Ashley and I had just won a game show, and were on our way to fetch the prize money when we heard a scream. Someone in the neighboring studio had just uncovered a dead body.
The victim: A contestant from a cooking show called Shadow Chef. African American, female, overweight. The body had been completely drained of blood. I spotted two small puncture wounds in the neck. She had been wearing a cross, but it lay on a broken chain a couple feet away. You could see red marks where it got yanked off.
The woman had been dragged to a place off the main foot path, all but her feet concealed in props, camera and lighting equipment. She lay supine in a corridor between facades supported by pine frames. Impressive from the other side, with all the paint and decoration, but from our vantage point, with all the wires and cables, it just looked like the underbelly of a sloppy crochet pillow.
My mocha skinned girlfriend knelt beside the body, her shiny PVC leggings creaking with the movement. "This has got to be a gag."
"I don't know," I stammered. "She looks pretty dead to me."
She checked the woman's pulse, frowning a little.
"Should you be doing that? I think this is considered a crime scene."
Ashley stood up, hands on her hips. She looked great in that tight little outfit she'd worn for the game show. Kinky hair, the aforementioned stretchy leggings, tight sports halter that exposed her firm belly...I kept forcing myself not to stare. "It's also a TV studio. You never know if they've got some hidden camera show going, or a new special effect. You are aware that the host pretends to be a vampire, aren't you?"
"I...don't watch the Cooking Network."
She rolled her dark brown eyes. "Can you at least cook? I like a man who can cook."
"Well yeah. I'm not a professional, but I know my way around a stove..." Then, in a slight murmur, I added, "Thought I was doing good putting on a dress and running through an obstacle course for you."
I was wearing a neon pink party dress with white stockings. Ashley's idea. You know, to convince the casting director we were a sufficiently diverse couple.
Ashley wiped off her glasses and put them on. "Thanks for diving in the pool for these, by the way. Hate to waste the prize money replacing something that ain't broke."
They'd given me towels to dry off with, but my outfit, still damp, made the air conditioning extra chilly. The things you do for love. "Anything for you, sweetie."
Her whole body visibly shuddered. "Ugh. Don't call me that."
"What should I call you?"
"I dunno, Ash?"
"Fine," I groaned.
The screamer had been a bald, effeminate black guy named Cortez, narrow bodied, bejeweled around the ears and neck, long sports jersey and baggy trousers. He stared bug eyed at the corpse. "My God! That's real, isn't it? She's actually dead!"
Ashley seemed to be really getting into the role of amateur detective, crawling around on the floor, examining spots on the concrete floor, random little objects you'd call trash outside of a crime scene. "Afraid so. Did you...see anything?"
I stared at my girlfriend. "Hold on. Why are we playing Nancy Drew all of a sudden?"
She glared at me, crossing her arms. "What's so bad about Nancy Drew?"
My face reddened. I'd gone through a lot of trouble to earn that first kiss from her. The last thing I wanted to do was screw things up. "N-nothing. I just didn't know I was dating a detective."
Then, to make amends, I posed her question to Cortez.
The guy was definitely checking me out. I felt kind of glad I didn't have a dress with an exposed bosom. I tried not to notice, just listening to what he had to say.
"Girl, Count Dracula called time on my ass!" He leaned on an Ikegami film camera so old and busted up it should have been dropped in a dumpster. "I had the shit in the oven, but the bastard wouldn't give me an extra minute to finish up! I was going to light up back here, but someone told me not to, so I tried to be slick and come down a little further...Boom, dead body!"
Cortez clicked his teeth. "You know, I bet Mr. Dracula did it. I heard he actually had a dentist file his teeth down so they'd look like fangs." He glanced at my hairy legs. "Got something against razors?"
Ashley smirked. "That's what I said."
Before I could respond, I heard a voice cry out, "Terrific! That's just what I need!"
A portly, suited figure with skull makeup and a little top hat came waddling down the hallway. It seemed the staff had informed Mr. Edison about the dead body.
The Dracula-like cooking show host removed his trademark red spectacles, examining the corpse. "Oh God, this is going to be a PR nightmare!"
"What happened?" Cortez flashed teeth bearing a Michael Strayhan-like credibility gap. "Get hungry and need a snack?" Then, under his breath, "As if your big hairy ass needs it!"
"Out!" the man hollered, pointing to the exit.
When his mouthy contestant refused to move, Edison screamed, "Now! I'll call security! Don't think I won't!"
"Damn fool be trippin'," Cortez muttered, backing off. He didn't go far. I saw him giving me a wink as he was leaving.
Edison narrowed his eyes at me and my girlfriend. "You too! Scram!"
"Sir," Ashley blurted. "We came from Red Shift. We're not leaving without our prize money."
`The Count' swore under his breath, reporting the incident to 9-11 on his cel.
"Mr. Edison, what can you tell me about the victim?"
"Playing Nancy Drew, eh?" He gave her an indifferent shrug. "She was with The Magic Mamas." Noting a blank look, he added, "Cooking team. Bunch of Jesus freaks. Their entree tasted awful."
He scowled at my princess sleeves. "Any particular reason why your...friend is wearing a dress?" Then, remembering his television political correctness: "Not that there's anything wrong about that kind of thing, just asking..."
I began to say, "Game show," but Ashley draped an arm around my shoulder and answered for me. "He gets off on it, don't you, Princess Peach?"
I blushed. She'd given me that nickname affectionately, when I started kicking butt on Red Shift. You know, because of the pink dress. "Y-yeah."
Edison looked queasy. "Well anyways, that's all there is to tell. The woman was just a random contestant. Grated on my last nerve, but I don't need to murder someone to rid of them out of my hair. Just ask my casting director...What the hell is Mr. Bats doing inside her collar?"
Mr. Bats was an itty bitty puppet he sometimes used on the show to deliver corny jokes. Before I could warn him, he was already reaching in, getting his fingerprints and stuff on the body.
When the police showed up, they took him away in handcuffs.
Already people were talking about how Edison had gone nuts and had taken the vampire thing too seriously. Someone said this wasn't the first murder of this type, that he probably did those too, and he'd be sent up the river for a long time.
A TV reporter showed up, telling America how Edison was "Allegedly" guilty as sin.
"You think he actually did it?" I asked my girlfriend.
"I don't believe in vampires. C'mon, let's do some digging."
We slipped into the set after the reporter finished his veiled accusations.
The set of Shadow Chef basically looked like Count Dracula's castle mashed together with an industrial restaurant kitchen. Gleaming chrome and polished Formica stood amidst fake stone walls and old Germanic architectural flourishes, flammable looking velvet curtains, Gothic statues, taxidermy animals and artificial tombstones.
A mingling of odors wafted into my nostrils, telling of the prowess (or general ineptitude) of the eight contestants. My nose detected burnt pizza around the `Busby' tombstone, a heavenly sort of lasagna and bread (likely garlic free, in keeping with the show's theme) at the `Mendez' station, some kind of black pepper paprika chicken thing near The Count's presentation stage.
They'd shut off most the overhead lights by then, leaving us only with the antique candelabras and chandeliers for illumination. Kind of spooky, especially with the gimmick paintings with eyes that followed you around the room with motion sensors. "I'm not sure what good we're going to do at this point. Everyone's probably on a plane by now."
Ashley peered into a suit of armor. "We practically had to sign our lives away to get on our show, remember? If anyone runs, they're not going to get very far. Besides, I don't think a contestant killed that woman."
I raised an eyebrow. "Really? It's a perfect motive. Get the other guy out of the way so you can win?"
She pulled out drawers on a stainless steel preparation table marked with a foam headstone. "They'd be literally biting the hand that feeds them. Why make it look like Mr. Edison killed them? Personally I would have used a chef's knife. A little messy, but something you could at least pin on one of the runner-ups instead of the guy holding the money bag."
I stared into a novelty mirror that somehow showed no reflection of my face. "So what are you thinking, some guy that got cut?"
"Hmm." She marched up to the set where Edison did his opening monologue from a casket and gave cooking demos, poking around in the cabinets. "I don't think an ex-contestant would put this much thought into a murder, not if they expected to win."
"Even if they got cut a couple years ago?"
"It would take a lot of imagination and ingenuity, not to mention money, to rig up a murder weapon that can actually look like a vampire killed you." She knelt by the rusty, statue shrouded elevator platform Edison used to make dramatic appearances before the studio audience. "It's an incredibly slow way to die. The woman would have been screaming a lot, but we didn't hear anything during our run."
"Yeah, but the show was noisy. A lot of people were screaming. Plus, I mean, how long could she really have been out? Someone would have noticed the body, or her absence, or something, right?"
Ashley frowned. "That is strange."
She toggled a foot lever, and in seconds she was descending beneath the floor.
I would have followed but a second later, a big dark figure swooped down from the catwalk above me, striking me on the back of the head.
As I lay sprawled on the floor, I suddenly noticed I recognized my assailant: Edmund Fiero, the plump, spiky haired host of Eating Across America. The man, clad in a black Nehru jacket and bell bottom slacks, drew a double pronged instrument from his cape, preparing to ram it into my jugular. A connecting vacuum tube and a steel canister told me where our victim's blood had disappeared to.
I pushed him back, but the guy was surprisingly strong, and the added weight made it difficult for me to get out from under him. I could smell the tequila on his breath.
Funny, according to the beer commercials, he was supposed to be a Silver Bullet man.
A cloud of purple smoke erupted behind him, accompanied by dozens of squeaking bats.
Mr. Fiero's eyes flashed with anger, perhaps under the assumption that The Count had somehow escaped police custody.
He turned his head, fist clenching the murder weapon, but before he could fully whirl around, he spasmed, his back arching involuntarily.
The big man toppled over me, drooling as his body went into convulsions. I looked up and saw Ashley pocketing a taser.
"He's been angling for a raise," she explained as she bound his wrists with power cables. "In addition to the neat special effects equipment I found, there's some letters in his basement dressing room, saying that the request got denied. Guess the guy got fed up and tried to score himself a bigger role."
Ashley helped me roll the man over, and I showed her the vacuum pump. "This thing looks pretty powerful. Probably could do the job in ten minutes or so if you hit the right artery."
We discovered the device also administered a tranquilizer, hence the lack of screaming.
She took the weapon away from him and called the police. "You know, I just thought of something we can do with our prize money."
I rolled my eyes. "Would this have anything to do with opening your own detective agency?"