Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Secondhand Blood

A spirit haunts the year's last hours,
Dwelling amid these yellowing bowers:
To himself he talks;
For at eventide, listening earnestly,
At his work you may hear him sob and sigh
In the walks;
Earthward he boweth the heavy stalks
Of the mouldering flowers:
Heavily hangs the broad sunflower
Over its grave i' the earth so chilly;
Heavily hangs the hollyhock,
Heavily hangs the tiger-lily.

Her voice was smokier than the air inside. She was singing "The Man I Love," and the timbre of desperation in her voice could've made Billie Holiday sound like a paragon of joy and optimism.

The place had a two-drink minimum, so I paid for my drinks and was still nursing the first one. I didn't plan on finishing it. It was a little jazz club on the edge of downtown that must have been a speakeasy back in the thirties and probably hadn't been redecorated since before the war. The atmosphere was thick with the smoke of cigarettes and other herbs, greasy with the musk of several decades worth of anonymous patrons and heavy with years of resignation and irony. The waiters worked their way through the labyrinth of tables completely by memory, I guess, because it was so dark I could barely see how much whiskey was left in my glass. But I had ordered two fingers, and I was pretty sure I still had at least one and a half fingers left.

Lily was her name, and everyone came here to see her. She sang like she had been there, and was somehow still there, somehow still surviving in spite of all the loss, all the heartbreak, all the years that should have stomped her into oblivion long before and left her dead from sorrow and drug overdose.

She stood tall and dark, hair that must have once been black as midnight dancing in serpent-curls around her ears, dark green eyes glowing from the bleak and cavernous hollows of their sockets. When she sang, some people quietly wept, or sat quietly and tried not to. Some people merely became silent and contemplative. No one spoke. No one threw a beer bottle at the stage. And when she finished and it was time to leave, they all went outside and took a deep breath of the stale city air and knew, somewhere inside, that no matter how bad their lives were, someone else's had been worse. Lily was that kind of a singer.

She had a figure that must have turned a lot of heads when she was younger, but how long ago was that? Twenty years? Forty? Sixty? It was impossible to tell. She was old before her time, or young despite her years. Her voice was as worn and tough as old, soft leather.

The song ended with a faltering ripple of piano, like the last weak sob before you wipe your nose and start over again. The room broke into muted applause and Lily faded from the stage with a ghost of a smile that twisted up one corner of her mouth and a faint gesture of open palms turned toward the audience. Someone in the corner stood abruptly and swept out the door, navigating between the tables as if he could see clearly in the dark. He was the one I was here for.

I knew he was the one because he stood out like no one else in the room. My eyes saw him as just another person, ignoring his drink in a shadowy jazz club. But another part of me, something indefinable in my mind, saw him as a blot of nothingness surrounded by a faint, flickering aura of deepest red. The undead stand out to me as clearly as if they are on fire. Or rather, as if everyone else is on fire and the undead is not. A combination of smell, sight and some other sense: a sense of what is correct and what is out of place, or what is alive and what is not alive. It is something I have come to know and rely on, but not something that I care to analyze too closely. It is simply what I am—or what I have been since I awakened from that week spent near death when I was a kid.

There was something about this one that bothered me, however. I was puzzled and troubled that I thought I could see thin, spidery skeins of faint reddish-blackness stretching across the room between him and Lily. I had never seen anything like it before. I gave him two seconds and followed him out the door.

My instinct led me around the corner into the alley, just in time to see him vanish into a side door. This was where things could get very hairy very fast. I waited a few seconds before carefully trying the door, prepared to put on my lost drunk act, one hand under my jacket already covering the big pistol slung in a shoulder holster.

He wasn’t there. A sliver of yellow light leaked through a slightly opened door. I heard his voice.


I heard Lily’s sharp gasp, and as I peeked through the crack in the door her reflection in the mirror showed a timid, fearful excuse of a smile.

“I have come, Lily…” The words were odd, forced and breathy, like air being blown by a bellows across guitar strings. Every syllable was like a coffin nail being scratched across the back of my neck.

Through the crack in the door I watched as he offered his bare arm to Lily, and she took it, her face twisted by want and repulsion, gasping with the effort of what she was forcing herself—and what she needed—to do. She looked up at him once, a look of lust and hate, sorrow and gratitude. She bit and sucked hungrily.

I faded back into the darkness of the empty hallway, fighting the impulse to vomit. I had seen them feed before, but this was a first: a living human feeding on one of the undead. It was another bit of knowledge to add to my little black notebook, a few more points knocked off the top of my sanity. I left that crevice of evil and death behind, needing the fresh air of the stinking alley before I simply passed out from nausea and disbelief. I crouched behind a dumpster and waited, trying to get a grip on myself.

Several minutes later he came back out the door and hurried toward the black end of the alley. I knew he would need to feed again, and soon. I forced myself to follow him. His flickering red-black aura made him easy to follow in the darkness. I didn’t hurry, and was careful to walk as quietly as possible. This was the part I knew, the part I had done many times before. There was no need to hurry, because he would have to stop soon, as soon as he found easy prey, and then I would catch him.


I was back in the club again the next night. I took my first drink and wended my way through the maze of tables to the tiny stage in the corner, only big enough for an upright piano, a singer and a couple of horns if they didn’t mind getting each other’s sweat on their elbows. I stuck a twenty-dollar-bill in the brandy snifter on the piano and said it had been a long time since I’d heard “Funny Thing.” The piano player smiled and nodded, effortlessly shifting into the song with a sprinkling of silver music sparkling through the room as I took a seat near the stage.

Lily didn’t disappoint. She sang the whimsical little love song with a hundred years’ worth of helpless love and unremitting grief packed into three minutes.

Funny thing how the raindrops
All remind me of tears
Funny thing how your laughter
Is all that my heart ever hears…

Lily had seen me make the request with the piano player, and now she looked at me and I looked right back at her, staring into those eyes that were as dark and hollow as a cave of dead emeralds. I couldn’t look away, and neither could she. I knew that what I had done would ultimately result in her own death. I had killed two people this time, one of them not entirely innocent, but not entirely culpable either. In my particular and peculiar line of work, I still learned new things all the time, and I had only a vague idea about how her drinking secondhand blood had affected her. It was entirely possible that she could see some kind of psychic residue about me that somehow connected me with her undead…lover, or whatever he was. That was another line of thought that I didn’t want to concentrate on too closely.

Funny thing how I still love you
As though you said goodbye
Funny thing but who’s laughing
Not I…

Not me either, Lily.

When it came time for her break, I left the club and went around the corner to the side door, into the darkened hallway and slipped into her tiny dressing room.

When she saw my reflection in the mirror, she stiffened but said nothing.

“Lily,” I said quietly. “He’s not coming back.”

Her eyes met mine in the mirror and for one split second I thought she was going to scream. Then she collapsed in on herself, going from a proud, tall and striking woman of indeterminate years to a frail old lady in half a second.

“He only wanted me to sing,” she said, chocking back a sob. “It was all I could ever do.”

I wanted to say I was sorry, but how could I be sorry for stopping a murderer? Still, it was true that I was sorry. Sorry for her. My throat was too tight to speak again.

“He always loved to hear me sing,” she went on. “He said he wanted me to sing forever. I wasn’t ever good at anything else. I never had a regular job—he…died before we could have kids. All I could ever do was sing for him. All I could ever do was love him. I know it was wrong, but…but I couldn’t do nothin’ else.”

She brushed reflexively and unconsciously at her hair for a few seconds. A single sob escaped her and she wiped her face before I could see her tears.

She turned and looked up at me, now nothing but a very old woman who knew she was helpless, a woman who had no choice but to trust the kindness of a stranger. The revolting monster who I had seen sucking someone else’s blood from the arm of an undead only twenty-four hours before was gone. I had seen it, and it was hard for me to believe I was looking at the same person. She attempted a weak smile, but succeeded only in seeming more pathetic. “You know, I…I never even learned how to drive. Could you…could you take me home? I can’t go back out there again.”

“Of course,” I told her. “I’ll get you home.”


She lived a few blocks out from downtown in an old neighborhood, where the houses were thin and peaked and packed together with only the barest pretense of a yard in between. Her small house was neatly cluttered with odd knick-knacks collected over a long, tedious lifetime and smelled vaguely of mold, moth balls and rose water. I left her sitting in the darkness of her tiny living room, just big enough for two rocking chairs, an antique record player in the corner and a tall bookshelf crammed with old records. She was sitting in her rocking chair, the crackly sounds of an old Dinah Washington album coming from the record player, but not before she gave me something.

“You take this,” she had said suddenly. She handed me an old record, a photograph of herself on the cover, from when she had been younger—and tall, proud, buxomly middle-aged and gorgeous. “It was the only record I ever cut, back in the fifties. Someone should have it. Someone should remember me.”

I promised her that I would always remember her, and it was the absolute truth. I asked her if I could do anything else for her, but she said no, just to put some music on before I left if I would. I picked the Dinah Washington album from the shelf and she smiled as it began playing.

“Thank you,” she said, and smiled a smile of genuine relief but not a little wistfulness. I didn’t feel that she owed me any gratitude at all.

So I left her there, rocking in the dark and listening to the music, and I never saw her again. Her obituary was in the paper two days later.

And I will always remember Lily. I still play her record sometimes, when the night is long and the air is melancholy. And through all the pops and clicks of fifty-plus years comes the sound of a voice filled with the sorrow and loneliness of too many decades, and the voice of a soul who could do nothing but sing.


  1. This is a great story; the second half is flawless. I have three small technical suggestions. "As a result of my own particular near death experience long ago" is a little clunky: it doesn't say enough, or it says too much too baldly. The "blessing and a curse" might be a little cliche. I think you could keep the basic concept without that wording. And the first time the vampire speaks and says "Lily..."--that one word should have its own paragraph. The second half flowed perfectly: I saw that apartment, and felt the tragedy of Lily's life. A great job. This story has strong bones.

  2. Yeah, ever time I try to explain something like that "near death experience" I run into problems working it smoothly into the story. I'll work on those changes.