Chapter 4

Blooms and the City of Burned Clutches

C. Thomas Flood (Tommy to his friends) was just reaching red-line in a wet dream, when he was awakened by the scurry and chatter of the five Wongs. Geishas in garters scampered off to dreamland, unsatisfied, leaving him staring at the slats of the bunk above.

The room was little bigger than a walk-in closet. Bunks were stacked three high on either side of a narrow aisle where the five Wongs were competing for enough space to pull on their pants. Wong Two bent over Tommy's bunk, grinned apologetically, and said something in Cantonese.

"No problem," Tommy said. He rolled over on his side, careful not to scuff his morning erection on the wall, and pulled the blankets over his head.

He thought, Privacy is a wonderful thing. Like love, privacy is most manifest in its absence. I should write a story about that  -  and work in lots of geisha girls in garters and red pumps. The Crowded Tea House of Almond-Eyed Tramps, by C. Thomas Flood. I'll write that today, after I rent a post-office box and look for a job. Or maybe I should just stay here today and see who's leaving the flowers...

Tommy had found fresh flowers on his bed for four days running and they were beginning to bother him. It wasn't the flowers themselves that bothered him: gladiolas, red roses, and two mixed bouquets with big pink ribbons. He sort of liked flowers, in a masculine and totally non-sissy way, of course. And it didn't bother him that he didn't own a vase, or a table to set it on. He'd just trotted down the hall to the communal bathroom, removed the lid of the toilet tank, and plopped the flowers in. The added color provided a pleasant counterpoint to the bathroom's filth  -  until rats ate the blossoms. But that didn't bother him either. What bothered him was that he had been in the City for less than a week and didn't know anyone. So who had sent the flowers?

The five Wongs let loose with a barrage of bye-byes as they left the room. Wong Five pulled the door shut behind him.

Tommy thought, I've got to speak to Wong One about the accommodations.

Wong One wasn't one of the five Wongs with whom Tommy shared the room. Wong One was the landlord: older, wiser, and more sophisticated than Wongs Two through Six. Wong One spoke English, wore a threadbare suit thirty years out of style, and carried a cane with a brass dragon head. Tommy had met him on Columbus Avenue just after midnight, over the burning corpse of Rosinante, Tommy's 74 Volvo sedan.

"I killed her," Tommy said, watching black smoke roll out from under the hood.

"Too bad," Wong One said sympathetically, before continuing on his way.

"Excuse me," Tommy called after Wong. Tommy had just arrived from Indiana and had never been to a large city, so he did not recognize that Wong One had already stepped over the accepted metropolitan limit of involvement with a stranger.

Wong turned and leaned on his dragon-headed cane.

"Excuse me," Tommy repeated, "but I'm new in town  -  would you know where I can find a place to stay around here?"

Wong raised an eyebrow. "You have money?"

"A little."

Wong looked at Tommy, standing there next to his burning car with a suitcase and a typewriter case. He looked at Tommy's open, hopeful smile, his thin face and mop of dark hair, and the English word «victim» rose in his mind in twenty-point type  -  part of an item on page 3 of The Chronicle: "Victim Found in Tenderloin, Beaten to Death With Typewriter." Wong sighed heavily. He liked reading The Chronicle each day, and he didn't want to skip page 3 until the tragedy had passed.

"You come with me," he said.

Wong walked up Columbus into Chinatown. Tommy stumbled along behind, looking over his shoulder from time to time at the burning Volvo. "I really liked that car. I got five speeding tickets in that car. They're still in it."

"Too bad." Wong stopped at a battered metal door between a grocery store and a fish market. "You have fifty bucks?"

Tommy nodded and dug into the pocket of his jeans.

"Fifty bucks, one week," Wong said. "Two hundred fifty, one month."

"One week will be fine," Tommy said, peeling two twenties and a ten off a thinning roll of bills.

Wong opened the door and started up a narrow unlit staircase. Tommy bumped up the stairs behind him, nearly falling a couple of times. "My name is C. Thomas Flood. Well, actually that's the name I write under. People call me Tommy."

"Good," Wong said.

"And you are?" Tommy stopped at the top of the stairs and offered his hand to shake.

Wong looked at Tommy's hand. "Wong," he said.

Tommy bowed. Wong watched him, wondering what in the hell he was doing. Fifty bucks is fifty bucks, he thought.

"Bathroom down hall," Wong said, throwing open a door and throwing a light switch. Five sleepy Chinese men looked up from their bunks. "Tommy," Wong said, pointing to Tommy.

"Tommy," the Chinese men repeated in unison.

"This Wong," Wong said, pointing to the man on the bottom left bunk.

Tommy nodded. "Wong."

"This Wong. That Wong. Wong. Wong. Wong," Wong said, ticking off each man as if he were flipping beads on an abacus, which, mentally, he was: fifty bucks, fifty bucks, fifty bucks. He pointed to the empty bunk on the bottom right. "You sleep there. Bye-bye."

"Bye-bye," said the five Wongs.

Tommy said, "Excuse me, Mr. Wong..."

Wong turned.

"When is rent due? I'm going job hunting tomorrow, but I don't have a lot of cash."

"Tuesday and Sunday," Wong said. "Fifty bucks."

"But you said it was fifty dollars a week."

"Two fifty a month or fifty a week, due Tuesday and Sunday."

Wong walked away. Tommy stashed his duffel bag and typewriter under the bunk and crawled in. Before he could work up a good worry about his burning car, he was asleep. He had pushed the Volvo straight through from Incontinence, Indiana, to San Francisco, stopping only for fuel and bathroom breaks. He had watched the sun rise and set three times from behind the wheel  -  exhaustion finally caught him at the coast.

Tommy was descended from two generations of line workers at the Incontinence Forklift Company. When he announced at fourteen that he was going to be a writer, his father, Thomas Flood, Sr., accepted the news with the tolerant incredulity a parent usually reserved for monsters under the bed and imaginary friends. When Tommy took a job in a grocery store instead of the factory, his father breathed a small sigh of relief  -  at least it was a union shop, the boy would have benefits and retirement. It was only when Tommy bought the old Volvo, and rumors that he was a budding Communist began circulating through town, that Tom senior began to worry. Father Flood's paternal angst continued to grow with each night that he spent listening to his only son tapping the nights away on the Olivetti portable, until one Wednesday night he tied one on at the Starlight Lanes and spilled his guts to his bowling buddies.

"I found a copy of The New Yorker under the boy's mattress," he slurred through a five-pitcher Budweiser haze. "I've got to face it; my son's a pansy."

The rest of the Bill's Radiator Bowling Team members bowed their heads in sympathy, all secretly thanking God that the bullet had hit the next soldier in line and that their sons were all safely obsessed with small block Chevys and big tits. Harley Businsky, who had recently been promoted to minor godhood by bowling a three hundred, threw a bearlike arm around Tom's shoulders. "Maybe he's just a little mixed up," Harley offered. "Let's go talk to the boy."

When two triple-extra-large, electric-blue, embroidered bowling shirts burst into his room, full of two triple-extra-large, beer-oiled bowlers, Tommy went over backward in his chair.

"Hi, Dad," Tommy said from the floor.

"Son, we need to talk."

Over the next half hour the two men ran Tommy through the fatherly version of good-cop-bad-cop, or perhaps Joe McCarthy versus Santa Claus. Their interrogation determined that: Yes, Tommy did like girls and cars. No, he was not, nor had he ever been, a member of the Communist party. And yes, he was going to pursue a career as a writer, regardless of the lack of AFL�CCIO affiliation.

Tommy tried to plead the case for a life in letters, but found his arguments ineffective (due in no small part to the fact that both his inquisitors thought that Hamlet was a small pork portion served with eggs). He was breaking a sweat and beginning to accept defeat when he fired a desperation shot.

"You know, somebody wrote Rambo?"

Thomas Flood, Sr., and Harley Businsky exchanged a look of horrified realization. They were rocked, shaken, crumbling.

Tommy pushed on. "And Patton  -  someone wrote Patton."

Tommy waited. The two men sat next to each other on his single bed, coughing and fidgeting and trying not to make eye contact with the boy. Everywhere they looked there were quotes carefully written in magic marker tacked on the walls; there were books, pens, and typing paper; there were poster-sized photos of authors. Ernest Hemingway stared down at them with a gleaming gaze that seemed to say, "You fuckers should have gone fishing."

Finally Harley said, "Well, if you're going to be a writer, you can't stay here."

"Pardon?" Tommy said.

"You got to go to a city and starve. I don't know a Kafka from a nuance, but I know that if you're going to be a writer, you got to starve. You won't be any damn good if you don't starve."

"I don't know, Harley," Tom Senior said, not sure that he liked the idea of his skinny son starving.

"Who bowled a three hundred last Wednesday, Tom?"

"You did."

"And I say the boy's got to go to the city and starve."

Tom Flood looked at Tommy as if the boy were standing on the trapdoor of the gallows. "You sure about this writer thing, son?"

Tommy nodded.

"Can I make you a sandwich?"

If not for a particularly seedy television docudrama about the bombing of the World Trade Center, Tommy might, indeed, have starved in New York, but Tom senior was not going to allow his son to be "blowed up by a bunch of towel-headed terrorists." And Tommy might have starved in Paris, if a cursory inspection of the Volvo had not revealed that it would not survive the dampness of the drive. So he ended up in San Francisco, and although he could use some breakfast, he was more worried about flowers than about food.

He thought, I should just stick around and see who's leaving the flowers. Catch them in the act.

But he had been unemployed for more than a week, and his midwestern work ethic forced him out of his bunk.

He wore his sneakers in the shower so his feet wouldn't have to come in contact with the floor, then dressed in his best shirt and job-hunting jeans, grabbed a notebook, and sloshed down the steps into Chinatown.

The sidewalk was awash with Asians  -  men and women moving doggedly past open markets selling live fish, barbecued meat, and thousands of vegetables that Tommy could put no name to. He passed one market where live snapping turtles, two feet across, were struggling to get out of plastic milk crates. In the next window, trays of duck feet and bills were arranged around smoked pig heads, while whole naked pheasants hung ripening above.

The air was heavy with the smells of pressed humanity, soy sauce, sesame oil, licorice, and car exhaust  -  always car exhaust. Tommy walked up Grant and crossed Broadway into North Beach, where the crush of people thinned out and the smells changed to a miasma of baking bread, garlic, oregano, and more exhaust. No matter where he went in the City, there was an odoriferous mix of food and vehicles, like the alchemic concoctions of some mad gourmet mechanic: Kung Pao Saab Turbo, Buick Skylark Carbonara, Sweet-and-Sour Metro Bus, Honda Bolognese with Burning Clutch Sauce.

Tommy was startled out of his olfactory reverie by a screeching war whoop. He looked up to see a Rollerblader in fluorescent pads and helmet closing on him at breakneck speed. An old man, who was sitting on the sidewalk ahead feeding croissants to his two dogs, looked up momentarily and threw a croissant across the sidewalk. The dogs shot after the treat, pulling their cotton-rope leashes tight. Tommy cringed. The Rollerblader hit the rope and went airborne, describing a ten-foot arc in the air before crashing in a violent tangle of padded limbs and wheels at Tommy's feet.

"Are you okay?"

Tommy offered a hand to the skater, who waved it away. "I'm fine." Blood was dripping from a scrape on his chin, his Day-Glo wraparound sunglasses were twisted on his face.

"Perhaps you should slow down on the sidewalks," the old man called.

The skater sat up and turned to the old man. "Oh, Your Majesty, I didn't know. I'm sorry."

"Safety first, son," the old man said with a smile.

"Yes, sir," the skater said. "I'll be more careful." He climbed to his feet and nodded to Tommy. "Sorry." He straightened his shades and skated slowly away.

Tommy stood staring at the old man, who had resumed feeding his dogs. "Your Majesty?"

"Or Your Imperial Highness," the Emperor said. "You're new to the City."

"Yes, but..."

A young woman in fishnet stockings and red satin hot pants, who was swinging by, paused by the Emperor and bowed slightly. "Morning, Highness," she said.

"Safety first, my child," the Emperor said.

She smiled and walked on. Tommy watched her until she turned the corner, then turned back to the old man.

"Welcome to my city," the Emperor said. "How are you doing so far?"

"I'm... I'm..." Tommy was confused. "Who are you?"

"Emperor of San Francisco, Protector of Mexico, at your service. Croissant?" The Emperor held open a white paper bag to Tommy, who shook his head.

"This impetuous fellow," the Emperor said, pointing to his Boston terrier, "is Bummer. A bit of a rascal, he, but the best bug-eyed rat dog in the City."

The little dog growled.

"And this," the Emperor continued, "is Lazarus, found dead on Geary Street after an unfortunate encounter with a French tour bus and snatched back from the brink by the mystical curative scent of a slightly used beef jerky."

The golden retriever offered his paw. Feeling stupid, Tommy took it and shook. "Pleased to meet you."

"And you are?" the Emperor asked.

"C. Thomas Flood."

"And the 'C' stands for?"

"Well, it doesn't really stand for anything. I'm a writer. I just added the 'C' to my pen name."

"And a fine affectation it is." The Emperor paused to gnaw the end of a croissant. "So, C, how is the City treating you so far?"

Tommy thought that he might have just been insulted, but he found he was enjoying talking to the old man. He hadn't had a conversation of more than a few words since he arrived in the City. "I like the City, but I'm having some problems."

He told the Emperor about the destruction of his car, about his subsequent meeting of Wong One, of his cramped, filthy quarters, and ended his story with the mystery of the flowers on his bed.

The Emperor sighed sympathetically and scratched his scruffy graying beard. "I'm afraid that I am unable to assist you with your accommodation problem; the men and I are fortunate enough to count the entire City as our home. But I may have a lead on a job for you, and perhaps a clue to the conundrum of the flowers."

The Emperor paused and motioned for Tommy to move closer. Tommy crouched down and cocked an ear to the Emperor. "Yes?"

"I've seen him," the Emperor whispered. "It's a vampire."

Tommy recoiled as if he'd been spit on. "A vampire florist?"

"Well, once you accept the vampire part, the florist part is a pretty easy leap, don't you think?"

Chapter 5

Undead and Somewhat Slightly Dazed

French people were fucking in the room next door; Jody could hear every groan, giggle, and bed spring squeak. In the room above, a television spewed game-show prattle: "I'll take Bestiality for five hundred, Alex."

Jody pulled a pillow over her head.

It wasn't exactly like waking up. There was no slow skate from dreamland to reality, no pleasant dawning of consciousness in the cozy twilight of sleepiness. No, it was as if someone had just switched on the world, full volume, like a clock radio playing reality's top forty irritating hits.

"Criminal Presidents for a hundred, Alex."

Jody flipped onto her back and stared at the ceiling. I always thought that sex and game shows ended at death, she thought. They always say "Rest in peace," don't they?

"Vas  -  y plus fort, mon petit cochon d'amour!"*

* "Do it harder, my little love pig!"

She wanted to complain to someone, anyone. She hated waking up alone  -  and going to sleep alone, for that matter. She had lived with ten different men in five years. Serial monogamy. It was a problem she had been getting around to working on before she died.

She crawled out of bed and opened the rubber-lined motel draperies. Light from streetlights and neon signs filled the room.

Now what?

Normally she would go to the bathroom. But she didn't feel the need to.

I haven't peed in two days. I may never pee again.

She went into the bathroom and sat on the stool to test her theory. Nothing. She unwrapped one of the plastic glasses, filled it with water and gulped it down. Her stomach lurched and she vomited the water in a stream against the mirror.

Okay, no water. A shower? Change clothes and go out on the town? To do what? Hunt?

She recoiled at the thought.

Am I going to have to kill people? Oh my God, Kurt. What if he changes? What if he already has?

She dressed quickly in her clothes from the night before, grabbed her flight bag and the room key and left the room. She waved to the night clerk as she passed the motel office and he winked and waved back. A hundred bucks had made them friends.

She walked around the corner and up Chestnut, resisting the urge to break into a run. Outside her building she paused and focused on the apartment window. The lights were on, and with concentration she could hear Kurt talking on the phone.

"Yeah, the crazy bitch knocked me out with a potted plant. No, threw it at me. I was two hours late for work. I don't know, she said something about being attacked. She hasn't been to work for a couple of days. No, she doesn't have a key; I had to buzz her in..."

So I didn't kill him. He didn't change or he wouldn't have been able to go to work at all in the daylight. He sounds fine. Pissed, but fine. I wonder if I just apologize and explain what happened...

"No," Kurt said into the phone. "I took her name off the mailbox. I don't really care, she didn't fit the image I'm trying to build anyway. I was thinking about asking out Susan Badistone: Stanford, family money, Republican. I know, but that's why God made implants..."

Jody turned and walked back to the motel. She stopped in the office and paid the clerk for two more days, then went to her room, sat down on the bed and tried to cry. No tears would come.

In another time she would have called a girlfriend and spent the evening on the phone being comforted. She would have eaten a half gallon of ice cream and stayed up all night thinking about what she was going to do with her life. In the morning she would have called in sick to work, then called her mother in Carmel to borrow enough money for a deposit on a new apartment. But that was another time, when she had still been a person.

The little confidence that she had felt the night before was gone. Now she was just confused and afraid. She tried to remember everything she had ever seen or heard about vampires. It wasn't much. She didn't like scary books or movies. Much of what she could remember didn't seem true. She didn't have to sleep in a coffin, that was obvious. But it was also obvious that she couldn't go out in the daylight. She didn't have to kill every night, and if she did bite someone, he or she didn't necessarily have to turn into a vampire  -  an asshole, maybe, but not a vampire. But then again, Kurt had been an asshole before, so how could you tell? Why had she turned? She was going to have to get to a library.

She thought, I've got to get my car back. And I need a new apartment. It's just a matter of time before a maid comes in during the day and burns me to a crisp. I need someone who can move around during the day. I need a friend.

She had lost her address book with her purse, but it didn't really matter. All of her friends were currently in relationships, and although any of them would offer sympathy about her breakup with Kurt, they were too self-involved to be of any real help. She and her friends were only close when they were single.

I need a man.

The thought depressed her.

Why does it always come to that? I'm a modern woman. I can open jars and kill spiders on my own. I can balance a checkbook and check the oil in my car. I can support myself. Then again, maybe not. How am I going to support myself?

She threw her flight bag on the bed and pulled out the white bakery bag full of money and emptied it on the bed. She counted the bills in one stack, then counted the stacks. There were thirty-five stacks of twenty one-hundred dollar bills. Minus the five hundred she had spent on the hotel: almost seventy thousand dollars. She felt a sudden and deep-seated urge to go shopping.

Whoever had attacked her had known she would need money. It hadn't been an accident that she had turned. And it probably hadn't been an accident that he had left her hand in the sunlight to burn. How else would she have known to go to ground before sunup? But if he wanted to help her, wanted her to survive, why didn't he just tell her what she was supposed to do?

She gathered up the money and was stuffing it back in the flight bag when the phone rang. She looked at it, watched the orange light strobing in rhythm to the bell. No one knew where she was. It must be the front desk. After four rings she picked up.

Before she could say hello, a gravelly calm male voice said, "By the way, you're not immortal. You can still be killed."

There was a click and Jody hung up the phone.

He said, be killed, not you can still die. Be killed.

She grabbed her bag and ran out into the night.

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