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Chapter 1: There's A Sucker Born Every Minute
Here's a tip:
When you give the world one last chance to save your life, be specific about the how. A selection of A, B, or C would be good, along with a couple of "nots" to clarify the answers you don't want. This is especially important if you're a vampire and don't really need to have your life saved, unless...
I've come up with this advice by not following it. Which is to say, I began this night possibly my last with some vague notion of letting the world take one last shot at keeping me on board. And so I got the answer you get when you leave the world to its own devices.
Me, with a kitchen knife sunk up to the hilt in my guts, while the little brat who's plunged it there looks on shivering, hoping, waiting for me to die. The two of us are in the middle of a very big, pine-thick nowhere. She breathes and you can see it; I breathe and you can't. Neither of us is saying anything at the moment. The pines sigh. Creak. My car, with its door ajar, bing-bings away while the wipers ticktock back and forth under an on-again, off-again rain.
That's something that hasn't changed, even if everything else has. It still rains. Snows. Tornadoes still blow houses apart, still drive pieces of straw through two-by-fours. The sun? The sun hasn't changed, either, as far as I know. It still sets on the just and the unjust alike even though its rising is only a rumor for most of us.
The knife looks kind of funny stuck there, bobbing up and down with my breathing. Not that I mention this to the kid who stabbed me. She's just a kid, after all. A real one, not just a face one. Five, six, tops. And she's just standing there, squeezing her pink-and-white fists, making fog but nothing else. Not even a peep. Not anymore.
I guess it is a little weird for her. Scary, even. Being stuck in the middle of nowhere, covered with your mom's just-spilt blood, waiting for some stranger to die. A stranger who happens to be a vampire. Not that being terrified and expiration-dated is any excuse for what she's done. Not that being cute and blood-covered is going to save her from what she's got coming. But they do buy her a few more minutes of me letting her sweat as I lie here, not dying.
"That wasn't very nice," I say, finally.
And that's all it takes. Just my saying it is all it takes to make my little fog breather flinch.
And as for me? I guess her flinching will have to do. Her flinching at the sound of a voice that hasn't scared anybody in God only knows how long. If that's what the world's offering, I'll take it. For one more night, at least.
Maybe I should back up.
I've been feeling a bit down lately. Edgy. Out of sorts.
I'd call it a midlife crisis, but what does that mean when your life doesn't have a middle? A lot of vampires go through this sort of thing, right around the time we should be dead from natural causes. I'd say it feels like the flu, but vampires don't get the flu; they don't get sick, period. What they get, instead, is bored. You start feeling bored, then moody, and then your skin doesn't seem to fit, even though it hasn't changed a bit since you were vamped. Your friends, the ones you personally made immortal to keep you company throughout eternity, are boring. They bore right into your soul, like boll weevils of predictability. You know what each one is going to say before they say it, and when they do, you start thinking about how long forever really is.
But it's the missing that gets you most. All the things that are no longer part of your life. Like sunlight. Of course. Like chocolate. And cigarettes. A peach even one of those syrup-embalmed canned ones. The excuse of a bathroom break to get away from your stupid job, or any other part of your stupid life. The feel of the seasons on your skin and in your bones. The sweet relief of stepping out of the cold and into a restaurant, its windows fogged with the warm embrace of different-flavored needs being met. Watching the steam rise from your name, written in yellow in a fresh snowbank, lit blue by a full moon, way past the middle of a night clocked in vodka tonics and shots with dirty names.
And coffee. And coffee. And coffee...
When I'm feeling like this, I find that tits usually help.
Pert and spotlit, naked and alive and bouncing just slightly to the beat of whatever the DJ happens to be playing. It's a habit I got into long ago, back before the ratio of mortals to vampires flipped back when some of my benevolent buddies and I decided to help the flip along. We were missionaries of vampirism, and strippers made good apostles. We'd vamp them, they'd vamp their customers, their customers would vamp their wives and loved ones. The whole six-degrees-of-separation thing. Johnny Appleseed, but with fangs.
We called ourselves the Benevolent Vampire Society and our goal was pretty simple: we wanted a little company for our misery. We wanted to vote the other guys out to be normal, to fall in love again, to live for something other than the next meal. We didn't want to watch the others around us growing old as we stayed young, reminding us of our open-endedness, and the pitiful little we'd filled it with.
Our motto was pure hubris: "There's a sucker born every minute." The problem was, the closer we came to making that true, the more obvious it became that we were the real suckers. "Normal" meant "tamer." Vampirism became...domesticated. Industrialized. Commercialized. The hunt for victims and benefactors was replaced by the sorts of jobs we thought we left behind. We had to work for a living again or after-living, as the case may be. We went from slipping our fangs into nice, juicy necks to filling up grocery bags with name-brand plasma, grown in a vat instead of a vein, made from stem cells and other lab-fresh ingredients. And just like that, we went from being the perfect predators to the perfect consumers ones with a perfectly understood need that could be perfectly met, forever and ever.
So, this vampire walks into a bar...
He doesn't fly, doesn't pad in on wolf's feet, or skitter across the sad linoleum with clicking little rat nails. He doesn't steam in through the keyhole, or crawl foggily under the door. Real vampires don't go in for such special effects partly because we can't and so a bipedal entrance will have to do.
He's decided to give himself up to the night maybe his last with an open (but empty) heart.
That's the way my evening started. In that kind of mood, making those kinds of decisions. It didn't take long to see the error of my ways.
By the way, if you want to get a feeling for how much the world's changed, just go to a vampire strip club. If it wasn't for the poor lighting, the bouncers, and the half-naked women, you'd swear you'd stepped into a grade school from before. They're not really kids, of course; some of them are older than I am, and I'm not just talking about my face age. We call them Screamers, and you'll know why if you ever set one off. Each one is a frozen tragedy, their vamping coming before their bodies reached the right age to spend forever in kids with leukemia or some other fatal disease for which vamping was the only hope. And now they're stuck, and pissed. You'll see them sulking around the malls at midnight, children's bodies carrying their adult-sized souls, the wrinkles on their foreheads never quite setting, but not for lack of trying. I like to think of them as munchkins from the bad side of Oz ones with very rich vocabularies when it comes to your anatomy and the many painful uses to which it can be put.
Strip clubs are one of the few places where Screamers don't scream, that is. They smile, instead, trying to look cute, trying to kiss up to whatever vague, maternal instinct the dancers may harbor in their wholly vestigial (though fetching) breasts. They come in with bankrolls bigger than they are and blow it all on reverse lap dances, straddling the dancer's leg with their stubby little ones, bouncing up and down, slapping their stunted manhood against bare thigh over and over again in a very adult game of horsey.
I look at the horny grade school surrounding me and feel even more depressed than I did before coming in. I look up and see myself in one of the bar's many mirrors. You know that thing about vampires not having a reflection? Myth. Vampires reflect all the time. In mirrors. In chrome. In their lonelier moments. Like me. Like now.
What a face I've got. What a mug I've been saddled with for all eternity. It always looks a little sad, a little tired, a little like it's been through the wringer a few too many times. It's the sort of face that women find compelling, I've been told. I think it's because I look experienced, like I've been through that wringer and survived. It's my eyes, that's what does it. They're standard-issue vampire eyes all black, matching my short-shorn hair, my mood. What's different is their prominence, their hyperthyroid eagerness, as if my mere skull were having a hard time keeping them in. They're the eyes of someone who listens, sympathizes, bleeds with every tragedy that's related to him across candlelit tables. The rest of my face is baby smooth, innocent, deceptively safe the perfect face for a vampire who needs to get in close before dinner.
The other baby faces the ones with shorter legs are starting to get rowdy. I check out the glasses on the table next to me, fogged with condensation. That's another big difference with the vampire version of these kinds of places the heat. While the old clubs cranked up the AC to keep the dancers' nipples hard, our kind work just the opposite. We're cold-blooded, just like lizards, which really means that our blood's not cold so much as room temperature. And like a lizard basking on a sunny rock, the way to get us hot is to get us hot. That's why vampire sex usually starts with a trip to the shower, or a good crank of the thermostat to the right. That's also why the air swims around our apartment buildings on cold Saturday nights. The excess heat of steaming showers and cranked thermostats coming from dozens of apartments makes the air watery, makes the moon behind it ripple like a reflection in a puddle. If you're quiet, you may hear the moans and groans, the occasional howl or bark of vampire delight, but these are just the grace notes. It's the heat that tells the story, all that vampire love shimmering in the cold night air.
Like they say, all's Fahrenheit in love and war.
Being good businesspeople, the owners of vampire strip clubs take full advantage of their clientele's biological predictability. Steadily throughout the evening, they turn up the heat as the customers get more and more worked up, spending more and more money on blood and lap dances. By last call, the place is like a sauna. Already warm glasses of blood begin to sweat. Watch crystals go blurry. And every time some bowlegged munchkin goes stumbling for the exit, a steamy swirl of fog follows him out.
And then there are the bartenders.
Or rather, there's the lack of bartenders. I've never gotten over that, there being no actual bar or bartenders in vampire bars, whether strip, gay, sport, classy, divey, or whatever. No one to chew the fat with, to spill your guts to, to cut you off when you've had too much. Oh, they've got bouncers, and video cameras, and someone at the door to check your coat, charge you the cover, point out a table if one's not obvious, but no actual bar, or anyone tending it. No need, really. There's only the one drink the "house vin" and self-serve is just more cost effective. So, instead of bartenders or waitresses, each table has a metered tap that's pretty useless when it comes to spilling your guts. But they do accept coins and bills and credit cards, all for your convenience.
When they're working, that is.
When you don't try feeding them a twenty that's been out of circulation since before the change, only to find out, now that it's too late, that it's all you've got. And so you keep shoving it in and the slot keeps spitting it back, Andrew Jackson's too-small face mocking grimly. You flatten it out, straighten the corners, crease it down the middle, and still you get that mechanical whir of rejection.
The other patrons begin turning in their seats, their stubby little legs not reaching the floor. They look at you with their black-marble crow eyes. They look at you like you're the loser. They don't know it's a last-straw night. They don't know that you're one of the people who's responsible for what they are, for where they are, for what the world's become.
Please. Fuck. Dammit. Shit...
And so there you are, in a vampire strip club, surrounded by nonscreaming Screamers, shouting at a machine that won't listen to reason. The half-naked women onstage have stopped dancing and are looking at you with that no-chance-in-hell look, that not-worth-the-trouble sideways stare. And out of nowhere, you find yourself thinking about Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. No, not the "failure to communicate" scene, but the one right at the beginning where he's cutting the heads off parking meters, just before all the trouble starts. And that's when you get the idea, the one that makes you smile to yourself. The one that makes you think:
A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do...
It's not until after things start getting broken that it occurs to you perhaps too late that libido is not the only thing that rises with the heat.
I'm asked to leave.
I'm cut off before I was even on.
On the night I've given the world one last chance to save my life, I'm asked by a bouncer who'd be dust now if it wasn't for me and my benevolent brethren. I Martin Kowalski, Vampire, Esquire, founding member of the BVS and cocreator of the world, such as it is I am asked to leave.
Okay, and fuck you. Fuck this.
After the steam of my exit dissipates, I notice that it's raining. That's one thing that hasn't changed, I think. It still rains. Snows. Tornadoes still...
The valet brings my car around with the wipers already going. He looks at me like I'm one of those guys who pops his cork a minute and a half into his first lap dance. He lets the keys drop into my palm to avoid any accidental contact. He exits the vehicle with hands retracted, full of second thoughts about having touched whatever I've touched. He's judging me. I can see that by the way he holds his lips, the little bit of fang he lets show. I'm being judged by someone who'll probably be making minimum wage for all of eternity.
Great. Lovely. Jim-fucking-dandy.
I make the car roar. It's a sporty little number bloodred, natch and is worth more than the valet's entire life, counting tips and multiplying by forever. I had the heater on all the way up here, to get me in the mood. It's still on, and I'm still in the mood, but for something else now. I let it drop to a throaty purr, then rev it again, and decide to see how fast I can make it go. Peeling out of the parking lot like a bat out of a cliché, I rip down side streets, jump sidewalks, slip, slide, skid, screech. I endanger my fellow citizens, treating stoplights like suggestions, recklessing my way to the nearest unlit two-lane.
Where am I going? That's easy. Out. I'm going out. Preferably, with a bang. I've already disabled the air bags and removed the safety belts because, well, I've been going through this little midlife crisis for some time now. So far, I've been leaving it to chance, but...
Sometimes, when it's raining, when the heater's cranked up all the way and I'm really going fast, I'll let go of the wheel. It's exciting. It's an attention getter. It feels like something, instead of the nothing I usually feel. It feels like the Hope and Promise of Death as opposed to this night after night of longing for all those things I've given up to be bored forever. It's the out I'm going for; it's a plan, an exit strategy.
And then I see it.
Sizzling along in my bright red crisis, looking for something I can't name because everything I can name bores me senseless, I see it. A wisp. Just a single white wisp coming out of the darkness along the road. I skid to a stop, fishtailing into the oncoming lane. I look in my rearview mirror. Wait. And there it is again another clean white puff swirling away in the cold and rain. I put the car in reverse and crawl slowly back to what I imagine is just a wounded dog, breathing out its last breath at the side of the road. I park and get out, waiting for another frightened plume to point me in the right direction. I say "frightened," because it seems that whatever the breather is, it's been holding its breath ever since I stopped the car.
The road I'm on passes through woods evergreens, mainly. Pines. My crisis prefers rural settings, what with their narrow lanes and no lighting, no police, no pesky Samaritans, should the not-unforeseeable happen. It's definitely not the trees that have brought me out this way, whether evergreen or never-green or whatnot. Except for the antisocial demands of my crisis, I'm basically a city vampire. But I do know a thing or two about pines. And one of those things is:
Pine trees do not have tiny bare feet with tiny toes curling, trying to get a better grip on the muddy earth. They don't have blotchy pink legs, either, trembling from the cold, speckled here and there with something dark mud, maybe, or...
"Hello?" I say, brushing aside the branches of the pedestrian conifer in front of me. And there she is, my little escapee from statistics, a still-warm-inside, mouth-breathing fog maker. A mortal, which is rare enough, but a child, too. A real child not the freak show kind I stumbled here to escape. She's plump in that baby fat way. Good veins. Farm raised, I'm guessing. From one of those farms that officially "don't exist" but do. A free-range bleeder who's gotten a bit too free.
And all for me. A little going-away present from the world, on this, my maybe-last night.
She's wearing one of those retro "Got Milk?" T-shirts. The ones the Screamers think are funny, or sexy, or appealing to a maternal instinct that's also retro, and getting more so all the time. She's got blond hair. It's been gathered up into a pair of asymmetrical ponytails that look like they were done quickly, and mainly to get the hair out of her face and into a couple of manageable clumps. A few loose strands hang down, heavy from the rain, clinging to her face and shoulders. Her thumb's in her mouth, her eyes squeezed tight, her whole body shivering. The dark stuff on her legs speckles the rest of her as well. And now that I'm closer, I can smell it:
Plasma and platelets and coagulating coagulants, but not hers. There aren't any wounds big enough, nothing fresh gurgling out. Still, she was standing right next to whatever bled like this. Judging from the spatter, I'd say it was an arterial bleed, some major trauma that this little one apparently just walked away from.
Gently, I pull her thumb from her mouth, uncorking another plume of white. "Hello," I say. Again.
"Don't eat me," the little girl cries.
Now, I hate to quibble, but this is one of my pet peeves. Vampires do not eat little girls. We don't eat people, period. At least not in the chewing sense. We relieve them of their blood supplies, which involves biting, or cutting, or puncturing, but we don't bite anything off. We don't masticate, or grind with our grinders. Not that I'd mind feeling my teeth click through a pinched inch or so of well-fed neck flesh, especially now, but that'd be gratuitous; it'd be showing off and it's just not something that's done. Not anymore. Not in polite society. It's like that bumper sticker I hate "Chews Life"? No a proper vampire never chews. A civilized vampire sucks get it straight.
Of course, I don't imagine that these distinctions will mean much to the little mortal quivering in front of me. The difference between being eaten or just sucked dry is pretty much semantic, especially if you're the one on the menu. And so I don't quibble. Instead, I ask, "Why not?"
"I don't taste good," she says.
As if drinking blood is something you do for the taste! I have to smile, and so I do. "Oh yeah," I say. "Why's that?"
"I'm spoiled," the little girl cries. "Mommy says...," followed by sobs in place of whatever it is Mommy says. Or said, I assume past tense. I also assume that Mommy's being past tense explains all that blood covering her frightened little girl. The one who's too old to be sucking her thumb but is back at it again, sucking and sobbing, sobbing and sucking.
The word for "human female parent" in almost every language on earth starts with an m. Mom, mater, madonna, madre. It's usually the first word spoken by a child, and is rooted in the sound made while suckling. And that's what it's all about our language, our relationships, our being at its very core; we suck, therefore we are. And the world is forever divided into the suckers and the sucked upon. It's always been that way; we me and my vampire friends just made it a little more literal.
"So, you're spoiled, eh?"
She nods her head. I pull out her thumb.
"Is Mommy dead?"
She looks at her feet. Her thumb, like a heat-seeking missile, starts heading back for her mouth. I stop it in midtrajectory, my big cold hand cupping her tiny warm one. "Don't," I say.
A minute goes by with nothing much to fill it but the sound of rain steadily shushing through the needles of the trees surrounding us. I still have her hand in my hand, can feel its borrowed heat invading my fingers, crawling just a bit up my wrist, and then stopping. It's when my hand starts feeling like a human's when my hand starts feeling like her own that's when my pleasant little surprise finally looks up at me with something less than terror in her eyes.
"What's your name?" I ask.
"No, your real name," I say. And that does it; that's what makes her snap.
"It is," she demands. "Isuzu Trooper Cassidy," she repeats recites pulling her hand away from mine, her thumb folding back into its fist. "Like it or lump it," she announces quoting, I'm sure, whatever brain thought of naming a little girl after a gas guzzler.
I laugh I can't help it; this little human is just so...human. Even soaked to the bone, even covered in blood, and standing next to a vampire twice her size, there is only so much shit she's willing to put up with, and getting grief over her name is at the top of the list.
"What's so funny?" she demands, about two seconds away from stomping my toes or kicking my shins. Or so I think.
"You are," I say, casually preparing myself to fend off whatever pathetic attempt my little sport utility might make at defending her mortal dignity.
Of course, it hasn't been my night for making the right call. So:
She nails me.
Right as I'm reaching to tousle her blood-clotted hair, the little brat whips out a twelve-inch bread knife with faux ivory handle and plants it in my solar plexus. Where the knife came from, I have no idea. Somewhere behind her. Somewhere I wasn't looking. Maybe the more important question is why I wasn't expecting her to be armed. Did I imagine that baby bees don't have stingers? She's a mortal in a world full of vampires, for Christ's sake. In her shoes, I'd be packing every kind of heat imaginable. Silver bullets, garlic, holy water you name it. Not that any of that stuff would do any good. Real vampires can't turn into bats or fly, but we're also not a crucifix away from turning into bone and ash. No, if you want to kill us, you've got to get the head, or the heart, or trap us outside when the sun comes up. And that's it. That's your A, B, or C when it comes to vampires and our killability.
But back to Isuzu and her kitchen knife. Out it comes, and in it goes slurp-thunk like that first good stab into a ripe melon. That's the noise we vampires make when we get stabbed where I'm stabbed just below the belly button, and just above the fun stuff. Isuzu's just so high to begin with, and even when she's holding the knife over her head with both hands and going up on tiptoes, my belt line is as close to my heart as she's going to get.
Fortunately, there's not much down there anymore. The virus or whatever it is that makes vampires cold and bloodthirsty, that turns our skin pasty white and our eyeballs midnight black the same thing rearranges our indoor plumbing. We don't have much of a digestive system, especially below what used to be our stomachs. The blood is absorbed directly into the bloodstream by the tongue, the membranes of the mouth, and the esophagus. As a result, a vampire taking in blood isn't so much like a mortal drinking coffee as like a cocaine addict doing a line. It's just a matter of biological efficiency a way of mixing the old and new blood as quickly as possible without actually poking holes into our veins.
Not that getting stabbed where I'm stabbed doesn't hurt. It does. It does for me, at least. Whether through dumb luck or the regular kind, Isuzu's managed to find my last scar, the site of my last, very nearly mortal wound. Every vampire has such a scar, and it's one of the few places on any of us where you can still inflict for-real pain pain without killing us. Some call it a vaccination scar, others, their second navel. But the flesh remembers and we don't give up the location of our last scars easily if we've any choice in the matter, if we can hide it with our hair or cover it with a turtleneck.
So, when I wince pulling out the knife, it's for real. I'm not playacting. Not about that, at least. Where the real acting comes in is my acting like I don't mind, like I don't plan on getting even. But I do. My little Happy Meal stabbed me with every intention of doing grave bodily harm, and it's the thought that counts. And what I'm thinking is this:
Not now. Not when it'd be easy for me to snap, and for her neck to snap right along with it. No. Immediate gratification is overrated, anyway. Plus, her adrenal gland's probably wrung out. The fact that a five- or six-year-old mortal girl who's only so high could get a knife to stick into me all the way to the hilt...yeah, there was some adrenaline working overtime. But she's on the downslope now. I can tell that by the way her breath puffs are coming out, by the way she's just standing there, letting her skin hang on to her bones like a marionette hanging on to its strings. And I hate stale adrenaline; it's got that scared-past-being-scared aftertaste.
So, no. Not now. Later's better. Later, when she'll least expect it. Later, when I can scare out something fresh, when it'll be more...
And just like that, it hits me. This is why I've been depressed. This is what I've been missing. The coffee, the chocolate, the peeing, and canned peaches red herrings. You want a real clue to the psychology of the modern vampire? It's this: we're cats. We're feral cats who've been forced inside. We need to play with our food before killing it, but can't. The world's full of kibble no problems there but there are no birds, no mice, not even small lizards to hunt, catch, play with, and kill. Nothing to kill, not even to save our lives. Nothing legal, at least.
That's kind of where I am have been, for years.
And the whole rest of the world's been there with me, whether they know it or not. We've been taken care of. We're well fed. We suck on bottles of blood, sip it from snifters, tip back mugs and cups and glasses and not a damned one of them ever puts up a struggle. Not a damned one ever feels quite right. Sure, they spike the bottled stuff with adrenaline, but lab-grown versus the real thing is like Tang next to fresh-squeezed.
And look at me Mr. Lucky. I just found myself a real live orange.
Not that I say anything. Not that I let that particular cat out of the bag. Nope. Instead:
"I believe this is yours," I say, handing over the knife like a maître d' the wine list.
Copyright © 2004 by David Sosnowski