Chicago, February 1937
I met a terrified girl named Susan at three
in the morning on a barren stretch of beach during an ice storm. The
isolated location, late hour, and arctic agony blasting off Lake Michigan
gave me the reasonable expectation of having the place to myself.
I was there to figure out how to live; she was there to die.
* * *
Black water roared against the shore, spray
flying and merging with the sleet, stinging my face. Frozen sand cracked
under my shoes as I walked. It was made to order for my bleak mood. I'd
planned to do this last night, but delayed when the forecast of a storm came
over the radio. The worse the weather, the better so far as I was concerned.
A good dose of physical misery would shake me up, maybe help me shed the
Things had been rough for the last few
nights. Not far from this spot I had killed, again, had come close to being
killed, again, and in that damned lake, again. Each day's dose of dreamless
oblivion helped distance me from the bad memories, but only an inch at a
time. The creeping pace felt like failure.
I'd been the same after the War. Getting
shot at, losing friends in an instant when a bullet found them, seeing the
influenza murdering more men than the bullets, and countless other horrors
taught me all there was to know about cruelty, suffering, stupidity, and
Since arriving in Chicago last August I'd
wised up to the disturbing fact there's always more where that came from.
In a remarkably brief time I'd been
murdered, returned from a watery grave, and delivered payback with interest
to my killers. In the months to follow I'd been subjected to and committed
even worse crimes. I'd learned that when someone pushed me I could and would
push back ten times harder. Literally. A few never got up again.
Like the man who'd had gone into that
freezing black lake, never to return. I'd done that.
It didn't bother me as much as I thought it
Apparently a chunk of ice had formed in my
soul sometime when I'd not been looking. It had nothing to do with my being
a vampire. If I thought that to be true then it was time to give up and find
some way of bumping myself off. This inner chill was wholly human--and scary.
I could not ignore it: I was glad to still
be walking around and just might be able to live with the fact that yet
another man was dead at my hands. I'd done the world a service with that
death. He could stay at the bottom forever with the rest of the slime and
I wanted to not know such things about
myself, but too late, I was stuck with it.
When I'd come back from the War it had been
simple: find enough work to support getting a few years of college into my
head, get a real job, meet a nice girl. That had worked at the time. I was
with other young men in the same situation. We told our stories, mourned our
dead, and got drunk. The camaraderie kept most of the nightmares at bay.
I didn't have that now. Yes, I had friends
ready to help, but they didn't know what I was going through, not really.
It's a hell of a change to wake up dead: no need to breathe except to talk,
no heart thumping stolidly away, trapped in a dead body while the sun made
And overshadowing it all was the exquisite
physical joy of drinking blood. Not even those closest to me could fully
understand that one. Hell, even I found it hard to accept, and I'd had
months to get used to it.
As far as I knew, I was the only vampire in
Chicago. We're a rare breed. I kept an eye out for others who might also
haunt the Stockyards to feed, but without luck. They were either better at
keeping their heads down or didn't exist.
You're on your own, Mr. Jack Fleming of
Strangely, I found that to be more annoying
than intimidating. If I could get knocked flat and come back pissed as hell
and swinging, then there was hope. That part was also wholly human, a part I
Maybe you shouldn't think too hard about
True. It didn't make me feel better.
It's not like I'd wanted to kill anyone.
If--God forbid--I ever got to that point. . .no. Human or vampire, that just
wasn't going to happen to me.
Of course I knew better. You just can't anticipate what bad choices lie in
the future, but for the present, this would keep me from putting a wooden
bullet in my head.
Turning into the slicing wind, I was now
able to savor the solitude and the noisy black water. That restless lake was
my vast and ignorant ally, enemy, murderer, and midwife, and a great keeper
of secrets. It was comfortable with mine.
I'd come to confront demons, hoping a
stormy walk where they'd been born would shake them loose, and it had
worked. Perhaps some shred of crippling guilt might sneak up on me later,
but not tonight.
Drinking a lungful of damp air sharp enough
to cut iron, I held it until the edge was gone. Releasing, the wind whisked
it from my lips into the endless sky to grow clean and cold once more. I
could do the same, spreading my arms, fading from the world until the wind
swept my invisible and formless self away.
In this gale I'd soar up the low bluff to
the road like a lost balloon and blunder into my car parked on the shoulder.
That would send me solid fast enough. Nuts to that. And nuts to standing out
here courting frostbite. The harsh weather and lonely location had worked.
I'd needed something bigger and stronger than myself to put my life and hard
times in perspective. I was going to be all right--or close to it.
Time to head home.
I glanced up and down the wide stretch of
beach a last time as though crossing a street. It didn't seem so bleak now.
The high restless clouds reflected back pale glow from the city, not that I
needed much to see well at night. My changed condition had its
compensations, otherwise I'd have missed the figure struggling along the
shoreline from the north.
Fisherman? Not at three in the morning in
this weather. Fresh air fiend out for a walk? What a crackpot.
Yeah. I know. I should talk.
The distant figure hobbled closer: a woman,
on the small side, looking done in as she stumbled over the uneven sand. She
wore a simple dark dress and shoes and nothing more. No coat, hat, or
gloves. She was hunched forward, arms folded tight to hoard what warmth
remained in her slight body.
A dame alone on a beach in this murderous
cold--of course something was wrong. Whatever problems I thought I had, hers
were worse. I moved toward her.
"Hey, lady, can I help?"
She didn't hear. Distance, roaring wind,
and water masked my voice.
Stepping up my pace, I yelled again. She
stopped, swaying a little, and looked behind her. The wild wind grabbed her
brown hair as she turned, creating a vertical part along the back of her
"Over here," I shouted, waving, moving
She snapped around, clawing hair from her
eyes, and stiffened when she caught sight of me. I glimpsed a young face
burned white by the cold. Terror and torment flashed in those wide eyes,
then she whirled to her right, away from the lake, toward the road, and
tried to run. She didn't get far; the sand slowed her too much. I caught up
easily, but kept a couple yards between us so as not to scare her more than
Blocking her path, I called again, my hands
palm out and angled down the way you do to calm a spooked animal. She
stopped as abruptly as she'd started, gaping at me. She looked crazy, but
fear can do that to you.
"Who--?" was all she gasped. She didn't have
enough breath to finish the question.
"My name's Jack. Can I help?" I spread my
empty hands, trying to look harmless. It seemed to work; she took a half
step toward me with an expression like a lost soul who'd just gotten a
reprieve from hell. Then a small, hopeless shriek twisted her mouth and made
In utter silence she and the rest of the
beach flared into a blaze of hot silver light. The earth bucked once as
though to get rid of me and damn near succeeded; I sprawled on its lurching
My hearing swooped back. There was a grunt
that might have come from me as I hit the ground, I wasn't sure.
The silver light focused down to an
excruciating spot on the back of my skull, pinning me to the sand.
She screamed again, full-throated,
anguished. Behind and above me, a man snarled at her to shut up.
Company You Keep
Smashwords Edition, copyright 2011, by P.N. Elrod
Originally in Dracula and the Legions of the Undead, Moonstone 2009
St. Paul, February 1938
Gabriel "Whitey" Kroun drove to St. Paul
because it wasn't Chicago.
In a new town chances were good no one
would know his face and thus his reputation. The reputation belonged to the
part of him nicknamed Whitey, but he was gone and Gabe was now in charge. He
was still getting used to it.
Gabe had few memories of being Whitey Kroun,
but counted it to be a good thing. Whitey had been bad company, a real
bastard. Gabriel, however, was a nearly blank slate, thanks to the bullet
still lodged in his head. He needed to figure out what to do about himself,
so he drove to St. Paul, found a hotel, and paid for a week's worth of
But one full evening of staring at the
walls gave him cabin fever, not insight.
On the second night he asked the desk clerk
about local distractions, preferably noisy ones that closed late. He'd
noticed a bowling alley farther up the street. He didn't know if he could
bowl, but the option to find out was there. He might like it. Instead, the
clerk recommended a nightclub close to the hotel called the Royal Arms--which
turned out to be in a cave.
Well, that sounded interesting.
Local lore had that the place was
originally used to grow mushrooms until the owner found more money was to be
had in the booze business. A later entrepreneur fancied up the entry to look
like a castle, complete with crenellations and fake drawbridge, which was
nuts, but the gimmick worked. Business boomed even through Prohibition, and
had attracted dubious types like Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson.
Gabe thought he'd fit in unnoticed.
Inside, away from the snow-laced wind, he
decided the place would appeal to anyone looking for something different.
The natural cave had been improved on, carved more deeply into the side of a
massive hill. The barrel-vaulted stone ceiling about ten feet overhead
flowed seamlessly down into rounded walls. Except for tables, chairs, and
the bar, there wasn't a corner or sharp angle in sight. It looked like a
giant worm had burrowed out a huge cavity for itself, then unaccountably
He decided not to check his hat and coat,
unsure of how long he'd stay. His shoulders kept trying to crowd his ears,
as though reacting to the press of surrounding stone. The room was huge and
a heartening number of electric lights made up for the lack of windows, but
what if the power failed? However excellent his night vision had become, he
didn't like the dark, which was ironic, but there it was.
For all the Royal Arms being under the
insulating ground, it was gratifyingly loud. The stone walls threw the band
music back, forth, and inside out if you counted the echoes. People trying
to talk over it added another layer to the din. He liked the distraction.
He pointed toward a table where he could
sit with his back to the wall. A cheerful waitress who didn't see anything
odd about that led him over. He ordered coffee.
"What do you want in it?" she asked.
"Sugar," he said with a smile and wink,
giving her fifty cents. "Keep the change, cutey.'
She flashed a bigger smile back and bounced
away. He liked the view. Maybe he just needed company, female company. That
was a possibility--if this was the kind of place where one could arrange such
a transaction. He checked things over, appraising the crowd.
The band was small: a piano player,
drummer, and a guy who switched between a horn and a clarinet, depending on
the tune. The three played as though it was the first time they'd ever
worked together. It'd be embarrassing but no one paid them any attention.
The few couples in the room weren't dancing, absorbed by their own concerns.
Other drinkers had the bored air of long-time regulars who had nowhere else
to go. Most glanced his way when he came in, but that's how it always was
when a newcomer shows up.
He spotted some familiar-looking mugs, but
only because their type was to be found in every town. The odds were that he
didn't know them personally, but Gabe kept an eye open for the subtle and
not-so-subtle signs of recognition.
Like the ones coming from the guy over
there in the corner with his back to the wall. He was in shadow, which would
otherwise have made him invisible to anyone else. Gabriel let him keep his
illusion and pretended not to notice how the man's face tightened, making
his eyes go hard and narrow.
Two things would happen: the guy would
leave him alone or he'd come over. If he came over he'd either pay his
respects or cautiously ask if there was a problem. Gabe would assure him
there was no problem and not be believed.
Cripes, I should have gone bowling.
The waitress brought him a cup of coffee
and a sugar bowl.
"Can you take a load off for a few
minutes?" he asked. "I don't like drinking alone."
In his solitude of the hotel room he found
the acid from his newly-formed and inexperienced conscience had an easier
time of etching holes in his brain, which was annoying. The bad stuff had
been Whitey's doing, after all. He wanted some practice being Gabriel,
whoever the hell he might turn out to be. Getting out and about with
strangers would help.
She glanced around and slipped onto the
chair across from him. "I guess so, it's slow tonight."
"One of these guys your boss?"
"He's keeps to his office, doesn't like the
band we got in this week."
"I've heard better." Gabe pushed the coffee
toward her. "Here, I don't want it after all."
He knew he must have drunk coffee in the
life he'd had before waking up dead and craving something entirely
different, but now it smelled like cigar ashes. She said she couldn't, but
he mentioned it'd be a shame to let it go to waste.
"If you're sure. . ." She spooned in three
sugars, sipped, and apparently liked the result. He wondered if that much
sugar would sweeten her own taste, should he get the opportunity to taste
He could easily make that happen. All
it took was a little hypnosis, one of the advantages of being a vampire. Fix
her with a focused look, whisper a few words, and she'd do anything for him.
He could lead her outside into dark and freezing shadows and drain her dry.
She wouldn't be aware of any of it. When he was done, he'd leave the body in
a drift to let the flying snow blanket her from view. They wouldn't find her
for weeks. That'd be funny.
Gabe's muscles twitched as though from
electric shock, and he had to fight to keep the revulsion from showing. Such
sickening ideas were nightmare remnants of the dead and unmourned Whitey. As
a human he'd been monster enough, God help the world if he'd survived as a
That's not me. I'm not like him.
Gabe was better than that.
He wanted to be, anyway.
Continued in the P.N. Elrod Omnibus