Merle found himself burdened with two unpayable debts. The first to dark magic. The second to a coven of vampires.
In between blood-lettings, he began
searching online to find a way out from one of them. Failing to
discover any useful information on dark magic, he started researching
vampires. Which led him down an internet rabbit hole that included
several forums on paranormal activity.
Including ones I frequented.
Most people on those sites are there to tell a story. Deciphering which ones aren't fiction is impossible for someone without experience in the subject.
I am one of the few in those forums who are there to listen and advise. His posts were vague but frequent. They mentioned spells, power, greed, and vampires in a way that seemed authentic. In their totality, they hinted at an alarming situation. One, he didn't understand.
This was more than enough to warrant an investigation. I contacted him in a private chat through one of the forums. I stressed how important it was for me to meet him in person to begin verifying his account. I couldn't solve his problems, but if I got the correct information, I could circulate it to those who might help prevent it from happening to others.
But I couldn't afford a last-minute flight or one planned out in advance. Paranormal investigators don't earn an elite income. Merle was kind enough to cover the expense for me, adding that money was no object. He hadn't posted about the banker's box.
I could have driven, but my car is several decades old. If the beast survived the trip, I might not survive my cranky mechanic's wrath. He has a unique fondness for the machine, which keeps our odd relationship in balance. I tolerate his antics, and he keeps the old Mercedes 280 SE running like it was new. I don't know how he does it, and I'm scared to find out.
But that's another story. Probably several stories, to be honest.
I met Merle for the first time when he signed me into the residence hall. I don't know what he was expecting a paranormal investigator to look like, but it wasn't a short middle-aged man with a small gut, wild hear and wearing second-hand dress clothes. I'm more a bookworm than an action hero.
My hair was more wild than usual since it had become windblown during the two-block walk from my parked rental car. But even when I try to look nice, my hair is determined to make the wrong kind of first impression. I got tired of barbers complaining about it, so I cut it myself. When the mood strikes me.
In his dorm room, Merle relayed his story to me while he sat on a futon and I occupied the desk chair. I tried to act calm when I stood up after hearing that Mortilus had sat in the same chair. But I'm not a convincing actor.
I have never met a vampire before in person, nor am I eager to be introduced to one. I have heard rumors about their whereabouts and all those leads I actively avoid. Compared to other supernatural experts, I know very little about the subject of vampires, but enough to suspect Merle was being manipulated by impostors.
Vampires don't get hungry as frequently as Mortilus does. Even if there were several others like Mortilus, the amount of blood drained from Merle and others like him had to be more than enough to keep the largest coven satiated.
The biggest giveaway was how the blood was acquired. When vampires are hungry, they don't exchange 'gifts.' They hunt.
Merle did not believe Mortilus could be a fraud.
"But, the blood. Why would anyone want my blood or anyone else's? Why do they need so much of it?"
"Human blood is highly sought after by advanced practitioners of dark magic."
"So, will I develop a thirst for it?"
"They don't drink it. They use it in their spells. Ones more complicated than you performed."
"Their spells are not as impulsive. They need to be planned. Decisions need to be made. Ones that require a certain amount of education or experience to make without soul-consuming consequences."
"This doesn't sound good."
"Dark magic always incurs a price. The power for the spell is always on loan. The blood used by advanced practitioners is to cast a spell on someone else's credit. Kinda like using someone else's social security number to take out a loan in someone else's name."
The phrase 'spell fraud' is how I would describe it to someone who wasn't a victim.
"That's what Amber did to me, too."
"Similar idea. Different method. There was no spell work on her end. Just manipulation."
"So they get all the power, and I'm the one who has to pay the price?"
"I believe a more common phrase is cursed."
"What do I do? Should I stop giving them blood?"
"You could refuse the gifts, but I think we both know they'll find some way to compel you to continue or demand something even worse from you."
He leaned forward and covered his face with both hands. Once the first sob started, the next was not far behind.
There are several ways to comfort a person dealing with the trauma of a paranormal event, and I know none of them. If I did, more of my clients might pay their bills.
I maintained my silence as he came to terms with his strange new, and unforgiving reality. If he was waiting for me to say something, he would be waiting a long time.
Ten minutes passed, with just the two of us in the room. His breathing became more controlled, and he pulled out a handkerchief to dry his eyes.
He asked, "What should I do?"
"The best thing you can do is go into hiding."
"I won't be able to finish school?"
"If these people can find you, I don't think they'll be so forgiving that you ran."
The tears started bubbling up again.
I continued, "I can help get you set up, but I'm going to need some cash to get started."
"Sure, take as much as you want. I don't want it anymore."
I had a fierce temptation to offer to take the bankers' box off his hands. It would at least solve one of his problems and ten thousand of mine.
He pulled out the box from under a pile of dirty clothes. It smelled of mildew and dirty socks. I had never seen so much cash.
He gestured for me to take it directly from the box. I hesitated. The curse of dark magic doesn't rub off on people, but I was uncomfortable with putting my hands in the vessel that manifested so much trouble. No. I was afraid.
My fears of the paranormal are something I confront in every case. This time was no different. I overcame my hesitation and picked up five bundles of twenty-dollar bills, totaling $2,500. I shuffled my thumb through the stack. The bills felt like any other twenty I had held.
I stuffed two of the bundles inside my jacket pocket, two more in my coat pocket, and the final one in my back pocket. Having so much money that it was difficult to carry without anyone noticing was a new problem for me.
"I'll be in touch."
He nodded and waved goodbye.
All things considered, He had seemed polite and put together. After the door closed behind me, something crashed inside the room. I paused and heard another one. Merle had moved on from sobbing into his hands to throwing things against the wall.
Just because I'm terrible at comforting someone doesn't mean I don't want to. I stood in the hallway beneath the flicker of fluorescent lights and washed in the sound of a stereo blasting music for the floor to hear, whether they wanted to or not.
The best thing I could do was find him a safe place to make his first move. But it wouldn't cure me of the nagging guilt that I could have done more. A dozen questions swarmed my head as I started toward the stairwell at the end of the hall. Away from the booming music.
Merle's life had changed in ways he
didn't think possible, and the only advice I could offer was for him
to run from the people who were taking advantage of him. But he
wouldn't be able to run from the consequences of using dark magic or
the curses Mortilus was placing on him.
I reached for the handle to the stairwell only to find it moved away from me. A woman with dark hair walked through the door and into me.
"Sorry," I said.
She backed up and gave me a dirty stare. There was electricity in her eyes. Her hair had been graced by a stylist, and she wore dark clothes that were too expensive for a college student. At least the ones living in the residence halls.
She sniffed. Nothing exaggerated, but I
could tell she was smelling a scent from me.
I don't wear cologne or aftershave. The only thing that possessed an odor was the cash from the banker's box.
"Sorry," I repeated, "Didn't shower this morning."
"You're not a student."
"Visiting my nephew. You?"
If a stare could throw a punch, hers would have knocked me out.
I was blocking her path into the hallway. She nodded for me to move.
I stepped aside, and there was no
surprise that a complete stranger had followed her orders.
There wasn't a thank you, just a "Get lost, old man before you cause any trouble."
I walked down the stairs but turned around on the first flight. The door on the stairwell had a small rectangular window into the hall. From there, I could see the woman knocking on Merle's door. I continued down the stairwell before Tiffany could catch me spying on her, and I prayed that Merle could hold it together.