Ray told the bartender to call a cab while he wrote the check. I assured my ex-classmate that I’d call him as soon as I had any information. He walked me back to the front entrance and dug two twenties out of the register. I saw a worried look cross the sunny redhead’s face.
“It’s an advance on my pay,” I told her. I didn’t want her to think she’d done anything wrong. Ray, with a little less subtlety, told her that if I was to come through the door, I was to come right in – no cover charge. I got a bigger smile from her then. To my slight surprise, Ray walked down the steps to the door and spoke to one of the bouncers. When the bouncer glanced up at me, I waved. I’d just been given the way around the velvet rope. Ray and I shook hands as he passed, and once again I assured him I’d keep in touch.
Guessing I had a few minutes before a cab arrived, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and flipped it open. I stored only nine numbers inside – only nine people I thought highly enough of to keep in memory. Well, actually, there were eight people. The ninth number didn’t ring a phone anywhere in this dimension, and I’d tried it only the one time.
Then there was her. She would have been the tenth, but she didn’t have any one number.
I called the first number in memory – Billy Sticks. It rang several times and went to voicemail. I left him a brief message to call me and flipped my phone shut. I thought a moment. Billy never went anywhere without his phone, unless he was on a spiritual jaunt of some sort. He was a dabbler in religion; he tried them on like some people tried on clothing. If I didn’t hear from him within a minute or two, he might be on a kibbutz or in a sweat lodge someplace.
“Mr. Black.” I glanced up. The bouncer at the door signaled to me. “Your cab is outside.”
I hurried down the stairs and thanked him as I went past. The light rain continued to fall. I jogged into the street toward the Yellow Cab idling there. The warmly glowing sign atop it informed me that Fiero Grill in Deville Square was the place to go for fine seafood. I climbed inside.
Billy hadn’t responded yet. He still could, but if he didn’t, I might be able to find out where he was from his mother – and she refused to keep a phone. I could always change my destination.
“Seriously?” The driver turned to face me.
“Mind if I get a little up front?”
I handed him one of the twenties Ray had given me to replace the ones I’d already spent. Easy go, easy go.
The ride from Branscombe to the Park took fifteen minutes and a bite out of the other twenty. He took me inside, but informed me that he wouldn’t wait for me. I didn’t blame him; Sundown Park was one of the city’s nastiest, and some said dangerous, tenement projects. Billy Sticks’ mother lived there. She’d lived there for thirty years, and though he’d offered to move her several times, she refused to go. I’d even made the offer once, when I was flush. She told me that there were good people and bad people everywhere, and she couldn’t see the point of moving to an area where she didn’t know which was which.
I climbed up to her second story apartment and rapped on her door. Her hearing was as sharp as a teenager’s, so I didn’t have to yell to announce myself.
“Come in, Martin,” she said, flinging the door open.
“Thank you. How are you, Mama Stickley?” She insisted that all of her callers refer to her like that. She was an elegant old lady, one of the type I wish there was more of. Plus, for all the crap that I’d put Billy through, she never hated me. I often wondered how much she kept from her.
“Doing good,” she said. She closed the door. “Tea?”
“Yes, ma’am, I’d love some.” You didn’t refuse Mama – and you called her “ma’am.”
Her apartment was small. The kitchen, dining room, and living room all merged into each other. She entertained her guests at an antique table in the middle of the combined room. The TV wasn’t on; it never was when I had come by. Instead, a radio in the kitchen played something by an old gospel quartet. I took a seat at the table and waited for her to bring the tea. I didn’t offer to help. She’d refuse, and we’d spend several minutes arguing over how a hostess should treat her guests. I also knew better than to talk business until tea was served. Instead, she asked how I was doing. I responded with pleasant vagaries, and she replied with gentle commiseration.
“You looking for Billy, I assume,” she said, only after setting the tea tray on the table and pouring me a cup. I waited for her to sit and pour herself one. We both drank it hot and unadulterated.
“Yes, ma’am. I called him and haven’t heard back. Any idea where he is?”
“I have every idea,” she said, setting down her cup. “He’s at the church.”
“Our church – Eternal Grace. Billy’s come to the church.”
“Billy’s come to Jesus?”
“Don’t be smart. I won’t have it.” Her voice was sharp, but mellowed quickly. “He’s always been with Jesus. Just that he and the Lord haven’t been too close lately. He decided it was time to get right.”
“Did something happen?”
“He heard the word, Martin. That’s all a person ever needs.” She didn’t answer the question I asked, and I knew she wouldn’t. If something bad had happened to cause his crisis-that-led-to-faith, she wasn’t going to share it with me. I could respect that.
“At your heart, Martin, you’re a decent man. That doesn’t mean I have to like what Billy does for you, or what he does for some other folks. I like it when you come around here, but I know you only come around when you’re looking for him. And you only look for him when you need him. What is it this time?”
“I’m not sure,” I lied to her. “Someone or something is stalking innocent victims of a new client. I thought if it got rough…” I didn’t need to finish. Mama knew how good her son was in a fight. Eight years in the marines had honed what a childhood in the Park had created.
“I’ll tell you truthfully: if you were to ask him for help now, he’d probably give it. But I hope you won’t. Billy could use more time with the Lord of Light, and less time with the little dukes of hell that seem to plague you. I won’t ask you, though. I’ll just tell you that if you need him, you just have to go to the church.”
“That’s it. And between you and me, a little of that would do you a world of good, too.”
* * *
I finished my tea and left Mama Stickley’s apartment. The light rain refused to quit, spattering the ground as I began to walk out of Sundown Park. The cabs might drop off there, but they wouldn’t pick up.
I didn’t like lying to Mama, but in all the visits I’d made to her I’d not once heard her broach the subject of sex. I didn’t know if she was a prude, or simply didn’t like discussing it, but it made me decidedly uncomfortable. There was no way to discuss vampires without discussing sex.
Vampires, regardless of the type, are sexual creatures. They all drained life energy, but through different means – all of them invasive and intimate. There were some that would do it only during the sex act, and some that could steal it simply through a prolonged touch. In any case, the creature took something that belonged to someone else by force or coercion. Intimacy was their stock in trade. In some ways, vampires were little different than frat rats with pockets full of roofies or slick-mickeys. The difference – generally – was that vampires usually drained the victims completely, leaving only the empty corpse behind. It was a strange form of rape, followed by the standard form of murder.
Granted, I’d never run across a real vampire, or even knew of someone who had, but they showed up from time to time. CNN would run a story about a vampire being found in San Francisco, or Paris, or Capetown a couple of times a year. By and large, they were inhumanly strong, fast, and willing to do anything to remain hidden. But they died like anything else. All the bits about wooden stakes, garlic, and beheadings only referred to the ancient ones – vampyrs. One of my ex-friends, Astrid Sorenson, used to refer to them as vampyrus classicus. The last known vampyr was killed eighty-some years ago in New Orleans, though there were rumors that one had been hunted and killed in Kiev about fifteen years ago. But unless our local crime-labbers were complete idiots, they wouldn’t have failed to notice the complete lack of blood in the models’ bodies, and most likely, the rips and tears where their necks had been ripped open.
To find the vampire, I’d need to find his Judas goat – his agent. Based on everything I’d ever heard or read, vampires were traditionalists. They worked at night and needed someone to watch over them during the day. Since most of them didn’t look human, they also needed the goat to help find their prey. In that way, the goat acted as a sort of procurer and bodyguard both. In return, the goat usually received a bit of the vampire’s power. Even without their host, this made them extremely dangerous.
Hunting down a Judas goat was going to be no easy task, and almost impossible to do alone. I was going to need help for this. If Mama was right, and Billy had had his come-to-Jesus moment and wasn’t in the business anymore, I’d need to find someone else. Astrid wasn’t talking to me any longer, not since that mess in Birmingham. I could look for the Gilman brothers, but in all honesty, I genuinely hated them and often wished them dead. That’s not a smart thing to do when dealing with the undead. There was always her, but she hadn’t taken any of my calls during the last few weeks, and there was no way to know when she would again. I knew she eventually would; she always eventually did, but it would be on her schedule.
It took ten minutes to walk from Mama’s apartment to Lexington. I was fairly well drenched before I was able to flag down a Yellow. Like the other cab, the sign atop it spoke highly of Fiero Grill.
Deville Square. There was someone there I could call.
“Where to?” The black cabbie asked me, his Creole accent thick.
“Deville Square,” I told him, shaking the rain off onto his vinyl seat.
“No. I can’t eat seafood,” I cheerfully lied. “It makes me break out in hives, gives me gas. Sends me to the hospital. Take me to the north side – Banagon’s Books.”
“Fair enough.” He punched a button on the meter and pulled into traffic. Tires hissed on the pavement as he shot the old Regal up to speed and aimed for the far left lane.
I yanked my cell phone out of my pocket, flipped it open, and dialed information. I got the number for the bookstore and waited as they connected me.
“Banagon’s Books! We Take Life One Page at a Time! My name’s Dean! How may I help you?”
“Charlie Townshend working today?”
“Yeah, he sure is! Do you need to speak to him?”
“No. I’ll be there in a few minutes. Got a manuscript for him to look at.”
“Great! He should be here when you arrive!”
“Thanks, Dean!” His exclamation points were contagious. I shut the phone and tapped it against my chin. I glanced up. We’d turned up Peterborough and were racing through greens and yellows toward Lake. As the raven flew, I wasn’t any more than a few blocks from Banagon’s, but I didn’t want to get any wetter. I shifted my look from the road to the mirror. The cabbie was watching me in the rear-view again.
“Did you watch the game?” he asked.
No, I didn’t watch the game. And if I had, I couldn’t think of anything quite as boring as rehashing it a day or two later.
“Yeah, hell of a thing, wasn’t it?” I told him.
“Damn right it was.”
“Hey,” I leaned forward. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve got to make another call. Okay?”
“No problem.” The cabbie glanced back again at me and then focused on the road.
I had only the nine numbers in the phone, and then there was her. I decided it was time to see if she was listening. I opened the phone again. Without touching a single button, I raised the phone and spoke into it:
“Mari, it’s Martin. I’m going by Banagon’s Books in a few minutes. Then I thought I’d go by the Brew House in half an hour, maybe forty-five minutes. You want to join me for coffee? I might need your expertise.” I stopped. I never knew what else to say to her. “Um, I hope you get this.” I flipped the phone closed and shoved it into my coat pocket. I slouched into the seat, uncomfortable – mostly from the rain.
“She not there?” The cabbie was looking at me again.
“Wish to hell I knew,” I told him.
Chapter Three - "Regret" - Coming Soon!