Chapter 16

Heartwarming and UL-Approved

There was a bum sleeping on the sidewalk across the street from the loft when they returned. Tommy, full of fast food and the elation of being twice laid, wanted to give the guy a dollar. Jody stopped him and pushed him up the steps. "Go on up," she said. "I'll be there in a minute."

She stood in the doorway watching the bum for movement. There was no heat signature around him and she assumed the worst. She waited for him to roll over and start laughing at her again. She was feeling strong and a little cocky from the infusion of Tommy's blood, so she had to fight the urge to confront the vampire, to get dead in his face and scream. Instead she just whispered, "Asshole," and closed the door. If his hearing was as acute as her own, and she was sure it was, he had heard her.

She found Tommy in bed, fast asleep.

Poor guy, she thought, running all over town doing my business. He probably hasn't slept more than a couple of hours since we met.

She pulled the covers over him, kissed him on the forehead, and went to the window in the front room to watch the bum across the street.

Tommy was dreaming of bebop-driven sentences read by a naked redhead when he woke to find her sleeping next to him. He threw his arm over her and pulled her close, but there was no response, no pleasant groan or reciprocal snuggle. She was out.

He pushed the light button on his watch and checked the time. It was almost noon. The room was so dark that the watch dial floated in his vision for a few seconds after he released the button. He went to the bathroom and fumbled around until he found the light switch. A single fluorescent tube clicked and sputtered and finally ignited, spilling a fuzzy green glow through the door into the bedroom.

She looks dead, he thought. Peaceful, but dead. Then he looked at himself in the bathroom mirror. I look dead too.

It took him a minute to realize that it was the fluorescent lighting that had sucked the life out of his face, not his vampire girlfriend. He affected a serious glare and thought about how they would describe him in a hundred years, when he was really famous and really dead.

Like so many great writers before him, Flood was known for his troubled countenance and sickly pallor, especially under fluorescent lighting. Those who knew him said that even in those early years they could sense that this thin, serious young man would make his presence known as a great man of letters as well as a sexual dynamo. His legacy to the world was a trail of great books and broken hearts, and although it is well known that his love life was his downfall, he felt no regret, as illustrated in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "I have followed my penis into hell and returned with the story."

Tommy bowed deeply before the mirror, careful to keep the Nobel Prize medal from banging the sink, then began to interview himself, speaking clearly and slowly into his toothbrush.

"I think it was shortly after my first successful bus transfer that I realized the City was mine. Here I would produce some of my greatest work, and here I would meet my first wife, the lovely but deeply disturbed Jody..."

Tommy waved the microphone/toothbrush away as if the memories were too painful to recall, but actually he was trying to remember Jody's last name. I should know her maiden name, he thought, if just for historical purposes.

He glanced into the bedroom where the lovely but deeply disturbed Jody was lying naked and half-covered on the bed. He thought, She won't mind if I wake her up. She doesn't have to be at work or anything.

He approached the bed and touched her cheek. "Jody," he whispered. She didn't stir.

He shook her a bit. "Jody, honey."

Nothing.

"Hey," he said, taking her shoulders. "Hey, wake up." She didn't respond.

He pulled the covers off her as his father used to do to him on cold winter mornings when he wouldn't get up to go to school. "Up and at 'em, soldier  -  ass in the air and feet on the floor," he said in his best drill-sergeant bark.

She looked really great lying there naked in the half-light from the bathroom. He was getting a little turned on.

How would I feel, he thought, if I woke up and she was making love to me? Why, I believe that I would be pleasantly surprised. I think that would be better than waking up to frying bacon and the Sunday funnies. Yes, I'm sure she'll be pleased.

He crawled into bed with her and ventured a tentative kiss. She was a little cold and didn't move a muscle, but he was sure she liked it. He ran a finger down the valley between her breasts and over her stomach.

What if she didn't wake up? What if we do it and she doesn't wake up at all? How would I feel if I woke up and she told me that we had done it while I slept? I'd be fine with it. A little sad that I missed things, but I wouldn't be mad. I'd just ask her if I had a good time. Women are different, though.

He tickled her just to get a reaction. Again, she didn't move.

She's so cold. With her not moving at all it might be a little morbid. Maybe I should wait. I'll tell her that I thought about it and decided that it wouldn't be courteous. She'll like that.

He sighed deeply, got out of bed and pulled the covers over her. I should buy her something, he thought.

Jody snapped into consciousness and bit down on something hard. She opened her eyes and saw Tommy sitting on the edge of the bed. She smiled.

"Good morning," he said.

She reached for whatever was in her mouth.

Tommy caught her hand. "Don't bite down. It's a thermometer." He checked his watch, then pulled the thermometer out of her mouth and read it. "Ninety-five point two. You're on your way."

Jody sat up and looked at the thermometer. "On my way to what?"

He smiled bashfully. "On your way to body temperature. I bought you an electric blanket. It's been on for like six hours."

She ran her hand over the blanket. "You've been warming me up?"

"Pretty cool, huh?" Tommy said. "I went to the library and got books too. I've been reading all afternoon." He picked up a stack of books and began to shuffle through them, reading the titles and handing each to her in turn. "A Reader's Guide to Vampirism; Vampire Myths and Legends; Those That Stalk the Night  -  kind of an ominous title, huh?"

She held the books as if they were made of wormy fruit. The covers depicted monstrous creatures rising from coffins, attacking women in various states of undress, and hanging around castles perched on barren mountains. The letters in the titles dripped blood. "These are all about vampires?"

"That's just the nonfiction that they had on hand. I ordered a bunch more through the library exchange. Check out some of the fiction." He picked up another stack from the floor.

"A Feast of Blood; Red Thirst; Fangs; Dracula; Dracula's Dream; Dracula's Legacy; Fevre Dream; The Vampire Lestat  -  there must have been a hundred novels."

Jody, a little overwhelmed, stared at the books. "There seems to be a theme here on the covers."

"Yeah," Tommy said. "Vampires seem to have an affinity for lingerie. Do you have any particular craving for sexy nightgowns?"

"Not really." Jody had always thought it a little silly to spend a lot of money on something that you only put on long enough for someone to take it off you. Evidently, though, if you went by these book covers, vampires looked at lingerie as garnish.

"Okay," Tommy said, picking up a notebook from the floor and making a check mark. "No lingerie fetish. I've made a list of vampire traits with boxes to check either 'fact' or 'fiction. Since you missed the lecture, I guess we'll have to just test them."

"What lecture?"

Tommy put down his pen and looked at her as if she'd gotten into the express lane with a cartful of groceries and a two-party check. "Everybody knows that there's always an orientation lecture in vampire books. Usually it comes from some old professor guy with an accent, but sometimes it's another vampire. You obviously missed the lecture."

"I guess so," Jody said. "I must have been busy chasing women in lingerie."

"That's okay," Tommy said, returning to the list. "Obviously you don't have to sleep in your native soil." He checked it off. "And we know that everyone you bite doesn't necessarily turn into a vampire."

"No, a jerk, maybe..."

"Whatever," Tommy said, moving on in the list. "Okay, sunlight is bad for you." He made a check mark. "You can enter a house without being invited. How about running water?"

"What about it?"

"Vampires aren't supposed to be able to cross running water. Have you tried crossing any running water?"

"I've taken a couple of showers."

"Then that would be fiction. Let me smell your breath." He bent close to her.

She turned her head and shielded her mouth. "Tommy, I just woke up. Let me brush my teeth first."

"Vampires are supposed to have the 'fetid breath of a predator, or, in some cases, 'breath like the rotting smell of the charnel house. C'mon, give us a whiff."

Jody reluctantly breathed in his face. He sat up and considered the list.

"Well? "she asked.

"I'm thinking. I need to get the dictionary out of my suitcase."

"What for?"

"I'm not sure what a charnel house is."

"Can I brush my teeth while you look?"

"No, wait, I might need another whiff." He went to his suitcase and dug out the dictionary. While he looked up "charnel house," Jody cupped her hand and smelled her own breath. It was pretty foul.

"Here it is," he said, putting his finger on the word. "'Noun. A mausoleum or morgue. A structure where corpses are buried or stored. See morning breath! I guess that we check 'fact' on that one."

"Can I brush my teeth now?"

"Sure. Are you going to shower?"

"I'd like to. Why?"

"Can I help? I mean, you're much more attractive when you're not room temperature."

She smiled. "You really know how to charm a girl." She got out of bed and went into the bathroom. Tommy waited on the bed.

"Well, come on," she said as she turned on the water.

"Sorry," he said, leaping to his feet and wrestling out of his shirt.

She stopped him at the bathroom door with a firm hand on the chest. "One second, mister. I have a question for you."

"Shoot."

"Men are pigs: fact or fiction?"

"Fact!" Tommy shouted.

"Correct! You win!" She leaped into his arms and kissed him.

Chapter 17

This Month's Makeover: The Faces of Fear

Simon McQueen had once climbed onto the back of a ton of pissed-off beef named Muffin and been promptly stomped into mush in front of an amazed rodeo crowd, and still managed to pinch the bottom of a female paramedic as he was carried away on a stretcher, singing a garbled version of "I've Got Friends in Low Places." Simon McQueen had once picked a fight with a gang of skinheads and managed to render three of them unconscious before a knife in the stomach and a jackboot to the head rendered him helpless. Simon had jumped out of an airplane, fallen off the roof of a Lutheran church, run over a police car in his pickup truck, smuggled a thousand pounds of marijuana across the border from Mexico inside a stuffed cow, and swum halfway to Alcatraz Island on a dare before the Coast Guard fished him out of the bay and revived him. Simon had done all these things without the slightest tic of fear. But tonight, laid out across register 3 in his skintight Wranglers and his endangered-species Tony Lama boots with the silver spurs, his black Stetson pulled down over his face, Simon McQueen was frightened. Frightened that one of his two great secrets was about to become known.

The other Animals were sharing tales of their weekend adventures, exaggerating aspects of binges and babes, while Glint professed to God that they knew not what they did.

Simon sat up, pushed back his Stetson, and said, "Y'all wouldn't know a piece of ass if it sloshed upside your head."

The Animals fell silent, each trying to formulate a new and exciting way to tell Simon to fuck off, when Tommy came through the door.

"Fearless Leader!" Lash exclaimed.

Tommy grinned and faked a tap-dance step. "Gentlemen," he said. "I have reached out and touched the face of God  -  film at eleven."

Simon was wildly irritated by this added distraction from his worrying. "What happened, you go down to Castro Street and get converted?"

Tommy waved the comment away. "No, Sime  -  I can call you Sime, can't I? You see, last night, about this time"  -  he checked his watch  -  "there was a naked redhead hanging from the ceiling of my new loft, reading Kerouac aloud to me. If I die now, it was not all in vain. I'm ready to throw stock. How's the truck?"

"A big one," Troy Lee answered. "Three thousand cases. But the bitch is, the scanner is broken. We have to use the order books."

Troy's comment jabbed Simon like bad gas pain. He considered going home sick, but without his help the Animals would never be able to finish the truck before morning. A lump of fear rose in his throat. He couldn't use the order books. Simon McQueen couldn't read.

"Let's get to it then," Tommy said.

The Animals threw themselves into their work with an abandon they usually reserved for partying. Razor box-cutters whizzed, price guns clicked, and cardboard piled up in shoulder-high drifts at the ends of the aisles.

In addition to throwing the extra-large load, they had to allow an extra hour to write their stock orders. Normally the orders were done with a bar-code scanner, but with the scanner down, each man would have to go through a huge loose-leaf order book, writing in items by hand. By 5 A.M. they had most of the stock on the shelves and Simon McQueen was considering letting his box-cutter slip and cutting his leg so he could escape to the emergency room. But that might reveal a secret worse than illiteracy.

Tommy came into Simon's aisle carrying the order book. "You better get started, Sime." He held out the book and a pencil.

"I still got a hundred cases to throw," Simon said, not looking up. "Let someone else start."

"No, you've got the biggest section. Go ahead." Tommy bumped Simon on the shoulder with the book.

Simon looked up, then dropped his cutter and slowly took the book from Tommy. He opened the book and stared at the page, then at the shelf, then at the book.

Tommy said, "Order light on the juices, we've got a lot of stock in the back room."

Simon nodded and looked at the book, then at the shelf of vegetables before him.

Tommy said, "You're on the wrong page, Simon."

"I know," Simon snapped. "I'm just finding my place." He flipped through the pages, then stopped on a page of cake mixes and began looking at the shelf of vegetables. He could feel Tommy's gaze on him and wished that the skinny-little-faggot-book-reading-prick-bastard would just go away and leave him alone. "Simon."

Simon looked up, his eyes pleading.

"Give me the book," Tommy said. "I think I'm going to order everybody's section tonight. It'll give you guys more time to throw stock and I need to get more familiar with the store anyway."

"I can do it," Simon said.

"I know," Tommy said, taking the book. "But why waste your talent on this bullshit?"

As Tommy walked away, Simon took his first deep breath of the night. "Flood," he called, "I'm buying the beers after shift."

Tommy didn't look back. "I know," he said.

Jody stood by the window in the dark loft watching the sleeping bum who lay on the sidewalk across the street and cursing under her breath. Go away, you bastard, she thought. Even as she thought it, she felt a measure of security in knowing exactly where her enemy was. As long as he lay on the sidewalk, Tommy was safe at the grocery store.

She had never felt the need to protect someone before. She had always been the one looking for protection, for a strong arm to lean on. Now she was the strong arm, at least when the sun was down. She had walked Tommy down the steps and waited with him until the cab arrived to take him to work. As she watched the cab pull away, she thought, This must be how my mother felt when she put me on the school bus that first time  -  except that Tommy doesn't have a Barbie lunch box. She kept an eye on the vampire lying on the sidewalk across the street.

Hours passed at the window and she asked the same questions over and over again, coming up with no solution to her problem, and no logic to the vampire's behavior. What did he want? Why had he killed the old woman and left her in the dumpster? Was he trying to frighten her, threaten her, or was there some kind of message to it all?

"You're not immortal. You can still be killed."

If he was going to kill her, why didn't he just do it? Why pretend to be a sleeping bum, watching her, waiting?

He has to find shelter before daylight. If I can just outlast him, maybe... Maybe what? I can't follow him or I'll be caught in the sunlight too.

She went to the bedroom and dug the almanac Tommy had given her out of her backpack. The sun would rise at 6:12 A.M. She checked her watch. She had an hour.

She waited at the window until six o'clock, then headed out of the loft to confront the vampire. As she went through the door she instinctively reached out to click off the lights, only to realize that she hadn't turned any on. If I live through this, she thought, I'm going to save a fortune on utilities.

She left the door at the top of the stairs unlocked, then went down the steps and propped the big fire door open with a soda can she found on the landing. She might have to get back in fast, and she didn't want to be slowed down by keys and locks.

Her muscles buzzed as she approached the vampire, the fight-or-flee instinct running through her like liquid lightning. A few feet away she picked up a foul smell, a rotting smell coming from the vampire. She stopped and swallowed hard.

"What exactly is it that you want?" she asked.

The vampire didn't move. His face was covered by the high collar of his overcoat.

She took another step forward. "What am I supposed to be doing?"

The smell was stronger now. She concentrated on the vampire's hands, trying to sense some movement that would warn her of an attack. There was none.

"Answer me!" she demanded. She stepped up and pulled the collar away from his face. She saw the glazed eyes and a bone jutting from the neck just as a hand clamped across her face and jerked her back off her feet.

She tried to reach behind her to claw her attacker's face but he jerked her to the side. She opened her mouth to scream and two of his fingers slipped into her mouth. She bit down hard. There was a scream and she was free.

She wheeled on her attacker, ready to fight, his severed fingers still in her mouth.

The vampire stood before her, cradling his bloody hand.

"Bitch," he said. Then he grinned.

Jody swallowed his fingers and hissed at him. "Fuck you, asshole. Come on." She fell into a crouch and waved him on.

The vampire was still grinning. "The taste of vampire blood has made you brave, fledgling. Don't take it too far."

His hand had stopped spurting blood and was scabbing over as she watched. "What do you want?"

The vampire looked at the sky, which was turning pink, threatening dawn.

"Right now I want to find a place to sleep," he said too calmly. He ripped the scab from his fingers and slung a spray of blood in her face. "Until we meet again, my love." He wheeled and ran across the street into an alley.

Jody stood watching and shaking with the need for a fight. She turned and looked at the dead bum: the decoy. She couldn't leave him here to attract police  -  not this close to the loft.

She glanced at the lightening sky, then hoisted the dead bum onto her back and headed back to the loft.

Tommy ran up the stairs and burst into the loft eager to share his discovery about Simon's illiteracy, but once through the door, he was knocked back by a stinging rotten odor like bloated roadkill.

What's she done now? he thought.

He opened the windows to air the place out and went to the bedroom, careful to open the door just wide enough to slip through without spilling sunlight on the bed. The smell was much stronger here and he gagged as he turned on the light.

Jody was lying on the bed with the electric blanket pulled up to her neck. Dried blood was crusted over her face. A wiggling wave of the willies ran up Tommy's spine, stronger than any he had felt since his father had first told him the secret of ball-park hot dogs. ("Snouts and butt holes," Dad had said, during the seventh-inning stretch. "I've got the willies," said Tommy.)

There was a note on the pillow by Jody's head. Tommy crept forward and snatched it off the pillow, then backpedaled to the door to read it.

Tommy,

Sorry I'm such a mess. It's almost dawn and I don't want to get stuck in the shower. I'll explain tonight.

Call Sears and have them deliver the largest chest freezer that they have. There's money in my backpack. I missed you last night.

Love,

Jody

Tommy backed out of the room.

Chapter 18

Bugeater of the Barbary Coast

Tommy woke up on the futon feeling as if he had been through a two-day battle. The loft was dark but for the streetlights spilling through the windows and he could hear Jody running the shower in the other room. The new freezer was humming away in the kitchen. He rolled off the futon and groaned. His muscles creaked like rusty hinges and his head felt as if it were stuffed with cotton  -  like a low-grade hangover  -  not from the few beers he had shared with the Animals after work, but from the verbal beating he had taken from the appliance salesman at Sears.

The salesman, a round hypertensive named Lloyd, who wore the last extant leisure suit on the planet (powder blue with navy piping), had begun his assault with a five-minute lament on the disappearance of double knits (as if a concerted effort by a Greenpeace team in white vinyl shoes and gold chains might bring double knits back from the brink of extinction), then segued into a half-hour lecture on the tragedies visited on those poor souls who failed to purchase extended warranties on their Kenmore Freezemasters. "And so," Lloyd concluded, "he not only lost his job, his home, and his family, but that frozen food that could have saved the children at the orphanage spoiled, all because he tried to save eighty-seven dollars."

"I'll take it," Tommy said. "I'll take the longest warranty you have."

Lloyd laid a fatherly hand on Tommy's shoulder. "You won't regret this, son. I'm not one for high pressure myself, but the guys that sell these warranties after delivery are like the Mafia  -  they'll call you at all hours, they'll hound you, they'll find you wherever you go and they will ruin your life if you don't give in. I once sold a microwave to a man who woke up with a horse's head in his bed."

"Please," Tommy begged, "I'll sign anything, but they have to deliver it right now. Okay?"

Lloyd pumped Tommy's hand to start the flow of cash. "Welcome to better living through frozen food."

Tommy sat up on the futon and looked at the behemoth freezer that was humming in the half-light of the kitchen. Why? he thought. Why did I buy it? Why did she want it? I didn't even ask for an explanation from her, I just blindly followed her instructions. I'm a slave, like Renfield in Dracula. How long before I start eating bugs and howling at night?

He got up and walked, in his underwear and one sock, into the bedroom; the smell of decay was strong enough to make him gag. It was the smell that had driven him to sleep on the futon in the living room rather than crawl into bed with Jody. He'd fallen asleep reading Bram Stoker's Dracula to get some perspective on the love of his life.

She's the devil, he thought, staring at the steam creeping out from under the bathroom door. "Jody, is that you?" he asked the steam. The steam just crept.

"I'm in the shower," Jody said from the shower. "Come on in."

Tommy went to the bathroom and opened the door. "Jody, we need to talk." The bathroom was thick with steam  -  he could barely make out the shower doors.

"Close the door; it smells in there."

Tommy moved closer to the shower. "I'm worried about the way things are going," he said.

"Did you get the freezer?"

"Yes, that's part of what I wanted to talk to you about."

"You got the biggest one they had, right?"

"Yes, and a ten-year extended-service agreement."

"And it's a chest model, not an upright?"

"Yes, dammit, but Jody, you didn't even tell me why I was buying it and I just did it. Since I met you, it's like I have no will of my own. I've been sleeping all day. I'm not doing any writing. I hardly even see daylight anymore."

"Tommy, you work midnight to eight. When do you think you would sleep?"

"Don't twist my words. I will not eat bugs for you." She's the devil, he thought.

"Will you do my back?" She slid the shower door open and Tommy was transfixed by the water cascading between her breasts. "Well?" she said, cocking a hip.

Tommy slipped out of his briefs, pulled off his sock, and stepped into the shower. "Okay, but I'm not eating any bugs."

After a mad naked dash through the bedroom they sat on the futon toweling off and looking at the new freezer.

"It certainly is large," Jody said.

"I bought a dozen TV dinners so it wouldn't look so empty."

Jody said, "You'll have to take them out; put them in the regular fridge."

"Why? I don't think they'll fit."

"I know, but I have something to put in there and I don't think you'll want your TV dinners in there with it."

"What?"

"Well, you know that bad smell in the bedroom?"

"I was going to mention that. What is it?"

"It's a body."

"You killed someone?" Tommy slid away from her on the futon.

"No, I didn't kill anyone. Let me explain."

She told him about the bum, about creeping up on him thinking he was the vampire, and of the battle that ensued.

Tommy said, "Do you think he was trying to kill you?"

"I don't think so. It's as if he wants to show me how superior he is or something. Like he's testing me."

"So you bit off his fingers?"

"I didn't know what else to do."

"What was it like?"

"Honestly?"

"Of course?"

"It was a rush. It was an incredible rush."

"Better than drinking my blood?"

"Different."

Tommy turned his back on her and began to pout. Jody moved to him and kissed his ear.

"It was a fight, Tommy. I didn't come or anything, but I swear, I felt stronger after I... after I swallowed."

"So that's why you were all crusty with blood when I got home?"

"Yes, it was almost dawn when I got the body upstairs."

"That's another thing," Tommy said. "Why did you bring that stinky thing up here?"

"The police already found one body at the motel, and they have my name. Now they find another that was killed in the same way right next to where we live. I don't think they'd understand."

"So we're going to keep it in the freezer?"

"Just until I figure out what to do with him."

"I'm not comfortable with you calling it 'him. »

"Just until I figure out what to do with it, then."

"There's a big bay out there."

"And how would you suggest that we get it down there without being seen?"

"I'll think about it."

Jody stood, wrapped a towel around herself, and walked back to the bedroom. "I'm going to put it in now; you might want to transfer your TV dinners." She paused at the door. "And I'm out of clean clothes. You're going to need to go to the Laundromat."

"Why don't you go?"

Jody regarded him gravely. "Tommy, you know I can't go out during the day."

"Oh no," Tommy said. "Don't pull that. I don't know of a single Laundromat that's not open all night. Besides, I can't be your slave full-time. I have to have some time to get some writing done. And I might be taking on a student."

"What kind of student?"

"A guy at work  -  Simon  -  he can't read. I'm going to offer to teach him."

"That's sweet of you," Jody said. She shook her hair out, let her towel fall to the floor, and struck a centerfold pose. "Are you sure you don't want to do the laundry?"

"No way. You have no power over me."

"Are you sure?" She licked her lips sensually. "That's not what you said in the shower."

I will resist her evil, Tommy thought. I will not give in. He stood and started gathering his clothes. "Don't you have a body to move?"

"All right then," Jody snapped. "I'll do the laundry while you're at work tonight." She turned and went into the bedroom.

"Good. I'll be out here looking for some tasty bugs," Tommy whispered to himself.

Midnight found Jody trudging down the steps with a trash bag full of laundry slung across her back. As she stepped onto the sidewalk and turned to lock the door she realized that she hadn't the slightest idea where to find a Laundromat in this neighborhood. The rolling steel door to the foundry was open and the two burly sculptors were working inside, bracing a man-sized plaster mold for pouring. She considered asking them for directions, but thought it might be better to wait and meet them when she was with Tommy. The interior of the foundry was glowing red with the heat from the molten bronze in the crucible, making it appear to her heat-sensitive vision like hell's own studio.

She stood for a moment watching waves of heat spill out the top of the door, to swirl and dissipate in the night sky like dying paisley ghosts. She wanted to turn to someone and share the experience, but of course there was no one, and if there had been, they wouldn't have been able to see what she saw.

She thought, In the kingdom of the blind, a one-eyed man can get pretty lonely.

She sighed heavily and was starting toward Market Street when she heard a sharp staccato tapping of toenails at her heels. She dropped the laundry and wheeled around. A Boston terrier growled and snorted at her, then backed away a few feet and fell into a yapping fit that bordered on canine apoplexy, his bug eyes threatening to pop out of his head.

"Bummer, stop that!" came a shout from the corner.

Jody looked up to see a grizzled old man in an overcoat coming toward her wearing a saucepan on his head and carrying a wickedly pointed wooden sword. A golden retriever trotted along beside him, a smaller saucepan strapped to his head and two garbage-can lids strapped to his sides, giving the impression of a compact furry Viking ship.

"Bummer, come back here."

The little dog backed away a few more steps, then turned and ran back to the man. Jody noticed that the little dog had a miniature pie pan strapped over his ears with a rubber band.

The old man picked up the terrier in his free hand and trotted up to Jody. "I'm very sorry," he said. "The troops are girded for battle, but I fear they are a bit too eager to engage. Are you all right?"

Jody smiled. "I'm fine. Just a little startled."

The old man bowed. "Allow me to introduce myself..."

"You're the Emperor, aren't you?" Jody had been in the City for five years. She'd heard about the Emperor, but she'd only seen him from a distance.

"At your service," said the Emperor. The terrier growled suspiciously and the Emperor shoved the little dog, head first, into the oversized pocket of his overcoat, then buttoned the flap. Muffled growls emanated from the pocket.

"I apologize for my charge. He's long on courage, but rather short on manners. This is Lazarus."

Jody nodded to the retriever, who let out a slight growl and backed away a step. The garbage-can lids rattled on the sidewalk.

"Hi. I'm Jody. Pleased to meet you."

"I hope you will forgive my presumption," the Emperor said, "but I don't think it's safe for a young woman to be out on the street at night. Particularly in this neighborhood."

"Why this neighborhood?"

The Emperor moved closer and whispered. "I'm sure that you've noticed that the men and I are dressed for battle. We are hunting a vicious, murdering fiend that has been stalking the City. I don't mean to alarm you, but we last saw him on this very street. In fact, he killed a friend of mine right across the street not two nights ago."

"You saw him?" Jody asked. "Did you call the police?"

"The police will be of no help," the Emperor said. "This is not the run-of-the-mill scoundrel that we are used to in the City. He's a vampire." The Emperor lifted his wooden sword and tested the point against the tip of his finger.

Jody was shaken. She tried to calm herself, but the fear showed on her face.

"I've frightened you," the Emperor said.

"No  -  no, I'm fine. It's just... Your Majesty, there are no such things as vampires."

"As you wish," the Emperor said. "But I think it would be prudent for you to wait until daylight to do your business."

"I need to do my laundry or I won't have any clean clothes for tomorrow."

"Then allow us to escort you."

"No, really, Your Majesty, I'll be fine. By the way, where is the nearest Laundromat?"

"There is one not far from here, but it's in the Tenderloin. Even during the day you wouldn't be safe alone. I really must insist that you wait, my dear. Perhaps by then we will have exterminated the fiend."

"Well," Jody said, "if you insist. This is my apartment, right here." She dug the key out of her jeans and opened the door. She turned back to the Emperor. "Thank you."

"Safety first," the Emperor said. "Sleep well." The little dog growled in his pocket.

Jody went inside and closed the door, then waited until she heard the Emperor walk away. She waited another five minutes and went back onto the street.

She shouldered the laundry and headed toward the Tenderloin, thinking, This is great. How long before the police actually listen to the Emperor? Tommy and I are going to have to move and we haven't even decorated yet. And I hate doing laundry. I hate it. I'm sending our laundry out if Tommy won't do it. And we're going to have a cleaning lady  -  some nice, dependable woman who will come in after dark. And I'm not buying toilet paper. I don't use it and I'm not going to buy it. And something has to be done about this asshole vampire. God, I hate doing laundry.

She had gone two blocks when a man stepped out of a doorway in front of her. "Hey momma, you need some help."

She jumped in his face and shouted, "Fuck off, horndog!" with such viciousness that he screamed and leaped back into the doorway, then meekly called «Sorry» after her as she passed.

She thought, I'm not sorting. It all goes in warm. I don't care if the whites do go gray; I'm not sorting. And how do I know how to get out bloodstains? Who am I? Miss Household Hints? God, I hate laundry.

The clothes jumped and played and dived over each other like fabric dolphins. Jody sat on a folding table across from the dryer watching the show and thinking about the Emperor's warning. He'd said, "I don't think it's safe for a young woman to be out on the street at night." Jody agreed. Not long ago she would have been terrified if she'd found herself in the Tenderloin at night. She couldn't even remember coming down here during the day. Where had that fear gone? What had happened to her that she could face off with a vampire, bite off his fingers, and carry a dead body up a flight of stairs and shove it under the bed without even a flinch? Where was the fear and loathing? She didn't miss it, she just wondered what had happened to it.

It wasn't as if she were without fear. She was afraid of daylight, afraid of the police discovering her, and of Tommy rejecting her and leaving her alone. New fears and familiar fears, but there was nothing in the dark that frightened her, not the future, not even the old vampire  -  and she knew now, having tasted his blood, that he was old, very old. She saw him as an enemy, and her mind casted for strategies to defeat him, but she was not really afraid of him anymore: curious, but not afraid.

The dryer stopped-fabric dolphins dropped and died as if caught in tuna nets. Jody jumped off the table, opened the dryer, and was feeling the clothes for dampness when she heard footsteps on the sidewalk outside the Laundromat. She turned to see the tall black man she had chased into the doorway coming into the Laundromat, followed by two shorter men. All three wore silver L.A. Raiders jackets, high-top shoes, and evil grins.

Jody turned back to the dryer and started stuffing her clothes into the trash bag. She thought, I should be folding these.

"Yo, bitch," the tall man said.

Jody looked to the back of the Laundromat. The only door was in the front, behind the three men. She turned and looked up at them. "How about those Raiders?" she said with a smile. She felt a pressure in the roof of her mouth: the fangs extending.

The three men split up and moved around the folding table to surround her. In another life, this had been her worst nightmare. In this life she just smiled as two of them grabbed her arms from behind.

She saw a bead of sweat on the tall man's temple as he approached her and reached out to tear the front of her shirt. She ripped her right arm loose and caught the tall man's wrist as the sweat bead began to drip. She snapped his forearm and bones splintered though skin and muscle as she swung him, headfirst, through the glass door of the dryer. She reached over her shoulder and grabbed one of the Raider fans by the hair and smashed his face into the floor, then wheeled on her last attacker and shoved him back into the edge of the folding table, snapping his spine just above the hips and sending him spinning backward over a deck of washing machines. The bead of sweat hit the floor near the man with the smashed face.

Amid the hum of fluorescent lights and the moans of the man with the broken back, Jody loaded the rest of her laundry into the trash bag. She thought, This stuff is going to be nothing but wrinkles by the time I get home. Tommy's doing the laundry next time.

As she reached the door she ran her tongue over her teeth and was relieved to find her fangs had retracted. She looked over her shoulder at the carnage and shouted, "Forty-fucking-Niners!"

The man with the broken back moaned.

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