look like an undead Backstreet Boys reject.”
He dropped his board and charged.
She tossed the stake, forcing her will onto the air, harnessing it to keep propelling the stake hurtling towards the vampire. She couldn’t reliably make things fly, but she had almost mastered gliding. Her focus scattered as the coyotes yipped closer.
The stake embedded deep in the wrong side of the vampire’s chest.
“Effing A, lady!” The skateboarder stopped and hunched over grabbing at the stake in his shoulder. “What are you? A mutant?”
Red shrugged. “That’s what I keep asking.” She tried to pull the stake back with her mind, but her energy fizzled and popped. She dodged the rocketing stake hitting the side of the Falcon. She jogged backwards, glancing around looking for it, brushing her hair over her shoulder and out of her face.
“Whose marks are those?” The vampire turned paler, clashing with his orange neon. “Are you claimed? I don’t need the heat, man, not with another vamp and not with the Blood Alliance.”
“I’m not claimed.” Red bent down to pick up the fallen stake. He wasn’t the first vampire to notice the old scars on her neck, most vampires gave a second glance to them even indistinct after laser scar treatment. Red banged on the van door, wondering where the hell Vic was.
She shook her hand, willing magic out of it, but it was as reliable as a stray cat. Not even a spark. Her energy exhausted after making the stake fly.
“Cool beans,” The skateboarder hissed and revealed his fangs. “Let’s see what you taste like, weirdo.”
Red raised the stake, but it was too late.
The vampire slammed her against the van. “I don’t think that the catch and release rule from the supreme bitch applies to whatever the hell you are.”
Red kicked him between the legs.
The skateboarder stumbled back with a yell. He grabbed his crotch. A ding of the convenience store door drew his attention. “Come on, now I have to take him out too. Fuck, my sire is going to be pissed, gonna yell at me in European.” He rushed Red.
Red had the stake ready to jam it through his heart as he collided with her. The air knocked from her, she managed to huff out. “Daddy issues?”
The skateboarder stilled and staggered to the side. His pale face decaying, blond hair falling to dust, leaving greasy bones to fall in a heap. The skateboarder couldn’t have been that old in death.
When a vampire was staked, the magic preserving them seemed to snap, leaving the body decaying rapidly as if to make up for lost time. The oldest ones barely left dust. Sunrise would take care of whatever was left, leaving burning bones to greet the dawn.
Red looked over to the convenience store to see the sign turn over from open to closed. She could imagine that a night clerk at a convenience store saw enough weirdness to teach him to mind his business. Most humans didn’t know what bumped in the dark, but some people couldn’t avoid it.
She was one of them.
The van side door slid open.
Under the hanging Tibetan prayer flags and Christmas lights in the bean bag and blanket strewn back of the van, Vic popped his head out. Giant headphones hung on his neck. His laptop blared at top volume behind him. “What did I miss?”
“Oh, you know, nothing much, just fighting for my life against an undead Tony Hawk wannabe. Discovered I know basic Spanish.” Red rolled her eyes. “Standard beer run.”
“Hablo espanol, eh?” Vic asked before he asked quicker, “hangug-eseo malhal su issni?”
“Um…” Red cocked her head.
“Well, now we know that you know Spanish but not Korean.”
They played a game out of trying to jog her memory. They learned that she knew how to stake a vampire, was good at math, and had enough magic to sometimes get her out of a pinch. Not her real name. Even after he read through a baby name book.
Red was just something that Vic called her after he found her beside that highway outside Eugene. She brushed her red hair off her shoulder. For a guy who believed in nearly every conspiracy theory, he hadn’t been very imaginative with her nickname. It stuck anyway.
“Gonna have to explain that to Quinn.” Vic stepped out of the van and looked at the vampire’s bones before he spotted the bag with the six-pack of beer on the hood of the Falcon. Brushing his black mullet back, he nodded to Red. “IPA? Nice.” He cracked open a beer and pounded it before crushing the can against his head. “Thirsty Thursday, am I right?”
“It’s Wednesday.” Red pulled the stake from the empty rib cage of the vampire before she walked around to the driver’s side of the van. “Come on, didn’t you say that your buddy was in Culver City? We still have an hour left on the road.”
“Don’t worry. Quinn’s a PI and a vampire- he’ll still be awake.” Vic grabbed the beer and hopped in the side van door, closing the Falcon. He climbed into the passenger seat beside her. “All we have to worry about is if he got called to his other job.”
“Other job?” Red asked. Vic had told her a lot of stories, but made it sound more like Quinn skulked in alleys saving maidens than sat on a payroll.
“I never said he was a successful gumshoe.” Vic shrugged. “He moonlights as a sketch artist for the LAPD. Does a bit of this and that for the Supreme Master of the city when she calls upon him, too.”
She knew some of Vic’s two years at UCLA when he ran from being a Bard and ended up spending more time with a souled vampire detective than in his computer science classes. He made it sound like he spent more of the time stoned and doing surveillance. Red could read between the lines; Vic’s friend wasn’t your usual souled vampire or at least Vic thought he was more.
Quinn had called them and asked for help. That was all the information Vic needed to get them on the road.
Red put the van into reverse before speeding up to run over the bones. She flicked on her blinker and turned onto the street. She looked behind her in the side mirror. The sound of the laptop blaring distracted her from her question about Quinn. “What are you watching?”
Red looked over at Vic in his cut off sleeves on his denim vest and Lynyrd Skynyrd shirt. “Like Jane Austen?”
“No, it is like about Victorian hookers, but tasteful. I just started it. It’s a BBC show.” Vic folded his arms. His shoulder length mullet brushing his shoulder. “What? I don’t just watch 9/11 documentaries or YouTube videos about the FBI. I have layers.”
“Uh huh.” Red said before she refocused on the puttering LA traffic as she navigated through the light traffic on the wide boulevard, following the signs to the 66 to get to the 10. Her mind more focused on remembering the map she had read earlier. Vic was paranoid about Google and banished any GPS from the car.
She felt the van jerk and a warning icon blazed to life on the dashboard. The tire popped loudly. Controlling the wheel and vehicle’s slide, she put on her hazard lights.
“You okay?” Vic asked.
“Yeah, just the tire. I bet it’s the front one.” She moved the car over to the shoulder to turn right into a darkened strip mall and parked in front of a closed nail salon.
“We have a donut in the back.” Vic sighed and opened the door.
Unbuckling herself, Red rubbed her temples. She had driven most of the eight hours from Reno, each hour tempting herself with Vic’s promises of the amazing shower at his friend Quinn’s place. Culver City was still an hour away and with a flat tire… That shower felt so out of reach.
Clever English banter boomed behind her from tinny laptop speakers.
Twisting in the high seat of the van, she climbed into the back to turn off his laptop. On her knees, she turned the laptop around to look for the off button when she noticed the screen.
Lounging in a boudoir, the woman lay in stockings and corset, English accent coy as she flirted with a dark-haired man in a tuxedo.
Slapping the laptop closed. Red felt her heart race and her ears ring. The adrenaline flatlined in her system.
Dragging air through her lungs, she sat down on a bean bag chair. She put her head in her hands. Her chest ached. She leaned her head between her knees trying to catch her breath. She didn’t know what it was about the scene, but it felt like a weight had landed on her shoulders. Trying to calm her breathing, she didn’t look up when the van door opened.
“Hey, easy, Red.” Vic said as he crouched in front of her. “Keep your breathing steady, through your nose, that’s it.”
He didn’t ask her what she had seen or what it meant. It would have been like asking how she understood Spanish. She wouldn’t have an answer.
“I hate this. I can’t avoid triggers, if I don’t know what they are.” Red choked out as she tried to calm her ragged breathing. “I can’t trust myself, if any random thing could set me off.”
“Sure, you can trust yourself. You know who you are.”
Red glared at him.
“You don’t have the bio, but you know the essence. That’s enough. The rest is baggage.” Vic shrugged. He gestured to the makeshift bed of bean bag chairs in the back of the van. “Take a nap. I’ll get us back on the road.”
She rubbed at her neck, feeling over the nearly invisible fang marks on her skin, before she laid down on the bean bag in the nest of blankets. Red might know that she hated cob salad or loved Harry Potter, but it wasn’t the same as knowing what formed her.
After over a year, she still knew as much as she did when she woke up in that hospital in Eugene. They had crisscrossed the West and met half the active hunters and few retired ones. None had recognized her. Every clue was a dead end.
Her hands shook.
She had long ago accepted that Vic was probably right, she probably was an inexperienced witch or hunter that tangoed with the wrong vampire who mesmerized her into forgetting. What she suffered didn’t keep her up at night, it was the question around what she loved. Who were her parents, how did she grow up, who were her high school friends, what was the story behind the black lyre tattooed on her left shoulder? Those were the questions that haunted her.
She needed something to take her mind off the anxiety washing over her. She grabbed a citronella candle from a plastic milk crate filled with supplies. Staring at it, she tried to visualize a blue flame erupting from the wick. Magic came in many forms from the ceremonial magic of exorcisms and blessings that even muggles could do to harnessing the power of elements. She had been trying to make a spark for months. If she thought that air was difficult, fire was still beyond her yet Red still squinted at the squat white candle in the tin.
Light, damn you, light!
The scent of citronella made her nose twitch and she couldn’t concentrate.
“Fuck.” She tossed the candle back into the box. Who was she fooling? She was as bad at magic as she was at remembering.
Red curled up on the multicolored bean bag, trying to breath deep, and push past the faceless ghosts to steal some sleep.