Lynch? Do you copy?"
It was Henry D. He was overlooking the east end of the casino from one of the pit boss stations. "You want me to bring him up?"
Lyle Lynch, the founder of the Lynch Gaming Corporation, sat eighteen floors overhead in the penthouse suite of the Hallowe'en Resort and Casino on Tropicana Avenue. He was a taut, slim man of about forty with pale skin and even paler eyes. He scanned the casino monitors on his desk and gave the order.
"Yes, when he finishes. Let him play it out."
Twelve flat screen monitors faced him, a system just above the standard 'eye-in-the-sky' version. This model was equipped with facial recognition software that ran background checks on anyone in the casino with a profile on the grid. That evening, the objective was a beady little man named Ted Fife. Fife, a 'casino rat’ from New Jersey, had been down almost seven thousand before hitting at one of the high-end Pai Gow Poker tables. Within the hour he was up one hundred and fourteen grand. The computer revealed that Fife was a loner, most of his family was dead, and he was in debt to a number of banks on the East Coast. Lynch read the report and smiled. He liked what he saw.
"Halloween year round," the hotel ads proclaimed. Thrills. Spooks. The dead. Lynch's casino was a 'Goth'-styled resort with black felt tables, vampire-vixen waitresses and polyurethane tombstones in the sports book lounge. He knew the lemmings wanted a 'theme' today, so he gave it to them. The choice was risky, and Eduardo, his brother, protested when the plans were announced. But Lynch knew better. His reputation alone was enough to draw crowds. Intense, sophisticated and rarely seen by the hotel staff, Lynch was a recluse who sealed himself in the penthouse most nights and never made public appearances. There was speculation as to his daytime whereabouts, and some of the nastier gossip items labeled him a vampire as a joke, which made him laugh every time he read it. But he was used to bad press. As long as the hotel drew a profit, and the Vegas Chamber of Commerce was satisfied, no questions were asked.
The lucky run continued. Fife hit again, winning a pot of six thousand dollars. He was leaving with a stack of chips when Henry D. made the move and approached him at the table. Fife nodded, and then joined Henry in the long walk to the elevators. Lynch removed his headset, kicked back, and waited. The lure worked. His prey was approaching.
The doors to Lynch's office opened, and the thick-necked Henry D. ushered Fife into the room. Fife sat on a high-backed chair, pulled out a smoke and was about to light it when Lynch rose from the desk and offered his hand.
"On behalf of the hotel, I want to congratulate you on your fortuitous run. You're quite a card player."
Fife shook his hand. It was ice cold. "Thank you, sir. An honor to meet you. Most people think you're some kind of ghost or something."
"A ghost? I can assure you, no."
Fife lit the smoke.
"I don't allow smoking in my office," said Lynch. Fife stubbed it out.
"Is there a problem, Mr. Lynch?" Fife asked. "I played fair and square." He had the abrupt, cold, and impatient attitude of a professional gambler. Lynch, used to it, enjoyed this part of the game. Fife looked over and noticed a small, black marble statue on a stand in front of the tinted picture window that overlooked the Strip.
"Hades. God of the Underworld. My staff found it in France. They say he worked so hard he never left his palace in Hell."
Fife said nothing.
"Married, though," added Lynch. "Twice. But as the god associated with death, he could have no children."
"How sad," replied Fife.
Lynch didn't appreciate the sarcasm.
"About the money," he said. "We don't like counting that kind of cash out on the floor. Of course, after we cut you the check, we'll arrange for transport to wherever you want to go."
Fife let out a long breath.
"Thank you," said Fife. "I thought I was in some kind of trouble when I was brought up here. I mean, c'mon. A hundred and twenty g's? I've never been that lucky in my whole life."
Lynch smiled. "You feel pretty good right now, don't you?"
Fife nodded. "More than you can imagine, " he said. "I guess I just want my check now and I'll get out of here."
Lynch came closer, making Fife uneasy. "Yes, the waiting. That's the hardest part, isn't it, Mr. Fife?"
"Hardest part? The hardest part is winning it, Lynch," he replied.
Lynch moved closer still. Fife's spine was as far back in the chair as he could push it. A bead of sweat rolled down his face.
"So, do I get the money now or what?"
Lynch was about to answer when a loud ring-tone spilled from a cell phone in Fife’s jacket pocket. Fife answered it, holding Lynch off with an upraised finger.
"Hi Amber. You’re not going to believe where I am right now."
Lynch pulled back and leaned against his desk. He could hear a woman’s voice from the earpiece on the phone. She was excited.
"Not now. I gotta go. I’ll call you when I’m done, baby," said Fife. He closed the phone and smiled at Lynch.
"A friend?" asked Lynch.
"She's back in Jersey. I called her when I hit that first big pot on the table."
"Mmm, yes. I see. Not married are you?"
"No. You know how it is, Mr. Lynch."
"Sure. Of course. Let me ask you something. Would she like a free trip to Vegas? Comped by the Hallowe'en Resort? I can book the tickets right now and have her here in four hours. We'll set her up in one of our best suites. And you? A week’s access to some of the most sophisticated, private gaming rooms in all of Vegas. No charge."
"I don't think so, Mr. Lynch."
"I just want a chance to win back some of that money, Fife."
Fife was not impressed.
"The answer is no, Lynch."
Lynch stood up. He raised his arms, giving in.
"Then I guess we're done here?"
Fife nodded. He pulled at his collar. The room suddenly felt very warm.
"Can I get my check now?" asked Fife.
Lynch approached him in the chair. Something was not right. Fife knew it.
Lynch leaned towards Fife's ear. He could hear the man's heart rate climbing, the blood coursing through his veins. Fife remained motionless. Unsure. Scared.
With that, Lynch was on top of him, Fife's blubbery neck in his strong grasp. Fife struggled, but with one move Lynch ripped the man's head clean off his neck, blood spurting wildly from the opening. Lynch drank all he could, sucking Fife dry, then tossed his empty husk to the rug. He felt Fife in him, speeding through his veins. Lynch wondered if they knew -- if they felt themselves inside of him. From the way he could hear them in his mind, he suspected they did. Was it possible to have too many souls in one body, he thought?
Within fifteen minutes, Tony Blanco, one of Lynch's personal staff, dressed as Fife and using his i.d., purchased a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. From there, he'd continue on a connecting flight to the Philippines impersonating the newly flush Fife. Of course, the one hundred and twenty thousand dollars never left the casino. There was an electronic trail from the Pai Gow Poker pit, to the airport, and to the Philippines where he vanished. It was a good system, and over the years proved a reliable way to hunt and prevent any unnecessary payouts.
Henry D., always dutiful, entered the office and grabbed the rug Fife was now wrapped in. Lynch threw Fife's cell phone to him.
"You missed this," said Lynch.
"Was there a problem?" asked Henry.
"A woman called after you brought him up," answered Lynch.
Henry stopped cold.
"I don't think it’s anything to worry about yet,” replied Lynch. “But you never know. I need you to keep a better eye on the marks for me. I can't see everything from up here, understand?"
“I’ll track the number. If she makes any moves, calls the FBI, whatever, we’ll be on her.”
“I hate loose ends, Henry. It’s messy. Unprofessional.”
“Of course, Mr. Lynch.”
“I’ve been doing this a very long time. Many years, many countries, the world over. How do you think I’ve been able to do that?” asked Lynch.
“No loose ends, sir?”
Henry nodded and dragged away the body. He would place him with the rest in the basement. It was quite a collection down there. Drained of their blood, the bodies usually rotted away to bones within a month or two.
Lynch returned to the monitors on his desktop, studying his prey, looking for any card counters, cheats, theives or skimmers that could affect the night’s bottom line. He was comfortable now, feeling the new blood in his veins. He wouldn't have to feed until next week. When that time came, he'd make up his mind, but most likely he'd pick another winner from the crowds. It pays to be lucky at the Hallowe'en Resort and Casino, he always thought, but you just don't want to be too lucky.
The doors parted and in walked Diane Christensen, all of twenty-five in her leather skirt, accompanied by Lynch's brother Edouard, known as Ed to everybody at the hotel. Ed was an illusionist, and not a very good one. She, as the blonde bombshell assistant, added flair to an otherwise tired act. Diane sat down, eyes glued to one of the monitors on Lynch's desk. He studied her as she straddled one fish-net-stockinged leg over the arm of the chair.
"What's with her?" asked Lynch.
Ed sat down, fatigued from the show. "She's all dreamy over some actor in the audience tonight. A fellow named Ben Likely."
Lynch knew him; some square-jawed kid from Boston that had all the Hollywood crowd in a swoon. He was at the hotel participating in a Celebrity Poker tournament for one of the cable networks. Lynch looked over at the monitors and saw the tournament still under way.
"I take it you like this boy?" asked Lynch.
She turned around, arched an eyebrow, and grinned. She knew he was jealous.
"I don't like actors much. But him? Maybe."
She then noticed the carpet, the new one Henry D. had brought up after Fife.
"Another new rug. You have a new one every week it seems," she said. "I liked the old one with the little bagpipers on it."
"Those weren't bagpipers, my dear. They were Phoenician warriors."
Lynch poured them all a brandy.
"Here's to my new rug. And your new friend." He smiled, and they all knocked glasses and took a drink.
Tonight Diane was complaining about her latest surgery that did not take, a new breast augmentation that raised her chest even higher, yet produced an indentation in her left breast that would not go away -- no matter how much she massaged it. She demonstrated on herself, making sure Lynch was watching. He was. He broke his reverie to comb through the day's mail which sat unopened on his desk. On top was a large envelope from Darwin Enterprises, a medical research firm on Long Island. He ripped open the package to find a DVD inside with a cover letter. Mike Darwin, the point man for the operation, was imploring Lynch to fund his new company. Darwin's pitch was for a device he claimed allowed a subject to 'live forever' after cryogenic freezing. He called it the 'Soulcatcher'. Lynch was amused by the idea; while he received many requests for funding, none boasted such grandiose results. He scanned the contents, and after a moment's consideration, tossed the package back on his desk.
Diane looked at her watch. "I have a show at the Palomino in half an hour," she said. "I have to go."
Diane danced the late show at the Palomino strip club to make some extra cash. Since it didn't affect her business at Hallowe'en, Lynch didn't mind. Sometimes he'd even drop by, incognito, to watch her routine.
"You don't normally dance on Wednesdays, Diane," he pointed out to her.
She looked guilty, as if hiding something. "I switched with one of the girls," she said. "There was an emergency with one of her kids."
"Will I see you...?" Lynch's request trailed off.
She nodded, understanding. "Of course," she replied.
After a few minutes of 'good-byes' and other pleasantries, Diane left. As the doors closed Lynch pulled a small box out of his desk drawer. Inside was a cameo with a woman's face on it. It was very old, and looked a great deal like Diane.
"You're in love with her, aren't you?" asked Ed.
"I am," said Lynch. "I know what the rules are. That doesn't mean they have to be followed."
Ed saw the look in his brother's eyes. "Don't get any ideas. If Likely disappears, someone's going to come looking for him."
Lynch gently fingered the cameo. "They would, wouldn't they?"
He closed the lid on the box.
"You must turn the object of desire," said Ed. "Once that's accomplished all this ache and misery will disappear."
"I'm not that bad, you know. Just a bit distracted."
"When she is immortal, you'll be free of her influence. You have to do a transfusion."
"I've tried that many times and you know what happens. The only person it ever worked on was you."
"You're still thinking of Mireille. I know the pain you felt when she died, but that was over three hundred years ago. They have technologies today that can help --"
"-- They have nothing today for people like you and me," said Lynch. He held up the box with the cameo. "I can't do that to her, Ed. I don't want to see anything like that ever again." He stopped. The pain was too much for him, remembering his last love. He threw the box back in his desk drawer and slammed it shut.
Ed knew when to stop pushing, but he had another agenda, and the casino still needed managing. "What about Madame Sheila? She wants to meet you tonight. It's always good to welcome new employees, I think."
"Did you meet her?"
"No, I don't like mediums," replied Ed. "Especially fakes."
"Is she a fake?"
"Of course. Aren't they all?"
"Bring her up," said Lynch.
"She wants to show you her exhibit personally. When was the last time you were on the floor?"
Seven months had passed since his last visit. He knew Ed was right.
"Fine. I'll go welcome her to the family."
Lynch parted the curtain and walked into the darkened room. It was dressed like a library, with long, wooden shelves and stacks of old hardcover books. To add ambiance, authentic gas lamps had been installed in the walls surrounding the space. Sheila, the medium, didn't turn around when Lynch entered. She was busy tending to the lamps, and invited him to sit at a table with an ornate crystal ball. When she finally turned around he smiled at her, expecting a similar response. But she froze.
"Madame Sheila, are you all right?" he asked.
Unfortunately, Sheila's first real psychic experience would also be her last. Like cards flipping from the deck of a twenty-one dealer, Lynch's face reflected back at her those of his victims throughout the years. 400 years of hunting and killing. First man, then woman, then child; one by one the faces came in rapid succession, until they blended in grotesque deformity. Sheila's heart was not up to the challenge. Her hand left the gaslight switch as her body slumped to the floor, dead.
Lynch backed away, knowing what she had seen. This disturbed him, since he had not killed anyone _unintentionally_ in over four centuries.
"Madame Sheila?" he asked. "Can you hear me?" He grabbed her wrist to check the pulse, but there was none. Ashamed, he slinked out of the room and found Henry D. standing outside where he left him.
"We're gonna need another medium," said Lynch.
He told Henry D. to take care of the body and close down the exhibit pending further notice. He didn't want the police notified, nor did he want questions from the other employees. They would construct a cover story whereby Madame Sheila was ill and on leave indefinitely. Henry D. nodded and set about his business as Lynch gathered himself, watching the nightly crowd stream past him towards the casino floor. To his left was a placard in a glass case announcing the Celebrity Poker tournament being held in the complex. Among the various headshots was the face of Ben Likely. The photo was a few years old and showed a clean-shaven, young and healthy Ben. He felt like smashing the case right then and there, but was instead distracted by the sound of high heels approaching on the cobblestone walkway. He turned and saw it was Diane, rushing through the crowd towards the exit. He thought about it for a moment, then followed her outside.
From seven hundred feet overhead, Las Vegas was a magnificent city, filled with pulsating light, vibrant energy and strange sights. The Sphinx of Giza. The Eiffel Tower. The World Trade Center and Empire State Building -- practically on top of each other. They were cartoonish aberrations of the real thing, all of which Lynch had actually seen in his lifetime. After hundreds of years of practice, shifting shape was easy for Lynch. He had taken the form of a bat and soared above them, wings outstretched in the cool, desert air. Below, a taxi cab carried Diane to the Palomino. Lynch was following her.
They passed the dancing fountains at the Bellagio. They passed the volcano at the Mirage just as it erupted. Next door at Treasure Island, pirates swung from the mast of a square-rigger. Diane's driver, with serpentine precision, guided his fare through the obstacle course of other cars and buses that crawled along the Strip. Past the Riviera and the Sahara, past the pinnacle of the Stratosphere, they arrived at the Palomino club in the netherworld between the Strip and old Fremont Street. Lynch circled overhead and descended just as Diane jumped out of the taxi and ran inside.
Naked after reverting into human shape, Lynch slipped from the alley into the service entrance behind the club. In an employee locker room, he found an ill-fitting uniform that belonged to one of the bartenders. He donned a Palomino baseball cap from a cabinet near the kitchen and pulled it over his eyes to conceal his identity. In the main room, _Jive Talkin'_ by the Bee Gees thundered out of the speakers. Lynch leaned against the back wall and watched as Diane took the stage.
She had once told him that she'd always wanted to live in real city. Was Las Vegas a real city, he wondered? Compared to her hometown of Elm Grove, Wisconsin it must have been. To get there she'd scraped the bottom of her bank account, had some plastic surgery, dyed her hair platinum and arrived shortly after her twenty-fourth birthday. That was last April, he remembered. Lynch admired this about her, the ability and willingness to change her own flesh in order to flourish. A shave off her nose; tattoos on her back and the tops of her feet. The fake breasts. A fake tan. He liked the illusion, and he knew how she felt when she made a decision to become someone else. He'd been doing it for four centuries.
She twirled around the pole three or four times, the developed muscles in her legs levitating her above the floor. As she came out of the spin, her top came off and she slid into a seductive, prone position on the floor near a group of young men at the railing, one of whom was holding out a twenty dollar bill. Diane thrust her hips at the man, encouraging him. She crawled closer as he placed the bill at the rim of her black g-string and slowly slid it below the patch. She locked eyes with the man, flirting with him. Lynch looked closer and saw who it was. It was Ben Likely.
At 3:02 am, Lynch exited the elevator on the eleventh floor of Hallowe'en and approached Likely's suite. He stopped and listened for the occupants inside. Nothing. Only the hum of the air conditioning vent overhead. He pulled out a cardkey and slipped it into the lock. The light blinked from red to green as the card fell from his hand.
The uniform from the Palomino slipped off his shoulders as his bones and muscles compacted into a smaller, feline form. Tiny black hairs crept from his pores, while his spine elongated and a tail grew from its base. Inside, the door parted a few inches. As a black panther, Lynch entered the suite in silence, hunting. He heard heavy breathing from the bedroom, and the slapping of skin against skin. He padded to the doorway and saw Likely on top of Diane in the king-size bed. Even though he couldn't see her face, he knew it was her by the matching sun and moon tattoos on the tops of her feet.
Lynch circled around, coming closer, preparing to leap on Likely's back. All he needed was a half-second, he thought. Likely, occupied, wouldn't have time to react. But when Diane's face became visible, Lynch froze. Before she blinked, he pulled back and retreated from her eyeline. Seeing her face again filled him with that ache. It paralyzed him. He couldn't do it, couldn't harm her even if he wanted to. He moved into the living room and became a man one more. As the sounds of passion grew more and more frantic in the adjoining room, a great sadness overcame him.
He suspected she had been with others over the past year, but there was no proof. As a vampire, Lynch was _il a fait queue-de-rat_, which was a term French prostitutes used for a john who “just wanted to watch.” Diane often asked why he didn't touch her, but he demurred, never telling her what kind of creature he really was. It didn't make sense, but she asked no further questions, and never refused to accept any favors he granted her. In exchange he would lie with Diane in her bed until dawn, keeping her company, just talking. That's what he liked the most. He stood there, overlooking the Strip, cursing himself for this.
At quarter to six, Diane opened the door to her suite and found Lynch waiting in her living room. When she saw him she averted her eyes, told him she needed a shower, and disappeared into the bathroom.
A few minutes later she emerged wearing a terrycloth robe and climbed onto the bed with him. He asked her about the night and she, of course, lied and told him she had stayed late to commiserate with some of the dancers. She rolled over and kissed him.
"You're always cold," she said.
"Yes, I know. It's my blood. I have been this way for a long time."
"Will you ever touch me?" she asked.
He didn't answer. He clutched her tight, drawing her in. She began to relax. He always did that to her, relaxed her. Her eyelids fluttered, then closed. He looked at her beautiful neck and could hear the sound of her heart pumping. The jugular in her neck pulsated with each beat and he brushed it with his fingers, feeling her mortality. He noticed the digital alarm clock behind her head, which now read 6:13. The sun was rising, and Lynch knew he had to go. He rose out of the bed, looked down at her one last time, then exited the room in silence.
Lynch walked through the near-empty casino, looking over the empire he had built. He approached one of the twenty-one tables and smiled at the lonely dealer, who laid down a hand for him. Lynch flipped over the cards and showed an ace and a king.
"Up kind of late, Mr. Lynch?" asked the dealer.
"Early, you mean."
"Must have a lot on your mind. I've never seen you down here at this hour," the dealer replied. Lynch nodded. The dealer asked if he wanted another hand, but Lynch waved him off, thanked him, and headed down the long, cobblestone hallway that led outside. A drunken couple weaved down the hall ahead of him, laughing. Lynch stopped, knowing he couldn't get any closer. The casino protected him; within those walls he was king, but outside he would be reduced to ash by the gray, early morning light. He didn't like the idea of giving up the Hallowe'en, but the way he saw it, Diane left him no choice.
Downstairs, in the subbasement of the hotel, were two coffins nestled in a pit filled with earth imported from the south of France. In one coffin lay Ed, who was resting for the day. The other was open, and Lynch climbed inside, his mind still on Diane. After meeting her last year, he'd looked at the old cameo of Mireille for the first time since 1789. No coincidence they were the spitting image of one another. He had found his soulmate again, and this time, he thought, he wasn't going to let her go. As he drifted off, he decided this would be the last day he was going to spend in that coffin. Even if it killed him.
Sunset in Las Vegas was at 6:52 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time. Lynch walked through his office doors at precisely 6:53 and went to his desk. On top was the package from Darwin Enterprises, the Long Island company that promised immortality through cryogenics. He placed the DVD in his player and crossed the room to pour himself a drink. Onscreen, after several poorly focused shots of a shabby brick building, a technician appeared and began decapitating a cadaver with a large bone saw. Lynch, in mid-pour, set down the bottle and moved to the sofa, transfixed by the narrative. As Mike Darwin explained his procedure and the device he used to achieve it, something shifted in Lynch, and for a brief moment he felt a glimmer of hope.
Twenty minutes passed as Lynch watched the remainder of the disk. When it was finished, he picked up his headset and paged Henry D. down on the floor.
"Get a plane fueled up for an immediate departure. We're going to New York," he said. Lynch then dialed a number on the telephone. A tired voice answered.
"This is Lyle Lynch, from the Lynch Gaming Corporation. I'm calling in regards to your funding proposal, and I was wondering if you'd like to get together this evening to discuss it."
"This evening? It's nearly ten o'clock, Mr. Lynch."
"I don't have the luxury of time, Mr. Darwin. I can meet you outside your lab in about five hours. How does that sound?"
Quiet from the other end. Darwin was stunned.
"You want to meet me outside my lab at three in the morning?"
"I can assure you, Mr. Darwin, this will be well worth your time."
Mike Darwin was a small, cherubic man with wire-rimmed glasses and three-days growth on his face. Dressed in a white lab coat, he ushered Lynch into the main chamber of his laboratory and pointed to a large machine with an attached computer work station in the center of the pit. It was comprised of a titanium chair with stirrups hooked up to a rack of fuel cells. Two massive, oblong metal plates with only an inch of space between them were suspended overhead by wire cables.
"Is this it?" asked Lynch.
"Yes. This is the Soulcatcher."
Intrigued, he watched as Lynch strode over to the computer terminal and ran his finger along the keyboard.
"Don't be fooled by its simple appearance," said Darwin. "With cryogenics, the brain and body are frozen in liquid nitrogen in hopes of later resurrection. But what about the mind? Consciousness? The soul? When the last traces of electrical brain function are severed by the freezing process, the energy that once constituted 'you' simply dissipates into thin air. But, as we know, energy can neither be created nor destroyed."
He gestured to the two enormous metal plates suspended above their heads. "What if we could capture that energy in a storage device, some sort of 'bio-server?' The body could be preserved, either through cryogenic freeze, or cloning, and that 'soul' energy could later be imported back in. It would reacclimate itself to the old genetic patterns recognized by nature, and you regain 'consciousness.'"
"What if?" asked Lynch.
Darwin continued. "You could bypass the death experience altogether. Become immortal, if you will. I, Mr. Lynch, have found a way to do just that."
"Does it work?" Lynch asked.
"Hypothetically, yes. We've had success with sheep, dogs and even a few of the smaller primates. We've not yet, however, tried it on a human being."
Lynch sat down on a high wooden stool and crossed his legs. He waited a moment, then spoke, almost shrugging off his thought.
"What if I don't want to wait for later retrieval?"
"Like I said, Mr. Lynch, you'd need another body, a clone, standing by."
"I don't have time to grow one. Will any body do?"
"A clone has no soul if it never achieves consciousness," said Darwin. "Any other body? Well, legally, that would be murder."
"Technically, no. More of a hostile takeover."
"It won't work."
"What I call the 'Gemini Effect' occurs," said Darwin. "Two souls fighting for control of one body. A total meltdown."
Lynch laughed. He liked this ingenious little man very much, and felt quite comfortable in his presence. Darwin started laughing with him.
"You don't believe a word of this, do you Mr. Lynch?"
"Oh, I do. But there's no meltdown, I can assure you. The dominant soul always wins." He paused. "What if I told you, Mr. Darwin, that I could not only give you the funding for the Soulcatcher, but provide you a first human subject?"
Darwin was ready to go, you could see it in his eyes. "I'd say you were an angel sent from heaven, Mr. Lynch."
Mike Darwin had witnessed a lot of discoveries in the course of his life, but nothing prepared him for the experience of discussing Lynch's test results with him that afternoon.
"I needed your DNA signature to align the machine for extraction," he started. "But your blood is not human. It's superior to ours. Very similar, but more disease resistant. The cellular material is more dense, the plasma less. And that's just the beginning." He continued, saying he had found traces of animal DNA, such as bat and cat, as well as disease fighting enzymes that he could barely comprehend. He wanted to study Lynch. He had many questions.
"I have lived for over 400 years. I feed off human blood to do this."
"I don't understand. You're telling me you're a vampire? How is that possible?"
Lynch told him his story. He found it thrilling, since he had never been able to tell anyone before. He told him how he was infected in Prague by a countess in the 1640's. He went into the feeding process, the shapeshifting, and the limited history of his species as he knew it. How the blood takes over the body, and how rough the transfusions were on some people, especially when the DNA was not compatible. The death rate from unsuccessful transfusions had been enormous.
When he was finished, Darwin sat there, stunned. Lynch indicated the machine overhead.
"'Get a whole new body and change your life.' That's how you should market this contraption of yours. People will eat it up. It'll make plastic surgery look like pulling a tooth."
Darwin shook his head. "There's a bit more at stake than that, Mr. Lynch. I just want you to understand the weight of your decision here." Lynch beamed back at him. He hadn't felt this good in years.
"Never underestimate the public, Mr. Darwin," he said. "People don't care about the risk. They just want to win."
Darwin asked if he could test his body after the switch, but before Lynch could respond, a door chime rang overhead.
"Those would be my associates, " said Lynch. "Please let them in."
Lynch knew his plan would succeed. When Likely finished taping the last show of the poker tournament at midnight, he left the soundstage and headed for his suite when Ed and Tony Blanco got into the elevator with him. Instead of the car going up to the eleventh floor, it went down to the subbasement. Likely protested, but Blanco zapped him with a stun gun and within moments he was incapacitated. They escaped through a passageway that linked the hotel to the freight terminal at McCarren airport. Within five hours they had touched down at Teterboro and drove the rest of the way to Long Island. Likely, now wearing a hood over his face, stood between Ed and Tony Blanco overlooking the Soulcatcher pit.
"What about Diane?" asked Lynch.
"She probably thinks he's trying to avoid her and make a quick exit to L.A. Here's his cell, it's been ringing ever since we left Vegas." Lynch flipped open the phone and looked at the numbers. All Los Angeles area codes except for one -- a local Vegas number. It was Diane's.
"She's not worth it, you know," Ed said. "You can still change your mind. We can dump him back in his suite and he'll never know what happened."
"I've been alone for a long time," said Lynch. "I want to see sunlight again."
"Who is the subject?" interrupted Darwin. "May I see him? I need to evaluate his DNA for the procedure."
Lynch summoned Tony Blanco to come forward with the man in the hood. Blanco threw him down in a chair. Darwin walked over, lifted his chin and looked at his face. He was astonished.
"You know who this is?"
"Yes, I do," said Lynch.
"Excuse me, but you're one of the wealthiest men in Las Vegas, the owner of the most popular casino on the Strip. You're immortal. Now you want to trade places with -- I'm sorry, _live out the rest of your life as_ -- some tabloid fodder actor? You are aware of the gravity of this decision?"
"Fully," he replied. Darwin was scared, Lynch could see it.
"We have little time before someone recognizes that he's missing," Lynch continued. "His handlers, his manager. We do this now or the deal is off."
"But I don't know if his body will accept your soul signature."
"Remember what I said about the dominant soul? You just get me into his body. I assure you, I'll do the rest."
Darwin made a choice. He flipped on a massive power switch and began calibrating the instruments on the machine. The Soulcatcher came to life, humming and crackling with a massive, electrical surge.
Ed turned to his brother. "How are you feeling?"
"Invigorated," Lynch answered. He took off his clothes as he continued. "I'm the first man in history who has a chance to see the other side of death."
"You're not a man," stated Ed.
"I will be. In about forty five minutes," said Lynch.
Naked, Lynch climbed into the chair. Darwin strapped him in and applied the wetware of the Soulcatcher to his forehead. Lynch gave him a nod, and the machine kicked in. A charge surged through his body and he seized up. The current moved through the headpiece and into the small, electrified gap between the metal plates overhead. Inside that gap, a small dose of dark matter had been created, sucking the soul energy from his body and funneling it into the computer apparatus. After a moment, the machine cycled down as the energy was absorbed into the mainframe. It filled up with Lynch's soul, indicated by the number "1" on the readout screen.
All was quiet for a moment. Ed let out a long breath. Darwin wiped his forehead with a towel. It seemed like it was working. But then a tone rang from the computer and the number on the screen switched from "1" to "2". Another soul had been sucked out.
"I don't understand," said Darwin. "There should be only one." He tried to shut it down, but the computer did not respond. The graphic on the screen shot up, now reading 100, 200, 300... it kept rising higher, into the thousands. Ed stepped back from the machine. He knew what it was.
"The souls," he said. "My Lord, those are the souls of all of his victims!"
Lynch felt reality slipping away. When he opened his eyes, he found himself on a different plane altogether. Memory spheres became visible. Silvery, glowing orbs -- images from the past 400 years of his life. He could barely get a glimpse of them, they moved so fast and there were so many. Diane was in one of them. So was Ed. Next he saw umbilical cords and a placenta, like the inside of a uterus. It was bloody. There were bodies in egg-shaped sacs, both men and women. He didn't recognize any of them. He reached out to touch one, but was pulled further inward, slipping deeper into the digitized reality.
After a few moments he stopped moving. Lynch was stuck in a white limbo space with no walls. Through the mist he saw figures approaching. One was Ted Fife, and he had a very displeased look on his face. Lynch recoiled, now terrified, as Fife lunged for his throat.
"What do you want, Fife?!" he cried out.
There was a monstrous din as the rabid horde came through the portal. Freed from the bonds of his tyranny, his victims attacked him, scratched him, clawed at his body. Lynch tried to push them away, but he fell to his knees and gave in as they tore at his flesh.
"I am sorry!" he screamed. "I am so sorry!"
Then in an instant, they disappeared, as if they'd been swept away by a powerful force. It was quiet now. Something in the air smelled sweet and fragrant. He opened his eyes and realized that he was back home, as a child, in a great field of lavender in Annot, France. Nearly 400 years ago. He saw his mother across the field, walking with a basket of wildflowers. She smiled and waved to him. As he walked towards her, the field grew brighter, blinding him. Lynch kept moving towards her, feeling more secure with each step he took.
Outside, the Soulcatcher apparatus cracked open. Darwin was the first one hit by the blast. His lab coat withered away under the intense heat as the force passed through his body, illuminating the skeleton underneath. In that one instant, with the power of creation surging through him, he felt a moment of peace before he died. Tony Blanco, a few feet away, became vapor as the tornado swept through him. Ed, in his last instant, saw his brother's body shrivel into a dry husk and turn to dust. He reached out to touch him, but the force of the blast cracked his skin open and, in a secondary explosion, the trapped souls inside of his withering frame poured out in a blinding arc of light. They joined the pure, swirling force of soul energy and disappeared into the void beyond. The room became quiet again.
Ben Likely, still hooded and unconscious in his chair, stirred and pulled the hood off his head. Bewildered, he looked around the damaged room. He saw his cell phone on the counter where Darwin's skeleton lay prone. He grabbed the phone and examined the Soulcatcher instrument panel. The computer had shut down, but the monitor was still intact. He had no way of knowing what was inside or how valuable the digital data was. On the screen was a small blinking cursor followed by a green digit. It read simply "1."
Likely stumbled out of the lab and squinted against the late afternoon light. He could smell the ocean, and the trees were green, and lush. He looked back at the concrete building that was no more than a cinder block bunker. He opened his cell phone and dialed his manager's number, hoping she could get him out of this mess, whatever the hell it was.