I CROSSED THE STREET with a smile on my face and a spring in my step. I even whistled. I hadn’t felt this good since, well, since the last time I shot an ornery biter.
I don’t like vampires.
Ain’t a one of them has anything inside them but evil intent. They hate the human race, think of us as cattle. So I hate them right on back. There are ways a biter can survive without murdering and feeding off of human beings, but I’ve yet to meet one that’s tried. The world would be better off with each and every one of them in the ground.
I moved up the half a block to the office, my mind on coffee and bullet-ridden vampires when I turned the corner onto 7th and nearly tripped over a shaggy and unkempt figure sleeping it off on the side walk.
I stumbled, but didn’t fall. The man on the sidewalk just curled in on himself and continued to snore. Flies buzzed around him, zipping here and there, landing for moments on the undulating form before lighting off once again. There was a stench coming from the huddled mass that was wholly unique to the man. It was like a dead animal that had been soaked in cheap beer, rolled around in a landfill for a few days, and the left out in the sun for a week. That was Hal.
Normally, when I run across Hal, I leave him be. I couldn’t do that today, not while he was blocking my entry into the building. He’d either have to move, or I’d need to drive across town and buy my coffee at the Kwik Stop.
“Hal?” I gave him a prod with the toe of my shoe.
Hal stirred, burped, said something about a penguin, and broke wind. It was almost enough to ruin my good mood.
“Hal!” I said again, jabbing him with a bit more force.
Before I could so much as take another breath, I found myself lifted off of my feet and thrown back into the wall of my building. It took a moment before I realized that it was Hal that had done it. And he held me fast, too.
He didn’t say anything, just stared at me wild-eyed as he held me by the front of my coat, pressing me into the wall. He towered over me and I felt like a rag doll in his hands. His breath bore into me like a urinal in a restroom at a Royals game by the seventh inning stretch.
“Whoa, Hal,” I said, trying to force myself free, which wasn’t happening. I wasn’t going anywhere until Hal was ready to let me go.
“It lay in wait,” Hal said. “Using the form of a woman, a guise to draw me near, but I could not be fooled.”
His eyes had gone distant. I could see bits of bread and bone hanging in his full, dark beard. Knowing Hal the way I did, I assumed the bones were chicken, maybe turkey, but I’d never seen Eudora’s most famous homeless person act like this before and it caused me to reevaluate my feelings toward the man.
“Hal!” I shouted. “Let me go! You’re acting half a bubble off plumb, buddy! Don't make me shoot you!”
“The floor was more bones than stone,” Hal said. “The bones. The bodies!”
“Hal! Dang it! Someone’s bound to notice us here dancing like this and call the local constabulary! You don’t want to spend another night in a cell do you?”
For a man who sleeps on sidewalks and is often seen under the influence of whatever alcohol he can manage to scrounge up, Hal had spent very little time in the town jail.
“I never asked to be their hero!” Hal’s breath began to dissolve the inner lining of my nostrils. “I never asked to be anyone’s hero!”
Well, I’d had enough. I couldn’t shoot Hal, but I could dang sure get his attention the old fashioned way. After all, it had worked with the Walrus.
“Hal!” I shouted once more. One last chance.
He didn’t respond, so I kicked him between the legs.
He didn’t curl in on himself in pain, didn’t let me go, didn’t even so much as grunt. He just shook his head like he was clearing the cobwebs from his mind. He looked at me, looked down at his hands that were still clutching the front of my coat, and then he let me go.
“Norman?” he said as eyes once clouded became bright. “Good gravy, Norman, I’m sorry.” Though he was mostly hair, I could see that his face had turned as red as a tomato. “I don’t know what came over me. I sure hope you can forgive me.”
“Water under the bridge,” I said, straightening out my coat. “But you scared the bejeebers out of me, Hal. What was that?”
“Golly, Norman,” the big man said, looking down at his feet. “I’m not sure.”
No one knows where Hal had come from before he’d appeared one day sleeping it off in the park across from the old high school. He’d drifted into town a decade or two back and took up residence in Eudora’s back alleys, parks, and countryside. I’ve often attempted to beguile the man into telling me about himself from before, but Hal could be a wily customer when he wanted to be.
“Well, I’ll tell you what,” I said. “I’ll forget it if you forget it. Deal?” I held out my hand.
Hal brightened immediately. He looked up and his face was nothing but one big smile. He took my hand and shook it, nearly pulling my arm from its socket. “Deal! Thanks, Norman. Thanks a bunch.” He let go of my hand.
“Don’t mention it,” I said, thanking God that my healing ability would take the pain away soon.
“Oh no, I won’t mention it. No sir. Not one more word.” He made as if he was running a zipper across his lips.
“I’m glad,” I said. “Hey, I’m sure Bob has some coffee brewing upstairs. You want a cup?”
“Oh, no thanks, Norman,” Hal said, looking up 7th Street, away from Main. “But I gotta be going. Lots to do, lots to do, yes sir.” And with that he loped away. “See you in the funny pages,” he called over his shoulder, giggling like a little boy.
I shook my head as I watched him walk away. Once he was out of sight I sighed and climbed the stairs to my office.
Bob was my receptionist and as usual, he had arrived first and sat reading a book at his desk in the waiting room.
“You’re late,” he said without looking up. “You can get all the beauty sleep you want Norman, it won’t make you any less ugly.”
Bob had been with me for the better part of five decades now. He’s the only person left alive that I’ve known longer than Pat. He’s also the only person left alive, other than Pat, that I’d trust with my life, unconditionally.
“And a good morning to you too, Bob,” I said, shutting the door behind me. “Any messages?”
He set the book down and gave me a look that told me just how stupid he found my question to be.
“So, no then?” I said and then smiled.
“Was that Hal I heard you talking to outside?” He asked.
“Poor man. Someone should do something.”
“Like what?” I said. “He won’t take handouts and won’t stay at a shelter. Shy of asking the fella to move in what else can you do?”
“He turned me down,” he said, going back to his book.
“Turned what down?”
“I offered him my spare room. Told him he could stay there. He turned me down.”
“We’ll I’ll be, Bob. Who’da thought there was an honest too goodness heart beating there in your chest.”
He ignored me. He’s never found me funny. I’m used to it.
“Anyway,” I said. “Is there coffee?”
“I’m off caffeine,” he said from behind the book. “Doctor says it isn’t good for me.”
“Well I ain’t,” I said. “I was looking forward to a cup of coffee.”
“Then make some,” he said. “You’re capable.”
“That ain’t the point,” I said. “You’re my receptionist.”
“So,” I said, the heat rising in my face. “Among your job duties is making coffee.”
“Since you started making coffee every morning fifty years ago.”
He put the book down.
“I made coffee each morning because I wanted coffee,” he said, then he disappeared behind the book once more.
I stood looking at him, thinking of something to say. If there was one thing Bob excelled at, it was getting my dander up. However, I knew this was a fight I wasn’t gonna win.
“Fine, I’ll make the coffee,” I said.
Just inside the front door to my office was a small table where the coffee maker sat. Or at least used to. It was gone.
“Where’s the coffee maker?”
“I threw it out.”
“What?” I said. “Threw it out? Why?” I realized that I was shouting.
“I’m off caffeine,” said Bob. “I said that already.”
“I heard you, and like I said, I am not!”
“It was my coffee maker,” he said.
“I wanted coffee!”
“You got a coffee maker at home,” he said. “What’s wrong with it?”
“I broke the pot on a walrus,” I shouted. Then, to force the point home, I crossed the room, entered my office, and slammed the door closed behind me.
I threw my coat onto the coat tree in the corner before I snatched up the mug on my desk. I frowned at the layer of dried creamer and sugar at its bottom and spent a few moments washing it out in the sink of the private bathroom attached to the office.
Then, because there was no coffee, I set it back on the desk with such force that I was surprised it didn’t go through.
I sighed and went to the large picture window that looked out onto Main. The window was taller than I was and I put a foot up on the sill, thinking about coffee. Maybe I could take a ride out to the Kwik Stop, they made a decent cup.
I could see the entrance to the Pub from the window and smiled. Lemonzeo stood out on the sidewalk with the two biters. I smiled because they were arguing. I couldn’t hear what they said, of course, but it was obvious that the biters weren’t happy. I could only assume that I was the cause of their ire, and that made me smile even more.
Lemonzeo however, did not get where he was by not knowing how to get things done. It only took a few moments, but he soon had the biters pacified and then saw them off in a stretch limo. I watched Abner as he stood at the entrance to the Pub, watching the limo speed off down Main at well over the legal limit. Then, as he was about to turn and go back into the Pub, he looked up the street at me standing at my window. I gave him a quick, two-fingered salute. He scowled and disappeared inside the small bar.
The phone on my desk gave an annoying buzz. I sat and looked at the display. I was Bob in the other room. I pressed the speaker button.
“Did you change your mind about the coffee?” I said, a smile in my voice.
“Clem Sims is here to see you,” he said.
Clem Sims? What did he want?
“Send him in,” I said.
Clem lived alone in a ramshackle, one level house out on Church street between Ninth and Tenth. The man himself was like his house: Gray, full of cracks, and long in the tooth. He’d been living in the old home for close to sixty years and had worn the same thing every day of it. Overalls over red flannel, boots, and a straw hat. All of which were perpetually stained with oil, mud, or both. The hat he only removed when indoors.
“Thank you for seeing me, Mr. Oklahoma,” Clem said as he entered, hat in hand.
“Please,” I said. “It’s Norman.” I gestured to the two chairs in front of my desk. “Have a seat.”
“Thank you,” he said, sitting.
Clem held on to his hat with both hands. In fact, were the hat a living being, like the one in them books about those wizard kids, I’d have expected to hear strangling sounds.
“What can I help you with, Clem?” I asked.
“Well,” Clem said, his voice cracking. He cleared his throat and then continued. “I ain’t sure how to put this, so I’m just gonna come on out and say it. Aliens are stealing my cats.”