The auditorium broke in muted applause. You would expect nothing else from such a distinguished audience. Sober, serious, leaders in their fields, these were the best in the country.
Not only forensic psychologists either. There were therapists, profilers, medical doctors. Even a news reporter or two.
I collected my notes. Took the pen drive out of the computer for the media presentation. Put it all in my briefcase.
A few acquaintances walked up to shake my hand, to tell me what an interesting presentation it was, how much they enjoyed it. Some people I didn’t know came over too, the usual handshaking and exchange of business cards.
I walked to the elevator, I wanted to leave the briefcase and the presentation notes in my room, and pick up my recorder and notebook. I had time, though. The next conference was scheduled for two in the afternoon and it was just past eleven. As I walked into the room, the blinking message light on the phone caught my attention. Odd, nowadays, most people use email or text.
“You have one message. Press 1 to listen. 2 to save. 3 to erase.”
I pressed 1.
“Mr. Summer, you are cordially invited to dinner by Mr. Kolakas. The car will be by at seven, sharp. Please, be ready.”
A peculiar way of talking, an unusual choice of words. I didn’t know what to think. Absurd, of course. I don’t know any Kolakas and even if I did, this was more of a summons than an invitation, and I resented it.
The afternoon conferences were fascinating and I enjoyed them very much.
I went up to my room at six-thirty to drop off my notebook and the different materials from the afternoon conferences. The message light was blinking again.
I gazed at it for a second or two. Shook my head and placed all the papers on the desk, ignoring the message. I looked over and organized my notes, and put the recorder away. I went to the bathroom and washed my face.
There was a knock on the door. I stepped out of the bathroom, still drying my hands. The digital clock on the bedside table read six fifty-five.
A tall young man, no more than thirty, was standing at my door. Abundant dark hair combed straight back. Ink-black eyes. His paleness was accentuated by the midnight black suit and tie. The white shirt was impeccable.
“Mr. Summer? I’m here to take you to Mr. Kolakas.” The voice was a deep baritone, a voice used to command. His face was expressionless.
“I’m afraid I have a previous engagement. I would have reached out, but you did not leave a number for me to contact.” I held the man’s gaze as we stood at my door. He was a little taller than me, perhaps a little heavier too, but all muscle. I work out, but he was ostensibly in better shape.
His expression did not change, “You can cancel your engagement. I will wait. It will not make us late.”
This was ridiculous.
“Listen, I never made any appointment with anyone, so, sorry, but I’m not going.”
He paused for a moment. Then he took in a deep breath. “I will call Mr. Kolakas. He will be displeased.”
“Well, he can join the club,” I said and closed the door. Hard. I didn’t quite slam it, but I was sure I had made my point.
I turned my back to the door and walked to the desk. In reality, I didn’t have anything for tonight, but it was the principle of the thing.
I collected my notes. Opened my laptop on the hotel room’s desk and looked over the spreadsheet.
I had compiled eighteen months of data. I had gone further back, of course, and although there were a few cases here and there, it was only eighteen months ago that the pattern emerged.
Cannibalism is rare. People don’t usually eat people. The modern world has many tabus regarding eating other people. It used to be a lot more common than the general public would like to think.
I sat back and toyed with a pen. There were different reasons for cannibalism. From eating a particular organ for the mystical benefits or protection to the simple act of terror.
Of course, if what Dr. Frediano said was true, we were facing vampires, rather than cannibals. He maintained that the victims had been exsanguinated first and then consumed. That might be the case in Europe, certainly. The Italian victims all exhibited that pattern. They had found victims in different stages of… whatever process was taking place.
A deep sigh moved air out of my lungs.
I was tired.
“I would have preferred to meet under different, certainly more comfortable, circumstances.”
I leaped out of the chair, my heart racing, and almost jumping out of my mouth. I was panting instantly. The soft tenor voice had startled me.
An elegant man sat very much at home in one of the room’s two wing back leather chairs, on either side of a small table. Part of what made this a Junior Suite, rather than a simple room.
“Who are you and how did you get in here?” My voice was firm, but it all came out in a rush.
“My name is Kolakas, Vry Kolakas. I got here through the door.” His elegant manicured hands made a vague gesture towards the closed door. The unsettling thing was that right in front of the entrance, stood the young man from before. Standing straight, eyes front, as if guarding the exit, hands clasped on his back, facing in. The only egress point. We were on the sixteenth floor so, unless I grew wings, I was trapped in here. “Please, sit.” He gestured politely to the chair close to his, sat back, and steepled his fingers.
I was at a loss. Didn’t quite know what to do. My feet carried me to the chair and I fell in it.
“Good.” A cold smile graced his lips. Tilting his head a little to the side, he waged his finger at me. “You were less than candid. You did not have a previous engagement.” He crossed his legs and rested his hands on his lap. “I knew your statement to be a ruse, of course. All the ruder to have sent a false message while verbally abusing my associate.”
My eyes darted all around the room. I know I had locked the door. How had they been able to gain access to my room?
“You really should focus, my good Doctor.”
“How… How do you know me? What do you want?”
“I’ve read some of your articles, of course. Anyone familiar with forensic psychology knows Dr. Elian Summer’s work. I’m an aficionado of abnormal psychology, you see.” His cold blue eyes fell on mine. “As to what I want, well, that may take some explaining.”
I took a moment to examine him, to take in every small detail. Olive skin, which told of his evident Mediterranean ancestry. His hair was a lively salt and pepper, very white and very black strands battled it out on his head, neither the clear winner. The hair reached the collar of his shirt, fashionably styled and cut. He seemed strong, not overly muscular, like the young man, but quite fit non the less.
“You have my undivided attention and I seem to have no alternative but to listen, so, please, go ahead and explain.” I hoped the statement came out strong, defiant. It didn’t.
“You have been looking into several deaths in the past few months. I would like for you to stop.”
I laughed out loud at that.
“I can stop today, right now, if you want. The police are on the case. As is the FBI, by the way. So, it doesn’t matter if I stop. They’ll keep digging.”
“They don’t bother me. You do.”
I swallowed and I could swear they heard it. My hand wiped my forehead. The thin sheen of sweat there moistening my palm.
“Why do I bother you? You mean personally or what?”
“You are asking questions I’d rather were not posed. Is that the right way of saying it? English is still unfamiliar to me.”
I had not detected an accent. His syntax was peculiar, but he spoke like a native. I realized suddenly his question was not rhetorical.
“It’s…I understand what you mean by that. Which questions, though?”
“The police, even your FBI, are content with a serial killer or killers, even a cult, being responsible for the deaths. That is adequate.”
“They will continue investigating until they find the person or persons responsible for the deaths.”
An elegantly restrained laugh bubbled out of him. “Oh, I doubt that. Most crimes go without punishment in real life. Regardless of what fiction implies or outright states.”
“But they will continue the investigations.”
“Oh, I’m sure. They may even find a few guilty parties. That is quite all right. I have no problem with that.”
“Your problem is with me?”
“Not at all. As I said. I’m a fan.” The cold smile came back.
“You and your Italian friend are proposing these are… shall we say… purposeful killings rather than ritualistic. He has mentioned the vampire side of it. We will talk with him presently.” He cleared his throat. “Of course, you don’t agree with him. For you, it’s the cannibalistic side of the circumstances that bring something new to the mix, eh?”
I sat back. The leather of the chair hot and sticky against the sweaty skin of my arms.
“But my take is, as you say, a cultist angle. A serial killer or group of killers, certainly, there is a ritualistic element to the killings. They focus on the liver and…” The look in his eyes stopped me.
“Yes, Doctor. The focus on the liver… and?”
“There are differences in the cases.” I gave in. I’d tell him what I thought, I have published my results, they are common knowledge. “Some seem more clinical, others more savage, but they are equivalent.” I swallowed again. “There seems to be more than one group.”
“Go on.” His encouragement filled the silence of my pause. His gaze never left my eyes.
“Some are more restrained. The more recent events are grizzly, careless.”
“We are close now, Doctor. Careless. Could you elaborate?”
“They leave their victims in abandoned buildings, or wherever they perform their ritual. No effort to hide them or dispose of them. There had been a few like these before, or with some but not all of the characteristics.” It hit me, the conclusion was simple to reach. “They were learning. Someone was teaching them. To be careful. How to hide the victims. How to disguise the event.”
A soft laugh and slow clapping. “You do not disappoint, my good Doctor.” He sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Tell me more. What’s your conclusion?”
“I published it. It’s out there. There is a parent organization that recruits and trains the offenders. They conduct ritualized killings. In Italy, in Europe in general, they tend to drain the blood first. Then they may or may not consume the victim. Here in America, invariably, the victim is consumed.” I stopped.
“Go on. Don’t hold out on me, Doctor.”
“The liver. They always extract the liver. The bodies may have other injuries, sometimes a lot of tissue is harvested, but the liver is always missing. From forensic evidence we’ve found the liver has been consumed. Ingested. It’s all public. It’s all out there.” I said, my voice gaining volume.
“Yes, but not everyone agrees.” He sat back again. “You have an idea of the why.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Then you will drop the investigation? Devote yourself to other endeavors?”
“Well, if the case isn’t going anywhere, it’ll go in the cold case pile. I’d leave it alone, of course.”
“So you need for the victims to stop surfacing. Then you’ll drop your investigation.”
“I mean I need no more victims.”
Another cold laugh. “If the victims are not found, it’s the same thing, no?”
His eyes were fixed on mine. I had a feeling my next answer would determine how this encounter was going to end.
“It’s not the same thing.” His eyes became hard as diamonds. “But the effect would be the same.” I hastened to add.
The slow smile defrosted his gaze.
“Good. Good.” He clapped his hands. “I would have preferred to have this conversation over dinner and a fine bottle of wine, but it was not to be. Farewell, Doctor. I look forward to reading more of your scientific papers. Only, not on this subject ever again.” He stood effortlessly with catlike grace.
I got up and turned while moving over to the desk.
“I hope you don’t think me rude, but I’d appreciate it if you…” I turned back to the room.
I was talking to myself.
I dropped on the desk chair.
Opened my laptop.
Typed Vry Kolaka. Let’s find out who this guy is.
As the hairs on the back of my neck stood and the rest of my body bristled in goosebumps, I read not about some European magnate, or businessman, but about a Greek mythological creature. Undead, it consumes the living to maintain itself. Harmful, evil, ruthless. Of course, what I had seen was the modern version. Cunning, cruel, powerful.
The big question, the only question, was: Why was I still alive?