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MIRANDA WAS SERIOUSLY sleep-deprived.
For the last few days she’d gotten less than a couple of hours of sleep a day, and the operative word was “day.” She didn’t sleep a wink at night.
It had been the same since Hubert had left Monday afternoon for the airport. The store had been closed the whole weekend before, and had remained closed during the daylight hours of Monday. Miranda showed up at around four, just before he’d driven off to catch his flight to Europe. He had shown her his apartment on the second floor over the bookstore, told her to make herself at home, gave her the keys and left. Just like that. She had brought a suitcase with her containing enough clothes to get through the week, hung them up in a closet, and went down to open the store just before dusk.
At first the customers coming in were nothing but gangbangers and Goths, looking for books about killing techniques or Wicca, depending on their various interests. Then, as the daylight faded from the grimy front windows, the more sinister night people came in, vampires and twitching mortals who wanted entry to the special collection Hubert had shown her in the locked room at the top of the short flight of stairs. She had done as Hubert had told her, unlocking the room and staying planted behind the counter. At least until the vampires started coming in, it wasn’t very much different from a night shift at Borders, although there was no latte bar.
She closed the store around three, when the last vampire had shambled out the front door. It had been as uneventful a night as Hubert promised, and she was slightly surprised at how courteous and quiet the night people were. A few looked at her askance, not understanding what she was doing behind the counter instead of Hubert, but nobody said anything to her, apart to ask a few questions or thank her when she gave them their change from a purchase. Still, Miranda was so tightly wired from the experience that she had been unable to sleep very late that night, or early the next morning, after she had secured the building and dragged herself up the back stairs to the apartment. She had a few glasses of wine from Hubert’s fine cellar, watched something mindless on his TV, and didn’t fall asleep until almost nine o’clock that morning.
Hubert had told her to make herself at home in his spacious apartment, and so she did. It wasn’t the kind of apartment she would have envisioned her boss living in. It was gigantic, taking up the entire top floor of the building, and had few walls, Hubert being one of those individuals who favor open floor plans. The furniture was mostly Danish Moderne, with a few Victorian chairs and prints on the walls for contrast. It was surprisingly tastefully done, and spotlessly neat, too, something Miranda wouldn’t have expected from a bachelor. Hubert was also apparently a man who enjoyed his food. His kitchen was almost the size of Miranda’s entire apartment, and filled with the outrageously expensive stainless-steel appliances that were in vogue a few years ago; the Sub-Zero refrigerator, for instance, was bigger than her bedroom closet, and the Viking oven could have been pulled right out of a large restaurant. And he had laid on mountains of food for her, or perhaps he just liked to be prepared, but at any rate she surely didn’t go hungry while staying in his home. But apart from the fact that she could see that he had an eclectic taste in furnishings and was something of a gourmand, the apartment gave few other clues about her boss.
As the week progressed she settled into a routine. She would open the store around dusk, making sure that the pistol Hubert had showed her was in the drawer at the counter, she would unlock the special collections room, then plant herself behind the counter. She would work the counter until about three or four in the morning, then lock up. After dragging herself up to the apartment she would make sure the heavy locks on the front door were secure, then watch some TV, drink some of Hubert’s wine, until sleep overtook her, which usually didn’t happen until well after sun-up. She would sleep at most a few hours, until the early afternoon, when nightmares would overtake her, then make herself something to eat, and at around sundown she would repeat the process all over again. It was no kind of life, she thought, wondering how people who worked the graveyard shift (it took until Wednesday before she realized the irony of the term) were able to function at all.
The first night she fortified herself with coffee, a bad mistake, because by eleven that evening she had to use the bathroom and couldn’t bring herself to stray from the supposed sanctuary of the cash counter. Never leave the counter, Hubert had told her. She had taken the advice to heart, and for some reason felt that as long as she had a few feet of polished wood between her and the skells, things would turn out all right. Monday night and early Tuesday morning had been torture, as she had held her pee in until she was able to stumble to the front door to lock up. She didn’t make the same mistake twice; after that ordeal she cut herself off the coffee an hour before dusk.
She tried to make each day as routine as possible. They still got deliveries of new titles that had to be shelved, and of course she did this part of the job before she opened for the night. Tuesday the National Book Award winner for fiction arrived in trade paperback, the acclaimed novel by the Native American author Sherman Alexie, Bowel’s Gotta Move, Teepee’s Full of Shit. Also arrived was the newest title from the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, Donald Goines’ classic ghetto novel Whoreson.
Not that the night people were much interested in National Book Award winners or what Oprah Winfrey might be reading. No, they were buying books on how to make pipe bombs, how to kill people with either hand, how to summon demons, how to make prison shanks, things like that. Miranda sold them what they wanted, trying as hard as she could not to touch fingers with them as they passed their cash over the counter. Almost all the purchases were in cash, the night people, for the most part, didn’t use plastic or checks.
It was on Tuesday night that she discovered the MiniDisk player under the counter. She had grown almost as weary of the silence in the store as she had of the terrifying customers, so when she found the player and a pile of disks she immediately plugged one in, a recording of Handel’s Water Music, and that helped her pass the time a little more quickly.
There was an oversized clock on the wall opposite the counter, and Miranda sat there that Thursday night and watched as the minutes ticked away, as slow as a glacier moves.
SKODA THOUGHT THAT HE might stick around town for awhile.
There were several reasons for this decision. He enjoyed the nightlife, so to speak, in the party district. It was a very cosmopolitan city, with a minimum of hicks and rednecks who found it diverting to cruise around the streets with machetes, looking for the undead to decapitate. Also, he was tired of moving about so much. He liked the idea of being able to stay in his hotel room during the day, sleeping under the bed, away from the murderous sunlight, and then going out on the town after dusk to see what life offered him.
But above all he enjoyed the All Nations bookstore. It had been a long while since he had been able to set foot inside a book shop, as all the ones he had encountered in Europe had closed very early. He loved being able to browse as much as he wished, buying a little something now and then to keep that crusty out fellow Hubert happy and, more importantly, in business. He himself never bothered going back into the special collections room, not after that run in with the Goth vampire. The truth was, he had been undead for so long he pretty much knew the ropes; there was nothing in the special collections room that interested him in the slightest, apart from the sheer ambiance of the place, with its musty smell of old leather, moldy bindings and decaying paper.
Skoda considered himself an intellectual and a humanist. Sometimes he thought that rather funny, him, a vampire, a skell, calling himself a humanist. But that was what interested him. He loved mankind the way a big game hunter loves animals. Being so long a vampire and thus no longer quite human, Skoda found himself embracing his lost species more and more. There were times when he was walking the streets, alone, lost in thought, wondering why he had sacrificed his humanity to Become one of the undead. Then he would recall meeting some great and honored human, like Aaron Copland, or Gunter Grass, or Frank Sinatra, being able to live pretty much forever, able to move freely with all the money his family had made and funneled to him when he needed it, able to find more and more of the human spirit than he would ever have possessed had he been a mere mortal.
He walked into the All Nations and stopped, seeing the woman behind the counter. He hadn’t been in the last week, and immediately wondered where Hubert was.
The woman looked like she had seen a ghost. Or, more precisely, a whole bunch of ghosts, for the bookstore was very full that evening. Young mortals wearing gangland apparel browsed the shelves along with skells, young and old. A few Goths, mortals as well, shuffled around, staring at the floor, like they wished they could disappear.
Skoda walked over to a bookshelf filled with classics. Hubert had told him that he had hired a young woman to help him in the store, and that woman was moving things around, making order out of the place. Hubert didn’t seem overly happy about that situation, but was resigned to it. Skoda himself thought that creating some order in the store was a capital idea. He thought as he scanned the titles on the shelf that the woman behind the counter must have been the lady Hubert said he’d hired.
All eyes turned to a tall, rather lumpy young man, with black hair that was unwashed and stood out from his skull in corkscrews. He wore gray janitor’s pants and a sweat shirt advertising some baseball team that Skoda wasn’t familiar with. He looked seriously demented.
“Excuse me!” the young man shouted, across the room, to the woman behind the counter.
“Yes?” the woman said, her voice very small.
“Do you have the time?”
Skoda realized the young man was a retardate. He probably spoke that loudly all the time.
“It’s a little after midnight,” the woman said.
“Do you have any books on Bob Saget?”
“You have any books on Bob Saget!”
A small murmur went through the other customers. The gangbangers in particular looked like concert-goers who were being disturbed by a loud child. He wanted a book about the actor Bob Saget? Skoda thought. That clenched it. He definitely was a mental defective.
“Anything I have would be on the wall right behind you,” the woman said. “Right there, in biography.”
“Would you show me, please?”
“Right behind you, right there.” The woman was making no effort to come out from behind the counter. Not that Skoda blamed her, not with the villainous crew in here tonight.
“Just show me, goddamn you!”
“Shut the fuck up, motherfucker,” a gangster muttered, his nose buried in a volume of Emily Dickinson.
The woman stood there for a moment, uncertain what to do. Finally she turned and walked out from behind the counter, moving past the young raving lunatic towards the biography section. It was then that the fellow yanked a very large hunting knife out of his waistband, grabbed the woman from behind as she walked past him, and thrust the blade towards her throat. The woman made a small huffing sound, the sound she might have made had she misplaced her keys and was running late.
“Prepare to die, you goddamn whore!”
The lunatic had the knife’s sharp edge right to her throat, hard enough to indent the skin under her jaw. Her eyes went wide and she made another little huffing sound, but was otherwise silent. Skoda watched with a certain amount of interest. He had seen countless mortals breathe their last, most of the time puffing it into his face. He also noted that the knife, which appeared very sharp, was pressed right against the woman’s jugular; the slightest amount of pressure would sever the vessel, and the woman would be dying as she hit the floor.
There was a deadly silence in the bookstore for perhaps two or three seconds. It seemed that time had stood still; then came the sound of numerous metallic clicks as a half dozen handguns were drawn and their safeties were flicked off. They were all aimed at the lunatic’s head and back. Most of the weapons were in the hands of gangsters, but a couple of the vampires had drawn firearms as well.
“Let her go, asswipe,” one of the gangsters said.
“I’m gonna cut this bitch’s throat!”
“We’re gonna bust a cap in your ass you do, motherfucker.”
Things, Skoda could well see, were escalating out of control. He knew well what a volatile mixture adrenaline, testosterone and blued steel could be. It suddenly dawned on him that, should this crazy imbecile hurt the woman, the police might be called in. And if the police came in, they would, no doubt, close down the bookstore. And that would be a terrible thing all by itself. Besides, Skoda had a love for all humans of a literary or artistic bent; for this cretin to hurt the woman would be a terrible shame, something against everything he stood for. And he knew that there was nobody else in the bookstore at that moment who could or would do anything to defuse the situation but him.
“You man!” he said to the lunatic.
“What’s the matter, young man? Do you have a beef with this lady?”
“I’m gonna kill her, so yeah, I guess that’s a fucking beef, you stupid bohunk asshole!”
Skoda took a few steps towards the maniac and the frightened woman. He held his hands out to show he didn’t have a weapon. “I don’t understand. Why do you want to kill her?”
“Bob Saget told me to!”
“Bob Saget? That revolting hack actor?”
“Don’t get too close, man,” one of the gangbangers said to Skoda.
“You watch what you say about Bob Saget you worthless piece of fucking shit asshole cocksucker I’ll fucking kill you too you skell jagoff dickweed assmaster!”
For a moment Skoda was literally overcome by the amount of profanity flung at him in a single compound sentence. Naturally none of this offended him. One might as well be offended by the sight of a monkey masturbating in the zoo; but still he allowed his face to drop a little, like he was unhappy about the abuse thrown at him.
“Come, come, my young friend, there’s no need to be so vulgar. Tell me, why did Bob Saget tell you to murder this woman?”
“His will be done!”
“Man, this dork’s nuts, man,” somebody said behind Skoda, and Skoda, still holding his arms out to his sides, shook one hand slightly for silence.
“His will?” said Skoda. “Do you think that this Bob Saget fellow is God, then?”
“His will was revealed to me on a dark and thunderous night! Do you have the time?”
“I said, do you have the time? You deaf as well as fucking stupid?”
Skoda glanced up at the big clock on the wall. It was a little after midnight, only a couple of minutes had passed since the lady told this simpleton the time. But Skoda didn’t mention the time. Instead, he said, “It’s right there, behind you.”
“Do you have the time?”
“If I tell you, will you let this lady go?”
“Get bent, you shithole bohunk!”
“Actually, I’m Hungarian.”
“I said, I’m not Bohemian, I’m Hungarian.”
“I don’t give a shit if you’re an Eskimo! WHAT FUCKING TIME IS IT?!”
“It’s time to die.”
But it was already too late for the lunatic, for as the single word erupted from his mouth Skoda danced forward and delivered what was known in street parlance, inelegantly but quite accurately, as a brain punch. His fist shot out and connected with the lunatic’s high bony forehead, perfectly centered on the fellow’s prominent brow ridge. It wasn’t a fatal blow, not quite, because Skoda pulled the power out of his arm at the last moment. But it certainly shocked the fellow, rattling his brain about in his skull as it did. The maniac shrieked and went limp; the knife fell from his hand and he dropped to the floor. The woman went limp too and was about to fall beside the lunatic when one of the gangsters dashed forward to catch her. Another gangster came forward, the one who’d been reading Emily Dickinson, and put his boot across the lunatic’s throat, pressing down and aiming his pistol at his face.
“Skell’s right, motherfucker,” said the gangster, thumbing back the pistol’s hammer. “Time to die.”
“Not here,” snapped Skoda.
“I said, don’t kill him here, you fool. You want the bulls in here? They’ll shut the place down.”
The gangster glared at him for a moment, and Skoda thought that he might turn the pistol on him. Then the gangster nodded. “Yeah, you’re right, dude. Don’t want the bulls in here. No way.”
“Take him out of here,” said Skoda. “Do what you want with him outside. But not in here.”
“Okay, then.” A couple of the gangster’s pals came over and they manhandled the lunatic out the front door. Several of the other patrons had moved the woman over to a stool behind the counter. They were holding her upright. Her eyes were fluttering, her breathing shallow and hurried.
“How is she?” asked Skoda.
“She didn’t get cut,” said one of the gangsters.
“Let me through.” Skoda pushed past the gangsters and took hold of the woman’s shoulder, keeping her from falling off the stool. “Can you hear me?” he said.
“You are fine. Do you understand? That vulgar fellow’s gone. You don’t have to worry about him anymore.”
A gunshot, not too far away, rang out. Skoda realized then how accurate his statement had been.
The woman’s eyes widened at the sound of the shot. “What was that?” she asked, her voice a little high, but otherwise normal.
“Car,” said one of the gangsters. “Car backfiring.”
Skoda thought that perhaps he had misjudged some of these other book lovers. For a short, rather insane moment, he actually felt proud to be one of the night people. “What’s your name?” he asked the woman.
“Good to meet you, Miranda. I’m Skoda.”
Miranda nodded, as if she had expected that to be his name all along. The front door opened and the gangster who’d been reading Emily Dickinson walked in, jacking back on the slide of his pistol, removing the bullet from the breech. “She okay?” he asked.
“She seems to be a bit in shock.”
“I would be, too, having some lunatic motherfucker holding a shank to my neck like that. You handled yourself well there, Mr. Skell.”
“Thank you. You as well.”
The Emily Dickinson fan nodded slowly, then glanced out the window. “I think it would be a good idea for us all to get the fuck outta here.”
“A fine idea,” said Skoda. He turned to Miranda. “Can you walk?”
“Yes, I’m sure I can,” she said, as if asked to do something far harder than that. “Why?”
“I’m afraid that the police might be coming. It would be better if the store was closed.”
“Hubert told me I had to keep the place open all night. At least until three or four—“
”Hubert will understand.”
The Emily Dickinson fan and a couple of his homeboys cleared out the store, and Skoda and Miranda were the last out the front door, Miranda locking up as they left. “Where do we go?” she asked.
“There’s an all-night diner not too far away.”
They started to walk. The gangsters and other night people had already disappeared. Near the middle of the block Skoda heard the engine of a car and pulled Miranda into an alley. It was very dark inside, and they cowered in the shadows as a Metro police cruiser swept slowly by, its blue bubble lights revolving.
THE DINER WAS A Denny’s, a freestanding restaurant in the middle of a deserted parking lot. There were only a few people in the booths, widely spaced for privacy, and nobody at the counter. The hired help, all three of them, looked like they were junkies jonesing between injections of smack. Even the security guard, a massively fat man with greasy hair and an M-16 commando rifle, didn’t do too much to inspire confidence. He was asleep in his chair, the rifle across his lap, his snores audible over the Muzak. The waitress, a skinny girl with orange hair, came over and poured them coffee, then disappeared into the kitchen.
“Are you feeling better?” Skoda asked.
“What do you think?”
He smiled and looked away. She was getting combative. That was good, that meant that she was fighting off the shock. She took a sip of her coffee. Skoda brought his mug to his lips but didn’t even taste the coffee. Like all vampires, any fluid other than blood or water made him sick to his stomach.
“You’re a skell, aren’t you?” Miranda asked.
“A distasteful term.”
“Okay. You’re a vampire, right?”
“Why did you save me?”
“I dislike violence.”
Miranda snorted and looked away.
“Truly, I detest it.”
“Strange for a skell to hate violence.”
“Not so strange. I get no satisfaction from killing.”
“Are you one of those skells that kills small animals for their blood?”
“Just people for you, then?”
“So why didn’t you kill me?”
“Because, your life has value.”
“That’s very nice of you to say.”
“It’s true, nonetheless.”
“The night is young. Are you going to kill me later?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I already told you. Your life has value. There are plenty of other fish in the sea. Plenty of people who’s life wouldn’t be missed.”
Skoda looked at her across the table. He hadn’t expected gushing thanks from her for saving her from the madman, but he hadn’t expected this cross examination, either. “Like bums. The homeless. Children. Whores. People like that.”
“Children? You group them in the same set as prostitutes and the homeless?”
“Certainly I would never kill a prodigy. A young Mozart. That would be a terrible thing. No, I was talking about ghetto children.”
“An elitist vampire. Now I’ve heard everything.”
“I respect Americans very much,” he said, toying with his coffee mug. The coffee smelled good. Sometimes he wished he could drink it. “You are a fine people, very vigorous. But sometimes I find your theories of equality infuriating. There are many classes of people. Good people, bad people. Smart people and stupid people.”
“And important people and unimportant people.”
“If you like.”
“I don’t. What makes me so important?”
“I will be frank, Miranda. Can I call you Miranda? If I saw you accosted in the street by that lout, I wouldn’t have lifted a finger to prevent his murdering you. I haven’t existed so long by being rash.”
“You saved me because I was running the book store for the week.”
“And if I died—“
”The book store might have been closed down by the authorities.”
“Is All Nations so important, then?”
“More important than you can know.”
They were silent for a few moments. The front door of the restaurant opened and a pair of cops walked in, dressed in dark blue combat fatigues, heavy with weapons. Skoda noticed that both of them had machetes in scabbards along their thighs. The cops looked around, their eyes picking up everything, anything that might turn into a danger to them. They had thousand yard stares that Skoda had first seen in the shell-shocked troops in St. Petersburg during the Great War. They went to the counter and sat down, ordering coffee. One faced the counter, the other sat with his back turned to it, keeping an eye on the rest of the restaurant, the front door, and their Lincoln Town Car cruiser parked just past it in a handicapped spot.
“Why are you here?” Miranda asked suddenly.
“What? I don’t understand.”
“Why are you here? In the United States?”
“I like to travel. It is my fond wish to visit every country in the world.”
“So, you’re just passing through?”
“I suppose you could say that.”
“Isn’t it difficult for a skell to travel?”
“I really would prefer that you don’t use that term.”
“Okay. For vampires. Isn’t it difficult for you to travel?”
“I am lucky in that my family is very wealthy.”
“I didn’t realize that vampires had families.”
“Then there is much you don’t know about us.”
“Maybe I don’t want to know too much about you.”
“It isn’t good to be so close minded. I would have expected more from you.”
“Look, Mr. Skoda. I appreciate that you saved my life. Thank you very much. What else do you want from me? Would you like some money or something? I hate your kind. For the last four nights I’ve been selling your kind books. Sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe from the fear of it. I’m scared right now—“
”If I wanted to kill you, I would have done it already. Like that—“ Skoda snapped his fingers. “I’ve already told you, you have nothing to fear from me.”
“Maybe not from you. What about everyone and everything else that comes out after dark? Why should they not kill me?”
“Because you are immune. You work in a place that is important to the night people. Didn’t you see how those gang boys drew their weapons to protect you? How they dealt with the lunatic who attacked you?”
“And what about that lunatic? What happened to him?”
“It wasn’t a car backfiring that you heard after the assault.”
Miranda’s face, just starting to get its color back, when white again.
“They killed him?” she said.
“That’s right. Like I said, you have nothing to fear.”
”What’s the matter?” Skoda asked, genuinely surprised. “Are you feeling guilty? For that piece of human shit? He was nothing. A lunatic, possibly a sexual degenerate. A mental defective. I would have taken his blood with all the thought a man gives to picking out his underwear for the day.”
“He was a human being, for Christ’s sake!”
One of the cops turned slightly and frowned at her, as if willing her to shut up so he wouldn’t have to ruin his coffee break.
“Please keep your voice down,” said Skoda.
Tears welled up in her eyes, much to Skoda’s alarm. He had Become at an early age, still in his early twenties, and he hadn’t had a lot of experience with women. What was the matter with this idiot? Couldn’t she see that she was safe? That there was nothing to fear?
“I have to go,” she said, moving out of the booth.
“Let me escort you home.”
“I don’t want your help.”
“Don’t be an imbecile. It isn’t safe out on the streets. You know that.” He reached out and grabbed her hand.
“Be reasonable, Miranda.”
“If you don’t let go, I’ll scream rape.”
Skoda glanced past her at the cops sitting at the lunch counter. They were both big burly men, and even though he had great strength, it would be extremely difficult to overpower them, even assuming they didn’t draw their weapons. He was nearly impervious to a gunshot or two, but the cops didn’t look like they would stop at one or two shots. They would probably empty their pistols into him, then whack his head off with their machetes for good measure. He hadn’t existed this long to end up dead in a Denny’s restaurant.
“Very well,” he said, releasing her hand. “Go safely.”
And so she went. One of the cops continued to stare at him from across the restaurant. Skoda watched him from the corner of his eye. Skoda turned and watched Miranda walking quickly up the street, back in the direction of All Nations. She turned the corner and was gone from view. He raised his mug to his lips again and pretended he was drinking the coffee.
With a jangle of equipment the two cops hoisted themselves off their stools and marched out to their car. Skoda waited for a few moments to leave until they drove off. He laid down some money and left the Denny’s.
And stopped in the middle of his tracks.
A coldness swept through, so bitter that his teeth started to chatter together.
“What the hell?” he said out loud. It was pure evil that he felt, something more evil, much more evil, than himself. Something evil, something close. It was as if all his internal organs had suddenly been fast-frozen. He had trouble catching his breath.
He had felt this once before. Back in the 1930s, in a beerhall in Munich. He had been sitting there, listening to some heated political argument between a pair of good German burghers. Sometimes he enjoyed listening to mortals discuss politics the way parents enjoy listening to their two-year-old’s blather. He had been sitting there, soaking up the humanity in the room, for there are few places as filled with humanity as a German beerhall, when the same sudden feeling of evil descended upon him. A lot of shouting filled the place and Skoda turned around and saw a short, slight man, wearing an overcoat a couple of sizes too big for him and a slouch hat hurry through the front door and duck out the back. The evil radiated from him like heat from a stove. He was followed by some bully boys who were watching his back. He turned to one of the burghers and asked him who that fellow was, the one in the bad overcoat and hat. That’s that idiot Hitler, said the burgher. Nothing wrong with Hitler, said the other burgher. He’s going to show the Bolsheviks what for, mark my words.
And Skoda did indeed mark his words. Since Becoming he could sometimes see evil on people like an aura, only it was colorless, and made the air around them shimmer. Normally he had to be very close to a person to see his evil, and it never hit him as hard as the corruption that clung to Adolf Hitler, that once and only time he saw him, in the Munich beerhall.
Until now, that is. Until now, and Skoda immediately turned around and looked for who might be sending out such malevolence. But he could see no one, just the few people in the Denny’s, that was all. The rest of the neighborhood was deserted. The feeling of coldness eased away as he stood there, then was gone, apart from a slight aching in his bones, like arthritis.
This time, this night, the feeling was a thousand times worse than when he had seen Adolf Hitler. No, ten thousand times worse.
He turned and started for his hotel.
It was if, he thought, that the devil himself was walking the earth.
© 2012, John Steven Anderson