Gule Follows a Ghostly Road

Gule Follows a Ghostly Road

A vampire would think that two years of terror would have inured him to riding as a passenger in any vehicle driven by Mariella Cruz.  The little Latina’s insanity, however, never dimmed, nor did her ability to tramp the gas of her powder-blue Fiat, Fifi.  On that sultry summer evening, Fifi fairly skipped along the potholed, poorly paved country road in New Jersey north of New York City, first one wheel then another losing contact with the road.  Niles Gule, said vampire, clutched the grab bar, imprinting talon marks into the vinyl, gritted his fangs, and hung on.  The trick was to keep the rapid sways to his long, lean body from slamming his head into the window.  Strong as he was, Niles found that difficult as Cruz tore around another corner.

“We’ve got all night,” he growled through gritted teeth. 

“If this dude escapes us because we dawdled, it’s on you!”  Cruz punctuated her statement with a stab of a fingernail painted purple in support of the Baltimore Ravens.

Niles rolled his eyes.  He yelped when a particularly sharp turn smashed his forehead into the passenger side window.  He pinched his eyes closed and rubbed his temple.

“Does the state of New Jersey believe in paving their roads?” Cruz grumbled.

“Not this far out in the hinterlands, apparently.”

Fifi verified the truth of his words by colliding with a pothole, bouncing madly then plowing courageously on.

Being a vampire, Niles possessed exquisite night vision.  Although the road meandered through dense deciduous woodlands in full summer leaf and the two detectives hadn’t passed a single house or other source of light for miles, Niles could see their surroundings perfectly well.  The world appeared to his brilliant blue gaze in shades of gray.  The woods whirled past as a shifting panorama of gray tree trunks against the darker slate gray of leaves.  The curling ribbon of road spooled out before them as pale gray beneath an ashen patch of sky poking between the encroaching trees.  Niles could even make out the ruts in the road which he tried to warn Cruz about, to no avail.

He winced with a set of high beams stabbed his eyes from ahead.

“Turn down your damned lights,” he complained.

“It’s a pickup truck,” Cruz replied, unfazed by the pair of headlights approaching.  “They ride higher than Fifi.”

“Everything rides higher than Fifi,” grumbled the vampire.

With a rush of wind, the truck roared past them.  Little Fifi swayed in its backwash.

Cruz grimly forced the tiny Fiat to toe the center line and pressed on.  The road became once again a lonely stretch of asphalt lost in the woods.

“When you said this place was out of the way, you weren’t kidding,” Niles commented several minutes later as the road scrolled on, twisting around corners and riding over hills.

Cruz shrugged.  “If you’re wanted to murder, where are you going to hide out?”  She gestured to the woods which to her eyes appeared as a sheet of unending blackness.  “A tiny town in bumfuck New Jersey sounds about right.”

“I’d choose New York,” Niles replied.  “A billion people to hide behind and Broadway shows to enjoy.  What’s to do to out here?”

He was a city born vampire, having been raised in Boston during the Gilded Age, then spending much of his youth in the Big Apple and other large cities.  He’d avoided the countryside where he could.

“Fishing, hunting, hiking,” Cruz said.  “Lots of lakes around here.”

Niles gazed balefully at the trees streaming past.  “Could have fooled me.”

Bright light bathed Fifi from behind.  Niles frowned at the shadows he and Cruz cast onto the dash.  He twisted to look behind them to find a pair of blazing headlights baring down on them.

“What’s with the damned high beams in this state?”  Blinking the stars from his eyes, Niles faced forward.

Cruz shot a look at her review mirror.  She cursed.

“That idiot is going to run us down!”

The lights filled Fifi’s cabin with an alien glow.  The pursuing truck ranged nearly atop them.  Its lights burned hard through their rear window.

With a yelp, Cruz spun the wheel, sending Fifi careening towards the trees.  The little car bucked wildly in the weeds next to the road.  Niles sunk his talons into the dashboard when he was flung forward and back as Fifi jounced along the berm.  A big, white pickup truck soared past them, never honking, flinching, or otherwise conveying its driver had seen them.

Cruz fought her bronco away from the trees and back onto the road then allowed the car to drift down in speed while she regained her wits.  She rubbed a hand across her suddenly sweaty forehead.

“What the hell?” she exclaimed.

Niles righted himself to watch the back end of the truck disappear around a corner ahead.

“Wasn’t that the same truck that passed the other way?” he asked.

Cruz nodded. 

Niles considered that strange fact in silence.

Also, silent, Cruz resettled Fifi into her lane, punched the gas and continued towards West Milford.  Now, however, she drove at a saner pace.

 “People in this state drive like New Yorkers,” she complained after several minutes had passed in silence.

Niles didn’t answer.  He kept his focus on the road.

West Clinton Road twisted around another turn then straightened out for about a quarter mile.  Off in the distance, Niles spotted lights.  At first, he assumed Fifi’s headlights were bouncing off a traffic sign.  But as her tires chewed up the distance, those lights because a set of high beams bearing down on them.

“No way!” Cruz breathed.

Niles squinted, determined to catch as much detail of the approaching vehicle as possible.  It grew larger and the beams tore at his sensitive retinas.  The two vehicles closed the distance with frightening speed.  The high beams seemed to explode into an all-encompassing glow.  At the last second before Niles swore the truck would hit them, Cruz veered off the road a second time.  The slower speed made the dash through the berm less traumatic.  Cruz held on and steered them safely back to the road.  This time she slammed on the brakes and leaped from the car.

More slowly, Niles joined her in the sultry night air.

Behind them, a pair of red taillights indicated the disappearing truck.

Cruz planted her hands on her hips.  “Is there some chance Montell caught word of our visit?  Could that be him or some buddy trying to kill us?”

Niles smoothed his suit jacket and Gerry Garcia tie.  His short cropped blond hair was never mussed.  “I don’t think so.  You and I didn’t land the lead of West Milford until late this afternoon.  We didn’t know we were coming here until we left.  Besides,” he added as he pondered the night filled with the buzz of crickets and katydids, “if they wanted to kill us, they would have actually run us down.”

“I think they wanted us to plow ourselves into a tree.”  Cruz jerked her chin towards the tree line.  “Make it look like an accident.”

“Crazy driver losing control and hits a hit?” Niles pretended to consider that.  “Nah!  Who’d believe that of you?”

Cruz swatted him.  She stomped back to Fifi and clambered behind the wheel.  Niles joined her, carefully folding his long, lanky body into the tiny cabin.  Cruz put the car in gear and took off.  This time, she tramped the gas as if hoping to outrun the truck behind them.

Darkness again surrounded them.  But not for long.  Up ahead a pair of headlights winked on from around a corner.  Cruz growled in her throat and gripped the wheel tighter as those headlights bore down on them.  Once again, they were high beams.  This time, Cruz wasn’t playing chicken.  She drove straight at them.

Niles stiffened.  Through cracked eyes, he winced as another behemoth approached, light blazing like two suns.

“Shit!” Cruz exclaimed.  “It’s the same damned truck!”

“That’s impossible.  It was headed in the other direction and there are no crossroads.  No way anyone could get ahead of us.”

Cruz didn’t argue.  She didn’t need to.  The truck raged at them.  At the last moment, Cruz dodged it again and spun off the road.  This time Fifi landed in a bit of clearing.

When the dust settled, Cruz sat stunned behind the wheel.  Cursing as he straightened himself, Niles checked to make sure she was ok.  She stared dead ahead through the windshield.  Wondering what had caught her attention, Niles also peered forward.

They sat in the forecourt of a castle.  An actual castle, or at least the remains of one.  Gray, granite walls thrust up through the encroaching forest.  A tower poked at the stars.  Empty windows, devoid of glass, revealed a gutted interior, walls without a roof.

“Where the hell are we?” Cruz breathed.

Niles frowned as his eyes picked out graffiti sprayed across the castle’s walls.  Nazarenus rex iudaeorum in white paint glowed to his dark-loving eyes. More words followed, words that choked even a vampire.

“What is this place?” Cruz demanded.

“Back out of here,” Niles ordered.  “Now.”

Knowing better than to challenge a vampire when he spoke in that tone of voice, Cruz did so.  Fifi bounced out of the clearing.  Cruz looked both ways on Clinton Road but saw nothing in the darkness.  She turned towards West Milford and raced as fast as little Fifi’s engine could carry them.

“What did that say?” she asked.  “Back at the castle.”

“It was Satanic,” Niles replied.  “You don’t want to know the specifics.”

A good Catholic, Cruz gulped and drove on.

When they’d traveled another mile, Cruz cursed.  Headlights again burned in the distance from behind them.

“That isn’t some felon’s buddy come to run police off the road,” she said.

Niles agreed.  He steeled himself for the wild ride.  “For once, don’t hold back.  Floor it, Cruz.”

The little Latina nodded.  She planted her foot to the floor.

Fifi surged along the road, appearing to keep pace with the distant truck.  Then they shot out of the woods into Upper Greenwood Lake, a village that lined a picturesque little lake.  Cruz kept flying until a gas station with its canopy alight appeared on their left.  She slammed into the parking lot, skidding to a stop near its front door.

Huffing, glad to be back in civilization, Cruz stared at the store attached to the station.  “I could use a drink,” she said.

Niles nodded.  “Yep.  Me, too.”

Together, they climbed from Fifi and on legs less than steady ventured into the convenience store.  A tattooed teen was mopping the floor as they entered.  He was the sole occupant of the store.  He ignored them until they’d selected a couple of beers from the cooler.  Then he set his mop aside and idled towards the register.

“That it?” he asked, ringing up the beers.

“It’s enough,” Cruz muttered.

Niles decided he’d get some answers.  “What’s with the castle?”

The teen shrugged as he handed Niles his change.  “What about it?”  He paused, saw Niles was serious, and sighed.  “Some rich dude built it a hundred years ago.  It burned down so it’s been a ruin ever since.”  He eyed the frazzled couple with a strange half smile curling his lip.  “You saw it, didn’t you?”

“Saw what?” Cruz snapped.

“The ghost truck.”  The kid laughed.  “I know the look.  Scared shitless.”  He waved a finger at them.  “You two got the look.”

As Niles pocketed his change, he asked, “Tell us about it.”

“It just is what it is, man.”  The teen laughed.  “Been a legend on that road for decades.  The ghost truck appears from nowhere in the middle of the night.  It chases drivers to the end of the road then disappears.  I guess you’ve seen it.  Cool.”

“Not cool,” Niles grumbled.

Snatching his beer, he followed Cruz from the store.

“Do you believe that?” she asked, taking a swig from the can as she leaned against Fifi’s overheated hood.

Niles shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Do you believe in ghostly apparitions?  Things that go bump in the night?”

Cruz swallowed some beer.  Then her dark eyes flicked over her partner.  “I gotta vampire for a partner.  I guess I don’t have a choice!”

Niles saluted her with his beer.

They eventually reached West Milford only to find their felon had fled hours before them.  Faced with the long drive back to Baltimore, the shortest path being West Clinton Road, Cruz took the scenic route to Hewitt and then State 700 home.

© 2020 Newmin

Niles comments: When I returned to Baltimore, I delved into a little research. Turns out West Clinton Road is notorious is the state of New Jersey. A haunted bridge, the Satanic castle and a ghostly pickup all haunt this lonely stretch of road. Next time you visit the Garden State, you might want to take a detour and find out for yourself.

https://www.nydailynews.com/autos/creepy-cursed-curvy-new-jersey-clinton-road-frightening-road-america-article-1.1803331

Gule Lifts Some Weight

Gule Lifts Some Weight

The vampire, Niles Gule, groaned when his partner, fiery Latina detective Mariella Cruz peered at her cellphone and murmured “Uh oh!”  Being an officer of the Baltimore Police Department, she faced most crises with the equanimity required for the job.  So, her soft exhale portended trouble.

Niles flipped his notebook closed.  “What’s up?”

Cruz thumbed a message on her phone.  Hitting send, she glanced at her partner with a worried frown between her brows.  “Momma says Aunt Willie’s being robbed.”

“What?”  Niles grabbed her by the arm and hauled her out of the jewelry store where they’d been interviewing witnesses to a break in.  “She’s the eighty-something-year-old, isn’t she?”

Cruz, appearing strangely calm, nodded.  “Eighty-two.”  She allowed Niles to drag her to her little blue Fiat, Fifi.

Throwing open the passenger side door, Niles stuffed himself inside, no small feat for a six-foot-six vampire in a car made for compact Latinas.  “Let’s get moving!”

Cruz flopped into the driver’s seat and revved up the little car.  Then she put the pedal to the metal as she screamed through the benighted streets of Baltimore.  Fortunately for the populace, traffic was light at that hour of the night, so she didn’t hit anyone, although she ran a delivery truck off the road.  Niles thought she was suspiciously calm given her aunt was in danger, but he was too busy calling into the precinct to question her.

Cruz turned off the headlights when she made the turn onto her aunt’s street.  Then, inexplicably, she rolled into the alley behind her aunt’s small house.  She cut the engine and climbed out.

“Why so quiet about it?” Niles asked.  He wondered why they hadn’t charged the front door.

Cruz’s luscious lips curled into a secretive smile.  “Because I know my Aunt Willie.”  She gestured with a curled finger.  “Come on.  Maybe we’ll catch him before he escapes.”

The cottage stood silent and dark.  With his exquisite night vision, Niles could clearly make out the remains of a vegetable garden now rimed with winter frost, and a patio graced with a cast iron café set.  Although Cruz couldn’t see nearly as well, she knew her aunt’s home and picked through the obstacle course with relative ease.  When she reached the door, she put her ear to it.

“Maybe I should do that,” Niles suggested.  Being a vampire, his hearing was much stronger than a human’s.

Cruz fluttered her hand to silence him.  “Someone’s in there.  I can hear them.”

Niles drew his knife, the only weapon he possessed.  To his surprise, Cruz didn’t unholster her service pistol.  Instead, she pulled a key from a pocket and quietly unlocked the door.  With a motion, she darted inside, commanding him to follow.

Inside, the house drowsed in midnight ink.  No lights burned in the back rooms, however at least one lit the front of the house.  As Niles and Cruz crept towards it, a resounding crash reverberated.  Niles’ fingers tightened on his knife.

“Let’s move, Cruz!” he hissed.  “Before your aunt is hurt or killed.”

Cruz again shushed him with a gesture.  She continued to sneak forward like a cat after a mouse.

“Cruz!” Niles whispered.  “What the hell?”

Another crash sounded like furniture breaking.  Cruz leaped around the corner.  Niles was on her heals. 

They landed in the front parlor where a single table lamp lit the space.  In its glow, Niles saw an astounding sight.

A large Caucasian male lay sprawled on the floor.  Above him stood one of the tiniest human beings Niles had ever laid eyes on.  He knew her to be Cruz’s Aunt Willie by the cocoa color of her skin, the black hair she’d pulled tight against her skull and the blazing dark eyes that burned with a fire Niles knew well.  She held, of all things, an occasional table over her head.  Just as Niles and Cruz entered the room, she brought it smashing down on the intruder, breaking it in half.  The man groaned and lay flat.

“Tia Willie!” Cruz exclaimed, lowering her weapon.  “¿Estás bien?”

Aunt Willie jumped, shock painting her dark skin ashen before recognition filled her face with a broad smile.

“Mari, querida!  ¿Qué haces aquí?”

What followed was a high-speed conversation in agitated Spanish.

Niles didn’t speak Spanish, but he understood enough to know neither woman was particularly upset over the fact that some man had broken into Willie’s house.  He sheathed his knife, retrieved his handcuffs and after kicking the remains of the table out of the way, cuffed the suspect.  Through the window outside, he noted flashing lights as a patrol vehicle arrived.

“Can someone explain what happened here?” he asked, straightening.

Cruz gave her aunt a hug before answering.  “Tia Willie says she was getting ready for bed when that man started banging on her door.  He was outside saying he was sick.  Please call an ambulance.”

Aunt Willie kept talking, telling Niles the story in Spanish while Cruz translated.

“She called me but wouldn’t let him inside.  That’s when she says he became angry.  She heard a loud boom.  She wondered, what the heck was that?  And then the man was in her house.  He broke the door.”  Cruz gestured to the front door which stood ajar, the lock broken.

“So, what did she do?” Niles asked.

“It was dark, so she was able to hide while the man walked through her house.  When she saw she had a chance to take him out, she grabbed the first thing she could find.  She says, ‘I got the broom. He’s pulling the broom. I’m hitting him with the broom.  Then I picked up the table, and I went to work on him.  And when he was down, I started jumping on him.’”

Stunned, Niles gaped at the little woman. 

Cruz continued translating as Aunt Willie finished her story.  “She says, once the suspect was injured, she ran and grabbed a bottle of shampoo – and started pouring it on him.  I grabbed the shampoo.  Guess what? He’s still on the ground. In his face, all of it, the whole thing.

Willie ended with a proud toss of her head.  Cruz burst out laughing and gave her aunt a hug.

At that moment, the door crashed open and uniformed officers Jonas Williams and Walter Cooksey stumbled inside, weapons drawn.  They slammed to halt at the sight of Niles, Cruz and little Aunt Willie standing over the cuffed and shampoo slimed villain.

“What happened?” Williams gasped.

Cruz patted her aunt.  “My Aunt Willie may be small and eighty-two, but she’s an award-winning body builder who works out at the Y every day.”

“Huh,” murmured Williams.  “Go figure.”

Aunt Willie said something else in Spanish.

Cruz beamed as she translated her aunt’s final, proud comment. 

“She says, he picked the wrong house.”

© 2019 Newmin

Niles comments:  As always, I can’t make this stuff up.  Click on the link below for the rest of the story.  (I’ll be honest, I embellished a little)

https://13wham.com/news/local/he-picked-the-wrong-house-82-year-old-beats-up-break-in-suspect

Gule Takes a Stab at It

For reasons unbeknownst to the vampire Niles Gule, his partner Mariella Cruz pulled her tiny Fiat into a space in front of a CVS pharmacy and shut off the engine.  The pair of Baltimore police detectives had visited three different pharmacies that cold wintry evening but not for any reason Niles could determine.  Outside the car’s warm cabin, intermittent snowflakes twirled in a frigid wind.  A sloppy mess of snow, sleet and ice covered the streets, too little to warrant immediate removal by authorities, making that night’s driving treacherous. 

Growling with frustration, Cruz zipped up her down-filled jacket and hopped into the slush.

“I’ll be right back,” she grumbled.

Ever urbane, the vampire shrugged and for the third time that night fetched a battered paperback novel from his pocket.  No human could have read by the dim light provided by the pharmacy’s glowing sign, but Niles possessed the exquisite night vision enjoyed by all his race.  He flipped the book open to the ribbon that marked his place, settled as comfortably as a six-foot-seven vampire could in a tiny Fiat, and disappeared into the tribulations of Mitch McDeere outwitting the Mafia.

Seventy pages later, Cruz stomped out of the store.  Her mittens fumbled with the door handle, earning it and all the world curses in florid Spanish.  Eventually, she tore the door open and tumbled inside only to stare mutinously at the store.

Niles replaced the ribbon and closed the book.

“Want to talk about it?” he asked.

The fire in Cruz’s dark eyes should have torched the paperback to ashes.

“I hate this country!” she spat.

Niles merely sat in the darkness, waiting for her to unburden herself.

“Why is this situation so effed up?” she snarled.

Niles’ brilliant blue eyes studied first the pharmacy and then his partner.  “What situation?  Are you have a problem obtaining a prescription?”

Cruz slammed her hands on the steering wheel.  “You know what, Niles?  Sometimes you can be incredibly dense!”

Niles twitched his lips.  He knew better than let Cruz rile him up.  His anger possessed no bounds, nor, apparently, did hers.  When they argued, which was blissfully not often, whole cities burned to the ground.

“What am I missing?” he asked.

Cruz drew a shuddering breath to calm herself before speaking.  “I’ve been trying to sign up Momma and Tia Juanita for the vaccine.”

“Ah!” 

Of course Niles was aware of the coronavirus pandemic gripping the nation.  He suspected the news had reached even the crews of America’s nuclear submarine fleet by that point.  He himself had suffered its ravages, as had Cruz, in a week he’d rather forget.  Momma Cruz and her sister Juanita had dodged contracting it so far by hiding in their house and sending Momma Cruz’s army of sons into the world to handle their business.  The two women had remained virtual prisoners inside their tiny bungalow in East Baltimore.  Niles was surprised, given their volatile personalities, that they hadn’t exploded into physical violence during that interminable year.

“Momma’s sixty-five, so she qualifies,” Cruz explained.  “And Tia Juanita is in chemo for her breast cancer, so she’s at the top of the list.”

Niles laid his hands open, palms up, on his legs.  “What’s the problem then?”

“Getting a damned appointment!”  Cruz ground her teeth together.  “I spent hours on the internet trying to find a hospital, clinic or pharmacy with open appointments.  Nada.  Some say ‘we’re only vaccinating our own staff at this time’…”  Her voice gained a shrewish tone as she relayed her disgust.  “Others are vaccinating people, but they all say ‘we’re out of open appointments.  Please check back later.’  I’ve been all over the damned map of Maryland trying to find an appointment.”  She drew another ragged breath.  “I’d heard from someone that a lot of people are signing up for every appointment they can get.  Some people manage to land two or three.  They use the first one to get the shot but don’t have the courtesy to cancel the others so someone else can have the slot.  Mikey suggested going around to the pharmacies and talking to folks inside about if they have extra shots at the end of the day.  So far, nada on that score.”  She slammed her hands on the steering wheel again.  “This is supposed to be the greatest country on earth.  How come we can’t have a centralized appointment site where we sign up and know we’ve got an appointment?”

Niles shrugged.  “I believe the previous administration believed in allowing market forces to handle the problem.”

That statement earned him a glare hot enough to vaporize him.  “The previous administration is full of shit!” Cruz huffed.  “None of these pharmacies know when they are going to get the vaccine or how much, so how are they supposed to schedule this?  It’s the biggest clusterfuck I’ve ever seen.”

“I wish I could help…” Niles offered.

Cruz waved him off.  “Don’t bother.  I know how you are with modern technology.  I can’t ask you to prowl around the internet in hopes of landing something if I haven’t managed it.”

“That’s a relief!”  While Niles was perfectly capable of maneuvering in cyberspace, he wasn’t particularly fond of it.  Having been born and raised in Victorian Boston, he still liked to do things old school.

Cruz turned her attention back to the steering wheel.  “This is getting me nowhere.  Let’s get back to work.”

She put Fifi into reverse and peeled from the parking lot, a spray of snow and slush putting paid to her frustration.

Friday nights could be hell for the police department.  Cruz never looked forward to them the way most Americans looked forward to Fridays.  She stomped into the precinct ready for a brawl only to find most of the space devoid of life.  Niles had arrived ahead of her, having walked from his apartment on Lombard Street.  He sat at his desk with his cellphone in his hand and his long, delicate fingers plying the screen.

With a flounce, Cruz dropped into her chair on the opposite side of their desks which were pushed together face to face.  She scrambled through notes left by the day squad while she planned her attack on the night’s work.  Meanwhile, Niles continued flicking his phone with a talon.

“We’ve gotten tips on the Monument shooting,” she said, sorting the pink telephone messages into piles.  “And we need to follow up on the Randall burglary.”

“Hmmmm.”

Cruz slammed her hands on her desk.  “Niles, are you listening to me?”

Niles flicked her a glance from his brilliant blue eyes.  “No, not really.”

Cruz leaned over the desk to snatch the phone, but Niles was too quick.  He jerked it out of reach.

“You don’t want to interrupt me,” he said, continuing his task on the phone.

“What are you doing?”

Niles finished.  With a self-satisfied grin, he set the phone down.  “Check your messages,” he prodded.

With a scowl, Cruz grabbed her cellphone.  Two incoming messages awaited.  From Niles.  They were appointment confirmations indicating Soledad Cruz and Juanita Gonsalves each were expected for their COVID-19 injections the following Thursday at noon in Bellaire.

“What?”  Cruz’s mouth fell open.  Her dark gaze leaped up at her partner.  “How did… How did you manage that?”

Niles shrugged.  “You know me.  Old school.”

Cruz slammed the phone down.  “Don’t give me that!  I have pounded on every pharmacy door and tried every website.  How did you do it?”

Niles turned his attention to his computer screen, blithely pretending like he hadn’t just accomplished the impossible.  “I asked Williams if he had a cousin in the pharmacy industry.”

Cruz closed her eyes with a groan.  “Oh, for the love of heaven!  I hadn’t thought of that.  He’s got a cousin in every business on the planet.  What did he say?”

“He said he did.  He put me in touch with the man.”  Niles crooked a brow at Cruz.  “Cousin Williams lives in Virginia, so he couldn’t help with Maryland, but he gave me his wife’s sister’s phone number.  She lives here.  Her hairdresser’s best friend’s husband works in the pharmaceutical industry.  He gave me the number of the wife of a pharmacist in Bellaire who said she’d ask her husband to schedule two appointments for me.  And she did.”

Cruz tried to trace that trail.  “Williams’ cousin’s wife’s sister’s hairdresser’s best friend’s husband’s wife got you the appointments?”

Niles nodded.  “Yep!”

Cruz wilted.  “Holy hell.  How has it come to this?”

Niles reached across the desks to grasp her hand.  “I’ll admit, the process is ridiculous.  But I got it done for you.  Sometimes the old-fashioned way is best.  Knowing people who know people.”

Cruz squeezed his cold fingers.  Her angry expression melted into warmth and love.  “You are amazing, Niles.  Just amazing.”

The vampire shrugged.  “Nah.  Just determined.  And a wee bit clever.”  He winked at her.

Cruz smiled.  Then a mischievous sparkle flickered in her eyes.  “Ok.  If you’re so clever…”  She thrust her pink messages at him.  “Figure out who shot Carl Spentz.”

Niles laughed and took the messages.

He was glad to get back to normal business.

© 2021 Newmin

Gule Discovers Q-Tips

The sound of munching, like a horse grazing on rich grass, tugged the vampire from his opulent bathroom in search of a cause for the noise.  Once upon a time, Niles Gule would have raged from his ensuite to confront the person that dared venture into his lair uninvited because vampires were generally solitary creatures who jealously guarded their privacy.  But not Niles.  Not anymore. 

His life, and by extension, his apartment had become cluttered with a wide variety of permanent residents.  Lenny, a gaunt, wily, ginger alley cat had adopted Niles’ apartment as his place of residence.  Although not an animal lover, Niles tolerated the haggard, ill-tempered ratcatcher because Lenny kept the rodent and cockroach infestation at bay.  Many a bump in the night could be laid at his litter box.

Next came Marrenstan, the decrepit thousand-year-old vampire Niles had taken in as either a charity case or to save the humans of Baltimore from the old fossil’s rapacious hunger.  Niles hadn’t convinced himself yet if he was a saint or an idiot for accepting the vampire into his home.  The moldering throwback to the Dark Ages had purchased a mausoleum in the hinterlands of Maryland as his abode, but for reasons Niles had yet to understand, insisted on spending an inordinate amount of time at his lord’s residence.  Niles was forever tripping over him at odd times of the day or night.  Any sound of munching could be Marrenstan snacking on a rat Lenny had caught for him or the finger of some fool who’d crossed paths with a crime boss.  Marrenstan was not a fussy eater.

Finally, there was Mariella Cruz, Niles’ partner on the police force and now his significant other.  She’d made herself quite at home in his spacious place on the tenth floor of a high rise on Lombard Street overlooking the Inner Harbor.  Although she followed the same schedule he did, rising as the sun set and heading to bed at sunrise, sometimes she rattled around the place during daylight while Niles enjoyed his dormancy.  She liked to organize his space, or as Niles called it, rearrange his belongings to suit herself rather than him. 

Marrenstan’s ghoulish form filled the doorway to his bedroom before Niles could venture into the main living area in search of the sound that had roused his attention.  The old goat rattled his fangs on his lower teeth, indicating agitation.

“You really need to remove that thing,” he complained in his high-pitched whine.  Although both he and Niles could communicate in the shrieking Home Tongue of the Vanapir, Niles insisted they speak English.  Marrenstan needed the practice.  Niles needed the peace and quiet that came from Marrenstan’s struggles with human language.

“What thing?” Niles no longer jumped in panic at the thought of something alien in his apartment.  He fully expected to one day wake up and find an actual bug-eyed, green-skinned creature infesting his living room.

With more teeth rattling, Marrenstan pointed a long, white, taloned finger towards the great room. 

Niles heaved a sigh.  Slinging the tie in his hand around his neck, he trod to his great room from whence came the munching.  The smell hit him first.  He recoiled, his arm to his mouth.  His eyes began to water.  He coughed uncontrollably.  Meanwhile, Marrenstan huddled in his shadow and chattered his fangs in protest to the smell.

Daylight was fading into a wintery night over Baltimore.  From his wall of windows, Niles looked out as the lights of the Domino Sugar sign blinked on to shimmer against the water of the harbor.  Closer by, the neon blue of the aquarium and the throbbing red strings of the Hard Rock Café followed swiftly behind.  Stars danced on the water, indicating pleasure craft and water taxis plying the bay.  And across the water gleamed the line of lights delineating Federal Hill. 

Inside the apartment, table lamps burned with a soft glow.  Niles, being a vampire, didn’t need house lights at all, but he’d allowed Cruz to install the various decorative lamps throughout the apartment in deference to her human weakness of night blindness.  A sweep of his brilliant blue gaze informed him that only Cruz currently inhabited the space.  She sat at his desk near the windows tapping away at a laptop computer while she mindlessly crunched on some sort of snack food.

“What in heaven are you eating?” Niles demanded.  He knotted his tie around his face to protect his nose and mouth from the smell.  His eyes continued to water.

Cruz paused, pretzel bit poised halfway to her mouth.  “Snyder’s of Hanover pretzel bites?”  Her eyes glanced at the unoffensive bit of hard baked flour and salt with her brow furrowed.  “Want one?”  She held it towards him.

Niles violently shook his head.  “They’re garlic!”

Cruz started.  She considered the morsel then popped it in her mouth.  “Sorry,” she mouthed around the bite.  She scrunched up the bag of pretzel bites and tucked them in her purse.  “They’re really good.”

Niles rolled his eyes.  He ventured into the kitchen and turned on the hood to vent the noxious miasma from the apartment. 

Meanwhile, Marrenstan glared daggers at the human.  “Evil, nasty snack!” he muttered.

Cruz licked grease from her fingers.  “Yes, they are.  But so good!  Lots of butter, salt and garlic.”  She grinned at Niles.  “A brilliant marketing ploy, too.  The company wasted a lot of pretzels when they broke in the production process.  Someone came up with the idea of dousing them in flavorings and selling them as a planned product.  The pretzel bite was born!”

“Hmmmm.”  Niles gingerly nipped her purse from her and carried it at arm’s distance to the door.  He set it there and covered it with a blanket to smother the smell.  Only then could he remove the tie from his face and breathe again.

At her scowl, he wandered to her side.  “Still investigating our co-workers for treason?” he asked.

Cruz leaned back in the chair with a sigh.  “No, thank God!  Everyone checked out.  A couple of folks get a little hot in some of these chatrooms, but no one has posted anything I could call actionable.”  She rubbed her brow.  “I was terrified we’d have to turn Williams in, but he toes the line, at least as far as I can tell.”

Niles studied the chatroom on the screen.  “What are you into now?”

“I was curious about QAnon,” she replied.  “That word has been all over the media for the past couple of months.  I wondered what it was, exactly.”

Niles headed to the kitchen to nab a raw steak from the fridge for his dinner.  Marrenstan scuttled out onto the balcony to escape the lingering effects of the garlic.

“What did you learn?” Niles asked when he returned.  Like Cruz, he didn’t know what QAnon was, other than what media described as a fringe political belief.  He’d never met a proponent of it and didn’t know how it had become the phenomenon it now was.

Cruz tapped her computer.  “It’s not what I thought, actually.  It’s less.  Way less.  So much less, I wonder how it ever got off the ground at all.”

Niles settled onto his couch and propped his long legs on an ottoman.  “Do tell,” he murmured as he took his first bite of steak.

“Out in cyberspace, people have set up these various message boards.  4chan is the name of one of them.”  Cruz glanced at her computer before continuing.  “Apparently, several people, or one person with a sick sense of humor, started posting stuff purporting to be from high level government types.  They claimed they had inside information and were dumping it into the chatrooms so that Americans would know what was going on.  But because they were providing sensitive information, they couldn’t reveal their identities.  So they made up these names.  Some of the earliest were FBIAnon, HLIAnon, and WHAnon.  That’s high-level insider and White House, in case you’re keeping track.”

“I’m not.  Go on.”

 “QAnon came later to the game.  The Q supposedly stands for Q level security clearance.”

“Is there such a thing?”

“There is in the nuclear power industry.”  Cruz shrugged.  “Something to do with having access to nuclear power sites.  Anyhow, Q glommed onto the same game as the others.  But only Q became famous.”

Niles pondered that question.  “Why?”

Cruz grinned.  “So glad you asked.  Here’s where the story becomes less than exciting because, frankly, it’s so mundane and tawdry.  A couple of 4chan moderators and a lady who produces YouTube videos came up with the idea of promoting the hell out of Q for their own profits.  They figured they could jack up views on YouTube to earn money.  So the woman, Diaz…”  Cruz rolled her eyes at the thought that a fellow Latina was involved.  “… used her channel to promote Q and his conspiracies.  The two cybergeeks climbed on and pitched it in their chatrooms.  That wasn’t enough for Diaz.  She wanted to make herself go viral, so the crew came up with the idea of moving off the message boards.  They took their show on the road, onto Reddit.  With the three of them pumping it, more people joined in.  Soon, they had a bunch of what they called researchers and moderators working around the clock analyzing Q’s postings and promoting them wherever they could.  They moved on to Twitter and Facebook.  That’s when the Q phenomenon took off.”

“And you wonder why I dislike social media,” Niles murmured.

Cruz shrugged.  “Anyhoo… all the ginned up activity made it seem like Q was something, which he wasn’t.  But if you get enough people to buy into something, it starts to take on a life of its own, which is what happened here.”

“Tell the big lie often enough and it becomes the truth,” Niles replied.  “Worked for Goebbels.”

“Yep.  And for these jokers, too.  Someone decided to take Q to a Trump rally in Florida.  They made sure their Q signs were up front where the television crews would catch them.  Bam!  They had news coverage.  Ordinary people were talking about Q.  Who was he?  What was he saying?  More and more became trapped in the spiral down the drain.  Soon, members of the Republican Party joined in.  Even Pence got involved for a little while before he backed off.   The hype even nabbed famous people like Roseanne Barr.  Which just added to the sense that this must be something.  I mean, if Congresspeople, the Vice President, and celebrities are talking about Q, it must be real, right?”

Niles grunted.  “Tell the big lie often enough…”

Cruz laughed.  “Exactly!  It just kept growing of its own accord.  Not because Q himself, whoever he is, was really doing anything different.  He just kept posting these cryptic word puzzles on the internet.  People would pour over them, trying to decipher what he was saying.  My guess is he was laughing hysterically the entire time as he made up more and more outrageous crap to see how far he could go.  As long as he kept it vague enough, people swallowed it.  Whole online communities are devoted to deciphering his posts as if they are clues from God in a giant scavenger hunt.”

“So, you’re saying he’s nothing.”

“That’s my opinion.”  She gestured at her computer.  “Understanding the history of how this thing came about, it’s hard to think anything else.  If you stand outside the maelstrom, you can see it for what it is.  But for the folks who got swallowed up inside it, it appears to be everywhere.  It appears to be real.  I mean, it has to be if A-list celebrities are involved, right?”

Niles blurted a laugh.  “Um.  No.  Celebrities are no brighter than the general public.  They can be fooled too.”

“And they were.  Big time.”

“So where does all this lead us?”

Cruz sighed and propped her chin on her hand.  “Hopefully, as the reality sinks in that most of what Q posted was literally garbage, just random jumbles of words and phrases, people will finally get wise.  If his predictions continue to miss the mark, he’ll lose followers.  Probably the best thing is that he hasn’t posted anything since December.  Maybe he figured out he’d gone too far.”

“Maybe he’s in jail,” Niles muttered.

“Something turned off the tap.”  Cruz swiveled in her seat as Marrenstan returned with a swirl of cold air from the balcony.  “Maybe people will return to sanity.  I mean,” she said, “for how long can people believe in conspiracies?”

“Long time,” replied Marrenstan.  “Still believe in aliens at Area 51.”  He tsked.  “No aliens on earth.”  Shaking his head, the ancient vampire trundled to the kitchen in search of a cockroach to consume.

Niles’ eyes followed him.  “No,” he said.  “No aliens on Earth.  Just Vanapir.  I guess we don’t count.”

Cruz gave him a warm, soft smile.  “You matter to me, Niles.”

“And that’s all the matters.”  Niles rose.  “Time to get dressed for work, my dear.  We’ve got enough insanity right here in Baltimore we need to confront.”

Cruz nodded.  With a final lingering look, she closed her laptop.  On her research.  And on Q.

© 2021 Newmin

Gule Deals with a Sign of the Times

Generally speaking, vampires didn’t consider humans good company.  They made for tasty eating but poor dinner conversation because they tended to scream while being consumed.  Niles Gule, resident vampire of Baltimore, was the exception to that rule.  He’d taught himself to tolerate human foibles as well as to ignore the mouth-watering aroma of their blood and sweat.  On that gloomy evening, when cold winter winds shuddered through the alleys of the Crab Cake Capital of the World, he willed himself to stoic silence as he rode in the back seat of a police car with two humans in the front.  Two humans he darkly contemplated eating.  Such an action would temporarily assuage the hunger that forever gnawed at his stomach, but it would also resolve some of his smoldering anger.

Knock it off, Niles!  You swore off humans as a solemn vow.  Even these two.    

Although the patrol car’s leatherette seats were spacious enough for a six-foot-seven vampire, Niles found riding in the perp spot discomfiting and he wished traffic would break so the uncomfortable drive could end.  Given his height, his closely shorn blond locks scraped the roof, leaving him with the sensation of a clawed hand raking through his hair every time he moved.  The bulletproof glass and metal grill that separated him from the men in uniform sitting up front made him feel like a criminal of the first water.

“All I need is to be in handcuffs to finish off the scene,” he grumbled.

“You say something back there?” shot the big man driving.  Jonas Williams, Niles’ nemesis.

“No.”  Niles turned his eyes out the window to watch the city lights scroll past. 

Had he looked in the rearview mirror, he would have caught a giant grin reflected back at him.

“I don’t think the Ghoul likes riding in the back,” Williams chortled to his partner, short, chubby, balding Walter Cooksey.

Unusually subdued, Cooksey shrugged.

Williams adjusted his bulk more comfortably in his seat while he waited for a traffic light to change.  “Ok, I give up.  Who died?”

Cooksey jerked.  Niles turned his stony visage forward to glare at Williams’ reflection.

Williams continued forward when the light flashed to green.  “It feels like a damned funeral in this car,” he complained.  He darted a look at his partner.  “You haven’t said two words tonight.  I expect the silent treatment from the Ghoul, but not from you.”

Cooksey swallowed.  He struggled for a reply.

“Feelings are still tender,” Niles explained, leaning forward to assure he was heard over the squawk of the police radio. 

“About what?”  Williams appeared to inflate with affront.

“You tried to punch me!” Cooksey protested.

“I missed.”

“Only because the Ghoul blocked the punch!”  Cooksey shot a look over his shoulder at the vampire lurking directly behind him.

“Yeah, well, he’s like that sometimes.”  Williams’ gray eyes locked on Niles via the mirror.  “He suffers from an excess of gentility.”

Niles snorted and shook his head.  “Jonas, you acted like an ass.  The US Capitol was attacked by armed insurrectionists…”

“Freedom fighters,” Williams shot back.

“…Who damn near toppled our elected government…”

“It was a misunderstanding.  A hullabaloo.”

Niles raised a brow.  “They came armed with rifles and automatics.  A few carried flexicuffs to capture prisoners.  They threatened to hang the Vice President.”

“It wouldn’t have been a loss!” Williams retorted.

“Three months ago, the sun rose and set over Mike Pence,” Niles replied.  “Now, suddenly, he’s enemy number one?”

Williams shrugged.  He spun the wheel to turn north.  “The guy didn’t perform his duties.”

“I don’t recall that overthrowing Congress was the duty of the Vice President.”

Williams huffed.

“In any case,” Niles continued in a cold voice, “Cruz, Cooksey and I were mightily offended by the actions of that mob.  Murderously offended, I could say.  Meanwhile, not only did you defend the action, you punched Cruz over it.”  His blue eyes darkened to cobalt at the remembrance.  “You had no business threatening physical violence against a team member.  Worse, a female team member.”

“She can defend herself,” Williams asserted.

Niles nearly choked on that truism.  God hadn’t made a man yet who could trample the feisty Mariella Cruz.  She’d given as good as she’d gotten.

“In any case,” he continued, his patience stretching thin, “you owe all of us an apology for your behavior.  That’s why we’re not showering you with conversation.”

Cooksey bobbed his head rapidly.  “What he said.”

Williams groaned.  He seemed about to say something when a call chirped over the radio.

10-57 in Armistead Gardens.  Physical altercation at scene. Units respond.

Williams grunted.  “10-57.  Public disturbance.  Oh, how I love those!”  He rolled his eyes skyward.  After giving the call a thought, he said, “We’re headed that way.  Ain’t that where Cruz said she would pick you up?”  He gazed through the mirror at Niles.

The vampire, a mere shadow in the darkness, nodded.

At his partner’s gesture, Cooksey picked up the radio mic and reported their unit would respond. 

Williams lit up his vehicle and increased speed as traffic moved aside.

Several turns took them into the residential area of Armistead Gardens, a warren of small single-family houses and row homes with small, cluttered lots.  A neighborhood devoid of streetlights, it lay in murky darkness.  Overgrown trees and bushes gave the place a sense of untamed wilderness and secretive natives even in winter.

Niles knew the area to be composed primarily of poor, working-class white families.  The community was close knit and conservative, not fond of outsiders.  Police calls to the neighborhood were rare.

When the car swung onto Newcomb Way, its lights raked across an open area of weedy, overgrown grass and a rickety chain link fence.  A house with a pile of clutter on its small front porch glowered in the glow of the headlights.  And there, in the small, ice encrusted yard, boiled their disturbance.

“Oh, Lord!” Williams groaned. 

He pulled his vehicle into the tiny lane that was Newcomb Way so that his headlights kept the yard well lit where two figures scuffled and fought.  One was a large, gray-haired Caucasian wearing coveralls.  Even in the frigid January night, he wore only a sweat-stained undershirt beneath the coveralls, leaving meaty, tattooed arms bare to the cold.  His face was flushed so florid, Niles could make out the color even in the glare of the headlights.  The man was grappling with a tiny, agile woman who swung a hammer, but not at her opponent.  Instead, she focused on a huge billboard planted in the middle of the small yard.

“That’s Cruz!” Cooksey piped. 

The hammer landed against the sign, finishing the job Cruz must have been working on for a couple of strokes.  The bit of two-by-two that made up one of the supports cracked under the blow and the sign sagged, held up by only the now bending second post.  Although the sign bowed as if considering surrender, Niles could still make out what it proclaimed. 

Trump Pence 2020: Make America Great Again.

“Uh oh!” Niles gulped.  “It’s like waving a red cape in front of a bull.”

“Ya think?” Williams quipped back.

Cruz managed to avoid another grab from the sign’s owner and smashed her hammer into the remaining post.  The sound of splintering wood declared the battle over.  The sign gave way and crashed face first into the grass.

But Cruz wasn’t finished even then.  She stomped on it with her feet as if she could grind it into the ground.

“I guess we gotta stop her before she causes any more trouble.”  Shaking his head, Williams hauled his big body out of the patrol vehicle.  Niles and Cooksey followed quickly behind him.

“Officer!” the man shouted.  “I want this woman arrested!  She vandalized my property.”

“It’s offensive,” Cruz snarled.  “The damned election has been over for two months!  I can’t take seeing these fucking signs anymore!”

With the swagger only a uniformed police officer could pull off, Williams marched into the fray.  “You can’t assault someone’s sign, ma’am,” he intoned, keeping his voice professional.  From his expression, no one would know he had worked with Cruz for almost two years.  “The man has a right to stick a sign on his yard.  So long as he’s not breaking any ordinances and it’s not saying something inappropriate, he’s allowed his sign.”

Cruz whirled on Williams.  “That sign is offensive to half of America.”

“And to the other half it’s not,” Williams retorted. 

“She’s a nut!” the homeowner spouted.  “Are you gonna arrest her?”

Williams shot Niles a quick look.  The vampire had stopped at the property’s edge and stood watching in grim silence.  He didn’t want to interfere.  Public disturbances fell under the purview of uniforms, even if one of the disturbees was his partner on the force.

Williams’ hand found his cuffs.  “Yeah.  I think I better.  We kinda caught her in the act.”

Cruz squeaked in outrage.  Although she still held the hammer, she didn’t brandish it or back away as Williams strode towards her. 

He held out his free hand while the other jangled the handcuffs.  “Gimme the hammer, ma’am.”  His voice carried the weariness of a thousand years.

Cruz’s dark eyes darted between Williams and Niles.  “It had to come down, you know.”

Niles nodded.  “And a damned fine job you did.  You can be proud of yourself.  Now let Jonas arrest you.”

Her mouth popped open.  She blinked at him, a long, lean silhouette against the glare of the headlights as she debated continuing the fight.  When it appeared she understood Niles wasn’t coming to her rescue, her body language melted.  Straight, angry shoulders sagged.  The arm holding the hammer lowered.  Her fingers let the tool fall to the grass.

Williams snapped the cuffs on her but left her hands in front.  He then gave her a shove towards Niles.

“Put her in the car while I take down the report,” he requested.

Sighing, Niles grasped Cruz by the arm and led her to the car.  He settled her into the back seat where he joined her.

She whirled on him, her hands up in a pleading motion.  “You aren’t going to let him really arrest me, are you?” she demanded.

Niles lifted a brow.  “I should.  You broke the law, Mari.”

“I know.  But I’m just so damned sick of looking at those signs.”  She bared a tooth at him, picking up the habits of her vampire partner.  “I’ve ripped down every one of the little plastic ones I’ve encountered.  That giant billboard was the icing on the cake.  It had to go.”

Niles glanced out the window at the now vanquished sign.  “You did a fine job on it, Mari.  You can be proud of yourself.  Now stop attacking people’s signs.”

Cruz huffed and flounced against the seat.  She sat scowling in the darkness.

After several minutes, Williams and Cooksey returned to the car.  The vehicle sank with a sigh as the big man climbed into the front seat.

“I talked him out of pressing charges,” he said.  “But he demands you pay for the sign.”

“What?” Cruz shot upright again.  “That damned thing would have been trash in another couple of weeks anyway when he finally got around to taking it down.”

Williams nodded.  “Yup!  But now you get to pay for it.”  He twisted in his seat to gaze back at her with his smoky gray eyes.  “That’s the deal.  You pay or you go to jail.  Take your pick.”

Cruz made a face at Williams before sulking in the seat anew.

“I’d think you’d be grateful,” Williams continued.  “This is the sort of thing that can ruin a career.  You pay the dude, and we can forget the whole thing.”

“It gets my goat,” Cruz growled.

“I know.”  Williams wore a cat-got-the-cream smile as he said it.

Sulking, Cruz gazed doe-eyed at her partner, silently pleading.

Hauling in a deep breath, Niles climbed out of the car.  He trod back through the grass to where the homeowner was struggling to raise his sign anew.  After several minutes of conversation, shaking heads, and arguing, the homeowner finally relented.  Niles handed him some money then with the easy strength of a vampire, picked up the sign, busted posts and all and carried it to the patrol vehicle. 

At his gesture, Williams popped the truck.  Niles stowed the sign and returned to the car.

Once he was settled, he tapped the glass.  “Home, James.”

Williams frowned at him.  “You’re too good for her.”

Niles nodded.  “I know.”

Williams busted up laughing.  “You’re the last person I would expect to own a Trump sign!” 

“And I as well,” Niles replied. 

Cooksey’s gaze flitted between each of his co-workers.  “Are we all on the same team again?  Unity and all that?”

Williams shot Niles a glance.  The vampire returned it.

“Yeah, I guess we are,” Williams answered.

Niles grinned.  “And to prove it, let’s have a bonfire!  I’ve got lots of good wood to get it started.”

Williams started to protest, but Cooksey swatted him.

“Unity, Jonas,” the little man insisted.  “It’s time for all of us to find some unity.”

Niles couldn’t think of a more appropriate thing to say. 

© 2021 Newmin

Gule Visits the Dark Web

Mariella Cruz’s eyes flickered open for the thousandth time.  With a growl of frustration, she rolled over and tucked a pillow more comfortably under her cheek as she sought the solace of sleep.  Yet it wouldn’t come.  Too many thoughts coursed around her head like hounds chasing an unseen fox.  With a groan, she allowed her eyelids to open, providing her with a view of a darkened bedroom.

The opulently appointed room didn’t belong to her.  It belonged, rather, to a vampire.  The self-same vampire that lay beside her.

Cruz studied Niles Gule, her partner and now her lover, as he rested dormant in the huge bed, his indescribably beautiful face soft in the dim light that poked from behind the blackout blinds covering the windows.  His chest barely rose and fell.  His eyelids didn’t twitch.  His body seldom even moved as day inched inexorably towards night.  He could have been a statue carved by Michelangelo out of Carrera marble.

Cruz had learned through her relationship with him that vampires didn’t sleep the way humans did.  Instead, they fell dormant into a state of dreamless unconsciousness.  His breathing didn’t deepen like a man’s would.  He never snored.  And little roused him from that state except bright light.  When she ran her fingers lightly across his cold cheek, he didn’t stir or murmur a protest.  He was, she thought, the perfect man, at least in bed.

Snuggling against his cool body didn’t bring her any comfort that day.  Her mind continued to twist through tortured corridors, chasing shadows and demons.

Finally, with a curse, she sat up on the edge of the bed.  A hand swept her long, curly black locks away from her face as she contemplated the time.  Two in the afternoon said the clock with authority.  She checked her cellphone.  It concurred.  It also indicated seven voicemails awaited her should she choose to listen to them.

Cruz knew she wasn’t going to fall back asleep.  Her normal rising time was four.  She’d eat her dinner around five then start work on the night shift for the Baltimore PD around seven.  She and Niles were detectives.  Normally, they chased after burglars, murderers, and gang members, but this week was different.  This week they hunted a different prey.  Their own kind.

Cruz snatched her robe from the occasional chair and stomped for Niles’ living room.  Daylight blazed through magnificent floor to ceiling windows, providing a view of the Inner Harbor and the Aquarium.  Water taxis chugged and a handful private pleasure craft plied the bay on what was a calm, relatively mild winter day.  Cruz turned her back on it.

She faced what had become her nemesis.  What had stolen her sleep for the past several days.  Her computer.

With a sigh, she flipped it open and checked her email.  Then she dove into the work of investigating members of the police force.  The job was an ugly one.

She and Niles had been volunteered to assure the police commissioner that his troops were honorable members of society.  After an insurrection in Washington DC threatened to topple the government, realization had dawned across the country that its military and police forces were riddled with insurgents.  They needed to be found and removed from service before they incited more violence under the aegis of their organizations.  She considered the work necessary but felt slimy every time she pried into another co-worker’s private life.  She hated digging into emails and chatrooms to seek out the people who worked at her side every day.

So far, she’d been pleasantly surprised.  She’d only uncovered two police officers in the department engaged in questionable activity in the dark recesses of the web.  Following her superior’s instructions, she didn’t contact any of them or tell anyone what she found.  She was to provide her findings directly to her boss, Sergeant Tan Lo, and no one else.  She was glad.  Let the upper ups decide if the rantings she’d uncovered on the internet disqualified a man or woman for service.

Just prying into people’s personal lives made her uncomfortable enough.  Some of the sites she’d found made her skin crawl.  She dreaded entering the chatrooms and reading the vitriol and bile being spewed by her so-called fellow Americans.  At the end of her searches, she felt the need to take a shower.

A pair of arms wove around her shoulders from behind and a chin rested against her hair.

“Why up so early?” Niles asked.

“Couldn’t sleep.”

“Again?”  The arms withdrew.  Niles slipped around the sofa and sat down beside her wearing nothing but a bathrobe himself.  “This is the third day in a row you’ve struggled to sleep.  What’s going on?”

Cruz tried to divert him.  “What will the department say if they discover their two lead detectives work in the buff with nothing but bathrobes?”

A smile twitched the vampire’s pale lips before he sobered, unwilling to take the bait.  “They’d be jealous.  What’s got you so upset you can’t sleep?”

Cruz heaved a huge sigh.  “It’s these websites, Niles!  You should read this stuff!”

Niles glanced at the computer screen with his brilliant blue eyes.  “You know I’m not much into newfangled technology.  That’s why I’ve been doing the footwork and writing the reports.”

Cruz grunted.  “Don’t I know it!  You’re Victorian to the core, Niles.”

His face remained grave and attentive.  “Tell me what has you so upset.”

Cruz flipped a couple of pages.  “Reading this garbage.  I mean, to be fair, some of it is funny.”  She pointed with a fingernail.  “On this board, NelFergie182 claims Biden didn’t actually win the election.  He says Trump won, but everyone decided that claiming so would lead to civil war, so they decided to leave Biden in place as a fake president.  Since Trump in his farewell speech only mentioned a new administration, not a Biden administration, that means Biden isn’t actually the president.  The military is in control and they’re loyal to Trump which makes Trump the leader of this country.  Biden’s inauguration was just for show.  He’s a figurehead at this point.  A puppet.  Meanwhile, Trump will continue as the shadow president from Florida giving the real orders.  Seriously, how do people manage to make this crap up?”

Niles leaned against her to read the comment.  He shook his head sadly.  “Some people will cling to their delusions to their dying day.”

“I can laugh at that guy, but this woman is just pathetic, and I mean that in the gentlest way.”  Cruz shifted her screen to show a closeup of a woman with swollen eyes and tears tracing down her cheeks.  In her video, made with a cellphone, she begs President Trump to come back.  She needs him.  How will she live without him as president?  Why did he abandon them?  “She’s having a nervous breakdown over the election,” Cruz mourned. 

 The vampire rested his left arm around her shoulders.  “I hope she finds help.”  His expression hardened.  His tone became scolding.  “That’s not what’s keeping you awake at night though.”

Cruz deflated, her back melting into his chest as she sought comfort from his strength.  “No, it’s the other stuff.  The dark stuff.”  She shuddered.  “You have no idea just how much hate exists in America.”  She flicked screens.  “Listen to some of these posts:  Mike Pence knowingly handed our country over to China. Let that sink in.  And look at this meme.”  She pointed to a picture of Xi Ping standing before the flag of the United States with a caption reading 46th president.

Niles shrugged.  “People venting.”

“This isn’t venting.”  Cruz pulled up another comment.  “Breaking: Rudy Giuliani says the time for ‘harmony’ is over, urges Trump to go on a declassification spree…  Let’s roll !!!!”  She paused to rub her brow.  “That’s sedition, Niles.”

“Yes, it is.”

“And some of it just keeps amping up the rhetoric instead of letting it simmer down.  This one says:  Biden will not be president.  Who will be then?  The military.   In the constitution the inauguration isn’t till March 4th, gives Trump plenty time to enjoy himself and enough time for the smoke to clear, and Flynn and every military general are saying this as we speak, Trump will remain in office 100%.  Be patient and just know Trump is our President.”

“The inauguration is March 4th?” Niles repeated.  “I’m sorry, but the Constitution most certainly doesn’t say that.   Lord, America needs a civics lesson.” 

“That’s not even the worst of it.”  Cruz changed to another site.  “Listen to what this proud American has to say.”

Niles read the post directly from the site.

 Not all of us that voted trump is stupid or a retard. Some of us knows he is the best chance to stop the rape of our Great country by china and other foreign countries. Globalism is a poison that is causing our nation to lose key industries. Cant u see we are being outcompeted by the growing number of asians and our core values and way of life are under attack by moslims? Wait till you see chinese businesses running america and a mosque around every street corner before u realize trump is our best bet to regain the prestige and position squandered away by previous democratic administrations.

“Marvelously racist,” he murmured.

“You have no idea.”  Cruz shivered.  “There’s a link on one comment to a news site that claims all of Biden’s high-profile appointees are Jews.  Another throws the N word around like sugar at Christmas.  And this dude,” she stabbed her finger at the screen, “Can’t write a single sentence without the word fuck in it.”  She rubbed her brow.  “It’s just so….”

“Enervating?” he asked gently.

“I was going to say exhausting.”  Cruz laughed.  “Leave it to you to haul up that word instead.”

Niles grinned.

“Has this country really sunk to generating such sludge?” she sighed.

Niles laid his long, cold fingers on her shoulders and massaged her stiff muscles.  “No.  Cruz, you need to understand something.  Take it from a vampire who lived through most of this nation’s history.  What you’re reading about has always been here.  Long ago, citizens could spout that venom aloud in the public square and everyone would cheer.  They could lynch black people, beat women, and chop the hair off Chinese workers.  No one stopped them.  Since then we’ve become more civilized as a nation.  None of those actions are considered acceptable today.  So, as the centuries have passed, more people have left those beliefs behind.  What was once the common thought is now a fringe belief.  Be glad those people are stuck spilling their sewage in dark corners instead of in the middle of Main Street.”

“But how do we make them see the light if they’re hiding in these awful places?”

Niles shrugged.  “I’m not sure we can.  Some poisons burrow too deep in a man’s soul.  Maybe we can’t help them, but we can keep their disease from infecting the rest of us.  And teach the next generation the error of such thinking.”

Cruz shifted around.  She felt a weight lifting from her soul.  “How did you get to be so smart?”

Niles grinned.  “I’m a vampire.  I’ve got a supreme advantage over you.”

Cruz punched him.  “I’ll show you who has an advantage.”  She launched herself at him.

Niles caught her as they tumbled to the carpet in a tangle of arms and legs.  Then he pinned her to the floor and kissed her.

An hour passed before any more work got done, but Cruz was definitely feeling more joyous when she did finally get back to work.

© 2021 Newmin
 

Gule Faces Insurrection

Gule Faces Insurrection

The sharp request to take the phone off speaker and pick up startled Niles Gule, vampire detective of Baltimore.  Raising a quizzical brow at the questioning expression from his partner, Mariella Cruz, he switched the land line at his desk off speaker and lifted the handset.

“I need you and Cruz in the second-floor conference room asap,” snapped his boss, the usually amiable Sergeant Tan Lo who ran the night shift.  “Don’t explain to anyone where you’re going.”

Much as Niles craved asking what was wrong, his professional instincts warned him from speaking.  He merely replied in the affirmative.  Lo hung up before he’d finished.

A vague shake of his head commanded silence from Cruz.  Her luscious red lips parting slightly, she rose moments after he did.  Pretending a serenity he didn’t feel, Niles left the detectives’ bullpen and strode to the elevators.  Cruz’s black ponytail whirled as she spun around inside the car.  She remained silent until the doors closed, and Niles had punched the button for the second floor.

“Why is Lo summoning us to Human Resources?” she asked, her voice breaking with nervousness.

“I don’t know.”  Niles smiled to comfort her.  “They can’t be firing us.  They don’t normally fire two people at the same time.”

“There’s always a first!”  Cruz hugged herself and stared at the ugly carpet as the elevator descended.

The doors opened onto a hallway lined with HR offices.  The conference room stood at the far end.

“They’re making us march to our firing squad,” she complained as she trotted beside her vampire, taking two steps for every one of his.

The conference room door stood barely ajar.  When Niles rapped on it with his knuckles, Lo’s voice barked for them to enter.

Niles stiffened as his brilliant blue gaze swept over the people gathered in the large room.  Sergeant Lo stood beside the table, his wrinkled face worn and tired.  Niles swore a forest of new gray hairs had joined the handful that had previously sprinkled his dark locks.  The little man’s shoulders sagged.  His mouth hung in a frown.

Sitting at the table was a handful of people Niles would have preferred to avoid.  Hermina Escobar, a large woman with dark cocoa-colored skin and black hair that was always scraped hard against her scalp, commanded much space at the table.  As head of HR, she needed to be steely and determined or the machismo of the Baltimore PD would have run roughshod over her long ago.  Her face, a gruff, manly visage, was a mask.  She allowed not a twitch of movement to stir her features.

Beside her sat the police commissioner himself, Michael Harrison, a gruff bulldog of a Black man with a shaved pate, along with the department’s legal counsel, Lisa Walden, probably the youngest person in the room.  The chief of staff, Eric Melancon, and the public information director Lindsey Eldridge finished up the roster of notables.

Niles swallowed. 

Cruz’s hand found his and briefly squeezed it before letting go.

The two detectives entered the room and stood together, backs stiff, almost at attention, their faces devoid of all the emotions swirling through them.  When Escobar asked them to take seats at the table’s foot, they both reluctantly did so.  Each kept their faces studiously expressionless.

“Thank you for your time,” Melancon began.  His voice was tight, uncomfortable.  His cold tone matched the feeling emanating from everyone in the room.

Cruz shot Niles a glance, wondering what trouble they’d brought down on themselves.  Niles rifled his brain for ideas but came up blank.  He and Cruz ran a tight ship.

Melancon tried to plaster an ineffectual smile on his lips but it faded almost immediately.  “I’m sure you’re wondering why we called you here.  It’s not to fire you, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Niles sensed Cruz’s wooden body language soften but she remained with her back straight, her attention on high alert.

“I’m sure you’re aware of the events in Washington last week,” Melancon continued.  “The riots.”

“The insurrection,” corrected Harrison gruffly.

“I suspect the alien microbes on Europa have learned the news,” Niles responded with a vague smile.  Anything to lessen the tension in the room.

Melancon nodded.  He laced his fingers together on the table in front of him.  “As you probably know, the bulk of the instigators were neo-Nazi’s and white supremacists.  Most are well known to the FBI and intelligence services.”

Neither Niles nor Cruz dared to move.

“Those people will be rounded up and dealt with,” Melancon sighed.  “The problem is, some of the people involved in planning the uprising as well as possibly joining it were people with obvious military or police training.  Furthermore, we’ve been informed by the FBI that some members of the Capitol Police and the DC Police Department took part in the attack or assisted it both before and during the action.”

Niles swallowed.  The media had made that fact clear in their reporting.

Melancon pressed on.  “We’ve received warnings from Washington that online chatter is continuing.  These groups want to attack not just the nation’s capital, but state governments as well.  Every major city is on alert.”

Niles nodded.  He suspected Cruz wasn’t breathing.

Melancon gazed at the pair of detectives with a grave expression.  “Worst of all, the FBI has reason to believe that police departments may harbor seditionists in their ranks.  Baltimore,” he said, “may have them on the force.”

Niles shot a glance at Cruz then back at Melancon again.  “I hope you aren’t suggesting Detective Cruz and I might be…”

Melancon raised a hand.  “No, no!  Certainly not!  In fact, we spoke with Sergeant Lo here who vouches that you are the two members of his team he would consider the least likely to join in this…”

“Cancer,” belched Harrison.

“This cancer.”  Melancon seemed to wilt.  “This cancer within our social fabric.  That’s why we called you here.  We need your assistance.”

Cruz let out her breath with a rush.  Her body deflated back to its normal relaxed but alert stance.

“To do what?” Niles asked.

Harrison burned the pair of detectives with a fervid gaze.  “To investigate our ranks, Detective.  We need to know who’s faithful to our constitution, and who might harbor seditionist leanings.  We need to know who we can trust.”

“You want us to investigate our own colleagues?” Cruz squeaked.

Niles rested his cold hand atop her hot one.  He gave it a warning squeeze but said nothing.

Harrison thumped his fist on the table.  “I will not have traitors in my department!  I can’t send my people into attacks on our city not knowing if the men behind them have their back or are willing to knife them.  If anyone in this department has engaged in seditious activity online or in person, they need to be rooted out and removed from service.”

Cruz softened her tone, but her outrage continued to burn.  “This is like the Red Scare all over again.  Only going in the opposite direction.”

Harrison nodded.  “In a sense it is.  We need to know, Detective Cruz, if our officers can be trusted.  This department has suffered enough loss of public trust over the influence ring we busted last year.  We can’t have officers pretending to defend our city while in uniform, then scurrying onto the internet off duty and fomenting revolution.”

“Sir,” Cruz pleaded, “I’m not comfortable with…”

“I don’t care what you’re comfortable with,” Harrison snapped.  “You’ve got a duty to your department, to your city, and to your nation.”  His dark eyes flicked between the two detectives.  “Your Sergeant claims you’re two of his best, most loyal people.  He says you can do this.”

Niles stared Cruz into silence with his piercing blue gaze before turning back to the commissioner.  “What are you asking us to do?”

Lisa Walden spoke up hastily.  “Nothing that violates the law or anyone’s constitutional rights.  We’re merely asking you, as detectives, to use the skills you employ every day in tracking down criminals to review the actions of anyone on the force that could be construed as taking part in sedition.  You must be impartial.  No racial profiling.  Take a look at everyone to assure us that we don’t have any bad apples.”

“What are our deliverables?” Niles asked.

Walden eased somewhat at his reasonable, professional tone.  “A report of your findings.  A list of people who have taken part in such activities and evidence of that activity.  That report will remain strictly confidential within the team assembled here.  No one else will be informed.  We won’t provide it to the press.”  Her expression became stern.  “We expect you to handle it with discretion.  No one is to be told what you are doing.  Is that clear?”

Niles nodded.  “Crystal, ma’am.”

Cruz opened her lips to protest anew, but Niles clamped his hand over hers, warning her again to be silent.

“We appreciate your trust in us,” he said.  “While I will second my partner’s concern about surveilling our teammates, we understand the importance of the moment.  We’ll do our best.”

A collective sigh seemed to gush from everyone in the room.

“That’s all anyone can ask,” Melancon agreed.  “Sergeant Lo will oversee your investigation.  Address any questions to him.  You will hand your findings to him as well.”

Niles’ gaze shot towards his boss.  Lo stood with his eyes fixed on the carpet.

“This is the last time you’ll talk directly with us.”  Melancon’s eyes hardened again.  “I’m sure I don’t need to repeat myself about not discussing this assignment with anyone, am I correct?”

Niles nodded.  “Correct, sir.”

“Thank you.”

Escobar rose and gestured towards the door.  “That will be all, detectives.”

Niles rose stiffly from his chair and hauled Cruz to her feet.  He dragged her from the room before she could protest further.

Once they were in the hallway hastening towards the elevators, Cruz raged at him.  “I can’t believe you agreed to do this, Niles!”

“We don’t have a choice,” the vampire muttered.  “If we don’t do it, they’ll just find someone else who will.  Someone more biased than you and I.”

Cruz sputtered all the way to the elevator.  When Niles pushed the button for the ground floor, she started in surprise but said nothing.  

Only once they were safely out on the sidewalk headed in some random direction did she burst.  “We can’t do this!  Investigate our team?  Niles!”

Niles spun on her.  He gripped her arms with his long, cold fingers.  “Like I said.  We don’t have a choice.”  He gave her a gentle shake.  “This is reality, Mari.  People died in that riot.  More people could die if this … this… cancer … isn’t addressed immediately.  Hopefully, we’ll poke around a little and discover no one’s up to anything.  We’ll hand in our report and get on with life.”

“Hopefully,” Cruz groaned.  “That’s a lot to hang your hat on.”

“No, it’s not, but it’s all we’ve got.  Come on, Mari.  I need a drink.”

While she huffed, Niles headed for the nearest wine shop.

Niles already knew they’d find some members of the force wallowing in dark and vile political places.  He hoped he was wrong.  He hoped his fellow officers were as repulsed by the fetid underbelly of American society revealed in the riot as he and Cruz were.  It was a forlorn hope.  He knew better.

But that’s the only thing the uprising had left them. 

Hope that the insanity would end.

2021 Newmin

Gule Doesn’t Pull His Punches

For the fifteenth time, the ding of an incoming text message from someone’s cellphone pricked Niles Gule’s sensitive hearing.  The vampire flinched as if someone had flicked a finger against his ear.  Although he tried to remain focused on the irate bar owner’s ravings about a burglar, that constant irritation soured his mood.  When it dinged two more times in quick succession, Niles held up his hand to forestall the bar owner’s next complaint.

“Maybe you should check what’s so important,” he murmured to his partner, Mariella Cruz, who stood at his side taking notes of the crime.

The woman ignored the phone hidden in her pocket.  “It’s my family.  When they get rolling on a topic, they can go for hours.  Just ignore it.”

Niles lifted a brow and gazed down at her with a disapproving frown.  “Easier said than done.”  Even as he spoke, her phone dinged again.  The piercing little pinprick of sound stabbed him anew.

“Can we focus on my issues?” the bar owner complained.  “Someone stole my Hennessey.”

“At least your thief has good taste,” Cruz quipped.

“Each bottle cost four grand!” the bar owner yelped.  “This isn’t a joke!”

Niles patted the air in a gesture meant to calm the man down.  “We aren’t treating this as a joke.  We understand you’ve suffered a serious loss.”

“Who would know you kept such expensive, special stock?” Cruz asked.  Her phone dinged again.

The bar owner threw his arms out from his sides.  “Everyone.  High-end liquors are my specialty.”  He glared at the two detectives.  “This isn’t some local dive bar here.  We’re a quality establishment.”

Cruz sighed.  She shot Niles a martyred look.  He shrugged.

Snapping her notebook closed, she presented the bar owner with a cool, professional smile.  “We’re on this, Mr. Kapinski.  We’ve got your security video, so we know what our perps look like.  We’ll review the footage against our known area thieves and get back to you.”

“Damned straight!” Kapinski huffed.

With a slide of her eyes, Cruz silently suggested they leave.  Niles provided a perfunctory smile to the affronted bar owner and headed for the door.

Once outside, a chilly evening enveloped them.  The sun had set long before their shift had started, veiling Baltimore in cold darkness.  The pair of detectives stood on O’Donnell St, not far from the harbor, in an upscale area of shops and restaurants east of Fells Point.  Traffic was subdued.  The coronavirus still raged, driving most folks into isolation.  Restaurants and bars suffered under a statewide lockdown, allowed no inside seating, only takeout, which explained why thieves chose now to rob Kapinski’s Tavern.

When Niles and Cruz stepped outside, they found the two uniformed officers who’d called in the burglary still standing at the corner.  Giant Jonas Williams stared onto his cellphone while his partner, fat, chubby Walter Cooksey fretted nearby.

“Can you believe this shit?” Williams demanded, holding up his phone.

“What shit?” Cruz shot back.  She didn’t tolerate abuse from the big man.

“The protest,” Williams replied.

Cruz and Niles both stiffened and looked around.  Baltimore drowsed in wintery silence, only a trace of traffic noise permeating the quiet neighborhood.

“There’s a protest?” Niles queried.  “Who’s protesting what now?”

Williams started.  A stunned look froze his face.  “You don’t know?  Shit, Gule!  Protesters have taken control of the capitol.”

Niles frowned.  “Annapolis?”

“DC!” the big man shouted.  He held out his hand.

Niles peered at the small screen to find images of a mob of people holding Confederate, Neo-Nazi, and Trump 2020 flags milling around what looked like a government building.

“They broke into the capitol complex,” Cooksey mourned.  His face sagged woefully.

Cruz grabbed Niles by the arm and hauled him down the street.  On the corner of the next block stood Salvage King TV and VCR Parts.  The small store bought and sold used electronic equipment.  Cruz knew that normally a big screen TV stood in the window broadcasting CNN. 

The screen flickered with the same large-scale images that had appeared on Williams’ cellphone.  Cruz and Niles stood stunned as reporters reviewed the events of the day.  A pro-Trump rally had been held as planned on the Ellipse near the White House.  According to the reporter, the president, his lawyer Rudy Guliani, and the president’s son had exhorted the crowd of perhaps forty thousand people to march on Capitol Hill, to reclaim a government they considered stolen in an illegal election.  The crowd had apparently taken the president at his word.  They’d marched on the Capitol Complex where Congress and the vice-president were processing the Electoral College votes which would name Joe Biden as the next president.  While some milled around the parking lot, thousands climbed the scaffolding raised for the upcoming inaugural ceremony and others attacked the building.  Several hundred broke through the police barricade and smashed doors and windows.  For several hours they ravaged the Capitol while Congresspeople hid in locked offices and under desks.  One individual even possessed the temerity to tear down the US flag and raise a blue Trump flag in its place.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Cruz demanded in outrage.  “How the hell could that happen?  What’s wrong with those people?”

“They’re angry,” Williams huffed as he and Cooksey charged up. 

“Obviously,” Cruz snapped back.  She stabbed a finger at the images.  “But that ain’t how we handle it in America.”

Williams arched a brow.  “No?  What would you do when you know your vote was stolen from you?”

Cruz’s fists landed on her hips.  “For one, I know my vote wasn’t stolen.  And for two, even if I thought it was, I wouldn’t rise up against my government.”

“They’re protesting!”

Cruz squealed in fury.  “That isn’t protesting.  That’s sedition!”

Williams folded his arms.  His face grew mulish.  “They’re angry and I don’t blame them.  The election was stolen.”

“It most certainly was not!”  Cruz’s voice rose several octaves.

Niles, forever trying to remain the buffer between his two hot-tempered co-workers, lifted his hands to placate them.  “Williams, stand down.  She’s right.  The election wasn’t stolen.”

Williams rounded on him.  “How would you know?”

Niles lifted a brow.  “I can read, Jonas.  And follow the news.”  At the look of skepticism on Williams’ face, he sighed.  “I’ve got no horse in this race, Jonas!  I don’t vote.  So listen to what a neutral party has to say.  The only states supposedly suffering from election fraud are those Trump lost.  And yet, the Republican Party gained down ballot seats in virtually all of them.  No one is claiming those senators’ and representatives’ seats were illegally obtained, only the president’s.  That’s a bit hard to swallow.”

Williams’ face hardened.  “I don’t follow mainstream media.”

Niles didn’t back down.  “Maybe you should.  Because those services may have bias in the stories they choose to cover, but they have journalistic standards they follow on the stories they do tell.  And they don’t deliberately lie.  Take it from a vampire who’s lived almost two centuries.  The press survives on its reputation.  Investigative journalists don’t lie.  They make mistakes, they sometimes jump to supposition when they shouldn’t, but they don’t deliberately lie.  And they certainly don’t lie about something as big as this.  Do you really think the next Woodward and Bernstein wouldn’t salivate at the chance to prove some giant conspiracy to steal an election?  They would!  They’d trample each other in the surge to get that story out first.  That they haven’t is proof it’s not true.”

Williams thrust his face into the vampire’s.  “Bull!”

Cruz wasn’t backing down either.  She rose on her toes to glare into Williams’ cold, gray eyes.

“Get this through that fat filled head if yours.  Over seventy court cases were raised by Trump and his allies in the swing states.  Virtually all of them were rejected.  The Supreme Court threw out two of them!”

“On technical grounds,” the giant groused.

“Those cases weren’t just rejected,” Cruz pressed.  “They were laughed out of court.  Because Trump’s attorneys couldn’t provide a single shred of evidence of what they were claiming.”  She stabbed a finger into Williams’ face.  “Not.  One.  Shred.  When a judge demanded to know if the lawyers were claiming fraud, they themselves had to backpedal and admit they weren’t!  Because they knew if they did, they’d be disbarred!  That’s the quality of the so-called allegations.  It’s sickening.”

“No, having an election stolen is sickening,” Williams bit back.

Cruz rammed a finger towards the television screen in the window.  “No, Jonas.  That’s what’s sickening.  That these supposed patriots…” Her voice oozed with disgust. “… think attacking and killing police officers is patriotic.  That flying a Trump flag in place of the flag you and I have sworn to protect is patriotic.  That attacking our Congress, the very basis of our democracy is patriotic.”  Her eyes narrowed.  “You make me sick.”

A strangled sound emerged from Williams’ throat.  Before Niles could stop him, he backhanded Cruz across the face, sending her whirling into the window glass.  She didn’t waste a second in shock or dismay.  She spun around and planted her fist in the big man’s face.  Williams stumbled backwards, stung and shocked, but not injured.  With a flail of hands, she punched him several more times before Niles dragged her off him.

“Stop it!” he yelled, pushing her away.  “Stop it, both of you!  Is this what we’ve become?  Is this what Trump has turned us into?  Brawling, snarling animals?”

“Yes.”  Cooksey’s voice was soft.

Somehow, that single word broke through the red sea of rage burning in Williams’ eyes.  He whirled on his partner.  “Huh?  Give me a break, Cooks.  You’re with me, right?  Trump all the way!”

Little Cooksey, who rose barely to his partner’s shoulder, shook his head.  He stiffened his shoulders and raised his chin to glare at his friend and partner.  “No, Jonas.  I’m not with you in this.”  He made air quotes around the words with you.  “Yes, I voted for Trump.  Yes, I’m a conservative.  Yeah, I hate the Democrats.  But Jonas!”  His eyes and voice grew pleading.  “This isn’t what I believe in.  Trashing our capitol?  Killing police officers?  Raising a man’s flag above my country’s?”  He shook his head, his expression resolute.  “No.  I don’t stand for that.  And if you do, then I don’t stand with you.”

Williams gaped.  Then his face hardened.  His hands fisted.  “You pathetic little bastard.”  He swung at Cooksey.

Niles blocked the blow with his arm.  There they stood, human against vampire, while Cooksey remained unflinchingly in line with the punch that never landed. 

“Don’t make me hurt you, Jonas,” Niles warned.

Williams growled low in his throat.  “God damned prissy vampire!”  His opposite fist flashed towards the vampire’s face.

Niles blocked the second blow with his free arm, twisted away then planted one directly into Williams’ midsection.

The giant man’s breath popped out with an ooph as he fell on his ass to the pavement.  There he flopped, unable to regain his breath from the powerful blow that could have split his spleen had Niles not held back.

Niles loomed over him, icily calm.  “I could have walloped you in the mouth, Jonas.  With my strength, I would have sent your jaw flying across the street.”

Williams huffed, partly because he couldn’t catch his breath and partly because the steely glint in the vampire’s blue eyes warned him off.

Niles’ eyes narrowed as Williams raged up at him.  The vampire could see the calculations running in his enemy’s gaze.  “Don’t, Jonas.  Just don’t.”  He took a single step back.  “We know who you are.  What you are.  And we reject everything that stands for.”

Cruz and Cooksey gathered on either side, glaring down at the fallen man.

Williams stared at the lot of them, his co-workers, his friends.  He could say nothing as all three turned their backs on their fallen comrade and walked away, leaving him in the street. 

Alone.

© 2020 Newmin
 

Gule Finds Life’s a Blast

The vampire fought down a yawn and blinked up at the brightening pink sky that presaged dawn’s approach.  A chill breeze plucked at his carefully shorn blond locks and sent his brightly colored Jerry Garcia tie flapping over his shoulder as he walked towards home north along Charles St in Baltimore.

“I can give you a ride from the precinct,” his partner, the vivacious Mariella Cruz offered.  She jogged by his side, taking two strides for each of his, her black ponytail swishing in time to her footsteps.  “No sense walking in the cold.”

Niles Gule lifted a brow, forever amused at Cruz’s assumption he was human.  “The cold doesn’t bother me.  I only wear the coat to keep people from talking.  If I walked around the city in the dead of winter in only shirt sleeves, they’d think me odd.”

Cruz beamed up the length of his incredibly tall, thin frame.  “They think you’re odd anyway,” she jibed.  “Always so perfectly turned out.  Never a wrinkle.  How do you do it?”

The vampire’s pale lips twitched.  “Expensive shirts.  And lots of dry cleaning.”

Cruz laughed and skipped a few steps to catch up.  Seeing that, he moderated his ordinarily ground swallowing stride.

“Why do you hide the fact you’re a vampire from the world?” she asked.  “You’re tame, after all.”

“Tame.”  Niles chewed on that word for several steps.  “Do you really think so?”

Cruz’s smile turned sultry.  “Well, you’re tame enough for my tastes.”

Niles’ brilliant blue eyes studied the city just waking up to Christmas Eve morning.  Given the holiday and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the streets were unusually empty of traffic and pedestrians.  “Humans and vampires have been battling since we landed here.  Your people don’t view mine in a particularly favorable light.”

“Well, can you blame us?” she quipped.  “Your folk do nosh on us when you get the chance.”

“True.”  Niles gazed at the Inner Harbor where a water taxi revved its engines in preparation for departure, a lone passenger its only fare.  The engine’s exhaust hung like fog over the gelid water.  He frowned as he considered her question.  “Do you really think humans are ready to know aliens walk among them?”

Cruz shrugged.  “I dunno.  I think we’re inured to the concept at this point.  I mean, you’ve got the X Files and Ancient Aliens on TV and the Marvel Universe on the big screen.  We’ve been consuming a steady diet of aliens amongst us for decades now.”

Niles halted.  He tapped his chest.  “That’s fiction and everyone knows it.  I’m real.  Don’t you think these people,” he waved at the handful of humans starting their day, “would freak out if they knew I stood here in the middle of Baltimore, an alien pretending to be a human?”

“I think they’d be more freaked out about vampires walking the streets.”  She tightened the woolen scarf around her neck with mittened hands.  “I mean, now you’ve got the Pentagon releasing videos of UFOs chasing fighter planes.  And Trump claiming he was told things about Roswell.”

Niles choked on a laugh.  As he regained his composure, he continued walking.  “If Trump told me the sun is rising, I’d call an astronomer friend to determine why the sky is brightening, because it can’t be sunrise.  The truth and that man have never met.”

 Cruz snortled and continued alongside him.

The explosion’s shock wave hit them just as they arrived at Fayette St.  Niles threw his outspread coat around Cruz to shield her from any flying debris, but little filtered into the street.

“Terrorist attack?” she gasped, freeing herself from his grip. 

“Or another nut case blowing himself up in a public suicide?” Niles answered, remembering the blast in Nashville.

The two police detectives spun around in a circle to determine the source of the detonation, but other than a handful of individuals cowering behind desiccated plants in planters, the street appeared unaffected.  Niles then heard terrified cries coming from above.

Holding his hand as a visor against the glare of the pale sky, he gazed up at the Baltimore Gas and Electric building that rose twenty-four floors above them.  A few bits of paper fluttered in the still air, indicating the explosion had come from above.  But more importantly, a window washer’s scaffolding hung precariously from only one set of cables.  Two workers gripped their stricken platform and yelled for help sixteen floors above the street.

“Holy Hannah!” Cruz exclaimed.  Her hand fetched her cellphone and dialed 911 almost of its own accord. 

While Cruz updated the operator, Niles cautiously approached the building.  His back arched hard as he stared up at the damaged scaffolding.

“Police and fire are on their way,” Cruz gasped when she arrived at his side.

“I don’t think those two men have much time.”  Niles squinted against the glare.  “They’re clinging by their bare hands.”  He glanced at his own long, thin fingers.  “Human hands don’t function well in cold.”

“Looks like hermetically sealed windows,” Cruz added.  She started towards the building.  “Maybe we can break them from the inside.  Pull the guys in through a window.”

Niles waved for her to try.  “Go for it.”

Cruz paused, frowning.  “Niles, I’ll need your help.  You’re stronger than me.”

Niles tore off his overcoat, then his suit jacket and tie.  “It’ll take you time to get up there and find a way to break the windows.  One thing those men don’t have is time.”  He heeled off his Italian loafers.

“Niles!  What are you going to do?”

He gestured at her to go.  His eyes remained fixed on the terrified men above.  “I’m the only one who can reach them in time.  Move!”

Startled, Cruz bolted for the building.

Cursing under his breath because the one thing Niles didn’t want to do was reveal to all of Baltimore on the eve of Christmas that a vampire stalked their streets, he nevertheless knew what he needed to do.  He ripped his socks from his feet, clapped his hands together to prepare them and launched himself at the building.

One skill vampires possessed was a predator’s ability to scale vertical surfaces.  Their talons could dig into tiny cracks and their toenails were composed of a silicate material much tougher than human collagen.  When he reached the sixties era building of concrete and glass, he muttered relief at its composition.  All glass would have made climbing impossible.  But concrete and glass begged a vampire to scale them.

He shoved his talons into the rubber gasket between the concrete and the glass and hauled himself up by his arms.  His toenails found similar purchase in the conveniently designed crevice, allowing him to grab for another handhold.  Another step with his feet followed another handhold.  When he reached the third floor, the design changed.  Here, narrow windows peered out from between a thick fretwork of concrete.  That allowed the vampire to claw around each of the concrete half pillars like a monkey scaling a palm tree.  Panting, because he hadn’t climbed like this in years, Niles inched up the building, changing hand and footholds in one-meter increments.

Up, up, up he climbed.  He could hear the two men swearing as their scaffold twitched, threatening to fall.  One man yelled at the other to stop moving or they’d both tumble to their deaths.

Then, one spotted Niles.

“Holy shit!” he exclaimed.  “Do you see that?”

“It’s Spiderman!” the other breathed.

Niles huffed, but kept climbing.  Points to Cruz for her comments about too much Marvel in theaters.  But he was grateful if they chose to name him Peter Parker. 

“Are you tethered?” he shouted when he ranged close beneath them.

“Yeah,” said one.  “But to the scaffold.   If it goes, we go with it.”

Gasping for breath, Niles climbed up beside them.  The two men clung to the upper side of the scaffold which still hung from cables attached to the roof.  The rest of the scaffold hung almost vertically down beneath their feet, leaving them with a view of the street sixteen floors down.  What he could see of their faces behind wool hats and knitted gaiters was ghastly white.  Both men wore gloves with the fingers cut out of them.  That tiny bit of skin clinging to the cabling was all that held them to their precarious perch.

“Rescue crews are on their way,” Niles panted.  “We’ll try to get you out through the window.”

Even as he spoke, he saw Cruz’s pale face plaster against the glass, her eyes wide as she realized her partner had climbed the outside of the building. 

“Break the window!” he shouted at her.

A flurry of shadows told him she’d spun to locate a weapon.

Meanwhile, the scaffolding creaked as the single cable took all its weight.  Niles didn’t think it would give but he didn’t trust the two men could continue to cling to it with their frozen hands. 

Cautiously, he slipped between the building and the scaffold, then planted himself across one window, his left hand and foot dug into one side of the window while his right hand and foot dug into the other.

“Hold onto me,” he said to the desperate men.  “My shirt will be easier on your hands.”

“How are you doing this?” the first man asked.  Hesitantly, he grabbed Niles by the shoulder.  When the vampire held firm, he took the chance and threw himself in a bear hug around Niles. 

“Haven’t you heard of Spiderman?” Niles gibed.  He groaned when the second man clambered onto his back. 

With the weight of two large, burly humans clinging to him, Niles’ talons threatened to give.  Niles bit deep into his lower lip with his fangs and hung on.  He planted his face into the glass and focused on counting to distract himself from the pain. 

Something pounded against the nearest window.  After three thumps, the glass shattered.  Cruz peered out, a flagpole in her hands.

“EMTs are here,” she reported.  “Hang on just one more minute.”

Niles grunted.  He didn’t have the strength to respond.

The crew arrived with a clatter of equipment.  One man hastily donned a safety harness while the others secured him inside the room.  He then stepped onto the very edge of the window and reached for the closest man.   He clipped on a new safety cable before freeing the man of his original cable.  Then the mass of people inside the room dragged him inside like a ragdoll.

Niles groaned with relief at the reduction in weight.  He continued counting.  His fingers shrieked in pain.  His toes throbbed.

The EMT reappeared at the window and repeated the maneuver to bring the second man inside.  He blinked in astonishment at Niles clinging to the window with nothing but his fingers and toes.

“What the hell?” he burbled.

Niles grinned at him, revealing his fangs before he launched himself up the building towards the roof.  No way he was going in through the window.  Too much publicity.

Although his nails screamed in agony, Niles continued up the building until he could drag himself onto the roof.  There he flopped on his back, hauling in great gasps of breath, and waiting for the pain to subside.

Moments later, Cruz rushed across the roof and fell beside him.

“Are you okay?” she demanded.

Niles nodded.  “Yeah.”

Cruz hugged him as he sat up.  “Let’s get you out of here before the press figures out what happened.”

“What did happen?” Niles asked as he allowed her to assist him onto legs that felt like rubber. 

Cruz gestured towards a hole in the building’s roof.  “Looks like a boiler blew or something.  Mechanical for sure.  Not terrorism.”

“Thank God for that.”

She nodded and hastened him to the door that led to the maintenance stairwell.  They descended only one flight then darted into a hallway on the twenty-fourth floor.  There, they found a conference room where they could hide until the worst of the emergency passed.

As Niles sat shivering from exhaustion, Cruz popped a K-cup into a coffee maker and brewed him some java.  She handed him a Styrofoam cup which he clutched with two shaking hands.

“That was incredibly brave,” she crooned, wiping his forehead with her scarf.  “Incredibly stupid, but incredibly brave.”

Niles shrugged.  He sipped his coffee.

“Don’t scare me like that,” she reprimanded.

Niles considered his torn talons and oozing feet.  “No worries about that Mari.”  He gave a shaky laugh.  “At one-hundred sixty-two years of age, I’m getting too old for this shit.”

© 2020 Newmin

Niles comments:  The explosion was caused by mechanical systems failure.  Three people suffered mild injuries, but none were life threatening.  Fortunately, due to the holiday, the building had been nearly empty.