Earning a living is such a bore after the first few hundred years. Actually, it was a bore after the first year, but that was back when men accepted the responsibility for a woman who was beautiful enough. Being a vampire, incapable of contracting nasty things like smallpox, I was exceptionally beautiful for the times.
Yes, before you ask, I knew George Washington, not as a close personal friend but we did meet at a few parties. He was a macho sweetie, about what you would expect from a general who turned rebel and led the troops, won the war, then led the nation. Tough with men, I am sure, but always courteous to ladies. And even quite neat in a time when that couldn’t be counted on, but that may have been Martha. She ran a spotless house, a place with candles gleaming through the rooms, highlighting the well-polished furniture.
Decades later I did attend a gathering at the Lincoln home and I regret to say, none of the above applied. It was a dark and dusty place filled with dark and dour people. But I digress.
About the whole beauty attracts rich men theory, nowadays beauty merely attracts. It doesn’t guarantee benefits. My last several lovers were such moochers, I finally gave up that angle and decided the single life was less bother. It insured me all of my own income and all of the closet space in my apartment. No more stupid sharing.
To avoid unwanted attention, I went ahead and aged, let myself get gray and grandmotherly, arranging my long straight hair in a knot and adding clear eyeglasses with rhinestone frames. The name Mary Brown was another good choice. If by mistake I accidentally attract a rich widower who is looking for a mature woman, I could again learn to live with rich.
Which brings me to Willie Dean, my landlord and next door neighbor, a plain man, the kind you can say hello to in the hallway and ten seconds later totally forget what he looks like. There was a time I would have thought that a pity, a sign of a dull personality, but a few little bits of things tweaked my curiosity. After so many centuries there is not much that does. But Willie did. There was something oddly acerbic about him, as though he preferred to be disliked. Or did he merely prefer to be ignored?
Recently we met in the entry, me going out and him coming in. He made a comment about the late hour and I gave my usual explanation.
“I work a swing shift. It pays more.”
“Yes, you would,” he said and I was out the door and walking down the street before I thought about what he’d said. He hadn’t asked where I worked. What did he mean, yes, I would? Would what? Prefer to work at night because I was a night person? Or prefer to choose higher pay over convenience? He didn’t know me or my finances.
Another time, again late, we passed in the hallway and I said, “Good evening, Mr. Dean. Terrible night. Pouring outside.”
“Good night for a stakeout,” he said, and turned into his apartment and closed the door.
The word stake may not bother others but it terrifies a vampire. I might have assumed he meant steak out, referring to a barbecue, if it hadn’t been raining.
And so I must admit I tried to set him up. I’d done it to dukes and colonels and pretenders with fair success, but that was when I had my looks. Now I waited for him with nothing but my wits to aid me. When I heard his door open, I walked briskly down the hall, exactly timing myself to pass him as he stepped out.
“Oh, Mr. Dean! How lucky. We can go out together. Last night when I went to my car, there was a stranger in the garage. I’m sure he didn’t live here. I’ll feel much safer with you escorting me to my car.”
He gave me such an odd look, I do believe he would have darted back into his unit if I hadn’t slipped my arm through his.
“Do you always drive your own car?” he asked.
“It’s the one problem with swing shift. Riding buses really isn’t safe.”
He nodded and looked thoughtful. Without saying another word, he walked me out the door and to my car in the open garage under the building. I chattered about the lack of lights on the sidewalk and the hazards of an open garage. Willie Dean said not one word until I opened my car door and slid into the driver’s seat. Then he leaned down, made his odd comment, stood and walked out of the garage and along the sidewalk and out of sight while I sat clutching the steering wheel. What he said was this.
“Which of you was in greater danger?”
Which of who? Was he referring to my invention of a stranger lurking in the garage? Here I am, looking small and frumpy and a poorly preserved sixty something, and Willie Dean considers me a greater danger than a male trespasser?
My night job is what puts food in my mouth. Directly. No need at all to deposit a pay check and draw out money and stop at a grocery store and carry home bags of groceries, although I have done that in the past in this uncivilized century. Modern men expect their women to do the shopping and the cooking. The servant supply shortage is not only inconvenient, it very nearly makes life impossible.
When I was a young charmer, and I was a young charmer for several centuries, the man who chose to live with me was a partial food supply and delighted to do so after an evening of flirtation and dancing. But who wants to flirt on a nightly basis with the same person? No, in a more elegant age both I and my benefactor had other lovers. For him it was a way to satisfy his desire for variety. For me it was a way to obtain a plentiful blood supply without over using any one donor.
Now the only men who understand the need for multiple partners are either unethical philanderers or they are members of my blood line.
When I returned home that night and opened the door, there he was, one of the troublesome young ones, waiting for me, sprawled gracefully on my couch.
“Dominic. What is it you need now?”
He’s handsome in his way, dark haired, slim, beautifully dressed, a bit too pale but it gives him an aura of mystery that attracts human women. Vampires don’t attract each other. At least, not the ones I’ve known.
He gave me his lazy smile. “Eleanore. A pleasure to see you again.”
At little more than one hundred and twenty years, he lacked polish. “I haven’t used that name in years. I’m Mary now.”
“And penniless. I have nothing more than a late husband’s Social Security.”
“Really? You actually married someone? How late is late?”
I sank down beside him on the couch and pulled off my shoes and wiggled my stockinged feet. “The problem with aging is that it seems impossible to do on the surface only. Can you imagine, Dominic? I actually get a touch of arthritis on cold nights.”
“The husband, Mary. Tell me about him and why you married him. Rich, I suppose.”
“Don’t be silly. I didn’t marry anyone. Twenty years ago I chose a death notice in a paper and filled out forms to claim I’d once been married to him. In small ways this is a very civilized country. Divorcees can claim benefits.”
“Weren’t you already receiving benefits for someone else?”
“Of course, dear.” I stretched my legs and my knees did an annoying pop. “My previous persona would be pushing one hundred by now. Time to expire and reappear as a sixty something named Mary.”
“A sixty what? Sixty thousand?”
I slapped his hand. “Don’t be rude. Besides, that was twenty years ago and so according to government records, I am now pushing ninety.”
He sighed. “You’re right, I am already finding my existence complicated and not the thrill I once thought it would be. Safe houses turn unsafe. An empty place in commute distance from civilization is soon occupied or else torn down. Which is why I am here. Can you put me up for a few days?”
Over day guests were not a thing I encouraged, but here he was and of my blood line. “How many days?”
“Until I find a place.”
“I thought you shared a house with a group.”
“Yes, well, I did. In rural areas. You know how that is. We frequented the same places too often and became known as unreliable drifters.”
“People who pick up a different partner every night get labeled in areas of low population. Cities are so much easier except for the housing problem. It’s hard to find deserted property and rents are impossible, plus nowadays they want references and daytime interviews.”
“Your only choice here is the couch.”
Dominic doubled over until his head almost touched the floor. He pushed aside the skirt on the couch and peered underneath it. “Tight, but it will do. How about your locks? Anyone else have a key?”
“Of course not. The only possible problem is the landlord,” I said and told him about Willie Dean. “He has never so much as knocked on my door. Still, there is something odd going on. Be sure to slide the bolts and check the windows before you turn in. And now I am off to bed.”
“But there’s a good two hours to sunrise!”
“Another problem with aging.” I grasped the arm of the couch and pushed myself upright. “I seem to need more rest. Go ahead and watch the television, if you like. The sound won’t bother me. Have you fed tonight?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Good. I wouldn’t want you bothering the neighbors.”
He made some comment, young men always do. I ignored him, went to my room, changed into my flannel nightgown and slid under my bed. It was the closest thing to a coffin I could manage, with the mattress mere inches above me. Some of the younger vampires sleep on top of beds but I have never been able to adjust.
The window shutter was always closed, of course, and the floor length bedspread was dark enough to keep out any glimmer of electric light from the front room.
I dozed and woke several times in the next two hours, changed position on the thick pad beneath my bed, and when I intentionally listened, the sound of the television was clear. But he was a good boy. He kept it low. With dawn I literally slept the sleep of the dead.
When I woke at sunset I took my usual time, dressing slowly in what was most comfortable, pausing to give my feet a good massage before pulling on warm sox. I checked my purse, to be sure there was still cash and there was, enough to see me through the week. By the weekend I would need to stop at the ATM. Each week I squirreled away one fourth of the rent and each month I put the money in an envelope marked From Mary Brown, Apt 2A and slid it under Willie Dean’s door. Rent and an occasional clothing purchase in a late night mall were my only expenses.
By the time I completed my evening ritual my nephew was up and dressed. Cell phone in hand, he paced the front room.
“I’m not sure,” he said in the direction of the phone.
It always amused me to watch young people press their phones against their faces, the actual speaker area halfway between ear and mouth. Technology is baffling. I remember phones that required a person to lean within a fraction of an inch, but then, before that, we sent servants to deliver messages and before that we saddled a horse and before that, oh well, it is of no importance. Today is where I exist.
Dominic, who is really the gentlest of boys, sounded angry. “No, I understand. The decision in yours. No. Not tonight. Oh. Perhaps. Let me call you back.”
Glancing at me, he forced a smile and then reached inside his jacket to drop the phone in a pocket. “I will never understand them.”
I patted his shoulder. “Do you know, my dear, I recall hearing those same words from Lord Byron. I suspect the phrase started with a caveman and before you ask, no, I do not go back that far.”
That broke his mood and he laughed. You’re telling me men have not understood women since the world began.”
“Or at least since men and women began. What’s her name?”
“And she wants to have an affair with a vampire.”
“She is having an affair with a vampire. Me.”
“Oh, I see.” And I did. That explained his sudden appearance on my doorstep. “How long have you been living in the neighborhood?”
“Not long, Eleanore.”
“Mary. Mary Brown. Your auntie, in case you run into any of the other tenants. But try not to. I work at being invisible. All they know about me is my name.”
“Sorry. Yes, I’ll remember. Zoë and I have been together about six months. We were down in Portland. We came up here two weeks ago. She had a job interview.”
“And did she get the job?”
“They had a number of applicants. They won’t make a decision for another week or two. It’s a job she really wants.”
“Oh dear. She must be a bundle of nerves, poor girl.”
“Yes, she is. While we wait, we’re living in a motel and you know the problems. It’s adds strain for her, making up reasons why the maid can’t clean the room during the day. That sort of thing. She had an apartment in Portland, which meant I locked myself in the bedroom and she went off to work during the day, but in a motel, well, she’s learning of all the difficulties of living with me and she doesn’t like it.”
“Why don’t you break off, if that’s what she wants. You’ll find someone else.”
“It’s not that simple.” He collapsed back in chair, dug around in his pockets for cigarettes and lighter, and looked up at me. “Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Of course not. Tell me about the girl.”
As neither of us was capable of developing lung cancer, we both smoked. Vampires sink their fangs into humans for nourishment. Unfortunately, our memories remain full of the pleasures of eating and drinking more flavorful things. We must make alternate choices. We chew our fingernails or our knuckles. We smoke.
Dominic offered me a cigarette and then whipped out a Ronson lighter, a lovely little piece with a faux wood surround, probably forty years old. I have cast iron ashtray stands at both ends of the couch. They have glass liners and handles for easy carrying and they date back to the 1920s when everyone smoked. It’s become a favorite vampire hobby, collecting and using a variety of smoking paraphernalia.
He leaned back and blew a stream of smoke toward the ceiling. “First, I might at well tell you, the problem is mine. I am in love with her. I know she will eventually leave me. Lovers always do. They want something permanent and I understand that, but I thought Zoë and I would last for a few years. I get so tired of temporary arrangements.”
So young. Give the boy another century and he would realize that all arrangements are temporary. There was no reason for me to tell him.
“Dominic, dear, why not take her dancing, or whatever it is you do evenings, and then spend your days here? I’m sorry I can’t invite your lady friend to move in but I haven’t the space.”
Plus, I had stopped living with humans years ago and was much the happier for it. Existing around their schedules was such a strain.
“You’ll tire of me, too.”
Oh, he was on a downer, truly depressed, and though I hadn’t intended to say it, I did. “You’ll be gone most the night. I’ll be in bed before you return As long as you remember to lock up in the morning and I only see you in the early evening, we can muddle along for a while. Can you leave most of your clothes with her?”
“I suppose so. That is, if she still wants me in her life.”
“Oh, I think she will. If you’re only there at night.” His girlfriend and I would both have what we wanted. She could let the maids clean and I could keep my closet space.
We left the building together and wouldn’t you know it? On the way out we met Willie Dean coming in. He stopped and stared at Dominic and then he stared at me and I should have let the little creep think I had a toy boy. However, tweaking his curiosity was something I tried not to do, and so I introduced Dominic as a visiting nephew.
“From where?” Dean demanded.
“I’m up here on a business trip. I live in Portland,” Dominic said.
“What sort of business are you in?”
When we were outside with the door shut behind us, I had to ask. “Did you make that up, Dominic? About electronics? Or do you really know how to use a computer?”
“Don’t you? I’ll teach you, if you like. I swear computers were invented for us. Very flexible. I have a netbook in my suitcase. I can work from anywhere and at any time.”
I drove east from town and dropped Dominic where he asked, near a restaurant that had a separate bar. “Looks posh,” I said.
He laughed. “Posh? One seldom hears that word any more.”
“All right. Expensive.”
“Would you care to come in with me, Mary?”
I looked him over. He wore a neat dark suit and a silk shirt. His hair was styled. His wrist watch was expensive. He was obviously doing well. On the other hand, I lived on a Social Security check and bargain shopped. I wore my straight gray hair long and twisted into a bun. It saved me the expense and the bother of finding a hairdresser with late night hours. As my whole purpose in aging was to avoid notice, that suited me.
I would be far too visible in a fancy bar.
“No, you have a good feed and then stop by and have a chat with your young lady, dear. I’ll leave a light on.”
He’d cab his way back to wherever she was staying. They did that, the young ones, hopped in and out of cabs. They had lived through one or two depressions at the most. I had lived through hundreds.
My restaurant choice was a Target store where I carried in two shopping bags, turned around and carried them back out. They were full of books. When I saw a lone man get out of his car in the parking lot and walk toward the entrance, I stumbled. He stopped and stared and for a second I was afraid I was actually going to have to do a complete collapse and end up sitting on the cold pavement. But then he hurried forward and caught my arm to steady me.
“Are you all right?”
“I think I’ve turned an ankle. These bags are so heavy.”
“If I carry them to your car, can you walk?”
“Would you? How very kind of you.”
It was my usual nightly routine. He carried the bags. I opened the car trunk. He put them in. I walked around to the driver’s door and opened it.
“Oh my goodness!” I exclaimed loudly.
He closed the trunk. “What’s wrong?”
“Well, the light doesn’t come on. Shouldn’t the light come on? It always does when I open the door.”
The man was obviously someone’s well trained husband. I’d known that when I sighted him. “You may have bumped the switch to off. It’s easy to do.”
“There’s a switch?” I slid into the driver seat.
He laughed and came around to the passenger side door and opened it and pointed. “Sure, it’s right there on the dashboard.”
“Where? Oh honestly, I am so stupid about cars. This is my husband’s car. Mine’s in for repair and why don’t they put everything in the same place in all cars?”
He slid in and reached over and flipped the switch and nothing happened because I had the wires to the interior lights disconnected. So he slid further into the passenger seat and tried the switch several times.
“That’s odd. You must have a loose connection. Well, you don’t need interior lights to drive. Just turn on your headlights and you’ll be okay.”
“That’s so kind of you,” I said and while I was saying it, I caught his face between my hands in a firm grip and before he could blink, I gave him a solid kiss.
There are a variety of approaches, each familial. That’s how it is done in my bloodline. When we are hungry a kiss from me, or from Dominic or from any of our line, acts like a sleeping potion. The man had a fraction of a second to look startled and then his eyes closed and his head dropped sideways to his shoulder, exposing the flesh above his jugular. With centuries of experience behind me, it took me less than three minutes to shoot my fangs into him, take a safe amount of his blood and not a drop more, leave a little saliva on the puncture wounds to instantly seal them, and I was out of the car. I closed my door, walked around to the other side and glanced around the parking lot. I saw no one near us.
But in case there was someone I’d missed,
I said, “Is that knee bothering you again? Come on, Johnny, I’ll help you. Just lean on me.”
With my arm firmly around him, I stood him up and supported his weight, because that’s how strong vampires are. He did a sleep shuffle. I found his keys in his pocket, pressed the key chain button, saw the lights flicker on his car, headed to it, and within another minute I had him settled behind the wheel. The seat belt kept him from falling. He was sound asleep.
The whole maneuver took ten minutes. I thought of him as the appetizer.
From there I drove to a shopping center to find my entree and after that I spotted a lone man weaving down a side street and so I had a nice bourbon flavored dessert.
When I returned home, I met Willie Dean in the hall.
“Where did your nephew say he worked?”
Not so much as a polite hello. I bent over my apartment doorknob to insert the key. “He didn’t.”
“I noticed. Takes after you.”
His door clicked shut behind him.
I frowned at the empty hall.
Inside my apartment I changed into my flannel nightgown and flannel robe and fluffy slippers and then I plunked myself down on the couch and sat with my feet up on a footstool. Picking up the remote, I turned on the television. It was nothing but ads. With the sound down, the flickering light from the screen was as much light as I wanted. If I’d been human I would have poured myself a drink. Instead I pulled a smoking stand into easy reaching distance and lit a cigarette.
Willie Dean owned the building. He could evict me, possibly, if he wanted to. There was at least one empty apartment upstairs and so he wouldn’t want to, plus, I paid cash. He struck me as the sort to cheat on his income taxes.
Did he know I was a vampire? Did he know I would not do anything that would require me to appear at a police station or in court during the day?
He often asked about my job and I always did a vague wave of my hand and mumbled something about working swing shift. I never said where. For reasons of his own, he didn’t insist on an answer. He simply did an occasional repeat of the question. Why? Worrying about Willie Dean was giving me a headache.
The sound of a key in the lock brought me out of my funk with a squeak of surprise.
Dominic stuck his head inside. “Mary? Sorry, did I frighten you?” He came in and closed the door. “I would have knocked but I presumed you’d gone to bed.”
I glanced at the clock. “Good grief. It’s two hours to sunrise and you are absolutely right. I should turn in.”
“Were you waiting up for me?”
“Oh no, dear. I was worrying.
“That’s not good. Anything I can help you with?”
“Not unless you have some magic way to dig out information about people.” I told him about Willie Dean and added, “There’s something odd about him.”
“He mentioned a stakeout? That sounds as though he thinks you work for law enforcement.”
“At my age?”
“The guilty suspect everyone.”
“What would the man be guilty of?”
Dominic sat down beside me on the couch, gave me a hug, took the cigarette out from between my fingers and added it to the overflowing ash tray in the smoking stand. “Now, Mary. First, I am going to empty this thing and second I am going to open a few windows. Why don’t you go onto bed and let me worry about Willie Dean.”
“I don’t want you to worry. No point both of us worrying.”
He gave me one of his nice smiles. “The difference is this. I have a way to worry that might give us some answers.”
As my head was far too muddled to sort out what he meant, I took his advice and started off to bed. And then I remembered that I wasn’t the only one with a problem.
“Were you able to talk to Zoë, dear?”
“I phoned. She said she was too tired to see me tonight.”
“I’ll try again tomorrow night.”
As there was little I could do besides sympathize and assure him he was welcome to the couch, I reminded him to lock up and then I went to bed.
The next evening Dominic was again awake before me, up and dressed and waiting. He had an odd little smile on his face, as though he was extremely pleased with himself.
“You are right, Mary. There is something strange about Willie Dean. A puzzle. Do you like to solve puzzles?”
“I’ve never been very good at them. Tell me what you learned. And how.”
After we arranged ourselves, me on the couch and Dominic in the chair and the smoking stand between us, we each took that first inhale of the evening, savored the flavor and let the smoke drift slowly from our mouths. He kept me waiting, savoring that, too. The young do enjoy teasing. Then he leaned forward, elbows on knees and grinned.
“For starters, one can find almost anything on the internet. What I found was that your Willie Dean has a wife whose address is the same as his and yet you said he lives alone.”
When I first moved to the building I had walked down the hallways in the dead of night and listened. Vampires can hear the beating of a heart and when very hungry, even the flow of blood in veins. Since then, coming and going, without trying, I continued to hear the heartbeats. I could hear them clearly on my way out of the building to hunt and could hear them faintly when I came home filled.
“I know exactly how many people inhabit each apartment. I know when there is a visitor and I know when one of them is out. There’s no wife in his place. I would have heard her.”
“I believe you. And that is the puzzle. Because she not only is listed at his address, she co-owns the building with him. It’s all in city records.”
“You found this out on the computer? I’ve been here four years. I suppose she might have left him before I moved in. If there was no divorce, she might live elsewhere but still co-own the building.”
“We’ll never know unless we look.”
“Come along, Mary.” Dominic stood up and caught my hand, helped me to my feet and led me out into the hallway. “Dean left a few minutes ago.”
Yes. Willie Dean’s heart was not beating anywhere in the building. His beat was distinctive, slightly irregular. “He goes down the street to one of the fast food places every night.”
“Good. We should have a minimum of a half an hour. Possibly more.”To my surprise and also dismay, Dominic went to Willie’s door, knelt down in front of it, inserted a small instrument in the keyhole, and before I could ask what he thought he was doing, he opened the door. “Hurry. I’d like to be done and out of here before he returns.”
I have been many things but never a housebreaker. My greatest theft was a box of jewels from a man who owed me far more, therefore it wasn’t a true theft. It was the balancing of accounts. And it was centuries ago and the jewels are long gone, sold and traded to buy my passage to the colonies.
“But why? We aren’t going to steal anything, are we?”
“Would Watson question Holmes? Oh, do get in here.” He closed the door quietly behind me. “Where’s the desk?”
The air in the room smelled stale. Looking around, I could see why. Dust everywhere. Newspapers piled in corners. A soiled sweater hung over the back of a chair. A worn pair of houseshoes dropped in front of the couch. A dried up half bowl of cereal left next to the TV.
“I’m right. No woman lives here.”
“And the puzzle is becoming more interesting by the second.” Dominic had seated himself at the desk and was going through the drawers. A mound of papers covered the top.
“What is all that mess?”
“Rent records. We don’t care about them.” He swung around and held up a check book and a sheet of paper that folded in on itself to form an envelope. Familiar, yes.
“I’ve seen something like that.”
He grinned. “Of course you have. It’s a yearly statement of benefits from Social Security. Here’s his and yes! Here’s hers. And the amounts match.”
He handed me two check books. “His and hers accounts, my dear. Wherever the woman is, her payments are automatically deposited to a checking account in her name and his are deposited to his account.”
“Well, they would be, wouldn’t they?”
“The statements from both Social Security and from the bank show this address for her. You say you haven’t seen her in the four years you’ve lived here. So where is she and why is he collecting her payments?”
I gave him a long look. Dominic was a sweet boy and if Zoë didn’t know that, she was a fool. “What you’re telling me is that Willie Dean was probably an abusive husband. She ran away and left everything behind, knowing that if she transferred her accounts he might be able to trace her. What you’re looking at are items abandoned by a desperate woman.”
Yes, that horrid little merchant owed me every jewel I took with me when I fled England, but there was no point explaining my past.
Dominic found an old envelope in the pile of papers and copied off several numbers. “You may be right. I have everything I need. Come on, Mary. I’m getting a bit peckish.”
He was careful to reset the lock when we left. And then I drove him to another posh place, dropped him off, and went looking for new hunting grounds for myself. It was one of those nights when nothing went easily. The humans all seemed to be traveling in groups. I circled parking lots endlessly before spotting prey, and then several turned out to be waiting for friends who arrived before I reached them. But eventually I found my dinner.
When I returned home I was surprised to find Dominic already there. I wasn’t surprised at his speed. This night anyone could have completed a hunt more rapidly than me. The surprise was a lovely redhead seated on my couch, her long legs crossed, her long fingers wrapped around a carryout cup of coffee.
“Oh dear,” I said.
“You must be Mary.”
“You must be Zoë.”
Dominic was sitting yoga style on the floor, a small computer balanced on his legs. He glanced up and waved a hand to point at each of us. “Mary, this is Zoë. Zoë, Mary.”
“Yes, dear, we’ve figured it out all by ourselves,” I told him.
There was an expression on the young woman’s face that had love written all through it. Those two were a matching pair. In her eyes I saw the same edge of unhappiness tinged with doubt. So she and Dominic had in common a desire to be together and a fear that what they wanted was impossible. I felt millenniums old.
“Now pay attention, both of you,” he said, his face lit by the screen he was staring at. “Nora Dean has a birth record and a marriage record but no death record. Her medical records at the HMO end five years ago with no further information. And there are no record of any relatives I can trace. I went back to the beginning, starting with the birth record. Both parents are dead. There never were siblings.”
“She ran away. She probably changed her name. I told you that.”
“Which means your Mr. Dean is continuing to collect her income. There’s no record of her having other income, pension, savings, anything at all. She’s a dead end.”
“Dear me. Dominic, are you thinking she is living on the street?”
“Or truly dead?”
As the conversation didn’t seem conducive to romance, I decided the two of them needed alone time. I did a yawn which wouldn’t fool Dominic but did fool his lovely friend. “My dears, I am too tired to think about it. You’ll excuse me if I turn in now.”
I almost reminded him to call a cab for Zoë. Surely she wouldn’t want to stay past dawn in an apartment with two dead bodies. And would she know to lock up? But they were adults and I was acting like the age I had let myself become. From the looks on their faces I presumed Dominic would shut down his computer and work on improving his lovelife.
Excuse me for being incredibly thick headed. Instead he did a bit more searching and found a driver’s license photo of Nora Dean and showed it to me right after the next sunset.
Over that first lovely smoke of the evening he explained a bit more about the beautiful Zoë. “She started out majoring in theater, studied acting for a while. She had several good parts with small productions before switching to stage management. If she gets the job here, it will be a step up from her position in Portland.”
“I’m sure she is brilliant,” I said.
“That’s not the point. Listen to this, Mary. In on of her plays she had the role of an old woman. She is expert at the makeup, posture, voice, that sort of thing.”
“Where are we going with this?”
Dominic ground out his cigarette and leaned toward me, his expression intense. “I’ve been thinking. To pull off this con against the government, is it possible the wife is dead and Willie hid her body somewhere?”
“Con? Oh dear.” I was living off the Social Security of a man I’d never met, using credentials that put my age close to ninety. I could pass for mid sixties but not much more. If anyone actually investigated me, I would have to leave town in a rush and start all over someplace else.
“It would explain why he says such odd things to you. He thinks you are an investigator.”
“Renting an apartment for four years to catch him at theft?”
“No, he imagines your move here was innocent but that you recently began to suspect him, either of fraud or of disposing of her.”
“Dominic! Is it possible you are next going to suggest digging up the basement?”
He laughed and visibly relaxed. “Far too much work, my dear. I have no purpose other than curiosity. My problem is that I hate giving up on a puzzle. What Zoë and I decided is this. Zoë says that with a wig and makeup she can make herself look a lot like the driver’s license photo of Nora Dean. And it gives her height and weight. Zoë is about two inches taller but she says that’s not a problem. She can slouch and appear shorter. We’re thinking if she knocks on Willie Dean’s door, his reaction could be interesting to watch.”
“Oh, he’ll surely know she isn’t his wife.”
“Let me explain staging, Mary.”
He didn’t need to. I stood in the hall the next evening and watched. As soon as we heard Willie go out, Dominic dragged a stepladder to the hallway and loosened all but one of the bulbs in the ceiling fixtures.
Zoë came prepared. I would never have recognized her as Zoë. She did indeed resemble the photo, with a gray wig of short tight curls above false eyebrows. Heavy makeup made her cheeks look rounder, her nose wider, her mouth smaller. The lines looked natural that ran through fake sagging skin. She was good, knew how to hunch her shoulders and add forty years to her age.
She walked up and down the hall, getting the feel of the space. “What should I say when he opens his door?”
“Hello, Willie?” I suggested.
“We don’t know the tone of her voice. Or if she had an accent. Maybe you should simply stand there, staring at him,” Dominic said. “Let him do the talking.”
Dominic and I were standing in front of my apartment when we heard the front door open. Dominic flapped his hand at Zoë, signaling her to stay where she was, on the far side of Willie Dean’s apartment and halfway down the hall. The one remaining overhead light was directly above her, It was a three bulb fixture and Dominic had removed two of the bulbs. One thin shaft of white lit the top of her gray hair and created odd shapes of light and shadow on her face.
Dominic closed my door. We stood silently listening to the uneven beat of Willie Dean’s heart and to his footsteps. His footsteps stopped.
We knew what he saw, the shadowed eye sockets, the ridge of light on the cheekbones, the darker shadows beneath her nose and chin. The overhead light drained color, creating a gray and white image.
We heard his sharp breath. We clearly heard what he muttered. “Damn you, you’re dead.”
Yes, that’s what Zoë had reminded me of, standing in the staging Dominic had created. Hidden under the disguise, she resembled a zombie in a horror film.
Dominic edged open the door.
We could see Willie Dean, his back to us. A paper box from the fast food restaurant dropped from his hand, hit the floor and popped open. The remains of a meal fell out.
His heart raced. He made an odd whimpering sound. And then he collapsed in a crumpled heap.
Zoë let out a shriek. Dominic ran down the hall, did a flying leap over Willie, caught Zoë, and pulled her back to my place.
Upstairs a door opened and someone called, “What’s going on down there?” Another tenant came out of the apartment at the end of the hall, and then more and more doors opened and people started rushing around. They bent over Willie and shouted to each other about calling 9-1-1.
We closed my door.
“What happened?” Zoë looked terrified.
“His heart stopped.”
“Ohmygod, did I kill him?”
“No. No! Of course not. Darling, it’s not your fault. Come on, let’s get you out of that costume before the police show up,” Dominic hugged her and petted her and led her into my bathroom and left me shivering.
He was right. A death brings more than an aid car and ambulance. It brings the police, swarms of them hurrying up and down the hallway talking to everyone. Had anyone seen Mr. Dean when he collapsed? What had they heard? Was anyone else in the hall with him? I could hear the questions through the door.
From the bathroom Dominic called, “Turn on the TV. We need sound.”
With no idea what he meant, I did. Dominic raced over to me, pulled the pins out of my bun and finger combed my hair into long messy strands around my shoulders. Next he rushed in and out of my bedroom, helped me tie my flannel bathrobe over my clothes and told me to kick off my shoes. I did. He grabbed them and tossed them into the bedroom.
“Remember, if asked, you are home alone.”
A few minutes later a policeman knocked on the door. I opened the door, saw all the milling people and realized what Dominic thought I should do.
“Oh my goodness, what’s happened?”
The policeman said there had been an accident and had I heard anything?
“I was watching a show. I’m sorry, let me turn it down. I have to put it on high because I don’t hear as well as I used to.” Maybe I wasn’t as good an actress as Zoë, but I knew the right lines. “Should I come out? Oh where did I leave my shoes? Give me a minute and I’ll find them.”
“That’s all right, ma’am. The hall is already crowded. You stay where you are.”
He only asked one or two more questions.
By the time the hallway finally emptied and Willie Dean’s body was removed and everyone had returned to wherever they came from, Dominic had calmed Zoë. She came back into the front room and joined me on the couch.
“I feel terrible,” she said. “Do you think I frightened him to death?”
I said, “Oh dear.”
Dominic said, “He frightened himself to death. He knew she was dead.”
But there’s no record of her death. So how did she die and where is her body?” I asked.
“Willie Dean’s last words were Damn you, you’re dead. That’s as good as a confession.”
“You think he killed her and hid her body?”
“Of course he did.”
I had to agree with him. There was no other explanation for the missing wife and the check books and the deposits and the lack of any public record of her death.
We hadn’t killed Willie. He’d killed himself. And possibly I should feel a wee bit guilty about taking advantage of the situation. But after all these centuries, I don’t waste my emotions on the wicked.
The three of us discussed the possibilities and came up with the only workable plan for two people who could not make daytime visits or phone calls to public offices. Armed with Nora Dean’s ID, Zoë dressed up once more to visit a funeral home to order Willie Dean’s cremation. The funeral home was extremely helpful, making all the arrangements including filling out the forms to have copies of the death certificate mailed to her.
Then Zoë phoned the Social Security office using her own voice and explained that her Aunt Mary Brown had died and benefits should be stopped. Next she phoned using a frail old lady voice and explained that her husband had died and as his benefits were greater than her own, she would appreciate receipt of the larger benefit.
Dominic searched Dean’s desk one more time and found Wills signed by Dean and his wife leaving everything to each other. Again disguised as Nora and armed with all the paperwork, Zoë did all the adjustments that needed to be done in person. Dominic took care of changes that could be done with his computer. He will mark deceased on my tax return this year and that will solve the problem of anyone looking for ninety year old Mary Brown.
Nicest of all, I need no longer go out alone at night. Zoë got the job she wanted. Dominic gutted Willie’s apartment and rebuilt it, turning it into a charming love nest for the two of them. Very handy.
Dominic remains the same boy I have known for a century. Zoë, on the other hand, is an absolute treasure. She cut and permed my hair into a short mass of curls. Next she went shopping and came back with a different style of eye glasses, shoes, clothing. She totally changed my looks,
“Now, if you meet any of the tenants in the hallway, they won’t ever guess you were once Mary Brown,” she explained.
Such a dear girl. In four years, no one in the building ever saw me except Willie Dean. That’s because he intentionally lay in wait for me. However, the new disguise allows me to return to old hunting grounds, not that I will ever say so to Zoë. She knows Dominic and I hunt. She prefers not to think about it.
Bank statements and government mail for Nora Dean do get left in their mailbox at 2C but as we see each other every night, it’s no bother. Should anyone official ask, the owner gave her old apartment to young relatives and now she lives next door in the apartment vacated by the death of Mary Brown.
Well, honestly. no one is going to ask. After numerous centuries, I am fairly good at updating my existence.
The story Retired Vampire is featured in the third book of the Wicked Good series of short story collections, titled Steampunk Widow.
Phoebe Matthews's webpage is at http://phoebematthews.com