I woke up that morning with oily red sores all over my hands, a reminder of what had happened the night before. Shit, I’d forgotten to apply the burn cream I’d mixed up. Even went to sleep with my gloves on again. A guy who never forgets anything forgot to take off his gloves before bed. It was almost comical. I mean, what are the fucking odds?
Laughing it off wasn’t helping heal these angry glove burns, but it took my mind off it a bit. I just had to keep this hidden from Anastasia.
“Brother, what are you doing?”
Anastasia walked, or rather, rolled into the hallway in her wheelchair. Damn. I quickly hid my hands behind my back.
“It’s nothing, Annie. Anyway, what are you doing out of bed? You’re supposed to be getting rest, isn’t that what the doctor said?”
“The doctor also said I could try using the wheelchair if I felt up to it.”
“And I felt up to it. What about you, big bro? You’re looking pretty shifty this morning.” She frowned. “You didn’t get in a fight again, did you?”
“No, of course not! What makes you think that?”
“Let me see your hands then.”
“What’s there to look at? I don’t even have my gloves on yet.”
“You’re not wearing your gloves? Okay, now I know something’s wrong. Show me your hands, Alfonse.”
Reluctantly, I held my hands out for her to see. She gasped when she saw the bright red skin
I sighed. “It’s nothing, Annie.”
Wincing, I gripped the handles on the back of her wheelchair and pushed her back to her bed, all the while enduring her many questions and complaints.
“Whyareyouburned? Wasitthemob? Wereyouattacked? Didyouspillhydrochloricacidonyourself? Ihearit’sacommonhospitalaccident…”
“I told you it’s nothing, Annie. I’m fine, really.”
I picked her up gently and sat her back on her bed.
“Brother, I have a question I need to ask you.”
She grabbed my hands and stared me right in the eyes. “Have you been having unprotected sex with vampires?”
“How do you even know about stuff like that?!”
“It’s in the books you bring home for me!”
“Jesus…” I sigh. “No, Annie, I have not been having unprotected sex with vampires.”
“Are you sure?”
“Alright… was it a fire witch then?”
“Goodnight, Annie. I’ll see you after work.”
“Where are you going, brother?! You haven’t even cooked breakfast for me yet! Alllllll!”
I let the sizzling burn cream do its magic as I rubbed it over the red spots on my hands. I sighed with relief as the bubbly tingling sensation of healing flesh percolates over my hands and fingers. Holding it carefully so it doesn’t slip from my oiled grip, I screwed the lid back on the container of burn cream and put it back into my pocket.
Aloe vera and wormwood with some comfrey and St. John’s wort. Mix it together with some of the fat and grease from Tartary’s famous vegetable lambs and a few mystery accelerants and you got yourself a slick little salve, perfect for scrapes, cuts and burns. Substitution of a few ingredients was optional, but this was my favorite recipe. Great for stuff like this. It’s too bad I didn’t have a plantain leaf I could have used as a bandage.
Wincing, I slid my leather gloves over my hands. I felt bad about leaving Annie on her own without even making breakfast. Of course now that she felt up to using her wheelchair I made sure that there was something in the kitchen for her to eat that she could reach with it, but what if she was just bluffing and told me she was feeling better so I wouldn’t worry too much about her? What if her wheelchair fell over?
A knot grew in my stomach. That settled it. I was coming back as soon as I could, and I was gonna take Annie out for a nice lunch. It was the least a good-fer-nothing brother like me could do with all of my ill-gotten wealth. I’d be done with work as soon as I could, then I’d be back home in a flash.
I crossed the intersection into Ludlow St. Marq said I was supposed to meet Sostene before coming to meet him, but come to think of it…
I don’t care what you do with your time until then, but meet me back here eight o’clock sharp tomorrow morning. Look for Sostene, he’ll show you how to get here.
He never told me where I’d find him, did he?
The Lower East was teeming with life that morning. Kinda like a roach motel, ‘cept with more cheap clothing and greasy food stands. I looked around. This was bound to be Marq’s idea of a practical joke. He’d have me meandering downtown all morning looking for Sostene only for the big lug to jump out and surprise me right as I’d petered out. Classic, but I didn’t have time for it this morning. Not with my lunch date on the line.
The crowd was thick. Sostene was bound to be keeping a low profile, so what could I do to separate some of these people apart? I could keep a lookout for the sharp-dressers. No made guy went out on a job without his best glad-rags. What was Sostene’s favorite color? Since he was a vampire, it had to be black. Black absorbed the most sunlight, so it was ideal for…
“Alfonso, you’re a real fucking genius…” I could’ve slapped myself stupid. Sostene was a vampire. Sostene was a vampire. This wasn’t even hard, he’d be waiting for me somewhere where there wasn’t any sunlight.
I started scanning the back-alleys where the light of day had been blotted out by laundry lines and tight-packed tenement buildings. He’d be waiting for me somewhere over in there.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around, and lost about an entire range of tones in my beautiful face. That wasn’t low-profile. That wasn’t low-profile at all. Sostene was right behind me, dressed in all green and yellow, and holding a bright yellow umbrella that hid him from the rays of the sun.
“You’re looking for me, right?”
We walked in awkward silence for the next five minutes. I couldn’t believe it. Talk about missing the forest for the trees. Well, maybe not, because that would imply that the forest wasn’t six foot four and carrying a sunshine yellow umbrella.
Jesus christ this was embarrassing. I felt like a scorned lover, too afraid to say anything lest I invoke Sostene’s wrath. A joke came to mind about carrying a torch, but that felt inappropriate in my current company. Try not to be racist, was the mantra I kept repeating to myself over and over again in my head. Just try not to be racist.
“What’s wrong with you?”
I jumped a little. “Who, me?”
“Yeah. You look like you think someone’s gonna jump you or something. You got bad blood in this part of the neighborhood?”
“What? Nah. Not me. They love me here.”
I waved to one of the random schmoes crossing the street like I expected him to know me, trying to throw Sostene off the trail. If he’d just let up with all the questions, maybe I could get through this without pressing any of the wrong buttons.
Sostene sighed. “This is about me, isn’t it?”
“No, really! It’s not like that!”
“It is. I can tell.”
Look, I didn’t mean to upset you, I just-”
“If you’ve got something you wanna say, just say it.”
“I’m just trying to think of what kinda stuff I shouldn’t say so you-”
“So I what? So I won’t snap and start sucking your blood out through a bendy straw? Is that it?!”
That made me freeze like a deer in a headlight. Tensed, ready to move if I had to. An instinctual response for someone as far down the foodchain as I was, even though I knew it would do me no good against a vampire.
Sostene’s sudden anger softened a bit as he got himself back under control. “Sorry. That was uncalled for. I didn’t mean to-”
“No no, it’s okay,” I reassured him. “I totally get it. Being a vamp is hard for you.”
“It’s hard for all of us. Especially someone my age. I don’t have much experience with keeping my instincts under control like this. And with the way things are right now, if I fuck up even once, it’s either the stakes or cement shoes.”
“‘Someone your age’?” I asked, daring to be curious. “What’s that mean? You look about as old as I am.”
He gave me this look. “How old are you?”
“Uhhhhh… twenty-four, I guess?”
“Huh. Must be nice, having a babyface like that.” Funny, coming from a vampire. “Anyway, what I meant was that I’m not that old compared to my father.”
I nodded. He meant the one who turned him.
“My turning was less than a hundred years ago. Compared to an elder or even an adult, I have practically no experience with any of this. Being a vampire… it’s slow learning. There are some mornings I wake up and almost forget. Then the sun leaking in through the blinds burns my skin blistering red and crispy and I remember again.”
I nodded, making sure to convey to him that I was paying close attention. So that’s what the umbrella was for. I’d heard vampires were really photosensitive, but to think they sunburned that easily…
“Anyway, I think I’m gonna turn the tables on you here. What about you then?”
“Yeah, you. Who else could I possibly be talking to? What’s being a medium like? I’ve always wondered.”
“Well, it’s not… that bad…”
Sostene snorted. “Not that bad, huh? Yeah, I walk around town gettin’ stared at because I gotta carry an umbrella just to stay out of the sunlight, and meanwhile you just have to put on your suit and tie and you can blend in with the rest of ‘em. Yeah, ‘not that bad’.”
I don’t think he valued my opinion very much. Before I can retort, he keeps going. “I mean, it’s bad enough I gotta wear my condition on my sleeve like this, but I can’t even get served decent food because no one wants to carry the kind of stuff I can actually eat. Do you know how fucking embarrassing it is to order your lunch raw from the butcher’s and just eat it in front of everyone? How humiliating it is to have people watch your every move like they’ve already decided you’re some kind of criminal? Like they’re afraid you’re going to flip and just tear someone limb from limb, and then bathe in their blood?! I can’t fucking stand it!”
“Don’t interrupt. Do not interrupt me right now. Do not be that guy.” Wisely, I opted not to be that guy. “But the worst part of it is the pity. The fucking half-hearted pity. The way people look at me like I’m diseased, pretending like they care about guys like me. They’re just doing it because they’re scared. They’re doing it because they’re fucking scared of me! Because as soon as they think I’ve gone off the reservation, they’re just gonna abandon all their ‘sorry’ bullshit and pick up torches and pitchforks like everyone else in this fucking town! I mean I’m just a normal guy, right? I don’t deserve to be treated like that! I didn’t ask for this!”
“And look! Now you’re doing it too! Why does everyone always look at me like that?! I’m sick of it, ya hear me?!”
“No man, it’s not that, but-”
I flicked my head towards two cops, one skinny and black and the other morbidly obese, who were standing on the street corner, guns drawn and pointed at Sostene. The anger immediately vanished from Sostene’s face.
“Whoa. Whoa. Whoawhoawhoa. Officers. Sirs. This is not what it looks like, I swear.”
“Just drop the umbrella, fang. No one here has to get hurt, okay?”
“No, you don’t understand. I don’t want anyone to get hurt, I just wanted to-”
The police officers tightened their grip on their guns as Sostene tried to take a step forward. “I said drop it! Are you trying to get shot? Because I’d be happy to oblige!”
“I’m trying to-”
This time, I stepped in front of Sostene, interrupting the line of sight and the conversation. It was dumb, sure, but I had to do something. If these guys kept egging Sostene on like this, someone really was going to get hurt. Defusing the situation quickly and getting Sostene and these cops far away from each other seemed like the best and only option at this point.
“Guys, guys! Let’s just all calm down here, okay? My friend didn’t mean nothing by it.”
“Your friend is menacing a public street.”
“What? Menacing? This big guy? He couldn’t menace a fly, let alone the likes of you two. Ain’t that right, Sostene?”
I mouthed at him to play along. The bulls seemed like they recognized his name, meaning they knew he was with the Allesandris. But given him being a vamp and all, I wasn’t sure that was going to stop him. Killing a wiseguy in cold blood was one thing. Killing him in self-defense because he’d gone on a meaningless rampage through town no one had authorized and would only cause the family he was in with more trouble? A bit more justifiable. I wasn’t entirely sure where Marq stood on the issue of discrimination against vampires, but for most people, that kind of story would be one hell of an easy sell.
I walked towards the cops slowly.
“Listen guys, we don’t want any trouble. My friend here don’t wanna get dead, and I’m pretty sure you fellas don’t wanna fill out any more paper work today. So how about we just go our separate ways,” I said as I slipped a wad of bills into the fat one’s pocket, “and forget this little incident ever happened, alright?”
The fat one looked towards his partner, and presumably his superior officer. He nodded.
“We’re letting your friend off with a warning this time.” Lowering his voice, he said, “Allesandri or not, I don’t wanna see this guy around here anymore, understand? Guys like him are nothing but trouble for honest fellas like us. They give the neighborhood a bad image.”
I raised an eyebrow. Like this neighborhood didn’t have a bad image already? “We understand, officer. It won’t happen again. Now if you’ll excuse us, we’ve got a schedule to keep. You wouldn’t want to keep the Marquis waiting, right guys?”
They stiffened a bit at the mention of Marq’s name. I figured that was that. Sostene and I walked past unmolested, the crowd that had gathered parting in our wake.
“Don’t mention it. And don’t do it again. I know you’re trying hard to keep it all together man, but try a little harder, okay? Marq can get you outta jail but he can’t get you out of a body bag.”
“They wouldn’t have been able to kill me.”
“You know what I mean. Don’t go stirring up unnecessary trouble. You don’t wanna go causing Marq any problems, right?”
He nodded. “Yeah. Sorry about that. I’d appreciate it if we could just sorta… keep this to ourselves, alright? It’d make me look bad with the boss if I got told off by the new guy.”
I offered what I thought would be a reassuring smile. “Sure thing, big guy.”
We arrived at Marq’s office without much more incident. Now that I’d walked the route once and committed it to memory, I wouldn’t need Sostene to come out and chauffeur me anymore. Better for the both of us that way, I think.
“Oh hey, it’s you two,” Marq said as he finished handing off a piece of paper to some lower-level lackey. Looks like he’d forgotten I was even supposed to meet him. “What’s the word on the streets?”
“Nothing interesting,” I said, lying through my teeth to protect the promise I’d made to Sostene.
“Really? That’s weird, because I heard two buffoons got in a showdown with the police down in the Lower East Side this morning. Supposedly it was a real nail biter. You two wouldn’t happen to know anything about this, would you?”
I cringed. He knew.
“There was really nothing we could do, Marq. They were the ones who drew their guns first-”
“I disagree, there was plenty you could have done to avoid this. For one, Sostene, what have I told you about controlling yourself when you’re out in public?”
“Yeah, sure. And Al. Why the hell did you have to egg him on?”
“Yeah you, genius. What did you even say to get him so worked up? From what I hear, he was about this close to going ballistic!”
Marq sighed. “Forget it. I have a job for you two bozos. One of our speakos downtown has been having a run of bad luck the past few days. I want you two to go check it out.”
“What kind of bad luck?”
“The dead kind.”