Niles Gule clawed his talons into the Fiat’s grab bar when the tiny car careened across two lanes on I-95, nearly taking out a Ford and a Honda.
“Eyes on the road!” he yelped. “Hands on the wheel!”
His partner on the Baltimore Police Force, Mariella Cruz, brushed him a scathing look while her thumb accepted the incoming text. She propped her knee up to control the Fiat as they barreled down the highway at eighty miles an hour.
“So that makes it okay to get us both killed?”
After giving her vampire partner a sneer, Cruz grasped the steering wheel with her left hand and opened the text with her right. Meanwhile, Niles licked his bottom lip where he’d dug his fangs into it in panic. He breathed easier when his little Latina lightning bug edged to the slowest lane and set the car on cruise control.
“Happy?” she queried.
Niles growled low in his throat but didn’t answer.
His breath was cut off when Cruz slammed on the brakes, shoving him into his shoulder harness. He was so unprepared, he lost his grip on the bar and ripped a talon from one of his long, slender fingers.
“What the hell, Cruz?” Sucking on his finger, he glared at her, his brilliant blue eyes momentarily shifting to angry yellow before he forced himself to calm down.
Cruz waved her phone at him. “She’s been arrested!”
“Your mom?” Niles found that hard to believe. Mama Cruz was a large, warm-hearted marshmallow who’d raised six children alone after bringing them to America. He doubted she’d ever even taken a questionable tax deduction.
“By the TSA.” Cruz planted her foot on the accelerator and crammed into a space between a car and truck. She got off at the BWI exit and surged towards the airport.
“Why was she at the airport?” Niles asked.
“She’s flying down to Miami to visit my aunt Inez.” Cruz’s voice shook with worry. “What could she have done to get herself arrested?”
Niles had no answer. He could only hang on while she wove through traffic at one hundred miles per hour.
Cruz used her police credentials to obtain parking in the security lot and took off for the terminal. Six-foot-six Niles had no difficulty keeping up with the scurrying little woman who took three strides to one of his but he admitted she could cover ground when she had a mind. They reached the United departures terminal within minutes and headed for the TSA area.
There they found four large, uniformed men and a beefy uniformed woman surrounding a defiant-looking Mama Cruz. At the sight of her daughter, she rammed past her squadron of guards and threw her doughy arms around Cruz. As she squeezed the life out of her baby girl, her dark eyes ran appreciatively over Niles and she gave him a happy grin.
Cruz freed herself from her mother while Niles flashed his detective’s badge to calm down the TSA officers.
“What happened?” he asked.
The officer hefted a canvas bag onto a table. As he dug into its depths, he explained, “The scanner turned up some contraband materials. The lady became agitated, and we determined she was a danger to the public, so we removed her and her bag from the gate area.”
“What sort of contraband?” Cruz frowned at her mother in question.
Mama Cruz shrugged.
The TSA pulled his hand from the bag. In it he gripped three large kitchen knives.
“Mom!” Cruz propped her hands on her hips in disbelief. “Why would you carry knives onto a plane?”
Sensing her daughter was going to explode, Mama Cruz edged towards Niles who was always calm in any situation. She shrugged again. “Because Inez said she didn’t have any at her apartment. How am I supposed to make my famous taquitos if I don’t have knives to chop up the ingredients?”
Cruz slapped her hand to her forehead. “She doesn’t have knives because she’s got dementia. She tried to stab the mailman in June. We took them all away from her.”
Mama Cruz turned pleading eyes to Niles. “You see my problem, yes?” she asked. She blinked adoringly at the vampire.
Niles glanced at the angry TSA agents. “I really can’t help you here, Senora Cruz. This is a federal issue.”
The Mexican-American marshmallow oozed up alongside him and rubbed her cheek against his arm. “You can help. You can resolve everything!”
Cruz’s mouth dropped open when she realized her mother was right. With her eyes, she tried to convey to him, do something. Niles glared back no, only to have her double down her glare and demand yes.
With a roll of his eyes, Niles considered the TSA agents. As a vampire, Niles possessed the preternatural ability to mesmerize his prey. He could convince them of pretty much anything, including letting Mama Cruz off with a warning.
Fixing them in the eye one by one, he transmitted a signal to soothe them into compliance. He could see one after another softening. While he worked his magic, he gestured at Cruz to get Mama Cruz out of there before they came to.
The lead agent murmured, “She’s obviously made a mistake and is clearly not a terrorist. I think we can let her go.”
Looking bemused, the other two men nodded, their expressions blank.
Cruz started herding Mama towards the exit but before she’d gone five steps, the female TSA agent blocked her path.
“Just one minute,” the woman said in a baritone. “The knives are one thing. Those I can understand. It’s the rest of her contraband I have a problem with. And the reason she was taking it on the plane.”
Niles and Cruz turned questioning eyes to the agent and Mama Cruz.
The agent thrust a set of knitting needles at them.
Niles frowned. “What’s the problem? They’re knitting needles.”
The woman nodded, her face dark and glowering. “Yes, sir. And she admitted it.”
Niles raised his hands. “So?”
“So, we can’t allow her on a plane. She was going to use them to knit an Afghan.”
With long, graceful strides, Niles Gule strode along the sidewalk through the deepening gloom of early evening in Baltimore. The neighborhood in which he walked proclaimed itself lower middle income. Individual bungalows sat on small lots decorated with tired, ill-tended shrubs and trees as if the homes’ owners were simply too exhausted at the end of a day to care for their properties. Because none of the homes possessed garages, cars littered the street that evening, indicating most people were home for the night.
The vampire’s stomach growled with hunger. Being a vampire, Niles was always hungry. A primordial need to hunt for iron-rich blood forever consumed him. He’d merely, after four years of living amid a human population, taught himself to ignore the pangs. Tonight, however, he’d deliberately forgone grabbing dinner at his apartment on Lombard Street before heading out. Because tonight was poker night at Walter Cooksey’s house.
Once a month on a Saturday, certain members of the night shift of the police department gathered at Cooksey’s for a rousing, sometimes contentious, game of poker. And while little, balding, overweight Cooksey struggled with pretty much everything in life, he possessed one special skill. Cooksey could cook.
Niles licked his lips at the thought of the spread his co-worker would offer his guests as he trotted up the walk to the man’s front door.
Cars crowded around the corner lot, indicating most of the crew had arrived before Niles. Not surprising given Niles had never learned to drive a car and therefore walked virtually everywhere unless his partner Cruz gave him a lift. However, tonight was guys’ night. No Cruz allowed.
Niles rapped on the door through which he could hear the babble of voices.
The door wrenched open, and Niles found himself looking Jonas Williams in the eye.
“Evening, Jonas,” he greeted.
The giant man stepped aside. “Evening, Ghoul. Ready to get your pockets picked?”
Niles shrugged. “I came loaded for bear, Jonas. I challenge you to send me home poorer than I arrived.”
“Deal!” grunted the police officer. He closed the door on the impending night.
Inside the small house, pandemonium reigned. A baseball game blared from the giant LCD television in the den. The Orioles, as usual, were getting shellacked. Men elbowed for room in the tiny kitchen as they descended like a hoard of locusts on Cooksey’s spread. John Krewelski stomped up from the basement with a brimming mug of freshly tapped beer. DeShawn Jackson was piling a plate with beggar’s purses, a Cooksey specialty, as well as cheese, crackers, and pretzels. Jose Montez had already gathered his feast of cold shrimp, dipping sauce and a bowl of pasta salad, and had taken his traditional place at the folding table Cooksey set up in the living room.
The host of the event fluttered around his kitchen like a confused butterfly. Cooksey hustled plates of cold cuts from his fridge and arranged them too artfully for a bunch of poker obsessed men to appreciate. Then he retrieved a freshly baked cherry pie and a two-layer lemon and white chocolate cake.
Ever eager to partake in Cooksey’s spread, Niles shoved into the brawl and sniffed for his own, personal bowl. He frowned. No rich aroma of raw meat met his sensitive nose. No intriguing mix of herbs and vinegar. Where was the ceviche?
When Williams stabbed him in the back with an elbow during the scuffle, Niles asked, “Have you seen the ceviche?”
Williams scowled. “Why would I look for dead fish?” He lifted a plate of mini pizzas. “Eat real food for once, dude.”
Niles swallowed the bile that surged in his throat as he pushed the pizzas aside. “No, thank you. I prefer my food fresh.” He gazed unhappily at a counter brimming with goodies, but no special bowl.
Williams, noting the vampire’s forlorn expression, peered over the heads of his smaller co-workers to survey the spread. “Not seeing your bowl. Cooks? Did you make the Ghoul his feed?”
Cooksey darted a hasty look towards the vampire before returning his attention to arranging garnish on some deviled eggs. “No. Didn’t have time.”
Niles started, wounded. The spread for the humans was bountiful. But Cooksey couldn’t find time for a little batch of raw fish for his vampire coworker? Niles was surprised by the prick of pain that thought brought him.
Shoving Jackson aside, Williams dug into the refrigerator and straightened with a bag of raw hotdogs in his paw. He slapped it in Niles’ hand.
“Best I can do.”
Niles gazed despondently at the hotdogs. Precooked and flavored with God only knew what. Niles wasn’t a fan.
Any port in a storm, he thought morosely as he took his spot at the table.
To Niles’ surprise, Cooksey grabbed Williams’ traditional seat across the table, leaving his partner to sit where Cooksey normally did, beside Niles. The little man fussed with his plate of canapes and arranged his poker chips, never looking up at Niles.
“I appreciate the hotdogs,” Niles tendered to get Cooksey to look at him.
Cooksey shrugged and continued with his fussing.
Once Williams had settled beside him, Niles leaned close to whisper. “What’s with Walter? Why’s he acting so strange? Have I offended him?”
Williams shook his head. “Dunno. You manage to be offensive just around sitting minding your own business.” At Niles’ scowl, Williams grunted. “Before you get your shorts in a bunch, you’re not the only one who thinks he’s off. He’s been weird for a couple of weeks now. Can’t figure it out.”
Williams scratched his chin. He kept his normally booming voice low. “Twitchy. Always darting off to read secret stuff on his cellphone. Making strange comments about the world at large. Well…” he laughed, “stranger than he normally makes. He’s got a bug up his ass about the government.”
“That’s not unusual. Walter is always thinking the Deep State is out to get us.”
Williams nodded with a shrug. “True. Because it is. But this is different. Can’t explain it.”
Niles frowned and studied Cooksey, but no matter how long he looked, the host of the party avoided his eye. He refused to look at Niles at all.
“Texas hold ‘em?” Krewelski asked, shuffling the deck with practiced ease.
“Shoot,” said Jackson. He threw out a handful of chips to start the pot.
Everyone else anted and the game began.
For the first few hands, play fell into its normal rhythm. Catching a handful of nothing, Niles folded early. Williams took first pot and Krewelski the second. They booed the baseball game when the Nationals scored a triple.
“Gunna be another long year in Baltimore,” Montez complained. He chucked his hand into the pot, surrendering another loss.
Niles accepted two kings and fought to keep the yellow glow from his eyes. Finally, something to work with. While he watched the play, he tried to lure Cooksey from his shell.
“Great work on the food, Walter,” he offered as his opener.
Cooksey darted him a look of pure terror. Niles drew his breath. He was used to that look from people who didn’t know him but not from Cooksey.
Niles gentled his tone and kept trying. “Did you make the pizzas yourself?”
Cooksey gulped. “Um. Yeah.” He dropped his gaze to his cards. He’d been playing awful poker all night, hanging onto shitty hands for no reason Niles could figure. The man’s mind was simply not on the game.
Niles leveled a look at Williams who rolled his eyes.
Drawing a heavy sigh, the big man joined the hunt. “So what have you been up to, Cooks? You seem distracted.”
Cooksey’s body language remained stiff. “Same old same old. Nothing new.”
Williams accepted another card dealt by Jackson. “Why has your nose been stuck in your cellphone so much? Got a girl?”
Cooksey froze. His face went white. “No!”
Williams spread his giant paws, offering openness. “What then? Seriously. I can’t get a word out of you lately. Is that any way to treat your partner?”
Cooksey gulped. His watery blue gaze darted around the table as conversation ebbed and the others took note. “I’ve just been busy,” he muttered.
Williams wasn’t releasing the bone between his teeth. He wanted to understand the problem almost as much as Niles did. “Doing what?”
“That’s my business!”
“Not when it affects your partner and your work.”
Cooksey stiffened. “It hasn’t.”
Williams held his ground. “It has. Out with it. What’s the big secret?”
Cooksey wasn’t known for his courage, but every once in a while when his back was against a wall, he could attack like a wolverine. He did so now.
He glared at his partner. “What I do I my personal time is my business! Stay out of it!”
Williams reared back. He shot a startled look at Niles who mirrored it. He raised his hands in a placating gesture. “Ok, Cooks. Ok. No problem. I’m just worried about you.”
“Worry about yourself!” the little man snapped. He glared at Niles. “You’re the one with the damned lizard man as your friend.”
Both Niles and Williams yelped simultaneously.
“The Ghoul ain’t my friend!” Williams spouted.
“I’m not a lizard!” Niles retorted at the same moment.
Cooksey scowled at both of them. He turned his eyes back to his cards. When he laid down his hand, he had exactly nothing. He’d lost again.
Niles decided to back off. He touched Williams’ arm and gave him a warning look. Williams nodded. Grim faced, he continued with the game.
Several hours later, after Krewelski had wiped the floor with everyone, taking half the pots, they all called it a night.
As Niles stepped outside into the darkness, he was surprised when Williams took his arm. Williams never touched the vampire.
“Come on, Ghoul,” he muttered. “I’m giving you a lift.”
Startled, Niles allowed Williams to walk him to the human’s behemoth Lincoln Navigator.
As he climbed aboard, he gave Williams a look.
Williams started the truck with a roar. He turned to Niles. “We’ve got us a problem.”
Williams swallowed. “Much as I hate to admit it, I could use your help.” He flicked his hand back and forth between them. “We gotta figure out what’s with Cooks. You with me?”
Again, Niles nodded.
“Hell of a thing,” Williams muttered, putting his truck in gear. “Me and the Ghoul. Working a case about Walter Cooksey.”
Indeed, Niles thought. Sometimes fate made strange bedfellows.
Stifling a yawn that revealed not a trace of fangs, the vampire Niles Gule trailed behind his partner, Mariella Cruz, up the steps towards the tiny bungalow. His mouth was devoid of fangs because in honor of his feisty Latina love interest, he had just that morning visited the only dentist in Baltimore willing to grind off the fangs of a vampire. His mouth still throbbed, but again, in Cruz’s honor, he’d forgone his after dentistry fifth of vodka. He suspected Cruz wouldn’t appreciate him arriving at her family home staggeringly drunk.
The Cruz bungalow stood out from every other on the street. Cruz’s baby brother, Manolo, had rigged up the small house with LED lights and a computer just as he did every year. The house blazed in multicolors that danced to Christmas tunes blaring over a set of loudspeakers hidden in the bushes. When the star at the top of the house flashed in brilliant white like a beacon, Niles lurched to stop and covered his eyes, blinded.
Cruz tugged on his arm. “Come on, Niles. We’re already late.”
Unable to see, Niles gripped her hand and stumbled on, hoping the splotches of chartreus and purple behind his eyelids would settle before he reached the door.
A wave of sound crashed over them as Cruz and Niles stepped inside. The stereo system blasted a selection Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass Christmas tunes in competition with a football game on the television and the bleed of synth music from outside. Over that cacophony rang numerous voices chattering in excited Spanish. At the sight of Niles and Cruz, Momma Cruz waddled at them, her red, green, and gold muumuu floating, Christmas lightbulb earrings and necklace blinking, as she enveloped them in her huge arms.
“Carina!” she crooned, giving her only daughter a kiss on the cheek. “And Senor Niles!” She tried to grab the vampire, but Niles danced out of reach.
“Good to see you again, Senora Cruz,” he murmured.
“Always so shy, your handsome gringo, eh?” Momma Cruz clucked at her daughter. “But we are all family here! Come in! Come in! Food is almost ready!”
Niles groaned. While the entire Cruz contingent including the five brothers, numerous aunts and uncles and a handful of cousins knew Niles was a vampire, they refused to treat him like one. Instead, they wallowed under the misconception he ate everything humans did. He also didn’t understand a word of Spanish. To add insult to injury, he stood almost a foot taller than everyone else in the room and was the only blond in a sea of dark heads.
Nope, I don’t stand out at all, Niles thought with a sigh.
After suffering through conversations with Tio Ignacio and Tia Juanita, being regaled by cousin Thiago about his new internet business, and brother German’s excruciatingly tedious tales of fishing trips gone awry, Niles wished for the gathering to end. Sitting together during a meal with one’s extended family did not exist in vampire culture. That, and pushing his food around with his fork to fool the Cruzes into thinking he was eating, grew tiresome quickly.
At one point, Mariella playfully snatched food from his plate and ate it. Her dark eyes twinkled with the realization her partner was in trouble. When she thought no one was looking, especially her Momma and Tia Juanita who’d cooked the feast, she scooped the bean and corn salad into her own bowl. During another upwelling of vociferous jammering, she shifted the green ancho chili burrito from his plate to hers. Eventually, through the miracle of offloading, Niles faced an empty plate and a glowing Momma Cruz.
“You cleaned your plate!” his hostess exclaimed, her face beaming with approval.
Tia Juanita poked Niles with her fork. “Bueno! You need more meat on your bones. You’re too thin.”
Niles lifted a brow. German, sitting across the table, laughed and shook his head. He knew how his sister had assisted the vampire through the meal. He chose not to say anything.
At last, long after the sun had set, the meal ended with churros and cigarillos, in neither of which did Niles indulge. Hunger roiled his stomach, forcing the vampire to clench his fist and his aching teeth to keep from biting one of these boisterous, happy people. Reading his drooping body language, Mariella thanked her family and excused them.
“It’s been fun,” Niles said, rising. “But we have another engagement tonight.”
Mariella gazed at him with a frown between her brows, but she didn’t argue. Another twenty minutes passed while all the relatives hugged and kissed the pair.
When Momma approached Niles, he submitted to a smothering hug and a kiss on his ashen cheek.
While she held the vampire tight against her, she whispered in his ear. “I saw what you did with the food, mio carino. But I forgive you. When you make my Mari an honest girl? And when los bebes?”
Niles choked, his brilliant blue eyes wide. He gulped and stammered something, but he wasn’t sure exactly what he managed to say.
“Do we really have somewhere else to be?” Cruz asked as they trotted down the walk past lighted gnomes and inflatable snow globes.
Niles tucked the containers into Fifi the Fiat’s back seat. “Indeed we do.”
Cruz hopped into the driver’s seat, revved engine to a high-pitched whine, and asked where to go.
Acting like a GPS unit, Niles gave her turn by turn instructions without explaining where they were headed.
Intrigued, Cruz didn’t question. She turned onto Rte 40 and headed west away from the city. On Niles’ command, she exited onto Uplands Parkway. She only scowled when his next direction was to turn left onto an unmarked and unpaved access road. Fifi jounced and protested navigating through an open field under a star strewn sky. Once they left Upland behind, the world grew dark. Only the light of the gibbous moon, the stars, and Fifi’s headlights kept the gloom at bay.
“Where are we going?” Cruz asked. Her gaze swept the surroundings. Only raw meadow, uncut in years, stretched out in either direction.
“We’re almost there,” Niles soothed.
“Where is there?” Cruz retorted. Fifi pitched through a deep wash and came up the other side.
“It’s just ahead.”
Cruz slowed when the road faded into grass. But this grass had been roughly mowed in a patch about twenty yards square.
Shutting off the engine, she twisted to gaze at her partner. “Did you bring me out here to kill me?” she jibed.
Niles grinned, revealing his butchered mouth. “If I were, do you think I would have done this travesty to my teeth?”
Keeping her brow lifted, Cruz nevertheless exited the car.
Dried grass crunched underfoot. The smell of rotting hay perfumed the crisp night air. Her breath puffed clouds before her.
Niles took her arm and led her unerringly through the little field, now his time to escort his blinded partner just as earlier she’d escorted him.
From out of the darkness a small building emerged. Cruz hesitated in surprise. The structure fashioned of marble blackened with age and algae stood only ten feet wide by about twenty feet long. A single, darkened window peered from one wall. The entrance, however, was grand indeed. A massive, iron door, bossed with Christian religious symbols stood graced by two marble columns, also black with age. A marble angel lifted wings to the sky on the right side of the door, although her face and those magnificent wings were slowly dissolving from acid rain.
“It’s a mausoleum,” she murmured in surprise.
It was not, however, one’s garden variety mausoleum. Firstly, it stood totally alone in that expansive, unkempt field. Secondly, it sported a cast iron fence in a square around it. But that wasn’t what truly surprised Cruz. It was the strands of Christmas lights looping and swagging the fence. They weren’t ordinarily lights. Nor were the icicle lights that dripped from the eave of the mausoleum. Instead of pretty multicolored or white lights, these brooded with a red glow. The icicle lights dripped as a series of LEDs inside fired off in succession, sending the red light falling in an unending cycle like blood dripping from the roof. The effect was chilling rather than cheering.
“Who puts red Christmas lights on a mausoleum in the middle of nowhere?” Cruz demanded. She gave her partner the stink eye.
“Not me, I assure you,” Niles responded.
Taking her elbow, he led her towards the entrance. He knocked twice with his pale, white hand. The door flew open. Cruz nearly screamed. The entrance beyond was utterly jet black. The figure who opened the door was tiny, sway backed and ghostly faced. Given it wore unremitting black, the figure’s face appeared to hover in midair, surrounded by a wreath of ghastly, drifting, white hair.
“Merry Christmas, Marrenstan,” Niles greeted the gaunt figure.
The tiny vampire, a mere five feet tall when age didn’t stoop his shoulders, ushered them inside.
“Come in! Come in! Dinner’s almost ready. So glad you could come.”
Moving inside with hesitancy, Cruz gazed around at the interior of the mausoleum. The place was surprisingly spacious. An empty coffin standing open rested against one wall, but down the center of the room stood a series of folding tables draped with black cloth and bearing three lit candelabras. Their flames flickered in the breeze from the open door until Marrenstan clanged it shut.
“It’s like the Tardis,” she whispered. “Bigger on the inside than on the outside.”
Niles grinned but said nothing.
Cruz gulped at the sight of several vampires gathered at the table, none of whom she knew personally. They all solemnly nodded greetings to her.
Niles stood with his arm around her shoulder to either brace her up or to protect her, she couldn’t determine which.
“Thank you for arranging this dinner,” Niles said to Marrenstan.
The obsequious little vampire bobbed and rubbed his skeletal hands together. “So glad I could help.” He gestured to the only two empty seats. “Please be seated.”
“What is this?” Cruz murmured while Niles pulled out her chair for her then pushed it in like the gentleman he was. “I didn’t think vampires celebrated Christmas.”
“Normally we don’t.” Niles settled beside her and watched a bustling Marrenstan fetch bowls of blood and platters of meat to set on the table. “But I decided since my flight was half human half vampire, I should bring us all up to the modern age.”
Cruz watched Marrenstan in fascination. “He’s a lot like Cooksey, isn’t he?”
“Small, twitchy and determined to feed people?” Niles replied. “Yeah, I guess he is.”
She leaned close. “Do you know these other vampires?”
Niles dipped his head to whisper. “Not exactly. I know they are residents of Baltimore who have elected to stay under my rule. They have pledged not to kill humans. So that makes them members of my flight. They’re all friends of Marrenstan’s though.”
Marrenstan filled glass after glass with a deep, red wine.
“Did you invite Tyra?” Niles asked, naming the vampiress that infested the apartment next to Niles’
Marrenstan nodded vigorously. “But she refused. Says she won’t partake in human rituals.” His pale lips frowned. “So sorry.”
“No worries,” Niles soothed. “I would have been surprised to see her here.”
Having finished with serving, Marrenstan took his seat at the table. He lifted his glass in toast. “To friends, flights and fancies.” He grinned, revealing his fangs.
“Am I the fancy?” Cruz whispered.
Niles nodded. “Yup. And you don’t have to whisper. Vampires have incredible hearing.”
With a wince, she accepted the plate of raw meat swimming in a sauce of raw, coagulating blood, not knowing how she could eat a bit of it.
Taking a cue from her partner’s behavior earlier, she pushed the meat around the plate with her fork. Every once in a while, when their host’s attention was elsewhere, Niles transferred a piece from her plate. Gradually, the plate emptied without her ever eating a morsel.
The conversation flowed, most of it in the screeching high tones of the Home Tongue of the Vanapir. Niles occasionally translated, but for the most part the discussion passed over her unheard. She drank the wine with the various toasts because that at least was something she could imbibe.
Finally, after several hours, the event was over. The vampires eased back from the table, huffed on cigarettes and popped pork rinds for dessert. Niles rose and thanked his host.
“Time for us to head out,” he said. “We work tomorrow night.”
Marrenstan rose, reaching only as high as Niles’ chest. His head bobbed in the near total darkness of the mausoleum. He offered his clawed hand to Cruz with a ghastly grin, fangs gleaming.
“Thank you for coming,” he said.
Cruz forced a smile. “Thank you for inviting me. I think.”
Marrenstan did not release his grip. Given his strength even for such an ancient vampire, Cruz stood immobile as he leaned close, the smell of rancid meat clinging to his hair and clothes.
“I saw what you did with the food, Miss Cruz. But I forgive you. When are you going to make my master an honest man?”
Cruz choked. Marrenstan nodded sagely and released her.
With as much dignity as she could gather, Cruz strode from the mausoleum with Niles at her side.
“My God!” she laughed when they reached the safety of Fifi. “Families really are all alike, aren’t they?”
Niles nodded, a fond smile curving his lips as he looked back at the ridiculous tomb and its blood red lights. “Yes, Mari. All families are indeed the same.”
“Some old veteran was looking for you,” Baltimore Police Officer Jonas Williams rumbled as Niles took his seat.
The one-hundred-fifty-eight year old vampire barely gave his nemesis a glance as he considered the stack of files on his desk. Auto thefts, robberies, a rash of break ins throughout the Mondawmin neighborhood. His work load never eased, even in the warm, humid nights of summer.
I should take a vacation, Niles thought. Go sailing down to Virginia.
His partner, perky, curvaceous Mariella Cruz popped into her chair and shoved massive piles of paperwork around to make room for the newest addition to her overloaded workspace. A jade tree with a red bow around its trunk.
“Deschamps strikes again,” Niles murmured, giving the plant a baleful look from his beautiful blue eyes. He hated the man his partner had once dated who was trying to win her back with gifts. The guy was just too…. Perfect…
Cruz beamed and primped the plant.
Niles’ eyes swept his own workspace. Neat as a pin without a single personal object upon it to tell anyone about his personal life.
Because I haven’t got one, he muttered.
“Did you hear me, Ghoul?” Williams propped a hip against the vampire’s desk. “A veteran was looking for you.”
Niles leaned back in his chair. “Did he say what he wanted?”
“No.” Williams feigned disinterest, as he did in all things related to Niles Gule, but the vampire sensed curiosity in the man. “Seemed unsurprised not to find you. Came twice.”
“How do you know he’s a veteran?” Cruz asked.
Williams gave her a heated look. “Because he was wearing a Veterans of the Korean War cap.”
“Did he give his name?” Niles interrupted Cruz in midsentence.
“Said he was Captain Tuttle.”
Niles sprang to his feet. He snatched the bit of paper Williams held with Tuttle’s contact information then pocketed his cell phone and minitab computer. Startled, Cruz also rose. Where her partner went during business hours, she followed.
“Who is it?” she asked as they exited the station and headed towards the Radisson.
“An old friend,” Niles murmured. “A very old friend.”
When they questioned the hotel’s front desk clerk about Tuttle, they were told he was still registered as a guest but a call to his room gave no answer. The barista in the little coffee shop in the lobby overheard the two detectives and mentioned that nice little man Tuttle had bought coffee from her only a few minutes ago. He was walking to Fell’s Point. Maybe they could still catch him.
Niles strode across Pratt Street and headed along the Promenade towards Fell’s Point. The much shorter Cruz was forced to jog to keep up with him. As she puffed alongside, she asked, twice, who this Captain Tuttle was but Niles didn’t answer. His eyes were sweeping the crowds of tourists milling around the docks, the Hard Rock Cafe and the Barnes and Noble store. He grew frustrated when he didn’t see the elusive man.
The guy’s old, he grumbled under his breath. He couldn’t possibly walk as fast as I do.
Niles stopped at a street vendor selling pretzels and asked if the woman had seen a man wearing a veteran’s cap.
“Oh, yes!” she said, a brilliant smile brightening her face. “He bought some pretzels. Gave five away to those kids over there.” She pointed to a couple of boys playing with hacky sacks. “You just missed him.”
Niles again scanned the area but saw no sign of the elderly soldier. He stopped one of the boys and asked if he’d seen where the man had gone.
“Yeah,” the kid said through a mouthful of pretzel. “He said he was headed for the trolley over there.”
Niles considered the peddle trolley that could be rented by tourists to see the city. A family of six was climbing aboard as he marched up, a panting Cruz trailing many yards behind and complaining.
He studied the family, noting it was a group of Japanese tourists. Clearly not Tuttle’s family.
“Have you seen a man with a cap?” he asked the father.
The gentleman bowed with a smile. “Yes! A very nice man. He paid for the trolley.” The man sounded surprised. “He didn’t need to. We don’t even know him.”
Somehow the information didn’t surprise Niles. Tuttle was forever giving away the things he valued. He’d been doing it for a long time.
The vampire started walking again, towards Fell’s Point. He knew what he’d find but he couldn’t stop himself from searching anyway. He’d wander around the area, hearing everywhere that Tuttle was just ahead of him. He’d visit Bertha’s Mussels only to discover Tuttle had been there before him buying a round of clams for all the patrons in the restaurant. Then he’d be seen somewhere else, saving children probably. And somewhere else. And somewhere else again. It never ended this hunt for the elusive Tuttle.
Cruz huffed in annoyance at being run all over the city chasing her partner. “Why don’t you try calling him?”
“He doesn’t have a cell phone.”
“How do you know?”
Niles shot her a look. “I just do.”
She slammed her hand on her hip and glared. “Who is he, Gule? Why is he searching for you? And why are you searching for him?”
Niles slowly shook his head. “I don’t know, Cruz. It’s just what we do.”
“That makes no sense whatsoever!” she complained.
Niles stood on the steps of the humorously named The Admiral Fell Inn and considered the street scene. The Points South Kitchen was doing good business on the sidewalk. Bertha’s down the block had propped its doors open to allow a stream of people to come and go. Of course, the bars on the water were doing brisk business, their music and patrons spilling onto the sidewalks like flowers falling from a flower pot. People, people everywhere. And yet no Tuttle.
Cruz scowled. “You know we’re police detectives. We can find some old man, Gule.”
Niles tilted his head as he considered his partner. “Yes, we are. And yes, we should be able to find some old man. But in this case, I doubt we will.”
Niles sighed. “Because when it comes to Tuttle, he’s everywhere and yet he’s nowhere.”
“What makes no sense!” Cruz complained.
“No. It never does.”
Cruz planted a hand on her hip. “So who is Captain Tuttle?”
Niles sighed. “A man no one will ever find.”
With a droop in his shoulders, the vampire gave up the hunt and headed back to work, leaving a confused Cruz to trail behind him.
Niles comments: This tale is a little puzzle for those of you old enough to remember the seventies. Captain Tuttle was a generous man who gave away everything he owned and yet no one could ever find him. If you figure out who he was or is, drop me a comment. The first person to explain who is he wins a Niles Gule T shirt. Hint: He was a veteran of the Korean War in the 1970s. Happy hunting!
The old man’s bones ached as he trudged up the stairs into the Baltimore Police Department’s Fayette Street station. He found every step an exercise in willpower because the summer’s intense heat drained him. A resident of Seattle, he found Maryland’s oppressive humidity a steady sap on his failing energy.
Getting too old for this, he muttered as he handed the attendant at the security station his military ID card.
He plodded through the metal detector, took back his meager belongings and asked where he would find the city’s detectives. He was directed to the elevators and the third floor.
As he shuffled along, some people bobbed their heads at him in respect for the cap he wore that declared him a veteran of the Korean War but most ignored the nondescript man. When he arrived in the detective’s offices, he stood patiently until a woman passing by finally asked him if he needed assistance.
“I’m looking for Niles Gule,” he said, glancing at a tattered piece of paper upon which the name had been scrawled.
The woman pointed to a cubicle in the far corner. “His desk is over there but I don’t think he’s in yet. He works nightshift.”
The veteran sighed with a weariness that seemed entrenched in his soul. “Somehow I’m not surprised,” he muttered as he ambled forward.
The missing detective kept his space obsessively neat. Pink message slips sat fanned in a perfect line ordered by date and time with a notation in copperplate script indicating the case the message pertained to. No personal objects of any sort cluttered the desk. No pictures of family. No scrawled messages from young children declaring World’s Best Dad. Nothing to speak of the individual who called that space his temporary home. It didn’t surprise the veteran. Niles Gule kept the lowest profile of any person on the face of the earth.
“He’s not here,” stated a little, fat, balding man who trundled up inexplicably bearing a tray full of delicate pastries. “I think Cruz was picking him up at his place. Going out to Pimlico.”
That, too, came as no surprise. The veteran thanked the officer and after obtaining Gule’s address on Lombard Street left the station.
Getting closer, he thought. Another month of this is going to kill me.
Gule’s latest place to hole up was not far from the station. The veteran suspected the detective walked to work. Helps when you’re young, vibrant and over six feet tall, he thought as his much shorter, older, and aching legs made the journey. The high rise brick and glass building finally appeared and he entered, riding up the elevator to the tenth floor. He knocked on Gule’s door and waited but he heard no activity from within. He knocked twice more, knowing in his soul Gule wasn’t there.
The veteran returned to where he’d parked his car and set off for the racetrack on the outskirts of Baltimore. Traffic was heavy that summer evening as people battled each other in the race to get home at the end of their day. The veteran let most of them cut him off. He wasn’t in a hurry. He knew what would happen when he got to Pimlico.
The racetrack’s grandstand appeared from above the trees. The veteran found parking in the lot and continued his search for the elusive Gule on the manicured grounds of the old race course. No races were being held that evening as the sun set molten in a golden sky, so the crowds were light and the veteran could move quickly. A chat with the man at the gate told him two police detectives had indeed arrived to question someone in the barn area. The veteran headed that way.
No Gule. He asked stable boys and exercise girls, trainers and owners. The tall, blond detective had come and gone. One hotwalker recalled the Latina lady at his side had said something about Druid Hill Park.
Of course. The veteran shook his head with weariness. Of course.
Back to the car he went for another drive into the city, this time turning off before he reached downtown. Although how he was going to find a single vampire in the midst of the sprawling park, he didn’t know. He told himself he should just purchase a lawn chair and set up in front of Gule’s apartment door. Maybe have a cook out in the hallway. But he discarded that idea. It hadn’t worked in Boston. Nor had it worked in New York City. Why he thought he’d succeed in tracking down the elusive Gule in Baltimore after so many months of trying he didn’t know. He might have quit except a note burning in his pocket and a promise made to four young men long ago drove him on.
The veteran cruised around the park, hoping to catch a glimpse of a tall man with corn colored hair. The only saving grace in this entire endeavor was that Gule was a distinctive fellow. Once a man saw him, he’d never forget that long, lithe body, regal expression on an aristocratic face, and white taloned fingers that could slay a man where he stood. No, hunting a vampire with his coloring in the dark wasn’t the problem. The problem was that as usual Niles Gule seemed to be everywhere and yet nowhere at all.
When the clock on his dash blinked midnight, the veteran called it a night. He decided to take one last swing past the Fayette Street Station before he gave up the search for yet another night. When he arrived at Gule’s desk, he found it, no surprise, uninhabited. A large, hulking police officer in uniform loomed over him as he stood studying that silent desk. The name Williams gleamed on his bronze badge.
“You looking for the Ghoul?” he asked in a deep, rumbling voice.
The veteran sighed. “Yes. For a long, long time.”
“I think he and Cruz are in Fell’s Point. Break in or something.”
The veteran nodded. “Of course.” He turned to leave.
“Can I take a message for you?” Williams asked.
The veteran decided it couldn’t hurt. As he shuffled towards the door, he said over his shoulder. “Tell Mr. Gule I’ve been looking for him for more than a year.”
Williams’ brow puckered in question. “Can I give him a name?”
The veteran smiled wanly. “Tell him Captain Tuttle needs to see him.”
One would think the average bunch of middle class, suburban ladies would have a little more decorum, Niles Gule thought as he considered the remains of the day.
What had once been a lovely spread of canapés, fruit and cheeses lay spattered on the kitchen floor. China had been smashed, glassware shattered, and another party had gone to the dogs. Literally.
Niles glared down at Milo, the rat terrier that had sunk his tiny teeth into the vampire’s pant leg and was growling fiercely as he wrenched back and forth on it.
“Seriously?” he growled, giving his leg a shake to free himself. “I could eat you as a snack.”
“Gule!” Mariella Cruz, his partner, admonished him with a flick of her dark gaze towards the group of subdued women who stood around them. She was warning him without words about revealing his inner self, the vampire hidden behind the mask of a common police detective from Baltimore.
Niles scowled at the little Latina then with a sigh gave up his leg as a toy for Milo.
The dog’s owner, a pretty little blond woman, raced to stop the vicious attack. “Milo! Stop it! Be nice to the police detectives!”
She tried to snatch up the little dog, but Milo was determined. He growled at her and clamped harder on Niles’ cuff.
“It’s all right,” Niles said in a fatalistic tone. “I have this effect on canines. Just leave him.”
The owner, Amy Lorbach, continued to fret with the dog until Cruz gently raised her upright.
“I’m so sorry!” she wailed. The thought of her dog mauling not only a police officer but an actual detective made her so frantic she grasped the vampire’s arm and tugged on it as if she could drag forgiveness from him with just a pull. “He doesn’t normally attack policemen.”
“Does he attack other people?” Cruz asked, clicking open a pen to start writing.
“No!” Amy almost danced in frustration as she dug herself deeper into the morass. “Milo’s normally very … well… hyper but not vicious. We’ve never actually had policemen here before,” she added as if that would resolve everything. “He’s never attacked anyone at all before today.”
Niles glared down at the little mongrel from his towering height. “Even if he does, he can’t do much.”
Milo had failed to do anything more than tear a nice hole in Niles’ expensive tailored slacks.
Amy tried to nudge the dog away with her foot. “I swear he doesn’t normally act like this. Bad Milo!”
Niles decided to ignore the dog. The trousers were ruined regardless. He gestured with a long, white, taloned finger at the mess. “Can someone explain what happened?” He drew his minitab computer out of a pocket and clicked on its notepad feature. “What was the purpose of the gathering?”
“It’s a book club,” Amy explained. She smiled weakly. “We meet once a month to read books.” She heaved a gesture that included shoulders, arms and hands. “It’s never been a problem before! Honestly!”
The vampire lifted a brow to reveal his disbelief, but didn’t answer. He merely tapped notes into his minitab.
“We’re the Blue Herons,” one of the ladies, a dark haired gal named Emily said. “You can find us on Facebook. We’re not normally violent.”
As if determined to refute Emily’s assertion, two different women shoved at each other and almost started another brawl.
Cruz separated them, burning each in turn with a smoldering look.
“What caused the ruckus?” she asked.
The tiny brunette on the left with the broken eyeglasses stabbed her finger at the curly redhead on the right who was shifting her skirt back into position. “She did.”
“I did not!” exclaimed the redhead. “You started it.”
Niles gave Amy, the hostess for the event, a look from his brilliant blue eyes. “Can you explain, Mrs. Lorbach?”
Poor Amy looked like she was going to join the wilted lettuce on the floor.
The more assertive Emily came to her rescue. “We had a disagreement about the book we were reading.” She planted her hands on her hips and glared at the two troublemakers. “Joanna didn’t like the selection and said some uncomplimentary things. Margo took offense because the book was her idea. Things got heated and…well…” Emily gestured at the mess in the kitchen.
“She threw her fruit salad at me!” Joanna complained. As evidence, she held out her silk blouse which was now stained in a variety of fruit colors.
“That’s no excuse for dumping macaroni on my head!” Margo shot back.
“It sure is!” exclaimed Joanna.
Cruz threw herself between the two women before a second food fight could get started.
Amy wailed at the pair. “Come on, really?”
“Are we adults or what?” Emily demanded. “I’m not going to jail over fruit salad and vampires.”
Niles and Cruz both froze.
“Vampires?” Cruz squeaked.
“Yeah.” Emily’s face scowled in disgust. “That’s what the fight was about.”
“You have a vampire problem?” Niles asked. His gaze caught Cruz’s. She shrugged.
“In a way,” Amy said. She picked up a book from a nearby table. “Our selection this month was Ann Rice’s Interview with the Vampire.”
“It was a stupid choice!” Margo complained. “This is a serious book club. We should read serious stuff. A Man Called Ove. The Handmaid’s Tale. Not this rubbish.”
“We voted,” Amy insisted.
“It’s still stupid!” Margo sniped.
Cruz puffed up to make herself look as large as possible, not an easy task when she was only five-feet-five. “Okay, ladies, this is ridiculous. You look like fools. People do not start food fights over a book club selection.”
“We do!” laughed an elderly lady towards the back of the crowd. “If you ask me, it was worth the trouble.” She gazed at Niles with twinkling blue eyes and gave the handsome vampire a wink.
Niles groaned and turned his attention to his minitab.
Putting her pen and notebook away, Cruz scowled at the lot of them. “I’m going to make this very clear, ladies. No more fighting over books. Got it?”
“Aren’t you going to arrest her?” Joanna demanded, pointing at Margo. “She assaulted me.”
“For good reason,” Niles snarled, startling Cruz.
“What? Gule! What are you talking about?”
Niles grasped his partner by the arm. Giving a vague bow of his head to excuse himself from the Blue Herons, he dragged her towards the front door.
“Margo had a perfectly good reason to complain,” he grated as he stepped outside into the warm, summer night.
Niles glared at her. “Because she’s right. Interview with the Vampire is an awful book.”
Cruz crooked an eyebrow. “How so?”
Niles snorted. “Does Lestat look or act anything like me?”
Reaching the car, Cruz gave him the once over. “Actually, yes.”
Niles halted, his expression black.
Cruz grinned as she leaned towards him. “I’m kidding, Niles.” She pecked him on the cheek. “I’d never kiss Lestat.”
“Good,” Niles retorted.
Cruz wiggled her brows. “Even if he is Tom Cruise.”
The vampire gazed at the rib roast with no small amazement. In the five years since he’d eschewed eating live prey, Niles Gule had seen pretty much everything when it came to food. But this hunk of meat was a first. The beef roast, which included five large ribs, plus lots of luscious fat, fresh from the butcher sat on his cutting board. Twitching.
Honest to God. Twitching.
He’d never seen that before.
His brilliant blue eyes raked his obsessively sterile kitchen, seeking the trick, but finding none.
“That is one fresh steak,” he muttered. He held a cleaver in his hand, weighing if he should kill the steak a second time. Being a vampire, he wasn’t superstitious, but a hunk of meat twitching caused him to rethink that stance.
Someone hammered on his door.
From the violence of the attack, Niles suspected he knew whom he’d find in the hallway. With a roll of his eyes and a giant heave of breath, he strode to the entrance and checked the peephole. An ashen face surrounded by black hair in a short, bobbed cut, gazed back at him.
Niles unlocked the five separate bolts that protected him from the human world and opened the door a crack.
“Hello, Tyra,” he greeted the young, lithesome girl who waited outside. “What can I do for you?”
Tyra might look tiny and delicate, but she was a vampire to the core. Worse, she was a baby vampire of only fifty years who would one day attain the status of alpha or die trying. She slammed a thin, white hand at the door, shoving it into Niles’ face, and slipped inside his apartment before he could stop her.
With a sigh, rubbing his now smarting nose, Niles closed the door and followed his unwelcome guest into his apartment.
Niles had lived on the tenth floor of a building on Lombard St in Baltimore for the past five years, having fled New York City and its rapacious cohort of vampires. Seeking peace and quiet in the little city on the Chesapeake, he’d bought himself a luxurious condo with a view overlooking the Inner Harbor.
Tyra had moved into the unit next to his the night after she killed and ate its resident. She’d fabricated enough paperwork to convince the building association that she was the man’s daughter and therefore reserved the right to appropriate his abode upon his death. She wasn’t exactly interested in the unit. She had her eye on the vampire next door.
Because like it or not, Niles had become the vampire lord of Baltimore. He’d driven most of the lesser vampires out of his city and insisted any that remained reject murdering humans for food. His flight of subservient vampires might be small, but he held command over them with an iron fist.
His alpha status had attracted Tyra. As a youngster, she’d only been let loose on the world a few decades ago and was still finding her feet. To land an alpha as her mate, and a city lord to boot, would set her up for a long, rich, and fulfilling life. If she could ever land the damned man.
So far, Niles had refused to be caught.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” she sniffed with disdain. She despised human holidays and refused to celebrate any of them. Her greeting oozed displeasure.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” Niles returned as a dig back, knowing she’d hate it.
The younger vampire flipped him a look of annoyance. “That’s all I get? I’m the closest thing to family you’ve got in this city, Guldendal.” She folded her arms. “I’d expect an invitation to dinner.”
Niles huffed. As he strode past her into his home, he didn’t honor her with a look. “Firstly, my name is Niles. I don’t accept my Vanapir name anymore. Secondly, you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. And thirdly, I do have family.” He shot a glance at his watch. “I will be attending the Cruz family extravaganza this evening. Lastly, you loathe what I eat these days.”
Tyra trailed after him when he headed to his kitchen to stow the side of beef he’d bought, which still twitched on his counter. Weird. Sometimes meat was too fresh.
“You really consider a pack of humans as family? As your flight?” she queried. She hitched a slender hip against his spotless kitchen table as she eyed him up and down with a greedy light in her ebony eyes.
“I do.” Niles pondered his beef. Cut it up into snacks? Leave it as it was to dance around his walk-in cooler like the living dead?
Tyra scoffed. “Why? What weird pleasure do you find in consorting with your food?”
Niles raked her with a blistering glare. “Humans aren’t food to me, Tyra. They are sentient creatures, worthy of respect.” At her snort of derision, his stare intensified. “I think we’re their cousins. I think a group of Vanapir landed here maybe a hundred thousand years ago. They evolved into the humans of today.”
Tyra worked her jaw as if chewing on something. “Do tell.”
“How else do you explain why our anatomy is so similar? And that they have a lymph system almost exactly like ours?” He folded his arms. “They merely evolved the secondary circulatory system with its ability to store iron, something we don’t have but wish we did.”
“Nothing beats a long swallow of hot, iron rich blood for dinner,” Tyra sighed. Her dark eyes developed a look of pity. “Are you really going to some human abode to eat…” she swallowed with disgust… “turkey?”
Niles chuckled. “No. Mama Cruz knows me too well. She’ll have a nice raw steak waiting just for me. And all the turkey innards no one else likes.” Niles glanced at his watch. “Mari will be picking me up in a few minutes, so you need to skedaddle.”
Tyra’s lip curled in derision. “You’re actually falling for that little strumpet, aren’t you? You, Guldendal, the Lord of Baltimore.”
Niles tapped his chest. “Me, Niles, detective consultant. I never claimed the title of lord.”
Tyra leaned close, her loose-fitting black tanktop sagging to reveal a rather flat chest. “Come on, Guldendal…”
She cricked a finger at him. “You and me, we could own this town.”
“According to you, I already do.”
“We could own Baltimore. Eight hundred thousand humans at our disposal.”
Niles’ phone tweedled. He drew it from his pocket to see his partner’s name on the caller ID. “Not interested,” he said as he thumbed to answer the phone. “I’ll be right down,” he said to Cruz.
Tyra writhed a hand up and around his arm. “Stay with me tonight, Guldendal…”
Her dark eyes glittered. “I could show you a much better time.”
Niles struggled free of her grip. “I’ve got to go, Tyra.”
The girl pouted. When that didn’t warm his icy heart, she snarled, fangs dripping. “What does she have that I don’t?”
Niles didn’t even hesitate. “A soul, Tyra. Now please.”
Tyra crossed her arms tightly, her face now screwed up with anger. “Are you really just going to leave me here, alone on Thanksgiving with nothing to eat?”
Niles’ face brightened. “Actually no!” He stomped back to his kitchen and grasped the twitching hunk of beef. Thrusting it into Tyra’s surprised arms, he herded her to his door.
“That’s about two hundred dollars of really fresh beef, just the way you like it. Enjoy!” He shoved her into the hallway and slammed the door.
With an annoyed glance at his now bloody dress shirt, Niles hastened to his bedroom, snatched from his closet another still wrapped in plastic from the dry cleaners and headed for the door. A look out the peephole showed a furious Tyra still pacing outside, the beef clutched in her arms. He rolled his eyes.
Gonna have to do this the hard way, he sighed.
Hooking the hanger on his collar so the shirt hung down his back, Niles headed for his balcony. Glad for once he was a vampire, he swung a leg over the railing and proceeded to cautiously climb the thirteen floors to the ground, wondering all the way how many people spotted a man with a neatly pressed dress shirt doing a Spiderman down the wall.
When he reached the ground, he spotted Cruz waiting near the glass entry door to the building. She spun with a shriek of surprise when he tapped her shoulder.
“Niles! Where did you come from?” she gasped.
Niles proffered the shirt in its plastic. “The dry cleaners. Only the best for your family!”
Her dark eyes flicked down his bloody shirt and then his long legs with scuffs of dirt on them. She glanced upwards and rolled her eyes.
Holding a palm towards his face, she said, “I don’t want to know.”
Niles grinned. “Good.” He offered her his elbow. “Shall we?”
As they strolled to Cruz’s car, he leaned over and pressed a cold kiss to her hot cheek.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Mari,” he murmured.
She smiled and her eyes sparkled.
“Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Niles.”
As he stuffed himself into little Fifi, Niles looked up at his floor. Tyra stood on her balcony watching them drive away.
What does one get by stuffing a headstrong, controlling, Hispanic mama, her feisty twenty-something-year-old daughter, and a vampire into a Fiat? Insanity. Not that it would stop Mariella Cruz from trying. Or succeeding. To get into little Fifi, Mama Cruz had to be carefully eased into the back seat where the grand dame of the Cruz clan barely fit sitting sideways. The vampire, Niles Gule, climbed in second, folding his long arms and legs into a ball to fit in the tiny space. His blond, carefully shorn head brushed the ceiling. Finally, Mariella Cruz, peppy as always and ready for an evening of fun, popped into the driver’s seat.
“Belts on!” she sang, first in Spanish, then in English.
“I speak the English good,” Mama protested. “No need repeating things.”
Cruz crooked a smile at Niles. “She’s warning us she’ll be listening to everything we say.”
“What does she expect to overhear?” Niles asked, clicking his seat belt.
Cruz shrugged. “I dunno. Wild, passionate verbal sex?” She put the car in gear.
“Cruz!” Niles complained as much about her words as the fact that she tore into Baltimore traffic as if the hounds of hell were on her tail.
Horns shrieked and tires squealed as drivers right and left swerved to avoid the Fiat darting through Saturday evening traffic.
Niles’ pale hand strangled the grab bar. “You could consider slowing down.”
Cruz careened around a delivery van, sending a man with an arm full of bread sprinting for his life. Loaves went airborne. “We have to haul ass. The farmer said if we aren’t there by seven, we’re out of luck.”
Niles glanced at the dashboard clock. “We won’t make it to Lisbon in a half hour.”
“Watch me.” Cruz’s grip tightened on the steering wheel. Her foot depressed the pedal. Little Fifi sailed into the sunset, dragging a terrified vampire and a laughing Mama with her.
Gritting his teeth, no small task when two of them were inch long fangs, Niles clung to the grab bar and watched the city fall behind them. In minutes, they’d reached Interstate 70 and were flying westward to catch the setting sun. He closed his eyes against its stabbing rays.
“She’s passionate, yes, Mr. Gule?” asked Mama from the back seat.
Cracking open an eye, Niles gave the large lady a quick, pallid smile.
“Always on fire, my Mari,” Mama said sagely. She tapped Niles’ shoulder with a finger. “You so cold. Need a little chacha heat to warm your blood.”
Niles choked. Cruz did too but kept her eyes on the road.
“Why you not like my Mari?”
“Mama!” Cruz twisted in the seat to glare at her mother only to have Niles bark at her.
“Eyes on the road!”
Cruz scowled and faced forward again, muttering something in Spanish under her breath.
Niles drew a deep breath. He needed to cut Mama off before her fussing caused an accident.
“I like your Mari very much,” he said.
Mama pouted. “Then why you not do the chacha with her?”
“MAMA!” Cruz was so distracted, she nearly plowed into a truck hauling bales of hay.
Niles laid a gentling hand on her arm and gave her a warning look to say he’d take care of this.
Swiveling in his seat, he forced his voice to warm and soften. “I’m old fashioned, Senora Cruz. I believe in a period of courtship before any chacha.”
Mama sniffed. “You take too long.”
“Mama!” Cruz’s fingernails dug into the steering wheel.
Niles was still trying to process the idea that the Cruz family, a boisterous, conglomerate of aunts, uncles, brothers and cousins, thought handing their precious Mariella to a vampire was a sound plan.
“I have my concerns,” he said. “I’m a vampire. Mariella is not. I crave blood. Mariella craves a slot in the Monaco Grand Prix.” That comment earned him a swat from Cruz. “Aren’t you afraid I might kill her?”
Mama scoffed and whacked the back of his head. “Que estupido! No. Firstly,” she touched one finger to another as her face beamed, “you love her. Secondly, she anemic, so she no taste good, and thirdly,” said with a narrowing of her eyes, “you harm her and fifty Cruz’s hunt you down, tie you outside in the desert, eat tacos and watch you die a slow death. Si?”
Niles’ eyes widened even against the glare of the sun. “Si.”
Mama nodded her acceptance of his surrender.
“Now I know where you came from, Cruz,” Niles muttered, turning forward. “She must have been hell on wheels when she was your age.”
Cruz laughed. “You have no idea. They named a town after my mama.” She quirked him a smile. “Vera Cruz!”
In a smooth drift, Cruz crossed three lanes of traffic on I70 and descended the exit ramp into horse country. A turn south bore them swiftly through the village of Lisbon and then into rolling farmland spotted with grand houses, barns and arenas, and speckled with horses grazing in the dying light. Cruz made a hard right onto a gravel lane and kicked up dust as she flew towards a complex of barns, outbuildings and a farmhouse. Fifi skid several feet when Cruz stomped the brakes. Gravel flew and pelted the barn, sounding like gunshot.
Niles shuddered at the sound of numerous dogs barking as he unwound himself from the car and stretched his long body. He stiffened, ready for the attack, but none came. The dogs apparently were penned. He took that as a blessing.
“Explain to me again why you needed me on this excursion?” he asked.
“Someone has to hold the puppy.” Cruz opened the back door and with a grunt, dragged her mama upright.
“Why can’t your mother?” Niles hated that he sounded whiney, but he couldn’t help it. He and dogs didn’t get along. “It’s her dog we’re after.”
Cruz shot him a look. “You can’t expect my mother to hang onto a squirming puppy all the way back to Baltimore. Me driving. Her with puppy.” She circled a hand in the air. “Are you seeing this picture?”
With a chagrined nod, Niles had to agree. He could imagine the traffic accident: cars smashed, Cruz hurt, puppy running wild. It didn’t bear consideration.
A man in dirty coveralls sauntered from the barn. “You sure like to cut it close,” he commented, glancing up at the darkening sky. “I said before sundown.”
“It’s not quite down yet,” Cruz said, stretching the point. The sun was well gone, but the sky blazed brilliant red.
The farmer grunted. “If you want to see them, come on.” He waved and headed towards a shed.
Moving with an alacrity surprising for her size, Mama Cruz chugged after him. Cruz and Niles followed more slowly, soaking up the tranquility. Birds sang their final songs for the evening before they swept for cover in the treetops. Horses grazed contentedly, their tails swishing to a steady cadence.
“I wouldn’t mind living in a place like this,” Cruz murmured.
Niles snaked his fingers between hers and gave her hand a squeeze. “It’s a lot of work.”
“Hmmm.” Cruz pulled herself from her reverie at the sound of excited barking. “Mama’s found the puppies.” As she pulled Niles towards the shed, she added, “She’s been so depressed since Lucia died. She can’t wait to get a new dog.”
“Hmmm.” Niles only reluctantly allowed her to tug him inside.
The shed was well lit by a row of bare bulbs running down the center. The floor was dirt and straw where the puppies could run loose. As Cruz and Niles stepped over the small board barrier that kept them safe, a broiling mass of dogdom yipped and raced for them.
Trying to remember his manners, Niles sucked in his fangs while twenty fluffy Golden Retriever puppies churned under his feet.
Mama Cruz cuddled two and was crooning to them while they licked her nose. Cruz leaped about playfully, coaxing others to dance with her. Meanwhile, Niles leaned against a wall and watched with an indulgent smile.
At the sound of a wood door scraping open, the sea of swirling puppies eddied towards Niles. He straightened, but not in time to avoid the mother dog springing over the barrier. They misjudged each other and collided, going down in a tangle of arms, legs, paws and tails. Mama Dog sat on Niles’ chest and licked his face while Mama Cruz sat in the dirt and laughed hysterically. Then a hoard of puppies, sensing a man down, raced to join the fun. Niles was instantly covered in a seething mass of yellow fur.
“Help,” he laughed from beneath it all. He lay flat and let the dogs have their way with him.
“I think I pick this one,” Mama Cruz said to the farmer. Her dark eyes sparkling with life, she held up a wriggling ball of fur.
Meanwhile, Cruz came to Niles’ rescue. She shooed Mama Dog away and pulled the vampire to his feet. She wrapped her arms around him and gave him a hug to thank him for being a good sport.
“And you pick that one,” Mama chortled, eyeing the pair. She sniffed her puppy then shot her gaze up Niles’ long body now crumpled, dusty, and coated with dog fur and hay. “I take this one home for a bath.” She winked at her daughter. “You give yours good bath, too.”
Niles laughed and wagged his finger at her in reprimand.
Cruz, however, was mortified. “Mama! Stop with the innuendo!”
Mama Cruz handed her chosen puppy to the farmer, lumbered to her feet, brushed herself off, and took back her prize. She turned a sly gaze on Cruz. “I get little one to fill my life. You make sure he get you filled with little one, too.”
Niles froze, unsure he’d actually heard what he thought he heard. When he saw Cruz turned fifty shades of red and sputter, he thought: Yep! That’s what I heard.
Cruz’s wail of protest rose to the sky.
Mama Cruz chortled evilly and trundled away.
Cruz shrugged hopelessly. Then her dark eyes began to sparkle.
“You are coming to Thanksgiving Dinner, right?”
Niles froze, the image of twenty something of his partner’s relatives all eyeing him up as marital potential for the youngest scion of the family. But the look in Cruz’s eye told Niles he didn’t really have a choice.
Niles sighed. It’s hard to kill a vampire, he thought. But these people are figuring out how to do it. The slow, painful way.
Another town. Another road trip. Niles Gule, resident vampire of Baltimore, watched the peaceful Virginia countryside swirl past the car window in a blur. With fall settling over the East Coast, the sky glowed a somber crimson as early as five o’clock in the evening. It cast a shimmer over the young deciduous forest that huddled near the berm like a protective mother and the occasional open meadow where wildflowers bloomed. Between the trees spangled lights from enormous houses set well back from the road on private lots guarded by walls and fences.
Niles and his partner, Mariella Cruz, had driven south from the city on the bay, motored around Washington DC and now puttered westward through rolling woodlands on a curving, picturesque two-lane road. Their destination of Clifton, Virginia lay somewhere close by where they would meet with a witness to a murder. For once, Cruz was coasting along at a tame fifty-five, rather than her usual blistering eighty plus because, she said, the view was worth the slower pace.
Indeed, Niles thought watching yet another mansion slide behind them, the view was enjoyable, if a bit redundant.
“Why do people build huge houses like this in the middle of nowhere?” he asked idly to pass the time.
“It’s not the middle of nowhere.” Cruz shot him a look from her luminous dark eyes. “We’re less than an hour outside of Washington. All those politicos and their money? They hide here, in these woods.” She waved a finger at a two-story Tudor behemoth complete with turret. “I’ll bet these belong to lobbyists or senators.”
“Our tax dollars at work,” Niles sighed. “Not that I pay taxes.”
Cruz swatted him.
“Still,” the vampire mused, “why such ridiculous overconsumption? It’s obscene.”
Cruz snorted a laugh. “That’s the point. To show which man has the bigger… well… you know.”
Niles lifted a brow but said nothing.
At his look, Cruz gazed at him archly. “Don’t vampire men one up each other that way?”
He earned himself a growl. “Don’t they get out the measuring stick to determine who’s the bigger man?”
Niles belched a laugh. “Good Lord, no! Firstly, our women hold all the power, sexually. Us poor males just sigh and hope a woman sets her sights on us. Secondly, if two men do face off, it’s fangs and talons. Only one walks away from the fight alive.”
“I guess the measuring stick is more civilized then,” Cruz quipped. “Who knew?” She gazed out as another mansion slid past. “I’d give my right eye to own one of these!”
She gazed appreciably at a rambling monster of French Provincial design with ten dormers four garages and a lively fountain in the front yard.
She sighed. “When you live seven people crammed into a tiny bungalow, you dream of places like these. I’ll bet they all have swimming pools. In ground!”
The vampire’s pale lips curled into the beginnings of a smile. “I would imagine they do.”
He considered his partner. Cruz had grown up the daughter of immigrants from Mexico. Her father had abandoned ship after dropping six children on his wife, leaving the poor woman who barely spoke English to fend for herself and her brood alone. Cruz seldom talked of dear ole dad, so Niles didn’t know why he’d left or where he’d gone, but the occasional snipe about drinking led him to believe Senor Cruz suffered from alcoholism. Having a less than tender relationship with his own sire, Niles knew when to leave well enough alone.
Cruz’s curse drew him from his reverie.
“Now what?” he sighed. When Cruz cursed while driving, it usually meant she’d hit someone or something. Not that he’d felt a collision.
She slammed on the brakes and sat staring at a sign. No outlet.
“I guess we’re lost,” he mused.
With a growl, Cruz punched at her GPS unit. “It says the road continues through!”
“The sign says it doesn’t.”
Cruz put her little Fiat back in gear. “Who are you going to believe? The internet or your lying eyes?”
With a determination even a charging herd of buffalo couldn’t quell, Cruz forged ahead on the supposedly dead end through way. The road dropped from a smooth two-lane road to an unmarked country byway. They plunged deeper into forest. The houses thinned out.
About a mile up the road, Cruz slammed to a stop a second time. A narrow railroad overpass spanned the road. A flood must have consumed it at some point because a pile of forest debris clogged the tunnel, closing it to traffic.
“Thus the sign,” Niles murmured.
Cruz huffed. “Don’t people around here believe in maintenance?”
Niles considered the darkening woods whispering in the falling darkness. “I suspect the locals are thrilled the road is closed. Less traffic to disturb their vaunted tranquility.”
Cruz sat tapping her fingers on the steering wheel while she pondered the conundrum. With an annoyed snort, she poked at the GPS unit to find an alternate route. Niles checked his cellphone for messages.
A movement outside the window drew the vampire’s eye. A figure loomed out of the woods and charged for the small car. For two breaths, Niles struggled to comprehend the vision because the individual appeared to be wearing some sort of strange, all-encompassing coverall, like a haz-mat suit. The person raged at them. Niles yelped when he spied the small hatchet the individual wielded in his hands.
“You’re on private property!” the man yelled. “I have your tag number!”
Cruz tore her eyes from her GPS just in time to see the hatchet slam into the passenger side window. Glass exploded. Niles threw his hand up to protect his face and eyes as shards pelted him, landing in a shimmering pool in his lap. Cruz yelled.
“You are trespassing,” their attacker growled. “Get off my land or I’ll chop off your head!”
“Shit!” Cruz swore. She threw Fifi into reverse and tore backwards without paying attention to where she was going.
The man swung his axe again, hitting Niles in the shoulder but not doing any damage. Niles grasped the hatchet, dug his talons into it and hung on, wrenching it from the assailant as Cruz raced backwards up the lane. When she lost control, Fifi spun out. Cruz didn’t hesitate, she slammed into drive and shoved her foot to the floor. Fifi gamely responded by zipping back the way they’d come.
After they’d put a half mile behind them, Cruz pulled over and sat panting and staring at the woods silhouetted by her headlights.
“Well that was embarrassing,” she muttered. “Two police detectives running from a nutcase in the woods. Like we aren’t armed.”
Niles considered. He carried a silver knife that he used to defend against vampires but was otherwise unarmed. Cruz always carried her service pistol. He supposed they could have arrested the man.
“He startled both of us,” he said to soothe his agitated partner. “Came at us too fast for us to react.”
“Shame on me,” Cruz complained. “I’m supposed to have a calmer head.”
“Do you want to go back and find him?” Niles asked, looking behind them.
Niles hefted the hatchet. “I’ve got his axe.”
Cruz gave Niles the stink eye. “One, I doubt our miscreant hung around after we took off with his axe. Two, I’m not wandering around strange woods at night looking for a dude in a bunny suit.”
“Bunny suit? Is that what it was?”
Cruz shrugged. “Looked like it to me. I thought I saw two long ears atop his head.”
Niles frowned. “I thought it looked like a capirote.”
“A capirote. One of those conical head pieces that Klansmen wear.”
Cruz threw her hands in the air. “Oh great! So we’ve been attacked by a Klansman with a hatchet.”
“Not saying he was, or he wasn’t,” Niles replied. “Just that’s what it looked like to me.”
Cruz sat tapping the steering wheel. “What should we do? Report it to the police?”
“That would be the smart thing to do.” Niles’ eyes swept the woods, seeking… what? A man in a bunny suit? “Let the local gendarmerie know they’d got a nut on the loose.”
Niles comments: I investigated the incident further upon our return to Baltimore. Turns out the area is rife with stories of the Bunny Man of Virginia. Most of the stories occur around the Colchester Overpass, a Southern Railway line spanning Colchester Road near Clifton. In fact, the overpass is sometimes referred to as Bunny Man Bridge. Two sightings of the Bunny Man were recorded by police in the 1970s. The Fairfax County Police opened investigations into both incidents but those were closed for lack of evidence. Eventually, over 50 people contacted the police with claims of seeing the Bunny Man. An article in the Washington Post even reported that the Bunny Man had eaten a man’s runaway cat. Who he was or what he wanted has never been solved. He remains a mysterious figure to this day. Lest you think I make this stuff up, here’s a photo of the actual hatchet wielded by the Bunny Man.