Outside the ’2-Street Tavern’ a misty drizzle washed the avenue and the dim light from the bar cast misshapen reflections in murky puddles. It would take more than a rain storm to wash the sidewalks of Queen’s Village clean, and old Josh knew he could do nothing about the blood spilled in the street wars occurring regularly outside his tap room. But inside, that was another matter. Inside a man had some control over the craziness that smoked the sidewalks beyond the tavern’s doors.
The storm had kept most of the regulars home and the place was practically empty. Behind the bar Josh took one look at young Skeezer Woolsey coming out of the rain and knew that some very nasty shit had gone down in those streets tonight. Skeezer found his usual stool vacant directly in front of the Miller tap, but even seated the young man seemed unsteady. He sat there soaking wet, the blood on his face smeared by the rain. Josh pulled out a towel. Moistening it he handed it to Woolsey.
“Did George Foreman just tap dance on your face, man? I’ve seen dog turds that look a whole lot better than you.”
The young street warrior mopped his face with the towel but beads of sweat still dotted his dark skin. The right sleeve of his denim jacket was ripped from his shoulder, clinging loosely to his arm by a half dozen stitches. A thick meaty gash of torn flesh practically halved the young man’s cheek as if someone had tried slicing through it with a can opener. The zigzagging crimson smear extended to Skeezer’s chin.
“You and your corner boys been fuckin’ with them pavement junkies from the North Side again, ain’t that so?” the old man asked. ‘sweet Jesus, man, you gon’ to wind up just like them worthless Clayton Brothers.”
Everyone in Queen’s Village knew that story. The twin brothers, each ugly as dried wood, had divided their adolescence between raising hell and dealing drugs. Last summer both of them suddenly disappeared from the Queen V without a trace. People in the Village figured someone must have given those twins a new home on the bottom of the North End River. No one much cared to pursue the matter.
“Just hit that tap, will you, Joshua? And don’t stop hittin’ it ’till I tell you. This ain’t been a real good night.”
The bartender had already pressed down the tap handle before Woolsey spoke, but Skeezer seemed too whipped to notice. Josh watched him chug-a-lug his beer in quick gulps without the mug leaving his lips. He waited before speaking, figuring anything he might say before those suds were inside the young man’s belly just wasted his breath.
“Now, Skeeze, I know you ain’t got nothin’ in your pockets worth rollin’ you into no alley for, seein’ as you ain’t held no steady job for as long as I known you. And you ain’t dumb enough to go sniffin’ after she-stuff that don’t belong to you. So I figure there must be somethin’ else goin’ down between you and whoever done that mess to your face.”
As was his custom Josh exercised his right to know as much of anyone’s business he cared to ask. Sliding another mug in front of Skeezer, the old man moved his chair to the stool near the Miller tap.
“You ain’t goin’ to be no endorsement to do much drinkin’ here lookin’ like ground hamburger. So maybe you feel like tellin’ me a piece of your story ‘count of the business you costin’ me?”
Skeezer shifted on his stool like something clammy had just crawled up his ass.
“You want a piece of the story, old man?” he asked, unable to even smirk at Josh’s dubious logic of the youth’s repelling customers inside an empty bar.
“Okay, that’s cool. I’ll show you one big piece of it right here.” He held open his jacket just wide enough to reveal the small .22 in his pocket.
“Finally got the chance to use my rod tonight, old man. Been waitin’ a long time.”
Rebuttoning the denim and dabbing the towel against his cheek he did not have to ask the bartender for his third brew. He held the mug steady with both hands, a man coiled so tight Josh thought his guts might explode right inside him.
“You don’t want to be tellin’ me you killed a man with that gun, Skeezer Woolsey. A God fearin’ man like myself might not want to hear a thing like that.”
The barkeep was no fool. God was not all he feared. He knew about those things no one should know about, and he knew just how much he wanted to know about them. In the Queen V a smart man understood when to stay stupid. Josh had no idea about what happened to the Clayton brothers, and he didn’t want to know.
Maybe the prudent thing now was to exercise his right not to know too much about Skeezer Woolsey either.
Skeezer leaned toward him, his voice almost a whisper.
“Ain’t no man I killed, Joshua, I can tell you that. You remember J-Bird, usually came in here on Monday nights to watch the football game?”
J-Bird. Old Josh always expected to see that little crack-head hemstitched with a semi-automatic one day. He was an ugly biscuit-skinned street punk, incapable of attracting anything but flies. But J-Bird and Skeezer were corner boys. As far as Josh knew, Skeezer had no bone to pick with him even if he was one mean-assed mother grabber whose street name boasted a rap sheet that spread from where Josh sat to the curb.
“That crack-dealin’ nappy-headed lump of tar?” Josh asked.
“The skinny monkey that used to borrow quarters from me for the juke box to play ‘Heard it Through the Grapevine’ ’bout sixty-three times a night? Yeah, I remember him. So?”
‘so I think maybe J-Bird heard somethin’ through that grapevine, all right. Somethin’ that made that man real uncomfortable,” Skeezer said, lighting a Chesterfield and letting it hang from his lip while he spoke.
“J-Bird and me wasn’t as close as me and the Clayton brothers, Joshua, but we wasn’t ‘zactly strangers either. That’s how I know the man I run into tonight wasn’t the same J-Bird. I seen him over on Third Avenue and when I call to him he acts like he just fucked my mama, then keeps right on walkin’. “Hey, man!” I yell out, but he just hauls ass like he’s got some ‘pointment he’s late for. Right then I know that mo’fuck dropped a dime on me to those Queen V junkers he carryin’ for and decided he don’t know me no more.”
In Queen’s Village the street was your family and you sooner would have your testicles torn off before you fingered your own corner boy. But not everyone played by that rule. Josh wasn’t surprised that J-Bird chose to save his own ass by giving the Judas kiss to Skeezer. That’s the kind of trash he was. A piercing thunderclap interrupted his thoughts, followed by a bolt of lightning that tore a crevice through the sky. Lights inside the 2-Street flickered with the grumbles of thunder. Although startled, Josh felt grateful for the brief distraction. He had heard so many variations of Woolsey’s story of betrayal from corner boys going back thirty years, and he could almost mouth the words along with him.
One-time bloods sometimes turned on each other for no sane reason. But tonight someone had kicked the crud out of this young buck, someone who had put a real chill into his heart. Anyone capable of spooking Skeezer Woolsey that bad immediately spooked the old barkeep too.
‘storm’s not over,” Josh said absently. “We lose power in here, the taps go warm an’ I might as well be servin’ my customers piss.” But Woolsey was too far into his tale to give a rat’s ass about Josh’s taps.
“J-Bird always be messin’ where he shouldn’t,” he continued, the cigarette doing a mad dance in his mouth. “He got me into some bad shit carryin’ for the junkers ’cause we wasn’t deliverin’ nothin’ with anchovies on it. Last week J-Bird says to me, ‘Skeeze, this powder we got in our pockets is worth somethin’ on the street, and ain’t no buyer gon’ to miss a few grams here, a few grams there.” I tell him I don’t want no part of that mess ’cause these are bad mothers to fuck with. That night I stopped playin’ the game and wouldn’t carry their shit no more, so I don’t see J-Bird for a few days. But J-Bird, he keeps deliverin’ the cola for them, and every night he shaves off a little cee here and a little cee there hopin’ no one catches on. I know that blow monkey got hisself way over his head this time and someone must’ve knew they was bein’ shortchanged. Turns out I was right, too. J-Bird needed some dumbjohn to point the finger at, and that lyin’ mo’fuck decided to tag me.”
The door opened and a lone stranger walked in, his pale face half hidden by the high collar of his raincoat. Skeezer looked over his shoulder to watch as the tall man walked to a booth at the other end of the bar and sat with his back toward them. Outsiders rarely frequented the 2-Street, but the rain had become heavy again and likely the guy just wanted to get out of it. Josh thought it odd the stranger did not remove his wet coat, but he didn’t intend to bring anything unusual to Woolsey’s attention that might unhinge him even more. The outsider turned to look at them but turned quickly away. A man comes into a bar, that man ought to order a drink, Josh thought.
Nights in Queen’s Village always seemed filled with things that made no sense.
“That piece you got in your pocket,” the bartender continued. “Any of those slugs find their way into J-Bird tonight?” The old man felt uncomfortable with his question, but Skeezer Woolsey carried something more evil inside him than the .22 in his jacket, something he wanted to get out.
“I need another beer, Joshua. I can’t remember when I felt this thirsty.”
Josh placed a tall frosty mug in front of him, but Woolsey just looked at it, so lost in his thoughts that he did not touch it.
“I emptied the whole chamber into that cocksuck,” Skeezer said, stubbing out his cigarette and quickly lighting another. Woolsey leaned forward, as if sharing a secret. “But it ain’t what you think, old man. I didn’t do it ’cause that fucksnake dimed on me , but ’cause what I seen in J-Bird’s face just wasn’t right. When he don’t answer me I run up to him and spin him around. “Hey, man, I’m talkin’ to you! ” I yell right at him, ‘so maybe you got somethin’ to say before I take my pound of flesh out of your black ass.” “He turns an’ looks right at me, Joshua, and I’m lookin” into J-Bird’s face like I seen it for the first time. he’s gone milky white, white as if his mama was fucked in a Georgia bale of hay. That ain’t the worst of it. The man don’t say a word, just hisses at me like he’s a goddamn snake! Then he shows these teeth — Shit, man! Those teeth didn’t belong nowhere ‘cept in a dog’s mouth … or maybe in somethin’ a whole lot worse …”
Josh had not anticipated Skeezer’s wild curve. The bar man considered telling him he had heard enough for tonight, that maybe Skeeze had sniffed one line too many with his boys. But Woolsey’s voice had taken on the tone of a confession and the old bartender knew his tap room was as close to church as the young man was ever going to get. He said nothing.
“J-Bird comes for me with his mouth wide open like he’s gon’ to take a piece right out of my throat with those teeth. I’m backin’ off sayin’ to him, “Listen, J-Bird. Forget this shit. You an’ me, we go way back. ain’t no need to—’ But then he’s suddenly on me, bitin’ at my face with those teeth. I know he’s got no intention of talkin’ it over with me. Damn, I can kickbox the shit out of that rust-faced sucker, but tonight he’s suddenly got the juice of fifty men and I know he ain’t about to stop ’til he done some serious damage. I feel I’m wrestlin’ with a fuckin’ cougar the way he’s all over me.
“so I pull out my piece and shove it right into J-Bird’s face.”Take some advice, motherfucker, and back off right now or I’m gon’ to blow those teeth out the back of your head!” But he don’t hear. He jus’ keeps comin’ at me. ‘so I fire – - – Bam! Bam! Bam! – - – I’m pumpin’ slugs into his white bread face until it ain’t there no more and I got nothin’ left to squeeze off. After that, I just run, leavin’ him for the sewer rats to finish and the law to toe tag. I tell you, Joshua. Whatever it was that I pumped lead into tonight, it ain’t the J-Bird I used to know!”
Josh considered his next words carefully. A God fearing man had to say them.
“You killed a man tonight, Skeezer Woolsey. You got to do the right thing now. You hear me talkin’ to you?”
Skeezer did not look at him, and when he finally spoke he sounded like he might choke on his words.
“Yeah, old man. I hear you.”
A sudden thunderbolt exploded outside and thick veins of lightning split the night sky. The avenue strobed while the ceiling lights inside the 2-Street blinked off, then back on. They went off again and stayed off. Outside the street lamps flickered wildly too, and suddenly the world of Queen’s Village went pitch.
Silence filled the tavern and it lingered in the darkness. The door swung open then slammed shut. It happened again, then a third time. Tiny winks of lightning cast ghostlike shadows around the tap room. Someone had come in, maybe several people, and something moved inside that had not been there before.
Josh stumbled in the dark toward the drawer near the freezer for candles, and scratched a match to light one. In the flickering light formless shapes moved toward the bar counter like dark specters. He strained to see but could not make them out. Looters maybe. Power failures always sent them crawling out from their crevices like night vermin, and Josh stood near the cash register where he kept his handgun for just such a confrontation. It would not be the first time he had used it.
“Now you hold it right there so’s I can get a look at you!” Josh called out to the shadowy figures who approached.
The old man held the candle straight out before him while Skeezer Woolsey sat like a stiff corpse. The firelight glimmering in the young tough’s eyes caused Woolsey to turn away from it. Josh caught a glimpse of his face and suddenly the old man’s mouth fell open.
“Oh, sweet Jesus! Oh sweet mother of Chri–”
Now, without seeing them, Josh knew the dark figures surrounding his counter were not looters. Looking at Skeezer Woolsey he knew his visitors were something worse, something much worse.
A voice near him whispered, “You know what’s in here with you, don’t you, old man? You do know…”
Skeezer Woolsey’s eyes glowed in the dim candlelight like charcoal embers. Other eyes glowed in the darkness all around him, many other eyes. “A candle ain’t ‘sposed to give off so much light,” Skeezer said, his voice almost childlike with misbelief. “I know it’s dark in here but I can see you plain as day, Joshua. I can see everything in here like it’s tomorrow mornin”. Shit, man, what’s happenin’ to–?”
He shut himself up, and Josh knew why…. because Skeezer Woolsey could see through the darkness, … and because he could see who was inside the tavern with them!
Someone near the counter had spoken, but the young man remained paralyzed on his stool. The voice sounded like nothing belonging to the streets of Queen’s Village. Josh held out the candle to the man’s pale face.
Before him stood the same stranger who had entered earlier. His lips curled in a tight smile while his mouth displayed teeth that were much too sharp and impossibly white to belong to anything human.
“Mister D.!” Skeezer said. ‘shit, Joshua, I know this man! J-Bird and me, we done business with this man!”
“True, true,” the tall stranger responded still smiling broadly while his eyes fixed on Woolsey.
“And business is what brings me here tonight, my young friend.” The man still had not removed the rain soaked trench coat he wore but even so he looked insanely delicate alongside Skeezer. In the winking candlelight thin veins threaded through the pallid flesh of the stranger’s temples. The flesh seemed old and sickly, but his face was not that of an old man. He turned to the shadowy figures among the many behind him. “Business, in fact, is what brings all of us here,” he added as if this were a signal. The tavern door opened once again and a lanky figure stepped in from the night, then slowly made its way to the bar counter. There was something familiar about the way he walked, something so familiar…
“J-Bird!” Skeezer said, even before the figure stepped into the firelight. The youth’s flesh seemed like something made of paper and thick paste. Two of Skeezer’s .22 slugs remained lodged in each cheek, and one had cracked the bone of his chin. Blood-caked teeth curled over his thick lower lip. He looked like a kid wearing some grotesque party mask bought in a cheap costume shop, an insane mixture of an urban street kid and a corpse.
“Just look at me, Skeeze. You fucked me up good,” he said. The ridiculous greeting seemed wildly incongruous, as if some stinking clotted creature had crawled from its grave to ask Woolsey the time. Another two shadowy figures stepped closer to the bar and in the dim candlelight Josh recognized them too.
The Clayton brothers!
“How you doin’, old man? It’s been a while,” B.B. Clayton said to Josh, then turned to Woolsey and added “Hey, Skeeze.”
Simple. So simple it was insane. B.B.’s dark skin had gone purple, and it glistened with either sweat or slime, Josh could not tell in the firelight. The old man held the candle out to see better, but B.B. pulled away from it as if shielding himself from a burning sun.
“I don’t think you want to do that again, old man,” B.B. said, wearing the same shit-eating grin Josh had remembered. But it really was not the same. Not the same at all. The quiet brother, Duane, stood alongside his twin, his front tooth still missing. But now there were new teeth, and they looked very sharp.
“Take a good look at us, Skeezer,” J-Bird said. “The Claytons, me, and all the rest in here. We ain’t real pleasant to see, but we all fuckin” VIPs “round this town! We workin” for the man, Skeeze, and we the baddest asses in the Queen!”
“I see you, all right, J-Bird!” Skeezer said, fear and rage spidering veins through his temples. “And I seen you earlier too when you chewed at my face like you was some pit bull hungry enough to eat the ass hole out of a bear! That weren”t no bad-assed mo”fuck I saw earlier, J-Bird. That was some kind of snap case demon, one whipped up crazy –”
“Not crazy, Skeeze – - – hungry. That’s what you saw. You gon’ to tell me you don’t know somethin’ “bout that kind of hunger, Skeeze?” J-Bird turned to the Clayton Brothers. “ain’t too many of us in here who ain’t felt the hunger of that sweet tooth habit. It comes and it goes, Skeeze … but there ain’t no real need for me to be tellin” you all this, is there?” B.B. stepped forward. “”Course there’s hunger … and then again, there’s thirst. Thirst so bad you feel like you got cotton balls in your throat …”
Their laughter was the mad screeching of ravenous animals, and the tall stranger who called himself Mister D. raised his hand to quiet them. He leaned toward Josh.
“Who are you?” Josh asked. “Who the hell are–?”
The stranger spoke low as if sharing a secret only the old bartender might understand.
“You heard the young turk, Joshua. I’m “The Man”. A businessman, to be exact. Not every drug habit is satisfied by a line of powder up one’s nose or the prick of a hypodermic needle. I’m talking about simple economics, my friend. A vampire’s law of supply and demand is no different than any entrepreneur’s. A gram of cocaine, a gram of flesh and blood … it’s all the same. I have simply found my market, established my territory, and provided my services. I would conduct my trade right here on this corner just like you if I could. But my line of work, by its nature, must of necessity remain somewhat secretive if I am to stay solvent.
The Claytonboy here tells me you”ve had this establishment on this same corner in Queen’s Village for over thirty years?”
“Thirty-four,” Josh added. “But I don’t see what that’s got-”
The stranger’s eyes shone in the darkness as if some inner light glowed inside his skull like a sickly jack-o”lantern’s.
“We all do what we must to survive, Joshua. You rely on your clientele as do I, and we each do our part to quench the thirst of our customers. But in my case, Joshua, I create the demand for my supply, just as any dealer must. An there is only one certain way to create the demand for blood, the thirst for it! My market far surpasses those foolish venders of crack cocaine – - – because consumers of blood do not die! The vampire is the perfect consumer because he creates more consumers like himself, and my business increases exponentially! I’m sure you understand, old man. Business is business.”
“Then you”re no different than those gone-to-hell cruds in them crack houses down the block,” Josh said.
“No, Joshua,” the tall man amended. “I am different. Their profits result in the deaths of boys like these. Mine result in their eternal life!”
J-Bird took this as his cue and seated himself on the stool alongside Skeezer. He placed his hand on Woolsey’s shoulder, the one with the torn sleeve.
“Listen to Mr. D., Skeeze, and he”ll quench that thirst for you like he does the rest of us. All you got to do is recruit some more. That’s what we was doin’ all along anyway. We wasn’t deliverin” powder for Mister D., Skeeze. Oh, yeah, there was cola in them bags, but that wasn’t what the dude wanted to push. The coke was just a front to fool us, man, and them buyers didn’t give a shit that I was appropriatin” their snow, “long as we sold enough to cover expenses for what we was really unloadin”. Man, you and me went dancin” every night into their vampire turf, and it wa the cee that made us believe the man was just doin’ some business. Cocaine ain’t worth squat to a vampire … but blood is another matter when you be talkin” “bout street prices.”
“You ain’t gon’ to get no rush like that from reefer or orange cap crack!”
B.B. Clayton added. He could not stop laughing.
“You’d shit green if you saw the foldin” jack a vampire’s likely to be carryin” in his pockets, Skeeze,” J-Bird continued. “Think on it, man. We was deliverin” bags of coke to buyers who was sendin” all that cee right back into the streets.
’cause what them leeches really wanted was some boyz in the “hood! A vampire’s got connections you can’t even dream ’bout, man, and he glad to pay top dollar to suck up all that premium red gravy comin” fresh from a young dude’s vein. And we delivered it right to their door step, man! Streets be too violent even for a vampire these days, Skeeze, and wantin” to keep a low profile they don’t want no mess with no Kojaks or someone knows somethin’ “bout defendin” hisself in a dark alley. Thanks to us no blood suckers don’t need to worry “bout huntin” the streets to feed their habit, long as they got the cash. You an” me was scouts recruitin” more Queen V corner boys to be feedin” D.’s payin” customers” blood habit. People with the habit always come up with the jack, and D. knows that sure as any junker that comes to this part of town. Sell the coke, buy the blood, and Mr. D. collects his profits. Need more buyers? Then create more vampires. It’s free enterprise at its finest, man, “cept the boys carryin” the goods don’t know it’s themselves they ‘ventually be sellin”!”
J-Bird looked at the tall, pale man with an expression of reverence oddlyco-mingled with fear. “The man’s a pro, Skeeze, a real flesh peddler, and he got contacts everywhere. When Mister D. here uses up one place the dude moves on to some other urban feedin” ground in some other city. He don’t need to worry “bout no shortage of suppliers, and those suppliers soon gon’ to create even more demand. Now there’s a lesson in economics I ain’t never understood “till I worked for the man.”
B.B. moved closer to Woolsey, so close that their faces nearly touched. “And now it looks like we gon’ to move on to another town too. We got to go with him, Skeeze.”
“We?” Skeezer asked.
“Let me show you how it is.”
He yanked Skeezer’s denim collar down to expose his neck. Skeezer instinctively felt there for the two deep holes that still leaked bloody pulp, holes that J-Bird had bitten earlier that evening as he and Woolsey had struggled on the wet sidewalks. The bites had pierced a thick vein in Woolsey’s dark skin, but now that skin had begun to go pale. He ran his hand along his cheek searching for the shredded flesh of the wound that had been there earlier. Already the laceration had practically healed. But the skin felt cold, like raw meat.
“You see what I’m sayin”? You dead, man. But then again, you ain’t.” “I’m thirsty,” Skeezer said, licking his dried lips. Josh looked at the last mug he had poured for Skeezer Woolsey over fifteen minutes earlier. Woolsey had not even touched it. His was not that kind of thirst. The crazy thing was that to Josh, Skeezer Woolsey looked a damn sight better than he had one hour earlier … even with two elongated fangs protruding from his purple gums. Skeezer rose to his feet and faced the bartender.
“These streets ain’t no place to be without my corner boys, Joshua. B.B.’s right, man. I see what I got to do. You understand what I’m sayin’?”
“Yeah. Yeah. I understand,” the old man said. The terrible truth was that he did.
Moments later they were gone.
Josh sat behind the counter inside his empty tavern without moving for almost an hour. The flame from the solitary candle on the counter fluttered in his eyes. The candle had gone to a nub and Josh waited for it to flicker out. He did not feel much like lighting another one. Maybe he couldn’t do anything about the craziness that walked the streets of Queen’s Village but a man behind these doors had at least some control. If he wanted it to remain dark inside his tavern then he could see that it did.
It was almost 1:30 a.m., still thirty minutes before last call. Power failure or not, nothing would make Joshua close shop for the night.
A young couple walked in. “didn’t think you’d be open, the power bein” out,” the man said. He snapped his umbrella shut and handed it to the woman while he remove his coat.
“Damn messy out there, and everything else is closed. Must be a slow night, huh?” Joshua smiled. Maybe he would light another candle after all. “Always slow on a rainy night like this. Beer?”
(c) Kenneth C. Goldman, All Rights Reserved.
Tags: 'A Pound of Flesh', 'Kenneth C. Goldman', Bloodlust-UK, Dracula, Short Story, Vampire, Vampire Fiction, Writers
- 'Intolerance' by Miles Deacon
- 'The Immortals' by Marc Lecard
- 'Verbal Vampire' by Martin Young
- 'The Truth' by Mat Winser
- 'Varmints' by Joshua Alan Doetsch