Chapter 5: Fighting Martha
Copyright © 2013 by Brian Bixby.
I wake up, summon Homer, and drink from him. Same experience as yesterday: I feel really clear-headed. I try the beer, find, as I expected, that I can’t drink it. Another pleasure of life crossed off the list. Probably will turn out vampires can’t watch TV either, so I’ll never see another ball game. I have Homer stick the writing materials in the trunk with my uniform, and then I send him off. I should have spent more time pumping him for information, but I can’t shake off the anticipation of getting free from these ropes. Possibly Martha feels the same way, because she turns up within minutes of Homer’s departure.
I decide to find out. “What did you do, Mother Fokker, wait for Homer to leave?”
She gives me a chirpy smile. “Sure ’nuff, Ned. Get here and leave, even. So it’s time for your second lesson. You want to kill me, right, Ned?”
I look at her. Martha is just a bit too flip, but she knows, so I tell her. “Sure ’nuff.”
The next thing I know, she slaps me in the face.
I glare at her, even growl, and say, “What the hell was that for? Did I need to put that in a full sentence to show respect?”
She looks at me, very serious, and says, “No, Ned. That’s for being stupid. Never warn a vampire you mean to kill him. Not unless you want to get killed first. When you were a cop, would you threaten to kill another human unless you were sure you would succeed?”
“Then take the same precautions. Study the other vampire. Learn how he fights, his strengths and weaknesses. Learn the pattern of his life. Don’t give him a warning, you fool. And when you think you can beat him, you’ve got a choice: issue a formal challenge, which is the only legit way to do it, or take the chance you can off him and get away unseen.”
Well, this is rich. I’m thinking of killing Martha, and she’s telling me to study her carefully before I do so. Sheesh, I’ve got to wonder. But I don’t let my wonder at Martha’s self-assurance make me neglect to follow out what she’s saying. “So there’s a legitimate way to kill another vampire and an illegitimate way. What happens if I kill a vampire without a challenge? What are there, vampire cops?”
She shakes her head with a laugh. “Vampire cops, that’s a good one, Ned. No, the king or the affected gang leader will set the other vampires on you, if they have reason enough to think it was you. And threatening another vampire would be considered a reason, Ned.”
Again, vampire gangs and criminal gangs sound similar. Pity there aren’t any vampire cops. I could use their help. So what about the other alternative? “How does a formal challenge work?”
Martha stands up. She walks to the foot of my coffin, comes up part way, swings her hand as if slapping someone standing there, and says, “I hereby challenge you to single combat.” She turns to look at me. “You slap and announce. You may, if you wish, state the reason for the challenge, but these days that sounds pretentious. You may also say it is ‘single combat to the death’ or ‘single combat until one party yields.’ That used to mean something, but these days all combats are really to the death unless the winning party wants to show mercy, so don’t bother.” Martha sits down. “Your opponent must accept the challenge unless he either feels he would hopelessly outclass you, or appeals to his leader to mediate. If either of those happens, you’re off script, and probably in trouble.”
Hopelessly outclassed, eh? I can think of someone who I would normally figure to be so. I ask Martha, “Anyone ever refuse a challenge from you, Mother Fokker, because you’re so short?”
Martha doesn’t even hesitate. “Not and live out the week, Ned.” She offers a contented smile. “Anyhow, the challenged party gets to pick weapons. He can choose smoothbore pistols, edged weapons with or without a maximum length, or no weapons at all.”
“Why not rifled bores?”
Martha looks amused. “Gang leaders will tell you because they don’t want long-range duels or duels in which both parties get killed with the first shot. The real reason is because this is an adaptation of old European dueling codes, and no one’s got the authority to change them.
“Time and place get set by the gang leaders present, or by mutual consent. If it’s done right, you’ll both each select a second to see that the duel is conducted properly, and a neutral party will umpire. Always make sure the umpire is really neutral, Ned, or, better yet, that he favors you. And never argue with the umpire, no matter what, unless you intend to kill him and make a run for it.
“Finally, if you’re losing, you can ask for mercy. Or the winner may even offer you the choice of dying or accepting his conditions. If he does, you ask. He can demand you give up your grudge, demonstrate your respect for him publicly, offer him a blood tribute of prey, or offer up your own blood and become his slave. And that’s how a challenge works, Ned.”
I thought about it. It did sound like the duels you see in movies or read about in books. But there was one thing that didn’t make sense. “I thought you told me vampires can’t enthrall one another.”
“I did. They can’t.”
“Then how can my taking the blood of another vampire make him my slave? And didn’t you say that wasn’t allowed or something?”
Martha favors me with a big smile. “Damn, you’re good, Ned. Drinking another vampire’s blood is taboo, it’s socially unacceptable. That’s not to say vampires haven’t done it to each other, now and again. And it is permitted, or at least tolerated, in some circumstances. This is one of them. But remember, Ned, drinking blood is our sex. Taking another vampire’s blood as a sign of victory over them is worse than rape, Ned. Most vampires will be so crushed by that happening to them that they’ll accept being slaves for the rest of their lives. And the other vampires will treat them that way, too.
“And now that we’ve covered that,” Martha reaches over, gives the ropes binding me a tap, “you can get out of your bonds now, Ned. And then we’re going to have a fight.”
A fight? I start trying to force my arms out of the ropes. Martha stands up and moves away. It takes me a few minutes to get out of the ropes. I stand up, get out of the coffin, flex my limbs. Despite having been tied up for days, I feel pretty good. Being a vampire seems to have some advantages, I hate to admit. I look over at Martha, who’s standing about twenty feet away across the dirt floor. She’s stripped off the light jacket she was wearing, so now she has on just a blouse and jeans. “Are you challenging me, Mother? Or is it the other way around?”
She shakes her head. “Neither, Ned. This is just a fight. Three falls out of five. You can even fight dirty if you want. You win, you walk out of here.”
“What if I lose?”
“You get hurt.”
That’s simple. A little too simple. Here I was planning on finding out how tough Martha really is. And now she’s going to show me, without my even asking, and she acts like it’s not a question. On a moment’s impulse, I try the broken wing trick. “I don’t really have use of my left hand.”
Martha laughs at that. “You’re right-handed, Ned. You have a foot of height and I don’t know how many inches of reach on me. So quit stalling. On the count of three. One. Two. Three.”
I take up a position. I take up another position. This one’s on the floor, with Martha on top of me. She jumps off. By the time I get up, she’s back in her original position. “That’s one, Ned.”
I shake my head a few times to see if I still have one. “How did you do that, Mother?”
“You’re a vampire now, Ned. You’re tougher and stronger and faster than you used to be. And I’m older, and even tougher, stronger, and faster. So start taking that into account. On the count of three.”
I take up my fighting position before she even starts counting. This time I see her, a lethal comet coming right at me. I’m only starting to swing at her when she lands her fist in my stomach, knocking the wind out of me, knocking me back. By the time I recover, I don’t see her. But I hear her. She’s behind me. I start to turn, and realize that was a mistake when something slams into my back, sending me sprawling on the dirt floor.
I get up. Martha’s back in her starting position. She smiles, asks, “Give up?”
I have decided that Martha really is tough. The question is whether, being a vampire, I can become as tough as she is. I shake my head. “No, Mother. If I’m going to learn to fight other vampires, I need the experience.”
That puts an especially big smile on her face. “You know, I really like you, Ned. On the count of three.”
I do better this time, only because Martha lets me. She sticks to attacking me on my right, moving just a little bit faster than I do, hitting me just enough to make me hurt. Turns out she knows karate or something similar, as she swaps between that and using her fists. I land one blow on her that might have hurt her, and the next instant she kicks out and knocks my legs out from under me.
I take my time getting up, in part because I’ve actually taken more punishment this round from all of Martha’s hits. She’s back in her position, not showing any sign I hurt her. Damn, she is tough, or else I’m so out of it I can’t see what’s in front of me. I nod to her. “You win, three out of five. But don’t tell me you didn’t slow down and pull your punches that last round.”
She shrugs. “Of course. You said you wanted to learn. I outclass you by so much right now, Ned, that you’d not be able to learn from me if I didn’t slow down.”
“And when will I be up to your level, Mother?”
She frowns. “You deserve a slap for that, Ned. Don’t be stupid! But the answer is not for a few years at best, and by that time I won’t be in Chicago.”
So it’s possible. Another lesson I don’t think Martha intended I learn. While thinking it over, I look around. There’s nowhere to sit except on the floor. Or in my coffin, and at this point I’d rather sit in the dirt. “Aren’t there any chairs here?”
“I’ll get some next time.” Martha relaxes from her fighting position.
I’m tempted to try to launch a surprise attack on her. For about a moment. But I saw how fast she was. I wouldn’t stand a chance, not, as she put it, for a few years yet. So I sit on the floor by the coffin. Martha comes over and sits facing me only a few feet away.
I open up the conversation. “So you teach me how to fight. I get into a challenge. Now, how do I kill the other vampire?”
She looks surprised. “I didn’t tell you? Hmph. It’ll be a while before you can actually do it, but you should know how. Just about anything that destroys the tissue and organization of either the heart or the brain in a major way will do the trick, Ned: stake through the heart, explosive bullet in the brain, anything like that. The brain controls the body, and, hey, you’re a vampire – can’t survive without the main blood pump. Vampires have recovered from serious heart damage, with time and care, but serious brain damage typically becomes permanent. And beheading a vampire is supposed to kill him, and I think it does, but no one’s sure. Everyone always destroys the brain or heart after a beheading, just in case.”
And that is our night. Martha talks, explaining vampire society and custom. About once an hour, we get up, and Martha uses me as a punching bag. Martha talks some more. I ask questions. And then I get to be Martha’s favorite target again.
Martha clearly wants me to be able to fight. After our second set of falls, she even starts giving me lessons in how to fight. Me, a cop, and I’m getting lessons from a girl. But I’m not so stupid as to say as much. I’m not sure whether I’d get a slap for that one, or whether Martha would start breaking fingers on my right hand.
Most of what Martha describes are physical realities of life as a vampire. Things like not going out into the sun, if I manage to stay awake that long. Or they’re the manners and procedures for living among vampire gangs. And she quizzes me. If I don’t do well enough, I get slapped. I get by with few slaps.
But after several hours I can feel myself getting tired of this. So just after another round of falls (Martha winning them all, of course), I say to her, “All this is about the gangs, Mother Fokker. Don’t vampires have friends or lovers or anything like that?”
Martha’s taken to sitting Indian style, with her back up against the trunk my uniform is in. She considers my question a bit before answering. “Yeah, vampires have friends, Ned. Humans have them, we have them. You know how I said you’re confusing sex and blood lust in your brain, Ned? Well, most vampires never completely separate them, even after decades. So you see couples, too.”
Which raises the question of whether Martha herself has separated them. Sometimes I think she likes me, quite apart from my fighting ability, or should I say inability? So I ask, “You ever have a guy friend, Martha?”
Martha smiles, leans back, closes her eyes. “Guy friends, girl friends, a few friends that would be hard to peg as either. I’ve been around for a long time, Ned, and I move around a lot. But a guy friend? Yeah, that’s why I’m here in Chicago.
“His name was Vic, and he was a member of the only vampire biker gang in California, the Belfry Bats, based in LA. They only rode at night, of course.” Martha chuckles, mostly to herself. “Vic built his own hog, and it was rad. I’d ride pillion, and we’d go off on that bike for hundreds of miles. Usually slept over the following day wherever we ended up.
“Vic was funny. He had this idea that since we took blood from our prey, we owed them something in return. We once spent a summer actually building a house for our prey in some California town. Vic even drew up the architectural plans. He’d been an engineer before he became a vampire.
“In ’65, Vic took a trip to Frisco. Dropped acid, liked it so much he set up home there, and I joined him. Vic started hanging out with the Free Speech Movement people, the rock scene, and all that. It was groovy.”
I interrupt. “Vampires do drugs? I just tried drinking a beer, Mother, and I couldn’t.”
She doesn’t open her eyes, just chuckles. “You can’t drink or eat anything normal, Ned. And a lot of drugs don’t work, either, at least not the way they’re supposed to. But acid was far out.
“A bunch of our friends, including several vampires, decided to come to Chicago to protest the war. I didn’t care much about that, so I didn’t go to the first protest marches.”
Martha stops talking. I wait, and then take a close look at her. There are tears coming out of her eyes. I almost say something, and then she starts talking again, but more softly. “So I wasn’t there the first night they got into a fight with the cops. Vic got clubbed in the head so badly he dropped to the ground. Some strangers who didn’t know who he was took him away and tried to take care of him. They didn’t . . .” Martha pauses again. She’s having trouble keeping it together. “They didn’t know he was a vampire, and he didn’t wake up. The sun came up and he burned. And if I’d been there it wouldn’t have happened. He wouldn’t have burned. But I wasn’t there.”
Martha’s sitting there, eyes closed, quietly crying. I don’t say anything, because I can’t think of anything to say. Finally, she opens her eyes, looks at me through her tears, and in a very quiet voice says, “End of lessons for tonight, Ned. If we went another round of fighting, I’d kill you.” And with that she gets up and leaves.
I just sit there on the dirt floor for a bit, thinking about everything Martha’s said and done. I don’t know what to make of her at all. She has these moments when she seems human, but I know she’s killed a lot of cops, and God knows how many others. I suppose Hitler had his lovable moments, too. Probably Martha makes donations to the Red Cross and keeps stray puppies in between killing cops. Still, I would like to have met this guy Vic. I’d like to have heard his explanation for how he lived. A vampire do-gooder doesn’t seem real.
With Martha gone, I decided to explore a way out of here. So I walk up the stairs, pull open the door, and walk out. Or try to. But I can’t actually cross the threshold. I can see a hallway, in what looks like a deserted building. But I can’t walk from the landing across the threshold into the hallway. I call out a few times, but all I hear are echoes. The threshold feels funny. And then I’ve got it: it feels like the ropes. Sorcerer’s magic. It’s letting Martha and our prey through, but not me. I go to check the windows. They also have magic on them, so I can’t break one. I even try to use a stake to break one, without any sign of success. As usual, Martha’s been thorough.
The one consolation I have is that I’m unbound. That means someday I will get out of here.
Martha told me I don’t have to sleep in a coffin, just some place where it is dark, out of direct sunlight. The basement isn’t exactly furnished for luxurious living. So as I feel dawn coming, I go back to the coffin and go to sleep, content in that I am not tied up in it.
End of chapter five