THE INCREDIBLE NIGHT STALKER


Jane Leavell

Dr. David Bruce Banner wearily studied his reflection in a used shotglass. Like the test tubes and retorts that had once been his life, it distorted his handsome face, narrowing and elongating the dark wavy hair and serious, nearing-forty features. He ran a once-white towel through the glass, obliterating himself.

"The guy in the ice cream suit wants another refill."

"What?" Startled, he looked up into the waitress's grin, and, despite his bad mood, smiled back. "Depth charges, right?"

"You got it." She brushed past him behind the bar to dump some used glasses in the tub, and pinched his buttocks mischievously in passing. "Lighten up, Dave. Ya look like somebody ate your puppydog. Things can't be that bad. Ya got a job, a roof over your head, and three squares a day--what more can ya ask for, as long as ya got yer health?" She lifted the filled plastic bucket in deceptively slender arms. "I'll dump these in the kitchen while ya fix the drinks, okay, sugar?"

He nodded absently, the irony of her little speech zinging home. As long as ya got her health... David Banner, officially dead and buried in the family plot, hadn't been able to make that claim since the day he subjected himself to massive doses of gamma radiation, trying to find the secret of adrenaline-based artificial strength. Now he was holed up in this moderately seedy bar, mixing drinks instead of chemicals, creating drunks instead of supermen. Automatically pouring the beer, he smiled grimly. At least he hadn't actually hulked-out for the past two weeks, not since he'd had to impersonate a clergyman, of all things.

"I'm telling you, Jack, they DO exist!"

In the back corner, the oldster in the cheap white seersucker suit was pounding on the scarred wooden table, his freckled Irish face flushing. David grinned. Carl was a regular; like this bar, seedy but likeable. He must've had some classic DT episodes over the years, because every time he got drunk, the man started bellowing incredible fantasies about witches, dinosaurs, ghosts, even Indian gods.

Dessie accepted the depth charges, balancing them on her brown plastic 'cocktail tray.' David glanced at the corner table, where Carl and a friend were getting steadily intoxicated, and froze.

"Look, Carl, the hell with your imitation Bela Lugosi. You can't kid a kidder." Carl's drinking partner tonight was a younger man with neat brown hair framing a thin oval face with a downturned mouth hiding a slight overbite. His voice was not quite a sneer. "But if the INS won't print it, come to the NATIONAL REGISTER. They'll print
anything if they think it'll titillate the supermarket crowd." After several depth charges, he had a little trouble with 'titillate,' but managed to get it out in a recognizable form.

"Dave? Hey, David, whatsa matter?"

Banner barely noticed the waitress; his numb brain was concentrating on that too-familiar face. Jack McGee, his eternal Nemesis, here!

Increasingly argumentative, Carl stood up and yelled, "It's no more incredible than that stupid Jolly Green Giant you've been chasing across the country, mister!"

"Carl, come on." McGee glanced around the bar uneasily. Banner, panicking, ducked beneath the bar, straining to listen. "People are looking at us, okay?"

The cocktail waitress bent over, buxom breasts swelling against her too-tight, fuzzy pink sweater. "David? Hon?"

Embarrassed, he rubbed his temples. "Uh, look, Dessie, I don't feel at all well. Can you cover for me? I, uh, think I'd better go home."

"Sure thing." She gave him a white, toothy smile that was her trademark. "I'm a real night person, anyway; it don't bother me none. You go on home and take it easy. Maybe you're comin' down with that flu that's goin' around.;" She straightened, taking her loaded tray off the bar.

He should be running, putting as many miles as possible between himself and that investigative reporter, but David still crouched behind the bar, listening hard. How in the hell had Jack McGee tracked him here? How much did he know?

"I'll tell you one thing, McGee, I've learned the hard way never to trust appearances." Peering around the bar from below table-level, where he wouldn't be spotted, Banner saw McGee tug on Carl's elbow, trying to seat him. Carl reeled drunkenly, but caught his balance again. "Even sweet little old ladies like Miss Emily. Why, there could be a vampire right here in this bar!"

David's view was briefly cut off when Dessie leaned over the table, the drinks effortlessly poised in one hand. She froze, gaping at Carl. Apparently embarrassed, Carl tipped the battered straw hat on his thinning auburn hair and sat down abruptly. "Why, hello there, darlin'."

After a moment, she popped her gum. "Yeah. Right."

Jack liberated the drinks, dropping some bills on her tray, and Dessie tottered away on her spiked heels, casting one last suspicious glance at them over her shapely shoulder. McGee sipped his drink warily, made a face, then said pointedly, "I've seen the Hulk dozens of times. I've got plaster casts of his footprints, hundreds of eyewitnesses--some of whom will even speak up--and even photographs, for God's sake! What've you got?"

Carl said weakly, "Well, vampires can't be photographed. Everyone knows that."

"Yeah, right. Very convenient, Kolchak."

"Dammit, Jack, I'm twice the reporter you are! When you've been around as long as I have--" McGee was nodding and rolling his eyes, elaborately humoring the older man. Carl broke off and gazed around the room. Banner froze, but the reporter was checking out faces, not the barroom floor. Spotting another semi-regular across the room, he brightened. "I'll prove it to you."

"Oh, really? How?"

"We can find a genuine live--er, undead--vampire, right here in Chicago."

At that point the gin buried in his beer mug seemed to hit McGee like an exploding thermonuclear device; he coughed and choked, waving Carl back when his drinking buddy helpfully tried to pound on his back. "A vampire? Here?"

David's wary eyes followed Kolchak's pointing finger to the middle-aged man in the darkened corner across from them, where the dim lighting threw shadows over his gaunt, cavernous features. "Him, for instance."

McGee twisted around to give the man a casual but complete survey, seeming unimpressed by the wolf's-head cane and bulky signet ring on one bony forefinger, even though they did lend a certain B-movie atmosphere that would fit the image of a vampire. "Get serious, Kolchak."

"Why not? He's been in the bar a lot lately, always at night. Claims to be from some little port town in Maine that nobody's ever heard of. And ever since he showed up, we've had this weird 'flu' epidemic--people showing up pale and woozy, like they've lost blood. A lot of blood." Kolchak's eyes gleamed as he became the predator stalking an important story; from years evading McGee, David recognized the glint. "Maybe they really have."

McGee snorted. "And maybe the Boogie Man really sleeps in my closet every night." He dug in his suit coat. "Twenty bucks says you're wrong."

"You're on." Their suspect rose, donning a heavy British-style overcoat with a thick fur collar. Carl chugged his drink and slammed the mug on the table, cracking it. "Let's follow him."

"Got your cross and garlic ready?" McGee jeered. Startled, Dessie knocked over a drink she was delivering to the next table.

"Actually, I was thinking of getting them out," Carl said seriously. "If I decided to investigate this so-called flu epidemic, I mean."

David felt his pulse slow down to normal. Jack McGee wasn't tracking the Hulk down to his latest hiding place; he was stoned out of his mind, and joining Carl in one of his DT hallucinations. It was just a coincidence that he'd shown up in the bar where the man he knew as 'John Doe' was working. Inexpressibly relieved, David crawled from the bar to the back room. It was time to make his escape.

Completely unaware how close he had come to unveiling the truth about the incredible Hulk, Jack McGee followed Carl Kolchak from the bar. The two men leaned against each other for a moment, companionably soused, swaying as the night breeze hit them. Jack hunched his shoulders, turning up the collar of his trenchcoat. "At least you've got the right setting for it," he muttered, casting a cynical glance at the ripe full moon peeking from a smudge of factory smoke overhead.

"This way," Carl whispered, pointing after their quarry. As the tall, thin man vanished around the corner, his shadow trailed behind him, weirdly elongated.

A door behind them clicked shut. McGee hesitated, curious, but the eager Kolchak dragged him away, so that the NATIONAL REGISTER's star reporter missed the scoop of his dreams. He would've recognized the nervous ex-bartender slipping out the rear door of the bar as a 'dead' scientist, murdered in one of the Hulk's first appearances. As was usual in his life, he managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

"The thing about vampires is that they're incredibly strong," Kolchak lectured. "Janos Skorzeny threw me around his house like I was a rag doll or something. And they usually have a foul stench, like dried blood or rotting skin."

Jack murmured, "Haven't they heard of Right Guard yet?"

"Very funny. This is serious, McGee."

The tapping of a cane on concrete faded. As they rounded the corner, something small and dark flapped overhead. Kolchak instinctively ducked, then gaped.

"There! You see?"

Their quarry had vanished. McGee pivoted slowly, refusing to believe he wouldn't find the man hiding somewhere. "Oh, no. Tell me you're not going to claim he turned into a bat and flew away."

"Oh, no? Then where is he, Mr. Know-It-All?"

He swallowed, then his eyes narrowed. "Probably in that alley over there, planning to mug a couple of careless drunks. Come on, I'll prove it to you."

Kolchak's flash of triumph died. The alley was empty, if you didn't count two overflowing garbage cans, a broken crate, and several rather large rats. Where could the Maine tourist have gone? The alley was empty, and the street itself was a dead end, nothing but dark warehouses and padlocked garages.

"I told you. It was a vampire."

"Right. He just dropped into the corner saloon for a Bloody Mary." He turned back to the mouth of the alley. "Fork it over, Carl. There's no vampire her--"

"I heard you in the bar," a voice said softly.

Jack blinked as someone stepped from the sidewalk into the alley. Kolchak cocked his russet head.

"Dessie, right? The cocktail waitress? What are you doing out here?"

"Don't try to pretend; it's obvious you figured it out. You were even planning to get a cross, to kill me." She moved closer, the moonlight stripping her dyed platinum hair of life. She seemed genuinely puzzled. "But how did you guess? I was sure I'd covered my tracks."

McGee shook his head, like a swimmer shaking water from his ears. Hell, his brain felt like it was floating. He must be drunker than he'd though. "You're a vampire? You?"

After a moment's astonishment, Carl seemed delighted. "Of course! It's the perfect cover! You only work at night, and most nights you had to 'help' at least one drunk to his car or a cab. You could help yourself to a pint of blood while you were at it, right?" She turned those overly-made-up, night-dark eyes on him, and he swallowed hard. "Uh, Jack? Make a cross, quick!"

Kolchak lunged for the broken wood slats at the rear of the alley, but Dessie was quicker. With one smooth sweep of her arm, she backhanded him across the alley. The reporter grunted, the air explosively driven from his lungs, and crumpled into one of the garbage cans.

Swallowing what felt like a lump of ice, McGee raised his hands, making a cross with his forefingers. She hissed and flinched back, then forced a smile with lips too red to match her fake angora sweater. In the moonlight, two fangs glittered. The cheap little cocktail waitress advanced on him, and her smile widened as he took a faltering step backward, raising his hands higher.

Put your faith in God and your heart. That was another of his idealistic father's homey little saying, back home in St. Louis. As if she could read his thoughts, Dessie shook her head. "That's not a true religious symbol. A crucifix might stop me, or even a Star of David. But you have no real religious faith, so it's meaningless. Put your hands down, little man."

Jack backed up another step. It was hard to breathe. Despite himself, his fingers slowly separated.

She shook the platinum hair loose around her shoulders, and made her voice huskily seductive.

"It needn't hurt, you know. It can be quite...pleasant, really." His back hit the brick wall, and she ran her tongue along her lips, like a wet, undulating snake. "I'll kiss you--long and sweet--and your troubles will be over. Relax. You want me, don't you? You want my kisses, sweetling."

She was much closer now, and he could see Death in her alluring eyes, and Death wasn't the creaky old man on the squeaky old bike he'd always pictured it to be. No, Death was seductive, and black, and colder than the heart of an iceberg. He knew it was coming for him, but he felt an erection straining against his pants just the same.

"No," murmured, weakly. It wasn't fair! He wanted to track down the Hulk before he died. He wanted to win a Pulitzer. He wanted to marry Pat--

Something hovered at the mouth of the alley, behind her head. The rats scurried for cover. If he had looked up, Jack McGee would've been stunned by the sight of the late Dr. David Banner, alive and well, his fists clenched, his expression frustrated, deliberately struggling to call forth the raging beast he'd spent years trying to suppress. But Dessie's eyes were black holes, sucking up all his attention, and he didn't see anything but her.

Like Jack, Dessie was too absorbed in her prey to notice that she had an audience. Amused, she was caressing his face, trailing one lacquered fingernail down his throat, letting it linger in the sensitive hollow by the breastbone. He jerked his head back. "No. No, don't."

"Oh, yes," she hissed.

He swallowed, trying to shrink into the cold brick wall behind him. Dessie lowered her head to lick his throat, and he twitched convulsively. Smiling, she nibbled playfully on the pulsing vein, not quite biting it, prolonging the pleasure. "You're going to be an absolutely delicious treat," she whispered in his ear. "And after you, there'll be Carl."

The bass roar of an unfamiliar monster jerked her head up, and her fangs locked on air instead of Jack's throat. Snarling, she spun around, two red flames illuminating her hell-hole black eyes.

Forgotten, Jack McGee slid down the wall, his knees finally giving way. In the garbage can beside him, a dazed Carl Kolchak struggled to consciousness, shaking rotting banana peels and used condoms from his once-white suit. What an awful stench! Then every muscle locked in place, leaving him bent halfway over.

There seemed to be four monsters filling up the alley now, two of them huge, neon-green, half-naked men with algae-brown matted hair around bulbous, misshapen faces. He squinted, and the blurred images merged. No, wait, there was one of each, Jack's Hulk thing and the vampire cocktail waitress.

The Hulk squatted, flexing massive green muscles as it roared another wordless threat. Dessie snarled, baring ivory fangs. Enraged, the Hulk leaped at her, but her rather pudgy, soft appearance was deceiving, as Carl already knew. She hurled the creature into the wall, like a bored child tossing aside an unwanted toy. It shook back its shaggy hair, surprised, and hit out at her. The vampires knocked its muscled arm aside, and they indulged in a short, fierce wrestling match, snorting like stars of the WWF.

Carl rubbed his aching temples, slowly straightening. He wasn't even sure which side he should root for. Would it be better to be squashed into a thin paste by Jack's Mean Greenie, or to be sucked dry by a tackily-attired lady of the evening?

Unable to decide, he watched numbly as rage personified struggled with a supernatural beast.

The Hulk bellowed in astonished bewilderment as Dessie clawed him, peeling green skin away in long strips. Flexing its immense chest, it hurled her backwards, but she instantly leaped at it, her fangs battening into its thick green throat...until she shrieked and dropped away, as irradiated blood burned her mouth.

Taking advantage of the sudden lull in this battle of titans, Kolchak struggled out of the garbage can, adjusted his straw hat, and snatched up a slat from the shattered wooden crate. "Jack! Wake up, Jack, we've gotta get outta here!"

Spitting out green , gamma-mutated blood in disgust, Dessie began to turn. Closing his eyes, Carl desperately plunged the slat through her pink fuzzy sweater. She screeched in agony, clawing uselessly at her back. Blood and saliva bubbled from her scarlet lips, and she stumbled to her knees.

Frantically, Carl pried another slat from the broken crate and faced off against the Hulk like a batter anticipating a pitch from Nolan Ryan in his prime. It was no real defense against the power he'd seen the brute display in this alley, but Carl Kolchak wasn't going down without a fight, dammit!

Slowly, the Hulk touched the green fluid leaking from its throat, then peered at its stained fingertips as if puzzled. It cocked its head, staring blankly at the writhing, wailing vampires.

"Get out of here, you!" Carl bellowed at it.

Shuddering, it turned and loped from the alley into the night.

Dessie gurgled horribly, and was still. Her body boiled against the wooden stake, with the stench of a long-decayed corpse, then deflated, shrank in on itself, and was gone. Carl drew in a deep, shaky breath, letting the slat fall. Dammit, he was getting too darned old for this kind of nonsense.

Slumped against the rear alley wall, Jack McGee extended a shaking hand. "She--it--the blood--" He couldn't seem to form a coherent sentence.

"Get out your wallet, Jack."

"Huh?"

Grinning, Carl helped his fellow reporter to his feet. "You see?" he crowed. "I told you there were vampires in Chicago!"


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