Gule Is Lit Up For The Holidays

Faced with the overly rambunctious Cruz clan, Niles Gule attempted a smile as he stood in the doorway of the family’s overstuffed little bungalow in East Baltimore.  A brilliant glow projected from the front bay window onto frosty grass.  The sound of Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass thumped from a dozen speakers inside the small house.  Voices babbled, primarily in staccato Spanish, a language the vampire did not speak.  At his side, his partner on the police force, Mariella Cruz pulled open the door and pranced inside, a wine bottle in each fist.

El vino ha llegado,” she announced to her large family.

Cheers answered her greeting.

Always somber, Cruz’s oldest brother, German, bobbed his head to Niles as the vampire stepped into the house behind his partner.

“Welcome, Senor Niles,” he said respectfully.

The human received a tight smile in return.

Cruz handed off her bottles before frowning at Niles.  “What’s wrong with you tonight?  Why so stiff?”

“I’m a vampire,” Niles grated between clenched teeth.  “It’s what we do.”

She plugged him with an elbow.  “Don’t give me that.  I mean, yes, you’re aways wound way tighter than I’ll ever be, but tonight you’re… I dunno.  Stiffer than normal?”  She cocked a quizzical eye at him.  “Is joining my family for Thanksgiving that much of a chore?”

Niles’ brilliant blue gaze narrowed to tolerate the blazing candles, roaring fire, and glowing lights and swept over the gathering.  Along with Cruz’s mother, Mama Cruz, and her aunt Tia Juanita, all five of Cruz’s brothers were in attendance with their significant others.  Tio Benito, silver haired with bushy gray eyebrows, and Cousin Maria, newly divorced and left to raise three kids alone, had also joined the festivities.   Tall and Nordic in coloring, Niles loomed over the dark-haired crowd, a beacon of paleness in a sea of cocoa skin and brash, exuberantly colored clothing.  He was the antithesis of a Mexican American.

“I have no problem with sharing a meal with your family,” he murmured, keeping his lips tight.

Never one to let an itch go unscratched, Cruz pressed harder.  “So what’s the problem then?”

Niles forced a smile, revealing his newly butchered mouth.  “In honor of the occasion, my dentist trimmed my fangs.  Hurts like hell.”

Startled, Cruz leaned closer to peer at his mouth.  Sure enough, his teeth lined up white and even, no fangs to be seen.

“Shouldn’t you have done that yesterday?” she asked.  “How are you going to eat if you’re in that much pain?”

Niles’ eyes traced the progress of the wine bottles headed for the kitchen.  “Couldn’t get an appointment until late.  I usually drown my pain in alcohol.”

Cruz grabbed his arm before he could chase his chosen potion.  “Oh no you don’t!  You are not getting trashed at my family Thanksgiving.”  She tugged him into the living room where Tio Benito was entertaining the kids by allowing them to kill him seventeen times on Call of Duty. 

“This game not so nice!” he exclaimed, laughing as he died yet again, earning squeals of glee from the youngsters.

Niles opened his lips to speak but Cruz plugged him again with that elbow.  “Not a word, Niles.  You promised to behave.”

He leaned his head close to hers.  “You know how I hate those shoot em up video games.  Nothing good comes from teaching kids to kill people.”

Cruz rolled her eyes but didn’t respond.

“Deenner is ready!” shouted Mama Cruz in her heavily accented English.  “Table, ninos and ninas.  Everyone take a seat.”

With a rumbling of feet and the shifting of chairs, the Cruz clan plus one vampire settled around the table.  Mama Cruz, a large lady prone to wearing wild colors, was flaming in red and gold sequins as she took her seat at the head of the table.  Tia Juanita placed the platter with the turkey before her while Xavier and Manolo, two of Cruz’s brothers, set bowls of asparagus, rice and beans, salad, potatoes, pesole, and a dish of covered, warmed tortillas along the centerline of the large table.  At Mama’s cough, everyone joined hands, including Niles, and bowed their heads while Mama gave the blessing in Spanish.

“Let’s eat!”   Mama punctuated her words with a clap.

The family dove in.

While platters and bowls circled around the table, Tia Juanita discreetly placed a bowl of small tortillas and steak tartare in front of Niles.  He smiled gratefully at her.

Although he wasn’t a huge fan of tortillas, Niles nevertheless played the civilized game of scooping the raw meat into the tortillas, then rolling them up and eating them with his hands.  The humans at the table could pretend he was eating the same things they were.

Tio Benito, sitting directly across from Niles and Cruz, eyed them from beneath his huge eyebrows.  “So when are you making an honest woman of our little Mari?” he asked.

Niles froze.  Conversation at his end of the table stopped.  All eyes turned expectantly towards the vampire.

What is it with these people? he wondered.  Why are they so determined to marry their family member to a vampire?

Cruz squeaked in protest.  “Tio Benito!  That wasn’t nice.”

Benito beamed, mischief shimmering in his dark eyes.  He didn’t stop gazing at Niles.

Cruz chose to bail out her partner.  “Vampires don’t marry, tio.”

That sparked surprise.  “They don’t?  What do they do then?”

“They formed long-standing partnerships but don’t call it marriage,” she explained. 

Niles continued to smile, closed lipped.

Benito wasn’t surrendering.  “So when are you going to make an honest woman of Mari by forming a long-standing partnership?” he asked.

Various relatives nodded their heads gravely, eyes watching expectantly.

Niles gulped.

At that moment his cellphone buzzed in his pocket.  Saved by the bell!

Grateful for the excuse to escape an uncomfortable conversation, Niles ripped the phone from his pocket.  A glance at the screen indicated uniformed police officer Jonas Williams was the caller.

Niles slid back from the table.  “It’s work.  I have to take this.”

“Niles!” Cruz protested.  “We’re off the clock.”

Niles nodded but still rose and headed for the front door.  He’d take the call on the front porch.

As he stood in the chilly darkness, Niles punched to return the call.

“Ghoul!” bellowed the deep voice of Williams, not one of Niles’ favorite people.

“It’s Thanksgiving, Jonas,” Niles intoned.  “I’m off duty tonight.”

“Yeah yeah yeah,” muttered the big man on the other side of the line.  “Bully for you.  Meanwhile, in the real world, the rest of us are working.”

Niles couldn’t keep the annoyance from his tone, not that he wasn’t grateful for the reprieve from Cruz’s family.  “What do you want?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Niles saw Cruz slip out the door to join him.

“We got us a vampire problem,” Williams replied.  “Need your special expertise.”

Niles rolled his eyes.  “What sort of vampire problem?”

“We’ve got a situation in Druid Hill Park.”

Niles froze.  Druid Hill Park was where a lone Vanapir ship had landed and dug itself into a hillside.  With the help of a cousin who worked for Baltimore Gas and Electric, Niles and Williams had blown up the ship before it could disgorge its passengers, a fresh load of voracious vampires intent on plundering the planet.

“Do you think we missed killing some of them?” he breathed, panic filling his chest.

“Nope,” said Williams.  “Just get your ass down here.  This is definitely your gig.”

With an annoyed snap, Niles closed his phone.  He glanced at Cruz.  “According to Jonas, we’ve got a vampire problem in Druid Hill Park.  Says we need to handle it.”

Cruz lifted a brow.  “I heard him, Niles.  He says you’ve got a problem.”

Niles proffered a weak smile.  “I can handle it on my own.  You stay with your family.”

Cruz grabbed him by the arm and led him from the porch.  “Oh no!  You aren’t leaving me to that school of sharks after you bailed on an important question.  They’ll eat me alive.”

“They’re your family,” Niles protested.

“Yep.”  Cruz kept tugging him to the street.  “Which is why I know them too well.”

She hauled him to her little Fiat Fifi.  While he carefully folded his lanky body into the tiny passenger seat, Cruz popped behind the wheel and fired up the engine.  As soon as Niles closed the door, she shot off.  All the while Niles cursed while he struggled to click his seat belt.

Ten minutes later, they arrived in the sprawling darkness of the park which straddled a series of hills overlooking Baltimore.  The Vanapir crash had occurred in the ravine that bisected the park; however, when Niles called Williams for directions to the problem, he sent them further west towards the Mansion House.  This was an Italianate house that stood atop a hill near the zoo.  As they drove through the twisting lanes of the park, they found lots of cars parked on the verge.

“What’s going on here?” Cruz asked as she slowed down to crawl through the traffic.

“Looks like a Christmas light display,” Niles said, peering forward through the gloom.

From between the trees, they spotted the starshine of minilights.  The park was decorating the mansion for the holidays.  Crews had parked work trucks and vans on the grass and were unrolling spools of electrical cable across the lawn.  Others tested strings of lights before handing them off to still more volunteers who hung them from trees and bushes.

Cruz located Williams’ patrol vehicle near one of the work vans.  She pulled in alongside.

Clambering out, Niles swept his night adjusted gaze around the grounds, making out details no human could.  And yet he saw little in the way of mayhem caused by rampaging vampires.

He did spot Williams and the big man’s partner Walter Cooksey standing in a grassy field below the mansion.  He tromped towards them.

“Not that I’m not grateful you rescued me from a morass…” Niles began as he walked up.

Cruz, trotting beside him, swatted him.  “Hey!  That morass is my family.”

“Like I said…” Niles continued.  He stopped in front of Williams and Cooksey.  “What’s the emergency?”

“I didn’t say it was an emergency,” Williams grunted, enjoying how his barb annoyed the vampire.  “I just said it was a vampire problem.”

Niles threw his arms out from his sides.  “Okay.  Resident vampire expert on site.  What’s the problem?”

Williams merely turned and pointed.

Niles followed his signal.  He frowned.  There, amongst the trees, a brilliant white light blazed forth.  It was so bright, it shot stars in Niles’ sensitive eyes.  Worse, the bundle of light moved.  It inexplicably danced between the bushes, glowing and fading depending on the number of bushes.

“What the hell is that?” Niles asked in a stunned tone.  “Are you trying to claim that…. That.. thing… is a vampire?”

Williams grinned.  “Check it out for yourself.  None of us regulars is willing to get near it.”  He slammed Niles on the shoulder, nearly knocking the more slender vampire to the ground.

With a huff of annoyance and a shiver of foreboding, Niles approached the alien ball of light.  Cruz tucked in behind him, ready to assist.

As they moved through the bushes, the light became even brighter and its motion more frantic.  When he rounded the last tree, Niles realized what he was looking at.  Someone, or something, had become so totally cocooned in Christmas lights, it was a living, blazing, twisting ball of white, so bright Niles needed to put his hand up before his eyes.

“Who is that?” Cruz demanded.

A pitiful wail emanated from the struggling figure.  Squinting hard, Niles spotted a tangle of long, pure white hair in the midst of all the lights.

“Oh, for the love of God…” Niles moaned.  “Marrenstan!”

The struggling figure froze for an instant.  Then it squeaked and its attempts to free itself from the lights became that much more frantic.

“What the hell are you doing?” Niles demanded. 

Narrowing his eyes to slits, he marched for the ball of light.  He wrapped his long arms around the much smaller vampire and gave him a tremendous shake.  Marrenstan was over a thousand years old, frail, and fragile.  He mewed a protest at being mishandled then surrendered into a heap of bones, skin, and Christmas lights.

“What are you doing?” Niles complained.  His agile fingers immediately wormed into the strings of lights to find an end.  When he found one, he started spinning the little vampire around like a spool, unwinding the lights.

Squawking and complaining, Marrenstan whirled around as foot after foot of lights spun out.  Cruz took the end and started walking while Niles kept his buddy spinning around.

Finally, they reached the end of the string which was actually about ten strings plugged end to end and extended almost fifty yards.  Dizzy from his unwrapping, Marrenstan swayed on his feet while Niles carefully extracted the long threads of his hair from the last of the lights.

“Explain yourself,” Niles said, sounding like an aggrieved child chastising a parent.

“Wanted to help with festivities,” stated the tiny vampire in his perpetually broken English.  “Nighttime help, they said.  Who better than a vampire?”  He regained his equilibrium and blinked at his benefactor, the vampire lord of Baltimore.

Niles jiggled the lights.  “But putting up Christmas lights?  You aren’t Christian and the lights are blinding.”

“What does Christian have to do with Christmas?” piped Marrenstan.

Niles slapped his forehead with his hand. 

Marrenstan danced lightly.  “Gifts.  Parties.  Green stuff.  Thought Celtic, not Christian,” he stated with authority.

Niles wanted to correct the little guy, but at second thought realized Marrenstan had a good point.  What did Christianity have to do with this lighting stuff?  He’d never understood it either.

“Ok,” he sighed.  “I respect your desire to fit in in the locals.”  Niles gestured to the lights.  “But what happened?”

Marrenstan pointed into a small copse nearby.  “Invisible spirit attacked me.  Trapped me by wrapping me in lights.”

Niles frowned.  He peered into the copse, not knowing if he could see an invisible spirit or not.  Then he heard it.  The mischievous chatter of a certain entity he knew too well.

Somewhere in the darkness, Gumby the Jumbie was playing with leaves.

“Gumby attacked you?” Niles blurted in surprise.

Marrenstan nodded.  “Not a nice spirit.  Bad attitude.  Doesn’t like me.”

“No one likes you,” Niles muttered. 

Marrenstan pouted.

Niles scratched his head.  “I didn’t know Gumby would attack anyone other than his current owner.”  Which would be him.  Niles had “earned” himself ownership of the bothersome imp by mistakenly accepting his bottle.  Since then, the vampire had struggled to find someone else upon which to bestow the gift that never stopped giving.

“Did you take his bottle?”

Marrenstan frowned.  Shook his head.

“Huh.”  Niles stood with his hands on his hips.  A sneaky smile crept over his lips.  “Maybe he’s developed a fondness for you.  Maybe you can take his bottle…”

“Niles Gule!” Cruz said repressively.  “Don’t you dare pawn that bundle of trouble off on an old fossil like Marrenstan.  I thought vampires honored their elderly.”

Niles jerked, hating to be reprimanded, especially by a human, who in this case happened to be right.

“We do,” he grumbled.

Cruz shoved an accusing finger in his face.  “Then don’t make poor Marrenstan the owner of Gumby.  He’s your Jumbie.  Figure out a better way to unload him.”

“I tried!” Niles protested.  “I almost duped Williams into taking him.”

To his surprise, Cruz wrapped an arm around Marrenstan’s shoulder.  She led him towards the mansion.  “Let’s get you some hot cocoa,” she crooned to the ancient vampire.  “You feel chilled.”  She left Niles standing in the darkness holding the end of the string of lights.  “Sometimes you aren’t  very nice,” she shot over her shoulder.

“I’m a vampire,” he shot back.  “What do you expect?”

Cruz didn’t answer.  A flip of her black ponytail conveyed her disdain.

Niles stood in the darkness with just the lights and Gumby for company.

“Happy Thanksgiving to me,” he complained.

Gumby chirped and bit his ankle.

Cursing, Niles glared at the world, brandishing nonexistent fangs at it.

“Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.”

Feeling grumpy and misunderstood, Niles stomped after his partner.

A happy Jumbie followed in his wake.

© 2022 Newmin

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Home Gumby!

The vampire Niles Gule gritted his fangs against his lower teeth as his partner, Mariella Cruz, slammed on the brakes.  He winced, girding himself for impact.  The tailgate of the tractor-trailer directly ahead of them loomed large in the headlights of the tiny, powder blue Fiat, Fifi.  A wall of metal proclaiming Hamburg Sud threatened to flatten them.

“Brakes,” Niles hissed, half closing his eyes as if that would stave off the impending collision.

Cruz snorted.  Tromping the gas, she peeled around the trailer and darted into the middle lane of I95 south of Philadelphia.  Horns blared and someone flashed their high beams at her in protest at being cut off.

With a peek, Niles checked to see if they were still alive and drew a breath of relief to find Fifi was sailing down the highway undamaged.

“Did anyone explain the concept of signaling a lane change to you?” he grumbled.  His talons eased their death grip on the grab bar.

Cruz shot him a huffy look.  “Says the vampire who never learned to drive.”

“I learned enough about the rules of the road to know one should signal one’s intentions when changing lanes.”  His voice rose an octave when she veered again towards the leftmost lane where traffic was buzzing twenty to thirty miles over the speed limit.  Cruz made the lane change safely without signaling.

An empty carton of Chinese food hit Niles in the back of the head.  He cursed as he swatted it away.

Cruz ignored the mysteriously flying carton.  “I’ve never been in an accident,” she sniffed.

“Will miracles never cease?” Niles muttered.  He turned his gaze back to the countryside whizzing by.

Night had fallen over Maryland since they’d left the City of Brotherly Love.  They’d diverted on a road trip to watch the exhumation of the man reputed to be American’s first serial killer.  After determining based on dental records that the man in the grave was indeed HH Holmes, hung in 1893 for the murder of an acquaintance, Cruz and Niles were back on the road to their haunts in Baltimore.  Darkness lay like a humid blanket over the wetlands of northern Maryland.  A murky glow on the horizon denoted Elkton but otherwise the landscape passed with few lights. 

“I’m always amazed by the amount of empty land between such huge cities,” Niles commented wistfully. 

“Give it time,” Cruz retorted.  She slapped at an invisible force that plucked at her long, dark ponytail.  “Call off your jumbie, Niles,” she complained.

Niles twisted in his seat.  To the empty back seat with its invisible passenger he said, “Gumby, knock it off!”

Although he could neither see nor hear the invisible imp, Niles nevertheless instinctively understood Gumby lurked there and was growing restless.  Gumby twitched, preparing for another assault on either Niles or Cruz.

For reasons known only to himself, Gumby the Jumbie had appeared in Fifi’s backseat just as they passed through Newark, Delaware.  Niles couldn’t explain what drove the jumbie to behave as he did.  Some months the little sprite left him alone for weeks at a time.  During others, he pestered his owner unmercifully.  Niles had earned ownership of the annoying creature by unknowingly accepting the jumbie’s bottle which was his home.  Now, to be rid of him, Niles needed to find someone else to voluntarily accept the bottle and its cargo.  So far, he’d been unsuccessful.  Gumby, as he’d named his invisible shadow, stuck to his vampire like glue.

“I guess he’s hungry,” Niles said. 

Gumby grabbed the chain that held a tiny gold cross at Niles’ throat and tugged on it, choking his owner.  Niles snatched the chain from fingers he couldn’t see.

“Chesapeake House Travel Plaza is just ahead,” Cruz offered, taking note of a billboard.  “Should we stop?  What do you feed an invisible force?”

“Milk and bananas,” Niles replied.

Cruz crooked him a look.  “Really?  You just set out milk and bananas and an invisible jumbie consumes them?”

“Yep!”  Niles drew a heavy sigh. 

Gumby rattled the collar of the vampire’s suit jacket, plainly demanding to be fed.  Niles knew if they didn’t feed him, the attacks would grow in intensity.  Gumby seemed to live for only two things, his milk and bananas and tormenting his current owner.  He smacked Niles on the ear.  Niles swore he heard a plaintive cry of I’m hungry! generate from thin air.

“Oh shit!” Cruz moaned.

“You heard that?” Niles asked.

Cruz ignored him.  Her eyes focused on the rearview mirror.  “Speed trap.”

Niles twisted again to see a set of police lights whirling in the darkness, drawing closer.  “How fast were you going?”

Cruz shrugged.

Niles resettled in his seat and rolled his eyes.  “I hope you can talk yourself out of the ticket.”

Cruz grinned.  “I’ll try.”

The patrol vehicle settled in behind them, indicating Fifi was the target.  With a huff of annoyance, Cruz drifted to the shoulder and rolled to a stop.  She turned off the car, rolled down the window, and sat with her hands on the wheel, awaiting her fate.

“In a bit of a hurry, are we?” asked the beefy shouldered Maryland State Officer who tromped up to the side of the car.  His name tag declared him Phelps.

Cruz beamed a ten-megawatt smile at the man.  “On our way back to Baltimore.”  She eased her police badge from under her suit jacket.  “Any chance you’d cut a fellow officer a break?”

Phelps lifted a brow.  “I might have if you’d been traveling a sane speed, but I clocked you at 100.  License and registration please.”

Niles groaned.  He then gritted his teeth when Jumbie rutched around in the back seat.  He prayed the sprite would behave himself until the officer left.  Trash flipped around.  Another carton hit Niles in the head.

With a brow raised quizzically, the officer took note of the odd activity in the car.

“Got a little one in the back seat?” he asked as he accepted Cruz’s documents.

“Something like that,” she returned. 

Cruz stabbed Niles with a look.  Niles shrugged helplessly back.

Seemingly of its own accord, the window beside Phelps rolled down.  Seconds later an empty fast-food bag flipped through it and bounced on the ground.

Phelps scowled.  He gestured with his pen.  “Pick that up!  Did your parents raise you in a barn?”

Cruz tried to smile but her grinding teeth made that difficult.  “No.  A jacal.”

Phelps’ face darkened.  “Are you trying to be funny?”

Cruz rolled her eyes with a sigh.  “A jacal is the Spanish word for a hovel.  I was born in Mexico.”

“Do they allow littering in Mexico?” Phelps demanded.

Another bit of paper soared from the backseat onto the road.

With a growl, Cruz unbelted and slid from the car, easing herself around the now simmering Phelps.  She picked up the trash and shoved it into a pocket. 

“Sorry,” she muttered.  “Someone’s cranky tonight.”

Before Cruz to reenter her car, a handful of loose change flew in an arc and hit Phelps in the face.

“It’s a jumbie,” she hastily explained.  “It gets upset when we don’t feed it.”

“A jumbie?” Derision lay heavy in Phelps’ voice.

Cruz winced.  She turned to her partner.  “Niles!  Explain it to him.”

Niles edged down in his seat, unsure if by speaking up he wouldn’t just make the situation worse.

Meanwhile, Gumby had settled into the driver’s seat and threw more objects onto the road.

“That’s it!” Phelps swore.  He slammed his ticket pad on the top of the car and spun Cruz around.  “Hands on top of the car.”

Startled, Cruz obeyed.  Meanwhile, Niles grabbed for Gumby but came up with only air.

“I’m placing you under arrest for attacking a police officer,” Phelps stated in a stentorian tone.  He whipped Cruz’s hands behind her back and snapped on the cuffs.  “I don’t know what sort of game you’re playing, lady, but I’ve had enough.”

 Cruz protested but Phelps was determined.  He marched her to his vehicle.

Over his shoulder, he said, “You stay put!” to Niles.

Niles held up his hands in surrender.  He didn’t move from the passenger seat.

For several minutes he waited while Gumby trashed the car and Phelps ran Cruz’s tags.  Traffic swished past, shaking Fifi in the after wash.  Niles fretted.  His fangs worried his lower lip.

Finally, with stalking footsteps, Phelps approached the car on the passenger side.  “I’m taking her in to Elkton,” he explained.  “I’m getting conflicting information on your gal’s name and address.”

Niles gulped.  “It’s a common name.  She is who she says she is.”

Phelps’ lips twitched.  “We’ll see.  Certainly can’t hurt to hold her for a few hours.”  He gestured to the car.  “You’re free to go.”

Phelps marched off, leaving a dazed vampire sitting alone in the car.

Niles watched as Phelps pulled out into traffic and headed north, presumably towards Elkton.  Meanwhile, Gumby had settled in the driver’s seat and was playing with the controls.

“This is just great!”  Niles swatted at his invisible buddy, but Gumby ignored him.  “Thanks a lot.  Not only is Mari headed to jail, but I’ve got no way to help her or get home.” 

After a minute of stewing, Niles pulled his cellphone from his pocket.  He dialed his boss Tan Lo.

When the man answered, Niles explained the situation, leaving out Gumby’s part in the debacle.  He merely stated Cruz’s wild driving had triggered her arrest. 

Lo sighed.  “Let me see what I can do.”  He hung up.

That left Niles and his jumbie sitting beside I95 as the world sped past.

“Now what?” Niles asked the starry sky.

To his surprise, Gumby started Fifi.  While Niles yelped, the sprite put the car into gear and pulled onto the road.

“Oh, Jesus!” Niles swore, one of the only times he’d ever grabbed a Christian name to swear with.  “I don’t know how to drive.  And I’m sure you don’t either.”

Gumby responded by humming contentedly.  He settled Fifi into the driving lane, set the cruise control at exactly 65 and rumbled happily down the road.  Terrified, Niles clutched at the dash with one hand and the grab bar with the other, certain at any moment they would careen off the road.  But Gumby kept them centered in the middle of the lane. 

After about a mile, Niles’ tension eased.  He sat up and gazed around in wonder.

Gumby continued his humming, seeming happy to be in control.

“You know how to drive?” Niles demanded.

Gumby didn’t answer, but Niles could feel a sense of smug satisfaction emanating from the invisible imp.  The humming continued.

Niles collapsed in astonishment against his seat.  He remained silent as the miles rolled past.  With expert skill, Gumby kept them on the road within the speed limit, allowing all and sundry to whiz past them as if he hadn’t a care in the world. 

“Um, we need to turn around,” Niles said after several minutes of quiet driving.  “Need to help Cruz.”

Although Niles couldn’t hear anything Gumby said, somehow, he knew what the sprite was thinking.  Get home.  Eat.  Save Cruz later.

Niles couldn’t stop the car.  He feared if he interfered with Gumby’s driving, he’d send them both into the Chesapeake Bay.  So he sat in silence as Gumby competently drove him back to Baltimore.  The drive was, Niles realized in astonishment, one of the most relaxing he’d ever taken in Fifi.  When Gumby needed to change lanes, he signaled and moved smoothly.  When he exited, he did so from the right lane.  He halted at all stop signs and lights and didn’t push the yellows.  He drove exactly the speed limit all times.

After about an hour, they arrived in Baltimore.  Even here with traffic moving in all directions, Gumby remained calm at the wheel.  His invisible presence drove Fifi through the city, taking the route of least resistance.  Finally, they arrived at the Inner Harbor. 

With a confident spinning of the wheel, Gumby nimbly executed a parallel park and stopped the car outside Niles’ apartment.  He squeaked at Niles.

“Yes,” Niles droned in disbelief.  “You’ve earned your milk and bananas.”

He earned himself a delighted chirp.

“But first things first,” Niles said.  He pointed to the street.  “Drive, Gumby.”

Gumby’s aura reverberated with question. 

Niles wished he could slap the imp on the shoulder.

“I’ve got myself a fine chauffeur,” he laughed.  “I might as well buy myself a car to go with it.”

Gumby tittered in happy agreement.  Then he became questioning again.

“Take us to Porshe Towson,” Niles said.  “If we’re buying a car, let’s do it right!”

His aura one of glowing happiness, Gumby agreed.  To Porshe Towson he drove.

(c) 2021 Newmin

Gule Digs Up the Past

Baltimore Police Detective Mariella Cruz gave her partner, the vampire Niles Gule, a sour look at his request.  She pointedly glanced at her watch.

“We’re on duty.  As far as I can recall, we don’t have any cases related to Philadelphia.”

Niles rose from his desk and slipped his gunmetal gray suit jacket over his shoulders.  “I’m going to Philly.  You can make my life easier by driving or I can grab a Greyhound.  Your choice.”

Cruz huffed.  She flashed from her seat and mirrored his motion of putting on her own suit jacket.  “Ok, you’ve got me hooked.  What’s to see in the City of Brotherly Love?”

“Nothing brotherly or lovely,” Niles replied, ushering her out of the detectives’ bullpen.  “I intend to witness an exhumation.”

Cruz’s brows shot up, but she didn’t reply.  Jingling her keys, she headed for the elevators.

Niles remained strangely silent and moody on the speedy drive north.  Holding back her curiosity, Cruz, who like Sammy Hagar couldn’t drive fifty-five, barreled up I95 under the cover of nightfall in light traffic.  The pair arrived in Philadelphia just as the sun topped the trees.  Niles slathered SPF 100 sunscreen onto his face while Cruz followed the GPS instructions to Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, a western suburb of the city.  After a few turns through tree lined streets bracketed by elegant, old mansions, they arrived at the cemetery, which even at that early hour of the morning was filled with people, vehicles, and a backhoe.

“Looks like they’re already underway,” Cruz commented as she slid out of the car.

Niles’ brilliant blue eyes, carefully protected behind blacked out wrap-around sunglasses, studied the scene.  “I hear they’ve been digging for two days.  If they don’t find what they’re looking for today, their permit runs out and they’ll abandon the dig.”

Cruz studied what would probably have been a peaceful area filled with the trill of bird song had it not been for the activity around one particular grave.  A van carried the name University of Pennsylvania Anthropological Department on its side.  A car sported official tags indicating it belonged to Delaware County.  The rest were unmarked.  She saw no sign of media in the mix.

“Ok, Niles,” she said as they tromped through the rough grass towards the site.  “What gives?  Who are these people digging up?”

“A man named Herman Mudgett,” Niles replied in soft tones.  He didn’t want to disturb the proceedings.  “Better known by his alias HH Holmes.”

“Is he related to a case of ours?” Cruz asked.  They stopped several yards away from the dig.

“Not unless we’ve got one over a century old,” Niles grimly laughed.  “Holmes was buried in 1896.”

Cruz arched a brow.  “So why are we here?  And why is the University of Pennsylvania digging up some dude who’s been buried for a hundred years?”

“I knew Mr. Holmes in my younger days,” Niles replied.  “I stayed at his hotel.  Its nickname was the Murder Castle.”

At the sound of her astonished, indrawn breath, he told her the tale of HH Holmes, America’s first known serial killer.  Holmes had been born in New Hampshire of an ordinary family.  He developed an interest in torturing and killing animals then attended medical school where he savored dismembering bodies.  After a life of multiple marriages, many simultaneous, and fleeing rumors of having murdered some of those wives, Holmes settled in Chicago where he built his murder hotel.  The three-story building was a trap designed to capture and kill victims.  It possessed rooms designed as gas chambers, chutes to send bodies and victims to his killing rooms in the basement, mazes, trapdoors and suspended rooms, the use of which was never determined.  He claimed to have killed as many as 200 people, but was only convicted of one murder, because he scattered his crimes across both the US and Canada, always remaining one step ahead of the police.  How many he actually killed was never solved because he was an inveterate liar, incapable of telling the truth even when it better served him.

“He was arrested in Philadelphia for the murder of an associate named Pitezal,” Niles explained as he ended his tale.  “The city fathers hanged him in Moyamensing Prison in May of 1896.”

“Okay,” Cruz drawled.  “Why are they digging him up?”

Niles’ face grew pained.  “Because rumors he survived his hanging have swirled around the case since the day after he supposedly died.”

Cruz eased open her jacket as the heat began to rise with the sun.  “What sort of rumors?”

“A conspiracy theory emerged within days of Holmes’ hanging saying he’d bribed some other idiot sentenced to die to take his place on the scaffold.”

Cruz snortled a laugh she couldn’t hold back.

Undeterred by her skepticism, Niles continued.  “Some people claimed Holmes bribed officials at the prison to substitute a cadaver for his corpse so he could escape to South America.  I read a story in the Chicago Inter-Ocean paper at the time that reported within two hours of the hanging, an undertaker’s wagon containing a casket drove out of the prison yard.  It was supposed to carry Holmes’ corpse, but the article claimed it carried Holmes alive.”

“Yeah.  Those sorts of stories always pop up around sensational cases,” Cruz replied.  She kept her eyes fixed on the exhumation.  Something wasn’t going well.  The people in the hole were jabbering in a way that indicated they weren’t finding what they’d expected.

Niles also watched the dig closely.  “The paper wasn’t the only one making the claim.  A guy named Robert Lattimer, who’d been a janitor at the Murder Castle, said he’d seen letters proving that Holmes conned his lawyer, a priest, and jail officials into burying a dead man in his place.  Lattimer claimed Holmes moved to a coffee farm in San Parinarimbo, Paraguay.  The problem is, Lattimer’s story was full of holes, including the fact that the town didn’t exist.”

Cruz shook her head with a chuckle.  “So why are we here then?  And why are these people digging this dude up?”

One of the women popped out of the hole, holding a bit of decayed wood.

“Looks like they’re coming up empty,” Cruz added.

Niles looked pained.  “That would certainly be fitting with the whole Holmes mystery, wouldn’t it?  An empty grave?  That’ll make his relatives happy.  That’s why they’re digging Holmes up.  Because Holmes’ great-grand children want the story settled once and for all.  They’re tired of the rumors about their family.”  He pointed to the official car.  “They petitioned the courts of Delaware County to allow them to exhume the body and verify if it’s really Holmes.  The court agreed, so long as no media are allowed to witness the spectacle and the body, whoever it is, is returned to the grave even if it isn’t Holmes.”

“Interesting,” Cruz murmured.

Niles perked his ears to listen to Samantha Cox, the woman in charge of the dig, complain to her compatriots.  “It’s definitely a well-preserved wooden box,” she explained to the group.  “But all it contains are a few pieces of scrap wood.”  She held up the bits of lumber.

“Now what?” asked another group member.

Cox gazed up at the sky as the sun burned down and the morning advanced.  “We’ve got just today to finish this up.  We keep digging.  Maybe we’ll get lucky.”  She grunted a dire laugh.  “You know how it is in archeology; the big finds are always on the last day.”

Sensing the wait would be longer than he’d expected, Niles found a gravestone to perch upon.  Cruz joined him and fanned her face as the day grew warmer.  While they waited, Niles continued with his tale of Holmes.

“Some people think Holmes might have even been Jack the Ripper.”

Cruz laughed again.  “Some people think my cousin was Gentle Jack.”

Niles shrugged.  “They’ve got good reason to suspect Holmes.  One of the great-grandchildren, Jeff Mudgett, inherited a diary from his illustrious ancestor which handwriting analysis proved was written by Holmes.  In it, Holmes wrote he was visiting London during the time of the Ripper murders, along with an unnamed acquaintance learning the trade.  Holmes had medical training in dissection and organ removal, something authorities suspected Jack probably had as well.”

“But the methodologies are different,” Cruz replied, thinking like a detective.  “Jack was an opportunity killer, attacking women he found in the streets.  If your tales of Holmes are true, he built his hotel to methodically kill people behind closed doors.”

Niles nodded.  “The younger Mudgett surmises the Ripper killings were Holmes learning the art of murder which he later applied in Chicago.  The timing is eerie.  Holmes left a constant paper trail of financial transactions, promissory notes, legal problems, and lawsuits in his wake across the US.  That trail fell silent between July 1888 and the end 1889.  The Ripper murder, interestingly enough, took place between, guess what?”

“July 1888 and the end of 1889?” Cruz offered.

Niles nodded.  “A bit of a coincidence, wouldn’t you say?”

Cruz lifted her shoulders.

“And,” Niles added, “Only days after the horrific murder of Mary Kelly, considered to be the last of Jack’s victims, a ship’s log shows that someone called H Holmes left England for America.  Another coincidence?”

“Possibly.  Do they know if it was this Holmes?”  Cruz pointed to the grave where the backhoe was working hard.”

“No.  Thus the mystery.”

“Huh.”  Cruz sat in silence watching the dig continue.

The backhoe hit something.  After some scrambling around, Cox shouted they’d struck concrete.  “I can make out the names HH Holmes and Herman W Mudgett engraved on it.  This must be the burial vault.”

Cruz turned to Niles.  He replied to her unspoken question.  “Supposedly, the authorities buried him in a 3,000 lb. concrete vault to keep ghoulish tourists from disturbing his rest.”

“They had ghoulish tourists in the 1890s?” she quipped.

“I suppose the world possessed ghoulish tourists in the Roman Age.”

The pair fell silent as the dig continued.  Given the excavators didn’t want to demolish whatever was inside the concrete, they shifted to using hand tools to painstakingly chip away the layers.  Growing hungry, Cruz ventured to the nearby town of Darby for lunch, leaving Niles on his granite perch.  She returned with a chicken salad wrap for herself and a package of uncooked hotdogs for Niles.  They munched and watched, like two spectators at a ballgame until after several hours the crew finally reached the coffin itself.  Inside rested human remains.

“He still has his mustache,” said Cox as she emerged from the hole a muddy mess.  “He’s in amazing shape.  His clothes are almost perfectly preserved.”  She pointed into the hole.  “He’s still wearing his waistcoat, leather boots, and the bowler hat he was so famous for.  The concrete really protected him.”

Her words sent a riffle of relief through the small group.  With a well-preserved body, they could obtain a definitive answer to the mystery.

A young man shifted his weight as he peered into the hole.  “What do you think?” he asked in an anxious tone.  “Is it really my great-grandfather?”

Cox wiped her hands on a towel.  “I can’t say right now.  We’ll take DNA samples and send them to a lab for comparison to the sample you provided.  That will give us the final answer.”  She paused.  “I can tell you this, however.  The body is definitely that of a male in his 30s of European descent.  I took a quick peek into his mouth.  This individual has gold-foil dental fillings, from which I infer he was a wealthy person.  It also has just one molar tooth.  Your great-grandfather was reputed to have had only one molar upon his death.  While I can’t say for certain this body is your great-grandfather, I’d say the evidence is leaning that way.”

Jeff Mudgett’s body language sagged, indicating even from a distance his relief at finally having an answer.

Cruz studied her partner.  “Does that satisfy you?” she asked.

With a supercilious brush of lichen from his trousers, Niles rose.  He nodded.  “It settles my fear that the bastard might have escaped his just rewards,” he replied.  “It doesn’t end my suspicions that Holmes was Jack the Ripper.”

Cruz followed him from the cemetery.  “A mystery for another day, Niles.  A mystery for another day.”

Niles sighed as he trod through the grass towards their car.  “Maybe.”  He shot her a look from his brilliant blue eyes.  “But not one I’m willing to give up.  You seem to forget, Mari my dear.  I was alive when Jack worked his crimes.”

Cruz’s eyes widened.  “Were you in London at the time?”

Niles nodded.  He said nothing more.

Niles Comments: The DNA analysis performed on the body from the grave was matched to that of his great-grand nephew. Herman Mudgett, HH Holmes, was returned to his rest in Yeadon. You can visit him if you’d like. He’s always home.

Gule Meets the Devil

Swallowing, because he’d just been threatened by an older vampire, Guldendal entered his scrubby hotel on the north side of Chicago, not far from Jackson Park where the city was hosting the Columbian Exposition World’s Fair.  He offered a nod to the woman at the reception desk, then continued into the maze of the second floor.  As he did every time he entered, the young vampire screwed his nose up to avoid the awful stench that permeated the building.  His mind whirling at Hilzentallen’s sudden attack on him, Guldendal wasn’t paying attention to where he was walking.  He found himself in a series of rooms he didn’t recognize.  Spinning around, he tried to find the way out only to realize the space was a deliberate maze.  Doors melted into the walls seamlessly.  He couldn’t find his way back.

And then the floor gave out from under him.  He fell into a dark hole.

Talons raked boards that slanted inexorably down.  They found purchase in a crack to stop his fall.  He jarred to a stop, nearly wrenching his talons from his fingers.  Huffing, Guldendal adjusted his straining handhold then fought to find another one.  Handhold by handhold, he clawed upwards from the trap until he’d dragged himself over the lip and rolled onto fetid carpet.  He spent only a moment to gather his breath before leaping to his feet.  He was, after all, a vampire who lived in a world surrounded by other vampires who might want to kill him and humans who certainly did.

The room in which he stood appeared on the surface to be an ordinary hotel room.  A bed, nightstand and wardrobe filled the otherwise Spartan space.  However, Guldendal’s sensitive nose picked up a scent that didn’t belong.  Gas.  Sniffing suspiciously, he followed the elusive odor until he found its source.  Hidden by the curtains at the window, an inch of pipe emerged from the wall.  It gave off the stench of gas, although none currently flowed into the room.

Guldendal whirled around in confusion.  What sort of hotel was this?  Deliberately confusing floor plans.  Trap doors.  The ability to pump gas into a room.  A hotel where maids and guests went inexplicably missing.

It was a murder hotel.

Guldendal’s eyes widened as the realization permeated his brain.  No wonder Hilzentallen boasted of a limitless supply of blood products.  And why he’d raged when he learned a younger vampire had taken rooms in the hotel.  He probably thought Guldendal knew the building had been designed as a slaughterhouse.  Hilzentallen must think his friend was poaching on his hunting ground. 

Guldendal was no saint.  He’d murdered his share of humans to stay alive.  But he did so because his biology demanded it.  Had he another choice, he would have preferred not to kill sentient beings for food.  The idea that a human had erected this building specifically to murder his own brethren took the young vampire’s breath away.

He decided to discover the vile spider at the heart of this web.  And he knew where that spider’s lair lay.

First things first.  Figure out how to escape the damned room!

Guldendal banged on walls until he finally hit one that popped open revealing a hidden door.  He slipped through into a space filled with mazelike walls.  As he worked his way through it, his foot hit a hollow sounding space.  He froze, tapped it with his toe, and a second trap door opened.

Unbelievable.

Guldendal backed up and tried another direction through the maze.  Eventually, he stumbled into a hallway that he recognized from which descended the stairs to the first floor.  Suspecting he’d never find his way to the basement using public spaces, Guldendal continued his search of the second floor.  With his mind focused on the concept that this entire building was designed to murder people, he proceeded with caution.  He located two more rooms rigged as gas chambers, a strange hanging chamber wedged between the second and third floors, and a completely dark room accessed by only a single hidden doorway.

While he was investigating a bathroom, he located another trap door.  This opened not onto a chute like all the others, but rather onto a small, twisted staircase.  Figuring he’d found how to reach the basement, Guldendal tucked his tall, lithe form into the narrow space, and with shoulders hunched, minced down the stairs in complete darkness.  The cramped staircase zigzagged six times, but Guldendal doubted he’d descended only two floors.   

The further down he traveled, the greater grew Guldendal’s fear.  Vampire he might be with formidable natural weapons, but Guldendal nevertheless couldn’t keep terror from welling in his heart.  His hands quivered as they clung to the walls, the only handholds in that awful stairwell.  He could imagine the terror of a human victim being forced down the stairs or the infernal glee of the hotel’s master as he descended to his depths to kill another of his guests.

After traversing six switchbacks, Guldendal reached a door.  The smell of rotten flesh and chemicals tore at his nostrils in that benighted space.  He swallowed, both to garner courage and to hold down the bile that threatened to erupt from his throat.  He cautiously opened the door and stepped into the hotel’s basement.

Stacked stone walls, dry fitted, surrounded a space the size of the entire building’s footprint.  Solid wooden columns held up the weight of masonry and woodwork overhead.  Here, gaslights burned, filling the dank basement with a drowsy, fickle light.  Guldendal’s sharp ears caught the susurration of movement somewhere in the darkness.  He moved cautiously and as he did so, his eyes mutated from their usual vivid blue to the yellow of a vampire on the hunt. 

The first thing he encountered was a stack of barrels that reeked of acid.  Holding his sleeve to his nose, Guldendal squinted to read what was painted on the sides, but tears made that impossible.  He crept around them only to abruptly stop.  There, in a haphazard jumble, lay a giant pile of human body parts in various states of fermentation.  He saw heads with their eyes still staring up at him, plus arms and legs black with dried blood, maggots already at their disgusting work.  Some of the leavings were complete bodies, mostly female.  The stench sent Guldendal reeling backwards.  Vampires, after all, preferred their meals fresh.  The putrefying pile was as vile to a vampire as it would have been to a human.

He edged forward around the pile.  His eyes swept the room ahead.  Large vats clustered in a corner.  Two huge pits in the floor presented existential danger to the unwary.  Only a handful of carelessly tossed boards acted as scant protection from a fall.  Guldendal spotted more body parts in another small pile, these disintegrating into a gelatinous goo, victims of the acid, he supposed.  Beside them stood three iron lamp hooks with skinned humans hanging from each in a parody of medical school anatomy dummies.  However, these bodies had once been living people.  Judging by their minimal state of decomposition, Guldendal assumed them to be fresh kills.

As his gaze continued around to the right, Guldendal froze.  Here was the monster’s laboratory.  Shelving held a plethora of bottles and jars filled with Lord only knew what sorts of foul potions, plus eyeballs and penises in solution.  Next to that were three gurneys, two of which held fresh corpses.  Beyond that stood a large table made of butcher block.  Upon it was stretched yet another corpse.  Beside the table crouched a smaller one on which the butcher staged his equipment and placed the result of his carving.  Guldendal noted a lung, a liver, and a bowl filled with kidneys. 

He choked, almost vomiting.

The sound sent the master of this torture chamber whirling around from his work on the body on the butcher table.  He was a small Caucasian man with squinty, sagging eyes, a round, flabby face and a dark, handlebar mustache that flopped at the corners.  Even in his excited state, the man’s droopy features made him look half asleep.  He wore a bloody lab coat over his day wear of fine wool trousers, crisp white shirt, and gray silk vest.  In his hand he gripped a cleaver.

“Who the hell are you?” he demanded.

“One of your guests, Mr. Holmes,” Guldendal answer honestly.

Holmes’ shock dissipated rapidly.  With a thin scream, he launched himself at the vampire. 

Guldendal caught Holmes’ upraised hand with his own.  His strength being superior to any human’s, he held Holmes easily at bay while he glared with glowing yellow eyes at the monster who butchered people for sport.  In his fury, Guldendal brandished his fangs.

Holmes froze.  His squinty eyes widened as much as such piglike orbs could.  “You’re a vampire!”

Guldendal hissed his reply.

“Why didn’t you just announce yourself?” the human said, backing up a step and shaking his hand free.  “I take it Hilzentallen sent you.”

Guldendal struggled to comprehend the sudden switch from rampaging murderer to calm businessman.  So this was, indeed, Hilzentallen’s source.  His eyes narrowed.  “You kill humans for fun.”

Having decided he needn’t fear this vampire, Holmes shrugged and returned to his butcher table.  “Yes.  What’s your point?  Your kind benefits from my hobby.”

Guldendal drew his breath sharply, then regretted it.  The stink of rot was overwhelming.  “How many people have you murdered?”

Holmes lifted his shoulders.  “I don’t know.  I don’t keep count.  Two hundred maybe?”

“And humans call vampires monsters,” Guldendal growled. 

Holmes turned.  Dark eyes surveyed the vampire.  “Aren’t you?  You murder people.”

“For food!” 

“I do it for fun.”  Holmes turned his attention to his work.

Guldendal stood torn between rending the skin from this pathetic piece of garbage, sucking his life’s blood out of him, or beating him to a bloody pulp.  In the end, his fury won out.  In a need to vent the rage that coursed through him, Guldendal flung himself on Holmes.  His talons rent the man’s lab coat to tatters.  His fist pummeled the human to the floor.  Holmes squealed like the pig he resembled and curled into a ball to protect himself as the vampire hammered him again and again with his fists.  Then Guldendal kicked him repeatedly until Holmes was a blubbering mass of bruises and broken bones.

The vampire loomed over his victim.  Holmes dared to peek up at him.  Terror had washed the man’s face white.  His lip quivered.  Guldendal swore the little puke would start crying.

“How does it feel?” he asked, deepening his voice.  “To have your death standing over you?”

Holmes sniffed.  His body shook.  “Don’t kill me!” he whined.

“How does it feel?” Guldendal’s voice roared.

“Not so good,” whispered Holmes.

Guldendal leaned over his quaking victim.  He opened his mouth to extend his fangs.  They gleamed in the gaslight and dripped saliva onto Holmes’ cheek.   Holmes gulped a sob.

Guldendal extended a single talon to pluck the droplet from the fat, white cheek.  “I want you to feel the horror your victims felt, Mr. Holmes.  I want you to stare your own death in the face and know what these poor people must have felt.  I want you to live the rest of your life waking to screams from nightmares of my face and fangs.  Can you do that?”

Holmes nodded, little sobs making his breath shaky.

“Fortunately for you, I’m not a coldblooded murderer,” Guldendal rasped, his fangs inches from Holmes’ eyes.  “But I can become one if I find you’ve remained in Chicago in this murder castle.  Am I making myself clear?”

Holmes nodded.  “I have relatives in Philadelphia I could visit.”

“Sounds like a plan.”  Guldendal straightened.  “You have ten minutes to run, Mr. Holmes.  Because in ten minutes, I’m informing the police of your pleasure palace.  You won’t want to face them anymore than you want to face me.”

Holmes gulped.  Trembling, he rolled to his hands and knees then staggered to his feet.  Half crawling, half running, he scrambled from his house of horrors.

Guldendal huffed, angry at himself for allowing the creature to escape.  But what he’d said was true.  He wasn’t a murderer.  He didn’t kill people in anger or for fun, only for sustenance.  He was a principled vampire.

And as such, he did as he promised.  He emerged from the foul dungeon and searched the neighborhood for a policeman.  When he found one, he hinted the fellow might want to investigate the basement of Holmes’ hotel.  Several mysteries would be solved therein.

Slipping away, Guldendal hunted down and slew Hilzentallen, figuring the vampire was as much a party to the crime as Holmes.  Then he strode for the train station intent on visiting the City of Brotherly Love.

© 2021 Newmin

Niles comments:  Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as HH Holmes, is considered by many to be America’s first serial killer.  Born in New Hampshire, he began his murderous rampage there, suspected of having killed a close friend.  He also tortured and killed numerous animals.  During the 1893 Columbian Exposition, Homes opened his hotel, eventually named the Murder Castle, for visitors where he swindled and killed numerous people, mostly women.  Historians assume he murdered three of his wives (he was a bigamist) and two adopted daughters.  He was finally arrested in Philadelphia on suspicion of murdering a crony named Pitezel for which he was hanged.  Given his complete inability to tell the truth about virtually anything, authorities cannot verify his claims that he murdered 200 people.

The Devil in the White City

A soft golden glow effused the city of Chicago as two vampires strolled with the crowds towards Jackson Park on the coast of Lake Michigan.  Guldendal, newly arrived from Boston, gazed around in wonder at the activity which didn’t fade with the sun.

“Just wait and see why!” exclaimed his companion, the local vampire Hilzentallen.  He chortled, finding great humor in conducting his new friend around his beloved city.

The foppish creature had befriended the starving, younger vampire he’d found scrounging for scraps in the street, fed him, and brought him along on his jaunt through Chicago.  Although dressed in cape and top hat almost a century out of style, Hilzentallen could safely intermingle with humans because his exuberant outlook on life fooled people into thinking he was one of them.  Generally a dourer and more reticent vampire, Guldendal had taught himself how to blend in by always wearing the latest pink of fashion and pretending to be more outgoing than his innate nature would prefer.  So far, the masquerade had worked.  He’d escaped Boston with its rapacious alpha vampires and arrived in the Windy City with all his fingers and toes intact. 

Hilzentallen was almost skipping with glee as they rounded a corner and approached the park.  “I promised you wonders, my young friend,” he exclaimed.  He threw his arms out wide.  “And here they are, all in one place.”

Guldendal wasn’t sure he wanted to see human wonders whether in one place or not.  He’d finally eaten enough to keep his hunger at bay, but with crowds of humans surrounding him, he felt that ever-present itch to attack someone, drive them to the ground, and suck them dry of blood.  That instinct was one he was learning to quell.  Such acting out was how vampires got themselves killed.

He turned his gaze towards whatever nonsense Hilzentallen was promoting then stopped cold in his tracks with his mouth open.

Jackson Park was a park no longer.  Perhaps once it had possessed the grace and loveliness of other such newly designed urban spaces like the Olmstead creations of Prospect and Central Parks in New York.  Not any longer, however.  Most of the grass had been replaced by wonders great and small.

The first sight to capture Guldendal’s attention was the fourteen great buildings encircling a lagoon.  These were no ordinary buildings such as filled Chicago with brick, granite, and limestone.  The various edifices surrounding the lagoon were enormous, not particularly tall, but simply massive and each one was pristine white.  Ornate colonnades with intricate carving in the Beaux-Arts style beckoned visitors inside.  Doorways offered arches, gothic or Moorish, but all heavily decorated.  Some of the structures were topped with massive glass domes the likes of which only existed in Europe.  Others thrust towers into the sky or sprawled across numerous acres of land.  From virtually all of them colorful banners fluttered in the breeze off the lake, giving them a festival appearance.

 “Welcome to the White City!” Hilzentallen exclaimed pirouetting in a circle, his silk-lined cape billowing around him.

“Why’s it called that?” Guldendal asked.

“Why because it’s white!” Hilzentallen laughed.  “The stuff’s called staff, you silly goose.  Plaster, concrete, and jute, painted with whitewash.”  At his companion’s skeptical scowl, he added, “They’re all temporary.  Can you believe it?  Built to be torn down.”  He spun again.  “Isn’t it delicious?”

“It’s wasteful,” Guldendal complained.  He stared at the enormous colonnaded façade labeled the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building.  He’d never seen anything so huge.

“I know!” chortled Hilzentallen.  “That’s the largest building ever created, if you can believe it.  It encompasses forty-four acres of exhibition space.  Forty-four acres!”

“I know of farms smaller than that,” Guldendal offered in breathless tones.

“The newspaper says a person could spend ten hours a day every day for a month and still not see everything within it,” Hilzentallen added.  “If we could topple the Willis Tower onto its side, the whole skyscraper would fit inside.”

“What’s it for?” Guldendal asked.

“Selling stuff!” laughed his companion.  He tugged on Guldendal’s arm, dragging him towards the behemoth.  “It’s filled with vendors selling machines great and small, wondrous and not so much.”

“What are all these other buildings then?”

Hilzentallen kept walking, pointing as he went.  “That one with the domed tower is the fair administration building.  That one is devoted to Fisheries, and that one is the Agricultural Building.  There’s an electric building…you’ve got to see that!… and Machinery Hall and the Transportation Building.”  He danced in a circle, earning himself smiles from people walking by.  “Way over there are the state and national pavilions.  We can visit those too.  The Idaho Pavilion is simply amazing.”

Guldendal’s mind whirled almost as much as Hilzentallen spun.  “National pavilions?”

“Yes!  A whole bunch of countries built their own pavilions,” the vampire explained.  “They made them to showcase their cultures and inventions.  There’s one from France and the Netherlands and a marvel built by the Japanese.  It’s incredible.”

Guldendal stared in all directions, dazzled by the crowds and the buildings.  His gaze froze on a giant wheel so tall it towered over even the oversized buildings.

“What is that?” he demanded

“It’s a carnival ride,” Hilzentallen explained with a broad grin.  “People are calling it a Ferris Wheel since some person named Ferris designed it.  If you buy a ticket, you can ride on it.  See all of Chicago with the eyes of a bird.”

“I’ll pass,” Guldendal said faintly.

Hilzentallen laughed.  He dragged his younger friend behind him to the lagoon that was the center of the fair.  Resting in the quiet waters floated three small sailing ships.

“The Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria,” Hilzentallen explained.  “Recreations of the three ships Columbus sailed to arrive in the new world.  You know, the Nina wasn’t really the Nina.  Its real name was the Santa Clara.  And do you know why they named the second ship the Pinta?”

  Guldendal shook his head.  He was stunned into silence by the sight of the ships.

“It means painted in Spanish,” his companion informed him.  “As in the painted lady.  Or the whore.”  He clapped his hands together.  “Delicious, isn’t it?  I do so love humans.”

“Do you find anything serious?” Guldendal asked.

“Oh, occasionally.”  Hilzentallen headed for a collection of smaller buildings that lined a wide avenue.  “This is the Midway Plaisance,” he said.  “More games than you can imagine playing.”

“I don’t play human games.”

Hilzentallen arched a brow.  “Maybe you should.  But not tonight.  I have something you should see.”  He darted into the Zoopraxographical Hall, dragging Guldendal behind him as the younger vampire tried to tease out the meaning of that mouthful of a word.

“It means the study of animal locomotion,” Hilzentallen said, reading his friend’s mind.  He drew his companion to a room within the hall where a large piece of fabric was stretched over a wall.  The room was dark except for a machine which flickered with light.  A sign on it read Zoopraxiscope.

Guldendal jumped when something within it stirred and began to whir.  Then a strangely clear, steady light burned.

“It’s electrical!” Hilzentallen whispered breathlessly.  “Can you imagine?”

“What does it do?” asked Guldendal, edging away from the alien contraption.

Hilzentallen waved to the piece of fabric.   “Watch and see!  They run the display every ten minutes.”

Guldendal hung back in the semidarkness as the machine whirred and blinked.  Then a series of images appeared on the fabric, cast, apparently, by the machine.  Guldendal stared as a horse in black and white appeared to be standing against the white fabric.  Then, in choppy movements, it started to walk, then to trot and finally to canter.

“Look at that,” Hilzentallen exclaimed.  “Who knew a horse actually flies!  At one point in its stride, all four hooves leave the ground.   That, my friend, is an amazing invention.”  The vampire danced in place as the images continued to flicker on the fabric.  “I can imagine some day in the future, pictures like that could be taken of all sorts of animals.  Even humans.  Moving pictures!  It’s wondrous.”

Guldendal had to admit seeing a horse gallop on a wall at half the speed of an actual gallop was astonishing.  He just wasn’t sure anyone would pay to see moving pictures. 

After that wonder, Hilzentallen took his young friend to the electric building.  Darkness had fallen over the park, but lights twinkled, strung from strings.  Their light was steady with none of the flicker of gaslight.  Another marvel, Guldendal admitted, although he wasn’t certain such an invention boded well for vampires.  Without darkness, how could they hunt?

“That man there,” Hilzentallen whispered, pointing to a tall, thin, white-faced individual, “is the electrical wonder Nicola Tesla.  He invents electrical things.”

Guldendal felt some strange magic running along his skin and causing his hair to rise of its own accord.  He backed nervously out of the pavilion.  With a scowl, Hilzentallen followed him.

“I’m not sure I like this,” the young vampire murmured.  He calculated his hotel’s direction and forged towards it.

Hilzentallen scampered to keep up with him.  “Well, it is a lot to take in at once.  Why don’t we meet again tomorrow night and work our way through it?  You’ll enjoy it, I promise.”

Guldendal drew a breath of relief when his feet carried him beyond the White City and back into the workaday streets of Chicago glowering in comforting gaslight.

“I’ll think about it,” he muttered.

Hilzentallen stayed with him all the way back to the hotel on South Wallace St.  When he realized where Guldendal was headed, his exuberance died, and his expression darkened.

“You’re staying here?” he demanded when Guldendal fished his key from a pocket.

Guldendal nodded.

“How did you choose this hotel?” Hilzentallen growled.

“A paperboy suggested it.”  Guldendal stopped before going inside.  He eyed his companion nervously.  “What’s the problem?”

Hilzentallen’s face had grown gaunt and angry.  He thrust a talon into Guldendal’s chest.  “I don’t know what game you’re playing, youngster, but if you think you’ll muscle in on my hunting grounds, I’ll dice you up and feed you to the humans.”

Guldendal reared back, his hands up in protest.  “What are you talking about?”

Hilzentallen leaned in and hissed.  “Find yourself some other hotel, baby.  If I find you here tomorrow night, I will inform the police a vampire is on the loose here.  I’ve got friends on the police force.  They’ll believe me.”

Guldendal stood with his mouth hanging open as Hilzentallen whirled away and disappeared into the darkness. 

Swallowing, the younger vampire entered the hotel.  He offered a nod to the woman at the reception desk, then continued into the maze of the second floor.  Once again, he screwed his nose up to avoid the awful stench that permeated the building.  His mind whirling at Hilzentallen’s sudden reversal, Guldendal wasn’t paying attention to where he was walking.  He found himself in a series of rooms he didn’t recognize.  Spinning around, he tried to find the way out only to realize the space was a deliberate maze.  Doors melted into the walls seamlessly.  He couldn’t find his way back.

And then the floor gave out from under him.  He fell into a dark hole.

© 2021 Newmin

Gule and the Ne’er Do Well

Guldendal awoke from vampiric dormancy with a start, panic pulsing to the beat of his heart.  Bewildered and disoriented, he lurched up and threw his long legs over the side of the bed while he waited for his head to stop spinning.  A strange, bedraggled room drowsing in twilight met his eyes.  From an open window nearby rumbled the sounds of a city–carts rolling, horses neighing, klaxons clanging, and the distant toll of a church bell.  He groaned.  Chicago. 

What am I doing here?

His stomach clenched in a spasm of pain which caught his breath while he willed it to relent.  He desperately needed food, having gone without for the three-day train ride from Boston.  With a moan, he staggered to his feet, weakness threatening to drop him to the tattered carpet covering the pine board floor.  His nose rebelled at the smell that dominated the room, acidic and yet rotten at the same time.  Guldendal might be a vampire, but he was a fastidious vampire, who only accepted fresh kill and if possible, warm blood.  The stench was enough to put even him off his feed.

Gotta escape.

Willing his legs to obey him, Guldendal pocketed the room key and headed out.  He’d memorized the route through the hotel.  Good thing because the building had been built almost deliberately like a maze.  As he traversed its second floor, turning right, then left, then right again, he wondered what its architect had been thinking.  No one could escape it quickly in the event of a fire.

As he trod down the stairs carpeted in threadbare burgundy, Guldendal pondered possible reasons for that.  Trying to prove that Chicago would never again burn to the ground as it had in the Great Fire of 1871?  When Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was said to have kicked a bucket and destroyed a city?  He didn’t know and he didn’t care.

He passed two young maids, Irish girls, in black dresses, mobcaps, and pinafores, their heads close together as they whispered.  Being a vampire, Guldendal could hear what most humans couldn’t, including their hushed comments.  Bridgett had gone missing.  Disappeared.  Run off with a man, probably.  No, she wouldn’t.  She just wouldn’t.  I’m worried.

Guldendal cared nothing for errant maids.  He continued to the first floor and onto the street.

Chicago glowed with the last rays of the summer sun, which set late at the height of summer.  Gaslights flickered on one by one as boys with lighting poles worked both sides of the street.  Guldendal studied the avenue, calculating where he might find a convenient human to kill.  Of if not that, an unattended animal.  To kill a horse would be a waste and a tragedy.  Guldendal couldn’t consume that much blood.  Same with a cow.  Meanwhile, a dog or cat was too small.  Humans, as always, were just right.

The city, however, was determined to withhold such a prize.  Even as night drew its darkling veil, people filled the streets and alleys.  Having been raised in conservative Boston, where decent folk retired indoors at nightfall, Guldendal found the amount of activity odd.  Everything about Chicago confused him, especially the odd vibrancy that quivered through its every bone.  Weak with hunger, he wandered around Englewood but never found a homeless drunk or a willing prostitute.  He decided he was hunting too uptown an area to find such folks.

Finally, in desperation, he stumbled across the back door of a butcher shop.  There he found a huge box in which the butcher tossed his leavings–bones, gristle, and bits of meat he couldn’t sell.  Guldendal despised that he’d been driven so low, and yet beggars couldn’t be choosers.  He scrounged through the box to locate the freshest bones with the most meat, found himself a dark corner in which to eat, and with his fangs rent his meal to pieces.  While it was not enough to satisfy him, at least it took the edge off his hunger.

“Now ain’t that a sorry sight,” came a voice from the darkness.

Guldendal stiffened.  His hand sought a weapon but all he possessed was the thigh bone of a cow.  He grasped it like a bat.

A tall, elegantly dressed man in clothing a century out of date drifted into view.  His walking cane tapped superciliously on the hard packed mud of the alley.  His silk lined cloak swished with each step.  Beneath a black, beaver top hat, gaunt, pale features glowered, looking more skeletal than alive.

Guldendal stiffened.  Even had he not scented the musty aroma emanating from the individual, he would have recognized a fellow vampire.  The unfashionable clothes, the ashen face, and the cold, inscrutable black eyes gave it away.

“I don’t want any trouble,” he said, brandishing his bone like a baseball bat.

A vague smile twitched up the corners of the vampire’s mouth.  “You aren’t old enough to cause me any trouble.  How old are you, youngster?”

With a swallow, Guldendal answered.  “Sixty-four.”

The older vampire laughed.  “Damn!  You’re just a baby!”  He tilted his head.  “You don’t look familiar.  You’re not from around here, are you?”

“Boston,” Guldendal admitted. 

“Got run out of town by the alphas, did you, little one?”

The ever-territorial vampire in Guldendal caused him to growl and brandish a fang.  “Something like that.”

Ignoring the pathetic challenge inherent in a brandished fang, his companion doffed his hat.  “Hilzentallen, at your service.  Vampire extraordinaire.  Able to steal a corpse out from under even the inimitable Fespalian.” Hilzentallen waved a finger.  “He’s the reigning lord of these parts.”

Guldendal’s tension eased.  He sensed no malice from Hilzentallen, only gentle humor.  He lowered his cow bone.  “Guldendal.”

To his surprise, Hilzentallen proffered a silver flask. 

“It’s fresh.  Bought it this morning,” Hilzentallen said.

Warily, Guldendal accepted the flask.  Uncorking it, he found the luscious metallic smell of blood waft from its depths.  Without thought, he pressed the opening to his mouth and downed its entire contents in a handful of swallows.  When he was finished, he hesitated, wondering what Hilzentallen would do or say.

The grandee regained his flask and hid it away.  “You are a growing boy!” he laughed.  “No worries, my friend.  I have a source.  Plenty more where that came from.”

Guldendal started.  A non-alpha with steady access to human blood? 

Hilzentallen’s humorous expression never faltered.  “You look like a vampire terribly down on his luck, young Guldendal.  Now that you’ve filled the worst of your emptiness, come with me.  Allow me to show you the wonders of my city.  I presume you’re newly arrived?”

“Just off the train today,” Guldendal replied.  He fell into step beside Hilzentallen.  “Why so congenial?” he asked. 

Hilzentallen spread his arms to encompass Chicago.  “Because I’m as free as a vampire can be!  I am not alpha material, good friend.  Don’t have the steel in me.  And I possess no desire to become one.  Nor can I abide living in their shadow.  Obeying their every whim.”  He pretended to shudder.  “A fate worse than being staked out in sunlight, if you ask me.  So I live a solitary life and spend my nights tormenting my betters.  If Fespalian ever found me, he’d hang me from the Monadnock Building, toes up.”  He chuckled.

Not knowing what else to do, Guldendal sauntered alongside this strangely easy-going, somewhat off-putting vampire.  

Hilzentallen poked him with a finger.  “Not that I need to warn a sharp young buck like you but avoid ole Fess.  He’s got a temper on him.  He’d make quick work of you.  Stick with me and you’ll never go wrong.”

Such camaraderie was rare in vampires.  Guldendal wasn’t sure he liked the feel of it.  But for the moment, fate gave him few choices and Hilzentallen offered protection and perhaps more food.  Guldendal chose to grasp the opportunity he offered.

His gaze swept over the street they strolled where people, mostly human but probably also some vampire, continued to move about like an eddying stream.

“What’s with all the evening activity?” he asked.  “People in Boston duck indoors come nightfall.”

“Well, Boston has a wee thicker population of night folk,” Hilzentallen replied, referring to vampires by their colloquial name.  “I imagine humans in that old city have figured out wandering around in the dark is asking to be murdered.  Chicago has its own night folk to be sure, but the city sprawls for endless miles and we of the moon times are lesser in number, so our predations tend to go unnoticed.  The city folk here dare the darkness.”

“But this seems excessive,” Guldendal complained.  He gestured to a group of four young women who would never be allowed out so late in the evening back east.

“It’s the Exposition, laddie!” Hilzentallen chuckled.

“What exposition?”

Hilzentallen stopped in his tracks.  “You mean to tell me you came all the way to Chicago without knowing this is the year of the great World’s Fair Columbian Exposition?”

Guldendal swallowed, unwilling to admit a weakness to fellow vampire.

But Hilzentallen wasn’t the sort to bash him with his foibles.  He was too thrilled to have a companion on his walk.  He laid an arm across Guldendal’s shoulders.  “This, young man, is something you really must see!  The wonders of humankind spread out for all the world to marvel at.  And humankind does come up with some wonders.”

Not know what else to do, Guldendal nodded.

Hilzentallen gave him a squeeze and led him east towards the lake.  “Come, my friend.  Let me show you the world.”

© 2021 Newmin

Gule Finds Columbia

With more bravado than sense, the young twenty-something vampire stepped off the train car and studied the station for threats to his life.  Although on the run from vampires and forever hunted by humans, Guldendal refused to show fear.  The tall, lean vampire with longish, corn-colored hair, stood regally with his taloned hand gripping his carpet bag while his eyes sought danger.  Fortunately, he saw none because he’d disguised himself well as a human by wearing staid, middle class business clothes and a broad brimmed hat to shield his fragile skin from the sun.  He hid his talons beneath kid skin gloves.  No enemies disgorged from the train either, as he expected.  He’d covered his tracks in Boston too well by boarding a train bound for Atlanta and immediately getting off.  A quick sprint across the rail yard took him to the second huffing steam locomotive and a ride halfway across a continent, leaving his Bostonian vampire enemies behind. 

Chicago.  Not a city Guldendal had ever contemplated visiting.  The Midwest was, after all, still the frontier, at least in his mind.  Cows, rodeos, and Indians.  And yet, looking around, the vampire decided he needed to adjust his mindset.  The station was certainly grand and modern enough to rival any on the coast. 

The people leaving the train possessed the visual flash and dignity of money.  A group of women wearing large-brimmed, feathered hats and day dresses of velvet without hoops hustled by, the cut of their leg-of-mutton sleeves telling Guldendal the outfits were custom sewn.  None of that newfangled, inexpensive off-the-rack, industrially sewn crap in evidence here.   The gentlemen wore derbies, no pork pies to be seen.  Their suits of coal gray or navy whispered of money as did the golden chains hinting of fine pocket watches hidden from view.  Golden cufflinks and bejeweled tie tacks spoke of wealth of which the young vampire could only dream.

Having spent the past two days trapped unable to feed amongst humans on a train, Guldendal’s stomach clenched with hunger.  His body tensed with longing to leap upon the boy in suspenders hawking papers, drive his fangs deep into the lad’s neck and suck until only an empty husk remained.  But Guldendal held himself in check.  Attacking a human in such a public place during daylight hours begged for a mob to murder him on the platform.  Guldendal considered where he could find a hole in which to hide from humans and vampires alike while he pondered his circumstances and developed a new plan.

He used his brilliant blue eyes to capture and hold the newsboy’s gaze.  He allowed a slithering smile to crease his pale lips in a caricature of pleasure to put the boy at ease.

“Tell me, lad,” he asked in his smooth, tenor voice.  “Where might a traveler find a room to let?”

The boy hesitated, but then his gaze caught.  He smiled stupidly in return.  “There’s hotels aplenty in midtown,” he replied.  “You here for the Exposition?”

Guldendal kept the frown from emerging.  He knew nothing of any Exposition.  “Indeed,” he replied, breaking into a broader and even falser smile. 

“You’d want one of them places near Jackson Park then,” the boy offered.  He pointed north.  “A new hotel just opened at the northwest corner of South Wallace Avenue and West 63rd Street in Englewood.  Got good access to the fairgrounds.  Just a streetcar ride away.”

With an eerie smile, Guldenal bent his head, tapping his fingers on the brim of his hat, and flicked the boy a penny for his troubles.  Not that Guldendal could afford a penny.  His pockets gaped from a lack of coin.

Sauntering through the dissipating crowd like a traveler with no agenda, Guldendal reached the entrance and stepped outside in searing sunlight.  He hissed with pain, cringing into the shadow cast by the station, and squinted, barely able to see at all.  He had no choice, however, but to step into the street.  He hadn’t enough cash to hire a hansom or even to catch a streetcar.  Nor could he afford to linger around the station in full view of thousands of humans.  Someone might just realize the dreadfully pale creature haunting the platform was a famished vampire hoping to grab a bite before his next train.

Eyes all but closed, Guldendal stepped into the hard packed mud of the street and dodging racing steam cars, sprightly gigs, and plodding wagons, ventured forth into this new, young, and vibrant city.

Chicago, rough scrabbled out of the prairie that once stood there, had risen anew from the Great Fire of 1871, caused, it was said, by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.  Now, anywhere from three to fifteen-story towers of brick or stone graced the unusually broad streets, a strange sight to Guldendal who’d spent all his life in the twisted alleyways of crowded Boston.  While that aging port city clawed for space between the harbor and the Charles River, Chicago possessed land aplenty over which to sprawl.  And sprawl she did.  Streets ran straight as arrows in the cardinal directions at neatly spaced intervals.  Squares or commons were not in fashion in that brash city on the prairie.  Chicago was a quintessentially American city, founded by pioneers and built by the rising midwestern bourgeoisie. 

The streets were clogged with traffic, mostly horse drawn but sprinkled with a handful of Callihan Steamers and rare gasoline powered small horseless carriages.  When one such oddity huffed past, Guldendal jumped aside, startled by the noise and the intense, hot smell.

“Damned things are Satan’s work,” the vampire muttered with his sleeve to his nose. “Could run a man down and stink him to death.”

Shifting to avoid being run over by horse, streetcar, or mechanized vehicle, Guldendal trudged northwards.  He knew little about the city, but one thing he did know was that it stood on the south end of Lake Michigan.  Ergo, if he walked northward, he’d either find this park of which the newsboy had spoken or the lake.  He could then ask for directions once again from some hapless human he mesmerized.  His eyes razor slits, he moved with the flow of humans strolling past a hundred different types of shops.  Small groceries and haberdashers, printing offices and business machines dealers, dress shops and barbers. 

A strange, energetic twang quivered in the air unlike anything Guldendal had encountered in Boston.  He’d felt the beginnings of it on the train, as if all the humans riding with him were geared up for some great excitement.  The sensation enveloped the city.  He heard the buzz of conversation on every corner.  Doors to businesses opened and shut with surprising regularity.  People hustled on the sidewalks and in the streets, weaving through the heavy traffic.  Everywhere hung an aura of expectation, as if the world itself stood poised on the brink of some wonderful new experience.  The further north he traveled, the more intense the sensation grew.  Guldendal fretted, never happy when humans acted outside their normal parameters.

The one positive aspect to journeying during daylight hours was that Guldendal didn’t encounter any fellow vampires.  They were all probably still deep in dormancy in whatever dark holes they’d established for themselves in this shining city.  The reigning lords were not yet aware a new, young, untested vampire had arrived to stake a claim.  Exhaustion tugged at Guldendal’s body.  He fought it.  To sleep in daylight was to scorch himself into oblivion.  He needed to find an inexpensive hotel in which to hide out the rest of the day.  Then he would start his hunt.  For food.  For money.  Perhaps for a new city in which to live. 

Perhaps Chicago was his destiny.

He crossed 63rd St.  Taking a guess, he angled right towards the east and continued walking, seeking the hotel the newsboy had suggested.  He chose well because he eventually encountered South Wallace.  There on the corner stood a three story, nondescript building of brick with retail stores and a pharmacy at street level.  He presumed the rooming house occupied the second and third floors.

Finding the hotel entrance, he plodded up a set of stairs to the second-floor reception area where a young woman pretty enough to be a Gibson girl stood behind the L shaped desk.  She didn’t ask any questions of the beautifully handsome man who tiredly asked for a room.  She merely presented him with a key and led him into the hotel.

Vampires are creatures of instinct.  As Guldendal followed the woman, he felt the hair rising on the back of his neck, because something about that benighted place felt wrong.  To start, shadows lurked in every corner.  As a vampire, Guldendal didn’t mind dark spaces.  He could see better in gloom than broad daylight.  But he knew humans eschewed unlighted places, so why was this hotel so dark?  The floor plan was also convoluted.  Guldendal followed the woman along a short hall, turned left, then almost immediately turned right before making another left turn.  Having been threatened by human and vampire alike almost since the day he’d been born, Guldendal never let his guard down.  He cautiously memorized every turn, twisting his head to capture the view from behind lest he need to vacate the hotel in a hurry.  He couldn’t imagine why anyone would make it so complicated.

And then there was the smell.  Guldendal’s olfactory sense outperformed any human’s.  He smelled a foul odor the source of which he could not determine.  It seemed to pervade the entire edifice.  He described it as acidic and yet also chemical with touches of rot.  With a shudder, he decided the hotel manager didn’t spend much money on cleaning.  Guldendal might be a vampire, but he was a fastidiously tidy vampire who loathed filth.  He hated to imagine what he’d discover in the bathrooms.

“What is that smell?” he asked of his guide.

The woman half turned her head.  “What smell?”

Guldendal jerked.  While he knew he could outsmell any human, he struggled to understand how she could miss it.

At her blank look, he retreated.  “Must be something I stepped in,” he muttered.

The woman gestured to a door at the very back of the hotel.  “This is a quiet room,” she explained.  “It doesn’t face either street.  Enjoy your stay.”

Guldendal let himself into the room and looked about.  It was small and shabby and not terribly clean.  He hastened to the window and threw open the sash to allow fresh air to alleviate the stench.  Then he flopped on the bed whose springs squealed in protest and hung his head in defeat. 

Chicago, sparkling gateway to the west, would not, he thought, be his salvation.

Rather, it appeared it would be the death of him.

(c) 2021 Newmin

Gule is out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire

Sergeant Tan Lo’s dark-skinned hand slapped the notice slip onto Niles Gule’s desk with the authority of a man who wanted no guff from his detective.  Lifting a supercilious eyebrow, the vampire plucked up the bit of pink paper to study it.

“Arson?” he queried.  “Shouldn’t that fall to the Fire Marshal?”

Lo huffed.  “They called.  Said they needed a detective.  Said there’s something squirrelly going on and wanted a second opinion.”

Niles glanced at his partner, Mariella Cruz, who gave him a quizzical shrug.

“Okay,” he drawled.

Since his sergeant had already spun away, Niles dragged his suit jacket over his shoulders as he rose.  Cruz grabbed her purse and car keys.

“Where to?” she asked.

Niles considered the slip.  “Cold Spring.”

“Road trip!” Cruz sang and her eyes sparkled.

With a groan, Niles followed his peppy little partner from the precinct to her tiny, powder blue Fiat, Fifi.  While Cruz popped into the tin can without issue, Niles carefully tucked himself into the small space.  His corn-colored hair brushed the roof while his knees jammed into the dashboard.  He gripped the grab bar, gritted his teeth, and nodded go.

Cruz tore into early evening traffic with the abandon of a teenager clutching a newly minted driver’s license.  Onto Rt 83 she raced, charging northward into darkness.  Fifteen terrifying minutes later, having side swiped three trucks and a delivery van, she sailed across three lanes of traffic to exit at Cold Spring, earning herself honks of protest from those she cut off.

After a few deft spins around corners way too fast, Cruz deposited them at a careworn, former farmhouse clinging to the edge of a neighborhood with the Clyburn Arboretum behind it.  A host of fire equipment clogged the small, suburban street.  Firemen in heavy coats milled around in the darkness, the lights from their vehicles shimmering off the reflective strips of their coats and helmets.  Niles’ eyes, exquisitely attuned to fathom the shadows, noted numerous neighbors standing on their lawns while they jabbered speculation about the proceedings.

Niles unfolded his long legs from Fifi, straightened and sought out the individual in charge of the chaos. 

A fireman tromped up, holding his arms out to wave them off.

Cruz flipped her badge.  “You requested our assistance,” she said.

The fireman’s stance eased.  “Yes.  Thanks for coming so quickly.”  He extended a huge paw encased in a protective glove.  “Charles Duncan.  I’m the one who called for help.”

As he shook the man’s hand, Niles considered the farmhouse.  From the outside, all appeared normal.  He saw no flames licking out of windows, no smoke broiling from the roof.  As his eyes scanned over the building, he saw no indications of any damage at all.  Other than the fact that the house stood completely dark, he would not have known anything was wrong.

“What’s the story?” Cruz asked, also eyeing the house askance.  “Why did you need us?”

Duncan led them to the front door which stood open.  In the inky darkness beyond, flashlights flicked here and there.

“We’ve got us what I call a suspicious situation,” he drawled in a somewhat odd tone.  “Was hoping for a second set of eyes to help us suss out what’s going on here.”

Niles and Cruz stepped inside the house.  The first floor consisted of an old-fashioned parlor on the left and a dining room on the right.  A kitchen filled up the rear of the building.  Although the place was utterly black, Niles could make out most of its furnishings.  They were simple and showed signs of age, but the place was neat and organized.  No signs of severe fire damage in evidence.  The acrid stink of smoke, however, was prevalent.  It shocked the vampire’s overly sensitive nose.

“I don’t understand…” Cruz murmured, looking around.  “Nothing seems out of place.”

Duncan grunted.  “Give it a minute.”  He glanced at the watch on his wrist using his flashlight.

Someone in the dining room yelled.  “We’ve got another one!”

Duncan clomped towards the call, gesturing Niles and Cruz to follow him.  A dim, yellow light began flickering in the dining room.  Duncan stepped aside to allow Niles and Cruz to view the action.

A strip of flowery wallpaper had curled away from the wall.  A tongue of orange flame licked along its edge, sending up a small coil of smoke.

A fireman hit it with a shot from his extinguisher, snuffing the flame.

“I don’t get it,” Niles said.  “You said this was arson.”

“We’re assuming that’s what it is,” Duncan replied.  He pointed at the bit of charred wallpaper.  “That’s the seventeenth fire so far tonight.”

“Seventeenth!” Cruz exclaimed.  “Who’s setting them?”

“Good question,” grunted Duncan.  “We can’t figure it out.”

Niles knelt beside the burn mark and studied it with eyes and nose.  He caught no scent of accelerant.  “Maybe you’ve got a short in the walls.  A fire could travel along the joists and framing.”

“We’ve shut off the power from the street, so no electricity in the building.”

Niles rose.  “But if embers are in the wall…”

Duncan pointed to a hole recently dug in the far side of the room.  “We dug that one out there.  No damage to the joists, but the wallpaper burned.”

“Fire!” shouted someone from upstairs.

Duncan, Niles, and Cruz hastened to the second floor to find a man in a bedroom standing with a door ajar.  The three nipped inside the room and whirled around to find a bathrobe hanging from a hook on the back of the door now burning.  Once again, a fireman extinguished the blaze.

Niles edged in to finger the robe.  It was terry, which would burn, but not with ease.  To have burned with the intensity of the small fire he’d just seen required accelerant.  Once again, he sniffed the material and couldn’t detect any unusual chemicals.  Strangely, the door’s paneling was undamaged.  The paint hadn’t cracked from the heat, nor did Niles see even soot.

“That’s damned peculiar,” he commented.

“Now you see my point,” said Duncan.

“Chief!” shouted a woman from the first floor.  “Got one in the kitchen!”

Startled, Niles and Cruz scuttled back down the stairs and scrambled into the kitchen.  A potholder sat on the counter burning brightly.  Since it rested atop a granite counter, posing no danger of spreading, Duncan ordered his folks to leave it burn while Niles studied it.

“I’m told you’ve got certain skills with regards to strange phenomena,” Duncan explained.  “Can you figure out what’s going on here?”

Niles selected a metal spatula from an earthenware jar on the counter and used it to spin the potholder around while he considered what could have started the blaze.  Yet again, he sensed no accelerant and the potholder sat in the center of the granite, not touching anything else.  He saw no embers drifting on the slight eddies of air in the house that might explain the material catching fire.

He scrubbed a hand through his shortly cropped blond hair.  “I’ll admit, this has me stumped.”  He paused, considered, and looked around.  “Gumby?”

“Can’t be the jumbie,” Cruz answered.  “Chief here says they snuffed seventeen fires before we got here.  I didn’t think jumbies wandered too far from their host.”

Niles nodded.  “True.”

“Jumbies?” repeated Duncan in a dubious voice.

Cruz grinned.  “You asked for the X Files.  Mulder and Scully at your service!”

Duncan removed his helmet and wiped a hand through his sweaty hair.  “I feel like I’m on the X Files.”

“Chief!” yelled someone from the parlor.  “Curtains on fire.”

The group tramped back to the front room to find one set of curtains blazing.  The blinds, however, remained untouched as did the wallpaper nearby.

“This is downright eerie,” Niles muttered.

“Ya think?” asked Duncan.

The firemen put out the blaze.

“I think this house is haunted,” Duncan complained.  “How else do you explain this?”

Cruz leaped on the chance to investigate something.  “Any history of paranormal activity in the house?” she asked.

Duncan shrugged.  “Not that I know about.  The owners are outside on the lawn.”

Having some action to take, Cruz stormed for the front door.  Niles followed more slowly, studying the house, and trying to sense what malevolent force could be affecting it.  He remained baffled.

They found the family of four sitting on a blanket on the grass.  In typical no-holds-bar Cruz style, Niles’ partner dove in with the questions.

Any poltergeist activity before now?  No.  How about ghostly apparitions?  Are you kidding?  No.  Do you know the history of the house?

The father shook his head.  “Nothing in particular.  It’s just a house.  We’ve lived here for ten years.  Never had a problem.”

Niles eyed the house.  “Has anything changed in your lives?  New baby?  Death in the family?”

“Nope.”

“How about renovations?” he asked.  “Started any?”

“With what money?” shot back Dad.

Cruz watched as a yellow light flickered in an upstairs window.  It was immediately snuffed out.  “Are you going to stay here tonight?” she asked.

Dad scowled.  “Are you insane?  With the house ready to burn down?  No thank you.  We’ll find a motel.”

“And a new house,” added Mom.  She shot her husband a look.

Dad nodded dolefully.

Niles and Cruz continued to watch as the dance of flames and firemen continued for most of the night.  By dawn, the fire department had put out a total of twenty-eight random fires.  They couldn’t put an explanation to any of them.

And neither could Niles.

© 2021 Newmin

Niles comments:  This story is actually true, although I’ll admit I embellished time and place.  In 1941, a home in Odon, Indiana did indeed mysteriously catch fire a total of 28 times.  Wallpaper, clothing, a mattress, and a book all caught fire for no known reason.  Since the house did not have electrical wiring, that was ruled out, as was lightning.  The flames seemed to be coming from inside the wall, but when the fire department broke the wall open to verify the suspected cause of the blaze (they believed it was likely a faulty “hidden chimney” inside the wall), they found nothing. Not even fire damage.  Another blaze broke out in another part of the house minutes later.  No sooner had this second blaze been extinguished than small fires began popping up all over the house. Many of the fires had incredibly bizarre origins: Mr. Hackler’s clothing, hanging on a door, burst into flame seemingly out of nowhere.

Eventually, the Odon fire department became overwhelmed, and they requested the assistance of a fire brigade from a neighboring town. In total, more than 100 firefighters would witness the extraordinary events of this June day.

The final fire was put out about an hour before midnight – more than 13 hours after the bizarre nightmare had begun. The Hackler family moved their remaining beds outside and slept outdoors that night.

In a later interview, the Indiana State Fire Marshall stated that the Odon fires were by far “the most baffling mystery” of his entire career. The case was closed with no answers, and to this day, the events that befell the unfortunate Heckler family are still completely unexplained.

Gule is Flooded Out

The vampire woke with a crick in his back, not surprising given he was more than a century old and stood at over six feet tall, but mostly because he’d slept on a blanket atop hard sand.  Scrubbing his talons through his shortly cropped blond hair, Niles Gule sat up with a yawn and oriented himself.  He lay under a starry sky growing pink in the east.  The deadly day star was threatening to poison him yet again.

With a scramble of arms and legs, he rose, brushed sand off the sweats he’d worn to sleep in and considered his surroundings.  To the left pounded the Atlantic surf.  To the right whispered salt grass waving in the breeze.  Off in the bushes, something about the size of a dog rustled.  But Niles didn’t fear it.  Gumby the jumbie had decided to unexpectedly appear.  The mischievous sprite, invisible to everyone but Niles, was already trying to start trouble by throwing sand on a nearby tent.  Meanwhile, beneath Niles’ feet snored his companion, Walter Cooksey, still bundled against the chill in a worn sleeping bag.

Niles nudged Cooksey with a toe.  “Wake up, Walter.  This vacation was your idea.”

Cooksey startled awake with a snort.  He blinked in fear at the vampire looming over him.

“Don’t eat me,” he pleaded.

Niles kicked sand at him.  “I’ve swore off eating humans, Walter.  Get up.  You were the one who wanted an early start on crabbing.”

Cooksey blinked a few more times, then his eyes focused on the glowing sky over the ocean.  “Oh crap!”  He tore himself out of his bag and clambered to his feet.  “Thanks for waking me.”

“No problem.”

 Niles ventured to his pack and fished out a pair of blue jeans and a t-shirt.  Turning his back on Cooksey, he quickly stripped and dressed for a day of crabbing on the Delaware River. 

He and Cooksey had taken a long weekend to drive from Baltimore to Delaware for a vacation away from the city.  Why Cooksey, a man who viewed his coworker as a gay, lizard alien out to defeat humanity, desired to spend his vacation with said vampire remained something of a mystery.  Why Niles had agreed to the trip was less so.  He worked with Cooksey on a daily basis and needed the shy, not very bright, little man to stop viewing him as a reptilian.  Cooksey had wandered down a deep rabbit hole created by some woman on the internet.  For the past year, Cooksey had lived in terror of the vampire he worked with, and that was growing tiresome.  Niles hoped spending some quality time engaging in Cooksey’s hobbies might reverse the damage the Shriner website had caused.  Thus, he’d agreed to join Cooksey on a trip to Delaware for some crabbing and quality bonding.

Gumby waddled past, kicking up sand and humming to himself.  He found an unguarded cooler near someone else’s tent, opened it, and rummaged gleefully through it.  Bags of chips and a couple of sandwiches in foil went flying.

Cooksey stuffed his camping gear into his rucksack and tugged that onto his shoulders.  He rattled his car keys.  “Let’s get to crabbing!”

As Niles followed his friend across the sand to the parking area, he frowned.  “Aren’t we crabbing here?”

Cooksey scowled.  He tossed his rucksack into the back of his Toyota Rav4 then snatched Niles’ bag and threw that in too.  “Of course not.  Assateague is a federal park.  You can’t crab here.”

“Then where will we be crabbing on this fine day?”  Niles peered at the eastern horizon where the day star was minutes away from appearing.  After he clambered into the Rav4, he slathered sunscreen over his face and hands, the only parts of his skin the sun would touch, then tamped an Australian cattleman’s hat onto his head and thrust wrap-around sunglasses over his eyes.

“I’ve got a special place,” Cooksey chortled.

“Of course you do.”  Niles settled in the passenger seat.  He sensed rather than saw Gumby pop into the back seat.  The imp crooned, an indication he was growing hungry.

“Hit it, Walter,” Niles said, looking out at the mess Gumby had created of their neighbor’s campsite.  “Before anyone wakes up.”

Cooksey grinned, fired up the engine, and set off along the flat, straight road down the spine of Assateague Island.

The island was unique in that it was a national park for its entire length.  It was, furthermore, home to a herd of wild ponies, the ancestors of which swum ashore when a Spanish galleon foundered many centuries before.  The tough little horses still called the island home, finding lush grazing in the salt marshes and haven from the mosquitoes on the windward beaches.  The horses ranged the island unimpeded.  Humans must give way to them.

Cooksey drove slowly, ever alert for the ponies or the small deer that also populated the island.  Then they made the curve for the causeway, and they returned to the Delmarva peninsula.

“Where is this secret crabbing place?” Niles asked.  He stared at the window as the sun rose sparkling over the Atlantic.  Gumby crooned louder.

“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret.”

They turned north onto Route 1 which ran the entire length of the peninsula.  Soon the Toyota was humming happily even as Gumby complained.

“Stop at a grocery store when we pass one,” Niles said.

Cooksey squeaked in protest.  “We’ll miss the best crabbing!”

“I’ll have an irate jumbie if we don’t find him food,” Niles retorted.

Cooksey’s face set in mutinous lines.  “I’ll see what I can find.”

The little man obviously didn’t try very hard because for the next hour they sped along the four-lane highway amongst light traffic.  Most folks were headed south towards the beaches on the opposite side of the road.

Cooksey exited Smyrna, but instead of turning inland towards the small city, he zoomed east towards the river.  Niles growled low in his throat but by then they were coasting along Route 6 due east into the rising sun.  Niles squinted against the glare even behind his sunglasses.  Gumby crooned some more.

The countryside smoothed out into long, flat fields of corn and soybeans.  Here and there sprinkled forest land, but much of Delaware was engaged in farming.  Niles pressed his hand against his forehead and hoped Gumby could hold on until they reached the end of the ride.  If they were lucky, Niles would find a small grocery store somewhere near Cooksey’s crabbing spot.  Gumby only ate milk and bananas.  When he became hungry, he also grew cranky.  And a cranky jumbie was an unpleasant jumbie.

Cooksey stopped at a lone stop sign at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere.  Niles frowned at the fancy pole just beyond the stop that held two yellow flashing lights.  A sign on the pole stated: “Road flooded ahead when lights flashing.”

“Someone must have forgotten to turn that off,” he commented when Cooksey drove past it.  “We’ve been in a drought for the past month.  Can’t be high water on the road today.”

Cooksey shrugged.  “We did see thunderstorms north of us last night.  Maybe they received a ton of rain here.”

Judging by the paltry, burnt corn stalks whizzing past, Niles doubted it, but he kept his own council.

The farmland abruptly ended.  The road shot directly straight into a swamp.  Instead of crops, a sea of cattails and grasses swayed in the early morning breeze.  It stretched off almost to the horizon, broken only occasionally by stands of trees on higher plots of land.  After a gentle bend, the road straightened alongside a water course.  From his vantage point in the passenger seat, Niles could look on the ruffled surface of the water mere inches below the road.

“What idiot built a road so close to sea level?” he complained.  In a few places the breeze sent small ripples of water onto the edges of the road.

“It’s a manmade causeway,” Cooksey explained.  “They dug out the swamp to run this road through it.”  He pointed to the water on either side of the road.  “Those are the channels created by the dredging.”

“They should have made this causeway higher,” Niles commented, noting another spot where the water nearly touched the road.  “This is a might too close for comfort.”

Cooksey shrugged and drove on.

Another five minutes of driving brought them to the shore of the Delaware.  Here the land rose again enough for a small village of houses to cluster next to the banks.  Cooksey pulled into an empty public parking area and shut off the engine.

“End of the road!” he sang.  He popped out of the Rav4 and grabbed his crabbing gear from the back seat. 

More slowly, Niles slid from the vehicle.  A warm breeze ruffled his hair as he stood gazing at the expanse of the Delaware.  At this point, the river was so wide he could barely make out the far side as a fringe of green on the horizon.  Dark, murky water glistened in the sun.

Cooksey perambulated with his assorted equipment onto the long metal pier that thrust out over the water.  Enjoying the view but not much else, Niles sauntered after him.  Gumby hopped out of the Rav4 and trundled around the parking lot, seeking mayhem but not finding much because Cooksey and Niles were the first visitors that day.

With a contented sigh, Cooksey settled at the end of the pier, baited three fishing poles, and flung the lines out deep into the water.

“I thought you crabbed with crab traps,” Niles said, taking a seat beside him.

“In shallow water, I do,” his little buddy explained, never taking his eyes off his lines.  “But out here the biggest, best crabs are in deep water.  You can’t catch them with a trap.”

Niles humphed and settled down to wait.  He nervously watched the shoreline where Gumby was trundling along the surf and playing with seashells.

“Maybe if I’m lucky, he’ll drown,” Niles muttered.

“Huh?”  Cooksey twisted to see what his companion was complaining about.

“My jumbie,” Niles said.  “Maybe he’ll fall in the river and drown.”

“I don’t think jumbies drown,” Cooksey said prosaically. 

Niles planted his chin on his fist and heaved a heavy sigh.

With a cry of delight, Cooksey sprang up when the end of one of his fishing poles bobbed.  Carefully, he reeled it in.  Niles watched the battle between man and beast continue for almost ten minutes.  He figured Cooksey knew what he was doing but he questioned the need for such caution.  Finally, from the depths of the murk appeared a large, white shape.

Cooksey hustled to grab a net on a long pole.  Then he carefully raised the fishing pole.  The object on the end was a huge blue crab with its claw gripping a chicken neck.

“Gotta do it just right,” he murmured, maneuvering rod and pole to bring the net under the crab.  “If I jerk him around too much, he’ll release, and I’ll lose him.”

Niles curiously watched while Cooksey eased the crab into the net.  Then, with a cry of triumph, he pulled the crab in.  A few minutes of disentangling the crab from the net and freeing the chicken neck ended with a large, blue crab scuttling about in the bottom of a bucket of water.

“Good job,” Niles said.

Cooksey beamed.  He returned his line to the water and the wait began again.

A woman shrieked. 

Stiffening, Niles squinted at the parking lot.  He saw a woman dancing around and swatting at something.  She continued to cry out in fear.

“Damn that jumbie!” Niles swore.  He leaped to his feet and ran along the pier towards the woman.

As soon as his feet hit sand, the woman stopped screaming.  She whirled around as if certain she’d be attacked again.  Instead, Niles felt a sharp pain like rat’s teeth in his ankle.  He cried out in surprise and danced on one foot while he tried to kick the invisible jumbie loose.  Gumby, however, had his teeth firmly embedded in his master’s leg and like the crab, he wasn’t letting go.  Niles danced around, swearing, while Gumby gnawed on his leg.

“You’re hungry.  I get it,” Niles complained.  “Let’s find you food.”

The woman had staggered away.

“Is there a grocery store near here?” Niles shouted.

The woman continued to backpedal.  “Not here in Woodland.  Closest one is in Smyrna,” she said.  She turned tail and powerwalked into the small village.

That left Niles to deal with his jumbie alone.  He tried to outrun it, but a jumbie didn’t travel through time and space like baryonic matter.  He simply reappeared when Niles slowed to a walk.  And the moment his vampire did so, Gumby clamped on again, demanding to be fed.

This continued for another hour.  Niles escaped only to have Gumby find him and bite some more.  Finally, Niles couldn’t take it anymore.  He charged back up the pier and confronted Cooksey.

“We’ve got to head back to Smyrna,” he stated.  “Before Gumby eats through my leg.”

Cooksey considered his haul of blue crabs.  About ten big, juicy ones squirmed in his bucket.  “Ok,” he sighed.  “I guess I can call this a success.”  He handed Niles his equipment.  “Help me stow my stuff.”

Niles was more than happy to do so.  He hastily collected Cooksey’s gear, and with full arms, half hopping one leg as he danced down the pier, he returned everything to the car.  Cooksey followed with his crabs which he carefully stowed in the back seat foot well.

Niles drew a breath of relief when they were on the road out of Woodland.  Seeming to know they were heading towards food, Gumby stopped gnawing on Niles and began playing with the crabs.  He pulled one completely out of the bucket and allowed it to pitch Niles’ ear with his claw.

“Dammit!” Niles complained, swatting the jumbie. 

Cooksey slammed on the brakes.  Niles jerked forward.  The crab’s claw wretched a bit of flesh from the vampire’s ear.

“What the hell!” Niles shouted.  “What are you doing, Walter?”

Cooksey sat peering out the front windshield at the road ahead. “Um, Ghoul… we’ve got a problem.”

Niles turned forward, holding his ear to stop the clear ooze from running down his neck.  He found himself staring not at a ribbon of asphalt shooting off into the marsh.  Instead he was looking at a sea of gently rippling water.

“What the hell?” he repeated.  “Where did that water come from?”

Cooksey grimaced.  “Um… remember the flashing lights?”

Niles glared at him and the offending water.

“High tide,” he breathed in final understanding.  “What idiot builds a road that floods at high tide?”

“The Delaware DOT apparently.”

“Did you not know about this?”

Cooksey shrugged.  “I guess I came during low tide the last time.”

Still holding his ear with one hand, Niles fetched his phone and searched for water meters on Woodland Road, Delaware.  There he found it.  A complete website dedicated to the water levels on that stretch of road.

“For the love of God,” he moaned.  “Says here its maximum depth is almost four feet deep.”

Cooksey stared at the water.  “For how long?”

“Another two hours,” Niles growled.

His gaze filled with dread, Cooksey blinked at his vampire companion.  “I guess we’re stuck.”

“Ya think?”  Niles glared.

Deciding that sitting there in the middle of a flooded road didn’t make much sense, Cooksey backed up to a pull off that led to a boat landing for the estuary.  A group of fishermen were settled along the banks of the flooding swamp with their lines in the water.

“Might as well make something of the day,” Cooksey chirped.  He grabbed a pole and climbed out of the car.

Grumbling, Niles could only follow him.  Gumby trailed behind, crooning his hunger.

While Cooksey greeted his fellow fishermen, Niles trolled around the small parking area, trying to stay one step ahead of his jumbie.  Gumby, finding something new to torment, trundled over to the fishermen and began rooting through their gear.  No one noticed until he started throwing bobbers into the water.  Then shouts of protest followed by nervous complaint flowed when the fishermen realized something invisible was messing with their stuff.  The five, heavyset men milled around, unwilling to approach the spirit ruining their picnic.

With a chortle of glee, Gumby retrieved a lone banana from one of the coolers.  Cooing happily, he wandered off, munching on his find.

Niles rubbed his hand gratefully across his brow.  Only then could he take a seat beside Cooksey.  The other fishermen, seeing that whatever had been in their gear had vanished, stood mumbling about ghosts.

Serene, Cooksey simply fished through it all.  He’d landed his catch of blue crabs.  All was right with the world.

Niles could only sit and stew.

Friendships, he muttered.  Their only purpose was to kill a vampire.

© 2022 Newmin

Niles comments:  True story, as always.  Be careful when visiting Woodland Beach to time your travels accordingly.  Twice a day, the only road in or out is submerged by the Duck Creek.  If you miss your crossing, you’re stuck.  Trust me on this one.  Pay attention to the flashing sign.