Gule Loses His Sparkle

A shadow in the sultry darkness of a summer’s evening, the vampire paced in a tight circle, waiting.  He was irritable.  The buzz of a thousand cicadas drilled holes into his brain and his anticipation of the night ahead sent adrenaline coursing through his cold veins.  Would she come? 

His pacing stopped abruptly.  His head jerked.  He caught his breath.  Even through the din of insects, his predatory hearing picked up the slow clop of a horse’s hooves on hard packed clay and the gentle creak of carriage springs adjusting to ruts in the road.  The scents overwhelmed him next.  The warm, vibrant perfume of heated horseflesh, the mellow timbre of worn leather, and the musty stink of a fellow vampire.

Long minutes of frustrated waiting later, the vehicle hove into sight around a bend in the road.  The vampire released the breath he’d been holding.  Just maybe, for once, he’d succeeded.

The young vampire, a mere thirty years old—a virtual baby in the eyes of his brethren—stepped to the side of the country lane as the plodding carriage approached in no apparent hurry.  Its opulence startled him.  He’d expected the lady to rent a hansom cab, not arrive in a luxurious, gleaming barouche drawn by two quality horses with a personal driver at the reins.  The driver, an aging vampire bearing centuries on his shoulders, wore funereal black with a stovepipe hat above the wispy white of his long hair.  His sunken eyes gleamed silvery from a cadaverous, ashen face.  Pale, almost skeletal hands managed the reins, though the sluggish pace he’d set for his pair of high-stepping matched bays was exercising neither him nor his horses. 

The lady seated on the plush velvet seat rode with her imperious chin held high and her red mouth pursed with cynical amusement.  She’d piled her rich, auburn hair atop her head in a smooth, convoluted knot and didn’t adorn it in any way, because it needed no adornment.  Her face, milky pale in the moonlight, was lovely but cold.  Tiny creases in the corner of her eyes whispered of scorn, not laughter.  She’d chosen an elegant evening dress, corseted to a painful pinch at her waist, with a high, lacy neckline, professing a modesty the waiting vampire suspected she didn’t possess.  Her delicate, pasty hand clasped an open parasol, as if to deflect the soft glow of moonlight from her fragile skin.

With the tip of her toe, she tapped her driver’s shoulder.  He pulled the reins and the horses ambled to a stop, rolling their eyes and stamping, eager to set a real pace on the road.  The driver tugged the brake and eased back in his seat to rest, his silvery eyes never leaving the face of the waiting vampire.  The lady rose, snapped shut her parasol and, collecting her skirts in her free hand, descended regally from the barouche.  With a swish of silken skirts, she sauntered towards the youngster who awaited her.

“Guldendal,” she purred, offering a limp hand.  “So nice of you to wait.”

Guldendal accepted her hand and pressed his lips to its soft, icy surface.  Although he presented an unruffled appearance to his lady, inside he seethed.  He’d waited nearly two hours on this godforsaken country road while she dawdled at a snail’s pace in her fancy carriage.  Of course, she could afford to make him wait.  The lady’s fortunes were rising in Bostonian vampire society.  Rumors murmured she’d be designated an alpha soon if she continued to play her cards right.  Guldendal was hunting territory far above his lowly station.

“Rivalyn.  A pleasure as always.” 

With that sly smile curving her lips, Rivalyn sidled against him and rested her hand lightly on the arm he offered. 

“Let us stroll, shall we?”  She tilted that incredible face towards the moon to savor its touch.  “I so love a moonlit walk.”

Guldendal gnashed his fangs but accepted the suggestion.  He didn’t have another choice.  Rivalyn controlled this engagement, controlled him, controlled his raging sexual desire, and they both knew it.  She would surrender to his lust or not as she saw fit.  He could only pray she did so.  He’d suffered a long spell without a mate.  The absence grated his nerves.

The Massachusetts countryside rolled out before them as an undulating quilt of blacks and grays under the shimmering moonlight.  Rivers glinted white; forests brooded black.  Human habitations, pale, little cubes, sprinkled the copses and fields.  All stood lightless at that time of night.  Not a single lantern or candle broke the serenity.

The world was ablaze with light, however.  It flashed in iridescent, glowing green from every bush and tree.  The field alongside the road glittered as if strewn with diamonds as lights winked and danced like fairies floating in the still air.   The nearby forest glimmered in a breathtaking display of twinkling lights.  Fireflies intent on their own mating rituals filled the countryside with magic.  Guldendal hoped their beauty would melt Rivalyn’s frigid heart.

“Your boldness surprised me,” the lady murmured as she paced slowly at his side.  She slid a glance sideways to study his reaction.  “Aren’t you in over your head, little one?”

Guldendal gritted his fangs.  He reminded himself she’d test him.  Vampire females always forced their mates to work for the pleasure.

“Noting ventured, nothing gained,” he replied.  He kept his chin lifted and his tone light.  He wouldn’t reveal to her how he’d desired this meeting.

“Ordinarily, I would have scoffed at your daring,” she said, returning her gaze forward.

Her words stung.  “Why didn’t you, then?”

She stopped and turned.  Her smile deepened.  A strange gleam flickered in her dark eyes.  “I find you fascinating, Guldendal.  Utterly enchanting.”

Halting alongside her, the younger vampire frowned.  He suspected she was playing with him. “How so?”

Taloned fingers raked through his fashionably long blond hair.  They caught in the bow that held it in a queue against his neck and freed the corn-colored strands to fall about his face. 

“I’ve never seen hair this color on a vampire,” she breathed.  The stench of blood and death coursed across Guldendal’s features, intoxicating him.  “And those eyes!  My dear!  Where did you find those eyes?”

Guldendal’s brow pinched.  “They came standard.”  He knew his brilliant blue eyes were an anomaly as was his blond hair.  He didn’t know females found such coloring alluring.

She continued to smile as she toyed with his hair.  “I spotted you at Battengal’s soiree the other night.  Couldn’t take my eyes those shining locks.  I just had to touch them, to know if they’re real.”

“They are.”  Guldendal couldn’t keep a trace of ice from lacing his words.  That she didn’t desire him as a male vampire and had dragged him out into the hinterlands merely to play with his hair deflated him. 

“Such color certainly makes you stand out, little boy.” 

Finally, Guldendal’s control broke.  He growled low in his throat at the insult.

The growl amused her.  She chuckled.  Then her sly gaze studied his long, lanky form.  “I will make a prediction,” she said, stepping back from him, her eyes appraising.  “You shall rise high someday.  I sense greatness in you.”

Guldendal’s lips opened.  He began to speak but she cut him off.

“Just not today.” 

A shadow flitted in the corner of his eye.  Before Guldendal could react, the cadaverous driver belted him over the head with a wooden bat.

Stars as bright as the fireflies spangled Guldendal’s eyes.  He crumpled to the dirt as waves of pain seared his temple.  He thought his throbbing head would burst from his eye sockets.

“Live and learn, little one,” he heard Rivalyn titter as she swept away.  “You strove too high and insulted me.  But I forgive you.  Find me again when you’ve reached your apex.  I’ll wait.”

For a handful of seconds, Guldendal watched a billion stars dance, some from inside his head, some from the fireflies, before darkness swept him away.

—————–

Mariella Cruz’s tug on his arm dragged Niles Gule’s thoughts from the distant past.  He started, then eased as the world of now settled around him like a comforting cloak.  He and Cruz sat on a bench in a park overlooking Baltimore.  The night air was sultry.  The aroma of lathered horse filled his nostrils as two riders on hack ponies rode slowly past, the clop of their hooves on the pavement and the creak of their saddles taking him back in time.

Darkness swathed the park.  Here and there tiny pinpricks of light winked and danced, fireflies on the hunt for mates.  Yet they were sadly few.  Niles envisioned that evening with Rivalyn and the incredible display of bioluminescence, then he considered the modern world.  Lights still shimmered in the darkness, but they were the lights of the city below the hill.  The ephemeral beauty of the fireflies had faded to a mere whisper of what it had once been.

“Why so quiet?” Cruz asked. 

Niles shrugged.  “Just remembering the world as it once was.”  He wrapped his arm around her hot shoulders, grateful for a female who accepted him exactly as he was.  “Did you know fireflies are disappearing?”

She started.  “No.”

He nodded.  “Decimation of habitat and light pollution are destroying them.  You have no idea how breathtaking their display once was.  I miss it.”

She turned, a frown between her brows.  “If you could go back, would you?”

Niles considered the question for only a moment.  He knew the answer.

He squeezed her against his side, all human warmth and tantalizing perfume. 

“No,” he said.  “I wouldn’t go back.”

He wouldn’t give up Cruz, but he missed the fireflies.

© 2020 Newmin

Gule Gets His Feet Wet

Somehow, the idea was losing its lustre.  Niles Gule, vampire, stood on the banks of the Conestoga River, contemplating its brown water while his partner, Mariella Cruz, slathered SPF 75 sunscreen over his face and hands.  When she was finished, she popped his Australian cattleman’s hat with its broad brim over his blond locks and handed him a pair of dark, wrap-around sunglasses to protect his sensitive blue eyes from the sun.

Yes, he was a vampire.  And yes, he was out at noon on a summer’s day.  Contrary to legend, vampires didn’t vaporize into atoms at the touch of the sun.  Instead, being nocturnal creatures who’d evolved skin and eyes suited to night work, they found daylight merely painful.  Exposure to the sun’s radiation burned their white, melatonin-starved skin, which, if serious enough, could kill them.  Thus, the reason why Cruz applied five coats of sunscreen to her vampire.

“I’ve got plenty of water,” she said, bending over to shove the sunscreen into her knapsack and providing Niles with a nice perspective of her cute little rear end.

Looking good in tight shorts, Mari.  White shows off your cocoa skin to perfection.

“And snacks.  A sandwich and chips for me.  A pack of raw hotdogs for you.”

She straightened to find his gaze smoldering even from behind the blackout glasses.  “Are you checking out my ass?” she protested.

Niles feigned innocence.  “Moi?  Of course not.  Vampires are above ass ogling.”

Cruz pretended to frown but her dark eyes twinkled, giving her away.  She gave her butt a wiggle then turned her attention to her kayak.

“Let’s roll!” she sang, grabbing the front handle.

Niles dutifully grasped the back and followed her down the tree root strewn path to reach the river.  Rick, the leader of this band of boaters, stood ankle deep in the river steadying boats while their owners climbed in.  Niles held Cruz’s hand until she was settled and with a push, launched her, then climbed the bank to bring his kayak to the launch point.  Having a vampire’s strength, he tucked the several hundred pounds of fibreglass under his arm and marched it to the river unaided, earning himself arch looks from the other, less capable males in the group.

Because the river was running higher than normal, Rick steadied Niles’ kayak while the vampire inserted his long legs into the hole and lowered the rest of his lanky form inside.  Niles grasped his paddle.  Rick gave him a shove.  Niles was in the river.

Niles didn’t consider himself an expert kayaker, but he was strong and could maneuver his boat agilely.  He paddled alongside Cruz, who clung to a tree branch to keep the current from sweeping her away while she waited for him.

“Ready?” he asked.

Silly question.  Mariella Cruz feared nothing.  She’d kayaked before, although never on a fast running river.  Still, the feisty little Latina was game.  She released her grip on the branch and they were off.

The Conestoga didn’t present too many challenges.  For most of the year, the river snaked docilely through rolling farmland from its headwaters somewhere near Berks County to its end where it spilled into the mighty Susquehanna.  This particular tour of the river started ten miles upstream and would end a mile from the terminus.  Given all the rains from the spring, the river was running higher than normal.  It pooled behind low ridges of stone then leaped over the impediment in mild white water.

“Isn’t this lovely?” Cruz asked after they’d navigated the first of the rapids.  She now drifted with the current, not paddling, and just looking about.

Niles wished the sun weren’t blazing.  Its spangles jabbed at his eyes like little needles.  The day was hot and humid as well.  Niles could feel his skin trying to cook underneath all the sunscreen.  On the positive side, he thought, at least he wasn’t smoking.

“A lovely day indeed,” he replied.

Except for the sunlight, Niles enjoyed the excursion.  The group totaled thirty kayakers, some expert, but many first timers.  They strung out along the river and worked both banks.  Chit chat and laughter filled the air.  The screams started when a couple of teens pulled huge water canons from their kayaks and sprayed anyone who ventured close.  Cruz got nailed in the face.  She was laughing too hard to chase the teen who sprayed her.

Twice, they crossed small riffles in the river, giving them a taste of white water which added some excitement to the paddle.  When he rounded around a bend, Niles blinked to clear his eyes, not believing them.  A pinto horse stood to its belly in the middle of the river.  A young woman sat bareback aboard it, swishing water up its neck.

As they drifted closer, Cruz had to ask what the woman was doing there.

“He loves the river,” the woman laughed, slapping her horse’s neck.  “So on hot days I bring him out for a swim.”

Further on, the flotilla encountered a family of tubers.  The group was well stocked for their day on the water.  They rode in large tubes with backrests and cup holders.  A cooler stood secured in the center from which they dispensed beer and other potables.  Niles cruised up alongside and wrangled himself a Bud Lite.

Cruz waggled a finger at him.  “You shouldn’t drink and paddle, Niles.”

Niles shrugged and enjoyed his beer.

Another twist in the river brought them to a wide pool.  An ancient dam had once crossed the river and the remains of a mill stood lost in the woods that encroached on the riverbank.  Another group of tubers, this time teens in individual tubes, clustered near the dam as they debated how to get over it without drowning themselves.

Undaunted by the challenge, Cruz paddled around them and aimed for a spot in the middle where part of the dam had collapsed, creating a slightly easier drop to the next section of river.  A muscular young man, also noticing the opening, sent his tube spinning towards the same spot.  Cruz had already committed and was in the grip of the water’s draw.  Although she tried to backpaddle, she still collided with the tuber.  The two went over the dam in a tangle or arms, legs, paddle and innertube.  Seconds later, the tube and the kayak both popped to the surface and drifted off, riderless.

With a curse, Niles launched himself over the dam and sluiced down to the lower section.  He saw Cruz thrashing in the turbulent backflow behind the dam.  The space was a death trap.

Niles didn’t think.  He simply dumped his kayak and splashed for her.  The water spun both of them around.  He tried to grab her, but she went under.  He dove after her.  Eyes closed, he scrabbled with his arms in all directions until he hit her.  His talons sunk into her swimsuit and he kicked for the surface.

They popped out of the water towards the east bank.  Panting, Niles caught Cruz under the arms and swam on his back backwards towards shore.  Cruz coughed and sputtered but didn’t fight him other than to wail about her kayak.

“We’ll find it,” he grumbled, kicking hard for dry land.  “Or I’ll buy you another one.”

His back scraped muddy bottom.  With a breath of relief, Niles collected his legs underneath himself and struggled to stand, still holding Cruz in his arms.  Muddy water poured off them as he stumbled up the embankment to a patch of grass.

Cruz coughed again but demurred when he asked if she needed medical help.

“I’m fine.”  She swatted the grass with her palms.  “I’m just furious I lost the kayak because of that fool.  Is he okay?”

Niles looked across the river.  People on the opposite bank had formed a human chain and were fishing the idiot from the water.

“I guess.”  Niles tenderly flicked bits of riverweed from her face.  “You scared me.”

Cruz laughed.  “I scared myself.”

Niles edged towards her to kiss her.

A cough ended that.  Niles twisted to find a man in a uniform standing with his foot on a boulder while he wrote on a pad.

“Is something the matter?” Niles asked.

The man wearing a patch that said PA Fish and Boat Commission snorted.  “I should think so.”

Niles glanced at Cruz who shrugged back.

The officer glared.  “Boating with a license.  Kayaking without personal flotation equipment.  Reckless operation of a non-motorized aquatic vehicle.”

“The tuber tubed me!” Cruz complained.  “I had right of way!”

One of the officer’s brows rose but he kept writing.  “Failing to understand basic navigation regulations…”

Cruz started another protest, but Niles slapped his hand over her mouth.

“Anything else?” he asked sweetly.

“Oh yeah!”  The officer tore off his ticket and held it out.  “Landing on state lands without a landing permit.”

Niles looked down at himself and Cruz.  They were a bedraggled muddy mess.  As for their kayaks…

His eyes followed the officers to a spot a little further downstream.  Both boats had come through the event unscathed.  They’d hit an eddy and gently nosed ashore ten feet away.  On, apparently, state game lands.

“Oh.” he said.

“Oh,” said the officer.

He stuffed the ticket in the pocket of Niles shirt.

As he walked away, Niles heard him mutter.

“Idiots.”

© 2019 Newmin

Gule: Help Wanted

The weight of these bleak times weighed on Niles Gule’s shoulders as he trudged north along Baltimore’s Market Street towards the Power Plant under the fading light of the setting sun.  Although summer lay like a sodden blanket over the Crab Cake Capital of the World, crowds were sparse in the pedestrian little plaza.  The Power Plant remained shuttered due to the coronavirus, as was Port Discovery.  Shops were open but few patrons browsed the wares.  The lone vampire stalked his streets alone.

The days and nights of turmoil had finally begun to settle down in the small city.  Crowds no longer tore statues from their bases or marched in protest in the streets as often as they had at the beginning of the summer.  The long slog towards justice and navigating life during quarantine was wearing down the citizenry nearly as much as it was the lord of the city’s vampire world.  Baltimore was tired.  Everyone was tired.

Niles was headed for work as a detective consultant for the police department, night shift of course.  He lived within walking distance of headquarters, making his commute a simple three block sojourn that normally he relished.  Just not now.  Not this summer.

And supposedly a giant meteor is set to smash us all to bits, he mused in a dark moment.  Not that he was worried about it.  At six feet in diameter, the rock didn’t hold much threat unless it landed smack dab on top of a population center.  Last estimate by the astronomers told it would miss the planet entirely.

Niles wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.  Maybe the people of the earth needed a sharp smack on the head from God to straighten them out.

Glum, his shoulders sagging, the vampire entered police headquarters, accepted the daily strip search and x-ray which were required to enter the building, and headed for the elevators.  He arrived in the detective’s bullpen to find his partner, Mariella Cruz, sitting at her desk with a couple of uniformed police officers clustered around.  Niles frowned.  No serious expressions marred those faces.  Each one grinned from ear to ear.

Jonas Williams, a giant of a man of Polish extraction, rumbled a massive laugh that shook the room.  His partner, balding, chubby Walter Cooksey giggled like a girl and shot Niles a furtive glance.

Stopping beside his desk to sift through pink message slips, Niles eyed the cluster askance.

“I’m glad to see cheery faces,” he said.  “After everything we’ve been through these past few months, a bunch of smiles is great.”

At his words, the group burst out laughing.

Lifting a cynical brow, the vampire lasered the group with his brilliant blue eyes.  “What’s so funny?”

Cruz chortled and pointed at her computer monitor.  “This.  It’s perfect for you.”

“What?”  Niles edged towards the group of humans warily.  He wondered what torture they’d concocted for him now.

“My cousin’s in need of a job,” Williams explained in his deep, powerful voice.  “I’ve been combing the want ads for him here in Baltimore.  He’s thinking of moving up here from Atlanta.”

Niles circled his hand in the air.  “That’s nice.  What’s it got to do with me?”

“Nothing.”  Williams belched another laugh.  “I just happened to come across a want ad that’s got your name written all over it.”

Niles frowned.  “I’m not looking for a job.”

“A job sure is looking for you!” Cruz laughed.

She spun her monitor around to reveal an ad posted in the Baltimore Sun’s classified section.

 

Job Offer: To cook people with or without experience

 

“Cooking people,” Williams explained.  “Sounds just up your alley, doesn’t it, Ghoul?”

Niles’ expression darkened.  “Is the cook supposed to be with or without experience or is it the people he’s cooking?”

The group chuckled in unison.

“That’s what we were trying to figure out,” Cruz replied.

Williams poked Niles with a finger.  “You should check it out.  You might like cooking people.”

To show his displeasure at their teasing, Niles bared his fangs.  “I don’t like cooked people.”  He leaned in towards Williams and narrowed his eyes.  “I prefer them raw.”

Cooksey caught the threat.  He squeaked and backed behind his larger partner.

Williams, as always, was not deterred.  “Put those damned things away.  I ain’t afraid of them.”

“You should be,” the vampire grumbled.

Cruz swatted the large officer.  “Stop tormenting him.  He puts up with way more than he should.”  She flicked through the classifieds.  “I found another job that might work for you, though.”

Now Hiring:  Cemetery superintendent The ideal candidate must be able to supervise in a fast-paced environment

“Fast paced cemetery?” Niles queried.  “Somehow, that doesn’t sound like the right job for me.”  He started to grin, getting into the spirit of the discussion.  “I prefer my dead people immobile.  Makes eating them easier.”  He scratched his blond head.  “How would a vampire eat a corpse if it hopped around on him?”

“Ew!” Cruz play shuddered as that vision filled her head.  “Do vampires really eat corpses?”

Niles thought about his ancient friend Marrenstan, the thousand-year-old vampire who cluttered up his footsteps and sometimes his apartment.

“Some do.  If they’re desperate.”

“Ew!” Cruz repeated.  She gave her partner a baleful look.

Niles pressed his hand to his chest.  “I didn’t say I did!”

Williams leaned in over Cruz’s shoulder as she scrolled through the rest of the want ads.  “Who comes up with these ads?” he demanded.  “Do they proofread them?”  He stopped Cruz by tapping her wrist.  “Look at that one.”

Waitress Wanted:  Must be 18 years old With 20 years’ experience

Niles laughed.  “That would be tough.  I guess they expect someone to start working before they were born.”

“It’s probably a typo,” Cruz scolded.  “I’m sure they meant 2 years’ experience.”

“Still, that means they expected a 16-year-old to waitress?” Cooksey clicked his tongue.  “I’m not sure that’s legal.”

“It is with proper paperwork,” Cruz said.  “I worked when I was 16.”

Williams wiggled his eyebrows at the curvaceous lady.  “And what were you doing?”

Cruz swatted him a second time.  “Nothing nefarious.  Summers, I worked a hotdog stand.”

Niles continued casting his eye down the list of classifieds, finding some of them sad, like a woman seeking company and others head scratching, like a pest control company looking for someone to do laundry.  Then he hit another good one.

“Read that,” he chuckled, pointing to the screen with a long, taloned finger.

 

Recruitment Co-Ordinator: You will assist in the day-to-day ruining of the team

 

“Sounds like a good job for you, Jonas,” Niles said.  “Ruining teams is just up your alley.”

“Hey!”  Williams stiffened and puffed his chest.  “I’m a great team player.”

Cruz snortled then coughed to cover it up, earning herself a thump on the back from Williams.

“One does wonder what people were thinking when they placed these ads,” Niles mused, continuing down the list.  “Check that inscrutable listing.”

“What does inscrutable mean?” Cooksey asked.

Niles shrugged.  “I dunno.  It’s inscrutable.”

“It sure is!” Cruz laughed.

 

Piano Player Wanted.  Must have knowledge of opening clams

 

“Maybe he’ll work at a clam shack,” Cooksey offered.

Cruz twirled her black ponytail with a finger.  “I’m trying to think of a musical word that sounds like clams, but all I can think of is scales.”

“As I said,” Niles rumbled.  “It’s inscrutable.”

By now, all of them were enjoying the game of reading ridiculous want ads.  Williams scrolled down further before he stopped the screen.

“Jackpot!” he bellowed.  “Now that’s a true enough want ad!”

Everyone leaned close to read what he’d found.

 

Cab Drivers Wanted:  Must have good Driving And Criminal Record

 

“Taxi drivers with criminal records?” Niles mused.  “In this city?  Nah!”

Shaking her head, Cruz flicked off the website.  “Okay, guys.  We’ve got to get to work.  Baltimore awaits.”

Niles thumbed through his pink message slips.  When one in particular caught his eye, he burst out laughing.

“Yes, it does.”

He set the message down between the group.

A woman had called to complain she’d been robbed.

By her taxi driver.

 

(c) 2020 Newmin

 

Niles comments:  This are honest to God want ads published in the paper.  You really can’t make this stuff up.

 

Gule Goes Boom!

With a squeal of tires, Mariella Cruz pulled to a stop along the curb of the quiet, suburban street in northwest Baltimore.  Around the little Fiat, summer night gathered close and breathless.  Cicadas buzzed and katydids chirped so loud they overrode the sweep of tires on nearby Reisterstown Road.  The vampire Niles Gule unfolded his long, lanky body from the tiny vehicle, smoothed his custom-tailored Italian suit and considered the neighborhood.  Pretty nice for Baltimore.  The wide thoroughfare was lined with cars parked for the night in front of neat, two-story rowhomes of red brick.  The neighborhood wasn’t leafy.  Strangely, the front lots were almost all uniformly small grassy plots without trees or shrubbery.  The sensation was expansive.  Niles might have thought he’d arrived in Chicago.

“4220,” Cruz muttered, consulting her notepad.  “Let’s hope they’re home.”

Niles followed his short, spunky partner as she charged up the walk that led to a set of six concrete stairs and then to a platform shared by two of the rowhomes.  Lights burned in the front windows.

“Lights and a car parked out front,” Niles noted.

Cruz poked the doorbell and prepared to flash her badge.  As soon as she heard movement on the far side of the door and knew she was being studied through the small window, she held it up.

“Baltimore Police.  We need to speak with Domingo Sanchez.”

After a few moments of waiting during which Niles’ predatory hearing picked up the sounds of movement and chatter from beyond the door, the main door cracked open, leaving the iron grilled safety door in place.

An elderly man with silvery hair and drooping mustache peered through the bars.  “You want the other Domingo Sanchez,” he said in a weary tone that confirmed the number of times he’d been harassed by the police over his name.  “My no-good bum nephew.”

Cruz proffered a smile.  “Actually, we’d like to talk to you about your nephew if we could, sir.  May we come in?”

Sanchez’s dark gaze flicked first over her then over Niles.  His sour expression at the sight of the vampire conveyed his dislike for the police.

“It won’t take but a few moments,” Cruz added.

With a roll of his eyes, Sanchez unlocked the safety door and swung it out at them.  “What’s the bum done this time?” he grumbled.

Cruz darted inside before Sanchez could change his mind.  Niles followed more slowly, knowing his Nordic appearance wasn’t winning points with Sanchez.

They collected in a tiny hallway because Sanchez refused to move any deeper into his home.  He stood with his arms crossed over his barrel chest in its white tank, his expression growing dimmer by the moment.

Cruz didn’t waste time.  “Mr. Sanchez, your nephew has been implicated in a shooting in Woodberry on Saturday afternoon.”

“Not surprised,” snorted the older Sanchez.  “What’s that got to do with me?”

“He claims that at the time of the shooting he couldn’t have been in Woodberry because he attended a gathering here at your house.”

Sanchez’s bushy white eyebrows rose.  “Does he?  Well, well!”

“Was he here?”

Another snort.  “I held a cookout in the backyard on Saturday, true enough.  Most of the family came.  Free food will do that.  But he wasn’t here.”

“Are you sure?” Niles asked.

Sanchez stabbed the vampire with a snarling glare.  “Yeah, I’m sure!  This house ain’t that big and the yard is smaller than the house.  I’m sure the damned fool wasn’t here.  His sister was with her baby, but not him.”

Cruz scribbled on her notepad.  “In the event of a trial, would you be willing to testify to that effect?”

Sanchez rolled his eyes.  “I suppose I’d have to, huh?”

Cruz beamed at him.  Few men could escape the beauty of Cruz’s face when she laid on the charm and Sanchez was no different.  He melted like a marshmallow over a campfire as she handed him her card.

Whump!

The explosion threw her into Sanchez.  Its power slammed the two of them against the wall.  They fell in a tangle of arms and legs.

The percussion of air punched the door fully open, whacking Niles in the back of the head.  As stars spun in his eyes, Niles tumbled to the floor.  A hot wind scorched them through the door, then a fluttering of paper and other lightweight materials cascaded over them.

Outside, car alarms shrilled.  Dogs howled.  Doors crashed open.  People yelled.

“What the hell just happened?” Cruz exclaimed from beneath Domingo Sanchez.

The old man groaned and rolled when Cruz pushed to get out from under him.  Still dazed, Niles struggled to his feet to assist her.  Rubbing the back of his throbbing head with one hand, he offered her the other while his remaining senses scanned his environment to determine what sent the world careening into chaos.

The yelling and dog barking continued unabated up and down what had been a quiet, residential street.  With Cruz at his side, Niles stumbled outside onto Sanchez’s raised concrete porch to determine what had happened.

He stood stunned.

Half of Sanchez’s house had evaporated.  Where before a solid, well maintained rowhome had stood, now half of it was sliced away.  Niles could see into the first-floor bath with its toilet still in place.  He could also peer into the second-floor bedrooms.  Bits of torn wallpaper clinging to the partial walls waved in the gentle summer breeze.  A woman whom Niles assumed was Sanchez’s wife stood frozen beside the bed as she gazed blindly out what had once been a solid wall separating her from the house next door.

As for the house next door, it wasn’t next door anymore.  Nor, in fact, was the entire three-unit rowhome.  Where once a series of neat brick edifices had stood shoulder to shoulder with the others lining the street, now only a blank gap stood.  That gap was filled with debris.  Bits of broken floor joists and two-by-fours riddled the street and backyards.  Wholly intact yet glassless aluminum window frames lay flung about as if a giant had been playing ring toss with them.  But most frightening of all was the roofing material.  A huge piece of it lay like a tarp over the hole that had once been houses.  Judging by the size of it, Niles guessed it was the roof of one entire unit now lying flat on ground level.  What had become of the other two-thirds of the roof was unclear.

Neighbors milled in the street.  Some of the bigger men raced into the ruin and began yelling for survivors and digging.  Other folks were on their cellphones, those with a soul calling 911, those without taking video of the carnage.

Niles didn’t stop to think.  Knowing the value of his vampiric strength, he bolted from the porch.

“Call it in!” he shouted at Cruz over his shoulder.

Then he was into the pile.

Side by side with others, he dug through the debris, muttering under his breath he hoped everyone got out.  As he dug, his sharp ears heard Cruz questioning the neighbors.

“How many people lived in those houses?”

Shrugs all around.

“A couple lived in the house on the end,” answered one of the shaken bystanders.

“A family in the middle,” said another.

Niles mentioned the count to those digging, earning himself bleak, stricken looks back.

For all their digging, they found no one.  No cries for help came from the heap.  Eventually, as sirens from the fire department screamed through the night, the volunteers backed from the pile to let the professionals step in.

Niles wiped his filthy face with his silk tie as he came to stand beside Cruz.  Old man Sanchez was moaning about the loss of his wall.

Niles lifted a brow.  “Be glad that’s all you lost!”

Sanchez muttered and sheepishly edged away.

“What do you suppose happened?” Cruz asked in a whisper of a voice.

“Gas leak, probably,” Niles replied.  His voice was winded.

“Mother Mary have mercy,” Cruz prayed.

For several minutes they remained standing in the grass of Sanchez’ yard while the fire and police departments cordoned off the road and sent people back to bed.  No one could do anything for the victims of the blast.  Best tend to the living.

Cruz clutched Niles’ arm.  “That came so close, it could have been us.”

Niles nodded and hugged her tight.  Her body quivered from fear and shock.  Much as he wanted to aid his fellow officers in beginning the investigation, a more important task faced him.  He held Cruz while she shook.  Best tend to the living.

 

BaltimoreBlast

 

Niles comments:  The blast was caused by a gas explosion, although Baltimore Gas and Electric states that their investigation indicated it was not the result of faulty pipes or equipment.  The explosion killed two people, a Morgan State University student and a 61-year-old woman, and injured seven.  Nearly 200 buildings suffered damage.  Numerous families have been driven from their homes.  The American Red Cross has been helping displaced residents and offering counseling to those who need it.  If you’d like to help, contact the Red Cross.

 

 

Gule Has Stars in His Eyes

The wind tearing through Fifi’s window sent Mariella Cruz’s black ponytail spinning around her head like the blades of a helicopter trying to take off.  Her voice rose above the roar as she warbled along to Bad Bunny’s Si Veo a Tu Mamá while careening down I695 just south of Baltimore.  Her partner, the vampire Niles Gule, clung to the grab bar and watched the last of the city lights flash by before comforting darkness surrounded them.  Traffic was sparse that hot summer evening.  Even on one of the most traveled highways in the country, the COVID pandemic had frightened enough people into staying home that their absence was noticeable.  Even so, the constant barrage of headlights from the opposite direction stabbed Niles’s sensitive retinas, forcing him to ride predominantly with his eyes closed.  Probably a good idea anyway.  He couldn’t watch as his beloved Latina sideswiped delivery vans and cut off tractor-trailers in defiance of the law and common sense.

“Are you going to give me a hint about where we’re going?” Cruz chirped as she clipped an RV, causing it to waver in its lane before righting itself.

“It’s a surprise,” Niles murmured, content behind his closed eyelids.  “A small gesture for my lady.”

She poked him with an elbow.  “You can give me a hint!”

“That would spoil it.  Besides, it’s not much of a gift.  You might not appreciate it.”

Cruz hummed happily and flipped her ponytail.  “I’m always touched by your thoughtfulness, Niles.  You come up with some wonderful ideas.  Of a sort human males wouldn’t consider.”  She beamed at him.  He caught that look through a cracked eyelid.

“Exit off at 151,” he said.  “Hang south.”

Cruz pursed her lips while she contemplated that instruction.  “Edgemere.  What’s in that little bywater?”

Niles refused to take her bait.

When an umbrella rose of its own accord out of the back seat and whacked Niles on the head, he twisted and swatted blindly at his invisible attacker.  Gumby the Jumbie had decided he wanted to join his favorite vampire on the drive out of Baltimore.  Being an imp, he couldn’t help but cause trouble.

“You’d think your driving would have left him behind,” Niles grumbled.

Cruz lifted her shoulders helplessly.

A gleeful Gumby, sometimes visible to Niles and sometimes not, clambered into the area under the rear window and destuffed a plush rabbit sitting there.

“If he destroys my Bun-Bun, I’ll kill him!” Cruz growled, seeing the rabbit disintegrate via her rear view mirror.  Gumby was totally invisible to her.

“Too late!”  Niles gave her a woeful look.  “I’ll get you another one.”

Cruz growled low in her throat but didn’t answer.

Once they’d left the highway and entered the darkness of the spit of land that jutted into the Chesapeake, Niles could open his eyes to direct her on the side streets.  They turned left onto North Point Road which carried them into the tiny village of Edgemere, a collection of bungalows that would have looked perfectly at home in the Jersey Shore.  At that hour of night, just past midnight, they drowsed quiet and dark, only safety lights ablaze to protect their properties.   Cruz sailed past them in a blur and entered a land of woodlands punctuated by farm fields.

Cruz shot Niles looks as she continued relentlessly south on the remote road, waiting for him to ask her to stop or turn off, but he merely watched the world scroll by and enjoyed the warm wind plucking at his short cropped blond hair.  Gumby, having finished destroying the rabbit, puttered around the backseat, seeking additional trouble but not finding it.

Cruz’s brows really rose when Niles asked her to take another left turn onto a still smaller country road that continued due south.

“We’re gonna run out of land!” she protested.  She knew the spit ended in the Chesapeake Bay.

Forest crowded around the road.  Not a single light glimmered from any direction.

“Taking me out into the woods to kill me and dispose of the body?” she quipped.

Niles chuckled low in his throat.  “I have better ideas for your body than that.”

Cruz shot him an amused glance.  She slowed when they arrived at the North Point State Park entrance gate then continued through into the woods of the park.  Another mile or so later, they arrived at a small parking area.  Cruz, knowing dry land ended there, pulled into a spot, and shut off the car.  Before she could speak, Niles popped out of the vehicle, stretched his long, lanky body, and awaited her.  Giving him a piercing this better be good look, Cruz joined him.  He wrapped his arm around her waist and set off down a path that led in the darkest woods.  Gumby disappeared.

Cruz clung to her vampire’s side because on that nearly moonless night, without lights on the path, she could barely see her feet.  Niles, with his exquisite night vision, strode along confidently, the world appearing clear to him in shades of black, gray, and white.

“We’re running out of land,” Cruz protested as the murky smell of the Chesapeake filled the night air.  She had to yell to be heard over the shrill of cicadas that buzzed from every tree.

“Yes, we are,” Niles agreed as they stepped out of the forest to face the bay directly before them.

The path didn’t end at the water’s edge, however.  It continued in a direct line straight out into the bay via a breakwater with a wooden walking path atop it.  The breakwater jutted out almost a quarter mile before it ended with a man made island and a small viewing deck.

At that time of night, darkness closed in tightly around them.  The breakwater possessed no lights, leaving Cruz totally blind.  She clung to Niles to assure she didn’t tumble into the water.

“You’re going to kill me and toss me in the bay,” she giggled, pressing tight.

Niles’ arm tightened.  “Not a chance.”

When they reached the end of the breakwater, Niles cursed.  Someone else had stolen his idea.  A crowd of some twenty people had set up folding chairs and tables on the viewing platform.  A camp lantern burned softly around which people sat drinking beers and chatting.

“This wasn’t in the plan,” Niles murmured.

Cruz studied the scene.  Ink surrounded the breakwater.  She could see nothing but the silhouettes of people cast by the lantern.  Off in the distance a scattering of lights delineated the Eastern Shore.  To the south reigned the glow from the small city of Annapolis, capital of Maryland and home of the Naval Academy.  Closer by, to landward behind the trees came the preternatural glow of Baltimore itself.

“I take it these people are wrecking your plan?” Cruz asked softly.

Niles grunted.  “More or less.”

Cruz gestured blindly to the darkness.  “Ok, I surrender.  What was the plan?”

Niles led her to the very edge of the breakwater where he sat down with her beside her, their feet inches from the lapping water.  He lay back against the boards, which still radiated heat from the day and settled her beside him.

“Have you ever seen a sky like that?” he asked.

Cruz snuggled against him and gazed upwards.  The firmament arched as a perfect, black dome above them, dazzling with thousands of stars.  The Milky Way shimmered and undulated in an arc, so brilliant in that dark place, Cruz thought she could make out the glowing heart of the galaxy’s core itself.

“No.”  Her voice was a breath of air.  “Now I understand why you brought me so far out.  You can’t see the sky like this in the city.”

Niles’ voice softened.  “I remember in my youth when the sky looked like this from any location.  Modern lights have stolen this gift from you.”

“It’s a sweet gift,” Cruz murmured, pressing a kiss to his cold brow.  “And not something most men would think of.”

“It’s not done yet.”  Niles pointed, his pale hand barely visible in the light from the lantern.  “Watch the show.”

Cruz did.  After only a minute, a streak of light shot amongst the stars.  Another followed immediately after, then another and another.  Cruz gasped with joy and clapped her hands as the light show continued.  Hundreds of falling stars shot across the sky, some a mere blink of an eye, others trailing large tails and seeming to bounce as they fell.

“What is this?” she whispered.

“The Perseid Meteor Shower,” Niles answered in a low tone to maintain the magical atmosphere.  “It comes every August when the Earth crosses the path of the Swift-Tuttle comet.  The comet leaves a trail of debris in its wake.  As the Earth plunges through that debris field, its gravity captures some of the material which fall as meteors.”  He pointed off center.  “That’s the Perseus constellation.  The meteors appear to originate from that point, which is where they get their name.”

“Wow.”

Niles kissed her cheek.  “This was my little gift.”

Cruz laughed then kissed him back.  “It’s accepted.”

One of the gentlemen sitting by the lantern cleared his throat.  Niles flicked him a glance to find he and some of his fellows eyeing them and shaking their heads.

Niles considered the group’s clothing, appearance, and bounty of astronomical equipment and designated them professional star watchers.  They weren’t interested in a vampire’s idea of romance.

Niles sighed and lay flat to enjoy half of the show he’d planned.

Together, he and Cruz lay in the humid darkness, listening to the distant buzz of the cicadas and the nearby slap of water against the stones.  The air smelled of dead fish and the aromatic smoke from someone’s pipe.  Above them, the streaks of light continued to fall as if God himself was shedding icy tears.  The evening would have been hopelessly romantic, were it not for a dozen scientific minded men not sitting five feet away.

Niles started when someone yelled.  Moments later came the splash of something light weight hitting the water.  Confusion rose as people yelped in pain or surprise, chairs fell over, and the lantern abruptly snuffed out.

Niles held Cruz to his side while pandemonium took over the platform.  Someone lit a flashlight, its beam swinging crazily through the darkness.  Forms fled down the long dock.  The man with the flashlight tried to use it as a weapon against his attacker to no avail.  Eventually, even he ran for his life, leaving a campsite in disarray.

A beer can sailed off to kerplunk in the bay.  A second chair teetered on the edge and dove for the depths.

To Niles’ dark adjusted eyes, he could barely make out Gumby’s stout, trundling form as the imp gleefully tossed objects in search of food.  When he landed a pack with marshmallow treats, Niles actually heard him squeal.  The jumbie plopped on his fat little ass and hungrily munched.  When he finished the treat, he disappeared.

“Note to self,” Niles murmured, not once reacting to the bizarre idea of a jumbie destroying a campsite.  “Feed Gumby marshmallows to get rid of him.”

Cruz chuckled.  “He’s a nice little sprite.”

“Nice?”  Niles might have leaped to his feet if he hadn’t been lying on his back.  “He’s a menace.”

Cruz burrowed her face into his neck.  “Yes, but a helpful menace.  He cleared this dock for us.”

Niles turned his head to find her staring into his eyes with her brows raised in anticipation.  Her soft eyes burned warm in the dark.

“Why, yes he did!”  Niles chuckled and pulled her close.  “Indeed, he did.  Marvelous little imp.”

 

 

Niles comments:  Earth will pass through the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle from July 17 to Aug. 24, with the shower’s peak — when Earth passes through the densest, dustiest area — occurring on the morning of Aug. 12. That means you’ll see the most meteors in the shortest amount of time near that peak, but you can still catch some action from the famed meteor shower before or after that point.

 

Perseids

Gule Finds the Sky is Falling

With a sigh of happiness, Baltimore Police Detective Mariella Cruz slid into the booth and grabbed the laminated menu propped up by the ketchup bottle.  More slowly, her partner, the vampire Niles Gule, settled across from her and smoothed his red and blue silk tie.  He, too, sighed, but not over the prospect of food.  He was relieved to have survived riding as a passenger in Cruz’s little Fiat.  The woman’s talents were wasted in Baltimore.  She should drive for NASCAR.

“What can I get ya, handsome?” asked the buxom waitress wearing a blue shirt and black jumper with the name tag Carla attached to her ample chest.  Her hazel eyes sparkled as she surveyed her tall, elegantly dressed customer, having no idea he was a vampire.

“Coffee,” Niles said, not bothering to glance at a menu.  He didn’t need to read one to know the Waffle House didn’t cater to his dietary requirements.  Few restaurants did.

Cruz, on the other hand, was famished.  “I’ll take the All Star Special.  I’d like my eggs sunny side up, bacon and white toast please.  And coffee.”

As Carla sauntered away, Niles considered his partner’s curvaceous but trim physique.  “How do you do eat breakfasts like that without blimping out?”

Cruz’s dark eyes twinkled.  “It’s a Latina secret, Niles.”  She leaned closer and lowered her voice.  “But I’ll let you in on it.  We can store everything we eat in one appropriate place.”  She wriggled on the vinyl provocatively.

Niles twitched his lips, unsure how to respond.  The concept of junk in the trunk was alien to vampires.  They were, after all, uniformly thin creatures who didn’t possess junk anywhere as far as he knew.

With a clatter of crockery, Carla returned and placed first a plate of eggs and bacon in front of Cruz, then a side plate of pancakes, then a bowl of grits and finally her cup of coffee. With a smirk, she set Niles’ lonely coffee in front of him.

“You sure you don’t want something for breakfast, sugar?” she asked.  “You could stand to put some meat on those bones.”

Niles collected the cup with his long, slender fingers.  “Thank you, no,” he murmured.  “I’m on a special diet.”

Cruz snorted and dove into her pancakes with a vengeance.  “I was so damned hungry!” she said between swallows.  “Lord, it was a long night!  Three arrests, two witness interviews.  Phew!”  She considered her partner.  “Aren’t you hungry?”

The vampire’s brilliant blue gaze sobered.  His lips pressed into a thin line.  Now it was his turn to lower his voice.  “I’m a vampire, Mari.  I’m hungry twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year.  I am always ravenous.  It tears at my gut every minute of the day.”

Cruz paused, a fork full of pancakes dripping syrup halfway to her mouth.  “Oh, wow!  Seriously?”

Niles nodded.  His eyes shifted to a pale yellow in warning.  “Let’s change the subject, shall we?”

Cruz considered the busy restaurant.  The breakfast hour in Baltimore along Route 83 equaled lots of hungry truckers and delivery people starting their day or nighthawks like herself and Niles ending theirs.  The kitchen staff was hopping to keep up with the stream of orders brought by the hustling wait staff.  The aroma of coffee, bacon and pancakes blanketed the space.

“Maybe we could order some bacon for you,” she suggested.  “Or sausage or something.  I think they have burgers…”

Niles laid his icy hand atop hers to silence her.  “Mari, please.  I can’t abide burnt meat.  I tolerate raw because I have no choice.  Swearing off blood has been hell.  But it was my choice.  I have to live with it.”

Cruz sat with her lips parted, her eyes saddened, but she said nothing.

An odd creaking sound perked Niles’ sharp ears.  Frowning, he looked around, trying to determine its source.  It came again, growing stronger.

“Do you hear that?” he asked Cruz.

She nodded, studying the restaurant.  It continued to buzz with ordinary Tuesday business.

The sound filled their booth.  Both Cruz and Niles looked up at the same moment to see the ceiling tiles bow.  The bow grew larger.  The tiles squeaked in protest.  One cracked.  Then the lot gave.

With a crash, the tiles and a half naked human crashed onto the table between Niles and Cruz.  Cruz squealed and ducked.  Niles twisted out of the booth and stood gaping as the mess of ceiling tile and person settled over the smashed remains of Cruz’s breakfast.

The young man groaned.  A sweep of his arm sent coffee, pancakes and ceiling debris sliding onto the seats.

Niles helped Cruz out of the booth.  The rest of the Waffle House had collapsed into an eerie silence except for the Muzak playing on the speakers.

“What the hell?” Cruz growled.

The young man sat up and looked around, dazed.  Niles decided he hadn’t injured himself in the fall, but he questioned the man’s mental state.  Because although he wore a flannel shirt, he was buck naked from the waist down.

“Now that’s an image I could have done without!” Cruz complained.  She snatched the apron from their waitress and tossed it at the man.

Snatching the apron, the boy scrambled out of the debris and twisted past Niles.  He was a small, lithe little creature.  He moved so fast, Niles didn’t think to grab him.  Wearing only the apron wrapped to cover his front, he bolted from the confused restaurant before anyone could stop him.  Niles started after him, but by the time he reached the door, the lad had high tailed it into the woods nearby, mooning everyone in the parking lot as he did so.

Returning to the table, Niles heard additional commotion coming from the rear of the establishment.  With an abused sigh, he headed that direction to find a patron tugging at the men’s room door, unable to open it.

“Can this wait?” Niles asked with a sigh.

The elderly gentleman shook his head.  “No, sir!  It sure as hell can’t!”  He gave the door another tug.

Rolling his eyes, Niles grasped the handle and using his more substantial strength, wrenched the door open.  Something that had been holding the door shut tore.  Then Niles was inside.  He checked to assure the room was safe, then ushered the elderly man inside.  Holding the cloth that had tied the door shut from the inside, Niles returned to the scene of the disaster to find the restaurant manager, Carla and Cruz discussing the debacle.

“He’s been here before,” Carla said.  “I overheard him telling someone he planned to rob the place.  I just figured it was a bunch of kids talking smack to each other.”

Gesturing to the mess, Cruz said, “I guess this was his attempt.”

“Why hide in the ceiling?” asked the manager.

“My guess?” Niles mused, looking up.  “He snuck up there through the ceiling in the men’s room.”  He waved the cloth he held.  “These are his pants.  He used them to tie the bathroom door shut so no one would find he’d removed tiles to get above.”

“But why would a robber hide in the ceiling?  It doesn’t make any sense!” the manager complained.

“I suspect he thought he could hide up there until closing time, then rob you when your till was full.”

The manager gaped at him.  “Sir, this is a Waffle House.  We never close!”

Niles considered the pants he still held.  “I didn’t say he was the sharpest tack in the box.”

The manager moaned.  “What a mess!  And we didn’t catch the guy!”

“Not to worry,” Niles said with a smile.  “We’ll have no trouble catching him.”

Cruz lifted a brow.  “How do you know?  I mean I put out an APB on a half-naked guy running around in an apron mooning the world, but….”

Niles laughed and shook his head.  “It won’t be hard.”  He dug into the blue jeans and pulled out a wallet.  “He left his wallet and ID behind.”

 

 

Niles comments:  I swear to you, I can’t make this up!  It really did happen.  Some idiot did hide in a Waffle House ceiling hoping to rob it after hours.  He didn’t realize Waffle Houses are open all night.  Eventually, his weight caused the ceiling to collapse.  He was captured because he’d left his jeans with his wallet in them tying the bathroom door shut.  Seriously.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aifCP9k7yqE

 

Gule Tears Down This Wall

A long, white talon scraped the vampire’s chin while he considered his human partner’s request.  Blue eyes the color of a summer’s sky studied the little Latina’s fervid expression, hoping for a reprieve from the appeal.  It didn’t come.

“Must we?” he mewed.

Mariella Cruz thrummed her fingers across the top of the steering wheel and narrowed her dark gaze at her vampire.  “If you didn’t intend to march, why did you travel across the country with me?”

Niles Gule continued to finger his jaw while he rifled for the response that would not elicit a reprisal from his hot-tempered partner.

“I was hoping you’d come to your senses?”

He winced, waiting for her to smack him.

She did, lightly, on the shoulder.  “You should know me better by now.”

With a sigh, Niles agreed.  When Cruz set her mind on something, not even the Good Lord dared stand in her way.

What she wanted this time was to support the California branch of her family by attending a protest.  Not one of the Black Lives Matter protests broiling American cities.  They’d both dealt with that issue on the job daily for the past month and needed a break.  This protest was about the wall between the United States and Mexico and a new section being built in the Calexico area.  Cruz’s relatives owned ranch land along the border where crews for the Army Corps of Engineers were raising the new concrete and steel structure.  The western branch of the Cruz family hadn’t appreciated a strip of their land being appropriated, nor did they appreciate the construction crews trampling their property.  An old-fashioned range war was brewing among the numerous and far flung clan of American Cruz’s.   God help the Army!

Cruz had strong-armed… ahem… convinced with razor-sharp logic…Niles into joining her on a cross-country flight to support her family.  That dragged the fastidious, city-born vampire to the vast deserts of southern California, an environment in total contradiction to his biology.  As they argued about attending the demonstration, Niles huddled inside the rental car that thankfully possessed heavily tinted windows.  A broiling desert sun trapped him in the car, but now dark clouds billowed overhead, cutting the blinding glare and deadly rays to a mere fraction of their clear sky intensity.  Cruz decided the world had darkened enough for her vampire to dare the open spaces.

Niles grumbled as she expertly slapped three coats of SPF 75 on his face and hands, the only bits of skin he dared expose in a desert environment.  Then she tapped his Australian cattleman’s hat onto his fair head and tightened the elegant silk scarf that would protect the delicate skin around his neck.  A pair of wrap-around, nearly opaque black sunglasses completed the costume.

Giving himself a baleful looksee in the rearview mirror, Niles scowled.  “I look like one of the Men In Black.”

“Good!” Cruz chirped.  “Maybe you’ll scare off some of the construction crew.”

His eyes glaring behind his black sunglasses, Niles climbed from the car.  As he swung the door shut, a hot wind like the breath from a kiln scorched his face and tugged at the brim of his hat.  Planting it more firmly on his head, he gestured to his partner to lead the way.

“Looks like we’re in for a bad storm,” he warned, squinting up at the firmament.

Clouds roiled black against the golden glow of the desert sky.  The wind whipped up veils of dust and sent them spinning across the flat plain in whirling dust devils.  That dust scoured both Niles and Cruz as they turned their back to it and trudged through the sage brush towards a dark line cutting straight across the landscape.

“Pretty impressive,” Niles murmured as they neared the border.

His eyes swept along the wall which cut a perfectly straight line through the desert like a giant comb stuck into the sand.  It stood thirty feet high, its base planted in concrete, its header a wide steel beam to deter climbers.  The wall itself was more of a fence made of three inch wide steel tubing, the teeth of the comb.

One of President Trump’s signature policies had been to build that wall between the United States and Mexico, one which he’d claimed the Mexicans would pay for.  When that country refused to provide said dollars, the president then tried to force Congress to fund his project only to lose when his shutdown of the government blew up in his face.  Desperate for money, he turned to raiding military budgets reserved for other projects.  That plan had since been shot down by the courts, leaving the wall project unfunded and generally unloved by almost everyone but a handful of diehard conservatives.

That didn’t mean desultory building didn’t continue.  Two miles of the wall using the Trump design of square steel tubing reinforced with concrete and rebar had been raised to much fanfare from the president and his backers.

The section on Cruz land was still under construction.  A small crew braved the impending storm while they maneuvered digging equipment to excavate the next foundation.  They clung to their hardhats which the wind threatened to steal from their heads.  A gale was rising.  Niles was grateful for his sunglasses.

They found the Cruz Family Protest about twenty yards from the construction site.  It was a rather unimpressive affair.  The Protests consisted of ten family members and friends carrying some handmade signs, marching in circles, and yelling in English and Spanish.  A single foreman from the crew stood blocking the cluster from approaching any closer, not that he was straining himself.  The family milled about, fretted about the storm and shouted obscenities in Spanish at the construction crew that no one could hear over the wind.

When Cruz joined her family, a cheer arose.  Cousins enveloped her in bear hugs and slapped her back, thanking her in Spanish for coming to their event.  With dubious expressions, the group of weather-beaten farmers studied Niles who looked totally out of place in his expensive Italian suit and polished loafers.  His blond hair and black sunglasses declared him not one of us.

“He’s cool,” Cruz said.  “He’s my partner back in Baltimore.”

At that, the family relaxed and welcomed him to their protest.

Which turned out to be mostly harassing the construction workers and milling around.

“I’d hoped for some media attention,” Cousin Tito complained.  The big man with a cowboy hat, paint spattered t-shirt and rugged coveralls spat sand from his mouth and scrubbed his eyes as the wind continued to howl across the arid landscape.

“I’m filming!” piped chubby Oscarlo.  Even against the storm, he kept his camera on its tripod rolling.

“What’s to film?” Niles asked.

Cruz grinned.  “The best part of the protest.  Proof that wall is stupid as well as a waste of money.”

Niles lifted a brow when she gestured to a pair of men fiddling with something on the ground.  One of them tossed a heap of rope over his shoulder.  The other picked up a crossbow.  Together, the pair sauntered down the section of newly built fence several hundred yards until they’d ventured beyond the construction crew’s range of interest.

Niles, with his exquisite vampiric vision, watched easily as the man with the crossbow loaded it and fired it at the fence.  A quarrel with a rope attached easily topped the fence and fell on the Mexican side.  The guy line carried a rope ladder with it with hooks that caught the top of the fence.  His arms crossed over his chest, Niles watched the simple process the pair used to seat the hooks by shaking the rope.  Then the smaller of the two nimbly scaled the fence using his rope ladder.  When he reached the far side, he merely slid down the fence rails and landed safely in Mexico.

“Only a professional mountain climber can scale it,” Niles intoned, recalling Trump’s words at the televised press conference announcing the design.

“Yep!” Cruz chuckled.  “Uncle Reynaldo is a professional climber.  Of your basic ladder.  He’s a painter.”

Niles shook his head with a laugh.  “So much for the unclimbable wall!”

“It’s not invincible anyway,” Cruz added.  “Last week, Tito used a chainsaw from Home Depot to cut through a section of it.  That really pissed a few people off!”  Her snortling laugh ended with a cough from the dust.

A creak of protesting metal tore through the howl of the storm.  As the Cruz family watched, the newly erected fence began to sway.  Over the rush of blasting sand, Niles heard the construction crews yelling.  Then they were running.  The fence, overburdened by the steel beam across the top that acted like a wind sail, began to rock.  Steel shrieked in complaint.  Then, with a rending groan, an entire section of the fence toppled over like a felled tree.  As the crews scrambled for safety, another section and then another section collapsed into the dust.

“Let’s get back to the car!” Niles yelled over the roar.  “This is getting dangerous!”

Cruz grasped his arm as the pair turned to face the wind.  Niles bent half over to protect his face from the blasting sand while Cruz huddled in the protection of his body.  She yelled to her family to take cover.  Tough desert dwellers that they were, they scoffed at her and stood with their backs to the wind, their hands on their hips as they watched the construction crews run.

The storm raged on, unconcerned that it had just trashed a president’s dream.

 

Niles comments:  Lest you think I make this stuff up, you can watch the video here:

 

Gule Stands Like a Statue

Greetings everyone.

I don’t normally converse with you readers directly because I hired a biographer to handle my social media accounts.  It’s a small perk of being famous.  But tonight, I feel like writing to you.  My thoughts are heavy and confused and I thought maybe typing them out on a computer would help to clear my head.

I’ve just ended a long sultry night working for the Baltimore Police Department.  Walking outside, even in the depths of night, the heat weighs on one’s shoulders like a pair of bricks.  The humidity is a sludge through which we must slog.  And the funk off the harbor curdles my nose whenever I’m within blocks of the water.

Every summer, Baltimore becomes a hot bed of restlessness due to the heat.  Assaults and shootings increase because the oppressive air drags on one’s soul.  It wears at the corners of tolerance, causing tempers to flare hotter than they might in the depths of winter.  And yet, this summer, July 2020, I sense the smoldering resentments burn even deeper than normal.  This city is on edge.  Like virtually every city on the planet right now.  I sense an explosion primed and just waiting for the right spark to set the world ablaze.

Everyone is struggling, not just in Baltimore, but across this country and the world.  Some cities, like Portland, are drowning in violent civil action.  Others, like Chicago, wade waist deep in gang related bloodshed unrelated to civil disobedience.  In almost every major metropolis in America and Europe, citizens are rending statues from their foundations, most often those related to 19th century human trafficking, but not always.  Some of the statues torn down, frankly, cause me to scratch my head.  Frederick Douglass?  The black abolitionist, orator, and statesman?  His statue in Rochester, New York, was torn down on July 4th, the date of his most famous speech.  A statue of abolitionist Hans Christian Heg was torn down in June from in front of the Wisconsin State Capitol.  It was decapitated and its head thrown in a lake.  I admit, I’m confused.

Here in Baltimore, 300 people attacked the statue of Christopher Columbus which had stood in Little Italy for more than 30 years.  When it fell, the statue broke into several pieces which were then dragged across the plaza and dumped into the Inner Harbor.  Perhaps more damage might have been done had not the city council voted in 2017 to remove several statues honoring Confederate leaders strewn around the city.  They are gone.  Nothing to destroy.

Why is this happening?  Why at this particular moment?

I believe it’s due the following reasons.

It’s hot.  Let’s face it, it’s just damned hot.  And with every year, it’s getting hotter.  This is the legacy of climate change.  Those of you who choose to scoff and deny it’s a factual phenomenon may do so.  But take it from a vampire who’s lived more than a century.  The world is hotter today than it was when I was a child.  The warmth of spring arrives about three weeks earlier in the Mid Atlantic than it did a century ago, and fall lingers about three weeks later into the year, shaving about a month off the brutal cold of winter.  Individual days may not be substantially hotter than they’ve been in the past, but the duration of the hottest days grows with each passing year, and this relentless burden of extended heat presses on nerves.  Makes people short tempered.  Violence erupts with the heat.

The coronavirus just adds to the misery.  We’re told by experts we are safest outside, and yet outside is just too damned hot.  If we cluster indoors, huddled around our struggling air conditioners, we risk infecting each other.  So, we wear masks.  But those pesky bits of cotton constrict our breathing and beat our own body heat back into our faces.  Miserable heat becomes intolerable when one must don a mask.  Is it any wonder the people of the south and west balk at wearing them?  Of course, the choice is mask or die.  Hell of a choice!  I know which one I choose.  I wear my mask.  I grumble about how much I dislike it.  But I wear my mask.

The virus has brought economic collapse to many areas of the world.  Supply chains are disrupted.  Goods become scarce.  Businesses have been forced to shut down, often with little warning.  That lack of warning gives owners no chance to deal with their inventories.  If it’s perishable, oh well!  While some businesses have received governmental financial aid, others have not.  Employees have been shed by the millions, leaving people terrified of how they will pay their rent or mortgage or how they will feed their families.  This burden has landed most heavily on the poor and people of color regardless of the society in which they live.  The disproportionate cost between the haves and the have nots fuels more resentment and anger.  The privileged remain sequestered in their air-conditioned homes retaining their jobs and incomes via technology, while the poor and dispossessed scramble to survive nose to nose with potentially infected people.  How could this situation not set fire to deep seated resentments?

I lay the blame for the dissolution of civil society at the feet of divisive government agencies.  All the above problems have festered untended, some for mere months, others for a century or more.  People might tolerate the intolerable if they sense their society is inching towards a better place, if with every day they can see some tiny, tangible improvement in the above issues.  Unfortunately, no such movement is taking place.  Leadership at the US federal level has chosen to pretend all the issues I’ve noted are either going to magically disappear or are not their responsibility.  This leaves state and local governments to flounder for their own solutions without a coherent, national plan.  One state is pitted against another.  States battle their own cities.  Then leaders bemoan the increasing explosions of viral infections, civil disobedience, and neighborhood violence as if they aren’t ultimately the source of the problem.

I digress.  Vampires do that when they think too much.

I am mulling the issue of statues tonight while I sit at my computer and gaze out my tenth-floor window at the Inner Harbor shimmering in the heat as dawn approaches.

Should statues be destroyed?  To some, this is erasing history.  To others, it is removing a painful canker.  I offer my thoughts as a northern vampire who lived through all the years enshrined in those statues.  Monuments are raised for numerous reasons.  To celebrate the past.  To honor individuals of exceptional courage or ability.  To educate generations to come.  Some attempt to impress an ideology upon those viewing it.  Many are raised by individuals attempting to hold onto a way of life slipping away from them or to put others they deem lesser in their places.  Humans can possess incredible good and incredible evil, with most carrying both traits to some degree.  None is perfect.

The where and why seem critical to me.  If a monument has been placed upon a battlefield, it serves a purpose of informing those who view it.  Its location is appropriate for that function.  Its reason is to educate.  These monuments, in my opinion, should be left to stand so that future generations can learn from them.  The history of the event should be available for those willing to be educated.  If, however, a monument was raised in a public place outside of its historical context and honors an individual who supported a cause that brought injury to others, I believe it should be moved to a more fitting location.  Some, because the taint of wrong is so slight, or the person is of such obscurity that no one could be offended by their appearance, should, maybe, be left as they are.

Under no circumstance do I condone any person destroying works of art paid for by others or by public funds.  If a monument is determined to be offensive, local authorities with proper equipment should handle the removal.  The artwork should either be returned to those who paid for it, if possible, or placed elsewhere such as in a museum where it can be viewed with proper perspective.  The result of mobs attacking monuments is the possibility of injury to innocent parties and raises the hackles of those who oppose such actions.  This leads to yet more division of our society which we don’t need right now.  Citizens do not have the right to make unilateral decisions for their communities.

So, I ask all who think to attack a statue.  Don’t.

I ask all who are filled with rage at the destruction to control your anger.  Do not attack those destroying monuments.  This only leads to more violence and destruction.

Let our laws work as they are intended.

And, for God’s sake, wear a mask!

Time for this vampire to find his rest.

The sun will be rising soon.

 

(c) 2020 Newmin

Ninja Gule

As a vampire, Niles Gule didn’t understand the human penchant for testing themselves against each other in seemingly senseless competitions.  He found the depth and breadth of such battles perplexing, over snow and ice, in, under and over water, from mountaintops and flat plains, motorized and otherwise.  The array was dizzying.  Vampires only challenged each other in territorial disputes and when they did meet under such conditions, one vampire walked away victorious, the other walked away dead.  Having thrown in his lot with humans, however, Niles felt he needed to blend in with the tribalism.  Which was why on his evening off, he joined police officer Jonas Williams and detective Stephen Krewelski at Rash Field to watch the taping of a television show.

American Ninja Warrior had come to Baltimore to film one of its qualifying rounds.  Twenty of the fittest individuals from the surrounding area volunteered to run a torture test requiring incredible upper body strength, speed and agility for nothing more than the joy of besting others as talented as themselves.  Meanwhile, a crowd of the not so fittest of Baltimore screamed for their favorites from the stands.

Niles grimaced when the fan sitting beside him mistakenly punched him in the side of the face with an elbow as he rose to cheer.  Niles didn’t care for the close quarters.  As a vampire, he feared being touched by humans who normally found his icy skin frightening.  The smell of sweat and warm blood suffusing the air filled him with hunger and made his fangs ache.   The blazing, shifting lights against the darkness of the field at night dazzled his eyes.  He was forced to squint to see the men on course.

“What’s the objective of this?” he asked Williams.  He rearranged himself so that his back was angled towards his overactive neighbor.

“To win, of course!”  Williams whistled in derision when the current contestant missed a handhold and fell with a splash into the pool below, ending his attempt.

“But how?”  Niles winced when neighborman shot to his feet again, elbows flying, to pump his fist for the next man up.

Williams rolled his eyes.

Krewelski answered.  “The ninja has to run the obstacle course.  He dashes over those spinning cones, climbs the wall, swings through the bars, and so on.  If he gets all the way through the course without falling, he’s on to the next round.”

“And the point is?”  Niles still wasn’t getting it.

“To be the best!”  Williams clapped for the next fellow who ended in the pool.

Like that made any more sense than the first time he’d said it, Niles thought.  “So why are we here?” he asked.

“Because it’s fun!” Williams replied, now elbowing the vampire from the opposite side.  “And because Manny Villanueva is running the course.  We gotta support a fellow police officer.”

Niles recalled meeting Manny at a training session.  He wasn’t the biggest man on the Baltimore PD–Williams probably was– but he was certainly fit and agile.  Niles suspected having quick reflexes was a greater asset to someone on the Ninja course than mere muscles.

“More importantly,” Krewelski added, “Annapolis has been throwing down smack about us.  Says we’re a bunch of old, fat layabouts.  They’ve got Bongo Jim running the course for them tonight.”

Niles considered what he knew of his fellow officers.  Old and fat did come to mind for some of them…

“Baltimore will not lose to Annapolis!”  Williams fisted as he spoke the words.

“Don’t count on it.”  DeShawn Jackson panted as he arrived in the stands.  “Manny’s down.”

“What?”  Williams was nearly on his feet again.

Jackson gestured helplessly.  “He was warming up and twisted his knee.  He’s out.”

“Shit!”  Williams flopped in his seat.  “That’s just great!”

“Maybe Bongo will splash out,” Niles offered.  He earned himself a glare from Williams.  “Well, what else is there to do?” he asked.  “I don’t suppose Manny had a backup.”

Even as the words were out of his mouth, Niles realized his mistake.  Three sets of greedy human eyes fixed on him.  He saw them run down his body and back up again.

“Oh no!” he said.  “Nothing doing!”

“A vampire would rip that course to shreds!” Krewelski chortled.  “You’ve got the strength of three of us.”

“Whoa!”  Niles held up his hands.  “That may be, but this requires more than strength.  It takes skill and practice and the ability to see!  I’m half blind here with all these lights.”

“Nonsense!”  Jackson grabbed Niles’ arm.  “Piece of cake for you.  You can do this with your eyes closed.”

“I’m going to have to,” Niles muttered.

Jackson tugged.  “Come on!”

With Williams grasping one arm and Jackson the other, Niles had no choice but to follow them.  He couldn’t punch the two men like he wanted to in front of a huge crowd of humans.  He might start a riot.

“I not wearing appropriate clothes,” he protested.

No one was listening to him.

Somehow, the trio of police officers bullied past security and distracted television producers to reach the dressing area.  There they found a morose Manny Villaneuva nursing a torn knee with the aid of an EMT.  He looked up, startled when four of his co-workers appeared.

“Have you got some extra togs?” Jackson asked, scrounging in Manny’s duffle.  He yipped with glee when he found a backup set of sweats.

“They won’t fit!” Niles complained.  He stood several inches taller than Manny.  “And there’s no way anyone’s going to mistake me for a Manny Villaneuva!”  He tugged at his blond locks.

“Who says a Hispanic must have dark hair?” Williams said, whirling Niles around and stripping off his jacket.

Away went the tie and the dress shirt.  Then the slacks.

“Going commando, Ghoul?” Jackson laughed.  “Who knew?”

Niles glared and gritted his fangs.  “This isn’t going to work…”

“Sure it is!”  Williams dragged Manny’s shirt over the vampire’s head.   The shirt and pants were a tight fit, plastering against Niles lithe body and hiding none of his sleek muscles.

“Damn, Ghoul!” Williams laughed.  “Don’t bend over.  That ass will give all the women heart attacks.”

Minutes later, the devious trio had conned the production team into accepting Niles in place of Manny.  After all, they exclaimed, what made great television?  A rivalry between police departments!  The producer looked skeptical, but the moment she laid eyes on Niles in his skintight get up, she changed her mind.

“He’s in!” she said to her crew.

So Niles stood squinting at the start of the course.  He’d watched enough prior contestants to get the gist of the task ahead of him, but he doubted he’d succeed given his poor vision and lack of practice.  The lights blazed.  The poles and grillwork gleamed.  The water sparkled.  Against the black backdrop of night, Niles couldn’t see a damned thing.

This is going to be a disaster.

The starter told him to begin.

First up, some spinning cones.  His vision a blur, Niles dashed for the cones.  These were padded, multi-colored spinning things.  Somehow, his feet hit the first one, and the rest were spaced exactly to meet his huge stride.  Stumbling, he flew across the hazard, arms flailing, and face-planted into the landing pad.  He lay there, half embarrassed at his performance and half thrilled he’d gotten through the first hazard.

I’m gonna kill someone.

The cheering drove him to his feet.  Still squinting because he could barely see, Niles climbed a strange, moving board, then had to jungle gym across a series of different hand grips, hanging from his arms.  That was child’s play for a vampire.  Even a blind vampire.  He landed with more grace.

Next up a jungle gym with rubber bands.  Niles handled that with ease by peeking for his next move, closing his eyes and jumping.  He managed to hit every target.

Climbing the wall was a cakewalk.

He’d traversed three quarters of the course and the crowd was screaming for him to continue.  At that point he was only mildly out of breath and his arms had noted the extra exercise.  Nothing he couldn’t handle.

“Go, Ghoul, go!”  Niles heard William’s voice even over the crowd.

“You can do it!” shouted Krewelski.

Niles paused at the last obstacle.  This was a bar that he needed to move up a series of steps using only his body weight to jump it up each level.  That he did without a problem.  But then he had to leap into space to grab a series of small bars.  As he hung from his arms, he tried to see, but tears filled his eyes.  He couldn’t make out the next bar.  Squeezing his eyes shut, he made his best estimate, swung his long body into space and flew.

He never came close to grabbing a bar.  He belly-flopped into the pool.

Cursing and wiping water from his face, Niles swam to the edge where his three co-workers arrived to help him out and the crowd either cheered or jeered for him.  He babbled something incoherent to the television crew who wanted his perspective of his run, then staggered away, dripping from every pore.

“Never again!” he growled as Krewelski tossed a towel over his head.

“You won’t have to,” Jackson said.

“Because Bongo Jim covered himself in glory by continuing through to the next round?” Niles asked, scrubbing his hair dry.

Williams guffawed.  “Hell no!  He went down on the first obstacle.  You beat him by a mile.”

Niles glared at his beaming companions.  He had only one thing to say to them.

Baring a single fang in fury, he snarled.

“I hate you people.”