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.
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.