The town car pulled into the circular driveway off Lookout Mountain Drive. A lesbian couple owned the house. They had adopted two plump, sweet-blooded Chinese babies the year before.
The Driver emerged. In his black suit, a la page shirt and custom loafers, he looked like a living slice of the car's inky mass, peeling itself from the chassis, moving on its own. He opened the left rear passenger door.
"Appetizer course?" murmured The Girl as she squinted in the bright moonlight. The Driver smiled, his dead eyes masking his usual mix of contempt, despair and amusement when dealing with his passengers.
He took in her boots, low-cut jeans and faded concert T-shirt, her little-girl ponytails and $3000 clutch handbag. Her maroon, lipsticked mouth was an infected bullet hole in her pale, doll face.
Before the Driver could walk over to the opposite passenger door, The Boyfriend stepped out.
Jesu Christo, The Driver thought. He'd picked up the couple at their stylish downtown work/loft half an hour ago. They weren't used to chartered livery service; The Boyfriend had clattered into the car before The Driver could open the door for him, not even scooching over for The Girl.
And now here The Boyfriend stood, lit by the moonlight like a cheap, plastic figurine in an aquarium. Sunken cheeks, cow eyes trying to be "haunting," black leather blazer over a black T-shirt with black jeans and black goddamned everything. There were times when The Driver, musing, thought how unnerving it would be to see a vampire dressed in an Easter-y polo shirt and khaki slacks. But these pups didn't have the presence or confidence to be startling or original. Not them, nor any of the others in their vast litter. Maybe the next one. The Driver had centuries—behind him, and yet to come.
In his head, he replayed the last moments of magic hour in Wisconsin in 1936, the girl's screams, the phut-THWACK of the thresher, her father not twenty feet away, thinking his un-weddable daughter had finally found a man who'd love her, the sweet corn-silk of her hair and blood, an American vintage no longer made. The Driver could smell the sweating, cast iron of the thresher's frame mixed with the raw corn perfume when The Boyfriend's voice snapped him back to the dull present.
"Nice," said The Boyfriend. He held the baby by its punctured fontanel. The Girl sprawled on the couch, piddling her fingers in the torn-open neck of the lean, buzz-cut lesbian, who'd begged for her daughter's life.
The Driver blinked, confused. He'd blocked out the whole, dull entry to the house. He'd day-dreamed through the tedious screams and alarms. And he'd managed to ignore, awake, the grinding sameness of the feed.
"I find the pearly rice and steppe-grass undertones of Asian infants to be a wonderful palate awakener," said The Driver, remembering his glorious autumn in Nanjing.
"Yeah, babies fuckin' rip," said The Girl.
Sweet and sour
The Driver made the sloping right onto Sunset from Laurel Canyon. Behind him, The Boyfriend and The Girl polished their sticky maws with the mint-scented wipes The Driver always provided. The wipes flowered gracefully from a glazed Buddha. He wondered if either of them would get the visual reference.
No. The Girl tongue-washed her incisors while The Boyfriend dug in his jacket pocket for something. Here it comes, thought the Driver.
"Could you play this mix CD while we drive?"
The Driver smiled with his mouth and not with his eyes and said, "I'd be happy to."
He slid the disc into the car's player, praying Not Bowie Not Bowie Not Bowie Not Bowie Not Bowie Not Bowie.
The opening piano figure from "Lady Stardust" filled the car.
He tried to pay better attention as they entered the nightclub but his infinite, sprawling mind wandered. He could barely focus, even as The Girl and The Boyfriend double-sucked the big, rangy blonde in the private, soundproof suite overlooking the dance floor. Her husband—stocky, soft and content where she was ropey, sharp and demanding—sprawled over the little coffee table, his neck snapped, purple blood pooling under the skin from a burst throat artery. Paralyzed, he was aware but helpless. He watched his trophy wife sucked to a husk. The Driver sipped a weak, Finnish vodka and thought of Rome.
"This is...this is fantastic," gasped The Girl between swallows. "Like her blood is fighting its way out of my belly."
"The ambitious always give one a solid flush," said The Driver.
"Uh, oh man..." started The Boyfriend, searching for a cliché.
The Driver continued, cutting him off. "Take a sip of the male. The dominant in a couple is a perfect counterpoint to a milky dependent. Sharp and savory, then sweet."
The Boyfriend nodded. Like all dilettantes, they took his words as gospel. It was the dismissive, professorial tone, The Driver had learned. Flattened the gullible without fail.
The Girl said, "The City of Angels."
Godfuck, here come the City of Angels musings, thought The Driver. The blood was on them, he reminded himself, and the inanity would get worse before it got better. And, he chided, it would not get better.
"Do the angels know the devil prowls their streets tonight?" mused The Boyfriend, aloud and unashamed.
"Two devils. Two devils hunting angels," said The Girl.
The Driver rolled his eyes as Mazzy fucking Star played. Devils were for dimwits. And angels were for Oprah.
A deep red
They headed east on Fountain, settling into the driveway of a big, brick house in Hancock Park. An old screenwriter lived there. His movies were regarded by cineastes and rep theater ghouls as complex, layered classics that yielded up new and startling insights into humanity, love, loss and joy with each viewing. He'd been unemployable since the early 80's, steadily writing newer, richer works every two years, all of which piled up in his cluttered garage. A recent appreciation in The New Yorker asserted that one of several, wealthy indie tyros should sack up and film one of these scripts.
The Girl tore out the old man's throat in his office. The Boyfriend sloppily drank from the blue, femoral artery, visible under the papery, pale skin. The screenwriter writhed but stayed pinned to the floor. The Driver read the last full page the man would ever produce. He wrote on an Olympia manual typewriter.
The scene took place between a man and a girl he'd dated in high school. From only three exchanges of dialogue, The Driver was able to perceive everything about the two people—the man's empty success, his need to impress the only girl he'd ever really loved, and her heartbreaking confusion at his need, and her genuine concern for him that would never again ripen into love. It was elliptical, funny, and sad. The Driver couldn't think of a single current actor or actress who could pull it off.
He looked over at the gobsmacked Girl, almost cross-eyed with the depths she'd just ingested. The screenwriter carried rich oceans of pain, beauty and memory inside of him—all of it wasted, he was sure, on the couple who'd hired him for the evening's feast.
"Juicy," gurgled The Boyfriend. "Was Bruce Willis in any of this dude's movies?"
Roast garlic and a palate cleanser
Twenty minutes later The Driver found himself thinking of Sicily again, and of Afdera's eyes when they lit the oiled fagots under her. It was a memory he thought he'd stored away, but the olfactory senses had a hidden punch.
The Girl and Boyfriend were ten yards away from him, licking the last drops from the two Armen Power gangbangers they'd goaded down the alley behind Zankou Chicken. It's the garlic, thought The Driver. The goddamned garlic smell is taking me back to Sicily.
The Driver reminded himself to gently discourage the garlic course to his clients in the future. He did not want to think of Afdera again. He cut his tongue on the tip of his left incisor, a trick he used to chase away unwanted memories or combat boredom.
The Girl and Boyfriend were worrying every last drop from the Armenians. It was the only way they could safely ingest garlic, and the fact that it was deadly any other way made it a treat true as black truffles. The couple had paid extra to guarantee its place on the evening's menu, and The Driver, above all else, was a professional.
As a palate cleanser, The Driver fed them a trust-fund hipster at an over-decorated condo in Silverlake. His blood was thin and weak, but had an earthy, clean undertone from all the espresso. Too much of a coward to do heroin, and too unimaginative to ever fuck anyone truly dangerous, he was free of narcotics and disease. The couple each took healthy mouthfuls, and then let his tattooed carcass shudder to the floor. The Driver thumbed through the usual, morose collection of Bukowskis, Portises and...wait...there it was. Confederacy of Dunces.
(Always! Always! Always!)
On the long drive north on the 5 to the 134 and deeper into the Valley, The Girl and Boyfriend had this conversation:
The Boyfriend: "Well, Andy Warhol. That've been my dream feed."
The Girl: "For real? He'd be pretty thin stew, you ask me."
The Boyfriend: "That's what I think he projected, you know. Put out there. But I bet that façade hid depths."
The Driver remembered a dismal night at The Factory in 1964. He was instantly repelled by Warhol—a mumbling neuter who gorged on cheap Whitman's chocolates and emitted soupy waves of Chanel No. 5 to cover the stench of not bathing. Then again, the Warhola pack had always been coffin-worms. The only amusement of the evening was when Andy tried putting The Driver in one of his insipid films. It was a childish experiment. Warhol thought he might be able to capture The Driver's reflection in the tinfoil glued to the walls.
The Girl: "Yeah, maybe."
The Boyfriend: "Well, we already know yours, don't we?"
The Girl: "Fuck yeah, you do. Three films and out? I mean, the scene in the whorehouse, with his mother? For that scene alone, I bet he'd be great to drink. And when he says, 'You're tearing me a-paaaaaart!'"
The Boyfriend: "The knife fight at the observatory's my favorite."
The Driver shuddered. A hydrophobic, self-loathing homosexual—that was her dream feed?
Fish & pasta
"This is where we're going for the main course? The Valley?"
The Boyfriend said, "Yeah. Why aren't we going into Beverly Hills?"
Because Beverly Hills is nothing but thin, gruel-y Jews. Or briny Iranians basted in rage and religious terror, thought The Driver. Not that either of you'd know the difference. And what is the difference, considering what waits for you when we reach the ocean?
"When you see what I've prepared, you'll forget all about Beverly Hills," chuckled The Driver.
This was the one course he wished he could have sampled, but it went against the rules of cuisine. The Driver stood at the entrance of the living room. The walls rippled with the light of the outdoor pool. Soon the light was gone as blood spread on the pool's surface. A cloak on a candle.
The Girl was shaking the last mouthfuls from the wife, whom The Boyfriend had chased earlier out to the diving board while The Girl killed the husband. They'd each drunk half—per The Driver's instructions—and then switched wineskins.
Now The Boyfriend quietly took the last, polite mouthful from the husband before reverently lowering the body to the carpeting.
The dead man had been an amazing TV sketch comedian. Funny and bright and ironic, the clownish covering of a mind darker than the sluice channel in an abattoir. The pain and neglect he'd inflicted on the wife, over the years—the years of affairs and subsequent, half-hearted reconciliations, had given her the earthy undertone of a poet's graveyard. His guilt, half-acknowledged and half-denied and deluded from his psyche through ever more desperate, eager-to-please public performances, gave his blood a metallic, otherworldly tang. Liar's fuel.
It was a perfect pairing. The Girl and The Boyfriend were sated and dizzy.
Cognac and coffee
You can feel the sea before you see or smell it, even when you've been dead-alive as long as The Driver. The Girl and Boyfriend, not as long removed from the salty womb of life, bounced up and down on the backseat.
"Lesskill a surfah!" slurred The Boyfriend, blood-drunk from the evening's meal. The Girl giggled, and nodded her head like a sandpiper dipping for sea crabs.
"You both...deserve a dessert to match the richness of your tastes," stated The Driver. It was the first compliment he'd paid them all evening, and it quieted them like petting a dog.
The Driver produced a bottle of No. 7 Collection Etre Courvoisier as they walked up the winding driveway to the cliff house. The deadly ocean roared against the rocks below them.
The Boyfriend said, "Should I pay you now? What's your tip usually like?"
"My tip is always left to your discretion."
"Well...uh, well. You were really cool and all...I appreciate it. We're gonna do this again with some friends," said The Boyfriend, fumbling a leather billfold from his pocket and producing a thin stack of hundreds. The Driver noted the three dots of blood on the top note, but said nothing. "And uh, keep the change. I mean, there's a lot in there for the, uh, the tip."
The Driver took, folded and pocketed the bills with a fencer's grace and swiftness. "I look forward to another evening."
"Yeah, it was great," said The Girl. "And we'll make another mix tape. Have you ever heard Cibo Matto?"
The Driver opened the door to the house and gestured for them to enter. They both smiled nervously and went inside.
"Is that...?" The Boyfriend stood, halfway between shock and a lunge. The Girl, still dizzy, crouched, but it looked more like a curtsey.
The dessert course sat at the end of a long, granite table in the minimalist dining room. An almost-empty bottle of ouzo, with maybe three fingers full of the clear liquid at the bottom of the bottle, sat in front of him. His doughy, bloated face showed the effects of years of starchy food and sweet alcohol. A half-eaten loaf of bread and a pottery urn of oil were at arm's length.
"The infamous Hunter of...our kind has been through a slow decline these last few years," said The Driver, as if describing a cave-aged cheese.
"This is where he disappeared to after slicing Brontis? To fucking Malibu?" spat The Girl.
"As you can see, the stress of..." but The Girl and Boyfriend didn't wait for The Driver to finish his presentation. He didn't think they would.
The Hunter hadn't, either. The night before, he'd said, "They won't be able to restrain themselves. Not with the way she felt about Brontis. And not with how badly her new coyote pup boyfriend wants to impress her. They'll be on me before they realize there's no alcohol smell coming off me."
He was right. They knocked him backwards from his chair, The Girl taking the throat and The Boyfriend demurring, taking the femoral like the bottom dog he was.
One mouthful was all they got. They leaped off The Hunter as if shocked. He struggled to his feet, opening a drawer in the low sideboard and taking out gauze, tape and antibacterial spray. He didn't even bother looking as The Girl and Boyfriend swelled and blackened like overripe peaches in the sun, going all waxy and billowy and suddenly bleeding out, collapsing in a wave of blood and bruised flesh. The gore swirled in a pool around the wide drain in the subtly concave concrete floor of the anteroom, where two Bacons and a Klee were displayed. A thin plastic hose, coiled in a covered recess in the wall, would later spray away the last traces of their demise. The Driver noted that the wall spatter had missed Head VI by inches. How many times had it missed?
The Hunter was bandaged and bound and cleaned and he sat back at the table. He drank the last swallow of water from the ouzo bottle, making an exaggerated, "Ahhhhhhh!"
"It is fortunate all the wine you pour into yourself doesn't dilute that holy water," said The Driver, trying to look distracted. Behind his back, his fingers clawed like spiders, anticipating.
"Nothing dilutes a rageful blessing," said The Hunter. "Apparently."
From a different drawer in the sideboard he produced a small, velvet bag. The top was secured with string. He tossed it to The Driver, not even looking when he did so. A small smile fluttered at the side of his mouth as he heard The Driver gasp.
The Driver worried the bag open and there, in the loamy Sicilian soil, was a burnt finger bone. He tried to remember the warm flesh that once covered it, the flesh he'd tickled secretly as they sat in vespers.
"Bit by bit. And I give you a Hunter's oath you'll finally have of her, 'that which can bring her back,'" drawled The Hunter.
"The trophies I've delivered haven't proven my intent? You can't give me her heart, and trust we'll part as professionals?" asked The Driver, his voice trembling. And then, "This isn't vampiric enough, what you're doing?"
The Hunter uncorked the pottery urn of Sicilian olive oil, and watched The Driver's face. When he saw what the oil's smell did to his memory, saw the painful ghost of Afdera flicker across The Driver's face, he smiled.
And he said, as he poured a mournful pool of oil onto a plate, and tore an end of bread, "She wasn't always yours. And I want," he bit into the soaked crust, "to make a meal of it."
"I'll wait/In the pouring sun"