Here’s the penultimate part of “The Edward System.” This chunk turned out significantly longer than I thought it would; I expected it to be closer to the length of the second and fourth part. In this section, Trent seems to have gotten out of the debacle in Union Falls unscathed and puts his energies toward revising the Edward System to prevent future disasters on the level of Noelle, but his luck is about to turn faster than you can say “supernatural stalker.” If you haven’t read any of this story yet and want to catch up, here’s parts one, two, three and four.
The Edward System
Five weeks pass, during which most of Trent’s meals consist of rats, strays and the random hobo, before Trent takes his first victim under Edward System 2.0. The lucky girl, Melinda Arwinkle, is a college freshman whose interests include trance music, ecstasy and paranormal romances. Her death is the end result of a complete revision of the Edward System—its basic tenets, its precautionary measures, even its targets.
It turns out it’s remarkably easy to infiltrate a college campus even if you’re not signed up for classes and haven’t paid a cent of tuition, and both the number of students on campus any given day and the impersonal nature of American higher education lends a would-be murderer far more anonymity than does bouncing from one small town high school to the next. Knowing all that now, Trent wonders why he didn’t just start with college girls to begin with. If he had to think about it, he’d probably say it’s because he died a high school junior in an age when colleges were still mostly reserved for those pursuing professional careers and had exclusive entrance policies; today’s colleges, which don’t feel all that different from high school to Trent, surprise him with their liberal enrollment standards.
While Melinda’s the sweetest meal Trent has had since the disaster in Union Falls, she’s a little heavy and if not full-on diabetic was certainly headed in that direction from the taste of her blood. All the same, Trent’s willing to mark Melinda down as a flawless victory. For one thing, the entire process from introduction to ingestion happens in under forty-eight hours, which fits well within the new seventy-two hour limit that Edward System 2.0 places on Trent’s hunts. No more stretching the courtship out so crazy bitches like Noelle can stalk and study him until they figure out what he really is.
Another new rule is “Never miss the first opportunity.” Going to the fairgrounds with the intention of eating Noelle there was a critical mistake. What he should have done was drive to some deserted parking lot or other lonely place on the outskirts of town under the guise of “hey, I want to show you this spot,” pulled Noelle out of the car when they arrived (by her hair if need be) and drank until his stomach was distended. Melinda makes following the new rule easy when she pops what looks like an aspirin with a smiley face into her mouth while she’s sitting in the Maverick’s passenger seat. She dies, pupils the size of Skittles and too cottonmouthed to scream properly, in an alley behind a club on fourth avenue, after which Trent goes into the club alone and loses forty minutes stroking the padding on the edge of the bar because he suddenly finds its texture fascinating.
The second victim of Edward System 2.0, Sonia something or other, is a local enrolled at Iowa State University, and killing her is so simple that Trent almost feels a little cheated; she dies the same day Trent meets her, shirtless and straddling him while he sits on the edge of the bed in her dorm room. Another time, Trent might have gone along with her obvious intentions before opening her veins, but he spots a copy of New Moon on Sonia’s bookshelf while she’s whispering R-rated suggestions in his ear, and Trent feels the sudden urge to put an end to her life before she can utter another syllable. He tosses the book in the garbage on the way out.
After that, the victims start to bleed together again, and as another month passes Trent feels himself moving on from the near-disaster that was Union Falls. Once in a while he runs up against one of his new rules, such as “No girls who write fanfiction” or “Never meet her friends before the day of the kill,” but he’s still able to feed on a weekly basis, and soon he’s worked his way northeast to Chicago, a city he hasn’t visited since 1987. On his third day there he takes a sophomore from Roosevelt, but she’s mostly something to tide him over while he looks for a real challenge. It’s time he found some proper prey to prove conclusively to himself that he’s back in his groove.
Oddly, if his undead body wasn’t incapable of producing allergic reactions, he’d swear he was having one to that last meal; his arms start itching the day after he eats her, and it’s not like he’s changed his fabric softener or shampoo any time recently. But the issue passes before Trent can be bothered to do anything about it, and he returns to the hunt.
That’s what takes him to Excalibur that Saturday, where a would-be dental hygienist from the city college meets up with him at the bar. She’s goth or emo or whatever the nihilists who are into leather are calling themselves this year, black paint on her lips and skull-shaped barrettes in her hot pink hair, and if it wasn’t for her fake ID she’d have to wait another year and a half to be here with him tonight; of course, it’s not like Trent’s driver’s license is legit either, him being both dead and under age as well, but the better part of age (especially when your age doesn’t show on your face) is wisdom, and Trent knows how to talk his way past a bouncer. If things go well, Trent thinks he might be too preoccupied to eat his victim until tomorrow morning; it’s been too long since he played with his food, and the way the strobe lights make the glitter on the girl’s cheeks sparkle has him feeling frisky.
There’s an itch in between Trent’s shoulder blades for the better part of the night, but it doesn’t feel like something that scratching will help. It’s more a mental annoyance than a physical one, though it does remind him of an old memory he’d rather not dwell on, so he does his best to put it out of his mind while he eye-fucks tonight’s delicacy on the dance floor.
He doesn’t notice the driver of the Tundra watching him when he goes into the club, nor does he notice when the Tundra follows his Maverick back to the would-have-been dental hygienist’s apartment. But he does notice the broken passenger side window when he comes down to the Maverick the next morning, still buzzing from fresh blood and adrenaline, all of which is replaced with a sudden sensation like he’s been punched in the stomach when he sees the manila envelope laid carefully over a nest of glass shards on the passenger seat. Hand shaking, Trent picks up the envelope and turns it over a few times looking for obvious booby-traps; poison needles or most chemical agents won’t affect him, but there’s no use getting stabbed in the finger or spending the next hour sneezing. Satisfied, he opens the envelope and studies the drawing it contains.
The style is what Japanohpile teenage girls on the internet call “chibi.” Edward and Jacob from Twilight, Captain Jack Sparrow and what looks like a werewolf in a letterman jacket look on as an excited girl tackle-hugs a teenage vampire in a black leather jacket. A fiery orange heart rises above their heads like a helium balloon. Written at the bottom of the page in purple ink is “Soon, my love.” There’s no signature, but Trent doesn’t need one to know who it’s supposed to be from.
Two days later, Trent hands the drawing to Murray inside the older vampire’s basement apartment in Detroit. How long has it been since he last saw Murray—six years? Seven? Trent’s mind can’t seem to focus on the small details the last couple days. His mind hasn’t been working right since he saw the goddamn envelope now lying next to the untouched cup of coffee cooling on Murray’s kitchen table.
Tall, red-haired and freckled forehead to foot, Murray was in his mid or late thirties when he was turned; he’s a little sketchy on his exact age (possibly, Trent has speculated in the past, because he’s unsure himself), but he’ll admit his rebirth into undeath happened in 1943 during the Detroit race riot. After that, he spent a decade wandering the United States and sampling the local flavors, much the same as Trent has been doing the past decade, before settling back down in his lifelong home city, which is where he’s stayed since and the place Trent first met him in 1979.
It was Murray, drawing on three decades of experience at the time, who taught Trent how to make fake IDs so he could blend in with his mortal prey as the years passed and his face refused to age; how to dispose of his victims’ bodies in ways that minimized the chance they’d ever be found; how to sneak quietly up on his prey and strike quickly before they could make a peep. The older vampire’s been around long enough to have met plenty of others of their kind as they’ve passed through the city, and the conversations he’s had with them, combined with Murray’s natural inquisitiveness, has given him what’s probably the best understanding of their kind to be had on this side of the Atlantic Ocean; he’s been known to refer to himself as a vampthropologist. Trent can’t think of anyone better to give him the answers he needs.
“Not a bad likeness,” Murray says when he hands the paper back. “And you’re sure this Noelle girl is the one who drew it?” Trent nods. He spent enough time looking at her other artwork when he first picked her as a victim to know her hand when he sees it. “Alright. So… did she draw this before or after you bit her?”
“I don’t know. Does it matter?”
“Well, are you positive she’s the one who broke your window and put the drawing in your car? Couldn’t it have been this Dominique you told me about? Maybe he found this drawing after she died.”
Trent thinks about that for a moment. What if it’s Dominique who’s found him and not Noelle? Or hell, it could just as well be that one of those crazy, self-styled vampire hunters heard about Trent from someone, probably Dominique, and has tracked him down; you see those deluded would-be-Buffys once in a while, and Trent can never help but grin when he eats them. But there’s something in Trent’s gut that tells him that’s not the case, that it really is Noelle in the permanently preserved flesh, and the elder vampire grimaces when Trent says as much.
“Then it’s probably her.”
“What, because I have a hunch?”
“It’s probably more than a hunch. Have you ever heard about lineage resonance?” The look on Trent’s face must be enough of an answer for Murray because he barely pauses before launching into his explanation. “Okay. You remember what I told you about the infection that transforms humans into vampires?”
“Yeah.” According to Murray, attributing vampirism to supernatural causes is just old-fashioned human superstition. The Asian and European vampire clans (who are far more organized than their comparably immature American counterparts) have known for the past century that the secret to their undeath is a bacteria-like microorganism that secretes an enzyme as a side-effect of their digestive processes which indefinitely preserves the host’s organs and tissues. Those “bugs,” as Murray calls them, feed off proteins in the blood at a much quicker rate than any body could compensate for, meaning the undead host so infected must ingest blood from other donors to avoid a more permanent death. “If you bite someone and don’t take enough blood to prevent the infection from becoming self-sustaining, you get a new vampire, right?”
“That’s the gist. How much of this girl had you drunk before Dominique showed up?”
Trent’s avoided thinking about that day since it happened so he’s surprised at how easy it is to remember the little details when he tries. “More than half. I don’t know, seventy, eighty percent. It’s not like she had a dipstick on her heart.”
Murray grunts. “Were you full?”
“Not quite, but getting there.” Trent sips at his coffee, but it’s gone lukewarm. “I looked up the news on the internet a couple days later, and they said she died of blood loss at the motel before the ambulance could get there.”
“Maybe we should check the news again.”
“For what, stories about vampires? I’m pretty sure that’d be on the national news. It’d at least be on the ticker on the bottom of the screen.”
The older vampire sighs. “How did you feel when you rose, Trent?”
If there’s one memory above all others that Trent doesn’t like to think about, it’s the claustrophobic nightmare of escaping his coffin and burrowing up through the dirt the night after his funeral. “Confused. Energetic. Hungry.”
“Right. So if Noelle rose, chances are she grabbed a bite to eat before she was far from home. Did Union Falls have any other murders later that week?”
Trent boots up his laptop and hops on an unsecured wireless network; there’s one in just about every neighborhood in America, which is lucky for Trent because the only other computer in Murray’s apartment is covered in dust and has a 14k modem. Google pops up a link to Union Falls’ local ABC affiliate. It’s worse than he feared. Trent turns the laptop so Murray can read the lead, which tells Trent all he needs to know and then some.
A senior at Union Falls High School wanted for questioning
in conjunction with the death of a fellow student whose
body disappeared from its grave the night after her funeral has
been officially declared a missing person by the Union Falls
“Let me check one other thing.” Trent logs into Deviantart and searches for *~KawaiiKuriFan29~*. Sure enough, the account’s still active, with the newest post made a week ago. Trent clicks the link, already knowing what he’ll see, but that doesn’t stop him from slumping in his chair when he sees a digital scan of the drawing from the envelope pop onto the screen.
“This is my finalized version!” reads the accompanying blog post. “It took me a while to decide just what should be in this picture. I must have drawn like FIFTY rough drafts. I hope he likes it!” The comments, apparently left by fellow Deviants unaware that their e-friend is no longer among the breathing, are full of animated emoticons and assurances that Trent, who is mentioned several times by name, will love the drawing and see how much Noelle cares about him.
Looking over Noelle’s profile, Trent spots some of those rough drafts she mentioned. Some are just pencil scribblings and others are inked and colored as if they were final versions that Noelle only rejected once they were complete. It’s obvious the crazy girl put a lot of thought and effort into designing the picture she left in his car. But none of the drawings or blog posts explain how she found him so Trent asks Murray what he’s sure is the relevant question in that regard. “What’s the resonance thing about?”
“It’s something the bugs in our blood do. When a vampire’s new, the bugs in his or her blood are the same bugs that were in his or her sire’s blood. Those bugs evolve over time just like any other isolated population in a new breeding environment.” Murray notices the look on Trent’s face, smiles and changes his tact. “Here’s where I’m going with this, kid: the bugs in your body and the bugs in her body are still able to talk to each other for a while because they’re still the same bugs. Until the bugs in her body have gone through a few hundred generations and adapted to living in her system, they’ll make her secrete a chemical that’s identical to the one your bugs make you secrete, and if she’s anywhere near you, she can hone in on it like a pig sniffing for truffles.”
“She can smell me?”
“It’s really more of a skin thing, like an itch.”
Trent catches himself rubbing his arm where it was itching earlier this week. “How the hell do you know all this? And how long until it goes away?”
“There was a guy in the Ukraine who did experiments on new vamps,” Murray says. His tone suggests the new vamps might not have been willing participants. “He figured it takes about six months before their bugs have evolved to the point where they’re at a healthy equilibrium with their hosts. That’s probably why new vamps have to eat more often than those of us who have been around for a while. He claimed that for the first few months, he could be in a room adjacent to where the new vamps he’d sired were being held and point through the wall at them, and that he was usually accurate within a couple inches.”
The conversation hits a lull after that. Murray gets on the phone and makes a few calls while he paces back and forth in the living room. The coffee in Trent’s cup is cold, but he drinks it anyway just to deal with the dryness in his mouth. He’s thinking about the summer of 1977 and an older woman (much older, it turned out) with sad eyes who made his skin itch the second time he met her, and of how he ripped out her throat in the center of an urban basketball court the third and last time their paths crossed. Trent surfs through Noelle’s Deviantart pieces a bit more, then puts away his laptop just as Murray walks back into the room.
“I know a guy who knows a guy who has the keys to a place on Lake St. Clair. It’s been foreclosed on so no one’s there, and with the market the way it is, it’s not likely anyone will come by for the tour soon.” Murray pats Trent on the shoulder. “I’d suggest you cool your heels there for a good two or three months. You’ll have to get used to eating the local fauna for a bit. Your gut’s going to throw a hissy fit wanting one of those teenage girls you’re so fond of, but you’ll live, and I might be able to run a live one out to you once in a while to keep you from going too stir-crazy. Once this crazy bitch’s bugs have settled down a bit, you won’t have to worry so much about her finding you anymore.”
The sky’s getting dark by the time Trent pulls the Maverick into the lake cabin’s gravel driveway. He starts to swear when the key doesn’t seem to fit the lock on the front door, but after a little jiggling the knob turns. Trent carries his suitcase into the living room, where the logs of the ceiling angle up from the tops of the walls to meet at a ninety degree angle almost thirty feet above his head.
It’s an older log house, probably built twenty or thirty years ago if Trent had his guess, some yuppie’s trophy of a vacation house in a less turbulent economy. Most of the personal effects seem to have been cleared out already—there aren’t any pictures of the former occupants on the walls, no fish mounted on plaques in the den or doilies on the kitchen counters, though there’s an old red velvet couch facing the fireplace in the living room, a few polished deadwood chairs in the kitchen and a bare boxspring on a wire bedframe in the master bedroom.
Trent leaves his suitcase in the bedroom and heads outside to tree a squirrel for dinner while there’s still light enough to see the damn things. After he’s eaten it’s just a matter of waiting out the hours after the sun’s set until he’s tired enough to fall asleep. There’s no wireless internet signal to hop onto with his laptop, no televisions in any of the rooms, and the only books he can find are a Gideon bible, a local phone directory from 1997 and a moisture-bloated copy of Atlas Shrugged that might have been through the washing machine at some point. Desperate for something to occupy his mind, Trent flips through the yellow pages for a bit before bed, making doodles in the margins with a pen from the kitchen.
He snaps awake sometime after two o’clock in the night, but by then it’s too late. The shock collar’s already around his neck, and when Noelle notices he’s awake, she smashes him in the temple with the orphaned clock radio by his bedside and hammers on the collar’s remote until Trent passes out, body spasming in his sleeping bag, and if he still had the need to breathe he’d probably choke on his own tongue.