Vampire Cabbie - Chapter 15


Funeral For A Cab Driver

Nicole was gone. Gone without a word. Gone without even having done her paperwork, which surely would prompt a summons from the waybill office. Gone before I even noticed her leaving, nothing but a pair of glowing, scarlet eyes shrinking into the night.

I completed my own paperwork, confusion and anger alternating as supreme emotions, battling each other as numbers violated their own cold, constant mathematical rules, one plus one somehow equaling something other than two.

Why had Nicole fled? A reaction, yes, but this from the same woman who had so strongly stood by my side under far more gruesome circumstances?

And motherless spawn of Satan, who in the name of the four winds of Hades would murder Truck? Here truly was a kindly fellow. This I knew well, having experienced firsthand the generosity of his concern.

Inside the dispatch office, Dexter stared at the computer screen, silently rubbing his chin. Upon seeing me drop my waybill envelope into the safe, a flood of words flew from his lips, all at once angry and confused, bitter and hopeless.

But the words seemed to bounce off me, just sounds, just emotionally charged tones.

"Another one for the Madison Mangler," Dexter said..

Ears pricked to attention.

"That's what they'll say in the papers," he continued. "Another one for the Madison Mangler." He shook his head slowly, then held his peace and resumed his steely, unfocused gaze upon the green-glowing computer screen. With a soft goodbye, I slipped into the night.

Another one for the Madison Mangler.

Questions consumed me, which took my mind off Nicole's abrupt departure. Why Truck? How could someone inflict that kind of damage on one so imposing as Truck? This fellow, with bulging lumps of muscle well visible even under rolls upon rolls of fat, was no timid little coed, about as able to defend herself as a doe blinded by the headlights of an oncoming car. Truck had served in the military, had been a member of one of those tribal motorcycle clubs where they can and will take care of problems easily and swiftlyby themselves . Kern once told me someone tried to rob Truck and spent a month in the hospital.

Questions, questions, questions. Had not Dexter said that Truck's remains had been taken to theUniversityHospital morgue?

What if it was a vampire? What would you do?

Stop him.

Questions posed themselves. Questions demanded answers.

Guilt ate at me. I should have investigated when that first body was found in the snow. Too late for recriminations, I told myself as I drove to theUniversityHospital . Still sitting within myToyota , parked a discreet distance from an inconspicuous rear entrance, I became mist and let the force of my will guide me into the hospital, down to the basement and into the morgue. When sensing myself alone, I rematerialized.

All senses on alert. No one around, my search commenced. The morgue was quiet and stark, with steel tables and dingy, white walls. Florescent lights bathed the room in a sickly glow. Ahead, a set of double doors loomed, the stench of disinfectant from within swimming up my nostrils, making my skin crawl.

Beyond the double-doors was a narrow room with stacks of drawers on either side. Finding the correct drawer was easy; only three drawers were labeled, all right next to each other reading, "Slinsky, David - A", "Slinsky, David - B", and "Slinsky, David - C". I hastily pulled open drawer A.

"Motherless spawn of Satan," I spat, staring at the headless corpse, my whisper echoing against sterile walls. Truck's flesh was pale and chalky, rips and tears covering his thorax and abdomen - and most notably and grotesquely - from his groin. Apparently, the police did indeed find a body drained of blood, tapped from all those numerous cuts, including the jagged stump of what was left of Truck's penis. Within drawer B was a familiar face, an expression of anguish clearly visible through the plastic wrapping. I compared the scraps of skin hanging from what remained of the neck in the first drawer with the bottom of the severed head. There had been a fair degree of gnawing, and the remaining neck vertebrae were twisted far from their normal alignment.

Even if it was obvious that Truck's penis lay inside drawer C, I forced myself to open the drawer and inspect the organ wrapped in transparent plastic, forcing myself not to shut my eyes in disgust.

No human possessed the strength to inflict this kind of carnage. That was clear. My eyes slammed shut as the picture formed in my mind - a vampire, saliva-dripping fangs glowing in the moonlight, ripping Truck open one tear at a time, savoring his victim's fear, prolonging life merely to taste the terror.

Images from the past flooded my vision. A wife, her throat torn open. A vampire hovering above, face mad with feral ferocity, poised to strike, but waiting and relishing the wait. Death, then a new kind of life that finds sustenance only from the lives of others, lives taken with the brutality of one without faith or hope, a mere empty shell, mindlessly seeking fulfillment.

Until another path was found.

My fists clenched tightly as I slammed the drawers shut, caring not if anyone would hear. No one deserves to die like this. This monster must be stopped.

****

It would have been wisest to proceed immediately to my cramped abode, but despite a lightening sky, anger clouded my thoughts, as did concern for one still living. The road ahead seemed to veer, diverting my southward path.

And then my car was parked outside Nicole's house.

No lights burned inside the split-level Georgian. No matter. Within moments, my body rematerialized inside Nicole's bedroom. Posters of Emma Goldman, Che Guevara and a young, slatternly couple labeled as "Sid and Nancy" guarded her sleeping form from their spots above the triple-layered bookshelves that lined opposite walls.

Nicole lay tucked in a tight ball, her quilt pulled tightly around her, leaving patches of the mattress as well as her calves bare. She groaned loudly, tossed and pulled the quilt with her as she turned to the other side of the bed.

I spoke her name softly. No reaction but for a groan followed by a vigorous toss and turn as if she wrestled with a demon from her dreams.

The darkness that painted the walls lightened, transforming into swirling shadows. It was time to leave. Nicole groaned loudly again, and then my cells spread apart, my eyes still transfixed on her sleeping form, the image of her nearly rolling off the bed splintering in my sight.

****

Just before the funeral, the mortuary parking lot was full of cabs, but Nicole was nowhere to be seen. I had left for work two hours prior to my eight o'clock start time, at the first moment the sun was low enough in the sky for the pain to be tolerable, the rays stinging, but not burning, not searing flesh from bone white to charred black. My Muskies cap, sunglasses, a bandanna around my neck, long slacks and a long sleeved shirt provided ample protection, though no amount of covering, not even sunscreen, could provide complete protection. Not even Francois could fully explain this, except that it is the mere presence of the sun that burns our kind, more in a metaphysical than real sense.

I scanned the crowd for Nicole, opened my nostrils, searching for that familiar, sweet scent. I searched for others as well, others come not to mourn, but to gloat, to drink the sadness and anger of those assembled. Truck's killer would no doubt find such a taste as sweet as the blood of the most innocent of virgins.

The attendees clustered themselves in factions defined by their relationship to Truck. A quartet of large-boned, heavy-set women sat in silence, huddled on a couch next to the chapel entrance, their faces puffy, eyes bloodshot, their expressions stunned, eerily similar to the fear-grimace frozen upon Truck's face.

A trio of bikers flanked the chapel entrance. One could have been Truck's brother, except his long hair and shaggy beard were blond. He wore a green polyester blazer and stood next to a tall, skinny fellow, his ribs nearly visible underneath a too-tight jacket, his Adam's apple bobbing violently as he listened intently to a rather short, muscular gentleman dressed in leather and a denim vest bearing their club's emblem. His raven hair was pulled back tightly, accentuating high cheekbones and prominent scars.

"We ride tonight," the short one said, his voice a hissing whisper. "Tonight. Every night."

"Until we find the fucker who did this," the fat one said. He patted his chest where something bulged underneath his blazer. The short one nodded, eyes narrowed to vicious slits.

"We'll get that fucking bastard," the tall one said.

Someone tapped my shoulder. It was Kern, along with Maureen, the general manager, and the operations manager, Kevin. Maureen wore a rather conservative beige dress, Kevin a navy blue suit, his tie hopelessly askew. Kern's appearance was sloppy as always, but his grin was conspicuously absent.

"Hey, Al," Kern said.

I greeted my fellow cooperative members. Maureen shook my hand firmly. Her flesh felt cold and clammy. Underneath the scent of her lilac perfume lurked the astringent aroma of perspiration.

"Thanks for coming, Al," Maureen said.

"It is important." These were all the words I could muster forth. How to put this into words! It seemed a prudent thing to do, to attend Truck's funeral, but with more and more consideration, it became obvious that I wanted to be there as much as anybody else to share my outrage and grief.

"I hate funerals," Maureen said. Kern nodded. Kevin twitched and shifted his feet back and forth. "I hate having to bury the people that helped make the co-op into something."

"Yeah," Kevin said, pulling at his tie. "Like Benny."

"Like Benny," Maureen repeated, her astringent scent suddenly becoming more prominent. I could almost feel each individual bead of sweat pierce her skin. "Benny - " She shook her head. "Hell, the whole cooperative was his idea. If it weren't for him, we'd all be at somebody else's cab company, slaving for dirt wages."

Kevin laughed dryly. "Hard to believe. Hell, I knew Benny way back at Yellow Cab. Seems like forever."

"It was," Maureen added, a wistful smile on her face. "That must've been twenty years ago."

"Yeah," Kevin said, "and Benny was just a fuckhead of a college-dropout."

"Just like you," Kern added, the grin finally returning for just a moment.

Silence. A quick glance throughout the lobby. No sign of Nicole. No stranger cowering from the sun's beams, feeding off the emotions of those in attendance. The circle of bikers grew, their whispers still angry, their bodies pressed closer together. The short biker broke from the circle and approached Truck's female relatives. "Anything I can do," he told them, "anything at all, don't be afraid to ask."

"Fucking sucks," Kern said finally, fists clenched at his side. Kevin nodded. Maureen sighed, then greeted a couple rookies whom I did not know.

More stunned silence for a few long moments. "At least people like Truck and Benny leave us with significance," I said finally. "The memory of what they did, who they were, it lives on in those who remain, for as long as they remain."

"I hate funerals," Maureen said bitterly, her lilac perfume completely obscured by the scent of her own perspiration.

"Well, at least Truck had the pleasure of throwing out a U-Ride passenger at least once," Kern said.

Kevin twitched even harder. Maureen glared at Kern. "I never heard about that," the general manager said.

"Good," Kern replied. "It means the little fucker never called to complain. Probably 'cuz he was too busy cleaning up his underpants."

"What the hell happened?" Maureen asked.

Kern retold the story, which drew laughter at its conclusion, even from Maureen, who commented that, off the record, Truck should have gotten a medal for putting that young man in his place.

I laughed with the others, visualizing Truck entering the driver's room, slamming his things on a table, responding to our prodding, then giving a dramatic elocution as he told how he had thrown that "little fucker" out of his cab.

Then, it occurred to me that perhaps that "little fucker" was indeed the Madison Mangler. No possibility could be ignored. But to find a vampire, even in a small city, that was a most daunting task.

Finally, we were ushered into the chapel for the funeral. I scanned the crowd. The chapel quickly overflowed with a diverse collection of people, but no one who looked out of place and particularly distinctive.

And there was no sign of Nicole.

A minister, tall and fleshy, took the pulpit and began speaking of "David's" faith, his long-fingered hands gripping the edge of the dais so hard that his knuckles glowed white. David. The name conjures up such delicate images of a ruddy-faced, muscular young man of singular beauty, making it difficult to think of Truck as "David," though indeed, he was perhaps truly a king among men. The minister described how he had known Truck since he was a child, that even well into adulthood, he still attended services on a semi-regular basis, and on a regular basis, he worked with children at the church.

"David was a very gentle soul," the minister said. "He didn't always let people see that. It is a difficult world, and David knew that and wore his gruff exterior as an armor of protection. But his generosity was very real, as was his great faith, a faith in the inherent goodness of people."

A familiar scent washed over me. Scanning the crowd, I saw Nicole standing at the rear of the chapel, her expression blank.

The minister concluded, and the short, muscular biker took his place at the pulpit. The fellow began by reading a poem Truck had written about cab driving, about how it is important to know where it is you are going.

The biker related how Truck published poetry in numerous journals across the country. How he was an accomplished trumpet player, having graduated from the Julliard School of Music, and though he disdained playing professionally, Truck had taught music lessons to children, free of charge.

The biker said Truck, like his fellow bikers, sometimes got into fights, but that he only fought when it became necessary to come to the aid of a fellow biker.

"One of those times," the biker said, "Truck got a guy out of a jam, then turned around and punched him in the mouth because the guy was wrong."

When the funeral was complete, it was time to commence the procession to the cemetery, which would take us from the north side ofMadison to the graveyard at the near west side. The graveyard was actually one of three cemeteries sprawled together, bordered by a triangle of streets, forming an area known in cab lexicon as the "bonezone." Ironically, Truck was to be buried a mere stone's throw from where his body had been found.

By the time my cab joined the line, the front of the procession was beyond my sight. And many cabs still remained in the parking lot waiting to join the queue.

If my existence continues for another thousand years, I doubt I will be able to forget the sight of that procession. As the line moved downNorth Sherman Avenue , which spokes northward from the Isthmus, neither the front nor the rear of the line of vehicles was visible from my vantage point.

When my cab reachedState Street , large crowds of pedestrians clumped at each corner, unable to pass until the final vehicle in the procession had cleared the intersection. Astonishment was clearly visible on the faces of many of those pedestrians, as was burgeoning impatience, if not anger, for those annoyed that a funeral procession was keeping them so long waiting.

There was no parking lot at the cemetery. All these vehicles, all these cabs had to park on the narrow driveways that wound through the graveyard, transforming those arteries of asphalt into a immense yellow snake.

The grave-side ceremony seemed almost anti-climactic after this procession. It was short, and then it was over, and Truck was gone, but not forgotten. Then, it was time for those actually working to start running the calls that surely had mounted during this interim.

When it was over, Nicole approached, her expression still blank.

"Are you all right?" I asked gently.

She shrugged her shoulders, her fingers toying with the key to her cab. "Okay, I guess," she replied blandly.

"You disappeared the other night. I was worried."

Another

shrug of the shoulders. "I just needed to be alone. That's all."

I touched her lightly on the shoulder. She trembled slightly at my touch. "If you need to talk - "

"No." Her voice rose, then fell. "No. That's okay. I'm fine. Really." Animation returned to her face. "We're on for Saturday?"

"If you so desire."

She nodded vigorously and smiled, much as she usually did, but her expression was just the slightest bit crooked, a tiny fissure shattering her veneer, revealing that something - something undeterminable - lurked underneath.

We parted, then quickly I was assigned a call at the Glenway Golf Course, a mere stone's throw from the cemetery. The man in unmatched plaid, with golf shoes slung over his shoulder, was a perspiring mess of impatience.

"What the hell took you so long? I've been waiting for forty-five minutes."

"I was at a funeral." And that was all I said. No apologies, no explanations. And not anything resembling a pleasant tone in my voice.

****

"I want to watch you feed." Those were Nicole's first words when I had arrived to pick her up Saturday. None of the normal platitudes or greetings, just this strange request, a slight agitation tainting her enthusiasm.

"You cannot be serious." But it seemed quite apparent by the sly smile on her face that she was, and it also seemed quite obvious that resistance would be futile; I simply could refuse her nothing, and surely she knew this.

Nicole took my hand and squeezed it as we walked to my car. Saturday night and we had not yet decided how to spend our evening. Would it be a movie? Or a long walk? Anything of her deciding would be satisfactory to me.

"I'm serious, Al," Nicole said. "I want to know more about you. I want to watch you feed."

We leaned against myToyota , the steel skin cool and damp from the condensation of this warm May evening. The stench of rank, decaying aquatic vegetation hung in the air, wafting fromLakeMendota across the street.

"But you have seen me feed."

She slapped me lightly on the arm. "Yeah, but that's not the same. I've seen Al Farkus, vampire lover, but I want to see Al Farkus, heartless, vicious, savage predator. I want to see you as you really are, not the guise you wear when you pretend to be human."

Her hyperbole drew laughter from me. "What I am is many things, sometimes savage, sometimes sublime."

"But always humble." She slapped my arm again, then gently rubbed my shoulder and kissed my cheek. "Please. You're not getting all the food you need from me. I know you're feeding somewhere else. Let me watch."

I groaned inwardly. My taking of sustenance is a deeply personal matter. Even though my trust for her ran quite strongly, even though she had done much to earn my trust, the request simply felt remarkably bizarre. However, it seemed there was little choice in this particular matter, despite my protests that this was dangerous, especially considering the heightened tension all over the city, which had only become worse since Truck's murder. People did indeed leave their abodes, but not alone or even in pairs. All over the downtown and campus areas, the citizenry seemed to travel in packs.

Instead of discussing the matter further, I walked around to the passenger side, opened the door and ushered her inside. "State Streeton a Saturday night is always a fertile hunting ground." Better to get this over with, it seemed, or else I would never hear the end of it.

"I'll bet." Nicole smiled broadly as we drove uptown.

We parked onFrances Street , right offUniversity Avenue , in front of the Red Shed and around the corner from the 602 Club. Together, we cut through the alley between the two bars.

"This is the 604 Club," Nicole said.

"Excuse me."

She laughed quietly. "An informal annex of the 602. As Tate, the bartender puts it, this is where people go to smoke 'them left-handed cigarettes.'"

"Marijuana?" I whispered.

She nodded as the alley opened to a small, wooded lot, with the back door of Genna's Lounge on one side and the loading dock for Pizza Pit on the other. Beyond the lot, lay a sidewalk running fromUniversity Avenue toState Street , between two parking ramps.

"Wait here," I said, pointing toward the interior of the Frances Street Ramp. "Stay out of sight. This will take none but a moment."

Nicole grabbed my arm. "Let me help." She pushed me back, then proceeded down the alley towardState Street .

"Nicole," I called after her. "Stop. This is dangerous."

She kept walking, leaving me to watch as she reached State and stood at the mouth of the alley, figures passing in front of her in both directions.

A tall, muscular young man stopped. She spoke with animation, arms flailing in the air. He nodded. They both turned and moved back up the alley. I quickly secreted myself around a corner and waited until hearing their footsteps, smelling her scent and his, able to hear their conversation thanks to my highly attuned senses - she had told him she could not start her car and had asked if he could lend assistance.

When they reached me, she was holding his hand. Nicole spun away as I pulled him toward me, sank my fangs into his neck and drank the usual amount, careful to maintain my mental screens, for I had no desire to see this fellow's disgusting mental image of copulation with my love. It was over so quickly that it made me wonder if she wanted me to do it again so she could get a better view.

The fellow wobbled a bit, but by the time he had reached State, he appeared steady. I was certain he was still slightly dazed and unsure how he had spent the last few moments.

"That was incredible," she said finally, once words were able to form on her lips. "So fast. No hesitation. No remorse. Savage and sublime at the same time. It was beautiful."

"Perhaps, you are over-romanticizing. It is just the way I feed. If I did not do it in the manner I do, survival would not be possible."

"Yeah, I can see that, but it really was fantastic."

"Ah, but what of the spider, or the shark, or the lion? This is really no different."

"They pale in comparison." She laughed loudly. We emerged from the alley, passersby looking at us, laughing and pointing, obviously suspecting us of some form of lascivious behavior.

"What shall we do now?" I asked, desperate to change the subject.

"How 'bout the Cardinal Bar? I wanna go dancing. Maggie's gonna be there."

Dancing. Suddenly, images of swirling women in white wigs and hoop dresses came to mind. "I am not certain I would know how to dance as today's youth does."

"Don't worry, Al. It's not a question of knowing the ordered steps of a particular dance. It's all infeeling the music and letting your body move by itself. Besides, maybe there'll be vampires there at the Cardinal."

"There are no other vampires inMadison ," I snapped. The words rang too sharply - a lie, a blatant, bold-faced lie, but if Nicole knew the truth, she would want to help, surely placing herself in danger far worse than what she had previously experienced.

Nicole ran a hand vigorously through my hair. "I meant it figuratively. Not real vampires. They just dye their hair black, wear black clothing and don't go out in the sun hardly at all. And they kind of sit back there at the fringes, being above it all."

"How charming." I opened Nicole's door, then my own. "The Cardinal it is."

This old and venerable bar, just off the east side of theCapitol Square , was certainly lovely. Diamond-shaped tiles of black and white marble made up the floor. Carved mahogany molding circumscribed multi-colored, leaded glass windows. More mahogany made up the bar, which had a very nice, cut-glass mirror behind it. Of course, we walked past the mirror quickly, though it has been my experience that bar patrons usually tend not to notice the lack of reflection in such a mirror.

The back room where people danced, however, had none of the charm of the main barroom. It was an absolute assault on the senses, with bright colored lights flashing and strobing and the recorded music - if one could call it that - played at an excruciating volume.

Nicole bounced onto the dance floor, hips gyrating, shoulders twisting, arms flailing like a whirling dervish. She quickly found Maggie and gave her a violent hug as I followed, attempting to "feel" the music, but by Satan's blisters, was this music?

Nicole tried to tell me something. Her lips moved, but I could not discern her words. "What!?" I shouted.

She placed her lips right on my ear. "It's called 'House' or 'Industrial' or sometimes 'Progressive Industrial Noise'."

Indeed. "Industrial Noise" certainly seemed apt. The cacophony of screeches, scrapes, scratches and crashes, all woven atop the pounding rhythm section which maintained a steady beat more like a rapidly beating heart, was anything but melodic, but did provide a fascinating challenge just to maintain movement within its frenetic framework of time.

Song segued into song. Subtle changes in the music led to subtle changes in our movement. My body began to improvise as my thoughts drifted into the ether.

The crowd on the dance floor grew. As Nicole had promised, youths in black lined the walls, their eyes lined in black, their hair black, their expressions dull as if boredom were fashionable. On the dance floor, a couple of women in shorts and tie-dyed shirts flailed their bodies, bouncing off the tightly packed, sweaty crowd, their long, straight hair flying to and fro. Other women danced with other women. Men danced with men, with women. A short, gray-haired Asian fellow danced with three women simultaneously. A tall, sinewy fellow, with not the slightest amount of body fat, danced by himself, merely jumping up and down in the same spot, arms pinned to his sides. Apparently, this energetic fellow was rather famous and was simply known as Marco Pogo. And, in the middle of it all, an exotic Latin American woman in high heels and a white dress, the neckline plunging deeply, danced a Tango with a middle-aged black man in a polyester suit with no tie, the collar of his jacket tucked underneath his shirt collar.

The beat pounded. The dancers' hearts pounded in many small voices, circling around this great monolith, until one by one these small hearts joined lock step behind their bigger counterpart. Just as the room filled with a single, unified booming heart, Nicole grabbed me by the arm and dragged me toward the small bar at one side of the room, Maggie following.

"Yer wearing me out there, Count." She smiled, her brow covered with little pearls of perspiration. "Vodka cranberry," she said to the bartender who promptly handed her the bright pink concoction in a plastic glass with a little red straw.

I felt myself smile, even at the "vampires" who sipped their drinks, their hair lacquered into points at the top of their heads, ears pierced, noses pierced, probably various other body parts pierced and covered with tattoos.

"Having fun, Al?"

"Yes." I kissed Nicole on the cheek, wrapped an arm around her shoulders and squeezed lightly. "Yes, this is fun. This sound is not music, but I do not care. The passion it ignites in this unordered way. The energy it takes to dance. It takes me back. It reminds me of those nights - long ago."

"I hoped you might like it. I wasn't sure, but I'm glad you do."

"I'm going for some air," Maggie said. Her face was bright red, and her cotton T-shirt clung to her. Nicole downed her drink, and the two of us followed her friend.

The night air felt cool against my heated skin, which was moistened with perspiration, though not as much as my two lovely companions.

Nicole stood almost as soon as she sat on the curb in front of the bar. She smiled casually. "What the hell? Guess you don't buy vodka, you only rent it. Be right back."

Maggie punched my shoulder lightly after Nicole departed. Perspiration pasted curly strands of darkened hair to her broad forehead. "You know, Al," she said, "I gotta say, I really like you."

"Oh?" I replied, wondering if this was, as the Americans say, a come-on. Or a set-up for one of those bits of lasciviousness for which Americans have a reputation.

She slapped my thigh, seeming to read my mind. "No, I mean I think you're a good guy, and I'm really glad Nicole's going out with you."

"Thank you," I replied. "That is most kind of you."

"Yeah, well, usually Nicole's got a real knack for picking 'em." She shook her head. "Christ, her last boyfriend was a real creep, and I thought she'd really dug up the scum of the earth before."

"Indeed." What else was there to say.

"Just be good to her, okay? She's been through a lot, and she's not really herself right now, so be careful, okay?"

"Well, I know it must have been difficult for her, with her father - "

"Her father!" Maggie's voice rose a couple of octaves. "Did you know her father - "

"Hey, whaddaya guys talking about?" Nicole chimed in, having returned quickly from the WC - too quickly, for I wanted to know what Maggie had meant when she said that her friend was not truly herself.

Maggie surreptitiously squeezed my knee, fingernails digging deeply into muscle. "Al was just telling me about a split-load at the airport he had last night."

"Ah, yes, it was exceptional. Radisson.West Towne Suites. Quality InnWest Towne . And the Holiday Day Inn West. A Holy Grail indeed."

"Hot damn!" Nicole said. "Must've been good for about forty on the side."

"Nearly fifty," I replied. "They tipped well because I am such a brilliant conversationalist."

We returned to the back room, almost reaching the dance floor before a commotion drew our attention.

Even above the volume, the sound was easily apparent. A loud slap of flesh against flesh. A splash. A trio of young men stood before a woman, her hair drenched, her blouse soaked, shock, anger and embarrassment reflected on her face. One of the men held an empty beer pitcher. All three laughed loudly.

It was hard to tell under this queer lighting, but something about the trio looked strange. Their faces almost seemed to glow - bright white like bone. I took a couple quick steps toward them, then felt my arm pulled sharply.

"Al," Nicole said, shouting over the din, "leave it alone. Let the bar take care of it."

I tried to break away, but Nicole pulled harder.

"C'mon, Al. This isn't any of our business. Just leave it alone. Let's get outta here."

"Yeah, let's get the fuck outta here," Maggie shouted. "Goddamned frat boys. Fuckers ruin everything."

Before I knew it, we were standing on the sidewalk just outside the bar. "Dumb ass frat boys," Nicole spat.

"Frat boys?" I asked. "How could you tell?"

"Easy." Nicole's voice shook slightly with anger. "Their perfect hair. Perfect teeth. Designer clothes scuffed up to look like they got 'em at some second-hand store."

"Eugenics gone bad," Maggie said. "Breeding. Christ, men from so-called good families searching other so-called good families for pretty cows to use as breeding stock just to make sure their kids are good looking, which to them means their faces have no distinguishing features."

"Hell, yeah," Nicole said. "Just look at them, the whole way they were acting, like they think they can do anything they want 'cuz daddy's so fucking rich."

"Damn right," Maggie said. "Largest number of sexual assaults inMadison ?Langdon Street . Christ! One of those motherfuckers probably asked her for a blowjob, and when she told them to fuck off, she got a pitcher of beer dumped on her head."

"I hate frat boys," Nicole spat. "Nuke Langdon Streetand the world won't be any worse off. Probably be better."

"We can go someplace else," I interjected.

"Please," Nicole replied. "Anywhere."

"That is satisfactory to me. Where would you like to go?"

"How 'bout the Crystal Corner?" Nicole said. "No

frat boys there. Bikers scare 'em off."

"We are there. I rather like theCrystal . Maggie, do you care to join us?"

She shook her head. "Naw. Enough excitement for this girl. I think I'll just go home." She drew her keys and quickly found her car, which was parked within a hundred meters of the Cardinal Bar.

In a few quick moments after watching Maggie depart, we had arrived at the Crystal Corner. After all, the east side establishment was only twelve blocks away from the Capitol, thus making, as the Americans say, bar hopping an easy task because there are so many bars to choose from, all within close proximity.

TheCrystal was fairly crowded, but still provided a much more relaxed atmosphere than the Cardinal, a welcome change indeed. The music was not so loud and much more melodic, even if it was that infernally simplistic rock and roll. The patrons did not dance, instead merely stood or sat with their drinks, conversing calmly with compatriots. The only flurry of movement came from the two bartenders, who rushed to and fro in an attempt to assuage the thirsty throngs crowded along the long, oval-shaped bar.

"Good crowd tonight," Nicole said.

We squeezed our way to the bar, just as Todd saw us and moved our way. "Evening, Count," the cowboy hat-clad bartender said. "What is your pleasure?"

"Just vodka cranberry for the lady," I said, glancing at Nicole, pleased that the fellow had remembered me. She nodded. Ahead, through the arch that separates the two sides of the bar, Kern stood next to one of the pool tables, applying chalk to the shooting end of his stick. He saw us and waved.

"Ah, there is Kern," I said.

"Let's go say hello," Nicole replied. I paid for her drink, then she took the cocktail from Todd and followed me through the crowd.

"Wanna shoot some stick, Count?" Kern asked. He picked up another pool cue and started to hand it to me.

"You mean billiards?" I stared questioningly at the scuffed felt covering the table.

"Billiards, stick, pool, snooker, it's all the same to me." Kern flashed his goofy grin. "Whaddaya say? Just a friendly little game?"

I looked at Nicole.

"Sure, Al. Feel free."

"You sure it's okay, Nicole?"

"Fine by me. I'm not the Count's keeper."

I smiled at her. "Do not worry, this match shall not last long."

Kern snorted loudly. "Sez you."

"No, do not misunderstand me, Kern. I have not played this game in quite some time. I am sure you will make short work of my most inadequate skills."

"Yeah, right." Kern began gathering the balls at one end of the table. "You're talking like a hustler. How do you feel about a friendly little wager?"

I pointed to the sign on the wall behind the pool tables that clearly said "no gambling."

"Well, how 'bout we just play for a drink then?"

"But I do not drink."

"Yeah, that's right. I always forget." Kern placed the balls within the rack and arranged them to his liking. "Gotta give you credit for coming into bars and not having a problem not drinking."

"One day at a time," I replied, taking the stick from Kern, parroting the cliche I had overheard passengers use who were being transported to an in-patient substance-abuse facility. "I have an idea. Iwill play for a drink. For Nicole."

"Sounds good to me, Al," Nicole said.

Kern nodded and rolled the cue ball toward me. "You break."

"How magnanimous of you." My stick struck the cue ball with authority, scattering the balls all over the table. None, however, dropped into any of the pockets. Indeed, it had been a long time since I had last played this game.

Kern raised an eyebrow, then took his first shot. He slammed the ball hard into the pocket, an obvious psychological ploy that proved a tactical blunder; the shot had been lined up perfectly, with little distance separating the cue ball and his target. He could have easily made the shot without hitting it so hard, thus leaving himself in a better position to take his next shot, which he missed.

Ithad been a long time. That previous occasion, the billiard table was much more opulent - longer, wider, the felt covering immaculate, the table itself made of ornately carved, solid teak, with brass fittings at each pocket. However, there seemed little doubt that the blue-blooded aristocrats playing on the Baron's magnificent table would find themselves humbled by these unwashed plebeians holding court on theCrystal 's dilapidated pool tables, in a small way demonstrating how capitalism brought the aristocracy to its knees. Ability, after all, does indeed supersede breeding.

I paused over the next shot; the geometry seemed a bit skewed on this smaller playing surface. Many viable shots presented themselves, but billiards is a game of sequences, not single shots, and it was taking a bit of time for the geometry to present itself.

Kern cleared his throat loudly and impatiently. "The shots aren't gonna get any easier there, Count."

I simply nodded and took my shot. Then, another and another. And one more before yielding the table to my worthy opponent.

"Iam being hustled." He was still smiling, a good deal of astonishment on his face.

"Just luck," I replied. In four turns, Kern had knocked in two balls while I had only the eight ball remaining. But to Kern's credit, he did an excellent job of defense, prolonging the inevitable, almost making a miraculous comeback, shooting in all but two of his balls before the contest ended with my victory.

"How 'bout another?" Kern asked. He handed Nicole her cocktail. I looked at her.

"Okay by me, Al." She nodded. "I'll just mingle."

I watched her move toward the back of the bar as Kern racked the balls. He was unable to put up as much of a fight as during our first contest; much of the rust had been scraped clean from my game, and Kern's spirit seemed slightly broken. He still had five balls on the table when the eight ball fell into the pocket, ending our match. He stepped toward the bar, but I stopped him.

"No, Kern," I said, smiling broadly, "I can buy Nicole's drink."

"You're a hell of a boyfriend, Count. And trusting too." Kern pointed toward the back of the bar where Nicole stood conversing with a rather slender fellow, his hair long, straight and jet black. He wore a black T-shirt and black denim trousers, his face twisted into a scowl as if that was its natural state.

"Without trust, there is no such thing as love."

"I couldn't agree more." Kern grabbed his beer and migrated as far from the pool tables as possible.

I had noticed that Nicole's tumbler was nearly empty, but it proved a most difficult task to find a bartender to fetch her next cocktail. The bartenders were inaccessible from behind the arch, so I moved toward the front of the bar where a gap opened next to a pair of women who sat conversing. One was a rather Rubenesque blonde, which perhaps in today's vernacular translates as overweight, but she looked a full figure of delightful womanhood, a true beauty as much as any women I have ever seen; in fact, something about her face and the way she wore her hair made me almost think she was French.

The other woman was black and also quite lovely, though in a less classical manner. Though thick and muscular of torso, her eyes sparkled, and she laughed easily. On a finger, I noticed she wore a gold ring bearing Hebrew lettering. The woman noticed me staring at her ring.

"Can I help you?" she said. Her voice bristled.

"That is Hebrew, is it not?"

"Yes, it is," she replied, smiling broadly, revealing a gap between her two front teeth. "My father's mother was Jewish," she said. "That makes me part Jewish. My mother made sure I had the chance to learn what it means to be a Jew. It was something she considered important."

"She was very perceptive."

The woman nodded. "I have a daughter, and I'm making sure to give her the chance to learn about her heritage. I'm not forcing it on her, but if she wants to learn, she'll get the opportunity."

"What a good mother!" the blonde said.

"The best," the black woman said. Both women laughed heartily. "I'm Carol, and this is Jenifer."

The blonde smiled and waved.

"I am pleased to make the acquaintance of both of you."

Jenifer looked at me. "I know you. You drive for Co-op, right?"

I nodded.

"I drive for Kapitol Kab. I've seen you at the airport."

Carol downed the rest of her cocktail. As if coming from nowhere, Todd appeared to refill her glass. I took the opportunity to order Nicole's cocktail, while looking at Carol's drink quizzically. The liquid within her tumbler was the oddest shade of brown.

"Long Island Iced Tea," she said. "Todd's specialty."

Todd returned with Nicole's drink. I paid him, bade my farewells to my new acquaintances and went in search of Nicole. She still spoke with the man in black. Up close, I noticed that rings encrusted with a gaudy rainbow of semi-precious stones adorned most of his long-nailed fingers. An ankh hung from his neck. The scowl remained, looking somewhat forced. It seemed perhaps that this fellow spent much time looking at his reflection in a mirror, making sure his expression bore the proper combination of disdain and disinterest with all that surrounded him. Though it is rather impolite to make hasty judgments regarding another's character, something about this fellow struck me as contrived, as if he was trying to appear more than his years, which were scarcely out of childhood.

"You're back," Nicole said, taking the cocktail.

"Yes," I replied. "It took little effort to vanquish Kern a second time, but there was quite the crowd at the bar."

Nicole's conversation partner turned to leave, but Nicole grabbed his shoulder. He stopped. "Al, this is Charles."

I extended a hand, as the Americans do. He seemed reticent, clasping my hand lightly. His eyes sang of pure disgust, and I realized that there is nothing wrong with a hasty judgment - if it is correct.

"Nice to see you again, Charles," Nicole said, her voice warm and sincere. He said nothing, merely nodding his head as he walked away.

"A friend of yours?" I asked.

Nicole took a sip of her drink, her eyes darting back and forth between me and the direction Charles had gone. "Not really," she answered, picking lint from her sweater. "Just somebody I know."

****

When we arrived at my apartment, Nicole's passions were swollen, if not inflamed; as soon as I had pulled the futon from the wall and spread it on the floor, she was upon me, shoving me to the mattress's soft embrace, climbing atop me, nearly sending my buttons flying as she opened my shirt, running her hands over my chest. She lowered her mouth to my neck, kissing, licking and biting my flesh. Biting with a great deal of force, almost as if she wanted to break the skin open.

"Take care, my love," I said, moving my neck away from her mouth. "You would not want to break the skin and drink ofmy blood."

"Would that make me like you?" Vodka slurred her words.

I nodded.

"Maybe that's what I want. To be a hunter, preying on the life surrounding me, having you at my side. Forever."

The image of the vampire, of my wife, superimposed itself over the present for a fleeting moment as a blinding light filled my sight, the light growing as it came closer. I let myself fly toward the light. My wife was there in the light. I could feel it. That molten gold was warmth, was love.

But just as the light touched my fingertips, it flew away from me, shrinking until there was nothing but darkness in my sight, cold against my flesh and a vampire telling me that I was a creature of the darkness, forever banished from the light.

"You cannot really mean that," I said finally.

Nicole lifted her head as she straddled my hips. "Tell me you love me, Al."

I laughed. "Of course I love you. You know that."

"I wanna hear you say it. I love it when you say it."

"I love you, my dear. I love you with the ferocity of a lioness with her cubs. I love you with the sureness of the sun rising in the east each morning."

"Is it really true? Could you make me into a vampire?"

I felt my expression grow serious. The logic of lovers is quite the dangerous game. "Yes, it is true. If you were to drink of my blood, you would die, but rise again as one who must hunt in the night."

"Make me like you. I want to be like you."

"No. Absolutely not, Nicole. Ask me anything, anything at all, anything but that. I will not do that."

Her smile faded away. "You said you love me. Wouldn't you do this for someone you love? I love you, Al. I want to be your lover forever."

"My love for you is precisely why I would not do this. If I were to make you into a vampire, I would not be giving you something. I would be taking something precious away from you."

"You mean my life?" She shook her head vigorously. "My life? My life's a fucking joke. It's all pain and sickness, growing old and then dying. Hell, you get to live forever."

"Nicole, my love, what happened to me is something that never should have happened. My wife and I should have grown old together, taken care of each other when we were sick. We should have died together. Should have been buried together. Do you know what it is you ask of me?"

"But we could be lovers forever."

I cupped my hand against her cheek, but she pushed it away. "If you became a vampire, you would lose interest in me."

She grabbed my hand and pressed it against her soft breast. "No, I wouldn't, Al. No way."

I nodded sadly. "Vampires have no need for reproductive organs. Like me, you would lose your ability to have an orgasm. And like me, you would hunger for the sweet taste of human pleasure. You would seek human men, perhaps human women, in order to taste their orgasm the way I taste yours."

She appeared to pout silently; I had hoped she would not be one to pout. That has always seemed mere manipulation performed by those of an inferior level of maturity.

"What is wrong, Nicole?"

Her eyes glistened slightly, but she did not cry. "I'm sorry, Al. Vodka makes me get kinda mushy, kinda silly sometimes. It's just - I'm scared to die."

I sat up and hugged her tightly. "There is nothing at all wrong with being frightened of dying. To fear death is simply to be human. All I can say is that it is normal to fear the unknown, and that is exactly what death is, the unknowable unknown. I myself died, but remain bound to this Earth by that which courses through my veins. As to what awaits all of us, I do not know, though I can say it is not anything of which to be frightened."

She somehow did not seem to fully comprehend my words.

"But if I was a vampire, I wouldn't have to be scared anymore."

"Vampires constantly face destruction. We have to walk around in fear all the time, fearing the suspicion and hatred from the humans who inadvertently allow us to maintain our existence. Do you know what immortality really means? It means an eternity of watching others die, being doomed to an eternity of loneliness with mere interludes of friendship. Vampires so often shy from intimacy with humans because the mere wink of an eye for us is a lifetime for a mortal."

Nicole stared ahead pensively before collapsing onto the bed. "I'm sorry, Al. I'm just being silly."

I kissed her on the forehead. "It is perfectly okay for you to be silly every once in awhile. I will love you anyway."

She smiled and yawned. "God, I'm suddenly tired. Is it okay if we don't make love tonight?"

"Of course, my sweet."

She stripped off her clothing and crawled underneath the covers. And she spoke not another word before lapsing into slumber.

I reached for her, but Nicole eased herself to the far side of the bed, a chasm separating us, cold as a grave.