Chapter 6: Bleeding in Bronzeville
Copyright © 2013 by Brian Bixby.
When I wake up, I debate whether to summon Homer or not. I don’t feel I have to drink blood yet, but I don’t feel quite as sharp. So I call him in, drink from him, and we chat. I try to leave with him, but I can’t pass the threshold at the top of the stairs.
Homer’s barely gone when Martha shows up. She’s looking her usual cheerful self.
I say to her, “Time for me to take some more falls?”
She shakes her head. “Not tonight, Ned. We’re going out, and I promise you you’ll get enough exercise before the night is through.” And she turns around and heads up the stairs.
I follow after, and once again find I can’t cross. I call out, “Mother Fokker!”
Martha turns around, looks puzzled for a moment, and then walks back. She extends her hand over the threshold. “Take my hand, Ned.” I do, and find I can finally cross onto the ground floor of the building. Martha gives me a backward glance. “You’ll not have any future problem, Ned. The barrier will stay up to keep you safe from intruders.”
Martha is a caring one, in her own weird way. I suppose a barrier against someone trying to stake me beats a hug in her books. I look around the building. It looks like the interior of a store, but deserted. There’s junk all over the floor, including some furniture. The place is barely lit up by the twilight sky, which I can see outside through the dirty window glass. I turn to Martha. “What is this place? Where are we?”
Martha gives me a grimace. “There was a store here destroyed in the riots last year. And we’re in the part of Chicago sometimes called Bronzeville, on the South Side.”
Oh, shit. The colored slums. A long way from anything I know, even if we’re still in Chicago. “Why here?”
Martha shrugs. “No one comes here. Your buddies wouldn’t look for you here. And you’ll meet the third reason in a few minutes.” She heads for the door.
We go out, Martha falling in with me so we walk side by side. It’s a summer evening, maybe about 9 PM. The first few blocks are deserted, burned-out buildings on either side. I’ve not been down this way before, but I saw some of the colored slums on the West Side, and this reminds me of how they looked last year after King died. And then we turn a corner onto what looks like a normal street. Still kind of seedy, but there are intact storefronts: corner groceries, bakeries, pawnbrokers, various church storefronts with elaborate, gaudy titles, and the like. And there are people. Colored people, but people. After spending so many days in that basement, mostly alone, I am ever so happy to see people.
Then I notice they don’t seem so happy to see me, or at least us. I reach up, feel some stubble, and wish I had a mirror. But it’s not my apparent bad shaving habits that cause them to stare. We’re white. We’re the only white people I can see. People stare, then look away.
We end up on 47th Street, and drop down to a basement entrance. Martha pulls open the door, and we go inside.
The place is a pool hall. There’s a bar, too, but no one’s at it except the bartender. Everyone else is clustered around the pool tables, mostly watching, some shooting. And they’re all colored. And they’re all vampires. It’s interesting I can tell that, though how I know I can’t figure out yet. Though there’s one clue I pick up fast: there’s no smell of tobacco or beer in the air. Never been in a pool hall without both, but here I am.
A big black dude in leather peels off from the nearest table. He must be six-four or more, and built like a truck. Bouncer, no doubt. What the hell do vampires need a bouncer for? Drunk rowdy vampires? Keep the human scum out? He comes over, looking us up and down, before he stops a few feet from us and says to me, “You’re in the wrong place, bro’. Take your daughter and go find a nice honky joint to feel her up.”
Martha pipes up in a very loud voice, “Better get ‘Scratch’ Wilson over here fast, son, and he better apologize for you, or else the only balls you’ll ever have will be on the table.”
The place goes dead silent. The dude looks at Martha with open contempt. He drawls, “Your pappy teach you to talk dirty like that, or are you just a cheap piece . . .”
This light-colored black guy comes up. He’s wearing a nicely-tailored suit and tie, better than anything I’ve ever worn. Like the big guy, he wears an Afro, so it looks kind of strange on him with the formal clothes and all. He cuts in, “That’s enough, Shorty. Apologize to Martha Fokker and fade.”
Shorty’s jaw drops when he hears Martha’s name. He gives her a once over, looks to the suit guy. The suit guy nods. Shorty turns to Martha and in a wheedling voice says, “I’m sorry about that, Martha Fokker. I just didn’t know, and . . . yeah, you know we don’t want any trouble with white folk here.” He decides that wasn’t the best ending and adds, “Not that you’re not all right, I mean for white folk.”
Suit guy cuts him off before he can say anything more stupid. “That’s good, Shorty. You’ll recognize Martha and not give her any trouble next time, now, won’t you? So fade.” Shorty fades. Suit guy gives Martha a hug. It’s a bit awkward, because, like me, he’s got about a foot on Martha, but she stands on tip-toes to make it easier. He smiles, says to her, “C’mon back and let’s have a chat.” The two of them head toward the back. I follow. The noise in the place starts returning to normal. Suit guy gives the bartender a yell. “Four glasses,” he says.
Suit guy takes us all the way to the back, and sits in a big fancy chair, has a smaller one pulled up for Martha. I take up a position to Martha’s right, figuring I’m supposed to play one of her lieutenants. Not wearing any weapons, though. Wonder what Martha would say if I asked her for some.
Martha looks over at suit guy and smiles. “New help, Scratch?”
Suit guy rolls his eyes. “I didn’t think he was that dumb when I took him on. He came from Gary.” He looks over at me. “You, too, I take it.”
Martha cheerfully replies, “My latest act of revenge. This one’s actually bright.”
Scratch looks me up and down. “A smart pig, eh? You didn’t walk a beat down here, did you, piggy-wiggy?”
I do not like being called a pig. In fact, it really bugs me. So, without thinking, I say, “No, and the only pigs I know are your parents.”
Scratch gets hot under the collar, and I figure I’m in for it, but Martha reaches over and sticks her face in his. She says something in an undertone to him. He gives me another angry look, and then breaks out laughing, slaps Martha on the leg. He looks at me with a grin and says, “So you’re not a pig. We’ll check to make sure you don’t squeal.” I don’t think he means me well.
The bartender comes over with four glasses and puts them down on a low table in front of us. I realize they’re full of blood, and can feel my fangs growing. Scratch calls over to one of the tables, “Hey, Darlene, come over here.”
This woman hands her pool cue over and walks over. She looks tall, maybe even taller than me, though not as tall as Shorty, no, not that. Very dark skin, equally dark hair worn long and straight. Nice face, big brown eyes, kind of flat nose, maybe the mouth’s a trifle wide, but the smile that goes with it is fine. She’s wearing a men’s undershirt with no bra, so her nipples stick out underneath the cotton. Throw in the cut-off shorts, and boots, voluptuous figure, and she looks like any number of whores one can see on the right street corners. Except for three things: she looks more elegant than any streetwalker, even with her casual clothing, she’s got more muscles than any whore I’ve ever seen, and there are eight knives dangling from her belt, what look like four matched pairs of varying lengths. She picks up one of the glasses. Martha and Scratch do so, too, and at a glance from Martha, I do likewise. Martha and Scratch clink glasses and drain theirs, and Darlene and I do likewise.
Scratch addresses Darlene. “See Martha’s new boy here? She wants him to have some training in fighting with knives. I’ve got to warn you, Darlene, he’s a sensitive type. You have to call him ‘Mr. Police Vampire,’ ’cause he gets offended if you call him names.”
Darlene looks me up and down. “You ever fight with knives, Mr. Police Vampire?” She’s one of those big women with a surprisingly high voice.
“No, and I’m new at fighting as a vampire, too. You can call me Ned. Do I call you Darlene, or do you go by ‘Miss Knife Vampire?’”
I could see Martha smile at my comeback. So do Scratch and Darlene. Darlene nods. “You’ll do. Lose the shirt. We’re going out back for some training.” And she starts to turn around.
I don’t understand why, so I ask, “Why am I supposed to take my shirt off?”
Darlene turns back, gives me a long, pitying stare, and says, “So you don’t bleed on it, Ned.” And she turns and walks away.
There’s an empty lot between the pool hall and the next street, with buildings flanking it on either side. Looks like about half the people in the pool hall have come to watch the fight. But not, I notice, Martha or Scratch. I’m alone with a bunch of colored vampires.
Darlene doesn’t bother to take off her shirt, I notice. She does tie her hair back into a pony tail. It makes her look like a teenager. Then she hands me a knife, says to me, “For practice we aim to hit only between the shoulders and the waist. The objective is to draw blood, not to kill your opponent. When blood is drawn, the fight stops until you get a bandage put on it.”
I ask, “Aren’t you going to take your shirt off?”
Darlene gives me another pitying smile. “Like boobs, do you, Ned? It’d be an unfair advantage if I stripped and I wouldn’t want to distract you. If you tear my shirt, that’s my bad luck. If.”
I have a feeling I’m about to repeat my experience fighting with Martha. That proves to be true. Darlene nicks me within seconds of starting the first two rounds. Thereafter, she offers me instructions after each round. I get a bit better. I still get cut. Thirteen times, in fact.
When we began the fourteenth round, I feel a little faint. So I try something stupid, trying to get in under Darlene’s guard. And wouldn’t you know, I topple forward more than I intended and actually do stab her, in the hip. She immediately knocks the knife out of my hand, and I drop to the ground with the impact. Darlene puts her hand to her hip, lifts it up, looking at the blood dripping from it in amazement. The audience, which had been cheering us on (well, cheering Darlene on), goes silent.
This boy, can’t be much taller than Martha, runs out, kneels down in front of Darlene, and to my amazement starts sucking on Darlene’s wound. I have this sudden urge to do the same, but contain it. Darlene smiles at the boy, puts her unbloody hand on his head, looks over to me, and says to me, “You actually got me, Ned.”
“It was a foul blow. Not what I intended. I should pay a penalty.” I figure I should offer before she demands one. I stand up, hold my hands out to show they’re empty. Just want her to see that I’m not carrying a knife anymore.
She thinks about it for a second, then dismisses the idea with a wave of her hand. “Ah, forget the penalty. I was getting careless. You shouldn’t have been able to hit me at all.” She gestures with her head. “Go on in and wash up. We’re through. It’s going to take me a month of Sundays to live this down.” But she’s smiling.
Martha and I leave after about another half hour in the pool hall. Nicking Darlene had made my reputation, no matter that the blow was an unintentional foul, and even Scratch was smiling at me. Martha had ordered another round of blood (which I needed, on account of my wounds), and Darlene went so far as to say I could come back for more lessons.
We are about four blocks away when Martha suddenly opens up on me. “Ned, if it weren’t for the way you pulled it out, I should slap you silly for insulting Scratch. And don’t tell me he started it. What did I tell you about gang leaders?”
I dutifully recite, “Gang leaders are privileged, and if you get into trouble with one, you should refer it to your gang’s leader instead of handling it yourself.”
“Damn straight.” Martha’s voice is much angrier than her looks, rather the opposite of what I’ve come to expect. “You had a problem with him calling you a pig, you should have appealed to me. As it was, I had to give away some information to keep Scratch in good humor.”
“He seemed happy enough when we came back in.”
“Yeah.” Martha smiles. “He and I are allies, so long as it’s convenient for us both, and right now it’s convenient. So he was willing to overlook your manners.” She pauses, then adds, “And he worries Darlene gets too cocky.”
“You ever fight Darlene, Mother?”
Martha throws her head back, laughing. “No, Ned. Darlene’s a pro with knives, she grew up with them. She’s better than me with them. If we got into a fight, only one of us would walk away, and I’d have to work at it to make sure it wouldn’t be Darlene.”
Thinking of Darlene reminds me of what I’d seen. “Hey, Mother, I thought you said a vampire sucking another’s blood isn’t allowed.”
“Apart from some exceptions, it isn’t. You see someone doing it?”
I nod. “Yeah, this short lad was sucking on Darlene when I cut her.”
Martha shakes her head. “Not lad, Ned. That’s Darlene’s lady friend.”
I look at Martha in amazement. She sees my look, smirks, and then says, “Yeah, I know who it is. Her name’s Flora, and she and Darlene have been an item for years, so I’m told. Flora dresses like a teenage boy all the time. I guess you could call them lesbian vampires, Ned, though everyone will look at you strangely if you do. And they actually do make a ritual out of sucking each other’s blood. Even bite each other to do it. It seems to be a standard thing between women who pair off. No one else does it, and no one condemns them when they do. It’s just their way.”
“Says the guy sucking blood most nights from another guy.” Martha turns into an alley and I follow. “Chuck it all, Ned: race, sex, creed, whatever. Those were human rules, and you’re a vampire now. There’s more difference in taste between O blood and AB blood than between white and black blood.” She gives me a curious eye. “In fact, I’m kind of surprised you haven’t used a racial insult yet, Ned. I thought being a racialist was a hiring requirement for Chicago cops.”
I don’t like coloreds, but I don’t have anything against them as such. Somehow I doubt Martha would approve. And that’s a strange term, “racialist,” that Martha used. Most people would say “racist.” I decide to make a joke. “So we vampires are all for racialist integration. I could so tell from Scratch’s all-black gang.”
Martha gives me a disgusted look. “Guess I was right.” And then she slaps me. “Stop thinking like a fool. The way the humans segregate themselves in Chicago makes it easy for the vampire gangs to do likewise. It’s natural, as in ‘everyone does it so no one thinks about it.’ It’s also stupid. It’s why there hasn’t been a king in Chicago for a long time, and why the peace between gangs often breaks down.” She spits on the ground, something I’d never seen her do before. Looks back up at me and says, “What did you learn about the structure of Scratch’s gang, Ned?”
Back to Martha’s school for newborn vampires. I think about what I saw. There was one obvious thing. “Scratch may be the head of his gang, but he’s not the toughest guy there. How does he do it, Mother?”
Martha smiles. “Brains, Ned. Scratch is a damn sight more intelligent than his predecessor I knew a few decades ago. He knows how to lead them, how to make them feel good about being part of his gang. Take Darlene, Ned. She could kill Scratch in a minute. But she wants to be the best knife fighter in Chicago, and Scratch does whatever is needed to keep her busy at that. She’ll never challenge him, not that she wants to run a gang anyhow, and she supports him gladly.
“The way he looks tells you the other part of his technique. He wears the suit and tie to show that he’s above his people. He wears the Afro to show he’s part of them. It’s a good balance. It’s the way he does everything, always trying to show his people he’s looking out for their interests while standing above them.”
I can see Martha’s point. But I feel the praise is a little overdone. So I jibe, “Sound like you’re in bed with him, Mother.”
Martha snorts. “We get along. We’re allies because it’s convenient, though, not just because we get along. Scratch’s support keeps the other gangs from combining against me. My elimination of two gang leaders reduced the pressure on Scratch’s west flank.”
I visualize what Martha told me about the gangs in Chicago, see what she means. Which leads to the next question, “Is Scratch’s gang typical?”
Martha replies, “Mostly. That’ll be something we’ll look into tomorrow night, Ned. For now, I’ve got a different kind of stop planned. To get there, we’re going to transform into bats. Watch me carefully, Ned.”
I watch her. Martha kind of folds up to her shoulders and her head shrinks down, until there’s this bat-like creature hovering in front of me. It takes me two tries, but I manage it.
As Martha had explained to me last night, when a vampire’s in bat form, their brains are smaller and they can’t think complicated thoughts. I really have only one: follow the other bat. And I follow.
Eventually Martha transforms back into a person, and I do the same. I try to remember how it felt to be a bat, find I have only memories of feeling air currents and the need to follow Martha. I give Martha a quizzical look.
She knows, as always. She tells me, “You’ll be able to function better as a bat over time, Ned. It takes practice. But you’ll always be stupider, so carefully commit your goals to memory before you transform. OK?”
I nod, look around. Apartment buildings, Upper West Side by the looks of them and by what I remember from flying, which isn’t much. We’re not in the colored slums out this way. But not a great white district, either. And the apartment house we’re standing in front of is covered with spray painting in an elaborate and chaotic mural. I think it’s supposed to depict the Age of Aquarius as seen by a retard. It’s clearly the back side of the building. Martha goes up the steps, pulls open the door, and goes in. I follow.
Inside, the place looks kind of like the back: run-down, liberal application of spray paint on all the walls. I can smell pot, the place reeks of it. Apartment doors are all open, people inside doing everything from meditating to dancing to smoking said weed, to what looks like an orgy in progress. A girl wearing nothing but jeans and sandals sees Martha, screams out her name, and gives her a hug before heading into what looks like some sort of political discussion group, with a bunch of commie posters on the walls.
We go up two flights of stairs. Martha is greeted three more times, including once by a thin, slight woman with ash blond hair who deliberately bares her neck to Martha, only to run away laughing. Loud music blares out of a few rooms. I recognize the Beatles, but most of the rest sound like noise. Finally, we get to a closed door, number 308. Martha sticks her ear to the door, nods, and turns the knob. We go inside.
The room’s dark, but I can still see. It’s got a dresser, a walk-in closet, and a bed. There’s a door to what I presume is the bathroom, another going I can’t see where. Two people lying on the bed, a really big white guy with brown hair, and a really great-looking brunette with long hair. Both of them are naked. They’re both pretty good looking. I concentrate on checking out the girl’s charms. I get a pretty good view of them. She looks to be maybe in her early twenties. Another killer figure. Hope she’s not the next weapons expert I have to fight. Unless it’s free-form wrestling.
The girl opens her eyes, sees me, sits up in a hurry, sees Martha, and breathes a sigh of relief. “Cripes, for a minute there I thought someone had raided the place,” she says, in a tone that implies she could deal with that. “This another one of your ex-cops, Martha?”
Martha nods. “Yup. Love, this is Ned. Ned, Love.”
I’m a bit confused so I reach out my hand to shake hers and say, “Hi. Didn’t quite catch the name.” I give her my very best smile, which is easy to do, with all I can see.
She stands up, picks up a t-shirt, shakes my hand. “Hi, Ned. My name’s Make Love Not War, but you can call me Love. Most people do.” And she pulls the t-shirt down over her head. It goes down to just below the crotch. I don’t think she has much privacy when she sits down in it. She doesn’t look as if she’d mind, either. She gives me another smile. If I weren’t a vampire, I’d think she was flirting with me. Maybe she is. And yet there’s something odd about her.
I’ve been trying to think of something clever to say in reply, but all I can manage is, “I’ll be happy to call you Love, any time, any day.”
Love rolls her eyes, looks over to Martha. “I take it you didn’t pick him for his wit.”
Martha shrugs. “He was a cop, Love. He probably bashed you over the head at a demonstration, and then leered at you in jail.”
Love gives me a once-over. “Nope, never seen him. I never forget a face . . . or any other body part.” She stares at my crotch. I blush.
Martha asks, “Where’s what’s-his-name?”
Love frowns. “He got jailed for disturbing the peace, conspiracy, possession, and assaulting an officer. The latter’s their excuse for roughing him up.” She gives me a deeper frown. I immediately want to beat up the police officers involved. She continues, “I was just getting charged up to go down there and get them to drop the charges.” It’s like she suddenly loses interest in us both, and starts hunting around for clothes, starting with her panties.
Martha asks, “When’s the next happening?”
Love had her head underneath the bed. She pulls it out, sits up with a pair of sandals she found there. She barely looks at Martha as she replies, “The idiots up north got raided last week. We moved our lab to be safe. There should be enough to fly on, day after tomorrow. You’ll be here?”
Love plucks a handkerchief out of the blankets at the foot of the bed. “Good. Kitty likes it when you bite her.” She stands up and puts the handkerchief on. It’s her skirt. It doesn’t cover much more than the t-shirt. She looks at me. “You coming too, copper Ned?”
Before I have a chance to reply, Martha says, “He needs more time adjusting, Love. Maybe next time.”
Love walks over to a bureau, picks a purse off of it. “Sure, Martha.” She gives Martha a hug. She walks over to me, gives me a knowing smile. “Nice to meet you, Ned.” Before I know what’s happening, she puts her arms around me, presses her body to mine, and gives me a wet kiss. My fangs practically shoot out of my mouth, I want to drink her blood so bad. But she pulls away even faster and slips past me, out the door.
I can’t help but stare after her. My fangs ache with the thought of drinking her blood.
Martha says something. I don’t quite catch it. She comes and stands in front of me. “And what lesson did that teach you, Ned?”
Well, one lesson it taught me is that I’d like to spend more time with Love. But I know that’s not what Martha wants to hear. I try to pull myself together. It takes the better part of a minute. Then I think back to what Martha said the other night. “If I’m attracted to someone, I’ll really want to drink their blood.” I think. “And that for me, no matter what I do with Homer, I’m still thinking like a human when it comes to sex.” There. That sounds like a nice, impersonal, and formal lesson statement. I think Martha will like that better than, “I want to sink my fangs into Love’s heart and drain it dry while simultaneously having sex with her even though that’s now impossible for me.”
Martha gravely nods. “Telling you was one thing. Wanted you to experience it for yourself so you could see the problem.”
So she really does know what I’m feeling. Figures. It’s not like Martha to do that, though, not without another lesson in mind. I think about who I’d be attracted to. “Mother Fokker, are you telling me that’s the way I’d act around Eileen? My old girlfriend?”
“What do you think, Ned?”
I don’t want to say it. “You’re warning me not to go back to see my family and friends.”
Martha shakes her head. “No. I’m warning you of what might happen if you do. You heard Love. Two nights from now, I’ll be here. You’ll have that night free to do whatever you want. Don’t be stupid, Ned. If you want to go to see your family and friends, you’ll be fighting for control. But what happens if Eileen throws herself in your arms? Or what if they attack you instead?” She stares at me, watching my face while I consider the possibilities. And then she says, “Just don’t be stupid, Ned.” She turns and walks out the door into the hallway.
I stand there, still horrified at the thought I might attack Eileen, and even more horrified that I can see how I might enjoy it, too. I fight to get my mind off the subject. I turn around, look at the guy on the bed, and think of Make Love Not War and that body of hers. And that’s no good, either. So I try to pick a subject that won’t get me lusting after anyone. It’s hard not to think of Love. So I give up trying not to, and concentrate on thinking about why she felt odd. The oddness teases at me.
And then I realize exactly what was odd about her. She gave off a vibe like the ropes that held me, like the threshold I had trouble walking through. Sorcerer’s magic. She has it. Logically, that means she’s a sorceress. And I have to wonder, since sorcerers generally ignore vampires, why is Love Martha’s friend?
Martha shows up in the doorway. “Coming, Ned?” She disappears again, and I follow her out into the hall. She goes shooting down the stairs again and I follow, all the way to the ground floor.
Martha’s been pretty straight with me, so I decide to ask her about the sorceress. We get outside and I start opening my mouth when Martha comes to a dead stop at the foot of the stairs. I look at her. She looks worried. I ask, “Is there something wrong?”
She frowns. “There are some plainclothes cops over there, and I bet they’re spying on us. Hell, probably getting ready for a drug bust. I’ll deal with them.” She heads off to the left down the street.
There’s a car there, all right, and it definitely looks like cops sitting inside it. Fearing Martha will attack them, I hurry to catch up with her. I grab her, spin her to face me, and ask, “What are you going to do?”
Martha tries to yank free, so I hold tighter. I know I can’t win against her, but I want her to slow down and not attack the cops if it can be helped. She gives me a very annoyed look. “Damn it,” she says, “leave me alone, Ned. You don’t know what . . .” She looks over at the car as I hear its door open. “Damn,” she swears. “Now look what you’ve done, Ned.”
The guy comes over. Yep, a cop, all right. He faces Martha and says, “Is there some problem here, miss?”
Martha gives him a very sweet smile. “Only a little one, just my uncle.” And then she launches into him, and knocks him against the wall of the building beside us.
I’m so startled that I don’t react until I see Martha has run down the street and is already at the driver’s door of that car. I run over as quickly as I can. Martha’s got her head in the car through the open window. I don’t like the sound of what I’m hearing. I grab Martha’s head by the hair and pull back as hard as I can. Martha turns and faces me.
What I see shocks me so much I let go. Martha’s face is wild and contorted. She looks like some sort of fierce animal, much, much worse than her shadowy face. There’s blood dripping from her fangs and her lips. She stares and growls at me. I don’t even know if she recognizes me.
I can feel her hands grabbing me by the head.
End of chapter six