Vampire Cabbie - Chapter 16


Vampire Cabbies in Love

Lemme guess. Sounds like a one-way ticket to dump city. So, the bitch dumped you for the guy in the bar?

Sir! By the torments of Hades, you will not speak of Nicole in such a manner. And you will cease these interruptions. They are most impolite, and please do not jump ahead of the story. If you were to call me a fool, you would be absolutely correct. I was a fool, fooled by love, my vision clouded by the giddiness of the emotions of the immature.

Nicole quickly became incommunicado. Looking forward to our usual Tuesday tryst, disappointment greeted me as Dexter told me that she had called in sick. A half-dozen messages left on her answering machine brought no reply. Saturday - our night - came and went, with me stalking State Street alone, half-heartedly searching for Madison's other vampire, but, as you Americans would put it, it was not unlike perusing a haystack for a mere needle.

By the next week, the peonies began to bloom full bloom, making it so easy to forget about how drab the city had been just weeks before when the streets were covered with the slush of the melting snows. Still, slush-covered asphalt was all that filled my inner sight, so heavy was my heart.

Finally, a phone call to Nicole's house brought an answer. It was Maggie."I'm not here," a muffled voice said from the background.

"She's not here, Al," Maggie said after a brief pause.

"Tell her I am sorry to hear that." With not another word, I dropped the handset onto its cradle, shaking my head, laughing bitterly at myself.

You know, after a thousand years, it is not difficult to be philosophical about those things that happen to us in our intercourse with others. I tried to focus on the sheer bliss of the previous month, but the task proved difficult, so I attempted to seek solace in the fact that good or bad, at least she made me feel something.

The next night, parked at the Concourse taxi stand, Maggie joined me in my cab. I quickly turned off the dome light, which makes my flesh look quite unwholesome, then put awayCandide and prepared to entertain my guest.

"Sorry about the other night," Maggie began immediately. "I lied to you. Nicole was right there when you called. You deserve better than having me lie to you. If she doesn't want to see you anymore, she should have the decency to tell you herself."

"Apparently, we cannot always expect people to behave with the maturity their age might indicate is the accepted norm." Momentarily, Maggie appeared a bit bewildered. My syntax still gets sufficiently convoluted, confusing these so-called masters of the provincial English language. Cripes, ya hey, indeed!

"Whatever. Anyway, for whatever it's worth, I told her I'm not lying for her anymore."

"Your sentiment is greatly appreciated. But I would like to at least know, why is she behaving in such a manner?"

Maggie pulled at the straps of her tank top and ran a hand agitatingly through her thick red hair, an obvious gesture of discomfort over the illumination of some unsavory information. "Look, I tried to tell you she's not really in a good way." My guest paused a moment, her gaze dropping downward. "She's seeing someone else."

My spine tingled with momentary anger, then I felt amused at the sensation. Jealousy? How absurd.

And dishonest was this intellectualism of my feelings. Knowing that Nicole was no one's property could not prevent me from imagining the torments I might inflect upon he who had stolen her from me.

"It's a guy she used to go out with," Maggie said, answering my silence. "She hadn't seen the guy since he dumped her. But when she ran into him recently, she realized she still felt something for him."

"Slender fellow? Black hair? Dresses in black?"

"Yeah, that's the guy. His name's Charles." Maggie reached over and lightly touched my shoulder. "I'm really sorry, Al."

I turned, and her hand fell from my shoulder. "Please, Maggie. Do not worry about me. I will be okay."

Maggie paused for a second, biting her lip. "I tried to tell her the way she was handling this was bullshit. Now, she's not talking to me either."

"Do not worry," I replied, smiling bravely. "You have been friends since childhood. As you Americans are so fond of saying, this will all blow over. Her anger will pass."

Maggie nodded pensively. "Yeah, I know, but I miss her, Al. And I'm worried about her, but she won't let me help her. That's why I'm here. I just don't know what to do. Can you help her?"

My laughter filled the cab, my reaction stronger than desired.

Maggie paused, crossing her arms in front of her. "Look, Al, I know you're feeling hurt, but she didn't mean for it to happen like this. She's not really herself right now."

"If not herself, then who?"

A horse-drawn carriage passed the cab. Inside, a young couple snuggled close together. Maggie glanced at the pair, then returned her gaze back to me. "Love is illusion, isn't it?" she asked rhetorically, as if she spoke not to me or anyone in particular.

We watched silently for a moment as the carriage disappeared into the night, the hoofbeats fading into inaudibility. "Look, Al, you can't just all of a sudden not care about her, can you? No matter what she does?"

"No, Maggie," I replied. "I do care, but it seems quite apparent that she does not want me in her life. She does not desire my help and would view such overtures as an unwelcome intrusion." Indeed. With a killer vampire running amok, why should the petty problems of a confused child be worthy of my trouble?

Maggie's reply seemed non-sequitur. "Did you know Maggie's father killed himself."

My back straightened. "She most certainly did not tell me that. She merely told me that he was dead, but did not tell me how he had died."

"Nicole was fourteen. She came home from school one day and found him. He'd blown his head clean off his shoulders. The paramedics had to pry his fingers off the shotgun."

"How horrid!"

"She's never been the same since that day. Most of the time, she's fine, but every once in awhile, she'll go through a suicidal episode. Something triggers it, and all of a sudden, she becomes really self-destructive, if not suicidal. Over the years, she's slit her wrists, taken pills, tried to jump into theWisconsin River . I stopped her that time."

"Suicide can be like a contagious disease sometimes," I said. "When life is considered so precious, it is a shock to see someone voluntarily snuff it out."

"I think Truck's murder did it this time."

Of course. Her erratic behavior did indeed coincide with his death, and such a senseless death! These mortals find death disturbing enough as it is, but when it is as senseless as that, where there is no reason and not even an identifiable killer, they become paralyzed.

"And that fucker Charles - " The words flew excitedly from her mouth. "He's bad news, Al. Bad news. He's into Satan worship, and I think he's getting Nicole into it too. I'm worried. I think something real bad is going to happen. While she was still talking to me, she tried to tell me stuff, about how he's able to do more things for her than you, give her more than you can. Do you have any idea what the fuck that means."

Infernal words echoed inside me.Make me like you. I want to be like you. I don't want to die. I want to live forever.

Alarms rang. Actions and motives, all crystal clear. Her words had said she was afraid to die; her silence had said that if I would not give her what she wanted, she would find someone who would. Surely, Nicole would not be so foolish to be taken in by a charlatan like Charles, but as Maggie was relating, she was not entirely herself.

A cultivated, icy calm coated my exterior despite what I was feeling inside. "I cannot make any promises, but I think I would be willing to have a talk with this Charles."

"The hell with talking, Al. Kick his skinny little ass."

"Oh, I have something far better in mind."

****

Taking Maggie at face value would have been foolish. It did seem best to seek answers from Nicole herself.

Passing the Crystal Corner in my cab, Nicole and Charles were clearly visible through the glass front door of the bar, thus quickly ending my search. I parked my cab, entered the bar and walked to her side. Nicole said not a word as she turned and faced me, her expression quite blase. Shortly, she turned her attention back to the new object of her affection. Charles turned not his head, his expression still that forced combination of boredom and scorn, his thin lips pressed tightly together.

"We do have to talk, Nicole," I said quietly. No reply. I stood my ground, noticing Todd hovering nearby, keeping a close watch. Our eyes met for a short moment. He gave me a sympathetic shrug, then departed to fill a patron's drink order.

"Nicole, wedo have to talk. Nicole - "

She turned, fire in her eyes. Charles continued to stare straight ahead. "Talk? There's not a damn thing to talk about." Nicole again turned her back to me, but I was not leaving without satisfaction.

"Nicole," I said after a few silent moments, "it is very important that we talk."

"Fine!" She jumped off her stool. "You wanna talk? Talk then. Talk 'til you're fucking blue in the face."

"Outside."

She glanced at Charles. He nodded, the movement nearly imperceptible.

"What the fuck do you want from me, Al?" Nicole asked as the door slid shut behind us. She rubbed her arms; covered merely by a long-sleeved T-shirt, Nicole shivered against the chill of this mid-spring night, having left her jacket draped over her bar stool. Her nipples asserted themselves against the fabric, and I caught myself staring at them, a stinging pang of longing searing deep into my being.

"You here to talk or stare?"

Her remark lay unacknowledged. "Nicole, I just want to say, you are free to do whatever you want - "

"Damn right!" Her eyes burned white hot. Of her many moods and her various modes of anger, none seemed so intense. "You don't own me."

"I never said I did." My words rolled softly over my tongue. This was not intended to be an argument. "I would have appreciated a little more consideration - "

"After everything I gave you? After everything you took?" She slapped the side of her neck for emphasis. "What else do you want?"

"Nothing, Nicole, nothing." By the earth of my homeland, there would be no provoking me, for that certainly had nothing to do with my motivations at this point. "I merely am concerned. Maggie sought me out. We had a conversation."

"Ha!" Her dry laughter echoed against the brick wall next to the door. Two men across the street turned and stared at us. "Why don't you askher out and leave me the fuck alone. That stupid bitch thinks you're the best thing since sliced bread."

"You should not be talking such about your friend. She is concerned about you."

"Let her mind her own damn business." Nicole made a move for the door. I grabbed her arm. She twisted away and slapped my forearm hard. "Don't fucking touch me!"

"You said you were willing to listen to what I had to say." My tone shifted from soft to commanding. "I will talk, and you will listen. If you choose to burn in a hell of your own doing, so be it. I will not stop you, but do not say I did not point it out as the hell that it is. Maggie is a good friend, and she is worried about you. She told me how your father - "

"Don't talk to me about my father you goddamned, bloodsucking freak!" Nicole slapped me hard in the face. A hint of something putrid tickled my nostrils. I grabbed her wrist and shoved the sleeve up to her elbow, revealing the jagged outline of a pentagram, the tattoo so fresh that it bubbled with plasma and pus, the flesh around it red and puffy.

The design bore not the style nor artistry of a tattoo done by a professional. The pentagram was obviously homemade, and each of the five points was punctuated by circles of reddened and blackened flesh, the crusting skin oozing more plasma and more pus.

"He is a danger, a menace." My voice was a near-shriek. "Maggie is right about him. You should listen to your friend. Please, Nicole, please. You must end this insanity. This fellow will be your ruin."

"You had your fucking chance, Al. I wanted something, and you wouldn't give it to me. Charles can. And will. And he really loves me. And he can make love to me like a real man, unlike some people I know."

Laughter drew my attention. A pair of pool-players - the tall, muscular, rather masculine woman with the professional caliber game and the immense fellow with the long beard, cowboy hat and rattlesnake-skin case for his pool cue - tittered their way toward the door. My grip loosened around Nicole's wrist. She calmly let her arm fall to her side, pushed down her sleeve and returned to Charles.

From outside, I watched her kiss him hard on the lips with great ardor. Upon breaking from her embrace, Charles turned and looked at me

through the glass door. For the first time, he smiled.

****

There can be little doubt that jealousy provided at least a modicum of motivation for my following course of action, even if this Charles fellow was clearly a menace and had to be stopped. However, that did not mean I could not enjoy myself in the process.

Finding and stalking Charles proved to be of little difficulty; for such a would-be creature-of-the-shadows, he maintained a reasonably high profile, his presence ubiquitous all overMadison 's near east side, easily recognizable, always wearing the same black shirt and trousers. Did he not possess any other garments?

On a night when Nicole worked, I decided to take action, following him home from the Crystal Corner to his apartment onJohnson Street above Mildred's Sandwich Shop, a small restaurant quite popular with my fellow drivers.

From across the street, I watched electric lights snap on one by one, then off one by one as candlelight illuminated his apartment. Through the open window, his head and shoulders were visible in the flickering amber light as he sat, his chanting audible to my ears.

Listening to whatever psuedo-occult gibberish he was chanting, I dematerialized, then rematerialized inside his apartment, next to a crude altar fashioned from a wooden crate and strips of unvarnished pine before which Charles knelt. Cloying incense hung thickly in the air, unsuccessfully masking the stench of pestilence.

Charles gasped loudly. He lunged for a bloody dagger that lay on the altar next to a gutted hamster and jumped to his feet. Holding the dagger with both hands, he stepped back a couple paces. "Stay back, Al," he said, his voice wavering.

"Shocked to have actually succeeded in summoning forth a demon, Charles?" I grinned broadly at him and took a step forward. Despite my anger, I fought to maintain a most sardonic tone of voice.

He took another step back, then stopped, his face twisting with irritation. "She's mine. You can't have her." He edged toward me, anger dissolving his fear, giving him resolve.

"Pathetic fool," I replied. "Nicole is her own person, not for you, I or anyone to possess."

Charles lunged at me. I turned away from his thrust, grabbed his wrist and squeezed until his grip loosened. The dagger to slid easily through his fingers. I shoved him until he was pinned against the wall, then took a pensive moment to study the dagger. It was lovely - high carbon steel with a pewter hilt of three intertwining vipers. And sharp too. With a short thrust along the top of his arm, a line of blood came to the surface. I licked the blood off his quivering flesh, then flung the knife at the poster of Aleister Crowley that hung on the opposite wall beneath a jagged pentagram of dried blood. The knife struck the number 666 in the middle of the magi's forehead. Laughter escaped my lips as a recollection of meetingCrowley crossed my mind. The fellow, so revered by bewildered youths like Charles, was little better than a snake-oil selling flimflam man; this was clearly obvious.

"Beer and whiskey," I said, releasing him, spitting the blood onto the carpeted floor, amidst the collection of dried stains and splotches. "You had best be careful, Charles. Summoning demons while intoxicated is quite the dangerous endeavor. If they appear, it is only because they know they can take advantage of your altered state." I backed away from him and took a seat in the wing chair next to the alter. A sharp kick to the apparatus scattered plywood splinters all over the room.

"What the hell do you want?" He glared at me, his anger an expression of false bravado, for whatever pallor he actually possessed had been flushed from his face.

"I am merely here to tell you to stay away from Nicole."

"It's a free country. She wants to be with me, that's none of your business. Read my fucking lips. She wants me, not you."

"Readmy lips and heed what I tell you."

"Funny, she never told me you were the jealous type."

"You were misinformed." I smiled inwardly; he talked so bravely while backing himself against the wall.

"Actually, she said you were kind of a wuss."

"Again, Charles, there is a great deal of difference between reality and another person's perception. Be that as it may, you will stay away from Nicole."

His bravado exploded. "Hey, get off my fucking hoof!" Charles sprinted toward the poster of Aleister Crowley on the other side of the room, an arm reaching upward toward the dagger.

Great hoofed one indeed! Enough of this pathetic, Satan-embracing child! I leaped to my feet, dematerialized, then instantly rematerialized in his path, too abruptly for him to stop. He collided with me full force and would have tumbled to the floor had I not grabbed his shoulders. Quickly, I spun him around, wrapped a hand around his throat and slammed him against the wall.

Pressing hard against his larynx, I lifted him in the air until the top of his head touched the knife blade. When I pushed upward against his chin, he winced as the knife slit open his scalp, then his eyes opened wide as his dark hair soaked up the blood from the wound, quickly reaching saturation. A single thread of crimson slowly dribbled down his forehead, dripping one droplet at a time upon the tip of his nose.

My nostrils opened, letting the aroma of the blood waft inside. My mouth opened. Fangs dropped from their retracted hiding place, saliva dripping from their sharp tips.

I licked the blood from his face in long, slow strokes, then pulled my face away so he could look at me, mouth open, fangs dripping with his blood, but hungry for more, eyes open wide, glazed and wild with animalistic passion.

"Child! You will listen to me. It is of no concern to me what you do, but I will not allow your poison to infect Nicole. Do not give me cause to have to visit you again."

For a moment, I held him there, staring into his face, relishing his utter terror. Ammonia wafted into my nostrils, indicating that the message had finally been fully grasped, thus allowing me to dematerialize, knowing he would crash to the floor once my grip had ceased.

****

There is a problem with such petty, negative emotions like jealousy. One can seek wickedness as a diversion, but the effect does not last. Thus, after only momentary satisfaction, it seemed time to resume my purpose and concentrate on making money.

It was time to go fishing.

Kern had said playing the airport is like fishing; in order to catch the big fish, one must be patient. Indeed. The following Tuesday, I sat at the airport, last of six cabs, knowing three planes would land within the next twenty minutes. Perhaps the big fish would be a lucrative fare going all the way to the far west side, or perhaps the Cab Gods might be so kind as to provide a four-way split, the biggest of the big fish.

Nicole pulled behind me. She got out and marched to my taxi, raw anger registering quite clearly on her face.

"Who the fuck do you think you are?" she shouted, arms flailing in front of her.

"I beg your pardon?" I replied, as calmly and blandly as possible.

"Don't give me thatOld World shit! You know damn well what I'm talking about. You went and talked to Charles, didn't you?"

"Yes."

"Well, he's gone. He split town and didn't even say good bye." She stood arms akimbo, chest heaving. I gave no reply. Tense silence hung in the warm night air for a few long moments. "What right did you have to interfere? What was it? Jealous? Jealous that I found a real man, a man who could actually get it up?"

She launched her words like slaps to my face. They stung, but I would not react, would not let myself yield to the very human emotions she obviously was trying to provoke.

"People like Charles are dangerous," I said finally. "I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I have seen people - people like yourself - harmed by people like Charles who so foolishly flirt with dark forces they do not understand. Regardless of what has happened between us, I still care, and that is why I acted as I did."

"Fuck you!" She ran to her cab and fled the cab stand, tires screeching loudly.

Following her departure, I loaded a four-way. It was unfortunate that she had left; Kern pulled up behind me minutes after her departure, and he too loaded a four-way.

Does this sound callous? Yes, I suppose it does, but what else was a vampire cabbie to do? What else would there be for anyone to do? Even if our relationship was over, I did still care. For anyone in a situation like that, the best, the only course of action would be just to continue to exist and do the best that they can.

I just hoped she could do the same.

****

"Sixty-six," Dexter's voice said. "Sixty-six, are you out there?"

I had just unloaded the last passenger from my split-load and was driving back from the far west side. All the calls were downtown, but there was no reason to despair. That four-way had been good for $20 in side money, in addition to what was on the meter.

"Nicole," Dexter said, "are you out there?"

A harsh feeling of dread washed over me. Cab 66. No coincidence that she drove that vehicle; well, perhaps a slight one, for it was one of the newest cabs in the fleet. But why was she not responding to the dispatcher's hail? Perhaps because she was angry. Perhaps, she had decided to go calm down someplace and had forgotten to ask for a break.

"Nicole. Sixty-six." Dexter's voice began to sound annoyed after about ten minutes spent trying to raise her. "Six-six. If you do not respond within sixty seconds, I'm gonna have the cops out looking for you."

"Attention all units," Dexter said finally. "If anybody sees cab sixty-six, please let me know. And a reminder. After dark, I like to keep track of all units, so if you get out of your cab for more than a few minutes, please let me know."

An unauthorized break. Surely, that was all it was.

Suddenly, a loud rattling, grinding hum filled my ears. Dread washed over my entire being, a consuming, overwhelming dread that made it difficult to maintain the cab's position between the white lines. Promptly, I turned onto an access road leading to a yet-to-be constructed industrial park, then hit the 10-7 button, barely waiting for Dexter to respond before getting out of the cab. The world spun before me, the subsequent vertigo making it difficult to even stand. Rather than fight, I surrendered, slowly rotating 360 degrees before discovering that the source came from the northwest.

My eyes closed. The hum grew louder and more distinct, clearly revealing itself to be tires revolving against a gravel pavement. An image congealed before my eyes - darkness surrendering ever so slightly to dim light.

No, not dim light, but bright beams - twin beams - simply overwhelmed by the vastness of the oncoming darkness. Yes, oncoming darkness, black night and -

- And swirling ribbons of road, not approaching, but being approached, at a steadily increasing velocity.

The road disappeared, replaced by a jumble of images: a steel bridge above a black river, its currents and eddies visible in the bright moonlight; the 200-foot sheer cliff marking the far shore; and a patch of sandy gravel just before the bridge, leading to an abruptly dropping precipice.

My legs wobbled. I let myself drop to the soft, dewy grass, sat cross-legged, closed my eyes and brought the image of Nicole's face to the forefront of this dark consciousness, knowing that I had to help her, that I had to go to her side to stop her from doing what I feared she was about to do.

How far away could she be? These images were not inMadison , but how far? Ten miles? Twenty? Thirty?

The humming grew louder. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. I commanded myself to relax, to think not about the danger of this task. Past experience proved one mile to be within the realm of possibility. Therefore, five miles could be possible. But what were the limits? How long could my concentration be maintained? If concentration lapsed, would my very cells lose their cohesion and be spread as if blown by the four winds of Hades?

No thought, no doubt. I owed it to Nicole. To Anya. To all mortals who had shared their blood willingly, and unwillingly.

Inhale, exhale. Focus on the target, let the feelings - Nicole's feelings - direct me to their source.

I opened my eyes and watched my vision dissolve. The darkness swirled, the street lights and traffic lights spread, dripped and dribbled all over the canvas of my sight before disappearing completely.

The weight of reality seemed lighter; the substance of my own clothing grew less significant until there seemed to be no more feeling against my skin, no itch of fabric, no prickle of humidity, no tickle of cool breeze.

Bridge, river, cliff, shore, ledge. The images beckoned, and I followed, using them as a beacon, imagining the jumble as bright, glowing pieces, forming a brilliant light, flashing on and off, the hum modulating with the light's flashing rhythm. Fly toward the light!

The light dimmed ever so slightly. The flashing slowed, the humming quieted, a nearly imperceptible difference at first, almost unbelievable, a trick, a distortion of the warpage of this sensation as affected by pure spatial separation.

The light dimmed. The flashing slowed. The humming quieted.

The beacon seemed to move further away. How could that be? Impossible. Moving toward it. It seemed to move further

away. Was it not a fixed spot? How could it move away as I moved toward it?

My grip was loosening. Fingers weakened, simply unable to hold much more. My consciousness had reached the apex of its capabilities and was coming crashing down as my entire being was indeed losing its cohesion.

Nicole? My mind struggled to even remember her name, to even remember what it was that was being attempted. To remember why. Struggling ceased. My individuality yielded to the all-encompassing air. No longer me. Just air. Just everything. Just euphoria.

A voice screamed.

Al!

Al. Keep it together. Dammit, you're so close.

Keep

It

Together

Blinding light seared, flashing so rapidly as to be constantly light and dark. The hum grew louder and louder until it appeared as grains in front of my eyes, forming a tapestry, painting a pointelist portrait of forest, a bridge and sheer ledges above a rushing river. And twin beams of light.

Suddenly, the grinding filled my ears with sound. A yellow cab bore down upon me. Brakes squealed, and the cab came to a shaking stop, the bumper coming to rest mere inches from my shins.

Nicole jumped out of the cab and slammed the door shut with all the force she could muster. Kicking bits of gravel, she bounded toward me and slapped me hard across the face.

"What the fuck are you doing?" she shrieked.

I squelched a smile. "Just what I felt necessary." That was my only reply; no other words seemed necessary.

Nicole slapped me again, then turned back toward the cab.

"Could you at least give me a ride back to town?"

She spun toward me. Even in the moonlight, her face was luridly red. "Fly back. You seemed to get here with little trouble."

"Please, Nicole. This trip has pushed me to the absolute limits of my ability. I can scarcely stand, let alone attempt to return."

She threw her arms up in the air and returned to her cab. The gesture seemed to indicate a resigned willingness to provide me transportation back to civilization.

No words were exchanged during the return trip. Nicole seemed too angry to speak, and I simply was content to let her be angry, to let her be angry at me. At least that way she would be safe from herself for the time being. Anger, though a powerful emotion, is relatively sane compared to the tangle of confused and contradictory emotions that had led her to this place.

"Well," she spat when we had returned to my cab, "your stupid debt of honor is paid, so you can leave me the fuck alone."

"I will comply with your wishes." With that, I departed, fully satisfied to let her think whatever she wanted, whatever might help keep her alive, knowing full well that the debt had not been paid. Yes, I had saved her life, but at the same time, she had saved mine.

****

Two nights later, I found a sealed envelope outside my apartment door. It was a letter from Nicole.

Dear Al:

First, I just have to say, I'm sorry about how I treated you. You really are a special person, or whatever, and you deserved better than the kind of shit I gave you.

Second, I really have to say thanks. I've cooled off a bit, and I now realize that you saved my life, even if I didn't want it saved. I'm sorry, but you just have to understand that I'm really kind of fucked in the head, and sometimes I do things to hurt myself. Unfortunately, sometimes good people like you and Maggie get caught in the crossfire.

I'm leaving town for awhile. I just need to get my head together. I have an aunt who lives inVermont . It's pretty boring at her place, but I think I've had a little too much excitement for awhile.

This is goodbye for now, but hey, who knows about the future? For what it's worth, I'll treasure the good times we had. I love you and won't ever forget you.

Love,

Nicole



I gently replaced the letter within the envelope and tucked it into the back pocket of my blue denim trousers, then went to work because it was simply the thing to do. Bills had to be paid, money had to be saved, and, as the Americans say, that was that. Also a killer vampire had to be found; this had not been forgotten, and obviously a moving cab certainly seemed a useful tool in the search.

Co-op Cabbies, remember, we're professionals with a job to do.

That is what Dexter had announced over the radio the night of Truck's funeral. And it was those words that echoed inside my head after the completion of this affair. Despite all that had happened, despite my pain, there was a mission and a goal. There was indeed a job to do.

However, the job was becoming less pleasant as the weather warmed. Despite it only being mid-May, this night was hot and muggy, one of those nights where it actually feels more oppressive after the sun sets, even for one such as myself. Extreme temperatures do not cause us much discomfort, though heat is a tad less comfortable than cold. But the discomfort was greater in my weakened state, the effects of the long-distance teleport from two nights hence still felt. Still, the shift would not have been altogether unpleasant had I not been, as the Americans say, chasing my tail, circling block after block, racing for calls only to lose to another driver. My mood, already sour, only worsened as the night wore on, and the disposition of my passengers certainly did little to make life more pleasant. These things shall pass, yes, but there was no comfort in philosophy, not in the short term and certainly not on this particular night.

Finally, a call at the University Inn. Mine, but a traffic light kept me waiting, as thick, dripping haze froze the light forever red. The opposite light finally turned yellow, but a group of college students decided to make a run for it. They ambled ahead, slowed as if expended, then lumbered the rest of the way against the green. I turned the air conditioning up a notch, wanting my next passengers to be comfortable.

As soon as I arrived at the motel, a trio of businessmen jogged to the cab and hastily climbed in.

"Hello," I said. "Where can I take you tonight?"

"Spectators," one said.

A soft groan passed my lips. Why could they not walk a mere quarter mile? "Right away, sirs," I said with a smile, hearing an annoying falsetto remind me, "All calls are good calls."

"Jee-suz Chrawst!" one said. "How'd it get this danged hot. I thought I'd left the heat back inSouth Carolina ."

"It was that front that came in, sir," I replied. "It pushed away the nice weather we had been having. They say it will be hot and humid for the next few days."

"Well, that's just fucking great," the passenger said, his friends silent. "I didn't come here for the heat."

"No, you came here for the poontang," another passenger said.

Mercy made the ride short.

"That'll be one-seventy-five."

"Pay the man," the passenger on the far left said, getting out of the cab. The man in the middle climbed out and turned to the third man who remained rooted to his seat.

"Aren't you coming?"

"Naw. Think I'll just stay in this nice, cool cab."

"C'mon, Jasper."

"I do have to get on with the rest of my evening, sir," I gently added.

"Here," Jasper said gruffly, as he finally slid out of the cab. "Keep the change." The man slammed the door. A single crumpled, sweaty dollar bill and a dollar-off coupon lay in my palm.

"Lakeand U," Dexter's voice crackled.

I quickly punched the bid button, shifted into gear and raced toward the only call on the board.

"It's yours, Count," Dexter informed moments later. "U-Ride voucher twenty-five. Mad Hatters for three to Langdon. Pick up onLake Street at the U-Square pee-oh."

Almost five minutes after arriving at the pick-up point, seconds before a two dollar no-load fee could have been charged to the university, three men, one tall and slender, another short and stocky, the third scrawny and of medium height, along with a petite Asian woman, turned the corner and strode toward the cab. The short, stocky one opened the front door on the passenger side.

"U-Ride?" he asked.

"Yes. You are going toLangdon Street ?"

"That's us." The short, stocky man slid into the front seat. The two other men climbed in the back. The woman sat between them.

"There are four of you."

"You got a problem with that?" said a voice from the back.

"It violates the rules. Only parties of three or less may call for a U-Ride."

"Hey, be a dude," said the guy in front. "Just pretend there's three."

"I am sorry. I do not make up the rules. When you call for a U-Ride, you can at most be a party of three. However, if one or more wants to stay behind and call again, we can send another cab quickly."

Silence. I glanced furtively at them, sensing something strange, but was not quite able to grasp it. The tall, slender passenger opened his door, yanked the woman's arm, pulled her across his lap and flung her from the cab.

"I guess we're three now," the gentleman behind me said.

"Oh, man," said the student in front. "What'd you do that for?"

"Hey, we'll find another. There's plenty more where that came from."

I paused and glanced toward the woman, watching her crawl on the sidewalk, then slowly rise to her feet. She took a step, stumbled, steadied then stared at the cab. Her lips moved, but only the sounds of the remaining passengers were audible - their laughter, soon obscured by the sound of three hearts beating, pumping blood through three bodies, only to be covered by the loud, steady thump, thump of my own pounding heart.

"Enough!" I shouted. "I have had enough. You will all get out of my cab. Right now! This ride is over."

"Hey, man," the guy in front said. "We're just kidding around. What's the matter? Can't take a joke?"

"This is U-Ride," said the fellow behind me. "You're just a fucking cab driver. You have to take us."

I jumped out, quickly circled the cab, opening all the doors. "Out! Right now! All of you. Get out or I will call the police."

One by one, the passengers climbed out of the cab, each slamming their doors loudly. Two walked away. The tall slender one remained by the cab and glared at me. "That was stupid," he said, dropping his voice a couple octaves. "You might just regret something like this."

They walked slowly to the corner where they stood staring at me, their pale flesh glowing brightly in the moonlight. Suspicion filled me. Did their flesh perhaps glow too brightly? Why would their flesh be so pale when these Americans prefer to sear their skin in the sun until cooked a golden brown?

The woman fell again and was scrabbling on hands and knees. Damn these fellows! This woman needed help, and that was my top priority. Paying the students no further mind, I opened the front door and helped her inside. "Come. We must get out of here. I will take you wherever you want to go." I punched the accelerator and squealed the tires, driving without destination, simply trying to put as much distance possible between the cab and the three students. I did not even turn on the meter.

After a few blocks, I slowed to a stop. "Is there someplace I can take you?"

"Huh?" she said quietly. The woman stared straight ahead. I flared my nostrils and let her aroma wash over me: sweat, a trace of soap, that trendy perfume popular with the sorority girls that smells like insect repellant. And something else, something very faint, so faint only a vampire would notice. Sweet like lilies, but with a slight bitterness. Something I had not smelled in a long time.

"Datura," I said aloud. Known as Jimson Weed inNorth America and found in various forms all over the world.And sometimes used during unsavory religious rituals.

I flicked on the dome light and studied my passenger. Her skin was pale, she was perspiring and her breathing was labored. Turning the light off and on revealed the woman's pupils to be dilated. The dosage was substantial and fairly concentrated. She needed prompt medical attention. Fortunately, theMadisonGeneralHospital emergency room was very close.

"Stop the cab," the woman said. "I'm gonna be sick."

I stopped, and the woman jumped out just in time.

"Oh, god," she said, crying, holding her stomach. "I don't feel so good. Can you get me to a hospital."

"Right away, ma'am."

****

On the way home from the office following shift's end, the faintest hint of flickering light caught my attention. In the rear view mirror, a quarter-mile behind, a pair of headlights pulled from the curb.

The car followed my turn ontoEast Washington , then followed my zig-zag toJohn Nolan Drive . Though the speed limit was 35, I let up on the accelerator and slowed to 25. The other car maintained its quarter-mile following distance.

A right turn, another right, then an immediate left. After the third turn, I glanced at the rear view mirror.

Twin, white dots glowed in the mirror.