The Walnut Creek Vampire, by Tom Mead
It was October of 1962 when the vampire came to Walnut Creek. The streets of that little San Franciscan suburb were carpeted with crisp dead leaves, the skies low and lambent, and the house fronts were papered with skulls and pumpkins. In every respect it was a picture-postcard Halloween season.
Hester Queeg first heard about the vampire from her neighbor, Lucy. They met at the local diner for lunch one day and Lucy was full of the story.
‘Hester, you won’t believe it!’ she said through a mouthful of blueberry pie. ‘Nobody’s safe.’
Hester, who had ordered coffee and was still pondering over the menu, said: ‘I don’t understand. Why a vampire, of all things?’
‘Well listen, I don’t believe in that stuff any more than you do. But first of all I found a dead raccoon in my back yard – well, that’s not so unusual. But when I looked at it, I saw two puncture marks in its throat. I tell you, I nearly screamed. I got Jack to take a look, he told me it had been bled dry. Then the Thompsons’ cat was attacked. The exact same thing – all the blood drained out of the poor thing’s neck.’
‘How awful,’ Hester said absently.
‘And have you heard the latest?’ Lucy persisted. ‘The Lamberts lost their dog – a big, silly German shepherd. No sign of a body yet, but it’s only a matter of time.’
Local newspapers are funny things, cherry-picking the most outlandish local gossip. So it wasn’t long before the vampire took on a new and dangerous dimension. Throughout the neighborhood people stopped letting their pets roam free, and a strict curfew was put in place for the youngsters.
It’s funny how a story like that can have such an effect on a community. By and large, Hester’s neighbors were a sociable bunch, but this Halloween season they kept themselves to themselves, locking their doors, avoiding conversations. As she strode around the supermarket on October 25, Hester felt as though the people scuttling all around her were arming themselves against some approaching doom.
As she trundled her trolley along the dairy aisle, nobody met her eye. She rounded a corner and almost careered into a twitchy and nervous elderly man.
‘Oh, good morning Norris,’ she said.
Norris Cooper was a local eccentric. A retired bus driver, just turned sixty, he had lived alone at the corner of Hester’s street for as long as anyone could remember. To the kids he was a snarling boogeyman, but to Hester he was just a lonely, quiet soul.
He didn’t answer her, and scuttled by without a word. But not before she caught a glimpse in his shopping basket: it was crammed with fresh garlic cloves. As Hester made her way to the checkout, her shoulders began rippling with laughter.
But that evening, something happened which erased the irreverent smile from her face.
Around 7p.m. a local boy named Jim Penny came running home at full pelt, shrieking and yelling about the vampire. When his parents managed to calm him down, he told them a chilling story.
‘I was on my way back from the library,’ he said, ‘when I realized someone was following me.’
‘Who?’ demanded the boy’s father.
‘It was a man – a tall man. He was dressed in black like a funeral director or something.’
‘And what did he look like?’
‘He had a white face. A real white face, like a ghost. Black hair – slick, like it was oiled. He followed me to the corner. I started walking faster, and he sped up too. So I started running. And he was running behind me. I could hear his footsteps, those footsteps…’
‘Where did he go, son? What happened then?’
‘He was reaching out to me, his hands were like claws, he was trying to grab me…’
The boy was almost hysterical. His mother called a doctor and his father called the cops, which is how Detective Ed Kemble came to be involved in the curious case of the Walnut Creek Vampire.
‘Now listen, son,’ said Kemble, ‘I need you to give me a description of this guy.’
The description he eventually got was of a creature out of some old creaky Universal picture, the kind they show in midnight re-runs. Only Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi could do him justice.
‘You’re sure about this?’ said Kemble, studying the composite sketch.
‘A hundred percent sure, sir,’ said the boy.
‘And you’ve never seen him before?’
‘Not till he started following me outside the library. That was the first time I ever seen him.’
‘And you don’t know where he went?’
The boy blinked. ‘Sir, he vanished.’
By the next morning, the story had spread. It was the talk of the diner when Hester walked in. She found her friends Lucy and Wilhelmina seated in a window booth and slipped into the seat alongside them. As she did so, Norris Cooper scuttled by the window. He looked a little harried, and seemed to be limping. This reminded Hester of her encounter with him in the supermarket, and she quickly told the others.
‘I wonder what’s the matter?’ said Hester.
‘Oh, Norris is just an old worrier,’ Wilhelmina said dismissively. ‘You know that. Why, I could swear he turned up at the emergency room with a papercut one time.’
‘That’s true,’ cut in Lucy. ‘Every single day he’s got some kind of horrible affliction. But I never thought of him as superstitious. I mean, that’s just silliness surely.’
Hester agreed, ‘That doesn’t really seem like his cup of tea. And it’s not as though he has pets or anything to be concerned about. He’s lived alone as long as I can remember.’
Lucy’s voice grew low and chilling: ‘Maybe he knows something we don’t…’ The women turned in their seats and watched him limp by.
It was October 29, a fresh, fall morning with a chilly breeze blowing in from the coast. The paper landed on Hester’s WELCOME mat bearing the headline “WALNUT CREEK VAMPIRE STRIKES AGAIN”. She picked it up before the kids saw it and took it to the kitchen. She read it by the early-morning sunlight streaming through the window:
It sounds like an old joke: Where does a vampire like to spend his free time? Answer: the blood bank. But the sinister presence plaguing Walnut Creek is far from humorous. The blood bank at the Walnut Creek Infirmary was broken into last night, but the culprit wasn’t after money. He was out for blood – literally. A variety of samples (A through O) were pinched from chilled cabinets between ten o’ clock and midnight last night. Walter Breen, of the hematology department, had this to say: ‘I don’t know why anyone would do this. I was working in the lab when I heard a commotion from the next room, and when I went out to investigate I saw the chiller cabinets lying wide open, with a bunch of vials missing. Whoever it was, he must have been very quick. I ran out to the corridor but there was no sign of anyone having been there.’ Of the notorious ‘vampire’ he had this to offer: ‘Walnut Creek used to be a safe haven. We’ve lived here thirty years. My son was born here. But I tell you, I wouldn’t stay here now for anything in the world.’
She put the paper out of sight. Of course, that wouldn’t stop the kids from hearing about it. But the lurid little story quickly slipped from her mind when she looked out the window and saw an ambulance and two police cars parked up outside Norris Cooper’s place.
Detective Kemble did not look surprised to see her. She quickly stepped outside and accosted him on the sidewalk, before he could clamber back into his old VW and roar away.
‘What’s happened?’ she asked.
‘Nothing for you to concern yourself with, Mrs Queeg. It’s not your vampire, if that’s what you’re wondering.’
‘Is Norris all right?’
‘I’m afraid he’s not. I’m afraid he’s dead.’
‘But before you ask me any more questions, I have to tell you that the death was a natural one. Looks like a heart attack.’
‘Oh, the poor man,’ said Hester, ‘and to think yesterday we were talking about what a hypochondriac he was.’
She went back home and watched discreetly from her kitchen window as the ambulance was loaded up and Norris Cooper was ferried quietly away.
The next morning, Hester was hollowing out a pumpkin when the doorbell rang. On the doorstep she found a rumpled and unshaven Detective Kemble.
‘I promised myself I wasn’t going to come to you with this,’ he said. There was resignation in his voice.
‘How can I help, Detective?’
‘I have to tell you it’s the strangest thing I’ve come across. And you know I don’t say that lightly.’
‘What is it?’ She looked around confidentially. ‘Is it the vampire?’
‘It might be,’ said the detective. ‘It’s Norris Cooper. The funny thing is, the coroner hasn’t been able to tell us how he died.’
‘I thought it was a heart attack.’
‘That’s just it – it was. But it seems like Norris was kind of a hypochondriac, and he went for check-ups regularly. And every single time, his heart was A-okay, tip-top. I wish my heart was that good. The only thing wrong with him was nerve damage in his right leg – shrapnel from the war. Absolutely nothing biologically wrong. The doc said the only thing that could have caused an attack like that was if he was scared real bad. The kind of scare that would finish you or me off too.’
‘Wow,’ said Hester, ‘I can’t imagine what it could have been.’
‘Neither can I – that’s the trouble. He was completely sealed up in that fortress of his, all the windows and doors were locked on the inside and there’s no way an intruder could have gotten in or out.’
‘Do you think he may have been poisoned somehow?’
‘They didn’t find anything in his system. Not a bean.’
‘So you think somebody attacked him?’
‘Well,’ said Detective Kemble, shuffling his feet in mild embarrassment, ‘this is where you come in. I’ve got no idea. And if this “vampire” is involved, this mess is way out of my league. Come on, Mrs Queeg. I know you have a nose for this kind of strangeness.’
‘You’re too modest, Detective. But sure, if you want a second pair of eyes I’ll give ’em to you.’
So they headed along the street to the house which had until yesterday been occupied by Norris Cooper. In all the years she had lived there, Hester had never once had cause to visit Norris Cooper. She was unsure what to expect when she stepped through the front door into the dimly lit death-house.
Slowly and sadly she walked around the place, examining the ephemera of the poor old fellow’s meagre existence, and feeling like an intruder while she did it. Unlike her place, Norris Cooper’s house was strangely devoid of furniture. There were no pictures on the walls. No carpets.
‘The only mark on him,’ Kemble said, ‘was a purple bruise on his left big toe. But of course, there’s no way he could have died from that.’
‘Well, stranger things have happened,’ said Hester. ‘After all, he was a hypochondriac.’
‘He sure was. He stubbed his toe yesterday on the leg of his kitchen table. You want to know how I know? Because he limped all the way to the E.R., claiming to have broken the bone.’
‘And was it broken?’
‘Of course it wasn’t broken. How many people do you know who’ve broken their toe by stubbing it on a table leg?’
‘Stranger things have happened,’ Hester repeated.
‘Well, you can find out for yourself if you don’t believe me. I’m heading to the E.R. right now. I’ve got an appointment with the nurse who saw him yesterday. Care to join me?’
Nurse Amelia Breen was a busy woman, and tapped her foot while she spoke to Detective Kemble. It was clear she had more important things to deal with than stubbed toes.
‘Norris Cooper was well known to all of us here,’ she explained. ‘To be honest with you, he was a nuisance. But of course I’m sorry to hear what happened to him. I can tell you now, though, that a stubbed toe had nothing to do with it.’
‘We’re more interested in how he seemed to you in himself, his behavior,’ said Kemble. ‘Did he say or do anything unusual when you saw him yesterday?’
‘Nothing out the ordinary,’ she said. ‘But then, he was quite an eccentric.’
‘Did he seem anxious or scared when you saw him?’
‘He had a lot to say about the vampire…’
‘The vampire! That’s it!’ Hester cried, making the other two jump. ‘Sorry,’ she went on, ‘but I knew I recognized your name from somewhere, Nurse Breen. Your husband works in the hematology department, is that right? He was there when they had the break-in last night?’
Nurse Breen seemed surprised. ‘Why, yes. You have quite a memory, Mrs Queeg.’
They left the hospital soon after that, and as they walked back to Kemble’s car, the detective noticed the slight smile on Hester’s face.
‘Well, did that tell you anything?’
‘Oh, plenty,’ she answered.
‘This game has rules, Detective,’ she said slyly, ‘and one of those is that I play my cards close to my chest. But there is a way you can help. I need to know more about Norris Cooper. About his past. I need to know why someone would want to kill him.’
Kemble sighed. ‘I’ll go through the files,’ he said.
Hester, in turn, stopped at the local library on her way home. There she spent an hour or two scrolling through microfiche. She already had an idea of what she was looking for, and eventually she found it on the front page of a Walnut Creek Examiner from 1942.
‘I went to the library last night,’ said Hester, with pride. ‘You know, it really is a wonderful place. You can find just about everything there.’
‘Such as?’ said Detective Kemble. He sat back in his chair with his feet propped on the desk. His office at the local PD was heaped with old, yellowed files and the air hung with stale cigarette smoke.
‘Such as the truth behind the vampire.’
Now, Kemble sat upright, dislodging a heap of papers as he did so. ‘Go on.’
‘We’ll start at the beginning. The dead animals. What could have killed them in such a horrible way? Fortunately, I happened to pass the shelves in the entomology section and stumbled on something quite interesting. Sarcoptes scabiei. Otherwise known as the “itch mite”. It’s a parasite which burrows under the skin and gradually saps a creature’s energy and lifeblood.’
‘So that’s what got the animals?’
‘Not quite. Remember the Lamberts lost their dog, a German shepherd? He was the only pet in the neighborhood unaccounted for? Well, I think the poor mutt is out there somewhere infested with mites. And they’ve made him so weak he can’t even eat properly. All he can do is pounce on animals and kill them with a single bite, then lap up their blood. It’s gruesome, but it’s the only way he’ll stay alive. I think that the dog must have gone missing first, though it wasn’t reported till after the slaughtered animals started turning up.’
‘So he’s still out there, you think?’
‘I doubt he’d survive long. I imagine he’ll turn up sooner or later, poor thing.’
‘So you’re saying the dead animals have nothing to do with the death of Norris Cooper?’
‘That’s exactly what I’m saying. And, in spite of appearances, I can tell you that Norris’s death was actually a very ingenious murder.’
‘Oh yeah? How?’
‘Norris didn’t go out much, and he visited the E.R. a lot. So I started to wonder if maybe this wasn’t a crime of opportunity at all. After all, there was nothing to have stopped the killer from reaching him at any time in the past. So there must have been something about that specific date, October twenty-ninth, that created a psychological connection which wasn’t there before. So I looked to the newspapers from years gone by, assuming it was an anniversary of some description. And sure enough, there it was in the Walnut Creek Examiner from October twenty-ninth, 1942. Front page. A terrible road collision, with a school bus. Only one fatality – Nicholas Breen.’
‘Their son,’ Kemble nodded. ‘Walter and Amelia.’
‘I remember Walter mentioned a son in the newspaper interview. The bus driver the day their son died was Norris Cooper. He was found entirely blameless by a tribunal, but of course that was little consolation to the dead boy’s parents. So really it was just an unfortunate twist of fate that he happened to stub his toe on the twentieth anniversary of that accident, and that he happened to be treated by the mother whose son he had killed, and whose grief had been bottled up for so long. He must have said something that triggered her. Perhaps he let something slip that Amelia had never known before. Perhaps he told her about the shrapnel in his thigh, which would have slowed his reflexes during the collision – if he’d reacted quicker, their son might have survived the crash all those years ago. But either way, Amelia made the split-second decision to commit murder.
‘She came up with an impromptu weapon so brilliant I doubt a coroner would ever have figured out how it worked. Remember, Norris went to the E.R. with an injured toe. He claimed to have broken it, when in fact it was merely bruised. But when he presented that toe to Nurse Breen, she was struck by an idea. It didn’t take much effort to procure a vial of Type A blood, which was Norris’s blood type. All she had to do was slip down to the hematology lab where her husband worked. Maybe she didn’t even tell him then what she had in mind. But it was just a matter of injecting the vial of blood into Norris’s bruised toe, just beneath the toenail so even the puncture mark would be invisible to the naked eye. Norris was so squeamish about needles, he wouldn’t have been looking and so would not have noticed the contents of the hypodermic.
‘But remember, his foot was tightly bandaged. That was the only thing keeping Norris alive from the time he left the E.R. until the time he removed the bandage at his house that night. You see, the bandage acted as a tourniquet, restricting the blood flow and preventing the dose of iced blood from reaching his heart. But when he removed the bandage, the blood flowed straight there, the cold temperature caused acute fibrillation and killed him in less than a minute. But of course, there was nothing out of the ordinary in his system. No poison for the coroner to find. He was killed by a dose of his own blood.
‘I think it was after she injected him that she confessed to her husband what she had done. Walter knew that the disappearance of a single vial would be noticed eventually, and would be difficult to explain. It might even lead people to look closer at the death of Norris Cooper. So he faked a visitation from the vampire. He pinched several more vials, before phoning in his made-up story about the Walnut Creek vampire.’
Kemble was shaking his head in wonderment. ‘I don’t know how, Hester,’ he said, ‘but I think you’ve cracked it.’
‘I’ll leave it to you to decide what to do about it,’ she said, ‘but if you’ll excuse me, I’m taking my children trick-or-treating.’
‘There’s just one last thing you haven’t explained,’ said Kemble.
‘Well, you figured out what killed the animals. And you figured out how Norris Cooper died. But you haven’t explained about the man who chased Jim Penny, and vanished in broad daylight.’
Hester chuckled. ‘You’re right there, Detective. I think that’s one mystery too many for me. The way I see it, there are two possible solutions, so I’ll let you choose your favorite. One is that the boy had spent the afternoon in the library filling his head with horror stories and gruesome comic books, and invented the whole thing as a plea for attention. The other is that there really is a Bela Lugosi lookalike out there, dressed like an undertaker and able to vanish at will. What do you think?’
She turned to go, but paused at the door with her gloved hand hovering over the handle. ‘Oh, I almost forgot,’ she said, ‘Happy Halloween.’
Find out more about author Tom Mead here: https://thecra.co.uk/find-an-author/mead-tom/