Light streamed past both sides of Jonny in a fluorescent blur of colors as he made his way through downtown
New York. The vampires had been on his trail
for weeks now and tonight they were close enough he could see them catching up
with him, could hear their rushing footsteps. He knew they were fast enough to
catch him and he couldn't understand why they didn't just snatch him
out of reality with a flash of pale skin and dark clothes. It wasn't like
anyone in the city would give a second look. It was New York City for Christ sakes. Even before the Empire took over it hadn't exactly been known as a city of compassion.
So they were keeping their distance from him, that much was obvious. But why? Jonny skidded rubber at the bottom of his shoes against the sidewalk as he turned a corner, barely missing the street and a few pedestrians. Just before he passed the hard cinder-brick wall of the building next to him, he caught a glimpse of one of them. The vampire smirked in his direction, his face about eight feet off the ground with long yellow messy hair tangling down from his scalp and a big thick matted beard that masked a heavy jaw attached to an even heavier head. Strong heavy. Big heavy, like a man who'd spent all his living years hitting the gym day in and day out and then died and reawakened a massive chiseled sculpture of brute.
Jonny felt like an awful tiny mouse being chased by one hell of a nasty tom cat. He let his feet fall faster, having paced himself more evenly prior to actually being within visual distance of his pursuer. As he neared the end of the long cinder building, he looked back to the corner he'd just turned at and saw nothing and was just about to turn back and stop for a breather when he crashed into something painfully solid. Almost too solid. He bounced back and crumpled onto the sidewalk before he could get his head around to look at what he'd just run into. Blood was running down his scalp from where it had hit the crack in the concrete sidewalk and his vision was blurry, but he could see straight enough to make out the mammoth monster in front of him staring down and grinning at him.
"Jonny Cross," the vampire said like some neanderthal reading its first word from a cue card.
"Uh, huh, that's me, buddy." Jonny brushed off the thin sparkly dust of glass and dirt that now covered his pants courtesy of the lovely sidewalk and rose to his feet. He stared right into the vampire's eyes. "You found me. Now what the fuck do you want?"
The vampire's grin grew and he laughed heartily. Jonny couldn't help imagining a giant viking helmet on the guy's head as his muscles jiggled while he guffawed in that deep jughead voice.
"What's the matter? You some kind of monosyllabic motherfucker or sumthin'?"
The vampire's laughter ended abruptly and he looked at Jonny with glistening eyes of confusion.
Now it was Jonny's turn to laugh. "You have no idea what I just said, do you?" His laughter grew to an echo slapping back from the building across the street and Jonny went to turn and run but before he could even move his head twenty degrees, the bulky vampire's hand clamped onto his neck and picked him up off the ground, his feet dangling in mid air. The pressure of the creature's hand was burning against his skin and he knew that it was only a matter of seconds before his neck snapped if he didn't get away.
The vampire smiled up at him again. "You funny, eh?"
Jonny squeaked out an unintelligible response and the vampire's head tossed back with another uproar of laughter.
"You funny now."
Jonny managed to swing his foot hard enough that it nicked the vampire in the chin and again the laughter ceased and the vampire's face stewed with rage as the pressure around Jonny's neck grew. Jonny screamed as his whole body went into a cold sweat. He was just about to pass out when a familiar scratchy voice came from far off behind the vampire.
"Harek," the voice yelled. And before it could even echo back to its source, the enormous hand around Jonny's neck loosened and he felt himself gently lowering to the ground. In more display than need, he coughed and grabbed at his throat as he leaned over in front of the creature he now assumed was named Harek.
Slow casual steps echoed from the end of the street behind Harek making their way nearer to Jonny and his new companion. A figure in a long black trench coat came into view just beyond the vampire's thick girth and when the dim glow of the street light touched its face, Jonny's eyes widened with angry recognition. The Emperor smiled in response and stepped uncomfortably close.
"Please forgive Harek, his temper is as vast as it is ancient." And with that Harek stepped back and turned away as if to look out for any surprise guests that might happen along this small frightening gathering.
If Jonny had been afraid, he was certainly nearly terrified now. The fact that the Emperor had sought him out personally had landed on Jonny like a ton of bricks and he was sure there were some stray blocks about to fall as an aftershock. "Wh-what do you want?" Jonny was doing his best to keep his shaking hands in his pockets and not try and turn and run for it again. Besides, there was no way he could get away now.
The Emperor grabbed Jonny's chin and turned it sideways looking over the long scar along his cheek and running his fingers along the far side of his face and then locking them behind Jonny's head. A grip tighter than Harek's pulled his face up close to the Emperor's and he glared into Jonny's eyes. "You've been running a long time, Mr. Cross. A long long time indeed. I could barely even begin to count the number of times your name has ended up on the Penitent list and yet you always seem to slip through imperial fingers."
Jonny swallowed hard, his neck feeling like a rabbit's foot in a vice.
"I won't pretend not to revere the number of my followers you have led astray with your petty Catholic blasphemy. How many underground churches have managed to spring up wherever you happen to roam, Jonny? Twenty? Thirty, perhaps?"
Jonny stared into those fierce blue eyes less than an inch from his own and said nothing.
The Emperor smiled again. "Oh come on, son. Surely a man who has amassed such a movement must feel some ounce of pride at what he's accomplished? No?
"Well then, perhaps you're not as faithful to your holy trinity and its people as I thought you were. I suppose you'll feel no ill will if I send my legions of vampires into those filthy tunnels for a real communion--a truly worthy sacrifice of blood far more gruesome than the solitary crucifixion of your precious Christ!"
Jonny's face constricted with panic and a yelp of horror fell from his mouth.
"Oh, perhaps you are the man I was looking for, yes? The faithful servant who would die for the sins of the world." The Emperor laughed. "I'll tell you what. Let me offer you something your Christ could never give you. You do something for me--without question and without failure--and I'll turn a blind eye to the congregations of rats you have living down in my sewers and see to it that no harm comes to them." His hand relaxed behind Jonny's head and a deep terrible throbbing replaced the pressure of those unnaturally strong hands. Jonny tried rubbing his neck but it did him no good.
"And just what do you need me to do that you can't get done some other way?"
"Jonny boy, the time for you to know has not yet arrived. The third cock has yet to crow if you get my drift and I have something much more important--to you at least--to show you now. You see, Jonny, there's just one more piece of... insurance... I have taken in case your resolve starts to waver in the tasks I am yet to assign you."
Jonny's body temperature dropped to near zero and he was shaking uncontrollably now. "Wh-wh-what the hell are you talking about? What do--"
The Emperor's hand grabbed the back of Jonny's neck again as he turned to walk back the way he came from pulling Jonny along with him. Jonny stumbled to keep in step with the man.
"It'll be much more effective if you see what's at stake than if I tell you myself, Mr. Cross. I'm counting on your cooperation in this matter and if I'm to feel confident I've got your full attention, I'll need to see your face when you fully realize how imperative your situation truly is."
A black car waited at the end of the street. Harek opened the back passenger side door and the Emperor slid inside dragging Jonny along behind him. Inside it smelled of new car and lemon-scented car freshener. Jonny made eye contact with the driver through the rear-view mirror for a split second before a thick black pane of glass separated the back seat from the rest of the world. "Relax, Mr. Cross. In due time, you'll be back in your sewer scurrying about again." Jonny stared out the cloudy dark glass of the tinted passenger window seeing more of his reflection than the city outside. He'd never seen his face so visibly terrified before. He was sure he already knew what it was the Emperor was going to show him. He saw the Emperor behind him reflected in the glass, closed his eyes and prayed to Mother Mary that he was wrong. Then he prayed again for guidance.
And for protection from the devil sitting only inches to his left wearing a wicked grin and staring ahead at nothing.