Preview: Death Cramps My Style

by Kristopher Hoffman

NOTE: What follows is the first chapter of my novel – Death Cramps My Style.

If I had to choose one moment in time when my life started to turn to shit, it was when her shadow fell on my floor.

Now, when most people say “my bar”, they mean the place they hang out. When I say “my bar”, I mean my bar. I own the place. It’s not a fine dining establishment by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s  mine–free and clear.

I named the place Exile, but no one calls it that. They call it Evil’s Inn. It fits. It is my name, after all. Evil, I mean–not Inn. Inn would be a stupid name for a bartender, don’t you think? You probably guessed that Evil is not my real name. You’d be spot on.

That’s the way it is. We all have a name we share with others. Some of us choose ours, others have theirs given to them. But most of us use them to hide things we don’t want to share. Let’s just say, Evil is better than what I was born with.

I was born to Romani parents. People often assume that means I am Romanian. This is not true. The Romani, or Rom, is what the travelers call themselves. My parents left their campsite, and went into town–Hayes, Kansas–to do what we do: odd jobs, fortune telling, and the like.

They returned to find their camper engulfed in flames. It was just a camper, but it was their home. Everything they owned was gone. Lying in the flickering light of the conflagration was a bible. It was open with a verse highlighted: Exodus 22:18 – “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Inside the front cover of the bible was a note. ‘You’re already dead, you just don’t know it yet.’ Afraid for their lives, they fled Hayes, Kansas.

How? The RV was torched, right?

They stole a car, belted me into the backseat, and took off. About a hundred miles south, the highway patrol caught up with us. They went to prison, and one of the arresting officers took me home as a foster parent. She adopted me.

That family did their best to erase all traces of my heritage, all of my past. They did their damnedest to hide everything. See, I was about a year and a half old when my parents were taken away. And these ‘Good Samaritans’ didn’t even tell me I was adopted. I had to find that out on my own.

I always knew I was different; maybe not special, but definitely not who they thought I should be. Then, when I was twelve, I was crawling around in the basement, going through things I shouldn’t have been into. You know, being a twelve-year-old boy. I found the adoption paperwork. And it all became clear.

I confronted them with it, and they told me the story. They cried a lot and held each other. For me, though, it was a chance to get out from under the oppression I felt–freedom to be more than I had ever thought possible. I started researching and found my parents. Both of them had died ‘trying to escape police custody’. I found some records of the investigations–messy, career ending investigations–though most of my own records were sealed. So, I’m still not sure what really happened.

I made a conscious decision to uphold the ‘old ways’ of my people. My psychologist said that I was on a ‘spiritually divergent pathway as a result of the need for adolescent rebellion.’ What a crock of shit.

The thought that I would do anything for the sheer purpose of rebellion is completely absurd. I know I am not the smartest person in the world, but I have always fought those inexplicable instinctual urges. I am more than a collection of my instincts. As H.G. Wells said, “I am a man.”

One day, I met a little old lady on the street, just outside of my high school. She looked like a gypsy out of a Dracula movie. She stopped me with a gentle hand on my chest and called me by my real name, my given name. The one that I had only seen on the adoption papers. She said, “Feralucce–at long last I found you.”

I just stood there staring at her, in shock. Finally, I asked her, “How do you know that name?”

She told me, “I changed your diapers, and those of your father. You look just like he did at your age.”

She was my grandmother, my father’s mother. After they had disappeared, my grandmother came looking for them here in America. She had seen the burned out remnants of the RV. She had seen the bible. She had seen their graves. But she had not seen me.

She led me to the local diner. We sat, we talked, and I learned so much about who I am and what I am supposed to be. Stan, the owner of the diner, called my ‘parents’,and they both came bursting through the doors and tried to drag me away from her.

I looked at the old lady and I knew, I just knew, where her camp was. She nodded slightly as I realized this, almost as if to say, ‘precisely, young one’. I slipped out that night and spent the next three years, three times a week, sneaking out and regaining my heritage.

I started practicing the old ways out in the open, in front of my parents and the whole town. Slowly, it dawned on them that I was different, that I followed a pathway divergent from the one they had chosen for themselves. Once they had it figured out, it was all down hill. They got hostile.

Because of faith, I have two scars–a straight, ugly, deep gash, and a faint U-shaped one. Instead of showing me the compassion that is the trademark of their savior, they turned on me with violence.

The U-shaped one is from an old 17th century wood bound bible. A kid threw it at me as hard as he could. He was chanting “Jesus loves you” as he did it. The other one is from the end of a three-foot-tall crucifix. A local preacher stabbed me with it for “blasphemy against the Lord.”

Now, here in New Orleans religious zealots are attacking people with the same basic motivation–because they are different. All the while chanting that their victims are evil for not believing as they do. That’s why they call me Evil. It was a label that was slapped on me, and I choose to wear it as a fucking badge of honor. I came here, and it stuck. I. Am. Evil.

She came in using the name Lyric. Hell of a name to share with others, right? Something about a goth named Lyric just doesn’t sit right. It’s too fucking shiny. I know a Timber, an Athena, and even a Diablo, but Lyric?

She’s always been a little weird, but recently, she went downhill. She used to be a shy wallflower. You know the type: slightly dirty and unkempt, smelling of patchouli. A hippie. Now, she wears black all the time, including black lipstick and nail polish, and takes great pleasure in scaring the “mundanes” and being generally unnerving. It’s sad really.

New Orleans doesn’t need any more of those.

Her name is not the only thing weird about her. This chick is one of the wannabes.

I guess I should explain. A wannabe is one of those unbalanced people that want, with all their shriveled black hearts, to be a vampire. Some pretend to be, some spend their lives searching for a vampire to turn them, and others are just delusional. No matter which way you look at it, they’re all a little bat shit insane. Just a little, mind you.

She sits there, staring at me, nursing her first drink of the night for over an hour. She looks around, making sure no one else is listening. Her eyes, I notice, are a pleasant shade of green. She motions for another drink.

I hand it to her.

She looks at me for a long minute, then she says, “You know where any of them can be found?”

I know what she means. They always mean the same thing. You see, at least once a month someone asks me if I know where a vampire is. She’s been screwing up her nerve for the last hour. I’m not in the mood for this discussion, so I play it dumb. “Any of `them’? I don’t follow.”

She stops, taken aback. Then she blinks once. Twice. Three times. “Umm. You are Evil, right?”

“Well, only as a hobby…I mean, I kick puppies and juggle kittens, but I leave the hardcore stuff to the professionals.”

She blinks at me again, and I hear the distinctive grinding noise that means her paradigm is shifting without a clutch. The sheep really don’t like it when you confuse them. Hopefully, this will make her go away.

She doesn’t go. Instead she asks, “What?”

I sigh; everyone’s a critic. “Yeah. That’s me. Why do you ask?”

“Well, there’s this guy, Timber. He told me that if anyone knew where to find one, you would,” she says, looking annoyed about having to explain herself.

“Be that as it may, lady, I don’t understand what you’re asking me. Who is this mystical ‘them’?”

She is so earnest about this vampire thing that I can only pity her.

“I’m looking for a vampire, or more than one if you know where they are.”

Over the years, I’ve tried every approach I can think of. Ignoring them just makes them think you didn’t hear them, so they yell. And that’s bad for business. Telling them no makes them think you are a vampire’s servant, and you’re covering up for your Master. These days, I’ve just taken to messing with them. Hey, life is all about the little pleasures, right?

I have to admit, though, Timber is right: if anyone knew a vampire, it’d have to be me. I’ve never seen a vampire, that I know of, but if they exist, they’d be in my bar. It’s not like I try to attract the freaks; they just love this place.

I respond with the truth, it seems like the best route with this one. “Timber talks too much for his own good.”

“So, you do know a vampire?”

I can almost hear the italics. See? I told you.

“Listen, lady. I see some weird shit. I mean, look around you. This place is a little lacking in the mundane, but I don’t know any vampires. And, if I did, I wouldn’t tell people about it.”

“I see.” I can see her thinking, trying to reason it out. I can almost smell the smoke. She comes to a conclusion and pronounces it without reservation. “You do.” Her eyes grow wide, staring into mine like she can intimidate me into revealing the “truth”.

With a sigh, I tell her, “Believe what you want.”

Normally, I would just walk away from this, but Grandma’s gift chooses this moment to rear its ugly head. I can’t explain what it is or how it works because I don’t understand much about it. All I do know is that sometimes I just know things, things that I shouldn’t know. And with this little girl, I know she’s gonna die.

Call me a sap, but I don’t like that. I can’t accept that I’m given foreknowledge of something for no reason. There has to be a reason. In spite of myself, I know I’m going to do something stupid. I’m going to try to stop it.

Fortunately, she stays around ’til close. In most bars, last call is so busy that it takes several hours to clean up, but the goths leave me alone enough that I can get the place clean and leave with them.

When I lock up, she heads for the Ninth Ward. Needless to say, that’s not the safest place to be. That’s not a really accurate description. Inside a nuclear reactor is not a safe place to be. In front of a firing squad is not a safe place to be. In the middle of a forest fire is not a safe place to be. The Ninth Ward is downright dangerous.

In spite of my better judgment, I follow at a distance. At least I have a good excuse for going this way. I need to kick Timber’s ass, and his house is in the Ward.

We cross Canal, the sounds of revelry on Bourbon Street drifting to us. The hookers and pimps watch her with hungry eyes. Then I walk past them. None of them will even look at me; I make them nervous. Something tells them I have the Shine and all I have for them is pity. It’s the last thing they want right now, so I keep walking.

We don’t actually pass through the Ninth Ward. She walks with a purpose, turns off on Elysian Fields, and I hurry to catch up with her. I manage to get to the corner just in time to see her go into an apartment building. I stand in the street, looking up. It only takes a minute of waiting for a window to light up as she enters her apartment.

Why am I doing this? I know how it’s going to turn out. I have never managed to change anything. Maybe I’m just sick in the head. Or maybe, just maybe, I’m too stupid to stop trying. Hope springs eternal, right?

I enter the building. As I climb the stairs, one creaks under my weight, and I freeze. After several moments of waiting silently in the stairwell, I continue up the stairs. Taking a moment to figure out which door is hers, I reach for the handle. I’m moved by a morbid curiosity about what lies within.

The door starts to open before I touch it. Stepping to the side, I press myself against the wall as she comes out. I get lucky. My reflexes put me on the side of the door away from the stairs.

She steps out and turns away from me, never even noticing my presence. Her arms are full of laundry as she traipses down the hall and then down the stairs, humming tunelessly to herself.

I wait until she reaches the landing by the front door. She continues down the stairs to the basement. The doorknob is cool in my hand and turns easily. Stepping inside the door, I can tell a great deal about this Lyric.

The first thing that catches my eye are the posters hanging on the wall. Several of them feature characters from a popular television series, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. I’ve never watched it, but the logo of the show is emblazoned across the bottom of each them. Directly above the bed, a man with a quizzical expression on his face stares toward the front door. I know the actor, but not the character: David Boreanaz. His strong features make him an obvious choice for a place over the bed.

Across from the bed, there is a desk with a computer on it. The background on the computer monitor has characters from the old soap opera Dark Shadows. I remember that show. It was the only soap opera to have a vampire as one of its main characters. Barnabas Collins was his name. At least she appreciates the classics. I mean, it’s not the remake. What were they thinking–casting Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins?

Barnabas glares across the bed at David, the two of them warring for the right to watch over the young lady.

Hanging on the back of the door is a poster for the book series that ripped it’s way into the mainstream like an alien chest burster, The Vampire Diaries. Smoldering hot emo kids that look like they should be on Dawson’s Creek stand in a foggy field in the middle of the night looking serious and tragic.

Peppered throughout the trash culture cornucopia are tidbits of vampiric crap from different ages; posters for True Blood, Bordello of Blood, Van Helsing and more. She’s got a bottle of the True Blood energy soda, a Dracula PEZ dispenser, those horrible sparkly vampire books, an empty plastic coffin that once held fake vampire teeth, and a cutesy plushy Dracula.

On the right, a 27-inch television, a stereo, a VCR/DVD combo and a Blu Ray player dominate a coffee table. Perched atop the television, a vampire teddy bear in a tiny satin cape the color of blood watches me warily. It’s just so damn cute, I think I’m gonna puke.

Movie tapes and discs lay scattered on and around the table. In spite of their careless placement, every one is in its cover and the covers are immaculate. They sport titles like The Lost Boys, John Carpenter’s Vampires, and Fright Night. The lack of other titles and genres only serves to confirm her status as a wannabe.

Something catches my eye as I scan the movies. There is one title that’s completely out of place in this pit of dimness- “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants? Hunh.”

Beside the table, a trashcan overflows onto the floor. The smells of old pizza and booze rise from the can like waves of heat from the sidewalk on a hot summer’s day. The can reminds me of a mother hen squatting amongst her chicks. Only here the chicks are soda cans, Reese’s peanut butter cup wrappers, and Doritos bags.

Her laundry is very evidently separated by clean and dirty. Unfortunately, they seem to share the same space: the floor. The laundry forms a nest around the bed, a place to stay safe and keep warm. There is a separate pile of laundry for her under clothes. Demi bras, thong panties, and various other silken things populate this pile.

I move into the kitchen looking for more information. I open the refrigerator. It’s mostly empty space. There is a carton of milk and a Styrofoam takeout container that smells faintly of curry. I open it to see what it is. Lamb curry has always been one of my favorites. I find myself salivating over the yellow rice and chunks of meat.

A loud creak from the stairwell tells me that she is on her way back up to the apartment, and I hide in the bathroom. Unlike the rest of her apartment, there is a sterile quality to the bathroom, reminiscent of a hospital room. The irony of its cleanliness when the rest of the apartment is in squalor is not lost on me. I mean, think about it. She shits here, and it’s so sparkling clean you could eat off the floor, but the rooms she lives in are a sty.

She comes in, and there is a faint rustling as she sheds her clothes. The rustling starts again. A moment later, her keys jingle and the door opens, closes, and the bolt shoots home as she locks it on her way out. For a moment I am concerned, but there is a fire escape outside of the bathroom window, and the window is unlocked. No one notices me slipping out.

I am on the catwalk as she leaves the front door. The steps of the fire escape squeal as they pivot on their ancient hinges. Amazed by her obliviousness, I climb down.

I see her turn the corner onto Independence, heading farther away from the French Quarter, deeper into the Bywater. After a mile, she approaches an abandoned church. I remember this place. I was hired to be a bartender at a rave here once. I know, stupid kids. X and alcohol don’t mix, but I wasn’t paid to care, just serve the drinks. The candy kids used to have them all the time, but nowadays the Police and City Council forbid the raves. Fucking Nazis.

I slip silently into the side entrance that we used for manning the raves. She enters through the front. The ancient oaken door creaks open. The sound shatters the silence like a hammer on glass, echoing back on itself.

My gift and years of observing human nature reveal her psyche to me in intimate detail. It’s uncomfortable being inside another person’s head. It’s cramped and, most of the time, cluttered. Not in that “I know where all my shit is” kind of way, either. You are sitting on a squishy seat made of gray matter in the cockpit of a meat machine, back seat driving on a trip to stupidity, and you can’t do a thing to change your course.

Lyric’s heart skips a beat as, for just a moment, it sounds as if someone opened another door in the distance. She snickers at her own fears as the sound echoes again. She closes the door, and it feels like she is closing the door to her own tomb. After the echoes die, the silence is almost complete.

The venerable church has not been used as a place of worship since the late seventies, but the signs of recent occupation are readily apparent. Footprints in the dust lead into the distance.

Lyric jumps as a pigeon takes flight from the rafters. The sound of her squeal of fear bouncing back to her quickens her pulse once more. She opens the door at the back of the sanctuary without much sound at all.

She stops for a moment, the incongruity of these well-oiled hinges in a place like this striking a nerve. The darkness beyond the door presses against the shaft of light piercing the room. The smell of old whiskey and sweat permeates the air, hanging there like motes of dust in a shaft of sunlight. As she strikes the match, she squeals again as two eyes flare in the darkness beyond.

The cat hisses and arches its back, annoyed by the intrusion of the light. The cat glares for a moment more, then retreats to the shadows with a growl. Something else moves in the velvety gloom.

Lyric screams and drops her match, becoming hysterical. It seems she does this a lot—-the hysterical part, I mean. She’s so good at it, I wonder where she studied.

She’s blocking my view so I don’t notice the new movement in the darkness. At least I have an excuse for not seeing him. The bum only moves slightly, but that is all it takes to pull a trigger. The muzzle flash is impossibly bright and the sound deafens me.

She falls. Hard. From my hiding spot in the lee of a pillar, it’s clear that the shot was directly to the face. If she’s not dead, she soon will be. My gift mercifully releases its grip on me as she fades away.

Grandma said it would never be wrong, but sometimes I wish it could be helpful.

I slip out and head back towards my place, which takes me right past her apartment. I climb the fire escape and dial 911. There’s no need for the police to know where I live. On my way out, I snag a couple of the movies and the leftover take-out from her fridge. It’s been a long time since I saw The Lost Boys, and it’s not like she needs the leftovers now.

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