Vampire Cabbie - Chapter 2


A Slight Change of Plans

In his fifteen years of service, Bob Johnson's chestnut hair turned silver. The flesh covering his ample frame grew thicker. Had circumstances been different, I would have been able to watch his humanity come crashing down upon him, stooping his back forward, breaking his limbs, as organs, one by one, ceased to function. I would have had the singular privilege of watching him die.

However, circumstances were such that, after following him toMadison , where he made certain arrangements as per my instructions, it would come time to discharge him.

Bob caught the first available flight to the States. By the time a flight suiting my peculiar needs allowed me to join him, Bob had already found me a place to live, paid one year's rent in advance and purchased an inexpensive automobile for my use.

Though ships have always rendered me quite queasy, air travel has never been a bother. Of the alchemist's four basic elements, my closet affinity has always been with air and earth. Air is rather close to my true nature, certainly in a figurative sense. Earth binds me and my kind and has always been a force for birth and healing. Fire and water, however, are destructive elements, ripping and tearing us asunder.

Even Transatlantic flights may be completed with few complications, so long as the flight leaves in darkness and arrives before the dawn, not a difficult matter considering the seven-hour time difference, thus allowing me to actually sit within the cabin as opposed to being sealed within a lead canister, a most distasteful prospect indeed.

A favorite tome accompanied me on the flight,The Twelve Caesars , the superb Robert Graves translation of the immensely entertaining history by Seutonius. Entertaining, yes, but an intentional choice for informational purposes; for the better part of this century, the parallels between imperialRome and theseUnited States of America have struck me as quite uncanny. Though much of my time over the last century had been spent inAmerica , my experience with the provinces was quite limited.New York ,Los Angeles ,Paris ,London ,Rome ,Berlin ,Prague ,Budapest - these were my cities.Madison,Wisconsin ? Would the citizenry be ignorant peasants? Would cows sleep within houses with their human hosts?

However, despite my fondness for Mr. Graves's flowing hand and the highly personalized accounts provided by Seutonius, the volume spent most of the flight in my lap unread as I sat, musing about my predicament, eyes closed, unable to concentrate on the pages.

Was I to suffer the slings and arrows of despondency, spending most my nights in a sterile laboratory monitoring someone else's experiment when my preference would be to attend the opera or the symphony in a city possessing some semblance of culture?

A darkened forest filled my sight. Musk drifted into my nostrils, the rich aroma washing over my entire being. A large, strong heart beat loudly. Torrents of steaming blood filled my mouth faster than could be gulped down my throat. Twin rivulets dribbled down the sides of my jaw.

Daylight comes, and my bed is hard and earthen, full of twigs and stones.

Daylight comes, and my bed is a soft feather mattress, with a down quilt and silk sheets.

Choices must always be made: to live within the world of the humans or attempt concealment behind the shadows cast by their edifices. Except, the shadows have been obscured by the harsh, scrutinizing glare of ubiquitous humanity. In order to survive, I must hide in plain sight, just like Poe's purloined letter.

Paris,London ,Berlin ,Prague ,Budapest ,New York ,Los Angeles - evenChicago . The plane landed atChicago 's hectic O'Hare airport where we switched planes for the short flight toMadison .

My sole experience with the American hinterlands had beenChicago , a city possessing a rare mix of cosmopolitan flare and provincial ignorance. ButMadison,Wisconsin ? Every day, as many people arrive and depart from O'Hare airport as live inMadison .

After a 45 minute flight, the plane touched down inMadison , with a few, but very few city lights heralding our arrival.

Perhaps this city was more civilized than I had imagined. There were no cows wandering around this small airport. And cabs waited just outside the baggage claim area, which pleased me, for Bob had left word that he would be unable to meet my upon my arrival.

Once my lone suitcase arrived, the conveyor belt sagging from its weight, a yellow cab awaited to offer me a ride to my new residence. As I approached, the driver remained seated, staring straight ahead, seemingly oblivious to a passenger desiring service, even after I had opened a door and inquired as to his availability. He grunted and pressed the truck-release lever, merely watching as his passenger hefted his bulky suitcase into the trunk.

"Fifteen forty-one Gilson," I told the driver, who grunted in acknowledgment. Bob, in his telegram, had said it was a basement apartment, onMadison 's south side, with small windows that faced north. He also said it was not very expensive and that the landlord had reduced the price slightly when the first year's rent had been paid in advance. Hopefully, the abode would prove palatable.

"I have never been here toMadison ," I said. "Tell me about it. What kind of city is it?"

"Like any other," the driver blandly replied, "only less so."

Perhaps the driver might have laughed after a remark that one might interpret as witty, but he was silent and managed nary a slight smile.

The airport access road wound outward about a mile before we reached a main thoroughfare dotted with small, clapboard houses of no discernible form or design. Shortly, the nauseating smell of cooked meat wafted into my nostrils. A factory loomed on the right.

"There is a meat packing plant here?" I asked my friendly driver.

"That's Oscar Mayer."

"They employ many people?"

"Yeah, but not as many as the State or the University."

"How big isMadison ?"

"A hundred and seventy thousand."

The road spread, now dotted with various small industrial plants. "Not very pretty, this part of town?"

"No."

"But I can see trees. Are there many parks? DoesMadison have much green space?"

"Some."

My, quite the gregarious fellow. It seemed apparent that my driver did not consider it within his job description to be a fountain of information for a curious stranger in this city, let alone be polite. Oddly, the thought occurred to me that I could do his job better than he.

The road curved and narrowed, the landscape quickly shifting from industrial to residential. "These certainly are lovely old houses. How old are they?"

"Very early Twentieth Century."

"Is this the oldest part of town?"

"Yeah."

"These appear to be quite magnificent houses. Are they really as lovely as they appear?"

"No."

The architecture was quite eclectic, solid brick houses next to Georgians, complete with alabaster pillars, next to wooden Victorian homes. "This once must have been a rather fashionable area of town. Single families no longer live in these lovely structures?"

"No."

"Then who does?"

"Students. It's the student ghetto."

Indeed, a subtle change seemed apparent as we progressed. Even in the darkness, I could see peeling paint, unkempt lawns and a general lack of artistry in the landscaping. But above the squalor, a brilliant, glowing white dome illuminated the darkness.

"Is that the State Capitol?" I asked.

"Yes." His tone remained dull and monotone.

"It seems to be modeled after the Capitol inWashington ."

"It is."

Just ahead, we stopped at a traffic light where I saw the first apparent signs of population; several pedestrians crossed in front of the cab while we waited for the light to change. This seemed to be some sort of commercial district, well populated with foot traffic, but oddly, no cars passed. The light turned green, and the cab sped forward, narrowly avoiding a trio of young women who had dashed across the intersection just as the light changed, causing my driver to sound his horn. One of the women stopped, turned and raised her middle finger, then strolled leisurely across the remainder of the intersection.

"Fuckin' bitch," the driver growled.

"What street is this?" I asked.

"State Street."

"It looks quite commercial, but why is there no auto traffic?"

"It's a mall."

"I beg your pardon."

The driver sighed loudly. "I said, it's a mall. A few years ago, they widened the sidewalks and closed the street to traffic. Only cop-cars, cabs and buses allowed."

The road curved, and a series of tall buildings came into view, including a pair of concrete horrors of modern architecture. "Is this the campus here?"

"Yeah."

"Are you a student?"

"No." He sighed once again.

"This is your job, driving a taxi? You make a living doing this?"    

He sighed again, louder than before. "What the hell does it look like?"

I presumed that meant yes, and it also meant that he wearied of my interrogation. By the blisters of Satan! It clearly was not my intention to offend this lout, but if he did not care for his job, certainly he could keep his frustration to himself and not take it out on his passenger.

At first glance, it struck me that cab driving in this town could be interesting, though I certainly had no inkling that this knowledge would eventually be learned first hand. Being the state capitol and the home of an internationally renowned university, it seemed apparent thatMadison must boast a wide diversity within its population and must often be visited by a goodly variety of people.

As the driver drove with a seemingly permanent scowl on his face, I wondered if I myself might find cab driving enjoyable. Certainly, it was obvious that I could do it better than this gentleman. My passengers would enjoy scintillating conversations with their driver as they rode quickly

but safely to their destination.

Though not experienced in a few centuries, this notion of work was fresh enough in my memory for me to at least partially understand my driver's sentiment. After all, I did not find myself relishing the prospect facing me, yet from my perspective a positive outlook could make palatable virtually any situation, any job. However, did I not possess the luxury of knowing that in ten short years, my shackles would be broken? And while ten years, regardless of the tedium, is nothing to me, obviously it is a significant portion of a mortal's lifetime.

Finally, we arrived at the destination. After I paid the fare and a modest - and I do mean modest - gratuity (my passengers would tip me better), the driver got out of the cab and lifted my suitcase from the trunk. He was tall and stocky, with an overhanging stomach, surely from over-consumption of beer. Just before I turned from him, our eyes met, and suddenly I did not see the driver's brown eyes, but brown leaves coated with fresh blood, the tiny droplets growing and pulsating with the rhythm of a rapidly beating heart.

Without a thought, I projected my consciousness into his as my fangs dropped from within their enamel housings. Without concern as to how bitter this fellow's blood might taste, I grabbed him by the shoulders and plunged my fangs into his neck, quickly drinking the requisite amount. After withdrawing, the driver stood motionless for a moment, then took a step, stumbled slightly, steadied himself against the cab, got back inside and drove off into the night. I stood outside the house, watching and waiting to see if anyone had noticed what had just transpired, watching and waiting for neighbors to emerge from home and hearth, wielding torches and pitchforks, accompanied by the local gendarmes, but no such reaction was forthcoming.

Bob had done well in the acquisition of living quarters, satisfying all my specifications to the letter. The basement apartment had just two small windows that would let in only a bare minimum of light - none once covered with black paper. The main room was square, not too small and had a fairly high ceiling for a basement apartment. The walls offered much space for paintings and books, but sadly, my art collection was gone, and my books were in storage except for a few boxes of my favorites, which would hopefully arrive shortly, along with my music collection and my gramophone.

Other than the main room, there was a water closet with a bath and a small kitchen. Ever resourceful, Bob saved me money realizing that I generally dine outside my abode.

Still, despite the pragmatic concerns, it was obvious that the apartment would quickly prove claustrophobic, but what alternative did I have? Like it or not, this would be my abode for who knows how long, and that was that. Thus, I did not venture forth that first night though I yearned to seek the darkness outside. Having arrived fairly late by most mortal standards and not knowing exactly what sort of late-night propriety the town possessed, it seemed most prudent to take the opportunity to acclimate myself to my new home.

When the sun set the second night, the darkness beckoned, and I could stand nary another minute inside the apartment. I was to meet Bob in a couple of hours, but chose to take the time to acquaint myself withMadison . Bob had wisely left the key to my car on the kitchen counter.

The non-descript gray Toyota Corolla would serve me well, both in terms of reliability and gas mileage. However, upon first sight of the vehicle, my thoughts drifted back to my beloved Bentley, which had only recently been sold. With a philosophical shrug, I started theToyota and took a get-acquainted drive before meeting Bob.

Madison is shaped like a woman squeezed into a too-tight whale-bone corset, with upper and lower extremities that narrow tightly into an isthmus between two moderately-sized lakes, the Capitol visible virtually everywhere near the downtown area, towering above all other buildings; later, I discovered that a city ordinance in fact makes it illegal for any building to be above a certain height and thus obscure the citizenry's view of their Capitol.

I liked what I saw during that initial drive. The city appeared tidy and well-maintained, the wildly eclectic architecture attractive, except in the badly dilapidated student areas. The campus was lovely, especially the lakeshore section. A road that runs the length of the campus traverses an elevated section affording a stunning view of the lake, the entire shoreline and a finger-like peninsula called Picnic Point.

Bob was staying at the Concourse Hotel, just off the Capitol Square, an odd term because, though the Capitol and its sprawling lawn is bordered by four streets which meet at right angles, the road surrounding the Capitol actually runs in a circle. (Further irony: Another quartet of streets, on the outside of theCapitol Square , is known as the Outer Ring.)

"Can I get you something?" the bartender at the Concourse asked. I had just arrived - five minutes late - but Bob was not yet there. Thanking the bartender but declining his polite offer, I took a seat in a corner near a window that faced the Outer Ring and waited, enjoying the opulence of my immediate surroundings: the chair was solid rosewood, upholstered with satin, the table before me matched the chair, its surface polished to a highly reflective sheen, and this little corner was set off with floor-to-ceiling brass posts that possessed not a single smudge nor fingerprint.

After the bartender had asked me three times, I allowed the young, fleshy fellow to mix me a scotch and soda, but the drink sat untouched on the table in front of me. Bob still had not arrived which seemed queer; if punctuality was to be considered a virtue, Johnson was indeed a Pollyanna.

He finally arrived at 9:30, face flushed, brow knitted. Seeing him, I promptly ordered another scotch and soda, for he looked in need of a cocktail.

"Al," he began, out of breath, before even taking a seat, "I'm sorry I'm late - "

"Please, Robert, take a seat." The bartender brought over the cocktail and took my money as Bob sat and took a healthy sip.

Bob took a furtive glance at the bartender as he walked back to the bar. "Something terrible happened." His voice was hushed.

I exhaled loudly. Too loudly.

Bob met my gaze, then looked away. He did seem quite agitated. "God, I'm sorry about this, about everything. I never should've told you to come out here. It was just a waste of money, and you don't have much left."

"Please relax, Robert," I replied calmly. "Tell me. What has happened? Is my position still available?"

Johnson's eyes glistened in the dim light, as if he were near tears, an expression far from the cool, confident composure he usually exhibited. "There's no job," he said, his voice shaking.

I nodded as calmly as possible and beckoned him to continue.

"Professor Hanson is dead." Bob took a big gulp of his cocktail. "The only option I had available for you, and it's gone. Dammit! There's other possibilities out there, but this probably isn't the best place for you to be, and what the hell are you supposed to do now? I don't think your landlord is just going to give you your money back after signing a lease for one year. Dammit, Al, I'm sorry."

As the saying goes, Bob was always the one to keep his head when everybody else around him was losing theirs, myself included. Now, it was I keeping him calm. This was rather inauspicious. "Please, Robert - Bob, relax. Professor Hanson is dead? What has happened?"

Bob picked up his glass, then put it back down again. "Turns out the old goat was screwing one of his students. Oddly enough, this all happened outside the context of the classroom. By all accounts, this young woman was quite brilliant, but for some reason, she took a job in a massage parlor. That's where she met Hanson - professionally. Before long, they were meeting professionally on a regular basis, outside of the massage parlor. Now, Hanson had no idea that police believed the woman was involved in the death of aMadison man last winter, who was found in a snowbank on the south side of town. The man had been a customer at the massage parlor. Rumors had it that the man had been seeing one of the women at the massage parlor and had been quite generous with gifts of cash and jewelry, until his money ran out. Police had been trying unsuccessfully to link the woman to this killing."

"Robert, is there a point to this story? I may be immortal, but I don't have all night."

"Sorry, Al. It's a bit complicated. Anyway, Hanson also did not know that his mistress was also sleeping with aMilwaukee police officer, who was married to a fellowMilwaukee police officer. The wife suspected something and started following her husband. Then she started following Hanson's mistress. She was determined to catch them in the act, and she did, sort of. She burst in on the young woman while she was entertaining. She pulled out her service revolver and started shooting. Before she knew it, two people were dead, Hanson's student and her male companion, which wasn't the woman's husband."

"No, it was Hanson. Now that's just charming." That was my only reply as I stared blankly out the window at the night that lay on the other side of the glass, the blackness swirling into a jumble of images of trees and leaves and bears and deer and riding into Oxford upon horseback, the ancient sandstone bell tower in the center of the campus piercing majestically through the darkness before me.

From the corner of my eye, Bob's lips seemed to move, but few words seemed to reach my ears. "Talk to the landlord...Beg...Maybe get half the money back...Not much to work with...A few months in advance...Hard to find cheap rent in the bigger cities....Have to work extra hard to find something before the money runs out...Maybe you might rethink just what you will and won't do."

A swath of yellow sliced through the darkness. Then another and another. "Cabs," I said.

"Yeah, cabs," Bob replied. "This town isn't so small that they don't have cabs. They'll probably park right out there." He pointed toward the window. On the other side of the glass, a sign read "No Parking. Taxi

Stand." "Anyway, just give me a couple days. I'm sure I can think of something."

Inspiration seemed to come in a lightning flash of yellow. "There is no need. Perhaps I have found a possible solution."

"Really?" Bob's eyes bulged slightly from within their sockets. He grabbed his glass and drained the remaining contents. "Let's hear it. I'm glad you're so calm about this. Maybe between the two of us we can figure something out."

I pointed toward the window at the cab that had just parked in front of the hotel, just as Bob had predicted. "Why not get a job driving a cab?"

Bob laughed loudly. "Please, Al, you can't be serious."

"Oh, but I am. I can certainly assure you of that."

He scrutinized me closely. "Jesus Christ, you are."

"Let us examine the facts. First, I am virtually stranded here inMadison ."

Bob nodded intently. "Correct. With a signed lease and rent paid in advance, we would have no legal leg to stand on. Maybe we could sublet, but then you'd get your money back in small portions once a month and probably below face value."

I nodded. "Second, there is the matter of a resume and the lack thereof. Simply put, I need to be able to get a job where the qualifications are, shall we say, lax."

"Agreed." He scratched his chin. "I've seen you drive in places a lot hairier than this. That's no problem. Any blemishes on your driving record?"

I thought for a moment. "I was last cited by the police in 1961. That was in Nice."

Bob nodded. "The only problem, you'd have to know the city fairly well to make any money, let alone get hired."

I shook my head vigorously. "This city is not very large. I seriously doubt that will present much difficulty."

"Don't take it too lightly, Al."

My laughter echoed through the sparsely populated lounge. A couple glanced in our direction before returning to their own conversation. "Please, Robert, these are mere details. I do not care to be bothered by small details."

"Important details."

"I will conquer such details with the force of my will."

Bob shrugged his shoulders. "I don't doubt that you will. I've seen what kind of memory you have. You certainly can take advantage of that. Christ, if the brain really can be thought of as a muscle which needs exercise, I shudder to think what kind of shape your brain would be in if you didn't use it as much as you do."

"Senile vampires do not survive long before being slaughtered like rabid dogs."

Bob rubbed his hands together trying hard to ignore that last remark. "Okay, assuming concerns one and two are taken care of, that leaves number three. You have certain special needs as far as working goes. How do you feel driving a cab would address those?"

I felt myself smile, perhaps for the first time since arriving. "This is quite the Socratic dialogue, is it not?"

My aide-de-camp returned my smile with one of his own. "Just making sure you know what you're getting into here. I want to make sure you've thought this through."

"But I have not. The idea came to me only a moment ago." My smile stretched wider; if nothing else, it was certainly fortunate to have someone like Johnson who was trustworthy enough to hold this conversation. "I am certain I would be able to work at night, which obviously is a concern. Also, even if I would be around people all the time, no one will be in my cab for long. No one will work side-by-side with me. I can come and go like mist, and my co-workers will never know much more about me than my name."

Bob ticked off points one, two and three, striking an index finger against index, middle and ring fingers on his other hand. "That covers the basic concerns but I'm still not satisfied." He turned and waved at the ever-attentive bartender who promptly brought over another scotch and soda.

"What continues to trouble you?"

After taking a short sip, Bob clasped his chin between his thumb and forefinger, perhaps drawing up another list of concerns. "Part of my problem, I guess, is only having known you for fifteen years. I'm sure there's plenty of Al Farkuss I don't know, but the one I do know, well, I have a hard time imagining him driving a taxi. You're used to giving orders. I'm not sure how you'll do taking orders from someone else."

I found myself pulling at the taut skin on my chin with my thumb and forefinger. He was correct about that, but how hideous could it be, serving the public? Surely cab passengers do not generally make totally unreasonable requests. "I can adjust."

Bob cocked his head to one side. "I certainly hope so. You know, they say on-the-job stress is directly related to how much control a person has over their work. The less control, the more stress. I mean, Christ, kissing ass to spoiled college students? Dealing with all these damn one-way streets? Hell, there's a street right near here I noticed earlier today. It's only eight blocks long, but three of those blocks are one-way and all in different directions. Now, I know you won't be dropping dead from a heart attack, but I hate to think of a person such as yourself going a little nuts from stress."

"It would be too hideous an image to describe." I paused a moment, then smiled at the hyperbole of that last statement. "Your point is well taken, but the options are few. I have to dosomething , so why not cab driving?"

"Why not?" he parroted. Bob glanced at the cab parked on the other side of the glass, drew pen and paper from his blazer and wrote down the cab company's phone number. "I'll call them tomorrow and let you know about their hiring procedure."

I shook my head vigorously. "This is my penance, not yours. I'll make the call." I reached across the table and tried to grab the piece of paper, but Bob pulled it away. "I am serious, Robert. Give me the paper." Very seldom one to disobey a direct order, he tore the piece of paper from his pocket-sized binder, folded it in half and placed it within my hand.

"What do you mean 'penance?'"

"This whole ridiculous situation is my fault - "

"No, Al, it's my fault. I should have watched Jenkins more closely. I should - "

I reached across the table and patted Bob lightly on his arm. How fortunate to have had in my employ one whose competence was matched only by his loyalty. "No, Robert, it is I who am to blame. I did not delegate responsibility. I abdicated it. Even with quality people such as yourself, the circumstances as I allowed them begged for a disaster to happen. Perhaps there is a bit of Judeo-Christian in me still, but I must work as a wage earner, not merely because I in fact need to earn a wage, but because I need to teach myself a lesson. I need to relearn the most basic lesson one learns in this world that one must be able to tend their own garden. Better than anyone, I should have known that. Certainly, that has been the key component in my survival over the years. To have forgotten that and still be intact is the absolute height of good fortune, but all good fortune comes with a price, and I think this is mine."

"Ain't no such thing as a free lunch." Bob drew my checkbook from his breast pocket, placed it gently on the table and pushed it toward me. "Guess I should hand this over then."

The moment we both expected had arrived, yet having worked so closely for fifteen years, it seemed hard to believe our association would end so abruptly. I pushed the checkbook toward him. "I do have one last job for you."

"Name it." He smiled broadly.

"Leave a thousand dollars in my account and write yourself a check for the rest."

"Too generous, Al." His voice was firm.

"I am quite serious. With my rent paid a year in advance, I think a thousand dollars should prove sufficient for my short term needs. And certainly you do have severance pay coming. You deserve every farthing. Your work has been exemplary. I just regret that I cannot pay you more."

Without another word, Bob wrote himself the check and gave me the checkbook. For a long moment, we just stared at each other in awkward silence. Finally, I said, "Perhaps, in a few months, we might find Jenkins, get my money back and I can rehire you."

Bob nonchalantly shrugged his shoulders. "Maybe. Twenty mil makes it pretty easy to disappear. I'll see what I can do, but resources are limited."

"Any effort is appreciated. So, what do you think you will do?"

"There's this old friend who runs a finance house. They've got a large group of mutual funds. About a year ago, he offered me a job as fund manager for their European fund. I'll give him a call and see if the offer still stands."

"Ah!" I slapped the table top. "An excellent prospect. You will keep me abreast of any interesting investment opportunities."

"Of course. If I can still get the job."

Bob had one more cocktail before we bade our final farewell. I left the lounge knowing it might be a long time before the world of satin and solid rosewood would be mine once again. Perhaps Jenkins would be found and my fortune restored. Perhaps, I would work for ten years and save enough money to, as the Americans might say, fight the good fight financially.

A cold gust of wind hit me as I exited the hotel. A yellow cab sat idling in the cab stand, the driver reading a newspaper. A block ahead, the traffic light flashed yellow. Below, blinking letters of white and reflected yellow read "State Street." The gusting winds carried voices, wafting to my ears from that malled street, imploring me to come and join them. My feet soon carried me there, knowing - my entire being knowing - thatState Street had more to do with my destiny than the gilded, lace-latticed, satin-covered world I had known.