DH finished the next part in the Drake Diamond Saga. I like the set-up for this character, but I am biased. hard not to be excited about what DH is working on, but I could see a series of fun, snarky, gritty stories about an undead detective. Flesh out the world. The people in it.
Outside, the gray sky matched the wet pavement. Cold, dirty puddles covered the sidewalk beneath dim, flickering street lights. I fished my pack of smokes out of my pocket, raised it to my lips, and took one between my teeth and pulled it out. I was about to light up when I remembered my manners.
“You want a smoke?” I’d never been raised from the dead before. Wasn’t familiar with the etiquette. Figured the least I could offer Betty Malone for bringing me back to the World of the Living was a cigarette.
“Sure, thanks.” I hold the pack out and she takes one between her fingers. I notice her nail Polish is the exact same shade of red as her lipstick. She holds the cigarette up and stares at it for a second. It lights itself, tiny curls of smoke raising from the now glowing end, and she gives a slight smirk and puts it between her lips.
“Want me to teach you?” She raises an eyebrow at me, with a coy smile.
“I’ll stick with my lighter, thanks.”
“I thought you lost yours.”
She’s right. I remember being hit in the jaw by an entire side of beef at the end of someone’s arm, sending me, my thirty-eight, and my lighter in three different directions. And then some bullets decided to move into my chest cavity, ruining the whole neighborhood.
“Damn. Guess I’ll have to start carrying matches until I can get a new one.”
“We’re not to far from Frank’s Diner,” Betty says. “You can get some there. It’s just as well. Doubt you’ve got the patience to learn magic anyway.”
Betty’s probably right. I never believed in it before. Now, with my reflection in the puddles below an eyeless skull grinning back at me, it’s kind of hard to remain a skeptic. But time spent learning how to light my smokes with a snap of my fingers is time I’d rather spend tracking down Thorne.
Frank’s Diner is one of those places you can tell exactly what it is from the outside, and the inside is just what you’d expect. Hash browns, steak and eggs, grilled ham and cheese sandwich…you can have whatever you want as long as it ain’t fancy. Its open late, and never very crowded. There’s a few other customers there, getting their late night fix of greasy food and cheap coffee. Betty picks us out a few stools at the counter, down a ways from the other patrons. First thing I do when I sit is pocket a few books of matches, and strike one to finally give myself a light.
Seconds later, Maxine appears with an order pad and a pen at the ready. Forty-something, dishwater blond hair up under a hair-net. Been a fixture at Frank’s for all the years I’d been eating there. An incurable gossip, she’s both a good source of information, and a bad source of misinformation. On a number of my past cases, I’d come to Maxine to check what she’d heard. Can’t always trust her info, but it’s a place to start.
“And what can I get you folks tonight? The apple pie’s fresh, and we have…Drake? Drake Diamond!” It would be cliche to say she looked like she’d seen a ghost. But saying she’d seen an old acquaintance back from the dead doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
“The usual, Maxine. And a slice of that apple pie, too.” I tap some ashes from my cigarette into a tray and turn to Betty. “You want anything?”
“I am positively ravenous,” she smirks, narrowing her eyes. Maybe bringing a vampire to a public place was a bad idea. But then she says, “Pastrami on rye, and a cherry cola.”
“One pastrami on rye, cherry cola,” she says as she scribbles on her pad, “and Mr. Diamond’s usual: black coffee and a fried egg sandwich with ham and Tabasco sauce.” She winks at me. “And a slice of pie. I’ll be right back.”
Betty watches Maxine hustle off and turns to me. “You two have a history?”
“Nah. She winks at everybody like that.”
“Good. Don’t get too involved with the Living, Drake. You’re not one of them anymore. It wouldn’t end well for either of you.” She crushes out her lipstick-stained cigarette in the ashtray.
“Sounds like the voice of experience.” I don’t mean to pry, but it never hurts to throw out a line. You never know what you might catch. Betty looks at me and shakes her head.
“Not me. I’m not the same as you.” She glances around to make sure no one’s eavesdropping, and lowers her voice. “You’re Undead, Drake. You were Dead, then I undid your death. That’s what Undead means. That’s not what I am. I was never Dead. Not entirely. No one Undid anything that had happened to me to make me what I am.”
I purse my lips into a frown as I try to recall what I know about vampires. Nothing, that’s what. I never believed they were real. There were some stories about them in a few of the pulp magazines I read as a kid, but I’m guessing those were more full of misinformation than Maxine on a bad day. But I think I get the basic idea.
“I’m Undead. You’re the Living Dead.” Betty thinks about that for a second, then nods.
“Yes. And there are Rules for each of us. But the Rules I have to follow aren’t the same as the Rules you have to follow. And the consequences for breaking our rules aren’t the same. You don’t have to drink blood or avoid direct sunlight, like I do. But trying to reestablish the close personal relationships you had when you were alive…will turn you back into a sack of bones.”
“I…what?” It takes me a minute before I realize my cigarette has fallen into my lap.
Maxine comes by and gives us our sandwiches and drinks. “I’ll be back with your pie in a sec, hon!”
Betty waits until she’s gone, then speaks. “Acquaintances are fine: people you worked with, or passing familiarities,” Betty takes a bite of her pastrami, then continues, “But interacting with any close friends or, worse, loved ones, risks undoing the magic keeping you intact. I doubt I’d be able to bring you back again after that.” She somehow has a way of speaking clearly even while she chews her food. “So…if you and that waitress had anything beyond casual meaningless flirting, every word she says to you…or that you say to her….increases the risk of you getting sent back the the Other Side.”
Taking a bite of my own sandwich, I chew in silence for a long time. This is a lot to to take in. The sandwich isn’t very satisfying, even though it’s dripping with Tabasco. I swallow, washing it down with a gulp of coffee.
“I don’t remember being dead. I just remembering dying. Three forty-four magnum rounds to my chest, and the next thing I know I’m sitting up on a marble altar surrounded by ritual candles. You say I’ve been dead three years but I didn’t feel any time passing. Now you tell me I can only have professional relationships, or superficial ones. Any real genuine human connection…could end me?”
Betty shrugs. “With the Living, yes.” She takes another bite of her pastrami, speaking with her mouth full. Still, she manages to pronounce everything flawlessly. “You know how people who’ve lost a close friend or relative sometimes regret an apology never made, or a hatchet never buried? Something important that needed to be said or resolved, but they never did, and now it’s too late?” I nod, taking another bite of my sandwich. It’s not bland or tasteless. It’s just that I don’t seem to enjoy the taste anymore. I don’t dislike it either. It’s just…a sandwich.
“Turns out that’s one of reality’s biggest Rules: if you’ve got something important to say to someone, you have to say it while you still have the chance. Once they die, or you die, anything left unsaid stays unsaid. And you died, Drake.”
“I didn’t die. I was murdered.”
She shrugs again. “Getting murdered is one way of dying. Doesn’t change the fact that you’re still bound by the Rules, Drake. I know there’s a lot of ghost stories where there’s a spirit that’s restless from some Unfinished Business, and needs it taken care of before they can pass on. And those are just stories. If you wanted to Finish your Business, you needed to do it while you were still alive. I’m not trying to rub it in, Drake, but you’re not alive anymore. Any Business you left Unfinished is going to stay that way. You’re not allowed break that Rule.”
Lana. I never told her…I never…she…
And now it’s too late. I should…should’ve said…should’ve let her know. But it’s too late now. I’m…gone.
I put the fizzed cigarette from my lap into the ashtray and light up a new one, inhaling deeply. It’s rich and satisfying in a way the sandwich wasn’t. I look up to see Maxine is back.
“Here’s your pie, hon! And the check. Now, don’t you worry. You take your time and enjoy, and just take care of it at the register on your way out. Glad to have you back in town, hon!” She hustles off, other diner patrons to see to. I’m just another customer. A familiar one, maybe, but just a customer.
And that, apparently, makes her safe.
The pie is warm and sweet. The crust is crispy, the apple filling just right. It’s just not…satisfying. It’s as if I no longer enjoy warm and sweet. Take no pleasure in a crispy pie crust. I take another long drag off my cigarette. Now that feels good. Betty’s slurping up her cherry cola through a straw until nothing is left in the glass but ice.
“I thought vampires drank blood,” I whisper.
“We do,” she whispers back. “But we still need to eat and drink. The blood doesn’t replace the need for other nourishment. It’s an additional requirement.”
“What about me? Do I need to eat?”
“Well, apparently you can eat. I honestly wasn’t sure about that, before. But as far as needing to?” She shakes her head. “No. You’re not the Living Dead, like me. You’re Undead. It’s a subtle distinction.”
“But apparently a profound one,” I say.
She nods. “I’ve heard it said that to the Undead, all food tastes like ashes. Is it true?”
I take another drag from my cigarette and shake my head. “Nah. I can taste it just fine. All the flavors, all the textures. It’s all still there. I just don’t enjoy the flavors or textures anymore, you know? But cigarettes?” I stop to take another deep inhale and let it out slow through my nostrils. “Those are just like they always were.”
“Makes sense, I guess,” she says, taking the guest check between a finger and a thumb. “Food nourishes and sustains Life. You’re not alive, so it doesn’t do anything for you. But tobacco is tied to Death. Now that you’re Undead you may actually get some kind of nourishment or energy from it.”
“Let me get that,” I say, pointing to the check, and grateful to have something so mundane to talk about.
“Drake, you were murdered by one of Papa Thorne’s thugs.” So much for mundane topics. “Did you really think that when I found your remains that you were buried along with your wallet? And that it was full of cash?”
“Swallow your macho pride, Drake. I’m paying.”