Explain to me again why we’re here?” police officer Jonas Williams complained as a bitter wind plucked at his thick, salt-and-pepper hair. Flurries skirled down his neck. He shivered not just from the cold but the location and the company.
“We’re going to catch the Toaster!” Walter Cooksey insisted. The much smaller man was tucked into the windbreak his larger partner created for him. He, too, was hunched against the cold with a knitted Ravens hat covering his balding head.
“Why’s the Ghoul here?” Williams jerked his head in the direction of the Baltimore PD’s dedicated vampire hunter, Niles Gule.
The vampire hunter was hard to see in his black Victorian-style frock coat. Barely visible was his neatly shorn blonde head. Being a vampire, the cold didn’t bother him, although he did wear the coat and wool scarf for effect. No sense broadcasting he was a vampire if he could help it.
“We need his eyesight!” Cooksey insisted. He rubbed his gloved hands together gleefully. “I’ve been after the Toaster for ten years. I’ve finally got the weaponry to catch him.”
“Is there something illegal with midnight toasting?” Niles asked. He stood with his arms patiently crossed, his blue eyes scanning the church yard for signs of illegal activity. Well, more illegal than what they were doing, which was trespassing.
“No!” Cooksey snorted.
“Breaking into church graveyards is,” Williams growled.
The three men stood in the dark depths of Baltimore’s Westminster Presbyterian Church and Burying Grounds in the center of the city. The night was January 19th, Edgar Allen Poe’s birthday. They were huddled near the wall of the church, using a large mausoleum for cover as they kept watch on the white stone cenotaph that marked, not the great writer’s final resting place, but a temporary gravesite where he’d been interred before he was later moved. The monument, adorned with a carved raven, stood in a corner of the yard, not far from the busy traffic of West Fayette Street.
They were there because Cooksey wanted to put to rest once and for all the identity of the Poe Toaster. This person, everyone assumed it was a man, had been stealing into the cemetery on January 19th since at least the fifties. He would toast to the legendary writer with Martell cognac, leaving the bottle behind along with three carefully arranged red roses supposedly in honor of the writer, his mother and his wife. No one really knew who the Poe Toaster was although several people had claimed the title over the years.
“I don’t understand why anyone would toast a writer who’s been dead for a century,” Niles commented. “Hell, if he was still alive he’d be older than me!”
“Remember him personally, do you?” Williams growled with a sharp look at the vampire.
Niles smiled in the darkness, his white face and blue eyes almost aglow in the dim light from the street. “Actually, I do. Met him in Boston. Odd fellow. Had a drinking problem.”
“Now who does that remind me of?” Williams wondered.
Niles lanced him with those sharp eyes then turned his attention back to scanning the church yard.
Williams complained, “Why would anyone do this, on a night like this?”
“Poe was a great writer,” Niles replied. “Created a whole new genre of fiction in his day. I have a collection of his works. One of them signed by him.” He arched a brow when his two companions stared. “What? A vampire can’t enjoy horror stories?” His smile grew sly. “Maybe I gave Poe some of his ideas.”
Cooksey shuddered. “Whoa! That’s not something I needed to know about you.”
Niles laughed and slapped the little man on the shoulder. “I’m reformed, remember?”
“I thought this Toaster dude gave up a couple years ago.” Williams shifted weight to keep his toes warm.
“Supposedly,” Cooksey replied. He continued to eagerly watch the darkness. “Some old guy claimed to be the Toaster and said he was retiring but that someone else would take over. That person has. Sorta. He’s not as diligent as the old one.” He fumbled with his camera clumsily with his gloved hands. “Whoever he is, I’m getting his picture. Keep those radar eyes peeled, Ghoul.”
Niles didn’t bother to explain to Cooksey that his night vision was such that he could read a newspaper on a moonless night. The cemetery appeared as a black and white photograph. He had been entertaining himself by reading the epitaphs all around him. While Cooksey couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, Niles could count the bits of trash blowing about.
“I’m going for a spin around the yard,” he commented. “Maybe our Toaster is lurking on the other side of the wall.”
“Keep hidden!” Cooksey hissed. “We don’t want to spook him.”
“As if he hasn’t heard us chattering this whole time,” Niles replied urbanely. He dropped a dark hat over his blonde hair to hide it then slipped into the darkness.
Twenty minutes later, he’d worked his way back to where Cooksey and Williams still huddled next to the mausoleum. He slid up behind them and stood leaning over them as they waited, their eyes fixed on Poe’s cenotaph.
“This is a waste of time,” Williams complained.
“The night’s not over yet!” Cooksey insisted.
Niles realized they hadn’t noticed his return. He moved close and in what would have been a whisper to a vampire, said boo! in the home tongue. The sound screeched. Both Williams and Cooksey leaped for the heavens.
“Dammit, Ghoul!” Williams hit the vampire with his fist. “Not cool!”
Niles suspected Cooksey had wet his pants. “Ooh, I hate you!” the little man moaned.
“Until you need my night vision.” Niles leaned against the mausoleum.
“It’s not much good!” Cooksey complained.
Niles shrugged. “Oh I don’t know. You asked me to keep watch for the Toaster. You didn’t say what I was supposed to do when I saw him.”
Cooksey gasped. His eyes flashed to the cenotaph. There, sitting innocently at its base were a bottle of cognac and three roses.
“Dammit!” Cooksey raced to the spot and whirled around. But the Poe Toaster was gone.
“There’s always next year,” Niles offered.
Now Cooksey punched him. In total frustration, the little man marched for the street, cursing stupid, arrogant vampires.
Williams considered the cognac. “Strange how he came just when you went missing, Ghoul.” His eyes narrowed. “Also strange that the Toaster disappeared for the handful of years when you weren’t in Baltimore.”
Niles headed after Cooksey. “Stranger things have been known to happen.”
“They say this tradition has been going on for almost a century,” the officer added as he followed. “Almost as long as you’ve been alive.”
Niles gave him a quick wick. “Next you’ll blame me for the Loch Ness Monster.”
“Oh, I’m blaming you for a lot of things, Ghoul,” Williams murmured. “A lot of things.”
Niles laughed. He did not look back.
© 2017 Newmin
Niles comments: Poe was a pioneer in American fiction who focused on mystery and tales of the macabre. He embraced the short story format at a time when short stories were rare. Credited as the inventor of the detective story, Poe was also an early adopter of the science fiction genre. Sadly, he lived a troubled live and died under mysterious circumstances that echoed much of his writing. So come to Baltimore and toast to Poe’s grave. You have him to thank for my existence.