This is the next bit in our still-as-yet-unnamed saga. If you want more information than that, you'll need to check out the first two chapters. I am still interested in anyone else's idea for a better title. All suggestions are welcome!
Let me know what you think; I genuinely do enjoy hearing from you readers!
Chapter Three – Regret
I left the cab, pulled up my collar to keep the rain off my neck. If serendipity provided, Mari might already be here. The city’s semi-famous shopping district, with its bookstores and cafes, coffee shops and boutiques, was one of her favorite haunts. She read every word she could get her hands on and loved to sit and watch the passersby on the sidewalks. Her passion for watching and reading was matched only by her love of coffee; it was as if she lived on it. Fact is she might actually be living on it. I could never be sure. In so many ways we were exactly alike, except for that one thing.
I passed the fountain in the center of the square, pockmarked with precipitation. I thought about dropping a coin while making a wish, but I didn’t know what to wish for. Besides, those things rarely came true.
Hidden speakers played jazz near Banagon’s side door, something from the Blue Note catalog, perhaps. I slipped inside; Dean was behind the counter. He apologized, explaining that Charlie had been called away. I asked where he was.
“Off to see a manuscript, he said! I’m sorry!”
He didn’t seem to be lying and I didn’t press him.
“I’m going over to Brew Mountain. Can I get you anything?” I asked. It also paid to be polite to bookstore employees. You never knew what they knew.
“Why thank you! But no, sir, I picked up a chai latte earlier!”
“Okay. When Charlie comes back, tell him Martin Black stopped by.”
“Happy to, Mr. Black! Is there a message?”
“That should do it.”
When I reached Brew Mountain, I wished I’d wished for an empty table. The umbrellas were open on the patio and all the chairs were taken. A line had formed under the overhang. I didn’t know the owner, so pushing my way to the front here was no option.
I claimed my place in line. The speakers here played something European, maybe some of that German haunted-hausmusik I’d never warmed to. Digging my iPod out of my coat, I plugged the buds into my ears. Thirty seconds or so into my New Order playlist, the volume dropped by half.
I hadn’t touched the controls.
“You are so predictable.” The voice in my ears didn’t belong to Bernard Sumner of New Order, or any other vocalist in my collection, but I knew it well. Mari was nearby. I didn’t bother to answer, and I didn’t bother to look for her.
“What do you have there? Lots of New Order, the Church, Sisters of Mercy, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Echo and the Bunnymen…oh! Is that for me?”
“Yes.” I spoke to empty air. If she was close enough to read the data, she might be close enough to hear me.
“The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus…Martin, if I didn’t know better I’d say you’d almost been bitten by the Nü-Gothic bug, too.”
“It’s gloom pop,” I said. “A little bit of Goth – real, old Goth, and a bit of techno.”
“Hmm. All that music, black jeans and that t-shirt; you must be feeling moody.”
“I’m feeling nostalgic.”
“You’re a human nostalgia attack.” Her voice again came through the buds. She stepped out of the rain, all damp hair and dimples. She swiped an unruly lock out of her face and smiled at me. Like the rest of her, her teeth were perfect. I had seen every inch of her, from the top of her head to the soles of her feet, and I could swear she was perfect. Unlike most men, I didn’t have to exaggerate about the woman I loved.
She grabbed the earbud cord, not hard enough to yank them from my ears, and pulled me out of line, back into the drizzle.
“Dance with me.” She smiled and I heard her voice over the music again.
“I don’t want to dance in the rain.”
“Dance with me, Martin.” The music volume returned, her voice vanished. She took my hand and began to move. She swayed, she turned, she coiled and uncoiled herself. Turning away from me, she threw back her head so I could see the rain running down her face, alighting on her smile.
I smiled back, but I did not dance. Releasing my hand, both arms in motion, her sinuous form moved, her back and shoulders in a wave; for a moment she was dance itself. I watched, never wondering who else saw.
She stopped, turned, and yanked the buds from my ears.
“You’re no fun sometimes.”
“I don’t want to lose our place in line.”
“I already have a table.” She grabbed my hand again and led me to the patio. She did have a table, with her mocha latte and my cappuccino waiting. I glanced around. I was certain I would have noticed her sitting there.
She bounded into her own chair as I took my seat on the damp wrought-iron. The coffee had just begun to cool. I sipped. She hadn’t been waiting long.
“It’s good to see you, and yes, I got your call,” she said.
“I can never tell, you know.”
“I know. Sorry about Charlie. That was me, too.”
“You called him?”
“No. I overheard a phone conversation; some lady in Hampton acquired an original Hammett manuscript and wanted someone to take a look at it.”
“I know how Charlie loves those old crime novelists, so I just made the connection for them.”
I sipped my coffee and gazed at Mari. She had no other name that we knew of, though she adopted one from time to time. She looked the same now as when I first met her and she would always look the same. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties and of some Oriental/Caucasian mix – dark hair, petite features, and the smallest epicanthic folds at her eyes. We’d met ten years ago, when I was 30 and she was 3 years old.
“Do you really need my help, or are you just thinking about our time together, the Echo concert, things like that?”
I thought a minute.
“Yes to all of it.”
“I also overheard you trying to reach Billy. I know you only call on him when you need muscle. When you called the bookstore, I knew you’d be coming this way.” She reached across the table and took my hand in both of hers. “But I like that you still called me directly.”
Mari and I had been a couple for about two years. I still desire her, there’s no question about that. I loved her wholly – something I couldn’t say about anyone else. But even acknowledging those feelings allowed disappointment and regret to slip in. She liked me, liked being with me; I was certain of that. But she didn’t love me, and she couldn’t – or wouldn’t – try to hide it. I looked up from her hand to her face and swept the unruly lock away, tucking it behind her ear. When I brushed the back of my fingers against her cheek, she closed her eyes and pushed back against them. The shudder of my spine was an old friend and an unwelcome intruder. I pretended I needed to warm my hand on the coffee cup. She opened her eyes, but kept her head in the same slightly canted position.
“I went to school with a man named Ray Fletcher,” I told her, leaning close. “He owns Club Houngan. A vampire is using it as a feeding ground. Three models have been killed there in the past few months.”
Mari’s eyes widened and she gazed up into space. She’d affected this pose as long as I knew her. She had hijacked Brew Mountain’s bandwidth and was searching for information. In less time than it takes to explain, she finished and focused her gaze on me.
“There’s nothing about that out there at all.”
“He’s been paying bribes to keep it quiet. He’s hired me to track down the vampire and put it down.”
“To save himself the bad publicity or to avoid paying the bribes?”
“Both. Probably also to keep the young women from being killed, but frankly that’s not the highest on his list of priorities.”
“A vampire is going to very difficult. I see why you’re looking for help.”
“Tell me what you need,” she said. Before I could react, she grabbed my hand and kissed a badly-scarred knuckle. I stifled a gasp and did my best not to look around. It’s not that I minded looking like we were together, but the increasing age difference made it appear that I was getting the better part of the deal by far.
“I need to find the vampire’s Judas goat.” I gave her a moment to search for the term; there was no reason to explain. When she nodded, I continued. “Charlie’s got the best Real Occult section in town. I thought I’d start with him.”
“That makes sense. I also see why you called Billy first. But what about me?”
“This might be a modern vampire, or a modern Judas. Either one could be using the net, social media, or some other mass communication to track down these girls. He’s picky. He’s taken only models, but they’ve all been little known – some runway work, a few lad-mag pictorials, that kind of thing.”
“You need me for that?”
“Can you think of anyone better? Can anyone else eavesdrop on phone calls and skim bandwidth while enjoying a latte?”
“Oh, I hope not. This is a terrible cross I carry.”
“So am I. I can do all that. I can look for search patterns focusing on models, Club Houngan, blood, the occult, any of that. But you could use Typhoon Search to do it too, if you’d pay that overdue bill. I could still do that for you.”
“No. Do it once, and I don’t think I’d be able to stop. I love you and your abilities, Mari, but please don’t offer me free money.”
“I still owe you.”
“No you don’t. You’ve repaid me many times over.”
“No, I haven’t.” She leaned forward. “I can do this, but it’ll take a few hours to do a really deep scan of past search patterns – and I want something in return.”
“One concert – my choice, whenever and wherever I want, and you will dance.”
“You know I can’t dance.”
“You can, but you won't.”
“We’ll see about that part, but as to the rest – yes.”
“Good. Charlie just called the store. He’s coming back now. The manuscript was fake. A very excited young man named Dean just gave him your name. Do you want to hear what Charlie said?” She didn’t give me time to answer. “He said, ‘Oh God, what now?’”
I chuckled; I admit it. Before I could say anything, she continued:
“I’m going to go take care of this, and while I’m gone I want you to think about something.”
She leaned even closer, until our faces were just inches apart.
“I can’t love you, Martin. But I like being with you and I like the things we do together. I appreciate the years we had. Let me assure you that I very much enjoyed being in bed with you.”
“I liked all of that, too.”
“I’m not done. That was the human way of expressing how I feel about you. Now let me give you the way I could say it: it was never programmed into me to be able to love – not you, not anyone. Being with you, doing things with you stimulates me to my core processors. I have vast amounts of memory set aside for our time together, and fairly often I access those memories and relive them. When you touch me, my sensory receptors flare up from the stimuli. Sometimes I have to turn them down, and sometimes – like when you touched my cheek earlier – I turn them up.”
“Why do you say it like that?”
“Because that’s how you see me – as an artificial life form, and not as a person. If you continue to think of me that way, that’s how I can act.”
“That’s not what I think.”
“Yes, it is. I can give you the words of love, but you and I both know that they’d be false. So I show you love, and you can’t accept it. For a human, you have a very narrow definition of love. You need to broaden it, learn to accept it when it’s offered.”
“What do you mean?”
She sighed, leaned forward, and placed a kiss on my lower lip.
“Sometimes, you idiot, love is a dance in the rain.” With that, she stood and bounded away.
I didn’t follow her; I finished my coffee instead. I left, dropping the crumpled cup in the basket. A minute later, I dug into my pocket and stopped in the middle of Deville Square. I opened my hand and let the coins splash into the rain-speckled fountain.