Chicago Blues (Excerpt)
by T. Lee Harris
I like motorcycles. I like the feeling of speed. I like leather and jazz. Rock’n’roll, too. My name is Byron Cyrus Peale. I prefer BC.
This story starts on my motorcycle, I guess. I was riding through the Chicago streets one evening enjoying the feel of the night air on my skin, bound for Julio’s Fiesta (We Never Close). I have a … sensitivity to light, so as the song said, I wear my sunglasses at night. It’s one reason I like bars: nice dimly lit places where it’s easy to socialize.
It’s also possible to get a good meal with relative ease.
This last is vital since I have rather odd dietary requirements.
I’m a vampire.
Now, don’t sigh and mutter, oh great, another Melancholy Predator of the Night. Nope! You see, I like being a vampire and, while I do have some objections as to how the change occurred, it’s generally been a good unlife. However, even a vampire can have bad days — or nights rather.
Let me tell you about a particularly bad one. It all began at a bar. Hmmm. Quite a few of my bad ones have begun at bars. I wonder if there’s something significant there? Anyway, it was like this:
The last open parking space in back of Julio’s Fiesta was between the battered concrete retaining wall and a late-model Corvette parked diagonally in an effort to keep its custom paint job pure. BC Peale glared at it, then rammed his Harley-Davidson Softail into the gap. Flying gravel ponked off fiberglass, leaving a satisfying sheet of grit across the hood. He flipped off the bike’s ignition muttering, “Take two, they’re free.”
Sitting back in the saddle, he savored the engine heat against his legs, and wondered for the hundredth time if the Hunger was too strong to safely socialize. He’d spent the past three nights poring over new charts at the Inferno Jazz Club, where he played piano in the house band on weekends. That left few opportunities to feed, and now the bloodthirst was stronger than expected. He shouldn’t have abstained so long. He knew that, but he always lost track of time when he was at the keyboard. He never seemed to learn, either. He smiled at the memory of his eldest’s brother’s opinion of this. Laughing softly, he answered the spectre of memory, “Yes, Charles, I always carry it one step too far.”
Okay. The stockyards would be a much wiser first stop. His fingers closed on the key just as the bar’s rear door slammed. The rhythm of a racing heart reached him over the loud, pounding music and the faint scent of female wrapped its allure around him. His canines lengthened involuntarily. Uh oh, fella, best be gone.
Unwilling fingers gripped the starter. From the stoop, a woman called, “Hey, BC? BC! Wait up!”
Bloody hell. He recognized the voice and scent, now. Jay Marquez, and from her heartbeat, she was quite upset.
The hand still clutched the ignition key. Byron Peale tried to make it turn. The Hunger made it stay.
Perched precariously on stiletto heels, Jay jogged unsteadily across the gravel. She was out of breath when she got to him, her chest heaving in a most disconcerting manner. “BC, am I glad t’see you! I just walked out on that creep Mario Hernandez. Shouldn’t of agreed to go out with ‘im in the first place! That guy’s so in love with himself, he oughta date a mirror.” She brushed spun gold hair away from her oval, full-lipped face. “I can’t walk worth a damn in these heels; wouldja mind givin’ me a lift home on your bike? You know where I live, right?”
BC froze. The Hunger was winning, and her pulse roared in his ears drowning out all else. He slowly lifted his head and gazed deeply into her eyes.
“It ain’t far, but it’s awful dark . . . and . . . .” She faltered.
Her eyes went vacant, then closed, as she leaned into him, head tilted to expose her throat. He pulled her close, drinking in her bloodscent as his parted lips brushed her throat.
Unnoticed, the rear exit reopened, disgorging Alfie Fallon and Chick Boyce, in a brief burst of noise and stale smoke. Glancing over their shoulders, they gently closed the door behind them, an absurd move considering the noise level from inside. They were stiffing Angie, their waitress and Chick’s long-time ladylove, for a thirty-buck tab. They both knew she’d been halfway expecting it. They both also knew she’d get it back one way or another.
There was another reason to take a powder just then, too. They (and the rest of the patrons of Julio’s) heard the argument between Jay Marquez and Mario Hernandez and saw the lady’s stormy departure. Alfie’d been eyeing that particular piece for a while — with no luck. But maybe, just maybe, he could intercept the damsel in distress and console her a little before Hernandez got off his ass to follow. It was a good plan. Too bad someone beat him to it. Fallon stopped short and swore at the sight of Jay in the arms of another man.
Chick sniggered, “Hey look! Jay’s with that Peale guy. I seen fast work before, but this beats everything!”
Fallon gritted his teeth. Chick’s eyes worked fine, even if his brain had a couple glitches. It was Peale. The guy showed up the year before and the local girls were still sighing over his good-looks, English accent and fancy manners. The local guys just wanted to beat him to a pulp. Now, here he was with Jay. So much for a clear shot at her.
Boyce said, “I dunno, Alfie, Peale’s always got a wad of cash on him. Surprised Jay ain’t zeroed in on him before now.”
Alfie Fallon’s expression changed. “Yeah. He’s always loaded, in’t he?” Drawing a knife from his jacket sleeve, he held it up to catch the light. “Let’s see if he’ll float us a little loan.”
Chick’s chuckle was barely audible as he cracked his knuckles, and followed Fallon across the parking lot. Peale was a good-sized guy; Alfie’d need Boyce’s muscle to make this work.
As Jay’s embrace tightened, BC felt as well as heard the enfolding thump of her heartsblood. The tip of his tongue traced the pulsing vein in her throat. Yes. There. Soft resistance as fangs — a hand gripped his shoulder, spinning him roughly around. The sharp prick of steel manifested at the pit of his throat and he strove to reorient himself. Jay’s collapse onto the gravel barely registered.
The exit opened and shut a final time, releasing the interior noise in another brief burst, but those near enough to hear it, were too busy to notice.
Peale’s head slowly lifted and Fallon wasn’t prepared for what met him eye to eye. The knife wavered. The mouth opened for a scream, cut off before it began by a steely grip that crushed his windpipe and snapped fragile neck bones with a sickeningly small crunch. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Chick Boyce knew death when he saw it. He pulled a pistol from under his jacket and dropped into a TV cop crouch. Peale swayed, staring blankly at the crumpled body sprawled on the gravel. Tendrils of long, black hair, escaped from the normally neat ponytail, hung in disarray around the pale, narrow face, giving the impression of a wild animal guarding its kill.
A short distance from the gruesome tableau, Jay moaned and rolled onto her knees. Panicking, Boyce clicked the pistol’s hammer back.
Peale swiveled in the direction of the small sound. Instinct told him it meant danger, but disorientation made him slow to react. The pistol spat fire twice making feeble cracks against the background of the night.
The shots took Peale square in the chest and erupted out the back of his leather jacket in a spray of gore. He staggered backwards into the retaining wall. Blood ran freely from his mouth and nose as he crumpled down the pebbled surface into the forlorn posture of a discarded rag doll. He didn’t move again.
Boyce smiled the wolf-smile of the victor and advanced to roll the body before anyone came to investigate. He wasn’t worried. The jukebox was way too loud for anyone to hear the shots and Jay had collapsed again. Very convenient — for him. He briefly wondered if he ought to pop her, too? Nah, she was cold. He was more interested in seeing what Peale had on him. Still smiling, he closed on the slumped form.
The smile froze as Peale lifted his head and wiped blood from his face with the back of his hand. Impossibly, he spoke, blood-filled lungs lending a hideous bubbling quality to the words, “That . . . was a mistake.”
At that moment, Boyce understood terror. The lesson came too late.
Peale sprang like a hunting cat. As from a great distance, he noted a scream of raw panic and four more pops and impacts from the pistol. They didn’t matter. The Hunger mattered and it raged within him. Blood filled his mouth and he drank deeply.