You Can't Take It With You
Someone is killing the tenants of slum landlords in a very peculiar way.
The tiled room stank of death and bleach. Detective Constable Mason was glad she’d skipped breakfast as her stomach turned.
“So what have you got?” she asked the pathologist across the table, ignoring the covered body as best she could.
Dr Taibbi flipped open his metal clipboard. “Cause of death: exsanguination. No defensive wounds, nothing to suggest a struggle or resistance.”
“That matches the scene, no damage to doors or windows, nothing broken or out of place. So where did the blood go?”
“Well, the only external mark is here,” he flicked back the sheet and pointed to the dead man’s neck with his pen.
The young police officer bent to see. “A bite,” she said, swallowing her nausea.
“Yup. Probably human,” Taibbi said. “If it wasn’t for these, I’d say definitely.” He brought over a magnifying glass on a stand and pointed out the two deep punctures right over the artery.
“You’re not trying to tell me…” Mason began.
“Yup. Vampire.” Under Mason’s withering stare, he chuckled. “All right, a lover of Vampire movies. Someone went to a lot of trouble to make this look like a bite from the undead.”
“So, what, we’re looking for a Twilight fan?” Mason sighed.
“Arrest anyone who sparkles in the sunlight,” Taibbi laughed. “Not for this, just on principle.”
“If I have to wait for a sunny day to solve this, I’ll be retired. Any luck with the bite impression?”
“No match on dental records yet, but if you bring someone in, I’ll be able to tell you if it was them. Still waiting on DNA.”
“But how would someone drain a body?”
“Same way we do here - large-bore needle, pipe the blood down the drain. If they’re still alive, the heart does all the work for you, five litres gone just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “Oh, you meant without a struggle? The amount of blood left in the body means my tests were inconclusive for anaesthetic but I’d imagine they were drugged. Or mesmerised by the mystical powers of a grave walker…” he wiggled his fingers in front of her face.
“Thanks, I’ll be sure to check into that,” Mason replied.
A week had passed, grey and damp, and DC Mason was no closer to finding a suspect. Barely any DNA had been found besides the victim’s and that had not been enough to search for. It looked to be one of those cases that goes nowhere. Her colleagues had stopped hanging garlic around her desk each morning, and it had been days since she’d found a crucifix taped to her locker door. So when the second victim was found, she was at the crime scene as soon as the call came in.
“Dracula rides again!” Taibbi greeted her as she ducked under the tape. “No sign of a break-in, body’s drained, only two drops on the floor.”
“Same bite mark?” Mason knelt beside the body. This time the victim was an elderly woman, thin and frail. The bruise from the bite mark was angry on her pale neck.
“Nope, this one has both lower cuspids, look. Bigger mouth too. Looks like you’ve got two of the undead on the loose.”
She ignored his comment. “Could the killer be using dentures or fake teeth to throw us off?” Mason stood, her head spinning as the blood drained to her legs.
“They wouldn’t be strong enough to bruise like that. But yeah, I’ve bought a line-up of every cheap set of costume fangs in London. I’ll check this one against them when I get the body back to my lab.”
Muttering thanks, DC Mason began to pace around the small flat, picturing the life of the victim now cold in the centre of the room. The single bedroom held a thin lumpy mattress without a bedframe, and the tiny bathroom lacked windows. The rest of the place was just one small room. Cheap furniture appeared scattered at random until she realised it was placed to cover the larger holes in the carpet. Peeling wallpaper revealed the damp walls beneath and the ceiling was stained and bowed in a few places. The few cabinets on the wall which served as kitchen lacked doors and showed a handful of dented tins and near-empty packets. Nothing worth stealing or killing over she thought. The only thing that looked to have had any attention paid to it was an incomplete cross-stitch piece on the arm of the chair, scarlet thread bunched on top. On her way out she noticed the lock on the front door was new; shiny metal compared to the corroded and filthy handle beneath it.
Mason rapidly learned that the tenant herself had paid for the new lock. She had felt her new landlord wasn’t taking seriously enough the thought the old landlord might be inclined to come back and destroy the place. As if you’d notice, Mason thought. She’d not been able to find the previous landlord; he’d skipped town when the mortgage got too far in arrears. The new landlord, a chubby man called Hopkins claimed he hadn’t yet received the new keys from his tenant. In addition he had a strong alibi for the time of the murder.
The third body was found a week later. Mason arrived at the scene to find Mr Hopkins waiting for her.
“You’re the landlord here too?” Mason asked.
He nodded. “Neighbours called me saying they hadn’t seen her in a few days and she wasn’t answering the door. They asked me to come and check on her. We found…” He shuddered.
“So you have a key?” He nodded again. “What about Morgan Street?” she asked, naming the first crime scene.
“Not one of mine,” he replied. “I keep to this side of the river.”
The fourth victim, a young nurse who worked at the local hospital was also a tenant of Hopkins. Mason had him placed under observation and followed. No-one was surprised when he turned out to lead the mundane life of a slum-landlord. Round-the-clock surveillance showed that when not at home he was to either at a local betting shop, the pub opposite or out hassling one of his tenants for rent arrears. A probe of his finances turned up a few dozen run-down properties south of the Thames, each rented out to a low-income family who had been in residence for several years. He was a recent entrant to the ‘buy to rent’ market, and it wasn’t clear where he had got the money to get started. She felt sure he had some illicit funding, probably the drug trade.
Mason’s Sergeant pulled the plug on the surveillance after a fortnight, when nothing linked Hopkins to the murders or anything illegal.
“The press are baying for blood,” he said, “social media’s going nuts with the Vampire theory, and we’ve got nothing to tell any of them. Hopkins was a good hunch, but it didn’t pan out. What’s your next move?”
“There must be a connection,” Mason argued. “I’ll keep looking for it, I just need time.”
“I’m sure there is - but it’ll not be your problem much longer if you don’t find something.”
Victim number five was a drug dealer.
Everything about this case was different - the lock on the door was broken, the room was ransacked and a lock-box pried open and emptied. Forensics revealed traces of cannabis and cocaine inside. The working theory would have been a rival dealer killing him and stealing his stock and cash, except for the now-familiar bite marks and lack of blood.
“Maybe the other victims were drug users,” Mason suggested to Taibbi. “They were all skinny, sick-looking.”
“No chance,” he told her.
“But you said yourself that the toxicology was impossible with so little blood.”
He shook his head. “Chronic drug use shows up in the hair, fingernails, cells, all over. We’d have seen it. Sorry, Mason, but none of the previous victims was using.”
Worse news followed; Hopkins wasn’t the landlord. It was a man called Robinson.
It heartened Mason to learn that he was also the landlord of the Morgan Street property where the first victim had been. Mason spoke to him on the phone and, shaken, he agreed to come down to the Police Station the next day for an interview.
“I might have something,” he said, “but I can’t be sure just yet. I’ll fill you in tomorrow.”
Robinson was late. Mason checked her watch for the fourth time in as many minutes, debating how late he had to be before asking her Sergeant to send someone to fetch him. A knock on the door of the interview room startled her.
“About time,” she muttered as she opened the door. A uniformed constable stood there. “Where is he?” Mason asked.
“Err, you’d better come with me,” the officer said.
Taibbi was waiting for her when they entered the morgue. “Well, this one’s different at least,” he said, before throwing back the sheet covering the large body on the table.
Robinson was split in half from chin to groin, and even to her untrained eye she could tell he was missing most of his internal organs. Fighting her rising nausea she looked at the pathologist.
“Why would you call me down here in the middle of your damn post-mortem?” she snapped.
“I didn’t, this is how he arrived,” Taibbi replied. “No bite-mark, a lot of blood, and missing his tongue, among many rather more vital parts.”
“His tongue?” Mason asked. “He said he might have had some information for me, do you think someone killed him to silence him?”
“Not my place to speculate,” Taibbi said. “But I am confident it wasn’t a Werewolf. Because last night wasn’t a full moon,” he added.
“He was my only lead,” Mason sighed. “If you find anything useful, let me know, won’t you? And before you ask, no I’m not getting you any silver bullets.”
DC Mason was reassigned over her protests. With no leads, her Sergeant had explained, he had no choice but to either close the case or pass it on ‘up the chain’.
“I’m sure it involves Hopkins, somehow,” she said. “Let me follow up.”
“There’s nothing to follow up,” the Sergeant replied. “He’s a scumbag, but he’s not doing anything illegal. If you had something else, I might keep you on it, but have to let it go.”
Despite the new detectives, bodies kept piling up at a rate of around one a week across the city. Each had a similar though never identical bite-mark on the left side of the neck, with two deeper punctures penetrating the carotid artery. In all cases there was so little blood left inside the body that any toxicological checks were worthless. DNA was absent or detected only in such tiny quantities as to be useless. They sent bite impressions to local dentists to find someone who might match the pattern, to no avail.
Whenever her new duties allowed, Mason continued to look into Hopkins’ background. She enlisted the help of one of the civilian admin staff, who could look up the history of each of his properties.
What became clear was that each of the properties he owned had been repossessed by the bank, after the former owner had fallen behind on the mortgage. Hopkins had purchased them at a knock-down rate, on the condition that the existing tenants not be evicted.
Recent regulations prevented banks from reselling a property they had taken possession of for at least one year. The idea was to reduce homelessness and dissuade the banks from repossessing a property in the first place. In practice, a loophole written into the rules allowed the banks to sell anyway, and transferring the obligation to maintain the current residents on to the new owner. The unfortunate Robinson had also been doing much the same before his demise.
The interview had started well enough, Mason felt. She’d brought Hopkins in for questioning after a brief argument with her Sergeant. Mason had convinced him that this latest murder was different enough from the previous ones to constitute a new crime, and that with her prior knowledge of Hopkins she was the right person to interview him. He’d agreed, but she was under strict instructions not to interfere with the ongoing inquiries into the case he had removed her from.
They don’t believe he’s involved in those, so how can asking him interfere? she reasoned.
It startled Hopkins to hear of the death of Robinson. Yes, he knew him. No, he hadn’t seen him lately. No, he didn’t know of any enemies, apart from his tenants perhaps.
“Why aren’t you interviewing them? They’re much more likely to be holding a grudge than I am,” he protested.
“We are examining all possibilities,” Mason replied. “And you were both competitors in a very, dare I say, cut-throat industry?”
“Hardly, I had my territory, and he had his. I told you, I keep to my side.”
“Nice little gentleman’s agreement, was it?” Mason asked. “Divide up the city with a handshake? Was that his idea? Or yours?”
Hopkins didn’t answer. His eyes flicked to the camera recording the interview.
“Something you want to tell me?” Mason asked.
“I can’t…” he replied. “Not here, not with that on.”
“Fair enough, but it might hurt your defence if you don’t stay on the record. Interview suspended.” Mason leaned over and stopped the recordings.
“It’ll hurt a lot more if they find out,” Hopkins whispered.
After a long pause, Hopkins spoke in a low voice. “They set up the areas, decide who gets which bits. Loan us the cash to buy up the repossessions and we pay them back with the rent, minus a small handling fee.”
“Let me guess, Robinson got greedy? Who are they?”
“I don’t think he was skimming, I think they knew he was coming to see you. You’ve got to protect me, if they found out I talked I’d end up like him.” He shuddered.
“I can’t do anything if you don’t tell me who they are,” Mason urged. “Local gangs? Organised crime?”
Hopkins struggled for some time. Mason sat back, arms folded, waiting for him to decide what to do.
When he spoke, it was in a voice so low Mason had to strain to hear him.
Mason steeled herself before entering the local branch of Morgan Bank. If the Sergeant got wind of what she was about to do, she’d be for the high jump. Hopkin’s off-the-record comments were nowhere near enough to issue a search warrant, so she didn’t have any choice but to bluff her way in.
The young man stood at the welcome desk gave her a forced grin. He launched into his customer greeting, so frequently said it had lost all meaning.
“I’d like to speak with your mortgage advisor, are they available?”
“Do you have an appointment?”
Morgan flashed her Warrant card, hoping this pimply youth wouldn’t ask too many questions. Once you had a foot in the door, people assumed you had a right to be there. She breathed a sigh of relief as he scurried off. DC Mason watched through the glass walls of the office as he explained what was going on to an unseen figure.
When she left the office, the mortgage advisor was a tall but rotund woman, her jacket buttons straining as she strode across the bank’s lobby. Her grin was less forced, but a lot more intimidating.
“And how can I help the police today?” She smiled but did not extend her hand.
“Well, Ms -” Mason read her name badge “- Walker, I wanted to discuss some of your business associates.” Seeing that the woman was about to protest, she pressed on. “I understand you can’t reveal private information about customers, but since this is a murder enquiry I’m sure you wouldn’t refuse to assist us, would you?” The greeter paled.
Even Ms Walker seemed rattled. “Well, of course not, I just can’t imagine what you expect me to know about murders.”
“Just the one murder,” Mason replied. “Unless you have information to the contrary?”
Now the advisor was flustered. “No, I don’t. I don’t know about anything like that, I can assure you.”
“So you don’t know a Mr Robinson? Bought several properties from your bank with your funds?”
“Well, that would all be dealt with through head office,” Ms Walker protested.
“Odd, because this is your signature, isn’t it?” Mason produced a stack of folders and opened the top one with a flourish. “I thought so. So how about we sit down in your office and you tell me all about it?”
“I wasn’t lying when I said head office handled it all,” Ms Walker said. “They tell us which properties to resell, how much to advance the intermediaries, I just sign the paperwork.”
“So who do you speak to? Who tells you all this?” Mason asked.
“I’m not sure I ought to say. But they wouldn’t want to hurt an intermediary, they’re how we make back our money on the repossessed properties. With poor Mr Robinson dead, we’ll have to start over again with someone new.”
“If the tenants die, you can sell the house outright, can’t you? You only have an obligation to those living there at the time of repossession.”
“Well yes, but Mr Robinson wasn’t a tenant,” Ms Walker said. Mason let the implication hang for a moment. “Are you saying…?”
“I’m afraid so. Several tenants have also died in very suspicious circumstances. And he’s not the only one - Mr Hopkins is one of yours, right?”
“Oh God, is he dead too?” Ms Walker’s hands flew to her mouth.
“No, but he’s also losing tenants. So if you know anything at all, I need you to tell me. Who do you report to?”
Mason convinced Taibbi to join her when she met with the bank’s Head of Repossessions, Coulter.
“What do you need me to do, brandish the crucifix as you douse him with holy water?” Taibbi joked as they sat waiting outside Coulter’s office. “I didn’t bring any stakes, so we may have to improvise.” He shook his umbrella threateningly, sending a brief rain shower over Mason.
Mason sighed. “I told you, he’s just a functionary. I don’t believe he’s got anything to do with the killings, but he might know something. You’re just here as my backup, it seemed prudent.” But I’m beginning to regret it, she thought.
“So why not get some officially? I mean I love a field trip as much as the next guy but I’m hardly in my element here.”
Mason suspected he knew she had no evidence compelling enough, but was spared having to explain by Coulter’s secretary.
“He’ll see you now.”
Any fear that Coulter might constitute a threat to her vanished at the sight of the pale, gigantic man behind the ornate desk. When he stood, grunting, to welcome them he was revealed to be only of average height but enormously fat. When he sat back in his chair it groaned beneath him, and his body continued to jiggle under his expensive suit for some time.
“And what can I do for the police this fine day?” Coulter said. Mason outlined the details of the murders and sat back to watch his reaction.
“I leave all the day-to-day to our local branches, so I was not aware of this.” He tapped on his computer’s keyboard for a few moments before grinning at them. “I’m sorry but I won’t be able to help you any further.”
Mason was about to protest, but before she could speak Taibbi stood up and extended his hand over the table. “Thank you for your time, Mr Coulter, I appreciate you’re a busy man.”
Coulter extended his own arm reflexively and shook Taibbi’s hand. The pathologist grasped his right hand over the back of the fat man’s, and Coulter screamed. Smoke rose from their joined hands.
“I knew it!” Taibbi yelled, releasing the banker. An ugly red burn spread across the back of Coulter’s hand.
“What the hell did you do?” Mason cried, leaping to her feet. Taibbi showed her what he had clasped hidden in his hand.
A clove of garlic.
“I told you, didn’t I?” He laughed. “Who else is a vampire then? Walker? Robinson? Hopkins?”
Coulter nursed his damaged hand, staring at the police as if believing them insane. Then he dropped the act, shook his head and laughed.
“Just me, and a few like me in other banks. We’ve found ourselves some very useful positions.” He pressed a button under his desk and there was a loud click as the door locked. “So much easier to feed somewhere indoors and private than trying to snatch someone from the streets. And this way we can get around all those tricky little rules.”
“Rules? You mean the banking regulations, forcing you to keep people in their homes?” Mason asked. “So you kill them?”
“Well, that is a definite side-benefit,” Coulter agreed. “But I was referring to the rules that prevent a vampire entering a home without an invitation.”
Taibbi slapped his forehead. “The home owner has to invite you in.”
“And if the home is owned by one of my assistants, someone in thrall to me…”
“Look, I don’t care why you’re doing it, you’re under arrest,” Mason said, reaching behind herself for her handcuffs. Coulter moved so fast he appeared to vanish from behind the desk and reappear behind Mason, his hands on her shoulders. He had thrown Taibbi against the locked door, and the pathologist was slumped in place, unconscious or worse. Mason found herself unable to move, his strength pinning her in place but another force also preventing her from moving. She tried to kick his legs, headbutt back against his nose, but it locked her into place. She felt his icy breath on her neck.
“No-one was supposed to care, not about those poor saps. Killing Robinson was supposed to throw you off the scent, send you down the garden path. You’re a pain in the neck,” he chuckled, his body shaking, “but not much longer.” He leaned in, mouth agape, to bite her neck.
And then he screamed again. Taibbi had hauled himself over the carpeted floor and tucked the crushed garlic clove into the top of Coulter’s sock. The giant vampire writhed, trying to remove the garlic without letting go of Mason, but his spell over her broke. Mason ducked aside, spun around and drove the wooden tip of Taibbi’s umbrella into the banker’s chest with all of her fear-fuelled strength. The flesh parted, the umbrella sinking half of its length into the man before Mason regained her balance. She stood face to face with Coulter as his screams redoubled, bloody specks of spittle flying from his contorted mouth. As he struggled to free himself, he became less human, his true nature revealing itself. His hair appeared thinner, his face whiter, his ears higher and his teeth longer. He let out a sickening gurgling sound and blood fountained from his mouth.
Mason recoiled, wiping her face and eyes, only to see the vampire collapse and dissolve into a slimy puddle of blood so dark as to be almost black. The umbrella lay submerged in it, steaming.
“Nice one,” Taibbi croaked. He was clutching his ribs with one arm, the other twisted at an alarming angle. His eyes were glazed and Mason suspected he had a concussion. “But we still have a problem.”
“What?” Mason braced herself for another attack, looking around frantically.
Taibbi chuckled, then winced. “How are we going to explain any of this to your Sergeant?”