Søren—by Kaiter Enless. A toccata in 4/4 (118 bpm).
Leitmotif based upon the work of Dan Klefstad.
Congratulations. Out of hundreds of applications, yours stood out for your “unwavering persistence to get the job done.” Well put! No doubt you will deserve the eight-figure salary and opulent benefits that come with this job. But I must warn you: The more you read, the more my employer will consider you a threat if you decline our offer. If you have no intentions of taking the job, delete this message now before reading further.
This is your final warning: Turn back if you’d rather not devote every day of your prime years to an employer who demands utter secrecy and loyalty. Take a moment to reflect on which is more important – a career that allows for family and vacations, or a mogul’s retirement. To be sure, the job is not all work. Right now, I’m enjoying a 1948 Graham’s port – a gift from my employer and one of the last such bottles in the world. I also have enough money to retire on my own Greek island. I hope you land in a similar place when your time comes. To get there, though, you’ll have to do more than drag your soul through the mud. Your hands will get dirty to the point where they’ll never get clean.
If you’ve read to this point, the job is yours. So, Dear Trainee, it’s time to meet the boss who will give final approval. Wear a suit and tie next Thursday just before midnight. Be courteous but not obsequious, and never say “That’s impossible” or “That goes against my beliefs.” Say this or something similar and everything will end. Abruptly.
I’d also advise you not to stare at her eyes, mouth, or any part of her body. If all goes well, I’ll train you for two weeks. If you’re wondering whether there’s a word for our profession, it’s Păzitor, Romanian for “guardian” or “caretaker.” The only other Romanian word you need to be aware of, but never say, is the peasant noun for our employer and her associates: strigoi. I’m saying it here, once, for instructional purposes. Uttering this could expose your employer to those familiar with Balkan folklore. Moreover, it’s an insult equal to the worst human slurs. Say it and expect a cruel death.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but you must also never say “Undead,” “Nosferatu” (meaning “not dead”), or, “Vampire.”
My first employer – not even a century old – lives in the apartment next door. It’s 1986, my sophomore year at college. I haven’t met him yet but see his “roommate” every night returning with a plastic cooler. Around 1:00 a.m., he walks by as I fold laundry downstairs. He never speaks but nods politely. Then one night, covered in blood, he asks when I’ll finish using the last available washer. “Someone tried to rob me but I fought him off. The blood is his,” he smiles. “I’m Ramon.”
Each night after, Ramon says, “Hi” as he walks by. Until the night before my final exams. As usual, I study downstairs while doing my girlfriend’s laundry; she works the night shift at the hospital. But I hate studying so I’m relieved when, an hour before dawn, a stranger enters the room. Wearing a tight vest and tie, he gazes at the period stain on one of Sarah’s panties. Then he hands me a cream-colored envelope that feels ancient. Inside is $300 plus a note and key. “Ramon’s dead. I need you to contact his family. Last name Valenzuela.”
I look up. “Why don’t you do it?”
He looks out the window. “If you don’t know the difference between Camus and Sartre by now, you never will. Am I right?”
“That depends. Are you a philosopher or dressed like one for Halloween?”
He looks like he’s about to rip my head off. Then he takes a deep breath and walks out. “You’re low on iron. Buy some red meat.”
I open the note:
Tell the funeral home to pick up Ramon tomorrow. You, and only you, will let them in. After they leave, lock the door behind you. I’ll collect the key tomorrow night. For this, I’ll pay an additional five hundred. I might even offer full-time work so you can stop pretending to be a student.
The apartment is filled with dark furniture and portraits of nobles. I pull back heavy curtains and tie them to boar’s tusks jutting from the wall. The books on the shelf are leather-bound with gold titles. Most are about the onetime rulers of Carpathian Mountain kingdoms.
A knock on the door. I realize I don’t know which room is Ramon’s, but then I see one of the bedrooms has a lock that bolts from the inside. The opposite door opens easily, and I show the men in. Ramon lies on the bed, arms folded. The nightstand has black-and-white photos of his family.
“Next time, make sure you draw the curtains when you leave.” Søren hands me the promised money.
“Does that mean I’m hired?”
“Once you take this job, there’s no quitting.”
“What is the job?”
“You clean the house, buy blood for me, and get two thousand dollars a month.”
The word “blood” would stop many people. But we, Dear Trainee, are a different breed. We focus on the money. “Where do I get this blood?”
“Hospitals mainly. Some are at least an hour away so you’ll take my car. There’s a pick-up schedule on the refrigerator.” Søren waves a bejeweled hand toward Ramon’s room. “You’ll sleep there.”
“I sleep with my girlfriend.”
“Sarah’s fucking a gynecologist. Believe me, you can’t compete.”
“How do you know?”
He frowns at me. I shift my weight to the other foot. “Standard week?”
“What days do I have off?”
He laughs and then glares at me. “I’ll tell you when I get a day off.”
Søren owns an ’81 Honda Accord which, at 250,000 miles, is nearing its end. While good on gas, it’s far less glamorous than James Mason’s ‘63 Cadillac in Salem’s Lot. For me, Mason is the archetypal caretaker with his bowler hat, silver tipped cane, and three-piece suit. He and his vampire, Kurt Barlow, buy and sell antiques, moving their shop to whatever hunting ground seems most promising:
Barlow & Straker Fine Antiques – Opening Soon
It gives me chills every time I remember it. Not that I completely enjoyed the movie because Straker dies while defending Barlow’s lair — Sorry for the spoiler. In fact, every caretaker in every vampire film dies violently. I think about each of them as I drive east to Chicago or north to Rockford. Søren never buys locally.
“Where’s Clarence?” I ask a stranger at Northwestern Memorial.
“Family emergency. I’m filling in.”
His lab coat has no ID. Clarence is supposed to page me when problems occur. “Who are you?”
“He said you’d be upset.” The stranger takes a case from the refrigerator and opens it. “Ten bags of O negative. That’ll be 15 hundred.”
“No,” I straighten. “I said ten bags of A positive for one thousand.”
“Fuck.” He looks at the bags. “She gets O negative.”
“Never mind. Come back tomorrow.”
“There’s been a mix-up,” I announce as I enter the apartment.
“I know,” a woman replies. As the door opens, I see her relaxing while Søren empties the remains of last night’s dinner into her glass.
Søren sets down the decanter. “You’ll have to go out again. Call our man at Rockford Memorial.”
“He’s tired, look at him.” Fiona extends her hand as she approaches. I never shook Søren’s so I’m surprised by her icy fingers. She holds on as I try to withdraw. Finally, I relax and look at her – black hair and eyes, red lips, purple gown with a long slit, smooth thigh, black pearls resting above the palest breasts I’ve ever seen. “It’s okay. I’ll get coffee on the road.”
I can’t stop thinking about her which is how I miss the classic signs of a dead alternator. The headlights dim before the dials go black. Standing on the shoulder, halfway to Rockford, I’m ready to chuck it in:
“Fuck you, Søren! If you want blood, fly out here and drain me. Here.” I tear open my collar and shout at the stars. “PUT ME OUT OF MY FUCKING MISERY.” A honk reminds me that I strayed into the road. I walk, zombie-like, toward the Amoco station a mile back. This truck stop is busy for a Monday with dozens of rigs parked in front.
“What’ll it be Honey?”
I stare at a menu, trying to look normal. “Just coffee.”
“I thought you might be here.” Fiona gathers her gown, exposing an entire thigh as she slides in next to me. I look to see if anyone else saw her come in. Everyone ignores her, even the waitress who reaches across her to deliver my coffee. Suddenly I’m hyper-aware: Here’s the most beautiful woman east of Hollywood, dressed to the nines, and no-one is looking at her. My eyes are still scanning when I finally speak. “It’s not fair if only one of us is visible.”
“You can see me. You can also see my driver who sabotaged tonight’s order.”
“Aston Martin. Center window.”
I see a hulking sports coupe with the steering wheel on the wrong side and a shadow behind it. I put a dollar on the table. “I’ll speak to her.”
“No.” Fiona hands me a foot-long scabbard covered with jewels. I slide out a blade shaped like a boomerang. When I slide it back, Fiona is gone.
“Who the fuck are you?” The woman gets out on the right-hand side. “And what are you doing with my Gurkha knife?” She looks into the window. “Where’s Fiona?”
“Fiona says you deliberately screwed up tonight’s order. She’s done with you.”
“Done with me?” She takes out a revolver and taps it against her chest. “You know what I did? I got cancer. That’s why she’s getting rid of me.”
“No Tanya,” Fiona steps through the door. “You’re trying to starve me.”
“Wow, you’re losing weight already.” Tanya aims the gun. “Time to lose some more.” A second later, the gun falls to the ground with a hand attached. Tanya looks at her bloody stump. “What the fffffuck?”
I swing again, cutting through her neck. As her headless body collapses, I stare at the blade, trying to comprehend. Fiona opens the left-side door. “Put her in the trunk and let’s go.”
“Watch your speed.”
I look at the dial. “It’s in kilometers.”
“88 and keep it there.” Fiona glances at the trunk and sniffs.
I hold up a flask. “I collected some.”
“She had cancer.”
“You mean, you don’t…”
“You wouldn’t eat meat from a diseased cow, would you?”
“I’m not sure I’d know.” I shift into third. “I’m not sure I know anything anymore.”
Fiona watches the moon over the surrounding farm land. “Harvest moon.” She laughs softly. “Not much of a harvest tonight. That was some fancy knife work.”
“That was a real sharp blade.”
“This too?” I hold up the revolver.
“No. Open it.”
I release the cylinder and see it’s fully loaded. Fiona removes a bullet with her long nails. “Look.” She turns on a light and holds it in front of me.
“Is that wood?”
“Yep.” She tosses it in back.
“Does that… work?”
“I’m not going to find out. We have to ditch the car.”
“What year is this?”
“Now that’s a crime.” I ease off the highway while Fiona punches the cigarette lighter. We stop behind an abandoned barn and she turns her back to me. “Unzip.” I do as she says, exposing a crocheted bustier that looks centuries old.
It takes a few minutes to loosen the laces. She pulls the garment away from her as she exits the car. Then she rolls it tight, crushing it with her fingers, and stuffs it in the fuel port. I use the cigarette lighter. As the material ignites, I glance at her large breasts with dead-white nipples.
“Not what you expected, huh?”
I look away. “Sorry.”
“I meant me owning an Aston Martin.”
Fiona’s home has soft colors, curved furniture, and silk pillows. But the floor plan is the same as Søren’s: two bedrooms, one bath, small kitchen, large living room – all on the second floor. She stands at the edge of the hallway, wearing a pink kimono with a long-necked bird on one side. Her head rests on the wall.
I rise from the couch. “Do all of you own apartments?”
“We can’t maintain a yard and exterior.” She walks unsteadily toward the couch, accepting my outstretched hand. I sit next to her and notice wrinkles near her eyes and mouth. “How can I help?”
“You know the answer, Daniel.”
“Name the supplier and I’ll get it.”
“They’re not available, thanks to Tanya. We have to move.”
“First I need to eat. Now.”
“There’s a hospital in town.”
I pause. “Does it have to be human?”
She scolds me with a look. Chastened, I look at my right arm. “I could spare a pint. Maybe two.”
“I need ten.”
“I could… find a homeless person.”
She nods. “Park down the street when you’re ready.” Her voice is brittle. “I’ll come down.”
A woman looks up as I enter the tent village under the bridge. “Ten dollars will feed me and my baby. Can you spare it?”
I step closer. She looks forty but is probably half that, rocking back and forth, scratching bruised, scabby forearms. My eyes focus on a crucifix tattooed on her right hand between her thumb and forefinger. “Where’s your baby?”
“Sleeping. All it takes is twenty to feed a family.”
I point to her jacket. “Those Navy pins, are they yours?”
“Fuck that supposed to mean? Of course they’re mine.”
I point to a patch on her shoulder. “Corpsman?”
Rocking back and forth. “USS Virginia. CGN-38.”
“See any action?”
“October 23rd, 1983.”
“October 23rd, 1983. Lebanon.”
A demolished building leaps from my memory to the forefront. “The bombing of the Marine barracks.” I pause. “You went ashore for the wounded?”
Rocking back and forth.
“YEAH I WENT ASHORE.” She continues rocking. “Tried to save one life and lost three.”
“Guy with rebar in his throat was a goner. Shoulda gave him morphine and moved on.”
“DO YOU HAVE TWENTY-FIVE OR DON’T YOU?”
I crouch down. “I’ll give you fifty if you take a ride with me.”
Her eyes narrow. “Where?”
“You’re not a serial killer are you?”
I smile. “Do I look like a serial killer?”
She glances away. “What do you want?”
“What any man desires but can’t get at home.”
She notes the absence of a wedding ring and I can see her struggle. I offer her my other hand, but she bats it away. “Well, good night.” I start walking back.
“Fine. But no rough shit.”
Sex, Death & Dentistry
The stolen car is in a secluded lot. During our walk a battle rages in my mind:
“Killing her is a mercy because she’s a hopeless addict.”
“Killing a veteran – a homeless veteran — is the worst thing you could do. Except killing a child.”
“She said she had a child. She’s lying to get more sympathy.”
“If you don’t kill this woman Fiona could die.”
“She’s an addict who’ll never get clean, no matter how much society spends on her.”
“This woman gave her all for your freedom and now you want to take her life?”
“IF YOU DON’T KILL HER FIONA WILL DIE.”
“STOP IT!” I put my hands to my ears.
“You’re freaking me out.” She stands a few paces behind me, hands on hips, silhouetted against the setting sun.
I manage a smile as I open the door. “What’s your name again?”
“I didn’t say. What’s yours?”
The previous month, I read about human dentistry to see if we’re that different from vampires. Not much, it turns out. If you start with the upper jaw, the first tooth right of center is the right maxillary central incisor, followed by the right maxillary lateral incisor, followed by the right maxillary cuspid, or canine (right fang in vampires). Then the right maxillary 1st and 2nd bicuspids.
When she takes me in her mouth, I can tell which ones are missing. She hums a tune which I find comforting as I pull the twine slowly from my right sleeve. With my left hand, I wind the string above her head. I stop when it’s about three feet long.
She stops too. “Is this going anywhere? I haven’t got all night.”
“Look at me.”
“I am but there ain’t much to look at here.”
“Look up here.”
Earlier, under the bridge, her eyes were cold and hard as flint. They’re softer now as she puts on a pout. “What’s a matter, baby?”
My left hand swoops twice around her neck before I pull the rope tight. She gasps as one hand scratches my face and the other scrapes the door. I turn to protect my eyes as she kicks toward the other door, feet reaching for the window. The twine digs deeper and deeper and I think her skin might break. The rope does instead.
The door opens and she spills out, coughing. She tries to scream, only croaks. As she stumbles away, I start the car and put it in reverse. Two seconds later I feel the impact. When I get out I see her crawling on her elbows, dragging her useless legs. “Son of a bitch,” she coughs. “You sick motherfucking son of a bitch.”
I stop next to her. “I’m sorry.”
She spits on my shoe but I’m focused on something she said. “Were you telling the truth about the baby?”
She’s still now, elbows in the gravel. “That’s something you’ll never know.”
I sigh. As I wrap a fresh length of twine around her neck, she starts to whisper:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
I wait to be sure she’s finished. Then I step on her back and pull the twine tight.
The adrenaline shakes my body as I drive back with Fiona’s dinner. I’m also starving. If an animal crossed my path I’d chase it down and eat it with my Gurkha. When I imagine this, I realize I experienced for the first time something Fiona hasn’t felt in years: the thrill of the kill. You probably don’t know this feeling. When it happens, you’ll understand what’s in Fiona’s dreams: the panicked breathing, the breaking skin, the hot gushing blood. It’s a distant memory for her, one she gave up at the dawn of modern policing. Your job, Dear Trainee, is to keep those longings in her past with a donated supply that never ends. If there’s a break in the chain, you’ll have to be the predator. It’s a guilt that’s not impossible to overcome. At least I hope so. Perhaps the Ionian Sea will wash away the blood of all my victims. Perhaps the sun will blind others to the monster among them. And maybe the wine will make me forget. This vision kept me going through all my years of service. You’d do well to find your own and cling to it.
I wish you well.
You can find Mr. Klefstad’s novel, Shepherd & The Professor, online, here.